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Westlake Legal Group > Embargoes and Sanctions

Sanctions May Have Fueled Iran Protests, but Have Yet to Further U.S. Goals

Westlake Legal Group 02dc-policy1-facebookJumbo Sanctions May Have Fueled Iran Protests, but Have Yet to Further U.S. Goals United States Politics and Government United States International Relations Trump, Donald J Pompeo, Mike Obama, Barack Khamenei, Ali Iran Embargoes and Sanctions Economic Conditions and Trends Demonstrations, Protests and Riots

President Trump likes to say that Iran is “a different country” after 18 months of punishing American sanctions, and the protests sweeping Iranian cities suggest he may be right. Even his most vociferous critics acknowledge that Mr. Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign helped fuel that unrest.

But it is far from clear that what is unfolding on the streets today will make Iran more likely to renegotiate its nuclear deal or dial back its malign actions in the region, the two major American goals in dealing with the country.

If the lessons of the Arab Spring and the last big Iranian protests in 2009 are any guide, the crackdown on protesters may well succeed — and the Iranian government will press its case that the uprisings are more evidence of a broad American plot to destabilize the government. And even if Iran’s leaders begin to give some ground, it’s not enough to make partial concessions that don’t address Washington’s fundamental complaints, some administration officials have acknowledged in interviews. The government has to crack in the right way, and that is far from assured.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told “Fox & Friends” on Monday that the United States was supporting the protesters and that “we’ve done our best to make sure they can continue to communicate by using the internet,” despite a brief effort last week by Iran’s leadership to shut it down “in its entirety” in the country. He was referring to a quiet American effort, dating back several years, to provide ordinary Iranians with ways of communicating without government interference — what the United States calls free speech, and what the Iranian government calls an interference with its cybersovereignty.

But poking holes in Iran’s digital dragnet is a tactic to keep the protests going, not a strategy for transforming Iran’s behavior. And it runs the risk of playing into the Iranian government’s narrative that American efforts are aimed at regime change rather than a change of behavior — and has echoes of “Operation Ajax,” the C.I.A.’s recently acknowledged role in supporting a coup in the country in the mid-1950s.

And while Americans have long forgotten that episode, Iranians certainly have not, something Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is certainly aware of as he tries to ride out the uprisings.

In a series of speeches over the past year, Mr. Pompeo and his special envoy for Iran, Brian H. Hook, have made their strategy clear: By constantly ramping up sanctions, they are betting that Ayatollah Khamenei and the government of President Hassan Rouhani will decide that the cost at home is not worth resisting the United States’ pressure but simply cannot say when, or how, that will happen. And they may be proved right: It was a mix of sanctions and sabotage that forced Iran to the table seven years ago, leading to the 2015 agreement that Mr. Trump discarded last year.

“There is a universe in which the Iranian leadership, given the severity of the crisis, seizes this moment to reach a deal with the U.S. that would remove these sanctions in exchange for Tehran complying with the nuclear deal and starting negotiations on a new, broader agreement,” said Robert Malley, the president of the International Crisis Group and one of the negotiators of the 2015 accord when he served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council.

Mr. Malley added that it was also possible that the Trump administration, “recognizing the limits of its maximum-pressure campaign in curbing Iran’s nuclear or regional ambitions, agrees.”

But the far more likely scenario, given the mood in both capitals, he said, was “one in which the Iranian regime views the unrest chiefly as a foreign, U.S.-inspired plot and refuses to negotiate from a position of weakness.”

Meanwhile, he said, Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo, “buoyed by the sense that its pressure campaign can bring the regime to its knees,” double down.

In fact, that standoff appears to be where things are now headed. Mr. Pompeo insisted on Monday that the root of the protests is what Iranian leaders have done to their economy, not that the sanctions have worsened.

“These protests are a direct result of economic collapse, the absence of political freedoms and a regime that has sent their young boys off to fight and come back dead, and hasn’t used that money for the betterment of the Iranian people,” he said on Fox. “You’re seeing these protests as a direct result of that.”

But he may be underestimating the ayatollah’s skills in putting down dissent over 30 years in office. He “doesn’t feel existential angst,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian-American scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

The pressure on the leadership will not build “unless and until we start seeing fissures among Iran’s security forces, and so far there are no signs of that,” he added.

The key question is whether economic conditions deteriorate. Mr. Hook noted in an interview on Monday that as the country cuts back further on subsidies, there will be more protests of the kind spurred by the 50 percent surge in gasoline prices. “The regime is running out of money after wasting billions on proxy wars and graft,” Mr. Hook said. “We expect to see additional subsidy cuts and rationing.”

Even if that proves right, Ayatollah Khamenei may in fact be betting that he can wait things out until the American elections, hoping that any Democrat who may be elected would restore the 2015 agreement. It is an uncertain bet — few have made that commitment, and it is almost unimaginable that any future American president would re-enter the agreement without getting something from Iran in return.

In many ways, the decisions the administration finds itself confronting now are similar to the ones the Obama administration confronted in 2009 amid the outbreak of the so-called Green Revolution. It was the first uprising of Mr. Obama’s presidency, less than five months after his inauguration. He reacted with a caution that many of his aides later regretted, declining to speak out in favor of the protesters for fear that it would play into the hands of the Iranian government.

Mr. Pompeo took a swipe at that approach on Monday.

“This administration has taken a completely opposite view of the important political protests, the freedom-seeking, the freedom-loving people of Iran, than President Obama and his administration did,” he said.

He went on to trumpet the somewhat vague effort to put technology into the hands of the Iranian people to allow them to communicate — and slip out images of the carnage as Iranian forces opened up on protesters in places like Mahshahr, a city of 120,000 people where the Revolutionary Guards crushed protesters on Nov. 18, killing as many as 100.

“After the 2017-18 protests in Iran, we accelerated efforts to enable Iranians to communicate with each other and with the outside world,” Mr. Hook said on Monday. Over the past few weeks, he said, “tens of thousands of Iranians used circumvention tools facilitated by the U.S. and our partners, even during the shutdown.”

But both the State Department and American intelligence officials were surprised that the Iranian government took the extraordinary step of shutting down the entire domestic internet infrastructure, even if only for a few days. Taking such an extreme step may have been part of an effort to undercut the use of those American-provided tools, which encrypt communications and give alternate pathways to transmit messages. But no one envisioned a total network shutdown.

Now American officials are trying to examine exactly what happened, and why the Iranians turned the system back on. One senior intelligence official said the best guess so far was that when the government turned off the network, it prompted all kinds of side effects — including a halt to many kinds of commerce — that only worsened the economic pain.

In the meantime, the administration is lauding what it says is a partial victory. Yes, the Iranians may be trying to reassemble the elements of the nuclear program, it notes, and they have not yet re-engaged in negotiations. But the uprisings are soaking up political time and attention.

“Because of our economic pressure campaign,” Mr. Hook insisted, “the regime has far less money and less time to spend on its ambition to dominate the Middle East. This reversal was long overdue.”

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

With Brutal Crackdown, Iran Is Convulsed by Worst Unrest in 40 Years

Westlake Legal Group XXIRAN-PROTESTS-01-facebookJumbo With Brutal Crackdown, Iran Is Convulsed by Worst Unrest in 40 Years Rouhani, Hassan Khamenei, Ali Iran Embargoes and Sanctions Demonstrations, Protests and Riots

Iran is experiencing its deadliest political unrest since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago, with at least 180 people killed — and possibly hundreds more — as angry protests have been smothered in a government crackdown of unbridled force.

It began two weeks ago with an abrupt increase of at least 50 percent in gasoline prices. Within 72 hours, outraged demonstrators in cities large and small were calling for an end to the Islamic Republic’s government and the downfall of its leaders.

In many places, security forces responded by opening fire on unarmed protesters, largely unemployed or low-income young men between the ages of 19 and 26, according to witness accounts and videos. In the southwest city of Mahshahr alone, witnesses and medical personnel said, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps members surrounded, shot and killed 40 to 100 demonstrators — mostly unarmed young men — in a marsh where they had sought refuge.

“The recent use of lethal force against people throughout the country is unprecedented, even for the Islamic Republic and its record of violence,” said Omid Memarian, the deputy director at the Center for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based group.

