No, Sanctions Didn’t Force Iran to Make a Deal

In what is perhaps the central myth of the Cold War, President John F. Kennedy is said to have stared down Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis and refused to give an inch, forcing the Soviet premier to capitulate to his steely will and America’s superior military might. As Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, put it in Foreign Policy, “Mythologically, Khrushchev gave everything, and Kennedy gave nothing.” This false standard, according to Gelb, became the gold standard for American statecraft going forward: Never compromise, just stare down your enemies and force them to capitulate.

In reality, of course, Kennedy did compromise. Only by quietly withdrawing its Jupiter missiles from Turkey did the United States avoid a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. But for several decades, the Kennedy administration managed to keep this essential part of the story a secret. By the time the compromise was revealed 16 years later, in a book by historian Arthur Schlesinger, the myth had grown so strong that the truth could not unseat it.

Today, another, equally destructive myth is being forged.

That myth — promoted by officials in President Barack Obama’s administration as well as powerful lawmakers like Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) — is that crippling sanctions brought the Iranian regime to its knees, forcing it to rush to the negotiating table to beg for mercy. In this narrative, the breakthrough in nuclear talks is credited to the Obama administration’s unprecedented economic pressure, which has essentially locked Iran out of the international financial system. And like JFK before him, Obama did not compromise with Iran. The mythical gold standard was met.

Except it wasn’t.

Sanctions are neither the reason for the breakthrough, nor the impetus behind the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s openness to talks. They also did not get Rouhani elected.

The idea that the United States has the ability to engineer the outcome of elections in a country that is thousands of miles away, with which it has no trade, where it has had no diplomatic presence for 35 years, and where only a handful of current U.S. diplomats have ever served or even visited, expands the concept of arrogance to new and exciting frontiers.

In reality, last year’s elections were a continuation of the fraudulent 2009 elections — some might argue, the completion of that tense chapter. Iranians wanted change in 2013, just as they did in 2009 — before the imposition of Obama’s sanctions. The last four years under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been worse than the first four. Repression had intensified, the security atmosphere in Iran made the heyday of McCarthyism look like the enlightenment, corruption and economic mismanagement was at an all-time high, and the hardliners had criminalized everything from academia to tourism. The population was suffocating. The regime had thwarted Iranians’ vote for change in 2009, and few believed they would even bother to cast their votes in 2013.

This was the critical question — voter turnout — because hardliners in Iran only tend to win elections under two circumstances: When they cheat or when they convince the population that they will cheat. In the latter case, they suppress voter turnout and enable a core group of supporters of the regime to swing the outcome of the election.

In the end, a range of forces enabled Rouhani and his political allies to convince a large portion of the electorate that hardliners simply could not repeat the charade of 2009. Reformists led by former President Mohammad Khatami and political centrists supporting former President Hashemi Rafsanjani formed an unprecedented coalition in support of Rouhani, while conservatives failed to coalesce around a single candidate of their own. The wounds of 2009 were still open, meanwhile, and internal rifts between the ruling elite suggested that the regime could not survive the delegitimizing effects of another election scandal. As a result, Rouhani could convincingly tell the crowds at numerous campaign stops that, “2013 will not be like 2009.”

As election day approached, Rouhani surged in the polls and to the surprise of many — perhaps even his team — rolled to the presidency: With 72.7 percent turnout, Rouhani won a landslide, first-round victory with 50.7 percent of the vote.

This outcome was also determined by a bit of luck. A poll conducted by Tehran University and the University of Maryland immediately after the election revealed that strategic voting by supporters of Rouhani’s rival, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, pushed Rouhani over the 50 percent mark. Since the elections were expected to go to a runoff and many Ghalibaf supporters believed he was a shoe-in for the second round, they instead cast their first-round ballots for Rouhani — their second choice — to secure a Rouhani-Ghalibaf runoff (the poll revealed that 24 percent of Rouhani voters actually preferred Ghalibaf.) But the Ghalibaf supporters overdid it. Thanks in part to their strategic voting, Rouhani managed to reach just above the 50 percent threshold, eliminating the need for a runoff. 

The Tehran University/University of Maryland poll also directly refutes the idea that sanctions got Rouhani elected: Only 2 percent of Rouhani’s supporters listed the lifting of sanctions as a reason for supporting him. Twice as many — 4 percent — voted for him because he was a clergyman. Seven percent cited his ability to fix the economy. A later poll by Zogby International revealed that three out of the five most important issues to the Iranian electorate pertained to civil liberties, while a whopping 96 percent reported that sanctions were worth it in order to retain the country’s enrichment right.

Rather than crediting sanctions for this unexpected outcome — without a shred of evidence — it should be acknowledged that Iran’s presidential election was unpredictable. The election could have easily produced a different result: What if Rouhani had surged earlier in the polls, reducing the degree of strategic voting among Ghalibaf supporters? What if Khatami had failed to convince the other reformist candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, to withdraw his candidacy and throw his support behind Rouhani? What if the conservatives had succeeded in uniting around one candidate? And most importantly, what if a greater segment of reform-minded Iranian voters had decided not to vote?

* * *

Equally questionable is the argument that sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table — or even that they are the driving force behind Rouhani’s appetite for diplomacy. Such claims ignore the fact that the team around Rouhani has had a long history of pursuing a more conciliatory policy towards the West, including on the nuclear issue.

Rouhani headed Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, the equivalent of the U.S.’s National Security Council, in 2001, when Tehran helped Washington topple the Taliban in Afghanistan. According James Dobbins, who served as President George W. Bush’s envoy to Afghanistan in the months after the 9/11 attacks, Iranprovided crucial intelligence as well as military and political support to the United States — long before any of the current sanctions were imposed. Later, it was Rouhani’s current foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who coordinated with Dobbins to secure support for the new post-Taliban constitution in Afghanistan. The Iranians hoped that their assistance in Afghanistan would open a new chapter in U.S.-Iran relations, but Bush was not interested. Instead, he included Iran in his “axis of evil,” effectively killing the collaboration in Afghanistan.

But the reform-minded team in Iran did not relent. As I describe in my 2007 book, Treacherous Alliance: the Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S., Tehran submitted a comprehensive negotiation proposal — a grand bargain — to the Bush administration in 2003. Zarif was one of the authors of that document. Among other things, Iran offered to make its nuclear program fully transparent (at the time, it had only 164 centrifuges, compared to the 19,000 it has now), disarm the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, and indirectly recognize Israel. But once again, the Bush White House rejected Iran’s outreach.

