• 9 October 2009
  • Posted By David Elliott
  • Diplomacy, Sanctions

As Obama Scores an Iran Breakthrough, Congress Fumbles

Cross posted from the Huffington Post:

As the pressure built early last week for President Obama to forgo diplomacy with Iran in favor of imposing new sanctions, Iran’s top opposition leader posed a piercing question to the world. “Which one of [Iran’s leaders] can be expected to care about the agony their behavior imposes on people?” Mir-Hossein Mousavi asked. By belying the bankruptcy of the alternatives, his question underscored the importance of President Obama’s diplomatic engagement with Iran.

The wisdom of this approach was reinforced again on Thursday, when the United States secured an agreement that will significantly reduce Iran’s capability to produce a nuclear weapon. Even at this early stage, President Obama’s diplomatic strategy has already achieved more positive results than the Bush administration’s bellicose policy did in eight years. Yet by that evening, the U.S. Congress disregarded Mousavi’s advice and Obama’s diplomatic success, imposing new sanctions against Iran that, if anything, will only hurt the Iranian people.

Mousavi pointed out the obvious problem with most sanctions being proposed, saying they will “mostly hurt the poor” and will not help Iran’s opposition. Indeed, it’s even worse than Mousavi thinks. The sanctions Congress passed Thursday are a baby step toward imposing the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA), which would in all likelihood help the Ahmadinejad government.

IRPSA would expand unilateral sanctions and target companies exporting refined petroleum to Iran. The goal is to put pressure on Iran, but which “Iran” will we be hurting – the Iranian government or the Iranian people? Just like in the United States, Iran’s poor, middle class, and elderly will bear the brunt of any gas price shock. Between its domestic production and smuggled petroleum, the ruling clergy and Revolutionary Guards will surely find a way to keep their gas tanks full and heat their homes. But if the sanctions really work, many of the very same Iranian people that members of Congress spoke so highly of this summer will be left out in the cold when winter hits.

An embargo on refined petroleum poses further problems. It would provide the excuse the Iranian government wants to eliminate burdensome petroleum subsidies and place the blame on the United States. Iran has to import roughly one third of its domestic gasoline consumption at market prices and then resell it at a subsidized price of about 40 cents per gallon. These subsidies cost the government of Iran a tremendous sum – between 10 and 20 percent of GDP, annually. For this reason, the Iranian government wants nothing more than to eliminate these subsidies, but it has been stymied repeatedly by popular opposition. Ironically, an embargo would enable them to eliminate these subsides, freeing up cash for the government to spend elsewhere, such as building more nuclear centrifuges or expanding the IRGC.

The Iranian people have already come out into the streets, risking everything, to protest against the government. If the west imposes sanctions because Iran refuses to halt its nuclear enrichment program, which has the overwhelming support of the Iranian people, who will the Iranians blame for the sanctions? Most will blame the United States, and the opposition will be put on the defensive. Rather than focusing solely on its demands for an end to the injustices being carried out and the restoration of the peoples’ rights, the opposition will be forced to spend its time and energy proving its loyalty to the embattled nation.

Fortunately, some in Congress are now working on a better option. Rather than pushing for indiscriminate economic sanctions like IRPSA, they are pursuing the best path to pressuring the Iranian government: empowering the Iranian people to more effectively stand up for their rights and imposing targeted sanctions against Iranian government officials.

Taking the Iranian government on at its weakest point – human rights – these lawmakers will soon introduce legislation that sanctions Iranian government officials guilty of human rights abuses while eliminating roadblocks that undermine the development of a vibrant civil society in Iran. There are targeted sanctions the US and its allies can impose, such as freezing bank accounts, imposing travel bans on government officials and military commanders, and sanctioning companies that provide censorship technology to Iran. Iran’s leaders will care a lot more when they discover they can’t access their European bank accounts – like the $1.6 billion account Britain froze this summer – than they will if their own people suffer.

The plan will also help empower the Iranian people by ensuring that they have free and unfettered access to the Internet and communications tools, and by fostering greater cooperation between the peoples of America and Iran.

Just like June 12 and the weeks that followed changed our notions about the Iranian people, it’s time for Congress to change its approach on Iran. It’s time for Congress to stand with the Iranian people, not against them.

Posted By David Elliott

David Elliott is the Assistant Policy Director at the National Iranian American Council.

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7,350 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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