Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iran

Iraq Requires U.S. Action, Not Observation

Fighters from the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have taken Mosul and are advancing south toward Baghdad. Shiites are mobilizing to stop them in response to a call from Grand Ayatollah Sistani. Iran is rumored to have sent fighters from its own Quds Force to assist Shiite militias such as Asaib Ahl al Haq and Kattaib Hezbollah in defending Baghdad and the Shiite heartland. An all-out civil war looms between Sunnis and Shiites.

Faced with this showdown, many Americans might be tempted to shrug their shoulders and repeat Henry Kissinger’s quip about the Iran-Iraq War: “It’s a pity they both can’t lose.”  What interest is it of ours if various factions of Muslims want to duke it out?

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Fighters from the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have taken Mosul and are advancing south toward Baghdad. Shiites are mobilizing to stop them in response to a call from Grand Ayatollah Sistani. Iran is rumored to have sent fighters from its own Quds Force to assist Shiite militias such as Asaib Ahl al Haq and Kattaib Hezbollah in defending Baghdad and the Shiite heartland. An all-out civil war looms between Sunnis and Shiites.

Faced with this showdown, many Americans might be tempted to shrug their shoulders and repeat Henry Kissinger’s quip about the Iran-Iraq War: “It’s a pity they both can’t lose.”  What interest is it of ours if various factions of Muslims want to duke it out?

Leave aside the humanitarian concern, which is real. A similar civil war in Syria has already killed more than 150,000 people, very few of whom are religious or political fanatics—mostly just ordinary people who want to live their lives in peace. A similar bloodletting now looms in Iraq, a country that the U.S. invaded in 2003 and for which we therefore assumed some moral responsibility.

I realize that kind of case is not likely to convince many people outside Human Rights Watch. So, fine, let’s put morality aside for a moment and just look at strategy. Can it possibly be in America’s interest to see another major country in the Middle East carved up between, essentially, Shiite and Sunni fanatics? That’s already happened in Syria and U.S. intelligence officials warn that Syria is now as dangerous a breeding ground for terrorists as Afghanistan was prior to 9/11.

Now the likelihood is growing that the same thing will happen in Iraq, the country with the fifth-largest crude oil reserves on the planet and the second-largest within OPEC. This will destabilize the international economic and security situations even if it stays confined to the borders of Iraq—but odds are it won’t. Already the civil war in Syria has spilled over into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and of course Iraq. A growing civil war in Iraq is likely to spill over into Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey, and other neighboring states.

All you need to know about the current situation in Iraq is that the biggest beneficiaries are Iran and Al Qaeda—the two worst enemies of the United States in the entire world. It is imperative that the Obama administration do more than study the situation. It needs to roll up its sleeves and act to avert this disaster—not by staging meaningless, photo-op air strikes (which is what I fear will happen) but by getting involved in the nitty-gritty of Iraqi politics, as the U.S. did in 2007-2009, to nudge Baghdad in a better direction.

The Iraqi government needs to stop alienating Sunnis and start embracing them. If that were to happen the battlefield situation could reverse overnight as it did during the surge in 2007-2008. If Baghdad signals such a change of course, President Obama should offer copious military aid including Special Operations Forces, intelligence personnel, and military advisers. Air strikes without eyes on the ground won’t work—they will not hit the right people and not have the intended impact. Odds are high that U.S. airpower could be used by Maliki to pursue his sectarian agenda. Yet even at this hour of crisis Obama insists on ruling out any U.S. ground forces.

Nobody wants to get mired in Iraq again—and we certainly shouldn’t send an army to invade again. But in both Iraq and Syria the only thing worse than American engagement, we are now finding, is American disengagement.

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Now Is Not the Time to Let Up on Iran

In addition to pledges to assist the Iraqi government in fighting Sunni militants it is also now being reported the Iranians have made overtures to Washington about cooperating on preventing the further disintegration of the Iraqi state. But no one should for a moment imagine that the Iranians are doing any of this out of the goodness of their hearts. For one thing, it makes sense for Iran to bolster Iraq’s Shia-backed leader Nouri al-Maliki. But more than that, ever since the fall of Saddam the Iranians have been seeking ways to martial Iraq’s Shia majority in such a way that would be advantageous to the interests of Tehran.

In a sense, events in Iraq have mirrored those in Syria, and to some degree Lebanon. It has been argued that this is really all part of a proxy war being fought out between the Gulf states and Iran, with financial assistance flowing to Sunni groups from the monarchies of the Arabian peninsula, while the Iranians back the Shia and Alawite factions in these places. Yet, Iran’s offer of cooperation in with the U.S. in Iraq is also concerning when viewed in light of the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

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In addition to pledges to assist the Iraqi government in fighting Sunni militants it is also now being reported the Iranians have made overtures to Washington about cooperating on preventing the further disintegration of the Iraqi state. But no one should for a moment imagine that the Iranians are doing any of this out of the goodness of their hearts. For one thing, it makes sense for Iran to bolster Iraq’s Shia-backed leader Nouri al-Maliki. But more than that, ever since the fall of Saddam the Iranians have been seeking ways to martial Iraq’s Shia majority in such a way that would be advantageous to the interests of Tehran.

In a sense, events in Iraq have mirrored those in Syria, and to some degree Lebanon. It has been argued that this is really all part of a proxy war being fought out between the Gulf states and Iran, with financial assistance flowing to Sunni groups from the monarchies of the Arabian peninsula, while the Iranians back the Shia and Alawite factions in these places. Yet, Iran’s offer of cooperation in with the U.S. in Iraq is also concerning when viewed in light of the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

There is every reason to be skeptical about the progress of these talks. The conferences between Iran and the P5+1 countries come and go, diplomats file in and out of elegant hotels, enjoying a few days in Vienna or Geneva. But it’s not at all clear that the parties are any closer to a satisfactory deal than when they started. And now it appears that the Iranians are attempting a divide-and-conquer strategy. Of the six nations negotiating with Iran, the Iranians have struck up separate dialogue tracks with four: America, France, Germany, and Russia. No doubt the hope on the part of the Iranians is that one of these will begin to soften in its line, thus undermining the stance taken by the others and making it impossible for the P5+1 group to maintain a united front in the negotiations.

It is hard to imagine that the parties will have put together a workable agreement by the July 20 deadline. Secretary of State John Kerry is fond of repeating his mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” but given what little has been achieved so far it seems that by July 20 we will have either a bad deal or no deal, both of which are thoroughly bad options.

It’s not surprising, then, that diplomats have been warning that they may “regretfully” have to extend their stay on the negotiation circuit for another six months. Clearly this is precisely what the Iranians have been playing for. Keeping the negotiation process going allows them to keep the sanctions concessions they’ve already gained, the opportunity of winning more along the way, protection from the threat of a military strike, and all the time they can quietly tip-toe closer toward nuclear breakout beneath the cover of negotiations. In the meantime Iran is seeking to rebuild some of its standing on the world stage, which may well strengthen its hand in winning further concessions. It simply has to play for time, wait for something to happen–a major conflagration in Iraq perhaps, more conflict in Ukraine or the Baltics–and then it can slip over the threshold when the time is right.

Speaking in Rome recently, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Aragachi told listeners that negotiations are now in a very “critical stage.” He went on, “There are still gaps. We need wisdom and creativity to bridge the gaps …. a deal is within reach.” What does all of that amount to? The message is clear: stick with negotiations, it’s going to take a lot more time, but you’ll get what you want in the end, we promise. But if the promise of a carrot wasn’t enough, the Iranians are also threatening a stick. Aragachi warned that abandoning the talks without an agreement would be “disastrous for all” and said that in that event the Iranians would resume enriching uranium at 20 percent–just a quick and easy step away from weapons-grade levels.

Yet it’s strange that Iran should expect the West to be more afraid of its enrichment program than it should be of Western sanctions or air strikes. Under a different administration perhaps such Iranian threats would sound as ludicrous as they ought to. But with Obama having taken both the military and sanctions options off the table, the West’s last pitiful line of defense against Iranian tyrants is to keep them talking.

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Iran Uses Dialogue to Subvert Religious Freedom

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) breaks word that President Obama’s spiritual adviser recently traveled to Iran to discuss interfaith tolerance:

Joel Hunter, a spiritual adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, recently spent about a week discussing religious tolerance with officials in Iran, a country often singled out by rights groups for its intolerance toward its religious minorities. Hunter, a senior pastor of Northland Church in Florida who led a delegation of U.S. religious leaders to the Islamic republic, says he was invited by Iranian religious leaders and scholars to attend a conference. The conference titled “World Free of Violence and Extremism from the Perspective of Abrahamic Religions” was held in Tehran on May 25. Hunter, who describes himself as someone who helps Obama get closer to God, says he will brief the U.S. President on his trip, which included a visit to the holy city of Qom…

Hunter said he met with Iran’s parliament speaker, advisers to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, officials of Iran’s academy of science, Christian and Jewish leaders, and Grand Ayatollahs in Qom. He added that religious extremism and violence as well as a faith-based path to peace were among the main topics he discussed with Iranian officials. Asked whether he raised the issue of Iranian state pressure on religious minorities, including Christian converts, Hunter said those subjects were discussed in “sidebar conversations…We didn’t go over there to confront people on certain issues,” said Hunter. “But…we have built enough of a relationship to address those specific conversations and we talked through those together, and what steps we could do to build a better environment.”

And once again, Obama and those upon whom he seeks advice expose themselves completely oblivious to both history and reality.

