Jamal Abdi on Challenges in U.S-Iran Relations

June 9, 2022 5:06 pm

Jamal Abdi is Executive Director of NIAC Action, a grassroots, civic action organization based in Washington D.C committed to advancing peace and championing the priorities of the Iranian-American community. Mr. Abdi is also Policy Director at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a sister organization to NIAC Action.

Mr. Abdi has worked in the U.S Congress as Policy Advisor to Representative Brian Baird (D-WA). While on Capitol Hill, he served as a Congressional advisor, liaison, and expert on foreign affairs, immigration, and defense.  He has written extensively for leading media outlets such as The New York Times, CNN, Foreign Policy, The Hill, The Progressive, and Public Service Europe. He regularly blogs at The Huffington Post and at NIAC Insight. Mr. Abdi sat down with Reza Akhlaghi to discuss challenges in U.S-Iran relations after the landmark Iran nuclear deal and the prospects for U.S businesses in entering the Iranian market.

What is your role at NIAC Action? How different is NIAC Action from its sister organization, NIAC?

As the Executive Director of NIAC Action, I’m involved in guiding both the advocacy work as well as the political work of our organization.  We formed NIAC Action to increase the influence of Iranian Americans throughout the entire political process. NIAC is still the home of our policy research and community building work, but NIAC Action is now the home of our advocacy efforts as well as new political efforts. NIAC Action is a 501(c)4 organization, meaning it does not have any limits on advocacy, so we can commit as many resources as we need to win key battles on Capitol Hill. Additionally, NIAC Action is able to play a role in the electoral process, such as encouraging our members to get out and vote, to support certain candidates that stand with our community on the issues, and to make sure Iranian Americans are playing a major role in the elections.

Since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as Iran nuclear deal, opponents of the deal appear to be targeting the Iranian-American community through a number of legislative measures that appear to be discriminatory in nature. Visa Integrity and Security Act is one of them. Can you explain what the overriding rationale is behind such moves?

There are two converging trends here. First, we have this political movement from some on the right who are promoting xenophobia, intolerance, even outright racism as personified in the candidacy of Donald Trump. The discriminatory elements of H.R. 158 and the new VISA Act are direct byproducts of this phenomenon. The day after Trump called for a ban on Muslims, the House passed H.R. 158. That is not a coincidence. There are serious approaches to dealing with concerns about terrorism and security, but this is not one of them. Instead, we see certain people fanning the flames of fear and then offering intolerance and discrimination as the salve. It speaks volumes that these bills are sold as if they can stop terrorists. They were never applied to the 9/11 hijackers or the San Bernardino attackers, but they are applied to Iranians.

The second trend is that opponents of the Iran deal are looking for every single opportunity they can exploit to unravel the deal or, at a minimum, contain the deal so that it does not lead to any further positive steps between the U.S. and Iran.

Based on my discussions with lawmakers and senior staff on Capitol Hill, there is little doubt that a major motivation for adding Iran to H.R.158 was to make it more onerous for European economic dealings with Iran. If a European businessperson risks losing their ability to travel freely to the U.S. by visiting Iran, it raises the cost of doing business. And so it becomes a backdoor sanction that makes implementing the sanctions relief even more difficult in practice.

I think the Obama Administration was very aware of this, which is why the first step they took when implementing H.R.158 was to issue a waiver for business travelers to Iran. They took a lot of heat from mostly Republican lawmakers for taking that step, but I think they viewed it as a direct attack on the deal that had nothing to do with American security.

Iran still has limited access to U.S dollar and the country’s officials have repeatedly criticized the U.S Treasury and its regulations for continuing to limit, and in some cases block, Iranian access to U.S financial markets. What does it take for the U.S Treasury to change its regulations and grant Iran greater access to U.S financial markets?

The U.S. put together the broadest sanctions in history against Iran and is now attempting to lift just the nuclear sanctions, in a very targeted manner. There is a very real possibility that this simply may not work because the sanctions regime is interconnected, so just removing certain parts of it may not enable relief to flow. For instance, the restrictions preventing transactions with Iran to be converted into dollars in the U.S. poses serious challenges for banks. If they are required to set up an entirely separate system just to facilitate transactions with Iran, they may just never do it–and that is the concern. There is a provision in the JCPOA that basically says that if the sanctions relief is not working as intended, further modifications to the sanctions regime may be necessary. This speaks to the fact that we’ve never lifted sanctions in this way. On paper we thought the sanctions relief may work, but when you actually build something for the first time you realize there are modifications needed to actually make it function.

