Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iran nuclear deal

U.S. Still Flying Blind on Iran Nukes

On a day when we learned, via quotes from anonymous American officials, that Iran is up to its neck in the fighting in Iraq, confidence in Washington’s ability to stay in command of events in the Middle East is dropping rapidly. But the same administration that has dozed as America’s hard-won achievements in Iraq have evaporated is also hoping that its ignorance about what’s happening inside Iran’s nuclear facilities won’t hinder efforts to broker a deal with Tehran.

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On a day when we learned, via quotes from anonymous American officials, that Iran is up to its neck in the fighting in Iraq, confidence in Washington’s ability to stay in command of events in the Middle East is dropping rapidly. But the same administration that has dozed as America’s hard-won achievements in Iraq have evaporated is also hoping that its ignorance about what’s happening inside Iran’s nuclear facilities won’t hinder efforts to broker a deal with Tehran.

The Obama administration’s slender grasp of the facts about Iran’s extensive network of nuclear facilities is the most important point to be gleaned from a New York Times feature that centers on the largely unspecified role that scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh plays in his country’s effort to build a bomb. Fakhrizadeh is, according to the Times, Iran’s J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who led the Manhattan Project to nuclear success during World War Two. His absence from the negotiations being conducted with the West is much remarked upon because he, rather than some of the Islamist regime’s representatives who are taking part, is the key to Iran’s nuclear program. While that absence is motivated largely by a prudent desire to avoid Israelis who rightly think scientists trying to create genocidal weapons are good candidates for elimination, the speculation about the gap between what the West knows about Iran’s program and what Fakhrizadeh could tell us is the focus of the Times piece.

But the point of the questions that abound about Iran’s mysterious nuclear expert ought to alarm those who believe the United States knows what it’s doing in the Iran talks. The U.S. has a poor track record when it comes to monitoring Tehran’s actions outside its borders, such as international terrorism and its military intervention in Syria and now Iraq. But President Obama is betting what’s left of his reputation on the world stage and the security of America’s allies in the region on the strength of a number of assumptions about what Fakhrizadeh and his associates have achieved that are difficult to back up.

As the Times reports, the interesting point about Fakhrizadeh is that the timeline of what Iran has already created is extremely fuzzy. There is widespread confusion about whether the claim that Iran halted its nuclear program in 2003 is accurate, especially since no one in Washington or anywhere else outside of Iran seems to be sure about when those activities were resumed under different organizations. Yet the administration seems to be assuming that understanding what Iran’s program achieved in the past is irrelevant since they think that they can trust the regime’s promises going forward and believe U.S. intelligence is capable of keeping track of current work.

But the Times lets slip an ominous truth buried deep in the article:

Obama administration officials say they have no illusions that they will get visibility into many of Iran’s most heavily protected sites, even if a deal is reached in the next month. That will leave verification of the accord reliant on the American intelligence community’s ability to track covert nuclear activity, a record that is littered with failures.

In other words, even after the next nuclear deal with Iran is reached, the administration is assuming they still won’t have access to all of Iran’s most critical nuclear sites. Underlying that assumption is a belief that the deal will not require Iran to open up its facilities devoted to military research or its ballistic missile program.

This next deal will leave, as did the interim agreement signed last fall, Iran’s uranium enrichment program in place and allow it to keep a stockpile of nuclear material that could be upgraded to weapons-grade levels. That means any hope of preventing the Iranians from “breaking out” and using the nuclear program left in place by the deal to produce a weapon–regardless of its promises–hinges on the U.S. knowing almost immediately if Tehran breaks its word. But given the American ignorance about what Iran has already done and sketchy intelligence and lack of access for inspections about its current activity, how can the president or anyone else say with any assurance that this next agreement will be worth the paper it is printed on?

Even with full access and inspections of the nuclear sites we know about—as opposed to those that Washington isn’t aware of that most intelligence experts assume exist—the chances of stopping Iran are slim. But to knowingly sign such an agreement with such poor information is a virtual guarantee of failure.

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Will Iraq Lead to Retreat on Iran Nukes?

If, as is now being reported, the U.S. and Iran are planning to work together to contain the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, the consequences for the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy are incalculable. Given the stakes involved in the sweep through Iraq being conducted by the radical Sunni Islamists, it is clear that the Obama administration must do more than wring its hands with the president once again playing Hamlet as an international crisis gets out of control. Iran is even more heavily invested in the survival of the Shiite majority government in Baghdad, so it is likely that it will be only too happy to coordinate with the U.S.–though the ayatollahs may be about to discover that Barack Obama is a much better person to have as an adversary than as an ally. But even if the U.S. proves to be too fearful of being drawn back into a war that the president has constantly boasted of having “ended” to be of much use in Iraq, the Iranians still have a lot to gain from cooperation on this front.

As our Michael Rubin observed earlier today, past efforts at U.S.-Iran coordination in Iraq did not exactly work to the benefit of the Americans—or the Iraqis. The example he cited of what happened when Iranian auxiliaries become entrenched—as was the case in Lebanon—is very much to the point. Any hopes that the free Iraq that thousands of Americans died to create—and which seemed well within reach when George W. Bush left the presidency after his victorious surge—can be salvaged seem utterly lost. But there is another, potentially bigger problem that stems from this decision to work with Tehran that is being forgotten amid the justified concerns about the collapse of Iraq: Iran’s nuclear program.

Though the Iranians don’t wish to see the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad fall, this crisis couldn’t have come at a better time for them. After months of stonewalling the Obama administration’s efforts to craft another nuclear deal that would at least look like the West was doing something to stop Tehran’s weapons program, Iran’s leverage over Washington and its European allies has just increased exponentially.

There is plenty of blame to go around here. Critics of the U.S. invasion of Iraq are right when they point out that Iran was immeasurably strengthened by the fall of Saddam Hussein as well as by the diversion of attention from their terrorism and nuclear program. It must also be acknowledged that President Obama’s haste in fleeing from Iraq led directly to the successful revival of the Sunni insurgency.

The administration’s zeal for a deal that would end the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been no secret since it concluded an interim pact last November that tacitly recognized Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and started the unraveling of the economic sanctions that had taken years to enact and enforce. The Iraqi crisis not only strengthens Tehran’s already strong bargaining position in the continuing P5+1 talks; it also gives President Obama one more reason to seek to appease Iran rather than pressure it to make concessions on outstanding issues such as its ballistic missile program or its nuclear military research.

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If, as is now being reported, the U.S. and Iran are planning to work together to contain the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, the consequences for the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy are incalculable. Given the stakes involved in the sweep through Iraq being conducted by the radical Sunni Islamists, it is clear that the Obama administration must do more than wring its hands with the president once again playing Hamlet as an international crisis gets out of control. Iran is even more heavily invested in the survival of the Shiite majority government in Baghdad, so it is likely that it will be only too happy to coordinate with the U.S.–though the ayatollahs may be about to discover that Barack Obama is a much better person to have as an adversary than as an ally. But even if the U.S. proves to be too fearful of being drawn back into a war that the president has constantly boasted of having “ended” to be of much use in Iraq, the Iranians still have a lot to gain from cooperation on this front.

As our Michael Rubin observed earlier today, past efforts at U.S.-Iran coordination in Iraq did not exactly work to the benefit of the Americans—or the Iraqis. The example he cited of what happened when Iranian auxiliaries become entrenched—as was the case in Lebanon—is very much to the point. Any hopes that the free Iraq that thousands of Americans died to create—and which seemed well within reach when George W. Bush left the presidency after his victorious surge—can be salvaged seem utterly lost. But there is another, potentially bigger problem that stems from this decision to work with Tehran that is being forgotten amid the justified concerns about the collapse of Iraq: Iran’s nuclear program.

Though the Iranians don’t wish to see the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad fall, this crisis couldn’t have come at a better time for them. After months of stonewalling the Obama administration’s efforts to craft another nuclear deal that would at least look like the West was doing something to stop Tehran’s weapons program, Iran’s leverage over Washington and its European allies has just increased exponentially.

There is plenty of blame to go around here. Critics of the U.S. invasion of Iraq are right when they point out that Iran was immeasurably strengthened by the fall of Saddam Hussein as well as by the diversion of attention from their terrorism and nuclear program. It must also be acknowledged that President Obama’s haste in fleeing from Iraq led directly to the successful revival of the Sunni insurgency.

The administration’s zeal for a deal that would end the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been no secret since it concluded an interim pact last November that tacitly recognized Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and started the unraveling of the economic sanctions that had taken years to enact and enforce. The Iraqi crisis not only strengthens Tehran’s already strong bargaining position in the continuing P5+1 talks; it also gives President Obama one more reason to seek to appease Iran rather than pressure it to make concessions on outstanding issues such as its ballistic missile program or its nuclear military research.

Earlier this year the president demonstrated that he could sell even an embarrassingly weak deal with Iran to the country by branding its critics as warmongers when they tried unsuccessfully to get Congress to pass new sanctions legislation. But if he can claim that Iran is helping out in Iraq, it will be that much easier for him to stifle criticism of the next nuclear pact even if all it does is to make it a little bit harder for Tehran to “break out” and obtain a weapon after the deal is signed. Even worse, it may provide an excuse for the administration to backtrack from his 2012 promise that he would never countenance a policy of “containment” of a nuclear Iran. Since Iran’s conduct in Iraq will be portrayed as evidence of its rationality and willingness to be part of the international community, its potential to create a nuclear arsenal will likely also be dismissed as regrettable but no great threat to U.S. security.

But any such assumption would be a tragic mistake.

If Washington were to make the leap from irresolute diplomacy to a policy shift that treated the nuclear issue as a sidebar to the more important question of Iraq, the result would make an already unstable Middle East even more dangerous for the U.S. and its allies. While the prospect of letting either parts or the entirety of Iraq fall into the hands of al-Qaeda-allied Islamists is a grim one, American acceptance of Iran’s nuclear dreams would be an even greater calamity. As President Obama has already repeatedly stated, Iranian nuclear weapons would be “a game changer” that would plunge the region into further conflict and instability even if the “rational” rulers of Tehran never used one. Iran’s network of state-sponsored international terrorists would gain a nuclear umbrella. Moderate Arab states would, at best, be endangered and would look to obtain their own nuclear option. The already remote chances of Middle East peace would be finished.

The president’s defenders may claim that he is capable of working with the ayatollahs in Iraq without abandoning his pledges never to accept an Iranian nuke. There is also no question that the administration must act expeditiously in Iraq and some coordination or at least communication about the struggle with Iran is necessary. But given that the entire thrust of U.S. diplomacy in the last year has been focused not so much on a nuclear compromise as on an effort to foster a new détente with the Islamist regime, it is difficult to imagine how the events of the last week will do anything but diminish his already flagging determination to stop Iran.

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Fayyad Explains Why J Street Is Irrelevant

The left-wing lobby J Street didn’t turn out to be the Washington colossus its backers hoped it would be when Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009. Despite having a president who was clearly sympathetic to their point of view, the group has never been able to successfully challenge AIPAC in the contest to see which of them would speak for the pro-Israel community. Nor has it amassed much influence on Capitol Hill and it has often been marginalized by the White House, especially during the 2012 presidential election. But J Street did score a major public-relations victory this spring when the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations voted to exclude it from their ranks. While the vote exposed the resentment much of the organized Jewish world bears for a group that has, from its inception, sought to undercut other groups, it also allowed J Street to play the victim and made it easier for it to say that the mainstream Jewish groups are unrepresentative.

But when J Street convened its annual conference in San Francisco this past weekend, there seemed to be little evidence that it had either amassed the influence it once thought it might have or that its views favoring U.S. pressure on Israel to make concessions for peace were gaining traction. Instead, the group was forced to answer questions as to why anyone should take seriously a group whose views were so obviously out-of-touch with the reality of a Middle East peace process that had broken down again. While J Street may claim that if its positions were adopted, Israel might have been able to finally make peace, that position is given the lie by the Fatah-Hamas unity pact that effectively precludes the Palestinian Authority from ever making peace with Israel. But the real proof of just how clueless J Street is about Israel’s supposed peace partners came from the speakers list at their conference. One of the keynote speakers on the first evening of their conclave was former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who expressed pessimism about peace but urged J Street to persist in its efforts to pressure Israel.

