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Archive for the ‘Iraq and Iran’ Category

The violent extremists of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have seized major cities and swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq and are seeking to create a caliphate over the entire Muslim world. The group poses a threat not only to the region but to global security. The battle-hardened forces of ISIL include hundreds of fighters from Europe and Chechnya and even some from the United States. Some of these fighters will likely take their warped ideology and violent skills with them when they return home.

Why then, in the face of this clear and present danger to global security, has the United States not joined with other countries in bringing this matter to the UN Security Council? Isn’t that why the UN was created, to mobilize cooperative action in response to international security threats? The failure to work through the UN diminishes the prospects for building an effective international coalition against ISIL. It reduces the repertroire of potential responses to the crisis and contributes to the atrophy of the UN and of multilateralism in general.

Thirteen years ago, in response to the 9/11 attacks, the response was very different. The Security Council met immediately and adopted a wide range of measures to harness international action against al-Qaeda. Most significant was Security Council Resolution 1373, which required every country to freeze the financial assets of al-Qaeda terrorists and their supporters, deny them travel or safe haven, prevent terrorist recruitment and weapons supply, and cooperate with other countries in information sharing and criminal prosecution. In its response to 9/11, the Council also expanded existing sanctions on al-Qaeda and the Taliban, created new bodies to monitor and assist compliance with counterterrorism measures, and established a wide range of counterterrorism programs that have helped, along with U.S. military pressures, to diminish the global threat from al-Qaeda.

Contrast that robust response to the meager efforts of today. The Security Council Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee recently added names of ISIL leaders to its existing sanctions list, but it has not taken effective action to ensure compliance with those measures. Although ISIL is mercilessly pursuing its aim of creating a terrorist quasi-state in Iraq and Syria, the Council has not met to address the growing threat. It has not adopted new measures to suppress ISIL and cut off its supply of money and recruits. It has not discussed needed diplomatic efforts to encourage more inclusive political governance in Iraq and Syria.

It’s time to mount a vigorous global response commensurate with the magnitude of the threat. Here are some of the diplomatic and political steps the United States and other states might consider through the UN:

  • Impose an arms embargo along with rigorous financial and travel sanctions against the leaders of ISIL and their supporters and prohibit any form of assistance for the organization and its operations. Create a special sanctions committee and panel of experts to facilitate and monitor compliance and to recommend further measures to isolate and suppress the organization.
  • Join with neighboring states in convening an international conference for Iraq, to assess the current security and political challenges facing the country and the region and to develop appropriate diplomatic, political, and if necessary security responses. Work with the government of Iraq to implement the recommended responses.
  • Re-convene the Geneva diplomatic process on Syria, with the full participation of Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other neighboring states, to renew the search for a negotiated solution to the Syrian civil war and enhanced security for neighboring states.

The proposed actions are no panacea for peace. UN engagement will not magically resolve the deep crises afflicting Iraq, Syria and the region. More concerted multilateral action can help, however, and at a minimum can heighten global involvement and help to broaden the global alliance against ISIL.

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For those who claim that military action is the only response to the extremist threat in Iraq and the region, here are some alternative policy options:

  • Engage with Iran in urging the Maliki regime to adopt more inclusive and equitable power sharing arrangements with the Sunni community. Demand that the regime fulfill pledges made to integrate Sunni leaders into positions of government authority.
  • Make clear to the Maliki government that U.S. military and economic support for Iraq will diminish if the Baghdad government refuses to adopt more inclusive and equitable power sharing arrangements with the Sunni community.
  • Bring the threat posed by ISIS/ISIL to the UN Security Council and seek a united global response that identifies the group as an international terrorist threat to peace and security. Urge the Security Council to impose sanctions and other mandatory international actions to isolate and suppress the extremist group through multilateral action.
  • Work with Iran and other states in the region to return to the Geneva negotiating process that seeks a negotiated end to the civil war in Syria.
  • Continue to provide maximum humanitarian assistance to the millions of refugees who have fled the war in Syria and the spreading conflict in Iraq.

