Commentary Magazine


Topic: nuclear diplomacy

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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Iran Uses Dialogue to Subvert Religious Freedom

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) breaks word that President Obama’s spiritual adviser recently traveled to Iran to discuss interfaith tolerance:

Joel Hunter, a spiritual adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, recently spent about a week discussing religious tolerance with officials in Iran, a country often singled out by rights groups for its intolerance toward its religious minorities. Hunter, a senior pastor of Northland Church in Florida who led a delegation of U.S. religious leaders to the Islamic republic, says he was invited by Iranian religious leaders and scholars to attend a conference. The conference titled “World Free of Violence and Extremism from the Perspective of Abrahamic Religions” was held in Tehran on May 25. Hunter, who describes himself as someone who helps Obama get closer to God, says he will brief the U.S. President on his trip, which included a visit to the holy city of Qom…

Hunter said he met with Iran’s parliament speaker, advisers to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, officials of Iran’s academy of science, Christian and Jewish leaders, and Grand Ayatollahs in Qom. He added that religious extremism and violence as well as a faith-based path to peace were among the main topics he discussed with Iranian officials. Asked whether he raised the issue of Iranian state pressure on religious minorities, including Christian converts, Hunter said those subjects were discussed in “sidebar conversations…We didn’t go over there to confront people on certain issues,” said Hunter. “But…we have built enough of a relationship to address those specific conversations and we talked through those together, and what steps we could do to build a better environment.”

And once again, Obama and those upon whom he seeks advice expose themselves completely oblivious to both history and reality.

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Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) breaks word that President Obama’s spiritual adviser recently traveled to Iran to discuss interfaith tolerance:

Joel Hunter, a spiritual adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, recently spent about a week discussing religious tolerance with officials in Iran, a country often singled out by rights groups for its intolerance toward its religious minorities. Hunter, a senior pastor of Northland Church in Florida who led a delegation of U.S. religious leaders to the Islamic republic, says he was invited by Iranian religious leaders and scholars to attend a conference. The conference titled “World Free of Violence and Extremism from the Perspective of Abrahamic Religions” was held in Tehran on May 25. Hunter, who describes himself as someone who helps Obama get closer to God, says he will brief the U.S. President on his trip, which included a visit to the holy city of Qom…

Hunter said he met with Iran’s parliament speaker, advisers to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, officials of Iran’s academy of science, Christian and Jewish leaders, and Grand Ayatollahs in Qom. He added that religious extremism and violence as well as a faith-based path to peace were among the main topics he discussed with Iranian officials. Asked whether he raised the issue of Iranian state pressure on religious minorities, including Christian converts, Hunter said those subjects were discussed in “sidebar conversations…We didn’t go over there to confront people on certain issues,” said Hunter. “But…we have built enough of a relationship to address those specific conversations and we talked through those together, and what steps we could do to build a better environment.”

And once again, Obama and those upon whom he seeks advice expose themselves completely oblivious to both history and reality.

First, of all, let’s take Joel Hunter’s comment that it’s too early to confront Iranians on certain issues. It’s been 21 years since German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel unveiled his “critical dialogue” in which aid and the willingness to talk would be marked by a commitment to address issues the Iranian government found uncomfortable, like human rights and religious freedom. And yet, two decades and several billion dollars in sanctions relief later, Hunter essentially argues the time isn’t ripe?

Second, while Hunter acknowledged that his trip might be used for propaganda purposes, here’s a story he likely missed: Grand Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a close associate to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, declaring, “Equal Rights for the Bahais and the Jews are Against Islam.” As for the State Department, here’s the statement it emailed to RFE/RL: “We commend such efforts to promote interfaith tolerance and religious freedom, a foreign policy priority for the Department.”

Indeed. It’s a myth of diplomacy (and one I discuss at length in my recent book) that Track II talk—so-called “people-to-people dialogue”—breaks down barriers and occurs without a cost. It seems that Hunter’s willingness to be the regime’s useful idiot and his obliviousness to how Iran couples his visit with a further crackdown on Baha’is and Jews is just the latest example of how clumsy Obama’s outreach to Iran is and the disdain in which he and Secretary of State John Kerry appear to treat religious freedom and liberty.

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Can the White House Be Trusted on Iran Deal?

President Obama’s decision to release five senior Taliban prisoners in exchange for a captive American soldier who, according to numerous media reports, was also a deserter was political malpractice. The terrorists released were not simply Taliban, but rather the Taliban leadership who helped forge the group’s relationship with al-Qaeda. Secretary of State Chuck Hagel both denied that the deal was equivalent to negotiating with terrorists and also denied that releasing such high-value terrorists in exchange for a traitor would incentivize further terrorism.

Hagel is either being disingenuous or intellectually incompetent. That Obama violated the law with the release is simply icing on the cake of poor White House judgment. National Security Advisor Susan Rice again rushed to appear on Sunday talk shows for which she was unprepared and in which she was not truthful when characterizing Bowe Bergdahl’s service. The Taliban are rightly celebrating their victory, while Obama and some of his senior aides appear genuinely surprised at the uproar which their deal has sparked.

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President Obama’s decision to release five senior Taliban prisoners in exchange for a captive American soldier who, according to numerous media reports, was also a deserter was political malpractice. The terrorists released were not simply Taliban, but rather the Taliban leadership who helped forge the group’s relationship with al-Qaeda. Secretary of State Chuck Hagel both denied that the deal was equivalent to negotiating with terrorists and also denied that releasing such high-value terrorists in exchange for a traitor would incentivize further terrorism.

Hagel is either being disingenuous or intellectually incompetent. That Obama violated the law with the release is simply icing on the cake of poor White House judgment. National Security Advisor Susan Rice again rushed to appear on Sunday talk shows for which she was unprepared and in which she was not truthful when characterizing Bowe Bergdahl’s service. The Taliban are rightly celebrating their victory, while Obama and some of his senior aides appear genuinely surprised at the uproar which their deal has sparked.

Given the detachment of the White House from reality, perhaps it’s time now to double down on the demand that the White House not be trusted to make a deal with Iran without Congress carefully vetting the terms of that deal. The United States and regional states will have to live with whatever Obama’s negotiators decide, but Obama’s team has clearly demonstrated that they have little sense of strategic consequences. Perhaps if there’s any lesson that can be learned from the Bergdahl debacle, it can be that it provides warning that Obama left to his own devices uses secrecy to shield himself from criticism, but is prone to damaging American credibility. What’s at stake with Iran’s nuclear program is simply too important to defer to Obama’s judgment alone.

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Lacking Achievements, Hillary Invents One

Last month, in writing about the challenge Hillary Clinton will face in running for president after presiding over foreign-policy disasters at the State Department, I gave her too much credit. With regard to Iran, I said she’d probably act as though she had been “skeptical of Iranian ‘reform,’” since she didn’t negotiate the naïve deal with the Islamic Republic; John Kerry did.

I suppose I had momentarily forgotten she’s a Clinton. This week she reminded us. She won’t merely pretend to have been privately wary of the Iranians. She will just make stuff up and rewrite history, counting on the media’s investment in her election and fear of crossing her to cover for her distortions. Like the daring woman who dodged a phantom shower of gunfire in Bosnia, Hillary is back casting herself as the heroic defender of freedom she has never been. Josh Rogin reports on Clinton’s speech to the American Jewish Committee this week:

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Last month, in writing about the challenge Hillary Clinton will face in running for president after presiding over foreign-policy disasters at the State Department, I gave her too much credit. With regard to Iran, I said she’d probably act as though she had been “skeptical of Iranian ‘reform,’” since she didn’t negotiate the naïve deal with the Islamic Republic; John Kerry did.

I suppose I had momentarily forgotten she’s a Clinton. This week she reminded us. She won’t merely pretend to have been privately wary of the Iranians. She will just make stuff up and rewrite history, counting on the media’s investment in her election and fear of crossing her to cover for her distortions. Like the daring woman who dodged a phantom shower of gunfire in Bosnia, Hillary is back casting herself as the heroic defender of freedom she has never been. Josh Rogin reports on Clinton’s speech to the American Jewish Committee this week:

Hillary Clinton is now claiming to be the architect of crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy. But during her tenure as Secretary of State, her department repeatedly opposed or tried to water down an array of measures that were pushed into law by Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

Rogin offers a corrective:

What Clinton didn’t mention was that top officials from her own State Department—in conjunction with the rest of the Obama administration—often worked hard against many of the measures she’s now championing. Some bills Foggy Bottom slowed down; others, the State Department lobbied to be made less strict; still others were opposed outright by Clinton’s deputies, only to be overruled by large majorities in the House and the Senate. …

The most egregious example of the administration’s effort to slow down the sanctions drive came in late 2011, when Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez openly chastised top administration officials for opposing an amendment to sanction the Central Bank of Iran that he had co-authored with Sen. Mark Kirk. Leading administration officials including Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman publicly expressed “strong opposition” (PDF) to the amendment, arguing that it would anger allies by opening them up for punishment if they did not significantly reduce their imports of Iranian oil.

Clinton’s top deputies fought the amendment at every step of the legislative process. Clinton’s #2 at the State Department, Bill Burns, even joined an emergency meeting with top senators to urge them to drop the amendment. They refused. The amendment later passed the Senate 100-0. Menendez said at the time that the administration had negotiated on the amendment in bad faith.

The record is quite clear: Hillary Clinton was a powerful obstacle to effective Iran sanctions. It is a tribute to the hard work and determination of those like Kirk and Menendez to be able to get any sanctions through Clinton and Obama’s dedicated obstruction of efforts to use sanctions to stop or slow Iran’s march to a nuclear weapon.

The whole incident is a preview of what 2016 will be like if Hillary does decide to accept her party’s coronation as its new cult leader. The Clinton campaign would indeed be a fairytale ending to a storybook career–just not in the way those terms are traditionally understood. The campaign narrative will be, at best, historical fiction–though closer to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter than the West Wing, in terms of its relationship to the real world.

As Rogin reported, and as ABC News picked up on last night, Kirk is pushing back:

“I worked for months to round-up the votes [in the UN Security Council],” Clinton said. “In the end we were successful… And then building on the framework established by the Security Council, with the help of Congress, the Obama administration imposed some of the most stringent, crippling sanctions on top of the international ones.”

Those sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table earlier this year.

“Secretary Clinton’s comments are a blatant revision of history,” said Kirk, who with Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., co-sponsored several sanctions bills in recent years. “The fact is the Obama administration has opposed sanctions against Iran led by Senator Menendez and me every step of the way.”

It’s significant that Kirk is speaking up, because he is neither a conservative firebrand (he is the moderate Republican holding President Obama’s former Senate seat) nor a serial self-promoter, unlike so many of his colleagues. He is also not contemplating running against Clinton for the presidency in 2016.

He is speaking out, quite simply, because Clinton is selling a self-aggrandizing fantasy to the public in hopes of deceiving her way into the White House. In the process, she is demeaning those really responsible for the sanctions. But the silver lining is that her attempt to rewrite history indicates her awareness of just how out of step she is with the American public.

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Time to Give Iran the Human-Rights Test

I’m not necessarily opposed to diplomacy with rogue regimes, but the idea that “it never hurts to talk,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Undersecretary Nicholas Burns, and Bush-era Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage have said is simply false. In my book, I chronicle the costs of engaging rogue regimes so at least policymakers can enter into negotiations with eyes wide open rather than simply assume their outreach is cost-free.

Whether in Clinton and Bush’s outreach to North Korea, Obama’s diplomacy with the Taliban, Reagan’s engagement with Saddam’s Iraq, or today with regard to Iran, diplomats often dispense with human rights in order to suffer no impediment in their drive to deal-making. The current flourish of nuclear deal-making, after all, had its roots in the Critical Dialogue initiated by German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel in 1993. The “critical” portion of that dialogue, European diplomats explained, was because Europe would tie tough discussion of human rights with nuclear talks and trade. Of course, it was just a matter of months before the Europeans dispensed with the critical aspect of their dialogue and nearly tripled trade. Iran took that hard currency windfall and invested it in their nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Obama is different. Or at least he says he is. Both he and John Kerry have colored their careers with flowery rhetoric about human rights. The question is whether they consider such lip service to human rights and religious freedom merely props in their now-fulfilled quest for power.  

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I’m not necessarily opposed to diplomacy with rogue regimes, but the idea that “it never hurts to talk,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Undersecretary Nicholas Burns, and Bush-era Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage have said is simply false. In my book, I chronicle the costs of engaging rogue regimes so at least policymakers can enter into negotiations with eyes wide open rather than simply assume their outreach is cost-free.

Whether in Clinton and Bush’s outreach to North Korea, Obama’s diplomacy with the Taliban, Reagan’s engagement with Saddam’s Iraq, or today with regard to Iran, diplomats often dispense with human rights in order to suffer no impediment in their drive to deal-making. The current flourish of nuclear deal-making, after all, had its roots in the Critical Dialogue initiated by German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel in 1993. The “critical” portion of that dialogue, European diplomats explained, was because Europe would tie tough discussion of human rights with nuclear talks and trade. Of course, it was just a matter of months before the Europeans dispensed with the critical aspect of their dialogue and nearly tripled trade. Iran took that hard currency windfall and invested it in their nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Obama is different. Or at least he says he is. Both he and John Kerry have colored their careers with flowery rhetoric about human rights. The question is whether they consider such lip service to human rights and religious freedom merely props in their now-fulfilled quest for power.  

May 14 marked the sixth anniversary of the imprisonment of seven Baha’i leaders in Iran. Their plight is an issue I covered often in the years before I started writing for COMMENTARY. To mark the anniversary, Bahá’ís of the United States and a host of other religious organizations including the American Jewish Committee, the American Islamic Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Baptist World Alliance have sent a letter to Kerry which reads in part:

May 14 will mark the sixth anniversary of the imprisonment of the seven members of the former ad hoc leadership group of the Bahá’ís of Iran… As governments and human rights organizations have attested, their imprisonment is for no other reason than their membership in the Bahá’í Faith and their service to the Bahá’í community… They were convicted on a number of charges, including espionage, propaganda activities against the Islamic order, acting against the security of the country, and corruption on earth – all of which they categorically denied… Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, over 200 Bahá’ís have been killed, the majority by execution, and thousands have been imprisoned. Bahá’ís are denied government jobs and business licenses, and are excluded from university. Their marriages are not recognized, their cemeteries are desecrated, and their holy places have been destroyed…

Mr. Secretary, the gross mistreatment of the Yaran [imprisoned Bahá’í leadership] and the severe and systematic state-sponsored persecution of the Bahá’ís is emblematic of a deteriorating human rights situation in Iran. In addition to Bahá’ís, other religious minorities, including Christians, Sufis, and Sunnis face persecution; ethnic minorities are repressed; journalists are jailed; lawyers and other human rights defenders are targeted; and executions are on the rise. We are deeply concerned about religious freedom and human rights in Iran. We ask you to call for the release of the Yaran and all prisoners of conscience in Iran, and to speak out for the fundamental rights of all citizens of Iran.

Demanding the release of the Baha’i leaders is the perfect opportunity for Kerry to determine Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s sincerity and his ability to deliver, especially because both Obama and Kerry imagine Rouhani as some sort of Iranian Deng Xiaoping. But if Rouhani isn’t able to release seven Baha’i, then how can they be so sure he will be able to stand up to the supreme leader, the Principalist faction, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to deliver on a nuclear deal, even if Rouhani were sincere? It’s time for a test of Iranian intentions, and if that test results in freedom and liberty for prisoners of faith and conscience, all the better.

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A Deal to Let Iran Cheat More Efficiently

To understand the pointlessness of the nuclear negotiations now underway in Vienna between Iran and the so-called P5+1, it’s enough to read a new report leaked to Reuters earlier this week by the UN Panel of Experts that monitors nuclear sanctions on Iran. The report found “a decrease” in Iran’s efforts “to procure items for prohibited programs” since President Hassan Rouhani took office mid-2013 and optimistically declared this might stem from “the new political environment in Iran and diplomatic progress towards a comprehensive solution.”

Now let’s remove the rose-colored glasses and consider the facts: Under the “moderate” Rouhani–the man the world has declared it can do a deal with–Iran has continued trying to smuggle in parts for the illicit nuclear program it denies having; at most, it has decreased the pace a bit. And, as the report later admits, maybe not even that: It may simply have developed “more sophisticated” methods of “concealing procurement, while expanding prohibited activities.” Alternatively, it may have reduced its smuggling effort because, as the report further acknowledged, it has “demonstrated a growing capability to produce key items indigenously”–not a capability it would need if it were planning to give up its nuclear program.

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To understand the pointlessness of the nuclear negotiations now underway in Vienna between Iran and the so-called P5+1, it’s enough to read a new report leaked to Reuters earlier this week by the UN Panel of Experts that monitors nuclear sanctions on Iran. The report found “a decrease” in Iran’s efforts “to procure items for prohibited programs” since President Hassan Rouhani took office mid-2013 and optimistically declared this might stem from “the new political environment in Iran and diplomatic progress towards a comprehensive solution.”

Now let’s remove the rose-colored glasses and consider the facts: Under the “moderate” Rouhani–the man the world has declared it can do a deal with–Iran has continued trying to smuggle in parts for the illicit nuclear program it denies having; at most, it has decreased the pace a bit. And, as the report later admits, maybe not even that: It may simply have developed “more sophisticated” methods of “concealing procurement, while expanding prohibited activities.” Alternatively, it may have reduced its smuggling effort because, as the report further acknowledged, it has “demonstrated a growing capability to produce key items indigenously”–not a capability it would need if it were planning to give up its nuclear program.

In short, Iran has continued cheating its way to nuclear capability even while signing an interim nuclear agreement with the P5+1 in January and conducting months of “productive” negotiations on a permanent agreement. So even if a permanent deal is signed in the next few months, why would anyone imagine Iran would suddenly stop cheating and actually abide by the agreed-upon limits to its nuclear program? On the contrary, it would be able to cheat much more efficiently, unimpeded by the sanctions now in place.

Then there’s Rouhani’s own statement on Sunday that Iran’s nuclear technology actually isn’t “up for negotiation” at all; “We have nothing to put on the table and offer to them but transparency.” Even if one dismisses the first half of that statement as standard pre-negotiation posturing, there’s a real problem with elevating transparency from the status of a necessary precondition for a deal to a substantive Iranian concession equivalent to actually dismantling parts of its program–because, as also became clear this week, Iran’s idea of “transparency” doesn’t match that of the rest of the world.

Under an agreement signed with the International Atomic Energy Agency in November, Iran was supposed to answer various questions about its nuclear program by today. Iran says it has complied fully, but the IAEA doesn’t agree: It still wants more information about one of the most crucial issues of all–Iran’s experiments with explosive bridge wire detonators, which can be used to trigger nuclear bombs. The parties also haven’t reached any agreement on resolving other outstanding questions that weren’t covered by November’s deal. Due to these twin impasses, Monday’s meeting between IAEA and Iranian officials broke up without even an agreement on when to meet again.

Yet there’s no reason to believe Iran won’t stonewall any new agreement on transparency just as it has the previous ones–especially when it can do so with little fear of consequences, since the sanctions regime, once disabled, is unlikely to be reestablished for anything short of a nuclear explosion.

There are many other reasons for disliking the nuclear deal now under discussion, including those detailed by Michael Rubin and Jonathan Tobin earlier this week. But the simplest reason of all is that, as its past behavior shows, Iran can’t be trusted to honor any such agreement: It will simply continue merrily cheating its way to a nuclear bomb. And a sanctions-ending deal will make it easier for Tehran to do so.

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Would You Trust Ahmadinejad with Unrestricted Nukes?

The Obama administration’s deal-making with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is based on two assumptions, both of which are false. The first is that the president matters in Iran. The reality is that, in the Islamic Republic, the supreme leader calls the shots, not the president. Simply put, the president is about style, the supreme leader is about substance. The second assumption underlying Obama’s diplomacy is that Hassan Rouhani is the Iranian incarnation of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, someone with a hardline past but reform in his heart. At best, this is wishful thinking. It involves dismissing Rouhani’s record and all of his past statements.

Obama is undertaking a huge gamble: He is betting American national security and broader Middle Eastern security on the notion that somehow Rouhani is different than his record indicates and that he knows better than Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei what Rouhani’s true intentions are. That’s not a good bet to take, especially since it looks like Rouhani’s honeymoon is rapidly coming to an end, but Obama—like all second-term presidents—is willing to put on blinders in his quest for a legacy.

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The Obama administration’s deal-making with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is based on two assumptions, both of which are false. The first is that the president matters in Iran. The reality is that, in the Islamic Republic, the supreme leader calls the shots, not the president. Simply put, the president is about style, the supreme leader is about substance. The second assumption underlying Obama’s diplomacy is that Hassan Rouhani is the Iranian incarnation of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, someone with a hardline past but reform in his heart. At best, this is wishful thinking. It involves dismissing Rouhani’s record and all of his past statements.

Obama is undertaking a huge gamble: He is betting American national security and broader Middle Eastern security on the notion that somehow Rouhani is different than his record indicates and that he knows better than Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei what Rouhani’s true intentions are. That’s not a good bet to take, especially since it looks like Rouhani’s honeymoon is rapidly coming to an end, but Obama—like all second-term presidents—is willing to put on blinders in his quest for a legacy.

Obama is putting all of his eggs in Rouhani’s basket, but what happens if Rouhani is removed from the picture? The purpose of a nuclear deal with Iran—at least from the Iranian perspective—is to normalize Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s de facto lobbyists in the United States are already arguing that after a short period of Iranian compliance with the deal, Iran should be free and clear from restrictions and, in effect, be treated as it had never cheated, never experimented with nuclear-weapons triggers, and never constructed secret nuclear facilities.

Within the Islamic Republic, there is not an inexorable march to reform. The birthrate in Iran today is only half of what is was in the 1980s, and so Iranian leaders figure that there will be fewer hot-headed young people in coming decades. As students start families, they become less willing to rock the boat. Hardliners figure their moment is yet to come. To read Rouhani’s election as the permanent victory of reform or democracy is to misunderstand Iran: There are no free elections inside the Islamic Republic. The Guardian Council selects candidates, and so sets the parameters of debate.

The supreme leader keeps power by insuring a rotation of factions. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the presidency in 2005, he cleaned house of reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s followers. Likewise, when Rouhani won the presidency, the press cheered as he began his purge of Ahmadinejad’s supporters (never mind he simply replaced the pro-Ahmadinejad Revolutionary Guards veterans with intelligence ministry veterans, hardly the sign of sincere reform). It is reasonable to assume that the supreme leader will try to keep Rouhani’s minions from growing too powerful by orchestrating the revival of the Ahmadinejadniks.

And, indeed, that is what is happening according to the Iranian press. The Open Source Center has compiled a number of Iranian press reporters discussing Ahmadinejad’s rehabilitation. On April 3, for example, the hardline website Shafaf spoke about Ahmadinejad fielding a candidate in a by-election this coming fall. Ten days later, Mosalas Online hinted that Ahmadinejad was crafting a strategy to retake the Majlis. This is no idle talk. After all, Ahmadinejad’s pre-presidency claim to fame was organizing the rise of the conservatives in local elections. Entekhab has speculated that Ahmadinejad has his sights set on the 2017 election. Most importantly, the state-controlled Iranian press has begun publishing photographs of the supreme leader with Ahmadinejad (scroll to the third photo from the left). There is no better indication that Ahmadinejad is not so down and out as perhaps many American diplomats hope.

Perhaps Obama has put great faith in Rouhani, and is willing to take risks for a nuclear deal because of him. The question Obama won’t consider—but Congress should—is whether they would trust Ahmadinejad to again take the reins of a nuclear-capable Iran, albeit one with sanctions and controls removed thanks to Obama’s naive faith and misreading of the Iranian political system. Alas, that appears to be the situation in which Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are putting the United States.

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Trust the Arms Control Association on Iran?

The Arms Control Association (ACA) bills itself as “a national nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to promoting public understanding of and support for effective arms control policies.” It is a serious organization and does serious work, even if its bipartisanship seems in recent years a bit more theoretical than real, perhaps not a surprise given support for the likes of the Ford Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, and MacArthur Foundation.