Two years later, during his last months as head of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, Rouhani made one final attempt to meet the West halfway. In March 2005, he instructed Zarif — then Iran’s U.N. ambassador — to submit to the Europeans a proposal that would have limited the number of Iranian centrifuges at 3,000. Iran negotiated directly with the EU at the time because the Bush administration refused to come to the negotiating table. But the Europeans never responded to this offer, mainly because they knew Washington would reject any deal that allowed for even one spinning centrifuge on Iranian soil. A senior official in the Obama administration told me a few months ago that the United States would jump at such a proposal today because of the significant progress the Iranian nuclear program has made since 2005 — sanctions notwithstanding.

The fact that the pragmatic faction within the Iranian government has on numerous occasions offered more attractive nuclear proposals to the West — prior to the crippling economic sanctions imposed by Obama — fundamentally undermines the notion that sanctions were needed to reach a deal.

While it is true in a limited sense that sanctions provided the United States with added leverage (assuming it can lift them as part of a deal), the other side of the equation is all too often conveniently forgotten: During this same period, Iran aggressively expanded its nuclear capabilities, which in turn provided it with added leverage over the West. Iran increased its centrifuge count from 3,000 to 19,000 and built a number of advanced centrifuges it didn’t have back in 2005. It also amassed thousands of kilograms of low enriched uranium, as well as roughly 200 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium — of which it had none prior to 2010.

If sanctions gave the United States more leverage, then it’s also true that 19,000 centrifuges gave Iran additional leverage. Indeed, some in Tehran contend that Iranian centrifuges forced the United States to the table. After all, it was the United States that for years refused to engage in negotiations with the group of world powers known as the P5+1 — not Iran.

At a minimum, the growth of Iranian capabilities limited America’s options. As one White House official who is involved in the negotiations told me, “We are negotiating because the Iranians are on the cusp of a fait accompli.”

* * *

In reality, it was neither the sanctions nor Iran’s centrifuges that produced the current breakthrough. The diplomatic opening came about for the same reason it did during the Cuban Missile crises: Both sides compromised. Tehran stopped advancing sensitive parts of its program and agreed to greater transparency. And Washington finally accepted enrichment on Iranian soil in the November 2013 interim agreement. Tehran had long insisted that if its enrichment was accepted, it would agree to transparency as well as restrictions.

For all practical purposes, accepting Iranian enrichment is the modern equivalent of removing Jupiter missiles from Turkey. If this unrealistic and legally questionable red line had been discarded earlier, the breakthrough could have been achieved much earlier — long before the Obama sanctions were imposed.

Mohamad ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has written that the “interim agreement, facilitated by Rouhani’s low-key diplomacy, could have been reached 10 years ago.” But, he added, it took the “West a decade to realize that bare-knuckle competition for regional influence was not a viable strategy for dealing with Iran.”

Obama missed one such opportunity for compromise in May 2010, when Brazil and Turkey convinced Iran to accept an American proposal to ship out 1,200 kg of its stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) in exchange for fuel pads for its Tehran Research Reactor. Despite the fact that Obama welcomed Turkey and Brazil’s efforts and spelled out the specific conditions Iran needed to accept in a letter dated April 20, 2010 — all of which Tehran accepted — the United States reneged on its promise and rejected its own proposal.

There were numerous reasons Obama chose to reject the Tehran Declaration, as the Turkish-Brazilian deal came to be called, but perhaps the two most important ones were the unstoppable momentum of sanctions and the issue of Iranian enrichment.

After the failure of the 2009 nuclear negotiations, support for sanctions on Capitol Hill was strong and growing. The Obama administration chose not to oppose this pressure, but rather to delay until it had first secured a U.N. Security Council resolution imposing sanctions. Unbeknownst to Brazil and Turkey, Russia and China approved a sanctions resolution one day before the negotiations with Tehran were due to begin. Once the deal was reached, Obama had to choose between a diplomatic breakthrough and sanctions.

He chose sanctions.

Obama feared that even if he accepted the Tehran Declaration, Congress would still impose sanctions. That would have complicated matters and broken the unity Obama had carefully forged in the U.N. Security Council against Iran. A senior Obama official told me that Congress was coming at the administration “like a steam roller” and that Obama simply lacked the political space to take “yes” for an answer from Iran.

But sanctions were never necessary to get Iran to agree to a deal. Rather, sanctions were needed to pacify domestic political forces in the United States and to give Obama the space he needed to pursue diplomacy down the road. Sanctions were in this regard a domestic-policy tool, not a foreign-policy tool.

The second reason Obama chose to reject the Tehran Declaration was that it explicitly recognized Iran’s right to enrich. Even though accepting the declaration would not have made the United States a party to it, the White House feared it would violate America’s long-standing “red line” on enrichment in Iran — the same red line Obama wisely shelved in 2013 in order to get a deal with Tehran.

Yet the myth that sanctions produced the current diplomatic breakthrough persists. Lawmakers continue to argue for more sanctions, even though such action would cause the talks to collapse, claiming that since sanctions brought Iran to the table, more sanctions will give the United States even more leverage.

If the myth of the sanctions success prevails, American foreign policy will be led down a perilous path. A false and dangerous blueprint for dealing with proliferators and international disputes in general will emerge: Forget diplomacy, never compromise, impose sanctions, threaten war — and hope for the best.

With Iran, thanks to the quiet compromise on enrichment, war is more distant than ever since the crises erupted. The world may not be as lucky next time it goes down an all-out sanctions path.

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

Is Washington Prepared for an Iran Nuclear Deal?

Obama Congress

By the time U.S. and Iranian negotiators meet again in May, we may be just two months away from a potential resolution to the decade-long nuclear dispute. While the toughest issues remain on the horizon, many (including none other than David Petraeus) have sounded a note of confidence that there will be a final agreement by July 20.

If so, we better prepare for what happens after a deal. As difficult as these negotiations have been and will continue to be in the weeks ahead, things will not get any easier when the parties return home to sell a final agreement to their respective hardliners.

The Sanctions Problem

Here in the United States, the ‘sell’ will be doubly difficult, as it is not just the rhetorical angst of the Iran-hawks on Capitol Hill that will need to be countered, but also the series of laws enacted by Congress that limit the President’s power to provide Iran necessary sanctions relief for a deal.

According to the Joint Plan of Action agreed to in November, the P5+1 will begin lifting all nuclear-related sanctions in a final deal in return for strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program. However, under U.S. law, the President only has discretion to issue time-limited waivers for the sanctions and little power to actually lift the sanctions altogether.