Altogether, from 180 to 450 people, and possibly more, were killed in four days of intense violence after the gasoline price increase was announced on Nov. 15, with at least 2,000 wounded and 7,000 detained, according to international rights organizations, opposition groups and local journalists.

The last enormous wave of protests in Iran — in 2009 after a contested election, which was also met with a deadly crackdown — left 72 people dead over a much longer period of about 10 months.

Only now, nearly two weeks after the protests were crushed — and largely obscured by an internet blackout in the country that was lifted recently — have details corroborating the scope of killings and destruction started to dribble out.

The latest outbursts not only revealed staggering levels of frustration with Iran’s leaders, but also underscored the serious economic and political challenges facing them, from the Trump administration’s onerous sanctions on the country to the growing resentment toward Iran by neighbors in an increasingly unstable Middle East.

The gas price increase, which was announced as most Iranians had gone to bed, came as Iran is struggling to fill a yawning budget gap. The Trump administration sanctions, mostly notably their tight restrictions on exports of Iran’s oil, are a big reason for the shortfall. The sanctions are meant to pressure Iran into renegotiating the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and major world powers, which President Trump abandoned, calling it too weak.

Most of the nationwide unrest seemed concentrated in neighborhoods and cities populated by low-income and working-class families, suggesting this was an uprising born in the historically loyal power base of Iran’s post-revolutionary hierarchy.

Many Iranians, stupefied and embittered, have directed their hostility directly at the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who called the crackdown a justified response to a plot by Iran’s enemies at home and abroad.

The killings prompted a provocative warning from Mir Hussein Moussavi, an opposition leader and former presidential candidate whose 2009 election loss set off peaceful demonstrations that Ayatollah Khamenei also suppressed by force.

In a statement posted Saturday on an opposition website, Mr. Moussavi, who has been under house arrest since 2011 and seldom speaks publicly, blamed the supreme leader for the killings. He compared them to an infamous 1978 massacre by government forces that led to the downfall of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi a year later, at the hands of the Islamic revolutionaries who now rule the country.

“The killers of the year 1978 were the representatives of a nonreligious regime and the agents and shooters of November 2019 are the representatives of a religious government,” he said. “Then the commander in chief was the shah and today, here, the supreme leader with absolute authority.”

The authorities have declined to specify casualties and arrests and have denounced unofficial figures on the national death toll as speculative. But the nation’s interior minister, Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, has cited widespread unrest around the country.

On state media, he said that protests had erupted in 29 out of 31 provinces and 50 military bases had been attacked, which if true suggested a level of coordination absent in the earlier protests. Iran’s official media have reported that several members of the security forces were killed and injured during the clashes.

The property damage also included 731 banks, 140 public spaces, nine religious centers, 70 gasoline stations, 307 vehicles, 183 police cars, 1,076 motorcycles and 34 ambulances, the interior minister said.

The worst violence documented so far happened in the city of Mahshahr and its suburbs, with a population of 120,000 people in Iran’s southwest Khuzestan Province — a region with an ethnic Arab majority that has a long history of unrest and opposition to the central government. Mahshahr is adjacent to the nation’s largest industrial petrochemical complex and serves as a gateway to Bandar Imam, a major port.

The New York Times interviewed six residents of the city, including a protest leader who had witnessed the violence; a reporter based in the city who works for Iranian media, and had investigated the violence but was banned from reporting it; and a nurse at the hospital where casualties were treated.

They each provided similar accounts of how the Revolutionary Guards deployed a large force to Mahshahr on Monday, Nov. 18, to crush the protests. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by the Guards.

For three days, according to these residents, protesters had successfully gained control of most of Mahshahr and its suburbs, blocking the main road to the city and the adjacent industrial petrochemical complex. Iran’s interior minister confirmed that the protesters had gotten control over Mahshahr and its roads in a televised interview last week, but the Iranian government did not respond to specific questions in recent days about the mass killings in the city.

Local security forces and riot police officers had attempted to disperse the crowd and open the roads, but failed, residents said. Several clashes between protesters and security forces erupted between Saturday evening and Monday morning before the Guards were dispatched there.

When the Guards arrived near the entrance to a suburb, Shahrak Chamran, populated by low-income members of Iran’s ethnic Arab minority, they immediately shot without warning at dozens of men blocking the intersection, killing several on the spot, according to the residents interviewed by phone.

The residents said the other protesters scrambled to a nearby marsh, and that one of them, apparently armed with an AK-47, fired back. The Guards immediately encircled the men and responded with machine gun fire, killing as many as 100 people, the residents said.

The Guards piled the dead onto the back of a truck and departed, the residents said, and relatives of the wounded then transported them to Memko Hospital.

One of the residents, a 24-year-old unemployed college graduate in chemistry who had helped organize the protests blocking the roads, said he had been less than a mile away from the mass shooting and that his best friend, also 24, and a 32-year-old cousin were among the dead.

He said they both had been shot in the chest and their bodies were returned to the families five days later, only after they had signed paperwork promising not to hold funerals or memorial services and not to give interviews to media.

The young protest organizer said he, too, was shot in the ribs on Nov. 19, the day after the mass shooting, when the Guards stormed with tanks into his neighborhood, Shahrak Taleghani, among the poorest suburbs of Mahshahr.

He said a gun battle erupted for hours between the Guards and ethnic Arab residents, who traditionally keep guns for hunting at home. Iranian state media and witnesses reported that a senior Guards commander had been killed in a Mahshahr clash. Video on Twitter suggests tanks had been deployed there.

A 32-year-old nurse in Mahshahr reached by the phone said she had tended to the wounded at the hospital and that most had sustained gunshot wounds to the head and chest.

She described chaotic scenes at the hospital, with families rushing to bring in the casualties, including a 21-year-old who was to be married but could not be saved. “‘Give me back my son!,’” the nurse quoted his sobbing mother as saying. “‘It’s his wedding in two weeks!’”

The nurse said security forces stationed at the hospital arrested some of the wounded protesters after their conditions had stabilized. She said some relatives, fearing arrest themselves, dropped wounded loved ones at the hospital and fled, covering their faces.

On Nov. 25, a week after it happened, the city’s representative in Parliament, Mohamad Golmordai, vented outrage in a blunt moment of searing antigovernment criticism that was broadcast on Iranian state television and captured in photos and videos uploaded to the internet.

“What have you done that the undignified Shah did not do?” Mr. Golmordai screamed from the Parliament floor, as a scuffle broke out between him and other lawmakers, including one who grabbed him by the throat.

The local reporter in Mahshahr said the total number of people killed in three days of unrest in the area had reached 130, including those killed in the marsh.

In other cities such as Shiraz and Shahriar, dozens were reported killed in the unrest by security forces who fired on unarmed protesters, according to rights groups and videos posted by witnesses.

“This regime has pushed people toward violence,” said Yousef Alsarkhi, 29, a political activist from Khuzestan who migrated to the Netherlands four years ago. “The more they repress, the more aggressive and angry people get.”

Political analysts said the protests appeared to have delivered a severe blow to President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate in Iran’s political spectrum, all but guaranteeing that hard-liners would win upcoming parliamentary elections and the presidency in two years.

The tough response to the protests also appeared to signal a hardening rift between Iran’s leaders and sizable segments of the population of 83 million.

“The government’s response was uncompromising, brutal and rapid,” said Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy in Washington. Still, he said, the protests also had “demonstrated that many Iranians are not afraid to take to the streets.”

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

With Brutal Crackdown, Iran Convulsed by Worst Unrest in 40 Years

Westlake Legal Group XXIRAN-PROTESTS-01-facebookJumbo With Brutal Crackdown, Iran Convulsed by Worst Unrest in 40 Years Rouhani, Hassan Khamenei, Ali Iran Embargoes and Sanctions Demonstrations, Protests and Riots

Iran is experiencing its deadliest political unrest since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago, with at least 180 people killed — and possibly hundreds more — as angry protests have been smothered in a government crackdown of unbridled force.

It began two weeks ago with an abrupt increase of at least 50 percent in gasoline prices. Within 72 hours, outraged demonstrators in cities large and small were calling for an end to the Islamic Republic’s government and the downfall of its leaders.

