Iranian Officials Discount Possibility of War

Week of May 13, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

Tehran University Students Protest Compulsory Hijab

On May 13th, students at Tehran University staged a demonstration against “hijab and chastity plans.” In a statement, the students said they were protesting “the presence and deployment of ‘women’s protection forces’ that have joined the previous guards.” They said these new security forces amounted to a “clear offense to students’ private lives and directly violated their human rights and were a naked injustice against female students.”

Videos of the demonstration showed clashes between the protesting students and students belonging to the state-backed Basij force.

The statement of the protesting students said that defending the “freedom of clothing” was an “obvious right.” The statement also said that the “minimal freedom on clothing that exists at Tehran University” was due to “resistance and pressure” from students. The protesting students shouted slogans against mandatory hijab and their placards called for the freedom of three activists arrested during May Day protests on campus: Marzieh Amiri, Atefeh Rangriz, and Neda Naji.

Majid Sarsangi, Tehran University’s vice president for cultural affairs, stated that no “morality police” had been deployed to Tehran University. He stated: “Some are ignorantly and deliberately creating tensions in the students’ environment.”

However, Sarsangi stated that more strict social rules were indeed being implemented due to the start of the Islamic month of Ramadan. He said: “The only thing that has happened is that—just like every year for Ramadan—to preserve the sanctity of this month there should be no visible signs of not observing fasting or wearing attire that doesn’t respect the sanctity of this month.”

He added: “To this end, security forces are at Tehran University to give warnings to people who don’t respect the sanctity of fasting.”

Sarsangi also stated that Tehran University must implement the law, but that it doesn’t have a say in whether the law is “good or bad.” He also stated that it was “unfortunate” that there were clashes between students who have “different beliefs and ideas.” He added: “We tried to calm down the students who were angry … we hope that we never have to see such behavior at the university.”

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New IRGC Chief Briefs Parliament, Discounts Possibility of War

On May 12th, new IRGC commander Hossein Salami debriefed the Iranian parliament on tensions with the United States. According to parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, the meeting was already planned and was primarily meant to introduce Salami to parliamentarians.

According to Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, the chairman of the Iranian parliament’s foreign policy and national security committee, Salami discounted the possibility of a U.S.-Iran war. Falahatpisheh said the “most important” part of Salami’s remarks was that Iran was ready for war, but that the “strategic analysis” was that war will not occur.

Falahatpisheh added that war would not occur because “the behavior of the Americans and their movements in the field shows that they’re not after war and are just creating the psychological atmosphere of war.”

Among Iranian officials during the Trump era, Falahatpisheh has consistently been more dovish and has continued to dangle prospect of U.S.-Iran negotiations. Last October, Falahatpisheh stated that there was a “diplomatic atmosphere for de-escalation with America.”

After the parliament’s meeting with Salami this week, Falahatpisheh said that Trump will have to convey a “more serious” desire for negotiations rather than just asking for a phone call. He added that if Trump conveys this more serious desire for negotiations, he will see that “Iran is different than any country, even North Korea.”

He further stated: “With their initial positions right now, the Americans have shown that their policy for now is not negotiations. If Americans want to create conditions for negotiations they must backtrack from some of their policies.”

Falahatpisheh also said that Iran has unused leverage, stating: “The Americans have played their hand, while Iran has yet to reveal its hand. America’s hand was just its old sanctions. Iran hasn’t played its hand yet because it doesn’t want to escalate tensions. I believe the Americans will change their stance in the future.”

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Officials Dismiss Trump Phone Call Request, Call for Practical Steps to Save JCPOA

Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif travelled to Russia, India, Japan, and China this week to discuss prospects to preserve the JCPOA, among other issues. In Beijing, Zarif stated: “Saving the nuclear deal is possible through practical steps, not just releasing statements in support of the agreement.”

Zarif said regarding what he meant by practical steps to save the JCPOA: “If the international community feels that this agreement is a valuable achievement, it must, like Iran, take practical steps to preserve it. The meaning of practical steps is clear: Iran’s trade relations must become normalized.”

Last week, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said Iranian oil exports must be facilitated and banking limitations on the country lifted. If not, Iran would gradually cease abiding by JCPOA restrictions on its nuclear program. (Read last week’s issue of Iran Unfiltered for more details on Iran’s announcement that it would cease compliance with aspects of the JCPOA.)

Kamal Kharazi, a senior advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei on diplomatic affairs, stated that Iran would “definitely” not call U.S. President Donald Trump. In response to Trump’s request that Iran call him, Kharazi stated: “We definitely don’t want to call. He wants to talk to everyone and take pictures just for propaganda purposes for himself.

Kharazi added: “America cannot be trusted. We can’t forget that America left the nuclear deal and has violated international laws.”

Kharazi, who was speaking while in France, also denied accusations that Iran was behind the sabotage of oil tankers in the Emirati port of Fujairah. He said a “third party” was likely behind the sabotage with the aim of taking advantage of the current tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

He further stated: “There was definitely no Iranian interference in this issue. There needs to be an investigation to identify who was responsible for this action.”

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Iran Starts Process to Halt Full JCPOA Compliance

On May 15th, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) announced that it was starting the process of halting compliance on the JCPOA’s limitations on Iran’s heavy water and low-enriched uranium (LEO) stockpiles. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated last week that Iran would no longer export surplus quantities of heavy water and LEU. (Read last week’s issue of Iran Unfiltered for more information of Iran’s decision to halt compliance with these JCPOA limitations.)

To meet the JCPOA’s limitations, Iran was exporting its surplus LEU stockpile to Russia and heavy water to Oman. However, Iran’s decision to cease these exports was preempted by the Trump administration threatening new sanctions against buyers of Iranian heavy water and LEU. Iran’s ability to meet these JCPOA requirements was thus already obstructed by the United States.

The AEOI also announced that media outlets would soon be invited to view the nuclear work that Iran is restarting. AEOI stated: “In the coming days, in order to inform the public of the steps that have been taken, there are plans to have media outlets visit the facilities at Natanz and Arak.”

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Khamenei Rules Out War or Negotiations with Trump

On May 15th, in a meeting with senior officials, Ayatollah Khamenei declared that there won’t be a U.S.-Iran war nor will Iran negotiate with the United States. He stated: “These confrontations aren’t of a military nature. Because there is not going to be a war. Neither us nor them [the U.S.] is after a war. They know that a war won’t be to their benefit.”

However, Khamenei added that “Iran will resist” and that “in this confrontation, America will have no choice but to retreat.”

Khamenei also said that negotiations with the Trump administration would be “poison.” He said about the prospects for negotiations: “Some domestically ask what is wrong with negotiations? Such negotiations are poison as long as America is what it is right now. Negotiations with the current administration are a poison.”

Khamenei ruled out any negotiations over the range of Iran’s missiles and Iran’s “strategic depth” in the region. He stated: “Negotiations portend a transaction and giving and getting something. However, what America seeks is our sources of strength.”

He added: “They want to negotiate over our defensive weapons. They ask, why do you develop missiles with such a range? Lower this range so that if we attack you, you can’t strike our bases and retaliate. Or they say, let’s talk about your strategic depth in the region. They want to take this from us.”

