Commentary Magazine


Topic: nuclear diplomacy

Why the President Don’t Get No Respect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is Geneva the Ghost of Negotiations Future?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iranian Economy Bouncing Back

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

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

Not only is growth up, but inflation is down:

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

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

Not only is growth up, but inflation is down:

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

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

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

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Washington’s Strange Silence on Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iranian Poet Hanged

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iranian Rhetoric Isn’t Just Bluster

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama’s Precarious Iran Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Regional Reverberations of a Bad Iran Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Negotiations: The Never-Ending Story

As champions of “soft power” America and her allies have adopted an attitude of unprecedented powerlessness that has left the West with no other way to deal with our enemies than through negotiations. Unwilling to back these negotiations up with even the threat of tough action–shrinking from so much as further sanctions against Iran–Western diplomats find themselves trapped in an endless cycle of appeasement and protracted, yet fruitless, negotiations and peace conferences.   

In recent days both Secretary of State John Kerry and the EU’s foreign-affairs representative Baroness Ashton have made announcements proposing an extension to the various Middle East negotiations they are involved in overseeing. To no one’s surprise, Kerry is now saying that the time period for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will need to be extended beyond the original, and always improbable, nine-month period that the State Department had set. Far more disturbingly, Baroness Ashton has suggested an extension on the five-month-long negotiation period over Iran’s nuclear program–an unbelievable suggestion given that the round of negotiations in question hasn’t even begun yet.  

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As champions of “soft power” America and her allies have adopted an attitude of unprecedented powerlessness that has left the West with no other way to deal with our enemies than through negotiations. Unwilling to back these negotiations up with even the threat of tough action–shrinking from so much as further sanctions against Iran–Western diplomats find themselves trapped in an endless cycle of appeasement and protracted, yet fruitless, negotiations and peace conferences.   

In recent days both Secretary of State John Kerry and the EU’s foreign-affairs representative Baroness Ashton have made announcements proposing an extension to the various Middle East negotiations they are involved in overseeing. To no one’s surprise, Kerry is now saying that the time period for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will need to be extended beyond the original, and always improbable, nine-month period that the State Department had set. Far more disturbingly, Baroness Ashton has suggested an extension on the five-month-long negotiation period over Iran’s nuclear program–an unbelievable suggestion given that the round of negotiations in question hasn’t even begun yet.  

Indeed, Baroness Ashton’s comments about the Iranian negotiations are by far the most concerning. A consensus seems to be forming among many intelligence experts who say that if Iran wished to produce nuclear weapons it could possibly achieve this within a month to six weeks. As it is, the next round of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, which are being overseen by Kerry and Ashton as part of the P5+1 grouping, are due to run for five months starting from February 18. During that period not only does Iran receive relief from some of the sanctions but it is also permitted to continue with enrichment of uranium and so far has not been obliged to dismantle any of its nuclear infrastructure.

Speaking at the security conference in Munich over the weekend, Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif had been pushing for precisely such an extension. This is hardly surprising given the benefits Iran derives from the current arrangements. For Ashton to be voicing such suggestions before negotiations are even underway seems recklessly irresponsible considering the gravity of the stakes involved. Yet, State Department spokespeople have also started hinting that the real time frame they have in mind may be more like six months to a year. In fact the phrase used by deputy State Department spokesperson Marie Harf was “six months, or a year or at any time.” Yes, any time. The message to the Iranians is clear. No need to get serious now, if you keep playing for time then really you can have all the time you need.

The Western powers seem to have adopted an attitude of hyperbolic weakness, in which the fear of assertive action is more frightening than the worst acts taken by our enemies against us. Paralyzed by this attitude, the U.S. and its allies refuse to employ any leverage to pressure the Iranians to cease what is after all an activity proscribed by six separate UN Security Council resolutions. Under this self-imposed attitude of powerlessness, the Western nations can do nothing but negotiate endlessly and offer ever more concessions to the Iranians so as to keep them at the negotiating table and avoid being exposed to their own publics for what they really are: appeasers.

This attitude of defenselessness to the will of the intransigent is even on display in America’s dealings with those whom the U.S. has nothing to fear from, in this case the Palestinians. Kerry’s latest suggestion that he won’t oblige the negotiating parties to accept his final-status parameters within the time frame he set has arisen out of the refusal by the Palestinians to accept the Jewish state. The nine-month period allotted to negotiate a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse was always wildly unrealistic, but it at least recognized that the negotiations couldn’t be allowed to run indefinitely. Given the number of concessions the Palestinians had demanded from the Israelis before even agreeing to join peace talks, it was clear what their attitude to the whole process was going to be. Kerry set up the time frame precisely to compel both sides to take the talks seriously, and now he’s caved on just about his only ground rule.

The Ashton-Kerry mindset is one that appears to fundamentally loathe the use of Western power and is besotted with the notion of peaceful dialogue and coexistence in a world in which all parties are believed to be rational and reasonable. Yet, when you bring such an attitude to the unreasonable and the calculating you find yourself being strung along endlessly. The Palestinians know Kerry will not be secretary of state forever and the Iranians know that if they just drag talks out long enough they will get the concessions they need and will likely be able to achieve nuclear weapons beneath the radar, hidden behind the charade of august negotiations, in elegant European cities.      

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Meanwhile in North Korea …

The 2014 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” presented by national intelligence director James Clapper to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last week had a stunning conclusion regarding Iran, as Tom Wilson and Evelyn Gordon have noted. Clapper told the committee Iran “has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons.” The “central issue” is now “its political will to do so.” In other words, Iran can produce nuclear weapons if it wants; it only needs to decide when. 

