It took starving children in Yemen and the barbaric murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi for Congress to seriously question the unseemly alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia that has existed since the discovery of oil there in the 1930s. With both chambers now attempting to cut off U.S. support for the Saudi war on Yemen and the Senate’s unanimous vote in December blaming Mohammad Bin Salman for Khashoggi’s murder, the new Congress should not only continue to push back against Trump’s bromance with the murderous Saudi Crown Prince but also stop Trump’s dangerous showdown with Saudi’s nemesis: Iran.
President Obama, along with the Europeans, China and Russia, achieved a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran by signing the nuclear agreement in March 2015. Iran stuck to its part of the deal, but when Trump got to the White House, he unilaterally withdrew, despite objections from the other signatories.
Along with the withdrawal, Trump imposed draconian sanctions that not only prohibit U.S. companies from doing business in Iran, but threaten all foreign companies and international banks that trade with Iran. The sanctions also severely limit Iran’s ability to sell its major source of revenue: oil. European governments are trying to shield their companies from U.S. extraterritorial restrictions by setting up a “special purpose vehicle,” but the big European companies with business dealings with Iran—from French oil giant Total to Germany’s Volkswagen—are so fearful of U.S. retaliation that they have already pulled the plug on trade deals.
The U.S. sanctions, along with mismanagement and corruption, have been like a sucker punch to the economy. The value of the rial has tanked, the price of consumer goods has doubled, and unemployment has reached crisis levels--especially among youth. Even though food and medicines are exempt, banks don’t want to handle the transactions, creating shortages of life-saving drugs.
The Trump administration insists it is not trying to use economic chaos as a catalyst for regime change, but key U.S. officials, such as national security adviser John Bolton, talk openly about regime change. Bolton also promotes the People's Mojahedin, or MEK, a cult-like group hated inside Iran for having sided with Saddam Hussein when Iraq invaded Iran in 1980. In recent years, the MEK has spent lavishly (with what is rumored to be Saudi money) to acquire political support from both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Pelosi plows full speed ahead on jam-packed agenda Jan. 6 committee taps former Bush administration official as top lawyer Ocasio-Cortez, Bush push to add expanded unemployment in .5T spending plan MORE (D-Calif.) and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelNYC snafu the latest flub from a broken elections agency Cynthia Nixon backs primary challenger to Rep. Carolyn Maloney Democrats call on Blinken to set new sexual misconduct policies at State Department MORE (D-N.Y.).
Propping up shady diaspora figures as leaders ready to take over, fomenting dissent and ethnic divisions, calling Iran a threat to the U.S. security and strangling its economy—this playbook is all too reminiscent of the build up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The history lesson—and the tragic consequences of U.S. intervention—is not lost on Iranians, who vividly remember the U.S. overthrow of their own democratically elected government in 1953. Many Iranians today desperately want to change their government, but they look around the region in horror. They see massive death, destruction, and displacement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and conclude that their best option is working internally for reform. Paradoxically, belligerent U.S. policy makes reform harder. It creates a siege mentality that strengthens the most conservative forces and justifies their crackdown on civil society.
Trump’s Muslim ban also hurts Iranians. The third version of the Muslim ban, as upheld by the Supreme Court in June of 2018, indefinitely limits entry into the United States from five of the majority-Muslim countries included in the original ban, including Iran. The ban keeps U.S. citizens and green card holders from living with or even being visited by family members, including husbands and wives. It also limits the ability of Iranians to visit the U.S. to seek urgently needed medical attention or to study and contribute to research projects at US universities.
While the Trump administration claims people from banned countries who pose no threat to the U.S. can apply for a waiver, very few waiver applicants have been approved by the administration. As Justice Stephen Breyer has pointed out, there are scores of individuals with life-threatening diseases, scholars, potential university students, and members of the business community who have been denied waivers.
The new Congress must urgently hold an oversight hearing examining the Muslim ban. The hearing should examine the ban's white supremacist and Islamophobic origins, its unaccountable implementation, its potential permanency and possible expansion, as well as the phoney waiver process.
The new Congress must also pressure on the Trump administration to lift the sanctions and re-enter the nuclear deal. Unilaterally withdrawing from an international agreement and moving the U.S. toward a military confrontation with Iran violates our national security interests. Many new representatives got elected on the promise of serving as a check on the abuses of the administration. It is time to respect that promise by avoiding another calamitous war.
Medea Benjamin is the co-founder of the women-led peace group CODEPINK and author of Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic; she tweets @medeabenjamin. Azadeh Shahshahani is Legal & Advocacy Director at Project South and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild; she tweets @ashahshahani.