Nasrin Sotoudeh Won’t Appeal Sentence

Week of March 18, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

Nasrin Sotoudeh Won’t Appeal Sentence, Citing Unfair Judicial Process

Reza Khandan, the husband of imprisoned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, has said his wife won’t appeal her sentence. Sotoudeh was recently sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. According to Khandan, who was also recently sentenced to six years in prison, Sotoudeh faced 33 years imprisonment for seven charges but only the charge with the longest sentence, which is 12 years, will be enforced.

Khandan said Sotoudeh will not appeal her sentence because of the “unfair judicial process” and in protest at the “useless sentence” against her. The charge for which Sotoudeh has been sentenced is related to her activism against Iran’s compulsory hijab law and defense of anti-compulsory hijab protesters last year. Iran’s judiciary branded the charge as “promoting corruption and prostitution.”

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Khamenei Dismisses EU Efforts to Salvage JCPOA, Blasts Saudi Arabia

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, in his address marking the Iranian New Year in Mashhad, dismissed European efforts to salvage the JCPOA as lackluster and issued a scathing condemnation of Saudi Arabia. Khamenei stated: “Europeans have in practical terms exited the JCPOA. Because they are not abiding by their obligations under the JCPOA.”

Khamenei dismissed the efficacy of INSTEX, the not-yet-operational European financial mechanism aimed at facilitating trade with Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions. He stated: “This financial channel is more like a joke. A sour joke. Just like in the past, the Europeans stab [us] in the back.”

Khamenei further said that European states should have “stood strongly” after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and implemented their commitments under the deal. Instead, he said, Europe has imposed new sanctions against Iran while warning Iran not to leave the deal. He added: “After America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, European countries should have stood up against the U.S. and sanctions should have been removed entirely.”

However, Khamenei said that he was not suggesting that Iran sever ties with Europe. He asserted that his criticisms of European states should not be interpreted as a suggestion to “end relations” with Europe, stating: “Relations aren’t a problem, following them and trusting them [Europe] is a problem.”

Khamenei added that Rouhani administration officials had reached the conclusion that “maybe Iran’s approach had to change” with respect to the JCPOA.  He added that Western politicians, despite “wearing suits and using cologne and samsonite briefcases are savages on the inside.” He then said that he was against both “prejudice against the West and Westoxification (infatuation with the West).”

Khamenei also stated that he knows of no government worse than the Saudi government. He proclaimed: “I know of no country in this region or perhaps anywhere in the world as bad as the Saudi government.” He further said that the Saudi government was “corrupt, tyrannical, oppressive, and dictatorial.”

Khamenei further asserted that the U.S. was supporting Saudi Arabia’s nuclear and missile projects. He stated: “They [the US] have announced they will build nuclear reactors and missile production facilities for this [Saudi] government. This isn’t a problem because it’s dependent on and owned by them [the U.S.].”

Khamenei then suggested that the country’s nuclear infrastructure would eventually fall in the hands of Islamic forces. He said he wasn’t “personally upset” by potential Saudi nuclear reactors because, he opined: “I know that in the not too distant future, these [nuclear projects] will fall in the hands of Islamic mujahedin (holy fighters).”

Khamenei also discussed U.S. sanctions and said that “we shouldn’t complain about sanctions.” He explained: “We shouldn’t have any other expectations from those countries imposing sanctions … From Westerners, we can expect conspiracies, betrayals, and stabs in the back, but we can’t expect help or sincerity from them.”

He added that only some of Iran’s economic problems were attributable to foreign sanctions. He stated: “The country’s chief problem is economic problems and the livelihoods of lower classes.” He went on: “Some of the problems are from sanctions by Western powers, meaning America and Europe, and some are from weaknesses and deficiencies in domestic management.”

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Four Kidnapped Iranian Border Guards Freed

On March 21st, the Pakistani military announced that it had freed four kidnapped Iranian border guards after a military operation near the Afghanistan border. Last October, 12 Iranian border guards were captured in Iran’s southwestern Sistan-Baluchistan province by Jaish al-Adl, a Wahhabi-Salafist terrorist organization.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi thanked Pakistan for “a successful operation freeing these border guards.” Ghassemi expressed hope that the remaining guards will be freed as soon as possible. Five of the captured guards had already been freed last year.

Jaish al-Adl claimed responsibility for a February 11th suicide bombing of a bus carrying Iranian Revolutionary Guards soldiers, killing 27 and wounding 12.  

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Top Iranian Military Commander Meets with Syrian and Iraq Counterparts, Discusses Opening Strategic Border Crossing

On March 18th, Mohammad Bagheri, the chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces met in Damascus with his Iraqi and Syrian counterparts as well as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. During his meeting with the top-ranking Iraqi and Syrian military commanders, Bagheri called for the expulsion of all foreign forces in Syria “who have a presence in the country without the permission of the Syrian government.” Bagheri also said that the military actions of their three governments “would continue until the complete defeat of all terrorists.” Bagheri also visited the Deir ez-Zor region in southern Syria.

During the meeting, the Syrian and Iraqi commanders said that the Abu Kamal border crossing between their two countries would be opened. This would establish a ground connection between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, which the Trump administration and Israeli officials have strongly opposed.

Syrian Defense Minister Ali Abdullah Ayyoub also gave an ultimatum to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-backed predominately Kurdish militia. Ayyoub stated during the meeting: “The only card that the coalition led by America has left in Syria is the SDF. We give them [the SDF] two options. The first is national reconciliation and the second option is freeing the areas they control through military means.”

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EU Holds Regional Talks with Iran in Brussels

The European Union announced that it has held a new round of talks with Iran on the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. According to the EU, this was the fifth meeting of its kind between EU and Iranian officials discussing regional issues. The meeting was chaired by Helga Schmid, the Secretary General of the European External Action Service, and was attended by representatives from France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. The Iranian delegation was led by Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi-Ansari.

The talks focused on the implementation of a ceasefire agreement in the Yemeni port of Hodeidah and on following up on the Astana Process Syria peace talks between Iran, Russia, and Turkey. Recently, British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said to the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that Iran had to abide by its commitments on the withdrawal of Houthi forces in Hodeidah. Iran’s foreign ministry said in response that Iran had made no commitments regarding Yemen. However, the Iranian foreign ministry previously did confirm that Yemen was discussed during Hunt’s trip to Tehran last November.

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Three Former Bank Executives Sentenced in Anti-Corruption Probe

In an on-going anti-corruption probe into Bank Sarmayeh, three former managers at the bank were sentenced to 20 years in prison, 74 lashes, and a permanent ban from government jobs. One of the convicted managers, Parviz Kazemi, served as a cabinet minister in former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration. Iran’s judiciary has described Bank Sarmayeh infractions as “massive corruption.” The bank is privately owned and has more than 160 branches in the country.   

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INSTEX’s Parallel Structure Registered in Tehran

On March 19th, Iran’s Central Bank announced that the parallel Iranian institution to INSTEX has been registered in Iran. INSTEX is a financial mechanism launched by Europe to facilitate trade with Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions. Its Iranian counterpart is called “Special Trade and Finance Instrument, or STFI. The launch of STFI follows a visit to Tehran last week of INSTEX’s president.

The official IRNA news agency said of STFI’s launch: “The instrument for trade and finance between Iran and Europe has been registered as the parallel Iranian organization to INSTEX and a group of Iranian private and public banks and companies will participate in it.”

Iran’s Central Bank Chief Abdolnaser Hemati said his expectation is that INSTEX and STFI will help alleviate limitations brought by U.S. sanctions. He stated: “With the registration of this company in the last days of the current [Iranian] year, the expectation is that this institution in collaboration with its European parallel institution will be able to facilitate trade between Iran and Europe and have a consequential impact on lifting restrictions brought on by U.S. sanctions.”

However, the Iranian foreign ministry recently said “don’t have hope that this financial channel [INSTEX and STFI] will create miracles.”

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Rouhani’s Iraq Trip Highlights His High Ambitions

Week of March 11, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here


Nasrin Sotoudeh Sentenced to 12-year Imprisonment, According to Husband

Reza Khandan, husband of imprisoned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, has said his wife has been sentenced to 12 years in prison. Previous reports that Sotoudeh faced up to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes were the maximum sentence for her charges. Read more on Sotoudeh’s sentence in last week’s Iran Unfiltered.

