Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ayatollah Ali Khameini

Grand Ayatollah Puts Obama on the Spot

There has always been a contradiction between the Obama administration’s reluctance to state “red lines” on Iran and its tough talk about never allowing the Islamist regime to achieve their nuclear ambition. The president’s supporters have resolved this piece of cognitive dissonance—at least in their own minds—by sticking to the belief that sooner or later Tehran will yield to reason and start negotiating toward a compromise that the U.S. could live with even if such a deal might scare Israel. This assumption was based on the idea that sanctions are gradually bringing Iran to its knees and that its leaders are reasonable people who understand their position is unsustainable.

Given the Iranians’ record of intransigence and duplicity in diplomatic encounters, such assumptions were always more a matter of wishful thinking than serious analysis. But the latest rejection of an American attempt to reach out to Iran should conclusively demonstrate that any hope that sanctions or diplomacy will persuade Iran to back off on its nuclear quest is entirely unrealistic. The statement by the supreme leader of the regime, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to the effect that he completely rejects any idea of direct talks on the nuclear question with the United States indicates that the latest bright idea about Iran hatched in the Obama administration was just as much a failure as its predecessors. Though some are interpreting the ayatollah’s statement solely through the prism of the power struggles inside Tehran, there should be no mistake about who is in charge and what his veto of new talks with the U.S. means.

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There has always been a contradiction between the Obama administration’s reluctance to state “red lines” on Iran and its tough talk about never allowing the Islamist regime to achieve their nuclear ambition. The president’s supporters have resolved this piece of cognitive dissonance—at least in their own minds—by sticking to the belief that sooner or later Tehran will yield to reason and start negotiating toward a compromise that the U.S. could live with even if such a deal might scare Israel. This assumption was based on the idea that sanctions are gradually bringing Iran to its knees and that its leaders are reasonable people who understand their position is unsustainable.

Given the Iranians’ record of intransigence and duplicity in diplomatic encounters, such assumptions were always more a matter of wishful thinking than serious analysis. But the latest rejection of an American attempt to reach out to Iran should conclusively demonstrate that any hope that sanctions or diplomacy will persuade Iran to back off on its nuclear quest is entirely unrealistic. The statement by the supreme leader of the regime, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to the effect that he completely rejects any idea of direct talks on the nuclear question with the United States indicates that the latest bright idea about Iran hatched in the Obama administration was just as much a failure as its predecessors. Though some are interpreting the ayatollah’s statement solely through the prism of the power struggles inside Tehran, there should be no mistake about who is in charge and what his veto of new talks with the U.S. means.

The ayatollah’s cutting and sinister remarks about any Iranian who might consider talking with the Americans illustrates how deeply committed the government is to the nuclear program. He also gave a not-so-subtle hint about what would happen to any official who was foolish enough to think of compromising either on nukes or on warming up relations with the United States:

“I’m not a diplomat; I’m a revolutionary, and speak frankly and directly,” he said. “If anyone wants the return of U.S. dominance here, people will grab his throat.”

This puts a period on the notion of a new engagement policy in Iran that might have relieved President Obama of the obligation to make good on his promises about Iran. Negotiations might have yielded some sort of accord that might have been able to be represented as a victory for U.S. policy even if it fell short of actually removing the Iranian nuclear threat in the long run. But Khamenei’s contempt for Obama is so complete that he will not deign to negotiate directly with him. Instead, he seems to believe that if he sticks to his position on the nuclear question, he can eventually run out the clock through multilateral talks via the P5+1 group in which Russia and China will prevent anyone from applying real pressure on Tehran.

Khamenei can hardly be blamed for thinking the administration isn’t serious about rejecting any thought of containing them rather than forestalling their nuclear program via force even as a last resort. The nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense—a man who not only opposes force and supports containment but also can’t even be counted on to lie persuasively about it during his confirmation hearing—may have persuaded them that the president never meant what he said about Iran throughout his re-election campaign. The Iranians also read the American press and know that one of the rising figures in the Republican Party—Rand Paul—also supports containment.

The Iranian confidence that they can ignore American threats puts the administration in a pickle. The president will not pull the plug on the next round of P5+1 talks but even he knows that effort will never yield success. But he now knows, even if he didn’t before, that Khamenei would never yield on the nuclear question. Sooner or later that leaves him with either containment or force as his only two options on Iran. Given the consequences of allowing Iran to go nuclear, let’s hope he hasn’t been bluffing all along about leaving no option off the table.

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Is Bibi Bluffing on Iran Strike?

In Israel this week, people are lining up for gas masks, a new Homeland Defense has been set to work to deal with the task of readying the country for the possibility of attacks from Iran, Lebanon and Gaza, and pundits are working overtime trying to figure out whether the nation’s political leadership is serious about launching a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities sometime this fall. Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, is doing his best to convince Americans that the saber-rattling coming out Jerusalem is not a bluff aimed at forcing the West to toughen sanctions on Iran or start making their own credible threats about using force. In interviews with journalists and an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last week, Oren has made a powerful case about the existential threat that a nuclear Iran presents to Israel, but Washington may be listening more closely to those figures inside the Jewish state who are claiming that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are begging to be talked out of an attack.

As the New York Times reported yesterday, Uzi Dayan, a former general who was asked to serve as Homeland Defense Minister, says his conversations with both Netanyahu and Barak led him to believe that the window of diplomacy with Iran that the Obama administration keeps talking about is still open. There are good reasons to believe the Israeli government would like nothing better than to have the war talk do what an earlier wave of speculation about a strike accomplished when Washington belatedly adopted a tougher sanctions policy. Jerusalem understands that even a successful strike on Iran will exact a terrible price in casualties and damage from counter-attacks from the Islamist regime and its terrorist allies. But those who assert that Netanyahu is just bluffing forget that Israeli anxiety is rooted as much in its lack of confidence in Washington as it is in knowledge of Iran’s genocidal ambitions.

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In Israel this week, people are lining up for gas masks, a new Homeland Defense has been set to work to deal with the task of readying the country for the possibility of attacks from Iran, Lebanon and Gaza, and pundits are working overtime trying to figure out whether the nation’s political leadership is serious about launching a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities sometime this fall. Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, is doing his best to convince Americans that the saber-rattling coming out Jerusalem is not a bluff aimed at forcing the West to toughen sanctions on Iran or start making their own credible threats about using force. In interviews with journalists and an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last week, Oren has made a powerful case about the existential threat that a nuclear Iran presents to Israel, but Washington may be listening more closely to those figures inside the Jewish state who are claiming that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are begging to be talked out of an attack.

As the New York Times reported yesterday, Uzi Dayan, a former general who was asked to serve as Homeland Defense Minister, says his conversations with both Netanyahu and Barak led him to believe that the window of diplomacy with Iran that the Obama administration keeps talking about is still open. There are good reasons to believe the Israeli government would like nothing better than to have the war talk do what an earlier wave of speculation about a strike accomplished when Washington belatedly adopted a tougher sanctions policy. Jerusalem understands that even a successful strike on Iran will exact a terrible price in casualties and damage from counter-attacks from the Islamist regime and its terrorist allies. But those who assert that Netanyahu is just bluffing forget that Israeli anxiety is rooted as much in its lack of confidence in Washington as it is in knowledge of Iran’s genocidal ambitions.

With even the Americans now finally willing to agree in the form of a new National Intelligence Estimate that Iran is building a bomb, the feeling in Jerusalem is that they cannot sit back, wait and hope for the best as their allies seem to be telling them. The latest round of threats from Tehran as they prepare to celebrate al Quds (Jerusalem) Day started with a comment from an Iranian general “that there is no other way but to stand firm and resist until Israel is destroyed.” That was followed by a prediction in a speech by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s Supreme Leader, that Israel would disappear.

But Israel’s problem isn’t so much their certainty that if Iran is allowed to keep on refining uranium that they will have a bomb before long. It is their utter lack of faith in the Obama administration’s willingness to do something about the problem.

