Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps

Negotiating with Iran or Just One Faction?

In 1998, against the backdrop of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s “Dialogue of Civilizations,” there was great optimism about the potential for a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations among many of the same circles that express it now. And then, just as now, some in the U.S. business community wanted to rush into the Iranian market, figuring all that was left for some sort of grand rapprochement was to dot the i’s and cross the t’s in any sort of diplomatic agreement. It was against this backdrop that a group of American businessmen, traveling at the invitation of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, flew to Tehran in order to combine meetings with tourism.

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In 1998, against the backdrop of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s “Dialogue of Civilizations,” there was great optimism about the potential for a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations among many of the same circles that express it now. And then, just as now, some in the U.S. business community wanted to rush into the Iranian market, figuring all that was left for some sort of grand rapprochement was to dot the i’s and cross the t’s in any sort of diplomatic agreement. It was against this backdrop that a group of American businessmen, traveling at the invitation of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, flew to Tehran in order to combine meetings with tourism.

Their trip did not go as planned. Escorted around in a minibus, all seemed well until they were set upon by a group of stone and iron bar wielding vigilantes who attacked the group. They cut their trip short and went home. I discussed the now forgotten incident in my first monograph about the history of Iranian vigilantism, but suffice it to say, those who attacked the Americans had official sanction to do so while those who invited the Americans also had official sanction to do so. The problem with the Iranian system, as always, was the multiple power centers, and so there can be often contradictory official sanctions.

That Iran has overlapping and competing power centers is well understood, both in Iran and in the West. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei keeps power in large part by balancing those power centers off each other. Having multiple power centers provides other advantages for Tehran: Those who are unwise enough to actually invest in Iran quickly learn that there is no practical adherence to commercial law. If a contract is signed to provide oil at a fixed price, for example, and the price of oil rises, Iranian partners will simply discover that the contract is invalid because a previously irrelevant body had not signed off on it.

President Obama may believe his administration’s diplomacy is on firm ground. After all, he spoke directly on the telephone with President Rouhani, and he sent letters to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who spoke about “heroic flexibility.” But Rouhani represents only one faction, and Obama and Kerry misinterpreted Khamenei’s rhetoric.

Even if a deal is struck, Obama will have essentially negotiated it with only one faction. Just as after the Reagan-era “Arms for Hostages” diplomacy (which saw Mehdi Hashemi’s faction attack America despite National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane’s “agreement” with Hashemi Rafsanjani) and with the Khatami-era “Dialogue of Civilizations” approach (which saw hardliners associated with the Basij and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) attack American interests), and just as in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, in which Ambassador Ryan Crocker and National Security Council official Zalmay Khalilzad negotiated a non-interference agreement with Iranian diplomats (only to see it ignored and flouted by the IRGC), so too should the United States recognize that a deal struck with Rouhani and Iran’s Foreign Ministry will be meaningless to the IRGC and perhaps the supreme leader.

Naïve diplomats can blame the violations of agreements on rogues or spoilers and insist Tehran can be trusted. But they would be wrong. Iranian leaders encourage competing power circles to lash out or go rogue in order to achieve undiplomatic aims, while consciously cultivating plausible deniability. At the very least, other Iranian factions are going to seek their own deal, raising the price of any agreement. To strike a deal and expect peace and tranquility would be like to pay off one mafia family in 1930s Chicago (or 2014 Chicago) when two or three other mafia families operate in the same location.

Here are the facts:

  • The Obama team is essentially negotiating with the Iranian Foreign Ministry in a process blessed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
  • Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has not yet signed on. His “Heroic Flexibility” comments referred to tactics, not substance. His so-called nuclear fatwa is not written down and has never been published, and President Obama and his top advisors have never seen it. They have simply put hope ahead of reality. Khamenei has already issued “red lines” that make a deal to resolve the situation impossible; unlike Obama, Khamenei treats red lines as more than rhetorical flourish.
  • The IRGC would have command, control, and custody over any military applications of Iran’s nuclear program. It has repeatedly condemned the nuclear diplomacy and has indicated that it will not abide by it.

So, in short, even if Obama and Kerry reach an agreement, they will essentially only be reaching it with one faction among many, and perhaps the weakest faction at that. It’s Diplomacy 101 not to negotiate an agreement with interlocutors who cannot deliver, but it seems increasingly that this is what Obama and Kerry insist on doing. At the very least, the price of Iranian compliance is going to be far higher than Obama and Kerry expect, and at the very worst, Iran’s willingness to talk is simply an asymmetric warfare strategy to cause the West to let its guard down while it continues with its efforts to achieve its ideological and regional goals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Danger of Ignoring Iran’s Threats

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed some understandable frustration yesterday about the international press’ lack of interest in last week’s capture of the Iranian arms ship Klos-C. As the Times of Israel reported:

He termed the prevailing lack of interest in Israel’s arms catch, a stark departure from the impact of the seizure of the PLO’s Karine-A in January 2002, “an additional testament to the age of hypocrisy in which we live.” Netanyahu, speaking in English to several dozen rather incredulous foreign reporters, called the international condemnations “feeble” and “few and far between.”

