In case the West didn’t get the message last week during the latest round of the P5+1 nuclear talks, Iran is making sure President Obama and other leaders understand that they mean what they say about their determination to pursue their nuclear ambitions. Reuters reports that yesterday on what the Islamist regime calls National Nuclear Technology Day, Tehran announced that operations had begun at two uranium mines and a milling plant. If that wasn’t enough to set off alarms in Washington as well as in Jerusalem, the Iranians also made it clear they had no intention of stopping the refinement of high-grade enrichment uranium that could be used for bombs.
Western negotiators had arrived at the talks in Kazakhstan last week hopeful about a positive Iranian response to concessions made at the previous session in February. But when the Iranians ignored the Western proposals—which would have loosened sanctions and allowed them to keep a nuclear program in exchange for stopping uranium enrichment—they were “puzzled.” But the Iranian strategy isn’t much of a mystery. They believe they can continue to stonewall the West by running out the diplomatic clock until they get their bomb.
The P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran resumed today in Almaty, Kazakhstan with Western negotiators hoping that the concessions they made to the Islamist regime in their last meeting would pay off with something they could label as “progress.” Acting on behalf of the United States and its allies, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton had offered Iran the possibility of easing up on sanctions if only they would demonstrate that they were telling the truth about not working to build a nuclear weapon. But despite these high hopes and the certain knowledge that the West was willing to compromise about letting them keep some of their nuclear toys, the Iranians showed up today offering Ashton and company nothing.
As they have done in every other negotiation with the West over the last decade, the Iranians stiffed the P5+1 group by arriving at the table unprepared to give an inch, even in exchange for the concessions previously offered. As Laura Rozen reports from Almaty, this left Western negotiators “puzzled” as the Iranians insisted on discussing “modalities for negotiations rather than specific steps discussed at two recent rounds of talks this spring.” While the Iranians described their approach as one that offered a new plan for resolving the impasse, what they were really doing was what they have always done: running out the clock. With their reported 10,000 centrifuges continuing to enrich uranium that can be eventually used to build a weapon, they are getting closer every day to realizing their nuclear ambition while the West continues to sputter and demand new opportunities for the ayatollahs’ representatives to make fools of them.
This latest fiasco raises the question of how long President Obama, who pointedly said that he did not see the negotiating process with Iran as being open-ended during his trip to Israel last month, will continue the charade that diplomacy has a chance to stop Tehran’s nuclear threat.
In January, Max Boot wrote about the unfortunate decision of the administration to push out one of the country’s top soldiers: Marine General James Mattis, the head of the nation’s crucial Central Command. As Max said, it appeared that “the White House does not appreciate his blunt advice and thinks he is too hawkish on Iran.” Yesterday, we got a good example of the blunt advice Mattis has been offering up when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee “sanctions and diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities are not working”:
General James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran has a history of denial and deceit and is enriching uranium beyond any plausible peaceful purpose. While it may still be possible to use sanctions and other pressure to bring Tehran to its senses, he added, Iran is using the negotiations to buy time.
Mattis is obviously right about what has happened in the last decade as the United States wasted time on foolish attempts at engagement, weak diplomacy and loosely enforced sanctions as the Iranians ran out the clock, getting closer every day to realizing their nuclear ambition. But the question that should be on the minds of Americans is whether the people who showed the general the door understand this commonsense evaluation.
After two days of the latest round of P5+1 talks with Iran, the international coalition has already begun the process of standing down from a confrontational stance toward Tehran. After a decade of diplomatic failure, no one seriously expected this week’s sessions to create a breakthrough that might defuse the Iranian nuclear threat. But the West’s decision to make two key concessions to the Islamist regime without any reciprocal move on Iran’s part is likely to only reinforce its confidence that it can continue to stall until the Iranians reach their nuclear goal. The group comprised of the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany and which is led by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, dropped their previous insistence that Iran must shut down its nuclear plant at Fordo and also said that it could keep some of its 20 percent enriched uranium that could be converted to use for a weapon.
