Soft War: Senior Democrat calls on Obama not to fix Iran’s planes

According to Global Affairs, the Hill’s International Relations blog, Representative Brad Sherman (D-California), a senior Democrat on the House of Representative’s Foreign Affairs panel, this Tuesday expressed his opposition to the provision in this weekend’s P5+1-Iran Interim Nuclear Agreement which would allow Iranian airlines to refurbish their aging fleet of airplanes. According to the relevant section of the interim agreement, “Sanctions relief could involve any non designated Iranian airlines as well as Iran Air,” meaning that Iranian airlines not designated by U.S. authorities as being involved in illicit activities such as nuclear proliferation or support for terrorism could be eligible.

Sherman was quoted by the Hill as being specifically against  “licensing parts and services needed to repair Iran’s American-made planes because they have been used to support some of Iran’s worst activities.” The Hill explained that Sherman’s opposition to the provision in the interim agreement was partially based on the concern that Iran’s air fleet was being used to support the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and partially tactical. The senior Democrat explained that: “America should exploit some of the vagaries in the agreement’s language and prevent Boeing from repairing Iranian aircraft until we have a final deal…Otherwise we will have made a permanent irreversible concession in a ‘temporary’ agreement.”

Sherman’s contention is problematic in at least three ways. First of all, despite his argument that “vagaries in the agreement’s language” should be used to deny Iran’s non-designated airlines spare parts, this could provide the Islamic Republic with grounds to assert that the United States is not acting in accordance to the provisions of the interim agreement. This would not only allow the Islamic Republic to declare the agreement void, were it to decide to, but would allow it to do so with the moral high ground as the aggrieved party.

Second, Representative Sherman’s comments are also deeply problematic in humanitarian terms. This specific provision is a key part of the humanitarian considerations in the interim agreement linked to the unintended consequences of economic sanctions on Iran and potentially very popular with ordinary Iranians. Iran’s aging civilian air fleet, which still relies heavily on airplanes bought before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, has a poor safety record and has experienced a number of high fatality crashes in the last few years due to Iran’s limitations in purchasing new planes or spare parts and servicing. While Iran can purchase some spare parts on the black market at a premium, this trend has made flying more dangerous for ordinary Iranians, who nonetheless overcome their fears in order to see loved ones or enjoy their leisure time.

Sherman has suggested that “Iran should ground its unsafe planes until they are properly repaired.” Surely he realises that in a modern nation of upward of 75 million people, this is nigh impossible? The implication of Sherman’s words is that Iranian people should be used as hostages in the United States’ negotiations with Iran. This is not only contemptible from a humanitarian point of view, but goes against the spirit in which the interim agreement was signed.

Finally, as IranPolitik co-founders Farzan Sabet and Roozbeh Safshekan have noted in their recent study entitled “Soft War: A new episode in the old conflict between Iran and the United States” for the Iran Media Program at the University of Pennsylvania, U.S. sanctions may be eroding the United States’ not inconsiderable soft power in Iran. Rep. Sherman must realize the folly of further alienating the young and dynamic population of one of the most consequential nations in the world today? Yet this is exactly what he is doing through his calloused and irresponsible suggestion of not abiding by a humanitarian provision of the interim agreement.

If the congressman is genuinely concerned about the way in which this sanctions relief may be used to service airplanes supplying the al-Assad regime in Syria, there are safeguards that the joint P5+1-Iran commission responsible for monitoring and implementing the interim agreement can put in place. But to suggest that the Iranian peoples’ lives should be used as bargaining chips in the high-stakes nuclear negotiations is beyond the pale. The humanitarian provisions of the interim agreement are parts of the deal that the entire United States Congress, despite many members’ skepticism about the deal over all, should be able to get behind. These will help offset some of the negative consequences of U.S. and U.S.-backed sanctions, which are implicating the United States in ordinary Iranians’ suffering. Indeed the very preventable suffering of ordinary Iranians could motivate the European Union, arguably the most impactful actor in the post-2010 Iran sanctions regime, to gradually soften sanctions if negotiations the Iranian nuclear saga is not resolved in the current negotiating window because of the potentially disastrous humanitarian consequences.

The humanitarian provisions of the interim agreement are one of less talked about but more consequential provisions when it comes to the needs and desires of ordinary Iranians. These provisions help make a sanctions regime which has become increasingly comprehensive over the years more targeted, and this is a good thing. Rather than a blunt instrument of indiscriminate harm, sanctions can be a scalpel which cut to the heart of the subject of the P5+1-Iran talks: nuclear non-proliferation. Rep. Sherman’s comments suggest a dangerous move in the opposite direction, not only endangering negotiations but also harming the United States’ soft power among one of the least anti-American populations of the Middle East.