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The capture of Mosul by militant Sunni extremist groups is a body blow to the Shia-dominated government of Iraq and marks a significant escalation of the sectarian war that is tearing apart the region. The Iraqi Army, which the United States created as an intended bulwark of security, has crumbled in the face of attacks by the increasingly powerful forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), with U.S. weapons and equipment sent to bolster the Iraqi Army now falling into extremist hands.

In the United States, some on the right have used the occasion to criticize the Obama administration for not doing enough to bolster the Baghdad government and for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 (overlooking the fact that the President was elected on a pledge to do precisely that). On the left, critics blame the Bush administration’s 2003 U.S. invasion and emphasize its unintended consequences.

Debates about the past are important but do not address the problem of what can be done now to stem the spread of violence and instability. The United States and other external actors have very few options. Here are some considerations to keep in mind as the debate unfolds.

  • This is a large-scale regional war pitting Sunni and Shia political forces. It is centered in Syria and Iraq but also involves Lebanon and is supported by competing Saudi and Iranian interests. Any lasting solution has to be regional in nature and must address the political interests of all the major factions in an equitable and inclusive manner.
  • Some in Washington have reacted to the crisis by calling on President Obama to send even more arms and military equipment to Iraq, but Baghdad’s sectarian Shia-dominated forces are part of the problem not the solution. Pouring arms into the spreading cauldron of war risks exacerbating the crisis in Iraq.
  • Attempts by the U.S. or other major powers to intervene unilaterally or to impose external military solutions will likely backfire and inflame militant extremism. Security solutions will need to be multilateral in the context of negotiated political settlements.
  • This crisis increasingly poses threats to global security and requires a multilateral diplomatic response. The United States should work through the United Nations (and the Arab League if possible) to propose and support a major global diplomatic initiative. This will require returning to the Geneva process of attempting to find a political solution in Syria, but this time with Iran directly involved and the agenda broadened to include political alternatives in Iraq.

The chances of achieving diplomatic success are slim, but doing nothing is not a realistic option. A fully inclusive international diplomatic process should be attempted and is urgently needed now, before the fires of war and militancy spread further in the region.

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As I wrote the other day for the Christian Science Monitor, the decision to exclude Iran from the Montreux talks is a huge diplomatic mistake.

Tehran’s help could be crucial in forging a coordinated diplomatic strategy for resolving the crisis in Syria and enhancing regional security. As a major backer of the current regime, Iran has enormous potential leverage in Damascus.

Iran’s goal in neighboring Syria is to have a regime that is friendly to its interests and that protects the Alewite community. But this does not mean Iranian officials are wedded to the discredited Assad regime. They might be willing to consider an alternative arrangement if it addresses their needs.

It was unwise for the U.S. to insist that Iran publicly commit to replacing Assad before the talks begin. Insisting on preconditions for negotiations is not the way to successful diplomacy.

Tehran shares Washington’s goal of ending a war that is causing widespread instability and violence in the region. Iran also shares the goal of ending the growing threat of Al Qaida-based militancy in Syria.

By inviting Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia to the negotiations but excluding Shia-majority Iran the United States is taking sides in a regional ethnic power struggle. This could exacerbate the deepening Sunni-Shia divide and further undermine security in the region.

Washington would do better to adopt a more even-handed strategy that seeks to balance differing interests and works toward more inclusive power sharing in Syria and across the region.

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The response to the Iranian nuclear deal in the United States has been surreal. The media is talking about the risks of the deal, but as I point out in my blog today for Sojourners, the terms of the agreement favor the U.S.

Under the terms of the deal Iran agrees to:

  • freeze its stockpile of low enriched uranium and halt the installation and operation of additional centrifuges;
  • halt enrichment to higher levels and render its existing supplies of higher enriched uranium unsuitable for further enrichment; and
  • halt the development of its heavy water reactor at Arak.

Verification and monitoring of the Iran nuclear program will increase significantly. The sanctions relief offered to Iran is temporary and can be reversed if Tehran reneges on any part of the deal.

The agreement limits Iran’s nuclear program and increases its transparency. From a U.S. perspective, what’s not to like?

Let’s contact our Senators and demand that they give diplomacy a chance. Urge them to oppose any further sanctions as long as Iran complies with the agreement.

