Few people outside a small circle of Middle East policy experts have ever heard of Mark Dubowitz, a diminutive lawyer turned tech exec turned Iran sanctions guru at the D.C. think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). But this past fall, his name was suddenly on the tips of policymakers' tongues as the White House, Congress and allies overseas sparred over thawing relations with Iran after more than 30 acrimonious years.
At issue: The United States is grappling with how to extend a tentative olive branch to Tehran without dismantling the financial blockade it's spent years building and which brought the mullahs to the table in the first place. And Dubowitz thought he had the solution: a highly technical financial maneuver resting on the fact that more than $100 billion of Iran's cash reserves are tied up in overseas bank accounts it can't access, a result of U.S. sanctions barring certain banking transactions with Tehran. The U.S. could offer Iran access to some of this money — and could quickly rescind it if Iran failed to live up to its end of the bargain.
After all, despite the historic phone call between President Obama and the new, more moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in October, Western distrust of the fundamentalist Muslim clerics that rule this country of 80 million still runs deep.
Dubowitz briefed officials at the State and Treasury Departments on his proposal, which wound its way through the administration's bureaucracy and eventually reached the White House. In October, press reports began surfacing that the president was considering the idea — and linked it explicitly to Dubowitz and his think tank. Clearly someone on Obama's team calculated that the affiliation would boost its validity.
Meanwhile, sanctions hardliners in Congress were also mulling Dubowitz's idea but wanted to attach even stricter limits on Iran. The interim deal Iran inked with world powers in late November, which requires Tehran to halt its nuclear enrichment in exchange for $4 billion in frozen assets and other economic incentives, mooted that discussion. The trouble – at least from Dubowitz's standpoint — is that the White House ended up using only half the idea, allowing access to the cash but without a way to take it away if Iran cheats, while also lifting some other key sanctions. That, alone, was not new, he says, and he and others worry that it gives the United States' longtime nemesis the financial lifeline it desperately needs — without being able to force its hand on dismantling the nuclear program. But plenty of others worry pressing Iran too hard will lead them to walk away ... and put the U.S. on the brink of war.
What's abundantly clear, however, is the glimpse it provides of the kind of player the mid-40s Dubowitz and his think tank have become in the high-stakes tug-of-war between Obama and Congress on Iran policy — contributing ideas that the administration will sometimes embrace, while providing fuel for the White House's hard-line critics.
FDD has carved a niche for itself in the charged debate on Iran with its intensive research and sheer intellectual firepower it has brought to the complicated and murky world of Iranian commerce. Their deep dives into energy markets, global finance and Iran's state-controlled economy have become ammunition for the policymakers using increasingly sophisticated financial sanctions to wage an economic war on Iran.
"It's not magic," Dubowitz says of the organization's growing influence. It's a version of what all think tanks do: pick a policy area and "get to know it really well."
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