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  • 16 September 2013
  • Posted By Shadi
  • 0 Comments
  • Diplomacy, Sanctions

Experts Consider Prospects for Iran Diplomacy Amid Syria Crisis

The alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the ongoing debate within the United States over military intervention has raised many questions regarding the prospects of nuclear negotiations with Iran.

On September 10, in efforts to shed light on the current complex dynamic between Iran, Syria and the United States, as well as to explore the potential for diplomacy with Iran, the American Security Project hosted an event entitled “Prospects for a Diplomatic Solution in Iran.” This panel included Greg ThielmannSenior Fellow at the Arms Control Association, Joel Rubin, Policy Director for the Ploughshares Fund and Alireza Nader, International Policy Analyst for the RAND Corporation.

Thielmann initiated the discussion by providing a comprehensive update on the status of Iran’s nuclear program. Thielmann discredited the current 2015 projected date of Iran being able to acquire deliverable nuclear weapons. He stated, “2015 is a worst case number the intelligence community has used for a long time, now requiring so many qualifications it is no longer a meaningful projection.”

Describing the current position of Iran’s nuclear program, Thielmann said,  “whatever redlines are drawn on cartoon bombs, Iran is not yet on the verge of being able to make a no warning dash to nuclear weapons.” He argued that the present task for the United States is to convince Iran through diplomacy that nuclear weapons development is not necessary for deterrence, or in Iran’s national interest.

Joel Rubin focused primarily on the potential for diplomacy with Iran in light of Syria. Rubin emphasized “it’s always darkest before the dawn when it comes to diplomacy.”  Opportunities are always present because  “diplomacy is not linear, different pressures and key moments combined with creativity can produce results.”

Rubin urged decision-makers, and analysts like himself, to “stretch [their] minds in how [they] think of diplomacy.” Providing instances of such creative diplomacy, Rubin referenced Russia’s recent proposal for Syria, as well as Rouhani’s and Mohammad Javad Zarif’s (the new Iranian Foreign Minister) innovative use of “twitter diplomacy.”

Another strategic point Rubin articulated is that “Congress can’t be counted on, but can’t be ignored.” This became increasingly apparent days before Rouhani’s inauguration, when the House passed a new bill (H.R. 850) that would impose harsh sanctions on Iran.  Rubin warned that several of the recently proposed sanctions (including H.R.850) contain “language that frankly would handcuff the president’s ability to negotiate a diplomatic deal with Iran on its nuclear program,” including restrictions on the President’s ability to waive certain sanctions. According to Rubin, there are currently “so many sanctions that it is hard to keep track of them” due to three decades of accumulation, in addition to multiple UN Security Council resolutions. The key question is whether Obama and his team have enough flexibility to move on sanctions relief that would be essential to negotiating a nuclear deal.

The final speaker, Alireza Nader, discussed the internal politics of Iran and how the election of Iran’s president Rouhani provides “real opportunities for the United States and its partners to resolve the nuclear crisis diplomatically.”

Although the election of this relatively moderate president was a surprise to many in Iran and the United States, Nader argued that Rouhani is not a transformative figure, is not a reformist, and does not want democracy for Iran. He is a conservative cleric and regime insider who supported the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979. However, arguing against many who claim that Rouhani is too inline with the Islamic Republic to bring about new solutions to this historic conflict, Nader claims “it is because he is part of the system that he can lead Iran through a diplomatic solution.”

All three panelists agreed that now is the time to engage Iran diplomatically to resolve the nuclear issue.  The three panelists similarly acknowledged the power of offering to lift sanctions to reach a negotiated settlement with Iran.  There seems to be a growing push for diplomatic engagement with Iran. However, the complexity of conditions and the uncertainty of Syria’s crisis make it difficult to predict how future negotiations will unfold.

The House Gets Bad Advice

When it comes to crafting law, Congress seeks input from outside experts to help inform and guide their decisionmaking. The type of experts the body seeks out can say a lot about why Congress does what it does. Last Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee invited some particularly revealing “expert witnesses” that say a lot about the body’s priorities.

The Middle East Subcommittee held a hearing on the “Iran-Syria Nexus and its Implications for the Region,” featuring Mark Dubowitz, the Executive Director of the Foundation of Defense and Democracies (FDD), a major pro-sanctions lobby that has  been in the spotlight thanks financial filings that indicate it is primarily sponsored by far-right wing millionaires like Sheldon Adelson. Also testifying was John Bolton, a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has called for the U.S. to bomb Iran for years now, going back to his days as UN Ambassador under the Bush Administration.

Dubowitz and Bolton, both representing the neo-conservative hawks in Washington, urged the Members of Congress in attendance to escalate sanctions, dismiss negotiations, and carry out preventative war on Iran.

Dubowitz called for “massively intensifying sanctions on Iran to bring it to the verge of economic collapse.” According to him, Washington was not doing enough to send the message to the Supreme Leader that the U.S. means business. He claimed that the U.S. has been granting sanctions relief to Iran through its “unwillingness to entertain new sanctions [and] non-enforcement of existing sanctions.”

Bolton sided with Dubowitz but added that negotiations with Iran are worthless and that the U.S. should ultimately aim for regime change within Iran. As predicted, Bolton argued yet again that the “only option is a pre-emptive military strike against Iran’s nuclear program.”

Rouhani Raises Hopes for Diplomacy at First News Conference as President

By Samira Damavandi and Caroline Cohn

At his first press conference as Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani indicated his willingness to reengage in diplomatic talks with the West, raising hopes for finding a solution to the current standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.

Rouhani replaced outgoing President Ahmadinejad, whose bellicose anti-U.S. and anti-Israel rhetoric only exacerbated the already tense relationship between the U.S. and Iran. The election of Rouhani, a centrist candidate who pledged “constructive interaction” with the world, was a rare positive sign for a potential easing of tensions between the two estranged nations.

Of Rouhani’s news conference on Tuesday, the Washington Post noted that  “It was certainly a remarkable tonal departure from Ahmadinejad, with lots of talk about compromising with the West.” As Rouhani fielded questions from the media – which included reporters from both inside and outside of Iran, including the U.S. – he made several positive remarks indicating his plans for steering Iranian foreign and domestic policy in a more conciliatory direction.

Diplomacy

In response to several questions about his plans for renewing nuclear negotiations, many posed by Western news correspondents, Rouhani reaffirmed his plans to pursue a more diplomatic approach to foreign policy, starkly opposite from the approach of his predecessor.  “As I have said earlier, our main policy will be to have constructive interaction with the world,” said Rouhani.

  • 10 July 2013
  • Posted By Layla Oghabian
  • 0 Comments
  • Congress, Diplomacy, Events in Iran, Iran Election 2013, Sanctions

Escalating Iran Sanctions Could Damage Hopes for New Beginning

On Monday, July 1 new Executive and Congressional sanctions on Iran, put in place before Iran’s recent elections, came into force. These new sanctions target the shipping and automobile sectors, financial transactions involving gold, and holdings of Iran’s currency, the rial. These latest sanctions come amid a growing debate over whether sanctions could undermine diplomatic opportunities and moderates within Iran in the wake of Iran’s recent elections. However, there is little sign that the sanctions will abate, with the House of Representatives considering a floor vote on new, sweeping sanctions in the weeks before Iran’s President-elect, Hassan Rouhani, even enters office.

Rouhani’s ability to deliver and change the policies of the Iranian government remains a question mark. During his campaign, the former nuclear negotiator pledged to “pursue a policy of reconciliation and peace” with the outside world, release political prisoners, and potentially to make Iran’s nuclear program more transparent in order to ease tensions with the West.  But his political flexibility may be limited in the face of intensifying economic pressure and fear that the United States is only interested in regime change.

  • 22 April 2013
  • Posted By Sina Toossi
  • 0 Comments
  • Congress, Diplomacy, Sanctions

Nuclear fishing boats and further proof that Congress is losing it on Iran

It is no secret that some of the most hawkish U.S. policies and positions towards Iran over its disputed nuclear program have come not from the Executive branch, but from Congress. Spurred on by AIPAC and other powerful pro-war lobbies and organizations, Congress has become a cesspool for blatant and often bizarre war-mongering Iran resolutions. Indeed, bills currently in circulation in congressional committees seek to do everything from removing waiver authority for sanctions on Iran; requiring that nuclear sanctions can’t be lifted until Iran becomes a democracy; goading Israel to start war with Iran and promising U.S. money and troops to do it; sanctioning anybody who engages in ANY form of trade with Iran (including humanitarian trade); and even  removing Iran from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (a treaty that obligates Iran to not build nuclear weapons).

Now, if you are wondering why Congress has been pursuing such counterproductive and overly aggressive policies towards Iran, you have to look no further than some of the people Congress is getting their Iran related information from.

At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing a few weeks ago that in large part dealt with Iran, the several so-called experts called upon to inform our congressional representatives bordered on flat out deception in their testimonies to members of Congress.

Former CIA director R. James Woolsey, one of the panelists at the hearing, stated that Iran could assemble something that “passed for a nuclear weapon within a matter of very few months.” Now, Woolsey is certainly in a position to know the facts regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Namely, that Iran is not currently developing a nuclear weapon, does not have any uranium enriched to weapons grade levels (that producing a bomb would require a significant quantity of), and that even if it did decide to suddenly break out towards building the bomb, this would become immediately evident to both IAEA inspectors and to Western intelligence agencies. All of this has been corroborated numerous times by US and Israeli intelligence, and even in the latest testimonies of the US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

Needless to say, Woolsey is evidently not concerned with portraying a realistic and grounded picture of Iran’s nuclear program to Congress. He goes on to play the fear card by making several outlandish comments about how Iran’s putting of a satellite into space presents a risk to U.S. national security in terms of Iran eventually being able to explode a bomb in sub-orbit. Woolsey stated that such an explosion would have an “extremely strong decisive impact on the eclectic grid.”  He then recommended that the U.S. “get busy shielding [its] electric grid.”

Woolsey went onto to make his most brazen claim–that Iran could nuke the U.S. from a fishing boat. He acknowledged that  Iran does not currently possess a delivery system for a nuclear weapon, nothing would stop an Iranian “scud in freighter” coming within a few hundred miles of the east coast and shooting a nuclear missile towards the United States. “We need a missile system that can catch it,” Woolsey said, “If an Iranian fishing boat did this, we can do nothing unless we have these systems.” So, the lesson he is giving Congress here is to spend billions of dollars on some sort of defense system that guards again Iranian missiles being launched from fishing boats of the east coast.

Unfortunately, hyping up fictitious threats was not where this hearing ended. In his questioning of the panelists, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a member of the Committee of Foreign Affairs, stressed to the panel that the U.S. has not done enough to support the people in Iran. He specifically highlighted the Azeri, Baluch, and Turkmen ethnic groups within the country. Woolsey took up the honor of answering Rohrabacher’s plea for essentially supporting ethnic separatism inside Iran.

“We need to show people and let people know what side we are on in respect to Iran,” he said. “But in terms using economic power, using embargoes, using sanctions, taking gloves off completely in respect to those, doing everything we can to bring down their economy. I think that’s something we can at least make a very good effort at, and could use as part of the rallying cry for the American people and the people who have oppressed by Iran.”

Simply stated, the logic here is outstanding: Woolsey  thinks that by effectively destroying the financial livelihoods of people in Iran, the Iranian people will come to understand that we are on their side. This is when all the reporting and polling coming out of Iran is increasingly suggesting that the once friendly to America sentiment in the nation is eroding as a result of our policies towards the country.

Henry D. Sokolski, the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, topped off this committee hearing by telling members of Congress to avoid “conceding per-say rights to these and other states.”

“I believe our government and most our allies have gotten into the lazy habit of portraying the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) as a deal, that demands and supplies 3 things equally, nonproliferation safeguards, disarmaments, and the sharing of peaceful nuclear technology. This breezy three point NPT pitch, although popular, I think lacks historical or legal substance, it also I think, defies common sense,” Sokolski said.

The NPT is essentially the only legal document that Iran is signed onto that obligates it to not develop a nuclear weapon. Thus far, Iran’s nuclear program has operated under the framework of the NPT. Efforts to remove or provoke Iran to remove itself from the NPT will surely results in exactly what the West does not want, Iran actively going after a nuclear bomb. It is important to note that other states which have developed nuclear weapons, such as Pakistan, India, and Israel, are not signatories of the NPT.

The situation in Congress has certainly reached a fever pitch in regards to Iran. There is little reason to doubt that if many members of Congress could have had their way, a disastrous war with Iran would have begun a long time ago. Now, just as negotiations are showing signs of hope, Congress is seemingly doing all it can to derail them. While they are clearly heavily influenced by agenda-driven lobbies and individuals, it is important that they hear the voice of the majority of the American people, which have long been against war with Iran and for negotiations.

  • 19 March 2013
  • Posted By Sina Toossi
  • 0 Comments
  • Diplomacy, US-Iran War

Pew’s False Choice Survey on Iran War

A recent national survey by the Pew Research Center included a question about the use of military action against Iran that distorts rather than reveals what people are thinking when it comes to the potential for war.

The question was posed as what the respondent deems more important: to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons even if means taking military action; to avoid military conflict even if Iran may develop nuclear weapons; or other/don’t know.

Within this framework, 64% of respondents said it is more important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons even if this means taking military action against the country. Only 25% of respondents responded to this question by saying that it is more important to avoid a military conflict even if Iran may develop nuclear weapons.

The framing of this question–with respondents given a choice between two extremes of taking military action to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons to not taking military action even if Iran develops a nuclear weapon–is a false choice.

First, the fact is that according to the IAEA and U.S. intelligence, Iran is not currently developing nuclear weapons. If they stay on this course, they will never have a nuclear weapon because building a weapon requires they make a political decision to actually do so. There are of course concerns they will make that decision, and this–rather then whether or not we decide to bomb–is what the entire debate is hinged on. And the way to convince Iran to not make that decision, and to take verifiable steps to prove it, we need to be engaging diplomatically.

When presented with the diplomatic option, Americans overwhelmingly support it. An October 2012 poll asked respondents if they supported the UN Security Council continuing diplomatic efforts to get Iran to stop enriching uranium. The vast majority of those surveyed responded in the affirmative, with 79% of Republicans, 84% of Democrats, and 77% of Independents all saying “Yes”.

Furthermore, this question provides an inaccurate or incomplete representation of the two choices it does provide. Many former government and military officials actually believe that, while Iran is not developing nuclear weapons now, a military strike would actually push them to do so. According to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, “An attack would make a nuclear armed Iran inevitable. They would just bury the program deeper and make it more covert.” Former Director of the CIA Michael Hayden has echoed Gates, “[Bombing Iran] will actually push them to getting nuclear weapons.” So the notion that military action means Iran doesn’t get the bomb is actually contrary to what the military crowd is actually saying.

It is clear that ten years after the Iraq war, there is still a lot of misinformation about certain Middle Eastern countries and their supposed pursuit of “weapons of mass destruction.” The false choices and inaccurate representation embodied in the recent Pew Research Survey reflects this culture of misinformation, and can easily be used to nefarious ends such as pushing for war based on public support for it.

  • 11 March 2013
  • Posted By Sina Toossi
  • 0 Comments
  • Diplomacy, Sanctions, US-Iran War

NYT Slams AIPAC Resolutions

Two recent measures introduced in Congress received some pretty harsh criticism from the New York Times this past weekend.  The first resolution, introduced in the Senate by Democratic Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, would essentially open a backdoor to war with Iran by pushing Israel to start it. The other bill will sharply ratchet up already tough sanctions imposed on Iran.

In a significant move, the New York Times ran an editorial article slamming the bills as harmful to ongoing negotiations and as making war more likely. “Last week, just as Iran and the major powers made some small progress in talks and agreed to meet again, two measures were introduced in Congress that could harm negotiations,” said the New York Times. “It could also hamper negotiations by playing into Iranian fears that America’s true intention is to promote regime change. “

It remains to be seen if this unique criticism from the New York Times will have any effect on Congress. Especially since, as the editorial notes, these bills are being promoted by AIPAC. Regardless, by taking on Congress’ latest Iran hijinks, the NYT is saying to Congress what NIAC has been saying for years: that ratcheting up sanctions and upping the war rhetoric, our elected officials in Washington are closing off political space for the Obama Administration to conduct serious diplomacy, and thereby making war more likely. The NYT piece ended with a stark message,” The best way to avert military conflict is by negotiating a credible, verifiable agreement. It is a very long shot. But Congress needs to give the talks time to play out and not make diplomatic efforts even harder.”

  • 26 February 2013
  • Posted By Sina Toossi
  • 0 Comments
  • Diplomacy

Almaty and Prospects for Iran Negotiations

Initial reports out of the on-going P5+1 negotiations with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan suggest optimism on behalf of diplomats and hints of concessions by both sides. The first day of talks concluded with Western diplomats presenting Iran with what they say is a “real, serious, and substantive” proposal that creates a pathway towards sanctions relief. Recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium was alluded to as something that can in time be reached after a series of higher “technical-experts” level meetings. Likewise, Iranian diplomats have signaled their desire for a step by step based proposal.

The Iranians are coming to Almaty with their own proposal that they say is flexible. “Our proposal includes a wide range of options. Depending on what we hear from the other side, we will present a suitable version of our proposal. But anyways, Iran is presenting a new proposal,” an Iranian diplomat in Almaty has said.

pertinent report released yesterday by the International Crisis Group outlines steps that can be taken to resolve the impasse with Iran. The report, entitled “Spider Web: The Making and Unmaking of Iran Sanctions,” gives point-by-point recommendations on how negotiations can proceed while also analyzing the efficacy and consequences of the sanctions that have been imposed on Iran. In its recommendations for how negotiations should proceed, the report highlights the need for “intensive, continuous, technical-level negotiations to achieve a step by-step agreement.” It states that in order to sustain diplomacy, Iran’s right to enrichment on its own soil should be recognized, while Iran should give stronger guarantees as to not weaponizing its nuclear program. Successful negotiation strategy should be principled, the report states, on an understanding that “the real measure of efficacy is not sanctions imposition. It is sanctions relief.”

  • 25 February 2013
  • Posted By Sina Toossi
  • 0 Comments
  • Diplomacy

Iran and the U.S. meet on the wrestling mat in Tehran

In an atmosphere of heavy sanctions and talk of war, wrestlers from around the world have come to Tehran to participate in the annual Wrestling World Cup. The event, which changes venues every year, has brought together wresting teams from countries not typically known for close ties, such as the U.S., Cuba, Russia, and Iran.

The advent of such kinds of sport exchanges between Iran and the U.S. actually hearkens back to the era of former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. Khatami sought to foster such exchanges based on his advocacy of “people to people contact between the two nations to break the ice.” Perhaps initially a genuine effort to mimic the “ping-pong” diplomacy between the United and China that paved the way for President Nixon to visit Beijing, this initiative took off with the U.S. wrestling team making a landmark trip to Tehran in 1998. Indeed, this recent trip to the Wrestling World Cup by Team USA marked its tenth visit to Iran in the past decade. Since the late 1990s, various athletes from a variety of different sports have travelled between the two countries. A further sports exchange program between Iran and the US launched in 2007 has seen the U.S. send more than 30 athletes to Iran and more than 75 Iranian athletes and coaches visit the United States.

  • 14 February 2013
  • Posted By Sina Toossi
  • 0 Comments
  • Diplomacy

CIA nominee: Iran-bashing good for politicians, bad for US interests

While much attention has been paid to John Brennan’s policy on drones during his tenure as chief counterterrorism advisor to President Obama, surprisingly less has been given to his positions on Iran.

Slotted to be the new head of the CIA by President Obama, Brennan faced a confirmation hearing in the Senate last week that hardly dealt with Iran. But in the McCarthyite atmosphere in the Senate, anything approaching a substantive or nuanced view on Iran or Iran policy has become a political gambit. This was most apparent during Chuck Hagel’s recent confirmation hearing, in which the opposition turned the Iran debate  into a substance free and counterproductive contest of Iran-bashing.

John Brennan has actually spoken out against the use of exactly this type of hyperbolic and politically charged rhetoric when it comes to talking about Iran. In a 2008 paper, he even argues that engaging in such talk runs counter U.S. interests, saying:

“A critical step toward improved U.S.-Iranian relations would be for U.S. officials to cease public Iran-bashing, a tactic that may have served short-term domestic political interests but that has heretofore been wholly counterproductive to U.S. strategic interests. Rather than stimulating a positive change in Iran’s behavior, politically charged and wholesale condemnation of Iranian policies has energized and emboldened Iranian radicals at the expense of Iranian moderates.”

This paper, entitled “The Conundrum of Iran: Strengthening Moderates without Acquiescing to Belligerence,” sheds light on Brennan’s views toward Iran policy at a time before it was politically inconvenient for him to be so forthcoming. In it, he offers striking analysis on the decades old standoff between the U.S. and Iran and even offers several policy recommendations for reaching a peaceful solution.