Commentary Magazine


Topic: Hassan Rouhani

Iran Has Obama Cornered on Nuclear Issue

They good news out of the White House is that President Obama has no plans at present to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani next week at the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. If such a meeting were being touted, it might signal an impeding agreement between the two nations that would likely do little to avert the Iranian nuclear threat. The bad news is that Iran’s open display of defiance heading into the talks that began this week in New York is a sign that American economic and military leverage over the Islamist regime is now so slight that the most likely outcome of this latest round of diplomatic futility is for the negotiations to continue to be strung out indefinitely, something that will lead inevitably to the Iranian bomb Obama has vowed to stop.

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They good news out of the White House is that President Obama has no plans at present to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani next week at the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. If such a meeting were being touted, it might signal an impeding agreement between the two nations that would likely do little to avert the Iranian nuclear threat. The bad news is that Iran’s open display of defiance heading into the talks that began this week in New York is a sign that American economic and military leverage over the Islamist regime is now so slight that the most likely outcome of this latest round of diplomatic futility is for the negotiations to continue to be strung out indefinitely, something that will lead inevitably to the Iranian bomb Obama has vowed to stop.

As I wrote earlier this week, the European Union has already signaled that it is preparing for yet another extension of the talks past November by appointing current foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to continue to represent the EU in negotiations with Tehran. These are, of course, the talks that were supposed to have a six-month time limit so as to prevent Iran from continuing its delaying tactics that have worked so well over the past decade. But that time limit — an integral part of the interim nuclear accord signed last November by the United States and its allies with Iran — was already extended once over the summer.

That ought to mean the current talks being held in New York ought to be make or break time for an administration that spiked Congress’s attempt to strengthen economic sanctions on Iran last winter by promising that diplomacy could work without the extra leverage tougher restrictions on doing business with Tehran would give it. But in the last year the administration’s diplomatic efforts have gone nowhere on the nuclear issue. The loosening of the sanctions in the interim accord removed the West’s ace in the hole against the ayatollahs and signaled the world that Iran would soon be open for business again.

Combined with the tension between Russia and the West after the invasion of Ukraine that provided Iran with a crucial friend and you have a formula that left Tehran feeling strong enough to resist President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry’s entreaties to make a deal and inaugurate a new era of U.S.-Iran détente. Throw in the fact that the U.S. and Iran are allegedly now on the same side in the struggle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria (where Tehran’s ally Bashar Assad has survived and also, as Kerry said, “played footsie with ISIS”) and Iran has zero incentive to give an inch on nuclear issues.

With little hope of progress this week, Rouhani can go to New York and thumb his nose on the nuclear issue at the U.S. with impunity. That leaves President Obama’s promises about stopping Iran and letting diplomacy work without Congressional interference look hollow if not mendacious. The Iranians feel they have Obama right where they want him, knowing he has even less appetite for a confrontation with them than he does with ISIS. The terrorist group presents a clear and present danger to the nation that the administration is right to begin to address. But by neglecting the even more deadly peril from an Iranian nuke and allowing Tehran to think they have nothing to lose by stiffing the West in the talks, Obama is endangering U.S. security and setting himself up for a legacy of foreign policy catastrophe.

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Iran Promotes 9/11 Conspiracy on Anniversary

A basis for President Obama’s diplomacy with Iran has been the supposed changes inside Iran that the White House and State Department interpreted as signs that Iran really was changing and was interested in diplomacy. In reality, the idea that President Hassan Rouhani’s election signifies any change in Iran is more fiction than reality. Far from being a reformer, Rouhani was the first Iranian official to call Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini “Imam.” In the aftermath of his tenure as nuclear negotiator, Rouhani bragged repeatedly that he had advanced Iran’s nuclear program by taking advantage of Western desperation to negotiate. And while Rouhani has removed many of the Revolutionary Guards veterans from the cabinet, he has replaced them not with representatives of civil society or the Iranian people, but with veterans of Iran’s notorious intelligence service.

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A basis for President Obama’s diplomacy with Iran has been the supposed changes inside Iran that the White House and State Department interpreted as signs that Iran really was changing and was interested in diplomacy. In reality, the idea that President Hassan Rouhani’s election signifies any change in Iran is more fiction than reality. Far from being a reformer, Rouhani was the first Iranian official to call Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini “Imam.” In the aftermath of his tenure as nuclear negotiator, Rouhani bragged repeatedly that he had advanced Iran’s nuclear program by taking advantage of Western desperation to negotiate. And while Rouhani has removed many of the Revolutionary Guards veterans from the cabinet, he has replaced them not with representatives of civil society or the Iranian people, but with veterans of Iran’s notorious intelligence service.

Now it seems that Rouhani’s Iran is doubling down on noxious. On yesterday’s anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks—attacks that the Islamic Republic facilitated by allowing the hijackers transit to and from their Afghanistan training camps—the state-controlled, official Iranian media went full-blown conspiracy, blaming 9/11 on Jews led by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger:

…It was on September 11th that he committed two of his most memorable outrages: The murder of Chilean President Salvador Allende and installation of the torture-loving Pinochet junta in 1973; and the explosive demolition of the World Trade Center, and massacre of nearly 3,000 people in New York and Washington in 2001…

Kissinger’s close association with the fanatically pro-Israel, anti-Iran neoconservatives since September 11th, 2001 has surprised some observers, who traditionally viewed the former National Security Advisor as a realist rather than an ideologue.

Why did Kissinger turn neocon? Some speculate that as his mind deteriorates he is rediscovering his tribal roots and experiencing a Zionist second childhood. Evidence supporting this view includes his petulant statement to the New York Post that “In ten years there will be no more Israel.” Apparently Kissinger has fallen victim to the kind of Zionist existential anguish that lies at the root of the radicalism of such neocons as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Scooter Libby, Douglas Feith, Dov Zakheim, and others of that ilk.

But there may be another reason for Kissinger’s succumbing to what Gilad Atzmon calls Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder. That reason, in a nutshell, is Kissinger’s complicity in the neoconservative coup d’état of September 11th, 2001. By helping design the 9/11 shock-and-awe psychological warfare operation, Kissinger appears to have indelibly wedded his own fate to that of the neoconservative September criminals.

How do we know Kissinger was involved in the 9/11-anthrax operation? Because President Bush, acting under orders of Dick Cheney and the 9/11 perpetrator cabal, appointed Kissinger to head the 9/11 Coverup Commission. Only a person with intimate knowledge of what needed to be covered up, as well as a strong grasp on the crumbling “19 hijackers led by a dying man in a cave” cover story, could have been entrusted to head the Commission.

Obama and Kerry may believe Iran has changed, but the Islamic Republic—increasingly cocky against the backdrop of America’s weakness—seems intent on demonstrating that it is not. Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei take pleasure in humiliating the United States. How ironic it is that so many proponents of outreach to Iran suggest that the Islamic Republic expressed its revulsion about the 9/11 attacks. This, of course, is nonsense. While the Iranian people mourned, Iran’s leaders gloated. Mehdi Karrubi, a reformist politician, blamed “Zionists in Israel” for the attacks, and the state-controlled press promoted wild conspiracy theories. According to Kayhan, a paper which serves as the voice of the supreme leader, “The super-terrorist had a taste of its own bitter medicine.”

When I debated Ambassador Tom Pickering, a leading proponent of striking a deal with Iran, last April at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, Pickering quipped in the face of so many Iranian statements suggesting past insincerity something to the effect of, “That was then, this is now.” It seems that the Iranian regime hasn’t changed its spots, however. Any government that celebrates 9/11 should never be entrusted with nuclear power, nor should any regime which 13 years after that horrendous act still promotes the most noxious conspiracy theories. Then again, why should they not seek to humiliate and insult the United States and the victims of 9/11 when Obama and Kerry project such desperation?

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Would You Trust Ahmadinejad with Unrestricted Nukes?

The Obama administration’s deal-making with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is based on two assumptions, both of which are false. The first is that the president matters in Iran. The reality is that, in the Islamic Republic, the supreme leader calls the shots, not the president. Simply put, the president is about style, the supreme leader is about substance. The second assumption underlying Obama’s diplomacy is that Hassan Rouhani is the Iranian incarnation of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, someone with a hardline past but reform in his heart. At best, this is wishful thinking. It involves dismissing Rouhani’s record and all of his past statements.

Obama is undertaking a huge gamble: He is betting American national security and broader Middle Eastern security on the notion that somehow Rouhani is different than his record indicates and that he knows better than Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei what Rouhani’s true intentions are. That’s not a good bet to take, especially since it looks like Rouhani’s honeymoon is rapidly coming to an end, but Obama—like all second-term presidents—is willing to put on blinders in his quest for a legacy.

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The Obama administration’s deal-making with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is based on two assumptions, both of which are false. The first is that the president matters in Iran. The reality is that, in the Islamic Republic, the supreme leader calls the shots, not the president. Simply put, the president is about style, the supreme leader is about substance. The second assumption underlying Obama’s diplomacy is that Hassan Rouhani is the Iranian incarnation of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, someone with a hardline past but reform in his heart. At best, this is wishful thinking. It involves dismissing Rouhani’s record and all of his past statements.

