Members of Congress Skipping Netanyahu’s Speech

The legislators below have made the decision to skip Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s upcoming speech to a joint-session of Congress on Tuesday, March 2nd. If your legislator is on this list, thank them for standing up for diplomacy. If you do not see your legislator on this list, click here to urge your legislators to skip this inappropriate speech and support U.S. diplomacy with Iran.

60 members of Congress confirmed they would not attend the speech.

Last Updated on March 3, 2015 at 2:59 PM


Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ)


Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA)

Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA)

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA)

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) — “I am disappointed Speaker Boehner chose to irresponsibly interject politics into what has long been a strong and bipartisan relationship between the United States and Israel. As President Obama has noted, it is inappropriate for a Head of State to address Congress just two weeks ahead of their election. I agree that Congress should not be used as a prop in Israeli election campaigns, so I intend to watch the speech on TV in my office.”

Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA) — “Rep. McNerney is not planning to attend the speech. He’s got several previously planned commitments for that day.”

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA)


Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) 


Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) 


Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL)


Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA)

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA)


Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) — “The U.S.-Israel relationship is too important to be overshadowed by partisan politics,” said Schatz in a statement. “I am disappointed in the Republican leadership’s invitation of Prime Minister Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress with the apparent purpose of undermining President Obama’s foreign policy prerogatives.”


Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-IL)


Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL)

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL)

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL)


Rep. Andre Carson (D-IN)


Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) — “We know what he is going to say. Netanyahu’s position on the ongoing negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program is not a secret. Like many other members, I have been visited by the Israeli ambassador and understand what they want and how that differs from what U.S. negotiators are attempting to accomplish.”


Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA)


Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME)


Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD)

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD)


Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) — “This invitation came without consulting the President or State Department and with the false representation that it was a bi-partisan invitation. Speaker Boehner has poisoned a critical foreign policy discussion with partisan gamesmanship.”

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MD) — “I have been and will continue to be a strong supporter of Israel, but the timing and circumstances of this speech are deeply troubling.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)


Rep. John Conyers (D-MI)


Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN)

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN)

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) — “I will respectfully abstain from attending Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign rally.”


Rep. Lacy Clay (D-MO)

Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver (D-MO)


Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS)

New Jersey

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ)

New Mexico

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM)

New York

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY)

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) — “The whole thing is a nightmare in diplomacy.”

North Carolina

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC)

Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC)

Rep. David Price (D-NC)


Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH)

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH)


Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) — “For the sake of diplomacy, peace, and respect for our ally Israel, to say nothing of stability in the Middle East, Speaker Boehner must cancel the joint session of Congress with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. If he does not, I will refuse to be part of a reckless act of political grandstanding.” 

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) 


Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA)

Rhode Island

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)

South Carolina

Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC)


Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) — “The Prime Minister’s use of the U.S. House chamber as a stage to argue against the comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, which is currently being negotiated among Iran and the P5+1 — the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom and Germany, is reckless.”


Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX)

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) – “While success with Iran is far from assured, we must seek to overcome the misguided approach of those, like Mr. Netanyahu, who would reject any reasonable nuclear agreement. The only true alternative to an effective agreement is war with Iran. Scuttling nuclear negotiations with Iran would endanger every family in America and Israel.” 

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) — “The Congresswoman has no plans to attend the speech at this time,” a spokeswoman said.

Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX)

Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX)


Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) — “There is no reason to schedule this speech before Israeli voters go to the polls on March 17 and choose their own leadership.”


Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) — “They have orchestrated a tawdry and high-handed stunt that has embarrassed not only Israel but the Congress itself.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) — “I’m not thinking of not going. I am not going. I may watch it on TV.”


Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA)

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA)

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) — “I do not intend to attend the speech of Bibi. The whole event is to shore up Bibi’s political campaign.  It also may reflect an attempt to gum up the negotiations with Iran.  Side benefit is to make the president look weak.”

Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA)

Washington, D.C.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC) 


Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) 

U.S.-Iran Diplomacy Now Stronger Than Netanyahu’s Pressure



Contact: Jamal Abdi
Phone: 202-386-6408

Washington, DC – Three Congressional letters are being sent to the President regarding nuclear negotiations with Iran. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) is pleased that Congress is not passing sanctions or measures that will restrict negotiators. The new political reality in Washington is that there is overwhelming support for a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear standoff with Iran and efforts to undermine negotiations have proven unsuccessful.

“The status quo, in which Netanyahu visits Washington, addresses AIPAC, and Congress agrees to slap new sanctions on Iran, has been turned on its head,” said NIAC Policy Director Jamal Abdi. “The White House, leaders in Congress, outside organizations, and the American people have all put their foot down and said that we don’t want a war and more sanctions, we want to give diplomacy a chance.”

Of the three letters being sent, NIAC opposed one but remained neutral on the others because the letters met key principles outlined in ajoint organizational letter and in correspondence between NIAC and members of Congress.

The letter opposed by NIAC, led by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Menendez and Senator Graham, includes guidelines for negotiations that can easily be construed by opponents of a diplomatic solution to force the U.S. to violate the terms of the preliminary agreement. NIAC urges those who signed the letter to clarify that this letter does not require zero enrichment or dismantlement of a civilian Iranian nuclear program, and that they do not support a vote on new Iran sanctions.

Conversely, while NIAC had concerns with some language in letters organized in the House by Majority Leader Cantor and Minority Whip Hoyer, and in the Senate by Armed Services Chairman Levin, these letters ultimately honor the terms of the preliminary agreement between Iran and the P5+1 and do not set preconditions for negotiators.

Most importantly, all three letters indicated that Congress will work with the administration to lift sanctions if a final deal is struck.

“As negotiations have progressed, some in Congress have wasted a lot of valuable time talking about ratcheting up Iran sanctions almost as if by force of habit,” said Abdi. “More and more in Congress are now realizing that we may soon see a final deal that takes an Iranian nuclear weapon off the table for good, but that the sanctions will need to be lifted in order to lock that deal in.”



40 Organizations Urge Congress to Support Diplomacy, Uphold Iran Deal

Washington, DC – Forty national organizations,* including NIAC, FCNL, Win Without War, and J Street, have sent a letter to Congressional leadership urging that Congress uphold the preliminary nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran and support negotiations towards a final deal that prevents an Iranian nuclear weapon and averts an unnecessary war.

