The same weekend Iran’s foreign minister showed up unexpectedly in France as world leaders met, his ministry went on the attack. Iran, it said in a statement, was suffering under a campaign of “economic terrorism,” pushed in part by an institution with what it called “a deceitful name”—the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD)—and its CEO, Mark Dubowitz, both of which would henceforth be sanctioned.
And with that, a regime locked in a tit-for-tat escalation with the United States—the world’s biggest economy, the biggest spender on national security, and a global superpower with intelligence and military resources around the world—focused its rage on a guy who runs a think tank.
How a 60-odd person organization became the enemy du jour in Tehran is a story about the Washington, D.C., influence game as seen from the receiving end. Yet it also illustrates how what happens here doesn’t stay here, and how a Beltway reputation can reverberate far from the city’s policy debates.
Since its founding in 2001, the FDD has carved out a niche for itself as the go-to haven for D.C.’s Iran hawks, with Dubowitz as its well-connected leader. The institution’s media stardom—its analysts show up on cable news, their comment pieces are published in The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times—along with Dubowitz’s own forceful Twitter feed, has built it an outsize reputation in Tehran to match its stature in Washington, all filtered through a lens of enmity and conspiracy theory.
The Iranian foreign ministry’s statement ominously noted that the sanctions would not preclude any (unspecified) actions from other organs of the Iranian government, including the security services, sparking condemnation from Donald Trump’s administration and a bipartisan range of commentators in Washington. The State Department decried Iran’s “outlaw regime” on Twitter, vowing to “hold Iran responsible for directly or indirectly compromising the safety of any American.” (The sanctions themselves have no practical effect on the FDD’s operations.)
Though the FDD called its targeting by Iran a “badge of honor,” Dubowitz himself was less sanguine when we spoke, saying he’d spent much of the weekend on the phone with the FBI; he believes that the statement gives Iranian operatives a green light to target him and his analysts, and noted that the regime has conducted assassinations on foreign soil in the past. “We’ve been hammered in Iranian government-controlled media for years,” he told me, noting that he already sometimes travels with a security detail. “They’ve just decided to formalize the threat.”
Whether that threat is real or just a psychological salvo in Tehran’s mutlifaceted battle with Washington—the two sides have spent the summer trading threats, and the Iranian shoot-down of a U.S. drone near the Gulf brought Trump to the brink of a military strike—it nevertheless speaks to the FDD’s double-edged influence as Washington power player and Tehran bête noire. Iran specialists of varying degrees of hawkishness are scattered throughout D.C. think tanks such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Brookings Institution, and the Council on Foreign Relations. But no place else has made an institutional specialty of recommending hard-line Iran policies and offering detailed proposals for how to implement them the way the FDD has done.
Dubowitz has been helping design and push forward sanctions on Iran since well before they became the centerpiece of Trump’s policy toward the country. He was closely involved in legislation for sanctions on Iran’s central bank and oil sector in 2011, and in making it harder for Tehran to move money in 2012; he helped lead the charge against the emerging nuclear deal beginning in 2013, establishing the FDD as D.C.’s ground zero for research and policy recommendations aimed at highlighting and fixing what Dubowitz saw as the flaws in the nuclear agreement. He and his organization attracted headlines in the process, and were the go-to place for journalists seeking quotes from the deal’s critics. A 2015 profile in Slate, for example, traced the think tank’s rise, noting how its employees appeared before Congress and on cable news to discuss the Iran deal far more frequently than scholars affiliated with longer-established and better-funded think tanks.
The FDD lost its 2015 battle with Barack Obama’s White House; Iran and world powers including the United States reached a deal that summer. Dubowitz wrote in Foreign Policy then that the deal “was a ticking time bomb,” that “its key provisions sunset too quickly, and it grants Iran too much leverage to engage in nuclear blackmail.” Congress, meanwhile, also signaled skepticism—Obama did not submit the deal to the body for approval as a treaty, but bipartisan majorities in both houses voted to give themselves oversight of its implementation. Fear of lifting sanctions on a designated state sponsor of terror was a major reason why.