Obama is undertaking a huge gamble: He is betting American national security and broader Middle Eastern security on the notion that somehow Rouhani is different than his record indicates and that he knows better than Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei what Rouhani’s true intentions are. That’s not a good bet to take, especially since it looks like Rouhani’s honeymoon is rapidly coming to an end, but Obama—like all second-term presidents—is willing to put on blinders in his quest for a legacy.

Obama is putting all of his eggs in Rouhani’s basket, but what happens if Rouhani is removed from the picture? The purpose of a nuclear deal with Iran—at least from the Iranian perspective—is to normalize Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s de facto lobbyists in the United States are already arguing that after a short period of Iranian compliance with the deal, Iran should be free and clear from restrictions and, in effect, be treated as it had never cheated, never experimented with nuclear-weapons triggers, and never constructed secret nuclear facilities.

Within the Islamic Republic, there is not an inexorable march to reform. The birthrate in Iran today is only half of what is was in the 1980s, and so Iranian leaders figure that there will be fewer hot-headed young people in coming decades. As students start families, they become less willing to rock the boat. Hardliners figure their moment is yet to come. To read Rouhani’s election as the permanent victory of reform or democracy is to misunderstand Iran: There are no free elections inside the Islamic Republic. The Guardian Council selects candidates, and so sets the parameters of debate.

The supreme leader keeps power by insuring a rotation of factions. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the presidency in 2005, he cleaned house of reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s followers. Likewise, when Rouhani won the presidency, the press cheered as he began his purge of Ahmadinejad’s supporters (never mind he simply replaced the pro-Ahmadinejad Revolutionary Guards veterans with intelligence ministry veterans, hardly the sign of sincere reform). It is reasonable to assume that the supreme leader will try to keep Rouhani’s minions from growing too powerful by orchestrating the revival of the Ahmadinejadniks.

And, indeed, that is what is happening according to the Iranian press. The Open Source Center has compiled a number of Iranian press reporters discussing Ahmadinejad’s rehabilitation. On April 3, for example, the hardline website Shafaf spoke about Ahmadinejad fielding a candidate in a by-election this coming fall. Ten days later, Mosalas Online hinted that Ahmadinejad was crafting a strategy to retake the Majlis. This is no idle talk. After all, Ahmadinejad’s pre-presidency claim to fame was organizing the rise of the conservatives in local elections. Entekhab has speculated that Ahmadinejad has his sights set on the 2017 election. Most importantly, the state-controlled Iranian press has begun publishing photographs of the supreme leader with Ahmadinejad (scroll to the third photo from the left). There is no better indication that Ahmadinejad is not so down and out as perhaps many American diplomats hope.

Perhaps Obama has put great faith in Rouhani, and is willing to take risks for a nuclear deal because of him. The question Obama won’t consider—but Congress should—is whether they would trust Ahmadinejad to again take the reins of a nuclear-capable Iran, albeit one with sanctions and controls removed thanks to Obama’s naive faith and misreading of the Iranian political system. Alas, that appears to be the situation in which Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are putting the United States.

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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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Iran Targeting U.S. Satellites with Lasers?

For all the Iranian government and its fellow travelers whine about sanctions, the Iranian regime seems to have no problem funneling money off to ever more creative military projects. Take this latest tidbit which appears in the Washington Examiner:

Iran, meanwhile, “undertakes more purposeful interference” with U.S. satellites using lasers and jammers. “Although these actions have not resulted in irreparable damage to U.S. assets, this practice increases the possibility that the United States will misinterpret unintended harm caused by such interference.”

The Examiner piece derives from a longer Council on Foreign Relations report well-worth reading. Indeed, from what I have heard, it has garnered significant attention in policy circles. That report elaborates:

Since Iran already views space as a legitimate arena in which to contest U.S. military power, Tehran could use similar tactics against U.S. satellites during a major crisis, especially if it believes war is imminent—an assessment that could have self-fulfilling consequences. Should this significantly limit U.S. situational unawareness of the unfolding crisis, there would most certainly be a military response against the source of that Iranian interference. Additionally, like North Korea, Iran could attempt a direct-ascent ASAT test or co-orbital ASAT test, in which it detonates a conventional explosive near a targeted satellite. Iran’s capacity to do this will likely improve if it follows through on its June 2013 announcement of plans to build a space monitoring center designed to track satellites above Iranian territory.

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For all the Iranian government and its fellow travelers whine about sanctions, the Iranian regime seems to have no problem funneling money off to ever more creative military projects. Take this latest tidbit which appears in the Washington Examiner:

Iran, meanwhile, “undertakes more purposeful interference” with U.S. satellites using lasers and jammers. “Although these actions have not resulted in irreparable damage to U.S. assets, this practice increases the possibility that the United States will misinterpret unintended harm caused by such interference.”

The Examiner piece derives from a longer Council on Foreign Relations report well-worth reading. Indeed, from what I have heard, it has garnered significant attention in policy circles. That report elaborates:

Since Iran already views space as a legitimate arena in which to contest U.S. military power, Tehran could use similar tactics against U.S. satellites during a major crisis, especially if it believes war is imminent—an assessment that could have self-fulfilling consequences. Should this significantly limit U.S. situational unawareness of the unfolding crisis, there would most certainly be a military response against the source of that Iranian interference. Additionally, like North Korea, Iran could attempt a direct-ascent ASAT test or co-orbital ASAT test, in which it detonates a conventional explosive near a targeted satellite. Iran’s capacity to do this will likely improve if it follows through on its June 2013 announcement of plans to build a space monitoring center designed to track satellites above Iranian territory.

President Obama’s initiative toward Iran seems predicated on the belief that Iran somehow changed after the election of President Hassan Rouhani, never mind that presidents in Iran don’t hold power comparable to that in the United States. If Iran has been targeting American satellites with lasers, perhaps that’s a sign that Iranian sincerity isn’t what the White House believes. Perhaps it is time for the White House to recognize that sometimes a “reset” simply doesn’t work. Then again, so long as Obama heard sincerity in Rouhani’s voice in their September 2013 phone chat, what difference does hard evidence of continued malfeasance make?

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The Iran Hostage Crisis and the Spirit of Youthful Rebellion

Let he who is without youthful indiscretions cast the first stone, according to Reuters’ new call for amnesty for the perpetrators of the Iran hostage crisis. The 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran is basically portrayed as a case of energetic youth getting carried away. 1979 was a crazy year. We had Blondie and the Bee Gees; they had revolutionary Islamist terror. We’ll all laugh about this one day.

And that day is today, if Reuters has anything to say about it. The report was inspired by the controversy surrounding Hamid Abutalebi, the man the “moderate” Iranian government has chosen to be its next envoy to the United Nations. The problem is that Abutalebi took part in the hostage crisis, and American officials aren’t thrilled about Abutalebi or the message this sends from the Iranian government. The State Department is hesitant to award Abutalebi a visa.

But Reuters is here to explain that just as Americans have left their bellbottoms behind, so too “age mellows some former captors of U.S. hostages,” as the Reuters headline claims. Yet as silly as this all sounds, the article actually deserves a wide reading for two contributions it makes to understanding how such media institutions operate. The first can be seen by juxtaposing the following two paragraphs. The story begins:

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Let he who is without youthful indiscretions cast the first stone, according to Reuters’ new call for amnesty for the perpetrators of the Iran hostage crisis. The 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran is basically portrayed as a case of energetic youth getting carried away. 1979 was a crazy year. We had Blondie and the Bee Gees; they had revolutionary Islamist terror. We’ll all laugh about this one day.

And that day is today, if Reuters has anything to say about it. The report was inspired by the controversy surrounding Hamid Abutalebi, the man the “moderate” Iranian government has chosen to be its next envoy to the United Nations. The problem is that Abutalebi took part in the hostage crisis, and American officials aren’t thrilled about Abutalebi or the message this sends from the Iranian government. The State Department is hesitant to award Abutalebi a visa.

But Reuters is here to explain that just as Americans have left their bellbottoms behind, so too “age mellows some former captors of U.S. hostages,” as the Reuters headline claims. Yet as silly as this all sounds, the article actually deserves a wide reading for two contributions it makes to understanding how such media institutions operate. The first can be seen by juxtaposing the following two paragraphs. The story begins:

Three decades after hardline students occupied the U.S. embassy and took diplomats hostage for 444 days, many of the now middle-aged revolutionaries are among the most vocal critics of Iran’s conservative establishment, officials and analysts said.

Later on in the story we read this:

But hardline U.S. lawmakers said on Tuesday they were concerned about his selection and called on the Obama administration to do what it can to prevent him from taking up the post in New York.

Notice what the two sentences just quoted have in common? The term “hardline.” It is how Reuters describes militant, violent extremists who stormed a foreign embassy and held its occupants hostage. And it is how Reuters describes members of the United States Congress who raise concerns about such violence. (In this way, Reuters is hardly alone in bludgeoning the English language into meaningless submission. Search the New York Times website for the word “ultraconservative,” for example, to see how the Times applies it to Republican critics of President Obama and Salafi Islamists.)

But there’s a second, more pressing problem with the story that becomes apparent only after wading through the entire piece. Here’s Reuters’ recounting of the hostage takers who are all grown up:

Among the hostage takers were Abbas Abdi, an adviser to Khatami, who in 1998 met former hostage Barry Rosen in Paris.

Abdi made no apology and said the past could not be altered. Instead “we must focus on building a better future”, he said.

In 2002 Abdi was arrested for having carried out a poll in collaboration with U.S. firm Gallup which showed that three quarters of Tehran’s citizens favored a thaw with Washington.

Reform leader Saeed Hajjarian survived an assassination attempt in 2000 by unidentified people but was gravely injured and has not recovered. Khatami’s younger brother Mohammad Reza and his deputy foreign minister Mohsen Aminzadeh were also among the hostage takers. …

In a comment widely taken as a reference to the turmoil, former hostage taker Masumeh Ebtekar wrote on her blog Persian Paradox: “Those who were all devotees and trustees of the Islamic Revolution … felt that the Islamic Republic is facing a serious challenge to its basic principles and values.”

Ebterkar, who was Iran’s vice-president under Khatami, a post she resumed under Rouhani, was the public face of the siege, serving as a spokeswoman for the hostage-takers.

Aides to reformist candidates were jailed in the post-election unrest, including former hostage takers Mohsen Mirdamadi and Aminzadeh, on charges including “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the system”. …

Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, who was also a spokesman for the hostage takers, has also hinted he is no longer a hardliner.

Notice a name missing? Where’s Abutalebi? He is the figure at issue here, not his fellow hostage takers who have “hinted” they don’t hate America quite like they used to. Are we to believe that Abutalebi should be granted his visa and accepted into the company of his fellow international diplomats because people he may have known in 1979 are less violent than they once were?

We often encounter guilt by association, but Reuters wants us to accept Abutalebi’s innocence by association. His American counterparts have stopped taking in shows at CBGB and his fellow Iranians have stopped taking Americans hostage. The events of 1979 should be considered ancient history, apparently. Perhaps the State Department will find this argument persuasive. If so, they are more desperate for “engagement” than most of us ever thought they were.

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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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Why the West Buys Iran’s PR Campaign

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s speech at the Davos Forum in Switzerland yesterday sounded all the familiar Western-friendly themes that he has used throughout his charm offensive. He reassured the world that Iran doesn’t want nuclear weapons and seeks only peaceful reconciliation with the West. According to the New York Times, he was well-received by most of the foreign-policy wonks and government officials in attendance who were only too happy to buy into his talk of “prudent moderation” and “constructive engagement” which was, as one attendee called it, “an application to rejoin the international community.”

Israel was alone in pouring cold water on the festivities, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had the bad manners to note that Rouhani’s peaceful rhetoric was, in reality, belied by his country’s ongoing nuclear project, its ballistic missile program, its support for international terrorism, and its daily calls for Israel’s destruction. Even Israeli President Shimon Peres—an inveterate enthusiast of the sort of diplomatic mummery for which the annual meetings at Davos are known—mournfully observed that Rouhani had omitted any mention of any support for Middle East peace talks or any commitment to stop Iran’s missile development and shipment of arms to  Syria’s Bashar Assad and Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon.

But Israeli criticisms are falling have fallen on deaf ears both in Davos and in the Obama administration, which remains committed to the cheery fiction that Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s faux presidential election last year was a signal of a major reset in the affairs of the Islamic Republic. But if Americans are falling for Rouhani’s transparent deceptions, it’s worth asking why. The answer doesn’t come from Davos but rather what preceded the international gathering last week in a segment on Comedy Central’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Stewart’s political comedy is a reliable barometer of what liberals are thinking and has, at times, even won praise from some writing here in COMMENTARY for his willingness to call out Democrats for their hypocrisy. But on Iran, Stewart has gone all out for the administration’s embrace of Rouhani. In a segment called “Let’s Break a Deal” he told us all we need to know about why so many in the West refuse to give serious thought to the Iranian nuclear threat.

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s speech at the Davos Forum in Switzerland yesterday sounded all the familiar Western-friendly themes that he has used throughout his charm offensive. He reassured the world that Iran doesn’t want nuclear weapons and seeks only peaceful reconciliation with the West. According to the New York Times, he was well-received by most of the foreign-policy wonks and government officials in attendance who were only too happy to buy into his talk of “prudent moderation” and “constructive engagement” which was, as one attendee called it, “an application to rejoin the international community.”

Israel was alone in pouring cold water on the festivities, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had the bad manners to note that Rouhani’s peaceful rhetoric was, in reality, belied by his country’s ongoing nuclear project, its ballistic missile program, its support for international terrorism, and its daily calls for Israel’s destruction. Even Israeli President Shimon Peres—an inveterate enthusiast of the sort of diplomatic mummery for which the annual meetings at Davos are known—mournfully observed that Rouhani had omitted any mention of any support for Middle East peace talks or any commitment to stop Iran’s missile development and shipment of arms to  Syria’s Bashar Assad and Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon.

But Israeli criticisms are falling have fallen on deaf ears both in Davos and in the Obama administration, which remains committed to the cheery fiction that Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s faux presidential election last year was a signal of a major reset in the affairs of the Islamic Republic. But if Americans are falling for Rouhani’s transparent deceptions, it’s worth asking why. The answer doesn’t come from Davos but rather what preceded the international gathering last week in a segment on Comedy Central’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Stewart’s political comedy is a reliable barometer of what liberals are thinking and has, at times, even won praise from some writing here in COMMENTARY for his willingness to call out Democrats for their hypocrisy. But on Iran, Stewart has gone all out for the administration’s embrace of Rouhani. In a segment called “Let’s Break a Deal” he told us all we need to know about why so many in the West refuse to give serious thought to the Iranian nuclear threat.

In the segment, Stewart hailed the interim nuclear deal with Iran as a “historic treaty” that would ensure that it would not be able to develop nuclear weapons. He castigated its critics and those who advocate a new sanctions bill that would take effect if the current talks fail, assailing them with his typical contempt and vitriol. According to Stewart the fact that 58 U.S. senators want more sanctions—something the administration deceitfully claims will blow up the diplomatic process—is just another example of the “immaturity and lack of self-control” of the Senate. He claimed the senators were ignorant of the terms of the deal, and then piled on further by saying the real reason for their doubts about Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal is their loyalty to Israel. He joked that the 58 were acting as “senators from the great state of Israel” rather than representing American interests. The idea of listening to Israel’s concerns on a matter that involves a threat to its existence was further satirized when he favorably compared Rouhani’s insults directed at the administration’s claims about the nuclear deal to criticisms aimed at Secretary of State John Kerry over peace talks with the Palestinians by Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon.

Stewart’s use of the same Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” myths that cross the line into anti-Semitism is thinly disguised bigotry aimed at delegitimizing the efforts of pro-Israel Americans to point out the folly of this administration’s dangerously gullible Iran policy before it is too late.

But even if you strip away his vile slanders, the basic message of Stewart’s rant, like that of other defenders of the rush to rapprochement with Iran, is something much more basic: they genuinely don’t care about Iran’s lies or about the deadly nature of the Iranian nuclear threat. They just want the issue to go away and if that requires smearing the Israelis or fellow Americans who have given serious consideration to the terms of the deal, then that is exactly what they will do.

Though Stewart pretended that it was the sanctions advocates who didn’t understand the situation, his unfunny tirade demonstrated his own ignorance and his lack of interest in the facts about what the Iranians have gained from the interim deal in terms of unraveling sanctions or how little they are giving up in terms of their nuclear development (a point confirmed at Davos by the Iranians). All Jon Stewart and those for whom he was shilling care about is acting as the administration’s cheerleaders on a treaty that would create détente with a tyrannical, terrorist-sponsoring anti-Semitic regime that is bent on wiping Israel off the map.

People like Stewart and others who are buying Rouhani’s act aren’t doing so because they love Iran or even because they despise Israel and enjoy its discomfort at the prospect of a deadly enemy being embraced and empowered by the West, though some obviously do like that aspect. What they really like about Iran’s decision to create a new façade of cordiality to the West—one that seems to them to be a repudiation of Rouhani’s repulsive predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—is that it allows them to pretend that there is nothing to worry about. Rouhani allows them to live in denial as Ahmadinejad did not. As long as an open villain like Ahmadinejad was the front man for the regime, it was hard to ignore the truth about Iran’s bid for regional hegemony or its desire to annihilate Israel. But with Rouhani they can, like the Obama administration itself, treat the Middle East as a former problem from which they may now withdraw in comfort.

We know Rouhani’s charm offensive is effective because it’s accomplished what every good public-relations campaign aims to do: tell people what they want to hear and persuade them it’s the truth even when it’s a lie. Under the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that those who are willing and able to see reality—like the Israelis and those Americans who share their legitimate concerns about the direction of American foreign policy—are going to be subjected to continued mockery and abuse.

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Rouhani Spikes the Ball in Obama’s Face

President Obama and his allies are working overtime this week to lobby the Senate against passage of a new round of tough sanctions on Iran. The conceit of his campaign to persuade Congress not to give him more leverage over Tehran is that even the threat of further economic pressure on the regime would cause it to scuttle more nuclear talks. According to the administration, any further sanctions would “break faith” with a country that Obama wants to do business with on the nuclear question as well as on the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

But while the president is bending over backward trying to avoid giving offense to his diplomatic dance partners, the Iranians have a very different mindset. Rather than displaying the skittish fear of blowing up the talks the president is displaying, the Iranians are spending the days after the finalization of the interim deal signed in November spiking the football in Obama’s face. That’s the only way to interpret the tweet put out this morning by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the so-called moderate whose victory in a faux election last summer was seen by the administration as a sign Iran was changing for the better, in which he said:

Our relationship with the world is based on Iranian nation’s interests. In #Geneva agreement world powers surrendered to Iranian nation’s will.

While such gloating is unseemly even for a functionary of a tyrannical regime, given the terms of the deal and the publicly stated fears of the president that Iran might flee the talks if the Senate did anything to offend them, it’s hard to argue with Rouhani’s assessment of the situation. The president and Secretary of State Kerry have represented the nuclear deal as a victory for the West since it supposedly hits the pause button on the Iranian program while maintaining almost all of the economic sanctions that brought Tehran to the negotiating table in the first place. But the Iranians, buoyed by a resurgent economy, have a very different perspective on the accord. The willingness of Iran’s leaders—both the so-called “moderates” and their “hard-line” opponents—to characterize the agreement as a triumph for Iran’s foreign-policy goals as well as its nuclear ambition makes the administration’s fear of offending them look ridiculous, not to mention downright craven.

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President Obama and his allies are working overtime this week to lobby the Senate against passage of a new round of tough sanctions on Iran. The conceit of his campaign to persuade Congress not to give him more leverage over Tehran is that even the threat of further economic pressure on the regime would cause it to scuttle more nuclear talks. According to the administration, any further sanctions would “break faith” with a country that Obama wants to do business with on the nuclear question as well as on the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

But while the president is bending over backward trying to avoid giving offense to his diplomatic dance partners, the Iranians have a very different mindset. Rather than displaying the skittish fear of blowing up the talks the president is displaying, the Iranians are spending the days after the finalization of the interim deal signed in November spiking the football in Obama’s face. That’s the only way to interpret the tweet put out this morning by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the so-called moderate whose victory in a faux election last summer was seen by the administration as a sign Iran was changing for the better, in which he said:

Our relationship with the world is based on Iranian nation’s interests. In #Geneva agreement world powers surrendered to Iranian nation’s will.

While such gloating is unseemly even for a functionary of a tyrannical regime, given the terms of the deal and the publicly stated fears of the president that Iran might flee the talks if the Senate did anything to offend them, it’s hard to argue with Rouhani’s assessment of the situation. The president and Secretary of State Kerry have represented the nuclear deal as a victory for the West since it supposedly hits the pause button on the Iranian program while maintaining almost all of the economic sanctions that brought Tehran to the negotiating table in the first place. But the Iranians, buoyed by a resurgent economy, have a very different perspective on the accord. The willingness of Iran’s leaders—both the so-called “moderates” and their “hard-line” opponents—to characterize the agreement as a triumph for Iran’s foreign-policy goals as well as its nuclear ambition makes the administration’s fear of offending them look ridiculous, not to mention downright craven.

 As the New York Times reports, the “hardliners” who are reportedly working to undermine Rouhani are actually quite pleased with what their country’s negotiators achieved in Geneva. Conservative clerics in Iran’s parliament are acknowledging that the deal sanctioned Iran’s continuing enrichment of uranium, thereby upending years of United Nations resolutions attempting to stop the practice. They also know that, despite the downplaying of these gifts by Kerry, their country received significant relief from sanctions that will make it far easier for the regime to continuing selling oil. That will keep their government afloat as well as finance Iran’s nuclear project, its interventions in Syria and Iraq, and its support of international terrorism.

What’s more, far from displaying any worry about the U.S. withdrawing these benefits, Iran’s leaders also seem to think now is a good time to rub the Americans’ faces in their disgrace. Rouhani’s foreign minister, Mohamad Javid Zarif, who was shaking hands with Kerry in Geneva in November, yesterday took time out to lay a wreath at the grave of the man who planned the terrorist attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 as well as other crimes against Americans. As Tower.org reported, Zarif paid homage to Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh in Lebanon yesterday, making clear that the new moderate government maintains the same policy priorities as the hardliners.

Of course, the revelation that the secret diplomatic back-channel talks that led to the November deal began before Rouhani’s election last summer gave the lie to the notion that the renewed talks were the result of changes on Iran’s part rather than Obama’s decision to give Tehran what it wanted. But as Elliott Abrams noted today at Pressure Points, the juxtaposition between the administration’s weakness and Iran’s chutzpah bodes ill for the next round of nuclear talks.

The Iranians have always acted as if they thought Obama was a weakling, but their brazen behavior this week demonstrates again that they think there is nothing they can do or say that could possibly provoke a reaction from Washington. While the president pulls out all the stops to prevent even the threat of future sanctions—the proposal being considered by the Senate would not go into effect until after the next round of talks fails—the Iranians are showing they will agree to nothing that will thwart their nuclear ambitions and think Obama won’t lift a finger to stop them.

Rather than bolstering the president’s effort to stop the sanctions bill, Rouhani’s tweet, Zarif’s photo op, and the general applause for the deal being sounded by Iran’s theocrats should convince the Senate to pass the sanctions bill. While Iran is unlikely to halt its  nuclear program under any circumstances, any slim hope of diplomatic success rests on a credible threat of U.S. pressure on the regime. Far from sparking conflict, the sanctions bill may be the only hope Washington has of influencing the Iranians to turn back before it’s too late.

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Iran’s Long History of Nuclear Threats

Over at the Washington Free Beacon, Adam Kredo notes that yet another Iranian official has suggested that the Islamic Republic should utilize nuclear weapons in order to eradicate Israel:

A top Iranian lawmaker and cleric said that the country’s uranium enrichment program could allow it to build a nuclear weapon “in two weeks” in order to “put down Israel,” according to multiple reports in the Farsi language press. Iranian lawmaker and cleric Muhammad Nabavian said on Friday that Iran would be able to build a nuclear bomb in “two weeks” if it gets “access to 270 kilograms of 20 percent [enriched uranium], 10 tons of 5 percent, and 20 thousand centrifuges,” according to reports on Iran’s Radio Farda and in Fararu.

Nabavian’s statements may be shocking—seldom since President Hassan Rouhani took office and launched his diplomatic offensive have the views of those in Supreme Leader (and ultimate power) Ali Khamenei’s circle shown so clearly through—but they are not the first nor even the second nor third time that Iranian officials have let it be known that dropping an atomic bomb on Israel is not only possible but preferable:

Over at the Washington Free Beacon, Adam Kredo notes that yet another Iranian official has suggested that the Islamic Republic should utilize nuclear weapons in order to eradicate Israel:

A top Iranian lawmaker and cleric said that the country’s uranium enrichment program could allow it to build a nuclear weapon “in two weeks” in order to “put down Israel,” according to multiple reports in the Farsi language press. Iranian lawmaker and cleric Muhammad Nabavian said on Friday that Iran would be able to build a nuclear bomb in “two weeks” if it gets “access to 270 kilograms of 20 percent [enriched uranium], 10 tons of 5 percent, and 20 thousand centrifuges,” according to reports on Iran’s Radio Farda and in Fararu.

Nabavian’s statements may be shocking—seldom since President Hassan Rouhani took office and launched his diplomatic offensive have the views of those in Supreme Leader (and ultimate power) Ali Khamenei’s circle shown so clearly through—but they are not the first nor even the second nor third time that Iranian officials have let it be known that dropping an atomic bomb on Israel is not only possible but preferable:

  • December 14, 2001: Expediency Council chairman (and ex-president) Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, labelled a moderate or pragmatist by American journalists and diplomats, declared, “The use of an atomic bomb against Israel would totally destroy Israel, while the same against the Islamic world would only cause damage. Such a scenario is not inconceivable.”
  • February 14, 2005: Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Kharrazi, secretary-general of Iranian Hezbollah, declared, “We are able to produce atomic bombs and we will do that. We shouldn’t be afraid of anyone. The U.S. is not more than a barking dog.”
  • May 29, 2005, Hojjat ol-Islam Gholam Reza Hasani, the supreme leader’s personal representative to the province of West Azerbaijan: “An atom bomb … must be produced as well… because the Qur’an has told Muslims to ‘get strong and amass all the forces at your disposal to be strong.’”
  • February 2006: Mohsen Gharavian, a Qom theologian close to Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, was quoted on the Rooz website as saying it was only “natural” for the Islamic Republic to possess nuclear weapons.

Perhaps negotiator Wendy Sherman and Secretary of State John Kerry should not be so grateful that Mohammad Javad Zarif, a man who as foreign minister has absolutely no power to affect Iranian behavior, has promised them that they can take Iran at its word.

