Commentary Magazine


Topic: Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Rocket Force

When it comes to the Arab world, Norman Cigar, research fellow at the Marine Corps University, is one of my favorite analysts and writers. His Arabic is great, and his research often taps resources and tackles subjects other writers and academics ignore.

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When it comes to the Arab world, Norman Cigar, research fellow at the Marine Corps University, is one of my favorite analysts and writers. His Arabic is great, and his research often taps resources and tackles subjects other writers and academics ignore.

Such is the case with his latest report (.pdf), “Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Rocket Force: The Silent Service,” published last month by Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University, but just showing up in my mailbox yesterday.

Cigar traces the birth of Saudi Arabia’s strategic rocket force in purchases three decades ago from China taken against the backdrop of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and outbreak of Iran-Iraq War. Why China? The Reagan administration, the AWACs sale notwithstanding, refused Saudi requests to purchase American missiles.

Saudi Arabia quickly came to appreciate the benefits of building a strategic rocket force. Drawing from Arabic sources, Cigar writes, “The Saudis have continued to view SSMs [surface-to-surface missiles] as an effective and cost-effective weapon system, with one senior officer highlighting SSMs’ speed, range, accuracy, the difficulty of defending against them, their relative lower cost compared to airpower, and ‘the ability to carry warheads with immense destructive power and great lethality, especially nuclear and chemical ones.’”

The report continues to examine Saudi operational thinking and Saudi concepts of deterrence. And while so much in Saudi Arabia is superficial or for show only, Cigar convincingly shows that this is not the case with Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Rocket Force. After all, rather than simply purchase some shiny missiles here and there to be unveiled during parades and on national days, the Saudis have built up a formidable infrastructure to support their missile program, including multiple bases as well as support and maintenance facilities.

With some of its arsenal aging, Cigar also traces reports that Saudi Arabia might have sought to finance Egyptian missile purchases from Russia with the intent of acquiring those missiles themselves, perhaps even for a strike against Iran. However, as Cigar notes, Saudi efforts to upgrade its missile arsenal also suggest a Plan B in case Iran does go nuclear: Not a strike against Iran, but rather quickly matching or exceeding Iran’s capabilities, perhaps by purchasing nuclear technology, while having the same or even better means to deliver nuclear warheads.

The whole report is worth reading. Saudi Arabia might now appear “moderate” but that has less to do with real reform inside the Kingdom than its juxtaposition with more radical groups such as ISIS and the Taliban, as well as the increasing promotion of radicalism by Qatar and Turkey. Stability is far from certain within Saudi Arabia as the monarchy—traditionally passed from brother to brother—approaches a generational change with all the attendant incumbent factional struggle. What is pro-Western today could be reactionary tomorrow. That does not mean undue pessimism is warranted: Saudi Arabia could continue to promote responsible leadership in the region and transform itself into a force for stability. Regardless, Saudi Arabia’s growing strategic rocket force, should certainly be on the radar of anyone following regional threats and balance of power. Thank you, Norman Cigar and the Marine Corps University, for ensuring this topic received a full airing.

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Has Saudi Arabia Really Become Moderate?

Saudi Arabia has been an ally of the United States since that fateful day almost 70 years ago when President Franklin Roosevelt met King Saud on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal as Roosevelt returned from the Yalta Conference. Saudi Arabia was the only World War II non-combatant to take part in the Lend Lease program. And the relationship strengthened over subsequent decades alongside a deepening energy partnership. At times, Saudi Arabia has been a crucial ally–for example, during Operation Desert Storm. But these instances of assistance pale in comparison to the damage Saudi Arabia has done in the region with its promotion and support of the most extreme and violent interpretations of Islam. To be blunt, Saudi Arabia has been just as corrosive to regional stability over the last decades as has the Islamic Republic of Iran. Only in recent years, as Saudi Arabia has begun to experience blowback from its own support of extremism abroad, has it begun to take the cancer of radicalism more seriously.

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Saudi Arabia has been an ally of the United States since that fateful day almost 70 years ago when President Franklin Roosevelt met King Saud on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal as Roosevelt returned from the Yalta Conference. Saudi Arabia was the only World War II non-combatant to take part in the Lend Lease program. And the relationship strengthened over subsequent decades alongside a deepening energy partnership. At times, Saudi Arabia has been a crucial ally–for example, during Operation Desert Storm. But these instances of assistance pale in comparison to the damage Saudi Arabia has done in the region with its promotion and support of the most extreme and violent interpretations of Islam. To be blunt, Saudi Arabia has been just as corrosive to regional stability over the last decades as has the Islamic Republic of Iran. Only in recent years, as Saudi Arabia has begun to experience blowback from its own support of extremism abroad, has it begun to take the cancer of radicalism more seriously.

But while Saudi Arabia now portrays itself as moderate and responsible, and while many supporters of Israel concerned by Iran reconsider the role of Saudi Arabia in the region, ugly episodes, such as the the sentencing of Shi‘ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr to death, remind us just how sectarian and ideological the Saudi Kingdom is. In June, my American Enterprise Institute colleague Ahmad Majidyar and I published a short monograph surveying regional Shi‘ite communities outside Iran. We noted both the legitimate grievances many of these communities have and their efforts to maintain their autonomy from Iran. Many Shi‘ites despise the Islamic Republic and to paint all Shi‘ites as Fifth Columnists is counterproductive. To turn a blind eye to repression of Shi‘ites in countries like Saudi Arabia is to play into Iranian propaganda and give these communities no recourse but to turn to Iran for protection.

Saudi Arabia is as bigoted a country as Turkey or Qatar, its recent attempts to paint a moderate image notwithstanding. It can never become a moderate, responsible partner so long as its embrace of sectarianism trumps tolerance and rule-of-law. Let us hope that Saudi authorities are not so shortsighted as to execute—murder would be as appropriate a term—Sheikh Nimr. And if they do carry out the sentence, Saudi Arabia deserves no support when it faces the storm that follows. It is time to calibrate U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia not to that country’s money and oil but rather to its behavior and willingness to undo the damage it has done over the past half century.

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Obama’s Coalition of the Unwilling

After President Obama rallied the nation to an effort to destroy the ISIS terrorist group, Secretary of State John Kerry headed straight to the Middle East to solidify the coalition of allies that his boss had said was necessary to conduct the conflict in a manner that would not be confused for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But judging by the initial reactions of the nations Obama is counting on to help, the war isn’t going so well.

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After President Obama rallied the nation to an effort to destroy the ISIS terrorist group, Secretary of State John Kerry headed straight to the Middle East to solidify the coalition of allies that his boss had said was necessary to conduct the conflict in a manner that would not be confused for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But judging by the initial reactions of the nations Obama is counting on to help, the war isn’t going so well.

Under Obama’s formulation, the fight against ISIS would not involve U.S. ground troops but would rather than be a joint effort in which the U.S. would facilitate a broad alliance of nations, to eliminate a threat to the security of the region as well as to the United States. But the joint communiqué issued by the U.S. and ten Arab nations whose representatives met with Kerry today in Jidda, Saudi Arabia produced nothing resembling the alliance Obama envisaged. While George W. Bush characterized the nations that he led to war in Iraq as a “coalition of the willing,” the one that Obama will lead against ISIS is very a “coalition of the unwilling.”

The Jidda meeting made clear that while Obama would like the Arab and Muslim worlds to take an active, if not leading role in the struggle against ISIS, they have no such intentions. Though the countries in attendance at the meeting said they would “do their share,” they clearly have a rather limited definition of that expression. None said what they would do to aid the cause and it has yet to be seen whether any of them would join the U.S. in deploying air power against ISIS. Even worse, Turkey, a key neighboring country, wouldn’t even sign the communiqué because it feared to anger ISIS, lest Turkish hostages in their hands be harmed. But, as Michael Rubin wrote here earlier, the Turks may be more worried about any arms coming in to help those fighting ISIS will eventually wind up in the hands of Syrian Kurds who are aligned with the PKK group that fights for Kurdish rights in Turkey.

The Turks are, however, just one problem. A bigger obstacle to the construction of the kind of fighting alliance that Obama spoke of is the fact that most of these nations simply do not trust the president. Egypt is clearly one such nation. The Egyptians military government has had some bad experiences with the Obama administration and is convinced that if the president had his way, the Muslim Brotherhood would still be ruling in Cairo. Others, including some Iraqi Sunnis who remain in harm’s way if ISIS isn’t stopped, simply don’t identify with the battle against the terror group in the way that Obama envisaged.

This is in part the fruit of Obama’s lead from behind strategy in the last six years. But it is also evidence that the president’s faith in multilateralism and belief that wars can be won on the cheap is a tragic mistake.

The problem here is more than Obama’s unrealistic notions of how wars can be successfully fought or one more instance of Kerry’s inept diplomacy. The most disturbing news out of the conflict isn’t just the reluctance of Arab nations to take the ISIS threat as seriously as Americans do even though the terrorist army poses a direct threat to the future of those governments. It is that ISIS is clearly perceived by many in the Arab and Muslim worlds as winning. As long as the terrorists are perceived as “the strong horse,” to use the title of Lee Smith’s valuable book about the Middle East, they are going to be able to attract recruits and more cash. The brutal murders of two American journalists horrified Westerners but were also perceived by some Muslims, both in the region and in the countries now being asked to fight ISIS, as ideal recruiting videos. Mere statements of support from Arab governments or even some Muslim clerics won’t alter that view of what ISIS considers a war, even if Kerry doesn’t.

While some writers like David Ignatius of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times, think the president’s “reluctant warrior” approach is useful, the Muslim world seems to have a different opinion. If Obama is going to do something to reverse these perceptions, it is going to take more than the halfway measures he spoke of on Wednesday or a coalition in which America is not prepared to do more than bomb from afar.

