Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iran sanctions

Congress Can Stop Obama’s Iran Appeasement End Run

While most of the attention on the Iran nuclear issue has rightly been on the negotiations being conducted by the U.S. and its allies with Tehran, the Obama administration is already planning for the aftermath of what it hopes will be a new agreement. But rather than preparing for an effort to persuade Congress of the merits of its diplomatic efforts, the president is planning on an end run around the laws it passed and unilaterally suspending enforcement of the sanctions on Iran. In doing so, he will not only be continuing a path he has pursued on issues such as immigration but will go even further in violating the constitutional requirement that the legislative branch approve all treaties with foreign powers.

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While most of the attention on the Iran nuclear issue has rightly been on the negotiations being conducted by the U.S. and its allies with Tehran, the Obama administration is already planning for the aftermath of what it hopes will be a new agreement. But rather than preparing for an effort to persuade Congress of the merits of its diplomatic efforts, the president is planning on an end run around the laws it passed and unilaterally suspending enforcement of the sanctions on Iran. In doing so, he will not only be continuing a path he has pursued on issues such as immigration but will go even further in violating the constitutional requirement that the legislative branch approve all treaties with foreign powers.

The president’s problem isn’t limited to the fact that many Americans are rightly worried that the deal in the works with Iran is one that won’t do much to prevent the Islamist regime from eventually realizing its nuclear ambition. It’s that the economic sanctions that were imposed on Iran by laws enacted by Congress must be rescinded in the same manner that they were passed: by a vote. If the agreement that the U.S. is pushing hard to conclude with Iran is a good one, then the president and Secretary of State John Kerry should have no problem selling it to Congress, which could then simply vote to rescind the sanctions.

But such a vote would require hearings and a full debate on the matter. During the course of that debate, it almost certainly would become clear that what the administration is prepared to allow Iran would fall far short of the president’s campaign pledges to end Tehran’s nuclear program or to prevent it from ever getting a bomb. The administration has already publicly floated some of the terms it is offering the Iranians. While last year’s weak interim deal tacitly endorsed Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium that could be used for a weapon, the U.S. has retreated further from its initial tough position and is now prepared to allow the Iranians to have at least 1,000 centrifuges that could process the material to build nuclear fuel. Since the Iranians are insisting with their usual persistence that they be allowed to keep all of their centrifuges, most observers now assume that the U.S. will agree to a deal that will allow them to have thousands.

In order to save face, American negotiators have reportedly suggested that the pipes connecting the centrifuges be disconnected, a pathetic stance that further undermines American credibility since it is understood that they can easily be reconnected anytime the ayatollahs deem it in their interest. The same can be said of Iran’s agreement to deactivate its existing stockpile of enriched uranium since that too can be reversed with ease.

Seen in that light any agreement—assuming the Iranians are willing to agree to another weak deal rather than simply waiting until the international coalition Obama is leading unravels—will be difficult to sell to a skeptical Congress that pushed an unwilling administration into agreeing to the sanctions in the first place.

In order to evade the law, the president will have to do two things.

First, he will have to declare that any agreement will be merely an informal add-on to existing international deals rather than a treaty and so avoid a constitutionally required two-thirds ratification vote in the Senate he’d be unlikely to win. That will be a blatant lie but since the move would have to be taken to court, it’s a gamble he’d likely win.

Second, he will have to unilaterally suspend enforcement of the sanctions on Iran passed by Congress rather than have them rescinded. As even the New York Times notes in its article on the topic yesterday, that is not a stance even most Democrats would tolerate.

More to the point, the president’s prepared end run also signals the resumption of a political battle over renewed sanctions that the administration thought it had conclusively won last winter. At the time, majorities in the House and the Senate were prepared to enact even tougher restrictions on commerce with Iran that would have tightened the noose on Tehran’s oil business. But, with the able assistance of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the president was able to stop the Senate from voting on the measure proposed by Senator Robert Menendez, the Foreign Relations Committee chair and Senator Mark Kirk. Supporters of more sanctions (which would not have gone into effect until the next phase of negotiations with Iran was pronounced a failure) were branded “warmongers” who didn’t want to give diplomacy a chance and thus effectively silenced.

But this time that strategy won’t work.

After a year of talks that have been dragged beyond the original six-month deadline and may yet be further extended as Iran continues its decade-old strategy of running out the clock on the West, it is no longer possible to argue that Obama needs to be given an opportunity to test the good will of the Iranians. Nor can the president pretend that the current terms are anything but a transparent surrender to Iranian demands and not a fulfillment of his pledges.

That’s why Menendez is prepared to try again this fall when Congress returns to Washington after the midterm elections. As the Times reports:

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat, said over the weekend that, “If a potential deal does not substantially and effectively dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program, I expect Congress will respond. An agreement cannot allow Iran to be a threshold nuclear state.” He has sponsored legislation to tighten sanctions if no agreement is reached by Nov. 24.

If that weren’t enough of a threat to force the administration to stiffen its spin in negotiations with Iran, there is also the real possibility that in January the president will not be able to rely on Reid to spike sanctions legislation. If, as they are favored to do, the Republicans take control of the Senate, it is highly likely that Obama will find himself presented with new sanctions legislation on his desk in the new year whether or not he has signed off on a deal with Iran.

This is a crucial moment in the negotiations with Iran when the outcome is not yet determined. Unfortunately, the president’s efforts to loosen sanctions have already undermined international support for isolating Iran. With the possibility of a new deal, they are on the verge of complete collapse. But renewed and even tougher sanctions on Iran will signal to Europe that their expectations of a return to business as usual with Iran were a bit premature.

While the president thinks he can evade his constitutional requirements to let Congress vote on a treaty or rescind another law he doesn’t like, members of both parties appear ready to respond appropriately to this lawless plan. Unlike environmental regulations or even immigration laws, appeasement of Iran isn’t something that can be imposed on the country by presidential whim.

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Euros Bet on Obama Appeasing Iran

Secretary of State John Kerry spent several hours yesterday closeted in a Vienna hotel room with Iranian negotiators as he sought to reach a new nuclear agreement. The Iranians are sticking to their insistence on retaining their right to enrich uranium as well as to keep the rest of their infrastructure while Kerry seems to be focused on face saving measures that will allow President Obama to claim that he kept his pledge to stop Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. But while there is still a chance that the U.S. won’t cave in to Iran, a conference of European business figures meeting in London was betting heavily on the Americans continuing on their path to appeasement.

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Secretary of State John Kerry spent several hours yesterday closeted in a Vienna hotel room with Iranian negotiators as he sought to reach a new nuclear agreement. The Iranians are sticking to their insistence on retaining their right to enrich uranium as well as to keep the rest of their infrastructure while Kerry seems to be focused on face saving measures that will allow President Obama to claim that he kept his pledge to stop Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. But while there is still a chance that the U.S. won’t cave in to Iran, a conference of European business figures meeting in London was betting heavily on the Americans continuing on their path to appeasement.

What was billed as the “1st Europe-Iran Forum” convened Wednesday morning and was touted in breathless fashion on the website of The Iran Project, a leading American advocate of appeasement of the Islamist regime as a way for European businesses to get the latest information about Iran. But the purpose of the event, which was officially endorsed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and various members of the European foreign policy establishment was two fold.

On the one hand it is an effort to help prepare Western enterprises for a return to the Iranian market after international sanctions on Iran are lifted in the event of a new nuclear agreement. But it is actually more than just a prudent bet on appeasement. The point of the conference is also to help manufacture more pressure on the Americans to back down from their initially strong positions demanding the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure that would ensure that it would never be able to build a bomb. With Europe already chafing at the existing sanctions, the push to weaken the restrictions on economic activity with Iran is removing what little leverage Kerry has left in the talks.

The conference is but the latest effort touted by Iran appeasement advocates to ease the way toward reintegrating Iran into the global economy. The assumption behind the blithe talk about doing business in Iran is that the loosening of the sanctions that took place last year in the interim deal signed by Kerry began an inevitable process that will end with their complete unraveling.

The push for appeasement has gained strength in recent months as Iran’s equivocal role in the fight against ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria has both diverted the administration from the nuclear issue and also caused it to believe that détente with Tehran offers a solution to all of the West’s problems.

Of course, Iran’s fight with ISIS stems from its desire to prop up its ally Bashar Assad in Syria and on maintaining the power of its Shiite allies in Iraq not a desire to protect the world against the group’s Islamist beliefs. Its disagreement with ISIS is not about Islamism or terrorism but which Islamist terrorists should dominate the Middle East.

The push to dismantle sanctions treats the nuclear threat from Iran as a theoretical problem that need not trouble the West much. That’s why the administration appears willing to agree to measures that at best delay the nuclear quest but do nothing to actually prevent Iran from achieving its dangerous ambitions.

The discussion of the post sanctions environment encourages Iran to refuse to budge not only on enrichment but also on a whole range of issues including inspections of research sites like Parchin and its construction of ballistic missiles. Nor is Kerry even bothering to push Iran to end its support of international terrorism.

The only pressure on Kerry appears to come from the November deadline set for negotiating with Iran that is actually an extension of the earlier time frame that was extended over the summer. Continuing to negotiate in perpetuity would give critics of this appeasement process more ammunition to push for renewed and stronger sanctions on Iran. Last winter the administration was able to brand advocates of tough diplomacy as “warmongers” and, with the help of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid head off measures that would have strengthened Kerry’s hand in the talks. President Obama and his team preferred not to offend the Iranians with increased sanctions but what they have learned is that in doing so they stripped themselves of the only tool that might have produced an acceptable agreement. Iran’s position in the negotiations is now so strong that Kerry has been reduced to offering to allow them to keep their centrifuges for uranium enrichment while asking them to disconnect them.

Under the circumstances, its hard to argue with Europeans and others who believe it is only a matter of time before Washington surrenders to Iran and effectively end sanctions without getting anything more than unenforceable nuclear promises in exchange. Barring a last minute change of heart on the president’s part or a renewed drive for sanctions if the Senate changes hands, the drift toward appeasement appears inexorable.

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About That Iran Talks Deadline?

Last year when the United States and its allies signed an interim nuclear accord with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear to the world that the subsequent round of talks to arrive at a final resolution of the problem would not be allowed to go on indefinitely. Unlike past diplomatic exchanges with Iran, the negotiations would be limited to a period of six months after which there would either be a satisfactory agreement to end the nuclear threat or Iran would face serious consequences. But a low-key announcement from the European Union about a diplomatic assignment demonstrates that what Kerry said would never be allowed to happen is exactly what will occur.

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Last year when the United States and its allies signed an interim nuclear accord with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear to the world that the subsequent round of talks to arrive at a final resolution of the problem would not be allowed to go on indefinitely. Unlike past diplomatic exchanges with Iran, the negotiations would be limited to a period of six months after which there would either be a satisfactory agreement to end the nuclear threat or Iran would face serious consequences. But a low-key announcement from the European Union about a diplomatic assignment demonstrates that what Kerry said would never be allowed to happen is exactly what will occur.

The announcement concerned European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton who will, we are informed, continue on in her role as chief negotiator for the P5+1 talks with Iran even after her term on the EU Commission expires in November. Rather than her designated successor, current Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, assuming the responsibility for leading the Western delegation in the negotiations, Ashton will soldier on in this thankless task. But aside from any qualms about Ashton’s past performance in the role, which inspires little confidence in either her willingness to press the Islamist regime or her commitment to ending the danger of an Iranian bomb, there is one other little problem.

If the final round of the P5+1 talks were only supposed to last six months, why will Ashton’s services still be required more than a year after the interim accord was signed?

The answer is all too obvious. Despite the pious promises from Kerry and all of the other defenders of the interim accord that the West had learned its lesson about being strung along by the Iranians, they have in fact fallen for the same trick again. Having been suckered into an interim deal that weakened sanctions on Iran just at the moment when the enormous economic and military leverage over the regime seemed to provide an opportunity to pressure it to come to terms without the use of force, Western negotiators have now found themselves trapped in a device of their own making. They gambled everything on the belief that Iran was ready to sign a final accord that would allow President Obama to fulfill his campaign promise to stop Iran. But after several months of talks that demonstrated anew that the Iranians will never give up their nuclear program or agree to any terms that will effectively prevent them from building a bomb, the U.S. and its allies feel they have no choice but to keep talking even if there is no end in sight.

The announcement about Ashton is significant because even when the P5+1 group formally extended the Iran talks after the six-month mark was passed this summer (Iran had already been allowed to delay the start of the clock), Congress and the public were assured that this would not mean they would go on indefinitely. But with the Iranians digging in their heels recently on a variety of issues, including inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and their uranium refinement and stockpile of nuclear fuel, there seems no chance that the next round of negotiations to be held in New York during the meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations will be anything but a continuation of past frustration for the West and delaying tactics by the Iranians.

The notion of Iran running out the clock in these talks has always been crucial. That’s because for the last decade it’s been obvious that doing so merely gives them more time to reach their nuclear goal after which it will no longer be possible for the West to take meaningful action. That was the case when similar prevarications worked to allow the North Koreans to pass the nuclear threshold, something that should be painfully familiar to Wendy Sherman, the head of the U.S. delegation to the talks Ashton chairs, who was performing the same role with the North Koreans.

It is apt to remember that when critics of the interim accord raised questions about its lenient terms, the loosening of sanctions, and the Iranians’ stalling the West again, they were labeled “warmongers.” Attempts by a majority in both houses of Congress to enact new, tougher sanctions on Iran that would go into effect only when the next round of negotiations would be declared a failure were denounced by the administration as an unwarranted interference in what they considered to be a productive diplomatic stream.

Had those sanctions been enacted last winter rather than being spiked by procedural maneuvers by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Obama’s veto threats, Ashton and the P5+1 negotiators would have some real leverage over the Iranians at this point. But instead of allowing diplomacy to flourish, the defeat of sanctions was a gift to the Iranians who now feel empowered to return to the dilatory tactics of the past.

Iran’s position is further strengthened by the situation in Iraq and Syria where the rise of ISIS (due in no small measure to other foreign-policy blunders by the administration) has made the administration even more loath to offend Tehran. Having a common foe with the United States seems to have empowered the Iranians to think they have nothing to worry about. They also benefit from the conflict between the West and Russia over Ukraine, as Moscow now seems inclined to offer the Iranians an outlet that will render sanctions less effective.

Seen in that light, Ashton may have reason to believe that she will have more or less permanent employment in a P5+1 process that could drag out well into the future. But this admission not only gives the lie to Kerry’s promises about the interim accord’s time limits. It also gives the ayatollahs confidence that the West no longer is serious, if indeed it ever was, about preventing them from realizing their nuclear ambitions.

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Tough on ISIS? Iran Senses U.S. Weakness

After weeks of indecision, President Obama is finally, albeit in a limited manner, mustering U.S. strength to respond to the challenge from ISIS terrorists. But at the same time, another dangerous Islamist power is sensing U.S. weakness in its struggle to build a nuclear weapon. The latest news about Iranian maneuvering prior to the resumption of the nuclear talks with the West provides a stark contrast to any talk about a more muscular Obama foreign policy.

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After weeks of indecision, President Obama is finally, albeit in a limited manner, mustering U.S. strength to respond to the challenge from ISIS terrorists. But at the same time, another dangerous Islamist power is sensing U.S. weakness in its struggle to build a nuclear weapon. The latest news about Iranian maneuvering prior to the resumption of the nuclear talks with the West provides a stark contrast to any talk about a more muscular Obama foreign policy.

As the New York Times reports today, Iran is going full speed ahead with a diplomatic campaign to undermine Western sanctions aimed at forcing them to come to terms on a nuclear agreement. Secretary of State John Kerry began the process of weakening and perhaps dismantling the restrictions on doing business with Iran last fall in the hope that this would lead Tehran to meet him at least halfway and sign another weak accord that might let them keep their nuclear program while committing them to not build a bomb. But in the months that have followed Kerry’s interim deal, the Iranians have not played ball. Instead, they have reverted to their pattern of previous negotiations in which they have stalled and continued to try to run out the clock until it is too late to stop them. While some sources close to the negotiations claim that a final agreement is possible and may even be within reach, Iran’s public stance and its diplomatic offensive leave the impression that they are standing firm and will agree to nothing that ultimately limits their ability to build a bomb.

The Obama administration’s zeal for a deal with Iran is no secret. Nor is the president’s desire to craft a new détente with Tehran. That impulse is only strengthened by the fact that both Iran and the U.S. view the ISIS terrorists as an enemy. As I wrote last week, the administration’s belated realization that letting ISIS flourish in Syria and Iraq was a colossal error is leading some to conclude that it should work together with the Iranian regime in an attempt to crush the group. But while it is to be hoped that the U.S. and Iran will not clash in Iraq, no one should trust Tehran or its motives in intervening against ISIS. Nor should this temporary confluence of interests be allowed to impact the U.S. effort to stop Iran from going nuclear.

But unfortunately, the mixed signals coming from Washington about Iran are already being interpreted abroad as indicating the administration’s lack of resolve on the nuclear issue. As the Times notes, Iran seems to be making progress in getting Russia (which is always happy to thwart U.S. interests on any issue even if it makes no sense for the Putin regime to let their Iranian neighbor acquire a bomb) and South Africa to think about backing away from sanctions or openly breaching them. And so long as the U.S. is behaving as if the nuclear issue is not a priority and that increasing, rather than weakening the restrictions in the coming year is on the table (a prospect that the administration quashed when it was proposed by Congress), it’s hard to blame these countries and others who are tempted to do business with Iran, that Obama doesn’t care much about the issue.

But whatever the administration is planning to do in the talks or if they fail, the Iranians seem determined to prepare themselves to withstand any pressure from the West. They are secure in the knowledge that Obama will never use force against them and that America’s allies and partners in the negotiations will crumble even if the president will not. Under those circumstances they have little incentive to be reasonable in the talks.

President Obama is reluctantly bringing the U.S. into the war on ISIS. But unless he wakes up and starts acting in a manner that will cause the Iranians to fear the consequences of trying to keep their nuclear program, he may face an even more dangerous conflict against a country on the verge of gaining a nuke.

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Kerry’s Blunders Bode Ill For Iran Talks

While Israel is focused right now on dealing with a Hamas missile barrage that has continued for three days, the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon cannot be entirely forgotten. But if Israelis are concerned about the mixed messages their American ally has been sending to the Palestinians, they have to be even more worried about what the U.S. might do in the talks with Tehran.

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While Israel is focused right now on dealing with a Hamas missile barrage that has continued for three days, the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon cannot be entirely forgotten. But if Israelis are concerned about the mixed messages their American ally has been sending to the Palestinians, they have to be even more worried about what the U.S. might do in the talks with Tehran.

As the Wall Street Journal reported today, the P5+1 process is currently stalemated with a July 20 deadline looming over the negotiators. Iran and the West appear to be far apart on issues such as Tehran’s “right” to enrich uranium and the number of centrifuges it would be allowed to keep in the future, the future of its plutonium nuclear plant as well as its mountainside Fordow plant where enrichment activities continue. That list doesn’t even include issues such as Iran’s secret military research facilities that have not been visited by United Nations inspectors or its ballistic missile program that might provide the ayatollahs with a delivery system for a bomb.

Going into the final weeks of talks (though the negotiations can always be extended by both sides), the Iranians have been sounding confident about their ability to stick to their existing positions that would guarantee them the ability to build a bomb despite Western concerns.

The Obama administration gave up much of its leverage over Iran last fall when it decided to loosen sanctions in an interim agreement that granted implicit recognition of Iran’s right to both enrichment and a formidable nuclear infrastructure. The Iranians were required to convert their stockpile of nuclear fuel to a state that couldn’t be used for a bomb. But that could be quickly reversed if the Islamist regime decided to attempt a “break out” to a weapon. Indeed, after beginning the process of unraveling the sanctions that had taken years to put in place, the U.S. position on the Iranian threat has been reduced to one that attempts to lengthen the breakout period rather than forcing Tehran to give up its enrichment or, as President Obama pledged in 2012, the end of its nuclear program.

Iran’s confidence also has to be boosted by the announcement that the P5+1 foreign ministers, a group that includes Secretary of State John Kerry, will be joining the talks in Vienna this week. That’s an ominous development since the weak interim agreement was only reached after Kerry parachuted into those talks in November.

Kerry’s presence is worrisome because he explained the U.S. retreat last fall as being motivated by his belief that even the weak deal he signed was better than no deal at all. To those who wondered why he had accepted Iran’s insistence on keeping its nuclear infrastructure, he merely replied that sticking to America’s demands was impossible. With Iran’s leaders insisting that they will never accept a major reduction in the number of centrifuges available to them, it’s hard to believe that Kerry will hold the line on that issue after his previous retreat.

Kerry’s blunders in the talks between Israel and the Palestinians should also raise alarms for those wondering how he will manage the Iranians in the coming weeks. Throughout that process, Kerry not only disregarded Israel’s security requirements but also continually backed down from demands made on the Palestinians, even those that were purely symbolic such as their need to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state. Kerry was also heedless of the consequences of his all-but-certain failure. The current violence can be directly traced not only to his foolish initiative but his decision not to hold the Palestinian Authority accountable for its decision to ally itself with Hamas rather than making peace with Israel.

At a time when, as Forbes’ Business Insider reports, European governments are already gutting sanctions on Iran even before the talks are concluded, Tehran heads into the final days of negotiations feeling it has the wind at its back. Just as Kerry helped set the stage for the revival of Hamas and a new round of violence, his zeal for a deal with Iran may lead to even more serious disasters in the negotiations that are about to unfold.

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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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Hillary’s Dubious Iran Credentials

Last night Hillary Clinton spoke at a dinner for the American Jewish Congress and continued her effort to attempt to craft a narrative in which her four years at the State Department are depicted as making her uniquely qualified for the presidency. The centerpiece of this argument is that during her time as America’s top diplomat she was a leader in the struggle to stop Iran’s nuclear program. This is a delicate task that demands both exaggerations and outright fibs, especially when it comes to her position on sanctions. It also requires her to both embrace President Obama’s foreign-policy record while at the same time position herself slightly to his right. But while her cheering section may be buying her sales pitch, a closer examination of what Clinton did on the issue undermines any notion that she was anything but an enabler of an Obama policy of engagement that has led to the current diplomatic dead-end.

Clinton’s claim is that her toughness toward Iran and diplomatic skill helped create the international sanctions that brought the Islamist regime to the negotiating table. Though she expressed some skepticism about Iran’s willingness to listen to reason, the former first lady endorsed the interim nuclear deal signed by her successor and agreed with Obama’s opposition to the passage of any more sanctions even if they would not be put into effect until after the current talks fail. But it’s no small irony that Clinton would be bragging about her tough stand on Iran in the same week that the blowup with Russia led to the almost certain collapse of the diplomatic solution that she had banked on.

It was Clinton, after all, who was the primary champion of the comical “reset” with Russia that convinced Vladimir Putin that the Obama administration could be discounted in conflicts involving his ambition to reassemble the old Tsarist/Soviet empire. But even more importantly, the conceit of Clinton’s efforts to build the international coalition for Iran sanctions was that she would be able to harness Russia and China to American foreign-policy objectives. That assumption has been blown out of the water by the conflict over Crimea. Any idea that Russia would stick with the West to pressure Iran to give up its drive for a nuclear weapon or keep them isolated via sanctions is no longer realistic.

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Last night Hillary Clinton spoke at a dinner for the American Jewish Congress and continued her effort to attempt to craft a narrative in which her four years at the State Department are depicted as making her uniquely qualified for the presidency. The centerpiece of this argument is that during her time as America’s top diplomat she was a leader in the struggle to stop Iran’s nuclear program. This is a delicate task that demands both exaggerations and outright fibs, especially when it comes to her position on sanctions. It also requires her to both embrace President Obama’s foreign-policy record while at the same time position herself slightly to his right. But while her cheering section may be buying her sales pitch, a closer examination of what Clinton did on the issue undermines any notion that she was anything but an enabler of an Obama policy of engagement that has led to the current diplomatic dead-end.

Clinton’s claim is that her toughness toward Iran and diplomatic skill helped create the international sanctions that brought the Islamist regime to the negotiating table. Though she expressed some skepticism about Iran’s willingness to listen to reason, the former first lady endorsed the interim nuclear deal signed by her successor and agreed with Obama’s opposition to the passage of any more sanctions even if they would not be put into effect until after the current talks fail. But it’s no small irony that Clinton would be bragging about her tough stand on Iran in the same week that the blowup with Russia led to the almost certain collapse of the diplomatic solution that she had banked on.

It was Clinton, after all, who was the primary champion of the comical “reset” with Russia that convinced Vladimir Putin that the Obama administration could be discounted in conflicts involving his ambition to reassemble the old Tsarist/Soviet empire. But even more importantly, the conceit of Clinton’s efforts to build the international coalition for Iran sanctions was that she would be able to harness Russia and China to American foreign-policy objectives. That assumption has been blown out of the water by the conflict over Crimea. Any idea that Russia would stick with the West to pressure Iran to give up its drive for a nuclear weapon or keep them isolated via sanctions is no longer realistic.

Of course, Clinton’s boasts about her record on Iran sanctions are also misleading. Though it is true, as Clinton said yesterday, that she “voted for any sanction on Iran that came down the pipe” when she was in the Senate, like many of her other stands on Israel-related issues, that changed once she became secretary of state. While the administration now claims that it is these tough sanctions that enabled them to make diplomacy work with Iran, it should be remembered that Clinton and her boss President Obama fiercely opposed these same sanctions when Congress was considering them.

As much as she may be trying to differentiate herself from the incumbent while trying not to sound disloyal, an honest look at Clinton’s term at Foggy Bottom is not flattering. On the two issues that count most today—Russia and Iran—she must bear a great deal of the responsibility for the current mess. Even more to the point, she was as much a champion of Iran engagement as anyone else in the administration, a point that she conveniently omits from her resume, especially when speaking to pro-Israel groups.

A lot can and probably will happen on foreign policy in the two years between now and the 2016 presidential campaign. But the likely Democratic nominee must understand that events may ultimately make her record on Iran and Russia look even worse than it does today. On her watch, Iran moved closer to a nuclear weapon while Clinton earned frequent-flyer miles assembling a coalition in favor of weak sanctions dependent on her Russian reset partner for success. Though Democrats may not care much about her actual record, the facts about Iran and Russia hardly make for the sort of credentials that will enhance her chances of prevailing in a general election.

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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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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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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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Iran and the Limits of AIPAC’s Power

Supporters of Israel are frustrated. Despite the bipartisan endorsement of 59 members of the U.S. Senate, the effort to enact a new round of tougher sanctions against Iran has stalled. President Obama’s opposition to a measure that would only go into effect after it had been determined that the current negotiations with Iran had failed has effectively spiked the bill. The administration’s misleading effort to portray more sanctions as the moral equivalent of a declaration of war on Iran was enough to stiffen opponents and to spook many of the bill’s Democratic supporters. With Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid determined not to allow a vote and with prominent pro-Israel Democrats like New York’s Chuck Schumer not wishing to go toe-to-toe with the White House on the issue, the bill is stuck in limbo.

That has angered Republicans as well as pro-Israel activists who are still determined to keep the issue alive and left some of them looking to assess blame for the bill’s failure. The principal target of those recriminations appears to be the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). As Eli Lake reports in the Daily Beast today, AIPAC is being blamed for its decision to pull back on advocacy for sanctions earlier this month after it realized the bill could no longer count on bipartisan support. Lake describes the lobby’s on-again, off-again campaign for sanctions as a botched job that has disappointed both Republicans and the Israeli government.

But while it’s clear this episode is far from being AIPAC’s finest moment, any effort to pin the blame on the group is mistaken. Whatever mistakes AIPAC may have made in the last few months, once President Obama decided to go all-out to stop the sanctions bill, the issue was decided. Nothing AIPAC could do or say was going to convince Democrats to stand up to a president that claimed opposition to his position was advocacy of war. Scapegoating AIPAC in this manner not only fails to take into account the limits of even the vaunted lobby’s power but also is a misreading of how the group operates.

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Supporters of Israel are frustrated. Despite the bipartisan endorsement of 59 members of the U.S. Senate, the effort to enact a new round of tougher sanctions against Iran has stalled. President Obama’s opposition to a measure that would only go into effect after it had been determined that the current negotiations with Iran had failed has effectively spiked the bill. The administration’s misleading effort to portray more sanctions as the moral equivalent of a declaration of war on Iran was enough to stiffen opponents and to spook many of the bill’s Democratic supporters. With Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid determined not to allow a vote and with prominent pro-Israel Democrats like New York’s Chuck Schumer not wishing to go toe-to-toe with the White House on the issue, the bill is stuck in limbo.

That has angered Republicans as well as pro-Israel activists who are still determined to keep the issue alive and left some of them looking to assess blame for the bill’s failure. The principal target of those recriminations appears to be the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). As Eli Lake reports in the Daily Beast today, AIPAC is being blamed for its decision to pull back on advocacy for sanctions earlier this month after it realized the bill could no longer count on bipartisan support. Lake describes the lobby’s on-again, off-again campaign for sanctions as a botched job that has disappointed both Republicans and the Israeli government.

But while it’s clear this episode is far from being AIPAC’s finest moment, any effort to pin the blame on the group is mistaken. Whatever mistakes AIPAC may have made in the last few months, once President Obama decided to go all-out to stop the sanctions bill, the issue was decided. Nothing AIPAC could do or say was going to convince Democrats to stand up to a president that claimed opposition to his position was advocacy of war. Scapegoating AIPAC in this manner not only fails to take into account the limits of even the vaunted lobby’s power but also is a misreading of how the group operates.

AIPAC is among the most effective lobbies on Capitol Hill and has, thanks to support from a broad cross-section off American society that cares deeply about the Jewish state, helped build a wall-to-wall consensus in favor of the U.S. alliance with Israel. When AIPAC takes up an issue or seeks supports for a program of joint interest to the U.S. and Israel, it usually gets its way. But thanks to the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theory, AIPAC’s reputation as a Washington super lobby has grown out of all proportion to reality. Far from being the pro-Israel tail that wags the American dog, it is, in fact, nothing more than a manifestation of the bipartisan support for the Jewish state that is deeply engrained in the political DNA of the United States.

Though it has, at times, been unfairly labeled as only supportive of Israeli right-wingers or a tool of the Republican Party, it is nothing of the sort. AIPAC loyally supports whomever the Israeli people elect to govern their nation. And it has as many, if not more, Democratic supporters as it does Republicans. It is that bipartisan nature that is key to its ability to produce results. Though it has consistently pushed both Republican and Democratic administrations to give more to Israel or to be more vigilant about threats to Middle East peace such as Iran, its ability to prevail is based on the sort of access to the leaderships of both parties that makes its involvement in partisan disputes impossible.

That is why Obama’s decision to throw down the gauntlet and veto new Iran sanctions even if they passed both Houses of Congress rendered AIPAC’s role in the debate moot. AIPAC can oppose a policy but it can’t go to war with Democrats any more than it could with Republicans. If Senate Democrats like Schumer were unwilling to stand up to the president’s threats, there was never anything AIPAC could do about it.

As for the government of Israel, it, too, may be frustrated with AIPAC over the defeat of sanctions. But if so, that says more about their frustration with Obama than it does about AIPAC’s shortcomings. AIPAC has a specific role to play in the alliance. That role is to work with the administration and the Congress, not to engage in knock-down, drag-out fights that will hamper its ability to keep U.S. aid flowing to the Jewish state and to foster increased cooperation between the two countries.

One may well argue that the Iranian nuclear issue is of such importance that all other considerations should be put aside in favor of advocacy of a tougher U.S. stance. But even here AIPAC—and the State of Israel—must look at the long-term picture rather than vent anger after a momentary defeat. If the administration’s engagement with Iran fails—as it almost certainly will—then AIPAC must be in position to renew the fight for sanctions and more U.S. action to stop the nuclear threat. Burning their bridges with the Democrats now will undermine future efforts along these lines.

The Israeli government is also in no position to decry AIPAC’s current moderation at the moment on Iran sanctions. AIPAC’s retreat on sanctions is no different from the efforts of the Israelis to paper over their differences with Secretary of State John Kerry over the peace negotiations with the Palestinians. They understand only too well that keeping close to the administration is an imperative even when it does—or in Kerry’s case, says—things that undermine the alliance.

AIPAC may have lost a battle in the last month over Iran sanctions but it still is in a position to win the war to hold the administration to its pledge to stop the nuclear threat from Tehran. In order to do that, unfortunately, it must retreat now in order to prevail later.

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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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The Difference Between Iran and the USSR

In what was an otherwise lackluster State of the Union speech last night as well as one that gave short shrift to foreign policy, it was no small irony that one of the most pointed passages was the section devoted to opposing additional sanctions on Iran. Repeating arguments he has made before, President Obama declared he would veto any measure that imposed new sanctions on the Islamist regime, even those only slated to go into effect after the scheduled six-month negotiating period had failed:

And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program — and rolled back parts of that program — for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.

It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don’t rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

But these assertions about the interim argument aren’t merely exaggerations. They are false. The Iranian stockpile is not being eliminated and the inspections are not verifying that Iran isn’t working on a bomb. Just as importantly, the comparisons between his nuclear diplomacy and that of Kennedy or Reagan are specious. The Iranians are not as dangerous as the Soviet Union. But that’s precisely the reason his weak diplomacy, indeed, his abject appeasement, is so wrongheaded. Moreover, the even greater difference between those situations and this one has to do with the way America’s adversaries regard the U.S. The Russians knew both JFK and Reagan meant business. After five years of feckless diplomatic engagement, the Iranians have come to the opposite conclusion about Obama.

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In what was an otherwise lackluster State of the Union speech last night as well as one that gave short shrift to foreign policy, it was no small irony that one of the most pointed passages was the section devoted to opposing additional sanctions on Iran. Repeating arguments he has made before, President Obama declared he would veto any measure that imposed new sanctions on the Islamist regime, even those only slated to go into effect after the scheduled six-month negotiating period had failed:

And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program — and rolled back parts of that program — for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.

It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don’t rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

But these assertions about the interim argument aren’t merely exaggerations. They are false. The Iranian stockpile is not being eliminated and the inspections are not verifying that Iran isn’t working on a bomb. Just as importantly, the comparisons between his nuclear diplomacy and that of Kennedy or Reagan are specious. The Iranians are not as dangerous as the Soviet Union. But that’s precisely the reason his weak diplomacy, indeed, his abject appeasement, is so wrongheaded. Moreover, the even greater difference between those situations and this one has to do with the way America’s adversaries regard the U.S. The Russians knew both JFK and Reagan meant business. After five years of feckless diplomatic engagement, the Iranians have come to the opposite conclusion about Obama.

The interim nuclear accord does require Iran to halt the installation of new centrifuges and to stop enriching uranium at higher weapons-grade levels. But the centrifuges are still turning and their output can easily be converted to use for a bomb after a short “breakout” period. Even more deceptive is the president’s description of the disposal of Iran’s stockpile of nuclear fuel. It is being converted into oxide powder, but that is not the same as elimination. To the contrary, it can be easily reconverted into its previous form and then enriched further to reach the levels necessary for use in a bomb.

Nor are the inspections anywhere close to being as intrusive as Obama described. In particular, the International Atomic Energy Agency is still unable to monitor Iran’s military nuclear research facilities. Indeed, the accord signed in November by Secretary of State Kerry didn’t even mention them.

But just as misleading is the analogy between Iran and the Soviet Union that the United States dealt with in the past.

The president is correct in distinguishing the Soviet Union, a nuclear power, from Iran, a potential one.  But that is exactly the reason that the president’s decision to discard the military and economic leverage the U.S. possessed in talks with Iran last fall was so profoundly dangerous. In doing so the president decided to not only loosen existing sanctions but to tacitly recognize Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium with a deal that allowed that activity to continue unabated even as the president deceitfully described the accord as freezing Iran’s program.

The reasoning behind this astonishing retreat was the very opposite of America’s negotiating tactics—especially under Reagan—with the Soviets. The current U.S. retreat is premised in a belief that Iran is too strong and too determined not to be pressured by sanctions into giving up its nuclear program.

If the Soviet Union negotiated with the U.S. and wound up ultimately reducing its nuclear stockpile, as Reagan demanded, rather than merely limiting their increase, it was because they understood that he could not be intimidated. The Soviets knew they were dealing with a principled president. But the interim agreement with Tehran has convinced the Iranians of just the opposite about Obama. Having thus far persuaded him to accept enrichment and reduce sanctions, they have every reason to think he will go even further to appease them.

The Kennedy precedent provides yet another cautionary tale. In his first meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at a summit in Vienna, Kennedy admitted that he was insufficiently prepared for dealing with the Russian and the result was far from satisfactory. Though Kennedy had rightly opposed pressure to evacuate Berlin, he later told the New York Times that Khrushchev had “beaten the hell out of me” and left the meeting convinced that JFK was a political lightweight. It was this impression of weakness that led the Soviets to underestimate Kennedy and led to further provocations in the form of the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

That is an unfortunate precedent for Obama, whose supine position toward Iran ill becomes the American president and has similarly convinced Iran’s leaders that they need not fear his occasional threats to use force against them. Given the weakness of his position, he should welcome measures such as the bipartisan sanctions bill that has the support of 58 senators that would strengthen his hand in the talks.

Instead, he threatens a veto lest the proposal upset his Iranian negotiating partners. Rather than confirming the seriousness of his purpose, this irresponsible passage in the State of the Union will only reaffirm the Iranians’ belief that they can stand up to the U.S. and set the stage for either an American retreat on the nuclear issue or a confrontation that might be avoided by exactly the Senate measure the president opposes.

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The Slow-Motion Munich Agreement

In an interview with Robert Gates, posted on Friday, Hugh Hewitt asked the former defense secretary to respond to John Bolton’s characterization of the Iranian deal as another Munich (and Charles Krauthammer’s characterization of it as a catastrophe more cynical than Munich). Gates did not directly respond, but he set forth a procedure designed to prevent it from being one:

I think what’s really important is what happens in six months. And my view is that the administration ought to set a specific date. … [W]hat I would be arguing if I were in the Situation Room is okay, then the negotiations begin on whatever the date, January 25th or whatever. Exactly six months from then, the negotiations stop. Either they’re successful or they’re not, because the Iranians are perhaps the world’s best at slow rolling a negotiation … I don’t see why there is opposition to the Congress passing sanctions that would be triggered at that six month point, so that in essence, the message to the Iranians is if there is no successful negotiations, an agreement at the end of six months, you are going to be significantly worse off than you were when these negotiations began. It’s not going to be a return to the status quo before the negotiations.

Gates must be one of those people who want war rather than peace in our time.

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In an interview with Robert Gates, posted on Friday, Hugh Hewitt asked the former defense secretary to respond to John Bolton’s characterization of the Iranian deal as another Munich (and Charles Krauthammer’s characterization of it as a catastrophe more cynical than Munich). Gates did not directly respond, but he set forth a procedure designed to prevent it from being one:

I think what’s really important is what happens in six months. And my view is that the administration ought to set a specific date. … [W]hat I would be arguing if I were in the Situation Room is okay, then the negotiations begin on whatever the date, January 25th or whatever. Exactly six months from then, the negotiations stop. Either they’re successful or they’re not, because the Iranians are perhaps the world’s best at slow rolling a negotiation … I don’t see why there is opposition to the Congress passing sanctions that would be triggered at that six month point, so that in essence, the message to the Iranians is if there is no successful negotiations, an agreement at the end of six months, you are going to be significantly worse off than you were when these negotiations began. It’s not going to be a return to the status quo before the negotiations.

Gates must be one of those people who want war rather than peace in our time.

In opposing even contingent sanctions, taking effect only if the Iranians violate their deal or if the deal does not dismantle the nuclear-weapons program, the administration has been making a fundamentally illogical argument: sanctions are what brought Iran to the table (they say), but contingent sanctions would make them leave it. Sanctions have been an effective tool (they say), but contingent ones would be counter-productive. Sanctions produced negotiations (they say), but contingent sanctions would end them. The administration’s former defense secretary apparently disagrees. 

In the interview, Gates set forth his view of what any sanctions-avoiding agreement six months from now must provide:

[F]rom my standpoint, the only agreement that we ought to be willing to sign up to is one that rolls back the Iranian program to the point where they are no longer a nuclear weapon threshold state, a state that could go to a nuclear weapon relatively quickly.

Under present circumstances, what is assured in six months is another six-month agreement, as even Obama’s former top arms-control adviser admits. In fact, it will be another eight-month agreement (the current six-month one took two extra months to determine when it would begin), since the six-month extension will itself probably take two-months to negotiate, as the parties discuss the additional sanctions relief necessary to keep Iran at the table. We are in for a rolling series of extensions, as the world’s best in slow-rolling negotiations keeps whirring its centrifuges, works on its missile technology, advances its off-site preparations for its plutonium facility, completes its secret sites, and perfects its breakout capacity.

It is part of a slow-motion Munich agreement. It might be avoided under the Gates plan–contingent sanctions and a six-month time limit–but this is an administration now functioning without a defense secretary in a policy-making position. If there is to be a Gates plan, it will have to come from Congress.

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Why the West Buys Iran’s PR Campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Will Obama Bypass Congress on Iran?

Over the past several weeks, the White House has been waging an increasingly nasty fight to stop congressional action to put new Iran sanctions in place in the event that the current round of nuclear talks fail. Although 58 senators have co-sponsored the proposed legislation that would tighten the restrictions on doing business with the tyrannical Islamist regime, the Obama administration seems to have acquired the upper hand in the battle. This is largely because of specious arguments claiming those who want to give the president more leverage in the next round of negotiations are actually seeking war rather than a diplomatic solution when the reality is just the opposite. The only hope for a deal that would avert an outcome in which the U.S. would have to choose between the use of force and a nuclear Iran is the adoption of tougher sanctions that would force the ayatollahs to give up their nuclear dreams.

But the current uphill struggle by a majority of the Senate to ensure that the end of the current talks doesn’t lead to a collapse of the sanctions may be only a sideshow to the real fight over Iran that lies ahead in 2014. As the Washington Free Beacon reports, the administration is thinking ahead to the next step in the debate over Iran and exploring the possibility of lifting sanctions without congressional approval.

Congressional insiders say that the White House is worried Congress will exert oversight of the deal and demand tougher nuclear restrictions on Tehran in exchange for sanctions relief.

Top White House aides have been “talking about ways to do that [lift sanctions] without Congress and we have no idea yet what that means,” said one senior congressional aide who works on sanctions. “They’re looking for a way to lift them by fiat, overrule U.S. law, drive over the sanctions, and declare that they are lifted.”

Although only Congress has the power to revoke the sanctions it has enacted, this is not a far-fetched scenario. It is entirely possible that the president may wish to end sanctions on his own. That could come as the result of a nuclear deal that failed to satisfy those who rightly worry about the possibility of an agreement that left Iran with its nuclear infrastructure intact. Or it might be part of a further effort to appease Tehran by scaling back sanctions in order to entice it to sign a deal. And the president believes he can achieve these ends by executive action that would come dangerously close to unconstitutional behavior, but for which Congress might have no remedy.

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Over the past several weeks, the White House has been waging an increasingly nasty fight to stop congressional action to put new Iran sanctions in place in the event that the current round of nuclear talks fail. Although 58 senators have co-sponsored the proposed legislation that would tighten the restrictions on doing business with the tyrannical Islamist regime, the Obama administration seems to have acquired the upper hand in the battle. This is largely because of specious arguments claiming those who want to give the president more leverage in the next round of negotiations are actually seeking war rather than a diplomatic solution when the reality is just the opposite. The only hope for a deal that would avert an outcome in which the U.S. would have to choose between the use of force and a nuclear Iran is the adoption of tougher sanctions that would force the ayatollahs to give up their nuclear dreams.

But the current uphill struggle by a majority of the Senate to ensure that the end of the current talks doesn’t lead to a collapse of the sanctions may be only a sideshow to the real fight over Iran that lies ahead in 2014. As the Washington Free Beacon reports, the administration is thinking ahead to the next step in the debate over Iran and exploring the possibility of lifting sanctions without congressional approval.

Congressional insiders say that the White House is worried Congress will exert oversight of the deal and demand tougher nuclear restrictions on Tehran in exchange for sanctions relief.

Top White House aides have been “talking about ways to do that [lift sanctions] without Congress and we have no idea yet what that means,” said one senior congressional aide who works on sanctions. “They’re looking for a way to lift them by fiat, overrule U.S. law, drive over the sanctions, and declare that they are lifted.”

Although only Congress has the power to revoke the sanctions it has enacted, this is not a far-fetched scenario. It is entirely possible that the president may wish to end sanctions on his own. That could come as the result of a nuclear deal that failed to satisfy those who rightly worry about the possibility of an agreement that left Iran with its nuclear infrastructure intact. Or it might be part of a further effort to appease Tehran by scaling back sanctions in order to entice it to sign a deal. And the president believes he can achieve these ends by executive action that would come dangerously close to unconstitutional behavior, but for which Congress might have no remedy.

The key to any unilateral action by the president on sanctions is effective enforcement. It has long been understood by insiders that the U.S. government has only selectively enforced the existing sanctions on Iran. In 2010, the New York Times reported that more than 10,000 exemptions had already been granted by the Treasury Department to companies wishing to transact business with Iran. Since then there have been worries that the administration has been slow to open new cases by which suspicious economic activity with Iran could be proscribed.

As the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted in a paper published in November 2013, the president can legitimize a policy of non-enforcement by the granting of waivers that could effectively gut any and all sanctions enacted by Congress. The only effective check on such a decision would be the political firestorm that would inevitably follow a relaxation of the sanctions that would be accurately viewed as a craven offering to the ayatollahs and also an affront to both Congress and America’s Middle East allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia that rightly fear a nuclear Iran.

The administration has already made clear on other contentious issues, such as the application of immigration law, that it will only enforce laws with which it agrees. This is clearly unconstitutional, but as we have already seen with the president’s unilateral actions on immigration, Congress cannot prevent him from doing what he likes in these matters. The same might be true on Iran sanctions, especially if he is prepared to double down on inflammatory arguments falsely labeling sanctions proponents as warmongers.

Having begun the process of loosening sanctions on Iran with the interim deal signed in November and seemingly intent on promoting a new détente with Tehran, it requires no great leap of imagination to envision the next step in this process. Unless the president produces a deal that truly ends the Iranian nuclear threat—something that would require the dismantling of Iran’s facilities and ensuring it could not possibly continue enriching uranium or building plutonium plants—a confrontation with Congress is likely. In that event, it appears probable that the president will choose to run roughshod over the will of Congress and the rule of law.

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Iran Biz Boom May Already Doom Talks

The Obama administration and other opponents of the pending Senate bill that would tighten sanctions on Iran in the event the current nuclear negotiations fail, claim it would blow up the diplomatic process. This makes no sense because the Iranians are the principal beneficiaries of the talks and have far more to lose than the West if the talks collapse because they would then lose the  chance to get all the sanctions lifted. But the administration and its defenders also claim the bill is unnecessary since the current sanctions are still working (despite being weakened during the interim accord) and can easily be strengthened in the event that Washington concedes that the process has failed at the expiration of the six-month period for negotiations, which begins today.

But the problem with that argument, as the New York Times reported on Friday, is that Iran is open for international business now. While there have been signs indicating that Iran’s economy is already recovering from the impact of sanctions, the interim accord has led to a parade of European businessmen trooping to Tehran to lay the groundwork for what they see as the impending collapse of the restrictions on transactions with the Islamist regime. Indeed, according to the Times one of the busiest people in the Iranian capital is Hossein Sheikholeslami, the former terrorist (he was one of the “students” responsible for holding American diplomats hostage in 1979) assigned to fielding offers from nations including Germany, Italy, and Finland which, despite their nominal allegiance to the U.S.-led sanctions coalition, are champing at the bit to get their bids in now for contracts to do business in Iran.

Seen in that light, we won’t have to wait until July to know whether the latest P5+1 with Iran talks will succeed. If the sanctions are coming apart at the seams today, then the interim accord has already failed.

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The Obama administration and other opponents of the pending Senate bill that would tighten sanctions on Iran in the event the current nuclear negotiations fail, claim it would blow up the diplomatic process. This makes no sense because the Iranians are the principal beneficiaries of the talks and have far more to lose than the West if the talks collapse because they would then lose the  chance to get all the sanctions lifted. But the administration and its defenders also claim the bill is unnecessary since the current sanctions are still working (despite being weakened during the interim accord) and can easily be strengthened in the event that Washington concedes that the process has failed at the expiration of the six-month period for negotiations, which begins today.

But the problem with that argument, as the New York Times reported on Friday, is that Iran is open for international business now. While there have been signs indicating that Iran’s economy is already recovering from the impact of sanctions, the interim accord has led to a parade of European businessmen trooping to Tehran to lay the groundwork for what they see as the impending collapse of the restrictions on transactions with the Islamist regime. Indeed, according to the Times one of the busiest people in the Iranian capital is Hossein Sheikholeslami, the former terrorist (he was one of the “students” responsible for holding American diplomats hostage in 1979) assigned to fielding offers from nations including Germany, Italy, and Finland which, despite their nominal allegiance to the U.S.-led sanctions coalition, are champing at the bit to get their bids in now for contracts to do business in Iran.

