If you have not heard Chas Freeman or read any of his eloguent, amusing and scathing analyses of US Middle East policy, this is a good place to start. He delights in studiously ignoring all of the usual sacred cows in Washington politics. And his vision is as clear as it is ascerbic.
July 16, 2014— In a study released by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran today, Voices from Iran: Strong Support for the Nuclear Negotiations, prominent members of Iranian civil society expressed their strong support for the P5+1 nuclear negotiations between Iran and the world powers.
A surprising result. Even those who have suffered persecution under the present leadership in Iran strongly support the negotiations with the West. They believe — rightly or wrongly — that success on the nuclear issue will lead to greater openness in Iranian society.
The study also suggests that liberalization and human rights reform should go hand in hand with the nuclear negotiations. They are not mutually exclusive, as US congressional hawks have argued. Human rights activists actually living in Iran see the nuclear negotiations as potentially helpful for their own condition.
This is a bit wonky, but if you would like to have a real understanding of the sanctions issue in the current Iran nuclear negotiations, it is the most authoritative piece I have seen.
There are several surprising comments:
1 - The most important thing in getting real sanctions relief for Iran is not what the government says or does, but rather the reaction of the private sector. They have been so traumatized by the US sanctions that they are afraid to do anything with Iran, even if it is perfectly legal. That will be a barrier to cross.
2 - Despite a lot of dire predictions — including by the most hawkish pro-sanctions advocates — the level of sanctions relief that Iran has actually experienced under the current agreement has been even less than promised. The hawks said it would be much more, and they called for additional, deal-busting sanctions that so far have been resisted.
Here is the context that almost always gets left out of MSM reporting on Iran — and which is deliberately distorted by those who oppose any reasonable settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue. With less than two weeks to go in the negotiations, this could not be more timely.
As the nuclear talks with Iran move towards the six month Joint Plan of Action (JPA) timeline, all of the talk is about the United States and Iran. But Europe is a major player.
Two new European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) publications recommend how and why Europe should maximise the chances of a diplomatic solution, including if talks need to be extended beyond July.
In a policy memo, ECFR visiting fellow Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi suggests that at this stage in the six-month JPA nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers, fears that this interim deal would lead to the unravelling of the sanctions regime and a European commercial rush back into the Iranian market, have not been realised. Tabrizi however warns that the opposite may be the case - that Europe’s difficulties in even making good on some of the limited concessions granted under the JPA risks undermining Rouhani’s domestic standing, his ability to showcase the benefits of reaching a nuclear deal and subsequently negotiating flexibility could be weakened, and Iranian confidence that de-sanctioning can happen. This could negatively impact the nuclear talks. (Linked here).
ECFR policy fellow, Ellie Geranmayeh, in a separate policy brief argues that a final nuclear deal would advance Europe’s interests both on the non-proliferation front and in opening new channels for addressing regional conflicts and security concerns with Iran, including on Syria. If a deal is agreed, Europeans can play a key role in implementing it. In the more likely event of the existing JPA needing to be extended to give negotiators more time, then European deliverables may be necessary in exchange for Iran continuing its JPA commitments. At the same time Europe should devise a damage limitation plan in case of a breakdown caused by the these stumbling blocks of hardliners in Tehran or US Congress.
Geranmayeh outlines four broad trajectories that could shape the future of the nuclear talks and recommends how Europe should react in each: (1) a settlement is reached by the interim deal deadline; (2) the interim deal needs to be extended; (3) US Congress blocks implementation of a final deal; and (4) negotiations derail. In the third scenario, she argues that Europe should pursue its own interests and recommends that if Tehran shows commitment to diplomacy and to the agreements reached, Europe should attempt to salvage negotiations by taking a more independent line on Iran through altering the scope of its unilateral sanctions and working to ring-fence European entities from the secondary impact of US sanctions. (Linked here).
Rep. Doggett discusses ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran and his opposition to provisions in the NDAA.
Boy, I wish this Texan were MY congressman. No mincing words: “There are few greater threats to the security of American families than those which could arise from the failure of the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. Parts of this bill seek to disrupt the Administration’s tough, persistent diplomacy. Some would assign to Israel the job of starting what could become World War III—even the Bush-Cheney Administration rejected that approach. Iranian Revolutionary Guard hardliners may ultimately doom these negotiations; our responsibility is to ensure that hardliners here don’t do the obstruction for them… .”
NBC News was granted exclusive access to both US and Iranian negotiators in the diplomacy that produced the initial agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. This is their reconstruction of those events. Very professional, but also a sobering reminder of just how far we have left to go.
Just think about it. Netanyahu makes speech after speech raising alarm about Iran, including a whole speech at the UN with a cartoon bomb about to go off. He wanted the US to go to war with Iran because of the “threat.”
Now the former head of Israel’s atomic energy organization says all that was simply untrue — and was done for political reasons.
Brig.-Gen.Uzi Eilam is convinced that Iran is a decade away from a bomb, and is unsure that this is what Tehran even wants.
"The Iranian nuclear program will only be operational in another 10 years," declares Eilam, a senior official in Israel’s atomic program. "Even so, I am not sure that Iran wants the bomb."
"Netanyahu is using the Iranian threat to achieve a variety of political objectives," he said. "These declarations are unnecessarily scaring Israel’s citizens…"
A government negotiating with another government is almost inevitably required to conduct a second negotiation with its own domestic constituents whose own interests will be affected by the outcome. The classic image is the negotiator facing his foreign adversary over one table, then swiveling around to confront his domestic adversaries at a second table.
