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Archive for the ‘Iraq and Iran’ Category

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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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the buildup to the Iraq War exactly ten years ago, and the efforts by so many of us to halt the march to madness. I posted some reflections on Ten Years After Iraq yesterday on the God’s Politics blog at Sojourners.  Click here to read them.

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The fatwa from the Ayatollah last week blew away any near-term chance of a diplomatic opening with Iran. Vice President Biden’s earlier affirmation of a willingness to talk and Foreign Minister Salehi’s positive reply the next day briefly raised hopes, but the Leader’s dismissal abruptly ended any optimism.

The underlying need for a negotiated solution remains, however, and will grow more urgent if as expected talk of possible military action resurfaces in coming months. The core of a successful U.S. bargaining position and the outline of an eventual agreement with Iran have been identified by independent experts for many years. The political will for pursuing such a settlement does not exist right now in Washington, but it is important nonetheless to state the truth, even if decision makers refuse to listen.

Imposing more pressure on Iran will not work. This approach has been tried repeatedly for years but has not halted the advance of Iran’s nuclear program. Sanctions have caused serious harm to the Iranian economy but have not changed the regime’s political character. On the contrary, the octogenarian rulers in Iran seem to have grown even more reactionary and unyielding.

To break through the Leader’s reluctance will take a significant initiative from the United States. We know what we want from Tehran: binding limits on its nuclear program, assurances that it is not building a bomb, and more rigorous international monitoring. What are we prepared to offer in return?

If Tehran permits more intrusive inspections and guarantees the peaceful character of its nuclear program, the United States should accept Iranian enrichment and begin to lift sanctions. With each step toward greater Iranian transparency we should further ease sanctions, aiming toward the normalization of economic and political relations.

Reaching these goals will require a long journey, given the historical animosity between Washington and Tehran and the divisiveness of these issues.  A negotiated solution is indispensable, though, and is the only way to prevent proliferation and avoid war.

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The White House claims that the ‘clock is ticking’ toward a possible showdown with Iran over its nuclear program. No one wants a nuclear-armed Iran, but U.S. intelligence agencies report that Iran is not currently building nuclear weapons and does not pose an immediate nuclear threat.  Instead of focusing on diplomacy however, international officials are wasting time wrangling over minor technical matters of questionable validity.

The latest ‘dispute’ is over claims that Iran conducted nuclear-related tests at its large Parchin military production complex near Tehran. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is demanding access to a small area at the military site. Evidence of a connection between Iran’s nuclear program and its military forces would be very worrisome and a matter of immediate concern, but that is not the issue here. The concerns about Parchin are based on undisclosed ‘information from a member state’ and are focused on a single building at one site rather than the larger nuclear program.

A recent analysis of the dispute from the highly respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) indicates that “less has been going on … than meets the eye” and that the case for visiting the site “is not as clear-cut or compelling as some experts and officials portray it.” The SIPRI analysis received scant attention in the press and was ignored by policymakers, but it deserves to be weighed carefully.

Here are a few of its observations:

  • The claims about an alleged explosive testing chamber in a building at the site is not based on physical evidence but on a computer-assisted drawing that was published in a news story using information provided by an undisclosed eyewitness. (Remember the false claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the drawings of alleged Iraqi mobile weapons labs that turned out not to exist?)
  • If the alleged chamber exists it is a “white elephant,” according to the analysis, and would not be appropriate for explosives testing. Underground tunnels located nearby would be much cheaper and easier for that purpose. (Why isn’t the IAEA expressing concern about those tunnels?)
  • Reports about Iran scrubbing the site and demolishing the building of concern are incorrect. Google Earth satellite images reproduced in the analysis clearly show that the building remains standing.

The Parchin issue has become increasingly divisive and is clouding the larger debate about how to contain Iran’s nuclear program and prevent a military confrontation. Western officials complain that Iran is delaying the negotiation process to buy time for its nuclear buildup, but Western officials are unnecessarily complicating the process by wrangling over dubious technical claims.   Diplomats should clear the air and focus on what matters – political negotiations to resolve the standoff.

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In the 1990s, because of the horrific humanitarian costs of the draconian embargo against Iraq, the United States and other countries adopted a policy of targeted sanctions. No longer would nations impose general sanctions that harm innocent populations. The focus instead would be on pressuring specific individuals and entities responsible for wrongdoing through arms embargoes and selective measures such as travel bans and asset freezes.

Today in Iran the United States and the European Union have abandoned the idea of smart sanctions. U.S. and EU sanctions have hammered Iran’s banking industry and oil trading sector and are starting to devastate the economy. The goal is to make sanctions ‘bite’ so that the Tehran government will yield to Western demands, but so far Iranian officials remain defiant.

Meanwhile the costs for the people of Iran are mounting. Oil exports have dropped in half, national income is plummeting, inflation has gone through the roof, and economic hardships are mounting. Vulnerable medical patients cannot get the medicines they need. Recent reports in The Washington Post and The New York Times indicate that chemotherapy drugs are hard to obtain and in short supply. Food and medicines are exempt from sanctions, but if they they cannot be financed, the exemption is meaningless. In response to the troubling news stories the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control recently loosened regulations for exporting medicines to Iran, but the larger problem of how to finance such purchases remains.

Policy makers seem to have forgotten the reasons for shifting to targeted sanctions. The purpose is not only to avoid unintended humanitarian consequences but to minimize the risk of a rally-round-the-flag effect. When sanctions harm the innocent they lose legitimacy and political support. Governments under blanket sanctions can blame their country’s economic and social miseries on external enemies, diverting attention from their own mismanagement. They can isolate domestic opponents by accusing them of helping foreign enemies. All of these trends are evident now in Iran. Sanctions have made life more difficult for reformers and human rights advocates—which is why many opponents of the regime, including Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, are critical of them.

It is important to distinguish between UN sanctions and the broader measures imposed by the United States and the European Union. The sanctions adopted by the UN Security Council are more selective and targeted. They freeze the assets and ban the travel of approximately 100 Iranian officials and entities responsible for the country’s nuclear program. They do not hurt ordinary people. These sanctions have the unanimous support of the Security Council, including China and Russia. They signal strong international opposition to an Iranian bomb program. They provide bargaining leverage that can be used to reach a negotiated agreement to end the nuclear standoff.

Sanctions that target potential bomb makers are smart. Those that harm innocent civilians are counterproductive and should be abandoned.

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Iraq is back in the news. American officials are distressed that the Baghdad government is not being cooperative in serving U.S. interests in the region. They also worry about spillover effects from the war in Syria. Some of the rebels battling the Syrian government are taking refuge and recruiting supporters in Iraq’s Anbar province, giving new life to the Al Qaida-related militancy in the area that first arose in response to the U.S. occupation.

The Iraqi government is allowing Iran to supply weapons to Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus. This is a violation of UN sanctions that require states to cooperate in preventing Iranian arms exports. Planes and trucks with Iranian weapons are reportedly traversing Iraq on a daily basis.

The main beneficiary of the U.S. war in Iraq has been Iran. Tehran now has a strong ally next door rather than the feared enemy it once had in Saddam Hussein. Iraq is helping Iran prop up the Assad dictatorship in Syria. The Baghdad regime is receiving billions of dollars of American-made weapons free of charge, but it is not willing to provide the quid pro quo of supporting U.S. policy in the region.

All of this raises again the question of why the U.S. went to war in Iraq and what was accomplished. The Iraqi state has conducted relatively open elections, which is an improvement over the tyranny of Saddam, but it is still repressive and can hardly be considered democratic. Ethnic political divisions exacerbated by the U.S.-led invasion are preventing cooperation among Iraqi political factions. A low-grade Sunni insurgency continues to challenge the pro-Iranian Shia-dominated state.  The Sunni vice president has been indicted for murder and has fled the country.

Was it for this that more than 4,000 Americans died and tens of thousands were maimed? That tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed? Is this why we drained hundreds of billions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury? Let those who would seek to justify the war try to answer these questions.

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