Shadow Government

Pressing Forward With Tougher Iranian-Oil Sanctions

Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives are scheduled to vote today on a new Iran sanctions bill that is aimed at cutting Iran's oil exports by another 1 million barrels over the next year. The House Foreign Affairs Committee voted unanimously in support of the bill, and it is expected to garner overwhelming bipartisan support in the full House. The House will be sending the right message at precisely the right time to the Iranian regime.

Strong bipartisan support for tougher oil sanctions indicates a broadly shared understanding that a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue will succeed and military strikes on Iranian facilities avoided only if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is convinced that the flow of oil revenues needed to sustain his regime will be cut off. Islamic Republic officials have acknowledged that Iranian oil revenues have dropped 45 percent since 2011 because of international trade sanctions imposed as a result of Iran's nuclear program.

Some observers, however, argue that the timing of these new sanctions could not be worse because it would send all the wrong signals to the new so-called "moderate" president of the Islamic Republic who will begin his work on Aug. 3. President-elect Hasan Rouhani, they assert, is the last hope for a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear dispute. This view rests on a fundamental misconception that by now should be apparent to U.S. policymakers.

This underlying misconception is that a new "moderate" president can be expected to fulfill a campaign promise of pursuing "a policy of peace and reconciliation" and thus resolve the nuclear dispute that has been at a stalemate for the past 10 years. Six of the seven candidates for president were known hard-liners, and one, Rouhani, was presented as a "moderate." Rouhani has been a member of the Assembly of Experts since 1999, a member of the Expediency Council since 1991, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council since 1989, and head of the Center for Strategic Research since 1992. All these organizations are under the direct supervision of the Office of the Supreme Leader, and all members are trusted and loyal underlings of Khamenei. More to the point, the reality in Khamenei-controlled Iran is that throughout these years, neither a "reformist" nor a "hard-line" president has ever played a role in the nuclear negotiations. The real decision-maker on the nuclear negotiating strategy and acceptable outcome is and always has been Khamenei, the supreme leader, who inherited final authority on all issues when he succeeded Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. 

The record over the past decade demonstrates that only the imposition of oil sanctions has influenced Khamenei's public statements, let alone his behavior. The European Union and later the U.N. Security Council held a series of negotiations with Iranian representatives for years on an agreement to put constraints on the Islamic Republic's nuclear program and prevent it from developing a nuclear arsenal. Khamenei consistently and deliberately prolonged the negotiations by setting unreasonable and unacceptable preconditions. He remained defiant, and his presidential mouthpiece at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, likened their nuclear program to a train without breaks. The mild sanctions adopted by the Security Council during the course of these negotiations tended to affect the Iranian people far more than the regime. They were dismissed by the regime as torn pieces of paper. The nuclear program went ahead full speed while billions of dollars in oil revenue continued to flow into the regime's coffers.

Khamenei's concern for the welfare of the Iranian people is reflected in the regime's egregious human rights record. When Iranians decided to voice their opposition to Khamenei's policies in 2009 and over 3 million Iranians marched in the streets of Tehran in protest, Ahmadinejad, Khamenei's then-selected president, referred to them as "dust and dirt," a contempt for the Iranian people shared by the leaders of the regime. The peaceful post-2009 election protests were violently crushed by Khamenei's security forces. Many peaceful protesters were killed on the streets and in prisons. Thousands were arrested, many of whom are still in confinement. Iran became more of a police state than ever before.

As Khamenei's regime amassed the largest oil revenues in the eight years of Ahmadinejad's presidency -- over $800 billion -- the Iranian people became poorer. The inflow of petrodollars to the regime was not used on any domestic programs to relieve the burdens on the Iranian people or even to fund desperately needed improvements in the Iranian oil sector. Instead, regime corruption grew to epic proportions. Almost 250 cases of embezzlement were reported in one year alone, the largest of which involved a sum of $3 billion. The Syrian government, Hezbollah, and other dictators and terrorist organizations were beneficiaries of Khamenei's generosity, but not the Iranian people.

The evidence to date demonstrates that only the imposition of tough oil sanctions will influence Khamenei's public statements and his behavior. One year after American-led sanctions were imposed on the regime's oil sector, Khamenei changed his tone in the 2013 election. First, he presented the Iranian people with a list of seven presidential candidates, selected by his Guardian Council, and asked them to vote "even if they are for some reasons opposed to the regime." Then Khamenei took another bold step by announcing publicly that while he is not optimistic about negotiations with the United States, he did not forbid it in the past years concerning specific issues such as Iraq. Khamenei was implying that he is not opposed to negotiations with the "Great Satan." Yet in the same speech, he made clear that the nuclear negotiators should pursue talks in a way that allows the nuclear program to continue unimpeded.

