NIAC Responds to President Rouhani’s Reelection, Calls on Trump to Choose Diplomacy

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Trita Parsi
Phone: 202-386-2303
Email: tparsi@niacouncil.org

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement regarding the decisive reelection of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani:

“The Iranian people have spoken by coming out in record numbers to vote in Friday’s presidential elections. By continuing to engage at the ballot box, and once more demonstrating their preference for the most moderate option available, they have chosen a path of gradual transformation through peaceful participation. Once again, the Iranian people have shown their persistence to choose their own destiny and to reject all attempts to stymie that right.”

“President Rouhani’s convincing win is a sharp rebuke to Iran’s unelected institutions that were a significant brake on progress during Rouhani’s first term. It is also a rebuke of Washington hawks who openly called for either a boycott of the vote or for the hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi to win in order to hasten a confrontation.

“For Rouhani, now is the time to deliver on the promises that inspired tens of millions of Iranians to elect him twice as president. He must take decisive action to protect the human rights and civil liberties of the Iranian people, pursue improved relations with the world, and promote economic growth for the Iranian people. The hardline forces behind Iran’s arbitrary arrests and spiking executions may not answer to Rouhani directly, but the Iranian people who elected him expect him to do more in his second term to bring about change. Failure to do so risks disenchanting a generation of Iranians from the belief that their voice can make a difference, potentially ceding Iran’s future to the hardline voices who would take the country back to isolationism and confrontation with the West.

“President Rouhani’s reelection also creates an opportunity for the Trump administration to chose diplomacy over war with Iran. During his campaign, Rouhani clearly stated his desire to lift the remaining non-nuclear sanctions on Iran, which can only be interpreted as a desire to engage in further diplomatic talks with Washington. If the Trump administration is willing to unclench its fist, it can advance US national interest and security in the Middle East in ways that confrontation and war have proven unable to.

“In the wake of the nuclear deal, no one should discount the ability of Washington and Tehran to resolve any of their seemingly intractable  differences. President Rouhani’s decisive electoral victory provides the pro-diplomacy President significant political capital to pursue improved relations between Tehran and Washington. The Trump administration should not squander this opportunity. Further, Congress should avoid undermining the clear pro-engagement message sent by the Iranian people  and empowering hardliners by pushing forward provocative sanctions legislation in the wake of the election results.”

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What Iran Wants

On Christmas Eve, Iran’s Supreme Leader took to twitter to score some points against America. Hashtaging #Ferguson and #Gaza, he tweeted that if “Jesus were among us today he wouldn’t spare a second to fight the arrogants&support the oppressed.” He also shot off a few tweets hashtaging #BlackLivesMatter. Four days later, he commemorated the Wounded Knee massacre by asking on Twitter if killing millions of Native Americans and enslaving Africans constitute “American values”?

Coming in the midst of Iran’s negotiations with the US and the P5+1 (the Permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), President Barack Obama ending decades of enmity with Cuba, as well as peculiar “non-coordination” between the US and Iran against Islamic State fighters in Iraq, Khamenei’s tweets raises the question: What does Iran really want with America?

After Havana, does Tehran want to be next? Does it seek to end the enmity with America, or just lower its intensity? Or do the leaders in Iran fear not having America as an enemy?

Many in Washington have argued that Iran is addicted to its enmity with the US. “It’s a pillar of the revolution,” one often hears. Coming to terms with America would be the end of the Islamic Revolution. Yet, many of those voices also categorically rejected the idea that Iran would engage the US in bilateral negotiations, have its foreign minister become email pals with Secretary John Kerry, or have its President tweet Happy Rosh Hashanah greetings to Jews worldwide.

A simplistic, one-dimensional (mis)understanding of the Iranian leadership generated crude and ultimately erroneous predictions of Iranian behavior. The surprising flexibility of the Iranian decision-makers could not be captured since Washington’s read of Tehran was surprisingly inflexible.

Rather than categorical rejection of ties with the US or open desire for such a relationship, the truth may simply be that Tehran itself did not know until recently what path to pursue in regards to Washington.

About three years ago, a debate emerged within Iran’s security establishment on redefining Tehran’s relations with the Great Powers, particularly the US. A realization had occurred that due to geopolitical changes in the region, some form of a relationship with Washington was necessary – the question was the parameters of that relationship and the manner it would come about.

It was an intense debate; perhaps the most important and difficult one the leaders of the Islamic Republic have experienced since the Iraq-Iran war. With the fast changing situation in the region, the debate never reached a finale. There are some indications, however, that Tehran has come closer to a conclusion in the past few weeks. On December 17, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, told the Financial Times that even if a nuclear deal is reached, the US and Iran can still not cooperate in the region. But, Shamkhani explained, the two “can behave in a way that they do not use their energy against each other.”

This is a critical statement that sheds light on where the debate in Tehran is tilting. Rather than partnership, Tehran is offering a truce.

A top Iranian official explained it to me a year ago: Iran’s relationship with the United States would at best be a cordial rivalry, not an alliance or partnership. But the operative term is cordial, not rivalry. Just as Shamkhani hinted, contrary to their past behavior, the US and Iran would not be challenging or undermining each other. There can even be tactical and strategic collaboration between the two, although Tehran likely will prefer to keep that behind-the-scenes. Or as in Shamkhani’s interview, flat out deny that collaboration is in the cards.

But why can’t Tehran shred its past objections and opt for a less conflicted approach to America? This is where the value of rivalry comes in. Iran does not aspire to be just a normal power. Both the current regime, as well as the regime of the Shah, seeks a strong regional leadership role. While the Shah used Persian nationalism internally, and an alliance with the US and Israel externally to become the undisputed power of the region, the Khomeini regime’s instruments have been political Islam and rejection of America’s presence in the region.

If Tehran joined the American camp, it would become a normal power whose influence would be determined solely by its economic and military prowess. This wouldn’t take Iran very far, Tehran fears. It would at best be a second tier state, below the United States.

By keeping its rivalry with the US alive and challenging America’s vision for the region, Iran would catapult itself into a higher level of regional influence, Tehran believes. By positioning itself as a rival, Iran would approach the US as an equal, rather than compete with Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia for the role of America’s most valuable proxy in the region.

Keep this in mind next time Ayatollah Khamenei takes to twitter to challenge the US or point out America’s double standards. In an era where the US and Iran may secretly collude against Sunni Jihadists, where trade between the two may flow once again, and where quiet collaboration between the two may become commonplace to stabilize regional hotspots, the optics of rivalry must desperately be kept alive where it matters the most. On twitter that is.

 

This article was originally published in Middle East Eye.

Can Obama and the Republican Congress Seal an Iran Nuclear Deal?

With the Republicans gaining control of both houses of the U.S. Congress, polarization and partisan gridlock are likely to continue to grip Washington. The grim political outlook has already cast a shadow over nuclear negotiations with Iran, where a diplomatic breakthrough remains within reach as the parties near a November 24 deadline for a comprehensive deal. While the parties have a number of difficult choices left to make, the risks of failing to reach an agreement by the November deadline (or shortly thereafter) are significantly higher than they were in July. Given the landscape of domestic politics in both the U.S. and Iran, there may not be a better chance to ink a durable deal than over the next few weeks.

Since the U.S. and UN powers secured an interim agreement to freeze Iran’s nuclear program last November, President Obama has worked closely with Congressional allies to prevent any new sanctions from passing that would violate that agreement. Republicans in the minority clamored to vote on new Iran sanctions, but their motivations could have been due to politics rather than policy. An affirmative vote on Iran sanctions would have killed the agreement, likely fracturing international unity on the sanctions and potentially pushing the U.S. and Iran toward military confrontation.

Fortunately, Congress held off, enabling us to test Iran’s intentions. As a result, the interim agreement has been an unmitigated success. Iran has capped enrichment at the 5% level, eliminated its stockpile of uranium enriched to the 20% level, and frozen the number of centrifuges it is operating. Further, Iran has enabled daily access to its enrichment facilities, compared with bimonthly inspections before the deal.

However, the future Republican Senate could tip the scales in favor of Congress passing new Iran sanctions. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) sought to avoid such a vote to allow negotiations to proceed. However, with Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as Majority Leader, a vote on new Iran sanctions becomes far more likely – regardless of the outcome of talks. McConnell has pursued a policy of obstruction over the past six years, seeking to deny the President any significant policy achievements and then blaming the President for Washington’s dysfunction. Despite the obvious benefits of a nuclear deal and the dire consequences of failure, McConnell could continue his policy of denying the President a share of any policy wins.

