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Phyllis Bennis says lifting of sanctions will be significant for the Iranian people and will mean a reintegration of Iran into the world economy

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Iran dismantled two-thirds of its nuclear centrifuges, which was a prerequisite for lifting of economic sanctions against Iran. Sanctions were lifted on Saturday, January 17, and it was marked by a prisoner exchange and more sanctions. Less than 24 hours after lifting the sanctions against Iran, the Obama administration announced Sunday that it was imposing new sanctions on Iran for violating the United Nations resolutions against ballistic missile tests. Here to discuss all of this with us is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is a fellow directing the New Internationalism Project at IPS, and author of Understanding the U.S.-Iran Crisis: A Primer. Thank you so much for joining us, Phyllis. PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you, Sharmini. PERIES: Phyllis, this was a long-awaited day for the Iranians, and a lot of the peace and disarmament movement. What is the significance of lifting of these sanctions? BENNIS: Well, this was a very important component of the sanctions, based–the nuclear-based sanctions that were at the root of the nuclear deal that was signed off six months ago. There was an agreement that when the IAEA, the UN’s watchdog nuclear agency, had agreed that Iran had implemented all that it was required to do, that the international nuclear-based sanctions would be released. And that is, indeed, what happened on this past Saturday. I think that it’s very important, because up until now it’s been an agreement in principle, but there has not yet been any, any sense of it being felt by the people of Iran, for instance, who were suffering greatly under the economic sanctions. So this really means a shift, a new beginning, the potential reintegration of Iran’s economy into at least part of the global economy. That’s going to have some interesting impact on the oil situation, given the very low price of oil right now. But the most important part of it is that the victory of diplomacy over war that the original Iran nuclear agreement represented is now making possible a bunch of other things. It made possible the release of four U.S. prisoners that were being held in Iran, and the separate release of a fifth. The release of seven Iranians who were held in U.S. prisons or were facing prison time for supposedly violating sanctions regulations. The lifting of Interpol warrants against 14 other Iranians who the U.S. had been trying to go after all around the world. So this is a very significant linking of humanitarian and human rights issues with the earlier diplomatic move. We then have the IAEA certifying that yes, indeed, Iran has done everything required to reduce its capacity to enrich uranium and to, to destroy, essentially, its one heavy water reactor that could produce plutonium. And the IAEA said they’ve done everything they’re supposed to do, now we can lift the sanctions. And indeed, the sanctions have now been lifted. So this is a whole set of developments coming out of the Iran nuclear agreement that on its face was really quite narrow, but many of us hoped would be broadened, just as we’re now seeing. We now see that the agreement is still under attack. The Obama administration agreed to give in to pressure from Congress to impose some new sanctions on, unrelated to the nuclear issue, but military sanctions related to Iran’s missile program. But those are quite narrow. They’re not going to have much impact, and certainly no impact on ordinary people in Iran. They are targeted sanctions, aimed at about half a dozen individuals, and another half dozen or so small companies that supposedly had something to do with the importing of dual-use goods that might be used for a missile program. But that’s really a symbolic, political move. And I think the Iranians, who are quite sophisticated in sorting out U.S. political actions, I think they understand it as such. PERIES: And Phyllis, what is the response on the part of, say, Saudi Arabia and Israel, for example, that opposed this deal in the first place? BENNIS: Well, what we’re seeing is that those forces, such as Israel, such as Saudi Arabia, such as many of the Republicans and some others in Congress, many of the people running for president, who were opposed to the deal in the first place, are now opposed to it being implemented. So the Saudi foreign minister has been, sort of a rant about how much Saudi Arabia is opposed to this, claiming that the, the lifting of sanctions will provide Iran with a bunch more money. And they want to know, so what are they going to do with that money? Of course, this is Iran’s money to begin with. This is not the U.S. giving Iran money. This is money that belonged to the Iranians, mainly from selling oil, that was being frozen, that was being held in banks around the world, and has now been released. It’s not someone else giving them money, it’s releasing their own money. And frankly, the notion that the Saudis are complaining about things like Iran interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, well, yeah, of course they do. And do they do it well? No. Does the U.S. do it? Of course. And do they do it well? No. And, crucially, does Saudi Arabia do it? Of course they do. Crucially, do they do it well? No. So in terms of this notion that suddenly the Saudis are worried about the Iranians interfering in their interference in Syria, for example, this is, you know, this is why we need a really serious level of negotiations, to end the war in Syria. And it needs to involve Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as it needs to involve the U.S. and Russia, as well as it needs to involve all of the various players on all sides. So this really does show that the kind of broadened diplomacy that many of us hoped for as a result of the Iran nuclear deal really might be possible. It’s really a very hopeful moment. PERIES: And Phyllis, this also means that with the lifting of sanctions, there would be more oil in the market, in a market that the prices are falling, and Saudi Arabia, for example, is already suffering from, not to mention Iran itself, as well. What does this mean in terms of the Iranian economic stability? BENNIS: Well, it means that the, the value of lifting the sanctions on Iranian oil, allowing Iran to sell more of its oil on the global markets, is not going to have quite the dramatic improvement effect on the lives of ordinary Iranians that it might have had, say, two years ago when the price of oil is so much higher. With the price of oil being very low, there being a glut of, of oil on the global market, the release of Iranian oil is, is going to have an impact. It will provide more money coming into the country to be used for things like infrastructure and improving the healthcare system, rebuilding the civilian airlines, things like that, that ordinary people will see. But it doesn’t mean that it’s going to have the kind of dramatic impact that it might have at an earlier time when the prices were higher. It is important to recognize that all of the oil-producing countries, Saudi Arabia and Iran among them, but also including Russia and Mexico and Angola and Venezuela, all those countries are suffering with the lower prices. The Saudis, ironically, are probably better-protected than almost any of the other oil-producing countries because they have worked over the last several years to diversify not so much their production, but their investments. So they’re now pulling in money from things like real estate in Manhattan and hotels in London, and things all over the world that can provide a kind of buffer against the downturn in the oil markets. Saudi Arabia is very committed to maintaining its market share. So it will do nothing, for example, that it could do, like reducing the amount of oil being produced because that could threaten its market share, and in the long term that’s much more important than, than the immediate price of oil. But there’s no question that the diminishing price of oil will hurt the Iranian economy. It already has. And the improvement that we will see with the lifting of oil sanctions is simply not going to be enough to, to make the kind of dramatic impact that we would have seen a couple of years ago. PERIES: And in terms of Israel, Phyllis, what is their response to this? BENNIS: I haven’t seen any immediate responses yet, but I think we can assume that given the level of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ardent opposition to this deal from the beginning, that they will be very unhappy. At least, he will be very unhappy. I think most, most Israelis probably recognize that a deal that undermines any potential for Iran to someday in the future build a nuclear weapon, something it had never done, and which many–all of the U.S. intelligence agencies collectively had agreed they had not even decided whether they wanted to do it or not. But taking away their ability to do it in the future makes Israelis safer. But politically, I think there’s no doubt that Prime Minister Netanyahu will continue his opposition to the deal. That means he will certainly oppose the implementation of the deal, which is what we’re seeing now. PERIES: All right. All to say that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s trip to the United States to, I guess, interfere with this process hasn’t quite worked. BENNIS: No, it hasn’t. And of course, he’s still hoping that there would be a way in which there could be greater support, perhaps, for Israel’s nuclear arsenal, the one nuclear weapons arsenal that does exist in the region, which of course does not belong to Iran. It belongs to Israel. And that’s what Prime Minister Netanyahu is really concerned about protecting, the nuclear–the nuclear monopoly that Israel continues to hold in the region. That’s what’s at stake here. If Iran had ever decided at some point in the future that it was going to produce a nuclear weapon, that’s what would be in danger. It’s not an existential threat to Israel, it’s a threat to Israel’s nuclear monopoly. And that’s what I think Prime Minister Netanyahu is reacting to. PERIES: All right, Phyllis, thank you so much for joining us and giving us your analysis of the situation. Thank you. BENNIS: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

Hamid Dabashi

Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He received a dual Ph.D. in Sociology of Culture and Islamic Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 1984, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. He wrote his dissertation on Max Weber's theory of charismatic authority with Philip Rieff (1922-2006), the most distinguished Freudian cultural critic of his time. Professor Dabashi has taught and delivered lectures in many North American, European, Arab, and Iranian universities.
Professor Dabashi has written twenty-five books, edited four, and contributed chapters to many more. He is also the author of over 100 essays, articles and book reviews on subjects ranging from Iranian Studies, medieval and modern Islam, and comparative literature to world cinema and the philosophy of art (trans-aesthetics). His books and articles have been translated into numerous languages, including Japanese, German, French, Spanish, Danish, Russian, Hebrew, Italian, Arabic, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Polish, Turkish, Urdu and Catalan.