It’s hard to believe that anyone—outside the White House—takes President Obama seriously anymore. It’s crystal clear that foreign leaders think that the U.S. president is a paper tiger. Enemies calculate that the former senator leading a team of former senators is heavy on rhetoric but light on action. And friends, too, understand that at best Obama is a nice prop around which to take a photo, but when push comes to shove they need not listen to him.
Put aside Obama’s willful abandonment of his Syria chemical weapons red line, an “I told you so moment” for hardliners from Pyongyang to Tehran to Caracas and perhaps Buenos Aires, who are likely now chastising any handwringing moderates who worried what crossing Washington might have cost. Friends, too, are getting in on the game. In just a couple weeks, Obama will be hosting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the White House, never mind that Erdoğan snubbed the U.S. request that he cancel a planned trip to the Gaza Strip to meet with Hamas leaders, a group which Erdoğan has long supported.
In Today’s National Post, Sara Akrami and Saeed Ghasseminejad highlight the challenge of Western sanctions policy–those in charge in Tehran are still largely getting away with murder:
Iran’s continuing progress toward a nuclear bomb should have made it clear to the West that the current sanctions regime simply isn’t going to cut it. When it comes to the nuclear program there are two important decision makers: the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. While there has been some progress in targeting the IRGC with sanctions, Khamenei himself has yet to receive much attention from the international community.
Akrami and Ghasseminejad are right: sanctions must be much broader and more aggressive if the West is to make a dent in Iran’s nuclear posture before it is too late (and there isn’t much time left).
As Chuck Hagel gets grilled in the Senate Armed Services Committee about his views on Iran and Israel, it is sobering to reflect on new evidence of how little effect sanctions are having on the Iranian nuclear program.
Iran has just notified the IAEA that it is stepping up uranium enrichment at its Natanz facility, which would allow it to accelerate the timeline for acquiring a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Iran’s oil exports have been rebounding since the imposition of European Union sanctions last July. Iran’s crude oil exports in December hit 1.4 million barrels a day–still down from 2011 levels of 2.2 million barrels a day but higher than last summer. This is evidence that, thanks to strong demand in China, India and other nations, Iran is managing to weather oil sanctions.
On January 10, 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama explained his opposition to the Iraq surge of additional troops by making a prediction: “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse.” It was an early indication of Obama’s poor judgment and instinct to substitute ideological stubbornness for serious analysis. As we soon found out, Obama was just about as wrong as could be. I say “just about,” because Obama’s error was, surprisingly, eclipsed the very next day by the one man who turned out to be more mistaken than Obama, by saying the surge was “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it’s carried out.”
That man, of course, was Chuck Hagel. Obama and Hagel would develop a friendship, and repeat this pattern. They would travel to Iraq together, where Hagel was dismissive and suspicious of the military’s top brass. Obama would take office and do the same. Hagel would speak out against tough Iran sanctions, and Obama would work against them from the White House, opposing several iterations of them and finally watering them down when he couldn’t prevent sanctions from passing Congress. Hagel would loudly criticize even the contemplation of military action against Iran, and Obama would have his secretary of defense deliver a similar message to Israel. It is this pattern that has led Hagel’s critics to express concern about his nomination to be secretary of defense. Many worry Obama shares Hagel’s views; Obama’s defenders assure us he does not. The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward says the critics are right, and relays a conversation Obama and Hagel had at the beginning of Obama’s first term:
Michael Spaney from Europe’s “Stop the Bomb” campaign has sent out a press release detailing the latest activity of the German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce, which today is hosting a seminar in Hamburg to encourage German firms to do business in Iran and tutor German investors on how to evade sanctions:
The seminar offers advice on “application processes” to “goods inspections” in the “oil, gas and petrochemical sector” – that means in the energy sector which is under EU sanctions. Thus, the Chamber of Commerce focuses on business as usual where EU sanctions are supposed to unfold their impact. The German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce is one of the main lobby groups for maintaining the relationship with the regime in Tehran. The chamber offers ongoing monitoring of business in Iran, helping Iranian companies in the establishment of offices in Germany and in investments, and provides comprehensive support to German companies in their business with Iran.
The Washington Post editorial board came out against Chuck Hagel’s potential nomination for secretary of defense this morning, citing his “near the fringe” views on Iran and defense spending:
But Mr. Hagel has elsewhere expressed strong skepticism about the use of force.
We share that skepticism — but we also understand that, during the next year or two, Mr. Obama may be forced to contemplate military action if Iran refuses to negotiate or halt its uranium-enrichment program. He will need a defense secretary ready to support and effectively implement such a decision. Perhaps Mr. Hagel would do so; perhaps he would also, if installed at the Pentagon, take a different view of defense spending. (Mr. Hagel declined through a spokesman to speak to us about his views.)
What’s certain is that Mr. Obama has available other possible nominees who are considerably closer to the mainstream and to the president’s first-term policies. Former undersecretary of defense Michèle Flournoy, for example, is a seasoned policymaker who understands how to manage the Pentagon bureaucracy and where responsible cuts can be made. She would bring welcome diversity as the nation’s first female defense secretary.
Finally, some good news to come out of John Kerry’s likely secretary of state appointment:
Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) anticipated move to the State Department would leave the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the hands of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who has consistently bucked the White House on Cuba and Iran.
Menendez is next in line to take over the panel if Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) opts to keep her chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, as is widely expected. That would give Menendez a key role in approving diplomatic nominees and international treaties — crucial leverage to demand a tougher stance against America’s foes.
“You can’t work around the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he’s willing to dig in his heels on important issues,” said Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under President George W. Bush who’s enthused by Menendez’s possible promotion. “At the same time, he’s going to be expected to be a team player — but that has its limits.
“I think he’ll give folks in the administration something to think about before they cross him, frankly.”
On Friday, President Obama issued a second round of waivers, in theory to give countries more time to disentangle themselves from their financial dealings in Iran. Reuters reported:
The United States granted 180-day waivers on Iran sanctions to China, India and a number of other countries on Friday in exchange for their cutting purchases of oil from the Islamic Republic. President Barack Obama’s administration has now renewed waivers for all 20 of Iran’s major oil buyers, after granting them to Japan and 10 European Union countries in September. Friday’s action was the second renewal for all 20 after Obama signed the sanctions into law a year ago.
It’s no secret that President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu don’t trust each other. Personality conflicts are slightly less troubling–they can dislike each other and still respect and even trust each other. But trust is seemingly nowhere to be found in the distressed relationship between the two leaders. (We got another reminder of this at the Saban Forum, when Ehud Olmert restated on the record comments that Rahm Emanuel, once Obama’s chief of staff, had made at the forum off the record. The comments were tinged with anger and resentment at Netanyahu.)
And that’s why the issue of Iran will always be the greatest source of friction between the two. Arguments over settlements are mostly background noise; Iran represents an existential threat to Israel, a major security threat to Europe, an ongoing security threat to the United States, and is in pursuit of what would be perhaps the bitterest of Obama administration failures–a nuclear-armed Iran setting off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Obama has repeatedly said he won’t let this happen, so why doesn’t Netanyahu trust him? One answer is something that cropped up again almost unnoticed just before the weekend: Obama’s consistent opposition to tough Iran sanctions. The president has repeatedly tried to kill sanctions, then delay them, then water them down, then as a last resort attach so many waivers as to leave the sanctions looking like Swiss cheese.
Susan Rice may have more problems than just the Benghazi talking points. The potential secretary of state nominee also holds investments in energy companies that have done business with Iran, reports the Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo:
The portfolio of embattled United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice includes investments of hundreds of thousands of dollars in several energy companies known for doing business with Iran, according to financial disclosure forms.
Rice, a possible nominee to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she steps down, has come under criticism for promulgating erroneous information about the September 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans. …
The companies in question appear to have conducted business with Tehran well after Western governments began to urge divestment from the rogue nation, which has continued to enrich uranium near levels needed to build a nuclear bomb.
Financial disclosures reveal that Rice has had $50,001-$100,000 in Royal Dutch Shell, a longtime purchaser of Iranian crude oil. Royal Dutch Shell currently owes Iran nearly $1 billion in back payments for crude oil that it purchased before Western economic sanctions crippled Tehran’s ability to process oil payments, Reuters reported.
Early in his administration, President Barack Obama lifted a number of long-standing sanctions on Cuba. According to the Washington Post report from the time:
White House officials said the decision to lift travel and spending restrictions on Americans with family on the island will provide new support for the opponents of Raúl and Fidel Castro’s government. And they said lifting the ban on U.S. telecommunications companies reaching out to the island will flood Cuba with information while providing new opportunities for businesses. Obama left in place the broad trade embargo imposed on Cuba in 1962. But just days before leaving to attend a summit with the leaders of South and Central America, he reversed restrictions that barred U.S. citizens from visiting their Cuban relatives more than once every three years and lifted limits on the amount of money and goods Cuban Americans can send back to their families. He also cleared away virtually all U.S. regulations that had stopped American companies from attempting to bring their high-tech services and information to the island.
One of the major exceptions to sanctions for non-Cuban Americans is the education exchange. Ted Bromund touched on the issue here at COMMENTARY about a year ago. The Treasury Department explains a bit about how this works, here. In short, “each traveler must have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.”
Reuters is reporting that the Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson is not only redoubling its commitment to work in the Islamic Republic, but may also be providing technology which the Iranian regime uses to crackdown on dissidents:
While Ericsson argues in the internal document that telecommunications are a “basic humanitarian service,” Iranian human rights groups say Iran’s regime has used the country’s mobile-phone networks to track and monitor dissidents.
An effort to win Iranian cash while limiting reputation risk may be one reason why Ericsson sought to keep its work secret:
The sensitivity of Ericsson’s work in Iran is made clear in a letter written by an executive of the company. On January 19, an Ericsson vice president wrote to MTN Group, a South African company that holds a 49 percent stake in MTN Irancell. In a letter marked confidential, the executive stated that Ericsson undertakes “to not take actions that could unnecessarily bring any extra press scrutiny and that could potentially destabilize the working arrangements in Iran,” according to a copy reviewed by Reuters.
Obviously Jeffrey Goldberg is no rosy-eyed optimist when it comes to the threat of a nuclear Iran, but he’s also spent the last few years trying to assure everyone that President Obama is dead serious about preventing the bomb. Which is why it’s surprising to see this relatively tough criticism of the administration in his latest column:
Romney was handed an additional gift last week by Vice President Joe Biden. Over the past three years, I’ve been impressed with Obama’s seriousness on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, the urgency with which he treats the subject, and the measures he has taken to keep the regime from crossing the atomic threshold. But last week, in the vice-presidential debate, Biden attempted to portray Representative Paul Ryan as a hysteric on the subject, even though Ryan’s seriousness on Iran matches the president’s.
In so doing, Biden downplayed the importance of confronting Iran. Biden said that when Ryan “talks about fissile material, they have to take this highly enriched uranium, get it from 20 percent up. Then they have to be able to have something to put it in. There is no weapon that the Iranians have at this point. Both the Israelis and we know — we’ll know if they start the process of building a weapon. So all this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk — what are they talking about?”
Three years after the Iranian regime’s English-language broadcaster, Press TV, plastered London’s buses with an advertising campaign that billed the station as “giving a voice to the voiceless,” Europe’s airwaves have been abruptly closed to its propaganda offerings. Here’s Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:
A leading European satellite provider has taken 19 Iranian television and radio broadcasters off the air.
Satellite provider Eutelsat and media services company Arqiva said the decision has been made because of “reinforced” European Union sanctions aimed at punishing human rights abusers.
People in Iran still have access to most of the channels operated by Iranian state broadcaster IRIB, but the channels are no longer broadcast in Europe and elsewhere.
Iran’s English-language Press TV, Farsi-language channels for Iranian expatriates, and Arabic-language offerings, including the news channel Al-Alam, are among the channels cut by the Eutelsat decision.
The good folks at Germany’s Stop the Bomb campaign alerted me to this latest tidbit, which clearly shows what a double game Berlin now plays vis-à-vis Iran:
Last month, Iran’s Science, Research, and Technology ministry signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD), the German Academic Exchange Service. When it comes to its dealings with Iran, DAAD acts with the blessing of Germany’s Foreign Ministry. The German agreement with Iran comes despite the fact that Kamran Daneshjoo, the Iranian Minister of Science, Research, and Technology, is on the European Union sanctions list because of his alleged involvement in Iranian nuclear warhead design and work. DAAD’s logic of academic engagement falls short when it fails to pay attention to the agenda and, in this case, expertise of its partners. Exchange in the humanities is one thing. Does DAAD really believe it is wise to provide Iranians pursuing nuclear and sensitive scientific studies with unprecedented access to German technology and instruction?
Protests in Iran over the fall of its currency, which lost about a third of its value, might suggest that there is still time for sanctions to work. And indeed there is a strong case to be made for legislation such as that introduced by Sen. Mark Kirk, which would further tighten sanctions on Iranian banks. But then comes this report from the Institute for Science and International Security, which suggests Tehran could have enough weapons-grade uranium to make a nuclear device in just two to four months–although it would take longer to weaponize that uranium.
Assuming that timeline is accurate (and of course no outsider knows the true state of the Iranian program), it suggests that the next president will have a momentous decision to make in the first months of his term of office. Deciding to do nothing–to let sanctions work and hope for the best–would be the easiest path, but it risks either letting Iran go nuclear or forcing Israel to launch air strikes of its own. The former option would be a catastrophe. The latter option would be better, but runs the risk of a dangerous Iranian reaction in return for less-than-lethal damage to their nuclear facilities. Either way, the game of “kick the can down the road”–which has been played by both the Bush and Obama administrations–is going to come to an end and the next commander-in-chief is going to face an agonizing choice about how far we are willing to go to stop Iran.
Yesterday, at the urging of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a group which consistently lobbies against sanctions on the Islamic Republic and its nuclear program, several congressmen sent a letter to President Obama urging him to extend a sanctions waiver issued after last August’s deadly earthquake allowing Americans to send humanitarian assistance to Iran.
The congressmen may be well-meaning, but the call to extend the sanctions waiver is wrong-headed. Charities in Iran are seldom charitable. Take the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, for example. While the group may brag about its efforts to provide medical care, blankets, and food support to the poor, charity is not its primary goal. Indeed, just two years ago, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the group’s Lebanon branches as complicit in Hezbollah terrorism.
The relentlessly negative coverage of Israel in the Western press over the last few years has centered on the flawed assumption that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been on the verge of ordering a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, any day now, since the moment he took office three years ago. This has resulted in coverage of Israel and Israeli politics that is utterly divorced from reality.
Reporters credulously published rumors, seemingly completely unaware they were being spun by those trying to shape public policy, and opinion writers sounded the alarm. This created the effect of the media—not Netanyahu—swearing war was imminent and then attacking Netanyahu for the impending doom they insisted was coming. All the while Netanyahu did what he has been doing all along: concentrating on sanctions. The Obama administration continued to act as the primary obstacle to tough sanctions—first delaying them, then watering them down over Congress’s objections, then handing out exemptions like candy—making a military strike more likely by not fully utilizing other means to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. In the last two weeks, two media events have displayed what should represent—one can only hope—the bottoming out of the coverage before it bounces back up closer to reality.
The Iranian rial has crashed. Over the past 36 hours, it has lost almost 30 percent of its value. The value of the dollar against the rial is now up around 300 percent from what it was just a couple years ago. After long denying that the sanctions have had any effect on Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad now blames outside “enemies” for the country’s economic trials. As the price of foodstuffs climbs for ordinary Iranians, the Iranian leadership hopes that it can blame economic hardship on the West and on sanctions. They will be fooling themselves. While Iranians would rally around the flag in the event of military confrontation or should any foreign power partner with the terroristic and cult-like Mujahedin al-Khalq against the regime, at no point have ordinary Iranians accepted their leaders’ attempts to blame the West for Iran’s financial predicament. Iranians are not fools: they recognize the result of the regime’s gross economic mismanagement.
While some in the Obama administration may breathe a sigh of relief on the logic that biting sanctions may bring the regime to the table and buy time against a potential Israeli strike, they should remain wary. A regime dominated by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) alumni does not much care about the economic hardship ordinary Iranians face. After all, much more so even than the grandpa who marched uphill both ways barefoot in the snow, IRGC veterans will dismiss the complaints of anyone who did not suffer the deprivations of the Iran-Iraq war front.
Earlier this month, DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz found herself in hot water after she seemingly fabricated a statement she attributed to Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, essentially accusing Republicans of playing politics on Israel. Now Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer has taken it a step further, echoing a sentiment that has been floating around the American media for a while. Boxer wrote an open letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accusing him of “inject[ing] politics” into the effort to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Of course, we should always be wary of someone accusing a country’s most senior political figure of playing politics, as if presidents and prime ministers are somehow non-political actors. Boxer writes that she is “stunned” that Netanyahu would ever doubt President Obama’s commitment to Israel, and then played a bit of politics herself, instructing Netanyahu to publicly recant his comments and replace them with statements that might better help the president’s image on this issue: