Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iran

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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Voice of America Needs a Strategy

Earlier this week, Foreign Policy reported that Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), respectively, the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, are supporting a bill which, according to Foreign Policy, “tweaks the language of VOA’s mission to explicitly outline the organization’s role in supporting U.S. ‘public diplomacy’ and the ‘policies’ of the United States government, a move that would settle a long-running dispute within the federal government about whether VOA should function as a neutral news organization rather than a messaging tool of Washington.”

VOA and International Board of Broadcasting employees have, in private sessions, defended the notion that they should be a media company like any other, and argued that by criticizing U.S. policy, they increase the service’s credibility. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, VOA famously defended and subsequently gave an award to a Pashto service employee who consistently aired Taliban officials and seemed to promote the Taliban line in order to create balance. That neither advanced U.S. interests nor made VOA more credible. Rather, it encouraged conspiracy theories and simply confused Afghans who could fathom no reason why Voice of America would broadcast reports sympathetic to Mullah Omar and the Taliban in the wake of 9/11.

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Earlier this week, Foreign Policy reported that Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), respectively, the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, are supporting a bill which, according to Foreign Policy, “tweaks the language of VOA’s mission to explicitly outline the organization’s role in supporting U.S. ‘public diplomacy’ and the ‘policies’ of the United States government, a move that would settle a long-running dispute within the federal government about whether VOA should function as a neutral news organization rather than a messaging tool of Washington.”

VOA and International Board of Broadcasting employees have, in private sessions, defended the notion that they should be a media company like any other, and argued that by criticizing U.S. policy, they increase the service’s credibility. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, VOA famously defended and subsequently gave an award to a Pashto service employee who consistently aired Taliban officials and seemed to promote the Taliban line in order to create balance. That neither advanced U.S. interests nor made VOA more credible. Rather, it encouraged conspiracy theories and simply confused Afghans who could fathom no reason why Voice of America would broadcast reports sympathetic to Mullah Omar and the Taliban in the wake of 9/11.

The Pashto service isn’t alone. Many Iranians have questioned why VOA’s Persian Service and Radio Farda have in the past (I haven’t followed it in recent years) seemed so sympathetic to pro-regime reformists. Indeed, many mocked them as “Radio Khatami.” While diplomats might understandably think more favorably toward Iranian reformists than Iranian hardliners, the fact of the matter is that neither represents the broad array of Iranians who are, at best, overwhelmingly apathetic toward the regime imposed upon them, if not actively hostile to it.

It’s clear that VOA should not be simply an ordinary news service. The private sector handles that better, and CNN, CNBC, and even Fox are increasingly available abroad. Even in autocratic countries like Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, residents can access a plethora of satellite stations, even when such access isn’t really legal.

So, here’s a modest proposal: The Broadcasting Board of Governors should identify in each country hostile to the United States or behind an iron curtain what journalists in that country aren’t allowed to pursue. In Iran, it could be stories about the leaders’ moral and financial corruption, strong women, or the arguments of dissident religious leaders. In Turkey, journalists are not able to cover fully Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s corruption and that of his cronies, or explore fully Kurdish issues.

In Algeria, it could be interviews with refugees who have escaped their captivity in the Tindouf refugee camps or the plight of the Berbers; and in North Korea and Eritrea, it could be just about anything. Given limited resources, VOA broadcasting to that country should focus on those banned subjects. That would guarantee relevance, an audience, and invariably bolster American interests as well.

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Iraqis at the Polls

I arrived in London yesterday as Iraqis here began early voting ahead of Wednesday polls, and ever more photos of Iraqi expatriates voting around the world now mark Facebook. Given the videos of campaigning inside Iraq, as well as the chatter from Iraqis there, it certainly seems that Iraqis will embrace new national elections with enthusiasm, and as a chance to resolve critical questions which Iraq’s political class has so far kicked down the road. There are many issues to be resolved.

