Murphy leads discussion on Iran policy

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) led a panel at Greenwich Library about the country’s policy toward Iran. Mr. Murphy does not support additional sanctions as negotiations are ongoing and heard from both supporters and critics of that stance. —John Ferris Robben

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) led a panel at Greenwich Library about the country’s policy toward Iran. Mr. Murphy does not support additional sanctions as negotiations are ongoing and heard from both supporters and critics of that stance. —John Ferris Robben

As a tentative peace process slowly moves forward, the country remains sharply divided on what course to take toward Iran. U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) brought that discussion to Greenwich last week.

Before a crowd with advocates on both sides of the issue, Mr. Murphy led a panel discussion of Iran, the debate over more economic sanctions and the possibility of being able to convince the country, through diplomacy, to give up its ambitions to have a nuclear weapon.

Mr. Murphy was joined on the panel by Robert Lesser, president of the Jewish Federation Association, and William Luers, director of the Iran Project think tank and the former U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia and Venezuela, but with a bipartisan bill in the Senate being put forth by U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) calling for additional economic sanctions despite Iran’s insistence that such an action will force it away from the negotiating table and President Barack Obama saying he would veto such a bill, it was Mr. Murphy’s position that got the most attention.

“Now is not the right time for the Senate to pass a new round of sanctions,” Mr. Murphy said. “Our focus should be on supporting the negotiators. The fear is that a new round of sanctions passed today could both give a reason for the hard-liners to win an argument in Iran and push the negotiators away from the table and also, perhaps, splinter our coalition and give reason for countries like Russia and China to walk away from the negotiating table themselves or lessen the sanctions that we have worked so hard to get them to impose.”

Mr. Murphy had said previously he was not in support of the bill and wanted the current negotiations with Iran to go forth without additional sanctions. At the Jan. 22 discussion at Greenwich Library’s Cole Auditorium, he repeated that, while stressing that it was “unquestionably” the policy of the United States that Iran must not be permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon and that efforts should be made to halt that effort as quickly as possible.

“I don’t need to preach to you why this is so important,” Mr. Murphy said. “The idea that a radical regime that has a long history of supporting terrorist groups, of supporting assassination plots against diplomats, supporting those who would do great damage to the United States would possess a nuclear weapon is unthinkable. The idea that they could also have the ability to transfer that ability to their partners such as Hezbollah and other terrorist groups they’re affiliated with is just as unthinkable.”

Current negotiations

But while the policy is clear, the question, Mr. Murphy said, is how best to reach the desired end — Iran not having a nuclear weapon. He gave North Korea as an example of what could happen if a “rogue nation” was not stopped in its ambitions for a nuclear weapon. Mr. Murphy said the several rounds of sanctions that have been in place against Iran have been “crippling” and have brought the Iranian economy to the point that it is so weak that its leadership is forced to come forward to negotiate a peaceful settlement.

Iran’s recently elected president, Hassan Rouhani, has a far more moderate reputation than his predecessors. The country and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry are in active negotiations, and Mr. Murphy said he didn’t believe there should be more sanctions. He said he is hopeful that the current temporary deal, by which Iran has essentially agreed to freeze its work on a nuclear weapon in exchange for some relief on the economic sanctions, could build confidence after decades of mistrust and lead to a permanent agreement that sees work on a weapon dismantled.

Mr. Murphy said he gave President Obama’s administration “a lot of credit” to even get to this point, but said a final deal will be difficult to get, citing Mr. Kerry’s statement that “we’re going to get a good deal or no deal.” Because of that, Mr. Murphy, who put the chances for success at less than 50/50, stressed that people should not assume the temporary deal will automatically lead to a permanent agreement.

“No one should overstate either the concessions made by the Iranians in limiting some of their nuclear programs over the course of the six-month interim or the concessions made with respect to the sanctions, which amount to a very small portion of relief when compared to the overall amount that’s been taken out of the Iranian economy,” Mr. Murphy said. “The point was to show that both sides are willing to give things up to get to the negotiating table. Now that we’re there, we shouldn’t be Pollyana-ish about the prospects for a deal. … There is still a very, very long way to go for the Iranians as well as its supreme leader.”

And while he does not support them now, Mr. Murphy said he would be “at the front of the line to support new crippling sanctions” if Iran does leave the negotiating table over the course of the next six months. He predicted that if that happened, Congress would pass those sanctions within days. Because of that, he said, this disagreement was about strategy, not policy.

Opposing views

That disagreement was on display throughout the evening, both among the other panel members and in the audience. Mr. Lesser, a Stamford resident and a member of the Israel Palestinian Cooperative for Economic Expansion’s board of directors, said there was a lot of common agreement around the issue, but that the time was now for more sanctions to be put in place.

“What’s brought Iran to where we are now is pretty much universally acknowledged to be the sanctions,” Mr. Lesser said. “From our perspective, we believe that if it’s worked and it’s brought them to the table, why not make them tougher and tougher? They’re at the table because they see it as in their interests to stop sanctions and stop the crippling impact on their economy. To make those impacts even more dramatic could push them away from the table in the short run, but it won’t push them away in the long run. They’ll still do what’s in their interests and if it’s in their interests to save their economy, they will come back to the table at some point. Keeping the pressure on them by adding sanctions is not going to be a bad thing.”

Mr. Lesser said he believes it is possible to convince a country like Iran that it is in its own interests to give up pursuit of weapons like this. He said a harder line can be even more effective than the one taken now, especially because of past conduct from Iran and its statements threatening Israel.

“We’re dealing with a country now that has, for many years, flouted international law,” Mr. Lesser said. “They’re not like other countries, so giving them the same rights to enrich or have peaceful nuclear burns is not like giving that to France or Germany. This is a country that flouts international law. We experienced that when the Iranian revolution first began and they took hostages from our embassy. They’ve supported international terrorism and they continue to do so. They’ve said they would use these powers not to destroy their neighbors but to destroy another state that’s a member of the United Nations, and that’s Israel.”

Weakening the sanctions even a little, Mr. Lesser said, threatens the kind of universal acceptance of them in the international business and diplomatic communities that has made them so successful. He claimed that countries and businesses have been afraid to do business with Iran because of the penalties they face as well as an international backlash, creating unofficial sanctions as well that he feels could be harmed by people eager to do business with Iran once things are loosened.

Mr. Lesser stated firmly that Iran “did not deserve” to come back into the world’s fold until it ended its current policies toward its nuclear program. He added that international economic agreements like this were very difficult to form and keep together and he didn’t want to see any change in them before Iran actually did anything to change its policies.

That differed from the opinion of Mr. Luers, who in addition to his diplomatic posts worked for the State Department. With more than three decades of experience as a diplomat, including dealing with the Soviet Union over nuclear issues during the Cold War, Mr. Luers said this was “about as complex a negotiation as I’ve seen” because of the complex scientific questions and the mistrust that’s built up between the United States and its allies and Iran.

“These have been probably the most effective sanctions against an individual country, and they’ve paid off,” Mr. Luers said. “It’s delivered its goods. It’s brought them to the table. Why not add more sanctions? I fully understand the argument and I appreciate the sympathy, but those sanctions were put in to bring Iran to the table and they have come to the table. Once they’re at the table, the conditions are set for real negotiations, and you don’t pile on additional problems once you agree to talk.”

Mr. Luers said this was not just an agreement between the United States and Iran but also with Russia and China and our allies like Britain, France and Germany. He said he was worried that adding sanctions would cause the deal to unravel completely by changing the terms and that, if negotiations went south for any reason, it could lead to war.

“I am convinced that the best and probably the only way to assure that we can prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon is to have them take on themselves the responsibility to the world to do what we’ve negotiated,” Mr. Luers said. “That will be to reduce their nuclear program to the level that will make it impossible for them to break out in a short period of time.”

Audience divided

Much of the event was dominated by discussion from the audience, and there was a clear split from the audience, with many supporting Mr. Murphy and the administration and others saying the current course is a serious mistake. The discussion became quite lengthy, moving the event over its allotted time, with several in the audience frustrated that they didn’t have a chance to speak.

Sam Zendehrouh thanked Mr. Murphy for not supporting new sanctions and said people often don’t understand just what is happening in Iran.

