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Archive for the ‘Iraq and Iran’ Category

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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