Heart of Empire — November 15, 2013, 3:04 pm

Kerry, Iran, and the Wisdom of James Baker

Why John Kerry was bested by France and Israel in negotiations with Iran, and how the Obama Administration could get around the U.S. sanctions regime

John Kerry and Benjamin Netanyahu, May 23–24, 2013. Photograph by the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv

John Kerry and Benjamin Netanyahu, May 23–24, 2013. Photograph by the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv

Back when James Baker III served as secretary of state for George Bush the First, a senior U.S. diplomat pointed out to him that “every administration leaves office having conceived an intense dislike for the French and the Israelis.” “What do you say about someone who comes into office feeling that way?” replied Baker with a laugh.

The Francophile John Kerry did not arrive at Foggy Bottom equipped with Baker’s useful insight, but the scales must now be falling from his eyes. After being humiliated by Bibi Netanyahu in his quixotic attempt to broker an Israel–Palestine peace settlement — Palestinian negotiators have resigned en masse over Israel’s contemptuous intransigence — he has been further humiliated by the last-minute French sabotage of promising recent negotiations with Iran.

Assuming that the deal remains unconsummated when negotiations resume on November 20, the only way Kerry and Obama can prevent Iran from sliding back into hardline isolation will be for them to seize the initiative and decree some sanctions relief for Iran without clearance from Congress, France, or the Israelis (assuming there’s any difference between the three). Just how he can do this I will explain momentarily.

Desperate to duck accusations that the U.S. has been humbled by cheese-eaters, Kerry has tried to suggest that it was in fact Iran who scuppered the Geneva negotiations over its nuclear program, but statements from France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius — for example “One wants a deal . . . but not a sucker’s deal” — make it clear who was responsible. Ten years ago, of course, the French were earning Washington’s enmity for promoting an entirely successful settlement with Iran on nuclear issues. That was a different era. Dominique de Villepin, the foreign minister who defied Bush over the invasion of Iraq, dragged the British and German foreign ministers with him to Tehran and convinced the Iranians to freeze their enrichment program pending further negotiations. The Bush Administration made sure those negotiations never happened so, after two years, Iran’s centrifuges started up again.

After becoming president of France in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy — allegedly inspired by George W. Bush — threw France’s diplomatic weight in the opposite direction, putting enormous energy into bringing Iran to its knees and personally exhorting other European leaders to follow his course. When Barack Obama sought a deal to swap highly enriched fuel for less enriched fuel in 2009, Paris “did everything to kill the idea,” according to a French diplomatic source.

Sarkozy exited the Élysée Palace in 2012, but left behind him at the Quai d’Orsay (home of the foreign ministry) a tightly knit group of officials, including its political director, Jacques Audibert, and Simon de Galbert, its director for disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation. Such people, I am told, “drank from the cup of neoconservatism.” Many had graduated from the ideological swamp of French leftist theory to an equally fantastical adherence to core neocon tenets: unswerving obedience to Israel’s dictates, coupled with militarism lightly disguised as promotion of democracy.

Adding to the mix was incoming foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who had served as prime minister in the mid-1980s. During that period, the kidnapping of French hostages in Lebanon, as well as terrorist attacks in Paris, imbued him with deep antipathy to the ayatollahs.

France’s sabotage of the recent negotiations gave Israel the breathing space it needed to mobilize Congress against any further possibility of settlement this side of a restoration of the Iranian monarchy. In the past week Capitol Hill has morphed into the Knesset. Israeli government ministers throng the halls urging deferential legislators to reject any agreement coming out of the next round of negotiations, and instead to stiffen sanctions against Iran. The hapless Kerry argues, correctly, that Israeli “intelligence” on Iran’s nuclear program is fraudulent, but senators are having none of it. The Iranian administration’s shock-and-awe assault on U.S. policy — which has included more concessions, even on Syria, than anyone in Washington dared hope for — appears to have come to naught.

However, should he possess the courage, Obama still has it in his power to pursue an agreement with Iran by offering unilateral inducements for them to at least freeze its dreaded uranium-enrichment program. (Rarely mentioned amid the political debate is the unanimous conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that there is no Iranian bomb program.) Most immediately, as Obama well knows, Iranians are suffering because they find it hard to import humanitarian goods such as food, medicine, and medical equipment. Although these items are in theory excluded from sanctions, in practice U.S. restrictions on Iranian financial transactions preclude normal commercial trade in them. So while Iran still has foreign currency income from oil sales to such countries as China, Japan, and Turkey (where incoming legislation will effectively terminate the imports), it cannot convert this money into the currencies of countries from which it needs to buy goods. Indian banks, for example, will not help convert Iranian rupee holdings because they are fearful of being sanctioned by the United States.

Crucially, however, sanctions on Iranian banks fall under an Executive Order, EO 13382, that can be revoked by the president without requiring him to consult Congress. Section 104 of the 2010 Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act requires the imposition of sanctions on any bank (or anyone else) that the U.S. Treasury Department has already found to be acting in a sanctionable manner. Most Iranian banks have been found to be so liable and consequently been sanctioned. But lawyers who specialize in such matters tell me that Obama could simply instruct the U.S. Treasury to reverse its finding on three Iranian banks, Mallat, Melli, and Tejarat, that have physical branches in India, Germany, Turkey, and elsewhere. Under Section 104, sanctions only kick in when a bank has been declared by Treasury to be guilty of aiding a forbidden weapons program; reversing the decrees on those three banks would allow them to facilitate the trade in food and medicine that is urgently needed in Iran.

Given the endemic indecision of our chief executive, this seems an unlikely outcome. Meanwhile the brutal treatment accorded Kerry on the Hill this week almost makes one forgive the arrogant naïveté with which he embarked on his duties. The current sorry spectacle conjures nostalgia for James Baker, who at least arrived on the job equipped with the necessary prejudices.

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(@andrewmcockburn) is the Washington Editor of Harper’s Magazine.

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