What’s Iran Doing in Iraq?

Chaos often breeds opportunity, and nowhere is this more apparent than in today’s Iraq. Less apparent, however, is how key actors are approaching the opportunity. Iran is a prime example. Recent headlines have run the gamut: “Iran is putting boots on the ground!” “Iran is sending drones!” “Will Iran and America collaborate?!” While it is fair to dig deeper into these issues, individually they don’t tell the full story–because on their own, they are each subcomponents of a bigger picture: Iran’s strategy in Iraq.


Iraqi Shiite men support Ayatollah Sistani’s call to arms

Strategy can be a funny word sometimes when applied to Iran. Besides the inevitable argument over interests versus ideology, the Iranian government has long sought to conceal its decision-making processes from foreign powers, and thus appear unpredictable. But in Iraq, we have 11 years of Iranian actions that provide critical insight into what Iran is doing–and why. As Shakespeare once quipped: “What’s past is prologue.”

Compared to other countries, Iran still appears to have the most cards to play in Iraq. But it is also clear that Iran has badly overreached. By seeking to advance its interests in concert with Iraqi allies at the expense of other foreign and domestic players, the Maliki government helped give rise to ISIS; lost control of more than a quarter of the country with continued threats to territorial integrity; deeply alienated Sunnis and Kurds; and now runs the risk of falling from power altogether. There is no guarantee that Iran can help put Iraq back together, but its plan is to try.

Why does Iran want to keep Iraq whole? Four reasons stand out above all else. The first two are self-explanatory: An officially independent Kurdistan on its border threatens to destabilize Iran’s (as well as Turkey and Syria’s) own restive Kurdish population. Also, Iran has learned the hard way that fragmentation begets instability leaking across its border. Tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees have fled to Iran. Unofficial estimates put the number much higher.

Equally important but less understood is that a unified Iraq maximizes Iran’s ability to project power. Breaking Iraq into three states will require Iran to triple its resource expenditure and heighten its threat perception–especially vis-à-vis a militant Sunni extremist statelet. Also, Iran opposes redrawing the map of the Middle East because it is not seeking more territory. Redrawing borders according to the grievances– real or perceived–of minority communities opens a Pandora’s box that threatens the stability of Iran and all Arab countries. It is not a coincidence that Israel is pushing for Kurdish independence in Iraq.

This begs the question: How will Iran try to keep Iraq whole?

The lowest hanging fruit has been working to unite Iraq’s various Shia factions. Doing so in a sustained fashion will inevitably have to include a far less sectarian approach by both Iran and Prime Minister Maliki. However, the problem is less about Maliki and more about sectarianism across the political, religious and ethnic spectrum. Maliki is certainly guilty of this counterproductive approach–but so too are leaders of Iraq’s other religious and ethnic groups.

Privately, Iran has been critical of Maliki on both a tactical and strategic level–both of which center on his overly sectarian governance. This highlights an important aspect of Iran’s strategy: it’s less concerned with Maliki or any specific individual in Iraqi politics, and more concerned with protecting Iran’s geostrategic position and Shia brethren. Iran is not wedded to Maliki, but rather to the current Shia-led power structure in place that ensures its interests in Iraq are achieved. If Maliki proves to be a liability, Iran is willing to cut off the head of the snake in order to save the body. Working to unite Iraq’s Shia factions–with our without Maliki at the helm–ensures that Iran maximizes the levers of power at its disposal to secure its interests.

It has also become increasingly clear to some Iranian decision-makers that they haven’t done enough to facilitate the process of political, economic and social coexistence in Iraq. The resulting instability now threatens Iranian interests across the board. To remedy this, Iran is exploring the feasibility of boosting coordination between united Shia factions and Iraqi Kurds. This, in turn, provides the leverage that will be necessary when the time comes to cut a deal with the broader Sunni community in Iraq.

As ISIS has advanced, it has sharpened the focus of Iraq’s fractious political forces: Unless they rally together, no side can individually squash ISIS’ violent dissent. Iran knows this, and it has conveyed firm messages to each side. Iraqi Shias have been encouraged to follow through on Ayatollah Sistani’s call to arms for all Iraqis by rearming and boosting collaboration among each other, as well as across sectarian lines.

Iran has encouraged Iraqi Kurds to gravitate more towards the central government in Baghdad because their alternatives to greater cooperation within the current power structure are deeply unattractive. Tehran has reminded their Kurdish counterparts that they have an incentive to collaborate with a more unified Shia faction because steps in the opposite direction will meet stiff resistance: it’s only a matter of time before ISIS brings violence into Kurdish-controlled areas, and Washington, Ankara, and Tehran do not have a track record of supporting outright Kurdish independence.

Most interestingly, Iraqi Sunnis have been told that the time has come for tough decisions: embrace the current government structure in return for concrete assurances on greater inclusion, or embrace ISIS and the political, economic and social disasters that will follow.

Right now, all sides appear to be negotiating, but the bottom line is clear: ISIS threatens everyone in Iraq–Shia, Sunni and Kurd. And Iran sees that as ISIS’ biggest mistake. Nothing brings together nationalistic politicians with deep sectarian tendencies like a common enemy. Iran is seeking to leverage this threat perception convergence into a mutually agreed upon social contract based on security. If that common denominator can be established, it provides the foundation from which the countless other issues facing Iraq can be hashed out.

This, of course, is the ideal scenario for Tehran. But if all else fails, it will fall back on its long-tested approach: exploiting instability and divisions. After revolution, eight years of war, varying degrees of diplomatic isolation, and economic strangulation, Iran has a demonstrated inclination for managed disorder that tends to hamstring its rivals.

Rather than adopting the American approach of putting boots on the ground, Iran prefers a strategy of committing money, weapons, intelligence and advisors–fighting down to the last Iraqi. This strategy is predicated on avoiding violence because Iran knows it can outsource it–and its strategic objectives in Iraq cannot be achieved unless its Iraqi allies are fully committed to the fight.

Iran wouldn’t have to consider managing disorder in Iraq if it hadn’t overreached in the first place–but so too have the Sunnis, Kurds and their respective patrons. With their focus now on the common threat that ISIS presents, re-establishing security has become the near-term goal. If and when this is achieved, the longer-term goal comes back into focus: the reconstruction of Iraq.

In many ways, Iran contributed to Iraq’s reconstruction as much as it has inhibited it. The catch, of course, is that Iran views reconstruction as a multi-tiered process–and the priority is reconstructing Iraq’s identity to reflect its long-standing demographic realities. Many Iraqi Sunnis and their patrons in the Arab world have refused to acknowledge these new realities brought about by America’s invasion 11 years ago. And from Iran’s vantage point, there will continue to be security problems in Iraq–and the region–until this fundamental issue is resolved. Between an exclusivist Shia government that neglects and marginalizes Sunnis, and a political order that preserves the privileges and patronage Sunnis enjoyed under Saddam, there remains a middle ground that has yet to be truly pursued.

For Iran, managing disorder is as much about denying the Saudis, Turks, Americans and others control in Iraq as it is maintaining Tehran’s own control. Iran would prefer to see a greater degree of long-term stability in Iraq–but not if stability comes at Iran’s exclusion and expense. Iran’s power in Iraq is formidable, and the key virtue of its strategy is patience. Decision-makers in Tehran are currently experiencing the high cost of this strategy but all signs point to a continued belief that it can maintain its status as the chief external power broker in Iraq by playing the long game.

This article originally appeared in IranWire.

America and Iran Face the Future – in Iraq

The United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq was the strategic mistake of a generation, with a long tail of consequence. It shook the foundation of the status quo in the Middle East and forced everyone, including the U.S. and Iran, to re-evaluate their respective positions. Today’s crisis in Iraq involving the Arab Sunni extremist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is hardly the first time that Washington and Tehran have re-evaluated their positions publicly. Without greater collaboration between the two, it will hardly be the last. After eleven years of pursuing zero-sum security strategies in Iraq, both sides are slowly admitting that they have badly overreached.

A member of Kurdish security forces takes his position during an intensive security deployment and a patrol looking for militants of ISIL, on the outskirts of Mosul

A member of Kurdish security forces patrols for ISIS militants on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq. June 22, 2014. Azad Lashkari/Reuters/Corbis

It has long been clear that Washington’s overreach in Iraq was the invasion itself. Everything since has been blowback and damage control. ISIS’s rise in Iraq and Syria is yet another reminder to Washington that the real threat of Islamic extremism does not emanate from Iran, but rather from Sunni extremists that make up a small but determined minority. This is a lesson that should have been clear to Washington after ISIS predecessor Al-Qaeda attacked the United States in 2001.

Only recently, Iran’s overreach has come into focus: By seeking to advance its interests in concert with allies at the expense of other foreign and domestic players, the Al-Maliki government has lost control of more than a quarter of the country. Sunnis and Kurds continue to take steps that threaten Iraq’s long-term territorial integrity. Instability in the Middle East has been known to transcend borders, and for its part, Iran has no interests in an anti-Iranian, anti-Shia political or military movement establishing any sort of lasting presence next door.

Until recently, both sides operated in Iraq under the same false premise: If you provide assistance from a position of weakness, the other side interprets it as giving in—and you get negative results. This exacerbated the deterioration of security in Iraq to the point where Washington and Tehran are now choosing between bad and worse. The danger of an Iraq beleaguered by political, religious and ethnic dysfunction with a low desire to project power abroad is preferable to anti-American, anti-Iranian militias seeking a caliphate from which they can carry out their stated desire to attack both America and Iran.

Identifying their shared interests in Iraq is the easy part. Now comes the hard part: addressing shared interests requires some series of shared actions. To build any coalition that can win against ISIS—or anyone else with a similar modus operandi—Washington and Tehran both need the support of key power brokers in Iraq, and that includes one another.

For over a decade, the predominant train of thought in Washington and Tehran has been avoiding compromise because each side ostensibly enjoyed plenty of maneuverability and other options to choose from. When one side’s influence began to rise, the others’ would shrink. The escalating crisis in Iraq—combined with growing regional instability—has rendered this assumption untenable.

Rather than support or ignore a power vacuum that the Kurds, Saudis, Turks, ISIS, and other extremist groups will increasingly seek to fill, compromise is clearly the lesser of two evils. Both sides have long held valuable cards to play in collaboration with one another if a shared interest in dialogue came to the fore: valuable intelligence, deep contacts with key political players, and influence within Iraq’s complex tribal and religious networks.

Working together to stabilize Iraq politically can reinforce the fragile power sharing arrangement between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, as well as provide a greater degree of accountability over all three sides and their use of religious and ethnic differences to advance political agendas. It would also be a huge step toward finally acknowledging an inconvenient truth: both sides become more antagonistic when they are not acknowledged as a stabilizing force in the region.

Perhaps most importantly, shared action in Iraq can provide a platform for the future—a future in which Washington and Tehran are able to engage in tactical or strategic collaboration without making headlines around the world. If shared interests are acknowledged and acted upon, the strategic significance of such a shift will likely force their conflicting ideologies to take a backseat to geopolitical realities. 

For example, Washington should use this opportunity to test Tehran’s willingness to cease lethal support for anti-U.S. groups in Iraq. Tehran should respond in kind by testing Washington’s willingness to use Iraq as an incubator for building positive strategic relations. Clearly defined rules of the game in Iraq can help avoid inadvertently fighting one another, facilitate intelligence-sharing cooperation and coordination on the capture of ISIS fighters, and provide a template that can be used to varying degrees in Syria, Afghanistan, and other regional conflicts.

Skeptics in Washington often point to Ayatollah Khamenei and General Qassem Soleimani as prime examples of Iran’s opposition to the idea of a strategic opening to the United States. This assessment is less than honest. Both men have long insisted that any opening on regional security issues must address both Iranian and American concerns. Any Iranian offers of assistance to the U.S. will be packaged with an Iranian insistence on exacting a price up front. Iran will not aid American interests in Iraq without linking its assistance to America aiding Iranian interests – and frankly, Washington operates on the same premise.

American and Iranian soldiers will not be fighting side by side anytime soon, but it has long been clear that the two sides need a sustained private channel to understand and influence their respective decision-making processes – if such a private channel does not already exist. When American generals say that collaboration is possible and Iranian generals say it’s impossible, that usually means it’s already happening at some level. Discussing Iraq on the sidelines of nuclear negotiations in Vienna was a positive step, but much more needs to be done to stabilize Iraq before its political, economic and social foundations crumble.

It is fair to point out that Washington and Tehran are still at odds on many issues. But to truly be fair, one must also acknowledge the slowly increasing receptivity to discussing those matters systematically in an effort to resolve their outstanding issues. Durable political solutions require the buy-in of those with the capacity to spoil them. Now more than ever, the U.S. and Iran must find common cause in stability—in Iraq and the region at large. Neither side can produce a durable victory when key players are excluded from the dialogue.  

This piece originally appeared in The Cairo Review of Global Affairs.

Should U.S. work with Iran in Iraq? Yes, if it wants to take on the real challenge: China

To work with Iran or not to work with Iran? That’s the question dogging Washington as Iraq descends into chaos, reminding America that its mission there was never truly accomplished.

As Sunni militants move toward Baghdad, and Iran’s supreme leader condemns U.S. involvement in the conflict, reaching out to Iran is less about changing America’s regional alignments, and more about defining its primary goal in the Middle East: Does America want stability, or does it want domination?


A member of the Kurdish security forces takes up position with his weapon while guarding an oil refinery, on the outskirts of Mosul, June 22, 2014. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

If Washington’s goal is stability, then cooperating with Iran makes sense because Tehran needs a stable Iraq and has valuable intelligence and political influence that can advance U.S. security. Iran has invested heavily in maintaining Iraq’s geographic unity under a Shi’ite-led government over whom it holds significant influence. For Iran, a stable Iraq led by an ally is better than an unstable Iraq led by Sunni jihadists who hate Iran more than they hate America. For that reason, Rouhani and others in Tehran had expressed willingness to cooperate with Washington against the jihadists.

But working with Iran does not make sense if the U.S. objective is to reinvigorate America’s political and military dominance over the region, even at the expense of endless war.

Many neoconservatives — such as William Kristol — believe that Washington must sustain its dominance in the Middle East, regardless of cost. According to this outlook, stability ranks second to domination. If instability at times helps secure or sustain control in the region, so be it.

Some neoconservatives even have a name for it: “creative destruction.” According to neocon operative Michael Ledeeen, “creative destruction is our middle name, both within our own society and abroad.” It’s a concept the neocons apply to both domestic and foreign policy.

This camp believes that in the case of Iran, collaboration — even against a common enemy — should be ruled out because the real threat to U.S. power is not the Sunni jihadists, but Iran’s challenge to the American order in the region. Tehran, the neocons argue, wants to replace the United States as the region’s top dog. That makes it a greater threat than the jihadists. In fact, if instability weakens Iran or drains its resources, then that serves the U.S., the reasoning goes. After all, it’s creative destruction.

Yet if regional stability is considered a higher priority than doubling down or dominating the Middle East, collaborating with Iran is a viable option — particularly if one puts the waning strategic importance of the Middle East in a global perspective. Pivoting away from the Middle East makes sense considering the cost of another ground war in the region, the U.S.’s growing energy independence, and perhaps most importantly, the fact that the real challenge to America’s global preeminence will come from China.

Indeed, stability in the Middle East is more important than dominating the region if one recognizes that China — and not Iran — is America’s true competitor. Persia may be a roaring lion, but China is a rising dragon.

Coordination with Iran can help stabilize and enable the United States to focus on higher priorities — whether in the east or at home — while avoiding getting re-entangled in the Iraqi mess.

After all, choosing domination over stability ultimately puts America in a permanent state of war in the Middle East. No wonder President Obama is resisting these neocon voices.

This piece originally appeared in Reuters.

Pivot to Persia


On New Year’s Eve 1977, President Jimmy Carter famously toasted the Shah at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran and declared, “Iran … is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” Less than two years later, Iran was in chaos as the revolution swept the country and brought down the 2,500-year-old monarchy.

Carter has been mocked for his lack of foresight, but he wasn’t wrong. He was just a few decades ahead of his time.

Iraq is disintegrating. Syria is in flames. Pakistan is on the verge of becoming a failed state. The Taliban is making a comeback in Afghanistan. Libya is falling apart. The House of Saud is nervous about a potentially existential succession crisis. In this region, Iran looks like an island of stability.

Meanwhile, the geopolitical enmity that has characterized relations between the United States and Iran for more than three decades has now been overtaken by events in Iraq and elsewhere. The United States seeks to reduce its footprint in the Middle East, choosing instead to focus its geopolitical energy on East Asia. And Washington’s traditional allies in the Persian Gulf are funding Sunni jihadists and are anti-Shiite. In this context, the U.S.-Iran rivalry cannot be left on autopilot.

News emerged on Monday that Washington and Tehran may cooperate militarily to stop the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) from advancing deeper into Iraq — Iran’s neighbor, where the United States has spent years, trillions of dollars, and thousands of lives. Iraq’s Shiite government has been seen by some as a proxy of Iran that has often sided with Tehran against Washington. But the common interest between Iran and the United States is not merely tactical or temporary: With the region roiling as it is, the reality that Iran and the United States might end up on the same side is simply the new normal.

While Washington may be struggling with the idea of a Persian pivot, Tehran can’t seem to break from the idea that it can boost its regional position by adopting an antagonistic role against United States. Iranian officials have told me that even if the nuclear issue is resolved, U.S.-Iran relations will remain a rivalry — not a partnership. But when radical Sunni ISIS fighters streamed across the Syrian border into Iraq and, in a matter of days, took over several major cities, the new reality became stunningly clear: Iran and the United States need each other more than ever before. Neither can salvage stability in Iraq or Afghanistan without the other.

For decades, Iran has tried to challenge U.S. hegemony in the Middle East by investing in Arab political opposition groups and backing Islamist movements like Hezbollah and Hamas with funding and support. But in the Sunni Arab world, this has yielded next to nothing for Tehran. Iran’s policy toward the Arab world since the 1979 revolution has been based on an accurate prediction that the reigns of the pro-American autocrats would not be durable and that Tehran’s long-term security was best assured by investing in Islamist movements that likely would take over. Iran’s brand of political Islam and anti-Israeli rhetoric, reasoned Tehran, could be a unifying force, bridging the deep animus that characterized the Arab-Persian and the Sunni-Shiite divides. Or so it thought.

Instead, the Islamists who gained influence following the Arab Spring — in Syria, Egypt, and Libya — have largely shown allegiance to their financial benefactors in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms rather than to their supposed ideological allies in Tehran. Meanwhile, Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria has dissipated the extensive soft power Tehran used to enjoy in the Arab world.

These days, Iranian officials privately acknowledge that their government is more popular in Latin America than it is in the Middle East.


 These days, Iranian officials privately acknowledge that their government is more popular in Latin America than it is in the Middle East.

The government in Tehran may find a better partner in the current administration in Washington than it might expect. Whatever America’s distaste for Iran’s brand of repressive Shiite nationalism, President Barack Obama knows clearly that the real threat to the United States is not the brand of Islam emanating from its nominal enemy Iran, but the one sponsored, funded, and embraced by its formal ally Saudi Arabia — particularly if the United States and Iran manage to resolve the nuclear issue in the next few weeks or months.

Obama was asked about the dangers of Sunni extremism and Shiite extremism by Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg earlier this year. The Iranians, Obama said, “are strategic, and they’re not impulsive. They have a worldview, and they see their interests, and they respond to costs and benefits…. They are a large, powerful country that sees itself as an important player on the world stage, and I do not think has a suicide wish, and can respond to incentives.” And on Sunni extremism? Obama’s silence speaks volumes. The surge of activity from radical jihadi groups likely only underlines their danger — and the difference between them and the government of Iran.  

Iran is understandably hesitant about reaching out to the United States. Iran’s leadership has been burned by past efforts to explore areas of strategic and tactical collaboration with the United States. Tehran provided extensive military, intelligence, and political support to the U.S. military in 2001 during the campaign to oust the Taliban. Iran’s help, according to President George W. Bush’s special envoy to Afghanistan Amb. Jim Dobbins, was decisive. But once Iran’s help was deemed no longer necessary, Bush included Tehran in the infamous Axis of Evil speech. Washington wasn’t interested in a new relationship with the Iranians.

Washington has paid for that mistake ever since. Both the chaos in Afghanistan and in Iraq could have been evaded had Washington recognized the stabilizing role Iran can play if it isn’t treated as an outcast. In 2003, Iran offered to help stabilize Iraq and ensure that the government there would be nonsectarian. The Bush administration chose not to respond to that offer.

But Iran, too, will pay a price if it clings to an outdated understanding of the regional and global strategic landscape. Contradictory messages have come out of Tehran, with officials telling Reuters that they are open to collaboration with the United States against ISIS, and then having their Foreign Ministry spokesperson strongly oppose U.S. military intervention. Similarly, the U.S. position seems to be shifting, from first denying any plans for talking to Iran about Iraq to signaling a desire to sit down with Tehran.

Iran’s key objective is to be recognized as a stabilizing force. But that is a role it ultimately cannot play if it simultaneously wishes to challenge the United States. Unlike in Afghanistan, any cooperation in Iraq will likely be more public. If Iran plays a constructive role, the world will notice. But changing old patterns require courage, strength, and political will. It remains to be seen if the leadership in Tehran can deliver those — or if Washington will be receptive.

Whatever the two sides do, they should not let outdated rivalries stand in the way. If anything, the onslaught of ISIS shows that a U.S.-Iran conversation about regional matters is long overdue.

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

A Few Thoughts on Possible U.S.-Iran Collaboration in Iraq

As Washington gets further dragged back into the mess in Iraq, opening up a new chapter of collaboration with Iran to defeat the Sunni Jihadists has once again become a political sticking point in Washington. Here are a few quick thoughts on the matter:

    • The fact that Iran has signaled openness to US strikes in Iraq shows that, contrary to conventional wisdom in Washington, Iran is either not seeking hegemony in the region and/or is incapable of materializing such a desire. The scaremongering about Iran’s intents and capabilities are put in check by these recent events. Whether it wants it or not, Iran does not have the offensive military capabilities to replace the US as a military hegemon. Tehran have likely not missed the lesson of America’s erroneous war in Iraq — defeating one’s enemies militarily is not the same thing as winning the war and winning the peace. 
    • Republican criticism of President Barack Obama is less than honest. Whatever collaboration with Iran Obama may pursue, it will likely be far less than the very extensive political, military and intelligence collaboration George W. Bush had with Iran to defeat the Taliban in 2001. The difference is that Obama seems disinclined to betray the collaboration. Once Bush — incorrectly — deemed that the US no longer needed Iran, he put the country in the axis of evil. That effectively ended the lion share of the collaboration in Afghanistan, much to the detriment of the US. Obama seems more inclined to explore how successful collaboration in Iraq can move the two countries in a positive direction in order to advance regional and American security. 
    • The crisis in Iraq adds urgency to reaching a nuclear deal with Iran by July 20 since the nuclear matter needs to be resolved before the two sides can fully explore regional areas of mutual interest. 
    • Reality is that Iran and the US need each other. And both of them need to recognize the other’s ability to play a stabilizing role. Few things have been as destabilizing for the region than the US-Iran enmity.
  • The real value of a functioning US-Iran dialogue on regional matters is that crises like this in Iraq can be prevented before they even erupt. Had the US and Iran collaborated rather than competed with each other in the region in the past few years, ISIS would likely never have managed to pose this challenge.

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

Will Sanctions Hawks Kill an Iran Nuclear Deal?

rouhani-profileNow that we are nearing the July 20 deadline for P5+1 and Iran nuclear talks, it is important that we have a sober understanding of the difficulties the White House will have tailoring sanctions relief so as to secure and sustain a lasting nuclear agreement. While the legal obstacles to sanctions relief—which remains an underappreciated aspect of the ongoing negotiations—pose a significant hurdle to the conclusion of a final agreement, the real danger might well stem from U.S. ‘sanctions hawks’ who threaten to convince the White House to construct sanctions relief on such a narrow basis that Iran’s benefit under a deal is negligible at best, thereby unraveling the long-fought agreement. If that happens, the ostensible logic of U.S. sanctions policy—i.e., to use sanctions as a bargaining chip to win Iranian concessions on its nuclear program—becomes foiled, and the White House will have adopted the perverted logic of those who see economic sanctions as a means to bludgeon Iran, skirt the opportunities for a negotiated settlement, and prepare the ground for war.

This is a scenario that must be avoided at all costs. That is why it is vital that we step back and evaluate the overblown predictions of months past, when ‘sanctions hawks’ exaggerated Iran’s expected relief under the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), so as to warn against the White House over-correcting and dooming the possibilities for a peaceful resolution to the Iran nuclear dispute. We are too close to a “breakthrough”—as the President stated this week—to allow spoilers to do their work and wreck our best shot at preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.

Iran’s Actual vs. Expected Relief

Even before the Joint Plan of Action was concluded last November, dispute erupted over the precise measure of relief the P5+1 was offering Iran. Some—including Members of Congress, the Israeli Government and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD)—forecasted Iran’s expected sanctions relief under the JPOA to be double the estimate produced by the Treasury Department. (David S. Cohen, the Treasury’s Under-Secretary of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, had repeatedly argued that sanctions relief would net Iran only $6-7 billion.)

Leading the charge was Mark Dubowitz, FDD’s Executive Director and long-time sanctions advocate, who argued just prior to the interim deal that Iran would receive a “massive sanctions relief windfall of $20 billion or even more.” This “windfall” would include, Dubowitz claimed, “$5-6 billion” in petrochemical exports and “at least $9.6 billion in gold sales.” Soon after the interim deal was concluded, Dubowitz repeated this claim in the Wall Street Journal—though this time chalking it up to the relief on oil sanctions and Iran’s automotive sector.

Has time proven Dubowitz right? Not quite. According to Treasury’s own analysis, its estimate as to Iran’s expected relief from the sanctions is holding strong. Last month, during a Senate hearing, Under-Secretary Cohen stated, “Nothing that we have seen [at Treasury] leads us to question that estimate [of $6-7 billion]. If anything, that estimate is probably on the high side.” Israel’s former head of Defense Intelligence, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin recently concurred, saying, “What we are seeing now is that the sanctions—very much like President Obama and Secretary Kerry predicted—are still holding.”

None of this should be surprising. In conversations I have had with Treasury officials, old and new, it is clear that the sanctions relief granted Iran was specifically designed to be so narrowly tailored. For instance, while sanctions on the export of Iran’s petrochemicals were suspended under the JPOA, those targeting investment in—and the provision of goods and services to—Iran’s (decrepit) petrochemical sector were not. This meant that while Iran was free to export its petrochemical products, its real pressing needs—i.e., foreign investment—remained under sanction. Moreover, the time-limited nature of the JPOA made some concessions—such as the lifting of restrictions on insurance for Iran’s petrochemical exports—of little value to Tehran, as claims related to the insurance would have to be resolved in an impossible time frame.

In short, evidence shows that Iran’s sanctions relief was either equal to or less than the predictions offered by the administration. Meanwhile, those whose claims have proved exaggerated have subtly altered the nature of their argument, as Dubowitz did last week in The National Interest when he argued that the JPOA “may have triggered indirect economic relief to Tehran that is much greater than the U.S. estimate…” Last November’s certitude has become today’s conjecture, it seems.

Market Psychology

While limited and carefully-tailored sanctions relief might have been the right policy during the duration of the interim deal—designed as it was as a mere placeholder for the parties to negotiate a final agreement—the White House will need to reconsider its objectives and the means by which it pursues them both before and over the course of a final deal. This will mean recognizing what should be a truism in Washington: sanctions were not an end in and of themselves, but a means to impose limits to Iran’s nuclear program. In other words, the administration shouldn’t be afraid to trade in sanctions relief upon conclusion of a final deal and satisfy the sanctions logic.

Sanctions hawks, however, would prefer the White House to tailor sanctions relief so narrowly that Iran gets no real benefit from the deal at all. Dubowitz, for example, has turned “psychologist” and is now warning Washington that it stands to turn the market’s psychology “from fear to greed”—thus improving market sentiment and undermining U.S. leverage at the negotiating table—by promising Iran sanctions relief. His prognosis is for Congress to pass S.1881 and hang the threat of sanctions over Iran’s head eternally—a sure means to collapse the negotiations.

His claim, however, rests on a lack of appreciation for how sanctions have affected markets. At their height, U.S. sanctions prescribed nothing short of “shock therapy” for firms that did business with Iran. For instance, when Standard Chartered was alleged to have violated U.S. sanctions laws, it settled with US regulators for $327 million—an astronomical sum that persuaded not just the British bank, but others as well to end their connections with Tehran. Recently, new heights were reached when reports indicated that U.S. regulators would soon fine France’s BNP Paribas a sum total in excess of $10 billion—in part for Iran sanctions violations. Brute enforcement like this was (and is) designed to change firms’ behavior vis-à-vis Iran, and to a large extent, it has performed this task exceptionally well. Few are willing to risk their reputation—much less their bottom lines—to do business with Iran before sanctions are lifted on a more permanent basis than at present.

This is what renders Dubowitz’ concern over market psychology precisely backwards: Instead of the limited sanctions relief under the JPOA accelerating positive market sentiment towards Iran, we continue to see firms fail to take advantage of openings in trade with Tehran that the JPOA not only permits, but actually incentivizes (e.g., the financial channel for humanitarian trade). This is, no doubt, because markets appreciate risk and the risk of doing business with Iran—as a matter of reputation, sound business judgment and firms’ bottom lines—continues to ward against any serious openings.

So while much concern in Washington is focused on the United States carefully tempering enthusiasm for sanctions relief and limiting the number of entrants into the Iranian market, the White House may increasingly find itself with a much different problem: risk-averse firms that see narrowly tailored, time-limited sanctions relief as doing little to provide the assurances needed for them to resume business ties with Iran.

In the end, Tehran might be the gold rush that no one is, in fact, rushing to. In that case, we should expect Iran to do as we would do if Iran’s nuclear concessions did not end up satisfying our core concerns with its nuclear program: renege on the bargain struck and start the conversation from ground zero. If that sounds as unpromising as I expect it does, then we better take into account Iran’s goals at the negotiating table and shape sanctions relief so as to both maintain leverage while also providing Iran meaningful reprieve. Especially if we want a final nuclear deal with Iran to stick.

This article originally appeared in The National Interest.

Legal Loggerheads: Long Road Ahead to Lifting Sanctions

We’ll soon find out whether the decade-old nuclear dispute with Iran can be resolved diplomatically, as the parties return to Vienna next month to hammer out a comprehensive agreement. So far, negotiations have been deftly handled by both US and Iranian negotiators – the positive atmosphere, so critical to staving off domestic opposition, having been maintained over several months. But still, the most difficult issues remain on the table, including the number (and type) of centrifuges Iran will be permitted, the duration of a final agreement, and the timing of sanctions relief. Successfully concluding a nuclear deal will require compromise from both parties on each of these issues.

While much attention has zeroed in on Iran’s obligations under a final deal, few have discussed the specific modes by which the US will comply with its own commitments. This is troubling, especially insofar as the White House’s ability to provide Iran measurable sanctions relief, absent an affirmative act of Congress, is not assured. In fact, relieving the sanctions will involve difficult questions of law and policy that deserve far more extensive discussion than received at present. Below, I discuss a few of these issues, posing as they do hurdles perhaps as sizeable as Iran’s own centrifuges.

Treaty or Not to Treaty?

Soon after the Joint Plan of Action was inked in Geneva last November, questions arose as to the legal nature of the preliminary agreement: Was it binding as a matter of international law? If so, would it need to be submitted to the Senate (or, in Iran’s case, to the Majles) for approval?

Consensus, here and elsewhere, said no: the interim deal was left unsigned by the parties and had couched its commitments as “voluntary measures,” not mandatory ones. This, it was argued, signified that the P5+1 and Iran did not intend for the document to be either binding on the parties nor governed by international law. Drawbacks to this approach were obvious, but the upside was that each of the parties avoided the need for legislative approval at home (Iran, too, hasconstitutionally-mandated procedures to follow before an international agreement can be entered into and take domestic effect). Now that we are more than halfway through the interim period andboth parties remain in full compliance with their “voluntary” obligations, the choice of informal agreement looks to have been the correct one.

Going forward, however, the central question will be whether the parties replicate this model in a final deal or instead cement a binding international agreement (i.e., a treaty). While the White House remains keen on insulating Congress as much as possible from playing spoiler and is thus unlikely to submit a final deal to the Senate for approval, there are several factors that ward against replicating the “soft law” nature of the Joint Plan of Action.

First, because the US will be required to offer more lasting sanctions relief than that provided under the Joint Plan of Action and, as of now, the President is limited in the kind of sanctions relief he can provide, Congress will be called upon to lift the sanctions at some point in this process. Whether to include Congress at the front- or back-end of a final deal remains a strategic question for the White House, but avoiding Congress altogether is no longer a plausible scenario. (Nor is more aggressive action from the White House likely. It is improbable that the White House will attempt to conclude a sole executive agreement with Iran that overrides contrary federal law and gives the President the authorities he needs to provide Iran the requisite sanctions relief. Such a step would prove a legal leap beyond that of Dames & Moore — the President not acting pursuant to Congressional authorization or acquiescence but rather in ways contrary to Congress’s clear direction.)

Second, unlike the interim deal, which was intended as both a confidence-building measure and a place-holder to allow the parties time to negotiate a final deal, the final agreement will be one where the obligations actually matter. It will matter that Iran take the action it promises, exacting strict limits to its nuclear program in return for US sanctions relief. Formalizing those obligations into an international agreement ups the reputational stakes for both parties and better induces their sustained compliance. Leaving them as “voluntary measures,” per the JPOA, provides an escape valve for the parties, who will feel more comfortable waving aside political commitments than legal ones.

Third, treaties provide a (more or less) clear standard by which to assess non-compliance and to tailor lawful responsive action. This is not the case in an informal agreement like the Joint Plan of Action, even despite the fact that the interim deal contemplates an oversight committee to adjudicate contested issues between the parties. If either of the parties perceives the other to have violated its commitments and an oversight committee (on which both parties sit) fails to reconcile the breach, then the parties risk escalating the dispute by mutual retaliation ad infinitum. This is not conducive to the parties re-establishing trust and confidence in each other over the duration of a final deal.

‘Lifting’ Sanctions

Under the Joint Plan of Action, the United States committed itself to lifting all nuclear-related sanctions on Iran over the duration of the final agreement. If the parties do not agree to formalize their agreement into a treaty, then President Obama will be forced to utilize his limited statutory discretion to provide Iran sanctions relief. This will involve the President exploiting sanctions waivers (time-limited but open to successive periods of renewal), as well as his position as the sanctions’ chief administrator, to relax the sanctions on Iran and ensure measurable relief. However, the President does not have the power to terminate the sanctions altogether, as termination (where it is permitted) would require the President to make certifications as to Iran’s conduct that go well beyond the province of the nuclear file (i.e., Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism; its ballistic missile arsenal; etc.). This limitation creates several problems for the Obama Administration, as sanctions waivers will need to be repurposed for an end they were never meant to serve and might well prove ill-suited for the task of providing Iran significant sanctions relief.

