Eye on Iran: 26 Senators Defy Obama, Back Iran Sanctions Bill

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AP: "Twenty-six senators introduced legislation Thursday that could raise sanctions on Iran and compel the United States to support Israel if it launches a preemptive attack on the Iranian nuclear program, defying President Obama and drawing a veto threat. The bill, sponsored by 13 Democrats and 13 Republicans, sets sanctions that would go into effect if Tehran violates the nuclear deal it reached with world powers last month or lets the agreement expire without a long-term accord. The measures include a global boycott on Iranian oil exports within one year and the blacklisting of Iran's mining, engineering, and construction industries. The goal, according to supporters, is to strengthen the negotiating leverage of the Obama administration as it seeks to pressure Iran into a comprehensive agreement next year that would eliminate the risk of the Islamic republic developing nuclear weapons. But it could also add complications for US negotiators, who promised Iran no new economic sanctions for the duration of the six-month interim pact that was finalized Nov. 24 in Geneva. 'Current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith at the negotiating table,' said Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, who spearheaded the effort with Senator Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois. Kirk called the draft law 'an insurance policy to defend against Iranian deception.'" http://t.uani.com/19hdrDL

ICHRI: "Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Laureate and human rights lawyer, told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran in an exclusive interview that the draft Citizenship Rights Charter published by Hassan Rouhani in November to solicit input from analysts is redundant and ineffectual, and 'is in fact a tool to distract those who are waiting for justice to be carried out.' ... 'The Citizenship Rights Charter is not an indication of a serious political will for protecting citizens' rights, because writing an incomplete law, most of which is dedicated to pleasantries and does not have any guarantees, does nothing but waste the time of those whose rights have been violated, or who are in prison just for writing an article or having a religious ideology,' Shirin Ebadi told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Shirin Ebadi spoke about the double standards of the Iranian officials in using certain social networks while ordinary people are deprived of the same. "We see that Facebook is blocked in Iran but the Ministers use it. We see that a thief's hand was amputated in a small town after he stole some money and chocolate from a bakery, while individuals who stole billions from the treasury are walking around comfortably and with pride." http://t.uani.com/1frJOy5

AFP: "The economic benefits of an interim nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers are already being felt in the Islamic republic but the relief is limited, a report said Thursday. A deal struck in November to suspend international sanctions for six months has seen an improvement in Iran's stock market and a drop in inflation, said the Institute of International Finance, which represents 450 banks and global financial institutions. In particular, the gap between the black market and official exchange rates for the Iranian rial have narrowed, 'falling from an average of IR 35,675 per dollar in June to IR 29,700' as of December 16, the report said. 'Real GDP could stabilize and even rise modestly in the current fiscal year,' which ends on March 20, 2014." http://t.uani.com/1cFvMph



Reuters: "Before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran was a flourishing marketplace for U.S.-manufactured cars and trucks, but a combination of U.S. sanctions barring most trade and Iran's own restrictions have blocked sales. Yet since last year, hundreds of the most sought-after American and European car models have appeared in Tabriz from a nearby free trade zone close to Armenia and Azerbaijan, an example of how sanctions rarely stop the flow of luxury goods... The Aras free zone established eight years ago in the north-west of the country began allowing car imports last year, putting it in prime position as a key conduit for trade if the diplomatic thaw between Iran and the West continues... Businesses contacted by Reuters say more than 1,500 have been sold in Aras since the first half of 2012. More than half of those are American brands - including Chevrolet, GMC, Cadillac, Ford and Dodge... Sources in Aras say some vehicles are shipped from the United Arab Emirates to Bandar Abbas or Bandar Lengeh - ports in southern Iran - and transported by truck more than 1,200 miles across the country to Aras. Others are imported from Iraqi Kurdistan and Georgia, said another Aras auto trader." http://t.uani.com/1l11CkN

Bloomberg: "Iran probably will use European banks to handle some payments for its crude exports once a deal with world powers relating to the nation's nuclear program starts, said a deputy oil minister from the Persian Gulf state. 'The arrangement is that it will be four to five banks and there certainly will be European banks too,' Ali Majedi, deputy oil minister for international and commercial affairs, said in an interview in Tehran on Dec. 18. Europe, the U.S. and other nations agreed last month to ease measures targeting Iran's oil exports in return for curbing its nuclear program. The country probably will use banks in Europe and Asia to handle income from crude sales and to pay countries supplying goods, Majedi said. The EU said when the agreement was reached that some financial restrictions could be relaxed for humanitarian purposes." http://t.uani.com/1dW55yQ

Reuters: "South Korea's crude oil imports from Iran fell 34.4 percent in November from a year earlier, while its total crude oil imports declined 5.5 percent year on year to 75.8 million barrels last month, data from state-run Korea National Oil Corp (KNOC) showed on Friday." http://t.uani.com/19XAjTb

Human Rights

AP: "Iran's state TV is saying the country's foreign ministry has rejected a U.N. human rights resolution, calling it biased. The Thursday report quotes spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham as saying the resolution is 'full of untrustworthy items' and presents no evidence except reports by western sources and 'terrorist groups.' Afkham accused the West of systematically violating human rights itself but using claims of its infringement for political gain against other countries." http://t.uani.com/1l13Oc2

Domestic Politics

Bloomberg: "Iran's Revolutionary Guards, a business empire as well as the country's most powerful military force, have been a vocal critic of recent nuclear diplomacy. President Hassan Rouhani is fighting back, setting up a contest that may shape his presidency... 'One of the two will be defeated,' said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington and author of several studies of the Guards. The Guards report directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who encouraged their participation in politics to counter the reformist movement that emerged around President Mohammad Khatami in 1997. Khamenei typically plays different factions against one another to ensure no group gets too powerful, said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He may use the Guards to put the brakes on Rouhani's plans, Sadjadpour said. 'Khamenei doesn't want to be seen blocking Rouhani but he's betting Sepah will do his dirty work for him,' he said, referring to the Persian name for the Guard Corps. Equally, the supreme leader will sometimes back the president because 'he wouldn't mind seeing Rouhani roll back some of the influence of the Guards,' Alfoneh said." http://t.uani.com/1l12Zjq

FT: "Their experiences reflect the social change bubbling underneath the surface of Iranian society, as the adult children of a more conservative generation rebel against the traditional and Islamic strictures their parents conformed to and seek to emulate what they see as more western norms. In recent years, the divorce rate in Iran has risen, the marriage rate has fallen as has the birth rate. 'The pace of developments is so fast and vast it is as if this nation wants to jump 50 years ahead overnight,' says Mostafa Eghlima, head of Social Workers Scientific Association, a non-governmental group. Academic research shows 70 per cent of divorcees are under 27 years old, he says. 'Newly married couples think marriage and having children deprive them of their freedom,' he adds... Such social upheaval is a natural outcome of the tension between a conservative regime and a changing society, says Saeed Moidfar, a prominent sociologist. 'Iranians increasingly adopt modern lifestyles, which are based on individualism and rationality rather than official diktats, leading to a kind of hidden lifestyle under the skin of big cities,' he said." http://t.uani.com/19XxXDM

Foreign Affairs

Free Beacon: "The United Nations overwhelmingly voted on Wednesday to adopt an Iranian and Syrian authored resolution that calls on nations across the globe to denounce violence and extremism.The U.N.'s General Assembly voted by consensus to approve the 'World Against Violent Extremism' (WAVE) Act, which critics lambasted as hypocritical, given Iran's designation as one of the global leaders in executions and state-sponsored terrorism. Iran's WAVE Act urges member nations to take 'appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace and to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character,' according to text of the resolution. It also encourages 'respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction of any kind such as to race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.' Iran also asks that member states refrain 'from the threat or use of force.'" http://t.uani.com/JKEDhX

Opinion & Analysis

UANI President Gary Samore in Harvard's Belfer Center: "In the near term, the Obama administration does not yet need to engage Senators Menendez, Kirk, and Schumer on the details of their proposed Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2013. The upcoming congressional recess and the protection of friendly senators (including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Chairman of the Senate Banking and Finance Committee Tim Johnson) are likely to delay consideration of the bill for the time being. However, congressional support for sanctions legislation against Iran has strong bipartisan support, and pressure for additional legislation is likely to grow if - as seems likely - it becomes apparent in coming months that negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran on a final agreement are not faring well. In the event that the Obama administration is forced to enter into negotiations with Congress on new sanctions legislation, the White House is likely to have several objections to the proposed Senate legislation, especially on the certification requirements to waive or suspend sanctions... The sponsors of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 argue that the threat to reimpose existing sanctions and levy additional sanctions is necessary to pressure Iran to comply with the Joint Plan of Action and make additional nuclear concessions required for a final agreement. No doubt, effective enforcement of current sanctions and the threat of additional sanctions are essential to maximize the administration's bargaining leverage with Iran. Nonetheless, the Obama administration opposes the introduction of new sanctions legislation because it could harden domestic Iranian opposition to President Rouhani's efforts to negotiate a settlement and ultimately give Iran grounds to blame the U.S. if final negotiations fail. While it seems unlikely that Iran would withdraw from the Joint Plan of Action in response to legislation that threatens (but does not yet impose) new sanctions, the Iranian Majlis is almost certain to adopt parallel legislation that threatens to escalate nuclear activities in the event that an acceptable final agreement is not achieved. In addition, the administration is likely to object that some of the Senate bill's required certifications unduly restrict the president's ability to conduct foreign policy and dictate unrealistic conditions for a diplomatic settlement. In the first case, some of the required certifications are inherently subjective (such as the requirement to attest to Iran's 'good faith' in the negotiations) or unclear (such as certifications related to undefined terms like 'illicit nuclear activities,' 'nuclear weapons capability' and 'nuclear breakout capability')." http://t.uani.com/1bUXYqz

WashPost Editorial: "President Obama said this month that he assessed the chance of reaching a permanent accord with Iran on its nuclear program as no 'more than 50-50.' For his part, Secretary of State John F. Kerry told Congress that he 'came away from our preliminary negotiations' with Tehran 'with serious questions about whether or not they're ready and willing to make some of the choices that have to be made.' Events in the past week have made clear that those bearish judgments were justified. Iranian officials walked out of talks with the West last Friday - not the negotiations about a final accord, which have not begun in earnest, but those on the implementation of the preliminary agreement reached in Geneva in November. The pretext was an announcement by the U.S. Treasury of actions against companies that have been violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. The announcement should not come as a surprise: Though the United States and its partners agreed to some sanctions relief in Geneva, they made clear that they would continue to enforce measures constraining Iranian trade and banking. By making a show of breaking off talks, Tehran was attempting to bluff the West into hollowing out the remaining sanctions by stopping their enforcement. It also delayed the time when it will have to comply with its own commitment to cut back on its enrichment of uranium and reduce the stockpile it has accumulated. Meanwhile, other nuclear activities not covered by the preliminary accord continue. No doubt, Iran does not expect this work to prompt the United States to walk out. Perhaps such maneuvering is inevitable. But Iran is sending an early message that it does not intend to bargain in good faith. That impression was reinforced by interviews given recently by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, including one to The Post's David Ignatius. Mr. Zarif claimed that Iran wanted a deal and that 'on our side... it is very easy to reach an agreement.' But he also came close to ruling out acceptance of steps that will be essential to ensuring that Iran is not left with a nuclear breakout capacity. Of particular concern are two nuclear facilities that have scant conceivable purpose other than the production of weapons: the underground Fordow enrichment facility and the Arak heavy-water reactor, which is under construction and could be used to produce plutonium. In previous rounds of negotiations, the Obama administration sought the shutdown of Fordow and suspension of construction at Arak; though it obtained neither in the interim agreement, a final deal must address both. Yet Mr. Zarif said of Arak, 'We cannot roll back the clock 20 years and simply get rid of a project that has been the subject of a great deal of human and material investment.' Of Fordow, he said the U.S. demand revealed an intention to facilitate a military attack on Iran's nuclear infrastructure, since 'Fordow cannot be hit.' But the reverse logic also applies: Iran would not need a facility invulnerable to attack unless it wished to preserve the option to attempt a breakout. Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry have devoted much time since the Geneva deal to persuading Congress not to approve additional sanctions on Iran. Perhaps their time would be better spent pushing the Iranian negotiators to stop posturing and stonewalling." http://t.uani.com/J1z52J

Mark Landler in NYT: "Early next year, the Obama administration will embark on an extraordinary diplomatic doubleheader, trying to negotiate a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran while seeking yet again a political end to nearly three years of civil war in Syria. The United States has strictly segregated the Iranian nuclear talks from the diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria. But the two are more closely connected than the White House cares to admit - and not just because both sets of negotiations are likely to be conducted on the shores of Lake Geneva. Success or failure in each could heavily influence the other. Iran remains a destabilizing force in Syria, and its neighbors view its efforts to prop up President Bashar al-Assad as inextricably linked to its expansionist designs in the Middle East, which would be furthered significantly by having a nuclear weapon. Since Iran signed the interim nuclear deal in Geneva last month, Israel and Saudi Arabia have argued that any final deal needs to confront regional issues, notably Iran's role in Syria. Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, acknowledged as much when he toured Persian Gulf states recently to reassure them about Tehran's intentions. 'They recognize their nuclear negotiations cannot be hermetically sealed off from regional issues,' said Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. 'Ultimately, a nuclear deal has to be underpinned by a regional consensus. You've got to get other people's buy-in.' The trouble is, Iran has not been invited to next month's conference on Syria because it refuses to affirm that Mr. Assad must cede power - a prerequisite of the West. Its absence is a major impediment, given that Iran is a lifeline for Mr. Assad, providing him with training and equipment through the paramilitary Quds Force and with fighters from the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah. Iran, experts say, is redoubling its support for Mr. Assad in the days before the Syria conference, which will be held in the Swiss city of Montreux, to maximize his chances of keeping power. Iran is recruiting militias in Lebanon and Iraq to fight the rebels in Syria. Iranian rockets have worsened an already gruesome winter for millions of Syrians. Mr. Assad's survival is so important to Iran because he is the main patron of Hezbollah, and Iran relies on that group's missiles and rockets, pointed at Israel from Lebanon, to act as a deterrent against Israeli threats to strike its nuclear facilities. 'The result is a humanitarian abomination caused by the regime, abetted by Iran, complicated by recent diplomatic initiatives, and worsened by the onset of winter,' said Frederic C. Hof, who as a State Department official worked on plans for a political transition in Syria and is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. 'I would hope we are leaning hard on Tehran to get its client to stop the war crimes and crimes against humanity and to oblige the regime to give unrestricted access to U.N. humanitarian relief organizations now,' he said. Mr. Hof's words reflect a fear shared by some that the United States will turn a blind eye to Iran's malign activities outside the nuclear sphere to prevent its diplomacy from going off the rails. Mr. Zarif has already threatened that any new sanctions will kill the negotiations... Given how the Middle East is dividing along sectarian lines, between Shiites and Sunnis, some analysts warn that allowing Iranian-backed elements to triumph in Syria could fatally weaken any nuclear deal. 'A deal on the Iranian nuclear program isn't going to work if you cede the hard-liners the Levant,' said Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy." http://t.uani.com/1l14RJ2

Hadi Ghaemi in HuffPo: "The recent interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 powers is a welcome development for most Iranians. It is a major step in the right direction, addressing many of their pressing concerns: it reduces international tensions, provides a diplomatic path to avoid a military confrontation, promises to make the country's nuclear activities transparent and subject to effective international monitoring, and begins the process of easing the great economic burden they have endured due to sanctions. Yet there is also much concern inside Iran about the ongoing and widespread human rights violations in the country. For nearly a decade, the nuclear issue has eclipsed the struggle for human rights inside Iran on the international stage. As Iran's foreign policy makers move towards rapprochement with the West after 34 years of estrangement, Iranians are worried that their basic rights, instead of being elevated to the importance it deserves, will be sacrificed in these negotiations. They fear that repression in Iran could even intensify if the regime concludes that once a nuclear deal with the international community is reached, there will be little international pressure to improve the country's human rights record. Progress towards a nuclear deal should by no means lessen international attention to the human rights violations that have reached crisis levels in Iran since the disputed 2009 election and which continue to this day despite the election of Hassan Rouhani. The Obama administration deserves credit for its diligent pursuit of the diplomatic track. But its policy makers must understand that they can pursue dialogue with the Iranian government on both the nuclear issue and the human rights front. Ignoring the latter, even if in the hopes of facilitating the former, would be a major mistake. Indeed, encouraging domestic political and social reform in Iran is essential for a successful and lasting nuclear deal and is unquestionably in the long-term strategic interests of Iran's negotiating partners.  Without pressure from the negotiating powers to improve the human rights situation, the Iranian government is likely to continue its current record, which has not resulted in tangible reforms. The hardliners in Iran may have lost the presidential election, but they continue to hold many major levers of power and so far they have ensured that the country's human rights record worsens rather than improves under Rouhani's presidency. Rouhani came to power with an overwhelming mandate by the Iranian electorate not just to change the country's foreign policy track, but also to significantly reduce the social and political repression gripping the country. So far he has achieved little on this front. If Rouhani does not demonstrate leadership on the domestic front, his hardline opponents will capitalize on this weakness and may well challenge him on his foreign policy initiatives too, significantly endangering a final agreement on the nuclear file. Rouhani's failure to end the current repression will disappoint the millions who voted for him and reduce his popular support, further empowering the hardliners to stymie his foreign policies. This is exactly what happened to the reformist president Khatami, who achieved neither lasting domestic reforms nor foreign policy success. Now is the time, with both sides fully and substantively engaged, for the West to press Iran to respect its international human rights obligations. No foreign power, including the US, can directly bring about lasting democratic changes to Iran. Such a development must be homegrown and there is a large constituency inside the country struggling peacefully for it, as the election of Rouhani has demonstrated. But the international community, in particular the US and the EU, can play an important role by publicly and privately communicating to the Iranian government that progress on the human rights is as much of an imperative for normalized relations with the West as the nuclear issue." http://t.uani.com/1ch1Chb