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As vice president, MIKE PENCE often talked tough about the Trump administration’s hard-line stance against terrorists, especially those that target Americans. Out of government, Pence has no problem speaking at an event sponsored by a formerly designated terrorist group that killed U.S. citizens.
On Thursday, Pence spoke at the “Free Iran Summit 2021” in Washington, D.C. organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the political arm of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK. The former vice president used his address and Q&A moderated by his former chief of staff MARC SHORT to blast President JOE BIDEN over his foreign policy — especially toward Tehran.
“With our current administration’s embrace of the [Iran nuclear deal], their hesitation to condemn rockets being fired at our cherished ally Israel, and the heart breaking and disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, our adversaries may be sensing weakness in the current American administration,” Pence said. “Weakness arouses evil.”
As for MEK, Pence asserted the group is “a well-organized, fully prepared, perfectly qualified and popularly supported alternative” to the current and brutal Iranian regime. The popularity point isn’t right: An August 2018 poll conducted by the Netherlands-based Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran found the current MEK leader, MARYAM RAJAVI, would receive only 0.6 percent of the vote in a free and fair Iranian presidential election.
Pence wasn’t the only big political name at the event: Former Sens. JOE LIEBERMAN (I-Conn.) and ROBERT TORRICELLI (D-N.J.) also spoke.
But some anti-regime advocates aren’t pleased Pence agreed to headline the event. “It is extremely unfortunate that the former vice president would lend his credibility to the MEK, an organization and leadership structure with a dark and ugly history,” CAMERON KHANSARINIA, policy director of the Iranian-American National Union for Democracy in Iran, told NatSec Daily. “Its Islamo-Marxist ideology leaves it with nearly zero support inside Iran and is fundamentally un-American.”
The MEK was only removed from the U.S. foreign terrorist organization list in 2012 — during the Obama administration — after a robust lobbying campaign by D.C.’s elite. However, in explaining the delisting, the State Department said it “does not overlook or forget the MEK’s past acts of terrorism, including its involvement in the killing of U.S. citizens in Iran in the 1970s and an attack on U.S. soil in 1992.”
The NCRI has attracted a high-profile bipartisan set of current and former officials to its cause, not least because it pays handsomely. ED RENDELL, the former Pennsylvania governor and Democratic National Committee chair, said in 2012 he’d been paid between $150,000 and $160,000 for his speeches in support of the group.
In 2017, months before becoming the national security adviser, JOHN BOLTON spoke at a “Free Iran Summit” in Paris, telling the crowd that “before 2019” everyone in the room would be celebrating the overthrow of the regime in Tehran. RUDY GIULIANI has also received money from the group to give speeches and lobby its case in Washington.
And MICHÈLE FLOURNOY, who at one point Biden considered as a possible secretary of defense, this year called for “internal regime change” in Iran during a MEK-backed virtual session — though she later claimed she had no knowledge of the group’s involvement.
Multiple people who pinged NatSec Daily about Pence’s participation said he’s likely the most high-profile person the MEK has ever gotten to speak for them. “They’re usually not former vice presidents who are serious contenders for POTUS,” one tipster texted us.
NCRI didn’t answer our question about how it enticed Pence to speak at the conference. The Heritage Foundation, where Pence is a distinguished fellow, didn’t respond to our query about the former veep’s participation. Short didn’t respond to a call and multiple texts requesting comment on his and Pence’s behalf.
FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY — MOVEMENT ON CHINA BILLS: Four Congressional sources tell NatSec Daily that there’s now movement to conference the many House anti-China bills with the Senate-passed U.S. Innovation and Competition Act — which would finally end a long legislative stalemate over how best to counter Beijing.
“The House has been working to accelerate negotiations with the Senate on the USICA package, with the goal of getting a bill on the president’s desk as soon as possible,” a House Democratic leadership aide told NatSec Daily.
“There is momentum building to move China legislation, and the committee is eager to move forward given the critical challenge China poses. We’ve engaged with Republicans on a potential pre-conference,” said a Democratic House Foreign Affairs Committee aide.
The hope was that the USICA would swiftly pass in the House, but progressives worried the legislation would make it seem the U.S. was against the Chinese people, among other concerns. After languishing in the House since June, it appears there’s now a serious effort to have both chambers agree on a singular package the president would sign.