In many places, security forces responded by opening fire on unarmed protesters, largely unemployed or low-income young men between the ages of 19 and 26, according to witness accounts and videos. In the southwest city of Mahshahr alone, witnesses and medical personnel said, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps members surrounded, shot and killed 40 to 100 demonstrators — mostly unarmed young men — in a sugar cane field where they had sought refuge.

“The recent use of lethal force against people throughout the country is unprecedented, even for the Islamic Republic and its record of violence,” said Omid Memarian, the deputy director at the Center for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based group.

Altogether, from 180 to 450 people, and possibly more, were killed in four days of intense violence after the gasoline price increase was announced on Nov. 15, with at least 2,000 wounded and 7,000 detained, according to international rights organizations, opposition groups and local journalists.

The last enormous wave of protests in Iran — in 2009 after a contested election, which was also met with a deadly crackdown — left 72 people dead over a much longer period of about 10 months.

Only now, nearly two weeks after the protests were crushed — and largely obscured by an internet blackout in the country that was lifted recently — have details corroborating the scope of killings and destruction started to dribble out.

The latest outbursts not only revealed staggering levels of frustration with Iran’s leaders, but also underscored the serious economic and political challenges facing them, from the Trump administration’s onerous sanctions on the country to the growing resentment toward Iran by neighbors in an increasingly unstable Middle East.

The gas price increase, which was announced as most Iranians had gone to bed, came as Iran is struggling to fill a yawning budget gap. The Trump administration sanctions, mostly notably their tight restrictions on exports of Iran’s oil, are a big reason for the shortfall. The sanctions are meant to pressure Iran into renegotiating the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and major world powers, which President Trump abandoned, calling it too weak.

Most of the nationwide unrest seemed concentrated in neighborhoods and cities populated by low-income and working-class families, suggesting this was an uprising born in the historically loyal power base of Iran’s post-revolutionary hierarchy.

Many Iranians, stupefied and embittered, have directed their hostility directly at the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who called the crackdown a justified response to a plot by Iran’s enemies at home and abroad.

The killings prompted a provocative warning from Mir Hussein Moussavi, an opposition leader and former presidential candidate whose 2009 election loss set off peaceful demonstrations that Ayatollah Khamenei also suppressed by force.

In a statement posted Saturday on an opposition website, Mr. Moussavi, who has been under house arrest since 2011 and seldom speaks publicly, blamed the supreme leader for the killings. He compared them to an infamous 1978 massacre by government forces that led to the downfall of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi a year later, at the hands of the Islamic revolutionaries who now rule the country.

“The killers of the year 1978 were the representatives of a nonreligious regime and the agents and shooters of November 2019 are the representatives of a religious government,” he said. “Then the commander in chief was the shah and today, here, the supreme leader with absolute authority.”

The authorities have declined to specify casualties and arrests and have denounced unofficial figures on the national death toll as speculative. But the nation’s interior minister, Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, has cited widespread unrest around the country.

On state media, he said that protests had erupted in 29 out of 31 provinces and 50 military bases had been attacked, which if true suggested a level of coordination absent in the earlier protests. The property damage also included 731 banks, 140 public spaces, nine religious centers, 70 gasoline stations, 307 vehicles, 183 police cars, 1,076 motorcycles and 34 ambulances, the interior minister said.

The worst violence documented so far happened in the city of Mahshahr and its suburbs, with a population of 120,000 people in Iran’s southwest Khuzestan Province — a region with an ethnic Arab majority that has a long history of unrest and opposition to the central government. Mahshahr is adjacent to the nation’s largest industrial petrochemical complex and serves as a gateway to Bandar Imam, a major port.

The New York Times interviewed six residents of the city, including a protest leader who had witnessed the violence; a reporter based in the city who works for Iranian media, and had investigated the violence but was banned from reporting it; and a nurse at the hospital where casualties were treated.

They each provided similar accounts of how the Revolutionary Guards deployed a large force to Mahshahr on Monday, Nov. 18, to crush the protests. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by the Guards.

For three days, according to these residents, protesters had successfully gained control of most of Mahshahr and its suburbs, blocking the main road to the city and the adjacent industrial petrochemical complex. Iran’s interior minister confirmed that the protesters had gotten control over Mahshahr and its roads in a televised interview last week, but the Iranian government did not respond to specific questions in recent days about the mass killings in the city.

Local security forces and riot police officers had attempted to disperse the crowd and open the roads, but failed, residents said. Several clashes between protesters and security forces erupted between Saturday evening and Monday morning before the Guards were dispatched there.

When the Guards arrived near the entrance to a suburb, Shahrak Chamran, populated by low-income ethnic Arabs, they immediately shot without warning at dozens of men blocking the intersection, killing several on the spot, according to the residents interviewed by phone.

The residents said the other protesters scrambled to a nearby sugar cane field, and that one of them, apparently armed with an AK-47, fired back. The Guards immediately encircled the men and responded with machine gun fire, killing as many as 100 people, the residents said.

The Guards piled the dead onto the back of a truck and departed, the residents said, and relatives of the wounded then transported them to Memko Hospital.

One of the residents, a 24-year-old unemployed college graduate in chemistry who had helped organize the protests blocking the roads, said he had been less than a mile away from the mass shooting and that his best friend, also 24, and a 32-year-old cousin were among the dead.

He said they both had been shot in the chest and their bodies were returned to the families five days later, only after they had signed paperwork promising not to hold funerals or memorial services and not to give interviews to media.

The young protest organizer said he, too, was shot in the ribs on Nov. 19, the day after the mass shooting, when the Guards stormed with tanks into his neighborhood, Shahrak Taleghani, among the poorest suburbs of Mahshahr.

He said a gun battle erupted for hours between the Guards and ethnic Arab residents, who traditionally keep guns for hunting at home. Iranian state media and witnesses reported that a senior Guards commander had been killed in a Mahshahr clash. Video on Twitter suggests tanks had been deployed there.

A 32-year-old nurse in Mahshahr reached by the phone said she had tended to the wounded at the hospital and that most had sustained gunshot wounds to the head and chest.

She described chaotic scenes at the hospital, with families rushing to bring in the casualties, including a 21 year old who was to be married but could not be saved. “‘Give me back my son!,’” the nurse quoted his sobbing mother as saying. “‘It’s his wedding in two weeks!’”

The nurse said security forces stationed at the hospital arrested some of the wounded protesters after their conditions had stabilized. She said some relatives, fearing arrest themselves, dropped wounded love ones at the hospital and fled, covering their faces.

On Nov. 25, a week after it happened, the city’s representative in Parliament, Mohamad Golmordai, vented outrage in a blunt moment of searing antigovernment criticism that was broadcast on Iranian state television and captured in photos and videos uploaded to the internet.

“What have you done that the undignified Shah did not do?” Mr. Golmordai screamed from the Parliament floor, as a scuffle broke out between him and other lawmakers, including one who grabbed him by the throat.

The local reporter in Mahshahr said the total number of people killed in three days of unrest in the area had reached 130, including those killed in the field.

“This regime has pushed people toward violence,” said Yousef Alsarkhi, 29, a political activist from Khuzestan who migrated to the Netherlands four years ago. “The more they repress, the more aggressive and angry people get.”

Political analysts said the protests appeared to have delivered a severe blow to President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate in Iran’s political spectrum, all but guaranteeing that hard-liners would win upcoming parliamentary elections and the presidency in two years.

The tough response to the protests also appeared to signal a hardening rift between Iran’s leaders and sizable segments of the population of 83 million.

“The government’s response was uncompromising, brutal and rapid,” said Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy in Washington. Still, he said, the protests also had “demonstrated that many Iranians are not afraid to take to the streets.”

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Trump Signs Hong Kong Democracy Legislation, Angering China

Westlake Legal Group merlin_164714724_1d87bf7b-0a98-44a1-bacc-c4a119e90a01-facebookJumbo Trump Signs Hong Kong Democracy Legislation, Angering China Xi Jinping United States Politics and Government United States International Relations Trump, Donald J Law and Legislation Human Rights and Human Rights Violations Hong Kong Embargoes and Sanctions China

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — President Trump on Wednesday signed tough legislation that would impose sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong, signaling support for pro-democracy activists in the territory and escalating tensions with Beijing as Mr. Trump tries to negotiate a trade deal with Chinese leaders.

Whether Mr. Trump would ultimately sign the legislation had been a subject of debate, as he refused to commit to doing so as late as last week, saying that he supported the protesters but that President Xi Jinping of China was “a friend of mine.” But Mr. Trump was left with no other option, as the bill had passed both chambers by veto-proof majorities.

Mr. Trump’s decision, publicly announced the evening before Thanksgiving, throws a potential wrench into the United States’ bilateral trade talks with China. Both countries have tried to keep the Hong Kong issue separate from their negotiations, which have been moving at a slow but steady pace.

Mr. Trump tried to frame his decision to sign the legislation, as well as another bill that bans the sale of crowd-control munitions such as tear gas and rubber bullets to the Hong Kong police, as not disrespecting Mr. Xi, even though China’s government had demanded that Mr. Trump reject the measure. The president had previously skirted around the battles between pro-democracy demonstrators and police forces enforcing China’s authoritarian stance in Hong Kong.

“I signed these bills out of respect for President Xi, China and the people of Hong Kong,” Mr. Trump said in a statement on Wednesday. “They are being enacted in the hope that leaders and representatives of China and Hong Kong will be able to amicably settle their differences leading to long-term peace and prosperity for all.”

The Hong Kong government had also argued that the bill was unnecessary, making its case even more vigorously after the territory was able to hold peaceful local elections last Sunday in which antigovernment candidates won 87 percent of the seats. The vote showed that “democracy is alive and well,” and that the Hong Kong bill that went through Congress was unnecessary, said Ronny Tong, a member of the cabinet of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive.

But Mr. Trump was ultimately left with little choice but to sign the bill, which could have been enacted without Mr. Trump’s signature after Dec. 3. Congress also could have overridden a veto. Even some of Mr. Trump’s most ardent trade supporters had cautioned against rebuffing the legislation.

The main measure, titled the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, would not only compel the United States to impose sanctions on officials, but also require the State Department to annually review the special autonomous status it grants the territory in trade considerations. That status is separate from the relationship with mainland China, and a revocation of the status would mean less favorable trade conditions between the United States and Hong Kong.

China’s Foreign Ministry strongly criticized Mr. Trump’s signing of the bill, which it said “seriously interfered with Hong Kong affairs, seriously interfered with China’s internal affairs, and seriously violated international law and basic norms of international relations.”

“It was a clear hegemonic act,” the ministry said, “and the Chinese government and people firmly opposed it.”

The ministry stopped short of linking Hong Kong in any way to the trade talks, although trade is outside the its jurisdiction. The ministry did conclude its statement, however, with a warning: “We advise the United States not to act arbitrarily, or China will resolutely counteract it, and all consequences arising must be borne by the United States.”

Although Mr. Trump announced last month that the United States and China had reached a “historic” Phase 1 trade agreement, signing a deal has proved elusive. Mr. Trump has continued to play coy about whether he will agree to remove any of the tariffs he has placed on $360 billion worth of Chinese goods. A Dec. 15 deadline looms for the United States to decide whether to impose another round of tariffs on even more Chinese imports, including consumer goods like smartphones and laptops.

Evan S. Medeiros, a Georgetown University professor who was the senior Asia director on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council staff, said Mr. Trump’s action could mean that he thought signing the bill would allow him to look tough on China to American voters without entirely upsetting the negotiations.

“Signing the bill is an important signal amid the trade talks, but not an unpredicted one given the near unanimous congressional support,” he said. “The real question is how the president will use these new authorities. Perhaps this move is best understood as a leading indicator that U.S.-China trade talks are essentially done.”

Lawmakers from both parties had clamored for the president to sign the legislation as a show of support for the young demonstrators who have been defiantly pushing back against China’s tightening hold over the semiautonomous territory.

“This bicameral, bipartisan law reaffirms our nation’s commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the face of Beijing’s crackdown,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said in a statement. “America is proud to stand with the people of Hong Kong on the side of freedom and justice.”

In recent months, a bipartisan push to confront China and its authoritarian leader has grown on a wide range of issues, including commercial practices, global infrastructure building and the detention of at least a million Muslim ethnic minority members in camps in northwest China.

“The U.S. now has new and meaningful tools to deter further influence and interference from Beijing into Hong Kong’s internal affairs,” said Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida and one of the legislation’s many champions in the upper chamber. “This new law could not be more timely in showing strong U.S. support for Hong Kongers’ long-cherished freedoms.”

Mr. Trump has been trying to get China to agree to a trade deal that would benefit American farmers and manufacturers and allow technology firms to operate more freely in that country. The desire to sign a deal that ends pain for American farmers has become particularly important ahead of the 2020 presidential election, and Mr. Trump has left the impression that all other issues related to China are secondary, especially ones related to human rights.

Last Friday, in an interview on “Fox & Friends,” Mr. Trump said, “We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi.” Last June, Mr. Trump promised Mr. Xi in a telephone conversation that he would not speak out in support of the Hong Kong protests as long as trade talks were progressing. Mr. Trump did mention Hong Kong during a speech in September at the United Nations General Assembly, but did so while praising Mr. Xi, and he has not consistently made strong statements on Hong Kong.

In a separate statement issued on Wednesday evening, Mr. Trump appeared to hedge his full-throated support for the broader legislation, saying that “certain provisions of the act would interfere with the exercise of the president’s constitutional authority to state the foreign policy of the United States.”

“My administration will treat each of the provisions of the act consistently with the president’s constitutional authorities with respect to foreign relations,” Mr. Trump said. He did not specify which parts of the bill posed such interference with executive powers.

One of the main provisions compels the administration to impose economic and travel sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials found to be violating human rights in the territory. Mr. Trump or relevant agencies could try to slow walk such sanctions — and might even use the threat of imposing them to as a cudgel against China in trade negotiations.

Mr. Trump has refused to impose sanctions on Chinese officials for the mass detention of Muslims, despite recommendations to do so by some American officials.

For months, Hong Kong protesters had called for the United States to pass the bill. The protesters in October even held a rally supporting in the bill that was attended by more than 100,000 people; many waved American flags or wrapped them around their bodies. Protesters say the law would give them more leverage over officials in China and Hong Kong, since the officials want to maintain access to the United States for themselves and their family members, and they also want to preserve the favorable trade status between Washington and Hong Kong.

“I hope it can act as a warning to Hong Kong and Beijing officials, pro-Beijing people and the police,” said Nelson Lam, 32, a food importer and regular protester. “I think if they know that what they do may lead to sanctions, then they will become restrained when dealing with protests. We just want our autonomy back. We are not their foe.”

Within the White House, Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser and former senior Asia director on Mr. Trump’s National Security Council staff, has advocated for tough policies against China. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to openly endorse the bill when asked about it by reporters, but did say, “We have human rights standards that we apply all across the world, and Hong Kong is no different.”

Emily Cochrane reported from West Palm Beach, Fla.; Edward Wong from Houston; and Keith Bradsher from Shanghai.

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U.S. Bill Supporting Hong Kong Rights Heads to Trump’s Desk

Westlake Legal Group merlin_164755011_9f8a49f6-c42d-4b24-854b-03aff7c34856-facebookJumbo U.S. Bill Supporting Hong Kong Rights Heads to Trump’s Desk United States Politics and Government United States International Relations Trump, Donald J Senate Law and Legislation International Trade and World Market House of Representatives Hong Kong Embargoes and Sanctions

A bill compelling the United States to support pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong could arrive on President Trump’s desk as soon as Thursday morning, potentially complicating the administration’s talks with China to end the trade war.

The bill, passed by the Senate on Tuesday, would require the government to impose sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses in the territory. On Wednesday, the House passed the Senate version 417-1, sending it to the White House.

If signed into law by Mr. Trump, the bill will also require the State Department to annually review the special autonomous status it grants Hong Kong in trade considerations. That status is separate from the relationship with mainland China, and a revocation of the status would mean less favorable trade conditions between the United States and Hong Kong.

The Senate passed the bill, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, by unanimous consent. The House had previously passed its own version unanimously, but gave assent to the Senate version in order to expedite the legislation. On the House floor on Wednesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “If America does not speak out for human rights in China because of commercial interests, we lose all moral authority to speak out on human rights elsewhere.”

Because the bill, in theory, has the support of a veto-proof majority in Congress, it could be enacted even if Mr. Trump vetoes it. And its enactment would most likely strain relations with China at a delicate moment in the trade negotiations.