President Rouhani also stated at the same meeting that Iran was undergoing a “divine test” and that “without a doubt, with steadfastness and resistance, Iran will surmount this stage.”

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IRGC Deputy Attacks “Western-Oriented” Politicians

On May 16th, Mohammad Saleh Jokar, the IRGC’s deputy for parliamentary affairs, criticized “Western-oriented movements” in Iran that warn of a U.S.-Iran war. Jokar stated that “Western-oriented movements” in the country “were playing a part in the enemy’s puzzle” by presenting “a binary of either war or negotiations.”

Jokar stated that such domestic forces were after “imposing another JCPOA on the country.” He further said that these movements have been able to “gather votes by creating false perceptions and politicking.” He added that the “interests of some capitalists and Western-oriented movements was to rumormonger about war and starvation.”

Jokar said the possibility of a war was “null” and that American society cannot “bear the costs of a new war.

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Regional Countries Attempting to Mediate U.S.-Iran Tensions

Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi said after a cabinet meeting this week that neither the U.S. nor Iran sought war with each other. Abdul-Mahdi’s comments came on the heels of an unannounced trip last week to Iraq by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.  

Abdul-Mahdi also stated that he has received signals from both Iran and the United States that indicate that “everything will be resolved in a positive manner.”

Qatar’s foreign minister also travelled to Tehran this week to find a path to resolve the “growing crisis between the U.S. and Iran and its consequences for the region.” According to Al Jazeera, Washington was made aware of the trip and the Qatari foreign minister had met with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif.

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Memo on Subcommittee Hearing “The Status of American Hostages in Iran”

On Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on the Middle East will hear from family members of individuals unjustly detained in Iran. This is an important opportunity to highlight and condemn the Iranian government’s unconscionable imprisonment of Americans and other politically motivated detentions that violate Iran’s human rights obligations.

It is also important that Congress spur the Trump administration to reverse course and take concrete steps to secure the freedom of Robert Levinson, Siamak and Baquer Namazi, Nizar Zakka, Xiyue Wang and other dual nationals unjustly imprisoned in Iran. Unfortunately, there is no indication that the President has made the release of dual nationals in Iran a priority, while his move to withdraw from the JCPOA and reimpose nuclear-related sanctions has torched existing diplomatic channels that could be used to press for the release of Americans – not to mention other interests including human rights and security issues.

The motivation behind the detentions are clear and require a serious approach rather than broad brush or politicized grandstanding. Dual nationals who have been arrested in Iran have been targeted by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Intelligence and prosecuted by the Iranian Judiciary that is not legally accountable to Iran’s civil government but rather only to unelected institutions. These hardline elements of the regime oppose Iran’s economic integration with the rest of the world, thrive under sanctions and the Iranian people’s isolation, and engage in ruthless tactics aimed at sabotaging rivals who prefer moderation of Iran’s foreign policy and reform of its domestic policies. These elements have benefited extensively from the Trump administration’s abdication from the nuclear agreement, the return of a sanctions economy, and appointment of advisors to the Trump administration who have openly called for war. Hardliners inside Iran prefer to maintain a revolutionary ideology predicated on confrontation with the West and fear the engagement with the U.S. that led to the JCPOA, as well as the potential of sanctions relief that would lift up ordinary Iranians, empower Iran’s private sector and build space for Iranian civil society. Imprisoning Americans is just one more way that these hardline elements seek to enshrine confrontation with the U.S. and guarantee their grip on power will not be undermined through engagement.

While the Trump Administration’s efforts to collapse the deal have undercut the political capital of moderates, President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and other members of the Iranian administration must continue to hear from the international community that these detentions and human rights violations are unacceptable and that they are responsible for challenging and stopping the perpetrators of these actions within the regime, even if they are not under the administration’s direct control.

The Obama Administration developed a playbook for bringing imprisoned dual nationals home, via consistent diplomacy and back-channel negotiations aimed at securing their release. A combination of public accountability of Iran’s government and credible diplomacy is the formula to achieve results in changing Iran’s behavior. To increase the chances of winning the release of current U.S. persons held in Iran, members of Congress should pursue a multipronged approach based on:

Spotlighting These Cases

  • The cases of American citizens arrested inside Iran on arbitrary charges has been tragic. Businessman Siamak Namazi, long an advocate of improved U.S.-Iran relations, has been imprisoned alongside his father Baquer Namazi, an 81-year old former diplomat for UNICEF whose health is ailing. Xiyue Wang was arrested while conducting research for his PhD dissertation at Princeton University on the Qajar dynasty. 

  • Former FBI agent Bob Levinson’s whereabouts have been unknown since he first went missing in Iran over eleven years ago, which would make him the longest-held U.S. hostage. Meanwhile, U.S. resident Nizar Zakka was arrested after being invited to a conference in Tehran by Iranian officials.

  • Congress cannot allow the plight of U.S. persons to languish in the background. Members of Congress should continue to hold hearings and raise awareness regarding these cases to increase the reputational costs of Iran committing such gross acts of injustice.  

Condemn Iran’s Hardliners–But Don’t Play Into Their Hands

  • The January 2016 prisoner exchange that led to the release of five Americans, including Washington Postjournalist Jason Rezaian, was reflective of moderate and reformist elements of the regime, including President Rouhani, prevailing in internal arguments that cooperation with the U.S. rather than confrontation pays off for Iran.

  • Condemn the elements behind these detentions inside Iran. Hardline factions, which control the Iranian judiciary, have their own reasons for resisting any thaw in the U.S.-Iran relationship and have been largely responsible for incarceration of foreign nationals.

  • Call for President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif and other officials in Iran’s civil government to hold these elements accountable, while publicly recognizing the split within Iran between these camps. 

Push Administration for a New Approach

  • Well-conceived and tough-minded diplomacy is necessary to lead to progress in the case of imprisoned dual nationals inside Iran. The prisoner exchange under the Obama administration took place after 14-months of secret bilateral talks led by veteran U.S. diplomat Brett McGurk and included negotiations with Iranian intelligence officials.

  • Reaching a similar approach today requires more, not less engagement with Iran. Demand accountability of the Trump Administration on this issue – including what is the Administration’s strategy for securing the release of these prisoners and advancing American interests and what tangible measures the Administration is undertaking to secure the release of these prisoners.

  • Any diplomatic effort to secure the release of U.S. prisoners in Iran would have a far greater chance of succeeding if the U.S. upheld its JCPOA obligations and restored regular diplomatic dialogue. While this is unlikely under the current Administration – and must not be allowed to be construed by Iran as a precondition for the release of Americans unjustly detained – Congress should signal that the U.S. will return to the nuclear deal under a new administration in order to boost U.S. credibility.

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Trump’s Offer to Meet with Iran’s President Rouhani Won’t Get Us a Better Deal. We Had Our Chance and Lost it.

A woman walks past a mural painted along Palestine Square in the Iranian capital Tehran on July 24. (Atta Kenare / AFP – Getty Images)

After withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and threatening Iran with “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before,” President Trump announced on Monday that he wants to meet with President Rouhani without preconditions to craft a new deal.

