Will Congress take Iran diplomacy off the table?
To waive this ban on diplomatic contact with many, if not all, high-level Iranian officials, the President would have to certify to Congress 15 days in advance that not making such contact would “pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the vital national security interest of the United States.” The bill doesn’t specify whether Iran’s Supreme Leader “presents a threat” to the U.S., but it’s not hard to imagine how Congress would weigh in on that question. This provision could ban contact with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, who may have connections to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite military unit which many in Congress have pressed to designate as a terrorist organization.
In 2008, Bush administration officials were reportedly “angered” that the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Zalmay Khalilzad sat next to the Iranian foreign minister at the World Economic Forum. Senator Dianne Feinstein chastised the Bush administration at the time, arguing that “rather than worry about who is sitting next to whom, the Bush administration should get serious and launch a major diplomatic effort with Iran.”
If HR 1905 were enacted, these sorts of concerns about seating arrangements at international events could re-emerge as a result of the chilling effect this legislation would have on U.S. diplomatic contact with Iranian officials and ordinary Iranians suspected to “present a threat to the United States”. University of Minnesota professor Dr. William Beeman noted in a recent op-ed that “an extreme application of the law would prevent American officials from even greeting Iranian officials at international gatherings, such as at the United Nations or in the capitals of third nations.”
Georgetown professor and former top intelligence analyst Paul Pillar noted that this legislation would prevent a diplomatic resolution to any of the security concerns that the U.S. has with Iran, increasing the prospects for war:
“[This legislation] would prevent any exploration of ways to resolve disagreement over that Iranian nuclear program that we are supposedly so intensely concerned about…And it would prevent any diplomacy to keep U.S.-Iranian incidents or crises —the kind that retired joint chiefs chairman Admiral Mullen expressed concern about — from spinning out of control, unless the crisis conveniently stretched out beyond the fifteen-day notification period.”
Pillar also pointed out that requiring the President to give 15 days of notice before making contact with the banned list of Iranian officials would be useless in urgent diplomatic crises, noting that “by way of comparison, the entire Cuban missile crisis lasted thirteen days.”
Indeed, Admiral Mullen has repeatedly called for precisely the kind of communication between the U.S. and Iran that would be made illegal if this bill were enacted into law. Just before he retired from the position of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen warned against the consequences of U.S.-Iran estrangement in a prescient statement on September 20, 2011:
“We haven’t had a connection with Iran since 1979. Even in the darkest days of the Cold War we had links to the Soviet Union…If something happens it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right, that there will be miscalculations which would be extremely dangerous in that part of world…I think any channel would be terrific.”
It’s time for Congress to heed Admiral Mullen’s call to press for—rather than against—diplomatic contact with Iran. It’s not contact with Iranians but rather the lack of communication channels with Iran that threatens U.S. and indeed global security interests. Passage of this bill could take U.S-Iran diplomacy off the table altogether, paving the path towards war.
Kate Gould is Legislative Associate for Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL).