Over the course of the last year, President Obama has escalated his rhetoric against Iran. His repudiation of a policy of containment of a nuclear Iran and his repeated promise never to allow the Islamist regime to gain such a weapon has left him little room to maneuver. Tehran continues to stonewall the diplomatic process initiated by the United States and its partners in the P5+1 process. Just as ominously, the ayatollahs have doubled down on their efforts to strengthen their nuclear program. The number of centrifuges spinning away to enrich uranium to bomb-level grade in their underground mountain bunker facility has increased while international inspectors continue to be kept away from sites where military applications of nuclear technology can be found.
But with the clock ticking down toward the moment when the Iranians will have enough fuel to make bombs, much of the foreign policy establishment in the United States is still trying to influence the president to back away from his pledge. The Iran Project has assembled a formidable array of former diplomats and political figures to urge Obama to not just stop talking about force but also to move away from the economic sanctions he has belatedly implemented to pressure Tehran. The group, which has strong ties to the administration, has issued a new report, “Strategic Options for Iran: Balancing Pressure with Diplomacy,” that is aimed at providing a rationale for Obama to embark on yet another attempt at engagement with Iran that would effectively assure the ayatollahs that they have nothing to fear from the West.
The first hours of Chuck Hagel’s Senate confirmation hearing did little to gladden the hearts of his supporters. While the strict partisan divide over the nomination should ensure that he would get the support of a majority of senators, his bumbling performance undermined any notion that the president’s choice to lead the Pentagon was winning over any of his critics. More to the point, his effort to portray his recent recantations of his long-held skepticism about attempts to stop Iran from going nuclear, his criticisms of Israel, and his belief in engagement with Hamas and Hezbollah as consistent with his record was a flop. Though he had obviously been prepped to state his support for Israel and President Obama’s policies on Iran over and over again—a task made easier by Democratic senators asking him to merely reaffirm and regurgitate those talking points—he still managed to stumble over some issues he hoped to put to rest.
On the question of his refusal to back sanctions against Iran and its Revolutionary Guards, Hagel was both contradictory and disingenuous. But on the one past statement that was the smoking gun about his attitudes toward Israel—his rant about the “Jewish lobby” and its intimidation of Congress—his answers did little to dispel the notion that his views have not changed.
The latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s nuclear program is due out on Friday, but the contents are already being discussed in the international press. One source has already told Agence France Presse that it will detail the fact that the installation of 2,700 centrifuges at the mountain bunker facility at Fordow is now complete. The expectation is that enrichment of uranium that can be used to produce a nuclear weapon at this site will increase in the coming months, bringing Tehran much closer to being capable of producing a weapon. That leaves the Obama administration with a dilemma.
Though the economic sanctions that President Obama belatedly embraced last year have inflicted pain on the Iranian economy, as the IAEA report makes clear, they have done nothing to halt their nuclear progress. While the president has reportedly assigned Valerie Jarrett, a close personal confidante, the task of carrying out secret talks with representatives of the ayatollah, there is little reason to believe they are interested in accepting the terms of a possible deal that Obama laid out during the third presidential debate, in which he said they would not be permitted to retain a nuclear program. If that is the president’s goal, he ought to embrace a plan for new and tougher economic sanctions that might actually have a chance to force the Iranians to reconsider their defiance. Yet a report published yesterday in Congressional Quarterly indicates that the administration plans to oppose the scheme.
As I discussed in part one of this post, the discussion of the impact of the U.S. presidential election on Israel tends to be exaggerated. Just as it is absurd to speak of a man who clearly has little genuine sympathy for the Jewish state as its best friend ever to sit in the White House (as Democrats falsely assert), it is equally foolish to claim that Israel’s survival hangs on the outcome, since the alliance between the two countries is so entrenched in our political culture that severing it is probably beyond the capacity of even a re-elected president. However, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that four more years of Barack Obama will mean more tension between the U.S. and Israel that will undermine the relationship and encourage the Jewish state’s foes, to no purpose. Yet the inevitable spats over the peace process with the Palestinians pale in significance when compared to what may be Israel’s greatest current security challenge: a nuclear Iran.
Any account of the last four years of U.S. policy toward Iran must begin with the fact that President Obama has left himself very little room to maneuver out of a commitment to stop Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The president has been consistent in stating that he will not allow this to happen on his watch since he was first running for president in 2008. Since then, he has repeated this mantra and significantly elaborated on it while running for re-election. He has acknowledged that a nuclear Iran is a danger to U.S. security, rather than just an existential threat to Israel. This past March, the president specifically repudiated the possibility of “containing” a nuclear Iran but said that it must be stopped from attaining such a weapon. During the third presidential debate, he said the only deal he will accept with Iran is one that precludes their having a “nuclear program,” something that would preclude the sort of compromise favored by America’s European allies that would allow Tehran to keep its reactors and fuel–leaving open the possibility of a North Korea-style evasion of international diplomatic efforts.
Yet the question remains what will a re-elected President Obama do if the belated sanctions he imposed on Iran (and whose loose enforcement is itself an issue) do not convince them to give in to his demands? Will he keep the “window for diplomacy” open to allow the Iranians to go on delaying until they reach their nuclear goal? That’s something no one can know for sure, but which must haunt friends of Israel.
The latest round of European Union sanctions on Iran were welcomed by both Israel and the United States as helping to continue Tehran’s isolation. The restrictions on Iranian banks, trade and gas exports will increase the pain being felt by ordinary Iranians and worsen the government’s fiscal difficulties. But the latest intelligence about the nuclear program that has generated this dispute is hardly encouraging for those who believe sanctions and diplomacy will avert the danger of an Iranian nuke. Reuters reports that diplomats familiar with the latest reports coming from the International Atomic Energy Agency show that despite the toll sanctions have taken on its economy, the ayatollahs are doubling down on their nuclear gambit.
According to the diplomats, Iran has continued installing new centrifuges at the underground site at Fordow near the holy Shiite Muslim city of Qom in what has become a rapid buildup of its capacity to enrich the uranium needed to produce a bomb. The next IAEA report to be published in November will reveal that the expansion of the enrichment subterranean facility is near completion. As Reuters writes:
It also takes Iran a significant technical step closer to the 90 percent concentration needed for bombs, explaining the West’s growing concern about the Islamic state’s stockpile of the material.
A U.S.-based think-tank, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), this month said Iran would currently need at least two to four months to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear bomb, and additional time to make the device itself.
The latest feeler from Iran about negotiating an end to their nuclear standoff with the West appears to have been slapped away rather quickly by the Obama administration. That’s a hopeful sign for those who have worried that a desperate desire to back away from the confrontation would lead Washington to buy into any deal, no matter how bad it might be. The Iranian offer would have required the West to drop the existing sanctions against the country in exchange for minimal concessions that would have allowed Tehran to restart its nuclear push at the drop of a hat. But having fended off Israeli calls for establishing red lines about Iran with such trouble, such an act of craven appeasement from the president isn’t in the cards. At least not in the foreseeable future, that is.
Though they can have few illusions about getting even the most tractable Western negotiators to accept such a bad bargain, the Iranians should be even more confident than ever that the U.S. is uninterested in joining or even condoning an Israeli military strike to take out their nuclear facilities. That’s because the demonstrations this week in Tehran over the collapse of the rial may have had the unintended effect of encouraging both Americans and Israelis to believe that the sanctions are not only working but could conceivably force the Iranian government to give up their nuclear goal or even force a change in regime. Even though such scenarios are far-fetched at best, they may serve to reinforce the Obama administration’s reluctance to go beyond the existing plan. Thus, rather than helping to topple the Islamist regime or even to weaken its nuclear resolve, the demonstrations may actually wind up helping the ayatollahs achieve their nuclear ambition.
As Michael Rubin noted yesterday, the unrest in Iran yesterday shows that the people of that country are not so foolish as to believe their troubles are the result of anything but the Islamist regime’s economic mismanagement. The turmoil in Tehran reinforces their dissatisfaction with Iran’s plight under the rule of the mullahs and front men like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the latest clashes in Tehran as security forces sought to break up black market moneychangers must also not be interpreted as a sign that the fall of the regime is imminent.
Sanctions have caused a good deal of pain for the Iranian people, but as was demonstrated clearly in 2009, the Islamist government has no compunction about the use of force to protect their survival. This is a lesson that those who have been predicting the collapse of the government in Syria haven’t learned despite the demonstrated resiliency of that Iranian ally over the last year and a half. But while it is principally the Syrian people who have suffered because of the false Western belief that Bashar Assad would quickly fall without any help from the outside world, Western complacency about the future of Iran will have terrible consequences for the entire region as well as the security of the rest of the world.
On the same day that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the General Assembly of the United Nations that time was running out to stop Iran’s nuclear program, a leaked report from Israel’s Foreign Ministry is being interpreted in some quarters as contradicting his stand. The report, first published in Haaretz and then recycled in the New York Times, is supposed to say that existing sanctions on Iran have caused a great deal of damage to the country. Combined with the fact that Israel’s diplomats have been campaigning for increasing the sanctions, some are concluding that not only does the document undermine Netanyahu’s warnings but that, contrary to what the prime minister and other Israelis have been saying, it is reasonable to believe that sanctions combined with diplomacy can solve the problem.
