Commentary Magazine


Topic: Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Iran Counting on Obama’s Weakness

With the P5+1 nuclear talks set to resume again in Vienna tomorrow, many observers are sensing optimism that a deal with Iran is within reach. After dropping their insistence that Iran give up enriching uranium in order to gain Tehran’s acquiescence to an interim nuclear deal last November, the U.S. and its allies appear to be confident that another few meetings will produce an accord that will put an end to the confrontation with the Islamist regime over their efforts to build nuclear weapons. The best they hope to achieve is an agreement that will lengthen the time Iran needs to convert its stockpile of uranium into nuclear fuel rather than the end of the program that President Obama promised during his 2012 reelection campaign. But the administration and its supporters seem to think that rather than take the chance that the West will strengthen rather than weaken economic sanctions on it, Iran will do the smart thing and sign on the dotted line. While that won’t really end the nuclear threat, it will grant President Obama the appearance of a diplomatic victory and lead to the end of a sanctions policy that is already in danger of unraveling after the interim deal.

But rather than play ball with Obama, Iran’s leaders look to be playing hardball. As Haaretz reports, both Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani issued statements yesterday that make it clear they are in the talks to win them, not to merely acquiesce to a process that is already paving a path to nuclear capability for them. In speaking to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Khamenei mocked the notion that the country would go along with any limits on its ability to produce and deploy ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, Rouhani, the man President Obama and other advocates of the talks have depicted as a “moderate” whose victory in a faux election last year set the stage for reform of the brutal theocracy, said the best the U.S. could hope for in the talks was “transparency” and that the Islamist regime would accept no limits on its nuclear technology.

While Washington will, no doubt, dismiss the statements as mere posturing for a domestic audience that won’t impact the talks, these declarations come at an inopportune time for the Obama administration. They raise the possibility that Iran is planning to back away from any deal, even one as weak as the interim accord signed by Secretary of State John Kerry last November, much in the same manner that it has torpedoed past agreements at the last minute. But even if that is not the case, these comments make it likely that the U.S. will have to ante up even more than Obama thought in order to get Iran to sign a deal that already amounts to appeasement.

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With the P5+1 nuclear talks set to resume again in Vienna tomorrow, many observers are sensing optimism that a deal with Iran is within reach. After dropping their insistence that Iran give up enriching uranium in order to gain Tehran’s acquiescence to an interim nuclear deal last November, the U.S. and its allies appear to be confident that another few meetings will produce an accord that will put an end to the confrontation with the Islamist regime over their efforts to build nuclear weapons. The best they hope to achieve is an agreement that will lengthen the time Iran needs to convert its stockpile of uranium into nuclear fuel rather than the end of the program that President Obama promised during his 2012 reelection campaign. But the administration and its supporters seem to think that rather than take the chance that the West will strengthen rather than weaken economic sanctions on it, Iran will do the smart thing and sign on the dotted line. While that won’t really end the nuclear threat, it will grant President Obama the appearance of a diplomatic victory and lead to the end of a sanctions policy that is already in danger of unraveling after the interim deal.

But rather than play ball with Obama, Iran’s leaders look to be playing hardball. As Haaretz reports, both Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani issued statements yesterday that make it clear they are in the talks to win them, not to merely acquiesce to a process that is already paving a path to nuclear capability for them. In speaking to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Khamenei mocked the notion that the country would go along with any limits on its ability to produce and deploy ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, Rouhani, the man President Obama and other advocates of the talks have depicted as a “moderate” whose victory in a faux election last year set the stage for reform of the brutal theocracy, said the best the U.S. could hope for in the talks was “transparency” and that the Islamist regime would accept no limits on its nuclear technology.

While Washington will, no doubt, dismiss the statements as mere posturing for a domestic audience that won’t impact the talks, these declarations come at an inopportune time for the Obama administration. They raise the possibility that Iran is planning to back away from any deal, even one as weak as the interim accord signed by Secretary of State John Kerry last November, much in the same manner that it has torpedoed past agreements at the last minute. But even if that is not the case, these comments make it likely that the U.S. will have to ante up even more than Obama thought in order to get Iran to sign a deal that already amounts to appeasement.

It should be remembered that Rouhani’s credibility with the regime’s supposed hardliners rests with his exploits as a nuclear negotiator a decade ago when he took the West right up to the brink of a deal about enrichment and then backed away leaving the Bush administration and its European allies looking silly. Obama and Kerry were warned that this might happen again before they embarked on their most ambitious attempt at engagement with Iran. But while they still hope to get a deal, even if it is nothing more than a thin veil on Western approval for a robust Iranian nuclear program that could easily lead to a weapon, there’s every chance that the they’ve been led down the garden path by Khamenei and Rouhani.

Anyone wondering why Iran is acting with such confidence should look to Europe and Russia. Sanctions were already undermined by the interim deal, but with Europeans not interested in enforcing the existing restrictions, let alone tightening them to create an embargo that would give the West its only hope of spiking the nuclear threat, Iran is confident they are doomed. With Europe now facing the prospect of being forced to confront Russia after its aggression against Ukraine, there is even less appetite for squeezing Iran than even just a few months ago.

If both Khamenei and Rouhani believe Western negotiators that were already behaving as if they were desperate for a deal will be even easier to shake down than before, it’s hard to blame them for thinking so. That means that, at best, what comes out of the P5+1 process in the months leading up to the initial July deadline for an agreement (though the U.S. has already said it is prepared to keep talking beyond the summer) will be even more favorable to Iran’s nuclear quest than expected. A deal that leaves Iran’s infrastructure in place, as well as granting its right to enrich and to produce ballistic missiles, is one that will do little, if anything, to stop Tehran from getting a nuke. Rouhani’s statement that it will continue enriching uranium to 20 percent is no empty boast since it can still reconvert the stockpiles to weapons-grade material at any time.

