Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iran

Frat-House Statecraft and U.S.-Iran Détente

The silliness of President Mom Jeans calling an Israeli special forces veteran “chickens–t” was what first dominated the reactions of the Obama administration’s frat-house taunts directed at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. But the larger strategic impact of the insult, as passed through what Matthew Continetti has termed the “secretarial” press, this time via Jeffrey Goldberg, soon became apparent. And it has now been confirmed by a major story in the Wall Street Journal.

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The silliness of President Mom Jeans calling an Israeli special forces veteran “chickens–t” was what first dominated the reactions of the Obama administration’s frat-house taunts directed at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. But the larger strategic impact of the insult, as passed through what Matthew Continetti has termed the “secretarial” press, this time via Jeffrey Goldberg, soon became apparent. And it has now been confirmed by a major story in the Wall Street Journal.

It was easy at first to miss anything but the string of insults directed from Obama to Netanyahu, including the casual accusation of autism. (It’s arguable whether this represented a new low for the president, who has a habit of demonstrating his grade school playground vocabulary.) But once the initial shock at the further degrading of American statecraft under Obama wore off, it was easy to see the real purpose of the story. The Obama administration wanted to brag through its stenographer that the president had protected the Iranian nuclear program from Israel:

I ran this notion by another senior official who deals with the Israel file regularly. This official agreed that Netanyahu is a “chickenshit” on matters related to the comatose peace process, but added that he’s also a “coward” on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat. The official said the Obama administration no longer believes that Netanyahu would launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to keep the regime in Tehran from building an atomic arsenal. “It’s too late for him to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”

If Iran goes nuclear, those words will be the perfect description of the Obama administration’s fecklessness: “Now it’s too late.” Too late, that is, for our allies like Israel and the Gulf states to protect themselves from the consequences of the Obama administration’s Mideast policies–which principally affect Israel and the Gulf states. But “fecklessness” may not be the right word. The Wall Street Journal reports today that the president has been effective after all:

The Obama administration and Iran, engaged in direct nuclear negotiations and facing a common threat from Islamic State militants, have moved into an effective state of détente over the past year, according to senior U.S. and Arab officials.

The shift could drastically alter the balance of power in the region, and risks alienating key U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates who are central to the coalition fighting Islamic State. Sunni Arab leaders view the threat posed by Shiite Iran as equal to or greater than that posed by the Sunni radical group Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Israel contends the U.S. has weakened the terms of its negotiations with Iran and played down Tehran’s destabilizing role in the region.

The Obama administration, then, has been carrying out its preferred policy: aligning with Iran in the Middle East. Now, this isn’t exactly surprising, since the administration has more or less telegraphed its pitches. Obama has also long been a doormat for the world’s tyrants, so adding Iran to the list that already includes states like Russia and Turkey adds a certain cohesiveness to White House policy.

Obama’s infamous and towering ignorance of world affairs, especially in the Middle East, has always made this latest faceplant somewhat predictable. The Looney-Tunes outburst at Netanyahu was not, but it teaches us two important things about Obama.

First, those who wanted to support Obama but had no real case for him in 2008 went with the idea that he had a “presidential temperament.” Those folks now look quite foolish–though that’s nothing new. Obama has a temperament ill suited for any activity not readily found on frat row.

The second lesson is that the president’s foreign policy is not abandonment of allies–that would be an improvement. It is, instead, full of tactics and strategies that, often unintentionally but no less destructively, put a thumb on the scale against them. For example, from the Journal piece:

The Obama administration also has markedly softened its confrontational stance toward Iran’s most important nonstate allies, the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the Lebanese militant and political organization, Hezbollah. American diplomats, including Secretary of State John Kerry, negotiated with Hamas leaders through Turkish and Qatari intermediaries during cease-fire talks in July that were aimed at ending the Palestinian group’s rocket attacks on Israel, according to senior U.S. officials.

The Iranian proxy terrorist groups on Israel’s border will have a freer hand. It helps explain why the administration served up a ceasefire proposal crafted by Hamas’s patrons, which outraged not only Israel but also Egypt. Protecting Hezbollah will further enable that group to make life hell for Israel’s north (and perhaps not only Israel’s north) when they next feel like it.

But strengthening Hezbollah will not only imperil Israel’s security. It will also put Europe in greater danger and U.S. interests as well. It’s a dim-witted policy, in other words, no matter what you think of Israel. And the general détente with Iran is, as the Journal points out, an insult to our Gulf allies as well as damaging to the fight against ISIS. The president’s policies put our allies at the mercy of their enemies. That he’s taunting them too only makes it clear that the policies are being instituted precisely how he envisioned them.

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Europe’s Iran Pivot

With the November 24 deadline for an agreement on Iran’s illegal nuclear program fast approaching, there is every reason to suspect that the Obama administration may be about to sign off on a woefully inadequate deal that would leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state. As we saw with the interim agreement last fall, Iran received an easing of sanctions in return for what were essentially token concessions–concessions that Iran has already failed to stand by, with international inspectors still being blocked from such key sites as those at Parchin. With the prospect of the administration making a deal with the Iranians that would bring down what remains of the sanctions regime, European businesses are gearing up to resume economic ties with Iran, while the Iranian lobby in Europe is working overtime.

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With the November 24 deadline for an agreement on Iran’s illegal nuclear program fast approaching, there is every reason to suspect that the Obama administration may be about to sign off on a woefully inadequate deal that would leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state. As we saw with the interim agreement last fall, Iran received an easing of sanctions in return for what were essentially token concessions–concessions that Iran has already failed to stand by, with international inspectors still being blocked from such key sites as those at Parchin. With the prospect of the administration making a deal with the Iranians that would bring down what remains of the sanctions regime, European businesses are gearing up to resume economic ties with Iran, while the Iranian lobby in Europe is working overtime.

Despite the fact that Tehran appears in no mood to make any kind of serious compromise on its nuclear program, with the initial six-month negotiating period having already been extended once, the administration has now run out of time for a diplomatic process that never showed any real sign of going anywhere to begin with. But now it appears that both the Iranians and their European trading partners anticipate that a lifting of the sanctions could be imminent. Indeed, earlier this month two separate trade fairs held in Iran featured a host of European companies, with businesses from Spain, France, Italy, Denmark, Britain, and Germany.

But it is also in Europe itself that commercial relations are being reestablished. In both Britain and Germany, concerted efforts are underway to revive Europe’s economic ties with Iran, and friends of the regime in Tehran are playing a leading role in lobbying for normalization. Perhaps most significant so far has been the gathering of the Europe-Iran Forum in London last week, which was officially convened in anticipation of the “expected rollback of the current international sanctions against Iran.”

Nor was this some fringe event. Such prestigious names as Sotheby’s auction house and Dentons law firm turned out for the gathering, and they were accompanied by senior figures such as the chief executive of WPP Martin Sorrell, the director of the Middle East and North Africa department of Britain’s Foreign Office Edward Oakden, the former French Foreign Minister Hubert Verdine, Britain’s former ambassador to Iran Richard Dalton, and of course, Tehran’s most prominent advocate in the UK: former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. To give a sense of just what an enthusiastic proponent for Iran Straw has now become it is worth recalling that earlier this year during a meeting in parliament he asserted that, “Tehran feels like Madrid or Athens rather than Cairo or Mumbai.” A ridiculous claim, when the public executions and state enforced oppression in Iran’s capital makes Athens under the Junta of 1960s, or Franco’s Madrid for that matter, look positively liberal.

As it was, a touch of the Iranian attitude toward press freedom even appeared to find its way into the proceedings at the Europe-Iran Forum meeting. For while Iran’s state controlled media outlets attended in force, the Wall Street Journal’s  Sohrab Ahmari was denied access on the grounds that there wasn’t space. And such initiatives as this one appear to only be the beginning. Last week it was also announced that a ten-man delegation of Iranian business figures will be traveling to Germany next month and will be making visits to Berlin, Hanover, and Hamburg. And it is particularly noteworthy that included in this delegation organized by the German-Iran Chamber of Commerce are key figures from sanctioned industries such as gas and oil, as well as from Iran’s financial sector.

The problem is that, just as European business is seeking to read the signals being put out by Washington, so too are the Iranians carefully watching attitudes in other parts of the West. As Tommy Steiner of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya recently told the Jerusalem Post: “overly eager, not to say drooling, business executives might send a different message to Iran – suggesting they are open for business with Iran no matter what. That is the kind of message that could kill the negotiations.”

The reality is that perceived weakness on the part of the Obama administration is being read by both the Iranians and the Europeans, with each having a knock-on effect upon the other, so working to undermine the international consensus for a tough stance on Iran. And while there may still be multiple UN Security Council resolutions in place prohibiting Iran’s nuclear program, the end result of Obama’s negotiations with Iran may be to achieve nothing more than the erosion of the international consensus that made those resolutions possible.

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Obama Hypocrisy of Avoiding Congress on Iran Deal

The New York Times is reporting that President Obama envisions an Iran deal which could avoid the need for congressional approval:

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The New York Times is reporting that President Obama envisions an Iran deal which could avoid the need for congressional approval:

No one knows if the Obama administration will manage in the next five weeks to strike what many in the White House consider the most important foreign policy deal of his presidency: an accord with Iran that would forestall its ability to make a nuclear weapon. But the White House has made one significant decision: If agreement is reached, President Obama will do everything in his power to avoid letting Congress vote on it.

Let’s put aside the notion that no one in Congress seeks permanent enmity with Tehran: What they see is a solution that addresses American security concerns and, absent that, they might criticize any deal that comes before them. That the administration has so little confidence in its own negotiating team that it fears congressional buy-in says a lot about the weakness of Obama and his team’s way of negotiating. Simply put, for Obama it seems, increasingly, that a bad deal trumps no deal.

The real hypocrisy is this, however: While the Obama administration explained its decision to withdraw completely from Iraq on the fact that the Iraqi government wouldn’t give American forces remaining in the country immunity, this isn’t fully accurate. According to Iraqis, the American negotiating team working out the details simply wouldn’t take yes for an answer for a continued American presence: Prime Minister Maliki offered immunity, but the Obama administration insisted that he get parliamentary approval for any immunity component of the deal. That was politically impossible—as the American team knew it would be—and so Obama had an excuse to walk away.

How ironic it is, then, that the Obama White House insisted that the Iraqi parliament approve such deals, but then turns around and seeks to diminish the role of the U.S. Congress in a decision that is just as momentous for U.S. national security. Obama is no stranger to hypocrisy. In this case, however, it seems that Obama’s attitude toward legislatures is much less guided by law or principle than by his own political ambitions at any given time.

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Throwing a Life Raft to a Failing Iran

One of the most important questions when assessing Iran’s economy and perhaps even the Islamic Republic’s stability is at what price of oil did the Iranian leadership calculate Iran’s budget. The oil market is historically volatile, but prognosticating the average price of oil over the fiscal year is important: Iran’s economy is not only dependent upon petroleum products but it is also beset by a bloated bureaucracy and inefficient management. If Iranian bureaucrats guess wrong about oil prices, then they risk not making payroll. As the price of oil declines, the Iranian government—and even the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—also have less money to engage in special projects or to spend overseas.

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One of the most important questions when assessing Iran’s economy and perhaps even the Islamic Republic’s stability is at what price of oil did the Iranian leadership calculate Iran’s budget. The oil market is historically volatile, but prognosticating the average price of oil over the fiscal year is important: Iran’s economy is not only dependent upon petroleum products but it is also beset by a bloated bureaucracy and inefficient management. If Iranian bureaucrats guess wrong about oil prices, then they risk not making payroll. As the price of oil declines, the Iranian government—and even the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—also have less money to engage in special projects or to spend overseas.

Most analysts believe Iran calculated its budget based on oil being $90/barrel. Brent crude is now trading at $85/barrel, down from $115/barrel in June. Not only does that represent a 26-percent decline in the price of oil in just four months but, if the price remains at $85/barrel, it represents a potential 5.5 percent shortfall in the Iranian budget. If the price falls further and fast, the damage to the Iranian economy and its ability to invest money in international adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip will fall even further.

How sad it is, then, that the Obama administration seems to be greasing its diplomatic process on sanctions relief to the tune of more than $7 billion—122 percent of the official annual budget of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—while European and American firms now chomp at the bit to spend money inside Iran.

There is no coherent regional strategy in the White House or State Department: Heck, it’s been hard enough for the Obama administration to understand that it cannot treat Syria and Iraq as problems detached from each other. While the Obama administration increases its desperation to deal with Iran, it is prepared to ignore Iranian interference in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and Afghanistan. Any cash crunch will negatively impact Iran’s influence and involvement in these countries and territories, especially given the cost of Iran’s subsidies of groups like Hezbollah and Iraq’s various Shi‘ite militias. There should be no argument that the activities of the Qods Force and various Iranian-backed militias are antithetical to regional security and American national interests. Over the past year, the Obama administration has been willing to compartmentalize and ignore this fact in order to advance its nuclear diplomacy.

Perhaps it’s time to recognize that continuing to compartmentalize not only risks letting Tehran off the hook for its actions, but now risks snatching defeat from the jaws of possible victory. Rather than provide Iran cash (or enable investment which does the same thing) to help the regime in time of need, the United States should be doing everything in its power to reduce the price of oil further. This would give Iranian officials a choice: Either cease interfering in and destabilizing countries like Syria and Lebanon, or risk collapsing Iran’s own economy. And if the United States managed to play its cards right, it might just cripple the regime enough to set itself and Iran down the path of solving myriad other regional problems.

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Has Saudi Arabia Really Become Moderate?

Saudi Arabia has been an ally of the United States since that fateful day almost 70 years ago when President Franklin Roosevelt met King Saud on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal as Roosevelt returned from the Yalta Conference. Saudi Arabia was the only World War II non-combatant to take part in the Lend Lease program. And the relationship strengthened over subsequent decades alongside a deepening energy partnership. At times, Saudi Arabia has been a crucial ally–for example, during Operation Desert Storm. But these instances of assistance pale in comparison to the damage Saudi Arabia has done in the region with its promotion and support of the most extreme and violent interpretations of Islam. To be blunt, Saudi Arabia has been just as corrosive to regional stability over the last decades as has the Islamic Republic of Iran. Only in recent years, as Saudi Arabia has begun to experience blowback from its own support of extremism abroad, has it begun to take the cancer of radicalism more seriously.

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Saudi Arabia has been an ally of the United States since that fateful day almost 70 years ago when President Franklin Roosevelt met King Saud on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal as Roosevelt returned from the Yalta Conference. Saudi Arabia was the only World War II non-combatant to take part in the Lend Lease program. And the relationship strengthened over subsequent decades alongside a deepening energy partnership. At times, Saudi Arabia has been a crucial ally–for example, during Operation Desert Storm. But these instances of assistance pale in comparison to the damage Saudi Arabia has done in the region with its promotion and support of the most extreme and violent interpretations of Islam. To be blunt, Saudi Arabia has been just as corrosive to regional stability over the last decades as has the Islamic Republic of Iran. Only in recent years, as Saudi Arabia has begun to experience blowback from its own support of extremism abroad, has it begun to take the cancer of radicalism more seriously.

But while Saudi Arabia now portrays itself as moderate and responsible, and while many supporters of Israel concerned by Iran reconsider the role of Saudi Arabia in the region, ugly episodes, such as the the sentencing of Shi‘ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr to death, remind us just how sectarian and ideological the Saudi Kingdom is. In June, my American Enterprise Institute colleague Ahmad Majidyar and I published a short monograph surveying regional Shi‘ite communities outside Iran. We noted both the legitimate grievances many of these communities have and their efforts to maintain their autonomy from Iran. Many Shi‘ites despise the Islamic Republic and to paint all Shi‘ites as Fifth Columnists is counterproductive. To turn a blind eye to repression of Shi‘ites in countries like Saudi Arabia is to play into Iranian propaganda and give these communities no recourse but to turn to Iran for protection.

Saudi Arabia is as bigoted a country as Turkey or Qatar, its recent attempts to paint a moderate image notwithstanding. It can never become a moderate, responsible partner so long as its embrace of sectarianism trumps tolerance and rule-of-law. Let us hope that Saudi authorities are not so shortsighted as to execute—murder would be as appropriate a term—Sheikh Nimr. And if they do carry out the sentence, Saudi Arabia deserves no support when it faces the storm that follows. It is time to calibrate U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia not to that country’s money and oil but rather to its behavior and willingness to undo the damage it has done over the past half century.

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Diplomatic Success Requires Willingness to Walk Away

In Dancing with the Devil, my recent study of U.S. negotiation with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I document how American diplomats who seek to resolve conflict by talking to parties that refuse to adhere to the norms of diplomacy often become so invested in the process that they end up prioritizing continued dialogue over the very goal of talks.

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In Dancing with the Devil, my recent study of U.S. negotiation with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I document how American diplomats who seek to resolve conflict by talking to parties that refuse to adhere to the norms of diplomacy often become so invested in the process that they end up prioritizing continued dialogue over the very goal of talks.

There are any numbers of examples: Successive administrations have desperately attempted to continue talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, even if it has meant absolving Palestinian leaders and factions of the requirement to forswear terrorism and recognize Israel’s legitimacy. The only president who sought to hold true to the Oslo Accord and who refused to tolerate terrorism was George W. Bush. For his sin of moral clarity and for his refusal to rationalize terrorism, he brought upon himself the opprobrium of the State Department, for whom the continuation of the process trumped its substance.

The same pattern occurred with regard to North Korea. Next week will mark the 20th anniversary of the Agreed Framework. That anniversary should be cause to reflect about just how irrelevant agreements can be when partners are insincere and treat diplomacy as an asymmetric warfare strategy. Against the backdrop of ever more desperate American attempts to engage, North Korea developed nuclear weapons and new generations of ballistic missiles.

Unfortunately, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry appear determined to make the same mistake with regard to Iran. Jonathan Tobin already noted how the Europeans are betting that Obama will appease Iran. It’s not a bad bet. After all, while the White House and State Department seek creative formulas to keep talks going, it’s useful to remember multiple unanimous or near-unanimous United Nations Security Council resolutions insisting Iran cease enrichment.  It’s also worth recalling the original International Atomic Energy Agency findings of Iran’s non-compliance with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safe Guards agreement, which put Tehran in the hot seat in the first place. Obama likes to claim he values multilateralism, but he has become an extremely unilateral American president, voiding those multilateral Security Council resolutions for the sake of his own diplomatic ambition.

Alas, Obama seems intent to compound failure. In order to ensure continued dialogue, Obama and Kerry appear prepared either to take a bad agreement or extend talks beyond their promised deadline. This plays into Iran’s hands because, after all, there is very little to talk about: Either Iran complies with its responsibilities or it does not and faces the consequences.

If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail; if you’re a diplomat, everything looks like a reason to continue talks. Seldom, it seems, is their consideration of the larger picture or of the broader strategy. This is an administration without a strategist. Nor is it an administration with perspective. When the United States sits down at the table, it should not sit as an equal, but rather as the stronger, dominant party. Cultural equivalence is the refuge of the defeatist. If it looks like opponents are insincere with regard to talks, value process over commitments to peace, or are unable to offer a good deal, then the United States should simply walk away until it reinforces its leverage and is capable of getting a deal which fulfills its needs. That is not hostility to diplomacy; it is recognition that diplomacy means more than constant talk.

When describing Iranian negotiating behavior, many people—not only Americans but also Iranians—utilize the analogy of the Iranian bazaar. Negotiations over the price of Persian carpets may be just one example of the type of haggling Iranians engage in: they could just as easily be bargaining over the price of eggs, vegetables, crates of tea, or furniture. But when Iranians are unable to get a good price or if they believe their negotiation partner is being unreasonable, they will walk away.

That’s a lesson American negotiators should learn. Obama and Kerry are like the tourists who don’t recognize they face a 600 percent mark-up and could get a better deal if they demonstrate a willingness to leave the store. Alas, as the administration winds down and both Obama and Kerry see their legacies tarnished by repeated failure, they seem unwilling to question their basic approach and strategy. They act like gamblers who lose everything but can’t resist that one more spin of the wheel, to win it all back. How sad it is that they forget the house always wins. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is running the house and there are consequences to failure.

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Trouble on Israel’s Northern Border

During Israel’s most recent war with Hamas this summer, relatively little attention was given to the volley of rockets fired into Israel from Lebanon. Yet all the while, the threat of a second front opening with Hezbolah was of critical concern to Israeli strategists. Fortunately, Hezbollah was tied up with events in Syria, as it still is right now. Nevertheless, the possibility of a potentially far more devastating war with Hezbollah remains ever present.

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During Israel’s most recent war with Hamas this summer, relatively little attention was given to the volley of rockets fired into Israel from Lebanon. Yet all the while, the threat of a second front opening with Hezbolah was of critical concern to Israeli strategists. Fortunately, Hezbollah was tied up with events in Syria, as it still is right now. Nevertheless, the possibility of a potentially far more devastating war with Hezbollah remains ever present.

The explosions and incursions into Israeli territory that occurred on the Lebanese border last weeks are a reminder that this ongoing threat could all too easily escalate. With Hezbollah’s Iranian paymasters always looking for distractions from their illegal nuclear program, the recent war in Gaza, like the rise of ISIS, provided just such a distraction. As there is now the possibility of renewed pressure on Iran over its nuclear program–particularly once the congressional midterms are over–the Iranians are no doubt weighing the benefits of diverting the world’s attention through another proxy war with Israel.

Considering the reality of this wider geopolitical context it is extraordinary that parts of the international media have attempted to construe the recent incidents on the Lebanese border as in some way deriving from a land dispute over the so-called Sheba Farms. That was the line taken by the Agence France-Presse recently. It is true that the Lebanese state claims this splinter of the Golan Heights as part of Lebanon, despite the fact that the United Nations has made quite clear that Israel withdrew from all Lebanese territory in 2000. But to imagine that the leaders of a radical Shia group like Hezbollah genuinely lose sleep over whether or not the Lebanese state has sovereignty over the Sheba farms is completely implausible. Yet, during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war even then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was prepared to entertain the notion that Hezbollah might be appeased by an Israeli withdrawal from the Sheba farms.

The idea that Hezbollah’s belligerence toward Israel is on account of a minor territorial dispute is as foolish as the belief that Hamas went to war this summer over Gaza’s lack of an international seaport. Islamist groups such as these do not take to the warpath over these kinds of single-issue grievances. If such disputes were the real cause of their underlying conflict with Israel then peace would have been secured long ago. Rather, these factions initiate hostilities when their ongoing desire to destroy the Jewish state aligns with a geopolitical moment that encourages them to believe that a renewal of the violence could be advantageous.

Israel, however, will also be aware that the volatility along the northern border is yet another manifestation of the turmoil raging throughout the region as Iranian backed Shia forces continue to slug it out with radical Sunni groups. Along with the threat of ISIS infiltrating into Lebanon from Syria, there has also been the ongoing effort by Hezbollah to transfer Assad’s weapons stockpiles to their strongholds in Lebanon. Recalling that southern Lebanon is another territory from which Israel withdrew its military, Israelis will surely be drawing similar lessons to the ones they drew this summer from the war in Gaza. Given those rocket and tunnel attacks, the threat growing along the Golan Heights, the attacks that have come from the border with Sinai, the very real threat of Jordan also becoming engulfed by ISIS, and now the renewed hostilities on the Lebanese border, Israelis will surely be all the more wary about bringing the threat still closer to their population centers by pulling out of strategically vital West Bank areas such as the Jordan Valley.

So while European governments and the Obama administration continue to push the line that there is an urgent need to press on with resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, nothing could be further from the truth. The critically fragile situation on the Lebanese border, so intrinsically linked as it is to the present situation in Syria and the ongoing Iranian quest for regional hegemony, should persuade observers that the matter of Israeli territorial concessions is one issue on which the parties should sit tight. With so many parts of the jigsaw on the move, Western leaders ought to be eager to preserve those few areas where relative stability is still being maintained. Finally, in the event that Hezbollah does seek to provoke a further conflagration on the northern border, they should know which forces are really behind it. And its not the Israeli presence in the Sheba farms.

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How Iran Outwits Obama in the Middle East

While Iran’s role as a leading sponsor of global terrorism is well known, far less coverage is given to Iranian leaders’ strategic acumen. Yet it’s clear that a theme has emerged in the Middle East: long engaged in a proxy war against America, Tehran is now, in the age of Obama, simply running circles around Washington.

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While Iran’s role as a leading sponsor of global terrorism is well known, far less coverage is given to Iranian leaders’ strategic acumen. Yet it’s clear that a theme has emerged in the Middle East: long engaged in a proxy war against America, Tehran is now, in the age of Obama, simply running circles around Washington.

There are three kinds of Mideast engagements with Iran. In all three, Iran is a step ahead of the Obama administration. The first category is direct military engagement. The United States military is involved in conflict in Iraq and Syria. In both countries, the U.S. has been treated to characterizations that America is more or less acting as Iran’s air force: in Iraq, that comparison is made directly; in Syria, it is by acting essentially as Bashar al-Assad’s air force–and Assad is an Iranian proxy hanging on to power in large part through Iran’s investment.

The second category includes conflicts in which America’s allies are up against Iranian proxies. Israel, for example, fought a summer war against Hamas, an Iranian client firing Syrian missiles delivered by Iran. Far from understanding what was taking place, the Obama administration played right into Iran’s hands by distancing itself from Sisi’s Egypt and not only pressuring Israel to give in to Hamas’s terror but even sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Cairo with a ceasefire agreement reflecting the wishes of Hamas’s patrons. When Israel objected, President Obama took retribution against Jerusalem, withholding arms transfers while Israel was under fire.

This includes Lebanon as well, where Iranian proxies not only occasionally attack Israel but have a chokehold on a the government. The West has occasionally stepped up in Lebanon, such as when it galvanized outrage at Syria to help force Assad’s expulsion from its neighbor. But most of the time, the West has been unwilling or unable to protect Lebanon’s sovereignty. And as Jonathan wrote earlier in the week, concern about ISIS terrorism is raising the possibility of legitimizing and mainstreaming Hezbollah.

And then there is the direct American engagement with Iran on its nuclear program. On this, the Iranians saw early on that Obama and Kerry wanted a deal of some sort that would kick the can down the road while enabling the president to claim progress. It’s doubtful any such plan was more obviously bush league than begging the Iranians to disconnect some pipe rather than dismantle the program. But the limitless diplomacy, in which deadlines float past with nary a thought, has done its damage as well by giving the Iranians additional leverage–and a powerful bargaining chip–on other issues on which the U.S. would want Iranian cooperation.

Aside from these three, there is evidence of a fourth category in the Middle East: a state like Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Putinesque turn away from democracy, human rights, and the West more generally has been conducted publicly, but even here there appears to be malign Iranian influence. Former Naval War College professor John Schindler has a fascinating post discussing the Turkish government’s connections to Iranian intelligence. He writes:

The key player in this plot is a shadowy terrorist group termed Tawhid-Salam that goes back to the mid-1990s and has been blamed for several terrorist incidents, including the 2011 bombing of the Israeli consulate in Istanbul, which wounded several people, as well as a thwarted bombing of the Israeli embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia, in early 2012. Tawhid-Salam, which also goes by the revealing name “Jerusalem Army,” has long been believed to be a front for Iranian intelligence, particularly its most feared component, the elite Quds (Jerusalem) Force of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (Pasdaran), which handles covert action abroad, including terrorism in many countries. It also is believed to be behind the murders of several anti-Tehran activists in Turkey in the 1990’s, using Tawhid-Salam as a cut-out.

Yet nothing has been done to crack down on the group in Turkey. Schindler continues:

This may have something to do with the fact that Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkish intelligence, is apparently on the Pasdaran payroll too, and may have secret ties to Tehran going back almost twenty years. Rumors about Fidan, a member of Erdoğan’s inner circle, who has headed the country’s powerful National Intelligence Organization (MİT) since 2010, have swirled in counterintelligence services worldwide for years. Israeli intelligence in particular, which once had a close relationship with MİT, has long regarded Fidan as Tehran’s man, and has curtailed its intelligence cooperation with Turkey commensurately, believing that all information shared with Fidan was going to Iran.

Privately, U.S. intelligence officials too have worried about Fidan’s secret ties, not least because MİT includes Turkey’s powerful signals intelligence (SIGINT) service, which has partnered with NATO for decades, including the National Security Agency.

I recommend reading the whole thing, but the Turkish connection serves to fill out the picture of Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. Tehran has continually played Washington, setting fires and then offering to help Obama put them out, for a price. It’s a predictable racket, but Obama keeps falling for it.

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What Obama Left Unsaid

A year ago President Obama was contemplating bombing Syria in order to punish Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons. Now U.S. warplanes are actually bombing Syria–but not Assad’s forces. This week’s air strikes targeted only ISIS and the Khorasan group, a subset of the Nusra Front, which is fighting against Assad’s regime. There are credible reports that the U.S. gave a heads-up about the airstrikes to the Iranian and Syrian regimes but not to the Free Syrian Army, our ostensible allies on the ground.

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A year ago President Obama was contemplating bombing Syria in order to punish Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons. Now U.S. warplanes are actually bombing Syria–but not Assad’s forces. This week’s air strikes targeted only ISIS and the Khorasan group, a subset of the Nusra Front, which is fighting against Assad’s regime. There are credible reports that the U.S. gave a heads-up about the airstrikes to the Iranian and Syrian regimes but not to the Free Syrian Army, our ostensible allies on the ground.

The Free Syrian Army forces have no love lost for ISIS and they have fought against its fanatical fighters whose activities have been largely focused not on resisting the Assad regime but on consolidating control of rebel-held areas. But the Free Syrian Army has worked with Nusra against the Assad regime and its leaders are understandably perplexed by the U.S. failure to target Assad.

McClatchy reports from Turkey: “By focusing exclusively on Islamic State insurgents and al Qaida figures associated with the Khorasan unit of the Nusra Front, and bypassing installations associated with the government of President Bashar Assad, the airstrikes infuriated anti-regime Syrians and hurt the standing of moderate rebel groups that are receiving arms and cash as part of a covert CIA operation based in the Turkish border city of Reyhanli.”

It is hard to figure out if Obama, who has publicly been on record as demanding Assad’s departure from power since 2011, is even interested in hastening regime change anymore. Anyone listening to his United Nations speech today would have been left perplexed. While Obama had a long and fiery denunciation of ISIS’s “network of death,” he mentioned Assad only once: “Together with our partners, America is training and equipping the Syrian opposition to be a counterweight to the terrorists of ISIL and the brutality of the Assad regime,” he said. “But the only lasting solution to Syria’s civil war is political – an inclusive political transition that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens, regardless of ethnicity or creed.”

That’s a long way from Obama’s statement in August 2011: “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Nor, it should be noted, did Obama have any harsh words for Iran, which is sponsoring Assad’s murderous attacks on his own people. Rather than denouncing Iran (whose support for terrorism went unmentioned), he offered the mullahs yet another olive branch: “My message to Iran’s leaders and people is simple: do not let this opportunity pass. We can reach a solution that meets your energy needs while assuring the world that your program is peaceful.”

The fact that Obama is no longer demanding Assad’s resignation and that U.S. aircraft are not targeting any regime installations suggests that Obama may view Assad and his Iranian patrons as de facto allies against ISIS. This, sadly, is more evidence of the theory that Michael Doran and I have previously advanced that Obama is trying to engineer an entente with Tehran that would turn Iran into America’s partner in the Middle East. He may even be going easy on Assad to win Iranian support for a nuclear deal.

If so, this is a tragically misguided policy that will make the U.S. complicit in Iranian-sponsored war crimes while actually undermining our goal of turning Sunni tribes in both Iraq and Syria against ISIS: The Sunnis will not fight if they perceive the opposition to ISIS as being dominated by Iran and Assad. The president would be better advised to pursue a more evenhanded strategy of bombing both ISIS and the Assad regime. Otherwise we risk “degrading” one group of violent, anti-American fanatics while empowering a competing group of violent, anti-American fanatics.

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A Haunting Feeling About Obama

For those who believe that the air strikes we’re conducting against Syria will achieve President Obama’s goal of defeating ISIS, consider this story in yesterday’s New York Times, which begins this way:

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For those who believe that the air strikes we’re conducting against Syria will achieve President Obama’s goal of defeating ISIS, consider this story in yesterday’s New York Times, which begins this way:

After six weeks of American airstrikes, the Iraqi government’s forces have scarcely budged the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State from their hold on more than a quarter of the country, in part because many critical Sunni tribes remain on the sidelines.