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Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) breaks word that President Obama’s spiritual adviser recently traveled to Iran to discuss interfaith tolerance:

Joel Hunter, a spiritual adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, recently spent about a week discussing religious tolerance with officials in Iran, a country often singled out by rights groups for its intolerance toward its religious minorities. Hunter, a senior pastor of Northland Church in Florida who led a delegation of U.S. religious leaders to the Islamic republic, says he was invited by Iranian religious leaders and scholars to attend a conference. The conference titled “World Free of Violence and Extremism from the Perspective of Abrahamic Religions” was held in Tehran on May 25. Hunter, who describes himself as someone who helps Obama get closer to God, says he will brief the U.S. President on his trip, which included a visit to the holy city of Qom…

Hunter said he met with Iran’s parliament speaker, advisers to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, officials of Iran’s academy of science, Christian and Jewish leaders, and Grand Ayatollahs in Qom. He added that religious extremism and violence as well as a faith-based path to peace were among the main topics he discussed with Iranian officials. Asked whether he raised the issue of Iranian state pressure on religious minorities, including Christian converts, Hunter said those subjects were discussed in “sidebar conversations…We didn’t go over there to confront people on certain issues,” said Hunter. “But…we have built enough of a relationship to address those specific conversations and we talked through those together, and what steps we could do to build a better environment.”

And once again, Obama and those upon whom he seeks advice expose themselves completely oblivious to both history and reality.

First, of all, let’s take Joel Hunter’s comment that it’s too early to confront Iranians on certain issues. It’s been 21 years since German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel unveiled his “critical dialogue” in which aid and the willingness to talk would be marked by a commitment to address issues the Iranian government found uncomfortable, like human rights and religious freedom. And yet, two decades and several billion dollars in sanctions relief later, Hunter essentially argues the time isn’t ripe?

Second, while Hunter acknowledged that his trip might be used for propaganda purposes, here’s a story he likely missed: Grand Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a close associate to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, declaring, “Equal Rights for the Bahais and the Jews are Against Islam.” As for the State Department, here’s the statement it emailed to RFE/RL: “We commend such efforts to promote interfaith tolerance and religious freedom, a foreign policy priority for the Department.”

Indeed. It’s a myth of diplomacy (and one I discuss at length in my recent book) that Track II talk—so-called “people-to-people dialogue”—breaks down barriers and occurs without a cost. It seems that Hunter’s willingness to be the regime’s useful idiot and his obliviousness to how Iran couples his visit with a further crackdown on Baha’is and Jews is just the latest example of how clumsy Obama’s outreach to Iran is and the disdain in which he and Secretary of State John Kerry appear to treat religious freedom and liberty.

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Can the White House Be Trusted on Iran Deal?

President Obama’s decision to release five senior Taliban prisoners in exchange for a captive American soldier who, according to numerous media reports, was also a deserter was political malpractice. The terrorists released were not simply Taliban, but rather the Taliban leadership who helped forge the group’s relationship with al-Qaeda. Secretary of State Chuck Hagel both denied that the deal was equivalent to negotiating with terrorists and also denied that releasing such high-value terrorists in exchange for a traitor would incentivize further terrorism.

Hagel is either being disingenuous or intellectually incompetent. That Obama violated the law with the release is simply icing on the cake of poor White House judgment. National Security Advisor Susan Rice again rushed to appear on Sunday talk shows for which she was unprepared and in which she was not truthful when characterizing Bowe Bergdahl’s service. The Taliban are rightly celebrating their victory, while Obama and some of his senior aides appear genuinely surprised at the uproar which their deal has sparked.

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President Obama’s decision to release five senior Taliban prisoners in exchange for a captive American soldier who, according to numerous media reports, was also a deserter was political malpractice. The terrorists released were not simply Taliban, but rather the Taliban leadership who helped forge the group’s relationship with al-Qaeda. Secretary of State Chuck Hagel both denied that the deal was equivalent to negotiating with terrorists and also denied that releasing such high-value terrorists in exchange for a traitor would incentivize further terrorism.

Hagel is either being disingenuous or intellectually incompetent. That Obama violated the law with the release is simply icing on the cake of poor White House judgment. National Security Advisor Susan Rice again rushed to appear on Sunday talk shows for which she was unprepared and in which she was not truthful when characterizing Bowe Bergdahl’s service. The Taliban are rightly celebrating their victory, while Obama and some of his senior aides appear genuinely surprised at the uproar which their deal has sparked.

Given the detachment of the White House from reality, perhaps it’s time now to double down on the demand that the White House not be trusted to make a deal with Iran without Congress carefully vetting the terms of that deal. The United States and regional states will have to live with whatever Obama’s negotiators decide, but Obama’s team has clearly demonstrated that they have little sense of strategic consequences. Perhaps if there’s any lesson that can be learned from the Bergdahl debacle, it can be that it provides warning that Obama left to his own devices uses secrecy to shield himself from criticism, but is prone to damaging American credibility. What’s at stake with Iran’s nuclear program is simply too important to defer to Obama’s judgment alone.

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What Do Obama’s Critics Want From Him?

The reporting on President Obama’s foreign-policy address at West Point yesterday closely resembles the reporting that previewed the speech–a strong indication that the president didn’t make much of a point. Even the New York Times noticed the occasional “straw-man argument” on which Obama’s main themes rested. Listening to his critics, the Times reports, the president “grows deeply frustrated.”

So do the president’s defenders. There are far fewer of them in the wake of this speech, as the president didn’t really say much at all even though the address was billed as a way to clear things up a bit. Thus Fred Kaplan both gets the speech exactly right and the reaction to it perfectly wrong when he writes: “President Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday morning could be called a tribute to common sense, except that the sense it made is so uncommon.”

In fact, the criticism of the speech was really the opposite: everyone knows that, as Kaplan says, “not every problem has a military solution.” The chief complaint about Obama is that he refuses to engage intellectually with his critics; he merely creates straw men–such as those who think every problem has a military solution–and then strikes them down. He’s only ever arguing with himself. But Kaplan does highlight the reason the president felt goaded into making his speech in the first place: he wonders just what his critics want from him.

The answer is that they want a coherent vision with explanatory power, not truisms about the hell of war. The problem for Obama and his defenders like Kaplan is that, as David Frum notes, the president’s foreign policy isn’t chalking up much of a success rate. So contemptuous hand-waving about “common sense” doesn’t say much for the president: if he’s guided by such obviously sensible instincts, why is American policy so ineffectual? Here’s Frum (ellipses in the original):

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The reporting on President Obama’s foreign-policy address at West Point yesterday closely resembles the reporting that previewed the speech–a strong indication that the president didn’t make much of a point. Even the New York Times noticed the occasional “straw-man argument” on which Obama’s main themes rested. Listening to his critics, the Times reports, the president “grows deeply frustrated.”

So do the president’s defenders. There are far fewer of them in the wake of this speech, as the president didn’t really say much at all even though the address was billed as a way to clear things up a bit. Thus Fred Kaplan both gets the speech exactly right and the reaction to it perfectly wrong when he writes: “President Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday morning could be called a tribute to common sense, except that the sense it made is so uncommon.”

In fact, the criticism of the speech was really the opposite: everyone knows that, as Kaplan says, “not every problem has a military solution.” The chief complaint about Obama is that he refuses to engage intellectually with his critics; he merely creates straw men–such as those who think every problem has a military solution–and then strikes them down. He’s only ever arguing with himself. But Kaplan does highlight the reason the president felt goaded into making his speech in the first place: he wonders just what his critics want from him.

The answer is that they want a coherent vision with explanatory power, not truisms about the hell of war. The problem for Obama and his defenders like Kaplan is that, as David Frum notes, the president’s foreign policy isn’t chalking up much of a success rate. So contemptuous hand-waving about “common sense” doesn’t say much for the president: if he’s guided by such obviously sensible instincts, why is American policy so ineffectual? Here’s Frum (ellipses in the original):

If Obama had met his stated goals in Afghanistan … if the Russia “reset” had worked … if Iran talks were indeed producing nuclear disarmament … if the president’s “red line” in Syria was not being crossed and recrossed like center-ice in an exciting hockey game … if his Libyan intervention had not resulted in Libya becoming a more violent and unstable place … if his administration had sustained the progress toward peace in Iraq achieved during George W. Bush’s second term—if all this had been the case, the president would have been content to simply present his impressive record. But it is not the case.

Obama missing his own stated goals is not the fault of hawks to his right or humanitarian interventionists to his left. He is not the victim here. He’s right about American leadership. But that has been true since the end of World War II, and often American leadership has been extraordinarily successful. It has not been while under Obama’s stewardship.

In his new book on the transfer of Western leadership from Britain to the U.S. after World War II, Aiyaz Husain, a historian at the State Department, highlights the role that each leader’s “mental maps” played in the development of the postwar order. Husain writes of the British perspective, which was that of an empire slowly losing its hold on distant lands and thus keen to protect important footholds in each area through what Husain calls “regionalism.” In contrast, the American conception of the world was quite different, consisting of “globalism” and the integration of a stable world system:

The geographic assumptions in this globalism came to shape postwar American grand strategy. As James Lay, the executive secretary of the National Security Council wrote in 1952 in the pages of World Affairs, the administration had realized early on that “policies developed for the security of the United States have far-reaching impact throughout the world. Likewise, events throughout the world affect our national security. Policies, therefore, can no longer be decided solely within geographical limitations.”

When the British sought to make revisions to a plan for the postwar order that would have protected some of their waning influence, FDR sternly and impatiently responded that they “smacked too much [of] ‘spheres of influence’ policies, the very thing which it was supposedly designed to prevent.” The American perspective, carried out by the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, was a coherent and prescient view of the emerging interconnected world with American leadership at the helm.

The concern by some of our allies around the world today is that America, under Obama, is acting more like postwar Britain than FDR and Truman’s United States. They wonder if we’re ceding influence while trying to mask retreat in token diplomatic gestures and occasional displays of interest or strength intended to keep a foothold, but no more than a foothold, in regions too important to leave behind but too chaotic to defend with press releases.

America does not have imperial properties around the globe as Britain did, of course. At the same time, there is no other United States to step into the vacuum and protect a globalism that could easily give way to regionalism. And painting those who want to know if America can still be counted on as warmongers is not going to reassure anyone.

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Why Is Obama “Happy” About Rouhani’s Iran?

Though the latest nuclear talks with Iran failed to yield progress toward an agreement, the Obama administration isn’t rethinking its commitment to engagement with Iran. Having come into office determined to find a way to end the nuclear standoff, President Obama has taken every opportunity to demonstrate that he wishes to create warmer relations with Tehran, even staying largely silent while the Islamists brutally suppressed dissidents in 2009. That’s why he seized upon the faux election last summer that resulted in Hassan Rouhani becoming Iran’s president to justify the decision to trust the regime when it came to the nuclear question. Though the secret negotiations that led to a weak interim agreement with Tehran preceded that vote, Rouhani’s more moderate image has been useful in dampening outrage about the direction of U.S. policy toward Iran which seems oriented more toward détente than actually preventing the regime from attaining nuclear capability.

But yesterday we got another reminder of the naïveté of Western hopes for Rouhani’s moderation. Days after Rouhani had given speech extolling the need for greater Internet freedom in his country, Iranian police arrested six young people and paraded them on national television for the crime of creating an Internet video in which they danced and sang to Pharrell Williams’s song “Happy.” According to Hossein Sajedinia, the head of the Tehran police, the harmless video was “a vulgar clip which hurt public chastity.” But after being forced to publicly repent, and with a worldwide furor growing over their arrest, the six who appeared on screen were freed today, apparently none the worse for wear for their ordeal and humiliation, though their director is still in jail. Rouhani celebrated their release with the following tweet:

#Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviors caused by joy

So should we be celebrating the advance of human rights in Iran today? And what has this to do with the nuclear talks?

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Though the latest nuclear talks with Iran failed to yield progress toward an agreement, the Obama administration isn’t rethinking its commitment to engagement with Iran. Having come into office determined to find a way to end the nuclear standoff, President Obama has taken every opportunity to demonstrate that he wishes to create warmer relations with Tehran, even staying largely silent while the Islamists brutally suppressed dissidents in 2009. That’s why he seized upon the faux election last summer that resulted in Hassan Rouhani becoming Iran’s president to justify the decision to trust the regime when it came to the nuclear question. Though the secret negotiations that led to a weak interim agreement with Tehran preceded that vote, Rouhani’s more moderate image has been useful in dampening outrage about the direction of U.S. policy toward Iran which seems oriented more toward détente than actually preventing the regime from attaining nuclear capability.

But yesterday we got another reminder of the naïveté of Western hopes for Rouhani’s moderation. Days after Rouhani had given speech extolling the need for greater Internet freedom in his country, Iranian police arrested six young people and paraded them on national television for the crime of creating an Internet video in which they danced and sang to Pharrell Williams’s song “Happy.” According to Hossein Sajedinia, the head of the Tehran police, the harmless video was “a vulgar clip which hurt public chastity.” But after being forced to publicly repent, and with a worldwide furor growing over their arrest, the six who appeared on screen were freed today, apparently none the worse for wear for their ordeal and humiliation, though their director is still in jail. Rouhani celebrated their release with the following tweet:

#Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviors caused by joy

So should we be celebrating the advance of human rights in Iran today? And what has this to do with the nuclear talks?

The answer is simple. Despite Iran’s attempt to persuade the world otherwise, it remains a brutal theocracy where anything, even a simple video can land you in jail if it rubs the Islamist authorities the wrong way. Rouhani, a veteran operative of the regime, is no moderate even though he is attempting to put forward a more human face to the world than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But power—including everything having to do with the country’s nuclear project—remains in the hands of his boss, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Incidents like the arrest of the video makers are designed to chill any signs of liberalization and dissent. As such, it was quite effective since few are bold enough to risk jail and a TV perp walk on the assumption that international attention will lead to their release. Unlike the lucky six, most Iranians who are arrested by the regime don’t become a trend on Twitter and simply disappear into the bowels of Tehran’s police dungeons.

But the Obama administration may argue that even if Iran is still a tyranny, that shouldn’t affect America’s decision to enter into a nuclear agreement with it. The danger Iran poses to the rest of the world stems from their ability to create a nuclear weapon, not policies designed to repress free spirits.

But the problem with America’s nuclear diplomacy is that it is based on the idea that Iran can be trusted to keep its agreements and that the further loosening of sanctions will aid the country’s progress toward better relations with the West. Unfortunately, Iran has proven time and again that it regards agreements with foreign powers as pieces of paper that it can tear up at will. And once sanctions are lifted, there is little chance the U.S. will ever be able to persuade a reluctant Europe to stop doing business with Iran.

So in order to rationalize a plan of action that is predicated on Iran turning the page from its past as a rogue regime, the U.S. must pretend that a regime that practices religious persecution and represses even the most innocuous sign of dissent is somehow changing. That’s why the administration’s negotiators have not even tried to raise the issues of Iranian sponsorship of terrorism in the talks. The more the discussion centers on Iranian behavior—whether as a backer of terrorists or as a vicious foe of human rights—the harder it will be for the president to persuade Americans that Iran means to keep even a weak deal that will give it plenty of leeway to cheat and get to a bomb.

Thus, far from being irrelevant to the talks that have been going on in Vienna, the “happy” dancers are a reminder that Iran isn’t the country Barack Obama would like it to be. The longer Americans cling to the delusion that Rouhani has genuine power and that he really can moderate the Islamist regime, the less chance there is that they will think clearly about the nuclear threat and a diplomatic process that seems to guarantee that it won’t be averted.

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FBI Confronts Reality of War on Terror

Michael Schmidt of the New York Times has a fascinating article on the new FBI director, James Comey, who came into office expecting to downsize the agency’s focus on terrorism. After all, hasn’t President Obama himself repeatedly said that al-Qaeda is “decimated” and on the “path to defeat”? Not so fast.

With access to top-secret intelligence, Comey has learned that al-Qaeda’s affiliates and fellow travelers–in such countries as Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and Nigeria–are more threatening than ever, not just to local citizens (such as the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram) but to American interests and even the American homeland. He tells the Times: “I didn’t have anywhere near the appreciation I got after I came into this job just how virulent those affiliates had become. There are both many more than I appreciated, and they are stronger than I appreciated.”

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Michael Schmidt of the New York Times has a fascinating article on the new FBI director, James Comey, who came into office expecting to downsize the agency’s focus on terrorism. After all, hasn’t President Obama himself repeatedly said that al-Qaeda is “decimated” and on the “path to defeat”? Not so fast.

With access to top-secret intelligence, Comey has learned that al-Qaeda’s affiliates and fellow travelers–in such countries as Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and Nigeria–are more threatening than ever, not just to local citizens (such as the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram) but to American interests and even the American homeland. He tells the Times: “I didn’t have anywhere near the appreciation I got after I came into this job just how virulent those affiliates had become. There are both many more than I appreciated, and they are stronger than I appreciated.”

Thus Comey has elected to continue making counter-terrorism the bureau’s primary responsibility. That sounds like a wise choice and it is also a brave one because it undermines the president’s attempts to make all wars–including the one on terrorism–go away. Even the very term “Global War on Terror” has been banished from the administration’s lexicon.

Reality, alas, is not cooperating. The “tide of war” is actually cresting, not receding, and in some measure (although not entirely) because Obama has chosen to pull back from the Middle East. His attempt to follow a less interventionist (though, to be sure, not isolationist) path is not reducing anti-American antagonism. It is instead giving al-Qaeda and its affiliates–not to mention the Iranian Quds Force and its affiliates–more room to operate.

It would be nice if the president, who is presumably reading the same intelligence as Comey (and even getting access to information that the FBI director doesn’t see), had a similar awakening and reversed the drastic drawdown in U.S. defense spending which puts at risk our military readiness. That, alas, seems unlikely to happen because the president is so locked into his own narrative that he is ending wars, not starting them.

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Lacking Achievements, Hillary Invents One

Last month, in writing about the challenge Hillary Clinton will face in running for president after presiding over foreign-policy disasters at the State Department, I gave her too much credit. With regard to Iran, I said she’d probably act as though she had been “skeptical of Iranian ‘reform,’” since she didn’t negotiate the naïve deal with the Islamic Republic; John Kerry did.

I suppose I had momentarily forgotten she’s a Clinton. This week she reminded us. She won’t merely pretend to have been privately wary of the Iranians. She will just make stuff up and rewrite history, counting on the media’s investment in her election and fear of crossing her to cover for her distortions. Like the daring woman who dodged a phantom shower of gunfire in Bosnia, Hillary is back casting herself as the heroic defender of freedom she has never been. Josh Rogin reports on Clinton’s speech to the American Jewish Committee this week:

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Last month, in writing about the challenge Hillary Clinton will face in running for president after presiding over foreign-policy disasters at the State Department, I gave her too much credit. With regard to Iran, I said she’d probably act as though she had been “skeptical of Iranian ‘reform,’” since she didn’t negotiate the naïve deal with the Islamic Republic; John Kerry did.

I suppose I had momentarily forgotten she’s a Clinton. This week she reminded us. She won’t merely pretend to have been privately wary of the Iranians. She will just make stuff up and rewrite history, counting on the media’s investment in her election and fear of crossing her to cover for her distortions. Like the daring woman who dodged a phantom shower of gunfire in Bosnia, Hillary is back casting herself as the heroic defender of freedom she has never been. Josh Rogin reports on Clinton’s speech to the American Jewish Committee this week:

Hillary Clinton is now claiming to be the architect of crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy. But during her tenure as Secretary of State, her department repeatedly opposed or tried to water down an array of measures that were pushed into law by Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

Rogin offers a corrective:

What Clinton didn’t mention was that top officials from her own State Department—in conjunction with the rest of the Obama administration—often worked hard against many of the measures she’s now championing. Some bills Foggy Bottom slowed down; others, the State Department lobbied to be made less strict; still others were opposed outright by Clinton’s deputies, only to be overruled by large majorities in the House and the Senate. …

The most egregious example of the administration’s effort to slow down the sanctions drive came in late 2011, when Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez openly chastised top administration officials for opposing an amendment to sanction the Central Bank of Iran that he had co-authored with Sen. Mark Kirk. Leading administration officials including Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman publicly expressed “strong opposition” (PDF) to the amendment, arguing that it would anger allies by opening them up for punishment if they did not significantly reduce their imports of Iranian oil.

Clinton’s top deputies fought the amendment at every step of the legislative process. Clinton’s #2 at the State Department, Bill Burns, even joined an emergency meeting with top senators to urge them to drop the amendment. They refused. The amendment later passed the Senate 100-0. Menendez said at the time that the administration had negotiated on the amendment in bad faith.

The record is quite clear: Hillary Clinton was a powerful obstacle to effective Iran sanctions. It is a tribute to the hard work and determination of those like Kirk and Menendez to be able to get any sanctions through Clinton and Obama’s dedicated obstruction of efforts to use sanctions to stop or slow Iran’s march to a nuclear weapon.

The whole incident is a preview of what 2016 will be like if Hillary does decide to accept her party’s coronation as its new cult leader. The Clinton campaign would indeed be a fairytale ending to a storybook career–just not in the way those terms are traditionally understood. The campaign narrative will be, at best, historical fiction–though closer to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter than the West Wing, in terms of its relationship to the real world.

As Rogin reported, and as ABC News picked up on last night, Kirk is pushing back:

“I worked for months to round-up the votes [in the UN Security Council],” Clinton said. “In the end we were successful… And then building on the framework established by the Security Council, with the help of Congress, the Obama administration imposed some of the most stringent, crippling sanctions on top of the international ones.”

Those sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table earlier this year.

“Secretary Clinton’s comments are a blatant revision of history,” said Kirk, who with Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., co-sponsored several sanctions bills in recent years. “The fact is the Obama administration has opposed sanctions against Iran led by Senator Menendez and me every step of the way.”

It’s significant that Kirk is speaking up, because he is neither a conservative firebrand (he is the moderate Republican holding President Obama’s former Senate seat) nor a serial self-promoter, unlike so many of his colleagues. He is also not contemplating running against Clinton for the presidency in 2016.

He is speaking out, quite simply, because Clinton is selling a self-aggrandizing fantasy to the public in hopes of deceiving her way into the White House. In the process, she is demeaning those really responsible for the sanctions. But the silver lining is that her attempt to rewrite history indicates her awareness of just how out of step she is with the American public.

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Time to Give Iran the Human-Rights Test

I’m not necessarily opposed to diplomacy with rogue regimes, but the idea that “it never hurts to talk,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Undersecretary Nicholas Burns, and Bush-era Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage have said is simply false. In my book, I chronicle the costs of engaging rogue regimes so at least policymakers can enter into negotiations with eyes wide open rather than simply assume their outreach is cost-free.

Whether in Clinton and Bush’s outreach to North Korea, Obama’s diplomacy with the Taliban, Reagan’s engagement with Saddam’s Iraq, or today with regard to Iran, diplomats often dispense with human rights in order to suffer no impediment in their drive to deal-making. The current flourish of nuclear deal-making, after all, had its roots in the Critical Dialogue initiated by German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel in 1993. The “critical” portion of that dialogue, European diplomats explained, was because Europe would tie tough discussion of human rights with nuclear talks and trade. Of course, it was just a matter of months before the Europeans dispensed with the critical aspect of their dialogue and nearly tripled trade. Iran took that hard currency windfall and invested it in their nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Obama is different. Or at least he says he is. Both he and John Kerry have colored their careers with flowery rhetoric about human rights. The question is whether they consider such lip service to human rights and religious freedom merely props in their now-fulfilled quest for power.  

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I’m not necessarily opposed to diplomacy with rogue regimes, but the idea that “it never hurts to talk,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Undersecretary Nicholas Burns, and Bush-era Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage have said is simply false. In my book, I chronicle the costs of engaging rogue regimes so at least policymakers can enter into negotiations with eyes wide open rather than simply assume their outreach is cost-free.

Whether in Clinton and Bush’s outreach to North Korea, Obama’s diplomacy with the Taliban, Reagan’s engagement with Saddam’s Iraq, or today with regard to Iran, diplomats often dispense with human rights in order to suffer no impediment in their drive to deal-making. The current flourish of nuclear deal-making, after all, had its roots in the Critical Dialogue initiated by German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel in 1993. The “critical” portion of that dialogue, European diplomats explained, was because Europe would tie tough discussion of human rights with nuclear talks and trade. Of course, it was just a matter of months before the Europeans dispensed with the critical aspect of their dialogue and nearly tripled trade. Iran took that hard currency windfall and invested it in their nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Obama is different. Or at least he says he is. Both he and John Kerry have colored their careers with flowery rhetoric about human rights. The question is whether they consider such lip service to human rights and religious freedom merely props in their now-fulfilled quest for power.  

May 14 marked the sixth anniversary of the imprisonment of seven Baha’i leaders in Iran. Their plight is an issue I covered often in the years before I started writing for COMMENTARY. To mark the anniversary, Bahá’ís of the United States and a host of other religious organizations including the American Jewish Committee, the American Islamic Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Baptist World Alliance have sent a letter to Kerry which reads in part:

May 14 will mark the sixth anniversary of the imprisonment of the seven members of the former ad hoc leadership group of the Bahá’ís of Iran… As governments and human rights organizations have attested, their imprisonment is for no other reason than their membership in the Bahá’í Faith and their service to the Bahá’í community… They were convicted on a number of charges, including espionage, propaganda activities against the Islamic order, acting against the security of the country, and corruption on earth – all of which they categorically denied… Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, over 200 Bahá’ís have been killed, the majority by execution, and thousands have been imprisoned. Bahá’ís are denied government jobs and business licenses, and are excluded from university. Their marriages are not recognized, their cemeteries are desecrated, and their holy places have been destroyed…

Mr. Secretary, the gross mistreatment of the Yaran [imprisoned Bahá’í leadership] and the severe and systematic state-sponsored persecution of the Bahá’ís is emblematic of a deteriorating human rights situation in Iran. In addition to Bahá’ís, other religious minorities, including Christians, Sufis, and Sunnis face persecution; ethnic minorities are repressed; journalists are jailed; lawyers and other human rights defenders are targeted; and executions are on the rise. We are deeply concerned about religious freedom and human rights in Iran. We ask you to call for the release of the Yaran and all prisoners of conscience in Iran, and to speak out for the fundamental rights of all citizens of Iran.

Demanding the release of the Baha’i leaders is the perfect opportunity for Kerry to determine Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s sincerity and his ability to deliver, especially because both Obama and Kerry imagine Rouhani as some sort of Iranian Deng Xiaoping. But if Rouhani isn’t able to release seven Baha’i, then how can they be so sure he will be able to stand up to the supreme leader, the Principalist faction, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to deliver on a nuclear deal, even if Rouhani were sincere? It’s time for a test of Iranian intentions, and if that test results in freedom and liberty for prisoners of faith and conscience, all the better.

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Iran’s War on America

According to BBC Monitoring, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s (IRGC) provincial website for the western province of Hamadan bragged about how involved the Revolutionary Guard has become in Syria. Mohammad Eskandari, the IRGC commander in Malayer, said the IRGC had trained and prepared 42 brigades and 138 battalions to fight in Syria. “Militarily speaking, they are absolutely ready to fight the enemy,” he declared, adding, “Today’s war in Syria is, in fact, our war with the United States that takes place in Syrian territory.”

The military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program—those very same aspects about which Iranian negotiators refuse to give a full accounting—are the purview of the IRGC. And the IRGC has made clear that they are unwilling to accept or abide by anything to which Iranian nuclear negotiators agree with their American counterparts.

So, basically, one Iranian official claims victory over the United States in Syria. And a senior IRGC commander readily acknowledges his view that Iran is at war with the United States. That the IRGC represents the ideological guardians of the supreme leader’s vision makes the statement even more worrying. And President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s response is to ignore it.

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According to BBC Monitoring, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s (IRGC) provincial website for the western province of Hamadan bragged about how involved the Revolutionary Guard has become in Syria. Mohammad Eskandari, the IRGC commander in Malayer, said the IRGC had trained and prepared 42 brigades and 138 battalions to fight in Syria. “Militarily speaking, they are absolutely ready to fight the enemy,” he declared, adding, “Today’s war in Syria is, in fact, our war with the United States that takes place in Syrian territory.”

The military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program—those very same aspects about which Iranian negotiators refuse to give a full accounting—are the purview of the IRGC. And the IRGC has made clear that they are unwilling to accept or abide by anything to which Iranian nuclear negotiators agree with their American counterparts.

So, basically, one Iranian official claims victory over the United States in Syria. And a senior IRGC commander readily acknowledges his view that Iran is at war with the United States. That the IRGC represents the ideological guardians of the supreme leader’s vision makes the statement even more worrying. And President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s response is to ignore it.

Back in 1998, al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden declared war on the United States, but the Clinton administration couldn’t be bothered to take it seriously. There followed attacks in the United States embassies in East Africa, an attack on the USS Cole offshore Aden, Yemen, and finally the 9/11 attacks.

How strange it is after that experience that the response of the Obama administration to a declaration of war against the United States is to offer an ever-increasing series of concessions and incentives to the country whose trusted military elite have made that declaration.

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A Deal to Let Iran Cheat More Efficiently

To understand the pointlessness of the nuclear negotiations now underway in Vienna between Iran and the so-called P5+1, it’s enough to read a new report leaked to Reuters earlier this week by the UN Panel of Experts that monitors nuclear sanctions on Iran. The report found “a decrease” in Iran’s efforts “to procure items for prohibited programs” since President Hassan Rouhani took office mid-2013 and optimistically declared this might stem from “the new political environment in Iran and diplomatic progress towards a comprehensive solution.”

Now let’s remove the rose-colored glasses and consider the facts: Under the “moderate” Rouhani–the man the world has declared it can do a deal with–Iran has continued trying to smuggle in parts for the illicit nuclear program it denies having; at most, it has decreased the pace a bit. And, as the report later admits, maybe not even that: It may simply have developed “more sophisticated” methods of “concealing procurement, while expanding prohibited activities.” Alternatively, it may have reduced its smuggling effort because, as the report further acknowledged, it has “demonstrated a growing capability to produce key items indigenously”–not a capability it would need if it were planning to give up its nuclear program.

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To understand the pointlessness of the nuclear negotiations now underway in Vienna between Iran and the so-called P5+1, it’s enough to read a new report leaked to Reuters earlier this week by the UN Panel of Experts that monitors nuclear sanctions on Iran. The report found “a decrease” in Iran’s efforts “to procure items for prohibited programs” since President Hassan Rouhani took office mid-2013 and optimistically declared this might stem from “the new political environment in Iran and diplomatic progress towards a comprehensive solution.”

Now let’s remove the rose-colored glasses and consider the facts: Under the “moderate” Rouhani–the man the world has declared it can do a deal with–Iran has continued trying to smuggle in parts for the illicit nuclear program it denies having; at most, it has decreased the pace a bit. And, as the report later admits, maybe not even that: It may simply have developed “more sophisticated” methods of “concealing procurement, while expanding prohibited activities.” Alternatively, it may have reduced its smuggling effort because, as the report further acknowledged, it has “demonstrated a growing capability to produce key items indigenously”–not a capability it would need if it were planning to give up its nuclear program.

In short, Iran has continued cheating its way to nuclear capability even while signing an interim nuclear agreement with the P5+1 in January and conducting months of “productive” negotiations on a permanent agreement. So even if a permanent deal is signed in the next few months, why would anyone imagine Iran would suddenly stop cheating and actually abide by the agreed-upon limits to its nuclear program? On the contrary, it would be able to cheat much more efficiently, unimpeded by the sanctions now in place.

Then there’s Rouhani’s own statement on Sunday that Iran’s nuclear technology actually isn’t “up for negotiation” at all; “We have nothing to put on the table and offer to them but transparency.” Even if one dismisses the first half of that statement as standard pre-negotiation posturing, there’s a real problem with elevating transparency from the status of a necessary precondition for a deal to a substantive Iranian concession equivalent to actually dismantling parts of its program–because, as also became clear this week, Iran’s idea of “transparency” doesn’t match that of the rest of the world.

Under an agreement signed with the International Atomic Energy Agency in November, Iran was supposed to answer various questions about its nuclear program by today. Iran says it has complied fully, but the IAEA doesn’t agree: It still wants more information about one of the most crucial issues of all–Iran’s experiments with explosive bridge wire detonators, which can be used to trigger nuclear bombs. The parties also haven’t reached any agreement on resolving other outstanding questions that weren’t covered by November’s deal. Due to these twin impasses, Monday’s meeting between IAEA and Iranian officials broke up without even an agreement on when to meet again.

Yet there’s no reason to believe Iran won’t stonewall any new agreement on transparency just as it has the previous ones–especially when it can do so with little fear of consequences, since the sanctions regime, once disabled, is unlikely to be reestablished for anything short of a nuclear explosion.

There are many other reasons for disliking the nuclear deal now under discussion, including those detailed by Michael Rubin and Jonathan Tobin earlier this week. But the simplest reason of all is that, as its past behavior shows, Iran can’t be trusted to honor any such agreement: It will simply continue merrily cheating its way to a nuclear bomb. And a sanctions-ending deal will make it easier for Tehran to do so.

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Would You Trust Ahmadinejad with Unrestricted Nukes?

The Obama administration’s deal-making with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is based on two assumptions, both of which are false. The first is that the president matters in Iran. The reality is that, in the Islamic Republic, the supreme leader calls the shots, not the president. Simply put, the president is about style, the supreme leader is about substance. The second assumption underlying Obama’s diplomacy is that Hassan Rouhani is the Iranian incarnation of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, someone with a hardline past but reform in his heart. At best, this is wishful thinking. It involves dismissing Rouhani’s record and all of his past statements.

Obama is undertaking a huge gamble: He is betting American national security and broader Middle Eastern security on the notion that somehow Rouhani is different than his record indicates and that he knows better than Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei what Rouhani’s true intentions are. That’s not a good bet to take, especially since it looks like Rouhani’s honeymoon is rapidly coming to an end, but Obama—like all second-term presidents—is willing to put on blinders in his quest for a legacy.

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The Obama administration’s deal-making with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is based on two assumptions, both of which are false. The first is that the president matters in Iran. The reality is that, in the Islamic Republic, the supreme leader calls the shots, not the president. Simply put, the president is about style, the supreme leader is about substance. The second assumption underlying Obama’s diplomacy is that Hassan Rouhani is the Iranian incarnation of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, someone with a hardline past but reform in his heart. At best, this is wishful thinking. It involves dismissing Rouhani’s record and all of his past statements.

Obama is undertaking a huge gamble: He is betting American national security and broader Middle Eastern security on the notion that somehow Rouhani is different than his record indicates and that he knows better than Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei what Rouhani’s true intentions are. That’s not a good bet to take, especially since it looks like Rouhani’s honeymoon is rapidly coming to an end, but Obama—like all second-term presidents—is willing to put on blinders in his quest for a legacy.

Obama is putting all of his eggs in Rouhani’s basket, but what happens if Rouhani is removed from the picture? The purpose of a nuclear deal with Iran—at least from the Iranian perspective—is to normalize Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s de facto lobbyists in the United States are already arguing that after a short period of Iranian compliance with the deal, Iran should be free and clear from restrictions and, in effect, be treated as it had never cheated, never experimented with nuclear-weapons triggers, and never constructed secret nuclear facilities.

Within the Islamic Republic, there is not an inexorable march to reform. The birthrate in Iran today is only half of what is was in the 1980s, and so Iranian leaders figure that there will be fewer hot-headed young people in coming decades. As students start families, they become less willing to rock the boat. Hardliners figure their moment is yet to come. To read Rouhani’s election as the permanent victory of reform or democracy is to misunderstand Iran: There are no free elections inside the Islamic Republic. The Guardian Council selects candidates, and so sets the parameters of debate.

The supreme leader keeps power by insuring a rotation of factions. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the presidency in 2005, he cleaned house of reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s followers. Likewise, when Rouhani won the presidency, the press cheered as he began his purge of Ahmadinejad’s supporters (never mind he simply replaced the pro-Ahmadinejad Revolutionary Guards veterans with intelligence ministry veterans, hardly the sign of sincere reform). It is reasonable to assume that the supreme leader will try to keep Rouhani’s minions from growing too powerful by orchestrating the revival of the Ahmadinejadniks.

And, indeed, that is what is happening according to the Iranian press. The Open Source Center has compiled a number of Iranian press reporters discussing Ahmadinejad’s rehabilitation. On April 3, for example, the hardline website Shafaf spoke about Ahmadinejad fielding a candidate in a by-election this coming fall. Ten days later, Mosalas Online hinted that Ahmadinejad was crafting a strategy to retake the Majlis. This is no idle talk. After all, Ahmadinejad’s pre-presidency claim to fame was organizing the rise of the conservatives in local elections. Entekhab has speculated that Ahmadinejad has his sights set on the 2017 election. Most importantly, the state-controlled Iranian press has begun publishing photographs of the supreme leader with Ahmadinejad (scroll to the third photo from the left). There is no better indication that Ahmadinejad is not so down and out as perhaps many American diplomats hope.

Perhaps Obama has put great faith in Rouhani, and is willing to take risks for a nuclear deal because of him. The question Obama won’t consider—but Congress should—is whether they would trust Ahmadinejad to again take the reins of a nuclear-capable Iran, albeit one with sanctions and controls removed thanks to Obama’s naive faith and misreading of the Iranian political system. Alas, that appears to be the situation in which Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are putting the United States.

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Extradite Fethullah Gülen?

Fethullah Gülen is the reclusive but influential Turkish Islamist leader who resides in a well-guarded and, indeed, fortified compound in the Poconos, having fled Turkey in 1999, theoretically to get medical treatment but also to flee prosecution for remarks he made advocating for the overthrow of the system (he has since disputed the veracity of the recording of those remarks).

Five years ago, Rachel Sharon-Krespin, the director of the Turkish Media Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), penned probably the most comprehensive though critical study of Gülen. One needn’t go far to find far more glowing accounts of Gülen, although most of these come either from close associates or those like Georgetown Professor John Esposito, whose program has benefited from the Gülen movement’s largesse.

I have long been quite cynical about Gülen. I admit, I have wavered with time but whenever I began to consider that perhaps I had been too ungenerous in my interpretation of the movement and the man, either someone would dig up new statements by Gülen that raised questions about the sincerity of his interfaith tolerance, Gülen’s flagship paper Zaman would hint at some anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, or his followers would tweet their embrace for everything from an endorsement of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s dual loyalty accusations against various Jews to far more virulently anti-Semitic attacks on me personally. That said, to the movement’s credit, no matter how critical I might have been about Gülen, members of the movement or its constituent groups always kept the door open to dialogue and communication, an openness which I respect and appreciate.

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Fethullah Gülen is the reclusive but influential Turkish Islamist leader who resides in a well-guarded and, indeed, fortified compound in the Poconos, having fled Turkey in 1999, theoretically to get medical treatment but also to flee prosecution for remarks he made advocating for the overthrow of the system (he has since disputed the veracity of the recording of those remarks).

Five years ago, Rachel Sharon-Krespin, the director of the Turkish Media Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), penned probably the most comprehensive though critical study of Gülen. One needn’t go far to find far more glowing accounts of Gülen, although most of these come either from close associates or those like Georgetown Professor John Esposito, whose program has benefited from the Gülen movement’s largesse.

I have long been quite cynical about Gülen. I admit, I have wavered with time but whenever I began to consider that perhaps I had been too ungenerous in my interpretation of the movement and the man, either someone would dig up new statements by Gülen that raised questions about the sincerity of his interfaith tolerance, Gülen’s flagship paper Zaman would hint at some anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, or his followers would tweet their embrace for everything from an endorsement of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s dual loyalty accusations against various Jews to far more virulently anti-Semitic attacks on me personally. That said, to the movement’s credit, no matter how critical I might have been about Gülen, members of the movement or its constituent groups always kept the door open to dialogue and communication, an openness which I respect and appreciate.

That does not change my overall suspicion of the movement. While many have embraced the Gülenists as the potential saviors of Turkish democracy for blowing the whistle on the endemic corruption and megalomania of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the fact of the matter is they were for him before they were against him and did not expose his abuses until Erdoğan turned on them. I am happy that the movement has exposed the truth about Erdoğan, but that does not mean that the enemy of my enemy is always a friend.

Gülen and Erdoğan are now certainly enemies. Apoplectic about the Gülenists’ exposure of his abuses of power, Erdoğan has been on a rampage in recent weeks, purging Gülen’s followers without regard to law and engaging in rants that might lead dispassionate observers to question Erdoğan’s stability. Now Erdoğan is demanding Gülen’s extradition, in theory for constructing a parallel state, but in reality for the crime of exposing and embarrassing the prime minister and endangering his secret bank accounts.

Several years ago, I compared Gülen to Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini. After all, when Khomeini was in exile, he spoke about his desire for democracy. When he returned to Iran, he consolidated power, eschewed the tolerance he once wove into his rhetoric, and showed his radicalism undiminished by time. I speculated that if Gülen returned to Turkey, he would be met by millions of adoring supporters who might let their ideological passion get the best of them.

Now, perhaps, it is time to make the opposite comparison: Fethullah Gülen to the shah.

When the shah fled Iran, he too came to the United States to seek medical treatment, and was granted entry. I am glad he was. Facing the ire of Khomeini and his radical students, Carter and senior diplomats plotted quite openly to force the ailing shah to depart. At one point, they even encouraged Panama to send the shah back to Iran, where he would have faced humiliation, torture, and execution. Whatever the Shah may have been, and whatever his faults, handing him over to appease a revolutionary madman would have been wrong both morally and from the standpoint of American national interests.

I admit, I wish that the United States had never given refuge to Gülen. There were many places he could have gone, and it was not an American interest to host him in the United States, let alone have him reside in such a heavily armed compound. At the very least, that decision taken during the Clinton administration poured gasoline onto the flames of already imaginative Turkish conspiracy theories.

But Gülen is here now, and he has been here for 15 years. I need not trust the man nor endorse his movement—indeed, I remain quite a critic—but that does not mean that the United States should follow the logic of callous diplomats who argued in the case of the shah that appeasing Khomeini was worth it. By no means should senior American officials consider Erdoğan’s demands for Gülen’s extradition. Gülen may not have consistently been a dissident before, but he is now. It is never wise for the White House or State Department to appease off-kilter authoritarians in their petty, personal vendettas.

The national security debate, especially with regard to Islamist thinkers, has long been polarized, and never more so than now. That said, perhaps out of the chaos in Turkey comes an opportunity for a real consensus: Let us hope that not only supporters of Fethullah Gülen, but also his skeptics and his detractors recognize that under no circumstance should the U.S. government accept Turkey’s extradition request.

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Trust the Arms Control Association on Iran?

The Arms Control Association (ACA) bills itself as “a national nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to promoting public understanding of and support for effective arms control policies.” It is a serious organization and does serious work, even if its bipartisanship seems in recent years a bit more theoretical than real, perhaps not a surprise given support for the likes of the Ford Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, and MacArthur Foundation.

Most recently, in a series of media appearances and radio hits by staff, it has lent its organizational reputation to the promotion of President Barack Obama’s Iran diplomacy and has embraced partisan Bush-bashing nonsense like the discredited notion of a 2003 Iranian peace proposal. It has also been surprising to travel to the Persian Gulf and hear Iran watchers there list a litany of loopholes in the proposed agreement, all of which the ACA seems to dismiss or disregard. When ACA staff lends their imprimatur to the rigorous verifications and downplay concerns inherent in the Iran nuclear deal, a relevant question is the degree to which their track record inspires confidence in their willingness to put objectivity above politics.

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The Arms Control Association (ACA) bills itself as “a national nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to promoting public understanding of and support for effective arms control policies.” It is a serious organization and does serious work, even if its bipartisanship seems in recent years a bit more theoretical than real, perhaps not a surprise given support for the likes of the Ford Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, and MacArthur Foundation.

Most recently, in a series of media appearances and radio hits by staff, it has lent its organizational reputation to the promotion of President Barack Obama’s Iran diplomacy and has embraced partisan Bush-bashing nonsense like the discredited notion of a 2003 Iranian peace proposal. It has also been surprising to travel to the Persian Gulf and hear Iran watchers there list a litany of loopholes in the proposed agreement, all of which the ACA seems to dismiss or disregard. When ACA staff lends their imprimatur to the rigorous verifications and downplay concerns inherent in the Iran nuclear deal, a relevant question is the degree to which their track record inspires confidence in their willingness to put objectivity above politics.

In 1983, for example, in an episode I cover in my recent book, an American spy satellite detected a Soviet radar complex near Krasnoyarsk, in the middle of Siberia. Its configuration suggested a military purpose. The sheer size of the complex underlined the scale of Soviet subterfuge of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. To lend credence to Soviet cheating, however, would undercut hopes for new arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union. The Arms Control Association duly chimed in and dismissed Krasnoyarsk as insignificant. Reagan thought otherwise. “No violations of a treaty can be considered to be a minor matter, nor can there be confidence in agreements if a country can pick and choose which provisions of an agreement it will comply with,” he explained. And, indeed, subsequent revelations hastened by the collapse of the Soviet Union showed that it had been cheating.

While praising Clinton-era nuclear deal-making with North Korea, during the Bush administration the Arms Control Association downplayed reports of North Korean treaty cheating and illicit enrichment.

It is quite possible that the Obama administration will strike a nuclear deal with Iran, not by resolving the obstacles or removing the reasons for such long-term distrust, but rather by ignoring or downplaying them. If the historical pattern holds true, the ACA will affirm that strategy by lending its organization’s reputation to efforts to downplay the concerns of critics. This would less attest to the strength of the Iran deal, however, then to the joint tendency to promote a political agenda and prioritize the act of reaching an agreement over the substance of that agreement.  

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Iran Targeting U.S. Satellites with Lasers?

For all the Iranian government and its fellow travelers whine about sanctions, the Iranian regime seems to have no problem funneling money off to ever more creative military projects. Take this latest tidbit which appears in the Washington Examiner:

Iran, meanwhile, “undertakes more purposeful interference” with U.S. satellites using lasers and jammers. “Although these actions have not resulted in irreparable damage to U.S. assets, this practice increases the possibility that the United States will misinterpret unintended harm caused by such interference.”

The Examiner piece derives from a longer Council on Foreign Relations report well-worth reading. Indeed, from what I have heard, it has garnered significant attention in policy circles. That report elaborates:

Since Iran already views space as a legitimate arena in which to contest U.S. military power, Tehran could use similar tactics against U.S. satellites during a major crisis, especially if it believes war is imminent—an assessment that could have self-fulfilling consequences. Should this significantly limit U.S. situational unawareness of the unfolding crisis, there would most certainly be a military response against the source of that Iranian interference. Additionally, like North Korea, Iran could attempt a direct-ascent ASAT test or co-orbital ASAT test, in which it detonates a conventional explosive near a targeted satellite. Iran’s capacity to do this will likely improve if it follows through on its June 2013 announcement of plans to build a space monitoring center designed to track satellites above Iranian territory.

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For all the Iranian government and its fellow travelers whine about sanctions, the Iranian regime seems to have no problem funneling money off to ever more creative military projects. Take this latest tidbit which appears in the Washington Examiner:

Iran, meanwhile, “undertakes more purposeful interference” with U.S. satellites using lasers and jammers. “Although these actions have not resulted in irreparable damage to U.S. assets, this practice increases the possibility that the United States will misinterpret unintended harm caused by such interference.”

The Examiner piece derives from a longer Council on Foreign Relations report well-worth reading. Indeed, from what I have heard, it has garnered significant attention in policy circles. That report elaborates:

Since Iran already views space as a legitimate arena in which to contest U.S. military power, Tehran could use similar tactics against U.S. satellites during a major crisis, especially if it believes war is imminent—an assessment that could have self-fulfilling consequences. Should this significantly limit U.S. situational unawareness of the unfolding crisis, there would most certainly be a military response against the source of that Iranian interference. Additionally, like North Korea, Iran could attempt a direct-ascent ASAT test or co-orbital ASAT test, in which it detonates a conventional explosive near a targeted satellite. Iran’s capacity to do this will likely improve if it follows through on its June 2013 announcement of plans to build a space monitoring center designed to track satellites above Iranian territory.

President Obama’s initiative toward Iran seems predicated on the belief that Iran somehow changed after the election of President Hassan Rouhani, never mind that presidents in Iran don’t hold power comparable to that in the United States. If Iran has been targeting American satellites with lasers, perhaps that’s a sign that Iranian sincerity isn’t what the White House believes. Perhaps it is time for the White House to recognize that sometimes a “reset” simply doesn’t work. Then again, so long as Obama heard sincerity in Rouhani’s voice in their September 2013 phone chat, what difference does hard evidence of continued malfeasance make?

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The Supreme Leader’s Nuclear Veto

It is no secret to anyone who puts reality above wishful thinking that, in Iran, the supreme leader wields the ultimate authority. The president may have won an election—one in which only about one percent of candidates were allowed to run—but the president’s power at best is but a fraction of that of the supreme leader, whose legitimacy comes from being the self-declared deputy of the messiah on earth. Simply put, in Iran, the president is about style, the supreme leader is about substance.

One of the problems with the ongoing nuclear negotiations is that, contrary to what was suggested by the State Department and much of the U.S. media, the supreme leader never blessed nuclear deal-making. Nor, contrary to President Obama’s claims, has he ever issued a nuclear fatwa—at least one he bothered to write down for inspection. So, for all the progress Obama and Kerry claim to be making, it’s not clear they are negotiating with anyone empowered to make a decision.

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It is no secret to anyone who puts reality above wishful thinking that, in Iran, the supreme leader wields the ultimate authority. The president may have won an election—one in which only about one percent of candidates were allowed to run—but the president’s power at best is but a fraction of that of the supreme leader, whose legitimacy comes from being the self-declared deputy of the messiah on earth. Simply put, in Iran, the president is about style, the supreme leader is about substance.

One of the problems with the ongoing nuclear negotiations is that, contrary to what was suggested by the State Department and much of the U.S. media, the supreme leader never blessed nuclear deal-making. Nor, contrary to President Obama’s claims, has he ever issued a nuclear fatwa—at least one he bothered to write down for inspection. So, for all the progress Obama and Kerry claim to be making, it’s not clear they are negotiating with anyone empowered to make a decision.

Hence, it comes as no surprise that senior Iranian parliamentary Alaeddin Borujerdi has announced that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will look at the deal to see whether to oblige. “The last step is a gathering to be held with the Supreme Leader. The framework of the talks will be finalized there and the negotiating team will lead talks according to that framework,” he said.

Now, that’s common sense for anyone who knows Iran. But there’s a pattern among rogue regimes in which negotiators reach agreements, rogue leaders refuse to oblige by the agreements their negotiators supposedly produced, and then the regimes pocket the concessions that were meant to be final, transforming them into the starting point for new talks. Yasir Arafat did that, Saddam Hussein did that, and successive North Korean leaders have done that. That President Obama and John Kerry appear to be allowing themselves to get so played suggests that they have neither studied nor learned from past episodes of American negotiation with rogue regimes.

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What the New York Times Omits on Syria

Reading through the New York Times this morning, there is a lengthy story by Anne Barnard about a deal brokered and now executed to allow Syrian rebels to withdraw from Homs. It’s a very good piece of reporting, but it misses two very important things which add a great deal of context to the story.

First of all, Homs is not simply “a bellwether for a nation slowly, brutally, unraveling,” and “a diverse community increasingly split among sectarian lines as populations fled, neighborhoods were destroyed and rebels held out in the Old City.” Rather, Homs is perhaps strategically the most important city in Syria. Damascus, the capital, is geographically peripheral. A quick look at a roadmap of Syria reveals that anyone who wants to control Syria has to control Homs.

Barnard is right that displacement and murder have changed the face of Syria: The violence witnessed in that country has not been random, but has been as directed as it was in the former Yugoslavia. No matter who wins in Syria, what they inherit will be a country of cantons, and the commerce and communication between them will be controlled by whomever the power is in Homs. That the rebels have now left Homs is the most indisputable evidence so far that the regime is winning.

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Reading through the New York Times this morning, there is a lengthy story by Anne Barnard about a deal brokered and now executed to allow Syrian rebels to withdraw from Homs. It’s a very good piece of reporting, but it misses two very important things which add a great deal of context to the story.

First of all, Homs is not simply “a bellwether for a nation slowly, brutally, unraveling,” and “a diverse community increasingly split among sectarian lines as populations fled, neighborhoods were destroyed and rebels held out in the Old City.” Rather, Homs is perhaps strategically the most important city in Syria. Damascus, the capital, is geographically peripheral. A quick look at a roadmap of Syria reveals that anyone who wants to control Syria has to control Homs.

Barnard is right that displacement and murder have changed the face of Syria: The violence witnessed in that country has not been random, but has been as directed as it was in the former Yugoslavia. No matter who wins in Syria, what they inherit will be a country of cantons, and the commerce and communication between them will be controlled by whomever the power is in Homs. That the rebels have now left Homs is the most indisputable evidence so far that the regime is winning.

More interesting is Barnard’s cursory reference to Iran’s role in the deal. “The Homs deal, worked out between security officials and rebel representatives in the presence of Iran’s ambassador to Syria, also calls for insurgents in Aleppo Province, to the north, to lift their longstanding blockade of two villages….” She later notes, “The deal was the broadest and most ambitious yet, and in a sign of its importance to the government, it included the first visible foray by Iran, Mr. Assad’s most crucial ally, into such talks.” What Barnard omits is that the Iranian ambassador to Syria, Mohammad Reza Ra’ouf Sheibani, comes not from Iran’s diplomatic corps (where, admittedly, he previously served as a deputy foreign minister and as ambassador to Lebanon), but rather from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It’s common for the Iranians to send IRGC and, more specifically, Qods Force operatives to act as ambassadors to countries they see as key: Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. What Barnard fails to mention is that the Homs agreement was effectively brokered by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Then, again, to suggest that under Obama’s watch the IRGC is supervising and confirming the defeat of Syrian rebels probably isn’t a narrative The New York Times wants to acknowledge.

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Address, Don’t Deny Religious Component to Boko Haram

News out of Nigeria continues to horrify, as the radical Islamist group Boko Haram refuses to release kidnapped school girls and now threatens to sell them into marriage, slavery, or worse. Boko Haram, whose very name in Hausa professes the sinfulness of Western education, roots its belief in religion although, as is so often the case, it often confuses pure theology with local custom. For its victims, however, such footnotes are academic. The group has become infamous in Nigeria for the slaughter of Christians. Boko Haram is neither the first nor will it be the last group to spark outrage on the world stage by embracing and imposing retrograde religious interpretation on society.

The shock of the Islamic Revolution in Iran was that it shook faith in the forward momentum of history. The shah was far from perfect, but he actively sought to modernize his country. That he did so unevenly and brokered few means to dissent legally simply threw fuel on the Islamist backlash that ultimately ushered in reactionary cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Far from being the “progressive force for human rights” that William Miller, now with The Iran Project described, or a man whom the United States should trust, as Princeton University’s Richard Falk suggested, Khomeini took women, minorities, and much of Iranian society headlong into the past, stripping Iranians of centuries of rights and brutalizing them in manners once thought condemned to centuries past. The problem is not Shi’ism, per se, but rather Khomeini’s and his successor Ali Khamenei’s interpretation. To this day, their exegesis remains a minority view, forced on society at the barrel of a gun, with dissenting clergy marginalized, imprisoned, or worse.

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News out of Nigeria continues to horrify, as the radical Islamist group Boko Haram refuses to release kidnapped school girls and now threatens to sell them into marriage, slavery, or worse. Boko Haram, whose very name in Hausa professes the sinfulness of Western education, roots its belief in religion although, as is so often the case, it often confuses pure theology with local custom. For its victims, however, such footnotes are academic. The group has become infamous in Nigeria for the slaughter of Christians. Boko Haram is neither the first nor will it be the last group to spark outrage on the world stage by embracing and imposing retrograde religious interpretation on society.

The shock of the Islamic Revolution in Iran was that it shook faith in the forward momentum of history. The shah was far from perfect, but he actively sought to modernize his country. That he did so unevenly and brokered few means to dissent legally simply threw fuel on the Islamist backlash that ultimately ushered in reactionary cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Far from being the “progressive force for human rights” that William Miller, now with The Iran Project described, or a man whom the United States should trust, as Princeton University’s Richard Falk suggested, Khomeini took women, minorities, and much of Iranian society headlong into the past, stripping Iranians of centuries of rights and brutalizing them in manners once thought condemned to centuries past. The problem is not Shi’ism, per se, but rather Khomeini’s and his successor Ali Khamenei’s interpretation. To this day, their exegesis remains a minority view, forced on society at the barrel of a gun, with dissenting clergy marginalized, imprisoned, or worse.

The same was true with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The notion that the Central Intelligence Agency created the Taliban is silly, the product of anachronistic and lazy analysis. Some Afghans embraced the Taliban in the years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan because the group promised security, but the group itself was quickly co-opted by Pakistan. Ever since the loss of East Pakistan and its subsequent independence as Bangladesh in 1971, leaders in West Pakistan—or simply Pakistan as it became—embraced religious radicalism as a glue to hold their fissiparous country together. While more than a decade of war has conditioned Americans to see infiltration across the Afghanistan/Pakistan border as one way from Pakistan into Afghanistan, throughout much of the last century, Afghan irregulars were infiltrating—if not outright invading—Pakistan.

Because the ethnic fault lines in Pakistan are seldom far beneath the surface of society, sponsoring the Taliban—and thereby prioritizing religion over Pashto identity—was meant to immunize the Northwest Frontier Province from the attractiveness of Pashto nationalism. That it came upon the blood and repression of Afghan women was a price the Pakistani leadership was willing to bear. The shear brutality of the Taliban shocked the world, even though the State Department was more than willing to normalize ties with the group. The Taliban really were a throwback to the twelfth century, albeit harboring a twentieth and now twenty-first century technology to kill.

Any number of other religious radicals has reinterpreted faith to justify horror. The Muslim Brotherhood has justified the murder of those who do not share their vision, and some Brotherhood theologians have contributed directly to the vision embraced by al-Qaeda.

There is a tendency among many to deny the religious component to much modern terrorism. That is what drives, for example, UN bodies to try to criminalize so-called Islamophobia, and also drives local groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) to stigmatize and punish free speech and open debate. To do so is a mistake, and to deny that those from Boko Haram’s leaders to 9/11 hijackers to the Beslan child murders were not motivated by Islam, however twisted and irregular an interpretation, is disingenuous.

Too many who deny the role of religion say that Islam is misunderstood. Jihad, for example, means not Holy War but an internal struggle to improve oneself. While it is true that a 21st century interpretation of jihad prioritizes internal struggle or defensive fighting, there is a logical flaw inherent in embracing only the most evolved interpretation of jihad. Islamist radicals dismiss 21st century society as a perversion, corrupted by Western thought and liberalism. They uphold instead an interpretation of centuries past as the golden age of Islamic civilization and so strip away centuries of religious interpretation as illegitimate and corrupt. Just as zealous Christians might have burned a woman at the stake 500 years ago for the sin of publicly reading the Bible, the manner in which Boko Haram treats local girls and women is rooted in an interpretation of Islam that it seeks to revive from the past.