But what Obama and Kerry are really worried about is the possibility that Iran won’t even grant them a bad deal but will instead blow off the entire process and to proceed directly to nuclear capability. If so, their fatal weakness will be exposed as a reality rather than merely a conservative talking point, leaving them a choice between ramping up the conflict and complete capitulation. That’s exactly the mindset Khamenei and Rouhani are counting on to deliver them a meaningless agreement that can either be signed or ignored. Either way, Iran seems closer to its nuclear goal today than it did before Obama’s interim capitulation.

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Obama’s Slow-Motion Betrayal on Iran

The latest round of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran took place this past week with little of the fanfare that surrounded previous negotiations. Other international issues, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370, have largely superseded Iran as the top foreign-policy news story. This allowed the Obama administration and its European partners, along with the uneasy participation of Russia, to pursue an agenda of accommodation with the Islamist regime without having to answer too many questions about the direction of the talks. After two days of meetings in Vienna, the parties recessed last Wednesday with vows to meet again next month. Though they admitted there were still gaps between the two sides, everyone seemed to express confidence that an agreement would eventually be reached even if lasted longer than the July deadline for negotiations that was set in the interim agreement with Iran that was signed last November.

Interestingly, the same day as the diplomats kissed goodbye in Vienna, Iran’s supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei helped celebrate National Nuclear Day. In his remarks, he vowed that the P5+1 process would not curtail Iran’s program while also expressing the usual malevolence toward the United States. But, crucially, he also indicated that he had given the green light to continuing the talks with the West. And, given Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that indicated the entire purpose of the negotiations was not to halt Iran’s nuclear program, as President Obama explicitly vowed during his 2012 reelection campaign, but to merely extend the time frame during which Tehran could “break out” to a nuclear weapon, Khamenei’s faith in the process seems justified.

If, as the New York Times noted in an editorial yesterday, there is a good chance a deal giving Western approval to an Iranian nuclear infrastructure that could build a nuclear weapon is signed by July 20 or sometime after that, will Congress or the media care enough about the fact that this will constitute a betrayal of the pledges that the president has been making about Iran since he first started running for president several years ago? Judging by the ease with which the administration seems to have fended off a congressional push for more sanctions on Iran earlier this year as well as the lack of outrage about Kerry’s comments this week, it’s hard to argue with the White House’s evident conclusion that they will get away with it without too much trouble.

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The latest round of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran took place this past week with little of the fanfare that surrounded previous negotiations. Other international issues, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370, have largely superseded Iran as the top foreign-policy news story. This allowed the Obama administration and its European partners, along with the uneasy participation of Russia, to pursue an agenda of accommodation with the Islamist regime without having to answer too many questions about the direction of the talks. After two days of meetings in Vienna, the parties recessed last Wednesday with vows to meet again next month. Though they admitted there were still gaps between the two sides, everyone seemed to express confidence that an agreement would eventually be reached even if lasted longer than the July deadline for negotiations that was set in the interim agreement with Iran that was signed last November.

Interestingly, the same day as the diplomats kissed goodbye in Vienna, Iran’s supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei helped celebrate National Nuclear Day. In his remarks, he vowed that the P5+1 process would not curtail Iran’s program while also expressing the usual malevolence toward the United States. But, crucially, he also indicated that he had given the green light to continuing the talks with the West. And, given Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that indicated the entire purpose of the negotiations was not to halt Iran’s nuclear program, as President Obama explicitly vowed during his 2012 reelection campaign, but to merely extend the time frame during which Tehran could “break out” to a nuclear weapon, Khamenei’s faith in the process seems justified.

If, as the New York Times noted in an editorial yesterday, there is a good chance a deal giving Western approval to an Iranian nuclear infrastructure that could build a nuclear weapon is signed by July 20 or sometime after that, will Congress or the media care enough about the fact that this will constitute a betrayal of the pledges that the president has been making about Iran since he first started running for president several years ago? Judging by the ease with which the administration seems to have fended off a congressional push for more sanctions on Iran earlier this year as well as the lack of outrage about Kerry’s comments this week, it’s hard to argue with the White House’s evident conclusion that they will get away with it without too much trouble.

During the debate this past winter about a measure that would have increased sanctions on Iran if the next bout of P5+1 diplomacy failed, we were not only assured of the administration’s desire to ensure that Tehran wouldn’t get a weapon but also promised that the president would not settle for a bad deal or be snookered by the ayatollahs into endless futile talks. There was little doubt that Obama didn’t want to try to enforce a complete economic embargo on Iran, the only measure short of the use of force that might stop the nuclear threat, but he was also wary of being seen to have broken his pledges on the issue. Yet it is clear that during the secret talks that led to last year’s weak interim agreement with Iran, Kerry concluded that the way out of this dilemma was a diplomatic “solution” that would allow Obama and the West to pretend that they had done something to stop the Islamist regime from going nuclear without, in fact, doing much to prevent them from doing so. The only question was whether the Iranians were smart enough to take them up on the offer. Ayatollah Khamenei seems to have answered that it in the affirmative.

Critics of this betrayal are accused of sounding the alarm about Iran while also seeking to hamper a diplomatic solution to the threat. But the problem is that the approach that the administration has embraced is no solution at all. The consequences of the “success” of this diplomatic track are incalculable both for the future of the Middle East as well as the security of the West. There should be no doubt about the fact that if the West agrees to a situation whereby Iran’s nuclear infrastructure including its refinement of uranium, plutonium nuclear plant, nuclear military research, and ballistic missile programs are left in place, it is only a matter of time before Tehran will have its weapon. Stretching out the breakout period will, in fact, lessen the likelihood that the West would or could react in time to stop them because once an agreement is signed the administration will have a vested interest in pretending that Iran is not embarrassing them. The end of sanctions that will accompany such an agreement will also make it impossible to reassert the economic leverage that Kerry threw away last year. While defenders of this policy claim that insisting on dismantling Iran’s program is “unrealistic,” what they fail to mention is that the administration’s clear preference for appeasing Tehran is what has made tough diplomacy unthinkable.

