Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 22, 2013

What Should the U.S. Ask from Iran?

The Obama administration’s decision to sign a deal with Iran has brought the differences between the U.S. and Israel on the issue of the Islamist regime’s nuclear ambitions out into the open. Much of the debate about the question has focused on the fears of the Israeli government and many Americans that an agreement that loosened sanctions while allowing Tehran to continue enriching uranium and while retaining its nuclear infrastructure will not halt Iran’s march to a weapon. Both countries have sought to minimize the argument by focusing on disagreements about negotiations or the proper timing and application of sanctions while still insisting that they share a common goal. But this may obscure a more fundamental disagreement about whether an Iran run by extremist clerics and still dedicated to spreading terror and achieving regional hegemony can be integrated into the international community.

That is the backdrop for the anger being expressed by the administration and its cheerleaders in the foreign-policy establishment at Israel’s criticisms of the Iran deal. As this analysis by Reuters explains, supporters of the administration’s policy believe the conditions being proposed by Israel about a final deal with Iran are intended to sabotage the diplomatic process. In this version of events, Reuters’ sources say Netanyahu’s attempt to get the West to force Iran not only to reduce its enrichment but also dismantle its nuclear plants, end its ballistic missile project, cease supporting terrorism and incitement against Israel, and commit to respecting human rights are “crazy maximalist demands.” In doing so, Netanyahu is seen as not only trying to derail the talks with Iran but also inciting Congress to forestall any effort to expand upon them to create a new détente between the ayatollah’s regime and the U.S. But rather than focusing solely on the administration’s frustration at Jerusalem’s efforts to slow down the administration’s rush to end the conflict, perhaps it might be a good time to ask what exactly the United States wants from Iran.

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The Obama administration’s decision to sign a deal with Iran has brought the differences between the U.S. and Israel on the issue of the Islamist regime’s nuclear ambitions out into the open. Much of the debate about the question has focused on the fears of the Israeli government and many Americans that an agreement that loosened sanctions while allowing Tehran to continue enriching uranium and while retaining its nuclear infrastructure will not halt Iran’s march to a weapon. Both countries have sought to minimize the argument by focusing on disagreements about negotiations or the proper timing and application of sanctions while still insisting that they share a common goal. But this may obscure a more fundamental disagreement about whether an Iran run by extremist clerics and still dedicated to spreading terror and achieving regional hegemony can be integrated into the international community.

That is the backdrop for the anger being expressed by the administration and its cheerleaders in the foreign-policy establishment at Israel’s criticisms of the Iran deal. As this analysis by Reuters explains, supporters of the administration’s policy believe the conditions being proposed by Israel about a final deal with Iran are intended to sabotage the diplomatic process. In this version of events, Reuters’ sources say Netanyahu’s attempt to get the West to force Iran not only to reduce its enrichment but also dismantle its nuclear plants, end its ballistic missile project, cease supporting terrorism and incitement against Israel, and commit to respecting human rights are “crazy maximalist demands.” In doing so, Netanyahu is seen as not only trying to derail the talks with Iran but also inciting Congress to forestall any effort to expand upon them to create a new détente between the ayatollah’s regime and the U.S. But rather than focusing solely on the administration’s frustration at Jerusalem’s efforts to slow down the administration’s rush to end the conflict, perhaps it might be a good time to ask what exactly the United States wants from Iran.

Dating back to his first presidential campaign, President Obama has been clear about his desire to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. There has never been any deviation from that goal in the rhetoric of the administration. But he has also been consistent in his desire not so much to strip the ayatollahs of their nuclear toys but to create a dialogue and an end to decades of confrontation between the U.S. and Iran. Obama’s desire for engagement with Iran was no secret during the 2008 campaign and was given a prominent mention in his first inaugural address. During his five years in office, Obama’s efforts to achieve engagement have been as fruitless as those of his predecessors. But the Geneva accord has given new life to the effort.

The desire for more than a nuclear deal with Iran is the only logical explanation for the hysteria emanating from the White House at the prospect of Congress passing another round of sanctions. Since the proposal being pushed by a bipartisan coalition in the Senate would do nothing more than strengthen Obama’s leverage in the talks with Iran, his threat of a veto and talk about opposing anything that would “break faith” with a regime that has never acted or negotiated in good faith seems bizarre. But if the president’s real object is not the narrow goal of ending the Iranian nuclear threat, it makes sense.

The same question applies to the anger expressed in Washington and in European capitals at Israel’s attempt to remind the West that uranium enrichment isn’t the only aspect of Iranian policy of concern.

First of all, it should be remembered that Netanyahu’s effort to get the West to force Iran to dismantle its nuclear project isn’t a new demand invented by Israel to stop the talks. It reflects President Obama’s explicit promises about the nuclear threat including this passage from his October 22, 2012 foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney:

So the work that we’ve done with respect to sanctions now offers Iran a choice. They can take the diplomatic route and end their nuclear program or they will have to face a united world and a United States president, me, who said we’re not going to take any options off the table.

As the president rightly indicated at that time, anything short of that would pave the way for a bomb, especially given Iran’s history of promise-breaking and America’s experience of such deals with other scofflaws like North Korea.

Just as important, a tunnel vision-like focus on the nuclear issue that ignores Iran’s ballistic weapons program would be more than shortsighted. Iran may claim the goal of its missiles is a peaceful space program, but the Islamist regime is no more interested in space than it is in peaceful uses of nuclear energy. If anything, it would be “crazy” for the U.S. to ignore the missiles that could deliver potential Iranian weapons not only to Israel but also to Western targets.

Critics of Israel claim these are unrealistic demands, but that view reflects a defeatism about diplomacy that is unwarranted. With the military and economic leverage the U.S. possesses, there is no reason to think Iran can’t be compelled to give up its nukes or missiles.

That also applies to acknowledging  the fact that Iran is a state sponsor of terror as well as understanding that another Iranian goal is to extend its sphere of influence beyond its borders throughout the Middle East via allies like Bashar Assad, Hezbollah, and perhaps even Hamas. Nor should Iran’s demonization of Israel that Jerusalem has rightly termed “genocidal” be off the table. If Iran is really changing its stripes, a dubious assertion based on the victory of Hassan Rouhani in the country’s faux presidential election last summer, then surely it is not too much to ask that it change its tune about terror and end its incitement against Israel along with its nuclear project.

Rather than carping about Israel, these are exactly the questions that both the media and Congress should be asking about the direction of U.S. policy toward Iran in the wake of the Geneva deal. Were Iran as moderate as the U.S. hopes, its nuclear program would not be so troubling. The choice with Iran is not one between war and peace. Instead, it is whether the U.S. is prepared to make its peace with an aggressive nuclear Iran or a peaceful nation that is not a threat to its Arab neighbors as well as to Israel. If the administration isn’t prepared to ask Iran to change, then the result of any nuclear deal isn’t likely to make the region or the United States safer. Even assuming the doubtful proposition that the current diplomatic effort will actually stop Iran’s weapons program, a nuclear deal that leaves the ayatollah’s missiles, terror, and hate in place is an open invitation to future conflict, not peace or détente.

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Snowden, Spying, and Pollard

The outrage in Europe about the revelations by Edward Snowden of U.S. spying on allies embarrassed the Obama administration and caused the president to speak of trying to impose new guidelines on the National Security Agency and to try and distance himself from the affair. As Max Boot wrote here in October, the White House’s decision to throw the intelligence community under the bus was disgraceful. But the hypocrisy of America’s critics on this point was no less absurd. No one should doubt that the U.S. spies on its friends and that, in turn, its allies spy on America. Thus, the latest round of Snowden leaks published in the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and the New York Times on Friday giving further details about such spying should surprise and outrage no one. But there is one aspect of the topic that is understandably causing something of a ruckus: U.S. efforts to keep tabs on Israeli leaders. According to the Snowden leaks, the United States worked with British intelligence to intercept the emails of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak as well as other Israeli targets. The reports also state that Barak’s home was under surveillance by the Americans.

For those inclined to outrage about friends spying on friends, this is no more nor less infuriating than the stories about other such incidents, such as the U.S. efforts to monitor German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. But there is one difference between the incidents involving other allies and what happened to Israel. The U.S. is not holding a German or French spy in prison for more than 28 years for doing what America did to them.

By that I refer to Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who betrayed his oath and spied on his country at the behest of Israeli handlers. Jailed in 1985, Pollard is still serving a draconian life sentence for espionage. Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wisely not seeking to exacerbate the already tense relations between his government and the United States over the Snowden leaks, some in his Cabinet as well as other Israelis are saying the stories about U.S. spying should cause the Obama administration to rethink its determination (shared by all of its predecessors) to let Pollard rot in jail. Though I deprecate the attempt by some in Israel and elsewhere to depict Pollard as a hero or to minimize the severity of his crimes, they happen to be right.

