Congress may soon emerge as the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East. That is why any move toward a stiffer sanctions bill needs to be quashed. (Or, perhaps, each proponent of such a bill can list those in their own immediate family who volunteer today to be in the front lines should there be war with Iran.)
The Obama Administration must play its cards very carefully if a good deal on Iran's nuclear program is to be achieved. Without taking the threat of harsher sanctions or even war off the table explicitly, it would nevertheless be totally counterproductive to brandish those threats while seeking a peaceful resolution. No one, either in personal or diplomatic life, responds favorably to explicit threats.
Iran has, I believe, signaled its needs and sensitivities. If we want a deal, we ought to be cognizant of them. Good negotiators separate the opponents' needs from the specifics of how to satisfy them, and then seek alternatives to meeting those needs.
Following the nuclear weapons deal, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif's statement to the press was punctuated by repeated references to "mutual respect" and "equal footing". He said, for example, that the two sides
need to work together based on ... equal footing, mutual respect and common benefits to resolve the dispute over Tehran's nuclear work.
For years, the insane, inflammatory rhetoric of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad obscured Iran's bland but oft-repeated insistence for mutual respect.
To understand what this means to Iran, put yourself in the shoes of an Iranian. One cannot negotiate effectively if one assumes that the other side sees the situation exactly as you do. It does not. All one has to do is think of divorce proceedings, where the couple has been together for years, to realize that diametrically different perspectives in disputes are the rule, not the exception.
With that in mind, if you were Iranian, what has been your "experience" with United States foreign policy?
For the most part, you have been treated as a pawn (and that is the most charitable description).
Your democratically elected, secular president, Mohammed Mossadegh, was deposed in a coup d'état because he was a socialist committed to nationalizing Iran's oil industry. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, now called BP, tried to get the British to stage the coup, but they failed. The British then asked the U.S. to do it. President Truman, to his everlasting credit, refused.
The election of President Eisenhower brought the brothers Dulles (Secretary of State, John Foster) and Allen (Director of the CIA, Allen) to power. Together, they fulfilled the wishes of the Anglo-Iranian oil company, organizing the coup d'état from the U.S. embassy in Tehran that toppled Mossadegh. (Perhaps an American can now "get" why the Revolutionary Guards stormed the American embassy when the deposed Shah was allowed into the United States. Memories of their stolen future remained strong among Iranians a quarter century after we deposed Mossadegh.)
An Iranian's experience with the U.S. was that not only did the U.S. destroy Iran's democracy (imagine an Iran with 25 years of democracy and control over its own oil wealth under its belt, would it have become a radical theocracy in the late '70s?), but it installed in its place a brutal dictator whose brother ran the secret police (Savak) that arbitrarily confiscated wealth from those not in the "Pahlevi Group" and jailed and tortured dissidents.
And then they watched as one U.S. president after another, without exception and regardless of party affiliation, heaped praise and military largesse on this brutal regime.
Of course, the U.S. saw this through the lens of the Cold War. A brutal dictator, stifling all dissent, suppressing the communists, in a country bordering the Soviet Union's southern republics, was exactly what we wanted politically in that region; and, economically, Iran's oil remained the property of a multinational corporation and available to the West.
If you were Iranian, therefore, you would see your life being used by the United States as a pawn in a larger struggle, generally against your own interests and those of your fellow citizens, and certainly without your consent, quite the opposite of "mutual respect".
To the great misfortune of the world and the Iranian people, radical Islam became the organizing ethos for Iran's revolution to assert its "self-respect".
That is not, however, where we stopped. We "tilted" toward Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. That "tilt" included providing reconnaissance information helping Iraq deploy its chemical weapons attacks against Iran. President Reagan raised no objection to Iraq's use of chemical weapons, and continued to aid to Iraq without a hitch after the chemical attacks, including those on his own people, were disclosed.
Reagan also tried trading arms for hostages with Iran. President George W Bush rejected Iran's proposed collaborative help in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan , and instead chose to include Iran as part of the axis-of-evil. He then lied the United States into war with Iraq, another member of this axis.
The neoconistas, in essence, were telling Iran that it did not want improved relations. It was intent on overthrowing their regime. A Bush Administration official stated before the Iraq invasion, "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men go to Teheran."
Now, ask the following question from the perspective of an Iranian: what singular national achievement has commanded "mutual respect" and "equal footing" in the world for the last seven decades? Answer: a nuclear bomb.
Moreover, if one is Iranian, the history of the bomb looks like this to you: the U.S. developed and deployed it. The UK developed it too. To dissuade NATO countries from each developing their own nuclear bomb, the Kennedy Administration proposed the "Multi-lateral Force", aka "MLF", to which the songwriter/satirist, Tom Lehrer, sang: "and one of the fingers on the button will be German". France, smarting from what it perceived as its lack of "equal footing" from not having its own capacity, broke from NATO to develop its own force de frappe. And, these were the "good guys"!
The Soviet Union and then China developed their bombs when they were arch enemies of the United States (and, it turned out, each other) and were generally considered radical, uncaring about human life and every bit as dangerous as Iran is considered today. (For some irresponsible, inflammatory rhetoric to compare with Iran's, Khrushchev said, "we will bury you.") President Reagan actually hid Pakistan's development of the "Islamic Bomb" from Congress (violating the Solarz Amendment) so that Pakistan would allow us to provide weapons to the mujahedeen resisting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, from which arose Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and a nuclearized islamic Pakistan. France had earlier helped Israel develop its "bomb-in-the-basement".
The Iranian leadership surely noticed that the West helped topple Libya's Qaddafi who relinquished his nuclear program, and Saddam Hussein whom it was known did not have the bomb, but left axis-member North Korea, that definitely does have a bomb, without direct military interference.
The challenge for Secretary of State Kerry is to determine how to provide Iran the "equal footing" and "mutual respect" it insists upon while being certain Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon and that it could not "break out" from whatever inspections and shackles it accepts, and move to a nuclear bomb quickly. The key importance of making the region secure that Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon is to prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Kerry begins with a unilateral 'concession' from Iran, although it should not be so labeled. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a fatwah stating that Islam forbids the acquisition of a nuclear weapon. Although such statements provide no comfort that Iran will not go nuclear (god can, after all, change his divine, everlasting mind), they do provide a face-saving argument for the regime to its own people to accept restrictions and inspections. Hence, relinquishing a path to a nuclear weapon they themselves say would violate their faith would not constitute a loss of face for Iran to the West.
Kerry's major challenge involves Iran's assertion of its right, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that it signed, to enrich uranium. That such a right exists in the Treaty is controversial, as the language was deliberately left vague. Iran will insist upon it, however, as "equal footing." The right-wings in Iran, U.S. and Israel and the right-wing Saudi regime will likely find that to be a barrier to an agreement.
It is, moreover, in the interest of the entire Treaty convention that a "right to enrich" is not enshrined in any agreement with any signatory.
Other key issues are the disposition of Iran's current nuclear stockpile (does it remain in Iran or not), its centrifuges (part of the "right to enrich") and its nuclear reactor. One suspects that Iran will foreswear a right to reprocess the plutonium at that facility as the United States can state that it, too, does not reprocess.
Although I disclaim any expertise on the nuclear matters themselves, from a pure negotiating perspective there seems to be a way for all sides to achieve their goals. Rather than addressing "right to enrich" and the uranium stockpile directly, perhaps they should focus discussions -- based in part on the Ayatollah's fatwah--on an outcome that leaves Iran "X years" from being able to breakout to develop a bomb. Once a number for "X" is agreed upon, it should lead to a variety of solutions that provides the world and region a high degree of comfort and Iran the mutual respect and equal footing it craves. The issue of "right to enrich" can be ignored, and Iran can say anything it wants after such an agreement is signed, it will have no impact on the Treaty convention and interpretation.
If, however, the allies insist that "X = Never" and thus the entire apparatus must be permanently dismantled so that Iran will have relinquished the capacity to enrich, there will probably not be any agreement. If X = 10 years, for example, it will provide a large margin of safety, be consistent with the fatwah, while not forcing Iran to relinquish its claimed "right" that provides it "equal footing".
For example, a sufficient number of centrifuges to achieve the goal can be disassembled but, for Iran to receive "mutual respect," stored in an inspected and secure facility in Iran. Spent fuel from the reactor can be shipped to Russia and France (although one must be concerned about the security of shipping). Whatever reduction in the current stockpile of enriched uranium is required in order to achieve the inability to "breakout" to a bomb in less than "X" years could be determined. And, of course, an inspections regime to determine Iran is in compliance would be established.
In return, the sanctions would be lifted according to some schedule related to compliance along with, perhaps, an automatic trigger to re-institute them for non-compliance.
All of which is to say that these negotiations have major, major hurdles. The key elements of a good deal that insures Iran neither develops a bomb, nor can "breakout" and quickly develop one, is very tough sledding indeed.
Congress rubbing Iran's nose in it prior to the world's engagement in this difficult and delicate negotiation will make achieving an agreement even less likely. Again, one would like to know which Members' immediate families under age 40 are signing up for the frontlines of a military conflict with Iran.
Democrats, moreover, must know by now that Republicans would prefer war (that other peoples' children fight) and economic collapse to President Obama achieving any victory for the American people. Hence, for Democrats such as Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez (D-NJ) to be complicit in helping these talks fail is not only an egregious policy error, with profoundly negative implications for the US and the world, but politically plays into the hands of the right-wing in the US.
Iran knows what will happen if the talks fail, and it is far more foreboding than whatever Congress cooks up:
President Obama will become a hawk.