Week In Review: Quick Recap

Last week was a busy one. First, I wrote about the new Senate bill – the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 – which has acquired a couple dozen co-sponsors. The bill, which threatens to derail the talks, contains several long-sought features by Iran-hawks, including: a time-limit on the President’s waiver authority; parameters within which the President can negotiate a final deal with Iran (which includes a zero-enrichment line); a total oil embargo on Iran; and sanctions on Iran’s construction and engineering sectors.

The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act would not merely alienate Iran in the here and now, I argued, but also for the foreseeable future. If it moves forward in the Senate (right now an unlikely prospect), it’ll be nothing less than a first shot fired in the war-to-come with Iran. In my earlier post, I discussed these features, their novelty and their implications for U.S.-Iran rapprochement.

Then, I had a featured post over at Muftah concerning the U.S.’s feigned concern for nonproliferation, as evidenced by the disparate treatment accorded Iran compared to U.S. allies. I ran through several instances where the U.S. staked out a position on Iran’s nuclear program which it was soon forced to betray when the spotlight shone on a close U.S. ally. This disparate treatment, I argued, should both undercut belief that the U.S. has genuine concern about weapons proliferation, as well as sympathize us to Iran’s position in the nuclear talks. Most importantly, however, unless and until the U.S. adopts an across-the-board policy on nuclear proliferation, we can expect the further erosion of the nonproliferation regime. Not a good thing for anybody, in my opinion.

Finally, I had a much longer piece on the contiguity between U.S. policies towards Iran today and those of Britain in the Mossadeq period. As I noted, both then and now, the question of rights was at stake for Iran – resource rights then, nuclear rights now. In both cases, the West’s response was to put in place crushing sanctions (including blockades on the sale of Iranian oil overseas), threaten the use of force, and engage in increasingly hostile rhetoric. While this is a history that might not figure all that important for us, Iranians can hardly ignore it, forming as it does a unique place in the store of Iran’s consciousness. We’d do well, I concluded, to pay close attention to this history and consider how it can bring us closer to, rather than further from, Iran and its people.

This week is the holidays, but expect a couple of new posts from me. Also, if people haven’t noticed yet, I’ve started writing somewhat regularly over at LobeLog, where I have tackled issues relating to the ongoing civil war in Syria and U.S. drone warfare. Please tune in there, whether to read me or any of the other excellent columnists.

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Iran and the U.S.: History and Memory at the Crossroads

For some, the interim deal signed by the P5+1 and Iran in Geneva on November 24 was on par with Munich (the much-maligned agreement permitting Nazi Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938). For others, it was ‘worse than Munich’. And for the cogent few, the mere invocation of Munich said more about its speaker than about the deal itself. But it was Munich – regardless of the value commentators attached to it – that proved to be the sole historical analogy in the West’s preserve capable of meeting the moment head-on.

And yet how far short it fell.

By comparing a small, insignificant deal – whose value lay not so much in its terms as in what it said about the renewed efforts of its parties to reaching a final agreement – to appeasement on the scale of a Hitler, U.S. commentators told us more about the limits of the West’s historical imagination (and the kind of conversation we’ve been having about Iran for 34 years) than anything else. The West’s penchant for curbing history at the borders of Europe and North America, it seemed, had once more limited the oeuvre from which it could grab appropriate historical parallels to our ever-troubled present. The shortcomings were clear.

But beyond the Atlantic, others carry historical memory just as well, often richer and offering greater insight than anything in the West’s reserve. That is certainly true in the case of Iran, whose own historical grievances serve up better, more telling analogues to our present than the Munich invocation. If we are honest about reaching a final deal and overcoming the hostility that has defined U.S.-Iran relations since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, we’d do well to consider these analogies for what they teach us about our policies and their unfortunate historical lineage.

Iran, Ripe with Memory

Just as we here in the States responded to the nuclear deal by searching within our recent past for appropriate historical parallels, so too did Iranians. For some, as Ali-Reza Eshraghi points out, the interim deal looked awfully like the infamous Treaty of Turkmenchay, a 19th-century agreement in which the Qajars ceded to imperial Russia the territories of present-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, amongst others. That treaty like the interim deal signed with the United States in Geneva, some argued, was also forced on Iran via the barrel of a gun.

However, there was arguably an even better historical analogy within the store of Iran’s consciousness. While the Treaty of Turkmenchay remains a source of shame for Iranians and its reference to the present highlights important features regarding the relative power of the parties to the ongoing nuclear talks, its invocation spoke more of internal struggles over the direction of Iran’s policy than it did about Iran’s relation with the West. But that relation is critical to understanding the mantra of ‘respect’ that Iran and its leaders continuously evoke, as well as the historical grievance Iran’s body politic carries within itself up to the present day. In this regard, the better, more significant historical parallel lay in one of the more notorious episodes in Iran’s history: Iran’s oil nationalization and the British response in 1951-1953.

Then as now, the question before Iran was one of ‘rights’ – the right to control its resources; the right to nuclear energy – and whether Iran’s ‘rights’ would be respected by the West. Then as now, the West’s response was to exact punishment on Iran so as to force its capitulation at the negotiating table or foment a change in regime. But most importantly, what was at stake, both then and now, was a kind of relationship between Iran and the West that risked being upset by Iran’s movement on an independent path. It was this relationship that the British in 1951 and the United States today so desperately tried (or continue to try) to maintain.

For those who have long suffered the whims of American power, this will be all-too-obvious. Just as the British demanded Iran bring to a close its insistence on its rights in 1951, so too has the United States done the same over the past decade. Each state’s policies, intended to coerce Iran into accepting such demands, bear an almost uncanny resemblance.

But what is obvious to some, who have lived and thus are familiar with the history, is obscure and completely unknown to others, whose ignorance is a prerequisite for the continuation of the West’s policies. That is why loosening the bounds and orienting Western audiences to the histories of others is so critical, and why I have chosen to draw out the analogy below.

This Isn’t Munich, It’s Abadan

In April 1951, Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq pushed through a nationalization law that ended the concession agreement with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and restored Iran’s oil industry to Iranian hands. In doing so, Mossadeq rattled the heart of the British empire, which was intensely concerned not just with the oil consortium’s interests in Iran but also with the demonstrative effect Iran’s action might have throughout the world. For the British, Iran’s nationalization of the oil industry threatened “repercussions in other overseas countries” still living under the thumb of empire. This was intolerable.

For Mossadeq, however, nationalization meant extricating Iran from the ‘tutelage’ under which it long existed. As Ervand Abrahamian emphasizes in his recent book on the subject, Iran and Britain were fighting over control of Iran’s oil industry in all its aspects: the extraction, production, and distribution of oil resources. Perhaps the defining moment in the period of decolonization, Iran’s nationalization signaled a new kind of relationship between the West and its long-time subjects – one where the subject would throw off the yoke of domination and forge its own independent path.

The British response was thus ferocious.

Immediately following oil nationalization, Britain sent nine warships to the Persian Gulf, enacting a de facto blockade of Iran’s port facilities. It warned foreign tankers leaving Iran’s ports that their ships would be impounded: all the oil carried within to be regarded as ‘stolen property’ belonging to the oil consortium. Britain’s intent was clear: Iran could ‘control’ its oil resource as long as it liked, but would never be permitted to sell its oil on overseas markets so long as it defied British demands.

With the warships stationed off the coast, a British invasion of Abadan, the center of Iran’s oil industry, seemed imminent. The United Nations Charter, which had just a few years earlier enshrined into law the principle that the threat or use of force would no longer be a permissible means of statecraft, was stampeded upon by British actions. In fact, were it not for U.S. opposition to British plans, Britain might well have staged its planned invasion of Abadan, thereby taking back the oil fields. Either way, the threat of force hung over the whole affair from start to finish, intended to prod Mossadeq to give in on the oil issue.

Despite its acumen for law-breaking, Britain was undeterred in pushing forth its plans in international legal forums. For instance, the British attempted to pass a resolution in the Security Council, citing Iran’s oil nationalization as a ‘threat to the peace’ that warranted international concern. (The Soviets blocked the resolution from advancing far.) Just as well, the British filed suit at the International Court of Justice, alleging that Iran had failed to abide by international norms in expropriating the property of the AIOC without adequate compensation (which would have required full payments up to the end-term of the concession agreement – in 1993!). The Court dismissed the case at the preliminary stages, as the dispute was between Iran and a non-State actor, and the Court’s sole purview was to hear cases as between two States.

Failing this, the British placed ever-increasing pressure on Iran’s oil industry, forcing all UK nationals to resign from the newly-created National Iranian Oil Company (and stressing to other European states the need to do the same). The point was to deny to Iran the expertise the British believed necessary to adequately run an oil industry. (They were wrong.)

But British pressure soon sought to damage Iran’s economic well-being altogether. It first froze all Iran’s assets in London (about 25 million pounds), and then limited the export to Iran of such basic goods as iron, steel, lubricating oil, spare parts, and sugar. It warned companies to end their business in and with Iran, thereby cutting Iran off from European markets. It restricted the convertibility of Iran’s currency to the dollar. It barred the import of Iranian oil into the European continent.

These were coercive measures designed to ‘cripple’ Iran’s economy. They derived from an idea on how best to treat the subjects of empire. In British opinion, “toughness was the only way to deal with [the Iranians],” who, on the whole, proved to be ‘dishonest’, ‘crooked’, and ‘twisted’. Mossadeq himself was described in even more flattering terms, alternately called ‘irrational’, ‘unstable’, ‘obstinate’, ‘violent’, ‘hysterical’, ‘demagogic’, and ‘inflammatory’. (For a more thorough read-thru of the various descriptions of Mossadeq and his people, I urge readers to pick up Abrahamian’s ‘The Coup’. Some of these characterizations continue to be found in present histories of the oil crisis, as Abrahamian takes care to note.) If the Iranians proved implacable on the oil issue, then the British left open the hope that economic pressure would lead to a change in regime. In fact, opinion-makers in the UK regarded negotiations with Mossadeq as a terrible blunder by British diplomats, as the very act of talking to the Prime Minister only strengthened his position in Iran rather than allowing for his (widely-predicted) quick departure.

When all of these various policies, which went so far as to include the UK press attaché planting fabricated stories about Iran in the American press, failed to deliver control of Iran’s oil industry back to the AIOC, the British, acting in concert with the CIA, organized and staged a coup of Mossadeq that threw Iran into a quarter-century of dictatorship. The coup remains an event paramount in Iran’s consciousness. Even today, Iran’s Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, regularly invokes Mossadeq’s memory to demonstrate the bad-faith intentions of the U.S. (and the West) towards Iran: If the West treated the Swiss-educated Mossadeq in such a way, how could Iran expect the West to treat the rest any better?

History Repeats Itself

For Iran, U.S. policies signal that the attitude of the West has not changed: the disregard with which the United States treats Iran is no different in 2013 than that of the British in 1951. Still, to this day, the expectation is that Iran will be either a faithful client or else suffer the infamy of being an international pariah, a perpetual outsider to key global and regional forums. For all intents and purposes, U.S. policies towards Iran today, which have accelerated in hostility since the 1979 revolution, bear an uncanny resemblance to the earlier period discussed above. We here in the States might miss that fact, but for Iranians, for whom the oil crisis constitutes a defining moment in their national history, the similarities can hardly go ignored.

Since the nuclear dispute began, U.S. policy has been to deny Iran its sovereign and treaty-based rights. Iran had been caught back in 2002 with a nascent nuclear program, with facilities for enrichment and reprocessing under construction. It then invited intensified inspections by the IAEA, which declared Iran ‘non-compliant’ with its safeguard obligations (Iran wasn’t alone in this. At the precise time, South Korea was caught having undertaken undeclared experiments with HEU. Curiously, the Iranian nuclear dispute lingers on and the South Korean one never quite existed.) Negotiations ensued: Iran demanded that its right to enrich be recognized, though under appropriate safeguards, while the U.S. and Europeans refused to grant such, insisting on a zero-enrichment line that Iran could hardly accept. Talks broke down; Iran’s nuclear program accelerated; and U.S. and European policy took an ever-hardening line meant to force Iran’s capitulation. Meanwhile, in Iran, a burgeoning nuclear nationalism could be seen, as poll after poll suggested that Iranians widely supported Iran’s civilian nuclear program.

Like the British in 1951, U.S. policy toward Iran became consumed with limiting both the development and continued functioning of Iran’s oil industry, a process that accelerated in pace since Obama’s election in 2008. In fact, just as the British had erected a virtual blockade of Iran’s oil exports in the earlier period, so too has the White House done the same over the past few years. This has included not just a prohibition on domestic and foreign investment in Iran’s oil sector, but also a global ban on the purchase of crude oil from Iran, at least without a waiver from the United States; sanctions on the provision of shipping services for Iranian oil overseas and the provision of insurance and reinsurance on Iranian oil tankers; and a bar to the sale of goods and services that could be used to aid Iran’s energy sector, amongst others. In 1951, nine British warships accomplished the job of blocking the overseas sale of Iranian oil; in 2013, the power of the U.S. Treasury Department does the same.

The U.S. Treasury Department could not perform this task alone, however. Instead, with President Obama at the helm winning the praises of the Europeans, the United States rallied Europe to its side and forced a draw with some of the bigger purchasers of Iranian oil – China, India, Japan, and South Korea. The European Union enacted a total oil embargo in July 2012, and the latter countries sharply cut their purchases of Iranian crude. Oil exports, whose sales account for as much as half of all Iranian government expenditures, declined precipitously, from an average of 2.5 million barrels per day in 2011 to 1.1 million barrels per day today. Intended to ‘cripple’ Iran’s economy, U.S. and European sanctions did their job.

Meanwhile, the White House adopted a policy of strategic ambiguity regarding Iran, as ‘all options on the table’ became the mantra. This was a not-so-subtle threat to use force should the Iranians refuse to relent in their nuclear program. Iranians could peer across the Gulf and see the impressive military build-up the Americans had accrued in case word was ever sent for attack. Just as the UK in 1951 resorted to unlawful threats of force to pressure Mossadeq into conceding on the oil issue, so the U.S. did (and continues to do) the same on the nuclear one.

Despite illegal threats, however, the U.S. still managed to capture the legal high-ground, setting the tone for the kind of conversation the world would have about Iran. Iran, it was said, had violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, had refused cooperation with inspectors from the IAEA, and remained in a state of non-compliance with its non-proliferation obligations. It mattered little that these were at best half-truths, at worse outright false. What mattered was that the U.S. had won the media war; had seen Iran’s nuclear file transferred from the IAEA to the Security Council; and had there set the law itself, requiring Iran suspend all its nuclear activities and imposing international sanctions. Few cared to note the fact that the Council had potentially acted beyond its powers by failing to make the kind of determination required of it – that is, that Iran’s nuclear program posed a ‘threat to the peace’ for which global action was required. Instead, a series of Council resolutions passed without comment.

With Iran still refusing to capitulate to U.S. demands, the White House dug deeper, this time cutting Iran off from the international financial system. The Obama Administration blocked the purchase of Iran’s sovereign debt and government bonds; erected a ban on trade in Iran’s rial, as well as on the keeping of accounts denominated in the currency; imposed sanctions on any foreign financial institution that processed transactions with Iran’s Central Bank and other designated Iranian entities; and declared Iran a jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern. Iran thus became a pariah unlike any before, as global financial institutions took care not to do business with Iran for fear of receiving the wrath of the U.S. Treasury Department. British actions, whose policies in some ways mirrored those of Washington, could have only dreamed of exacting such punishment on Iran.

Not satisfied with this, the United States went one step further, blocking the sale of refined petroleum products (i.e., gasoline) to Iran and barring the provision of goods and services to develop Iran’s own refineries. Like other major oil-producing countries, Iran lacked the ability to refine its crude oil to meet all its gasoline needs, and thus was heavily reliant on imports to fuel its economy. The U.S. measures barred such imports, forcing Iran to convert some of its petrochemical plants into petroleum refineries. Reports suggest that the effect has been to increase pollution problems in Tehran and other major cities, as Iran’s refineries produce more gasoline impurities than what it had previously imported. For those aware of the health risks caused by Iran’s pollution, this is no insignificant matter.

Like the British, the U.S. was able to advance such policies, at home and abroad, thanks to the rhetoric it used to describe Iran and its leadership. Just as the British believed that Iran would only respond to ‘toughness’, so too the U.S. declared that force was the one thing Iranians understand. (This sounds a familiar theme in the history of imperialism.) In U.S. folklore, Iran could not be trusted: Iranian society was, by its very nature, ‘secretive’, “suffering from national narcissism that made it ignorant, insensitive, [and] dismissive of others’ concerns.” Iran’s rulers were ‘dangerous ideologues’; its leader, Ali Khamenei, ‘conspiratorial’ and ‘suspicious…even to the point of paranoia.’ (All these quotes above are from just a few pages at the beginning of the center-liberal writer Kenneth Pollack’s latest book. Move right on the spectrum and the language becomes ever-more vulgar.)

