- - Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Recent reports reveal throughout the Trump administration, former Obama administration officials worked actively to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Obama nuclear deal. 

On at least three occasions, former Secretary of State John Kerry met with his counterpart, Iranian Foreign Minister Javed Zarif to persuade him to keep the deal on life support so a future Democrat administration could return to compliance with it. 

Now that President Joe Biden is in office, getting the U.S. back into the JCPOA appears to be the guiding principle of his policy towards the Middle East. But the new administration needs to understand the region in 2021 is not what it was when the deal was struck in 2015 — and rather than seeing things for what they were six years ago; they may want to engage in a reality check before entering into any agreements — first and foremost with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Take for example, the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) — an official designation with significant economic repercussions for groups so designated. The regime in Tehran is widely regarded as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism — a grim practice that went completely unaddressed in the JCPOA.

While the Obama alumni in the Biden administration seem to stovepipe their Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs interlocutors from the terror masters, we might recall the regime cut its teeth with one of the most egregious terror attacks on diplomats in modern history: the taking of U.S. hostages in our Embassy in Tehran for 444 days in 1979-80. 



Decision-makers in the Iranian regime have aggressively ramped up terrorist activities in recent years, and the Biden administration should take a long and sober look at this behavior. It should be one of the primary reasons Iran should never get a nuclear weapon, and not seen as a discreet issue “on the margins” as the diplomats say of any negotiations.

In 2019, the Trump administration took the historic step of listing the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) as an FTO, the first time the U.S. had so sanctioned an official foreign military. The Feb. 16, 2021, attack on the International Airport in Erbil that killed a contactor and injured nine others, including U.S. citizens, as well as subsequent attacks on Balad Air Base in Erbil and on our Embassy in Baghdad, are a deliberate escalation of IRGC terrorist activities at the start of the Biden administration’s term. 

While the elimination of the IRGC Quds Force chief Qasam Soliemani in January 2020 resulted in a temporary reduction of IRGC plotting, these tactics are clearly back on the table to test President Biden’s commitment to fighting IRGC-sponsored terrorism. There is indubitably pressure on the new administration to remove the IRGC from the FTO list as an incentive to bring Iran to the JCPOA negotiating table. However, taking this step before the IRGC renounces its violent and destabilizing behavior would only reward and incentivize more terrorism.

The Erbil attack took place the very day Secretary of State Antony Blinken formally removed the IRGC-supported Yemini Houthi from the FTO list. The Houthi celebrated their delisting by aggressively ramping up terrorist attacks on Saudi Arabia, then launched a new offensive against a million Yemeni refugees in Marib. These developments suggest that rather than removing entities from the FTO, a more effective approach is to reinstate the Houthi designation, given their egregious behavior since the announcement, not to mention their utter failure to enable any increase in humanitarian access into Yemen. 

In addition, recent events suggest the very entity Biden officials have been engaging with on the JCPOA — the Iranian MFA — should now be added to the FTO list. While this would be, as with the IRGC, a unique designation, the case is fact-based and straightforward. On Feb. 4, in a Belgium court, an Iranian diplomat assigned to their embassy in Vienna, Assadollah Assadi, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his leadership of a 2018 terrorist plot to bomb an Iranian opposition meeting in Paris. 

Mr. Assadi, who was of course employed by Mr. Zarif himself (who was meeting with Mr. Kerry while this plot was being hatched), actively attempted to use his diplomatic status to evade detection, arrest and trial, and the MFA deplored his conviction as a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which they apparently believe give them carte blanche to bomb peaceful political gatherings in European capitals. 

This attempted subterfuge would be a shocking violation of diplomatic protocol for any normal government, but Tehran’s pattern of exploiting the MFA as a cover for terrorist activities is hardly new. In December 2020, for example, the U.S. Department of State announced sanctions on the recently-named Iranian ambassador to the Houthi in Yemen on the grounds he was also a known IRGC Quds Force officer, and the Quds Force was an FTO. 

Furthermore, in 2014, Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, authored and passed legislation to amend the Foreign Relations Authorization Act to deny visas to United Nations representatives who have engaged in terrorism. This bill effectively blocked Tehran’s attempt to make the 1979 hostage-taker of U.S. diplomats — Hamid Aboutalebi — Iran’s Permanent Representative to the UN. It prohibited this known terrorist to freely operate on our own soil under the cover of diplomatic immunity. 

Mr. Assadi’s conviction confirms Iran’s use of diplomatic immunity as a shield for terrorist activities is part of a deliberate, ongoing strategy to exploit the MFA’s ostensible status as a diplomatic organization.  

It’s sobering to think that had the regime continued to have access to the financial relief provided by the JCPOA, the 2018 Paris plot might have been more sophisticated — and ultimately successful. We dodged a bullet — or rather a bomb —  this case. However, given the brazen nature of this plot and Tehran’s track record, it is only a matter of time before another attempt is made. 

Rather than trying to rush back into that deal at the expense of all other considerations and using the FTO list as a diplomatic incentive to achieve this aim, it’s far better to face the reality that the IRGC, the Houthi, and the MFA are branches of the corrupt terrorist enterprise that is the Islamic Republic of Iran and should be designated as such.

• Victoria Coates is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy. She served as deputy national security adviser for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs under the Trump administration.

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