As Congress reportedly is considering new action regarding Iran, with the upcoming AIPAC conference and a Washington visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the letter urges that Congress observe three basic principles:

  1. Congress should ensure Iran is upholding the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) and similarly should not consider any measures that cause the U.S. to violate the JPOA, such as by passing new sanctions.
  2. Congress should refrain from renegotiating the basic terms of a final agreement that are outlined in JPOA, such as by demanding “zero enrichment”.
  3. Congress and the Administration should work together to ensure necessary authorizations exist for the U.S. to lift nuclear-related sanctions if a final deal is secured.
The letter is below, a PDF of the letter is available here.

February 27, 2014

To: Majority Leader Harry Reid, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi

As negotiations proceed between the P5+1 and Iran, the following organizations urge Congress to uphold the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) and refrain from considering any measures that would violate the letter or spirit of the JPOA or renegotiate the basic terms for a final agreement outlined in the JPOA. We urge Congress and the Administration to work together to ensure diplomacy can succeed in preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon and averting an unnecessary and costly war.

The JPOA advances U.S. national security objectives by freezing and rolling back key elements of Iran’s nuclear program as negotiations towards a comprehensive nuclear agreement proceed. Congress has an important role to play to ensure the terms of the JPOA are upheld by Iran. At the same time, it is critical that Congress not cause the United States to violate our own terms under the deal. The Senate’s decision to abstain from considering new Iran sanctions has helped give diplomacy the best possible chance to succeed.  It is critical that Congress not legislate new sanctions while talks are proceeding, which would violate the JPOA and, according to a U.S. Intelligence Community assessment, “would undermine the prospects for a successful comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran.”

Furthermore, Congress should refrain from issuing ultimatums that would contradict the broad terms outlined in the JPOA for what may constitute a final deal. The JPOA is clear that a final agreement would “Involve a mutually defined enrichment programme with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs”, albeit one which in the words of Under Secretary Wendy Sherman would have to be “highly constrained, highly monitored, and verified on a quite regular basis.” The issuance of ultimatums through legislation or resolutions expressly or implicitly calling for zero enrichment and complete dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would only contradict the terms of the JPOA and jeopardize negotiations towards a final agreement. Any ultimatums beyond the goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran can only serve to tie the hands of our negotiators, empower Iranian hardliners and prevent creative solutions to resolve the serious issues that remain.

Finally, the JPOA is also clear that, if Iran makes the necessary concessions to meet the terms required in a final comprehensive nuclear agreement, nuclear-related sanctions will be lifted. To ensure a final deal can be reached, Congress and the administration must work together to ensure that, in exchange for verifiable Iranian concessions that provide concrete assurances against nuclear weaponization, the necessary authorities exist to lift sanctions.

The negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 are an essential opportunity for the United States and its negotiating partners to secure an agreement that prevents an Iranian nuclear weapon and averts a war.  We are hopeful that Congress and the Administration will work together to ensure diplomacy can succeed so that these important national security goals can be achieved.


American Friends Service Committee
Americans for Peace Now
Arab American Institute
Center for Interfaith Engagement, Eastern Mennonite University
Center for International Policy
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Fellowship of Reconciliation
Friends Committee on National Legislation
HAND Foundation
Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ
International Civil Society Action Network
Institute for Policy Studies, New Internationalism Project
Jewish Voice for Peace
J Street
Just Foreign Policy
Maryknoll Office of Global Concerns
National Council of Churches
National Iranian American Council
Office of Public Witness, Church of the Brethren
Orthodox Peace Fellowship
Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace
Peace Action
Peace Action West
Physicians for Social Responsibility
Presbyterian Church (USA)
Progressive Democrats of America
Shomer Shalom Network for Jewish Nonviolence
The Shalom Center
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society
Veterans for Peace
Win Without War
Women’s Action for New Directions

* This letter was initially sent to the Senate with 38 signers – two additional organizations requested to join and have been added.


The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the interests of the Iranian-American community. We accomplish our mission by supplying the resources, knowledge and tools to enable greater civic participation by Iranian Americans and informed decision-making by policymakers.


Al Jazeera: US-Iran Deal: Compromise is Key

The stars could not be better aligned for a US-Iran breakthrough. Regional developments – from the instability following the Arab spring to the civil war in Syria – have significantly increased the cost of continued conflict, as has the escalation of the nuclear issue with steadily growing Iranian capabilities and ever tightening economic sanctions.

Domestically, developments are also favourable for a deal. Iran’s hardliners and proponents of a narrative of resistance have been put on the defensive by Hassan Rouhani’s election victory in June 2013. And Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has thus far firmly backed Rouhani’s negotiation strategy.

In Washington, proponents of Israeli Prime Miinister Benjamin Netanyahu’s line have suffered several defeats over the past year, from the nomination of Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, to the call for military action in Syria, to the failure to pass new sanctions on Iran, rendering their influence less decisive. All three defeats were, in no small part, due to the mobilisation of pro-diplomacy groups in the US. Timing-wise, striking a deal during Rouhani’s first year and during Obama’s last years in office is also ideal.

That doesn’t mean, however, that negotiations will be easy. On the contrary, the hard part begins now.

In the interim deal, the main concessions exchanged were increased transparency and inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities, halting the expansion of the enrichment program, and ending it at the 20 percent level. In return, Iran would get Western acceptance of enrichment on Iranian soil, and agreement that Iran eventually will enjoy all rights granted by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), as well as some minor sanctions relief.

Going forward, Obama will face severe difficulties offering relief on key sanctions such as those on oil and banking, since these are controlled by Congress.

Going forward, Obama will face severe difficulties offering relief on key sanctions such as those on oil and banking, since these are controlled by Congress.

Obama can temporarily waive Congressional sanctions, but the utility of waivers is questionable due to the proportionality principle established in the Istanbul talks in the spring of 2012.

Reversible Western concessions, the Istanbul talks established, will have to be exchanged for reversible Iranian measures and vice versa. To extract irreversible concessions, similarly irreversible measures have to be offered.

