If you’re brave enough to tune into the news these days, it won’t take long until you’re forced to watch a tough-talking, cherry-faced expert or politician lamenting that however much we desire peace, the United States is left with little choice but to demonstrate the strength of the US military to the Iranian regime. The calls for the US to start another Middle East war are echoing across the halls of Congress and in think tanks all over Washington.
“Iran is a cancer… We have Iran down, and now we need to choke ‘em,” according to Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.).
“Unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping warrant a retaliatory military strike against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” declared Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Face the Nation regarding recent tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman.
After the disastrous results in Iraq and Afghanistan the obvious question is, who would pursue another Middle East entanglement? As is often the case in DC, if seeking answers, just follow the money.
What you haven’t heard from these, and many other Iran-hawks is how the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are underwriting much of this bellicose rhetoric, with a clear intent in mind: to embed the United States into another endless war in the Middle East. The Saudis and Emiratis spent more than $30 million in 2018 on lobbying and public relations firms registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). These foreign agents reported making over $3 million in campaign contributions in 2018 and had literally thousands of meetings with politicians, think tank experts, and media outlets to influence the narrative in Washington. And, they have been doing this for years.
The Saudis and Emiratis spent more than $30 million in 2018 on lobbying and public relations firms registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
For many Iran hawks, there’s a very clear money trail directly from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Center for International Policy’s (CIP) Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative (FITI), where we both work, has repeatedly documented Saudi and Emirati foreign agents giving millions to Members of Congress, many of which have been the most outspoken supporters of conflict with Iran. Former House Majority leader and current Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was the top recipient of firms representing Saudi Arabia in 2018 at $50,000, also receiving smaller donations from the UAE. Rep. McCarthy absurdly claimed in response to recent tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman that “Iran is the individuals [sic] that fund the terrorism around the world, the attacks going into Israel, the attacks going into Saudi Arabia, the problems anywhere else around the world, nine times out of ten it’s Iran that’s using it and a part of it” and that Iranians “only understand strength.” Nevermind that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the horrific 9/11 attacks were from Saudi Arabia.
Sen. Cotton, demonstrated calling for war above, received $7,250 from lobbying firms representing the United Arab Emirates, and was contacted three separate times on regional developments, specifically regarding Iran and “potential ballistic missile sanctions against” Tehran. In 2018, Sen. Kennedy, whose advice for Iran is to “choke ‘em,” received at least $5,000 from Akin Gump, a firm representing the UAE, and his office was contacted multiple times by lobbyists representing Saudi Arabia.
Another particularly egregious example of Saudi influence comes from Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.). Specifically, the McKeon Group contacted Inhofe’s staff the same day they reported making a $1,000 contribution to Inhofe’s campaign. Within two weeks, Inhofe voted against a resolution to end US involvement with the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen. More recently, in June 2019, Sen. Inhofe blocked a proposed provision in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would disallow funding offensive military operations in Iran. Sen. Inhofe received over $7,550 from Saudi registered firms in 2018.
In addition to Members of Congress, the Saudis and Emiratis have given lavishly to many of the think tanks whose experts are clamoring for war with Iran. For instance, the Middle East Institute, who houses a dedicated “IranObserved” program, received $20 million dollars from the UAE from 2016-2017 and has also received millions from Saudi Arabia. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) was the most contacted think tank by the UAE last year, and the most contacted individual by UAE foreign agents, Michael Knights, produces articles like this, that may as well be titled “The Key to Peace in Yemen: More War,” calling for further arms to the Saudis and Emiratis.
“Iran is susceptible to a strategy of coerced democratization because it lacks popular support and relies on fear to sustain its power…The very structure of the regime invites instability, crisis and possibly collapse,” said Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) in a memo to President Trump’s National Security Council advocating regime change. What Dubowitz didn’t say is that FDD has received millions from the UAE.
Though WINEP and FDD claim to not take foreign funding, think tanks are under no legal obligation to release funding details, and thus many accept money from Gulf actors, or their US proxies, without disclosing it and revealing the potential conflicts of interest they might have when discussing US policy in the Middle East.
Also, there’s growing evidence that foreign influence at think tanks may be having a direct effect on the State Department. For example, recent reporting suggests that the State Department and FDD collaborated on a Twitter-led smear campaign against anti-sanction and anti-war Iranian-American groups, journalists, and human rights activists. FDD advisor Saeed Ghassemenijad heavily promoted the spam account, IranDisinfo, which has ceased activity since the State Department suspended funding to their Global Engagement Center, who ran the account. The Global Engagement Center was meant to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation but was instead used to intimidate Americans who did not take a hardline approach to Tehran. The account also repeatedly highlighted Mark Dubowitz’s work for FDD.
Similarly, Brian Hook, US Special Representative for Iran, parroted many Emirati and Saudi talking points on June 19, during testimony before the House on the Administration’s current Iran policy. When questioned about Iranian support for the Houthis, Hook said “Iran is playing a very long game in Yemen” and would like to “use the Houthis in the same model that they used Hezbollah in Lebanon” A fact sheet on Iran, produced by the Saudi government and distributed by Hogan Lovells US LLP, reads “Iran wants to turn the Houthis into a Yemeni version of Hezbollah, thereby turning Yemen into a second Lebanon, where a militia is constantly holding the government hostage.” These parallels continued throughout Hook’s testimony. Hook stated that “Iran also deepened its engagement in regional conflicts intensifying, prolonging and deepening the conflict in Yemen,” a point also made on the same Saudi fact sheet. Hook also pointed out that Iran “has spent hundreds of millions of dollars organizing, training, and equipping the Houthis to fight,” which again closely mirrors a talking point in the Saudi fact sheet.
It isn’t the first time this has happened, as demonstrated by Rep. Ed Royce’s (R-Calif.) impassioned speech on keeping the US in the Yemen war that, as the Intercept reported, had been written by Saudi lobbyists The Administration and Saudi Arabia may naturally share the same sentiments toward Iran, but do we really want Saudi foreign agents writing US talking points on Iran?
All sides in the standoff with Iran promise that they do not intend to spark a war. Yet, threatening rhetoric combined with the close relationship the administration has with the Saudis, Emiratis, and their Washington confidants may lead to an ‘unintended’ conflict. Due to the slow cycle of FARA reporting, no one knows exactly what the Saudis and Emiratis are currently advocating in closed-door meetings with thank tanks, Members of Congress, and other policy influencers — or how much money they’re giving to them. Perhaps, current talking points mirror a recent Saudi editorial that promoted surgical strikes as the “next logical step” in Iran. We can only wonder if a few thousand dollars and a foot in the door provides the fuel for the conflict spiral on behalf of foreign powers, and another US military entanglement in the Middle East.
The bottom line is that from Congress to think tanks, academia and more, we can no longer be certain whose voice is being represented by the vanguard of US policy. All of the Saudi and Emirati fueled rhetoric is leading the US down an incredibly dangerous path, as demonstrated on Thursday night when Trump nearly launched a retaliatory attack which could have easily escalated to a war with Iran. So, the next time you hear a Middle East “expert” rattle on about how we have no choice but to go to war with Iran, it is worth questioning which foreign country is pulling the strings.
Cassandra Stimpson is a Research Associate at the Arms and Security Project and the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy.
Nia Harris is a Research Associate with the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy.