Commentary Magazine


Topic: nuclear diplomacy

Obama Finds Support … Among Islamic Republic Loyalists

The Democrats took a shellacking in the most recent elections, giving Republicans their most substantial majority since just after World War II and, if the as-yet undecided cases end up with Republican victories, the Republican majority could be the largest since the 1920s. And while most elections are decided solely on domestic and economic issues, the current election was slightly different, as unease about President Obama’s foreign policy, his crisis management, and the stature of the United States on the world stage swayed some voters to vote for the Republicans.

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The Democrats took a shellacking in the most recent elections, giving Republicans their most substantial majority since just after World War II and, if the as-yet undecided cases end up with Republican victories, the Republican majority could be the largest since the 1920s. And while most elections are decided solely on domestic and economic issues, the current election was slightly different, as unease about President Obama’s foreign policy, his crisis management, and the stature of the United States on the world stage swayed some voters to vote for the Republicans.

Many Democrats take the threat of a nuclear Iran seriously. In 2011, Senate Republicans and Democrats joined together to pass tougher sanctions on Iran by a vote of 100-0, over White House objections. But ever since President Obama made his telephone call to President Rouhani and began negotiating with the Islamic Republic in earnest, the White House has succeeded in bringing congressional Democrats in line, against the better judgment of many of them. Well, as the Democratic leadership post-election doubles down on Obama’s foreign policy and their partisan proxies actually argue that a bad deal would be better than no deal and that Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry should therefore be followed blindly regardless of what they concede, Senator Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi can take solace in the fact that they have found new supporters … inside the Islamic Republic.

Mardom Salari, an Iranian daily supportive of Rouhani, editorialized that the Iranian government should reach at least a temporary agreement with President Obama and his team of negotiators, in order to keep Democrats in power:

If at this sensitive time that may decide our future we are not able to agree on that paradigm and structure, tomorrow may be too late and we may not be able to raise the issue [of an agreement] again, because radicalism and extremism are not the traits that have only manifested themselves in the region in the form of some extremist groups… [but] they have also affected some powerful parties in major countries.

Should the Democrats lose in 2016, the paper warned:

…We will be faced with warmongers who see democracy only through the lenses of their weapons and who regard power and fighting as the only standard of justice and democracy. Therefore, in view of this situation, now that the world and people everywhere have replaced the discourse of talks for conflict, inside the country too we should adopt the policy of idealistic realism and in this way we should safeguard national interest and seek our benefits in the forthcoming talks.

The rhetoric is cartoonish nonsense of course, but the meaning is clear: Come to an agreement or else have to face those in the United States who are not pushovers. The whole thing is reminiscent of the Iranian government’s realization after humiliating President Jimmy Carter during the hostage crisis that it would face a very different America once Ronald Reagan won the White House.

Perhaps it’s time the Congress disappoints the Iranian government even if the White House will not, and let Tehran know they dragged their feet for six years too long, and that they cannot forever count on American naivete, weakness, and impotence.

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The Truman Clown Show and Iranian Nukes

It seems like these days every time the Truman National Security Project is in the news it is because of a debate over how ashamed the think tank’s inspiration, Harry Truman, would be of its latest antics. In late 2011, the Truman Project expelled former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block because of his decision to push back publicly on leftists close to the Obama administration for their anti-Israel invective. And now it has sunk to a level that embarrassed even its founder Rachel Kleinfeld. But it answered a very important question about the Obama administration’s Iran diplomacy in the process.

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It seems like these days every time the Truman National Security Project is in the news it is because of a debate over how ashamed the think tank’s inspiration, Harry Truman, would be of its latest antics. In late 2011, the Truman Project expelled former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block because of his decision to push back publicly on leftists close to the Obama administration for their anti-Israel invective. And now it has sunk to a level that embarrassed even its founder Rachel Kleinfeld. But it answered a very important question about the Obama administration’s Iran diplomacy in the process.

Yesterday, the Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo revealed that the Truman Project, which is aligned with the Obama White House and whose board of advisors includes Michele Flournoy, had initiated a rather heavyhanded call to arms to rally support for President Obama’s attempt to ink a deal on Iran’s nuclear program with Tehran. On an internal email list, the group appeared ready to support whatever deal eventually emerges, if a deal does emerge, from the negotiations. But they seemed even more interested in attacking those with reservations about the deal.

“Our community absolutely must step up and not cede the public narrative to neocon hawks that would send our country to war just to screw the president,” Graham F. West, Truman’s writing and communications associate, wrote, according to Kredo. And he claimed, as the president often does, that the choice was essentially between war and peace, with no gray area.

Then today, Kredo followed up with another scoop of internal communications from the Truman Project. While the earlier batch of emails showed the Truman Project slandering skeptics of an Iran deal as animated simply by partisanship and willing to send Americans to war just to mess with the president, the second batch showed an equally unhinged effort to get Truman scholars to question the patriotism of anyone who opposes Obama on the issue:

“If they [Congress] kill the deal, they should be blamed for the consequences,” [David Solimini, Truman’s vice president for strategic communications] wrote. “Congress gave the president the tools he needed to make sure Iran was isolated and under massive pressure. Now they need to support what they started so that we can keep up our end of the bargain.”

Solimini then suggests a “good line” that advocates can use: “Congress is the home team. They better keep rooting for an American win.”

“Handling opposition to a deal” also is addressed in the talking points.

Those who would “be against any deal, even before they know what it is” are “shameful,” according to Solimini’s document.

In what may prove to be one of the document’s more controversial passages, Solimini recommends that Truman allies push back against those who insist, “No deal is better than a bad deal.”

That last part is important, both because Obama himself has said that line and because the Obama administration’s obvious desperation in getting any deal they can has contributed mightily to the impression that he doesn’t mean it. One of the recent suggestions, for example, was that Iran disconnect some pipes, so they’d have to–gasp!–reconnect them when they felt like it.

So the president obviously believes that any deal is better than no deal, and the Truman Project is on board with this nonsense, ready to publicly question the patriotism of those with reservations about the administration’s recklessness. It shows that even in the quarters that are supposed to be providing the intellectual firepower for the nuke deal, false choices and mischaracterizations are all we get. The Obama administration’s behavior can’t be defended on its merits, even from its defenders.

And it reveals something significant. As Kleinfeld (who is no longer with the organization) tweeted when the first story broke, the U.S. should only agree to an Iran deal if it’s a good deal, “not for partisanship.” The Truman Project’s “all-hands-on-deck effort” is a classic case of projection. It warns of the pure partisanship of its opponents when the opposite is true. Skepticism toward Iran’s intentions and the wisdom of striking a weak deal is actually bipartisan.

Today Republican Senator Mark Kirk and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez (the latter the outgoing chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) declared “they would push for more penalties against Tehran if they are unhappy with any nuclear deal, signaling a potential battle with the Obama administration less than two weeks before the deadline for an agreement.”

Indeed, the Obama administration strategy that emerged even before the Republicans won back control of the Senate was to find a way to go it alone. The president knows that, as usual, opposition to his plans is bipartisan, and that even with control of the Senate he would struggle getting a treaty through. Congress has vowed to push back, but the only reason they have anything to push back on is that Obama is strongly considering pretending the treaty isn’t a treaty and going around the Senate to strike a deal.

The naked partisanship, in other words, is completely on one side–Obama’s. And the Truman Project is just the latest to demonstrate this reality.

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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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Why Deterrence Won’t Work with Iran

Underlying the Obama administration’s approach to the Iranian nuclear program has been an assumption that, if worse came to worst, the world could contain and deter a nuclear Iran. After all, many officials and analysts suggest, the Iranian regime isn’t suicidal. It knows that if it used nuclear weapons against Israel or the United States, it would be annihilated. In addition, some analysts suggest, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) worked during the Cold War; neither the United States nor the Soviet Union was willing to push the button. So, the logic goes, even if Iran cheats on the deal for which Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing so hard and builds a nuclear weapon, the risk of a nuclear first strike on Israel is minimal.

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Underlying the Obama administration’s approach to the Iranian nuclear program has been an assumption that, if worse came to worst, the world could contain and deter a nuclear Iran. After all, many officials and analysts suggest, the Iranian regime isn’t suicidal. It knows that if it used nuclear weapons against Israel or the United States, it would be annihilated. In addition, some analysts suggest, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) worked during the Cold War; neither the United States nor the Soviet Union was willing to push the button. So, the logic goes, even if Iran cheats on the deal for which Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing so hard and builds a nuclear weapon, the risk of a nuclear first strike on Israel is minimal.

The problem with such logic is it misunderstands Iran, ignores its ideology, and doesn’t take into account the command and control of any military nuclear program.

Simply put, the Islamic Republic isn’t stable. Over the past 15 years, it has weathered three major mass demonstrations:

  • In 1999, student protests morphed into a national movement after vigilantes attacked a Tehran University student dormitory, killing a student and injuring scores;
  • In 2001, protests spread across the country after Iran lost a World Cup qualifier 3-1 to Bahrain, a loss which some Iranians believed was due to the government seeking to have the team throw the game so as to prevent men and women from celebrating together; and,
  • In 2009, unrest rocked the country after the regime apparently fixed the results of an election so that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could have a second term.

The point is that the Islamic Republic remains deeply unpopular with many segments of Iranian society. That does not mean that the Iranian public is revolutionary; after having one revolution which promised Islamic democracy but delivered neither the Iranian public is decidedly apathetic and cynical. However, Iran is a tinderbox and when a spark occurs, the fire can spread rapidly.

Let’s put aside the fallacy that Mutually-Assured Destruction will always be successful (the United States and the Soviet Union got damned lucky at times, for example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis or the aftermath of Korean Air 007’s downing). Here’s the nightmare situation: While the government has been more successful at smothering sparks than protestors have been at lighting them, in each of the above three uprisings, it was touch and go for a bit. It’s likely that in the future there will be a spark which again morphs into nationwide protests.

What happens if, in any future protests, rather than putting down the people, some of the security forces join in, much as they did in Romania in 1989? At the end, it was clear that the regime of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu would not last out the month, although few expected the Christmas Day firing squad in which the hated dictator and his wife met their end.

Back to Iran: If the Islamic Republic develops nuclear weapons, the command, control, and custody of that arsenal would likely be not only in the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), but also in its most ideologically pure unit, handpicked for their loyalty to Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei’s radical ideology. The IRGC isn’t homogeneous. But just because some members join more for privilege than belief doesn’t mean there aren’t many true believers among the guardians of the revolution. The regime may not be suicidal, but if it’s terminally ill so that those in control of an Iranian bomb know that there will be regime change in a matter of days if not hours, then why not launch to fulfill the ideological objectives of eliminating Israel?

To assume the Iranian regime isn’t suicidal is all well and good, but there is a huge difference between a desire for self-preservation and stability. To ignore the Revolutionary Guards and to gamble millions of lives on the assumption that the Islamic Republic will last forever is negligent in the extreme. Alas, it increasingly seems such a description fits Obama and Kerry’s assumptions and actions.

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Khamenei’s Genocidal Ideology

Tom Wilson wrote earlier today on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s core hostility, and noted last week’s huge, state-sanctioned anti-America rally in Tehran. (I was fortunate to spend about seven months in Iran while I was working on my Ph.D. back in the 1990s, and so always try to differentiate between Iran and the Islamic Republic; Iranians tend to be more cosmopolitan and tolerant than then the regime which seeks to speak in their name). He was absolutely correct.

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Tom Wilson wrote earlier today on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s core hostility, and noted last week’s huge, state-sanctioned anti-America rally in Tehran. (I was fortunate to spend about seven months in Iran while I was working on my Ph.D. back in the 1990s, and so always try to differentiate between Iran and the Islamic Republic; Iranians tend to be more cosmopolitan and tolerant than then the regime which seeks to speak in their name). He was absolutely correct.

At the beginning of President Obama’s diplomatic outreach, when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei spoke about “heroic flexibility,” he was endorsing not a change in the Islamic Republic’s position, but rather just its tactics. At the same time, he was consciously utilizing a phrase with deep religious meaning for Shi‘ites: Imam Hassan spoke of his “heroic flexibility” in striking a deal with the Umayyad caliph Mu’awiya, a man whom Shi‘ites continue to curse to the present day, and whose dynasty the Shi‘ites continued to fight. The point is that what Obama and his advisors saw as a change-of-heart was anything but: As far as Khamenei is concerned, he remains the deputy of the messiah on earth, and the revolution he oversees continues in its endless quest to remake Iran and the world. Western officials might put their hope in the Green Movement, but they should never forget that in the Iranian system, sovereignty comes from God through the supreme leader, and does not rise from the people.

This brings us to the Islamic Republic’s hostility to Israel and Jews which is by no means limited to Khamenei. Former President Mohammad Khatami, often celebrated as a reformer in Western diplomatic circles, oversaw a resurgence of Holocaust denial inside Iran long before his successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, made an international incident out of such Holocaust revisionism. The past year has seen state-sponsored anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism move into overdrive as Iranian leaders concluded that President Obama’s hostility to the Jewish state translated into its isolation and vulnerability.

As we enter the last two weeks of talks before the self-imposed deadline to conclude a deal with Iran, it now seems that Khamenei is taking his hatred to a new level. Hence, on the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht, he tweeted a nine-step plan for the destruction of Israel. This, against the backdrop of current President Hassan Rouhani’s past endorsement of utilizing diplomacy as a means to lull America into complacency before delivering a knock-out blow, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s reports suggesting Iran was backtracking on its promise of transparency and nuclear accountability, should raise red flags.

It is also important to analyze with consistency rather than cherry-pick: If President Rouhani’s Rosh Hashanah tweet wishing Jews a happy New Year was a sign of real change in Iran, would not Khamenei’s tweet calling for Israel’s eradication be a sign that perhaps hope of such change was premature? After all, within the Islamic Republic’s system, Khamenei trumps Rouhani just as certainly as in poker, a royal flush trumps a pair of twos. Nor is timing a coincidence: If Rouhani timed his tweet for the Jewish New Year, why assume Khamenei’s timing of his tweet to coincide with the anniversary of one of Germany’s great pogroms was simply a coincidence?

Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry and their European counterparts are desperate for a deal with Iran. Perhaps they think that with enough concessions, they can achieve a deal that will return the Islamic Republic to the community of responsibilities. They are wrong. For as long as the Islamic Republic governs Iran, there will be no compromise on its ruling regime’s ideological obligation and efforts to destroy Israel by any and all means possible. Khamenei is simply providing a reminder to see if his new American or European partners will object. They will not. But what to Obama and Kerry is a diplomatic silence meant to keep their eyes on the diplomatic prize is for Khamenei a sign that he can get away with murder. Appeasing hatred is never the path to peace.

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Obama Can’t Ignore Iran’s Hostility

The Obama administration had been telling us that it might be just weeks away from signing a deal with Iran regarding the regime’s illegal nuclear program. Yet we also have reports that Iran may have already breached the interim deal it signed by employing a faster means of uranium enrichment. Then came last week’s revelation from the Wall Street Journal of Obama’s clandestine letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei regarding the campaign against ISIS in Iraq. It is hard to believe that at a time when Iran’s brazen untrustworthiness is being put beyond doubt, the Obama administration is seeking to both reach an accommodation with Tehran on its nuclear program and to even pursue some kind of further military coordination. And all of this ignores the fact that the regime remains one of the most expressedly anti-American in the world.

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The Obama administration had been telling us that it might be just weeks away from signing a deal with Iran regarding the regime’s illegal nuclear program. Yet we also have reports that Iran may have already breached the interim deal it signed by employing a faster means of uranium enrichment. Then came last week’s revelation from the Wall Street Journal of Obama’s clandestine letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei regarding the campaign against ISIS in Iraq. It is hard to believe that at a time when Iran’s brazen untrustworthiness is being put beyond doubt, the Obama administration is seeking to both reach an accommodation with Tehran on its nuclear program and to even pursue some kind of further military coordination. And all of this ignores the fact that the regime remains one of the most expressedly anti-American in the world.

Jonathan Tobin has already pointed out the disingenuousness of Obama’s rhetoric on Iran as compared to the actual policy of detente that the White House has been pursuing. Equally, Michael Rubin has noted the folly of Obama’s overtures to the mullahs when Khamenei’s own rhetoric is so absurdly hostile to the United States. But, of course, Iran’s implicit hostility to America goes far beyond the statements of the supreme leader; the regime continues to engineer an entire culture of anti-American hate into which the Iranian public is indoctrinated. Michael Rubin drew readers’ attention to some of the fiercely anti-American statements made by Khamenei during the 2009 celebrations marking the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. But if we look to the same commemorations held just days ago, we see that the regime’s anti-American incitement has in fact only intensified.

Tuesday’s rally in Tehran marking the 35th anniversary of the storming of the embassy was reportedly far larger than in previous years, with some 3,000 in attendance burning the American, British, and Israeli flags, howling death to America at the top of their voices, as is customary. This year the anniversary had actually coincided with the Shia holy-day of Ashura, and so this presented the opportunity for similar such gatherings–also replete with anti-American placards and flag burning—to be held throughout several other Iranian cities.

It would of course be ridiculous to label these displays as the spontaneous outpourings that the regime would have us believe they are. In a society as tightly controlled as the one in Iran, no such public gatherings take place without the endorsement of the state. It is however true that the state-controlled media in the Islamic Republic provides the population with a stale diet of around-the-clock anti-American propaganda. Indeed, it was only back in February that Iranian television was broadcasting a simulation of attacks on U.S. military targets.

Still, given the incredibly delicate situation with the current negotiations, one might have assumed that the Iranians would have at least attempted to keep these demonstrations more low key. Yet, it is a sign of just how little respect the mullahs have for Obama—and how little they fear the United States—that far from playing down the 1979 embassy storming, in many ways they have been flaunting it. Earlier this year when it came time for Iran to select a new ambassador to the United Nations, Rouhani’s government chose none other than Hamid Aboutalebi, himself one of the former embassy hostage takers. This was a clear finger in the American eye and a sign of Iran’s completely unrepentant attitude over such past offenses.

The truth is that along with North Korea and Cuba, Iran remains one of the most profoundly anti-American countries in the world today. And yet the Obama administration appears poised to sign a treaty with the Islamic Republic. That is what an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program would be, although of course the White House will attempt to deny that the agreement is a treaty in an effort to avoid having to run it past Congress. No doubt Obama and Kerry are well aware that there are many there who will not share the administration’s enthusiasm for signing a treaty with a regime that is in every sense a fierce enemy of the United States. And yet having discarded all the other options, Obama seems to determined to push on and do just that.

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Lessons on Iran from the Fall of the Berlin Wall

This Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I grew up against the backdrop of the Cold War. Leonid Brezhnev was the Soviet premier for the first decade of my life. His 1982 funeral was represented the dour pageantry of the Soviet Union to which we had become accustomed. I was in the sixth grade when a Soviet pilot shot down Korean Air 007. In hindsight we learned that it was perhaps the closest the United States and Soviet Union had come to nuclear war in my lifetime. And, as a voracious reader, I grew up reading Cold War thrillers such as Fail Safe, Seven Days in May, On the Beach, and later The Charm School, and I also remember the debates in school about whether or not it was appropriate for kids my age to see The Day After when it first appeared on television. Walking around Northeast Philadelphia where I grew up, many buildings still housed these signs which somewhere along the years thankfully disappeared.

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This Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I grew up against the backdrop of the Cold War. Leonid Brezhnev was the Soviet premier for the first decade of my life. His 1982 funeral was represented the dour pageantry of the Soviet Union to which we had become accustomed. I was in the sixth grade when a Soviet pilot shot down Korean Air 007. In hindsight we learned that it was perhaps the closest the United States and Soviet Union had come to nuclear war in my lifetime. And, as a voracious reader, I grew up reading Cold War thrillers such as Fail Safe, Seven Days in May, On the Beach, and later The Charm School, and I also remember the debates in school about whether or not it was appropriate for kids my age to see The Day After when it first appeared on television. Walking around Northeast Philadelphia where I grew up, many buildings still housed these signs which somewhere along the years thankfully disappeared.

When I had my bar mitzvah back in 1984, like many of my peers, I was “twinned” with a Soviet Jew my age and encouraged to write to him. I quickly received a note back asking me not to write anymore because his family feared for their safety. Teachers and peers, meanwhile, would regularly go and protest Ronald Reagan’s “warmongering” and military build-up in Western Europe. Against the backdrop of all this, there were many who downplayed the importance of freedom even as it was denied to so many. The Soviet Union would be a permanent fixture of our world and that we just had to bargain with what was there rather than what we’d like to see. Cuba might be a dictatorship, but couldn’t we just applaud its health-care system? Maybe the United States was at fault in Nicaragua and the people truly wanted to be in the Communist orbit.

Then Berlin happened. It was my senior year in high school, and what a heady time it was, coming just months after the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Despite what diplomats, teachers, professors, and news anchors told us, perhaps people really did want to be free. It’s hard to argue with hundreds of thousands clamoring to escape the prison in which their leaders had put them. Whereas many so-called sophisticated Americans had mocked Ronald Reagan for his “evil empire” remarks, those escaping from Soviet tutelage described his moral clarity as a shot of adrenalin to those seeking freedom and individual liberty.

How unfortunate it is, then, that history must repeat, that somehow those in power and those entrusted with American diplomacy have come to once again embrace moral equivalency and shirk moral clarity. We need look no further than Iran. Whereas many U.S. presidents have reached their hand out to the Iranian people, President Obama was the first to substitute a direct outreach to Iranians with instead the legitimization of the Islamic Republic, the regime which so oppresses them.

Part of this might be ignorance of his advisors. When one looks at the histories and explanations of the Islamic Revolution published in English, so many of these were commissioned against the backdrop of revolution by publishers who wanted an answer to how so many in the West were taken by surprise by the Islamic Revolution. The most popular of the resulting books—and those still used in universities—for example, Nikki Keddie’s Roots of Revolution and Ervand Abrahamian’s Iran Between Two Revolutions, treated the Islamic Revolution as the natural apex of Iranian political evolution. It might not have looked it at the time, but such a conclusion was nonsense. The Islamic Revolution was just as much an anomaly, one made possible by a confluence of events ranging from the shah’s cancer, Carter’s bungling, Khomeini’s exile from Iraq, and pure dumb luck on Khomeini’s part. It does a tremendous disservice to the Iranian people to treat the theocracy and regime imposed upon them by Ayatollah Khomeini as a permanent part of the Iranian political landscape.

The outreach Obama initiated led the president to downplay rather than offer moral support to the 2009 uprising inside Iran. Then, in order to grease his outreach, he offered Iran more than $7 billion in sanctions relief at a time when, thanks in part to sanctions, Iran’s economy was fast contracting. And that was even before the price of oil dropped precipitously, well below the level necessary to support the budget which Iranian leaders calculated.

Ronald Reagan ended the Soviet Union by forcing it to bankrupt itself. Obama was offered the same opportunity with a state just as hostile to the United States and chose to throw it a life raft. As we near a quarter century from the Berlin Wall’s fall, we should not kid ourselves by believing that it is somehow sophisticated diplomacy to preserve our adversaries or downplay the aspirations for freedom which peoples chafing under dictatorship hold. It is a lesson Obama and Kerry should consider as they work to cement their legacy on the backs of ordinary Iranians.

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Desperation Not a Good Negotiating Position

Secretary of State John Kerry is headed to the Sultanate of Oman this weekend, where he will meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and his European Union counterpart, Catherine Ashton.

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Secretary of State John Kerry is headed to the Sultanate of Oman this weekend, where he will meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and his European Union counterpart, Catherine Ashton.

Kerry’s meeting comes against the backdrop of an extraordinary interview he gave to the press from Paris:

“I want to get this done,” Kerry said during a series of meetings in which the Iranian negotiations figured prominently. “And we are driving toward the finish with a view of trying to get it done.” Kerry said Iran is entitled to develop its nuclear program for civilian, not military, use. “They have a right to a peaceful program but not a track to a bomb,” Kerry said. “We believe it is pretty easy to prove to the world that a plan is peaceful.”

The Iranians have a right to a peaceful program? Well, the Islamic Republic’s politicians have made that their mantra. But then, they conducted nuclear-weapons research at least until 2003, and stonewalled the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which, in 2005, found Iran formally in non-compliance with its Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Safeguards Agreement. This, in turn, led to the United Nations Security Council taking up the Iran file, and in turn this led to at least six UN Security Council Resolutions which found that Iran did not have a right to a peaceful program given its previous violations.

It’s all well and good for Iranian negotiators to talk about the rights bestowed by the NPT, but they fail to acknowledge their violations voided those rights. For many activists and diplomats, the talks are a fiction meant to preserve the NPT rather than the means to resolve the nuclear impasse. In this, the world sees the same nod and wink that it saw in the lead-up to the Agreed Framework with North Korea two decades ago. That Iranian negotiators hold North Korea up as a model to emulate should set off alarm bells.

Back to Kerry: He is absolutely wrong to suggest that Iran has any right to a peaceful program. The only reason why he might utter such a mantra is because he and the administration he serves have become so unilateral that they are prepared to waive not only American sanctions but several unanimous or near-unanimous Security Council resolutions.

That he believes Iran’s program is peaceful beggars belief, for it ignores that peaceful programs are not built under mountains or in secret. It ignores that if Iran’s goal is indigenous energy security, the Islamic Republic doesn’t possess enough uranium to fuel eight civilian reactors for more than 15 years. And it ignores that if Iran’s goal was merely energy security, it could have rebuilt its refinery capability and pipeline network to power itself for more than a century at a fraction of its nuclear investment. It ignores the fact that the nuclear fatwa which Obama found so convincing apparently does not exist. Nor does he pay attention to President Rouhani’s history of deception and statements which suggest extreme insincerity.

Kerry is right that there is no reason for Iran not to reach an agreement by the November 24 deadline. There was, indeed, no reason for Iran not to reach an agreement with the IAEA in 2005, or with the international community upon receiving its first sanction. All Iran had to do was come clean about its past and comply with its international commitments.

The fact of the matter is that the more Obama and Kerry project desperation for a deal—and Kerry’s statement with regard to November 24 reflects that desperation—the more likely it is that Iran will retrench itself, as Supreme Leader Khamenei recently did with his declaration of redlines.

Let us hope that Kerry remembers that the purpose of the Iran talks was to address issues of Iran’s dishonesty and non-compliance with its agreements, not to paper over them. Just as with North Korea, a bad deal is far worse than no deal at all. Securing a legacy for Obama or being the center of international attention for a day or two is not worth the price to U.S. national security.

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White House Ignores Khamenei Response to Letters

The always excellent Jay Solomon and Carol Lee have a scoop in the Wall Street Journal regarding the latest letter which President Obama has sent to Supreme Leader Khamenei.

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The always excellent Jay Solomon and Carol Lee have a scoop in the Wall Street Journal regarding the latest letter which President Obama has sent to Supreme Leader Khamenei.

While we can debate the wisdom of this correspondence–and I think Obama is being extremely naïve–at least he seems to recognize that it is the supreme leader who makes decisions and not the Iranian president, no matter how smiley that president might be.

What struck me, however, was this statement in Solomon and Lee’s report:

Mr. Khamenei never directly responded to the overtures, according to U.S. officials. And Iran’s security forces cracked down hard that year on nationwide protests that challenged the re-election of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Actually, Khamenei did respond. On the 30th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy, he said this, in a mocking tone which is even more apparent in the Persian version of this speech:

The new US President made some beautiful comments. He also repeatedly asked us in writing and orally to turn a new page and help him change the present situation. He asked us to cooperate with him to solve global issues. He went as far as that.

Now, Khamenei continued to say he gave Obama a chance, but Obama didn’t come around. Khamenei then gloated about the strength of the Islamic Republic, a perception which Obama’s groveling tone has bolstered:

I wonder why they do not learn a lesson from what has happened. I do not understand why they are not prepared to get to know our nation. Do they not know that this nation is the one that resisted and brought the two superpowers – that is, the Soviet Union and America – to their knees? When there were two superpowers in the world, they were opposed to one another in almost all areas except in their enmity towards the Islamic Republic. This enmity was the only thing these two superpowers had in common. Why do you not learn your lesson? Today you are not even as powerful as you used to be. The Islamic Republic is several times more powerful today than those days, and yet you are speaking with the same tone? That is arrogance – talking to a nation arrogantly and using threats to get what they want. They threaten us. And our nation says it will resist.

Khamenei then warned the United States not to put its hope in reformers, as Obama seems keen to do:

Just because a handful of naïve or malevolent individuals have confronted the Islamic Republic does not mean that they can roll out the red carpet for Americans in our country. These individuals either had ulterior motives or had naively misunderstood the events without having very bad intentions – I do not want to be judgmental about their malevolence. Americans should know that the nation is resisting firmly.

The point of this is not to criticize the Wall Street Journal report which only relates what Obama administration officials said. But it is symptomatic of the problems of Obama administration diplomacy with Iran: Simply put, Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry imagine sincerity where none exists and ignore any response that is not too their liking. Rather than acknowledge that Khamenei responded with a message Obama did not like, the White House and State Department would rather put the response down the memory hole, all the better to keep the process alive. The reality is this, however: No really does mean no.

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North Korea’s Lessons for Iran Diplomacy

It has now been more than 20 years since the Clinton administration signed its supposed breakthrough nuclear agreement with North Korea. The purpose of U.S. diplomacy was to prevent North Korea from attaining nuclear-weapons capability by means of a series of incentives and verifiable safeguards. Then as now, politicians seemed to embrace the notion that a bad deal was better than no deal at all, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Negotiators from the time readily admit they realized what they were getting was a bad deal, but convinced themselves that with Communist regimes falling all around, North Korea’s time was limited. What they never fully understood in North Korea as in Iran was (and is) the importance of the ideology to the regime, and the fact that there were enough true believers among the regime leadership and special military forces to render moot any doubts the public and any reformists might have had.

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It has now been more than 20 years since the Clinton administration signed its supposed breakthrough nuclear agreement with North Korea. The purpose of U.S. diplomacy was to prevent North Korea from attaining nuclear-weapons capability by means of a series of incentives and verifiable safeguards. Then as now, politicians seemed to embrace the notion that a bad deal was better than no deal at all, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Negotiators from the time readily admit they realized what they were getting was a bad deal, but convinced themselves that with Communist regimes falling all around, North Korea’s time was limited. What they never fully understood in North Korea as in Iran was (and is) the importance of the ideology to the regime, and the fact that there were enough true believers among the regime leadership and special military forces to render moot any doubts the public and any reformists might have had.

Twenty years on, North Korea is a nuclear power, more threatening than ever. Its cheating began almost the instant it signed the Agreed Framework and subsequent agreements. Wendy Sherman, who now leads negotiations with Iran, reacted at the time to Pentagon reports of North Korean cheating by condemning the Pentagon experts for making compliance so narrow.

Fast forward two decades: Obama seeks a breakthrough with Iran to change an otherwise sorry legacy, while past and present State Department officials like Wendy Sherman, Jake Sullivan, and Bill Burns recognize that one way to get ahead personally is to break through diplomatic barriers, whether or not breaking those barriers is wise for national security.

As the Obama administration rushes to seal a bad deal with Iran, the latest news regarding North Korea should be a wake-up call. From South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency:

North Korea has launched a new submarine capable of firing ballistic missiles, military and government sources in Seoul said Sunday, raising further concerns over the North’s evolving missile and nuclear threats. The communist country “is believed to have completed construction of the new submarine after importing a Soviet-era Golf-class diesel submarine and reverse-engineering it,” a government source said on condition of anonymity. The Soviet vessel was built in 1958 and decommissioned in 1990. “The new submarine is 67 meters long with a beam of 6.6 meters, and has a dived displacement in the 3,000-ton range,” the source said.

While North Korea has yet to master the technology of actually launching ballistic missiles from submarines, this is yet one more achievement on a trajectory that Pyongyang has pursued without interruption.

Back to Iran: While the Iranian regime says that it wants nuclear power for civilian reasons, on the surface such claims make no sense: Iran doesn’t have the indigenous uranium reserves to power a civilian program of the size it says it wants (eight reactors) for more than 15 years. That Iran could power its country with gas and oil for far longer and with far less investment should raise eyebrows. So too should the fact that Iran has been working on developing both submarines and ballistic missiles, the first of which has never been on the bilateral agenda and the latter of which the State Department appears willing to turn a blind eye to in its negotiations.

While the U.S. military conducts lessons-learned exercises constantly, the State Department has never conducted a lessons-learned exercise about why its diplomacy with rogue regimes has failed. It has simply never acknowledged its mistakes and so constantly repeats them.

I’m not sure there’s anyone outside of Pyongyang who would call U.S.-North Korea diplomacy a success. Rather, it has been a colossal, multibillion-dollar disaster. That should be a wake-up call, especially as Iranian negotiators have looked to North Korea for inspiration. But, if there is any silver lining, it is the lesson which the example should provide to American diplomats, should any choose to listen.

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Europe’s Iran Pivot

With the November 24 deadline for an agreement on Iran’s illegal nuclear program fast approaching, there is every reason to suspect that the Obama administration may be about to sign off on a woefully inadequate deal that would leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state. As we saw with the interim agreement last fall, Iran received an easing of sanctions in return for what were essentially token concessions–concessions that Iran has already failed to stand by, with international inspectors still being blocked from such key sites as those at Parchin. With the prospect of the administration making a deal with the Iranians that would bring down what remains of the sanctions regime, European businesses are gearing up to resume economic ties with Iran, while the Iranian lobby in Europe is working overtime.

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With the November 24 deadline for an agreement on Iran’s illegal nuclear program fast approaching, there is every reason to suspect that the Obama administration may be about to sign off on a woefully inadequate deal that would leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state. As we saw with the interim agreement last fall, Iran received an easing of sanctions in return for what were essentially token concessions–concessions that Iran has already failed to stand by, with international inspectors still being blocked from such key sites as those at Parchin. With the prospect of the administration making a deal with the Iranians that would bring down what remains of the sanctions regime, European businesses are gearing up to resume economic ties with Iran, while the Iranian lobby in Europe is working overtime.

Despite the fact that Tehran appears in no mood to make any kind of serious compromise on its nuclear program, with the initial six-month negotiating period having already been extended once, the administration has now run out of time for a diplomatic process that never showed any real sign of going anywhere to begin with. But now it appears that both the Iranians and their European trading partners anticipate that a lifting of the sanctions could be imminent. Indeed, earlier this month two separate trade fairs held in Iran featured a host of European companies, with businesses from Spain, France, Italy, Denmark, Britain, and Germany.

But it is also in Europe itself that commercial relations are being reestablished. In both Britain and Germany, concerted efforts are underway to revive Europe’s economic ties with Iran, and friends of the regime in Tehran are playing a leading role in lobbying for normalization. Perhaps most significant so far has been the gathering of the Europe-Iran Forum in London last week, which was officially convened in anticipation of the “expected rollback of the current international sanctions against Iran.”

Nor was this some fringe event. Such prestigious names as Sotheby’s auction house and Dentons law firm turned out for the gathering, and they were accompanied by senior figures such as the chief executive of WPP Martin Sorrell, the director of the Middle East and North Africa department of Britain’s Foreign Office Edward Oakden, the former French Foreign Minister Hubert Verdine, Britain’s former ambassador to Iran Richard Dalton, and of course, Tehran’s most prominent advocate in the UK: former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. To give a sense of just what an enthusiastic proponent for Iran Straw has now become it is worth recalling that earlier this year during a meeting in parliament he asserted that, “Tehran feels like Madrid or Athens rather than Cairo or Mumbai.” A ridiculous claim, when the public executions and state enforced oppression in Iran’s capital makes Athens under the Junta of 1960s, or Franco’s Madrid for that matter, look positively liberal.

As it was, a touch of the Iranian attitude toward press freedom even appeared to find its way into the proceedings at the Europe-Iran Forum meeting. For while Iran’s state controlled media outlets attended in force, the Wall Street Journal’s  Sohrab Ahmari was denied access on the grounds that there wasn’t space. And such initiatives as this one appear to only be the beginning. Last week it was also announced that a ten-man delegation of Iranian business figures will be traveling to Germany next month and will be making visits to Berlin, Hanover, and Hamburg. And it is particularly noteworthy that included in this delegation organized by the German-Iran Chamber of Commerce are key figures from sanctioned industries such as gas and oil, as well as from Iran’s financial sector.

The problem is that, just as European business is seeking to read the signals being put out by Washington, so too are the Iranians carefully watching attitudes in other parts of the West. As Tommy Steiner of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya recently told the Jerusalem Post: “overly eager, not to say drooling, business executives might send a different message to Iran – suggesting they are open for business with Iran no matter what. That is the kind of message that could kill the negotiations.”

The reality is that perceived weakness on the part of the Obama administration is being read by both the Iranians and the Europeans, with each having a knock-on effect upon the other, so working to undermine the international consensus for a tough stance on Iran. And while there may still be multiple UN Security Council resolutions in place prohibiting Iran’s nuclear program, the end result of Obama’s negotiations with Iran may be to achieve nothing more than the erosion of the international consensus that made those resolutions possible.

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Obama Hypocrisy of Avoiding Congress on Iran Deal

The New York Times is reporting that President Obama envisions an Iran deal which could avoid the need for congressional approval:

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The New York Times is reporting that President Obama envisions an Iran deal which could avoid the need for congressional approval:

No one knows if the Obama administration will manage in the next five weeks to strike what many in the White House consider the most important foreign policy deal of his presidency: an accord with Iran that would forestall its ability to make a nuclear weapon. But the White House has made one significant decision: If agreement is reached, President Obama will do everything in his power to avoid letting Congress vote on it.

Let’s put aside the notion that no one in Congress seeks permanent enmity with Tehran: What they see is a solution that addresses American security concerns and, absent that, they might criticize any deal that comes before them. That the administration has so little confidence in its own negotiating team that it fears congressional buy-in says a lot about the weakness of Obama and his team’s way of negotiating. Simply put, for Obama it seems, increasingly, that a bad deal trumps no deal.

The real hypocrisy is this, however: While the Obama administration explained its decision to withdraw completely from Iraq on the fact that the Iraqi government wouldn’t give American forces remaining in the country immunity, this isn’t fully accurate. According to Iraqis, the American negotiating team working out the details simply wouldn’t take yes for an answer for a continued American presence: Prime Minister Maliki offered immunity, but the Obama administration insisted that he get parliamentary approval for any immunity component of the deal. That was politically impossible—as the American team knew it would be—and so Obama had an excuse to walk away.

How ironic it is, then, that the Obama White House insisted that the Iraqi parliament approve such deals, but then turns around and seeks to diminish the role of the U.S. Congress in a decision that is just as momentous for U.S. national security. Obama is no stranger to hypocrisy. In this case, however, it seems that Obama’s attitude toward legislatures is much less guided by law or principle than by his own political ambitions at any given time.

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Throwing a Life Raft to a Failing Iran

One of the most important questions when assessing Iran’s economy and perhaps even the Islamic Republic’s stability is at what price of oil did the Iranian leadership calculate Iran’s budget. The oil market is historically volatile, but prognosticating the average price of oil over the fiscal year is important: Iran’s economy is not only dependent upon petroleum products but it is also beset by a bloated bureaucracy and inefficient management. If Iranian bureaucrats guess wrong about oil prices, then they risk not making payroll. As the price of oil declines, the Iranian government—and even the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—also have less money to engage in special projects or to spend overseas.

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One of the most important questions when assessing Iran’s economy and perhaps even the Islamic Republic’s stability is at what price of oil did the Iranian leadership calculate Iran’s budget. The oil market is historically volatile, but prognosticating the average price of oil over the fiscal year is important: Iran’s economy is not only dependent upon petroleum products but it is also beset by a bloated bureaucracy and inefficient management. If Iranian bureaucrats guess wrong about oil prices, then they risk not making payroll. As the price of oil declines, the Iranian government—and even the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—also have less money to engage in special projects or to spend overseas.

