Ryan Costello

Ryan Costello

Ryan Costello joined NIAC in April 2013 as a Policy Fellow and now serves as Policy Director. In this role, Ryan monitors legislation, conducts research and writing, and coordinates advocacy efforts. Ryan previously served as a Program Associate at the Connect U.S. Fund, where he focused on nuclear non-proliferation policy.

Will the House Lead a Preemptive Strike to Kill New Iran Talks?

Iran’s election of Hassan Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator who promised greater nuclear transparency and to pursue “peace and reconciliation” with the outside world, presents the best opportunity for serious progress on diplomatic negotiations with Iran in over eight years. But the future of diplomacy with Iran now lies with the House of Representatives. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), the House Majority Leader, will soon choose whether to vote on a punishing sanctions bill next week that could poison the well for future diplomatic talks before Rouhani’s inauguration in early August. To give negotiations a chance to succeed, the House must not vote on sanctions before August, when Rouhani is inaugurated and has a chance to negotiate with the United States and other members of the P5+1.

Proceeding blindly with sanctions, without considering what leverage is needed or if Rouhani is different from his inflammatory predecessor, Ahmadinejad, would signal to Iran that our rhetorical commitment to a diplomatic resolution is hollow, and that what we are really seeking is unending sanctions and war.

Having passed the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and garnered more than 350 cosponsors before Rouhani’s election, the punishing sanctions bill (H.R.850) from Rep. Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Engel (D-NY) is now poised for passage. But as has been made clear, sanctions alone are not a strategy to resolve the nuclear impasse. Rather than increase leverage, sanctions have increased tensions on each side as Tehran responds to pressure with pressure, including by expanding the scope of its nuclear program.

Further, with sanctions already crushing the Iranian economy by targeting the financial sector and oil trade, the Royce-Engel bill increasingly targets the Iranian people who just voted for moderation over a continuation of Ahmadinejad’s extremist policies. The bill would squeeze off commercial trade with Iran and, for the first time, fail to exempt humanitarian goods including life-saving medicine and food. In opposition to the administration’s desires, the bill could fracture the international coalition on Iran by imposing a de facto oil embargo. And the bill would limit the president’s ability to waive sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions, the critical factor in any deal to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

Some might argue that there isn’t, in fact, a danger in passing the bill because there is no companion bill ready in the Senate. But this assumes that Iran, in the absence of direct ties for three decades, will defer to the nuances of America’s legislative process. In reality, it would be viewed as a hostile continuation of what many in Iran perceive as a strategy to undermine Iran no matter what. This would empower hardliners who were recently routed in the elections and who are distrustful of any accommodation or deal with the United States. The House could provide them the perfect opportunity to seize on a perceived repudiation of Rouhani’s professed path of conciliation. As Rouhani and moderates jockey for position within Iran’s political system during this transition, Congress needs to focus on how it can give space for moderates to proceed with serious engagement.

As 29 prominent former policymakers and experts, including former CENTCOM Commander Gen. Joseph P. Hoar and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Pickering, stated in a letter to President Obama two weeks ago, “no further sanctions should be imposed or considered at this time.” And last week, a group of 131 bipartisan representatives urged the President to test the opportunity presented by Iran’s election and to avoid actions that could delegitimize Rouhani at the expense of those opposed to reconciliation and peace.

After eight years of negative signals from Iran, highlighted by harsh rhetoric and escalation from Ahmadinejad and his allies, the Iranian people have created an opportunity for progress by choosing moderation. If the House responds by imposing additional suffocating sanctions before Rouhani even enters office, the world will view it as a move to sabotage diplomacy. Such brinksmanship would bring the United States, Iran and our allies closer to another disastrous war of choice in the Middle East. Now is the time for caution, not escalation. There is nothing to gain by pushing through sanctions, and everything to lose.

Call Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and urge him not to schedule a vote on Iran sanctions before Iran’s new president is inaugurated.

View the article on Huffington Post.




Congress, Former Policymakers Urge Obama to Revitalize Diplomacy with Iran

After an initial hard diplomatic push at the beginning of his first term, President Obama has overwhelmingly relied on economic pressure over diplomacy in an attempt to force Iran to satisfy international concerns regarding its nuclear program.  But economic pressure has undermined prospects for a negotiated solution by playing into Iranian fears that the United States is really interested in regime change.  However, Iran’s recent election of Hassan Rouhani has provided renewed hope that diplomatic progress could be on the horizon.  A growing chorus of experts, former policymakers and Congressional representatives are urging President Obama to take advantage of this potentially fortuitous turn by reinvigorating diplomatic efforts to secure a nuclear deal.

On Monday, 29 prominent former government officials, diplomats, military officers and national security experts sent a letter to President Obama urging him to “seize the moment to pursue new multilateral and bilateral negotiations with Iran once Rouhani takes office and to avoid any provocative action that could narrow the window of opportunity for a more moderate policy out of Tehran.”  The signatories, including former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Assistant Secretary of State, Amb. Thomas Pickering, and former CENTCOM Commander Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, also urge the President to prepare to leverage existing sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions on its nuclear program, while warning that “no further sanctions should be imposed or considered at this time as they could empower hardliners opposed to nuclear concessions at the expense of those seeking to shift policy in a more moderate direction.”

A similar, bipartisan letter is circulating in Congress, sponsored by Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) and Rep. David Price (D-NC).  Well over 100 representatives have already signed.  The Dent-Price letter urges the President to “pursue the potential opportunity,” presented by Rouhani’s election and calls for using sanctions as leverage to achieve a nuclear deal.  Further, the letter warns “not to preempt this potential opportunity by engaging in actions that delegitimize the newly elected president and weaken his standing relative to hardliners within the regime who are opposed to his professed “policy of reconciliation and peace.” 

The Obama administration has, rightfully, expressed cautious optimism over the election results.  Rouhani, a political insider and former nuclear negotiator, appears to be much more pragmatic than the inflammatory Ahmadinejad, and he has a mandate from the Iranian people to make progress on the nuclear issue and human rights.  He has promised enhanced nuclear transparency and to attempt to restore relations with the West, while pursuing a non-securitized political atmosphere inside Iran that will enable the release of political prisoners and ease government interference in the lives of Iranian citizens.  True, it is also important to note that Rouhani won’t be a pushover.  He is a strong nationalist who will likely defend Iran’s perceived right to enrich uranium.  And he will need to project a tough demeanor at times in order to sell a nuclear deal to conservatives in Iran’s government and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who holds veto authority over any major policy decision. 

Many have been quick to seize on these limitations in order to argue that what we really need is sanctions and war, not renewed diplomacy.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking on Face the Nation on Sunday, downplayed concerns over regional crises including Egypt and Syria, warning that not enough attention is being paid in Washington to Iran’s nuclear program and that Iran must face “ratcheted sanctions.”  Further, Netanyahu stated that Iranians “have to know you’ll be prepared to take military action; that’s the only thing that will get their attention.”  He described Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who will “smile and build a bomb.”  A Congressional letter, sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which garnered dozens of signatures from members on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, also reflected the sentiment that nothing has changed and that Iran must face “intensifying pressure,” including through new sanctions.  The House is currently considering additional punishing sanctions that would limit the President’s negotiating ability, deepen Iranian distrust, punish the Iranian people, and do nothing to resolve the nuclear impasse. 

In reaction to Netanyahu’s comments, Rouhani laughed off the threat.  But Rouhani can’t be seen as soft by Iran’s hardliners while pursuing a nuclear deal that contains significant Iranian concessions. Otherwise, he would invite criticism of weakness or appeasement from hardliners.  Rouhani faced similar attacks when he oversaw confidence-building measures as Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator between 2003-2005, including the suspension of enrichment, without receiving reciprocal concessions from the West.  The United States and Israel should instead be considering what actions could enhance Rouhani’s room for maneuver and make a nuclear deal easier to broker. 

For now, the Obama administration appears to be standing pat with the current P5+1 nuclear offer, which demands too much for the minimal sanctions relief that would be offered in return, according to Iran.  Iran is unlikely to agree to major concessions without a clear roadmap for the removal of sanctions on Iran’s oil and financial sectors, which have caused the greatest amount of economic pain in Iran.  Those chips shouldn’t be held in reserve — they should be cashed in as part of a diplomatic deal. 

President Obama would be wise to heed the cooler heads in this debate.  Escalating rhetoric and pressure is not a strategy to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.  It is a recipe for war that will significantly constrain possibilities for a diplomatic deal.  If the administration fails to revitalize the diplomatic track, the Rouhani election could just be another in a long-line of missed opportunities to reduce tensions with Iran, and the status quo of simmering tension would risk breaking out into war.

View article at the Huffington Post.




Obama and Iran’s Rouhani Must Seize the Moment In Spite of Hardliners

The election of Hassan Rouhani to be the next President of Iran presents a major potential opportunity for progress on human rights in Iran and diplomacy with the U.S. Despite the odds, the Iranian people made their voices heard in Iran. Let’s make sure they don’t fall on deaf ears in the United States.




President Obama Can Still Channel Kennedy on Iran

Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy delivered a visionary commencement speech at American University where he called on Americans to reexamine their assumptions about peace, including with our then-archrival, the Soviet Union. In so doing, Kennedy challenged a mindset that has shaped modern American foreign policy: that diplomacy is appeasement and the only rational way to deal with rivals is through unyielding pressure and military force. Today, with President Barack Obama struggling to obtain a deal that ensures peace and prevents Iran’s increasingly authoritarian leaders from pursuing a nuclear weapon, Kennedy’s words resonate and offer guidance for a reinvigorated diplomatic approach to Iran.