But the problem with such a conclusion is that, as even Haaretz notes, even if ordinary Iranians are feeling the economic pain brought on by sanctions, there is no evidence that the resolve of Iran’s leadership to push on with their nuclear project has been altered. Even more to the point, there is no contradiction between Netanyahu’s statements and a desire for increased sanctions. Indeed, his call for Western “red lines” — a point now made famous by his use of an illustration of a cartoon bomb across which he drew a “red line” — only makes sense if the West is ratcheting up sanctions and enforcing them.
President Obama will speak to the United Nations today, and excerpts from his text that have already been released contain his pledge that he will not seek to contain a nuclear Iran and that “the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” That is a vow that we must all earnestly hope that he will keep if he is re-elected. But as welcome as this renewal of his past pledges on Iran may be, it does leave open the question of how he plans to implement it and whether his judgment about the subject is any less clouded than it has been throughout his four years in office. After all, the president has been saying that an Iranian nuke is unacceptable since he was in the Senate, but his record of achievement on the issue is worse than negligible.
It’s important to remember the dichotomy between the president’s words and his actions on Iran not just because the UN speech, like much of what he has said on the subject, seems aimed more at American voters than at Tehran. The Washington Post devoted considerable space yesterday to an article devoted to spinning his record on Iran as mixed. He was given credit for organizing an “unprecedented” international coalition to support sanctions on Iran, but even the Post had to concede that the sanctions haven’t worked and there is no prospect of them ever succeeding in forcing the Iranians to surrender their nuclear ambitions. Most damning of all is the fact that, as the Post put it, “Iran’s rate of production of enriched uranium has nearly tripled since Obama took office.” Years of talking about engagement and diplomacy followed by belated and loosely enforced sanctions have convinced the Iranians that Obama isn’t serious no matter what he says today at the UN. But the question is not only whether the ayatollahs should take his warnings at face value, but also why anyone else should.
As Seth wrote earlier today, Israeli distrust of President Obama’s intentions on Iran is the product of nearly four years of policies designed to create more distance between the two allies on this and other issues. But since the president wants to stop an Israeli attack on Iran (and worries that some pro-Israel voters will hold his inaction against him in November, the administration used its favorite media mouthpiece — the New York Times —to float a raft a proposals that are intended to calm Jerusalem and its overseas friends. But the problem with these ideas is that they are focused more on stopping Israel than Iran.
Today’s front-page story in the Times states that the administration is considering the following: Naval exercises in the Persian Gulf to intimidate the Iranians; efforts to clamp down on Iran’s still-booming sources of oil revenue despite the supposedly “crippling” sanctions belatedly imposed on the country by the West; more covert activities aimed at sabotaging Iran’s nuclear facilities; the construction of a radar facility in Qatar and a clear statement by the president as to the circumstances under which the United States will use force to stop Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. The last point is the one the Israelis have been begging Washington for but it is also apparently the one that the president is least interested in carrying out.
As for the other ideas, they have all been tried and failed. Under these circumstances, can anyone wonder why the Israelis fear they are on their own and the Iranians are confident they can defy the United States?
Those wondering about Iran’s ability to confidently defy the sanctions that the Obama administration has belatedly imposed on the rogue regime have previously pointed to the lax enforcement of the regulations. The Treasury Department has granted over 10,000 exemptions to companies desirous of avoiding the sanctions. The U.S. has also given Iran’s largest oil customers a pass on having to give up purchasing Tehran’s supplies. But it turns out that even those sanctions that are enforced aren’t working and this time the fault can’t be pinned on President Obama’s lack of will.
The New York Times reports that federal prosecutors say Chinese banks and other international institutions have been playing the role of middleman in a con game allowing Iranian banks and corporations to conduct business in the West that ought to be curtailed by the law. Through their U.S. branches, the Chinese institutions have reportedly funneled billions of dollars to Iran’s coffers. When added to the president’s timorous diplomacy, this fraud helps explain why the Iranians are going full speed ahead with the nuclear program with few worries about the sanctions that Secretary of State Clinton claimed would be so tough it would bring them to their knees.