“Throughout the Middle East, Iranians are the most pro-American,” Mr. Zendehrouh said. “They love America. … These sanctions are killing people. One of the sanctions that is imposed upon Iran is the production of fuel. They’re not allowed to import gasoline. Because Iran has to make its own gasoline in factories that are not refineries, there is pollution in Tehran that is killing people. You’re hurting people in Iran. The government is going to be fine, but the people are suffering. We have to give these negotiations a chance so they will succeed. Iranians are a very proud people. They are not going to just give up.”

Vera Blankley, a Greenwich resident and a longtime employee of the United Nations, also said people did not truly appreciate how damaging the sanctions have been, not to the Iranian government but to its people, who did not make the policies that are being opposed.

“Sanctions work if you want to punish the population of the country, but it’s not going to lead to regime change,” Ms. Blankley said. “If you start talking about sanctions now, you do not have anything as a negotiating tool once you come in six months to try and reach a final agreement.”

Ms. Blankley said the larger issue that must be addressed is nuclear proliferation, and she said that all countries had to be willing to reduce their arsenals of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Murphy told Ms. Blankley she made a “very valid point” and everyone should be uncomfortable with the impact of sanctions.

“We’re trying to change the behavior of a handful of individuals by imposing harm on a broad range of innocents,” Mr. Murphy said. “You can argue whether they’re truly innocent in the sense that people, well organized, always have the ability to rise up and change their government. There is some responsibility that does lie with people to give themselves the government they deserve. But we have to think about the kids on the streets of Tehran that have nothing to do with what’s being done by the supreme leader.”

Mr. Murphy added that there was no perfect answer and there were moments when you had to weigh one harm versus another. He said the harm of allowing Iranians to move forward with a nuclear weapon could lead to mass casualties in the Middle East or on American shores and that “we can’t sit back just because we are uncomfortable with sanctions.”

There was a vocal chunk of the audience that did support the bill calling for more sanctions. Veronica Reich said people are wrong in claiming Hassan Rouhani is a moderate figure as Iran’s president, claiming he had been quoted as saying, “Death to America is not enough. You have to act on expressing it.” She said that the deal in place calls for no dismantling, according to the Iranian foreign minister, and said she was concerned by it.

“Given these kinds of statements, aren’t you concerned the Iranian regime is coming to the table not to negotiate but just to buy time?” Ms. Reich said.

Mr. Murphy insisted he was “sober and realistic” about the prospects for success in the negotiation but that he was confident the “obtrusive inspections” that had been negotiated would allow the United States to know if Iran was not being sincere. He said there is now “unprecedented access” to Iran and because of it he did not believe Iran would be able to move forward with developing a nuclear weapon during the six months of the temporary deal. He said statements like the one Ms. Reich noted could well be for internal political purposes and nothing more.

Erwin Reich said that while he has been a supporter of Mr. Murphy in the past, he was very disappointed in his view and the actions of President Obama and Mr. Kerry. He said Iran, with its human rights record, has not earned anyone’s trust.

“I’ve negotiated for a living for 45 years, and I learned a long time ago not to give up something before you get something,” Mr. Reich said. “People need to understand that the Menendez/Kirk bill doesn’t put more sanctions in now. It puts sanctions in if the negotiations fall apart and it is foolish to give anything up at this point. I have nothing against the Iranian people. I’ve known for a long time they’re a highly educated, moral people. It’s just that their government isn’t.”

Serge Virograd urged everyone to look back at history and noted his own experience as a Holocaust survivor who had family members murdered as part of it. He expressed doubts that Iran could be negotiated with and said people “have to look at the world the way it is.”

“I think we should all remember Sept. 11, when terrorists attacked and killed our people,” Mr. Virograd said. “Looking backwards in history, in 1936 there were very sincere people who went to Munich to negotiate with Hitler after the German army had invaded several countries. Those very sincere people came back happy to have mastered the situation and felt there would be long-lasting peace. The bottom line is that 6 million people, mostly Jews, and 20 million Russians died.”

Mr. Murphy said he did know his history and acknowledged that there’s “no greater warning” than the Munich agreement that historians consider a foreign policy disaster.

“But we can’t, with all due respect, let the fact that negotiations can sometimes fail in spectacular ways with catastrophic consequences allow us to be scared away permanently from negotiations for peace,” Mr. Murphy said. “We have to be wary of negotiations in which we are being pulled into something we shouldn’t be, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. The consequences of war, which are very serious, are ones that we should seek to avoid if possible.”


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