Most recently, in a series of media appearances and radio hits by staff, it has lent its organizational reputation to the promotion of President Barack Obama’s Iran diplomacy and has embraced partisan Bush-bashing nonsense like the discredited notion of a 2003 Iranian peace proposal. It has also been surprising to travel to the Persian Gulf and hear Iran watchers there list a litany of loopholes in the proposed agreement, all of which the ACA seems to dismiss or disregard. When ACA staff lends their imprimatur to the rigorous verifications and downplay concerns inherent in the Iran nuclear deal, a relevant question is the degree to which their track record inspires confidence in their willingness to put objectivity above politics.

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The Arms Control Association (ACA) bills itself as “a national nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to promoting public understanding of and support for effective arms control policies.” It is a serious organization and does serious work, even if its bipartisanship seems in recent years a bit more theoretical than real, perhaps not a surprise given support for the likes of the Ford Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, and MacArthur Foundation.

Most recently, in a series of media appearances and radio hits by staff, it has lent its organizational reputation to the promotion of President Barack Obama’s Iran diplomacy and has embraced partisan Bush-bashing nonsense like the discredited notion of a 2003 Iranian peace proposal. It has also been surprising to travel to the Persian Gulf and hear Iran watchers there list a litany of loopholes in the proposed agreement, all of which the ACA seems to dismiss or disregard. When ACA staff lends their imprimatur to the rigorous verifications and downplay concerns inherent in the Iran nuclear deal, a relevant question is the degree to which their track record inspires confidence in their willingness to put objectivity above politics.

In 1983, for example, in an episode I cover in my recent book, an American spy satellite detected a Soviet radar complex near Krasnoyarsk, in the middle of Siberia. Its configuration suggested a military purpose. The sheer size of the complex underlined the scale of Soviet subterfuge of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. To lend credence to Soviet cheating, however, would undercut hopes for new arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union. The Arms Control Association duly chimed in and dismissed Krasnoyarsk as insignificant. Reagan thought otherwise. “No violations of a treaty can be considered to be a minor matter, nor can there be confidence in agreements if a country can pick and choose which provisions of an agreement it will comply with,” he explained. And, indeed, subsequent revelations hastened by the collapse of the Soviet Union showed that it had been cheating.

While praising Clinton-era nuclear deal-making with North Korea, during the Bush administration the Arms Control Association downplayed reports of North Korean treaty cheating and illicit enrichment.

It is quite possible that the Obama administration will strike a nuclear deal with Iran, not by resolving the obstacles or removing the reasons for such long-term distrust, but rather by ignoring or downplaying them. If the historical pattern holds true, the ACA will affirm that strategy by lending its organization’s reputation to efforts to downplay the concerns of critics. This would less attest to the strength of the Iran deal, however, then to the joint tendency to promote a political agenda and prioritize the act of reaching an agreement over the substance of that agreement.  

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Iran Targeting U.S. Satellites with Lasers?

For all the Iranian government and its fellow travelers whine about sanctions, the Iranian regime seems to have no problem funneling money off to ever more creative military projects. Take this latest tidbit which appears in the Washington Examiner:

Iran, meanwhile, “undertakes more purposeful interference” with U.S. satellites using lasers and jammers. “Although these actions have not resulted in irreparable damage to U.S. assets, this practice increases the possibility that the United States will misinterpret unintended harm caused by such interference.”

The Examiner piece derives from a longer Council on Foreign Relations report well-worth reading. Indeed, from what I have heard, it has garnered significant attention in policy circles. That report elaborates:

Since Iran already views space as a legitimate arena in which to contest U.S. military power, Tehran could use similar tactics against U.S. satellites during a major crisis, especially if it believes war is imminent—an assessment that could have self-fulfilling consequences. Should this significantly limit U.S. situational unawareness of the unfolding crisis, there would most certainly be a military response against the source of that Iranian interference. Additionally, like North Korea, Iran could attempt a direct-ascent ASAT test or co-orbital ASAT test, in which it detonates a conventional explosive near a targeted satellite. Iran’s capacity to do this will likely improve if it follows through on its June 2013 announcement of plans to build a space monitoring center designed to track satellites above Iranian territory.

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For all the Iranian government and its fellow travelers whine about sanctions, the Iranian regime seems to have no problem funneling money off to ever more creative military projects. Take this latest tidbit which appears in the Washington Examiner:

Iran, meanwhile, “undertakes more purposeful interference” with U.S. satellites using lasers and jammers. “Although these actions have not resulted in irreparable damage to U.S. assets, this practice increases the possibility that the United States will misinterpret unintended harm caused by such interference.”

The Examiner piece derives from a longer Council on Foreign Relations report well-worth reading. Indeed, from what I have heard, it has garnered significant attention in policy circles. That report elaborates:

Since Iran already views space as a legitimate arena in which to contest U.S. military power, Tehran could use similar tactics against U.S. satellites during a major crisis, especially if it believes war is imminent—an assessment that could have self-fulfilling consequences. Should this significantly limit U.S. situational unawareness of the unfolding crisis, there would most certainly be a military response against the source of that Iranian interference. Additionally, like North Korea, Iran could attempt a direct-ascent ASAT test or co-orbital ASAT test, in which it detonates a conventional explosive near a targeted satellite. Iran’s capacity to do this will likely improve if it follows through on its June 2013 announcement of plans to build a space monitoring center designed to track satellites above Iranian territory.

President Obama’s initiative toward Iran seems predicated on the belief that Iran somehow changed after the election of President Hassan Rouhani, never mind that presidents in Iran don’t hold power comparable to that in the United States. If Iran has been targeting American satellites with lasers, perhaps that’s a sign that Iranian sincerity isn’t what the White House believes. Perhaps it is time for the White House to recognize that sometimes a “reset” simply doesn’t work. Then again, so long as Obama heard sincerity in Rouhani’s voice in their September 2013 phone chat, what difference does hard evidence of continued malfeasance make?

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The Supreme Leader’s Nuclear Veto

It is no secret to anyone who puts reality above wishful thinking that, in Iran, the supreme leader wields the ultimate authority. The president may have won an election—one in which only about one percent of candidates were allowed to run—but the president’s power at best is but a fraction of that of the supreme leader, whose legitimacy comes from being the self-declared deputy of the messiah on earth. Simply put, in Iran, the president is about style, the supreme leader is about substance.

One of the problems with the ongoing nuclear negotiations is that, contrary to what was suggested by the State Department and much of the U.S. media, the supreme leader never blessed nuclear deal-making. Nor, contrary to President Obama’s claims, has he ever issued a nuclear fatwa—at least one he bothered to write down for inspection. So, for all the progress Obama and Kerry claim to be making, it’s not clear they are negotiating with anyone empowered to make a decision.

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It is no secret to anyone who puts reality above wishful thinking that, in Iran, the supreme leader wields the ultimate authority. The president may have won an election—one in which only about one percent of candidates were allowed to run—but the president’s power at best is but a fraction of that of the supreme leader, whose legitimacy comes from being the self-declared deputy of the messiah on earth. Simply put, in Iran, the president is about style, the supreme leader is about substance.

One of the problems with the ongoing nuclear negotiations is that, contrary to what was suggested by the State Department and much of the U.S. media, the supreme leader never blessed nuclear deal-making. Nor, contrary to President Obama’s claims, has he ever issued a nuclear fatwa—at least one he bothered to write down for inspection. So, for all the progress Obama and Kerry claim to be making, it’s not clear they are negotiating with anyone empowered to make a decision.

Hence, it comes as no surprise that senior Iranian parliamentary Alaeddin Borujerdi has announced that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will look at the deal to see whether to oblige. “The last step is a gathering to be held with the Supreme Leader. The framework of the talks will be finalized there and the negotiating team will lead talks according to that framework,” he said.

Now, that’s common sense for anyone who knows Iran. But there’s a pattern among rogue regimes in which negotiators reach agreements, rogue leaders refuse to oblige by the agreements their negotiators supposedly produced, and then the regimes pocket the concessions that were meant to be final, transforming them into the starting point for new talks. Yasir Arafat did that, Saddam Hussein did that, and successive North Korean leaders have done that. That President Obama and John Kerry appear to be allowing themselves to get so played suggests that they have neither studied nor learned from past episodes of American negotiation with rogue regimes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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