NEW YORK — A common criticism of assassinations such as the one that took out Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last month is that those targeted are simply replaced while the regional conflict escalates. In the case of Iran, though, US President Donald Trump’s special representative for the Islamic Republic does not believe that conventional wisdom applies.
“I think it’s a mistake to believe that Iranian officials… are interchangeable cogs in a machine who have no personal aspects that are irreplaceable,” Elliott Abrams said in an interview with The Times of Israel last week.
Abrams shared an outlook on Tehran that appeared to echo that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Abrams said was “ahead of the curve” when he recognized the dangers of the Iran nuclear agreement and lobbied against its signing in 2015. Now, as President-elect Biden gears up to reenter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action deserted by Trump in 2018, Abrams issued a last-minute warning, while appearing to take solace in the belief that the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran that he helped orchestrate to bury the JCPOA will be difficult to undo.
In defending the practice of targeted assassinations in Iran, Abrams first cited the January killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem Soleimani, for which the US has taken responsibility, claiming that the late general was responsible for both past and future attacks on American forces in the region.
As for Fakhrizadeh, the scientist whom Israel and the US accused of heading Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons program, Abrams refrained from divulging the actor responsible for the assassination, though it’s been widely attributed to the Jewish state. The Trump envoy sufficed with saying that “Israel has the right to defend itself.”
He did point out that “no one knew more” about Iran’s nuclear file than Fakhrizadeh. “He was the main organizer of this program, and the main intermediary between the nuclear weapons program and the top leadership of the country,” Abrams said. “So I do think that his departure from that position will slow them down.”
‘Elections have consequences’
Another part of the broader strategy aimed at slowing down Iran has been the Trump administration’s aggressive sanctions regime, which Abrams said was designed to provide the US with the leverage needed to negotiate a more favorable nuclear agreement that would also cap the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile program and its regional hegemony.
While Biden and his advisers have recognized the need to address those two concerns, the president-elect has indicated that his priority will be to first address the nuclear file. Biden views the JCPOA, which offered Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, as the best formula for doing so.
Both the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government have warned against reentering the agreement, and maintained that maximizing, rather than easing the pressure, will convince Iran to fall in line.
“We think that the JCPOA was a highly defective agreement. We share Prime Minister Netanyahu’s view of it,” said Abrams, specifying that its sunset provisions — after which Iran could theoretically break out to a bomb — expire too quickly and that the jump in Iran’s defense spending following the JCPOA-provided sanctions relief proved that the regime was using the accord to continue to wreak havoc in the region.
Abrams said that he and other Trump officials have been meeting with members of the Biden transition team. “We try to persuade them [that] it isn’t 2015. It’s almost 2021 and a lot has changed, so formulas that you thought were good ones for the original [JCPOA] negotiation aren’t so good today,” he said.
The special envoy insisted that his team was cooperating with the transition, but he clarified that “to ask for a meeting of the minds [would be] wrong. It isn’t supposed to be a meeting of the minds of two different political parties, of two different views of this. As President Obama said, ‘Elections have consequences.'”
But despite his qualms as to the Biden approach, Abrams was confident that the work done by the Trump team would not be reversed completely. He pointed to the plethora of human rights- and counterterrorism-related sanctions instituted by the outgoing administration as part of the maximum pressure campaign.
“How do you explain reversing those sanctions if the people who were sanctioned are clearly human rights violators? How do you reverse a terrorism sanction against an individual who was clearly involved, say, in the Quds Force?” he asked.
“It isn’t like flipping a light switch — yes, sanctions, no sanctions. I think this will be a very complicated negotiation between the US and Iran and I do not think that all of the sanctions will be lifted,” he said, adding that his only regret was that Trump hadn’t started the maximum pressure campaign sooner.
Ahead of the curve
While he had only positive things to say about the Trump administration’s Iran policy, the neoconservative Abrams appeared to speak even more highly of Netanyahu’s stance on the issue.
The Israeli premier made many adversaries in the Obama administration, and among Democrats and European partners in the JCPOA when he launched a public campaign against its signing that climaxed with an address to a joint session of Congress in 2015.
“I think that if you look at it from the viewpoint of now… he was ahead of the curve,” Abrams said of Netanyahu. “He was prescient in saying, ‘This is what’s wrong with the JCPOA.’ He was exactly right in his criticism.”
Abrams argued that the prime minister has also managed to leverage the mutual concern of Gulf states regarding the Iranian regime into more developed and open relations with Israel.
Netanyahu appears bent on re-adopting that strategy, and he has already spoken out against Biden’s plans to reenter the JCPOA, characterizing such a move as a “mistake.”
Asked if he thought it was wise for an Israeli premier to be making such declarative statements against the stated policy of a president before he even enters office and can meet with him behind closed doors, Abrams defended Netanyahu.
“I don’t see the prime minister fighting. I see him saying, ‘Look, here are the problems, here are the criticisms, here are the weaknesses, here’s what needs to be fixed,” Abrams said.
“I think it’s wrong, it’s unfair to say, ‘Well, the government of Israel should never express its views publicly.’ That’s a position we don’t impose on other friendly governments,” he added.
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