Commentary Magazine


Topic: sanctions

The Problem with Iran Sanctions

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).

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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).

But the problem with the sanctions regime is much broader. It is not just a question of whether sanctions will convince the regime in Tehran to change its cost-benefit analysis on the nuclear program. After all, so far all the signs go in the opposite direction, since Iran, despite the pain that sanctions have inflicted on its economy, is still defiantly marching on. It is not just a question of adding new measures to the already sweeping set of restrictions on Iran’s economy, its procurement networks and its financial institutions.

The problem with sanctions is that, even assuming they are the right tool to bring Iran’s nuclear quest to a halt, their main failure starts with poor implementation. Let’s face it, despite hundreds of designations, executive orders, European Union Council decisions, and other Western governments’ measures against Iranian companies, individuals and even entire sectors of Iran’s economy, Iran is going about its business as if nothing much happened.

Take Mahan Air.

The U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned Mahan Air shortly after Iran’s plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington in October 2011. It sanctioned all its fleet for having transported Revolutionary Guards troops to Syria to aid Syria’s attempts to suffocate the two-year old popular uprising. The U.S. Department of Commerce has further restricted a number of entities linked to Mahan Air that procure for the company overseas. The U.S. government briefly succeeded in blocking delivery of several Boeing 747 planes to Mahan Air back in 2008. But success was short lived (here is one, no longer impounded as of February 2009).

As headlined at the time of sanctioning the airline, “your ticket with Mahan Air is cancelled.”

Or is it?

The Norwegian ambassador to Iran did not seem particularly enthused with American sanctions. He recently met with Mahan Air’s CEO, Hamid Arabnejad. The Business Year gave Arabnejad a glowing interview in January. Mahan Air launched a new China route days before being sanctioned in September 2011. Your ticket may be cancelled, but they are still flying there and adding destinations.

What about spare parts–an ongoing sore point in U.S.-Iranian relations since the Islamic Revolution? Well, if the Department of Commerce feels compelled to slap restrictions on Iranian companies trying to buy American-made spare parts for their planes thirty-something years after sanctions on airplane spare parts were introduced, that says something about how effective sanctions have been. All of Mahan Air’s companies in Europe that are under restrictions seem to be still fully active. Some of Mahan’s operations in Germany are not even mentioned in U.S. sanctions’ lists–a sign that Iranian middlemen are still way ahead of the game.

And this is just a relatively small private airline with connections to the Revolutionary Guards. Just imagine then, how many hundreds of other tricks Iranian procurement agents are pulling out of their hats to keep their regime’s business afloat.

If sanctions are to make any dent in Iran’s nuclear procurement, Western governments must rethink both their policy and its implementation. It is not enough to put a few companies on the black list–sanctions must be sweeping to the point of a total economic embargo. And it is not enough to put rules in the law book–unless sanctions are truly enforced, Iran will continue to elude restrictions.

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Iran Increases Uranium Enrichment, Oil Exports Despite Sanctions

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.

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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.

All of which means it is more imperative than ever that the United States have leadership dedicated to stopping the Iranian nuclear program by any means necessary. Hagel will not have an easy time convincing the Senate–or the world–that as secretary of defense he would be the right kind of leader. He has made amply clear his belief that bombing Iran is a greater danger than Iran acquiring The Bomb. But only if Iran fears military action, which could result in the downfall of its Islamist regime, will it contemplate a peaceful deal that would force it to give up its cherished goal of becoming a nuclear power.

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Are Hagel and Obama “Soul Mates” on Defense Policy?

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:

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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:

According to an account that Hagel later gave, and is reported here for the first time, he told Obama: “We are at a time where there is a new world order. We don’t control it. You must question everything, every assumption, everything they” — the military and diplomats — “tell you. Any assumption 10 years old is out of date. You need to question our role. You need to question the military. You need to question what are we using the military for….

Obama did not say much but listened. At the time, Hagel considered Obama a “loner,” inclined to keep a distance and his own counsel. But Hagel’s comments help explain why Obama nominated his former Senate colleague to be his next secretary of defense. The two share similar views and philosophies as the Obama administration attempts to define the role of the United States in the transition to a post-superpower world.

Hagel’s foreign policy insight isn’t exactly stellar, to say the least. But it impressed Obama because, according to Woodward, it mirrors his own. Now it’s true that Hagel has been going around Capitol Hill claiming to support whatever policies Obama also says he supports and whatever policies he’ll need to support to ensure successful confirmation. But it is just silly to try and pretend that Obama doesn’t have a record and history of agreeing with Hagel on many of these issues.

Yesterday’s other Hagel revelation, if you can call it that, was what he said at a 2009 J Street conference. J Street had been refusing to release the video of Hagel’s speech, but it turned out that the prepared text was online the whole time at Hagel’s old think tank, as Yair Rosenberg discovered. J Street’s refusal to release the video suggested there might be some offensive content in it. That doesn’t appear to be the case. Instead, it just seems to have been a case of J Street being J Street–secretive, bizarrely defensive, reminiscent of when J Street claimed it was not funded by George Soros when in fact it was greatly funded by George Soros.

In the speech, Hagel offers an endorsement of an obnoxious Thomas Friedman column and seems to hold by the discredited “linkage” theory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also called the attempt to isolate Syria’s Bashar al-Assad “bewildering.” It is neither a well-informed nor wise speech text, but it doesn’t seem to contain any real surprises either. Nor is it a surprise, however, to read Woodward refer to Hagel as Obama’s “soul mate” on defense policy. And that is precisely what worries his critics the most.

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Germany Helps Companies Evade Iran Sanctions

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.

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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.

Despite the opposition of President Obama—and his defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel—it has been the U.S. and European unilateral sanctions toward Iran’s central bank and energy sector that have proven most effective. And contrary to the insistence of some Iran experts and anti-sanctions activists, China hasn’t simply filled the gap. How unfortunate that the weak link in sanctions meant to avoid military action against Iran is coming from Germany. Perhaps detecting President Obama’s own lackluster commitment to preventing Iranian nuclear breakout, Germany figures now is as good a time as any to make a quick buck.

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WaPo Editorial Board: Hagel Wrong for Defense

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.

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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.

Not only does Obama have better options than Hagel, he has options that would be easier to confirm. Someone like Flournoy would have no problem. While Hagel could make it through, it would be a messy fight that would highlight issues Obama is already seen as weak on–particularly his commitment to Israel and seriousness on Iran.

And while Hagel is a former member of the Senate club, he would be pressed on comments he’s made that are highly embarrassing for Obama, including a reference to the “Jewish lobby” intimidating members of Congress. Michael Warren reports that Lindsey Graham and John McCain, both members of the committee that would hold the defense secretary hearings, would question Hagel on these comments if he’s nominated:

Asked about Hagel’s 2008 statement that the “Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people here [in Washington, D.C.],” South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said Hagel will “have to answer for that comment” if he is nominated. 

“And he’ll have to answer about why he thought it was a good idea to directly negotiate with Hamas and why he objected to the European Union declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization,” continued Graham, a member of the Armed Services committee. “I think he’ll have to answer all those questions.” …

John McCain of Arizona said he “strongly disagree[s]” with Hagel’s comments on the “Jewish lobby.”

“I know of no ‘Jewish lobby,’” McCain said. “I know that there’s strong support for Israel here. I know of no ‘Jewish lobby.’ I hope he would identify who that is.”

There is a solid case against nominating Hagel, but not a solid case for choosing him over another option. Someone like Flournoy would still be compatible with Obama ideologically, but she would come with far less baggage.

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Menendez Expected to Take Over as Foreign Relations Chair

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.”

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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.”

When it comes to Iran sanctions, it would be difficult to find a stronger Democratic senator than Menendez. He’s been active on the issue for years, at least since his time on the House international relations committee (now foreign affairs). On the Senate finance committee, he’s joined up with Senator Mark Kirk on several critically important Iran sanctions amendments.

But the White House can’t be thrilled with Menendez’s likely new role. He’s had no reservations about fighting the Obama administration over sanctions, nor clashing with them over Armenia and Cuba. The last thing Obama wants is a critic from his own party attacking his Iran policy from such a prominent perch in the Senate.

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Obama’s Partners Profit on Iran Sanctions Waivers

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.

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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.

Among the countries issued waivers were South Korea, Turkey, China, India, and South Africa. Iranian officials gloated. According to Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency:

“Every once in a while, US is forced to withdraw from its policy of sanctions and pressure against Iran because of the hardships that its people, friendly countries and allies are facing due to Iran sanctions, and this time the US has had to think again about Iran bans in order to reduce these pressures and meet its need to energy and oil products,” [Ahmad] Bakhshayesh, [a member of the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and National Security Committee] said.

