United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) is a bipartisan advocacy organization closely tied to neoconservative and other "pro-Israel" factions that promotes a confrontational U.S. stance towards Iran, particularly with respect to its nuclear program. Its goal is to prevent Tehran from fulfilling its purported "ambition to become a regional super-power possessing nuclear weapons."
A program of the American Coalition Against Nuclear Iran, Inc., a 501(c)(3) organization, UANI's aims include informing "the public about the nature of the Iranian regime"; heightening "awareness nationally and internationally about the danger that a nuclear-armed Iran poses to the region and the world"; persuading "the regime in Tehran to desist from its quest for nuclear weapons, while striving not to punish the Iranian people"; and promoting "efforts that focus on vigorous national and international, social, economic, political, and diplomatic measures."
Gary Samore, a former arms control adviser to the Obama administration, served as UANI's president from September 2013 to August 2015. He stepped down after a nuclear agreement was reached with Iran in July 2015, which he supported. "Gary ultimately supports the agreement and is stepping down to avoid any conflict with UANI's work in opposition to the agreement," a UANI statement released at the time stated.
A writer for MSNBC said of the events: "We've reached the point at which United Against Nuclear Iran has failed to persuade its own chairman that the deal must be derailed. A lobbying group that exists to oppose the deal has parted ways with its boss, who supports the deal."
Samore's departure from UANI prompted a reshuffling of the organization's leadership, with the group's former executive director, David Ibsen, becoming its new president. Former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a longtime neoconservative ally of UANI and member of its board of advisors, was appointed UANI's new chairman. "Senator Lieberman will play a key leadership role throughout UANI's efforts to educate and inform the American public regarding the serious shortcomings of the Iran nuclear deal," UANI announced.
UANI employs a multi-pronged approach to isolate the Iranian regime economically and diplomatically, primarily by discouraging corporations from doing business in the country. On the legislative front, UANI "develops model legislation for adoption by the federal government and U.S. state governments to sever Iran from international trade and financial markets and prohibit investment in Iran." According to its website, several of UANI's recommendations were included in the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010.
UANI has also targeted companies directly, organizing petitions and "name and shame" campaigns aimed at specific companies it says are doing business with Iran. UANI claims credit for persuading "such corporate heavyweights as General Electric, Huntsman, Caterpillar, Ingersoll Rand, KPMG, Komatsu" to suspend their Iran business, as well as for securing legislative victories in California, New York, and Florida. The group also has a specialized "shipping campaign" to "embargo Iran's shipping and port sectors." As part of this effort, it developed the "Maritime Intelligence Network and Rogue Vessel Analysis (MINERVA) system," which tracks purported Iranian shipping vessels, attempting to show how Iran has attempted to circumvent sanctions by clandestinely exporting oil.
In an earlier campaign, UANI pressured New York hotels to deny lodging to Iranian officials visiting the city for UN business, including then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In addition to its business-oriented work, UANI also publishes reports and talking points on Iran and its alleged nuclear weapons program, promoting notions that the Center for Research on Globalization has characterized as "propagandistic." Among its claims, UANI asserts that Iran is actively developing "nuclear weapons capability" and suggests that the country may have been connected to the 9/11 attacks—both ideas that have been strongly disputed by U.S. intelligence experts.
Although UANI has generally avoided open calls for war, the group has on occasion explicitly promoted the use of military threats or action. In October 2011, for example, after an Iranian-American was arrested for an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States in Washington, UANI called on President Barack Obama to"make it clear that Iran will face consequences for its actions, including military retaliation for attacks on Americans."
Much of UANI's work has stressed the dominance of hardliners within the Iranian political establishment. The 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani—a comparatively moderate candidate who campaigned on reaching a diplomatic accommodation with the West—did little to affect the group's posturing. "While the new Iranian President speaks the language of conciliation, as it stands, the regime's nuclear program and odious behavior continue," read a statement on UANI's website.
UANI's former president Gary Samore similarly attempted to lower expectations surrounding the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the group of world powers known as the P5+1 that followed Rouhani's election. "What [the Iranians are] offering is really no different than what we've heard from the previous government, from Ahmadinejad's government for the last couple of years," Samore said in October 2013, after the Iranians tentatively offered to cap their nuclear enrichment at 20 percent and submit to additional inspections. "They continue to reject any physical limits on their enrichment capacity—meaning the number and type of centrifuge machines, the stockpile of enriched material that they have in country."
UANI characterized the interim agreement that followed the initial talks—which entailed significant restrictions on Iran's nuclear enrichment in exchange for token sanctions relief while a comprehensive agreement was negotiated—as a "disappointment," complaining that the sanctions relief offered in the deal was "disproportionate."
The group's attacks on the diplomatic process drew criticism from the Obama administration. According to Salon, "a former Obama administration official who worked closely on Middle East policy" complained privately that "UANI and its allies 'play the politics for the short-term but they don't offer anything in terms of answers for the long term. … [T]hey're not really interested in ensuring that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon. Iran bashing for pro-Israel groups is very common, but I'm concerned that they don't understand that failure to address this issue will ensure that Iran gets the bomb or we're headed toward war.'"
UANI opposed the comprehensive nuclear deal reached between Iran and six world powers in July 2015, announcing that it would launch a "multi-million dollar campaign to educate the American people on the Iran nuclear agreement's key deficiencies and weaknesses."
UANI's decision to lobby against the Iran nuclear deal spurred its own president, Gary Samore, to step down from his post. "I think President Obama's strategy succeeded. He has created economic leverage and traded it away for Iranian nuclear concessions," Samore said at the time.
Ideological Connections and Funding
UANI claims to be politically centrist, and its advisory board has included a number of prominent academics and political centrists, including Graham Allison, Walter Russell Meade, and Leslie Gelb.