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Surplus Means Decision Time for Iran

It’s no secret that oil underwrites the Iranian economy, accounting for perhaps 80 percent of the Islamic Republic’s exports. Generations of Iranian officials have failed to diversify the Iranian economy, and so the Islamic Republic remains vulnerable to any fluctuations in the oil market. Certainly, that can be a detriment when the price of oil drops, but it can also mean a windfall when oil rises. One of the key factors which intelligence analysts and Iran watchers consider is at what price the Iranian government calculated their budget. If oil drops below that point, the Islamic Republic might have difficulty making payroll and so might spark a crisis or at least threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz to win a short-term spike in oil prices. When oil prices increase, however, then Iranian leaders have a slush fund with which to play. To what they allocate that extra money says more than any number of diplomatic statements about the direction in which the regime seeks to go.

That is exactly the situation in which the regime finds itself. According to the Iranian Oil Ministry, the average price of oil has been about $103, eleven dollars higher than the level authorities assumed when they set the budget. Back during the administration of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, there was a similar situation: the price of oil skyrocketed while simultaneously the European Union more than doubled its trade with Iran. Rather than apply the hard currency windfall to further Iran’s civilian economy, the regime invested that money into Iran’s then-covert nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Perhaps Khatami was lying when he spoke about a “Dialogue of Civilizations,” or perhaps he simply did not have the power to make the decisions that mattered in the Islamic Republic. Still, today he and his allies—including current President Hassan Rouhani—brag that they should gain credit for Iran’s nuclear program which advanced against the backdrop of the Dialogue.

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It’s no secret that oil underwrites the Iranian economy, accounting for perhaps 80 percent of the Islamic Republic’s exports. Generations of Iranian officials have failed to diversify the Iranian economy, and so the Islamic Republic remains vulnerable to any fluctuations in the oil market. Certainly, that can be a detriment when the price of oil drops, but it can also mean a windfall when oil rises. One of the key factors which intelligence analysts and Iran watchers consider is at what price the Iranian government calculated their budget. If oil drops below that point, the Islamic Republic might have difficulty making payroll and so might spark a crisis or at least threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz to win a short-term spike in oil prices. When oil prices increase, however, then Iranian leaders have a slush fund with which to play. To what they allocate that extra money says more than any number of diplomatic statements about the direction in which the regime seeks to go.

That is exactly the situation in which the regime finds itself. According to the Iranian Oil Ministry, the average price of oil has been about $103, eleven dollars higher than the level authorities assumed when they set the budget. Back during the administration of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, there was a similar situation: the price of oil skyrocketed while simultaneously the European Union more than doubled its trade with Iran. Rather than apply the hard currency windfall to further Iran’s civilian economy, the regime invested that money into Iran’s then-covert nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Perhaps Khatami was lying when he spoke about a “Dialogue of Civilizations,” or perhaps he simply did not have the power to make the decisions that mattered in the Islamic Republic. Still, today he and his allies—including current President Hassan Rouhani—brag that they should gain credit for Iran’s nuclear program which advanced against the backdrop of the Dialogue.

In my forthcoming book, Dancing with the Devil, a history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I have one chapter that examines the history of the politicization of intelligence going back to the Johnson administration. The pattern is clear: administrations often twist intelligence not to achieve a casus belli, but rather to exculpate bad behavior to keep diplomacy alive and avoid any conclusion that an opponent is cheating. Let us hope that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry—and, more importantly, anyone in the U.S. Congress who takes seriously his or her oversight role—are paying careful attention to how Iran is now spending its money, for that better than any statement by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will show the Islamic Republic’s true intent.

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Obama’s Rouhani Smokescreen

Speaking at the Saban Forum last weekend, President Barack Obama reiterated that the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani heralded a new direction in Iran that Washington would be irresponsible to ignore. “The Iranian people responded [to the sanctions] by saying, we need a new direction in how we interact with the international community and how we deal with this sanctions regime,” Obama declared. “And that’s what brought President Rouhani to power. He was not necessarily the first choice of the hardliners inside of Iran … And we should not underestimate or entirely dismiss a shift in how the Iranian people want to interact with the world.”

This explanation has been enthusiastically echoed by the media for months. But while it might have been possible for reasonable people of goodwill to believe it initially, today we know it’s a brazen lie. Obama didn’t start negotiating with Tehran because Rouhani’s election signaled an Iranian change of direction; his secret talks with Tehran started in March, three months before Rouhani’s election. Nor did Rouhani’s election in fact signal a public demand for change. On the contrary, it was deliberately engineered by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself–a fact that even the Iranians now admit, as the New York Times reported just last week: “A Tehran-based analyst with ties to the senior leadership, Amir Mohebbian, has said that Ayatollah Khamenei ushered Mr. Rouhani into power with the idea of shifting course from the Ahmadinejad years and testing President Obama’s sincerity about reaching a nuclear deal,” the paper wrote.

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Speaking at the Saban Forum last weekend, President Barack Obama reiterated that the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani heralded a new direction in Iran that Washington would be irresponsible to ignore. “The Iranian people responded [to the sanctions] by saying, we need a new direction in how we interact with the international community and how we deal with this sanctions regime,” Obama declared. “And that’s what brought President Rouhani to power. He was not necessarily the first choice of the hardliners inside of Iran … And we should not underestimate or entirely dismiss a shift in how the Iranian people want to interact with the world.”

This explanation has been enthusiastically echoed by the media for months. But while it might have been possible for reasonable people of goodwill to believe it initially, today we know it’s a brazen lie. Obama didn’t start negotiating with Tehran because Rouhani’s election signaled an Iranian change of direction; his secret talks with Tehran started in March, three months before Rouhani’s election. Nor did Rouhani’s election in fact signal a public demand for change. On the contrary, it was deliberately engineered by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself–a fact that even the Iranians now admit, as the New York Times reported just last week: “A Tehran-based analyst with ties to the senior leadership, Amir Mohebbian, has said that Ayatollah Khamenei ushered Mr. Rouhani into power with the idea of shifting course from the Ahmadinejad years and testing President Obama’s sincerity about reaching a nuclear deal,” the paper wrote.

There was, of course, ample evidence of this even back in June, which I detailed at the time. But we now have the missing link in this evidence–the motive for Khamenei’s ostensible about-face in ensuring the victory of the most “moderate” of the eight regime-approved candidates allowed to run, after having backed the most conservative candidate in the previous election. Having opened exploratory talks with Washington three months earlier and concluded that the Obama administration was prepared to give him the kind of deal he wanted, Khamenei naturally sought to put his best negotiator at the helm to conduct the talks.

Rouhani was unquestionably that. Prior to his election, he boasted–correctly–that as chief negotiator with the West a decade earlier, he secured a deal that enabled Iran to dramatically expand its nuclear program: The number of centrifuges grew from 150 to 1,700, and the Isfahan facility for yellowcake conversion was completed. What Khamenei and Rouhani understood was that even when Westerners are dying to sign a rotten deal, you still have to give them the fig leaf of a smiling face rather than a brazen Holocaust denier like former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Thus once he decided to pursue the talks, Khamenei ensured Rouhani’s election.

One can understand why Obama seeks to portray the nuclear deal as a response to growing anti-regime sentiment among the Iranian public; that’s something most Americans (and Israelis) would obviously like to encourage. But nobody should be fooled by this transparent lie. The deal Obama made is one that the worst elements of the Iranian regime consider to be in their own interests, and they deliberately engineered Rouhani’s election to secure it. All the administration’s talk of how the Iranian people brought Rouhani to power is nothing but a smokescreen thrown up in a desperate effort to obscure just how bad the deal really is.

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Iranian Regime: Israel Killed Kennedy

As Americans reflected on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Iranian government—now depicted as having moderated by journalists taken in by President Rouhani’s charm offensive—showed its true colors.

Press TV, Iran’s official English-language  propaganda outlet, published an article by an American 9/11 revisionist arguing that Israel “called the shots” from the grassy knoll:

Israel and its global Zionist crime syndicate were major players if not THE main player in the JFK assassination – must be taken seriously. Israel had a powerful motive… Ben Gurion haughtily refused to answer JFK’s letter demanding that Israel abandon its nuclear aspirations. Instead, he resigned. Six months later, JFK was publicly executed. A few years after that, Ben Gurion got his nuclear weapons… and his longed-for war of aggression to steal Jerusalem.

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As Americans reflected on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Iranian government—now depicted as having moderated by journalists taken in by President Rouhani’s charm offensive—showed its true colors.

Press TV, Iran’s official English-language  propaganda outlet, published an article by an American 9/11 revisionist arguing that Israel “called the shots” from the grassy knoll:

Israel and its global Zionist crime syndicate were major players if not THE main player in the JFK assassination – must be taken seriously. Israel had a powerful motive… Ben Gurion haughtily refused to answer JFK’s letter demanding that Israel abandon its nuclear aspirations. Instead, he resigned. Six months later, JFK was publicly executed. A few years after that, Ben Gurion got his nuclear weapons… and his longed-for war of aggression to steal Jerusalem.

Those who see the Zionists as prime movers in the JFK assassination argue that none of the other anti-JFK factions had such an overpoweringly existential motive, nor a track record of such wildly reckless deception and violence. Without Zionist involvement, the U.S. military, CIA, and organized crime might have pushed back against JFK using gentler means.

Were the Zionists really in a position to set the JFK assassination wheels in motion? Skeptics argue that Israel is just a tiny entity of eight million people, so it is preposterous to imagine that it is dominating the U.S. empire or steering history. Yet the facts are otherwise: The tiny Zionist entity of eight million people, together with its millions of fanatical loyalists all over the world, clearly dominates U.S. foreign policy, and has done so since the murder of JFK.

The whole thing is noxious hate, but it is true to the ideology and conspiracy theories which Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Rouhani, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif endorse. Perhaps President Obama will congratulate himself on the temporary nuclear deal, but there should be no naïveté about the regime which he now treats as a diplomatic partner.

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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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Learning from Iran’s Past Enrichment Suspensions

A pause in Iranian uranium enrichment seems to be the chief point upon which Secretary of State John Kerry will claim victory should Iranian and international diplomats hammer out an agreement. Celebration of any such agreement would be premature at best, not only because the American and Western goal was simply to entice Tehran to a second round of talks whose outcome would be far from certain, but also because Kerry’s triumph would be Pyrrhic at best given Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s history.

As Iran’s nuclear negotiator a decade ago, Rouhani also temporarily suspended uranium enrichment, a move for which he received hardline anger. In an interview with the state-run news website Aftab, he defended himself. His goal was “to counter global consensus against Iran,” he said, adding, “We did not accept suspension in construction of centrifuges and continued the effort. … We needed a greater number.” As I explained in a Wall Street Journal op-ed at the time, what American and European diplomats considered progress, the Iranian government understood to be an opportunity to expand their program.

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A pause in Iranian uranium enrichment seems to be the chief point upon which Secretary of State John Kerry will claim victory should Iranian and international diplomats hammer out an agreement. Celebration of any such agreement would be premature at best, not only because the American and Western goal was simply to entice Tehran to a second round of talks whose outcome would be far from certain, but also because Kerry’s triumph would be Pyrrhic at best given Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s history.

As Iran’s nuclear negotiator a decade ago, Rouhani also temporarily suspended uranium enrichment, a move for which he received hardline anger. In an interview with the state-run news website Aftab, he defended himself. His goal was “to counter global consensus against Iran,” he said, adding, “We did not accept suspension in construction of centrifuges and continued the effort. … We needed a greater number.” As I explained in a Wall Street Journal op-ed at the time, what American and European diplomats considered progress, the Iranian government understood to be an opportunity to expand their program.

It was a strategy about which other Iranian officials also bragged: Talk softly, lull the West into complacency, and then import everything needed for a technological leap to the next nuclear level. Rouhani, himself, outlined a doctrine of surprise in a February 9, 2005 speech to Iranian leaders. What is the key reason Iran is successful against the West, Rouhani asks, before he answers:

Even after the victory of the revolution – in all phases – the plots and plans they had designed against the revolution or against the development of the regime and the nation were defeated.  Why?  Again it was because they were taken by surprise.  The actions of the regime took the world by surprise and they were usually unpredictable. 

Rather than aim for suspension of enrichment—or at least some levels of enrichment–during an interim period, an issue which should be a no-brainer given the fact that six unanimous or near-unanimous UN Security Council resolutions call for just that, Rouhani’s history suggest that anything short of a freeze on all work, equipment installation, and construction in every facility would be counterproductive. Celebrating a pause which the Iranian regime uses to modernize, reconfigure, and install equipment to increase the effectiveness of their enrichment program would be strategic malpractice. Unfortunately, it seems, we live in a world where diplomats believe any deal, no matter how bad, trumps utilizing economic leverage to achieve a far better solution.

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Rouhani’s Moderate Iran Not So Moderate

Secretary of State John Kerry is asking Americans not to “break faith” with Iran as he attempts to convince the Senate not to pass tougher sanctions on the Islamist regime. Given Kerry’s obvious lust for a deal, even if it means recognizing Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and setting in place factors that will allow Tehran to eventually go nuclear, his credibility is shot and both Democrats and Republicans are calling into question the policy to which he has committed the administration. But rather than just focus on what’s wrong with a U.S. stand that is so weak that even the French couldn’t stomach it, it’s appropriate for the nation to also take another hard look at who Kerry is asking us to keep faith with.

If you listen to Kerry or watch the mainstream media in recent weeks, Iran’s defining characteristic has become “change” in the person of its new President Hassan Rouhani. The administration has bought into the conception that Rouhani’s election last summer as part of Iran’s faux democracy has heralded a new openness and an opportunity for the nation to change. But so far signs of change have been few and far between. Not only, despite Washington’s commitment to reviving diplomacy with Iran, has there been no give in the regime’s positions on nuclear issues or its involvement in Syria, the nation that Kerry believes he must reach out to has continued to promote anti-Semitism via its official media.

As the Anti-Defamation League reports:

Press TV, Iran’s government-run English-language satellite news network, has taken its usual viciously anti-Semitic conspiracy theories a step further. It now claims not only that Jews are to blame for the Holocaust, but also that because Jews did not learn from their supposed wrongs in Nazi Germany that “American Zionists” are “incubating another Hitler.”

The November 9 article, “American Zionists incubating another Hitler,” was written by a Press TV colum­nist named M.I. Bhat, who also writes for the conspiratorial anti-Semitic website Veterans Today. The Press TV piece was additionally published two days earlier in Veterans Today under the title “Are American Jews incubating another Hitler?”

In both articles, Bhat claims that “American Zionists” control America’s “banks, Wall Street, media, Hollywood, markets, politicians, foreign policy, indeed the whole life of Americans.” The article also asserts that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a “false flag” attack committed by “American Zionist Jews and Israel” to further their control of American foreign policy.

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Secretary of State John Kerry is asking Americans not to “break faith” with Iran as he attempts to convince the Senate not to pass tougher sanctions on the Islamist regime. Given Kerry’s obvious lust for a deal, even if it means recognizing Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and setting in place factors that will allow Tehran to eventually go nuclear, his credibility is shot and both Democrats and Republicans are calling into question the policy to which he has committed the administration. But rather than just focus on what’s wrong with a U.S. stand that is so weak that even the French couldn’t stomach it, it’s appropriate for the nation to also take another hard look at who Kerry is asking us to keep faith with.

If you listen to Kerry or watch the mainstream media in recent weeks, Iran’s defining characteristic has become “change” in the person of its new President Hassan Rouhani. The administration has bought into the conception that Rouhani’s election last summer as part of Iran’s faux democracy has heralded a new openness and an opportunity for the nation to change. But so far signs of change have been few and far between. Not only, despite Washington’s commitment to reviving diplomacy with Iran, has there been no give in the regime’s positions on nuclear issues or its involvement in Syria, the nation that Kerry believes he must reach out to has continued to promote anti-Semitism via its official media.

As the Anti-Defamation League reports:

Press TV, Iran’s government-run English-language satellite news network, has taken its usual viciously anti-Semitic conspiracy theories a step further. It now claims not only that Jews are to blame for the Holocaust, but also that because Jews did not learn from their supposed wrongs in Nazi Germany that “American Zionists” are “incubating another Hitler.”

The November 9 article, “American Zionists incubating another Hitler,” was written by a Press TV colum­nist named M.I. Bhat, who also writes for the conspiratorial anti-Semitic website Veterans Today. The Press TV piece was additionally published two days earlier in Veterans Today under the title “Are American Jews incubating another Hitler?”

In both articles, Bhat claims that “American Zionists” control America’s “banks, Wall Street, media, Hollywood, markets, politicians, foreign policy, indeed the whole life of Americans.” The article also asserts that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a “false flag” attack committed by “American Zionist Jews and Israel” to further their control of American foreign policy.

For anyone who has been following the conduct of the Iranian regime, there’s not much new here. Such views are mainstream discourse in Tehran. Iran has been a fount of anti-Semitic incitement ever since the Islamic Revolution. Its print and broadcasting services are consistent purveyors of conspiracy theories about Jews and hatred directed at Israel. But this must be understood in the context of a regime that doesn’t merely talk about hate, but practices it in the form of oppressing religious minorities and exporting terrorism.

While Kerry is telling himself that this time the Iranians mean it when they say they want détente with the West, the same regime has, with the help of its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries, kept Bashar Assad in power in Syria and secured it as a base from which Iran can threaten moderate Arab nations and Israel.

In fact, nothing about Iran has changed in the last several months and given Rouhani’s policy statements, there’s no sign that will change. This is not, as Kerry and other administration apologists claim, because the moderates are worried about being ousted by hardliners. It’s because the entire political class in Iran—including a faithful servant of the revolution like Rouhani—are in agreement about their government’s use of terrorism, hate speech, and nuclear program.

Contrary to the statements coming out of the White House and State Department, these issues aren’t peripheral to the question of whether to tighten sanctions on Iran, but integral to them. If Iran is ever to change, it can only be as a result of the regime admitting defeat in its nuclear standoff with the West. Only when the ayatollahs are forced to back down will the stirrings of dissent that took to the streets of Tehran in the summer of 2009 (and were ignored by an Obama administration still besotted with the idea of “engagement” with the regime) reappear and begin the process of transforming a dangerous tyranny into a nation that America really can do business with.

Détente with such tyrants and anti-Semites will only lead to more deceptions and diplomatic disasters for the West. That’s something Congress should keep in mind when it listens to the entreaties of Obama and Kerry for them to lower the pressure on Iran.

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Rouhani’s Reign of Terror

Diplomats have now left Geneva with a nuclear deal with Iran tantalizingly close, but uncompleted. Today, Le Monde outlined the French government’s reasons for refusing to sign onto the deal:

For the 5+1 group as a whole, “there are two or three points that are still causing difficulties with the Iranians, and I hope that they will be surmounted,” Laurent Fabius added.  “If we don’t reach an agreement, that will cause a major problem in a few months’ time….” France’s part in the failure of the negotiations has been criticized by several observers, who stress the French foreign minister’s omnipresence and tendency to warn against a cut price agreement.  According to Paris, clarifications are necessary on three main points –- the Arak power plant, the future of stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium, and the enrichment issue in general.

The current diplomatic process with Iran dates back 20 years when German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel proposed “a critical dialogue”–dialogue because that’s the lifeblood of diplomacy, and “critical” because Kinkel promised that the dialogue would tackle not only diplomatic issues relating to Iran’s external behavior but also tough issues such as Iran’s atrocious human-rights abuses.

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Diplomats have now left Geneva with a nuclear deal with Iran tantalizingly close, but uncompleted. Today, Le Monde outlined the French government’s reasons for refusing to sign onto the deal:

For the 5+1 group as a whole, “there are two or three points that are still causing difficulties with the Iranians, and I hope that they will be surmounted,” Laurent Fabius added.  “If we don’t reach an agreement, that will cause a major problem in a few months’ time….” France’s part in the failure of the negotiations has been criticized by several observers, who stress the French foreign minister’s omnipresence and tendency to warn against a cut price agreement.  According to Paris, clarifications are necessary on three main points –- the Arak power plant, the future of stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium, and the enrichment issue in general.

The current diplomatic process with Iran dates back 20 years when German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel proposed “a critical dialogue”–dialogue because that’s the lifeblood of diplomacy, and “critical” because Kinkel promised that the dialogue would tackle not only diplomatic issues relating to Iran’s external behavior but also tough issues such as Iran’s atrocious human-rights abuses.

There is a consistent pattern—certainly true under Iran’s former “reformist” president Mohammad Khatami—that as Iranian officials launch a charm offensive toward the West, they simultaneously crack down at home in order to make clear to the public that under no circumstances should the Iranian people believe that the Iranian leadership was abandoning their commitment to revolutionary values. Usually, those living in the periphery of the state suffer worse, if only because Iranian officials recognize that outside journalists do not cover those areas.

That appears to be what is occurring now. According to a Reuters report based on a conversation with Abdul Rahman Haji Ahmadi, the exiled leader of Iran’s most prominent ethnic Kurdish party:

“Obviously he has played very well so far, managing to escape from some crises as well as deceiving some of the Iranian peoples,” Haji-Ahmadi said, but this would end if he fell short of election pledges in a country hungry for change… Rouhani had released political prisoners, but none were of non-Persian ethnicity, he said. He highlighted the killings of 52 Iranian dissidents in a camp in eastern Iraq in September, which he said was neglected abroad. The dissidents belonged to the Mujahadin-e-Khalq (MEK), which wants Iran’s clerical leaders overthrown. They are no longer welcome in Iraq under the Tehran-aligned, Shi’ite Muslim-led government. Haji-Ahmadi also pointed to Iran’s execution of 16 people in a day last month, most of them Baluchi, Sunni Muslims who lived near the Pakistan border, as well as two PJAK members.

The United Nations’s special rapporteur has also said that the human rights situation has not improved under Rouhani:

“The human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to warrant serious concern, with no sign of improvement,” said Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran. Among other things, Dr. Shaheed expressed concern over Iran’s high level of executions, continuing discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, poor prison conditions, and limits on freedom of expression and association. He also said that religious minorities in Iran, including Baha’is, Christians, Sunni Muslims, and others, “are increasingly subjected to various forms of legal discrimination, including in employment and education, and often face arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment.”

The Geneva talks did not result in an agreement largely because of French objections. How sad it was that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were willing to sign off on an agreement that not only would do nothing to constrain Iran’s production of plutonium at Arak, but also would make no demands that Iran curb its imprisonment and executions of religious and ethnic minorities. At the same time, all those so willing to believe that Rouhani has brought change should simply take a look at his behavior inside Iran.

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The Bizarro Doctrine

American foreign policy in the Middle East has now entered Bizarro World–a place made humorously famous by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, describing a parallel universe where “up is down, down is up,” and where the opposite of what one expects occurs. Seinfeld was riffing off the comic book character Bizarro, the parallel character to Superman, who lived on a strange planet called Htrae (Earth spelled backwards).

Well, welcome to the Elddim Tsae. It’s a place where long-standing state sponsors of terrorism Iran, Syria, and Sudan are basking in the warmth of America’s evolving Middle East policies, while long-standing American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others are increasingly sidelined.

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American foreign policy in the Middle East has now entered Bizarro World–a place made humorously famous by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, describing a parallel universe where “up is down, down is up,” and where the opposite of what one expects occurs. Seinfeld was riffing off the comic book character Bizarro, the parallel character to Superman, who lived on a strange planet called Htrae (Earth spelled backwards).

Well, welcome to the Elddim Tsae. It’s a place where long-standing state sponsors of terrorism Iran, Syria, and Sudan are basking in the warmth of America’s evolving Middle East policies, while long-standing American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others are increasingly sidelined.

Iran, a country that has sponsored nearly every terrorist group on the planet and is now hurtling toward a nuclear weapon, is the biggest winner in the Elddim Tsae. Newly elected President Hassan Rouhani has Washington eating out of his hands after a charm offensive consisting of 140-character vows promising moderation, even as his boss, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, keeps the centrifuges spinning. The Obama administration is now mulling a grand nuclear bargain, which will provide Iran sanctions relief in exchange for vague promises of change.

Syria is also benefiting from America’s Bizarro Doctrine. In the span of days, America went from threatening punitive strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime for launching a chemical-weapons attack on his own people to enlisting Assad as a partner in his own disarmament, and then praising him for compliance he has yet to deliver on. Even if Assad does fully disarm, he will effectively have a green light to get back to the business of mowing down the Syrian opposition, which fights to end his family’s decades-long dictatorship.

Then there is Sudan, where the leadership has been indicted for genocide and which provided a headquarters to al-Qaeda in the 1990s. Khartoum is now indicating that ties with Washington are warming. This comes after two cordial meetings between Sudan’s foreign minister and Secretary of State John Kerry, first in New York and then Washington.

On the flip side of our parallel universe is Saudi Arabia. Admittedly, Riyadh is more of a frenemy. But America’s Saudi policy, designed to maintain good ties to the ruling family and access to an affordable and steady supply of their oil, has never wavered–until now. Riyadh is outwardly displeased with America’s warming ties to its arch-foe Iran, with fears that an ascendant Iran could pose a direct threat to the Kingdom’s stability. Washington’s recent lifeline to Syria, after months of calling for Assad’s removal, also has the Saudis seething.

Turkey and Qatar, it should be noted, are equally vexed by Washington’s Syria policy, prompting both countries to consider charting their own courses, which may involve the co-opting of jihadi groups to fight the Assad regime.

Egypt, another ally of the United States, has also recently fallen victim to the Bizarro Doctrine. To be sure, Egypt has brought many of its problems upon itself. The military’s toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was not its finest moment. But Washington has now taken it upon itself to cut aid to Egypt, dismantling an alliance that could require years to properly rebuild.

Then there is Israel, which is reeling from America’s decision to cut aid to Egypt. That aid was a cornerstone of the 1978 Camp David Accords, a peace agreement that has kept Israel’s southern flank quiet since the Accords were inked. It now is entirely unclear whether Cairo will want to uphold that agreement. The Israelis are further unnerved by America’s backtracking on Syria, particularly after Washington enlisted its help in calling for military intervention. And finally, the rapprochement with Iran has the Israelis wondering whether America will have its back when Tehran invariably makes that final dash for the bomb.

Fittingly, Bizarro World was first depicted by DC Comics in 1960. Today, Washington D.C. has become a parallel universe of a superpower’s foreign policies of the past.

