This Norooz, Wishing Iranians (Access to) a Healthy New Year

Every March, on the Tuesday evening before the Persian New Year (or Norooz, the first day of Spring), Iranians jump over small bonfires. As they leap, they chant zardi-eh man az tosorkhi-e to az man, asking that the fire take their “yellowness,” representing sickness, and give them its “redness,” representing good health, in the upcoming year. This year, as Iranians engage in this ancient pre-Islamic tradition, their hope for improved health runs deeper than usual. Since 2012, due to current U.S. and European sanctions on Iran, ordinary Iranians often cannot access the life-saving medicine they need to address critical health issues.

Many decision-makers and Iranian Americans alike believe this issue has been addressed through humanitarian exemptions to sanctions. However, the stories on the ground paint a starkly different picture: Continued banking and economic sanctions have caused massive shortages of medicine that directly impact the lives of the Iranian people. While humanitarian trade of food and medicine is technically exempt from sanctions, the broad sanctions regime continues to wall-off crucial banking channels, effectively blocking the sale of medicines to Iran. A handful of lawmakers such as Representative Jim Moran (D-VA) are courageously leading efforts to raise awareness in the Executive Branch regarding this horrible side effect of the sanctions regime.

This issue is a primary source of pain and grief among thousands of Iranians and Iranian Americans alike, who see U.S. sanctions policies as directly causing unnecessary pain and death among their friends, family and fellow community members. So widespread is this issue that as the Outreach Director for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) — the largest Iranian-American grassroots organization — I hear new stories on this subject on a nearly daily basis. For example, earlier today, I heard from an Iranian American in Orange County whose close relative in Iran recently had to go to the emergency room for a heart condition. Due to severe shortages, the hospital did not have the supplies, medicines or tools that the doctors needed to operate. To be able to operate successfully, the doctors gave her family a list of surgery supplies and medicines to purchase on the black market. Luckily, the family found the necessary items to save the patient’s life. Unfortunately, few Iranian families are able to help their loved ones in this way, either due to lack of financial resources or an inability to find specialized drugs under the current shortages.

Stories like this one are not simply anecdotes; they are small glimpses into a profoundly far-reaching issue. On January 28, CNN reported that many Iranians have turned to the black market to obtain treatment for cancer due to shortages of vital American and European drugs. The conclusion to many such stories is bleak, however, as many unregulated drugs are tainted imports from China or India, too often are ineffective or expired, and in some cases have even led to horrific side effects or death.

Iranian Americans have long sought to raise awareness on this critical humanitarian issue, and are beginning to gain some traction. On February 22, over 150 Iranian Americans gathered in San Francisco to share stories and come together in support of resolving this crisis once and for all. As a result of their efforts, Representative Jim Moran (D-VA) agreed to take the lead in sponsoring a Congressional letter to the White House, urging President Obama to take necessary steps to ensure sanctions do not block medicine or humanitarian goods. Rep. Moran’s letter makes clear that even as we work to resolve serious concerns regarding Iran’s government, the U.S. stands with the Iranian people. Further, he highlights that Congress has consistently exempted these goods from sanctions, and that under the preliminary nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1, the parties agreed to establish a humanitarian banking channel precisely to resolve this issue.

In the spirit of renewal and goodwill this Norooz, Iranian Americans urge our Congressional Representatives to offer support to this critical humanitarian issue. Our foreign policy ought to balance American interests and values alike, and resolving this issue is unequivocally aligned with both.

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post.

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.

This Norooz, Wishing Iranians (Access to) a Healthy New Year

Healthy norooz

Every March, on the Tuesday evening before the Persian New Year (or Norooz, the first day of Spring), Iranians jump over small bonfires. As they leap, they chant zardi-eh man az to, sorkhi-e to az man, asking that the fire take their “yellowness,” representing sickness, and give them its “redness,” representing good health, in the upcoming year. This year, as Iranians engage in this ancient pre-Islamic tradition, their hope for improved health runs deeper than usual. Since 2012, due to current US and European sanctions on Iran, ordinary Iranians often cannot access the life-saving medicine they need to address critical health issues.