Without an act of Congress, the President will have to issue a waiver every four-to-six months in order to provide sanctions relief—providing opponents of a deal a regular schedule of opportunities to re-litigate the merits of a deal and sabotage the agreement. While this juggling-act might be sustainable so long as President Obama resides in office, his successor’s willingness to do so is far from certain. Would anybody expect a President Ted Cruz to continue issuing Iran sanctions waivers?

This kind of uncertainty means that U.S. negotiators have less to offer Iran and can thus demand less in return, leading to a weaker deal that will be criticized by hardliners who will bemoan their side’s limited gains and inflate the concessions their negotiators granted.

Furthermore, limiting the President’s power to terminate the sanctions jeopardizes U.S. compliance with a final agreement and, in turn, undermines the United States’ ability to secure Iran’s sustained adherence. If there are questions about U.S. ability to implement sanctions relief under a final deal, Iran will act as any rational actor and hedge its bets. And once both sides start to play this game, the nuclear deal that the parties have worked so hard to forge will erode as the mistrust that has long plagued U.S.-Iranian relations reasserts itself.

What’s the Fix?

U.S. and Iranian negotiators have sought to structure a final deal in such a way as to mitigate the mistrust as far as feasible, which is why a final deal will involve a “reciprocal, step-by-step process”—where a schedule outlines the timeline by which the P5+1 will lift nuclear-related sanctions in return for Iran’s verifiable implementation of limits on its nuclear program.

In order to secure the strongest limits on Iran’s nuclear program and ensure Iran’s sustained compliance, Congress should provide the President with the requisite authorities to lift all nuclear-related sanctions based on this schedule, so long as Iran upholds its own commitments under the deal.

This would balance two competing demands: Presidential flexibility and Congressional oversight. The President would have the flexibility to meet U.S. obligations to trade-in sanctions relief for Iranian nuclear concessions, and Congress would be well situated to take action should Iran be found in material breach of the agreement.

No other solution is so well suited to satisfy inter-branch competition, all the while addressing the ultimate goal: Iran as a non-nuclear-weapon state.

The Politics of Sanctions Relief

For some, the prospect of involving Congress in a final nuclear deal with Iran is an unsavory one. They are reminded that some in the Senate offered a bill, S.1881, which would have violated the interim nuclear deal by imposing new sanctions. While supporters of the measure claimed it would only be triggered by an Iranian violation of the preliminary deal, this was false. A Republican staffer later admitted that the certification requirements embedded in the bill would have led to sanctions being implemented—killing the deal.

However, Congress is likely to take action one way or another if a final deal is inked. Those who prefer a diplomatic agreement to military conflict must take the driver’s seat and prepare for success. A legislative vehicle that delegates necessary authority to the President to implement a deal, while retaining a legitimate oversight role for Congress, has all the merits of a successful political compromise that advances global nonproliferation goals.

Jamal Abdi is the Policy Director at the National Iranian American Council. Tyler Cullis is a Policy Associate at the National Iranian American Council.

 

View article at The National Interest

On Iran, Give Obama Some Credit

President Obama has handled diplomacy well since Hassan Rouhani won Iran’s June 2013 presidential election. If anything, Obama has not received enough credit for being thoughtful, measured, and willing to become progressively bolder on the diplomatic front in line with events transpiring in Iran.

With the third round of nuclear negotiations in Vienna now in the books, most of the headlines surrounding U.S.-Iran relations are rightly focused on the challenges that lie ahead. Reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal by the mutually agreed upon July 20 deadline is doable – but it will be no small task. The likelihood of multiple meetings at the political directors level in July (and perhaps even June) is well within the realm of possibility. The more time goes by, however, the higher the likelihood that negotiations in Vienna will soon resemble the fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat diplomacy that secured the interim nuclear deal in Geneva.

As negotiators race to the finish line, the focus on sanctions and centrifuges will only increase. But to truly appreciate the very real viability of a comprehensive nuclear deal, it is important to take a deep breath, step back a few steps, and look at where the United States and Iran are today compared to where they were less than a year ago.

After 34 years of trading insults and threats, Washington and Tehran are talking seriously. They agreed to an interim nuclear deal, and are verifiably following through on their respective commitments. These are major achievements.

Putting aside three decades of hostility and suspicion remains a work in progress, and the United States holds an equal share of responsibility in achieving this. But President Obama has handled diplomacy well since Hassan Rouhani won Iran’s June 2013 presidential election. If anything, Obama has not received enough credit for being thoughtful, measured, and willing to become progressively bolder on the diplomatic front in line with events transpiring in Iran.

A few key points stand out:

1) Obama Seized the Moment

When opportunity presented itself in Iran, Obama had the confidence and judgment to develop and enact new policies. He made a conscious decision to use diplomacy to solve conflict peacefully and, so far, the results have been promising and unprecedented.

No less important is what Obama has not done. Since Rouhani’s election, he has resisted playing politics with the Iran issue at home, even pushing back against Congress when it tried to torpedo diplomacy with new sanctions. Instead, Obama has taken a long-term view. Looking over the current horizon, he has reminded people there are critical issues facing the two countries, and that the United States must be able to find a time and a place to discuss those issues – with whatever government is in Tehran.

2) Obama Didn’t Lose His Cool

We have also learned that Obama can produce foreign policy success even when the stakes are high. As negotiations with Iran gained momentum, the president displayed sound judgment in situations where information was scarce and conditions were sometimes changing by the hour. Negotiations in Geneva are a poignant example. In the midst of chaos and uncertainty, Obama clearly and concisely navigated through the murkiest of situations.

In this way, Obama’s clear-eyed diplomacy is the essence of what we should expect from an American president. As the political dynamics in Iran shifted, so too did the tenor and substance of the president’s diplomacy – all the while keeping his sights firmly on U.S. interests the entire time.

Will Obama’s diplomacy produce immediate, lasting results? Probably not, but no one should disregard its efficacy. His efforts at the negotiating table have already proven far more effective than any amount of sanctions and “red lines” that the Iranians have consistently pushed back against.

3) Obama Played the Respect Card – And It Worked

Perhaps most tellingly, Obama has started to build a reservoir of credibility with Iran that has been non-existent for 34 years. But it was not the oft-repeated “all options are on the table” mantra that broke the ice. Instead, Obama earned credibility by demonstrating to his counterparts in Tehran that their views are heard and respected in Washington.

Obama has finally acknowledged publicly what many (probably including himself) have long known to be true: For any deal to stick, Iran also needs to be able to sell it as its own victory at home. Respecting Iran has manifested itself in Obama’s stated willingness to craft a comprehensive nuclear deal that allows Iran to make three important claims: “We protected our rights,” “We protected our dignity,” and “We didn’t give in.”

Nobody knows how the diplomatic process will play out. But it is clearer today than ever before that whatever happens, Obama must keep his sights on America’s longer-term interest of preventing war with Iran and resolving our problems peacefully through diplomacy.  Ultimately, America’s goal should be reconciliation – not with any particular politician or political faction in Iran, but with the Iranian nation.  By taking political risks and creating political space, Obama has preserved America’s flexibility and kept our sights set on doing exactly that.

There is a real chance that a deal can be made to solve the nuclear crisis peacefully. But it is going to take time, and it is going to take a lot of patience. The cardinal rule of diplomacy is simple but important to bear in mind: Whatever you are going to do is going to take longer than you think. And it is going to be harder than you think. The moment of truth will eventually come, and Obama (as well as his Iranian counterparts) will have to make tough decisions on whether to make painful compromises for peace. But overcoming obstacles that bewildered the five American presidents before him to reach the moment of truth is a victory that should not go unnoticed.

This article originally appeared in Muftah.

Lessons Learned From Successful Iran Diplomacy

geneva

Despite warnings that the first-step nuclear deal with Iran is a “historic mistake,” it is safe to say that the sky is not falling. In fact, at the halfway mark of the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action, it is clear that Iran is upholding its commitments — and is actually ahead of schedule in eliminating its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium.Progress toward a final deal also continues. On May 13 in Vienna, political directors from Iran and the members of the United Nations Security Council will meet for a possible seven- to 10-day marathon session where they will begin drafting the text of a final agreement. And despite the relative quiet surrounding the talks, it appears that the sides are finding common ground on some of the most difficult issues. For example, recent reports indicate that Iran has proposed altering the design of the Arak heavy water reactor to greatly reduce its potential plutonium output, a major potential concession. Former Gen. David Petraeus now even puts the odds of striking a deal above 50 percent, potentially within three months from now.

With all of this positive momentum toward a final deal, the skeptics’ continued warnings and calls for ever-increasing pressure look increasingly out of place. As a result, it is worth reevaluating the cynicism surrounding the negotiations and putting forward new conclusions based upon the diplomatic track record.

Iran Responds to Flexibility, Not Pressure

The threat of increasing sanctions, backed by a threat of military action, has been a constant over the past decade. Therefore, assuming that Iran finally gave in to the pressure is a somewhat dubious assertion. However, the diplomatic equation has changed recently in several significant ways, including a political opening in Iran following the election of President Hassan Rouhani, a pause on new unilateral U.S. sanctions that provided space for negotiations and newfound negotiating flexibility from the Obama administration.

This latter point deserves additional consideration. The Obama administration made two key concessions in the JPOA that were far more significant than the limited, reversible and largely symbolic sanctions relief that has been provided.

First, the Obama administration abandoned the unrealistic and unattainable “zero enrichment” demand by agreeing that Iran would be able to maintain a “mutually defined enrichment program,” upon the conclusion of the diplomatic process.

Second, it agreed that a final nuclear deal would result in the lifting of all UN, multilateral and national “nuclear-related sanctions.” With a concrete view of an acceptable end game, Iran was able to agree to significant concessions in the JPOA — such as eliminating its 20 percent enrichment. This newfound flexibility was likely far more responsible for diplomatic progress than finding the appropriate level of economic punishment. As a result, calls for additional pressure should be ignored.

The U.S. Could Be Less Likely to Uphold a Final Deal Than Iran

The International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed in monthly reports and recent statements that Iran is implementing the terms it agreed upon in the JPOA — all despite the failure of Iran hawks to pass new sanctions.

This has left opponents of diplomacy grasping for straws. A rumored oil-for-goods deal between Russia and Iran would not be an Iranian violation of the nuclear deal, as some have claimed, because Iran is under no obligation to self-enforce unilateral U.S. sanctions.

While complications could still arise in implementation, there are strong consequences if Iran violates the agreement: The potential failure of diplomacy, the likelihood of increasing economic pressure and renewed consideration of military action.

Further, recent complications in ensuring that Iran receives unfrozen oil revenues under the JPOA foreshadows the much more difficult challenge of lifting sanctions in a final agreement. While the president maintains limited waiver authorities, he does not have the power to lift sanctions unilaterally. That authority rests with Congress, which to date has been more interested in piling on sanctions than removing them. As the JPOA indicates that all nuclear-related sanctions will be lifted in a final deal, there are serious questions as to whether Congress and the administration can work in concert to uphold America’s end of the bargain.

Nuclear Talks Aren’t About Trust, But Verification

Ignore all of the complaints about how we can’t trust Iran. With limitations to Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intrusive inspections, we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes — or detect any Iranian move to break out with sufficient time to respond. If you distrust Iran, you should be for the stringent inspections provided under the JPOA and the expansion of authorities for international inspectors in any final deal. After all, no Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty state under this level of IAEA inspection has ever clandestinely broken out and obtained a nuclear weapon.

Further, Iran’s recent diplomacy reflects the polar opposite of a state pursuing nuclear weapons. By inviting inspectors in and agreeing to limitations on its nuclear program, Iran is drastically reducing the chances of a successful breakout. A comprehensive deal would only diminish those chances further.

A Final Nuclear Deal Can Be Struck Within Six Months

There have been numerous distractions over the past three months, including Iran nominating a UN ambassador that served as a translator during the Iran hostage crisis — a formative event for many Americans’ negative perceptions of Iran — and the United States then rejecting that nomination in an apparent violation of international law.

However, these distractions have not yet derailed the negotiating process or diverted the parties from their main goal of striking a nuclear deal. This is likely because all parties know that they have never been this close to reaching agreement. If each side stays on track, there is every reason to believe that an agreeable solution can be struck before the July 20 deadline of the JPOA.

There is, of course, a possibility that the JPOA will need to be extended in three months. While the national security benefits of doing so are clear, an extension would open up an opportunity for opponents on each side to attack the deal and push forward poison pills — such as new U.S. sanctions or restrictions on sanctions relief. Rather than exert additional political capital on fighting domestic opponents yet again, the United States and Iran would be wise to preserve that capital for upholding a deal by reaching agreement by July 20, if possible.

This article originally appeared on Roll Call.

Why the GCC Should Welcome Iran Nuclear Talks

Today, diplomats from Iran and the P5+1 will meet to continue negotiations over Iran’s disputed nuclear programme. While most countries have welcomed this diplomacy, opposition to talks has primarily come from Israel and some GCC states. This opposition, however, is mistaken. In reality, the region will be a key beneficiary from a successful nuclear deal. Here’s why.

Contrary to the unfounded nightmare scenarios floating around, a deal would not leave Iran with an undetectable breakout capability. Through inspections and transparency measures, the international community would immediately be alerted if Iran’s nuclear activities were diverted towards military use, providing ample time to react and prevent it.

Eliminating the path to proliferation in Iran would also halt a nuclear arms race in the region. These are obvious benefits that should not be easily dismissed.

Equally important is that a deal also would prevent war with Iran. Short-sighted analyses claiming that “cutting the head of the snake” is a risk worth taking are sorely mistaken. In fact, the consequences of a US military confrontation with Iran, where Tehran would seek an edge by expanding the theatre to war to engulf the entire region, are particularly grave for the GCC states.

The open economies of the GCC states are particularly sensitive to regional instability. Moreover, if attacked, Iranian military commanders and politicians have hinted that Tehran might expand the war into the GCC states, just as Iraq expanded the war into Saudi Arabia in 1991. Even if such a strategy would not fully succeed, the instability could lead to a major exodus of the skilled foreign work force, without whom the GCC economies cannot function.

Some voices in the GCC have argued that military action against Iran is needed to restore the regional balance, which was thrown off by the US invasion of Iraq. Disregarding the advise from the GCC states, former president George W. Bush recklessly invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and unchained Iran from the two regimes that kept it in check, the argument goes. The ensuing rise in Iranian power ignited a regional power struggle with Saudi Arabia and other GCC states, which further destabilised the Middle East. The only solution, these voices maintain, is to undo the first mistake (the unleashing of Iran) by cutting the country down to size through military action.

But thinking that war would neatly resurrect the pre-2003 regional balance is as foolish as thinking that invading Iraq would bring democracy to the Middle East. One cannot mock the strategic ineptitude of the Bush administration’s Iraq war while urging the Obama administration to commit an even greater mistake by bombing Iran.

Similarly, the fear that a successful nuclear accord would lead to a US-Iran love fest is off the mark for two simple reasons. First, there is no desire for a Persian pivot in Washington as long as the Islamic Republic exists. Second, the Islamic Republic has no desire for such a relationship with the US as long as Washington seeks hegemony in the Middle East.

Tehran will not compete with Riyadh, Ankara and Tel Aviv to become Washington’s regional best friend. Rather, even after a nuclear accord, Tehran will continue to position itself as a challenger of the American order — even though its new rivalry with Washington will likely be friendlier and encompass both tactical and strategic cooperation.

Perhaps the most common fear in some quarters in the GCC is not that Iran and the US would become allies, but that the nuclear negotiations indicate that the US is withdrawing from the region and abandoning its objective to balance Iran. Consequently, the nuclear talks will further weaken US leadership in the region, followed by de facto acquiescence to Iran’s geopolitical advances. The “unleashing of Iran” will be accepted, endorsed and made permanent, it is feared.

But if the aim is to make US leadership sustainable, then a fundamental reality must be recognised: The less costly the American order is, the more durable it will be. Rest assure, the US public is strongly against engaging in more wars in the region and if US leadership means that America has to commit further blood and treasure for the Middle East, then an actual exit from the region will actually become more — not less — likely.

While the positives of a US-Iran war have been exaggerated at times, the positive regional impact of a nuclear accord has largely been neglected. Iran’s regional politics will not shift positively following a nuclear deal, it’s been assumed. Iran may become more aggressive following a thaw with the US, but it won’t become more cooperative and reconciliatory.

This skewed outlook neglects two critical factors. First, if the nuclear deal is followed by Iran’s political and economic rehabilitation in the region and globally, then the cost of Iran pursuing an adventurous and destabilising foreign policy will increase significantly. Compared to today, Iran will have something to lose in this scenario. This will likely temper Tehran’s appetite for regional conflicts.

Second, a nuclear deal will significantly enhance the influence of moderate elements in Iran’s political system. These moderate elements have long sought a more reconciliatory regional policy and did successfully take Iran in that direction under former president Mohammad Khatami. Many officials in the GCC told me during the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad era that they longed for the Iran that existed under Khatami. A nuclear deal can bring about exactly that.

Which brings us to the perhaps most important outcome of a nuclear deal: The opportunity to neutralise the primary driver behind the sectarian flames that are engulfing the region. While sectarianism may take on a life of its own, it is at its root more a symptom of a deep geopolitical conflict in the region than the cause of it. A critical step towards ending sectarian strife in the region is to resolve the geopolitical tensions underlying and fuelling it.

A nuclear deal that stops proliferation, evades war, reorients Iran in a more conciliatory direction, and increases interactions that make conflict more costly, can achieve just that.

This article originally appeared in Gulf News. 

Congress Urges President to Ensure Sanctions Do Not Block Medicine for Iranians

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jamal Abdi
Phone: 202-386-6408
Email: jabdi@niacouncil.org
 
Jim Moran, Mark Warner, Gerald Connolly
 

Washington, DC – The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) commends Rep. James Moran (D-VA) and all twenty-one Members of Congress who sent a letter to President Obama today supporting necessary action to ensure medicine and humanitarian goods are not unintentionally blocked for the Iranian people. NIAC strongly supported the letter and has consistently worked to raise awareness regarding the impact of sanctions on the Iranian people.

“A large portion of the Iranian people are open to western ideas and the modern world. For the long run peace prospects, the U.S. is better served by balancing the need for sanctions with the humanitarian needs of the Iranian people,” said Rep. Moran. “The sanctions were not meant to block the Iranian people, who suffer under a repressive regime, access to food and medicine.  We ask President Obama to ensure that medicine and humanitarian related transactions are not affected by the ongoing sanctions.”

While humanitarian goods have been exempted from Iran sanctions by the White House and Congress, extensive financial sanctions have restricted banking channels necessary for humanitarian transactions, particularly pharmaceuticals solely produced in the United States and other Western countries.  This, in addition to extensive economic mismanagement by Iran’s government, has led to shortages of drugs that treat cancer, hemophilia and other life-threatening illnesses.

“Many Iranian Americans have family in Iran that are suffering as a direct result of sanctions and are hopeful that recent diplomatic progress will bring about change,” said NIAC Policy Director Jamal Abdi. “In the meantime, it is critical that Congress and the Administration work to ensure sanctions do not continue blocking medicine and humanitarian goods for the Iranian people.”

The preliminary nuclear agreement brokered by the P5+1 and Iran included an agreement to establish a financial channel to facilitate humanitarian trade; however, medicine shortages have continued in part due to extensive financial sanctions on Iran and the reported unwillingness of banks to facilitate legal, humanitarian transactions.

View the letter…

Signers:

Rep. James P. Moran (D-VA)
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR)
Rep. Andre Carson (D-IN)
Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO)
Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI)
Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-OR)
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN)
Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA)
Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-AZ)
Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ)
Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-CA)
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA)
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA)
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN)
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA)
Rep. James P. McGovern (D-MA)
Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-NY)
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX)
Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME)
Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-NY)
Rep. Janice D. Schakowsky (D-IL)

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The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the interests of the Iranian-American community. We accomplish our mission by supplying the resources, knowledge and tools to enable greater civic participation by Iranian Americans and informed decision-making by policymakers.

Image via AP

Why the Saudis Are Panicking

As President Barack Obama must have noticed during his visit, there is a panicky tone to almost everything the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does these days, whether it’s campaigning for two years to win a coveted seat on the UN Security Council only to give it up immediately after the vote, or its public pronouncements of going it alone in the chaos of Syria, or its break with its fellow Arab state Qatar, or the closing of the Al Jazeera office in Riyadh, or the banning of the books of renowned Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish. Or, of course, its opposition to diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program and the prospects of a US-Iranian thaw.

Riyadh’s opposition to the Iran nuclear talks has largely been understood in the context of the larger Saudi-Iranian and Sunni-Shia rivalry. Consequently, Saudi’s negative reaction was predictable, the argument goes. The Saudi royal house would undoubtedly not sit idly by as its regional rival negotiated its way out of harsh sanctions and into a potential US-Iranian rapprochement that could pave the way for an American tilt towards Tehran—all at the expense of Saudi interests.

But the intensity of Riyadh’s reaction cannot be explained solely through the kingdom’s displeasure at Tehran’s diplomatic advances. In fact, the unprecedented opening between the US and Iran is arguably only the tip of the iceberg of Saudi Arabia’s growing list of concerns. Numerous geopolitical trends in the last decade have evolved in opposition to Saudi interests. Much indicates that it is the combination of these factors, rather than just Saudi displeasure with US-Iranian diplomacy, that best explain the erratic behavior of the House of Saud.

Consider the following developments. First, the United States has significantly increased its own oil production and reduced its dependence on Saudi oil. Driven by a boom in shale oil production, America’s crude output has surged at record speeds in recent years. Last year, production rose a stunning 15 percent—the fastest absolute annual growth in any country in twenty years. According to the International Energy Agency, the United States will overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil producer as early as 2015.

The official Saudi line reads that OPEC had survived past increases in production from countries outside OPEC, and that Saudi does not worry about the America’s growing output. But some important voices in Saudi Arabia publicly disagree, charactering the US’s declining dependence on Saudi crude as “an inevitable threat.”

Indeed, being a dominant producer on the oil market has provided the kingdom with vital political influence. The US’s growing output is a direct strategic threat to that influence, according to some in Saudi.

Secondly, the Arab uprisings—and the Obama administration’s reaction to those—have further added distance between Riyadh and Washington. Saudi Arabia was vehemently against the anti-Mubarak rallies in Egypt and viewed Obama’s shift to the side of the Tahrir square protesters as a betrayal. For decades, an understanding reigned supreme between the United States and its regional Arab allies: The Arab autocracies would help ensure stability in the region and on the oil market, and in return the US would protect the states and as well as their regimes.

But since the Arab Spring, a common view in the Middle East—not just in Saudi—is that the US has betrayed this arrangement and abandoned its allies. From the US perspective, however, the Obama administration simply saw the writing on the wall: Most Arab autocracies were quickly reaching their expiration dates and the demands of the populations for greater governance, freedom and rights were both justified and unstoppable.

The new reality is that in spite of Riyadh’s massive arms purchase from the US, Washington will likely not come to its aid if the Arab spring reaches Saudi. This means that a critical avenue for Saudi Arabia to ensure regime survival is in jeopardy—at best—or, at worst, lost.

Thirdly, to make matters worse, a succession crisis looms in the Kingdom. A successor and a third in line for the throne have been appointed, but their reigns are not likely to be long due to their old age. In the next few years, the throne is likely to pass to the third generation of descendants of the kingdom’s founder Abdulaziz ibn Saud. Even under the best circumstances, such a generational shift can carry complications. In these sensitive geopolitical times, the House of Saud cannot afford a protracted succession crisis while also facing the pressure of the Arab spring, Sunni-Shia tensions in its Eastern province—and the uncertainty of American protection.

Which brings us to the fourth factor: America’s pivot to the east. Whether it is progressing at the pace originally intended or not, the reality is that the Obama administration has decided to reduce America’s military footprint in the Middle East and avoid getting dragged into any additional ground wars there. In the eyes of some in Riyadh (and Tel Aviv), the Obama administration has relinquished its responsibility to uphold order in the region and abandoned its allies to meet their fates alone.

From Washington’s perspective, the real strategic challenge to the US will come in Asia, not the Middle East. Further military entanglement in the Arab world will only undermine the US’s ability to handle future crises in East Asia.

In practical terms, this means that the United States likely will not intervene in Syria militarily—much to Riyadh’s chagrin—or put military assets at the disposal of its allies to fight their own regional rivals. The Obama administration is not going to permit its allies to use the United States as a proxy.

On top of all of this, US-Iranian diplomacy may lead to the unchaining of Iran. Tehran might break out of its isolation, be rehabilitated into the region’s political and economic structures, which in turn can enable it to legitimize its geopolitical gains in the region. A new regional order may emerge, one in which Washington will quietly accept Iran’s advances.

Had US-Iranian diplomacy made headway under former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami—at a time when Saudi-Iranian relations were warming—Riyadh would likely still have been hesitant and anxious. It would have cautiously welcomed the thaw, while remaining concerned about how US-Iranian rapprochement would affect its interest. But there would not have been any of the current overreactions. The Saudi panic is more likely rooted in its fears about the broader geopolitical trends in the region, of which US-Iranian rapprochement is one of many concerning trends to Riyadh.

Ultimately, finding a new regional equilibrium that enjoys Saudi buy-in is critical. Saudi Arabia is an important state in the region for both economic and religious reasons. Just as the containment of Iran has become a source of instability in the region, any move that would push Saudi towards greater extremism would ill serve the region. Just like Iran, Saudi Arabia must be part of the solution. In particular, Riyadh has the ability and the responsibility to defuse sectarian strife.

Panic, however, will bring Saudi Arabia no closer to such objectives.

This article originally appeared in The National Interest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post.

In Vienna, U.S. and Iran Building a Recipe for Success

As the latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) came to a close here in Vienna, one thing stood out above all else: the two sides are equally invested in building a recipe for success.

With each round of talks, Iranian and Western negotiators dive deeper into the details and substance of key technical issues — some of which had never truly been discussed. Enrichment and sanctions are important, but they are also recurring themes. More tellingly, issues such as civil nuclear cooperation and Iran’s heavy water reactor — topics that were once deemed too contentious to touch — are now being negotiated.

Contrary to popular assumption, there are solutions for all of the technical problems that must be solved to reach a comprehensive deal. As negotiations continue into the summer and approach the finish line, the true challenge will be twofold: mustering the political will necessary to take ‘yes’ for an answer, and crafting a win-win framework that allows both sides to sell the deal in their respective capitals. Looking ahead, finding a recipe for success will likely require three important steps.

1) Keep Developing Empathy

Before negotiations in Geneva and Vienna commenced, there was zero empathy in Washington and Tehran — both wittingly and unwittingly. As talks have progressed since last October, the two sides have both taken steps to build confidence, and in turn a greater degree of empathy is emerging. According to stakeholders from both sides, this will be critical to success. “For too long, we’ve been running against a mindset that is entirely focused on us,” a senior Western official told me. “This ignores the fact that there are critical dynamics that we don’t control or have the ability to independently shape.”

Being able to identify with the feelings, thoughts and attitudes of the other side demonstrates why personalities are such an important component of diplomacy. A senior Iranian official drove this point home: “Both sides have actors that only see zero-sum games and don’t understand the need to concede to show sincerity.” Bilateral meetings between the American and Iranian delegations at the political and expert level are a key example of steps taken to compensate for the lack of empathy.

With each passing meeting, both sides walk away with a clearer understanding of what the other side wants, which in turn helps develop over time the empathy that is necessary for successful diplomacy. “You can’t define ways to build confidence that will be attractive to the other side without input from the other side on what’s important and attractive to them,” a senior Iranian official told me. “Sitting across the table from one another is not the same as communicating and understanding one another.”

2) The Greater Power Must Bend

Both Washington and Tehran have acknowledged making progress in identifying where gaps in their respective positions exist, as well as working to bridge those gaps. With that in mind, it came as no surprise that Iranian officials insisted Washington must make a grand gesture for a comprehensive deal to succeed. However, the number of Western stakeholders that shared this sentiment was eye opening.

To that end, a key takeaway came from this round of negotiations in Vienna: The U.S. must be willing to lose small in order to win big. “The greater power has to bend,” a Western official insisted. “We must take steps that are large enough to convince both skeptics and pro-engagement camps in Tehran that we’re serious. It’s alarming that this seems out of our ability today.”

One of his counterparts was even more candid: “The U.S. and EU are being less than honest when they say that the ball is in Iran’s court,” he told me. “After we bend, it becomes much easier for the Iranians to follow suit and secure a comprehensive deal. And let’s be honest: Unless it’s made in Washington, it’s not going to run.” These seasoned troubleshooters make a compelling point. The U.S. should project the dignity and poise of a superpower, rather than take its cues from Iran — or any outside actors.

3) Bring in Congress and the Majles – Slowly.

Precisely because the American and Iranian negotiating teams must be able to sell a comprehensive nuclear deal at home, they must begin laying the groundwork now. Discretion has been integral to the success of diplomacy thus far. Multiple direct, senior-level meetings and consultations were either private or full-blown secret. This was critical to overriding many of the common pitfalls that media attention and political infighting bring.

Going forward, efforts should slowly be made to bring the U.S. Congress and Iranian Majles into the process. Both negotiating teams are already providing briefings to their counterparts in the legislative branch, but these power centers will eventually need to be included in the diplomatic process for a comprehensive deal to be reached. Just as no country expects to sign a significant deal with the U.S. without addressing the concerns of the executive and legislative branches, no major decision is likely to be made in Iran unless a range of key stakeholders are brought into the discussion.

To be clear: Now is not the time to involve legislators in both countries that have actively sought to torpedo negotiations. But waiting until July could exacerbate problems rather than solve them. As the summer approaches, it will be critical for Presidents Obama and Rouhani to systematically peel off skeptics and fence-sitters until they have built legislative coalitions that can help deliver their respective country’s end of the bargain. Because this process will not be immediate, negotiators must invest the requisite time, so that legislators’ inclination to scuttle a deal that they were not a part of is neutralized.

Negotiators on both sides deserve credit. They are taking the necessary time to really understand each other and have discussions at an unprecedented level of depth. Because these negotiations are a herculean task, the process moved along as far as it could over the past few days for what Washington and Tehran are trying to achieve. A senior Western official didn’t mince her words: “People understand the stakes are pretty profound. So there is a sense of the tremendous responsibility that’s on people’s shoulders.”

With that in mind, policymakers and pundits should focus their efforts over the next few months on finding creative, win-win solutions that can help diplomacy succeed. Why? Because as the aforementioned senior Western official alluded to: When you eliminate diplomacy, you make war inevitable.

This article originally appear in Huffington Post.

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

Healthy norooz

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

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

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

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

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

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

sign our med letter

 

U.S.-Iran Diplomacy Now Stronger Than Netanyahu’s Pressure

OBAMA-Y-NETANYAHU-FRENTE-A-FRENTE

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE


Contact: Jamal Abdi
Phone: 202-386-6408
Email: jabdi@niacouncil.org

Washington, DC – Three Congressional letters are being sent to the President regarding nuclear negotiations with Iran. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) is pleased that Congress is not passing sanctions or measures that will restrict negotiators. The new political reality in Washington is that there is overwhelming support for a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear standoff with Iran and efforts to undermine negotiations have proven unsuccessful.

“The status quo, in which Netanyahu visits Washington, addresses AIPAC, and Congress agrees to slap new sanctions on Iran, has been turned on its head,” said NIAC Policy Director Jamal Abdi. “The White House, leaders in Congress, outside organizations, and the American people have all put their foot down and said that we don’t want a war and more sanctions, we want to give diplomacy a chance.”

Of the three letters being sent, NIAC opposed one but remained neutral on the others because the letters met key principles outlined in ajoint organizational letter and in correspondence between NIAC and members of Congress.

The letter opposed by NIAC, led by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Menendez and Senator Graham, includes guidelines for negotiations that can easily be construed by opponents of a diplomatic solution to force the U.S. to violate the terms of the preliminary agreement. NIAC urges those who signed the letter to clarify that this letter does not require zero enrichment or dismantlement of a civilian Iranian nuclear program, and that they do not support a vote on new Iran sanctions.

Conversely, while NIAC had concerns with some language in letters organized in the House by Majority Leader Cantor and Minority Whip Hoyer, and in the Senate by Armed Services Chairman Levin, these letters ultimately honor the terms of the preliminary agreement between Iran and the P5+1 and do not set preconditions for negotiators.

Most importantly, all three letters indicated that Congress will work with the administration to lift sanctions if a final deal is struck.

“As negotiations have progressed, some in Congress have wasted a lot of valuable time talking about ratcheting up Iran sanctions almost as if by force of habit,” said Abdi. “More and more in Congress are now realizing that we may soon see a final deal that takes an Iranian nuclear weapon off the table for good, but that the sanctions will need to be lifted in order to lock that deal in.”

###

 

Policy Memo: Menendez-Graham Iran Letter Will Complicate Diplomacy

NIAC has serious concerns that the Iran policy letter being circulated by Senators Menendez and Graham will have negative implications for the nuclear negotiations with Iran.

The letter issues guidelines for negotiations and regarding a final deal that would violate the basic terms of a final agreement outlined in the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). Notably, the letter includes implicit demands for “zero enrichment” and sets other unrealistic and unnecessary requirements for a final agreement. The letter also strongly suggests that sanctions legislation (S.1881) should be passed now, which will only contribute to the political theater on display in the Senate regarding an Iran sanctions vote.

The Menendez-Graham letter sends the wrong message at the wrong time and will invite similar pressure against an agreement from hardliners in Iran. NIAC urges members of the Senate not to sign the Menendez-Graham letter.

Senator Levin is now circulating a separate Iran policy letter for signature in the Senate, originally circulated in the House by Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. NIAC does not oppose the Levin letter. Unlike the Menendez-Graham letter, the Levin letter avoids prescribing guidelines that would complicate negotiations and violate the JPOA. While NIAC has concerns with some ambiguities in the language of the Levin letter, it upholds the principles that should guide Congressional action on Iran as urged by forty national organizations.

Zero enrichment demands

Under the JPOA, the P5+1 and Iran have agreed that a final nuclear deal will include a“mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program.”

However, the Menendez-Graham letter urges Obama to revisit this issue by insisting on the “realization in a final agreement with Iran” that “Iran has no inherent right to enrichment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

  • This language can be construed as ruling out an Iranian nuclear enrichment program.
  • The U.S. and Iran have long disagreed on the issue of “right to enrichment”, but the JPOA has resolved the impasse satisfactorily. Demanding this issue be revisited yet again rejects compromise in favor of a demand that holds no value in achieving the goal of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon.
  • Congress should not condition acceptance of a final deal on the reintroduction of an unnecessary stumbling block.

“We also believe that any agreement with Iran that could lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons or nuclear enrichment programs in the region should be rejected.”

  • This language is imprecise and can be construed as ruling out an Iranian nuclear enrichment program altogether.
  • Congress should not send a message to regional actors that they can hold ultimate veto power over an Iranian nuclear deal by threatening to pursue nuclear weapons or enrichment.
  • Without a nuclear deal, Iran will have an unconstrained nuclear enrichment program that would pose a greater risk to regional proliferation and enrichment capabilities than a capped and heavily-monitored Iranian nuclear program under a final agreement.

Dismantlement demands

Congress should not tie the hands of our diplomats through unnecessary ultimatums beyond the core goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. Dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is not a necessary precondition to achieve that goal. Insisting on this condition from the outset, and ruling out alternative solutions that could be brokered in negotiations, undermines chances of success.  Nevertheless, the Menendez-Graham letter states that, “We believe any agreement must dismantle Iran’s nuclear weapons program and prevent it from ever having a uranium or plutonium path to a nuclear bomb.”

  • As the U.S. and Israeli intelligence communities assess that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapons program, this language can be interpreted to broadly indict even Iran’s civilian nuclear program.
  • A final deal must provide necessary caps and transparency measures to ensure that Irandoes not achieve an undetectable breakout capability. A “path” to a bomb will always exist in theory—Iran’s nuclear know how makes this a reality—and proponents of this language may use the “path” formulation to argue that even limited and heavily-monitored civilian enrichment would pose an unacceptable risk.
  • The point of negotiations is not to eliminate a “path,” it is to ensure that any path is long and arduous, and that any attempt by Iran to go down that path will be immediately detected.

Pressing for sanctions vote

The Senate has wisely refrained from considering a new sanctions bill on Iran that the President has promised to veto. Now, there have been several attempts to tie the sanctions vote to unrelated legislation.

The six leads of the Menendez-Graham letter are all cosponsors of the Menendez-Kirk sanctions bill. While some have suggested they do not support a vote at this time, this letter will be used as further ammunition to push for just that.

Unlike the Levin letter, which does indicate support for new sanctions should negotiations fall apart, the Menendez-Graham letter indicates that such sanctions should be prepared now. As a result, it will be construed as indicating support for immediately passing new sanctions authorizations: “Should negotiations fail or Iran violate the Joint Plan of Action, Congress will need to ensure that the legislative authority exists to rapidly and dramatically expand sanctions. We need to work together now to prepare for either eventuality.”

  • Imposing new sanctions now would cause the U.S. to violate the JPOA and put blame on the U.S. for the talks breaking down.
  • Despite claims that the sanctions bill, S.1881, would only trigger sanctions if Iran violates the JPOA, Republican staff have acknowledged that it would have actually already imposed sanctions had it been passed into law due to additional triggers beyond the scope of JPOA related to ballistic missile tests.
  • Threatening new sanctions through this letter will be an invitation to Iranian hardliners to apply further pressure against moderates and claim the talks are a trap and that the U.S. will never lift sanctions.