In the New York Review of Books, Roger Cohen reviews Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett’s book, Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran. He didn’t like it: the “eerie effort to whitewash the Islamic Republic in Going to Tehran is so extreme that it would be comical if it did not stray close to obscenity.” The Leveretts “have drunk the Islamic Republic’s Kool-Aid to the last drop.” They are “across-the-board apologists” whose book is “buried in heavy doses of one-sided drivel,” written in a “customary egregious style,” envisaging an “utterly fanciful” grand bargain. The book is “a disservice to the truth.”
On that last point, Cohen writes with knowledge the Leveretts lack, since he witnessed the Iranian uprising on June 12, 2009. His recollection in his review is worth reading, for reasons that extend beyond his critique of the Leveretts’ book:
Analysts continue to obsess about next month’s presidential elections in Iran. The latest source of speculation is that the Guardian Council, an unelected body charged with vetting presidential candidates (and disqualifying, in practice, more than 95 percent of them) might give the hook, on account of advanced age, to 78-year-old former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who last week declared his intention to run again for the office. If he were elected, that would mean Rafsanjani would turn 79 within weeks of assuming the presidency and would be nearly 83 by the time his term ended. That the Guardian Council would disqualify on the basis of age is, of course, a bit rich given that Ahmad Jannati, the Council’s chairman, is himself 86.
Ali Khamenei—Iran’s Supreme Leader—is also getting up in age, as he prepares to celebrate his 74th birthday. Influential cleric Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi is now 79; radical former premier turned self-declared reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi is 71; and perennial candidate Mehdi Karroubi is 75. Former Foreign Minister and current candidate Ali Velayati is a relative spry 67. There is a new crop of candidates—former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalali is just a wee lad of 47, and Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf is just four years Jalali’s senior.
Last month, I published a lengthy analysis on Iranian activity in Africa for the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office. Long story short, while the United States more or less ignores Africa, the Iranians have been quite busy there. The Iranian focus is three-fold: Cultivating relationships with states that have votes on the UN Security Council and International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors; expanding ties with countries prospecting for or mining uranium; and making a hard push to find bases along littoral states in order to expand the Iranian navy’s operational reach.
There have been a number of incidents, however, to show that Iranian outreach is more malign:
Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has declared his candidacy for the forthcoming Iranian election, subject to approval of his candidacy from the Guardian Council, a body that determines which candidates are loyal enough to the supreme leader to appear on the ballot. For example, when Mohammad Khatami won the presidency in 1997, he defeated three other candidates but only after the unelected Guardian Council disqualified 234 other candidates deemed too liberal or insufficiency loyal to the supreme leader. More than 680 candidates have registered to run for next month’s election; most will never have their names appear on a ballot.
The Western press appears both dangerously infatuated with and enthusiastic about Rafsanjani, falsely attributing moderation to the former leader:
When Chuck Hagel chaired the Atlantic Council, the group bent over backwards to exculpate Iran. That was a “twofer” for Hagel, because it fit not only with his ideological predilections, but also pleased donors like the Ploughshares Fund, which has dedicated itself to diminishing concern regarding Iran’s nuclear intentions.
Now that he’s at the helm of the Defense Department, he’s back at it again. Last evening, Bill Gertz reported in the Washington Free Beacon that Hagel’s Pentagon inexplicably changed previous conclusions to argue that Iran’s military doctrine was predominantly defensive in nature:
I am not an optimist when it comes to Afghanistan. The United States lost the Afghan war the second President Obama issued a public timeline for withdrawal and when diplomats offered to negotiate with the Taliban. Officials endorsing such timelines—too often out of political perspicacity rather than military wisdom—are culpable in setting the stage for defeat. Momentum matters in Afghanistan more than spin, as Afghans have never lost a war: they simply defect to the winning side.
The White House may believe its spin, but no one in Afghanistan does. Whereas the Taliban once embraced the narrative of the First Anglo-Afghan War, describing Mullah Omar as Dost Muhammad and Hamid Karzai as Shah Shujah, with the implication that ISAF forces would play the role of the British heading into a disastrous retreat, the historical allusions have changed in recent months as Afghans filter events through the living memory of the Soviet withdrawal. Hence, Hamid Karzai has become Najibullah in the current Afghan narrative. Najibullah, of course, was the last Communist leader of Afghanistan. True, Najibullah managed to hold onto power for three years following the Soviet withdrawal, but he fell as soon as the rubles—about $3 billion per year—dried up. Afghans recognize that most of the money promised in the past years’ series of international donor conferences will never get delivered.
