Insider news & Analysis in Iran

By INU Staff
INU - On Tuesday, Fox News reported that the White House had refused to make Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes available to a House Oversight Committee hearing that took place that same day. Rhodes and the rest of the Obama administration came under fire this month after the New York Times Magazine published a profile of him in which he was quoted as boasting about how he had exploited a naïve media to shape the narrative that helped to sell the Iran nuclear deal.

This commentary has been characterized by opponents of the deal as proof that the Obama administration’s Iran policy and its perspective on the Iranian regime itself were misrepresented to the American public. A number of critics have suggested that in absence of the Rhodes narrative about nascent Iranian moderation, the White House would have had a much more difficult time winning approval from the US Congress for the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. As it stands, that approval was won only very narrowly, with a minority of the legislature exploiting congressional rules to defeat majority support for a resolution of disapproval.

Naturally, members of that majority opposition to the deal have been eager to question Ben Rhodes and other administration figures in the midst of ongoing discussion about the Times profile. As such, Oversight Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz requested that Rhodes testify before Tuesday’s hearing, but the White House rejected the request. Chaffetz, a Republican representative from the state of Utah, even attempted to entice the administration into changing its mind by offering to also hear testimony from Senator Tom Cotton, whom White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest had accused of misrepresenting the nuclear agreement on the Republican side.

Chaffetz reportedly sent a message to Cotton saying that his attendance at the hearing would be contingent upon Rhodes accepting his invitation. But the White House remained unmoved and Fox News reported that White House counsel had “cited what appeared to be an executive privilege-related claim, asserting that such a senior presidential adviser’s appearance ‘threatens the independence and autonomy of the President, as well as his ability to receive candid advice and counsel.’”

Fox News also noted that the discord over Rhodes’ non-attendance signified an expanding feud between the Obama administration and members of Congress who remain opposed to the JCPOA. That agreement exchanged limits on Iran’s nuclear stockpiles and enrichment activities for large-scale relief from US-led economic sanctions. Common concerns among opponents of the deal include the notion that Iran will use its access to tens of billions of dollars in unfrozen assets in order to finance other dangerous and destabilizing activities in the region.

Tuesday’s hearing also gave foreign policy experts an opportunity to highlight additional perceived effects of the agreement. For instance, Townhall quoted Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute as saying that the vague wording of some of the deal’s terms opened up the door for Iran to pursue formerly illicit arms sales with foreign countries including major adversaries of the US.

Rubin noted that under the agreement, Iran is still barred from buying offensive weapons for five years, but the deal does not define what “offensive” means. He went on to allege that because of this, “Iran is on a shopping spree in Russia and China right now.”

Prior to the conclusion of JCPOA negotiations, Russia announced that it would be seizing upon the new global environment to resume a transaction that had been initiated with Iran in 2009 for the sale of an advanced S-300 missile defense system. Delivery of that system finally began last month, but around the same time, officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran publicly expressed interest in a wide range of other Russian weapons that they would be interested in purchasing, including tanks and fighter jets.

Rubin’s commentary contributes to the perception among the deal’s detractors, that the Obama administration has been excessively conciliatory toward the regime, and has gotten little in return. Such criticism extends beyond the nuclear deal itself, with some critics even going so far as to accuse the administration of maintaining a policy of “appeasement.”

Both with respect to the nuclear deal and the broader environment of Iran-US relations, these same critics have suggested that the West has gotten very little in return for these policies from Iran. This criticism is underscored by the apparent fact that Iranian propaganda and provocations toward the US and some of its allies have actually increased in both frequency and intensity since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations.

One oft-cited example of this is the January incident in which the naval forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps seized 10 American sailors who had mistakenly strayed into Iranian territorial waters. The Obama administration consistently downplayed the incident, suggesting that the contacts made with the Iranian government during nuclear negotiations helped to secure the sailors’ release in less than 24 hours. However, the IRGC and other Iranian hardliners portrayed the incident as a victory over the US and repeatedly broadcast images and video of the captives on state media.

These broadcasts were decried by a number of US congressmen and other commentators who pointed out that in wartime, such use of prisoners in state propaganda would constitute a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Now, the Washington Free Beacon has reported that the initial reports of the treatment of these captive sailors were severely incomplete. According to Randy Forbes of the House Armed Services Committee, the classified details of the incident describe treatment that will likely be shocking to most Americans once that information comes out.

But this is not expected to happen for as long as a year, ostensibly because the Obama administration is actively keeping the full details under wraps. This interpretation of the situation lends further credence to critics’ claims that the administration has swept information under the rug when it threatened to conflict with the moderation narrative laid out by Ben Rhodes.

Arguably, some of this information relates to Tehran’s apparent willingness to go along with the restrictions imposed by the JCPOA over the long term. On Monday, The Tower reported that Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran, said that the country was currently in the process of advancing its nuclear enrichment technology and boosting its theoretical capability to enrich large volumes of highly enriched uranium in a small window of time.

Representative Forbes has made efforts to introduce legislation that would increase sanctions on Iran in response to the alleged mistreatment of American sailors. Under the JCPOA, the US is technically allowed to continue imposing sanctions in response to matters unrelated to the nuclear deal, although Iranian officials have variously insisted that they would regard any new sanctions whatsoever as reason enough to cancel the deal

In pushing for new sanctions measures, Forbes criticized the administration for having actually thanked the Iranian government after the sailors were released, something that he described as a “slap in the sailors’ face.” He added, “Instead of thanking them the administration should be standing up and saying its wrong.” 

Forbes’ sanctions measure is only one in a series of efforts that Congress has taken in order to push for enhanced pressure on the Islamic Republic, in absence of leadership from President Obama. Over the past several months, these measures have generally tended to be defeated by the president’s supporters in Congress, although even if they were to proceed they would almost certainly face a presidential veto. Nonetheless, those efforts serve to maintain political pressure on the Obama administration, and they may also encourage state-level governments to contribute to congressional efforts to limit the effects of sanctions relief.

As one example of this, the Statesman reported on Monday that Texas Governor Greg Abbott had pointedly rejected calls from the Obama administration for states to lift their own Iran sanctions, which are separate from those previously imposed by the federal government. Approximately 30 states maintain such sanctions, which prevent government retirement accounts and other state investments from investing in companies that do business with the Islamic Republic. Some of these restrictions were specifically imposed in response to strong majority opposition to the removal of federal sanctions, or to Obama’s Iran policy in general.

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