The president’s betrayal of his Iran promises has been conducted in slow motion over the course of the last two years. There is still plenty of time for Iran to revert to its past practice of teasing the West by seeming to be ready to sign an agreement only to revoke their approval at the last minute or for President Obama and Kerry to wise up to this scam or to realize that what they are doing is making an Iranian nuclear weapon more rather than less likely. Though a wise person should never bet against the former, only a fool would count on the latter. 

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Terrorist Envoy Symbolizes “New” Iran

For those still trying to pedal the line that Iran is becoming a beacon of moderation in the region under President Rouhani, it must be deflating to learn that Iran is to appoint one of the 1979 U.S. embassy hostage takers as its new ambassador to the United Nations. Of course, this is really just one more reason to question either the judgment or the integrity of those who continue to insist that Rouhani’s Iran is a state that the West can do business with. Naturally, Monday morning’s press briefing at the State Department saw reporters eager to extract some official comment on the matter. But in the typically dismissive tone now symptomatic of State Department spokespeople, Marie Harf refused to give anything away, instead maintaining that this was a confidential visa issue; just like any other.

The man that Iran has made this supposedly unremarkable visa request on behalf of is Hamid Aboutalebi who was part of the militant group that took 52 American embassy staff hostage for 444 days in the wake of Iran’s Islamic revolution. The U.S. embassy in Tehran was seized and occupied in 1979 by the radical group Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line, of which Aboutalebi was a member. Although Aboutalebi has at times attempted to play down his role in the hostage taking–claiming that he simply acted as a translator–his picture is still displayed on the page of the group’s website that celebrates the hostage taking. Besides, Aboutalebi began working as a diplomat for the Islamic regime shortly after the revolution. He and another of the hostage takers were sent on a diplomatic mission to Algeria at a time when the country was a locus for Third World terror groups, including the PLO.

Since then Hamid Aboutalebi has had a prestigious career. He has served as the Iranian ambassador to Australia, Belgium and Italy. And it should also be noted that Aboutalebi was part of Iran’s diplomatic service under previous President Ahmadinejad. And so really his appointment to represent Iran at the UN is just another reminder that Rouhani’s administration has preserved more continuity with previous Iranian governments than it has brought change. This should hardly be considered surprising. If Rouhani had genuinely represented such a radical break then Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khameini never would have allowed his name to go onto the ballot slip in the first place. Those prone to delusional levels of wishful thinking delight in parading Rouhani’s tweet wishing Jews new year’s greetings, but when it came to celebrating the revolution’s anniversary, Iranian state television broadcast simulated footage of Iran carpet bombing the Jewish state and attacking U.S. naval vessels. Rouhani’s regime is clearly lying to the West.

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For those still trying to pedal the line that Iran is becoming a beacon of moderation in the region under President Rouhani, it must be deflating to learn that Iran is to appoint one of the 1979 U.S. embassy hostage takers as its new ambassador to the United Nations. Of course, this is really just one more reason to question either the judgment or the integrity of those who continue to insist that Rouhani’s Iran is a state that the West can do business with. Naturally, Monday morning’s press briefing at the State Department saw reporters eager to extract some official comment on the matter. But in the typically dismissive tone now symptomatic of State Department spokespeople, Marie Harf refused to give anything away, instead maintaining that this was a confidential visa issue; just like any other.

The man that Iran has made this supposedly unremarkable visa request on behalf of is Hamid Aboutalebi who was part of the militant group that took 52 American embassy staff hostage for 444 days in the wake of Iran’s Islamic revolution. The U.S. embassy in Tehran was seized and occupied in 1979 by the radical group Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line, of which Aboutalebi was a member. Although Aboutalebi has at times attempted to play down his role in the hostage taking–claiming that he simply acted as a translator–his picture is still displayed on the page of the group’s website that celebrates the hostage taking. Besides, Aboutalebi began working as a diplomat for the Islamic regime shortly after the revolution. He and another of the hostage takers were sent on a diplomatic mission to Algeria at a time when the country was a locus for Third World terror groups, including the PLO.

Since then Hamid Aboutalebi has had a prestigious career. He has served as the Iranian ambassador to Australia, Belgium and Italy. And it should also be noted that Aboutalebi was part of Iran’s diplomatic service under previous President Ahmadinejad. And so really his appointment to represent Iran at the UN is just another reminder that Rouhani’s administration has preserved more continuity with previous Iranian governments than it has brought change. This should hardly be considered surprising. If Rouhani had genuinely represented such a radical break then Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khameini never would have allowed his name to go onto the ballot slip in the first place. Those prone to delusional levels of wishful thinking delight in parading Rouhani’s tweet wishing Jews new year’s greetings, but when it came to celebrating the revolution’s anniversary, Iranian state television broadcast simulated footage of Iran carpet bombing the Jewish state and attacking U.S. naval vessels. Rouhani’s regime is clearly lying to the West.

It should be obvious to most that Iran appointing a former hostage taker to be its ambassador to the UN is a hostile act. It certainly would be hard work to misconstrue it as a friendly one. Yet in the West politicians have been working hard to portray Rouhani’s regime as being if not friendly, then at least reasonable; open to discussion about its illegal nuclear program. The Europeans are desperate to lift sanctions so as to resume trade with Iran, the Obama administration is desperate to avoid the use of force in confronting the coming nuclear crisis.

No wonder then that the State Department was hardly enthusiastic about discussing this. When questioned on the matter Ms Harf first sought to divert the conversation to the riveting matter of administrating visas saying, “We don’t discuss individual visa cases. People are free to apply for one, and their visas are adjudicated under the normal procedures that we adjudicate people’s. And we don’t comment and we don’t make a prediction about the outcome of what that process might look like.” When that failed to satisfy reporters, Harf tried moving the conversation along by raising the matter of the latest round of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program saying; “Those are moving forward – difficult, but businesslike and on track for the third round.” No mention of whether or not Iran’s appointment of such a man as Aboutalebi to just about the highest diplomatic office is likely to harm cooperation with the West, including on such sensitive matters as the nuclear negotiations.

Clearly Aboutalebi’s appointment is significant. Such a move would not have been taken without consideration of its implications for relations with the U.S. and the West generally. Yet this move, if it goes ahead, will undoubtedly have consequences and is just another reminder that Rouhani’s Iran really isn’t so different from Ahmadinejad’s.

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Will Obama Listen to What Iran is Saying?

Earlier this week, President Obama sent a celebratory message to the people and the leaders of Iran on the occasion of the Nowruz, the Persian New Year. The annual videotaped presidential missive was very much in the spirit of the administration’s policy toward Iran emphasizing not only holiday cheer but also a belief in the need for the U.S. and Iran to resolve their differences, especially with regard to the nuclear negotiations now going on. In doing so, the president went even further than previous statements about the talks in which he said he supported a peaceful Iranian nuclear program and predicted a deal that would strengthen the economy of the Islamist regime. Israeli President Shimon Peres also sent his own equally conciliatory message to Iran that emphasized peace.

But if either leader were expecting a friendly reply from Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, they were disappointed. Speaking earlier today to commemorate the holiday, Khamenei brushed off conciliation, attacking the idea of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, questioning the Holocaust and vowing to triumph over international sanctions.

Given Khamenei’s history of hate speech directed at both the “Great Satan” (the U.S.) and the “Little Satan” (Israel), none of this is particularly surprising. Khamenei is the embodiment of a regime saturated in hostility to the West and anti-Semitism and whose support of international terrorism and a nuclear weapon is closely tied to its ideological goals. The only mystery about this is why Americans refuse to take him seriously when he speaks in this manner.

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Earlier this week, President Obama sent a celebratory message to the people and the leaders of Iran on the occasion of the Nowruz, the Persian New Year. The annual videotaped presidential missive was very much in the spirit of the administration’s policy toward Iran emphasizing not only holiday cheer but also a belief in the need for the U.S. and Iran to resolve their differences, especially with regard to the nuclear negotiations now going on. In doing so, the president went even further than previous statements about the talks in which he said he supported a peaceful Iranian nuclear program and predicted a deal that would strengthen the economy of the Islamist regime. Israeli President Shimon Peres also sent his own equally conciliatory message to Iran that emphasized peace.

But if either leader were expecting a friendly reply from Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, they were disappointed. Speaking earlier today to commemorate the holiday, Khamenei brushed off conciliation, attacking the idea of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, questioning the Holocaust and vowing to triumph over international sanctions.

Given Khamenei’s history of hate speech directed at both the “Great Satan” (the U.S.) and the “Little Satan” (Israel), none of this is particularly surprising. Khamenei is the embodiment of a regime saturated in hostility to the West and anti-Semitism and whose support of international terrorism and a nuclear weapon is closely tied to its ideological goals. The only mystery about this is why Americans refuse to take him seriously when he speaks in this manner.

According to the Times of Israel, this is what Khamenei had to say about the Holocaust:

“The Holocaust is an event whose reality is uncertain and if it has happened, it’s uncertain how it has happened,” Khamenei said during his address, according to a Twitter account under his name thought to be run by his office.

“Expressing opinion about the Holocaust, or casting doubt on it, is one of the greatest sins in the West. They prevent this, arrest the doubters, try them while claiming to be a free country,” said Khamenei, who has repeatedly called the Holocaust a “myth.”

“They passionately defend their red lines … How do they expect us to overlook our red lines that are based on our revolutionary and religious beliefs.”

As much as the president insists that he has his eyes wide open when it comes to Iran, his policies toward it have always reflected a degree of naïveté about the nature of its government and an unwillingness to confront it. From his first attempts at “engagement” to his shameful silence during the 2009 repression of demonstrators in Tehran to the current interim nuclear deal that granted Iran significant concessions in return for nothing of substance from them, Obama has been consistent in his desire for a new détente with the regime.

The administration has disingenuously sought to use the victory of Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s faux presidential election last year to justify a belief in Iranian moderation but the end of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s term in office changed nothing. Holocaust denial is pervasive throughout the Iranian leadership not because they like to offend Jewish and Western sensibilities but because it is integral to their anti-Semitic worldview. Rouhani is no moderate but even if he were one, it is Khamenei who runs the country.

This week’s exchange of greetings proves again that Iran has always viewed Western efforts at appeasement with contempt. They have given every indication that they consider Obama weak and too irresolute to hold them accountable for terrorism, arms smuggling aimed at inciting Palestinian violence or their nuclear quest. Nothing Khamenei says will likely deter President Obama from pursuing a nuclear deal. But the administration must, above all, learn to take Iran at its word when it threatens genocide and or says it will never back down on the nuclear question. If not, this pointless back and forth will be merely the forerunner of even more dangerous dialogue that will be heard after the Iranians reach their nuclear goal.

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Appeasing Nuclear Tyrannies Doesn’t Work

The news that North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-un has executed his uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek has provoked jokes about family spats run amok and further confirmed the conventional wisdom that the Communist nation is the craziest place on Earth. The purge of the uncle may be, as the New York Times says, a power struggle about the future of a country desperately in need of reform and rational leadership. In that scenario, Jang Song-thaek might have been an incipient Khrushchev or Gorbachev to his nephew’s Stalin. Or it may just be in the grip of the sort of bloody dynastic court politics that was a staple of monarchies in an earlier, less enlightened era in Western as well as Eastern civilizations. Think of Game of Thrones with nuclear weapons rather than dragons and zombies and maybe that makes some sense of North Korea.

Yet the mention of North Korea’s nuclear capability should remind us that the wacky goings-on in Pyongyang are not just the stuff of a cable thriller. What happens in the impoverished northern half of the land once known as the Hermit Kingdom may seem as remote to our existence as the mythical continent of Westeros in George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novels, but the fact that Kim Jong-un has his stubby little fingers on a nuclear button ought to stand the hairs on the back of our heads on end. But the fact that he was largely handed control of a small, but growing nuclear arsenal through a bipartisan policy of appeasement carried out by both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations is more than an unfortunate aspect of a horror story. If, as seems likely, the United States is currently embarked on a similar effort to achieve détente with another maniacal tyranny bent on gaining nuclear capability, what is really shocking is that official Washington has learned so little from its mistakes with North Korea.

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The news that North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-un has executed his uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek has provoked jokes about family spats run amok and further confirmed the conventional wisdom that the Communist nation is the craziest place on Earth. The purge of the uncle may be, as the New York Times says, a power struggle about the future of a country desperately in need of reform and rational leadership. In that scenario, Jang Song-thaek might have been an incipient Khrushchev or Gorbachev to his nephew’s Stalin. Or it may just be in the grip of the sort of bloody dynastic court politics that was a staple of monarchies in an earlier, less enlightened era in Western as well as Eastern civilizations. Think of Game of Thrones with nuclear weapons rather than dragons and zombies and maybe that makes some sense of North Korea.

Yet the mention of North Korea’s nuclear capability should remind us that the wacky goings-on in Pyongyang are not just the stuff of a cable thriller. What happens in the impoverished northern half of the land once known as the Hermit Kingdom may seem as remote to our existence as the mythical continent of Westeros in George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novels, but the fact that Kim Jong-un has his stubby little fingers on a nuclear button ought to stand the hairs on the back of our heads on end. But the fact that he was largely handed control of a small, but growing nuclear arsenal through a bipartisan policy of appeasement carried out by both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations is more than an unfortunate aspect of a horror story. If, as seems likely, the United States is currently embarked on a similar effort to achieve détente with another maniacal tyranny bent on gaining nuclear capability, what is really shocking is that official Washington has learned so little from its mistakes with North Korea.

The differences between North Korea, where a bizarre family dynasty misgoverns a nation by employing Stalinist-style Communism, and Iran are vast. Kim Jong-un almost makes Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose anti-Semitic and anti-Western rants are broadcast live on Iranian TV, look like a rational actor. Though it is governed by Islamist theocrats whose mystical beliefs are as scary as North Korean ruling family dynamics, Iran is a place with a sophisticated system of government and an advanced economy that was, at least until recently, fueled by oil exports.

But it should not be forgotten that while the Obama administration has bought into the myth that the selection of a supposed moderate, Hassan Rouhani, in Iran’s faux presidential election, meant that the Islamist tyranny had become a haven for moderation, the reality of Iran is very different. As much as Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seemed like a cartoon villain, that Holocaust denying demagogue was quite representative of the character and ethos of his nation’s government.

The point is, American diplomats, and in particular State Department staffer Wendy Sherman, who helped lead the talks with North Korea under Clinton, were convinced that the irrational nature of the dictatorship was no bar to a common sense deal. Why wouldn’t the current dictator’s father accept a huge bribe to foreswear nuclear weapons? The North Koreans took the money and the aid and then violated every agreement they had signed and got their bomb. Today, Sherman, who has been recycled and rewarded for failure by being given the task of leading negotiations with Iran, thinks what didn’t work with North Korea will succeed with Iran. The U.S. has discarded the impressive economic and military leverage it had over Tehran and signed a deal predicated on the notion that Iran is run by rational people who prefer the welfare of their people to the dream of nuclear weapons.

But just as the megalomania of the North Korean leadership always trumped any idea of their nation’s economic interests, the Iranian theocrats will always prioritize their vision of regional hegemony in which nukes will be complimented by their thriving side business funding international terrorism and their alliances with the Assad clan in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and perhaps a renewed friendship with Hamas in Gaza. And at the pinnacle of the Iranian system remains an autocratic cleric who dreams of destroying Israel and has no interest in détente with the West. Appeasing him and his minions is just as futile a task as Sherman’s previous efforts in North Korea.

Laugh all you want about the craziness in North Korea and pretend, if you can manage it, that their nuclear arsenal doesn’t pose a threat to the U.S. But the cost of playing the same game in Iran will be even higher. Appeasing or containing a nuclear tyranny run by hate-filled theocrats is as hopeless as was the attempt to do the same thing with one run by a Stalinist family gang. Though Obama, Kerry, and Sherman want the nuclear deals signed with North Korea to be thrown down the memory hole, they stand as an indictment against the administration’s current Iran policy.

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What Obama Wrought: Iran’s Normalization

The news today out of Geneva remains inconclusive. Despite the best efforts of Western negotiators, a nuclear agreement with Iran still remains elusive. Though the talks continue there’s no guarantee they will succeed as the Iranians remain resolute about defending both their “right” to go on enriching uranium and to keep constructing a plutonium nuclear plant that gives them a second path to a bomb. The breathless pursuit of a deal on the part of the Obama administration despite the fact that their offer will allow the Iranians to retain their nuclear infrastructure and to keep enriching uranium is the main story here. It will allow the Iranians a path to a nuclear breakout in the North Korean mode and once sanctions are loosened and Washington can pretend it has resolved the issue, the likelihood of a strong Western response to such a development would be nil.

But whether Secretary of State Kerry and his P5+1 colleagues get the Pyrrhic victory they are seeking this week or are forced to wait weeks or months more for the ayatollahs to give their assent to a piece of paper they will almost certainly obstruct, the latest round of talks has achieved something very different that seemed almost unimaginable only a few months ago. By devoting so much effort to sell the world on the notion that Iran is moderating and wants to deal, the administration hasn’t just tried to create a constituency for engagement with Iran but has, in effect, normalized a rogue, anti-Semitic, terror-supporting regime that richly deserved the opprobrium that had been directed at it in the last decade. In doing so, they have not only handed Tehran an undeserved victory without getting anything in return. They have also rendered it even less likely that the international community will be able to muster the strength to restrain an Islamist government whose violent intent is not in doubt.

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The news today out of Geneva remains inconclusive. Despite the best efforts of Western negotiators, a nuclear agreement with Iran still remains elusive. Though the talks continue there’s no guarantee they will succeed as the Iranians remain resolute about defending both their “right” to go on enriching uranium and to keep constructing a plutonium nuclear plant that gives them a second path to a bomb. The breathless pursuit of a deal on the part of the Obama administration despite the fact that their offer will allow the Iranians to retain their nuclear infrastructure and to keep enriching uranium is the main story here. It will allow the Iranians a path to a nuclear breakout in the North Korean mode and once sanctions are loosened and Washington can pretend it has resolved the issue, the likelihood of a strong Western response to such a development would be nil.

But whether Secretary of State Kerry and his P5+1 colleagues get the Pyrrhic victory they are seeking this week or are forced to wait weeks or months more for the ayatollahs to give their assent to a piece of paper they will almost certainly obstruct, the latest round of talks has achieved something very different that seemed almost unimaginable only a few months ago. By devoting so much effort to sell the world on the notion that Iran is moderating and wants to deal, the administration hasn’t just tried to create a constituency for engagement with Iran but has, in effect, normalized a rogue, anti-Semitic, terror-supporting regime that richly deserved the opprobrium that had been directed at it in the last decade. In doing so, they have not only handed Tehran an undeserved victory without getting anything in return. They have also rendered it even less likely that the international community will be able to muster the strength to restrain an Islamist government whose violent intent is not in doubt.

When Hassan Rouhani won Iran’s faux presidential election in June, what followed was an orchestrated effort on the part of the regime to sell their new front man as someone who would effect genuine change. Given his long record as a faithful servant of first Ayatollah Khomeini and then his successor Ayatollah Khamenei, as well as his role in past diplomatic deceptions of the West, this was a stretch. But it wasn’t long before it became apparent that the supreme leader had made a clever tactical decision in allowing Rouhani to run and then win the election. Those in the West, like President Obama, who were desperate for a way out of the nuclear confrontation with Iran soon became as invested in the myth of Rouhani’s moderation and, by extension, that of the regime itself, as the Iranians had been. Thus, even when the person pulling the strings in Tehran issues forth another proclamation of hate, as Khamenei did this week, the muted response from Washington to the latest broadside of anti-Semitic slander said more about the change in attitude than even their defense of the negotiations.

In order to justify their decision to appease the Iranians, it is necessary to not just attempt to launder their image but to treat their representatives as reasonable actors and their positions as merely a different point of view about a difficult subject. But in spite of the U.S. commitment to engagement, this remains the same rogue regime that rightly earned in its place in George W. Bush’s famous line about an axis of hate alongside Iraq and fellow nuclear scofflaw North Korea. It still brutally represses religious minorities and dissenters within its borders and is one of the world’s leading sources of anti-Semitic hate. It is still the leading state sponsor of terror around the world. And its hostile intent toward both Israel and moderate Arab nations like Saudi Arabia is something that neither the supreme leader nor the rest of the regime bothers to hide.

It should also be recalled that Iran’s strategic ambitions were further bolstered this year by the administration’s astonishing retreat in Syria that ensured that Tehran’s close ally Bashar Assad would hold onto power despite President Obama’s repeated calls for his ouster. Indeed, with Hamas now seeking to re-establish ties with Iran after breaking them off in recent years over their disagreement about Syria, the web of the regime’s auxiliaries will stretch across the Middle East posing a threat not just to Israel and Saudi Arabia, but to the United States and the rest of the West.

Yet President Obama clings to the notion that Rouhani’s election means the Islamist regime has been housetrained to the extent that it can be lived with or at least contained. Doing so sets the stage for Iran’s return to the international stage as an accepted player even if it doesn’t observe their nuclear commitments. That’s why even if Obama or his successor has a change of heart about the deal on the table this week, it will be that much harder to ever again isolate it as much as it is today. The fateful step being taken is not just the possibility of Kerry signing a bad deal. It’s the process of normalization that goes with it that represents Iran’s greatest and undeserved victory.

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Why the Deal Is Bad: Iran Nuke Breakout

The noises emanating from diplomatic sources in Geneva this week continue to assure the world that they are close to a breakthrough that will resolve the standoff between the West and Iran. How close they actually are remains a mystery as Secretary of State John Kerry and his colleagues are discovering the same truth about negotiating with Iran that their predecessors discovered long ago: those who make concessions to the ayatollahs are rewarded with more prevarications and delay, not signed agreements. Nevertheless, the Obama administration is still playing the optimist card in their attempts to beat back critics of their effort to craft a new era of détente with Iran. That was evident in their response to Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who spiced up a week of negotiations by giving a televised speech that abused both the U.S. and France but reserved, as usual, his main vitriol for Israel, which he described as “an illegitimate regime,” led by “untouchable rabid dogs.” While the French responded angrily to this provocation, the U.S. was unruffled and answered with the mildest of reproofs:

A senior Obama administration official was more circumspect Wednesday night in responding to the ayatollah’s speech, which also assailed the United States and France. “I don’t ever like it when people use rhetoric that in any way talks about the U.S. in ways that I find very uncomfortable and not warranted whatsoever,” said the senior administration official, who cannot be identified under the diplomatic protocol for briefing reporters.

“There are decades of mistrust between the United States and Iran, and we certainly have had many people in our society say difficult things about Iran and Iranians,” the official added. “So I would hope that neither in the U.S. nor in Iran would leaders use rhetoric that may work well in a domestic constituency, but add to the decades of mistrust on both sides.”

To term such a response to hate speech by a world leader seeking nuclear weapons as spineless would be an understatement, especially when the same administration is so fearful that actions by Congress could spook the Iranians away from the talks. But the main problem here isn’t so much the obsequious manner with which President Obama and Kerry are breathlessly pursuing a deal with Iran. It is that the deal they are seeking to entice the Iranians into signing would ensure that Tehran would have the chance to get the weapons the U.S. is seeking to deny them.

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The noises emanating from diplomatic sources in Geneva this week continue to assure the world that they are close to a breakthrough that will resolve the standoff between the West and Iran. How close they actually are remains a mystery as Secretary of State John Kerry and his colleagues are discovering the same truth about negotiating with Iran that their predecessors discovered long ago: those who make concessions to the ayatollahs are rewarded with more prevarications and delay, not signed agreements. Nevertheless, the Obama administration is still playing the optimist card in their attempts to beat back critics of their effort to craft a new era of détente with Iran. That was evident in their response to Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who spiced up a week of negotiations by giving a televised speech that abused both the U.S. and France but reserved, as usual, his main vitriol for Israel, which he described as “an illegitimate regime,” led by “untouchable rabid dogs.” While the French responded angrily to this provocation, the U.S. was unruffled and answered with the mildest of reproofs:

A senior Obama administration official was more circumspect Wednesday night in responding to the ayatollah’s speech, which also assailed the United States and France. “I don’t ever like it when people use rhetoric that in any way talks about the U.S. in ways that I find very uncomfortable and not warranted whatsoever,” said the senior administration official, who cannot be identified under the diplomatic protocol for briefing reporters.

“There are decades of mistrust between the United States and Iran, and we certainly have had many people in our society say difficult things about Iran and Iranians,” the official added. “So I would hope that neither in the U.S. nor in Iran would leaders use rhetoric that may work well in a domestic constituency, but add to the decades of mistrust on both sides.”

To term such a response to hate speech by a world leader seeking nuclear weapons as spineless would be an understatement, especially when the same administration is so fearful that actions by Congress could spook the Iranians away from the talks. But the main problem here isn’t so much the obsequious manner with which President Obama and Kerry are breathlessly pursuing a deal with Iran. It is that the deal they are seeking to entice the Iranians into signing would ensure that Tehran would have the chance to get the weapons the U.S. is seeking to deny them.

That conclusion flies in the face of the spin emanating from the administration and its defenders who continue to claim that their proposed deal with Iran will make this scenario less likely. But as Reuters pointed out in an analysis of the current situation, the best Kerry and company can claim is that they will “reduce” the threat of an Iranian nuclear breakout, not eliminate it.

What this means is that the deal Kerry is advocating as saving the world from Iranian nukes will preserve Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and allows them to hold onto all of their centrifuges and the rest of the nuclear infrastructure they have created during a decade of stalling futile talks with the West. That means that they will still possess enough nuclear fuel to build bombs and the capacity to “break out” and, within a relatively short period of time, take their non-weapons grade uranium and bring it up to the level needed for military use.

Supporters of the deal are unfazed by this possibility because they assume the West will always have time to react to an Iranian breakout. But this is a convenient fallacy for those whose main object appears to be to end the dispute with Iran rather than actually ending the threat of an Iranian bomb. Once an accord is signed and the U.S. can transition away from focusing on Iran and sanctions are lifted, the chances are that any shift to cheat by Iran will be dismissed by Western leaders who will not wish to be drawn back into a confrontation. Nor will there be any appetite to re-impose sanctions that neither President Obama nor Europeans desperate for Iranian oil and business wanted to enforce in the first place. Like the North Koreans who laughed at the West as they violated signed agreements to create their own nuclear breakout, Iran will have little trouble deceiving the West and will not worry much about a response from an administration that is more concerned about the Israelis than the ayatollahs.

Any nuclear deal with Iran that stopped short of a complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program, as President Obama promised during his foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney last year, is a guarantee of future trouble. But an interim accord that started loosening sanctions even before Iran gave up any of their nuclear toys will make it all but certain that the peril will have not been averted.

While Washington is hoping to celebrate their détente with Khamenei, it’s hard to blame Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for railing at this seeming betrayal. Responding to Khamenei’s speech, he had this to say:

“This reminds us of the dark regimes of the past that plotted against us first, and then against all of humanity,” Mr. Netanyahu said at a meeting with Russian Jewish leaders during a visit to Moscow. “The public responded to him with calls of ‘Death to America! Death to Israel!’  ” Mr. Netanyahu noted. “Doesn’t this sound familiar to you? This is the real Iran! We are not confused. They must not have nuclear weapons.”

Unfortunately, President Obama and Secretary Kerry are confused. Whether Iran signs this week or makes them wait some more while continuing the drive to achieve their nuclear ambition, they are the big winners in a diplomatic process that is now set up to fail to achieve its supposed goal.

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Obama’s Israel Spat Boosts Iran’s Leverage

Western negotiators sat down again today in Geneva with Iran’s representatives hopeful that they could strike a nuclear deal with Tehran. But after seemingly coming so close to an agreement when the parties last met two weeks ago, most of the spin coming from the Obama administration about this issue wasn’t so much on whether they could entice the Islamist regime to sign an accord as it was on aggressively pushing back against critics of their approach to Iran. In the last several days, the president’s foreign-policy team has been intent on squelching dissent from Israel and Saudi Arabia about Washington’s desire to strike an interim deal with Iran that would leave in place the regime’s nuclear program and its “right” to enrich uranium. The president and Secretary of State Kerry have gone all-out to lobby Congress against increasing sanctions on Iran as well as to justify a decision to start the process of loosening sanctions without Iran having to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure. Enlisting their allies in the media like the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman and a host of others, their main goal has been as much to delegitimize skeptics about their Iran policy, especially supporters of Israel who rightly see what is going on as the beginning of a betrayal of the president’s repeated promises on the subject.

