New US Iran envoy Elliot Abrams joins fight to block Tehran’s weapon access

New Iran envoy Elliot Abrams is one of the most prominent US neoconservative figures and an outspoken critic of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. (Reuters/File Photo)
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Updated 08 August 2020

New US Iran envoy Elliot Abrams joins fight to block Tehran’s weapon access

  • Veteran diplomat has been a vociferous opponent of Iran nuclear deal
  • Venezuela envoy takes on fight to extend Iran arms embargo at the UN, which expires in October

NEW YORK: Elliot Abrams, the veteran diplomat taking over as US envoy to Iran, is entering the role at a crucial moment in the battle to curtail Tehran’s military power.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Thursday that Brian Hook would be handing over the role to Venezuela envoy Abrams, an eminent Iran hawk who will serve in both roles.

The transition takes place at a time when the US is struggling to win unanimous support at the UN for a formal extension of a ban on weapon sales to Iran, which expires in October.

Hook’s resignation after a year and a half in the job comes during times of increased tensions between the US and Iran. His departure puts an end to any chance for a diplomatic initiative with Iran before the end of Donald Trump’s term.

His replacement, Abrams, is one of the most prominent US neoconservative figures and an outspoken critic of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

The deal agreed with international powers and known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), aimed to restrict Iran’s atomic program in return for an easing of crippling sanctions.

Opponents, including Trump, said the agreement allowed Iran to continue developing ballistic missiles and freed up funds for the regime’s aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East. Trump pulled the US out of the deal in 2018.

Abrams had accused Barack Obama, the president who oversaw the agreement, of basing the deal on his so-called Cuba model.

“Hand a lifeline to a regime in deep economic trouble and ignore the population of the country and their quest for human rights and decent government,” he wrote in 2015.

“Call it a historic achievement, and above all don’t bargain hard for recompense. For, you see, in these openings to Iran and Cuba we are only righting the historical wrongs America has committed and for which we need to apologize.”

Of immediate concern for the US and its allies is trying to seal an extension to the UN arms embargo.

Abrams is expected to help campaign for such an extension as the US introduces a new resolution at the Security Council next week, while European nations continue to express fears that an embargo renewal would lead Iran to leaving the nuclear deal.

Russia and China, two of the permanent five nations that enjoy veto power on the Security Council, want the UN embargo on selling conventional weapons to Iran to end on Oct. 18, as laid out under a 2015 resolution.

Pompeo gave a clear indication this week that, should the US fail to secure an extension, it is considering “snap back” UN economic sanctions that were lifted as part of a nuclear deal with Iran.

“We have the capacity to execute snapback and we’re going to use it in a way that protects and defends America,” Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Since last year, Abrams has served as envoy for Venezuela. He was tapped for the role as the Trump administration was aiming to force President Nicolas Maduro from power.

Abrams and Hook were next door to each other at the State Department, and Abrams said that “most of what I hear about Iran policy is what I hear through the wall.”

In a talk along with Hook at the Hudson Institute, Abrams spoke of the nature of the newfound rapprochement between Venezuela and Iran, designating both countries as pariah regimes

“They are essentially friendless countries.

“So, they’re looking for a way to say, You see, we’re not really all that isolated.

“Then there’s the very pragmatic one. Maduro has one thing to sell which is oil and he desperately needs gasoline. Nobody’s buying the oil. He does have gold reserves, so he is able to say to the Iranians, ‘Well you want gold, I can give you gold.’

“And the Iranians of course have an enormous amount of oil and gasoline that they’re having a hard time getting rid of.”

Abrams’ vision for the American president’s role in the Middle East could be best summed up in his 2014 article for US website Politico on Obama titled “The man who broke the Middle East.”

In the piece, Abrams berates the then president for enabling Iran to hold sway over a stretch of territory from Tehran to the Mediterranean and abandoning Washington’s Gulf allies.

“A map that starts with Hezbollah in Beirut’s southern suburbs and traces lines through Syria and Iraq into Iran would now not be just a nightmare vision, but an actual accounting of where Iran’s forces and allies and sphere of influence lie,” he wrote.

“That’s what the Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis and others see around them, growing year by year while their former [American] protector dithers.

“They see one other country that ‘gets it,’ sees the dangers the same way, understands Iran’s grasp at hegemony just as they do: Israel.

“In the world they all inhabit the weak disappear, and the strong survive and rule. They are the ultimate realists.”

Abrams, 72, rose to prominence in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan as a hawkish interventionist against perceived communist threats in Latin America.

As the then-assistant secretary of state, he played a pivotal role in the Iran-Contra affair in 1991, when he was convicted on two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress.

He was later pardoned by President George H. W. Bush in 1992.

For the outgoing Iran envoy, Hook, Pompeo praised his efforts achieving “historic results countering the Iranian regime.”

Hook had worked very closely with Pompeo to execute Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy toward Iran.

He singled out Hook’s successful effort to release two American captives, Michael White and Xiyue Wang, from Iranian prison.

In an interview with the New York Times, Hook insisted that Iran is now weaker.

“Deal or no deal, we have been very successful. By almost every metric, the regime and its terrorist proxies are weaker than three and a half years ago.”

Leader of banned charity leader seeks asylum from Turkey amid Macron-Erdogan row

Updated 42 min 58 sec ago

Leader of banned charity leader seeks asylum from Turkey amid Macron-Erdogan row

  • Sihamedi, the founder of the BarakaCity NGO, claimed that he no longer felt safe in France

ANKARA: The prospect of granting asylum to Idriss Sihamedi, the founder of a Muslim charity that has been shut down in France over his alleged ties to the “radical Islamist movement,” stirred debate about the potential repercussions amid the already escalating French-Turkish spat.

The Turkish interior ministry announced on Oct. 29 that Ankara will assess Sihamedi’s request for himself and his team after receiving his official application.

Sihamedi, the founder of the BarakaCity NGO, claimed that he no longer felt safe in France. His NGO was closed officially on Oct. 28 on the grounds that it “incites hate, has relations with the radical Islamist movement and justifies terrorist acts.”

He posted his asylum request on his official Twitter account in both French and Turkish, tagging Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He also alleged he had received death threats.

His post received a quick reply from the Turkish interior ministry’s migration management department: “Hello Sihamedi. If you and your colleagues were to personally apply to our institution with your surname, first name, identity information, petition for an asylum request and your passport number, your request will be assessed.”

However, experts think that proceeding with the asylum request of such radicals means playing with fire.

“I think Erdogan is continuing to play a dangerous game by courting relationships with radical figures and in some cases jihadists,” Colin Clarke, senior research fellow on terror-financing networks at the Soufan Center, told Arab News. “Turkey is already viewed as a hot spot for jihadists given its proximity to Iraq and Syria.”

Sihamedi is accused of inciting hatred, encouraging people to violent acts, maintaining relations within the radical Islamist movement, money laundering in the name of Salafi organisations and expressing support for Hitler and the Nazis. He is also blamed for organizing suicide attacks and supporting Daesh.

According to Clarke, if Turkey grants asylum to Sihamedi and his team, it may create trouble, both domestically but also with NATO allies.

“Moving forward with actions like this could easily backfire on Turkey and cause considerable blowback. I find these overt flirtations with radical Islamists counterproductive and short-sighted,” he said.

Sihamedi was deported from Turkey last year in May at France’s request and his passport was confiscated at Istanbul airport.

BarakaCity was founded in 2010 in Evry-Courcouronnes (Essonne). The Islamic humanitarian NGO has been closely monitored by French intelligence since 2014. Its buildings were raided several times in 2015 and 2017, and it was investigating for “terrorist financing” and “terrorist criminal association” for three years.

The NGO has said it wants to move its headquarters to another country. At a time when relations between Paris and Ankara are more strained than ever, the Turkish branch of the NGO is headed by a Franco-Turkish national known for his Salafi credentials.

“The French government dissolved BarakaCity also because in the past the NGO received money from Samy Amimour, a member of the Bataclan terrorist commando group in  2015, and from Larossi Abballa, who in 2016 killed a policeman and his wife in Magnanville,” said Matteo Pugliese, associate research fellow at Milan-based think tank ISPI.

“According to the French government, BarakaCity provides a sort of ideological justification for violent radicals, especially when it calls for the punishment of those who publish cartoons or criticize Islam. I think that we are talking about a grey zone, where non-violent extremism meets violent radicalization.”

Sihamedi was released under judicial supervision and is due to face trial in December.

French government also announced plans to dissolve other associations suspected of supporting extremist ideologies.

“If Turkey grants asylum to Sihamedi, France will use this to accuse the country of sheltering Islamists who radicalize people with online propaganda,” Pugliese said. “This is part of the verbal escalation between Macron and Erdogan and will be used by both for political internal goals.”