Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Saudi Lobby’s Scheme to Destroy the Iran Deal

They gave Obama their tepid approval, then poured millions into a three-year campaign to kill it—and won.
prince salman

Benjamin Netanyahu’s April 30 presentation accusing Iran of lying about its nuclear program was clearly aimed at a Western audience, and at one man in particular—Donald Trump. Trump was already inclined to violate and exit the multi-party deal to block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon, but Netanyahu’s presentation offered a timely addition to the administration’s rhetorical arsenal. His PowerPoint performance, filled with misleading assertions and stale information dressed up as new revelations, was referenced by Trump as part of the justification for abandoning the nuclear deal.

While this garnered headlines, another U.S. ally—Saudi Arabia—had been orchestrating a quieter but equally effective lobbying and public relations push to dismantle the deal. The Saudis’ arguments were used just as much, if not more, by Trump in justifying his decision for the U.S. to walk away from a carefully crafted agreement that even some of his own military leaders had acknowledged was working.

The Saudi lobby’s push began long before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was formally announced on July 14, 2015. In fact, Saudi lobbyists had been working behind the scenes in the U.S. for years to ensure that the Kingdom’s concerns were incorporated into any deal Washington would agree to with Iran—if there was to be a deal at all.

In total, the Christian Science Monitor found that Saudi Arabia spent $11 million dollars on Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA)-registered firms in 2015, and “much of this spending relates to Iran.” They were also assembling former policymakers like Senator Norm Coleman, whose FARA disclosure mentions his work on “limiting Iranian nuclear capability.” More recently, Coleman penned an op-ed in The Hill applauding Trump for leaving the deal without disclosing that he was being paid by the Saudi government.

Despite their strong opposition to any deal with Iran, however, many of the Saudis’ concerns were ultimately addressed by the JCPOA, specifically their demands that “snapback” provisions be incorporated to quickly reinstitute sanctions if Iran violated the agreement and that inspectors have access to military and other suspect sites. Above all, the Saudis wanted an assurance that the deal would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The agreement provided this and President Obama guaranteed it. This led to what many had thought impossible—Saudi Arabia supporting the Iran deal. Obama sealed the grudging support of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States in a May 2015 meeting at Camp David where he offered “reassurances” that the deal would not jeopardize their security, underscored by a promise to sell them even more weaponry.

But Saudi support for the deal was tepid and ephemeral at best. While publicly supporting it, the Saudis and their lobbyists in D.C. were quietly working to undermine it. Their arguments largely centered on two points: that the funds freed up by the deal would underwrite Iran’s continued support for terrorist groups, and that the deal would do nothing to halt Iran’s ballistic missile program.

While more than two dozen D.C. lobbying and public relations firms working for Saudi interests have registered under FARA since the U.S. agreed to the Iran deal, none has been more aggressively pushing these anti-Iran talking points than the MSLGroup (which acquired long-serving Saudi client Qorvis Communications in 2014). The MSLGroup, which has been paid more than $6 million dollars by the Saudis just since the U.S. agreed to the Iran deal, has distributed a variety of “informational materials” (formerly called propaganda) on each of these topics, including a five-page fact sheet on “Iranian Aggression in Yemen,” and a press release on Iran being the “biggest state sponsor of terrorism,” among many others. And of course, the MSLGroup wasn’t alone in spreading anti-Iran propaganda on behalf of the Saudi regime. For example, as recently as March 2018, the Glover Park Group distributed information on Iran’s “region,” and Hogan Lovells distributed “facts about the Houthis and Iran,” with a section on Iran’s ballistic missiles.

With these talking points in hand, the Saudis saw an opportunity in the election of the neophyte Donald Trump to up the ante on Iran, and they invested heavily in courting him. Their efforts paid off handsomely as Trump made his first overseas visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, initially supported them in their spat with Qatar (until he learned the U.S. has a rather large military base in Qatar), kept U.S. military support and bombs flowing for a Saudi-led campaign in Yemen that has cost more than 10,000 civilians their lives, and agreed to sell them billions of dollars in additional U.S. weaponry of all sorts, from more munitions to a costly missile defense system. But Saudi Arabia still wanted more—they wanted the U.S. out of the Iran deal.

While Saudi Arabia’s most unlikely ally in this cause, Israel, took a very outspoken approach to move the president, which culminated in Netanyahu’s misleading presentation, the Saudis used their well-financed lobbying machine to disseminate their message into the D.C. bloodstream. Their primary talking points found their way to the president’s ears and became routine features of his justification for abandoning the deal. The White House statement justifying leaving the Iran deal is littered with Saudi lobby talking points, including that “The JCPOA failed to deal with the threat of Iran’s missile program,” and Iran “continues to fund terrorist proxies… In Yemen, the regime has escalated the conflict and used the Houthis as a proxy to attack other nations.” The president’s remarks on the day he announced that the U.S. was abandoning the deal are also rife with language that could easily have been lifted from a Saudi-financed “fact sheet.” In fact, Trump’s second sentence, “the Iranian regime is the leading state sponsor of terrorism,” is nearly verbatim off of an anti-Iran talking point distributed by the MSLGroup.

Why did the Saudis want the U.S. to abandon the Iran deal? A New York Times analysis identified what is probably the primary reason—a fear that the deal would be the first step towards a U.S. rapprochement with Iran that would undermine the Saudi regime’s power in the region in general and its campaign against Iran in particular. “Exiting the deal, with or without a plan, is fine with the Saudis,” the Times wrote. “They see the accord as a dangerous distraction from the real problem of confronting Iran around the region—a problem that Saudi Arabia believes will be solved only by leadership change in Iran.”

Former State Department official Jeremy Shapiro underscored this point when he noted that the Saudis and their Gulf allies “believe they are in this existential conflict with the Iranian regime, and nuclear weapons are a small part of that conflict…. If the deal opened an avenue for better relations between the United States and Iran, that would be a disaster for the Saudis,” he said. “They need to ensure a motivation for American pressure against Iran that will last even after this administration.”

One disquieting outcome of the trashing of the Iran nuclear deal is that Saudi Arabia has threatened to acquire a nuclear weapon of its own if the end of the agreement leads Iran to revive its program. This is not the first time Saudi leaders have made such threats. Just after Trump announced the U.S. would be leaving the deal, the Saudi foreign minister said that if Iran now builds a nuclear weapon his country “will do everything we can” to follow suit. So on top of its implications for increased conventional conflict in the region, the end of U.S. participation in the Iran deal could spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East—an outcome that would have been far less likely if U.S. participation in the Iran deal had been maintained.

The potential for a Mideast nuclear arms race is yet another example of the disastrous consequences of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reckless foreign policy, which includes everything from his regime’s brutal, counterproductive intervention in Yemen, to the Saudi-led effort to impose a blockade on Qatar, to its promotion of regime change in Iran—preferably carried out by the United States.

In the wake of the U.S. pullout from the Iran deal, we can expect the Saudi lobby, working in concert with administration allies ranging from Jared Kushner to newly appointed national security advisor John Bolton, to double down in its efforts to promote these ill-advised, dangerous directions for U.S. foreign policy in the region. Countering Riyadh’s blatant influence peddling should be part of an expanded effort to distance the United States from its increasingly risky, counterproductive relationship with Saudi Arabia. If Mohammed bin Salman’s aggressive policies—and Saudi advocacy for them in Washington—continue, Riyadh is one “friend” the United States should consider doing without.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, and Ben Freeman directs the Center’s Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative.