• 25 April 2014
  • Posted By Tyler Cullis
  • 1 Comments
  • Congress, Diplomacy, Sanctions

Don’t Let Congress’ Inaction Kill a Peaceful Iran Deal

Obama-CongressTo get a final deal with Iran, Washington is going to have to be ready to trade in nuclear-related sanctions in exchange for Iranian nuclear concessions. But unless Congress gives the President the authority to lift sanctions, the President will be limited to extending temporary waivers for the sanctions for successive four-to-six month periods ad infinitum.

To see why this is a problem, just read this piece in the New York Times this morning showing just what happens in negotiations when the President does not have the appropriate authority from Congress. The Times discusses President Obama’s failed attempt to procure a trade deal with Japan on his recent trip there because he does not have necessary authorities from Congress to conclude an agreement:

“…analysts faulted Mr. Obama, saying his decision not to fight for the legislative authority at home to pass major trade deals had robbed him of leverage with the Japanese, who are reluctant to make concessions for a deal that may not survive Congress.

“‘Their strategy was to get the Japanese to do the deal, then go to Congress and say, ‘Look what a great deal we got, now give us the authority,’’ said Michael J. Green, an Asia adviser to President George W. Bush. ‘He made a decision to go into this with one hand tied behind his back.’”

In other words, President Obama entered trade negotiations with Japan hobbled by a Congress reluctant to delegate to him the requisite trade authorities. And instead of pushing Congress to grant him such powers, the President figured to reverse the order and first get a good deal with Japan and then leverage that deal to get a similar one with Congress.

Regardless of the merits of a trade deal, this is a priority for Obama. And the problem is this: Without authority from Congress, the President lacked leverage to get an agreement with Japan to deliver on this priority. As soon as Japan’s negotiators understood the limits of the President’s ability to make good on promises he offered during negotiations, they chose not to show their hand in trade talks absent a more concrete indication that America would follow-thru on its promises. Thus, no deal.

Here, the parallel to another major priority for Obama–getting a strong nuclear deal with Iran– should be obvious. Just as the President entered talks with Japan hamstrung, so he has entered negotiations with Iran lacking the authorities to provide Iran the kind of sanctions relief that they will expect should a final deal be reached. Unless there is confidence that the President will get the necessary authorities from Congress to implement sanctions relief as promised, the US side has far less leverage to put sanctions on the table to get strong concessions from Iran.

This is not the position in which the United States should find itself, especially on the eve of a potential historic diplomatic win over Iran’s nuclear program.

While it is likely infeasible for the President to get Congress to provide him the requisite authorities to lift sanctions before an Iran deal is struck, there must to be a viable plan in place to get Congress to do so once a deal is agreed. That plan must also be signalled at the negotiating table, so as to inject confidence between the negotiating parties and to bolster the US hand in the talks.

Instead of playing the perpetual “bad cop” and threatening to scuttle any final deal, Congress could improve the position of US negotiators dramatically if it signals its preparedness to give the President the power to relieve sanctions in order to implement a strong nuclear agreement. And the President can strengthen his negotiators’ hands by ensuring that the groundwork to get a deal is laid now, rather than waiting until we get a deal with Iran only to see it blocked by Congress.

  • 21 April 2014
  • Posted By Kaveh Eslampour
  • 0 Comments
  • Diplomacy

Iran talks hit Cruz control

Ted Cruz

The P5+1 and Iran have reportedly agreed to hold the next round of expert-level nuclear negotiations May 5th through 9th on the sidelines of an upcoming NPT conference in New York.

Although the news has received scant attention from the media and public, the fact these talks will take place in New York is quite interesting considering the recent friction over Hamid Aboutalebi, who was blocked by the White House and Congress from representing Iran at the UN. That these negotiations are proceeding unencumbered–and in New York no less–shows an unprecedented level of determination by both sides to not allow nuclear negotiations fall victim to political distractions.

The controversy drummed up over the UN rep was less about visas than it was about hardliners on both sides attempting to undermine the talks. Senator Ted Cruz, who rushed to take ownership of the controversy and authored the legislation to block Aboutalebi’s visa, called the passage of his bill a mere “first step“. He went on to explain, “This action should be followed by the President suspending the Geneva negotiations unless and until Iran not only ceases this behavior but also ceases all enrichment activities and dismantles their nuclear program in its entirety.”

But against the odds, the Obama and Rouhani administrations have managed to insulate the nuclear talks from separate issues that could derail the negotiation process. Even as controversies get drummed up and exploited, these administrations have kept their eyes on the prize. They are not willing to let perceived provocations distract from or disrupt the hard work of nuclear negotiations.

