THE BLOG

NIAC: President Obama, It's Time to Seize the Moment!

Ignoring the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran had never threatened to attack the United States, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), chair of the House Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, said to Al-Monitor the following in June: "We need to continue our sanctions policy and help our allies to see the light that a nuclear Iran will destroy the United States and will destroy Israel."

Months prior, Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) and a couple other of his colleagues attempted to pass a set of draconian sanctions that would only be removed if Iran heads "towards a free and democratically elected government," setting the tone for U.S.-imposed regime change. Although the Iran Sanctions and Human Rights Act of 2013 (ISHRA) has not been officially introduced in Congress, this new set of unilateral sanctions does cause for alarm. In 1998, Congress passed a similar measure for Iraq known as the Iraq Liberation Act that made regime change the official U.S. policy during Saddam Hussein's reign. In the Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq, the act was referred to as one of the reasons for authorizing military force against Iraq.

In a like matter, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) at a conference on Tuesday said, "If nothing changes in Iran, come September, October, I will present a resolution that will authorize the use of military force to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb."

It's as if time has stood still and the United States is in a pre-2003 Iraq war mode, ready to spring to action. However, this time the focus is on Iran.

Bucking the Trend

There is a voice in Washington speaking out against such folly: a nonpartisan, nonprofit, grassroots organization called the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). Co-founded in 2002 by Trita Parsi, its vision is based on community, democracy, and universal human rights. "We have pushed for what is according to all polls the majority view in our community," says Parsi. "The majority view is critical of sanctions that hit the entire population, they are critical or completely opposed to war, they are in favor of human rights, and of resolving tensions peacefully through diplomacy."

Parsi believes in a completely democratized Iran that should happen through peaceful means and gradual change.

Despite their relatively small size, NIAC's victories on Capital Hill are a testament of its success that causes frustration and anger amongst larger groups and organizations that press for a military confrontation on Iran.

"These people do not want to see Iranian-Americans at the table and do not want to see a rational conversation about Iran because it would lead to a rational policy," says Parsi.

It is NIAC's relevance in Washington that causes for people such as Daniel Pipes and his pro-war cohorts to create propaganda and slander the organization, all in the name of fear-mongering people into supporting a war on Iran.

These people need to have an irrational conversation about Iran in order to get their war. We stand up against that, and obviously that means we are going to have attacks on us. It comes with the territory and we do not like it, but we realize this is the price we pay in order to have a voice and in order to have influence [in DC].

A Serendipitous Opportunity to Seize the Moment

With moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani only weeks away from being sworn in as Iran's new president, it would only be counterproductive to the P5+1 talks if more sanctions be pushed at a time when, as NIAC calls it, both sides should "seize the moment" for peace.

And there are signs these calls for reason are being heard.

House Representatives David Price (D-NC) and Charles Dent (R-PA) garnered 131 signatures from members of Congress -- Democrat and Republican -- asking President Obama to start new diplomacy with Iran under Rouhani. Backed by NIAC, J Street, FCNL and others, the letter states:

[W]e believe it would be a mistake not to test whether Dr. Rouhani's election represents a real opportunity for progress toward a verifiable, enforceable agreement on Iran's nuclear program that ensures the country does not acquire a nuclear weapon. In order to test this proposition, it will be prudent for the United States to utilize all diplomatic tools to reinvigorate ongoing nuclear talks.

The letter was unprecedented -- it was the loudest call thus far from the U.S. Congress in favor of diplomacy.

Nevertheless, there are some who are skeptical of the letter making any impact. Some argue that diplomacy with Iran is pointless because power lies in the hands of the Supreme Leader and that Rouhani -- albeit being president -- does not have much say.

Although the letter may not have leeway in changing U.S. policy on Iran therein and there out, it is an important gesture and a starting point. "After 34 years of poisoning the well, neither the American or Iranian stance can realistically be expected to change in the short to medium term," says Reza Marashi, research director at NIAC and former State Department official. "That is precisely what makes these measure like the congressional letter all the more important: In order to break the narrative of hard-liners in Washington and Tehran, more moderate elements in both capitals must have something tangible and sustained to hang their hats on."

Breaking the Impasse: An Effort on Both Sides

The last time Iran and the United States were this close to détente was during 1997-2000, when there was a reformist president and Democrat in office: Mohammad Khatami and Bill Clinton. During that time numerous attempts were made to thaw Iran-U.S. relations, such as when the U.S. wrestling team traveled to Iran in February of 1998 and were welcomed by Iranian officials with flowers, or when President Clinton made a speech before the Iran-U.S. match at the 1998 World Cup in France, "another step toward ending the estrangement between" the two countries (Iran won 2-1). Even sanctions were slightly loosened -- despite the emergence of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) -- when the administration lifted the ban on agricultural and medical products, in addition to allowing the import of Iranian goods. Moreover, President Khatami's CNN interview where he mentioned the notion of a "dialogue amongst civilizations" brought further possibility to rapprochement. Things seemed hopeful until President George W. Bush took office -- the rest of course is history.

"If Rouhani and Obama are going to succeed in pushing back against extremist elements -- be it Khamenei, Congress, or anyone else -- and change the respective stances of their countries, it's going to take multiple gestures from both sides," said Marashi.

But at least now, there are strong voices in Washington standing up for diplomacy.