Sanctions waivers are fundamentally reversible. They usually last only six months and have to be actively renewed by the president – including by whoever occupies the White House after 2016.

If Obama can only offer Iran waivers, Tehran will likely respond in kind. Its implementation of the Additional Protocol – a pivotal transparency instrument – would be time limited and subject to continuous renewal (just like the waivers) rather than being permanent. This is tantamount to adding a self-destruction mechanism to the deal. Such a deal is harder to sell, and even harder to keep. To be durable, the deal must have strong elements of permanence to it, which requires irreversible measures. It is foreseeable that waivers could be used during the first phase of the implementation of a final deal; partly to test Iranian intentions, partly because actually lifting sanctions can take years.

Washington, however, will push for the implementation phase of the final deal to be very lengthy – up to 25 years – and for waivers to be used throughout this period. According to this plan, sanctions wouldn’t be fully lifted until a quarter century after the final deal has been agreed upon, i.e. when Iran’s nuclear file has been fully normalised.

A Hard Sell

For Washington, the idea that sanctions would be fully lifted prior to Iran’s file becoming normalised is hard to sell. It’s even harder to sell the idea that Iran can become a normal NPT state in just a few years. Tehran is so mistrusted by the West that a short implementation phase might be a non-starter. (A lengthy implementation phase has an obvious benefit for the West as it may offer enough time for the current regime in Iran to fall.)

Tehran of course disagrees. It will push for a shorter phase, possibly only three to five years. The lengthier the phase is, the more vulnerable the deal will become, they will argue. The implementation of the deal would be put in the hands of future presidents of Iran and the US, whose cooperation neither Obama nor Rouhani can guarantee.

Moreover, for the deal to be sellable in Iran, economic relief must be real and come early. International companies are unlikely to return to the Iranian market simply based on sanctions being temporarily waived. They will, as they do elsewhere, demand stability. Consequently, waivers won’t be enough. Iran’s economy won’t get the boost that would justify the nuclear compromises demanded of Iran. In short, neither the Iranian elite nor the public will go for it, Iran’s negotiators will argue.

Tehran worries, however, that it may not have many cards to play. The interim deal was front loaded with Iranian concessions, leaving Tehran with few bargaining chips for the final negotiations, some in Iran believe. Halting the expansion of the enrichment program and ending the enrichment of uranium at 20 percent have also eliminated the West’s sense of urgency. The West can afford to drag this out, while the Rouhani government doesn’t have that political luxury.

Washington, in turn, fears that the limited sanctions relief, that Iran has received, will have a psychological effect far greater than its monetary value would suggest, causing international businesses to flock to Iran and cause the unraveling of the entire sanctions regime even if Iran doesn’t agree to a final deal.

Both sides may be exaggerating their fears and putting forward maximalist opening positions for what is likely to be very tough negotiations. One thing is certain, however: Compared to the interim deal, the compromises both sides will have to embrace this time around will be of a very different order.

This article originally appeared in AlJazeera English


Iran Sanctions Delayed as Key Members of Congress Rally for Diplomacy

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives are speaking out in support of U.S.-Iran diplomacy to resolve the nuclear issue and against new sanctions that many say will derail the talks.

Washington, DC – Lawmakers in the House of Representatives are speaking out in support of U.S.-Iran diplomacy to resolve the nuclear issue and against new sanctions that many say will derail the talks.

On Tuesday, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) went to the House floor to deliver an impassioned speech in support of negotiations.

On Wednesday, Reps. Jim McDermott (D-WA) and Keith Ellison (D-MN) delivered speeches in support of diplomacy, and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) also argued against new sanctions.

And on Thursday, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) voiced his support for diplomacy and opposition to new sanctions.

The speeches cap off a week in which the Senate narrowly avoided a vote on new sanctions, with Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT), Carl Levin (D-MI), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) coming out publicly in opposition to new sanctions. The White House has held several briefings with the Senate to oppose a new sanctions push, including a Tuesday meeting at the White House between Senators and President Obama.

However, Senator Mark Kirk – who has clashed with the White House and accused Secretary of State John Kerry of being “anti-Israeli” for contradicting Netanyahu’s version of the talks – is attempting to push new sanctions. He introduced an amendment to an annual defense bill being considered in the Senate that would impose new sanctions on Iran and prevent the President from being able to lift those sanctions unless Iran gives up all nuclear enrichment. Many experts argue that such a “zero-enrichment” requirement is a poison pill that would end negotiations, and in fact did end negotiations with Iran during the Bush Administration.

Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) has also filed a sanctions amendment to the NDAA that would be a modified version of H.R.850, sanctions legislation that passed in the House a mere four days before the new Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, was inaugurated.  The legislation targets countries still trading for Iranian oil under administration waivers in addition to other sectors of the Iranian economy.

Neither the Kirk amendment nor the Menendez amendment were considered before the Senate adjourned for a two-week recess on Friday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Thursday, however, that he is keeping the option open to pass new sanctions once the Senate returns in December. But that calculation could likely change if a deal is agreed to in Geneva.




6 Reasons Iran Deal Was Good for America

Diplomacy is never easy. Top diplomats of Iran, the United States and other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, spent three days debating a first, interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program. And an agreement was found: After 34 years of estrangement, Iran and the U.S. were finally on the same page.

Still, the deal fell through. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius showed up in Geneva, Switzerland, a day into the talks and adopted a hawkish line that guaranteed the failure of the discussions.

And much to the dismay of the other diplomats involved, Fabius broke protocol and announced both details of the talks and the failure to reach a deal before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had a chance to address the media. Fabius, echoing the objections of hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, argued that Iran would get too much in the proposed deal. But in reality Iran was only offered modest sanctions relief in return for some significant suspension of aspects of its nuclear program.

Here’s why the deal the United States negotiated, and France scuttled, would have been good for America.

1. Iran would not get a nuclear weapon

The most important aspect of the agreement with Iran that U.S. President Barack Obama is pursuing is that Tehran would not be able to build a nuclear weapon. If Tehran tries to cheat, it would be caught very early in that process and face consequences. By limiting Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities to below 5% enrichment, combined with the most intrusive inspections that exist — the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty — the deal means Iran could not amass the material to build a nuclear bomb. In short, Obama would achieve America’s main national security objective.