Trump thinks he can achieve this by sanctioning Iran until the rulers in Tehran beg for mercy. But if history is a guide, there will be no such capitulation by Iran: With the Iranians, one of the most costly things to do, both culturally and politically, would be to show Trump the respect and deference he desires after his aggressive string of insults.

So I am skeptical about Trump’s ability to pivot to diplomacy with Iran, but that is not to say that a better deal cannot be achieved. Indeed, better deals have often been on the table — but the United States rejected them at the time.

In March 2003, the Iranians sent a comprehensive negotiation proposal to the George W. Bush Administration through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran. Unlike the Iran nuclear deal, this proposal was not solely focused on nuclear matters: The Iranians offered to help stabilize Iraq, disarm Hezbollah and collaborate against all terrorist organizations (especially al Qaeda). They even offered to sign on to the 2002 Beirut Declaration, recognizing Israeli statehood in return for Israel’s recognition of a Palestinian state. And, of course, Tehran offered to open their nuclear program for full transparency.

But the Bush administration believed — much like Trump — that it could secure a better outcome by just continuing to pressure Iran and didn’t even dignify Iran with a response. Instead, the State Department reprimanded the Swiss for having delivered the proposal in the first place.

Two years later, the Iranians sent another proposal through the Europeans: Having already expanded their nuclear program, Tehran offered to cap its centrifuges at 3,000. The Europeans didn’t even bother to forward it to Washington, knowing the administration would reject anything that allowed Tehran to keep even a single centrifuge.

The Iranians had roughly 150 nuclear centrifuges at the time of the 2003 proposal; by the time the interim nuclear deal was struck in 2013, Tehran had 22,000.

During a closed White House briefing with a number of organizations that favored a peaceful resolution to the Iran situation in early 2014, a colleague asked one of America’s negotiators where a final deal likely would land in terms of centrifuges. Would it be possible to rollback Tehran’s centrifuges to 3,000 again? “We would jump on the opportunity to get that deal if it was offered today,” the official responded.

A few weeks later, I interviewed the Iranian foreign minister during one of the round of talks in Europe and asked the same question, trying to find out how the centrifuge issue likely would be resolved. To my surprise, Zarif explained that 3,000 had just been Iran’s opening bid in 2005. “We would have settled for 1,000,” he recalled with a smile. Eventually, Obama’s nuclear rolled back their program to 5,000 centrifuges — 2,000 more than their opening bid in 2005.

There are many similar examples; what they all have in common is that the United States usually believes that it is too strong to ever offer Tehran any concessions and doing so would ultimately undermine America’s standing. After all, Iran — unlike North Korea — doesn’t even have nuclear weapons, the thinking seems to go.

 

From left, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talk before a group picture in Vienna on July 14, 2015, after Iran and six world powers agreed to a nuclear deal. (Carlos Barria / Pool via AFP – Getty Images File)


Trump may even be eager to grant Tehran some concession: Trump partly opposed the Obama’s nuclear deal because it only lifted secondary sanctions (sanctions the U.S. imposed on other countries trading with Iran) without touching America’s primary sanctions, keeping American companies from entering the Iranian market. (Few doubt that Trump would love to build Trump Towers in Tehran.)
 
But other changes in U.S. policy will be trickier. Iran, for instance, will not agree to limit its missile program if Washington continues to sell Saudi Arabia, Israel and the U.A.E. billions of dollars worth of advanced weaponry. In fact, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi outspend Iran on weaponry by a factor of five and two, respectively, despite having far smaller populations. And while Iran cut back its defense capabilities through the nuclear deal, the Saudis and Emiratis both beefed up their defense spending. Unless Washington is ready to rethink its arms sales to its Arab allies — and Trump clearly wants to sell them more weapons — it should have no expectations that Iran will cut back its missile program.
 
Another non-starter is the idea that Iran must stop asserting its influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon while Washington continues to help Saudi Arabia starve the people of Yemen, turns a blind eye to the Saudi Crown Prince kidnapping the Lebanese Prime Minister and financing the spread of extreme Salafism (the ideology of al Qaeda and ISIS).
 

And then of course you have Trump’s unquestioning support for the Netanyahu government in Israel and the tensions between Hezbollah and Israel, where neither side is in a position to simply capitulate or walk away.

The bottom line is that a better, bigger deal invariable will entail both American and Iranian concessions. If Trump isn’t willing to recognize this, he should stop pretending that his reckless rhetoric and Twitter threats are aimed at paving the way for diplomacy.

Trump’s Iran Tweet May Trap US in Another War

 

U.S. President Donald Trump answers questions about the 2016 U.S Election collusion during a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin after their summit on July 16, 2018 in Helsinki, Finland. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

The world has become so numb to the words of the President of the United States that it even dismisses threats of war as either a political distraction or a Trumpian negotiation tactic.

Indeed, Donald Trump’s threat to inflict on Iran “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE” may very well have been an effort to divert attention from the Russia investigation. Others have dismissed the danger of the tweet since Trump did an about-face on North Korea, going from calling the North Korean dictator “rocket man” to a “very honorable” man. And, on Tuesday, Trump stated once again that he’s “ready to make a deal” with Iran.
 

But there are five reasons why a pivot from threats to diplomacy with Iran will be much harder — and why Trump’s reckless threats may trap the United States in yet another war.

 

1. Saudi Arabia and Israel oppose diplomacy. Japan and South Korea advocated it.

The geopolitical circumstances around North Korea differ vastly from that of the Middle East. In the North Korean case, America’s allies — and even its Chinese competitor — strongly opposed any military confrontation with Pyongyang and pushed for diplomacy. In fact, the pivot to diplomacy with North Korea had far more to do with the South Korean President’s maneuvering in the background than Kim Jong Un fearing Trump’s “fire and fury” or his sanctions.
 
In the Middle East, the situation is the opposite: American allies, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have long opposed US-Iran diplomacy (with an impressive track record of sabotaging attempts at US-Iran dialogue). Mindful of their influence in Washington and the Trump administration’s deference to them, any attempt by Trump to pivot to diplomacy with Iran will likely face a formidable challenge by these Middle Eastern powers.
 
Moreover, there is no obvious “South Korea” in the Middle East today that can quietly do behind-the-scenes shuttle diplomacy to bring the United States and Iran together — at least not one Trump would engage.
 
Former President Barack Obama needed a go-between to make diplomacy with Iran bear fruit. In that case, it was the country of Oman, which helped establish a secret diplomatic channel with Iran, paving the way for the historic nuclear deal of 2015. But Trump is unlikely to turn to Oman precisely because Obama did so.
 

2. Trump thinks pressure will force Iran to negotiate. He’s wrong.

Trump has stated that verbal escalation and sanctions will force Iran to come to the table. The logic is based on a misread of what brought about the nuclear deal of 2015. The conventional Washington narrative reads that Obama crippled Iran’s economy till the rulers of Tehran grudgingly agreed to negotiate. But the secret negotiations between the US and Iran in Oman reveals a very different picture.
While Obama’s sanctions were truly crushing — Iran’s GDP contracted more than 35% between 2012 and 2015 — Tehran did not lack leverage of its own. Its response to the sanctions was to double down on its nuclear program and move ever closer to a nuclear weapon. Just as sanctions put pressure on Tehran, more centrifuges put the squeeze on Washington.
 
It wasn’t until the Obama administration secretly made a major concession to Iran — agreeing that Iran could continue to enrich uranium on its own soil — that diplomacy started to bear fruit.
 
In other words, a policy solely centered on sanctions and pressure did not bring about the desired breakthrough in the talks. Ultimately, it was American flexibility that ended the standstill and elicited Iranian flexibility.
 
Two conclusions can be drawn from America’s past diplomatic experience with Iran. First, pressure alone will not work. Second, Iran will meet pressure with pressure. And herein lies the danger of Trump’s approach: Even if he does not intend to draw this to a conflict, he may quickly lose control over the situation once the Iranians decide to counter-escalate by, for instance, reactivating their nuclear program.
 

3. North Korea has a one-man dictator. Iran has politics.

North Korea is run by a one-man dictator with the political maneuverability to dramatically shift policy from testing nuclear weapons to sitting down with the man who hurled insults at him — without facing any domestic political consequences. Iran, on the other hand, has a complex political system where power is dispersed and not controlled by any single person or institute. Even Iran’s Supreme Leader — the most powerful man in Iran — cannot act alone without taking into consideration both public and elite opinion.
 
Iran’s fractured politics and factional infighting renders any dramatic policy shift — particularly involving diplomacy with the United States — all the more difficult. President Hassan Rouhani is already paying a political price for having been so “naive” as to negotiate with the “untrustworthy” Americans. The political space needed to restart negotiations, particularly after Iran adhered to the previous deal and Trump pulled out of it, simply does not exist right now and Trump’s rhetoric is not moving matters in the right direction.
 

4. Don’t forget: Trump hates Obama.

As Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group has pointed out, Trump’s antipathy toward Obama and his obsession with undoing Obama’s policy legacies should not be underestimated. As a Trump official told the Atlantic, “There’s the Obama Doctrine, and the ‘F— Obama’ Doctrine,” he explained. “We’re the ‘F— Obama’ Doctrine.”
On Iran, that may not just translate into Trump killing the nuclear deal against the advice of his Secretary of Defense. It may also mean that Trump will pursue a nuclear deal with North Korea at almost any cost (a problem Obama left largely untouched) while rejecting a deal with Iran (the country Obama decided to negotiate with). More than striking a “better deal” with Iran, Trump may think that truly sticking it to Obama necessitates burying diplomacy with Iran altogether.
 

5. Trump advisers don’t want a deal; they want regime collapse.

The members of Trump’s inner circle have changed dramatically over the past few months. The so-called “adults in the room,” who had a moderating effect on Trump, have largely been replaced with ideological hawks, such as National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And uber-hawk Tom Cotton has emerged as one of the senators whose advice and viewpoints Trump pays close attention to.
 
All three of these have a long track record of advocating confrontation with Iran. Bolton famously penned an op-ed in the New York Times at the height of the nuclear negotiations titled “To Stop an Iranian Bomb, Bomb Iran.” As a congressman from the state of Kansas, Mike Pompeo quipped that bombing Iran would only take 2,000 fighter jet attacks, which he said “is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces.” Cotton, in turn, is the author of the unprecedented letter in the midst of the nuclear talks, telling the leaders of Iran not to trust the President of the United States.
 
Going forward, the moderate voices inside the Trump White House will essentially be absent, while new advisers will likely egg on Trump to escalate tensions further — even though the Trump administration continues to claim that its goal is not regime change.
 
All of this amounts to a sobering reality: Trump is embarking on a path of escalation without having the exit ramps he had with North Korea. The danger now is not to overestimate the risk of war, but to underestimate it.
 
 

Iran’s May 19 Election: A Mandate for Moderation

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Iran’s overwhelming reelection of incumbent President Hassan Rouhani on May 19 delivered a stark message to the world. The Iranian people are pushing their country in a positive direction, demanding greater openness at home and engagement with the world. It is vital that the United States not stand in their way:

Mandate for Moderation

  • More than 41 million Iranians voted in Iran’s May 19th Presidentialelection, or nearly 75% of the electorate. That figure included tens of thousands of Iranians in the diaspora. Overall, voter turnout inside and outside Iran was remarkable given the obstacles imposed by Iran’s unelected institutions.
  • The election was a 57-38% landslide for incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, and a defeat for hardliners – including the leadership of Iran’s judiciary and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – which mobilized for the conservative candidate Ebrahim Raisi. 
  • It was not just a defeat for hardliners at the Presidential level, but also in city council races throughout the country. Reformists swept all 21 seats in the capital Tehran, and are also poised to sweep council seats in other major cities, including Raisi’s conservative hometown of Mashhad.
  • For the first time in Iran’s history 6 women were elected to Tehran’s 21 member city council, and another 415 women won seats on councils in Iran’s conservative Sistan and Baluchistan provinces. In Mashhad, a woman won a seat on the city council with her campaign slogan “Let’s Vote for Women.”
  • The Iranian people sent an overwhelming message that they want to push their country in a positive direction through peaceful, indigenous change through the ballot box, not externally imposed regime change.

Implications for Policy

  • By building and maintaining the most robust political coalition in the 38-year history of the Islamic Republic, Rouhani has solidified a significant power base. Unlike past Presidents with a reformist agenda, he has been more pragmatic and may now be able to make good on his promises to reform human rights at home and broaden his international engagement, though ill-advised U.S. policies will almost certainly undercut his agenda.
  • Theelection was a referendum on the benefits of the Iran deal, further diplomacy with the West, social freedoms at home, and even the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). 
  • Critically, Rouhani floated the possibility of pursuing negotiations to lift all sanctions on Iran, which would necessitate further U.S.-Iran diplomacy on sensitive issues including state sponsorship of terrorism and the war in Syria.
  • Rouhani went so far as to publicly criticize the IRGC, which is overseen by Khamenei, for undermining Iran’s economic benefit under the nuclear deal by test-firing ballistic missiles with anti-Israel rhetoric.
  • Prior to theelection, Rouhani’s challenger Ebrahim Raisi was considered a top contender to replace the aging Khamenei as Supreme Leader. After defeating Raisi, Rouhani has burnished his credentials for the critical, and potentially transformational, role.

Will the U.S. miss this opportunity?

  • This could be a major turning point and opportunity. If the U.S. is serious about addressing Iran’s role in the region and curbing its missile program, it must work to engage rather than undercut Rouhani’s moderate coalition and the millions of Iranians who voted for greater openness and engagement.
  • It has not been lost on Iranian society that, in spite of mobilizing to vote for moderation, Donald Trump was in Saudi Arabia showing solidarity with unelected monarchs who have a history of ties to terrorism and spreading radical ideology throughout the Muslim world. 
  • Trump’s call to isolate Iran, as well as Tillerson’s unilateral demands in the wake of theelection, were a slap in the face to the Iranian people who voted for Rouhani as a way of extending Iran’s hand to the international community. Congress must not be so reckless as to assist Trump in wasting an opportunity to reduce mutual tensions with Iran and stand in the way of the Iranian people pushing their country in a positive direction.

 

NIAC Statement on First Anniversary of the Finalization of the Iran Nuclear Accord

Press Release

 

 

 

NIAC President Trita Parsi released the following statement on the one year anniversary of the finalization of the Iran nuclear accord:

“Today marks a full year since the U.S. and Iran, along with world powers, concluded marathon negotiations in the historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The accord has succeeded where bluster and un-ending sanctions failed by rolling back and ensuring unprecedented inspections over Iran’s nuclear program. Critically, this has averted two disasters: that of an Iranian nuclear weapon as well as a costly war that would further destabilize the region and devastate the hopes of the Iranian people for a brighter future. It has also opened the door to cooperation outside the nuclear sphere if the U.S. and Iran can seize the opportunity.
 
“The diplomatic path has not been easy. Even now, it is under threat as opponents of the JCPOA in Congress force votes on bills that would violate the accord by re-imposing sanctions that have been relieved. These efforts have fed into ongoing sanctions relief complications that have drained support for the accord among the Iranian people. While Iran has gained some relief, particularly in oil sales and access to recently un-restricted revenues, the lack of major banks willing to engage in Iranian transactions has greatly hampered the pace of relief. As the Iranian people have not seen the benefit of the bargain, increasing distrust could lead to major complications in implementation of the accord down the road, and must be addressed.
 
“Over the course of the second year of implementation, the JCPOA will undergo major tests as both the U.S. and Iran hold elections for the Presidencies of their respective countries. Both Presidents Obama and Rouhani have proved willing and able to set aside the enmities of the past in order to reach for a brighter future. It will be vital for Obama’s successor to maintain this approach in order to ensure the accord is on solid ground and to build on its success. For Rouhani to maintain the Iranian Presidency, it will be vital to show that sanctions relief complications can be overcome and to show greater willingness to fulfill electoral promises by pursuing moderation internally.
 
“While there will be strong incentives for all parties to stay within the agreement, regardless of changes in U.S. and Iranian leadership, the next five and a half months offer a critical opportunity for the Obama and Rouhani presidencies to strengthen the foundation of the accord. There are a whole host of opportunities that can strengthen U.S.-Iran diplomatic channels and insulate the deal from political opposition – including via efforts to fix sanctions relief complications; pursue sustainable diplomatic solutions in Syria and Yemen; enabling enhanced U.S.-Iran academic exchanges; establishing a permanent diplomatic channel; and by securing the freedom of imprisoned dual nationals like Siamak and Baquer Namazi. 
 
“It took more than three and a half decades for diplomatic negotiations between the U.S. and Iran to become routine, and all of the diplomatic dividends of renewed ties will not come overnight or even in one year. However, it is vital that the U.S. and Iran not succumb to the forces that want to limit collaboration to the nuclear sphere, which would only succeed in making the JCPOA easier to unravel. Now is the time to lean forward and make sure that the historic steps taken since 2013 are irreversible.”

 
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The Iran Deal Worked

– Here’s How to Make It Even More Effective


A year has passed since diplomats from Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany) defied conventional wisdom and struck a deal aimed at both preventing Iran from getting the bomb and preventing it from getting bombed. At the time, the deal’s detractors were apoplectic; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “historic mistake” that would pave the way for Iran to obtain a bomb. But the world has not come to an end. Iran is not the hegemon of the Middle East, Israel can still be found on the map, and Washington and Tehran still define each other as enemies. These days, voices such as Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, criticize the deal for having changed too little.
 
But a closer examination shows that it has had a profound impact on the region’s geopolitical dynamics. Only four years ago, the Iranian nuclear program was consistently referred to as the United States’ number one national security threat. Senior U.S. officials put the risk of an Israeli attack on Iran at 50–50, a confrontation that the United States would quickly get dragged into. A war that was even more destabilizing than the Iraq invasion was not just a possibility; it seemed likely.
 
Today, however, the talk of war is gone. Even the hawkish government of Netanyahu has gone silent on the matter. Former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a hawk in his own right, announced a few weeks ago that “at this point, and in the foreseeable future, there is no existential threat facing Israel. Thus it is fitting that the leadership of the country stop scaring the citizenry and stop giving them the feeling that we are standing before a second Holocaust.”
 
Moreover, members of the U.S. Congress who have recently visited Israel have also noted that Israelis are no longer shifting every conversation to a discussion about the Iranian nuclear threat. “I can’t count how many times I, and many members of Congress, were urgently and passionately informed that negotiation with the Iranian menace was wishful thinking and the height of folly,” Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) wrote after a recent visit to Israel. “And now? Nothing.”
 
The nuclear deal has thus halted the march toward war and Iran’s progress toward a bomb. And that certainly qualifies as significant change. To continue to argue that Israel and the region are not safer as a result of the deal would be to contend that Iran’s nuclear program was never a threat to begin with. That is a not a position that the Likud government in Israel can argue with a straight face.
 
Other criticisms of the deal centered on predictions that Iran would not honor the agreement. Yet the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported that Iran is abiding by its obligations under the deal. Also not borne out have been prophecies that Iran’s regional policies would radicalize, that the deal would, as The Heritage Foundation’s James Phillips wrote, “project [American] weakness that could further encourage Iranian hardliners.” To be sure, Washington continues to view many of Iran’s regional activities as unhelpful and destabilizing, but those activities have not increased as a result of the nuclear deal. Hezbollah and Tehran’s posture toward Israel has, for instance, not become more aggressive than it already was. Any changes that have occurred have been rooted in regional developments—the Syrian civil war or the Saudi assault on Yemen—rather than the nuclear deal. Important developments in Syria, such as Russia’s broader entry into the war or Iran’s maneuvers on the ground, are divorced from the nuclear deal and directly tied to developments on the ground in Syria.
 
If anything, as the European Union’s foreign policy head, Federica Mogherini, told me last December, the deal paved the way for renewed dialogue on Syria, which offers a glimmer of hope to end the carnage there. “What we have now in Syria—talks bringing together all the different actors (and we have it now and not last year)—is because we had the [nuclear] deal,” she told me. And last month, U.S. Secretary Of State John Kerry stated that Iran has been “helpful” in Iraq, where both the United States and Iran are fighting the Islamic State (ISIS).
 
It is undisputable that outside of the nuclear deal, the relationship between the United States and Iran has shifted significantly since the breakthrough. That became abundantly clear in January, when ten American sailors drifted into Iranian waters and were apprehended by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps—and were then promptly released. An incident that in the pre-deal era likely would have taken months, if not years, to resolve was now settled in 16 hours. Direct diplomacy between Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif combined with a mutual desire to resolve the matter quickly made all the difference. The two countries had embarked on a path that could transform their relationship, and both were too committed to that path to allow the incident to fester. “I was afraid that this [the sailors’ arrest] would jeopardize everything, not just the implementation [of the JCPOA],” Zarif admitted to me.
 
But for relations to improve beyond the nuclear deal, moderate elements on both sides need to be strengthened by the deal. That is one area where the skepticism of the critics may have been justified. Rather than seeing the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gain momentum after the deal, the pushback from Iranian hardliners has been fierce. Those officials couldn’t prevent Iran from signing the agreement, but they could create enough problems to halt any effort to translate the nuclear deal into a broader opening to the United States. A swift crackdown against individuals and entities seeking to build bridges between Iran and the West had its intended effect: Confidence that the nuclear deal would usher in a new era for U.S.-Iranian relations quickly plummeted.
 
Moreover, challenges to sanctions relief has given hardline opponents of the deal in Iran a boost. Their critique of the agreement—that the United States is not trustworthy—seems to ring true since no major banks have been willing to enter the Iranian market. The banks’ hesitation, in turn, is mainly rooted in the fear that after the U.S. presidential elections, Washington’s political commitment to the deal will wane.
 
Neither Republican candidate Donald Trump nor Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton have signaled any desire to continue down the Obama administration’s path with Iran in general. Clinton has vowed to uphold the deal, but neither she nor Trump have made it crystal clear that they will protect the agreement from new congressional sanctions or other measures that would cause the deal’s collapse.
 
Clinton’s team has signaled that its priority will be to rebuild relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia and restore those allies’ confidence that the United States will counter Iran in the region. Meanwhile, the uncertainty around a Trump presidency needs no explaining. As a result, many banks deem the risk of entering the Iranian market too high due to the political challenges on the U.S. side. That has left Iranians without much in the way of sanctions relief, which is in turn costing Rouhani politically.
 
In other words, although the deal has been remarkably successful in achieving its explicit goals—halting, and even reversing, Iran’s nuclear advances while avoiding a costly and risky war with Tehran—its true value in rebalancing U.S. relationships in the Persian Gulf and creating a broader opening with Iran may be squandered once Obama leaves office. If Obama’s successor returns to the United States’ old ways in the Middle East while hardliners in Tehran stymie outreach to the West, these unique and historic opportunities will be wasted.
 
This piece originally appeared in Foreign Affairs.
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Fifty Pro-Diplomacy Organizations Urge Senate to Reject Dangerous Iran Legislation

Press Release - For Immediate Release

 

 

 

Washington, DC – On the heels of a series of political stunts on Capitol Hill that have heightened partisanship and threatened to sabotage nuclear negotiations with Iran, 50 organizations sent a letter to the Senate today warning against legislation that would entrust Congress with expanded powers to block an eventual nuclear deal. 

The letter urges Senators to oppose the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (S.615), and was signed by groups including the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), Friends Committee on National Legislation, Win Without War, MoveOn.org, CREDO, and Americans for Peace Now.

“The outrageous political stunts in the Senate have made it clear that some in Congress will stop at nothing to kill nuclear talks with Iran, regardless of the consequences,” said NIAC Policy Director Jamal Abdi. “Tom Cotton and his colleagues should not be rewarded with additional powers to sabotage a deal and drag the U.S. into war.”

As detailed in the letter below, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act contains numerous elements that risk disrupting negotiations in their final stage and blocking the President from using existing authorities to implement a prospective deal. The bill would delay implementation of any agreement for 60 days, insert conditions that are outside the scope of the P5+1’s negotiations, and provide Congress with new veto powers over a deal.

A copy of the letter is below:

Thursday, March 12, 2015

To: Members of the U.S. Senate

As organizations representing millions of Americans that support a peaceful diplomatic resolution to the nuclear standoff with Iran, we strongly urge you to oppose S.615, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. By threatening to reject a prospective nuclear deal, inserting conditions outside the scope of negotiations, and delaying the implementation of any agreement for months, this bill risks derailing the best chance to both prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon and avert a disastrous war.

We understand that some members of Congress seek additional consultation and oversight regarding a final agreement. This bill is not the means to do so. Instead, this bill risks ensuring that there is no agreement for Congress to oversee in the first place. The politicized manner through which some have attempted to advance this bill, by seeking to bypass regular procedure and pass the bill at such a delicate time in negotiations, should give pause to those members who do not want to subject a potential nuclear deal to a vote that is based on politics rather than substance. If Members of Congress support this bill and it ends up defeating a nuclear deal, they would own the consequences of a diplomatic failure: an expanding Iranian nuclear program, the unraveling of international sanctions on Iran, and an increasing threat of war.

There are appropriate ways to increase Congressional oversight of a nuclear deal with Iran without threatening to scuttle a diplomatic solution. However, in order to give negotiations the best chance to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon and avert war, it is important that Congress reject S.615.

Sincerely,

American Friends Service Committee

American Values Network

Americans for Peace Now

Arab American Institute

Arms Control Association

Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

Center for Interfaith Engagement of Eastern Mennonite University

Center for International Policy

Citizens for Global Solutions

Church of the Brethren, Office of Public Witness

CODEPINK

Conference of Major Superiors of Men

Council for a Livable World

CREDO

Daily Kos

Friends Committee on National Legislation

Global Exchange

Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ

The HAND Foundation

Historians Against the War

Institute for Policy Studies

International Civil Society Action Network

Jewish Voice for Peace

Just Foreign Policy

Maryknoll Office of Global Concern

MoveOn.org Civic Action

National Council of Churches

National Iranian American Council

National Security Network

NETWORK

Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

Pax Christi International

Peace Action

Peace Action West

People Demanding Action

Physicians for Social Responsibility

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Progressive Democrats of America

RootsAction.org

Sojourners

United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries

United for Peace and Justice

United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society

U.S. Labor Against the War

USAction

Veterans for Peace

WarisaCrime.org

Win Without War

Women’s Action for New Directions

World Beyond War

Netanyahu’s Dangerous Iran Push

With the U.S. and Iran continuing to narrow gaps toward a nuclear deal that would prevent a disastrous war, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is gearing up to play spoiler. As part of his campaign, Netanyahu has ignored all protocol in order to attack the negotiations before a joint session of Congress next month, and has also reportedly leaked information in an effort to distort and undermine the U.S. negotiating position. In so doing, Netanyahu is not just challenging President Obama, but also the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China, who are all working toward the agreement that Netanyahu opposes so vociferously. 

Democratic lawmakers have voiced their frustration with Netanyahu’s open efforts to subvert the President’s Iran policy, to keep the President and Democratic leadership in the dark, and his apparent willingness to weaken the U.S.-Israel relationship for domestic political gain ahead of next month’s election. Yesterday, 23 representatives – led by Reps. Keith Ellison (D-MN), Steve Cohen (D-TN), and Maxine Waters (D-CA) – released a joint letter urging Netanyahu to postpone the speech. More than two dozen Democrats have already stated that they will not attend, and many more are leaving open the possibility of skipping the speech. 

Meanwhile, Republicans have exploited the speech in an attempt to score cheap political points. A resolution welcoming Netanyahu, introduced by Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, has garnered 50 cosponsors in the Senate – all Republican. While Netanyahu likely hoped his speech would galvanize bipartisan support for Congress to scuttle the negotiations or veto a forthcoming agreement, it has only deepened the partisan divide.

