November 4, 2009

Between Human Rights, Diplomacy, and Sanctions

n99056648937_9406In a few minutes, NIAC will begin its sixth major conference on Capitol Hill. Our panelists range from prominent human rights activists to former US hostages in Iran.  We’ll be discussing the internal political crisis that is still raging in Iran, and will also have some of the country’s foremost diplomats and experts assessing the nuclear negotiations as they currently stand.  It will be a great event and we will make the video and transcripts available to you if you can’t make it.
We’ll also be updating you throughout the day as things develop, both with the conference and in Iran.
9:40 am: Dr. Trita Parsi marks the occasion of today’s conference by recognizing two special guests in the audience: Amb. John Limbert and Amb. Bruce Laingen, both of whom were held hostage thirty years ago today in the US Embassy in Tehran.
9:45 am: First panel discussion begins on the internal dynamics in Iran: human rights and the battle for Iran, featuring Hadi Ghaemi, Geneive Abdo, and Prof. Mehrzad Boroujerdi.
9:47 am: Parsi: Human rights violations have fundamentally changed the conversation in Iran’s political discourse, but where will it lead?
9:48 am: Ghaemi: the movement happening in Iran is a civil rights movement–not simply a political opposition movement.  The green wave is engaged in a nonviolent struggle for recognition of their rights.  The movement is still trying to find its form and shape; Mousavi is the political face of the movement but he does not want to be seen as its leader.  Every person is a leader, and every person is a media outlet, thanks to phone and internet technologies.

9:51 am: What about the increased militarization of the Iranian government, particularly the rise of the IRGC and Basij militias within politics?
Abdo: You’re seeing a radical polarization happening in Iran, between the civil rights movement known as the green wave and the militaristic government.  There is no pretense any longer about the IRGC playing a key role in politics in Iran–you saw the IRGC come out and support Ahmadinejad and Khamenei soon after the election crisis.  And the political leadership is sancitoning this public, political role of the IRGC in ways that we’ve never seen before.
9:56 am: Is the opposition movement challenging the system as a whole, or is it askin for reform within te bounds of the present Iranian system?
Boroujerdi: This movement is a different ballgame.  No previous challenges to the regime have ever been like this–with such a wide cross-section of Iranian society taking part in opposition activities.  That said, this is not a revolutionary movement.  We are witnessing the emergence of a new guard, who could possibly have the potential of being more radical and more revolutionary–but as of right now we are not there.
10:01 am: Without success under the current form of protest, though, what are the chances that the movement won’t alter its tactics and become more radical?
Boroujerdi: Having participated in the 1979 revolution, I can say that there is not a lot of enthusiasm for the deep ruptures to society that occur during revolutions.  There is a lot of collective wariness among Iranians for radical, abrupt change.  They certainly don’t like the present system, but they prefer gradual change.
Abdo: There is a major factor at work here that will keep the movement from becoming more radical or violent: the moral high ground that they maintain by virtue of the fact that the Islamic government is no longer Islamic. Radicalizing the movement would only cause them to lose that argument.
10:12 am: Can we include human rights on the agenda without reducing our leverage on the nuclear issue? 
Ghaemi: Decoupling the nuclear issue from domestic dynamic is a mistake.  The Iranian govenrment isn’t in conrol enough to actually strike a deal, so Obama will be disappointed in dealing with the weak and fractured government.  You have to recognize that there is a protest movement and condemn the violations of human rights in Iran.  Don’t just pick up the flag of self-righteousness, but rather multilateralize the process of pressing for human rights in Iran–something like  P5+1 process for human rights. 
Boroujerdi: Before, Iranians didn’t want to make concessions on the nuclear issue because they knew that once that topic of conversation was passed, the West would turn to human rights.  That calculation has changed since the election.  Now, Iran wants to do the opposition–making concessions on the international stage as a way to divert attention from the election crisis and to keep the West fom bringin up human rights. 
Sanctions should deprive the Iranian govenrment of the tools it needs for the repression of its people.  Other goods and services, for example civilian airline parts, should not be sanctioned because they will beget goodwill with the Iranian people. 
10:26 am: What will be the effect of broadbased sanctions, such as a gasoline embargo?
Ghaemi: The majority of Iranians have been under severe economic hardship for 30 years.  They would not welcome more economic punishment.  This would just play into the hands of the government.  But any sanctions that target the repressive arm of the Iranian govenrment–the IRGC, the security sector, and the surveillance and censorship industries in Iran.  We saw in Iraq–a decade of crippling sanctions did not hurt Saddam, it only crippled civil society. 
Second panel on Assessing Obama’s Diplomacy: with Greg Thielmann, Amb. Thomas Pickering, and Amb. John Limbert:
11:02 am: Amb. Limbert recognizes his fellow former hostage Bruce Laingen, who eloquently advised Washington about the repercussions that were likely to occur if the Shah were to be admitted under any pretense.  That advise was not heeded.
Limbert: I am surprised that the tension between the US and Iran has lasted thirty years. 
Parsi: After a surprisingly good start, diplomacy has hit the first roadblock.
Pickering:  It won’t be easy, will take a long time.  The process is fraught with contradictions.  I remember writing a cable from Moscow decades ago warning that it will be impossible to prevent an Iranian nuclear program.  The Obama administration is perfectly correct to open negotiations without preconditions.   It was perfectly correct to accept some Iranian enrichment. 
11:09 am: Parsi: Iran is challenging the Vienna proposal based on its opposition to sending its entire stockpile out of the country all at once.  That seems to be the most major sticking point here; is there a compromise to be made?
Thielmann: I would say probably not.  The deal was a win-win.  It was also a major victory for Iran to get tacit acceptance of the enrichment program.  The deal was extremely important because it would increase trust and gain everyone time. 
There could be ways to get around the distrust—if Iran trusts Turkey for example more, then they could ship the stockpile to Turkey, who will then safeguard the stockpile and ship it to Russia/France in stages.  That’s one option. 
11:17 am: Is this problem rooted in something inherent in Iranians’ negotiating tactics?  Did we make a fatal mistake in the beginning of this process by only allowing a limited time for talks?
Limbert: the risk is that you fall into asymmetric negotiations, in which each side is negotiating over something different.  The first step is to recognize what the other side is talking about.  That takes on a great deal of importance, given the sorry state of US-Iran distrust.  Dealing with these symbols—at least in the beginning—can become the substance.
Thielmann: I don’t believe Iran is dead-set on getting a nuclear weapon.  They don’t want to copy the North Korea or even the Pakstan model.  In fact, Iran’s leaders have publicly sworn off nuclear weapons as un-Islamic.  That provides us with leverage to use in negotiations, allowing both us and them to find an agreeable outcome without losing face. 
11:30 am: Limbert: On Timelines.  These things take time.  The negotiations to secure our release took time.  The deal that eventually got us our freedom was struck around Sep. 9/10, 1980.  We weren’t released until four months later.  Had we set a timeline, we’d still be there.  When I asked Sec. Christopher what helped secure a successful negotiation, he said “patience.”  That tells you something about the difficulty of getting from agreements in principle to agreements in practice. 
11:38 am: Parsi: Part of the mistake under Bush was to reduce countries to one problem/issue and then negotiation only on that one issue.  Some say Iranians are good chess players and can multitask better than anyone.  Others say they’re just lucky and good backgammon players.  What do you believe should be our outlook in the talks?
Limbert:  I’m of the backgammon school.  Iran is masterful at adaptation and improvisation.  That’s what we’re seeing today.  If we only focus on the nuclear issue, we will fail.  For the Iranians, this is more than that—it’s about rights, justice, and respect.   We won’t be able to obtain concessions on our main issues without some links to other issues that the Iranians care about. 
Pickering:  And some of the Iranians’ interests are in line with ours.  We don’t need to anoint Iran as a new hegemony in the MidEast; rather we just need to recognize the reality of Iran’s significance.  We should do this carefully with our Arab allies.
11:50 am: Limbert: President Obama has presented a quandary for Khamenei–it’s easy to deal with a pure and simple enemy, but Obama isn’t an enemy, he’s a rival.  Khamenei is forced to make rationalizations in the public eye, which will cause it to discredit itself.  When it lashes out against the West in the face of Obama’s outreach like we saw in the Cairo speech, it will be discredited. 
11:55 am: Iran’s response to the Vienna deal has so far been a disappointment, but it also shows that this is a delicate process.  Amid that process, what impact will the sanctions bills currently being considered by Congress have on the negotiations? 
Thielmann: It’s extremely important that US sanctions do not strengthen the regime when they’re intended to do exactly the opposite.  I’m a little skeptical of sanctions now, mostly because of the potential reactions from the Iranian people against such moves.
Pickering: Having sanctions hanging over the process is not all bad.  But tossing sanctions into the midst of a delicate process would be a mistake.
12:06 pm: Spencer Ackerman asks Amb. Pickering: “What type of outreach could or should the US do to communicate with the opposition and provide it support?”
Pickering: The Obama administration has its priorities right in negotiating with the regime in Iran, but also listening to the opposition.  That’s the way it should be.
Limbert: Our track-record in dealing with opposition movements like the one in Iran is not very good.  Our track-record in Iran specifically is TERRIBLE.  This is something one should do very, very carefully, if it’s done at all.
Parsi: We should make a distinction between political dialogue with opposition parties and bringing up the issue of human rights and humanitarian concerns.  Political interference is not the same as expressing humanitarian concerns.
12:18 pm: Paul, a friend of ours from Peace Action, asks just how close is Iran actually to a nuclear weapon?  Are they actually pursuing one?
Pickering: There’s two possible answers: “Yes, but…” and “No, but…”.  I believe it’s the “yes, but…” answer–there is no way of knowing for sure, probably because Iran’s leadership itself doesn’ know for sure.  At the end of the day, we need to explore the long-term goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons entirely.
Thielmann:  I believe it’s a matter of years, no months, before Iran can obtain a bomb.  What’s more, to obtain a bomb, it would have to take a number of actions that would very easily be detected by the international comunity.  Also, on the question of a delivery vehicle–it’s clear that we have overestimated Iran’s capability of developing a delivery vehicle.  My experience suggests that it’s not a trivial thing to design and integrate all the necessary components of a nuclear weapon, and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that our estimations are not long enough.  Iran won’t have a weapon by the end of 2010. 
Limbert: Has Iran been dissembling about its nuclear program?  Almost certainly.  Does Iran intend to develop a “breakout capacity”?  Yes, very probably. 
Parsi: We began a process that will not be easy nor will it be short.  It will undoubtedly take a lot of patience, though.  Thank you.

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