48 hours of border chaos: Inside a CBP crackdown on Iranian Americans

“Hours after a U.S. military drone killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, one of the most powerful men in Iran, the head of field operations for the border in Washington state gathered her senior staff on an emergency conference call.

It was the first Friday in 2020 — still a holiday for many — and director Adele Fasano spoke from home about the email she’d just received from U.S. Customs and Border Protection headquarters advising “heightened vigilance” following the airstrike.

She instructed assistant directors of field operations and area port directors to institute “heightened security measures.” When the call ended, the Seattle CBP office circulated a “high threat alert” memo among management outlining new criteria for enhanced vetting of cross-border travelers.

The message to rank-and-file agents was clear: Target travelers with ties to Iran, Lebanon and Palestine.

During the next 48 hours, 277 people — dozens of them American citizens or legal permanent residents — would be stopped and held for secondary screenings as they tried to cross into the U.S. from Canada. Many said they were held for more than six hours. Some were denied access to medicine or questioned about their relatives. Most had no idea why they were stopped, though they had their suspicions.

One Iranian American, held for six hours overnight at the Pacific Highway crossing, likened the scene to “a modern-day version of Japanese internment camps.””

How Biden’s best-laid plans for Iran and Saudi Arabia failed in his first month

“As the Democratic candidate, Biden promised a swift return to the Iran nuclear deal. He then aimed to leverage that negotiation to curb other aspects of Tehran’s aggressive behavior — like its growing ballistic missile program — in follow-on chats.

But in the Oval Office, the president has found the Islamic Republic resistant to diplomacy — but willing to have proxies launch rockets at Americans in the Middle East. That led Biden to authorize a retaliatory strike in Syria against those militants, hoping that would deter future attacks while keeping the door open for talks.

And on the campaign trail, Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state, vowing to make it “pay the price” for human rights violations, including the grisly 2018 murder of dissident, US resident, and columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Though he released an unclassified intelligence report on Friday directly blaming Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing, Biden declined to punish the nation’s de facto ruler outright. Instead of authorizing sanctions, a travel ban, or an asset freeze, the president created the “Khashoggi ban,” which imposes visa restrictions on people who try to silence dissidents abroad. It’s unclear if that includes heads of state, however.

That action — combined with the end of US support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen and a freeze on weapons sales — was meant to “recalibrate,” not “rupture” US-Saudi relations, Biden administration officials say. A major consideration was that MBS, as the crown prince is known, may soon officially run the country, so targeting him personally could doom future relations between Washington and Riyadh.”

Biden ordered airstrike after determining Iran supported rocket attacks

“The attacks and retaliatory strike marked the first major military action of the Biden administration. The strike was calculated to signal to Iran that such attacks through proxies in the region would not be tolerated, the officials said, while avoiding escalation into a wider conflict as Biden seeks a diplomatic breakthrough with Tehran on the Iran nuclear deal.
The “proportionate” military response was conducted along with diplomatic measures, including consulting with coalition partners, the Pentagon said.

“The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” said Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby. “At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both Eastern Syria and Iraq.””

“”The targets were chosen to correspond to the recent attacks — the facilities are utilized by KSS and KH — and to deter the risk of additional attacks over the coming weeks,” the spokesperson said. “The strikes were necessary to address the threat and proportionate to the prior attacks.”

At around 6 p.m. EST on Thursday night, U.S. fighter jets dropped seven 500-pound precision bombs on seven targets in eastern Syria, the official said. All bombs hit their targets, a crossing used by several Iran-backed militia groups to move weapons and other goods across the border. Initial reports suggest there were no casualties, militant or civilian.

Biden made the strategic decision to conduct the strike in Syria, rather than on Iraqi soil, in order to avoid pressure on the Iraqi government, the official said.

Conducting an airstrike in Syria is also less politically complicated for the Biden administration than an operation in Iraq, said Becca Wasser, an analyst with the RAND Corp. The U.S. does not need to request the permission of the Syrian government as it does not recognize Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, she said.

The airstrike came after Biden spoke Tuesday with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. The White House readout of the call hinted at the coming action. The men “discussed the recent rocket attacks against Iraqi and Coalition personnel and agreed that those responsible for such attacks must be held fully to account.””

