As Michael Rubin noted yesterday, the unrest in Iran yesterday shows that the people of that country are not so foolish as to believe their troubles are the result of anything but the Islamist regime’s economic mismanagement. The turmoil in Tehran reinforces their dissatisfaction with Iran’s plight under the rule of the mullahs and front men like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the latest clashes in Tehran as security forces sought to break up black market moneychangers must also not be interpreted as a sign that the fall of the regime is imminent.
Sanctions have caused a good deal of pain for the Iranian people, but as was demonstrated clearly in 2009, the Islamist government has no compunction about the use of force to protect their survival. This is a lesson that those who have been predicting the collapse of the government in Syria haven’t learned despite the demonstrated resiliency of that Iranian ally over the last year and a half. But while it is principally the Syrian people who have suffered because of the false Western belief that Bashar Assad would quickly fall without any help from the outside world, Western complacency about the future of Iran will have terrible consequences for the entire region as well as the security of the rest of the world.
On the same day that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the General Assembly of the United Nations that time was running out to stop Iran’s nuclear program, a leaked report from Israel’s Foreign Ministry is being interpreted in some quarters as contradicting his stand. The report, first published in Haaretz and then recycled in the New York Times, is supposed to say that existing sanctions on Iran have caused a great deal of damage to the country. Combined with the fact that Israel’s diplomats have been campaigning for increasing the sanctions, some are concluding that not only does the document undermine Netanyahu’s warnings but that, contrary to what the prime minister and other Israelis have been saying, it is reasonable to believe that sanctions combined with diplomacy can solve the problem.
But the problem with such a conclusion is that, as even Haaretz notes, even if ordinary Iranians are feeling the economic pain brought on by sanctions, there is no evidence that the resolve of Iran’s leadership to push on with their nuclear project has been altered. Even more to the point, there is no contradiction between Netanyahu’s statements and a desire for increased sanctions. Indeed, his call for Western “red lines” — a point now made famous by his use of an illustration of a cartoon bomb across which he drew a “red line” — only makes sense if the West is ratcheting up sanctions and enforcing them.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations today centered on trying to convince the world that a red line needs to be drawn to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. To do that he literally drew a red line on a cartoon picture of a bomb. To the chattering classes following the speech on Twitter, this was a joke. But the reaction to the simplistic bomb diagram illustrated Netanyahu’s problem perfectly. Iran is getting closer every day to achieving its nuclear ambition. In response, world leaders, like President Obama, talk about the need to stop Tehran and even pledge not to contemplate containment of a nuclear Iran. But unless they make it as clear as that red marker line on the diagram, they will fail.
That is the key issue. Netanyahu thanked President Obama for his promises on Iran, but pointed out that without a red line that will make it clear that Iran will not be allowed to accumulate enough uranium to build a bomb, such pledges are meaningless. The Israeli’s frustration stems from the fact that an international consensus about an Iranian bomb being a bad thing won’t stop it from happening. The complacent attitude that always thinks failed diplomacy and ineffective sanctions can be given more time is a guarantee of such failure.
President Obama will speak to the United Nations today, and excerpts from his text that have already been released contain his pledge that he will not seek to contain a nuclear Iran and that “the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” That is a vow that we must all earnestly hope that he will keep if he is re-elected. But as welcome as this renewal of his past pledges on Iran may be, it does leave open the question of how he plans to implement it and whether his judgment about the subject is any less clouded than it has been throughout his four years in office. After all, the president has been saying that an Iranian nuke is unacceptable since he was in the Senate, but his record of achievement on the issue is worse than negligible.
It’s important to remember the dichotomy between the president’s words and his actions on Iran not just because the UN speech, like much of what he has said on the subject, seems aimed more at American voters than at Tehran. The Washington Post devoted considerable space yesterday to an article devoted to spinning his record on Iran as mixed. He was given credit for organizing an “unprecedented” international coalition to support sanctions on Iran, but even the Post had to concede that the sanctions haven’t worked and there is no prospect of them ever succeeding in forcing the Iranians to surrender their nuclear ambitions. Most damning of all is the fact that, as the Post put it, “Iran’s rate of production of enriched uranium has nearly tripled since Obama took office.” Years of talking about engagement and diplomacy followed by belated and loosely enforced sanctions have convinced the Iranians that Obama isn’t serious no matter what he says today at the UN. But the question is not only whether the ayatollahs should take his warnings at face value, but also why anyone else should.
Yesterday, we discussed the latest attempt by the West to entice Iran to resume negotiations over the future of their nuclear program. Those talks, being conducted by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the head of the P5+1 group that includes the United States, were described as “useful and constructive” and were thought to be the prelude to further efforts to break the impasse over Tehran’s push for nuclear weapons later this month in New York, when the United Nations General Assembly convenes. But the same day that Lady Ashton was breaking bread with a representative of the Islamist regime in Istanbul, the head of Iran’s nuclear project was quoted in the London daily Al Hayat as confessing, or should we say bragging, that his country has repeatedly lied to the West in past exchanges about the subject.
As Haaretz reports, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran told Al Hayat that the regime had provided false information to the International Atomic Energy Agency in order to protect their “nuclear facilities and achievements.”
“Sometimes we provided false information since there was no other choice but to mislead other intelligence agencies; sometimes we made ourselves appear weak and at other times we reported issues that made us appear strongly than we really were, he said, adding: “Ultimately it became exposed when inspectors directly asked us about these issues.”
He said such deceptions were necessary in order to prevent the IAEA’s investigation from aiding efforts to isolate and sanction Iran. These motivations are quite obvious and even understandable. The Iranians know the world is on to their plans for nuclear weapons and wish to do everything they can to throw the IAEA off the scent. What isn’t understandable is why the United States and its European partners would choose to enter into any diplomatic process with Iran that is predicated on Iran telling the truth about its facilities and keeping their word should any compromise deal ever be reached. That is why the insistence of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton that diplomacy be given even more time is inexplicable if they mean what they say about wanting to stop Iran.
One of the most encouraging developments in Jewish life over the course of the last century is the way the Catholic Church has evolved from a position of open hostility toward Jews to one that repudiated anti-Semitism and recognized the legitimacy of Zionism and the state of Israel. The work of the Second Vatican Council and popes such as John XXIII and John Paul II have largely erased a lamentable legacy of hate and replaced it with one that is based on mutual respect. But as is the case with the secular left, some precincts of the Catholic left remain infected with the virus of anti-Zionism.
A prime example of this sort of thinking is found at Commonweal, a liberal Catholic publication where Margaret O’Brien Steinfels blogs. Steinfels has been waging a steady campaign against Israel at the dotCommonweal blog whose central theme as been to oppose pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program as well as support for the efforts of rabid anti-Zionist extremists like Mondoweiss editor Phillip Weiss and turncoat Israel critic M.J. Rosenberg. While Stenfels mocks those who consider Weiss’ absurd rants as well as her own jibes to be anti-Semitic, any time spent perusing her posts makes it clear that despite Commonweal’s supposed liberalism, what is produced on their blog sounds a lot more like the work of a latter day Father Charles Coughlin than any of the recent popes.
Give the Islamist regime in Iran some credit. They can read between the lines as easily as anyone in Washington. Having seen the spectacle of the Obama administration’s refusal to set red lines about Iran’s nuclear program despite impassioned pleas from Israel to do so, the ayatollahs understand they have been sent a signal that the president is open to another round of hopeless negotiations over the issue. That’s the upshot of the informal meetings taking place in Istanbul between the Iranians and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. Ashton headed up the West’s delegations in the P5+1 talks held earlier this year but, like President Obama, appears to have learned nothing from the experience. As Laura Rozen reports in The Back Channel blog, the Iranians may have again convinced the West that they should give the talks yet another try. According to Rozen, “The path going forward is ‘open,’ one western diplomat said.”
That’s excellent news for the Iranians, who may now be able to look forward to more negotiating sessions with the Western consortium at which they can drag out the process even further without giving an inch. But it’s bad news for anyone who wants to actually stop the Iranians from achieving their nuclear ambition.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stepped back a bit from the confrontational tone he had taken earlier this week when he characterized his phone call with President Obama on Tuesday night as a “good conversation.” But lest anyone construe that as the administration giving the Israeli the assurances about Iran that he was looking for, the White House dispatched a “senior administration official” to their favorite newspaper to spill the beans about how not “good” the talk was for the Jewish state.
According to the leak published in the New York Times, Obama did repeat his promise about not letting Iran produce a nuclear weapon. But over the course of what must have been a tense hour on the phone, it appears that the president stiffed Netanyahu on every aspect of the issue. He absolutely refused to set any red lines about Iran’s stockpile of nuclear material. Nor would he set any limits on the amount of time an already failed diplomatic track would be allowed to linger before action was taken.
Unlike Senator Barbara Boxer, who understood that a clear breach has developed between Israel and the United States, Vice President Joe Biden is in denial. As Seth wrote earlier today, Boxer demanded that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu retract his statements about the administration’s refusal to set red lines about Iran’s nuclear program. She asked him to reaffirm his comments from earlier in the year in which he said the two countries stand together. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case, with the Americans still implausibly insisting that failed diplomacy and inadequate sanctions will make the Iranians give up their nuclear ambitions. Boxer seems to think it’s the Israeli duty to subordinate their own ideas of security to those of an administration that has demonstrated no interest in translating their rhetoric into action on Iran. But while Boxer’s statement was as impertinent as it was wrongheaded, Biden’s comments are either obtuse or totally disingenuous.
Biden made the comment at a pre-Rosh Hashanah event at the vice presidential mansion. JTA reports that:
According to tweets posted by Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, Biden said that “Both our nations are intently focused on the threat of Iran” and “there is no daylight” between the United States and Israel.
Diament also quoted Biden as saying that “We will use all the elements of our national security, including military” to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The problem with these statements is that they are at variance with the comments made over the weekend by Secretary of State Clinton in which she pointedly refused to set any deadlines for the Iranians. The recent report of the International Atomic Energy Agency showed that the Iranians are making good use of the time President Obama has wasted during his four years in office pursuing feckless diplomacy to make substantial progress toward a nuclear weapon. The Israeli government has complained loudly that it is obvious, as the IAEA report made clear, that Tehran is fast approaching the point where it would be too late to use force to forestall Iran’s bomb. The contrast between Israel’s sense of urgency about this existential threat and the laconic manner of the administration could not be starker. If that doesn’t constitute daylight, then the term has no meaning.
Earlier, John channeled the spirit of William Safire and gave us an imaginative and probably not inaccurate assessment of President Obama’s motivation for refusing to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu later this month during the meetings of the United Nations General Assembly. Given Obama’s personal antipathy for Netanyahu and his ardent desire to avoid any meeting that would place him under some obligation to strengthen his stand on Iran, the snub is hardly surprising. The intent, as with a number of previous stunts by the president aimed at the Israeli, was to embarrass Netanyahu as well as to stiff him on the one issue his country cares about: Iran.
The decision is particularly problematic because the assumption in the Israeli press had been that Obama would use a planned September 26 meeting with Netanyahu to not only reaffirm his commitment to stopping Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. The consensus was that it would also be the occasion for the enunciation of some “red lines” that would state with some degree of certainty just how far the diplomatic process would be allowed to go before Iran would be called to account by the United States. Instead, Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have made it clear that there will be no red lines, meaning that a policy predicated on the idea that diplomacy and sanctions to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear goal will be allowed to go on, perhaps indefinitely. Netanyahu doesn’t need to read Contentions to understand that in doing so Obama has just shown that he doesn’t believe the Israeli’s threats to attack Iran. Just as important, the president is also signaling that the U.S. has no intention of ever resorting to force even though everyone in Washington already knows that diplomacy has no chance of success.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is bubbling over with frustration at U.S. policy toward Iran. While President Obama has continued to reiterate his pledge not to allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, this concern was shown once again to be an empty boast by Secretary of State Clinton’s statement on Sunday that the United States was not “setting any deadlines” to make Iran stop enriching uranium. That was reinforced on Monday when State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, “It is not useful to be parsing it, to be setting deadlines one way or the other, red lines.” Far from responding to Israeli requests for a firm statement of an intent to set some red lines beyond which Tehran dare not cross, Washington has sent a clear signal to Iran that the U.S. was content to sit back and watch events as they unfolded.
