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Archive for the ‘Sanctions and Security’ Category

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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Good enough

President Obama deserves credit for calling Iranian President Rouhani and beginning to break the ice that has existed between leaders of the two countries for more than 30 years. Both sides seem ready now for direct talks to negotiate a solution to the nuclear standoff.

But a difficult road lies ahead, with many bumps, and obstacles being created by unreasonable demands. Prime Minister Netanyahu is again raising alarms about Iran’s nuclear program, never mentioning Israel’s nuclear weapons. Iran bashers in Congress are preparing new legislation to impose even more sanctions, going in exactly the opposite direction of what is needed now to get Iranian agreement—an offer of sanctions relief, in exchange for limits on uranium enrichment and more robust monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Some former officials are asserting that greater transparency is not enough. Gary Samore, former White House nuclear adviser, asserts that the price of easing sanctions for Iran must be dismantling major nuclear facilities, including the almost-completed multi-billion dollar heavy-water reactor at Arak and the underground enrichment site at Fordo. These are demands that go beyond the terms of UN Security Council resolutions, which call for greater cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and a suspension of enrichment and construction at heavy-water sites, but which make no mention of dismantling nuclear facilities, which in any case are currently under international inspection. Presumably after a negotiated agreement they would be under even tighter monitoring.

The claim that Iran could rush to build a bomb without international detection has no basis in empirical fact. Of course absolute certainty is impossible. Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’ can’t be disproved, but neither can they be asserted as realistic threats.

In an ideal world, yes, we might all wish to see Iran without significant nuclear potential, but that is neither feasible not necessary in the near term. The immediate objective is to negotiate an agreement in which Iran accepts limits on its enrichment program and allows sufficiently robust and intrusive monitoring to provide firm assurances that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful in nature.

Such a settlement would be good enough and would allay fears about an Iranian bomb. It might also help to lay the foundation for other steps toward cooperation with Tehran, for example working together (and with Russia) to end the civil war in Syria and making sure that Taliban rebels do not take over in Afghanistan as the U.S. leaves.

All of this may seem a dream at the moment, given the hostility toward Iran of many current and former officials in Washington, but the envisioned process, if it could be realized, would be better for the security of both countries, and for Israel.

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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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Yes, there must be consequences for those who ordered the chemical weapons massacre in Syria, but this is not an argument for military strikes. Robust options are available for mobilizing international pressure against the Assad regime and seeking an end to the killing. The United States should:

Provide the evidence

  • Give a detailed report to the UN Security Council and the world media of the evidence it claims to possess identifying the Syrian political and military leaders responsible for the chemical attacks; clarify the inconsistencies in the information that has been presented to date,
  • Support continued and more thorough investigation by UN inspectors to develop further evidence of precisely what happened and who was responsible for the massacre.

Apply international pressure

  • Seek approval of resolutions at the UN Security Council, the Arab League and other international bodies condemning the chemical massacre as a war crime and a crime against humanity,
  • Urge the UN Security Council to impose targeted sanctions against those who are found to be responsible for the massacre,
  • Urge the Security Council to refer the Syrian chemical attacks to the International Criminal Court with an expedited mandate for gaining further criminal evidence and issuing indictments against those responsible,
  • Apply additional U.S. sanctions against the Assad regime, cancelling all business dealings and barring from U.S. markets any governments or firms that enable or finance Syrian government atrocities,
  • Work with European governments and other countries to urge the imposition of similar sanctions.

Pursue diplomatic options

  • Engage with Russia and Iran to seek their support in a coordinated strategy to take international legal action against those responsible for the chemical massacre and to encourage a negotiated end to the Syrian civil war,
  • Renew and intensify pressure on the Syrian government and rebel forces to participate in the proposed Geneva II peace negotiations, toward the goal of reaching a ceasefire and agreement for dividing power in Syria,
  • Increase humanitarian aid to provide support for the growing number of refugees from Syria.

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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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Last Friday I was interviewed on the PBS NewsHour about alternatives to using military force in Syria:

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If the Assad regime has used chemical weapons and crossed the red line President Obama warned against, urgent international action is needed. This does not mean the United States should take military action. Instead Washington should work through the United Nations to confirm the evidence and if necessary mobilize diplomatic action against those responsible.

The first task is to get UN inspectors into Syria to verify if chemical weapons have been used, and by whom. The UN Secretary General has assembled a team of experts, but the Assad regime so far has refused the demand for unrestricted access and has denied them entry. The U.S. should support efforts to negotiate terms of reference for the inspection team so that it can enter the country and begin collecting evidence.

It is important to acknowledge that the information available so far is very uneven and limited. No soil samples are available from a physical site. Most of the evidence reportedly comes from tissue and blood samples that have been transmitted by multiple handlers. The ‘chain of custody’ of the detected elements and the identities of those responsible remain unclear.

It is not clear who may have used chemical weapons. Initially the Assad regime claimed that the rebels were responsible for the injuries and deaths that were reported last month. The rebels claim the government is responsible. The amounts of sarin and other toxic agents reportedly used were quite small. Some analysts have suggested that the use of chemical weapons shells may have been inadvertent. These and other questions need to be clarified before any action can be taken.

If the evidence shows that the Syrian government has indeed used these weapons, the Obama administration should work with key allies and members of Security Council to apply pressure on the Assad regime. The goal should be to take diplomatic steps that could lead to the adoption of targeted Security Council sanctions directed at those responsible for the command and control of chemical weapons systems. Hopefully Russia and China could be persuaded to support such measures. This would be a major diplomatic setback for Assad and would isolate and weaken his regime. None of this will be possible without firm evidence of actual chemical weapons use by government forces.

No justification exists for even considering military action. Crossing that dangerous red line would have severe negative consequences. It could involve U.S. forces in another Middle East conflict and perhaps drag us into the deadly Syrian civil war, worsening an already grave security crisis in the region. Bombing strikes would not be sufficient to neutralize Syria’s vast arsenal of chemical weapons, and they could cause explosions that would release the very deadly toxins we seek to contain. The use of force would squander any opportunity to win Russian and Chinese support for UN action and would hand the Assad regime a lifeline of continued diplomatic support.

Multilateral action through the UN offers the best path for determining if the regime has used chemical weapons and if so for mobilizing international pressure against those responsible.

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