Commentary Magazine


Topic: P5+1 talks

About That Iran Talks Deadline?

Last year when the United States and its allies signed an interim nuclear accord with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear to the world that the subsequent round of talks to arrive at a final resolution of the problem would not be allowed to go on indefinitely. Unlike past diplomatic exchanges with Iran, the negotiations would be limited to a period of six months after which there would either be a satisfactory agreement to end the nuclear threat or Iran would face serious consequences. But a low-key announcement from the European Union about a diplomatic assignment demonstrates that what Kerry said would never be allowed to happen is exactly what will occur.

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Last year when the United States and its allies signed an interim nuclear accord with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear to the world that the subsequent round of talks to arrive at a final resolution of the problem would not be allowed to go on indefinitely. Unlike past diplomatic exchanges with Iran, the negotiations would be limited to a period of six months after which there would either be a satisfactory agreement to end the nuclear threat or Iran would face serious consequences. But a low-key announcement from the European Union about a diplomatic assignment demonstrates that what Kerry said would never be allowed to happen is exactly what will occur.

The announcement concerned European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton who will, we are informed, continue on in her role as chief negotiator for the P5+1 talks with Iran even after her term on the EU Commission expires in November. Rather than her designated successor, current Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, assuming the responsibility for leading the Western delegation in the negotiations, Ashton will soldier on in this thankless task. But aside from any qualms about Ashton’s past performance in the role, which inspires little confidence in either her willingness to press the Islamist regime or her commitment to ending the danger of an Iranian bomb, there is one other little problem.

If the final round of the P5+1 talks were only supposed to last six months, why will Ashton’s services still be required more than a year after the interim accord was signed?

The answer is all too obvious. Despite the pious promises from Kerry and all of the other defenders of the interim accord that the West had learned its lesson about being strung along by the Iranians, they have in fact fallen for the same trick again. Having been suckered into an interim deal that weakened sanctions on Iran just at the moment when the enormous economic and military leverage over the regime seemed to provide an opportunity to pressure it to come to terms without the use of force, Western negotiators have now found themselves trapped in a device of their own making. They gambled everything on the belief that Iran was ready to sign a final accord that would allow President Obama to fulfill his campaign promise to stop Iran. But after several months of talks that demonstrated anew that the Iranians will never give up their nuclear program or agree to any terms that will effectively prevent them from building a bomb, the U.S. and its allies feel they have no choice but to keep talking even if there is no end in sight.

The announcement about Ashton is significant because even when the P5+1 group formally extended the Iran talks after the six-month mark was passed this summer (Iran had already been allowed to delay the start of the clock), Congress and the public were assured that this would not mean they would go on indefinitely. But with the Iranians digging in their heels recently on a variety of issues, including inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and their uranium refinement and stockpile of nuclear fuel, there seems no chance that the next round of negotiations to be held in New York during the meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations will be anything but a continuation of past frustration for the West and delaying tactics by the Iranians.

The notion of Iran running out the clock in these talks has always been crucial. That’s because for the last decade it’s been obvious that doing so merely gives them more time to reach their nuclear goal after which it will no longer be possible for the West to take meaningful action. That was the case when similar prevarications worked to allow the North Koreans to pass the nuclear threshold, something that should be painfully familiar to Wendy Sherman, the head of the U.S. delegation to the talks Ashton chairs, who was performing the same role with the North Koreans.

It is apt to remember that when critics of the interim accord raised questions about its lenient terms, the loosening of sanctions, and the Iranians’ stalling the West again, they were labeled “warmongers.” Attempts by a majority in both houses of Congress to enact new, tougher sanctions on Iran that would go into effect only when the next round of negotiations would be declared a failure were denounced by the administration as an unwarranted interference in what they considered to be a productive diplomatic stream.

Had those sanctions been enacted last winter rather than being spiked by procedural maneuvers by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Obama’s veto threats, Ashton and the P5+1 negotiators would have some real leverage over the Iranians at this point. But instead of allowing diplomacy to flourish, the defeat of sanctions was a gift to the Iranians who now feel empowered to return to the dilatory tactics of the past.

Iran’s position is further strengthened by the situation in Iraq and Syria where the rise of ISIS (due in no small measure to other foreign-policy blunders by the administration) has made the administration even more loath to offend Tehran. Having a common foe with the United States seems to have empowered the Iranians to think they have nothing to worry about. They also benefit from the conflict between the West and Russia over Ukraine, as Moscow now seems inclined to offer the Iranians an outlet that will render sanctions less effective.

Seen in that light, Ashton may have reason to believe that she will have more or less permanent employment in a P5+1 process that could drag out well into the future. But this admission not only gives the lie to Kerry’s promises about the interim accord’s time limits. It also gives the ayatollahs confidence that the West no longer is serious, if indeed it ever was, about preventing them from realizing their nuclear ambitions.

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The Iran Talks’ Gaza Connection

Lost amid the understandable focus on the fighting in Gaza was a major Middle East news story. On July 18, the U.S. and its Western allies agreed to extend the Iran nuclear talks for four months. But rather than the fighting between Hamas and Israel allowing the negotiations to continue under the radar, the events unfolding in Gaza ought to make it harder rather than easier for the Obama administration to evade its obligation to deal with this threat.

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Lost amid the understandable focus on the fighting in Gaza was a major Middle East news story. On July 18, the U.S. and its Western allies agreed to extend the Iran nuclear talks for four months. But rather than the fighting between Hamas and Israel allowing the negotiations to continue under the radar, the events unfolding in Gaza ought to make it harder rather than easier for the Obama administration to evade its obligation to deal with this threat.

The leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee groused in public yesterday about the way the Iran talks are proceeding with little public accountability. Both Democratic Chair Senator Robert Menendez and ranking Republican Bob Corker expressed dismay about the way the supposedly finite period for negotiations with Iran had effortlessly transitioned into injury time with every possibility that the four-month period could be extended again in November. There was no appetite on the committee for a rerun of the bruising and losing fight Menendez waged against the administration on behalf of tougher sanctions on Iran in order to strengthen the West’s hand in the talks. Yet the frustration about the P5+1 process is clear.

While their comments didn’t get much attention, Menendez and Corker are right to be worried. More to the point, the Gaza crisis ought to be causing more concern about the Iran talks rather than allowing Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiating team a free pass to continue to work toward an agreement that will both legalize Tehran’s nuclear program and fail to curb its support for terrorism.

It is important to understand that without Iran much of what is happening in Gaza wouldn’t be possible. Iran supplied Hamas with advanced rockets and money for years enabling it to create the infrastructure of terror that has plunged the region into conflict. Iran and Hamas had a very public spat in recent years when the Islamist terrorists chose to oppose Tehran’s ally Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war. But the breach between the two may be over. Yesterday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he supported replenishing Iran’s arsenal. If, due to international pressure and the desire of the Obama administration to halt the current fighting, Hamas is left standing and in control of Gaza, the odds are good that Khamenei will make good on his pledge.

Economic sanctions on Iran made it harder for the regime to divert money to Hamas as well as to Islamic Jihad, which has stayed in Tehran’s good graces these past few years. But if Kerry gets the deal he is looking for, the sanctions that were weakened in the interim deal concluded last November would be eviscerated. At that point, Hamas may be able to count on refinancing and resupply from Iran as well as from their ally Qatar.

What has this to do with the nuclear talks?

The assumption on the part of most foreign-policy observers is that these are two separate issues. But that belief is a mistake. Iran’s status as the leading state sponsor of international terrorism through its support of Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and perhaps Hamas again makes it imperative that the P5+1 process not limit itself to talks that ignore the threat that Tehran’s auxiliaries pose to the West.

Kerry signed a weak deal with Iran last fall because, as he publicly admitted, the secretary decided sticking to the West’s demands for Iran to dismantle its nuclear program was not possible. Instead, he appeased Iran and granted tacit recognition to their “right” to enrich uranium in exchange for concessions that do little to retard the Islamist regime’s nuclear ambitions. The willingness of the West to go into overtime with an Iranian negotiating partner that has clearly signaled their unwillingness to agree to measures that would make it impossible for them to build a weapon may herald another retreat by Kerry. If so, that will bring us closer to the day when Iran will not only be able to threaten the West with a nuke after a brief “breakout” period but also hasten the moment when it can extend a nuclear umbrella over its allies in Lebanon and Gaza.

While the prospect of such a dismal outcome to these negotiations raises the possibility that Israel will decide at some point to act on their own to stop the Iranians, it also raises the stakes in Gaza. The U.S. decision not to keep its word about limiting negotiations with Iran makes it even more imperative for Israel not to allow Hamas to escape the current fighting with its arsenal and control of the strip intact. Just as Iran’s nuclear dream poses an existential threat to Israel, the American willingness to kick the can down the road on the nuclear issue makes it more vital that Israel finishes off Hamas now before an end to the blockade and Western appeasement of Tehran changes the strategic equation in Gaza and the Middle East.

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Kerry’s Blunders Bode Ill For Iran Talks

While Israel is focused right now on dealing with a Hamas missile barrage that has continued for three days, the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon cannot be entirely forgotten. But if Israelis are concerned about the mixed messages their American ally has been sending to the Palestinians, they have to be even more worried about what the U.S. might do in the talks with Tehran.

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While Israel is focused right now on dealing with a Hamas missile barrage that has continued for three days, the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon cannot be entirely forgotten. But if Israelis are concerned about the mixed messages their American ally has been sending to the Palestinians, they have to be even more worried about what the U.S. might do in the talks with Tehran.

As the Wall Street Journal reported today, the P5+1 process is currently stalemated with a July 20 deadline looming over the negotiators. Iran and the West appear to be far apart on issues such as Tehran’s “right” to enrich uranium and the number of centrifuges it would be allowed to keep in the future, the future of its plutonium nuclear plant as well as its mountainside Fordow plant where enrichment activities continue. That list doesn’t even include issues such as Iran’s secret military research facilities that have not been visited by United Nations inspectors or its ballistic missile program that might provide the ayatollahs with a delivery system for a bomb.

Going into the final weeks of talks (though the negotiations can always be extended by both sides), the Iranians have been sounding confident about their ability to stick to their existing positions that would guarantee them the ability to build a bomb despite Western concerns.

The Obama administration gave up much of its leverage over Iran last fall when it decided to loosen sanctions in an interim agreement that granted implicit recognition of Iran’s right to both enrichment and a formidable nuclear infrastructure. The Iranians were required to convert their stockpile of nuclear fuel to a state that couldn’t be used for a bomb. But that could be quickly reversed if the Islamist regime decided to attempt a “break out” to a weapon. Indeed, after beginning the process of unraveling the sanctions that had taken years to put in place, the U.S. position on the Iranian threat has been reduced to one that attempts to lengthen the breakout period rather than forcing Tehran to give up its enrichment or, as President Obama pledged in 2012, the end of its nuclear program.

Iran’s confidence also has to be boosted by the announcement that the P5+1 foreign ministers, a group that includes Secretary of State John Kerry, will be joining the talks in Vienna this week. That’s an ominous development since the weak interim agreement was only reached after Kerry parachuted into those talks in November.

Kerry’s presence is worrisome because he explained the U.S. retreat last fall as being motivated by his belief that even the weak deal he signed was better than no deal at all. To those who wondered why he had accepted Iran’s insistence on keeping its nuclear infrastructure, he merely replied that sticking to America’s demands was impossible. With Iran’s leaders insisting that they will never accept a major reduction in the number of centrifuges available to them, it’s hard to believe that Kerry will hold the line on that issue after his previous retreat.

Kerry’s blunders in the talks between Israel and the Palestinians should also raise alarms for those wondering how he will manage the Iranians in the coming weeks. Throughout that process, Kerry not only disregarded Israel’s security requirements but also continually backed down from demands made on the Palestinians, even those that were purely symbolic such as their need to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state. Kerry was also heedless of the consequences of his all-but-certain failure. The current violence can be directly traced not only to his foolish initiative but his decision not to hold the Palestinian Authority accountable for its decision to ally itself with Hamas rather than making peace with Israel.

At a time when, as Forbes’ Business Insider reports, European governments are already gutting sanctions on Iran even before the talks are concluded, Tehran heads into the final days of negotiations feeling it has the wind at its back. Just as Kerry helped set the stage for the revival of Hamas and a new round of violence, his zeal for a deal with Iran may lead to even more serious disasters in the negotiations that are about to unfold.

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Will Iraq Lead to Retreat on Iran Nukes?

If, as is now being reported, the U.S. and Iran are planning to work together to contain the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, the consequences for the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy are incalculable. Given the stakes involved in the sweep through Iraq being conducted by the radical Sunni Islamists, it is clear that the Obama administration must do more than wring its hands with the president once again playing Hamlet as an international crisis gets out of control. Iran is even more heavily invested in the survival of the Shiite majority government in Baghdad, so it is likely that it will be only too happy to coordinate with the U.S.–though the ayatollahs may be about to discover that Barack Obama is a much better person to have as an adversary than as an ally. But even if the U.S. proves to be too fearful of being drawn back into a war that the president has constantly boasted of having “ended” to be of much use in Iraq, the Iranians still have a lot to gain from cooperation on this front.

As our Michael Rubin observed earlier today, past efforts at U.S.-Iran coordination in Iraq did not exactly work to the benefit of the Americans—or the Iraqis. The example he cited of what happened when Iranian auxiliaries become entrenched—as was the case in Lebanon—is very much to the point. Any hopes that the free Iraq that thousands of Americans died to create—and which seemed well within reach when George W. Bush left the presidency after his victorious surge—can be salvaged seem utterly lost. But there is another, potentially bigger problem that stems from this decision to work with Tehran that is being forgotten amid the justified concerns about the collapse of Iraq: Iran’s nuclear program.

Though the Iranians don’t wish to see the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad fall, this crisis couldn’t have come at a better time for them. After months of stonewalling the Obama administration’s efforts to craft another nuclear deal that would at least look like the West was doing something to stop Tehran’s weapons program, Iran’s leverage over Washington and its European allies has just increased exponentially.

There is plenty of blame to go around here. Critics of the U.S. invasion of Iraq are right when they point out that Iran was immeasurably strengthened by the fall of Saddam Hussein as well as by the diversion of attention from their terrorism and nuclear program. It must also be acknowledged that President Obama’s haste in fleeing from Iraq led directly to the successful revival of the Sunni insurgency.

The administration’s zeal for a deal that would end the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been no secret since it concluded an interim pact last November that tacitly recognized Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and started the unraveling of the economic sanctions that had taken years to enact and enforce. The Iraqi crisis not only strengthens Tehran’s already strong bargaining position in the continuing P5+1 talks; it also gives President Obama one more reason to seek to appease Iran rather than pressure it to make concessions on outstanding issues such as its ballistic missile program or its nuclear military research.

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If, as is now being reported, the U.S. and Iran are planning to work together to contain the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, the consequences for the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy are incalculable. Given the stakes involved in the sweep through Iraq being conducted by the radical Sunni Islamists, it is clear that the Obama administration must do more than wring its hands with the president once again playing Hamlet as an international crisis gets out of control. Iran is even more heavily invested in the survival of the Shiite majority government in Baghdad, so it is likely that it will be only too happy to coordinate with the U.S.–though the ayatollahs may be about to discover that Barack Obama is a much better person to have as an adversary than as an ally. But even if the U.S. proves to be too fearful of being drawn back into a war that the president has constantly boasted of having “ended” to be of much use in Iraq, the Iranians still have a lot to gain from cooperation on this front.

As our Michael Rubin observed earlier today, past efforts at U.S.-Iran coordination in Iraq did not exactly work to the benefit of the Americans—or the Iraqis. The example he cited of what happened when Iranian auxiliaries become entrenched—as was the case in Lebanon—is very much to the point. Any hopes that the free Iraq that thousands of Americans died to create—and which seemed well within reach when George W. Bush left the presidency after his victorious surge—can be salvaged seem utterly lost. But there is another, potentially bigger problem that stems from this decision to work with Tehran that is being forgotten amid the justified concerns about the collapse of Iraq: Iran’s nuclear program.

Though the Iranians don’t wish to see the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad fall, this crisis couldn’t have come at a better time for them. After months of stonewalling the Obama administration’s efforts to craft another nuclear deal that would at least look like the West was doing something to stop Tehran’s weapons program, Iran’s leverage over Washington and its European allies has just increased exponentially.

There is plenty of blame to go around here. Critics of the U.S. invasion of Iraq are right when they point out that Iran was immeasurably strengthened by the fall of Saddam Hussein as well as by the diversion of attention from their terrorism and nuclear program. It must also be acknowledged that President Obama’s haste in fleeing from Iraq led directly to the successful revival of the Sunni insurgency.

The administration’s zeal for a deal that would end the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been no secret since it concluded an interim pact last November that tacitly recognized Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and started the unraveling of the economic sanctions that had taken years to enact and enforce. The Iraqi crisis not only strengthens Tehran’s already strong bargaining position in the continuing P5+1 talks; it also gives President Obama one more reason to seek to appease Iran rather than pressure it to make concessions on outstanding issues such as its ballistic missile program or its nuclear military research.

Earlier this year the president demonstrated that he could sell even an embarrassingly weak deal with Iran to the country by branding its critics as warmongers when they tried unsuccessfully to get Congress to pass new sanctions legislation. But if he can claim that Iran is helping out in Iraq, it will be that much easier for him to stifle criticism of the next nuclear pact even if all it does is to make it a little bit harder for Tehran to “break out” and obtain a weapon after the deal is signed. Even worse, it may provide an excuse for the administration to backtrack from his 2012 promise that he would never countenance a policy of “containment” of a nuclear Iran. Since Iran’s conduct in Iraq will be portrayed as evidence of its rationality and willingness to be part of the international community, its potential to create a nuclear arsenal will likely also be dismissed as regrettable but no great threat to U.S. security.

But any such assumption would be a tragic mistake.

If Washington were to make the leap from irresolute diplomacy to a policy shift that treated the nuclear issue as a sidebar to the more important question of Iraq, the result would make an already unstable Middle East even more dangerous for the U.S. and its allies. While the prospect of letting either parts or the entirety of Iraq fall into the hands of al-Qaeda-allied Islamists is a grim one, American acceptance of Iran’s nuclear dreams would be an even greater calamity. As President Obama has already repeatedly stated, Iranian nuclear weapons would be “a game changer” that would plunge the region into further conflict and instability even if the “rational” rulers of Tehran never used one. Iran’s network of state-sponsored international terrorists would gain a nuclear umbrella. Moderate Arab states would, at best, be endangered and would look to obtain their own nuclear option. The already remote chances of Middle East peace would be finished.

The president’s defenders may claim that he is capable of working with the ayatollahs in Iraq without abandoning his pledges never to accept an Iranian nuke. There is also no question that the administration must act expeditiously in Iraq and some coordination or at least communication about the struggle with Iran is necessary. But given that the entire thrust of U.S. diplomacy in the last year has been focused not so much on a nuclear compromise as on an effort to foster a new détente with the Islamist regime, it is difficult to imagine how the events of the last week will do anything but diminish his already flagging determination to stop Iran.

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Will Secret Diplomacy Seal Iran Appeasement?

The latest round of nuclear talks between the West and Iran ended earlier this month without the progress toward an agreement that many had anticipated. Though the United States and its allies seem eager to sign a deal that will put a fig leaf of non-proliferation on an Iranian nuclear program that they are content to leave in place, Tehran has picked up on Washington’s zeal for a deal and is doing what its negotiators have done best for over a decade: stalling. With the international sanctions regime already starting to take on water after last November’s interim agreement that loosened the economic restrictions on Iran, the Islamist regime knows it is in a far stronger position than its Western counterparts.

But rather than reacting to this dismal situation by rethinking his approach, President Obama seems determined to double down on his determination to get a deal. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, the president is revisiting the tactic he used last year to revive the moribund P5+1 talks with Iran. Rather than continuing to work with his European partners, it appears the U.S. will once again leave the multilateral negotiations and conduct bilateral talks. The assumption is that on their own, American diplomats will be able to entice the Iranians to sign on the dotted line with concessions that even the French and the British wouldn’t consider. If true, this illustrates that what the president started last year with the interim deal is a process that has one goal and one goal alone: getting a deal with Iran no matter what the price.

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The latest round of nuclear talks between the West and Iran ended earlier this month without the progress toward an agreement that many had anticipated. Though the United States and its allies seem eager to sign a deal that will put a fig leaf of non-proliferation on an Iranian nuclear program that they are content to leave in place, Tehran has picked up on Washington’s zeal for a deal and is doing what its negotiators have done best for over a decade: stalling. With the international sanctions regime already starting to take on water after last November’s interim agreement that loosened the economic restrictions on Iran, the Islamist regime knows it is in a far stronger position than its Western counterparts.

But rather than reacting to this dismal situation by rethinking his approach, President Obama seems determined to double down on his determination to get a deal. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, the president is revisiting the tactic he used last year to revive the moribund P5+1 talks with Iran. Rather than continuing to work with his European partners, it appears the U.S. will once again leave the multilateral negotiations and conduct bilateral talks. The assumption is that on their own, American diplomats will be able to entice the Iranians to sign on the dotted line with concessions that even the French and the British wouldn’t consider. If true, this illustrates that what the president started last year with the interim deal is a process that has one goal and one goal alone: getting a deal with Iran no matter what the price.

The Iranians’ strong negotiating position stems directly from the interim agreement that was brought about as the result of secret U.S.-Iran talks. It is difficult to imagine an international community that was reluctantly dragged into enacting sanctions in the first place, raising the pressure on Iran if no deal is reached. Nor does anyone seriously imagine President Obama ordering the use of force if the talks continue to be stalemated. As a result, there is very little reason for the ayatollahs to think they have much to worry about in the talks.

Having already won the West’s acceptance of its “right” to enrich uranium, ending the Iranian nuclear program, as President Obama pledged during his reelection campaign, is off the table. The Iranians are now only negotiating about how long it would take them to “break out” from a deal and race to a bomb. At this point the only objective of the Western negotiators appears to be to lengthen that period from a few weeks to a few months, but even this victory has not lessened Iran’s determination to drag out the talks even further.

That is why the possibility of more secret talks is such a dangerous development. Though the current multilateral negotiations have created a negotiating track that has given the Iranians much of what they wanted in the talks, the open nature of these monthly talk fests make it difficult for the Americans to sweeten the pot even further for the Iranians. Since Tehran has already openly mocked requests to include their ballistic weapons program in the talks and continue to make it hard for the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor their facilities, including their military research sites, transparency would appear to favor at least the pretense that the purpose of the negotiations is to actually stop the Iranians from getting a bomb. But secret talks offer the possibility that Obama can go even further than his partners, who have at times balked at the open desire of Washington for an end to the confrontation with Iran at almost any price.

Iran went into this process hoping that it could achieve by Western consent what it appeared it was well on its way to achieving in spite of the push for sanctions: American approval for a nuclear program that could easily be converted to military use. If, as the Journal reported today, Iran’s weapons research scientists are still hard at work at getting closer to a bomb, the margin of error for the U.S. in this process is very small. Having conceded that Iran could amass enough nuclear fuel for a bomb, it will be harder still to craft a deal that could prevent it from taking that next inevitable state to a weapon.

The Obama administration proved last fall that it could sell even a weak deal with Iran to the American public and brand skeptics as potential warmongers. It may be thinking that it can do the same with an even flimsier agreement negotiated in similar secrecy this year. If so, Obama may think he may have gotten himself off the hook for his many promises to stop the Iranians from getting a weapon. But such drives for appeasement that contain within them the seeds of future conflict rarely end well for the appeasers.

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Is Obama Signing Away the Last Chance to Stop the Iranian Nuclear Threat?

The Iran nuclear talks resumed in Vienna today with Western negotiators still saying that their goal is to prevent Tehran from getting a nuclear weapon. But while Secretary of State John Kerry was talking tough when he declared that the Islamist regime faced tough decisions in the talks, now it is the Iranians who are laying down the law. On the eve of the resumption of the P5+1 negotiations, Iran’s Press TV reported that the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi declared, “The U.S. must make tough decisions in negotiations and stop threats and sanctions.” While Washington is acting as if the Iranians are blowing smoke, the initial reports coming out of today’s meetings make it clear that they are not. If, as Reuters reported, the talks have past the exploratory stage and the parties are now preparing to draft an agreement, it may be that the real decisions have already been made.

Since Iran is already signaling that it has refused to reduce the number of its centrifuges enriching uranium–let alone eliminate them and put an end to the nuclear threat–the choice is no longer the one Kerry spoke of after signing a weak interim agreement with Iran last November in which he said no deal was better than a “bad deal.” If the drafting of the next-stage nuclear agreement has indeed begun, then the decision facing President Obama is not between a bad deal and a good one but between a bad one and none at all. Unfortunately, every signal coming out of Vienna, as opposed to the administration spin heard in Washington, must lead to the conclusion that Obama and Kerry believe they can sell an increasingly isolationist and war-weary American public on the virtues of a bad deal in order to put the issue, if not the threat, to rest.

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The Iran nuclear talks resumed in Vienna today with Western negotiators still saying that their goal is to prevent Tehran from getting a nuclear weapon. But while Secretary of State John Kerry was talking tough when he declared that the Islamist regime faced tough decisions in the talks, now it is the Iranians who are laying down the law. On the eve of the resumption of the P5+1 negotiations, Iran’s Press TV reported that the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi declared, “The U.S. must make tough decisions in negotiations and stop threats and sanctions.” While Washington is acting as if the Iranians are blowing smoke, the initial reports coming out of today’s meetings make it clear that they are not. If, as Reuters reported, the talks have past the exploratory stage and the parties are now preparing to draft an agreement, it may be that the real decisions have already been made.

Since Iran is already signaling that it has refused to reduce the number of its centrifuges enriching uranium–let alone eliminate them and put an end to the nuclear threat–the choice is no longer the one Kerry spoke of after signing a weak interim agreement with Iran last November in which he said no deal was better than a “bad deal.” If the drafting of the next-stage nuclear agreement has indeed begun, then the decision facing President Obama is not between a bad deal and a good one but between a bad one and none at all. Unfortunately, every signal coming out of Vienna, as opposed to the administration spin heard in Washington, must lead to the conclusion that Obama and Kerry believe they can sell an increasingly isolationist and war-weary American public on the virtues of a bad deal in order to put the issue, if not the threat, to rest.

It should be remembered that the president sought reelection in 2012 by promising never to contain a nuclear Iran and to demand that Tehran’s entire program be halted. But in getting the Iranians to return to the table in exchange for loosening economic sanctions, the administration has been slowly backing away from those principled stands. At this point the talks seem to center on a proposed deal that would do nothing more than extend the time the Iranians would have to conduct a nuclear “breakout” and build a bomb in exchange for dismantling sanctions.

While U.S. diplomats have indicated that there are still considerable “gaps” between their position and that of Iran, there is no sign that this disagreement involves an American effort to ensure that the Islamist regime won’t have the capacity to build a bomb anytime it decides it is in its interest to do so.

