By Iran News Update Staff
The Gaza crisis was also referenced in another official’s statement on Wednesday, which was focused on a much different topic. Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Marziyeh Afkham responded to the US State Department’s recently released International Religious Freedom Report by denying the validity of the US’s observations regarding Iranian oppression of minorities.
More than that, Afkham accused the US itself of being one of the world’s worst violators of religious rights. Her principal evidence for this was its “all-out support for the Zionist” regime in Israel. Iran News Update explains that this commentary seems to strive to turn the focus of religious rights dialogue onto the plight of a specific group of Muslims, in order to contradict Iran’s reputation as an oppressor without addressing specific accusations.
Indeed, Afkham did not answer to specific points in the International Religious Freedom Report, such as its mention of Pastor Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American now serving the second year of an eight year sentence in Evin Prison as a result of his efforts to organize worship sessions for Christians in Iran.
HEARINGS ON NUCLEAR TALKS
Of course, individuals in the United States do not share Afkham’s inclination to ignore the Abedini story, particularly not in his home state of Idaho. That state’s Senator Jim Risch used the occasion of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the nuclear talks to press the State Department for action to secure Abedini’s release. Risch recommended holding back the release of frozen Iranian assets until the Iranian regime has been pressured to set the pastor free along with two others American prisoners.
He also castigated the Obama administration for promising 2.8 billion dollars in additional assets to secure the extension of negotiations, but did not make any effort to raise the issue of imprisoned Americans. In this, Risch joins with other critics of the nuclear talks who have insisted that they should be used as an opportunity to address a wider range of issues with the Islamic Republic, including its abysmal human rights record.
Hearings on the nuclear talks, which took place on both Tuesday and Wednesday, gave US congressmen ample opportunities to raise additional concerns about the progress of negotiations. According to the New York Times, the greatest disagreement between Congress and the Obama administration had to do with the question of who would have authority over a final agreement. Congressmen have been pushing to require that the executive branch consult with them before any deal goes into effect, but Obama has shown willingness to rely on his own executive powers, at least for the short term.
In the hearings, administration representatives acknowledged the validity of some of the criticisms that were raised, including the concern that released assets will help to fund Hamas, the Iranian regime’s history of providing missiles to that group, and the disagreement between the US and Iran over the duration of the agreement. However, none of the administration officials committed to actions that satisfied congressional concerns on these issues.
Undersecretary of State for Public Affairs Wendy Sherman did, however, agree that current Iranian enrichment capabilities provide too short a breakout time for a nuclear weapon, and that this must be lengthened.
Some observers advocate for the reclamation of American leverage through renewed sanctions and the maintenance of a freeze on Iranian assets still held in American banks. Evidence of lost leverage can be found in reports of both the recent progress of the Iranian economy and the reactions of Iranian officials to this progress.
Hispanic Business provides an example of both of these things at once. It repeats Iranian Trade Minister Mohammad-Reza Nematzadeh’s claim that the rate of inflation in Iran has now fallen to 25 percent, as compared to 40 percent at the same time last year. Coming as they do from the regime itself, these figures may be suspect, but general reports have indicated that the inflation rate has indeed been on the decline.
There can be little doubt that the upsurge in Iranian capital provided by sanctions relief over the last year has been a major contributor to this trend. But far from acknowledging this positive effect of rapprochement with the West, Nematzadeh, President Rouhani, and other key officials have used positive economic indicators to claim victory over Western sanctions and imperviousness to pressure related to Iran’s nuclear program and other issues.
Rouhani has said that he plans to reduce the inflation rate to five percent over the next two years. This may be an empty promise or it may be a projection that indicates the regime expects the US to sign an extremely favorable nuclear deal and alleviate most or all sanctions. But it is certain that the Rouhani government does not have sufficient control over the economy to be able to deliver on such promises without outside factors, as it claims.
PERSISTENT NUCLEAR AMBITIONS
It would be very interesting if Rouhani’s announcement reflected the expectation of a nuclear deal. The signing of that deal would largely rely on Western willingness to abandon some of its key demands and to effectively allow Iran the capability to continue pursuing a nuclear bomb if it wishes to. Supreme Leader Khamenei has made it clear that Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities will not be reduced, and that the Islamic Republic will seek to dramatically increase those capabilities as soon as possible.
Such red lines imply that the nation will not give up on the prospect of acquiring a nuclear weapon, and there are other indicators to that same effect. The National Interest on Wednesday listed three fundamental reasons why it believes Iran will not give up. Firstly, it says that the absence of diplomatic relations with the United States means that there is little for Iran to lose by continuing its program, and little to assure its protection if it does not become a nuclear state. Furthermore, the two countries’ mutual distrust provides a second reason why Iran will not negotiate in good enough faith to cause it to give up its program.
Thirdly, the article cites the issue of financial momentum. Once established, a nuclear program tends to channel so much money into so many pockets that it becomes very difficult to overcome the pressure to keep it going. An update on the nuclear issue by the National Council of Resistance of Iran points out that in this case, an entire Defense Ministry organization, the SPND was formed in 2011 to carry out nuclear weapons research and development.