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    Middle East
     Nov 5, '13

America's forked tongue on Iran
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Against a backdrop of long-standing animosity and unresolved disputes between Iran and the United States, the rally in Tehran marking the 34th anniversary of the 1979 takeover of the US embassy there has taken place at a crucial time for the marathon nuclear negotiations due to resume in Geneva next week. The collective expression of antipathy towards the Western power to some extent mirrors the avalanche of anti-Iran hostilities in the US media, particularly during the past few weeks.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is directly responsible for fueling anti-American sentiment, not simply because of its record of hostilities that include covert cyber-warfare and presidential authorizations that have added weight to "crippling sanctions" on

Iran, but also due to the contradictory and incoherent approach of US officials; officials who include Wendy Sherman. The top US negotiator, Sherman billed the last Geneva round as "serious and substantive" and, yet, in the same breath insulted the Iranian national character with her undiplomatic statement that deception is part of Iranians' DNA.

Not only that, Sherman - who is under considerable fire by the pro-Israel lobby in Washington for supposedly tilting in favor of a deal with Iran - has now gone on Israeli television denying categorically that the US has any intention of offering sanctions relief to Iran. "We have not offered any sanctions relief on Iran, and we have not removed any sanctions," Sherman assured the Israeli audience; this while her boss US Secretary of State John Kerry has gone on offensive against Iran in his trip to Saudi Arabia.

From Iran's vantage point, such contradictory behavior by the US is hardly surprising. Iran's collective memory is more attuned to examples of insincerity, hypocrisy, and betrayal of promises than it is to memories of anything else. Even the US partners in the "5 +1" cluster that is negotiating with Iran (Russia, China, France, the UK, plus Germany) must be surprised by Sherman's statement, which contradicts the package of incentives that the group offered to Iran at the June 2013 round in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The package set out the tangible easing of sanctions, such as those on Iran's trade with precious metals and the export of petrochemical products, in exchange for certain Iranian nuclear concessions.

The impression given by Sherman is, indeed, that the US may be reversing itself even on those offers, which were questioned by the Iranian negotiators as insufficient and too little compared to the huge demands placed on Iran. If Sherman's statement to the Israeli audience is to be believed, then what is one to make of the participation of US sanctions experts at the last Geneva round, or the "expert-level" negotiations in Geneva last week? Is the US play-acting serious negotiation, and if so is the administration's high-profile lobbying with the United States Congress against new sanctions a tactical ploy - to give the impression of its serious commitment to the nuclear talks?

What fuels such questions is partly the fact that the impending anti-Iran legislation, which targets Iran's oil revenues and intensifies penalties on would-be sanction busters, potentially spells trouble for the US's relations with some of its own allies and trading partners - Turkey, India, China, etc. If enacted into law, the legislation would backfire as a result of a lack of compliance and the fragility of the entire sanctions regime, which has been undermined in European courts by several pro-Iran decisions.

Hence, the unwise pending bills toughening the sanctions on Iran simply invite more foreign policy headaches for American leaders at a crucial time when the US influence in the Middle East is waning and they are winding down a decade of wars in a region filled with uncertainty and instability. By appearing as being opposed to new unilateral sanctions, the White House actually gives the misleading impression that it is pursuing a reasonable line toward Iran when in reality its hard-line negotiation strategy indicates otherwise; that is, a policy entrenched in bullying sanctions that have become the hallmark of the US Iran policy, essentially since mid-1990s.

China's announcement of its intention to commit to "developmental projects" in Iran the US$20 billion of Iranian assets frozen in its banks under the sanctions is a big blow to the US. The projects could conceivably include the energy sector, which is sanctioned by the US law. US hawks will therefore have one more reason to bash China, which together with Russia is now appearing poised to exert real leverage on the US to show more flexibility in the nuclear talks with Iran.

China's timely announcement will sure catch the attention of Sherman and other US officials, and the question is will they now adjust a coercive approach that is fundamentally unsuited to a breakthrough in the nuclear stalemate, or will they stick to their guns and thus widen the rifts in the "5 +1" group, as well as the broader international community?

The ambiguities of the US's Iran policy will be put on full display come the next round of talks in Geneva, unless there is an internal overcoming of the addictive coercive paradigm in favor of a shift toward a more productive approach that Tehran has characterized as opening the possibility of a "win-win". Ending the US "double-speak' is mandatory in order to realize this, otherwise Iranian suspicions will remain that Washington's true intention is a "win-lose".

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For further biographical details, click here. Afrasiabi is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction (2007), Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations (CreateSpace, 2011).

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