August 10, 2020

IntelBrief: What Does the Appointment of a Controversial Diplomat Signal for U.S. Policy on Iran?

Elliot Abrams, the U.S. special adviser for Venezuela April 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The appointment of Eliot Abrams as the Administration’s top policymaker on Iran could signal a shift in U.S. policy to an effort to change Iran’s regime. 
  • Abrams will remain the lead policymaker for Venezuela as well, indicating that U.S. policy toward the two adversaries could converge. 
  • The combination of Abrams’ two assignments reflects a Trump Administration view that Iran and Venezuela are increasingly closely allied. 
  • Abrams’ appointment will likely preclude any substantive U.S.-Iran negotiations before the U.S election or if there is a second Trump term.  

On August 6, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named the controversial Reagan Administration figure Eliot Abrams as Special Representative for Iran, replacing Ambassador Brian Hook. Pompeo stated that Abrams would concurrently retain his post as Special Representative for Venezuela, to which he was appointed in January 2019. He took on that State Department job 30 years after his conviction for lying to Congress about his role, as the then-Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, in helping circumvent a congressional ban on U.S arming of the opposition (‘Contras’) in Nicaragua as part of the ‘Iran-Contra Affair.’  He received a presidential pardon for that offense. 

The appointment of Abrams, a longtime vocal proponent of U.S. efforts to overthrow authoritarian regimes, is certain to raise alarms in Tehran. He was named Special Representative for Venezuela in January 2019 to lead the U.S. drive to try to oust President Nicolas Maduro, and Tehran might reasonably assume that his assignment to the Iran post will have a similar objective with respect to the Islamic Republic. Iran is already the subject of a U.S. ‘maximum pressure’ campaign, centered on the strictest secondary sanctions regime of any imposed by the United States. The stated objective of the policy is to change Iran’s behavior until it becomes a ‘normal country,’ but Secretary Pompeo’s many speeches on Iran suggests that he would prefer, ultimately, to try to bring down the regime in Tehran. In that respect, Abrams is likely more closely aligned with Pompeo’s thinking on Iran than was his predecessor, Ambassador Hook. Even before Abrams’ appointment, Iran’s Supreme Leader had ruled out any talks with the Trump administration on a multilateral nuclear accord that might replace the 2015 agreement that President Donald Trump abrogated. The naming of Abrams as top Iran policymaker almost certainly precludes any reversal of Tehran’s position before the election, and likely in a second Trump term if he is re-elected.  

Yet, if Secretary Pompeo’s intent in naming Abrams is to apply a regime change strategy to both governments, there are major hurdles to doing so. In addition to all the U.S. sanctions imposed on both countries, the United States has also placed sanctions on Maduro in 2017, and on the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader in 2019. Yet, the Maduro regime has endured, even though Venezuela has a legitimate opposition leader, Juan Guaido, who is recognized as the rightful leader of Venezuela not only by the United States but by most of Venezuela’s neighbors. Iran’s government is even harder to displace – there is no unifying opposition figure in Iran for the Iranian people to rally around. Many of Iran’s neighbors, particularly Israel and the Arab monarchy states of the Persian Gulf, would prefer a different regime in Iran, but they have little leverage to bring that outcome about. Rather, it is Iran that has been able to shape regional politics more to its liking. Iran has done so in Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon, not to mention its successful intervention to help the regime of Bashar Al Assad retain power in Syria against a significant armed rebellion. 

The combination of the top Venezuela and Iran posts at the State Department clearly represents an Administration assessment that the two countries are working together, where possible, to try to thwart U.S. objectives and embarrass the United States. This assessment solidified in May 2020, when Iran delivered five tankers of gasoline to Venezuela, whose ability to produce gasoline has virtually collapsed due to neglect and incompetence. Maduro provided Iran with an estimated $500 million worth of gold in exchange – giving Iran badly-needed hard currency that has become scarce due to U.S. sanctions. The gasoline shipments represented a revival of Iran-Venezuela ties that had largely languished after the end of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s term and the death of Venezuelan revolutionary leader Hugo Chavez, both in 2013. The re-ignition of the Iran-Venezuela relationship signals a recognition by both governments that they are the prime targets of the Trump administration and need to work together, despite the long distance and different political, religious, and ethnic backgrounds of the two countries, respectively.