The portion of the Clapper report relating to North Korea has been little reported, but it is equally stunning, and it bears on the situation involving Iran. Let’s review what happened in the last three years regarding North Korea, notwithstanding crippling sanctions and a tableful of options. 

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The 2014 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” presented by national intelligence director James Clapper to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last week had a stunning conclusion regarding Iran, as Tom Wilson and Evelyn Gordon have noted. Clapper told the committee Iran “has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons.” The “central issue” is now “its political will to do so.” In other words, Iran can produce nuclear weapons if it wants; it only needs to decide when. 

The portion of the Clapper report relating to North Korea has been little reported, but it is equally stunning, and it bears on the situation involving Iran. Let’s review what happened in the last three years regarding North Korea, notwithstanding crippling sanctions and a tableful of options. 

The 2011 Assessment stated “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” The 2012 Assessment reported “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.” The 2013 Assessment concluded the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs “pose a serious threat to the United States.” The 2014 Assessment states North Korea has expanded its uranium enrichment facility; has restarted its plutonium reactor; has begun fielding its road-mobile ICBM system; is developing long-range missile technology capable of directly threatening the United States; and is making efforts to market ballistic missiles, raising “global security concerns.” 

In other words, between 2011 and 2014, North Korea went from (a) having nuclear-weapons “capability,” to (b) having nuclear weapons, to (c) having weapons and missile programs posing “a serious threat” to the U.S., to (d) starting to sell ballistic missiles across the globe. As North Korea moved steadily to nuclear-weapons capability, then weapons, then missile delivery systems, then global impact, the effect of the unfortunate message to Iran from watching what happened to North Korea (nothing) was entirely predictable.

Back in 2012, when Clapper presented the 2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment to the Senate, he had the following exchange with Sen. Lindsey Graham about Iran: 

SEN. GRAHAM: Do you think they’re building these power plants for peaceful nuclear power generation purposes?

CLAPPER: That remains to be seen.

SEN. GRAHAM: You have doubt about the Iranians’ intention when it comes to making a nuclear weapon?

CLAPPER: Uh-h, I do.  I, I, uh, I –

SEN. GRAHAM: You’re not so sure they’re trying to make a bomb? You doubt whether or not they are trying to create a nuclear bomb?

CLAPPER: I think they are keeping themselves in a position to make that decision, but there are certain things they have not yet done and have not done for some time.

SEN. GRAHAM: How would we know when they have made that decision?

CLAPPER: I am happy to discuss that with you in closed session.

SEN. GRAHAM: Well I guess my point is that I take a different view. I’m very convinced that they’re going down the road of developing a nuclear weapon. I can’t read anyone’s mind, but it seems logical to me that they believe that if they get a nuclear weapon they’ll become North Korea …

Clapper’s 2014 report states “Iran already has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East” and has “the means and motivation to develop longer-range missiles, including an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).” Perhaps Iran is interested in a road-mobile one, or long-range missile technology capable of directly threatening the United States. The report indicates another country–one that in a different era might have been called part of an “axis of evil”–may be willing to help out, if it is not already doing so. 

Meanwhile, the administration purports not to know whether Iran decided to follow the trail blazed by North Korea. We may eventually find out, however, that “Uh-h, I do.  I, I, uh” was simply the least untruthful statement Clapper could make, as the slow-motion Munich proceeded.

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Artificial Intelligence

I have one question for National Intelligence Director James Clapper and his predecessors. As we all know, the infamous 2007 National Intelligence Estimate asserted with “high confidence” that Iran had halted its work on nuclear weapons development, and no subsequent NIE ever reversed that judgment. Yet fast forward seven years, and the latest annual intelligence assessment asserts that “Tehran has made technical progress in a number of areas … from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons,” and consequently, it now “has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons” should it so choose. So here’s my question: If Iran stopped its weapons development effort seven years ago, how did it happen that since then, it has made precisely the kind of technical progress that now enables it to build a nuclear warhead whenever it chooses?

There are two plausible answers to this question. One, the work never really stopped, or resumed at some point in the last few years, and U.S. intelligence agencies simply missed it. That’s certainly possible; intelligence agencies aren’t omniscient, and it’s unrealistic to think they will never make mistakes. A more troubling possibility is that since intelligence rarely reaches the level of absolute certainty, the available information was misinterpreted due to political bias–a desire to avoid military action against Iran, and hence to avoid interpreting Iran’s behavior in a way that might necessitate such action.

But the answer offered by the Obama administration strains credulity: that Iran really did stop its weapons program and never resumed it, but somehow, mysteriously, nevertheless made major technical progress over the last seven years of precisely the kind that now enables it to build a nuclear warhead anytime it pleases. Even a two-year-old wouldn’t buy that.

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I have one question for National Intelligence Director James Clapper and his predecessors. As we all know, the infamous 2007 National Intelligence Estimate asserted with “high confidence” that Iran had halted its work on nuclear weapons development, and no subsequent NIE ever reversed that judgment. Yet fast forward seven years, and the latest annual intelligence assessment asserts that “Tehran has made technical progress in a number of areas … from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons,” and consequently, it now “has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons” should it so choose. So here’s my question: If Iran stopped its weapons development effort seven years ago, how did it happen that since then, it has made precisely the kind of technical progress that now enables it to build a nuclear warhead whenever it chooses?