In the current negotiations with Iran over the future of its nuclear program, the United States is facing something even more daunting. It is engaged in at least four separate negotiations at the same time:
1) Direct talks with Iran
2) Consultations with its negotiating partners in the so-called P5+1 – the five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany – who must develop a unified bargaining position
3) Congress of the United States
4) Allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose interests will be impacted by the outcome.
Success in one dimension of this chess match does not necessarily guarantee success in any of the others, although in the end a successful final outcome will require at least a measure of success in all four dimensions. Ironically, crafting an agreement with Iran could prove to be the easiest part of the diplomatic game. The most difficult challenge may be in the domestic political arena, particularly in the United States. Iran’s hardliners are also poised to challenge potential concessions.
The following is a brief snapshot of the board so far:
Engagement with Iran
By almost any measure, direct contact between U.S. negotiators and their counterparts in Iran has exceeded expectations. American official contact with Iranian officials has been rare, sporadic, and often almost illicit for most of the past 35 years, since the Iranian revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis. U.S. diplomats were often instructed to avoid even casual contact with Iranian dignitaries at routine diplomatic functions. The United States and Iran occasionally worked together openly, such as at the Bonn conference in December 2001, when Hamid Karzai was selected as the president of a new Afghan government. But the relationship had never been able to transcend longstanding political animosity.
That has now changed. A senior U.S. official, who regularly briefs the media on the progress of the negotiations, said the United States and Iran no longer need to hold secret meetings. “When we need to solve problems, [we] email with the Iranians,” the official said. That kind of routine contact suggests that a return to the tensions of the past is progressively less likely – whether or not the current negotiations succeed.
The progress of negotiations so far has been achieved by coordination and discipline among the six major powers—Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States—who sit on the same side of the table opposite Iran. The cohesion appears to be genuine. The talks have also not been contaminated by policy clashes—especially between Washington and Moscow—over Syria, the Crimea, and East Asia, which could have intruded on the Iran negotiations.
The senior U.S. administration official, speaking on background, addressed those issues after the meetings in Vienna on March 19, at a time when the Crimean crisis was dominating the media: “The P5+1… is very united. We may have some different ideas, we may even have national positions which aren’t identical, but when we are in the room together, we are completely united… Everybody is very professional, very serious, very focused. If there is any humor, it’s of the good-natured variety. There are no histrionics. There’s no walking out. There’s no yelling and screaming. It is very professional, very workmanlike.”
The parties have also not digressed from the main topic into other important but tangential issues, such as human rights abuses, ties to extremist forces such as Hezbollah, and Tehran’s support for the Syrian government. The major powers appear to have decided to defer such discussions until the nuclear issue has been resolved one way or another.
Many senators, both Republicans and Democrats, are intensely skeptical of the talks. Even before negotiations had begun in earnest, 59 senators from both parties supported a new round of sanctions, including a commitment to support Israel in the event it should attack Iran, a clear signal about potential future opposition. The Obama administration strongly opposed the bill, which did not get sufficient Democratic support to bring it to a vote.
The administration has been careful to brief members of Congress throughout the negotiations, and the executive branch has diligently enforced existing sanctions during talks. Yet Congress may still intervene once terms of a deal are known. In the past, legislators have called for Iran’s program—including all centrifuges and enrichment sites—to be completely dismantled. Opposition has invoked “the four no’s: no enrichment, no centrifuges, no stockpile of enriched uranium, and no heavy water reactor.”
The administration has signaled that those terms exceed the requirements of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. It is expected to present any agreement with Iran as an executive agreement not requiring a two-thirds vote of the Senate for ratification. Nevertheless, cooperation with the Congress will be required in order to remove the many layers of sanctions imposed on Iran over the past 35 years. Most observers expect this domestic negotiation to be even more rancorous than the actual negotiations with Iran.
The concerns of regional states – notably Israel and Saudi Arabia– constitute the fourth dimension of this complex negotiation that a senior U.S. official has described as a Rubik’s Cube. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been outspoken in questioning the prospective nuclear deal, especially if Tehran is allowed to retain any ability to enrich uranium. In a CNN interview on April 27, he denounced it as “a terrible deal,” since it would leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state. He told an American audience: “Don’t let it happen.” That perspective could influence Congressional opposition.
Gary Sick, principal White House aide for Iran and the Persian Gulf on the Carter administration’s National Security Council, is now executive director of Gulf/2000, an international online research project on the Persian Gulf at Columbia University.
Click here to read his chapter on the Carter administration and Iran.
Photo credits: Chess board by Prayitno/ more than 1.5 millions views: thank you! (Flickr: Chess) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, UNGA Ashton Security Council by European External Action Service via Flickr
Another version of the Obama Doctrine by UVA Professor emeritus Ruhi Ramazani.
Obama has followed Jefferson in pronouncing the primacy of an American example, not intending democratization to be an instrument of American foreign policy. He wrote in 1801 that “a just and solid republican government maintained here will be a standing monument and example for the aim of imitation of the people of other countries.” Understanding the difficulties of moving from tyranny to democracy, he told Lafayette in l790 not to expect transition “from despotism to liberty in a feather bed.”
Over the past quarter century, the most accurate single factor to explain security developments in the Gulf, as well as the best predictor of the future, has been and is U.S. policy in the region. Since it began to be a significant force, U.S. policy has undergone at least five major shifts. The current policy, which I will call the Obama Doctrine, represents the latest, and possibly one of the most important, iterations.
The expansion of U.S. presence
The United States has become the dominant military, diplomatic, and economic presence in the Gulf. It is, in effect, a leading Gulf power. This has become such an accepted condition that it is easy to forget just how recent and exceptional it is.
The United States relied on the British to maintain security in the Gulf region until their departure in 1971. President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were unable to fill the resulting military vacuum with U.S. forces at a time when the United States was bogged down in Southeast Asia and when public sentiment was hostile to any further foreign military adventures. Their answer was the Nixon Doctrine, relying on the twin pillars of Iran and Saudi Arabia to protect U.S. interests in the region. That policy came to an inglorious end when the Iranian monarchy, the primary U.S. strategic pillar, collapsed in the 1979 Iranian revolution.
After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter responded with the Carter Doctrine in his State of the Union address of January 23, 1980, declaring that “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” This was widely recognized as a hollow threat at the time, since the United States had virtually no military capability apart from a small naval facility in Bahrain and the distant British island base of Diego Garcia. Still, it clearly defined U.S. interests in the region and served as the basis for a slow expansion of U.S. military presence that continued on into the Reagan administration and beyond.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, more than any other individual or event, was responsible for drawing the United States into a full-fledged military presence in the Gulf. His invasion of Iran in September 1980 started a bloody and devastating eight-year war that spread to the critical oil shipping lanes of the Gulf. The Ronald Reagan administration aligned U.S. strategy with Arab governments against Iran, except for the bizarre and disastrous Iran-contra affair. In 1987, at the request of the Gulf Arab states, the United States placed its flag on a number of Kuwaiti ships and began to move forces into place to protect them from Iranian attack. By the end of the war in 1988, the United States had become a combatant in the regional war, striking Iranian ships and oil platforms that were being used for attacks on Arab shipping and for launching mines.
Then, after only two years of uneasy truce, Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. The George H.W. Bush administration responded with a massive military buildup, the greatest and most diverse coalition of regional and extra-regional powers in Middle East history, and a brilliant military campaign that outflanked Saddam’s forces and forced him to sue for peace. Saddam surprised his U.S. adversaries, however, by holding on to power even in defeat. Consequently, and at Arab request, a large contingent of U.S. forces remained in the region, and the string of military facilities up and down the coast that had been initiated during Operation Desert Storm remained in operation. That substantial force presence was maintained throughout the Bill Clinton administration, which continued to confront Saddam. Otherwise, the Clinton administration was notable primarily for inventing the concept of “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran, which amounted to a kind of watchful waiting, while focusing on the Arab-Israel issue.
Ironically, the preexisting U.S. force presence was instrumental in facilitating the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the George W. Bush administration. That followed the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, in retaliation for the terrorist attacks in New York on 9/11. The number and size of military forces and operating facilities in the Gulf expanded dramatically as the United States fought two regional wars and confronted Iran over the following decade. This was accompanied by a vigorous assertion of U.S. predominance and preemptive determination to shape the politics and historic contours of the region, a strategy that became known as the Bush Doctrine.
The Obama Doctrine
President Obama spent his first term managing the end of the Iraq war and preparing to end the Afghanistan conflict – the longest and most expensive conflicts in U.S. history. He also had a full plate of domestic issues growing out of the Great Recession, together with his own determination to pass sweeping health care legislation. However, at the beginning of Obama’s second term, he and his foreign policy team conducted an extensive review and restructuring of U.S. foreign policy. This was announced in Obama’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2013, and elaborated by his national security adviser one month later in an exclusive interviewwith the New York Times.
Neither of these announcements attracted the kind of attention and analysis that one might have expected from what was, by any measure, a fundamental shift in U.S. policy in a critical region of the world. The reason for this lack of excitement may be that the new policy contains none of the sweeping language and bold declarations of his predecessors. The policy statement is unusually parsimonious and candid. Here are the defining elements:
The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region.
We will confront external aggression against our allies and partners, as we did in the Gulf War.
We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world.
We will dismantle terrorist networks that threaten our people.
And finally, we will not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction.
The drivers of this policy are U.S. core interests, which are immediately defined in a seemingly bland list that is most notable for what it does not say. It does not define the kind of Middle East it would like to see – no mention of liberty, democracy, free markets, human rights, or freedom of the seas. It does not commit the United States to the security of Israel or any other country in the region, only to help defend them against direct external aggression. Ensuring the free flow of oil is inevitable but the statement says nothing about price (“reasonable”) or destination (“free world”), which have often been part of such U.S. declarations. By narrowing U.S. interests to terrorist networks that directly threaten the United States, it vastly reduces the scope of the Bush global war on terrorists. And the focus on development or use of WMD leaves unmentioned any concern about potential nuclear weapons capacity, as opposed to actual possession.
President Obama defines only two specific objectives in this region to occupy the last three years of his presidency: the Iranian nuclear issue and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He does not ignore other issues, but he relegates them to a secondary position. So he says: “We deeply believe it is in our interests to see a Middle East and North Africa that is peaceful and prosperous, and will continue to promote democracy and human rights and open markets.” He immediately adds, however: “democracy cannot simply be imposed by force. Rather, these objectives are best achieved when we partner with the international community and with the countries and peoples of the region.”
In other words, if it does not directly affect the United States of America, it will be dealt with multilaterally.
Theory and praxis
This statement, or Doctrine if you like, which appears quite ordinary on the surface, is actually a huge departure from past U.S. policies. It is the triumph of the realist model of international politics. There is not a hint of idealism or grand objectives or open-ended commitments. Instead, it echoes the words of John Quincy Adams that the United States “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”
The Obama Doctrine is a redefinition of U.S. policy that is minimalist, multilateral when possible, and unabashedly self-centered. And all available evidence suggests that it is not just a philosophical tract but rather a working agenda that will drive the Obama administration in its second term. As the brief historical review above showed, doctrines often do not outlive their authors, but we do have a clear and authoritative blueprint that seems to define a specific set of objectives and some rules of the road that can help us look ahead for at least the next three years.
Obama appears to be deadly serious about the pursuit of his two policy imperatives: a negotiated settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue and a possible resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Both of these are fraught with historical baggage and a daunting record of failure. But President Obama has already demonstrated quite clearly that he is prepared to take political heat from the Israeli leadership and the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby. He has indicated that he thinks the chances of an Iranian deal no better than 50-50, and the chance of a genuine agreement between Israelis and Palestinians still seems remote. But he does seem determined to give it his best shot. He may fail, but it is unlikely that he will back down in the face of opposition.
A literal reading of the Obama Doctrine would also seem to explain a great deal about what many would regard as policy disarray in Syria. If you start with the assumption that Obama’s primary interest (as he said) was the elimination of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons (WMD), his initial threat to use military force was entirely consistent with his principles. However, when he was offered an alternative and less costly way to accomplish the same objective, he embraced it. His critics were less interested in WMD and were more interested in persuading the United States to use military force to overthrow the Assad regime, and they were bitter in their denunciation of U.S. lack of consistency. There is no question that U.S. Syria policy was less than masterful in execution, but the difference of opinion is really based on a difference of objectives. It is not that Obama departed from his principles – he didn’t – but that other regional states (and domestic critics) disagree with those principles and their implications.
That is likely to remain the sticking point. Obama seems to be committed to a game plan that is anathema to many regional states – specifically Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arab states – as well as neoconservative (and many liberal) internationalists who want a foreign policy that is more engaged and interventionist. At the same time, the American public seems content to avoid more direct U.S. intervention in the Middle East.
The interplay of those powerful forces seems likely to provide much of the foreign policy drama for the United States in the Middle East for at least the next few years.
Gary Sick is a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute and an adjunct professor at the School of International and Public Affairs.
 Gary Sick, “Slouching Toward Settlement: The Internationalization of the Iran Iraq War, 1987-88,” in Nikki Keddie and Mark Gasiorowski, eds., Neither East Nor West: Iran, the Soviet Union, and the United States, Yale University Press, 1990, pp. 219-246
The Arms Control Association has put together a concise brief on the current status of the nuclear negotiations with Iran. It describes the issues and the nature of the decision that will be required to get a permanent agreement.
Nasser Hadian is a professor at Tehran University and one of the most astute observers and commentators on Iranian politics. This short article summarizes the state of Iran’s internal situation after 35 years since the Iranian revolution. Some things may surprise you:
"Politically, Iran’s government borrows heavily from Western concepts, including separation of powers. Each branch has its own turf, to the point that they have the same kind of tensions that Western governments do—and sometimes even harsher. The parallel religious institutions—such as the Guardian Council—weigh in not to run daily government but as a fourth check on secular powers and politicians."
“Iran initially tried to Islamicize society, but the forces of modernity have often prevailed. The Islamic Republic now openly tolerates scientific and even secular ideas. More than three decades after the revolution, Iranian society is arguably more modern than it was under the monarchy.”
"Revolutionary Iran won a U.N. award for closing the gender gap in education. And the majority of students at Iranian universities are today female, despite recent restrictions on their coursework. Access to education and modern institutions has particularly brought many females from traditional families into the professions, politics and the arts."
"…ironically, on its 35th anniversary, a religious government has produced one of the most secular societies in the Middle East.”
Paul Pillar provides his usual clear-eyed guide for understanding the nature of the opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran:
"The Iranians may be understandably reluctant to make more concessions knowing there are elements on the other side determined to destroy any deal no matter what the terms, no matter how long it takes, and no matter what new arguments have to be conjured up."
Why undervaluing the potential upsides to a deal with Iran is just bad business.
Steve Walt dares go where the timid Washington crowd is afraid to go. He considers not just the risks of nuclear negotiations with Iran but also the many positive benefits that could possibly flow from a settlement of the nuclear dispute.
I was at the White House when Americans were taken hostage. So sanctions bill troubles me.
(Photo: Ebrahim Noroozi, AP)
Thirty-five years ago, when the Iranian revolution overthrew the shah and our diplomats were taken hostage, I was in the White House. Many of those taken prisoner remain personal friends of mine.
With this experience, it is difficult to watch the foreign policy calamity taking shape in Washington. A combination of domestic politics and misguided intrusion is on track to derail an enormous opportunity to halt Iran’s nuclear program. At worst, it could be setting us on the path to a third major Middle East war.
Last November, five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany — the so-called P5+1 — concluded a preliminary deal with Iran to resolve the long-standing dispute about Iran’s nuclear program. This agreement, set to take effect Monday, was possible because the election in Iran last year brought a fresh face, Hasan Rouhani, to the presidency in Iran. He replaced the belligerent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose policies had isolated Iran as never before.
The Rouhani factor
A decade earlier, Rouhani had been the chief negotiator of the nuclear issue. At that time, he basically offered to maintain Iran’s nuclear enrichment program at a low level in return for recognition of Iran’s right to develop peaceful nuclear power. European negotiators, with the backing of the Bush administration, rejected the offer, insisting instead that no deal was possible unless Iran halted all enrichment of uranium.
After the talks broke down, two things happened. First, Ahmadinejad replaced the Rouhani team, accusing it of being too generous to the West. Second, Iranaccelerated its production and installation of centrifuges. To date, according to the U.S. intelligence community, Iran has taken no decision to build a nuclear weapon. However, Iran now has the technical know-how to produce a bomb. In short, we are still paying for our misjudgment of Iran and our own interests a decade ago.
The agreement between the P5+1 and Iran on Nov. 23 basically freezes Iran’s nuclear program in place while talks proceed on a permanent settlement. During that time, the U.S. and its allies agree not to introduce any new nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, while providing some modest relief from the sanctions that they have imposed on Iran over the past few years.
Now, a group of senators — some Democrats, more Republicans — is sponsoring a bill that would impose new sanctions and urges the United States to provide military support if Israel decides to unilaterally attack Iran.
This misguided bill threatens to derail the negotiations and sabotage progress. Our negotiators do not want or need this extra sanctions threat. They already have a strong hand, and new sanctions will almost certainly be seen by Iran as evidence of bad faith.
A new round of sanctions will also send a message to our allies that the U.S. is not serious about achieving a negotiated outcome, and allied support is critical. In addition, if further sanctions are needed, they can quickly be imposed later.
If negotiations do collapse, it will be hard-liners in Iran who will be the biggest winners. The failure of another round of talks will prove their claim that negotiating with the U.S. is pointless and strengthen their argument that those seeking to open Iran to the West are weak and naive.
President Obama has threatened to veto the bill, but that might not be enough. Anti-Iran legislation is politically popular and, with powerful lobbying behind it, such bills often pass by veto-proof majorities.
Today we are at the most hopeful moment of the past three decades. A final agreement has yet to be negotiated, and there are certain to be ups and downs. Even so, we have a real chance to cap Iran’s nuclear development and establish iron-clad measures to guarantee that it will not be used for military purposes.
By contrast, the Senate bill attempts to inject the Congress into a delicate international negotiation. That only risks derailing efforts to find a peaceful solution, bringing us closer to another war in the Middle East.
Gary Sick teaches Middle East politics at Columbia University. He was a member of the National Security Council staff during the Ford, Carter and Reagan presidencies.
Here is an impressive profile in courage by a US senator. Dianne Feinstein covers every aspect of the proposed legislation sponsored by Senators Menendez and Kirk, and she concludes that it is not only utterly unnecessary but positively dangerous. You will never hear a more comprehensive dissection of this pernicious bill.
Will her colleagues in the Senate take the time to listen to what she has to say? She is the Chair of the Intelligence Committee, and she knows what she is talking about.
I have read the text of the draft legislation that was introduced today under the title “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013.” You are prominently named as a supporter.
The bottom line of this bill as written would remove any real negotiating authority from the U.S. government by specifying in advance the terms of an impossible settlement. At the same time, the bill outsources any decision about resort to military action to the government of Israel, by committing the United States in advance to support any military action by Israel.
The bill ignores President Obama’s declared intention of insuring that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon. Instead, it insists on the objective defined by Prime Minister Netanyahu, among others, to eliminate all capability by Iran to ever build a nuclear device. As I’m sure you know, even the most peaceful nuclear activity can be used for military purposes. It is possible to regulate how far a country is away from a nuclear weapon. It is not possible to eliminate the possibility entirely. That is the dilemma at the heart of the nuclear non-proliferation effort.
A decade ago, the United States and some allies attempted to replace a good outcome that was achievable with a perfect outcome that was not. At that time, we rejected an Iranian offer to limit enrichment to 3,000 centrifuges and insisted on zero. As a result, today Iran has some 19,000 centrifuges.
The deal on the table with Iran offers the best opportunity in more than a generation to make sure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon. This bill would sabotage that effort before it even begins.
In addition to imposing new sanctions, which the members of the UN Security Council agreed not to do, this bill as written commits the US government to prove a negative. Quite simply it makes it impossible to negotiate any agreement with Iran short of unconditional surrender of its national sovereignty.
In fact, the enforcement of the objectives of this bill would require a permanent US presence in the decision-making process of the Iranian government, because there is no way to insure that someone in Iran is not plotting to build a nuclear weapon except to be omnipresent.
That is what we tried to do in Iraq. It is called occupation, and it is achieved not by negotiation but by war.
I urge you to withdraw your support from this dangerous bill.
The National Iranian-American Council continues its path-breaking effort of combining original analysis, drawing on ground-level access to Iranian business and elite leaders, with practical and imaginative suggestions about where to go from here.
This new publication acknowledges that the hard-liners in both Iran and the West have become infatuated with their own success in producing negative outcomes. Instead, this short document proposes a series of positive steps that are essentially cost-free and available right now.
An exclusive interview with Gary Sick, professor at Columbia University and analyst of Middle East affairs
This is a word-for-word transcription of a telephone interview between me and Sara Massoumi of the Iranian website irdiplomacy. The syntax is not elegant, and there are far too many run-on sentences, but the analysis of US and Iranian policy accurately reflects my views.
This video is a 52-min compilation of recent conversations on “Charlie Rose” dealing with the agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program. Starting at minute 31 is a panel discussion on Iran with Gary Samore, David Sanger, Ray Takeyh and Gary Sick.
The other two conversations are with Tom Donilon, former national security adviser to President Obama, and Representative Mike Rogers, Chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
In the avalanche of reportage and commentary on the nuclear deal with Iran, here are a few tiny facts that may have escaped your notice:
France’s President Hollande made his triumphal trip to Israel (a hero because he put a speed bump in the way of an agreement); a few days later, France returned to the negotiations and quietly signed the text. Can he still wear his hero medal?
Opponents of the deal denounce the “shredding” of the United Nations Security Council resolutions (which demanded that Iran stop all enrichment) but fail to notice that all five Permanent Members of the Security Council negotiated and signed off on the text. These are the same countries that passed those resolutions.
Netanyahu just a year ago used a cartoon drawing of a bomb to illustrate that Iran was getting perilously close to a nuclear weapon; the agreement moves Iran far away from his famous red line. Is that a “historic mistake?”
Netanyahu in 1992 said that if no one intervened Iran would have a bomb within five years – and he has been saying the same thing ever since. He has been consistently wrong for more than two decades.
If you look carefully at the words of the opposition, you’ll see that they base all their objections on the supposition that Iran will renege on its commitments and the US will acquiesce. Do they have an alternative? Whining is not a policy.
The dog that didn’t bark: since the last Iranian election there has not been one peep from our old friend Ahmadinejad. Several American politicians who relish conflict in the Middle East have said they miss him. I don’t.
The other dog: the strangely silent Revolutionary Guards. Ditto.
Have you noticed how many of the people opposing the nuclear agreement are the same ones who thought invading Iraq was a nifty idea? War good; talk bad.
Iran is so determined to build a nuclear weapon that it renounces them under any and all circumstances, reduces its production of enriched uranium, and invites the largest group of inspectors in history to monitor its activities. Hmmm
Iran has been able to build a nuclear device for at least seven years and has not done so. In the eyes of some that is absolute proof of their deviousness.
Everyone is talking endlessly about the agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (France — yes, France — the UK, Russia, China, and the US) plus Germany, under the auspices of Lady Ashton, the representative of the EU.
Well, instead of just talking, why not actually read the text? It is only four pages, and it is remarkably concise.
The interim nuclear agreement with Iran is a potential game changer. The deal has been met with a mixed reception, but many see this development as significant. Mark Fitzpatrick, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Non-Proliferation at the U.S. State Department who is now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and Gary Sick, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute and author of “All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran,” discuss how the deal came about and what’s next for Iran and the U.S.
Kenneth Pollack makes the common sense point that the pursuit of a “perfect” deal with Iran will necessarily result in either no deal at all or else set in motion the prerequisites for still another American war in the Middle East. This logic is deliberately distorted by those who want only regime change in Iran and consequently promote new sanctions to insure that conflict with Iran continues at all costs.
A bipartisan group of 79 former military and diplomatic leaders, intelligence officials, policymakers, and senior security experts sent a letter to President Obama applauding efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear standoff. The letter coincides with a new round of negotiations between Iran and the U.S. and allies. Many expect the talks to result in concrete steps toward an agreement on Iran’s controversial nuclear activities. “The hard work of diplomacy begins now,” the authors write in the letter to the president. “We support this new policy [of engagement] and pledge to help our fellow Americans appreciate the ambitious and transformative course you have chosen to build a more peaceful and more cooperative environment in the Middle East.”
There are popular fundamental misconceptions about Iran’s nuclear program: that the Iranian leadership has a fixed goal of acquiring a nuclear weapon, that if left alone Iran would build such a weapon and that this presumed ambition will be thwarted only if therest of the worldimposes enough costs and barriers. These misconceptions infuse much of the U.S. discourse on Iran, as reflected in frequent, erroneous references to Iran’s “nuclear weapons program.” These mistakes encourage a posture toward Iran that makes it more, not less, likely that Tehran will decide someday to build a bomb.
Public U.S. intelligence assessments are that Iran has not made any such decision and might never do so. Iranians have been interested in the option of a nuclear weapon, and some of their nuclear activities have helped to preserve that option. Whether they ever exercise the option depends primarily on the state of their relationship with the rest of the world, particularly the United States. As they sit down for their next round of talks with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the United States and its negotiating partners have an opportunity to forge a relationship with an Iran that remains a non-nuclear-weapons state — not so much because of technical barriers they might raise, but because the relationship would be one in which the Iranians would not want a nuclear weapon.
The principal purpose for which Iran might seek such a weapon is deterrence against attacks on its homeland. This is the main reason that threats of military strikes are counterproductive. It is also why the likelihood of an Iranian bomb would recede if the West developed a relationship in which the Iranians believed they could live comfortably over the long term and in which the prospect of a military attack against Iran also recedes.