Eswar Prasad, the former head of the International Monetary Fund’s China division, said the injection of Hong Kong into the trade process could derail the talks with China, which is notoriously sensitive about outside political interference.

“The legislation will further fuel the narrative in Chinese domestic policy circles that the U.S. is attempting to infringe on the sovereignty of China in terms of its internal economic and political affairs,” Mr. Prasad said.

Although Mr. Trump announced last month that the United States and China had reached a “historic” so-called phase one trade agreement, signing a deal has proved elusive. The two sides continue to negotiate and could achieve a deal in the next few weeks. But Mr. Trump has given mixed signals about whether he wants a deal.

“I haven’t wanted to do it yet because I don’t think they’ve stepped up,” Mr. Trump said on Wednesday afternoon while touring an Apple manufacturing facility in Texas.

The United States and China have been grappling over the fate of tariffs that Mr. Trump imposed on $360 billion of Chinese imports and additional tariffs that are due to be imposed on Dec. 15. China wants all of the tariffs rolled back as part of an agreement in which it would buy as much as $50 billion of American agricultural products a year and begin to open its markets to American companies.

Mr. Trump, however, is reluctant to scale back all the tariffs, and his advisers remain skeptical that China will live up to its commitments.

Henrietta Treyz, director of economic policy at the investment firm Veda Partners, said that the Hong Kong legislation raised the odds that the December tariffs will be imposed. She pointed to a series of caustic posts on Twitter written by the editor of The Global Times, a Chinese state-controlled publication, warning American farmers that the deal Mr. Trump promised them was not yet complete.

“Tensions are rising between the two nations, not dissipating,” Ms. Treyz said. “The prospect of not reaching a deal and requiring escalation from here remains quite real.”

The possibility that the Hong Kong bill could be signed into law has shaken the confidence of Wall Street analysts who had become increasingly optimistic in recent weeks that tariffs could be rolled back as part of the first phase of a trade deal.

Economists at Goldman Sachs said in a note to clients this week that the Hong Kong legislation was a potential “complication,” warning that China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had promised “strong countermeasures” if such a bill were enacted.

Still, the trade talks have continued over the last year despite several spikes in tension between the United States and China, including the arrest of the Huawei executive Meng Wangzhou in Canada and the sale of 66 F-16s to Taiwan this summer.

Mr. Trump, who rarely talks about human rights, has not spoken about the bill, nor has he made consistently strong statements in support of the Hong Kong activists. In June, he told China’s president, Xi Jinping, that he would not publicly back the protesters as long as trade talks were progressing.

While Mr. Trump’s advisers debate how much tariff relief to offer in the first phase of a trade deal, similar debates are playing out in China. The fact that the United States is weighing in so forcefully on Hong Kong is most likely exacerbating that internal tension.

“There’s an ongoing debate in Beijing between reformers who would like phase one and hard-liners who see themselves surrounded by hostile forces led by the United States, including in Hong Kong,” said Michael Pillsbury, a China scholar at the Hudson Institute who advises the Trump administration.

Ed Wong and Catie Edmondson contributed reporting.

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In Another Bipartisan Rebuke of Trump, House Votes for Sanctions Against Turkey

Westlake Legal Group 29dc-sanctions-facebookJumbo In Another Bipartisan Rebuke of Trump, House Votes for Sanctions Against Turkey United States Politics and Government United States International Relations United States Defense and Military Forces Turkey Trump, Donald J Syria Senate McCaul, Michael T House of Representatives Engel, Eliot L Embargoes and Sanctions

WASHINGTON — The House voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to impose a series of sweeping sanctions on Turkey over its brutal assault on the Kurds in northern Syria, dealing its second bipartisan rebuke to President Trump this month for pulling back American forces to allow for the Turkish incursion.

The measure drew broad support from Republicans, including the party’s leaders, underscoring how Mr. Trump’s decision to effectively surrender American influence in the region and abandon Kurdish fighters has provoked the most vocal and intense criticism of the president by his own party since he was elected. The vote was 403 to 16, with 15 Republicans and one Democrat, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, voting against the legislation.

This month, two-thirds of House Republicans joined with Democrats to censure his withdrawal of troops from Syria in a 354 to 60 vote. It was, at the time, the most significant bipartisan repudiation of Mr. Trump since he took office.

The top Democrat and Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee — Representative Eliot L. Engel of New York, the chairman, and Representative Michael McCaul of Texas — sponsored the legislation that passed Tuesday, which is an attempt by lawmakers to add teeth to what they consider an insufficient response from the Trump administration to Turkey’s bloody offensive into Syria. If enacted, it would prohibit the sale of arms to Turkey for use in Syria, impose sanctions on senior Turkish officials for their role in the military offensive against the Kurds, and require the administration to impose additional sanctions for the Turkish government’s purchase of surface-to-air missile systems from Russia.

“Today Democrats and Republicans come together to demonstrate the strong, smart leadership that has certainly been lacking from the White House,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said.

Last week, Mr. Trump lifted the modest sanctions he had imposed on Turkey’s Ministry of National Defense and Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources after he announced that Turkey had agreed to a permanent cease-fire in Syria.

“The sanctions will be lifted unless something happens that we are not happy with,” he said.

That comment upset many lawmakers, who believe there is indeed much to be unhappy about. James F. Jeffrey, the president’s special representative to Syria, told Congress that same day that American officials were investigating allegations that Turkish-supported forces had committed war crimes.

On Tuesday, House Republicans largely did not discuss the administration’s decision to lift sanctions, instead focusing their remarks on condemning President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials.

“We let Turkey into NATO to protect them from the Soviet Union,” Mr. McCaul said. “And now our NATO ally is buying Russian equipment, Russian military equipment and, through its invasion into Syria, threatening our allies.”

Only a handful of libertarian-minded Trump allies have come to the president’s defense.

Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona, the chairman of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, argued in an op-ed for The Hill newspaper on Tuesday that Mr. Trump’s decision to “pursue diplomacy” is an approach that “seems to already be bearing fruit.”

For now, the tougher sanctions approved by the House are likely to remain stalled. To enact them, the legislation would have to pass the Republican-led Senate and be signed by Mr. Trump. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, has said that, for now at least, he does not intend to bring up any such measure.

“We need to think extremely carefully before we employ the same tools against a democratic NATO ally that we would against the worst rogue states,” Mr. McConnell said in a speech. He has introduced his own resolution rebuking the president for the withdrawal of troops from Syria, but that, too, is unlikely to draw broad support. It would put Congress on the record warning against precipitous withdrawals of American troops from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, a provision that is intended to politically jam Democrats, who — notwithstanding their criticism of the president’s pullback in Syria — have long called for pulling United States troops out of the Middle East.

Some Republican senators, however, hope to press forward with sanctions. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, have introduced their own package of more punitive sanctions, with provisions that would cut off American military assistance to Turkey and bar Mr. Erdogan from visiting the United States.

Republican senators have also privately pressed Mr. Trump for months to impose sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of a Russian antiaircraft system called the S-400. Mr. Trump already punished Ankara for acquiring the surface-to-air missile system in July by canceling the sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets, but lawmakers in both parties believe Mr. Trump is legally obligated by a 2017 law to go further and enact sanctions.

“On a strong bipartisan basis, Congress has made it clear that there must be consequences for President Erdogan’s misguided S-400 acquisition, a troubling signal of strategic alignment with Putin’s Russia and a threat to the F-35 program,” the top Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees said in a joint statement.

In July, Republican senators met with Mr. Trump at the White House in the hopes of convincing the president to impose sanctions on Turkey. But after a freewheeling meeting that often veered off topic, the lawmakers left with the impression that the president was not interested in such a move, a Republican senator who attended said.

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Trump’s Syria and Ukraine Moves Further Alienate America’s Already Wary Allies

BRUSSELS — European leaders have long understood that President Trump is an unreliable ally, subject to loud tantrums, abrupt shifts and sudden whims. They have worried about his ambivalence toward NATO, resented his personal attacks and bristled at his use of trade policy and economic sanctions to restrict their companies and markets.

Until now, Europeans have done little except complain about him. But Mr. Trump’s recent actions in Syria and Ukraine may change that.