Herein lies the problem. Many of these countries—Turkey, for example—make no secret of their refusal to abide by the sanctions (perhaps the Congressional Turkey Caucus might ask Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States to explain). As another Fars News Agency story relates, “At least seven companies from China, India, South Korea and South Africa continued to have investments in Iran’s oil and gas sectors in 2012 despite Western sanctions.” In other words, Obama is waiving sanctions not only on countries which import fuel from Iran, but also those whose investments enable Iran to develop such oil and gas resources in the first place.

President Obama should not confuse adulation with respect. When it comes to the overseas view of the American president, it is hard not to believe “push-over” and “gullible” are the descriptions most commonly used.

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Sanctions Fight Is an Example of Why Bibi Doesn’t Trust Barack

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.

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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.

Of course, the Obama administration has its own justifications for its consistent and adamant opposition to tough sanctions. Here, according to Josh Rogin, is what the White House doesn’t like about the latest round of sanctions:

One of the White House’s chief concerns is that Congress is not providing the administration enough waivers, which would give the United States the option of negating or postponing applications of the sanctions on a case-by-case basis.

The White House also said that secondary sanctions should apply only to those Iranian persons and entities that are guilty of aiding Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. The new legislative language would designate entire categories of Iranian government entities to be sanctioned — whether or not each person or entity is directly involved in such activities.

The new sanctions too broadly punish companies that supply materials, such as certain metals, that could be used in Iran’s nuclear, military, or ballistic missile programs, the White House worries. The bill allows those materials to be sold to Iranian entities that intend to use them for non-military or nuclear-related purposes, but the administration said that the ambiguity in that part of the legislation will make it hard to implement.

Finally, the White House doesn’t want to implement the part of the new legislation that would require reports to Congress on the thousands of boats that dock at Iranian ports and the dozens of Iranian planes that make stops at airports around the world. Those reporting requirements “will impose serious time burdens on the Intelligence Community and sanctions officers,” the White House said in the e-mail.

Too few loopholes and escape routes; too much accountability and work for the White House.

The reason Obama and Netanyahu are often at odds over Iran’s nuclear program is that Netanyahu sees the gap separating Obama’s words and his actions, and he doesn’t like it. Netanyahu also wants assurances on military action, if that’s what it takes, if and when the sanctions fail. Obama’s blasé approach to sanctions indicates the two countries may be working with two different time frames on when Iran would reach what the Israelis refer to as the point of no return.

From the Israeli perspective, an optimist would suggest that Obama isn’t too concerned with sanctions stopping the Iranian program because he is ready and willing to take the requisite action to attempt to crush the program, and doesn’t see the point in alienating the Europeans or other trading partners with onerous sanctions if a.) they are not going to stop the program anyway, and b.) Obama will.

But Obama has obviously not been particularly convincing on this score, as far as Netanyahu is concerned. Obama may be playing his cards close to his chest, but Netanyahu won’t be reassured without seeing his hand. And the pessimist sees something else entirely: an American president who makes lots of campaign promises he doesn’t keep who doesn’t seem to possess any sense of urgency on a matter that, to Israelis, is tied to the very survival of the Jewish state.

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Rice Has Investments in Iranian-Linked Energy Companies

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.

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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.

Some of the companies, including Rice’s largest holding, Royal Dutch Shell, have stopped doing business with Iran but still owe debts to the country. It’s still a concern that Rice kept those investments, and I imagine she’ll have to get rid of them — or better yet, set up a blind trust — if she’s nominated.

The Washington Post reports that information about Rice’s Iran-linked investments was circulated by Republicans on the Hill, and promoted quietly by Democratic staffers, who suggested it would hold up her nomination:

On Thursday, Republicans on Capitol Hill began circulating information about Rice’s investments connected to Iran. Asked about the disclosure revelations, one senior GOP official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the topic, said, “This news adds to the list of questions about Susan Rice — not only her public statements, but now there are broader concerns about her past record.” Democratic staffers also said on condition of anonymity for the same reason that the investments would prompt questions of her if she is nominated.

Another play by John Kerry supporters? Senate Republicans have appeared to be lobbying for their colleague Kerry — another top candidate for secretary of state — over Rice for the past week. The investment story could hurt Rice with conservative hawks and Israel supporters, so it’s notable it broke the same day as Rice’s aggressive defense of Israel at the UN. She seems to be the favored candidate for mainstream Jewish and pro-Israel groups, and it will be interesting to see what impact, if any, this revelation has on that.