Further, based on statements when the Republicans were in the minority, McConnell would be likely to have the near-full backing of his caucus. All but three Republican Senators signed onto a February letter railing against Reid for blocking a vote on new Iran sanctions, and McConnell himself affirmed that he would push for a vote if a final nuclear agreement doesn’t meet his (near impossible) expectations. As a result, the President might be forced to veto new sanctions and ensure that one-third of the House or Senate block an override of the veto — a highly tenuous but potentially defensible position.

However, there is a key factor working in favor of Republicans holding their fire that didn’t exist before the elections. Now that the Republicans are in control of Congress, their choices are no longer cost free. If they ratchet up sanctions, they will own the consequences: the unraveling of the greatest opportunity to resolve the nuclear impasse and prevent war in decades, and one we may not see again. This could greatly diminish the Republicans’ chances in 2016 presidential elections by further tying them to the war-happy neoconservative camp.

Regardless, the longer the President waits to strike an accord, the weaker his hand will be. Given that the President’s strategy will be to utilize executive authority written into Congressional sanctions legislation to temporarily relieve sanctions in the initial phases of the agreement – and delay a Congressional vote to lift sanctions until the later stages of a deal – the negotiating parties would be wise to frontload as much of the agreement as possible. If both sides show that they are upholding their side of the bargain over time, the harder it will be for Congress or the President’s successor to dismantle what will be a very good deal.

President Rouhani, as well, will face diminishing political prospects without an agreement in the near-term. Rouhani has invested the vast majority of his political capital in securing a nuclear deal, which holds the best likelihood of long-term economic relief for Iran’s sanctions-plagued economy. Rather than open up new domestic political fronts that could jeopardize the Supreme Leader’s support for an agreement, Rouhani has ceded many fights to the hardliners. Thus, while Rouhani has maintained the upper hand on the nuclear issue, hardliners have been able to keep the domestic status quo more or less intact. The amplification of executions and other human rights abuses by the hardline Judiciary appear aimed at embarrassing Rouhani as he reaches out to the outside world and weakening popular support for his administration. The longer Rouhani goes without striking a deal, the more the hardliners will escalate their attacks and the longer it will take him to turn to the domestic agenda that helped get him elected. But if Rouhani succeeds and obtains a nuclear deal, he will strengthen his political clout and diminish the threat of war that has underpinned the securitization of the domestic sphere in Iran.

Fortunately, the high stakes should enable the parties to strike and sell an agreement. If the talks collapse, “escalation would be the name of the game,” as Acting Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman stated recently. Under such a scenario, the U.S. would certainly amplify punishing sanctions on Iran, Iran’s nuclear program would expand in response, and there would be a renewed threat of a costly, counterproductive military conflict when the region is already aflame. However, staving off such dire outcomes and securing the mutual benefits of a deal will not get easier. Both Presidents Obama and Rouhani need to seize the moment before their domestic opponents gain the upper hand.

This article was originally published in Huffington Post.

Iran Nuclear Gridlock Is Political, Not Technical

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The Iran nuclear talks present a rare opportunity for a major American diplomatic victory. If negotiators from the P5+1 and Iran bridge the remaining political gaps, they will resolve a major national security threat — a potential Iranian nuclear weapon — without a shot being fired.

Ostensibly, the talks have reached an impasse over technical issues surrounding the size and scale of Iran’s enrichment program. While this is the issue on which each side has chosen to make a stand, the challenge is political, not technical.

A final deal is expected to dramatically expand monitoring and inspection of Iran’s nuclear program. Near-constant monitoring of Iran’s enrichment facilities would continue, and Iran would be expected to ratify the IAEA’s Additional Protocol to ensure snap inspections of all nuclear facilities. Additional measures could ensure monitoring of Iran’s centrifuge assembly and uranium such that Iran would find overt or covert nuclear breakout nearly impossible and enormously risky. As numerous nonproliferation analysts have indicated, this is the real value of a deal. Regardless of the exact scale of Iran’s enrichment program, robust transparency and verification measures would be an enormous disincentive to Iran pursuing a weapon and would ensure that any ill-advised move to break out would be swiftly detected.

There is little basis to scuttle a possible deal over the enrichment issue if such verification measures are in place. But right now, the negotiations appear to be in a game of who beat whom on centrifuges, and by how much. Members of the P5+1 appear to want to cap Iran’s centrifuges at a few thousand at the start of a deal, and perhaps for the deal’s entire duration. Iran appears to want what it is currently operating, 9,000 centrifuges, at the start of a deal and to gradually increase that number over the course of an agreement.

