Tag Archives: President Trump

Will Trump’s Iran Sanctions be Weaker than Obama’s?

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

The intelligence community’s rationale for allowing Iran to remain part of SWIFT is that it allows them to track Iran’s finances internationally.

Last spring President Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA). He re-imposed sanctions on the revolutionary Islamist regime that had previously been given tens of billions of dollars in economic relief and was reintegrated within the international banking community. The sanctions come into full effect on November 4.

President Trump has been unwavering in his criticism of the JCPOA, claiming the deal didn’t deliver any of its promised benefits – moderating Iran’s expansionist ambitions, restraining its missile development or terrorist sponsorship, improving its human rights record – while it continued threatening American allies in the region.

But is it possible that members of the president’s own administration could convince him to soften the impact of the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran? Surprisingly, the answer is yes.

Much has to do with an internal fight within the administration between the intelligence community and Treasury on one side, and National Security Adviser John Bolton on the other.

The Treasury and the intelligence community are advocating for leniency on Iran and its European partners by allowing Iran to remain a part of the SWIFT international banking system, which allows Iranian banks to seamlessly exchange funds across the globe.

That the international community would even allow the world’s leading state sponsor of terror to be accepted in good standing in the world economic community is another story – one of naiveté, avarice and appeasement.

Bolstering Bolton on the other side are Trump’s years-long statements about imposing maximum economic pressure on Iran to create conditions for a better deal. Sixteen senators this summer warned Treasury about the dangers of excluding SWIFT sanctions.

Which brings us back to whether President Trump will re-impose a softer version of Obama-era sanctions on Iran by not incorporating SWIFT.

According to the Washington Free Beacon, “During the Obama era, SWIFT disconnected Iran due to sanctions threats… SWIFT leaders were in DC last week holding meetings with Trump administration officials to ensure that Iran retains access to the international banking system,” strengthening the Iranian economy and their European trading partners.

The intelligence community’s rationale for allowing Iran to remain part of SWIFT is that it allows them to track Iran’s finances internationally, providing vital intelligence, and if SWIFT is sanctioned it would weaken their ability to follow other bad international actors like Russian oligarchs.

This is not a strong argument, as Iran’s most egregious transactions will not enter the transparent SWIFT system. Iran and Hezbollah fuel the American opioid epidemic with a billion dollars a year of money-laundered profits that are outside the SWIFT system. In addition, as long as SWIFT only blocks transactions with Iran, the intelligence agencies can continue to monitor all other worldwide transactions.

WITH IRAN’S economy already reeling, some critics of re-imposing SWIFT sanctions fear Iran could become more dangerous and unpredictable, with claims that it could impede the flow of oil, gas and commerce in both Bab-el-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz, at the entrance to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, respectively.

Iranian-supported Yemeni Houthis have already attacked two Saudi tankers this year in Bab-el-Mandeb. However, China’s dependence on Iranian oil transported through the Strait of Hormuz, combined with Iran’s desire to strengthen relations with China, make that threat less likely.

But the most challenging threat against imposing SWIFT sanctions is from President Trump’s own Treasury Department under Steve Mnuchin, which is working overtime to help Iran remain in SWIFT. Mr. Mnuchin’s perspective is shaped by his Wall Street background, which sees any interference in global trading systems as a threat to the worldwide economic order, especially with the Europeans not on board this time around. They argue that Iran’s economy is already in tatters and that SWIFT sanctions would cause more harm than good.

The reality is that if Iran is allowed to remain in SWIFT, the much-promised maximum economic sanctions of the Trump presidency will be a hollow threat. If the goal is to further starve the Iranian economy – making its support of worldwide terrorism, hidden nuclear activities, human rights abuses, and missile development more painful to continue – then the benefit of including SWIFT outweighs the arguments against including SWIFT transactions.

According to Josh Rogin in The Washington Post, “There’s another great argument for cutting Iranian banks off SWIFT: It would hamper Iran’s ability to finance the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas… SWIFT’s own bylaws require it to prevent illegal financial activities – such as funding terrorism.”

Before the Iran agreement was implemented there was bipartisan consensus on imposing sanctions on Iran for its clandestine nuclear program.
However, after the agreement went into effect in 2016, any new sanctions on Iran were treated as a direct threat to president Obama’s legacy achievement, despite the administration’s promise that all non-nuclear sanctions were on the table. The issue has unfortunately become a political one, not what it should be, a discussion of what is in America’s best interest.

This month America unveiled its first new counter-terrorism report in seven years. Tops on the list was the Iranian threat. America’s national security interest is to rein in Iran. Without including SWIFT, that interest is undermined.
As President Trump’s Iran envoy Brian Hook said, “If talking to Iran kindly worked, we wouldn’t be in this position… we need to restore deterrence.”

The writer is the director of the Middle East Political Information Network (MEPIN) and regularly briefs members of the Senate and House and their foreign policy advisers. 

