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What is PAAIA's Goal? Pleasing the Neoconservatives or Informing the Iranians?


By Muhammad Sahimi

The United States and its allies have imposed on Iran crippling unilateral sanctions - those that are outside the United Nations Security Council [UNSC], which has imposed sanctions of its own that are actually much milder than the unilateral ones. The sanctions have stirred considerable discussions among Iranians, both in Iran and in the Diaspora. A large number of reports from many credible sources within Iran indicate that the sanctions have been hurting the lives of millions of common Iranians. At least right up to the time that they were put under house arrest in February 2011, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the leaders of Iran’s democratic Green Movement, opposed the sanctions. In addition, major Reformist, democratic and opposition figures in Iran have opposed the sanctions.

The debate about the sanctions has also been raging in the Iranian community in the Diaspora. Some support them and have called for even tougher ones, as they see the sanctions as the only way of toppling the Islamic Republic. Some support such sanctions because in their opinion “they are better than war,” ignoring the fact that crippling economic sanctions represent a war with casualties that often far exceed those of military wars. Some have advocated sanctions only to the extent that they imperil the capabilities of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps [IRGC], the major center of power in Iran. And, of course, many are opposed to the sanctions.

It is admittedly difficult to gauge the sentiments of the majority of Iranians in the Diaspora, but to the extent that the author is aware of the developments, it appears that a large majority of Iranians outside Iran oppose at least some, and probably most, if not all, of the sanctions, because they mainly hurt the ordinary people, but have not changed the policies of the ruling clique. In fact, this segment of the Iranian community believes that, if anything, the sanctions have helped the IRGC and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to further oppress the population, using the sanctions as an excuse and a threat to Iran’s national security.

Many Iranian experts in the United States and Europe have analyzed the sanctions, and taken positions with respect to their effectiveness. One organization that recently released its analysis is the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans [PAAIA]. According to its website PAAIA is “a nonprofit, nonpartisan, nonreligious organization that serves the domestic interests of Iranian Americans and represents the community before U.S. policymakers and the American public at large. PAAIA works to foster greater understanding of our community and its cultural heritage.” Its report has supposedly analyzed in detail the effect of the economic sanctions on Iran. This article aims to analyze the report and provide a critique of it.

The goal of the report

On p. 1, paragraph 3 of the report, PAAIA states that [emphasis mine],

While PAAIA is focused on domestic U.S. affairs as they relate to the Iranian American community and has not been a platform for promoting U.S. foreign policy vis-a-vis Iran, we recognize the importance of providing objective and balanced information and analysis on issues affecting the Iranian American community and pertinent to policymakers. This report enables Iranian Americans to remain informed about legislative initiatives and the positions held by their elected officials as it relates to Iran.

Thus, right at the outset the reader is led to believe that the report will be objective, taking into account all aspects of such a complex issue. But, is the report really objective? In my opinion the report is neither objective, nor balanced, nor even accurate in some aspects.

PAAIA and Iran’s nuclear program

The very first paragraph of the report on p. 1 states that,

With the escalating tensions over Iran’s capabilities to potentially produce a nuclear weapon, additional unilateral and multilateral sanctions have recently been levied against Iran.

In other words, the report repeats the same allegations that the neoconservative warmongers in the United States and Europe have been making. Granted, the program has been highly controversial. Agreed, Tehran’s hardliners have committed too many crimes, and have lied too many times to be reliable. But, this is not simply an internal issue over which the ruling clique has total control. The world, and in particular the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] and all the Western intelligence agencies have been monitoring Iran’s nuclear program. The Obama administration has repeatedly stated that it has very good understanding of what Tehran is up to, and the IAEA has been inspecting all of Iran’s nuclear facilities, reporting time and again that it has found no evidence of a nuclear weapon program or a secret parallel program for making nuclear weapons. We also do not want what happened to Iraq, based on sheer lies, happen to Iran.