Netanyahu may have thought this tangible proof of not only Iran’s support for terrorism but also its active plotting to thwart peace negotiations would have an impact on the debate about the nuclear talks with Tehran. But anyone who thought this would cause the West to think seriously about the wisdom of a diplomatic process whose premise is a belief in the Islamist regime’s willingness to change or to moderate its policies was mistaken. The commitment of the Obama administration and its European allies to talks that seem at times to be more about an attempt to create a new détente with Iran than preventing them from obtaining nuclear capability is no longer in question. No matter how many missiles Iran ships to Gaza, there doesn’t seem to be any chance that the U.S. will be distracted from this purpose. And if the Klos-C didn’t change any minds about Iran, no one in Israel should be under any illusions about the latest comments from the head of Iran’s Revolutionary guard about Israel doing it either. As Iran’s English language FARS news agency reported today in a story headlined: “IRGC Commander: Iran’s Finger on Trigger to Destroy Zionist Regime:”

Lieutenant Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Brigadier General Hossein Salami underlined that Iranian military commanders are prepared to attack and destroy the Zionist regime of Israel as soon as they receive such an order.

“Today, we can destroy every spot which is under the Zionist regime’s control with any volume of fire power (that we want) right from here,” Salami said, addressing a conference in Tehran on Tuesday dubbed ‘the Islamic World’s Role in the Geometry of the World Power’.

“Islam has given us this wish, capacity and power to destroy the Zionist regime so that our hands will remain on the trigger from 1,400km away for the day when such an incident (confrontation with Israel) takes place,” he added.

Salami reminded that Iran is not the only country that enjoys such a capability, as even the artilleries of a number of other (Muslim) countries can also target and attack the Zionist regime today.

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Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed some understandable frustration yesterday about the international press’ lack of interest in last week’s capture of the Iranian arms ship Klos-C. As the Times of Israel reported:

He termed the prevailing lack of interest in Israel’s arms catch, a stark departure from the impact of the seizure of the PLO’s Karine-A in January 2002, “an additional testament to the age of hypocrisy in which we live.” Netanyahu, speaking in English to several dozen rather incredulous foreign reporters, called the international condemnations “feeble” and “few and far between.”

Netanyahu may have thought this tangible proof of not only Iran’s support for terrorism but also its active plotting to thwart peace negotiations would have an impact on the debate about the nuclear talks with Tehran. But anyone who thought this would cause the West to think seriously about the wisdom of a diplomatic process whose premise is a belief in the Islamist regime’s willingness to change or to moderate its policies was mistaken. The commitment of the Obama administration and its European allies to talks that seem at times to be more about an attempt to create a new détente with Iran than preventing them from obtaining nuclear capability is no longer in question. No matter how many missiles Iran ships to Gaza, there doesn’t seem to be any chance that the U.S. will be distracted from this purpose. And if the Klos-C didn’t change any minds about Iran, no one in Israel should be under any illusions about the latest comments from the head of Iran’s Revolutionary guard about Israel doing it either. As Iran’s English language FARS news agency reported today in a story headlined: “IRGC Commander: Iran’s Finger on Trigger to Destroy Zionist Regime:”

Lieutenant Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Brigadier General Hossein Salami underlined that Iranian military commanders are prepared to attack and destroy the Zionist regime of Israel as soon as they receive such an order.

“Today, we can destroy every spot which is under the Zionist regime’s control with any volume of fire power (that we want) right from here,” Salami said, addressing a conference in Tehran on Tuesday dubbed ‘the Islamic World’s Role in the Geometry of the World Power’.

“Islam has given us this wish, capacity and power to destroy the Zionist regime so that our hands will remain on the trigger from 1,400km away for the day when such an incident (confrontation with Israel) takes place,” he added.

Salami reminded that Iran is not the only country that enjoys such a capability, as even the artilleries of a number of other (Muslim) countries can also target and attack the Zionist regime today.

While this statement, like many other similar threats issued by Iranian leaders will be ignored or rationalized by those who are uninterested in the truth about the intentions of the Islamist regime, Salami’s comments tell us a lot about the thinking in Tehran.

First of all, Salami’s remarks should refocus the P5+1 negotiators on the threat that an Iran with nuclear capability poses not just to Israel but also to moderate Arab nations and the West. While Iran’s apologists keep reminding us about how rational its theocratic leaders are and how even a nuclear weapon would not be used for genocidal purposes, the regime’s ambition to destroy the Jewish state is not a secret. It’s been a constant theme in Iranian rhetoric and is so entrenched as a staple of their political culture that it is impossible to seriously argue that they don’t mean what they say.

Nor can Iran’s threats be dismissed as empty braggadocio or as defensive in nature. As their arms smuggling venture proved, they are not waiting for the day when their nuclear project reaches its goal to utilize their considerable military resources to threaten Israel. The point of the missiles that were headed to Gaza wasn’t to serve as an annoyance like the small-scale weapons that were shipped to Hamas during the second intifada. Rather, they were intended to give Islamists in Gaza a strategic threat against Israeli cities in the center of the country. Combined with the formidable weaponry they have given their Hezbollah auxiliaries in Lebanon as well as the still-intact Assad government in Syria that owes its existence to Tehran, Iran’s bid for regional hegemony poses a direct threat to the peace of the world.

But when presented with proof of Iran’s malevolent intentions and behavior, all the international press can muster is a yawn or cynical and misleading remarks comparing Israel’s display of the captured arms to George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” moment. Few seemed to grasp that Iran’s attempt to put advanced missiles in Gaza should be connected to the issue of Tehran’s ballistic missile program and nuclear military research that Western negotiators have done nothing to halt. Though the White House insists it can negotiate a satisfactory nuclear deal with Iran even as it condemns its support for terrorism, these two issues are connected.

Even more important, every time Iran issues a statement like the one from IRGC commander or gets caught shipping arms to Gaza, the lack of Western outrage can only serve to convince the ayatollahs that they have nothing to fear from President Obama or the West. That will make it less likely that they will ever agree to give up their nuclear ambition or their drive to control the region. And that should make Israelis as well as everyone else in Iran’s cross hairs very afraid.

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Iran Threatens War in the Mediterranean

Yesterday, Ali Shirazi of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps said its naval forces “are fully prepared to escort the peace and freedom convoys to Gaza with all their powers and capabilities.” Never mind the cynical use of the words “freedom” and “peace” from a repressive regime that steals votes and cracks heads. Breaking a blockade by force is a declaration of war and could, in this case, easily and instantly spark a region-wide conflagration.

More likely than not, Iran is just posturing. Ever since Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in the 1979 revolution, the Iranian government has been waging a relentless campaign to win over Arab public opinion with apocalyptic anti-Zionism and support for anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. And last week it was upstaged by Turkey and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, when howling denunciations of Israel almost everywhere in the world followed the now-infamous battle aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara vessel. Even the president of the United States says Israel’s blockade of Gaza is no longer sustainable, though at least he says it calmly. Not Iran, Syria, Hamas, or Hezbollah, but Turkey has been the toast of the Middle East’s radicals for a week now.

The Turks have been slowly turning away from their alliance with the West since 2003. Erdogan, more recently, has not only been reorienting his country toward the Sunni Muslim world of which it’s a part; he’s also adopting the causes of the Resistance Bloc, led by Iran’s Shia theocracy and the atheist non-Muslim Alawite clan, which rules Syria. He’s been trying for years now to join Tehran and Jerusalem in setting the regional agenda, and he finally and unambiguously succeeded last Monday.

Iran is supposed to lead the “resistance,” however, and I suspect its leaders are trying to seize the region’s attention again. They feel insecure behind all that bombast. As Persians and, especially, Shias, they’re looked upon with suspicion and loathing, despite their hardest of hard lines against Israel. The Turks aren’t Arabs either, and some resentment remains from the imperial Ottoman days; but they’re Sunnis, at least, like most in the Middle East.

So while Erdogan’s Turkey may look in some ways like a de facto Iranian ally from the American and Israeli perspectives, from the point of view of Tehran it’s a convenient, useful, triangulating competitor. Syria’s Bashar Assad is content to be Iran’s junior partner, but Istanbul was once the capital of a powerful Sunni empire that, not long ago, held sway over much of the Mediterranean. As a member of NATO (for now, anyway), it can’t be entirely trusted and won’t likely ever take orders from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Ali Khamenei.

Iran needs its mojo back — now — and huffing and puffing and bluffing about the blockade is one way to get it. Still, it would only surprise me a little if Tehran thinks it has a green light from most of the world to proceed. Israel is more isolated than it has been in decades, and this wouldn’t be the first time one of its enemies miscalculated and did something stupid. Now would be a good time for the Obama administration to say, firmly and in no uncertain terms, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Yesterday, Ali Shirazi of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps said its naval forces “are fully prepared to escort the peace and freedom convoys to Gaza with all their powers and capabilities.” Never mind the cynical use of the words “freedom” and “peace” from a repressive regime that steals votes and cracks heads. Breaking a blockade by force is a declaration of war and could, in this case, easily and instantly spark a region-wide conflagration.

More likely than not, Iran is just posturing. Ever since Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in the 1979 revolution, the Iranian government has been waging a relentless campaign to win over Arab public opinion with apocalyptic anti-Zionism and support for anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. And last week it was upstaged by Turkey and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, when howling denunciations of Israel almost everywhere in the world followed the now-infamous battle aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara vessel. Even the president of the United States says Israel’s blockade of Gaza is no longer sustainable, though at least he says it calmly. Not Iran, Syria, Hamas, or Hezbollah, but Turkey has been the toast of the Middle East’s radicals for a week now.

The Turks have been slowly turning away from their alliance with the West since 2003. Erdogan, more recently, has not only been reorienting his country toward the Sunni Muslim world of which it’s a part; he’s also adopting the causes of the Resistance Bloc, led by Iran’s Shia theocracy and the atheist non-Muslim Alawite clan, which rules Syria. He’s been trying for years now to join Tehran and Jerusalem in setting the regional agenda, and he finally and unambiguously succeeded last Monday.

Iran is supposed to lead the “resistance,” however, and I suspect its leaders are trying to seize the region’s attention again. They feel insecure behind all that bombast. As Persians and, especially, Shias, they’re looked upon with suspicion and loathing, despite their hardest of hard lines against Israel. The Turks aren’t Arabs either, and some resentment remains from the imperial Ottoman days; but they’re Sunnis, at least, like most in the Middle East.

So while Erdogan’s Turkey may look in some ways like a de facto Iranian ally from the American and Israeli perspectives, from the point of view of Tehran it’s a convenient, useful, triangulating competitor. Syria’s Bashar Assad is content to be Iran’s junior partner, but Istanbul was once the capital of a powerful Sunni empire that, not long ago, held sway over much of the Mediterranean. As a member of NATO (for now, anyway), it can’t be entirely trusted and won’t likely ever take orders from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Ali Khamenei.

Iran needs its mojo back — now — and huffing and puffing and bluffing about the blockade is one way to get it. Still, it would only surprise me a little if Tehran thinks it has a green light from most of the world to proceed. Israel is more isolated than it has been in decades, and this wouldn’t be the first time one of its enemies miscalculated and did something stupid. Now would be a good time for the Obama administration to say, firmly and in no uncertain terms, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

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Congress Objects to Feckless Iran Policy

AIPAC is touting letters signed by 76 senators and 363 House members calling for tougher action on Iran. They really do want “crippling sanctions.” The House version explains:

Iran’s nuclear weapons program represents a severe threat to American national interests. Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons could lead to the proliferation of these weapons throughout the Middle East and beyond, destabilizing the global non-proliferation regime and greatly increasing the likelihood of such weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. It would also dramatically expand Iranian influence and threaten our allies in the region. It would undercut prospects for peace between Israel and her neighbors, with emboldened Iranian surrogates enjoying the strategic backing of an Iranian nuclear umbrella. And it would pose an existential threat to the State of Israel.

Iran is making steady progress in its nuclear program. It now has stored enough low enriched uranium to serve as the core for two nuclear weapons. It will soon be able to install much more advanced and efficient centrifuges. Iran has recently begun to enrich uranium to twenty percent fissile. Its weaponization program now appears to be at an advanced stage.

Mr. President, you have stated this issue is a priority for your administration. You have attempted to engage the Iranian regime for over a year. You have gone to the United Nations Security Council in an effort to impose tough new sanctions on Iran. But time is not on our side. We cannot allow those who would oppose or delay sanctions to govern either the timing or content of our efforts. As you said last July, we cannot wait until we “wake up one day and find ourselves in a much worse situation and unable to act.”

What do they want? First, “We call on you to fulfill your June 2008 pledge that you would do ‘everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.’” (No more que sera, sera.) Second, they want Obama “to reverse the practice under which the US government has awarded at least $107 billion over the past decade in federal contracts to companies investing in or doing business in Iran” and to gather support for “crippling sanctions.” And finally, they advise the president that they are proceeding with the Iran sanctions measure making its way through the House and Senate and that “by imposing punishing measures on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, rocking Iran’s banking system, and dramatically impacting Iran’s ability to import or refine petroleum” they can force the Iranians to choose between pursuing its nuclear program and “possible reconciliation.”

But we know much of this isn’t going to happen. The president has already let the cat out of the bag — he’s no longer saying that he’ll do whatever it takes to prevent the mullahs from getting the bomb. His apparent resignation to the distinct possibility that Iran will not respond to his entreaties isn’t going to be erased from the public record. What — now he’s going to say, “I really didn’t mean to sound so blasé”? And we’ve already heard from him and from Medvedev that the sanctions won’t be crippling. So that leaves the unilateral sanctions by the U.S. Do we think Obama will actually implement those? It would only highlight how insufficient are the possible mini-sanctions under consideration by the UN.

It’s nice to see Congress go on record. But it’s a tall order to wrest control of foreign policy from the executive branch. For now, Obama appears entirely averse to employing a “whatever it takes” strategy. We know it, Congress knows it, and the mullahs know it. Until that changes, it is only a matter of time before the Islamic revolutionary state acquires its nuclear bomb — and the entire Middle East embarks on a deadly arms race. It sure will throw cold water on Obama’s whole nonproliferation effort, won’t it?

AIPAC is touting letters signed by 76 senators and 363 House members calling for tougher action on Iran. They really do want “crippling sanctions.” The House version explains:

Iran’s nuclear weapons program represents a severe threat to American national interests. Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons could lead to the proliferation of these weapons throughout the Middle East and beyond, destabilizing the global non-proliferation regime and greatly increasing the likelihood of such weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. It would also dramatically expand Iranian influence and threaten our allies in the region. It would undercut prospects for peace between Israel and her neighbors, with emboldened Iranian surrogates enjoying the strategic backing of an Iranian nuclear umbrella. And it would pose an existential threat to the State of Israel.

Iran is making steady progress in its nuclear program. It now has stored enough low enriched uranium to serve as the core for two nuclear weapons. It will soon be able to install much more advanced and efficient centrifuges. Iran has recently begun to enrich uranium to twenty percent fissile. Its weaponization program now appears to be at an advanced stage.

Mr. President, you have stated this issue is a priority for your administration. You have attempted to engage the Iranian regime for over a year. You have gone to the United Nations Security Council in an effort to impose tough new sanctions on Iran. But time is not on our side. We cannot allow those who would oppose or delay sanctions to govern either the timing or content of our efforts. As you said last July, we cannot wait until we “wake up one day and find ourselves in a much worse situation and unable to act.”

What do they want? First, “We call on you to fulfill your June 2008 pledge that you would do ‘everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.’” (No more que sera, sera.) Second, they want Obama “to reverse the practice under which the US government has awarded at least $107 billion over the past decade in federal contracts to companies investing in or doing business in Iran” and to gather support for “crippling sanctions.” And finally, they advise the president that they are proceeding with the Iran sanctions measure making its way through the House and Senate and that “by imposing punishing measures on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, rocking Iran’s banking system, and dramatically impacting Iran’s ability to import or refine petroleum” they can force the Iranians to choose between pursuing its nuclear program and “possible reconciliation.”

But we know much of this isn’t going to happen. The president has already let the cat out of the bag — he’s no longer saying that he’ll do whatever it takes to prevent the mullahs from getting the bomb. His apparent resignation to the distinct possibility that Iran will not respond to his entreaties isn’t going to be erased from the public record. What — now he’s going to say, “I really didn’t mean to sound so blasé”? And we’ve already heard from him and from Medvedev that the sanctions won’t be crippling. So that leaves the unilateral sanctions by the U.S. Do we think Obama will actually implement those? It would only highlight how insufficient are the possible mini-sanctions under consideration by the UN.

It’s nice to see Congress go on record. But it’s a tall order to wrest control of foreign policy from the executive branch. For now, Obama appears entirely averse to employing a “whatever it takes” strategy. We know it, Congress knows it, and the mullahs know it. Until that changes, it is only a matter of time before the Islamic revolutionary state acquires its nuclear bomb — and the entire Middle East embarks on a deadly arms race. It sure will throw cold water on Obama’s whole nonproliferation effort, won’t it?

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WEB EXCLUSIVE: If You Shoot at a King You Must Kill Him

Last week I spoke with Reza Kahlili, a man who during the 1980s and 1990s worked for the CIA under the code name “Wally” inside the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. He wrote a terrific book about his experience as an American agent called A Time to Betray, and today he’s issuing a serious warning about his former Iranian masters: they mean what they say, and the West had better start taking them seriously.

He thinks President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei fully intend to use nuclear weapons if they acquire them, either by exploding them in enemy cities or holding the Middle East and the world’s energy resources hostage. It’s hard, to be sure, for even a well-placed expert to know this for certain. Perhaps not even the leadership knows exactly what it will do with the bomb once it gets the chance. (Either way, a nuclear-armed Iran won’t suddenly play well with others.) What happens in the region over the next couple of years may depend in large part on whether the Israelis are willing to chance it.

To read the rest of this COMMENTARY Web Exclusive, click here.

Last week I spoke with Reza Kahlili, a man who during the 1980s and 1990s worked for the CIA under the code name “Wally” inside the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. He wrote a terrific book about his experience as an American agent called A Time to Betray, and today he’s issuing a serious warning about his former Iranian masters: they mean what they say, and the West had better start taking them seriously.

He thinks President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei fully intend to use nuclear weapons if they acquire them, either by exploding them in enemy cities or holding the Middle East and the world’s energy resources hostage. It’s hard, to be sure, for even a well-placed expert to know this for certain. Perhaps not even the leadership knows exactly what it will do with the bomb once it gets the chance. (Either way, a nuclear-armed Iran won’t suddenly play well with others.) What happens in the region over the next couple of years may depend in large part on whether the Israelis are willing to chance it.

To read the rest of this COMMENTARY Web Exclusive, click here.

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Smart Diplomacy — Watch Out!

Watch out when the Obami use the word smart — or even worse, smarter. It usually means something very silly is in the cards. And it denotes an air of condescension — as if others who came before them practiced dumb or dumber diplomacy and their critics are opposed to being smart. “Smarter diplomacy,” however, brought us such dumb ideas as downplaying human rights, engaging Iran for a year, bullying Israel, backing Hugo Chavez’s lackey in Honduras, and pulling the rug out from under our allies in Poland and the Czech Republic. But the Obami aren’t done being smart. Hillary Clinton tells us what’s in store on Iran sanctions:

”It is clear that there is a relatively small group of decision makers inside Iran,” she told reporters traveling with her on the first leg of a nine-day trip across the Pacific. ”They are in both political and commercial relationships, and if we can create a sanctions track that targets those who actually make the decisions, we think that is a smarter way to do sanctions. But all that is yet to be decided upon.” …

Clinton mentioned that the meeting, of representatives of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the U.S., China, Russia, Britain and France — plus Germany would meet at the end of the week in New York. She did not cite a specific day. ”They will be exploring the kind and degree of sanctions that we should be pursuing,” she said. She was not specific about those inside Iran who might be targeted with new international sanctions, but her allusion to Iranian leaders with political and commercial ties suggested that she was referring to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite group that is separate from the Iranian military and is charged with protecting the Islamic revolution that brought the clerics to power in 1979.

So with all this time, they haven’t quite decided what would be smart. But they’re positive they can focus like a laser on just the right bad guys, because bad guys rarely know how to set up middle men and third-party relations to evade detection. And even smarter yet, we don’t have any date in mind. Brilliant, huh?

Actually it’s appalling. And it suggests that the Obami were never serious about crippling sanctions to begin with. Apparently they were interested in stringing engagement along until no one could quite keep a straight face. Now it seems that the Obama administration has no interest in regime change and no interest in exacting meaningful sanctions that might alter the mullahs’ nuclear plans. But maybe we all aren’t smart enough to figure out how this is going to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Because it sure looks like the next declaration of “smart” diplomacy will be an admonition that we have to live with Iran in the club of nuclear powers.

Watch out when the Obami use the word smart — or even worse, smarter. It usually means something very silly is in the cards. And it denotes an air of condescension — as if others who came before them practiced dumb or dumber diplomacy and their critics are opposed to being smart. “Smarter diplomacy,” however, brought us such dumb ideas as downplaying human rights, engaging Iran for a year, bullying Israel, backing Hugo Chavez’s lackey in Honduras, and pulling the rug out from under our allies in Poland and the Czech Republic. But the Obami aren’t done being smart. Hillary Clinton tells us what’s in store on Iran sanctions:

”It is clear that there is a relatively small group of decision makers inside Iran,” she told reporters traveling with her on the first leg of a nine-day trip across the Pacific. ”They are in both political and commercial relationships, and if we can create a sanctions track that targets those who actually make the decisions, we think that is a smarter way to do sanctions. But all that is yet to be decided upon.” …

Clinton mentioned that the meeting, of representatives of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the U.S., China, Russia, Britain and France — plus Germany would meet at the end of the week in New York. She did not cite a specific day. ”They will be exploring the kind and degree of sanctions that we should be pursuing,” she said. She was not specific about those inside Iran who might be targeted with new international sanctions, but her allusion to Iranian leaders with political and commercial ties suggested that she was referring to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite group that is separate from the Iranian military and is charged with protecting the Islamic revolution that brought the clerics to power in 1979.

So with all this time, they haven’t quite decided what would be smart. But they’re positive they can focus like a laser on just the right bad guys, because bad guys rarely know how to set up middle men and third-party relations to evade detection. And even smarter yet, we don’t have any date in mind. Brilliant, huh?

Actually it’s appalling. And it suggests that the Obami were never serious about crippling sanctions to begin with. Apparently they were interested in stringing engagement along until no one could quite keep a straight face. Now it seems that the Obama administration has no interest in regime change and no interest in exacting meaningful sanctions that might alter the mullahs’ nuclear plans. But maybe we all aren’t smart enough to figure out how this is going to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Because it sure looks like the next declaration of “smart” diplomacy will be an admonition that we have to live with Iran in the club of nuclear powers.

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Thomas Friedman on Leverage

Thomas Friedman begins an entirely sensible column with this observation:

Barack Obama is getting painfully close to tying himself in knots with all his explanations of the conditions under which he would unconditionally talk with America’s foes, like Iran. His latest clarification was that there is a difference between “preparations” and “preconditions” for negotiations with bad guys. Such hair-splitting word games do not inspire confidence, and they play right into the arms of his critics. The last place he wants to look uncertain is on national security.

Friedman argues, as he has before, that negotiation with rouge states should follow not proceed acquisition of leverage by the U.S. and its allies. So what should we make of a candidate who thinks the opposite, that his mere presence before the likes of Castro and Ahmejinedad would be productive, would melt their hearts and persuade them of the errors of their ways?

Friedman advises:

Mr. Obama would do himself a big favor by shifting his focus from the list of enemy leaders he would talk with to the list of things he would do as president to generate more leverage for America, so no matter who we have to talk with the advantage will be on our side of the table. That’s what matters.

But that seems entirely out of character and contrary to all of Obama’s pronouncements to date. He opposes measures which would pressure rogue states or their surrogates. He wants to roll back key sanctions against Cuba. He shushes Hillary Clinton, who announced in no uncertain terms that she would “obliterate” Iran if it destroyed Israel with a nuclear attack. He strenuously opposed the Kyl-Liebermann Amendment designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. And, of course, his plan to evacuate Iraq immediately is not the type of display of national fortitude designed to impress Iran, Syria or any other state or group in the Middle East.

Indeed he often gets Friedman’s formulation exactly backwards, as with North Korea. The Council on Foreign Relations reminds us: “Within weeks of Pyongyang’s nuclear test, Obama appeared on Meet the Press and said the United States had no leverage over North Korea because of Washington’s refusal to hold bilateral negotiations. ” No, Friedman would patiently remind him, get the leverage first - it makes diplomatic talks potentially successful and does not result from negotiations.

So I think it is unlikely, perhaps impossible, for Obama to take Friedman’s advice.

Thomas Friedman begins an entirely sensible column with this observation:

Barack Obama is getting painfully close to tying himself in knots with all his explanations of the conditions under which he would unconditionally talk with America’s foes, like Iran. His latest clarification was that there is a difference between “preparations” and “preconditions” for negotiations with bad guys. Such hair-splitting word games do not inspire confidence, and they play right into the arms of his critics. The last place he wants to look uncertain is on national security.

Friedman argues, as he has before, that negotiation with rouge states should follow not proceed acquisition of leverage by the U.S. and its allies. So what should we make of a candidate who thinks the opposite, that his mere presence before the likes of Castro and Ahmejinedad would be productive, would melt their hearts and persuade them of the errors of their ways?

Friedman advises:

Mr. Obama would do himself a big favor by shifting his focus from the list of enemy leaders he would talk with to the list of things he would do as president to generate more leverage for America, so no matter who we have to talk with the advantage will be on our side of the table. That’s what matters.

But that seems entirely out of character and contrary to all of Obama’s pronouncements to date. He opposes measures which would pressure rogue states or their surrogates. He wants to roll back key sanctions against Cuba. He shushes Hillary Clinton, who announced in no uncertain terms that she would “obliterate” Iran if it destroyed Israel with a nuclear attack. He strenuously opposed the Kyl-Liebermann Amendment designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. And, of course, his plan to evacuate Iraq immediately is not the type of display of national fortitude designed to impress Iran, Syria or any other state or group in the Middle East.

Indeed he often gets Friedman’s formulation exactly backwards, as with North Korea. The Council on Foreign Relations reminds us: “Within weeks of Pyongyang’s nuclear test, Obama appeared on Meet the Press and said the United States had no leverage over North Korea because of Washington’s refusal to hold bilateral negotiations. ” No, Friedman would patiently remind him, get the leverage first - it makes diplomatic talks potentially successful and does not result from negotiations.

So I think it is unlikely, perhaps impossible, for Obama to take Friedman’s advice.

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Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

There is no shortage of bad news from Iraq, such as the bombing of another market in Baghdad that reportedly killed 25 people on Tuesday, another suicide bombing near the Iranian border that killed fifteen people on Wednesday, and various other attacks around the country that killed seven U.S. soldiers and two marines. Yet amid the inevitable setbacks there are also some modest signs of progress.

On Saturday, U.S. Special Operations forces killed Sheikh Azhar al-Dulaymi, a major-league bad guy responsible for the daring operation in Karbala on January 20th, in which attackers disguised as U.S. troops invaded a government compound and killed five American soldiers. The U.S. military command said that intelligence indicated that Dulaymi had received training from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and their Lebanese Hizballah puppets.

Read More

There is no shortage of bad news from Iraq, such as the bombing of another market in Baghdad that reportedly killed 25 people on Tuesday, another suicide bombing near the Iranian border that killed fifteen people on Wednesday, and various other attacks around the country that killed seven U.S. soldiers and two marines. Yet amid the inevitable setbacks there are also some modest signs of progress.

On Saturday, U.S. Special Operations forces killed Sheikh Azhar al-Dulaymi, a major-league bad guy responsible for the daring operation in Karbala on January 20th, in which attackers disguised as U.S. troops invaded a government compound and killed five American soldiers. The U.S. military command said that intelligence indicated that Dulaymi had received training from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and their Lebanese Hizballah puppets.

U.S. forces have also rolled up a gang of insurgents responsible for downing a string of our helicopters. As summarized by USA Today:

Enemy fighters shot down six military helicopters in January and February, killing 23 servicemembers. Heavy machine guns were used in four attacks and small arms in one assault. A missile was used to down one of the six helicopters. Two private contractor helicopters were also shot down during that time.

But, as the newspaper continues, “There haven’t been any fatal helicopter attacks since February.” This may be attributed to a combination of factors. One shouldn’t discount the role of pure, dumb luck, but American aviators have also successfully changed their operating procedures and have even managed to ambush the ambushers. As USA Today notes:

During the raids, U.S. forces combined air attacks with ground assaults that captured insurgents, [Maj. Gen. James] Simmons said. Information gathered in those raids revealed anti-helicopter tactics used by insurgents. The military used that knowledge to launch counter-ambushes, using U.S. aircraft to target the [insurgent] teams.

There is also some good news on the political front. This Washington Post story reports that Moqtada Al-Sadr, head of the Jaish al-Mahdi (the Mahdist Army, JMA), one of the largest and most violent Shiite factions, professes to be moderating:

The 33-year-old populist is reaching out to a broad array of Sunni leaders, from politicians to insurgents, and purging extremist members of his Mahdi Army militia who target Sunnis. . . . And moderates are taking up key roles in Sadr’s movement, professing to be less anti-American and more nationalist as they seek to improve Sadr’s image and position him in the middle of Iraq’s ideological spectrum.

Meanwhile, the other leading Shiite party is changing its name from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, dropping the “revolution” in its name to make clear that it is not seeking a radical overhaul of Iraqi society. This faction, led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, is trying to lessen its ties to Iran and to remake itself as an Iraqi nationalist movement.

A measure of skepticism is in order about both changes—elements of JAM remain extremely violent, and both it and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council maintain strong subterranean links with the Iranian leadership. The latest steps may simply be tactical adjustments in their ultimate pursuit of power. Nevertheless they are positive steps, and they are being met with some Sunni reciprocation. There are reports of Sunni tribes in Diyala and other provinces forming their own groups to resist al Qaeda, following in the footsteps of the Anbar Salvation Council. And the original Anbar group is expanding its activities to other parts of the country. As this New York Times story reports:

In a hopeful sign on Tuesday, a Sunni tribal leader made a conciliatory public visit to Sadr City, the Shiite enclave in western Baghdad. Sheikh Hamid al-Hayis, leader of an alliance of Sunni tribes that recently began providing men to fight al Qaeda beside the marines in Anbar Province, met with backers of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

Salih al-Ugaily, a Sadr supporter in Parliament, said in an interview that the two sides had agreed on the need for reconciliation and to expedite holding provincial elections, a major demand of Sunni Iraqis, many of whom have said they feel disenfranchised after boycotting previous elections.

Neither security operations nor the political process is moving as quickly as anyone would like, but it would be a mistake to despair too soon. In particular it would be a mistake to give up on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and try to replace him with someone more to America’s liking—an option suggested in this Los Angeles Times article.

Maliki, for all his faults, has only been in office a year, and he is by many accounts improving. He is the third Iraqi leader hand-picked by American officials since Jerry Bremer gave up power in 2004. The previous two—Ayad Allawi and Ibrahim al Jaafari—weren’t so hot. There is no reason to think that anyone who replaces Maliki would be any better, especially when one of the top potential replacements (at least in his own mind) is Allawi.

Replacing prime ministers means going back to square one. Better to work with the leader already in place, however imperfect, and to strengthen his hand by weakening through military action the Shiite and Sunni extremists who threaten the fragile political process. And this is, more or less, the strategy that General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker plan to follow, according to this Washington Post dispatch. We can only wait and hope for results.

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