The basic problem remains a terrorist threat that Obama considers serious enough to justify a major effort by the United States but which he expects to be defeat by troops from other nations that may not be quite so eager to engage the enemy. Until the administration figures out a strategy that will make it clear that it is America that remains the strong horse in the region — something that Obama specifically seems uninterested in doing — expecting a good outcome from any of this for the United States may be wishful thinking.

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Why the Resurgence of Beheading in Islam?

The SITE Intelligence Group, a subscription service which provides the best coverage of jihadi chat forums and media, has now posted the video of ISIS beheading captive American journalist Steven Sotloff, whom ISIS had threatened to execute in the wake of its beheading of James Foley. To my untrained eye, it’s unclear whether Sotloff had been executed immediately following Foley, with the video only released now, or whether it is a fresh video. That said, the rash of beheadings that began with the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 and continued through the Iraq war, certainly renews focus on the practice and radical Islamism.

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The SITE Intelligence Group, a subscription service which provides the best coverage of jihadi chat forums and media, has now posted the video of ISIS beheading captive American journalist Steven Sotloff, whom ISIS had threatened to execute in the wake of its beheading of James Foley. To my untrained eye, it’s unclear whether Sotloff had been executed immediately following Foley, with the video only released now, or whether it is a fresh video. That said, the rash of beheadings that began with the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 and continued through the Iraq war, certainly renews focus on the practice and radical Islamism.

Almost a decade ago, while I was editing the Middle East Quarterly, I published an insightful article by Timothy Furnish entitled, “Beheading in the Name of Islam.” While some more radical Islamic advocacy organizations like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) bend over backwards to obfuscate the links between such acts of violence and religion, the truth lies in the interpretation of religious texts espoused by more radical elements.

Furnish explains, “Sura (chapter) 47 contains the ayah (verse): ‘When you encounter the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads until you have crushed them completely; then bind the prisoners tightly.’” He then explains the history of the exegesis:

The famous Iranian historian and Qur’an commentator Muhammad b. Jarir at-Tabari (d. 923 C.E.) wrote that “striking at the necks” is simply God’s sanction of ferocious opposition to non-Muslims. Mahmud b. Umar az-Zamakhshari (d. 1143 C.E.), in a major commentary studied for centuries by Sunni religious scholars, suggested that any prescription to “strike at the necks” commands to avoid striking elsewhere so as to confirm death and not simply wound…

Literalism with regard to the interpretation of this passage was re-introduced in relatively recent times:

In his Saudi-distributed translation of the Qur’an, ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali (d. 1953) wrote that the injunction to “smite at their necks,” should be taken both literally and figuratively. “You cannot wage war with kid gloves,” Yusuf ‘Ali argued… Perhaps the most influential modern recapitulation of this passage was provided by the influential Pakistani scholar and leading Islamist thinker S. Abul A’ la Mawdudi (d. 1979), who argued that the sura provided the first Qur’anic prescriptions on the laws of war. Mawdudi argued, “Under no circumstances should the Muslim lose sight of this aim and start taking the enemy soldiers as captives. Captives should be taken after the enemy has been completely crushed.”

What is striking to me with regard to the evolution of interpretation is how it has hardened with time. For that, the world has no one to blame but Saudi Arabia which has, for decades, done everything possible to distribute the Yusuf ‘Ali interpretation of the Koran which, thanks to Saudi Arabia’s generous subsidies, remains perhaps the most widely-available version of the Koran not only in the English-speaking world, but across the Sunni world as well.

Bernard Lewis, the greatest living historian of the Middle East, once made the following analogy:

The Wahhabi branch of Islam is very fanatical, to the extent of being totally intolerant, very oppressive of women, and so on. Two things happened in the 20th century that gave Wahhabis enormous importance. One of them was that sheikhs of the House of Saud, who were Wahhabis, and their followers obtained control of the holy places of Islam — Mecca and Medina — which gave them enormous prestige in the Muslim world. And second, probably more important, they controlled the oil wells and the immense resources those gave them. Imagine that the Ku Klux Klan gets total control of the state of Texas. And the Ku Klux Klan has at its disposal all the oil rigs in Texas. And they use this money to set up a well-endowed network of colleges and schools throughout Christendom, peddling their peculiar brand of Christianity. You would then have an approximate equivalent of what has happened in the modern Muslim world.

What we are seeing now is not the natural evolution of Islam, but rather the result of decades of Saudi-fueled hatred. Many Saudi officials may have recognized that their financing of radical Islam has gone too far and may seek a more productive role—especially vis-à-vis unrepentant Qatar—but it is important to recognize that interpretations have changed over time to allow the murders within ISIS to justify their cruelty and crimes in Islam.

The question which both Muslims and non-Muslims must then answer is: How can decades of well-funded radicalism be undone? It’s not going to happen with Oval Office pronouncements, art therapy, or snake-oil de-radicalization programs. It will happen with a concerted, decades-long, well-financed operation to change hearts and minds. That investment, alas, must come from within the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia has yet to put its money where it mouth is and, regardless, no country other than perhaps Morocco appears ready to give the promotion of moderation beyond its borders a serious try.

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A Clear-Eyed Assessment of ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is certainly a growing menace–in fact the most immediate threat that we face in the Middle East. And a formidable threat it is, having taken control of an area the size of the United Kingdom in Syria and Iraq. Its fighters are estimated to number as many as 17,000, and, after having looted Iraqi stockpiles, they are well equipped both with weapons (many of them Made in America) and money. ISIS has just demonstrated its growing reach by seizing the Tabqa air base from Bashar Assad’s regime, thus giving it effective control of Raqqa province in Syria where its de facto capital is located. But let’s not exaggerate the power that they possess.

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The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is certainly a growing menace–in fact the most immediate threat that we face in the Middle East. And a formidable threat it is, having taken control of an area the size of the United Kingdom in Syria and Iraq. Its fighters are estimated to number as many as 17,000, and, after having looted Iraqi stockpiles, they are well equipped both with weapons (many of them Made in America) and money. ISIS has just demonstrated its growing reach by seizing the Tabqa air base from Bashar Assad’s regime, thus giving it effective control of Raqqa province in Syria where its de facto capital is located. But let’s not exaggerate the power that they possess.

The Guardian quotes one “regional diplomat” (whoever that may be) as saying:

The Islamic State is now the most capable military power in the Middle East outside Israel. They can determine outcomes in a few days that the Syrian rebels took two years to influence. Their capacity is in sharp contrast to the Syrian regime, which is only able to fight one battle at a time and has to fight hard for every success.

In the first two months of its life, the so-called Caliphate has achieved unparalleled success. It is in the process of creating foundations for substantial financial, military and political growth. It is the best equipped and most capable terror group in the world. It is unlike anything we have ever seen.

It’s true that ISIS has become the most capable terror group in the world–and far from the “junior varsity” that President Obama labeled it. But let’s put that achievement into perspective. As I argued in my book, Invisible Armies, terrorist groups are generally less capable than guerrilla forces, which are generally less capable than conventional armies. (Possessing weapons of mass destruction can upend that hierarchy but ISIS thankfully doesn’t have any WMD–yet.) Pretty much all terrorist groups aspire to become guerrilla armies, which in turn aspire to become conventional armies. In other words, calling a group the most powerful terrorist force in the world is akin to saying that a baseball team is the best in the minor leagues–it’s not the same thing as suggesting that it can beat the New York Yankees.

True, ISIS has been trying to progress from being merely a terrorist group to being a guerrilla and even a conventional army that is capable of seizing and holding terrain. It is also trying to develop a rudimentary administrative capacity to administer all the territory it has seized. And it has been making some dismaying leaps in capability, but it also displays considerable weakness.

Look, for example, how easily it was driven away from Mosul Dam by Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers with the help of U.S. airpower. As I have previously argued, the beheading of James Foley was another act of desperation designed to show that the group is still relevant. So too of news that it has just executed its own intelligence chief in Aleppo on suspicion of being a British spy–whether the charge was true or not, it is a sign of ISIS’s weakness and the extent it is feeling the strain of even the very limited counteroffensive it has encountered in northern Iraq.

To speak of ISIS in the same breath as the IDF–one of the most professional and capable military forces in the world, with 176,000 active-duty personnel, nearly 4,000 tanks and 10,000 armed fighting vehicles, almost 700 aircraft, 110 navy ships, and, lest we forget, nuclear weapons–is laughable. As a fighting force ISIS doesn’t even stack up very well with the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iran, or Saudi Arabia (although the latter is the weakest of the bunch): any one of those could crush ISIS if it were fighting on its home soil. The reason ISIS has looked so formidable is that it is operating in the territory of two states, Syria and Iraq, which have seen a calamitous breakdown in central government authority. Its gains to date are more a reflection of the weakness of Bashar Assad and Nouri al Maliki than of its intrinsic strength.

While ISIS is a clear and present danger to the U.S. and its allies, let’s not make these black-clad jihadist fanatics out to be ten-foot-tall supermen. ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, was soundly thrashed in Iraq in 2007-2008 and it could be again if the U.S. got serious about destroying it.

So far, alas, there is no such sign of seriousness coming from the White House, which continues to dither as ISIS gains new ground. The longer we wait to deal with ISIS, the more formidable it will get and the harder to dismantle.

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When Terrorists Tweet

My 1999 Ph.D. dissertation examined the introduction of the telegraph to 19th century Iran. At first, the Shah supported the telegraph: the wires made the Iranian government more efficient in a time of dwindling resources and power. Over the years, however, the opposition learned what a powerful tool the telegraph could be. The late-19th century was a time of battle for the new technology as both the government and opposition fought for the upper hand. Ultimately, the opposition won: the government lost its communications monopoly and the opposition was able to organize a mass movement culminating in a constitution revolution. There was a financial side to the technology as well: For much of the 19th century, Iran did not use paper money. It had done so once under the Mongols, but that experiment had failed. Caravans carried tons of coin over weeks in order to complete transactions. With the telegraph, however, various agents could complete trades in a matter of hours, with money changing hands not in Tehran but in London and St. Petersburg.

