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Debate on Nuclear Deal: Former US & Iranian Officials

Iran and the world’s six major powers now face a June 30 deadline for converting a blueprint into a final nuclear deal. Conflicting interpretations of terms in the proposed framework that was announced on April 2 have crystallized in recent weeks. Washington and Tehran seem to have differing views on sanctions relief, inspections of nuclear sites and research and development. With talks resuming this week, negotiators from the seven nations face three months of potentially tough talks to work out their differences.

On April 20, a unique panel of former U.S. and Iranian officials assessed the status of the talks and the political dynamics that will determine the fate of any agreement in Washington and Tehran. The following are the main points of the discussion at USIP led by former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, who serves as the chairman of the Institute's board. It was the fourth Iran Forum event hosted by an unprecedented coalition of eight Washington think tanks —USIP, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the RAND Corporation, the Arms Control Association, the Center for a New American Security, the Stimson Center, Partnership for a Secure America, and the Ploughshares Fund.

Ali-Akbar Mousavi
Former member of Iran's parliament (2000-2004)
Visiting Fellow at Virginia Tech & Human Rights Advocate
  • Iran and the world’s six major powers are close to a historic achievement that could solve a major international crisis peacefully.
  • In Iran, the Rouhani administration, Parliament, the Supreme Leader and the vast majority of citizens have reached a consensus that they want a nuclear agreement. Such a consensus, however, does not exist in the U.S.
  • If negotiations are extended for six months or longer, Iranian domestic politics could interfere. Iran has two major elections in February 2016, one for Parliament and one for the Assembly of Experts.
  • For the first time, the Supreme Leader has mentioned that Iran could discuss other issues with the international community if a nuclear deal is successfully implemented. Regional issues related to ISIS, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan would probably be the first topics of talks.
  • The U.S. and Iran could eventually normalize relations if a nuclear deal is brokered. In the future, Washington may even be able to discuss human rights with Tehran.
  • Iran cooperated closely with the U.S. on overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the U.S. lost an opportunity for further engagement when President George W. Bush said Iran was part of an “axis of evil.”
  • Both the U.S. and Iran lack understanding of each other’s politics and culture. More dialogue is needed.
Jim Slattery 
Former Congressman (D-KS, 1983-1995), Recently Visited Iran 
Partner, Wiley Rein LLP
  • The U.S. and Iran have reached an historic moment; the great tragedy is that domestic political forces may prevent a breakthrough.
  • During a visit to Tehran in December, many people had the same question: can President Obama implement a deal?
  • The political futures of some Iranian leaders depend on getting a deal with the U.S. Their worst nightmare is that, after going out on a limb, Congress may scuttle any accord.
  • An agreement hinges on verification because neither side trusts the other. The Supreme Leader’s statements about denying inspectors access to military sites are troubling.  Overall, however, the plan for a deal shows that Iran has made significant concessions. 
  • Based on 10 years of interaction with Iranian businesspeople, religious leaders and politicians, it’s clear that Iran wants to reset relations with the U.S., with some limitations.
  • Solving the nuclear dispute could create a platform for the U.S. and Iran to discuss common interests, like defeating the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
  • Iran is a regional superpower in terms of energy and people. Its population of 80 million is nearly three times that of Saudi Arabia or Iraq. It has the world’s fourth-largest amount of proven oil reserves and second-largest natural gas reserves. Its literacy rate is about 90 percent for those under age 45, 60 percent of its university students are female, and the median age of its citizens is 28. 
  • Washington needs to make sure its allies in the region know a nuclear deal will not diminish U.S. support for them. Tremendous diplomatic efforts will be required to reassure them.
Michael Singh 
Former Senior Director for Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council (2005-2008)
Senior Fellow, The Washington Institute 
  • Questions surrounding the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program need to be answered upfront. Those answers are critical for designing a sufficient verification regime.
  • The issue of Iran’s missile development should have been included in the talks, because it is linked to the nuclear issue.
  • The U.S. should carefully examine its alternatives if a deal is not reached.
  • Washington should also focus on ensuring that Tehran’s alternatives are worse than making a deal, as an incentive for Iran to accept terms that are better for U.S. interests.
  • Iran cannot afford to negotiate for another six months. But the U.S. has leeway for six months or even a year.
  • The design for the agreement seems to be conceptually flawed in several ways. First, it will likely require future presidents to waive sanctions every six months, and some of the hardest decisions have been left for the future.
  • Second, the deal does not require Iran to dismantle anything. Its nuclear program essentially remains intact. Even if a deal leads to positive changes in Iran’s regional strategy, its neighbors may still view its nuclear program as a threat.
  • Even if sanctions unrelated to the nuclear issue remain in place, lifting other sanctions reduces pressure on Tehran to negotiate on other issues.
  • Sanctions relief means that Iran will have more revenue to pursue regional activities that the U.S. is concerned about.
  • Sanctions are blunt instruments. But without them, the U.S. would have fewer tools for deterring Iran, making direct intervention by the U.S. in regional conflicts more likely.
  • Iranian and U.S. interests diverge on many issues, so a huge breakthrough in relations after a deal is unlikely.
Howard Berman 
Former Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (D-CA, 1983-2013)
Senior Advisor, Covington & Burling LLP 
  • Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s statements in recent days about sanctions relief and not granting inspectors access to military sites suggest he is thinking about an agreement very different from one that the world’s six major powers could sign.
  • Tension exists between elements of the Revolutionary Guards and hardliners, on the one hand, and President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, on the other. So a lot depends on the Supreme Leader’s position.
  • At first, Congress instinctively opposed a deal with Iran, especially one that would not dismantle its nuclear infrastructure.  The agreement worked out between Senator Bob Corker, Senator Benjamin Cardin and the White House, however, has changed the political equation in Washington.
  • The new legislation, which is awaiting final congressional approval, would forestall any further action related to a nuclear agreement with Iran until a deal  is finalized. In the event Congress votes to prevent implementation, two-thirds of both houses would be needed to override the president’s veto.
  • A key question for Congress will be, is this deal the least-worst option? If one third of the Senate and one third of the House of Representatives think so, then the deal would go into effect.
  • The sanctions effort that brought the international community together was about Iran’s nuclear program. Bringing other issues into these talks could risk losing the support of the international community.
  • A nuclear deal might create concern among U.S. allies, including Israel and the Gulf countries, which believe Iran has hegemonic interests.
To assess this period of pivotal diplomacy, the coalition of eight Washington policy organizations has previously hosted three other discussions.