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The Mockery of Cuba Sanctions Exceptions

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.”

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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.”

Not surprisingly, the idea of people-to-people and educational exchange appears to be interpreted liberally both by the Obama administration and by travel companies. This past week, I came across a “Journey to Cuba in 2013” brochure by the high-end travel company Travcoa. The brochure outlines a stellar 10-day itinerary, visiting Cienfugos, Santa Clara, Cayo Santa Maria, Remedios, the Bay of Pigs, Havana, and San Luis, all for around $7,000. The tourism must be great, but the educational opportunities appear fleeting: after lunch at a small paladar, the group can talk to its owner; at a small coastal village, talk to fisherman about fishing; visit a school and learn about Cuba’s education system; and visit a Santería priest to learn about the Santería religion. The museum guide at the Bay of Pigs will offer a Cuban perspective of that aborted invasion; while at another museum, guests can learn about Cuba’s efforts to promote literacy. At a Havana night club, tourists can learn about Cuban jazz.

I do not mean to diminish Travcoa—I’ve never been on their tours, but I know a number of people who have and speak very highly of their experience. The company is simply fulfilling a service to meet a demand, and it is not alone in doing so, as any Google search will indicate. The fact of the matter, though, is that the educational exchange the company promotes does not differ much from what tourists on non-educational trips to sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, or Central Asia might do.

Now, the wisdom of Cuba sanctions is another issue. I support the sanctions, and will push back on those who wish to dismantle them simply because they see them as a relic from the past. The major problem with lifting the sanctions at this point is that the main beneficiaries of tourist dollars will not be the Cuban people, but rather the government which owns and operates most of the tourist facilities at which most high-end tourists will stay. Indeed, from what I understand from Cuba watchers, it is not simply the government which is invested most deeply in these facilities but the Cuban military and Raul Castro himself. The idea of pumping money into an aging and decrepit dictatorship risks snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

If the Obama administration is going to lift sanctions, however, it should simply declare its intention to do so, and defend its position against its critics. The idea that it can, however, with sleight of hand and an educational exemption eviscerate the remaining barriers to infusing the Castro regime with hard currency is an insult to intelligence, and diminishes legitimate educational exchanges elsewhere.

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Are European Firms Aiding Iran?

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.

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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.

As to MTN, Danielle Pletka explains why that name should ring a bell.

European efforts to do business in Iran risk sacrificing long-term gain for short-term profit. That companies like Ericsson and, according to Iranian protestors, Nokia have provided technology that Iranians say enable the regime to snoop on dissidents and their communications shows a troubling direction in practical European policy. Attempts to help—sometimes illegally—the regime bypass sanctions provides enough encouragement to the regime to doubt Western resolve. The Iranian belief that the West is all bark and no bite risks spurring the Iranians on to conflict.

Sanctions will not do the trick to discourage such action. Never mind: Both Congress and the White House have a bully pulpit to name and shame these firms, no matter what Russia and China might say at the United Nations, and regardless of how European governments may complain. It’s time to put Europe on notice: Hot air about human rights is meaningless when leading European firms enable the worst elements in the Iranian regime. And when European firms choose the regime over the people, they should never be allowed to hide behind a veil of secrecy.

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Does Biden Speak for the Administration on Iran?

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?”

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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?”

Goldberg writes that Biden “downplayed the importance of confronting Iran,” and calls this a “dramatic, deviation from the administration’s line on Iran.” He notes that Biden was wrong in both substance (an Iranian bomb isn’t that far off when you look at the work they’ve done so far) and tone (yes, it actually is a big deal).

It’s definitely unsettling to hear the vice president dismiss concern over a nuclear Iran as “bluster” and “loose talk,” the same terms used by people like Stephen Walt to smear journalists like Goldberg as warmongers. But was Biden off-message, or just clumsily parroting the administration’s internal sentiment? Keep in mind that “bluster” and “loose talk” were the same two words used by President Obama to dismiss Republican critics of his Iran policy at AIPAC last spring. Kind of a coincidence, no? Recently, Obama also referred to Israeli concern over the nuclear program as “noise.” The difference may just be that Obama phrased his administration’s line a bit more carefully, which wouldn’t be a surprise considering, well … Biden.

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EU Knocks Iran’s Press TV Off the Air

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.