Most analysts believe Iran calculated its budget based on oil being $90/barrel. Brent crude is now trading at $85/barrel, down from $115/barrel in June. Not only does that represent a 26-percent decline in the price of oil in just four months but, if the price remains at $85/barrel, it represents a potential 5.5 percent shortfall in the Iranian budget. If the price falls further and fast, the damage to the Iranian economy and its ability to invest money in international adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip will fall even further.

How sad it is, then, that the Obama administration seems to be greasing its diplomatic process on sanctions relief to the tune of more than $7 billion—122 percent of the official annual budget of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—while European and American firms now chomp at the bit to spend money inside Iran.

There is no coherent regional strategy in the White House or State Department: Heck, it’s been hard enough for the Obama administration to understand that it cannot treat Syria and Iraq as problems detached from each other. While the Obama administration increases its desperation to deal with Iran, it is prepared to ignore Iranian interference in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and Afghanistan. Any cash crunch will negatively impact Iran’s influence and involvement in these countries and territories, especially given the cost of Iran’s subsidies of groups like Hezbollah and Iraq’s various Shi‘ite militias. There should be no argument that the activities of the Qods Force and various Iranian-backed militias are antithetical to regional security and American national interests. Over the past year, the Obama administration has been willing to compartmentalize and ignore this fact in order to advance its nuclear diplomacy.

Perhaps it’s time to recognize that continuing to compartmentalize not only risks letting Tehran off the hook for its actions, but now risks snatching defeat from the jaws of possible victory. Rather than provide Iran cash (or enable investment which does the same thing) to help the regime in time of need, the United States should be doing everything in its power to reduce the price of oil further. This would give Iranian officials a choice: Either cease interfering in and destabilizing countries like Syria and Lebanon, or risk collapsing Iran’s own economy. And if the United States managed to play its cards right, it might just cripple the regime enough to set itself and Iran down the path of solving myriad other regional problems.

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How Iran Outwits Obama in the Middle East

While Iran’s role as a leading sponsor of global terrorism is well known, far less coverage is given to Iranian leaders’ strategic acumen. Yet it’s clear that a theme has emerged in the Middle East: long engaged in a proxy war against America, Tehran is now, in the age of Obama, simply running circles around Washington.

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While Iran’s role as a leading sponsor of global terrorism is well known, far less coverage is given to Iranian leaders’ strategic acumen. Yet it’s clear that a theme has emerged in the Middle East: long engaged in a proxy war against America, Tehran is now, in the age of Obama, simply running circles around Washington.

There are three kinds of Mideast engagements with Iran. In all three, Iran is a step ahead of the Obama administration. The first category is direct military engagement. The United States military is involved in conflict in Iraq and Syria. In both countries, the U.S. has been treated to characterizations that America is more or less acting as Iran’s air force: in Iraq, that comparison is made directly; in Syria, it is by acting essentially as Bashar al-Assad’s air force–and Assad is an Iranian proxy hanging on to power in large part through Iran’s investment.

The second category includes conflicts in which America’s allies are up against Iranian proxies. Israel, for example, fought a summer war against Hamas, an Iranian client firing Syrian missiles delivered by Iran. Far from understanding what was taking place, the Obama administration played right into Iran’s hands by distancing itself from Sisi’s Egypt and not only pressuring Israel to give in to Hamas’s terror but even sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Cairo with a ceasefire agreement reflecting the wishes of Hamas’s patrons. When Israel objected, President Obama took retribution against Jerusalem, withholding arms transfers while Israel was under fire.

This includes Lebanon as well, where Iranian proxies not only occasionally attack Israel but have a chokehold on a the government. The West has occasionally stepped up in Lebanon, such as when it galvanized outrage at Syria to help force Assad’s expulsion from its neighbor. But most of the time, the West has been unwilling or unable to protect Lebanon’s sovereignty. And as Jonathan wrote earlier in the week, concern about ISIS terrorism is raising the possibility of legitimizing and mainstreaming Hezbollah.

And then there is the direct American engagement with Iran on its nuclear program. On this, the Iranians saw early on that Obama and Kerry wanted a deal of some sort that would kick the can down the road while enabling the president to claim progress. It’s doubtful any such plan was more obviously bush league than begging the Iranians to disconnect some pipe rather than dismantle the program. But the limitless diplomacy, in which deadlines float past with nary a thought, has done its damage as well by giving the Iranians additional leverage–and a powerful bargaining chip–on other issues on which the U.S. would want Iranian cooperation.

Aside from these three, there is evidence of a fourth category in the Middle East: a state like Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Putinesque turn away from democracy, human rights, and the West more generally has been conducted publicly, but even here there appears to be malign Iranian influence. Former Naval War College professor John Schindler has a fascinating post discussing the Turkish government’s connections to Iranian intelligence. He writes:

The key player in this plot is a shadowy terrorist group termed Tawhid-Salam that goes back to the mid-1990s and has been blamed for several terrorist incidents, including the 2011 bombing of the Israeli consulate in Istanbul, which wounded several people, as well as a thwarted bombing of the Israeli embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia, in early 2012. Tawhid-Salam, which also goes by the revealing name “Jerusalem Army,” has long been believed to be a front for Iranian intelligence, particularly its most feared component, the elite Quds (Jerusalem) Force of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (Pasdaran), which handles covert action abroad, including terrorism in many countries. It also is believed to be behind the murders of several anti-Tehran activists in Turkey in the 1990’s, using Tawhid-Salam as a cut-out.

Yet nothing has been done to crack down on the group in Turkey. Schindler continues:

This may have something to do with the fact that Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkish intelligence, is apparently on the Pasdaran payroll too, and may have secret ties to Tehran going back almost twenty years. Rumors about Fidan, a member of Erdoğan’s inner circle, who has headed the country’s powerful National Intelligence Organization (MİT) since 2010, have swirled in counterintelligence services worldwide for years. Israeli intelligence in particular, which once had a close relationship with MİT, has long regarded Fidan as Tehran’s man, and has curtailed its intelligence cooperation with Turkey commensurately, believing that all information shared with Fidan was going to Iran.

Privately, U.S. intelligence officials too have worried about Fidan’s secret ties, not least because MİT includes Turkey’s powerful signals intelligence (SIGINT) service, which has partnered with NATO for decades, including the National Security Agency.

I recommend reading the whole thing, but the Turkish connection serves to fill out the picture of Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. Tehran has continually played Washington, setting fires and then offering to help Obama put them out, for a price. It’s a predictable racket, but Obama keeps falling for it.

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What the Syria Fiasco Means for Iran, Gaza

To say President Obama badly needed a foreign-policy win is an understatement. And there were decent odds he’d eventually get one: as sports fans tend to say about a batter in a terrible slump, “he’s due.” The plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons was supposed to be that victory. But now administration officials don’t seem to even believe it themselves.

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To say President Obama badly needed a foreign-policy win is an understatement. And there were decent odds he’d eventually get one: as sports fans tend to say about a batter in a terrible slump, “he’s due.” The plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons was supposed to be that victory. But now administration officials don’t seem to even believe it themselves.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, who rose to prominence accusing lots of American officials of inexcusable inaction while mass slaughter occurred on their watch and then joined the Obama Cabinet where she has practiced inexcusable inaction while mass slaughter occurred on her watch, says Assad may still have chemical weapons. And he has a record of using them. Oh, and the brutal butchers of ISIS may get their hands on them too. So the administration’s one success in the Middle East was less “mission accomplished” and more “hey, we gave it a shot.”

There is much to be concerned about in this report, but even the minor details are problematic:

Samantha Power spoke to reporters after the Security Council received a briefing from Sigrid Kaag, who heads the international effort to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.

The joint mission of the United Nations and the Organization for the prohibition of Chemical Weapons will end at the end of the month after destroying nearly all of Syria’s declared stockpile. But Kaag said the OPCW is still working with Syria to resolve discrepancies in its declaration, which she said range from outdated records to discrepancies on the volume of materials.

Power said the U.S. is concerned not only that President Bashar Assad’s regime still has chemical weapons but that any stockpiles left behind could end up in the hands of the Islamic State group, which has seized large swaths of Syria and Iraq.

“Certainly if there are chemical weapons left in Syria, there will be a risk that those weapons fall into ISIL’s hands. And we can only imagine what a group like that would do if in possession of such a weapon,” Power said, referring to the militant group by one of its known acronyms.

The Easter egg of disaster buried in that excerpt was the following sentence, if you missed it: “The joint mission of the United Nations and the Organization for the prohibition of Chemical Weapons will end at the end of the month after destroying nearly all of Syria’s declared stockpile.” It’s actually quite amazing. The job isn’t finished, and they know it’s not, but they’re ending the crux of the mission anyway because … well they just are.

So what are the lessons from yet another Obama team failure? Firstly, we knew this was a failure even before the mission came to an end, because the list of banned chemicals was not exhaustive and Assad’s regime was still using other chemical weapons during this process.

But more importantly, it continues to hammer away at whatever is left of Obama’s credibility. Ending the mission to follow through on the chemical-weapons deal before it’s done tells us much about why the world would be foolish to trust Obama on any Iran deal. Deadlines get extended, but at some point they don’t even do that anymore; the administration just gives up and pivots to trying to contain the damage from their failure.

In Syria, that damage means the possibility that not one but two actors in the conflict will use chemical weapons: the original offender, Assad, and the murderous Islamists of ISIS. In Iran, the damage from such a failure would be orders of magnitude worse, because it would mean nuclear weapons in the hands of a terroristic state actor and possibly murderous Islamist groups as well. It could be Syria, in other words, minus the state failure but plus nukes.

And it’s not just Iran, of course. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suggested that in order to preserve a cessation of hostilities emanating from Gaza, the Hamas-run enclave should be demilitarized with Obama’s Syria disarmament in mind. As the Jerusalem Post reported during the recent war:

The idea of demilitarizing Gaza has its roots in the Syrian precedent, and the fact that the US and Russia managed to successfully dismantle Syria of the vast majority of its chemical weapons stockpile.

Netanyahu likes that model, and has repeatedly praised US President Barack Obama for it.

Indeed, he has called for the same paradigm to be used with Iran: dismantling their nuclear infrastructure.

That may have once sounded like a recipe for progress. It’s now clearly a recipe for disaster. The Obama administration has taken to making promises in lieu of action. The Syrian precedent suggests those promises are, as always, just words.

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Iran Negotiations Are Bearing Fruit (for Iran)

President Barack Obama’s much-vaunted nuclear outreach to Iran is finally bearing fruit, although perhaps not in the way the White House expected. Certainly, when it comes to the fundamental issues relating to Iranian centrifuges and the duration of any extra inspection regime, the two sides are as far apart as ever, and they will remain so: Iran recognizes that despite senior American officials’ protestations to the contrary, the White House would rather have a bad deal than no deal.

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President Barack Obama’s much-vaunted nuclear outreach to Iran is finally bearing fruit, although perhaps not in the way the White House expected. Certainly, when it comes to the fundamental issues relating to Iranian centrifuges and the duration of any extra inspection regime, the two sides are as far apart as ever, and they will remain so: Iran recognizes that despite senior American officials’ protestations to the contrary, the White House would rather have a bad deal than no deal.

When it comes to the Iranian economy, however, the negotiations have been nothing but positive. According to Iran’s Central Bank, the Iranian economy contracted by 5.4 percent in the Iranian calendar year ending on March 20, 2013. Obama’s team promised Iran perhaps $7 billion in sanctions relief just to come to the table to negotiate. Such relief was strategically inept, the equivalent of giving a little kid desert first and then inviting him to the table to eat his spinach. If the Iranian leadership’s goal was economic relief, they achieved it even before talks began.

The Obama administration has assured that sanctions relief was reversible, and if Iran didn’t play ball, they’d be back in the same dire position they had put themselves into before. That, of course, was nonsense. Momentum matters in international relations, as does greed. Once sanctions were loosened, it would be near impossible to ratchet up significant pressure again.

For Iran, the decision to talk rather than to compromise is the gift that keeps on giving. Consider the latest headlines:

  • Iran has announced that in the first five months of the Iranian year (March 21-August 21, 2014), trade volume has increased 136 percent.
  • The deputy finance minister announced yesterday that foreigners’ willingness to invest in Iran has increased 500 percent. In addition, Iran has announced that they have received more than 300 European and Arab trade delegations.
  • Iranian officials singled out Qatar, the tiny, gas-wealthy Persian Gulf emirate that increasingly finances terrorist groups and encourages the growth of radical Islamism abroad, for its willingness to invest in Iran.

Between 2000 and 2005, European Union trade with Iran more than doubled. At the same time, the price of oil quintupled. Iran took that hard currency windfall and invested it in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. As Iran redoubles its investment in its military, nuclear, and ballistic missile programs, the region will be paying the price for years to come for allowing Iran such a cash windfall without winning anything in exchange.

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Iran’s Diplomatic Quagmire

The Iranians have been loudly boasting about their role in arming Hamas for its latest war against the Jewish state. And now Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been using his lively Twitter account to call for the West Bank to be armed against Israel, much as Gaza is. Given that this is the man whose regime is responsible for the bulk of the weaponry that is currently being turned on Israelis, it would seem prudent to take such calls seriously. But if nothing else, this latest conflagration in Gaza has provided a wonderful distraction for the Iranians, ensuring that the world’s attention is elsewhere, while its own dubious agenda slips beneath the radar of public consciousness.

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The Iranians have been loudly boasting about their role in arming Hamas for its latest war against the Jewish state. And now Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been using his lively Twitter account to call for the West Bank to be armed against Israel, much as Gaza is. Given that this is the man whose regime is responsible for the bulk of the weaponry that is currently being turned on Israelis, it would seem prudent to take such calls seriously. But if nothing else, this latest conflagration in Gaza has provided a wonderful distraction for the Iranians, ensuring that the world’s attention is elsewhere, while its own dubious agenda slips beneath the radar of public consciousness.

Indeed, last weekend, the date by which Iran and the P5+1 nations were supposed to have reached an agreement on ending Iran’s illegal nuclear enrichment program was extended by another four months, all without much comment or notice. In part the lack of reaction can be attributed to the fact that this turn of events was already widely anticipated. After all, the EU’s foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton was talking about an extension to the talks before the first six months of negotiations had even started. But of course, events in Israel-Gaza have provided the perfect diversion for both the Obama administration and the Iranians to keep these talks going.

Extending the negotiations through to November suits almost everyone–everyone apart from those who are most concerned about the nuclear threat from Iran, that is. For the Obama administration in particular, reaching the July deadline empty-handed would have been a disaster. Obama’s only strategy on Iran’s nuclear program is now to try and talk the Iranians out of going for the bomb. If forced to walk away from the talks now Obama has left himself with no plan B. It seems clear that for this administration, the military option was never really on the table. What’s more, the sanctions regime painstakingly put in place by the international community has already begun to unravel as part of the P5+1 interim arrangements. It is hard to imagine that it would be possible to put the sanctions strategy back together again now, and at this late stage, when Iran is already on the cusp of nuclear breakout, putting sanctions back in place is unlikely to effectively deter the Iranians nor significantly slow them down at all.

After six months of trying to reach an agreement on Iranian nuclear enrichment it seems unlikely that another four months of talks are really going to make any difference. The sides seem about as far apart on the issue of Iran’s centrifuges as they were when talks began. The Iranians were always eager to have the negotiation period extended–hardly surprising, since an extension means further relief from sanctions and all the while Iran can push ahead with expanding its nuclear infrastructure. Under the terms of the interim agreement Iran is obliged to keep its enrichment at a lower level than before and must allow a continuation of the inspections of its facilities. But with Iran having successfully hidden major nuclear sites from Western intelligence in the past, it’s perfectly conceivable that in such a large country, inspectors could miss some of the most crucial areas.

The major sticking point is the issue of the number of centrifuges that the international community will permit Iran to keep. Those in Iran’s immediate firing line—Israel and the Gulf states—would like to see an Iran that has no enrichment capabilities whatsoever. They’ve been told by the Obama administration that that’s “unrealistic.” Of course, it is unrealistic as long as Obama is unwilling to genuinely put all options on the table, but realistic or not, the fact is there are six United Nations Security Council resolutions in place that very clearly prohibit all nuclear enrichment by Iran.