Dubowitz maintained then and now that his goal was to fix the deal, not scrap it altogether—but Trump came into office vowing to do away with it. Dubowitz and others within the FDD itself were split on the wisdom of that decision, not to mention whether and how Trump should pursue a policy of regime change. Dubowitz said he worked with then–National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster to try to find a fix, but lost that round, too, when John Bolton took over and Trump scrapped the accord entirely last year. Since then, Trump has embraced a strategy the administration calls “maximum pressure,” repeatedly escalating sanctions on Iran, often in line with policies the FDD has recommended.
In the meantime came a cascade of coverage putting the FDD at the center of the campaign currently crushing Iran’s economy, which Dubowitz said has exaggerated the think tank’s real influence and fed conspiracy theories overseas. The Nation’s profile: “This Think Tank Is Pushing Regime Change in Iran—And the White House Is Listening.” The New York Times on Dubowitz himself: “He Was a Tireless Critic of the Iran Deal. Now He Insists He Wanted to Save It.” That story, which contained numerous factual errors that the Times later corrected, described the torrent of tweets that Iran analysts and former Obama officials aimed at Dubowitz and the FDD, blaming them for Trump leaving the deal.
The United States and Iran officially have no direct contact, but members of the Iranian government are active on Twitter and follow U.S. policy debates through the American media—in much the same way that American analysts and officials track Iran through its own outlets and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s Twitter feed. Zarif condemned the FDD directly on Twitter, in fact, when the organization got early access to declassified CIA documents describing Iran’s relationship to al-Qaeda. “A record low for the reach of petrodollars,” he wrote in 2017. “CIA & FDD fake news w/ selective AlQaeda docs re: Iran can’t whitewash role of US allies in 9/11.” (The documents, as described by the FDD’s Long War Journal, describe how some senior al-Qaeda figures sheltered in Iran after 9/11; 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were citizens of Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally and Iranian foe.)
The tweet points to another important dynamic likely informing the FDD’s reputation within Iran. “Iran, like much of the Middle East, doesn’t have independent think tanks,” says Ariane Tabatabai, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation. “The research institutions that exist are more associated with the government. The foreign ministry has a think tank; [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani was at a think tank. They sort of assume that that’s the case here.” Think tanks including Rand do get funding from the United States and other governments, and the influence of Gulf money at Washington research institutions in particular has been controversial, but Tabatabai notes that funders are not supposed to direct the outcome of research. (The FDD does not get U.S. government funding and has a policy of not accepting foreign funding, Dubowitz said.)
Drawing too straight a line between FDD policy papers and Trump’s decision making would be simplistic. The administration is well stocked with hawks of its own—Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to name two—who come by their antipathy to the Islamic Republic independently. (Bolton in particular has been advocating regime change in Iran for years.) “We’re a think tank,” Dubowitz said. “We don’t sit in the Oval Office every day telling President Trump what to do.” Barbara Slavin, who is among Dubowitz’s fiercest critics and runs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, says it gives the FDD “too much credit” to suggest that it effectively runs Trump’s Iran policy. Dubowitz and his colleagues, she says, “have tremendous expertise in terms of sanctions—they know how to find stuff to sanction.” That gives them influence, but by no means control.
In the context of the current face-off between Iran and the United States, the foreign ministry’s swipe at Dubowitz and the FDD follows a U.S. decision to sanction Zarif himself. It was another in a series of provocations and counter-provocations since May, when the administration vowed to sanction anyone still importing Iranian oil—a move the FDD supported, along with Bolton and hawks such as Senator Ted Cruz. (The weekend of the foreign ministry’s announcement, Iran’s Fars News Agency reported that Iran’s Parliament would take up a bill to sanction Bolton, Cruz, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, as well.)
Yet the same weekend the Iranians were signaling their own perception of the FDD’s influence, Trump himself showed its limits when he floated the idea of meeting with Rouhani and perhaps extending the regime a line of credit. Having just been sanctioned by Iran, Dubowitz responded, characteristically, on Twitter: “Note to @realDonaldTrump: severe sanctions not premature relief.”
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