Pushed on mounting evidence of systematic Iranian sanctions-busting, Obama administration officials offer new rebuttals

 

Reuters on Thursday published an extensive evaluation - double bylined by the outlet's veteran U.S. foreign policy correspondent Arshad Mohammed and its energy & environment correspondent Timothy Gardner - conveying new responses from the Obama administration to concerns over what outside experts have evaluated as seven straight months of Iran violating restrictions on its energy exports. The Joint Plan of Action (JPA), announced in November, limits Iran to exporting roughly 1 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude averaged out over the JPA's six-month implementation window. Iran subsequently busted through that limit every single month, until by late May Timothy Wilson, a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), calculated that it had become mathematically impossible for Iran to not end up violating the JPA restrictions. When pressed on the issue at a late May press briefing, State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki gestured toward an old administration talking point, under which Iranian oil exports would drop so much in the coming months that the average over the six-month period would end up around the JPA's 1 million bpd figure. Figures that emerged a few days after Psaki's comments had Iranian oil exports actually increasing in May versus April, rather than precipitously sliding per the administration's predictions. On Wednesday the State Department confirmed that Iran has also been shipping crude to Syria in recent months, which FDD Executive Director Mark Dubowitz described as "of clear financial and strategic benefit to Iran" in direct violation of the JPA's caps. The Thursday Reuters report summarized the administration's new rebuttal to the range of new evidence and calculations: "that condensates, a premium-price form of very light oil found at natural gas fields and mostly used to make plastics, do not count as crude oil; that Iranian gifts of oil to Syria are not "sales" and so also do not count; and that Iran is allowed to sell between 1 million and 1.1 million bpd under the deal, a range slightly above the White House's public estimate." Bloomberg on Thursday wrote up roughly the same story - this one penned by the outlet's veteran foreign policy writer Indira Lakshmanan and its Middle East energy correspondent Anthony DiPaola - which it began by noting that Bloomberg's own numbers, in line with independent estimates, had Iran far exceeding the JPA's caps. At stake are analyst and lawmaker concerns, described in both articles, that Iranian violations of straightforward export restrictions indicate that the regime cannot be trusted to implement a comprehensive nuclear deal.

 

The New York Times on Thursday conveyed remarks from Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah - who sits atop the newly formed cabinet agreed to by the rival Hamas and Fatah factions - admitting that his unity government has functionally zero control over the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip, part of an interview that was published on the same day that 88 senators dispatched a letter to President Barack Obama demanding that the PA be monitored for compliance with among other things its treaty obligations to Israel. The letter [PDF] referenced black-letter U.S. legislation banning assistance to any government over which Hamas exercises an undue influence, and blasted the terror group for its "refusal to meet recognized international demands: recognition of Israel, renunciation of terror, and acceptance of previous Israel-PLO agreements." The convergence of the two dynamics - PA impotence in the Gaza Strip and deepening congressional calls for scrutiny - may prove problematic for Hamdallah and for PA President Mahmoud Abbas as they scramble to circumvent congressional moves to block aid to the Fatah-Hamas government. The 1998 Wye Accords obligate the PA to "establish and vigorously and continuously implement a systematic program for the collection and appropriate handling" of any weapons in the Gaza Strip except those permitted by the earlier 1995 Oslo II agreements [PDF]. That treaty in turn sharply limits the kinds of arms that government security forces are allowed to possess, and Hamas's forces and missile arsenal fall far beyond that scope. The Thursday New York Times article described Hamdallah as having "repeated political platitudes about Palestinian unity, but offered no practical program to deliver it." The language in the Wye Accords obligating Ramallah to disarm Hamas and integrate its forces, which is applicable in "areas under Palestinian jurisdiction," does not seem to allow the PA to ignore its obligations in cases where implementing the required "systematic program" would be really inconvienent or challenging.

 

Gains being made across Iraq by the radical Sunni group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) - Iraq's second largest city of Mosul on Tuesday, Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit on Wednesday, and what appeared to be further gains aimed at marching on Baghdad on Thursday - have triggered an armed Iranian response, with the Islamic Republic pouring assets into the country to bolster the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Wall Street Journal reported late Thursday that Iranian forces had enabled the central government to regain control of most of Tikrit, and there was evidence that Iraqi Shiite forces currently waging war on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria had been recalled back into the country. Top Iranian officials declared that Tehran was willing to push even more assets into Iraq, which they read as part of a global war with Iran opposite the U.S. and its Middle East allies. Al Monitor quoted one senior Iranian official declaring that "the fire will burn those are backing ISIS. The United States and Saudi Arabia will feel the heat soon." Nonetheless Thursday also saw the development of what seems to be an inevitable debate in Western capitals, and especially in Washington, over the degree to which counter-terror coordination with Iran was desirable or possible. The Telegraph published an opinion that tersely insisted that "as Middle East borders are redrawn by jihadists, the West should regard Iran as an ally." Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, responded by predicting that "mind-numbing silliness of this sort [will] become conventional wisdom now." As a policy argument the stance is not new, stretching back to the immediate post-Sept. 11 era when it was argued by some that the U.S. and Iran shared 'mutual interests' in stabilizing the Middle East. The argument fell into disfavor in subsequent years as intelligence revealed that Iran was actively destabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, and was providing insurgents with weapons to kill American and allied troops. The State Department's 2014 country-by-country terrorism report assessed that "despite its pledge to support Iraq’s stabilization, Iran trained, funded, and provided guidance to Iraqi Shia militant groups." The same report revealed that Iran was also facilitating the transit of Sunni jihadists, effectively fueling both sides of instability-generating regional Sunni-Shiite conflicts.

 

Reuters on Thursday conveyed comments made at a Rome conference by Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi threatening that the Islamic republic "will return to 20 percent enrichment if a deal cannot be reached" between Tehran and the P5+1 global powers, which have in recent days reportedly stumbled over issues ranging from uranium enrichment capacity to Iran's refusal to come clean over past military dimensions of its nuclear program. Araqchi further told the conference attendees that "failure to reach a deal will be a disaster for everyone." Agence France-Presse (AFP) had already assessed a day earlier that the parties would fail to conclude negotiations by the interim Joint Plan of Action's (JPA) July 20 deadline, and that instead talks are "increasingly likely to be extended given the seemingly huge gap that remains between the two sides." The JPA had swapped Iranian concessions on its uranium and plutonium program for billions in sanctions relief that Tehran badly needed to stabilize its teetering economy. Critics of the deal had repeatedly and across a variety of contexts called attention to the essential asymmetry of the agreement's terms, which traded an irreversible infusion of capital for reversible Iranian moves. Araqchi's threat to reverse the Iranian regime's core concession on uranium - the dilution of some of the 20% enriched stock to 5% purity - may be taken as strengthening the case of those skeptics.


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