The collapse of diplomacy in Geneva over Iran’s nuclear program has strengthened the resolve of those who want to continue to inflict economic pressure on the country.
The Anti-Defamation League said yesterday that additional economic pressure should be inflicted on the Islamic Republic. Israel’s Economy Minister, Naftali Bennett, is due to arrive in Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress against a deal with Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is firmly opposed to any deal that enables Iran to get relief from crippling sanctions.
The conventional narrative is that the sanctions, which have contributed to medicine shortages and unemployment in Iran, are in place for leverage for an eventual deal. But analysts in favor of a deal are fearful that the sanctions are about isolating Iran and pushing for war.
“The idea behind these sanctions, supposedly, is to build leverage,” Jamal Abdi, policy director for the National Iranian American Council, told me over the weekend. “The danger now is that, we’re concerned the sanctions are never going to be lifted. That just like with Iraq, these are sanctions not put in place as leverage, but to prevent rapprochement and prevent diplomacy and build a well between the two countries to eventually get to a war.”
Journalist Lizzy Ratner and I interviewed Abdi extensively on Sunday about the talks in Geneva, sanctions on Iran and the geopolitical ramifications of a potential deal with the Islamic Republic. The interview was recorded for WBAI’s Beyond the Pale. You can listen to it here. Below is an edited transcript:
Alex Kane: Jamal, could you sum up for us what exactly we’re negotiating about in Geneva? What is at the heart of the dispute between Iran and the West, and how do diplomats think we can solve it?
Jamal Abdi: Ostensibly, what we’re negotiating about is Iran’s nuclear program. The talks in Geneva involved the P5 plus 1, which are the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, and this is a negotiating process that has been taking its course over the past five years or so, since Obama took office, to figure out a deal in which Iran takes some necessary steps to assure the world that it is not going to build a nuclear weapon.
What happened over the weekend in Geneva was the most hopeful round of these talks to have taken place because these talks involve the new Iranian administration. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is representing the new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, and they very much represent what a lot of people think is this major opportunity to actually get a deal with Iran, because these guys are moderates who are looking for a way to compromise and establish better relations with the outside world. So that’s why there was a lot of hope this weekend: that a framework agreement would be established in which basically the two sides would take some interim steps to build trust and assure the other side that this is a process worth investing in and going down this path, to eventually getting to a place where Iran puts the guarantees in place to ensure it can’t build a nuclear weapon, and in exchange sanctions are lifted and, potentially, relations are normalized.
Lizzy Ratner: So that was the hopeful premise. But the talks have broken down and are on hiatus for the next 10 days. Can you explain why the talks broke down?
JA: So unlike past rounds of these negotiations, these talks didn’t break down because the U.S. or Iran was unwilling to make a certain compromise. There have been several rounds of these negotiations, and when we were negotiating with the previous Iranian administration, under Ahmadinejad, there were times when it looked as though we were on the precipice of a deal, but then the Iranians were unable to deliver on compromises that they indicated they might be able to make. And then on the other hand there were rounds where it appeared we could get a deal but the U.S. was unwilling to hold off on more sanctions.
This time, the U.S. and Iran, and the other parties, we thought, had agreed to something, they had agreed to a framework. The talks started last Thursday, and on Thursday night, we found out that John Kerry was flying into Geneva. Previously, the number three at the State Department, Wendy Sherman, was handling the talks. Then we hear the other foreign ministers from all the states involved are flying in. It appeared that a deal was struck, that something was about to be finalized. You don’t bring in the heavyweights in order to quibble over small details. This was to finalize a deal, and getting people into Geneva for the photo op.
Then we hear that the talks hit a roadblock because the French inserted themselves and their intention was to hold this process up. What we have learned is that the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, took this deal that we thought had been agreed to and said “this is unacceptable.” We don’t exactly know why he did this, we have heard indications that he wanted Iran to completely dismantle a potential plutonium facility [Arak], or that he was unwilling to allow this process to at some point end with an Iranian nuclear enrichment program. We’re not sure. But what we do know is that the position he has taken sounds a lot like the position Israel and Saudi Arabia have taken, and some of the positions Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly stated a few days earlier in order to say, “this deal is not acceptable,” and in some ways say, “no deal with Iran is acceptable.” Now we’re in a position to figure out how do we end this French obstructionism and get to a resolution of this. Hopefully that’s going to happen in 10 days when the next round of talks are scheduled.
AK: Israel is in the background of these talks. They don’t have a seat at the table, but their presence is felt. Right before John Kerry left for Geneva, he was meeting with Netanyahu, and we had the spectacle of Netanyahu lecturing Kerry and saying, “this an awful deal,” even before the deal was inked. It was a preemptive strike. So what has Israel’s role been both throughout the nuclear dispute and the current talks?
JA: Here’s the dirty little secret: for a lot of people this is not about getting to a deal with Iran. Netanyahu was going around and saying, “we need to ramp up sanctions,” putting pressure on the U.S. to pass their own sanctions, warning the international community, “if you don’t endorse more sanctions Israel’s going to bomb Iran.” And the whole time he was saying “we need to do these sanctions to increase the leverage of the international community to convince Iran to make compromises.” But it appears the goal wasn’t to build leverage. The goal was to put pressure on Iran, isolate Iran, back everybody into a corner where either Iran is completely isolated and potentially on the brink of collapse–which is totally unrealistic–or that the U.S. and other countries will have to go in there and bomb nuclear facilities.
Netanyahu hadn’t seen the deal when he came out against it. He wasn’t at the table. And if you’re against the deal before you saw the deal, chances are you’re against the principle of a deal. But really, fundamentally, what this comes down to is that the red line for Israel is enrichment. And there are many red lines that have been tossed out there. And the question is, will Israel, will Saudi Arabia, allow for Iran, at the end of this process, to have an enrichment program–a program that is constrained, that is heavily monitored, but nevertheless still a program in which Iran is enriching uranium for energy or medical purposes. And for Netanyahu, the answer to that question is, “absolutely not.” For the Iranians, the answer is, “this is required.” Otherwise, they’re not going to go down this path.
What’s interesting about this is that this was a big stumbling block during the Bush administration. George W. Bush refused to negotiate with Iran because he said first they needed to suspend their enrichment. And he indicated that the U.S. would not approve any deal no matter how concrete, no matter how much verification was involved, if Iran had any enrichment. Back in 2003, the now president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, was the lead negotiator, and he offered a proposal to the Europeans, who were acting as interlocutors for this process, in which Iran capped the number of enrichment centrifuges, and prevent it from getting anywhere near having a nuclear breakout capability. This was vetoed by the Bush administration.
Looking at that deal now, that would be an amazing deal that we would all jump on. We’re looking at something that is not as good right now. But we’re seeing the same thing, in which not George Bush, but Benjamin Netanyahu is vetoing a deal that would prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon but would give Iran this so-called right to an enrichment program.
LR: Everyone always talks about Iran building a nuclear bomb with its enriched nuclear materials. What does Iran want to do with its nuclear program?
JA: There are different schools of thought inside of Iran. My view is that the Supreme Leader has pursued a nuclear program as a way of having an option, having an insurance policy where he wouldn’t flip the switch and build a nuclear bomb. That is a decision that hasn’t been made. U.S. intelligence knows for a fact it hasn’t been made. But what he probably wants is the option to be able to do that if it comes to the point where Iran would need to in order to prevent outside invasion, or something along those lines. The Supreme Leader views that option as a major source of leverage.
There are other folks in Iran, like Hassan Rouhani, who have argued pretty vociferously an Iranian nuclear weapon would actually undermine Iran’s security interests. They argue that Iran has conventional military superiority in the Persian Gulf, and that having a nuclear weapon would encourage other countries in the region to pursue nuclear weapons and would establish a level of parity in terms of military capabilities.
LR: Moving to those other countries in the region–we’ve talked about Israel. But there’s also Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states, who have been adopting a similar line to Israel and France. What has their role been during these talks, and could they spoil a far-reaching deal on Iran’s nuclear energy program?
JA: Yeah, it’s not just Netanyahu. It’s the Saudis who are opposed to any deal with Iran. This has to do less with a nuclear program than it does with the balance of power in the region, the strategic outlook of these states, and it’s a matter of the states that have been invested in by the United States as part of our security infrastructure in the region. They’re looking at a potential deal between the U.S. and Iran as a major threat to that investment. If Iran is brought in from the cold, and becomes a normal state instead of a pariah, Iran could potentially become a major power that would reduce the relative influence and power of the Israelis, the Saudis and some of the Gulf states.
What’s interesting is that with these recent talks–with the French scuttling the talks–there’s a lot of speculation that what the French are doing is trying to cozy up with the Saudis. There’s sort of this vacuum right now, in which the Saudis are not on very good terms with the Obama administration. They decided to not join the UN Security Council as a protest against the U.S., because the U.S. is not doing enough in Syria to protect Saudi interests against Iranian interests. They’re saying the U.S. didn’t back Mubarak, and they’re not backing the Egyptian military government. They’re worried about whether the U.S. will continue to prop up these dictatorships.
The French, potentially, are thinking that if we cozy up to the Saudis, there’s a lot of money to be made there, there are a lot of military contracts to be signed there. And they’re trying to build this relationship. By scuttling these talks, they’re intimating to the Saudis and the Gulf states that they will be the ones carrying water for their interests.
AK: I have one last question, and I want to bring it back to sanctions. A big part of any nuclear deal with have to deal with this question. Could you talk about what these sanctions are, how they’ve affected Iran and whether the Obama administration has the capability to lift them in order to reach a far-reaching deal?
JA: The sanctions in place are massive and unprecedented. As AIPAC said in a press release after new sanctions were put in place, these are the most extensive sanctions ever put in place on a country during peacetime. These are sanctions on Iranian oil exports, and they basically criminalize any business dealings with Iran, both for people inside the U.S. but also against third party countries.
The idea behind these sanctions, supposedly, is to build leverage. The danger now is that, we’re concerned the sanctions are never going to be lifted. That just like with Iraq, these are sanctions not put in place as leverage, but to prevent rapprochement and prevent diplomacy and build a well between the two countries to eventually get to a war.
Now, this is the moment of truth. We’re now at the table, we’re talking with the Iranians. Diplomacy with Iran is becoming normalized, and now the question is, are we going to be able to trade in the sanctions as originally intended, or, as we’re seeing with some Congress members, are we going to signal to Iran that “it doesn’t matter what you do, these sanctions are never going to be lifted.”
I’m very concerned that in the next two weeks, Congress will pass more sanctions, pile on more, and convey to Iran that it doesn’t matter how many promises you make–you’re going to be sanctioned, and that it’s time to make contingency plans for a potential military strike.