Rep. Doggett Urges Congress: Give Diplomacy A Chance

Washington, DC – Representative Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), took to the House floor this week to speak out against provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 that would disrupt nuclear negotiations involving the United States and Iran:

There are few greater threats to the security of American families than those which could arise from the failure of the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran.  Parts of this bill seek to disrupt the Administration’s tough, persistent diplomacy.  

Some would assign to Israel the job of starting what could become World War III—even the Bush-Cheney Administration rejected that approach.  Iranian Revolutionary Guard hardliners may ultimately doom these negotiations; our responsibility is to ensure that hardliners here don’t do the obstruction for them.  

Our arsenal of democracy includes more than bombs– it includes tough negotiations and strong sanctions to reach a carefully monitored, verifiable agreement that will protect of our families and our allies.  Given the high cost of failure, we certainly cannot afford to surrender to defeatists, who capitulate on the negotiations before they are even completed.  It is too soon to wave the white flag and give up in favor of war.

The obstinate objections to the Interim Agreement were proven to be unjustified.  The International Atomic Energy Agency has determined that Iran has taken verifiable actions to halt the progress of its nuclear program and roll back key aspects. Let’s give peace a chance.

Al Monitor: World Powers, Iran Agree on Roadmap for ‘Marathon’ Nuclear Deal Talks

“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 very difficult challenges ahead. We should believe that this process can succeed. Otherwise, what’s the point,” said NIAC Research Director Reza Marashi.

Al Jazeera: US-Iran Deal: Compromise is Key

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Hard Sell

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared in AlJazeera English


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