Obama would like nothing better than to declare victory in the talks and then hope that the Iranians delay their breakout until after he leaves office. But by backing away from demanding an end to enrichment, the U.S. is tacitly endorsing not only Iran’s “right” to create nuclear fuel but leaving it both a stockpile of uranium and the infrastructure by which it could race to a bomb assuming that the ayatollahs even bother to sign the deal that Obama is so desperate to conclude. By leaving their centrifuges in place and by not making them surrender their stockpile of uranium, which could easily be reconverted to weapons use, Tehran’s path to a bomb is not obstructed.

As the negotiators are busy drafting their document, the administration will do its best to shroud the effort in secrecy. But this is exactly the moment when they should be putting their cards on the table. Obama and Kerry already showed that they will exchange tangible concessions on sanctions in exchange for very little in return from Iran and the likelihood is that they will get even less this time while more or less dismantling the economic pressure that created an opportunity for stopping the nuclear threat. With the focus shifting to sanctions on Russia, European support for holding Iran’s feet to the fire is rapidly evaporating.

Once the agreement is drafted, the president will, as he did last November, present the public with a fait accompli and brand anyone who points out the gap between his promises and what the deal delivers as warmongers. If the West is signing away what could be the last chance to prevent a nuclear Iran, then Congress and the American people deserve to know about it before it is already a done deal.

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Iran Counting on Obama’s Weakness

With the P5+1 nuclear talks set to resume again in Vienna tomorrow, many observers are sensing optimism that a deal with Iran is within reach. After dropping their insistence that Iran give up enriching uranium in order to gain Tehran’s acquiescence to an interim nuclear deal last November, the U.S. and its allies appear to be confident that another few meetings will produce an accord that will put an end to the confrontation with the Islamist regime over their efforts to build nuclear weapons. The best they hope to achieve is an agreement that will lengthen the time Iran needs to convert its stockpile of uranium into nuclear fuel rather than the end of the program that President Obama promised during his 2012 reelection campaign. But the administration and its supporters seem to think that rather than take the chance that the West will strengthen rather than weaken economic sanctions on it, Iran will do the smart thing and sign on the dotted line. While that won’t really end the nuclear threat, it will grant President Obama the appearance of a diplomatic victory and lead to the end of a sanctions policy that is already in danger of unraveling after the interim deal.

But rather than play ball with Obama, Iran’s leaders look to be playing hardball. As Haaretz reports, both Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani issued statements yesterday that make it clear they are in the talks to win them, not to merely acquiesce to a process that is already paving a path to nuclear capability for them. In speaking to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Khamenei mocked the notion that the country would go along with any limits on its ability to produce and deploy ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, Rouhani, the man President Obama and other advocates of the talks have depicted as a “moderate” whose victory in a faux election last year set the stage for reform of the brutal theocracy, said the best the U.S. could hope for in the talks was “transparency” and that the Islamist regime would accept no limits on its nuclear technology.

While Washington will, no doubt, dismiss the statements as mere posturing for a domestic audience that won’t impact the talks, these declarations come at an inopportune time for the Obama administration. They raise the possibility that Iran is planning to back away from any deal, even one as weak as the interim accord signed by Secretary of State John Kerry last November, much in the same manner that it has torpedoed past agreements at the last minute. But even if that is not the case, these comments make it likely that the U.S. will have to ante up even more than Obama thought in order to get Iran to sign a deal that already amounts to appeasement.

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With the P5+1 nuclear talks set to resume again in Vienna tomorrow, many observers are sensing optimism that a deal with Iran is within reach. After dropping their insistence that Iran give up enriching uranium in order to gain Tehran’s acquiescence to an interim nuclear deal last November, the U.S. and its allies appear to be confident that another few meetings will produce an accord that will put an end to the confrontation with the Islamist regime over their efforts to build nuclear weapons. The best they hope to achieve is an agreement that will lengthen the time Iran needs to convert its stockpile of uranium into nuclear fuel rather than the end of the program that President Obama promised during his 2012 reelection campaign. But the administration and its supporters seem to think that rather than take the chance that the West will strengthen rather than weaken economic sanctions on it, Iran will do the smart thing and sign on the dotted line. While that won’t really end the nuclear threat, it will grant President Obama the appearance of a diplomatic victory and lead to the end of a sanctions policy that is already in danger of unraveling after the interim deal.

But rather than play ball with Obama, Iran’s leaders look to be playing hardball. As Haaretz reports, both Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani issued statements yesterday that make it clear they are in the talks to win them, not to merely acquiesce to a process that is already paving a path to nuclear capability for them. In speaking to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Khamenei mocked the notion that the country would go along with any limits on its ability to produce and deploy ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, Rouhani, the man President Obama and other advocates of the talks have depicted as a “moderate” whose victory in a faux election last year set the stage for reform of the brutal theocracy, said the best the U.S. could hope for in the talks was “transparency” and that the Islamist regime would accept no limits on its nuclear technology.

While Washington will, no doubt, dismiss the statements as mere posturing for a domestic audience that won’t impact the talks, these declarations come at an inopportune time for the Obama administration. They raise the possibility that Iran is planning to back away from any deal, even one as weak as the interim accord signed by Secretary of State John Kerry last November, much in the same manner that it has torpedoed past agreements at the last minute. But even if that is not the case, these comments make it likely that the U.S. will have to ante up even more than Obama thought in order to get Iran to sign a deal that already amounts to appeasement.

It should be remembered that Rouhani’s credibility with the regime’s supposed hardliners rests with his exploits as a nuclear negotiator a decade ago when he took the West right up to the brink of a deal about enrichment and then backed away leaving the Bush administration and its European allies looking silly. Obama and Kerry were warned that this might happen again before they embarked on their most ambitious attempt at engagement with Iran. But while they still hope to get a deal, even if it is nothing more than a thin veil on Western approval for a robust Iranian nuclear program that could easily lead to a weapon, there’s every chance that the they’ve been led down the garden path by Khamenei and Rouhani.

Anyone wondering why Iran is acting with such confidence should look to Europe and Russia. Sanctions were already undermined by the interim deal, but with Europeans not interested in enforcing the existing restrictions, let alone tightening them to create an embargo that would give the West its only hope of spiking the nuclear threat, Iran is confident they are doomed. With Europe now facing the prospect of being forced to confront Russia after its aggression against Ukraine, there is even less appetite for squeezing Iran than even just a few months ago.

If both Khamenei and Rouhani believe Western negotiators that were already behaving as if they were desperate for a deal will be even easier to shake down than before, it’s hard to blame them for thinking so. That means that, at best, what comes out of the P5+1 process in the months leading up to the initial July deadline for an agreement (though the U.S. has already said it is prepared to keep talking beyond the summer) will be even more favorable to Iran’s nuclear quest than expected. A deal that leaves Iran’s infrastructure in place, as well as granting its right to enrich and to produce ballistic missiles, is one that will do little, if anything, to stop Tehran from getting a nuke. Rouhani’s statement that it will continue enriching uranium to 20 percent is no empty boast since it can still reconvert the stockpiles to weapons-grade material at any time.

But what Obama and Kerry are really worried about is the possibility that Iran won’t even grant them a bad deal but will instead blow off the entire process and to proceed directly to nuclear capability. If so, their fatal weakness will be exposed as a reality rather than merely a conservative talking point, leaving them a choice between ramping up the conflict and complete capitulation. That’s exactly the mindset Khamenei and Rouhani are counting on to deliver them a meaningless agreement that can either be signed or ignored. Either way, Iran seems closer to its nuclear goal today than it did before Obama’s interim capitulation.

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Obama’s Slow-Motion Betrayal on Iran

The latest round of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran took place this past week with little of the fanfare that surrounded previous negotiations. Other international issues, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370, have largely superseded Iran as the top foreign-policy news story. This allowed the Obama administration and its European partners, along with the uneasy participation of Russia, to pursue an agenda of accommodation with the Islamist regime without having to answer too many questions about the direction of the talks. After two days of meetings in Vienna, the parties recessed last Wednesday with vows to meet again next month. Though they admitted there were still gaps between the two sides, everyone seemed to express confidence that an agreement would eventually be reached even if lasted longer than the July deadline for negotiations that was set in the interim agreement with Iran that was signed last November.

Interestingly, the same day as the diplomats kissed goodbye in Vienna, Iran’s supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei helped celebrate National Nuclear Day. In his remarks, he vowed that the P5+1 process would not curtail Iran’s program while also expressing the usual malevolence toward the United States. But, crucially, he also indicated that he had given the green light to continuing the talks with the West. And, given Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that indicated the entire purpose of the negotiations was not to halt Iran’s nuclear program, as President Obama explicitly vowed during his 2012 reelection campaign, but to merely extend the time frame during which Tehran could “break out” to a nuclear weapon, Khamenei’s faith in the process seems justified.

If, as the New York Times noted in an editorial yesterday, there is a good chance a deal giving Western approval to an Iranian nuclear infrastructure that could build a nuclear weapon is signed by July 20 or sometime after that, will Congress or the media care enough about the fact that this will constitute a betrayal of the pledges that the president has been making about Iran since he first started running for president several years ago? Judging by the ease with which the administration seems to have fended off a congressional push for more sanctions on Iran earlier this year as well as the lack of outrage about Kerry’s comments this week, it’s hard to argue with the White House’s evident conclusion that they will get away with it without too much trouble.

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The latest round of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran took place this past week with little of the fanfare that surrounded previous negotiations. Other international issues, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370, have largely superseded Iran as the top foreign-policy news story. This allowed the Obama administration and its European partners, along with the uneasy participation of Russia, to pursue an agenda of accommodation with the Islamist regime without having to answer too many questions about the direction of the talks. After two days of meetings in Vienna, the parties recessed last Wednesday with vows to meet again next month. Though they admitted there were still gaps between the two sides, everyone seemed to express confidence that an agreement would eventually be reached even if lasted longer than the July deadline for negotiations that was set in the interim agreement with Iran that was signed last November.

Interestingly, the same day as the diplomats kissed goodbye in Vienna, Iran’s supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei helped celebrate National Nuclear Day. In his remarks, he vowed that the P5+1 process would not curtail Iran’s program while also expressing the usual malevolence toward the United States. But, crucially, he also indicated that he had given the green light to continuing the talks with the West. And, given Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that indicated the entire purpose of the negotiations was not to halt Iran’s nuclear program, as President Obama explicitly vowed during his 2012 reelection campaign, but to merely extend the time frame during which Tehran could “break out” to a nuclear weapon, Khamenei’s faith in the process seems justified.

If, as the New York Times noted in an editorial yesterday, there is a good chance a deal giving Western approval to an Iranian nuclear infrastructure that could build a nuclear weapon is signed by July 20 or sometime after that, will Congress or the media care enough about the fact that this will constitute a betrayal of the pledges that the president has been making about Iran since he first started running for president several years ago? Judging by the ease with which the administration seems to have fended off a congressional push for more sanctions on Iran earlier this year as well as the lack of outrage about Kerry’s comments this week, it’s hard to argue with the White House’s evident conclusion that they will get away with it without too much trouble.

During the debate this past winter about a measure that would have increased sanctions on Iran if the next bout of P5+1 diplomacy failed, we were not only assured of the administration’s desire to ensure that Tehran wouldn’t get a weapon but also promised that the president would not settle for a bad deal or be snookered by the ayatollahs into endless futile talks. There was little doubt that Obama didn’t want to try to enforce a complete economic embargo on Iran, the only measure short of the use of force that might stop the nuclear threat, but he was also wary of being seen to have broken his pledges on the issue. Yet it is clear that during the secret talks that led to last year’s weak interim agreement with Iran, Kerry concluded that the way out of this dilemma was a diplomatic “solution” that would allow Obama and the West to pretend that they had done something to stop the Islamist regime from going nuclear without, in fact, doing much to prevent them from doing so. The only question was whether the Iranians were smart enough to take them up on the offer. Ayatollah Khamenei seems to have answered that it in the affirmative.

Critics of this betrayal are accused of sounding the alarm about Iran while also seeking to hamper a diplomatic solution to the threat. But the problem is that the approach that the administration has embraced is no solution at all. The consequences of the “success” of this diplomatic track are incalculable both for the future of the Middle East as well as the security of the West. There should be no doubt about the fact that if the West agrees to a situation whereby Iran’s nuclear infrastructure including its refinement of uranium, plutonium nuclear plant, nuclear military research, and ballistic missile programs are left in place, it is only a matter of time before Tehran will have its weapon. Stretching out the breakout period will, in fact, lessen the likelihood that the West would or could react in time to stop them because once an agreement is signed the administration will have a vested interest in pretending that Iran is not embarrassing them. The end of sanctions that will accompany such an agreement will also make it impossible to reassert the economic leverage that Kerry threw away last year. While defenders of this policy claim that insisting on dismantling Iran’s program is “unrealistic,” what they fail to mention is that the administration’s clear preference for appeasing Tehran is what has made tough diplomacy unthinkable.

The president’s betrayal of his Iran promises has been conducted in slow motion over the course of the last two years. There is still plenty of time for Iran to revert to its past practice of teasing the West by seeming to be ready to sign an agreement only to revoke their approval at the last minute or for President Obama and Kerry to wise up to this scam or to realize that what they are doing is making an Iranian nuclear weapon more rather than less likely. Though a wise person should never bet against the former, only a fool would count on the latter. 

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Kerry Seems to Be Aiming for Bad Iran Deal

Listening to members of the administration talk about Iran’s nuclear program, it’s often difficult to tell quite what kind of timescale they think we’re on. At the beginning of his first term, President Obama gave the impression of having all the time in the world, and he has certainly used enough of it; during the course of which Iran has only lurched increasingly closer to having weapons capabilities. Understandably, countries in the region that are easily within range of a nuclear Iran—particularly Israel and the Sunni Gulf states—are a little more nervous. What is indeed concerning is the way that the administration’s estimates for when Iran could reach breakout capabilities keep on changing, and not for the better.