Iran’s execution of journalist Ruhollah Zam, briefly explained

“Iranian journalist Ruhollah Zam, whose reporting helped spur large anti-government protests, was executed by Iran”

“Zam, 47, was found guilty of “corruption on earth” and sentenced to death”

“The vague charge of “corruption on earth” is often used “in cases involving espionage or attempts to overthrow Iran’s government,” Al Jazeera reported Saturday.

Zam ran the site Amad News and coordinated a Telegram channel, both of which helped spread information during a wave of anti-regime protests that shook Iran in 2017 and 2018. He was living abroad in Paris at the time, but returned to the Middle East in 2019 and was arrested in Iraq by members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”

Iran Just Handed Biden His First Credibility Test

“as many as 24 rockets were fired at a U.S. military base at Erbil International Airport, in the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The attacked, almost certainly launched by an Iran-backed militia, wounded an American soldier, killed one non-U.S. contractor and wounded five others. Three local civilians were also wounded.”

Why Biden can’t ignore Iraq and Afghanistan, even if he might want to

“When President Joe Biden gave his first foreign policy address two weeks ago, he didn’t once mention the words “Iraq” or “Afghanistan.” But events in those two countries over the past 24 hours have offered a stark reminder to the administration that it can’t forever ignore America’s forever wars.

In Iraq, rockets seemingly launched by an Iranian-backed militia on Monday killed a non-American civilian contractor at a military base in Erbil. Nine others were injured, including four US contractors and one service member, according to Col. Wayne Marotto, the spokesperson for the US-led coalition against ISIS.

And in Afghanistan, the Taliban has closed in on major cities just a few months before the scheduled departure of US forces on May 1. The insurgent group released an open letter to Americans on Tuesday, basically asking the Biden administration to trust the Taliban to lead the nation and respect human rights after the troops leave — a dubious claim at best.

Even as Biden would prefer to spend most of his time addressing the coronavirus, China, and climate change, it’s clear that, like every president since George W. Bush, he’ll continually have his attention diverted toward Afghanistan and Iraq.

It’s not that he and his team have neglected those countries. Defense chiefs from NATO nations are meeting over the next two days in large part to discuss plans for Afghanistan and Iraq. The administration is also reviewing its policies in the two countries, weighing what to keep from the past four years and what to change.

But recent events have added an extra sense of urgency, with US troops under threat in an increasingly unstable Iraq, and a tough decision looming for the president in Afghanistan: leave the country to almost certain ruin, or stay and face another deadly fighting season against the Taliban?

In normal times, those would be tough issues for any administration to handle. In this era, they’re extra difficult.”

Three Solutions to Biden’s Nuclear Stalemate with Iran

“Biden must open the door for these direct talks. His first step must be significant enough to restore belief in the original “win-win” logic of the deal and offer Iranian officials a credible rationale for engagement with the U.S. At the same time, it may be limited enough to keep the U.S. outside of the deal, offering him political cover with critics and underscoring the necessity for Iran to also take reciprocal steps.

Taking this kind of first step could, in its way, be a signal of strength for Biden: He’d be showing domestic opponents of the JCPOA that he will not be bullied into compromising his Iran policy. The fight over the appointment of Robert Malley as Iran envoy showed that hawks will “play dirty” to undermine the credibility of Biden’s outreach to Iran. Biden ought to nip this kind of cynical politics in the bud.

If Biden goes go this route, officials in the U.S., Europe, and Iran are currently deliberating what a reasonable first move could be. Our conversations with officials suggest that there is awareness that breaking out of the political deadlock may require Biden to be bold. He has a few options.

First, the Biden administration could restore temporary waivers that enable Iran to sell oil while U.S. sanctions remain in place. Iran’s oil production and exports are rising faster than projected despite the Covid-19 crisis and U.S. sanctions. This trend has reduced the perceived urgency of restoring the nuclear deal among key political stakeholders in Tehran who may gain more power after the upcoming Iranian presidential election. The Biden administration’s efforts to re-enter the JCPOA would be best served by making already increasing oil sales once again subject to the “win-win” logic of the nuclear deal. Iran’s earnings from these oil sales would be accrued in escrow accounts and subject to strict oversight as per the waiver terms. Revenues would be used by Iran for sanctions-exempt trade with the country in which the funds are held. Such a step would serve to remove a key piece of tension with U.S. allies such as South Korea, Japan, and India whose energy security has been impacted by U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Second, the Biden administration could support Iran’s loan request for funds from the International Monetary Fund. Iran’s request has languished despite the IMF’s technical assessment that Iran qualifies for financial support to address the balance of payments crisis created by the pandemic. Iran has indicated it is ready for these funds to be disbursed to its accounts outside of the country to be used for paying for sanctions-exempt imports. The funds would not flow directly into Iranian government coffers, but rather be used to address trade deficits. The Biden administration should grant this loan as part of its commitment to address the humanitarian impact of sanctions and a wider push to encourage the IMF to use its full financial capacities to address the ongoing economic crisis brought on by the pandemic.