However, the board's membership has included a host of neoconservatives and right-wing nationalists, including former Sen. Joe Lieberman, a neoconservative Democrat who fell out with his party over his support for the Iraq War; James Woolsey, a former CIA director and high-profile neoconservative activist; Roger Noriega, a former U.S. representative to the U.S. Mission of the Organization of American States; Henry Sokolski, a hawkish strategic weapons expert; Mike Gerson, a torture advocate and former spokesperson for President Bush; Mark Lagon, a former State Department official who later served as an aide to Jeane Kirkpatrick at the American Enterprise Institute; and Otto Reich, a controversial Reagan-era figure implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal who maintains close ties to right-wing factions in Latin America.
UANI's CEO is Mark Wallace, a former U.S. diplomat at the United Nations, legal adviser to the Department of Homeland Security, and deputy campaign manager for the 2004 reelection campaign of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. The group advertises two original cofounders, both of whom were given high profile posts in the administration of President Barack Obama: the late Richard Holbrooke and the controversial "pro-Israel" U.S diplomat Dennis Ross.
UANI also claims to represent a coalition of like-minded advocacy organizations. Coalition members, according to its website, include Christian Leaders for a Nuclear-Free Iran, the American Iranian Democracy Initiative, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, the Iran Task Force, Iran Watch, the Free Muslims Coalition, the Progressive American-Iranian Committee, the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, the Arcadia Foundation, and the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. Other partners include neoconservative groups like the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Réalité-EU, as well as Republican groups like the Log Cabin Republicans.
In July 2015, journalist Eli Clifton reported that "the top donors to UANI are a pair of trusts associated with the billionaire Thomas Kaplan and a family foundations operated by Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam." According to Clifton, Kaplan and Adelson accounted for "more than three-quarters" of the group's total revenue for 2013.
The revelation of Adelson and Kaplan being UANI's biggest sponsors also led Clifton to question UANI's "professed non-partisanship." Clifton noted that Adelson gives "almost exclusively to the Republican Party" and that Kaplan gives to Republicans "at a ratio of roughly 10 to 1."
UANI's political connections attracted considerable scrutiny in 2014 amid revelations that the organization possessed information considered sensitive by the U.S. government.
The story came to light amid a legal battle between UANI and Greek shipping magnate Victor Restis, who filed a defamation suit against UANI after it accused him and his company of violating international sanctions against Iran and called them "frontmen for the illicit activities of the Iranian regime." According to the New York Times, Restis and his attorneys charged that UANI was under the sway of "unidentified foreign interests"—presumably Israel—and attempted to subpoena the group's donor records, along with testimony from an Israeli businessman and Meir Dagan, the former Mossad chief who has served as an adviser to UANI.
In a surprise move, the U.S. Justice Department intervened to prevent the release of UANI's donor records. According to the Times, "Government lawyers said they had a 'good faith basis to believe that certain information' would jeopardize law enforcement investigations, reveal investigative techniques, or identify confidential sources if released." The paper called the Justice Department's intervention "highly unusual" and noted that "American intelligence agencies are prohibited from secretly working with organizations to influence American public opinion and media. If the information does not belong to the government, it is not clear what makes it so sensitive. … Either way, the court filings indicated close ties between the American government and a group that has proved adept at pressuring the government and corporations to isolate Iran economically."
The news prompted speculation about what other information might be contained in UANI's donor records. Journalist Eli Clifton, for instance, highlighted in a 2014 investigative report UANI's ties to a billionaire mining magnate. "Among the pieces of heretofore undisclosed information the Justice Department's shield might prevent from coming to light is the connection between UANI and one of the biggest investors in precious metals, Thomas S. Kaplan," reported Clifton. Clifton noted that UANI CEO Mark Wallace has served concurrently as CEO of the Tigris Financial Group, which Clifton described as "an investment group controlled by Kaplan." Other UANI employees have reportedly held positions at the Electrum Group, another Kaplan-controlled outfit.
According to Clifton, Kaplan is a major proponent of investing in precious metals as a hedge against political unrest. Kaplan and Wallace, he wrote, "are betting big on investments in precious metals they say will retain or appreciate in value in an unstable economic and geopolitical environment. By Tigris' own account, it stands to make money in the case of 'political unrest in the Middle East'—exactly the kind of instability many experts think will become inevitable if naysayers of diplomacy with Iran [like UANI] have their way."
Clifton reported that although Kaplan is not mentioned on UANI's website or public disclosures, he has specifically highlighted his connections to the pressure group. During a speech he gave after receiving the French Legion of Honor insignia from French Ambassador Francois Delattre in April 2014, Kaplan said: "A friends' comment that one day our kids might ask what our generation did when we knew what the Iranians' intentions were prompted me to become part of something bigger. Hard to know what the outcome will be but I do know that as much as United Against Nuclear Iran may not have had Tomahawk missiles and aircraft carriers at its disposal, we've done more to bring Iran to heel than any other private sector initiative and most public ones."
According to Clifton: "The published transcript of his remarks contained no mention of UANI or the comparison of the group's work to advanced weaponry, presumably to be directed at Iran's nuclear facilities."
In his July 2015 report for LobeLog Clifton confirmed that Kaplan was a major donor to UANI. Clifton reported that "Kaplan's business interests also present an interesting angle on his funding anti-Iran advocacy like UANI's … one of Kaplan's mining concerns, the now-bankrupt Apex Silver Mines, Ltd., advertised itself in an annual report as a sound investment because of the potential for a 'nuclear confrontation' with Iran. Likewise with another silver venture called Sunshine Silver Mines: a 2011 investment prospectus talked up silver investments in light of 'political unrest in the Middle East.'"