Further, when the World Bank estimates the foreign assistance that Afghanistan will require to stay afloat, they too often assume that the Afghan mining industry will be far more advanced than reality will dictate. In the past year, real estate prices have dropped 20 percent in Afghanistan as Afghans recognize that the long-term prospects for rule of law are dim.
It’s hard to believe that anyone—outside the White House—takes President Obama seriously anymore. It’s crystal clear that foreign leaders think that the U.S. president is a paper tiger. Enemies calculate that the former senator leading a team of former senators is heavy on rhetoric but light on action. And friends, too, understand that at best Obama is a nice prop around which to take a photo, but when push comes to shove they need not listen to him.
Put aside Obama’s willful abandonment of his Syria chemical weapons red line, an “I told you so moment” for hardliners from Pyongyang to Tehran to Caracas and perhaps Buenos Aires, who are likely now chastising any handwringing moderates who worried what crossing Washington might have cost. Friends, too, are getting in on the game. In just a couple weeks, Obama will be hosting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the White House, never mind that Erdoğan snubbed the U.S. request that he cancel a planned trip to the Gaza Strip to meet with Hamas leaders, a group which Erdoğan has long supported.
In Today’s National Post, Sara Akrami and Saeed Ghasseminejad highlight the challenge of Western sanctions policy–those in charge in Tehran are still largely getting away with murder:
Iran’s continuing progress toward a nuclear bomb should have made it clear to the West that the current sanctions regime simply isn’t going to cut it. When it comes to the nuclear program there are two important decision makers: the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. While there has been some progress in targeting the IRGC with sanctions, Khamenei himself has yet to receive much attention from the international community.
Akrami and Ghasseminejad are right: sanctions must be much broader and more aggressive if the West is to make a dent in Iran’s nuclear posture before it is too late (and there isn’t much time left).
News that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have arrested two Muslim men on charges of plotting to blow up a train with “support from Al Qaeda elements located in Iran” has been met with widespread and ill-deserved incredulity. Typical is this BBC report, which claims: “It is difficult to believe that there is an operational alliance between Iran, a hard-line Shia Muslim state, and al-Qaeda, an extremist Sunni Muslim outfit.”
Actually it’s not that hard to believe at all. There is copious evidence of the links between Iran and al-Qaeda, as noted by Bill Roggio in the Long War Journal: “In recent years, the US government has added several Iran-based al Qaeda leaders and operatives to its list of specially designated global terrorists, and even noted a ‘secret deal’ between the Iranian government and al Qaeda.”
This week’s publication of a report effectively urging U.S. appeasement of Iran, signed by many leading lights of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, clearly undermines administration efforts to press Tehran to abandon its nuclear program. But despite the Iran Project report’s negative impact, which Jonathan aptly explained yesterday, this has been a good week overall on the Iran deterrence front, thanks mainly to the U.S. Senate.
On Tuesday, the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution pledging the following: “If the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self defense against Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with United States law and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.” The resolution hasn’t yet passed the full Senate, but with a whopping 79 out of 100 senators co-sponsoring it, that august body’s views aren’t in much doubt.
The Atlantic Council is known for narrowly-crafted study groups in which conclusions follow consistent themes: greater U.S. concessions and trust in rogues and adversaries. In 1998, for example, the Atlantic Council sought a partial lifting of the U.S. trade embargo on Iran as “a key gesture of good faith.” Subsequent intelligence shows that as the Atlantic Council’s hand-picked study group counseled increased trade with Iran, the Iranian leadership was on an international buying spree in support of its nuclear and ballistic weapons programs.
In a 2001 study group, Lee Hamilton, James Schlesinger, and Brent Scowcroft—the latter now interim head of the Council following Chuck Hagel’s move to the Pentagon—lamented the congressional tendency to wield sticks rather than carrots against rogues, and criticized legislation requiring the State Department to produce its annual Patterns of Global Terrorism report, since such reporting placed Iranian terror sponsorship front and center in the public debate and became an impediment to public willingness to make a deal with Tehran.
On March 21, the Persian New Year, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of the Islamic Republic gave an address at a shrine in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city. The speech should be a must-read for any American policymaker who believes that now is the time to strike a deal with the Islamic Republic. Ideology can be an insurmountable obstacle, and Khamenei’s speech is simultaneously paranoid and xenophobic, blustering and aggressive, and ranting and fabulist. While many American officials place faith in negotiations, it is clear that Khamenei sees Obama’s letters and outreach as alternately irrelevant and pitiful. While advisers whispering in Obama’s ear suggest that the U.S. must foreswear regime change, Khamenei really doesn’t care. And when it comes to negotiations, Khamenei really doesn’t see any reason to compromise: Either the U.S. agrees with Iran’s position, or Khamenei will refuse to deal.
The whole speech is here, but below are some snippets, organized with sub-headings in bold which I inserted.
While writing my book chapter on the history of U.S. diplomacy with North Korea and while preparing for a trip to South Korea to conduct interviews a couple years back, I had to get smart on Korea quickly, and hit the books. There is no shortage of books out there: Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas; Narushige Michishita’s North Korea’s Military-Diplomatic Campaigns; Joel S. Wit, Daniel B. Poneman, and Robert L. Gallucci’s Going Critical; Leon Sigal’s Disarming Strangers, and Bradley Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, among others. One stood out, however: Chuck Downs’ Over the Line. Downs, a former Pentagon official, traces North Korean negotiating behavior from the Armistice through the 1990s. He emphasizes the importance of negotiating strategy:
How this small, relatively powerless nation uses negotiation to advance domestic oppression and foreign intimidation deserves careful scrutiny. Although North Korea brings very little to the negotiating table, it has consistently won benefits that strengthen the regime’s political control and improve its military capabilities… Were it not for the regime’s careful and clever management of the process of negotiation, few people outside the Korean peninsula would have had any real reason to concern themselves with North Korea. The negotiating process, and North Korea’s manipulation of it, is what makes North Korea matter at all.
Much ink has been spilled over the alleged nuclear fatwa which Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has issued forbidding the use of nuclear weapons. If the Deputy of the Messiah on Earth says trust me, many American and European officials appear to believe, it must be so. After all, what could be more a sign of one’s own multiculturalism and sophistication than giving credence to such a declaration? Over at Al-Monitor, a publication whose editor Andrew Parasiliti was once a staffer for current Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, an Iranian author gives great credence to the fatwa:
The fatwa against nuclear weapons is not a contingent upon time and circumstances. It is based on the principle that killing innocent people is religiously forbidden…. The fatwa is an Iranian initiative and it is much easier for the United States and EU to respect the fatwa and ask Iran to accept more commitments and transparency as far as its nuclear program is concerned.
The piece is valuable for presenting an official Iranian line, even if Parasiliti’s team for whatever reason identifies the Institute for Political and International Studies simply as a think-tank when it is actually the Foreign Ministry’s academic wing.
Jonathan Tobin is absolutely correct to highlight the importance of the Tamar gas field coming online, and the impact that exploitation of the Leviathan field will have once that too comes online. In the course of his post, he notes, “It is yet another sign that the country that was once a basket case dependent on foreign aid from America and world Jewry in order keep its finances afloat irrespective of defense needs is on its way to becoming a major economic power.”
Much of the credit for Israel’s economic turnaround lies with Benjamin Netanyahu, during his tenure as Minister of Finance between 2003 and 2005. Then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon likely awarded Netanyahu the post as a career-killer. Israel’s finances were a mess, and both its unions and old guard socialist traditions made substantive reform seem impossible. Netanyahu tackled the challenge and while he did not win many friends in certain outmoded sectors, he did win enough respect to propel himself to the top slot. Indeed, Netanyahu’s financial reforms will likely trump his premierships when his legacy is written.
Let us hope that Israel’s energy windfall does not simply get wasted in public entitlements and social subsidies. Israel should not aspire to become fat and lazy like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Let it truly be a start-up nation, rather than a subsidy nation.
It’s hard to believe German politicians truly understand what is at stake in Iran. Back in 2008, a German diplomat in Tehran attended—and so gave diplomatic legitimacy—to one of the Islamic Republic’s “Death to Israel” rallies. Last year, several German companies paid money to a sanctioned Iranian bank in order to reserve booths at an Iranian investment fair in Tehran. More recently, the head of the German Green Party high-fived an Iranian diplomat, never mind the Greens’ rhetorical embrace of human rights, women’s rights, and civil society.
Now, according to Germany’s Stop the Bomb campaign, a German federal ministry is subsidizing a conference in Germany hosted by the Evangelische Akademie Loccum which will feature Iranian official Ali Reza Sheikh Attar. As Stop the Bomb explains:
The New York Times devotes considerable space on its front page this morning to a fascinating rundown on the contest to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran. Though this will involve voting and attempts to gain popular support, as Ahmadinejad’s re-election proved in 2009, the Iranian electoral system should not be confused with democracy. Just as the Iranian president is actually subordinate to the grand ayatollah who functions as a permanent supreme leader in terms of governing, the choices and the outcome of the Iranian election are also subject to the dictates of the ruling cleric and his fellow ayatollahs. That doesn’t mean that the infighting within the regime is not significant or that it shouldn’t be monitored closely. The differences between Ahmadinejad and Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are, no doubt, quite real. But they ought not to be interpreted as a sign that the regime is in danger of falling or there is any significant divergence between them and their followers about keeping an Islamist government or maintaining the country’s dangerous nuclear ambitions.
But unfortunately that is probably the conclusion that many of the Times’s liberal readers will jump to after reading the piece since it brands Ahmadinejad and his faction as the “opposition” to the supreme leader. That may be true in the literal sense but, as even the article points out, that is the result of the fact that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei worked together to wipe out any real opposition to Islamist hegemony in 2009 as the United States stood silent. Like the Kremlinologists who spent decades trying to interpret the factions among the rulers of the Soviet Union before its fall, the point of much of the speculation about dissension among the ruling class in Iran is to try to throw cold water on policies intended to pressure the Islamist government. There is nothing wrong with keeping up on which of the tyrants of Tehran is gaining the upper hand on his colleagues. But the problem is that such discussions inevitably tempt Westerners to imagine that outreach to the supposed doves or liberals inside the regime will ameliorate its differences with the rest of the world. A sober look at the nature of this “opposition” and its goals ought to put an end to such foolishness.
Incentives remain at the core of the negotiating strategy which the United States and its allies have toward the Islamic Republic of Iran and its nuclear program. Tracing the Western approach is an exercise in frustration as retired diplomats and Iran’s apologists blame the United States for Iran’s failure to make a deal, even as the pot which American diplomats offer grows increasingly rich.
Too often, once a diplomatic initiative is begun, the process becomes more important than the results. Sometimes it is useful to revert to the 100,000 foot level and question basic assumptions. First, does Iranian behavior suggest that incentives work? The answer is no: Since German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel unveiled the concept of “Critical Engagement” back in 1992, successive generations of European and American governments have been trying to entice Iran. Sometimes they referred to a China model, in which economic liberalization would lead (in theory) to political liberalization; at other times they suggested that returning the Iranian regime to the community of nations would lead it to become a more responsible partner; and still other times they were downright mercantilist, trying to buy Iranian compliance. While the Iranian regime was always willing to encourage a sweetening of the pot, at no time has its behavior suggested that such a strategy will work.
Remember the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact–a crowning achievement of the Coolidge administration–which purported to ban the use of war to settle international disputes? Clearly the United Nations doesn’t, because its General Assembly has just approved a treaty just as well-intentioned–and as toothless.
The Arms Trade Treaty is designed to stop the sale of conventional arms to human-rights abusers. It would certainly be nice if, say, Iran and Russia were prohibited from shipping arms to Bashar Assad–to take just one example of many from the immoral, or more accurately, amoral international arms market. But it is hard to see what the Arms Trade Treaty will do to accomplish this end, since, as the New York Times notes, “implementation is years away and there is no specific enforcement mechanism.”
From day one of his first term, President Obama has made outreach to Iran a central pillar of his foreign policy. He spoke of reconciliation in his first inaugural address and, a week later, he told Al-Arabiya in his first television interview, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” Both Obama’s supporters and the Iranian government embraced his willingness to talk: Diplomats and partisans sharply juxtaposed Obama’s posture with that of President George W. Bush, never mind that Bush won repeated unanimous UN Security Council resolutions and so achieved the same thing that Obama had—multilateral diplomatic blessing—only with greater frequency. What Bush did not do was stop Iran’s nuclear progress. But neither has Obama. The Iran failure has truly been bipartisan.
Obama has fumbled additional opportunities, however. When Iranians rose up in 2009, he remained aloof and indifferent until it was too late. At the very least, he might have used his bully pulpit to offer moral support to the Iranian people. Now, if reports are to be believed, Obama once again seeks to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by justifying silence on Syria—Iran’s most important client state—in order to keep the door to negotiations open. Chuck Hagel, too, has dedicated much of his Senate and post-Senate career to outreach to Iran’s ayatollahs.