Mohammed bin Salman Is the Next Saddam Hussein

“Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is reportedly shocked over the backlash to his government’s killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. In a recent phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, according to the Wall Street Journal, his confusion over official Washington’s furor “turned into rage,” as he spoke of feeling “betrayed by the West” and threatened to “look elsewhere” for foreign partners.

Saudi Arabia’s indignation at the United States would not be the first time an autocratic U.S. ally in the Middle East has assumed it could act with virtual impunity due to its alignment with Washington in countering Iran. Indeed, the Saudi prince’s meteoric rise to power bears striking similarities to that of a past U.S. ally-turned-nemesis whose brutality was initially overlooked by his Washington patrons: former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein…”

Read more on Foreign Policy.

The Other Bully from New Jersey

Gov. Chris Christie isn’t the only New Jersey politician stirring up controversy these days. The senior Senator from New Jersey, Robert Menendez, has partnered with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) to push an Iran sanctions bill over the strong objections of the White House, our nation’s diplomats, many of his own colleagues and the intelligence community. If passed, the Menendez-Kirk bill would violate the interim nuclear deal with Iran and cripple prospects to resolve the nuclear impasse peacefully.

The bill continues to gather cosponsors – currently, it is up to 58. While the bill was originally split evenly between 13 Democratic and 13 Republican cosponsors, the bill’s bipartisan veil is falling apart. Just two of the bill’s 32 latest cosponsors have been Democrats. As a result, it is increasingly being viewed as a partisan vehicle to rebuke of one the President’s signature foreign policy achievements.

Not surprisingly, Sen. Menendez has received a heavy amount of criticism for his lead role in pushing the sanctions bill. Sen. Menendez, responding to this criticism in an op-ed in the Washington Post, asserted that it was sanctions that brought Iran to the table and that his bill would provide “flexibility” for the President to negotiate a deal and and an “insurance policy” in the event that negotiations fail. Menendez also asserts that while proponents of sanctions argue that “sanctions are like a spigot, easy to turn on and easy to turn off,” in reality it is far more complicated to pass sanctions legislation and turn up pressure on Iran.

Upon inspection, these assertions seem dubious at best.

First, what sanctions opponents warn is that unwinding sanctions as part of diplomatic negotiations is far more difficult than ratcheting them up. With nine separate congressional sanctions already on the books, the President’s ability to offer credible sanctions relief in exchange for Iranian nuclear concessions is already in serious doubt. Add on new sanctions, which would kill the first phase deal, and we will undermine any notion in Iran that diplomacy could lead to sanctions relief because Congress has to be a partner in offering permanent sanctions relief.

Sen. Menendez also misleads when he states that his bill would create flexibility for the President. Rather, S.1881 is designed in such a way as to ensure that diplomacy fails. By demanding that Iran dismantles its entire “nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities,” S.1881 sets an unrealistic and unnecessary benchmark that would be a poison pill for future talks.

Worse still, S.1881 undermines the President’s ability to offer sanctions relief. To waive the sanctions provisions included in S.1881 as part of a final deal, the President would have to certify that Iran has agreed to the zero enrichment demand and a whole host of other provisions, including some that are outside the scope of nuclear negotiations. As a result of these onerous and unattainable restrictions, the President’s ability to offer sanctions relief would be permanently crippled. Rather than create flexibility, S.1881 would tie the President’s hands.

Further, speaking on MSNBC, Menendez warned that “If we wait until we determine whether or not a negotiation can succeed… the timeframe that the Iranians have to produce enough fissile material for the first nuclear weapon is six to eight weeks,” meaning any sanctions push would be “inconsequential.”

Sanctions proponents often tout the theory that Iran must be brought to the brink of economic collapse in order to abandon its nuclear pursuits. As Sen. Menendez stated in a committee hearing in May, the U.S. must “convince the Supreme Leader that his continued pursuit of nuclear weapons is threatening the very existence of his regime.”

While the six-to-eight week timeline Sen. Menendez cites is based on a theoretical, all-out Iranian pursuit of a weapons threshold, such a push could not be halted by sanctions.

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a hawkish think tank that receives funding from Sheldon “Nuke Iran” Adelson, estimated in October that Iran likely has sufficient reserves and assets to “muddle through” economically “for at least 12 months, if not longer.” While the report was intended to enhance support for sanctions, it actually undermined their case. Even if it was possible and a good idea to try to incite regime change by crashing Iran’s economy (which it is not), we certainly couldn’t do so in 6-8 weeks with or without the Menendez-Kirk bill. On the other side of the political spectrum, Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon official under the Obama administration, testified before Congress in November that:

“Even if Congress goes forward with additional harsh sanctions, economic conditions are not likely to produce enough existential angst among Iranian leaders, generate mass unrest, or otherwise implode the regime before Iran achieves a nuclear breakout capability.”

As Kahl pointed out, even imprisoned Green Movement leaders have supported the country’s enrichment program. As a result, pursuing plans for economic regime change would inflame nationalist sympathies and result in nuclear escalation, rather than capitulation.

In his quest to create a highly dubious “Plan B” if negotiations fail, Sen. Menendez is putting “Plan A” – diplomacy – directly in the crosshairs. U.S. and Iranian officials have warned that new Congressional sanctions would kill the first phase deal. Rather than take offense when officials or experts call attention to the fact that he is pushing the U.S. toward war, Sen. Menendez should ask himself what happens when his bill scuttles diplomacy and Iran’s nuclear progress continues unabated — or worse, intensifies. If we fail to pursue the critical diplomatic opportunity right in front of us and instead pursue sanctions, war is the likely outcome. Sen. Menendez – and the colleagues that support his stubborn pursuit of sanctions – would then shoulder the blame.

(This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post)




To Boost Leverage with Iran, Give Obama a Sanctions Kill Switch

The initial nuclear agreement with Iran represents a historic break in the cycle of escalation between our two countries. If it leads to a comprehensive deal, we could permanently

take war and an Iranian nuclear weapon off the table. There’s only one catch: the agreement requires that we abstain from imposing new sanctions on Iran, and many in Congress are still working to pass new sanctions.

However, there is a way for Congress to enhance our diplomatic leverage and flexibility—without blowing up the talks. The authority to trade in existing sanctions for Iranian nuclear concessions has become muddled after more than three decades of legislation. To facilitate a comprehensive deal, Congress could pass a sanctions “kill switch” that syncs up waiver authorities for the president, providing clear-cut assurances that we can deliver on our end of the bargain.