It’s unclear, though, if this new bill would pass the House or Senate first, as talks are just really getting underway.
BIDEN ADMITS AUKUS ROLLOUT ‘CLUMSY’: Ahead of a meeting with French President EMMANUEL MACRON in the Vatican, Biden said the spat between the U.S. and France over the U.S.-U.K.-Australia nuclear-submarine deal could’ve been handled better, Quint reports.
“I think what happened was to use an English phrase … clumsy,” he told reporters ahead of the bilateral meeting. “It was not done with a lot of grace,” he continued, adding “I was under the impression that France had been informed long before that the deal was not coming through.” He then turned to Macron: “I honest to God did not know you had not been [informed].”
Macron agreed with the sentiment and signaled the two nations were moving on. “We clarified together what we had to clarify,” the French leader said. “Now what’s important is to be sure that such a situation will not be possible for our future … For me, what really matters now is what we will do together in the coming weeks, the coming months, the coming years.”
It’s the first real sign that the president acknowledged America’s ham-fisted handling of the AUKUS rollout, and that Macron is over it.
THE TALIBAN WANTS MONEY: With apologies to Jerry Maguire, the Taliban has a message for the world: Show me the money!
Afghanistan has billions of dollars in overseas assets, including in the U.S., but nations have blocked the Taliban’s access to those funds since it overthrew the democratically elected government in August. The Taliban says the cash is rightfully theirs, and they’ll use it solely to improve the lives of struggling Afghans amid a mass hunger crisis.
“The money belongs to the Afghan nation. Just give us our own money,” AHMAD WALI HAQMAL, a spokesperson for the country’s Finance Ministry, told Reuters’ JOHN O’DONNELL.
“The situation is desperate and the amount of cash is dwindling,” added SHAH MEHRABI, a board member of the Afghan central bank. “There is enough right now … to keep Afghanistan going until the end of the year.”
Asked if the U.S. had any intention of agreeing to the Taliban’s demands, a State Department spokesperson said “the release of reserves would not solve Afghanistan’s economic troubles.”
“Even before the Taliban seized Kabul, Afghanistan’s economy was impaired by enormous structural challenges, leaving the Afghan people to depend on international aid and remittances. International aid funded nearly 75 percent of the Afghan government’s expenditures each year and represented about 40 percent of its GDP,” the spokesperson continued in an email to your host, adding “there are a number of difficulties and constraints that stand in the way of accessing the Afghan Central Bank reserves.”
Yesterday, the White House announced $144 million in humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan that will flow through independent organizations — not the Taliban.
U.S. SANCTIONS IRANIANS LINKED WITH UAV PROGRAM: The Treasury Department announced it will sanction people and entities that support Iran’s unmanned aerial vehicle programs for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Quds Force. This comes after the U.S. blamed Iran for a drone attack on an American military outpost in Syria last week.
“Iran’s proliferation of UAVs across the region threatens international peace and stability. Iran and its proxy militants have used UAVs to attack U.S. forces, our partners, and international shipping,” Deputy Treasury Secretary WALLY ADEYEMO said in a statement. “Treasury will continue to hold Iran accountable for its irresponsible and violent acts.”
Among the designated are SAEED AGHAJANI, who directs planning for the IRGC Aerospace Force’s UAV Command and the Kimia Part Sivan Company, which helps the Quds Force improve its drone program.
DRINKS WITH NATSEC DAILY: At the end of every long, hard week, we like to highlight how a prominent member of Washington’s national security scene prefers to unwind with a drink.
Today, we’re featuring Sen. TOMMY TUBERVILLE (R-Ala.), the Senate Armed Services Committee member and former Auburn football coach. Coach, as he still likes to be called, is a big fan of a margarita on the rocks — with extra salt — at Rosie’s Mexican Cantina in Huntsville, Alabama.
NatSec Daily commented that between the drink and the senator’s name, one could easily make a “Margaritaville” joke. Tuberville’s office didn’t find it as funny as we did, but the good news is our poor humor didn’t take away from his love of a good marg. Salud, Señor Senador!
IT’S FRIDAY. WELCOME TO THE WEEKEND: Thanks for tuning in to NatSec Daily. This space is reserved for the top U.S. and foreign officials, the lawmakers, the lobbyists, the experts and the people like you who care about how the natsec sausage gets made. Aim your tips and comments at [email protected] and [email protected], and follow us on Twitter at @alexbward and @QuintForgey.
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DOMESTIC WOES COULD HURT BIDEN TRIP: Our own NAHAL TOOSI and ALEX THOMPSON have a smart piece on how Biden’s domestic struggles could impact him during his European turn.
“Biden is struggling to push major elements of his ambitious domestic agenda through his own party, not to mention a deeply polarized Congress. That, combined with U.S. snafus in places like Afghanistan, disputes with allies like France, and difficulty achieving some key foreign policy goals, is threatening Biden’s credibility as he gathers with his international counterparts. And it’s contributed to the low expectations for the set of global confabs,” they wrote.
Top administration officials never tire of saying that domestic policy is intricately linked with foreign policy — a strong U.S. at home is a prerequisite for a strong America abroad, they argue. Well, Biden is now in Europe with a weaker position than he’d hoped — and it could negatively impact his negotiations on global economics and climate change in the days ahead.
“The honeymoon moment is just gone,” HEATHER CONLEY, a former George W. Bush administration official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Toosi and Thompson. “Our allies are making their judgment: Can the president deliver? They’re not sure. They see the domestic agenda — very difficult — and they see the sporadic, uncoordinated processes that affect their security, and they’re not sure.”
RUSSIAN CYBERCRIMINAL EXTRADITED TO U.S.: A Russian national was extradited from South Korea to the United States over his alleged participation in a cybercrime group, the U.S. Department of Justice announced yesterday.
VLADIMIR DUNAEV, 38, appeared in an Ohio federal court because of his suspected role in the ransomware and banking trojan horse cybergang “Trickbot.”
Per the DOJ, “the indictment alleges that beginning in November 2015, and continuing through August 2020, Dunaev and others stole money, confidential information, and damaged computer systems from unsuspecting victims, including individuals, financial institutions, school districts, utility companies, government entities, and private businesses.”
“Trickbot attacked businesses and victims across the globe and infected millions of computers for theft and ransom, including networks of schools, banks, municipal governments, and companies in the health care, energy, and agriculture sectors,” Deputy Attorney General LISA MONACO said in a statement. “This is another success for the Department’s recently launched Ransomware and Digital Extortion Task Force in dismantling ransomware groups and disrupting the cybercriminal ecosystem that allows ransomware to exist and to threaten our critical infrastructure.”
AIR FORCE FACES DOWN VACCINE DEADLINE: Although more than more than 96 percent of active-duty Air Force troops have been at least partially vaccinated against the coronavirus, as many as 12,000 of the service’s personnel are still refusing their shots ahead of the Pentagon’s Tuesday deadline, per The Washington Post’s ALEX HORTON.
“The challenge now confronting Air Force leaders — how to address potential large-scale dissent in the face of a top health priority that has been deeply politicized — is a bellwether for the dilemma in store across the military’s other services,” Horton writes, “which have staggered compliance deadlines ranging from the end of November to the middle of next summer and, in some cases, have experienced far greater resistance to President Biden’s mandate.”
Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN previously ordered in an August memo — authored after Pfizer received full FDA approval for its shot — that all military troops must immediately begin to get vaccinated.
And although the Pentagon has warned that troops who refuse the shot could be punished or even dismissed from service, three administration officials in recent days “have described the deadlines not as the dates when an axe will fall but rather as the start of an education process designed to convince those who are resisting vaccination to reverse course,” per CQ Roll Call’s JOHN M. DONNELLY.
ROGERS DINGS WHITE HOUSE FOR DELAYING HYPERSONIC TEST: Rep. MIKE ROGERS (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, was apparently outraged by Thursday’s edition of NatSec Daily — in which we reported that the White House ordered the Pentagon to postpone a long-planned hypersonic missile test ahead of Biden’s June summit with Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN.
“It is time for President Biden to prioritize U.S. military modernization over attempts to cozy-up to Putin and Xi,” Rogers said in a statement. “Russia and China have their foot on the gas when it comes to developing and deploying advanced nuclear-capable hypersonic systems, while this administration looks for any excuse to delay or cancel U.S. systems and tests.”
