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Can the P5+1 and Iran meetings succeed?

The DNA of Iranians and Under Secretary Sherman

by SASAN FAYAZMANESH

On October 22, 2013, the following exchange took place at the Daily Press Briefing between Deputy Spokesperson for the Department of State Marie Harf and an unidentified, tenacious reporter:

QUESTION: Earlier this month, the L.A. Times quoted Under Secretary Sherman saying in a Senate briefing that, quote, “Deception is part of the DNA of the Iranian leadership.” It’s only now picking up in Iranian media and Foreign Minister Zarif has condemned this remark. Do you have a response to that, or can you clarify what she may have meant?

MS. HARF: No, thank you for the question. I will make a couple points on that. I think first that doubtless each side has said things that have offended the other side over the last, what, thirty years now, and each side has commented publicly on its inability to trust the other side. I think focusing on those things that divide us really isn’t going to get us anywhere. We have a lot of work to do. We were in Geneva, as you know, last week, and I think the Iran delegation and the American delegation, led by Under Secretary Sherman, began to understand each other in ways—new ways during this last round of the P5+1 talks. In addition, their bilateral meeting, which was the first, I think, since 2009 between the U.S. and Iran, which we hope will continue as we go forward with the P5+1, will help, I think, set aside those years of mistrust and really start a—more of a direct dialogue.

QUESTION: So are you saying she misspoke?

MS. HARF: No, no. Not at all. The President in his UNGA speech said that there are decades and a long history of mistrust. This mistrust has deep roots, and we don’t think it can be overcome overnight, but we made some progress last week in Geneva, and we hope to continue making progress, including with additional bilateral meetings going forward.

QUESTION: Well, there is a difference between deep mistrust and saying that deception is in their DNA. If it’s in their DNA, that means they can’t ever change. Right?

MS. HARF: I don’t—I guess I don’t have any further comment on that than this. We —

QUESTION: So —

MS. HARF: — had good meetings last week.

QUESTION: I —

MS. HARF: Under Secretary Sherman had a good bilateral meeting with her Iranian counterparts and we believe we began to make process [sic] and hope to continue to do so.

QUESTION: Maybe this is something that stem cells can fix, yeah? Can you explain — Under Secretary Sherman, when she made those comments on the Hill, was talking specifically about President Rouhani in his previous capacity as an—as the Iranian nuclear negotiator when she said deception runs in the DNA.

MS. HARF: Well, I think we’ve made a lot of comments about —

. . . 

QUESTION: So you don’t believe that President Rouhani is genetically incapable of being not deceptive? Do you—is that correct?

MS. HARF: We have said repeatedly over the last few weeks and months that President Rouhani—that we are encouraged by the words he said. We are encouraged with his conversation with President Obama. We’re encouraged by Foreign Minister Zarif’s conversations that he had with the Secretary and then at the P5+1. We also have said coming out of the P5+1 that there—this was a new level of seriousness, this was a new level of specificity in these talks that we have never seen before. That’s what we’re focused on and that’s what we’re focused on going forward.

QUESTION: So Under Secretary Sherman’s comment was not meant to imply that President Rouhani is genetically incapable of telling the truth or being —

MS. HARF: In no way. We’ve been very clear that we appreciate some of the—many of the things President Rouhani has said, that we appreciate the tone coming out of him and the rest of the Iranian delegation to the P5+1, and hope to continue that tone going forward.

The painful exchange between the persistent reporter and inarticulate Ms. Harf continued for a bit longer. Yet, to the very end, the reporter could not get an answer to his basic question: Does Under Secretary Sherman believe that Iranians are genetically deceptive?

To be fair, what Wendy Sherman actually stated in her Senate briefing was: “[W]e know that deception is part of the DNA.” As some news media in Iran pointed out, the statement did not explicitly refer to “Iranians.” However, as some others correctly pointed out, Sherman did not need to be explicit; given the context of her conversation, her meaning was clear. Indeed, on October 25, 2013, in an interview with the Voice of America, the propaganda wing of her own State Department, Sherman was given the chance to clarify her statement and, perhaps, rectify its racist overtone. Yet, she stuck to her guns, and even implicated President Obama, by stating: “I think those words spoke to some deep mistrust that President Obama discussed, and that we have to really work to get over that mistrust.” She was then asked about calls in Iran to boycott nuclear talks with the West if she were present. She answered: “The President, the Secretary of State, have asked me to lead the US delegation. I think colleagues will say that I am a fair [and] balanced negotiator.”

It is difficult to picture Wendy Sherman as a fair and balanced negotiator in the meetings between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council—the US, Britain, France, Russia and China—and Germany). This is not because she considers Iranians as genetically deceptive, but because of the history of her role in these negotiations. As I pointed out in my March and June essays, in the past meetings between Iran and the P5+1 Sherman appeared to represent mostly the interests of a colonial entity allied with the US, Israel. In these meetings she would put forward the Israeli manufactured demands and then go to Israel to report on the Iranian reactions. For example, as Haaretz reported on May 25, 2012, following the Iran-P5+1 meeting in Iraq, Sherman went straight to Israel to “update Israeli officials on the talks in Baghdad, and on sasancontainpreparations for the third round of talks in Moscow on June 18 and 19.” “We updated the Israelis in detail before we updated our own government,” Haaretz quoted an unnamed US official on the following day. According to the same report, in her trip to Israel, Sherman was accompanied by Gary Samore, President Obama’s Coordinator for Weapons of Mass Destruction Counter-Terrorism and Arms Control. Similar to Sherman, Samore represented the position of Israel in the Obama Administration before his departure in September of 2013. He was—along with Dennis Ross, the architect of Obama’s Iran policy, and Richard Holbrooke—one of the original leaders of “United Against Nuclear Iran” (UANI), an Israeli lobby group which has been actively seeking sanctions and the use of military force against Iran. After leaving the White House, Samore became the President of UANI! It was probably associates such as Gary Samore that Wendy Sherman had in mind when she stated “colleagues will say that I am a fair [and] balanced negotiator.”

In sum, neither Wendy Sherman nor many of her colleagues are what they pretend to be. They are not honest and objective negotiators who are genuinely trying to resolve peacefully a dispute between the West and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program. In the guise of representing the interests of the people of the United States of America, these individuals are in fact representing the interests of a colonial power in the Middle East. There is a saying in Persian to the effect that the pagan considers everyone else to have the same faith as himself.  It appears that when Mrs. Sherman stated that “deception is part of the DNA,” she was thinking of herself and many of her own colleagues.

Another round of Iran-P5+1 meeting is scheduled for November 7 and 8. It follows the meetings on October 15-16 in Vienna, which were the first of such meetings during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani. In these meetings Iran offered a set of proposals. Even though the details remained confidential, there were some reports as to what was proposed—all of which, of course, were denied by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. According to these reports, the set of proposals included Iran freezing its production of 20% enriched uranium and converting the stock of such uranium into fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor that produces medical isotopes. In addition, it was reported, Iran offered to relinquish spent fuel from a yet-to-be-operational Arak heavy water reactor. Moreover, the reports contended that Iran agreed to sign the so-called Additional Protocol—which would allow for the most intrusive inspection of Iran’s nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency—once unilateral and multilateral sanctions were lifted.

Iran’s set of proposals, if in fact true, were not that far apart from what had been offered by the P5+1 to Iran during the presidency of Ahmadinejad. Under normal circumstances, one would expect the two sides to reach some sort of agreement, given that their offers and counter offers were close. But we are not dealing with normal circumstances. As I have pointed out in my previous essays, Israel, which is not interested in any peaceful settlement of the dispute, basically sets the agenda for these meetings, not only through US officials, such as Wendy Sherman, but through British and French officials. Just before the last meetings, on October 10, 2013, Haaretz reported that “high-ranking” British and French diplomats arrived in Israel to meet with their “Israeli counterparts.” The delegations, according to the report, included individuals who represent Britain and France at the P5+1 and Iran meetings.

More importantly, Israel has nearly a veto power over any agreement that might ever be reached. Reuters reported on October 12, 2013, that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande to tell them “sanctions must not be eased.” The same message has been delivered ad nauseam by Netanyahu et al. to President Obama. But that is not all. Israel fortifies its position by pressuring the US Congress, mainly through its numerous lobby groups and its surrogate Senators and Congressmen. The Jewish Daily Forward reported on October 25, 2013, that for “members of Congress, the pressure is to not just maintain, but to increase the current far-reaching economic and trade sanctions against Iran. And it’s coming not just from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington but also from the local level, district-by-district, where Jewish groups are engaged in a push that is almost unprecedented in its intensity and breadth.” The situation is such that the White House has to beg these same groups to allow negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran to proceed, at least temporality. On October 29, 2013, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that a “small coterie of Jewish organizational leaders” will meet “with top staff at the National Security Council to discuss Iran, according to the White House and officials of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.” The following day Al-Monitor reported that the officials who were present at the meeting were National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Deputy National Security Advisors Antony Blinken and Ben Rhodes, and, of course, Under Secretary Wendy Sherman.

The Obama Administration’s policy of “tough diplomacy” toward Iran, originally manufactured by Israeli lobby groups, has failed to bring about its desired results. The economic pain, induced by the most colossal sanctions ever imposed on a country, has not succeeded in bringing the disgruntled Iranians into the streets and preparing the ground for a naval blockade of Iran and military actions. The failure of the policy, as well as the departure of some of the original brains behind it, such as Dennis Ross and Gary Samore, has created an opportunity for the US to change course. But would Israel, its lobby groups and its surrogates in the US government, allow a different path to be followed? Would they allow the P5+1 and Iran to settle the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program? Or would they veto any peaceful resolution of the conflict and push for more sanctions and war? Whatever the answer, the DNA of Iranians has no bearing on the matter.

Sasan Fayazmanesh is Professor Emeritus of Economics at California State University, Fresno. He can be reached at: sasan.fayazmanesh@gmail.com.  His new book Containing Iran: Obama’s Policy of “Tough Diplomacy” will be available in December, 2013.