While Fayyad is a Palestinian who is generally admired by mainstream Israelis as well as Americans who are knowledgeable about the Middle East, his presence at the J Street event is telling. While J Street is right to think that Fayyad would be a real partner for peace if he were still in office, his availability to fly to San Francisco tells us something about how representative his opinions actually are. His brand of pragmatism and opposition to both the violence of Hamas and the kleptocracy of Fatah marks him as a man without political constituency among a Palestinian population that prefers both of those two terror groups/political parties to “Fayyadism.” If J Street is to hang its hat on the notion that this person’s ideas are a guarantee that peace is possible, no wonder few in Israel or anywhere else take them seriously.

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The left-wing lobby J Street didn’t turn out to be the Washington colossus its backers hoped it would be when Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009. Despite having a president who was clearly sympathetic to their point of view, the group has never been able to successfully challenge AIPAC in the contest to see which of them would speak for the pro-Israel community. Nor has it amassed much influence on Capitol Hill and it has often been marginalized by the White House, especially during the 2012 presidential election. But J Street did score a major public-relations victory this spring when the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations voted to exclude it from their ranks. While the vote exposed the resentment much of the organized Jewish world bears for a group that has, from its inception, sought to undercut other groups, it also allowed J Street to play the victim and made it easier for it to say that the mainstream Jewish groups are unrepresentative.

But when J Street convened its annual conference in San Francisco this past weekend, there seemed to be little evidence that it had either amassed the influence it once thought it might have or that its views favoring U.S. pressure on Israel to make concessions for peace were gaining traction. Instead, the group was forced to answer questions as to why anyone should take seriously a group whose views were so obviously out-of-touch with the reality of a Middle East peace process that had broken down again. While J Street may claim that if its positions were adopted, Israel might have been able to finally make peace, that position is given the lie by the Fatah-Hamas unity pact that effectively precludes the Palestinian Authority from ever making peace with Israel. But the real proof of just how clueless J Street is about Israel’s supposed peace partners came from the speakers list at their conference. One of the keynote speakers on the first evening of their conclave was former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who expressed pessimism about peace but urged J Street to persist in its efforts to pressure Israel.

While Fayyad is a Palestinian who is generally admired by mainstream Israelis as well as Americans who are knowledgeable about the Middle East, his presence at the J Street event is telling. While J Street is right to think that Fayyad would be a real partner for peace if he were still in office, his availability to fly to San Francisco tells us something about how representative his opinions actually are. His brand of pragmatism and opposition to both the violence of Hamas and the kleptocracy of Fatah marks him as a man without political constituency among a Palestinian population that prefers both of those two terror groups/political parties to “Fayyadism.” If J Street is to hang its hat on the notion that this person’s ideas are a guarantee that peace is possible, no wonder few in Israel or anywhere else take them seriously.

J Street’s positions on the issues that were reiterated at their conference by its leader Jeremy Ben-Ami are a confusing blend of naïveté, leftism, and Zionism. Being “pro-Israel” and “pro-peace” can be a problem in a left-wing milieu where openly anti-Zionist groups like Jewish Voices for Peace are stealing J Street’s thunder. To his credit, Ben-Ami continues to insist that support for BDS (boycott, divest, and sanction) campaigns against Israel are something his group can never support. J Street walks a fine line that is not as attractive to its core constituency of radicals who are more comfortable with BDS than they are with Ben-Ami’s brand of left-wing Zionism.

To compensate for that, the group emphasizes the key points that helped bring it to life as a cheering squad for the Obama administration against the mainstream pro-Israel community. Thus, J Street is not only highlighting its support for continued efforts to revive the peace talks via pressure on Israel and backing the administration’s decision to embrace the Fatah-Hamas unity government. In addition to that it is also seeking to build support for any nuclear deal that Obama might cut with Iran and to oppose congressional efforts to force the administration to keep its word to avert the nuclear threat.

Ben-Ami’s pretense is that this makes J Street a moderate force rather than a Jewish rump of so-called progressive groups like the leftist Moveon.org. But that pose of moderation is just as absurd as clinging to the notion that Fayyad represents Palestinian opinion. As one of the other speakers at the J Street event noted, the Israeli public has repeatedly rejected leftists who agree with the American group and is likely to swing even further to the right in the future. The reason for this is that, unlike liberal American Jews, Israelis have been paying attention to the repeated PA rejections of peace offers and the fact that Fayyad is a man without a party or supporters among the Palestinian people. It’s not that most Israelis don’t want a two-state solution. They do want it. It’s just that they have come to accept the fact that the Palestinians don’t want one.

More than their disgraceful position on Iran or their slavish applause for Obama’s betrayal of Israel on Hamas, the presence of Fayyad at the J Street event shows that they are not only wrong on the issues, they are also irrelevant to any serious discussion about the Middle East.

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Key to Obama’s Diplomacy? Giving Up

While the Obama administration is ramping up its efforts to defend the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap with the Taliban, criticism of the deal is no longer confined to Washington. As the New York Times reports, the Afghan government is also unhappy about the agreement that traded five key Taliban operatives for the freedom of an American soldier who may well have deserted his post. The Afghans seemed to have got as little notice of the deal going down as the members of Congress that the White House should have informed by law. Sources in Kabul are also unhappy that the exchange negotiated with the Taliban was strictly a one-off that allows President Obama to claim that he exited Afghanistan while leaving no American behind. As the paper reports, they expected any agreement about Bergdahl to have far wider implications and be connected to a general agreement that would have obligated the Taliban to make peace before the U.S. withdrew its major combat forces from the country. Instead, Bergdahl was liberated at the cost of granting the Taliban a major political/diplomatic victory that undermines any hope that the Afghan government could persist even after Obama or his successor washes their hands of that long conflict.

Few Americans will have much sympathy for an Afghan government that has proved to be an ungrateful and often ineffective ally of the United States in a struggle that has been waged largely, though not solely, for their benefit. Their motives for wanting a more far-reaching negotiating process with the Taliban may also have more to do with hopes of the Kabul elites for survival in a post-American/NATO Afghanistan than the best interests of the country. But worries about the decision on the part of the administration to drop its former insistence that any deal for Bergdahl be part of a peace process–rather than a ransom payment–should resonate even with Americans who have little interest in pleasing the Afghan leadership. What happened in this negotiation repeats a familiar pattern of Obama diplomacy. Just as the administration did in its interim nuclear deal with Iran, once it became clear that the other side was hanging tough, the U.S. simply folded. While liberals complain that critics of the president are being unfair when they accuse him of being weak, the common thread in this administration’s diplomatic posture is that they always fold when pressed by a determined opponent.

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While the Obama administration is ramping up its efforts to defend the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap with the Taliban, criticism of the deal is no longer confined to Washington. As the New York Times reports, the Afghan government is also unhappy about the agreement that traded five key Taliban operatives for the freedom of an American soldier who may well have deserted his post. The Afghans seemed to have got as little notice of the deal going down as the members of Congress that the White House should have informed by law. Sources in Kabul are also unhappy that the exchange negotiated with the Taliban was strictly a one-off that allows President Obama to claim that he exited Afghanistan while leaving no American behind. As the paper reports, they expected any agreement about Bergdahl to have far wider implications and be connected to a general agreement that would have obligated the Taliban to make peace before the U.S. withdrew its major combat forces from the country. Instead, Bergdahl was liberated at the cost of granting the Taliban a major political/diplomatic victory that undermines any hope that the Afghan government could persist even after Obama or his successor washes their hands of that long conflict.

Few Americans will have much sympathy for an Afghan government that has proved to be an ungrateful and often ineffective ally of the United States in a struggle that has been waged largely, though not solely, for their benefit. Their motives for wanting a more far-reaching negotiating process with the Taliban may also have more to do with hopes of the Kabul elites for survival in a post-American/NATO Afghanistan than the best interests of the country. But worries about the decision on the part of the administration to drop its former insistence that any deal for Bergdahl be part of a peace process–rather than a ransom payment–should resonate even with Americans who have little interest in pleasing the Afghan leadership. What happened in this negotiation repeats a familiar pattern of Obama diplomacy. Just as the administration did in its interim nuclear deal with Iran, once it became clear that the other side was hanging tough, the U.S. simply folded. While liberals complain that critics of the president are being unfair when they accuse him of being weak, the common thread in this administration’s diplomatic posture is that they always fold when pressed by a determined opponent.

The administration trumpeted the interim deal signed with Iran last November as proof that the president’s belief in engagement with Iran was vindicated. But the point of the P5+1 process by which the West talked with Iran was not to merely negotiate with the Islamist regime but to get it to surrender its nuclear ambitions. In order to get the deal with the ayatollahs, the U.S. had to give in on the centerpiece of its previous demands: that Iran cease enriching uranium, a position that already had the imprimatur of United Nations resolutions. The administration also discarded any effort to address Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for international terrorism.

Fast forward a few months to the next stage in the diplomatic process with Iran and it looks like the same pattern is being repeated. Rather than focus on getting Tehran to abandon its nuclear program—something that President Obama pledged during his reelection campaign—the U.S. is again solely obsessed with being able to achieve any sort of an agreement, even if all it will accomplish is to slightly lengthen the “break out” time Iran would need in order to use its stockpiles of fuel to create a weapon.

That same trait was clearly on display in the Bergdahl talks. Rather than defend U.S. interests or to create a template that would stabilize Afghanistan, the only thing the administration wanted was Bergdahl’s freedom and demonstrated that they were prepared to pay an exorbitant price in order to get it.

It should be understood that liberating any American soldier held by the enemy, no matter the circumstances surround his captivity, was very much the president’s obligation. But the problem with the deal for Bergdahl was not just the price but that it reflected a desire on the part of the administration to bug out of the Afghanistan conflict. Though concessions are part of any negotiation, the Taliban seemed to be informed by the same mindset that the Iranians have shown in their dealings with the Obama foreign-policy team. They understood that if they stood their ground and made demands, Obama would eventually cave in to them, no matter how outrageous those positions were.

Taken together, the Iran and Bergdahl negotiations show that discussions of Obama’s weakness are not about metaphors or apology tours that are rooted in symbolism rather than substance. The last year of American foreign policy has proven that the key to the president’s diplomacy is that he gives up when pressed by opponents. The two negotiations aren’t merely bad policy. They show he will always allow his zeal for a deal and desire to abandon American interests to prevail over principle.

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Aid Can’t Buy Israel’s Silence on Iran Deal

National Security Advisor Susan Rice was in Israel this week to brief Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the latest developments in the nuclear talks with Iran. In doing so Rice, who was accompanied by top U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman, said all the right things about the U.S.-Israel relationship as well as the nuclear threat from Iran. Rice assured Netanyahu that the U.S. was committed to stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons and also touted the value of the American aid flowing to Israel. As the Times of Israel reported:

Rice said that the new deal “will take our total investment in Iron Dome, which has saved countless of Israeli lives, to nearly $900 million, a sign of our continued commitment to Israel’s security.”

“Every American dollar spent on Israel’s security is an investment in protecting the many interests that our nations share. Whether that’s preventing rockets from terrorizing the Israeli people, defending against the growing ballistic missile threat in the region, or advancing our commitment to defend freedom and democracy,” she went on.

Rice is right about that, since the money spent on bolstering its ally’s defense capabilities enhances U.S. security interests. But as welcome as those words may be, they aren’t enough to allay Israeli concerns about the nuclear talks with Iran that resume next week. As Haaretz reported, Netanyahu emerged from a session with Rice repeating his concerns that the U.S. is being dragged into a “bad deal” with Iran. While the Western press discounts virtually anything the Israeli leader said on this topic, the plain fact remains that the impetus from both the Obama administration and its European allies that virtually all informed observers think will result in the deal they have been seeking will be one in which Iran is allowed to keep its centrifuges and go on enriching uranium. So long as that is true, Iran will remain weeks or, at best, months away from a nuclear weapon. Under these circumstances, Americans need to realize that the damage the negotiations with Iran are doing to Israel’s security cannot be erased by even the most generous grants from Washington.

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National Security Advisor Susan Rice was in Israel this week to brief Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the latest developments in the nuclear talks with Iran. In doing so Rice, who was accompanied by top U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman, said all the right things about the U.S.-Israel relationship as well as the nuclear threat from Iran. Rice assured Netanyahu that the U.S. was committed to stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons and also touted the value of the American aid flowing to Israel. As the Times of Israel reported:

Rice said that the new deal “will take our total investment in Iron Dome, which has saved countless of Israeli lives, to nearly $900 million, a sign of our continued commitment to Israel’s security.”

“Every American dollar spent on Israel’s security is an investment in protecting the many interests that our nations share. Whether that’s preventing rockets from terrorizing the Israeli people, defending against the growing ballistic missile threat in the region, or advancing our commitment to defend freedom and democracy,” she went on.

Rice is right about that, since the money spent on bolstering its ally’s defense capabilities enhances U.S. security interests. But as welcome as those words may be, they aren’t enough to allay Israeli concerns about the nuclear talks with Iran that resume next week. As Haaretz reported, Netanyahu emerged from a session with Rice repeating his concerns that the U.S. is being dragged into a “bad deal” with Iran. While the Western press discounts virtually anything the Israeli leader said on this topic, the plain fact remains that the impetus from both the Obama administration and its European allies that virtually all informed observers think will result in the deal they have been seeking will be one in which Iran is allowed to keep its centrifuges and go on enriching uranium. So long as that is true, Iran will remain weeks or, at best, months away from a nuclear weapon. Under these circumstances, Americans need to realize that the damage the negotiations with Iran are doing to Israel’s security cannot be erased by even the most generous grants from Washington.

The Rice visit encapsulated what has become a familiar Obama tactic to deal with the Israelis. The administration pressures Israel on the peace process with the Palestinians, sandbags them with selective and misleading leaks about those talks (as Martin Indyk did after the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative) and conducts negotiations with Iran that are clearly headed toward a deal that will leave Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure intact, a state of affairs that allows the Jewish state’s very existence to be subject to the ability of Washington to enforce an agreement with Iran that may be unenforceable. And after all that, the Israelis are supposed to cheer Obama and express gratitude because the administration has maintained the alliance and poured more money into vital projects like Iron Dome.

It should be understood that this weapons system is a key part of Israel’s defense strategy in dealing with the independent Palestinian state in all but name ruled by Hamas in Gaza. The strengthening of the security alliance with Israel merely maintains what other presidents began, but nevertheless Obama deserves credit for increasing the amounts spent on these projects.

When viewed in this context it is easy to understand why some Israelis are beginning to question the value of the massive aid that is given to them by the U.S. As Caroline Glick wrote in the Jerusalem Post last week when discussing the views of an isolationist like Senator Rand Paul who opposes all foreign aid including that given to Israel, while the help from the U.S. is important, it undercuts the country’s “strategic independence.”

Given the importance of weapons like Iron Dome that have only been made possible by American assistance, I’m not prepared to go as far as joining her in endorsing Paul’s anti-aid position. Israel still cannot afford to be cut off from U.S. military help if it is to maintain its qualitative edge over any combination of actual or potential foes. But neither should we accept Rice’s nice words about the U.S. “investment” as adequate compensation for the underhanded way in which Indyk has sandbagged Netanyahu, let alone the coming betrayal on Iran.

The administration seems to operate on the assumption that keeping the aid dollars flowing to Jerusalem covers a multitude of its sins even to the point of making up for an American push for détente with the vicious anti-Semitic and potentially genocidal regime in Tehran. But though he is wisely doing everything to not rise to Obama’s bait and to keep the daylight between Israel and the United States to a minimum, Netanyahu has to know that a tipping point may soon be coming in the balance between American aid and diplomatic treachery with Iran. It’s not clear what, if anything, Netanyahu will believe Israel is capable of doing in response to a “bad deal” with Iran up to and including a strike on the Islamist regime’s nuclear facilities before it is too late to stop their drive to a bomb. But whatever his decision might be, no one in Washington should labor under the illusion that Israeli acquiescence to an Iran deal can be bought with an anti-missile system even if some cash is thrown in on the side.

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Why Smear Israel and Whitewash Iran?

The decision of the Obama administration to take a firm stand on Iran’s decision to send one of the participants in the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran to serve as its ambassador to the United Nations may have surprised the Islamist regime. A year of diplomacy aimed at appeasing the Iranians and allowing them to keep their nuclear infrastructure must have convinced Tehran that there was almost nothing it could do to get a rise out of Washington. By denying the terrorist turned diplomat a visa, the president indicated that he understood there are limits to how far he can go toward accommodating the ayatollahs in an effort to get out of having to keep his campaign pledges on the nuclear issue. The dismay among some of the foreign-policy establishment about the latent hostility toward Iran that was illustrated by the anger over the appointment was palpable.

But those determined to push the dubious theory that the election of Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s faux presidential election last year indicates a shift to moderation are undaunted. The New York Times has been a notable advocate for this position on both its editorial and news pages, but it surpassed itself today with the publication of a remarkable piece by two scholars alleging that not only is the Islamist regime changing but that Iran and Israel are like two ships passing in the night as the Jewish state becomes an extremist theocracy. That its thesis is an absurd libel of Israel and a whitewash of Iran is so obvious it is barely worth the effort to refute it. In short, Israel is a pluralist democracy where the rule of law prevails despite the ongoing war being waged against its existence by most of the Arab and Muslim world. Iran is a theocratic tyranny where free expression and freedom of religion are forbidden and women, gays, and minorities are brutally oppressed. Iran is also the world’s leading state sponsor of terror and its foreign policy is aimed at propping up one of the world’s worst tyrants in Syria’s Bashar Assad as well as Hezbollah and other terrorists seeking to destabilize the Middle East.

So while the argument that the Times featured today is so risible as to merit satire rather than a lengthy response, it is worth asking why the newspaper gives space to such laughable arguments. The answer is both simple and not particularly funny. Some portions of the foreign-policy establishment in this country—of which the Times remains a leading outlet—are deeply unhappy about the resilience of the U.S.-Israel alliance even after more than five years of Obama administration efforts to downgrade these ties and desirous of détente with Iran. Such articles say more about confidence in the success of the slow-motion betrayal of President Obama’s promise to stop Iran’s nuclear program than they do about either Israel or Iran.

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The decision of the Obama administration to take a firm stand on Iran’s decision to send one of the participants in the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran to serve as its ambassador to the United Nations may have surprised the Islamist regime. A year of diplomacy aimed at appeasing the Iranians and allowing them to keep their nuclear infrastructure must have convinced Tehran that there was almost nothing it could do to get a rise out of Washington. By denying the terrorist turned diplomat a visa, the president indicated that he understood there are limits to how far he can go toward accommodating the ayatollahs in an effort to get out of having to keep his campaign pledges on the nuclear issue. The dismay among some of the foreign-policy establishment about the latent hostility toward Iran that was illustrated by the anger over the appointment was palpable.

But those determined to push the dubious theory that the election of Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s faux presidential election last year indicates a shift to moderation are undaunted. The New York Times has been a notable advocate for this position on both its editorial and news pages, but it surpassed itself today with the publication of a remarkable piece by two scholars alleging that not only is the Islamist regime changing but that Iran and Israel are like two ships passing in the night as the Jewish state becomes an extremist theocracy. That its thesis is an absurd libel of Israel and a whitewash of Iran is so obvious it is barely worth the effort to refute it. In short, Israel is a pluralist democracy where the rule of law prevails despite the ongoing war being waged against its existence by most of the Arab and Muslim world. Iran is a theocratic tyranny where free expression and freedom of religion are forbidden and women, gays, and minorities are brutally oppressed. Iran is also the world’s leading state sponsor of terror and its foreign policy is aimed at propping up one of the world’s worst tyrants in Syria’s Bashar Assad as well as Hezbollah and other terrorists seeking to destabilize the Middle East.

So while the argument that the Times featured today is so risible as to merit satire rather than a lengthy response, it is worth asking why the newspaper gives space to such laughable arguments. The answer is both simple and not particularly funny. Some portions of the foreign-policy establishment in this country—of which the Times remains a leading outlet—are deeply unhappy about the resilience of the U.S.-Israel alliance even after more than five years of Obama administration efforts to downgrade these ties and desirous of détente with Iran. Such articles say more about confidence in the success of the slow-motion betrayal of President Obama’s promise to stop Iran’s nuclear program than they do about either Israel or Iran.

As for the notion that Israel is becoming more extremist and Iran more moderate, only by cherry-picking scattered facts about either nation can one possibly justify such an absurd pair of arguments. Suffice it to say that while Israel’s Orthodox population is growing and the conflict between some elements of the Haredi community and the rest of the country is troubling, there is simply no coherent analogy to be drawn between even the ultra-Orthodox parties and the Islamist leadership in Iran. While the Haredi leadership deserves criticism for the way it has discredited Judaism in the eyes of Israel’s secular majority as well its stances on education and universal military service, it is not guilty of terrorism. Moreover, despite the assumption that Israel is becoming more extreme, it must be pointed out that the political influence of the Haredim is at its lowest point in the country’s recent history as their parties have, for the first time in decades, been excluded from the government, even one led from the right by Benjamin Netanyahu. The authors assume that criticism from that government of U.S. pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians is a sign of extremism. But such sentiments merely represent realism on the part of an Israeli public—both secular and religious—that understands that the Palestinians aren’t interested in peace. Far from Israels government and people abandoning democracy as the authors charge, it is those Israelis who rationalize the anti-Semitic boycotts of the state who are seeking to overturn the verdicts of the ballot box by foreign pressure and economic warfare.

As for Iran, the authors can cite no real evidence that Rouhani’s election has changed the country. That’s because there is none. It remains a vicious tyranny and the clerics and their military followers show no sign of loosening the grip on power as the reaction to the 2009 Tehran protests illustrated.

But the willingness of the Times to give such prominent play to the authors’ ridiculous assertions does tell us a lot about how important the smearing of Israel and the whitewashing of Iran is to the success of a foreign policy aimed at détente with Tehran. While seemingly unimportant in the great scheme of things, the dustup about Iran’s U.N. appointment shows that Americans and in particular Congress has not yet been persuaded by Kerry to think well of Iran. Those who confidently predict, as do the authors of this travesty, that Israel’s alliance with the U.S. will not stand the test of time understand neither the lasting bonds between these two great democracies nor the difference between Israeli freedom and Iranian despotism.

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Obama’s Slow-Motion Betrayal on Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kerry Seems to Be Aiming for Bad Iran Deal

Listening to members of the administration talk about Iran’s nuclear program, it’s often difficult to tell quite what kind of timescale they think we’re on. At the beginning of his first term, President Obama gave the impression of having all the time in the world, and he has certainly used enough of it; during the course of which Iran has only lurched increasingly closer to having weapons capabilities. Understandably, countries in the region that are easily within range of a nuclear Iran—particularly Israel and the Sunni Gulf states—are a little more nervous. What is indeed concerning is the way that the administration’s estimates for when Iran could reach breakout capabilities keep on changing, and not for the better.

Secretary of State John Kerry is now saying that the U.S. believes Iran to be two months away from having breakout levels of enriched uranium. Yet, much less than a year ago the administration was claiming that we were at least a year or more away from that point. So either the administration’s estimates are inaccurate and unreliable or in the period since sanctions were partially lifted and negotiations began Iran has massively advanced in its program. Neither possibility will fill America’s allies–or anyone else for that matter–with any confidence about Obama and Kerry’s handling of the Iran threat, which may soon become the Iran crisis.

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Listening to members of the administration talk about Iran’s nuclear program, it’s often difficult to tell quite what kind of timescale they think we’re on. At the beginning of his first term, President Obama gave the impression of having all the time in the world, and he has certainly used enough of it; during the course of which Iran has only lurched increasingly closer to having weapons capabilities. Understandably, countries in the region that are easily within range of a nuclear Iran—particularly Israel and the Sunni Gulf states—are a little more nervous. What is indeed concerning is the way that the administration’s estimates for when Iran could reach breakout capabilities keep on changing, and not for the better.

Secretary of State John Kerry is now saying that the U.S. believes Iran to be two months away from having breakout levels of enriched uranium. Yet, much less than a year ago the administration was claiming that we were at least a year or more away from that point. So either the administration’s estimates are inaccurate and unreliable or in the period since sanctions were partially lifted and negotiations began Iran has massively advanced in its program. Neither possibility will fill America’s allies–or anyone else for that matter–with any confidence about Obama and Kerry’s handling of the Iran threat, which may soon become the Iran crisis.