With those concessions in his pocket, and without having given anything in return at the talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, it’s no wonder the Iranian negotiator called the meeting positive and said the Western position had become “more realistic.” American and European diplomats emphasized to reporters their three conditions to the Iranians that would hinder any attempt to create a weapon, but also said agreeing to those minimal steps would lead to the end of some of the toughest economic sanctions on the country.
All this is just one more set of signals that tells the Iranians they have no need to take seriously President Obama’s threats about force still being an option in the West’s efforts to prevent Tehran from going nuclear. In its new issue, TIME magazine details the story of the administration’s evolution toward a position that specifically eschews containment of a nuclear Iran as an option and says the administration is preparing for war. But this week’s concessions, combined with the confirmation of a new U.S. secretary of defense who was a longtime advocate of containment (and who could not articulate the administration’s current position on the issue in his confirmation hearing even when given three tries to do so), can only bolster the determination of the Iranians to hang on to their program until they run out the clock on the talks and achieve their goal.
It didn’t take long for the optimistic story about Iran’s nuclear program in yesterday’s New York Times to turn sour. The paper reported on Wednesday that talks were resuming between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran about resuming inspections of the Islamist regime’s nuclear facilities had resumed. It also noted the report in an Iranian news agency about Tehran diverting its efforts from a bomb to research, a development that might cause the West to treat the issue with less urgency. But, less than 24 hours later, the IAEA announced the talks with Iran had failed and that the United Nations watchdog was still unable to inspect the Parchin site where it suspects military applications of the project including nuclear triggers are being constructed. That means the Iranians are free to go on pushing toward their goal without any annoying inspectors forcing them to hide their work.
This is the sort of development that should cause the Obama administration to drop the air of complacency about the other nuclear talks being held with Iran by the P5+1 group whose goal is to talk the regime out of its nuclear weapons dream. The Iranians have already used those talks to stall the West for over a year and there is nothing to indicate that they view the next round of discussions as anything but another opportunity to buy more time until their bomb is ready.
If that isn’t scary enough, as Lee Smith writes today in Tablet, there is yet another reason to believe that the belated sanctions imposed by the West won’t be enough to stop Iran: North Korea.
The latest round of the P5+1 talks between the West and Iran over efforts to persuade the Islamist regime to give up their nuclear ambitions is scheduled to begin again later this month. Notwithstanding the spectacular failure of this negotiating process last year, speculation is rife as to what, if any, leverage can be exerted over Tehran. According to Haaretz, the scuttlebutt from last week’s Security Conference in Munich, Germany is leading some to draw some interesting conclusions about whether the fate of embattled Syrian dictator Bashar Assad is somehow linked to the nuclear program of his Iranian ally.
It’s hard to get a grip on what scenarios the rumors emanating from Munich would entail, but the gist of it is that some people are beginning to assume that Iran might be inclined to make some nuclear concessions in order to save the Assad regime. The assumption is based on the idea that both Iran and the United States have a common goal in Syria in keeping radical Islamists from taking power in Damascus that would owe nothing to either country. But given recent developments in Syria and the importance of the nuclear project to the prestige of the Iranian government, the idea that linkage between the two issues will lead to any progress toward Assad’s exit or an end to the nuclear threat seems far-fetched.
The Iranian nuclear threat has been on the back burner in recent months, as first the United States and now Israel have been distracted by elections. But the reported comments of Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator during a visit to India about Tehran’s interest in another round of talks with the West are sure to revive the hopes of those who believe in the existence of a “window of diplomacy” to resolve the issue.
But the question to be asked about this is not so much whether there will be more talks but whether both the Iranians and their Western negotiating partners have the same motive for continuing what can only be described as the charade of a diplomatic process. If President Obama is prepared to engage in a repeat of last year’s P5+1 fiasco that took up the better part of a year doing nothing but allowing the Iranians to get that much closer to their nuclear goal, then it will be difficult to argue that he is not doing the same thing as the Iranians: stalling until it is too late to do anything about an Iranian bomb.