The problem, for one, is that there is a dispute over why the sanctions aren’t flowing. Some in Washington say it’s Iran’s fault and point to both political risk and issues with Iran’s economy. But if you scratch the surface, a lot of that argument comes down to the fact that Iran is still sanctioned for things outside of the nuclear sphere (i.e. support for terrorist groups). Most if not all of the banks and businesses that are stuck on the sidelines are saying the problem is that there are still so many tripwires with the existing sanctions as well as the uncertainty in the U.S. political system about whether new sanctions will be imposed.

If the U.S is going to address this, there are small steps that can be taken to provide further clarity for banks and businesses about what is permissible. And it is quite remarkable that this type of guidance, in writing, from Treasury has not been more forthcoming. But the big steps, like enabling U-turn transactions or anything close to that are going to be political standoffs and I don’t know that the Administration is ready for that kind of battle.

There is not much coverage of the efforts made by U.S companies to enter the Iranian market. How interested are American companies in entering Iran? Is there a momentum building among U.S businesses to explore the Iranian market similar to those of Europe and Asia?

Because the U.S. maintains a near-total trade embargo against Iran, most American companies are completely locked out of entering Iran. It makes little economic sense and puts U.S companies at a disadvantage. But it also makes little strategic sense to continue to enforce a unilateral embargo that is a vestige of an outdated policy. The embargo was put in place in the 90’s to convince other countries, particularly Europe, to put in place their own sanctions against Iran. Now we are in a position where we are trying to convince Europe and others to re-enter Iran following the nuclear deal, yet we still have this embargo in place. As we learned after fifty plus years with Cuba, unilateral embargoes do not create change or influence but are instead a recipe for preserving the status quo. It puts barriers up not just for economic exchange but also for academic and people to people exchanges with Iran. That robs us of influence and of an opportunity to begin forging important ties with Iranians.

There are some very narrow categorical exceptions to the embargo. Some are longstanding, such as exceptions allowing for the export of food and medicine. Others are more recent, like the authorization for companies to sell communications software and hardware like cell phones and laptops. And most recently, under the nuclear deal, companies like Boeing are able to sell civilian aircraft to Iran. I think the prevailing rationale for those who think that there can be an improvement in U.S-Iran relations is that eventually the embargo has to be lifted in order for a relationship to move forward. But for now, the test is to see if the limited U.S companies like Boeing that are allowed to go into Iran will move on it. If one major company goes in, then others may be interested to follow and you may begin to see a push toward opening up the embargo.

What are the obstacles standing in the way of better relations between Iran and the United States? Do you think Saudi-Israeli lobbying efforts have been effective in stalling progress in Tehran-Washington ties?

The thirty plus years of enmity between Iran and the U.S have been institutionalized in almost every facet of policy and political life on both sides of the equation. There are so many walls that have to be torn down between the two countries. The nuclear agreement can be the first step, and it is a big step, but I still think it is an open question as to whether the deal can become the beginning of a broader opening between the two countries, or if it is just an arms control agreement that keeps the nuclear issue from spilling over into an all-out war, but does not go any further.

There are so many institutionalized barriers between the U.S and Iran and few institutionalized bridges. There are still not formal diplomatic relations between the two countries so much of the dialogue that has become so normal is centered around the personal relationship between Zarif and Kerry. That dialogue has been institutionalized to some extent through the nuclear deal–its implementation establishes several formal relationships involving the U.S. and Iran–but there is still no talk of opening diplomatic ties. Then you have a host of other barriers – just look at the sanctions, which even if we convince the Congress to honor the deal, we still have sanctions imposed at the local level in most states.

Just look at the politics surrounding this. Yes, there is the pro-Israel lobby which enjoys lots of influence. And the Saudis spend millions of dollars to influence policy in Washington. And yet, almost every single Democrat who voted for the nuclear deal with Iran now has vested interest in actually seeing it work. There are many Americans, grassroots groups, pro-peace lobbies, and others involved in sealing the nuclear deal and they are not going anywhere. If those who want closer ties on both sides play their cards right—as we see on the U.S side more efforts toward that direction—and in Iran sanctions relief work and strengthen the moderates, that can create the political space and momentum for further progress.

How would you describe the general sentiment of the Iranian-American community toward Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump?

In our most recent annual survey of NIAC members, there was very strong support for Sanders at 62%, with Clinton ranked second at 19%. I think Trump is a nonstarter for most Iranian Americans given his racist, xenophobic rhetoric manifesting itself in policies like the H.R. 158 visa discrimination law, which is strongly opposed by the community. With Clinton the presumptive Democratic nominee running against Trump, there are concerns that she will have a much more hawkish foreign policy than Obama, who enjoys very significant approval among Iranian Americans. So Clinton will need to convince many Iranian Americans that she will continue Obama’s legacy on Iran.