Over the past two weeks, on the heels of an announced extension to nuclear talks with Iran, Republicans in the Senate introduced two measures that could erect obstacles in reaching and implementing a final agreement with the Islamic Republic. One of the efforts, led by Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, would mandate congressional approval before a nuclear deal could be struck. Another, spearheaded by the Senate’s most ferocious Iran hawk, Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, would strip President Barack Obama of his ability to waive Iran sanctions—something the president might need to do in order to hold up the American end of the bargain and give Iran relief.
What’s most notable about these efforts, however, is their distinctly Republican nature. Both are co-sponsored by a bevy of GOP hawks, with no Democrats having yet signed on. (As of press time, the Corker bill has nine Republican co-sponsors and the Kirk bill has eight.)
This portends a further shift along the lines of what Eli Clifton and I discussed in our recent Nation feature on how hawkish groups influence the Hill: with diplomacy advancing as far as it has under Obama, the stakes were suddenly raised and Democrats became skittish about being seen as in opposition to one of their own president’s biggest foreign policy initiatives. As we wrote, some sixteen Democrats signed onto a sanctions measure introduced this winter—S. 1881, co-sponsored by Senators Kirk, Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY)—but failed to generate more Democratic support after its initial introduction (whereas a number of additional Republicans signed on). In the end, many of the Democrats jumped ship when the party’s leadership, the White House and constituents pressured them.
From the perspective of opponents of diplomacy—and make no mistake that these new bills are sponsored by opponents of diplomacy—this is bad news. And they know it: when the Democrats, including Menendez, an original co-sponsor, backed off on holding an immediate vote on S. 1881, the influential pro-Israel lobby the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) tapped the brakes, too. “[S]topping the Iranian nuclear program should rest on bipartisan support and there should not be a vote at this time on the measure,” the group said in a statement.
Whatever Democrats AIPAC is able to wrangle to support measures like Kirk’s and Corker’s will simply act as fig leafs for what is in fact an increasingly partisan fight over Iran policy. To understand this dynamic, one needs only look at the anti-diplomacy lobby Eli and I outlined in our piece and the funders highlighted in a sidebar: the three billionaires against diplomacy—Paul Singer, Bernard Marcus and Sheldon Adelson—are all heavyweight Republican donors. (Adelson, for one, has said that the United States should use a nuclear weapon against Iran instead of negotiating with it.)
It’s not a coincidence that those three are also, according to the most recent comprehensive numbers, the three top donors to the Foundation of Defense Democracies (FDD), an influential and hawkish Iran-focused think-tank that Eli and I discussed at length in our report. Though FDD works with some of the most hawkish Democrats on the Hill, GOP connections abound: its president, Cliff May, was a communications director with the Republican National Committee and edited the party’s official magazine before launching FDD. The GOP bent became clear in 2008, when an FDD offshoot, the now defunct defenseofdemocracies.org, launched political attack ads against fifteen Democrats, precipitating the resignations of major Democrats on the group’s board.
With the Democratic leadership aligning in favor of diplomacy, hawkish members of the partly like Menendez are likely to only become more isolated and, should they persist, could end up working on overwhelming Republican initiatives. That could help insulate the Obama administration from criticisms over negotiating with Iran and legislative efforts that have potential to block a deal. It wouldn’t be surprising, in other words, to learn that the White House was secretly supportive of Republicans—and Republicans alone—taking up efforts to kill diplomacy.
Being a Washington analyst means never having to say you’re sorry. And so it has been throughout the diplomatic process with Iran, where naysayers who stridently opposed talks have found themselves dealing with the reality of negotiations over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program by not dealing at all with their past records on the matter.
The best recent example of this phenomenon can be found in the latest report from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), one of the think tank’s whose work and influence was discussed at length by myself and Eli Clifton in a feature for last week’s edition of The Nation.
Only days before Iran and world powers announced an extension of talks for an additional four months, the FDD put out a report seeking to quantify the sanctions relief Iran had reaped from the first six months of the interim deal. What stands out most about the report is its fuzzy math, which leads it to fuzzy conclusions.
The FDD’s report, “Sanctions Relief: What did Iran Get?,” posited that Iran’s sanctions relief has been greater than the Obama administration has let on. FDD offers that Iran has received some $11 billion in direct relief and even more in indirect relief—that is, the benefits Iran has accrued from its stabilizing economy (more on that in a bit).
That figure is at odds with what FDD’s executive director Mark Dubowitz predicted it would be after Iran and world powers inked an interim agreement in November, laying the groundwork for the current talks. At the time, the United States left most of its sanctions in place but lifted its bans on certain types of transactions and unfroze a portion of Iranian assets abroad. The Obama administration said the deal would bring the Iranians about $7 billion in relief. Dubowitz argued that direct sanctions relief alone—leaving aside any additional indirect benefits—would be closer to a windfall of $20 billion.
Now that the first six months of the interim agreement has run its course, Dubowitz revised his numbers downward by nearly half, to the $11 billion figure for direct sanctions relief. When asked about the discrepancy on Twitter, he deflected by claiming the distinction between direct and indirect relief—one he’d readily made in November, with inflated numbers—was “artificial.”
Even the $11 billion number needs to be carefully considered. For instance, in his recent analysis, Dubowitz includes the profits Iran has reaped from its sale of condensates, a liquid product formed when certain types of natural gas are pumped to the surface. FDD estimates that condensates accounted for about $5 billion of Iranian exports, a figure that was lumped into the $11 billion in direct relief.
But condensates, as FDD admits later in its analysis, were not exempted from sanctions by the Joint Plan of Action signed by Iran and world powers in Geneva in November. Instead, Iran is able to sell condensates because of what FDD calls a”loophole” in a 2011 sanctions law. Without the inclusion of $5 billion in condensate exports, Dubowitz’s figure of $11 billion in sanctions relief quickly falls below the Obama administration’s initial estimate of $7 billion.
What’s more, FDD’s analysis veers towards portraying all of Iran’s economic gains as stemming from the November deal. But that discounts the role played by the change in Iranian leadership last summer. As The Wall Street Journal reported recently, the administration of the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has taken steps—such as raising interest rates and cutting subsidies—to stabilize the economy independent of any sanctions relief.
Notably, Dubowitz pooh-poohed Rouhani’s election as unimportant, a contention rendered implausible not only by the Iran’s improved economic management, but also by what all parties regard as serious Iranian engagement on the nuclear file.
The upshot of the FDD analysis is that the US must keep up pressure on Iran. With his past support for using sanctions as a tool of regime change—an all-too-frequent goal of sanctions hawks—one has to wonder if Dubowitz, as he claims, really wants diplomacy to succeed.
Read Next: Eli Clifton on the billionaire funders of the anti-diplomacy lobby
The L.A. Times reported yesterday that the Iranians have made an apparent key concession in nuclear talks. They are willing to accept a phased implementation of the potential comprehensive nuclear accord being negotiated. That is, while the Iranians once said that immediate lifting of all sanctions related to its nuclear program was sine qua non for a nuclear deal, they now recognize that the Obama administration will need to deal in a somewhat piecemeal fashion with lifting sanctions.
The chief cause for the administration's need to be flexible is that many of the sanctions against Iran aren't exactly in its control. Rather, these sanctions are acts of law passed by Congress, and Congress's help will be needed in many instances to irreversibly lift them.
That doesn't mean the administration can do nothing. As Kenneth Katzman, an Iran expert with the Congressional Research Service, recently pointed out, Barack Obama can go a long way toward relieving sanctions by using presidential waivers stating that these measures are in the U.S.'s national security interests. At least one of the sanctions will "sunset"—go off the books automatically—in 2016, and for the rest the administration will have time to go to Congress.
This, at least, is what the Iran scholar Ray Takeyh tells the L.A. Times. The administration will be able to beat back Congress's opposition to a deal by pointing out how important the agreement is and has "probably assured [Iran] that this is the most plausible way of getting congressional assent" for lifting sanctions he said.
I'm not so sure. Most of Congress—both houses, both sides of the aisle—has shown what could very mildly be called a hesitation to go along with any nuclear deal that can be reasonably envisioned as emerging from talks. Recall that after Iran and world powers struck the historic interim agreement in November, a bipartisan clutch of Senators responded by trying to push through new sanctions that would both likely violate terms for the deal and impose untenable conditions on any final accord.
Those Senators failed in their bid to influence (read: kill) talks not because the administration prevailed upon them or because Obama's logic overcame the push, but because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) refused to bring the bill—which had majority support in co-sponsors alone—to the floor.
The case-in-point here is a new letter circulating on the Hill this week for signatures. Reps. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY), the chair and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote the letter in an attempt to ensure the administration's coordination with Congress on lifting sanctions. The demands they make in order to achieve their cooperation are far-reaching:
Your Administration has committed to comprehensively lifting “nuclear-related” sanctions as part of a final P5+1 agreement with Tehran. Yet the concept of an exclusively defined “nuclear-related” sanction on Iran does not exist in U.S. law. Almost all sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program are also related to Tehran’s advancing ballistic missile program, intensifying support for international terrorism, and other unconventional weapons programs. Similarly, many of these sanctions are aimed at preventing Iranian banks involved in proliferation, terrorism, money laundering and other activities from utilizing the U.S. and global financial systems to advance these destructive policies.
Iran's permanent and verifiable termination of all of these activities—not just some—is a prerequisite for permanently lifting most congressionally-mandated sanctions.
The concerns cited are entirely legitimate: terrorism, ballistic missiles, etc. But these issues are far too wide-ranging to tackle in the short period of nuclear talks.
What's more, some of the concerns—namely, ballistic missiles—are mitigated by a nuclear deal limited in scope to Iran's actual nuclear program. As Greg Thielman of the Arms Control Association wrote recently in a comprehensive brief on missile issues with Iran, "The best way to address Iran's potential to exploit nuclear-capable missiles is to ensure that Iran's nuclear program is sufficiently limited and transparent that missile limits become unnecessary." Others have argued for leaving ballistic missiles out of the current negotiations for these same reasons.
One could reasonably suspect that Royce and Engel's request, especially viewed in light of their shaky past records, is aimed precisely at making the demands on nuclear deal so unwieldy as to render it impossible. That doesn't bode well for Congress's willingness to lighten up if a final deal is struck.
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on Iran Sanctions.
When House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his Republican primary last night, pundits were left asking how his potential departure from Congress would affect GOP moves on policy matters like immigration, where the Virginia Republican had sometimes played a moderating role. But few discussed another policy area where Cantor exerted influence: on Middle East issues, particularly on today's hot button of Iran.
Some activists on Capitol Hill noted Cantor's role marshaling support for aggressive measures on Iran. "No one in the House Republican Leadership takes as hawkish a position on Iran as Cantor does," one Hill activist working on foreign policy said. "On this issue, he really pushed the Leadership and folks ceded control of the issue to him."
Cantor has long been a vocal Congressional hardliner on Iran, and an opponent of the Obama administration's diplomacy with the Islamic Republic.
A former Democratic national security aide on Capitol Hill said, "[House Speaker John] Boehner has in essence delegated GOP foreign policy to Cantor, and now he's gone." The aide added that Cantor spoke with "sophistication and understanding on the issue, and aggressiveness."
The Hill activist pointed to Cantor's close relationship with AIPAC, the powerhouse pro-Israel lobby group that has been skeptical on diplomacy with Iran and pressed a tack that critics fear could endanger prospects for a comprehensive nuclear deal being negotiated with Iran.
"As the lone Jewish Republican, he was the Republican point person with AIPAC and the broader Jewish donor world," the activist said.
A current Congressional aide concurred: "AIPAC had no better friend in the House than Eric Cantor. I don't think it's an overstatement to say he deferred to whatever they want." The aide pointed to Cantor leading trips to Israel in concert with AIPAC's education arm for new Republican members of Congress.
But the aide cautioned that Cantor's departure may not have a momentous effect. "I actually don't think it's going to have significant ramifications," the aide said. "AIPAC's probably freaking out right now because they lost their number one guy in the House, but it's just going to take a little bit of more relationship building for them."
The Hill activist, however, pointed to Cantor's sometime cooperation with Democratic Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (MD) on Iran issues. "It was the constant pressure from Cantor that Hoyer frequently felt he had to respond to regarding Iran legislation and letters," the activist said.
In December, Cantor initiated work on a resolution that would have called for any final deal with Iran to bar the Islamic Republic from any enrichment of nuclear fissile material—a condition, often pushed by Iran hawks, that many experts view as a non-starter in talks. But Hoyer, who at first cooperated with the effort, backed out at the last minute under pressure from the Obama administration.
In March, Hoyer and Cantor reunited on a letter that the Congressional aide described as "so milquetoast that even J Street"—the liberal pro-Israel group—"endorsed it, which I'm sure pissed off AIPAC." The letter did not contain a demand that Iran end all enrichment. Hoyer may be better enabled to make pushes such as his moderating efforts on the failed resolution and the subsequent letter.
The former national security aide said that AIPAC's role and Iran issues were only part of a larger story. "There's no one that's going to be hostile to AIPAC's interests," they said. But, "what's going to happen to House GOP foreign policy with Cantor leaving?"
Looking at Cantor's potential replacements as Majority Leader, it was unlikely any would take the care Cantor did with foreign policy issues, said the former Democratic aide, who feared the GOP may even slip into neo-isolationism. "Eric Cantor was an adult in the room on foreign policy," they conceded. "As a partisan, it's nice to see a GOP totem pole fall, but it's kind of shitty for the country."
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A weeklong series of events in Canadian parliament on Iran’s human rights record caused worry among some human rights advocates who fear that the activities could harm their efforts. The controversy centers around Iran Accountability Week, a program of hearings at the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Human Rights and other events organized by members of parliament from the three major parties, with Liberal MP Irwin Cotler taking the lead. The program runs through Thursday.
A human rights lawyer and pro-Israel figure, Cotler has organized three Iran Accountability Weeks. In the past, the events included testimonies highlighting Iranian political prisoners and other victims of Iranian human rights abuses. This year’s lineup, however, was different: Maryam Rajavi, the leader of a controversial exiled Iranian opposition group called the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), appeared in the program along with a UN rights official and pundits from a hawkish American think tank.
One human rights advocate working on Iran, who asked not to be named, raised the issue of other advocates’ sharing a platform with the head of the MEK, which the activist called “toxic and irrelevant”—a view widely held among Iranians of all political stripes, save members of the MEK itself.
The MEK, which until two years ago was listed as terrorist organization by the United States and Canada, has a tortuous history that carried it from its founding in the mid-1960s as an Islamo-Marxist anti-Shah group to its current position as a vocal opponent of the Islamic Republic. Many critics say the group exhibits cult-like behavior. In addition to its history of violence, the MEK has, notably, been accused of its own human rights abuses.
In a phone interview, Cotler, the Canadian MP whose office spearheaded the multiparty Iran Accountability Week, said the invitation to Rajavi was only to give “issue-specific testimony”—specifically the alleged killings of MEK members by Iraqi security forces.
The MEK moved its operations to Iraq in the 1980s, to fight alongside Saddam Hussein in the bloody Iran-Iraq war, taking up in a desert military base called Camp Ashraf. In September 2012, nine years after the fighters had been disarmed following the US invasion, Iraqi forces evacuated Ashraf. Those MEK members and fighters who remained in country moved into Camp Liberty—an erstwhile American military installation. At various points since Hussein’s overthrow, both Liberty and Ashraf had come under attack, mostly by Iraqi security forces, and disarmed MEK members have been killed.
When asked why a notice for the event sent around by his office, obtained by The Nation, said Rajavi would discuss more broad “violations of the rights of the Iranian people”—a category that expands beyond the Ashraf/Liberty incidents—Cotler repeated that the invitation was “issue-specific,” though he noted Rajavi may speak on or be asked about other matters. (In 2012, Colter reportedly joined a campaign to get the MEK removed from terror rolls in the United States and Canada.)
The association with the MEK, however, raised red flags for another participant, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran. Since 2011, when his mandate was initiated, the Maldivian diplomat has been a main address for credible information about Iran’s alleged human rights abuses. Shaheed was scheduled to address the subcommittee on Thursday, May 8, by video link in an open hearing.
According to his office, however, Shaheed requested to withdraw from the official Iran Accountability Week proceedings. He agreed, an assistant said, to brief lawmakers “in a different context than Accountability Week.” Asked why, Shaheed’s representative responded, “He just didn’t think it was appropriate.”
The assistant explained that Shaheed felt the event’s framing “made it feel less like a briefing and more of something that encroached upon what he believes is his independence on the issue” of human rights in Iran.
Cotler confirmed that, fifty minutes before he was set to go on, Shaheed phoned and requested his testimony be delivered in camera, or in a closed-door session. But the Canadian parliamentarian denied Shaheed withdrew from Iran Accountability Week: “He was not taken off the program. His appearance was in camera,” Cotler said, adding that Shaheed did not request in their phone call to withdraw.
Divining whether Shaheed was indeed withdrawn from the program proved difficult. Cotler’s office referred The Nation to the bureaucrats who run the subcommittee, but none would comment on whether Shaheed remained part of Iran Accountability Week. Asked if Shaheed was on the public program, Miriam Burke, the subcommittee clerk, said, “I can’t tell you.” Shaheed’s name did not appear in a May 8 press release on Cotler’s official website.
