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Tuesday, February 21, 2017
- Two pillars of the U.S. foreign policy establishment urged Congress Monday to forgo any new sanctions legislation directed against Iran, warning that it will risk “undermining or even shutting down” ongoing negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Gen. Brent Scowcroft (ret.), who served as national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served in the same post under President Jimmy Carter, said that an interim agreement with Iran – the focus of critical talks the next round of which is to begin Wednesday in Geneva – “would advance the national security of the United States, Israel, and other partners in the region.
“More sanctions now as these unprecedented negotiations are just getting underway would reconfirm Iranians in their belief that the U.S. is not prepared to make any agreement with the current government of Iran,” the two men wrote. “We call on all Americans and the U.S. Congress to stand firmly with the President in the difficult but historic negotiations with Iran.”
The letter, which was made available by the New York-based Iran Project, comes amidst an increasingly strident campaign by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters in the powerful Israel lobby here to oppose an interim accord that reportedly would permit Tehran to continue enriching uranium, albeit at a low level that would not lend itself to the production of a nuclear weapon.
Since negotiators from the so-called P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany) and Iran came within a hair’s breadth of concluding such an accord at the last round of talks in Geneva earlier this month, Netanyahu has repeatedly denounced it as a “very bad deal,” while other Israeli officials have suggested it could lead to their taking unilateral military action against Tehran’s nuclear facilities.
“We are not bluffing. We are very serious – preparing ourselves for the possibility that Israel will have to defend itself by itself,” Israel’s outgoing national security chief told Monday’s edition of the Financial Times.
“…If you ask about (Netanyahu) personally as a prime minister, he is ready to take such decisions,” he added noting Israel’s opposition to any accord that does not result in the complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear programme, including its uranium enrichment.
Secretary of State John Kerry, European Union (EU) foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif reportedly reached agreement on a draft accord.
Among other provisions, it required Iran to freeze the installation of new centrifuges in its two enrichment plants; halt production of 20-percent enriched uranium; and convert most of its 20-percent stockpile to fuel rods or other forms that reduce the possibility it could be used for making a weapon – all overseen by enhanced inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In return, the P5+1 would ease some of the sanctions that have inflicted serious damage on Iran’s economy, although Kerry has insisted that core financial and oil sanctions would remain in place pending Iran’s compliance and a more comprehensive agreement to be negotiated over the next six months to a year.
But the 11th-hour intervention by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who reportedly objected to language regarding Iran’s claims to a legal right to enrichment, as well as the disposition of Iran’s yet-to-be-completed Arak heavy-water nuclear reactor, resulted in changes in the draft that Zarif was unable to accept without further consultations in Tehran – as well as with Western capitals.
As a result, U.S. officials have voiced cautious optimism that an agreement can be finalised as early as the end of this week.
Fabius’s intervention came on the eve of a three-day visit to Israel by President Francois Hollande, who received a hero’s welcome in Tel Aviv Sunday.
It has spurred speculation that Paris is seeking to consolidate its position with Washington’s two most-influential allies and Iran’s arch-rivals in the region – Israel and Saudi Arabia – at a moment when Obama appears more interested in a rapprochement with Tehran for a variety of reasons, including hoped-for cooperation in containing the civil war in Syria and stabilising Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama spoke by telephone with Hollande last week, and U.S. officials have expressed confidence that Paris is cooperating on a new draft that should also prove agreeable to Tehran.
France’s last-minute veto was also cheered by neo-conservatives and other hawks, many Republicans, and some Democrats, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez, who are considered close to the Israel lobby which has been pressed hard by Netanyahu to push for the Senate to vote on legislation approved last summer by the Republican-led House of Representatives. That legislation would sanction foreign companies that import any Iranian oil.
But the Democratic leadership in the Senate, notably the heads of the Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, and Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, have sided with the administration in opposing new sanctions while negotiations are underway. And Reid, who controls the Senate’s calendar, appears inclined to support them.
Netanyahu’s pressure, which is not expected to ease even if an interim accord is reached this week, is causing growing disquiet about the future of bilateral relations here, with some observers characterising the split between the two governments as the worst in at least a generation.
“America and Israel are in uncharted waters,” warned Robert Satloff, the head of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a spin-off of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), in Politico Monday.
Nonetheless, the Democratic leadership in the Senate, notably the heads of the Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, and Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, have sided with the administration in opposing new sanctions while negotiations are underway. And Reid, who controls the Senate’s calendar, appears inclined to support them.
Scowcroft and Brzezinski, both of whom opposed the Iraq war, are the latest in the foreign policy establishment to come out publicly against additional sanctions which, in any case, are most unlikely to be considered by either house before Wednesday’s talks begin.
Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), wrote in the Daily Beast Monday that a short-term deal “would lead to the Mideast equivalent of ending the Cold War with the Soviet Union … [and] could reduce, even sharply, the biggest threat to regional peace, an Iranian nuclear bomb, and open paths to taming dangerous conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.”
Writing in the Washington Post Sunday, former CIA Middle East analyst Kenneth Pollack, a key champion of the Iraq War at the Brookings Institution, wrote that Israeli demands that Iran be forced to dismantle its nuclear programme were unrealistic.
“…[O]ur worst mistake would be to make an impossible ideal the enemy of a tangible, ‘good enough’ agreement…,” he wrote. “If we can get it, such a final deal should be more than adequate to remove the Iranian nuclear program as a source of fear and instability in the Middle East.”
In their letter, Scowcroft and Brzezinski argued that the “agreement under discussion would slow crucial elements of the Iran program, make it more transparent and allow time to reach a more comprehensive agreement in the coming year.”
“Should the United States fail to take this historic opportunity, we risk failing to achieve our non-proliferation goal and losing the support of allies and friends while increasing the probability of war,” they wrote.
Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.