Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus
Sunday October 13th, 2013
By Barrie Dunsmore
This Just In 228
The global ripple effects of the latest Washington showdown have already undermined America’s reputation as a country which can always be counted on to live up to its international commitments. For those who are driven by a pathological hatred for President Barack Obama, that may be just fine - as crippling his ability to effectively govern seems to be their ultimate goal. But for those Americans who truly care about the future of their country, this is not good news.
When Tea Party Republicans in Congress use the threat of forcing the United States of America into defaulting on its debt as a way to overturn a law they don’t like, America's friends and foes in the world are astounded - not least because they fear such a default could tank the entire global economy. Even with a temporary reprieve, serious damage has been done to one of America’s greatest assets – its image as a solid symbol of political stability. That “Shining City on the Hill” which President Ronald Reagan was so fond of evoking, was not a deadbeat place which might not pay its bills – nor one where the president can be paralyzed by an extremist congressional minority.
I see serious trouble ahead related to this latter point of diminished presidential authority. Foreign governments who do business with American officials, or who enter into negotiations with its diplomats, want to know that the commitments made by the president and his cabinet secretaries won’t later be undone by a reckless minority of lawmakers with special axes to grind. Given recent events you can understand why they may now harbor such doubts.
This has special relevance right now because on October 15th, the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany are scheduled to begin a new round of talks with Iran about its nuclear ambitions. The world powers want Iran to prove its claim that it is not trying to develop nuclear weapons. To do that the Iranians will be expected to stop nuclear enrichment, and to open all of their nuclear sites to United Nations inspectors. In exchange, Iran demands that its right to a peaceful nuclear program be respected, and that the international community’s very intrusive economic sanctions imposed on Iranian oil, shipping and financial transactions be lifted, according to an agreed upon schedule. Sounds simple. It’s not. But the political tone for these new negotiations is better now than at any time in many years.
The surprise election to the presidency this past summer of the moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani was the first signal of change in Iran. Rouhani, campaigned on a platform to end the nuclear standoff and get sanctions lifted. He easily defeated all of his hard line opponents. This was followed by a series of positive signals including American television interviews in which Rouhani repeatedly stated that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, nor does it want one. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly endorsed this new attitude of what he called “heroic flexibility.”
Rouhani continued what some critics dismissed as a “charm offensive” during his visit to New York for the start of the United Nations General Assembly last month. Gone was the Holocaust denial and the threats to wipe Israel off the map which were the staples of his predecessor’s rhetoric. In their UN addresses, both Rouhani and President Obama were notably moderate in tone. The highlight of the visit came when President Obama, apparently at the suggestion of member of the Iranian delegation, telephoned Rouhani as he made his way to the airport to fly home to Teheran. The call lasted 15 minutes, but its real significance was that it was the first verbal contact between an Iranian and an American president in 34 years. One analyst suggested this represented a tectonic shift in the American-Iranian relationship after more than three decades of hostility- equal to President Richard Nixon’s trip to Communist China in 1972. I happen to think that’s an over statement – but the call was significant nevertheless.
Still both Rouhani and Obama face significant domestic resistance from those who who fear their president will be too conciliatory. When Rouhani returned home to Iran he was greeted with cheers, reflecting the view of average Iranians who want to escape the crippling sanctions which are making their lives miserable. But Rohani was also met with some jeers by a group of hardliners, one of which threw a shoe at him. As I detailed in my last column, there is strong opposition in Iran to giving up its nuclear program, particularly within the leadership of the powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps who believe Iran must have its own nuclear weapons.
Ultimately the final decision will come from Supreme Leader Khamenei- and for now he seems to be slightly hedging his bet. In an official statement this past week Khamenei said, “We support the (Rouhani) government’s diplomatic movement, including the trip to New York, because we trust the government and we are optimistic regarding it.” However he then went on to say, “But some of what happened in New York, was not proper, because the U.S. Government is not trustworthy, is self- important and illogical and breaks promises.”
According to Christopher Dickey, Middle East Editor for Newsweek and the Daily Beast (and long-time fellow foreign correspondent), “ the essential subtext of Khamenei’s remarks…..is that (he) is watching what is happening on Capitol Hill and wondering if there is any prayer that Obama can keep commitments made in negotiations.” That is not an unreasonable concern. As Dickey points out, “many of the most painful sanctions, dating back to the mid-1990’s have been imposed by the U.S. Congress- and there appears to be a bipartisan push (yes bipartisan) to make them tougher.”
If Congress were to refuse to lift its sanctions in the context of a potential agreement President Obama and the world powers had reached with the Iranians, that would of course scuttle the deal - and likely lead to another major Middle East War.
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