Fair Weather Friend

Nothing in the Middle East seems normal right now. Israel locks the United States out of cease-fire talks with Egypt over Gaza. U.S.-Saudi relations look increasingly like a marriage that both sides regret getting into in the first place. Egypt’s state media publicly cheers Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he bombs Gaza. Saudi Arabia pretends to be unaware of the ongoing fighting between Israel and Hamas. Protests against Israel’s bombing campaign are larger in Europe than in the Arab Middle East.

The surprises don’t stop there. Iran’s relative silence on the Gaza war has been deafening: Spanish actors Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem have been more forceful in their criticism of Israel’s Gaza attacks than many Iranian officials.

Iran is usually known for jumping on every possible opportunity to blast Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. The Iranian game plan in the past few decades has been to boost its bid for regional leadership by portraying the Arab states as impotent “servants of American interests” in the Middle East, while portraying Tehran as the true champion of the Palestinian cause — and therefore the leader of the Islamic world.


Fighting between Hamas and Israel in Gaza is usually a political cash cow for Iran’s leaders. But by their own standards, Iranian leaders have remained curiously quiet on the ongoing, month-long fight. Why? Shifting dynamics across the Middle East and a new president in Tehran have changed Iran’s political calculus on Palestine.

Iran has a widespread reputation as Hamas’s main patron, providing the group with rockets and weapons over the past decade. But the relationship between the Palestinian Islamists and the government in Tehran has never been friction free. The Hamas leadership has long complained that Tehran talked a good game, but in practice did little to help the Palestinian Islamist group. Ideologically, there has always been a gulf between the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Sunni group and the Shiite thinkers of Qom. But full-on tensions between these disparate Islamists only broke out with the Syrian Civil War, when Hamas sided early on with the Syrian opposition and Tehran backed President Bashar al-Assad. Tehran viewed Hamas Leader Khaled Meshaal’s break with the Syrian dictator in 2012 as a betrayal after years of providing the group with both financial support and a base in Damascus.

Earlier this year, Hamas and Tehran officially reconciled. “Relations between Iran and Hamas have returned to be as they were before and we have no problem with Hamas,” the speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, told a Lebanese television channel. But mistrust remained amid the conciliatory rhetoric, as Iranian officials have told me. Leaders of the Islamic Republic do not have a reputation of forgetting quickly or forgiving genuinely.

It’s not just international politics that affect the Hamas-Iran relationship. The election of Hassan Rouhani last year and the success thus far of ongoing U.S.-Iran diplomacy have visibly tempered Tehran’s public posture on Israel. Iran has gone from questioning the Holocaust under the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to tweeting Rosh Hashana blessings under Rouhani.

The foreign policy team around Rouhani has long favored diplomacy with Washington, and fully understands that toning down Iran’s rhetoric against Israel is necessary to make progress with the United States. Beyond Iran’s changing posture since Rouhani took office a year ago — particularly since diplomacy began anew over its nuclear program — decade-old Iranian negotiation proposals demonstrate both their understanding of Israel’s importance to U.S. foreign policy-making, and their willingness to soften their stance.

For instance, in 2003, Tehran sent a proposal for improved relations with the United States to American officials via the Swiss ambassador to Iran. At the time, Rouhani was Iran’s national security adviser. His current foreign minister, Javad Zarif, was a co-author of the proposal. As part of a grand bargain with Washington, Tehran signaled its readiness to restrain Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. (The Bush administration never responded to the Iranian offer).

But perhaps most importantly, Tehran seems not to mind seeing yet another offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood take a beating. Some in Tehran thought that after the Arab uprisings of 2011, the U.S. had concluded that the Middle East’s future was in the hands of moderate Sunni Islamist national movements — Hamas’s intellectual brethren. For a moment, it seemed that Islamist parties were ready to sweep elections throughout the region. Washington wanted to be on the right side of history.

