Political News

A Tireless Critic of the Iran Deal Now Insists He Wanted to Save It

Posted May 13, 2018 8:52 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — While many hands gripped the sword that undercut the Iran nuclear deal, no one outside the Trump administration was a more persistent or effective critic than Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of a hawkish Washington think tank.

But rather than publicly celebrate President Donald Trump’s decision Tuesday to jettison the accord, he is mourning its demise, saying he genuinely wanted to fix the agreement and worries that its unraveling could be dangerous.

That lament, though, has enraged the pact’s supporters, who never saw a fix as remotely palatable to Trump and blame Dubowitz above all others for providing the intellectual foundation for its passing. They now say he is trying to distance himself from the potentially catastrophic results.

“I am being attacked by the right for being a fixer & by the left for being a nixer,” Dubowitz, who leads the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, tweeted Wednesday. “Welcome to Washington where anyone in the middle of the policy & political street gets run over.”

To which Jon B. Wolfsthal, the top arms control official in President Barack Obama’s White House, responded by tweet: “yes yes, such a moderate. A moderate enabler of extremism. A moderate peddler of lies and half-truths. A moderate catalyst of undermining a constructive, viable agreement in favor of a unicorn. You own this. Say anything you want. You own this.”

The bile from normally high-minded experts has been remarkable.

“It is unbelievably galling to see him, of all people, trying to escape responsibility,” said Ben Armbruster, communications director for Win Without War, who recently wrote an article titled “Mark Dubowitz: You’re on the Hook for Killing the Iran Deal.”

With his almost single-minded focus on criticizing the Iran deal, Dubowitz’s voice cut through the din of a city where think tanks wield many megaphones.

During the congressional debate on the deal, he and his foundation colleagues testified in opposition to the deal 17 times over an 18-month period. By contrast, officials from the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, more established conservative think tanks, testified only once.

More recently, Dubowitz was the only nongovernmental official routinely consulted by both European and U.S. negotiators in a monthslong back-and-forth over a possible side agreement to the deal, and he sometimes reviewed secret drafts. He wrote, according to two administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, parts of a report on Iran that Brian H. Hook, the chief U.S. negotiator in the recent talks, took to White House meetings — a highly unusual step. He advised many of the deal’s most prominent critics on Capitol Hill.

Dubowitz’s main concerns about the deal were its lack of any limits on the regime’s ballistic missile program and its “sunset provisions” that would allow Iran to increase its capacity to enrich uranium beginning seven years from now. Dubowitz said the deal gave Iran tens of billions in economic relief that it had used to fund terrorism and foreign adventurism.

Now that Trump has decided to withdraw from an agreement he called “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” Dubowitz’s campaign to draw attention to what he saw as its flaws has taken its place among the most consequential ever undertaken by a Washington think tank leader.

But in written responses to questions, Dubowitz said he felt “ambivalent” about the withdrawal: happy that Trump saw the agreement as flawed but disappointed in the rejection of the proposed fix, which he said “seemed closer than anyone would have expected.”

“I was very invested in the process of trying to help the E3 bridge the gap with us,” he added, referring to negotiations with British, French and German diplomats.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Iran deal is formally known, is 109 pages, and Dubowitz was often able to cite its provisions by heart. He is widely seen as understanding the multifarious mechanics of sanctions, a rare feat.

But he is far from the usual tweedy think-tanker. Raised in Canada, trained as a lawyer and having worked in venture capital, Dubowitz wears tailored French suits and keeps his curly hair just so. In 2016, he paid himself $560,221, a sum nearly twice that accepted by counterparts at larger, more established think tanks.

Top officials in the Obama administration often dismissed Washington’s foreign policy think tanks as paid agents of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, countries that annually invest tens of millions in the Washington influence game. Those nations were implacably opposed to the Iran deal in part because they feared that it would achieve exactly what Obama and his European counterparts intended, which was to normalize Iran’s clerical government.

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies was founded in 2001 as Emet — Hebrew for “truth” — and its goal was to “provide education meant to enhance Israel’s image in North America.” The organization has long been linked to the Likud party in Israel, which is led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a fierce opponent of the Iran deal. Its top funders have included Bernard Marcus, a co-founder of the Home Depot; Sheldon G. Adelson, the casino billionaire; and Leonard Abramson, the founder of U.S. Healthcare. All are conservatives who give to Jewish causes. In May, the group co-hosted a conference criticizing Qatar, which is locked in a bitter dispute with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A trove of hacked emails showed that the conference was funded by a $2.7 million payment that passed from George Nader, a Lebanese-born U.S. citizen working as an adviser to the de facto ruler of the Emirates, through Elliott Broidy, a Republican donor with substantial financial links to the Emirates.

Dubowitz said Broidy had approached his foundation in 2017 to fund a conference on Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. “As is our funding policy, we asked if his funding was connected to any foreign governments or if he had business contracts in the Gulf,” Dubowitz said. “He assured us that he did not.”

As for the withdrawal from the Iran deal, Dubowitz scoffed at the idea that he had played much of a role.

“According to the conspiracists & character assassins, I killed the Iran nuke deal. Little me,” Dubowitz tweeted on Friday. He added: “Such power. Such influence. Such impact. Such...silliness.”

Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council, another think tank, had a blunt reply: “Don’t flatter yourself. Trump made this decision long ago. But you facilitated it and will also own the consequences.”