Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iran

Iran’s Gaza Arms Shipment and Obama’s Middle East Diplomacy

The news that Israel has intercepted an Iranian shipment of arms headed for Gaza has been overshadowed, along with just about every other foreign policy story, by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. But this is more than just a routine terror bulletin that will be noted, filed and then forgotten. The decision by Iran to ship missiles from Syria to the Hamas-run strip raises serious questions about a number of Obama administration assumptions about both Iran and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

If, as now appears to be the case, Iran is back in the business of arming Hamas, then that does more than undermine the administration’s narrative about President Hassan Rouhani’s government being more moderate than his predecessors. It demonstrates that Iran is, as it always has been, up to its neck in the business of arming and funding international terrorism. That should make President Obama think twice about his belief that the regime can be trusted to abide by any nuclear accord. Just as important is the very real possibility that the captured arms were part of a rapprochement between Iran and its former close ally Hamas. If Iran is now seeking to strengthen the Islamist terrorist group’s ability to wage war on Israel, that could mean it is using the Gaza enclave as leverage against the possibility of an Israeli or Western attack on its nuclear facilities. But it is also possible that the attempt to create a Gaza arms buildup is aimed at reminding the Palestinian Authority that Hamas and other Islamist forces retain a veto over any peace deal with Israel. The seized arms are a signal to the U.S. and Israel not only of the essentially violent character of Iran but of its ability to create havoc throughout the region to serve its own interests.

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The news that Israel has intercepted an Iranian shipment of arms headed for Gaza has been overshadowed, along with just about every other foreign policy story, by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. But this is more than just a routine terror bulletin that will be noted, filed and then forgotten. The decision by Iran to ship missiles from Syria to the Hamas-run strip raises serious questions about a number of Obama administration assumptions about both Iran and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

If, as now appears to be the case, Iran is back in the business of arming Hamas, then that does more than undermine the administration’s narrative about President Hassan Rouhani’s government being more moderate than his predecessors. It demonstrates that Iran is, as it always has been, up to its neck in the business of arming and funding international terrorism. That should make President Obama think twice about his belief that the regime can be trusted to abide by any nuclear accord. Just as important is the very real possibility that the captured arms were part of a rapprochement between Iran and its former close ally Hamas. If Iran is now seeking to strengthen the Islamist terrorist group’s ability to wage war on Israel, that could mean it is using the Gaza enclave as leverage against the possibility of an Israeli or Western attack on its nuclear facilities. But it is also possible that the attempt to create a Gaza arms buildup is aimed at reminding the Palestinian Authority that Hamas and other Islamist forces retain a veto over any peace deal with Israel. The seized arms are a signal to the U.S. and Israel not only of the essentially violent character of Iran but of its ability to create havoc throughout the region to serve its own interests.

Since 2011 Hamas and Iran have been at odds, as they have backed different sides in the Syrian civil war. In addition to pouring arms, money and some of its own forces into Damascus, Iran has deployed its Hezbollah terrorist proxies to back up the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. But Hamas sided with Islamist rebels and broke with Tehran over the dispute. But prior to that Hamas looked to Iran as its principal supplier of arms and cash during the second intifada fighting with Israel. Though Hamas is Sunni and Iran is Shi’ite, the two bonded over their mutual hatred for Israel and Jews.

Proof of the sophisticated nature of the arms pipeline between Tehran and Gaza came in 2002 when the Israeli Navy seized the Karine A, a ship that was loaded with Iranian missiles and various other types of military hardware intended for use by Hamas. Iran’s intentions were clear. They were prepared to back any force willing to fight Israel and to kill Jews in any manner possible.

The breakup of that alliance demonstrated Hamas’ belief that they no longer needed Iran’s assistance. But things have changed since the start of the Arab Spring when the Islamist group thought it could count on support from Egypt and Turkey to make up for the money and arms it got from Iran. The ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo and its replacement by a military regime that seems determined to shut down the smuggling tunnels into Gaza has placed Hamas under tremendous financial pressure. It has also been disappointed by Turkey whose Islamist government talked big about backing Hamas but now seems too preoccupied with its own domestic troubles to do much to prop up Gaza. That leaves Iran, which seems to have prevailed in Syria and is ready and willing to step back into its old role as Hamas’ funder and arms supplier as well as being the chief instigator of mayhem along Israel’s southern border.

Iran’s re-entry into the Israel-Palestinian conflict is just one more reason why Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative is bound to fail. He and President Obama continue to act as if Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas not only is ready to make peace but has the ability to withstand pressure from Hamas and the rejectionists in his own Fatah to make a deal stick. This is clearly untrue. But now that Hamas has Iran in its corner again, Abbas must understand that any hopes that his rivals in Gaza will collapse are mere pipe dreams. Iran’s backing for Hamas not only makes Kerry’s peace talks look like a fool’s errand, their money and munitions may also be a down payment on the launch of a third intifada.

The standard refrain of Israel-bashers is that more violence will be the fault of the Jewish state’s alleged intransigence. But the real reason for another intifada may have more to do with Iran’s geo-strategic ambitions than West Bank settlements. With Syria and Lebanon still firmly in Tehran’s grasp, adding Hamas to the list of its allies gives the ayatollahs one more weapon to wield in its quest for regional hegemony. Stopping the already remote chances of peace between Israel and the Palestinians is one of their goals. But Iran also sees this as a chance to further complicate Western efforts to exert pressure on their nuclear program.

President Obama may believe he is embarked on a diplomatic quest with Iran that will result in a new détente that will lessen the chances of conflict and allow the United States to ease out of a strategic role in which it stands beside both Israel and moderate Arab states. But Iran has very different goals. The seizure of the arms shipment is a wake-up call for Washington. But it is an open question as to whether President Obama and Secretary Kerry are too besotted with their hopes for détente with Iran to listen to reason.

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Netanyahu Doesn’t Take Obama’s Bait

The last time President Obama ambushed Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Israeli gave as good as he got. This time he turned the other cheek. The reason for this turnabout by the normally combative prime minister tells us everything we need to know about the relative strength of the positions of these two leaders.

While the assumption on the part of most pundits was that Obama has Netanyahu in a corner, the latter’s reaction to the assault the president launched at him in an interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg this past weekend shows us this isn’t true. Though Netanyahu had to be infuriated by the president’s single-minded determination to blame Israel for the lack of peace as well as his obtuse praise for Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, he felt no need to publicly respond to it. Far from feeling threatened by Obama’s tirade, Netanyahu’s decision to ignore the president’s attack shows that he understands the dynamics of both the peace process and U.S. foreign policy actually give him the upper hand over the weak and increasingly out-of-touch lame duck in the White House.

Obama’s decision to give his faithful admirer Goldberg an interview in which he blasted Israel was odd since it came at a time when the Israelis have shown their willingness to accept Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework for Middle East peace negotiations and the Palestinians have publicly declared the same document to be unacceptable. More than that, the fact that he chose this particular moment to get in another shot at his least favorite foreign leader just when the world was focused on Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and awaiting an American response to this aggression can only be considered bizarre. Not only did this make his attack on Netanyahu seem both petty and personal, it also guaranteed that the international media that might have otherwise have jumped on the story was distracted elsewhere and diminished its impact. But Netanyahu’s seeming dismissal of this broadside shows that Obama is not in as strong a position vis-à-vis Netanyahu as he thinks.

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The last time President Obama ambushed Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Israeli gave as good as he got. This time he turned the other cheek. The reason for this turnabout by the normally combative prime minister tells us everything we need to know about the relative strength of the positions of these two leaders.

While the assumption on the part of most pundits was that Obama has Netanyahu in a corner, the latter’s reaction to the assault the president launched at him in an interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg this past weekend shows us this isn’t true. Though Netanyahu had to be infuriated by the president’s single-minded determination to blame Israel for the lack of peace as well as his obtuse praise for Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, he felt no need to publicly respond to it. Far from feeling threatened by Obama’s tirade, Netanyahu’s decision to ignore the president’s attack shows that he understands the dynamics of both the peace process and U.S. foreign policy actually give him the upper hand over the weak and increasingly out-of-touch lame duck in the White House.

Obama’s decision to give his faithful admirer Goldberg an interview in which he blasted Israel was odd since it came at a time when the Israelis have shown their willingness to accept Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework for Middle East peace negotiations and the Palestinians have publicly declared the same document to be unacceptable. More than that, the fact that he chose this particular moment to get in another shot at his least favorite foreign leader just when the world was focused on Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and awaiting an American response to this aggression can only be considered bizarre. Not only did this make his attack on Netanyahu seem both petty and personal, it also guaranteed that the international media that might have otherwise have jumped on the story was distracted elsewhere and diminished its impact. But Netanyahu’s seeming dismissal of this broadside shows that Obama is not in as strong a position vis-à-vis Netanyahu as he thinks.

Back in May 2011, Obama chose to give a speech attacking Israel’s stand on the peace process and demanding that it accept the 1967 borders as the starting point for negotiations just as before Netanyahu arrived in Washington. Obama had picked fights with Israel in 2009 and 2010 over Jerusalem and settlements but this was a direct attack on the prime minister. Netanyahu’s response was just as direct. When he met with Obama in the White House, he launched into a lengthy lecture to the president about Israeli security that made it clear to the president that he would not take the insult lying down. Netanyahu doubled down on that the next day when he received more cheers while addressing a joint meeting of Congress than the president had ever gotten.

But this time, Netanyahu chose to ignore the president’s slights. There were no public or even off-the-record remarks from his party expressing anger. And in his speech to AIPAC today, Netanyahu barely mentioned the president.

Though Israel has been squabbling with the U.S. over the direction of the Iran nuclear talks, Netanyahu broke no new ground on the issue in his speech. He restated his concerns about Tehran continuing uranium enrichment during the nuclear talks. But he did not allude to the fact that the U.S. was letting this happen. While he repeated his vow to do anything necessary to defend Israeli security — a veiled threat to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities — he kept his disagreements to a minimum and emphasized the joint concerns of the U.S. and Israel.

With regard to the topic on which Obama had been most critical — the peace process with the Palestinians — there was also no allusion to disagreement with Washington. To the contrary, Netanyahu spoke more about his desire for peace; his willingness to continue engaging in talks with the Palestinians and the advantages that peace would bring to Israel and the entire Middle East. Far from harping on the points where he and Obama disagree about the terms of a theoretical agreement, Netanyahu emphasized a key point where the U.S. had accepted Israel’s position: the need for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, thus signaling their willingness to end the conflict rather than merely pausing it.

While Netanyahu went on to denounce the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement against as both immoral and anti-Semitic, the key here was a disinclination to use his speech to engage in a tit-for-tat battle with the administration. Why was that?

Some Obama loyalists may claim that this shows that Netanyahu got the message from the president. It’s likely that Israel’s future participation in Kerry’s talks will be cited by some in this group as evidence that Obama’s spanking of the prime minister worked. But this is nonsense. Given that Israel had already signaled that it will accept Kerry’s framework for more talks, that explanation won’t hold water.

A better reason for Netanyahu’s decision to turn the other cheek is that, unlike the president, the prime minister has been paying attention to the currents currently roiling Palestinian politics and knows that Abbas’ inability to rally his people behind a peace agreement renders any potential U.S.-Israeli arguments moot.

It should be remembered that the net results of the 2011 dustup between the two men was pointless. Despite Obama’s best efforts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians, Abbas still wouldn’t budge enough to even negotiate, let alone agree to peace terms. The same dynamic is unfolding today with Israel reportedly offering massive territorial withdrawals of up to 90 percent of the West Bank in the secret talks with the PA while the Palestinians are still tying themselves up in knots explaining why they can’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state or give up the right of return.

Far from needing to defend himself on the American stage as he felt it important to do in 2011, Netanyahu now understands that forbearance is the best way to respond to Obama’s provocations. Try as he might to put the onus for the lack of peace on the Jewish state, Netanyahu knows it will always be the Palestinians who say “no” to peace, not the Israelis.

Similarly, as much as he must have been itching to directly take on Obama’s appeasement of Tehran, Netanyahu realizes that it is Iran’s lust for a nuclear weapon that will do more to undermine the administration’s negotiating tactics than anything he can say.

By eschewing any desire to pressure the Palestinians to make peace, the president more or less guaranteed that Kerry must ultimately fail. And by knuckling under the Iranians in the interim agreement signed by Kerry last November, President Obama has also embarked on a path that cannot lead him to the achievement of his stated goals in the current round of talks.

Though Obama’s attacks did real damage to Israel’s position, the prime minister is right to refuse to take the bait. Netanyahu cannot have failed to see that, far from offering him the opportunity to effectively pressure the Israelis, the president is floundering in his second term especially on foreign policy. The most effective answer to Obama’s taunts is patience since events will soon overtake the president’s positions on both the Palestinian and Iranian fronts, as well as in other debacles around the globe that have popped up because of Obama’s weak leadership. Though the disparity in the relative power of their positions inevitably means Netanyahu must worry about Obama’s barbs, the bottom line here is that it is the president and not the prime minister who is in big trouble.

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Obama, Ukraine and the Price of Weakness

There may be no way for the United States to reverse the Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. The Obama administration still has the opportunity to send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin to punish Moscow for this aggression in response to the ouster of one of their stooge in Kiev by a popular uprising. Indeed, he would do well to listen to the advice of Senator Marco Rubio who outlined eight steps the U.S. should take in response to the crisis. But whether or not the president acts appropriately now, it’s probably too late to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine from a predatory Russia. As he did in Georgia in 2008, Putin counted on both America and Europe being too weak and irresolute to stop him from aggression carried on in his own backyard even if meant violating international law by carrying out a unilateral partition of Ukraine to either annex part of that country to Russia or, as is more likely, set up another puppet state in the strategic Crimea. At this moment, there’s little reason to believe that calculation was incorrect.

But even if we take for granted that it’s too late to save Ukraine, the spectacle of Russian aggression should provoke a re-examination of the direction of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. It should also cause us to think again about the assumption that the American people are, as Senator Rand Paul and a growing chorus of isolationists on both the right and the left have advocated, perfectly happy to retreat from the world stage and let aggressors such as Putin ‘s Russia or Iran have their way.  The lessons of the tragedy unfolding in the Crimea are many, but surely the first of them must be that when dictators don’t fear the warnings of the leader of the free world and when America demonstrates that it is war weary and won’t, on almost any account, take firm action, to defend its interests and to restrain aggression, mayhem is almost certainly always going to follow.

No doubt there will be many, whether they call themselves realists or isolationists, who will in the coming days argue that what happens in the Ukraine is none of our business. Americans who are sick of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan say they want no part of foreign wars or even a strong foreign policy that carries with it the chance of engaging in conflict. They may not cheer when Barack Obama speaks of “leading from behind” but they are entirely comfortable with the general drift toward retreat that has taken place in the last five years under his leadership. But, as we have seen in Syria and now in the Ukraine, there is a price to pay for such weakness and it is not one that will be paid by Bashar Assad or Putin. Nor will others who seek to test the mettle of American resolve, such as the leaders of Iran, fail to observe that the free world is led by a paper tiger. U.S. allies will draw the same conclusion.

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There may be no way for the United States to reverse the Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. The Obama administration still has the opportunity to send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin to punish Moscow for this aggression in response to the ouster of one of their stooge in Kiev by a popular uprising. Indeed, he would do well to listen to the advice of Senator Marco Rubio who outlined eight steps the U.S. should take in response to the crisis. But whether or not the president acts appropriately now, it’s probably too late to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine from a predatory Russia. As he did in Georgia in 2008, Putin counted on both America and Europe being too weak and irresolute to stop him from aggression carried on in his own backyard even if meant violating international law by carrying out a unilateral partition of Ukraine to either annex part of that country to Russia or, as is more likely, set up another puppet state in the strategic Crimea. At this moment, there’s little reason to believe that calculation was incorrect.

But even if we take for granted that it’s too late to save Ukraine, the spectacle of Russian aggression should provoke a re-examination of the direction of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. It should also cause us to think again about the assumption that the American people are, as Senator Rand Paul and a growing chorus of isolationists on both the right and the left have advocated, perfectly happy to retreat from the world stage and let aggressors such as Putin ‘s Russia or Iran have their way.  The lessons of the tragedy unfolding in the Crimea are many, but surely the first of them must be that when dictators don’t fear the warnings of the leader of the free world and when America demonstrates that it is war weary and won’t, on almost any account, take firm action, to defend its interests and to restrain aggression, mayhem is almost certainly always going to follow.

No doubt there will be many, whether they call themselves realists or isolationists, who will in the coming days argue that what happens in the Ukraine is none of our business. Americans who are sick of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan say they want no part of foreign wars or even a strong foreign policy that carries with it the chance of engaging in conflict. They may not cheer when Barack Obama speaks of “leading from behind” but they are entirely comfortable with the general drift toward retreat that has taken place in the last five years under his leadership. But, as we have seen in Syria and now in the Ukraine, there is a price to pay for such weakness and it is not one that will be paid by Bashar Assad or Putin. Nor will others who seek to test the mettle of American resolve, such as the leaders of Iran, fail to observe that the free world is led by a paper tiger. U.S. allies will draw the same conclusion.

A world in which dictators do as they like despite clear American warnings — as President Obama did first in Syria and then again this week about attacks on Ukraine — is not only a far more dangerous place. It also creates a dynamic in which every such American warning or diplomatic initiative is discounted as mere rhetoric, even if those daring to defy the United States are not so well situated as Putin is with his bold stroke in the Crimea. That is especially true with regards to the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

The circumstances of the U.S. diplomatic effort to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions are starkly different from those in the territories of the former Soviet Union. But the basic formula of a bold rogue regime that has no reason to fear the threats or the blandishments of either the U.S. or Europe is present in the P5+1 talks. Lack of credibility in foreign policy cannot be compartmentalized in one region or particular issue. Weakness and irresolution are fungible commodities in international diplomacy. The Obama administration gave up the formidable military, political and economic leverage they had over Iran last fall by signing an interim agreement with Iran that gave Tehran what it wanted in terms of recognizing their right to enrich uranium as well as loosening sanctions in exchange for almost nothing. If the Iranians had good reason to think they had nothing to fear from the Obama administration before this latest humiliation of the president at the hands of Putin, their conviction that they can be as tough as they like with him without worrying about a strong American response can only be greater today.

It is too late to save Ukraine from the theft of its territory. But it is not too late to reverse the U.S. retreat from the world stage that has been going on in the last years. President Obama can begin to regain some of his credibility by taking a strong stand on sanctions against Russia and sticking to it. But if he doesn’t no one should be under the illusion that it won’t affect Obama’s ability to prevail in the Iran talks. The cost of Obama-style weakness and isolationism will not be cheap, either for U.S. allies or for an American people who must now understand what it is like to live in a world where no one respects or fears their government.

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In America’s Absence, Israel Acts in Syria

Amid the Obama administration’s increasingly apparent dereliction of duty to America’s role on the world stage, it seems that, in the Middle East at least, Israel is taking on an increased level of responsibility in the effort to halt the proliferation of both weapons of mass destruction and terror groups. This has been particularly apparent when it comes to the ongoing crisis and instability in Syria and the reports today that Israel’s air force carried out strikes against Hezbollah strongholds on the Syrian border so as to disrupt efforts to transfer weapons from Syria into Lebanon.

Given the refusal of the administration to take decisive action in Syria, the ongoing indication that Obama is seeking further withdrawals of U.S. troops–most significantly in Afghanistan–and now the cuts to the defense budget, it is clear that Western allies in the region are going to find themselves increasingly isolated. If this policy is to continue, Israel faces the prospect of being ever more alone in a region descending into worsening turmoil. The concern in places like Syria is not simply restricted to the fear of rogue regimes using stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons against their own people. Rather, with the growing strength of al-Qaeda-linked groups in these conflict zones, there is a real risk of the most devastating weapons falling into the hands of Islamist militants prepared to use them indiscriminately.   

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Amid the Obama administration’s increasingly apparent dereliction of duty to America’s role on the world stage, it seems that, in the Middle East at least, Israel is taking on an increased level of responsibility in the effort to halt the proliferation of both weapons of mass destruction and terror groups. This has been particularly apparent when it comes to the ongoing crisis and instability in Syria and the reports today that Israel’s air force carried out strikes against Hezbollah strongholds on the Syrian border so as to disrupt efforts to transfer weapons from Syria into Lebanon.

Given the refusal of the administration to take decisive action in Syria, the ongoing indication that Obama is seeking further withdrawals of U.S. troops–most significantly in Afghanistan–and now the cuts to the defense budget, it is clear that Western allies in the region are going to find themselves increasingly isolated. If this policy is to continue, Israel faces the prospect of being ever more alone in a region descending into worsening turmoil. The concern in places like Syria is not simply restricted to the fear of rogue regimes using stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons against their own people. Rather, with the growing strength of al-Qaeda-linked groups in these conflict zones, there is a real risk of the most devastating weapons falling into the hands of Islamist militants prepared to use them indiscriminately.   

It is essentially only on account of Israel that the world does not currently face the unimaginable possibility of a Syria armed with nuclear weapons. Israel is widely understood to have been behind the 2007 strike on the North Korean-abetted nuclear program in Syria. Just as it was Israel that spared us all from the grim reality of life with a nuclear Iraq–no doubt with Saddam still in power to this day–when the Israelis took out Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. As such, it does not seem unreasonable to speculate that, had it not been for the Obama administration purposefully tying Israel’s hands, the Iranian nuclear threat and the risk of a nuclear domino effect across the region might already have been lifted by now.

This, then, is a reminder of how Israel acts as somewhat of a restraining force in the Middle East. It also reaffirms the wrongheadedness of the commonly heard assertion that Israel and its dispute with the Palestinians is a regional destabilizer, that without the “Israel problem” the region would calm down and the Islamic world would forget its enmity for America. The latest strike by the IAF against Hezbollah forces attempting to transfer Syrian weapons to its Iranian proxy army in Lebanon is yet another example of how in the absence of decisive American action, Israel instead is acting to prevent the further deterioration of security in the region.

It is also worth considering these facts in light of Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to reach a negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians. As part of efforts to reach an agreement it appears that the State Department has been pushing for an Israeli withdrawal from the strategically vital Jordan Valley, with the suggestion that American troops might take the place of the Israeli ones currently based there. This proposal seems all the more ludicrous given the Obama administration’s moves to cut back on both the defense budget and the U.S. military presence in the area as a whole. Israel cannot allow itself to be turned into a strategic basket case; it must maintain the means as well as the territory by which it is possible for it to go on defending itself.

But as we have been reminded of in recent days, Israel does not simply defend itself, it also acts to restrain dangerous extremist and rogue forces in the wider region. 

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Treaty Cheating: The New START Precedent

Whether President Obama can be trusted to compel Iranian compliance with the naïve nuclear deal struck in November is a recurring question. The president has shown a stern unwillingness to face reality and admit that critics of his diplomatic dealmaking are right even when they clearly are. Just as troubling, however, has been the precedent set by the Russian-brokered deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. Bashar al-Assad appears to be flat ignoring his deadlines and obligations, with no apparent consequences.

Yet in January, the New York Times had reported that Syria might have been merely following the example set by Russia itself: “The United States informed its NATO allies this month that Russia had tested a new ground-launched cruise missile, raising concerns about Moscow’s compliance with a landmark arms control accord.” Now those alleged Russian violations, which some believe began in 2008, are hanging over one of President Obama’s top defense nominees.

The Senate Armed Services Committee was scheduled to consider the nomination of Brian McKeon to an undersecretary of defense posting today. It’s not an otherwise particularly controversial nomination except that McKeon is currently National Security Council chief of staff, and two members of the committee think McKeon has some explaining to do regarding Russia’s possible treaty violations. As National Journal reported heading into the weekend:

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Whether President Obama can be trusted to compel Iranian compliance with the naïve nuclear deal struck in November is a recurring question. The president has shown a stern unwillingness to face reality and admit that critics of his diplomatic dealmaking are right even when they clearly are. Just as troubling, however, has been the precedent set by the Russian-brokered deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. Bashar al-Assad appears to be flat ignoring his deadlines and obligations, with no apparent consequences.

Yet in January, the New York Times had reported that Syria might have been merely following the example set by Russia itself: “The United States informed its NATO allies this month that Russia had tested a new ground-launched cruise missile, raising concerns about Moscow’s compliance with a landmark arms control accord.” Now those alleged Russian violations, which some believe began in 2008, are hanging over one of President Obama’s top defense nominees.

The Senate Armed Services Committee was scheduled to consider the nomination of Brian McKeon to an undersecretary of defense posting today. It’s not an otherwise particularly controversial nomination except that McKeon is currently National Security Council chief of staff, and two members of the committee think McKeon has some explaining to do regarding Russia’s possible treaty violations. As National Journal reported heading into the weekend:

The Obama administration recently acknowledged having concerns that Russia is in breach of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, though it has yet to formally accuse Moscow of any violation. The apparent source of concern is Russian testing of a new ground-launched cruise missile, dating back to 2008. The agreement prohibits Russia and the United States from producing, stockpiling or testing any cruise or ballistic missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles.

In their letter, Senate Armed Services Committee members Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) demanded to know whether McKeon was aware of the alleged treaty breach at the time when he was acting as a key White House representative on Capitol Hill during the push to secure Senate ratification of the New START treaty, according to the news publication.

“Based on your role as Vice President [Joe] Biden’s lead negotiator on the New START treaty and as one of the Obama administration’s primary liaisons with the Senate during the New START ratification process, we are interested in what you knew about potential violations of the INF treaty and what information was shared with the Senate,” the two senators said.

Wicker and Ayotte also want answers on why it took the Obama administration so many years to update Congress on its concerns about possible treaty transgressions by Moscow.

“If the administration knew about potential violations during consideration of the treaty and did not fully inform the Senate of these violations while it debated New START, this would represent a serious abrogation of the administration’s responsibilities,” states the letter, which was viewed by the Daily Beast.

New START was, from the beginning, a puzzling distraction from much more important nonproliferation issues. But the Obama administration, true to form, was substituting public relations for public policy. The president wanted to show that the two countries were resetting relations, and the deal, while otherwise useless, served the administration’s purposes.

New START looks even less promising in the rearview mirror, once the “reset” had completely crumbled and Vladimir Putin had thoroughly humiliated the president on the world stage. But even at the time it was both shallow and a foolish expenditure of political capital. But the legacy of New START changes in important ways if the president can’t claim to have been naively duped by Putin and if, instead, a top American negotiator pushed the treaty through with the knowledge that the Russians were simultaneously violating past arms agreements and therefore unlikely to comply with this one.

McKeon’s nomination aside, the issue goes to the heart of the concern over far more important agreements, like the Syria chemical-weapons deal and above all the Iranian nuclear deal. The hope has been that while Obama is being desperately out-negotiated by rogue regimes, if they don’t comply with those deals the White House will acknowledge so and act accordingly. That goes not just for Iran but for companies who enable Iran to violate sanctions. “We will come down on them like a ton of bricks,” Obama threatened recently.

But history shows that the president is, at times, more concerned with signing deals than with ensuring the intended outcome of those deals. The questions surrounding Brian McKeon and New START raise the possibility that the president’s critics are more on-target than even they thought.

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Why the President Don’t Get No Respect

“For the first time,” Gallup tells us today, “more Americans think President Barack Obama is not respected by other world leaders than believe he is.” The news is a bit worse for the president than it looks, as Gallup notes that “Americans’ opinions have shifted dramatically in the past year, after being relatively stable from 2010 to 2013.” While such perceptions often track closely with presidential approval numbers, Gallup explains, President Obama’s numbers have not followed that pattern: “a majority of Americans still thought world leaders respected Obama in 2010 and 2011, when his job approval was similar to what it is now.”

It would be difficult to locate one specific foreign-policy failure that would cause such a drop in ratings precisely because there are so many to choose from. It’s both the quality and the quantity of Obama’s foreign-policy miscues at fault here. To list them actually seems almost cruel. (But necessary.) It’s obvious why events in Syria, Ukraine, Russia, China, Egypt, and similar states would give the impression Obama isn’t respected abroad. But more interesting is the fact that while Obama stands by watching the flames of conflict spread and his “red lines” get tap danced across, the administration is also furiously conducting negotiations on major conflicts like Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Are respondents in the poll who think the world doesn’t respect Obama ignoring the high-level diplomacy being conducted by Secretary of State John Kerry? Or is it possible that the way those negotiations are taking shape only reinforces the narrative of a disrespected president? Consider: the Iranians got a very favorable deal and have since regularly and loudly mocked the idea that the agreement with the West requires any real sacrifice toward their nuclear-weapons program while the country has been reopened for business by the easing of sanctions.

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“For the first time,” Gallup tells us today, “more Americans think President Barack Obama is not respected by other world leaders than believe he is.” The news is a bit worse for the president than it looks, as Gallup notes that “Americans’ opinions have shifted dramatically in the past year, after being relatively stable from 2010 to 2013.” While such perceptions often track closely with presidential approval numbers, Gallup explains, President Obama’s numbers have not followed that pattern: “a majority of Americans still thought world leaders respected Obama in 2010 and 2011, when his job approval was similar to what it is now.”

It would be difficult to locate one specific foreign-policy failure that would cause such a drop in ratings precisely because there are so many to choose from. It’s both the quality and the quantity of Obama’s foreign-policy miscues at fault here. To list them actually seems almost cruel. (But necessary.) It’s obvious why events in Syria, Ukraine, Russia, China, Egypt, and similar states would give the impression Obama isn’t respected abroad. But more interesting is the fact that while Obama stands by watching the flames of conflict spread and his “red lines” get tap danced across, the administration is also furiously conducting negotiations on major conflicts like Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Are respondents in the poll who think the world doesn’t respect Obama ignoring the high-level diplomacy being conducted by Secretary of State John Kerry? Or is it possible that the way those negotiations are taking shape only reinforces the narrative of a disrespected president? Consider: the Iranians got a very favorable deal and have since regularly and loudly mocked the idea that the agreement with the West requires any real sacrifice toward their nuclear-weapons program while the country has been reopened for business by the easing of sanctions.

And neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians seem all that patient with Kerry’s diplomacy there, which they consider a vanity project. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon caused quite a stir by dismissing Kerry as a blundering obsessive with a messiah complex. While certainly impolitic, over time it appeared to be not so much a gaffe as a calculated, if indecorous, risk. Last month I quoted Shmuel Rosner’s explanation, which has plenty of logic: Yaalon “was a messenger that had to be sacrificed in order to send a clear message of dissent to the American mediator, a message that no polite disagreement behind closed doors can convey.”

It was, then, almost something of an intervention. This is the single most recognizable aspect of Kerry-as-diplomat: a man who will talk to everyone but listen to no one. The insult from Yaalon stung because it was true. It certainly didn’t help matters much when Susan Rice tweeted out her defense of Kerry that pleaded with others to stop making fun of Kerry and let him eat lunch at their table.

The episode was reminiscent of when Obama, anticipating criticism of letting Vice President Joe Biden handle important tasks, playfully warned “Nobody messes with Joe!” It was laughable, Rob Long commented at the time, “Because everybody messes with Joe.” He summed up the general attitude toward Biden’s oversight authority: “Biden couldn’t oversee a ham sandwich.”

Obama-era diplomacy ostensibly designed to increase respect for America abroad is having precisely the opposite effect. In fairness, however, there is much overlap between the world-on-fire conflicts and the administration’s negotiations. Syria is the prime example: a desire for a negotiated solution caused the administration to preempt its own military action in order to talk about getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons. The Assad regime is, unsurprisingly, ignoring its responsibilities under the deal and letting the deadlines evaporate. While this is a case of America trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict, it’s clear that the Obama administration’s interlocutors think the president is a bit of a joke. A procession of empty threats will usually have that effect.

And the violence in Ukraine ended–or at least was greatly reduced–by a negotiating process that excluded the United States. The message is clear: productive diplomacy is conducted without the Obama administration. So it’s important to note that the impression of Obama as weak or not worth respecting abroad is not–as perhaps members of the administration might like to believe–a result of a lack of the use of force. It’s not solely about projecting strength; it’s also about projecting competence and trustworthiness. That the Obama White House doesn’t project any of the three helps explain his poll numbers abroad.

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Can Iran and Israel Put Aside “Differences?”

It is now time for Iran and Israel to bury their hostilities and differences. That at least is the contention put forward by Navid Hassibi in his piece published yesterday, Why Can’t Iran and Israel be Friends? Hassibi, who is currently a scholar at George Washington University’s Institute for Security and Conflict Studies, lauds the idea that, as in the past, Iran and Israel might find shared national interests and areas of cooperation. Well who could possibly be opposed to such sentiments?

The problem with the argument here, however, is the strange suggestion of equivalence that this piece adopts. Hassibi talks of the two countries needing to set aside their “mutual hostility” so as to “look beyond their political differences.” Yet, such a tone is more than a little disingenuous. After all, what exactly are the political differences that we’re talking about here? Mainly it is that Israel thinks it should exist, while Iran has made quite clear that it thinks Israel shouldn’t. That’s the kind of “political differences” that are being faced.

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It is now time for Iran and Israel to bury their hostilities and differences. That at least is the contention put forward by Navid Hassibi in his piece published yesterday, Why Can’t Iran and Israel be Friends? Hassibi, who is currently a scholar at George Washington University’s Institute for Security and Conflict Studies, lauds the idea that, as in the past, Iran and Israel might find shared national interests and areas of cooperation. Well who could possibly be opposed to such sentiments?

The problem with the argument here, however, is the strange suggestion of equivalence that this piece adopts. Hassibi talks of the two countries needing to set aside their “mutual hostility” so as to “look beyond their political differences.” Yet, such a tone is more than a little disingenuous. After all, what exactly are the political differences that we’re talking about here? Mainly it is that Israel thinks it should exist, while Iran has made quite clear that it thinks Israel shouldn’t. That’s the kind of “political differences” that are being faced.

Perhaps it will come as no surprise to learn that the piece in question was published via the Guardian, at the Tehran Bureau hosted on the newspaper’s website. The Tehran Bureau appears to be filled with news stories and opinion pieces devoted to showing the “other side” of life in Iran–arts and culture, feel-good pieces about growing moderation and openness in the country, the occasional murmur of concern about human rights or the economy. And if the Guardian is choosing to host the Tehran Bureau, then this alone surely raises some not unreasonable questions about what kind of agenda might be at play here.

Hassibi’s article is at pains to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that Iran and Israel, particularly prior to the Islamic revolution, engaged in a great deal of cooperation and maintained remarkably warm relations. But this is precisely the point. When the people governing Iran weren’t daily calling for the obliteration of the “Zionist entity” and arming Israel’s terrorist enemies to the teeth, Israel bore no ill will toward the Iranians whatsoever. But when Hassibi claims that there is “mutual hostility,” we are being dishonest with ourselves if we choose to forget that the regime in Iran is the same one that, as Douglas Murray once put it, “denies the last Holocaust while expressing an interest in committing the next one.”

Imagine the sense of surprise, then, at discovering Jewish acquaintances optimistically parading Hassibi’s opinion piece across the social media sphere, enthusiastically endorsing its claims and embracing its recommendations. Eager for any good news at all on this front, young liberal-minded Jews are ever ready to be convinced of these kinds of sentiments. The more lovely the story, the more ready they are to believe it. This idea about “mutual hostility” and both sides needing to set aside “political differences” chimes well with the kindergarten teachings they recall of how if one is only nice enough to others, then soon enough they will start to be nice back. It involves a sense of disbelief that anyone in the world is really bad, or could ever really mean it when they say they hate Jews. If Israel would only bury the hatchet, then all this unpleasantness with Iran could stop, and as the title of Hassibi’s piece suggests, everyone could just get on with being friends.   

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Robert Malley and the Shift to Appeasement

Back in 2008 when Barack Obama first ran for president, one of the many signals he sent to Jewish groups to reassure them of his good will toward Israel and his foreign-policy bona fides was to sever ties with Robert Malley. Malley, a Clinton-era National Security Council staffer, is best known for his stand blaming Israel rather than Yasir Arafat for the collapse of the 2000 Camp David peace summit. His position as an informal advisor to the Obama campaign was a major liability for a candidate desperate to reassure Jewish Democrats that he could be relied upon to maintain the alliance with Israel. But when it became known in May of 2008 that Malley had met with Hamas terrorists, the Obama campaign severed ties with Malley.

It turned out that those who worried that Malley’s presence in the Obama foreign-policy shop was a sign of future trouble with the Jewish state were right. Despite his campaign promises and the fact that he failed to give an inveterate Israel-basher like Malley a job in his administration, President Obama spent most of his first term picking fights with the State of Israel before a reelection-year charm offensive. But now well into his second term, the president is finally rewarding Malley for falling on his sword for him during his first campaign. This afternoon it was announced that Malley is heading back to the White House to serve as a senior director at the National Security Council where he will be tasked with managing relations between the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies. While we are told the administration is making an effort to bolster its traditional ties to the region, Malley’s appointment sends a very different signal, especially to Israel.

At a time when Saudi Arabia and other allies in the region are worried that the U.S. has turned its back on them as part of the president’s misguided pursuit of détente with Iran, the president has called back to service one of the foremost defenders of appeasement of terror. Though Malley is merely one more member of a second-term team that is increasingly hostile to Israel, his joining the NSC removes any remaining doubt about where American foreign policy is heading.

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Back in 2008 when Barack Obama first ran for president, one of the many signals he sent to Jewish groups to reassure them of his good will toward Israel and his foreign-policy bona fides was to sever ties with Robert Malley. Malley, a Clinton-era National Security Council staffer, is best known for his stand blaming Israel rather than Yasir Arafat for the collapse of the 2000 Camp David peace summit. His position as an informal advisor to the Obama campaign was a major liability for a candidate desperate to reassure Jewish Democrats that he could be relied upon to maintain the alliance with Israel. But when it became known in May of 2008 that Malley had met with Hamas terrorists, the Obama campaign severed ties with Malley.

It turned out that those who worried that Malley’s presence in the Obama foreign-policy shop was a sign of future trouble with the Jewish state were right. Despite his campaign promises and the fact that he failed to give an inveterate Israel-basher like Malley a job in his administration, President Obama spent most of his first term picking fights with the State of Israel before a reelection-year charm offensive. But now well into his second term, the president is finally rewarding Malley for falling on his sword for him during his first campaign. This afternoon it was announced that Malley is heading back to the White House to serve as a senior director at the National Security Council where he will be tasked with managing relations between the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies. While we are told the administration is making an effort to bolster its traditional ties to the region, Malley’s appointment sends a very different signal, especially to Israel.

At a time when Saudi Arabia and other allies in the region are worried that the U.S. has turned its back on them as part of the president’s misguided pursuit of détente with Iran, the president has called back to service one of the foremost defenders of appeasement of terror. Though Malley is merely one more member of a second-term team that is increasingly hostile to Israel, his joining the NSC removes any remaining doubt about where American foreign policy is heading.

At the time he was working for the Obama campaign, his defenders, including a gaggle of high-ranking Clinton foreign-policy officials, denounced Malley’s critics for what they claimed were unfair personal attacks. But the problem with Malley was never so much about his motives or his father’s role as a supporter of the Egyptian Communist Party and the Nasser regime as it was his own beliefs and policies.

By claiming as he did in an infamous article in the New York Review of Books in August of 2001 that the Camp David summit’s failure was Israel’s fault rather than that of Arafat, Malley demonstrated extraordinary bias against the Jewish state as well as a willingness to revise recent history to fit his personal agenda. Malley absolved Arafat from blame for refusing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of an independent state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem. In doing so he not only flatly contradicted the testimony of President Bill Clinton and other U.S. officials present, but his justification of Arafat’s indefensible behavior also served to rationalize the Palestinian terror offensive that followed their rejection of peace.

In the years since then, Malley has remained a virulent critic of Israel and an advocate for recognition and acceptance of the Hamas terrorists who rule Gaza as well as engagement with Iran and other rejectionist states.

All this should have been enough to keep him out of any administration that professed friendship for Israel. But by putting him in charge of relations with the Gulf states, President Obama is also demonstrating that he is determined to continue a policy of downgrading relations with traditional allies in favor of better relations with Iran and other radicals. As much as Israel has cause for concern about the headlong rush to embrace Iran, the Saudis have just as much reason to worry, especially because of the administration’s failure to act in Syria, where Iran’s ally Bashar Assad appears to be winning his war to hold on to power. The Saudis are right to dismiss the president’s attempts to reassure them on Iran. Now that he has appointed a longtime advocate of embracing America’s foes, it’s not likely they will feel any better about U.S. policy.

The return to a position of influence of an Arafat apologist like Malley is one more sign of just how far the president has strayed from his campaign pledges on the Middle East. The U.S. drift toward appeasement of radical Islamists is no longer a matter of speculation but a fact. Any constraints on administration policies based in concern about alienating America’s allies are now a thing of the past.

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What Al-Qaeda’s Departure Says About Iran

In the wake of 9/11, when it became clear that the United States would go after al-Qaeda without mercy, several senior al-Qaeda leaders accepted safe-haven in Iran, often staying under regime control in Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps bases, for example outside of the Caspian Sea town of Chalus. That Iran would cooperate with al-Qaeda is not news, at least not to anyone who read the 9/11 Commission Report. Al-Qaeda might be Sunni and the Islamic Republic Shi’ite, but sometimes hatred of the United States makes strange bedfellows. That Iran became a transit point for the 9/11 hijackers during the administration of Mohammad Khatami is an inconvenient fact that many forget, for it shows that Khatami was either not sincere in his “Dialogue of Civilizations” or simply did not have the policymaking power that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has. In either case, it raises questions about current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s sincerity or power.

At any rate, according to the Washington Post, senior al-Qaeda officials long sheltered by Iran are now leaving that country:

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, dozens of al-Qaeda fighters, including some senior personnel, fled to Iran. It has never been clear how much freedom of movement they enjoyed while in the country, but for some the welcome appears to be over. In the past two years, up to a dozen notable figures have left Iran, and two — Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, accused in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, and Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and former spokesman — have subsequently ended up in U.S. custody.

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In the wake of 9/11, when it became clear that the United States would go after al-Qaeda without mercy, several senior al-Qaeda leaders accepted safe-haven in Iran, often staying under regime control in Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps bases, for example outside of the Caspian Sea town of Chalus. That Iran would cooperate with al-Qaeda is not news, at least not to anyone who read the 9/11 Commission Report. Al-Qaeda might be Sunni and the Islamic Republic Shi’ite, but sometimes hatred of the United States makes strange bedfellows. That Iran became a transit point for the 9/11 hijackers during the administration of Mohammad Khatami is an inconvenient fact that many forget, for it shows that Khatami was either not sincere in his “Dialogue of Civilizations” or simply did not have the policymaking power that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has. In either case, it raises questions about current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s sincerity or power.

At any rate, according to the Washington Post, senior al-Qaeda officials long sheltered by Iran are now leaving that country:

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, dozens of al-Qaeda fighters, including some senior personnel, fled to Iran. It has never been clear how much freedom of movement they enjoyed while in the country, but for some the welcome appears to be over. In the past two years, up to a dozen notable figures have left Iran, and two — Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, accused in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, and Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and former spokesman — have subsequently ended up in U.S. custody.

What the Washington Post doesn’t mention is that it is no thanks to Iran (or Turkey, which refused to release Sulaiman Abu Ghaith to U.S. custody) that any al-Qaeda figures have ended up in U.S. custody. If Iran has really reformed and if it really is serious about coming in from the cold, perhaps it behooves the White House or the press corps to ask why Iranian authorities are not handing al-Qaeda figures over to the United States. Let us hope that the reason isn’t that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry haven’t simply neglected to ask for fear of what the answer might be. Regardless, Iran has every reason to hate al-Qaeda, all the more so since Tehran and al-Qaeda are on opposite sides of the Syria fight. That Iran would rather set al-Qaeda leadership free than allow them to face justice in the United States once again reinforces that there has been no significant change in the mindset of Iran’s leaders.

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Is Geneva the Ghost of Negotiations Future?

Though Secretary of State John Kerry probably won’t heed the warnings, the disastrous Syrian peace negotiations are providing the service of at least demonstrating where the West’s current style of negotiating with rogue regimes leads. The talks are falling apart, as the New York Times reports today. But the process by which they are doing so has been nonetheless illuminating.

The Syrian peace track took a turn in September after the Obama administration began making the case for striking targets in Syria aligned with Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime. Kerry was asked how strikes could be avoided, and, seemingly caught off-guard, said Assad “could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.”

Critics of the Syria deal initially said it would be used by Russia and Assad as a delaying tactic. The Obama administration didn’t much care, because the cause of getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons was deemed worth the time needed to accomplish it. But whatever the desirability of the goal here, the current form of the Syria peace process followed a familiar outline: it began with a delay considered reasonable, but soon expanded into various other demands to buy time. As the Times reports:

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Though Secretary of State John Kerry probably won’t heed the warnings, the disastrous Syrian peace negotiations are providing the service of at least demonstrating where the West’s current style of negotiating with rogue regimes leads. The talks are falling apart, as the New York Times reports today. But the process by which they are doing so has been nonetheless illuminating.

The Syrian peace track took a turn in September after the Obama administration began making the case for striking targets in Syria aligned with Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime. Kerry was asked how strikes could be avoided, and, seemingly caught off-guard, said Assad “could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.”

Critics of the Syria deal initially said it would be used by Russia and Assad as a delaying tactic. The Obama administration didn’t much care, because the cause of getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons was deemed worth the time needed to accomplish it. But whatever the desirability of the goal here, the current form of the Syria peace process followed a familiar outline: it began with a delay considered reasonable, but soon expanded into various other demands to buy time. As the Times reports:

Russian officials accused the Syrian opposition’s Western backers on Friday of focusing solely on “regime change” and said the government would discuss political transition only if its opponents agreed on a joint fight against terrorism.

The declarations — unlikely to produce compromise because the government tends to define all its armed opponents, including those backed by the opposition delegation here, as terrorists — added to the state of suspense at peace talks that so far have produced no progress. The negotiations this week were the second round, and there is now uncertainty over whether there will be a third.

The statements came a day after a meeting of Russian, American and United Nations officials failed to produce a consensus on how to unblock the talks and push the parties toward substantive negotiations.

Theoretically, the drive to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons does not have to be linked in any way with the Geneva talks. But it’s undeniable that the chemical-weapons deal has altered the landscape of this particular peace process. Assad is in a stronger position by having elevated his Russian backers in the conflict and by his required cooperation–and therefore, effectively, his regime’s protection–with the West.

He is also more able to make demands, because the threat of force against his regime has been taken off the table for now. The West would be conducting these negotiations with or without the chemical-weapons deal, but the chemical-weapons deal has removed the most effective enforcement mechanism. Assad can play for time, and in fact the Times report shows him to be no longer even feigning interest in the process:

Mr. Brahimi, they said, complained that the Syrian delegation had refused to even touch, let alone read, a 24-point plan presented by the opposition on Wednesday on how to structure a political transition for Syria. Instead, they said, the government delegates left the paper on the table and walked away.

The opposition delegates have agreed to a compromise agenda that would simultaneously address their top priority — the formation of a fully empowered transitional governing body “by mutual consent” — and that of the government, which is to end violence and terrorism in Syria.

But the government delegates have so far refused, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, on Friday seemed to back them up, declaring that the opposition and its backers appeared solely focused on deposing President Bashar al-Assad.

Just as the chemical-weapons deal and the transition negotiations became inextricably linked by the precedent one set for the other, so the Obama administration may find that the Syrian conflict is not taking place in a vacuum. Kerry has two other peace processes on his plate at the moment: the nuclear deal with Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Ostensibly, they are separate from each other and the Syrian track. But in practice it just isn’t the case. For example the Iranian government is involved, on some level or another, in all three. Syria is its patron and it is helping to prosecute the war by proxy. And its relationship with Palestinian terror groups enables it to cause trouble there as well.

Additionally, they are watching in Geneva just how far delaying tactics can be taken. Already there has been talk of extending the deadlines for both the Iran talks and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Ideally, Kerry would understand that Syria just may be the ghost of negotiations future. He seems determined, however, to find that out for himself the hard way.

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Iranian Economy Bouncing Back

When he met with French President Francois Hollande, President Obama threatened to come down “like a ton of bricks” on companies that violate sanctions against Iran. Just how hollow those words are is clear from this IMF report today on the bounceback the Iranian economy has experienced since Obama reached an “interim” deal with the mullahs to lift some sanctions in return for a slowdown in the Iranian nuclear program.

The Wall Street Journal reports that “the fund said it expects the economy to grow by 1% to 2% this year after contracting by a similar amounts over the past two years.”

Not only is growth up, but inflation is down:

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When he met with French President Francois Hollande, President Obama threatened to come down “like a ton of bricks” on companies that violate sanctions against Iran. Just how hollow those words are is clear from this IMF report today on the bounceback the Iranian economy has experienced since Obama reached an “interim” deal with the mullahs to lift some sanctions in return for a slowdown in the Iranian nuclear program.

The Wall Street Journal reports that “the fund said it expects the economy to grow by 1% to 2% this year after contracting by a similar amounts over the past two years.”

Not only is growth up, but inflation is down:

By the end of 2012, the value of the rial plunged, stoked hyperinflation that topped 45% last July. The contracting economy ratcheted up pressure on Tehran, playing a role in Hasan Rouhani’s election as president last year.

But after the interim deal in November, the fund said inflation pressures eased as the rial stabilized. The fund said the inflation rate could fall to 20% by March.

And that’s only the beginning. The interim deal is still brand new. The longer it lasts, the more foreign companies will rush into Iran (such as the delegation of French business leaders who already arrived), the more relief the Iranian economy will experience–and the less pressure the mullahs will feel to actually give up their nuclear program.

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Press Freedom Index Dose of Reality

Reporters Without Borders today released its newest press freedom index. While its website is still a bit quirky—they must have modeled themselves after Healthcare.gov—and so it’s difficult to get the simple list of rankings, there are some notable findings.

First, despite all the hope for change, a dispassionate look at the Iranian press found that there had been no change in Iranian press freedom under new president Hassan Rouhani. Iran still remains in the basement; journalists are still imprisoned or killed; and there is no right to free speech.

Turkey, whose leader President Barack Obama has described as one of his most-trusted foreign friends, remains an embarrassment, ranking 154th in terms of press freedom. That puts Turkey behind Afghanistan, Iraq, and Russia, and on par with Belarus. Frank Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador in Ankara, continues to support Turkey’s European Union membership. Then again, Ricciardone once suggested Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was so popular, he could win elections in the United States and, according to declassified documents, Ricciardone once led the drive to normalize relations with that noted moderate and reformer, Saddam Hussein, so perhaps his cheerleading for dictators should be taken with a grain of salt.

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Reporters Without Borders today released its newest press freedom index. While its website is still a bit quirky—they must have modeled themselves after Healthcare.gov—and so it’s difficult to get the simple list of rankings, there are some notable findings.

First, despite all the hope for change, a dispassionate look at the Iranian press found that there had been no change in Iranian press freedom under new president Hassan Rouhani. Iran still remains in the basement; journalists are still imprisoned or killed; and there is no right to free speech.

Turkey, whose leader President Barack Obama has described as one of his most-trusted foreign friends, remains an embarrassment, ranking 154th in terms of press freedom. That puts Turkey behind Afghanistan, Iraq, and Russia, and on par with Belarus. Frank Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador in Ankara, continues to support Turkey’s European Union membership. Then again, Ricciardone once suggested Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was so popular, he could win elections in the United States and, according to declassified documents, Ricciardone once led the drive to normalize relations with that noted moderate and reformer, Saddam Hussein, so perhaps his cheerleading for dictators should be taken with a grain of salt.

Israel shot up in the rankings, after Reporters Without Borders penalized it last year for killing two Hamas operatives who were moonlighting as reporters. The NGO knocked several points off both the United States and the United Kingdom for their prosecution of whistle blowers, though there is a difference between prosecuting government officials who violated their oath to protect the secrecy of material versus targeting journalists who were simply doing their job. (Granted, the United States did a little of both.) Eritrea remained in the basement, behind even North Korea, which seems curious at best.

What does make interesting reading is to go down the list and compare the press freedom rankings of those countries the Obama administration coddles versus those countries Secretary of State John Kerry and Obama criticize; for example, juxtaposing China and Taiwan, or Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Here, it seems that the key to gaining praise from the White House is to imprison journalists, while granting citizens freedom and liberty seems a sure-fire means to find yourself in the White House’s diplomatic cross hairs. Perhaps the press freedom rankings can be a wakeup call to Obama and Kerry about how they judge and treat allies.

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Libya’s Lesson for Syria

Sometimes small news stories come and go without their full significance being grasped. So it was with this February 2 report in the New York Times about Libya completing the destruction of its chemical weapons. This was a process that began all the way back in 2004–i.e., a full decade ago–under Muammar Gaddafi.

The destruction of Libya’s chemical weapons was such a lengthy process that it had not been completed by the time that Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011–in fact only half of Gaddafi’s arsenal had been destroyed–and the process has only now concluded under a pro-Western government.

What was really striking in this news article, however, was buried near the end:

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Sometimes small news stories come and go without their full significance being grasped. So it was with this February 2 report in the New York Times about Libya completing the destruction of its chemical weapons. This was a process that began all the way back in 2004–i.e., a full decade ago–under Muammar Gaddafi.

The destruction of Libya’s chemical weapons was such a lengthy process that it had not been completed by the time that Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011–in fact only half of Gaddafi’s arsenal had been destroyed–and the process has only now concluded under a pro-Western government.

What was really striking in this news article, however, was buried near the end:

Libyan officials also surprised Western inspectors by announcing the discovery in November 2011 and February 2012 of two hidden caches of mustard, or nearly two tons, that had not been declared by Colonel Qaddafi’s government. That brought the total declared amount of chemical to 26.3 tons.

Unlike the majority of Libya’s mustard agents, which were stored in large, bulky containers, the new caches were already armed and loaded into 517 artillery shells, 45 plastic sleeves for rocket launchings and eight 500-pound bombs.

Thankfully those final two tons of chemical weapons, already armed and ready for use, have been eradicated–but only, one assumes, because of a change of regime in Tripoli. Does anyone think that Gaddafi would have voluntarily turned over the remnants of his stockpile if he were still alive and in office? And how confident can anyone be that Western intelligence agencies would have found these hidden weapons on their own?

The answer says much about how much faith you have in arms-control agreements that have recently been negotiated with Syria and Iran–in the former case, to eradicate its chemical weapons, in the latter case to slow down its nuclear program. Already Syria has missed agreed-upon deadlines and has gotten rid of only 4 percent of its arsenal. Iranian compliance or noncompliance is hard to judge, but the example of Libya should be a cautionary tale about the danger of doing deals with dictators.

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Washington’s Strange Silence on Iran

If you only got your news by following the statements put out by the Obama administration, you would currently be blithely unaware of the disturbing moves taken by Iran in recent days. That is because it would appear that the latest strategy of the Obama administration is to simply ignore those statements coming from the Iranians that they don’t wish to hear. Nuclear centrifuges can spin, ballistic missiles can be tested, bellicose speeches can be delivered by the Islamic Republic’s most senior figures–but if no one in the White House chooses to hear it, does it really make a sound? 

In the lead-up to Tehran’s no doubt charming celebrations marking the 35th anniversary of the country’s violent Islamic revolution, the regime’s warlike moves have been going into overdrive. As part of the festivities Iranian state television has aired simulated footage of its military bombarding Israel’s cities and attacking an American aircraft carrier. Senior military figures have spoken of dispatching warships to the North Atlantic and of their ability to strike the U.S. military. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has taunted America, expressing his amusement at the naivete of Americans for believing Iran would actually scale down its military. Indeed, they haven’t and Iran’s Defense Ministry has been celebrating the testing of new long-range ballistic missiles and laser guided surface-to-surface and air-to-surface missiles.

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If you only got your news by following the statements put out by the Obama administration, you would currently be blithely unaware of the disturbing moves taken by Iran in recent days. That is because it would appear that the latest strategy of the Obama administration is to simply ignore those statements coming from the Iranians that they don’t wish to hear. Nuclear centrifuges can spin, ballistic missiles can be tested, bellicose speeches can be delivered by the Islamic Republic’s most senior figures–but if no one in the White House chooses to hear it, does it really make a sound? 

In the lead-up to Tehran’s no doubt charming celebrations marking the 35th anniversary of the country’s violent Islamic revolution, the regime’s warlike moves have been going into overdrive. As part of the festivities Iranian state television has aired simulated footage of its military bombarding Israel’s cities and attacking an American aircraft carrier. Senior military figures have spoken of dispatching warships to the North Atlantic and of their ability to strike the U.S. military. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has taunted America, expressing his amusement at the naivete of Americans for believing Iran would actually scale down its military. Indeed, they haven’t and Iran’s Defense Ministry has been celebrating the testing of new long-range ballistic missiles and laser guided surface-to-surface and air-to-surface missiles.

And while Obama may have used his State of the Union address to showcase his achievements in holding back the Iranian nuclear program, yesterday Iran’s nuclear experts announced the unveiling of a new generation of centrifuges 15 times more powerful than the ones they currently have. This will allow them to resume uranium enrichment at 60 percent, somewhat higher than the less than 5 percent permitted under the U.S. brokered interim agreement.

How many emergency statements has the administration made in the face of these threats? How many press conferences called regarding Iran’s moves to breach the interim agreement? Cue tumbleweed. With the exception of some quotes that CNN managed to extract from the Pentagon, in which officials noted they were monitoring the ballistic missile tests and denied that there was evidence warships had been sailed into the North Atlantic, we have heard nothing from the U.S. government. Seemingly these matters are of little concern to the administration. On the one hand perhaps this speaks of a certain fatigue among the press who have grown tired of pursuing this matter in State Department press briefings. Yet it is also noteworthy that the administration has offered no statements of its own on these developments.

Given that National Security Advisor Susan Rice has a tendency to take to Twitter to slam Israeli ministers for unkind words about Secretary Kerry, one would have thought that she would also have no qualms about treating the Iranians to some of the same. Yet apparently the testing of ballistic missiles, Iran’s head of state calling the U.S. government liars, or the threat to sail warships up to American waters is of little interest to anyone in Washington.

But then, it is probably hardly surprising that the Obama administration isn’t exactly eager to highlight the fact that its Iran policy lies in tatters. The administration is in no rush to draw attention to the matter of Iran’s new centrifuges and thus confirm that the interim agreement they staked everything on was in fact never fit for purpose in the first place. Perhaps they are hoping that if they don’t make too much fuss about any of this then no one will notice. Or is the strategy now simply to ignore the Iranians and eventually they’ll shut up and go away? They won’t, of course. 

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Iranian Poet Hanged

Iranian authorities have reportedly hanged Hashem Shaabani, a poet which the regime has accused of being “an enemy of God.” His execution should do more than anything else to provide an opportunity for Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Ambassador Samantha Power to embrace moral clarity, for it does more than anything to show the undeniable cruelty of the Islamic Republic and its murderous ideology.

There is a tendency in the State Department—the administration does not matter—to repress discussion of human rights out of fear that to discuss them will risk progress on harder national-security issues like the nuclear deal or terrorism. This is a mistake: If the Iranian commitment to come in from the cold is so shaky that it can’t deal with rightful criticism of its treatment of political prisoners and internal dissidents, then the deal is so fragile as to be not worth relying upon.

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Iranian authorities have reportedly hanged Hashem Shaabani, a poet which the regime has accused of being “an enemy of God.” His execution should do more than anything else to provide an opportunity for Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Ambassador Samantha Power to embrace moral clarity, for it does more than anything to show the undeniable cruelty of the Islamic Republic and its murderous ideology.

There is a tendency in the State Department—the administration does not matter—to repress discussion of human rights out of fear that to discuss them will risk progress on harder national-security issues like the nuclear deal or terrorism. This is a mistake: If the Iranian commitment to come in from the cold is so shaky that it can’t deal with rightful criticism of its treatment of political prisoners and internal dissidents, then the deal is so fragile as to be not worth relying upon.

At the same time, the incident reminds how insincere European leaders and diplomats are when they promise critical engagement. It has now been 21 years since German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel unveiled Germany’s “critical engagement.” The idea was to talk with the Iranians, but put critical issues such as human rights at the center of dialogue. However, once European diplomats sit down at the table—and Kerry models himself after his European counterparts—the ‘critical’ aspect of the dialogue goes out the window. Make no mistake, Tehran, Damascus, and other rogue states know this. They understand that they can break their isolation, revive their economy, and not only continue business as usual, but actually augment internal terror because American and European officials will be so scared of insulting their partners, that they will simply accept whatever outrage rogue regimes dish up.

Shaabani is the latest victim of this pattern. Unless Kerry and his European counterparts are willing to speak up forcefully and demand such outrages cease, Shaabani will not be the last victim. If Kerry is convinced that Iran really is changing, he should not be afraid to stand on principle. If the character of the regime hasn’t changed, the United States should place no faith it Iran’s commitment to abide by its nuclear deal.

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A Good Time for that “Pacific Pivot”

I was struck by Michael Auslin’s item regarding the possibility of war breaking out between China and Japan–something that has been much discussed in recent weeks and that is no longer so unthinkable with nationalist politicians in power in both Beijing and Tokyo. Japan’s prime minister has compared the current situation to 1914 with Japan in the role of Britain and China that of Wilhelmine Germany. The president of the Philippines has cited a historical comparison of his own–to the 1930s with China in the role of Nazi Germany and his own country cast as Czechoslovakia, ripe for dismemberment.

Whatever one thinks of these historical analogies, there is no doubt that China is going on the offensive, using aggressive nationalism as a ruling ideology to replace defunct Communist dogma, and Japan is less and less inclined to be pushed around by its bigger neighbor: a potentially explosive combination.

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I was struck by Michael Auslin’s item regarding the possibility of war breaking out between China and Japan–something that has been much discussed in recent weeks and that is no longer so unthinkable with nationalist politicians in power in both Beijing and Tokyo. Japan’s prime minister has compared the current situation to 1914 with Japan in the role of Britain and China that of Wilhelmine Germany. The president of the Philippines has cited a historical comparison of his own–to the 1930s with China in the role of Nazi Germany and his own country cast as Czechoslovakia, ripe for dismemberment.

Whatever one thinks of these historical analogies, there is no doubt that China is going on the offensive, using aggressive nationalism as a ruling ideology to replace defunct Communist dogma, and Japan is less and less inclined to be pushed around by its bigger neighbor: a potentially explosive combination.

And yet where does Secretary of State John Kerry choose to devote his time? He has made clear that his primary objective is to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace, which seems to be as unlikely as ever. His secondary objectives seem to be focused on Iran and Syria, both important areas to be sure. But the Syria conflict, for one, does not appear to be amenable to diplomatic solution, as the failure of Geneva II should have made clear. The prospects are, admittedly, more promising in the case of Iran but only if the U.S. is willing to accept a lopsided deal that lifts a significant amount of the sanctions in return for a commitment to slow but not stop, much less dismantle, its nuclear program.

This leads one to wonder why Kerry isn’t devoting more time to Asian diplomacy? The explosive situation between China and Japan is hardly the only area of tension that cries out for amelioration. As the comments from Benigno Aquino of the Philippines quoted above make clear, China has dangerous relations with many of its neighbors who are offended by its expansive territorial claims.

Two U.S. allies–South Korea and Japan–also have poisonous relations that hinder efforts to contain both China and North Korea and could also be the subject of productive bridge-building work by an American secretary of state.

Finally, India remains a wild card in all of this–a major country on the other side of China that could be of crucial importance in containing the rise of Chinese power, playing the same role that Russia played in containing Germany in the two world wars. President George W. Bush made real progress in improving U.S.-India ties but more needs to be done, not only to bring the U.S. and India closer together but also to improve ties between India and other U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific region, from Australia to Japan.

There is, in short, ample work to be done here by a leading American diplomat and more potential for progress than in the Middle East. Yet Kerry is largely MIA in this crucial region. Whatever happened to the “Pacific pivot”?

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Iranian Rhetoric Isn’t Just Bluster

The Iranian Navy’s dispatch of ships into the Atlantic surprised both American journalists and diplomats. It should not have, for Iranian officials have long telegraphed their desire to expand Iran’s naval outreach. Back in 2011, Habibollah Sayyari, commander of the Iranian Navy, declared it to be Iran’s intention to establish a presence in the Atlantic Ocean near the territorial waters of the United States.

When it comes to the Obama administration’s current diplomacy with Tehran, it is important to focus more on Iranian actions than the promises of its diplomats. When it comes to the supreme leader, the Iranian military, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, however, rhetoric is important because, all too often, they have shown their determination to put into action plans announced regarding future developments of the Iranian military and Iranian power projection. Official statements, for example, about talk of launching aircraft carriers might seem silly and unrealistic, but that depends on the meaning of aircraft carrier: Shortly thereafter, the U.S. navy began seeing Iranian boats launching Iran’s indigenous drones.

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The Iranian Navy’s dispatch of ships into the Atlantic surprised both American journalists and diplomats. It should not have, for Iranian officials have long telegraphed their desire to expand Iran’s naval outreach. Back in 2011, Habibollah Sayyari, commander of the Iranian Navy, declared it to be Iran’s intention to establish a presence in the Atlantic Ocean near the territorial waters of the United States.

When it comes to the Obama administration’s current diplomacy with Tehran, it is important to focus more on Iranian actions than the promises of its diplomats. When it comes to the supreme leader, the Iranian military, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, however, rhetoric is important because, all too often, they have shown their determination to put into action plans announced regarding future developments of the Iranian military and Iranian power projection. Official statements, for example, about talk of launching aircraft carriers might seem silly and unrealistic, but that depends on the meaning of aircraft carrier: Shortly thereafter, the U.S. navy began seeing Iranian boats launching Iran’s indigenous drones.

Likewise, Iranian authorities have pursued intercontinental ballistic missile capability through their satellite launching program. Given the fact that Iranian authorities at least try to fulfill their military rhetoric, the number of Iranian officials who have spoken about the need to achieve a nuclear-weapons capability if not nuclear weapons themselves should concern the White House. Alas, it seems that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s desire for a deal has trumped the caution which normally accompanies such high-profile outreach.

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Obama’s Precarious Iran Policy

As American peace efforts toward Iran have meandered along, Western diplomats have been eagerly pointing to the moderate and supposedly promising statements coming from Iranian president Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif. Amidst the Geneva negotiations between the Iranians and the P5+1 nations, not only has the Obama administration been backing away from using force to halt Iran’s nuclear program, but the president has spoken firmly about his will to stop Congress from implementing further sanctions against Iran. Yet, just as Obama’s clamor for peace with Iran is becoming most frantic, Iran is once again giving every indication that it is clamoring for war.

Writing at Mosaic, Michael Doran, a former security advisor in the Bush administration, makes the case that President Obama is essentially so allergic to the prospect of intervention in the Middle East that it may well have always been his strategy to acquiesce in the face of the Iranian bomb. Doran’s case is as disturbing as it is compelling, for as he points out, if containment rather than prevention had been Obama’s strategy from the outset then he hardly could have expressed this openly. Rather, he would have been at least compelled to publicly adopt the appearance of staunch opposition to a nuclear Iran. Yet, consistently, both in the case of Iran and Syria, Obama has expressed tough words, backed up by the kind of inaction that gives every reason to doubt the sincerity with which those words were offered.

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As American peace efforts toward Iran have meandered along, Western diplomats have been eagerly pointing to the moderate and supposedly promising statements coming from Iranian president Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif. Amidst the Geneva negotiations between the Iranians and the P5+1 nations, not only has the Obama administration been backing away from using force to halt Iran’s nuclear program, but the president has spoken firmly about his will to stop Congress from implementing further sanctions against Iran. Yet, just as Obama’s clamor for peace with Iran is becoming most frantic, Iran is once again giving every indication that it is clamoring for war.

Writing at Mosaic, Michael Doran, a former security advisor in the Bush administration, makes the case that President Obama is essentially so allergic to the prospect of intervention in the Middle East that it may well have always been his strategy to acquiesce in the face of the Iranian bomb. Doran’s case is as disturbing as it is compelling, for as he points out, if containment rather than prevention had been Obama’s strategy from the outset then he hardly could have expressed this openly. Rather, he would have been at least compelled to publicly adopt the appearance of staunch opposition to a nuclear Iran. Yet, consistently, both in the case of Iran and Syria, Obama has expressed tough words, backed up by the kind of inaction that gives every reason to doubt the sincerity with which those words were offered.

One might have thought that the Iranians would have seized the opportunity that Obama was presenting them with–to pay lip service to reciprocating his own platitudes for peace, and in return they could rest assured that America would never get serious about intervention. Iran’s previous president, Ahmadinejad, never quite caught on and a series of crippling sanctions were the result of his fierce rhetoric and his refusal to even feign cooperation. It seemed that Rouhani was different in this respect and that he had learned that mild words could easily purchase sanctions relief and enthusiastic engagement from Western governments eager to renew trade relations.

It is, then, a sign of just how unpredictable Iran can be that over the last few days Iran has abruptly resumed the rhetoric of war. On Friday, as has now been widely publicized, Iranian state television ran a documentary featuring simulated footage of an Iranian bombardment of Israel’s cities as well as an air strike on a U.S. naval carrier. This appears to have been coordinated with a series of aggressive statements made by the regime over the weekend. These included an Iranian admiral announcing that Iran has dispatched warships to the north Atlantic, while both Iran’s defense minister and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ naval commander spoke of Iran’s ability to strike American forces. And perhaps most significantly of all, the nation’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei accused the Americans of being liars in their peace efforts with Iran. Khamenei also spoke mockingly of how he found it “amusing” that the U.S. thought Iran would reduce its military capabilities.