But to Iran, the United States was tilting towards the wrong Islamic movement. Once in power, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt showed stronger allegiance to its ideological partners in Syria — fighting Tehran’s ally Assad — and spent more time flirting with Saudi Arabia than with Iran. Moreover, Tehran’s suspicion of Washington’s favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood also fit with another idea it believes America has flirted with: that Turkey’s Islamist democracy, led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s political ally Recep Tayyip Erdogan, presents the best model for the region.

For some in Tehran, the current Gaza war –and Arab states’ reactions to it — show Washington was wrong to side with the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. These Sunni Islamist groups lack the popular support to win the political fight for the region’s future. And most importantly, Tehran believes that these Sunni movements cannot compete with Iran’s ability to stabilize and lead the region. Nor do they have the popular backing to balance Iran’s regional or ideological influence.

Whether Tehran’s perceptions of American calculations are correct or not is, for now, irrelevant. The Iranian government has once again demonstrated — this time through silence rather than venomous rhetoric — that to the Islamic Republic, the Palestinian cause is a means, not an end. 

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

Reza Marashi on U.S.-Iran Relations and Regional Dynamics

NIAC’s Research Director, Reza Marashi, discusses U.S.-Iran relations and recent dynamics in the Persian Gulf with the Foreign Policy Association.

France24: Advantage Tehran? Rouhani’s Bid To Make Over Iran’s International Reputation

NIAC Research Director Reza Marashi gives his take on the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran and the current political climate in Iran and the United States in this France24 interview.

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.

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.

Lessons Learned From Successful Iran Diplomacy


Despite warnings that the first-step nuclear deal with Iran is a “historic mistake,” it is safe to say that the sky is not falling. In fact, at the halfway mark of the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action, it is clear that Iran is upholding its commitments — and is actually ahead of schedule in eliminating its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium.Progress toward a final deal also continues. On May 13 in Vienna, political directors from Iran and the members of the United Nations Security Council will meet for a possible seven- to 10-day marathon session where they will begin drafting the text of a final agreement. And despite the relative quiet surrounding the talks, it appears that the sides are finding common ground on some of the most difficult issues. For example, recent reports indicate that Iran has proposed altering the design of the Arak heavy water reactor to greatly reduce its potential plutonium output, a major potential concession. Former Gen. David Petraeus now even puts the odds of striking a deal above 50 percent, potentially within three months from now.

With all of this positive momentum toward a final deal, the skeptics’ continued warnings and calls for ever-increasing pressure look increasingly out of place. As a result, it is worth reevaluating the cynicism surrounding the negotiations and putting forward new conclusions based upon the diplomatic track record.

Iran Responds to Flexibility, Not Pressure

The threat of increasing sanctions, backed by a threat of military action, has been a constant over the past decade. Therefore, assuming that Iran finally gave in to the pressure is a somewhat dubious assertion. However, the diplomatic equation has changed recently in several significant ways, including a political opening in Iran following the election of President Hassan Rouhani, a pause on new unilateral U.S. sanctions that provided space for negotiations and newfound negotiating flexibility from the Obama administration.

This latter point deserves additional consideration. The Obama administration made two key concessions in the JPOA that were far more significant than the limited, reversible and largely symbolic sanctions relief that has been provided.

First, the Obama administration abandoned the unrealistic and unattainable “zero enrichment” demand by agreeing that Iran would be able to maintain a “mutually defined enrichment program,” upon the conclusion of the diplomatic process.

Second, it agreed that a final nuclear deal would result in the lifting of all UN, multilateral and national “nuclear-related sanctions.” With a concrete view of an acceptable end game, Iran was able to agree to significant concessions in the JPOA — such as eliminating its 20 percent enrichment. This newfound flexibility was likely far more responsible for diplomatic progress than finding the appropriate level of economic punishment. As a result, calls for additional pressure should be ignored.

The U.S. Could Be Less Likely to Uphold a Final Deal Than Iran

The International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed in monthly reports and recent statements that Iran is implementing the terms it agreed upon in the JPOA — all despite the failure of Iran hawks to pass new sanctions.

This has left opponents of diplomacy grasping for straws. A rumored oil-for-goods deal between Russia and Iran would not be an Iranian violation of the nuclear deal, as some have claimed, because Iran is under no obligation to self-enforce unilateral U.S. sanctions.

While complications could still arise in implementation, there are strong consequences if Iran violates the agreement: The potential failure of diplomacy, the likelihood of increasing economic pressure and renewed consideration of military action.

Further, recent complications in ensuring that Iran receives unfrozen oil revenues under the JPOA foreshadows the much more difficult challenge of lifting sanctions in a final agreement. While the president maintains limited waiver authorities, he does not have the power to lift sanctions unilaterally. That authority rests with Congress, which to date has been more interested in piling on sanctions than removing them. As the JPOA indicates that all nuclear-related sanctions will be lifted in a final deal, there are serious questions as to whether Congress and the administration can work in concert to uphold America’s end of the bargain.

Nuclear Talks Aren’t About Trust, But Verification

Ignore all of the complaints about how we can’t trust Iran. With limitations to Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intrusive inspections, we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes — or detect any Iranian move to break out with sufficient time to respond. If you distrust Iran, you should be for the stringent inspections provided under the JPOA and the expansion of authorities for international inspectors in any final deal. After all, no Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty state under this level of IAEA inspection has ever clandestinely broken out and obtained a nuclear weapon.

Further, Iran’s recent diplomacy reflects the polar opposite of a state pursuing nuclear weapons. By inviting inspectors in and agreeing to limitations on its nuclear program, Iran is drastically reducing the chances of a successful breakout. A comprehensive deal would only diminish those chances further.

A Final Nuclear Deal Can Be Struck Within Six Months

There have been numerous distractions over the past three months, including Iran nominating a UN ambassador that served as a translator during the Iran hostage crisis — a formative event for many Americans’ negative perceptions of Iran — and the United States then rejecting that nomination in an apparent violation of international law.

However, these distractions have not yet derailed the negotiating process or diverted the parties from their main goal of striking a nuclear deal. This is likely because all parties know that they have never been this close to reaching agreement. If each side stays on track, there is every reason to believe that an agreeable solution can be struck before the July 20 deadline of the JPOA.

There is, of course, a possibility that the JPOA will need to be extended in three months. While the national security benefits of doing so are clear, an extension would open up an opportunity for opponents on each side to attack the deal and push forward poison pills — such as new U.S. sanctions or restrictions on sanctions relief. Rather than exert additional political capital on fighting domestic opponents yet again, the United States and Iran would be wise to preserve that capital for upholding a deal by reaching agreement by July 20, if possible.

This article originally appeared on Roll Call.

Sanctions Relief Could be Biggest Obstacle to Iran Deal


While by all accounts nuclear negotiations with Iran are making serious progress, several reports over the past week have indicated that Iran is encountering problems receiving sanctions relief under the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA).   This issue foreshadows the major challenge ahead in providing concrete sanctions relief in any final nuclear deal.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Iran has been unable to withdraw much of the unfrozen oil revenues that have been released under the interim nuclear deal.  Following the conclusion of nuclear negotiations in Vienna, a senior U.S. administration official indicated that the administration has “done everything that we committed to doing” under the interim nuclear agreement.  This is likely true. But while the U.S. is upholding its commitment to unfreeze Iranian funds in exchange for Iranian compliance with the deal, complications from the sanctions regime have helped prevent the delivery of sanctions relief.

The challenges of trying to permit limited sanctions relief while maintaining the overarching sanctions regime extend beyond unfrozen Iranian oil revenues.  Despite the fact that medicine and other humanitarian goods are technically exempt from sanctions, for several years banks and companies have refused to conduct humanitarian trade with Iran out of a fear of U.S. sanctions.  And while the JPOA includes a provision to establish a financial channel to alleviate humanitarian shortages, these shortages reportedly persist.  21 members of Congress highlighted these continuing problems last week in a letter to the President while urging that the administration take action to rectify the issue.

Further, while the airline company Boeing has received a permit from the U.S. Treasury Department to sell spare parts to Iran for its aging civilian aircraft, Al Monitor has reported that another major international airline company has refused to conduct repairs, citing concerns that it could not complete the work within the limited six month window allowed by the JPOA.

These challenges risk playing directly into the Iranian hardline narrative that the U.S. never intends to relieve sanctions, regardless of Iranian actions.  As the Los Angeles Times reported, despite fears that limited sanctions relief would start “melting the iceberg” of the sanctions regime, “many Iranians think the interim accord has done little to help them.”  This creates a vulnerability for Iranian President Rouhani – if he fails to demonstrate that a pragmatic diplomatic approach yields results, he opens his approach to attack from those that want to see the nuclear deal fail, which in turn will limit his flexibility for a final deal.  Thus, as negotiations proceed, it is critical for the U.S. not just to make sure that Iran is abiding by its JPOA commitments, but also to make sure that sanctions relief provided in the JPOA is delivered.

Further, the difficulties of providing sanctions relief under the interim deal likely pale in comparison to the political and technical challenges of lifting sanctions if a final nuclear deal is struck. As Paul Pillar, a former intelligence officer with the CIA, asserts, “We have already seen how hard it is to redirect the sanctions machine. Aircraft carriers do not turn around on a dime, and neither do sanctions, especially ones as complicated and extensive as the ones on the Iranian pile.”

But to redirect the sanctions regime, the administration must bring in Congress, which to date has been more inclined to add sanctions on Iran than permit their relief.  If the administration fails to convince Congress of the merits of lifting sanctions for protections against a nuclear-armed Iran in a final deal, it will be the U.S. that is violating the terms of an internationally-brokered agreement.  Such a failure would risk dissolving international support for the sanctions regime, removing limitations and oversight over Iran’s nuclear program, and raising the threat of military conflict – risks that the U.S. can ill afford.


Russia Standoff Unlikely to Undermine Iran Nuclear Talks


Washington, DC – “If you look at the range of common interests between the U.S. and Iran, it is a long and important list,” observed Representative Earl Blumenauer, speaking at a National Iranian American Council briefing for Congressional staff last week. “That’s why I’ve been so pleased that we’ve had this glimmer of opportunity for a diplomatic alternative,” Blumenauer remarked, calling the opening with Iran, “one of the key foreign policy issues of our time.”

Speaking on the event’s panel were Iran analyst Bijan Khajehpour and former Italian Ambassador to Iran Roberto Toscano, who focused their remarkson  nuclear negotiations in the context of recent tensions between Russia and the West. The panelists agreed that the Russia standoff will have a minimal impact on Iran’s core calculations given that the Rouhani’s administration’s success is largely contingent on securing a nuclear deal that deescalates tensions with the U.S.

“Iran knows very well that the chance for normalization with world doesn’t go through Moscow,” said Toscano. “President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif and the people with them have staked just about everything on the nuclear negotiations,” he said. “They cannot afford for it to fail.”

Khajehpour agreed, arguing that drawing closer to Russia had always been, at best, a contingency plan for Iran. While Rouhani’s camp wants a deal involving the U.S., the broader view in Iran is to also have a “plan B” based on the assumption by hardliners that the U.S. will ultimately refuse to accept a deal or deliver on sanctions relief. In that case,Khajehpour said, their plan is leverage such a failure to convince the EU that the U.S. is the intransigent party and economic relations with Iran should be reestablished.

Khajehpour said that Iran had only planned to focus on Russia as a plan C “if everything else fails,” but given Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the perception now is that “you can’t trust the Russians.” Instead, he said, “you have to make sure plan A or plan B actually works.”

Given Europe’s reliance on Russian gas, Toscano said the standoff with Russia may enable Iran to offer its significant gas reserves in an effort to rekindle relations with Europe if a U.S.-led nuclear deal does not materialize. However, Toscano said, in the immediate term the tensions with Russia may actually benefit nuclear negotiations by defusing political pressure on Western countries to strike a tough pose. It could “give the American side and the European side more flexibility in addressing [Iran’s] concerns” and provide more flexibility because “there are more pressing tasks.”