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Secretary Kerry reported the time-period for what he described as “so-called breakout” is “about two months.” Contrast this with the fact that back in October, shortly before the announcement of November’s interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries, Obama claimed that that same breakout point was at least a year or more away. The interim agreement awards Iran partial relief from sanctions in return for Iran agreeing to reduce its enrichment activities and its cooperation with both inspections and negotiations that are supposed to move us towards a final agreement with Iran. So are we to assume that, as had been feared by many, the interim period has allowed Iran a window in which to speed ahead with enrichment? There are only two other alternatives. One is that the administration’s own ability to assess Iran’s progress is dangerously limited, the other is that for political reasons Obama was intentionally underestimating Iran’s progress; most likely to undermine public and Congressional support for tougher action against Iran.

If all of that wasn’t alarming enough, then Kerry’s apparent lack of clarity about his objectives with Iran are all the more so. Obama has already been dropping hints about being “realistic” as far as a final deal is concerned; the implication being that it will be some kind of trade off that won’t definitively end Iran’s nuclear capacities. Time and time again Kerry has claimed that he would prefer no deal to a bad deal, yet speaking before the Senate committee it sounded a lot like a bad deal is precisely what is in the making.

When asked whether a breakout window of up to a year was now the goal of negotiations, the Secretary faltered, as if he had let something slip that he shouldn’t have. “So six months to 12 months is – I’m not saying that’s what we’d settle for, but even that is significantly more,” Kerry responded to the question. It seems that the administration thinks we should be grateful if they manage to drag Iran back to the six month point, half what they claimed we were looking at back in the fall. Kerry makes no commitment as to whether they would settle for that or not, but simply assures us that this is much better than what we have right now. The problem is that with the administration’s margin for error apparently so wide when it comes to these predictions, and with the period of time in play being so narrow, it seems plausible that Iran could cross the threshold to full breakout capabilities before anyone has time to sound the alarm and figure out what to do.

Amidst this latest round of negotiations to end Iran’s illegal nuclear program, this time taking place back in Vienna, Iran celebrated a rather curious national holiday; National Day of Nuclear Technology. During the festivities Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that Iran’s “nuclear achievements are unstoppable.” We live in disconcerting times when the words of Iran’s grand ayatollah are more convincing than those of the secretary of state.   

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Russia Oil Deal May Doom Iran Diplomacy

With Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East peace fiasco and Russia’s threats to Ukraine dominating foreign news, the administration’s quest to derail Iran’s nuclear-weapons program via diplomacy has been off the front pages lately. But with the next round of the P5+1 talks starting this week the gap between President Obama’s promises about halting the Iranian nuclear threat and the reality of a diplomatic stalemate ought to inspire more concern than it is currently getting. The chief complication for Obama and Kerry’s strategy of a multilateral talks and Western concessions on sanctions intended to beguile Tehran into abandoning its nuclear ambition is the fact that the administration’s policy is dependent on the one country that has the least interest in gratifying the president these days: Russia.

Vladimir Putin has always been the weak link in the Western attempt to bribe Iran to give up its nuclear program. It’s not just that Moscow’s extensive trade ties and potential weapons sales complicate the attempt by the administration to orchestrate Iran’s diplomatic and economic isolation. It’s that the core purposes of Russian foreign policy under Putin have been to reassemble the old Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East and to frustrate American policy goals every chance they get. Thus, when Reuters reported last week that Russia is planning on a massive oil-for-goods deal with Iran that would make a mockery of the “crippling” sanctions that the administration has said are sufficient to influence the Islamist regime, it was clear that the fallout from the conflict in Ukraine would undermine any hope that Putin would play along with the P5+1 game plan. But now, as Eli Lake reports in the Daily Beast, the possibility that Putin will use sales of S-300 missiles that could defend Iran’s nuclear sites may put an end to any chance that the West could stop Iran. It also shows that despite Obama and Kerry’s brave talk about pressuring Russia to leave Ukraine alone, it may be that Putin has more leverage on them than they do on him.

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With Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East peace fiasco and Russia’s threats to Ukraine dominating foreign news, the administration’s quest to derail Iran’s nuclear-weapons program via diplomacy has been off the front pages lately. But with the next round of the P5+1 talks starting this week the gap between President Obama’s promises about halting the Iranian nuclear threat and the reality of a diplomatic stalemate ought to inspire more concern than it is currently getting. The chief complication for Obama and Kerry’s strategy of a multilateral talks and Western concessions on sanctions intended to beguile Tehran into abandoning its nuclear ambition is the fact that the administration’s policy is dependent on the one country that has the least interest in gratifying the president these days: Russia.

Vladimir Putin has always been the weak link in the Western attempt to bribe Iran to give up its nuclear program. It’s not just that Moscow’s extensive trade ties and potential weapons sales complicate the attempt by the administration to orchestrate Iran’s diplomatic and economic isolation. It’s that the core purposes of Russian foreign policy under Putin have been to reassemble the old Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East and to frustrate American policy goals every chance they get. Thus, when Reuters reported last week that Russia is planning on a massive oil-for-goods deal with Iran that would make a mockery of the “crippling” sanctions that the administration has said are sufficient to influence the Islamist regime, it was clear that the fallout from the conflict in Ukraine would undermine any hope that Putin would play along with the P5+1 game plan. But now, as Eli Lake reports in the Daily Beast, the possibility that Putin will use sales of S-300 missiles that could defend Iran’s nuclear sites may put an end to any chance that the West could stop Iran. It also shows that despite Obama and Kerry’s brave talk about pressuring Russia to leave Ukraine alone, it may be that Putin has more leverage on them than they do on him.

The administration has been saying that the Russians have not tried to establish any linkage between their dispute over Ukraine and their role in the Iran negotiations. But Putin doesn’t have to draw any pictures or make any threats to make his position known. Though the Russians have their own reasons for worrying about a nuclear Iran, they have always been reluctant members of the P5+1 group and have been allowed by Obama’s “lead from behind” approach to act, along with China, as a brake on any international effort to isolate Iran.

Having already signed a weak interim deal that both granted tacit recognition of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and weakened sanctions, the U.S. has far less leverage over Tehran than it did only six months ago. And now, armed with the knowledge that Russia can squeeze the West and slow down diplomatic process even more from its already glacial pace, there is absolutely no reason for the Iranians not to keep stalling and prevaricating in the P5+1 talks. There was already very little hope that the talks would not drag on into the summer and fall and then into 2015. But if, as is likely, Russia inks the oil-for-goods deal by August, the already tottering sanctions process may begin to collapse. Though Obama has given himself credit for showing patience in his approach to Iran, that may now translate into a delay that will allow the Russians to sink his diplomatic strategy long before the Iranians felt the least pressure to give ground in the talks.

President Obama spent his first term attempting to “reset” relations with Russia in part to help ease the way for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat. But with the reset now shown to be a joke and little hope of either restraining Russia in Ukraine or in getting them to help on Iran, it appears that the “window of diplomacy” the administration has depended on may prove to be a disaster not only for the Middle East but also for the future of Europe.

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Kerry’s Hubris Leads to a Great Fall

It was just a couple of months ago that Secretary of State John Kerry was being lauded as, in the words of CNN, “a surprise success.” He was hailed by the chattering classes as having exceeded Hillary Clinton’s record by showing daring instead of her instinctive caution. After all, hadn’t he managed to preside over a nuclear deal with Iran, saved President Obama’s face by negotiating a good deal with Russia about Syrian chemical weapons, and made progress on a withdrawal agreement in Afghanistan? Most of all, his audacious decision to restart Middle East peace talks when everyone was warning him it was a fool’s errand was seen as having great promise. As the Atlantic gushed, “It’s looking more and more possible that when the history of early-21st-century diplomacy gets written, it will be Kerry who is credited with making the State Department relevant again.”

But that was then. Today, Kerry is being rightly lambasted by the left, right, and center for his idiotic decision to introduce the issue of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard’s release into the Middle East peace negotiations. The collapse of those talks and Kerry’s frantic and desperate Hail Mary pass merely to keep the sides talking after Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to scuttle the effort illustrates the secretary’s flawed strategy and lack of a coherent backup plan. But the Middle East is not the only place where Kerry’s supposedly inspired leadership has failed. Kerry ignored and then mishandled unrest in Egypt and alienated allies across the Middle East. The special relationship that Kerry had cultivated with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (according to the Times the two had bonded over their love of ice hockey) has also not only proved useless in getting the Russians to do what they promised in Syria but has led to further humiliations for the U.S. as the Putin regime overran Crimea and threatened the rest of the Ukraine. Kerry’s dependence on the Russians is also likely to lead to more failure on the Iranian nuclear front since Moscow is even less inclined than it already was to pressure Tehran to sign an agreement that can be represented as a victory for U.S. diplomacy.

A generous evaluation of Kerry’s actions might merely ascribe this to a string of bad luck. But luck has nothing to do with it. The common thread between these various diplomatic dead-ends isn’t that small-minded and recalcitrant foreign leaders thwarted Kerry’s bold initiatives. It’s that in all these situations, Kerry believed the force of his personality and his tenacity was equal to the task of solving problems that had flummoxed all of his predecessors. Aaron David Miller perceptively wrote last fall at a moment when Kerry’s fortunes seemed to be on the rise, “Rarely have I encountered anyone — let alone a secretary of state — who seemed more self-confident about his own point of view and not all that interested in somebody else’s.” It was this hubris that has led to his current humiliation.

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It was just a couple of months ago that Secretary of State John Kerry was being lauded as, in the words of CNN, “a surprise success.” He was hailed by the chattering classes as having exceeded Hillary Clinton’s record by showing daring instead of her instinctive caution. After all, hadn’t he managed to preside over a nuclear deal with Iran, saved President Obama’s face by negotiating a good deal with Russia about Syrian chemical weapons, and made progress on a withdrawal agreement in Afghanistan? Most of all, his audacious decision to restart Middle East peace talks when everyone was warning him it was a fool’s errand was seen as having great promise. As the Atlantic gushed, “It’s looking more and more possible that when the history of early-21st-century diplomacy gets written, it will be Kerry who is credited with making the State Department relevant again.”

But that was then. Today, Kerry is being rightly lambasted by the left, right, and center for his idiotic decision to introduce the issue of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard’s release into the Middle East peace negotiations. The collapse of those talks and Kerry’s frantic and desperate Hail Mary pass merely to keep the sides talking after Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to scuttle the effort illustrates the secretary’s flawed strategy and lack of a coherent backup plan. But the Middle East is not the only place where Kerry’s supposedly inspired leadership has failed. Kerry ignored and then mishandled unrest in Egypt and alienated allies across the Middle East. The special relationship that Kerry had cultivated with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (according to the Times the two had bonded over their love of ice hockey) has also not only proved useless in getting the Russians to do what they promised in Syria but has led to further humiliations for the U.S. as the Putin regime overran Crimea and threatened the rest of the Ukraine. Kerry’s dependence on the Russians is also likely to lead to more failure on the Iranian nuclear front since Moscow is even less inclined than it already was to pressure Tehran to sign an agreement that can be represented as a victory for U.S. diplomacy.

A generous evaluation of Kerry’s actions might merely ascribe this to a string of bad luck. But luck has nothing to do with it. The common thread between these various diplomatic dead-ends isn’t that small-minded and recalcitrant foreign leaders thwarted Kerry’s bold initiatives. It’s that in all these situations, Kerry believed the force of his personality and his tenacity was equal to the task of solving problems that had flummoxed all of his predecessors. Aaron David Miller perceptively wrote last fall at a moment when Kerry’s fortunes seemed to be on the rise, “Rarely have I encountered anyone — let alone a secretary of state — who seemed more self-confident about his own point of view and not all that interested in somebody else’s.” It was this hubris that has led to his current humiliation.

In a rare example of agreement between the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, both ridiculed Kerry’s use of Pollard as a pathetic Hail Mary pass to revive the peace negotiations that had been scuttled by Abbas. Though the two papers came at the issue from different perspectives—the Journal correctly thought it was wrong to trade a spy for the terrorist murderers Abbas wanted Israel to free while the Times thought that the gesture would advance the negotiations—they spoke for just about everybody inside and outside the U.S. foreign-policy establishment in declaring the Pollard gambit to be a sign of desperation on the part of the secretary.

The problem here isn’t just that including Pollard in the talks was wrong-headed and unlikely to yield positive results. It’s that Kerry is so invested in trying to prop up a process that never had a chance of success that he’s willing to gamble with America’s credibility. While he proved able to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, Kerry’s naïve miscalculation about Abbas being willing or able to make peace has led to the current stalemate. Even worse, Kerry’s desperation has emboldened Abbas to keep asking for more and more with no sign that he will ever risk signing a deal that will end the conflict. The talk about Pollard is significant not just because it’s a bad idea but because it reflects American weakness rather than boldness.

But while Kerry’s self-image is sufficiently grandiose to insulate him against criticisms, those who will pay the price for his failures will not be so fortunate. The Ukrainians know they cannot count on the U.S., and by raising expectations that were inevitably dashed the secretary has increased the chances of violence in the wake of his Middle East fiasco. Nor will those who may eventually be faced with the reality of an Iranian bomb remember him kindly. Not long ago liberal pundits were singing his praises. Now he should consider himself lucky if he is not soon considered a consensus choice for the title of the worst secretary of state in recent memory.

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Will Obama Listen to What Iran is Saying?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama Needs Israel to Rattle Its Saber

The Obama administration may be acting as if its rift with Russia won’t affect the attempt to broker a nuclear deal with Iran. It can hope against hope that Russia will forget its quarrel with the Americans and maintain solidarity with the U.S. and the European Union in the Iran talks and continue as if nothing has changed. But there’s little doubt that the open hostility between Washington and Moscow has reduced the already slim chances for a satisfactory P5+1 agreement with Iran. Since the diplomatic option that the president has defended so vigorously in recent months depends entirely on Russian cooperation including the enforcement of sanctions that Putin never really supported, the aftermath of the Crimea conflict has left the administration with little diplomatic leverage.

If so, where does that leave Israel?

The obvious answer to that question is that it is left in a highly precarious situation. Even if one discounts the possibility that Iran would use a bomb to make good on its genocidal threats against the Jewish state, Tehran’s acquisition of a nuclear capability would transform the strategic balance in the region in a manner that would drastically affect Israel’s security. That means Israel must either learn to live with a nuclear Iran or ponder the possibility of striking the Islamist regime on its own. While it’s not clear whether Iran or anyone else takes this seriously, Jerusalem is nonetheless acting as if they should. So should President Obama.

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The Obama administration may be acting as if its rift with Russia won’t affect the attempt to broker a nuclear deal with Iran. It can hope against hope that Russia will forget its quarrel with the Americans and maintain solidarity with the U.S. and the European Union in the Iran talks and continue as if nothing has changed. But there’s little doubt that the open hostility between Washington and Moscow has reduced the already slim chances for a satisfactory P5+1 agreement with Iran. Since the diplomatic option that the president has defended so vigorously in recent months depends entirely on Russian cooperation including the enforcement of sanctions that Putin never really supported, the aftermath of the Crimea conflict has left the administration with little diplomatic leverage.

If so, where does that leave Israel?

The obvious answer to that question is that it is left in a highly precarious situation. Even if one discounts the possibility that Iran would use a bomb to make good on its genocidal threats against the Jewish state, Tehran’s acquisition of a nuclear capability would transform the strategic balance in the region in a manner that would drastically affect Israel’s security. That means Israel must either learn to live with a nuclear Iran or ponder the possibility of striking the Islamist regime on its own. While it’s not clear whether Iran or anyone else takes this seriously, Jerusalem is nonetheless acting as if they should. So should President Obama.

As Haaretz reported today,

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon have ordered the army to continue preparing for a possible military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities at a cost of at least 10 billion shekels ($2.89 billion) this year, despite the talks between Iran and the West, according to recent statements by senior military officers.

Three Knesset members who were present at Knesset joint committee hearings on Israel Defense Forces plans that were held in January and February say they learned during the hearings that 10 billion shekels to 12 billion shekels of the defense budget would be allocated this year for preparations for a strike on Iran, approximately the same amount that was allocated in 2013.

The leaking of this information this week makes it clear that Netanyahu would like both the Iranians and his American ally to think that he is still actively considering a unilateral strike on the Islamist regime’s nuclear facilities. The same interpretation might be put on statements from Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who boasted yesterday that the IDF has the ability to carry out military operations anywhere on the globe, including Iran.

Opposition to a solo Israeli attack on Iran has been stiff within the country’s military and security establishment. This reluctance has been rooted not so much in a belief that Israel was incapable of dealing Iran a devastating blow but that the blowback from such an operation might be almost as bad as the scenario that it would be intended to avert. Even assuming Israeli forces could make enough sorties into Iranian airspace to knock out Tehran’s nuclear facilities without unacceptable losses, it might set off a regional conflict. Iran’s Hezbollah allies on Israel’s northern border and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the south in Gaza might launch their own strikes at Israeli cities and embroil the country in a costly three-front war.

Just as important, many Israeli security officials have always felt that dealing with Iran was primarily America’s responsibility. If push came to shove, the far more numerous American air and naval forces in the region would also be in a much better position to do the job. Moreover, they also know that if it did act on its own, Israel risks deepening its diplomatic isolation and creating more problems with the Obama administration.

But if, thanks to Russia, America’s diplomatic option to stop Iran is no longer viable and few take seriously the notion that President Obama would use force against Tehran under any circumstances, that would put Netanyahu in a position where he might think the IDF was the last and perhaps only hope of preventing an Iranian bomb.

While Netanyahu has said he won’t be deterred from acting by American diplomacy, anyone who thinks he will order an attack on Iran while the P5+1 talks are ongoing is not thinking clearly. An Israeli attack under those circumstances would create a quarrel with Washington that the prime minister rightly wishes to avoid at all costs. Force only becomes a possibility once those talks are seen to have failed and even then both Obama and the Iranians may think the Israelis wouldn’t dare act on their own. Only time will tell if they are right.

Nevertheless, Obama should be encouraging Netanyahu to rattle his saber as loudly and as much as possible. With Russia determined to thwart any U.S. foreign-policy initiative, the only possible hope for a P5+1 deal is for Iran to believe that the alternative is an Israeli attack that, however costly, would inflict a decisive blow to their nuclear ambitions.

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Senate Iran Letter Ends Sanctions Fight

Supporters of tough sanctions on Iran hailed the publication of a letter from 83 members of the U.S. Senate to President Obama calling on him to negotiate a deal with the Islamist regime that would preclude any chance that it could gain a nuclear weapon. The letter said that any agreement reached with Iran must deny it the right to uranium enrichment, dismantle its enrichment and nuclear military research facilities as well as its plutonium plant, and be subjected to the kind of inspections that would prevent it from evading detection of violations and receive no further sanctions relief until the other terms are satisfied. AIPAC praised it as an “overwhelming demonstration by the U.S. Senate of its determination to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability.”

But those who are dismissing the letter as the last gasp of a once formidable congressional coalition on behalf of sanctions on Iran are right. As the Al Monitor crowed in the headline of its article on the letter, what had happened was not so much a reaffirmation of principle but recognition that Congress had given the president “a window for Iran talks.” The terms laid down in the letter for an Iran nuclear deal are sufficient to stop Tehran. But the amorphous language it employs about what would happen if the agreement the administration produces with Iran falls short of that standard left considerable doubt as to whether failure would result in the passage of the crippling sanctions that the Senate tried but failed to pass earlier this year. Combined with the weaker language of a similar Iran letter signed by 395 members of the House of Representatives, the administration will interpret these developments as a green light to pursue a deal with Iran that will fall considerably short of the standard set in the Senate letter.

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Supporters of tough sanctions on Iran hailed the publication of a letter from 83 members of the U.S. Senate to President Obama calling on him to negotiate a deal with the Islamist regime that would preclude any chance that it could gain a nuclear weapon. The letter said that any agreement reached with Iran must deny it the right to uranium enrichment, dismantle its enrichment and nuclear military research facilities as well as its plutonium plant, and be subjected to the kind of inspections that would prevent it from evading detection of violations and receive no further sanctions relief until the other terms are satisfied. AIPAC praised it as an “overwhelming demonstration by the U.S. Senate of its determination to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability.”

But those who are dismissing the letter as the last gasp of a once formidable congressional coalition on behalf of sanctions on Iran are right. As the Al Monitor crowed in the headline of its article on the letter, what had happened was not so much a reaffirmation of principle but recognition that Congress had given the president “a window for Iran talks.” The terms laid down in the letter for an Iran nuclear deal are sufficient to stop Tehran. But the amorphous language it employs about what would happen if the agreement the administration produces with Iran falls short of that standard left considerable doubt as to whether failure would result in the passage of the crippling sanctions that the Senate tried but failed to pass earlier this year. Combined with the weaker language of a similar Iran letter signed by 395 members of the House of Representatives, the administration will interpret these developments as a green light to pursue a deal with Iran that will fall considerably short of the standard set in the Senate letter.

It was no accident that the overwhelming bipartisan turnout for the Senate letter had one significant omission: Majority Leader Harry Reid. While Reid had previously been a stalwart supporter of AIPAC and the pro-Israel community, the majority leader was able to exercise an effective veto on further Iran sanctions legislation this year. Reid’s opposition combined with a threat of a presidential veto of new sanctions on Iran sent many Democrats running for cover, despite the fact that 58 members of the Senate had endorsed the bill.

What happened this year surprised many in the pro-Israel community who assumed that a bipartisan coalition in favor of tougher sanctions on Iran could not be stopped. With Democrat Robert Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, championing the bill and a clear majority of the Senate ready to vote for legislation that had already been passed last year by the House, opponents seemed outgunned.

The new sanctions would have tightened the noose around Iran’s still booming international oil sales, but they would not have gone into effect until the next stage of diplomacy had clearly failed. Yet even that was too much for President Obama, who claimed that even sanctions that were based on a hypothetical would “break faith” with his Iranian partners. The administration, which had fought the sanctions that brought Iran to the table tooth and nail in his first term, wanted nothing that would strengthen the hands of the Western negotiators in the P5+1 talks.

The refusal to even contemplate more sanctions has sent a message to Iran that they have little to fear if they stand their ground in the talks and insist on retaining their nuclear program. The Senate letter won’t change their minds. They already know the president will ignore the Senate’s advice on acceptable terms for a nuclear deal since the interim agreement signed by Secretary of State Kerry last November already flouted those principles by tacitly recognizing an Iranian right to enrichment and beginning the process by which international sanctions will start to unravel. The failure to include language that would ensure that Congress would pass the additional sanctions if the deal fails to meet those standards tells Obama and the Iranians the letter can be safely deposited in the circular file and forgotten.

Those worried about an administration push for diplomacy that seems more like a drive for détente with Iran than an effort to stop their nuclear program should take no comfort from these congressional letters. What has just happened is the end of an important fight that ended in defeat for the forces most concerned with averting the peril of an Iranian bomb. The president has been given all the time he needs to reach a deal with Iran that will keep his promise to halt their nuclear quest. If, as is most likely, he breaks his promise, it will be up to Congress to take up the issue again and not be talked out of doing the right thing by a president who is willing to do anything to avoid accountability on this vital issue.

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Russia Was Always a Bad Bet to Stop Iran

The Obama administration has always seemed to have trouble managing even one foreign-policy crisis at a time. But the opening of the next stage of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran in the same week that Russia, the West’s nominal partner in trying to negotiate a resolution of the nuclear question with Tehran, is annexing Crimea is posing a particularly difficult dilemma for the administration. After all, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have been counting on Moscow to back up the West’s efforts to get the Iranians to give up their quest for nuclear weapons or at least not to sabotage either the talks or the sanctions on the Islamist regime. But with the U.S. and the European Union contemplating sanctions to punish the Putin government for its aggression against Ukraine, how can they possibly expect the Russians to act as partners in an effort to pressure Iran in the exact same manner?

Those worries are the conceit of a story in today’s New York Times in which an anonymous “senior American official” could do no better than to express the “hope” that the defiant Russians would not “put these negotiations at risk.” But the problem with the administration’s approach to the Iran talks goes deeper than merely it being bad luck that the Ukraine crisis has happened at just the moment when the president was hoping to swing a deal with Tehran. Even in the best of times, Russia’s equivocal attitude toward pressuring Iran was always a liability to the Western negotiators. But the open breach between Russia and the West over its seizure of Crimea makes an agreement that would actually prevent Iran from getting a bomb in the long run even more unlikely than it was before. Rather than re-evaluate an approach that was already rooted in weakness, the president and Kerry are apparently determined to stick with a losing hand. If Iran’s negotiators weren’t already confident about their ability to take Obama to the cleaners in the talks, they are now.

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The Obama administration has always seemed to have trouble managing even one foreign-policy crisis at a time. But the opening of the next stage of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran in the same week that Russia, the West’s nominal partner in trying to negotiate a resolution of the nuclear question with Tehran, is annexing Crimea is posing a particularly difficult dilemma for the administration. After all, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have been counting on Moscow to back up the West’s efforts to get the Iranians to give up their quest for nuclear weapons or at least not to sabotage either the talks or the sanctions on the Islamist regime. But with the U.S. and the European Union contemplating sanctions to punish the Putin government for its aggression against Ukraine, how can they possibly expect the Russians to act as partners in an effort to pressure Iran in the exact same manner?

Those worries are the conceit of a story in today’s New York Times in which an anonymous “senior American official” could do no better than to express the “hope” that the defiant Russians would not “put these negotiations at risk.” But the problem with the administration’s approach to the Iran talks goes deeper than merely it being bad luck that the Ukraine crisis has happened at just the moment when the president was hoping to swing a deal with Tehran. Even in the best of times, Russia’s equivocal attitude toward pressuring Iran was always a liability to the Western negotiators. But the open breach between Russia and the West over its seizure of Crimea makes an agreement that would actually prevent Iran from getting a bomb in the long run even more unlikely than it was before. Rather than re-evaluate an approach that was already rooted in weakness, the president and Kerry are apparently determined to stick with a losing hand. If Iran’s negotiators weren’t already confident about their ability to take Obama to the cleaners in the talks, they are now.

The presence of Russia and China in the group negotiating with Iran was always Iran’s ace in the hole in the talks. While both countries have expressed their opposition to the prospect of an Iranian bomb, their role in this diplomatic equation was always complicated. Russia has been a major supplier of nuclear technology as well as arms to Iran, including anti-aircraft missiles that would make a strike on their facilities even more difficult. Russia also has an extensive trade relationship with Tehran. Meanwhile China is the ayatollah’s leading trade partner in the vital oil sales that keep the Islamist regime afloat financially. Under the most favorable circumstances for diplomacy, those factors created an even greater conflict of interest than the strong trade ties between America’s European allies and Iran.

But Russia’s ties with Iran are also connected with Putin’s desire to recreate the old Soviet empire. The Bashar Assad government in Syria, Moscow’s principal Middle East ally, has only been kept in power because of Iran’s intervention in the civil war in that country. Though the Obama administration has always been beguiled by its hopes for a “reset” with Russia, the guiding principle of Moscow’s foreign policy in the Putin era is its desire to expand its influence abroad at America’s expense. Though Putin would rather not see a nuclear-armed Iran on the southern border of the old Soviet Union, his commonality of interests with Tehran always threatened to overshadow any desire on his part to cooperate with Western diplomacy.

However, getting Russia to be part of the international coalition against Iran was always a priority for the administration. In theory, this was a sensible decision since without Russia as well as China sanctions were never going to work against Iran. But Washington’s dependence on them also forced those sanctions to be watered down. It was also part of the reasoning that led Obama to conclude that it was smarter for the West to give up its military and economic leverage over Iran in order to conclude an interim deal that gave Iran far more than it gave up last fall.

All of this means that Iran is in an even stronger position vis-à-vis the West in the talks than the already formidable stance it was able to sustain in earlier rounds of diplomacy. Secure in the knowledge that Russia will never agree to a re-imposition of the sanctions that were dropped in November or impose tougher ones (such as the program Congress is still considering) that would shut down Iran’s oil trade for good, Tehran can simply stand its ground in the talks. That means that if President Obama wants an agreement—and he’s already demonstrated that he’s willing to do just about anything to get out of his promise to stop Iran’s nuclear quest—he’s going to have to let Tehran keep its nuclear program and give up the sanctions.

But those inclined to blame Obama’s weak position on Iran on bad luck, bad timing, or Russian aggression are mistaken. The diplomatic path chosen by the administration was always dependent on Russian goodwill that was never likely to be forthcoming. The flaws in the P5+1 formula were already there long before Putin seized Crimea.

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Iran Nuclear Deal Looks Weaker Than Ever

Few will have been surprised by the announcement by the State Department that it believes the Iranians have been using the black market to purchase components necessary for the expansion of their nuclear infrastructure. More remarkable, on the other hand, was the way the State Department’s Vann Van Diepen apparently casually explained that these moves are not explicitly in contravention of the existing P5+1 interim agreement that Iran is signed up to. Indeed, it is being widely reported that Iran has been complying with the terms of the agreement. Yet, this fact says little in defense of the Iranians and much to condemn Secretary of State Kerry and the EU’s Catherine Ashton for having been complicit in formulating a deal that is so ineffectual as to permit this kind of thing.

We have been repeatedly assured by the administration that they had achieved some great feat, a diplomatic triumph, in getting the Iranians to sign onto the interim agreement. Yet, surely it is now obvious to any serious observer that an agreement so flimsy that it permits Iran to purchase new parts for the very nuclear infrastructure that this deal is supposed to work toward dismantling isn’t fit for purpose. This is the embodiment of the bad deal that Kerry assured us we wouldn’t get. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” or so we were told. If this deal isn’t bad, then it certainly sets the benchmark for good pretty low.

Not only does the interim agreement permit the continuation of nuclear enrichment, albeit at a lower level, but the fact that it allows for the Iranians to continue acquiring new nuclear parts is a reminder that this agreement is still more permissive than what had been agreed to even by the UN. Indeed, since 2006 the Security Council has placed sanctions on those selling such parts to Iran. The P5+1 interim agreement on the other hand has failed to proscribe such activity.

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Few will have been surprised by the announcement by the State Department that it believes the Iranians have been using the black market to purchase components necessary for the expansion of their nuclear infrastructure. More remarkable, on the other hand, was the way the State Department’s Vann Van Diepen apparently casually explained that these moves are not explicitly in contravention of the existing P5+1 interim agreement that Iran is signed up to. Indeed, it is being widely reported that Iran has been complying with the terms of the agreement. Yet, this fact says little in defense of the Iranians and much to condemn Secretary of State Kerry and the EU’s Catherine Ashton for having been complicit in formulating a deal that is so ineffectual as to permit this kind of thing.

We have been repeatedly assured by the administration that they had achieved some great feat, a diplomatic triumph, in getting the Iranians to sign onto the interim agreement. Yet, surely it is now obvious to any serious observer that an agreement so flimsy that it permits Iran to purchase new parts for the very nuclear infrastructure that this deal is supposed to work toward dismantling isn’t fit for purpose. This is the embodiment of the bad deal that Kerry assured us we wouldn’t get. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” or so we were told. If this deal isn’t bad, then it certainly sets the benchmark for good pretty low.

Not only does the interim agreement permit the continuation of nuclear enrichment, albeit at a lower level, but the fact that it allows for the Iranians to continue acquiring new nuclear parts is a reminder that this agreement is still more permissive than what had been agreed to even by the UN. Indeed, since 2006 the Security Council has placed sanctions on those selling such parts to Iran. The P5+1 interim agreement on the other hand has failed to proscribe such activity.

Negotiations for reaching an agreement that would definitively end Iran’s nuclear program resume once again this week. Yet, in recent weeks both Baroness Ashton and the Iranian foreign minister have expressed their skepticism about the likelihood of a deal being reached for the time being. Speaking from Tehran last week Ashton said that there was no guarantee that a final comprehensive deal would actually be reached. More recently Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has not only said that the Iranians do not expect to reach an agreement this time around; he has even claimed that a final agreement isn’t on the agenda for these talks.

With both parties in these talks apparently so unconvinced that these negotiations are leading anywhere, one has to ask what on earth they are doing taking part in them. The answer is that both sides are in these talks because they have to be, not because they want to. The sanctions regime that the West spent years meticulously constructing eventually forced the Iranians to the table. But Kerry and Ashton are only at that table because they must be seen to be doing something. The idea that the military option ever really existed for the Obama administration now looks completely implausible. Rather, both the Europeans and the administration knew that the military option was being seriously considered by Israel and others in the region. As such they are obliged to go through these diplomatic motions as a means of diverting anyone else from carrying out a strike on Iran which they no doubt fear would drag them into having to take a side in a conflict they wish to avoid at all costs.

With the threat of military action being more terrible in the eyes of both the Europeans and the Obama administration than the prospect of a nuclear Iran, its hard not to wonder what their true calculus is here. Presumably they are playing some kind of waiting game. With the sanctions now unraveling, and little hope of being able to reconstruct them in time to have any useful effect the possible trajectories seem clear. Either by some miracle the Iranians will lose all interest in their nuclear project, or, protected by the diplomatic process, Iran will cross the threshold of weapons capabilities by which point a military strike will become unthinkable in any case. The main objective for Obama and Kerry is to ensure that neither Israel nor the Saudis act on their threats of military action. And after that, Obama knows his time as president will be up, and the mess he has left becomes someone else’s problem.

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Does Obama Care About U.S. Hostages?

Today, Sunday marks the seventh anniversary since former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared on Kish Island, a free-trade zone on an Iranian island in the Persian Gulf for which visas are not necessary. Much has been written in the interim about just what Levinson was doing, and the relationship he reportedly had with some CIA analysts. For the Obama administration, that should be irrelevant. It should make Levinson’s freedom—and that of American pastor Saeed Abedini—its top priority.

Ever since the Islamic Revolution, Iranian authorities have embraced hostage taking as a mechanism of statecraft. The initial seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran confirmed Iran as a rogue regime, unwilling to abide by the norms of international diplomacy. The hostage situation paralyzed the Carter administration. Whatever mistakes Jimmy Carter may have made—and there were many when it came to Iran—no one can suggest that he did not seek the hostages’ release.

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Today, Sunday marks the seventh anniversary since former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared on Kish Island, a free-trade zone on an Iranian island in the Persian Gulf for which visas are not necessary. Much has been written in the interim about just what Levinson was doing, and the relationship he reportedly had with some CIA analysts. For the Obama administration, that should be irrelevant. It should make Levinson’s freedom—and that of American pastor Saeed Abedini—its top priority.

Ever since the Islamic Revolution, Iranian authorities have embraced hostage taking as a mechanism of statecraft. The initial seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran confirmed Iran as a rogue regime, unwilling to abide by the norms of international diplomacy. The hostage situation paralyzed the Carter administration. Whatever mistakes Jimmy Carter may have made—and there were many when it came to Iran—no one can suggest that he did not seek the hostages’ release.

While Tehran released the embassy hostages as soon as Reagan took his oath of office, the Iranian government was soon at it again, this time acting by its proxies in Lebanon. Hezbollah and affiliated groups seized a number of Americans, killing a few.  According to the Tower Commission report, Reagan obsessively peppered his staff with questions about their condition and the possibilities for their release. Reagan’s concern for the hostages ultimately led to the ill-advised arms-for-hostages scheme.

While many of the hostages returned home by the end of the Reagan presidency, Iranian-backed groups still held a few as George H.W. Bush assumed the presidency. Bush used his inaugural address to suggest that there could be U.S.-Iran reconciliation if Tehran showed goodwill by releasing American hostages. Bush followed up privately with UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar who in turn appointed United Nations bureaucrat Giandomenico Picco to serve as an intermediary with Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsajani. Newly appointed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei put the kibosh on new talks, and Rafsanjani refused to budge because to do so would be to admit Iranian complacency in an act for which Iran still wanted plausible deniability. Nevertheless, with time, the remaining Americans came home.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have undertaken a broader diplomatic initiative with Iran than any predecessor, including Jimmy Carter. In order to get Iran to the table for nuclear talks, Obama approved $7 billion in sanctions relief which, when combined by new investment, means a $20 billion windfall for Tehran. Iran was desperate for cash, its economy having contracted by 5.4 percent in the year before negotiations began. Obama, therefore, had the upper hand and huge leverage. Just as the United States offered incentives to show good will, so too might have Iran, if indeed there was any goodwill on the Iranian side. That Obama did not ask for the return of Americans held hostage or did not insist on their release as a precondition really does set Obama apart. He seems to be the first U.S. president who has not prioritized hostage release in its dealing with the world’s number one hostage-taking country. Absent any other reason offered, it is increasingly hard not to conclude that Obama and Kerry simply do not care about Americans held hostage, and are unwilling to hold the governments responsible accountable. That is a tragedy that no Nobel Prize can erase.  

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The Shelved Iran Report and Diplomacy

With the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference starting this weekend in Washington, the debate about the Iranian nuclear threat is back in the headlines. But, as the AIPAC activists know all too well, in their efforts to mobilize Congress to support increased sanctions on Iran the administration has effectively checkmated them on the issue by claiming the measure would derail diplomacy. Opponents of sanctions have falsely sought to frame the issue as being a choice between war and diplomacy even though the new sanctions, which would not go into effect until after the current negotiations with Iran are seen to have failed, would clearly strengthen the administration’s hand in the talks. But the problem with treating the diplomatic process as sacrosanct is that in doing so, the truth about the nature of the threat may be sacrificed without the West getting any closer to its goal of thwarting Iran’s nuclear program.

That dilemma was illustrated this week when it was revealed that the International Atomic Energy Agency had shelved a new report about Iran’s nuclear project because it was felt its publication would harm the diplomatic process. Sources told Reuters that the report would have been a wider review of the Iranian program including crucial analysis of Tehran’s military research. But the IAEA, whose reports over the last few years have raised awareness of the nuclear threat, ultimately decided that putting out more information about the topic now would, like the sanctions being debated in Washington, harm diplomacy.

After the Reuters report was published, Israel called on the IAEA to release the report. In response, the agency claimed today that it doesn’t exist. But all that tells us is that the decision to spike the report took place before it was formally prepared. The bottom line remains the same. Whatever new information the IAEA has obtained about military dimensions of Iran’s program is not going to be published because the more the Western public knows about the subject the less likely they are to give diplomats the leeway they need to craft a nuclear deal that will fall short of their stated goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

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With the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference starting this weekend in Washington, the debate about the Iranian nuclear threat is back in the headlines. But, as the AIPAC activists know all too well, in their efforts to mobilize Congress to support increased sanctions on Iran the administration has effectively checkmated them on the issue by claiming the measure would derail diplomacy. Opponents of sanctions have falsely sought to frame the issue as being a choice between war and diplomacy even though the new sanctions, which would not go into effect until after the current negotiations with Iran are seen to have failed, would clearly strengthen the administration’s hand in the talks. But the problem with treating the diplomatic process as sacrosanct is that in doing so, the truth about the nature of the threat may be sacrificed without the West getting any closer to its goal of thwarting Iran’s nuclear program.

That dilemma was illustrated this week when it was revealed that the International Atomic Energy Agency had shelved a new report about Iran’s nuclear project because it was felt its publication would harm the diplomatic process. Sources told Reuters that the report would have been a wider review of the Iranian program including crucial analysis of Tehran’s military research. But the IAEA, whose reports over the last few years have raised awareness of the nuclear threat, ultimately decided that putting out more information about the topic now would, like the sanctions being debated in Washington, harm diplomacy.

After the Reuters report was published, Israel called on the IAEA to release the report. In response, the agency claimed today that it doesn’t exist. But all that tells us is that the decision to spike the report took place before it was formally prepared. The bottom line remains the same. Whatever new information the IAEA has obtained about military dimensions of Iran’s program is not going to be published because the more the Western public knows about the subject the less likely they are to give diplomats the leeway they need to craft a nuclear deal that will fall short of their stated goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

We don’t know what a new IAEA report on Iran would have said. Given that the interim nuclear deal signed by the U.S. in November did not provide for inspections of Iranian facilities where military research is being conducted, it may be that the agency has not learned of any breakthroughs or further evidence of Iran’s clear intent to build a bomb. But past IAEA reports have served an important purpose in clarifying the danger involved in letting Tehran continue to use diplomacy to run out the clock until they reach their nuclear goal. But whether the IAEA acted on its own or if it succumbed to pressure, the effect is the same. The Obama administration and its P5+1 partners understand that the more information is released about the ongoing Iranian efforts to circumvent the diplomatic process, the harder it is to silence criticism of their tactics or to prevent Congress from seeking to put more sanctions in place.

There is no disagreement between the administration and its critics about whether a diplomatic solution is the best way to resolve this issue. No one wants the U.S. to be forced into a position where its only choice really is between the use of force and accepting a situation in which Iran becomes a nuclear power. But the suppression of the free flow of information about the nature of that threat raises suspicions that what is going on now is more about preserving diplomacy for its own sake than anything else.

By agreeing to negotiations that tacitly recognized Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and loosened existing sanctions, the administration has allowed Tehran to believe that it will never have to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure. Having triumphed in the interim talks, it is little surprise that Iran’s leaders believe they will achieve their nuclear goal either through diplomacy or by stalling the process until the point where their bomb is a fait accompli. It is to be hoped that the administration means what it says about preventing an Iranian bomb. But the more President Obama seeks to suppress the truth about the Iranian threat and to silence debate about sanctions, the harder it is to believe that he will keep his promises. The goal must be to make it impossible for the Islamist regime to build a bomb, not detente. A diplomatic process that aims for anything less than that is not worth the effort or the sacrifices of the truth required for keeping it alive.

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Iran Negotiators Taking Their Sweet Time

There are some kinds of international negotiations that are not all that time sensitive. The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks fall into that category. Although the need for a resolution to the conflict is as great today as it ever was, the nature of the discussions are such that, contrary to the allegations of some of Israel’s critics, nothing is happening on the ground that fundamentally changes the possible solution to the problem. The West Bank settlements that the Palestinians want removed are no more and no less likely to be evacuated in exchange for real peace today than they were 15 years ago or will be five, ten, or fifteen years from now, assuming the Palestinians ever decide to accept an Israeli offer.

But that is not the case with the Iran nuclear talks. Since the first discussion between Tehran and the West more than a decade ago, the whole world has known that any negotiations on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program had to be completed before the moment when the Islamist regime achieved weapons capability.

That’s why the Iranians’ delaying tactics over the years were so frustrating and so destructive of any hope for a diplomatic solution. Whether led by supposed moderate Hassan Rouhani, now Iran’s president, or less presentable figures, the Iranians have consistently stalled nuclear talks. At times Iran has seemed to accept deals with the West only to renege on them later in an effort to run out the clock on negotiations until they achieved their nuclear dream.

Yet with the current round of P5+1 negotiations between Iran and the West, all that is supposedly in the past. The signing of an interim nuclear deal last November was supposed to herald the beginning of a genuine diplomatic process that would erase the sorry record in which Western negotiators were played for fools by a succession of Iranian envoys. But with the conclusion of the first meetings in Vienna of the renewed P5+1 and the reported agreement on a framework for future talks with Iran, the celebrations of this alleged achievement are ignoring some key questions. Why did it take more than three months to begin the next round after the interim agreement? And why, after waiting all that time, will the negotiators take another month off before showing up again in late March for another try? With most observers already assuming that the six-month time frame for this round will be extended, it’s time to ask whether anyone in the Obama administration’s foreign-policy team orchestrating this dilatory process realizes just how much time is being wasted and why that is so dangerous.

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There are some kinds of international negotiations that are not all that time sensitive. The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks fall into that category. Although the need for a resolution to the conflict is as great today as it ever was, the nature of the discussions are such that, contrary to the allegations of some of Israel’s critics, nothing is happening on the ground that fundamentally changes the possible solution to the problem. The West Bank settlements that the Palestinians want removed are no more and no less likely to be evacuated in exchange for real peace today than they were 15 years ago or will be five, ten, or fifteen years from now, assuming the Palestinians ever decide to accept an Israeli offer.

But that is not the case with the Iran nuclear talks. Since the first discussion between Tehran and the West more than a decade ago, the whole world has known that any negotiations on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program had to be completed before the moment when the Islamist regime achieved weapons capability.

That’s why the Iranians’ delaying tactics over the years were so frustrating and so destructive of any hope for a diplomatic solution. Whether led by supposed moderate Hassan Rouhani, now Iran’s president, or less presentable figures, the Iranians have consistently stalled nuclear talks. At times Iran has seemed to accept deals with the West only to renege on them later in an effort to run out the clock on negotiations until they achieved their nuclear dream.

Yet with the current round of P5+1 negotiations between Iran and the West, all that is supposedly in the past. The signing of an interim nuclear deal last November was supposed to herald the beginning of a genuine diplomatic process that would erase the sorry record in which Western negotiators were played for fools by a succession of Iranian envoys. But with the conclusion of the first meetings in Vienna of the renewed P5+1 and the reported agreement on a framework for future talks with Iran, the celebrations of this alleged achievement are ignoring some key questions. Why did it take more than three months to begin the next round after the interim agreement? And why, after waiting all that time, will the negotiators take another month off before showing up again in late March for another try? With most observers already assuming that the six-month time frame for this round will be extended, it’s time to ask whether anyone in the Obama administration’s foreign-policy team orchestrating this dilatory process realizes just how much time is being wasted and why that is so dangerous.

In their defense, the Obama administration considers the terms of the interim agreement to have gotten them off the hook on the time factor. President Obama has represented that deal as having frozen the Iranian program in place. If true, that would not only justify the loosening of sanctions on the regime but the leisurely pace of any future talks. But even a passing glance at the actual terms of the agreement reveals that Iran’s nuclear effort is far from frozen.

The U.S. has claimed the limitations imposed on Iran’s enrichment of uranium means its nuclear program is frozen in place since its centrifuges are now only set to produce fuel at less than five percent rather than the higher levels needed for weapons. But what the president and Secretary of State John Kerry keep failing to mention is that the uranium treated in this manner can easily be converted to weapons use in a nuclear breakout. The same is true of Iran’s stockpile of refined uranium that has been converted to oxide powder.

Even worse, the key Iranian nuclear research on military applications of nuclear power is continuing in the aftermath of the interim deal. Though the president boasted in his State of the Union address of unprecedented inspections being conducted at Iranian nuclear sites that would ensure its program was neutralized, he also failed to mention that no such inspections are being conducted at Parchin, where the Iranian military work is being conducted.

The happy talk about the chances for a successful conclusion to the negotiations being floated at sites such as AL Monitor’s Back Channel blog or even the New York Times ignores the fact that far from being stopped, the clock continues to tick down to the day when Iran reaches the point of no return on its nuclear dream. So long as the centrifuges continue to turn—and with the Iranians issuing clear warnings that they will not consider dismantling them or give up the ballistic missile program that makes their nukes a lethal threat to the U.S. as much as the State of Israel—time remains of the essence. And yet the Western negotiators continue to take their sweet time as if they could go on talking forever in what is already being billed as a “marathon” negotiation.

The acceptance of these delays reflects not only the confidence of the Iranians that they will be able to keep their nuclear program operating until it gives them a weapon but also the realization that the Obama administration may be more focused on containment of Iran than on stopping it.

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The Long Iran Stall Begins Again

Today ought to be a day to celebrate for the Obama administration. Nuclear talks with Iran set to begin in Vienna will begin the next stage of a diplomatic process by which the president will redeem his oft-repeated promise about stopping the Islamist regime’s drive for nuclear weapons. For months since the signing of the interim nuclear agreement with Iran in November, the president and his cheering section in the press have lauded the prospects of these negotiations as the only thing standing in the way of a rush to war. They have spoken about the willingness of the Iranians to listen to reason since the election of the “moderate” Hassan Rouhani as president last summer.

They have also cited the seriousness of the president’s resolve to get results even as he has tempered some of the optimism by saying the chances of success are only 50 percent. Most importantly, while shooting down the chances of passing a new Iran sanctions bill that would have gone into effect only if the next round of talks had concluded in failure, they claimed the administration would not allow itself to be stalled by the Iranians and that the president would hold Tehran accountable to a tough timetable that would preclude any delaying tactics.