There are two plausible answers to this question. One, the work never really stopped, or resumed at some point in the last few years, and U.S. intelligence agencies simply missed it. That’s certainly possible; intelligence agencies aren’t omniscient, and it’s unrealistic to think they will never make mistakes. A more troubling possibility is that since intelligence rarely reaches the level of absolute certainty, the available information was misinterpreted due to political bias–a desire to avoid military action against Iran, and hence to avoid interpreting Iran’s behavior in a way that might necessitate such action.

But the answer offered by the Obama administration strains credulity: that Iran really did stop its weapons program and never resumed it, but somehow, mysteriously, nevertheless made major technical progress over the last seven years of precisely the kind that now enables it to build a nuclear warhead anytime it pleases. Even a two-year-old wouldn’t buy that.

The real problem, however, isn’t what this says about the past, but what it says about the future. After all, for years, opponents of attacking Iran’s nuclear program have argued that Tehran hasn’t yet decided to make a nuclear weapon, and if it ever does, the U.S. will know in enough time to stop it before it succeeds. Therefore, there’s no reason for either America or Israel to take military action now. Yet how can either Americans or Israelis have confidence that U.S. intelligence will detect a nuclear breakout in time if, for the past seven years, it has either missed all the signs that Iran was continuing to make “technical progress” toward weaponization, or deliberately ignored them out of a desire to avert military action–a desire that, judging by both words and deeds, remains the administration’s top priority?

The answer, of course, is that they can’t. And the lesson for Israel is clear: It cannot rely on U.S. promises to stop Iran from getting nukes, because these promises are based on the faulty assumption that U.S. intelligence will uncover a “smoking gun”–the kind of irrefutable proof that can’t be argued away–in enough time to take action. Hence the day is coming closer when Israel will have to make a fatal decision: attack Iran itself, or learn to live with a nuclear Iran.

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Clapper: Iran Ready for Nuclear Breakout

In yesterday’s State of the Union address President Obama spoke stridently of how “American diplomacy … has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program—and rolled back parts of that program.” The president spoke with apparent pride of the “peaceful” efforts being taken to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. How then to explain the fact that less than twenty-four hours after that speech was given, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was being informed that Iran essentially already has breakout capacity for building the bomb should it wish to do so?

While presenting the annual report on the worldwide threat assessment before the committee, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper spoke of Iran’s extensive progress in expanding its nuclear and military infrastructure, including further work on its heavy-water facility at Arak. Clapper stated that “these technical advancements strengthen our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons. This makes the central issue its political will to do so.” In a roundabout way, it would seem that we are being told that Iran is now ready and able to get the bomb, and all that remains to be seen is whether it is willing. With that comes the implication that this “political willingness” is the last thing that we might have any leverage over.

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In yesterday’s State of the Union address President Obama spoke stridently of how “American diplomacy … has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program—and rolled back parts of that program.” The president spoke with apparent pride of the “peaceful” efforts being taken to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. How then to explain the fact that less than twenty-four hours after that speech was given, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was being informed that Iran essentially already has breakout capacity for building the bomb should it wish to do so?

While presenting the annual report on the worldwide threat assessment before the committee, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper spoke of Iran’s extensive progress in expanding its nuclear and military infrastructure, including further work on its heavy-water facility at Arak. Clapper stated that “these technical advancements strengthen our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons. This makes the central issue its political will to do so.” In a roundabout way, it would seem that we are being told that Iran is now ready and able to get the bomb, and all that remains to be seen is whether it is willing. With that comes the implication that this “political willingness” is the last thing that we might have any leverage over.

Under the current agreement, reached in Geneva last fall, Iran commits not to enrich uranium above five percent, rather than going to above twenty percent from which it is a quick and relatively simple process to reach the high weapons-grade materials needed for a bomb. The closest thing to good news that the annual report has on Iran is the claim that Iran would not be able to actually accomplish this final breakout without being detected. Cold comfort indeed, and not only for those countries within Iran’s immediate vicinity, but for all of us. For the annual report also stated that, in addition to its large stock of ballistic missiles, which have the capabilities for carrying a nuclear warhead, Iran’s space program gives it the ability to develop long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles.

What is perhaps most disheartening about this report is that because of the emphasis that it puts on the need to be able to monitor closely whether Iran is taking the final steps toward breakout, Clapper counsels that further sanctions would be counterproductive. In other words, the argument now seems to be that the U.S. must avoid imposing further sanctions, lest it disrupt the Iranians’ willingness to allow inspectors to monitor their ongoing and undismantled nuclear enrichment program. This sits in rather sharp contrast to the six United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for a total halt to Iran’s uranium enrichment.

These sentiments essentially echo the argument being pushed by Obama himself when he says that he would veto Congress should it vote for the implementation of further sanctions against Iran. Having apparently gone to great lengths to prevent Israel from carrying out a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, arguing that the military option threatened to jeopardize efforts on the negotiations and sanctions track, now we are told that sanctions too must be avoided because they threaten to jeopardize efforts on the monitoring track. In this way appeasement naturally necessitates more appeasement until the only thing that stands between Iran and genocidal weapons is Iran’s “political willingness,” or lack of it.

Even if we accept the assessment that places our last hope on our ability to closely monitor Iran’s nuclear activities, there remains the question of what would happen if inspectors discovered Iran to be in breach of any agreement. It would be too late to reassemble the sanctions in time for them to have any effect and by that point Iran’s nuclear network may have progressed beyond anything that could be destroyed by airstrikes. Furthermore, it is not inconceivable that our intelligence is flawed–it wouldn’t be the first time. If Iran has an unmonitored secret site where it is enriching to weapons-grade levels then all of Obama’s efforts to placate Iran by pulling apart the sanctions regime will have been in vain in any case.

