From the administration that brought you a former open-pit-mining lobbyist as the secretary of the Interior and a coal-mining lobbyist as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency comes another staffing decision defined by conflict of interest. Elliott Abrams — who was convicted of two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress during the Iran-Contra Affair — will now serve the Trump administration as its envoy to Iran.
Pardoned by George H.W. Bush in 1992, Abrams was a pivotal figure in the foreign-policy scandal that shook the Reagan administration, lying to Congress about his knowledge of the plot to covertly sell weapons to the Khomeini government and use the proceeds to illegally fund the right-wing Contras rebel group in Nicaragua. As assistant secretary of State, he testified that the United States was not involved in such a plot, despite being well aware of architect Oliver North’s efforts to resupply the brutal paramilitaries; in 1991 he was convicted of two counts of withholding evidence. (For observers new to the scandal that consider it a product of a bygone era, the attorney general who cheer-led the pardoning of Abrams and four others involved in the affair is William Barr, who holds the same position today.)
In another administration, an official involved in the foreign-policy embarrassment of the Reagan administration might not be the perfect candidate for this role. But the neocon’s aggressive stance toward Iran — as well as his loyalty established during the scandal, a must-have for successful Trump officials — appears to have made up for any red flags on his résumé. An outspoken critic of the Iran deal, Abrams is expected to help in the rollout next week of the U.S. campaign to extend an international arms embargo against Tehran. As the New York Times notes, the departure of Abrams’s predecessor, Brian Hook, “appears to bury any remaining chance of a diplomatic initiative with Iran before the end of Mr. Trump’s term.”
With his new role, Abrams is once again splitting his attention between Latin America and the Persian Gulf, as he is still holding on to his prior role as special envoy to Venezuela. His appointment to that position last year was heavily criticized, including an appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in which Representative Ilhan Omar questioned why Reagan’s assistant secretary of State for human rights had such a poor record in his field. “You dismissed as ‘communist propaganda’ reports about the massacre of El Mozote in which more than 800 civilians, including children as young as 2 years old, were brutally murdered by U.S.-trained troops,” she told him last February. “You later said the U.S. policy in El Salvador was a ‘fabulous achievement’ … Do you think that massacre was a ‘fabulous achievement’?”
For those hoping that the United States does not stir the simmering tension with Iran just seven months after the two countries were at the brink of war following the targeted strike on Qasem Soleimani, Abrams’s failure to deliver in Venezuela may provide hope. So far, he has been unable to manage his primary objective: building up the prospects of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whose failed uprising the Trump administration supported last year. That’s not to say he hasn’t stopped trying. “Obviously we hope that [Maduro] will not survive the year and we are working hard to make that happen,” Abrams told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.