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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.

Not suprisingly, Press TV’s own reaction to the decision was typically bombastic:

The move follows months of jamming of Iranian channels by European satellite companies. It also shows that the European Union does not respect freedom of speech, and spares no efforts to silence the voice of alternative media outlets.

Iranian news channels affected by the decision only aimed to break the West’s monopoly on news broadcast by reflecting the voice of the oppressed people to the world.

The illegal move by Eutelsat SA, therefore, is a step to mute all alternative news outlets representing the voice of the voiceless.

The banishing of Press TV from Europe’s television screens forms part of a wider sanctions package against both Iran and Syria that was implemented by the European Union today. As the Wall Street Journal points out, “The sanctions, aimed at forcing Tehran back to the negotiating table over the nuclear program, target Iranian financial institutions, trade, energy and shipping.”

As welcome as this development is, it begs the question of why the European Union took so long to reach its decision. Reuters hazards a guess:

The EU has lagged the United States in imposing blanket industry bans because it is concerned not to punish ordinary Iranian citizens while inflicting pain on the Tehran government.

This type of vacillating has long characterized the EU’s relationship with Middle Eastern tyrannies (the 27 member bloc is still resisting US entreaties to place Hezbollah on its list of proscribed terrorist organizations), which perhaps explains why the Nobel Peace Prize Committee deemed the EU worthy of this year’s award. But even if we concede that the EU’s concern about sanctions punishing ordinary Iranians is legitimate, how is that possibly a factor in determining whether the official broadcaster of an enemy state should be allowed to reach European citizens?

Indeed, since the infamous London bus campaign, the EU has bypassed several opportunities to shut down Press TV. It could have done so in 2009, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole the presidential election — which would, incidentally, have been the perfect statement of solidarity with the Iranian opposition. It could have done so in 2011, when IAEA chief Yukiya Amano reported that the Iranians had been conducting research aimed at weaponizing their nuclear program. And it could have done so in July of this year, following the monstrous bomb attack on a group of Israeli tourists visiting the resort of Burgos in Bulgaria, an EU member state — but rather than heed American and Israeli intelligence reports that Iran and Hezbollah were behind the attack, the Europeans chose instead to give Tehran the benefit of the doubt.

As a result, the Europeans allowed the Iranians to transmit Press TV’s programming with nary a whisper of protest. Anyone tuning in would have encountered, inter alia, a diet of Holocaust denial, 9/11 “inside job” theories, fawning profiles of obscurities like the American anti-Zionist propagandist Max Blumenthal, and a coterie of aspiring Lord Haw Haws — among them George Galloway, the British Islamist parliamentarian, Lauren Booth, the estranged sister-in-law of Tony Blair, and Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London – whose primary purpose was to fool British broadcasting regulators into thinking that Press TV’s editorial base was in London, not Tehran.

Still, Press TV’s masters can console themselves that while satellite transmission into Europe is no longer an option, there’s always the Internet. The station, for example, maintains an active presence on YouTube. Now, as we know, the White House is not averse to leaning on YouTube when it comes to the “review” of  “offensive” content; next time they make the call, therefore, they might want to flag Press TV.

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Germany’s Double-Dealing on Iran

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?

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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?

Sanctions against those involved in Iran’s nuclear program will not alone change the regime’s mind against the path it is pursuing. The logic of sanctions, however, is to isolate the regime and to demonstrate a united front. With DAAD’s latest agreement, however, the German government appears to be signaling Iran that nothing is beyond the pale, not even dabbling in nuclear weapons technology. As the Iranian regime doubles down on its genocidal rhetoric, it is unfortunate that Berlin pursues such an underhanded policy. It is embarrassing, as well, that the German government has concluded that the White House policy of leading from behind means that they need not worry about chastisement for their double-dealing.

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Decision Time on Iran Fast Approaching

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.

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.

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Don’t Waive Sanctions on 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.

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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.

Likewise, the Iranian Red Crescent has become the mechanism by which the Iranian regime sends aid to the Syrian government. While the Iranian government claims that the shipments are humanitarian in nature, U.S. intelligence suspects that the group is actually providing weaponry and other military equipment.

Suffering in Iran is not the result of an inability of Westerners to send money to that country; rather, it is the result of a regime whose priorities are out-of-whack. If the congressmen truly seek to help the Iranian people, they will not channel money to compromised charities, but instead work to end the far greater suffering brought on Iranian citizens by the regime itself.