2. This would be a good deal for Israel

Even though Netanyahu would never say it publicly, he knows very well that this would be a good deal for Israel — not only because it would prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb, but because improved U.S.-Iran relations inevitably would lead to a softening of Iran’s position on Israel. This has already happened since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was elected. When Iran’s strategic interest has dictated such a position on Israel, it has pursued that path in spite of its ideological inclinations to challenge Israel.

Don’t take it from me, take it from the former head of Israel’s intelligence services, Efraim Halevy: “If the dynamism that leads to a resolution of the nuclear issue, leads to a thaw between Iran and the U.S., it’s very difficult for the Iranians to envisage an ‘American spring’ at the same time they pursue a confrontation with Israel.”

3. It would be good for human rights and democracy in Iran

Human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists in Iran have for years testified that tensions between Iran and United States — with the risk of war and devastating economic sanctions — have made their work all the more difficult. The situation created an Iran with military-security forces in charge. Everything was seen through the prism of a potential war with the United States. Political freedom and human rights became lesser priorities for Iranians when the primary concerns were to survive the economic malaise and avoid war.

Democracy simply does not flourish under the threat of war or under the burden of economic collapse. With the reduction of tensions as a result of this deal, the opportunity would rise once more for the defenders of democracy and human rights to push Iran’s political system toward greater freedom.

4. The destructive escalation train would be stopped

For the first time since 2005, key elements of the Iranian nuclear program would be frozen. This would be a significant achievement: Although the West has for years escalated its sanctions and put great pressure on the Iranian economy, Iran has at the same time expanded its nuclear program, inching closer toward a nuclear weapons capability — a mutual escalation, with no solution in sight. Obama’s deal with Iran would put a stop to that. Negotiations could proceed without the nuclear program progressing at the same time.

5. It would advance the fight against al Qaeda

In spite of their enmity, some issues have found Iran and the United States on the same side, perhaps nowhere more than in the struggle against al Qaeda. Iran has been targeted by al Qaeda’s terrorism for decades. It is often said that the Salafi Sunni extremists in al Qaeda hate the Shiites in Iran more than the infidels in America. Yet the hostility between Iran and the United States has prevented them from collaborating against this common threat to the extent that they could and should. By opening the path to improved relations between the two states through the nuclear deal, they could claim common cause against this global threat and help stabilize the region.

6. There would be peace, not war

Last but not least, not only would Obama’s deal prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, it would also prevent a devastating war with Iran. Make no mistake: Although the U.S. military can handle another war, the U.S. economy cannot absorb its cost. Without this deal, a military confrontation would become all but certain and the American people would have to kiss the economic recovery goodbye.

The American people who fought tooth and nail against a limited war with Syria would have to settle for a war with Iran that could well be far more devastating. Thanks to Obama’s diplomacy, this nightmare scenario could be prevented.

(This article originally appeared in CNN)




Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran and the Saudi and Israeli Perspective

Washington, DC – As negotiations restarted in Geneva over Iran’s nuclear program last week, a panel of former officials from Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran and the U.S. convened at the 2013 NIAC Leadership Conference in Washington to examine the geopolitical implications. 

Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud joined the panel in what he said was his first address to an Iranian-American audience, giving attendees a rare direct insight into Saudi Arabia’s decision-making. The former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and Director General of the country’s foreign intelligence service conveyed his admiration for Iran’s culture and history but expressed a skeptical view of ongoing nuclear talks with the Islamic Republic. Prince Turki argued that Iran has been competing provocatively with Saudi Arabia for leadership in the Islamic world since 1979 to attempt to create “an Iranian empire like no one had ever seen.”

Yossi Alpher, former advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, echoed this point. The problems with Iran, he said, would not end with a nuclear deal because Iran has “hegemonic designs on the region.” Alpher and Turki pointed to Hezbollah’s violent campaigns in Syria and Lebanon as evidence of Iran’s continuing bid for regional hegemony. 

Shireen Hunter, professor at Georgetown University and former Iranian diplomat under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, strongly objected to the notion of an Iranian quest for hegemony. She cautioned that identifying the Islamic Republic’s ambitions through a failed strategy espoused during its revolutionary period presented a misleading picture of Iran’s current outlook. “A bunch of barefoot Shiites in south Lebanon or a couple in Yemen are not what hegemonies are made of,” she said, arguing that even Hezbollah lacks the economic or military clout to achieve such an end. 

The real dynamic, Hunter said, is that the post-Cold War “bogeyman vacuum” created by the collapse of the Soviet Union has invited a larger narrative to make Iran out as the new “bogeyman.” She argued that other countries in the Middle East have reaped the benefits of Iran’s poor relations with the United States since the Islamic revolution. “When [Iran’s] role comes into play, [their] roles will diminish,” she said, due to Iran’s wealth of natural resources, geostrategic importance due to its location between the Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf, and its influence over the Strait of Hormuz. Accordingly, said Hunter, Israel and Saudi Arabia’s are reluctant to see Iran’s isolation end. 

Prince Turki

Turki stated, however, that Saudi Arabia welcomes diplomacy with Iran, despite its skepticism. He said that the real concern was that the current talks are limited to the permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5+1). He said that the negotiating parties should be expanded to a “P5+2” that includes the Gulf Cooperation Council. But in lieu of such a development, Turki said that Saudi Arabia prefers an alternative solution to the nuclear standoff in the form of a UN Security Council resolution requiring the Middle East to be a “zone free of weapons of mass destruction.” Such a resolution would be supported by security guarantees for signatories and enforced through “military sanctions” imposed by the Security Council. He demurred as to whether the Saudi position remains that Iran cannot have a civilian nuclear enrichment program—which Iran views as its right as a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Alpher was asked whether Israel could support a proposal to rid the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction, given that Israel is the only state in the region with a nuclear arsenal. Alpher said the proposal was “intriguing” but could only be considered by Israel once “peace is established in the region.”

