Mark Dubowitz is the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a neoconservative think tank founded in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that has led efforts to push for U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. He has emerged as a strident and widely quoted advocate for U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Dubowitz arrived at FDD in 2003 after a career in venture capital and law. By his own admission, he was a neophyte when it came to international politics. After the 9/11 attacks, he told the Israeli news outlet Ynet, "I was deeply fearful for the future and decided to quit the private sector and come to Washington, to see if I could make a small difference. In 2003 I joined a small organization (FDD) despite not having any relevant political or policy experience and coming from a wholly different background."
Dubowitz says he joined FDD to help manage its administration and finances. Since then, however, he has delved deeply into Iran sanctions policy. He heads FDD's Iran Energy Project, directs its Iran Human Rights Project, and is also a founding member of FDD's Syria Working Group. He speaks frequently to the media, publishes often, and has reportedly advised both Democrats and Republicans in Congress about Iran sanctions.
Dubowitz has been a vocal promoter of imposing harsh sanctions on Iran, which he has accused of having a nuclear weapons program despite the fact that the U.S. intelligence community argues otherwise. According to one report, Dubowitz has been "the architect of many of the sanctions we have against Iran right now."
In particular, he has pushed for sanctions aimed at causing domestic hardship and turmoil inside Iran and argued against adapting U.S. laws to ease the import of sanctions-exempt U.S. medicines. "Political and economic isolation is designed to nurture Iran's convulsive internal contradictions," Dubowitz wrote in a 2011 Weekly Standard piece coauthored with his FDD colleague Reuel Marc Gerecht. "The issue is timing: Can we put enough pressure on [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei and his praetorians to either crack the regime or make the supreme leader believe that the nuclear program actually threatens his rule?"
Dubowitz has argued that regime change should be the goal of U.S. policy on Iran. "If we are going to pursue tougher international sanctions against Iran—and we should—the goal should be regime change in Iran, not stopping proliferation. … Designing sanctions to make [Iran's Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei relent in his 30-year quest for the bomb is a delusion; sanctions that could contribute to popular unrest and political tumult are not."
In January 2013, Dubowitz coproduced a major report on U.S. Middle East policy with several non-proliferation experts, including David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security.The 155-page report, titled "U.S. Nonproliferation Strategy for the Changing Middle East," argued that it was imperative for the United States to implement a comprehensive Middle East nonproliferation strategy because of the "threat of proliferation in and by Iran, the vulnerable Syrian chemical arsenal, the challenges and opportunities posed by the Arab revolutions, the relatively frequent prior use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East, several regional states already possessing WMD, and a tense and unstable regional security situation."
The report called for a number of actions which, if implemented, would—according to most Iran specialists—almost certainly destroy the P5+1 negotiations with Iran and potentially lead to war. It argued that Washington should be prepared to impose a "de facto international embargo on all investments in, and trade" with Iran—with the exception of food and medicine—if Tehran did not halt all its nuclear-related programs. In addition, the United States should "increase Iranian isolation, including through regime change in Syria" and complete "overt preparations for the use of warplanes and/or missiles to destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities with high explosives."
The only way Iran could get sanctions relief, argued the report, would be if it suspended all activities related to uranium enrichment and heavy water, closed its Fordow underground enrichment facility, and allowed highly invasive IAEA inspections. "The recommendations appeared to reflect more the position held by Israel than that of the Obama administration," reported the Inter Press Service (IPS), "which has suggested that it will not necessarily insist on a total suspension of uranium enrichment—a demand that Iran has consistently rejected and which many Iran specialists believe is a deal-killer—as a condition for possible sanctions relief."
Said Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association: "The report does not offer a realistic formula for negotiating a satisfactory agreement on limiting Iran's nuclear programme. It would require Iran to capitulate on virtually all fronts." He added: "Some of the measures it suggests would be likely to disrupt P5+1 unity … and the maximalist requirements it cites for an agreement could convince Tehran that the U.S. objective is regime change, rather than full compliance with its obligations to the IAEA." Thielmann also commented that the fact that the report said very little about Israel, the only nuclear weapons power in the region, was "conspicuous" given its broad scope.
According to IPS, "That the report's recommendations coincided closely with Israel's positions may have been due in part to the heavy involvement in the project by staff members from both FDD, which has been a leading proponent of 'economic warfare' against Iran, and the Dershowitz Group, a media relations firm with which FDD shares office space and reportedly cooperates closely. Several Dershowitz account executives included in the report's acknowledgments have previously been associated with Hasbara Fellowships, a group set up by the right-wing, Israel-based Aish HaTorah International, to counter alleged anti-Israel sentiment at U.S. universities. IPS inquiries into the project's sources of funding went unanswered."
