Will America’s War with Iran Continue?

Originally published for American Herald Tribune

 

The United States has been at war with Iran for over thirty five years. Sometimes the war has been hot, sometimes cold, sometimes overt, and sometimes covert. Throughout this time period relations between the two countries have been hostile with very little diplomatic contact between officials of the two governments. In 2008, Barack Obama ran against Hillary Clinton on a platform of diplomatic engagement with Iran in opposition to her statements of being able to “totally obliterate Iran”.

Upon entering office, Obama, continuing America’s penchant for coercive diplomacy, doubled down on sanctions against Iran hoping that by causing economic hardship for ordinary Iranians he could pressure Iran to change its policies, particularly with respect to the development of nuclear capabilities. The strategy failed as Iran not only continued its peaceful nuclear development, but in many ways accelerated it. By his second term Obama, prioritizing addressing the nuclear proliferation issue, began negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue in conjunction Germany, France, United Kingdom, Russia and China. (EU3 + 3) The negotiations resulted in the signing in July 2015 of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which limited Iran’s nuclear program in return for removal of economic sanctions. The agreement was endorsed by the UN Security Council in an action that requires member states to carry out the agreement.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has affirmed on numerous occasions that Iran has largely lived up to its obligations under the JCPOA. Obama has taken some executive action to live up the JCPOA by loosening the impact of the sanctions. The administration has approved the sale of aircraft and aircraft parts to Iran by Boeing and this week the US approved a license for Airbus to sell over 100 aircraft to Iran. However, the basic legal structure of sanctions remains in place. Obama has not moved as aggressively as he did in Cuba to increase U.S. business involvement in Iran, a step which would make the nuclear deal more difficult to reverse by engaging the business lobby in the issue.

With the current sanctions authorization legislation set to expire on December 31, 2016, House of Representatives and the Senate passed the Iran Sanctions Extension Act by an overwhelming majorities (419 -1 and 99-0). Opponents of the JCPOA in the U.S. have argued in justifying this action, which is a clear violation of the JCPOA, that Iran has engaged in other “nefarious” activities, such as supporting the Assad in Syria, supplying arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi tribe in Yemen, developing ballistic missiles and in general resisting U.S. influence in the Middle East. The Senate has said that it will take up this bill in the rump session of Congress in December. Although Obama has indicated that he will veto the bill, the bipartisan support in Congress for sanctions extension means that a veto override is likely. Obama’s best option for preserving the nuclear deal is to fight a delaying action to “kick the can” down the road to the next administration where a Republican controlled Congress may be reluctant to create a big foreign policy problem for President Trump so early in his administration.

As on many issues, it is unclear what President Trump’s position will be on the JCPOA. During the campaign he condemned the JCPOA as a “horrible contract”, but acknowledging that it was a contract, vowed to renegotiate it. Renegotiating the agreement is probably not possible. The JCPOA is the result of complicated, intertwined negotiations over a long period of time. Reopening talks in an atmosphere of mistrust and recriminations likely means that the whole agreement would collapse. A number of senior Congressmen and potential officials in a Trump led government, having received large speaking fees, are closely tied with the Mujahidin-e-Khalq (MEK), an exiled Iranian opposition group with an odd Islamist/Marxist ideology. The MEK, having allied with Saddam Hussein during Iran-Iraq war, has the distinction of being more unpopular in Iran than the U.S. They will push a hard line approach under a Trump administration.

The agreement, however, is not totally dependent on the U.S. Even if the U.S. withdraws from the agreement, Iran, under the administration of President Hassan Rouhani, and Russia, China and the EU have indicated that they will continue to abide by it. As it has in the past, the U.S. will likely use secondary sanctions on European companies to deter them from conducting business with Iran. This strategy will probably not be effective with Russia, India and China who have taken steps to disconnect their economy from the U.S. dominated and dollar denominated neo-liberal economic system. It remains to be seen how U.S. allies in Europe will react to being pressured to act against their own national interest.

The political situation in Iran will also have an influence on how U.S./Iran relations play out. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said that if sanctions are extended Iran will “respond”. What the response will look like depends, in large measure, on the outcome of the May 2017 presidential elections. Incumbent President Rouhani has maintained a position that engagement with the West will benefit Iran diplomatically and economically. Because sanctions have, in large measure, remained in place and because Iran has been slow to reform its economic system, the benefits have not met public expectations. The opposition has attacked the policy of engagement with the West. Faced with these political threats, Rouhani may be forced to tack to the right and abandon the JCPOA, kick out the IAEA inspectors and expand the nuclear program. In that case the undeclared war with Iran will continue with all of the uncertainties and potential for disastrous consequences.

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Can the Iran Nuclear Deal Survive the US elections?

On July 14, 2016 the EU3+3 and Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which imposed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in return for removal of nuclear-related economic sanctions against Iran. While enthusiastically received by many around the globe, the agreement was less well received by conservative hardliners, particularly in Iran and the United States. Congressional Republicans in a letter crafted by Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) warned Iran’s Supreme Leader that the U.S. was an unreliable negotiating partner stating “What…(the) constitutional provisions mean is that we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.” This played right into Ayatollah Khamenei’s view that the U.S. cannot be trusted, will always be hostile, and would never stop its efforts to overthrow the Iranian government.

The JCPOA is very specific concerning what is allowed and not allowed with respect to Iran’s nuclear program and the accompanying sanctions regimes. Under the agreement Iran is obligated to limit its enrichment capacity, reduce its stockpiles of enriched uranium and heavy water, redesign the Arak heavy water reactor and much more. In return, economic sanctions are to be lifted. The agreement states, “This JCPOA will produce the comprehensive lifting of all UN Security Council sanctions as well as multilateral and national sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme, including steps on access in areas of trade, technology, finance and energy.” Further, it states, “The E3/EU+3 will refrain from imposing discriminatory regulatory and procedural requirements in lieu of the sanctions and restrictive measures covered by this JCPOA.” While the UN has certified that Iran has meticulously lived up to its obligations, the U.S. has dragged its feet on removing sanctions, particularly the secondary sanctions that restrict Iran’s access to the international financial system.

Contrary to his approach to the opening of Cuba, in which he moved aggressively through executive action to change the political dynamic and get U.S. businesses involved, President Obama has been much more politically cautious with respect to changing the relationship with Iran. Specifically, his failure to begin to unwind the labyrinth of secondary financial sanctions has made international financial institutions leery of participating in or financing business transactions with Iran. The fact that many international transactions are denominated in USD and require so-called U-turn transactions in the U.S. to convert USD into local currency further hinders Iran’s access to its foreign funds and has reduced the economic benefits that Iran expected from the JCPOA. This has played into the hands of Iran’s hardline conservatives.

The situation is unlikely to change for the better after the U.S. presidential election. Of the remaining candidates, all except Bernie Sanders are much more hardline with respect to Iran. Hillary Clinton has said, “Iran is still violating UN Security Council resolutions with its ballistic missile program, which should be met with new sanctions designations and firm resolve.” Unsurprisingly, Ted Cruz has stated, “On my first day in office, I will rip to shreds this catastrophic deal.” While he makes many contradictory statements and one must take everything that Donald Trump says with a grain of salt, he has expressed that he understands that the JCPOA is a signed agreement, but “I’m really good at looking at a contract and finding things within a contract that, even if they’re bad, I would police that contract so tough that they don’t have a chance.” (Sic) Only Bernie Sanders has expressed complete support for JCPOA and has said, “I think what we’ve got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran.”

All this said, we need to remember that this is an international agreement and the EU, Russia and China are moving aggressively to live up to their obligations under the JCPOA and consummate business deals with Iran. Iran has signed a $25 billion aircraft purchase deal with Airbus, and Peugeot has signed a $430 million deal to produce automobiles in Iran. If the U.S. stands in the way of effective implementation of the JCPOA or takes steps that ensure its demise, its influence on the global stage will be further weakened. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has made his position clear, saying on his website, “Any comments suggesting the sanctions structure will remain in place or (new) sanctions will be imposed, at any level and under any pretext, would be (considered by Iran) a violation of the deal.”

 

 

 

Will the Iran Nuclear Deal Change the Geopolitics of the Middle East?

First published by Foreign Policy Journal

As the September 17 deadline for Congress to act on the Iran Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA) approaches, the media has been flooded with editorials, op-ed pieces and blogs making the case for or against the agreement. Those in favor of the agreement have made the case that, while an imperfect agreement, the deal was the best that could be achieved and, through intrusive inspections, will ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will remain peaceful and will not achieve a nuclear weapon. Those opposed have made arguments such as “It’s Iran, we can’t deal with them, we just like sanctions”, “Iran shouldn’t have any nuclear capability”, “Iran is Israel’s enemy”, and “the agreement only lasts 15 years”. Both sides of the debate seem to agree that this agreement will drastically change the geopolitics of the Middle East. But is this really true?

The underlying assumption of those critical of a change in the geopolitical alignment is that the current alignment has been successful in maintaining peace and stability and promoting economic growth, a dubious proposition at best. Those in favor of a geopolitical realignment see a new world in which Iran becomes an important player in bringing stability and order out of the current chaos. While this new world would certainly be an improvement over the current situation, there are a number of reasons to be skeptical of the chances for realignment.

First, and probably most important, is that one of the founding principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran was resistance to U.S. domination of the region. The U.S. and Iran are fundamentally at odds over the geopolitics of the Middle East. While the administration of President Hassan Rouhani is more open to engagement with the west, any thought that Iran will give up its independent foreign policy and follow the American lead is unrealistic. Iran and the U.S. may cooperate on issues where their interests align (Afghanistan, ISIS, drug trafficking, etc.), but Iran will continue to lead the so-called “axis of resistance”, and that will not sit well with U.S. policymakers.

Iran Nuclear Negotiations Lausanne Switzerland

Second, the much discussed idea that Israel will react to the nuclear deal by allying itself with Saudi Arabia and Hamas in opposition to Iran is also unrealistic. Despite all the rumors of high level meetings, it is hard to see how Saudi Arabia, whose radically conservative, Wahhabi version of Islam, provides the ideological underpinning for the Islamic State (ISIS), can ever align itself with Israel. With respect to Hamas, the ceasefire agreement between Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza is getting long in the tooth. Israel has not implemented much of what it agreed to, and thus the same conditions of poverty, deprivation, and lack of hope that led to the last two wars still exist in Gaza. The next war may not be far away.

Third, despite the best efforts of Russia, Iran, and the U.S., the situation in Syria will remain a festering sore and a source of instability and chaos. It is hard to see a solution. With major regional players such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, seeing the region through a sectarian lens, committed to the overthrow of the government of Syrian President Assad and, at best, ambivalent about ISIS, a coalition of western and regional powers to stabilize Syria is very unlikely. As long as ISIS remains in place, a solution to Iraq’s collapse as a contiguous and sovereign state is impossible and the Kurdish problem will remain unresolved.

Fourth, the window of opportunity to realign the Middle East will soon close. Whatever the outcome of the upcoming U.S. elections, and given the influence of the Israel lobby on U.S. Middle East policy, the next administration is likely to be less open to growing Iranian influence in the region. Israel will certainly not elect a more accommodating government. Whatever rapprochement is achieved by the Obama administration in its last year in office will be short lived. Iran, seeing its hopes of greater integration with the west dashed and strengthened by the removal of sanctions, will be forced to look east to Russia and China for allies.

In 2006, the Secretary of State, following the U.S. invasion and destruction of Iraq and Israel’s destruction of Gaza, famously declared the destruction of Lebanon by Israel as the “birth pangs of the new Middle East” and confirmed the U.S. policy of “creative chaos” in which the old order is destroyed and in its place a new order arises which will serve the goals of U.S. policy. The U.S., having created the “new Middle East,” will have to live with the consequences for some time.