Many decision-makers and Iranian Americans alike believe this issue has been addressed through humanitarian exemptions to sanctions. However, the stories on the ground paint a starkly different picture: continued banking and economic sanctions have caused massive shortages of medicine that directly impact the lives of the Iranian people. While humanitarian trade of food and medicine is technically exempt from sanctions, the broad sanctions regime continues to wall off crucial banking channels, effectively blocking the sale of medicines to Iran. A handful of lawmakers such as Representative Jim Moran (D-VA) are courageously leading efforts to raise awareness in the Executive Branch regarding this horrible side effect of the sanctions regime.

This issue is a primary source of pain and grief among thousands of Iranians and Iranian Americans alike, who see US sanctions policies as directly causing unnecessary pain and death among their friends, family, and fellow community members. So widespread is this issue that as the Outreach Director for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) — the largest Iranian-American grassroots organization — I hear new stories on this subject on a nearly daily basis. For example, earlier today, I heard from an Iranian American in Orange County whose close relative in Iran recently had to go to the emergency room for a heart condition. Due to severe shortages, the hospital did not have the supplies, medicines, or tools that the doctors needed to operate. To be able to operate successfully, the doctors gave her family a list of surgery supplies and medicines to purchase on the black market. Luckily, the family found the necessary items to save the patient’s life. Unfortunately, few Iranian families are able to help their loved ones in this way, either due to lack of financial resources or an inability to find specialized drugs under the current shortages.

Stories like this one are not simply anecdotes; they are small glimpses into a profoundly far-reaching issue. On January 28, CNN reported that many Iranians have turned to the black market to obtain treatment for cancer due to shortages of vital American and European drugs. The conclusion to many such stories is bleak, however, as many unregulated drugs are tainted imports from China or India, too often are ineffective or expired, and in some cases have even led to horrific side effects or death.

Iranian Americans have long sought to raise awareness on this critical humanitarian issue, and are beginning to gain some traction. On February 22, over 150 Iranian Americans gathered in San Francisco to share stories and come together in support of resolving this crisis once and for all. As a result of their efforts, Representative Jim Moran (D-VA) agreed to take the lead in sponsoring a Congressional letter to the White House, urging President Obama to take necessary steps to ensure sanctions do not block medicine or humanitarian goods. Rep. Moran’s letter makes clear that even as we work to resolve serious concerns regarding Iran’s government, the U.S. stands with the Iranian people. Further, he highlights that Congress has consistently exempted these goods from sanctions, and that under the preliminary nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1, the parties agreed to establish a humanitarian banking channel precisely to resolve this issue.

In the spirit of renewal and goodwill this Norooz, Iranian Americans urge our Congressional Representatives to offer support to this critical humanitarian issue. Our foreign policy ought to balance American interests and values alike, and resolving this issue is unequivocally aligned with both.

sign our med letter

 

In Vienna, U.S. and Iran Shave Down the Mistrust

After chatting with Iranian and American officials about their negotiations here in Vienna, I was reminded of Winston Churchill’s words: “To build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years. To destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day.” The truth of Churchill’s observation will reverberate within the halls of decision-making throughout Washington and Tehran for at least five more months.

In what officials described as engaged and substantive discussions, Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) agreed on a timetable and framework for building a comprehensive deal to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. Groups of experts will meet in early March to discuss various technical details, and the full delegations will meet again on March 17 in Vienna. This process will be repeated monthly through July, when they hope to sign on the dotted line.

Unlike the fast-paced, edge-of-your seat diplomacy that secured an interim deal in Geneva, slow and steady will win the race to a final deal in Vienna. With a Gordian knot of technical problems and political differences to cut through, both sides are ready for the long haul. The stream of tweets about details of the negotiations may have receded, but we learned valuable lessons about the road ahead. Three in particular stand out.

1) Finally Playing the Long Game

Precisely because the thoughtless acts of hardliners seek to destroy diplomacy, it should now be clear that the first round of talks in Vienna was about managing expectations and making sure people understand this is just the beginning. Both sides have six months to make these negotiations succeed, so nobody should expect any miracles yet. Instead, policymakers and pundits should place a premium on patience and a more long-term view.

35 years of enmity will not be undone over the course of a few meetings. A generation of officials in the U.S. and Iran has made their careers by proving how nasty they can be to the other side. It is very easy to slip back into old patters if attempts to break the deadlock do not fulfill the expectation of immediate results.

While it is essential for diplomacy to yield tangible deliverables, the more important question is: What is our goal? If it is to secure a final nuclear deal that can win the peace and deeply change the U.S.-Iran relationship, prioritizing smaller steps over the duration of the next few months will be critical. Top officials from both sides are finally playing the long game, highlighting the long-term benefits of engagement, and making the political investments necessary to give negotiations a chance to succeed.

2) Emphasizing Process

Over the next five rounds, both sides will seek a compromise that leaves everyone with something — but not everything. Establishing a real process allows Washington and Tehran to methodically shave down decades of mistrust. For the first time, they have a road map to a strategic endgame. Making the details public is not necessary right away. To deal with the various issues at hand and avoid derailing the process, they have essentially created a matrix of “now,” “soon,” and “later.” Seasoned diplomats must be smiling, because this is the old fashioned diplomacy we used to do.

The negotiations taking place in Vienna are based on reciprocity, which in turn will depend on how they set up the working groups covering technical issues. So far, it appears that both sides have made the wise decision to keep the process secret. Different officials will likely discuss different issues, but the important point is that both sides will decide together how to match compromises and their respective order.

3) Take Red Lines with a Grain of Salt

Red lines are set at the beginning of any negotiation. That is to be expected, and Iran and the P5+1 did not disappoint: they both ostensibly drew red lines as the Vienna talks commenced. But they also know that red lines become flexible lines once the negotiations start. They have to — or there is nothing to negotiate over.

Iran does not believe that it is negotiating from a position of weakness, and neither does the U.S. Both are expecting a lot from the other side — and also expecting that they should not give up very much. That is the difficult part of this negotiation process, and it is likely going to take the full six months in Vienna to realize that they are neither as strong as they think, nor as weak as the other side thinks.

We can see this idea starting to crystallize because the mentality of the negotiators on both sides has changed. Rather than exchanging ultimatums, they are now trying new ideas. And when one idea does not work, they are trying something else. That is how diplomacy works — and that is why it takes time.

It is fair to say that this is a very difficult process, and it is fair for one to be skeptical — but it is unfair to stop the sentence there. To finish the sentence, one must say that everything that has happened up to this point has been unprecedented. We should use that momentum going forward to tackle the tough challenges ahead — and we should believe that this process can succeed. Otherwise, what’s the point?

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post

 

In Vienna, U.S. and Iran Inch Toward a Better Future

As nuclear talks commence here in Vienna, much of the discussion has rightly focused on the various technical details that a final nuclear deal must address. Indeed, the devil is in the details. However, the bigger picture is no less important, and it provides an important backdrop to the negotiations that will be taking place here over the next few days.

While we are not yet in the clear, we are most certainly in uncharted waters. Successful nuclear diplomacy in Geneva strengthened relationships between all relevant parties and provided valuable insights into their perspectives. Looking ahead, four big picture issues will go a long way toward making or breaking the peace.

1) Handling the Spoilers

The very real presence of spoilers on all sides is widely acknowledged. Before the interim deal in Geneva was struck, efforts to break the impasse by forward-thinking officials in Washington and Tehran reaffirmed the old adage, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Elements seeking to score political points at home or benefit from the continuation of conflict have repeatedly torpedoed attempts at resolving tensions.

The most recent diplomatic efforts have already faced similar challenges. Congress has pushed for more hard-hitting sanctions. Iranian hardliners are seeking ways to narrow the window of opportunity that President Rouhani’s team has to negotiate with Washington. As the seriousness of talks increases, so too does the risk of spoilers lashing out. The only way to neutralize them is to build confidence through tangible deliverables that both sides can use to push back against hardliners at home. In turn, this will ensure that the commitment to finding peaceful solutions will be stronger than the spoilers’ commitment to confrontation.

2) Keeping Support At The Top

No less important are the forces for moderation that do not believe the political systems in Washington and Tehran must be entrenched in permanent confrontation. The enormity of the task at hand sometimes overshadows the historic backdrop of the Vienna talks: efforts to build confidence and resolve conflict have been openly supported President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. By backing the interim nuclear deal in Geneva, they provided an unprecedented foundation from which a final deal can grow.

If these negotiations are to successfully avoid falling prey to fractious domestic politics in both capitals, it will be necessary to provide a degree of political cover for both leaders. To that end, securing a final nuclear deal will require a bit of Public Diplomacy 101: Washington and Tehran will need to lower expectations publicly while raising them privately though compromise and verifiable follow-through on their respective commitments.

Rhetoric from both sides downplaying the odds for success should come as no surprise. But words should not overshadow facts: diplomacy would not be taking place without Obama and Khamenei’s direct involvement in the process. Support at the top has helped create a trickle-down effect, producing a greater (though by no means comprehensive) number of officials in both capitals that are protecting and nurturing diplomacy. Foreign Minister Zarif, Secretary Kerry and members of their respective negotiating teams have repeatedly emphasized that win-win solutions and a window to work the diplomatic channel are in the interest of both sides.

3) Pursuing Interests Over Ideology

A degree of skepticism surrounding the diplomatic process is understandable. However, an overemphasis on this skepticism risks overlooking the theoretical bedrock upon which this entire process rests, reaffirmed for all to see when the interim deal was reached in Geneva: It is in the interest of both sides to develop a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the nuclear impasse.

Unlike years past, senior officials on both sides now openly acknowledge that alleged alternatives to diplomacy — such as an escalation of sanctions, or an escalation in the technical aspects of Iran’s nuclear program — have not only caused the drumbeat of war to intensify, but also narrowed the remaining escalatory options that both sides have at their disposal. This sharpened focus among American and Iranian decision-makers has presented a unique window of opportunity to continue de-escalating tensions and reach a final nuclear deal.

Building confidence at the negotiating table has been the only pathway to date that has turned mistrust into cooperation. If past is prologue, opponents of diplomacy will continue portraying it as weakness, appeasement, or selling out to the enemy. Both sides will in turn need to absorb these ideological criticisms and keep their sights firmly focused on their actual interests. As a senior Western official told me upon arriving in Vienna: “We’re not in the business of doing favors. We’re in the business of pursuing our interests.”

4) Dialogue Among Equals — But Not Equally Powerful

For the first time in recent memory, the U.S. has demonstrated through word and deed that it is willing to have a real “dialogue among equals” with the Iranian government. Washington deserves credit for abandoning the failed approach of the past and instead working toward a strategic, mutually agreed upon endgame with the current political set-up in Tehran. The results have been clear, but they should not be surprising: A slowly reinvigorated diplomatic process, and empowered moderates in Washington and Tehran who prefer to solve conflict peacefully.

A dialogue among equals is critical for success, but it should not be confused with a dialogue between two equal powers. The reality is that we face a huge imbalance in power. In light of the way Iran is portrayed by some policymakers and pundits, one would think that it rivals the former Soviet Union in terms of threatening Western interests. Simply put: It doesn’t. Iran is a regional power, not a superpower. Acknowledging this power imbalance helps explain a concern that Iranian hardliners stress: dealing with a stronger interlocutor might not only lead to sacrificing national interests, but also might threaten regime survival. Emasculating this argument will be critical to success at the negotiating table. It should be made clear to Iran in word and deed that they are being challenged for what they do, not for what they are.

So, now the hard part begins. It is fair to point out that the gap between technical solutions and political solutions may be too wide to bridge. However, the likely alternative — war — is a stark reminder for both sides that the status quo is neither in their interests nor sustainable. Iranian and American officials are seemingly prepared to make the requisite political investment for diplomacy to succeed. At this point, only one thing is for sure: it won’t be easy.

Ambassador John Limbert beautifully described to me the challenge that lies ahead: “Diplomacy is like remodeling a house: it’s probably going to be more complicated, take longer, and cost more than you think.” Both sides have long known this to be true — but for the first time in over three decades, they are simultaneously demonstrating a willingness to spend their (political) capital on peace.

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post

Huffington Post: The Illusion of AIPAC’s Invincibility

 

The defeat of AIPAC’s ill-advised push for new sanctions on Iran in the midst of successful negotiations is nothing short of historic. The powerful and hawkish pro-Israeli lobby’s defeats are rare and seldom public. But in the last year, it has suffered three major public setbacks, of which the sanctions defeat is the most important one.

 

 

 

Huffington Post: Barack Obama ‘Should Be Given Credit’ For Diplomatic Actions In Iran

 

“The two most important words in everything [President Obama] said [during the State of the Union] regarding Iran are ‘if’ and ‘then’: ‘if’ the process doesn’t work out, ‘then’ I will consider additional options. And that’s how it always should have been,” said Reza Marashi.

 

 

 

Huffington Post: Obama ‘Laid The Groundwork To Talk About More Positive Future With Iran’

 

“This is the beauty of when President Obama extends a hand – it really shows the hardliners for what they are because at the end of the day they don’t know how to respond to good will. The only difference between now and 2009 is we have a President in Iran who’s more willing to reach his hand out,” said Reza Marashi.

 

 

 

Obama Warns Congress Off Iran Sanctions

In last night’s State of the Union address, the president had the opportunity to address the group of lawmakers that could very well determine whether his legacy includes a deal that resolves the nuclear crisis with Iran or whether the U.S. continues on a path toward an unnecessary and costly war. The president dedicated four paragraphs of his speech to Iran diplomacy, giving a forceful statement that it is diplomacy, not pressure, that is primarily responsible for the nuclear deal and warned that he would veto any sanctions bill that threatened Iran diplomacy.

Such a reminder is necessary because sanctions have been falsely credited with creating the opening for Iran diplomacy, and many on Capitol Hill have bought into the idea that more sanctions will equate to a better nuclear deal. This idea discounts the decisive role the Iranian people had in returning moderates to power that believe it is in Iran’s interest to find a win-win solution with the U.S. Rather than react to a more moderate Iran by supporting new sanctions and pressure, confirming Iranian hardliners’ warnings that sanctions will never be lifted through diplomatic engagement, Obama stated his belief that “we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.”

Twelve years removed from President George W. Bush’s infamous axis of evil speech, which devastated hopes for broader reconciliation between the U.S. and Iran in the wake of cooperation on Afghanistan, Obama struck a far different chord — prioritizing diplomacy over threats of war. According to the president, “If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.”

Let’s hope the president’s message sinks in, because reflexive congressional support for punishing Iran regardless of the consequences remains one of the key obstacles to shattering 34 years of mutual enmity and securing a nuclear deal — and the possibility of a brighter future for the people of the United States and Iran. Over the past few weeks, a determined push by Sens. Robert Menendez and Mark Kirk to impose new sanctions on Iran gathered 59 cosponsors (16 Democrats, 43 Republicans), before stalling in the face of determined opposition from Senate Democrats and the looming threat of a presidential veto. Now, cosponsors of the sanctions bill, including Sens. Joe Manchin and Richard Blumenthal have indicated that the bill shouldn’t come up for a vote. Supporters are falling off, not joining.

There were numerous problems with the Menendez-Kirk bill, including that it would violate the terms of the nuclear agreement by imposing new sanctions, despite the U.S. promising, along with our negotiating partners, to abstain from doing so in the first phase of the nuclear agreement. To delay the implementation of those sanctions, the president would have to certify measures above and beyond what Iran agreed to in the nuclear deal, including certifying that Iran is not conducting missile tests or supporting terrorist groups. Further, the bill would set unnecessary and unattainable red lines for a final deal, including that Iran must dismantle its entire enrichment infrastructure — violating a clear Iranian red line in talks.

Now opponents of diplomacy are seeking to scrap the sanctions provisions of the bill and move forward with congressional resolutions that define expectations for the end game. This would provide an opportunity for opponents of diplomacy and a nuclear deal — both inside and outside Congress — to sabotage negotiations by setting unrealistic expectations. Any language requiring Iran to dismantle facilities or certain numbers of centrifuges, for example, or mandating that Iran abandon any enrichment capacity — would reduce leverage for a final deal and make one more difficult, if not impossible, to attain. Congress shouldn’t make our negotiators’ job more difficult than it already is.

Ultimately, Congress needs to move away from threatening to play spoiler to making sure the President has the authority to leverage existing sanctions in exchange for concrete nuclear concessions. With decades of congressional sanctions on the books, including recent sanctions that only provide the president with temporary waiver authorities, Congress needs to work with the administration in order to obtain the authority to permanently lift sanctions to extract the best deal possible. Such a move would provide clear assurances that we can uphold our end of the bargain. Without those assurances, our negotiators have a weak hand and might only be able to obtain a weak and reversible deal that distances but fails to eliminate the threats of war and an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Fortunately, there is room for common ground. As the president indicated, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon — without the risks of war — is a goal we should all share.

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

 

 

 

 

Huffington Post Live: Iran Talks: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

 

“The White House itself has made it quite clear that if diplomatic talks breaks down, which they will if Congress passes sanctions, which would be a clear violation of the agreement… If talks breaks down as a result of this, the U.S. is essentially left with two options: 1) accept that Iran will have an undetectable breakout capability or 2) to take military action,” says Trita Parsi.

 

 

 

The Other Bully from New Jersey

Gov. Chris Christie isn’t the only New Jersey politician stirring up controversy these days. The senior Senator from New Jersey, Robert Menendez, has partnered with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) to push an Iran sanctions bill over the strong objections of the White House, our nation’s diplomats, many of his own colleagues and the intelligence community. If passed, the Menendez-Kirk bill would violate the interim nuclear deal with Iran and cripple prospects to resolve the nuclear impasse peacefully.

The bill continues to gather cosponsors – currently, it is up to 58. While the bill was originally split evenly between 13 Democratic and 13 Republican cosponsors, the bill’s bipartisan veil is falling apart. Just two of the bill’s 32 latest cosponsors have been Democrats. As a result, it is increasingly being viewed as a partisan vehicle to rebuke of one the President’s signature foreign policy achievements.

Not surprisingly, Sen. Menendez has received a heavy amount of criticism for his lead role in pushing the sanctions bill. Sen. Menendez, responding to this criticism in an op-ed in the Washington Post, asserted that it was sanctions that brought Iran to the table and that his bill would provide “flexibility” for the President to negotiate a deal and and an “insurance policy” in the event that negotiations fail. Menendez also asserts that while proponents of sanctions argue that “sanctions are like a spigot, easy to turn on and easy to turn off,” in reality it is far more complicated to pass sanctions legislation and turn up pressure on Iran.

Upon inspection, these assertions seem dubious at best.

First, what sanctions opponents warn is that unwinding sanctions as part of diplomatic negotiations is far more difficult than ratcheting them up. With nine separate congressional sanctions already on the books, the President’s ability to offer credible sanctions relief in exchange for Iranian nuclear concessions is already in serious doubt. Add on new sanctions, which would kill the first phase deal, and we will undermine any notion in Iran that diplomacy could lead to sanctions relief because Congress has to be a partner in offering permanent sanctions relief.

Sen. Menendez also misleads when he states that his bill would create flexibility for the President. Rather, S.1881 is designed in such a way as to ensure that diplomacy fails. By demanding that Iran dismantles its entire “nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities,” S.1881 sets an unrealistic and unnecessary benchmark that would be a poison pill for future talks.

Worse still, S.1881 undermines the President’s ability to offer sanctions relief. To waive the sanctions provisions included in S.1881 as part of a final deal, the President would have to certify that Iran has agreed to the zero enrichment demand and a whole host of other provisions, including some that are outside the scope of nuclear negotiations. As a result of these onerous and unattainable restrictions, the President’s ability to offer sanctions relief would be permanently crippled. Rather than create flexibility, S.1881 would tie the President’s hands.

Further, speaking on MSNBC, Menendez warned that “If we wait until we determine whether or not a negotiation can succeed… the timeframe that the Iranians have to produce enough fissile material for the first nuclear weapon is six to eight weeks,” meaning any sanctions push would be “inconsequential.”

Sanctions proponents often tout the theory that Iran must be brought to the brink of economic collapse in order to abandon its nuclear pursuits. As Sen. Menendez stated in a committee hearing in May, the U.S. must “convince the Supreme Leader that his continued pursuit of nuclear weapons is threatening the very existence of his regime.”

While the six-to-eight week timeline Sen. Menendez cites is based on a theoretical, all-out Iranian pursuit of a weapons threshold, such a push could not be halted by sanctions.

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a hawkish think tank that receives funding from Sheldon “Nuke Iran” Adelson, estimated in October that Iran likely has sufficient reserves and assets to “muddle through” economically “for at least 12 months, if not longer.” While the report was intended to enhance support for sanctions, it actually undermined their case. Even if it was possible and a good idea to try to incite regime change by crashing Iran’s economy (which it is not), we certainly couldn’t do so in 6-8 weeks with or without the Menendez-Kirk bill. On the other side of the political spectrum, Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon official under the Obama administration, testified before Congress in November that:

“Even if Congress goes forward with additional harsh sanctions, economic conditions are not likely to produce enough existential angst among Iranian leaders, generate mass unrest, or otherwise implode the regime before Iran achieves a nuclear breakout capability.”

As Kahl pointed out, even imprisoned Green Movement leaders have supported the country’s enrichment program. As a result, pursuing plans for economic regime change would inflame nationalist sympathies and result in nuclear escalation, rather than capitulation.

In his quest to create a highly dubious “Plan B” if negotiations fail, Sen. Menendez is putting “Plan A” – diplomacy – directly in the crosshairs. U.S. and Iranian officials have warned that new Congressional sanctions would kill the first phase deal. Rather than take offense when officials or experts call attention to the fact that he is pushing the U.S. toward war, Sen. Menendez should ask himself what happens when his bill scuttles diplomacy and Iran’s nuclear progress continues unabated — or worse, intensifies. If we fail to pursue the critical diplomatic opportunity right in front of us and instead pursue sanctions, war is the likely outcome. Sen. Menendez – and the colleagues that support his stubborn pursuit of sanctions – would then shoulder the blame.

(This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post)

 

 

 

Huffington Post Live: Which Iran Will We Choose?

 

NIAC’s Reza Marashi joins Huffington Post Live to discuss “Which Iran Will We Choose?” and the historic interim agreement between the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and Iran over its nuclear dispute is not just about enrichment, centrifuges and breakout capabilities.