Secretary of State John Kerry is now saying that the U.S. believes Iran to be two months away from having breakout levels of enriched uranium. Yet, much less than a year ago the administration was claiming that we were at least a year or more away from that point. So either the administration’s estimates are inaccurate and unreliable or in the period since sanctions were partially lifted and negotiations began Iran has massively advanced in its program. Neither possibility will fill America’s allies–or anyone else for that matter–with any confidence about Obama and Kerry’s handling of the Iran threat, which may soon become the Iran crisis.

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Listening to members of the administration talk about Iran’s nuclear program, it’s often difficult to tell quite what kind of timescale they think we’re on. At the beginning of his first term, President Obama gave the impression of having all the time in the world, and he has certainly used enough of it; during the course of which Iran has only lurched increasingly closer to having weapons capabilities. Understandably, countries in the region that are easily within range of a nuclear Iran—particularly Israel and the Sunni Gulf states—are a little more nervous. What is indeed concerning is the way that the administration’s estimates for when Iran could reach breakout capabilities keep on changing, and not for the better.

Secretary of State John Kerry is now saying that the U.S. believes Iran to be two months away from having breakout levels of enriched uranium. Yet, much less than a year ago the administration was claiming that we were at least a year or more away from that point. So either the administration’s estimates are inaccurate and unreliable or in the period since sanctions were partially lifted and negotiations began Iran has massively advanced in its program. Neither possibility will fill America’s allies–or anyone else for that matter–with any confidence about Obama and Kerry’s handling of the Iran threat, which may soon become the Iran crisis.

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Secretary Kerry reported the time-period for what he described as “so-called breakout” is “about two months.” Contrast this with the fact that back in October, shortly before the announcement of November’s interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries, Obama claimed that that same breakout point was at least a year or more away. The interim agreement awards Iran partial relief from sanctions in return for Iran agreeing to reduce its enrichment activities and its cooperation with both inspections and negotiations that are supposed to move us towards a final agreement with Iran. So are we to assume that, as had been feared by many, the interim period has allowed Iran a window in which to speed ahead with enrichment? There are only two other alternatives. One is that the administration’s own ability to assess Iran’s progress is dangerously limited, the other is that for political reasons Obama was intentionally underestimating Iran’s progress; most likely to undermine public and Congressional support for tougher action against Iran.

If all of that wasn’t alarming enough, then Kerry’s apparent lack of clarity about his objectives with Iran are all the more so. Obama has already been dropping hints about being “realistic” as far as a final deal is concerned; the implication being that it will be some kind of trade off that won’t definitively end Iran’s nuclear capacities. Time and time again Kerry has claimed that he would prefer no deal to a bad deal, yet speaking before the Senate committee it sounded a lot like a bad deal is precisely what is in the making.

When asked whether a breakout window of up to a year was now the goal of negotiations, the Secretary faltered, as if he had let something slip that he shouldn’t have. “So six months to 12 months is – I’m not saying that’s what we’d settle for, but even that is significantly more,” Kerry responded to the question. It seems that the administration thinks we should be grateful if they manage to drag Iran back to the six month point, half what they claimed we were looking at back in the fall. Kerry makes no commitment as to whether they would settle for that or not, but simply assures us that this is much better than what we have right now. The problem is that with the administration’s margin for error apparently so wide when it comes to these predictions, and with the period of time in play being so narrow, it seems plausible that Iran could cross the threshold to full breakout capabilities before anyone has time to sound the alarm and figure out what to do.

Amidst this latest round of negotiations to end Iran’s illegal nuclear program, this time taking place back in Vienna, Iran celebrated a rather curious national holiday; National Day of Nuclear Technology. During the festivities Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that Iran’s “nuclear achievements are unstoppable.” We live in disconcerting times when the words of Iran’s grand ayatollah are more convincing than those of the secretary of state.   

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Russia Oil Deal May Doom Iran Diplomacy

With Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East peace fiasco and Russia’s threats to Ukraine dominating foreign news, the administration’s quest to derail Iran’s nuclear-weapons program via diplomacy has been off the front pages lately. But with the next round of the P5+1 talks starting this week the gap between President Obama’s promises about halting the Iranian nuclear threat and the reality of a diplomatic stalemate ought to inspire more concern than it is currently getting. The chief complication for Obama and Kerry’s strategy of a multilateral talks and Western concessions on sanctions intended to beguile Tehran into abandoning its nuclear ambition is the fact that the administration’s policy is dependent on the one country that has the least interest in gratifying the president these days: Russia.

Vladimir Putin has always been the weak link in the Western attempt to bribe Iran to give up its nuclear program. It’s not just that Moscow’s extensive trade ties and potential weapons sales complicate the attempt by the administration to orchestrate Iran’s diplomatic and economic isolation. It’s that the core purposes of Russian foreign policy under Putin have been to reassemble the old Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East and to frustrate American policy goals every chance they get. Thus, when Reuters reported last week that Russia is planning on a massive oil-for-goods deal with Iran that would make a mockery of the “crippling” sanctions that the administration has said are sufficient to influence the Islamist regime, it was clear that the fallout from the conflict in Ukraine would undermine any hope that Putin would play along with the P5+1 game plan. But now, as Eli Lake reports in the Daily Beast, the possibility that Putin will use sales of S-300 missiles that could defend Iran’s nuclear sites may put an end to any chance that the West could stop Iran. It also shows that despite Obama and Kerry’s brave talk about pressuring Russia to leave Ukraine alone, it may be that Putin has more leverage on them than they do on him.

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With Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East peace fiasco and Russia’s threats to Ukraine dominating foreign news, the administration’s quest to derail Iran’s nuclear-weapons program via diplomacy has been off the front pages lately. But with the next round of the P5+1 talks starting this week the gap between President Obama’s promises about halting the Iranian nuclear threat and the reality of a diplomatic stalemate ought to inspire more concern than it is currently getting. The chief complication for Obama and Kerry’s strategy of a multilateral talks and Western concessions on sanctions intended to beguile Tehran into abandoning its nuclear ambition is the fact that the administration’s policy is dependent on the one country that has the least interest in gratifying the president these days: Russia.

Vladimir Putin has always been the weak link in the Western attempt to bribe Iran to give up its nuclear program. It’s not just that Moscow’s extensive trade ties and potential weapons sales complicate the attempt by the administration to orchestrate Iran’s diplomatic and economic isolation. It’s that the core purposes of Russian foreign policy under Putin have been to reassemble the old Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East and to frustrate American policy goals every chance they get. Thus, when Reuters reported last week that Russia is planning on a massive oil-for-goods deal with Iran that would make a mockery of the “crippling” sanctions that the administration has said are sufficient to influence the Islamist regime, it was clear that the fallout from the conflict in Ukraine would undermine any hope that Putin would play along with the P5+1 game plan. But now, as Eli Lake reports in the Daily Beast, the possibility that Putin will use sales of S-300 missiles that could defend Iran’s nuclear sites may put an end to any chance that the West could stop Iran. It also shows that despite Obama and Kerry’s brave talk about pressuring Russia to leave Ukraine alone, it may be that Putin has more leverage on them than they do on him.

The administration has been saying that the Russians have not tried to establish any linkage between their dispute over Ukraine and their role in the Iran negotiations. But Putin doesn’t have to draw any pictures or make any threats to make his position known. Though the Russians have their own reasons for worrying about a nuclear Iran, they have always been reluctant members of the P5+1 group and have been allowed by Obama’s “lead from behind” approach to act, along with China, as a brake on any international effort to isolate Iran.

Having already signed a weak interim deal that both granted tacit recognition of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and weakened sanctions, the U.S. has far less leverage over Tehran than it did only six months ago. And now, armed with the knowledge that Russia can squeeze the West and slow down diplomatic process even more from its already glacial pace, there is absolutely no reason for the Iranians not to keep stalling and prevaricating in the P5+1 talks. There was already very little hope that the talks would not drag on into the summer and fall and then into 2015. But if, as is likely, Russia inks the oil-for-goods deal by August, the already tottering sanctions process may begin to collapse. Though Obama has given himself credit for showing patience in his approach to Iran, that may now translate into a delay that will allow the Russians to sink his diplomatic strategy long before the Iranians felt the least pressure to give ground in the talks.

President Obama spent his first term attempting to “reset” relations with Russia in part to help ease the way for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat. But with the reset now shown to be a joke and little hope of either restraining Russia in Ukraine or in getting them to help on Iran, it appears that the “window of diplomacy” the administration has depended on may prove to be a disaster not only for the Middle East but also for the future of Europe.

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Senate Iran Letter Ends Sanctions Fight

Supporters of tough sanctions on Iran hailed the publication of a letter from 83 members of the U.S. Senate to President Obama calling on him to negotiate a deal with the Islamist regime that would preclude any chance that it could gain a nuclear weapon. The letter said that any agreement reached with Iran must deny it the right to uranium enrichment, dismantle its enrichment and nuclear military research facilities as well as its plutonium plant, and be subjected to the kind of inspections that would prevent it from evading detection of violations and receive no further sanctions relief until the other terms are satisfied. AIPAC praised it as an “overwhelming demonstration by the U.S. Senate of its determination to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability.”

But those who are dismissing the letter as the last gasp of a once formidable congressional coalition on behalf of sanctions on Iran are right. As the Al Monitor crowed in the headline of its article on the letter, what had happened was not so much a reaffirmation of principle but recognition that Congress had given the president “a window for Iran talks.” The terms laid down in the letter for an Iran nuclear deal are sufficient to stop Tehran. But the amorphous language it employs about what would happen if the agreement the administration produces with Iran falls short of that standard left considerable doubt as to whether failure would result in the passage of the crippling sanctions that the Senate tried but failed to pass earlier this year. Combined with the weaker language of a similar Iran letter signed by 395 members of the House of Representatives, the administration will interpret these developments as a green light to pursue a deal with Iran that will fall considerably short of the standard set in the Senate letter.

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Supporters of tough sanctions on Iran hailed the publication of a letter from 83 members of the U.S. Senate to President Obama calling on him to negotiate a deal with the Islamist regime that would preclude any chance that it could gain a nuclear weapon. The letter said that any agreement reached with Iran must deny it the right to uranium enrichment, dismantle its enrichment and nuclear military research facilities as well as its plutonium plant, and be subjected to the kind of inspections that would prevent it from evading detection of violations and receive no further sanctions relief until the other terms are satisfied. AIPAC praised it as an “overwhelming demonstration by the U.S. Senate of its determination to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability.”

But those who are dismissing the letter as the last gasp of a once formidable congressional coalition on behalf of sanctions on Iran are right. As the Al Monitor crowed in the headline of its article on the letter, what had happened was not so much a reaffirmation of principle but recognition that Congress had given the president “a window for Iran talks.” The terms laid down in the letter for an Iran nuclear deal are sufficient to stop Tehran. But the amorphous language it employs about what would happen if the agreement the administration produces with Iran falls short of that standard left considerable doubt as to whether failure would result in the passage of the crippling sanctions that the Senate tried but failed to pass earlier this year. Combined with the weaker language of a similar Iran letter signed by 395 members of the House of Representatives, the administration will interpret these developments as a green light to pursue a deal with Iran that will fall considerably short of the standard set in the Senate letter.

It was no accident that the overwhelming bipartisan turnout for the Senate letter had one significant omission: Majority Leader Harry Reid. While Reid had previously been a stalwart supporter of AIPAC and the pro-Israel community, the majority leader was able to exercise an effective veto on further Iran sanctions legislation this year. Reid’s opposition combined with a threat of a presidential veto of new sanctions on Iran sent many Democrats running for cover, despite the fact that 58 members of the Senate had endorsed the bill.

What happened this year surprised many in the pro-Israel community who assumed that a bipartisan coalition in favor of tougher sanctions on Iran could not be stopped. With Democrat Robert Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, championing the bill and a clear majority of the Senate ready to vote for legislation that had already been passed last year by the House, opponents seemed outgunned.

The new sanctions would have tightened the noose around Iran’s still booming international oil sales, but they would not have gone into effect until the next stage of diplomacy had clearly failed. Yet even that was too much for President Obama, who claimed that even sanctions that were based on a hypothetical would “break faith” with his Iranian partners. The administration, which had fought the sanctions that brought Iran to the table tooth and nail in his first term, wanted nothing that would strengthen the hands of the Western negotiators in the P5+1 talks.

The refusal to even contemplate more sanctions has sent a message to Iran that they have little to fear if they stand their ground in the talks and insist on retaining their nuclear program. The Senate letter won’t change their minds. They already know the president will ignore the Senate’s advice on acceptable terms for a nuclear deal since the interim agreement signed by Secretary of State Kerry last November already flouted those principles by tacitly recognizing an Iranian right to enrichment and beginning the process by which international sanctions will start to unravel. The failure to include language that would ensure that Congress would pass the additional sanctions if the deal fails to meet those standards tells Obama and the Iranians the letter can be safely deposited in the circular file and forgotten.

Those worried about an administration push for diplomacy that seems more like a drive for détente with Iran than an effort to stop their nuclear program should take no comfort from these congressional letters. What has just happened is the end of an important fight that ended in defeat for the forces most concerned with averting the peril of an Iranian bomb. The president has been given all the time he needs to reach a deal with Iran that will keep his promise to halt their nuclear quest. If, as is most likely, he breaks his promise, it will be up to Congress to take up the issue again and not be talked out of doing the right thing by a president who is willing to do anything to avoid accountability on this vital issue.

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Russia Was Always a Bad Bet to Stop Iran

The Obama administration has always seemed to have trouble managing even one foreign-policy crisis at a time. But the opening of the next stage of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran in the same week that Russia, the West’s nominal partner in trying to negotiate a resolution of the nuclear question with Tehran, is annexing Crimea is posing a particularly difficult dilemma for the administration. After all, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have been counting on Moscow to back up the West’s efforts to get the Iranians to give up their quest for nuclear weapons or at least not to sabotage either the talks or the sanctions on the Islamist regime. But with the U.S. and the European Union contemplating sanctions to punish the Putin government for its aggression against Ukraine, how can they possibly expect the Russians to act as partners in an effort to pressure Iran in the exact same manner?

Those worries are the conceit of a story in today’s New York Times in which an anonymous “senior American official” could do no better than to express the “hope” that the defiant Russians would not “put these negotiations at risk.” But the problem with the administration’s approach to the Iran talks goes deeper than merely it being bad luck that the Ukraine crisis has happened at just the moment when the president was hoping to swing a deal with Tehran. Even in the best of times, Russia’s equivocal attitude toward pressuring Iran was always a liability to the Western negotiators. But the open breach between Russia and the West over its seizure of Crimea makes an agreement that would actually prevent Iran from getting a bomb in the long run even more unlikely than it was before. Rather than re-evaluate an approach that was already rooted in weakness, the president and Kerry are apparently determined to stick with a losing hand. If Iran’s negotiators weren’t already confident about their ability to take Obama to the cleaners in the talks, they are now.

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The Obama administration has always seemed to have trouble managing even one foreign-policy crisis at a time. But the opening of the next stage of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran in the same week that Russia, the West’s nominal partner in trying to negotiate a resolution of the nuclear question with Tehran, is annexing Crimea is posing a particularly difficult dilemma for the administration. After all, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have been counting on Moscow to back up the West’s efforts to get the Iranians to give up their quest for nuclear weapons or at least not to sabotage either the talks or the sanctions on the Islamist regime. But with the U.S. and the European Union contemplating sanctions to punish the Putin government for its aggression against Ukraine, how can they possibly expect the Russians to act as partners in an effort to pressure Iran in the exact same manner?

Those worries are the conceit of a story in today’s New York Times in which an anonymous “senior American official” could do no better than to express the “hope” that the defiant Russians would not “put these negotiations at risk.” But the problem with the administration’s approach to the Iran talks goes deeper than merely it being bad luck that the Ukraine crisis has happened at just the moment when the president was hoping to swing a deal with Tehran. Even in the best of times, Russia’s equivocal attitude toward pressuring Iran was always a liability to the Western negotiators. But the open breach between Russia and the West over its seizure of Crimea makes an agreement that would actually prevent Iran from getting a bomb in the long run even more unlikely than it was before. Rather than re-evaluate an approach that was already rooted in weakness, the president and Kerry are apparently determined to stick with a losing hand. If Iran’s negotiators weren’t already confident about their ability to take Obama to the cleaners in the talks, they are now.

The presence of Russia and China in the group negotiating with Iran was always Iran’s ace in the hole in the talks. While both countries have expressed their opposition to the prospect of an Iranian bomb, their role in this diplomatic equation was always complicated. Russia has been a major supplier of nuclear technology as well as arms to Iran, including anti-aircraft missiles that would make a strike on their facilities even more difficult. Russia also has an extensive trade relationship with Tehran. Meanwhile China is the ayatollah’s leading trade partner in the vital oil sales that keep the Islamist regime afloat financially. Under the most favorable circumstances for diplomacy, those factors created an even greater conflict of interest than the strong trade ties between America’s European allies and Iran.

But Russia’s ties with Iran are also connected with Putin’s desire to recreate the old Soviet empire. The Bashar Assad government in Syria, Moscow’s principal Middle East ally, has only been kept in power because of Iran’s intervention in the civil war in that country. Though the Obama administration has always been beguiled by its hopes for a “reset” with Russia, the guiding principle of Moscow’s foreign policy in the Putin era is its desire to expand its influence abroad at America’s expense. Though Putin would rather not see a nuclear-armed Iran on the southern border of the old Soviet Union, his commonality of interests with Tehran always threatened to overshadow any desire on his part to cooperate with Western diplomacy.

However, getting Russia to be part of the international coalition against Iran was always a priority for the administration. In theory, this was a sensible decision since without Russia as well as China sanctions were never going to work against Iran. But Washington’s dependence on them also forced those sanctions to be watered down. It was also part of the reasoning that led Obama to conclude that it was smarter for the West to give up its military and economic leverage over Iran in order to conclude an interim deal that gave Iran far more than it gave up last fall.

All of this means that Iran is in an even stronger position vis-à-vis the West in the talks than the already formidable stance it was able to sustain in earlier rounds of diplomacy. Secure in the knowledge that Russia will never agree to a re-imposition of the sanctions that were dropped in November or impose tougher ones (such as the program Congress is still considering) that would shut down Iran’s oil trade for good, Tehran can simply stand its ground in the talks. That means that if President Obama wants an agreement—and he’s already demonstrated that he’s willing to do just about anything to get out of his promise to stop Iran’s nuclear quest—he’s going to have to let Tehran keep its nuclear program and give up the sanctions.

But those inclined to blame Obama’s weak position on Iran on bad luck, bad timing, or Russian aggression are mistaken. The diplomatic path chosen by the administration was always dependent on Russian goodwill that was never likely to be forthcoming. The flaws in the P5+1 formula were already there long before Putin seized Crimea.

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Iran Nuclear Deal Looks Weaker Than Ever

Few will have been surprised by the announcement by the State Department that it believes the Iranians have been using the black market to purchase components necessary for the expansion of their nuclear infrastructure. More remarkable, on the other hand, was the way the State Department’s Vann Van Diepen apparently casually explained that these moves are not explicitly in contravention of the existing P5+1 interim agreement that Iran is signed up to. Indeed, it is being widely reported that Iran has been complying with the terms of the agreement. Yet, this fact says little in defense of the Iranians and much to condemn Secretary of State Kerry and the EU’s Catherine Ashton for having been complicit in formulating a deal that is so ineffectual as to permit this kind of thing.

We have been repeatedly assured by the administration that they had achieved some great feat, a diplomatic triumph, in getting the Iranians to sign onto the interim agreement. Yet, surely it is now obvious to any serious observer that an agreement so flimsy that it permits Iran to purchase new parts for the very nuclear infrastructure that this deal is supposed to work toward dismantling isn’t fit for purpose. This is the embodiment of the bad deal that Kerry assured us we wouldn’t get. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” or so we were told. If this deal isn’t bad, then it certainly sets the benchmark for good pretty low.

Not only does the interim agreement permit the continuation of nuclear enrichment, albeit at a lower level, but the fact that it allows for the Iranians to continue acquiring new nuclear parts is a reminder that this agreement is still more permissive than what had been agreed to even by the UN. Indeed, since 2006 the Security Council has placed sanctions on those selling such parts to Iran. The P5+1 interim agreement on the other hand has failed to proscribe such activity.

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Few will have been surprised by the announcement by the State Department that it believes the Iranians have been using the black market to purchase components necessary for the expansion of their nuclear infrastructure. More remarkable, on the other hand, was the way the State Department’s Vann Van Diepen apparently casually explained that these moves are not explicitly in contravention of the existing P5+1 interim agreement that Iran is signed up to. Indeed, it is being widely reported that Iran has been complying with the terms of the agreement. Yet, this fact says little in defense of the Iranians and much to condemn Secretary of State Kerry and the EU’s Catherine Ashton for having been complicit in formulating a deal that is so ineffectual as to permit this kind of thing.

We have been repeatedly assured by the administration that they had achieved some great feat, a diplomatic triumph, in getting the Iranians to sign onto the interim agreement. Yet, surely it is now obvious to any serious observer that an agreement so flimsy that it permits Iran to purchase new parts for the very nuclear infrastructure that this deal is supposed to work toward dismantling isn’t fit for purpose. This is the embodiment of the bad deal that Kerry assured us we wouldn’t get. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” or so we were told. If this deal isn’t bad, then it certainly sets the benchmark for good pretty low.

Not only does the interim agreement permit the continuation of nuclear enrichment, albeit at a lower level, but the fact that it allows for the Iranians to continue acquiring new nuclear parts is a reminder that this agreement is still more permissive than what had been agreed to even by the UN. Indeed, since 2006 the Security Council has placed sanctions on those selling such parts to Iran. The P5+1 interim agreement on the other hand has failed to proscribe such activity.

Negotiations for reaching an agreement that would definitively end Iran’s nuclear program resume once again this week. Yet, in recent weeks both Baroness Ashton and the Iranian foreign minister have expressed their skepticism about the likelihood of a deal being reached for the time being. Speaking from Tehran last week Ashton said that there was no guarantee that a final comprehensive deal would actually be reached. More recently Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has not only said that the Iranians do not expect to reach an agreement this time around; he has even claimed that a final agreement isn’t on the agenda for these talks.

With both parties in these talks apparently so unconvinced that these negotiations are leading anywhere, one has to ask what on earth they are doing taking part in them. The answer is that both sides are in these talks because they have to be, not because they want to. The sanctions regime that the West spent years meticulously constructing eventually forced the Iranians to the table. But Kerry and Ashton are only at that table because they must be seen to be doing something. The idea that the military option ever really existed for the Obama administration now looks completely implausible. Rather, both the Europeans and the administration knew that the military option was being seriously considered by Israel and others in the region. As such they are obliged to go through these diplomatic motions as a means of diverting anyone else from carrying out a strike on Iran which they no doubt fear would drag them into having to take a side in a conflict they wish to avoid at all costs.

With the threat of military action being more terrible in the eyes of both the Europeans and the Obama administration than the prospect of a nuclear Iran, its hard not to wonder what their true calculus is here. Presumably they are playing some kind of waiting game. With the sanctions now unraveling, and little hope of being able to reconstruct them in time to have any useful effect the possible trajectories seem clear. Either by some miracle the Iranians will lose all interest in their nuclear project, or, protected by the diplomatic process, Iran will cross the threshold of weapons capabilities by which point a military strike will become unthinkable in any case. The main objective for Obama and Kerry is to ensure that neither Israel nor the Saudis act on their threats of military action. And after that, Obama knows his time as president will be up, and the mess he has left becomes someone else’s problem.

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Iran Negotiators Taking Their Sweet Time

There are some kinds of international negotiations that are not all that time sensitive. The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks fall into that category. Although the need for a resolution to the conflict is as great today as it ever was, the nature of the discussions are such that, contrary to the allegations of some of Israel’s critics, nothing is happening on the ground that fundamentally changes the possible solution to the problem. The West Bank settlements that the Palestinians want removed are no more and no less likely to be evacuated in exchange for real peace today than they were 15 years ago or will be five, ten, or fifteen years from now, assuming the Palestinians ever decide to accept an Israeli offer.

But that is not the case with the Iran nuclear talks. Since the first discussion between Tehran and the West more than a decade ago, the whole world has known that any negotiations on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program had to be completed before the moment when the Islamist regime achieved weapons capability.

That’s why the Iranians’ delaying tactics over the years were so frustrating and so destructive of any hope for a diplomatic solution. Whether led by supposed moderate Hassan Rouhani, now Iran’s president, or less presentable figures, the Iranians have consistently stalled nuclear talks. At times Iran has seemed to accept deals with the West only to renege on them later in an effort to run out the clock on negotiations until they achieved their nuclear dream.

Yet with the current round of P5+1 negotiations between Iran and the West, all that is supposedly in the past. The signing of an interim nuclear deal last November was supposed to herald the beginning of a genuine diplomatic process that would erase the sorry record in which Western negotiators were played for fools by a succession of Iranian envoys. But with the conclusion of the first meetings in Vienna of the renewed P5+1 and the reported agreement on a framework for future talks with Iran, the celebrations of this alleged achievement are ignoring some key questions. Why did it take more than three months to begin the next round after the interim agreement? And why, after waiting all that time, will the negotiators take another month off before showing up again in late March for another try? With most observers already assuming that the six-month time frame for this round will be extended, it’s time to ask whether anyone in the Obama administration’s foreign-policy team orchestrating this dilatory process realizes just how much time is being wasted and why that is so dangerous.

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There are some kinds of international negotiations that are not all that time sensitive. The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks fall into that category. Although the need for a resolution to the conflict is as great today as it ever was, the nature of the discussions are such that, contrary to the allegations of some of Israel’s critics, nothing is happening on the ground that fundamentally changes the possible solution to the problem. The West Bank settlements that the Palestinians want removed are no more and no less likely to be evacuated in exchange for real peace today than they were 15 years ago or will be five, ten, or fifteen years from now, assuming the Palestinians ever decide to accept an Israeli offer.

But that is not the case with the Iran nuclear talks. Since the first discussion between Tehran and the West more than a decade ago, the whole world has known that any negotiations on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program had to be completed before the moment when the Islamist regime achieved weapons capability.

That’s why the Iranians’ delaying tactics over the years were so frustrating and so destructive of any hope for a diplomatic solution. Whether led by supposed moderate Hassan Rouhani, now Iran’s president, or less presentable figures, the Iranians have consistently stalled nuclear talks. At times Iran has seemed to accept deals with the West only to renege on them later in an effort to run out the clock on negotiations until they achieved their nuclear dream.

Yet with the current round of P5+1 negotiations between Iran and the West, all that is supposedly in the past. The signing of an interim nuclear deal last November was supposed to herald the beginning of a genuine diplomatic process that would erase the sorry record in which Western negotiators were played for fools by a succession of Iranian envoys. But with the conclusion of the first meetings in Vienna of the renewed P5+1 and the reported agreement on a framework for future talks with Iran, the celebrations of this alleged achievement are ignoring some key questions. Why did it take more than three months to begin the next round after the interim agreement? And why, after waiting all that time, will the negotiators take another month off before showing up again in late March for another try? With most observers already assuming that the six-month time frame for this round will be extended, it’s time to ask whether anyone in the Obama administration’s foreign-policy team orchestrating this dilatory process realizes just how much time is being wasted and why that is so dangerous.

