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Lift Sanctions, Normalize Relations: What President Obama Should Say Tonight to Close the Deal With Iran

The State of the Union offers President Obama a high-profile opportunity to finally close the deal with Iran over its nuclear program by accepting the need for U.S. concessions on sanctions.
 
 
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Dear Mr. President: As you put the final touches to your State of the Union Address, I urge you to avoid overstating the “threat” from Iran. Indeed, I hope you might take this august occasion to declare your willingness to lift sanctions on Iran as a final step toward a deal permanently constraining Iran’s nuclear program and to begin normalizing relations with this important country.

In recent months, Iranian leaders have signaled a readiness to reach a nuclear accord and open a broader dialogue with your administration on other pressing regional issues – if only the United States would start treating Iran with some respect, rather than endlessly buffeting the country with insults, threats and punishments.

People often criticize Iranians for interminable haggling, part of their “bazaar culture,” but this looks like a moment when it is the Americans who won’t take yes for an answer. Iranian officials have repeatedly disavowed a desire to build nuclear weapons, have insisted that they are only interested in nuclear energy and have expressed a willingness to transfer much of their enriched uranium out of the country. But what they want in return is meaningful relief from economic sanctions and a repudiation from U.S. policymakers that their real goal is “regime change.”

Since the stated rationale of the sanctions was to compel Iran to accept guarantees on its nuclear program – not to overthrow the country’s Islamic republic – it would seem to be a no-brainer: pocket the nuclear guarantees in exchange for sanction relief.

But there is growing bafflement among some involved in these negotiations over what the hold-up is on your end. Yes, you’ve been installing a new national security team, and the likes of Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham would get angry if you concluded a peace agreement with Iran. But they’re already threatening to filibuster Chuck Hagel at Defense and John Brennan at CIA over the Benghazi incident. So what do you have to lose? If you unveiled a dramatic gesture for peace and stability in the Middle East, it might make their obstruction look even pettier.

Plus, if you truly do want to change the arc of history, why not show that you can be as forceful as Richard Nixon when he ended years of hostility between the United States and Communist China by engaging its leaders despite his disdain for their political/economic system? Those ideological differences have not prevented the two countries from becoming important trading partners and collaborating on many mutual interests.

You could do the same for the Middle East by striking a nuclear deal with Iran and exploring other areas of possible agreement and cooperation. By delaying further on the nuclear talks, you only give troublemakers on all sides more opportunities to sabotage an agreement and prod the United States and Iran toward a violent confrontation.

Dubious Anniversary

This State of the Union also represents a dubious anniversary of sorts, coming a decade after George W. Bush’s address in which he framed his mendacious case for invading Iraq, including his infamous “16 words” based on forged documents: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

You, Mr. President, could put a capstone to that era of unnecessary hostilities in the Middle East by announcing a new framework for peace.

I should note here that a decade ago I issued a public plea to President Bush to change direction from his course toward war. I  urged him to “beware the consequences of favoring ideologues and spin-doctors over the professional intelligence officers paid to serve you.” Obviously, my appeal was unsuccessful. The die was already cast. His mind was set on war and the “intel” that he would cite had been carefully crafted to serve that purpose.

 
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