Khandan, speaking to BBC Persian, said that a copy of Sotoudeh’s sentence was handed to her. He stated: “According to the law, the convictions are bundled together and the highest conviction is enforced. Of the 33 years of imprisonment for the seven charges against her, the longest one, which is 10 years, will be enforced. But based on the law, people who have more than three charges against them can have their sentenced increased by up to one and a half times. So the judge gave my wife a sentence of 12 years.”

Sotoudeh’s sentencing has sparked a worldwide backlash, and prompted the European parliament to pass a resolution calling for her release. Norway also summoned Iran’s ambassador in protest at Sotoudeh’s sentencing. Sotoudeh, who was awarded the European parliament’s Sakharov Prize in 2012, was arrested last summer by Iran’s judiciary in the midst of President Rouhani’s efforts to salvage the nuclear deal in ongoing talks with Europe.

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Rouhani’s Iraq Trip Highlights His Ambitions, Spurs Backlash

President Rouhani made a three-day visit to Iraq for the first time of his presidency. Rouhani was accompanied by a large delegation, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi, and other senior officials and businesspeople.

In addition to receiving a state welcome from Iraqi officials, Rouhani met with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, one of the most prominent and influential Shia clerics. It was the first time Sistani, an Iranian-born cleric, had met with an Iranian president. Sistani played a major role in shaping the post-2003 Iraqi government and issued a fatwa after ISIS took control of parts of Iraq in 2014 that led to the creation of the influential Hash al-Shaabi militia.

According to Iranian outlets, Rouhani explained the results of his meetings with Iraqi officials to Ayatollah Sistani and stressed the need to improve Iranian-Iraqi ties. Sistani stated that he supports any actions that improve Iraq’s relations with its neighbors based on the interests of each country and on respect for sovereignty and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. Sistani also highlighted Iraq’s war against ISIS and stated that “Iraq’s friends” had a role in the victory against the terrorist organization.

After meeting with Sistani, the Rouhani administration’s official media arm released a controversial video on the “outcomes of Hassan Rouhani’s meeting with Ayatollah Ali Sistani.” It was released in the context of Foreign Minister Zarif’s recent short-lived resignation, which he attributed largely to concerns that the role of the foreign ministry was being undermined. The video also came as IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani, who exercises significant influence over Iran’s regional policies, was awarded Iran’s highest military honor (the Order of the Zulfiqar) from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Notably, the video was removed shortly after it was uploaded.

The video stated that Rouhani’s meeting with Sistani carried “three powerful messages to three principal recipients.” The first two messages stoked controversy. The first was for “Iraqi leaders” regarding the “notable power” of President Rouhani and how it was unnecessary for Iraqi leaders to negotiate with “military figures.” The second message was to “Iranian leaders” regarding Rouhani’s reception from “one of the highest and most influential Iraqi marjas (the highest rank in the Shia clerical hierarchy).”

The video specified that Rouhani had “notable power and that it was unnecessary for Iraqi leaders to talk with other [Iranian] institutions or military figures regarding tactical issues and that they could achieve this work with Rouhani as the head of Iran’s government.”

The video did not specify who it was referring to in mentioning Iranian “leaders” or “military figures,” but the latter was widely interpreted to be referring to Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani plays a major role in shaping and implementing Iranian policies in Iraq and is frequently in the country meeting with senior Iraqi officials and military commanders. Last week, the deputy commander of the Qods Force also stated that “we have many differences in our views with the Rouhani administration.”

Conservative media in Iran reacted with outrage to the video, with many claiming it was part of a “psychological war” by Rouhani to influence the Supreme Leader’s succession and undermine the Qods Force. Sajjad Moqadam-Nia, a conservative analyst, wrote on Telegram that Rouhani’s trip to Iraq was guided by “self-interested aims” based on “enhancing his and his administration’s political position in Iran and the region” and “weakening the position of the Qods Force.”

Mehrdad Zabani, another conservative analyst, wrote that “the likes of Qassem Soleimani destroyed ISIS in Iraq and now Rouhani is trying to show off his trip to Iraq.” He added: “If these military figures like Soleimani didn’t exist, Rouhani would have had to go to Iraq in the darkness, just like his boss [Trump].”

The Iranian reformist website Entekhab translated a column by journalist Ali Hashem for BBC Arabic on Rouhani’s trip to Iraq, in which Hashem compared U.S. and Iranian influence in the country.  Hashem stated in the piece: “On the west bank of the Tigris river in Baghdad stretches the U.S. embassy, which is this country’s largest embassy in the Middle East. On the opposite east bank of the river, in different parts of the Baghdad, pictures of Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the former leader of Iran’s revolution Ayatollah Khomeini strike the eye. And these are alongside pictures of Hashd al-Shaabi militia killed while fighting ISIS.”

Hashem went on to argue that people-to-people connections between Iran and Iraq have deepened over the years, which is something the U.S. lacks and that contributes to its lower influence in Iraq. Hashem stated: “In this context, Iraq is stuck between constant U.S.-Iran tensions … but Iraq today is taking a different position on the [U.S.-Iran] dispute than in the past and seeks to be neutral in this direct U.S.-Iran confrontation.”

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INSTEX President Travels to Tehran

On March 11th, Per Fischer, the president of INSTEX, the European trade mechanism set up to facilitate trade with Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions, traveled to Tehran. Fischer is the former head of the German Commerzbank. On Tuesday, he held technical-level negotiations on operationalizing INSTEX with Iranian experts and representatives of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

The French embassy in Tehran tweeted regarding Fischer’s trip to Iran: “This is an important step in the direction of dialogue with our Iranian counterparts on operationalizing the trade mechanism between Iran and the European Union.”

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Ebrahim Raisi Elected Deputy Head of Powerful Assembly of Experts

On March 12th, one day after Ebrahim Raisi was appointed judiciary chief, Raisi was also elected as the deputy head of the Assembly of Experts. The Assembly of Experts is an elected constitutional body mandated with supervising and selecting the Supreme Leader. Raisi’s recent elevations have significantly boosted his position in Iran’s political system. Read more on his appointment as Iran’s judiciary chief in last week’s Iran Unfiltered.

Raisi was elected as deputy head of the Assembly of Experts with 43 out of a total 73 votes cast. Coming in second place was Sadegh Larijani, the outgoing judiciary chief and incumbent head of the Expediency Discernment Council, who received 27 votes. Third place was Fazel Golpayegani, who received five votes. The current head of the Assembly of Expert is conservative cleric Ahmad Jannati.

On March 11th, Raisi officially assumed his duties as judiciary chief. In a speech, he declared: “No one in any situation or any position will have the right to circumvent or violate the law.”

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Khamenei Warns Officials “Not to Quarrel with Each Other” in FATF Debate

In a meeting with the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Khamenei called on supporters and opponents of the contentious FATF legislation to “not to quarrel with each other.” The vociferous domestic fight over the FATF bills, aimed at bringing Iran into compliance with anti-money laundering and terrorism financing standards set out by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), has led the to remaining legislation being deadlocked in the Expediency Discernment Council. (Read more on the domestic debate over the FATF bills in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered.)

While Ayatollah Khamenei did not specifically mention the FATF bills, he did note: “When this or that convention or treaty is under debate and its supporters and opponents make their arguments, the two sides should not accuse each other of acting in line with the enemy or quarrel with each other.” The opponents of the FATF bills are mostly critics of President Rouhani and often frame their arguments against the legislation as abetting Iran’s enemies.

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Iranian Officials React to Israeli Naval Threats, Regional Nuclear Projects

Iran’s Defense Minister Amir Hatami responded to recent threats by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that the Israeli navy could take action against “covert” Iranian oil shipments that were trying to “circumvent” U.S. sanctions.” Hatami stated: “If they [Israel] have such an intention, this will be an act of creating international insecurity and piracy.”

Hatami added that “the Islamic Republic has the capability to address this issue and if necessary, issue a strong response.” He further stated that that the “international community will not accept” such an Israeli action.

Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said that some regional countries were using “oil dollars” to pursue “suspicious nuclear projects.” He added: “These actions can create a danger for the region and the world worse than the threat of ISIS and terrorism.”

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Will the Israeli-Iranian Showdown Be in Syria — or New York?

In today’s Middle East, when parties look for a greater power to pressure regional actors not to escalate, they don’t turn to Washington. They turn to Moscow. With leverage over Israel, Iran, and Syria, Russia is in a unique position to stop the wider conflict that threatens to erupt — and particularly after a single day saw an Iranian drone reportedly penetrate deep into Israel, the downing of an Israeli F-16, and Israel’s massive bombardment of targets inside Syria. And although the military situation could yet spin our of control, there are reasons to believe that the fight may turn political instead.

At the root of the tensions is the shifting regional balance of power. Over the past fifteen years, Israel has steadily seen its own maneuverability in the region recede, while Iran’s has been bolstered by Washington’s disastrous invasion of Iraq, the subsequent loss of U.S. influence and credibility, and even Bashir al-Assad’s survival in Syria. On top of that, the nuclear deal prevented Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but also recognized Iran as a de facto regional power and ended a decades-long U.S. policy of seeking the country’s complete isolation. Similarly, major powers in Europe, Russia, and China began treating Iran as a legitimate regional actor whose involvement and buy-in was necessary for stability.

According to the Iranian foreign ministry and Tehran’s ally Hezbollah in Lebanon, the events of Feb. 10 signify that the “era of Israeli strikes on Syria is over” — and mark a further reduction in Israel’s maneuverability, who for years have freely bombed targets in Syria without significant repercussions.

But despite the tough rhetoric, few see much appetite in Israel or in Iran for a direct military engagement. Instead, Israel is more likely to shift the conflict to a different theater — the UN — where it will seek to reimpose Iran’s pariah status, return Tehran to diplomatic and economic isolation, and reverse 15 years of change in the regional balance.

Such a shift would fit well with efforts prepared by Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration, who for weeks have prepared the ground to reimpose new UN sanctions on Iran. Some of their efforts have already born fruit.

Earlier last month, a little-noticed leaked UN Panel report accused Iran of violating a UN-imposed arms embargo on Yemen. The report doesn’t claim that Iran has provided weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, but rather that Tehran has failed to keep the rebels from obtaining Iranian weapons. As a result, the panel concludes that Iran is in non-compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2216.

The somewhat far-fetched Saudi plan has been to use the report to impose on Iran a new resolution under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which allows the UN Security Council to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” and to take action to “restore international peace and security.”

Such a resolution would once again put Iran in the penalty box, with its economy sanctioned and its political pathways for influence in the region blocked — i.e., an all-out containment of Iran. In Riyadh’s calculation, this will thwart Tehran’s rise and shift the regional balance in favor of Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The value of such a resolution to Israel and Saudi Arabia — and its threat to Iran — go far beyond the rather limited economic impact of the sanctions it may impose. A Chapter VII Security Council resolution “securitizes” a country, in the words of Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Anything pertaining to Iran — whether regular trade or even participation in political bodies — will be seen through a security lens, Zarif told me in an interview for my book Losing an Enemy – Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy.

In Iran’s case, it meant that it was viewed as having a menacing nuclear program before it was viewed as a country or a nation. The country and its activities were now officially defined as a threat to international peace and stability. Though the UN sanctions imposed on Iran were not biting per se, they were nevertheless a critical component of the securitization of Iran. “Sanctions were both an outcome of this securitization environment and also perpetuated by it,” Zarif argued. “It showed that this country [Iran] is a security threat because of the sanctions.”

Israel and Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the nuclear deal was partly rooted in their desire to keep Iran permanently isolated. By striking the nuclear deal and neutralizing that threat, Barack Obama deprived Israel and Saudi Arabia of their main tool for pursuing Iran’s containment.

Now, whether through the UN Panel report on Yemen or allegations of Iranian drones violating Israeli airspace, the Israeli-Saudi alliance hope they have a path towards a new UN Security Council resolution that once again puts Iran in the penalty box and paves the way for an all-out American containment of Iran.

Thus, despite high rhetoric and tough statements, the real showdown may soon move from the Israeli-Syrian border to New York. Not only is the cost less for Israel, but the impact will arguably also be greater. While a strong military assault against alleged Iranian positions in Syria may win Israel and Saudi Arabia a few weeks, a Chapter VII resolution at the UN can win them a decade.

But just as Putin blocked Israel’s bombing campaign in Syria, he holds a similar trump card in New York: a Security Council veto. Israel and Saudi Arabia may have Donald Trump and Nikki Haley where they want them, but without Russia, their campaign to shift the regional balance of power against Iran remains an uphill climb.

Originally published in Defense One

Growing Backlash to Boehner’s Inappropriate Invitation

Speaker John Boehner’s invitation for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress has been criticized as overtly-partisan, damaging to U.S. interests, and damaging to U.S.-Israel relations by top current and former U.S. officials, lawmakers, diplomats, military leaders, media outlets, and Israeli officials (see full list below). 

Tell Congress to Stop Netanyahu’s Speech Today.


Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) – “It’s a serious big honor that we extend. That it should be extended two weeks before an election in a country without collaboration among the leaders of Congress, and without collaboration with the White House, is not appropriate.”

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) –  Butterfield said that he is “”very disappointed that the speaker would cause such a ruckus” among members of Congress.”
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) –  “For the sake of diplomacy, peace, and respect for our ally Israel, to say nothing of stability in the Middle East, Speaker Boehner must cancel the joint session of Congress with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. If he does not, I will refuse to be part of a reckless act of political grandstanding.”
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) – “Having heard from many constituents across MD4, I’ve decided not to attend the Joint Meeting w/ Prime Minister Netanyahu. #diplomacyfirst”
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) –  “I just think it’s the wrong thing. We shouldn’t be interfering in a foreign election, which we’re doing. And we certainly shouldn’t be inviting a foreign leader of Canada, Palau, Peru or Israel to rebut our president on a foreign policy matter.”
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) Constituent Letter –  “I think this represents a blatant disrespect for the President and the time honored tradition of foreign dignitaries being invited by whomever is President to our country. The Speaker chose to act unilaterally and during a period of negotiations with Iran which are highly sensitive and critically important. This is no time to play politics with the negotiations currently underway with Iran on the issue of nuclear weapons.”
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) – “I call upon Speaker Boehner and Ambassador Dermer to do the right thing and postpone this speech. Once the election in Israel is over and the current P5+1 negotiating deadline has passed, they should respect protocol and confer with President Obama and congressional Democrats on a time for the Prime Minister of Israel to address a joint session of Congress.”
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) – “It’s not just about disrespect for the president, it’s disrespect for the American people and our system of government for a foreign leader to insert himself into a issue that our policymakers are grappling with.  It’s not simply about President Obama being a black man disrespected by a foreign leader. It’s deeper than that.”
Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) –  “I think it’s an affront to the president and the State Department what the speaker did.”
Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) –  “It’s a deliberate attempt to try to influence the Israeli election and done right after the State of the Union address in which the president said foreign policy is getting better, and Mr. Boehner wants to demonstrate that things are not getting better.”
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) – “I find it very disturbing when a foreign leader in the midst of a campaign for re-election is allowed to address Congress for the sole purpose of undermining a foreign policy priority shared by the Obama administration and our European allies to score political points at home. In my view Mr. Netanyahu’s speech before Congress is nothing more than a campaign event hosted by Speaker Boehner and paid for by the American people. Mr. Netanyahu’s re-election campaign is not my concern, but politicizing and damaging the U.S.-Israeli relationship by aligning his government with Republicans in Congress against President Obama is something I completely reject. For these reasons, I will not be attending his address to a joint session of Congress next month.”
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-GA) –  “It’s a campaign stunt, and I’m not working for his campaign. I’m not a standing stooge.”
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) –  “What will be remembered here is the slight against our president and the partisan political nature of it, and I don’t know who’s served by that.”
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) – “To me, it is somewhat of an insult to the president of the United States. Barack Obama is my president, he’s the nation’s president, and it is clear therefore that I’m not going to be there, as a result of that, not as a result of the good people of Israel.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) – “He (Speaker Boehner) has demonstrated that he is willing to play childish games with our most serious questions of war and peace, and is equally willing to put partisan advantage over Israel’s security.  That the Speaker would seek to undermine the historic bi-partisan support for Israel in this way is an unprecedented, reprehensible act worthy of condemnation by both sides of the aisle, and from all friends of Israel.” 
Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) – “It is very disrespectful to this president, and what concerns me more is that I think it’s a pattern that is starting to develop from this speaker that we’re getting more and more disrespectful of the office of the presidency.  I think it’s silly and petty.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA)  – “I think for us to extend an invitation two weeks before the Israeli election gives Israelis the impression we’re trying to meddle in their politics and I also find it extraordinary that a world leader would be invited before the Congress effectively to lobby in favor of a bill that the president opposes.”
Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) – “My preference would be that the prime minister postponed his speech until after the deadline on these Iran negotiations and after the election. I don’t think Congress should become a forum, basically, for political campaigns in other countries.”
Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) – “I am totally outraged at Speaker Boehner for doing it, I think it’s, it was deliberately designed to undermine the president — that’s close to subversion.”
Sen. Harry Reid (D-CA)  – “This was not the right thing to do.”
Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) – “I remain hopeful that his address would be delayed until after their election.”
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) – “We have a strong relationship, a strong alliance with Israel. For the speaker to decide to go at it alone and to invite Prime Minister Netanyahu without consulting with the White House was a mistake.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) –  “My concern is that it’s obviously political, and it uses the backdrop of the United States House of Representatives, and the Senate and the House, two weeks before a political campaign, and violates all the protocol that’s always existed in terms of working this out with the president.”
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) – “It is not the norm to do this right before an election and it is being widely reported in the Israeli press as the U.S. expressing some kind of a preference.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) – “The unfortunate way that House leaders have unilaterally arranged this, and then heavily politicized it, has demolished the potential constructive value of this joint meeting. They have orchestrated a tawdry and high-handed stunt that has embarrassed not only Israel but the Congress itself.”
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) – “It didn’t show a lot of class. If it had been George W. Bush or Reagan or Clinton or whoever, protocol is protocol.” 
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) – “I’m sick about the fact that protocol has been violated, but you know, I’m always eager to hear what he has to say.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) – “The president of the United States heads up our foreign policy and the idea that the president wasn’t even consulted, that is wrong…I am not going. I may watch it on TV, but I’m not going.”
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) – “I am disappointed in the Republican leadership’s invitation of Prime Minister Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of Congress with the apparent purpose of undermining President Obama’s foreign policy prerogatives…I will not be attending Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech because it does more harm than good to the bipartisan U.S.-Israel alliance.”
Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) – “”I think he (Netanyahu) would be well advised to withdraw, so we’ll see what happens,” 
President Barack Obama – “I’m declining to meet with him simply because our general policy is, we don’t meet with any world leader two weeks before their election. I think that’s inappropriate, and that’s true with some of our closest allies.”
Josh Earnest, White House Press Secretary – “The protocol would suggest that the leader of one country would contact the leader of another country when he’s traveling there. This particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.”
Senior Joint Chiefs of Staff officer – “It’s one thing for Americans to criticize their president, and another entirely for a foreign leader to do it. Netanyahu doesn’t get it — we’re not going to side with him against the commander in chief. Not ever.”
Former U.S. Diplomats and Generals:
Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State – “”He (Netanyahu) is interfering in our internal affairs and I don’t want to interfere in Israeli internal affairs but it strikes me that there’s an awful lot going on in his neighborhood, in the Middle East, and that’s where he should be.”
James Baker, former U.S. Secretary of State – “The executive branch of government really has the primary power and responsibility and authority to conduct the nation’s foreign policy. It’s not in the Congress, it’s in the executive branch. So our foreign policy benefits when there’s cooperation and so does the issue of U.S.-Israeli relations.”
Edward Djerejian, former U.S. ambassador to Israel – “This is an unnecessary irritant in the basic U.S.-Israeli relationship and it couldn’t come at a more delicate time, where the Middle East region is in such turbulence and there’s so many challenges.”
Gen. Paul Eaton (retired) – “It is highly inappropriate for the speaker of the house to so publicly meddle in foreign affairs. It is a gross breach of protocol to invite a head of state without due coordination with the president.”
Lt. Gen. Robert Gard (retired) – “I can tell you from my own experience that Mr. Netanyahu is way out of his lane. And you can be sure there isn’t a military officer in uniform who would get involved in this issue. It’s not just that Netanyahu is showing disrespect for Mr. Obama; it’s that he’s disrespecting U.S. institutions — he’s thumbing his nose at our way of doing things. Even for those out of uniform this is a mistake. It’s one thing to show disrespect for President Obama, that happens all the time, but it’s another thing to show disrespect for America. That just can’t be tolerated.”
Gen. Robert Hoar (retired) – “I think that Mr. Netanyahu is making a mistake, but that’s just my personal opinion. You’ll note that his decision to speak before the Congress was meant to highlight his view that the U.S. should impose more sanctions on Iran. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Israel has become the issue — not Iran. Is that really what he intended? So his strategy, to bring us together is actually pulling us apart. It’s unbelievable.”
Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel – “Netanyahu is using the Republican Congress for a photo-op for his election campaign and the Republicans are using Bibi for their campaign against Obama. Unfortunately, the U.S. relationship will take the hit. It would be far wiser for us to stay out of their politics and for them to stay out of ours.”
Current and Former Israeli Officials and Lawmakers:
Zehava Gal-On, Meretz Party chair – “The prime minister who speaks from morning until night about the Iranian threat, is prepared to sacrifice Israel’s position in exchange for an election campaign photo-op.”
Isaac Herzog, Labor Party chair – “The time has come when Bibi (Netanyahu) must announce the cancellation of his visit to Congress. In conversations I’ve held with many European and US leaders, it is clear there is great anger over Netanyahu diverting the discussion on Iran’s nuclear program for political gain, and turning it into a confrontation with the president of the United States.”
Tzipi Livni, Hatnuah chairwoman – “A responsible prime minister who first thinks of the good of his country’s citizens does not do such a thing. A responsible prime minister would know to work with the president of the United States — with any president — and protect our most important interests.”
Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. – “It’s advisable to cancel the speech to Congress so as not to cause a rift with the American government.”
Yaron Sideman, Consul General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region – “It is our impression that these people’s (right wing groups’) support for the speech stems from their identification with, and admiration for, a move to defy and humiliate President Obama, more than from the importance they attribute to the Iranian issue.”
Shelly Yachimovitch, Knesset member – “It’s a very brutal and unacceptable bypass of the president of the United States and something like that simply damages [Israel].”
Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, former intelligence chief – “When we manage our relationship with the US, we have to manage it simultaneously with the president and Congress. The prime minister has made it in to a partisan issue in the US, and we cannot let Israel become a problem for one party or the other.”
Editorials and Commentators:
Chicago Sun-Times – “Boehner and Netanyahu undoubtedly meant to poke President Obama, bruising him and the vital working relationship between the U.S — specifically U.S. Democrats — and Israel.”
Dallas Morning News – “U.S. diplomacy on such a serious issue as Iranian nuclear weapons must not be swayed by a foreign politician’s re-election bid. In fact, Netanyahu himself blasted a previous Israeli prime minister for doing exactly the kind of pre-vote maneuver he plans to do. Israeli leaders from across the political spectrum are questioning Netanyahu’s wisdom. They warn that the trip could damage the already strained relationship with the Obama White House and, perhaps more important, derail the Iran negotiations at a crucial phase in the talks. Netanyahu is unlikely to tell Congress anything members haven’t already heard, so why the urgency?”
Los Angeles Times – “The diplomats who are actually conducting the negotiations insist that meaningful progress has been made and that Iran has abided by its commitment not to expand its nuclear program during the talks in exchange for limited relief from existing sanctions. If that’s the case, legislation by Congress now could derail the diplomatic process. Why take that risk?”
New York Times – “Lawmakers have every right to disagree with presidents; so do foreign leaders. But this event, to be staged in March a mile from the White House, is a hostile attempt to lobby Congress to enact more sanctions against Iran, a measure that Mr. Obama has rightly threatened to veto.”
San Francisco Chronicle – “It’s a slap at President Obama, who didn’t ask for the Washington visit and doesn’t plan to meet with Netanyahu. It’s also deeply divisive, coming just three weeks before a deadline in the Iran talks aimed at controlling weapons work with outside inspections. Who are we dealing with, Iranian leaders must wonder, if the Obama team is at the negotiating table while Republicans are listening raptly to an Israeli leader who wants to torpedo the deal?”
USA Today – “When Netanyahu speaks on March 3, a pivotal deadline in the nuclear talks will be just three weeks away. While it’s fair to worry about a bad deal, the time to judge is after a framework agreement is reached. To kill any deal in the crib, as Netanyahu and the most radical factions in Iran are eager to do, is to destroy the last, best chance for a peaceful outcome, because chances that Iran will capitulate and drop its program under pressure are zero.”
Robert KaganThe Washington Post – “It doesn’t matter what good allies the United States and Israel are, and it doesn’t matter how bad relations may be between Netanyahu and President Obama. Allies don’t go big-footing around in each other’s politics.”
Jeffrey GoldbergThe Atlantic – “It makes absolutely no sense for an Israeli leader to side so ostentatiously with a sitting American president’s domestic political opposition.”

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.

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