What the powers seem to be haggling over now is how close to the nuclear precipice Iran should be allowed to step. Under such a strategy, whatever happens, the Iranian nuclear dagger is left hovering over the West and its allies; it’s just a question of how high. Watching all of this one can’t help but be reminded of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935. Strict controls had been set on limiting any German military build-up and with the rise of Hitler those controls became all the more warranted. Unwilling to take a concrete stand against the German breaches of international law, the British argument at the time essentially went: better to reach an agreement with the Germans that allowed them some limited rearmament than to have no agreement and for the Germans to simply pursue unlimited rearmament. British officials dismissed French disquiet at all this as being “short sighted.”  Or as you might say in the parlance of the Obama administration; “unrealistic.”

When it comes to a nuclear Iran, the Obama administration doesn’t expect America’s allies, Congress, or the public to swallow this hog whole. But the prolonged negotiation period, discussing just how many centrifuges the mullahs can keep, is a process of softening us up. We’re being fed the hog bit by bit.

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Iran Negotiations: the Neverending Story

The Associated Press is reporting what has to vie for the least shocking bit of news this week: Secretary of State John Kerry is preparing to extend the nuclear diplomacy with Iran beyond the deadline. The real news here–though again, not terribly surprisingly–is that the two sides are, according to the AP, getting ready to stop talking before the deadline actually hits. The talks have apparently become somewhat pointless at the current juncture:

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The Associated Press is reporting what has to vie for the least shocking bit of news this week: Secretary of State John Kerry is preparing to extend the nuclear diplomacy with Iran beyond the deadline. The real news here–though again, not terribly surprisingly–is that the two sides are, according to the AP, getting ready to stop talking before the deadline actually hits. The talks have apparently become somewhat pointless at the current juncture:

Both sides had been prepared to talk until Sunday, the informal deadline for the negotiations. But two diplomats have told The Associated Press the talks will probably wind down Friday, because the differences won’t be bridged by Sunday.

The diplomats demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge confidential information. One said the two sides opposed going on until the final hours of the informal deadline because they felt that would give the impression they were desperate for a solution.

Two things we learn from that excerpt. One, the two sides are so far apart that they have no hope of meeting the deadline. Two, they don’t want to “give the impression” they’re desperate for a deal because, let’s face it, this process is pretty much just for show–hence the two sides being so far apart as to make continued talks meaningless in the near term.

Why might that be? We know, from Kerry’s past experience letting the Iranians run circles around him, that the American side would like some kind of deal–something that kicks the can down the road but produces a piece of paper the Obama White House can pretend solves a problem. But going by the administration’s talking points, the Iranians should want a deal far more. After all, despite President Obama’s best efforts, the Congress has instituted some sanctions, though Obama has worked assiduously to delay them or water them down.

Well, about those sanctions. Eli Lake has some bad news:

As U.S. and allied negotiators try to hammer out a nuclear deal with Iran this week in Vienna, they will have less economic leverage on their Iranian counterparts than they had a year ago.

That is the conclusion of a new study from Roubini Global Economics and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, two groups that have analyzed Iran’s economy—and the international sanctions imposed on the country’s banks, oil exports and leading regime figures.

Their report concludes that in the last year as the United States and other Western countries have begun to ease some of the sanctions on Iran as an inducement to negotiate an end to the country’s nuclear weapons program, the Iranian economy has begun to recover.

The recovery of Iran’s economy is a good thing for the Iranian people, who suffered a currency in free-fall, staggering inflation and a contraction of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. But at the same time, the economic sanctions that President Obama has credited with forcing Iran to begin these negotiations have appeared to lose their bite, according to the study that is scheduled to be released Monday.

The administration has made this mistake elsewhere. When Kerry decided he wanted to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he found a Palestinian leadership hesitant to even come to the table. In order to get negotiations started, Kerry pressured the Israeli government to make concessions, which included releasing terrorist murderers.

Everyone not born yesterday understood what would come next: the Palestinians would accept the concessions, come to the table, and with the deadline approaching find some pretext to walk away, pocketing the concessions without giving anything up and without coming close to a deal. When the talks collapsed, there was a high degree of probability that a Palestinian faction would instigate violence. And that’s exactly what happened.

The idea of “preconditions for negotiations,” in whatever form, is usually counterproductive. There are always exceptions, of course. But generally speaking anyone who needs concessions to even come to the negotiating table doesn’t really want to be at the negotiating table. In the case of Iran, unless their leadership feels squeezed economically time will be on their side.

Obama and Kerry had leverage: economic sanctions. They used up much of that leverage just to get the Iranians to the table, and now the Iranian leadership wants to run out the clock. Thanks to the weakening of the sanctions, and the lack of stronger sanctions to begin with, they’re in a position to do so. And Kerry seems prepared to play along.

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Kerry’s Afghanistan Breakthrough

It’s too early to say for sure, but Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have achieved an important breakthrough in negotiating an end to the election impasse which imperils Afghanistan’s future. Abdullah Abdullah, who finished first in the initial round of voting and appears to have lost the runoff to Ashraf Ghani, has been screaming fraud and threatening to declare himself president on his own authority.

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It’s too early to say for sure, but Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have achieved an important breakthrough in negotiating an end to the election impasse which imperils Afghanistan’s future. Abdullah Abdullah, who finished first in the initial round of voting and appears to have lost the runoff to Ashraf Ghani, has been screaming fraud and threatening to declare himself president on his own authority.

This is probably a bluff, but it’s a dangerous one because it threatens to reopen the deep fissures that fractured Afghanistan in the 1990s when Abdullah’s Northern Alliance, composed of Tajiks, Uzbeks and other ethnic minorities, fought a vicious civil war against the Taliban, whose ranks were (and are) made up of Pashtuns from the south and east. Ghani, who according to preliminary results won 56 percent of the vote, compared to Abdullah’s 44 percent, isn’t backing down either. He sees himself as the rightful next president of Afghanistan.

Enter Kerry. He flew into Kabul and in 12 hours of nonstop talks managed to get Abdullah and Ghani, both closeted in separate rooms of the U.S. Embassy along with their advisers, to agree on an internationally supervised procedure to audit all 8 million votes cast–a suspiciously high number, given that only 7 million or so voted in the first round of balloting.

If the process goes off as planned, and if it results in the seating of a government that is seen as legitimate (both admittedly big ifs), Kerry will have achieved a major diplomatic victory–one that could prevent Afghanistan from sliding back into chaos. It will in fact be only his latest triumph in Afghanistan where he has had more luck than most American officials, even when he was still only a senator, in dealing with the difficult Hamid Karzai.

Why does Kerry seem more successful in Afghanistan than elsewhere–for example, in the Middle East, where he devoted so much energy to the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” only to see another round of fighting break out between Israel and Hamas? Or in Ukraine where he has had little luck in getting the Russians to end their aggression by proxy?

The answers are pretty obvious but bear repeating. In Afghanistan Kerry has two advantages that he does not enjoy when negotiating with Iran or the Palestinian Authority or Russia: He has overwhelming American military force at his back and he has the luxury of dealing with actors who may have some differences but fundamentally share similar goals and outlooks.

Although their numbers are much reduced (and will fall further by the end of the year) the U.S. military still has more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, backed up by ample air power, making them the most formidable military force in the country. That gives any American diplomat a lot of leverage should he choose to use it.

Moreover, while Abdullah and Ghani bitterly disagree about which of them should be president, they are both widely seen as technocrats who want a democratic, Western-oriented, non-Taliban future for the country. That makes it possible, if not easy, for them to bridge their differences in the same way that union and corporate negotiators can do if led along by a skillful mediator.

Alas few if any of those preconditions exist elsewhere in the world, which makes it all the more mysterious that Kerry wants to expend so much energy on what are almost sure to be fruitless negotiations with adversaries who have no reason to reach agreement. He would be better advised to focus his efforts on mediating other disputes between relatively reasonable rivals, e.g., South Korea and Japan, rather than wasting his breathe trying to persuade the Iranians to give up their nuclear program or the Palestinians to give up their dream of eradicating the Jewish state.

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Now Is Not the Time to Let Up on Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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