Congress New Sanctions Bill Scuttles the Geneva Deal

Friday, January 24, 2014

Iran Review’s Exclusive Interview with Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
By: Kourosh Ziabari

The interim nuclear deal between Iran and the six world powers signed on November 24 last year in Geneva began to be put into effect on January 20, and it’s expected that a new opportunity has been created for defusing the tensions between Iran and the West with the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action.

The West has committed itself to remove some of the sanctions which were imposed on Iran in the recent years, and in return, Iran will limit certain portions of its nuclear program. This is the most important compromise the two sides have reached over the past 10 years, and the skeptical of the Iran-West rapprochement are now being convinced that it’s possible to start an era of cooperation and détente instead of confrontation and quarrel.

However, just a few days ago, a group of U.S. Senators, including 16 Democrats introduced a bill that will call on the government to impose new sanctions on Iran if it fails to abide by its commitments as stipulated by the Geneva agreement. The Mendez-Kirk bill known as Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 will even force the U.S. government to support Israel if it decides to launch a military strike against Iran. Such a bill, if passed, will be a serious damage to the spirit of the Geneva deal and will virtually kill the chances of diplomacy with Iran.

Prominent Iranian political scientist and commentator Kaveh Afrasiabi believes that the bill is deeply problematic and disturbing.

“I think the new sanctions bill is deeply problematic for the US since if passed. It not only scuttles the Geneva deal, it will also heighten tensions between U.S. and some of its key global trade partners, so it’s no surprise that the US Congress is putting the brakes on,” said Afrasiabi in an interview with Iran Review.

Kaveh Afrasiabi is the author of several books on Iran’s foreign policy and a former advisor of Center for Strategic Research. His writings have appeared on several online and print publications, including UN Chronicle, New York Times, Der Tagesspiegel, Middle East Journal, Harvard International Review, and Brown's Journal of World Affairs, Guardian, Russia Today, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Mediterranean Affairs, Nation, Telos, Der Tageszeit, Hamdard Islamicus, Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Global Dialogue.

Iran Review conducted an interview with Prof. Afrasiabi regarding the proposed sanctions bill by the U.S. Senate, the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action and the difficulties ahead and President Rouhani’s difficult path for reaching a comprehensive agreement with the West over Iran’s nuclear program. What follows is the text of the interview.

Q: The U.S. Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev) has announced that he will not permit a vote on new anti-Iran sanctions to come on the floor and so the efforts made by the 77 Senators who are said to be voting in favor of new sanctions would be killed. He has said that the Senate doesn’t have any plans to introduce a new round of sanctions; meanwhile, he has said that we will not allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons. Why do you think he has made it clear that he will not allow new sanctions to be imposed? Does it signify that even the Senators have realized the importance and significance of the Geneva deal and that it should be given a chance to take effect?

A: I think the new sanctions bill is deeply problematic for the US since if passed. It not only scuttles the Geneva deal, it will also heighten tensions between U.S. and some of its key global trade partners, so it’s no surprise that the US Congress is putting the brakes on. On the other hand, the White House has been persuasive that at this point we must let the Geneva deal run its course without intrusion by Congress. Still, the mere threat of the pending bill as a coercive leverage vis-à-vis Iran, serves its own role, given the bumpy road ahead on negotiating a final deal.

Q: Can we interpret the conflicts and disputes between the White House and the Congress as a power struggle which has manifested itself in the nuclear standoff? Is it that the complexity of the decision-making hierarchy in the United States has resulted in a conflict between the government and the two chambers of the Congress?

A: Well, certainly this can be viewed from many different angles, such as the ‘checks’ and balance’ and Congressional role in foreign policy, not to mention traditional party politics. Since the Clinton Administration, Congress has organically inserted itself in the Iran policy and even more so during the “Obama era,” as a result of which White House’s moves on Iran are subject to intense congressional scrutiny. But, given Secretary John Kerry’s long tenure in the Senate, compared to the first Obama administration, I would say that the second Obama administration has a greater sway on Congress’s foreign policy input, otherwise the Geneva deal would not have survived the criticisms. 