Moreover, the specific mode of sanctions relief itself remains a contested issue in the negotiations, as Iran demands that the sanctions be repealed and that the US provide assurances that it will not re-impose them on an altogether different pretext. This is significant, insofar as US and Iran negotiators are bargaining at the table and the White House’s inability to provide Iran the kind of relief it is seeking might well mean that the US is likewise forced to dial back its own demands as to Iran’s nuclear program. If that is the case, then the fact that the President does not have the power to terminate the sanctions altogether works to undermine the US’s negotiating position in the talks. In this case, the US runs the risk of getting a worse deal than would otherwise be possible were the President empowered to lift sanctions himself.

Solutions present themselves, including a delegation to the President of the authorities to terminate or suspend the sanctions, on the timeline outlined in the final agreement and subject to certification as to Iran’s full compliance. But Congress remains the gate-keeper here, and whether it can overcome its antagonism to all-things-Iran remains unseen. Nevertheless, centralizing authorities in the President’s hands is the ideal solution to a sticky issue, especially insofar as the President is in prime position to rebuild the political solidarity required to re-impose US and international sanctions should Iran renege on its commitments down the line.

State and Local Divestment Laws

Under CISADA – the 2010 sanctions legislation targeting Iran’s financial and energy sector — Congress provided its imprimatur to state and local governments to enact provisions requiring divestment from companies that did business in Iran’s energy sector. Specifically, CISADA ruled out federal preemption of state and local divestment laws, which proved critical for the survival of such laws in the aftermath of Crosby. (Many states, including CaliforniaNew YorkNew Jersey,Illinois, and Florida, have either divestment or contracting legislation, or both, on the books.)

But as we approach a final agreement with Iran, this provision of CISADA complicates the President’s ability to provide Iran the requisite sanctions relief, especially so long as Congress remains unmotivated to act in support of the deal. While state and local divestment and selective purchasing laws perform little to no substantive work right now – overshadowed as they are by the host of federal laws restricting foreign business’s relations with Iran and its energy sector – once the White House starts to remove those sanctions via the President’s statutory powers, they threaten to play an outsized role in limiting the extent of Iran’s expected relief and causing trouble for US allies.

Unlike recent cases, too, where the conflict between federal and state law was transparent, there will be no clear conflict in the Iran sanctions case. In fact, so long as Congress sits on its hands and refuses to lend its support for a deal, the White House will be forced to make broad assertions of federal and executive power (federal policy preemption; dormant foreign affairs power) in order to override state and local laws that frustrate its outreach to Iran. This could bring to the fore a question that the Court has long refused to answer: the precise bounds of its preemption doctrine.


While US and Iran negotiators remain hard at work engineering a solution to the nuclear Rubik’s Cube and experts continue to explore creative ways to structure a final agreement, it is important to consider how the ultimate shape of a final deal will affect the ability of the United States to meet its commitments and provide Iran with measurable sanctions relief. So far, this area is an unexplored one, but it must not remain so – especially when the fate of an Iran nuclear deal hangs in the balance.

This article originally appeared in Opinion Juris.

No, Sanctions Didn’t Force Iran to Make a Deal

In what is perhaps the central myth of the Cold War, President John F. Kennedy is said to have stared down Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis and refused to give an inch, forcing the Soviet premier to capitulate to his steely will and America’s superior military might. As Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, put it in Foreign Policy, “Mythologically, Khrushchev gave everything, and Kennedy gave nothing.” This false standard, according to Gelb, became the gold standard for American statecraft going forward: Never compromise, just stare down your enemies and force them to capitulate.

In reality, of course, Kennedy did compromise. Only by quietly withdrawing its Jupiter missiles from Turkey did the United States avoid a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. But for several decades, the Kennedy administration managed to keep this essential part of the story a secret. By the time the compromise was revealed 16 years later, in a book by historian Arthur Schlesinger, the myth had grown so strong that the truth could not unseat it.

Today, another, equally destructive myth is being forged.

That myth — promoted by officials in President Barack Obama’s administration as well as powerful lawmakers like Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) — is that crippling sanctions brought the Iranian regime to its knees, forcing it to rush to the negotiating table to beg for mercy. In this narrative, the breakthrough in nuclear talks is credited to the Obama administration’s unprecedented economic pressure, which has essentially locked Iran out of the international financial system. And like JFK before him, Obama did not compromise with Iran. The mythical gold standard was met.

Except it wasn’t.

Sanctions are neither the reason for the breakthrough, nor the impetus behind the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s openness to talks. They also did not get Rouhani elected.

The idea that the United States has the ability to engineer the outcome of elections in a country that is thousands of miles away, with which it has no trade, where it has had no diplomatic presence for 35 years, and where only a handful of current U.S. diplomats have ever served or even visited, expands the concept of arrogance to new and exciting frontiers.

In reality, last year’s elections were a continuation of the fraudulent 2009 elections — some might argue, the completion of that tense chapter. Iranians wanted change in 2013, just as they did in 2009 — before the imposition of Obama’s sanctions. The last four years under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been worse than the first four. Repression had intensified, the security atmosphere in Iran made the heyday of McCarthyism look like the enlightenment, corruption and economic mismanagement was at an all-time high, and the hardliners had criminalized everything from academia to tourism. The population was suffocating. The regime had thwarted Iranians’ vote for change in 2009, and few believed they would even bother to cast their votes in 2013.

This was the critical question — voter turnout — because hardliners in Iran only tend to win elections under two circumstances: When they cheat or when they convince the population that they will cheat. In the latter case, they suppress voter turnout and enable a core group of supporters of the regime to swing the outcome of the election.

In the end, a range of forces enabled Rouhani and his political allies to convince a large portion of the electorate that hardliners simply could not repeat the charade of 2009. Reformists led by former President Mohammad Khatami and political centrists supporting former President Hashemi Rafsanjani formed an unprecedented coalition in support of Rouhani, while conservatives failed to coalesce around a single candidate of their own. The wounds of 2009 were still open, meanwhile, and internal rifts between the ruling elite suggested that the regime could not survive the delegitimizing effects of another election scandal. As a result, Rouhani could convincingly tell the crowds at numerous campaign stops that, “2013 will not be like 2009.”

As election day approached, Rouhani surged in the polls and to the surprise of many — perhaps even his team — rolled to the presidency: With 72.7 percent turnout, Rouhani won a landslide, first-round victory with 50.7 percent of the vote.

This outcome was also determined by a bit of luck. A poll conducted by Tehran University and the University of Maryland immediately after the election revealed that strategic voting by supporters of Rouhani’s rival, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, pushed Rouhani over the 50 percent mark. Since the elections were expected to go to a runoff and many Ghalibaf supporters believed he was a shoe-in for the second round, they instead cast their first-round ballots for Rouhani — their second choice — to secure a Rouhani-Ghalibaf runoff (the poll revealed that 24 percent of Rouhani voters actually preferred Ghalibaf.) But the Ghalibaf supporters overdid it. Thanks in part to their strategic voting, Rouhani managed to reach just above the 50 percent threshold, eliminating the need for a runoff. 

The Tehran University/University of Maryland poll also directly refutes the idea that sanctions got Rouhani elected: Only 2 percent of Rouhani’s supporters listed the lifting of sanctions as a reason for supporting him. Twice as many — 4 percent — voted for him because he was a clergyman. Seven percent cited his ability to fix the economy. A later poll by Zogby International revealed that three out of the five most important issues to the Iranian electorate pertained to civil liberties, while a whopping 96 percent reported that sanctions were worth it in order to retain the country’s enrichment right.

Rather than crediting sanctions for this unexpected outcome — without a shred of evidence — it should be acknowledged that Iran’s presidential election was unpredictable. The election could have easily produced a different result: What if Rouhani had surged earlier in the polls, reducing the degree of strategic voting among Ghalibaf supporters? What if Khatami had failed to convince the other reformist candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, to withdraw his candidacy and throw his support behind Rouhani? What if the conservatives had succeeded in uniting around one candidate? And most importantly, what if a greater segment of reform-minded Iranian voters had decided not to vote?

* * *

Equally questionable is the argument that sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table — or even that they are the driving force behind Rouhani’s appetite for diplomacy. Such claims ignore the fact that the team around Rouhani has had a long history of pursuing a more conciliatory policy towards the West, including on the nuclear issue.

Rouhani headed Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, the equivalent of the U.S.’s National Security Council, in 2001, when Tehran helped Washington topple the Taliban in Afghanistan. According James Dobbins, who served as President George W. Bush’s envoy to Afghanistan in the months after the 9/11 attacks, Iranprovided crucial intelligence as well as military and political support to the United States — long before any of the current sanctions were imposed. Later, it was Rouhani’s current foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who coordinated with Dobbins to secure support for the new post-Taliban constitution in Afghanistan. The Iranians hoped that their assistance in Afghanistan would open a new chapter in U.S.-Iran relations, but Bush was not interested. Instead, he included Iran in his “axis of evil,” effectively killing the collaboration in Afghanistan.