Iran Charges Rezaian with Espionage

Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, arrested nine months ago in Iran, is reportedly being charged with four crimes. A statement from Rezaian’s lawyer provided to The Post by his family said the charges include espionage, “collaborating with hostile governments,” and “propaganda against the establishment.” One example of communication with a “hostile government” cited in the indictment included writing to President Obama. Iran’s Revolutionary Court, which is responsible for national security cases, has also accused Rezaian of collecting classified information.

President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. officials have called on Iran to release the journalist, who is a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen. “If the reports are true, these charges are absurd, should be immediately dismissed, and Jason should be freed immediately so he can return home to his family,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said on April 20.
But Iran’s government does not recognize dual citizenship. The maximum sentence would be 10 to 20 years in prison for the charges. Rezaian’s lawyer, Leila Ahsan has only been able to divulge limited information because the trial has not yet begun. She has only met with her client once for 90 minutes since he was detained in July 2014.
“Jason is a journalist, and it is in the nature of his profession to gain access to information and publish” it, Ahsan said in a statement about the case. “My client, however, has never had any direct or indirect access to classified information to share with anyone.”
Rezaian and his Iranian wife Yeganeh Salehi, a correspondent for the Emirates-based paper The National, were detained in late July 2014. But Salehi was released on bail during the first week of October.
On the margins of nuclear negotiations with Iran, U.S. officials have repeatedly raised Rezaian’s case along with the status of three other Americans also detained or missing in Iran. “We raise it in every round of meetings we have,” State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf told the press on April 21. Saeed Abedini has been held for two and a half years on charges related to his religious beliefs. Amir Hekmati has been imprisoned on espionage charges for more than three and a half years. And Robert Levinson went missing on Kish Island more than eight years ago.
The following are excerpted remarks by U.S. officials and members of Congress on the case.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest
MR. EARNEST: Let me start by saying that while the United States is not aware of any official announcement yet from any Iranian judicial authorities, we have seen reports that U.S. citizen Jason Rezaian has been charged with espionage and other security-related charges.  If the reports are true, these charges are absurd, should be immediately dismissed, and Jason should be freed immediately so he can return home to his family.  So we’re going to wait until we see some more official announcement from Iranian judicial authorities before we comment further on this case. 
More generally, let me repeat something that I said before, which is that the ongoing effort to try to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon through diplomacy will not, if it succeeds, resolve the wide range of other concerns we have about Iranian behavior.  I mentioned earlier in response to Nedra’s question our ongoing concerns about Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, including shipping arms to the Houthis, for example.  We continue to be concerned about Iran’s support for terrorism and Iran’s language that currently emanates from their leadership that threatens our closest ally in the Middle East, Israel.  And we continue to  have concerns about Mr. Rezaian and other Americans who are being unjustly detained in Iran.
One thing that we have done, Mike, that you know, in the context of the talks is raised on the sidelines of those talks our concern about the status of these American citizens.  And we’re going to continue to press that case as we move forward here.
QUESTION: Josh, on the Jason Rezaian case, why can’t you just say to the Iranians that as a condition of making this deal final, you’ve got to free Jason Rezaian?  I understand you’re going to resolve all of your issues with Iran, like supporting terrorism throughout the region -- all of those issues that are very complicated perhaps; some would argue maybe not.  But here you have one case of an American who’s been held prisoner since July of last year, now brought up on what you just said were absurd charges.  Why not say, look, we’re not going to sign a deal until you let him go?

MR. EARNEST: The reason for that, Jon, simply is that the effort to build the international community’s strong support for a diplomatic resolution, or a diplomatic agreement that would shut down every pathway that Iran has to a nuclear weapon is extraordinarily complicated.  And so we’re trying to focus on these issues one at a time.  And that’s why you continue to see regular, consistent and pretty forceful statements from the United States that these Americans should be released, while at the same time we are working with our P5+1 partners and other countries around the world to compel Iran to sign on to the dotted line and agree to shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon, and cooperate with the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program.
—April 20, 2015 during a press briefing 
QUESTION: Josh, coming back to another category of egregious behavior by Iran, we talked about Jason Rezaian yesterday.
I understand -- we’ve been over this many times -- you're not going to make the release of these Americans a condition for having a final deal on the nuclear matter, but is the administration willing to impose some serious consequences on the Iranian government for taking these Americans under what appear to be specious charges?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't want to speculate about any possible future action, but I will say something that's similar to what I said before, which is that we continue to be very concerned about the unjust detention of a number of Americans inside of Iran.  We have made those concerns known in quite public fashion.  We’ve also made those concerns known privately, directly with the Iranian leadership.  As recently as a month or two ago, Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of his nuclear negotiations with his Iranian counterpart raised his concerns about this unjust detention.
So we’ve made very clear to the Iranians that we're concerned about the treatment of Americans inside of Iran, and that this continues to be a high priority for U.S. foreign policy.
—April 21, 2015 during a press briefing 
State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf
QUESTION:  I’m wondering if you have any thoughts/reaction to the charging of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian by Iran. And then I’d like to stay on Iran for a little bit.
MS HARF: So we are still not aware of any official announcement yet from Iranian judicial authorities. I understand these reports are coming from his lawyer. We have seen the reports, of course, from his lawyer and others that he has been charged with espionage and other security-related charges. If the reports are true, these charges are, as we’ve said in the past, patently absurd. He should immediately be freed so he can return to his family. The charges should immediately be dismissed. But again, no confirmation officially from Iranian judicial authorities yet.
QUESTION: Quick one on this one. Is it possible for him to renounce his Iranian citizenship? Do you know anything about that?
MS HARF: I don’t know, Said. But regardless of that specific fact, and I just don’t know the answers there, these charges that he’s allegedly been charged with are just absurd as I said and he should be freed immediately.
QUESTION: The other thing having to do with Iran – I realize that these are separate, the issue of the Americans detained – are separate from the nuclear talks. Although, as you and others have said as does come up – this issue does come up on the –
MS HARF: We always raise it in every round. That’s correct.
QUESTION: So I’m wondering: Does this give you any pause about going full-throttle ahead with the negotiations?
MS HARF: They really are separate issues.
QUESTION: Well, but they had been brought up on the –
MS HARF: On the sidelines. But not related to the nuclear issue, just because we were all in the same place.
It doesn’t make us not want to get this resolved diplomatically any less than we already do. We clearly believe this is important.
QUESTION: Understood, but is this something that now will be – that you will make the – you, meaning the Administration – will make a point of raising, since you say that these charges are –
MS HARF: Not as part of the nuclear talks. These are separate issues. We will continue raising his case and the other two Americans who were detained – and Robert Levinson who’s missing – we’ll continue raising them but they are not – their fate and the outcome of these cases should in no way be tied to the nuclear issue.
—April 21, 2015 during a State Department press briefing
U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) 
“It appears that Mr. Rezaian is being persecuted because of his profession as a reporter and his American citizenship. Freedom of press is a right that should be guaranteed to all individuals regardless of their nationality. We urge the Iranian government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Rezaian.  
“This case is just the latest example of the true nature of the Iranian regime. The Obama Administration should demand Mr. Rezaian’s immediate release along with all other Americans wrongfully imprisoned in Iran prior to concluding a nuclear deal with this brutal regime.”
—April 20, 2015 in a statement
Congressman Dan Kildee (R-MI)
“Unfortunately, Iran has a long history of imprisoning Americans on false charges. This includes innocent Americans like my constituent, Amir Hekmati, an American citizen and U.S. Marine who continues to be held as a political prisoner after being arrested on espionage charges. Today’s charges against Jason Rezaian, and similar charges previously imposed on Amir, are unequivocally untrue.
“Iran has repeatedly said it wants to rejoin the global community. Yet I simply cannot fathom how this is possible if they continue to hold American political prisoners under false pretenses.”
—April 20, 2015 in a statement 

