Expert Reacts to Sec. Pompeo’s Speech in Cairo on America’s Middle East Policies

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, January 10, 2019
CONTACT: Yasmina Dardari | yasmina@unbendablemedia.com

Jamal Abdi, President of the National Iranian American Council, issued the following statement after Secretary Pompeo’s speech in Cairo on America’s Middle East policies:

“Secretary Pompeo’s speech failed to outline a coherent strategic logic for the Trump administration’s Middle East policy. If Secretary Pompeo wants regional stability, human rights, and an end to U.S. military adventures and endless wars, he would press his boss to return to the Iran deal, pursue and facilitate good-faith diplomacy among all stakeholders, and honor our international agreements.

“Iran’s government engages in the unconscionable repression of its people and violates its international human rights commitments. Unfortunately, legitimate criticism of the Iranian government’s abuses and support for the Iranian people are undermined by this administration’s hypocrisy – from failing to uphold its own international commitments under the nuclear deal, to shielding the Saudi government from accountability for its killing of Jamal Khashoggi, to banning and sanctioning ordinary Iranians.

“A prudent alternative U.S. policy to the region must be predicated on using diplomacy as the preferred method of advancing U.S. interests, acting consistently on human rights, and ceasing our blank-check support for regional autocrats. A diplomacy-driven U.S. Middle East policy would not turn its back on regional people suffering under the yoke of strongmen or monarchs and would build on the successful diplomatic playbook of the Iran nuclear deal.

“If the administration continues on its current path of reflexively backing despotic regional regimes, simplistically blaming Iran as the source of all regional ills, and jeopardizing U.S. relations with European states seeking to preserve the nuclear accord, it will succeed at little other than fueling instability.”

# # #

The National Iranian American Council (www.niacouncil.org) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening the voice of Iranian Americans and promoting greater understanding between the American and Iranian people. We accomplish our mission through expert research and analysis, civic and policy education, and community building.

The Day After a Nuclear Deal

Iran-Apple-People
The White House worked hard to fence Iran off from the world. But in the wake of a nuclear deal, will the US end up fencing only itself off from Iran?

Iran might re-open for business soon, but don’t expect the Americans to be knocking on the door.

With the U.S. and Iranian negotiating parties expressing confidence in reaching a nuclear deal in the week ahead, the promise of a broad sanctions-easing on Tehran is inspiring hope among the business sector.

That hope, however, might not translate for U.S. companies, who stand to lose out in the race to Iran. Most observers expect the White House to retain large parts of the U.S. trade ban following a nuclear deal. That will prevent U.S. companies from engaging in any significant trade with or investment in Iran.

In contrast, Europe is already preparing for the day after a nuclear deal. Last month, the Europe-Iran Forum was held in London, where European firms met their Iranian counterparts to explore opportunities for doing business in Iran should a nuclear deal open the door. With a young, cosmopolitan, and highly-educated population, Iran is an attractive market. Expressing the bullishness of many, Charles Robertson, the chief global economist at Renaissance Capital, recently declared Iran “the biggest opportunity of the next 10 years.”

For U.S. firms, that will be a missed opportunity. Reports have indicated that, because of the tough slog the White House will have lifting U.S. sanctions, U.S. negotiators have asked their European counterparts to lift the EU sanctions on Iran at an early date should a deal be reached. That will lead to Europe entering Iran at a far earlier date than U.S. business. To the speedier go the spoils.

This does not need to be the case nor should it. Besides the real commercial opportunities that would be available to U.S. businesses in Iran, the White House also has real interests at stake in opening things up with Tehran.

First, the United States has long believed that commercial ties have a moderating influence on countries with which the U.S. has contentious relations. In fact, when the U.S. trade ban with Iran was first exacted in 1995, some U.S. commentators pointed out that this flew in the face of the prevailing wisdom in Washington. That wisdom suggested that extending business links to otherwise recalcitrant regimes was a potent version of American soft power that had the potential for high rewards at low costs.

Iran has, for too long, been the exception to this rule. In cutting off all trade relations with Tehran, the United States has done a favor to the most conservative elements of Iran, who most fear the West’s cultural invasion. Moreover, the track record of disengagement isn’t pretty. Nearly two decades of radio silence between the two countries has done little to address the concerns the U.S. has regarding Iran’s policies in the region. It is high time to abandon these failed policies and try something new, and a nuclear deal triggers that opportunity.

Second, the White House has an interest in making sure that any nuclear deal reached with Iran is sustainable. As tough as the present negotiations have been, a nuclear agreement will be a fragile thing for the foreseeable future, as opponents on both sides actively work to undermine it.

Sustaining this will require a certain level of ingenuity from the White House. Returning to the age-old hostilities between the two countries won’t work. That would only provide fuel to the fire for hardliners interested in killing a nuclear deal.

Instead, the Obama administration will need to figure out a way to de-escalate tensions with Iran. The best means of accomplishing this can be the slow development of trade ties — tailored in such a way as to militate against suspicion while also addressing each other’s interests and needs. Such trade ties can up the consequences of any perceived violation of a nuclear deal for both sides and thus increase each party’s interest in scrupulously toeing the line of an agreement.

Third, a nuclear deal opens up opportunities for both sides to chart a new course in U.S.-Iran relations. The path will be a difficult one. Hardliners in Washington and Tehran have a long-standing interest in making sure that contacts between the two countries are kept to a minimum.

But precisely because this is the case, the White House should open the door for business contacts between the U.S. and Iran, so that commercial ties can pave the way for political relations. Utilizing the private sector in this manner, the White House can ease the difficulties it will later have should it seek a broader opening with Tehran.

Whether the U.S. and Iran can reach a nuclear deal in the weeks ahead remains unclear. But if so, the White House should seize the opportunity to poke a crack in the wall that has long separated the two countries.

It would be ironic after all to see the United States, which fenced Iran off from the world for the better part of the past decade, to fence only itself off from Iran in the wake of a nuclear deal.

This article was originally published in Medium.

Iran Nuclear Deal Could Spell End of the War That Never Was

In less than a week, the outcome of the nuclear talks with Iran will be clear. According to one P5+1 diplomat, the possibilities — ranging from most to least likely — are an extension of the talks, a comprehensive agreement, or an agreement in principle.

Not on the menu — at least among the principals at the negotiations — is a return to the escalatory cycle that defined the past decade and threatened constantly to spill over into war. As the U.S.’s lead negotiator, Wendy Sherman, remarked at a conference in Washington last month, if the talks fail, “escalation is the name of the game, on all sides, and none of that is good.” In other words, failure is not an option.

This — not surprisingly — comes as a disappointment to some in Washington. Little more than a decade after having advocated war on Iraq, many of the same personalities have sought to bring the U.S. and Iran to the precipice of military conflict. Their efforts were only narrowly averted last summer when secret negotiations in Oman yielded November’s interim agreement on the nuclear issue. Since then, President Obama’s detractors have taken aim at the talks itself, pouncing on any and all U.S. compromises as paving the way towards nuclear holocaust.

But their messaging, besides being histrionic, has been confused. In the same week where Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that “the alternative to a bad deal is not war,” but more sanctions, leading U.S. hawks, Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz, wrote that the “wise[] bet is that sanctions will fail…” — at least “without other forms of coercion.”

What “other forms of coercion” did they have in mind? War, of course.

This cross-signaling bespeaks a broader problem for Washington’s warmongers: the nuclear talks have de-escalated tensions between the U.S. and Iran not just on the nuclear issue, but on others as well. This has made their lives difficult because, instead of merely invoking Iran to garner support for their hard-line position, they are now forced to argue the point and to justify why turning our back on dialogue is the right approach.

