The Christian Science Monitor: Iran nuclear talks, in home stretch, still face obstacles

More than 30 months of Iran nuclear talks are coming to a frenetic diplomatic climax before a Monday deadline.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met last night and today, and canceled plans to fly to Paris andTehran, respectively, for consultations. Iran and six world powers aim to limit Iran’s nuclear program – ensuring it can’t produce a nuclear weapon – in exchange for relief of sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

Kerry and Senate Chairman Spar Over Iran Talks


Washington, DC – Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) sparred with Secretary of State John Kerry at a hearing on Tuesday over ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran that are, by many accounts, making significant progress towards a resolution.

As nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers recommenced in Vienna, Menendez took issue with reports that the parties planned to begin drafting an agreement as early as May that would place constraints and transparency measures over Iran’s nuclear program, but would not “dismantle” the program completely.

Many expect a final deal will allow Iran to retain a closely monitored civilian nuclear program while lengthening the amount of time it would take Iran for “break out” for a weapon to as long a period as possible, likely in the range of six to twelve months.

“I don’t think that we did everything that we’ve done to only get a six to twelve month lead time,” said Menendez, who has in the past has argued that the U.S. should demand that Iran completely dismantle all enrichment capabilities. More recently, Menendez has authored Congressional letters that have been presented as offering more flexibility on the enrichment issue in a bid to attract broader support among colleagues. But at the hearing, he offered his most recent such letter as evidence that the Senate would accept a deal allowing enrichment. He expressed incredulity that “a deal that would ultimately unravel the entire sanctions regime for a six to twelve month lead time is not far from where we are today.”

Kerry pushed back, arguing that a deal that lengthens Iran’s breakout to six or twelve months would be “significantly more” than the current timeline. He explained that the United States believes Iran’s current breakout timeline is about two months—meaning that Iran could eject inspectors and enrich enough uranium for one nuclear weapon in that time, but still would not have a warhead or delivery system for a nuclear weapon. A deal would lengthen that period and, according to Kerry, implement inspections and transparency measures necessary to immediately detect any attempt to breakout for a weapon.

Kerry stressed, “At the end of this we hope to be able to come to you with an agreement that has the most extensive and comprehensive and accountable verification process that can be achieved in order to know what they are doing.”

Menendez appeared most concerned that such a deal would eliminate sanctions, and that Iran would be able to breakout faster than the U.S. could slap on new sanctions if such a move were detected. “With no sanctions regime in place and – understanding that every sanction we have pursued have needed at least a 6 month lead time to become enforceable, and then a greater amount of time to actually enforce that – the only option left to the United States, to this or to any other President and to the West would be either to accept a nuclear armed Iran or to have a military option,” he said.

But Kerry rejected the notion that new sanctions would stop weaponization under such a scenario, or that existing sanctions should be kept in place at the expense of a deal. “You have to think about this, if they make a decision to break out, sanctions aren’t going to be what makes the difference,” he said. “If they are overtly breaking out and breaking an agreement and starting to enrich and pursue it, they’ve made a huge consequential decision and the greater likelihood is that we are going to respond immediately.”

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

Two Left Feet: Can Washington Dance with Tehran While They’re Listening to Different Music?

If President Barack Obama’s administration sought to prove that successful nuclear diplomacy with Tehran would not improve U.S.-Iranian relations in other areas, the recent diplomatic fiasco over Syria marks a job well done. On the very same day that the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Tehran was implementing the nuclear interim agreement, Washington successfully pressured the United Nations to rescind its invitation for Tehran to attend the peace talks on Syria based in Montreux, Switzerland.

The peace talks on Wednesday, Jan. 22, with both sides exchanging bitter recriminations, and accusing the other of responsibility for the deaths of more than 100,000 Syrians in this conflict. But the diplomatic process stumbled even before the talks began, as what first appeared to be a diplomatic coup for the United Nations ended up an embarrassing farce.

It all began on Jan. 19, when U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moonannounced that he had invited Iran to the Geneva talks after officials in Tehran had pledged to play “a positive and constructive role.” The secretary-general does not generally take bold steps without Washington’s consent, so his announcement implied that the United States had dropped its opposition to Iran’s participation and that Tehran had agreed to the communiqué of the first Geneva conference — declaring that the goal of the conference is the creation of a transitional government in Syria.

But instead of a breakthrough, Ban’s outreach almost brought about the collapse of the entire diplomatic dance around Syria. It turned out there was not enough coordination with either Washington or Tehran: The Syrian opposition, backed by Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, quickly responded to the invitation by threatening to boycott the conference. Secretary of State John Kerry urged the invitation to be rescinded, while a U.S. official told the media that Kerry was “furious” with Ban for the surprise invitation.

On top of that, Tehran declared that it had actually never accepted the first Geneva communiqué, which was the American precondition for partaking in the conference in the first place. The farce climaxed a few hours later, when Ban caved and rescinded Iran’s invitation — even though Tehran had already announced that it was declining to attend.

To hear Iranian officials tell it, they never implied that they were willing to change their stance on Syria. A high-level Iranian source told me that Tehran had repeatedly made it clear in conversations with Ban, starting on Jan. 17, that it would not accept any preconditions for attending Geneva II. Tehran, the official wrote in an email, was particularly mindful of the fact that the United Nations had “invited those who support terrorist organizations on UN list and US [terror] list [sic] without precondition.”

U.N. officials, however, see it differently. A senior U.N. diplomat told me that Iran had not been clear about the Geneva I communiqué, which had led to the misunderstanding regarding Iran’s position on the Geneva principles. Nevertheless, U.N. officials still maintain that Iran, President Bashar al-Assad’s primary ally, is needed at Geneva for the peace talks to succeed.

But rescinding an invitation is not an act befitting a U.N. secretary-general. Former E.U. High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana did not mince words about the debacle, taking to Twitter to accuse the United Nations of showing “a lack of professionalism” for having unnecessarily withdrawn Iran’s invitation.

But the rescinding of Iran’s invitation sent a strong signal. Any notion — in Washington, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, or Tehran — that the United States is shifting its alliances in the Middle East has quickly been dispelled. There is no Tehran tilt — at least not now.

Perhaps this was the reason for Washington’s insistence on Iran’s invitation being rescinded: The United States wanted to dispel any suspicion that its nuclear diplomacy with Iran has caused it to lean toward Tehran’s position on regional matters. Such a belief, after all, could generate even more ferocious Arab opposition to the already-fragile nuclear talks.

This issue goes to the core of the dilemma behind the United States’ and Iran’s diplomatic dance. While both countries share numerous common interests, they differ on the speed and public visibility of this thaw.

U.S.-Iranian cooperation could reap many benefits for both parties — including on Syria. U.S. officials privately say that Washington’s focus has shifted from seeking Assad’s ouster to the more limited initial goal of ending the violence, which means Tehran’s collaboration is needed more than ever before. Both Washington and Tehran wish to avoid a complete collapse of the Syrian state, as they fear that such a scenario would strengthen al Qaeda — perhaps even leading to the jihadist groups seizing control of some of Assad’s chemical weapons.

But Washington wants to proceed slowly. U.S. officials in the executive branch want deliberations to take place behind the scenes, far away from the eyes of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and opponents on Capitol Hill, who all are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of ending the 34-year-old U.S.-Iranian enmity.

Progress, these U.S. officials hope, will be achieved with little fanfare. In fact, occasional public humiliation of Iran can come in handy to calm those panicking about a world where the United States and Iran are no longer at each other’s throats.Why

Tehran, in turn, wants a lesser thaw in relations — but it wants it faster. Iranian officials are not looking for a partnership with the United States, and they are certainly not looking to compete with Israel, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey for the position of America’s most valuable regional ally. At best, a senior Iranian official told me, U.S.-Iranian relations will resemble U.S.-Russian ties: A rivalry, but one that nevertheless includes — or perhaps tolerates — both tactical and strategic cooperation in numerous areas.

But within that rivalry, Tehran needs Washington. It cannot completely break out of its isolation without Washington’s compliance. It needs U.S. assistance to reverse the onslaught of sectarianism throughout the region, and to contain the threat from al Qaeda.

But Iran wants the spillover effects of the progress on the nuclear issue to come faster, and wants Washington to provide it with public recognition of its seat at the regional decision-making table. In short, it wants fanfare: For Tehran, being seen as part of the solution is a big part of the solution to the region’s woes.

This is precisely why Monday’s diplomatic circus is so problematic for Tehran. The instantaneous outrage at Iran’s invitation brought to the fore the remarkable decline of Tehran’s standing in some quarters of the Arab world. It remains to be seen if it will also impact President Hassan Rouhani’s standing domestically. It is an undeniable blow to his efforts to improve relations with key Arab neighbors if Syrian opposition groups threaten to abandon their seat at the peace talks if Iran has one.

Iran could, of course, shrug off this setback. It could retreat to its narrative of resistance, and celebrate how it stood its ground and refused to succumb to any preconditions. But for Iranian-Arab relations to deteriorate at a time when U.S.-Iranian relations are improving highlights the depth of Tehran’s regional discord. And it contradicts Iran’s own discourse, which fingers American meddling as the cause of Iran’s tensions with its Arab neighbors.

But this is not just a setback for Tehran. Whatever details of the story prove true, the reality is that this diplomatic fiasco has been a confidence-eroding exercise for all parties involved. The Geneva conference may have been salvaged by ensuring the participation of the Syrian opposition, but there is now less confidence that it can amount to anything. Washington may have patched up relations with the Syrian opposition — but with positive results in Syria less likely, support for U.S. regional leadership will further weaken.

And most importantly, for the Syrian people, an end to the gruesome fighting appears ever more distant. Neither the opposition nor Assad’s forces have the strength to defeat the other. Yet the fighting continues, leaving thousands more dead solely to uphold an unsatisfactory stalemate. However, absent external support to the fighting parties — primarily from Saudi Arabia and Iran — the resources for war would quickly dry up. That’s precisely why a peace conference without both foreign powers behind this uprising-turned-proxy war is likely to go nowhere.

(This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy




Mirrored Politics and the Iran Deal

Both were never given a chance to win in the face of other establishment candidates, both were catapulted by the youth vote, both were welcomed to an economy in tatters, both were replacing presidents that were unpopular at home and abroad, and perhaps most importantly, both gave their respective populations an unprecedented sense of hope.

This theme of “mirrored politics” has yet to finish. Rouhani and Obama find themselves in similar situations trying to balance the political force of their respective domestic hardliners as they attempt to secure an historic nuclear deal after 34 years of hostility. For their mission to succeed, both Presidents will need to force each respective opposition to align, for just long enough that Secretary of State John Kerry’s and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s signatures have dried at the bottom of a comprehensive deal. Calling this process “extremely delicate” is putting it nicely.

In the past several weeks, since the interim “framework agreement” was signed by Iran and the world powers, the delicate balance has been on full display in both Washington and Tehran. On the American side, hardliners in congress have been pushing for additional sanctions that would invalidate the deal and kill the progress that has been made. In order to prevent this diplomatic suicide, the Obama administration has gone all-out, including dispatching Kerry and other top officials last week to testify before congress to convince them to stop their deal-killing proposals.

While the White House managed to delay consideration of new sanctions this year, their efforts did not stop Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (D-IL) from introducing a brand new sanctions bill this week, along with fifteen members of the President’s party, in clear defiance of the White House. The President immediately issued a rare veto threat against the bill, which risk scuttling a deal and perhaps what the president views as his legacy.

President Obama had already tried to entice congress to avoid introducing additional diplomacy killing deals by adding 19 companies and individuals to the current sanctions blacklist- a first of such designations since Rouhani has been in office. In response, Iran temporarily stepped away from the talks after they said the move violated the spirit of the talks. The concern now is that these political maneuvers from both sides will eventually come back to haunt us if the United States and Iran return to a state of constant escalations that could truly impact the talks to the point of no return.

This is exactly the type of environment the hardliners on the Iranian side are looking for. Although Supreme Leader Khamenei has given Rouhani the green light to continue his diplomatic dealings with the west, the temporary cover has been far from absolute. Just the other week, Rouhani gave a speech at Shahid Behesht University, only to be welcomed by not only students demanding that he make good on his campaign promises to release political prisoners, but also the chants of hardline Basiji studentsasserting Iran’s nuclear rights. From the well-documented “death to America” chants to chants denouncing the other students as green movement “hypocrites,” Rouhani was forced to call for national unity and indirectly denounced the Basijis by declaring “calm” and “reason” as the recipe for problem solving success. Rouhani, however, was not the only one of his moderate cabinet facing the heat of the opposition.

Earlier this month, Zarif faced the wrath of Chief General Mohammad Ali Jafari, after Zarif admitted that the US could paralyze Iran’s current defensive system “with one bomb.” Cleverly repurposing Rouhani’s comments that the revolutionary guards should stay out of politics, Jafari told the Foreign Minister to stay out of military affairs. Members of the Iranian Majles, or parliament, quickly began to question whether Zarif, who received a hero’s welcome in Tehran after securing the interim deal, should remain in his post. The predicament of a moderate Presidential cabinet trying to balance diplomacy abroad with political interests at home is not limited to just the American side.

(This article originally appeared in International Policy Digest)




NIAC Members Thank Feinstein, Kerry, and Obama for Supporting U.S.-Iran Diplomacy

SF Team Feinstein with Card
NIAC members in San Francisco delivered a thank you card to Senator Feinstein last week for her support of diplomacy; Inset: thank you card signed by over 2,000 people.

San Francisco, CA – NIAC members in the Bay Area delivered a thank you card signed by over 2,000 people to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) San Francisco office last week in an impressive showing of support for diplomacy. The thank you card, also delivered to President Obama and Secretary Kerry in Washington, expressed gratitude to three officials for playing key roles in the recent diplomatic breakthrough with Iran and “working towards a brighter future without war and sanctions, with respect for human rights and with a true friendship between the Iranian and American people.”  

Ahmad Kiarostami, who was among the team to deliver the card to Feinstein’s office, said he got involved to make sure elected officials understood there is strong support within the Iranian-American community for the diplomatic approach. “I’m very happy that Senator Feinstein is taking a strong stand in favor of diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran,” said Kiarostami. “It’s important that those of us who support peace and diplomacy do our part and show our support.” 

In recent months, President Obama and Secretary Kerry launched intensive diplomatic efforts to secure a first phase nuclear agreement, while at the same time working to lessen the plight of sanctions on the Iranian people and block new sanctions that could sabotage hopes for a comprehensive agreement.  Senator Feinstein, meanwhile, has been one of the most outspoken champions of the nuclear agreement with Iran, calling it a “significant step toward solving one of the most difficult security challenges facing the world today.”  She also worked to block a sanctions push that could have sunk the agreement, calling the insistence by some to undermine the deal “baffling”. 

In recent weeks, a number of lawmakers have also shown their strong support for the nuclear deal and opposition to new sanctions.  Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), on the Senate floor, stated that the interim agreement with Iran “is an encouraging first step, and I urge my colleagues not to put it at risk by passing new sanctions right now.”  Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD), Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, warned that this could be the last, best chance to resolve the issue diplomatically, and that he would only move forward with new sanctions if Iran violates the agreement or if the first phase agreement expires without a comprehensive deal.  In the House, Reps. Keith Ellison (D-MN), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), David Price (D-NC), and Peter Welch (D-VT) all spoke on the floor in praise of the agreement and against new sanctions. 

It is also increasingly clear that the American people have rallied in support of the nuclear deal with Iran.  Reuters recently released a poll showing Americans support the deal with an incredible 2 to 1 margin.  Further, a Hart research poll indicated that Americans favor legislators who would give the agreement and negotiators time to work before deciding on new sanctions by a 67% to 25% margin.

As a result, new sanctions that could undermine the talks appear to be held up in the Senate, at least until next year.  And in the House, a resolution that would have attacked the deal has also languished after it failed to attract key supporters.  However, as the battle shifts not just to defending against new sanctions, but repealing existing sanctions as part of a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran, the Iranian-American community will be an important voice to provide not just pressure against those who could undermine a deal, but support for those working to finally secure a peaceful solution.




Lawmakers Speak in Favor of Iran Diplomacy, Oppose Sanctions

During a busy week on Capitol Hill, key lawmakers both in the House and Senate spoke on the floor in support of the nuclear deal with Iran and in opposition to new sanctions.  Despite AIPAC heavily lobbying Congress for new sanctions this week, it appears that the Senate will hold firm and block new sanctions from being considered next week, the last week the Senate is in session this year.  Further, a House resolution led by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), which would have called for new sanctions and set out unrealistic demands for a final nuclear deal, was not introduced.  While both measures could be considered next year, Congress rounds out the year on a positive note for Iran diplomacy.

On Thursday, several representatives gave speeches on the House floor in support of the nuclear deal.  Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) said it was “good news” that the Cantor-backed sanctions resolution did not reach the floor this week, adding that “[i]t is imperative that we take this optimistic development that gives us a chance for a diplomatic resolution of the differences with Iran and prevent them form developing nuclear weapons to come to fruition.”  Blumenauer argued that Iranian moderates who voted for a change in direction need to be reinforced over hardliners opposed to reconciliation with the West.  “This looks like a unique moment in history,” Blumenauer added, “I’m pleased that the House might not screw it up.”

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) commended Secretary Kerry and lead nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman for “tough, persistent diplomacy with Iran.”  Though hardliners in Iran could block a final agreement, Rep. Doggett said “we should not give them a pretext for doing so.”  Further, Rep. Doggett said that “those here who would interfere or limit these negotiations are really offering the American people only one alternative: it is called war.”  Alluding to the cost of the Iraq war, Rep. Doggett said that war did not make us safer and diplomacy offers the best hope to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) said that through diplomacy the United States can “avoid the prospect of war or a nuclear-armed Iran” and step away from the “collision course” that the U.S. and Iran have been on for years.  “Ending the cold war with Iran isn’t going to happen overnight,” Ellison added, “but through robust, sustained diplomacy we may prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon and disastrous war, and spare thousands of our children and theirs.”  Ellison warned that sanctions could undermine faith with the international community and “kill any hope for diplomacy.”  He warned that new sanctions would undermine negotiations and “put us on a path to war,” and that the American people oppose Congressional action that would block an agreement.  

Ellison stated that “passing any punitive measures, including a sense of Congress, tying the President’s hands is a mistake, it will not help, and if Congress wants to help we should set up a people-to-people exchange, a Congress-to-Congress exchange, and move forward.”

Rep. David Price (D-NC), the Democratic co-lead on this summer’s Congressional letter urging renewed diplomacy with Iran – which garnered 131 Congressional signatories – also spoke on the floor.  Rep. Price said that a comprehensive agreement could prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, which would “neutralize one of the greatest threats facing the United States, Israel and the international community and could set the stage for a new era of relations between Iran and the West.”  While the U.S. enters negotiations with a strong hand, “if Congress passes a new round of sanctions, or is perceived as undermining the negotiations, we’ll be giving up our hand before we have a chance to play it, Iran would then have a channce to walk away from the table,” and our leverage could be weakened.

Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT), also addressed his colleagues on the House floor.  While announcing that he has previously voted for new sanctions, he said that the prospect of new sanctions raises two questions.  First, “do we send a message to the world that Congress is not on the same page as our President and Secretary of State?”  Second, “do we send a message to our allies in the P5+1…who we need to guarantee that the tough sanctions we impose are enforceable?”  Welch argued that we need to make sure that the actions we take make an Iranian nuclear weapon less likely.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) also spoke on Wednesday on the floor of the Senate, arguing that the nuclear deal is “an encouraging first step.”  He also warned that new sanctions would threaten diplomacy, asking his colleagues “if there is any chance at all that new sanctions right now might disrupt that agreement, or jeopardize a future agreement – why on earth would we risk it?”






Congress Sees the Light After Busy Week on Iran

Kerry sanctions hearingWashington, DC – Plans in the House to pass a resolution, backed by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), opposing the interim Iran nuclear deal and calling for new sanctions have been defeated, according to Congressional sources. The resolution will not come up this week, which is the last week the House will be in session this year.  The Minority Whip, Steny Hoyer (D-MD) apparently withdrew his support for the measure on Thursday morning.

Further, plans to force a vote on new sanctions in the Senate appear increasingly unlikely, with key lawmakers rallying in support of the nuclear agreement in Iran and the administration mounting a strong defense.  

Despite representatives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) flying in this week to lobby Congress for new sanctions on Iran, it appears that Congress will conclude its business for the year without passing new sanctions or any rebuke of the historic nuclear agreement struck last month.

With sanctions blocked, at least temporarily, there will likely be a push in the weeks ahead for non-binding resolutions to define the endgame with Iran.  Additionally, any final deal with Iran will require sanctions to be lifted, which will likely require Congressional support.

Sanctions Stall in the Senate

Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew held a closed-door briefing with Senators yesterday warning them against new sanctions.  Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and David Cohen, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the Treasury Department, also testified before the Banking Committee on the nuclear deal.

During the Banking Committee hearing, Chairman Tim Johnson (D-SD) announced that he has a sanctions bill ready but will not move forward with it unless Iran violates the terms of the agreement. Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) had threatened to force a vote on their own sanctions bill that would bypass the normal committee process, but that scenario appears unlikely as more Senators speak out against new sanctions and in cautious support of the interim deal.  Sen. Menendez announced he was concerned about the administration’s thinking on the endgame and that he would consider moving forward with a non-binding resolution clarifying the Senate’s expectations for a final deal.

Noting that the President has said that new sanctions would not enhance his leverage for a final diplomatic deal, Chairman Johnson warned that “this may well be the last best chance to resolve this crisis by diplomacy.”  Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) also weighed in in support of the deal, arguing that it is a “promising first step” to further U.S. goals in the region.

Speaking on the floor of the Senate yesterday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) delivered a strong defense of the deal and warned that new sanctions would threaten the deal and our ability to resolve the issue diplomatically.  Rockefeller asked his colleagues, “If there is any chance at all that new sanctions right now might disrupt that agreement, or jeopardize a future agreement – why on earth would we risk it?” 

Secretary Kerry Testifies in the House

Speaking before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday, Secretary Kerry defended the deal in front of skeptical committee members, stating, “We’re at a crossroads, really hinge points, in history. One path could lead to an enduring resolution in the international community’s’ concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. The other path could lead to continued hostility and potentially to conflict—and I don’t have to tell you that these are high stakes.” 

Kerry rejected the notion that new sanctions would provide the U.S. more leverage in negotiations, saying it would threaten international unity and was unnecessary. “They know that if this fails, sanctions will be increased. We’ve said it 100 times. And you all have said it 100 times. And they know you’re yearning to go do it. But you don’t need to do it. It is actually gratuitous in the context of this situation, because you can do it in a week.” But, Kerry said, he doesn’t “want to threaten the unity we have with respect to this [diplomatic] approach, particularly when it doesn’t cost us a thing to go through this process knowing that we could put sanctions in place additionally in a week — and we would be there with you seeking to do it.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) both criticized the deal for not calling on Iran to abandon enrichment. But Kerry, who in the past criticized the Bush Administration’s “zero-enrichment” demand as “bombastic diplomacy,” explained that enrichment was not the issue. The U.S., he said, would secure “the best comprehensive agreement that absolutely guarantees that the program, whatever it is to be, is peaceful, and that we have expanded by an enormous amount the breakout time.” 

Kerry also indicated that negotiating for any further concessions would have meant that Iran’s nuclear program would continued to progress. The interim deal, he noted, “halts the progress and rolls it back in certain places for the first time in 10 years” and that “Iran will not be able to commission the Arak reactor during the course of this interim first-step agreement.”

Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) questioned why Congress could not pass additional sanctions at this time that would be triggered at a later date, which Kerry said would violate the interim agreement and fracture international efforts regarding Iran. “ Even if the sanctions are not imposed, it implies a lack of faith in the process and an unwillingness to play by the rules that our partners are playing by,” Kerry said. 

Representatives Ros Lehtinen, Ted Poe (R-TX), and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) also brought up the status of Mujaheddin-E Khalq, who are residing in Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty in Iraq. Just as in previous hearings on Iran sanctions, members of the MEK were in the audience in their moniker matching yellow jackets. Rohrabacher said he is introducing legislation to allow MEK members to seek asylum in the United States. It is technically illegal for many MEK members to come to the U.S. because the group was designated as a terrorist organization, and attempts to resettle the individuals in third countries has been blocked in part because MEK leadership will not allow the group to be split up or for individuals to participate in the UN resettlement process.

A day after the hearing, a number of representatives took to the floor to defend the nuclear deal and warn against new sanctions, including Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), David Price (D-NC), and Peter Welch (D-VT).




Two Myths that Could Sink the Nuclear Deal with Iran

The deal brokered by the U.S., Iran, and UN powers is historic for breaking three decades of non-relations and escalations between Washington and Tehran. But now the most difficult work begins, with risks that a final deal will fall prey to the domestic political battles inside Iran and the U.S. 

In Washington, the interim agreement is already being dragged into the absurd political food fight between Democrats and Republicans, and Obama and Congress. Those who would prefer a war to a diplomatic solution are more than happy to exploit these divisions and have put forward two key myths aimed at killing a final deal.

Zero Enrichment


No country has ever obtained nuclear weapons as a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), including the six non-nuclear weapon states that currently enrich uranium on their own soil: Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, the Netherlands and Iran. 

Despite disagreements between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran’s enrichment facilities have remained under almost weekly inspection under the NPT.  With the interim agreement, inspectors will have even broader access to Iran’s nuclear facilities, with daily and surprise inspections. Having now frozen Iran’s capabilities in place as part of the deal, these inspections provide full assurance that the country cannot develop a nuclear weapon without being caught. 

Yet the myth widely perpetuated by hardliners, and often misunderstood on Capitol Hill, is that the U.S. must demand “zero enrichment.” Such an ultimatum is a poison pill for negotiations and is not necessary to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. The zero-enrichment ultimatum is largely responsible for the failure under the Bush Administration to constrain Iran’s nuclear program and resulted in the U.S. missing several major opportunities to curb Iran’s nuclear efforts.

As then-Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) said in 2009, “The Bush administration [argument of] no enrichment was ridiculous.” According to Kerry, the zero enrichment demand was a “non-starter” that “hardened the lines” between Iran and the U.S. “It was bombastic diplomacy. It was wasted energy,” Kerry said.

Given the tremendous economic and political cost Iran has incurred for its so-called “right to enrich,” Iran will not back down by accepting an ultimatum to dismantle its entire enrichment. Perhaps more importantly, Iran would never accept the prospect of being reduced to a second-class member of the NPT while other non-nuclear weapon states enrich. A zero-enrichment ultimatum would derail an agreement to put real constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, leaving the program unchecked. 

A comprehensive deal should build on the positive steps of the interim agreement by including further constraints on Iran’s capabilities and the ratification of the IAEA’s additional protocol, which would lock in the ability of inspectors to spot-check virtually any facility in the country with little warning.  Under the tight watch of nuclear inspectors, Iran would be unable to ever break out and pursue a nuclear weapon without getting caught instantaneously.


Some argue that instead of converting existing sanctions into a deal, the U.S. should amplify sanctions to get an even better deal. They say any pause or reversal of economic pressure would cause the sanctions regime against Iran to collapse.

To the contrary, the real threat to the sanctions regime does not come from trading sanctions for Iranian concessions—as they were intended—but from refusing to negotiate in good faith.  Remember, it was Obama’s “outstretched hand,” and Iran’s perceived rejection, that rallied the international community around tougher sanctions in 2010.  If Congress responds to a reasonable deal agreed to by Iran with more sanctions, the U.S. will be seen as the party with the “clenched fist,” and the rationale that convinced states like China, India, and South Korea to impose sanctions that were against their own economic interests would evaporate. The sanctions will unravel before Iran makes a single further nuclear concession.

Congress now faces a historic test of courage. Will lawmakers commit due diligence, support this deal, and secure a future in which the U.S. and Iran are not on the brink of war and Iran is not on the cusp of a nuclear weapon? Or will they snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by putting forward the same sort of misconceptions, half-truths, and political posturing that led to previous, unneeded wars of choice? The ball is in Congress’ court.

Abdi is the policy director of the National Iranian American Council. Costello is a policy fellow with the National Iranian American Council.

View article in The Hill…




An Extra Special Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, and a truly special day. As Iranian Americans, whether we have been living here for three generations or three months, Thanksgiving is a time to gather with family and loved ones, feast over turkey and khoresht alike — and, most importantly, take some time to give thanks.

This Thanksgiving, we have much to be thankful for. We are especially thankful because the United States and Iran are talking for the first time in three decades and are on a pathway toward a brighter future without war and sanctions, and with respect for human rights and a true friendship between the Iranian and American people.

This wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of President Obama and Secretary Kerry, who invested in diplomacy despite the pressure against them, and leaders like Senator Dianne Feinstein who stood up against new sanctions that would have derailed the talks. 

Will you join us in sending Obama, Kerry, and Feinstein a Thanksgiving card today to show your thanks and to encourage them to keep up their laudable efforts?

NIAC Thanksgiving Card

We still have a long road ahead before a peaceful Iran and US-Iranian relationship is secured. Iranian Americans’ talents, perseverance, generosity, courage, and commitment to our core values are what keep us motivated here at NIAC every single day — and for that we are thankful for each one of you. 

From each one of us here at NIAC to you and your families: Happy Thanksgiving!




Nuclear Deal Offers Iranians Some Relief



 Washington, DC – The interim deal between Iran and the P5+1 and the European Union, which increases the transparency over Iran’s nuclear program, allows Iranians who have long suffered under strict sanctions to breathe a sigh of relief.

While Iran made unprecedented advances toward nuclear weapons capability, the Iranian people incurred the costs of historically crippling sanctions. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran published a report last month highlighting the unintended effects of international sanctions such as lack of access to advanced medicines, lack of safe transportation, and overall pressures of high inflation.

The negotiated deal finally begins to address these negative impacts of sanctions. In addition to a six-month pause on new sanctions, financial channels will be created to assist transactions that directly benefit the Iranian people. A direct banking channel, limited to $400 million, will be established to allow Iranian students who are studying abroad to finally be able to pay for tuition. A channel will be established for humanitarian trade to address a medicine shortage in Iran caused in part by financial sanctions. The channel will be limited to transactions for “food and agricultural products, medicine, medical devices, and medical expenses incurred abroad,” according to the agreement. This should be an important step to enable Western pharmaceutical companies to facilitate medicine sales to Iran.

It also licenses the “supply and installation” of spare parts for aging Iranian airline fleets and automobiles. Outdated parts, some of which are older than the Islamic regime itself, have been blamed for the frequency of domestic airplane accidents.

Although the agreement frees up some of Iran’s oil revenues and allows the trade of gold and precious metals, still much of the sanctions on Iran’s oil exports are firmly in place, maintaining the pressure on Iran’s economy. As a result, the depreciated value of the Rial remains a major hardship for ordinary Iranians, who continue to struggle to afford food and medicines, even as they become more available.

The results of the talks, however, have uplifted many Iranians. A large crowd showed their appreciation for Iran’s negotiators, cheering for them as they arrived home at Mehrabad airport in Tehran. Green and purple were prominent colors in the gathering, alluding to the hope for change that existed during the contested 2009 election of Ahmadinejad.

While there is hope that the interim agreement may eventually lead to further sanctions relief, hardliners, both in Iran and abroad, continue to voice their skepticism regarding the deal, not believing the other side will keep its end of the agreement.

In a statement this weekend on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Secretary Kerry assured skeptics at home that “basic architecture of the sanctions is staying in place,” and President Obama warned that if Iran fails to meet its obligations under the negotiated agreement, “we will turn off the relief and ratchet up the pressure.”

Still, President Rouhani was optimistic about the results for Iran, saying “The cracks in the sanctions began last night, and in the future those gaps will grow.”




NIAC Applauds U.S.-Iran Nuclear Agreement

Contact: Jamal Abdi

Phone: 202-386-6408


Washington, DC – Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), issued the following statement commending the interim deal agreed to between Iran and the U.S. and P5+1 today:

“Diplomacy has delivered the U.S. and Iran from the brink of a disastrous war and placed the two countries at the beginning of a brighter, more sustainable path forward. NIAC congratulates Presidents Obama and Rouhani, Secretary Kerry and Minister Zarif, and all of the diplomats involved in breaking the paradigm of enmity that have undermined both country’s interests.

“This deal was made possible because both sides compromised and realized that everyone had to win something to make an agreement possible and durable. Both sides set aside pressure and escalation for a moment and went for a compromise. This is the essence of diplomacy.

“Ultimately, it is the Iranian people and the American people who deserve the most credit. Both are responsible for this initial victory by rejecting defeatists who said that a brighter future was not possible, diplomacy could not succeed, and that the only viable options were antagonism, rejectionism, threats and military contingencies. 

“This is the beginning, not the end of the process.  The U.S. and Iran must continue vigorously pursuing a long-term agreement that can put the two countries on a sustainable path forward to peaceful relations. Many obstacles and potential spoilers remain. Hardliners in both countries will work harder than ever to sabotage this pivot towards a diplomatic path. Those whose only currency is confrontation will search for any opportunities they can find to undermine and sabotage this interim deal.

“In the U.S. Congress, there are threats to move forward with sanctions that would unravel the delicate diplomatic process and, ironically, likely unravel the international sanctions at the same time. It is imperative that moderates in the U.S. and Iran prevail, and it will take the continued strong support of the American and Iranian people for compromise and negotiation to succeed.

“If this path continues, the biggest winners will be ordinary Americans and ordinary Iranians. Americans and Iranians will benefit greatly from a deal that averts a disastrous military adventure, enhances security, and begins to end the damaging standoff that separates two peoples who have much in common. The Iranian people, who have suffered immensely under their own government’s abuses and the crippling pain of broad U.S. sanctions, will have new opportunities to redress these issues as a result of U.S.-Iran deescalation.

“Iranian Americans, who overwhelmingly oppose war and broad economic sanctions, and who have suffered under the standoff between the two countries, want to see a future in which the U.S. enjoys positive relations with an Iran that truly represents its people. Today, that future appears more possible than ever.

“It is critical that, with negotiations progressing, human rights are made a priority and that meaningful dialogue on human rights is made a centerpiece of broader negotiations. Iranian Americans want peace and diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran, but such a relationship must also not turn a blind eye to the plight of ordinary people at the hands of their government. Just as is the case with resolving the nuclear issue, diplomacy remains the best tool for advancing human rights.”


About NIAC

The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the interests of the Iranian-American community. NIAC’s mission is focused on promoting an active and engaged Iranian-American community, supporting aspirations for human rights and democracy in Iran, opposing war between the US and Iran, and celebrating our community’s deep cultural heritage.  NIAC accomplishes its mission by supplying the resources, knowledge and tools to enable greater civic participation by Iranian Americans and informed decision-making by policymakers.

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