The more optimistic now argue Mr. Trump’s betrayals in those conflicts are of a different category of seriousness, and may accelerate what has been a slowly building process of European integration and peeling away from the United States. Others are not so sure.

But there is agreement that Mr. Trump has destabilized Europe’s near neighborhood in a major, even fundamental, way that requires a unified response, if only Europeans can come together.

Mr. Trump this month pulled American troops out of Syria, forsaking the Kurds who were guarding European jihadists, and allowing Turkey to invade. Mr. Trump’s impeachment inquiry has laid bare how through the course of the year he prized politics over policy in Ukraine.

Both episodes benefited President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has been working to destabilize European democracies, chip away at Western cohesion, and on Tuesday hosted his new friend, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a NATO member.

As European leaders prepare for a meeting of NATO members in London in early December, Mr. Trump’s capriciousness is testing Europe’s ability to cohere and adjust.

“Europeans have put themselves in the position of being dependent on an undependable president,” said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

“This just exposes again how Europeans remain overly reliant on the United States,” he said, “not only to deter Russia but to protect Western interests in the Middle East. But will Europeans do anything about it?”

Mr. Trump’s sudden withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria, and the quick response of Mr. Putin, have shaken Europeans. How deeply is the question.

“This has been more grist to the mill for the need for European governments to take more responsibility for their near neighborhood,” Mr. Niblett said. “But that doesn’t mean it will get done.”

The European Parliament is preparing a resolution condemning Turkey’s offensive and urging economic sanctions, but governments are split on the matter.

While to some degree America’s allies have priced in Mr. Trump’s limitations and behavior, “this is a whole different level,” said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, “playing into all their fears about America as an unreliable ally.”

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Residents throwing vegetables at American troops. Russian and Syrian forces taking control. This is a picture of the U.S. withdrawal from northeastern Syria.CreditCreditDelil Souleiman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

So unreliable has Mr. Trump proved, in fact, that his allies would not dare call the December meeting a “summit,” NATO officials concede. It will incorporate only a reception at Buckingham Palace and a single morning session at a golf resort hotel an hour’s drive from central London.

The main reason for that, officials say, is because of Mr. Trump’s tantrum about military spending that so distorted the last NATO summit meeting in Brussels in July 2018.

There, Mr. Trump was finally calmed down when the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, told him, “We get it, Donald, we need to buy more American arms.” The French president, Emmanuel Macron, told him: “We understand, we need to spend more so you can spend less.”

Such remarks are revealing of Europe’s deepening disdain for Mr. Trump, even before his meddling in Syria and Ukraine.

“European governments have a very low regard for Trump anyway,” said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform. “They know that they need to work with the United States, but it confirms to them that Trump is incapable of thinking strategically, handing victory to the Russians in Syria.”

Mr. Trump’s move in Syria was particularly neuralgic for the French. They have been vocally furious with American unreliability ever since 2013, when President Barack Obama decided to ignore his own red line and call off bombing strikes on Syria in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons — a decision passed on to Paris just as French war planes were preparing to join the United States in the strikes.

France felt abandoned then, especially after becoming more aligned with Washington under Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande and rejoining NATO’s command structure.

“But this is a whole new level of frivolousness in the way that the U.S. treats allies,” Mr. Leonard said.

Mr. Macron was particularly bitter last week about Mr. Trump’s unilateral Syria move, in a news conference after a Brussels summit meeting.

“I understood that we were together in NATO, that the U.S. and Turkey were in NATO,” Mr. Macron said. “And I found out via a tweet that the U.S. had decided to withdraw their troops.”

Asked about the seeming impotence of the European Union, he added, “I share your outrage.”

But such decisions also help those in Europe, like Mr. Macron, who are trying to make the case for more European strategic autonomy, both in defense matters but also increasingly in financial ones, as Europeans try to protect their firms from both American tariffs and secondary sanctions against Iran.

Mr. Macron is pressing for more spending on European defense, especially on French armaments, as a way for Europe to counterbalance a long-term trend of American retreat from multilateral obligations.

But whereas the European Union has mostly joined together in a common regulatory system on matters of trade and finance, it often remains a bloc of 28 foreign policies.

“Europe is split,’’ Mr. Leonard said. “There are those deeply worried about what is going on and wanting to build a Europe that can defend itself, not just in defense but to push back on the extraterritoriality of American sanctions and Trump’s weaponization of the international financial system. And there are those who think they have to suck up to Trump bilaterally, like the Poles,” who only trust the Americans to deter Russia.

“And then there are those like Germany that will follow Macron to a degree rhetorically, but when it comes down to difficult decisions about how much to spend on defense, how assertive to be on sanctions, holds back,” he said.

But the more Mr. Trump and Congress go after European national interest and leaders, threatening a trade war with Europe and insulting its leadership, the more countries are driven into the French camp.

“There are more structural developments that have shaken the way that Europeans view the United States,” said Manuel Muniz, dean of the School of Global and Public Affairs at IE University in Madrid.

He cited Mr. Trump’s questioning of NATO and collective defense; his abandonment of the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal; his imposition of trade sanctions on European products like steel and aluminum; his harsh attacks on individual European leaders at various times, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and former Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain; and the behavior of some of his ambassadors toward their host countries and institutions.

Mr. Trump’s criticism of European free-riding on defense is accurate, Mr. Muniz said, but it has also led to Europeans ceding responsibility for their own interests and fates.

But given his unreliability as an ally, “Trump will accelerate the process of European integration on defense and security,” he said.

In fact, in many corners of the world, America’s transformation from the indispensable ally to the unreliable one is now taken for granted.

“America’s unreliability as both a global leader and ally or partner is no longer in doubt — and countries are adjusting accordingly,’’ and not just in Europe, according to Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister and now vice president of the Toledo International Center for Peace.

The Kurds and Turks quickly scrambled to make a deal with Russia, and India is also pursuing closer ties to both China and Russia. The South Koreans are seeking a form of rapprochement with the North and even Saudi Arabia is looking for better ties with Iran, he wrote in an op-ed article for Project Syndicate.

The main problem “is not just what Trump does, but how he does it,” Mr. Leonard said. It is not just Mr. Trump’s “America First” nationalism, he said. Alliances need predictability, “and Trump is so unpredictable.”

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U.S. Indicts Turkish Bank on Charges of Evading Iran Sanctions

Westlake Legal Group 15dc-turkeybank-facebookJumbo-v2 U.S. Indicts Turkish Bank on Charges of Evading Iran Sanctions United States Politics and Government United States International Relations Turkey Trump, Donald J Politics and Government Money Laundering Lobbying and Lobbyists Justice Department Iran Halkbank Erdogan, Recep Tayyip Embargoes and Sanctions

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Tuesday sharply escalated economic pressure on Turkey by filing fraud and money-laundering charges against the country’s second-largest state-owned bank, accusing it of helping Iran evade United States sanctions.

The charges against the institution, Halkbank, came as the administration sought ways to project that it was taking a tough line with Turkey after President Trump effectively signaled this month that the United States would not stand in the way of Turkey’s desire to send forces into northern Syria.

Mr. Trump’s willingness to allow the military action has thrown the region into chaos and ignited an intense bipartisan backlash against him at home. As the criticism has mounted, the White House has emphasized the steps it is taking to restrain Turkey’s offensive, including a round of sanctions announced on Monday.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey had repeatedly raised the Halkbank case with Mr. Trump over the past year, urging the United States not to take further action, saying that to do so would unfairly expose Turkey to severe financial risks. One of the bank’s top executives was convicted on related charges last year, and the Justice Department has been reviewing since then whether to pursue the case further as Turkish officials and lawyers pressed the government not to indict the bank.

The charges appeared to catch at least some advisers to Turkey’s government off guard. They were filed by prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, which has been investigating the bank’s role in what has been called the largest Iran sanctions violation in United States history, as billions of dollars’ worth of gold and cash were illegally transferred to Iran in exchange for oil and gas.

Justice Department officials said high-ranking government officials in Turkey “participated in and protected this scheme,” with some receiving bribes worth tens of millions of dollars and helping to hide the conspiracy from the scrutiny of regulators in the United States.

“This is one of the most serious Iran sanctions violations we have seen, and no business should profit from evading our laws or risking our national security,” said John C. Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security.