The Cable’s Josh Rogin has more on the Obama administration’s decision to allow non-profit groups to send hundreds of thousands of dollars each in cash to Iran as part of earthquake relief efforts. Rogin reports that the White House was initially worried about the optics of temporarily relaxing sanctions so close to the election, but eventually agreed after getting support from the State Department:
State Department officials argued in favor of granting the license, while the White House resisted the move, worried about how even a temporary and limited relief of sanctions against Iran would play in the media so close to the presidential election. Eventually, with the support of top State Department officials, the White House was persuaded to agree to the move, these sources said.
The National Iranian American Council, a group that has advocated for weaker sanctions and other pro-regime policies, also played a major role in lobbying the administration (the organization touts a conference call it set up with the White House about this issue on its website).
Unsurprisingly, Rogin also reports there are concerns on Capitol Hill over whether the cash will make it to the people who need it, or whether it will intercepted by the Iranian government.
In 2007, a growing international consensus on the need to stop Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons was hamstringed by a puzzling U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that claimed Tehran had abandoned its ambitions. Though the NIE was disputed by Israel as well as by other sources, this report became the bulwark of foreign policy realists determined to downplay or ignore the danger from Iran. But as Haaretz reports, a new NIE issued in the past month indicates not only is Iran working on such a program but they have made alarming progress on military applications of nuclear power.
The report, which was made known to the paper by both Western diplomats and Israeli officials, reportedly shows U.S. intelligence now concurs with their counterparts in the Jewish state that the Iranian peril is far greater than the Americans were previously willing to admit. This finding makes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public questions about the West’s willingness to wait for sanctions and diplomacy to work justified. More to the point, it calls into question the Obama administration’s strategy of kicking the can down the road this year until after the elections.
The chattering classes are chortling today about the latest supposed mistake by Mitt Romney in which he is being condemned for telling the truth about the corrupt and violent political and economic culture of the Palestinians. Meanwhile in Tunisia, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta committed the real gaffe of the week when he told a credulous traveling press corps that the administration’s effort to get Iran to abandon its drive for nuclear weapons was working even if it didn’t look like it. As the New York Times reports:
“These sanctions are having a serious impact in terms of the economy of Iran.” He added that “while the results of that may not seem obvious at the moment,” the Iranians had expressed a willingness to negotiate, and that they “continue to seem interested in trying to find a diplomatic solution.”
Translation: We know Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is right when he says the sanctions aren’t doing a thing to make the Iranians change their minds and the Iranians know that we know. But as long as Tehran is willing to pretend to negotiate, we will pretend along with them because our main goal is to prevent Israel from trying to actually do something about this deadly threat. And if this makes it clear that all we are trying to do is to kick the can down the road until after the presidential election when we might have more “flexibility” to do a deal with the Iranians, then don’t believe your lying ears and eyes.
The Obama administration has been bragging about the strength of the international coalition it has assembled against Iran and the “crippling sanctions” it has imposed on the Islamist regime. But the dirty little secret about the sanctions is they are riddled with loopholes. Not only has the Treasury Department issued thousands of exemptions to companies that wish to do business with Iran, but President Obama has also specifically granted permission to China and India to go on importing oil from it. Though the sanctions have caused pain to the ordinary Iranian, the government is still raking in more cash from oil sales than it did a decade ago before the sanctions took effect.
This gives some important context to the debate going on in Congress right now about the imposition of a new sanctions bill that takes aim at insurance companies that underwrite Iranian investments. The legislation is vital if a major loophole is to be closed that will make it even more difficult for Iran to conduct commerce. But lobbying from insurance companies that don’t wish to have their businesses impeded are working against the bill. Even more seriously, as the Washington Free Beacon reports, they’ve got Majority Leader Harry Reid on their side.
President Obama’s apologists continue to trumpet the notion that his reliance on diplomacy and sanctions is the best route to stopping Iran’s drive to obtain nuclear weapons. Though the partial oil embargo is making the lives of ordinary Iranians a bit more difficult, the sanctions are so riddled with holes that they are not proving much of a deterrent to the Iranian oil industry’s plans for foreign ventures let alone being enough to force Tehran to give up its nuclear ambition. As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month, the West’s “crippling sanctions” are not stopping an Iranian energy company from making a bid on a French oil refinery.
Iran’s Tadbir Energy is being allowed to bid on the Petit-Couronne refinery, which supplies fuel to Paris. According to the Journal it refines approximately ten percent of the country’s energy. But since Tadbir is not owned by the Iranian government it may wind up taking control of the refinery whose previous Swiss owner has gone belly up. The Imam Khomeini Foundation controls Tadbir, one of Iran’s biggest philanthropies whose close ties with the Islamist regime can easily be imagined. Though the financial restrictions on dealing with Iran and its central bank will complicate Tadbir’s administration of the plant, France’s government, which has been an ardent advocate of sanctions, is not blocking the bid. While this potential transaction is not as significant as the exemptions granted by the Obama administration to China and India to go on purchasing Iranian oil, it is one more sign not only of the widespread evasion of the sanctions but that the Iranians believe they can be waited out.
Back in June, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton caught some flack for acquiescing to Israel’s exclusion from a global counter-terrorism forum. The event was held in Istanbul and the snub to the Israelis was widely believed to be the result of a demand from the event’s Turkish hosts that the Jewish state be kept out of the party even though it has unique expertise in the area. But apparently, the slight to the Israelis was not limited to the event’s initial venue.
As Adam Kredo reports at the Washington Free Beacon, Israel wasn’t invited to the session of the counter-terrorism forum held yesterday in Spain. That was especially telling as Maria Otero, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, delivered a speech at the Spanish conclave titled “Victims of Terrorism.” But not only was an Israeli delegation not present when she spoke, but during her address, Otero never even mentioned the experience of Israeli terror victims. Though Otero’s anti-terrorist sentiments were unexceptionable, the exclusion of Israel, one of the primary targets of international terrorists and among the leading experts in how to deal with the problem, was clearly intentional. As Kredo noted, the State Department spokesperson refused to answer when asked about the omission of Israel from the speech and the conference. Though the Obama administration has been touting the president as Israel’s best friend ever during the election year Jewish charm offensive that followed three years of constant fights with the Jewish state, American diplomats have not gotten with the White House’s political program.
To read some accounts of the impact of the latest Western sanctions on Iran, you’d think the ayatollahs ought to be packing their bags for exile in Paris. Today’s front page feature in the New York Times about the Islamist regime using out-of-service tankers as storage facilities for all the oil they can no longer sell paints a dismal picture of the country’s economy. The story spoke of the squeeze being put on Iran and the prospect that more economic pain is in the offing as the effects of the sanctions start being felt. All of which ought to presage either the collapse of the government or a decision on the part of its leaders that discretion is the better part of valor when it comes to their nuclear ambitions.
But the colorful imagery of the tankers notwithstanding there was nothing in this piece or any other that would lead one to believe that the ayatollahs are really worried. And that’s a point that left-wing pundit Robert Dreyfuss makes all too clear in an article in The Diplomat. Though an Israel-hater like Dreyfuss being right about a Middle East issue is a case of the proverbial blind squirrel finding an acorn, he’s right when he notes that President Obama’s Iran sanctions policy has more of a feel of a ruse aimed at quieting the concerns of friends of Israel than an actual method of heading off the nuclear threat. Nobody in Washington really thinks the sanctions will work and that includes members of the administration which is touting their ability to make the Iranians give in.
Three rounds of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran have proven President Obama’s “window of diplomacy” a colossal failure. But Secretary of State Clinton as well as various administration cheerleaders have been reminding us lately that the international sanctions on Tehran that have been belatedly put in place are just about to really bite. At the end of the month, the West will impose an oil embargo on Iran that could really hurt its economy and perhaps bring the regime to its knees if it is universally observed and vigorously enforced.
But today’s announcement that the Obama administration will grant China and Singapore a six-month exemption from the sanctions shows the confident manner the Iranians displayed at the nuclear talks was not a false front. Having forearmed themselves in the period leading up to the sanctions by securing more contracts with the Chinese, Iran dared the Americans to risk a confrontation with Beijing. The result is that Tehran’s belief President Obama and his Western allies are bluffing has been confirmed rather than debunked. This will act as a virtual green light for the Iranians to keep pushing ahead toward their nuclear goal while Western leaders posture but do little to stop them.
The P5+1 talks resumed today in Moscow, and the only news filtering out of the negotiations is that Iran has been even more insistent than in past meetings about getting the West to drop the economic sanctions that have been imposed on the Islamist regime. The general assumption is that this is a sign of weakness that shows the Iranians are wearying of the pain the sanctions have imposed and are liable to abandon their nuclear ambitions. But despite the hardships the sanctions have caused the Iranian people, Tehran’s bargaining position may be stronger than some Western optimists have assumed.
Iran has not budged from its demand for recognition of its right to right refine uranium while also continuing to increase the ongoing rate of production and stonewalling inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. So there is little doubt Iran is playing the same game in Moscow as it did in earlier negotiating sessions in Ankara and Baghdad. Far from displaying weakness, the Iranians may still be operating on the belief that both President Obama and his European partners are more desperate for a deal — any deal — that will allow them to walk away from a confrontation on the nuclear issue.