• 3 May 2012
  • Posted By David Elliott
  • Congress, Diplomacy

Dysfunctional Congress Threatens Iran Talks

As the United States and Iran look for an exit ramp off the road to war, they may find a surprising new obstacle: the very sanctions legislation that many credit for bringing Iran back to the negotiating table. As a result of that sanctions bill, Congress now has the de-facto power to block any diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. And the scary reality is that the same dysfunctional institution that almost drove the nation into default last summer can exercise this veto power over diplomacy by doing what it does best: nothing at all.

Congress created this dilemma when it passed draconian sanctions on Iran’s financial system and oil exports, but failed to give the President the power to repeal those sanctions under any conditions, regardless of whether Iran makes major concessions. Unlike all previous Iran sanctions, Congress did not make these new sanctions conditional on Iran’s behavior. If Iran agrees to certain criteria at the negotiating table, the President does not have the power to lift the sanctions. Now, only Congress can lift the most severe sanctions ever imposed on Iran.

As long as only Congress can lift the sanctions, the chances for securing a lasting diplomatic solution shrink dramatically. Any far-reaching solution would have to overcome electoral politics, deep Congressional antipathy towards Iran, the filibuster, the anonymous hold, and Republican leaders determined to prevent President Obama’s reelection.

Worse yet, if Iran’s leaders do not believe the U.S. Congress will ever repeal the sanctions, they will be less likely to take the risky step of even offering the major concessions these sanctions are supposed to produce. Iran’s conspiratorially-minded supreme leader is highly unlikely to give up his main source of leverage – Iran’s nuclear capabilities and uranium stockpile – without receiving similarly meaningful and immediate concessions from the United States.

That is not to say Iran will not attempt to manage the conflict through negotiations. Already, Iran has hinted that it may offer concessions to head off sanctions imposed by Europe. But there is a major difference between managing the conflict and attempting to resolve it.

Iran’s focus on Europe’s sanctions is no accident. The European Union can lift its sanctions more easily than the United States since they were imposed at the executive level and don’t require legislative action to lift. Meanwhile, President Obama can only suspend the implementation of sanctions in 120 day increments, which isn’t as powerful a tool as it sounds. Suspending the sanctions only somewhat mitigates their economic effect. As the past few months have shown, the mere threat of impending sanctions is enough to scare away most businesses, and those businesses are extremely unlikely to return until that threat is gone.

Furthermore, the upcoming U.S. presidential election means that Iran will discount the value of any U.S. offer to temporarily suspend sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions since that could be undone by a President Romney with a single pen stroke if Obama isn’t reelected.

The sanctions imposed on Iran’s central bank should be a major source of leverage for the President in negotiations with Iran. They have inflicted serious damage on the Iranian economy and clearly have gotten the attention of the Iranian leadership. But as long as the President cannot actually remove the sanctions, they will simply become a new fact of life for a regime that has faced sanctions and economic challenges since its inception. At best, the President could use the limited waiver authority in the sanctions bill in exchange for confidence building measures from Iran, but it is probably insufficient to help bring about a more significant agreement.

Thus, for diplomacy to have the greatest chance to succeed in averting both a nuclear Iran and a catastrophic war, Congress needs to empower the President to lift the central bank sanctions in exchange for concrete actions by Iran to addresses the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program. Iran would have to finally resolve the IAEA’s concerns about potential past weaponization work and adopt the Additional Protocol for more robust nuclear inspections to prove to the world that it is telling the truth when it says it does not want nuclear weapons.

This would not be selling out other issues of concern, like human rights. Other sanctions, such as those targeting Iranian human rights abusers and the sanctions imposed as a result of Iran’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism would remain until those issues are addressed. Furthermore, any nuclear agreement would make it easier to explore areas of potential mutual interest, such as Afghanistan, and would remove the threat of war that has undermined the struggle for human rights in Iran.

America simply cannot afford another war of choice in the Middle East. But the reality is that it is slowly but surely headed towards exactly that. So while Congress fights over tax policy and the budget, it should take a moment to fix its sanctions legislation and return the power to make peace back to the President. Many in Congress may not like President Obama, but most would agree that it is much is better to have the Commander in Chief overseeing diplomats in Tehran rather than deploying troops there.

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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