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‘The goal is to isolate Iran’–Jamal Abdi breaks down Israel’s opposition to the Geneva talks

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Secretary of State John Kerry addressing the press in Geneva over the weekend at the conclusion of talks with Iran. (Photo: AFP/Fabrice Coffrini)

Secretary of State John Kerry addressing the press in Geneva over the weekend at the conclusion of talks with Iran. (Photo: AFP/Fabrice Coffrini)

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.

Alex Kane
About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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23 Responses

  1. Justpassingby
    Justpassingby
    November 12, 2013, 1:57 pm

    NIAC is itself part of the warmongering against Iran and of course sanctions wont be lifted. This is just like Iraq where Israel were the biggest supporter of war.

  2. JohnAdamTurnbull
    JohnAdamTurnbull
    November 12, 2013, 2:38 pm

    No, it doesn’t matter what Iran does.

    Iran is unique in the world as a theocracy that has the population size, education level and energy resources to create and maintain power and stability. This is a clear afront to all western nations that consider their own forms of government to be more highly-evolved in some shared view of historical progression. A successful, theocratic Iran would undermine our fundamental confidence. That’s why western governments are currently starving millions of Iranians. They believe it will change their minds and lead, eventually, to the collapse of theocratic authority. Uranium enrichment is a pre-text. Any other quasi-military activity would serve as well.

    This reveals more about our own doubts about ourselves than it does about Iran’s potential — or lack of it. Western governments are no longer certain (if they ever were) that prosperity leads to education and education leads to democracy and democracy leads to peace. There are too many counter examples, and Iran is the easiest to harass.

    • Marco
      Marco
      November 13, 2013, 1:27 am

      Iran’s republican government is more mainstream geopolitically than say, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf State’s regimes.

      Nor is it akin to the last racial supremacist state, Israel.

      The U.S. still bears a grudge against Iran for its revolution, like it does still against Cuba.

      But unlike Cuba, layered onto this old grievance are the interests of Israel and Zionist elites the world over. This is why a war with Iran remains a danger, while we can assume there will be no repeat of the Bay of Pigs.

    • mijj
      mijj
      November 13, 2013, 2:57 am

      The struggle to invalidate the Iranian political/economic world view requires external co-ordinated political/economic action to cause it to crumble. Ironically, the aggressors’ capitalist political/economic world view is collapsing due entirely to its own inherent corruption.

  3. Kathleen
    Kathleen
    November 12, 2013, 3:17 pm

    Last-minute rethink stalled deal on nuclear Iran
    Details have emerged of how talks with Tehran in Geneva broke up at 11th hour after France and US took a robust stance

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/11/iranium-uranium-enrichment-talks-geneva-fabius
    “In the discussion in the US secretary of state’s room at the Geneva InterContinental, Fabius insisted on two key points in the drafting of an interim agreement with Iran: there should be no guarantees in the preamble about the country’s right to enrich uranium; and work would have to stop on a heavy-water nuclear reactor. Iran is building the Arak reactor, capable of producing plutonium, about 130 miles south-west of Tehran.”

  4. Kathleen
    Kathleen
    November 12, 2013, 3:22 pm

    “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.”

    Hopefully folks contact their Reps and push for making the deal based on America’s interest and facts not Israel’s over the top and completely hypocritical demands. Oh and by the way ask your Reps to be pushing Israel to sign the NPT. Just to let them know you know that Israel having massive stockpiles of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons that go un inspected by the international community while Iran signed and allows inspections is the height of hypocrisy.

  5. American
    American
    November 12, 2013, 3:48 pm

    JA explains all anyone needs to understand right here:

    “” 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.”
    &
    …..” the Saudis are not on very good terms with the Obama administration. …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.”” (especially their dictatorship)

    It’s all about power, and Isr and Saudi both wanting to remain the US’s ‘one and only’ most favored pets in the ME. They’ve both been the US’s pampered, protected, spoiled ME children for more than half a century–assured of their ‘security’ and ruler thrones by the US military umbrella paid for by US taxpayers.

    Ditch the leeches. We dont need them.

  6. seafoid
    seafoid
    November 12, 2013, 4:29 pm

    The notion of the Jewish state (pop 5.5 m indoctrinated bots and 1.5 m regular people) isolating Iran (pop 70 m) is amusing.

    • Mayhem
      Mayhem
      November 12, 2013, 6:12 pm

      Sounds like the story of David and Goliath repeating itself.

      • annie
        annie
        November 12, 2013, 11:05 pm

        not really. david didn’t have superpowers acting on his behalf.

      • eljay
        eljay
        November 13, 2013, 9:20 am

        >> Sounds like the story of David and Goliath repeating itself.

        With Iran in the role of David. I agree.

  7. quercus
    quercus
    November 12, 2013, 5:55 pm

    @seafoid. Although you seem to obtuse to recognize it, it is called political pressure, Seafoid, pressure that comes from money which creates influence. It is amusing that I’ve heard Jewish people brag (and I have) about their influence and yet when it is called to their attention (particularly by those who are gentiles), they adopt the stance of Claude Rains in Casablanca “I’m shocked, shocked …..” and obviously feigned self-righteous indignation. There is nothing I detest more than a hypocrite. I perhaps wouldn’t find the Zionists so repugnant if they dropped their righteousness, and were just plain honest and out front with their thuggery, but it’s the attitude of “we are so noble” that truly sticks in my craw.

  8. DICKERSON3870
    DICKERSON3870
    November 12, 2013, 7:28 pm

    RE: “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.” ~ Alex Kane

    IN ORDER TO APPEASE ISRAEL AND AIPAC, THE U.S. IS KILLING INNOCENT IRANIANS:
    “Are Western sanctions against Iran to blame for playwright’s death?”, By Reza Sayah, CNN, 2/25/13

    Tehran, Iran (CNN) — In July, Iran lost one of its most acclaimed playwrights and directors when Mahmoud Ostad-Mohammad passed away in Tehran at the age of 62.
    Scores of relatives, friends, and theater lovers attended his funeral ceremony that was adorned with pictures of Ostad-Mohammad — his trademark mustache and playful smile on display. Some wept while embracing copies of his famous screenplays.
    Among the mourners was Ostad-Mohammad’s daughter, Mana, who is convinced that Western sanctions against Iran were partly to blame for his father’s passing.
    “This was the doctor’s testimony,” said Mana Ostad-Mohammad. “This is based on my father’s medical tests.” . . .

    Through five decades, some of the most famous Iranian plays were brought to life by Ostad-Mohammad. Some were Iranian classics. Others were originals. All were stories about the loves and losses of everyday Iranians.
    Then in 2011, came a diagnosis of late-stage liver cancer. Surgery was not an option, but Ostad-Mohammad’s oncologist prescribed the cancer drug Nexavar. According to his doctor and medical tests, the drug appeared to stop the cancer from spreading. . .
    . . . But beginning last year — soon after Washington and Western powers imposed additional sanctions against Iran to rein in its nuclear program — Iranian doctors, pharmacists and patients say finding Nexavar and several other drugs that treated deadly diseases became increasingly difficult. . .
    . . . [L]ast March finding Nexavar became virtually impossible, she says.
    Medical tests then showed her father’s feto-protein level — an indicator of cancer — skyrocketed over the four months he went without Nexavar.
    On July 25, Ostad-Mohammad lost his fight with cancer. . .

    SOURCE – http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/25/world/meast/iran-sanctions-impact-sayah/

  9. DICKERSON3870
    DICKERSON3870
    November 12, 2013, 7:32 pm

    RE: “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.” ~ Alex Kane

    TAKE ACTION! TAKE ACTION! TAKE ACTION!

    Tell Your Senators: No More Sanctions

    When Iran got down to the real business of talking with the US and other countries on October 15, it was clear that they were interested in more than a ‘charm offensive.’ US diplomats optimistically noted that the tone and substance of talks had changed. There’s promise for a negotiated deal, but that good news could turn bad if the Senate isn’t careful.

    Take action before next week’s talks to help diplomacy win.