Because let’s face it: Having been involved in constant negotiations with each other for the past year, the U.S. and Iran understand each other better now than at any point over the past 35 years. Moreover, with the Middle East in a turmoil never before seen, both countries have been forced to revisit a calculus that had made each other implacable enemies, incapable of cooperation. If the Middle East and the U.S.’s role in it is to be salvaged, it will have to be on the back of a broader U.S.-Iran détente.

It is a difficult point to argue. With most U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan by the end of the year and the White House prepared to put more boots-on-the-ground in Iraq — all the while U.S. fighter jets pound Islamic State outposts in Syria — the idea that the United States can open up a new front with Iran is unsound. Americans have neither the appetite for a new war nor the ability to wage one, and the empty braggadocio of U.S. hawks won’t change that fact.

That leaves U.S. hawks in the unenviable position of having to swim against the tide in U.S.-Iran relations. At a time when so many are hopeful for a peaceful resolution to this conflict – both in the United States, in Iran, and around the world – those pushing for war look and sound perverse in their efforts to thwart compromise and kill the negotiations.

Being the last, best chance the United States has at limiting Iran’s nuclear program, this pulls the thin veneer that long masked their intentions off for good. Pushing conflict with Iran has never been about the nuclear program, as much as it has about that old desire to reconfigure the Middle East via regime change. How else can we explain U.S. hard-liners’ adamant opposition to an interim deal that, by all accounts, has stalled Iran’s nuclear program for the first time in a decade and allowed international inspectors daily access to check on Iran’s nuclear facilities? How else to explain the shrillness that greets mere letter-writing to Iran’s leader at a time when the nuclear deadline nears and the Middle East goes up in flames?

U.S. hawks are pulling no punches, because they have no more punches to pull. They recognize well enough that if a nuclear deal is cemented in the weeks ahead, their push for war is close to being all for naught.

That doesn’t mean they won’t try to spoil an agreement. Two weeks ago, Republicans swept to majorities in both houses of Congress during the mid-terms, giving U.S. hard-liners a pedestal on which to preempt a nuclear deal. Already, some members of Congress have designs on scurrying any agreement reached between the U.S. and Iran — either by preventing the president from implementing a deal or by imposing new sanctions on Iran.

However, if the White House has the wherewithal to withstand Republican-led attacks on a nuclear deal, U.S. hawks will be without any further means to advance us towards war against Iran. A nuclear agreement will take hold; both sides will adhere to their reciprocal obligations; and the world will be free of both renewed conflict and a new nuclear-weapons power.

President Obama’s legacy will then be defined not merely as bringing to a close two wars inherited from his predecessor, but as spelling the end of the war that never was. That will be — in the great scheme of things — his singular triumph in office. It will also be the last throw of cold-water on war plans a decade-in-the-making.

This article was originally published in Huffington Post.

Pen-Palling With the Ayatollah

Only ideologues and the ignorant don’t understand that Obama’s letter to Khamenei is just pragmatic politics.

If wearing a tan suit at a press conference is enough to bring on a deluge of criticism , President Barack Obama probably shouldn’t be surprised that sending a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has made some heads spin. That’s too bad. Obama’s letter to Khamenei just points out the obvious: that Iran and the United States share a common interest in defeating the Islamic State and that real cooperation cannot take place until the nuclear issue is resolved.

The real outrage is that communicating with key players in the Middle East in order to advance U.S. security is still considered outrageous in far too many policy and political circles in Washington. The “outrage”  Sen. John McCain has expressed reminds us why the American public over and over again has rejected his foreign-policy vision. 

It’s not as if President George W. Bush didn’t understand the importance of Iran to regional politics. His administration started secret negotiations with Tehran after 9/11 and coordinated with Iran both in the military campaign against the Taliban and subsequently in the campaign to establish a new constitution for Afghanistan. Once Tehran’s help no longer was deemed necessary, Bush put Iran in the “Axis of Evil” and ruined the opportunity for the United States to collaborate with Iran for years to come. Incidentally, not long thereafter, Iran and the United States ended up competing in Iraq and Afghanistan, which in turn rendered the stabilization of these two countries all the more difficult.

