Normative Narratives


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Conflict Watch: In Negotiations With Iran, Nuclear Rights and Nuclear Wrongs

I don’t even want to acknowledge hopefully-soon-to-be-former Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress. Thomas Friedman sums up my feelings on the situation nicely:

I think such a deal would be in America’s interest if — if — it includes Iran agreeing to constant, intrusive and unannounced inspections of, and limits on, all bomb-making capacities and if, even after the specified 10 years, there are more-than-the-usual inspections. I would also welcome Congress accompanying the deal by granting the president formal authorization — right now — to use “any means necessary” to respond should Iran try to break out of the deal.

I still don’t know if I will support this Iran deal, but I also have a problem with my own Congress howling in support of a flawed foreign leader trying to scuttle the negotiations by my own government before they’re done. Rubs me the wrong way.

Letting the Israeli Prime Minister use Capitol Hill as the backdrop for a speech meant to undermine active negotiations involving not only our government, but the governments of the worlds most powerful countries, is indefensible.

The P5+1 Iran negotiations are an example of the international community working together towards a common goal. Inviting Netanyahu to Capitol Hill did not promote American values, it undermined the very Post-WWII international order America helped build.

Update: As if inviting Netanyahu to speak was not enough, today 47 GOP senators wrote a note to Iran’s leaders in another attempt to undermine negotiations.

The end of March deadline for a framework agreement is approaching, the sides are familiar with their counterparts interests and red-lines, and potential bargaining space has become clearly defined–we will know soon whether or not an agreement can been reached.

A few key issues remain in the negotiations:

  • Nuclear rights of Iran (number of centrifuges)
  • Preventing a “sneakout” / lengthening “breakout” time (international monitoring rights / acceptable levels of uranium enrichment)
  • Easing sanctions as slowly as possible / longest possible duration of the deal
  • How to manage Iran’s nuclear activities after the “sunset” period

“Break-Out” Time and “Sneak-Out” Capacity:

The efforts focus on the fate of Iran’s three major “declared” nuclear facilities, and on lengthening the “breakout” time for Iran to produce enough fuel for a single bomb. But those declared facilities are crawling with inspectors and cameras.

Unstated is the fear of a more problematic issue, referred to as “sneakout.” That describes the risk of a bomb being produced at an undetected facility deep in the Iranian mountains, or built from fuel and components obtained from one of the few trading partners happy to do business with Tehran, like North Korea.

The goal is to “make as airtight as possible” the language that would allow highly intrusive inspections to track the precursors and parts that feed Iran’s uranium complex, according to one participant in the negotiations.

The American officials are highly attuned to the findings of a once-classified 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that Iran ended its headlong race for a bomb in late 2003. But it also concluded that smaller-scale activity continued, and warned that “Iran probably would use covert facilities — rather than its declared nuclear sites — for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon.”

Behind the efforts to close a nuclear deal with Iran this weekend lies a delicate question that has been little discussed in public: how to design an agreement to maximize the chances that Western intelligence agencies would catch any effort to develop an atomic bomb at a covert site.

During his interview with Charlie Rose, Morell warned that the focus on declared centrifuges is misplaced, because he expects that if Iran were to try to build a bomb, it would do so in secret. The only protection against that, Morell said, is unannounced inspections at any place in the country at any time.

“If you are going to have a nuclear weapons program, 5,000 is pretty much the number you need,” Morell, now a CBS analyst, said on Charlie Rose. “If you have a power program, you need a lot more. By limiting them to a small number of centrifuges, we are limiting them to the number you need for a weapon.”

This fact that bombs require fewer centrifuges than power is a source of frustration for Albright, a physicist with the Institute for Science and International Security.

“I wish it were reversed,” he told us. “Then we could easily tell if the program was for weapons.”

A bomb requires about 25 kilograms of U-235 enriched to the 90 percent level. If an agreement limits Iran to about 9,000 centrifuges, that would be sufficient to produce enough bomb-grade material but would leave Iran well short of the capacity to generate fuel to power nuclear power plants.

The “Sunset” Problem:

One major issue is the “sunset” problem — that is, what happens after the accord, which would limit Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting economic sanctions, expires. The length of the accord has not been decided, but it could be 15 years or less.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel expressed alarm in his Tuesday address before Congress that Iran would be free to vastly expand its network of centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, after the accord ends. That, Israeli officials have argued, would greatly compress the time that Iran would need to develop nuclear weapons and would encourage Arab nations in the region to follow suit.

Administration officials assert that that criticism is off base. But they have yet to detail what combination of verification measures and possible constraints on Iran’s nuclear activities would remain in place.

This has become the main sticking point. I have heard ideas floated of pre-authtorizing U.S. military / UNSC response as a deterrent. The international community needs an effective and possibly automatic mechanism in place should Iran decide to pursue nuclear weapons during / after any potential agreement.

Deal or No-Deal?:

As a Jewish-American, I am as apprehensive as anyone about the idea of a nuclear Iran. But in order to move forward we must recognize the nuclear rights of the Iranian people, while addressing the legitimate security concerns a nuclear Iran would cause.

I have heard people argue that Iran does not need nuclear power because it is an oil producer. But from the perspective of sustainable development, building a nuclear power industry would help Iran diversify it’s economy and produce zero emission energy.

While the P5+1 nations are clearly negotiating from stronger economic ground, it could be argued that Iran is negotiating from a stronger geopolitical position. The Iranian government, while lacking in may human rights aspects, does a decent job of meeting the economic and security needs of its people. Furthermore, Iran is contributing significant ground troops in the fight against ISIL, something that is in short-supply in the American led coalition.

Given the current security context in the Middle-East, a challenge to the Khamenei regime is unlikely. The Iranian leadership knows the international community needs as many stable parties in the region as possible. The narrative of a power asymmetry between the two sides–that Iran needs a deal more–has been overblown.

It has been acknowledged by all sides that negotiations are a long-shot. President Obama recently said any agreement would have to include at least a 10 year freeze of sensitive nuclear activities, an idea the Iranian camp quickly stated was “unacceptable But the two sides continue to talk, showing that despite harsh rhetoric bargaining space still exists. Progress continues to be made, and all evidence suggests Iran is not using negotiations to stall while developing a nuclear bomb:

“Over the last year and a half, since we began negotiations with them, that’s probably the first year and a half in which Iran has not advanced its nuclear program in the last decade,” Obama said in a December 2014 conversation with CNN’s Candy Crowley.

Obama’s comments were largely accurate, according to experts. The agreement signed in November 2013 has made it harder for Iran to produce weapons-grade nuclear material, we found. International observers report that Iran complied with the terms of the temporary agreement. The amount of enriched uranium is less, and the country’s facilities to produce weapons-grade material has been curtailed.

Getting a deal done is not determinant of success. A bad deal is not better than no deal, it is just a bad deal; coming away with an agreement just to claim a diplomatic success would be catastrophic. But, contrary to what Bibi would have you believe, a deal with Iran need not be inherently “bad”.

In my opinion, a failure of the negotiation process would not be failing to reach a deal. A failure would be letting prejudices and distrust undermine the possibility, however remote, of reaching a “good deal”.

Regardless of the outcome, these negotiations have brought to the forefront certain issues Ayatollah Khamenei can no longer hide from. Is Iran’s nuclear program for peaceful or military purposes? Whats more important, Iranian national sovereignty or the standard of living of Iranian people? These questions will be answered by actions, not words, for the whole world to see. 

In the event of no-deal, it will be important that the international community can credibly claim they did everything they could, and that Iran was an unreasonable negotiating partner. In order to meet this criteria, we must ask for meaningful concessions from Iran (long-term unfettered access by inspectors, slow easing of sanctions) and making meaningful concessions ourselves (recognizing Iran’s legitimate nuclear rights).

Despite efforts from all sides to derail the negotiations, it appears all diplomatic avenues are thankfully being exhausted.

