Jonathan Tobin outlined a number of objections and criticisms of Senator Rand Paul’s foreign policy address at Heritage, in which Paul, among other things, embraced a containment option toward a nuclear Iran. While containment is often bantered about, there are two main problems with containment which undercut anyone’s ability to contain Iran.
First, containment is a military strategy, not simply a rhetorical strategy. Paul sought to cloak himself in the mantle of Reagan, but containment requires a Reaganesque military build-up. It requires basing around Iran more extensive than that now available to the United States, a more robust naval presence, prepositioning of arms and men, and the ability to defend facilities. For example, defense against mines requires not only minesweepers, but also shipyards capable of repairing damaged vessels, and surface-to-air missiles and troops to defend those shipyards. NATO was a cohesive element during the Cold War, but the Gulf Cooperation Council could hardly organize itself out of a paper bag if it involved tactical cooperation. Paul, like Obama, is willing to talk the talk, but unwilling to invest in the backbone of containment. That heightens the danger, since the Iranians—when they see U.S. commitment to containment doesn’t go far beyond rhetorical hot air—conclude that the United States is a paper tiger and can push the envelope too far.
During the early years of the post-9/11 war on terror, then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage made one of the most famous statements about Hezbollah in the terrorist group’s bloody history when he said: “Hezbollah may be the A-team of terrorists and maybe Al Qaeda is actually the B-team.” Al-Qaeda’s operatives learned much from Hezbollah; as Thomas Joscelyn pointed out in Iran’s Proxy War Against America:
It was during bin Laden’s time in Sudan that he first met Imad Mugniyah, Iran’s and Hezbollah’s master terrorist. Since the early 1980s, Mugniyah has been implicated in most, if not all, of Iran’s major anti-American terrorist operations. His “accomplishments” include the infamous 1983 U.S. embassy bombing in Beirut and a series of devastating follow-on attacks, which drove the U.S. out of Lebanon. During the early 1990s, bin Laden sought and received Mugniyah’s assistance in transforming al-Qaeda’s capabilities. With Mugniyah’s help, al-Qaeda acquired Hezbollah’s most lethal tactics, including the use of suicide bombers.
The attacks raised the profile and name recognition of Hezbollah once again because of the increased focus on international terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the group was overshadowed by the 9/11 culprits, most of all bin Laden. Since terrorist groups hate to be ignored (they rely on notoriety and information wars), Hezbollah reasserts itself from time to time. It appeared that that was exactly what happened when on July 18 a bus carrying Israeli tourists in Bulgaria exploded, killing six plus the bomber. Now, after the investigation, we appear to have confirmation:
As indecent as it seems to find humor in the world’s tyrannies, it’s hard not to, especially when it comes to Venezuela and Iran.
On January 21, Tahmasb Mazaheri, the former governor of Iran’s Central Bank, was arrested by German police at Dusseldorf Airport after he was found carrying a check worth 300 million Venezuelan Bolivars–the equivalent of $70 million–in his hand luggage. Mazaheri, who flew into the German city from Turkey, is suspected of involvement in money laundering. His own explanation is that the check “was designed to finance the Venezuelan government’s construction of 10,000 homes.”
Given Mazaheri’s staggering incompetence in transporting this enormous sum of money, it’s tempting to ask where, exactly, these “homes” he referred to are being built. In Caracas? Or perhaps in Havana, where the Castro brothers have set themselves up as Cuba’s de facto rulers? Maybe in Tehran, where the ruling mullahs have engaged in a love-in with the regime of Hugo Chavez for more than a decade?
There’s an unfortunate tendency in Washington to navel-gaze. At the heart of Chuck Hagel’s conceit is that the failure to resolve the Iranian nuclear and terror challenge is because of mistakes in Washington rather than strategy in Tehran. Almost every president—Democrat and Republican—enters the Oval Office blaming his predecessors—rather than America’s adversaries—for the failure of diplomacy. While many American diplomats and politicians may assume the world is reacting to American actions, the dirty little secret that has become so painfully obvious in recent years is that it is the United States—and not our enemies—that has no coherent strategy. Call it “leading from behind” or call it incompetence, but the United States is more often in reactive mode than proactive mode.
Against this backdrop, some analysts asked me to speculate about how Iran develops and executes its strategy, and what aspects of Iranian policy development American officials often miss. It might be a long slog to read, but here’s my crack at the answer.
As Chuck Hagel gets grilled in the Senate Armed Services Committee about his views on Iran and Israel, it is sobering to reflect on new evidence of how little effect sanctions are having on the Iranian nuclear program.