Dr. Aaron David Miller, an American analyst and negotiator who has advised six U.S. secretaries of state, warned that the panelists were getting ahead of themselves. He urged that “expectations be kept at a reasonable place” regarding any potential Iranian nuclear deal. With regard to the concerns of Saudi Arabia and Israel, he specified that the United States cannot leave an “an angry, aggrieved, uncertain, and risk-inclined Prime Minister of Israel” at the end of a nuclear deal with Iran and that the U.S. “has Saudi and Israeli equities in mind” during the nuclear negotiations. The results of nuclear negotiations, Miller said, would not likely provide “transformational” changes to U.S.-Iran relations or to the region because of the absence of “transformative leaders.”  

“Until you have the right kind of leaders—on our side as well, with our risk-averse President—the best you’re going to be able to be able to do on are transactional arrangements,” said Miller. “Forget the transformations—you want transformations, you’ll get nothing.”

Prince Turki expressed concern that due to Obama’s “recent actions, or lack of, on Syria, that Mr. Netanyahu may well decide to take things into his own hands and launch a preemptive strike against Iran.” Alpher assured him that Israel has “checks and balances” that would prevent Netanyahu from singularly ordering a military strike, and that “if something is agreed to in Geneva […] I dare say, Netanyahu will have no choice but to acquiesce.”

Photos: Sima Jafari

Shireen HunterCrowd

Alpher and Miller




State Department Advises Senate to Hold Off Iran Sanctions Until After Negotiations

Wendy Sherman

Washington, DC – The top U.S. nuclear negotiator in UN Security Council negotiations with Iran urged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday to hold off on further sanctions until new negotiations commence. Wendy Sherman, the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, said delaying sanctions ahead of talks scheduled for October 15 and 16 in Geneva would give Iran the opportunity to to take “real actions” at the Geneva meeting. 

Many on the committee appeared skeptical and indicated they planned to consider new crippling sanctions despite positive signals from Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani. Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) was largely dismissive of Rouhani’s gestures, though he indicated he hopes concrete action will take place in Geneva. As for further sanctions, Menendez maintained that “as long as Iran is actively pursuing its nuclear program, we must actively work to increase the pressure.”

However, while the House passed a sanctions bill ahead of Rouhani’s inauguration in August, the Senate has yet to introduce its own version of the bill. It is all but certain that, given the government shutdown, new sanctions will not be introduced or considered before the Geneva talks. 

Some Senators were dismissive of any new negotiations. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) told Sherman that the U.S. must not negotiate with “evil liars.”  He challenged Sherman on what a deal with Iran would look like and whether the U.S. could “ever agree to ease sanctions in any negotiation that does not require Iran to abandon its enrichment and reprocessing capabilities.” Sherman refused to rule out a deal in which Iran retains enrichment—a point that many experts believe will be key to securing a verifiable solution but which is notably opposed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

The position of the U.S. on enrichment is unclear—under President Bush, the U.S. refused to negotiate directly with Iran unless the enrichment program was first suspended. Secretary of State John Kerry, as a Senator in 2009, called the Bush position requiring zero enrichment, “ridiculous” and said Iran has “a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose.” In 2011, then Secretary of State , Hillary Clinton signaled a shift from the Bush approach when she stated “[Iranians] can enrich uranium at some future date once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner in accordance with international obligations.”  

According to Sherman, a deal with Iran would realistically include limitations on the “pace and scope” of enrichment and greater transparency with regard to Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium. If Iran does not pass the “Geneva test”, she said, they should expect harsher sanctions—something Sherman says she and Secretary of State Kerry made clear to the Iranians following the U.N. general assembly. In terms of what a deal would look like, Sherman said that “the onus is on Iran” to clarify how far they are willing to go.

At least two dozen supporters of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK) filled the hearing room, sitting behind the panel in matching yellow jackets emblazoned with pro-MEK slogans. Senator John McCain advocated for the MEK’s safety in Iraq, criticizing the U.S. for not protecting MEK members from deadly attacks that occurred in Iraq’s Camp Ashraf. Sherman expressed concern but also noted that the MEK’s leadership in Paris was obstructing the process to resettle MEK members. A key demand of the MEK’s leadership is that the group’s members be allowed to relocate together as a single unit, rather than to be relocated individually to different countries. Menendez interjected and told Sherman that the MEK should be invited to relocate to the United States.




Pushing Peace: How Israel Can Help the United States Strike a Deal With Iran – And Why It Should

The moment that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hoped he could avoid is fast approaching: high-level negotiations between the United States and Iran that could lead to a deal that ends the decade-long standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program. As Obama has welcomed the new approach of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, and taken concrete steps to test Tehran’s sincerity, Netanyahu has been quick to dismiss Rouhani and call for more sanctions. It is increasingly clear that Netanyahu ultimately fears the success of diplomacy, not its failure. But Israel, and its national security establishment, should not see a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear standoff as a threat.

Contrary to Israel’s public line, Netanyahu’s worry is not that the Iranians would cheat on any agreement, or that Rouhani would prove to be a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Rather, Netanyahu and much of Israel’s security establishment view the status quo — ever-increasing sanctions that cripple Iran’s economy, combined with the ever-present threat of war — as preferable to any realistic diplomatic deal.

As Israelis well know, a compromise would probably allow for limited enrichment on Iranian soil under strict verification, and the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions. Although Iran would technically remain a non–nuclear weapons state, it would be considered a virtual nuclear power. And that, Netanyahu calculates, is sufficient to shift the balance of power in the region to Israel’s detriment, reducing the Jewish state’s maneuverability and the usefulness of its own deterrent. There is reason to believe, then, that Israel’s insistence on zero enrichment is aimed to ensure that no deal is struck at all.

Israel also understands that a resolution to the nuclear standoff would significantly reduce U.S.-Iranian tensions and open up opportunities for collaboration between the two former allies. Since U.S.-Iranian fellow feeling will not be accompanied by a proportionate reduction in Iranian-Israeli hostilities, Israel will be left in a relatively worse position. This is what Israelis refer to as the fear of abandonment — that, once the nuclear issue is resolved or contained, Washington will shift its focus to other matters while Israel will be stuck in the region facing a hostile Iran, without the United States by its side.