It may, however, be worth noting that a poll by the Mellman group released yesterday revealed that 68 percent of American voters prefer the use of a military strike to the prospect of a nuclear Iran. They no doubt have made the commonsense assessment that leads one to conclude that if sanctions are not proving effective then a conventional military confrontation with Iran now, however unpleasant, is still preferable to a nuclear one later. It is sometimes hard to tell if the Obama administration has fully explored that same thought process.  

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The Slow-Motion Munich Agreement

In an interview with Robert Gates, posted on Friday, Hugh Hewitt asked the former defense secretary to respond to John Bolton’s characterization of the Iranian deal as another Munich (and Charles Krauthammer’s characterization of it as a catastrophe more cynical than Munich). Gates did not directly respond, but he set forth a procedure designed to prevent it from being one:

I think what’s really important is what happens in six months. And my view is that the administration ought to set a specific date. … [W]hat I would be arguing if I were in the Situation Room is okay, then the negotiations begin on whatever the date, January 25th or whatever. Exactly six months from then, the negotiations stop. Either they’re successful or they’re not, because the Iranians are perhaps the world’s best at slow rolling a negotiation … I don’t see why there is opposition to the Congress passing sanctions that would be triggered at that six month point, so that in essence, the message to the Iranians is if there is no successful negotiations, an agreement at the end of six months, you are going to be significantly worse off than you were when these negotiations began. It’s not going to be a return to the status quo before the negotiations.

Gates must be one of those people who want war rather than peace in our time.

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In an interview with Robert Gates, posted on Friday, Hugh Hewitt asked the former defense secretary to respond to John Bolton’s characterization of the Iranian deal as another Munich (and Charles Krauthammer’s characterization of it as a catastrophe more cynical than Munich). Gates did not directly respond, but he set forth a procedure designed to prevent it from being one:

I think what’s really important is what happens in six months. And my view is that the administration ought to set a specific date. … [W]hat I would be arguing if I were in the Situation Room is okay, then the negotiations begin on whatever the date, January 25th or whatever. Exactly six months from then, the negotiations stop. Either they’re successful or they’re not, because the Iranians are perhaps the world’s best at slow rolling a negotiation … I don’t see why there is opposition to the Congress passing sanctions that would be triggered at that six month point, so that in essence, the message to the Iranians is if there is no successful negotiations, an agreement at the end of six months, you are going to be significantly worse off than you were when these negotiations began. It’s not going to be a return to the status quo before the negotiations.

Gates must be one of those people who want war rather than peace in our time.

In opposing even contingent sanctions, taking effect only if the Iranians violate their deal or if the deal does not dismantle the nuclear-weapons program, the administration has been making a fundamentally illogical argument: sanctions are what brought Iran to the table (they say), but contingent sanctions would make them leave it. Sanctions have been an effective tool (they say), but contingent ones would be counter-productive. Sanctions produced negotiations (they say), but contingent sanctions would end them. The administration’s former defense secretary apparently disagrees. 

In the interview, Gates set forth his view of what any sanctions-avoiding agreement six months from now must provide:

[F]rom my standpoint, the only agreement that we ought to be willing to sign up to is one that rolls back the Iranian program to the point where they are no longer a nuclear weapon threshold state, a state that could go to a nuclear weapon relatively quickly.

Under present circumstances, what is assured in six months is another six-month agreement, as even Obama’s former top arms-control adviser admits. In fact, it will be another eight-month agreement (the current six-month one took two extra months to determine when it would begin), since the six-month extension will itself probably take two-months to negotiate, as the parties discuss the additional sanctions relief necessary to keep Iran at the table. We are in for a rolling series of extensions, as the world’s best in slow-rolling negotiations keeps whirring its centrifuges, works on its missile technology, advances its off-site preparations for its plutonium facility, completes its secret sites, and perfects its breakout capacity.

It is part of a slow-motion Munich agreement. It might be avoided under the Gates plan–contingent sanctions and a six-month time limit–but this is an administration now functioning without a defense secretary in a policy-making position. If there is to be a Gates plan, it will have to come from Congress.

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Khamenei Stays A Step Ahead of the West

Critics of the administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, and proponents of sanctions more generally, have been making a simple argument: any substantial sanctions relief will be difficult to undo if Iran doesn’t comply with the terms of the deal. That means Iran gets a cash infusion with no risk, and a foot in the door of sanctions relief could be enough to throw it wide open, considering the overall lack of appetite in the West for the sanctions regime.

Critics cannot prove what the administration will do after this deal runs its initial course. But they can demonstrate that the other part–the financial windfall Iran’s leaders stand to gain right away–is already taking place. That’s the upshot of yesterday’s Reuters piece on Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s financial empire and how the nuclear deal is already paying off for him. But first, it’s necessary to refer to the background of this story, which was exposed by Reuters in November.

Khamenei, Reuters revealed, controls an “economic empire” under the organization Setad. Reuters estimated the holdings of the company to be worth nearly $100 billion, but the combination of how Setad makes its money and what that organization enables Khamenei to accomplish are the more important details:

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Critics of the administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, and proponents of sanctions more generally, have been making a simple argument: any substantial sanctions relief will be difficult to undo if Iran doesn’t comply with the terms of the deal. That means Iran gets a cash infusion with no risk, and a foot in the door of sanctions relief could be enough to throw it wide open, considering the overall lack of appetite in the West for the sanctions regime.

Critics cannot prove what the administration will do after this deal runs its initial course. But they can demonstrate that the other part–the financial windfall Iran’s leaders stand to gain right away–is already taking place. That’s the upshot of yesterday’s Reuters piece on Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s financial empire and how the nuclear deal is already paying off for him. But first, it’s necessary to refer to the background of this story, which was exposed by Reuters in November.

Khamenei, Reuters revealed, controls an “economic empire” under the organization Setad. Reuters estimated the holdings of the company to be worth nearly $100 billion, but the combination of how Setad makes its money and what that organization enables Khamenei to accomplish are the more important details:

But Setad has empowered him. Through Setad, Khamenei has at his disposal financial resources whose value rivals the holdings of the shah, the Western-backed monarch who was overthrown in 1979.

How Setad came into those assets also mirrors how the deposed monarchy obtained much of its fortune – by confiscating real estate. A six-month Reuters investigation has found that Setad built its empire on the systematic seizure of thousands of properties belonging to ordinary Iranians: members of religious minorities like Vahdat-e-Hagh, who is Baha’i, as well as Shi’ite Muslims, business people and Iranians living abroad.

Setad has amassed a giant portfolio of real estate by claiming in Iranian courts, sometimes falsely, that the properties are abandoned. The organization now holds a court-ordered monopoly on taking property in the name of the supreme leader, and regularly sells the seized properties at auction or seeks to extract payments from the original owners.

The supreme leader also oversaw the creation of a body of legal rulings and executive orders that enabled and safeguarded Setad’s asset acquisitions. “No supervisory organization can question its property,” said Naghi Mahmoudi, an Iranian lawyer who left Iran in 2010 and now lives in Germany.

Land, resources, legal power, money–Setad gave Khamenei unparalleled access to it in Iran. Setad invests, as would be expected, in Iran’s energy industry. The Treasury Department wasn’t fooled, and specifically targeted Setad and dozens of companies it is believed to oversee as part of an attempt to close off financial escape hatches that enabled the Iranian leadership to get around sanctions.

Now, as Reuters reports, some of those escape hatches have been reopened:

Khamenei controls a massive business empire known as Setad that has invested in Iran’s petrochemical industry, which is now permitted to resume exports. Under a six-month deal between Iran and world powers, Tehran has promised to scale back its nuclear development program in exchange for the suspension of certain economic sanctions, including curbs on the export of petrochemicals.

On Monday, the day the suspension of the restrictions took effect, the U.S. Treasury Department published a list of 14 Iranian petrochemical companies that previously had been sanctioned but are now permitted to do business abroad. The list includes three firms that the department said last year are controlled by Setad – Ghaed Bassir Petrochemical Products Co, Marjan Petrochemical Co and Sadaf Petrochemical Assaluyeh Co.

The Treasury Department responded to this latest report by saying Iran’s leaders won’t gain much from petrochemical exports during the next six months, probably not more than $1 billion. But that’s not nothing, and it also misses the point of the story: the Iranian leadership appears to be a step ahead of its Western counterparts on this score. And who knows what they’ll be able to work out given six months’ time.

And it’s what makes press briefings like today’s from Jay Carney so troubling. As the Washington Examiner reports, Carney was asked about the latest comments from the Iranian foreign minister that they “did not agree to dismantle anything.” Carney called it “spin.” Perhaps, but that means, according to Carney, the Iranians are lying about their obligations. So what makes this administration think Iran’s government can be trusted to fulfill obligations it says don’t exist? Meanwhile, as the two sides argue in public over what they actually agreed to, the sanctions relief remains in place.

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Obama Administration to Israel: Call Off the Jews, Please

The latest dustup in U.S.-Israel relations is one that makes you wonder if Obama administration officials have a shred of self-awareness. The Jerusalem Post reports that the president is unhappy with the Israeli government because his consistent opposition to sanctions on Iran is not meeting with universal approval from American Jewish groups. And why does this make him upset with Israel? Because he apparently believes that such dissent must be the product of foreign influence:

A US official close to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry said both men are disturbed over what is being perceived in their inner circle as “Jewish activism in Congress” that they think is being encouraged by the Israeli government, Israel Radio reported on Thursday.

The official has informed Israeli government figures that the president and secretary of state are disappointed over repeated attacks made against them by leading members of the Jewish community in the US.

The president and secretary of state would like American Jews’ foreign handlers and sponsors to please stop riling up the Jews, because those Jews then practice their voodoo on members of Congress. Now, while this is obviously a very stupid thing for the president and secretary of state to believe–conspiracy theorists love the Walt-Mearsheimer dark tales of Jewish influence, but rarely do serious or intelligent people fall for it–it is even dumber to, you know, say out loud.

But that’s not to say it’s a slip of the tongue; these statements are usually calculated warnings: nice special relationship you got here, etc. The phrase “Jewish activism in Congress” is especially clumsy, because it’s so obvious and appalling and insulting. I suppose we should be thankful the official managed not to use the word “elders.”

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The latest dustup in U.S.-Israel relations is one that makes you wonder if Obama administration officials have a shred of self-awareness. The Jerusalem Post reports that the president is unhappy with the Israeli government because his consistent opposition to sanctions on Iran is not meeting with universal approval from American Jewish groups. And why does this make him upset with Israel? Because he apparently believes that such dissent must be the product of foreign influence:

A US official close to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry said both men are disturbed over what is being perceived in their inner circle as “Jewish activism in Congress” that they think is being encouraged by the Israeli government, Israel Radio reported on Thursday.

The official has informed Israeli government figures that the president and secretary of state are disappointed over repeated attacks made against them by leading members of the Jewish community in the US.