Netanyahu’s moves have also deepened the mutual distrust between himself and President Obama. Obama has made the case that long-term nuclear limits combined with intrusive inspections offer the best assurances against a potential Iranian nuclear weapon. The President has been clear that new Congressional sanctions pose an unacceptable risk that would increase the likelihood of the U.S. getting dragged into another military conflict. The White House has also issued a veto threat against a rumored Senate Republican push to demand an immediate Congressional vote on any final deal, which would give opponents of diplomacy a last ditch tool to try to scuttle an agreement. 

So far, Netanyahu and groups like AIPAC have been relatively quiet regarding the Congressional vote proposal, but have continued to push Congress to pass sanctions despite Obama’s objection. According to Israel’s own intelligence services, passing new sanctions would be like throwing a grenade into the negotiating process. Such a move would kill negotiations and end the limitations and enhanced inspections brought by the interim nuclear deal. Rather than something to avoid, Netanyahu sees this as a reason to toss the grenade. He believes that by wrecking the negotiations, sanctions and the threat of war could convince Iran to cry uncle and give up all nuclear activities. He is gravely mistaken. As Iran has proven, it would respond to escalation with its own form of escalation, an expanding nuclear program.

Instead of a limited and heavily-monitored Iranian enrichment program, Iran could resume enrichment to the 20% level or even to 60%, as Iran’s hardliners have suggested. With the failure of negotiations, and the collapse of enhanced inspections and restraints, Iran could immediately expand its enrichment capacity by bringing nearly ten thousand additional centrifuges online in short order and dramatically increasing its centrifuge numbers towards the 190,000 envisioned by hardliners. Intrusive, daily inspections of enrichment facilities would end, diminishing our ability to detect either overt nuclear breakout or covert nuclear activities. And if the U.S. is to blame for the collapse of negotiations, international enforcement of the sanctions regime would erode even as Iran’s nuclear program expands. 

The combination of reduced knowledge of Iran’s expanding nuclear program and the burning of diplomatic prospects would put the U.S. in a difficult position. Would the U.S. accept Iran on the cusp of a nuclear weapon threshold? Launch military strikes that would only delay, and likely incentivize, Iran’s nuclear pursuits? Or undertake a decade-long occupation to change regimes and guarantee a non-nuclear Iran? 

The American people appear skeptical of what Netanyahu is selling. In a recent CNN poll, 63% of Americans and 81% of Democrats opposed the decision to secretly invite Netanyahu. And, as NIAC’s ad in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times points out, Americans have good reason to view the speech with a wary eye. Netanyahu promised in Congressional testimony in 2002 that the U.S. invasion would have “enormous, positive reverberations on the region.” Contrast that to Obama, who rightly warned that the invasion would “only fan the flames of the Middle East.”

What is terrible policy for both the U.S. and Israel could still be good politics for Netanyahu. After all, he has cast Iran as the nuclear boogeyman for decades, and to back away could be perceived as weakness by right-wing Israeli voters. But by sticking with the speech as planned, Netanyahu is going to put Congress in the position of having to choose between President Obama and the international community’s efforts to reach a deal and the Israeli Prime Minister’s determination to sabotage it. If they choose Netanyahu’s course, the likelihood of an Iranian nuclear weapon and war will greatly increase, to the extreme detriment of the region – Israel, included.

Originally published in Huffington Post.

NIAC Runs Full Page NY Times Ad on Netanyahu Visit

Press Release - For Immediate Release

 

 

 

Washington, DC – Today, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) ran a full-page ad in the New York Times highlighting John Boehner and Benjamin Netanyahu’s outrageous political stunt that could kill diplomacy with Iran and start a war.

“The U.S. and its closest allies are on the brink of a historic deal that will both prevent an Iranian bomb and war with Iran, and Congressional hawks are orchestrating political stunts with foreign leaders to try to kill it,” said NIAC President Trita Parsi. “The American people do not want another senseless military adventure and certainly don’t consider Benjamin Netanyahu to be their commander in chief.”

NIAC NYT Ad fullThe NIAC ad provides a call-in number and website for Americans concerned by Netanyahu’s address and supportive of a diplomatic approach to Iran to contact their lawmakers and urge them to skip Netanyahu’s address and support the negotiations.

A recent CNN poll found that a majority of 63% of Americans oppose Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu, which was orchestrated without notifying the White House.

“All doubt has been removed: Netanyahu will oppose any peaceful deal with Iran and will instead seek to blow up the diplomatic efforts of the United States and risk starting a war,” said Parsi. “Congress better take into account that if they buy what Netanyahu is selling, it will be American troops who pay the cost.”

NIAC’s ad also highlights that, in one of the most critical national security debates of our time – the decision of whether to invade Iraq – Netanyahu was brought to testify before Congress. In his remarks he advocated strongly for the war, telling lawmakers ‘if you take out Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region.’ 

“After a decade marked by thousands of American casualties, suicide bombings, massive regional destabilization, and now the ascendence of ISIS, it is clear that Netanyahu and those who lobbied for the Iraq war are in no position to give Congress further advice,” said Parsi. “There is an opportunity to stop the next catastrophic war before it starts, and that only happens if diplomacy is allowed to succeed.”

Negotiations between the P5+1 are ongoing, with a target of securing a framework agreement in March and a final nuclear agreement by June 30.

“If the U.S. and its partners can secure an Iran deal in the coming weeks, the same people who promised that war with Iraq would be a cakewalk will tell Americans we should reject an Iran deal and eventually take our chances with another war,” said Parsi. “The fact that Congress is giving Netanyahu a platform to repeat this message is a very troubling sign, but I think the majority of Americans will take action to ensure we do embrace this historic opportunity and avoid the grave mistakes of the past.”

Analysis of New Sanctions Legislation: Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015

On January 16, 2015, the Senate Banking Committee circulated the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015, “To expand sanctions imposed with respect to Iran and to impose additional sanctions with respect to Iran, and for other purposes.”

As written, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015 would impose an escalating series of economic sanctions, culminating in a de facto economic embargo on Iran by December 2015. According to U.S. government officials, our European partners in the nuclear negotiations, and Iran, these new sanctions would either violate or be perceived to violate our commitment not to impose new ‘nuclear-related’ sanctions on Iran during negotiations. As Deputy Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, said at a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, “[Any] new sanctions enacted by Congress would be viewed by Iran and the international community as the U.S. breaking out of the understandings of the JPOA.” This could – according to the UK, French, and German foreign ministers – “fracture the international coalition that has made sanctions effective so far.” Already, Iran’s parliament is preparing legislation in response to any new sanctions bill, which would dramatically accelerate the scope of Iran’s uranium enrichment. 

The proposed legislation further provides: If the U.S. and Iran agree to a comprehensive nuclear deal before July 1, 2015 and the President submits the text of the agreement to Congress within 5 days, the sanctions would not become effective. However, upon submitting the agreement, the President would lose all existing authorities to waive or suspend sanctions (beyond what has already been suspended under the interim Joint Plan of Action), as well as the ability to otherwise implement the nuclear deal, until Congress has had 30 days of continuous session to consider the agreement.