Khajehpour argued that, for Rouhani and Zarif, engaging the U.S. and West has been their agenda for over a decade—dismissing claims that recent sanctions were the chief driver of the administration’s negotiation posture. And, building on Blumenauer’s remarks, the panelists said that productive engagement will advance important issues beyond just the nuclear file. “Internally in Iran, these issues are linked because the same people who want to negotiate – they would like to move gradually towards a better situation in human rights,” said Toscano. “They cannot make it very explicit either, but everyone knows that. Especially the radicals know it.”

“The radicals want to kill this nuclear deal,” Toscano continued, “because they are afraid that the general atmosphere that is created once the nuclear confrontation is scaled down is a better chance for more pluralism and more human rights.”

NIAC Applauds UN Renewal of Iran Human Rights Rapporteur Mandate


Contact: Jamal Abdi
Phone: 202-386-6408
Email: jabdi@niacouncil.org

Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed

Washington, DC – National Iranian American Council (NIAC) issued the following statement regarding the UN’s 21-9 vote to renew the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Iran:

“NIAC welcomes this morning’s UN Human Rights Council vote to renew the mandate for the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed. Over the past few years, the Special Rapporteur’s reports have been critical to shining a light on human rights violations in Iran. The mandate renewal marks an important step in ensuring that Iran’s government is held accountable for rights violations and begins the process of respecting its citizens and human rights.

“NIAC reiterates its call for Iran’s government to permit the Special Rapporteur to visit the country and to respond honestly and faithfully to the Special Rapporteur’s numerous requests for information. Reports that the Special Rapporteur has been in contact and met with high ranking officials in Iran’s Judiciary, the branch of government responsible for the troubling execution rate in Iran, are a promising first step. Since the Special Rapporteur was given a mandate to investigate human rights abuses in Iran in March 2011, Iran’s government has refused to permit an in-country visit and has been non-responsive to many of the Special Rapporteur’s requests for information. NIAC hopes that this new outreach with Iranian officials will yield increased cooperation.

“NIAC has remained a strong and sustained supporter of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate and has worked to support it, beginning with NIAC’s advocacy for the reestablishment of the mandate in 2011. NIAC believes that multilateral monitoring and accountability mechanisms, such as that of the UN Secretary-General, the Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, and NGO work, are vital to ensuring that Iran’s government takes the steps required to respect its citizens’ rights.

“NIAC also strongly supports the recent diplomatic outreach with Iran by the United States and other countries that can yield benefits in the human rights situation, as dialogue encourages and supports Iran’s burgeoning civil society. NIAC has consistently supported broadening the dialogue to include human rights. We hope that President Rouhani lives up to the promise of his campaign to the Iranian people and that his government will work with the Special Rapporteur to ensure that necessary reforms are undertaken to ensure Iran upholds its human rights obligations.”

Engagement Can Improve Human Rights in Iran Says Parliamentarian

Screenshot_2014-03-26_16.22.37Watch the full event video at c-span.org

Washington, DC – “We should be very careful that there is not some sort of zero sum equation between focusing only on the nuclear issue and forgetting about the plight of the Iranian people who live under systematic and difficult repression,” observed Marietje Schaake, a member of the European Parliament and human rights expert, speaking at the Atlantic Council.

Schaake, who recently visited Iran for five days as part of an official EU delegation, advocated that channels for engagement with Iran be expanded to address issues beyond the nuclear file–including regional areas of mutual interest and concerns regarding human rights.

Schaake’s delegation met with officials of different political stripes, including two of the Larijani brothers who are prominent leaders of Iran’s conservative bloc, as well as human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. They presented Sotoudeh and Jaffar Panahi with the EU’s highest human rights award, the Sakhrov Prize. That meeting sparked a firestorm in hardline media.

The EU delegation presents Sotoudeh and Panahi with the Sakhrov Prize.

“We should make it clear to our domestic audience who is responsible for what developments in Iran,” she said, explaining that that “the hardliners in Iran, the judiciary, and the high numbers of executions are very much also intended to undermine the efforts of the reformists.”

She said that the best approach is through expanding dialogue as well as by “bolstering civil society in Iran, but also a private sector–which can be really effective in counterbalancing those at the top who hold so many resources.”

“The greatest capital in Iran is the human capital,” said Schaake. “It was remarkable how much energy and how much a sense of optimism one got from the streets,” she said. “I have honestly never felt so welcomed in any country that I’ve visited.” While Schaake noted that previous attempts to organize EU delegation visits had been difficult over the past several years and often scuttled at the last minute, she said the “new opening” created by the election of President Hassan Rouhani enabled her and four other European parliamentarians to finally visit this past December.

With regard to the new government’s promises to address limits on personal freedoms in Iran, Schaake said that “there was a great sense of a less tangible securitized environment” and that many Iranians told her that “the morality police that deals with clothing was less present, that the atmosphere in the street was much lighter than it used to be.”

However, she said that, until systematic changes are made to the laws themselves, these positive gestures can be reversed within an instant. Repressive laws can make anyone a target, Schaake observed, and help empower hardline elements including security forces, the Revolutionary Guards, and the Judiciary, while perpetuating an insecure relationship between Iranians and the state.

Schaake was also asked at the event about continued reports of medicine shortages in Iran. She noted that the preliminary nuclear agreement negotiated with Iran included a provision to establish a a humanitarian banking channel, but that “most banks are still hesitant to facilitate these transactions.” She said that Iranian government mismanagement was also to blame for shortages, but that U.S. extraterritorial sanctions made EU efforts to facilitate humanitarian trade difficult. If the U.S. and Europe fail to establish a humanitarian channel, she said, it would be a major mistake. “If we agree to lift sanctions, we have to also make it practically implementable.”

A centrist when it comes to the EU’s Iran policy, Schaake advocated for a unified effort among the European states to push open the window for diplomacy, and is recommending that the EU establish official diplomatic representation in Iran. In her view, action by EU states to advance diplomacy will ultimately benefit the Iranian people. “It is upon those of us who believe reforms will benefit the Iranian people to try to do everything we can to make them happen,” she observed, “of course very well realizing that those who seek reform are not the only ones in power in Iran, and that it is very much an uphill battle, but one that is worth pursuing.”

In Vienna, U.S. and Iran Building a Recipe for Success

As the latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) came to a close here in Vienna, one thing stood out above all else: the two sides are equally invested in building a recipe for success.

With each round of talks, Iranian and Western negotiators dive deeper into the details and substance of key technical issues — some of which had never truly been discussed. Enrichment and sanctions are important, but they are also recurring themes. More tellingly, issues such as civil nuclear cooperation and Iran’s heavy water reactor — topics that were once deemed too contentious to touch — are now being negotiated.

Contrary to popular assumption, there are solutions for all of the technical problems that must be solved to reach a comprehensive deal. As negotiations continue into the summer and approach the finish line, the true challenge will be twofold: mustering the political will necessary to take ‘yes’ for an answer, and crafting a win-win framework that allows both sides to sell the deal in their respective capitals. Looking ahead, finding a recipe for success will likely require three important steps.

1) Keep Developing Empathy

Before negotiations in Geneva and Vienna commenced, there was zero empathy in Washington and Tehran — both wittingly and unwittingly. As talks have progressed since last October, the two sides have both taken steps to build confidence, and in turn a greater degree of empathy is emerging. According to stakeholders from both sides, this will be critical to success. “For too long, we’ve been running against a mindset that is entirely focused on us,” a senior Western official told me. “This ignores the fact that there are critical dynamics that we don’t control or have the ability to independently shape.”

Being able to identify with the feelings, thoughts and attitudes of the other side demonstrates why personalities are such an important component of diplomacy. A senior Iranian official drove this point home: “Both sides have actors that only see zero-sum games and don’t understand the need to concede to show sincerity.” Bilateral meetings between the American and Iranian delegations at the political and expert level are a key example of steps taken to compensate for the lack of empathy.