If Iran concedes and accepts the P5+1’s proposal, the U.S. could notch a win on centrifuges and likely have an easier time selling the deal to a recalcitrant Congress. But if that happens, Rouhani would likely have a more difficult, if not impossible, time selling the deal to the Supreme Leader and hardliners in Iran’s political system. Of course, this dilemma is also reversible. If the P5+1 bends completely, an Iran win is perceived as a loss for the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1.

This presents each side with a bind. Like it or lump it, both sides have to bend on this issue. That’s the only way to bridge the impasse and secure a durable deal. Hopefully, each side has not yet presented its ultimate bottom line. Once the impending threat of an extension gets closer, which would open an opportunity for hardliners on each side to scuttle an agreement, concessions could come quickly and rapidly to bridge the remaining gaps. In the end, each side is worse off if this diplomatic opportunity falls through.

Neither side can forget that this issue is about more than centrifuges. For Iran, it helps determine whether forces of moderation or recalcitrance guide the country in a pivotal period for the region. For the U.S., it is clear that this will be a legacy issue for President Obama. But it is also a litmus test for American diplomacy. After the George W. Bush administration demonstrated the fallacy of relying wholly on force to achieve American objectives, a successful Iran nuclear deal would remind America that peaceful alternatives are not just worth exploring, but capable of delivering major national security victories. This could change how America approaches national security challenges well into the foreseeable future and ensure that neoconservatism remains where it should be: the dustbin of history.

To get there, numerous obstacles remain — not least a recalcitrant Congress that holds the key to lifting nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, which is a key requirement to seal the deal. As we enter what could be the endgame of nuclear talks, both President Obama and President Rouhani would be wise to remind their negotiators of the enormity of the stakes and that they can’t afford to let political jockeying stand in the way of a deal.

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post…

Photo via Christian Science Monitor

 

Bloomberg Businessweek: Iran Nuclear Resolution Possible by July 20, Rouhani Says

“It’s amazing how quickly the new normal becomes the new normal – we tend to forget that nine months ago this was impossible,” Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said by telephone on Tuesday.

Rouhani Faces Increasing Challenges on the Domestic Front

Washington, DC – Even as Iran’s moderate president negotiates with the West after eight years of conservative rule, hardliners in the country have escalated human rights abuses in part to undermine moderates, according to the former head of Iran’s largest student union for democracy and human rights. Mehdi Arabshahi, former President of the Office for Consolidating Unity, spoke at a Stimson Center event along with Profesor Mohammad Tabaar of Texas A&M University, about the challenges that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani faces on the domestic front in the midst of historic negotiations with the West.

Though the West praises Rouhani’s willingness to negotiate, hardliners continue to violate human rights in Iran, noted Arabshahi. They use this as political message, he said, to show to the public and to the world that they still hold significant power. For example, “the number of executions increased after the presidential election” and that political prisoners are still common in the Islamic Republic. “Maybe they plan on Rouhani’s failure in the future,” he added, acknowledging that “this area is not under the control of Rouhani.”

According to Tabaar, Iranian hardliners primarily fear that Rouhani is giving up too much to the West regarding the nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. They would consider any rollback as an intolerable submission to Western demands. Moreover, Tabaar said, conservatives insist that the true U.S. aim is a change of regime and that the talks engaged by Rouhani “could ultimately undermine the entire political system.” In this context, Arabshahi identified the lifting of sanctions as one of Rouhani’s main challenges to prove American good will.

But conservatives are not only concerned about the fate of the general Iranian system. The factional distribution of power is a particularly crucial issue in the context of the upcoming elections for the parliament and the assembly of experts: “If Rouhani manages to score some success, that is to eventually remove some of the sanctions and the economy gets better, he could get a lot of credit and that could empower [his faction] domestically.” This could isolate hardliners for years to come.

Although hardliners increasingly express criticisms against Rouhani, the Supreme Leader keeps them relatively silent for now. According to Arabshahi, Khamenei plays a subtle game by allowing the president to participate in the international talks while voicing his pessimism about their outcome. “He wants to keep this anti-Western image,” explained Arabshahi. “If the nuclear talks are successful, then he can say that he supported Rouhani, but if they are not, he can say that he had never been optimistic.” Tabaar added that this strategy is crucial for Khamenei to regain some political capital and eventually make a powerful comeback.