While I fully support the separation of church and state that the U.S. Constitution demands (although I agree with Jonathan’s interpretation here), too many American policymakers use that separation to paralyze the American policy response on the global stage. American diplomats and officials should not promote religion but they cannot ignore it either, as it plays a far greater place in the world than perhaps it does in the fairly elite schools from which many diplomats come. Peoples from Afghanistan to Iran to Nigeria are engaged in a battle of religious interpretation. Those who would deny a relationship between Islam on one hand, at least as practiced by the Taliban and Boko Haram, and terrorism and misogyny on the other simply surrender the battlefield to those promoting extreme interpretations.

Too often, American officials and religious activists, whether out of excessive political correctness or some other motive, dismiss religious motivation to terrorism by decreeing that the actions of those radicals—Taliban stoning women in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda hijacking planes in America, or Boko Haram kidnapping and selling girls in Nigeria—do not represent true Islam. Make no mistake: It is not the job of any American official—from the president on down—to determine what true religion is. We have to accept that religion is what its practitioners believe it to be in any time and place; what the president says, an ambassador says, or a professor of theology says is simply academic.

Denying horror won’t make it go away. Nor is it the place of the United States to preach. But just as radicals in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and elsewhere promote these horrific groups—the Turkish government has apparently supplied Boko Haram—it behooves the United States to support those seeking to roll them back, be they Egyptian generals, Indonesian Sufis, or Moroccan mourchidat. While America promotes and encourages religious tolerance and seeks to strengthen liberal and moderate interpretations of Islam, those who feed and justify Boko Haram’s ideological hate—even if American allies—must be recognized for what they are: culpable in terrorism.

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Revolutionary Guards: Our Goal Is Destruction of U.S. Navy

Ali Fadavi, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), just gave an interview to Iran’s Fars News in which he called the destruction of the U.S. Navy the IRGC’s “major operational goal.” The interview is here:

“Conducting trainings, exercises and drills to get prepared for operational goals is always on our agenda and Americans and all the world know that one of the operational goals of the IRGC Navy is destruction of the US naval force,” Admiral Fadavi said in an exclusive interview with FNA. He said the combat power of the United States in the air totally depends on the fighters flying from its aircraft carriers, “hence, that is a natural thing that we want to sink these vessels”.

The Admiral further noted the vulnerability of the United States’ giant warships and aircraft carriers, specially in any potential combat against Iranian missiles and speedboats in the Persian Gulf, and said, “If you take a look at Robert Gates’ book, you will see how he counts the vulnerabilities of aircraft carriers to the IRGC Navy and (that’s why) he asks for a change in the US naval strategy. This is no easy task, but they (the Americans) have started doing so as he has emphasized.” The commander said the large size of the US warships has made them a very easy target for the IRGC naval force, specially taking into account that “we have very precise analyses of the design, construction and structures of these warships and we know how to act”.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry seem intent on treating Iran like a sincere partner in nuclear negotiations. Of course, should Iran develop a military nuclear capability, the command and control of that arsenal would be in the hands of the IRGC. And the IRGC has made clear repeatedly that it does not respect nor will it abide by any agreement Iranian diplomats negotiate. And now, one of the top leaders of the IRGC has sworn himself to destroy the U.S. Navy.

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Ali Fadavi, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), just gave an interview to Iran’s Fars News in which he called the destruction of the U.S. Navy the IRGC’s “major operational goal.” The interview is here:

“Conducting trainings, exercises and drills to get prepared for operational goals is always on our agenda and Americans and all the world know that one of the operational goals of the IRGC Navy is destruction of the US naval force,” Admiral Fadavi said in an exclusive interview with FNA. He said the combat power of the United States in the air totally depends on the fighters flying from its aircraft carriers, “hence, that is a natural thing that we want to sink these vessels”.

The Admiral further noted the vulnerability of the United States’ giant warships and aircraft carriers, specially in any potential combat against Iranian missiles and speedboats in the Persian Gulf, and said, “If you take a look at Robert Gates’ book, you will see how he counts the vulnerabilities of aircraft carriers to the IRGC Navy and (that’s why) he asks for a change in the US naval strategy. This is no easy task, but they (the Americans) have started doing so as he has emphasized.” The commander said the large size of the US warships has made them a very easy target for the IRGC naval force, specially taking into account that “we have very precise analyses of the design, construction and structures of these warships and we know how to act”.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry seem intent on treating Iran like a sincere partner in nuclear negotiations. Of course, should Iran develop a military nuclear capability, the command and control of that arsenal would be in the hands of the IRGC. And the IRGC has made clear repeatedly that it does not respect nor will it abide by any agreement Iranian diplomats negotiate. And now, one of the top leaders of the IRGC has sworn himself to destroy the U.S. Navy.

While American journalists and some American diplomats pooh-poohed Iran’s construction of a mock U.S. carrier by saying it was for a film, Iranian leaders themselves said it was to practice attacking the real thing. Obama and Kerry’s single-minded romance with the Islamic Republic’s diplomats is either strategic incompetence or willful negligence. Increasingly, it’s hard to see a third option. The only question is how many American lives will be lost before the White House recognizes that senior Iranian officials might mean what they say when they talk about killing Americans.

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Assessing John Kerry

Almost all secretaries of state believe they shine but for most, their legacy is at best basic competence. Amidst all their ceremonial trips, with hindsight it is clear that for the majority, their legacy is simply to have done no harm. This certainly would be the case for Hillary Clinton, a woman who famously cannot name her accomplishments as secretary, as well as Bush-era secretaries Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Rice’s whole strategy was to make no waves and while Powell’s detractors point to his speech before the United Nations laying out the rationale for war against Iraq, that was less his initiative than the consensus policy of the Bush administration. Warren Christopher’s tenure was largely forgettable, and his successor Madeleine Albright was likewise just a manager. While I disagree with them on many issues, James Baker and Henry Kissinger set themselves apart, although for Baker, his success may have been less because of personal abilities and more the result of being in the right place at the right time.

Secretary of State John Kerry may be the exception: He has defined himself as a truly lousy secretary of state, with almost everything he touches turning to vinegar: The Middle East peace process is in shambles. Had Kerry simply ignored the process, the hurdles facing the two sides would be less. And, because of some ill-chosen and self-defeating words, there is virtually no choice to revive such talks under Kerry. While Vladimir Putin is the villain when it comes to the situation in Eastern Europe, the reverberations which the United States will feel for the impotency under Kerry’s watch will be felt for years to come. Libya continues to disintegrate; the Egyptians remain furious at American waffling; freedom-seeking Venezuelans wonder what American silence means; Argentina salivates over the Falklands; and a whole host of allies from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines and Indonesia fear what American weakness means in East Asia.

The Iran deal seems to be shaping up to be predicated on a willingness to sacrifice its substance rather than to win an agreement that bolsters regional or national security. Regardless, it’s hard to count as a success an agreement that has yet to be struck, especially with Tehran’s penchant for throwing a last-minute wrench into the cogs.

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Almost all secretaries of state believe they shine but for most, their legacy is at best basic competence. Amidst all their ceremonial trips, with hindsight it is clear that for the majority, their legacy is simply to have done no harm. This certainly would be the case for Hillary Clinton, a woman who famously cannot name her accomplishments as secretary, as well as Bush-era secretaries Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Rice’s whole strategy was to make no waves and while Powell’s detractors point to his speech before the United Nations laying out the rationale for war against Iraq, that was less his initiative than the consensus policy of the Bush administration. Warren Christopher’s tenure was largely forgettable, and his successor Madeleine Albright was likewise just a manager. While I disagree with them on many issues, James Baker and Henry Kissinger set themselves apart, although for Baker, his success may have been less because of personal abilities and more the result of being in the right place at the right time.

Secretary of State John Kerry may be the exception: He has defined himself as a truly lousy secretary of state, with almost everything he touches turning to vinegar: The Middle East peace process is in shambles. Had Kerry simply ignored the process, the hurdles facing the two sides would be less. And, because of some ill-chosen and self-defeating words, there is virtually no choice to revive such talks under Kerry. While Vladimir Putin is the villain when it comes to the situation in Eastern Europe, the reverberations which the United States will feel for the impotency under Kerry’s watch will be felt for years to come. Libya continues to disintegrate; the Egyptians remain furious at American waffling; freedom-seeking Venezuelans wonder what American silence means; Argentina salivates over the Falklands; and a whole host of allies from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines and Indonesia fear what American weakness means in East Asia.

The Iran deal seems to be shaping up to be predicated on a willingness to sacrifice its substance rather than to win an agreement that bolsters regional or national security. Regardless, it’s hard to count as a success an agreement that has yet to be struck, especially with Tehran’s penchant for throwing a last-minute wrench into the cogs.

Perhaps the only success to which Kerry can point is the deal for Syria to forfeit its chemical-weapons arsenal, never mind that a cynic could see the precedent as rogue leaders getting a free shot to kill 1,400 civilians before coming in from the cold. In recent weeks, however, even that deal appears to be less than meets the eye. Last month, the Syrian regime apparently again used chemical weapons, an incident blogged about at the time and an attack subsequently acknowledged by the State Department, even if the State Department spokesman declined to assess blame.

Subsequently, the Brown Moses Blog, which tends to be the most careful and credible open source resource on Syrian chemical weapons, has posted video outlining claims of a new attack in Al-Tamanah. While the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) says Syria has complied with the removal or disposal of Syrian chemical material, it is important to remember that is based on what Syria has declared, and there is no way of knowing whether it includes all Syrian chemical munitions. Meanwhile, the OPCW has concluded “sizeable and unambiguous traces of chlorine and ammonia” in the aftermath of apparent regime attacks on civilians in northern Syria. And so, while Kerry celebrates, Syrians suffocate.

Let us hope that Kerry can redeem himself. But if there’s one lesson he might learn as he assesses his tenure so far, it’s that he isn’t the center of the world and desire and rhetoric aren’t enough to win success. Perhaps he might look at his failures and recognize that many problems are more complicated than he—or the staff charged with preparing him—seems to recognize. In the meantime, while he assesses where the United States was diplomatically when he took office and where it is today, he might remember the maxim for doctors could just as easily apply to himself: First, do no harm.

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