Seen in that light, we won’t have to wait until July to know whether the latest P5+1 with Iran talks will succeed. If the sanctions are coming apart at the seams today, then the interim accord has already failed.

As critics of the interim accord signed in Geneva in November said at the time, the decision by the Obama administration to begin the process of loosening sanctions just at the moment when they appeared most effective in their goal of forcing Iran to end its nuclear program was nothing short of a fatal mistake. Though the president has mocked the idea that the new sanctions being considered by the Senate would strengthen his hand in the talks, his decision to grant the Iranians significant relief from the earlier sanctions has already begun the process by which the entire edifice of economic restrictions is virtually in shambles.

As the Times story illustrates, the actions of European nations that were unenthusiastic about sanctions from the start (which could also be said of the Obama administration since it opposed the current tough sanctions when Congress debated their adoption) are allowing the Iranians to claim that the sanctions regime is tottering. This will strengthen Tehran’s hand in negotiations since it may reasonably conclude the U.S. can’t count on international support for renewed sanctions if, as is more than likely, the Iranians refuse to dismantle or even substantially degrade their nuclear program in the coming talks.

Nor is the interest in resuming business with the Islamist tyrants confined to a few outliers or even only Europeans:

In the first two weeks of the year, Iran welcomed more delegations from Europe than in all of 2013.

“The Europeans are waiting in line to come here,” said Mr. Sheikholeslami, the international affairs adviser to the head of Iran’s Parliament, Ali Larijani, who has been receiving many of the high-profile visitors. “They are coming to seek benefits and to get ahead of their international rivals.”

Italy’s foreign minister, Emma Bonino, has been here, as has a former British foreign minister, Jack Straw, in his capacity as the head of the Iran-Britain Friendship Committee.

The prime ministers of Italy and Poland have also scheduled visits. Trade delegations from Ireland, Italy and France are expected in coming weeks.

American companies have shown some interest, of course. In September the head of President Hassan Rouhani’s office, the former director of the Iranian Chamber of Commerce, Mohammad Nahavandian, held a closed-door meeting with leading chief executives in New York. In March, an Iranian investment company is organizing a $15,000-a-ticket seminar in New York on business opportunities in Iran.

President Obama and others who claim more sanctions can only mean war say the only path to peace runs through the diplomatic process and that it must be given more time to succeed. But the boomtown atmosphere in Tehran that has kept Sheikholeslami hopping is proof that the real choice is not between more sanctions and diplomacy. Without a law on the books that will mandate a complete economic embargo of Iran if the diplomats fail to produce a deal that ends the Iranian nuclear threat, Tehran can confidently assume it has nothing to lose from more delaying tactics and a refusal to give up its nuclear dreams.

The administration has also further undermined its own leverage with Iran by demonstrating its eagerness to cooperate with Tehran on the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. That rightly scares American allies in the region and gives the impression that President Obama is more interested in fostering détente with Iran than in making good on his campaign promises to force it to give up its nuclear program. With “open for business” signs going up in Tehran as European delegations arrive to renew ties, rather than denouncing the sanctions bill, the administration should be embracing it as its last best hope to convince the Iranians that they have no other option but to negotiate the surrender of their nuclear project.

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Iran Sanctions Foes’ Dishonest Arguments

It’s been a bad week for those trying to stop the Senate from passing tougher sanctions on Iran. After two months of dithering the Obama administration finalized the nuclear deal signed with Iran in November. That should have helped the president to orchestrate greater opposition to the push for more sanctions he opposes. But instead, the Iranians used the completion of the interim deal to celebrate what they say is a great victory over the West for the regime that confirms their right to continue enriching uranium and pursuing their nuclear goal regardless of what any agreement says. That gave the lie to the administration’s claims that the negotiations are succeeding in heading off the nuclear threat. It also strengthened arguments by sanctions proponents that putting more such restrictions in place to be implemented should the talks fail was both prudent and the best way to ensure that diplomacy has a chance to succeed.

But rather respond to Iran’s provocations, both the administration and its allies in Congress and the media have doubled down on their illogical claim that passing more sanctions now is tantamount to a declaration of war on Iran. While it is discouraging to hear this canard voiced by White House functionaries, it is even worse to hear it from those who claim to share the goal of preventing Tehran from getting a bomb. That’s essentially the position that Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg has taken in his latest column. While it is disappointing to see a man considered one of the most astute observers of the Middle East taking such a blatantly disingenuous position on an issue on which he had previously staked out a strong position, it looks as if in this case his attachment to President Obama and his loathing for the administration’s critics outweighs common sense and his ability to offer a clear-eyed evaluation of the situation.

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It’s been a bad week for those trying to stop the Senate from passing tougher sanctions on Iran. After two months of dithering the Obama administration finalized the nuclear deal signed with Iran in November. That should have helped the president to orchestrate greater opposition to the push for more sanctions he opposes. But instead, the Iranians used the completion of the interim deal to celebrate what they say is a great victory over the West for the regime that confirms their right to continue enriching uranium and pursuing their nuclear goal regardless of what any agreement says. That gave the lie to the administration’s claims that the negotiations are succeeding in heading off the nuclear threat. It also strengthened arguments by sanctions proponents that putting more such restrictions in place to be implemented should the talks fail was both prudent and the best way to ensure that diplomacy has a chance to succeed.

But rather respond to Iran’s provocations, both the administration and its allies in Congress and the media have doubled down on their illogical claim that passing more sanctions now is tantamount to a declaration of war on Iran. While it is discouraging to hear this canard voiced by White House functionaries, it is even worse to hear it from those who claim to share the goal of preventing Tehran from getting a bomb. That’s essentially the position that Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg has taken in his latest column. While it is disappointing to see a man considered one of the most astute observers of the Middle East taking such a blatantly disingenuous position on an issue on which he had previously staked out a strong position, it looks as if in this case his attachment to President Obama and his loathing for the administration’s critics outweighs common sense and his ability to offer a clear-eyed evaluation of the situation.

Throughout the last five years, Goldberg has been an ardent supporter of the president even while frequently expressing impatience and concern over his approach to Iran. Though no fan of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Goldberg has treated the concerns of Israel and the pro-Israel community in this country on the Iranian nuclear threat as serious and credible. He rightly refers to Iran as a despotic state sponsor of terror and believes its possession of a nuclear weapon would undermine U.S. security and that of its Arab allies as well as pose an existential threat to Israel. He understands that Iran has deceived the West in negotiations before and can’t be trusted today. He has been a proponent of tough sanctions and hard-headed diplomacy on Iran and has publicly vouched for the president’s bona fides on the issue, going so far as to be among the very few who believe that if push came to shove, Obama would order the use of force against Tehran in order to forestall its drive for a nuclear weapon.

But though he still calls himself an “Iran hawk” (a term that few, if any, other commentators on the subject have adopted), Goldberg has now officially drunk the administration’s Kool-Aid on the topic and says the deal struck in Geneva in November is the best the West can hope for. Rather than call, as he did in the past, for an end to Iran’s nuclear program, he’s veiled his former hawkishness, saying he is willing to settle for a deal that will “substantially denuclearize” the regime, a weasel-worded expression vague enough to encompass an agreement that would, as Iran demands, leave its nuclear infrastructure in place and the threat to Israel and its Arab neighbors undiminished.

While claiming to be a skeptic on the upcoming talks, he accepts the argument that any congressional move to strengthen the president’s hand in negotiations would provide the Iranians an excuse to end the negotiations. Given that Iran was brought to the table by sanctions (that were consistently opposed by the administration) this makes no sense, especially since the Iranians have so much to gain by talks that have already brought them considerable sanctions relief. By loosening the sanctions while acknowledging the Iranian right to uranium enrichment during the interim deal, the U.S. appears willing to give up much of the economic and military leverage it held over Iran. But now both the president and his supporters like Goldberg are prepared to treat Iranian bluster as an imperative that America dare not contravene. The illogical argument that the time isn’t right for more sanctions accepts this Iranian dictate in a way that undermines any hope the West can achieve the dismantling of Iran’s facilities and the export and/or destruction of all its nuclear material. The process now seems to be one in which it is the West that is the supplicant and the ayatollahs the masters of the situation.