Netanyahu’s domestic critics are not off base when they chide his government for painting the Iranian threat as being primarily a problem for Israel rather than the region or the West. It is also obviously true that if Israel acted on its own, the impact of such a strike would not be nearly as devastating or conclusive as one led by the United States armed forces. But who can blame Netanyahu and Barak for having come to the conclusion that President Obama will continue pretending that his policy of ineffective diplomacy and loosely enforced sanctions can deal with the situation until it really is too late.

It could be that fear of an Israeli strike in the middle of a presidential election will prompt Obama to improve upon his current feckless stand. But in the absence of any sign of such a switch and with the prospect that a re-elected Obama will find the “flexibility” to abandon his promise to stop Iran, Netanyahu may have no choice but to contemplate a unilateral strike. Rather than worrying about Israel bluffing, the administration needs to recognize that if they wish to avert a war this fall, the president must start acting like he means what he says about stopping Iran.

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The Fake Iranian Nuclear Fatwa

One of the main talking points for apologists for Iran recently has been the claim that Supreme Leader Ali Khameini banned the production of nuclear weapons as a sin. This is supposed to calm the nerves of those who fear allowing the Islamist regime nuclear capability and has been accepted by President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and other world leaders as a fact. But as Ruthie Blum points out in her column in Israel Hayom, the fatwa is a fake.

Blum reports that the indispensable Middle East media monitoring group MEMRI.org has examined the assertion that Iran has foresworn the development of nukes as a religious imperative and found that the fatwa is a myth. Khameini never issued such a ruling, and there is no record of it ever having been published except in a statement issued in 2005 by the Iranians during a meeting with the International Atomic Energy Agency. This story has been revived recently–largely by Turkey, Iran’s off and on Islamist ally–but:

MEMRI’s investigation reveals that no such fatwa ever existed or was ever issued or published, and that media reports about it are nothing more than a propaganda ruse on the part of the Iranian regime apparatuses – in an attempt to deceive top U.S. administration officials and the others mentioned above.

This is not a minor point because, as Blum points out, the talk about the fatwa facilitates a dead-end P5+1 negotiating process that will “ make Western leaders feel better about letting precious time run out while the Islamic Republic races to reach nuclear hegemony.”

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One of the main talking points for apologists for Iran recently has been the claim that Supreme Leader Ali Khameini banned the production of nuclear weapons as a sin. This is supposed to calm the nerves of those who fear allowing the Islamist regime nuclear capability and has been accepted by President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and other world leaders as a fact. But as Ruthie Blum points out in her column in Israel Hayom, the fatwa is a fake.

Blum reports that the indispensable Middle East media monitoring group MEMRI.org has examined the assertion that Iran has foresworn the development of nukes as a religious imperative and found that the fatwa is a myth. Khameini never issued such a ruling, and there is no record of it ever having been published except in a statement issued in 2005 by the Iranians during a meeting with the International Atomic Energy Agency. This story has been revived recently–largely by Turkey, Iran’s off and on Islamist ally–but:

MEMRI’s investigation reveals that no such fatwa ever existed or was ever issued or published, and that media reports about it are nothing more than a propaganda ruse on the part of the Iranian regime apparatuses – in an attempt to deceive top U.S. administration officials and the others mentioned above.

This is not a minor point because, as Blum points out, the talk about the fatwa facilitates a dead-end P5+1 negotiating process that will “ make Western leaders feel better about letting precious time run out while the Islamic Republic races to reach nuclear hegemony.”

The Iranians are past masters at playing Western diplomats for suckers with negotiations that never come to fruition and reassurances about their good intentions only a fool would trust. As Blum rightly notes, Islamist theorists such as Khameini see this sort of deception as a legitimate tactic of self-defense. But there is no excuse for the Obama administration to take any of it seriously.

While the president continues, as I noted earlier today, to say the right thing about Iran, the real test of his conduct is not rhetorical. Current U.S. policy supports a diplomatic process that seems certain to not merely fail to stop the Iranians but to actually facilitate their ongoing nuclear development. Myths such as the fake fatwa help feed the rationale for the president’s position. The State Department and the White House need to understand that the consequences for buying into this lie are potentially catastrophic.

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