Tag Archives: P5+1

On the matter of the ‘Cotton Letter’ to Iran


J. William Fulbright.USflagIran Flag Icon

One of the great contrasts lurking underneath the latest outrage of the day in American politics is that Arkansas, the state that produced as its senator throughout the late Jim Crow era was a progressive Democratic voice and a crucial dissenting clarion on Vietnam. Fulbright, whose name is synonymous with thoughtful foreign policy in the 1960s and the 1970s, a multilateralist who helped midwife the United Nations and who stood up to the tyranny of Joseph McCarthy’s deranged anti-Communist witch hunts. He also thought the segregation of African Americans was perfectly fine, he joined the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and he opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He served as the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1959 to 1974. He was rumored to be John Kennedy’s top choice to be secretary of state, ultimately disqualified by the his shameful support for segregation.


On Monday, Tom Cotton (pictured above), the heir to the other Arkansas seat in the United States Senate, and who won the seat as the darling of the ‘tea party’ movement on the American right, drew verbal missiles from much of the American left (and quite a few moderate Republicans) for organizing a purposefully inflammatory letter to Iran, just as US president Barack Obama and his administration enter a crucial period in negotiations over international sanctions against Iran, a country of over 77 million people, and its desire to build a nuclear energy program.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: As Rowhani takes power, US must now move forward to improve US-Iran relations

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The chasm between Fulbright and Cotton is amazing. It’s a lesson in the dynamism of American politics or, really, any political system. The same jurisdiction that just 60 years ago produced a Fulbright can today produce a Cotton. The same jurisdiction than seven years ago enthusiastically supported hard-line conservative ‘principalist’ Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with his venal anti-Semitic rhetoric, can today embrace the liberal reforms of Hassan Rowhani.

It’s also a lesson that no single political leader or official is right all of the time. Just as Fubright’s record on civil rights appears to us today as inhumane and unjust, Cotton could one day emerge as a thought leader on any number of issues. (Though probably not on Iran, if his Monday letter is any indication).

Yes, Tom Cotton’s letter is basic

No one will remember this stunt a year from now or a decade from now. It probably won’t even have much of an impact by the time March 24 arrives, the latest artificial deadline established by the ‘P5+1’ group of countries reaching for a workable deal in respect of Iran’s nuclear energy program.

Part of that has to do with the letter’s amateur-hour tone: Continue reading On the matter of the ‘Cotton Letter’ to Iran

Photo of the week: Cameron meets Rowhani

379932_Cameron-RouhaniPhoto credit to PressTV.

In Iran, the United States may be the ‘Great Satan,’ but it’s the United Kingdom has an even longer and more complicated history with Iran.Iran Flag IconUnited Kingdom Flag Icon

It’s not uncommon, among the most conspiratorial Iranian politicians, to hear fulminations against British plots, even today. And to be fair, there’s some basis for Iranian antipathy toward nearly two centuries of antipathy between the Persian and British empires.

The British increasingly sidelined the Persian empire in the 19th century during the so-called ‘Great Game,’ as the Russian and Turkish empires increasingly encroached on historical Persia. In 1908, with the discovery of oil, British interests quickly swooped in to negotiate favorable terms for themselves, to the detriment of the Iranians. During World War II, though Iran was officially neutral, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union jointly invaded Iran in 1941 as part of efforts to secure Iranian oil, installing the young Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the country’s new shah. The resulting chaos led to famine, economic mismanagement and starvation throughout Iran for the rest of the war. Though the United States Central Intelligence Agency carried out the 1953 ouster of prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, British intelligence greatly facilitated the operation.

More recently, a mob invaded the British embassy in Tehran in 2011, setting fire to the British flag, which caused the United Kingdom to cut relations with Iran.

So it’s no exaggeration to say that the United Kingdom might today be even more hated in the Islamic Republic of Iran than the United States of America.

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RELATED: As Rowhani takes power, US must now move forward to improve US-Iran relations

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All of which makes this week’s bilateral meeting between Iranian president Hassan Rowhani and British prime minister David Cameron so fascinating. Continue reading Photo of the week: Cameron meets Rowhani

Ten reasons why the Iran sanctions Senate bill is policy malpractice

Iran nuclear talks: Kerry and Zarif meet at the UN

Iran is quickly moving to the front of the ever-shifting foreign policy agenda in Washington at the end of this week, with 59 members of the US Senate, including 15 Democratic senators and the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, supporting the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013.Iran Flag IconUSflag

The bill would impose additional sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran in the event that the current round of talks fail between Iran and the ‘P5+1,’ the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia), plus Germany.  US president Barack Obama met with the entire Democratic caucus in the US Senate Wednesday night to implore his party’s senators not to support the bill.  Senate majority leader Harry Reid opposes the bill, and he hasn’t scheduled a vote for the new Iran sanctions — and even some of its supporters may be backing off as the temporary six-month deal proceeds.

But with 59 co-sponsors, the bill is just one vote shy of passing the Senate, and it would almost certainly pass in the US House of Representatives, where the Republican Party holds a majority.  In the event that the Congress passes a bill, Obama could veto it, but the Senate is already precariously close to the two-thirds majority it would need to override Obama’s veto.

The Obama administration argues that the bill is nothing short of warmongering, while the bill’s supporters argue that the sanctions will reinforce the Obama administration’s hand in negotiations.  Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister (pictured above with US secretary of state John Kerry), has warned that the bill would destroy any chances of reaching a permanent deal, and it’s hard to blame him.  Under the current deal, reached in November, the P5+1 agreed to lift up to $8 billion in economic sanctions in exchange for Iran’s decision to freeze its nuclear program for six months while the parties work through a longer-term deal.  The deal further provides that Iran will dilute its 20% enriched uranium down to just 5% enriched uranium, and the P5+1 have agreed to release a portion of Iran’s frozen assets abroad and partially unblock Iran’s oil exports.

So what should you make of the decision of 59 US senators to hold up a negotiation process that not only the Obama administration supports, but counts the support of its British, German and French allies?

Not much.

And here are ten reasons why the bill represents nothing short of policy malpractice.   Continue reading Ten reasons why the Iran sanctions Senate bill is policy malpractice

Moderate cleric Rowhani wins stunning first-round victory in Iran presidential election


Hassan Rowhani, the moderate cleric and former Iranian nuclear negotiator, has won a first-round victory in Iran’s presidential election, a stunning development that, despite evidence of Rowhani’s surge, no one predicted even 24 hours ago.Iran Flag Icon

The victory was so stunning over a divided field of more conservative ‘principlist’ candidates that it calls into question the strategy of leading principlists to have remained in the race so long, thereby dividing conservative support and prohibiting the emergence of a single principlist standard-bearer.

With all of the votes counted, Iran’s ministry of the interior reports a turnout of just over 72% in the race, and Rowhani’s 50.71% support is sufficient to avoid a runoff with Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf on June 21:


It’s no surprise that Qalibaf finished in second place, given the fact that he has a strong base of supporters in Tehran, where he’s served as mayor since 2005 and has been twice elected by the city council, and that he’s long been a critic of the administration of outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.


The two candidates most associated with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — current nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and longtime former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati — did even worse, despite reports that proclaimed Jalili a ‘frontrunner’ in the campaign.  Jalili, with just over 11% of the vote, only narrowly outpaced third-time candidate Mohsen Rezai, the former head of the Revolutionary Guards who’s popular with rural Iranian voters.  Velayati finished far behind in fifth place with just 6.18% of the vote.

Meanwhile, Rowhani has consolidated the support of three main groups in Iran: reformists, moderate conservatives, and voters disillusioned with the outgoing Ahmadinejad’s failures on economic growth and international relations.  Continue reading Moderate cleric Rowhani wins stunning first-round victory in Iran presidential election

How the West could learn to stop worrying and love a nuclear Iran


No issue looms larger in Iran’s foreign relations than its nuclear program and global fears that Iran’s nuclear energy program could quickly transform into a nuclear weapons program.Iran Flag Icon

So it was with some sadness last month that one of the pioneers of international relations theory, Kenneth Waltz died just days  before the Iranian election, which the entire world is watching in large part for its implications for Iran’s nuclear program.

Waltz, a founder of the realist school of international relations, may perhaps have been most well-known in recent years for his argument that we should welcome nuclear proliferation because nation-states act more responsibly with nuclear arms than without them.  So even assuming the worst intentions of Iran’s nuclear program — that it’s not only pursuing nuclear energy, but it’s also clandestinely developing a breakout capability to build a nuclear weapon — the West should not be so concerned with Iran’s nuclear machinations.  Moreover, it should embrace Iran’s entry into the nuclear club, as Waltz himself argued in Foreign Affairs last summer:

History shows that when countries acquire the bomb, they feel increasingly vulnerable and become acutely aware that their nuclear weapons make them a potential target in the eyes of major powers. This awareness discourages nuclear states from bold and aggressive action. Maoist China, for example, became much less bellicose after acquiring nuclear weapons in 1964, and India and Pakistan have both become more cautious since going nuclear. There is little reason to believe Iran would break this mold.

As you might realize, this is a controversial position, and others have argued that Waltz’s views are irresponsible and short-sighted, though I’ve always found that Waltz’s reasoning on nuclear weapons makes a lot of sense.  For many reasons, however, no one should expect that the United States will follow Waltz’s advice anytime soon.

Moreover, it’s worth noting very clearly that Iran is not necessarily seeking to develop nuclear weapons, but rather simply an alternative energy program.  That would enable the Islamic Republic to export more of its copious fossil fuels, and it’s a goal that U.S. policymakers actually nurtured in the 1950s, 1960 and 1970s during the rule of Iran’s shah, who was deposed in the 1979 revolution that led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic.  As Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett note in their new book on U.S.-Iranian relations, Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran (which is a very compelling read, even if Roger Cohen and much of the official Washington commentariat have written it off as apology for the Iranian regime), a nuclear weapons program is unlawful under Islamic law, a constraint that the Leveretts argue is ‘more substantial than most Western analysts appreciate’:

Ahmadinejad has described nuclear weapons as a ‘fire against humanity,’ charging that ‘to have a nuclear bomb is not only a dishonor; it’s obscene and shameful.  Threatening to use it and using it is even more shameful.’… As recently as 2012, [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei reiterated his stance that, from an ideological and fiqhi [Islamic jurisprudence] perspective, we consider developing nuclear weapons as unlawful.  We consider using such weapons as a big sin.’

Even if you aren’t as sanguine as the Leveretts that Iran’s leaders are not pursuing nuclear weapons, that doesn’t matter under Waltz’s analysis, because he’s argued that it’s in Iran’s national interest to pursue at least the capability of nuclear weaponry in light of Israel’s longstanding (though unofficial) nuclear capability:

Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly, which has proved remarkably durable for the past four decades, has long fueled instability in the Middle East. In no other region of the world does a lone, unchecked nuclear state exist. It is Israel’s nuclear arsenal, not Iran’s desire for one, that has contributed most to the current crisis. Power, after all, begs to be balanced. What is surprising about the Israeli case is that it has taken so long for a potential balancer to emerge.

Waltz, like the Leveretts, have argued that the West, generally, and the United States, specifically, have systemically assumed that Iran’s Islamic leadership means it will not respond to the typical deterrents that constrain nuclear-armed nation-states and that Iran will not act rationally in its national interest if it acquires a nuclear weapon.  But despite Iranian support for Hezbollah and other groups that have at times wreaked major havoc throughout the Middle East, there’s really no tangible support for that view of Iran, which has conducted a foreign policy over the past 30 years that’s been more defensive than offensive.  It was an U.S.-backed Iraq, after all, that launched an invasion of Iran shortly after the revolution.  Even in light of often heated and inappropriate rhetoric against Israel’s right to exist, Iran has never launched a full-frontal military attack on Israel, despite some evidence that Israel has helped assassinate several of Iran’s top nuclear scientists and its demonstrated willingness in the past 30 years to launch preemptive strikes against other Middle Eastern states, including Iraq and Syria.

As Waltz wrote:

Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, Iranian policy is made not by “mad mullahs” but by perfectly sane ayatollahs who want to survive just like any other leaders. Although Iran’s leaders indulge in inflammatory and hateful rhetoric, they show no propensity for self-destruction. It would be a grave error for policymakers in the United States and Israel to assume otherwise.

Yet that is precisely what many U.S. and Israeli officials and analysts have done. Portraying Iran as irrational has allowed them to argue that the logic of nuclear deterrence does not apply to the Islamic Republic. If Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, they warn, it would not hesitate to use it in a first strike against Israel, even though doing so would invite massive retaliation and risk destroying everything the Iranian regime holds dear.

The biggest criticism against Waltz is that he too breezily dismisses otherwise valid concerns that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of more radical terrorist groups or other non-state actors.  But it seems unlikely that Iran would hand over nukes to Hezbollah or Hamas or anyone other related groups because any such nuclear attack would invariably be linked to Iran, even if Iran didn’t turn out to be the ultimate source.  (Let’s keep in mind that U.S. intelligence couldn’t tell the difference in 2002 the difference between a genuine nuclear program in Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s bluffing to make Iran think he had weapons of mass destruction).  Furthermore, the risk of ‘loose nukes’ seems even greater in the context of the former Soviet Union or, more forebodingly, Pakistan, whose civilian government and military do not even exert territorial dominance throughout the entire country.

No one seriously believes that U.S. negotiators are simply going to relent to Iran’s nuclear energy program so long as it could facilitate the building of an Iranian nuclear weapon, though.  Talks have stalled throughout Ahmadinejad’s second term over the issue of whether Iran will allow its uranium to be enriched abroad, and while the chance of a military encounter between Iran and the United States remains relatively low, it’s not wholly out of the realm of possibility, and an Israeli strike against Iran could quickly escalate.

But Iran’s presidential election could provide a way for the United States and its allies, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other hand, to mark a pivot point from the current impasse in two regards.  First, the next Iranian president could be much more open to conciliation than Ahmadinejad ever was.  Second, with the election firmly in the past, the occasion of a new president could be an opportunity for renewal of negotiations, regardless of the election’s winner.  Continue reading How the West could learn to stop worrying and love a nuclear Iran