Secret Obama-Era Deal With Iran Derails Key Sanctions on Iran's Propaganda Network

Iranian dissidents outraged over Trump admin decision to waive sanctions of Tehran's propaganda machine

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on April 22, 2016
US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on April 22, 2016 / Getty Images
February 21, 2018

The Trump administration waived key sanctions on Iran's main propaganda network last month, causing outrage among Iranian dissidents and administration insiders who tracked the effort to a little known Obama-era side deal with Iran that bars these sanctions from being implemented, according to multiple sources who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon.

The Trump administration, in an unpublicized move, waived sanctions on Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, or IRIB, a satellite service that disseminates propaganda across Iran and routinely censors content. Iranian dissidents who took to the streets in a renewed wave of protests had called on the Trump administration to sanction the IRIB in a bid to prevent the Iranian regime from crushing the latest protests.

While the Trump administration had initially promised to issue new sanctions on the IRIB, the State Department blocked the effort due to a little-known agreement reached between the Obama administration and Iran during the sensitive negotiations that led to the landmark nuclear agreement.

The Free Beacon first reported on this secret agreement last month, when several lawmakers on Capitol Hill disclosed that they were working to unearth details about this agreement barring new sanctions on the IRIB, which has been working to censor content that Iran believes would fuel further dissatisfaction with the ruling regime.

The decision to waive the IRIB sanctions at a key juncture in Iranian society has roiled dissidents who believed the Trump administration would rush to support their protests against the ruling regime, which has squandered billions of dollars it received under the nuclear deal on foreign wars and military equipment, rather than the ailing Iranian economy.

Multiple sources who work on these issues expressed frustration at the Trump administration, which issued tough rhetoric supporting the protests in Iran, but failed to follow through with policy decisions such as new sanctions that could have boosted these protestors.

The Obama administration struck a deal in 2013 with Iran that waived existing sanctions on the IRIB as part of an agreement reached under the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization, or ITSO.

Since that agreement, the United States has waived sanctions every 180 days on the IRIB, despite evidence it continues to censor content and jam broadcasts the hardline ruling regime finds unacceptable, sources said. The latest waiver was quietly issued in mid-January, when Iranian protestors were still swarming the streets to express opposition to the regime, according to a copy of that communication viewed by the Free Beacon.

The little-known ITSO agreement with Iran has received new scrutiny as lawmakers and others seek to discover how the Obama administration reached this deal and why many in Congress were never briefed on the matter.

The issue has been further complicated by clear evidence the IRIB is breaching its promise to stop jamming broadcasts and other signals it finds objectionable.

However, in issuing waiver, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claimed "this waiver is vital to the national security of the United States because it furthers the free flow of information into Iran, a key element of the president's new U.S. strategy on lran," according to a copy of the communication sent to Congress and obtained by the Free Beacon.

Tillerson further stated it is vital to uphold the Obama-era agreement with Iran, despite objection by dissidents who have provided evidence over the past month that the IRIB continues to censor content.

One veteran GOP congressional adviser who has privately clashed with the Trump administration over its Iran policy told the Free Beacon the ITSO agreement barring sanctions on the IRIB appears to be part of a series of secret side deals struck between the Obama administration and Iran in the lead up to the nuclear deal.

"Everyone knows the Obama administration made secret goodwill concessions, going back many years before the deal, to boost Iran," said the source, who would only speak on background so as not to upset sensitive discussion. "But the public still doesn't know the full scope or nature of those concessions, because the Trump administration has been keeping many of the documents and side deals secret."

"Here, you have one dealing with Iran's propaganda infrastructure. And of course, more broadly, there are Trump officials working on 'fixing' the nuclear deal, so they can sell an 'agreement' to the president, without really doing that at all," the source said.

Amir Etemadi, an Iranian dissident who opposes the hardline regime, told the Free Beacon the Trump administration could have sent a strong message by reinstating sanctions on Iran's propaganda network.

"Revocation of a waiver suspending U.S. sanctions targeting IRIB—the Islamic Republic's principal tool for the creation and dissemination of propaganda and the repression of opposition voices—would have sent a powerful message to the people of Iran that President Trump and the United States are firmly on their side and committed to supporting them in their struggle against a brutally oppressive theocracy," Etemadi said. "During and after recent nationwide protests in Iran, Iranians explicitly asked President Trump to take this action. Unfortunately, he did not heed their call and thus missed a significant opportunity."

Iranian protesters thought they had found an ally in Trump, Etemadi explained.

"To many Iranians, President Trump is a very different political figure from prior U.S. presidents and other current or past world leaders; these Iranians expect much more from President Trump than mere expressions of solidarity in speeches and tweets," he said.

Other sources who work with the administration on Iran issues expressed dismay over the administration's decision to again waive the IRIB sanctions.

"This is another example of Trump staffers continuing the Obama administration's policy on the Iran deal, even though President Trump has said he wants it dismantled. In this case they appear to be extending a secret side deal with Iran to protect Iran's propaganda infrastructure," said a second source who works on the matter.

The State Department declined to comment on the waiver or provide further information on the original deal that birthed it.