Twitter and other social media tools are the 21st century equivalent of that 19th century technology. They have empowered ordinary citizens in their fight for freedom and liberty against oppressive governments like those in Turkey, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Twitter was also a powerful tool, of course, in the Arab Spring protests that led to the ouster of dictators like Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Too often, however, Twitter is depicted as a panacea just as the telegraph once was 150 years ago. In the wrong hands Twitter can be used to undercut life and liberty as terrorists embrace the technology to raise funds and solicit support.

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My 1999 Ph.D. dissertation examined the introduction of the telegraph to 19th century Iran. At first, the Shah supported the telegraph: the wires made the Iranian government more efficient in a time of dwindling resources and power. Over the years, however, the opposition learned what a powerful tool the telegraph could be. The late-19th century was a time of battle for the new technology as both the government and opposition fought for the upper hand. Ultimately, the opposition won: the government lost its communications monopoly and the opposition was able to organize a mass movement culminating in a constitution revolution. There was a financial side to the technology as well: For much of the 19th century, Iran did not use paper money. It had done so once under the Mongols, but that experiment had failed. Caravans carried tons of coin over weeks in order to complete transactions. With the telegraph, however, various agents could complete trades in a matter of hours, with money changing hands not in Tehran but in London and St. Petersburg.

Twitter and other social media tools are the 21st century equivalent of that 19th century technology. They have empowered ordinary citizens in their fight for freedom and liberty against oppressive governments like those in Turkey, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Twitter was also a powerful tool, of course, in the Arab Spring protests that led to the ouster of dictators like Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Too often, however, Twitter is depicted as a panacea just as the telegraph once was 150 years ago. In the wrong hands Twitter can be used to undercut life and liberty as terrorists embrace the technology to raise funds and solicit support.

Alas, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are together showing how such technology can be used to kill rather than save helpless populations. Saudi cleric Abdullah al-Muhaisani, who regularly uses Youtube to solicit funding for Al Qaeda-linked extremists in Syria, has now taken to Twitter to raise money for an Al Qaeda-style jihad. He is not shy about listing the Qatari and Turkish phone numbers to collect the pledges. That, of course, is simply further evidence that those two nominal U.S. allies are complicit in supporting terror.

(When I was in Syria in January, most everyone relied on Turkish cell phones, as it seemed that Turkey had bolstered its network’s power in order to cover more of northern Syria than it did before the conflict. Turkey therefore has good intelligence on almost everything occurring in that region of Syria, including the activities of the Nusra Front and the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham).

Al-Muhaisani’s feed is illuminating: According to this tweet, 650 Saudi riyals (about $175) buys 150 Kalashnikov bullets or 50 sniper bullets. Muhaisani’s official twitter account has almost 300,000 followers.

In the right hands, Twitter is a wonderful tool that threatens the autocratic monopoly over information and assembly. But, in the wrong hands, it enables terrorists to become more active and more lethal. The answer is not to ban the technology, but to monitor it closely. There is no need to tap it: Simply following it can provide an intelligence trove. Let us hope that the U.S. government and its counter-terror analysts will never be so gun shy, nor American diplomats too language-poor to tune into a source that is far more illuminating than so many of the classified cables that the likes of Edward Snowden dealt in.

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Is Turkey Next to Face Al-Qaeda Threat?

Over the last couple decades, a pattern has emerged: Governments tolerate if not encourage Islamist extremism, so long as the jihadists, takfiris, radicals, militants, or whatever the name of the day is understand the devil’s bargain: They can be as radical as they want, so long as their terrorism is for export only.

Hence, for decades, Saudi princes pumped money into the coffers of extremist groups and eventually al-Qaeda, immune to criticism from the outside world. Even after 9/11, the Saudi royal family was decidedly insincere in its approach toward terrorism. It was only after al-Qaeda turned its guns on Saudi Arabia itself that the king and his princes woke up to the danger that it posed.

Likewise, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while nurturing a reputation as a secularist, flirted with extremists. His father Hafez al-Assad may have crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982 but, contrary to Tom Friedman’s caricature of Assad and his so-called “Hama Rules,” he was not simply a brute with zero tolerance toward Islamism. Rather, Hafez al-Assad was a brute who almost immediately after his massacre began trying to co-opt the survivors. He and, subsequently, his son Bashar quietly began to tolerate greater Islamic conservatism. Bashar went farther and actively supported jihadists so long as they kept their jihad external to Syria. Hence, Syria became the underground railroad for Islamist terrorists infiltrating into Iraq to rain chaos against not only American servicemen, but far more ordinary Iraqi citizens. That Islamists co-opted the uprising against Bashar al-Assad should not surprise: There is always blowback.

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Over the last couple decades, a pattern has emerged: Governments tolerate if not encourage Islamist extremism, so long as the jihadists, takfiris, radicals, militants, or whatever the name of the day is understand the devil’s bargain: They can be as radical as they want, so long as their terrorism is for export only.

Hence, for decades, Saudi princes pumped money into the coffers of extremist groups and eventually al-Qaeda, immune to criticism from the outside world. Even after 9/11, the Saudi royal family was decidedly insincere in its approach toward terrorism. It was only after al-Qaeda turned its guns on Saudi Arabia itself that the king and his princes woke up to the danger that it posed.

Likewise, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while nurturing a reputation as a secularist, flirted with extremists. His father Hafez al-Assad may have crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982 but, contrary to Tom Friedman’s caricature of Assad and his so-called “Hama Rules,” he was not simply a brute with zero tolerance toward Islamism. Rather, Hafez al-Assad was a brute who almost immediately after his massacre began trying to co-opt the survivors. He and, subsequently, his son Bashar quietly began to tolerate greater Islamic conservatism. Bashar went farther and actively supported jihadists so long as they kept their jihad external to Syria. Hence, Syria became the underground railroad for Islamist terrorists infiltrating into Iraq to rain chaos against not only American servicemen, but far more ordinary Iraqi citizens. That Islamists co-opted the uprising against Bashar al-Assad should not surprise: There is always blowback.

Iraq experienced much the same phenomenon: Islamist extremism did not begin with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003; it predated it. That “Allahu Akhbar” appeared on Iraq’s flag in the wake of the 1991 uprising was no coincidence. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein established morality squads which, in order to appease Islamist feelings, conducted activities such as beheading women for alleged morality infractions. It was a short leap for some young radicals in al-Anbar in 2003 to start waging violence in the name of religion against Iraqi Shi’ites when, in the decade previous, Saddam Hussein encouraged them to do much the same thing.

So who is next? If I were a Turk living in Istanbul or Ankara, I would be very worried about al-Qaeda violence on my doorstep. Istanbul, of course, has already been subject to al-Qaeda attacks but nothing compared to what could be on the horizon. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has remained uncomfortably close to al-Qaeda financiers. Turkey has also been quite supportive of the Nusra Front and perhaps even the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), so long as they targeted Syria’s secular Kurds. Now, after months of denial, it now appears that a suicide bombing in Reyhanli, which the Turkish government blamed on the Syrian regime, was in fact conducted by Syria’s al-Qaeda-linked opposition.

The Turkish government may have thought—like the Saudis, Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis, and others before them—that they could channel al-Qaeda or that group’s fellow-travelers against their strategic adversaries. They were wrong. When al-Qaeda comes to Turkey, whether this year, next, or in 2016, Turks should understand that the man who effectively invited them was none other than Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

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State Dept. Sides with Hamas Funders

Though it is no longer called the “war on terror,” the Obama administration has been eager to be seen as a scourge of international terrorism. It has continued many of the Bush administration’s security policies with regard to seeking intelligence on terror groups and has been so aggressive about pursuing a policy of assassinating terrorists that liberals like Ron Wyden and libertarians like Rand Paul have attacked it. But when it comes to shutting down the financing of some terrorists, the administration is something of a house divided. As the New York Times reports today, the State Department is pressuring the Department of Justice to intervene on behalf of a Jordanian bank in a federal lawsuit in which it stands accused of funneling money to terrorists who killed Americans. Apparently, Foggy Bottom wants the administration to support the Arab Bank’s effort to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn sanctions imposed by a lower court because of the financial institution’s refusal to hand over customer records.

While this sounds like a complicated litigation, the issues at stake here are not difficult to comprehend. At issue is whether the United States will ignore the standards it has applied to other terror-related cases as well as its past stands on foreign bank secrecy rules in order to help get a bank owned by friendly Arabs off the hook for their role in funding the murder of American citizens. If President Obama’s solicitor general does what the State Department is asking him to do, it will mean the nation is not only turning its back on American victims of Hamas terrorism. It will also show that the administration’s much ballyhooed toughness on terror doesn’t apply to its efforts to bring supporters of Palestinian murderers to justice.

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Though it is no longer called the “war on terror,” the Obama administration has been eager to be seen as a scourge of international terrorism. It has continued many of the Bush administration’s security policies with regard to seeking intelligence on terror groups and has been so aggressive about pursuing a policy of assassinating terrorists that liberals like Ron Wyden and libertarians like Rand Paul have attacked it. But when it comes to shutting down the financing of some terrorists, the administration is something of a house divided. As the New York Times reports today, the State Department is pressuring the Department of Justice to intervene on behalf of a Jordanian bank in a federal lawsuit in which it stands accused of funneling money to terrorists who killed Americans. Apparently, Foggy Bottom wants the administration to support the Arab Bank’s effort to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn sanctions imposed by a lower court because of the financial institution’s refusal to hand over customer records.

While this sounds like a complicated litigation, the issues at stake here are not difficult to comprehend. At issue is whether the United States will ignore the standards it has applied to other terror-related cases as well as its past stands on foreign bank secrecy rules in order to help get a bank owned by friendly Arabs off the hook for their role in funding the murder of American citizens. If President Obama’s solicitor general does what the State Department is asking him to do, it will mean the nation is not only turning its back on American victims of Hamas terrorism. It will also show that the administration’s much ballyhooed toughness on terror doesn’t apply to its efforts to bring supporters of Palestinian murderers to justice.

The case, Linde v. Arab Bank, revolves around the efforts of relatives of Americans killed by Hamas terrorists during the second intifada to use the federal Anti-Terrorism Act to bring those who funded the Islamist terror group to book for aiding and abetting these atrocities.

As the Israeli Law Center, the group that has pursued a relentless and courageous campaign to hold terror funders accountable, notes on its website:

The Arab Bank is a Jordanian financial institution that has funneled funds for organizations claiming they are legitimate charities. In fact, they were routing large sums of money to support the violent activities of Hamas and other terrorist organizations. These organizations served as agents of Hamas and used the Arab Bank to receive deposits and process wire transfers. The Bank was aware that these organizations are fronts that support terrorist activities, such that the Bank’s continued provision of services to these groups facilitated their illegal activities. One account number belongs to Hamas itself and was used to collect funds in support of its violent activities.

Further, the Saudi Committee In Support of the Intifada Al Quds (“Saudi Committee”) was established as a private charity in Saudi Arabia whose purpose was to support the intifada and the families of the terrorists who have died, as well as subsidize the Palestinian terror campaign. The Saudi Committee furnishes awards to terrorists’ families as a reward for suicide attacks. The Arab Bank is the exclusive financial administrator for the Saudi Committee. These payments create an incentive to engage in terrorist acts by rewarding all Palestinian terrorists, regardless of their affiliation with a particular group.

Despite the Arab Bank’s pleas of innocence, the facts of their funding of Hamas are not in dispute. But, as the Times notes, Secretary of State John Kerry doesn’t want to upset either Jordan or the Saudis any more than they have already been by Obama administration policies that have strengthened Iran at their expense. What he wants is for the U.S. government to plead diplomatic necessity to the courts and tie up the plaintiffs in circles.

But in doing so, the Justice Department would be flouting the same standards they have applied to other cases in which they have doggedly pursued the funders of al-Qaeda and other groups that have targeted Americans as well as in tax cases in which the U.S. has sought to override the efforts of foreign banks to maintain secrecy about their activities.

Claims of diplomatic necessity are contradicted by the experience of the post 9/11-era in which all banking institutions have been forced to disassociate themselves with terror or face the consequences. Jordan will survive a court defeat by the Arab Bank, as will the Saudis.

A decision by the administration to side with the Arab Bank against terror victims would be an outrageous abuse of power as well as of hypocrisy. U.S. law demands that the government allow those who have been hurt by terrorists to pursue the funders of murder. For President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry to interfere with the course of justice would be yet another signal that their anti-terror principles don’t apply to the victims of Palestinian killers.

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White House Thinks Anti-Semitism Is “Disappointing”

The only member of the White House press corps to be denied a visa by Saudi Arabia for the upcoming visit by President Obama is Michael Wilner, a Jewish American and the Jerusalem Post’s Washington bureau chief. In response the White House has expressed its “deep disappointment.” Well, that’s one way of putting it. But we all know what this is on Saudi Arabia’s part: it’s the most open form of politically motivated anti-Semitism. Yes, anti-Semitism has the tendency to be “disappointing,” it must be so very disappointing for Jews who find they are still being demonized and discriminated against. But really by the same measure the White House spokespeople may as well have simply described the Saudi decision as boring. These officials no doubt just find it so incredibly boring having to keep dealing with this tiresome business of the Arab world hating Jews.

The White House claims it will continue to pursue the matter, but given the lack of any sense of genuine outrage coming from officials there, it seems naïve to think anything will come of it. Yet this is an outrage, and the administration should describe it as such. Mr. Wilner is an American citizen; he is also Jewish and the discrimination at work here is clear. U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan also described this as an “unfortunate decision.” At the very least she might begin by describing it as utterly unacceptable. Yet the administration’s tolerance for this kind of thing seems disturbingly high.

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The only member of the White House press corps to be denied a visa by Saudi Arabia for the upcoming visit by President Obama is Michael Wilner, a Jewish American and the Jerusalem Post’s Washington bureau chief. In response the White House has expressed its “deep disappointment.” Well, that’s one way of putting it. But we all know what this is on Saudi Arabia’s part: it’s the most open form of politically motivated anti-Semitism. Yes, anti-Semitism has the tendency to be “disappointing,” it must be so very disappointing for Jews who find they are still being demonized and discriminated against. But really by the same measure the White House spokespeople may as well have simply described the Saudi decision as boring. These officials no doubt just find it so incredibly boring having to keep dealing with this tiresome business of the Arab world hating Jews.

The White House claims it will continue to pursue the matter, but given the lack of any sense of genuine outrage coming from officials there, it seems naïve to think anything will come of it. Yet this is an outrage, and the administration should describe it as such. Mr. Wilner is an American citizen; he is also Jewish and the discrimination at work here is clear. U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan also described this as an “unfortunate decision.” At the very least she might begin by describing it as utterly unacceptable. Yet the administration’s tolerance for this kind of thing seems disturbingly high.

Wilner is not Israeli, but in such cases one is often told that this is not really about Jews or Jew hatred, but simply about Israelis. Just such thinking is promoted by the boycott movement. Yet, even if we were to buy into the notion that this is simply about Israelis–Wilner, after all, works for an Israeli newspaper–what are Israelis other than Jews who live in the Jewish state? Such moves never target Arabs living in Israel. This notion that it is not as bad to target an Israeli Jew not only promotes the belief that it is perhaps not quite right that Jews should have a state, but also that there are certain places that it is permissible to forbid Jews from living. This is the logic that imprisons Jews in ghettos, that says that certain places are off-limits for Jews.

President Obama may have bowed before the king of Saudi Arabia, but this is a country where the most vicious hatred of Jews is deeply entrenched in the national culture. As Eli Lake highlights in today’s Daily Beast, there are still serious concerns about the kind of incitement to hatred being promoted in Saudi school textbooks. As Lake notes, the State Department is refusing to release its most recent report on these books, yet it assures us that the Saudis are making promising progress on this matter.

Douglas Johnston of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, which the State Department commissioned to carry out the study, has said, “We strongly suggested it should not be published because they are making great progress on this.” This is hardly a very persuasive explanation. If the progress has been so impressive then what is it that anyone could wish to hide by not publishing the report?

One wonders how far along the Saudi textbooks have really come since December 2011 when the Institute for Gulf Affairs exposed how these schoolbooks were still demonstrating how to sever hands, advocating the reconquest of formerly Muslim parts of Europe, and stirring up hatred against Christians and Jews, with a particular dislike for that renowned Jew Charles Darwin. Yet, with President Obama visiting Saudi Arabia this week, apparently none of this can be allowed to spoil his trip.

The White House says it is disappointed by the Saudis’ refusal to grant entry to this Jewish American journalist, but no doubt not as disappointed as Mr. Wilner is. Not as “disappointed” as Jews always are when they continue to be subjected to this tenacious bigotry. 

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Robert Malley and the Shift to Appeasement

Back in 2008 when Barack Obama first ran for president, one of the many signals he sent to Jewish groups to reassure them of his good will toward Israel and his foreign-policy bona fides was to sever ties with Robert Malley. Malley, a Clinton-era National Security Council staffer, is best known for his stand blaming Israel rather than Yasir Arafat for the collapse of the 2000 Camp David peace summit. His position as an informal advisor to the Obama campaign was a major liability for a candidate desperate to reassure Jewish Democrats that he could be relied upon to maintain the alliance with Israel. But when it became known in May of 2008 that Malley had met with Hamas terrorists, the Obama campaign severed ties with Malley.

It turned out that those who worried that Malley’s presence in the Obama foreign-policy shop was a sign of future trouble with the Jewish state were right. Despite his campaign promises and the fact that he failed to give an inveterate Israel-basher like Malley a job in his administration, President Obama spent most of his first term picking fights with the State of Israel before a reelection-year charm offensive. But now well into his second term, the president is finally rewarding Malley for falling on his sword for him during his first campaign. This afternoon it was announced that Malley is heading back to the White House to serve as a senior director at the National Security Council where he will be tasked with managing relations between the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies. While we are told the administration is making an effort to bolster its traditional ties to the region, Malley’s appointment sends a very different signal, especially to Israel.

At a time when Saudi Arabia and other allies in the region are worried that the U.S. has turned its back on them as part of the president’s misguided pursuit of détente with Iran, the president has called back to service one of the foremost defenders of appeasement of terror. Though Malley is merely one more member of a second-term team that is increasingly hostile to Israel, his joining the NSC removes any remaining doubt about where American foreign policy is heading.

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Back in 2008 when Barack Obama first ran for president, one of the many signals he sent to Jewish groups to reassure them of his good will toward Israel and his foreign-policy bona fides was to sever ties with Robert Malley. Malley, a Clinton-era National Security Council staffer, is best known for his stand blaming Israel rather than Yasir Arafat for the collapse of the 2000 Camp David peace summit. His position as an informal advisor to the Obama campaign was a major liability for a candidate desperate to reassure Jewish Democrats that he could be relied upon to maintain the alliance with Israel. But when it became known in May of 2008 that Malley had met with Hamas terrorists, the Obama campaign severed ties with Malley.

It turned out that those who worried that Malley’s presence in the Obama foreign-policy shop was a sign of future trouble with the Jewish state were right. Despite his campaign promises and the fact that he failed to give an inveterate Israel-basher like Malley a job in his administration, President Obama spent most of his first term picking fights with the State of Israel before a reelection-year charm offensive. But now well into his second term, the president is finally rewarding Malley for falling on his sword for him during his first campaign. This afternoon it was announced that Malley is heading back to the White House to serve as a senior director at the National Security Council where he will be tasked with managing relations between the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies. While we are told the administration is making an effort to bolster its traditional ties to the region, Malley’s appointment sends a very different signal, especially to Israel.

At a time when Saudi Arabia and other allies in the region are worried that the U.S. has turned its back on them as part of the president’s misguided pursuit of détente with Iran, the president has called back to service one of the foremost defenders of appeasement of terror. Though Malley is merely one more member of a second-term team that is increasingly hostile to Israel, his joining the NSC removes any remaining doubt about where American foreign policy is heading.

At the time he was working for the Obama campaign, his defenders, including a gaggle of high-ranking Clinton foreign-policy officials, denounced Malley’s critics for what they claimed were unfair personal attacks. But the problem with Malley was never so much about his motives or his father’s role as a supporter of the Egyptian Communist Party and the Nasser regime as it was his own beliefs and policies.

By claiming as he did in an infamous article in the New York Review of Books in August of 2001 that the Camp David summit’s failure was Israel’s fault rather than that of Arafat, Malley demonstrated extraordinary bias against the Jewish state as well as a willingness to revise recent history to fit his personal agenda. Malley absolved Arafat from blame for refusing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of an independent state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem. In doing so he not only flatly contradicted the testimony of President Bill Clinton and other U.S. officials present, but his justification of Arafat’s indefensible behavior also served to rationalize the Palestinian terror offensive that followed their rejection of peace.

In the years since then, Malley has remained a virulent critic of Israel and an advocate for recognition and acceptance of the Hamas terrorists who rule Gaza as well as engagement with Iran and other rejectionist states.

All this should have been enough to keep him out of any administration that professed friendship for Israel. But by putting him in charge of relations with the Gulf states, President Obama is also demonstrating that he is determined to continue a policy of downgrading relations with traditional allies in favor of better relations with Iran and other radicals. As much as Israel has cause for concern about the headlong rush to embrace Iran, the Saudis have just as much reason to worry, especially because of the administration’s failure to act in Syria, where Iran’s ally Bashar Assad appears to be winning his war to hold on to power. The Saudis are right to dismiss the president’s attempts to reassure them on Iran. Now that he has appointed a longtime advocate of embracing America’s foes, it’s not likely they will feel any better about U.S. policy.

The return to a position of influence of an Arafat apologist like Malley is one more sign of just how far the president has strayed from his campaign pledges on the Middle East. The U.S. drift toward appeasement of radical Islamists is no longer a matter of speculation but a fact. Any constraints on administration policies based in concern about alienating America’s allies are now a thing of the past.

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Is Morocco the Antidote to Saudi-Sponsored Extremism?

Emeritus Princeton University professor Bernard Lewis, probably the greatest living historian of the Middle East, once tried to explain the impact of Saudi Arabia upon the practice of Islam in the modern era by the following analogy:

“Imagine if the Ku Klux Klan or Aryan Nation obtained total control of Texas and had at its disposal all the oil revenues, and used this money to establish a network of well-endowed schools and colleges all over Christendom peddling their particular brand of Christianity. This is what the Saudis have done with Wahhabism. The oil money has enabled them to spread this fanatical, destructive form of Islam all over the Muslim world and among Muslims in the west. Without oil and the creation of the Saudi kingdom, Wahhabism would have remained a lunatic fringe in a marginal country.”

Lewis is right, of course, that the Saudi use of petrodollars to fund an intolerant interpretation of Islam has greased radicalism from West Africa through Southeast Asia and, of course, throughout the Middle East, Europe, and North America as well.

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Emeritus Princeton University professor Bernard Lewis, probably the greatest living historian of the Middle East, once tried to explain the impact of Saudi Arabia upon the practice of Islam in the modern era by the following analogy:

“Imagine if the Ku Klux Klan or Aryan Nation obtained total control of Texas and had at its disposal all the oil revenues, and used this money to establish a network of well-endowed schools and colleges all over Christendom peddling their particular brand of Christianity. This is what the Saudis have done with Wahhabism. The oil money has enabled them to spread this fanatical, destructive form of Islam all over the Muslim world and among Muslims in the west. Without oil and the creation of the Saudi kingdom, Wahhabism would have remained a lunatic fringe in a marginal country.”

Lewis is right, of course, that the Saudi use of petrodollars to fund an intolerant interpretation of Islam has greased radicalism from West Africa through Southeast Asia and, of course, throughout the Middle East, Europe, and North America as well.

De-radicalization may be fashionable among European officials, Western NGOs, and the State Department, but there is little evidence that U.S. and European programs are anything more than an expensive boondoggle.

Increasingly, Morocco appears to be the antidote to decades of Saudi-sponsored radicalism. I have highlighted here before the innovative “Mourchidat” program. Now Morocco is beginning to expand its imam training program to Tunisia and Libya in North Africa, as well as Guinea in West Africa. This follows a similar program conducted on behalf of imams in Mali, which has faced a severe challenge from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

President Obama will soon travel to Saudi Arabia. This is wise, as Obama seeks to repair ties with the Saudi Kingdom undercut by his own diplomatic tin ear. Still, if Obama really wants to support friends, he should move to bolster U.S. ties with Morocco, which is pulling far beyond its weight in efforts to promote peace, stability, and moderation not only among Arab states, but also across Africa, a continent Obama once described as a priority. Rather than throw money at de-radicalization programs that don’t have anything to show for their efforts, perhaps it is time to actually work through allies to support what does work.

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The Predictable Consequences of Retreat

It’s pretty predictable: When the U.S. leaves a power vacuum, other states rush to fill it. We just may not be happy with the results.

Case in point: Syria.

The Obama administration has not been willing to do much to help the rebels, pointedly ignoring their pleas for anti-aircraft missiles and no-fly zones to shut down Bashar Assad’s murderous air force. So enter the Saudis to provide “manpads” (i.e., portable anti-aircraft weapons) to the rebels.

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It’s pretty predictable: When the U.S. leaves a power vacuum, other states rush to fill it. We just may not be happy with the results.

Case in point: Syria.

The Obama administration has not been willing to do much to help the rebels, pointedly ignoring their pleas for anti-aircraft missiles and no-fly zones to shut down Bashar Assad’s murderous air force. So enter the Saudis to provide “manpads” (i.e., portable anti-aircraft weapons) to the rebels.

Although the Saudis claim to be providing these weapons only to secular elements of the Free Syrian Army, it’s hard to have much confidence in their track record. Recall how they armed the most extreme jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Even if the missiles in question go only to “moderate” rebel fighters, the danger that they will fall into the wrong hands goes up. And that could be a catastrophe in the making, given what an enticing target civil airliners, such as those that land at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel, are for terrorists armed with manpads.

That is why the Obama administration has been warning against supplying these portable and deadly missiles to the rebels. But if it had really wanted to stop the arms flow, the U.S. should have offered an alternative method of taking down Assad’s airpower–most likely in the form of a no-fly zone enforced by the U.S. and its allies. Failing that, the Saudis are taking matters into their own hands–yet another reason to be concerned about the consequences of American retreat.

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What Does the Bahrain Weapons Seizure Mean?

On December 30, Bahraini authorities announced that they had intercepted a ship carrying Iranian explosives and weaponry apparently destined for the Bahraini opposition. According to Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News:

Bahrain has scored a major victory in the fight against terror with the seizure of a huge weapons stash and the arrests of wanted fugitives attempting to flee the country. Seventeen people have been detained in a massive anti-terrorism operation on Saturday and Sunday, in which police confiscated large amounts of weapons and bomb-making material. Iranian-made explosives, Syrian bomb detonators, Kalashnikovs, C-4 explosives, Claymores, hand grenades, a PK machine gun, circuit boards for use in bomb making, armor-piercing explosives, TNT and a raft of other materials used to manufacture bombs were discovered. Some of the arms were seized in one of Bahrain’s biggest weapons hauls at sea as they were being smuggled here, apparently from Iraq. Others were found during a raid on an illegal weapons depot near the Budaiya Highway, while 13 of those arrested were wanted fugitives attempting to flee Bahrain on a high-speed boat heading north.

The Iranian government, for its part, fiercely rejected the Bahraini accusations. Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for African and Arab affairs, dismissed the Bahraini charges, and said that Bahrain had no one to blame but itself for its own domestic woes.

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On December 30, Bahraini authorities announced that they had intercepted a ship carrying Iranian explosives and weaponry apparently destined for the Bahraini opposition. According to Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News:

Bahrain has scored a major victory in the fight against terror with the seizure of a huge weapons stash and the arrests of wanted fugitives attempting to flee the country. Seventeen people have been detained in a massive anti-terrorism operation on Saturday and Sunday, in which police confiscated large amounts of weapons and bomb-making material. Iranian-made explosives, Syrian bomb detonators, Kalashnikovs, C-4 explosives, Claymores, hand grenades, a PK machine gun, circuit boards for use in bomb making, armor-piercing explosives, TNT and a raft of other materials used to manufacture bombs were discovered. Some of the arms were seized in one of Bahrain’s biggest weapons hauls at sea as they were being smuggled here, apparently from Iraq. Others were found during a raid on an illegal weapons depot near the Budaiya Highway, while 13 of those arrested were wanted fugitives attempting to flee Bahrain on a high-speed boat heading north.

The Iranian government, for its part, fiercely rejected the Bahraini accusations. Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for African and Arab affairs, dismissed the Bahraini charges, and said that Bahrain had no one to blame but itself for its own domestic woes.

Make no mistake: Bahraini Shi’ites have real grievances which have nothing to do with Iran. Ninety-five percent of unemployed Bahrainis are Shi’ites, and they face discrimination in almost every sector. And while Iran was neck-deep in the 1981 coup plot against the Bahraini royal family (as per the materials and publications of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain which are housed at the Library of Congress), few Bahraini Shi’ites knowingly carry water for Iran. As many Bahraini Shi’ites point out, they had every opportunity to vote for unity with Iran during the UN-sponsored referendum in 1970, but chose independence. Many Bahrainis want only reform, but have grown frustrated by a Bahraini king who prefers recreation over government, and a prime minister who believes wielding an iron fist and Saudi backing trumps reform.

As the smallest Arab state and the Arab world’s only island nation, Bahrain’s borders have also traditionally been easiest to control. Smuggling weaponry into Bahrain is no easy feat. While the Bahraini opposition are not as non-violent as they profess (Molotov cocktails are hardly tools of the non-violent), they have apparently maintained their distance from all but Iranian media and, if the Bahraini government is to be believed, from financial assistance siphoned from the interest upon Iranian accounts in Bahraini banks and charitable donations provided by the offices of Iran- and Iraq-based ayatollahs.

If this weapons seizure is true—and, despite Iranian denials, it seems far-fetched that it is fake—then it suggests a number of worrisome things for 2014.

First, despite hope in Western capitals that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s election matters, it seems the Islamic Republic—or at least its Revolutionary Guards (IRGC)—are resurgent and bent on taking the constitutionally-mandated “export of revolution” to a new level. With Iran resurgent in Syria and still overwhelmingly influential in Iraq (and Iraqi Kurdistan), it seems that Tehran seeks to be turning its attention to its proxy war against Saudi Arabia on other fronts.

The United States should also be concerned, given the decades-long partnership between the Bahraini government and the United States. Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and American servicemen genuinely like the kingdom and its people, who are known throughout the Persian Gulf for their friendliness. The Bahraini opposition, for its part, determinedly has not targeted Americans or engaged in gratuitous anti-Americanism, although some opposition figures who say nice thing about the United States in English have told the Iranian press in Persian that expulsion of the Americans will be the first order of business should the opposition be victorious.

It behooves the Bahraini opposition to be especially careful if Qods Force commander Qasim Suleimani and the IRGC seek to open a new chapter in the Bahraini unrest, for any attempt by Iran to co-opt the movement will delegitimize the Bahraini opposition and their struggle for reform for decades to come. At the same time, let us hope that President Obama, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Secretary of State John Kerry understand just how much remains at stake in the Middle East, and the damage that will occur to U.S. interests should they continue to allow American influence to hemorrhage. 

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Iran Deal Undermines U.S. Credibility

Much has already been written about the problematic nature of the interim agreement signed this weekend by Iran and the P5+1. But the damage goes beyond the fact that it weakens the sanctions regime without halting Iran’s multiple nuclear programs (as the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens aptly said, it will “merely reduce their pace from run to jog”). No less severe is the blow to U.S. credibility.

First, there’s what might be called the Hamid Karzai problem. As the New York Times reported last week, the Afghan president has for years “perplexed and dismayed his allies” by accusing Washington of plotting behind his back with Pakistan and/or the Taliban in an effort to force Kabul into a peace deal “in which Afghanistan’s interests will not even be secondary, but tertiary and worse.” Hitherto, such ravings could be dismissed as paranoia. But we now know Washington did exactly that to Israel and Saudi Arabia, by spending months secretly negotiating the current deal with Iran without even informing them of the talks’ existence. In other words, America went behind the backs of its two closest Mideast allies to negotiate a deal with their worst enemy that both consider detrimental to their interests. So how can any U.S. ally not legitimately fear that it will do the same to them?

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Much has already been written about the problematic nature of the interim agreement signed this weekend by Iran and the P5+1. But the damage goes beyond the fact that it weakens the sanctions regime without halting Iran’s multiple nuclear programs (as the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens aptly said, it will “merely reduce their pace from run to jog”). No less severe is the blow to U.S. credibility.

First, there’s what might be called the Hamid Karzai problem. As the New York Times reported last week, the Afghan president has for years “perplexed and dismayed his allies” by accusing Washington of plotting behind his back with Pakistan and/or the Taliban in an effort to force Kabul into a peace deal “in which Afghanistan’s interests will not even be secondary, but tertiary and worse.” Hitherto, such ravings could be dismissed as paranoia. But we now know Washington did exactly that to Israel and Saudi Arabia, by spending months secretly negotiating the current deal with Iran without even informing them of the talks’ existence. In other words, America went behind the backs of its two closest Mideast allies to negotiate a deal with their worst enemy that both consider detrimental to their interests. So how can any U.S. ally not legitimately fear that it will do the same to them?

Indeed, as Seth noted yesterday, Ukraine’s eleventh-hour decision to scrap a deal with Europe that it spent months negotiating and sign one with Russia instead shows that other countries are already absorbing the lesson: The West is unreliable; trust it at your peril. Granted, neither Ukraine nor Afghanistan is vital to Western interests. But what happens when, say, Japan and South Korea conclude that Washington might just as easily sell them out to China?

Then there’s the John Kerry problem. Prior to last week’s talks with Iran, the secretary of state pledged that the interim deal wouldn’t acknowledge an Iranian right to continue enriching uranium. “That certainly will not be resolved in any first step, I can assure you,” he said. After the deal was signed, he again asserted that “This first step does not say that Iran has the right of enrichment, no matter what interpretative comments are made.”  

Yet the deal states explicitly that the “comprehensive solution” the parties will now seek to negotiate “would involve a mutually defined enrichment programme.” So the word “right” doesn’t appear, but the practical implications are the same as if it had: Despite repeated binding UN resolutions demanding that Iran halt enrichment, the P5+1 has already agreed to let it continue enriching in perpetuity. This would be like Israel signing a deal to resettle five million Palestinian “refugees” in its territory and then claiming it didn’t agree to a “right of return” because those three words don’t appear in the text. And if America’s top diplomat can flat-out lie about the deal’s content even after the text has been published for all to see, why would anyone ever trust America’s word again?

Earlier this month, Walter Russell Mead noted that “Past administrations have generally concluded that the price Iran wants for a different relationship with the United States is unsustainably high,” because “to get a deal with Iran we would have to sell out all of our other regional allies,” and “Throwing over old allies like that would reduce the confidence that America’s allies all over the world have in our support.”

That’s the brave new world America has just entered. And it’s likely to be paying the price for a long time to come.

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Why John Kerry Is Always the Last to Know

The search for explanations for the Obama administration’s serially inept diplomacy yielded some clues in the wake of the deal over Iran’s nuclear program. Though Secretary of State John Kerry had emitted an air of desperation in the last couple of weeks, watching the reactions of America’s allies made it clear not only that Kerry’s desperation was not widely shared but also that the Obama administration seems to have stopped listening–indeed, to have completely tuned out voices that may raise dissenting views.

Kerry’s victory tour on the political talk shows was instructive. Kerry repeatedly tried to squelch any talk of “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel on Iran, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was left repeating what he has been saying all week: yes, of course there is daylight between the two. Netanyahu thinks this is a “historic mistake” that will enable Iran to get closer to a bomb and thus put the region in danger. The oblivious Kerry simply ignored that, claiming the Israelis are safer when they say they are not.

Kerry doesn’t hear them, and the Obama administration has a history of claiming to know what Israel’s best interests are, so this is par for the course. The Obama administration is so sure it knows what’s best for Israel, in fact, that it didn’t feel it necessary to keep the Israelis apprised of what they were doing, despite the issue’s obvious impact on Israel and her neighbors. The Wire reports on conflicting claims as to how Israel found out about the U.S.-Iran talks–but neither claim holds that the U.S. told the Israelis what was going on. They apparently found out either through “intelligence” or from the Saudis.

The Saudis, after all, know what it’s like to be ignored by the Obama administration on key issues in the region. As the Washington Post reported earlier this month:

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The search for explanations for the Obama administration’s serially inept diplomacy yielded some clues in the wake of the deal over Iran’s nuclear program. Though Secretary of State John Kerry had emitted an air of desperation in the last couple of weeks, watching the reactions of America’s allies made it clear not only that Kerry’s desperation was not widely shared but also that the Obama administration seems to have stopped listening–indeed, to have completely tuned out voices that may raise dissenting views.

Kerry’s victory tour on the political talk shows was instructive. Kerry repeatedly tried to squelch any talk of “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel on Iran, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was left repeating what he has been saying all week: yes, of course there is daylight between the two. Netanyahu thinks this is a “historic mistake” that will enable Iran to get closer to a bomb and thus put the region in danger. The oblivious Kerry simply ignored that, claiming the Israelis are safer when they say they are not.

Kerry doesn’t hear them, and the Obama administration has a history of claiming to know what Israel’s best interests are, so this is par for the course. The Obama administration is so sure it knows what’s best for Israel, in fact, that it didn’t feel it necessary to keep the Israelis apprised of what they were doing, despite the issue’s obvious impact on Israel and her neighbors. The Wire reports on conflicting claims as to how Israel found out about the U.S.-Iran talks–but neither claim holds that the U.S. told the Israelis what was going on. They apparently found out either through “intelligence” or from the Saudis.

The Saudis, after all, know what it’s like to be ignored by the Obama administration on key issues in the region. As the Washington Post reported earlier this month:

Secretary of State John F. Kerry made what amounted to an emergency fence-mending trip to Saudi Arabia on Monday, reassuring King Abdullah in a rare and lengthy meeting that the United States considers the kingdom a major partner and regional power and that the Obama administration will step up its consultation on issues important to both nations. …

He also denied widespread speculation here that Obama is willing to accept a less-than-ironclad nuclear deal with Iran during the current round of negotiations. “The United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” Kerry said in an airport news conference with the foreign minister before departing.

“Did I give some assurances? Yes, absolutely. Of course I did,” he added.

Those “assurances” don’t seem to have had their intended effect. The Saudis were concerned enough to, apparently, alert the Israelis to Kerry’s desperation for a deal. But the Saudis and Israelis weren’t the only ones effectively talking to a wall when the Obama administration was involved. Everyone, perhaps Kerry most of all, acted pretty surprised when the French scuppered the initial deal in Geneva. But they shouldn’t have been surprised. Had Kerry been listening to European concerns he would have expected what he heard from the French. They had been making an argument nearly identical to the one many on the right have been making here in the U.S.: the sanctions, once eased, are likely to stay that way.

But of course it’s silly to think Kerry is listening to his domestic critics either. The Obama administration has stuck its fingers in its ears, choosing to deal only in straw men and never with reality. It would have benefited them greatly, however, to not be sealed off from anything that deviated from the administration’s groupthink. The French showed up in Geneva and said what many had said before. They wanted a deal with more restrictions on Iran because pausing the sanctions in Europe could be the beginning of the end of the European share of the sanctions regime:

France and other European Union countries, however, face fewer political restrictions on ending their core sanctions, which means any decision to lift them could be more far-reaching. In addition, officials said, the measures would be harder to reinstate should the talks unravel or Iran renege on its pledges.

Those considerations left the Europeans more hesitant to consider easing sanctions than the United States was.

That should have been a surprise to nobody. Instead it was a surprise only to Kerry and the rest of the administration’s crack negotiating squad. And if the Obama administration didn’t want to listen to America’s allies, officials could have at least paid attention to their negotiating partner, Iran. The wording of the deal would be crucial because permitting the Iranians leeway in their interpretation could be the deal’s undoing.

Sure enough, the New York Times reports:

There were already indications that Iran and the West were interpreting crucial parts of the six-month agreement differently. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has asserted that the agreement explicitly recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium. He also said the agreement effectively removed the threat of an American military strike.

Mr. Kerry rejected both of those contentions. “The fact is, the president maintains” the option to use force “as commander in chief, and he has said specifically, he has not taken that threat off the table,” he said on CBS.

Kerry is operating under the assumption that the administration still has reserves of credibility on this issue in the region, which borders on preposterous. But again, how would Kerry even know his credibility is shot? Perhaps the Saudis could let him in on the secret–if he’s willing to listen.

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The Unraveling of Iran Sanctions

There are two major, competing alliances in the Middle East: pro- and anti-Iran. The “pro” bloc obviously includes Iran in addition to Syria, Hezbollah, and arguably the Iraqi government. The “anti” bloc includes just about everyone else–from Israel to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has long been seen as the strongest supporter of the “anti” bloc, which is hardly surprising since the Iranian regime has been waging war on the United States since its inception, whether with hostage taking or terrorist bombings.

But that perception is fast changing. First the American pullout from Iraq, then the deal with Syria, now the deal with Iran cast into serious doubt American resolve to stop Iran’s power grab and understandably alarm our allies. It feels as if there is a realignment of power taking place, with the U.S. counting for less and less: Both our friends and our enemies are less respectful now of American power and less likely to defer to us.

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There are two major, competing alliances in the Middle East: pro- and anti-Iran. The “pro” bloc obviously includes Iran in addition to Syria, Hezbollah, and arguably the Iraqi government. The “anti” bloc includes just about everyone else–from Israel to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has long been seen as the strongest supporter of the “anti” bloc, which is hardly surprising since the Iranian regime has been waging war on the United States since its inception, whether with hostage taking or terrorist bombings.

But that perception is fast changing. First the American pullout from Iraq, then the deal with Syria, now the deal with Iran cast into serious doubt American resolve to stop Iran’s power grab and understandably alarm our allies. It feels as if there is a realignment of power taking place, with the U.S. counting for less and less: Both our friends and our enemies are less respectful now of American power and less likely to defer to us.

At least in the case of Syria, one can make the case that we are getting something substantial in return for providing de facto legitimacy to the Assad regime. At least Assad is actually allowing the dismantlement and destruction of his chemical weapons. That is not the case with Iran, which is slightly slowing down–by no more than a few weeks–its pell-mell rush to acquire an atomic bomb in return for at least $7 billion in sanctions relief (and possibly more) along with de facto recognition of its supposed “right” to enrich uranium.

I can understand why the Obama administration reached the deal with Tehran and why so many have embraced it. No one wants a war with Iran–and no one wants an Iranian bomb. It certainly appeared that Iran was on a trajectory to acquire a bomb and that the only thing truly standing in its way was the threat of an Israeli air strike. Given that President Obama long ago sacrificed any credibility in threatening Iran with the use of American force (if he won’t even bomb Syria after the use of WMD, who would imagine he would bomb Iran while it was still trying to acquire WMD?), one can make the case that a deal that delays the Iranian program, however slightly, is worth the price in a few billion dollars in sanctions relief.

The problem is that sanctions were finally, belatedly starting to bite. The Iranian economy has been in freefall since more restrictive economic sanctions were imposed last year. This is the point of maximum leverage–and Obama and Kerry have just taken their foot off the Iranian windpipe. If the Iranians would not agree to a Libya- or Syria-style deal that would dismantle their nuclear complex now, it is hard to imagine they will agree to do so in six months, when their economy will have gotten some badly needed relief. (Already, the Wall Street Journal reports, Western European firms are preparing to rush back into Iran.) The likelihood is that, six months from now, the Iranians will simply extract more concessions for not ramping up their nuclear program once again, all the while maintaining their ability to keep enriching uranium and keep designing and building ballistic missiles capable of carrying  a nuclear warhead.

Confidence in the U.S. among our Middle Eastern allies is plunging to new lows, and no wonder: Countries from Israel to Saudi Arabia, which see Iran as a mortal threat, no longer feel they can count on American protection. This is a dangerous perception because it encourages those states to take actions that no American president would favor–whether bombing Iran (in the case of Israel) or acquiring its own nuclear bomb (in the case of Saudi Arabia). The risk of appearing feckless may be worth running if it actually results in a deal that dismantles the Iranian program. But the odds are that Obama’s high-risk gamble won’t pay off.

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Was There An Alternative to the Iran Deal?

As I wrote earlier this morning, the deal that President Obama has struck with Iran has very little chance of actually stopping them from reaching their nuclear goal. Their centrifuges remain intact and will, at best, delay them from “breaking out” to full nuclear capability by a few weeks. It will reward them for a decade of lies and deceptions and effectively normalize a rogue regime that continues to sponsor international terrorism and spew anti-Semitism while also starting the process of unraveling sanctions. But to all this Secretary of State John Kerry has what he thinks is a devastating answer: what’s the alternative?

The point of this question is to not-so-subtly imply that the only other choice was a war that no one wants. But this favorite rhetorical device of the president’s in which he poses false choices is a deception. There was an alternative to surrendering to Iran’s diplomatic demands that we effectively recognize their “right” to enrich uranium and scrapping the president’s campaign promise that his goal was to force it give up its nuclear program–and it didn’t mean war. All it required was for him to tighten sanctions and enforce them to the point where Iran’s elites, rather than the common people, started to feel the economic pain. But by wasting five years during which he opposed sanctions, stalled on their enforcement and then started to scale them back at the first hint of an Iranian willingness to negotiate, the president has discarded all of America’s leverage.

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As I wrote earlier this morning, the deal that President Obama has struck with Iran has very little chance of actually stopping them from reaching their nuclear goal. Their centrifuges remain intact and will, at best, delay them from “breaking out” to full nuclear capability by a few weeks. It will reward them for a decade of lies and deceptions and effectively normalize a rogue regime that continues to sponsor international terrorism and spew anti-Semitism while also starting the process of unraveling sanctions. But to all this Secretary of State John Kerry has what he thinks is a devastating answer: what’s the alternative?

The point of this question is to not-so-subtly imply that the only other choice was a war that no one wants. But this favorite rhetorical device of the president’s in which he poses false choices is a deception. There was an alternative to surrendering to Iran’s diplomatic demands that we effectively recognize their “right” to enrich uranium and scrapping the president’s campaign promise that his goal was to force it give up its nuclear program–and it didn’t mean war. All it required was for him to tighten sanctions and enforce them to the point where Iran’s elites, rather than the common people, started to feel the economic pain. But by wasting five years during which he opposed sanctions, stalled on their enforcement and then started to scale them back at the first hint of an Iranian willingness to negotiate, the president has discarded all of America’s leverage.

Kerry’s assumption and that of others who advocated appeasement of Iran is based on the idea that it was not reasonable or realistic for the West to demand that Iran dismantle its nuclear program as the president demanded in his foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney last year. They say that asking for the dismantling of the centrifuges that will continue to spin and enrich uranium even after the president’s deal is in place was just too much, as was the demand that the nuclear facilities that are openly discussed and covered in the deal (as opposed to the secret underground Iranian nuclear facilities that even the New York Times concedes that the CIA, the Europeans, and the Israelis believe exist) be decommissioned or that its stockpile of enriched uranium be shipped out of the country.

Why were these demands unrealistic? Because the Iranians said they were.

That’s it. The entire foundation of this agreement isn’t a matter of what was technically feasible or even a belief that the sanctions weren’t working or couldn’t be tightened to the point where the Iranian economy could collapse. Everyone knows that the sanctions are hurting, but if Iran’s oil trade was subjected to a complete embargo (as a third round of sanctions that Congress was considering would have done), Tehran could have been brought to its knees.

If the Iranians had been pushed harder and sooner and had they believed that there was a credible threat of force on the table from the United States, which was clearly not the case, they might have been convinced that they had no alternative but to give up their nukes. But for five years, President Obama has been signaling not only that they needn’t fear him but also that he was willing to settle for far less than the demands he had been making in public. We don’t know for how long the administration has been conducting the secret diplomatic talks with Iran or whether they were run by Obama consigliere Valerie Jarrett. But it’s apparent that Washington’s assumption that it couldn’t make the ayatollahs give up their nuclear toys was a self-fulfilling prophecy. By refusing to push them harder and by showing their willingness to accept far less than the minimum that would have ensured that a weapon was not possible, they gave the Iranians the confidence to stick to their positions in the talks.

So what Kerry and other administration apologists are doing is turning the question of alternatives on its head. Instead of falsely implying that the only alternative to appeasement was war, he should be called to account for not exploring all the diplomatic and economic options that could have brought about a far more satisfactory result than the weak deal he signed.

In exchange for superficial and easily reversed nuclear concessions, Obama and Kerry have normalized Iran and begun the process of unraveling sanctions. The alternative to this was an American foreign policy that was determined to make it clear to Iran that they would have to give up their nuclear program in the same manner than Libya was forced not do and they would not be given the chance to take the North Korean route to nuclear capability.

Instead of avoiding war, what Kerry has done is to set in motion a chain of events that may actually make armed conflict more likely. It’s not just that Israel must now come to terms with the fact that it has been abandoned and betrayed by its American ally and must consider whether it must strike Iran’s nuclear facilities before it is too late. Saudi Arabia must now also consider whether it has no choice but to buy a bomb (likely from Pakistan) to defend its existence against a deadly rival across the Persian Gulf. The Western stamp of approval on Iran will also embolden its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries and make it even less likely that Tehran’s ally Bashar Assad will be toppled in Syria.

By deciding that the U.S. was too weak to stand up to Iranian demands, Obama and Kerry have put the Islamist regime in a position where it can throw its weight around in the region without any fear of U.S. retaliation.

The choice here was not between war with Iran or a weak deal. It was between the U.S. using all its economic power and diplomatic influence to make sure that Iran had to give up its nuclear program and a policy of appeasement aimed at allowing the president to retreat from his promises. The Middle East and the rest of the world may wind up paying a terrible price for Obama’s false choices.

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Obama’s Israel Spat Boosts Iran’s Leverage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An Inadequately-Clothed Emperor

Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal was interviewed yesterday on CBS This Morning, and was asked how strained the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is (answer: “very strained”); what he thought about President Obama’s failure to strike Syria after his red line was crossed (answer: “[the whole world] saw it as a blinking”); and whether Saudi Arabia would like someone to strike Iran (answer: “Most of the countries in the region want Iran to be struck by the United States or by the western powers”). 

Then he was asked whether he had confidence the U.S. would execute a military option as a last resort, which produced this colloquy: 

PRINCE ALWALEED BIN TALAL: Frankly speaking, no, we don’t have confidence that the military strike would happen if Iran does not succumb to the pressure and the –  

CHARLIE ROSE: So you don’t trust the United States, you’re saying. The Saudi government does not trust the United States to do it. 

PRINCE ALWALEED BIN TALAL: I think at the more macro level, the whole trust issue on United States is very much on shaky grounds these days, not only from Saudi Arabia but also Europe. … 

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Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal was interviewed yesterday on CBS This Morning, and was asked how strained the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is (answer: “very strained”); what he thought about President Obama’s failure to strike Syria after his red line was crossed (answer: “[the whole world] saw it as a blinking”); and whether Saudi Arabia would like someone to strike Iran (answer: “Most of the countries in the region want Iran to be struck by the United States or by the western powers”). 

Then he was asked whether he had confidence the U.S. would execute a military option as a last resort, which produced this colloquy: 

PRINCE ALWALEED BIN TALAL: Frankly speaking, no, we don’t have confidence that the military strike would happen if Iran does not succumb to the pressure and the –  

CHARLIE ROSE: So you don’t trust the United States, you’re saying. The Saudi government does not trust the United States to do it. 

PRINCE ALWALEED BIN TALAL: I think at the more macro level, the whole trust issue on United States is very much on shaky grounds these days, not only from Saudi Arabia but also Europe. … 

The whole world has watched over the last year as the president of the United States: (1) took no action as a U.S. ambassador and U.S. personnel were killed in Libya on 9/11; (2) promised two weeks later, in a UN speech to representatives of every country in the world, that he would be “relentless” in tracking down the killers, but still has taken no action; (3) issued a “red line” in Syria and then blinked when it came time to enforce it; (4) lateraled his proposed “shot across the bow” to Congress; (5) avoided his “red line” commitment (and vitiated his “Assad must go” policy) by approving an agreement leaving Assad ensconced in power, free to continue his war by conventional means; (6) negotiated with Iran while disregarding the objections of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle East allies; and (7) exposed his word to his own citizens as unreliable (after which he expressed regret that “the way I put that forward unequivocally ended up not being accurate”). 

He has made other unequivocal assurances–he’s got your back, all options are on the table, he doesn’t bluff, no deal is better than a bad deal–but at this point it has become increasingly clear that he is an inadequately-clothed emperor, dressed in assurances that end up not being accurate. When a prominent Saudi prince answers a direct question as directly as he did on national TV yesterday, a critical point has been reached.

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Don’t Ignore Riyadh in Iran Talks

In the ongoing debate over whether the interim agreement now being discussed with Tehran will or won’t effectively slow Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. policymakers seem to have overlooked one major issue: Even if they’re convinced that Israeli and Saudi concerns about the deal are unfounded, America’s own interests would be undermined by a deal that leaves Jerusalem or Riyadh too unhappy–and especially the latter. Indeed, an agreement Saudi Arabia can’t live with ought to be every American’s worst nightmare. And nothing illustrates this better than last week’s BBC report that the Saudis have nukes “on order” from Pakistan, ready for delivery whenever they give the nod.

Even if this particular report is false, foreign-policy experts generally agree that if Iran does succeed in obtaining nukes, or even becoming an acknowledged threshold state, Saudi Arabia will swiftly follow suit. As long as the current regime retains power in Riyadh, this would merely be detrimental to American interests: More nuclear states in the Middle East would further destabilize an already unstable region. But as the Arab Spring showed, even in the Mideast, repressive regimes don’t last forever, and when they fall, the people most likely to initially take over are the Islamists, since they are the best organized. And Saudi Arabia’s Islamists happen to be the same people who provided 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11.

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In the ongoing debate over whether the interim agreement now being discussed with Tehran will or won’t effectively slow Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. policymakers seem to have overlooked one major issue: Even if they’re convinced that Israeli and Saudi concerns about the deal are unfounded, America’s own interests would be undermined by a deal that leaves Jerusalem or Riyadh too unhappy–and especially the latter. Indeed, an agreement Saudi Arabia can’t live with ought to be every American’s worst nightmare. And nothing illustrates this better than last week’s BBC report that the Saudis have nukes “on order” from Pakistan, ready for delivery whenever they give the nod.

Even if this particular report is false, foreign-policy experts generally agree that if Iran does succeed in obtaining nukes, or even becoming an acknowledged threshold state, Saudi Arabia will swiftly follow suit. As long as the current regime retains power in Riyadh, this would merely be detrimental to American interests: More nuclear states in the Middle East would further destabilize an already unstable region. But as the Arab Spring showed, even in the Mideast, repressive regimes don’t last forever, and when they fall, the people most likely to initially take over are the Islamists, since they are the best organized. And Saudi Arabia’s Islamists happen to be the same people who provided 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11.

Preventing al-Qaeda from taking over a government with nukes is clearly a supreme American interest. But revolutions tend to happen swiftly, and altering their course is difficult and messy. Thus once a Saudi revolution starts, the chances of America being able to prevent an al-Qaeda takeover drop to near zero.

The easiest way to prevent this nightmare scenario is thus to prevent Riyadh from acquiring nukes in the first place. In principle, that’s not hard; the Saudis have hitherto shown little interest in getting the bomb. But they’ve made it very clear that their calculations will change if Iran’s nuclear program isn’t effectively halted–and on this issue, they aren’t prepared to take Washington’s word for it. Hence a deal with Tehran that leaves the Saudis fuming is liable to have far worse consequences for America than no deal at all.

The ramifications of a deal that leaves Israel unhappy are less severe, but still non-negligible if the Obama administration is serious about wanting to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran. As I’ve written before, Israel’s history proves that if it feels pushed to the wall in the face of an existential threat, it will launch a preemptive strike even in defiance of its major patron. Jerusalem obviously considers Iranian nukes an existential threat, and a deal that it interprets as leaving Iran with a clear path to the bomb could easily make it feel its back is to the wall.

An Israeli strike on Iran obviously isn’t in the same league as al-Qaeda getting the bomb. But since the Obama administration has repeatedly declared that such an attack would be “incredibly destabilizing” (to quote former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen), it presumably has an interest in forestalling such a situation.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who often channels the administration’s thinking, declared last week that “We, America, are not just hired lawyers negotiating a deal for Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arabs, which they alone get the final say on. We, America, have our own interests.” But one of those interests is making sure the deal leaves neither Jerusalem nor Riyadh so unhappy that they are driven to take steps America would rather avoid. And forgetting that could prove a serious blunder.

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