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The outrage in Europe about the revelations by Edward Snowden of U.S. spying on allies embarrassed the Obama administration and caused the president to speak of trying to impose new guidelines on the National Security Agency and to try and distance himself from the affair. As Max Boot wrote here in October, the White House’s decision to throw the intelligence community under the bus was disgraceful. But the hypocrisy of America’s critics on this point was no less absurd. No one should doubt that the U.S. spies on its friends and that, in turn, its allies spy on America. Thus, the latest round of Snowden leaks published in the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and the New York Times on Friday giving further details about such spying should surprise and outrage no one. But there is one aspect of the topic that is understandably causing something of a ruckus: U.S. efforts to keep tabs on Israeli leaders. According to the Snowden leaks, the United States worked with British intelligence to intercept the emails of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak as well as other Israeli targets. The reports also state that Barak’s home was under surveillance by the Americans.

For those inclined to outrage about friends spying on friends, this is no more nor less infuriating than the stories about other such incidents, such as the U.S. efforts to monitor German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. But there is one difference between the incidents involving other allies and what happened to Israel. The U.S. is not holding a German or French spy in prison for more than 28 years for doing what America did to them.

By that I refer to Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who betrayed his oath and spied on his country at the behest of Israeli handlers. Jailed in 1985, Pollard is still serving a draconian life sentence for espionage. Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wisely not seeking to exacerbate the already tense relations between his government and the United States over the Snowden leaks, some in his Cabinet as well as other Israelis are saying the stories about U.S. spying should cause the Obama administration to rethink its determination (shared by all of its predecessors) to let Pollard rot in jail. Though I deprecate the attempt by some in Israel and elsewhere to depict Pollard as a hero or to minimize the severity of his crimes, they happen to be right.

As I wrote in an analysis of the Pollard case in the March 2011 issue of COMMENTARY, both the spy’s defenders and his worst critics tend to exaggerate his importance. But there should be no doubt that what he did was wrong and badly hurt Israel as well as the United States:

There is no underestimating the damage that Pollard and his Israeli handlers did to American Jewry. The decision on the part of a few operatives and their political masters to exploit what may well have been the romantic delusions of a man of questionable judgment and character did far more injury to the countless loyal Jews who have served the United States so well for generations than anything else. It is not inappropriate that Israel’s government would seek the freedom of a man who, however misguided and harmful his mission, served that nation. But whether or not Obama or a future president ever accedes to Israel’s request for Pollard’s release, his unfortunate example will always be exploited as a pretext to justify those enemies of Israel and other anti-Semites who wish to wrongly impugn the loyalty of American Jews.

Long after his release or death, Pollard’s behavior will still be used to bolster the slurs of those who wish to promote the pernicious myth that there is a contradiction between American patriotism and deep concern for the safety of the State of Israel. It is this damning epitaph, and not the claims of martyrdom that have been put forward to stir sympathy for his plight, that will be Jonathan Pollard’s true legacy.

But once we concede that point, it is difficult to view his continued incarceration as justified. While the United States, like any other country, has every right to capture and prosecute spies, Pollard’s sentence was disproportionate. No one who has ever spied for a U.S. ally has ever received a sentence of this kind. Indeed, such spies are usually quickly ushered out of the country rather than prosecuted in order to avoid unpleasantness. As a U.S. citizen, Pollard had to be punished, but the determination of the U.S. intelligence establishment to see that he dies in jail seems to be based more in a desire to let him serve as a warning to Israel than anything else.

Just as Pollard’s spying is not justified by America’s efforts to do the same to Israel, his lawbreaking can’t be rationalized by U.S. activities. Serious people understand that this is what nation states do. Some of the spying is more outrageous than others (certainly the decision of Israelis to use an American Jew and to loot the Navy’s intelligence falls into that category). But the Snowden leaks make it clear that the self-righteous attitude of U.S. intelligence about Pollard is, at best, hypocritical.

Washington’s attitude on this point may be that small allies that are dependent on big ones for help, such as Israel, can’t expect to be treated fairly or to be granted the same leeway on such matters. That may well be so. But the Snowden leaks erase any doubt that such a position can be justified. Though it’s doubtful that President Obama will make it up to Israel by granting Pollard clemency, there is no reason based in justice or morality for him not to do so. Whatever else Snowden (who deserves punishment no less than Pollard did) has accomplished, he has made it clear that it is long past time for the U.S. to end the Pollard affair by setting him free.

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