How to Sabotage Iran Negotiations in the Name of Avoiding War

Originally published in The American Prospect on March 4th, 2015.
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As multilateral talks over Iran’s nuclear program continue with the U.S. leading the negotiations, Congress seems to be doing its best to complicate things. And both Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are doing their part to help.

Earlier this week, as 16,000 people convened in Washington, D.C., to attend AIPAC’s annual conference, the powerful pro-Israel lobby made it clear that the organization would push not only for increased sanctions on Iran—through the passage of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act—but also for the ability to make it more difficult to lift sanctions later, via a new bill, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

This latest bill, introduced on Friday by Republican Senator Bob Corker and Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, would give Congress a 60-day period to review any negotiated nuclear deal, and if Congress were to reject the deal, then the president would be barred from lifting sanctions.

Josh Rogin reported in Bloomberg View that top members of the Obama administration, including Secretary of State John Kerry, pressured Democrats to oppose the Corker-Menendez bill, lest it complicate the already fragile negotiations with Iran. Nevertheless, some Senate Democrats signed on, because there is, as Rogin puts it, “broad Congressional desire not to be totally shut out of the [negotiating] process.”

AIPAC and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have set a considerably higher bar for what a “good deal” with Iran would look like.

After AIPAC’s annual conference, it is evident that the pro-Israel lobby plans to capitalize on this congressional “desire” and to escalate its fight with the White House. While the Obama administration and AIPAC both declare that a nuclear-armed Iran is not an option, AIPAC and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have set a considerably higher bar for what a “good deal” with Iran would look like.

For AIPAC and Netanyahu, a “good deal” would mean allowing for zero enrichment of uranium for any purposes—a non-starter for the Iranians. They also seek a “permanent” deal that locks Iran under restrictions indefinitely. But as Lara Friedman, from the pro-Israel policy organization Americans for Peace Now, has explained:

Iran is in trouble right now because it has repeatedly violated the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), resulting in sanctions. Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are grounded in the understanding that by demonstrating compliance with all of its NPT obligations, Iran will no longer be in violation of the NPT and Iran’s tenure in the international doghouse—at least with respect to its nuclear program—can come to a close (at least so long as Iran remains in compliance). An Iran nuclear agreement—whether its provisions are in place for 10 years, or 15 years, or however many years are agreed on—would dramatically mitigate the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

Just like the “zero enrichment” idea, Iran would never be able to sell a “permanent” deal to its people. The six world powers leading the diplomatic efforts with Iran (Russia, China, France, Great Britain, Germany, and the U.S.) understand this and are working to come up with a reasonable compromise that still ensures Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon. If AIPAC and Netanyahu are serious about pursuing a diplomatic resolution to this conflict—and avoiding war—then their adamant opposition to both of these ideas raises serious questions.

At the AIPAC conference, speakers spelled out how they could use Congress to thwart the president from passing a deal they deem “bad.” On the gigantic screens in the convention center’s large plenary hall, AIPAC instructed attendees to “insist on a congressional role” when they lobby on Capitol Hill, because “on such a critical issue to U.S. national security, Congress must assert its historic role in foreign policy and review any agreement.”

Passing the Corker-Menendez bill might be an easier sell in Congress than imposing additional sanctions, because it is easier to argue that Congress should have “a voice” in the negotiating process. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Tuesday night that he wants to fast-track the bill, which might complicate its ability to garner enough Democratic support in time. Menendez has threatened to vote against his own bill, “outraged” at McConnell’s political move.

Edward Levine, an advisory board member for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to international peace and security, argues that the bill is more harmful than helpful:

Do [Senators] really want to send a message to Tehran that the President may be unable to fulfill his commitments? Do they really want to move the goalposts by adding support for terrorism to the list of reasons for reinstating sanctions? The Corker bill will endanger both the negotiations and the sanctions regime; it does not merit support.

AIPAC is also trying to bolster Congress’s role in the negotiations by minimizing the fact that there has always been significant presidential authority built into U.S. sanctions legislation. The authority comes through various mechanisms, such as “waivers,” special rules, and legislative exemptions, which allow a president to decide, often unilaterally, whether and to what degree to lift or implement sanctions. He can make these choices if he believes doing so is in the national security interest of the United States.

On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, AIPAC’s legions of supporters pressured Congress to impose more sanctions and to reduce the executive branch’s power to lift sanctions. Let’s just hope that the Iranians do not take this as a signal that the negotiators’ commitment to ease sanctions in exchange for good behavior is feeble. Because if the negotiations fail, the war that everyone is trying to avoid is that much more likely.

Secrecy and Drones

Originally published in the JHU Politik on February 18th, 2013.

It’s been a bad week for people concerned with drone warfare. A week ago, a Department of Justice “white paper” memo was leaked to NBC spelling out what White House attorneys believe is the legal defense for authorizing drone strikes targeting American citizens. Despite Barack Obama’s insistent calls for greater transparency within his administration, this is the first time such arguments were shown to the public.

These ‘legal rationales’ are chilling. According to the Obama Administration, it is lawful to target and kill American citizens if they are believed to be “imminent threats.” However, the language used to define what “imminent threat” means is so watered down as to effectively mean nothing. The memo states, “The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons will take place in the immediate future.” 

I would certainly hope that when the government of the United States is authorizing the right to kill an American citizen without a trial and due process, they have some amount of “clear evidence” as to why this measure is needed. The scary bottom line of the white memo is: “just trust us.”