For the moment, the administration has succeeded. The Senate will not vote on increasing sanctions until after the Thanksgiving recess, giving Kerry plenty of time to get his deal before Congress could theoretically scare the Iranians away from the table. Moreover, by seeking to depict the argument as one between those seeking a peaceful solution to the problem and those who really want the U.S. to fight a war, they have put themselves in line with the same war weariness that helped obstruct the president’s faltering attempts to deal with the crisis in Syria. But the collateral damage from this strategy will be considerable. While Obama and Kerry seem most focused on beating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Jewish state’s American supporters, what they have failed to realize is that by shifting their focus in this manner they may have actually made their goal of an agreement with Iran even more difficult to obtain. And by alienating both Israel and moderate Arab states and treating their understandable concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions as secondary to the president’s desire to get out from under his campaign promises on the issue, they may have set the stage for a train of events they will not be able to influence or stop.

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Western negotiators sat down again today in Geneva with Iran’s representatives hopeful that they could strike a nuclear deal with Tehran. But after seemingly coming so close to an agreement when the parties last met two weeks ago, most of the spin coming from the Obama administration about this issue wasn’t so much on whether they could entice the Islamist regime to sign an accord as it was on aggressively pushing back against critics of their approach to Iran. In the last several days, the president’s foreign-policy team has been intent on squelching dissent from Israel and Saudi Arabia about Washington’s desire to strike an interim deal with Iran that would leave in place the regime’s nuclear program and its “right” to enrich uranium. The president and Secretary of State Kerry have gone all-out to lobby Congress against increasing sanctions on Iran as well as to justify a decision to start the process of loosening sanctions without Iran having to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure. Enlisting their allies in the media like the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman and a host of others, their main goal has been as much to delegitimize skeptics about their Iran policy, especially supporters of Israel who rightly see what is going on as the beginning of a betrayal of the president’s repeated promises on the subject.

For the moment, the administration has succeeded. The Senate will not vote on increasing sanctions until after the Thanksgiving recess, giving Kerry plenty of time to get his deal before Congress could theoretically scare the Iranians away from the table. Moreover, by seeking to depict the argument as one between those seeking a peaceful solution to the problem and those who really want the U.S. to fight a war, they have put themselves in line with the same war weariness that helped obstruct the president’s faltering attempts to deal with the crisis in Syria. But the collateral damage from this strategy will be considerable. While Obama and Kerry seem most focused on beating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Jewish state’s American supporters, what they have failed to realize is that by shifting their focus in this manner they may have actually made their goal of an agreement with Iran even more difficult to obtain. And by alienating both Israel and moderate Arab states and treating their understandable concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions as secondary to the president’s desire to get out from under his campaign promises on the issue, they may have set the stage for a train of events they will not be able to influence or stop.

The main problem with the current U.S. approach to Iran is that it is based on the assumption that Iran’s desire to get economic sanctions lifted is greater than their commitment to achieving their nuclear goal. Preserving their nuclear option is, as they have repeatedly stated, their “red line” in negotiations. Having prevaricated and delayed talks with the West with this object in mind for more than a decade, it is a fundamental error to think that they have any intention of giving up now, especially since they have gotten so close to achieving it.

From the Iranian point of view, the charm offensive led by new President Hassan Rouhani has already succeeded since it has driven a wedge between the United States and Israel as well as Saudi Arabia. But by escalating the argument with Israel in this manner, President Obama has failed to realize that by demonstrating his zeal for a deal, even at the cost of heightening tensions with two key allies and alienating a key domestic constituency, he may be influencing the Iranian negotiating position more than he imagines. By trashing all those counseling caution in dealing with Iran as warmongers, the administration may have not so much empowered the alleged “moderates” in Iran but actually given the country’s supreme leader a reason to hold out for even better terms than the West is offering.

The regime’s true boss, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made clear his contempt for President Obama’s diplomatic efforts yesterday in a speech to members of his Basij paramilitary forces broadcast live in on Iranian TV when he not only put the U.S. down as weak but supplied the usual denunciation of Israel as “an “illegitimate regime” led by “untouchable rabid dogs.” Having demonstrated throughout the last five years that he thought President Obama was a paper tiger whose threats should be discounted, it is difficult to imagine that the last two weeks–during which the administration has shown its eagerness to find a way to appease Iran and its desire to distance itself from Israel and the Saudis–have altered Khamenei’s view of the confrontation.

By beating back efforts to impose even tougher sanctions on Iran and essentially marginalizing Israel in this fashion, the president may think he has given himself more room to make diplomacy work. But what he may really have done is to convince Khamenei that, as with Iran’s past decisions to stonewall the West’s efforts, further delay will only net him an even more favorable deal. While raising the pressure on Iran would have given the regime an incentive to compromise or even back down, the American decision to cut Israel loose in this fashion may have done the opposite.

Just as bad is the long-term damage the president’s push for an Iran deal has done to America’s allies in the Middle East. Both Israel and the Saudis understand, even if Obama does not, that Iran will not abide by even the most generous of Western deals and sooner or later will evade or cheat their way to a nuclear weapon. But after being cut out of the diplomatic process in this fashion, they will have less reason to listen to American advice in the future and may even consider acting on their own to stop Iran despite Obama’s insincere assurances that he is looking out for their interests. The net result is a lack of trust that will only undermine Middle East stability and make it less likely anyone will heed the president’s warnings or advice even after Iran goes nuclear.

By downgrading the alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia and trying to delegitimize his critics as warmongers, the president has strengthened Iran’s bargaining position and made it less rather than more likely that there will be a satisfactory conclusion to both the current negotiations and those that will follow. Rather than allowing diplomacy to succeed, what he has done may have ensured that Iran will never be convinced to give up its nukes by any means short of a use of force that no one wants.

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