These fears have been the basis of Israel’s uncompromising position for the past several years. But Netanyahu has been particularly inflexible, breaking even past precedents of nimbleness. Israel generally opposes and seeks to prevent U.S.-Iranian talks whenever possible, but swiftly shifts to a neutral position once talks are deemed unstoppable. That way, it can still influence the agenda.

For instance, in 1999, the Clinton administration was intrigued — according to some Israelis, “infatuated” — with the election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who spoke of his desire to break the “wall of mistrust” with the United States. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak wanted neither to be locked out of a potential dialogue nor to come across as beating the war drum when the Clinton administration seemed intent on dialogue. To signal his government’s shift, Barak altered the status of Iran from enemy to threat, indicating, as Israeli diplomats argued, that the current Israeli position holds that Israel does not have a conflict with the Iranian people, the state of Iran, or with Islam. Moreover, Israel unofficially condemned a terrorist attack targeting a member of Khatami’s government.

Barak enjoyed this flexibility because he had consistently rejected the idea — and continues to do so today — that Iran constitutes an existential threat to Israel. Netanyahu, on the other hand, has come to personify the argument that he made in a 2006 address to delegates at the United Jewish Communities General Assembly: “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany.” Netanyahu has painted himself — and Israel — into a corner. And rather than trying to get out, he has, at every turn, doubled down on the strategy of intransigence.

Israel needs to show nimbleness now more that ever. With Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Syria all in various states of chaos, Iran appears to be the most resolvable challenge that the United States faces in the Middle East, and Obama seems to know it. By personally taking ownership of reaching out to Iran by seeking a meeting with Rouhani and later calling him, he has demonstrated the political will to move things forward. And Rouhani seems ready to meet the challenge. By contrast, Netanyahu’s knee-jerk rejection feeds the perception that Israel — not Iran — is the chief stumbling block. Ultimately, even short of a nuclear agreement, that impression can help Iran break out of its isolation and delegitimize the sanctions regime suffocating its economy.

Beyond the perception of it, Israel has much to gain from shifting its stance on negotiations. In private conversations last year after the successful round of talks in Istanbul, Israeli strategists revealed that Israel’s central concern was not enrichment but, rather, that any U.S. deal with Iran entail a “sweeping attitude change” in Tehran vis-à-vis Israel. In short, Israel did not want Washington to resolve its issues with Iran unless Iran was forced to address Israel’s concerns as well — first and foremost, an Iranian de facto acceptance of Israel’s right to exist.

This is precisely why diplomacy serves Israel better than Netanyahu’s naysaying: Iran’s position on Israel is far more likely to change in the direction Israel desires if U.S.-Iranian relations improve and the first tangible steps are taken to rehabilitate Iran into the region’s political and economic structures.

Since its inception, the Iranian theocracy has adopted harsh and venomous rhetoric about Israel to boost Tehran’s credibility on the Arab street and to bridge the region’s Arab-Persian and Sunni-Shia divide. But Tehran’s ideological impulses have not always driven policy. When ideology and geostrategic goals don’t match up, Iran favors the latter. During the Iraq-Iran War, Iran and Israel quietly collaborated behind the scenes for this very reason.

Over the last two decades, Tehran’s ideological and strategic imperatives have been in harmony. Strategically, Iran opposes Israel’s efforts to permanently isolate it. Ideologically, the anti-Israeli card has often been helpful to create common cause with the Arab masses and to help overcome Iran’s own tensions with its Sunni and Arab neighbors. When sectarian strife rises in the region, so does the utility of the anti-Israeli card for Tehran.

Improved U.S.-Iranian relations, with tangible steps to end Iran’s isolation on the condition that it shifts its behavior, could divorce Iran’s ideological and strategic impulses. If that happens, Iran would have compelling incentives to disentangle itself from anti-Israeli hostilities.

The Rouhani government — and its team of foreign policy practitioners, including Javad Zarif, the foreign minister — have long been inclined toward negotiations. It was this same team that in 2003 prepared the so-called grand bargain proposal, which the Bush administration chose to ignore. As part of that grand bargain, Iran said that it was willing to significantly restrain Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, and even sign on to the 2002 Saudi peace plan, which offered the recognition of Israel by every country in the Muslim world in return for an Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state. That would indeed have been a “sweeping attitude change” for Iran.

Similarly, Rouhani is believed to support the concept of adopting a “Malaysian profile,” which gained support during the Khatami era. The idea was that Tehran would, in return for an end to Israeli and American efforts to isolate Iran, assume a position on Israel similar to that of Malaysia: Iran would not recognize Israel but would limit its criticism of Israel to the plight of the Palestinian population, and would avoid getting itself entangled in activities against the Jewish state. The two rivals would also recognize each other’s respective spheres and disengage from further hostilities. This would have an immediate impact on Israel’s tensions with Hezbollah.

That plan is not perfect — nor is it Israel’s ideal relationship with Iran. But neutralizing Iran’s interest in fanning anti-Israeli sentiment would be no small gain and would significantly enhance Israel’s security and political position. Recognizing that, Israel should moderate its rhetoric and stop encouraging Congress to undermine diplomacy through additional sanctions. By doing so, Israel can both help diplomacy and ensure that the final outcome of the talks addresses key Israeli security concerns.

Although there is no guarantee that diplomacy will succeed, all other options suffer from the same uncertainty, particularly a military option. If anything, the risks facing Israel, especially the risk of its being “abandoned” by the United States, only increase the more Netanyahu portrays himself as unappeasable.

(This article originally appeared in Foreign Affairs)




Don’t Let Netanyahu Block U.S.-Iran Diplomacy

Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech at the UN this week that will make hardliners in Iran proud.

On the heels of a historic phone call between President Obama and Iran’s new president Rouhani — a call that ended three decades of silence between the two countries — hopes for a thaw in relations and a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear standoff have never been greater. It is critical that this momentum be sustained and the White House hears from Americans that they support diplomacy (see NIAC’s petition here).