In their defense, the Obama administration considers the terms of the interim agreement to have gotten them off the hook on the time factor. President Obama has represented that deal as having frozen the Iranian program in place. If true, that would not only justify the loosening of sanctions on the regime but the leisurely pace of any future talks. But even a passing glance at the actual terms of the agreement reveals that Iran’s nuclear effort is far from frozen.

The U.S. has claimed the limitations imposed on Iran’s enrichment of uranium means its nuclear program is frozen in place since its centrifuges are now only set to produce fuel at less than five percent rather than the higher levels needed for weapons. But what the president and Secretary of State John Kerry keep failing to mention is that the uranium treated in this manner can easily be converted to weapons use in a nuclear breakout. The same is true of Iran’s stockpile of refined uranium that has been converted to oxide powder.

Even worse, the key Iranian nuclear research on military applications of nuclear power is continuing in the aftermath of the interim deal. Though the president boasted in his State of the Union address of unprecedented inspections being conducted at Iranian nuclear sites that would ensure its program was neutralized, he also failed to mention that no such inspections are being conducted at Parchin, where the Iranian military work is being conducted.

The happy talk about the chances for a successful conclusion to the negotiations being floated at sites such as AL Monitor’s Back Channel blog or even the New York Times ignores the fact that far from being stopped, the clock continues to tick down to the day when Iran reaches the point of no return on its nuclear dream. So long as the centrifuges continue to turn—and with the Iranians issuing clear warnings that they will not consider dismantling them or give up the ballistic missile program that makes their nukes a lethal threat to the U.S. as much as the State of Israel—time remains of the essence. And yet the Western negotiators continue to take their sweet time as if they could go on talking forever in what is already being billed as a “marathon” negotiation.

The acceptance of these delays reflects not only the confidence of the Iranians that they will be able to keep their nuclear program operating until it gives them a weapon but also the realization that the Obama administration may be more focused on containment of Iran than on stopping it.

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Iran Sanctions Foes’ Dishonest Arguments

It’s been a bad week for those trying to stop the Senate from passing tougher sanctions on Iran. After two months of dithering the Obama administration finalized the nuclear deal signed with Iran in November. That should have helped the president to orchestrate greater opposition to the push for more sanctions he opposes. But instead, the Iranians used the completion of the interim deal to celebrate what they say is a great victory over the West for the regime that confirms their right to continue enriching uranium and pursuing their nuclear goal regardless of what any agreement says. That gave the lie to the administration’s claims that the negotiations are succeeding in heading off the nuclear threat. It also strengthened arguments by sanctions proponents that putting more such restrictions in place to be implemented should the talks fail was both prudent and the best way to ensure that diplomacy has a chance to succeed.

But rather respond to Iran’s provocations, both the administration and its allies in Congress and the media have doubled down on their illogical claim that passing more sanctions now is tantamount to a declaration of war on Iran. While it is discouraging to hear this canard voiced by White House functionaries, it is even worse to hear it from those who claim to share the goal of preventing Tehran from getting a bomb. That’s essentially the position that Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg has taken in his latest column. While it is disappointing to see a man considered one of the most astute observers of the Middle East taking such a blatantly disingenuous position on an issue on which he had previously staked out a strong position, it looks as if in this case his attachment to President Obama and his loathing for the administration’s critics outweighs common sense and his ability to offer a clear-eyed evaluation of the situation.

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It’s been a bad week for those trying to stop the Senate from passing tougher sanctions on Iran. After two months of dithering the Obama administration finalized the nuclear deal signed with Iran in November. That should have helped the president to orchestrate greater opposition to the push for more sanctions he opposes. But instead, the Iranians used the completion of the interim deal to celebrate what they say is a great victory over the West for the regime that confirms their right to continue enriching uranium and pursuing their nuclear goal regardless of what any agreement says. That gave the lie to the administration’s claims that the negotiations are succeeding in heading off the nuclear threat. It also strengthened arguments by sanctions proponents that putting more such restrictions in place to be implemented should the talks fail was both prudent and the best way to ensure that diplomacy has a chance to succeed.

But rather respond to Iran’s provocations, both the administration and its allies in Congress and the media have doubled down on their illogical claim that passing more sanctions now is tantamount to a declaration of war on Iran. While it is discouraging to hear this canard voiced by White House functionaries, it is even worse to hear it from those who claim to share the goal of preventing Tehran from getting a bomb. That’s essentially the position that Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg has taken in his latest column. While it is disappointing to see a man considered one of the most astute observers of the Middle East taking such a blatantly disingenuous position on an issue on which he had previously staked out a strong position, it looks as if in this case his attachment to President Obama and his loathing for the administration’s critics outweighs common sense and his ability to offer a clear-eyed evaluation of the situation.

Throughout the last five years, Goldberg has been an ardent supporter of the president even while frequently expressing impatience and concern over his approach to Iran. Though no fan of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Goldberg has treated the concerns of Israel and the pro-Israel community in this country on the Iranian nuclear threat as serious and credible. He rightly refers to Iran as a despotic state sponsor of terror and believes its possession of a nuclear weapon would undermine U.S. security and that of its Arab allies as well as pose an existential threat to Israel. He understands that Iran has deceived the West in negotiations before and can’t be trusted today. He has been a proponent of tough sanctions and hard-headed diplomacy on Iran and has publicly vouched for the president’s bona fides on the issue, going so far as to be among the very few who believe that if push came to shove, Obama would order the use of force against Tehran in order to forestall its drive for a nuclear weapon.

But though he still calls himself an “Iran hawk” (a term that few, if any, other commentators on the subject have adopted), Goldberg has now officially drunk the administration’s Kool-Aid on the topic and says the deal struck in Geneva in November is the best the West can hope for. Rather than call, as he did in the past, for an end to Iran’s nuclear program, he’s veiled his former hawkishness, saying he is willing to settle for a deal that will “substantially denuclearize” the regime, a weasel-worded expression vague enough to encompass an agreement that would, as Iran demands, leave its nuclear infrastructure in place and the threat to Israel and its Arab neighbors undiminished.

While claiming to be a skeptic on the upcoming talks, he accepts the argument that any congressional move to strengthen the president’s hand in negotiations would provide the Iranians an excuse to end the negotiations. Given that Iran was brought to the table by sanctions (that were consistently opposed by the administration) this makes no sense, especially since the Iranians have so much to gain by talks that have already brought them considerable sanctions relief. By loosening the sanctions while acknowledging the Iranian right to uranium enrichment during the interim deal, the U.S. appears willing to give up much of the economic and military leverage it held over Iran. But now both the president and his supporters like Goldberg are prepared to treat Iranian bluster as an imperative that America dare not contravene. The illogical argument that the time isn’t right for more sanctions accepts this Iranian dictate in a way that undermines any hope the West can achieve the dismantling of Iran’s facilities and the export and/or destruction of all its nuclear material. The process now seems to be one in which it is the West that is the supplicant and the ayatollahs the masters of the situation.

The Iranians don’t like the idea that if the current negotiations fail they will be subjected to a new round of sanctions that would end the lucrative oil trade that is keeping the regime afloat while funding their nuclear program, terrorism, and their intervention in Syria. But without that threat, their improving economy and the prospect that Russia is prepared to engage in an oil-for-goods swap that will make a mockery of the sanctions means Iran will have no reason to treat the president’s threats of future action seriously.

This is the key point in the argument to increase sanctions that Goldberg and other administration supporters consistently mischaracterize.

Like Obama, Goldberg poses this debate as an entirely specious choice between supporters of diplomacy and those who want to fight a war against Iran. This is false. No one in Congress wants war. Neither does Israel or its friends. Nor does anyone (except perhaps for Goldberg in his least credible columns) think Obama or Congress would ever authorize a strike on Iran. To claim that is the goal of sanctions advocates is a blatant lie. To the contrary, those pushing for more sanctions understand all too well that a genuine economic embargo of Iran, rather than the leaky restrictions currently in place, is the only option that has any chance of bringing the Islamist regime to its senses by methods short of war.

The alternative to tougher sanctions isn’t the war Goldberg claims sanctions proponents want; it’s appeasement that will inevitably result in a policy of containment of a nuclear Iran that Obama says he opposes.

There’s a reason that sanctions proponents don’t trust the president to conduct diplomacy without first committing the U.S. to taking the next step toward isolating Iran once the next round of talks fail (a proposition that even Goldberg concedes is a 50-50 proposition). Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez and other sponsors of the bill remember all too well that the current sanctions about which the president boasts were watered down and then fought tooth and nail by the administration. The administration has consistently sought engagement with Iran even when it meant ignoring the regime’s bloody repression of dissidents and its drive for regional hegemony in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and the annihilation of Israel. Now it appears all too willing to turn engagement into détente and a common agenda that will allow the U.S. to substantially withdraw from the region and thereby place its allies in peril.

The idea that more sanctions now would turn the tyrants of Tehran into victims of American provocations is ridiculous. So is the claim that preventing them will allow diplomacy to work to make Iran give up what they clearly wish to retain. More sanctions may not “denuclearize” Iran, but their passage offers the only hope that this goal can be achieved by diplomacy. The only way to justify opposition to them is to demonize both administration supporters (like Menendez, Chuck Schumer, and the many other Democrats who support additional sanctions) and opponents who want to ensure that the president keeps his promises about Iran. That’s a canard that the Jeffrey Goldberg, who was a supportive but tough critic of Obama on Iran throughout his first term, would never have sunk to. But sadly, such despicable smears are all he and other administration loyalists have left. 

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Can the Iran Deal Succeed? Not Likely.

If President Obama can follow up the nuclear deal with Iran that he announced last night with another one in the next year that will dramatically roll back the Islamist regime’s nuclear progress achieved on his watch, then this event will be remembered as a diplomatic triumph that made the world safer.

In order for this to happen he will have to hope that Iran does not follow up this negotiation with more stalling tactics and settle for more limited agreements that do not do anything more than add a few weeks at most to the amount of time needed for them to “break out” and convert their nuclear stockpile into weapons-grade material. He will have to count on the Iranians not following the North Korean model of making nuclear deals only to break them once they are ready to put a nuclear site online. He will also have to hope that there are no secret underground sites in Iran that are not covered by the agreement though, as the New York Times noted this morning, even the CIA, Europe, and Israel believe such sites exist where uranium enrichment can continue unhindered. The president will also have to hope that the International Atomic Energy Agency will be able to effectively monitor activity inside Iran and detect cheating despite the fact that, as the Times also conceded, “Iran did not agree to all of the intrusive inspection regime” the IAEA had said was needed to ensure that the program is peaceful.

It must be conceded that the chances that this agreement will make it less likely that Iran will eventually reach its nuclear goal are not zero. It may be that Iran has truly abandoned its goal of a weapon, that it will negotiate in good faith and won’t cheat, and that there are no secret nuclear facilities in the country even though just about everyone in the intelligence world assumes there are. If so the world is safer, and many years from now, the president will go down in history as a great peacemaker worthy of a Nobel Prize. But since that scenario rests on a series of assumptions that range from highly unlikely to completely far-fetched, the only possible reaction to the deal from sober observers must be dismay. In exchange for measures that only slightly delay Iran’s nuclear progress that don’t come even close to putting them into compliance with United Nations resolutions on the nuclear question, the administration has begun the process of lifting sanctions on Iran. Even more seriously, it has, in effect, normalized a rogue regime that is still sponsoring international terrorism, waging war in Syria, and spewing international sanctions, while effectively taking any threat of the use force against Tehran off the table. All in all, this is a good day for the ayatollahs and bad one for U.S. interests and allies that are endangered by any result that leaves Iran’s nuclear capability intact.

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If President Obama can follow up the nuclear deal with Iran that he announced last night with another one in the next year that will dramatically roll back the Islamist regime’s nuclear progress achieved on his watch, then this event will be remembered as a diplomatic triumph that made the world safer.

In order for this to happen he will have to hope that Iran does not follow up this negotiation with more stalling tactics and settle for more limited agreements that do not do anything more than add a few weeks at most to the amount of time needed for them to “break out” and convert their nuclear stockpile into weapons-grade material. He will have to count on the Iranians not following the North Korean model of making nuclear deals only to break them once they are ready to put a nuclear site online. He will also have to hope that there are no secret underground sites in Iran that are not covered by the agreement though, as the New York Times noted this morning, even the CIA, Europe, and Israel believe such sites exist where uranium enrichment can continue unhindered. The president will also have to hope that the International Atomic Energy Agency will be able to effectively monitor activity inside Iran and detect cheating despite the fact that, as the Times also conceded, “Iran did not agree to all of the intrusive inspection regime” the IAEA had said was needed to ensure that the program is peaceful.

It must be conceded that the chances that this agreement will make it less likely that Iran will eventually reach its nuclear goal are not zero. It may be that Iran has truly abandoned its goal of a weapon, that it will negotiate in good faith and won’t cheat, and that there are no secret nuclear facilities in the country even though just about everyone in the intelligence world assumes there are. If so the world is safer, and many years from now, the president will go down in history as a great peacemaker worthy of a Nobel Prize. But since that scenario rests on a series of assumptions that range from highly unlikely to completely far-fetched, the only possible reaction to the deal from sober observers must be dismay. In exchange for measures that only slightly delay Iran’s nuclear progress that don’t come even close to putting them into compliance with United Nations resolutions on the nuclear question, the administration has begun the process of lifting sanctions on Iran. Even more seriously, it has, in effect, normalized a rogue regime that is still sponsoring international terrorism, waging war in Syria, and spewing international sanctions, while effectively taking any threat of the use force against Tehran off the table. All in all, this is a good day for the ayatollahs and bad one for U.S. interests and allies that are endangered by any result that leaves Iran’s nuclear capability intact.

The details of the agreement are troublesome. Even while Iran gets a significant cash gift in terms of billions of dollars of unfrozen funds, its centrifuges will not be dismantled and it will be allowed to go on enriching uranium that can be converted to weapons-grade fuel. Its nuclear facilities will stay open, including the plutonium plant under construction. Its stockpile of enriched uranium will be diluted or converted into oxide, but that is nothing more than a storage option since the administration knows very well it could quickly be restored to its former state. Iran will have inspections, but they will be limited and there is little doubt that the IAEA, which has met every possible obstacle and obstruction to its work in Iran, will go on being stiffed no matter what the piece of paper obtained by Secretary of State Kerry says.

Far more important than even these points, Iran has effectively won its diplomatic objective of getting the West to recognize its “right” to enrich uranium. Though the U.S. is saying the two sides have agreed to disagree on this point, by signing a deal that allows Iran to go on enriching the question is now off the table in perpetuity. Iran’s nuclear program is effectively rendered legal by this deal. From now on, all disputes about enrichment will be considered as mere quibbling by the international forums that have heretofore accepted the West’s arguments about the question.

As for the vital sanctions relief, it is true the release of some of their frozen assets does not change the tough restrictions on doing business with Iran that are still in place. If we assume that the U.S. and its European allies will stick to their resolve to go on squeezing Iran, the small chance that President Obama’s initiative will truly lead to an end to their nuclear program would be enhanced. But that is an even shakier belief than any of the other suppositions that form the foundation of this policy.

As anyone who has ever closely looked at the way that the U.S. enforced sanctions against Iran, let alone its less-zealous European allies, the restrictions were always filled with holes. The New York Times reported back in 2010 that the Treasury Department had already issued over 10,000 exemptions to the sanctions against Iran, thereby allowing Tehran billions more in business deals. Just as troubling, the Daily Beast reported earlier this month that as far back as June the U.S. had all but stopped enforcing a crucial aspect of the sanctions by largely halting the designation of violators of the rules. That more or less gave impunity to those doing business with Iran.

Does anyone want to seriously argue that now that the president has proclaimed that Iran has embraced diplomacy and that a path to resolving the nuclear question has been agreed to, the Treasury Department and the White House will actually ramp up enforcement? Does anyone seriously believe Kerry’s piece of paper will not act as a green light to the Europeans, who have been desperate to resume business with Iran, and cannot fail to interpret it as a sign they can ease up as well? And can anyone argue with a straight face that nations like China that have continued to do business with Iran will not only increase such efforts after the U.S. has declared that peace with Iran is at hand.

The president can pretend that he is still holding the ayatollah’s feet to the fire. But now that he has normalized a regime that goes on sponsoring terror, threatening Israel and spewing anti-Semitic hate, there will be no reassembling the coalition against Iran even if he eventually comes to the conclusion that he has been, like every other diplomatic partner of Iran, fooled by them.

The president’s campaign promise to end Iran’s nuclear program is now officially thrown on the scrap heap of history. He can only hope that when Iran does choose to take the final step to a weapon he will no longer be in the White House or that Americans will have been so diverted by other concerns that no one will care or seek to hold him accountable. But whether Tehran waits that long or not, this is a dark day for the cause of international peace and security. Iran has got its long-sought Western seal of approval for a nuclear program that enhances its power immeasurably. The rest of the region and those elsewhere who are not deceived by this agreement can only tremble.

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What Obama Wrought: Iran’s Normalization

The news today out of Geneva remains inconclusive. Despite the best efforts of Western negotiators, a nuclear agreement with Iran still remains elusive. Though the talks continue there’s no guarantee they will succeed as the Iranians remain resolute about defending both their “right” to go on enriching uranium and to keep constructing a plutonium nuclear plant that gives them a second path to a bomb. The breathless pursuit of a deal on the part of the Obama administration despite the fact that their offer will allow the Iranians to retain their nuclear infrastructure and to keep enriching uranium is the main story here. It will allow the Iranians a path to a nuclear breakout in the North Korean mode and once sanctions are loosened and Washington can pretend it has resolved the issue, the likelihood of a strong Western response to such a development would be nil.

But whether Secretary of State Kerry and his P5+1 colleagues get the Pyrrhic victory they are seeking this week or are forced to wait weeks or months more for the ayatollahs to give their assent to a piece of paper they will almost certainly obstruct, the latest round of talks has achieved something very different that seemed almost unimaginable only a few months ago. By devoting so much effort to sell the world on the notion that Iran is moderating and wants to deal, the administration hasn’t just tried to create a constituency for engagement with Iran but has, in effect, normalized a rogue, anti-Semitic, terror-supporting regime that richly deserved the opprobrium that had been directed at it in the last decade. In doing so, they have not only handed Tehran an undeserved victory without getting anything in return. They have also rendered it even less likely that the international community will be able to muster the strength to restrain an Islamist government whose violent intent is not in doubt.

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The news today out of Geneva remains inconclusive. Despite the best efforts of Western negotiators, a nuclear agreement with Iran still remains elusive. Though the talks continue there’s no guarantee they will succeed as the Iranians remain resolute about defending both their “right” to go on enriching uranium and to keep constructing a plutonium nuclear plant that gives them a second path to a bomb. The breathless pursuit of a deal on the part of the Obama administration despite the fact that their offer will allow the Iranians to retain their nuclear infrastructure and to keep enriching uranium is the main story here. It will allow the Iranians a path to a nuclear breakout in the North Korean mode and once sanctions are loosened and Washington can pretend it has resolved the issue, the likelihood of a strong Western response to such a development would be nil.

But whether Secretary of State Kerry and his P5+1 colleagues get the Pyrrhic victory they are seeking this week or are forced to wait weeks or months more for the ayatollahs to give their assent to a piece of paper they will almost certainly obstruct, the latest round of talks has achieved something very different that seemed almost unimaginable only a few months ago. By devoting so much effort to sell the world on the notion that Iran is moderating and wants to deal, the administration hasn’t just tried to create a constituency for engagement with Iran but has, in effect, normalized a rogue, anti-Semitic, terror-supporting regime that richly deserved the opprobrium that had been directed at it in the last decade. In doing so, they have not only handed Tehran an undeserved victory without getting anything in return. They have also rendered it even less likely that the international community will be able to muster the strength to restrain an Islamist government whose violent intent is not in doubt.

When Hassan Rouhani won Iran’s faux presidential election in June, what followed was an orchestrated effort on the part of the regime to sell their new front man as someone who would effect genuine change. Given his long record as a faithful servant of first Ayatollah Khomeini and then his successor Ayatollah Khamenei, as well as his role in past diplomatic deceptions of the West, this was a stretch. But it wasn’t long before it became apparent that the supreme leader had made a clever tactical decision in allowing Rouhani to run and then win the election. Those in the West, like President Obama, who were desperate for a way out of the nuclear confrontation with Iran soon became as invested in the myth of Rouhani’s moderation and, by extension, that of the regime itself, as the Iranians had been. Thus, even when the person pulling the strings in Tehran issues forth another proclamation of hate, as Khamenei did this week, the muted response from Washington to the latest broadside of anti-Semitic slander said more about the change in attitude than even their defense of the negotiations.

In order to justify their decision to appease the Iranians, it is necessary to not just attempt to launder their image but to treat their representatives as reasonable actors and their positions as merely a different point of view about a difficult subject. But in spite of the U.S. commitment to engagement, this remains the same rogue regime that rightly earned in its place in George W. Bush’s famous line about an axis of hate alongside Iraq and fellow nuclear scofflaw North Korea. It still brutally represses religious minorities and dissenters within its borders and is one of the world’s leading sources of anti-Semitic hate. It is still the leading state sponsor of terror around the world. And its hostile intent toward both Israel and moderate Arab nations like Saudi Arabia is something that neither the supreme leader nor the rest of the regime bothers to hide.

It should also be recalled that Iran’s strategic ambitions were further bolstered this year by the administration’s astonishing retreat in Syria that ensured that Tehran’s close ally Bashar Assad would hold onto power despite President Obama’s repeated calls for his ouster. Indeed, with Hamas now seeking to re-establish ties with Iran after breaking them off in recent years over their disagreement about Syria, the web of the regime’s auxiliaries will stretch across the Middle East posing a threat not just to Israel and Saudi Arabia, but to the United States and the rest of the West.

Yet President Obama clings to the notion that Rouhani’s election means the Islamist regime has been housetrained to the extent that it can be lived with or at least contained. Doing so sets the stage for Iran’s return to the international stage as an accepted player even if it doesn’t observe their nuclear commitments. That’s why even if Obama or his successor has a change of heart about the deal on the table this week, it will be that much harder to ever again isolate it as much as it is today. The fateful step being taken is not just the possibility of Kerry signing a bad deal. It’s the process of normalization that goes with it that represents Iran’s greatest and undeserved victory.

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Why the Deal Is Bad: Iran Nuke Breakout

The noises emanating from diplomatic sources in Geneva this week continue to assure the world that they are close to a breakthrough that will resolve the standoff between the West and Iran. How close they actually are remains a mystery as Secretary of State John Kerry and his colleagues are discovering the same truth about negotiating with Iran that their predecessors discovered long ago: those who make concessions to the ayatollahs are rewarded with more prevarications and delay, not signed agreements. Nevertheless, the Obama administration is still playing the optimist card in their attempts to beat back critics of their effort to craft a new era of détente with Iran. That was evident in their response to Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who spiced up a week of negotiations by giving a televised speech that abused both the U.S. and France but reserved, as usual, his main vitriol for Israel, which he described as “an illegitimate regime,” led by “untouchable rabid dogs.” While the French responded angrily to this provocation, the U.S. was unruffled and answered with the mildest of reproofs:

A senior Obama administration official was more circumspect Wednesday night in responding to the ayatollah’s speech, which also assailed the United States and France. “I don’t ever like it when people use rhetoric that in any way talks about the U.S. in ways that I find very uncomfortable and not warranted whatsoever,” said the senior administration official, who cannot be identified under the diplomatic protocol for briefing reporters.

“There are decades of mistrust between the United States and Iran, and we certainly have had many people in our society say difficult things about Iran and Iranians,” the official added. “So I would hope that neither in the U.S. nor in Iran would leaders use rhetoric that may work well in a domestic constituency, but add to the decades of mistrust on both sides.”

To term such a response to hate speech by a world leader seeking nuclear weapons as spineless would be an understatement, especially when the same administration is so fearful that actions by Congress could spook the Iranians away from the talks. But the main problem here isn’t so much the obsequious manner with which President Obama and Kerry are breathlessly pursuing a deal with Iran. It is that the deal they are seeking to entice the Iranians into signing would ensure that Tehran would have the chance to get the weapons the U.S. is seeking to deny them.

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The noises emanating from diplomatic sources in Geneva this week continue to assure the world that they are close to a breakthrough that will resolve the standoff between the West and Iran. How close they actually are remains a mystery as Secretary of State John Kerry and his colleagues are discovering the same truth about negotiating with Iran that their predecessors discovered long ago: those who make concessions to the ayatollahs are rewarded with more prevarications and delay, not signed agreements. Nevertheless, the Obama administration is still playing the optimist card in their attempts to beat back critics of their effort to craft a new era of détente with Iran. That was evident in their response to Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who spiced up a week of negotiations by giving a televised speech that abused both the U.S. and France but reserved, as usual, his main vitriol for Israel, which he described as “an illegitimate regime,” led by “untouchable rabid dogs.” While the French responded angrily to this provocation, the U.S. was unruffled and answered with the mildest of reproofs:

A senior Obama administration official was more circumspect Wednesday night in responding to the ayatollah’s speech, which also assailed the United States and France. “I don’t ever like it when people use rhetoric that in any way talks about the U.S. in ways that I find very uncomfortable and not warranted whatsoever,” said the senior administration official, who cannot be identified under the diplomatic protocol for briefing reporters.

“There are decades of mistrust between the United States and Iran, and we certainly have had many people in our society say difficult things about Iran and Iranians,” the official added. “So I would hope that neither in the U.S. nor in Iran would leaders use rhetoric that may work well in a domestic constituency, but add to the decades of mistrust on both sides.”

To term such a response to hate speech by a world leader seeking nuclear weapons as spineless would be an understatement, especially when the same administration is so fearful that actions by Congress could spook the Iranians away from the talks. But the main problem here isn’t so much the obsequious manner with which President Obama and Kerry are breathlessly pursuing a deal with Iran. It is that the deal they are seeking to entice the Iranians into signing would ensure that Tehran would have the chance to get the weapons the U.S. is seeking to deny them.

That conclusion flies in the face of the spin emanating from the administration and its defenders who continue to claim that their proposed deal with Iran will make this scenario less likely. But as Reuters pointed out in an analysis of the current situation, the best Kerry and company can claim is that they will “reduce” the threat of an Iranian nuclear breakout, not eliminate it.

What this means is that the deal Kerry is advocating as saving the world from Iranian nukes will preserve Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and allows them to hold onto all of their centrifuges and the rest of the nuclear infrastructure they have created during a decade of stalling futile talks with the West. That means that they will still possess enough nuclear fuel to build bombs and the capacity to “break out” and, within a relatively short period of time, take their non-weapons grade uranium and bring it up to the level needed for military use.

