from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Reassuring, Not Challenging, Iran

December 22, 2015

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Since the signing of the nuclear deal with Islamic Republic of Iran, that government has treated the Obama administration with contempt. U.S. officials might have hoped Iran’s conduct would improve, but it has worsened. Iran sent more Revolutionary Guard troops to fight in Syria, for example; it conducted two ballistic missile tests in violation of a Security Council resolution; leaders continue to chant "Death to America;" and it has imprisoned more Americans.

What is the Obama administration’s response? To beg their pardon.

I refer to a remarkable letter sent by Secretary of State Kerry to Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif. Iran, in an additional gesture of contempt, has complained about new United States visa requirements placed on persons who have traveled to Iran (or Iraq, Sudan, or Syria). These requirements were recently added so that people who had visited those countries could not come to the United States without getting a visa even if they were from countries that are part of the "visa waiver" program. The obvious purpose: to avoid having terrorists get to the United States through a program that allows them to avoid the visa application process and the information it would supply.

Iran has complained that "Zionist lobbies" put the new rules in place, a good reminder of the nature of the regime.

How did the United States react? By denouncing the Iranian attacks on "Zionist lobbies," which came from the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry? By noting that Iran is the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism? By recalling the fact that Iran just violated U.N. Security Council resolutions, and continues to jail innocent American citizens?

Nope. By offering reassurance that we certainly do not mean to disadvantage Iran in any possible way. Here is the text of Kerry’s letter:

December 19, 2015

His Excellency Mohammad Javad Zarif

Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran Tehran

Dear Mr. Minister:

Thanks for a constructive meeting yesterday. I wanted to get back to you in response to your inquiry about amendments to our Visa Waiver Program. First, I want to confirm to you that we remain fully committed to the sanctions lifting provided for under the JCPOA. We will adhere to the full measure of our commitments, per the agreement. Our team is working hard to be prepared and as soon as we reach implementation day we will lift appropriate sanctions.

I am also confident that the recent changes in visa requirements passed in Congress, which the Administration has the authority to waive, will not in any way prevent us from meeting our JCPOA commitments, and that we will implement them so as not to interfere with legitimate business interests of Iran. To this end, we have a number of potential tools available to us, including multiple entry ten-year business visas, programs for expediting business visas, and the waiver authority provided under the new legislation. I am happy to discuss this further and provide any additional clarification.

Secretary of State John Kerry

Let’s put aside the thanks to Zarif for a "constructive meeting." We can be sure that Zarif was advancing Iranian national interests, and for doing that he deserves no thanks from us. The tone of the letter would be fine were it addressed to the foreign minister of Canada. Must we really assure the representative of this vile, repressive regime that regardless of its behavior we will bend over backwards and use every tool possible ("we have a number of potential tools available to us, including multiple entry ten-year business visas, programs for expediting business visas, and the waiver authority provided under the new legislation") to defend and advance its "legitimate business interests?"

Here’s one of many possible alternative formulations: the ability and willingness of the United States government to use the tools at its disposal will depend on the treatment Iran accords American citizens whom it has unjustly detained and imprisoned. Mr. Kerry seems more worried about offending Iran than freeing those Americans--whose imprisonment was an issue set aside during the nuclear negotiations. Must we set it aside forever as we protect Iran’s "legitimate business interests?"