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Iran and the Obama Doctrine. Interview with US Ambassador James F. Jeffery

Viewpoints, May 2016
By Avichai Korn

Since the ink dried on the tenuous 2015 nuclear deal in which Iran agreed to cease enrichment of weapons grade plutonium in exchange for a lifting of US sanctions,
America’s ‘peace partner’ has continued to walk a tight rope, funding terrorist organizations, promulgating inflammatory anti-West rhetoric, testing long-range ballistic missiles and escalating a tense international incident with American sailors (January, 2016). Ambassador James F. Jeffery, former Deputy National Security Advisor and senior American diplomat fears the deal is part of a growing trend in Western policy, which bolsters parties with whom the free world has irreconcilable differences.

 

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Geneva on January 14 for a bilateral meeting to provide guidance to their negotiating teams before their next round of discussions, which begin on January 15. U.S. Mission/Eric Bridiers
Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Credit: United States Mission Geneva/Eric Bridiers [CC BY-ND 2.0]

IPDF: President Obama hailed the nuclear deal as: an ‘historical process’ achieved through ‘diplomacy without causing another war in the Middle East.” In hindsight, was there any legitimacy to this claim or was it another ‘peace in our times’ speech?

JFJ: To begin with, the deal moved Iran from being on the brink of getting a nuclear weapon, which is good in and of itself. However, one gets the feeling that (it) was part of buttressing a general President Barack Obama worldview; this being that diplomacy works while military force doesn’t. The reality is that without hard power (international sanctions and threats of military force) from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and two successive American administrations, the Iranian regime would not have come to the table.

IPDF: America is clearly the stronger power, yet it seems like Secretary of State John Kerry continues to play a weak hand against a country compared to which America is vastly more powerful and influential.

JFJ: On the little things, it’s easier to get the US to cave because we are an open society and there is disagreement and disaccord between nations and within the government. An example is the testing of ballistic missiles (March 2016). Iran said ‘we have the same right to these missiles as anyone else’ and while we don’t agree with them, it wasn’t part of the JCBOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). Once you lift global sanctions on Iran, which are the only sanctions that matter, we are condemned to the international lowest common denominator.

“Negotiations are the tactics, the substance is what brings the parties to the table. To say ‘it’s diplomacy as opposed to force’ is nonsensical. Force is an inherent part of diplomacy”-Ambassador James F. Jeffery

IPDF: Can you explain the diplomatic process behind the seizure of the American sailors found in Iranian territorial waters (January 12th, 2016). Was there any legitimacy behind Iran’s capture of American servicemen and their treatment?

JFJ: Iran’s conduct was not against international law but it was against international protocol. The normal course of action, if a foreign military vessel enters your waters, is to order it to leave. The problem was that this was essentially a commando unit of small boats that are designed to deploy Navy Seals… We are not in a state of war with Iran. Once it was clear that these people (the sailors) didn’t present a threat, they should have been treated with courtesy and they weren’t.

IPDF: In a recent interview (New Yorker, April 25th) Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif suggested that America has failed to truly lift sanctions and allow trade with Iran. Is there any truth in these statements?

JFJ: A combination of both: The first problem, as we made clear, is that we are going to keep up our non-nuclear sanctions, namely, those on money laundering and terror. These are very broad and often overlap with the nuclear sanctions. The second problem is the role of the dollar in international commerce. Even if a transaction between the Iranian rial and another currency occurs, it often gets transformed to American dollars. We have made it clear that Iran cannot use the American banking system.

 

Ambassador James F. Jeffery served as Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor in the George W. Bush administration, as well as American Ambassador to Albania, Turkey and Iraq during successive presidential administrations. Currently, he serves as the Philip Solondz distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.