But the reform-minded team in Iran did not relent. As I describe in my 2007 book, Treacherous Alliance: the Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S., Tehran submitted a comprehensive negotiation proposal — a grand bargain — to the Bush administration in 2003. Zarif was one of the authors of that document. Among other things, Iran offered to make its nuclear program fully transparent (at the time, it had only 164 centrifuges, compared to the 19,000 it has now), disarm the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, and indirectly recognize Israel. But once again, the Bush White House rejected Iran’s outreach.

Two years later, during his last months as head of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, Rouhani made one final attempt to meet the West halfway. In March 2005, he instructed Zarif — then Iran’s U.N. ambassador — to submit to the Europeans a proposal that would have limited the number of Iranian centrifuges at 3,000. Iran negotiated directly with the EU at the time because the Bush administration refused to come to the negotiating table. But the Europeans never responded to this offer, mainly because they knew Washington would reject any deal that allowed for even one spinning centrifuge on Iranian soil. A senior official in the Obama administration told me a few months ago that the United States would jump at such a proposal today because of the significant progress the Iranian nuclear program has made since 2005 — sanctions notwithstanding.

The fact that the pragmatic faction within the Iranian government has on numerous occasions offered more attractive nuclear proposals to the West — prior to the crippling economic sanctions imposed by Obama — fundamentally undermines the notion that sanctions were needed to reach a deal.

While it is true in a limited sense that sanctions provided the United States with added leverage (assuming it can lift them as part of a deal), the other side of the equation is all too often conveniently forgotten: During this same period, Iran aggressively expanded its nuclear capabilities, which in turn provided it with added leverage over the West. Iran increased its centrifuge count from 3,000 to 19,000 and built a number of advanced centrifuges it didn’t have back in 2005. It also amassed thousands of kilograms of low enriched uranium, as well as roughly 200 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium — of which it had none prior to 2010.

If sanctions gave the United States more leverage, then it’s also true that 19,000 centrifuges gave Iran additional leverage. Indeed, some in Tehran contend that Iranian centrifuges forced the United States to the table. After all, it was the United States that for years refused to engage in negotiations with the group of world powers known as the P5+1 — not Iran.

At a minimum, the growth of Iranian capabilities limited America’s options. As one White House official who is involved in the negotiations told me, “We are negotiating because the Iranians are on the cusp of a fait accompli.”

* * *

In reality, it was neither the sanctions nor Iran’s centrifuges that produced the current breakthrough. The diplomatic opening came about for the same reason it did during the Cuban Missile crises: Both sides compromised. Tehran stopped advancing sensitive parts of its program and agreed to greater transparency. And Washington finally accepted enrichment on Iranian soil in the November 2013 interim agreement. Tehran had long insisted that if its enrichment was accepted, it would agree to transparency as well as restrictions.

For all practical purposes, accepting Iranian enrichment is the modern equivalent of removing Jupiter missiles from Turkey. If this unrealistic and legally questionable red line had been discarded earlier, the breakthrough could have been achieved much earlier — long before the Obama sanctions were imposed.

Mohamad ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has written that the “interim agreement, facilitated by Rouhani’s low-key diplomacy, could have been reached 10 years ago.” But, he added, it took the “West a decade to realize that bare-knuckle competition for regional influence was not a viable strategy for dealing with Iran.”

Obama missed one such opportunity for compromise in May 2010, when Brazil and Turkey convinced Iran to accept an American proposal to ship out 1,200 kg of its stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) in exchange for fuel pads for its Tehran Research Reactor. Despite the fact that Obama welcomed Turkey and Brazil’s efforts and spelled out the specific conditions Iran needed to accept in a letter dated April 20, 2010 — all of which Tehran accepted — the United States reneged on its promise and rejected its own proposal.

There were numerous reasons Obama chose to reject the Tehran Declaration, as the Turkish-Brazilian deal came to be called, but perhaps the two most important ones were the unstoppable momentum of sanctions and the issue of Iranian enrichment.

After the failure of the 2009 nuclear negotiations, support for sanctions on Capitol Hill was strong and growing. The Obama administration chose not to oppose this pressure, but rather to delay until it had first secured a U.N. Security Council resolution imposing sanctions. Unbeknownst to Brazil and Turkey, Russia and China approved a sanctions resolution one day before the negotiations with Tehran were due to begin. Once the deal was reached, Obama had to choose between a diplomatic breakthrough and sanctions.

He chose sanctions.

Obama feared that even if he accepted the Tehran Declaration, Congress would still impose sanctions. That would have complicated matters and broken the unity Obama had carefully forged in the U.N. Security Council against Iran. A senior Obama official told me that Congress was coming at the administration “like a steam roller” and that Obama simply lacked the political space to take “yes” for an answer from Iran.

But sanctions were never necessary to get Iran to agree to a deal. Rather, sanctions were needed to pacify domestic political forces in the United States and to give Obama the space he needed to pursue diplomacy down the road. Sanctions were in this regard a domestic-policy tool, not a foreign-policy tool.

The second reason Obama chose to reject the Tehran Declaration was that it explicitly recognized Iran’s right to enrich. Even though accepting the declaration would not have made the United States a party to it, the White House feared it would violate America’s long-standing “red line” on enrichment in Iran — the same red line Obama wisely shelved in 2013 in order to get a deal with Tehran.

Yet the myth that sanctions produced the current diplomatic breakthrough persists. Lawmakers continue to argue for more sanctions, even though such action would cause the talks to collapse, claiming that since sanctions brought Iran to the table, more sanctions will give the United States even more leverage.

If the myth of the sanctions success prevails, American foreign policy will be led down a perilous path. A false and dangerous blueprint for dealing with proliferators and international disputes in general will emerge: Forget diplomacy, never compromise, impose sanctions, threaten war — and hope for the best.

With Iran, thanks to the quiet compromise on enrichment, war is more distant than ever since the crises erupted. The world may not be as lucky next time it goes down an all-out sanctions path.

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

Why Is Bank of America Closing Iranian Students’ Accounts?

Across the country, many Iranian students are having their financial lifeline severed, often with little or no warning, by one of the largest banks in the United States: Bank of America.

Students across the world grow up dreaming of the opportunity to study at the best universities the United States has to offer, either to bring their skills back to their home country or to start a new life in the land of opportunity. Many go to great lengths to achieve that dream, and are heavily dependent upon the financial lifeline that their family or others have extended to them from their home countries. Iranians are no different, despite the differences between the U.S. and Iranian governments. 

However, across the country, many Iranian students are having their financial lifeline severed, often with little or no warning, by one of the largest banks in the United States: Bank of America. 

Due to a sudden, unnecessary and – most of all – discriminatory change in bank policy, Iranians and Iranian Americans across the country suddenly try to use their debit cards to make a purchase or withdraw money from an ATM, only to find that their accounts have been frozen effective immediately. When they try to get answers from the bank, they are often subject to a Kafkaesque bureaucratic run-around before a person with proper clearance is found, at which point the process begins anew.

The bureaucratic fight to re-open an account can drag on endlessly with little indication as to when, if ever, the issue will be resolved and they will be able to access their own money. Meanwhile, these students are hit with late fees for failing to make payments and often have to try to borrow money from friends to make ends meet. Their only crime is that they were born in Iran. None of them have a nuclear program hidden in their student dorms.

This entire process is unjust: nobody should fear that their bank could very well take away their money for an extended period because of where they are born.

These Iranians are innocent of any wrong doing yet, on the simple basis that they were born in Iran and do business with Bank of America, the bank has upended their lives by denying them the right to access their money – all out of a misguided fear of violating U.S. sanctions. This policy is discriminatory and wrong, undermines the protections that should extend to everyone that calls America home, and directly threatens the ability of Iranians to pursue their dreams.

Bank of America’s customers – regardless of national origin – put their trust in the bank on a daily basis, assuming that they will be able to access their money when it is needed. Few customers assume that their bank, which profits off of the relationship, would violate that basic trust on the discriminatory basis of race or national origin. But Bank of America is doing just that when it throws Iranians into financial limbo by freezing accounts without warning or justification.

In recent weeks, our organization, the National Iranian American Council, has received numerous complaints from Iranian students, as well as Iranian Americans born in Iran, who have suffered from Bank of America’s preemptive freeze policy. It appears that those we have heard from are just the tip of the iceberg.

The justification for this discriminatory and damaging policy lies in an over enforcement of U.S. sanctions law. Under extensive financial sanctions that have cut off Iran’s financial sector from the United States, U.S. banks cannot provide any services or permit accounts from being accessed within Iran. Many Iranians and Iranian Americans know these restrictions and are careful to ensure that they do not access their accounts when visiting Iran.

Nevertheless, Bank of America has employed a scorched earth approach to ensuring sanctions compliance: freezing domestic accounts with little to no warning for weeks at a time until they obtain additional documentation. These freezes are simply not necessary under U.S. sanctions law and solely rely on the legally questionable and ethically problematic justification of national origin. By contrast, many other banks simply request the documents and allow their customers to continue to access their accounts from the U.S. while they review and assess the risk of the customer running afoul of financial sanctions.

Navigating the minefield of U.S. sanctions on Iran is certainly difficult, and violating U.S. sanctions often comes with particularly heavy penalties. But legal and financial challenges are no excuse for discriminatory policies. Further, such practices carry risks of their own. In Canada, TD Bank’s closure of Iranian bank accounts was met with a large-scale public campaign against its practices, and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights is currently investigating TCF Bank for possible discrimination following their closure of Iranian student accounts. Rather than continue its discriminatory practices, Bank of America should follow the example of Bank of Hawaii, which took steps to reverse preemptive closures of Iranian and Iranian American accounts while ensuring that it did not violate U.S. sanctions law.

While many policymakers like to pretend that sanctions are a cost-free option, it is clear that such is not the case. The people of Iran have suffered under inflation and medical shortages caused by the sanctions. Further, Iranians and Iranian Americans that are pursuing the American dream now face racial discrimination from Bank of America and others as a direct result of sanctions.

While the U.S. and Iran continue to try to resolve their many differences, action must be taken prevent the fallout of these disputes from disrupting the peaceful lives of citizens in each country. Bank of America has a clear role to play in this effort, and should immediately halt its discriminatory account freezes and undertake a thorough review of its sanctions compliance policy to ensure that these practices do not continue. The innocent customers that Bank of America has harmed deserve, at least, to know that their policy has changed and that they won’t have to suffer through this discrimination again.

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post.

How To Strike A Win-Win Deal With Iran

The United States and its allies are now preparing for the home stretch in their nuclear negotiations with Iran. And, as they approach the finish line, it will be critical for insightful voices to help the Obama administration parse through difficult issues that remain on the negotiating table.


The United States and its allies are now preparing for the home stretch in their nuclear negotiations with Iran. And, as they approach the finish line, it will be critical for insightful voices to help the Obama administration parse through difficult issues that remain on the negotiating table.

Kenneth Pollack – a top Clinton administration official and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution – recently took to the pages of the New York Times to do exactly that. He correctly notes in his op-ed that a comprehensive deal verifiably ensuring the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program will be enormously beneficial.

Ken is our friend and one of the sharpest minds working in Washington today. That’s why we hope to use his New York Times op-ed as a launching pad for a broader dialogue about what the details of a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran should look like.

He rightly points out three critical issues that will make or break our negotiations with Iran: inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities; creating mechanisms to ensure Iran doesn’t cheat; and the duration of a final deal. However, we believe the contours recommended in his op-ed would risk creating such an imbalance in the deal that it would incentivize the Iranians to cheat, and by that turn a diplomatic win into an embarrassing fiasco.

On the issue of intrusive inspections, we agree: For a mutually-agreed upon time period, any final nuclear deal with Iran will have to include one of the most comprehensive inspections regime in history.

But pushing for the type of inspections we had in Iraq – a constant, indefinite and undefined International Atomic Energy Agency presence – doesn’t pass the feasibility litmus test and contradicts what has already been agreed upon in November: Once the final deal expires and Iran has successfully alleviated the international community’s concerns about its program, Tehran will become a normal Non-proliferation Treaty state, meaning there will be no limitations imposed on its nuclear program beyond what all other NPT states have to accept.

Indefinitely holding Iran to standards that apply to no other NPT signatories is a recipe for diplomatic failure because it violates the November agreement.

Our agreement with Ken also carries over to the issue of re-imposing sanctions if Iran is caught cheating. In a final deal, he recommends a snap-back mechanism predicated on sanctions waivers rather than lifting sanctions. But there are two problems with this approach.

First, in regards to the waivers, it begs the question: Would the U.S. agree to concrete, irreversible steps on sanctions relief if Iran only offered reversible measures on its nuclear program? Of course not. In fact, the principle of proportionality and reciprocity agreed upon during the May 2012 round of talks in Istanbul established that reversible Western concessions would have to be exchanged for reversible Iranian measures and vice versa. To extract irreversible concessions, similarly irreversible measures have to be offered. Since sanctions waivers are fundamentally reversible, as Ken acknowledges, Iran would only have to offer similarly reversible concessions in turn. If the two sides only exchange such reversible concessions, the deal will be weak and fragile.

For instance, instead of ratifying the Additional Protocol – a pivotal transparency instrument – Tehran would only agree to implement it in a time limited fashion, subject to continuous renewal (just like the waivers). 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.

Second, the motivation for snap-back sanctions is to disincentivize Iran from cheating. But it is more effective to combine these negative measures with positive measures that incentivize Iran not to cheat. The U.S. must have a plan for potential cheating in Iran, but it must also give the Iranians a reason to feel that the deal is a win so they won’t want to cheat. Pursuing a “winner takes all” approach – where Iran front-ends concessions, and the U.S. ambiguously reciprocates in the distant future – will either fail immediately or fail to endure.

That approach didn’t work in the past, and it won’t work today. Neither President Obama nor President Rouhani can sell that kind of deal at home. The biggest reason why nuclear negotiations have progressed is that Washington bought into a principle long advocated in Europe – and Tehran: reciprocity.

Ken’s final recommendation about the duration of a final nuclear deal is where our positions begin to diverge. At face value, pushing for a deal that lasts for 20, 30 or 50 years may appear attractive. Who wouldn’t want to have their cake and eat it too? But Iran’s perspective is equally determinant in these negotiations. It’s true: We don’t know who or what will come after Rouhani’s presidency ends. Also true: Iran doesn’t know who or what will come after President Obama leaves the White House.

Iran will likely reject a deal that lasts beyond 10 to 15 years, not just because of the mistrust that exists between the two sides, but also because of the legitimate uncertainty that exists about the intentions and orientations of future leaders in Washington and Tehran.

To go as far as Ken has, however, and push for 20, 30 or 50 years in addition to not lifting sanctions and going beyond the Additional Protocol is simply unrealistic. Such a deal – if Iran ever were to accept it – would last much shorter than the Treaty of Versailles, and potentially carry similar negative repercussions.

Instead of creating space for the White House to negotiate a deal, the recommendations in his op-ed narrow the parameters of the debate. A successful deal is sustainable, and gives both sides reason to abide by it and see value in it. But if the deal is too far skewed towards Washington’s short-term needs, it will incentivize decision-makers in Iran to cheat.

President Obama needs the flexibility and authority to craft a balanced, win-win deal with Iran where both sides feel that they are better off.

Overplaying our hand risks squandering the very valuable diplomatic advances that have been achieved. Still, whatever our differences with Ken, his op-ed has launched a much-needed discussion on the critical components of a comprehensive nuclear deal. We look forward to continuing this dialogue.

This article originally appeared in CNN.

Former Israeli Nuclear Head: No Iran Bomb for Ten Years – If They Even Want It


The former head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission Brigadier General (res.) Uzi Eilam just dropped a bombshell (no pun intended): “The Iranian nuclear program will only be operational in another 10 years,” he told the Israeli paper Yediot Ahronoth. “Even so, I am not sure that Iran wants the bomb.” And he added that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is employing needless fearmongering about Iran’s atomic aspirations in order to further his own political aims.

Mindful of the ongoing—and thus far successful—nuclear talks with Iran, and Netanyahu’s vocal opposition to them, Eilam’s statement must be music to the ears of the Obama administration. It further embarrasses those in Washington who so uncritically swallowed Netanyahu’s talking points hook, line and sinker—and repeated the Israeli prime minister’s arguments as their own.

Particularly when ample evidence has existed in the public realm that the Israeli-Iranian enmity is exacerbated, but not caused or driven by Iran’s nuclear program.

As I write in Treacherous Alliance—the Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States, not only does Netanyahu’s characterization of Iran have little relationship to reality; Netanyahu himself knows this better than most. Outside of the realm of cynical posturing by politicians, most Israeli strategists recognize that Iran represents a strategic challenge to the favorable balance of power enjoyed by Israel and the U.S. in the Middle East over the past fifteen years, but it is no existential threat to Israel, the U.S. or the Arab regimes.

And that was the view embraced by the Likud leader himself during his last term as prime minister of Israel. In the course of dozens of interviews with key players in the Israeli strategic establishment, a fascinating picture emerged of Netanyahu strongly pushing back against the orthodoxy of his Labor Party predecessors, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, which treated Iran as one of Israel’s primary enemies. Not only that, he initiated an extensive discreet program of reaching out to the Islamic Republic.

When he took office in June of 1996, the U.S.-educated Likud leader sought not only to undo the peace process with the PLO and the land-for-peace formula; he also sought a return to Israel’s longstanding strategic doctrine of the periphery—the idea that the Jewish State’s security was best achieved by forming secret or not-so-secret alliances with the non-Arab states in the periphery of the Middle East—primarily Turkey and Iran—in order to balance the Arabs in Israel’s vicinity.

Such a shift required efforts to undo Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin’s rhetoric on Iran—deemed “exaggerated and self-defeating” by many in Israel at the time—as well as attempts to quietly reach out to Tehran. Unlike his Labor predecessors, Netanyahu chose to follow the recommendations of an internal Israeli government report on how to address the Iranian challenge, which had concluded that Labor’s inflammatory rhetoric had only attracted Iran’s attention and strengthened Iran’s perception of an Israeli threat, which in turn had made Israel less rather than more secure. 

One of Netanyahu’s first orders of business was to request an intelligence assessment of Israel’s security environment from both the Mossad and the military intelligence.

The assessments were presented at a full cabinet meeting. Major General Amos Gilad represented the military and Uzi Arad, the Director of Intelligence of the Mossad, argued on behalf of the intelligence services. While the debate was heated and passionate—as all cabinet discussions were in the Netanyahu government—the outcome was unprecedented.

Gilad argued that Iran had replaced Iraq as an existential threat to Israel. “I presented a tough line that claimed that Iran would be dominated by the conservatives.… This was at the level of strategic intentions,” the Major General explained to me. “Even one primitive device is enough to destroy Israel… Altogether, it seemed that ideologically and strategically, Iran [was] determined to destroy Israel,” he concluded. 

Arad presented a radically different perspective. He argued that Iran’s rearmament was defensive and primarily aimed at deterring Saddam Hussein. Iran needed to rearm due to the natural continuation of its enmity with the Arab states; after all, Iran and Iraq had yet to sign a conclusive peace treaty.

The heart of Arad’s argument was that Israel had a choice: it could either make itself Iran’s prime enemy by continuing Peres and Rabin’s belligerent rhetoric, or it could ease off the pressure and allow the Iranians to feel a greater threat from other regional actors.

“There are enough bad guys around them; we don’t have to single out ourselves as the enemy,” went Arad’s argument. Israel should remain cautious and pursue a policy of wait and see whether Iran’s ambitions went beyond its legitimate defense needs. 

Most importantly, Israel should avoid continuing the pattern of rhetorical escalation with Iran that had characterized the stance of the previous two Labor governments. “We needed to tone down,” said Shlomo Brom, who was a member of the original Iran committee.

Netanyahu listened carefully as the two sides fought it out. Gilad spoke with great confidence, knowing very well that no Prime Minister had ever dismissed the findings of the military’s National Intelligence Assessment. And with the Israeli tendency to embrace doomsday scenarios and treat nuanced and slightly optimistic assessments with great suspicion, the odds were on his side.

But Netanyahu’s response left Gilad baffled. In an unprecedented move, the Prime Minister rejected the National Intelligence Assessment and instead adopted Arad’s recommendation of reducing tensions with Iran. Much to Gilad’s frustration, Netanyahu focused on Arafat and the Palestinian threat instead of Iran and put a complete end to Israel’s confrontational rhetoric against Tehran. It was a major policy shift that affected all levels of Israel’s planning vis-à-vis Iran.

None of his efforts bore any fruit, though. Iran’s dismissal of Israel’s conciliatory signals convinced the Netanyahu government that just like in the Iran Contra affair, Tehran only wanted to mend fences with the U.S. and had no real interest in rebuilding its ties with Israel.

Therein, of course, lay the real threat from Iran.

The Israelis saw danger in a rapprochement between Tehran and Washington, believing this would inevitably see the U.S. sacrifice some of its support for Israel in order to find a larger accommodation with Iran in pursuit of U.S. strategic interests in the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. Iran would become emboldened and Washington would no longer seek to contain its growth. The balance of power would shift from Israel towards Iran and the Jewish State would no longer be able rely on Washington to control Tehran. “The Great Satan will make up with Iran and forget about Israel,” Gerald Steinberg of Bar Ilan University in Israel noted.

Today, the fear of abandonment is palpable. And it has become aggravated by Netanyahu’s mishandling of the relationship with President Barack Obama.

Many in the Israeli establishment are genuinely worried that Netanyahu’s unreasonable position will further isolate Israel and compel the US to ignore Israeli demands because “nothing will please Netanyahu anyways.” The face saving exit for Israel is to do precisely what Eilam has signaled: There is a different narrative in Israel about Iran and Tel Aviv can adjust to a US-Iran thaw—Netanyahu and his neoconservative allies’ rhetoric notwithstanding.

This article originally appeared in The National Interest.

On Iran, Give Obama Some Credit

President Obama has handled diplomacy well since Hassan Rouhani won Iran’s June 2013 presidential election. If anything, Obama has not received enough credit for being thoughtful, measured, and willing to become progressively bolder on the diplomatic front in line with events transpiring in Iran.

With the third round of nuclear negotiations in Vienna now in the books, most of the headlines surrounding U.S.-Iran relations are rightly focused on the challenges that lie ahead. Reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal by the mutually agreed upon July 20 deadline is doable – but it will be no small task. The likelihood of multiple meetings at the political directors level in July (and perhaps even June) is well within the realm of possibility. The more time goes by, however, the higher the likelihood that negotiations in Vienna will soon resemble the fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat diplomacy that secured the interim nuclear deal in Geneva.

As negotiators race to the finish line, the focus on sanctions and centrifuges will only increase. But to truly appreciate the very real viability of a comprehensive nuclear deal, it is important to take a deep breath, step back a few steps, and look at where the United States and Iran are today compared to where they were less than a year ago.

After 34 years of trading insults and threats, Washington and Tehran are talking seriously. They agreed to an interim nuclear deal, and are verifiably following through on their respective commitments. These are major achievements.

Putting aside three decades of hostility and suspicion remains a work in progress, and the United States holds an equal share of responsibility in achieving this. But President Obama has handled diplomacy well since Hassan Rouhani won Iran’s June 2013 presidential election. If anything, Obama has not received enough credit for being thoughtful, measured, and willing to become progressively bolder on the diplomatic front in line with events transpiring in Iran.

A few key points stand out:

1) Obama Seized the Moment

When opportunity presented itself in Iran, Obama had the confidence and judgment to develop and enact new policies. He made a conscious decision to use diplomacy to solve conflict peacefully and, so far, the results have been promising and unprecedented.

No less important is what Obama has not done. Since Rouhani’s election, he has resisted playing politics with the Iran issue at home, even pushing back against Congress when it tried to torpedo diplomacy with new sanctions. Instead, Obama has taken a long-term view. Looking over the current horizon, he has reminded people there are critical issues facing the two countries, and that the United States must be able to find a time and a place to discuss those issues – with whatever government is in Tehran.

2) Obama Didn’t Lose His Cool

We have also learned that Obama can produce foreign policy success even when the stakes are high. As negotiations with Iran gained momentum, the president displayed sound judgment in situations where information was scarce and conditions were sometimes changing by the hour. Negotiations in Geneva are a poignant example. In the midst of chaos and uncertainty, Obama clearly and concisely navigated through the murkiest of situations.

In this way, Obama’s clear-eyed diplomacy is the essence of what we should expect from an American president. As the political dynamics in Iran shifted, so too did the tenor and substance of the president’s diplomacy – all the while keeping his sights firmly on U.S. interests the entire time.

Will Obama’s diplomacy produce immediate, lasting results? Probably not, but no one should disregard its efficacy. His efforts at the negotiating table have already proven far more effective than any amount of sanctions and “red lines” that the Iranians have consistently pushed back against.

3) Obama Played the Respect Card – And It Worked

Perhaps most tellingly, Obama has started to build a reservoir of credibility with Iran that has been non-existent for 34 years. But it was not the oft-repeated “all options are on the table” mantra that broke the ice. Instead, Obama earned credibility by demonstrating to his counterparts in Tehran that their views are heard and respected in Washington.

Obama has finally acknowledged publicly what many (probably including himself) have long known to be true: For any deal to stick, Iran also needs to be able to sell it as its own victory at home. Respecting Iran has manifested itself in Obama’s stated willingness to craft a comprehensive nuclear deal that allows Iran to make three important claims: “We protected our rights,” “We protected our dignity,” and “We didn’t give in.”

Nobody knows how the diplomatic process will play out. But it is clearer today than ever before that whatever happens, Obama must keep his sights on America’s longer-term interest of preventing war with Iran and resolving our problems peacefully through diplomacy.  Ultimately, America’s goal should be reconciliation – not with any particular politician or political faction in Iran, but with the Iranian nation.  By taking political risks and creating political space, Obama has preserved America’s flexibility and kept our sights set on doing exactly that.

There is a real chance that a deal can be made to solve the nuclear crisis peacefully. But it is going to take time, and it is going to take a lot of patience. The cardinal rule of diplomacy is simple but important to bear in mind: Whatever you are going to do is going to take longer than you think. And it is going to be harder than you think. The moment of truth will eventually come, and Obama (as well as his Iranian counterparts) will have to make tough decisions on whether to make painful compromises for peace. But overcoming obstacles that bewildered the five American presidents before him to reach the moment of truth is a victory that should not go unnoticed.

This article originally appeared in Muftah.