First and foremost, is the position of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, about whom the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins recently penned a study worth reading, even if some of his assumptions are questionable and despite the fact that he appears to have allowed American officials both to exaggerate and whitewash their roles. Maliki—like pretty much all of his political rivals—is flawed. Many of the aspersions his rivals throw at him perhaps reflect their own projection. Maliki is no autocrat—he has not the power to be one at present and few autocrats worry about losing at the polls. That said, Iraqis fear that after a third term he could push Iraq in that direction by further reshaping the civil service in his image.

Ayad Allawi remains more popular among military analysts in Washington and royal family members in Jordan and Saudi Arabia than he is in Iraq, largely because he spends so much time abroad. And it is unclear whether Ammar al-Hakim’s grouping will remain immune to forces that might seek to co-opt its members after the election. That said, any change in power might benefit Iraq simply by setting a precedent. If Maliki is unable to form a new coalition—more on that later—then hopefully any successor will be wise enough to allow Maliki to retire in peace rather than engage in political retaliation.

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I arrived in London yesterday as Iraqis here began early voting ahead of Wednesday polls, and ever more photos of Iraqi expatriates voting around the world now mark Facebook. Given the videos of campaigning inside Iraq, as well as the chatter from Iraqis there, it certainly seems that Iraqis will embrace new national elections with enthusiasm, and as a chance to resolve critical questions which Iraq’s political class has so far kicked down the road. There are many issues to be resolved.

First and foremost, is the position of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, about whom the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins recently penned a study worth reading, even if some of his assumptions are questionable and despite the fact that he appears to have allowed American officials both to exaggerate and whitewash their roles. Maliki—like pretty much all of his political rivals—is flawed. Many of the aspersions his rivals throw at him perhaps reflect their own projection. Maliki is no autocrat—he has not the power to be one at present and few autocrats worry about losing at the polls. That said, Iraqis fear that after a third term he could push Iraq in that direction by further reshaping the civil service in his image.

Ayad Allawi remains more popular among military analysts in Washington and royal family members in Jordan and Saudi Arabia than he is in Iraq, largely because he spends so much time abroad. And it is unclear whether Ammar al-Hakim’s grouping will remain immune to forces that might seek to co-opt its members after the election. That said, any change in power might benefit Iraq simply by setting a precedent. If Maliki is unable to form a new coalition—more on that later—then hopefully any successor will be wise enough to allow Maliki to retire in peace rather than engage in political retaliation.

The second issue which the elections should resolve is the question of the presidency. Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s president, remains paralyzed, impaired cognitively, and barely able to speak. Kurdish officials have released only two sets of photographs since he suffered a debilitating stroke in December 2012, and his family refuses him visitors or to release videos. Those who suggest Talabani is recuperating well have become the second coming of Saddam’s former Information Minister Muhammed Saeed “There are no Americans in Baghdad” al-Sahaf.

The only certainty from this new election is that it will usher in a new presidency. I have written before about the Masud Barzani option. Visiting Baghdad last month, I also heard rumors that Barzani’s uncle, Hoshyar Zebari, could fill the position, thereby creating a vacancy in the foreign ministry. While many Americans may hope that former Kurdish prime minister and Iraqi Minister of Planning Barham Salih could fit the bill for president, Barham has to overcome two hurdles working against him: First is that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the party he represents, has steadily hemorrhaged voter support. Many Iraqis would rightly question why the plum post of the presidency should go to the third-place finisher. Iraq, after all, isn’t like the European Union, where failed national politicians get plum posts as consolation prizes.

A greater obstacle for Barham is the animosity which Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, Jalal Talabani’s wife and the keeper of PUK finances, has for him. Simply put, she hates him and would do anything she can to scuttle any promotion for him. That is too bad, because if Hoshyar Zebari takes the presidency, Barham would make an excellent foreign minister. Hero is too small-minded to care, but short-sightedness has always been the Kurds’ No. 1 enemy. That said, many Iraqis question why the Kurds should automatically consider the presidency reserved for them. If the Kurds do succeed in taking the presidency, then it confirms the Lebanese confessional model in Iraq, a model that does not have a strong track record of preserving peace.

Many other issues remain unresolved which I will write about after the election: The situation in Kirkuk remains volatile, even as most across the political, ethnic, and sectarian spectrum acknowledge that Governor Najmaldin Karim has done an excellent job. The question of oil and, more broadly, relations between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government remains unresolved. Sectarianism continues to eat away at Iraqi society, and al-Qaeda’s rise will challenge a third Maliki term or a new premier. All major Iraqi political figures utilize their sons and immediate family members to engage in what at best would appear to be a conflict of interest and at worst is blatant corruption.

Unless Maliki wins a majority outright rather than a plurality, Iraq is in for a rough ride. Should Maliki not top fifty percent of the vote, Iraqis can expect it to takes months if not more than a year to put together a new government. The bidding and brinkmanship will make previous Iraqi caucuses pale in comparison because the opposition will calculate that they either rid themselves of Maliki at this junction, or they live with him forever. Iraq’s Kurds will use that brinkmanship to up the ante on autonomy, unresolved issues relating to Kirkuk and other disputed areas, and power in Baghdad. Some sectarian parties—and not only those in Anbar and Mosul—might calculate that they can utilize violence to bolster their position at the negotiating table or, conversely, to undercut their opponents. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran will not hesitate to interfere for sectarian reasons and to support their respective proxies.

Let us hope that Iraqis—all Iraqis—have on Wednesday a successful election not marred by violence. But once the polls close and the ballots are pointed, the real struggle will begin. America no longer occupies Iraq, but it is essential to remain engaged in what will become a long period of diplomatic need.

UPDATE: The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan late this afternoon Iraqi time released its first video of President Jalal Talabani since his stroke. While it depicts him as wheelchair bound and without speaking, it clearly shows him moving his arms. Still, he does not appear in any condition to exercise his functions as president.

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Khamenei Loves Carter’s Book on Women

Love Jimmy Carter or hate him, one thing is certain: The Iranian hostage crisis paralyzed his presidency and contributed heavily to his political downfall. A chapter of my new book examines in detail Carter administration outreach to Iran in the wake of the hostage crisis and while Carter made many mistakes, too often his critics ignore the very real belief at the time that Iran’s revolutionary authorities could do anything, including trying American diplomats before revolutionary tribunals and executing them.

The Islamic Revolution, of course, did many things. Despite the rhetoric of social justice that infuses the Islamic Republic’s religious rhetoric, it ushered in an increase in sectarianism and a rollback of basic human rights across Iranian society. Whereas women in Middle Eastern countries have long fought for new rights, the Islamic Republic was unique—at least until recently with the Islamist hijacking of the Arab Spring and the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey—in that women had to fight for rights which had been taken away from them. Nor are there many countries whose governments take pride in imprisoning and perhaps even executing rape victims.

So, it’s always slightly ironic when senior Iranian officials extol the Utopia they say their country has become for women. And so it was with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and the self-professed deputy of the messiah on Earth, who gave a speech on women’s rights recently. The values the Islamic Republic hold dear in women?

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Love Jimmy Carter or hate him, one thing is certain: The Iranian hostage crisis paralyzed his presidency and contributed heavily to his political downfall. A chapter of my new book examines in detail Carter administration outreach to Iran in the wake of the hostage crisis and while Carter made many mistakes, too often his critics ignore the very real belief at the time that Iran’s revolutionary authorities could do anything, including trying American diplomats before revolutionary tribunals and executing them.

The Islamic Revolution, of course, did many things. Despite the rhetoric of social justice that infuses the Islamic Republic’s religious rhetoric, it ushered in an increase in sectarianism and a rollback of basic human rights across Iranian society. Whereas women in Middle Eastern countries have long fought for new rights, the Islamic Republic was unique—at least until recently with the Islamist hijacking of the Arab Spring and the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey—in that women had to fight for rights which had been taken away from them. Nor are there many countries whose governments take pride in imprisoning and perhaps even executing rape victims.

