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Diplomacy with Iran Essential For Regional Demilitarization

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Photo of Iranian President Hassan Rowhani with his hand raised in greeting

Rebecca Tumposky reports on the high stakes battle in Washington over the Iran negotiations as the P5+1-Iran interim agreement takes effect, stressing that further diplomatic progress is crucial for de-escalating conflict throughout the Middle East and dealing a blow to the Israel Lobby’s constant promotion of war, occupation and Islamophobia. 

Diplomacy between the P5+1 powers (the U.S., Russia, China, United Kingdom, France and Germany) and Iran yielded tangible results in the first weeks of 2014 as the interim agreement signed last year went into effect January 20. The accord mandates a six-month freeze and partial rollback of portions of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for a small easing of economic sanctions. International inspectors are now in Iran monitoring the nuclear side of the agreement, and Iran has begun taking steps to recover $4.2 billion in oil revenues frozen in foreign accounts and resume trade in petrochemicals, gold and other precious metals.

The deal took effect despite an AIPAC-driven campaign for legislation (the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill) that would sabotage negotiations and set Washington on a course toward war. Trying to get the bill through Congress before the pro-diplomacy camp could alert a war-weary U.S. public to what was at stake, AIPAC was able to enlist 59 Senators as co-sponsors of its poison-pill measure. But before this number could expand to a veto-proof 67 Senators in support, strong defense of diplomacy from the administration (“if some Senators want another Middle East war, they should say so”) and a significant pressure campaign mounted by grassroots activists blunted the Israel Lobby/Neocon momentum. In the wake of President Obama’s strong defense of Iran diplomacy in the State of the Union speech, some initial Democratic backers of the bill seem to have taken a step back, and the Kirk-Menendez Bill seems unlikely to come up for a Senate vote any time soon.

But the fight is far from over. The hawks are simply biding their time, waiting for a moment when negotiations with Iran hit a rough patch or events elsewhere in the Middle East give them an opportunity to again press their war-and-regime-change agenda. They know the stakes: how the U.S.-Iran relationship develops in the next year has a huge impact on the entire next phase of Middle East politics. Failure of negotiations would at a minimum close off any chance of de-escalating the fighting in Syria; heighten sectarian conflict in Lebanon, Iraq and beyond; and embolden Israel in its continuing colonization of Palestine; maximally it will produce a catastrophic regional war. Successful diplomacy, on the other hand, opens the door to de-escalation of sectarian conflict, establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East (which would require Israel to give up its nuclear arsenal) and strengthen the forces in the U.S. advocating diplomacy rather than military action in addressing conflicts all across the globe.

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Israel and U.S. hawks lose a round

With the interim agreement, the P5+1 powers accepted an arrangement permitting limited uranium enrichment in Iran under enhanced inspections in exchange for lifting some sanctions.  It is the first formal agreement between the U.S. and Iran in 34 years.  New Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has made it clear his government is eager to reduce political tensions with the West and bring an end to the draconian U.S.-led sanctions, though not at the expense of Iran’s sovereignty and its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. For its part, the Obama administration wants to extricate the U.S. from the large-scale military involvement in the Middle East and re-deploy resources to Asia.  With the U.S. weakened by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were supposed to usher in a new era of unparalleled global domination, and in economic difficulties and with a public majority sick of foreign wars, most of the foreign policy establishment is against risking another debacle.

That’s the basis for what is now a serious attempt by Washington and Tehran to reach an agreement both can live with.

But the calculations of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are different. He and his right-wing allies fear that a U.S.-Iran understanding will erode Israel’s position as overwhelmingly dominant power in the Middle East and its current oversize influence on U.S. politics. Those fears are the real reason for Netanyahu & Company’s all-out crusade against a P5+1-Iran agreement. But that’s not a winning public relations formula, so fear-mongering about Iran supposedly building a nuclear weapon is the propaganda point of choice.

Netanyahu therefore demands that in any final deal Iran dismantle its entire nuclear program, including its peaceful enrichment capabilities. This demand is dutifully included in the Kirk-Mendez bill, which for good measure also commits the U.S. to “stand with Israel” if that nation launches a military attack on Iran. (For a full explanation of the provisions in Kirk-Menendez, see this information sheet from the National Iranian American Council.)

It took a determined response from several quarters to beat back Kirk-Menendez’ initial momentum. The fight opened up important divisions among political figures who normally follow the Israel Lobby line 100%. Senator Diane Feinstein calling it a march toward war bill and her unprecedented statement, that “we can’t let Israel determine when and where the U.S. goes to war,” represented a huge blow to AIPAC. (No accident that Feinstein is Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and is heavily influenced by the views of top U.S. Intelligence officials.)  It also put AIPAC – and its advocacy of views at odds with those of a majority of both the public and the U.S. security establishment – in the spotlight as never before.

Even with the war hawks beaten back for now, a rough road lies ahead. It will not be easy for the Obama and Rouhani teams to hammer out a compromise and both leaders face strong opposition from their respective hard-liners. One positive factor is the differences within the P5+1 camp: Russia and China, and possibly Germany and Britain, are much more willing than the U.S. and France to acknowledge Iran’s right to peaceful enrichment. This puts pressure on Washington in favor of an agreement: if Washington caves to Israeli demands, the P5+1 coalition, along with its sanctions regimes, could fall apart, with Russia and China defecting, refusing to abide by U.S. actions, and pulling some of Europe with them.

On the popular pressure side, a wide range of progressive and grassroots organizations are putting this battle high on their action agenda. The National Iranian American Council, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Win Without War, CREDO,, Daily Kos and even pro-Israel groups such as Americans for Peace Now and J Street have joined together to oppose further sanctions on Iran.

Syria peace talks end in Geneva while devastation continues

The Geneva II peace talks between the U.S. and Western-backed National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, also known as the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), and the Assad regime ended, unfortunately but not surprisingly, without any meaningful diplomatic developments. The Syrian government declined to authorize humanitarian aid to the city of Homs or to promise to allow women and children to leave, a hoped-for top-priority initial aim.

Many of the opposition forces, including the Saudi-backed Islamic front and the Al Qaeda-linked groups, did not participate. And the Kurds, who have set up a mini-state of their own, were not invited. The SNC and the Assad regime government were fundamentally divided over the aims of the conference, with the Assad regime arguing that the goal was to find a solution to foreign-backed “terrorism”, and the SNC insisting the regime commit to a process that would create a transitional governing authority with representation from all sides.

At U.S. insistence – over Russian objections – Iran was excluded from the Geneva talks. Washington’s position puts commitment to regime change above the importance of de-escalating the fighting in Syria and addressing its humanitarian catastrophe. For any serious de-escalation to occur, all parties involved directly or indirectly in the armed conflict, whatever side they back, must have a seat at the table. Just as no solution can be found until the Saudis stop funneling money and arms to the rebel factions they support, only when Assad’s backers – Russia and Iran – push the regime to stop its horrific violence can matters take a positive turn.

There have been occasional signs that Iran is not happy with Assad’s brutality. But as long as powerful forces in the U.S. and Saudi Arabia treat Syria as a stepping stone toward regime change in Tehran, Iran will defend Assad. Decisive signals from Washington that the U.S. is prepared for true peaceful co-existence with Iran are therefore crucial to de-escalating the Syrian crisis – and by doing so, reducing the sectarian conflict spilling over from Syria into Lebanon and Iraq. Here too U.S. domestic politics and the role of the Israel Lobby come into play: to the extent pressure from that quarter is beaten back, the administration has more flexibility to find a face-saving way to include Iran and work toward de-escalation.

Israel/Palestine: Can Kerry impose a 95% Pro-Israel framework?

In the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Netanyahu has again moved the goalposts. He now claims exclusive control over the Jordan River Valley and insists that he will evacuate “not a single settlement.”  He insists that negotiations focus on Israel’s alleged security needs and recognition from the Palestinians as a “Jewish state.” The Israeli negotiators keep the real core issues of Jerusalem, the Palestinian right of return, and borders on the back burner.

Even further to the right than Netanyahu, Israel’s defense minister, Moshe “Boogy” Ya’alon, shows open contempt for any kind of negotiations at all. He accused Secretary of State John Kerry of “misplaced obsession and messianic fervor” in his efforts to push for a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians – producing a rare pushback from Washington with U.S. officials demanding an apology from the Israelis, and getting a half-hearted one.

Of course Kerry has been anything but messianic about Israeli de-escalation. To the contrary, what has leaked about the ‘framework’ he is now promising to unveil indicates that it adopts 95% of the Israeli demands, with the Palestinians offered large chunks of money for supposed “economic development” in exchange for signing away their national and human rights. There is no longer even a pretense of Kerry putting pressure on Israel, perhaps because the Obama administration is expending all the political capital it has for the Middle East defending diplomacy with Iran.

It still appears that the positions of Netanyahu and the PA are too far apart for even a framework to be agreed upon between the two sides. And even a 95% pro-Israel framework may not be enough for Israel’s far right. But Kerry has been lining up regional and international actors behind a push for an agreement, in a way that Clinton and others before did not, and PA leader Abbas has indicated he is prepared to make numerous concessions. It is thus not impossible that the US and Israel may be able to impose a horrible framework that Abbas will sign off on, making the fight for Palestinian rights even more difficult than it already is.

Let’s follow Pete Seeger

With the Iran negotiations, the Syrian catastrophe and the Israel-Palestine talks all “in play” it is a complicated and critical moment. The pro-diplomacy, antiwar camp can savor the victory of staving off AIPAC in the first round of battle over Kirk-Menendez, but there is no room to relax. Rather, it is a time to take advantage of AIPAC’s exposure in this last round and intensify our engagement with the public about the real agenda of the war hawks. The stakes remain immense and the choices stark: war or peace with Iran; de-escalation or escalation of the sectarian dimension of the conflicts which are producing a humanitarian disaster in much of the Middle East; strengthening or weakening the Israel Lobby, making progress or regressing in the ongoing effort to expose Israel as a source of war, nuclear threats, racism and occupation rather than “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

Pete Seeger wrote on his banjo “this machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”  Let’s follow in his footsteps by surrounding the big fools that want to push the world further into the big muddy with voices loud enough to beat them back.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

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