Next up was John Brennan’s confirmation hearing as Obama’s nominee to head the CIA. During the hearing Brennan adamantly defended Obama’s counterterrorism policies, including the increased use of armed drones and the targeted killings of American citizens. This is not surprising since he is credited to be a main architect of Obama’s “kill list.” In one remarkable moment Brennan insisted that, “What we need to do is optimize transparency on [drones], but at the same time, optimize secrecy and the protection of our national security.” At best, that seems to be quite a difficult aspiration.

And finally we arrive at Obama’s State of the Union address, which was utterly cringe-worthy when it came to drones. He danced around the issue with every euphemistic phrase—he just could not bring himself to say the “D Word.”

He made a pitch for “enlisting values in the fight,” but what does that mean? Because he also said that, “where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.” The lack of specificity is frustrating and leaves much to be desired. 

In his speech Obama said, “My Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations.” In light of the leaked memo, this claim is disconcerting. He even said that America “will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security,” even though the resentment in those countries for U.S drones is sky-high. On The Voice of Russia Christopher Swift, Adjunct Professor of National Security Studies at Georgetown University, said, “popular resentment in Yemen at US drone strikes is so strong that it’s starting to undermine the political transition that the US and Saudi Arabia want to see there…The drones are encouraging people to see the situation in Yemen as one where foreign actors are interfering with their ability to chart their own future, and that has a lot of resonance with the Arab Spring generation in Yemen.”

Drones can appear tempting. For hawkish Republicans, drones can be seen as taking a firm stance on terrorism. 

For Democrats, drones can be seen as a better alternative to the large, resource-intensive operations like we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, when they undermine our moral standing in the world and give our government license to conduct secret killings far from public scrutiny in the name of “national security,” they pose a serious and terrible problem. 

On live television Obama said, “I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.” While there were disappointingly no direct mentions of drones in Obama’s speech, and his administration has failed to ensure transparency in the past, I certainly hope Obama holds true to this declaration. 

On the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank

There is a fundamental Catch-22 with the security rationale of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank. When Palestinians respond in violence to their oppressed situation, be it through acts of terrorism or riots, Israel justifies the occupation as a national security need. The Palestinian people need to be governed by martial law, in order to protect the Israeli population from security threats.

But then when Palestinians renounce violence and switch their resistance tactics to more nonviolent demonstrations and protests, Israel justifies the occupation as a successful national security tool. The Palestinian people need to be governed by martial law, as evidenced by how improved the security of the Israeli population has been over the past half decade. We can’t stop now, or else they’ll just return to their violent ways.

Thus there is no end in sight. And in the meantime, Israel continues to expand settlements which make the prospects of a two state solution much more difficult to achieve. An occupation is supposed to be a temporary situation. It is a distinctive characteristic that separates occupation from annexation and colonialism. But the Israeli occupation has existed for over 45 years.

Beyond the problematic state of the occupation in a legal context, it is immoral and undemocratic to maintain the situation that exists today in the West Bank. You have Israeli settlers living in the same region as Palestinians, and if an Israeli commits a crime, they are subjected to Israel’s civil courts, like any other Israeli citizen living anywhere in Israel. But if a Palestinian commits the exact same crime, in the same exact spot, they are subjected to an entirely different set of laws and legal proceedings, and they’re sent to a military court.

First of all, there is no due process for the military courts. Second of all, the military courts have astonishingly high conviction rates. (99.74%) And thirdly, Palestinians don’t have a right to vote for the Israeli government, even though the government is the body that makes the decisions and appoints the individuals that control their lives.

So why doesn’t Israel just annex the West Bank, instead of occupying it? If Israel wants to continue to expand settlements and build up the West Bank, why don’t they just de-facto annex the territory, like they did with the Golan Heights?

There’s a simple and oft-cited calculation for this issue. It goes like this:
There are three variables. 1. Israel as a democratic state. 2. Israel where the majority of citizens are Jewish. And 3. Israel controlling all of the land.

^In any final scenario, Israel will ultimately have only two of these three variables.

To annex the West Bank would mean Israel would need to grant all the Palestinians living there citizenship, and give them the same rights as any other Israeli. Which they don’t want to do because they want to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel. Because of demographic realities, including the Palestinians in the citizenry would effectively end the Jewish majority. And to grant Palestinians citizenship but deny them equal rights would make Israel a patently undemocratic state. And so their solution for now is to continue to build up the West Bank with Jewish settlements, say they’re waiting for a “peace partner” (even though the current President of Israel has categorically said they already have one) and justify the occupation with “security concerns.” I’ll say it again. These Palestinians have been living under occupation for 45 years.

I care about the state of Israel. A lot. I spend an inordinate amount of my time reading and thinking about these issues. And I want the citizens of Israel to be safe and secure. Yet it really disturbs me when people, especially Jewish people, roll their eyes at the notion of “human rights”. Or even “democracy” and “dignity.” I really want to know, would all of the individuals who say the occupation is a necessary evil for security purposes, be able to look into a Palestinian’s eyes, as I did last week, and say to them, “I’m sorry but my need for safety is more important than your basic human rights.”

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photo credit: Rachel Cohen

Final thought: in terms of history, and especially history of countries engaged in conflict–one thing I learn over and over in my history classes is, there is really no such thing as a status quo.