Iran has just notified the IAEA that it is stepping up uranium enrichment at its Natanz facility, which would allow it to accelerate the timeline for acquiring a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Iran’s oil exports have been rebounding since the imposition of European Union sanctions last July. Iran’s crude oil exports in December hit 1.4 million barrels a day–still down from 2011 levels of 2.2 million barrels a day but higher than last summer. This is evidence that, thanks to strong demand in China, India and other nations, Iran is managing to weather oil sanctions.
On January 10, 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama explained his opposition to the Iraq surge of additional troops by making a prediction: “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse.” It was an early indication of Obama’s poor judgment and instinct to substitute ideological stubbornness for serious analysis. As we soon found out, Obama was just about as wrong as could be. I say “just about,” because Obama’s error was, surprisingly, eclipsed the very next day by the one man who turned out to be more mistaken than Obama, by saying the surge was “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it’s carried out.”
That man, of course, was Chuck Hagel. Obama and Hagel would develop a friendship, and repeat this pattern. They would travel to Iraq together, where Hagel was dismissive and suspicious of the military’s top brass. Obama would take office and do the same. Hagel would speak out against tough Iran sanctions, and Obama would work against them from the White House, opposing several iterations of them and finally watering them down when he couldn’t prevent sanctions from passing Congress. Hagel would loudly criticize even the contemplation of military action against Iran, and Obama would have his secretary of defense deliver a similar message to Israel. It is this pattern that has led Hagel’s critics to express concern about his nomination to be secretary of defense. Many worry Obama shares Hagel’s views; Obama’s defenders assure us he does not. The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward says the critics are right, and relays a conversation Obama and Hagel had at the beginning of Obama’s first term:
Many in the United States assume that the international sanctions being enforced against Iran and the threats from American leaders about Tehran’s nuclear program have isolated that Islamist regime. But the reality of Iran’s diplomatic situation gives the lie to the blithe confidence about the West’s ability to make the ayatollahs give up their nuclear ambition. The fact that the Non-Aligned Movement held its conference in Tehran last fall with 120 United Nations member states in attendance–including the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt–should have been enough proof that isolation is a figment of the State Department’s imagination. But the decision of Argentina to create a joint “Truth Commission” with Iran to investigate the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Community Center building in Buenos Aires makes it official. Not only are Iran’s relations with most of the world thriving, but the Islamist Republic is also getting an official pass from another American ally for an act of international terror.
Iran was long believed to be behind the atrocity that took the lives of 85 people and injured 300, but in 2006 Argentine prosecutors formally charged both the Iranian government and Hezbollah for the crime. But the case was never pursued and now the government of Argentine President Cristina Kirchner has apparently gone beyond ignoring the past to taking an active step toward covering it up. This is not merely an insult to Jews and to Israel, whose Argentine embassy was also bombed by the same culprits a year before, but to the notion that Iran is without friends. Though some in Israel are hoping that the United States will relieve them of the need to take action on their own against the Iranian nuclear threat, this episode shows that the Obama administration’s belief that the solution to the problem lies in diplomacy may be hopelessly naïve.
Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy and an expert on the confluence of money laundering and terrorism, drew my attention to an important story getting lost in the shuffle of confirmation hearing and more violent stories from the Middle East:
The Turkish parliament is scrambling to avert action by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international body meant to combat money laundering and terror financing, which would place Turkey on its blacklist if it does not adopt legislation preventing terror finance within a month.
One of the most memorable moments for many liberal activists from Monday’s inauguration came with President Obama’s remarks on gay rights. Obama made two references to gay rights during his speech; the first mention (Stonewall) came juxtaposed with mention of Seneca Falls and Selma, locations famous for advances in women’s rights and civil rights, respectively. Obama’s second mention was far more overt:
It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.
Quietly yesterday, however, Obama press secretary Jay Carney tempered those remarks. The Washington Examiner reports:
Michael Spaney from Europe’s “Stop the Bomb” campaign has sent out a press release detailing the latest activity of the German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce, which today is hosting a seminar in Hamburg to encourage German firms to do business in Iran and tutor German investors on how to evade sanctions:
The seminar offers advice on “application processes” to “goods inspections” in the “oil, gas and petrochemical sector” – that means in the energy sector which is under EU sanctions. Thus, the Chamber of Commerce focuses on business as usual where EU sanctions are supposed to unfold their impact. The German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce is one of the main lobby groups for maintaining the relationship with the regime in Tehran. The chamber offers ongoing monitoring of business in Iran, helping Iranian companies in the establishment of offices in Germany and in investments, and provides comprehensive support to German companies in their business with Iran.