Finally, a third option could be easing Iran’s access to its existing foreign exchange reserves. Presently, Iran has free and ready access to an estimated 10 percent of its reserves, a circumstance that has placed extraordinary pressure on Iran’s currency and generated high levels of inflation that harm ordinary Iranians. Iran has been engaged in fraught negotiations with numerous countries to try and get access to frozen assets, who continue to look to the U.S. Treasury Department for the final say. The Biden administration could give these countries, including allies Germany and South Korea, the approvals and guidance necessary to enable both central and commercial banks to readily execute payments on behalf of Iranian account holders. As with the oil waivers and IMF loan, these payments can be restricted to sanctions-exempt trade, a key outcome of which would be lower rates of inflation.

Should Biden take any of these three steps, Iran can be expected to cease ramping up its nuclear program. Neither country would be fully implementing its commitments under the JCPOA, but an opportunity will have been created for new talks in the spirit of “win-win” diplomacy. There is no guarantee that these talks, and the complicated choreography of JCPOA restoration, will succeed. But Biden needs to give himself a shot. After the last four years, timid gestures will fail to do that. It’s time to be bold.”

U.S. must undo damage to nuclear deal, Iran’s foreign minister says

“Iran’s foreign minister said on Sunday that if the U.S. wanted to restore the terms of the nuclear agreement it exited, the onus was on the Biden administration to live up to the deal.
“It was the United States that left the deal,” Mohammad Javad Zarif told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “It was the United States that violated the deal. It was the United States that punished any country that remained respectful and compliant with the deal. So it is for the United States to return to the deal, to implement its obligations.””

“Iran’s foreign minister also said his country would refuse to consider negotiating a different deal or adding other elements to the agreement.

“The entire nuclear deal is nonnegotiable because it was fully negotiated,” Zarif said. “We need to implement something that we negotiated. We do not buy the horse twice.””

Trump left behind a sanctions minefield for Biden

“The 2015 Iran deal came together after years of U.S. and international sanctions battered the Islamic Republic’s economy and internal political shifts made an agreement more viable. The deal, which seven countries negotiated, lifted nuclear-related sanctions on Iran in exchange for severe curbs on its nuclear program.

However, the nuclear deal left in place numerous other U.S. sanctions on Iran, such as those related to the Islamist regime’s support for terrorism, its ballistic missile program and its human rights abuses. Many of the U.S. sanctions are especially powerful because they apply to non-American entities who would otherwise want to do business with Iran.

Trump took office complaining that the nuclear agreement was too narrowly focused and that its provisions didn’t last long enough. He withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018 — then reimposed the nuclear-related sanctions while also piling on new sanctions on other fronts, such as ones targeting the Iranian regime’s corruption or its backing of terrorist activity. Overall, the sanctions have badly hit Iran’s economy, which also has been hurt by the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the U.S. departure, Iran, too, has taken steps that have put it out of compliance with the agreement, including enriching uranium to 20 percent purity. Iranian leaders say they’ll return to compliance with the deal once the United States lifts its sanctions — ideally returning to the 2016 status, they say. But Biden has indicated he wants Iran to return to compliance first before he’ll lift sanctions.”

“People who worked in the Trump administration say the new president shouldn’t lift any of the sanctions because the nuclear deal isn’t worth reviving. Rather, they argue that the Trump team handed Biden a gift by placing Iran’s Islamist regime under such intense pressure.

“Don’t let up,” said Len Khodorkovsky, a former senior State Department adviser on Iran policy. “The only way to get positive movement out of Iran is to increase pressure.”