The subtext to this exchange is that the hints coming out of Jerusalem about a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran to forestall the nuclear threat may very well turn out to have been a bluff. The United States remains firmly focused on preventing any such attempt to resolve this problem and the Israeli PM knows that he would be risking a confrontation with his country’s main ally should it decide to strike on its own. Netanyahu is a cautious man and those who have been predicting all along that he would back down if President Obama remained obdurate may be right. If true, this would be a tactical triumph for the president but there shouldn’t be any doubt as to its ultimate meaning. In the absence of the sort of deadline that Clinton dismissed, time may soon run out on any chance for the West to stop Iran.
Speculation about whether Israel will decide to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities continues to build, but the latest report out of Jerusalem confirms that the answer to the question is still to be found in Washington. The Times of Israel reports that Israel’s Channel 10 has quoted sources close to Prime Minister Netanyahu that claim the chances of a strike on Iran are declining. What’s more, they say that if President Obama gives Netanyahu assurances that the United States has firm “red lines” that will trigger action against Iran, there will be no need for Israel to act on its own.
The two men are scheduled to meet later this month on September 27 while Netanyahu is in New York to address the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. But the question hanging over this meeting is whether the White House will interpret Netanyahu’s attitude as an opportunity to call his bluff or a challenge that requires the president to start taking the issue seriously.
The release yesterday of a new report on Iran’s nuclear program by the International Atomic Energy Agency effectively vindicates everything Israel’s leaders have been saying in recent months. The report says Iran has doubled the number of centrifuges it could use to make the core of nuclear warheads at its underground bunker at Fordow. It has also effectively shut down the IAEA investigation of their work at Parchin, where the Islamist regime has been conducting work on nuclear weapons development.
Fordow is the “breakout” facility where it can convert any civilian nuclear activity into military applications safe from air attack. As even the New York Times admits today, far from the Obama administration’s strategy of using diplomacy and sanctions slowing down Iran’s progress, “if anything, the program is speeding up.” It goes on to point out:
But the agency’s report has also put Israel in a corner, documenting that Iran is close to crossing what Israel has long said is its red line: the capability to produce nuclear weapons in a location invulnerable to Israeli attack.
Those wondering about Iran’s ability to confidently defy the sanctions that the Obama administration has belatedly imposed on the rogue regime have previously pointed to the lax enforcement of the regulations. The Treasury Department has granted over 10,000 exemptions to companies desirous of avoiding the sanctions. The U.S. has also given Iran’s largest oil customers a pass on having to give up purchasing Tehran’s supplies. But it turns out that even those sanctions that are enforced aren’t working and this time the fault can’t be pinned on President Obama’s lack of will.
The New York Times reports that federal prosecutors say Chinese banks and other international institutions have been playing the role of middleman in a con game allowing Iranian banks and corporations to conduct business in the West that ought to be curtailed by the law. Through their U.S. branches, the Chinese institutions have reportedly funneled billions of dollars to Iran’s coffers. When added to the president’s timorous diplomacy, this fraud helps explain why the Iranians are going full speed ahead with the nuclear program with few worries about the sanctions that Secretary of State Clinton claimed would be so tough it would bring them to their knees.
The latest report being prepared by the International Atomic Energy Agency about Iran appears to be a sobering retort to those who have spent the summer trying to claim that Israel’s warnings about the need to act should be ignored. The report, which has not yet been released but whose contents have been leaked, says that Iran has installed hundreds of new centrifuges in recent months and is devoting its efforts to refining uranium to a level of greater than 20 percent, a sign that it is working on a nuclear bomb and not, as it disingenuously contends, on medical research. Of equal concern is that all of this new equipment has been installed in facilities near the holy city of Qum and buried so far under underground that they may be invulnerable to attack.
This evidence would mean the alarms being sounded in Israel in recent months were entirely justified. If the Iranians have dramatically increased their stockpile of refined uranium and are now transferring more of their work into hardened bunkers, they may be close to what Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak have called a “zone of immunity”: the point at which their program can no longer be halted by force. But rather than taking this as a sign that their complacent attitude toward Iran needs to be revised, the Obama administration remains in denial. Despite the obvious failure of the P5+1 talks and Iran’s determination to run out the clock on its nuclear program before the West acts, a White House spokesman said Friday there is still “time and space” for a diplomatic solution to the standoff. Indeed, as the New York Times noted, the administration seemed more intent on trying to undermine Israel’s stance on the nuclear peril than it was on actually doing anything about the problem.
The Obama administration is still asserting that diplomacy and sanctions will halt Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons without the need for either Israel or the United States to resort to force. At the core of this argument is the assertion that the effort to squeeze Tehran led by Secretary of State Clinton has been largely successful with tough sanctions strangling Iran’s economy. But no one in Washington really believes that the P5+1 talks will ever be successfully revived and the methods by which the Iranians are getting around the loosely enforced sanctions are making a joke out of Clinton’s boast that her efforts would be “crippling.”
Far from being isolated, the Iranians are still enjoying the support of much of the world, something that will be made all too clear next week when the so-called Non-Aligned Movement convenes its annual meeting in Tehran. It’s bad enough that 120-member states of the group will send representatives to the gathering that will undermine any thought that the Islamist regime has no friends. But if United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon goes to the meeting too it will put a fork in the notion that the Iranians have much to worry about. That worries left-wing columnist Chemi Shalev, who writes in Haaretz that the symbolism of the UN chief arriving in the Iranian capital will be used by both Israeli and American critics of Obama’s feckless policy. He’s right.
The disagreement between Israel and the Obama administration over whether it’s time to acknowledge that diplomacy has failed to stop Iran’s nuclear program is starting to make a lot of people nervous. Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak seem to be interpreting the administration’s staunch refusal to abandon a diplomatic track that has already clearly failed as meaning that the president won’t make good on his promise to stop Iran from going nuclear. That has led to talk that Israel will strike Iran without U.S. assistance or permission and that it may do so even before the November presidential election.
The Americans are doing everything they can to persuade the Israelis to stand down but in the absence of trust in the president, mere words may not be enough. That’s why one of Obama’s leading Jewish supporters, columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, believes it’s time for some symbolism. Goldberg writes today in Bloomberg that a long sought presidential visit to Israel before the election would do the trick. He’s right. If President Obama were to take time out from the campaign for a stop in Israel some time in the next few weeks, Netanyahu would have no choice but to postpone any attack plans. Though it is possible that Obama will listen to Goldberg, such a visit with less than 90 days before the election is a long shot. It is far more likely that the president will rely on his usual mode of communication with the Israelis: pressure and threats. But since that has never worked in the past, Obama’s supporters ought to be asking themselves what’s behind the president’s reluctance to act in a manner that might convince both Israelis and their Iranian foes that he isn’t fibbing about being prepared to act on the issue during his second term.
In his column at the Daily Beast today on the prospect of hostilities with Iran, Peter Beinart assumes his usual role: defender of Barack Obama against Israel and its supporters. In this case, it’s the chutzpah of Israel’s government to demand that the administration issue some clear red lines about how long it will wait before taking action against the Iranian nuclear threat that bothers him. Israel’s warning that it may have to act on its own is seen on the left as an attempt to force him to launch an unnecessary war. But Beinart’s complaint that we haven’t had a full-scale debate on stopping Iran is more than a bit disingenuous. Far from no one making a case for the use of force on Iran — which he compares unfavorably to the Bush administration’s efforts to justify the invasion of Iraq — the president has been doing that ever since he started running for president.