Six Things You Should Know about Iran and the Nuclear Deal

In July, after almost two years on nearly continuous negotiations, the EU3+3 and Iran reached an agreement as to how best to deal with Iran’s nuclear program and international concerns that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapon. Since that agreement, politicians and pundits, particularly in Israel and the U.S., have bisected and trisected the terms in an effort to make a case either for or against the agreement. In the debate over the merits, facts have been a scarce commodity. As the U.S. Congress approaches the September 17 deadline to either approve or disapprove the agreement, it would be useful to examine the realities surrounding Iran and its nuclear program.

  1. Iran is not ruled by a bunch of mad mullahs – Following the 1979 revolution that overthrew Shah Reza Pahlavi’s oppressive regime, Iran established an Islamic republic in which Islamic principles play an important role. The constitution vests ultimate power in the Supreme Leader who is indirectly elected for life through the Assembly of Experts. In practice the Supreme Leader tends to remain above the “hurley burley” of day-to-day politics. Although he is the ultimate decision maker in national security affairs, he rarely overturns decisions of the Supreme National Security Council. In many ways the Iranian governmental structure is similar to that of the United States with separation of powers and checks and balances, thus making it difficult to understand the decision-making process.
  2. In general minorities are not persecuted or oppressed – Shia Islam of the “Twelver” variety (The three branches of Shia Islam are Twelver, Zaidi or “Fiver” and Ismaili or “Sevener”.) makes up the overwhelming faith of Iranians. Christians, Jews, Sunni Muslims and Zoroastrians are recognized and are guaranteed representation in Parliament. Adherents to the Baha’i faith, which was actually founded in Iran, are considered heretics and are persecuted. While there remain limits on jobs that can be held, most adherents to the recognized faiths, particularly Jews, are comfortably ensconced in the middle class.
  3. The Islamic Republic is probably the most secular Muslim country in the Middle East – Iran’s large, young, western-oriented population tends to push the envelope of governmental restrictions on personal behavior. Despite being officially banned, alcoholic beverages are readily available. Friends have said to me “under the Shah we used to pray at home and go out to drink; now we drink at home and go out to pray.” Current President Hassan Rouhani has taken steps to reduce interference in the daily lives if citizen, instructing the morality police to “lighten up.”
  4. Women play an important role in the highly educated, young workforce – One of important reforms of the revolution was to extend education to the rural areas and, by separating the sexes, to encourage fathers to allow their daughters to attend school. While it’s true that a glass ceiling remains, women now make up 60 percent of the college students and 60 percent of the workforce.
  5. Iranian policy does not call for the destruction of Israel – Since the 1990s Iranian policy, with respect to the Israel/Palestine situation, declares that Iran would abide by the will of the Palestinian people and their leaders as reflected in an open referendum. The statement, often repeated by Israeli and Western media, that Iran wants to “wipe Israel off the face of the earth” is a politically motivated, mistranslation of a comment by Ayatollah Khomeini that Israel’s policies would result in the disappearance of the Jewish State from the pages of history. Given that Israel’s policies over the past two decades have resulted in a situation where non-Jews will soon outnumber Jews, Khomeini may have been prescient.
  6. If Iran lives up to its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), what the U.S. Congress does is irrelevant – The JCPOA, signed by the EU3+3 and Iran in Vienna on July 14, 2015, envisions a peaceful Iranian nuclear program, stringent restrictions on any path to a nuclear weapon and removal of nuclear-related sanctions. On July 20 the UN Security Council unanimously endorsed the JCPOA. With the lone exception of Israel, every other nation has expressed support for the JCPOA. As Hooman Majd pointed out in a recent New York Times op-ed, “The deal isn’t about the United States anymore. If Iran abides by it (even as America rejects it) the rest of the world will too, and the United States will have killed not the deal but its own credibility, the tremendous goodwill it has in Iran, and even its own economic interests. And Iran, the Iranians know, will abide by the treaty, make do in a world without America, and will re-elect, in 2017, the president who brought them the promise of a better life.” This train has left the station.