A focus on “breakout capability” and recitation of the mantra that “a bad deal is worse than no deal” overlook the enormous disincentives that Iran would have to renege on any agreement with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany — the “P5+1” — that helped to establish such a relationship. Iranian cheating would mean a redoubling of the political incentives in the West, and especially the United States, that have made it far easier for politicians to impose sanctions on Iran than to remove them. Iranians would be thrown right back into the economic vise they clearly want to be out of.
Reneging on an agreement also would go directly against the declaration of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that “production, stockpiling and use” of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam. A clear Iranian violation and movement toward a nuclear weapon therefore would involve almost as much of a loss of face for the supreme leader as it would for him to give up altogether Iran’s uranium enrichment program, as hard-liners in the United States and Israel unrealistically demand.
It would be a grave mistake for the United States and its partners to adhere to an inflexible negotiating position based on the mistaken notion that an Iran bent on building nuclear weapons can be coerced or physically prevented from doing so. If Iran really were bent on building the bomb, it probably would have done so by now, based on a nuclear program that dates to the time of the shah.
Certain prevention is impossible, whether through diplomacy, military force or other means. Like many other things in international relations, this issue is a matter of weighing relative risks. There is minimal risk of Iran throwing away an agreement that ended debilitating sanctions to pursue a nuclear weapons scenario that so far exists more in U.S. fears and politics than in Iranian desires.
The risk is much greater that an unbalanced, hard-line P5+1 position that offers only minimal sanctions relief while demanding substantial Iranian concessions would kill the best opportunity in years to build a better relationship with Tehran, would lose the additional scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear program that any conceivable agreement would include and would stoke Iranian officials’ interest in building a nuclear deterrent as a way of dealing with what they would perceive as unending Western hostility.
The task ahead is diplomacy in the fullest sense: the use of negotiations not to break the will of an adversary but, instead, to find enough common ground to reach agreements that both sides will want to uphold.
Marwan Bishara, in his recent op-ed in the InternationalNew York Times (see link above) says that tensions between Saudi Arabia and the US have been brewing for months. Actually, as his article makes clear, many of these issues have been brewing for many years – long before the Arab uprising. Several of his assertions I found puzzling.
Bishara says “America chose Iran and Israel, over their Arab neighbors, as its designated “regional cops” in the 1960s and ’70s, at the height of the Cold War.” I’m not sure this is an accurate description of the U.S.-Israeli relationship; but on the Arab side this formulation no doubt refers to the Nixon Doctrine and the Two-Pillar policy in the Gulf. After the Iranian revolution and two wars (Iran vs Iraq and Desert Storm), the “twin pillars” morphed into the Dual Containment policy of the Clinton administration. The principal characteristic of that policy was that the United States took it upon itself, not others, to maintain security in the Gulf.
But then Bishara asserts that “Since the United States and Iran became sworn enemies after the 1979 revolution, America’s military wishes have by and large been carried out by Arab proxies, often at great cost in blood, treasure and stability. Lebanon, Iraq and Syria are among the countries that have suffered immensely.”
He does not mention U.S. military involvement in the Iran-Iraq war or the ejection of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait or the invasion and occupation of Iraq by U.S. forces. So what are these American “military wishes” that have relied on “Arab proxies”? Surely not Hezbollah fighting Israelis in southern Lebanon? Surely not al-Qaeda and radical Sunni Islamists bombing Shias in Iraq? Surely not the Sunnis fighting the Assad regime in Syria? So who are these Arab proxies of the United States carrying out U.S. military wishes in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria?
I honestly don’t know.
According to Bishara, “Arab powers fear that negotiations between America and Iran are likely to leave Israel as the one nuclear power in the region, while allowing its occupation of Palestine to continue unabated.” That is an entirely reasonable concern. However, it defines a set of realities that have existed at least since the 1960s, when Israel is believed to have acquired nuclear weapons. Iran, it is essential to point out, does not have nuclear weapons. Even assuming no progress on the Palestinian question by the Obama administration (which, to be fair, is making the most serious effort since the Clinton second term to negotiate a settlement), will things get worse if the U.S. manages to place additional controls on Iran’s nuclear program? Why?
Bishara fears that any U.S.-Iran rapprochement will be at Arab expense. He acknowledges that U.S. engagement with Iran might help resolve the Syrian situation and could potentially have some other positive benefits. But the risk, in his view, is that “Iranian-American détente will likely deepen the sectarian divisions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, setting the stage for an all-out regionwide sectarian conflict.”
The fact is, there is a regionwide sectarian conflict in full sway right now, and it has been fueled from the start by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states. Saudi Arabia moved troops into Bahrain to protect against suspected Iranian designs. The Sunni militants in Syria, who are now close to running out of control, were financed, trained and encouraged from the earliest days of the Syrian revolt by massive infusions of GCC money. And domestic crackdowns on Shia populations in the Saudi Eastern Province and elsewhere have been unrelenting.
Mr. Bishara fails to explain why U.S. engagement with Iran is going to make this worse.
It is unmistakable from his language and his closing words that Mr Bishara – and presumably the Sunni states – feel that they have not been included in U.S. decision making, and that “authoritarian Sunni regimes in the region will probably seek to undermine…any agreement that foresees growing Iranian influence in their backyard.” He warns President Obama “to make sure the Arabs are part of, and don’t lose from, any future bargain with Iran.”