This news comes as we learned over the weekend that ISIS attacked an Iraqi army base, killing upwards of 300-500 Iraqi soldiers. “If the survivors’ accounts are correct,” the Washington Post reports, “it would make Sunday the most disastrous day for the Iraqi army since several divisions collapsed in the wake of the Islamic State’s capture of the northern city of Mosul amid its cross-country sweep in June.”

So while in Iraq we’ve been pounding ISIS from the air for a month and a half, we haven’t begun to fundamentally alter the facts on the ground.

Now keep this in mind: the situation in Iraq, while certainly challenging, is many times less complicated for us than the situation in Syria, which is (a) ruled by an enemy of America; (b) a client state of Iran; and (c) engaged in a ferocious, multi-sided civil war involving forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Free Syrian Army.

In addition, in Iraq there are Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga who are willing to fight ISIS, albeit imperfectly. (Both have suffered serious military reversal this past summer.) Success in Iraq depends on working with Iraq’s Sunni tribes, which happened during the counterinsurgency strategy in 2007-08.

In atomized, hellish Syria we have no such advantages. Which is why if President Obama persists in refusing to allow U.S. “boots on the ground”–if he doesn’t allow American troops to coordinate on the front lines with forces opposing ISIS–we can’t defeat ISIS. That doesn’t mean we can’t inflict damage on it, of course; but inflicting damage is one thing, defeating ISIS is quite another.

The president, in ordering air strikes in Syria, has dramatically escalated our involvement in this war. But one cannot shake the haunting feeling that he’s simply going through the motions; that Mr. Obama is stunned to find himself in this predicament, that his heart and will are not in this war, and that he’s not really committed to winning it.

ISIS, on the other hand, is.

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Is ISIS Mainstreaming Hezbollah?

One of the side effects of the rise of ISIS has been to boost the diplomatic position of Iran, one of the terror group’s chief adversaries. But just as Iran is reaping benefits from its opposition to ISIS, so, too, may Tehran’s chief terror auxiliary: Hezbollah. Evidence of this is provided in today’s New York Times in which the Lebanese terror group seeks to boost its reputation certain of a responsive audience in the West.

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One of the side effects of the rise of ISIS has been to boost the diplomatic position of Iran, one of the terror group’s chief adversaries. But just as Iran is reaping benefits from its opposition to ISIS, so, too, may Tehran’s chief terror auxiliary: Hezbollah. Evidence of this is provided in today’s New York Times in which the Lebanese terror group seeks to boost its reputation certain of a responsive audience in the West.

Iran and Hezbollah have much in common with ISIS in terms of hostility to the West, support for terror, and Islamist ambitions. But the Shia-Sunni religious schism makes them implacable foes as well as being on opposite sides of the ongoing wars for control of Iraq and Syria. This also places them, at least in theory, on the same side as the United States as it now haltingly attempts to fight ISIS. That awkward juxtaposition has convinced the Iranians that the West is no longer serious about stopping their drive for nuclear weapons. This conclusion is well supported by the latest pathetic rumblings from the Obama administration about a “face-saving” proposal to help conclude another weak nuclear deal. The bottom line there is that Iran has good reason to believe it can now either defy the West entirely and push on to fulfillment of its nuclear goal or sign a deal that can be easily evaded to the same end.

Hezbollah’s goals are more limited. The Lebanese terror group has been badly damaged by its intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime. Acting on Tehran’s orders, Hezbollah has taken heavy losses and found itself embroiled in a conflict that it can’t win as Syrians revolted against Iran’s ally. But it, too, sees belated Western intervention against ISIS as a potential turning point in the conflict. As the Times notes, even though both Iran and Hezbollah agree that there will be no coordination with the United States—a position that the administration is adamant about—the reality on the ground may be different.

The Syrian civil war is a complex conflict in which the various sides–Assad’s forces and his Hezbollah allies, moderate Syrians, more radical anti-regime forces, and ISIS–are all at war with each other. Secretary of State John Kerry noted last week that Assad is “playing footsie” with ISIS as he seeks to strengthen them at the expense of more credible domestic foes.

This awful situation is largely the result of the West’s refusal to intervene in Syria years ago when it was possible to both topple Assad and prevent the emergence of ISIS. There are only bad choices left, of which allowing ISIS to continue to expand would be the worst. But even as the U.S. chooses among those unsavory options, Hezbollah is hoping the new alignment will solidify their position in Lebanon as well as normalizing them in the eyes of the world. This is something the U.S. must resist.

The decision of Hezbollah’s PR chief to give an interview to the Times’s Beirut bureau chief is a sign the group knows the time is ripe to bolster their international standing. But the resulting article, which includes comments from other pro-Hezbollah figures, seems to make the case that there is a wide gulf separating the group from ISIS. But this PR campaign should not go unanswered.

In the article, Hezbollah official Mohammed Afif claims the group warned the West about the danger from terrorism but nobody listened until ISIS began beheading Western captives. Another pro-Hezbollah voice is Kamel Wazne, who is given the last word in the Times piece. He says Hezbollah only presents a threat to Israel, not the U.S. and Europe. But that is a lie. Hezbollah has conducted terror operations at Iran’s behest in both Europe and South America over the years. Merely being an ISIS rival in the cutthroat world of Middle East conflict ought not give Hezbollah a Western seal of approval.

By going into a war with ISIS in a halfhearted manner, President Obama does not appear to have a strategy to actually “degrade,” let alone defeat, ISIS. But one of the perhaps unintended consequences of this lead-from-behind approach will be to further empower and validate Hezbollah’s own murderous efforts that have already contributed to the death toll in Syria.

The United States will have to do more than merely say it won’t cooperate with Iran and Hezbollah against ISIS. It must actively aid the efforts of those forces that are fighting against these outside meddlers who are in many respects similar to ISIS. The U.S. appears to be now heading toward a situation where it will not only fail to eradicate ISIS but will also strengthen those terrorists who are looking forward to operating in the future under the cover of an Iranian nuclear umbrella. That is a formula for more chaos. For an administration that considers “don’t do stupid stuff” to be its guiding principle, that’s pretty stupid.

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Ally with Assad Against ISIS? Not So Fast

In yesterday’s New York Times, Palestinian academic Ahmad Samih Khalidi argued that to defeat ISIS in Syria, the U.S. should ally not with “moderate” opposition groups–whom he claims are nonexistent–but with the Bashar Assad regime and its Iranian patrons. This is a popular argument and has a certain “enemy of my enemy” logic to it. There are only two minor problems with this proposal. First, it won’t work. Second, if it does work, it would produce a catastrophe.

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In yesterday’s New York Times, Palestinian academic Ahmad Samih Khalidi argued that to defeat ISIS in Syria, the U.S. should ally not with “moderate” opposition groups–whom he claims are nonexistent–but with the Bashar Assad regime and its Iranian patrons. This is a popular argument and has a certain “enemy of my enemy” logic to it. There are only two minor problems with this proposal. First, it won’t work. Second, if it does work, it would produce a catastrophe.

The strongest part of Khalidi’s argument is the assertion that in Syria “the most effective forces on the ground today–and for the foreseeable future–are decidedly nonmoderate.” That’s true, in large part I would argue (contrary to his view) because the West did let down the more moderate Free Syrian Army. Having failed to arm and train it three years ago, as some of us advocated at the time, we have watched the more nationalist resistance be sidelined by jihadists. Now it will be much more difficult than in the past to try to create an effective opposition that will fight both the jihadists (of ISIS and Al Nusra, primarily) and the Assad regime.

But allying with the Assad regime, however alluring, is not an effective alternative. In the first place Assad has shown minimal interest in fighting ISIS. There is, in fact, plentiful evidence that Assad has tacitly cooperated with ISIS in order to buttress his argument that all of his opponents are Salafist fanatics. Even if Assad were truly interested in fighting ISIS, the U.S. should have nothing to do with his way of warfare which involves dropping barrel bombs and chlorine gas on innocent civilians and leveling entire neighborhoods with artillery and airpower. This is a monstrous way of fighting which has driven the death toll above 200,000.