Q: What’s your viewpoint regarding Iran’s agreement with the P5+1 over the implementation of the nuclear deal? It has gone in effect on January 20, and it’s a promising sign that after more than one decade of inconclusive talks, the two sides have come to a sort of agreement which meets some demands of each side, at least partially. What’s your take on that?

A: This is a complicated issue that connects the short term goals with an undetermined long-term (i.e., final status) agreement, that will not be easy to reach. So, much depends on the interim agreement’s ability to pave the way to the final deal, otherwise it will fall apart and we will be back to the pre-Geneva milieu of unresolved tensions and pressures.

We are now at the starting point of the implementation process and both sides have moved in the right direction and have already resolved some key technical issues. That gives hope for the process to move steadily forward and avoid the speed bumps that can surface during the next few months.
This is essentially a ‘give and take’ process that from Iran’s point of view will make sense only if the end-game alluded to in the final section of the agreement is realized to the fullest, without any major backtracking by the Western powers, who nowadays couch their nuanced interpretation on “dismantling” key aspects of Iran’s nuclear program.

Needless to say, this is unacceptable for Iran and such “excess demands” must be confronted forcefully, given the current power struggle over “interpreting the deal.” This is to some extent a ‘discursive struggle’ that requires optimal public diplomacy on Iran’s part in order to disallow a deliberate misinterpretation and use of textual ‘pseudo-narratives” aimed at dispossessing Iran of its inalienable nuclear rights.  

Q: In response to the call by some Senators to impose new sanctions against Iran in the wake of the Geneva deal, some Iranian parliamentarians have proposed a bill, which if approved, will oblige the government to increase the level of uranium enrichment to 60%, and also multiply the number of centrifuges operating in Iran’s enrichment facilities. What’s your assessment of this proposal? Can it help Iran as a bargaining chip in the negotiations?

A: Iranian Parliament has a definite role in safeguarding Iran’s nuclear and other national interests and its quest for a supervisory role with respect to the Geneva agreement is derived from its inherent constitutional role and prerogatives. The Majlis must for example ratify the Additional Protocol if need be and, most likely, the entire provisions of a final agreement. Fortunately, there is good synergy between the Rouhani administration and the Majlis and this is a major plus for Iran’s nuclear diplomacy in the months to come.

As for the proposed bill on higher level enrichment, etc., my understanding is that this mirrors the US Congress’s pending bill and is geared toward bolstering Iran’s negotiation hands and, as a result, should not be misinterpreted as a ‘circuit breaker’ but rather as an integral aspect of Iran’s nuclear negotiation strategy.

Q: President Hassan Rouhani is facing some domestic opposition over the nuclear agreement with the six world powers. Won’t the imposition of new sanctions against Iran undermine his position at home and derail his efforts for reaching out to the United States and other world powers and kill the chances of a comprehensive agreement in the future?

A: I am not a specialist on Iran’s domestic affairs and can only speculate on what the political ramifications of new Western sanctions on Iran will be inside Iran. Certainly, the Rouhani government has prioritized détente with the West and is hopeful on tangible economic gains, the erosion of sanctions regime, and the like, as a result of the Geneva agreement.

Certainly, there is legitimate concern that the agreement does not turn into a lopsided transaction in favor of the opposing side, so the government must work hard to address these concerns and continue pursuing a rights-based negotiation track that would put the existing anxieties to rest and to effectively demonstrate the substantive “win-win” on an equal footing.

At the same time, the critics of the agreement must be careful not to undermine the government’s efforts by weakening its hands through the absence of a national consensus on the agreement. The exigencies of domestic politics in Iran certainly affect the performance of the country at the negotiation table and at this pivotal moment the country needs to stand united behind the negotiation team.

Key Words: US Congress, New Sanctions Bill, Geneva Deal, White House, P5+1, Uranium Enrichment, President Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s Domestic Affairs, Afrasiabi

More By Kaveh L. Afrasiabi:

*The Nuclear Deal and Iran's New Strategic Position:

*Geneva Accord Spells End of Unilateralism on Iran:

*Future of Iran Nuclear Negotiations:

*Photo Credit: Press TV

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