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New statements, published memoirs trigger analyst concerns over Iran foreign minister's ideological extremism

Posted by Albert Gersh - January 28, 2014

  • New statements, published memoirs trigger analyst concerns over Iran foreign minister's ideological extremism
  • New poll: American voters disapprove of Obama administration stance on Iran, want Congress to pass sanctions and maintain final oversight
  • U.S. Treasury officials warn Turkey over economic, diplomatic rush back into Iran
  • Egyptian officials scramble to restore stability against the backdrop of tumultuous U.S.-Egypt ties
  • Analysts are expressing increasingly pointed concerns that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif may lack either the ability or the willingness to help secure a comprehensive deal between Iran and the West that would put Tehran's nuclear program verifiably beyond use for weaponization, with his recently published memoirs and multiple recent interviews all being marked by intransigent rhetoric and maximalist negotiating positions. Ali Alfoneh and Reuel Marc Gerecht, both senior fellows at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, reviewed Zarif's Mr. Ambassador: A Conversation with Mohammad-Javad Zarif and flatly assessed that "the affable foreign minister turns out to be every bit as religiously ideological as the radicalized student activist he was in the late 1970s." Zarif emerges as a dogged ideologue who remains committed to exporting the Islamic Revolution beyond Iran's borders, even as he lacks the domestic power base that would allow him to deliver concessions being promised to the West. The combination, note Alfoneh and Gerecht, "serves as a bad omen for the Islamic Republic's interim nuclear agreement in Geneva." Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, evaluating their analysis, pointed specifically to passages in which Zarif described Iran as having a "fundamental problem" with America, noting that the friction is grounded in Iran's "raison d’etre": "trying to change the international order." Goldberg suggested that "U.S. negotiators facing Zarif might be facing someone who is more rigidly ideological than they are prepared to acknowledge." Meanwhile tape reemerged over the weekend, posted by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), of Zarif telling George Stephanopoulos that critics who castigate Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for the latter's Holocaust denial are taking him out of context. That claim is false, and may deepen concerns that Zarif is unwilling to acknowledge - let alone address - the broad ideological and diplomatic gaps between Iran and the West.
  • The Daily Beast Tuesday reported on a new poll, conducted by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman and sponsored by The Israel Project, showing that "a majority of Americans disapprove of President [Barack] Obama's handling of the Iran issue and want Congress to have a say in any final agreement with Tehran over its nuclear program," and documenting support across all demographics for Congressional legislation that would impose sanctions on the Islamic Republic should nuclear negotiations fail. The full poll and a slide deck outlining the cross tabs are here, and The Tower unpacked several different sections of the poll here. In the broadest sense, Americans favor holding Iran's feet to the fire via continued or even boosted sanctions until Tehran dismantles its nuclear program. Eighty-three percent of voters overall – and 83% of Democrats – favor using economic sanctions to pressure Iran. Seventy-seven percent of Americans – and 70% of Democrats – want those sanctions maintained or strengthened beyond their current levels. Sixty-two percent of Americans – and 55% of Democrats – believe that Iran should have to “dismantle its nuclear infrastructure and give up the ability to build a nuclear weapons” before sanctions relief should be granted. In a more specific legislative sense, an overwhelming majority of Americans favor passing the conditional sanctions legislation - dubbed the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act - that 59 senators have already co-sponsored (78%-15%). After hearing arguments on both sides of the policy debate regarding the legislation, sixty-three percent of Americans continued to express support for the new legislation, as did majorities across all parties (55% of Democrats, 65% of Independents, and 71% of Republicans). President Barack Obama on Tuesday night used the foreign policy section of his State of the Union address to among other things renew his threat to veto any such legislation. The Hill contextualized the President's stance within an ongoing legislative battle in which "Democrats and Republicans in both chambers have criticized the president's interim nuclear deal." The Joint Plan of Action (JPA) allows Iran unlimited uranium enrichment up to 5% purity, continued work at its Arak plutonium production facility, and the freedom to continue advancing its ballistic missile program.
  • Turkey seems set to renew its diplomatic relationship with Iran and deepen its trade ties with the Islamic republic, even as top U.S. officials pleaded with Turkish officials on Monday to heed Washington's insistence that remaining sanctions on Iran mean that the country "is not open for business." Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodgan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) had for the better part of a decade cultivated close ties with the Iranian regime, providing valuable economic and diplomatic lifelines to Tehran in the face of Western efforts to isolate the Iranians. Bilateral relations between the two countries were severely strained during the opening years of the Syrian conflict, though Turkey's role as a sanctions-busting pipeline for Iranian assets remained. Turkey's rush to fully reenter Iran's markets since the announcement of the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) has come at such a pace that it has wholesale threatened the White House's insistence that the relief provided to Iran was "limited, temporary, targeted, and reversible." Turkey has pursued diplomatic rapprochement at a similar pace, and Turkish media announced Tuesday that Iran and Turkey will establish a high-level cooperation council during a Tehran visit that Erdogan will leave for Wednesday. The administration earlier this week dispatched David Cohen, Treasury's Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, to press Ankara on its posture and warn Turkish businesses that they "really should hold off." The degree to which Cohen's protestations were effective is unclear.
  • Egyptian officials on Tuesday brought to court the country's Muslim Brotherhood-linked former president Mohammed Morsi to stand trial on charges relating to a 2011 jail break, as continuing violence targeting Egyptian political and security institutions continued to rock the country for the second week in a row. General Mohamed Saeed, head of the Interior Ministry's technical office and a chief aide to Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim, was gunned down outside his house. The attack comes in the aftermath of a series of bombings last week that targeted Cairo police stations, and a few months after senior police official Mohamed Mabrouk was assassinated. Ibrahim himself had been targeted last September by a suicide bomber. Cairo's efforts to restore stability and security have diplomatic as well as geopolitical dimensions. Egyptian leaders, up to and prominently including the country's presumptive next president Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, have explicitly criticized the U.S. for insufficient support for the army-backed government against Islamist extremists. A diplomatic snub by Washington earlier this month, involving a bilateral trade summit, threatens to erode relations further.

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