As we reported Thursday, a defense official — seeking to justify the White House’s delay order — noted that the Russians likewise “didn’t do [provocative] things in advance of that summit. This is not unusual at all for the sake of table-setting.” But the new fury from a senior lawmaker on one of Congress’ national security committees comes amid broader global tensions over hypersonic weapons, including recent tests by Moscow and Beijing.
288 GROUPS CONDEMN PALESTINE TERROR LABEL: A coalition of 288 organizations sent a letter to Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN asking the administration to condemn Israel’s designation of six Palestinian NGOs as “terrorists.”
“The Palestinian organizations currently targeted under the Israeli government’s draconian 2016 Counter-Terrorism Law form part of the bedrock of Palestinian civil society that has been protecting and advancing Palestinian human rights for decades across the full spectrum of issues of global concern, including children’s rights, prisoners’ rights, women’s rights, socio-economic rights, the rights of farmworkers, justice and accountability for international crimes,” they wrote.
“The Biden administration has repeatedly expressed a commitment to center and promote human rights worldwide and protect the role of civil society. These actions by the Israeli government are a clear attack on human rights. As such, we urge you to issue a swift rejection of this unprecedented attack on Palestinian human rights organizations and the attempt by the Israeli government to shut down, delegitimize, isolate, and chill a growing human rights movement,” they continued.
The groups — which include Human Rights Watch and Oxfam — hope this letter places enough pressure on the Biden administration to take Israel to task over the designation.
It also follows a resolution introduced yesterday by Rep. BETTY MCCOLLUM (D-Minn.), chair of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, that would condemn Israel’s action if passed. But the majority of people NatSec Daily spoke with don’t expect the legislation to become law, and for now are pessimistic the administration will do anything to punish Israel over the move.
— The president has appointed SARA MINKARA as U.S. special adviser on international disability rights, the State Department’s senior-level disability human rights position. She is the founder and a board member of the nonprofit organization Empowerment Through Integration.
— BEN FOX, The Associated Press: “Prisoner gives Guantanamo court first account of CIA abuse”
— BETSY WOODRUFF SWAN and DANIEL LIPPMAN, POLITICO: “New Capitol Police document shows how unprepared they were for Jan. 6 riots”
— JOSH SMITH, Reuters: “Printing coupons and eating swans: N.Korea innovates amid food, economic woes”
— Biden’s European trip continues: The president will participate in the G-20 Leaders’ Summit in Rome over the weekend. On Saturday, he’ll meet with British Prime Minister BORIS JOHNSON, German Chancellor ANGELA MERKEL and French President Macron to discuss Iran. On Sunday, he’ll host an event on global supply chain resilience and hold a news conference. On Monday, he’ll travel to Glasgow, Scotland, for the World Leaders Summit at the start of the 26th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, per the White House.
— The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 9 a.m.: “Prospects for Article 6: COP-26 and Beyond — with DANIELE AGOSTINI, KELLEY KIZZIER, MICHAEL MEHLING and ROBERT STAVINS”
— The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 12 p.m.: “U.N.’s Role in the Global Disarmament Agenda — with CHRISTINA L. DAVIS and IZUMI NAKAMITSU”
— The Hudson Institute, 12 p.m.: “A Conversation with Former Australian Prime Minister TONY ABBOTT — with KENNETH R. WEINSTEIN”
— The Wilson Center, 12 p.m.: “Women’s Memory of the Gulag and the Future of Russia’s Memorial — with STEVEN BARNES, IRINA SCHERBAKOVA, IZABELLA TABAROVSKY and ELENA ZHEMKOVA”
— The Wilson Center, 2 p.m.: “Wilson Quarterly Fall 2021: Humanity in Motion — Scenes from the Global Displacement Crisis — with HALLAM FERGUSON, MARK GREEN, JOHN THON MAJOK and KAYLY OBER”
— The Wilson Center, 4 p.m.: “The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions, and the Making of the Modern World — with ERIC ARNESEN, LINDA COLLEY, DANIEL HULSEBOSCH, DANE KENNEDY and CHRISTIAN F. OSTERMANN”
— New America, 7 p.m.: “P&P Live! KATI MARTON — The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel — with PETER BERGEN”
Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.
And thanks to our editor, Ben Pauker, who internally we also call Trickbot.