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What We Can Learn From Obama’s Cultural Diplomacy

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From proposed religious litmus tests for Muslim immigrants to unrelenting efforts to kill the Iran deal and thwart trade and academic exchange, this election has left many in the Iranian-American community feeling alienated. Rhetoric has only intensified fear of Muslims and immigrants and policymaking has only made escape from the mire of identity politics more inconceivable.

But as much as I’ve felt targeted by political rhetoric these past few months, negative political agendas haven’t always borne this targeting. I think back to President Obama’s annual Iftar dinner to commemorate Eid al-Fitr. He has hosted this dinner every year since he took office eight years ago. This year, in his message to Muslim-Americans at the reception, he expanded upon the contributions of Muslim-Americans throughout the U.S. history, from social justice activism to sports to service in law enforcement and the armed forces.

President Obama has prioritized not only religious outreach, but also cultural, particularly to Iranian Americans. Eight years ago, he expanded the White House tradition of addressing the Iranian-American community on the Persian New Year, otherwise known as Eid Norooz. Former President George H.W. Bush was the first U.S. President to commemorate Norooz. In 1992, he released a short written message, greeting and honoring “Iranian immigrants.”

Bill Clinton would carry on the practice, delivering a videotaped message in 1998, in which he said that he “regrets the estrangement of our two nations.”

In 2002, George W. Bush released a statement thanking millions of Iranian-Americans for “condemning the terrorist acts, participating in rescue efforts at Ground Zero, and offering help and support to the victims, who included individuals of Persian heritage.” In 2008, we even got a glimpse of the State Dining Room, which featured a beautiful Norooz spread, or Haft Sin. Bush also conducted an interview with Voice of America Persian, in which he sent a message to the Iranian regime on nuclear energy research and foreign policy.

Ever since taking office in 2008, President Obama has delivered a heartfelt message on Norooz each year. In 2015, he hosted a Norooz reception for the first time in the White House amidst the nuclear talks, aided by the First Lady. In her remarks, Michelle Obama addressed influential leaders in the Iranian-American community – business owners, artists, academics, and public officials.

Obama’s messages have served as a testament to long-standing traditions in the Iranian culture. He has celebrated the cultural, literary, and achievements of Iranian-Americans – both as a historical civilization and as part of the larger U.S. community today. He has wished Iranians a Happy New Year in Farsi and even quoted renowned Persian poets Hafiz, Saadi, and Behbehani.

As I look back on Obama’s final Nowruz message and traditional feast in the White House, an auspicious sign of inclusivity and unity in the face of divisive rhetoric, I realize that truly “oo ba ma’st,” a play on words which translates to, “He is with us.”

And he always has been with us, with our Iranian-American community and culture, throughout and after negotiations with Iran. He has set an important standard for engagement between the U.S. and Iran, culturally and politically, a standard I hope our next President will follow.

This level of positive, notably apolitical, outreach to Iranian-Americans – and Muslim-Americans as a whole – is unprecedented. As we get ready to elect the next President, amidst calls to ban Muslim immigration to propositions of extra sanctions and even military action against Iran, I hope the President will remember that Iran is more than just a political challenge, but a country with a great history that spawns millennia, rich culture, literature and art and an entire people. And by heeding and celebrating our shared humanity, hopefully we can overcome that political challenge.

  • 8 August 2016
  • Posted By Karina Bakhshi-Azar
  • 0 Comments
  • Events in Iran, Iran deal, Nuclear deal, Nuclear deal

Frustration Grows in Iran Around Sanctions Relief Complications

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani during Interview with Swiss TV stationa  at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos- Switzerland 23/01/2014. /AY-COLLECTION_1120.02/Credit:AY-COLLECTION/SIPA/1401301123

This week Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani addressed the Iranian public on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Both Khamenei and Rouhani acknowledged frustration with the pace of economic relief following the lifting of sanctions, while blaming the U.S. for failing to fulfill its commitments.  As has been the case in the past, Khamenei struck a more strident tone while Rouhani emphasized that the economy was growing in spite of complications.

Khamenei addressed thousands of Iranians from different provinces on August 1 2016, to discuss his thoughts on the current state of the JCPOA. He questioned the economic benefits of the deal stating: “Weren’t the oppressive sanctions lifted so that the people would feel a change in their lives? Has there been a tangible effect on the people’s lives in the past six months [since the nuclear agreement’s implementation]?”

Khamenei’s remarks appear to be at least somewhat reflective of many in Iran, whose support for the accord has slipped since implementation. According to a study done by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, while the nuclear deal is still supported by a majority, the number has diminished in the past year, with the proportion who strongly approve of the agreement dropping by half.

  • 4 August 2016
  • Posted By NIAC
  • 0 Comments
  • Diplomacy, Iran deal, Nuclear deal, Persian Gulf

Time is Ripe For An Incidents at Sea Agreement

U.S. Navy handout photo of a riverine command boat from Riverine Detachment 23 operates during a maritime air support operations center exercise in the Arabia Gulf

Washington, D.C.-The Strait of Hormuz, located at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, is one of the most sensitive regions in the world due to its geopolitical relevance. A variety of factors including the narrowness of the Strait of Hurmuz, the large amount of seaborne oil passing through the strait, and the constant presence of U.S. and Iranian forces have rendered the region uniquely prone to fatal encounters. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen warned as far back as 2011 “We are not talking to Iran, so we don’t understand each other. If something happens, it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right, that there will be miscalculation.” We weren’t talking to Iran when Mullen issued his warning, but we are now. Yet, the absence of formal diplomatic channels between the two nations remains the most dangerous element in the equation to this day. Surprisingly, it may also be the simplest to resolve if the countries capitalize on recent diplomacy to pursue an Incidents at Sea Agreement.

Perhaps the most significant additional benefit of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States is the reestablished channel of communication between the two nations. The benefit of this channel was clear when Kerry and Zarif intervened to ensure the quick release of U.S. Navy sailors that were captured after crossing into Iranian waters in January.

Kerry and Zarif were able to return the sailors to a U.S. Navy base within 15 hours of being detained. This stands in contrast to a similar incident involving British sailors from 2007, in which the sailors were brought to the mainland and detained for 13 tense days, thus demonstrating the benefits of stronger ties. Commenting on the benefits of the channel, Kerry has noted that “[only] two years ago we wouldn’t have known who to call, enough time would have gone by, we would have called the Swiss, and [then] there would have been sufficient enmity for another situation”.

  • 22 July 2016
  • Posted By NIAC
  • 0 Comments
  • Diplomacy, Iran deal, Nuclear deal, Nuclear deal

Examining the Deal’s Impact on Regional Proliferation

IAEAThe Obama administration chose to negotiate with Iran with two overarching goals: to close off Iran’s path to acquiring a nuclear weapon, and – by extension – to ensure that Iranian actions do not trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The IAEA’s latest report has found that Iran continues to abide by all its commitments under the JCPOA, a clear vindication that the first goal is being accomplished. The second goal, preventing a nuclear race to the bottom in the Middle East, was simultaneously accomplished by agreeing on a level of continued enrichment that did not trigger a nuclear race.

However, many conservative foreign policy analysts have urged the administration to push for a complete suspension of Iran’s nuclear program, having deemed the region, and in particular Saudi Arabia, unable to tolerate any level of Iranian enrichment. The analysts predicted that a nuclear-armed or nuclear-threshold Iran would trigger Saudi Arabia into pursuing a nuclear weapon, which would than cascade throughout the Middle East.

The Saudis latched on to these narratives, explicitly stating that they would not hesitate to pursue a nuclear weapon should Iran develop one.

These arguments resurfaced again after the JCPOA was signed, with some arguing as early as 2015 that the deal was a diplomatic failure as it did not halt Iran’s uranium enrichment. These critics proclaimed that regional actors – such as the UAE, Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia – will no longer feel bound by their commitments to non-proliferation in light of the JCPOA as the constraints under the deal did not go far enough.

A year after the signing of the nuclear agreement is the perfect time to return to these predictions and determine how accurate they were. A cursory glance at the region demonstrates that while regional conflicts persist, there are no new nuclear states, and no indications that key regional players are moving towards pursuing a program capable of developing a nuclear weapon.

A May 2016 report from the Brookings Institution authored by former Obama administration officials Robert Einhorn and Richard Nephew evaluates the prospect of proliferation following the JCPOA. The report assesses the likelihood of regional proliferation based on three elements: domestic human capital, technology/wealth, and desire to pursue nuclear weapons, specifically focusing on Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Turkey. The ultimate assessment finds that because none possess all three elements required for pursuing a weapons program, the JCPOA “has not triggered a nuclear race”.

Saudi Arabia, crowned by the report as the most likely candidate to pursue a weapons program, fails on the first and third elements. The lack of domestic human capital and strong desire for pursuing a nuclear weapon, remain the primary obstacles between the Kingdom and a nuclear weapon. According to the report, “While they clearly have the necessary financial resources the Saudis lack the human and physical infrastructure and have had to postpone their ambitious nuclear power plans for eight years while they train the required personnel.” The report went on to find that the delay resulted from Saudi authorities recognizing “that they did not have the workforce, supply chain, or regulatory infrastructure to support such an ambitious effort”. The slow process of developing a domestic nuclear force has led the Saudis to pursue foreign assistance, though as the report notes the Saudis are years away from even constructing their first power reactor.

While the report does not rule out the possibility that Saudi Arabia may eventually acquire a full-fledged nuclear program, it found that the UAE does not seem to harbor any such aspirations. However, as the report notes, the UAE has signed agreements with the United States to forego enrichment and reprocessing and currently has four nuclear reactors, which will go online in 2017. The report notes, however, that because of foreign contractors, “the UAE will not be independently capable of operating its nuclear facilities for quite some time.”

Egypt, “the only [nation examined by the report] that previously made efforts to acquire nuclear weapons”, did not meet all three requirements either. Ultimately, Egypt today possesses the human capital and to some extent desire, but lacks the technology, according to Einhorn and Nephew. As the report states, “the Egyptian nuclear budget remains small, something that is unlikely to be remedied during ongoing domestic unrest.” Furthermore, the report found that Egyptian nuclear aspirations are not clearly linked to Iran, indicating that distance and lack of conflict would likely negate a security dilemma triggered by a potential Iranian nuclear weapons capability.

Similarly, in the report’s determination Turkey does not perceive Iran or its program as a military threat despite regional disagreements. The report noted that Turkey will not pursue nuclear weapons because “[They] believe they can count on NATO in a crisis, and would be reluctant to put their NATO ties in jeopardy by pursuing nuclear weapons.” Hence, Turkey could likely depend on NATO protections and the U.S. nuclear umbrella from nuclear threats within and outside the region. Moreover, a recent poll available in the report has found that a majority of Turks believe the nuclear deal is a positive as opposed to negative development for the region.
The report’s thesis, that Iran’s remaining nuclear program has not triggered a nuclear race, is well argued. However, the report could have gone even further. An argument can be made that the deal can support non-proliferation in the Middle East beyond the particulars of Iran’s program. At a recent event on nuclear policy for the next administration hosted by the Society for Foreign Affairs, Kelsey Davenport of the Arms Control Association made the recommendation that “One of the areas the United States can work on is to introduce the more innovative aspects of the JCPOA, such as 24-hour supervision of facilities into the standard protocols of the NPT as nations move towards nuclear power resources.” This is particularly important for the Middle East as nations such as Turkey, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia consider expanding their nuclear programs. Additionally, by removing one of the region’s foremost security threats, the JCPOA could usher in renewed focus on further non-proliferation agreements – including the pursuit of a regional Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone and the pursuit of ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty throughout the region.

While the JCPOA has not triggered a nuclear race, the accord’s collapse could potentially shift the current paradigm, forcing nations throughout the region to reassess their level of security and hence their desire to possess a nuclear weapon. It is therefore in our interest to maintain the status quo so as to ensure that the current organization of power, one which has not triggered a proliferation race, is not disrupted.