Aside from its immorality, Assad’s way of war–conducted with advice and support from the Iranians and their Lebanese proxies in Hezbollah–is not effective. For all of Assad’s brutality, he has not succeeded in defeating the opposition, because his indiscriminate attacks only drive more Sunnis into opposition against his minority Alawite regime.

A similar situation exists in Iraq, another place where many argue the U.S. should ally with Shiite extremists under Iran’s direction. There, too, Shiite atrocities only reinforce ISIS’s appeal among Sunnis as their defenders. The way to beat ISIS in both Syria and Iraq is to ally with the Sunni tribes: if they flip against ISIS the group will be defeated in short order, as its predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq was defeated in Anbar Province during the Awakening in 2007-2008.

But let’s say I’m wrong. Let’s suppose that Assad can in fact kill enough people to regain control of all of Syria’s territory and to defeat ISIS. And let’s say the Shiite militias in Iraq are equally successful. What would be the upshot? The result would be Iranian domination of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon–at a minimum. Let’s recall that Iran is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism in the world–a regime that has been waging war through terrorism against the U.S. from the days of the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979 to the days of Iranian-supplied EFPs (explosively formed projectiles) in Iraq as recently as 2011.

Khalidi claims that Iran is preferable to ISIS: “It bears noting that neither Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite movement based in Lebanon,” he writes, “nor Iran has declared a global war on the West and non-Muslims, unlike Saudi-inspired salafists and their jihadist brethren.” You could have fooled me. Certainly Iran and Hezbollah have been responsible for heinous acts of terrorism abroad such as the 1992 and 1992 bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina, the 2012 bus bombing in Bulgaria which killed five Israeli citizens, and numerous other attacks, actual and attempted. All such attacks have undoubtedly had a large element of Quds Force involvement. The Quds Force has also carried out other attacks on its own, such as the attempted assassination of the Saudi Ambassador in Washington in 2011.

In short the U.S. would be foolhardy in the extreme if it were to take actions that would result in expanding the Iranian sphere of influence. That would simply be promoting one group of anti-American terrorists at the expense of another group of anti-American terrorists. Because we must avoid that outcome, we have to tread carefully in Iraq and Syria, mobilizing more moderate Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites against the extremists of both sides–both the Quds Force and ISIS. That may not be easy to do but there is no realistic alternative.

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Iranian’s Death Exposes Iran’s Syria Strategy

Culturally Americans are very direct. We say what we mean, and we don’t often beat around the bush. When George W. Bush declared, in the wake of 9/11, “You’re either with us or against us,” he captured in a phrase something a like-minded European politician might have taken an hour to say.

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Culturally Americans are very direct. We say what we mean, and we don’t often beat around the bush. When George W. Bush declared, in the wake of 9/11, “You’re either with us or against us,” he captured in a phrase something a like-minded European politician might have taken an hour to say.

The same thing holds true with regard to foreign affairs. When the United States engages militarily, it is often quite direct. Bill Clinton did not send American troops into Somalia or Bosnia secretly, nor did he try to hide the fact that he had ordered a cruise missile strike on Sudan and Afghanistan in the wake of the East Africa embassy bombings. George W. Bush declared the war on terrorism, which combined not only the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but also deployments to the Philippines. Likewise, Barack Obama has announced the deployment of American forces to places as far afield as Uganda, Iraq, and Liberia.

Many other countries obfuscate when they send troops into harm’s way. Hence, Russia has consistently denied that its troops were fighting in Ukraine, even as Russian journalists uncovered graves in Pskov, home of the 76th Guards Air Assault Division, of Russian special forces based there but whom the Ukrainian government had announced killed over the previous weeks in Ukraine.

Likewise, the Iranian government has long denied that its forces are actively fighting in Syria. When the Syrian opposition has captured Iranians inside Syria, Tehran has dismissed its culpability saying that the young, fit, military-age men were simply pilgrims. This, of course, is nonsense. Heading into the midst of war-torn Syria on religious pilgrimage is like going to Acapulco for the cross-country skiing.

It seems with the United States projecting weakness and with President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and their team willfully blind, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has stopped hiding its direct involvement in the Syrian fighting, at least in Persian. Hence, this story in the semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency today, which announces the death of one Hoseyn Tabesteh which it identifies as a member of the “10th of Moharrem” IRGC Unit. Qasem Malekdar, the head of the Martyrs Foundation of Semnan Province, told the news agency that Tabesteh would be buried today in Semnan’s Shahrud county with several parliamentarians and provincial officials in attendance.

It is absolutely necessary to counter ISIS, wherever it might be—in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, or Lebanon. At the same time, journalists and analysts are right to ask whether targeting ISIS inside Syria is simply going to empower Bashar al-Assad and his noxious regime. The answer, of course, is not necessarily: there are more than two forces fighting inside Syria. While I am dubious about the Free Syrian Army, its moderation, and its capabilities, the Syrian Kurds are a more capable force than their Iraqi counterparts and have a far better track record against both ISIS and the Syrian regime. The problem is, though, that the White House and Pentagon continue to see Syria as an isolated, contained problem. President Obama’s strategy assumes the United States will act, and that no one else will interfere in the sandbox.

But if this story from Iran’s conservative press is to be believed—and there is no reason why it should not—then the IRGC will do its darnedest to ensure that once U.S. strikes against ISIS begin in Syria, Iran will be in a position to seize maximum advantage for Assad. This is not a reason for inaction against ISIS; rather, it is long past time that the White House and the Pentagon make clear that the IRGC inside Syria cannot expect immunity from American action regardless of the ongoing talks over Iran’s nuclear program. Iranians may culturally be indirect, but America should not be. To ignore the reality of Iranian action and strategy will simply empower Iran to augment its strategic position on the back of U.S. force, again.

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Iran Promotes 9/11 Conspiracy on Anniversary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What the Syria Fiasco Means for Iran, Gaza

To say President Obama badly needed a foreign-policy win is an understatement. And there were decent odds he’d eventually get one: as sports fans tend to say about a batter in a terrible slump, “he’s due.” The plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons was supposed to be that victory. But now administration officials don’t seem to even believe it themselves.

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To say President Obama badly needed a foreign-policy win is an understatement. And there were decent odds he’d eventually get one: as sports fans tend to say about a batter in a terrible slump, “he’s due.” The plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons was supposed to be that victory. But now administration officials don’t seem to even believe it themselves.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, who rose to prominence accusing lots of American officials of inexcusable inaction while mass slaughter occurred on their watch and then joined the Obama Cabinet where she has practiced inexcusable inaction while mass slaughter occurred on her watch, says Assad may still have chemical weapons. And he has a record of using them. Oh, and the brutal butchers of ISIS may get their hands on them too. So the administration’s one success in the Middle East was less “mission accomplished” and more “hey, we gave it a shot.”

There is much to be concerned about in this report, but even the minor details are problematic:

Samantha Power spoke to reporters after the Security Council received a briefing from Sigrid Kaag, who heads the international effort to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.

The joint mission of the United Nations and the Organization for the prohibition of Chemical Weapons will end at the end of the month after destroying nearly all of Syria’s declared stockpile. But Kaag said the OPCW is still working with Syria to resolve discrepancies in its declaration, which she said range from outdated records to discrepancies on the volume of materials.

Power said the U.S. is concerned not only that President Bashar Assad’s regime still has chemical weapons but that any stockpiles left behind could end up in the hands of the Islamic State group, which has seized large swaths of Syria and Iraq.

“Certainly if there are chemical weapons left in Syria, there will be a risk that those weapons fall into ISIL’s hands. And we can only imagine what a group like that would do if in possession of such a weapon,” Power said, referring to the militant group by one of its known acronyms.

The Easter egg of disaster buried in that excerpt was the following sentence, if you missed it: “The joint mission of the United Nations and the Organization for the prohibition of Chemical Weapons will end at the end of the month after destroying nearly all of Syria’s declared stockpile.” It’s actually quite amazing. The job isn’t finished, and they know it’s not, but they’re ending the crux of the mission anyway because … well they just are.

So what are the lessons from yet another Obama team failure? Firstly, we knew this was a failure even before the mission came to an end, because the list of banned chemicals was not exhaustive and Assad’s regime was still using other chemical weapons during this process.

But more importantly, it continues to hammer away at whatever is left of Obama’s credibility. Ending the mission to follow through on the chemical-weapons deal before it’s done tells us much about why the world would be foolish to trust Obama on any Iran deal. Deadlines get extended, but at some point they don’t even do that anymore; the administration just gives up and pivots to trying to contain the damage from their failure.

In Syria, that damage means the possibility that not one but two actors in the conflict will use chemical weapons: the original offender, Assad, and the murderous Islamists of ISIS. In Iran, the damage from such a failure would be orders of magnitude worse, because it would mean nuclear weapons in the hands of a terroristic state actor and possibly murderous Islamist groups as well. It could be Syria, in other words, minus the state failure but plus nukes.

And it’s not just Iran, of course. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suggested that in order to preserve a cessation of hostilities emanating from Gaza, the Hamas-run enclave should be demilitarized with Obama’s Syria disarmament in mind. As the Jerusalem Post reported during the recent war:

The idea of demilitarizing Gaza has its roots in the Syrian precedent, and the fact that the US and Russia managed to successfully dismantle Syria of the vast majority of its chemical weapons stockpile.

Netanyahu likes that model, and has repeatedly praised US President Barack Obama for it.

Indeed, he has called for the same paradigm to be used with Iran: dismantling their nuclear infrastructure.

That may have once sounded like a recipe for progress. It’s now clearly a recipe for disaster. The Obama administration has taken to making promises in lieu of action. The Syrian precedent suggests those promises are, as always, just words.

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Iran Negotiations Are Bearing Fruit (for Iran)

President Barack Obama’s much-vaunted nuclear outreach to Iran is finally bearing fruit, although perhaps not in the way the White House expected. Certainly, when it comes to the fundamental issues relating to Iranian centrifuges and the duration of any extra inspection regime, the two sides are as far apart as ever, and they will remain so: Iran recognizes that despite senior American officials’ protestations to the contrary, the White House would rather have a bad deal than no deal.

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President Barack Obama’s much-vaunted nuclear outreach to Iran is finally bearing fruit, although perhaps not in the way the White House expected. Certainly, when it comes to the fundamental issues relating to Iranian centrifuges and the duration of any extra inspection regime, the two sides are as far apart as ever, and they will remain so: Iran recognizes that despite senior American officials’ protestations to the contrary, the White House would rather have a bad deal than no deal.

When it comes to the Iranian economy, however, the negotiations have been nothing but positive. According to Iran’s Central Bank, the Iranian economy contracted by 5.4 percent in the Iranian calendar year ending on March 20, 2013. Obama’s team promised Iran perhaps $7 billion in sanctions relief just to come to the table to negotiate. Such relief was strategically inept, the equivalent of giving a little kid desert first and then inviting him to the table to eat his spinach. If the Iranian leadership’s goal was economic relief, they achieved it even before talks began.

The Obama administration has assured that sanctions relief was reversible, and if Iran didn’t play ball, they’d be back in the same dire position they had put themselves into before. That, of course, was nonsense. Momentum matters in international relations, as does greed. Once sanctions were loosened, it would be near impossible to ratchet up significant pressure again.

For Iran, the decision to talk rather than to compromise is the gift that keeps on giving. Consider the latest headlines:

  • Iran has announced that in the first five months of the Iranian year (March 21-August 21, 2014), trade volume has increased 136 percent.
  • The deputy finance minister announced yesterday that foreigners’ willingness to invest in Iran has increased 500 percent. In addition, Iran has announced that they have received more than 300 European and Arab trade delegations.
  • Iranian officials singled out Qatar, the tiny, gas-wealthy Persian Gulf emirate that increasingly finances terrorist groups and encourages the growth of radical Islamism abroad, for its willingness to invest in Iran.

Between 2000 and 2005, European Union trade with Iran more than doubled. At the same time, the price of oil quintupled. Iran took that hard currency windfall and invested it in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. As Iran redoubles its investment in its military, nuclear, and ballistic missile programs, the region will be paying the price for years to come for allowing Iran such a cash windfall without winning anything in exchange.

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Shocker: Dictators Mean What They Say

More than a decade ago, during the early years of the Bush administration and against the backdrop of Bill Clinton’s sincere desire to win comprehensive Arab Israel peace, I was at a conference in which the moderator asked Dennis Ross, Clinton’s long-time peace process head, what the Clinton team and perhaps his own greatest mistake was. Ross’s response was that they never should have ignored the incitement of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority which he ran.

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More than a decade ago, during the early years of the Bush administration and against the backdrop of Bill Clinton’s sincere desire to win comprehensive Arab Israel peace, I was at a conference in which the moderator asked Dennis Ross, Clinton’s long-time peace process head, what the Clinton team and perhaps his own greatest mistake was. Ross’s response was that they never should have ignored the incitement of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority which he ran.

It was sage advice—alas, advice not followed in Ross’s subsequent career—and readily evident given Arafat’s behavior and his embrace of terrorism to his dying day. Arafat, however, was not alone. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah regularly engages in genocidal rhetoric, although his speeches can sometimes appear mild compared to those of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, many of whose appointees, of course, have previously called upon Iran to develop a nuclear weapon and use it against Israel. And while apologists like University of Michigan professor Juan Cole have worked to obfuscate the meaning of the Iranian pledge to wipe Israel off the map, the Iranian government has made clear its intention in its own translations and banners.

Many diplomats—especially those working in the Middle East—usually dismiss bullhorn diplomacy and too often refuse to consider a dictatorship’s harsh rhetoric, prioritizing instead private conversations they have during the occasional meeting, conference, or summit. To believe that all is not what it seems passes for sophistication in Washington, no matter how many times the result of such beliefs surprises policymakers and undercuts American national security.

While the 2003 Iraq war and the decision to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may remain controversial in the United States and roundly condemned by the American academic community, because so many of Saddam’s private records and documents were seized, it has opened the door to a thorough study of dictatorship. Over at Quartz, Daniel Medina, a former Al Jazeera producer, flags a new academic study comparing Saddam’s public pronouncements with his rhetoric and statements during private meetings and telephone conversations.

The study, by University of Connecticut professor Stephen Dyson and University of California-Irvine graduate student Alexandra Raleigh, can be found here. A press release announcing the study explains:

The researchers collected Hussein’s public speeches and interviews on international affairs from 1977-2000, which produced a data set of 330,000 words. From the private transcripts, they gleaned a further set of 58,000 words. Dyson and Raleigh deployed a technique called automated content analysis, looking for markers of conflict, control and complexity among these word sets using well-established coding schemes. The transcripts available cover major national security matters, such as the US, Israel, the Iran-Iraq war, the first Persian Gulf War, and the United Nations sanctions regime… The researchers found public and private beliefs were in accord in all areas they examined except for conceptual complexity. Hussein held a resolutely hostile image of the political universe and a preference for non-cooperative strategies. He exhibited public confidence in his ability to shape events, and this was even more pronounced in private.

There are two lessons that might be considered given Dyson and Raleigh’s findings. First, with chaos in Iraq and the ISIS growing amidst the vacuum of political and diplomatic leadership, it is tempting to suggest that the devil we knew was better than that which came after. Saddam may have been a bastard, but at least he could be dealt with. Saddam’s own words, however, suggest differently. Many mistakes have contributed to the situation the world now faces with the ISIS, but removing Saddam Hussein was not the original sin so many would like to believe.

And, second, Saddam Hussein was not unique. While the State Department culture might consider it sophisticated to dismiss the rhetoric of rogue leaders in order to enable diplomacy, common sense is not wrong: too often what intellectuals consider sophisticated is really quite simplistic.

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Obama, Kerry Ignore Law on Cemetery Desecration

Earlier this month, President Obama signed into law the “Protect Cemeteries Act” which amended the International Religious Freedom Act to include cemetery desecration as a violation of religious freedom. The full text of the bill, as signed into law by Obama, is here.

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Earlier this month, President Obama signed into law the “Protect Cemeteries Act” which amended the International Religious Freedom Act to include cemetery desecration as a violation of religious freedom. The full text of the bill, as signed into law by Obama, is here.

The Islamic Republic of Iran—a country which President Obama increasingly treats as a diplomatic partner—now presents the first challenge to the new law. From the U.S. Baha’i Office of Public Affairs:

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has resumed its destruction of a Baha’i cemetery in the city of Shiraz, while a bill passed by Congress and signed into law by the President earlier this month – known as the “Protect Cemeteries Act” – makes this type of cemetery desecration a sanctionable religious freedom violation. The Guard began excavating the site in April 2014, but temporarily suspended its activity following an international outcry. The cemetery is the site of 950 Baha’i graves, including those of 10 Baha’i women who were hanged in 1983, the youngest of whom was 17 years old. In June, the Guard held a public celebration of its progress in clearing the site, which it plans to turn into a cultural and sports complex. Reports from Iran indicate that the Guard has now removed human remains from some 30 of the 50 graves in the cemetery and placed them into an open canal.

In my recent study of engaging rogue regimes, one of the clear costs of such diplomacy—in almost every single example—is augmented abuse of religious freedom by the targets of America’s diplomacy. Rogues know that once the White House or State Department starts a process, it is loath to criticize rogue regimes for fear that they will walk away from the negotiating table. American outreach is akin to a free pass on accountability for any domestic repression.

The Obama presidency has been marked by disdain for the checks and balances inherent in the American system. Obama may be frustrated that he cannot achieve his agenda in the face of a recalcitrant Congress or dubious court; in this he would be joined by his 43 predecessors. But while the president may feel the end justifies the means as he bypasses laws that he did not support or sign, the “Protect Cemeteries Act” is a law which the president supported and which he signed just two weeks ago. Laws should be more than simply about a photo-op at a signing ceremony; it’s time for the president and Secretary of State John Kerry to stand up and sanction Iran for its clear and blatant violation of the amended International Religious Freedom Act, and for Congress to demand the president uphold the law he signed, and use its power of the purse both to make its displeasure felt and simultaneously to stand up for religious liberty.

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Kurds Unwilling to Risk Pro-American Alignment

There’s a false narrative out there that Iraqi Shi‘ites are pro-Iranian while Iraqi Kurds are pro-American. The truth for both is actually far more nuanced. Sometimes, it seems, the false narrative is simply the result of who speaks English better and so can interact more easily with American journalists, diplomats, and visiting politicians. English-bias in coverage is well-documented, most brutally from Southeast Asia back in the 1960s and 1970s.

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There’s a false narrative out there that Iraqi Shi‘ites are pro-Iranian while Iraqi Kurds are pro-American. The truth for both is actually far more nuanced. Sometimes, it seems, the false narrative is simply the result of who speaks English better and so can interact more easily with American journalists, diplomats, and visiting politicians. English-bias in coverage is well-documented, most brutally from Southeast Asia back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Culturally, Iraqi Kurds—especially in the Sulaymaniyah region—are close to Iran. That doesn’t mean they are anti-Western. Iranian culture is rich. Many Kurds would like to take their place among the peoples of the West, just as many Iranians would, if the West would stop throwing life rafts to Iran’s repressive regime.

That said, Kurds are realists: They see America waffling on major issues relating to global leadership and they are careful not to put all their eggs in one basket. Some see close ties between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, cemented over oil trading, as a sign that Kurds are pro-Western but the Kurds have quietly and consistently also pursued their trade through Iran, even at the cost of busting sanctions.

The Pentagon is now giving the Iraqi Kurds weapons. That may be wise in the short-term to blunt ISIS’s advance, but the Iraqi Kurds should still answer some tough questions about why they chose not to purchase weapons before hand. After all, they have made billions of dollars, built palatial mansions (or bought them in Washington D.C.) and have had money to spend on exorbitant salaries—President Masud Barzani, for example, makes more per month than the president of the United States makes in a year. But the Pentagon should not assume that the Kurds’ willingness to receive weapons from the United States cements ties or reflects a stable partnership. Iraqi Kurdish President Masud Barzani, for example, acknowledged also receiving weaponry from the Iranian government.

Ordinary Kurds might want to be pro-American. But if the United States absents itself from leadership on the global stage, Kurdish leaders will make their accommodation with Iran. The simple fact is that Iranian consistency coupled with American unreliability now leads natural allies to place their bets on an Iranian future rather than risk substantive alignment with the United States.

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A Clear-Eyed Assessment of ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is certainly a growing menace–in fact the most immediate threat that we face in the Middle East. And a formidable threat it is, having taken control of an area the size of the United Kingdom in Syria and Iraq. Its fighters are estimated to number as many as 17,000, and, after having looted Iraqi stockpiles, they are well equipped both with weapons (many of them Made in America) and money. ISIS has just demonstrated its growing reach by seizing the Tabqa air base from Bashar Assad’s regime, thus giving it effective control of Raqqa province in Syria where its de facto capital is located. But let’s not exaggerate the power that they possess.

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The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is certainly a growing menace–in fact the most immediate threat that we face in the Middle East. And a formidable threat it is, having taken control of an area the size of the United Kingdom in Syria and Iraq. Its fighters are estimated to number as many as 17,000, and, after having looted Iraqi stockpiles, they are well equipped both with weapons (many of them Made in America) and money. ISIS has just demonstrated its growing reach by seizing the Tabqa air base from Bashar Assad’s regime, thus giving it effective control of Raqqa province in Syria where its de facto capital is located. But let’s not exaggerate the power that they possess.

The Guardian quotes one “regional diplomat” (whoever that may be) as saying:

The Islamic State is now the most capable military power in the Middle East outside Israel. They can determine outcomes in a few days that the Syrian rebels took two years to influence. Their capacity is in sharp contrast to the Syrian regime, which is only able to fight one battle at a time and has to fight hard for every success.

In the first two months of its life, the so-called Caliphate has achieved unparalleled success. It is in the process of creating foundations for substantial financial, military and political growth. It is the best equipped and most capable terror group in the world. It is unlike anything we have ever seen.

It’s true that ISIS has become the most capable terror group in the world–and far from the “junior varsity” that President Obama labeled it. But let’s put that achievement into perspective. As I argued in my book, Invisible Armies, terrorist groups are generally less capable than guerrilla forces, which are generally less capable than conventional armies. (Possessing weapons of mass destruction can upend that hierarchy but ISIS thankfully doesn’t have any WMD–yet.) Pretty much all terrorist groups aspire to become guerrilla armies, which in turn aspire to become conventional armies. In other words, calling a group the most powerful terrorist force in the world is akin to saying that a baseball team is the best in the minor leagues–it’s not the same thing as suggesting that it can beat the New York Yankees.

True, ISIS has been trying to progress from being merely a terrorist group to being a guerrilla and even a conventional army that is capable of seizing and holding terrain. It is also trying to develop a rudimentary administrative capacity to administer all the territory it has seized. And it has been making some dismaying leaps in capability, but it also displays considerable weakness.

Look, for example, how easily it was driven away from Mosul Dam by Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers with the help of U.S. airpower. As I have previously argued, the beheading of James Foley was another act of desperation designed to show that the group is still relevant. So too of news that it has just executed its own intelligence chief in Aleppo on suspicion of being a British spy–whether the charge was true or not, it is a sign of ISIS’s weakness and the extent it is feeling the strain of even the very limited counteroffensive it has encountered in northern Iraq.

To speak of ISIS in the same breath as the IDF–one of the most professional and capable military forces in the world, with 176,000 active-duty personnel, nearly 4,000 tanks and 10,000 armed fighting vehicles, almost 700 aircraft, 110 navy ships, and, lest we forget, nuclear weapons–is laughable. As a fighting force ISIS doesn’t even stack up very well with the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iran, or Saudi Arabia (although the latter is the weakest of the bunch): any one of those could crush ISIS if it were fighting on its home soil. The reason ISIS has looked so formidable is that it is operating in the territory of two states, Syria and Iraq, which have seen a calamitous breakdown in central government authority. Its gains to date are more a reflection of the weakness of Bashar Assad and Nouri al Maliki than of its intrinsic strength.

While ISIS is a clear and present danger to the U.S. and its allies, let’s not make these black-clad jihadist fanatics out to be ten-foot-tall supermen. ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, was soundly thrashed in Iraq in 2007-2008 and it could be again if the U.S. got serious about destroying it.

So far, alas, there is no such sign of seriousness coming from the White House, which continues to dither as ISIS gains new ground. The longer we wait to deal with ISIS, the more formidable it will get and the harder to dismantle.

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