Yet, as if on cue, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to the UN to deliver a blistering speech calling out the new Iranian president at least twenty times and dismissing Iran’s outreach as a “ruse.”

Instead of phone calls and direct negotiations, Netanyahu demanded that the world continue to escalate sanctions against Iran, as well as amplify the threat of war and set unrealistic ultimatums. Iran’s hardliners have been just as adamant that the West’s offer of negotiations is a “ruse” because, they say, America’s real goal is regime change and to never lift sanctions. Iran’s hardliners enjoyed Netanyahu’s speech far more than Obama and Rouhani’s phone call.

To the rest of the world, however, Netanyahu’s speech came off as reckless and tone deaf in the midst of cautious optimism. The White House is eager to test whether Rouhani can make good on his promises and agree to verifiable concessions on Iran’s nuclear program. Iranians are hopeful that this new opening can bring a brighter future and that the recent releases of Iranian political prisoners is the beginning of a new day for human rights in the country. And Americans overwhelmingly support diplomacy with Iran and are opposed another war.

Netanyahu’s call for more sanctions will kill these hopes and leave Rouhani and Obama’s promise untested. Escalation will only guarantee the continuation of a standoff that will spiral towards war. Netanyahu seems to believe that the world can either go down the path of North Korea or Iraq when it comes to Iran. In both cases, sanctions were at the center of the strategy and in both cases the prevailing lesson should be the limitation of sanctions. In Iraq and North Korea, sanctions successfully helped isolate and impoverish an entire population. In one case, the country’s entrenched rulers built the bomb, in the other case, the U.S. ended up in a disastrous war.

Now, with a diplomatic window opening with Iran, Netanyahu wants us to dismiss this opportunity by passing new sanctions and moving towards a false choice between two terrible options.

Many in Washington gravitate towards Netanyahu’s line of thinking. Congress is poised — if they ever come back to work — to consider slapping new sanctions on Iran and some may even introduce a war resolution. Netanyahu’s speech, combined with hardliner backlash in Washington and Tehran against recent positive gestures, demonstrates the political risks that leaders will to take, and the pressure they will incur among hardliners, to invest in bold diplomacy to break with the status quo.

Obama and Rouahni’s phone call was so historic because it was the first step in breaking from the false choices presented by hardliners on either side of the standoff. And the American people support this diplomatic initiative, not war. If they make their voices heard, this momentum will continue. We already saw how popular pressure helped change the U.S. government’s calculations on Syria and averted a war by demanding a diplomatic path. Now, on Iran, Obama must hear the same type of support for diplomacy.

NIAC has organized a petition thanking Obama for his outreach so that the people of the United States and Iran — and Israel for that matter — can enjoy a brighter future. It is critical that voices in support of diplomacy are louder than those calling for escalating sanctions on the continuing the path to war.

(This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post)




A Historic Week for Iran Diplomacy

Last week’s historic events surrounding the United Nations General Assembly could foreshadow a fundamental shift in U.S.-Iran relations away from mutual antagonism toward peaceful coexistence. With promising speeches at the UN, a direct bilateral meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and a groundbreaking phone call between President Obama and Rouhani – the first since 1979 — hopes for a peaceful resolution to the nuclear impasse have never been higher. In fact, many analysts have speculated that Obama’s willingness to speak directly with Rouhani indicates that there is substantial diplomacy going on behind the scenes, and that each side has confidence that they will be able to reach an agreement. While an agreement has not yet been reached, expectations are starting to shift in favor of diplomacy and both Presidents have committed their political capital in the hopes of achieving a deal. Such investment will be required if the enormous distrust between the U.S. and Iran is to be overcome.

In their speeches before the General Assembly, both President Obama and President Rouhani have called for serious dialogue on the nuclear issue. Obama largely abstained from military threats, promised that the United States was not seeking regime change with Iran, listed a nuclear deal with Iran as his chief national security priority in his second term (along with Arab-Israeli peace), and directed Secretary Kerry to pursue a nuclear deal. The latter move has injected political clout into negotiations, matching Rouhani’s step to transfer the nuclear file from the Supreme National Security Council to the Foreign Ministry, under Zarif. Obama stated, “I don’t believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight — the suspicion runs too deep. But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship — one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”

Addressing the General Assembly a few hours later, Rouhani said that he had listened carefully to Obama’s speech and believed that the U.S. and Iran “can arrive at a framework to manage our differences,” if talks are based on “equal footing, mutual respect and the recognized principles of international law.” Rouhani repeated his vow that Iran would not pursue a nuclear weapon and asserted that “Iran poses absolutely no threat to the world or the region.”

Although Rouhani and Obama did not meet face to face or orchestrate a public handshake, which was subject to strong speculation, Kerry and Zarif did meet on Thursday along with other ministers from the P5+1. In contrast to previous talks, each side rapidly agreed to a new time and venue for future P5+1 negotiations: October 15-16 in Geneva. Toward the end of the meeting, Kerry and Zarif met privately for about thirty minutes, the highest level bilateral meeting between the U.S. and Iran since the 1979 Revolution. Zarif indicated that they agreed to “jump-start” negotiations and to reach a shared vision on the “parameters of the end game,” with a goal to finalize the agreement within a year. Each side affirmed their commitment to moving the process forward, rapidly, toward a win-win solution.

These productive steps were followed up on Friday with negotiations between the IAEA and Iran over how to proceed in stalled investigations over possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program – a separate but parallel process to P5+1 negotiations. The IAEA meeting was described as “very constructive,” and will be followed up on October 28 with a meeting that is expected to dig into technical details.

Also on Friday, to the surprise of many, Obama phoned Rouhani while the Iranian president was on his way to the airport. The two presidents expressed their determination to rapidly reach an agreement on nuclear negotiations, while also addressing other issues including regional security and American prisoners in Iran. After speaking through interpreters, Rouhani signed off by saying “Have a nice day,” in English, while Obama replied “Thank you. Khodahafez.”

Breaking decades of silence, the phone call received major attention in the U.S. and Iran. Rouhani returned home to crowds of supporters and was greeted at the airport by the Supreme Leader’s adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, though a few dozen protesters threw eggs and shoes at Rouhani’s motorcade. Meanwhile, a recent poll found that over three-quarters of Americans favor direct talks with Iran, while a whopping 97% of Iranians favor direct talks.

Despite these major and historic steps, hardliners on each side will maneuver to block hopes for peace and reconciliation. After the House passed new, embargo-like sanctions on Iran a mere four days before Rouhani’s inauguration, the Senate is set to consider a companion bill in the week’s ahead. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in an op-ed in The Washington Post, vowed to press forward with new sanctions, arguing that “the maintenance and toughening of sanctions and a convincing threat of the use of force” are requirements for successful negotiations. Further, Sen. Graham and Rep. Trent Franks have vowed to introduce a war authorization in the weeks ahead, arguing that it would increase American leverage at the negotiating table. However, either new sanctions or a war authorization would be a major signal to Iran that the United States isn’t committed to diplomacy or that President Obama couldn’t deliver a deal with a hostile Congress. Rather than inject themselves into the Iran debate and sabotage diplomacy, Congress might consider other practical steps – like finding a way to pay its bills.

Further, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who just held a meeting with Obama and is set to speak before the General Assembly today, never misses an opportunity to dismiss diplomatic prospects. Netanyahu argued that Rouhani’s speech “lacked both any practical proposal to stop Iran’s military nuclear program and any commitment to fulfill UN Security Council decisions.” Netanyahu has insisted that Iran must fully dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for a suspension of future sanctions. That unreasonable demand was repeated by Republican Senators, but few experts view it as reasonable or credible. The basis for future talks, as expressed by Rouhani and Obama last week, is a curb on Iran’s nuclear activities and enhanced international transparency in exchange for meaningful sanctions relief.

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Rouhani’s Electoral Honeymoon Won’t Last Long

This week’s events at and surrounding the UN General Assembly will help determine whether the U.S. and Iran can resolve their differences, or if hardliners on either side will once again succeed in sabotaging reconciliation.

Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, has arrived in New York seven weeks into his presidency at what could be the apex of his electoral honeymoon. He has received the endorsement of the Supreme Leader to negotiate with “heroic flexibility” in forthcoming nuclear talks, succeeded in wresting control of negotiations from Iran’s security establishment, exchanged letters with President Obama, and obtained the release of approximately 90 political prisoners ahead of his New York visit, including human rights advocate Nasrin Sotoudeh. Later this week, Rouhani’s new Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, will sit down with Secretary of State John Kerry and the other chief diplomats of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) for the highest-level diplomatic talks since Iran’s 1979 Revolution. By moving talks up to the ministerial level, this week’s talks are likely to infuse diplomatic clout and urgency that has been lacking in previous negotiating rounds.

But honeymoons do not last. Rouhani has spent political capital on a “charm offensive” with the West, including an interview with NBC’s Ann Curry in which he disavowed the pursuit of nuclear weapons and an op-ed in The Washington Post. If he fails to deliver results in the form of sanctions relief, hardliners within Iran who distrust his conciliatory approach will move to block chances for a nuclear deal. That is why Rouhani has insisted that the time for resolving the nuclear impasse is limited.

Rouhani has firsthand experience with this dynamic as the lead nuclear negotiator for President Khatami. In 2003, Rouhani struck a confidence building deal with the European 3 (the UK, France and Germany) to suspend enrichment and adopt the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, allowing for enhanced transparency over Iran’s nuclear program. However, when these steps failed to lead to reciprocal concessions from the West, Rouhani and Khatami were branded appeasers and the ideological Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reversed their gains and embarked on eight years of amplifying tensions with the West. If we fail to capitalize on the opening before us, we risk repeating those same mistakes.

Obstacles to a deal are at least as difficult within the United States as inside Iran. Congress is set to consider a number of hostile actions that could sabotage renewed hopes for diplomacy. After the House passed a sanctions bill that would impose a virtual embargo on Iran mere days before Rouhani’s inauguration, the Senate is set to consider a companion bill in the weeks ahead. And, having failed to authorize military force against Syria, Rep.Trent Franks (R-AZ) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) are implementing plans to introduce a war resolution against Iran. While these counterproductive measures were an easier sell before Rouhani’s inauguration (the hawkish Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has already declared, “I miss Ahmadinejad“), there is still significant political support in the halls of Congress for renewed sanctions and escalating military threats against Iran.

Apart from Congressional action, President Benjamin Netanyahu and his fellow Iran war hawks are pushing a hardline stance that would render nuclear talks pointless. According to Netanyahu, Iran should be forced to abandon its entire nuclear program by halting enrichment and dismantling its nuclear facilities and centrifuges. In essence, Netanyahu’s stance is unyielding coercion, not diplomacy. Such a policy would set us on the path to war, which would make an Iranian nuclear weapon more, not less likely, given the inability of airstrikes to erase Iran’s nuclear know-how and the certainty that Iran would pursue a nuclear weapon to deter future strikes.

In spite of the pressure campaign against Iran, which has played into the Iranian hardliners’ belief that the United States is interested in regime change and not diplomacy, Rouhani’s election has presented us with another opportunity to resolve the nuclear impasse. But each side will need to invest significant political capital to head off hardliners and strike a nuclear deal while the iron is hot. For Rouhani, the longer he can hold the diplomatic window open, the greater the likelihood that he can deliver on his campaign promises. This will take deft maneuvering and even more political capital to satisfy the right people within Iran’s political establishment. But the success of his presidency is intrinsically tied to rapid success on the nuclear issue. On the American side, success means putting significant sanctions relief on the table immediately — including on oil and financial sanctions, clarifying the endgame with Iran, and taking immediate action to reciprocate Rouhani’s flexible stance. For example, the Obama administration’s lifting of sanctions on humanitarian work and sports exchanges with Iran should be followed up with additional measures to ease the plight of sanctions on Iranians.

This week could represent a fundamental change in the course of U.S.-Iran relations. Or it could represent a point of no return, a missed opportunity on the path toward war when leaders overlooked a critical opportunity to shift relations in a positive course. Let’s hope they take advantage of this critical moment.

(This article originally appeared on Huffington Post)