The president and secretary of state would like American Jews’ foreign handlers and sponsors to please stop riling up the Jews, because those Jews then practice their voodoo on members of Congress. Now, while this is obviously a very stupid thing for the president and secretary of state to believe–conspiracy theorists love the Walt-Mearsheimer dark tales of Jewish influence, but rarely do serious or intelligent people fall for it–it is even dumber to, you know, say out loud.

But that’s not to say it’s a slip of the tongue; these statements are usually calculated warnings: nice special relationship you got here, etc. The phrase “Jewish activism in Congress” is especially clumsy, because it’s so obvious and appalling and insulting. I suppose we should be thankful the official managed not to use the word “elders.”

In one sense, it’s ironic: American Jews vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, and this is the thanks they get. But in another sense, it’s typical of the enforced groupthink of the American left: “overwhelmingly” is not enough. Everyone needs to get in line, lest any unapproved thought escape someone’s lips and influence others, unleashing the dreaded “Jewish activism.” When people are permitted to speak freely, who knows what the Congress will do? Better to not find out, according to the Obama administration.

It’s also extremely creepy behavior, because it aims to chill legitimate political speech by warning Jews–specifically–that if they disagree with the Obama administration they will be seen to be acting on orders from a foreign government. And it then transfers that suspicion of dual loyalty to the members of Congress whose constituents include the Jews of which the administration disapproves.

The sentiment as expressed to the press and attributed to Obama and Kerry appears to be a fusion of the two: Obama’s distaste for dissent and Kerry’s inability to communicate. The problem the White House is having is this: the president’s deal with Iran was not a good deal, and that fact is becoming more and more obvious to everyone, even those not under the spell of Jewish voodoo. So left to their own devices, many in Congress and in the public are going to draw the correct conclusion–the president is getting played–and the president does not like that prospect.

But how is the president going to chill the speech of others? Take, for example, Fareed Zakaria, a man of the left and someone Obama consults on foreign policy. As the Washington Free Beacon notes, Zakaria interviewed the Iranian president and was left with the same sinking feeling as others. Zakaria’s reaction:

This strikes me as a train wreck. This strikes me as potentially a huge obstacle because the conception of what the deal is going to look like and the American conception now look like they are miles apart. The Iranian conception seems to be they produce as much nuclear energy as they want, but it is a civilian program. The American position is that they have to very substantially scale back the enrichment of uranium and the production of centrifuges. For the first time you have the president of Iran unequivocally saying there will be no destruction of centrifuges. So this seems like — you know, this is still — I’m not even quite sure what they’re going to talk about.

Do Obama and Kerry believe Zakaria is acting under orders from a foreign government? Or do they understand how repellant such talk is when removed from under the weight of their Bibi derangement syndrome?

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Leverage Always Matters on Iran

Gary Sick, a Carter administration National Security Council aide, took to the pages of USA Today this past week to argue that the congressional bill to increase sanctions should Iran not negotiate in good faith or reach a deal is counterproductive. Sick wrote:

This misguided bill threatens to derail the negotiations and sabotage progress. Our negotiators do not want or need this extra sanctions threat. They already have a strong hand, and new sanctions will almost certainly be seen by Iran as evidence of bad faith.

Sick is wrong. Leverage matters. It always has. And no one should know that more than one Gary Sick. Sick bases his authority on his service during the Iran hostage crisis. Indeed, he begins his essay, “Thirty-five years ago, when the Iranian revolution overthrew the shah and our diplomats were taken hostage, I was in the White House. Many of those taken prisoner remain personal friends of mine.”

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Gary Sick, a Carter administration National Security Council aide, took to the pages of USA Today this past week to argue that the congressional bill to increase sanctions should Iran not negotiate in good faith or reach a deal is counterproductive. Sick wrote:

This misguided bill threatens to derail the negotiations and sabotage progress. Our negotiators do not want or need this extra sanctions threat. They already have a strong hand, and new sanctions will almost certainly be seen by Iran as evidence of bad faith.

Sick is wrong. Leverage matters. It always has. And no one should know that more than one Gary Sick. Sick bases his authority on his service during the Iran hostage crisis. Indeed, he begins his essay, “Thirty-five years ago, when the Iranian revolution overthrew the shah and our diplomats were taken hostage, I was in the White House. Many of those taken prisoner remain personal friends of mine.”

The hostage crisis, of course, figures heavily in my new book, Dancing with the Devil, a history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes. The hostages were seized on November 4, 1979, after Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security advisor, publicly shook hands with Iranian Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, enraging Iranian hardliners surrounding revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. I detail the episode here.

What is less known but has become apparent based on the Persian (Farsi)-language writings of the hostage takers is that the Iranian students who took the embassy did not initially plan to stage more than a symbolic sit-in lasting perhaps 48 hours. But, on November 6, 1979, a press report appeared citing an anonymous official who leaked word from the emergency meeting that occurred at the White House that there would be “no change in the status quo—no military alert, no movement of forces, no resort to military contingency plans.” The leaker, according to other members of Carter’s Iran team, was likely Gary Sick, who often talked to the press. Perhaps Sick, or the White House if the leak was authorized, believed that taking the threat of something worse to come off the table would enable diplomacy. But by removing the threat of force, it forfeited its leverage. The hostage takers learned that they had nothing to fear, and so a short hiccup transformed into a 444-day crisis that defined the Carter presidency. In effect, Sick counsels Obama and the Congress to make the same mistake twice.