As tensions with Iran rise, President Obama would be wise to heed Kennedy’s words “not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.”

In 2008, when candidate Obama was drawing comparisons to President Kennedy for his idealism and soaring rhetoric, he openly challenged the anti-diplomacy mindset gripping U.S. policy. The young Senator’s willingness to engage face-to-face with the leaders of Iran and North Korea without preconditions was ridiculed by his opponents as a sign of his inexperience. But Obama stood firm and, upon entering the White House, his administration briefly attempted to reach out to Iran before altering course a year later in favor of escalating economic sanctions. While this reflected the Washington consensus that Iran will only respond to pressure, it has hardened Iran’s opposition to American interests.

Kennedy knew that a sole reliance on pressure and confrontation would be met in kind by the Soviet Union, increasing the likelihood of war. The same holds true for Iran today. As proponents of diplomacy warned, escalating pressure has strengthened Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s power, devastating reformists and limiting avenues for internal change. Iran is responding by continuing to advance its nuclear program and, as the State Department warned last month, surging its support for terror groups to levels not seen in two decades.

Now, with hawks from both parties calling for a cessation of the intermittent diplomatic talks and enhanced military pressure, the President is dangerously close to falling victim to a policy of brinksmanship that puts us on the path to war.

Months before his speech, Kennedy faced the very real possibility of nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy stymied the hawks within his administration who pushed for strikes on missile sites and an invasion of Cuba, which would have almost certainly triggered nuclear war. Through deft diplomacy, Kennedy offered Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviets an exit from the escalating tensions, allowing both sides to save face. Narrowly avoiding nuclear war had a profound impact on Kennedy, a “cold warrior”, and helped shape his stirring words delivered that summer at American University.

In an era where superpowers with rival ideologies clashed on the global stage, Kennedy challenged the “dangerous, defeatist,” the belief that peace is not possible, and that “war is inevitable.” Since the challenges of international politics are man-made, he argued, they will never be out of mankind’s capacity to solve. Kennedy explained that peace need not be the result of a “sudden revolution in human nature” called for by the naïve, and could be achievable through “a gradual evolution in human institutions — on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned.”

Despite the hostile rhetoric of Soviet propaganda, which described the United States as bloodthirsty imperialists eager to launch preventive war, Kennedy warned that “no government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue.” Further, we must “persevere in the search for peace in the hope that constructive changes within the Communist bloc might bring within reach solutions which now seem beyond us.”

We are fortunate that the Cold War did not end in conflict. But the final chapters of our cold war with Iran have not yet been written.

Today, many policymakers believe that the pursuit of peace with Iran is foolhardy and that preventive war must remain “on the table.” Iran’s leaders meanwhile echo the propaganda of the Soviet leadership. Our decades of mutual mistrust have seemingly created a wall in which only animosity and barbs can penetrate. If Kennedy were alive today, he might warn President Obama about these “dangerous, defeatist” beliefs. Continuing to allow those beliefs to bind us to a policy of isolation, military pressure and continually escalating sanctions will only further undermine the reformist movement, strengthen Khamenei’s power and increase the likelihood of a spark igniting the flames of war.

But Iran cannot forever remain a pariah, cut off from the international community, stifling the hopes and aspirations of its people. And the United States cannot afford another bloody, open-ended conflict in the Middle East. To achieve the deal, we will need to challenge our assumptions, break away from the cycle of mutual escalation and put our full weight behind diplomacy.

As Kennedy warned, “I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war — and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task.” Let’s hope his warning still resonates today.

This column was originally published by Lobelog




After Iran Tech Sanctions Fix, are Medicine Shortages Next?

Last week, a senior State Department official acknowledged something the U.S. government had previously chalked up as simply Iranian propaganda: that sanctions are contributing to medicine shortages in Iran. The official, Ambassador Wendy Sherman, was talking to BBC Persian to announce that the U.S. was lifting sanctions on communications technologies that help connect the Iranian people to the outside world, in a policy shift that has been widely praised. During the interview, Sherman indicated that the U.S. is “so concerned” about shortages of medical supplies inside Iran that the Obama administration has “sent a team around the world talking to countries who said they are having difficulty getting their medicines into Iran, because we want to make sure that they don’t think they may get sanctioned by the US if they send medicine to Iran.”

Acknowledging that there is a problem is a crucial step that raises expectations that the administration might finally take action to address the problem, alleviating medical shortages and ensuring that Iranians are able to access humanitarian goods.