The current nuclear negotiations are just that – negotiations focused on resolving the nuclear issue. The two sides have made the strategic decision to focus these negotiations on resolving the nuclear issue, understanding that their success can open the possibilities to address other important issues.

The technical meetings in New York will be the last  before the P5+1 and Iran begin drafting a comprehensive nuclear agreement in mid-May. By July, we may be looking at a historic final agreement. The Iran and the United States have not be able to agree on everything, and certainly not all at once, but for now the Obama and Rouhani administrations seem to agree on one thing: these negotiations are too important to let hardliners drag them down.

  • 7 April 2014
  • Posted By Tyler Cullis
  • 0 Comments
  • Uncategorized

Is new House sanctions bill aimed at Iran?

As concerns remain over Congress passing new sanctions on Iran while talks are ongoing, one bill that received advanced coverage was the “Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act.” Prior to the bill’s introduction, there was concern that the bill would indirectly target Iran and re-characterize nuclear-related sanctions as terrorism-related sanctions, thus violating the spirit of the Joint Plan of Action.

However, the bill – which was introduced late last week – does not appear to directly target Iran and would not mandate the President to impose new sanctions on Iran. To a large extent, the bill’s provisions are redundant of existing sanctions on Hezbollah and its facilitators.

Under current law, Hezbollah is designated a Specially Designated Terrorist (SDT), a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT), and a designated supporter of the Assad regime in Syria (SYRIA). As such, these designations close Hezbollah and its affiliates off from the US financial system and empower the President to designate (and thus block the property of) those who he finds provide material assistance or sponsorship to the group. These are authorities which enabled the US, for instance, to designate one of the major Iranian banks, Bank Saderat, a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in 2006, thus foreclosing its access to the US financial system.

The proposed Act would require the President, among other things, to cut off foreign financial institutions (including foreign central banks) that facilitate the activities of Hezbollah or facilitate significant transactions related to those activities from the US financial system and to decide on whether to designate Hezbollah both a Foreign Narcotics Trafficker and a Transnational Criminal Organization. The former provision (Section 103) is the most contentious element of the bill and could marginally limit the President’s discretion on whether to designate foreign financial institutions. But it is difficult to see what new authorities the bill provides the President that he does not possess at present.

While some in Congress may be eager to find new ways of sanctioning Iran, existing sanctions are so sweeping as to render the bill’s authorizations redundant. It remains to be seen, however, whether the bill is messaged by hardliners in Washington and Tehran as subtly re-characterizing ‘nuclear-related’ sanctions as terrorism-related sanctions and thus a violation of the preliminary deal.

  • 27 February 2014
  • Posted By Shervin Taheran
  • 0 Comments
  • Congress, Diplomacy, Sanctions

Partisanship at Its Worst

Less than a month ago, Senator Menendez [D-NJ] conceded in a floor speech that his new Iran sanctions bill, S. 1881, should not be brought to the floor after 42 Republican Senators demanded a vote. “I hope that we will not find ourselves in a partisan process trying to force a vote on this national security matter before its appropriate time,” said Menendez at the time.

This is a good thing considering that we now know that one of the key claims of AIPAC and other supporters was not true. They said that the bill would  require sanctions be imposed, in violation of the preliminary nuclear deal with Iran, only if Iran first violated the deal. But in reality, the bill would have imposed sanctions for a variety of actions beyond what was required in that deal. And Republican staffer  recently admitted as much, telling Wall Street Journal, “Had our bill been in law, the latest [Iranian ballistic missile] tests would have triggered a re-imposition of sanctions.” So Republicans are beginning to acknowledge that the mantra of “the sanctions will be imposed only if the talks fail” was thoroughly misleading.

One would think that the discussion was finally put to rest, that sanctions were not the answer, and that we could now focus our attention to achieving a pragmatic, realistic, and concrete deal with Iran.

However, just this past Monday, Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) blocked a bid to vote on bills to combat sexual assault in the military, demanding a vote on S. 1881 in return for allowing the Senate to debate an issue which affects about 26,000 men and women in the military per year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) stated it most diplomatically when he said, “I’m terribly disappointed that my Republican friends are trying to turn this vital national security concern into a partisan issue by trying to inject [it] into a setting where it’s clearly not relevant.”

  • 7 February 2014
  • Posted By Samia Basille
  • 0 Comments
  • MEK, Persian Gulf

House Hearing Examines Iran-Iraq Relations

Brett McGurk, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq and Iran, spoke at a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing about Al Qaeda’s resurgence in Iraq on Wednesday, February 5. Answering the questions of several lawmakers, he notably addressed the critical role that Iran plays in the complicated Iraqi political realm.

When Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) expressed concern over supposed close ties between Iraqi senior officials and the Iranian government, mentioning reports that Iraq is allowing Iran to fly over its territory to arm Hezbollah in Syria, McGurk offered a more nuanced picture of the relationship between the two countries. While he acknowledged that Iraqis should be more active in seeking to stop overflights to Syria, he also stressed that “Iraq’s relation with Iran is multifaceted. . . We found very few instances in which we have seen Iraq acting at the behest of Iran.” He cited Iraq’s oil production, its ratification of the IAEA’s Additional Protocol in 2012, and their support of the Geneva 1 communiqué about transition of power in Syria as evidence that Iraq maintains independence from Iran.

According to McGurk, the Iraqi government is also careful to enforce international sanctions against Iran, although “they share a 3000 km border. There is trade, there are cultural ties. It’s impossible to stop everything.” He pointed out that Iraqis have increased their oil output and cut off many transactions with Iranian banks. Rep. George Holding (R-NC) mentioned negotiations between Iraq and Iran over the possible construction of a pipeline that would supply Iranian gas for new power plants in the Iraqi province of Basra. McGurk recognized that “the pipeline is concerning if it goes forward.”

The future of Camp Liberty, which shelters 2,900 members of Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK) – a cult-like group widely opposed by Iranians that was only recently removed from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations – was also repeatedly questioned by lawmakers. The camp has been attacked by outside groups on several occasions, leading to efforts to relocate the camp’s residents. While the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) seeks to relocate the militants outside of Iraq — some members were already relocated to Albania and Germany — the MEK’s leadership has ceased cooperating and has prevented further members from leaving the camp. As Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Wendy Sherman, indicated last year, the MEK leadership has not allowed residents of the camp to know their options for relocation.

Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) insisted that Iranian Americans living in his district are extremely worried about the lives of family members and friends belonging to the MEK. He told McGurk: “Many of those people are sitting behind you . . . wanting for help.” McGurk agreed that this issue should be an international human rights concern, and that countries around the world should work to relocate them.

While McGurk seemed confident that Iraq-Iran relations do not threaten U.S. interests, he insisted that such issues are not addressed in the current talks between the Western powers and Iran: “Given the existential threat that a nuclear Iran would pose to our interests in the region, we focus the nuclear negotiations specifically on the nuclear issue.”

  • 31 January 2014
  • Posted By Shervin Taheran
  • 0 Comments
  • Diplomacy, Nuclear file

The Impracticality of the Zero Enrichment Stipulation

The Israel Project has recently launched a website which aims to convince the public that if Iran is allowed to enrich uranium at all, then Iran will certainly develop a nuclear weapon. However, holding on to such notions is a fallacy that will undermine diplomatic progress. While it would be great to have zero risk of Iranian proliferation, which the zero enrichment proposal seeks to attain, such a situation is neither attainable nor necessary to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. Further, with sufficient safeguards in place, risks of Iranian weaponization can be diminished to reasonable and acceptable levels. Therefore, it is in America’s interest to sacrifice the long-gone idea of “zero enrichment” and instead focus on securing concrete and verifiable transparency from the Iranian regime. Insisting on unprecedented monitoring of the Iranian nuclear program, rather than deal-killing stipulations such as “zero enrichment,” will ultimately prove more effective in guarding against an Iranian nuclear weapon.

The expectation and the feasibility of a zero-enrichment clause in any final deal with Iran is not realistic. As George Perkovich said, “Iran has already paid tens of billions of dollars in direct costs; lost more than $100 billion in sanctions; and suffered a cyberattack, the assassination of key scientists and engineers, and the perpetual threat of war to protect its self-proclaimed right to enrich uranium. There is no reason to think that more sanctions or military strikes would change Tehran’s stance now.” Further, an insistence on zero enrichment has precluded the possibility of viable nuclear deals in the past, including in a potential 2005 bargain with European powers that would have capped Iran’s enrichment at 3,000 centrifuges.

Moreover, Iranians frequently bring up the argument that they want to have the capability to enrich their own nuclear fuel because they don’t want to be dependent on other nations whom they don’t trust. For example, Iranians mention the event in which France reneged on a deal with Iran after Iran had already provided a billion-dollar investment in the multinational enrichment consortium, Eurodif. France refused to deliver the nuclear fuel previously promised to Iran, thus giving the Iranians ammunition to strengthen their own nuclear program.

Additionally, Iran is currently one of fourteen countries that enrich uranium on their own soil, including non-nuclear weapon states like Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands. Under the NPT, parties are recognized as having the “inalienable right…to develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.” Any enrichment capabilities – which are neither granted nor denied by the NPT – are subject to full and thorough inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). And under the NPT and IAEA inspection, no country has ever obtained a nuclear weapon.  This is why it is a more valuable use of our time to expand the access of international inspectors than insisting on “zero enrichment”.

As far as the interim agreement, as signed by the P5+1, enrichment is actually explicitly defined and permitted. The preamble of the agreement says, “[T]his comprehensive solution would involve a mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program.” Even in a final deal, enrichment would not violate the intent of the Security Council resolutions. As Arms Control Association Executive Director Daryl Kimball said, “the first step Geneva deal effectively accomplishes the original goal of the U.N. Security Council resolutions by capping the total amount of 3.5% material [low-enriched uranium] and it goes further by requiring Iran to neutralize its 20% stockpiles and to cease all enrichment to 20% levels while a comprehensive agreement that further limits Iran’s enrichment capacity below current levels is negotiated.”

Since a final agreement with Iran would likely include the ratification and implementation of the IAEA’s Additional Protocol and potentially further voluntary measures, insisting on zero enrichment while the Iranians hold firm in their opposition against the demand is a waste of time, diplomatic energy, and political capital. We should be focusing our energies into creating practical demands which we can get the Iranians to agree to in order to ensure Iranians cannot develop a nuclear weapon. And this is a fact that America’s highest ranked diplomats and politicians have already recognized.

In 2009, when current Secretary of State John Kerry was the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he said, “The Bush administration [argument of] no enrichment was ridiculous… it was bombastic diplomacy. It was wasted energy. It sort of hardened the lines, if you will. They have a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose.” Even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has traditionally held a hard line in regards to Iran, said to BBC while she was American’s top diplomat that once Iran has shown that their nuclear program is thoroughly responsible, peaceful and in accordance to international standards, they can possibly enrich for civilian purposes in the future. And just on Tuesday, Senator Angus King [I-MI] said at a Council of Foreign Relations event that, “some of our allies want success to be no nuclear capacity at all, no enrichment capacity at all. The indication from Iran is that they’re not going to accept that, so the question is, what between zero and something is going to be acceptable in the agreement.”

Regardless of whether you support the Geneva agreement or not, we will not obtain zero Iranian enrichment.  Military strikes can’t bomb away nuclear know-how and would only enhance desires for a nuclear deterrent.  Sanctions have failed to alter Iran’s nuclear calculus.  Diplomacy, however, can provide sufficient assurances so that Iranian enrichment is used for peaceful purposes, and that’s where the US and the rest of the P5+1 need to focus their efforts.

Feinstein Delivers Strong Defense of Diplomacy on Senate Floor

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) added to her credentials as a champion of diplomacy with Iran with a remarkable speech on the floor of the Senate last night. Sen. Feinstein warned that S.1881, a sanctions bill from Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) that has garnered 59 cosponsors, would “collapse negotiations” and be a “march toward war.”

Her speech came at a critical time. On Sunday, the P5+1 and Iran announced an agreement to implement the first phase nuclear deal struck in November. Further, a number of Senators are voicing their strong opposition to the new Iran sanctions, including Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East, and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). Despite the growing opposition, the bill still retains the support of a majority of U.S. Senators.

Feinstein began her speech by noting that countries can change direction, citing the examples of post-war Germany and Japan, Spain, Yugoslavia, Vietnam and South Africa. Further, she noted that several nations have abandoned the pursuit of nuclear weapons, including Sweden, Argentina and South Korea. Citing robust diplomatic engagement and steps to curb Iran’s nuclear program, Feinstein suggested that Iran could be on the cusp of a similar change “and that it is the job of diplomay to push for that change.”

Feinstein highlighted the strong security benefits of the first phase nuclear deal, including that it will require Iran to cap its enrichment at 5% and eliminate its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20%, all while instituting “the most intrusive international inspection regime ever” to verify compliance.

According to Feinstein, Senate passage of S.1881 would kill the deal and ongoing talks with Iran, “and, with it, the best opportunity in more than 30 years to make a major change in Iranian behavior—a change that could not only open all kinds of economic opportunities for the Iranian people, but help change the course of a nation. Its destiny in fact could be changed. “ Further, Senate passage would “play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see diplomacy fail.”  Those Iranian hardliners would argue that Rouhani and Zarif “exchanged a freeze of its nuclear program for additional and harsh punitive sanctions.”

“Above all,” Feinstein added, “they will argue that the United States is not interested in nuclear diplomacy–we are interested in regime change. “ Nuclear negotiations would collapse, Iran’s nuclear program would be unconstrained, and the U.S. would only be left with military options.

Feinstein, citing Secretary of State John Kerry’s formal request that the Senate hold off on new sanctions to allow the negotiators time and space to do their jobs, argued that the Menendez-Kirk bill “is an egregious imposition on the Executive’s authority to conduct foreign affairs.”

Citing the fact that new sanctions would collapse the agreement, Feinstein asked, “How does that (passing new sanctions) make any kind of common sense? It defies logic, it threatens instant reverse, and it ends what has been unprecedented diplomacy. Do we want to take that on our shoulders? Candidly, in my view, it is a march toward war.”

Sen. Feinstein concluded by stating that the first phase nuclear deal with Iran “is strong, it is tough, and it is realistic. It represents the first significant opportunity to change a three-decade course in Iran and an opening to improve one of our most poisonous bilateral relationships. It could open the door to a new future which not only considers Israel’s national security, but protects our own. To preserve diplomacy, I strongly oppose the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act (S.1881).”

Sen. Feinstein’s strong speech could weaken support for the sanctions bill at a critical time, encouraging other Senators to make their opposition to the bill public. Currently, two dozen Senators have yet to take a formal public position on the bill.

  • 15 January 2014
  • Posted By Arrizu Sirjani
  • 0 Comments
  • Congress, Diplomacy

Rep. Blumenauer Calls to Give Diplomacy a Chance


Last week, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR-3) delivered another strong statement in support of U.S.-Iran diplomacy, calling for Congress to “calm down and give diplomacy a chance” in response to new Iran sanctions legislation.

Speaking on the House floor,  Rep. Blumenauer extolled the interim agreement with Iran and urged Congress, “Let’s work to make progress with the agreement and beyond.” He suggested, “Congress can do this most importantly, by leaving it alone. Congress shouldn’t mettle. Congress shouldn’t muddle. Congress shouldn’t give Iranian hardliners who do not want any agreement at all an excuse to scuttle it.”

“We have an opportunity to improve the most violate region in the world,” Blumenauer said, “and Congress shouldn’t blow that opportunity.”

  • 9 January 2014
  • Posted By Shervin Taheran
  • 0 Comments
  • Congress, Israel, US-Iran War

Hindsight is 20/20

Captain Hindsight on the new Senate sanctions bill

When the White House said that a new sanctions bill (S.1881) would “greatly increase the chances that the United States would have to take military action” against Iran, supporters of the bill bristled. Lead sponsor Robert Menendez (D-NJ) called the statement “over the top” and accused the White House of “fear mongering.”

But a quick read of his bill makes clear that not only would it torpedo diplomacy by violating the interim deal with new sanctions, it even expresses support for the U.S. joining Israel in bombing Iran! The exact clause in question says, “if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.”

If you didn’t want people saying your bill could lead to war with Iran, you probably shouldn’t have pushed a bill that sabotages diplomacy and expressly threatens military engagement with Iran.

>>Don’t let your Senators rely on hindsight, contact them TODAY and tell them to OPPOSE this disastrous bill

  • 9 January 2014
  • Posted By Shervin Taheran
  • 0 Comments
  • Congress, Diplomacy, US-Iran War

Cruz-ing Towards Failed Diplomacy

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has become the latest Iran hawk to introduce a measure placing preconditions on negotiations designed to end the Iran talks.

Originally, there were Senators Robert Menendez and Mark Kirk, who introduced a Senate bill (S.1881) that has earned a veto threat from the President because it would invalidate the interim deal signed with Iran by passing new sanctions. That bill would also place unworkable demands on any final deal, including requiring full dismantlement of even a verifiable peaceful nuclear program.  And it would pledge U.S. support for Israeli strikes on Iran.

Now, Senator Cruz (R-TX) is joining forces with fellow hard-line conservative Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) to introduce a Senate resolution with their own demands that must be met before any bilateral negotiations continue with Iran.

The first precondition that must be met in Cruz’s world before the U.S. is allowed to engage in talks with Iran? Iran must first recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Cruz wants to cut off the talks that can end the Iranian nuclear standoff, deliver a transparent and verifiable non-military nuclear program, and prevent a disastrous war in which Israel would surely play a major role, to demand Iran do something America’s staunchest allies in the region have yet to do. This is just another precondition specifically designed to block engagement. Something Cruz and his right wing colleagues are failing to understand is how the success of negotiations with Iran is actually in Israel’s interest.