So, it’s always slightly ironic when senior Iranian officials extol the Utopia they say their country has become for women. And so it was with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and the self-professed deputy of the messiah on Earth, who gave a speech on women’s rights recently. The values the Islamic Republic hold dear in women?

A mother who has offered two, three, four martyrs in the way of God and who has stood firm despite this, advises us to stand firm as well. One really feels humility in the face of such greatness. These are the realities about the women of our society which are very glorious and important realities. Well, this is thankfully the bright and shining part of the issue of women in our country.

He continues to lament women’s suffrage and the growing role in society that women have played in the West since the Industrial Revolution. He continues to cite none other than Jimmy Carter to describe the supposedly horrible state of women in the West:

I found it to be a very important writing. I have brought it to this meeting to read it for you. A book written by Jimmy Carter – the former president of America – has been published which is named “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, And Power”. Jimmy Carter says in this book, “Every year, 100,000 girls are sold as slaves in America where the owner of a brothel can buy girls – who are usually Latin American or African – at only 1000 dollars.” He also refers to the rapes which occur in colleges where only one case out of 25 cases is reported. He goes on to say that only one percent of rapists are put to trial in the army. One cries when one reads such things. We can see many such writings in newspapers. I see such writings as well, but I never base my opinions on them. However, these are realities. Jimmy Carter is a well-known personality after all and this is his book.

Khamenei is referring to Carter’s new book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power. While Carter is right to point out a lack of progress in some aspects of Western society, he has little perspective or sense of balance about relative rights. He exaggerates or uses unreliable or discredited statistics to bash the West, and tends to embrace cultural relevancy and downplay the horrific violence and discrimination women face in the Middle East and broader Islamic world.

For example, he describes Saudi women as “bubbl[ing] over with pleasure as they extolled their enhanced status in Saudi society, with its special protection, plus freedom and privilege.” Indeed, he then observed “women in the Kingdom relish some customs that Westerners consider deprivations.” How unfortunate it is that a man who was once leader of the free world so readily considers individual liberty and freedom to choose how to live one’s life such a burden.

Carter also includes some potted history with regard to Iran, but he fails to mention the repressions Iranian women face. The closest he comes is to lament that Tehran—along with Sudan, Somalia, the island nations of Palau and Tonga, and the United States—have not ratified the UN’s The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. He neglects to realize that many Arab countries have ratified but then moved to exempt themselves from the Convention’s provisions, or ignored them altogether, nor mentions the reasons why the United States has not ratified the treaty, which have more to do with sovereignty than misogyny. Bashing Western freedom and whitewashing abuses in the Islamic world does not make an individual enlightened; it makes him or her a bigot, willing to condemn others to tyranny based on the location of their birth.

The arrogance of power—and life in an echo chamber—can lead to the moral miscalibration that appears to afflict our nation’s 39th president. But, if there was ever a time to stand up and engage in some serious introspection, it is probably when Iran’s supreme leader seems so enthusiastic to endorse your latest book.

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Why Does the Clarion Project Endorse Mujahedin al-Khalq?

The Clarion Project dedicates itself “to exposing the dangers of Islamic extremism while providing a platform for the voices of moderation and promoting grassroots activism.” Progressive organizations like the Center for American Progress as well as those close to the Muslim Brotherhood like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Islamic Society of North America have condemned the group, more often than not by labeling it to try to stigmatize it and its supporters so as to avoid a much-needed debate on issues surrounding radical Islamism.

A truism of radical Islamism is that those most in its cross hairs are moderates. For all American officials talk about “green on blue” violence in Afghanistan, they often omit that rates of “green on green” violence is about three times as high. An extremist’s attempted assassination of then-14-year-old school girl Malala Yousefzai was followed by the silence of Tawakkul Karman, a Yemeni activist awarded the Nobel Peace Prize precisely because the committee wanted to depict the Muslim Brotherhood, an affiliate of which she is a member, as a peaceful organization. CAIR, an unabashed supporter of Hamas, often keeps its powder dry to attack groups like the American Islamic Congress or the American Islamic Forum for Democracy precisely because they refuse to deny the links between terrorism and more extreme interpretations of Islam.

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The Clarion Project dedicates itself “to exposing the dangers of Islamic extremism while providing a platform for the voices of moderation and promoting grassroots activism.” Progressive organizations like the Center for American Progress as well as those close to the Muslim Brotherhood like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Islamic Society of North America have condemned the group, more often than not by labeling it to try to stigmatize it and its supporters so as to avoid a much-needed debate on issues surrounding radical Islamism.

A truism of radical Islamism is that those most in its cross hairs are moderates. For all American officials talk about “green on blue” violence in Afghanistan, they often omit that rates of “green on green” violence is about three times as high. An extremist’s attempted assassination of then-14-year-old school girl Malala Yousefzai was followed by the silence of Tawakkul Karman, a Yemeni activist awarded the Nobel Peace Prize precisely because the committee wanted to depict the Muslim Brotherhood, an affiliate of which she is a member, as a peaceful organization. CAIR, an unabashed supporter of Hamas, often keeps its powder dry to attack groups like the American Islamic Congress or the American Islamic Forum for Democracy precisely because they refuse to deny the links between terrorism and more extreme interpretations of Islam.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Clarion Project, as it is dedicated to countering radical Islam, lists  a number of progressive Muslim organizations. What is surprising is that they list among them the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the front organization of the Mujahedin al-Khalq, an Iranian opposition group. The Mujahedin al-Khalq may be a lot of things, but it is neither progressive nor is it non-violent. Progressive movements tend not to dictate to women who to marry and who to divorce. It has its roots in the same Islamist currents that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini drank from, and only abandoned the Islamic Republic when its revolutionary vortex turned on the movement. Then it attached itself to Saddam Hussein and allowed itself to be used almost as a mercenary organization against both Kurds and Iraqi Shi’ites.

That does not excuse Iran’s targeting of the group, but the logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is not always wise, unless those who criticize Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was too close to Iran really want to embrace Muqtada al-Sadr. To accept the Mujahedin al-Khalq as a moderate organization is analytically shallow given the group’s record of behavior, its dishonesty in its written work, its past targeting of Americans, and the fact that its rhetoric about democracy does not match its practice.

To counter Islamist radicalism and the totalitarianism and anti-liberalism it represents is a noble goal. And those on the front line are the moderate Muslim organizations that are willing to take on radicals like CAIR and weather the often-unhinged hostility of the progressive left in America. But to lump the Mujahedin al-Khalq in with progressive Muslim organizations not only erodes the credibility of Clarion, but tars legitimate progressive Muslim organizations that already have an uphill battle.

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A Righteous Man and the Imperative to Act

Today Georgetown University honored a former professor with a day of events commemorating the centennial of his birth. But the man for whom this is being done was no ordinary political science teacher. Jan Karski, who died in 2000, taught at Georgetown for four decades but he is remembered today for his efforts during World War Two when, as a young officer serving in the Polish resistance, he witnessed the horror of the Holocaust and brought news of the atrocities to the West. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, named him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. But his story stands out not just because he was one of the few who stood up for the persecuted Jews of Europe at a time when most either joined the perpetrators or stood by silently thinking only of their own safety.

Karski risked his life many times over to bring eyewitness testimony of the conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto and of the transport of Jews to death camps to Western leaders. But the point about Karski’s amazing tale is that the people he told about the Holocaust at a time when it was still going on either refused to believe him or ignored his testimony. This should inform our view of the history of these events, including the controversy over the failure of the Allies to attempt to halt or impede the slaughter as well as the ongoing campaign to whitewash the memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who, as Karski said, listened with indifference to his account of Jewish genocide. But just as important, his courageous yet failed attempt to galvanize the West to action stands as an indictment not only of those who did not heed his warnings but to contemporary leaders who likewise stand by impotently while innocents are killed in their thousands or who think they need not take the genocidal threats of anti-Semitic despots seriously.

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Today Georgetown University honored a former professor with a day of events commemorating the centennial of his birth. But the man for whom this is being done was no ordinary political science teacher. Jan Karski, who died in 2000, taught at Georgetown for four decades but he is remembered today for his efforts during World War Two when, as a young officer serving in the Polish resistance, he witnessed the horror of the Holocaust and brought news of the atrocities to the West. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, named him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. But his story stands out not just because he was one of the few who stood up for the persecuted Jews of Europe at a time when most either joined the perpetrators or stood by silently thinking only of their own safety.

Karski risked his life many times over to bring eyewitness testimony of the conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto and of the transport of Jews to death camps to Western leaders. But the point about Karski’s amazing tale is that the people he told about the Holocaust at a time when it was still going on either refused to believe him or ignored his testimony. This should inform our view of the history of these events, including the controversy over the failure of the Allies to attempt to halt or impede the slaughter as well as the ongoing campaign to whitewash the memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who, as Karski said, listened with indifference to his account of Jewish genocide. But just as important, his courageous yet failed attempt to galvanize the West to action stands as an indictment not only of those who did not heed his warnings but to contemporary leaders who likewise stand by impotently while innocents are killed in their thousands or who think they need not take the genocidal threats of anti-Semitic despots seriously.

Born Jan Kozielewski, he used Karski as his nom de guerre when after his escape from Soviet imprisonment (an army officer, he was captured when the Soviet Union invaded Poland as part of the Hitler-Stalin pact) and joined the Polish Home Army. During the course of his activities in the underground, Karski, a Polish Catholic, was smuggled in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto and a transit point for the Belzec death camp. In 1942 he brought proof of the reality of the Holocaust to first Britain and then the following year to the United States when, under the sponsorship of the free Polish government in exile, he spread the news of the extermination of the Jews to American leaders including Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and William Donovan, the chief of the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. As he later told the story, in his own writings, Roosevelt was silent when Karski discussed the fate of the Jews, asking questions only about the conditions of horses in Poland. Frankfurter, a Jew, said that while he didn’t question Karski’s honesty, he nevertheless “could not believe him.” Karski was shocked at the Allied leaders’ refusal to act on his knowledge even to bomb the railroad tracks to the death camps when that became possible.

This is important because Karski’s reports not only make it abundantly clear that the nature of the Nazi war on the Jews was not a secret to the West but that it was also a matter of public record. Karski published an account of what was going on in Poland in 1944. The idea that no one knew about the Holocaust until the death camps were liberated in 1945 is a myth that was accepted as truth because few, either in positions of power or out of them, wanted to acknowledge that the Allies simply chose to ignore Karski’s accounts or treat them as irrelevant to their wartime mission of defeating Germany.

The question of what could have been done to rescue the Jews of Europe is still a sore point with many rightly pointing out that most of those murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators were beyond the help of the Allies. But the minimal attempts to foster rescue, such as the belated and underfunded War Refugee Board, did result in saving hundreds of thousands of Jews. Had Roosevelt’s administration treated the issue as one worth their time, it is simply implausible to assert that more lives could not have been saved.

But even if you don’t want to wade into those bitter historical arguments, Karski’s legacy demands attention. Since the Holocaust occurred, we have seen several instances of genocide. In each one of those cases, whether it was in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, or Sudan, the world once again wrung its collective hands and did nothing until it was too late. Today, Bashar Assad’s Syrian forces have killed more than a hundred thousand people and again the West, and in particular the United States, was unable to find the will to act even when a “red line” about the use of chemical weapons was crossed. Elsewhere, Iran, the leading international state sponsor of terror as well as one of the most vicious anti-Semitic regimes on the planet, plots to build a nuclear weapon. The West’s response is not to ensure that Iran’s plans, which could facilitate another Holocaust, are made impossible but only that they be delayed by a diplomatic process that seems aimed more at creating détente with the ayatollahs than at stopping them.

Jan Karski’s example, as well as the failure of those who chose not to listen to him, stands as a reminder that all the tears wept today about the Holocaust are meaningless if they are not accompanied by action to ensure that contemporary atrocities are not halted or prevented.

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