top of page

Source: Responsible Statecraft

Aug 22, 2023

Hardline think tank despises Iran above everything else — and that’s dangerous

The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies is pushing for Tehran to acquire weapons-grade uranium to ensure tensions remain high.

By Paul R. Pillar

Over the past decade, probably no issue has figured more prominently in debate about policy toward Iran than the Iranian nuclear program and the worry that the program could lead to an Iranian nuclear weapon. And no pressure group has been more active and relentless in beating a drum about the awfulness of Iran than the misleadingly named Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).

Thus, of some interest — and a reflection of the true motives and objective of a group such as FDD — is an article published last month by two FDD staff (including the organization’s chief executive, Mark Dubowitz) that argued it would be better if Iran enriched uranium to the 90 percent level — the purity needed to make a nuclear weapon — than for Iranian enrichment to remain at lower levels if that entailed a diplomatic agreement that might include any form of U.S. sanctions relief.

The immediate diplomacy to which the FDD writers were reacting involves Iran and the United States evidently exploring an informal understanding in which Tehran would freeze its nuclear activities in return for Washington freezing its already extensive economic sanctions regime against Iran.

Such an understanding would be no substitute for a comprehensive agreement such as the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which had kept Iran’s enrichment of uranium at a small fraction of what it is now until the Trump administration abandoned the accord. But a freeze-for-freeze understanding would be a beneficial development from the standpoint both of nuclear nonproliferation and of keeping a lid on tensions in the region that might otherwise spiral out of control.

No announcements have been made by either Washington or Tehran about any such understanding having been reached. But recent reports suggest that Iran has slowed its enrichment of uranium to the 60 percent level and may also have blended down some of its stockpile to lower levels. Again, this would be a welcome development from the standpoint of keeping alive the possibility of a comprehensive agreement in the name of nuclear nonproliferation as well as controlling overall tensions with Iran.

Controlling tension with Iran is the last thing that FDD wants. It wants to increase that tension, and Iran enriching uranium to weapons grade certainly would do that. For FDD, the objective of promoting maximum loathing, isolation, and sanctioning of Iran, and keeping tension with Tehran at a fever pitch, takes priority over almost everything else, including nuclear nonproliferation.

Understanding this warped set of priorities requires a look at what FDD is all about. It began as an organization with a Hebrew name whose purpose, according to its application to the Internal Revenue Service for tax exempt status, was “to provide education to enhance Israel’s image in North America and the public’s understanding of issues affecting Israeli-Arab relations.” The organization later adopted its current cover name, but what it is dedicated to defending are not democracies but rather the policies of the Israeli Likud party, which for most of the past few decades have been policies of the Israeli government.

A centerpiece of those policies is to promote hatred and distrust of Iran, to stoke tension with Iran, and to oppose all diplomacy with Iran. The purposes this posture has served Israeli governments — of varying shades of right-wing coloration — have included the weakening of a regional rival for influence, the undercutting of any U.S. rapprochement with Tehran, the sustaining of a bête noire on whom all troubles of the region can be blamed, and the diverting of international attention to Iran as the “real” problem of the region and away from Israel’s own behavior.

Prior Israeli governments led by Benjamin Netanyahu talked up the nuclear issue at least as much as anyone else when that was the scariest-sounding anti-Iran issue handy. Then, when the JCPOA came into force, effectively closing all possible paths to an Iranian nuclear weapon and draining Netanyahu’s cartoon bomb that he had displayed to the United Nations General Assembly, Netanyahu never acknowledged that the JCPOA did exactly that. Instead, he shifted most of his rhetoric to other “nefarious” Iranian behavior while trying to extract some mileage from possible nuclear activity that had occurred years earlier and had already been overtaken by the JCPOA and other events. The Israeli government cheered Trump’s scrapping of the JCPOA, which led directly to the much more advanced Iranian nuclear program we see today.

FDD not only cheered Trump’s reneging on the JCPOA, an agreement that had successfully capped the Iranian program; it privately pushed the Trump administration to pursue regime change in Iran. In all respects involving Iran, FDD has followed the Israeli government’s lead. The article that mentioned 90 percent enrichment  appeared in Israel Hayom, the pro-Netanyahu newspaper that the late casino magnate Sheldon Adelson bankrolled. Dubowitz’s co-author, Jacob Nagel, besides being a fellow at FDD, is also a former aide to Netanyahu. To be precise, what Dubowitz and Nagel were saying to their Israeli audience in this piece was that 90 percent enrichment would be “better for Israel” than any understanding or agreement with Iran.

