By INU staff
INU -Throughout the week of March 9, media coverage of the US’s policies toward Iran has been dominated by reactions to and debates over the letter initially signed by 47 Republican senators and sent directly to Iranian officials. The brief message cautioned Tehran against entering lightly into an agreement with President Barack Obama, since any such agreement could be quickly invalidated if it did not include input and oversight from the US Congress.
The Obama administration disputed this line of attack, as did Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who issued a written reply to the letter in which he told the Republican signatories that an agreement between the two countries would be governed by international law and not by the domestic laws of either nation.
Meanwhile, a number of congressional Democrats raised their own objections to the letter, albeit it without questioning the signers’ demands for congressional oversight. A majority of Democrats have joined their Republican colleagues in insisting upon this point, although they have been distinctly more willing to give the Obama administration time to work out a deal executive-to-executive.
A minority of Republicans has also raised questions of the wisdom of the letter that was delivered to Iran on Monday, and the aggregate criticisms have led some of the original signers to dial back their support for the action later in the week. However, a number of individuals have continued to vigorously defend it, while still others have resisted taking a position on the wisdom of the strategy while still crediting it with having positive effects on the debate over the Obama administration’s approach to negotiating with Iran.
An editorial in Jewish Press credits that letter with exposing the Obama administration’s efforts to defy and circumvent Congress on this issue. Indeed, at least one Republican senator, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, said on Thursday that his signing of the letter was directed at eliciting a response from an obstinate presidential administration and not necessarily from Iran.
Jewish Press elaborates that the Republican letter prompted Secretary of State John Kerry to admit in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Wednesday that the administration was not pursuing a deal that was legally binding, and thus did not need to seek congressional approval as it would in the case of a formal treaty. According to Omri Ceren, press director for the Israel Project, this makes it seem as if the administration “intentionally chose a weaker, non-binding arrangement, rather than a treaty, to avoid Senate oversight.”
But now the same administration has evidently gone in the opposite direction on the international stage in pursuit of the same outcome. As reported by Reuters on Thursday, talks have begun in the United Nations Security Council on the topic of drafting a resolution to remove international sanctions against Iran, even though the agreement that would trigger that economic relief is still in doubt.
Jewish Press suggests that the Obama administration’s endorsement of these talks comes in reaction to the Republican letter and constitutes an effort to make the agreement legally binding through the UN instead of through the US Congress.
In stark contrast to this presumptive move to draft sanctions relief, the Obama administration in February compelled congressional Democrats to temporarily withdraw their support for a bill that would have outlined punishing sanctions to be put into place in the event that nuclear negotiations fell through. The administration argued that such legislation would potentially give Iran an excuse to walk away from the negotiating table and claim that US aggression had caused the diplomatic collapse.
Conversely, the administration’s support for advance talks on international sanctions relief reflects its broader reliance on incentives without threats to encourage Iranian compromise. That strategy can be seen in the total 11 billion dollars that the Islamic Republic will have received in temporary sanctions relief just for having continued to be present at negotiations until the deadline for a final agreement at the end of June.
This approach has been criticized by opponents of the Iranian regime as potentially encouraging Tehran to stretch out the negotiations without offering any genuine concessions on its nuclear program. And indeed, there is little sign of Iranian compromise, as officials including the nation’s supreme leader continue to insist upon recognition of the nation’s right to uranium enrichment, a non-intrusive relationship between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the immediate removal of all economic sanctions immediately upon conclusion of a deal.
Meanwhile, some analysts have explained the ongoing sanctions relief and the current UN Security Council talks as reflecting an earnest desire among some Western policymakers to open up Iran to commerce.
As an editorial in the American Thinker explained on Friday, “Iran is a great big market, largely untapped, with an oil industry desperately in need of infusions of cash and technological expertise. Russia and China are especially interested in trading with Iran, and the EU would be delighted if they could hawk their wares in the bazaars of Iran.”
The article goes on to estimate that world powers will likely move even faster on sanctions relief than the Obama administration has said they would. It claims that the notion of persistent sanctions was never really considered by those powers, and that the sanctions were always watered down to allow loopholes and to keep a window open for future investment in Iran once it was welcomed into the global community.
Such claims recall attention to arguments by US congressmen and others who feel that truly punishing sanctions have never been attempted as a way of compelling Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions and make other crucial changes that might justify its acceptance as a viable negotiating partner.
Iranian officials including supposedly moderate President Hassan Rouhani have repeatedly boasted that since current sanctions were imposed, the Iranian nuclear program has not contracted, but has dramatically expanded its enrichment capacity. This is possibly indicate of both the overall weakness of the sanctions regime and the failure of the international community to prevent Iran from evading some of those sanctions.
This latter problem was addressed in an editorial on Friday at the Daily Caller, which focused on the expansion of relations between Iran and Armenia. The author points out that although Armenia has traditionally been thought of as a US ally, it has also been extremely helpful to Iran in violating the Iran Sanctions Act. He adds that the growing closeness between the two nations makes Iran “a ready-made fifth column” in its efforts to expand its influence and confront Western interests in the region.
Thus, the failure to confront ongoing sanctions violations – not to mention the possibility of rewarding Iran with broad-based sanctions relief – stands to affect not only the Iranian economy but also Iranian foreign policy, which has of course been recognized as being at odds with US policy for the life of the Islamic Republic.
This speaks to some of the broader concerns behind opposition to the Obama administration’s Iran policy. The US Congress is avowedly opposed to a deal that they perceive as putting insufficient restraints on Iran’s nuclear program while also providing it with excessive economic relief to possibly re-invest in that program. But various members of Congress, as well as outside commentators, have also accused the administration of maintaining weak positions in order to avoid upsetting Tehran at a time when it is being viewed as a partner in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Indeed, President Obama personally sent no fewer than three letters to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urging cooperation on the issue of IS. In addition, the president has declared that he envisions his policies as leading Iran to become a “very successful regional power.”
Congressional opposition to Obama’s pursuit of partnership with Iran was arguably strengthened in the first week of March after a speech at the US Capitol by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That stronger opposition has been credited by some for inspiring the Republican letter to Iran.
Meanwhile, an editorial published Friday by JNS News Service credits Netanyahu’s speech with going beyond the usual talking points on the weakness of a prospective nuclear deal and emphasizing the general danger that Iran poses to global security. The author argues that Netanyahu effectively dispelled the myth being pushed by the White House that the Iranian regime has moderated under President Rouhani.
JNS also credits Netanyahu with demonstrating that different countries are owed different statuses in international negotiations – a philosophy that should lead to more, not fewer demands being placed on Iran in light of behavior that brands it as a rogue state.
Of course that behavior influences how analysts perceive the central topic of ongoing negotiations, the prospect of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. This is something that was emphasized on Friday by VICE News, which conducted interviews on the likely outcomes of Iran’s ascension to a nuclear state with two experts, William H. Tobey, Senior Fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, and Kamran Bokhari, advisor on Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs at Stratfor.
Taking their responses together, the two experts emphasized that Iran values its growing dominance of the Middle Eastern region more than its potential claim to a nuclear weapon, but also that it would certainly use such a weapon as cover for further expanding its influence and taking bolder and more confrontational actions.
While the interviews cautioned that preemptive strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities could foster global sympathy for the Islamic Republic, they also indicated that the confrontational strategy suggested by Netanyahu’s speech to Congress is the correct strategy for Israel, which is under threat of being all but destroyed by a single nuclear strike, and which is justifiably fearful of the rise to power of even more religiously extreme Iranian leaders.
The possibility of that kind of empowerment of clear hardliners was highlighted this week when ultra-conservative cleric Mohammad Yazdi was elected to the head of the Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with selecting a new supreme leader in the event of the death or removal of the current one.
Together with the continuation of Iranian interference in the region and domestic human rights abuses, such power transitions potentially provide fuel for ongoing congressional opposition to the Obama administration’s arguably soft approach to negotiations with Iran.
Meanwhile, as an article in the Daily Beast pointed out on Friday, the administration’s pushback against this opposition threatens to make the debate even more aggressive on both sides, especially in light of the threat of a UN resolution that would give international legitimacy to a plan that is clearly opposed by the vast majority of American legislators.