The danger that Congress refuses to take “yes” for an answer from Iran and ends up sabotaging the deal is still very high. Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) were reportedly working to force a vote on a new sanctions bill with waivers that could delay implementation for six months, though that plan is apparently on ice until at least next year. According to Sen. Menendez, “sanctions that are invoked six months from the date of enactment…create the flexibility for diplomacy.”

This stance puts Menendez and others in open opposition to the president and our nation’s negotiators. As the White House has made clear, if Congress passes new sanctions—even if they include waivers to delay implementation—both Iran and the international community would see the United States as violating the terms and faith of the agreement. After the deal collapses, Iran would once again have an unconstrained nuclear program, we would lose our unprecedented inspections regime, and the U.S. and Iran would be back on a pathway to war.

The chief leverage that the U.S. and other members of the P5+1 have in negotiations is not unending sanctions, but sanctions relief. Since 1979, the United States, European Union and UN Security Council, for a variety of purposes, have levied more than thirty separate sanctionson Iran. However, the United States has led the charge. Most of America’s unilateral sanctions on Iran are codified via both Executive Order and Congressional legislation. That includes nine separate Congressional sanctions, including measures targeting Iran’s oil and financial sectors that are the most valuable relief we can offer. As a result, it is extraordinarily difficult to unwind the sanctions on a permanent basis because the president cannot do so unilaterally—he would need Congressional support.

Right now, the president only has the authority to offer significant temporary sanctions relief, and has exercised that authority to obtain the first phase agreement. But temporary and reversible relief will not be enough to strike the final agreement. Iran is unlikely to agree to part with its key nuclear leverage unless we are willing—and able—to part with our sanctions leverage. And with Congress stuck on autopilot pushing new sanctions, the president’s diplomatic flexibility is in serious doubt.

That’s exactly why a sanctions kill switch could be such a valuable diplomatic tool. Congress would pass a legislative vehicle that enables the president to not just waive sanctions for a few months, as virtually all Congressional sanctions permit, but to repeal them on a permanent basis at a time of his choosing. Such a mechanism would require the president to certify to Congress that Iran has reached a final agreement that will satisfy international concerns regarding its nuclear program. Then, the president would be able to exercise sunset clauses within the kill switch for each of the separate Congressional sanctions. That way, the administration can sequence relief to correspond with Iran’s implementation of nuclear concessions like the adoption of the IAEA’s Additional Protocol and additional measures to tie Iran’s nuclear program to its peaceful nuclear needs.

This would provide the administration maximum flexibility and leverage to obtain Iranian concessions because Iran would have faith that the president can deliver. With a clear path to sanctions relief, any attempt by Iran to reject a viable final agreement that doesn’t demand total Iranian capitulation would be a clear indication that it is Iran, not the United States, that is blocking progress toward a deal.

Congressional skeptics should imagine the alternative scenario: what if Congressional refusal to lift sanctions scuttles a deal that would permanently prevent proliferation to Iran, ultimately leading to an Iranian nuclear weapon, war, or both? That would be the ultimate tragedy—an entirely preventable one.

(This article originally appeared in the National Interest)





Adelson and FDD Want to Nuke Iran, Diplomacy

Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire best-known in political circles for losing a great deal of money trying to unseat President Obama in the 2012 election, is also a major donor to organizations that are pushing for new sanctions and war with Iran. Just yesterday, Adelson made some shocking comments on Iran that help clarify what the real goal is behind the latest diplomacy-killing sanctions push in the Senate. In a video recorded byMondoweiss, Adelson suggests that instead of diplomacy, we should nuke Iran:

“What are we going to negotiate about? I would say ‘Listen, you see that desert out there, I want to show you something.’ …You pick up your cell phone and you call somewhere in Nebraska and you say, ‘OK let it go.’ And so there’s an atomic weapon, goes over ballistic missiles, the middle of the desert, that doesn’t hurt a soul. Maybe a couple of rattlesnakes, and scorpions, or whatever. Then you say, ‘See! The next one is in the middle of Tehran. So, we mean business. You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position and continue with your nuclear development. You want to be peaceful? Just reverse it all, and we will guarantee you that you can have a nuclear power plant for electricity purposes, energy purposes.'”

So, instead of pursuing negotiations that experts agree could prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, Adelson thinks it would be a good idea to break a nearly 70 year taboo on the use of nuclear weapons in warfare — the deadliest weapons ever invented that could end life on planet earth — in order to send a message that we don’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons because they could, you know, use them or something. And if launching a nuclear weapon against Iran convinces Iran’s government that having a nuclear deterrent might be a good idea, Adelson casually suggests that the U.S. should just go ahead and kill millions of innocent people.

Unfortunately, Adelson is not just some drunk uncle you have to put up with once a year at Thanksgiving, far from Washington’s power circles. He is a major player in bankrolling some of the most active Middle East policy lobbies and think tanks in Washington. Among them, he has given at least $1.5 million to a hawkish think tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), that has been the architect and among the chief advocates of increasingly stiff sanctions on Iran.

FDD and their neoconservative cronies know that they can’t openly call for attacking Iran with nukes or other weapons — at least not yet. But their ultimate goal in imposing sanctions is clearly not to use the sanctions as any part of a diplomatic solution, but rather to undermine one. In their latest op-ed in the Washington Post, FDD President Mark Dubowitz and Senior Fellow Reuel Marc Gerecht reiterated their call for the immediate passage of new sanctions that would limit President Obama’s ability to trade in existing sanctions for a nuclear deal:

“The administration and Congress would be wise to hit Tehran with more sanctions immediately… Abandoning the long quest for atomic weapons would be an extraordinary humiliation for Iran’s ruling class. That isn’t going to happen unless Iran’s supreme leader and his guards know with certainty that the Islamic order is finished if they don’t abandon the bomb.”

In other words, we should sanction Iran until we can’t sanction any more. Doing so would cripple the president’s ability to offer sanctions relief — a key component of any nuclear deal with Iran – while also signaling to Iran that the conciliatory approach of their new President Hassan Rouhani only invites more pressure. By spoiling the current diplomatic opening through new sanctions, FDD would make sure that their ultimate goal — attacking Iran and promoting regime change — is the only option remaining.