Zarif Announces Peace Plan for Yemen

On April 14, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced a peace plan to resolve the conflict in Yemen at a press conference in Madrid. His four-point proposal includes an immediate ceasefire, humanitarian assistance, dialogue among Yemeni factions, and establishing a “broad-based” Yemeni government inclusive of all factions. Zarif also reiterated his opposition to the Saudi-led air campaign against the Houthis, claiming that airstrikes “are simply not the answer.” Saudi military spokesperson Ahmed Asiri responded by calling on Iran to stop arming Houthi rebels.

The following are excerpted remarks from Iranian, Saudi, Yemeni, and U.S. officials on Zarif's proposed peace plan.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
“[Air strikes] are simply not the answer... All operations should end on land and from the air.”
“This issue should be resolved by the Yemenis... Iran and Saudi Arabia need to talk but we cannot talk to determine the future of Yemen.”
April 14, 2015, according to the press
Saudi Arabia

Ambassador to the United States Adel bin Ahmed al Jubair
"Iran has no role to play in Yemen...Iran, last time I checked, does not have a border with Yemen."
April 15, 2015, according to the press
Military Spokesperson Brig Gen Ahmed Asiri
"The Iranian Foreign Minister knows which door to knock if there is a political proposal."
"Iranians have had a role in establishing and arming this militia; however one thing the Iranians can do is to stop their support of this militia, and they will receive the appropriate response to their political proposal."
April 15, 2015, according to the press
Vice President Khaled Bahah
"No proposal can be accepted before the war in Aden is stopped."
April 16, 2015, in a press conference
"We haven't received any official proposals."
"Any initiative must be tied to sound intentions and ending the war machine."
United States

