by Farideh Farhi
Paul Pillar has aptly explained why the vote this week in the House of Representatives for even more sanctions against Iran (H.R. 850) is at odds with the stated US foreign policy objective of changing Iran’s nuclear policies. While the Senate is unlikely to go along, at least for now, the vote brings into question the motives for such a move.
I do not know whether the folks in the House wanted to remain in the good graces of the pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, as Ali Gharib and M.J. Rosenberg suggest, or if they really do want to block any possibility of a deal with Iran to hasten regime change — which State Department folks keep telling me is not the official and stated policy of the US government. The bottom line is, however, that the motives are irrelevant to the chilling effect the vote’s outcome will have on negotiations and Iran’s skepticism about the Obama administration’s ability to “have the sanctions gone in a moment if it will substantively and constructively negotiate with the P5+1” as stated last month by Wendy Sherman, the US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs.
The vote is undoubtedly a signal that members of Congress are more interested in making the Iranian government cry uncle than negotiating. That’s not a smart move if the US government’s objective and stated policy is to convince Iran to limit its nuclear program and subject it to a more robust inspection regime. And let’s be clear: the message is not only to the Iranian government; it’s also to the Iranian people.
There is really no going around it. The House’s vote also shows the proverbial middle finger to the Iranian electorate, who went to the polls on June 14 in large numbers to the tune of 73 percent — a significantly higher participation rate than in years of US presidential elections — and voted for someone who was an unlikely victor because of his stated desire to reroute Iran’s foreign policy and improve relations with the world. That same electorate then treated Hassan Rouhani’s victory as a reflection of its will by celebrating in the streets.
Just to reiterate, in addition to the systemic odds against him, Rouhani was elected by an Iranian public who refused inaction despite the results of the contested 2009 election and the repression that followed. Prodded by two former presidents, centrist Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and reformist Mohammad Khatami, Iranian voters forcefully entered the fray to support Rouhani’s key promises of “prudent” economic management, interaction with the world and a relaxation of the highly securitized political atmosphere.
The vote ensures that Rouhani will be actively involved in convincing his Western interlocutors as well as skeptics inside Iran that through diplomacy, an agreement that respects Iran’s sovereignty — as well as the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy in protecting that sovereignty — and addresses Western concerns regarding the potential weaponization of Iran’s nuclear program is possible.
It is true that Rouhani will not be the sole decision-maker and has to negotiate with Iran’s other centers of power. An agreement must also receive broad support inside Iran and could be torpedoed by domestic forces framing it as a disproportionate concession to Western “bullying”.
But the need to convince other domestic stakeholders should not be confused with Rouhani not being given room to pursue, at least for a while, a “fair” agreement that also addresses the P5+1’s concerns. The fact that Rouhani is being told by no less than Leader Ali Khamenei not to trust Western powers should be construed as Khamenei’s fall-back “I told you so” position in case of failure and not an inhibitor of the attempt to reach an agreement.
Both reformist Khatami and hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were given room to negotiate with Western powers during their presidencies. An agreement during Khatami’s presidency could not be reached because of the Bush administration’s insistence on “not a single centrifuge spinning.” A potential confidence-building agreement to transfer fissile material out of Iran during Ahmadinejad’s presidency was first rejected by a whole array of political forces inside Iran who were fearful that a deal with outsiders would pave the way for domestic repression in the tumultuous post-2009 election. Later, a similar agreement was rejected by the Obama administration, which did not want to abandon the success it was having in creating a willing coalition in favor of sanctions.
And herein lies the challenge for the folks who seem to have a voracious appetite for sanctions. In voting into office a reasonable face of Iran, the Iranian electorate is also counting on an encounter with the US’ reasonable face. Demanding significant confidence-building measures from Iran in exchange for vague promises of significant steps by Western powers in the future — promises that, given Congress’ stamp on many of the sanctions in place, are unlikely to be fulfilled soon — doesn’t seem all that reasonable.
The attitude and judgment of the Iranian electorate should not be taken lightly. In the midst of a region where hope about the positive impact of an Obama presidency has all but vanished, failure to reach an agreement with the reasonable face of Iran will be perceived as yet another clueless — and dangerous — US policy of heavy-handed demands without a clear understanding of the end game and the costs for achieving it.
With the Iranian government and electorate in the same corner, at least for now, it will be much harder to describe the sanctions regime as anything but a vindictive policy of collective punishment intended to not only bring down the Iranian government, but also destabilize the lives and livelihoods of the Iranian people. An academic who regularly visits Iran recently told me he was surprised by the extent of negative attitudes towards the US even in northern Tehran — the supposed bastion of secular and “westernized Iranians”. Things have really changed in a couple of years, he said.
I am not very keen on anecdotal evidence but the observation makes sense. Moves that reject the Iranian people’s efforts to change the course of their government’s policies and instead intensify policies of collective punishment will reap what they sow.
Photo Credit: Mona Hoobehfekr