Over the last month, two letters sent to US President-elect Donald Trump have sparked wide-ranging controversy in Iran. Both letters urge Trump to apply more pressure on the Islamic Republic of Iran to improve its record on human rights, but take different views on the role the nuclear agreement plays, leading to reactions from others, including former US officials and the government of Saudi Arabia.
The first letter was written by 30 Iranian-Americans active in politics and in the media. It asks Trump to impose sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards and economic entities affiliated with the supreme leader, implement a comprehensive embargo against people and organizations that violate human rights in Iran, confront the destructive role played by the Revolutionary Guards in the Middle East, and form an international coalition to stop Iran’s long-range ballistic missile program.
The letter also refers to the Islamic Republic and ISIS as “two sides of the same coin.” Signatories calls on Trump’s administration to support “pro-democracy Iranians” who aim to establish “a government based on liberal democracy.”
In response to this letter, Reza Pahlavi, the late shah’s son and the president of the Iran National Council, wrote his own letter to Donald Trump, asking him to cooperate with “secular democratic forces.”
A number of other opposition activists and some domestic Iranian media outlets strongly criticized the letter. They accused the 30 signatories — which include former political prisoners, activists, journalists and musicians — of trying to lay the groundwork for new sanctions, and for war.
The second letter to cause controversy was penned by 37 prominent Iranian-Americans, including artists, academics, and business leaders. It urged Trump to put diplomacy before war and sanctions and stay committed to the nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) which, they wrote, had averted a war between Iran and the US. They reminded Trump of his own statements about the consequences of the US occupation of Iraq and warned him against the deterioration of US-Iranian relations and the dangers of submitting to the influence of warmongers.
“As we witnessed over the course of the last decade, sanctions and the threat of war only serve to empower Iran’s hardliners while harming ordinary citizens who represent the backbone of any possible positive change,” said the letter, agreeing with many reformists inside Iran. “Abandoning the JCPOA would not only prove that the hardliners in Iran were correct to claim that the United States could never be trusted to uphold its end of any deal, it would also once again put the United States and Iran on the path of war. That would be a disaster for both nations.”
Is the Nuclear Deal a Bulwark or Riddled with Loopholes?
Twenty-three former US officials added their voices to the debate, urging President-elect Trump to enter into discussions with Iranian opposition groups, and particularly with the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK), an exiled Iranian opposition group that until 2012 was listed as a terrorist organization by the US State Department. Their letter also urged Trump to close "loopholes" in the nuclear agreement negotiated between Iran and world powers in 2015, and said that US policy toward Iran should focus more on the government's violation of human rights. The MEK eagerly welcomed the letter, and, in turn, they wrote a letter to Trump asking to meet with him.
There are also efforts underway in the US to put the Revolutionary Guards on the list of terrorist organizations — the same list that until a few years ago listed MEK as one such entity.
Responding to the recent letters, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir welcomed likely changes in US policies in the Middle East. "We will look at the Trump administration's view as articulated,” he said. “Wanting to restore America's role in the world, we welcome this. Wanting to defeat ISIS, absolutely. Wanting to contain Iran ... absolutely." In recent years MEK has forged close relations with Saudi Arabia, effectively turning itself into a Saudi ally against Iran.
More letters followed, and the debate widened. On January 2, 37 top US scientists and Noble laureates wrote to Trump, urging him not to dismantle the Iran deal. They called the JCPOA a strong bulwark against any Iranian bid to make nuclear arms. The deal “has dramatically reduced the risk that Iran could suddenly produce significant quantities” of material for making nuclear arms and “lowered the pressure felt by Iran’s neighbors to develop their own nuclear weapons options,” the letter said. It was initiated by Richard L. Garwin, a physicist who helped design the world’s first hydrogen bomb. It attracted wide coverage in Iranian domestic media.
The letter from Iranian dissidents and the one from former US officials — including former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani — both express opposition to the nuclear deal. The signatories argue that Iran has not changed its behavior since the signing and implementation of the JCPOA, and that in fact Tehran has been given a freer hand in the region and been allowed to follow a more aggressive and military foreign policy.
In recent weeks senior officials from the incoming Trump administration have repeated similar arguments, hinting that they are ready to confront Iran’s actions and policies in the region. A strange new alliance has emerged, with countries, groups and individuals opposed to the Islamic Republic coming together to criticize Iran from similar standpoints.
Another common thread among many of these groups and countries is the need for “regime change.” Some pro-democracy groups, monarchists and the People’s Mojahedin Organization believe that the Islamic Republic is unreliable and incorrigible, and they regularly champion its overthrow. The 23 former American government officials also support regime change. However, the voices of opposition differ when it comes to an alternative for the Islamic Republic. At this point, it is not quite clear whether Trump’s administration will seriously attempt to do anything about this. Regime change is unlikely to be part of the administration’s key policies, or a definite goal — at least not in the short term, especially since Donald Trump has criticized US attempts at regime change in other countries on several occasions.
Prelude to a Real War?
On January 17, the Iranian Foreign Ministry submitted a report to parliament saying that the lack of clarity on Trump’s views towards the JCPOA was already having negative consequences, and has made a number of foreign companies nervous and hesitant about investing in Iran. The letter-writing of recent weeks only add to this nervousness and uncertainty, even though it is not at all clear whether Trump’s administration will heed any of this advice. But even if Trump partially embraces some of it, the consequences could be negative as far as continued implementation of the nuclear agreement is concerned.
Iranian hardliners and opponents to the JCPOA might be happy about such an outcome. But they are well aware that the real goal of the opposition groups who have appealed to Trump to take action has little to do with the nuclear agreement itself. Their real target is to undermine the Islamic Republic regime itself, along with its economic and regional policies.
For close to 40 years, the Islamic Republic has fought generations of opponents, successfully fending off physical and political interference. If there is a war in the making, it might not be as bloody as it once could have been — but there will be victims nonetheless. The on going war of letters could well be a prelude to what might be coming.