Supporters of the deal are unfazed by this possibility because they assume the West will always have time to react to an Iranian breakout. But this is a convenient fallacy for those whose main object appears to be to end the dispute with Iran rather than actually ending the threat of an Iranian bomb. Once an accord is signed and the U.S. can transition away from focusing on Iran and sanctions are lifted, the chances are that any shift to cheat by Iran will be dismissed by Western leaders who will not wish to be drawn back into a confrontation. Nor will there be any appetite to re-impose sanctions that neither President Obama nor Europeans desperate for Iranian oil and business wanted to enforce in the first place. Like the North Koreans who laughed at the West as they violated signed agreements to create their own nuclear breakout, Iran will have little trouble deceiving the West and will not worry much about a response from an administration that is more concerned about the Israelis than the ayatollahs.

Any nuclear deal with Iran that stopped short of a complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program, as President Obama promised during his foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney last year, is a guarantee of future trouble. But an interim accord that started loosening sanctions even before Iran gave up any of their nuclear toys will make it all but certain that the peril will have not been averted.

While Washington is hoping to celebrate their détente with Khamenei, it’s hard to blame Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for railing at this seeming betrayal. Responding to Khamenei’s speech, he had this to say:

“This reminds us of the dark regimes of the past that plotted against us first, and then against all of humanity,” Mr. Netanyahu said at a meeting with Russian Jewish leaders during a visit to Moscow. “The public responded to him with calls of ‘Death to America! Death to Israel!’  ” Mr. Netanyahu noted. “Doesn’t this sound familiar to you? This is the real Iran! We are not confused. They must not have nuclear weapons.”

Unfortunately, President Obama and Secretary Kerry are confused. Whether Iran signs this week or makes them wait some more while continuing the drive to achieve their nuclear ambition, they are the big winners in a diplomatic process that is now set up to fail to achieve its supposed goal.

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Obama’s Israel Spat Boosts Iran’s Leverage

Western negotiators sat down again today in Geneva with Iran’s representatives hopeful that they could strike a nuclear deal with Tehran. But after seemingly coming so close to an agreement when the parties last met two weeks ago, most of the spin coming from the Obama administration about this issue wasn’t so much on whether they could entice the Islamist regime to sign an accord as it was on aggressively pushing back against critics of their approach to Iran. In the last several days, the president’s foreign-policy team has been intent on squelching dissent from Israel and Saudi Arabia about Washington’s desire to strike an interim deal with Iran that would leave in place the regime’s nuclear program and its “right” to enrich uranium. The president and Secretary of State Kerry have gone all-out to lobby Congress against increasing sanctions on Iran as well as to justify a decision to start the process of loosening sanctions without Iran having to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure. Enlisting their allies in the media like the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman and a host of others, their main goal has been as much to delegitimize skeptics about their Iran policy, especially supporters of Israel who rightly see what is going on as the beginning of a betrayal of the president’s repeated promises on the subject.

For the moment, the administration has succeeded. The Senate will not vote on increasing sanctions until after the Thanksgiving recess, giving Kerry plenty of time to get his deal before Congress could theoretically scare the Iranians away from the table. Moreover, by seeking to depict the argument as one between those seeking a peaceful solution to the problem and those who really want the U.S. to fight a war, they have put themselves in line with the same war weariness that helped obstruct the president’s faltering attempts to deal with the crisis in Syria. But the collateral damage from this strategy will be considerable. While Obama and Kerry seem most focused on beating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Jewish state’s American supporters, what they have failed to realize is that by shifting their focus in this manner they may have actually made their goal of an agreement with Iran even more difficult to obtain. And by alienating both Israel and moderate Arab states and treating their understandable concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions as secondary to the president’s desire to get out from under his campaign promises on the issue, they may have set the stage for a train of events they will not be able to influence or stop.

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Western negotiators sat down again today in Geneva with Iran’s representatives hopeful that they could strike a nuclear deal with Tehran. But after seemingly coming so close to an agreement when the parties last met two weeks ago, most of the spin coming from the Obama administration about this issue wasn’t so much on whether they could entice the Islamist regime to sign an accord as it was on aggressively pushing back against critics of their approach to Iran. In the last several days, the president’s foreign-policy team has been intent on squelching dissent from Israel and Saudi Arabia about Washington’s desire to strike an interim deal with Iran that would leave in place the regime’s nuclear program and its “right” to enrich uranium. The president and Secretary of State Kerry have gone all-out to lobby Congress against increasing sanctions on Iran as well as to justify a decision to start the process of loosening sanctions without Iran having to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure. Enlisting their allies in the media like the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman and a host of others, their main goal has been as much to delegitimize skeptics about their Iran policy, especially supporters of Israel who rightly see what is going on as the beginning of a betrayal of the president’s repeated promises on the subject.

For the moment, the administration has succeeded. The Senate will not vote on increasing sanctions until after the Thanksgiving recess, giving Kerry plenty of time to get his deal before Congress could theoretically scare the Iranians away from the table. Moreover, by seeking to depict the argument as one between those seeking a peaceful solution to the problem and those who really want the U.S. to fight a war, they have put themselves in line with the same war weariness that helped obstruct the president’s faltering attempts to deal with the crisis in Syria. But the collateral damage from this strategy will be considerable. While Obama and Kerry seem most focused on beating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Jewish state’s American supporters, what they have failed to realize is that by shifting their focus in this manner they may have actually made their goal of an agreement with Iran even more difficult to obtain. And by alienating both Israel and moderate Arab states and treating their understandable concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions as secondary to the president’s desire to get out from under his campaign promises on the issue, they may have set the stage for a train of events they will not be able to influence or stop.

The main problem with the current U.S. approach to Iran is that it is based on the assumption that Iran’s desire to get economic sanctions lifted is greater than their commitment to achieving their nuclear goal. Preserving their nuclear option is, as they have repeatedly stated, their “red line” in negotiations. Having prevaricated and delayed talks with the West with this object in mind for more than a decade, it is a fundamental error to think that they have any intention of giving up now, especially since they have gotten so close to achieving it.

From the Iranian point of view, the charm offensive led by new President Hassan Rouhani has already succeeded since it has driven a wedge between the United States and Israel as well as Saudi Arabia. But by escalating the argument with Israel in this manner, President Obama has failed to realize that by demonstrating his zeal for a deal, even at the cost of heightening tensions with two key allies and alienating a key domestic constituency, he may be influencing the Iranian negotiating position more than he imagines. By trashing all those counseling caution in dealing with Iran as warmongers, the administration may have not so much empowered the alleged “moderates” in Iran but actually given the country’s supreme leader a reason to hold out for even better terms than the West is offering.

The regime’s true boss, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made clear his contempt for President Obama’s diplomatic efforts yesterday in a speech to members of his Basij paramilitary forces broadcast live in on Iranian TV when he not only put the U.S. down as weak but supplied the usual denunciation of Israel as “an “illegitimate regime” led by “untouchable rabid dogs.” Having demonstrated throughout the last five years that he thought President Obama was a paper tiger whose threats should be discounted, it is difficult to imagine that the last two weeks–during which the administration has shown its eagerness to find a way to appease Iran and its desire to distance itself from Israel and the Saudis–have altered Khamenei’s view of the confrontation.

By beating back efforts to impose even tougher sanctions on Iran and essentially marginalizing Israel in this fashion, the president may think he has given himself more room to make diplomacy work. But what he may really have done is to convince Khamenei that, as with Iran’s past decisions to stonewall the West’s efforts, further delay will only net him an even more favorable deal. While raising the pressure on Iran would have given the regime an incentive to compromise or even back down, the American decision to cut Israel loose in this fashion may have done the opposite.

Just as bad is the long-term damage the president’s push for an Iran deal has done to America’s allies in the Middle East. Both Israel and the Saudis understand, even if Obama does not, that Iran will not abide by even the most generous of Western deals and sooner or later will evade or cheat their way to a nuclear weapon. But after being cut out of the diplomatic process in this fashion, they will have less reason to listen to American advice in the future and may even consider acting on their own to stop Iran despite Obama’s insincere assurances that he is looking out for their interests. The net result is a lack of trust that will only undermine Middle East stability and make it less likely anyone will heed the president’s warnings or advice even after Iran goes nuclear.

By downgrading the alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia and trying to delegitimize his critics as warmongers, the president has strengthened Iran’s bargaining position and made it less rather than more likely that there will be a satisfactory conclusion to both the current negotiations and those that will follow. Rather than allowing diplomacy to succeed, what he has done may have ensured that Iran will never be convinced to give up its nukes by any means short of a use of force that no one wants.

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A Saudi-Israel Alliance Against Iran?

The administration is again floating rumors of an impending nuclear agreement with Iran this weekend, leaving Israel and other nations worried about the prospect assessing their options. Given the proven lack of professionalism and incompetence of the Obama foreign-policy team and Iran’s predilection for stringing Western interlocutors along, any assumption that an accord is a certainty when the parties meet again in Geneva later this week is unjustified. But given Secretary of State John Kerry’s obvious zeal for a deal, both Israel and Saudi Arabia are looking to France for some assurances that it will continue to play the unlikely role of the diplomatic conscience of the West, as it did at the last meeting of the P5+1 talks. French President Francois Hollande reiterated his demands for a tougher deal that would make it harder for Iran to break any pact intended to spike their nuclear ambitions during a visit to Israel.

The French are still apparently holding out for conditions that Iran may never accept, such as putting all of their nuclear facilities under international control, ceasing construction of the plutonium plant at Arak and reduction of their existing uranium stockpiles. But France is still accepting the principle that Tehran can go on enriching uranium, albeit at low levels. Which means that Israel must still be pondering the very real possibility that it will be faced with a situation in which it will not be able to rely on the U.S. to act against Iran.

It is in that context that the story published today by Britain’s Sunday Times about Israel and Saudi Arabia preparing to cooperate on a strike against Iran must be understood. According to the paper, both countries rightly believe a Western deal with Iran would likely be a disaster that would expose them to a deadly threat. Accordingly, they are, if this report is to be believed, exploring the possibility of the Saudis offering the Israelis the use of their air space for strikes on Iran as well as providing rescue aircraft, tanker planes, and drones to facilitate a possible attack.

Let’s state upfront that these details should be viewed with some skepticism.

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The administration is again floating rumors of an impending nuclear agreement with Iran this weekend, leaving Israel and other nations worried about the prospect assessing their options. Given the proven lack of professionalism and incompetence of the Obama foreign-policy team and Iran’s predilection for stringing Western interlocutors along, any assumption that an accord is a certainty when the parties meet again in Geneva later this week is unjustified. But given Secretary of State John Kerry’s obvious zeal for a deal, both Israel and Saudi Arabia are looking to France for some assurances that it will continue to play the unlikely role of the diplomatic conscience of the West, as it did at the last meeting of the P5+1 talks. French President Francois Hollande reiterated his demands for a tougher deal that would make it harder for Iran to break any pact intended to spike their nuclear ambitions during a visit to Israel.

The French are still apparently holding out for conditions that Iran may never accept, such as putting all of their nuclear facilities under international control, ceasing construction of the plutonium plant at Arak and reduction of their existing uranium stockpiles. But France is still accepting the principle that Tehran can go on enriching uranium, albeit at low levels. Which means that Israel must still be pondering the very real possibility that it will be faced with a situation in which it will not be able to rely on the U.S. to act against Iran.

It is in that context that the story published today by Britain’s Sunday Times about Israel and Saudi Arabia preparing to cooperate on a strike against Iran must be understood. According to the paper, both countries rightly believe a Western deal with Iran would likely be a disaster that would expose them to a deadly threat. Accordingly, they are, if this report is to be believed, exploring the possibility of the Saudis offering the Israelis the use of their air space for strikes on Iran as well as providing rescue aircraft, tanker planes, and drones to facilitate a possible attack.

Let’s state upfront that these details should be viewed with some skepticism.

There will be those who will file this story along with last year’s much-publicized rumor about Azerbaijan preparing to help Israel hit Iran. When that story was first floated, it was leaked by Obama administration sources that probably hoped to reduce any cooperation between the Azeris and Israel by exposing it. But the fact that the Saudis are almost as panicked by Washington’s desire for détente with Iran as the Israelis is not exactly a secret. Whether they have gone so far as to do some planning about how to help the Israelis hit their hated Iranian enemy may be debated. Certainly doing so would expose Riyadh to considerable criticism in the Muslim and Arab worlds. But even if the story is exaggerated or inaccurate, it says something about the current situation that an alliance of this sort between Jerusalem and a sworn enemy of Zionism is even thinkable.

The point here is that when Kerry assured the world that he was neither blind nor stupid, it’s obvious that the Israelis and Saudis are prepared to answer in the affirmative with respect to both adjectives. By rushing to a deal that would, even in its most stringent form, effectively guarantee Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium, the West is setting in motion a train of events that could very well lead to the Islamist regime eventually achieving its nuclear ambition. The Israelis and the Saudis both know Iran is, like North Korea, perfectly capable of cheating and evading international observers in such a manner as to use its considerable existing uranium stockpile to create a bomb. Moreover, they have also, like Iran, probably already come to the conclusion that the Obama administration has no intention of ever making good on any threat to use force against Iran.

Iran is probably still more interested in employing its traditional delaying tactics that give them more time to work on their nuclear project than in signing a deal, no matter how favorable it might be to their cause. But they’d be smart to snatch the kind of lopsided nuclear deal Kerry is trying to sell them. The Israelis and Saudis know this and have to consider the possibility that President Obama is about to leave them both on their own and that France won’t hold out indefinitely for better terms. So even if you don’t believe that the Mossad has already begun talks with Saudi officials, there’s no doubt both countries are clearly thinking about how they will survive a Western betrayal on Iran. 

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