Washington, D.C. – What we’ve learned over the past eight years is that it’s possible to make progress on something that once seemed intractable,” said Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor to the President, in his keynote address at the 2016 NIAC Leadership Conference. Reflecting on the Obama administration’s landmark diplomatic initiatives with Iran over the past eight years, Rhodes praised the successes of the President’s dedication to diplomacy, including the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He stressed, however, that further improvement in U.S.-Iran relations will hinge on continued commitment to forging new diplomatic initiatives with Iran.
Rhodes’ address came shortly after the negotiating parties met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York as well as a major announcement licensing the sale of aircraft from Boeing and Airbus to Iran. Rhodes highlighted the latter milestone by noting that the licensing will help to address the “grave humanitarian necessity of enhanced civil aviation for the Iranian people.”
Rhodes recounted the President’s personal determination to create a new relationship with Iran throughout his presidency, emphasizing the patience and persistence it took to do so. Successful diplomacy during the Obama administration required challenging the status quo of endlessly punishing Iran, which he described as the “entrenched, conventional approach.” Obama “put everyone on notice that he was going to defend diplomacy” by making “clear that he would veto any bill that imposed new sanctions on Iran” in the lead up to the interim agreement in 2013. This generated fierce political resistance, but Rhodes maintained that the benefits, chief of which was the dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program, were well worth the trouble.
Despite the progress achieved by the administration, Rhodes warned that “there is great danger in complacency.” According to Rhodes, not only must the next administration continue to follow through on the commitments of the JCPOA, but it must also be flexible in its diplomatic approach, continually looking for opportunities to resolve additional differences between the two countries. While the next administration will continue to face challenges from Iran, such as Iran’s human rights abuses and ballistic missile program, Rhodes stressed that the successes of the Obama administration’s engagement have provided a model. “There is an opening for the United States, if we’re willing to engage,” according to Rhodes. Engaging a country that continues to challenge U.S. interests, such as Iran, is difficult, but Rhodes maintained that “if you only see the worst elements of that country and shape your entire policy in response to those elements, you’re not going to be able to find any opportunities.”
Rhodes also highlighted the need to focus diplomatic efforts on the people they affect, pointing out “we have to remember that we are countries of people.” He noted that people-to-people exchanges, such as scientific, educational, and cultural exchanges, will be particularly helpful in building bridges with the Iranian people. He envisions the Iranian-American community playing an important role in this effort, serving as “a bridge to the people of Iran” and normalizing cooperation between the two countries.
Rhodes also stressed the need to hold Iran accountable for its human rights abuses, and thanked NIAC for continuing “to raise a voice on behalf of human rights in Iran and around the world.”
Additionally, Rhodes spoke about the importance of counteracting discrimination against the Iranian-American community. Rhodes talked about the Iranian Americans he has worked with closely at the White House and discussed episodes in which his Iranian-American colleagues“have been attacked simply because of their backgrounds when they are, frankly, the most patriotic people that I have worked with in my time at the White House.” He said it was “one of the things that I have found to be most upsetting in this job” and affirmed that “we cannot live in a country where your patriotism is not judged by what you do, but who you are.”
Similarly, Rhodes assured the audience that the Obama administration is “very concerned about the hardships…imposed on the Iranian-American community” by the visa waiver restrictions in H.R. 158 that target dual nationals of Iran. He noted the administration’s prior interest in reforming the Visa Waiver Program after terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. However, Rhodes noted that in the administration’s view “Iran was not, candidly, on the list” of countries that may harbor ISIL fighters attempting to come to the U.S. Going forward, he advocated for political engagement with the Iranian-American community and “shining a spotlight on this extraordinary, dynamic, successful [and] patriotic community, and listening to them when making decisions about things that will affect them so much.”
Earlier that night, Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA) also addressed what he called the “danger” that H.R. 158 presents to Iranian Americans in an opening keynote to Leadership Conference attendees. He expressed his firm opposition to the bill, asserting that “a U.S. passport provides the full benefits and rights of American citizenship, period.”
Huffman echoed the opportunities for future progress created by the nuclear deal. As a critically important example, Huffman focused on the opportunity created by “the diplomatic channel opened by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” to negotiate the release of Jason Rezaian, with whom he has become friends, and other imprisoned Americans in January. Huffman stated that “NIAC’s advocacy on Jason’s behalf was absolutely exemplary,” and highlighted the importance of civic engagement in the Iranian-American community in helping to reconcile U.S.-Iran relations in the future.
Huffman also addressed the “growing sense of disappointment in Iran, that lifting of sanctions has not translated to the anticipated economic benefits, as of yet.” He said that relief to the Iranian economy is likely to be gradual following implementation of the JCPOA, but firmly believes that “over time, Iran will see significant benefits from sanctions relief, as they should.” He cited the recent licensing of aircraft sales to Iran as an example of the growing commercial engagement between the U.S. and Iran, and noted the need to continually utilize the newly formed diplomatic channels with Iran to build on such successes.
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