By Farhang Jahanpour
In his State of the Union Address on 28th February, President Barack Obama bluntly pointed out that if the hawks in Congress pushed for a bill to impose new sanctions on Iran he would veto that bill. This brave and almost unprecedented move by President Obama has silenced, at least for the time being, the opposition to the Joint Plan of Action that was agreed by Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany) last November. This was a major setback for AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee) and other pro-Israeli lobbies that had mobilized all their forces to block the deal.
In fact, some of the Democratic Senators that had sponsored the bill to impose additional sanctions on Iran have already distanced themselves from it. Furthermore, at least seventy Members of Congress are organizing a letter to the President supporting U.S.-Iran diplomacy and opposing new sanctions. (1)
New round of talks
Meanwhile, 20th January marked an historic turn in the Iranian nuclear dispute with the West, when both Iran and the West began to implement the terms of the agreement. The IAEA director general Yukiya Amano has said that he could report that “practical measures are being implemented as planned” by Iran, and that there would be new negotiations over the next phase on 8th February. Iran also has agreed to a new round of negotiations on 18th February with the P5+1. (2)
For his part, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said: “What I can promise is that we will go to those negotiations with the political will and good faith to reach an agreement, because it would be foolish for us to only bargain for six months — that would be [a] disaster for everybody.”
Hawks continue to oppose the deal
However, despite all these positive steps, it is premature to imagine that the battle is over and that the hawks have stopped trying to undermine the deal. Many rightwing politicians and commentators are already waiting for the failure of the talks and the outbreak of another disastrous war in the Middle East. Arguing in favor of imposing more sanctions, the rightwing columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote: “It is either sanctions or Israel that will prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.” (3)
The hawkish former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton gloomily predicted the failure of the talks and added: “We’ll see soon enough what happens when the ship sinks.” According to Jennifer Rubin: “Unfortunately, that sinking ship is either Iran’s attainment of nuclear arms capability or war in which Israel is forced to defend itself and the West.”
Iranian hardliners see the deal as a sellout
Many Iranian hardliners have opposed the nuclear deal with the West, saying that Iran has given up too much while receiving very little in return. An Iranian rightwing newspaper close to the former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has argued that Iran has stopped enriching uranium to 20 per cent and is even turning its stock of 20 per cent enriched uranium to fuel rods. Iran has stopped any activity in its heavy water reactor in Arak, and has given an undertaking not to have any installations that will be capable of reprocessing. Iran will close half of the centrifuges installed in Natanz, and three-quarters of the centrifuges installed in Fordo, including the new generation centrifuges, and will in practice sign up to the Additional Protocol by giving the IAEA inspectors unlimited ability to inspect her installation.
In return, all that Iran has received has been the lifting of some minor sanctions and only a very small portion of her own assets that have been frozen as the result of unilateral US and European sanctions.
Above all, rightwing newspapers have criticized the alleged secrecy with which the Iranian negotiating team has dealt with the issue and the fact that the Majles has not been able to ratify the deal.
They also catalog other unfriendly acts by US officials, despite the mutual desire to mend fences and reach an overall agreement over issues of concern.
For instance, the US State Department prevented the Iranian UN ambassador from traveling to Philadelphia to speak at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia that could have potentially been made into an historic event. (4) While as the result of the easing of some sanctions some European industrialists have shown an interest in doing business with Iran, US Treasury officials have been fanning out across the globe warning various companies and governments not to engage with Iran. (5)
Some remarks by US officials cause offence
While the hawks are fanning the flames of the conflict, some remarks by US politicians also provide them with ammunition for their warmongering rhetoric. Speaking to Al-Arabiya, the mouthpiece of the Saudi regime that is also opposed to the deal, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States was still keeping all options on the table and warned Iran against any violation of the deal. He added: “If they broke out, if they decided they were going to throw this agreement away and go start enrichment again, sure they can turn around, but guess what – if they do that, the military option that is available to the United States is ready and is prepared to do what it would have to do.” (6)
Contrary to the explicit text of the Joint Plan of Action that calls on Iran to cap her nuclear activities, to stop enriching uranium to 20 per cent, and to limit her production of uranium enriched to five per cent, something that Iran has already started to implement, Secretary Kerry said that Iran was required to “dismantle” parts of its nuclear program, despite the fact that this word has not been mentioned anywhere in the interim agreement. Of course, he might have concluded that he had to use that language in order to silence some of the critics of the deal in the Congress, but it is quite clear that such remarks will only increase Iran’s mistrust and suspicion of the West.
Pointing out that American complaints against Iran were not limited to the nuclear issue, Kerry said that the nuclear issue was only the first step. He went on to say: “Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism. Iran is sponsoring Hezbollah right now. Hezbollah is engaged in the violence in Syria. We find that very objectionable. And there are other ways in which Iran has supported terror in the region. We don’t agree with that, nor do our friends. But you have to take it one step at a time. We are focused on the first step, which is the nuclear program. We are prepared to engage with Iran on the other issues.” (7) Indeed, the State Department has allegedly assured Israel that war is likely if Iran talks fail. (8)
Nuclear agreement should be separated from other issues
Such remarks persuade many Iranians that the United States is using the nuclear issue only as a means to put pressure on Iran regarding other issues that are irrelevant to the nuclear issue. To accuse Iran of being a state sponsor of terrorism because she supports Hezbollah neglects the whole history of the creation of Hezbollah as a Shi’ite force in response to the second Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, which resulted in the death of at least 17,000 Lebanese and the massacre of over 1,000 refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps.
Hezbollah cannot be seen in isolation from its environment, nor can one ignore the way that it has interacted with other actors in the region during the past 30 years. (9) Bringing up the issue of Hezbollah and Iran’s role in Syria alongside the nuclear issue will give the impression that the United States is merely pursuing an Israeli agenda, rather than being concerned with nuclear proliferation.
Need for mutual restraint
It is clear that there is still a great deal of mutual suspicion, despite a new atmosphere of goodwill that has been created since the election of President Hassan Rouhani as president. Many hardliners on both sides would dearly like to see the talks fail and the two countries to revert to a state of mutual hostility.
However, if the talks that are going to be held shortly in order to turn the interim agreement into a lasting and sustainable agreement are to succeed, it is essential that both sides stick to the terms of the deal and refrain from making statements that could result in suspicion and misunderstanding and the breakdown of the talks.
Rather than pandering to the hardliners in either camp, both Iran and the United States should stand up to them and firmly oppose them. Now that the two sides have moved forward to such an extent, it would be tragic and indeed catastrophic if they lacked the faith and the determination to pursue the talks to ultimate and lasting success.
1. Greg Sargent, “Another big blow to the Iran sanctions bill”, Washington Post, February 3, 2014
2. Zarif: “We’re serious about nuke talks”, Politico, February 2, 2014
3. Jennifer Rubin, “Hillary Clinton joins Rand Paul on Iran”, The Washington Post, February 2, 2014
4. See “Iran Ambassador Cancels Potentially Historic Event, State Department Blamed”, Huffington Post, 31 January 2014
5. See “U.S. Warns Over Limits of Iran Sanctions Easing” By Benoît Faucon and Asa Fitch, Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2014
6- See: “Kerry talks of Iran, Syria at World Economic Forum”, Voice of America, January 24, 2014
8. See “State Department Assures Israel: War Likely if Iran Talks Fail”, by Jason Ditz, Anti-War.com, February 01, 2014
9. For a study of Hezbollah’s role in the region see “Is Matthew Levitt’s Hezbollah Convincing?” by Aureli Daher, Lobe Log, 3 February, 2014