Whoever becomes the next defense secretary is going to have their work cut out for them, thanks to President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin reported that the State Department has concluded that Bashar al-Assad’s forces have indeed used chemical weapons against civilians in the Syrian civil war. The use of chemical weapons, of course, has been the Obama administration’s declared red line for U.S. action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. As Rogin noted:
“The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable,” Obama said Dec. 3, directing his comments at Assad. “If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.” That same day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added: “we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur.”
The headline writers at Bloomberg knew exactly which part of Jeffrey Goldberg’s column would prove juiciest to those perusing the web today: “Obama: ‘Israel Doesn’t Know What Its Best Interests Are’”. The quote from the president will bother Israel’s defenders for the same reason Obama is usually able to push their buttons: Obama’s lack of knowledge about Jewish history, his decision to take potshots at the Likud party as a way to win over those hostile to the Jewish state during the 2008 election, and his refusal to learn basic facts about issues before throwing temper tantrums about them make him among the least credible public officials on the issue of what is in Israel’s best interests.
Goldberg’s access to Obama’s inner circle has made him an excellent source on the Obama administration’s perspective on Israel, though stories like this don’t exactly paint the president in a particularly positive light–especially the president’s belief that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a “coward.” But childish name-calling aside, the president, according to the column, seems to have given up on Netanyahu. He can’t muster outrage at Israeli actions that elicit rage from leftist activists and cartoonishly biased and inaccurate “news” stories. (The New York Times deserves special mention here for publishing an article on the E-1 corridor around Jerusalem and then publishing a “correction” noting that the entire premise of the article was wrong, having since consulted a map.) But the president seems unwilling to admit how he has contributed to the situation that upsets him so.
Contrary to the Walt-and-Mearsheimer fantasy that there’s some all-powerful “Israeli lobby” pulling puppet strings behind the scenes, Senator Chuck Schumer always had much more of a political incentive to support the administration’s nominee. The only surprise here is how early Schumer caved on Hagel–why not wait until the confirmation hearings started? It sounds like the administration must have made him a pretty persuasive offer:
After a 90-minute meeting in the West Wing of the White House on Monday, Mr. Schumer appeared to be mollified on a number of concerns he has with some votes Mr. Hagel made while serving in the Senate and myriad comments he has subsequently made regarding the nuclear threat of Iran and other matters.
“Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel,” Mr. Schumer said in a prepared statement, “I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation. I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him.” Mr. Schumer is likely to have influence over many of his Senate colleagues, particularly Democrats, who have been fretting over the nomination. He called Mr. Hagel Tuesday morning to let him know he was prepared to support him.
Earlier this month, former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian penned an op-ed in the New York Times offering advice about how to negotiate with Iranians. The piece was full of the usual sophistry, but one sentence caught my eye: “Following the 2003 allied invasion of Iraq, the Swiss ambassador to Iran reached out to Washington with an unofficial outline for a ‘grand bargain’ with Tehran that would cover everything from Iran’s nuclear program to its support for militant groups in the region.”
Mousavian chooses his words carefully: He is careful not to say what partisan American pundits like Nicholas Kristof or agenda-driven former journalists like Barbara Slavin so often declare: That the United States had dismissed an Iranian “grand bargain” offer.
In Chuck Hagel, President Obama is appointing a vociferous and public opponent of any military strike to stop the Iranian nuclear program–whether by the U.S. or Israel. For instance in 2006 he said, “I would say that a military strike against Iran, a military option, is not a viable, feasible, responsible option. I believe a political settlement will be the answer. Not a military settlement.” Just last year he said: “There will be a lot of killing. These things start and you can’t control. They escalate. They always do and they always will.”
Contrary to what he said, a strike on Iran is indeed a “feasible” option (it could be carried out successfully either by the U.S. Air Force and Navy or by the Israeli Air Force), but in one sense he is right–both the U.S. and Israel need to think carefully about all the ramifications of a military strike on Iran are and act only if there is no chance of stopping the Iranian nuclear program by peaceful means. But here’s the problem: The only way to stop the Iranian program by peaceful means is to act as if you’re ready to go to war. Only then is there any chance of the mullahs giving up their nuclear-bomb project. This is in many ways similar to the paradoxical logic of deterrence during the Cold War–only by showing an absolute willingness and ability to wage nuclear wage could the U.S. prevent a nuclear war from breaking out.
Sometime in the afternoon or evening of January 9, three Kurdish activists were assassinated in their office in Paris, France. To enter the office required being buzzed in and the office was not marked by signs. This was no random mugging or robbery: Whoever entered and shot dead Sakine Cansiz, a co-founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK); Fidan Doğan, a representative of the Brussels-based Kurdistan National Congress; and Leyla Söylemez was deliberate. French Interior Minister Manuel Valls visited the site of the murders and called the slaughter “intolerable.”
There are two main suspects: Turkey and Iran. Many Kurds are pointing the finger at Ankara. After all, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan feigns moderation toward the Kurds only when it suits him, but embraces a hardline approach when he wants to whip up Turkish nationalists. In recent years, the PKK has been winning its insurgency: The Turkish army has effectively lost control of much territory which the PKK now administers in far southeastern Anatolia.
In a rare moment of perception, Thomas Friedman wrote recently that if you want to be taken seriously in Israel, “there is an unspoken question in the mind of virtually every Israeli that you need to answer correctly: ‘Do you understand what neighborhood I’m living in?’”
What brought this to mind was the latest broadside by Friedman’s fellow New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, who reiterated what has become the favorite mantra not only of those who support Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense, but of liberal American Jewish groups like J Street and even the Union for Reform Judaism: that Israel’s “true friends” are those who tell it, loudly and publicly, that its policies are “self-defeating and wrong,” in an effort to stop what they perceive as its rush to self-destruction. I fully agree that friends should warn against behavior they view as self-destructive. But anyone who thinks that confronting Israel publicly is helping rather than hurting it doesn’t understand what neighborhood Israel is living in.
As Jonathan noted earlier, there have been quite a few strange justifications for Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be secretary of defense. We are told that although Hagel only seems to speak of Israel through gritted teeth and with evident disdain, that is–according to the left–the new definition of what it means to be “pro-Israel.” We are also told he is a veteran and so he knows the horrors of war. But of course they can repeat this until they are blue in the face and it still won’t undo Hagel’s vote in favor of the Iraq war, and we all remember Barack Obama’s campaign putting out an ad ridiculing John McCain’s war injuries. So it’s unlikely that Hagel’s war heroics mean anything to the administration beyond their value in limiting criticism of Hagel.
One question critics of Hagel have asked repeatedly is why the Obama administration would nominate someone who claims to oppose the president’s own stated quest to stop Iran. Hagel is, according to the Washington Post, currently meeting with security officials to answer that question, explaining how ridiculous it is for them to have believed their lying eyes. From the Post:
Glenn Kessler has a helpful roundup of some of the most troubling Chuck Hagel comments (though a much more extensive list can be found at ECI’s ChuckHagel.com). This one in particular, from a 1998 AP interview, jumped out:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ”essentially stopped the process,” Hagel said. ”The Israeli government essentially continues to play games,” stonewalling implementation of the Oslo peace accords.
”What I fear more today is that desperate men do desperate things when you take hope away,” Hagel said. ”And that’s where the Palestinians are today.”
The Israeli government needs to understand that implementation of the peace agreement is in its own interests, he said.
Hagel said Arabs generally believe America ”has tilted toward Israel” in its Mideast relations and there will be no lasting peace in the region without relationships with Iran.
”I think we should continue to pursue openings with Iran, understanding this is still a nation very hostile to the West,” he said. ”We need to understand cold, hard realities and be very clear-eyed and clearheaded, but every opening we should take.”
This is a useful article because it provides three key insights into Hagel’s views on Middle East policy in general:
A front-page story in the New York Times this week provides a reminder of something too often forgotten: The American-Israeli alliance is not a one-way street. While Israel obviously derives numerous benefits from the alliance, it also plays an important role in furthering American interests in the Middle East. And one way it does so is through its impressive intelligence capabilities.
The Times report opens with Israeli military commanders calling the Pentagon in late November “to discuss troubling intelligence that was showing up on satellite imagery: Syrian troops appeared to be mixing chemicals at two storage sites, probably the deadly nerve gas sarin, and filling dozens of 500-pounds bombs that could be loaded on airplanes.” The Pentagon promptly notified President Barack Obama, warning that should Syrian President Bashar Assad decide to use them, the weapons could “be airborne in less than two hours — too fast for the United States to act.” Obama responded with a global diplomatic push to stop the weapons from being used, and so far, the effort has succeeded. But it never could have happened had Israel not provided that initial intelligence.