In the lead-up to the war in Iraq, a cabal of neoconservative groups helped to sell the Iraq war as a necessity and a cakewalk. It turned out to be neither. With Americans now more skeptical about rushing into an unnecessary war, FDD and other neoconservatives have learned how to adjust their tactics to sell the next war of choice. And supporting new sanctions, just as serious diplomacy is underway, is a simple way to ensure that we get there.

View article at Huffington Post…




A Historic Week for Iran Diplomacy

Last week’s historic events surrounding the United Nations General Assembly could foreshadow a fundamental shift in U.S.-Iran relations away from mutual antagonism toward peaceful coexistence. With promising speeches at the UN, a direct bilateral meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and a groundbreaking phone call between President Obama and Rouhani – the first since 1979 — hopes for a peaceful resolution to the nuclear impasse have never been higher. In fact, many analysts have speculated that Obama’s willingness to speak directly with Rouhani indicates that there is substantial diplomacy going on behind the scenes, and that each side has confidence that they will be able to reach an agreement. While an agreement has not yet been reached, expectations are starting to shift in favor of diplomacy and both Presidents have committed their political capital in the hopes of achieving a deal. Such investment will be required if the enormous distrust between the U.S. and Iran is to be overcome.

In their speeches before the General Assembly, both President Obama and President Rouhani have called for serious dialogue on the nuclear issue. Obama largely abstained from military threats, promised that the United States was not seeking regime change with Iran, listed a nuclear deal with Iran as his chief national security priority in his second term (along with Arab-Israeli peace), and directed Secretary Kerry to pursue a nuclear deal. The latter move has injected political clout into negotiations, matching Rouhani’s step to transfer the nuclear file from the Supreme National Security Council to the Foreign Ministry, under Zarif. Obama stated, “I don’t believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight — the suspicion runs too deep. But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship — one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”

Addressing the General Assembly a few hours later, Rouhani said that he had listened carefully to Obama’s speech and believed that the U.S. and Iran “can arrive at a framework to manage our differences,” if talks are based on “equal footing, mutual respect and the recognized principles of international law.” Rouhani repeated his vow that Iran would not pursue a nuclear weapon and asserted that “Iran poses absolutely no threat to the world or the region.”

Although Rouhani and Obama did not meet face to face or orchestrate a public handshake, which was subject to strong speculation, Kerry and Zarif did meet on Thursday along with other ministers from the P5+1. In contrast to previous talks, each side rapidly agreed to a new time and venue for future P5+1 negotiations: October 15-16 in Geneva. Toward the end of the meeting, Kerry and Zarif met privately for about thirty minutes, the highest level bilateral meeting between the U.S. and Iran since the 1979 Revolution. Zarif indicated that they agreed to “jump-start” negotiations and to reach a shared vision on the “parameters of the end game,” with a goal to finalize the agreement within a year. Each side affirmed their commitment to moving the process forward, rapidly, toward a win-win solution.

These productive steps were followed up on Friday with negotiations between the IAEA and Iran over how to proceed in stalled investigations over possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program – a separate but parallel process to P5+1 negotiations. The IAEA meeting was described as “very constructive,” and will be followed up on October 28 with a meeting that is expected to dig into technical details.

Also on Friday, to the surprise of many, Obama phoned Rouhani while the Iranian president was on his way to the airport. The two presidents expressed their determination to rapidly reach an agreement on nuclear negotiations, while also addressing other issues including regional security and American prisoners in Iran. After speaking through interpreters, Rouhani signed off by saying “Have a nice day,” in English, while Obama replied “Thank you. Khodahafez.”

Breaking decades of silence, the phone call received major attention in the U.S. and Iran. Rouhani returned home to crowds of supporters and was greeted at the airport by the Supreme Leader’s adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, though a few dozen protesters threw eggs and shoes at Rouhani’s motorcade. Meanwhile, a recent poll found that over three-quarters of Americans favor direct talks with Iran, while a whopping 97% of Iranians favor direct talks.

Despite these major and historic steps, hardliners on each side will maneuver to block hopes for peace and reconciliation. After the House passed new, embargo-like sanctions on Iran a mere four days before Rouhani’s inauguration, the Senate is set to consider a companion bill in the week’s ahead. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in an op-ed in The Washington Post, vowed to press forward with new sanctions, arguing that “the maintenance and toughening of sanctions and a convincing threat of the use of force” are requirements for successful negotiations. Further, Sen. Graham and Rep. Trent Franks have vowed to introduce a war authorization in the weeks ahead, arguing that it would increase American leverage at the negotiating table. However, either new sanctions or a war authorization would be a major signal to Iran that the United States isn’t committed to diplomacy or that President Obama couldn’t deliver a deal with a hostile Congress. Rather than inject themselves into the Iran debate and sabotage diplomacy, Congress might consider other practical steps – like finding a way to pay its bills.

Further, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who just held a meeting with Obama and is set to speak before the General Assembly today, never misses an opportunity to dismiss diplomatic prospects. Netanyahu argued that Rouhani’s speech “lacked both any practical proposal to stop Iran’s military nuclear program and any commitment to fulfill UN Security Council decisions.” Netanyahu has insisted that Iran must fully dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for a suspension of future sanctions. That unreasonable demand was repeated by Republican Senators, but few experts view it as reasonable or credible. The basis for future talks, as expressed by Rouhani and Obama last week, is a curb on Iran’s nuclear activities and enhanced international transparency in exchange for meaningful sanctions relief.

View on Huffington Post…




Rouhani’s Electoral Honeymoon Won’t Last Long

This week’s events at and surrounding the UN General Assembly will help determine whether the U.S. and Iran can resolve their differences, or if hardliners on either side will once again succeed in sabotaging reconciliation.

Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, has arrived in New York seven weeks into his presidency at what could be the apex of his electoral honeymoon. He has received the endorsement of the Supreme Leader to negotiate with “heroic flexibility” in forthcoming nuclear talks, succeeded in wresting control of negotiations from Iran’s security establishment, exchanged letters with President Obama, and obtained the release of approximately 90 political prisoners ahead of his New York visit, including human rights advocate Nasrin Sotoudeh. Later this week, Rouhani’s new Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, will sit down with Secretary of State John Kerry and the other chief diplomats of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) for the highest-level diplomatic talks since Iran’s 1979 Revolution. By moving talks up to the ministerial level, this week’s talks are likely to infuse diplomatic clout and urgency that has been lacking in previous negotiating rounds.

But honeymoons do not last. Rouhani has spent political capital on a “charm offensive” with the West, including an interview with NBC’s Ann Curry in which he disavowed the pursuit of nuclear weapons and an op-ed in The Washington Post. If he fails to deliver results in the form of sanctions relief, hardliners within Iran who distrust his conciliatory approach will move to block chances for a nuclear deal. That is why Rouhani has insisted that the time for resolving the nuclear impasse is limited.

Rouhani has firsthand experience with this dynamic as the lead nuclear negotiator for President Khatami. In 2003, Rouhani struck a confidence building deal with the European 3 (the UK, France and Germany) to suspend enrichment and adopt the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, allowing for enhanced transparency over Iran’s nuclear program. However, when these steps failed to lead to reciprocal concessions from the West, Rouhani and Khatami were branded appeasers and the ideological Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reversed their gains and embarked on eight years of amplifying tensions with the West. If we fail to capitalize on the opening before us, we risk repeating those same mistakes.

Obstacles to a deal are at least as difficult within the United States as inside Iran. Congress is set to consider a number of hostile actions that could sabotage renewed hopes for diplomacy. After the House passed a sanctions bill that would impose a virtual embargo on Iran mere days before Rouhani’s inauguration, the Senate is set to consider a companion bill in the weeks ahead. And, having failed to authorize military force against Syria, Rep.Trent Franks (R-AZ) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) are implementing plans to introduce a war resolution against Iran. While these counterproductive measures were an easier sell before Rouhani’s inauguration (the hawkish Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has already declared, “I miss Ahmadinejad“), there is still significant political support in the halls of Congress for renewed sanctions and escalating military threats against Iran.

Apart from Congressional action, President Benjamin Netanyahu and his fellow Iran war hawks are pushing a hardline stance that would render nuclear talks pointless. According to Netanyahu, Iran should be forced to abandon its entire nuclear program by halting enrichment and dismantling its nuclear facilities and centrifuges. In essence, Netanyahu’s stance is unyielding coercion, not diplomacy. Such a policy would set us on the path to war, which would make an Iranian nuclear weapon more, not less likely, given the inability of airstrikes to erase Iran’s nuclear know-how and the certainty that Iran would pursue a nuclear weapon to deter future strikes.

In spite of the pressure campaign against Iran, which has played into the Iranian hardliners’ belief that the United States is interested in regime change and not diplomacy, Rouhani’s election has presented us with another opportunity to resolve the nuclear impasse. But each side will need to invest significant political capital to head off hardliners and strike a nuclear deal while the iron is hot. For Rouhani, the longer he can hold the diplomatic window open, the greater the likelihood that he can deliver on his campaign promises. This will take deft maneuvering and even more political capital to satisfy the right people within Iran’s political establishment. But the success of his presidency is intrinsically tied to rapid success on the nuclear issue. On the American side, success means putting significant sanctions relief on the table immediately — including on oil and financial sanctions, clarifying the endgame with Iran, and taking immediate action to reciprocate Rouhani’s flexible stance. For example, the Obama administration’s lifting of sanctions on humanitarian work and sports exchanges with Iran should be followed up with additional measures to ease the plight of sanctions on Iranians.

This week could represent a fundamental change in the course of U.S.-Iran relations. Or it could represent a point of no return, a missed opportunity on the path toward war when leaders overlooked a critical opportunity to shift relations in a positive course. Let’s hope they take advantage of this critical moment.

(This article originally appeared on Huffington Post)




Don’t Let Syria Distract from Iran Opening

Amid the debate over how to respond to Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, few expect any military action to actually ease the brutal civil war (a prospect that could recede if Assad follows through on a recent Russian proposal to hand over its chemical arsenal). Certainly, at best, military strikes would deter al-Assad from the future use of chemical weapons even as the slaughter continues. But while the United States may not be able to orchestrate a decisive shift in the civil war, another vexed issue for U.S. diplomats may be ripe for a breakthrough – Iran’s nuclear program.

The recent election of pragmatic former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani as president raised hopes for a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear crisis, optimism that that has been stoked by the recent decision to move the nuclear file from the Supreme National Security Council, under the direct purview of the Supreme Leader, to the Foreign Ministry where new Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will directly oversee it. With experienced diplomats like Rouhani and Zarif directly in charge of negotiations, the prospects for diplomatic progress are as good as they have been for years – and President Obama has an opportunity to secure a legacy-defining foreign policy victory.

But there are three serious obstacles to doing so. First, action in Syria carries the risk of scuttling or obscuring the potential for progress on the nuclear issue. After all, Syria remains Iran’s closest ally in the region due to longstanding geopolitical ties, and Iran has opposed Western military intervention. If missiles start to fly, hardliners fearful of regime change and distrustful of reconciliation with the West could have the ammunition they need to prevent Rouhani from mending ties with the United States. The risk of hardliners playing spoiler has been underscored by reports that the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force encouraged Iraqi militias to retaliate for Syrian strikes with attacks against the U.S. embassy and other interests.

But the apparent use of chemical weapons by the al-Assad regime has created fissures within Tehran. Iran has suffered more from chemical warfare than perhaps any country in modern history as a result of Saddam Hussein’s widespread use of chemical agents in the Iran-Iraq war. With this in mind, Iran might be tempted by a seat at negotiations over Syria’s fate, rather than isolate itself diplomatically by supporting a brutal regime. And if the president does approve retaliatory strikes in Syria, the administration will have to go the extra mile to convince Iran that its primary goal in the region is to prevent the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction and that the U.S. intends to pursue diplomacy, not regime change, with Iran. While that won’t completely mitigate the chance that airstrikes empower Iranian hardliners and undermine diplomacy, such steps may be enough to muddy the waters.

The second major obstacle the Obama administration will have to face is its own risk-averse approach to negotiations. To seize the current opportunity, it will have to put more sanctions relief on the table and clarify the endgame with Iran.

After a diplomatic push at the beginning of his first term, which almost resulted in a fuel swap confidence-building deal in 2009 and again in 2010, the Obama administration quickly flipped to amplifying economic pressure to force Iran to capitulate. But sanctions have if anything only encouraged Iran to boost its nuclear capabilities and empowered hardliners opposed to reconciliation with the West.