Even worse, Iran’s leadership bordered the ‘irrational’. Apocalyptic scenes played wild in the West’s imagination: a messianic clerical regime in Tehran, armed with the bomb, might set Tel Aviv and itself alight in a nuclear firestorm. Little was done to interrogate Iran’s actual policies, nor understand the very real threats Iran faced from the world’s superpower, which, for significant periods over the past decade, surrounded Iran all of four sides (Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, and Central Asia). Instead, U.S. political commentators created a straw-man (often built on an edifice of poor translations) and proceeded to knock him down. It is a wonder that opposition to U.S. policies, minimal as it is, exists at all in the U.S., considering how Iran is portrayed from the newspaper to the television.

Reflection, however, might force upon us the question: How could a secular liberal government, with a Swiss-educated Prime Minister at the helm, have the precise same characteristics and motivations as the quasi-theocratic clerical regime ruling Iran today? If the tie that binds the two is not their Persian-ness, which the West’s liberalism is loath to admit, then perhaps it is a testament to our policies and the need to dress them in hostile justification. That might tell us a whole lot more about ourselves than we’d probably care to admit.

Once we see the parallel between U.S. and British policies, as well as their justifications, it is difficult to cast aside. Couched as the nuclear dispute is in Iran, as a question of ‘rights’, U.S. policies taken on the same tone as British ones in the post-war era. Iran has a right and stakes a claim to it; the West refuses to recognize the claim and the right; and once Iran resists, the West imposes an ever-increasing series of brutal sanctions, war threats, and the like. It is as if the parties are typecast, repeating the same role all over again with lessons unlearned.

Conclusion

But we should consider the parallel. For Iran, as I have noted, it is a clear one. From its vantage, the U.S. and the British intend to dominate Iran, and if Iran casts of the yoke, to punish Iran to no end until order is restored. That is the message the British sent Iran in 1951-1953, and that is the message the U.S. has sent Iran since the 1979 revolution. If we don’t think this is a theme that resonates in Iran’s consciousness, then we point the finger at our ignorance above all else.

So long as borders are drawn around our respective histories, and those in the United States remain in the dark about the West’s policies towards Iran since the turn of 20th century, we will lack the appropriate analogies with which to compare our present and with which to identify our historical lineage. Until and at such time as we in the States take care to both understand and address the historical grievances Iran holds towards us – from the 1953 coup, thru the Shah’s 26-year reign, to U.S. support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, and now with the brutal U.S. sanctions – we will lack the ability to adopt sensible policies that bring us closer to and not farther from Iran and its people.

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Iran Nuclear Weapons Guarantee Act

As Jim Lobe writes over at LobeLog, the text of the Kirk-Menendez-Schumer Iran sanctions bill is being passed around, and it makes for a grim read. Below, I discuss some takeaways from the bill – called the Iran Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2013 (sic) – and what it could mean for the P5+1 and Iran negotiations.

(1) The bill would violate the Join Plan of Action, regardless of its claim otherwise.

Under the Joint Plan of Action agreed to in Geneva, the United States committed itself to not passing any new nuclear-related sanctions during the six-month period in which negotiators from the P5+1 and Iran would seek a final deal. To do otherwise would violate the agreement and absolve the Iranians of having to meet their own commitments under the deal.

The Iran Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2013 claims to be consistent with this provision. But I can’t see how any good-faith interpretation of the bill could see in it anything but new nuclear-related sanctions to be hung over Iran’s negotiators like the Sword of Damocles.

We see exactly why when we turn to Section 3(A) of the Act, where the President is granted the power to suspend the imposition of sanctions for an initial six-month period (to allow for the negotiations to take place), as well as for 30-days periods after that, up to 1 year. At the end of 1 year, the President’s powers of waiver are no more. What is significant is that, for all intents and purposes, the ‘new nuclear-related sanctions’ are ‘imposed’ upon passage of the bill – as the President’s suspension powers are not mandatory, but rather subject to his discretion. He can choose to impose the sanctions at his whim, simply by lifting the suspension (if he so chooses to put it in place in the first place).

Moreover, it is wrong to think that the sanctions aren’t ‘imposed’ until the moment that somebody is subject to their punishment. Rather, people will adjust their behavior in the interim period so as to comply with the Act should a deal not be reached. And, as President Obama declared in his talk at the Saban Center, the chances are no greater than 50% that a deal will be reached. Thus, for those who want to toe the right side of the line, bets are that behavior-adjustment will start much sooner than the six-month period granted for negotiations. The longer the negotiations go on, too, the more likely it is that behavior-adjustment will ensue.

For Iran, that is unacceptable. The reasons are obvious. And regardless of what a few Senators would have us believe, the rest of the world will not take kindly to the new sanctions measures, regarding them as violating the letter and spirit of the Joint Plan of Action. They will not be wrong in that assessment, either.

(2) The bill steps ever closer to a total economic embargo of Iran.

U.S. sanctions policy has sought to cripple Iran’s energy sector, cut Iran off from the international financial system, and now looks set to extend the pain to such ‘strategic sectors’ as engineering, mining, and construction. For instance, the Iran Nuclear Weapons Free Act of 2013 ‘expands business and financial sanctions targeting Iran’s strategic economic sectors to include Iran’s engineering, manufacturing, and mining sectors.’

This brings the United States one additional step further away from the ‘targeted sanctions’ it promised us all after the terrible sanctions on Iraq. We can pretend as if Iran’s energy, financial, engineering, and manufacturing sectors are somehow related and only related to Iran’s nuclear program, but if we don’t think we’re cutting down an entire economy (and all the people that economy sustains) at the knees, then we’re just not living the real world. This bill would constitute nothing less than economic warfare and would deliberately inflict as much punishment as possible on Iran and its people to force their capitulation. It’ll be hard to feign otherwise.

(3) The bill circumscribes the President’s waiver powers.

Under existing sanctions laws, the President is granted waiver powers so as to suspend the imposition of sanctions for national security reasons. For the White House, preserving waiver power is important so long as the President is intent on conducting his own foreign policy. As negotiations take place between the P5+1 and Iran, these waiver provisions have become vital to a final deal, as Congress has proved itself terribly unlikely to lift the sanctions on Iran, regardless of the deal placed before it.

That is why hawkish members of Congress have pushed hard to circumscribe the President’s waiver powers as much as possible. If a deal is to be avoided, the President must not be allowed to lift the sanctions on Iran, even temporarily. Thus, the Iran Nuclear Weapons Free Act of 2013 provides that the President’s waiver powers are limited to the initial 360 days, after which the sanctions are mandatory and the President has no power to suspend them. You see this clearly in Section 3(D).

Not only would the bill kill the talks, which are ongoing as we speak, but it would prevent their renewal at any time in the future. So long as the President is not granted the power to relax the sanctions, it is highly unlikely that the United States could offer anything to Iran of value in negotiations, now and in the future. Withdrawing from the President his traditional waiver powers destroys the chance of rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran.

(4) The bill makes a final deal impossible.

As news stories had promised, the Iran Nuclear Weapons Free Act of 2013 prescribes parameters within which the White House should negotiate (with a threatened Joint Resolution of Congressional Disapproval to prod President Obama should he fail to abide). Among these parameters are included such items as:

  • The dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities…
  • Bringing Iran into compliance with all United Nations Security Council resolutions related to Iran’s nuclear program…

In other words, President Obama must ensure that a final deal with Iran includes the dismantling of all enrichment facilities and capabilities Iran has at present. As Iran has made clear time and again, that is a total non-starter. Iran insists on its nuclear rights for which it is party to the NPT, including the right to enrichment. While being vague on whether Iran, in fact, had enrichment rights under the NPT or elsewhere, the Joint Plan of Action certainly contemplated a ‘mutually-defined enrichment program’ upon conclusion of the talks. Clearly, the Iran Nuclear Weapons Free Act of 2013 would upset that end-goal, as the White House would be forced to abscond on its promises under the JPA.

Where would that leave us? Without a final deal for sure. I can’t tell if Senators Menendez, Kirk, and Schumer really think Iran will capitulate to U.S. demands at some point, or whether their bill is just a prelude to a war with Iran, but that is certainly where we are headed it if this moves forward in the Senate. For the first time in 34 years, the U.S. and Iran are talking, and some in Washington just are very, very unhappy about that fact. So unhappy as to wish a war would burst the bubble.

In fact, I propose that we call this bill what it really is – not the Iran Nuclear Weapons Free Act of 2013, but the Iran Nuclear Weapons Guarantee Act of 2014. Because what a few Senators are really telling Iran is this: you can’t deal with us, and if you can’t deal with us, you have one of two options – capitulate or go head-long into the direction of a bomb. And I will not be one to blame Iran for choosing the latter; I’ve seen an entire decade of U.S. policies designed to make sure it does exactly such.

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Missing the Point

I missed this, but Ryan Goodman posted what may well be a response to a piece I had written earlier, arguing that he had misunderstood the nature of the U.S. claim regarding Iran’s ‘right to enrich’. Based on what is here, I think he has compounded the error.

He argued in his first post on the subject that the view that Iran has a categorical right to enrich by the terms of the NPT is in err, as it is not difficult to construct contrary arguments. He pointed out, for instance, that the string of UNSC resolutions regarding Iran’s nuclear program trump whatever Iran’s claimed rights are under the NPT (by virtue of UN Charter Article 103), and since the resolutions demand Iran suspend all enrichment, Iran’s right to enrich is hardly sacrosanct. As I noted, that is all well and fine (though I hardly think it is the last word on the subject – there are, at least, three responses: (1) that the IAEA’s referral to the UNSC was procedurally invalid; (2) the UNSC acted ultra vires by failing to identify the basis under which it triggered its Chapter VII powers; and (3) the nature of Iran’s nuclear rights are such that UN Charter Article 103 does not, in fact, apply to this case), but it ignores what is the U.S.’s (and the UK’s, apparently) actual argument.

That argument is that neither Iran nor any other NPT signatory has a ‘right to enrich’ by the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Secretary of State John Kerry did not say that Iran’s claimed right to enrich was suspended upon passage of UNSC Res. 1696 (and all subsequent resolutions), but rather that no such right to enrich exists ‘by the four corners’ of the NPT. That, I argued, reeks of a bad-faith legal interpretation of the relevant provision of the NPT, which states that all signatories have an ‘inalienable right…to develop…production…of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes…’  If the right to produce nuclear energy does not admit of a right to enrich, then I’m not sure what else it does.

So far as I’ve seen, Iran does not argue that, should the UNSC resolutions be legally applicable, it still maintains the right to enrich. Rather, it argues that, at the end of this process, Iran will retain its nuclear rights under the NPT, which includes the ‘right to enrich’. That is what the U.S. and Iran are, in fact, fighting over during negotiations, especially as Iran has already encountered the U.S.’s resolve to deny Iran such nuclear rights when it negotiated with the E3 back in 2003-2005. Iran wants to make sure that, in a final deal, the U.S. and the Europeans will recognize Iran’s right to enrich on its own soil – even if limits are placed on the extent of Iran’s enrichment program. Whether the NPT admits of such right, then, is the actual question – not whether the UNSC resolutions suspended Iran’s right (which is, indeed, a debatable point).

However, in his response, Goodman points to the views of a series of nuclear experts, who all argue, in near uniformity, that Iran’s claimed right to enrich has been suspended by UNSC Res. 1696. Ok fine, but how does that answer the real question being argued in the world today?

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Shultz and the Shadow of Power

Yesterday, in an interview with BBC, former Secretary of State George Shultz employed racist tropes of Iranians to suggest how fraught negotiations are:

“The Iranians are known as great rug merchants, not for nothing. They’re good at this business of smiling, encouraging you on, and then cutting your throat.”

Jeez. These are choice words, no doubt. Not least from someone who played a tremendous role in shaping U.S. support for the Iraqi war effort during the Iran-Iraq War.

But it’s not that quote I care about so much from Shultz as it is this one, which he made while Secretary of State in 1986 and which should serve as background for his Wall Street Journal Op-Ed today:

“Negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the table.”

Shultz was talking about the Sandinistas in Nicaragua at the time, which he called during the same speech a ‘cancer on our landmass’ that needed to be ‘cut out.’ (Obviously, he has been a real sweet guy for some time now.) But his remarks do go a good deal of the way to telling us not just Shultz’s own thoughts on the U.S.-Iran talks, which he discusses in that Op-Ed piece this morning, but also about the spectrum of debate in Washington concerning the negotiations.

To be frank, I hardly think there is anybody who gets a hearing at the White House or in Congress who, as a matter of opinion, disagrees with Shultz’s sentiment. After all, the robust sanctions regime targeting Iran — which even that most benevolent of hearts, Samantha Power, proudly proclaimed yesterday as ‘so biting and crippling’ – was not put in place for shits and giggles. Instead, it was put in place to make sure, as Shultz notes, that the next time Iran came to the table to negotiate, the ‘shadow of power’ would tower over them. (Whether this, in fact, happened or not is a separate question.)

That is, after all, how it should be, according to Shultz. Respecting Iran’s legal rights to nuclear energy, its political independence and territorial sovereignty, etc. – all these are silly rules that ignore what is and should be the central fact: ‘the power element of the equation’. Why the U.S. should play by the rules, honor the commitments it made in international treaties, respect Iran’s rights, put an end to what amounts to economic warfare, etc., so long as the power equation is as it is, is lost both on Shultz and the rest of the political elite in Washington.

Hopefully, though, it’s not lost on us.

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Arguing Translations

Here’s as simple a graph as it gets:

                                                Khamenei’s Speech

                    Translation A                                       Translation B

Let’s pretend Khamenei gave a speech (we’ll call it Khamenei’s speech). Let’s pretend his speech was translated in two different ways (we’ll call those Translation A and Translation B).

There is just one way to figure out which translation is the correct one: we go to Khamenei’s speech. The only people who can help us in this are those who speak the same language as that used in the speech. In this case, that language is Persian. Thus, only Persian speakers can figure out for us which translation is the more accurate rendition of Khamenei’s speech.

Let’s pretend there’s a group of non-Persian speakers. Let’s pretend that this group heard Translation A first and now believes Translation A is the correct one. The only way they can do so is on the basis of a translation and authority of the translator. They cannot turn to Khamenei’s speech to determine the accuracy of Translation A as against Translation B. They do not speak or read Persian.

Let’s pretend there’s also Persian speakers who believe Translation A is incorrect (a ‘mistranslation’) and that Translation B is the more accurate version of Khamenei’s speech. Now the group of non-Persian speakers is upset. They ardently believe that Translation A is the more accurate rendition.

So the question is, on what basis? How could the group of non-Persian speakers determine whether Translation A or Translation B is more accurate without consulting Khamenei’s speech? Or, at least, without consulting a Persian speaker?

They can’t. They are stuck arguing Translation A and Translation B as if they weren’t translations at all, which brings us to the point: since the group of non-Persian speakers cannot consult Khamenei’s speech, they are left picking from Translation A and Translation B the translation they want. Making sure the translation is correct is beside the point for them, much more important is scoring points by showing just how awful and terrible the Islamic Republic is. In this way, they persist in arguing that Translation A is the correct one, and that those who advocate Translation B, even if they are Persian speakers, are just arrogant apologists for the regime in Iran.

It’s remarkable, really. Here we have a group of non-Persian speakers telling a group of Persian speakers, who can and have consulted Khamenei’s speech, what the correct translation is. On what basis, again – I haven’t a clue. But I’d suggest, before calling Persian speakers ‘arrogant’, they next time consider just what authority they have to be arguing at all.

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Saban and the Beirut Bombing

Here’s the Research Director of the Saban Center at Brookings today, writing on the bombing of Iran’s embassy in Beirut:

‘It is tempting to enjoy Iran getting a taste of its own medicine, but the growing violence risks further destabilizing the Middle East and harming U.S. interests there.’

In other words, if not for the fact that anti-Iran terror like the Beirut bombing poses risks to the region and U.S. interests, then we could all just sit back and enjoy the fact that Iran’s embassy in Beirut was car-bombed and some of its staff – including its cultural attaché – were killed. Hip hip hooray!

I wonder what the reaction would be if someone suggested the same thing of terror attacks directed at the U.S. – i.e., that the U.S. was merely ‘getting a taste of its own medicine’ and good for that.

Wait, there’s Ward Churchill and he no longer has a job because of it.

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