That contention is one of the article’s several fallacious aspects. Another is the assertion that there is “no real technical variance” between 60 percent enrichment and 90 percent enrichment. Wrong: nuclear weapons can be made with uranium enriched to 90 percent or above, but not with 60 percent. Yet another is the false reference, in the course of criticizing the Biden administration, to “almost three years of a failed Iran policy of maximum concessions.” In fact, Biden has kept in place the great majority of the mountain of sanctions left by the Trump administration and has even imposed additional sanctions. Whatever nefarious Iranian behavior has occurred during those three years has been under the mostly unchanged “maximum pressure” posture of Trump.

As for what is “better for Israel,” as many senior retired Israeli security officials have observed, keeping Iran’s nuclear program restricted through an agreement like the JCPOA is obviously better for Israeli security than leaving it unrestricted. The only thing an escalation of Iranian uranium enrichment would be “better” for is the impact of Israeli government rhetoric that constantly strives to direct international attention to Iran rather than to the West Bank or anything else Israel is doing.

Those determined to oppose any diplomacy with Iran have most recently taken aim at a prisoner swap deal that will free five Americans whom Iran unjustly detained and will include the unfreezing of certain Iranian assets frozen in banks in South Korea. The assets, which represent money that has always been Iran’s, will not even be going back to Iran but instead to Qatar, from which it will be spent on sanctions-exempted humanitarian items such as medicine and food.

Any unbiased look at this agreement would have difficulty finding serious reasons to object to it. As Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group aptly notes, “If you are against this deal, you are against Americans coming back home, and you are against Iranian people having access to food and medicine.”

But the deal is a product of diplomacy with Iran and at least slightly reduces tensions with Iran, so FDD automatically opposes it, as do some others for whom Israel is a lodestar or who, for partisan reasons, oppose any significant accomplishment of the Biden administration.

Along with groundless cries of “ransom,” an argument from FDD and other opponents that sounds like it might be serious is that funds are fungible and the more relief there is for Iranians getting food and medicine, the more that Tehran will have to spend on shadier activities. This argument assumes that the humanitarian needs of people in Iran are not really unmet needs because the Iranian government already is meeting them with resources it controls.

That assumption conflicts with the observations of those whose job is to monitor humanitarian crises. The assumption that the Iranian government currently is paying for food and medicine with money it could easily switch to other purposes also tends to conflict with the image of Iran that FDD tirelessly promotes as a “brutal regime” that is bent on causing trouble abroad and “cares more about its own survival than it cares about the welfare of the Iranian people.”     

The fungibility argument also conjures up an image in which the commander of the Revolutionary Guard calls the Iranian finance minister to ask, “How many rials do we have to spend on nefarious activity this month?” and in which Iran regularly maxes out the nefarious activity budget. There is no evidence that Iranian decision-making works anything like that.

If it did, then we would have seen an increase in the nefarious activity after the partial sanctions relief that was part of the entry into force of the JCPOA in 2015, and a decrease after Trump slammed on even more sanctions starting in 2018. But we saw no such thing. If anything, the pattern of Iranian conduct in the region has been the opposite, with some of the most aggressive Iranian actions coming after Trump launched the economic warfare known as maximum pressure.

This is one of the respects in which opponents of diplomacy ignore what is now several years of experience of living with and without the JCPOA, and which demonstrate how much worse the years of maximum pressure, bereft of any diplomacy with Iran, have been, most obviously regarding the nuclear issue but also along other dimensions. The ostensible arguments voiced by the opponents of diplomacy with Iran need to be refuted, which they can easily be by referring to the record of the past several years.

But a disingenuous opponent such as FDD also needs to be called to account for the fundamental dishonesty of what it is doing.

The dishonesty extends first of all to participation in debates that are supposed to be about what is best for U.S. interests, but in which the objectives that the participant is in fact serving are those of a foreign government. Part of the fault for this is with media that repeatedly use FDD people as sources in stories about Iran without identifying the nature and objectives of the group.

The dishonesty extends as well to what FDD is trying to achieve. An honest debate with that organization or anyone who shares its objective would address the question, “Is endless, severe tension and conflict with Iran, and a forgoing of any diplomacy that engages Iran, good or bad for U.S. interests?” The reasons it is bad include, among other things, physical jeopardy to U.S. personnel in the region, overall instability to which the tension contributes, the missing of opportunities for diplomacy to advance U.S. interests, and the risk of escalation into even more destructive and violent confrontations.

Anyone who manipulates the issue of nuclear nonproliferation in the service of some other objective — especially an objective such as serving the rhetorical, attention-diverting needs of a foreign regime — deserves to be roundly condemned for doing so. Nuclear weapons proliferation is too serious a matter to be toyed with that way. It is highly irresponsible to toy with it to the extent of suggesting that it might be a good thing for Iran to start producing weapons-grade uranium.

bottom of page