Therefore, in the absence of any real proof - not shouting, hand waving, or sheer speculations - the PAAIA report could have at least qualified its statement by saying “the alleged Iran’s” capabilities. This stance is particularly striking, given the fact that leading national security figures in the Obama administration have been emphasizing over the past several months that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon program, nor has it made the political decision to develop one. Such officials include Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, CIA Director David H. Petraeus, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, and General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff. In addition, the National Intelligence Estimate of December 2007, updated in February 2011, clearly stated that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon program. Even many officials in Israel, the nation that has been threatening to attack Iran, ostensibly due to its nuclear program, have conceded that Iran is not making nuclear weapons; see also here to read what Haarezt, the Israeli newspaper reports.

The same baseless statement is repeated in a more outrageous manner in the second paragraph of 6th page, where it is stated that,

The primary motive for these supporters [of the sanctions] is to curb the threat of an Iranian regime that may have the capability to produce and, potentially, utilize nuclear weapons. Such fears range from a potential nuclear arms race in the region caused by a nuclear Iran to an existential threat to the state of Israel.

Facts versus fictions

The contents of the above paragraphs are accusations made by the neoconservatives and their allies on the far right side of Israeli political spectrum, and have no basis in reality. Take, for example, the claim that Iran’s nuclear program is an existential threat to Israel, which has been repeated time and again by Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel’s former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Tzipi Livni has rejected such a view, as have current Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces [IDF], lieutenant General Dan Halutz, and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Former IDF chief and Defense Minister, and the current leader of the opposition Kadima Party Shaul Mofaz has called the “existential threat” claim “manipulative.” But, PAAIA does not seem to have done its “homework” to at least check who supports such an outlandish claim, and has simply repeated the baseless claim. The only superficial attempt that it makes is the use of the word “potential,” while repeating word by word the claims made by the neoconservatives and their Israeli allies.

Illegality of the unilateral sanctions

Except in the first paragraph of the report’s first page, there is not a single word about the fact that, as pointed out above, the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies are unilateral and, thus, one can credibly argue that they are illegal. This is particularly perplexing because on p. 1 the report states that it analyzes four classes of sanctions, resulting from

(1) [Congressional] Legislation expanding the reach of the 1996 Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) and the 2010 Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act (CISADA). The most notable extension of such sanctions applies to the technology, petroleum, and banking sectors of Iran.

(2) Legislation further tightening the U.S. trade embargo on Iran and enhancing efforts to freeze assets tied to Iran’s terrorism and proliferation activities.

(3) Legislation further restricting Iran’s central bank and other Iranian banks from conducting business internationally.

(4) Legislation related to the promotion of democracy and human rights.

There is not a single word in the report discussing whether such sanctions are in fact legal from the perspective of international laws. There is no attempt to address a simple question: “Can the legislative branch of a country pass legislations whose domain of applicability is beyond its borders,” and in this particular case the entire world? If the report is geared toward “providing objective and balanced information and analysis on issues affecting the Iranian American community and pertinent to policymakers,” and if by policymakers PAAIA implies U.S. policymakers, then the question is, is the issue of legality of such unilateral sanctions not pertinent?

The goal of the sanctions

The report totally misrepresents - perhaps out of naivete - the real goal of the sanctions imposed on Iran by the Congress. On pp. 27-28, the report states that,

The 112th Congress has, in many ways, extended the crippling sanctions policy from the 111th Congress, with the aim of forcing Iran to be more transparent and to halt its attempts at developing nuclear weapons capabilities.

Whether formally stated or not, the goal of the U.S. Congress is regime change in Iran, not merely to force Iran to be more transparent or halt its attempts for nuclear weapon, if one existed. Read, for example, here, here, and here what Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has said about what to do with Iran. Read here what Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) have said about regime change in Iran. Just take a look at the positions of Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), one of the most virulently anti-Iran members of the Congress, just because she represents a district that is heavily populated by Jewish people. The fact is a regime change in Iran, if one is called for, is the business of only the Iranian people living in Iran, not that of U.S. Senators and Congressmen.

The important point, lost on the PAAIA, is that if one is to arrive at the correct conclusions, one must present the facts as they are, not as one wishes them to be, and not present them to please a certain audience. At the very minimum, by ignoring the true intentions of the U.S. Congress for passing legislations for imposing even tougher sanctions on Iran, PAAIA does a great disservice to its own members, and to the Iranian community at large.

Factual errors

Some other aspects of the report are factually wrong. In the second paragraph of p. 18, the report states flatly that,

U.S. and international sanctions have significantly impeded Iran’s ability to obtain needed materials such as steel and carbon fiber that are essential to developing and maintaining its nuclear program. According to a Report by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), this shortage is preventing Iran from producing more of its basic design IR-1 centrifuges, needed to produce enriched uranium. The report noted that the sanctions have forced Iran to depend on carbon fiber bellows, which are more complicated to make and that the country’s difficulty in producing effective IR-4 centrifuges will cause additional delays in their deployment. The significant drop in the country’s enrichment output in 2009 and 2010 is confirmation of this claim.

Not only the claim is wrong, it is also counter-productive. As the latest report by the IAEA indicates, Iran has continued to install more centrifuges at the Fordow site, built under a mountain near Qom. The report also indicated that Iran’s production of enriched uranium has remained steady. The point that was not emphasized by the mainstream media, and is not even mentioned by the authors of the PAAIA report is that, as the latest IAEA report indicates, Iran’s capacity for making nuclear weapons in a short time has actually reduced.

Another factually incorrect statement is in the bottom paragraph on p. 21. There, it is stated that,

As a result of the sanctions, the decrease in oil exports and revenues, and gasoline imports, the Iranian government has had to make changes to its internal capacities. In 2010, the government reduced gasoline and bread subsidies, while the electric rate was increased significantly.

This is at best grossly exaggerated, if not totally incorrect. The subsidy cuts had been in the works for years, and after some years of delays were finally put in place. As pointed out by Ali Moayedian in his own critique of the PAAIA report, the plan for the elimination of the subsidies was in the works for years. Urged on by the World Bank, the plan was first developed during the administration of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, which did not, however, implement it, fearing social unrest. The administration of former President Mohammad Khatami also developed a plan for reducing the subsidies, and in particular the subsidy for gasoline, but did not implement it. It was only due to the harsh and repressive political atmosphere in the aftermath of the rigged presidential election of June 2009 that the government dared to begin implementing the plan, but it was announced two weeks ago that the implementation of the plan has been stopped. Such unfounded statements about the effect of the sanctions contribute only to the claim by some that the sanctions, which have been imposed as a result of Iran’s non-existent nuclear weapon program, are causing major changes in the thinking of the Iranian leaders, whereas their most important effect so far has been hurting millions of ordinary Iranians.

Sanctions have further enriched the IRGC

The report discusses on p. 20 the effect of the sanctions on the value of the Iranian currency and gasoline imports. It correctly points out that the sanctions have created black markets for the two. What it does not point out, however, is the fact that the black markets are controlled by the IRGC-linked companies and organizations. So, while the ordinary Iranians have been hurting badly, these entities have been profiting handsomely from the black markets created by the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies.

Not a single word about the plights of the Iranians living in Iran

Surprisingly, the report is almost completely mute about the effect of the sanctions on the lives of ordinary Iranians living in Iran, as if one can separate their lives from the consequences of the sanctions for Iran’s economy, or that the issue is not important at all. It says nothing about increasing poverty in Iran, which is attributed in part to the economic sanctions [in addition to the incompetence of and vast corruption in the Ahmadinejad administration]. The report only analyzes the effect of the sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program and economy, as if it has been prepared only for the American policy makers, the vast majority of whom could not care less about the sanctions’ effect on the lives of Iranians.

There is, for example, not a single word on the emerging crisis of shortage of critical medicines for hundreds of thousands of Iranian patients, which I recently reported on. Medicine has not been sanctioned by the U.S. and its allies. But, because almost all the Iranian banks, and in particular the Central Bank, have been sanctioned, it has become practically impossible to import the critical medicines, because the transactions for importing them occur through the banks. The PAAIA report is completely silent about how sanctioning of Iran’s banks has greatly disrupted imports of medicine and many other critical items, raw materials, spare parts, etc. What is the difference between being silent about this important issue and claiming, as an Iranian stooge of the neoconservatives recently did, that the shortage of the critical medicine in Iran has been caused by the incompetent and corrupt Ahmadinejad administration?

The report also relies on the opinion and analyses of Patrick Clawson, Director of Research at Washington Institute for Middle East Policy, the research arm of the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee. An Iran hawk, Clawson is the same man who advocated creating catastrophic failures in Iran’s nuclear facilities, claiming that it will not lead to a “single fatality.” On pp. 25 and 26 the report quotes Clawson as labeling the sanctions policy as a “stopgap, temporary way of dealing with the conflicting relationship between the United States and Iran,” and also quotes another article of Clawson’s, written together with Mehdi Khalaji, an Iranian neocon analyst at WINEP, claiming that, ““Iran does not see sanctions as a threat to its regime.” Both quotes give the strong impression that PAAIA, similar to Clawson et al., believes that sanctions will ultimately not force the Islamic Republic to change its nuclear policy, even if it currently has some effect. While the PAAIA report does not mention the consequence of such a statement, those who have made it in the past have argued for military attacks on Iran. Indeed, the report states that on p. 25 that

At the same time, many experts still doubt that severe and sustained economic pressure will be sufficient to persuade Iran to abandon its drive for nuclear weapons capability.

And, on p. 28,

While it is clear that sanctions are hurting the Iranian economy and influencing their behavior in the international arena, it remains unclear whether or not sanctions, coupled with diplomacy, will be sufficient to end the impasse with Iran over its nuclear program without addressing broader political accommodation.

And, while the PAAIA report makes such explicit remarks about the ultimate failure of the sanctions - which may pave the way for war - it is completely silent about the vast reservoir of opposition to military attacks on Iran. It is almost as if the report has been structured such that it will arrive at the pre-ordained conclusion that sanctions will not be enough to put a stop on Iran’s nuclear program that has so far remained completely peaceful, without absolutely no considerations for the effect of the sanctions on the lives of ordinary Iranians living in Iran.

Who is the targeted audience for the report?

Summarizing, the PAAIA report is factually incorrect in many places, takes at its face value the propaganda by the warmongers about Iran’s nuclear program, says nothing about the plights of the Iranian people living in Iran who are suffering under the crippling sanctions and, similar to the positions by many neoconservatives, casts doubts on whether the standoff between Iran and the U.S. will be resolved peacefully. The report does not recognize that the crippling economic sanctions imposed on Iran represent war, whose casualties may eventually far exceed those of any military attack. All one has to do is recalling the crippling economic sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 1990s, which resulted in the death of 500,000 Iraqi children, and keeping in mind that Iran’s population is three times larger than Iraq’s.

The report is also completely silent about the unreasonable demands of the U.S. and its allies, their double standards when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program vis-a-vis those of Israel and Pakistan, and the red line of the Obama administration for Iran’s nuclear program that is constantly being moved due to the pressure exerted by Israel. The report says nothing about the fact that if the U.S. makes a meaningful concession to Iran, it will help the democratic opposition within Iran, as well as the moderates and pragmatics within the power hierarchy to raise their voice and exert pressure on Khamenei to be more flexible.

Reading the PAAIA report made me wonder whether it was written to please the U.S. policy makers, or to inform and educate the Iranian community. Based on my reading, it appears to me that the former is much closer to reality.

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