Dubowitz staunchly opposed any lapse in economic pressure after Iran renewed its nuclear negotiations with the six world powers known as the P5+1, including Washington, in late 2013. "The efficacy of sanctions depends on the threat of escalation, where an ever-expanding web of restrictions scares off foreign businesses," he and Gerecht wrote in a November 2013 Wall Street Journal op-ed. "The sanctions game with Iran has been as much psychological as legal," they added. "When the Obama administration sends a signal that it is willing to reduce economic sanctions for little in return, the general impression abroad … is that the White House's resolve is waning."
Later that month, Iran and international negotiators announced that they had reached an interim agreement in which Iran would limit its enrichment activities and allow more inspections of its facilities in exchange for light sanctions relief and a pledge by Western powers not to impose more sanctions while a final agreement was negotiated. Political pragmatists generally praised the deal.
Dubowitz, however, complained about the level of sanctions relief included in the agreement (the administration estimated it at around $7 billion, but Dubowitz pegged it at $20 billion) and claimed that Iran could still make progress on developing a nuclear weapon. "Even if Iran faithfully implements each of its commitments under the interim agreement," he wrote in late November 2013, "it could find itself, in May 2014, a mere month further away than it is now from having weapons-grade uranium—but six months closer to having the rest of a deliverable nuclear weapon."
Despite Dubowitz's vociferous criticism of the interim nuclear agreement, in March 2013 he co-authored a Wall Street Journal piece with David Albright and Orde Kittrie that called for many of the same limitations on Iran's nuclear program that were reached in the November 2013 accord.
"In addition to curtailing Iran's production and stockpile of 20%-enriched uranium, any interim deal must verifiably prohibit Iran from upgrading the type and increasing the number of its operational centrifuges," they wrote, "more frequent IAEA inspections at key Iranian sites are also essential." The authors added: "We estimate that Iran, on its current trajectory, will by mid-2014 be able to dash to fissile material in one to two weeks unless its production of 20%-enriched uranium is curtailed." The November 2013 Joint Plan of Action secured most of these restrictions, including stopping Iranian enrichment at the 20 percent level and eliminating Iran's stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium.
In February 2014, Dubowitz appeared before Congress and criticized the Obama administration for opposing sanctions legislation—introduced by the hawkish Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and vigorously supported by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—that observers warned could cause Iran to pull out of the comprehensive talks, the terms of which included a moratorium on new sanctions during the negotiations. "Senators have tried to strengthen the administration's hand by introducing 'sanctions-in-waiting' legislation to keep a Sword of Damocles over international markets, to enforce Iranian nuclear compliance, and to impose an economic cost on Tehran if its continues its terrorist and ballistic missile activities," Dubowitz told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. By threatening to veto the legislation, Dubowitz said, the administration was "cementing the impression of an Iranian economy that is open for business" and "making a dangerous bet" that could result in "the most dangerous state sponsor of terrorism in the world getting its hands on the world's most lethal weapon."
In July 2014, Dubowitz denounced the on-going negotiations with Iran and stated that all of the "strictures and constraints [on Iran] should remain in place for forever, until this regime is no longer this regime." He added that sanctions should not be the "only instrument of coercive statecraft" the United States employs against Iran. "You need the credible threat of military force, backed by aggressive covert action and obviously aggressive and highly effective diplomacy," he argued. In an August 2014 piece co-written with Gerecht, Dubowitz complained that warnings of possible military action against Iran lacked credibility because of "the White House's palpable fear of conventional conflict."
At a panel discussion co-hosted by the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative and the Bipartisan Policy Center in October 2014, Dubowitz joined Ray Takeyh, Harvard's Olli Heinonen, and David Albright in criticizing aspects of the Obama White House's approach to Iran. "We've given away those four major concessions as part of JPOA [2013 interim nuclear agreement], and now we're negotiating with the Iranians over a comprehensive plan of action, having conceded four major chips," Dubowitz said at the talk.
Dubowitz has also voiced support for Congress impeding efforts by the Obama administration aimed reaching a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran by "designing a 'sanctions defense'" that would limit President Obama's ability to suspend sanctions on Iran. "This will signal to the administration how much it can give up in the negotiations," Dubowitz said in December 2014.
Dubowitz has opposed any deal that would allow Iran to enrich even low levels of uranium on its own soil for energy purposes—a right of Iran under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and one which was recognized by world powers under the 2013 interim nuclear agreement—even as other U.S. hawks, like Stephen Hadley, have argued that even Israel would eventually agree to such a program. "A negotiated 'deal' with Tehran that concedes Iranian enrichment," Dubowitz wrote in 2011, "is a face-saving way for the West to avoid confessing that it would rather risk Khamenei's having a nuke than face the two alternatives: a crippling sanctions regime, which could spike the price of oil, or an American preventive military strike."
Dubowitz supported Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial speech before Congress to challenge President Obama's nuclear negotiations with Iran in March 2015. "The Obama position has gone from dismantle and disclose to disconnect and defer. They have squandered their negotiating leverage to an Iranian regime that entered negotiations with a weak hand and looks likely to get what it also wanted," he told the Free Beacon after the speech.
After the election of moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2013, which helped set the stage for the renewed negotiations over Tehran's nuclear energy program, Dubowitz worked to downplay the impact of the election, claiming that Rouhani was a master of "nuclear deceit." Before the election, however, Iran hawks like Dubowitz had argued that it was a sham aimed at confirming the choice of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The election of Rouhani, who was not Khamenei's top choice, thus surprised many hawks, including Dubowitz, who argued that he was in any case "a loyalist of Iran's supreme leader" and that his election would not "get us any closer to stopping Iran's nuclear drive." Responding to Dubowitz, a contributor to The Daily Beast wrote, "Dubowitz's picture of a one-man system impervious to any pressures (other than, of course, the sanctions that his group fights for) clearly doesn't capture the paradoxes of the Islamic Republic's system."
On Syria—another part of Dubowitz's portfolio at FDD—Dubowitz has endorsed military action outright.
As Syria's civil war intensified, Dubowitz told the Sun News Network that virtually any replacement regime would be preferable to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's. "You can't really do worse than Assad," he said. "You've got a regime there that is a close ally of Iran, that supports Hezbollah, that supports Hamas, that's been responsible for the deaths of American troops, of coalition troops, that has sponsored terrorism, that has Israeli blood on its hands. It's hard to imagine a worse regime than this regime." Dubowitz presented military intervention in Syria's civil war as "an enormous opportunity to strike a blow not only at a bloody regime, but at Iran," which he accused of "building a nuclear weapon and sponsoring terrorism, including assassination plots on American soil."
Insisting that Assad's ouster was not a foregone conclusion, Dubowitz warned, "Assad may hang on as a wounded bear even more dependent on the Iranians than he is today. So I think there is much that needs to be done to ensure that he goes." In particular, Dubowitz endorsed "crippling economic sanctions, the establishment of no-fly zones, [and] much more material support" for the armed Syrian opposition. The Obama administration, he concluded, "needs to be much more interventionist if we're going to ensure that Assad does go and we can start dealing with a post-Assad Syria as a power broker in that region."
When pressed by his interviewer about sectarian bloodshed that could result (and subsequently has resulted) from Syria's disintegration, Dubowitz mused that communal violence in Syria "is not necessarily a bad thing. A Syria that is consumed by its own internal internecine wars," he said, "may be certainly less of a security threat than what we're seeing today," since it would be less able to "project trouble" in the region and "cause havoc" for the United States and Israel—a response Dubowitz's surprised interviewer replied was "pretty cold." As a model for postwar Syria, Dubowitz held up Iraq—which saw huge outbreaks of sectarian violence both after the U.S. invasion and as the civil war intensified in neighboring Syria—as an example of a country that is "not a Jeffersonian democracy," but "an unstable balance between various competing factions that is starting to move slowly, incrementally toward something that is supporting American security and Middle East stability."
Months later, after popular opposition had made an intervention by the Obama administration politically impossible, Dubowitz complained that the White House had "forfeited whatever military leverage it had over Iran" by "bungling matters in Syria, where Tehran strongly backs Bashar Assad's regime."
Dubowitz's FDD bio reports that he "is a lecturer and senior research fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto where he teaches and conducts research on international negotiations, sanctions, and Iran's nuclear program." Before joining the think tank, he "worked in venture capital, law, and as Director of International Business Development at Doubleclick (purchased by Google) and as Director of Corporate Development and General Manager, European & Asian Operations, at FloNetwork (purchased by Doubleclick). He has a masters in international public policy from Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, and law and MBA degrees from the University of Toronto."