Reassuring exporters of food and medicine that they won’t be targeted for selling their products to Iran is an important step. Alone, however, experts warn that it is not enough to stop U.S. sanctions from continuing to contribute to shortages of medicine and other humanitarian goods inside Iran. Due to the breadth of sanctions on Iran and severe penalties for violating them, the conditional authorization for facilitating humanitarian transactions with Iran has proven insufficient, as demonstrated by massive medicine shortages in Iran.

It is legal to export humanitarian goods to Iran in theory, but sweeping sanctions on nearly the entire Iranian banking sector make doing so either very difficult or impossible. Ensuring that banks are willing to facilitate transactions largely depends on a company’s ability to browbeat a foreign bank into facilitating transactions by threatening to withhold other business. In other words, large multinationals with dedicated teams can find a way, but most others often find a closed door.

The reason for foreign banks’ hesitancy is that if they deal with Iran’s blacklisted banks, directly or indirectly, they could be cut off from the U.S. financial system. These fears have been reinforced by the Treasury Department’s active discouragement of any financial transaction with Iran for many years. As we learned in the 2008-2009 financial crisis, banks are deeply interconnected, and it can be difficult for a foreign bank to know for sure if a blacklisted Iranian bank might somehow be indirectly involved in any given transaction. As long as U.S. regulations are putting these foreign banks at such risk, there will continue to be medicine and other shortages. The banks simply will find the risks too great to facilitate humanitarian transactions.

There’s no doubt that increasingly severe Executive and Congressional sanctions are imposing tremendous hardships on the Iranian people. Yet, even the most hardened sanctions proponents have claimed to support enabling humanitarian trade items like medicine sales.

The administration should stand with the Iranian people by opening banking channels for humanitarian goods and other U.S.-authorized transactions by providing third country banks a blanket waiver that they will not be sanctioned for facilitating legitimate humanitarian transactions. Alternatively, the Obama administration could heed the recommendation of a recent Atlantic Council report by “[d]esignating a small number of US and private Iranian financial institutions as channels for payment for humanitarian, educational, and public diplomacy-related transactions carefully licensed by the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.” This measure would completely cut out the need to use foreign banks as intermediaries. As the Atlantic Council notes, this would be a major step to facilitate people-to-people ties with Iranians, whose opinion of U.S. policy has suffered under indiscriminate sanctions.

Several other expert organizations have drawn attention to this issue in recent reports. The Wilson Center published an extensive report highlighting the key role sanctions play in contributing to shortages of advanced Western medicine used to treat serious afflictions such as cancer and hemophilia. By blacklisting Iranian banks and deterring foreign banks with massive sanctions, the banking channel needed to facilitate transactions inhighly-patented Western medicine has been closed. Siamak Namazi, one of the authors of the report, stated in a New York Times op-ed, “even though in theory the sanctions regime imposed on Iran by the United States and the European Union is supposed to allow humanitarian trade, in reality it impairs the delivery of drugs and medical equipment to Iran.” Facing shortages, Iranians have been forced to substitute cheaper drugs from China and India that are not nearly as effective in dealing with serious medical conditions.

The Iran Project’s recent report, which was signed by three dozen former policymakers and experts, including Amb. Tom Pickering, Sen. Richard Lugar, Rep. Lee Hamilton and Anne Marie-Slaughter, confirmed these findings. Although the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) exempts humanitarian aid to Iran, “U.S. firms are not always willing to undertake the licensing process that is required, while foreign firms and banks may hold back from any transactions with Iran for fear of U.S. penalties and the risk of rapidly plummeting rial.” As a result, the suffering caused by sanctions is not only undermining global support for U.S. policies but also further inflamespublic resentment from Iranians. They warn, humanitarian shortages “could produce mass human suffering that would be morally repugnant and contrary to past American policy.”

A new sanctions bill being considered in the House (H.R.850) would likely worsen the humanitarian crisis by forcing countries that currently trade with Iran, such as China, Turkey, India and South Korea, to reduce all of their commercial trade with Iran or face sanctions. Without an exemption for humanitarian goods including food and medicine, this would deepen shortages of such goods in Iran while angering our allies.

The President does not have an excuse to let this problem fester; he can fix the regulations unilaterally without an act of Congress. Fortunately, Ambassador Sherman’s comments appear to indicate that the administration is ready to acknowledge its role in humanitarian shortages in Iran, and is ready to take steps to fix the problem. Doing so would be another major victory to ensure that the U.S. does not contribute to the suffering of ordinary Iranians.

This story originally appeared on The Huffington Post.




Iran Sanctions Stifling Iran’s Freedom Movement


Sweeping sanctions on Iran appear to have claimed their latest victim: the Samsung App store. Samsung has reportedly decided to block access to its App store in Iran from May 22.




Senate Considers Iraq-Style Regime Change Policy for Iran


A bipartisan group of Senators led by Mark Kirk (R-IL) is reportedly considering a new, draconian round of sanctions on Iran that could only be lifted if Iran moves “toward a free and democratically elected government.”