NIAC Capitol Hill Briefing Assesses JCPOA Implementation and Complications

Washington, DC – “We should be pursuing another diplomatic win with the Iranians before the end of this administration,” said New America’s Suzanne DiMaggio, speaking at a National Iranian American Council (NIAC) briefing on Capitol Hill marking the one year anniversary of the Iran nuclear agreement.

The briefing included remarks from legislators and analysis from Dimaggio, Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, and Reza Marashi and Tyler Cullis from NIAC on the challenges and successes of the accord. Veteran journalist Indira Lakshamanan, who has written on the battle over implementation of the deal, served as moderator.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) delivered opening remarks, stressing the need for further constructive diplomacy with Iran, stating that Iran represents “one of the most consequential relationships” for the United States. Blumenauer noted “the essential role Iran plays in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria,” where the U.S. has critical national security interests. In closing, Rep. Blumenauer commented on the unfortunate trajectory of US-Iran relations and expressed his interest in seeing the success of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) lead to further agreements where interests align.

Suzanne DiMaggio  discussed the legacy and news which has surrounded the deal on its anniversary. She argued that the agreement has been a success, noting Iran has fully complied with the IAEA. She added that while “opponents of the deal point to [non-nuclear] Iranian actions, it is important to take the JCPOA for what it is, a non-proliferation agreement.” DiMaggio emphasized the multilateral nature of the deal, noting “should Congress continue to try to undermine the deal, we should think long and hard about the message that sends to our partners.”  

DiMaggio recommended other areas where the U.S. and Iran ought to cooperate beyond bilateral talks on Syria and Iraq. Given the possibility of conflict in the Strait of Hormuz, DiMaggio recommended that the U.S. and Iran should negotiate an Incidents at Sea agreement to protect against such a scenario. She also noted that “If Congress were smart, it would be advocating for initiatives that would convey to the people of Iran that the United States wants to break down the barriers that have built up over the many decades.” Such efforts could include pushing for a U.S. interest section that could engage in consular activities for travel to the U.S., establishing direct flights between the two countries and more cultural and academic exchanges.

Lawrence Korb noted the potential for change with respect to Iran, pointing out that “nations do not have permanent friends or enemies, they have permanent interests.” Remarking on the political campaign and whether the next U.S. President would overturn the deal, Korb noted that the rhetoric on the campaign trail does not necessarily reflect the tough decisions that are made when actually governing. “Nixon said if I’m elected the last thing I’ll do is recognize red China,” he said. “Well it was, but not because he recognized red China.”

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) also spoke at the briefing before heading to the House floor to vote against pending Iran legislation. Schakowsky thanked “the panel, NIAC, and the entire coalition which worked hand in glove with Congress to make the deal happen.” In reference to pending votes to curtail the JCPOA, Schakowsky determinedly stated “It’s not going to happen, the attempt to undermine the JCPOA is not going to go anywhere at all.”

Reza Marashi, Research Director at NIAC, focused on the internal politics of Iran and surveyed the various elements which could destabilize the deal from the Iranian side. Marashi noted that ongoing sanctions relief complications could lead to Iran backing away from the deal as well as the undermining of the Rouhani administration. Marashi said the “inability to process legitimate transactions” due to “remaining sanctions on the books” are the primary culprits behind the economic malaise. Marashi stated that while the Rouhani administration wants the deal to survive, “as time goes on it will become more difficult to internally make the argument that the deal is working given the economic circumstances.” Marashi emphasized the Rouhani administration’s frustration with remaining sanctions, warning that in the absence of an economic upturn by the time of the United Nations General Assembly in September, Iran will likely become more vocal in airing its concern that the U.S. is not abiding by its commitments under the JCPOA.

Tyler Cullis, Legal Fellow at NIAC, focused on particular sanctions which have prevented corporations from investing in Iran and threaten to undermine the deal. Many of the European banks which have reestablished connections with Iran lack the capital to invest in Iran, and larger “tier one” banks which do have the capital fear the repercussions of remaining U.S. sanctions.  In response to claims that sanctions complications are wholly the result of Iranian actions, Cullis said “major European corporations in the past (before 2010) had relations with the large state owned and private Iranian banks. The narrative that Iran is primarily responsible for lack of investment due to its business practices is a false narrative restricted to Washington,” said Cullis, adding that “Iran is today more in compliance with international banking laws than any time before.”

In response to questions regarding human rights violations in Iran, Marashi stressed NIAC’s stance that engagement with Iran must include dialogue on the human rights situation. In response to a question on why Iran is continuing to arrest dual nationals, Marashi stated “there are some who want to build bridges between these two nations, and there are those who want to blow them up. Those who blow up these bridges are the ones who want the deal to not succeed.”

The Huffington Post: Have Democrats Learned From the Mistakes of War?

A draft copy of the 2016 Democratic Party platform has been circulated online, and the Iran section is a cause for concern to many progressives who championed President Obama’s historic diplomatic achievements. Its support for the Iran nuclear deal is a no-brainer, but its assertion that we “will not hesitate to take military action if Iran violates the agreement” is a needlessly provocative regression. In its current iteration, the platform not only puts war with Iran back on the table, but also doubles down on the disproven mindset that security is best achieved through militarism.

Read more at The Huffington Post >>

The Guardian: Iran nuclear talks adjourn amid sanctions rift between US and France

 “Either there are real differences between the American and French positions or the French are posturing here in a way that is not helpful. So this meeting on Saturday will be helpful if it lets the Americans and French settle their differences,” said Reza Marashi, the research director at the National Iranian American Council.  “Either the French are going to have to budge or the Americans are. But if the Americans budge that increases the likelihood that the Iranians are not going to be able to get to yes as an answer. 

AFP: White House says chances of Iran deal 50/50 ‘at best’

“Iran wants as much sanctions relieved as possible up front in the deal. The United States and its allies in the P5+1 would like to have sanctions relief come in phases,” Reza Marashi from the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) told AFP.

How Close is Close?

As negotiations reconvene here in Vienna, Iran and its six counterparts in the P5+1 are close to finalizing a comprehensive nuclear deal that would end over a decade of conflict. How close is close? Some P5+1 negotiators say the deal is 95 percent done – but the remaining five percent is the most difficult details. For both sides, the costs of failure are likely catastrophic. Precisely because the stakes have never been higher, it is important to nail down the sticking points and major obstacles that must be overcome. Six issues in particular are worth keeping an eye on.

Enrichment Capacity. Iran wants to maintain its 10,000 operational centrifuges and freeze centrifuge expansion for the duration of a deal. The P5+1 insists on cutting that number significantly – between 2,000 and 4,000. The sticking point is domestic politics, not science. Iran is insisting upon immediate-term enrichment levels that surpass its current needs. The P5+1 is pushing for immediate limitations that prevent Iran from enrichment levels that it does not have the technical capability to achieve. Unless both sides make the political decision to absorb and sell compromise – 5,000 to 6,000 centrifuges – the last best chance to resolve this conflict will be lost.

Sanctions Relief. The P5+1 wants to waive some sanctions and unblock frozen Iranian assets up front, while keeping banking, energy and UN sanctions in place until the deal expires. Iran insists on lifting banking and UN sanctions up front, while accepting waivers on energy sanctions for at least a few years. Iran gave more than it received in the interim nuclear deal, and is looking to collect on that investment. The P5+1 believes it must enforce oil and banking sanctions to ensure Iranian compliance. Neither position is politically feasible. A workable compromise in the first phase of a deal would continue to waive sanctions and unblock frozen Iranian assets, as well as lift bans on the SWIFT financial messaging system and Iranian banks blacklisted by the UN. To truly ensure reciprocity, the P5+1 should go a step further and begin dismantling UN sanctions. Without compromise, negotiations will fail.

Duration of the Deal. The P5+1 originally pushed for a deal lasting 20 to 25 years. Iran refused to accept anything longer than three to five years. Both sides were pursuing purely political objectives that are untenable. Two decades of treating Iranian differently than other Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatories fuels rather than allays Iranian suspicions of Western intentions. But decades of mistrust cannot be undone while President Obama is still in office. Negotiations will fail unless the two sides split the difference. Today, they are closer to a politically digestible compromise – in the single digits, six to eight years – with deep, up front reciprocal concessions across the board to help sell the deal and incentivize compliance throughout its duration.

PMD Allegations. Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA regarding its past nuclear activities – particularly possible military dimensions (PMD) – remains a point of contention, but not an insurmountable one. This issue is a direct function of its negotiations with the P5+1. Assertions to the contrary are less than honest. No amount of scrubbing sites or shifting soil can remove criminalizing traces of radiation, so the question is not if Iran answers PMD questions, but rather how. The process of doing so will be outlined in any comprehensive nuclear deal, not before a deal is signed. IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano acknowledged this in remarks to the Brookings Institution on November 5.

Hostile Legislators. As gaps between the two sides narrow, they both must contend with spoilers at home. In Washington, Congress is poised to pass new sanctions legislation in an effort to torpedo a deal. Obama will veto it, but with Republicans holding a majority in the House and Senate come January, Congress may override his veto. In Iran, a systemic decision has been made to resolve the nuclear issue – within reason. If Congress passes new sanctions, Iranians hardliners will respond in kind by reversing critical concessions made in the interim nuclear deal that moved Iran further away from nuclear weapons. Escalation benefits nobody at the negotiating table.

French Intransigence. Despite repeated proclamations of unity, France remains more hawkish than its P5+1 counterparts. Secretary of State John Kerry met with his counterpart Laurent Fabius in Paris on November 5 in an effort to get assurances that France would not try to undermine the P5+1 position like it did during negotiations in Geneva one year ago. According to some P5+1 diplomats, Kerry left Paris empty-handed. The French position matters: It holds a veto at the UN and EU, thereby making it critical to any future plan for sanctions relief that must be negotiated with Iran this week. It is unlikely France can stop a deal with Iran that other P5+1 members are satisfied with – but we will find out for sure in seven days.

An extension is a possibility, should the two sides not be able to close the gaps, but it carries its own risks. Hardliners in Congress and within Iran will have more time to throw up obstacles and wreak political havoc on the forces in both the US and Iranian administrations seeking to finalize a deal. While the gaps are few, they are significant, but the mood here in Vienna is determined.

This article was originally published in IranWire.

Reza Marashi on Iran’s Nuclear Program and Future Prospects

 Al Jazeera interviews NIAC Research Director Reza Marashi about Iran’s nuclear program and future prospects.

Reza Marashi on U.S.-Iran Relations and Regional Dynamics

NIAC’s Research Director, Reza Marashi, discusses U.S.-Iran relations and recent dynamics in the Persian Gulf with the Foreign Policy Association.

Meet My Friend Imprisoned in Iran

My friend, Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian, was recently arrested in Iran. When his home was raided, Jason’s Iranian wife and two other dual nationals were also taken into custody. Fast forward one week, and four unknowns increasingly frighten Jason’s friends and family: his whereabouts; the charges against him; who exactly is behind the decision to target Jason; and not knowing how long this entire ordeal will last. Suffering from high blood pressure, he is in dire need of his medication. Without it, his health is in danger.

To some, Jason is simply the latest in a long line of journalists who have been treated terribly by the Iranian government. To others, he’s recognizable from sporadic in-person encounters or his Washington Post byline. But to me, he’s J — my good friend that also happens to be a stellar journalist in Iran.

J isn’t political in his reporting, nor does he chose sides in the factional infighting that is a hallmark of Iranian politics. Instead, I’ve watched him grow into one of the best Tehran-based correspondents in recent memory. When he interviewed for theWashington Post job, I was one of his references. “Why should I hire Jason?,” the editor asked. My response? “Because not everybody can navigate the political, economic and social labyrinth that is Iran. And J does it better than most.” A quick glance at his reporting over the past two years speaks for itself.

Jason Rezaian

Arrested Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian (left) with Anthony Bourdain in northern Tehran, Iran

While it’s clear to everyone that J excels as a journalist, friends and family will tell you that his true gift is his kind heart. Despite always having a deadline looming, he takes the time to listen, share his trademark glass-half-full outlook, and charm you with his wit, manner and hearty laughter. From helping people settle into their lives in Tehran, to connecting foreigners with the myriad tourism and sightseeing opportunities across Iran — J is the person that so many people go to when they need help, advice or comfort.

When his father tragically passed away in 2011, J briefly returned to his native Bay Area to help close his family’s Persian rug business. I’d call him to help give his mind a brief respite. A week later, a pristine Persian rug arrived at my doorstep. Others also received the surprise gift. J insisted it was the least he could do for good friends, and the proper way to honor his father’s memory: After the Iran hostage crisis, he gave rugs to over 40 hostages as gifts upon their return to the U.S. As the old saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Three days before J’s house in Tehran was raided, we were both in Vienna to cover the Iran nuclear negotiations. I hadn’t seen him for over six months, so it was a pleasant surprise that our schedules overlapped. When the negotiations ended a day early, we met up the next morning, chose a restaurant for brunch, and proceeded to chat for the next four hours — not about politics, but about life. J told me about how much he’s enjoying married life, and the hopes and dreams he and his wife hope to pursue.

As we parted ways, we agreed to try and meet up in San Francisco. “I’ll call you when I get to SF in a week or so,” he wrote to me later that evening, as he got ready to board his plane back to Tehran. “Try to come out there for a few days. We’d have fun.” I said I’d keep him posted, but I never got the chance. 24 hours after I returned to Washington, unidentified men took him away to an undisclosed location in Iran.

J is a peaceful soul who could have easily chosen a comfortable life in the United States. He moved to Iran out of love for his roots. “Never forget where you’re from,” he’d tell me. In the years I’ve known him, he has tirelessly sought to build bridges between Iran and the outside world — even while others tried to blow up the bridges he was standing on.

However, his positive mental attitude shouldn’t be mistaken for naïveté. J has always been clear-eyed about the very real challenges facing Iran and his life there. But even throughout our last conversation in Vienna one week ago, his outlook on Iran’s future remained hopeful. Maybe that’s why I’ve woken up every day for the past week feeling sick to my stomach — “You’ve got the wrong guy” doesn’t even begin to explain this tragic situation.

When your friend is arrested and you’re half way around the world, you feel powerless. My heart tells me that I’m letting J down because I’m not doing more — even though my mind knows that it’s impossible to do more. The longer his detention continues, the more responsibility I feel to make sure his story isn’t forgotten. News dies when there are no developments — and it’s likely that J’s captors know this. So, this is my first attempt at keeping his story alive. Hopefully it will also be my last — but that’s up to the Iranian government, not me.

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.


France24: Advantage Tehran? Rouhani’s Bid To Make Over Iran’s International Reputation

NIAC Research Director Reza Marashi gives his take on the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran and the current political climate in Iran and the United States in this France24 interview.

CNN: Understanding Iran’s Diplomatic Push

NIAC Research Director Reza Marashi says Congress can either play a positive role or a spoiler role in U.S.-Iran negotiations. “Now more than ever we need the American Congress to work with the President to help achieve American interests,” says Marashi.

France24: Interview with Reza Marashi

 Over the next two months, as we approach the soft deadline in July, it remains to be seen whether of not the negotiators will be able to maintain their positive focus, but all signs point to yes so far,” says Reza Marashi.

NPR: Interview with Reza Marashi

“One of the great tragedies of US-Iran relations over the last 34 years has been the lack of communication, and when you’re not communicating it fuels misperceptions and miscalculations,” says Reza Marashi, beginning at 43:25.