June 18, 2016
It is widely reported that 51 American diplomats had come out in opposition to current White House policy toward Syria, utilizing State Department internal channels established to allow for the expression of dissent without fear of reprisal. Reports have indicated that the use of these channels is by no means uncommon, but also that the number of individuals signing onto the latest expression of dissent is perhaps unprecedented.
NBC News quoted the diplomats’ cable as saying that by maintaining a hands-off approach, recent US policy had effectively allowed the persistence of abuses perpetrated by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It added that this neglect of the Syrian human rights situation could have the effect of diminishing unity of the coalition against the Islamic State within the country, which includes moderate rebel groups and Kurdish forces supported by US advisors and other foreign allies.
The New York Times specified that the statement urged the White House to become directly involved in the conflict through the use of precision air-strikes and other military tools in order to “undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed U.S.-led diplomatic process.” The cable apparently did not comment upon US policy toward Iran, the chief foreign supporter of the Assad regime, except to compare a theoretical Syrian diplomatic agreement with that which was worked out between Iran and the US over the Iranian nuclear program.
According to the Times, the diplomats feel that such an agreement would be possible only once a credible military threat forced Assad into a position of being willing to compromise, just as some believe economic sanctions did with Iran prior to last summer’s agreement.
But in this sense, the State Department cable is apparently somewhat less critical of the Obama administration’s Middle East policies than are some other commentators both within the US Congress and beyond the borders of the US altogether. Some such individuals and groups view the Iran nuclear agreement as a mistake and a giveaway to the Iranian regime, and certainly not as something to emulated in the context of the Syrian crisis.
Kansas news station KWCH underscored this criticism on Friday with a brief article describing Congressman Mike Pompeo’s reaction to Iran’s recent rejection of a request that he and two ther American congressmen visit the Islamic Republic to monitor its elections process and visit its nuclear sites.
The request was delayed by Iran’s foreign ministry for months before finally being rejected as a “publicity stunt” and “not an appropriate request.” Pompeo and his colleagues have not formally responded to these comments yet but intend to in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the Kansas Republican declared that Iran’s evasion and ultimate rejection of the request suggests that the country still has something to hide.
Like most congressional Republicans and some Democrats, Pompeo in of the opinion that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has provided insufficient guarantees of Iran’s compliance with the restrictions outlined for its nuclear program. At the time that the provisions were outlined, many legislators and conservative media commentators took issue with such perceived concessions as a 28-day window during which the Iranian regime would be able to delay international inspectors’ access to undeclared sites that come under newfound suspicion of being connected to banned nuclear work.
In its response to the congressmen’s request for access, the Islamic Republic emphasized that no representative of the US or any other country involved in the negotiation would be permitted to visit the sites that have been under past scrutiny. No doubt this apparent evasiveness will further contribute to the doubts that Pompeo and his colleagues have about Iran’s commitment to transparency over the long term.
But the incident also stands alongside the dissenting State Department cable to emphasize the fact that elements of the US government that are either unconnected or tangentially connected to the Obama administration are taking systematic steps to counter what they perceive as a weak or conciliatory White House policy regarding the Middle East.
This trend has also been evident in the economic sphere, as individuals including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce have accused the Obama administration of overstepping its obligations under the JCPOA and actively encouraging European businesses to invest in the newly de-sanctioned Iranian market. Meanwhile, congressmen and other advocates of a more assertive Iran policy have been making efforts to counteract this salesmanship by urging Western businesses to reconsider plans to reestablish professional relations with Iran.
Naturally, this counter-trend is particularly pronounced in the rare instances in which the companies in question are actually based in the US. In recent weeks there has been much discussion of possible business deals between Iran’s commercial airlines and the US jet manufacturer Boeing. Then, this week, the Islamic Republic claimed to have concluded an agreement that could roughly match the earlier agreement reached between Iran and Boeing’s French competitor Airbus.
Although the Boeing deal has not yet been confirmed by the company itself, detractors wasted no time in speaking out against it, with Republican Congressmen Jeb Hensarling and Peter Roskam sending a letter to Boeing executives on Friday asking for clarification about whether the company could verify that its passenger planes wouldn’t be converted into cargo planes, and whether it intended to repossess the aircraft from the Islamic Republic in the event that the nuclear deal deteriorates.
The letter pointedly declared that “American companies should not be complicit in weaponizing the Iranian Regime,” according to Reuters.
But in spite of this pushback, there has been a steady accumulation of evidence for the slow expansion of relations between Iran and Western powers as a whole.
However, efforts to forestall these trends have not just been coming from the United States. In fact, earlier this week it was reported that 270 members of the European Parliament had issued a statement urging European governments to avoid any expansion in political or economic relations with Iran until such time as it has made significant improvements to its human rights record.
And these efforts may very well intensify as Western policymakers continue to observe evidence pointing to the persistence of hardline Iranian policies, including the aforementioned human rights abuses, as well as the sponsorship of the sorts of foreign brutality that were decried by the 51 diplomats behind the State Department cable.
In the run-up to and the immediate aftermath of the Iran nuclear agreement, the White House apparently elicited some support from skeptical legislators and foreign allies by suggesting that the finalization of that deal could encourage moderating trends inside the Iranian government. This outcome was supposedly made possible by the 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani, who promised domestic reforms and was described by various foreign observers as a relative moderate.
But ever since revelations last month about the Obama administration’s relationship with the media in the midst of those negotiations, many have judged the notion of Rouhani’s moderation to be a false narrative. Staunch critics of the Iranian regime, such as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, have maintained this position since the start of his presidency. And others have become more convinced of it in the wake of Rouhani’s recent contributions to anti-Western rhetoric, and his failure to take measures to prevent rising rates of executions and crackdowns on dissent.
On Friday, it was reported that even the supposed architect of the moderation narrative, White House Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes has publicly acknowledged that there has been no change Iran’s foreign policy. Rhodes, the subject of a damning and widely discussed New York Times profile, did however express some lingering hope for improvement in Iran’s behavior, saying that current efforts to establish a ceasefire in Syria will be the greatest test of whether Iran is willing to compromise.
But previous such efforts have all failed as Iran balked at any proposals that would have led to the ouster or resignation of Bashar al-Assad. If such obstinance persists, it may underscore the idea that the Rouhani administration does not represent the moderate tendencies that some Western policymakers assumed on the basis of nuclear negotiations.
There are numerous varieties of other evidence for this, as well. For instance, it was reported on Friday that an interview between a former Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander and an Iranian media outlet has revealed that Abbas Araghchi, a Rouhani administration diplomat and one of the leading negotiators behind the JCPOA, may be a member of the Quds Force, the foreign wing of the IRGC and a subject of terrorism-related sanctions.
If true, the revelation indicates that one of the main figures in the supposed reconciliation between Iran and the West is also a member of an organization that embodies the Islamic Republic’s most hardline foreign policies and its most concerted opposition to Western interests in the Middle East.