The New York Times is reporting that for the first time the United States has agreed to direct talks with Iran about its nuclear program. Obama administration officials speaking off the record confirmed the announcement but at the moment the White House is publicly denying it. The one-on-one negotiations will, the newspaper says, not commence until after the presidential elections. While the Times says the delay is at the request of the Iranians, that time frame also works well for the administration. It allows the president to boast that he is doing everything to try and persuade the Iranians to abandon their ambitions during the election campaign while leaving him room should he be re-elected to exhibit the “flexibility” to strike a compromise with Tehran after November that could leave the Islamist regime’s nuclear capability intact.
While it can be argued that any opportunity to talk sense to the Iranians should be explored, the problem here is twofold. On the one hand, for the past decade the Iranians have shamelessly exploited every Western diplomatic initiative to buy time for their program to get closer to weapons capability. On the other, given the refusal of the Obama administration to contemplate setting down “red lines” that would set clear limits to how close the Iranians could get to a nuke, there is a very real possibility that any deal they strike will allow the ayatollahs to retain their nuclear program. Such a deal would be represented as a victory for diplomacy that would avert the danger of an Iranian weapon. But the odds are it would only serve as an excuse to lessen the pressure on Tehran and allow it to eventually circumvent any agreement in much the same manner the North Koreans made fools of the Clinton and the Bush administrations’ efforts to spike their nuclear program. Assuming that the Iranians even choose to talk or agree to even the most generous deal before inevitably breaking their word, the direct talks set the stage for a second Obama term sellout of Israel.
Yesterday, we discussed the latest attempt by the West to entice Iran to resume negotiations over the future of their nuclear program. Those talks, being conducted by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the head of the P5+1 group that includes the United States, were described as “useful and constructive” and were thought to be the prelude to further efforts to break the impasse over Tehran’s push for nuclear weapons later this month in New York, when the United Nations General Assembly convenes. But the same day that Lady Ashton was breaking bread with a representative of the Islamist regime in Istanbul, the head of Iran’s nuclear project was quoted in the London daily Al Hayat as confessing, or should we say bragging, that his country has repeatedly lied to the West in past exchanges about the subject.
As Haaretz reports, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran told Al Hayat that the regime had provided false information to the International Atomic Energy Agency in order to protect their “nuclear facilities and achievements.”
“Sometimes we provided false information since there was no other choice but to mislead other intelligence agencies; sometimes we made ourselves appear weak and at other times we reported issues that made us appear strongly than we really were, he said, adding: “Ultimately it became exposed when inspectors directly asked us about these issues.”
He said such deceptions were necessary in order to prevent the IAEA’s investigation from aiding efforts to isolate and sanction Iran. These motivations are quite obvious and even understandable. The Iranians know the world is on to their plans for nuclear weapons and wish to do everything they can to throw the IAEA off the scent. What isn’t understandable is why the United States and its European partners would choose to enter into any diplomatic process with Iran that is predicated on Iran telling the truth about its facilities and keeping their word should any compromise deal ever be reached. That is why the insistence of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton that diplomacy be given even more time is inexplicable if they mean what they say about wanting to stop Iran.
Give the Islamist regime in Iran some credit. They can read between the lines as easily as anyone in Washington. Having seen the spectacle of the Obama administration’s refusal to set red lines about Iran’s nuclear program despite impassioned pleas from Israel to do so, the ayatollahs understand they have been sent a signal that the president is open to another round of hopeless negotiations over the issue. That’s the upshot of the informal meetings taking place in Istanbul between the Iranians and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. Ashton headed up the West’s delegations in the P5+1 talks held earlier this year but, like President Obama, appears to have learned nothing from the experience. As Laura Rozen reports in The Back Channel blog, the Iranians may have again convinced the West that they should give the talks yet another try. According to Rozen, “The path going forward is ‘open,’ one western diplomat said.”
That’s excellent news for the Iranians, who may now be able to look forward to more negotiating sessions with the Western consortium at which they can drag out the process even further without giving an inch. But it’s bad news for anyone who wants to actually stop the Iranians from achieving their nuclear ambition.
Earlier this week White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated the administration’s mantra about Iran, saying there was still “time and space” for a diplomatic solution to be found to resolve the impasse over its nuclear threat. While no one, not even the president’s loyalists actually believe there is even the slightest hope for diplomacy or sanctions to work, the White House is publicly clinging to this position since the alternative is unthinkable. By that I don’t refer to how unthinkable it would be for the future of the world for the ayatollahs to get their hands on a nuclear weapon. From the point of view of the administration, what is truly unthinkable is the prospect of being forced to admit that it has been wrong all along about Iran and must change course in order to avoid a catastrophe.
The spectacle of the administration standing by its determination to keep talking with Iran long after Tehran effectively scuttled the P5+1 nuclear talks has to be discouraging to Israel’s government and can, in no small measure, be the reason why the Jewish state seems to be bubbling over with speculation about an attack on Iran sometime before the U.S. presidential election. With even U.S. intelligence now finally admitting that Iran is working on a bomb and with the Islamist regime making it clear it has no interest in agreeing to a compromise agreement on the issue, those trusted with defending Israel’s existence may be rapidly coming to the conclusion that they have no alternative but to strike soon before it is too late. Though foreign policy realists and other Israel critics are denouncing the Israeli threats, the only way to convince Jerusalem to stand down and follow America’s lead is for President Obama to start speaking honestly about the failure of his belated attempt to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear ambition. In the absence of such honesty, there is little reason for Prime Minister Netanyahu to go on waiting until the danger cannot be averted.
In 2007, a growing international consensus on the need to stop Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons was hamstringed by a puzzling U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that claimed Tehran had abandoned its ambitions. Though the NIE was disputed by Israel as well as by other sources, this report became the bulwark of foreign policy realists determined to downplay or ignore the danger from Iran. But as Haaretz reports, a new NIE issued in the past month indicates not only is Iran working on such a program but they have made alarming progress on military applications of nuclear power.
The report, which was made known to the paper by both Western diplomats and Israeli officials, reportedly shows U.S. intelligence now concurs with their counterparts in the Jewish state that the Iranian peril is far greater than the Americans were previously willing to admit. This finding makes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public questions about the West’s willingness to wait for sanctions and diplomacy to work justified. More to the point, it calls into question the Obama administration’s strategy of kicking the can down the road this year until after the elections.
In 2007, the American intelligence establishment issued a National Intelligence Estimate that claimed Iran was not working toward a nuclear weapon. The finding was criticized around the world and was soon disavowed by the Bush administration. Since then, the evidence compiled by the International Atomic Energy Agency has made it clear the NIE was more a reflection of the post-Iraq caution on the part of U.S. intelligence in which they are reluctant to sound the alarms about potential threats than an actual belief in Iran’s good intentions. The refinement of uranium at increasingly high rates and other clues as to work on the military applications of nuclear technology have reinforced the widespread conviction that it is only a matter of time before the Iranians achieve their goal. The only serious debate has been about when that day will arrive.
Thus, the statement by the head of MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence agency, that Iran will achieve nuclear capability within two years is sobering news. Sir John Sawyer’s reported remarks give the lie to those who have been attempting to deny the existence of the threat. It also makes clear that whoever wins the U.S. presidency this fall will be faced with a momentous decision that is not being fully discussed in the campaign. Both President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney have said they will not allow Iran to go nuclear. But putting a date on the expected time that Iran will realize its deadly ambition means that by 2014, either man will have to decide whether to use force to prevent Iran from obtaining the means to make good on their pledge to eliminate Israel and to exercise hegemony over the Middle East. Given the utter failure of the president’s feckless attempts at engagement and diplomacy to deal with the problem, Americans must ask themselves whether he or his challenger can be relied upon to act.
President Obama has repeatedly pledged that he will never allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. But given that his various attempts at engagement, diplomacy and now sanctions show no signs of working, it is inevitable that speculation about his willingness to use force persists. However, that is the one thing Washington has never seemed willing to contemplate. Though even the president will occasionally say that no options are being left off the table, the administration has been doing its best to argue that military strikes would only give the West a temporary respite. But, as Lee Smith writes in Tablet, the claim that strikes on Iran wouldn’t effectively end the threat tell us more about the president’s unwillingness to use force than it does about its effect on Iran.
This premise that Iran’s nuclear program is basically invulnerable to military attack is wrong. Though its targets are spread out and many have been hardened to render air strikes less deadly, the notion that a concentrated campaign couldn’t take them out underestimates American air power. Moreover, the notion that the Iranians would have the personnel, the resources and the will to start from scratch again overestimates their capabilities. The difficulties that are cited as insuperable obstacles to an attack have been inflated out of proportion to the actual problem, because the administration has no interest in undertaking the mission.
As the recent documentary film “UN Me” proved, the line between satire and reality at the United Nations is razor thin. There is no shortage of outrageous examples of how tyrannical regimes have twisted the founding ideals of the UN into the corrupt talking shop that currently befouls international discourse. But there are times when the world body does something so outrageous that it must give pause to even its most zealous defenders. That level was reached last week when, as UN Watch reports, Iran was voted to a top arms control post at the UN Arms Trade Treaty conference being held in Geneva this month. UN Watch rightly condemned the selection and noted that it happened not long after the UN Security Council condemned Iran for illegally transferring guns and bombs to Syria, which is currently using them to massacre its own citizens.
The choice may, as UN Watch said, defy “logic, morality and common sense,” to elect Iran to a position where it will help monitor compliance with treaty regulations about arms transfers, but since when did the UN have anything to do any of those qualities? But while this will provide Ami Horowitz with fodder for a “UN Me” sequel, the consequences of actions of this sort are actually quite serious. The UN’s legitimization of the Islamist regime undermines the already faltering efforts of the Obama administration to use diplomacy and sanctions to force Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.
With the tightening of international sanctions on Iran’s oil industry, there are some hopeful signs the pain being inflicted on the Islamist regime may have serious repercussions. As Amotz Asa-El writes in the Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch, the continued fall of oil prices despite the cuts in Iranian exports is a hopeful sign as is the regime’s admission that their output is dropping. More importantly, the hyperinflation afflicting Iran’s economy is causing unrest in Tehran, raising hopes the sanctions are destabilizing the country and calling into question the ability of the ayatollah’s government to hang on. All this could generate another rebuke from the Iranian people at the next scheduled presidential election next year that would create even more problems than the revolt that popped up when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rigged the vote in 2009.
But optimism about the impact the sanctions will have on Iran is not the same thing as an assurance they cannot endure them. As the Iranian attitude during the three rounds of the P5+1 talks with the West has illustrated, the ayatollahs are still under the impression that the pain inflicted on their people will not be enough to either topple the regime or bring the country to a standstill. Though Iran’s feeble attempt to flex its muscles in response to the sanctions by threatening oil tanker traffic in the Gulf of Hormuz isn’t scaring anyone — least of all the United States which is reinforcing its own naval presence in the region to remind the Iranians of their weakness — there is no reason to assume their belief they can hang on while continuing their progress toward the nuclear goal is not valid.
If the Obama administration was seeking to reassure the pro-Israel community, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to make a joint appearance with James Baker on PBS’s Charlie Rose was a curious way to go about it. Baker, who earned a reputation as one of the least sympathetic to Israel of all of Clinton’s predecessors, joined with the current secretary in making it clear the Jewish state should under no circumstances be allowed to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities on its own. Baker was right when he said stopping Iran is an American responsibility rather than that of Israel. But coming as it did in the days following the failure of the administration’s latest diplomatic initiative with Iran, the current secretary’s faith in efforts to keep trying to talk with the Iranians and to wait for them to buckle under the weight of sanctions is evidence that neither she nor the president have a clue as to how to stop the nuclear threat.
Clinton’s assertion to Rose that U.S. policy was to “take this meeting by meeting and pursue it as hard as we can” was an indication that the sense of urgency about the problem is clearly lacking. Clinging to the false belief that the president has expressed in the existence of a “window of diplomacy” with Iran, Clinton seems to regard the international coalition she has assembled to pursue the talks and sanctions as an accomplishment in of itself, even though it seems incapable of bringing about a solution to the problem. It is that attitude that makes it hard to believe even after the latest P5+1 standoff in Moscow, this administration will ever come to grips with the fact that the Iranians don’t think they are serious.
The P5+1 talks resumed today in Moscow, and the only news filtering out of the negotiations is that Iran has been even more insistent than in past meetings about getting the West to drop the economic sanctions that have been imposed on the Islamist regime. The general assumption is that this is a sign of weakness that shows the Iranians are wearying of the pain the sanctions have imposed and are liable to abandon their nuclear ambitions. But despite the hardships the sanctions have caused the Iranian people, Tehran’s bargaining position may be stronger than some Western optimists have assumed.
Iran has not budged from its demand for recognition of its right to right refine uranium while also continuing to increase the ongoing rate of production and stonewalling inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. So there is little doubt Iran is playing the same game in Moscow as it did in earlier negotiating sessions in Ankara and Baghdad. Far from displaying weakness, the Iranians may still be operating on the belief that both President Obama and his European partners are more desperate for a deal — any deal — that will allow them to walk away from a confrontation on the nuclear issue.
Since the P5+1 negotiations with Iran began much of the speculation about the diplomatic activity centered on the fact that it was clearly in the interests of both sides to keep talking for as long as possible rather than to allow an impasse to break talks off. The Iranians, the Obama administration and its diplomatic partners share a desire to keep diplomacy alive so as to make it impossible for Israel to launch an attack on Tehran’s nuclear facilities. But even if a deal is possible, the incremental arrangement offered by the West is worrisome for those who fear any such agreement will almost certainly be evaded and ultimately lead to a nuclear Iran.
The Iranians have balked at the West’s terms that would have allowed them to keep their nuclear program. However, as Laura Rozen reports on Al Monitor, there is another possibility in the works that may present an even greater danger of letting Iran off the hook. Rozen writes that the Obama administration is considering putting forward a grand proposal that would try for a permanent fix rather than a gradual process that might put in place an interim deal that could never be followed up. But it is far from clear whether “going big” with Iran will get the United States any closer to permanently removing the nuclear threat than the less ambitious P5+1 approach.
After more than a year of violent repression of protests that have taken the lives of thousands of people, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has figured out exactly how much he can get away with before his actions will provoke action from the West. Rather than being deterred by the prospect of an intervention to save the lives of his people, Assad now knows he can kill as many people as he likes. With reports of yet another massacre of dozens of women and children having been committed in the Homa region, the Syrian regime is demonstrating again that it will not be deterred by the condemnation of the international community from inflicting atrocities (let alone relinquish power). Indeed, rather than giving Assad pause, it may be that the latest statements of outrage issued by Secretary of State Clinton about events in Syria may just be confirming his impression that talk is all the United States and the West ever intend to do about the situation.
Clinton repeated earlier tough statements about Syria during a joint press conference with her Turkish counterpart. But as the U.S. has made it clear that no action will be taken without the consent of Syria’s Russian and Chinese allies, that is a virtual guarantee Assad has absolutely nothing to worry about. That the latest instance of mass slaughter — this time in the village of Qubeir where 78 persons are thought to have been killed, half of whom were women and children — happened while a United Nations peace plan was supposed to be implemented and U.N. personnel were in the country is just the latest evidence that Assad understands he can continue to act with impunity. If Assad is laughing at American suggestions he leave Syria, who can blame him for thinking U.S. policy is a joke?