Recent negotiations have focused on small confidence-building steps and the administration has offered little in the way of sanctions relief in exchange for Iranian nuclear concessions. In the last P5+1 proposal, Iran was offered sanctions relief on precious metals and petrochemicals. Relief from the most punishing sanctions – on Iran’s oil trade and financial sector – was not on the table. Those sanctions have been the primary contributor to Iran’s economic crisis, which has resulted in unemployment rising to 20 percent or more even as inflation skyrockets. Spelling out the endgame for Iran by listing what specific actions it will need to take to see meaningful sanctions relief is a prerequisite for a nuclear agreement. Having previously been labeled an appeaser for unilateral confidence building steps including the suspension of enrichment, Rouhani is unlikely to take a step forward until he is sure where a nuclear agreement could lead.

The final obstacle the administration will have to clear is counterproductive Congressional hawks. Just days before Rouhani’s inauguration, the House of Representatives pushed through a dangerous sanctions bill. The Senate is for its part expected to introduce a companion sanctions bill in the weeks ahead. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC), meanwhile, has reportedly vowed to introduce a war authorization against Iran in the fall, while a group of senators led by Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) has floated a bill that would effectively make regime change official U.S. policy. Any one of those measures could sabotage the current diplomatic opening by signaling to Iran that regime change is the United States’ ultimate goal, or that the Obama administration would be unable to sell a nuclear deal to a hostile Congress.

Still, while these are formidable obstacles, they are not insurmountable. If the president makes a nuclear deal with Iran a top priority, he may be able to navigate the rocky waters ahead and capitalize on Iran’s diplomatic opening. If not, in the years ahead we can ultimately expect to reprise the debate over the merits of military action against another Middle Eastern nation.

(This article originally appeared in CNN World)




Meet the 20 Lawmakers Who Stood Up to the War Lobby

Yesterday, House leadership ignored the warning of a growing group of experts, former officials, and even their own colleagues by pushing through an Iran sanctions bill (H.R.850) that, if passed by the Senate, risks sabotaging diplomatic talks that offer the best chance to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and avoid war. Iran’s incoming president, Hassan Rouhani, has promised to enhance nuclear transparency and pursue “peace and reconciliation” with the West, while urging that no new sanctions be imposed. But with Rouhani’s inauguration on Saturday, the House has already cast a vote that will undermine the new Iranian President and boost hardliners opposed to a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear standoff, increasing the likelihood that we continue to drift toward war.

While an anonymous senior administration official warned against the timing and content of the new sanctions, the administration failed to take an official stand that could have helped delay the vote until after the month-long August recess and Rouhani’s inauguration. This strategy of leaving Congress in the dark, trying to read tea leaves to divine the administration’s stance on the sanctions bill, contributed to its swift passage.

However, 20 Representatives showed courage and leadership on the House floor last night by voting against the new sanctions. In defying the majority of their peers (400 representatives voted in favor) and the pro-war lobby, they exposed themselves to attack. But through their forceful arguments, they provided further demonstration that there are strong advocates within Washington who are eager for a diplomatic resolution that prevents another ill-advised war of choice in the Middle East.

Before the vote, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) led 15 of his colleagues in sending a letter to House leadership urging them to delay consideration until after Rouhani is inaugurated and has a chance to engage in nuclear talks. Further, the letter called for changes to the bill to eliminate restrictions on the President’s ability to waive sanctions, and to clarify that the bill is by no means an authorization for war with Iran (Eight of those who sponsored Rep. McDermott’s letter, having failed to delay the vote, either voted yes or abstained). On the floor, Rep. McDermott warned “the timing of this bill could not be worse from a foreign policy perspective.” McDermott also referenced the disastrous war in Iraq, when sanctions foreclosed diplomatic prospects, greatly contributed to the immense suffering of the Iraqi people, and ultimately led to war.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) also played a key role in mobilizing opposition to the bill. Ellison cited Rouhani’s apparent eagerness to engage in negotiations with the West, asking “[w]hy aren’t we at least curious to find out whether or not President Rouhani means that he wants to pursue this course of peace? It’s what we want, is [a] negotiated settlement. Why are we slapping his hand down, when apparently the Iranian people are willing to support a candidate who is willing to extend a hand?”

These warnings were echoed by Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), who stated, “”I can’t imagine we are looking for another war of choice, that we want to escalate the rhetoric. This is the best opportunity we have had in at least 8 years, if not more. Why throw that away? The fact is that this bill empowers the very hard-liners who are the problem.”

Rep. David Price (D-NC), one of the lead sponsors of a bipartisan, pro-diplomacy letter signed by 131 Representatives and sent to President Obama two weeks ago, reluctantly opposed the bill. Price, despite endorsing previous rounds of sanctions, strongly objected to the timing of the bill as it would undermine the incoming President. He warned “to rush through a new round of sanctions before the new President has even taken office could slam the window of opportunity shut before we even have a chance to test whether it is genuine.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) argued “I think there is a possibility that that recent election makes a difference in Iran. I hope it does. But one way to guarantee that it doesn’t is to tell the Iranian people, ‘We don’t care what you do. We’re going to ratchet up the sanctions. We’re going to undercut the new guy. We’re going to tell you that we’re just going to go down this path.’ Don’t poke the Iranian people in the eye and ignore the sorry history we’ve had of fumbling the relationship with that country.”

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), warned that the diplomatic opportunity presented by the election might not last forever, but that “it is a time when I, for one, want to support the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon’s ability to move forward our relationship and dialogue with Iran on this most serious matter.” Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), indicated in a statement that the vote “sends the signal that the U.S. wishes to punish the Iranian people and will only settle for submission, rather than a negotiated, face saving solution that meets the security needs of the United States, Israel, and the entire international community and the economic needs of the Iranian people.” And Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) released a statement that indicated “the President must have the ability to waive sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions. Yet H.R.850 places significant restrictions on the President’s authority to waive sanctions.”

The Representatives mentioned above, in addition to the three anti-interventionist Republicans and ten other Democrats who voted no on new sanctions (listed below), deserve particular praise for standing up to the hawks. They should hear from supporters of peace that we appreciate their courage and leadership.

The next time Congress has a vote to pass new sanctions that jeopardize diplomacy with Iran, will the administration remain silent and fail to back their legislative allies? And, with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) joining Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) to push these new sanctions through the House, will Democratic leadership once again side with the pro-war crowd? If so, we might miss this major potential opportunity and, as we continue to drift toward war, wonder what could have been.

Representatives Who Voted “No” on H.R.850:

Justin Amash (R-MI)

Earl Blumenauer (D-OR)

André Carson (D-IN)

Donna Edwards (D-MD)

Keith Ellison (D-MN)

Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ)

Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX)

Walter B. Jones (R-NC)

Barbara Lee (D-CA)

Thomas Massie (R-KY)

Betty McCollum (D-MN)

Jim McDermott (D-WA)

Jim McGovern (D-MA)

George Miller (D-CA)

James P. Moran (D-VA)

Beto O’Rourke (D-TX)

Donald M. Payne, Jr. (D-NJ)

David E. Price (D-NC)

Peter J. Visclosky (D-IN)

Maxine Waters (D-CA)

* Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) signed the McDermott letter, while voting “present,” while Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), signed and abstained. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA), Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) signed the McDermott letter while voting “yes.”

(This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post)




Will the House Lead a Preemptive Strike to Kill New Iran Talks?

Iran’s election of Hassan Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator who promised greater nuclear transparency and to pursue “peace and reconciliation” with the outside world, presents the best opportunity for serious progress on diplomatic negotiations with Iran in over eight years. But the future of diplomacy with Iran now lies with the House of Representatives. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), the House Majority Leader, will soon choose whether to vote on a punishing sanctions bill next week that could poison the well for future diplomatic talks before Rouhani’s inauguration in early August. To give negotiations a chance to succeed, the House must not vote on sanctions before August, when Rouhani is inaugurated and has a chance to negotiate with the United States and other members of the P5+1.

Proceeding blindly with sanctions, without considering what leverage is needed or if Rouhani is different from his inflammatory predecessor, Ahmadinejad, would signal to Iran that our rhetorical commitment to a diplomatic resolution is hollow, and that what we are really seeking is unending sanctions and war.

Having passed the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and garnered more than 350 cosponsors before Rouhani’s election, the punishing sanctions bill (H.R.850) from Rep. Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Engel (D-NY) is now poised for passage. But as has been made clear, sanctions alone are not a strategy to resolve the nuclear impasse. Rather than increase leverage, sanctions have increased tensions on each side as Tehran responds to pressure with pressure, including by expanding the scope of its nuclear program.

Further, with sanctions already crushing the Iranian economy by targeting the financial sector and oil trade, the Royce-Engel bill increasingly targets the Iranian people who just voted for moderation over a continuation of Ahmadinejad’s extremist policies. The bill would squeeze off commercial trade with Iran and, for the first time, fail to exempt humanitarian goods including life-saving medicine and food. In opposition to the administration’s desires, the bill could fracture the international coalition on Iran by imposing a de facto oil embargo. And the bill would limit the president’s ability to waive sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions, the critical factor in any deal to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

Some might argue that there isn’t, in fact, a danger in passing the bill because there is no companion bill ready in the Senate. But this assumes that Iran, in the absence of direct ties for three decades, will defer to the nuances of America’s legislative process. In reality, it would be viewed as a hostile continuation of what many in Iran perceive as a strategy to undermine Iran no matter what. This would empower hardliners who were recently routed in the elections and who are distrustful of any accommodation or deal with the United States. The House could provide them the perfect opportunity to seize on a perceived repudiation of Rouhani’s professed path of conciliation. As Rouhani and moderates jockey for position within Iran’s political system during this transition, Congress needs to focus on how it can give space for moderates to proceed with serious engagement.

As 29 prominent former policymakers and experts, including former CENTCOM Commander Gen. Joseph P. Hoar and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Pickering, stated in a letter to President Obama two weeks ago, “no further sanctions should be imposed or considered at this time.” And last week, a group of 131 bipartisan representatives urged the President to test the opportunity presented by Iran’s election and to avoid actions that could delegitimize Rouhani at the expense of those opposed to reconciliation and peace.

After eight years of negative signals from Iran, highlighted by harsh rhetoric and escalation from Ahmadinejad and his allies, the Iranian people have created an opportunity for progress by choosing moderation. If the House responds by imposing additional suffocating sanctions before Rouhani even enters office, the world will view it as a move to sabotage diplomacy. Such brinksmanship would bring the United States, Iran and our allies closer to another disastrous war of choice in the Middle East. Now is the time for caution, not escalation. There is nothing to gain by pushing through sanctions, and everything to lose.

Call Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and urge him not to schedule a vote on Iran sanctions before Iran’s new president is inaugurated.

View the article on Huffington Post.




Congress, Former Policymakers Urge Obama to Revitalize Diplomacy with Iran

After an initial hard diplomatic push at the beginning of his first term, President Obama has overwhelmingly relied on economic pressure over diplomacy in an attempt to force Iran to satisfy international concerns regarding its nuclear program.  But economic pressure has undermined prospects for a negotiated solution by playing into Iranian fears that the United States is really interested in regime change.  However, Iran’s recent election of Hassan Rouhani has provided renewed hope that diplomatic progress could be on the horizon.  A growing chorus of experts, former policymakers and Congressional representatives are urging President Obama to take advantage of this potentially fortuitous turn by reinvigorating diplomatic efforts to secure a nuclear deal.

On Monday, 29 prominent former government officials, diplomats, military officers and national security experts sent a letter to President Obama urging him to “seize the moment to pursue new multilateral and bilateral negotiations with Iran once Rouhani takes office and to avoid any provocative action that could narrow the window of opportunity for a more moderate policy out of Tehran.”  The signatories, including former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Assistant Secretary of State, Amb. Thomas Pickering, and former CENTCOM Commander Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, also urge the President to prepare to leverage existing sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions on its nuclear program, while warning that “no further sanctions should be imposed or considered at this time as they could empower hardliners opposed to nuclear concessions at the expense of those seeking to shift policy in a more moderate direction.”

A similar, bipartisan letter is circulating in Congress, sponsored by Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) and Rep. David Price (D-NC).  Well over 100 representatives have already signed.  The Dent-Price letter urges the President to “pursue the potential opportunity,” presented by Rouhani’s election and calls for using sanctions as leverage to achieve a nuclear deal.  Further, the letter warns “not to preempt this potential opportunity by engaging in actions that delegitimize the newly elected president and weaken his standing relative to hardliners within the regime who are opposed to his professed “policy of reconciliation and peace.” 