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U.S. Support for Iran Strike Rises as MSM Influence Recedes

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.

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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 first was the publication in Foreign Affairs of a particularly insidious accusation against Netanyahu and Israel: the claim by Michael Desch that “Netanyahu is trying to commit the United States to fighting a preventive war on Israel’s behalf.” The second was when Netanyahu held up a picture of a bomb at his UN General Assembly speech and the media lost its collective mind, with liberal opinion writers so distressed by the fact that the bomb was drawn in anachronistic style that they were left mumbling incoherently to themselves about children’s cartoons. That latter story faded quickly when Netanyahu’s picture soon accompanied the front-page story of nearly every major news service, and Buzzfeed patiently explained to the outraged writers how modern media works, revealing that the joke was on them.

But the former story is a pernicious belief in the theory of the shadowy “Israel Lobby” willing to sacrifice American lives for Israel’s security. On that front, we received some good news yesterday when the results of the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll were released, showing that Americans do not buy into the idea that the budding Iranian nuclear weapons program is a threat only to Israel and that Israel is on its own. The poll asked the following question: “If Iran continues with its nuclear research and is close to developing a nuclear weapon, do you believe that the United States should or should not initiate military action to destroy Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons?” A majority of 58 percent said the United States should initiate military action to stop Iran’s nuclear program, with 33 percent opposed. As the following chart accompanying the poll shows, those numbers are a high and low respectively on this question since 2006:

Leftist journalists may mock Netanyahu’s sometimes simplistic visual devices, but no one has worked harder over the last fifteen years to raise the issue of Iran’s nuclear program in the West and keep it on the press’s radar screen. Netanyahu has also been the most consistent proponent of sanctions—not military action—to stop the program. Yet the media has largely missed that story while beating the drums of war. On that note, we have seen in the last two weeks another story crop up: that Netanyahu has suddenly decided to support sanctions. As Jonathan noted, both Haaretz and the New York Times made this mistake, and the Times does so again in today’s paper.

Netanyahu will be visiting European capitals to push for more sanctions, and the media thinks his dedication to sanctions is new. It’s not. Netanyahu has always preferred a diplomatic solution to the Iranian threat; he believes, however, that a credible threat of force will boost the diplomatic strategy, and that if all else fails, no option should be taken off the table to stop Iran. President Obama has said the same thing. As such, it’s a bit disconcerting to watch the media argue that Netanyahu and Obama are on the same page in terms of strategy and toughness on Iran, but also that Obama is patient and careful while Netanyahu is supposedly an out-of-control warmonger for agreeing with the Wise Man of Peace Obama.

That cognitive dissonance is largely the product of reporters allowing their personal preferences and emotions to dictate the tone of their reporting. Sometimes this results in embarrassing Twitter tantrums, such as the one during the UNGA. Most of the time, however, it manifests in lousy reporting that bounces off the walls of the media’s echo chamber. In the age of new and alternative media, it seems, the American public has become increasingly inured to such histrionics and able, as the WSJ/NBC poll shows, to see things as they are.

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Iranian Currency Crashes

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.

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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.

The real danger is that, given the Iranian government’s dependence on high oil prices to subsidize basic foodstuffs and gasoline, that government will now lash out in order to create a price spike which they can take to the bank. This might mean renewed threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, or it could mean provoking an incident against a foreign tanker or American vessel in the Persian Gulf. In no way, however, will it increase the likelihood of Iran negotiating sincerely.

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Time to Discard Liberal Caricature of Bibi

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:

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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:

I urge you to step back and clarify your remarks so that the world sees that there is no daylight between the United States and Israel. As you personally stated during an appearance with President Obama in March, “We are you, and you are us. We’re together. So if there’s one thing that stands out clearly in the Middle East today, it’s that Israel and America stand together.”

Thank you for that statement. I am hoping to hear that statement again.

At the heart of this controversy is the ignorant assumption, produced by a suspicious liberal establishment that seems willing to believe just about anything about Netanyahu, that the prime minister’s statements and actions are designed not to protect his own people from nuclear annihilation but from a desire to meddle in the American election. They worry he’s trying to influence the election and may be contemplating going to war with Iran to achieve that end.

But the truth is, as usual, much more mundane. Netanyahu simply understands the value of having a credible threat of force to back up sanctions and diplomacy. Rather than encourage military conflict, Netanyahu has been working to convince the West to enact tough sanctions for the last decade and a half, in order to prevent the necessity of war.

This is in keeping with Netanyahu’s general demeanor. The caricature of him in the American press as a right-wing ideologue could not be farther from the truth. In Israel, he is perceived as just the opposite—a cautious pragmatist who prioritizes stability over everything else. This is not always meant as a compliment in Israel; indeed, many Israelis wish they could say Bibi was “on their side.”

In Israel achieving a stable Knesset coalition is difficult–and maintaining one even more so—but is also beneficial to a populace that at times tires of the permanent campaigning that takes place when coalitions crumble every two years. Neither the settlers nor the left may see Netanyahu as an ideological ally, but they appreciate, at least, his even-tempered disposition that usually keeps the country out of trouble–and war.

And on that last point, it’s instructive to look back at Netanyahu’s two premierships. He has been as reluctant to use the military as any modern Israeli prime minister, and perhaps even more reluctant than most. Some of this is surely circumstantial—he wasn’t in office during the Palestinian intifadas, for example. But he has always been the opposite of a warmonger.

This lends him some credibility at home, then, when the issue of Iran’s nuclear program arises. As the New York Times discovered, “Israelis were generally sympathetic to Mr. Netanyahu even as they mulled the possible damage to ties with the White House.” Netanyahu’s rift with President Obama, they understand, stems in large part from his desire to keep Israel out of war.

Additionally, the idea that any Israeli leader would be more inclined to strike during an American presidential election does not pass the laugh test. Israeli history leads to the opposite conclusion—just look at how the Israelis wrapped up their Gaza counteroffensive in January 2009 in time for Obama’s swearing-in ceremony, declaring a unilateral ceasefire and beginning their withdrawal two days before the event. Israelis may not prioritize the opinion of the “international community” over their own self-defense, but they certainly take American opinion into consideration. Boxer’s letter to Netanyahu is predicated on an alternate reality that exists only in the minds of liberals, and deserves to be discarded rather than indulged.

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Attack the Embassy? No Visas for You

Americans may think about U.S. embassies in terms of diplomats meeting with foreign officials and negotiating on items of U.S. national interest, but for most locals, the embassy and its attached consulate is just the place one needs to go to get a visa. Whereas most Europeans and some other nationals can get visa requirements waived, the process throughout the Middle East is onerous, involving interviews and background checks and can take weeks.

If locals attack the U.S. embassy, one response should be easy: Closing the consulates. There is no reason why U.S. diplomats should put themselves at risk for the convenience of nationals whose governments refuse to abide by their commitment to protect diplomats and diplomatic property. This does not by any means ban Egyptians, Yemenis, or Libyans from receiving American visas, but like their Iranian counterparts, it would force them to travel to a neighboring country—sometimes repeatedly—to undertake the visa application and interview process. Let Libyans travel to Tunis or Egyptians and Yemenis to Jeddah. If they can’t afford the trip, too bad.

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Americans may think about U.S. embassies in terms of diplomats meeting with foreign officials and negotiating on items of U.S. national interest, but for most locals, the embassy and its attached consulate is just the place one needs to go to get a visa. Whereas most Europeans and some other nationals can get visa requirements waived, the process throughout the Middle East is onerous, involving interviews and background checks and can take weeks.

If locals attack the U.S. embassy, one response should be easy: Closing the consulates. There is no reason why U.S. diplomats should put themselves at risk for the convenience of nationals whose governments refuse to abide by their commitment to protect diplomats and diplomatic property. This does not by any means ban Egyptians, Yemenis, or Libyans from receiving American visas, but like their Iranian counterparts, it would force them to travel to a neighboring country—sometimes repeatedly—to undertake the visa application and interview process. Let Libyans travel to Tunis or Egyptians and Yemenis to Jeddah. If they can’t afford the trip, too bad.

Such a sanction is reversible. The State Department could return visa services to such countries after their governments prosecute those who violated the embassy and when host countries make restitution to the United States for the attack on its property. It should be a priority to identify those criminals involved in the riots and attacks. Those who attack the embassy—and their immediate families—should be banned in perpetuity from any U.S. visa, be it for medical reasons, education, or tourism. It is shameful that no such sanction, for example, exists for Iranians involved in the hostage crisis. Under no circumstance should U.S. consular officials risk their lives to convenience countries in which mobs violate American embassies and consulates.

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