If there hasn’t been much contention about pressuring Iran it’s because it’s been one of those issues on which there’s been a clear consensus. Stopping an Islamist regime that hates the West and America and which routinely calls for Israel’s elimination while promoting anti-Semitism and subsidizing terrorism is not a controversial goal. Obama and the Democrats and Romney and the Republicans both agree on this. The only question is which of them is serious about it. Beinart’s call for debate before any promises are made to Israel is part of an effort to back the president’s desire to keep kicking the can down the road until after the November election. Rather than really wanting a debate about a feckless administration policy that has wasted four years on dead-end diplomacy and engagement with Iran and only belatedly enacted sanctions that it are being loosely enforced, what Obama cheerleaders like Beinart really want is to find a way to put on brake on the use of force. But his assertion that no one has made a case for stopping Iran being an “American interest” is simply untrue.
When General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters yesterday that Israel and the United States are on “different clocks” regarding Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, he was doing more than stating what has already become obvious. Dempsey’s purpose in saying so publicly was more evidence that Washington is determined to ward off pressure from Israel to abandon its complacent attitude toward the Iranian threat. But it is also just one more instance in which the Obama administration has sought to create more daylight between U.S. and Israeli positions on security matters. While the president and his advisors think they are trying to teach the Netanyahu government a lesson, the main effect of this public disagreement is to encourage the Iranians to think that they don’t have to worry that much about either Israel or the United States.
Washington is frustrated because the Israelis won’t shut up about the consequences of a Western policy that has allowed the Iranians to keep refining uranium and getting closer to their nuclear goal. Dead-end diplomacy and loosely enforced sanctions have merely played into Tehran’s hands and the Israelis have been vocal about the fact that they are not going to simply stand by and wait patiently until Iran accumulates so much nuclear material stored in hardened underground bunkers that it will be too late to do anything about it. Defense Minister Ehud Barak is said to believe that moment will pass within a few months rather than the years the Americans say it will take. But rather than work with the Israelis and give them some concrete assurance that the president meant it when he said he would not allow Iran to go nuclear, the main reaction from the White House has been pique at Netanyahu’s chutzpah and public signals indicating the Israelis are on their own. This strengthens the security of neither the U.S. nor Israel. All it does is illustrate Mitt Romney’s point about the foolishness of the administration’s Middle East policy.
As Israelis and their government continue to debate the merits of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, the contempt for American foreign policy realists for the idea the Jewish state might decide to act in its own defense is considerable. Contempt for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak seems to be the primary motivation for the latest missive for James Traub, one of the realists leading writers, that appeared in Foreign Policy on Friday. Rather the focus on the “zone of immunity” that many Israelis and others worried about the nuclear threat believe Iran may be entering as its stockpiles get larger and are stored in invulnerable bunkers, Traub is more interested in what he calls, as the title of the piece puts it, the “zone of insanity.” As far as he is concerned Netanyahu and Barak are nuts to even think about acting without the permission of the United States.
But the answer to Traub’s points comes in his own column. Even the Obama administration now understands diplomacy and sanctions have failed. The only possible diplomatic solution is to agree to a compromise lauded by Traub that would leave Iran’s nuclear project intact. Under these circumstances, it is fair to ask who’s insane: The foreign policy realists who have been wrong about just about everything about the Middle East for decades and who now expect Israel to wait patiently for Iran to go nuclear or Netanyahu, who understands all too well that the Israel-hating ayatollahs mean what they say about eliminating Israel. If these purveyors of conventional wisdom are now counseling further inaction or more feckless diplomacy, that’s good reason for Israelis to think hard and long about attacking Iran soon.