The Iranians don’t like the idea that if the current negotiations fail they will be subjected to a new round of sanctions that would end the lucrative oil trade that is keeping the regime afloat while funding their nuclear program, terrorism, and their intervention in Syria. But without that threat, their improving economy and the prospect that Russia is prepared to engage in an oil-for-goods swap that will make a mockery of the sanctions means Iran will have no reason to treat the president’s threats of future action seriously.

This is the key point in the argument to increase sanctions that Goldberg and other administration supporters consistently mischaracterize.

Like Obama, Goldberg poses this debate as an entirely specious choice between supporters of diplomacy and those who want to fight a war against Iran. This is false. No one in Congress wants war. Neither does Israel or its friends. Nor does anyone (except perhaps for Goldberg in his least credible columns) think Obama or Congress would ever authorize a strike on Iran. To claim that is the goal of sanctions advocates is a blatant lie. To the contrary, those pushing for more sanctions understand all too well that a genuine economic embargo of Iran, rather than the leaky restrictions currently in place, is the only option that has any chance of bringing the Islamist regime to its senses by methods short of war.

The alternative to tougher sanctions isn’t the war Goldberg claims sanctions proponents want; it’s appeasement that will inevitably result in a policy of containment of a nuclear Iran that Obama says he opposes.

There’s a reason that sanctions proponents don’t trust the president to conduct diplomacy without first committing the U.S. to taking the next step toward isolating Iran once the next round of talks fail (a proposition that even Goldberg concedes is a 50-50 proposition). Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez and other sponsors of the bill remember all too well that the current sanctions about which the president boasts were watered down and then fought tooth and nail by the administration. The administration has consistently sought engagement with Iran even when it meant ignoring the regime’s bloody repression of dissidents and its drive for regional hegemony in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and the annihilation of Israel. Now it appears all too willing to turn engagement into détente and a common agenda that will allow the U.S. to substantially withdraw from the region and thereby place its allies in peril.

The idea that more sanctions now would turn the tyrants of Tehran into victims of American provocations is ridiculous. So is the claim that preventing them will allow diplomacy to work to make Iran give up what they clearly wish to retain. More sanctions may not “denuclearize” Iran, but their passage offers the only hope that this goal can be achieved by diplomacy. The only way to justify opposition to them is to demonize both administration supporters (like Menendez, Chuck Schumer, and the many other Democrats who support additional sanctions) and opponents who want to ensure that the president keeps his promises about Iran. That’s a canard that the Jeffrey Goldberg, who was a supportive but tough critic of Obama on Iran throughout his first term, would never have sunk to. But sadly, such despicable smears are all he and other administration loyalists have left. 

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The White House Iran War Canard

The Obama administration has been playing hardball in its attempt to stop the Senate from adopting a new and tougher sanctions law aimed at Iran, but it has now gone too far even for one of its leading congressional loyalists. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the minority whip in the House of Representatives cried foul over a statement by the spokesperson for the National Security Council that accused sanctions supporters of pushing for war. But Hoyer’s call for Bernadette Meehan to retract her comments is a little unfair to the NSC staffer. Meehan was doing nothing more than articulating the same slander that has been put into circulation by a variety of administration sources and their press cheerleaders when she said the following in response to questions about the growing congressional support for sanctions:

If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be upfront with the American public and say so. Otherwise, it’s not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran’s nuclear program to proceed.

This is a straw argument if there ever was one. The argument against sanctions is utterly illogical since the only possible path to a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat that President Obama has vowed to thwart is via the pressure of tough economic restrictions. By loosening the sanctions in the interim nuclear deal signed in November, Secretary of State John Kerry lost some of that leverage. But by staging an all-out effort to stop a bill that would not go into effect until after the current process is seen to have failed, the administration is taking Iranian threats about ditching the negotiations so seriously that it has, in effect, become Tehran’s hostage. The problem here is not just about over-the-top-rhetoric or competing strategies. As many in Congress are beginning to suspect, the effort to brand all those calling for more pressure on Iran as war-mongers only makes sense in the context of a foreign-policy shift in which the president will seek to weasel out of his commitment to force Tehran to give up its nuclear dream.

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The Obama administration has been playing hardball in its attempt to stop the Senate from adopting a new and tougher sanctions law aimed at Iran, but it has now gone too far even for one of its leading congressional loyalists. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the minority whip in the House of Representatives cried foul over a statement by the spokesperson for the National Security Council that accused sanctions supporters of pushing for war. But Hoyer’s call for Bernadette Meehan to retract her comments is a little unfair to the NSC staffer. Meehan was doing nothing more than articulating the same slander that has been put into circulation by a variety of administration sources and their press cheerleaders when she said the following in response to questions about the growing congressional support for sanctions:

If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be upfront with the American public and say so. Otherwise, it’s not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran’s nuclear program to proceed.

This is a straw argument if there ever was one. The argument against sanctions is utterly illogical since the only possible path to a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat that President Obama has vowed to thwart is via the pressure of tough economic restrictions. By loosening the sanctions in the interim nuclear deal signed in November, Secretary of State John Kerry lost some of that leverage. But by staging an all-out effort to stop a bill that would not go into effect until after the current process is seen to have failed, the administration is taking Iranian threats about ditching the negotiations so seriously that it has, in effect, become Tehran’s hostage. The problem here is not just about over-the-top-rhetoric or competing strategies. As many in Congress are beginning to suspect, the effort to brand all those calling for more pressure on Iran as war-mongers only makes sense in the context of a foreign-policy shift in which the president will seek to weasel out of his commitment to force Tehran to give up its nuclear dream.

If the president is serious about keeping his numerous campaign pledges to force Iran to give up its nuclear program, then it is obvious that more pressure is needed to convince its leaders that the U.S. means business. As I discussed yesterday, the triumphalist rhetoric emanating from Iran, including its President Hassan Rouhani, about the interim nuclear deal being a victory for the Islamists isn’t just an embarrassment for the president. That the man the administration has claimed is a moderate who represents a real chance for change in Iran is mocking the president in this manner ought to have set off alarms in the White House, despite yesterday’s attempt by spokesman Jay Carney to downplay it.

The Iranians are making no secret of the fact that they believe Obama is more concerned about achieving a new détente with them than he is in shutting down their nuclear facilities. Given the fact that the deal Kerry signed in Geneva tacitly recognizes Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium while also weakening sanctions it’s hard to argue with that conclusion. The ayatollahs believe they have the whip hand in the next round of talks with the West that begin soon, and the administration’s slavish devotion to the notion that any further sanctions would “break faith” with their new partners in Tehran lends credence to that conclusion. Under these circumstances, it’s difficult to imagine that the talks can possibly produce a new deal that will permanently shut down the Iranian centrifuges or dismantle their nuclear facilities. Only a dramatic toughening of sanctions that would put a damper on a reviving Iranian economy by a total embargo of the sale of oil would give the P5+1 negotiators any hope in their quest to persuade Tehran to finally give in.

Since the administration is determined not to put that arrow in its quiver, it’s fair to ask what U.S. diplomats think they can possibly achieve through further negotiations. Without more sanctions, the U.S. will be faced with only two options: the use of force or acceptance of Iran as a nuclear power. Since neither the president nor Congress has any appetite for a conflict with Iran, without more sanctions, containment of a nuclear Iran seems the only likely result despite the president’s promises not to accept such an outcome.

But the only way to pave the way for Congress and the American people to accept a policy that would pose a threat to U.S. security as well as endanger allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia is to convince them that anyone who cares about the issue is a warmonger. Seen in that light, Meehan’s war canard isn’t a gaffe. It’s a vital element in a clear administration strategy aimed at delegitimizing opponents of the appeasement oft. 

The choice facing the country on Iran isn’t between diplomacy and war but between a congressional majority that is intent on giving the diplomats the only tools that will help them succeed and an administration that is determined to prevent that from happening. Rather than criticizing Meehan, pro-Israel Democrats like Hoyer and other members of the Democratic caucus that lament the noxious nature of this administration tactic must understand that what is at stake here is nothing less than the entire direction of U.S. foreign policy. If a rush to détente with the Islamist regime and an acceptance of Iranian nukes is to be stopped, it will require a full-scale Democratic mutiny against an administration that seems determined to keep faith with Iran while breaking its word both to its allies and the American people.

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Rouhani Spikes the Ball in Obama’s Face

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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