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Iran Belittles Confidence-Building

As diplomats and journalists look forward to a new round of nuclear negotiations next month (with centrifuges spinning all the while), hope is rampant. Alas, it appears increasingly misplaced. President Hassan Rouhani promises talks—but speaking to the press back in Iran declares Iran’s uranium enrichment non-negotiable. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei speaks of Iran’s “heroic flexibility,” but his aides bend over backwards to explain that means a shift in tactics, not in policy. Now, Kayhan—a newspaper many Iran watchers pay close attention to because its editor is a Supreme Leader appointee and therefore seems to mirror Khamenei’s positions—has published a lengthy column belittling the notion of confidence-building measures that lay at the heart of Western diplomacy. According to the author:

When facing the international environment, especially when we are facing the enemies, we cannot begin based on confidence building; because, on the one hand, on this basis, we accept that our behavior and actions in the past have been such that they have created concerns for the other side and resulted in this dispute of several years. In other words, in this very first step, we are signing a document of indebtedness and allowing the rival to write whatever he wants above our signature, and then say, very well, and now you must answer these, for example, 100 questions, one by one, and for the other side to have the option in every case to say whether he agrees or does not agree. Instead of confidence, we must create in the enemy belief, belief in the fact that you have the ability, despite all this opposition and confrontation, to follow your own path. The enemy must believe that the effect of its pressures and the ability to impose pressures is not at such a level as to force the opposite side into submission. The fact is that the ability of the Iranian people is very high with regard to neutralizing the pressures by the enemy, and the ability of the enemy to impose its will on the Iranian people is not great… Confidence building is not under our control, because the other side needs to accept it. Our religious beliefs and experience and the imperialist nature of the domineering powers tell us that this confidence will never be gained unless, God forbid, our people become a dead people.

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As diplomats and journalists look forward to a new round of nuclear negotiations next month (with centrifuges spinning all the while), hope is rampant. Alas, it appears increasingly misplaced. President Hassan Rouhani promises talks—but speaking to the press back in Iran declares Iran’s uranium enrichment non-negotiable. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei speaks of Iran’s “heroic flexibility,” but his aides bend over backwards to explain that means a shift in tactics, not in policy. Now, Kayhan—a newspaper many Iran watchers pay close attention to because its editor is a Supreme Leader appointee and therefore seems to mirror Khamenei’s positions—has published a lengthy column belittling the notion of confidence-building measures that lay at the heart of Western diplomacy. According to the author:

When facing the international environment, especially when we are facing the enemies, we cannot begin based on confidence building; because, on the one hand, on this basis, we accept that our behavior and actions in the past have been such that they have created concerns for the other side and resulted in this dispute of several years. In other words, in this very first step, we are signing a document of indebtedness and allowing the rival to write whatever he wants above our signature, and then say, very well, and now you must answer these, for example, 100 questions, one by one, and for the other side to have the option in every case to say whether he agrees or does not agree. Instead of confidence, we must create in the enemy belief, belief in the fact that you have the ability, despite all this opposition and confrontation, to follow your own path. The enemy must believe that the effect of its pressures and the ability to impose pressures is not at such a level as to force the opposite side into submission. The fact is that the ability of the Iranian people is very high with regard to neutralizing the pressures by the enemy, and the ability of the enemy to impose its will on the Iranian people is not great… Confidence building is not under our control, because the other side needs to accept it. Our religious beliefs and experience and the imperialist nature of the domineering powers tell us that this confidence will never be gained unless, God forbid, our people become a dead people.

If Kayhan is outlining the Supreme Leader’s thinking, then he is suggesting that the basis for the negotiations in which President Obama has invested so much hope is false. He appears to be reassuring his hardline constituency which is worried about the seeming direction of Iran’s diplomacy that they need not worry: There will be no fundamental change, and that therefore the flexibility is for show only. How comforting it must be for the Iranian regime to know that they can be forthright in Persian about their strategy, and need never worry that Western officials will pay attention because the Western press has forfeited its analytical role in favor advocacy.

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Iran Talks: Perception Versus Reality

Iran is well pleased by the outcome of yesterday’s revived P5+1 talks and why shouldn’t they be? The convening of a new round of negotiations after previous incarnations of this process were pronounced dead because of Iranian intransigence and obfuscation was a victory in and of itself for them. The renewed enthusiasm for talking to a country that has proved time and again that it only uses diplomacy as a method for deceit and delay when it comes to Western efforts to restrain their drive for nuclear weapons was due entirely to the perception that new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a moderate. That Rouhani has been guilty of playing the same game when he was Iran’s nuclear negotiator is a fact that was ignored even as the U.S. and its European allies headed down the garden path with Tehran again. Just by showing up, the Iranians ensured that the meeting would conclude with announcements for another such rendezvous next month.

But just as important for the Iranians was the fact that theirs negotiating partners were so enthralled by the prospect of a new era of relations with Rouhani that they treated the Iranian proposal for ending the dispute as if it were actually something new and worth talking about. The Iranians appear to have impressed the representatives of the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany with a power point presentation that supposedly demonstrated how they could go on enriching uranium, hold onto their stockpile of nuclear fuel and yet somehow be trusted not to build a bomb. But once the Rouhani-inspired rose-colored glasses are off, it’s more than obvious to objective observers that the Iranians showed up in Geneva with nothing new to say. That raises the question as to whether the President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry understand this and even if they do, are they sufficiently committed to keeping their word on Iran that they will not be pressured into pretending that this is the prelude to a genuine breakthrough.

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Iran is well pleased by the outcome of yesterday’s revived P5+1 talks and why shouldn’t they be? The convening of a new round of negotiations after previous incarnations of this process were pronounced dead because of Iranian intransigence and obfuscation was a victory in and of itself for them. The renewed enthusiasm for talking to a country that has proved time and again that it only uses diplomacy as a method for deceit and delay when it comes to Western efforts to restrain their drive for nuclear weapons was due entirely to the perception that new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a moderate. That Rouhani has been guilty of playing the same game when he was Iran’s nuclear negotiator is a fact that was ignored even as the U.S. and its European allies headed down the garden path with Tehran again. Just by showing up, the Iranians ensured that the meeting would conclude with announcements for another such rendezvous next month.

But just as important for the Iranians was the fact that theirs negotiating partners were so enthralled by the prospect of a new era of relations with Rouhani that they treated the Iranian proposal for ending the dispute as if it were actually something new and worth talking about. The Iranians appear to have impressed the representatives of the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany with a power point presentation that supposedly demonstrated how they could go on enriching uranium, hold onto their stockpile of nuclear fuel and yet somehow be trusted not to build a bomb. But once the Rouhani-inspired rose-colored glasses are off, it’s more than obvious to objective observers that the Iranians showed up in Geneva with nothing new to say. That raises the question as to whether the President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry understand this and even if they do, are they sufficiently committed to keeping their word on Iran that they will not be pressured into pretending that this is the prelude to a genuine breakthrough.

While the details of the Iranian proposal were not made public the statements they have issued both before and after the meeting indicates that they haven’t actually budged an inch from where they were when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Iran’s front man. They are still refusing to shut down nuclear plants, to stop enriching uranium or to have their horde of enriched uranium shipped out of the country so as to ensure that it is not used for a weapon. Nor have they shown the slightest interest in halting their parallel plutonium project by stopping their heavy water research.

 For all the talk about the Iranian charm offensive in which Rouhani plays, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aptly put it, the “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” the fact is their nuclear stand is virtually identical to what it was when Ahmadinejad, the “wolf in wolf’s clothing,” was their president. If the West were to agree to their terms it would be merely a matter of time before the Iranians would, as the North Koreans did before them, evade their agreements and present the world with a nuclear fait accompli, secure in the knowledge that no one would be able to do a thing about it.

Given the fact that the real boss of Iran is Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and not Rouhani makes this easily understandable. All Rouhani has done is to change the atmospherics. When it comes to the actual policies of the country, they are unchanged because the real leadership is unchanged.

All that has changed is that for the first time, those in the West who want to find an excuse to back away from their commitments to stopping Iran have a rationale. In the past, Iran’s public leadership had no concerns about catering to Western sensibilities thereby rendering it difficult to make the argument that it was run by rational and sensible persons. Replacing Ahmadinejad with Rouhani allows those so inclined to project their own feelings about nuclear weapons onto Iran even if doing it so is the height of absurdity. But it is on that flimsy basis that Iran is asking the West to relax the economic sanctions that are crippling their economy.

Given the unchanged Iranian position, no one in Washington should be even considering loosening sanctions. To the contrary, this is exactly the moment for strengthening them and making it impossible for Iran to sell its oil or transact any business with the rest of the world. That is the only thing that could, even in theory, persuade Khamenei to authorize real concessions rather than merely recycling old proposals that were rightly rejected as merely slowing Iran’s march toward nuclear capability.

But with yet another round of negotiations scheduled for November, the Obama administration appears anxious to play along with Iran. By not contradicting the Iranians deceptive talk of progress, Washington is playing right into their hands. The more the talks are depicted as progressing, the harder it will be to break them off or to heighten the pressure on Tehran to do more than pay lip service to Western concerns. The result is a perfect storm that suits the ayatollah’s interests. They can play at moderation while their centrifuges keep spinning all winter if necessary. And that’s exactly what they’ll until Obama calls them out. But given the administration’s blind faith in diplomacy, it’s far from certain that moment will ever come no matter what the Iranians do.

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