October 17, 2013

Are Hawks in Congress Trying to Scuttle Iran Talks?

Featuring Colin H. Kahl

Source: The American Prospect

Journalist Matthew Duss

For the first time in a long time, the news out of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, which took place Tuesday and Wednesday in Geneva, Switzerland, was extremely positive. 

In a statement at the close of talks Wednesday—the first ever such joint statement from the Iranian and P5+1 delegations (the permanent five UN Security Council members plus Germany)—European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif hailed “two days of substantive and forward looking negotiations.”

“I've been doing this now for about two years, and I have never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before,” said a senior U.S. official after the talks. “And I would say we are beginning that kind of negotiation to get to a place where, in fact, one can imagine that you could possibly have an agreement.” The official continued, “I think if you talk to any of the P5+1 members–and some of them have been doing this for a lot longer than I have… they would tell you the same thing.”

While there’s a great deal of work still to be done, it’s important to recognize what a shift this represents from past negotiating rounds, where the sides seemed to be talking past each other. Amid all the positive gestures over the past weeks and months, the Twitter diplomacy, the Rosh Hashanah greetings, and the first-ever phone call between the presidents of the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the real question was always whether the Iranians would engage seriously and substantively around the negotiating table. And, by all accounts, they did.

None of this seems to have penetrated the intellectual bunker of Washington’s anti-Iran hawks, who insist on carrying on as if nothing at all had changed and Iran’s president was still Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (whom GOP Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtninen actually admitted “missing”).

“No one should be impressed by what Iran appears to have brought to the table in Geneva,” said Senator Marco Rubio in a statement attached to a resolution calling for additional sanctions on Iran (the resolution erroneously states that Iran and the P5+1 “continue to discuss the Government of Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program”—Iran denies that it has such a program). “Now is not the time to suspend sanctions, but to increase them on the Iranian regime,” Rubio said in an earlier floor speech.  


Explaining his introduction of a billauthorizing military force against Iran as a form of pressure on the Obama administration, Arizona representative Trent Franks revealed a somewhat sketchy understanding of the administration’s actual Iran policy. “If we’re not careful, and this is hyperbole, but it’s to demonstrate the point, this president could say ‘Well,’ to Iran, ‘you can have all the nuclear warheads you want as long as you promise they’re for peaceful purposes.’”

And then there’s Senator Mark Kirk, who, apparently unsatisfied with conservative efforts to redefine appeasement as diplomacy, recently attempted to re-re-defineappeasement as “not piling new sanctions on Iran right now.”

“My colleagues in the U.S. Senate and I will not be fooled by hollow declarations of ‘peace for our time’,” Kirk wrote in an op-ed in the London Telegraph. “We will not accept any level of uranium enrichment on Iranian soil.” (Denying Iran any level of domestic enrichment is likely to be a deal-breaker, analysts Colin Kahl and Alireza Nader recently explained.)

“The analogy with Hitler and appeasement (which was also used by neo-Conservatives ahead of the Iraq War) is tired and feeble,” British columnist Peter Oborne wrote in response. “Senator Kirk deserves to be dismissed as an ignoramus whose advice on tying one's shoes should be treated with the utmost caution.”

The argument for the most stringent sanctions on Iran—which Rubio, Franks, and Kirk support strongly—was that only the most severe pressure would coerce Iran into changing course and addressing the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program. No one is suggesting that Iran should be rewarded with reduced sanctions simply because they’ve now—belatedly—decided to engage seriously over these questions. But it does seem reasonable to avoid an escalation at precisely the moment that Iran’s new administration is taking the steps that the international community has demanded—and at some political risk, with Iran’s own domestic hardliners waiting to pounce if Rohani’s initiative fails—in order to explore the current opportunity.

It bears repeating once again that the only way that the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program gets satisfactorily resolved is through a negotiated agreement that places Iran’s nuclear program under intrusive international inspections. It would be an enormous tragedy, for both the United States and its partners, if the opportunity for such an agreement were scuttled by the over-zealousness of a few hawks in Washington. 


  • Colin H. Kahl

    Middle East Security

    Dr. Colin H. Kahl is an associate professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the former National Securi...