Is the Sanctions Debate Justifying the Military Option?

Washington, DC – To an outsider, it may seem like Washington is united in favor of imposing new sanctions on Iran. But, like in Iran itself, the internal wrangling over this question among Washington policymakers is much more complex and divided by factions than one may assume.

Congressional leaders from both parties have long called for new sanctions — and, bolstered by the strong support of the pro-Israel lobby, even some Democrats have undermined the President’s engagement strategy in their zeal for a more heavy-handed approach. Now that the administration has moved past direct talks and embraced the pressure track, one would assume that Congress, the President and the rest of the Iran policymaking community is in harmony.

But they’re not. Not even close.

The President’s harshest critics, among them future presidential-hopeful Sarah Palin, disparage the administration’s push for sanctions as being too soft. They decry the shift away from “crippling” sanctions — which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had previously endorsed — to a more targeted approach of sanctions that “bite.” The administration is holding firm on its decision not to pursue a unilateral or “coalition of the willing” approach until the multilateral option has been tried within the UN Security Council. And yet, many Republicans who once pressed the administration to abandon diplomatic engagement in favor of new sanctions have now soured on Obama’s version of the pressure track.

Among both liberals and conservatives, there is little optimism that new sanctions will significantly alter the situation facing US-Iran relations.

This is due, in part, to the administration’s inability to clarify its reasons for pursuing sanctions in the first place. Originally, the incoming Obama administration laid out a strategy of diplomatic engagement, bolstered — if need be — by economic pressure. The core of this strategy remained face-to-face talks, and sanctions were depicted as a way to gain leverage at the negotiating table.

It was impossible, however, to anticipate the tectonic shift that took place in Iran after last June’s presidential election. Without warning, a powerful movement sprang up that challenged the very nature of Iran’s theocracy. That is when the rationale for the Administration’s sanctions push shifted. Officials began speaking of targeted sanctions having the potential to influence the “internal dynamics” inside Iran — providing a boost for the protest movement and possibly even bringing about regime change.

These two very divergent justifications for the Administration’s sanctions policy have never been fully reconciled, nor has there been any clarification about what the sanctions are actually supposed to accomplish.

This lack of strategic vision came even more clearly into view when the contents of a secret memo were leaked to the New York Times last week. Written by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the memo asserted that the Obama administration does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s continued development of its nuclear program despite western diplomatic efforts and sanctions.

Now, in the context of this strategic black hole, many in Washington are openly questioning the sanctions option, with conservatives turning sharply against President Obama’s sanctions plan.

Russia and China will never allow meaningful sanctions to be imposed, they argue, so the UN Security Council process is a waste of time. Similarly, unilateral sanctions — which have passed both houses of Congress and need only be combined for the President signature — are unlikely to alter Iran’s behavior. After all, Iran has long anticipated a US clampdown on refined petroleum imports, and has therefore put in place a number measures designed to inoculate itself against any sort of pressure the US and a few of its allies might impose.

Thus, no longer under the illusion that “crippling” sanctions will be a panacea, critics of Obama’s Iran policy are seeking to frame the issue as a choice between living with a nuclear Iran and taking military action to prevent it. Yet this framing deliberately eliminates the various other options the President has at his disposal, and it is intentionally designed to make the military option seem preferable.

The challenge now for the Obama administration will be to demonstrate that this dilemma is in fact a false choice. This is sure to be difficult, however, as Iran’s nuclear program continues to grow and in the absence of any breakthrough on the diplomatic front.

There is little doubt that the Obama administration views military options on Iran as a means only of last resort, but if conventional wisdom solidifies around this stark choice of either a nuclear-armed Iran or a military strike, President Obama is likely to find himself surrounded by members of both parties propagating the idea that all other options have, in fact, been exhausted.

This post originally appeared at




The Hill: Changing Course on Iran Sanctions

Washington, DC – New sanctions on Iran are about the surest bet in Washington these days.

Both the House and the Senate have passed a “crippling” gasoline embargo, and the administration has all but given up talk of negotiations in favor of pressing for UN Security Council sanctions “that bite.” In fact, the only thing left that the administration and Congress disagree on is whether the new sanctions should target all of Iranian society or just the hardliners in power — not an insignificant disagreement by any measure, but one that underscores the broader acceptance of the argument that new sanctions are the only game in town.

But given the fact that the U.S. has sanctioned Iran for decades with little to show for it, the debate over U.S.-Iran policy should not be boiled down to a question of how much more damage we can do. Rather, smart power dictates that the U.S. use every tool available, including those that have been taken off the table, such as lifting certain sanctions.

No one expects the U.S. to unilaterally lift its embargo on Iran. But certain sanctions have unambiguously failed to achieve their objective, contributing instead to the suffering of ordinary Iranians. These should be reexamined, and where appropriate, lifted.

This has already been done once this year. As Iranians were using Twitter and Facebook to mobilize after the June election, U.S. sanctions actually made some of these vital tools illegal for Iranians. Luckily, the State Department and the Treasury acted to remove this restriction. This actually increased the pressure on the regime, since every tweet made Ahmadinejad sweat a little more.

This idea has support across the political spectrum. The Director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said, “It’s exactly what I think OFAC needs to be doing, not simply designating new targets or tightening sanctions, but also loosening sanctions when it can further our foreign policy goals.” Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy celebrated the decision to waive the Internet sanctions, calling it “an extremely prudent move,” and Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) even introduced legislation to enact this very change last year.

Relaxing Internet sanctions on Iran was an important step in helping the Iranian people utilize the free flow of information to plot their own destiny, but it was only a first step. Similar steps should be taken, in concert with multilateral engagement and targeted pressure on Iran’s human rights abusers, to give the Iranian people the best chance they have to realize their century-long struggle for democracy.

American NGOs are the world’s leaders in promoting human rights, basic humanitarian assistance, and vital aid for some of the Iranian people’s most vexing problems. But sanctions prevent groups like Relief International and Mercy Corps from working in Iran. These and other groups assisted the victims of the Bam earthquake in 2004 under a rare special exemption from sanctions issued by the Treasury Department. Never before has the United States carried out such effective public diplomacy than when American relief workers dug through rubble in Iran to the cheers of Iranian onlookers.

However, after the 180-day exemption period expired, the Americans were told to hastily pack up their things and return home, lest they violate U.S. sanctions.

Surely, lifesaving medical care and disaster relief services are not somehow “dual-use.” Sanctions that prohibit legitimate aid organizations from saving lives do nothing to punish the Iranian government, and only add to the misery of the Iranian people.

The same can be said of human rights organizations. Human rights are the No. 1 problem facing the Iranian people today. And though the Iranian government would likely bar organizations like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International from entering the country, they currently don’t have to: U.S. sanctions prohibit rights groups from working on the ground in Iran.

As members of the House and Senate set out today to finalize legislation imposing yet greater burdens on the Iranian people by cutting off Iran’s gasoline supply, conferees should sit up and take note. When the final version of the bill is sent to President Barack Obama for his signature, it should include constructive provisions like those put forward by Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Moran. Ellison authored the Stand With the Iranian People Act, which would remove sanctions on U.S. NGOs and punish companies that provide repressive technology to Iran’s government; and Moran is championing H.R. 4301, the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act, to expand the Internet software waiver to include anti-censorship and anti-surveillance tools to make the Internet safer for Iranians.

Enacting these and other similar measures would send a powerful signal that the U.S. is able to distinguish between the Iranian government and its people.

Much more than the “crippling” sanctions that nearly everyone supports but that no one believes will work, Congress and the administration should make reforming existing sanctions a central element of their Iran strategy.

This article appeared in The Hill newspaper today.




Amanpour is Being Attacked Because She’s Iranian

As with anything in politics, there should be room for a lively debate about Christiane Amanpour’s recent appointment to host ABC’s This Week. Legitimate arguments can be made both for and against the decision to hire an acclaimed foreign correspondent to do a Sunday morning show that previously focused on domestic issues. And employees at ABC are well within their right to be miffed at the network’s decision to pay top dollar for a star like Amanpour at the same time they are scaling back and laying off long-time employees.

But what cannot be countenanced is accusing her of bias based only on insinuations about her Iranian heritage. The attacks on Amanpour follow in a long line of Iranophobic attempts to keep qualified Iranian Americans out of the public sphere in America, and it should be called out for what it is: anti-Iranian bigotry.

As one of the most prominent and well-respected Americans of Iranian descent, the attacks on Amanpour are offensive to the entire Iranian-American community. Iranian Americans are proud of her accomplishments and her integrity, and have stepped up to defend her against attacks rooted in ignorance and bigotry.

Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales started this dust-up when he derided Amanpour as “the opposite of the perfect candidate” based on what he perceived as her lack of objectivity regarding Israel. As Glenn Greenwald and Adam Serwer have pointed out, Shales bolstered his claim with the supposedly incriminating evidence of Amanpour’s Iranian heritage. For many in the Iranian-American community, this is all-too-familiar territory.

Since the hostage crisis in 1979, Iranian Americans have experienced the scorn and derision of bigots who reduce a proud and ancient heritage to the reprehensible actions of Iran’s theocratic government. Despite this, Iranian Americans have distinguished the majority of Americans from this bigoted minority. No country has been more welcoming for Iranians fleeing Iran than the United States. Yet, making that same distinction – that is, separating Iranian Americans from the Iranian government – is something these small, vocal critics are incapable of doing.

There has been an ongoing campaign by these extremists to prevent Iranian Americans from partaking in America’s public life. Martin Kramer, the controversial Harvard professor, warned about the dangers of allowing Iranian Americans to get too close to power during last year’s AIPAC conference:

…Iran can have behind the scenes leverage over Iranian Americans, many of whom occupy key positions in the think tanks and are even being brought now into the administration…What this means is that we have to be extremely cautious about what we take away from Iranian diaspora communities when it comes to understanding Iran.

If Kramer and Shales had it their way, Iranian Americans would not be permitted to work on domestic issues because of their “international perspective,” nor could they cover Iran because they are “untrustworthy” and “incapable of objectivity.” In short, Kramer and Shales’ end goal is to have Iranian Americans shut out of the picture entirely. 

In their ideal world, Iranian Americans may be permitted to exist, but they should not be permitted to have a voice. 

Fortunately, those seeking to engineer a sort of “moral panic” about the Iranian-American community have and will continue to fail. Their insults and accusations only marginalize their message.

Most Americans recognize that the Iranian-American community has enriched America in the cultural sphere, contributed significantly to our economy (e-Bay’s founder, Pierre Omidyar, is an Iranian American), in the public sphere with talented journalists like Amanpour, and even in sports – both Andre Agassi and Ali Farokhmanesh (the dead-eyed Northern Iowa basketball star behind last week’s upset against Kansas in the NCAA tournament) are children of Iranian national sports heroes.

Every once in a while, some discriminatory policy or legislation will pop up, or a hateful attack against the community will be aired. But episodes like the Amanpour story serve as a reminder that America is united with the Iranian-American community. We join together to combat the bigots who wish to silence and exclude this diverse and valued community. And I, for one, join my Iranian-American friends in celebrating Amanpour’s success, and wish her the best of luck.

This article also appeared on the HuffingtonPost.




Congressman to Introduce Resolution Supporting Israeli Strike on Iran

ImageWashington, DC – A draft resolution is circulating among members of the House of Representatives that endorses an Israeli military attack on Iran “if no other peaceful solution can be found within reasonable time.”

The resolution, written by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and currently being circulated for cosponsors prior to its introduction, does not clarify what is meant by a “reasonable time.”
“The United States does not want or seek war with Iran” the resolution states in its introductory section, “but it will continue to keep all options open to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.” It goes on to express support for “Israel’s right to use all means necessary to confront and eliminate nuclear threats posed by Iran…including the use of military force.”
Most elected officials and military experts often characterize a potential military attack on Iran as an “option of last resort;” this resolution is the first in the current Congress that appears to set a lower standard for taking military action against Iran.
Regardless of whether Israel were to obtain formal approval by the United States to carry out an attack, most experts agree that the US would likely be held responsible by countries in the region, which could draw American troops into a third military confrontation in the Middle East.
The Obama Administration began a process of diplomatic negotiations last October, designed to gain greater cooperation from Iran on its nuclear program. Many in Congress pressed the Administration to impose a tight deadline of no more than twelve weeks on those diplomatic overtures, which did not produce an agreement. Calls for “crippling” sanctions followed, and both houses quickly passed legislation imposing a gasoline embargo on Iran.
The timing of the resolution coincides with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s policy conference in Washington, DC.




House Commission Hears Recommendations for Human Rights in Iran

Trita ParsiWashington, DC – The House of Representatives’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a hearing yesterday to discuss the human rights situation in Iran and what measures US policymakers can take to support the rights of the Iranian people.  NIAC President Trita Parsi testified before the commission, urging lawmakers to place a greater emphasis on the human rights issue in dealing with Iran.

All members of the commission stressed the importance of bringing greater international attention to the repression going on in Iran since the June election last year, and the panel of expert witnesses offered their recommendations for practical measures the US Government can take to press the issue. Among these recommendations, lawmakers and witnesses agreed on the need to correct certain US policies that have unintentionally imposed burdens on the Iranian people, rather than the government.

“What we want is to support what the Iranian people want for themselves,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), the co-chair of the commission. “Adjusting sanctions is a good suggestion; if US citizens want to send some money to support their relatives in Iran or to support a particular cause there, then we should allow them to do so,” he said.

NIAC President Trita Parsi pointed out that current US sanctions actually prohibit American citizens from donating money to human rights organizations in Iran. Changing this, according to many in the hearing, would be a positive step.

Increasing ties between American and Iranian civil society leaders is “extraordinarily important,” according to Leonard Leo, the Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, who also testified before the hearing. “American NGOs can help stand up this very important movement in Iran.”

Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), a commission member, agreed with many of the witnesses on the importance of international action, such as calling for a special session of the UN Human Rights Council to investigate Iranian abuses. Additionally, there was unanimous agreement that the United States cannot be complicit in the repression going on in Iran, particularly in silencing the Iranian people’s right to peaceful protest.

“There is an inherent contradiction,” according to Parsi, “when US policies don’t allow a person to send money to the family of Neda Agha Soltan, but Nokia-Siemens can sell advanced censorship and surveillance technology to the government and be rewarded with US government contracts.”




Analysis: H.R. 4303 – The Stand with the Iranian People Act

Washington, DC – Since Iran’s disputed presidential election in June, lawmakers in the United States have searched for ways to support the Iranian people’s movement for basic rights and freedoms.  Yet, with the tattered history of US involvement in internal Iranian politics, they must tread lightly or else risk buttressing the Iranian government’s claim that its opponents are “agents of foreign powers.” 

Taking those concerns into consideration, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) introduced H.R. 4303, the Stand with the Iranian People Act (SWIPA), to support the Iranian people’s democratic movement by ensuring that America’s Iran policy imposes pressure on the Iranian government–not the innocent Iranian people.  In order to do this, SWIPA imposes targeted sanctions on Iran’s human rights abusers, while simultaneously relaxing restrictions on US humanitarian assistance delivered directly to the Iranian people.

Targeted Sanctions
SWIPA declares that it should be the policy of the United States to:

work to ensure that sanctions are clearly targeted at the Government of Iran and individuals within the Government of Iran, rather than the Iranian society as a whole, in order to avoid creating hardship and inflicting harm on the Iranian people.

Two decades of indiscriminate sanctions have imposed a heavy burden on Iran’s economy, isolating it from Western trading partners and increasing the cost of doing business.  Throughout that time, however, the Iranian government has managed to remain relatively unscathed by shifting the cost of sanctioned goods onto average citizens.  Thus, the actual burden of America’s sanctions strategy has been felt most by the Iranian people, not the government.

Take, for example, a popular soft drink like Coca-Cola.  US sanctions make it difficult to export Coca-Cola products to Iran.  This has spurred the Iranian government to develop generic brands of soft drinks–most well-known is a drink named Zam-Zam Cola–which act as a source of revenue for the IRGC front companies distributing them.  On top of that, the IRGC also operates smuggling activities, which provide the name-brand products to Iranians at a sizeable mark-up.  Thus, the state gets rich off of a “sanctions economy,” while the population is left to shoulder the burden.

This same scenario is being played out in industries across the entire Iranian economy, and has been developing for nearly two decades.

The sanctions proposed by SWIPA are intended to redirect economic pressure back onto government officials by imposing targeted sanctions that cannot be deflected to the population, such as freezing officials’ bank accounts, imposing travel restrictions, and prohibiting business cooperation with certain government entities.

Additionally, SWIPA would cut off US Government funding for companies that sell advanced censorship and surveillance technology to the Iranian government.  European companies such as Nokia-Siemens Networks were reported this summer to have provided the Iranian government with tools allowing it to monitor and restrict citizens’ phone and Internet communications.  Tehran utilized these capabilities extensively in the aftermath of the election as a way to suppress opposition activities and restrict the flow of information.  SWIPA would prohibit the heads of US Government agencies from entering into any contracts with companies that provide this type of censorship or surveillance technology to the government of Iran.

Removing US Barriers to Cooperation

Beyond imposing new targeted sanctions on the Iranian government, SWIPA also seeks to relax restrictions that have blocked cooperation between the American people and private Iranian citizens.

SWIPA would authorize US non-profit organizations to establish and carry out operations in Iran “for the direct provision of humanitarian and people-to-people assistance,” including promoting nutrition, sanitation and health care, as well as supporting human rights, representative governance, and facilitating international exchanges.

Despite the cool relations between Washington and Tehran, the United States has provided much-needed aid to Iran during times of humanitarian crisis.  In 2003, American citizens and relief organizations delivered humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to Iran in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake in Bam.  For the first time since 1979, American planes touched down in Iran loaded with medical personnel, structural engineers, and rescue specialists.  Special task forces from Boston, Los Angeles and Virginia took advantage of a Bush administration decision to temporarily waive Iran sanctions and delivered civilian aid to those affected by the disaster.

After 180 days, however, the sanctions waiver expired and the relief services and activities being provided came to a halt. 

Under current sanctions, American charities are prohibited from operating in Iran without a specific license from the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).  In order to obtain a license, organizations must submit an application to OFAC where a team of analysts reviews the proposal and determines whether to authorize the activity.  The time it takes OFAC to process each application has been steadily on the rise over recent years, and is now approaching an average of 75 business days.  At times, the process has taken a year or more before a final decision is made on an application.  With the licenses only good for 12 months, this has created a problem for many nonprofit organizations looking to provide services to needy Iranians; without a credible assurance that an application for renewal would likely be granted in time to continue operations, many organizations have decided it is simply not worth it to apply at all. Thus, an overly-burdensome bureaucratic process has actually stifled non-profit activities that have been endorsed by US administrations for years, leaving American citizens who wish to contribute aid to the Iranian people with nowhere to turn.
SWIPA is intended to drop the licensing requirement and allow American non-profits to provide humanitarian and people-to-people assistance directly to Iranians.  The activities authorized in the bill would not apply to organizations that do business with any entity identified by the Treasury Department as being connected to Iran’s government or its energy, financial, or security sectors.  The bill also requires an organization to notify the Secretary of the Treasury about its plans before it begins operating in Iran, giving the Secretary an opportunity to prohibit activities in Iran on a case-by-case basis. 
Rep. Ellison and his staff told NIAC that one of the main goals behind H.R. 4303 is to ensure that US sanctions policies do not unintentionally contribute to the suffering of the Iranian people.  In creating obstacles for American charities to deliver basic necessities to the Iranian people, US policies have unintentionally aided the Iranian government’s repression.  SWIPA is designed to remove those barriers to increased cooperation, and to provide critical aid to the Iranian people who need it most.




Clinton to Speak on Internet Freedom in Repressive Regimes

Washington, DC – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will deliver a speech tomorrow on global Internet freedom, in which she is expected to discuss the vital role the Internet has played for the Iranian opposition movement.  According to the State Department, the speech will lay out the Administration’s strategy for “protecting freedom in the networked age of the 21st Century.”
Since the disputed presidential election in June, the Iranian people have utilized Internet services like Facebook and Youtube to share news and information with each other and the outside world, filling the void of objective journalism due to the government’s media crackdown.

In the speech, Secretary Clinton is expected to discuss recent actions the US has taken to promote Internet freedom in places like Iran.  Until now, US sanctions have imposed barriers on the provision of certain Internet communications services to Iran.  In late 2008 and early 2009, Microsoft and Google stopped providing instant messenger programs in Iran, citing US sanctions. 

NIAC has engaged with members of Congress and the Obama Administration to call for changes in US sanctions so that American companies would not be penalized for providing access and online tools to ordinary Iranians.  Following NIAC’s outreach, the State Department formally recommended that sanctions be waived to allow for the export of software that enables Iranians to communicate and share information online.

NIAC has called on the Obama Administration to codify the State Department’s recommendation by issuing a General License for the export to Iran of software and Internet services that aid Iranians’ online communication and access to information, including anti-censorship and anti-surveillance software.  NIAC has also called on Congress to make the sanctions changes permanent by passing H.R. 4301, the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act. 

Secretary Clinton is expected to discuss recent developments in Iran and China tomorrow, in addition to looking at what role the United States might play in fostering the Internet as a tool for greater access to information for citizens living under repressive regimes.




Some in Congress Get Smart on Iran

For more than two decades now, US policy on Iran has depended almost entirely on sanctions. Even now, Congress is set to pass the latest in a long line of “crippling” pressures: a gasoline embargo that both Republicans and Democrats believe is unlikely to alter Iran’s behavior in the slightest, but which some hope will cause enough pain for the Iranian people that they will protest a little harder than they already are.

But the yardstick for an effective Iran policy is not how much pain and suffering it will cause among innocent Iranians. Rather, changing the policies and behavior of Tehran’s repressive government should be our ultimate goal. This means that when it comes to sanctions, bigger is not always better. If Washington wants to do something on Iran, it should first stop helping the Ahmadinejad government repress its people.

Luckily, there is a chance that things are about to change. Just as most of Congress is stuck in the narrow mindset of draconian sanctions, two new bills have been introduced that offer a new way forward on Iran. The Stand with the Iranian People Act (SWIPA), led by Rep. Keith Ellison, and the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act (IDEA), led by Rep. Jim Moran, both seek to redefine how Congress approaches the Iran issue, in favor of a smarter, more holistic strategy.

SWIPA removes damaging barriers in existing US law that blocks Americans and Iranians from working together on projects like building hospitals and schools in Iran or promoting human rights. It also places tough, targeted sanctions on human rights abusers within the Iranian government as well as on companies that provide the government with tools of repression.

Similarly, IDEA will enable Iranians to access instant messaging programs like Google Chat and Microsoft Messenger that the companies themselves have shut down in Iran due to US sanctions. It also clarifies that sanctions do not prohibit anti-censorship and anti-spying software to be sent out of the US to Iranians.

A good starting point for lawmakers seeking to find a new course on Iran is to first do no harm. The growing movement for change in Iran is historic, and it represents a tectonic shift in the political dynamic there. When Washington feels the need to take a page out of the sanctions playbook, more than anything else it should discriminate between the government and the people. Holding human rights abusers accountable for their crimes by freezing their bank accounts and denying them travel visas is a perfectly valid form of international pressure–and it doesn’t risk stifling civil society the way blanket sanctions would.

Beyond smarter sanctions, though, the US needs to start exercising smart power in Iran. This means identifying areas in which our current policies are counterproductive–and getting out of our own way. For example, the world recognized what a crucial role social media services like Twitter and Facebook played in the events in Iran this summer, yet current US sanctions actually prohibit Americans from providing Internet communications software to the Iranian people. Microsoft and Google have both shut down instant messenger services because their programs are enabled by a download not authorized for export to Iran under US law. The same can be said for anti-surveillance software that allows Iranian users to surf the web free of government spying.

Just this summer, the Senate authorized $20 million for the development of software and other programs that allow users in Iran to bypass government censorship and monitoring efforts. But current laws still prohibit an American from sending these programs to Iran!

Did you know that after one of Iran’s most terrible natural disasters–the 2003 earthquake in Bam that killed over 25,000 people–the Iranian government sought advice from American engineers to renovate thousands of primary schools around the country to make them more earthquake-proof? Sadly, that type of assistance was deemed “dual-use” under US sanctions, and the Americans were barred from making the trip.
These and countless other examples reinforce the conclusion that America’s approach to Iran over the past three decades has been shockingly myopic. Many avenues exist for the US to foster goodwill among the Iranian population, and even to provide them with the tools they need to bring about positive change in their political system, yet we continue to put up barriers to greater cooperation.

As policymakers consider next steps on Iran, the Iranian people are sure to continue their struggle to have their voices heard. For the future of US-Iran cooperation and for the security of the region, US lawmakers should stand with the Iranian people, rather than continuing to stand on their backs.

This article also appeared in The Huffington Post



Iranian-American student arrested in Iran, groups call for release

Washington DC – A graduate student from California State University-Northridge has been imprisoned in Iran for more than a week, with calls for her release going unheeded by Iranian authorities, according to rights groups and media reports.

Esha Momeni, who was born in Los Angeles and holds dual US-Iranian citizenship, was working on her master’s thesis on Iranian women’s rights groups when she was reportedly pulled over for a routine traffic violation.  According to media accounts, the police officer then escorted Esha to her home where authorities confiscated her computer as well as video footage of interviews she had conducted as part of her research into the women’s activist group “Change for Equality.” 

She was then detained and is said to be imprisoned in Tehran’s Evin Prison, though officials have not announced any charges. 

According to her thesis advisor, communications professor Melissa Wall, Momeni was not participating in anti-government actions, nor was she in Iran to agitate for political or religious reform.  “She is not some crazed, radical person,” Wall said.  “She is a lovely young woman who wanted to document these Iranian women’s lives. She did not have some big agenda.”

Iranian officials had offered to release Miss Momeni on the condition that news of her arrest was kept secret, according to some reports.  Momeni’s parents decided to publicize their daughter’s case after they attempted to submit an inquiry with the Iranian Revolutionary Court five days after her arrest, only to be told not to return until the investigation has been completed.

University President Jolene Koester issued a statement yesterday, calling Momeni “a student invested in learning and understanding current conditions in the country of her family’s origin.”  “Anyone who values knowledge and the role of academic inquiry in shedding light on the human condition should be concerned” by her arrest, Koester said. 

“I’m aware that such things happen in Iran,” Wall said, “but I’m confident that they have nothing to fear from Esha’s research project.  It is simply an academic exercise, not meant for publication outside of academic circles. I cannot image why she should be held in detention.”

Amnesty International issued an urgent plea on Tuesday, expressing concern that she might be tortured or otherwise mistreated while in custody, and urging Iranian officials “to release her immediately and unconditionally.”

A blog has been set up by friends and relatives of Miss Momeni, where visitors are encouraged to sign a petition for her immediate release.  University officials are also currently in the process of contacting California Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) for assistance, as well as Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), the Department of State, and Iranian Ambassador to the UN Mohammad Khazaee.

News of Momeni’s arrest was particularly disturbing for Cal State-Northridge, said Provost Harold Hellenbrand, since the campus “values intercultural communications a great deal.”  Momeni, he said, “occupies two worlds and was trying to make those two worlds understand each other.”




Last-Minute Iran Sanctions Pass House

Washington DC – In a last-minute legislative maneuver, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) introduced H.R. 7112, the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2008 on Thursday and ushered its passage through the House late Friday evening.

The bill was modeled off of a previously-introduced piece of legislation put forward in the Senate by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL).  That legislation, S. 3445, failed to pass in the Senate this week as part of a package of amendments to the Defense Authorization Act, though could be brought up again for consideration in the Senate some time next week. 

The sanctions package passed (H.R. 7112) by the House would expand the scope of current sanctions to include financial institutions, insurers, export credit agencies and others.  Additionally, it codifies existing US export bans on goods destined for Iran, though it does provide exceptions for food, medicine, humanitarian assistance, and civilian aircraft parts.  It also seeks to punish American parent companies with foreign subsidiaries that maintain business dealings with Iran and encourages divestment from them.

Under the new bill, Congress would strengthen export controls on states designated trans-shipment points for illicit trade to Iran–for example Dubai.   The text does, however, provide the President with the authority to waive all applicable sanctions if he determines that it would be in the national interest of the United States.

The House passed the new sanctions merely hours before the scheduled adjournment time on Saturday, after which Congress will not be in session until the new Congress is installed next January.  It is unclear at this point whether the Senate will consider the Iran sanctions before it adjourns, possibly next week. 

Following the Senate’s passage of its version of the Defense Authorization Act last week–one of the few pieces appropriations legislation to pass either house of Congress this year–members of the informal House and Senate conference committee put the finishing touches on a compromise version of the bill Tuesday evening.  The final language, which was approved by the House Wednesday and the Senate Thursday, did not include any new provisions for unilateral sanctions against Iran. 

For two weeks, the Senate wrestled with the question of whether to include a package of proposed amendments, including the Iran sanctions, but was ultimately unable to approve any of them due to objections over earmarks spending.  Congress is set to adjourn some time this weekend, and it appears increasingly unlikely that a lame duck session will be necessary.

Lawmakers have pressed hard to finish all mandatory business this week in order to avoid the need for a lame duck session in either November or December.  On Wednesday, the House approved a stopgap spending measure known as a “continuing resolution” that will fund the federal government through March of next year without requiring the usual appropriations process be completed.  The CR, as it is known, was passed along with the Defense, Homeland Security, and Military Construction-VA appropriations bills to continue funding the government at last year’s levels through March 6.  If the Senate approves of a similar resolution, there will likely be no need for Congress to return for a lame duck session before next January. 

The prospects for another round of UN Security Council sanctions also appear grim, as Russia withdrew from a meeting scheduled for Thursday to discuss the Iranian nuclear program.  Russia is still reeling from the West’s response to its recent invasion of Georgia, for which it was strongly criticized as belligerent and overly-aggressive by much of the international community. 

Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, holds a veto power over all proposed resolutions, and is unwilling to cooperate with the West on further Iran sanctions.  As a substitute, the UN Security Council on Friday passed a resolution reaffirming the previous three resolutions and called on Iran “to fully comply, without delay, with its obligations” under international nuclear regulations.




Iranian Civil Society Urges US to End “Democracy Fund,” Ease Sanctions

Washington, DC — A group of Iranian scientists, humanitarians, and social service workers has sent a letter to President Bush and members of Congress urging them to abolish the controversial “Iran Democracy Fund” and to ease US sanctions on Iran.  According to the group, this will allow greater collaboration through people-to-people exchange and strengthen the cultural and educational ties between our two countries

The “Iran Democracy Fund” has frequently been criticized for directing funds to regime change efforts in Iran, and the group says it has “provided a pretext for distrust and suspicion, leading to narrowing of space for independent civil society.”  Both governments should allow civil society members to cooperate without interference, the group says, and the first step for the US is to abolish the fund.  Step one for the Iranian government is to release its political prisoners accused of spying for the US, according to the letter. 

Additionally, the group requests an easing of US sanctions against Iran, saying the best way to promote people-to-people collaboration is to “step aside and let the scholars and civil society members work without restrictions.”

The full text of the letter is available below: 


Message of peace and friendship to the people of United States of America Request for the Congress and President of USA

We are a group of independent Iranian civil society representatives engaged in scientific and humanitarian work in our country. Some of us are also engaged in social service activities beyond our borders. While working for common causes, we often hold hands with civil society partners from other parts of the world, including members of the US scientific and civil society community. Because of the many compatriots we have in your country, we feel a special human bond linking us together. We are non-partisan and have no political agenda.

We extend our warm greetings to the people of America and wish peace, friendship and prosperity for all. We hope logic, reason and justice will prevail and remove the dark clouds casting a shadow and constraining communications and collaboration between us.

We want to look beyond troubling issues such as the US intervention that toppled the democratically elected popular government of Mossadeq and the drama of hostage taking of US diplomats by Iranian students. We want to look at the positive responses and deep empathy shown by people of the two countries, when Iran faced the aftermath of the Bam earthquake tragedy and US faced the consequences of the manmade disaster of September 11.

We are confident that our message will be heeded. Our request to the US Congress and to the US President is to scrap the fund for promoting democracy in Iran. This will pave the way for us to strengthen our bonds for people to people cooperation between America and Iran, WITHOUT INTERFERENCE OF GOVERNMENTS OF BOTH SIDES. Yes, we are confident that we can achieve what both governments have declared as intentions, but have failed to achieve in practice.

How Iranians look at the fund:

(a) Iran has had a sad history of external interference. Iranians have deep suspicion of any foreign inspired initiative. No credible civil society member would want to be associated with such a fund. Even opposition figures and prominent democracy and human rights activists in Iran have called for the termination of the democracy promotion program.

(b) The fund has undermined Iran’s home grown civil society initiatives.  It has fueled paranoia of US and Israel conspiracies to undermine political stability bring about regime change and install a pro-American government. Thus, the fund has provided a pretext for distrust and suspicion, leading to narrowing of space for independent civil society.

(c) Contrary to US laws and international norms of transparency, the recipients of the US funding are secret. Thus, those in contact with western partners are placed at risk of being treated as potential conspirators and become the target for crack down by the Iranian government.

(d) If governments of both sides are sincere about supporting people to people collaboration, the best way is for both of them to step aside and let the scholars and civil society members work without restrictions that are based on unsubstantiated suspicion, and remove legal obstacles of the sanctions, issuing of visas, etc. Terminating the democracy promotion fund is the first step for the US and releasing all people, who have been imprisoned on suspicion of connection with the US Government, is the first step for the Iranian Government. These steps will provide incentives for action by independent scholars and civil society activities. Obviously, the cooperation of the two sides must adhere to the principles of transparency, accountability and being free from any political agenda.

Here is the gist of our message:

1.      To the great people of America, which has drawn on the best of talents from all over the world, including Iranians: We extend our hands in love, friendship and cooperation, transcending differences of governments. There is much to gain from our collaboration, including infusing rationality, compassion, peace and tolerance into policies and practices of our Governments. Through our on-going dialogue, we hope together to identify people-based programs and mechanisms for collaboration. Through the wonderful centers of science and technology, and through your universities and centers of higher learning and your civil societies, we hope to give concrete shape to our mutual aspirations, which will serve not only the people of our two countries, but citizens of the whole world.

2.      To the members of Congress: As representatives of the people of America, including the large number of Iranian Americans, we look to you to support us through the power of the people you represent. We request you to encourage the Government to abolish the fund, which has caused so much pain and stress to a significant part of Iranian civil society.  Without interference or funding from the two governments, we can together develop and expand our cooperation. Governments must be facilitators and not caretakers. We also need to see easing of the severe restrictions the sanctions have placed on our mutual cooperation.

3.      To the American President:  You have declared your deep respect and affection for the Iranian people. We want to take you at your word.  So, here is a group of independent Iranians asking you:

(a)     To dismantle the fund for democracy, which has had an outcome completely opposite to your declared goals

(b)     To set up a non-partisan panel of scholars to study ways and means of easing sanctions so that independent and genuine Iranian civil society and scholars can cooperate with their US counterparts, observing universally accepted code of ethics, including transparency, accountability and partnerships based on equality and equity. We will respect international law, and the laws of both countries. What we do not like about the laws, we will try and change through non-confrontational dialogue and committed advocacy.

4.      We have used various channels to communicate with our own government:

Some of us have already engaged various state authorities in a dialogue designed to foster trust and confidence. We will hold the Government to the promises made, and accountable to the laws of Iran, including rights of citizens.

We hope our peaceful, non-confrontational discourse, free from any political motivation, will be taken seriously and we can, through strengthening of genuine and independent people to people cooperation serve the real interests of both countries.

Please address your queries to:

So far signed by:
Elham Ahmadnejad

Bijan Khajehpour

Pari Namazi

Soraya Bahmanpour

Hesam Aldin Naragi

Heliya Faezi Pour

Robabeh Sheikholeslam

Jabiz Sharifian

Setareh Forozan

Samira Farahani

Simin Hanachi

Simin Naseri

Shirin Niyazmand

Ali Ardalan

Alireza Rabiei

Fatemeh Farhang Khah

Forozan Salehi

Lili Farhadpour

Mohammad Baquer Namazi

Mohamad Ali Barzegar

Mojgan Tavakoli

Mostafa Tourabi Zadeh

Masomeh Torabi

Molouk Aziz zade

Mona Moghadaci

Naser Yousefi

Nasrin Jazani

Naghmeh Yazdanpanah

Shadi Azimi

Giti Shambayati

Yasaman Aghajani




Human Rights Situation in Iran Continues to Deteriorate, Groups Report

Washington DC – Iran continues to rank second in the world for executions, according to Amnesty International, with 317 people put to death last year. That figure nearly doubled the number of prisoners executed in Iran the previous year. Only China performed more executions in 2007.

The Defenders of Human Rights Centre, a group led by Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, said it “deplores and denounces the systematic violation of human rights in Iran.” The group also reports a decline in freedom of opinion and expression since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.

“Censorship and indirect pressure has reached the highest level,” it said, noting the forced closure of 17 publications and eight news websites, as well as the jailing of 32 media workers.

As part of its campaign of oppression, the government of Iran arrested over 100 students and scores of labor leaders. The report states: “It seems that the government and the system do not recognise any rights to protest, strikes and pursuing union rights for labourers—oppressing any move in the name of acting against national security.”

Conditions for those held in prison in Iran remain a concern. Amnesty International has challenged the harsh detention in Evin Prison of human rights defender and journalist Emadeddin Baghi. Baghi was arrested on October 14, 2007 for his activities as head of the Association for the Defence of Prisoners’ Rights and for allegedly “publishing secret government documents.” In a statement to its membership, Amnesty International said it considers him “a prisoner of conscience, held solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.”

While in prison on May 7, Baghi suffered a seizure— his third in six months. After being treated in the prison hospital, he was sent back to his cell the same day. In its statement, Amnesty expressed concern that Baghi is not receiving adequate medical treatment and that his life may be in danger.

Baghi’s most recent seizure followed an intense interrogation session that took place despite his doctors’ insistence that he recover in a calm, quiet environment free of stressful situations. Amnesty also reported that upon returning to his cell that evening, Baghi found his belongings ransacked and the file he was preparing for his defense was missing.

In related news, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence arrested six leaders of the Baha’i faith for “anti-Iranian” activities on May 14, sending them to Tehran’s Evin prison. The group makes up the remaining leadership of the “Friends of Iran,” which coordinates activities for Iran’s Baha’i community. The seventh member of the group, Mahvash Sabet, has been imprisoned since March.

In a statement, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said, “We are deeply concerned that the detention without charge of the entire Baha’i leadership is consistent with a pattern of violent and illegal persecution of Baha’is in Iran. The persecution of religious minorities will bring neither internal stability nor international security to Iran.”

NIAC board member Dokhi Fassihian called the worsening situation in Iran “very serious,” and said the US and the world “must pay greater attention to Iran’s deplorable human rights record. We cannot just focus on spinning centrifuges.”