In computing the 30 days of continuous session of Congress, the count will exclude days on which the Senate or House is not in session because of an adjournment of more than 3 days and would restart if Congress adjourns sine die (i.e., final adjournment). In other words, the review period will last longer than 30 calendar days.

This provision would unnecessarily defer the implementation of a final deal and delay putting in place the necessary constraints on Iran’s nuclear program. It would also provide those committed to opposing any nuclear deal the time required to mobilize against the agreement during the period in which Congress is examining the agreement. Any failure on the part of Congress to support the nuclear deal would risk freeing Iran from its nuclear-related obligations pursuant to a final deal and isolating the U.S. – not Iran – from our allies and partners.

As the U.S., its P5+1 partners, and Iran enter the final stretch in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, new sanctions legislation risks undermining U.S. negotiating leverage. According to a senior U.S. administration official closely involved in the negotiations, “[Sanctions talk] bolsters the hardliners” in Tehran “who don’t believe [the U.S.] will reverse the sanctions no matter what Iran does.” This is not the message of support Congress needs to be sending our negotiators as they work to ensure Iran’s nuclear program remains exclusively peaceful.  

Below, the sanctions to be imposed on Iran pursuant to the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act of 2015 are outlined:

JPOA Sanctions Reinstated

July 6, 2015: all sanctions deferred, waived, or suspended pursuant to the Joint Plan of Action will be reinstated

Purchases of Iranian Gas Condensates Included in Determining Whether to Grant Exemption

August 3, 2015: Section 1245(d) of the 2012 NDAA will be amended to prohibit states who have reduced their purchases of Iranian crude oil (and have thus been granted an exemption by the President) to increase purchases of Iranian gas condensate

Embargo on Purchase of Iranian Oil

September. 7, 2015: Section 1245(d) of the 2012 NDAA will be further amended to require countries who purchase Iranian petroleum and who seek an exemption from the President to reduce its purchase of Iranian petroleum to a ‘de minimis level’ by the end of the 240-day period beginning on September 7, 2015.

Expanded List of Blocking Sanctions on Iranian Officials/Persons

October 5, 2015: Section 221 of the TRA would be amended to expand the list of individuals subject to visa restrictions to include:

  • foreign sanctions evaders;
  • individuals acting on behalf of the Government of Iran who are involved in corrupt activities of that Government or the diversion of humanitarian goods;
  • senior officials of an entity designated pursuant to EO 13382 (WMD proliferation) or 13224 (support for global terrorism);
  • and an expanded list of senior officials of the Iranian Government (if involved in Iran’s illicit nuclear activities; support for international terrorism; or human rights abuses).
    • This would include senior officials of:
      • the Office of the Supreme Leader
      • the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran
      • the Islamic Consultative Assembly of Iran
      • the Council of Ministers of Iran
      • the Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics of Iran
      • the Ministry of Justice of Iran
      • the Ministry of Interior of Iran
      • the prison system of Iran; or
      • the judicial system of Iran.
    • It would also subject all such persons to blocking sanctions (including family members of such persons if property was transferred to the family member by the designated person), meaning that any property or interests in property of such persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction is blocked.

Sanctions on Banks or Persons Engaging in Currency Swaps with Iran

November 2, 2015: the TRA will be amended to add sanctions prohibiting foreign banks or persons from engaging in a “significant transaction” related to the currency of a country other than the country with primary jurisdiction over the bank or person with or on behalf of the Central Bank of Iran or any other Iranian financial institution or with a person identified as part of Iran’s energy, shipping, or shipbuilding sector.

Strategic Sector Sanctions and De Facto Embargo on Iran

December 7, 2015: IFCA will be amended:

  • finding Iran’s automotive, construction, engineering, and mining sectors as facilitating Iran’s nuclear proliferation activities;
  • designating entities that operate special economic zones or free economic zones in Iran and entities in Iran’s strategic sectors as entities of proliferation concern;
  • blocking the property of any person that is part of the automotive, construction, engineering, and mining sectors in Iran;
  • imposing ISA-related sanctions (or financial sanctions) on persons (or foreign financial institutions) that sell, supply, or transfer to or from Iran goods or services used in connection with a strategic sector (or facilitate a significant financial transaction for sale, supply, or transfer to Iran of such goods or services); and
  • imposing ISA-related sanctions on a person who provides underwriting services or insurance or reinsurance to or for any person with respect to a strategic sector of Iran.

Presidential Waiver

The President is granted the authority to waive the application of sanctions imposed pursuant to the bill for 30-days periods, provided the President certifies to Congress that:

  • the waiver (or renewal) is in the national security interest;
  • the waiver (or renewal) is necessary to and likely to result in achieving nuclear deal;
  • Iran is not making further progress on a nuclear weapons program and is in compliance with all interim agreements with respect to that program; and

The President is also required to submit to Congress a comprehensive report on the status of negotiations towards a nuclear deal that includes an assessment of the likelihood of reaching that solution and the timeframe anticipated for achieving it.

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NIAC Warns Against Diplomacy-Killing Senate Sanctions

Press Release - For Immediate Release

 

 

Washington, DC – The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) is deeply concerned by reports that the Senate will begin considering new Iran sanctions next week and warns that passage of new Iran sanctions into law would violate the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) and dramatically reduce, if not eliminate, the prospect of striking a comprehensive nuclear accord. 

“For those who want to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon and avert war, the days and weeks ahead are critical,” said Jamal Abdi, NIAC Policy Director. “If Congress forces through new Iran sanctions legislation over the warnings of the President, our negotiators and the wishes of the American people, they will own the consequences.”

The passage of new sanctions into law would violate the JPOA – ending the significant constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, unraveling multilateral efforts, and putting the U.S. on the path to war.

“Key lawmakers leading this effort have said explicitly that the goal of new sanctions is to kill the talks,” said Abdi. “Those Senators who truly seek a diplomatic solution shouldn’t be fooled, this bill is about ending negotiations and moving to war footing.”

Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK) spoke in support of a sanctions vote yesterday, stating, “The end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of Congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence.”

“Those legislators intent on blocking a deal, regardless of the disastrous consequences, are racing to pass these sanctions before the US can reach a peaceful deal with Iran and avert a disastrous war,” said Abdi. “At this critical stage of negotiations, new sanctions legislation will only play into the hands of Iranian hardliners who want to block compromise necessary to reach a deal.”

The debate within Iran on whether to offer sufficient nuclear compromises to seal a final deal hinges on perceptions of whether the U.S. will deliver on sanctions relief. This divide has played out in recent days, with President Hassan Rouhani arguing that Iran cannot grow in isolation while suggesting that Iran could scale back its enrichment program to seal a deal. Shortly thereafter, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei pushed back, warning that Iran cannot trust the U.S. when its negotiators say “sanctions cannot be lifted altogether and immediately.”

A similar sanctions debate played out in Congress a year ago with S.1881, a bill that would have forced the U.S. to violate the JPOA by imposing new nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. Despite eventually gaining 60 cosponsors, the dangerous bill never received a vote due to significant opposition from the American people, key Senate leaders, and a veto threat from the President.

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