Several sources said the MEK’s involvement spurred Shaheed’s request to be removed from the program. One source with knowledge of the decision said several human rights groups reached out to Shaheed’s office, “and it didn’t take long for them to make this decision.” Two other sources confirmed the account. “From our understanding he was unaware he was part of this broader program,” said a rights activist. “Once it was discovered, the MEK issue was a critical concern.”
The issue is particularly fraught because Shaheed has, over the years of his UN mandate, attempted to negotiate with the Iranian government for access to the country. The Islamic Republic rejected Shaheed’s latest report in March. One Iranian MP remarked that “the intelligence sources for Ahmed Shaheed’s reports are the hypocrites”—the way Iran refers to the MEK—“and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s opposition.”
Cotler said he would explicitly renounce any connections made between various witnesses at hearings in a press conference marking Iran Accountability Week’s closing. “We will not make any association between Dr. Shaheed and the MEK,” he said. “The last thing any of us would want to do would be to hurt Dr. Shaheed’s work or testimony. Not that [the Iranians] need any excuse to do that.”
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Israeli President Shimon Peres visited Vienna ahead of the latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and world powers there this week. Peres stopped by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). And he brought a warning. "The implementation of the agreement between the agency and Iran is proceeding, unfortunately, at a slow pace. Iran is buying time, but not answering the call," he said in remarks made available to the press. "Iran does not uphold its commitment to cooperate with the Agency's investigation and does not provide full transparency."
If true, the revelations could be momentous. Iran and world powers, including the United States, known collectively as the P5+1, signed an interim nuclear accord in November that laid the groundwork for the ongoing talks toward a comprehensive agreement. As part of the November deal, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear activities and acceded to tougher inspections. The task of monitoring implementation fell to the IAEA. With Iran backsliding, as Peres claimed, months of negotiations—not to mention prospects for a final deal—could all be for naught.
But how much stock to put in "if true"? Peres, since assuming the presidency in 2007, has played the elder statesman, often working to smooth the rough edges of Israel's notoriously brash diplomacy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet, in contrast, have raised issues about Iran in more stark, bellicose terms. And those terms are often wanting when it comes to getting the facts right.
Peres's allegations spurred me to call the IAEA to ask if the agency agreed. A representative declined to comment beyond pointing to IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano's remarks at the joint press conference. But Amano had only issued vague pleasantries, without ever addressing the substance of Peres's claims.
On Wednesday, however, Amano spoke up. Asked about implementing the deal by reporters, he replied, "We are working on it and they are cooperative." Was the deal with Iran going forward "at a slow pace," as Peres had alleged? "I can tell you, these measures are being implemented as planned," Amano said.
Those descriptions of progress—not Peres's allegations about its absence—reflect the on-the-record views of the agency up until now: the latest quarterly report on Iran's nuclear program, released in February, indicated that the Iranians were holding up their end of the bargain.
"Iranian implementation of the November 24 agreement is on track," said Kelsey Davenport, an analyst with the Arms Control Association who closely follows Iran's nuclear program. Davenport noted that one of the steps expected to be completed in May even includes Iran providing information about what the IAEA calls "possible military dimensions" of its program: access to details about alleged work on nuclear detonators.
So according to the IAEA itself and leading experts, Iran is on schedule, and even tackling difficult issues. That tracks with the buzz leaking from negotiation tables in Vienna this week, too: after the latest round of talks ended on Wednesday, Iran and the P5+1 released a joint statement noting that big differences remained, but that the talks were proceeding smoothly. "Substantive and detailed discussions covering all the issues" had been held, the statement said. A US official at the negotiations told reporters the sides would begin drafting a final agreement next month.
It's still, of course, possible that Israel has intelligence contradicting the apparent views of the IAEA and the experts. If that's so, Israeli officials should either pass it to those responsible for doing diplomacy, the IAEA, the United States or other P5+1 countries or make the public case themselves. For the moment, the once respected words of Shimon Peres appear to be little more than the sort of nay-saying on diplomacy we've come to expect from less reliable Israelis, those who seem most bent attacking Iran.
On these matters, Peres ought to tread lightly, not only because his carefully maintained reputation is at stake but also because of his own history. In another press conference, Peres once said, "This is a campaign to stop one of the greatest dangers of our time—a combination of nuclear bombs and cruel dictators that no one can trust, and no one can believe a word that they are saying." At the time, in 2002, Peres was foreign minister. The comments were about Iraq.
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