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As we witness the unseemly blame game between the U.S. and Iran over who was responsible for the failure to reach a nuclear agreement last week in Geneva, several points are worth considering.

  • The powerful international anti-Iran coalition (Israel and the Gulf states) can exert significant influence and seems determined to wreck any possibility of rapprochement between Iran and the West.
  • The inside story of what happened in Geneva last weekend is not known yet, but it seems that the government of France was chiefly responsible for scuttling the deal. France’s motivations are unclear, but the prospect of lucrative arms deals with the Gulf states could be a factor.
  • The bash-Iran caucus in the U.S. Congress has been given a boost and seems determined to rush ahead with additional sanctions legislation that could further endanger the prospects for a negotiated solution.
  • The negative statements and accusations between U.S. and Iranian officials this past week do not augur well for building the atmosphere of respect and trust that is necessary to reach political agreement.

The latter point is especially important. Arms control agreements depend upon political trust and the willingness of states to cooperate for mutual advantage. Objectively the United States and Iran have plenty of self-interested reasons for working together to advance security in the region, as Thomas Friedman wrote the other day in the New York Times. Whether they can overcome the legacy of mistrust and the organized resistance of the anti-Iran coalition remains to be seen.

Meanwhile the question needs to be asked, what is the alternative? Military strikes that would be disastrous and make matters much worse? Continued sanctions that weaken the Rouhani government domestically and impose further hardship on the Iranian people?

Diplomacy is the only option and it must be continued until a nuclear deal is reached.

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This is a crucial week for U.S. policy toward Iran and for the prospects of reaching agreement to control Tehran’s nuclear program. The new government in Iran is reportedly offering to limit uranium enrichment and nuclear production and to permit more intrusive international inspections of its nuclear program. Let’s hope U.S. officials are wise enough to take advantage of this flexibility and will respond appropriately.

As many of us have been arguing, this is not the time to impose additional punitive sanctions on Iran. Rather, the United States should offer sanctions relief as an inducement to encourage Iranian concessions. That message is starting to take hold in Washington.

Last Friday Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to defer action on new sanctions against Iran. In yesterday’s New York Times chief U.S. negotiator Ambassador Wendy Sherman is quoted as saying that some sanctions could be eased as part of the negotiations with Iran. She specifically mentioned the option of “limited, temporary, reversible sanctions relief.”

Last week I said the same thing in an online article for the Christian Science Monitor. If I am being plagiarized, I’m glad for it. Take the ideas, Ambassador, and run with them. Hopefully they can help the U.S. and Iran settle the nuclear standoff.

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It’s a ‘head spinning’ moment in Washington, according to a senior American diplomat quoted in today’s New York Times. Diplomacy is on the rise. A negotiated agreement has replaced military threats in Syria, at least for the moment, and the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran looms on the horizon.

President Obama will be speaking at the UN on Tuesday, and so will Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The signals from Iran have been encouraging of late, with Rouhani promising ‘constructive engagement’ and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei urging ‘heroic leniency’ in talks with the West.

Achieving progress with Iran will be difficult given the deep differences between Washington and Tehran. Each side will need to make a conciliatory gesture to break the ice. Iran desperately wants sanctions relief and would probably offer significant concessions in return for an easing of economic pressure.

President Obama is reportedly reluctant to offer sanctions relief until Iran agrees to negotiated limits on its nuclear program. Maintaining the leverage of sanctions makes sense, but this does not preclude the option of offering partial sanctions relief now to get the bargaining process underway.

A decision to suspend non-military sanctions could open the door to significant Iranian concessions. As George Lopez and I argue, some non-military sanctions could be suspended for an initial period of six months, which could be renewed if Iran responds positively with concrete limitations on its nuclear program.

The decision to suspend some sanctions could be combined with an indication that other sanctions will be lifted on a step-by-step basis if the Iranian side reciprocates in establishing greater transparency and binding limits on its nuclear program. The advantage of sanctions suspension is that it allows for quickly re-activating sanctions if Iran does not respond in kind or attempts to exploit the gesture. It is a way of offering what the Iranians want most and provides a concrete test of their declared sincerity in building more constructive relations with the international community.

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Kenneth Katzman’s latest assessment of international sanctions against Iran is mind-blowing, even for someone as jaded on the topic as I am. Those of us who follow the subject have known for years that sanctions on Iran are completely irrational, a form of what Richard Haass calls “sanctioning madness,” a policy that is pursued for its own sake without consideration of its demonstrated failure.

The list of sanctions and penalties against Iran seems endless. Katzman needs 50 pages just to describe all of them. In exhaustive detail he reviews the dozens of laws, regulations and executive orders that apply to almost every form of interaction with Iran, and that also impose penalties on those from other countries, requiring them to reduce or sever trade with Iran if they want to do business in the U.S.

What have all these sanctions wrought? Read for yourself:

  • “There is a consensus that U.S. and U.N. sanctions have not, to date, accomplished their core strategic objective of compelling Iran to verifiably limit its nuclear development to purely peaceful purposes.”
  • “International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports have said that Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium more rapidly continues to expand, as does its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium. And, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified on March 12, 2013, that Iran ‘is expanding the scale, reach, and sophistication of its ballistic missile arsenal.’”
  • “Sanctions do not appear to have materially reduced Iran’s capability to finance and provide arms to militant movements in the Middle East and to Syria.”
  • “A congressionally-mandated Defense Department report of April 2012 called into question whether sanctions would erode Iran’s conventional military capabilities.”
  • “U.S. and international sanctions have not, to date, had a measurable effect on human rights practices in Iran.”

While sanctions have had no impact in changing Iran’s nuclear policies, they are devastating the Iranian economy. The results of sanctions, according to Katzman, include falling oil revenues and production, shrinking GDP per capita, a collapsing currency, rising inflation, and declining industrial production—in short an economic disaster that is causing serious hardships for millions of Iranians.

Despite this record of failure, some members of Congress are sponsoring legislation to pile on even more sanctions – jeopardizing the diplomatic opportunity presented by the election of an Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, who has indicated a desire to engage productively on the nuclear issue.

Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

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This has been a week of war-mongering against Iran, all of it carefully orchestrated to coincide with the annual Washington convention of AIPAC, the American Israeli Political Action Committee.

In his speech to AIPAC U.S. Vice President Joe Biden pointedly said “all options, including military force, are on the table.” The United States is not bluffing and the window for diplomacy is closing, he warned. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu used identical language about the window for diplomacy closing in his video comments to the conference. He reiterated the spurious claim from his UN speech in the fall that Iran will soon cross a ‘red line’ of uranium enrichment capability.

Not to be outdone, hawks in the U.S. Senate introduced a new resolution, S. Res. 65, declaring “if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in self-defense, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.” The resolution was introduced by Senators Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ). AIPAC lobbyists are urging support for the measure in their visits to Capitol Hill this week.

The resolution implies that the government of Israel will have de facto authority over U.S. policy.  It could set the stage for the United States being dragged into a future Israeli attack on Iran, with disastrous consequences for U.S. security and the region.  Peace Action and other antiwar groups have called the resolution a backdoor to war with Iran.

Even if that dreaded scenario never occurs, the very act of proposing such a resolution—and the veiled threats from Biden and Netanyahu—are provocative and counterproductive. Issuing threats will never convince Iran to cooperate. The government of Tehran will not yield to sanctions and coercive pressure.

We should have learned that by now. Decades of U.S. sanctions and military deployments against Iran have not had the slightest effect in moderating the regime’s policies. Nor have these pressures slowed the country’s steady progress toward acquiring nuclear capability. Sanctions and military threats have made Iran less cooperative.

Instead of issuing new threats and imposing more sanctions, the United States should offer to refrain from military action, withdraw some of our forces from the region, and suspend economic sanctions, in exchange for Iran guaranteeing the peaceful character of its nuclear program and permitting more rigorous international monitoring.

The chances of such a position being adopted now in the poisoned political atmosphere of Washington are nil, but it is important nonetheless to raise our voices against the current war-mongering. You can register your opposition to the Senate resolution by sending a message through the Peace Action West website here.

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