    Despite the positive signs coming out of the first round of negotiations, some Senators want to move forward with additional sanctions. The Obama administration has asked Congress to hold off, but there are loud, powerful groups pushing for Congress to play ‘bad cop’ in the game of diplomacy. Sheldon Adelson, a GOP megadonor, went so far as to suggest that the US launch a preemptive nuclear strike on Iran.

    Will Congress stand with President Obama or with extremist hawks?

    The next round of talks is happening at the beginning of November. More punishment from the US before the November talks could empower hardliners in Iran and make it harder for Iran’s president to negotiate. When you undermine diplomatic solutions, you head toward war.

    Tell your Senators not to undermine diplomacy with Iran.

    ● TO SEND AN EMAIL OPPOSING ADDITIONAL SANCTIONS DURING THE NEGOTIATIONS – http://www.winwithoutwar.org/page/speakout/no-more-

  10. traintosiberia
    traintosiberia
    November 12, 2013, 10:58 pm

    N Bennett “”If in ten years an atomic bomb hidden in a suitcase explodes in New York, or a nuclear missile hits Rome, one could say it is because of concessions that would have been made” to Iran, he said.
    There is a new placeholder in town .
    Tony Blair’s fear of missile draning down Europe and neoocns fear of missile from Iraq hittting new targets in US from Iraq helped push the war.

    Ten yeras a long time .Within that time Bennet will kill again a lot of Arabs.

    • Marco
      Marco
      November 13, 2013, 1:30 am

      Frankly Naftali Bennett’s warning sounds more like a reminder of the Samson Option than it does of Iran’s potential threat to the West. And I believe he intended it that way.

      • Ecru
        Ecru
        November 13, 2013, 3:32 am

        I agree Marco. I think it’s something people forget, especially our “leaders” – Israeli’s aren’t just inculcated almost from birth to hate Arabs, they’re inculcated with a xenophobia of ALL non-Jews; especially Europeans. You just have to look at various comment sections to see it.

        If there ever is an act if nuclear-terrorism in the West I find it highly more probable that it’ll be an Israeli false-flag operation than the result of Islamist insanity.

  11. annie
    annie
    November 12, 2013, 11:12 pm

    this is a really good interview, really good. i recommend everyone take the time to listen to it in full http://beyondthepale.org/episode/2013/11/10

    alex, i am particularly curious why you cut out Abdi’s words in your transcript at one place,

    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.

    (big cut)

    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….

    it was really interesting and included ideas i have never ever heard before…about the iranian people’s fundamental relationship..concerns..colonial…and US w/the shah..really good.

    on, and he said ‘wall’ not ‘well’…” to prevent rapprochement and prevent diplomacy and build a wall between the two countries to eventually get to a war.””

    great interview. hats off to you and lizzy!

    (ps,i am going back to listen to it again, just to get that hear that missing part again…)

  12. just
    just
    November 12, 2013, 11:54 pm

    A great nation, a great people, and a wonderful culture like Iran cannot be isolated forever.

    They have much to offer to the world and to the region. Why are we even pretending to listen to the crazy people who are bought, and sell all chances at any rational normalization down the long, long road?

    Imagine living with cruel sanctions, with constant threats, and with wars on either side of your beautiful country— all after the US and her “allies” installed their buddy the Shah and got rid of the democratically elected Mossadegh in a coup and joined hands with Saddam in order to murder millions of Iranians.. Then we went and hunted down our friend Saddam and murdered his sons and helped to murder him……………

    Sick. And we have to listen to our “allies” Israel, France and AIPAC controlled Congress? Why?

  13. Hostage
    Hostage
    November 13, 2013, 8:53 am

    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.

    That has been the UN plan from the beginning, but it has long-since been co-opted by sanctions applied by others that aren’t under UN control. There’s no point in beating your head against a brick wall if France won’t agree to any deal, at all, and Netanyahu is calling in plays from the sidelines.

  14. Obsidian
    Obsidian
    November 15, 2013, 12:24 am

    And the Saudis have no playbook?

    http://en.alalam.ir/news/1522974

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