As Doran points out, the so called interim agreement between Iran and the West is designed in such a way so that negotiations can in fact run on indefinitely without reaching the end goal of forcing Iran to relinquish its nuclear capabilities. It is in Iran’s interest to try and keep this interim period open for as long as possible. The next round of talks are due to commence on February 18 and to run for five months. Iran may have decided that with part of the sanctions already lifted, it would be advantageous to delay the start of these negotiations by causing a minor diplomatic crisis. By pursuing a stop-start strategy on these talks, Iran can drag out the period in which it is still permitted to enrich, while sanctions have been scaled down and the threat of further sanctions are being held off, giving it time to cross the threshold of full weapons capabilities.

As the recent statements from the Iranian leaders demonstrate, the Obama administration can talk peace all it likes; the Iranians, however, may still have no interest in reciprocation. What they know full well is that by even threatening war, with a White House that is clearly intimidated by the prospect of military intervention, Tehran can keep America running scared. 

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Regional Reverberations of a Bad Iran Deal

In 1971, as Britain prepared to grant the United Arab Emirates its independence and as British forces withdrew from the Greater and Lesser Tonb Islands and Abu Musa, Iranian forces swooped in and seized the islands. While legally the islands belong to the United Arab Emirates, the United States turned a blind eye and, as per the Nixon Doctrine of embracing pivotal states, may actually have encouraged Iran, the pillar of American policy in the region at the time. (An alternate academic argument sympathetic to Iranian sovereignty can be found here.)

What once may have seemed as a stabilizing influence turned disastrous for the United States after the Islamic Revolution in Iran because of the strategic location of the islands in the Persian Gulf, and how the extension of Iranian territorial waters impacts maritime traffic.

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In 1971, as Britain prepared to grant the United Arab Emirates its independence and as British forces withdrew from the Greater and Lesser Tonb Islands and Abu Musa, Iranian forces swooped in and seized the islands. While legally the islands belong to the United Arab Emirates, the United States turned a blind eye and, as per the Nixon Doctrine of embracing pivotal states, may actually have encouraged Iran, the pillar of American policy in the region at the time. (An alternate academic argument sympathetic to Iranian sovereignty can be found here.)

What once may have seemed as a stabilizing influence turned disastrous for the United States after the Islamic Revolution in Iran because of the strategic location of the islands in the Persian Gulf, and how the extension of Iranian territorial waters impacts maritime traffic.

I am currently in the Persian Gulf and have spent the last week in various countries and have been fortunate to have a number of very senior meetings with diplomatic and security officials. Attitudes and concerns of course differ between countries, but there have been a few consistencies: First, a sense that the United States is being outplayed by Iran; second, a belief that the nuclear deal being negotiated will not resolve the Iranian nuclear impasse because of the loopholes which American negotiators have allowed and so will simply legalize it; and third, real anger that the United States did not consult its allies and instead seems prepared to throw them under the bus. On this third point, the argument is not against diplomacy, but rather how the Obama administration conducts it without a sense of the region’s history, its allies’ interests, and its allies’ experience.

Because American allies remain effectively in the dark, they feel they must make accommodation with Iran in order to prepare for a post-American order. The Iranians believe they are winning, and they are eager to extract the concessions they believe their strengthened hand deserves.

Enter the disputed islands. The Iranians have been negotiating with the Emiratis for the return of the islands to UAE sovereignty. Sounds good on the surface, but the coming deal is disastrous. While Iran might evacuate the islands—not a huge deal since their population consists only of small Iranian garrisons—the Iranians would win claim to their waters, and so would maintain their military exclusion zone. In addition, the Iranians would win a facility on Oman’s Musandam Peninsula, on the other side of Iran from the strategic Strait of Hormuz. According to ArabianBusiness.com:

“Iran will retain the sea bed rights around the three islands while the UAE will hold sovereignty over the land,” they continued. “Oman will grant Iran a strategic location on Ras Musandam mountain, which is a very strategic point overlooking the whole Gulf region. “In return for Ras Musandam, Oman will receive free gas and oil from Iran once a pipeline is constructed within the coming two years,” the source added.

Perhaps the United States believes, here too, that reaching a deal trumps the substance of a deal. But any Iranian presence on Musandam should be a non-starter: It doesn’t matter what the safeguards in the deal are: possession is everything. Sultan Qaboos, the leader of Oman, is progressive and pro-Western, but he is also is aging, has no children, and so no apparent heir. When he passes away, Tehran will not only work to influence his succession, but can simply create a fait accompli while any new leader consolidates control. UAE officials, however, feel that with the United States weak and Iran strong, this is the best for which they can hope. That is the tragedy of the situation.

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The UK’s Pro-Iran Lobby

At a recent meeting of the British Parliament’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Iran, a strange tone dominated proceedings. Not only was the atmosphere unmistakably leaning toward an attitude favorable to Iran, but there were open expressions of anti-American and anti-Israel views from the parliamentarians. Some of the members seemed so pro-Iranian that they even made sure to take a good swipe at Saudi Arabia, Iran’s primary rival in the Islamic world. Nor were these expressions coming from fringe members of the House, but from Conservative and Labour politicians who have held some of the highest offices in the land.

Leading the way throughout the proceedings was former foreign secretary Jack Straw. Straw, who has inexplicably become one of the Islamic Republic’s staunchest defenders in recent years, could barely contain his enthusiasm for the country. Whereas he took the opportunity to lambast the pro-Israel lobby in America, Straw spoke warmly of “the big and vibrant Iranian diaspora in the United States.” Like some sort of travel agent he also reflected whimsically on his trips to Iran, insisting “people thought I was going to the Moon or something. It was absolutely amazing. In fact Tehran feels like Madrid or Athens rather than Cairo or Mumbai.” Straw is right, Tehran is nothing like Cairo or Mumbai; in those cities one doesn’t find people being publicly executed on charges of drug dealing and homosexuality. As for Athens and Madrid, Straw must have caught them on an off day.

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At a recent meeting of the British Parliament’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Iran, a strange tone dominated proceedings. Not only was the atmosphere unmistakably leaning toward an attitude favorable to Iran, but there were open expressions of anti-American and anti-Israel views from the parliamentarians. Some of the members seemed so pro-Iranian that they even made sure to take a good swipe at Saudi Arabia, Iran’s primary rival in the Islamic world. Nor were these expressions coming from fringe members of the House, but from Conservative and Labour politicians who have held some of the highest offices in the land.

Leading the way throughout the proceedings was former foreign secretary Jack Straw. Straw, who has inexplicably become one of the Islamic Republic’s staunchest defenders in recent years, could barely contain his enthusiasm for the country. Whereas he took the opportunity to lambast the pro-Israel lobby in America, Straw spoke warmly of “the big and vibrant Iranian diaspora in the United States.” Like some sort of travel agent he also reflected whimsically on his trips to Iran, insisting “people thought I was going to the Moon or something. It was absolutely amazing. In fact Tehran feels like Madrid or Athens rather than Cairo or Mumbai.” Straw is right, Tehran is nothing like Cairo or Mumbai; in those cities one doesn’t find people being publicly executed on charges of drug dealing and homosexuality. As for Athens and Madrid, Straw must have caught them on an off day.

He took quite a different attitude to the U.S. however. Straw claimed that “neocons in the Bush Administration” had derailed his efforts to broker a nuclear deal with Iran and pursued a policy that got Ahmadinejad elected as Iranian president: “they begat the Ahmadinejad regime.” But elsewhere Straw has also claimed that the same neocons in the Bush administration essentially had him fired as foreign secretary. Their channels of influence were beyond parallel it seems.

Where Straw really surpassed himself was when he treated the parliamentary committee to a diatribe about the influence of Israel and the “axis” of the Israel lobby, before indulging in some pop-psychiatry about the driving force behind American foreign policy:

What worries me, at the same time, is that there is an agenda by the right-wing in Israel, typified by Netanyahu and those to the right of him in the very fractious coalition he leads, and those in the United States, with the axis being the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It suits them to demonise Iran. I think that for a long time there has been a pervasive vulgarity to part of the narrative of American foreign policy. It requires there to be a demon. For a long time, the obvious demon was the Soviet Union, and that suited everybody. That collapsed and we have moved on to other demons. They need a demon. It is not about foreign policy analysis; they have a psycho-political need. Iran is that demon. The parody of Iran that comes across the Atlantic is extraordinary in my view.

These remarks are reminiscent of those that former Israeli MK Einat Wilf reported from Straw when she told of how, during one meeting, Straw had spoken of how “unlimited funds available to Jewish organizations and AIPAC in the U.S. are used to control and divert American policy in the region and that Germany’s obsession with defending Israel were the problem.” Indeed, with these comments and the others mentioned here, Straw not only advocates for Iran, he even appears to be parroting Iranian conspiracies. Last year Straw penned a piece in the Times of London titled “Israel must learn that cruelty does not pay,” which is presumably what attracts Straw to the mullahs and their anti-cruelty regime in Iran.

This effort to explicitly demonstrate how much more virtuous than Israel the Iranians are seems to be a favorite of Straw’s. Apparently forgetting that Iran is a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or ignoring the vast body of intelligence that exists to indicate that Iran is in breach of that treaty, Straw said:

You can make that case against any international partner at all—you can easily make it against Israel, let me say, who signs up to all sorts of things and then doesn’t do them—but on the whole, the history of Iran is that where they sign up to texts, they implement them.

What the proceedings of this committee demonstrated, however, is that Straw’s views are not simply those of someone going head-to-head with Jimmy Carter to be known as the leading out-of-office crank. For also during the hearing, Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn expressed his view that “the UK Government are right to develop relations with Iran; there is no question about that” and warned against what he described as the “rightwing” view in America that aims to isolate Iran. Corbyn spoke, almost hopefully, of how “there might be an interesting parting of the ways between the USA and western Europe somewhere down the line.”

Also adding to the chorus of Iranian sympathizes was former-Chancellor Norman Lamont, who claimed that Saudi Arabia and Israel had distorted Iranian president Rouhani’s words against him. Lamont added “I think both Saudi Arabia and Israel, and it is convenient for them, want to keep Iran as a country that is beyond the pale. They would face a challenge if there was any normalization of relations and then there would be another power in the area with some influence on the West.”  

British politicians, in their readiness to embrace Iran, seem to be forgetting the many British servicemen killed by Iranian-made IEDs, the British naval personnel kidnapped in 2007, or the storming of the British embassy in Tehran in 2011.   

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