Lawyers and lobbyists representing the bank, including Brian D. Ballard, a friend of Mr. Trump’s and the vice chairman of his inauguration, have been trying for more than a year to persuade the Trump administration not to file charges against the bank, or at least to understand that doing so could threaten the economy of a NATO ally.

Turkish officials had directly made other appeals to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. The lobbying campaign led some sanctions experts in Washington to question if the case might have been delayed or dropped.

After Mr. Trump came under intense criticism for choosing to stand aside as Turkey pursued its plan to assert control over a section of northern Syria, he began striking a tougher tone toward Mr. Erdogan, focusing in particular on the threat of harming Turkey’s economy if it put United States military personnel at risk or engaged in atrocities against Kurds in the region.

“I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path,” Mr. Trump said in a statement Monday, shortly before signing an executive order to impose the first set of sanctions.

Representatives for the Turkish government — who in interviews early Tuesday did not give any hint that they knew the criminal charges were imminent — said late in the day that they suspected a link between the new prosecution of the bank and the invasion of Syria.

“The timing is beyond any reasonable coincidence,” said one individual who has been working with the bank, but spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter.

The Justice Department and the White House did not respond to questions about whether the decision was influenced by Turkey’s decision to send troops in Syria.

Mr. Ballard, along with Robert Wexler, a former House Democrat from Florida, and James P. Rubin, a State Department official during the Clinton administration, had each been working at times over the last two years to lobby on the matter, Justice Department filings show. They had reached out in 2018 to the office of Vice President Mike Pence and the State Department, among others.

Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor and adviser to Mr. Trump, also was involved in the matter in 2016 and 2017, trying to secure the release of one suspect in the case, in a possible prisoner swap with a pastor whom Turkey was holding on espionage charges that the United States claimed were fabricated.

Andrew Hruska, a former federal prosecutor in New York now with the law firm King and Spalding, had also been working on the matter, communicating directly with the Justice and Treasury Departments, on behalf of the bank.

Mr. Erdogan brought the case up with President Trump in November 2018, and his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, the country’s finance minister, following up a few days later with Mr. Mnuchin, pushing him to closely follow the case.

Lawyers for the bank did not dispute that money was illegally moved through Halkbank to Iran starting around 2012 and continuing through 2016.

But they argued that the moves were largely orchestrated by an Iranian-Turkish gold trader, named Reza Zarrab, who had hired Mr. Giuliani to try to secure his release.

Turkish officials argued that Mr. Zarrab, who then decided to plead guilty to charges and become a witness for the prosecution, had lied to American prosecutors. The Turkish officials said Mr. Zarrab accused the bank and government officials in Turkey of conspiring in the effort as part of an attempt to reduce any time he would spend in prison, after he was arrested by American authorities in 2016.

In January 2018, in part because of Mr. Zarrab’s testimony, a Halkbank executive named Mehmet Hakan Atilla was convicted of violating sanctions as part of the case. At his sentencing in May 2018, a federal judge said that while Mr. Atilla had “unquestionably furthered” the scheme, he was “somewhat of a cog in the wheel” and not “a mastermind.”

These assertions reflected claims made by federal prosecutors that the wrongdoing had reached high into the Turkish government.

But until Tuesday, there had been no public follow-up by the Justice Department, nor any action by the Treasury Department, which separately has the power to impose sanctions on the bank or impose a fine.

The bank was formally charged on Tuesday with conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to violate sanctions, bank fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud, money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Representatives for the bank said that they feared the charges alone might lead other global banks to limit doing business with Halkbank, and if a multibillion-dollar penalty results, it could threaten the overall viability of the institution.

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U.S. Indicts Turkish Bank on Charges of Evading Iran Sanctions

Westlake Legal Group 15dc-turkeybank-facebookJumbo-v2 U.S. Indicts Turkish Bank on Charges of Evading Iran Sanctions United States Politics and Government United States International Relations Turkey Trump, Donald J Politics and Government Money Laundering Lobbying and Lobbyists Justice Department Iran Halkbank Erdogan, Recep Tayyip Embargoes and Sanctions

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Tuesday sharply escalated economic pressure on Turkey by filing fraud and money-laundering charges against the country’s second-largest state-owned bank, accusing it of helping Iran evade United States sanctions.

The charges against the institution, Halkbank, came as the administration sought ways to project that it was taking a tough line with Turkey after President Trump effectively signaled this month that the United States would not stand in the way of Turkey’s desire to send forces into northern Syria.

Mr. Trump’s willingness to allow the military action has thrown the region into chaos and ignited an intense bipartisan backlash against him at home. As the criticism has mounted, the White House has emphasized the steps it is taking to restrain Turkey’s offensive, including a round of sanctions announced on Monday.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey had repeatedly raised the Halkbank case with Mr. Trump over the past year, urging the United States not to take further action, saying that to do so would unfairly expose Turkey to severe financial risks. One of the bank’s top executives was convicted on related charges last year, and the Justice Department has been reviewing since then whether to pursue the case further as Turkish officials and lawyers pressed the government not to indict the bank.

The charges appeared to catch at least some advisers to Turkey’s government off guard. They were filed by prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, which has been investigating the bank’s role in what has been called the largest Iran sanctions violation in United States history, as billions of dollars’ worth of gold and cash were illegally transferred to Iran in exchange for oil and gas.

Justice Department officials said high-ranking government officials in Turkey “participated in and protected this scheme,” with some receiving bribes worth tens of millions of dollars and helping to hide the conspiracy from the scrutiny of regulators in the United States.

“This is one of the most serious Iran sanctions violations we have seen, and no business should profit from evading our laws or risking our national security,” said John C. Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security.

Lawyers and lobbyists representing the bank, including Brian D. Ballard, a friend of Mr. Trump’s and the vice chairman of his inauguration, have been trying for more than a year to persuade the Trump administration not to file charges against the bank, or at least to understand that doing so could threaten the economy of a NATO ally.

Turkish officials had directly made other appeals to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. The lobbying campaign led some sanctions experts in Washington to question if the case might have been delayed or dropped.

After Mr. Trump came under intense criticism for choosing to stand aside as Turkey pursued its plan to assert control over a section of northern Syria, he began striking a tougher tone toward Mr. Erdogan, focusing in particular on the threat of harming Turkey’s economy if it put United States military personnel at risk or engaged in atrocities against Kurds in the region.

“I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path,” Mr. Trump said in a statement Monday, shortly before signing an executive order to impose the first set of sanctions.

Representatives for the Turkish government — who in interviews early Tuesday did not give any hint that they knew the criminal charges were imminent — said late in the day that they suspected a link between the new prosecution of the bank and the invasion of Syria.

“The timing is beyond any reasonable coincidence,” said one individual who has been working with the bank, but spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter.

The Justice Department and the White House did not respond to questions about whether the decision was influenced by Turkey’s decision to send troops in Syria.

Mr. Ballard, along with Robert Wexler, a former House Democrat from Florida, and James P. Rubin, a State Department official during the Clinton administration, had each been working at times over the last two years to lobby on the matter, Justice Department filings show. They had reached out in 2018 to the office of Vice President Mike Pence and the State Department, among others.

Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor and adviser to Mr. Trump, also was involved in the matter in 2016 and 2017, trying to secure the release of one suspect in the case, in a possible prisoner swap with a pastor whom Turkey was holding on espionage charges that the United States claimed were fabricated.

Andrew Hruska, a former federal prosecutor in New York now with the law firm King and Spalding, had also been working on the matter, communicating directly with the Justice and Treasury Departments, on behalf of the bank.

Mr. Erdogan brought the case up with President Trump in November 2018, and his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, the country’s finance minister, following up a few days later with Mr. Mnuchin, pushing him to closely follow the case.

Lawyers for the bank did not dispute that money was illegally moved through Halkbank to Iran starting around 2012 and continuing through 2016.

But they argued that the moves were largely orchestrated by an Iranian-Turkish gold trader, named Reza Zarrab, who had hired Mr. Giuliani to try to secure his release.

Turkish officials argued that Mr. Zarrab, who then decided to plead guilty to charges and become a witness for the prosecution, had lied to American prosecutors. The Turkish officials said Mr. Zarrab accused the bank and government officials in Turkey of conspiring in the effort as part of an attempt to reduce any time he would spend in prison, after he was arrested by American authorities in 2016.