The State Department seldom conducts lessons-learned exercises, but if it did, it would find that leverage always matters. Reducing leverage does not win agreements; it hampers them. While Sick reads good faith into Iranian actions, past and present, Rouhani’s own words belie that notion. Diplomacy should be a strategy of first resort, but diplomacy involves more than talking: it is the culmination of an elaborate game of three-dimensional chess as both sides maneuver for position and build up the leverage to achieve the best results for their country. Alas, that seems to be a notion Iranian leaders understand well, but it represents a blind spot for Sick and his fellow travelers, one that has cost the United States dearly over the years.

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re: Why the Secrecy on the Iran Deal?

Earlier this week, Emanuele Ottolenghi asked “Why the Secrecy” about the Iran deal, a reference to the Obama administration keeping the implementation agreement of the Joint Plan of Action out of the public eye. Ottolenghi is absolutely correct that the desire to keep the agreement secret “will only enhance legitimate suspicions that none of Iran’s concessions are irreversible and that the West volunteered to reduce its own leverage in exchange for vague promises.”

There are many more specific reasons why the State Department leaders want to keep the agreement secret, and a lot of them have to do with learning the wrong lessons from the past. Among other episodes, my new book Dancing with the Devil, a history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, explores Bill Clinton-era diplomacy in depth.

The Clinton administration, of course, considered the 1994 Agreed Framework a great success. After the deal had been signed, Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland noted the difficulty of trusting North Korea, and demanded that Clinton’s team answer three questions:

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Earlier this week, Emanuele Ottolenghi asked “Why the Secrecy” about the Iran deal, a reference to the Obama administration keeping the implementation agreement of the Joint Plan of Action out of the public eye. Ottolenghi is absolutely correct that the desire to keep the agreement secret “will only enhance legitimate suspicions that none of Iran’s concessions are irreversible and that the West volunteered to reduce its own leverage in exchange for vague promises.”

There are many more specific reasons why the State Department leaders want to keep the agreement secret, and a lot of them have to do with learning the wrong lessons from the past. Among other episodes, my new book Dancing with the Devil, a history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, explores Bill Clinton-era diplomacy in depth.

The Clinton administration, of course, considered the 1994 Agreed Framework a great success. After the deal had been signed, Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland noted the difficulty of trusting North Korea, and demanded that Clinton’s team answer three questions:

 (1)   Do they really believe that North Korea has ceased being a backlash state and should therefore be trusted?

(2)   Why did Kim Jong-il do the deal now?

(3)   Won’t it serve as an incentive for other backlashers to pursue nuclear-weapons programs, to get bought off by the United States if for no other reason?

Clinton refused to answer such questions but, by 1997, there was little doubt that the Agreed Framework had failed. The State Department would not accept such findings, though, even when they came from the intelligence community. To do so would invalidate Clinton’s approach. Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman (and an avid supporter of Obama’s diplomacy with Iran) declared, “We are absolutely confident … that the agreed framework, put in place two and a half years ago is in place, it’s working. We are absolutely clear that North Korea’s nuclear program has been frozen and will remain frozen.”

When they looked at the facts, the General Accounting Office (GAO) concluded otherwise. In 1999, it reported that it could no longer verify how North Korea distributed or used its food aid. North Korea would allow international monitors to visit only 10 percent of institutions receiving food aid, and regularly blocked inspectors. The State Department refused to accept the GAO findings, though, because to accept them would be to admit North Korean cheating and to undermine the premise of the diplomatic process in which they had already invested too much. Likewise, when the GAO reported that monitoring of heavy fuel oil had gone awry, the State Department informed Congress that they trusted that the regime’s use of the heavy fuel oil was consistent with the Agreed Framework. Like today, Congress was dubious, but the State Department effectively covered up North Korean noncompliance and insisted that the deal was “a concrete success.”

A theme of my book is that the State Department never conducts lessons-learned episodes to determine why certain high-profile diplomatic engagements have failed in order to better execute diplomacy in the future. Perhaps that’s unfair, however. It seems that the State Department has considered what went wrong 15 years ago but, rather than conclude that the original agreement or rogue behavior was the problem, they have determined that too much transparency forces them to answer uncomfortable questions and can empower Congress to demand accountability. That, more than rogue regime cheating, seems to be the State Department’s greatest concern. Simply put, a secret agreement is necessary, in diplomats’ eyes, in order to ensure that cheating, violations, and insincerity don’t sidetrack the continuation of the diplomatic process.

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Why the Secrecy?

The White House is not releasing the text of the Joint Plan of Action’s implementation agreement about Iran’s nuclear deal. Worse, it is shifting responsibility for this unprecedented secrecy on the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Secret diplomatic treaties are a throwback to a previous era of diplomacy–and are frankly ridiculous, since in an era where leaks happen in real time, keeping a document secret seems like a sure recipe for embarrassment.

It is also an own goal for the administration, given that it will only enhance legitimate suspicions that none of Iran’s concessions are irreversible and that the West volunteered to reduce its own leverage in exchange for vague promises.

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The White House is not releasing the text of the Joint Plan of Action’s implementation agreement about Iran’s nuclear deal. Worse, it is shifting responsibility for this unprecedented secrecy on the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Secret diplomatic treaties are a throwback to a previous era of diplomacy–and are frankly ridiculous, since in an era where leaks happen in real time, keeping a document secret seems like a sure recipe for embarrassment.

It is also an own goal for the administration, given that it will only enhance legitimate suspicions that none of Iran’s concessions are irreversible and that the West volunteered to reduce its own leverage in exchange for vague promises.

Regardless, one thing comes to mind: where are Edward Snowden and Julian Assange when one needs them most?

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The Loss of Momentum

In politics, war, sports, and other realms momentum counts for a lot. If you maintain the momentum, you can give the appearance that your victory is inevitable. This disheartens your adversaries, emboldens your side, and leads waverers to root for your cause. If, however, you lose momentum the entire process is reversed and you are put on the defensive, with numerous negative consequences.

Well, guess what? The West has just lost momentum in the battle to keep Iran from going nuclear. The Obama administration claims that the deal which takes effect next week is only temporary and phased in–that in return for a partial slowdown in its nuclear program (which, according to the New York Times, will add as little as “several weeks to the time Iran would need to acquire enough enriched uranium for a bomb”) Iran will get “only” $6 billion to $7 billion worth of sanctions relief.

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In politics, war, sports, and other realms momentum counts for a lot. If you maintain the momentum, you can give the appearance that your victory is inevitable. This disheartens your adversaries, emboldens your side, and leads waverers to root for your cause. If, however, you lose momentum the entire process is reversed and you are put on the defensive, with numerous negative consequences.

Well, guess what? The West has just lost momentum in the battle to keep Iran from going nuclear. The Obama administration claims that the deal which takes effect next week is only temporary and phased in–that in return for a partial slowdown in its nuclear program (which, according to the New York Times, will add as little as “several weeks to the time Iran would need to acquire enough enriched uranium for a bomb”) Iran will get “only” $6 billion to $7 billion worth of sanctions relief.

But Iran has won something far more valuable than that limited sanctions relief, which is valuable enough as it is to a cash-strapped regime. It has stopped the momentum of the West’s sanctions and is beginning to reverse it. After having worked so hard to impose crippling economic sanctions on the Iranian regime, the U.S. is now backing off, even going so far as to implicitly recognize Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium–i.e., its “right” to maintain breakout capacity to build a bomb within a few weeks or months.

This is sending a signal to the entire world that we are no longer serious about containing Iran. Instead, we are going to accommodate it. Given that reality, the hordes of waverers and finger-to-the-wind countries which have been very reluctant to give up their business dealings with Iran are now likely to open up the spigots and let trade flow.

An initial sign of this comes from Dubai. The United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part, has long had an equivocal relationship with Iran. Like other Sunni states in the region, it has been terrified of the rise of Iranian power but, as a small state located across a narrow waterway from the Persian powerhouse, it has also sought to accommodate the Iranians as much as possible. Dubai, which lives on trade, has been especially active in providing a market where Iran can buy and sell what it needs.

Thus it is hardly surprising but nevertheless significant to read the ruler of Dubai quoted as follows:

Asked whether he thought it was time to lift the sanctions, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is also the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, told British broadcaster the BBC:

“I think so and give Iran a space… Iran is our neighbor and we don’t want any problem, he said, adding that “everybody will benefit”.

This is indicative of a broader reaction that is sure to set in almost immediately. Countries which had been brought reluctantly to support sanctions on Iran are going to ease off. This is especially true of states in the Middle East whose rulers are wily survivors. They can read which way the wind is blowing, and they now recognize that the Iranians have what George H.W. Bush once referred to as “big mo” and the U.S. doesn’t. They will act accordingly.

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Take Claims of Diplomatic Progress with a Grain of Salt

The White House is denying that talks over the technicalities of the Iranian nuclear deal have broken down, never mind that diplomats have so far been unable to resolve differences regarding Iran’s nuclear centrifuge research and so the preliminary deal announced late last year has yet to take effect. “The P5+1 and Iran made progress in our discussions regarding the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action over the past several weeks,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan assured the Washington Free Beacon when it asked about the state of negotiations, given that negotiators had gone home absent an agreement.

Talk of progress might be reassuring, but it is important for outside observers to take them with a grain of salt. While conducting research for my forthcoming book about the history of diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I went through decades of State Department and National Security Council briefings regarding high-stakes diplomacy with North Korea, Iran, and the Palestinian Authority. With the benefit of time, I was also able to compare the statements of the diplomatic briefers with their declassified notes and intelligence regarding what actually had occurred. Seldom did claims of progress actually correlate to progress. Nor had the State Department developed metrics before beginning talks to chart their progress. Rather, the State Department often claims progress not to describe the results of negotiations, but instead to protect the institutional interest of continuing talks and a process in which politicians have invested.

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The White House is denying that talks over the technicalities of the Iranian nuclear deal have broken down, never mind that diplomats have so far been unable to resolve differences regarding Iran’s nuclear centrifuge research and so the preliminary deal announced late last year has yet to take effect. “The P5+1 and Iran made progress in our discussions regarding the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action over the past several weeks,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan assured the Washington Free Beacon when it asked about the state of negotiations, given that negotiators had gone home absent an agreement.

Talk of progress might be reassuring, but it is important for outside observers to take them with a grain of salt. While conducting research for my forthcoming book about the history of diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I went through decades of State Department and National Security Council briefings regarding high-stakes diplomacy with North Korea, Iran, and the Palestinian Authority. With the benefit of time, I was also able to compare the statements of the diplomatic briefers with their declassified notes and intelligence regarding what actually had occurred. Seldom did claims of progress actually correlate to progress. Nor had the State Department developed metrics before beginning talks to chart their progress. Rather, the State Department often claims progress not to describe the results of negotiations, but instead to protect the institutional interest of continuing talks and a process in which politicians have invested.

Diplomacy might yet yield results but, in the meantime, rather than accept claims of progress, it would behoove congressmen and journalists to ask the State Department in advance of any talks what their definition for progress is absent any final agreement. If they do so, they may find that, in diplo-speak, the line between progress and failure does not exist.

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