But the atmosphere pervading the opening of the new talks provides a stark contrast to what we’ve been hearing from Washington lately. It’s not just that the Iranians are pouring cold water on any optimism about the negotiations, with their Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying they “will lead nowhere” in a speech yesterday or his representatives’ adamant refusal to even discuss the dismantling of any of their nuclear infrastructure. What is most distressing about the Iran talks is the blithe assumption on the part of the negotiators that they will drag on for as long as a year. That gives the lie to the president’s assurances that he wouldn’t let himself be suckered by the Iranians into allowing them to keep delaying while they continue to get closer to their nuclear goal. It also puts the administration’s adamant opposition to the proposed sanctions bill into a new and unflattering light. The reason to oppose the sanctions seems now to be not so much about protecting the diplomatic option as it does enabling the Iranians to stall the West for as long as they like.

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Today ought to be a day to celebrate for the Obama administration. Nuclear talks with Iran set to begin in Vienna will begin the next stage of a diplomatic process by which the president will redeem his oft-repeated promise about stopping the Islamist regime’s drive for nuclear weapons. For months since the signing of the interim nuclear agreement with Iran in November, the president and his cheering section in the press have lauded the prospects of these negotiations as the only thing standing in the way of a rush to war. They have spoken about the willingness of the Iranians to listen to reason since the election of the “moderate” Hassan Rouhani as president last summer.

They have also cited the seriousness of the president’s resolve to get results even as he has tempered some of the optimism by saying the chances of success are only 50 percent. Most importantly, while shooting down the chances of passing a new Iran sanctions bill that would have gone into effect only if the next round of talks had concluded in failure, they claimed the administration would not allow itself to be stalled by the Iranians and that the president would hold Tehran accountable to a tough timetable that would preclude any delaying tactics.

But the atmosphere pervading the opening of the new talks provides a stark contrast to what we’ve been hearing from Washington lately. It’s not just that the Iranians are pouring cold water on any optimism about the negotiations, with their Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying they “will lead nowhere” in a speech yesterday or his representatives’ adamant refusal to even discuss the dismantling of any of their nuclear infrastructure. What is most distressing about the Iran talks is the blithe assumption on the part of the negotiators that they will drag on for as long as a year. That gives the lie to the president’s assurances that he wouldn’t let himself be suckered by the Iranians into allowing them to keep delaying while they continue to get closer to their nuclear goal. It also puts the administration’s adamant opposition to the proposed sanctions bill into a new and unflattering light. The reason to oppose the sanctions seems now to be not so much about protecting the diplomatic option as it does enabling the Iranians to stall the West for as long as they like.

It should be remembered that the deal Secretary of State John Kerry signed in Geneva on November 24 stipulated that the talks that would follow were to take place over a six-month period. While there was a clause that said the talks could be extended if necessary, Kerry and his boss President Obama stressed the six-month time frame in order to assure Americans and nervous Israelis the agreement couldn’t be used by Tehran to stall the West indefinitely. Yet even before the new talks began, we are now being assured by the administration’s faithful enablers at the New York Times that we should expect the negotiations to drag on until 2015 with little hope that they will end even then. With Iran’s economy showing signs of a revival in the wake of the West’s loosening of sanctions, there appears to be no reason to expect Tehran will ever give up its nuclear dream.

Thus, with this week’s first meeting to be only about the form of the talks that will follow, it’s now clear that what is happening is exactly what critics of the president’s attempt to engage with Iran always feared: a renewal of the same stalling tactics that has allowed Tehran to drag out this process over the last decade.

President Obama denounced the new sanctions bill that had the support of a bipartisan 59-member Senate coalition as both superfluous and dangerous since it could scare the Iranians away from the table. But what we now see is that the proposal’s worst feature in the eyes of the administration was that it took the Iran nuclear deal’s timetable seriously. If the new sanctions bill were signed into law it would strengthen President Obama’s hand in negotiations with the Iranians since it would convey the message that there would be serious consequences if they did not comply with Western demands to give up their nuclear ambition. But without the sanctions bill, the Iranians—and the administration—are free to draw out the talks as long as they like. The lack of a new sanctions option also allows both sides to ignore key questions about Iran’s ballistic missile technology and other pertinent questions about their behavior, such as support for terrorism.

Open-ended negotiations were exactly what the president promised he would not be drawn into, but that appears to be the situation that the United States finds itself in as the diplomats arrive in Vienna. For a decade, Iran has been able to engage in diplomatic tricks that have enabled it to stall the West indefinitely as they tried to run out the clock until their nuclear project was completed. The sanctions that were passed over Obama’s objections during his first term were supposed to bring them to the table and end this charade. But the glum outlook in Vienna makes it appear as if the West has thrown away that economic leverage.

Right now, faith in diplomacy with Iran seems to have more to do with a disinclination to pressure them than it does with any belief that the U.S. can achieve its objectives. While it may take a year or more for the administration to concede that the talks have failed, the only measure that might actually help them to succeed—the prospect of new sanctions that will shut down Iran’s oil sales—is now off the table. This is good news for the Iranians but very bad news for those in the West who hoped Obama meant what he said about averting the nuclear threat.

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Sanctions Stall Doesn’t Signal AIPAC’s Fall

After amassing an impressive 58 senators from both parties to co-sponsor a bill calling for new sanctions on Iran in case the current negotiations end in failure, the legislation has stalled in the Senate. Alarmed by what it felt was a threat to its diplomacy with Iran, the administration and its backers launched an all-out attack on the measure, claiming its passage would so offend Tehran that it would end nuclear talks with the West and leave the United States no alternative but to go to war. Even worse, some of the president’s supporters claimed that the only reason so many legislators, including 16 Democrats, would back the bill was that they were acting, in the words of influential television comedian Jon Stewart, as senators “from the great state of Israel.” This not-so-subtle invocation of the Walt-Mearsheimer canard in which a vast pro-Israel conspiracy manipulates a helpless Congress paid off by wealthy Jews to the detriment of American interests has become a chestnut of Washington policy debates, but one the administration’s cheerleaders haven’t hesitated to invoke.

All this has chilled a debate about passing more Iran sanctions that might be considered moot in any case since as long as Majority Leader Harry Reid is determined to keep the bill from coming to a vote, it has little chance of passage. But rather than discuss the administration’s scorched-earth campaign on the issue, the New York Times prefers to join with the administration in taking another shot at the arch-villain of the supporters of the conspiratorial view of U.S. foreign policy put forward in the infamous “Israel Lobby” thesis: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). According to the Times, the lull in the battle over sanctions is a sign that AIPAC is losing its touch on Capitol Hill. This is considered good news for the administration and critics of the pro-Israel lobby and the bipartisan community for which it speaks. But while AIPAC can’t be happy with the way it and other advocates of sanctions have been brushed back in this debate, reports of its decline are highly exaggerated. While the administration has won its point for the moment in stalling the bill, the idea that it has won the political war over Iran is, at best, premature.

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After amassing an impressive 58 senators from both parties to co-sponsor a bill calling for new sanctions on Iran in case the current negotiations end in failure, the legislation has stalled in the Senate. Alarmed by what it felt was a threat to its diplomacy with Iran, the administration and its backers launched an all-out attack on the measure, claiming its passage would so offend Tehran that it would end nuclear talks with the West and leave the United States no alternative but to go to war. Even worse, some of the president’s supporters claimed that the only reason so many legislators, including 16 Democrats, would back the bill was that they were acting, in the words of influential television comedian Jon Stewart, as senators “from the great state of Israel.” This not-so-subtle invocation of the Walt-Mearsheimer canard in which a vast pro-Israel conspiracy manipulates a helpless Congress paid off by wealthy Jews to the detriment of American interests has become a chestnut of Washington policy debates, but one the administration’s cheerleaders haven’t hesitated to invoke.

All this has chilled a debate about passing more Iran sanctions that might be considered moot in any case since as long as Majority Leader Harry Reid is determined to keep the bill from coming to a vote, it has little chance of passage. But rather than discuss the administration’s scorched-earth campaign on the issue, the New York Times prefers to join with the administration in taking another shot at the arch-villain of the supporters of the conspiratorial view of U.S. foreign policy put forward in the infamous “Israel Lobby” thesis: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). According to the Times, the lull in the battle over sanctions is a sign that AIPAC is losing its touch on Capitol Hill. This is considered good news for the administration and critics of the pro-Israel lobby and the bipartisan community for which it speaks. But while AIPAC can’t be happy with the way it and other advocates of sanctions have been brushed back in this debate, reports of its decline are highly exaggerated. While the administration has won its point for the moment in stalling the bill, the idea that it has won the political war over Iran is, at best, premature.

The chief problem with the article is that its premise is based on the myth that AIPAC is a monolithic and unstoppable group that can pass any bill it likes. The article’s assertion that AIPAC has gotten its way on every public policy issue since its futile effort to stop the Reagan administration from selling AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia in 1981 is foolish. AIPAC rarely, if ever, directly challenges presidents and when it does it inevitably comes out on the short end, as in its confrontation with the George H.W. Bush administration over loan guarantees to Israel in 1991 when the elder President Bush depicted himself as “one, lonely, little guy” standing up to AIPAC. Written by White House correspondent Mark Landler, one of whose previous recent forays into foreign policy was a sycophantic paean to the virtues of Secretary of State John Kerry, today’s equally slanted piece simplifies the congressional debate on Iran—which has been driven as much, if not more, by longstanding Senate sanctions activists such as Senate Foreign Policy Committee chair Robert Menendez and his Republican counterpart Mark Kirk than outside lobbyists—into a one-on-one duel between Obama and AIPAC.

That suits the administration since it wishes to show itself as having bested AIPAC. But it dramatically distorts the truth about the way AIPAC operates and its aversion to involvement in partisan debates. The charge that the group is biased toward Republicans is bunk. The group and its large cadre of supporters throughout the nation are only interested in whether a member of Congress is a supporter of Israel and enthusiastically backs Democrats who fit that description and does the same for those in the GOP. Nor is it the American branch of the Likud, as some falsely assert and Landler implies in his misleading article. The group’s guiding principle is respect for Israeli democracy and when that means, as it did for much of the 1990s, backing a left-wing government that embraced Oslo, that stand was a source of frustration to AIPAC supporters sympathetic to the Israeli right. Its primary purpose is to encourage support for the alliance between the two countries and that goal is bound to disappoint partisans on both ends of the political spectrum.

It is precisely because AIPAC is not equipped for partisan battles that it’s invariably reluctant to directly challenge any president. That was true last year when it passed on the opportunity to oppose Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense despite his vocal support for Walt-Mearsheimer slurs, and it is true today when it has decided to tread lightly on the Iran sanctions issue rather than express open opposition to the president.

By smearing all those who want a measure that would actually strengthen his hand in negotiations with Iran as warmongers, the president has faced down AIPAC and the pro-sanctions bipartisan Senate majority. But if, as is likely, the administration’s Iran diplomacy yields no dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program and its stockpile of enriched uranium, the president will find himself facing the same bipartisan majority demanding more sanctions and action on Iran led by Menendez, his own party’s foreign-policy point man.

In the meantime, when AIPAC supporters gather by the thousands next month in Washington, the message to the group from Congress will give the lie to the conceit of Landler’s piece. Liberals hoped that alternatives to the mainstream pro-Israel group, such as J Street, would equal or supersede the organization. But after more than five years the leftist alternative remains without influence in Congress or in an administration that has proved time and again that it knows it must reckon with AIPAC as the principal voice of pro-Israel opinion in this country. AIPAC’s power does not reside in a mythical ability to override the will of presidents but in the simple fact that support for the Jewish state transcends party politics as well as ethnic or religious lines.

It says something disturbing about this administration that it has been more solicitous of the sensibilities of the Islamist dictators of Iran in the past few months than those of Americans who care about Israel’s security. But anyone, including the White House correspondent of the Times, who expects an all-out war between the Obama administration and AIPAC in the coming months is misinterpreting both AIPAC’s purpose and the ability of the White House to sustain its dangerous push for détente with Tehran in the absence of any tangible progress toward ending the Iranian nuclear threat.

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