Can Trump’s Peace Plan Avoid the Pitfalls of Previously Failed Negotiations? 

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Has the Kushner/Greenblatt peace initiative learned from the mistakes of previous negotiation efforts?

The long-awaited Trump peace plan to end the Israeli Palestinian conflict is finally ready for its unveiling in June, coincident with the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

American presidents for generations have been grasping for the elusive gold ring of a final solution to the conflict.

Whether out of a misguided belief that all the problems of the Middle East revolve around the conflict, or a sincere desire to solve one of the world’s most intractable conflicts, American efforts more times than not have worsened the situation.

The failures have not lacked for effort, especially on the part of Bill Clinton and his inexhaustible determination at Camp David and Taba in 2000 and 2001. Unfortunately, that failure laid the groundwork for the Second Intifada – the profound unintended consequence of which was to convince many Israelis who really believed in the possibilities of peace offered by the Oslo agreement that Israel will never have a Palestinian partner it can trust.

Has the Kushner/Greenblatt peace initiative learned from the mistakes of previous negotiation efforts? Can they offer a different course, perhaps incorporating the fleeting window of opportunity offered by the new confluence of interests between America, Israel and the Sunni Gulf states, to move the negotiations forward? Here are some of the conventionally accepted wisdoms for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that should be avoided: 1. Believing this conflict is primarily territorial. If it were, the conflict would have been resolved as recently as 2007, when Israel offered 100% of the territory with land swaps and east Jerusalem as their capital, but was dismissed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

2. Believing the conflict is the key to unlocking the other problems of the Middle East. Even if Israel did not exist today, almost all of the Middle East’s problems from the 1400-year-old Sunni- Shi’ite divide to the quest for Iranian hegemony would still be raging.

3. Believing you can make peace without effectively addressing generations of fervent Arab incitement in their media and classrooms that says Israel has no legitimate right to exist in any territorial dimension, with no Jewish historical association to the land.

4. Believing America cannot be a fair intermediary unless it is a neutral negotiator. America can make the effort to be balanced in mediation, but the reality is that Israel is an indispensable security interest, and consistently since its inception, an ally of the United States.

5. Believing the Palestinians subscribe to the Western nation-state model, where in reality Palestinians identify themselves by clan and tribe.

6. Believing financial incentives are the primary lever to influence the Palestinians. It is certainly true in any final peace deal, billions of dollars may be paid the descendants of Palestinian refugees as compensation for not demanding a return to Israel proper, and none to the greater number of Jews who, at the same time, became refugees from Arab lands. But the ingrained Palestinian narrative to this day demands an unconditional return. Although ordinary Palestinians are one of the most subsidized people in the world, the Palestinian leadership’s primary grievance, the existence of Israel, will not be addressed simply by monetary compensation.

7. Believing this is the last opportunity to end the conflict. It is not.

President Abbas is in very poor health and anything he signs will be suspect the minute he passes on.

That is why any new peace initiative must include an “end-of-conflict agreement” as the agreed goal of all parties. Israel cannot be asked to make territorial concessions endangering its security, without knowing the result is to be such an agreement. If the Palestinians are unable give up all further claims, which is what an “end-of-conflict” agreement is, then Israel should only be asked to make modest concessions for a stable long-term ceasefire.

It is not in America’s interest to pressure Israel to give up large portions of territory, if the Palestinians are only, as in the past, looking to use this as a step to eventually conquer all of Israel.

This is something American negotiators – from Nixon/Rogers, to Bush/ Baker, to Clinton/Ross, to Bush/Rice, to Obama/Kerry – never understood and appreciated.

ANY SUCCESSFUL initiative will need to answer the following questions in order to achieve a true end-of-conflict agreement.

1. Can Israel accept a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem?

2. Can the Palestinians accept Israel’s minimal demands for a demilitarized state, no right-of-return, Israeli control of Jordan River Valley and control of airspace.

3. Does Israel have the will to remove tens of thousands of its citizens from the West Bank (Judea/Samaria) who live beyond the major settlement blocs and Jerusalem? 4. Has the peace plan been drafted to prescribe how to deal with contingencies that would set the treaty on fire? For instance, suppose there is a Hamas coup in the West Bank endangering not only Israel but also the existence of Jordan. The unspoken secret is that the Jordanian Hashemite monarchy is fearful of the creation of any Palestinian state next door that might empower its Palestinian majority population and destabilize the state, a vital American ally.

You will know that peace has taken root when the Palestinians stop preaching their current defining narrative, which is the nakba (“the catastrophe”), the negation of the Jewish people and Israeli state, and begin celebrating the anniversary of their independence, accepting living in peace next to the Jewish state.

The writer is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. Dr. Mandel regularly briefs members of Congress on the Middle East.

He is a contributor to ‘The Jerusalem Post,’ ‘The Hill,’ and ‘The Forward.’

What’s Next After the Trump Middle East Trip?      