State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf
"Obviously, Iran plays a role here given their support for the Houthi.  And I think what would be most helpful from the Iranian side at this point is to respect this newly imposed UN arms embargo that was just passed today and stop supporting the Houthi.  So broadly speaking, of course, we need to get back to the political dialogue, that that’s always what we said the way forward is.  So whatever Iran can do to push the Houthi to do that obviously is the direction we need to go in, and want to make sure going forward now that all countries understand what their obligations and responsibilities under this new UNSCR that, again, was just passed today.  So I know those are conversations at the UN that are happening right now.”
April 14, 2015, according to the press


Congress Acts: White House Reacts to Corker Bill

U.S. administration officials have indicated that President Obama would be willing to sign legislation that would give Congress the ability to approve or disapprove of a nuclear deal. The White House initially threatened to veto the Corker-Menendez bill, arguing that curbing the president’s powers could negatively impact negotiations. But after lawmakers made several changes, including shortening the review period for a final nuclear deal, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that "enough substantial changes have been made that the president would be willing to sign it.”

The “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015,” coauthored by Senators Bob Corker (R-TN), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) must still be passed in the full Senate and House of Representatives before becoming law. The following are excerpted remarks by U.S. officials.


White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest
“Despite the things about it that we don’t like, enough substantial changes have been made that the president would be willing to sign it.”
—April 15, 2015, according to the press
“If we arrived at a place where the bill that has passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with bipartisan support essentially is a vote to vote later on congressional sanctions and not the decision about whether or not to enter into the agreement, that would certainly resolve some of the concerns we’ve expressed about the authority that is exercised by the President of the United States to conduct foreign policy.
The second thing is, as you pointed out, the reports indicate that the link to this terrorism certification measure has been removed.  That certainly would be consistent with the objections that we raised earlier.  Shortening the review period is obviously an important part of this.  We wouldn’t want an unnecessarily -- or at least an unreasonable delay when it comes to implementing the agreement.
The other thing that we would want members of the committee in bipartisan fashion to confirm is that this piece of legislation would be the one and only mechanism for codifying precisely what the appropriate congressional oversight is into this matter, and to be specific about the way that Congress would vote on the sanctions that Congress put into place.
And that bipartisan agreement is critical to making sure, frankly, that there isn’t an untoward effort to insert a different provision into some sort of must-pass piece of legislation that could really gum up the works here.  So getting bipartisan agreement on that is important.
And then, finally, if we could clarify Congress’s role by taking all of these steps -- shortening the review period, being clear about what it is that they're voting on, making clear that this is a vote to vote later on congressional sanctions -- that that would actually achieve, at least in part, what the President has established as the priority here, which is to ensure that our negotiators have the time and space that's necessary to reach an agreement -- if one can be reached -- by the end of June.  And if presented with a compromise along the lines that I just laid out here, that would be the kind of compromise the President would be willing to sign.
—April 14, 2015, in a press briefing
Secretary of State John Kerry
“Yesterday there was a compromise reached in Washington regarding congressional input. We are confident about our ability for the president to negotiate an agreement and to do so with the ability to make the world safer.”
—April 15, 2015, according to the press


Congress Acts: Iran Reacts to Corker Bill

Iranian officials have dismissed the U.S. Senate Foreign Relation Committee’s approval of a bill that would give Congress the ability to approve or disapprove of a nuclear deal. “What the U.S. Senate, Congress and others say is not our problem,” President Hassan Rouhani said on April 15. In a televised speech, he also warned that without an “end to sanctions, there will not be an agreement” with the world’s six major powers.

The “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015,” coauthored by Senators Bob Corker (R-TN), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) must still be passed in the full Senate and House of Representatives before becoming law. The following are excerpted remarks by Iranian officials.
President Hassan Rouhani
“What the U.S. Senate, Congress and others say is not our problem. We want mutual respect ... We are in talks with the major powers and not with the Congress.”
“If there is no end to sanctions, there will not be an agreement. The end of these negotiations and a signed deal must include a declaration of cancelling the oppressive sanctions on the great nation of Iran.”

—April 15, 2015 in a televised speech
Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Marziyeh Afkham
“That [legislation] is an issue related to their domestic affairs. We are dealing with the American government.”
—April 15, 2015 in a press conference


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