Clearly, that is advice that the U.S. president and his representatives should take to heart. In a fast-moving situation, they need to work overtime with both Arabs and Israelis to insure that the rationale for decisions that are being made and those being considered are well understood.
In the same spirit, perhaps it is also fair to point out that reducing contact with the United States or impugning its motives may not be the most effective means of sustaining the kind of dialogue that is required.
With the new Iranian president’s visit to the UN, many Americans hope their government will pave the way for better relations between the nations.
A 25-min summary of the UN appearances of Rohani and Obama, with long bits of my commentary, among others. This is a feature presentation produced by Susan Modaress, an Iranian-American journalist. This is a good example of the “new” PressTV — the former Iranian propaganda network that is now publishing more real news. Another small but hopeful sign.
Radio Farda is running a blog on US-Iran relations. I sent them a short comment. At the link it is in Persian, but here is the original:
The inability of the United States and Iran to sustain a meaningful dialogue over more than a third of a century has been a serious impediment to stability in the Middle East. The simmering cold war between these two states has exacerbated many existing problems, while maintaining a constant state of hostility that had the potential to burst into armed conflict with the least provocation or error.
The current opening, though far from a solution, provides the most promising opportunity in thirty-four years to resolve the core elements of this dispute. The nuclear “threat” from Iran has been hyped out of all proportion with reality. But for that very reason, it must be the starting point to any resolution of the core issues. It is essential to show that the Iranian nuclear program is manageable at modest to zero levels of risk in order to create the necessary trust to permit a reasoned discussion on other important issues. The skeptics and even the outright opponents of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement – in both countries – must be persuaded or neutralized by indisputable evidence of tangible progress on the nuclear issue.
Reduced hostility between the United States and Iran could potentially have a constructive influence on virtually every major issue in the region. The first and most obvious is Syria. Iran, for reasons based on its own recent history, opposes the existence or use of chemical weapons anywhere. As an ally of the Assad government, it is in a position, together with Russia, to keep the Syrian government on track as OPCW technicians carry out their inspections and destruction of chemical weapons facilities. Iran, also for its own reasons, wants to see an orderly transfer of power in Syria, avoiding the total breakdown of order and the takeover by radical Sunni elements. So the United States and Iran find themselves on the same page, even if their rationales may differ.
Other areas of mutual interest are control of the drug trade, stable government in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and the transformation of Iran into a constructive player in the regional and international communities. On a strategic basis, the proposed American “pivot” to Asia is being impeded almost entirely by concern about U.S. ability to pressure and deter Iran. After the end of the war in Iraq, and as the Afghan war comes to an end, the mammoth U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf is justified almost entirely by concern about Iran. Even the Arab-Israel dispute is not immune from Iranian rhetorical interference and support for radical Arab oppositionists.
Many of these problems are not Iranian in origin or sustenance, and a warming of U.S.-Iran relations will not necessarily solve them. However, a more businesslike relationship between these two hostile powers would open avenues for dealing with a range of regional problems that seem nearly unthinkable at present.
Here is Steve Walt’s take on the same Kahl-Naderi article that I mentioned below. He concludes:
In short, the hard-liners’ approach to Iran still insists on maximal objectives on our end and zero carrots for Iran. It still sees sanctions and active threats of military force as the only way to convince Iran to abandon most if not all of its nuclear energy program. This approach is also deeply hypocritical, given America’s own nuclear arsenal and our propensity to use force with far greater frequency than the Islamic Republic has. And worst of all, it has been a complete failure so far: Iran has a far more extensive nuclear program than it did when the United States started trying to coerce it into complete capitulation. You would think that America’s foreign-policy establishment would look back at the past decade or more and at least consider a different approach, but that seems to be a very hard thing for us to do.
This is really an excellent piece. These two leading experts offer six reasons why the US cannot force Iran’s hand in the negotiations. For myself, I would add a 7th point:
The Perfect as the Enemy of the Good — It should not be forgotten that those who are now proposing total capitulation as the only acceptable Iranian outcome include many of the same people who were unwilling to settle for a few hundred or 2,000-3,000 centrifuges in Iran a decade ago. As a result, we are now faced with an Iran that has acquired an entirely different level of expertise and some 19,000 centrifuges. Judging by the quality of their past advice and its effects, some skepticism seems to be justified in evaluating their present demands about how to rectify the past ten years of policy failure.
Letter to the President signed by 35 prominent foreign policy figures (including me) congratulating him on choosing diplomacy to deal with Iran, acknowledging that there is still much to be done, and recognizing that he will face stiff opposition from some quarters.
At the link are my latest comments about the Rohani-Zarif visit to NY and the breakthrough in US-Iran contacts.
In this piece, for an Arab current affairs magazine, I stress the reactions of relative alarm by the Arab countries to the prospect of a US-Iran rapprochement. The Israeli reaction has been noisy and well publicized, but the Arab concerns tend to be expressed in private — even if they agree fully with Netanyahu.
That will become more apparent, in my view, as time goes on and as the words of the past weeks are translated into hopefully constructive actions.
This is my first take on the tectonic shift that happened between the US and Iran last week. I had the chance to meet Rohani twice. He is the real thing. My greatest regret is that the US passed up an opportunity for this kind of progress almost exactly ten years ago. But at that time, we were too busy invading Middle East countries to be bothered. That was a serious mistake. I just hope we are wise enough to make maximum use of this new opening. As I point out in the article, it is now or never.