A fragile Iran deal
A similar picture is taking shape on the Iranian side. The Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani faction, of which President Hassan Rouhani is a member, hopes to use the deal as a launching pad for the conquest of key centers of power. And, yet, the deal may become the undoing of the Rafsanjani clan. The “deal” has many fundamental flaws. The most important is that it is reached between two factions in Washington and Tehran, and does not enjoy the support of the two nations involved.
Because Obama and Rouhani knew that their deal could not win support from their respective legislatives, they plotted a scheme to circumvent them. Obama agreed to let the Congress give a view but not as a treaty and only after it had received an appearance of legality with a dubious resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council.
Whether the Congress votes for the deal or not, the US commitment to the UN resolution will remain. The main effect of the Congressional vote, almost certain to go against the deal, would be to signal that the US, as a nation-state, does not support it.
Obama may have been too clever by half. His “deal” stands on nothing but an executive order, a constitutional device by which the president could impose certain measures. However, an executive order issued by one president could be canceled by another. Of course, it is possible that Obama could not care less what happens after he leaves the White House with a claim of “having saved the world from a nuclear-armed Iran.”
A series of revelations, some from leaked off-the-record briefings by Americans and Iranians, show that the two factions were practically on the same die from the start.
In a fascinating interview last week, Iran’s former Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi revealed that during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, through Omani mediation, Tehran put five preconditions for the start of secret talks with the US. “We were surprised when Obama accepted all of them,” Salehi recalls.
And that was before John Kerry, who had a long history of contacts with Tehran including meetings with former President Muhammad Khatami at Davos, had become secretary of state.
Salehi recalls that when he briefed newly elected President Rouhani on the secret talks, the latter was “astonished” at Obama’s readiness to bend backwards to appease Tehran. For Tehran, Obama and Kerry made an ideal team.
During lengthy negotiations in Geneva, Lausanne and finally Vienna, the Iranian and US teams were often on the same side, fighting to persuade other members of the P5+1 to soften their positions vis-a-vis Iran.
In an off-the-record briefing in Tehran which was nevertheless partly leaked, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi cited a number of occasions when Kerry fought hard to win others to Iran’s position.
One occasion was when the French and the British insisted that Iran formally undertake not to finance and arm the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah. “Naturally, we refused,” Araqchi said. “And it was (John) Kerry who persuaded others to drop the issue.” On another occasion, Russia was pressing for the ban on sale of arms to Iran to be lifted immediately. Iran did not want this, presumably because it felt it would face pressure to buy Russian arms.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later expressed surprise when Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Kerry joined forces to keep the ban in place, albeit with minor modifications.
On another occasion, recalled by Iranian Foreign Ministry’s Political Director General Hamid Baeedi-Nezhad who was part of the negotiating team, Kerry sided with Iran to defeat the British and the French who insisted that the ban on sale of aircraft to Tehran remain in force for five more years.
“The whole thing was settled when Kerry gave his word on our behalf,” Baeedi-Nezhad said. Kerry also backed Iran’s demand that the travel ban on several civilian and military officials, and some Arab terrorists linked to Iran be lifted. The French, British and Germans were opposed, partly because among the names mentioned were convicted terrorists who had served time in their prisons.
Kerry showed his keenness to please Iran more specifically when he sought to lift the ban on Anis Naccache, a Lebanese “militant” who had been close to Imad Mugniyah, once Hezbollah’s security chief, and allegedly involved in plotting the suicide attack that killed 241 US Marines in Beirut in1983. Faced with European protests, Kerry came out with his famous: “We are looking to the future, not to the past!”
Despite Kerry’s help, the Iranian team failed on one point: Persuading Germany to cancel arrest warrants issued against four senior Iranian figures, including Rafsanjani, for ordering the assassination of Iranian Kurdish leaders in Berlin in the 1990s. The Germans insisted that their judiciary was independent and that they could not cancel its decisions.
The talks took so long because Kerry and Zarif, often working together, were trying to find language that could hide the real issues and highlight peripheral ones. Kerry wanted to hoodwink the US Congress; Zarif wanted to take the Islamic Majlis in Tehran for a ride.
By rejecting the proposed “deal” the US Congress would tell the world that the arrangement is one between Obama and an Iranian faction. As a power, the US is not committed to a deal running into decades.
In his keenness to get a “deal,” any deal, Obama reversed the constitutional provision under which a treaty needs a two-third majority in the Congress to become effective. He invented a new method under which the Congress could undo something that is, and at the same time is not, a treaty, after the president has approved it.
The “deal” suffers from a crisis of constitutional identity. A negative Congressional vote could delay its implementation until the president has exercised his veto.
On the Iranian side the Rafsanjani faction has done even better. It has not provided an official Persian version of the “deal” and seems determined to ignore Article 72 of the Islamic Republic’s Constitution and simply pretend that the “deal” is approved without publicly saying so.
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