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Transparency Thursday: Making Sanctions “Smarter”

Sanctions are defined as penalties or other means of enforcement used to provide incentives for obedience with the law, or with rules and regulations. In a foreign affairs context, sanctions are generally imposed by a group of countries (the greater the participation the more effective sanctions can be, and in many cases without strategic involvement sanctions can effectively be useless) in order to influence a political/military/economic  outcome abroad. Sanctions allow countries to show their dislike of a particular course of action without infringing on the sovereign rights of states and without military intervention. Sanctions are often used in the face of gross human rights violations. Prominent examples of sanctions in use today are North Korea, Iran, and Syria (covering both the government and the opposition).

Despite the ability to hold powerful interests accountable, sanctions are not a unanimously popular foreign policy instrument.  One reason, as stated before, is that without strategic agreements (neighboring countries, trade partners, ideologically aligned states) sanctions will be ineffective. They can lead to the formation of black markets, giving criminal organizations even more resources for nefarious activities. The main concern regarding sanctions however is in regards to their human rights implications.

Although sanctions are often meant to end human rights violations, their existence can actually exacerbate humanitarian crises, especially in the short run. While each sanction is uniquely tailored to the situation it is trying to influence, the indiscriminate shortages that sanctions generally cause affects everyone in society (and arguably vulnerable / marginalized groups the most). Because of this, the practice of imposing sanctions has evolved towards the imposition of “smart sanctions“. In essence, smart sanctions are more targeted sanctions (think freezing financial assets as opposed to a complete embargo), meant to put pressure on strategic parties while considering and sometimes providing aid to compensate for human rights issues that may arise.

Smart sanctions are the topic of today’s lesson. I am referring specifically to recent changes made in sanctions against Iran and Syria.

Iran: A little background, Iran is currently facing sanctions which are attempting to deter Iranian nuclear capacity development, which Iran has insisted is for peaceful purposes (medical), but the Western world has strongly opposed.

Iran is also in presidential campaign season, and preliminary reports do not look good for denuclearization and human rights interests:

“Mr. Jalili, known as Iran’s unyielding nuclear negotiator and a protégé of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is emerging as the presumed front-runner in Iran’s presidential election on June 14, an unsettling prospect for future relations with the West. Mr. Jalili, 47, who many analysts say has long been groomed for a top position in Iran, is by far the most outspoken hard-liner among the eight candidates approved to participate in the election.”

“He has been featured in flattering terms in recent weeks in the semiofficial Fars news agency, which is connected to the Revolutionary Guards, as well as in dozens of Web sites and other news outlets. By contrast, the other candidates now sometimes discover their campaign appearances canceled for unclear reasons and often find themselves under sharp attack in interviews on state TV, while Mr. Jalili gets softball questions.”

“If he gets elected I foresee even more isolation and conflict, as he doesn’t care about foreign relations, the economy or anything,” the analyst said.”

To make matters worse, lack of transparency has marked previous Iranian elections.

“Iran’s presidential elections, lacking independent opinion polls and subject to manipulation, are notoriously unpredictable. In 2005, Mr. Ahmadinejad came out of nowhere to win. In 2009, millions of people took to the streets to protest what they said was widespread fraud in the voting that returned Mr. Ahmadinejad to office over the more popular opposition candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi.”

In order to prevent against corrupt election practices, and possibly to help organize opposition to Mr. Jalili, the U.S. today announced it will repeal sanctions on mobile devices and  communication software / equipment. 

“The change is intended to help Iranians communicate through social media, text messaging and mobile-phone videos in order to overcome some of the media and communications restrictions imposed by Iranian authorities.

The action “aims to empower the Iranian people as their government intensifies its efforts to stifle their access to information,” according to a Treasury Department statement.”

“Providing the democracy movement in Iran with access to the latest social media organizing tools will strengthen their efforts to bring about positive change to a government that fears information it can’t control,” Democratic Representative Jim Moran of Virginia, who has sought such action, said in an e-mailed statement today.”

“The U.S. has supported attempts to boost democratic movements and stepped up efforts to stop regimes such as those in Iran and Syria from blocking social media through what Obama has called the “malign use of technology.”

In November, the administration imposed sanctions on Iranian officials –including the nation’s communications minister — and government agencies for blocking Internet access, mobile-phone lines and satellite-television channels to stifle free speech.

The Treasury named today additional individuals and entities for “contributing to serious human rights abuses committed by the Iranian regime, including through the use of communications technology to silence and intimidate the Iranian people.” The State Department issued visa restrictions on about 60 Iranian officials linked to human rights abuses.”

This story highlights the importance of media independence and transparency for effective democracy. The use of social media has been instrumental in “The Arab Spring” revolutions, enabling  the dissemination of information, while overcoming collective action problems that tend to allow powerful interests to remain in control to the detriment of society as a whole. Communications technology also has positive uses for healthcare, education, and e-governance. But in this case, it is clear that the U.S. is trying to allow more liberal Iranians to communicate, in hopes of challenging Mr. Jalili’s candidacy. Additionally, mobile devices make it easier to report political rights abuses, such as coercive measures at polls and other means of election-rigging.

At a recent ECOSOC Partnerships forum I was lucky enough to attend in my capacity as a UNDP intern, Mr. Suneet Singh Tuli, CEO of Datawind, called access to affordable mobile internet access a human right–I agreed with him, and it seems the Obama administration is of like mind. These smarter sanctions should help uphold electoral integrity in the upcoming elections, and should help improve the average Iranian’s opinion of America.

Syria has now been engaged in a civil war that has lasted over 2 years, claimed over 80,000 lives, and lead to over 1 million refugees and internally displaced people in the Middle-East. The civil war and refugee flows have threatened the already tenuous stability of the region, and a full blow humanitarian crisis has enveloped the entire country of Syria.

Gridlock in the U.N.S.C. has prevented direct international military intervention. Russia and China have repeatedly vetoed international intervention, championing Syria’s national sovereignty despite undeniable human rights violations committed by the Assad regime. As the fighting continues, and Western support has lagged compared to Russian military support of the Assad regime (with no signs of slowing down, as Assad has apparently just received a new shipment of Russian arms), the Syrian opposition has turned towards extremists groups for support, which has further complicated international involvement.

Recent actions show that the EU is reconsidering its position on it’s Syrian arms embargo.

“Divisions among European Union foreign ministers on Monday prevented the renewal of the arms embargo on Syria, raising the possibility of a new flow of weapons to rebels fighting to bring down the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“While we have no immediate plans to send arms to Syria, it gives us the flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate and worsen,” William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said after more than 12 hours of stormy talks.”

“The ministers did agree to renew all the economic sanctions already in place against the Syrian government.”

“There were also fears that Russia, which already sends arms to the Syrian government, would feel freer to send more.”

“The only effect you could have — let’s be realistic about this — is that it will stimulate the Russians to provide even more arms,” he said. “But they’ve been providing so many arms that I’m sure even more will not make much of a difference.”

While nothing will change immediately, it is significant the Europe has left the door open to providing military aid to the Syrian opposition in the future. The fact the Europe is taking the lead on this is encouraging. It also makes much more sense, as Europe is geographically much closer to Syria and it’s main ally Russia. While I am sure any coordinated European effort would have American support, it is nice to have the spotlight off American foreign affairs for a change.

There is also some concern that increased arms flow will undermine proposed peace talks in Geneva, which would include the Assad regime, the Syrian opposition, the U.S. and Russia among other participants. This is also a legitimate claim, although I see this as more of a measure to ensure the peace talks do bear fruit. European leaders are putting pressure on the Assad regime to negotiate a political transition by signaling their willingness to further aid the rebels should the peace talks break down. Syria has been in a hurting stalemate for sometime now, perhaps European powers are giving the Assad regime one more chance at a political transition to end this war before pursuing a military end.

These two stories are linked, as Mr. Jalili, a hardliner and supporter of Hezbollah, would likely step up support to the Assad regime if elected as Iranian president. Perhaps the Assad regime is just trying to buy time with “peace talks” until it has a stauncher ally in Iran.

There has also been the issue of whether Iran should be allowed to participate in Syrian peace talks (if you have been paying attention, the usual suspects are backing the sides you would expect them to in this dispute).

Sanctions are getting smarter, as human rights considerations gain more recognition as the cornerstone of the modernization process.  Will these “smart sanctions” help achieve the desired outcome without exacerbating human rights violations? Lets be cautiously optimistic; be sure to check back for regular updates on these evolving and inter-related issues.

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