The deal’s supporters, however, point out that Trump’s strategy failed to push Iran into talks for a more stringent agreement. Nor has Tehran stopped other behavior that has upset the U.S. and its allies, such as backing militias outside its borders; it’s also closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon today than it was when the U.S. was in the deal.”

“Former U.S. officials say it’s possible that Biden’s final decisions will result in a mixed picture: Non-nuclear sanctions with a solid legal basis will stay on, while other sanctions – such as some that appear intended to wreck the nuclear deal – will likely be removed.

The Biden team might also take an incremental approach: Offer some limited sanctions relief in exchange for initial actions on Iran’s part to roll back its recent nuclear advances as a first step toward a full return to the agreement by both countries.

There is pressure to move quickly. For one thing, Iran’s presidential election, set for June, could usher into power a hardline government opposed to the nuclear deal.

But when asked for comment, a State Department official indicated the process of returning to the agreement will take longer than many advocates might wish.

“Iran is a long way from returning to compliance, and there are many steps in the process we will need to evaluate,” the official said in a written statement. “Our first order of business will be consulting with Congress and our allies on the path forward.””

Why labeling Yemen’s Houthis as terrorists could hurt millions of people

“The Trump administration announced its intent to designate the Iran-backed Houthi movement in Yemen as a “foreign terrorist organization” — a move that could exacerbate one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.”

“The Houthis, formally known as Ansar Allah, are an armed rebel group of Zaydi Shia (a minority sect within Shia Islam) who have been fighting a civil war against Yemen’s Saudi-backed government since 2014. That civil war morphed into an international one in March 2015, when Saudi Arabia and several of its allies in the Gulf decided to intervene militarily in the civil war, waging war against the Houthis. Meanwhile, Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional foe, has backed the Houthis.
Both sides have launched numerous attacks and committed atrocities. The Saudi-led coalition, for example, killed around 30 children on a bus in 2019. The Houthis, meanwhile, launched missiles at an airport and airbase in Saudi Arabia in 2019, and at Saudi oil stations last year.

In his statement, Pompeo said the new terrorism designation is “intended to hold Ansarallah accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping.””

“Since 2015, the US has supported the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen against the Houthis. It has helped coalition forces push back on Iran, the Houthis’ main supplier for weapons and funds. Until November 2018, the US refueled Saudi warplanes that dropped bombs on Yemen — many of which killed civilians, including children. Now the US mostly helps the Saudis gather intelligence.

The entire war has been a disaster. The United Nations estimated in December that about 233,000 people have died since fighting began, mostly from indirect causes such as lack of food, water, health services, and more. Meanwhile, another roughly 24 million Yemenis require assistance to stay alive and fend off diseases like cholera.”

“One way those in need get help is through humanitarian organizations. The Houthis control Yemen’s north, and it’s impossible for those organizations to operate there without the Houthis’ approval.

If the US follows through on designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization, then it will be harder for those groups to offer support for fear of possible prosecution by the US government.

As a result, “humanitarian assistance is likely going to be dramatically scaled back,” said Scott Paul, the humanitarian policy lead at Oxfam. He added that the designation will likely scare off foreign businesses, investors, and banks, thus further decimating Yemen’s reeling economy. “Services will become less available, goods more expensive, and people’s ability to pay less possible,” Scott told me.

One way humanitarian groups have gotten around this predicament before is by asking the US government to provide waivers for them. Basically, the waivers say, “As long as you ensure you’re not helping the designated terrorist, you can continue operating as you have been.”

But Pompeo’s Sunday statement suggests the US hasn’t designed those waivers yet. “The United States recognizes concerns that these designations will have an impact on the humanitarian situation in Yemen,” he said. “We are planning to put in place measures to reduce their impact on certain humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen.””

““While the Houthis share much blame, alongside the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, for horrific human rights violations in Yemen, the designations do nothing to address these concerns,” reads the current letter, which is scheduled for release later this week or early next week. “They will, however, prevent the delivery of critical humanitarian assistance to millions of innocent people, greatly hurt the prospects for a negotiated settlement to the conflict, and further undermine U.S. national security interests in the region.”

Altogether, the real losers of the FTO designation won’t be the Houthis. It’ll be the millions of Yemenis already struggling to stay alive because of the war the US participated in.”