Listening, on 15 April, to the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on US policy towards Iran put me in mind of the inscription Dante imagined over the entrance to Hell: “Abandon hope all you who enter here”.
There seemed no notion among members of the committee that territories beyond the borders of the United States of America are not subject to US jurisdiction – still less that reasoned persuasion and reciprocity can be more effective tools for achieving US foreign policy goals than sanctions (how the good Congressmen love sanctions!) and the infliction of pain.
Wendy Sherman, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs who heads the U.S. delegation in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, must have come away from that hearing with the feeling that she has an impossible task. Congress will howl if the administration makes the slightest concession to secure Iranian agreement to non-proliferation assurances and restrictions on nuclear activities. Yet if Iran is offered nothing in return for measures it deems to be voluntary, because they lie beyond the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it will continue to defy the US and its allies.
Still, it is hard to avoid the thought that the administration could have made more of this opportunity.
Ambassador Sherman’s opening statement contained no reference to the US intelligence community’s confidence that Iran’s leaders have not taken a decision to acquire nuclear weapons. Instead, it referred “Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions and to the need for Iran to “change course”, which the congressmen could be forgiven for taking as confirmation of their chairman’s opening assertion that Iran is trying to build a nuclear arsenal.
On top of that, Ambassador Sherman fed the Congressmen’s appetite for a penal approach by stressing that the goal of US policy is to have Iran live up to its “international obligations”. The Congressmen were left undisturbed in their conviction that Iran is entirely in the wrong and most certainly should not be rewarded for mending its ways. The opportunity to start helping their Honours to understand that the reality is more complicated went begging.
I hope LobeLog readers who know what lies behind that last sentence will forgive me for explicating it.
Iran’s “international obligations” come in two forms. One lot of obligations stem from the provisions of the NPT. Iran accepts that these are genuine obligations under international law and is ready to comply fully with them without reciprocity. Indeed some observers believe Iran is already fully compliant.
The other lot stem from the provisions of four Security Council resolutions adopted under article 41 of the UN Charter. Iran refuses to accept the legally-binding nature of these, not unreasonably, given that, when they were adopted, the Council had not determined that Iran’s nuclear activities represented a threat to international peace and security. Instead, Iran offers to proceed on the basis of reciprocity, volunteering the steps specified in these resolutions in return for recognition that Iran has NPT rights as well as obligations, and also for the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions.
The third missed opportunity was ethical in nature. The administration had no need to indulge in misrepresentation and distortion but succumbed to temptation.
The Congressmen were told that Iran is “isolated”. In reality, Iran maintains full diplomatic relations with some 100 states. Iran’s Foreign Minister is received courteously almost everywhere in Asia and Europe apart from the US, the UK and Israel. Just this week Iran assumed the chair of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Currently Iran presides over the 120-member Non-Aligned Movement
Ambassador Sherman implied that responsibility for the appalling civil conflict in Syria must be ascribed to Iran, “a destabilising influence across the entire Middle East”. The initial supply of weapons to the Syrian opposition by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia was not mentioned. Some Middle Eastern states are allowed to have interests beyond their borders, it seems, and others are not.
Oh, and in Syria all the violence against “the Syrian people” is being inflicted by the Assad regime, supported by its Iranian ally. Perish the thought that the opposition has shed a single drop of Syrian blood!
Most Europeans yearn for the objectivity and ethical agnosticism that underlay the US opening to China, détente with the Soviet Union, and the final flurry of US/USSR agreements heralding the end of the Cold War. That sort of objectivity should come naturally, one might think, when the adversary is Iran, a state so very much weaker than the US. Alas, the opposite seems to be the case!
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