The Obama administration has, rightfully, expressed cautious optimism over the election results.  Rouhani, a political insider and former nuclear negotiator, appears to be much more pragmatic than the inflammatory Ahmadinejad, and he has a mandate from the Iranian people to make progress on the nuclear issue and human rights.  He has promised enhanced nuclear transparency and to attempt to restore relations with the West, while pursuing a non-securitized political atmosphere inside Iran that will enable the release of political prisoners and ease government interference in the lives of Iranian citizens.  True, it is also important to note that Rouhani won’t be a pushover.  He is a strong nationalist who will likely defend Iran’s perceived right to enrich uranium.  And he will need to project a tough demeanor at times in order to sell a nuclear deal to conservatives in Iran’s government and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who holds veto authority over any major policy decision. 

Many have been quick to seize on these limitations in order to argue that what we really need is sanctions and war, not renewed diplomacy.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking on Face the Nation on Sunday, downplayed concerns over regional crises including Egypt and Syria, warning that not enough attention is being paid in Washington to Iran’s nuclear program and that Iran must face “ratcheted sanctions.”  Further, Netanyahu stated that Iranians “have to know you’ll be prepared to take military action; that’s the only thing that will get their attention.”  He described Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who will “smile and build a bomb.”  A Congressional letter, sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which garnered dozens of signatures from members on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, also reflected the sentiment that nothing has changed and that Iran must face “intensifying pressure,” including through new sanctions.  The House is currently considering additional punishing sanctions that would limit the President’s negotiating ability, deepen Iranian distrust, punish the Iranian people, and do nothing to resolve the nuclear impasse. 

In reaction to Netanyahu’s comments, Rouhani laughed off the threat.  But Rouhani can’t be seen as soft by Iran’s hardliners while pursuing a nuclear deal that contains significant Iranian concessions. Otherwise, he would invite criticism of weakness or appeasement from hardliners.  Rouhani faced similar attacks when he oversaw confidence-building measures as Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator between 2003-2005, including the suspension of enrichment, without receiving reciprocal concessions from the West.  The United States and Israel should instead be considering what actions could enhance Rouhani’s room for maneuver and make a nuclear deal easier to broker. 

For now, the Obama administration appears to be standing pat with the current P5+1 nuclear offer, which demands too much for the minimal sanctions relief that would be offered in return, according to Iran.  Iran is unlikely to agree to major concessions without a clear roadmap for the removal of sanctions on Iran’s oil and financial sectors, which have caused the greatest amount of economic pain in Iran.  Those chips shouldn’t be held in reserve — they should be cashed in as part of a diplomatic deal. 

President Obama would be wise to heed the cooler heads in this debate.  Escalating rhetoric and pressure is not a strategy to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.  It is a recipe for war that will significantly constrain possibilities for a diplomatic deal.  If the administration fails to revitalize the diplomatic track, the Rouhani election could just be another in a long-line of missed opportunities to reduce tensions with Iran, and the status quo of simmering tension would risk breaking out into war.

View article at the Huffington Post.




President Obama Can Still Channel Kennedy on Iran

Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy delivered a visionary commencement speech at American University where he called on Americans to reexamine their assumptions about peace, including with our then-archrival, the Soviet Union. In so doing, Kennedy challenged a mindset that has shaped modern American foreign policy: that diplomacy is appeasement and the only rational way to deal with rivals is through unyielding pressure and military force. Today, with President Barack Obama struggling to obtain a deal that ensures peace and prevents Iran’s increasingly authoritarian leaders from pursuing a nuclear weapon, Kennedy’s words resonate and offer guidance for a reinvigorated diplomatic approach to Iran.

As tensions with Iran rise, President Obama would be wise to heed Kennedy’s words “not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.”

In 2008, when candidate Obama was drawing comparisons to President Kennedy for his idealism and soaring rhetoric, he openly challenged the anti-diplomacy mindset gripping U.S. policy. The young Senator’s willingness to engage face-to-face with the leaders of Iran and North Korea without preconditions was ridiculed by his opponents as a sign of his inexperience. But Obama stood firm and, upon entering the White House, his administration briefly attempted to reach out to Iran before altering course a year later in favor of escalating economic sanctions. While this reflected the Washington consensus that Iran will only respond to pressure, it has hardened Iran’s opposition to American interests.

Kennedy knew that a sole reliance on pressure and confrontation would be met in kind by the Soviet Union, increasing the likelihood of war. The same holds true for Iran today. As proponents of diplomacy warned, escalating pressure has strengthened Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s power, devastating reformists and limiting avenues for internal change. Iran is responding by continuing to advance its nuclear program and, as the State Department warned last month, surging its support for terror groups to levels not seen in two decades.

Now, with hawks from both parties calling for a cessation of the intermittent diplomatic talks and enhanced military pressure, the President is dangerously close to falling victim to a policy of brinksmanship that puts us on the path to war.

Months before his speech, Kennedy faced the very real possibility of nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy stymied the hawks within his administration who pushed for strikes on missile sites and an invasion of Cuba, which would have almost certainly triggered nuclear war. Through deft diplomacy, Kennedy offered Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviets an exit from the escalating tensions, allowing both sides to save face. Narrowly avoiding nuclear war had a profound impact on Kennedy, a “cold warrior”, and helped shape his stirring words delivered that summer at American University.

In an era where superpowers with rival ideologies clashed on the global stage, Kennedy challenged the “dangerous, defeatist,” the belief that peace is not possible, and that “war is inevitable.” Since the challenges of international politics are man-made, he argued, they will never be out of mankind’s capacity to solve. Kennedy explained that peace need not be the result of a “sudden revolution in human nature” called for by the naïve, and could be achievable through “a gradual evolution in human institutions — on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned.”

Despite the hostile rhetoric of Soviet propaganda, which described the United States as bloodthirsty imperialists eager to launch preventive war, Kennedy warned that “no government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue.” Further, we must “persevere in the search for peace in the hope that constructive changes within the Communist bloc might bring within reach solutions which now seem beyond us.”

We are fortunate that the Cold War did not end in conflict. But the final chapters of our cold war with Iran have not yet been written.

Today, many policymakers believe that the pursuit of peace with Iran is foolhardy and that preventive war must remain “on the table.” Iran’s leaders meanwhile echo the propaganda of the Soviet leadership. Our decades of mutual mistrust have seemingly created a wall in which only animosity and barbs can penetrate. If Kennedy were alive today, he might warn President Obama about these “dangerous, defeatist” beliefs. Continuing to allow those beliefs to bind us to a policy of isolation, military pressure and continually escalating sanctions will only further undermine the reformist movement, strengthen Khamenei’s power and increase the likelihood of a spark igniting the flames of war.

But Iran cannot forever remain a pariah, cut off from the international community, stifling the hopes and aspirations of its people. And the United States cannot afford another bloody, open-ended conflict in the Middle East. To achieve the deal, we will need to challenge our assumptions, break away from the cycle of mutual escalation and put our full weight behind diplomacy.

As Kennedy warned, “I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war — and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task.” Let’s hope his warning still resonates today.

This column was originally published by Lobelog




After Iran Tech Sanctions Fix, are Medicine Shortages Next?

Last week, a senior State Department official acknowledged something the U.S. government had previously chalked up as simply Iranian propaganda: that sanctions are contributing to medicine shortages in Iran. The official, Ambassador Wendy Sherman, was talking to BBC Persian to announce that the U.S. was lifting sanctions on communications technologies that help connect the Iranian people to the outside world, in a policy shift that has been widely praised. During the interview, Sherman indicated that the U.S. is “so concerned” about shortages of medical supplies inside Iran that the Obama administration has “sent a team around the world talking to countries who said they are having difficulty getting their medicines into Iran, because we want to make sure that they don’t think they may get sanctioned by the US if they send medicine to Iran.”

Acknowledging that there is a problem is a crucial step that raises expectations that the administration might finally take action to address the problem, alleviating medical shortages and ensuring that Iranians are able to access humanitarian goods.

Reassuring exporters of food and medicine that they won’t be targeted for selling their products to Iran is an important step. Alone, however, experts warn that it is not enough to stop U.S. sanctions from continuing to contribute to shortages of medicine and other humanitarian goods inside Iran. Due to the breadth of sanctions on Iran and severe penalties for violating them, the conditional authorization for facilitating humanitarian transactions with Iran has proven insufficient, as demonstrated by massive medicine shortages in Iran.

It is legal to export humanitarian goods to Iran in theory, but sweeping sanctions on nearly the entire Iranian banking sector make doing so either very difficult or impossible. Ensuring that banks are willing to facilitate transactions largely depends on a company’s ability to browbeat a foreign bank into facilitating transactions by threatening to withhold other business. In other words, large multinationals with dedicated teams can find a way, but most others often find a closed door.

The reason for foreign banks’ hesitancy is that if they deal with Iran’s blacklisted banks, directly or indirectly, they could be cut off from the U.S. financial system. These fears have been reinforced by the Treasury Department’s active discouragement of any financial transaction with Iran for many years. As we learned in the 2008-2009 financial crisis, banks are deeply interconnected, and it can be difficult for a foreign bank to know for sure if a blacklisted Iranian bank might somehow be indirectly involved in any given transaction. As long as U.S. regulations are putting these foreign banks at such risk, there will continue to be medicine and other shortages. The banks simply will find the risks too great to facilitate humanitarian transactions.

There’s no doubt that increasingly severe Executive and Congressional sanctions are imposing tremendous hardships on the Iranian people. Yet, even the most hardened sanctions proponents have claimed to support enabling humanitarian trade items like medicine sales.

The administration should stand with the Iranian people by opening banking channels for humanitarian goods and other U.S.-authorized transactions by providing third country banks a blanket waiver that they will not be sanctioned for facilitating legitimate humanitarian transactions. Alternatively, the Obama administration could heed the recommendation of a recent Atlantic Council report by “[d]esignating a small number of US and private Iranian financial institutions as channels for payment for humanitarian, educational, and public diplomacy-related transactions carefully licensed by the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.” This measure would completely cut out the need to use foreign banks as intermediaries. As the Atlantic Council notes, this would be a major step to facilitate people-to-people ties with Iranians, whose opinion of U.S. policy has suffered under indiscriminate sanctions.

Several other expert organizations have drawn attention to this issue in recent reports. The Wilson Center published an extensive report highlighting the key role sanctions play in contributing to shortages of advanced Western medicine used to treat serious afflictions such as cancer and hemophilia. By blacklisting Iranian banks and deterring foreign banks with massive sanctions, the banking channel needed to facilitate transactions inhighly-patented Western medicine has been closed. Siamak Namazi, one of the authors of the report, stated in a New York Times op-ed, “even though in theory the sanctions regime imposed on Iran by the United States and the European Union is supposed to allow humanitarian trade, in reality it impairs the delivery of drugs and medical equipment to Iran.” Facing shortages, Iranians have been forced to substitute cheaper drugs from China and India that are not nearly as effective in dealing with serious medical conditions.

The Iran Project’s recent report, which was signed by three dozen former policymakers and experts, including Amb. Tom Pickering, Sen. Richard Lugar, Rep. Lee Hamilton and Anne Marie-Slaughter, confirmed these findings. Although the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) exempts humanitarian aid to Iran, “U.S. firms are not always willing to undertake the licensing process that is required, while foreign firms and banks may hold back from any transactions with Iran for fear of U.S. penalties and the risk of rapidly plummeting rial.” As a result, the suffering caused by sanctions is not only undermining global support for U.S. policies but also further inflamespublic resentment from Iranians. They warn, humanitarian shortages “could produce mass human suffering that would be morally repugnant and contrary to past American policy.”

A new sanctions bill being considered in the House (H.R.850) would likely worsen the humanitarian crisis by forcing countries that currently trade with Iran, such as China, Turkey, India and South Korea, to reduce all of their commercial trade with Iran or face sanctions. Without an exemption for humanitarian goods including food and medicine, this would deepen shortages of such goods in Iran while angering our allies.

The President does not have an excuse to let this problem fester; he can fix the regulations unilaterally without an act of Congress. Fortunately, Ambassador Sherman’s comments appear to indicate that the administration is ready to acknowledge its role in humanitarian shortages in Iran, and is ready to take steps to fix the problem. Doing so would be another major victory to ensure that the U.S. does not contribute to the suffering of ordinary Iranians.

This story originally appeared on The Huffington Post.