In January 2018, in part because of Mr. Zarrab’s testimony, a Halkbank executive named Mehmet Hakan Atilla was convicted of violating sanctions as part of the case. At his sentencing in May 2018, a federal judge said that while Mr. Atilla had “unquestionably furthered” the scheme, he was “somewhat of a cog in the wheel” and not “a mastermind.”

These assertions reflected claims made by federal prosecutors that the wrongdoing had reached high into the Turkish government.

But until Tuesday, there had been no public follow-up by the Justice Department, nor any action by the Treasury Department, which separately has the power to impose sanctions on the bank or impose a fine.

The bank was formally charged on Tuesday with conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to violate sanctions, bank fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud, money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Representatives for the bank said that they feared the charges alone might lead other global banks to limit doing business with Halkbank, and if a multibillion-dollar penalty results, it could threaten the overall viability of the institution.

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Giuliani Pressed for Turkish Prisoner Swap in Oval Office Meeting

Westlake Legal Group merlin_128860991_515f45cd-79d9-4cb1-8039-df1c6a6e01e9-facebookJumbo Giuliani Pressed for Turkish Prisoner Swap in Oval Office Meeting Zarrab, Reza (1983- ) United States Politics and Government United States International Relations United States Turkey Trump, Donald J Trump-Ukraine Whistle-Blower Complaint and Impeachment Inquiry Tillerson, Rex W Sessions, Jefferson B III Russian Interference in 2016 US Elections and Ties to Trump Associates Nuclear Weapons Mukasey, Michael B Iran Giuliani, Rudolph W Erdogan, Recep Tayyip Embargoes and Sanctions Brafman, Benjamin Bharara, Preet Atilla, Mehmet Hakan

During a contentious Oval Office meeting with President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in 2017, Rudolph W. Giuliani pressed for help in securing the release of a jailed client, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader, as part of a potential prisoner swap with Turkey.

The request by Mr. Giuliani provoked an immediate objection from Mr. Tillerson, who argued that it would be highly inappropriate to interfere in an open criminal case, according to two people briefed on the meeting.

The gold trader, Reza Zarrab, had been accused by federal prosecutors of playing a central role in an effort by a state-owned Turkish bank to funnel more than $10 billion worth of gold and cash to Iran, in defiance of United States sanctions designed to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

But at the White House meeting in early 2017, Mr. Giuliani and his longtime friend and colleague, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, pushed back on Mr. Tillerson’s objections.

Rather than side with his secretary of state, Mr. Trump told them to work it out themselves, according to the two people briefed on the meeting. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

In the end, no such prisoner swap took place. But the episode has opened a new chapter in Mr. Giuliani’s efforts to interject himself into the Trump administration’s diplomacy while at times representing clients with a direct interest in the outcome.

The Oval Office meeting occurred before Mr. Giuliani became Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer for the special counsel’s Russia investigation. In recent weeks, Mr. Giuliani’s campaign to press Ukrainian officials to investigate the son of one of Mr. Trump’s political rivals, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., has thrust him into the middle of the House impeachment inquiry. And on Wednesday, two of Mr. Giuliani’s associates in that campaign were arrested on charges of violating federal campaign finance laws.

Mr. Giuliani, in an interview on Thursday, defended his actions in the gold trader case, which were first reported on Wednesday by Bloomberg.

Mr. Giuliani, well known for his hawkish views on Iran, said he had been willing to represent Mr. Zarrab because the proposed prisoner swap would have secured the release of an American pastor who was being held in Turkey on terrorism-related charges the United States considered fabricated.

He likened his efforts — which also included apprising Jeff Sessions, then the attorney general, of what he wanted — to maneuvers during the Cold War to trade enemy spies for Americans detained overseas.

Mr. Giuliani questioned how his actions were any different. “It happened to be a good trade,” he said. “I expected to be a hero like in a Tom Hanks movie.”

But his involvement, as a private citizen and friend of the president in the months after Mr. Trump passed him over for the role of secretary of state, left some in the administration uncomfortable, given the strained and complicated relationship between the United States and Turkey.

Mr. Giuliani’s moves also ran counter to a long-running American effort to curb Iran’s nuclear program as the United States was trying to punish players, like Mr. Zarrab, who helped the regime evade sanctions.

The case, called the single largest evasion of Iranian sanctions in United States history, revolved around a scheme by the Turkish bank in 2012 and 2013 to send billions of dollars in gold and cash to Iran in exchange for oil and natural gas.

Mr. Zarrab, who has Turkish and Iranian citizenship, was arrested in Florida in March 2016 on a family trip to Disney World, and was accused of an illicit operation that relied on false documents and front companies to move the assets to Iran from the accounts of Halkbank, the second-largest state-owned lender in Turkey.

Getting him out of the United States was a high priority for Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, because Mr. Zarrab had information that would later implicate senior bank officials, as well as Turkish government officials, in the scheme.

Indeed, after the prison swap failed, Mr. Zarrab became a key witness and testified that in 2012, Mr. Erdogan, then Turkey’s prime minister, had ordered that two Turkish banks be allowed to participate in the sanction-evasion scheme.

Mr. Giuliani said that he was brought into the effort by Mr. Muskasey, who had been hired by Mr. Zarrab’s lawyer, Benjamin Brafman.

The two men had been pressing their case with Mr. Trump in the Oval Office in early 2017 when Mr. Tillerson joined the conversation, according to the two people briefed on the meeting. Mr. Tillerson, who could not be reached for comment, was surprised to find Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Mukasey at what he thought would be a regular private meeting with the president, the people said.

Mr. Trump asked Mr. Giuliani to tell Mr. Tillerson what he wanted, which prompted Mr. Tillerson’s objections.

Mr. Mukasey’s spokesman did not return a request for comment.

Mr. Giuliani, in the interview on Thursday, disputed the account provided to The New York Times of his discussion with Mr. Tillerson about Mr. Zarrab — and the assertion that Mr. Tillerson replied that such a step was inappropriate. But Mr. Giuliani did not specify what aspects of the account he found inaccurate, saying he could not discuss the meeting because of attorney-client privilege.

“This is a completely malicious story coming from the consistent attack on me to try to destroy my credibility,” Mr. Giuliani said.

He added that at the time, “nobody ever complained” to him from the Trump administration about his role in the case.

Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Mukasey were persistent in the effort. Court filings show that they discussed the matter with State Department officials in Turkey before meeting with Mr. Erdogan himself, and that Mr. Sessions and Preet Bharara, then the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, were informed “on a confidential basis.”

Mr. Giuliani argued in court filings that “none of the transactions in which Mr. Zarrab is alleged to have participated involved weapons or nuclear technology, or any other contraband, but rather involved consumer goods, and that Turkey is situated in a part of the world strategically critical to the United States.”

And Mr. Mukasey, in an April 2017 court filing, asserted that “senior U.S. officials have remained receptive to pursuing the possibility of an agreement.”

But officials at the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan remained opposed to the Zarrab trade, as did Mr. Tillerson. Mr. Giuliani, in the Thursday interview, said he wasn’t sure why the proposal fell apart.

What’s clear is that Mr. Zarrab pleaded guilty in October 2017 to the charges, and became a key witness in federal criminal cases prosecuted in New York that led to the conviction of Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an executive at Halkbank.

During Mr. Atilla’s criminal trial in late 2017, the judge overseeing the case criticized Mr. Giuliani’s role in trying to secure Mr. Zarrab’s freedom, noting that such a move might benefit Iran.

“Most respectfully, the Giuliani and Mukasey affidavits appear surprisingly disingenuous in failing to mention the central role of Iran in the indictment, and indeed, failing to mention Iran at all in their affidavits,” the judge, Richard M. Berman, said, citing statements in which the men suggested Mr. Zarrab’s release might help the United States.

Mr. Atilla was sentenced to 32 months in prison. But he was released early from jail in July and then returned to Turkey, where he was greeted at the airport like a hero in Istanbul by Turkey’s treasury and finance minister, Berat Albayrak, who is also Mr. Erdogan’s son-in-law. Mr. Zarrab’s whereabouts have not been disclosed by the United States government.

The American pastor, Andrew Brunson, was also released, without a trade involving Mr. Zarrab, in October 2018. The move was credited with an overall improvement in relations between Mr. Trump and Mr. Erdogan.

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