In the final analysis, the only diplomatic instrument that shows any likelihood of succeeding in dealing with Khamenei's regime is one that cuts off the source of his revenue -- oil sanctions. Khamenei has shown that any real change in the behavior of his regime will happen only under financial duress. Unless he is convinced that the inauguration of a so-called moderate president will not delay tougher oil sanctions that cut off his revenue flow, there is little hope for resolving the nuclear issue diplomatically anytime soon. A strong bipartisan House vote this week on tougher oil sanctions will send Khamenei the unmistakable signal that it is in his best interests to resolve the nuclear issue diplomatically now.

G. William Heiser was formerly an official in U.S. President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council staff and is currently an advisor to the Iranian Freedom Institute and Confederation of Iranian Students.

Amir Abbas Fakhravar is president of the Iranian Freedom Institute, secretary-general of the Confederation of Iranian Students, and a former political prisoner of the Iranian regime. He is currently a research fellow and visiting lecturer at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of international affairs in Washington, D.C.


Shadow Government

What if Kerry's Peace Talks Fail?

Not many rosy optimists are predicting a breakthrough in the Middle East peace talks that started this week. The talks represent the fruit of the labors of an exceptionally determined Secretary of State John Kerry, but many people believe that the high-water mark for the talks will be the mere fact that they got started. Few are willing to bet very heavily on more tangible achievements, and I have yet to talk to an informed expert who thinks the chances of a major breakthrough are good.

Some pessimists would agree with Fareed Zakaria, who argued that even if a major breakthrough is unlikely, it is worth trying anyway. I am not so sure.

Yes, it makes sense to keep working for peace and to keep pushing Israelis and Palestinians to figure out political and pragmatic solutions to the issues that divide them. But that does not mean it makes sense to launch highly publicized, major peace talks of the sort that Kerry has just engineered. When Peace Talks with a capital P and T reach an impasse, the consequences can be quite dire for the parties involved. The waves of terrorist attacks and counterterrorism activities known as the Second Intifada were triggered by the breakdown of the last-ditch Peace Talks launched by President Bill Clinton to salvage the Oslo process.

To be sure, the failure of the major effort launched by President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the end of Bush's tenure did not lead to a comparable spike in violence, nor did the collapse of the stillborn initiative launched by President Barack Obama at the outset of his tenure. But material conditions on the ground worsened in other respects, and the consequent loss in trust is a major factor driving pessimism this time around. Success begets success, but failure begets failure.

This raises the question: How well prepared are the three actors if (when?) the talks reach an impasse? This is a question I posed in various forms to a variety of experts in Israel last week. My interpretation of the bottom line of the myriad answers I got back is this: Should talks fail, the Palestinians have a plan that suits their short-term interests well, the Israelis less so, and no one seems confident the United States is ready for this possibility. The New York Times reaches a similar conclusion in its own report.

The Palestinian plan is simple. If talks fail, they will demand immediate entry as a full member in all the relevant international organizations, including, ominously, the International Criminal Court. While this would only weaken support for the two-state solution among Israelis, it will be seen as a symbolic victory of sorts for the Palestinians. And if the Palestinians hold their own in the post-collapse battle of rhetorical recriminations, they have a decent shot of securing these consolation prizes, given the balance of global opinion.

The Israeli plan is less clear. If talks fail, they will seek to convince a skeptical global community that the Palestinians deserve the lion's share of the blame. They will react to the Palestinian effort to gain ersatz statehood in international fora, and they will be poised to react to an outbreak of another intifada. But they will be reacting rather than acting, and there do not seem to be many consolation prizes available to Israel that would compare in symbolic terms to what are on offer for the Palestinians.

It is hard to see what the U.S. plan is. I hope the lack of obviously good alternatives has not led the administration to adopt the "failure is not an option" mantra that inhibits good strategic and contingency planning. If these talks fail, it will be a grave blow to America's standing in the region, a standing that has already eroded substantially and proportionally to the rising tide of war in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq -- and to the spread of instability elsewhere. The United States needs to be prepared for that possibility.

Perhaps the administration is prepared. I asked a well-informed Israeli what could have been the inducement Obama offered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to get him to join the talks at such a high price (unpopular prisoner releases) and with such a low prospect for success. He speculated that perhaps Netanyahu received assurances about how the United States would respond should the talks fail. It is hard to know what such assurances could be, and given the delicacy of the situation, I am not suggesting for a moment that the administration should reveal them publicly. I am suggesting that there is, alas, a good chance that we will find out what those assurances are.

At the moment, it is hard to discern what the American plan for failure is. I hope I am wrong, but we may find out just how good the American contingency plan for the breakdown of the peace talks is.

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