by Jim Lobe
I guess that’s one of the things that occurred to me when I received this Press Release and the letter to the president (reproduced below my post) from the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) yesterday. All but one of the 47 members of the Committee signed on.
The letter, which, normally reliable sources tell me, was initially drafted in the offices of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), calls for a whole new round of sanctions to be imposed against companies and countries doing business with Iran, notably in its mining, engineering and construction-based sectors, as well as other measures that will “increase the pressure on Iran in the days ahead.” While noting that president-elect Hassan Rouhani was “widely perceived as the most moderate of the candidates” running in last month’s election and that its outcome “reflected considerable dissatisfaction by the Iranian people with an autocratic and repressive government that has internationally isolated Iran,” it stressed that the election “unfortunately has done nothing to suggest a reversal of Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capacity.” “[T]here appears nothing ‘moderate’ about [Rouhani’s] nuclear policies…”
“Our diplomatic goal,” it continues, “must be to reach a negotiated settlement in which Iran agrees to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program.”
Now that last phrase is particularly provocative because, as everyone who has paid the slightest attention to intelligence community (IC) estimates and statements over the last five-and-a-half years knows, Iran suspended what the IC had previously believed was a nuclear-weapons program in 2003 and the country’s leadership, including Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has not made a decision to produce a weapon. So what we see in this letter is deliberate disregard by 46 of the 47 HFAC members — both Democrats and Republicans — of the conclusions of the 17 agencies that make up Washington’s Intelligence Community. This is the same IC for which Congress last year approved nearly 54 billion dollars (not counting some $18 billion dollars more for military intelligence). Do you hear any echoes from Iraq here?
I’m prepared to believe that Iran is seeking a capability to build and deploy weapons relatively quickly; that is the same kind of capability as, say, Japan or Brazil has. Indeed, given the threats (and the pressure) to which it has been subject, seeking such a capability is hardly an unreasonable thing to do. In fact, it may even be possible that the expansion of its nuclear infrastructure, as cited by the letter, is a direct response to that pressure. If so, it would follow rather logically that reducing the pressure just might induce a reciprocal gesture on the part of Tehran. Conversely, ratcheting up pressure, as AIPAC and the HFAC members appear determined to achieve, may result in a further expansion and acceleration of the nuclear program, a result that would obviously be counter-productive to their professed goal of reaching a “negotiated settlement in which Iran agrees to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program [which the $54-billion-a-year IC says does not exist].”
But let’s return for a moment to AIPAC’s and HFAC’s analysis of the meaning — or lack thereof — of Rouhani’s election last month. The letter points out that Rouhani “indicated his support for Iran’s nuclear ambitions [implying he wants nuclear weapons although he has explicitly disclaimed that goal — please note the vagueness of “ambitions”] in his first post-election press conference” and contends that there “appears nothing ‘moderate’ about his nuclear policies…” But that’s a rather tendentious interpretation of what Rouhani said at that press conference. Here’s what he said when asked about the nuclear program:
By God’s grace, we will have more active negotiations with the P5+1. This is the main point. And we are of the opinion that the nuclear issue can only and only be resolved through negotiations. Neither threats, nor sanctions are effective. The solution lies in holding negotiations and reaching a mutual trust. The solution of reaching a mutual trust is possible. This was done before. We will benefit from previous experiences. The fact is that the Iranian nation’s undeniable rights will always be considered by the future government. And it [future government] will constantly make efforts to save the people from the cruel sanctions step by step, and to be able to build better relations with the countries of the world, particularly the neighboring states, as I emphasized before.
And this is a quote about the nuclear program from his last televised debate with the other presidential candidates — the same debate in which Ali Akbar Velayati quite publicly ripped hard-line nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili for the latter’s inflexibility in negotiations with the P5+1 over Iran’s nuclear program:
It’s nice for the centrifuges to run, but people’s livelihoods have to also run, our factories have to also run.
And here’s what he said about relations with the U.S. in his post-election press conference:
The issue of relations between Iran and the United States is a complicated and difficult issue. It’s not a simple issue. After all, there is an old scar. Prudence has to be adopted to cure this scar. Of course, we will not pursue continuing or expanding tensions. We will not pursue adding to tensions. It would be wise for the two nations and countries to think more of the future. They should find a solution to the past issues and resolve them. They should think of the future. But any talks with the United States have to take place based on mutual respect, mutual interests, and mutual stances. It definitely depends on certain conditions. And those conditions have to be fulfilled. First, as stated in the Algiers Accord [brokered by the Algerian government between the United States and Iran to resolve the Iran hostage crisis in 1981], the Americans have to confirm that they will not interfere in Iran’s internal issues ever. Second, they have to officially recognize the Iranian nation’s rights, including the nuclear right. Third, they should avoid unilateral or bullying policies against Iran. And of course, under such circumstances, the grounds [for holding talks] would be ready. If we feel there is goodwill involved, then the grounds [for talks] would be different. But everyone should know that the future government will not ignore the rightful rights of the Iranian nation under any circumstances. And on this basis, we would be ready for the tension to become less, and even if we see goodwill, it would be possible to take steps toward building trust within a framework that the Islamic Republic of Iran has. And I have pointed out the framework.
Rouhani also actually referred to “Israel” by its chosen name, forgoing the traditional aversion to pronouncing the name of the “Little Satan.”
These statements may, of course, disguise much more sinister and radical designs, but they sound pretty “moderate”, at least by Iran’s standards of the last eight years or so. And it’s worth remembering that they were made publicly in front of a large domestic audience whose votes appear to have actually been counted and who probably formed certain expectations that his words could translate into policy. That the AIPAC/Royce/Engel letter takes absolutely no account of any of this demonstrates the extent to which the 46 members of the Foreign Affairs Committee are actually paying the slightest attention.
Of course, in the event that any attention was paid to Rouhani’s words and the circumstances in which he offered them, the letter falls back on the familiar old chestnut that, of course, it is Khamenei, not Rouhani, who will decide the fate of Iran’s nuclear program, so the president-elect doesn’t really count (despite the fact that (a) Khamenei supposedly “allowed” Rouhani to win, and (b) he’s served on the Supreme National Security Council for some 15 years, many of them as Khamenei’s representative). And here we are reminded that Khamenei “has recently reiterated his view that Iran has no reason to normalize relations with the United States.” Well, he may indeed have said that recently (although I can’t find a recent quote to that effect, but it should be pointed out that Iran doesn’t have to normalize relations with the U.S. in order to reach an agreement over its nuclear program with the P5+1. Indeed, the whole issue of normalization in the context of the nuclear program is pretty much a non sequitur.
But let’s look more closely at what Khamenei has been saying. Here’s what he said on June 26, according to a Reuters dispatch:
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday the dispute over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme could easily be resolved if the West were to stop being so stubborn.
While accusing the West of being more interested in regime change than ending the dispute, Khamenei did express a desire to resolve an issue which has led to ever tighter sanctions on Iran’s oil sector and the wider economy.
“Some countries have organised a united front against Iran and are misguiding the international community and with stubbornness do not want to see the nuclear issue resolved,” Khamenei’s official web site quoted him as saying.
“But if they put aside their stubbornness, resolving the nuclear issue would be simple,” he said, without setting out what specific concessions he wanted Western nations to make.
…”The Islamic Republic has acted legally and transparently in the nuclear debate and offers logic in its arguments, but the aim of the enemies is through constant pressure, to tire Iran and change the regime and they will not allow the issue to be resolved,” Khamenei said.
…”Of course the enemies say in their words and letters than they do not want to change the regime, but their approaches are contrary to these words,” he said.
Again, this may all be deception, or “taqiyya”, as neo-cons who fancy themselves expert in matters Shi’a love to invoke when insisting that you can’t trust anything a Shiite tells you. But it certainly doesn’t preclude the possibility of reaching a deal based on such unimperial concepts like “mutual respect,” reciprocity, and international law.
As to relations with the U.S., there’s this other Reuters report that may be of interest to the 46 congressmen and women from June 12:
NEW YORK/ANKARA (Reuters) – Five months ago Iran’s foreign minister sent an unusual letter to the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It was time, Ali Akbar Salehi wrote according to two sources who read the letter, to reach out to Tehran’s arch foe by entering into “broad discussions with the United States.”
The supreme leader, though cautious about the prospect, sent a reply to Salehi and the rest of the Cabinet: he was not optimistic but would not oppose them if they pursued the initiative.
The fact is, public debate about direct negotiations with the U.S. was more or less a taboo in Iran as recently as 18 months ago. But it is now openly talked about, even in public debates by candidates close to Khamenei, and it appears that the Supreme Leader himself is not necessarily averse. In light of the results of last month’s elections and Rouhani’s own words on this question, why are those 46 members of the Foreign Affairs Committee so certain that nothing has changed in Iran and that more pressure is the only solution, particularly when so many actual Iran experts agree that the election has created a major opportunity that Washington would be foolish to squander. Maybe it’s time for the Committee to consult with the IC’s analysts to see what they think. And maybe it’s time for members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to stop reflexively signing onto letters because they’re told AIPAC drafted them. It’s almost as embarrassing as giving Bibi Netanyahu 29 standing ovations.
Meanwhile, here’s a letter that has begun circulating in the House that offers a different approach (compare it to the one that follows):
On June 14, the Iranian people elected Hassan Rouhani president, overcoming repression and intimidation by the Iranian government to cast their ballots in favor of reform.
This is not the first time that Iran has elected a president on a platform of moderation and reform, and history advises us to be cautious about the prospects for meaningful change. The Iranian government’s actions in the months ahead will certainly speak louder than Dr. Rouhani’s words.
Even so, given the stakes involved for the United States, Israel, and the international community, it would be a mistake not to test whether Dr. Rouhani’s election represents a genuine opportunity for progress toward a verifiable, enforceable agreement that prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. We must also be careful not to foreclose the possibility of such progress by taking provocative actions that could weaken the newly elected president’s standing relative to Iran’s hardliners, who oppose his professed “policy of reconciliation and peace.”
We invite you to join us in sending the attached letter to President Obama urging him to reinvigorate U.S. diplomatic efforts to ensure Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon. The letter does not take a position on whether current sanctions should be strengthened or relaxed, nor does it take a position on the potential use of military force by the United States or its allies. We know our colleagues hold different views on these sensitive issues, but we should all be able to agree on the need for a renewed diplomatic push as part of our broader strategy toward Iran.
If you would like to sign or have questions about this letter, do not hesitate to contact George McElwee with Rep. Dent (5-6411) or Asher Hildebrand with Rep. Price (5-1784).
Member of Congress
Member of Congress