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Anyone who demands Israel accept an imposed peace plan must recognize the fragility of the Jordanian and Egyptian governments.

American perception is not reality in the Middle East.

A friend of mine keeps telling me that the “cold peace” with Jordan and Egypt is the model and proof that Israel can achieve a sustainable peace with the Palestinians; even if the enemy still believes you have no legitimate right to exist.

He says the benefits to Israel will accrue if Israel is territorially generous, even if the Palestinians teach their children that Israelis are interlopers and infidels who have no rights to any part of the land.

Idealists like my friend are unfazed by critiques that point out that to contemporary Muslims, any land once controlled by Islam, the land of Wakf, can never rightfully belong to non-Muslims.

Can conservative and Wahhabi Sunni states courted by US President Donald Trump accept a Jewish state? According to Prof. Ephraim Inbar, founding director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, “the [Palestinian Authority] cannot conclude a ‘cold peace’ like Egypt or Jordan. Those two countries take their commitment seriously to prevent terrorism from their territory…

“In the West Bank, the PA… encourages terror by subsidies to jailed terrorists and by innumerable steps to eulogize the martyrs.”

Idealistic dovish organizations claim that the majority of Palestinians want a two-state solution. That is true if that is the only question you poll. They claim that Palestinian Arabs have no desires beyond the “green line.”

Yet those same Palestinians, when polled by Palestinian pollsters, reveal a much more troubling result. To the overwhelming majority of Palestinians, a two-state solution includes the unlimited right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, while a return to the ‘67 lines is not considered an acceptable solution. In other words, we are talking about 1948, not 1967, the goal being the effective destruction of Israel.

It is true that the Egyptian peace agreement has held for 40 years, even under trying circumstances, including the assassination of Anwar Sadat, and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the aftermath of the Arab Winter.

Many people believe the final resolution of the conflict is clearly known, that it will be along the lines of the Clinton parameters of 2000. The Gulf States just need to be convinced to provide cover for the Palestinians, and if necessary pressure the parties to accept the resolution.

This is the “outside-in strategy.”

But with a $400 billion economic package negotiated with the Saudis, $110b. in military deals, will US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tilt toward the Saudi perspective? Remember, the hard-fought 10-year US-Israeli military deal is dwarfed by the Saudi deal, $3.8b. vs. $110b.

When I inquire about the stability of an agreement with an Arab world that venomously hates Jews, not just Israelis, and with Hamas waiting in the wings to take over the West Bank the moment Israel leaves security control to the PA, I’m told it doesn’t matter.

The response is that Israel is so militarily superior that it can retake the West Bank in days with the world’s support if missiles start flying into Ben Gurion Airport from Ramallah.

When confronted with the current chaos in the Arab world, I am told this is not a problem, but an Israeli opportunity, because this is evidence that the Arabs have never been weaker and Israel never stronger.

I am also told that if authoritarian Arab leaders make a deal with Israel, their populace’s Jewish hatred is irrelevant, as they will go along with any agreement.

Memo to my idealistic friends: remember the list of authoritarian dictators overthrown by their citizens during the Arab Winter, who just months earlier were deemed secure by American intelligence.

When I ask my friend about the failed experience of the Israeli withdrawal in Gaza and the likelihood of a Hamas takeover in Judea and Samaria, Abbas’s explanation that the failure of the Gaza withdrawal was Israel’s fault for not coordinating it with the PA is recited.

When challenged with Israel’s international legal rights over the ‘49 armistice line, I am told that even if Israel has those rights, they are irrelevant because the international community and UNSC Resolution 2334 have made them irrelevant.

When confronted with the facts, that UNSC Resolution 2334 is a non-binding resolution and UNSC resolution 242 is still the prevailing document on the conflict confirming the green line artifactual, it does not move them.

The historical record of Sunni Arab animosity to Israel’s existence is discounted as my friend tells me the Gulf States are working with Israel behind the scenes against their common enemy, the Iranians. This is true but it confuses the difference between temporary shared interests and a real desire to end the state of war, which is continually reinforced by their conservative Islamism.

Is a Trump administration able to thread the needle of reconciliation between conservative Gulf States and Israel, where others have failed? An insight into the challenge any American initiative into the conflict will confront is best represented by a recent but illustrative diplomatic incident between Israel and Jordan. Israel’s erstwhile peace partner called Israel’s killing of a Jordanian terrorist in Jerusalem a “heinous crime.”

When your Sunni “friends” escalate instead of downplaying incidents like this, the long-term sustainability of any signed agreement appears doubtful.

Anyone who demands Israel accept an imposed peace plan must recognize the fragility of the Jordanian and Egyptian governments and their limited prospects as partners in peace with their neighbors and even with factions within their own borders.

Is Trump, the ultimate negotiator, willing to walk away from a Saudi proposed deal, if the only available deal turns out to be one that would seriously endanger Israel?

The author is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. He regularly briefs members of Congress and think tanks on the Middle East. He is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post.