Some were angered by the letter to Ayatollah Khamenei because Obama didn’t get “approval” from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah first. But the president of the United States has no obligation to seek permission from Israel, Saudi Arabia, or any other country when it comes to advancing his country’s security.

The emergence of the so-called Islamic State threatens the very foundation of the state system in the Middle East. Despite their many faults, the reality is that strong states in the Middle East are less dangerous to each other and to their populations than failed states. The Islamic State’s success wouldn’t just turn the Middle East into a region with failed states; it would turn it into a failed region. Such a problem could not easily be contained. Spillover effects into Europe, Central Asia, and beyond are all but certain. Every policymaker in the Middle East — and in the West — realizes this.

The United States cannot and should not shoulder the responsibility for stopping the Islamic State alone. Nor can U.S. bombs alone pave a path out of the Middle East’s perilous situation. Real cooperation and coordination is needed between key players. Iran — the Middle East’s second-largest country by population and a major influence on the Shiite Muslim world — is one of these key players. Moreover, Iran shares 900 miles of border with Iraq and has good relations with governments in both Baghdad and Damascus. Like it or not, Iran is an unavoidable player in the fight against the Islamic State.

In fact, according to both the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government, Iran was the first country to provide support for the fight against the Islamic State by sending both weaponry and advisors. Recently, pictures surfaced of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, posing with Kurdish Peshmerga forces after having wrestled several Iraqi villages out of the hands of the Islamic State.

But if Obama realizes that he needs Iran as a kind of ally in Iraq right now, he also has his eye on a longer-term strategy — certainly far more than Bush did. Republicans claim that by raising the issue of the Islamic State with the Iranians, the president has weakened the United States’ hand in the nuclear talks. In reality, the changing regional context has made continuing enmity with the United States — on the nuclear issue and more — harder for the Iranians to keep up. A door could be opening for a broader understanding between the two countries.

According to press accounts, the letter made clear that the mutually beneficial collaboration between the United States and Iran against the Islamic State could only take place once the ongoing dispute over Iran’s nuclear program has been resolved. As an added incentive for Iran to agree to intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities and strong limitations on its enrichment program, Obama raised the prospects of expanded collaboration on areas of mutual interest.

Tehran’s need to stop the Islamic State’s rampage across the neighborhood gives Obama leverage. I had a lengthy conversation with a top Iranian official only a few days after Mosul fell to the Islamic State jihadists in July of this year. He told me that even the Supreme Leader, known to be more hard-line than the government of President Hassan Rouhani, agrees that neither the United States nor Israel constitutes the main threat to Iran’s security at this point. Sunni jihadists and the spread of sectarianism shine brightest on Iran’s threat radar, not only because a region defined by the Sunni-Shiite rift is one in which the majority of Iran’s neighbors would become its enemies, but also because sectarianism can unravel Iran’s internal ethnic and religious balance.

The Iranian official readily admitted that Iran could not on its own defeat the Islamic State, lest it add fuel to the sectarian fire. At the same time, neither the United States nor Iraq can fight back the Islamic State on their own. Only through broad collaboration could this common threat be defeated, the official said. But, he added, Tehran has to make up its mind, pointing to the debate in Iran on whether a nuclear deal should open the door for better relations with Washington.

 But this is exactly what those stirring the pot in Washington fear the most. Iran is simply too valuable of an enemy. A nuclear accord that eliminates an Iranian path to a bomb and helps reorient Iran toward a more constructive relationship with the United States is too much to stomach for those who have spent the better half of the last two decades systematically pushing the United States and Iran to the brink of war. Some simply fear peace more than they fear war. To them, the idea of losing an enemy in the Middle East is unpalatable.

And that’s the real controversy. Thinking that a peaceful Middle East is something to avoid at all costs makes anger over a tan suit look pretty reasonable.

Trita Parsi is the author of A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran and President of theNational Iranian American Council.

 

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy.