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Response to U.S. Accusations and My Private Diplomacy

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On January 18, 2021, I became the final target of Trump’s failed “maximum pressure” strategy on Iran that had gone into overdrive in the last couple of weeks of that president who upended domestic and international norms.  Although I was working legally and fully transparently as the international affairs consultant to Iran’s Mission to UN since 2007 without any problem, during which time I participated in a number of US-Iran Track II Diplomacy, e.g., at US Association of UN, as well as several TV debates on the US-owned Voice of America, suddenly I was subjected to a high-profile FBI arrest accusing me of being Iran’s “secret agent” and “deceiving the editors” by publishing “pro-Iran propaganda disguised as objective analysis.”  Sadly, the mainstream US media, as well as a host of Iran opposition groups, have parroted the US’s allegations against me without a breath of pause, or bothering to examine my books and articles to judge for themselves if there is any truth to these allegations. I submit to the readers there isn’t any.

To this effect, I have published a compendium of my articles — in New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Guardian, San Francisco Chronicle, UN Chronicle, Harvard Theological Review, Brown’s Journal of World Affairs, Columbia Journal of International Affairs, Der Tagesspiegel, Middle East Eye, Al-Jazeera, and others — to prove the sheer absurdity of the politically-motivated charges against me — that were clearly intended to throw yet another monkey wrench in President Biden’s Iran policy, in light of Iran’s denunciation of my arrest as an act of “hostage-taking.”  I have also written over a dozen books, on Iran, Middle East, UN, theology, ecology, literature, and poetry — that are highly praised in influential journals such as the Foreign Affairs (June, 2020) and the Middle East Journal (Winter, 2020), thus establishing my credential as a prominent Middle East expert — until my arrest, which incidentally coincided with the 25th anniversary of my arrest by Harvard University Police, in January 1996, in order to silence my whistleblowing on the university’s ties to the opponents of Mr. Salman Rushdie, who has recounted my efforts on his behalf, together with the late Mike Wallace of CBS’ “60 Minutes,” in his autobiography, Joseph Anton.  I have documented Harvard’s horrendous abuse of my human rights in my book, Looking For Rights at Harvard, which is adorned with praises by Wallace, late historian Howard Zinn, and the M.I.T. linguist, Noam Chomsky.  Sadly, history repeats itself and I now find myself in a similar predicament as back in 1996, when after being fully exonerated I commenced a civil action that went to jury trial against the same Harvard cops who invaded my home at early morning hours pursuant to a fictitious crime story.

A clue to the absurdity of the present charges against me, the US government readily admits in the complaint that they knew about my relationship with Iran’s Mission to UN since 2007, which, in turn, raises the curious question why they took no action to stop what they now brand as “national security threat?”  I regularly received checks from a UN bank account and deposited in my account at Chase Manhattan Bank, in a word never sought to hide it from the watchful eyes of US.

Not only that, I have a long track record in lobbying Iran for the sake of (US) prisoners in Iran.  Case in point, I once carried a letter from Chomsky to Iran’s foreign minister on the three American hikers held in Iran during 2009-2011, and also spent months assisting the family of FBI agent missing in Iran, Robert Levinson, by carrying messages from his daughter to Iranian authorities, arranging meetings, and writing article calling for Levinson’s immediate release, available in my above-mentioned book.  I undertook similar efforts for a number of other prisoners in Iran, including the Wilson Center Scholar, Halleh Esfandiari.  Always committed to the goal of US-Iran peace and reconciliation, I devoted numerous articles on the subject, e.g., “US-Iran Search for Common Ground”(SF Chronicle), and “Trump and Rouhani Should Talk” (NYTimes).  In fact, after publishing the latter in September, 2018, I initiated a personal diplomacy by going to UN and meeting the political assistants of Secretary General, after directly communicating with him, and urging them to facilitate a meeting of US and Iranian presidents on the sideline of General Assembly summit.  I had engaged in a similar gambit 18 years earlier, with much help from Mr. Giandomenico Picco, the UN’s Special Envoy on Dialogue Among Civilizations, by trying to arrange a meeting of the then presidents Clinton and Khatami.  Indeed, what would modern diplomacy be without the occasional input of private diplomacy?

To give another example of my ‘private diplomacy’, I once wrote a letter in the New York Times on the subject of “incident at sea agreement” between US and Iran and then followed it by penning a joint proposal with the former US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who was the head of Preventive Diplomacy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, which we pitched to US and Iran simultaneously but was sadly rejected by the Pentagon. 

None of my initiatives cited above were instructed or even shared with the Iranian authorities and I simply heeded my own calling as a responsible political scientist, following the footsteps of, among others, professor Fred Halliday, an old friend about whom I have written a eulogy on Open Democracy.  The US’s claim that I pretended to be neutral in my publications is also rubbish, in light of the fact that I consistently identified myself as “former adviser to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team.” I have also acted as media consultant to CBS’ “60 Minutes,” ABC’s “20/20” an Fox News, repeatedly helping both Mr. Mike Wallace and his son, Chris Wallace, with Iran interviews, and yet never bothered to mention that in any of my publications, just as my international affairs consulting with Iran’s Mission had absolutely no bearing on my articles and books, which carry glowing praises by several scholars in the field.  I am indeed proud of my legacy, which includes writing an open letter to Iran’s president calling for mandatory education on the holocaust as a “moral imperative,” penning an oped in Boston Globe on the mistreatment of women, and urging Iran to stop talking about leaving the NPT, among other articles when I saw the need to criticize Iran.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration, which thankfully departed short of a full-scale war with Iran, was incensed by public criticisms of its confrontational Iran policy and illegal exit from an international nuclear agreement, thus targeting me on its way out, as part of its flurry of foreign misbehavior in its waning days aimed at causing headache for President Biden.  As expected, Iran’s regional rivals, led by Israel and Saudi Arabia, are delighted by the news of my arrest, which has in effect put out of commission a leading expert on Iran’s nuclear affairs, only two months after the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist inside Iran.  No wonder, the pro-Israeli and pro-Saudi media and pundits have been salivating over my FBI arrest, which is in sharp contrast to others accused of violating the same law, Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) with some only receiving curtesy calls or notices in the mailboxes, without experiencing my ordeal.  This is a clear evidence of racist discrimination and double standards, which unfortunately I am familiar with after enduring the above-mentioned hardship with Harvard.

Afrasiabi is a political scientist and author of several books — on Iran, Islam, ecology, Middle East, UN reform, as well as poetry and fiction — and numerous articles in international newspapers and journals.

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Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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