With each passing meeting, both sides walk away with a clearer understanding of what the other side wants, which in turn helps develop over time the empathy that is necessary for successful diplomacy. “You can’t define ways to build confidence that will be attractive to the other side without input from the other side on what’s important and attractive to them,” a senior Iranian official told me. “Sitting across the table from one another is not the same as communicating and understanding one another.”

2) The Greater Power Must Bend

Both Washington and Tehran have acknowledged making progress in identifying where gaps in their respective positions exist, as well as working to bridge those gaps. With that in mind, it came as no surprise that Iranian officials insisted Washington must make a grand gesture for a comprehensive deal to succeed. However, the number of Western stakeholders that shared this sentiment was eye opening.

To that end, a key takeaway came from this round of negotiations in Vienna: The U.S. must be willing to lose small in order to win big. “The greater power has to bend,” a Western official insisted. “We must take steps that are large enough to convince both skeptics and pro-engagement camps in Tehran that we’re serious. It’s alarming that this seems out of our ability today.”

One of his counterparts was even more candid: “The U.S. and EU are being less than honest when they say that the ball is in Iran’s court,” he told me. “After we bend, it becomes much easier for the Iranians to follow suit and secure a comprehensive deal. And let’s be honest: Unless it’s made in Washington, it’s not going to run.” These seasoned troubleshooters make a compelling point. The U.S. should project the dignity and poise of a superpower, rather than take its cues from Iran — or any outside actors.

3) Bring in Congress and the Majles – Slowly.

Precisely because the American and Iranian negotiating teams must be able to sell a comprehensive nuclear deal at home, they must begin laying the groundwork now. Discretion has been integral to the success of diplomacy thus far. Multiple direct, senior-level meetings and consultations were either private or full-blown secret. This was critical to overriding many of the common pitfalls that media attention and political infighting bring.

Going forward, efforts should slowly be made to bring the U.S. Congress and Iranian Majles into the process. Both negotiating teams are already providing briefings to their counterparts in the legislative branch, but these power centers will eventually need to be included in the diplomatic process for a comprehensive deal to be reached. Just as no country expects to sign a significant deal with the U.S. without addressing the concerns of the executive and legislative branches, no major decision is likely to be made in Iran unless a range of key stakeholders are brought into the discussion.

To be clear: Now is not the time to involve legislators in both countries that have actively sought to torpedo negotiations. But waiting until July could exacerbate problems rather than solve them. As the summer approaches, it will be critical for Presidents Obama and Rouhani to systematically peel off skeptics and fence-sitters until they have built legislative coalitions that can help deliver their respective country’s end of the bargain. Because this process will not be immediate, negotiators must invest the requisite time, so that legislators’ inclination to scuttle a deal that they were not a part of is neutralized.

Negotiators on both sides deserve credit. They are taking the necessary time to really understand each other and have discussions at an unprecedented level of depth. Because these negotiations are a herculean task, the process moved along as far as it could over the past few days for what Washington and Tehran are trying to achieve. A senior Western official didn’t mince her words: “People understand the stakes are pretty profound. So there is a sense of the tremendous responsibility that’s on people’s shoulders.”

With that in mind, policymakers and pundits should focus their efforts over the next few months on finding creative, win-win solutions that can help diplomacy succeed. Why? Because as the aforementioned senior Western official alluded to: When you eliminate diplomacy, you make war inevitable.

This article originally appear in Huffington Post.

Foreign Policy: It’s a Sabotage

Negotiations between Iran and the world powers will determine not just the future of Iran’s nuclear program, but also whether moderate forces can consolidate their tentative hold on power and shape the country’s direction for years to come. If Iranian President Hassan Rouhani secures a nuclear deal that delivers sanctions relief and boosts the economy, he will validate his argument that reconciliation with the outside world benefits Iran and unlock the possibility of far-reaching domestic reform. If the talks fail, however, hard-liners will have the ammunition they need to undercut the new president and shift the political pendulum back in their favor.
With so much at stake, Iran’s hard-liners are determined to sabotage Rouhani at every turn. Their latest effort appears aimed at spoiling the international community’s appetite for diplomacy: In adeeply troubling turn, Iran’s judiciary — which is not under the control of the Rouhaniadministration — has dramatically increased the number of executions in the country. At least 500 people were executed last year, according to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, while at least another 176 have been hanged so far in 2014.
Rouhani has thus far insulated himself from criticism on nuclear negotiations by gaining the backing of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. While Khamenei is more closely aligned with the hard-liners and is skeptical of diplomacy, his shift can be partially attributed to the need to shore up political legitimacy in the wake of the stolen 2009 presidential election and subsequent crackdown on Green Movement activists. If Khamenei openly denied the Iranian people’s will yet again, he would risk deepening political fissures that could threaten the survival of the regime. Instead, the supreme leader has gone along with Rouhani’s diplomacy, gambling that he will either be credited with helping secure a nuclear deal, or that the negotiations will collapse and the West will impose new sanctions, giving him an excuse to rein in Rouhani and his moderate allies.
Rather than directly challenge Rouhani — and by extension Khamenei — on the nuclear issue, the hard-liners have instead worked to stymie domestic reform. Overcoming their obstruction will likely depend on striking a nuclear deal that strengthens moderate forces and vindicates the new president’s leadership. If the threat of war remains, hard-liners will be able to further perpetuateIran’s security-dominated political atmosphere in order to hinder domestic reform. Similarly, if sanctions continue, middle-class Iranians that could form the core of a democratic movement will continue to bear the brunt of the country’s economic plight.
Iran’s hard-liners have bet their political future on the hope that the international community will fall into their trap. The spike in executions — which frequently target alleged drug offenders, as well as political opponents and religious minorities — has been overseen by the head of the judiciary, Sadeq Larijani. The Larijani family represents a formidable political bloc in Iran: Sadeq and his four brothers all hold prominent positions in Iran’s political establishment. Sadeq’s brother Ali currently heads Iran’s parliament, which is also dominated by hard-liners, ensuring that the Larijanis exert a powerful influence over two very powerful institutions.
But if Rouhani is successful and fulfills many of his campaign promises, moderates have a strong shot at winning the parliamentary elections in 2016 and booting Ali Larijani from his speakership. Hence, the Larijanis and their hard-line allies have added motivation to ensure thatRouhani fails. The Iranian people, unfortunately, are suffering the consequences.
If Rouhani openly takes on the conservatives over human rights abuses, he will have opened a new front in this political war — but one in which he does not enjoy Khamenei’s support. This in turncould overextend his political capital and limit his ability to get a nuclear deal. If he chooses to deprioritize human rights and stay silent in the face of these abuses — which appears to be the case — the situation is likely to deteriorate even further, and the Green Movement veterans and reformist-oriented voters, who make up an important portion of his base, will be jeopardized.
The rising number of executions also presents the world community with a dilemma. If the United States and Europe use the human rights violations as a justification to punish Iran with sanctions, the hard-liners will get their excuse to end nuclear negotiations. But if the world ignores the abuses, the hard-liners may further intensify the violations to beget a response.
This balancing act will be difficult for both the Rouhani government and the international community. Ignoring the human rights abuses cannot be an option, nor can cancellation of diplomacy. In the near term, diplomats can shine a spotlight on these abuses and push for them to stop — if the international community specifically calls out the conservative-controlled judiciary as the responsible party, the hard-liners will be put on the defensive. Their effort to pass the responsibility for their abuses to the moderates will have failed.
In this process, dialogue is a far more effective method of pressure than threats. European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton’s recent trip to Iran serves as a prominent example. While nuclear negotiations were the primary purpose of her trip, Ashton pressed Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on human rights and was able to meet with Iranian women’s rights activists at the Austrian Embassy. The world also has other avenues of  highlighting abuses and pressing for change: U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Ahmed Shaheed just issued a new report outlining concerns with the human rights situation in Iran, and should continue his important work.
This balancing act also shows the importance of reaching a nuclear accord — and doing so quickly. The sooner a nuclear deal is struck, the sooner the hard-liners’ trap will fall apart.
This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy.