Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S.-Iran relations

Will Iraq Lead to Retreat on Iran Nukes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But any such assumption would be a tragic mistake.

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

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

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Why Is Obama “Happy” About Rouhani’s Iran?

Though the latest nuclear talks with Iran failed to yield progress toward an agreement, the Obama administration isn’t rethinking its commitment to engagement with Iran. Having come into office determined to find a way to end the nuclear standoff, President Obama has taken every opportunity to demonstrate that he wishes to create warmer relations with Tehran, even staying largely silent while the Islamists brutally suppressed dissidents in 2009. That’s why he seized upon the faux election last summer that resulted in Hassan Rouhani becoming Iran’s president to justify the decision to trust the regime when it came to the nuclear question. Though the secret negotiations that led to a weak interim agreement with Tehran preceded that vote, Rouhani’s more moderate image has been useful in dampening outrage about the direction of U.S. policy toward Iran which seems oriented more toward détente than actually preventing the regime from attaining nuclear capability.

But yesterday we got another reminder of the naïveté of Western hopes for Rouhani’s moderation. Days after Rouhani had given speech extolling the need for greater Internet freedom in his country, Iranian police arrested six young people and paraded them on national television for the crime of creating an Internet video in which they danced and sang to Pharrell Williams’s song “Happy.” According to Hossein Sajedinia, the head of the Tehran police, the harmless video was “a vulgar clip which hurt public chastity.” But after being forced to publicly repent, and with a worldwide furor growing over their arrest, the six who appeared on screen were freed today, apparently none the worse for wear for their ordeal and humiliation, though their director is still in jail. Rouhani celebrated their release with the following tweet:

#Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviors caused by joy

So should we be celebrating the advance of human rights in Iran today? And what has this to do with the nuclear talks?

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Though the latest nuclear talks with Iran failed to yield progress toward an agreement, the Obama administration isn’t rethinking its commitment to engagement with Iran. Having come into office determined to find a way to end the nuclear standoff, President Obama has taken every opportunity to demonstrate that he wishes to create warmer relations with Tehran, even staying largely silent while the Islamists brutally suppressed dissidents in 2009. That’s why he seized upon the faux election last summer that resulted in Hassan Rouhani becoming Iran’s president to justify the decision to trust the regime when it came to the nuclear question. Though the secret negotiations that led to a weak interim agreement with Tehran preceded that vote, Rouhani’s more moderate image has been useful in dampening outrage about the direction of U.S. policy toward Iran which seems oriented more toward détente than actually preventing the regime from attaining nuclear capability.

But yesterday we got another reminder of the naïveté of Western hopes for Rouhani’s moderation. Days after Rouhani had given speech extolling the need for greater Internet freedom in his country, Iranian police arrested six young people and paraded them on national television for the crime of creating an Internet video in which they danced and sang to Pharrell Williams’s song “Happy.” According to Hossein Sajedinia, the head of the Tehran police, the harmless video was “a vulgar clip which hurt public chastity.” But after being forced to publicly repent, and with a worldwide furor growing over their arrest, the six who appeared on screen were freed today, apparently none the worse for wear for their ordeal and humiliation, though their director is still in jail. Rouhani celebrated their release with the following tweet:

#Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviors caused by joy

So should we be celebrating the advance of human rights in Iran today? And what has this to do with the nuclear talks?

The answer is simple. Despite Iran’s attempt to persuade the world otherwise, it remains a brutal theocracy where anything, even a simple video can land you in jail if it rubs the Islamist authorities the wrong way. Rouhani, a veteran operative of the regime, is no moderate even though he is attempting to put forward a more human face to the world than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But power—including everything having to do with the country’s nuclear project—remains in the hands of his boss, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Incidents like the arrest of the video makers are designed to chill any signs of liberalization and dissent. As such, it was quite effective since few are bold enough to risk jail and a TV perp walk on the assumption that international attention will lead to their release. Unlike the lucky six, most Iranians who are arrested by the regime don’t become a trend on Twitter and simply disappear into the bowels of Tehran’s police dungeons.

But the Obama administration may argue that even if Iran is still a tyranny, that shouldn’t affect America’s decision to enter into a nuclear agreement with it. The danger Iran poses to the rest of the world stems from their ability to create a nuclear weapon, not policies designed to repress free spirits.

But the problem with America’s nuclear diplomacy is that it is based on the idea that Iran can be trusted to keep its agreements and that the further loosening of sanctions will aid the country’s progress toward better relations with the West. Unfortunately, Iran has proven time and again that it regards agreements with foreign powers as pieces of paper that it can tear up at will. And once sanctions are lifted, there is little chance the U.S. will ever be able to persuade a reluctant Europe to stop doing business with Iran.

So in order to rationalize a plan of action that is predicated on Iran turning the page from its past as a rogue regime, the U.S. must pretend that a regime that practices religious persecution and represses even the most innocuous sign of dissent is somehow changing. That’s why the administration’s negotiators have not even tried to raise the issues of Iranian sponsorship of terrorism in the talks. The more the discussion centers on Iranian behavior—whether as a backer of terrorists or as a vicious foe of human rights—the harder it will be for the president to persuade Americans that Iran means to keep even a weak deal that will give it plenty of leeway to cheat and get to a bomb.

Thus, far from being irrelevant to the talks that have been going on in Vienna, the “happy” dancers are a reminder that Iran isn’t the country Barack Obama would like it to be. The longer Americans cling to the delusion that Rouhani has genuine power and that he really can moderate the Islamist regime, the less chance there is that they will think clearly about the nuclear threat and a diplomatic process that seems to guarantee that it won’t be averted.

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Terrorist Envoy Symbolizes “New” Iran

For those still trying to pedal the line that Iran is becoming a beacon of moderation in the region under President Rouhani, it must be deflating to learn that Iran is to appoint one of the 1979 U.S. embassy hostage takers as its new ambassador to the United Nations. Of course this is really just one more reason to question either the judgment or the integrity of those who continue to insist that Rouhani’s Iran is a state that the West can do business with. Naturally Monday morning’s press briefing at the State Department saw reporters eager to extract some official comment on the matter. But in the typically dismissive tone now symptomatic of State Department spokespeople, Marie Harf refused to give anything away, instead maintaining that this was a confidential visa issue; just like any other.

The man that Iran has made this supposedly unremarkable visa request on behalf of is Hamid Aboutalebi who was part of the militant group that took 52 American embassy staff hostage for 444 days in the wake of Iran’s Islamic revolution. The U.S. embassy in Tehran was seized and occupied in 1979 by the radical group Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line, of which Aboutalebi was a member. Although Aboutalebi has at times attempted to play down his role in the hostage taking–claiming that he simply acted as a translator–his picture is still displayed on the page of the group’s website that celebrates the hostage taking. Besides, Aboutalebi began working as a diplomat for the Islamic regime shortly after the revolution. He and another of the hostage takers were sent on a diplomatic mission to Algeria at a time when the country was a locus for Third World terror groups, including the PLO.

Since then Hamid Aboutalebi has had a prestigious career. He has served as the Iranian ambassador to Australia, Belgium and Italy. And it should also be noted that Aboutalebi was part of Iran’s diplomatic service under previous President Ahmadinejad. And so really his appointment to represent Iran at the UN is just another reminder that Rouhani’s administration has preserved more continuity with previous Iranian governments than it has brought change. This should hardly be considered surprising. If Rouhani had genuinely represented such a radical break then Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khameini never would have allowed his name to go onto the ballot slip in the first place. Those prone to delusional levels of wishful thinking delight in parading Rouhani’s tweet wishing Jews new year’s greetings, but when it came to celebrating the revolution’s anniversary, Iranian state television broadcast simulated footage of Iran carpet bombing the Jewish state and attacking U.S. naval vessels. Rouhani’s regime is clearly lying to the West.

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For those still trying to pedal the line that Iran is becoming a beacon of moderation in the region under President Rouhani, it must be deflating to learn that Iran is to appoint one of the 1979 U.S. embassy hostage takers as its new ambassador to the United Nations. Of course this is really just one more reason to question either the judgment or the integrity of those who continue to insist that Rouhani’s Iran is a state that the West can do business with. Naturally Monday morning’s press briefing at the State Department saw reporters eager to extract some official comment on the matter. But in the typically dismissive tone now symptomatic of State Department spokespeople, Marie Harf refused to give anything away, instead maintaining that this was a confidential visa issue; just like any other.

The man that Iran has made this supposedly unremarkable visa request on behalf of is Hamid Aboutalebi who was part of the militant group that took 52 American embassy staff hostage for 444 days in the wake of Iran’s Islamic revolution. The U.S. embassy in Tehran was seized and occupied in 1979 by the radical group Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line, of which Aboutalebi was a member. Although Aboutalebi has at times attempted to play down his role in the hostage taking–claiming that he simply acted as a translator–his picture is still displayed on the page of the group’s website that celebrates the hostage taking. Besides, Aboutalebi began working as a diplomat for the Islamic regime shortly after the revolution. He and another of the hostage takers were sent on a diplomatic mission to Algeria at a time when the country was a locus for Third World terror groups, including the PLO.

Since then Hamid Aboutalebi has had a prestigious career. He has served as the Iranian ambassador to Australia, Belgium and Italy. And it should also be noted that Aboutalebi was part of Iran’s diplomatic service under previous President Ahmadinejad. And so really his appointment to represent Iran at the UN is just another reminder that Rouhani’s administration has preserved more continuity with previous Iranian governments than it has brought change. This should hardly be considered surprising. If Rouhani had genuinely represented such a radical break then Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khameini never would have allowed his name to go onto the ballot slip in the first place. Those prone to delusional levels of wishful thinking delight in parading Rouhani’s tweet wishing Jews new year’s greetings, but when it came to celebrating the revolution’s anniversary, Iranian state television broadcast simulated footage of Iran carpet bombing the Jewish state and attacking U.S. naval vessels. Rouhani’s regime is clearly lying to the West.

It should be obvious to most that Iran appointing a former hostage taker to be its ambassador to the UN is a hostile act. It certainly would be hard work to misconstrue it as a friendly one. Yet in the West politicians have been working hard to portray Rouhani’s regime as being if not friendly, then at least reasonable; open to discussion about its illegal nuclear program. The Europeans are desperate to lift sanctions so as to resume trade with Iran, the Obama administration is desperate to avoid the use of force in confronting the coming nuclear crisis.

No wonder then that the State Department was hardly enthusiastic about discussing this. When questioned on the matter Ms Harf first sought to divert the conversation to the riveting matter of administrating visas saying, “We don’t discuss individual visa cases. People are free to apply for one, and their visas are adjudicated under the normal procedures that we adjudicate people’s. And we don’t comment and we don’t make a prediction about the outcome of what that process might look like.” When that failed to satisfy reporters, Harf tried moving the conversation along by raising the matter of the latest round of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program saying; “Those are moving forward – difficult, but businesslike and on track for the third round.” No mention of whether or not Iran’s appointment of such a man as Aboutalebi to just about the highest diplomatic office is likely to harm cooperation with the West, including on such sensitive matters as the nuclear negotiations.

Clearly Aboutalebi’s appointment is significant. Such a move would not have been taken without consideration of its implications for relations with the U.S. and the West generally. Yet this move, if it goes ahead, will undoubtedly have consequences and is just another reminder that Rouhani’s Iran really isn’t so different from Ahmadinejad’s. 

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Will Obama Listen to What Iran is Saying?

Earlier this week, President Obama sent a celebratory message to the people and the leaders of Iran on the occasion of the Nowruz, the Persian New Year. The annual videotaped presidential missive was very much in the spirit of the administration’s policy toward Iran emphasizing not only holiday cheer but also a belief in the need for the U.S. and Iran to resolve their differences, especially with regard to the nuclear negotiations now going on. In doing so, the president went even further than previous statements about the talks in which he said he supported a peaceful Iranian nuclear program and predicted a deal that would strengthen the economy of the Islamist regime. Israeli President Shimon Peres also sent his own equally conciliatory message to Iran that emphasized peace.

But if either leader were expecting a friendly reply from Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, they were disappointed. Speaking earlier today to commemorate the holiday, Khamenei brushed off conciliation, attacking the idea of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, questioning the Holocaust and vowing to triumph over international sanctions.

Given Khamenei’s history of hate speech directed at both the “Great Satan” (the U.S.) and the “Little Satan” (Israel), none of this is particularly surprising. Khamenei is the embodiment of a regime saturated in hostility to the West and anti-Semitism and whose support of international terrorism and a nuclear weapon is closely tied to its ideological goals. The only mystery about this is why Americans refuse to take him seriously when he speaks in this manner.

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Earlier this week, President Obama sent a celebratory message to the people and the leaders of Iran on the occasion of the Nowruz, the Persian New Year. The annual videotaped presidential missive was very much in the spirit of the administration’s policy toward Iran emphasizing not only holiday cheer but also a belief in the need for the U.S. and Iran to resolve their differences, especially with regard to the nuclear negotiations now going on. In doing so, the president went even further than previous statements about the talks in which he said he supported a peaceful Iranian nuclear program and predicted a deal that would strengthen the economy of the Islamist regime. Israeli President Shimon Peres also sent his own equally conciliatory message to Iran that emphasized peace.

But if either leader were expecting a friendly reply from Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, they were disappointed. Speaking earlier today to commemorate the holiday, Khamenei brushed off conciliation, attacking the idea of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, questioning the Holocaust and vowing to triumph over international sanctions.

Given Khamenei’s history of hate speech directed at both the “Great Satan” (the U.S.) and the “Little Satan” (Israel), none of this is particularly surprising. Khamenei is the embodiment of a regime saturated in hostility to the West and anti-Semitism and whose support of international terrorism and a nuclear weapon is closely tied to its ideological goals. The only mystery about this is why Americans refuse to take him seriously when he speaks in this manner.

According to the Times of Israel, this is what Khamenei had to say about the Holocaust:

“The Holocaust is an event whose reality is uncertain and if it has happened, it’s uncertain how it has happened,” Khamenei said during his address, according to a Twitter account under his name thought to be run by his office.

“Expressing opinion about the Holocaust, or casting doubt on it, is one of the greatest sins in the West. They prevent this, arrest the doubters, try them while claiming to be a free country,” said Khamenei, who has repeatedly called the Holocaust a “myth.”

“They passionately defend their red lines … How do they expect us to overlook our red lines that are based on our revolutionary and religious beliefs.”

As much as the president insists that he has his eyes wide open when it comes to Iran, his policies toward it have always reflected a degree of naïveté about the nature of its government and an unwillingness to confront it. From his first attempts at “engagement” to his shameful silence during the 2009 repression of demonstrators in Tehran to the current interim nuclear deal that granted Iran significant concessions in return for nothing of substance from them, Obama has been consistent in his desire for a new détente with the regime.

The administration has disingenuously sought to use the victory of Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s faux presidential election last year to justify a belief in Iranian moderation but the end of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s term in office changed nothing. Holocaust denial is pervasive throughout the Iranian leadership not because they like to offend Jewish and Western sensibilities but because it is integral to their anti-Semitic worldview. Rouhani is no moderate but even if he were one, it is Khamenei who runs the country.

This week’s exchange of greetings proves again that Iran has always viewed Western efforts at appeasement with contempt. They have given every indication that they consider Obama weak and too irresolute to hold them accountable for terrorism, arms smuggling aimed at inciting Palestinian violence or their nuclear quest. Nothing Khamenei says will likely deter President Obama from pursuing a nuclear deal. But the administration must, above all, learn to take Iran at its word when it threatens genocide and or says it will never back down on the nuclear question. If not, this pointless back and forth will be merely the forerunner of even more dangerous dialogue that will be heard after the Iranians reach their nuclear goal.

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Rouhani Spikes the Ball in Obama’s Face

President Obama and his allies are working overtime this week to lobby the Senate against passage of a new round of tough sanctions on Iran. The conceit of his campaign to persuade Congress not to give him more leverage over Tehran is that even the threat of further economic pressure on the regime would cause it to scuttle more nuclear talks. According to the administration, any further sanctions would “break faith” with a country that Obama wants to do business with on the nuclear question as well as on the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

But while the president is bending over backward trying to avoid giving offense to his diplomatic dance partners, the Iranians have a very different mindset. Rather than displaying the skittish fear of blowing up the talks the president is displaying, the Iranians are spending the days after the finalization of the interim deal signed in November spiking the football in Obama’s face. That’s the only way to interpret the tweet put out this morning by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the so-called moderate whose victory in a faux election last summer was seen by the administration as a sign Iran was changing for the better, in which he said:

Our relationship with the world is based on Iranian nation’s interests. In #Geneva agreement world powers surrendered to Iranian nation’s will.

While such gloating is unseemly even for a functionary of a tyrannical regime, given the terms of the deal and the publicly stated fears of the president that Iran might flee the talks if the Senate did anything to offend them, it’s hard to argue with Rouhani’s assessment of the situation. The president and Secretary of State Kerry have represented the nuclear deal as a victory for the West since it supposedly hits the pause button on the Iranian program while maintaining almost all of the economic sanctions that brought Tehran to the negotiating table in the first place. But the Iranians, buoyed by a resurgent economy, have a very different perspective on the accord. The willingness of Iran’s leaders—both the so-called “moderates” and their “hard-line” opponents—to characterize the agreement as a triumph for Iran’s foreign-policy goals as well as its nuclear ambition makes the administration’s fear of offending them look ridiculous, not to mention downright craven.

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President Obama and his allies are working overtime this week to lobby the Senate against passage of a new round of tough sanctions on Iran. The conceit of his campaign to persuade Congress not to give him more leverage over Tehran is that even the threat of further economic pressure on the regime would cause it to scuttle more nuclear talks. According to the administration, any further sanctions would “break faith” with a country that Obama wants to do business with on the nuclear question as well as on the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

But while the president is bending over backward trying to avoid giving offense to his diplomatic dance partners, the Iranians have a very different mindset. Rather than displaying the skittish fear of blowing up the talks the president is displaying, the Iranians are spending the days after the finalization of the interim deal signed in November spiking the football in Obama’s face. That’s the only way to interpret the tweet put out this morning by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the so-called moderate whose victory in a faux election last summer was seen by the administration as a sign Iran was changing for the better, in which he said:

Our relationship with the world is based on Iranian nation’s interests. In #Geneva agreement world powers surrendered to Iranian nation’s will.

While such gloating is unseemly even for a functionary of a tyrannical regime, given the terms of the deal and the publicly stated fears of the president that Iran might flee the talks if the Senate did anything to offend them, it’s hard to argue with Rouhani’s assessment of the situation. The president and Secretary of State Kerry have represented the nuclear deal as a victory for the West since it supposedly hits the pause button on the Iranian program while maintaining almost all of the economic sanctions that brought Tehran to the negotiating table in the first place. But the Iranians, buoyed by a resurgent economy, have a very different perspective on the accord. The willingness of Iran’s leaders—both the so-called “moderates” and their “hard-line” opponents—to characterize the agreement as a triumph for Iran’s foreign-policy goals as well as its nuclear ambition makes the administration’s fear of offending them look ridiculous, not to mention downright craven.

 As the New York Times reports, the “hardliners” who are reportedly working to undermine Rouhani are actually quite pleased with what their country’s negotiators achieved in Geneva. Conservative clerics in Iran’s parliament are acknowledging that the deal sanctioned Iran’s continuing enrichment of uranium, thereby upending years of United Nations resolutions attempting to stop the practice. They also know that, despite the downplaying of these gifts by Kerry, their country received significant relief from sanctions that will make it far easier for the regime to continuing selling oil. That will keep their government afloat as well as finance Iran’s nuclear project, its interventions in Syria and Iraq, and its support of international terrorism.

What’s more, far from displaying any worry about the U.S. withdrawing these benefits, Iran’s leaders also seem to think now is a good time to rub the Americans’ faces in their disgrace. Rouhani’s foreign minister, Mohamad Javid Zarif, who was shaking hands with Kerry in Geneva in November, yesterday took time out to lay a wreath at the grave of the man who planned the terrorist attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 as well as other crimes against Americans. As Tower.org reported, Zarif paid homage to Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh in Lebanon yesterday, making clear that the new moderate government maintains the same policy priorities as the hardliners.

Of course, the revelation that the secret diplomatic back-channel talks that led to the November deal began before Rouhani’s election last summer gave the lie to the notion that the renewed talks were the result of changes on Iran’s part rather than Obama’s decision to give Tehran what it wanted. But as Elliott Abrams noted today at Pressure Points, the juxtaposition between the administration’s weakness and Iran’s chutzpah bodes ill for the next round of nuclear talks.

The Iranians have always acted as if they thought Obama was a weakling, but their brazen behavior this week demonstrates again that they think there is nothing they can do or say that could possibly provoke a reaction from Washington. While the president pulls out all the stops to prevent even the threat of future sanctions—the proposal being considered by the Senate would not go into effect until after the next round of talks fails—the Iranians are showing they will agree to nothing that will thwart their nuclear ambitions and think Obama won’t lift a finger to stop them.

Rather than bolstering the president’s effort to stop the sanctions bill, Rouhani’s tweet, Zarif’s photo op, and the general applause for the deal being sounded by Iran’s theocrats should convince the Senate to pass the sanctions bill. While Iran is unlikely to halt its  nuclear program under any circumstances, any slim hope of diplomatic success rests on a credible threat of U.S. pressure on the regime. Far from sparking conflict, the sanctions bill may be the only hope Washington has of influencing the Iranians to turn back before it’s too late.

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Iran and the U.S. Don’t Share Goals

When it comes to Iran, hopes in Washington appear to be outrunning the reality on the ground. Based on the fact that Iran has agreed to a slowdown in its nuclear program–nothing more, and even that hasn’t actually been implemented yet–many policymakers and analysts are envisioning a new alignment in which the U.S. and Iran work together for the greater good of the Middle East.

As Jonathan Tobin wrote earlier today, this New York Times article from Tehran, written by Thomas Erdbrink, is indicative of the current zeitgeist. It claims that Washington and Tehran “are being drawn together by their mutual opposition to an international movement of young Sunni fighters, who with their pickup trucks and Kalashnikovs are raising the black flag of Al Qaeda along sectarian fault lines in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.”

There is no doubt that Iran has cause to be unhappy about Sunni Islamist extremists in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon who are fighting its proxies–even going so far as to bomb the Iranian embassy in Beirut. But that is a far cry from claiming that the U.S. and Iran share identical goals in the region.

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When it comes to Iran, hopes in Washington appear to be outrunning the reality on the ground. Based on the fact that Iran has agreed to a slowdown in its nuclear program–nothing more, and even that hasn’t actually been implemented yet–many policymakers and analysts are envisioning a new alignment in which the U.S. and Iran work together for the greater good of the Middle East.

As Jonathan Tobin wrote earlier today, this New York Times article from Tehran, written by Thomas Erdbrink, is indicative of the current zeitgeist. It claims that Washington and Tehran “are being drawn together by their mutual opposition to an international movement of young Sunni fighters, who with their pickup trucks and Kalashnikovs are raising the black flag of Al Qaeda along sectarian fault lines in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.”

There is no doubt that Iran has cause to be unhappy about Sunni Islamist extremists in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon who are fighting its proxies–even going so far as to bomb the Iranian embassy in Beirut. But that is a far cry from claiming that the U.S. and Iran share identical goals in the region.

The U.S. grand objective is pretty clear: stability above all, even if many Americans disagree about whether long-term stability is better achieved by backing dictatorships or nascent democracies. Under the rubric of stability, the U.S. would specifically like to see the defeat of al-Qaeda, the end of the Iranian nuclear program, the negotiation of an accord between Israel and the Palestinians, and the end of the Syrian civil war, among other objectives.

Now what is the Iranian goal? Is it stability above all? Hardly. If that were the case, why would the Iranians be backing insurgent groups such as Hezbollah (which is receiving long-range Iranian rockets) and the opposition in Bahrain (which was the would-be recipient of a boatload of arms from Iran that was intercepted by Bahraini authorities)?

Iran is a revolutionary, not a status quo power, and its goal above all is regional hegemony. Only by accepting Iranian hegemony could the U.S. truly get on the same page as the Islamic Republic. But the cost of such acceptance would be so high (Do we truly want the Quds Force dominant in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Kabul, Bahrain, Doha, Abu Dhabi, and other capitals? Do we want to permanently alienate allies in Saudi Arabia and Israel?) that it would be unacceptable.

The U.S. and Iran can still cooperate occasionally against common foes–for example the Taliban in 2001. But absent American acceptance of Iranian hegemony such cooperation is likely to prove fleeting and inconsequential–witness more recent Iranian smuggling of arms to the Taliban. The suggestion that some kind of grand bargain is in the offing between Washington and Tehran strikes me as fanciful–unless President Obama is prepared to maker greater concessions to the Iranians that anyone can presently imagine.

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The Iranian Enemy of Our Enemy Is Also Our Enemy

Skeptics of President Obama’s attempt to engage Iran have long feared that the goal of his administration’s diplomatic efforts was a new détente with Tehran rather than bring an end to its nuclear program or to halt its support for terrorism. Even in the wake of the nuclear deal signed in Geneva in November that, astonishingly, granted tacit Western approval to Iran’s enrichment of uranium and loosened economic sanctions, the administration’s defenders scoffed at those concerned about the feckless new foreign-policy approach that seemed geared more toward warming relations with the Islamist regime than to isolating it. But Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to invite the Iranians to participate in discussions about the future of Syria—a nation which continues to be ruled by a murderous tyrant largely because of Iranian intervention on his behalf in the civil war there—in addition to the clear signals that Washington and Tehran will also be cooperating in Iraq have made it clear that détente with Iran is already a fait accompli, and not merely fodder for the speculation of pundits.

The justification for this policy is the notion that when facing a common enemy, countries otherwise at each other’s throats will prefer to cooperate. As the New York Times notes today in a front-page feature touting this new approach as reason enough to justify U.S.-Iranian amity, the renewed threat from al-Qaeda in Iraq has created a situation in which both the U.S. and Iran share a desire to see the existing governments in Iraq remain in place. To that end, it is certainly in the interests of U.S. policy to try to ensure that Iran does not destabilize the situation. But to assume that just because the ayatollahs dislike al-Qaeda the U.S. should embrace this new ally is a dangerous miscalculation. Iran may be the enemy of our enemy, but contrary to the adage now popular among the administration’s cheering section at the Times, that doesn’t make Tehran a friend. In this case, the Iranian enemy of America’s al-Qaeda enemy is also our enemy.

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Skeptics of President Obama’s attempt to engage Iran have long feared that the goal of his administration’s diplomatic efforts was a new détente with Tehran rather than bring an end to its nuclear program or to halt its support for terrorism. Even in the wake of the nuclear deal signed in Geneva in November that, astonishingly, granted tacit Western approval to Iran’s enrichment of uranium and loosened economic sanctions, the administration’s defenders scoffed at those concerned about the feckless new foreign-policy approach that seemed geared more toward warming relations with the Islamist regime than to isolating it. But Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to invite the Iranians to participate in discussions about the future of Syria—a nation which continues to be ruled by a murderous tyrant largely because of Iranian intervention on his behalf in the civil war there—in addition to the clear signals that Washington and Tehran will also be cooperating in Iraq have made it clear that détente with Iran is already a fait accompli, and not merely fodder for the speculation of pundits.

The justification for this policy is the notion that when facing a common enemy, countries otherwise at each other’s throats will prefer to cooperate. As the New York Times notes today in a front-page feature touting this new approach as reason enough to justify U.S.-Iranian amity, the renewed threat from al-Qaeda in Iraq has created a situation in which both the U.S. and Iran share a desire to see the existing governments in Iraq remain in place. To that end, it is certainly in the interests of U.S. policy to try to ensure that Iran does not destabilize the situation. But to assume that just because the ayatollahs dislike al-Qaeda the U.S. should embrace this new ally is a dangerous miscalculation. Iran may be the enemy of our enemy, but contrary to the adage now popular among the administration’s cheering section at the Times, that doesn’t make Tehran a friend. In this case, the Iranian enemy of America’s al-Qaeda enemy is also our enemy.

Before anyone hops on the bandwagon forming to welcome Iranian intervention in the widening conflict in Iraq, it’s important to remember that these same hopes were once widely expressed about Tehran’s role in stabilizing Afghanistan. Though Iran has more at stake in any battle to preserve the government of fellow Shiites in Baghdad, anyone who believes Tehran’s goal is regional stability hasn’t been paying attention to Iranian foreign policy over the last 20 years.

Iran’s goals in the Middle East have been remarkably consistent for decades. It worked hard to forge an alliance with Syria to outflank Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime with which it fought a bloody war in the 1980s. Saddam’s fall and ultimate replacement by a majority-Shiite government gave Iran the opportunity to make Iraq an ally. Tehran did its best to hamper U.S. efforts to create stability–although it ultimately acquiesced in the creation of a majority-Shiite government. When President Obama left Iraq with no structure in place to maintain U.S. interests, that too worked to Iran’s advantage. Saddam—for all his massive, homicidal villainy—did serve as a check on Iran.

But the main battle that has interested Tehran in more recent years has been the one it has waged in Syria to preserve the murderous regime of Bashar Assad. When President Obama called for Assad to leave office but failed to do anything to bring about that result, the Iranians stepped into the vacuum, sending massive amounts of military aid and deploying their auxiliaries in the form of Hezbollah shock troops to shore up a tottering Damascus government. While the West dithered, Iran’s troops turned the tide.There is little doubt that Assad’s hold on power—despite murdering more than 100,000 Syrians—is secure.

Iran’s victory in Syria combined with Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon have created a pro-Tehran axis that threatens the security of moderate Arab governments in the region, as well as that of Israel, as much as al-Qaeda’s resurgence. Rather than a solution to America’s problems, every effort to move closer to Iran is tantamount to placing a Western imprimatur on the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. Just as the deal signed by Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva gives Iran’s nuclear program a Western seal of approval, additional cooperation with Tehran elsewhere creates a perilous situation in which the West, in its folly, is agreeing to the existence of an Iranian sphere of influence that fundamentally alters the balance of power in the region.

Every advantage the U.S. thinks it gains from détente with Iran in the present will be paid in the future as the Islamist regime consolidates its power, especially if the diplomatic shell game Tehran is playing with Kerry leads to the complete collapse of Western economic sanctions. That is the key for the Iranians, because once that happens there will be no reassembling the reluctant coalition that the U.S. spent the last decade cobbling together.

A wise U.S. foreign policy would be one that recognizes that common ground with Iran is a Western illusion. The gap that separates the U.S. from a radical Islamist, anti-Semitic and terror-sponsoring government in Tehran, one with an openly-stated goal of annihilating the State of Israel cannot be bridged by a misguided understanding of realpolitik or the perception of shared interests in either Syria or Iraq. Dreams of détente with Iran will only lead to a nightmare Middle East in which genuine U.S. allies are left alone to deal with a genocidal Islamist nuclear regional power. The enemy of our enemy in Iraq is still our enemy.

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What Should the U.S. Ask from Iran?

The Obama administration’s decision to sign a deal with Iran has brought the differences between the U.S. and Israel on the issue of the Islamist regime’s nuclear ambitions out into the open. Much of the debate about the question has focused on the fears of the Israeli government and many Americans that an agreement that loosened sanctions while allowing Tehran to continue enriching uranium and while retaining its nuclear infrastructure will not halt Iran’s march to a weapon. Both countries have sought to minimize the argument by focusing on disagreements about negotiations or the proper timing and application of sanctions while still insisting that they share a common goal. But this may obscure a more fundamental disagreement about whether an Iran run by extremist clerics and still dedicated to spreading terror and achieving regional hegemony can be integrated into the international community.

That is the backdrop for the anger being expressed by the administration and its cheerleaders in the foreign-policy establishment at Israel’s criticisms of the Iran deal. As this analysis by Reuters explains, supporters of the administration’s policy believe the conditions being proposed by Israel about a final deal with Iran are intended to sabotage the diplomatic process. In this version of events, Reuters’ sources say Netanyahu’s attempt to get the West to force Iran not only to reduce its enrichment but also dismantle its nuclear plants, end its ballistic missile project, cease supporting terrorism and incitement against Israel, and commit to respecting human rights are “crazy maximalist demands.” In doing so, Netanyahu is seen as not only trying to derail the talks with Iran but also inciting Congress to forestall any effort to expand upon them to create a new détente between the ayatollah’s regime and the U.S. But rather than focusing solely on the administration’s frustration at Jerusalem’s efforts to slow down the administration’s rush to end the conflict, perhaps it might be a good time to ask what exactly the United States wants from Iran.

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The Obama administration’s decision to sign a deal with Iran has brought the differences between the U.S. and Israel on the issue of the Islamist regime’s nuclear ambitions out into the open. Much of the debate about the question has focused on the fears of the Israeli government and many Americans that an agreement that loosened sanctions while allowing Tehran to continue enriching uranium and while retaining its nuclear infrastructure will not halt Iran’s march to a weapon. Both countries have sought to minimize the argument by focusing on disagreements about negotiations or the proper timing and application of sanctions while still insisting that they share a common goal. But this may obscure a more fundamental disagreement about whether an Iran run by extremist clerics and still dedicated to spreading terror and achieving regional hegemony can be integrated into the international community.

That is the backdrop for the anger being expressed by the administration and its cheerleaders in the foreign-policy establishment at Israel’s criticisms of the Iran deal. As this analysis by Reuters explains, supporters of the administration’s policy believe the conditions being proposed by Israel about a final deal with Iran are intended to sabotage the diplomatic process. In this version of events, Reuters’ sources say Netanyahu’s attempt to get the West to force Iran not only to reduce its enrichment but also dismantle its nuclear plants, end its ballistic missile project, cease supporting terrorism and incitement against Israel, and commit to respecting human rights are “crazy maximalist demands.” In doing so, Netanyahu is seen as not only trying to derail the talks with Iran but also inciting Congress to forestall any effort to expand upon them to create a new détente between the ayatollah’s regime and the U.S. But rather than focusing solely on the administration’s frustration at Jerusalem’s efforts to slow down the administration’s rush to end the conflict, perhaps it might be a good time to ask what exactly the United States wants from Iran.

Dating back to his first presidential campaign, President Obama has been clear about his desire to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. There has never been any deviation from that goal in the rhetoric of the administration. But he has also been consistent in his desire not so much to strip the ayatollahs of their nuclear toys but to create a dialogue and an end to decades of confrontation between the U.S. and Iran. Obama’s desire for engagement with Iran was no secret during the 2008 campaign and was given a prominent mention in his first inaugural address. During his five years in office, Obama’s efforts to achieve engagement have been as fruitless as those of his predecessors. But the Geneva accord has given new life to the effort.

The desire for more than a nuclear deal with Iran is the only logical explanation for the hysteria emanating from the White House at the prospect of Congress passing another round of sanctions. Since the proposal being pushed by a bipartisan coalition in the Senate would do nothing more than strengthen Obama’s leverage in the talks with Iran, his threat of a veto and talk about opposing anything that would “break faith” with a regime that has never acted or negotiated in good faith seems bizarre. But if the president’s real object is not the narrow goal of ending the Iranian nuclear threat, it makes sense.

The same question applies to the anger expressed in Washington and in European capitals at Israel’s attempt to remind the West that uranium enrichment isn’t the only aspect of Iranian policy of concern.

First of all, it should be remembered that Netanyahu’s effort to get the West to force Iran to dismantle its nuclear project isn’t a new demand invented by Israel to stop the talks. It reflects President Obama’s explicit promises about the nuclear threat including this passage from his October 22, 2012 foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney:

So the work that we’ve done with respect to sanctions now offers Iran a choice. They can take the diplomatic route and end their nuclear program or they will have to face a united world and a United States president, me, who said we’re not going to take any options off the table.

As the president rightly indicated at that time, anything short of that would pave the way for a bomb, especially given Iran’s history of promise-breaking and America’s experience of such deals with other scofflaws like North Korea.

Just as important, a tunnel vision-like focus on the nuclear issue that ignores Iran’s ballistic weapons program would be more than shortsighted. Iran may claim the goal of its missiles is a peaceful space program, but the Islamist regime is no more interested in space than it is in peaceful uses of nuclear energy. If anything, it would be “crazy” for the U.S. to ignore the missiles that could deliver potential Iranian weapons not only to Israel but also to Western targets.

Critics of Israel claim these are unrealistic demands, but that view reflects a defeatism about diplomacy that is unwarranted. With the military and economic leverage the U.S. possesses, there is no reason to think Iran can’t be compelled to give up its nukes or missiles.

That also applies to acknowledging  the fact that Iran is a state sponsor of terror as well as understanding that another Iranian goal is to extend its sphere of influence beyond its borders throughout the Middle East via allies like Bashar Assad, Hezbollah, and perhaps even Hamas. Nor should Iran’s demonization of Israel that Jerusalem has rightly termed “genocidal” be off the table. If Iran is really changing its stripes, a dubious assertion based on the victory of Hassan Rouhani in the country’s faux presidential election last summer, then surely it is not too much to ask that it change its tune about terror and end its incitement against Israel along with its nuclear project.

Rather than carping about Israel, these are exactly the questions that both the media and Congress should be asking about the direction of U.S. policy toward Iran in the wake of the Geneva deal. Were Iran as moderate as the U.S. hopes, its nuclear program would not be so troubling. The choice with Iran is not one between war and peace. Instead, it is whether the U.S. is prepared to make its peace with an aggressive nuclear Iran or a peaceful nation that is not a threat to its Arab neighbors as well as to Israel. If the administration isn’t prepared to ask Iran to change, then the result of any nuclear deal isn’t likely to make the region or the United States safer. Even assuming the doubtful proposition that the current diplomatic effort will actually stop Iran’s weapons program, a nuclear deal that leaves the ayatollah’s missiles, terror, and hate in place is an open invitation to future conflict, not peace or détente.

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Enrichment Leaves Iran Path to the Bomb

The U.S. foreign-policy establishment has been adamant in its support for President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. They believe criticism of the accord reached in Geneva from Israel and Americans who worry the president has thrown away the West’s economic leverage in pursuit of a foolish hope of détente with the Islamist regime is wrong because the deal is a reasonable first step toward ending the threat of a bomb. If America’s policy were actually to achieve that end and conclusively forestall any hope of an Iranian bomb, that establishment consensus will prove to be correct. But unfortunately the indications coming out of Washington make those assumptions look silly.

Though it didn’t make headlines, the confirmation that any follow-up deal with Iran will protect their “right” to enrich uranium is the worst sign that the ultimate conclusion to this story won’t wind up making Obama and his cheerleaders look too smart. The Washington Free Beacon first reported yesterday that the administration was exploring ways to craft a nuclear agreement that would give Iran its own “domestic” enrichment program:

“Over the next six months, we will explore, in practical terms, whether and how Iran might end up with a limited, tightly constrained, and intensively monitored civilian nuclear program, including domestic enrichment,” White House National Security Council (NSC) spokesman Caitlin Hayden told the Washington Free Beacon.

“Any such program,” she said, “would be subject to strict and verifiable curbs on its capacity and stockpiles of enriched uranium for a significant number of years and tied to practical energy needs that will remain minimal for years to come.”

But the problem with the curbs any such deal would put in place is that they could be easily and quickly evaded in any nuclear breakout toward a bomb. By leaving Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in place and giving them the ability to build up their stockpile of nuclear fuel, the West is relying on monitoring, inspections, and agreements to ensure that won’t happen. But the only way to ensure that it won’t is to insist on Iran dismantling its centrifuges and exporting its hoard of enriched uranium. By not only tacitly acknowledging Iran’s enrichment in the current deal and then also openly saying that it won’t insist on those practical measures in follow-up talks, the administration is dooming any hope that its strategy will achieve the objective of preventing an Islamist nuke.

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The U.S. foreign-policy establishment has been adamant in its support for President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. They believe criticism of the accord reached in Geneva from Israel and Americans who worry the president has thrown away the West’s economic leverage in pursuit of a foolish hope of détente with the Islamist regime is wrong because the deal is a reasonable first step toward ending the threat of a bomb. If America’s policy were actually to achieve that end and conclusively forestall any hope of an Iranian bomb, that establishment consensus will prove to be correct. But unfortunately the indications coming out of Washington make those assumptions look silly.

Though it didn’t make headlines, the confirmation that any follow-up deal with Iran will protect their “right” to enrich uranium is the worst sign that the ultimate conclusion to this story won’t wind up making Obama and his cheerleaders look too smart. The Washington Free Beacon first reported yesterday that the administration was exploring ways to craft a nuclear agreement that would give Iran its own “domestic” enrichment program:

“Over the next six months, we will explore, in practical terms, whether and how Iran might end up with a limited, tightly constrained, and intensively monitored civilian nuclear program, including domestic enrichment,” White House National Security Council (NSC) spokesman Caitlin Hayden told the Washington Free Beacon.

“Any such program,” she said, “would be subject to strict and verifiable curbs on its capacity and stockpiles of enriched uranium for a significant number of years and tied to practical energy needs that will remain minimal for years to come.”

But the problem with the curbs any such deal would put in place is that they could be easily and quickly evaded in any nuclear breakout toward a bomb. By leaving Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in place and giving them the ability to build up their stockpile of nuclear fuel, the West is relying on monitoring, inspections, and agreements to ensure that won’t happen. But the only way to ensure that it won’t is to insist on Iran dismantling its centrifuges and exporting its hoard of enriched uranium. By not only tacitly acknowledging Iran’s enrichment in the current deal and then also openly saying that it won’t insist on those practical measures in follow-up talks, the administration is dooming any hope that its strategy will achieve the objective of preventing an Islamist nuke.

Most of the discussion about uranium has focused on the efforts of Western negotiators to get the Iranians to agree not to enrich up to 20 percent or higher, the threshold at which the material becomes suited for military purposes rather than civilian energy production or research. Thus we are told that accords that limit Iranian enrichment to below five percent is the magic bullet that will prevent the nightmare of an Iranian bomb. But what those putting this message out consistently fail to say is that uranium enriched at low levels could be refined to get to the far higher percentage needed for a bomb. While the process to do this is not done in the snap of a finger, such a breakout is not a long-term project. With enough centrifuges—and the Iranians already have enough—it would only take a matter of weeks. The interim agreement President Obama got the Iranians to sign only lengthens that breakout period to a matter of weeks.

What all this means is that if the final agreement that the administration is hoping to get Iran to sign leaves them the ability to keep enriching uranium and the equipment to perform a breakout, the entire concept is based more on trusting the Iranians to keep their promises than anything else. Indeed, with the U.S. stating this openly now, there is no reason for the Iranians not to plan on breaking out whenever they think the time is right.

Perhaps President Obama is hoping that moment will come in 2017 or later when he is safely out of office and can hope to evade the blame for such a disaster. But whenever it happens—and given the importance the ayatollahs have placed on their nuclear quest, in the absence of measures that would actually prevent it, there is no reason to think it won’t eventually happen—there should be no doubt about what led to such a result.

The West entered negotiations with Iran with all the advantages on its side: tough economic sanctions that crippled its economy and a credible military threat from either the U.S. or Israel to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities if the ayatollahs remained obdurate. But instead of using that edge to force the Iranians to dismantle their program, President Obama opted instead to act as if he had no choice but to bow to Iran’s demands. The alternative to appeasement wasn’t war but more pressure on Iran to get an outcome that would end the nuclear threat. Instead the president has chosen to leave the Iranians a path to a weapon in the hope that diplomacy could achieve a genuine détente with a terrorist-sponsoring regime that spews hate and hostility to the West. By agreeing to enrichment, Obama is leaving a loophole a mile wide for the Iranians to push through to a bomb.

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Who Let Iran Get So Close to a Nuke?

The smoke signals coming from the first session of the reconvened P5+1 talks in Geneva today don’t tell us much about whether Iran’s charm offensive is succeeding. The Iranians presented a plan to the group of negotiators representing the members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany that will do little to alter their drive to gain a nuclear weapon. Tehran is counting on the ardent desire of the Obama administration for an end to the confrontation over the issue echoed by some (though perhaps not all) of its European partners to enable them to at least draw out the negotiations over the coming months if not to fool the West into signing onto a deal that will be easily evaded by the ayatollahs.

So far, we have little indication as to whether the U.S. is willing to accept the sort of “bad deal” that Secretary of State John Kerry, let alone Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, has warned against. But there is one thing that we know. The reason why the negotiations are so critical is that over the past several years Iran has made so much progress toward the completion of a bomb that there isn’t time for a long drawn out diplomatic process. As the New York Times reports:

On Monday, a senior American official said that the United States wanted Iran to take steps that were “transparent and verifiable” to constrain its program and to assure the West that it was not intending to produce a nuclear bomb.

Iran’s nuclear efforts had advanced so much, the American official added, that Iran needed to take stops now to halt or even reverse its nuclear program so there was time to negotiate a comprehensive agreement.

It’s fair to point out that American officials have spent the last five years persuading those who are worried about the nuclear threat reassuring us that there is plenty of time to talk about it and that the “window of diplomacy” was still open. To that end, the Obama administration has wasted years on laughable attempts to engage the Islamist regime and on diplomacy aimed at assembling a weak international coalition willing to impose sanctions on Iran and a diplomatic process that consistently flopped. Thus, if Iran is so much closer to realizing its dream of obtaining a genocidal weapon and making diplomacy difficult it is only because they have successfully manipulated a U.S. administration that wanted to be deceived. That’s something to be taken into consideration as we observe the ability of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to persuade the West to restart diplomacy almost as if the past decade of talks had never occurred.

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The smoke signals coming from the first session of the reconvened P5+1 talks in Geneva today don’t tell us much about whether Iran’s charm offensive is succeeding. The Iranians presented a plan to the group of negotiators representing the members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany that will do little to alter their drive to gain a nuclear weapon. Tehran is counting on the ardent desire of the Obama administration for an end to the confrontation over the issue echoed by some (though perhaps not all) of its European partners to enable them to at least draw out the negotiations over the coming months if not to fool the West into signing onto a deal that will be easily evaded by the ayatollahs.

So far, we have little indication as to whether the U.S. is willing to accept the sort of “bad deal” that Secretary of State John Kerry, let alone Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, has warned against. But there is one thing that we know. The reason why the negotiations are so critical is that over the past several years Iran has made so much progress toward the completion of a bomb that there isn’t time for a long drawn out diplomatic process. As the New York Times reports:

On Monday, a senior American official said that the United States wanted Iran to take steps that were “transparent and verifiable” to constrain its program and to assure the West that it was not intending to produce a nuclear bomb.

Iran’s nuclear efforts had advanced so much, the American official added, that Iran needed to take stops now to halt or even reverse its nuclear program so there was time to negotiate a comprehensive agreement.

It’s fair to point out that American officials have spent the last five years persuading those who are worried about the nuclear threat reassuring us that there is plenty of time to talk about it and that the “window of diplomacy” was still open. To that end, the Obama administration has wasted years on laughable attempts to engage the Islamist regime and on diplomacy aimed at assembling a weak international coalition willing to impose sanctions on Iran and a diplomatic process that consistently flopped. Thus, if Iran is so much closer to realizing its dream of obtaining a genocidal weapon and making diplomacy difficult it is only because they have successfully manipulated a U.S. administration that wanted to be deceived. That’s something to be taken into consideration as we observe the ability of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to persuade the West to restart diplomacy almost as if the past decade of talks had never occurred.

While the details of the Iranian proposal were not made public, the regime’s representatives have made it clear that they have no intention of exporting their existing stockpile of enriched uranium or of halting their production of more nuclear fuel. But even if the West rejects, as they likely will, the Iranian proposal, there is little doubt that the talks will continue. But the Iranians have already scored a triumph by getting the U.S. to concede their right to a nuclear program, as President Obama said at the United Nations last month, albeit one whose purpose is peaceful. So long as Iran keeps enriching and their existing supply remains within their borders, they retain the capacity to quickly repossess it and get it up to military grade thus rendering the safeguards proposed by Western negotiators meaningless.

Most of those pushing for the new talks because of their belief in Rouhani’s supposed moderation have emphasized the need to turn the page on the failure of past diplomatic endeavors with Iran. But it is precisely because the Iranians have been so good at deceiving the West before that skepticism should be the main theme of American diplomacy with Iran.

This is, after all, not the first time that a president came into office determined to push diplomacy on this issue. When President Obama arrived at the White House in January 2009, he acted as if his predecessor had never tried to reach out to the Iranians. Though the Iranians had repeatedly stiffed the Bush administration’s efforts to cut a nuclear deal with them (with Rouhani being the point man in the deception at one point), President Obama insisted that the U.S. had to restart the process at square one as his outreach efforts were employed.

If rather than ignoring the past in 2009, Obama had built upon the experiences of the past the U.S. might not be in the difficult position in which it now finds itself with little margin for error when it comes to Iran. Had tough sanctions been imposed in 2009 rather than waiting until 2012, not only would the Islamist regime be far weaker, they would also be approaching nuclear talks without having used that time to build up its supply of enriched uranium.

The point of rehashing this history is not so much to blame the president for leaving the world so little margin of error on this threat — though he certainly deserves it — but to illustrate that there is a high price to pay for mistakes. Giving the diplomats more time to fail is not, as the administration seems to think, a cost-free exercise. Having spent five years failing to halt Iran, the same president is now embarking on a diplomatic process that may well prove to be open-ended and unlikely to succeed. Another such triumph for Iran may take the U.S. to the point where it may well be too late to use force to stop the Iranians. If so, instead of merely chalking that up to Iranian bad faith, we would do well to hold accountable those in the West that made this possible.

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Iran Danger Is Delay, Not Deal

President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu today and reportedly sought to reassure him that the Iranian charm offensive wasn’t working. Despite the way the administration welcomed the alleged moderation of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and its determined efforts to initiate some form of dialogue with Tehran—Rouhani refused to meet or shake hands with the president in New York last week but deigned to accept a phone call from Obama before he left New York—the president is trying to convince Netanyahu that he isn’t budging from his pledge that Iran won’t be allowed to develop nuclear weapons and he won’t be fooled by Iran’s negotiating strategies. Despite expressing a desire for accelerated talks with the Iranians, the White House and the State Department are also trying to calm down Israelis and others who rightly see the way much of the mainstream media swoon for Rouhani as indicative of a desire to appease Tehran.

But the problem here isn’t just the obsequious manner with which the administration has pursued Iran but the cost of the diplomatic process they are trying to reboot. Iran’s intransigence on the nuclear issue—openly expressed by Rouhani—may well make a deal impossible. Iran has had many such offers in the past decade, including some that were highly favorable to the Islamist regime that would have enabled them to go on enriching uranium and to keep up the pretense that this activity was aimed at peaceful uses of atomic energy and always turned them down in the end. It is also possible that a principled and tough-minded American negotiating strategy would eventually expose the Rouhani initiative as a fraud.

But by going down the garden path with Iran again, President Obama is both buying time and lending much-needed credibility to an Islamic regime that deserves none. In doing so, he will make it even more likely that the Iranians will be able to reach their nuclear goal and is undermining support for any future action that would hold them accountable for their actions. Even if the talks fail, by falling prey to the Rouhani gambit, the president has already handed Iran a crucial victory.

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President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu today and reportedly sought to reassure him that the Iranian charm offensive wasn’t working. Despite the way the administration welcomed the alleged moderation of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and its determined efforts to initiate some form of dialogue with Tehran—Rouhani refused to meet or shake hands with the president in New York last week but deigned to accept a phone call from Obama before he left New York—the president is trying to convince Netanyahu that he isn’t budging from his pledge that Iran won’t be allowed to develop nuclear weapons and he won’t be fooled by Iran’s negotiating strategies. Despite expressing a desire for accelerated talks with the Iranians, the White House and the State Department are also trying to calm down Israelis and others who rightly see the way much of the mainstream media swoon for Rouhani as indicative of a desire to appease Tehran.

But the problem here isn’t just the obsequious manner with which the administration has pursued Iran but the cost of the diplomatic process they are trying to reboot. Iran’s intransigence on the nuclear issue—openly expressed by Rouhani—may well make a deal impossible. Iran has had many such offers in the past decade, including some that were highly favorable to the Islamist regime that would have enabled them to go on enriching uranium and to keep up the pretense that this activity was aimed at peaceful uses of atomic energy and always turned them down in the end. It is also possible that a principled and tough-minded American negotiating strategy would eventually expose the Rouhani initiative as a fraud.

But by going down the garden path with Iran again, President Obama is both buying time and lending much-needed credibility to an Islamic regime that deserves none. In doing so, he will make it even more likely that the Iranians will be able to reach their nuclear goal and is undermining support for any future action that would hold them accountable for their actions. Even if the talks fail, by falling prey to the Rouhani gambit, the president has already handed Iran a crucial victory.

It is entirely plausible to argue, as Aaron David Miller does in Foreign Policy today, that it would be very difficult if not impossible for President Obama to get away with an accord with Iran that would enable the Iranians to continue on their nuclear path. After the Syria fiasco where his indecisiveness led him to hand a victory to Russia and its ally Bashar Assad, the president can’t afford to “play the fool” on Iran. He has staked his credibility on the issue. Given his domestic political problems and the growing signs that he is becoming a lame duck, Obama would also be foolish to pick another fight with Israel and its supporters. Moreover, even with the press and much of the foreign-policy establishment cheering the idea of backing away from confrontation with Iran, as Miller notes, “the mullahs aren’t going to charm anyone for very long, let alone transform public attitudes in Israel or America without significant and tangible deliverables.”

So what’s wrong with making nice with Rouhani and giving diplomacy another try? Plenty.

It should first be understood what Iran is seeking to accomplish. Their primary goal is to separate the U.S. from Europe on the nuclear issue. The Europeans have always been more eager to compromise with Iran than the U.S., and if they can weaken international support for the economic sanctions that were belatedly implemented by President Obama, they will do so. They also want to drive a wedge between Obama and the Israelis.

Equally important is that after repeatedly demonstrating their unwillingness to negotiate in good faith, the Iranians’ charm offensive looks like it will gain them more precious time to get closer to their nuclear goal. The Iranians are past masters at drawing out diplomatic proceedings and one should expect that the talks that Obama and Kerry say must be “swift” would undoubtedly drag on for many months and perhaps longer than that, with no guarantee of a successful outcome. The president is already prepared to wait until mid-October for an Iranian response to his outreach. That will be followed by more delays that will lead us into 2014 and beyond.

Then there is also the damage the willingness to buy into Rouhani’s faux moderation does to the Western consensus about eventually holding Iran accountable. His defenders argue that by giving diplomacy more chances, he will strengthen his ability to increase sanctions or even use force once the initiative is seen to have failed. But in the world of Barack Obama, diplomacy never really fails even if that is the only rational conclusion to be drawn from events. Each diplomatic failure will lead to another try that will also fail with the only result being that more time will be wasted, just as the president wasted his first five years in office on tactics that played into Tehran’s hands. Moreover, having allowed Rouhani to get away with playing the moderate even when it is obvious that this is a ruse, the president feeds the perception that Iran is the victim of Western pressure rather than a sponsor of terrorism that is seeking to expand the reach of its tyrannical regime.

So even if an administration desperate for a compromise solution is unlikely to get one from Rouhani, the charm offensive is still working very nicely to achieve Iranian goals. The danger here is not so much a deal but the delays that will bring us that much closer to an Iranian bomb. 

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Want to Appease Iran? Demonize Israel

The willingness of much of the foreign-policy establishment and the mainstream media to embrace any opportunity to avoid conflict with Iran has never been much of a secret. Throughout the last five years, the administration has been able to count on unflinching support for its efforts to keep investing precious time and energy in a diplomatic process with Tehran that was dead in the water even before President Obama took office in 2009. After years of “engagement,” and two rounds of P5+1 talks that accomplished absolutely nothing, there’s no reason to believe the Iranians view negotiations as anything other than a clever tactic to buy more time to get close to their nuclear goal. But the election of a new Iranian president in June set off a new round of calls for yet more diplomacy. Hassan Rouhani’s false reputation as a “moderate” isn’t based on much; he’s a veteran of the Khomeini revolution, the regime’s involvement with foreign terror, and someone who has boasted of his success in fooling the West in nuclear talks. But as far as the New York Times editorial page is concerned, it’s enough to put on hold any toughening of sanctions on Iran, let alone talk about the use of force.

That the Times is eager to promote Rouhani as the solution to the nuclear question is not a surprise. But what it is a surprise is just how desperate they are to justify their position. In an editorial published today under the astonishingly obtuse headline of “Reading Tweets From Iran,” the newspaper seeks to treat the Iranian regime’s social media offensive as evidence of a genuine change in Tehran. To invest that much importance in what Rouhani’s staff says on Twitter in posts that are directed solely toward the West is laughable. No journalist at the paper would ever take the tweets produced by the official accounts of American politicians as anything but spin.

But far worse is the Times’s attempt to shift blame for the standoff from an anti-Semitic regime that is directly involved in atrocities in Syria and terrorist attacks around the globe onto Israel and its supporters in Congress. In doing so, the newspaper and the chattering classes whose views it represents are attempting to lay the foundation for President Obama to break his promises about stopping Iran and to treat those who object to such appeasement as opponents of peace. The editorial is right about one thing. If the administration is to betray its principles and appease Iran, it will require it to stop focusing on that regime’s record and instead lash out at those who are pointing out the truth about the threat it constitutes to the region and the world.

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The willingness of much of the foreign-policy establishment and the mainstream media to embrace any opportunity to avoid conflict with Iran has never been much of a secret. Throughout the last five years, the administration has been able to count on unflinching support for its efforts to keep investing precious time and energy in a diplomatic process with Tehran that was dead in the water even before President Obama took office in 2009. After years of “engagement,” and two rounds of P5+1 talks that accomplished absolutely nothing, there’s no reason to believe the Iranians view negotiations as anything other than a clever tactic to buy more time to get close to their nuclear goal. But the election of a new Iranian president in June set off a new round of calls for yet more diplomacy. Hassan Rouhani’s false reputation as a “moderate” isn’t based on much; he’s a veteran of the Khomeini revolution, the regime’s involvement with foreign terror, and someone who has boasted of his success in fooling the West in nuclear talks. But as far as the New York Times editorial page is concerned, it’s enough to put on hold any toughening of sanctions on Iran, let alone talk about the use of force.

That the Times is eager to promote Rouhani as the solution to the nuclear question is not a surprise. But what it is a surprise is just how desperate they are to justify their position. In an editorial published today under the astonishingly obtuse headline of “Reading Tweets From Iran,” the newspaper seeks to treat the Iranian regime’s social media offensive as evidence of a genuine change in Tehran. To invest that much importance in what Rouhani’s staff says on Twitter in posts that are directed solely toward the West is laughable. No journalist at the paper would ever take the tweets produced by the official accounts of American politicians as anything but spin.

But far worse is the Times’s attempt to shift blame for the standoff from an anti-Semitic regime that is directly involved in atrocities in Syria and terrorist attacks around the globe onto Israel and its supporters in Congress. In doing so, the newspaper and the chattering classes whose views it represents are attempting to lay the foundation for President Obama to break his promises about stopping Iran and to treat those who object to such appeasement as opponents of peace. The editorial is right about one thing. If the administration is to betray its principles and appease Iran, it will require it to stop focusing on that regime’s record and instead lash out at those who are pointing out the truth about the threat it constitutes to the region and the world.

The Times concludes its editorial in the following manner:

President Rouhani is sending strong signals that he will dispatch a pragmatic, experienced team to the table when negotiations resume, possibly next month. That’s when we should begin to see answers to key questions: How much time and creative thinking are he and President Obama willing to invest in a negotiated solution, the only rational outcome? How much political risk are they willing to take, which for Mr. Obama must include managing the enmity that Israel and many members of Congress feel toward Iran?

The notion that Rouhani’s tweets and other PR measures intended to deceive the West constitute “strong signals” that Rouhani will abandon a nuclear ambition that both he and the real power in Tehran—Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—are committed to is not a serious argument. If President Obama is going to break his promises to stop Iran’s nuclear program and to refuse to countenance a policy of “containment” of it, he and his cheering section at the Times are going to have to do better than this.

But far more insidious is the way the Times seeks to goad Obama into treating the “enmity” of supporters of Israel toward Iran as the real problem.

Of course, the reason why so many Americans don’t trust Iran isn’t the “enmity” they feel toward the ayatollahs. It is due to Iran’s record of tyranny and anti-Semitism at home and terrorism abroad. But those who are bound and determined to ignore Iran’s record in order to justify not merely another round of diplomacy but a deal that would allow it to continue its nuclear program understand that whitewashing Iran requires demonizing its opponents.

Israel’s efforts to call attention to the dwindling time available to the West to do something about Iran have long been subjected to attack from venues like the Times as alarmist or rooted in some other agenda than preventing a genocidal regime from obtaining a weapon that would give them a chance to put their fantasies into action. But the cries of alarm emanating from Israel and Congress about Iran are not based in mindless hatred, as the Times implies. Instead they are based on a far more realistic assessment of Iran’s behavior and the ideology that drives people like Khamenei and Rouhani. But since telling the truth about Iran doesn’t help build support for more feckless diplomacy, the newspaper brands it as irrational antagonism.

The use of chemical weapons by Iran’s ally Bashar Assad is more proof that Iran represents a cancer in the Middle East. The Iranian regime’s goal is to establish its hegemony over the regime via its Syrian and Hezbollah allies. As much as we might wish it otherwise, there is nothing reasonable about this quest, nor is it remotely likely that the “strong forces” the Times imagines pulling the two sides to a deal will persuade Iran’s leaders to negotiate in good faith. But to those who wish to avoid conflict with Iran at any price, any justification—including blaming Israel for the problem—will do.

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How Moderate Are Iran’s Missiles?

Complacence about Iran’s nuclear program is based on three assumptions that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. All of them are, at best, questionable and are embraced by some in the foreign policy establishment and the left largely because to believe in them absolves one of any obligation to act to prevent Iran from achieving its nuclear ambition. They are: that Iran is either not really building a nuke or that it can be talked or bargained out of it; that even if Iran gets nukes it would never use them; and lastly that even if Iran had nukes, they couldn’t effectively deliver one to a target, whether in Israel, a moderate Arab nation, or somewhere in the West.

The growing stockpile of evidence of nuclear weapons-grade uranium and work on military uses of nuclear power such as triggers make the first assumption ridiculous, as does the more than a decade of failed negotiations that illustrated that Iran only views talks as a method to gain time and to deceive the West. The brutal nature of the regime, its willingness to fund terrorism, and the fanatical theocratic views of its leaders, at the very least, cast doubt on the second assumption.

As for the third argument, that was actually the strongest argument in favor of complacence, but a report published by the Times of Israel now makes that assumption seem like a bad bet:

Western intelligence analysts say a new missile launching facility in Iran will likely be used for testing ballistic missiles, not for launching satellites into space as claimed by the Iranians.

The IHS Jane’s Military and Security Assessments Intelligence Centre published a photo taken last month of the newly discovered site, which is located 25 miles south east of the city of Shahrud in northern Iran.

Analysts at the Centre said the unfinished site has no storage for the liquid rocket fuel used in Iran’s domestic satellite program, suggesting it is built for ballistic missiles using solid fuel.

Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute who has written about the Iranian missile program, told The Telegraph: “We often talk about Iran’s nuclear program, but what really spooks countries in the region is the ballistic missiles that could act as a delivery system.

Like the claims that their nuclear program’s purpose is for power production (in an oil rich country?) or medical research, the notion that Iran is building missiles for space was always laughable. But there is nothing funny about the prospect of a nation that is getting closer every day to nuclear weapons capability being able to build a ballistic missile that could, at least in theory, reach Europe or even the United States. While worries about Iranian missiles are not new, this latest report should put any decision to invest another year in fruitless diplomacy with Iran because of the election of a supposed moderate as president in perspective.

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Complacence about Iran’s nuclear program is based on three assumptions that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. All of them are, at best, questionable and are embraced by some in the foreign policy establishment and the left largely because to believe in them absolves one of any obligation to act to prevent Iran from achieving its nuclear ambition. They are: that Iran is either not really building a nuke or that it can be talked or bargained out of it; that even if Iran gets nukes it would never use them; and lastly that even if Iran had nukes, they couldn’t effectively deliver one to a target, whether in Israel, a moderate Arab nation, or somewhere in the West.

The growing stockpile of evidence of nuclear weapons-grade uranium and work on military uses of nuclear power such as triggers make the first assumption ridiculous, as does the more than a decade of failed negotiations that illustrated that Iran only views talks as a method to gain time and to deceive the West. The brutal nature of the regime, its willingness to fund terrorism, and the fanatical theocratic views of its leaders, at the very least, cast doubt on the second assumption.

As for the third argument, that was actually the strongest argument in favor of complacence, but a report published by the Times of Israel now makes that assumption seem like a bad bet:

Western intelligence analysts say a new missile launching facility in Iran will likely be used for testing ballistic missiles, not for launching satellites into space as claimed by the Iranians.

The IHS Jane’s Military and Security Assessments Intelligence Centre published a photo taken last month of the newly discovered site, which is located 25 miles south east of the city of Shahrud in northern Iran.

Analysts at the Centre said the unfinished site has no storage for the liquid rocket fuel used in Iran’s domestic satellite program, suggesting it is built for ballistic missiles using solid fuel.

Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute who has written about the Iranian missile program, told The Telegraph: “We often talk about Iran’s nuclear program, but what really spooks countries in the region is the ballistic missiles that could act as a delivery system.

Like the claims that their nuclear program’s purpose is for power production (in an oil rich country?) or medical research, the notion that Iran is building missiles for space was always laughable. But there is nothing funny about the prospect of a nation that is getting closer every day to nuclear weapons capability being able to build a ballistic missile that could, at least in theory, reach Europe or even the United States. While worries about Iranian missiles are not new, this latest report should put any decision to invest another year in fruitless diplomacy with Iran because of the election of a supposed moderate as president in perspective.

The report about the missile notes that in the past the United States has worried that Iran could be able to test a ballistic missile by the end of 2015. That hasn’t been a priority for Western intelligence up until this point. But once Iran has weapons capability—and they may well have accumulated more than enough enriched uranium to that purpose long before that moment—the question of Iran’s delivery capacity will become paramount.

Right now, the world is focused on new President Hassan Rouhani and the Obama administration seems determined to give him a chance to prove his alleged moderation by giving diplomacy another try. Rouhani’s personal role in using talks as a delaying tactic is a matter of record. But the latest news about Iran’s military research illustrates the fact that the costs of months or even years of delay before the United States decides that it must act could be considerable.

A nuclear weapon would not make Iran a superpower or anything like it. But a nuclear Iran with missiles that can reach not just regional targets but those on other continents changes the equation of this problem. Though Israel is the understandable focus of much of the concerns about Iranian weapons, the development of sophisticated weapons should serve as reminder to Americans that their security is as much at stake in this standoff as that of the Jewish state. The idea of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei possessing both missiles and potential nuclear weapons ought to scare the daylights out of all Americans. It should also help dispel the illusions fostered by the false assumptions that buttress the complacence that so many in Washington exhibit on this issue. 

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Rouhani Begins to Play the West

New Iranian President Hassan Rouhani didn’t help himself last week when he gave a speech denouncing the state of Israel as a “sore on the body of the Islamic world.” Iran’s Western apologists may have sought to seize on the fact that he didn’t, as the first Iranian translation released said he did, proclaim that it ought to be removed. But the difference between Rouhani’s remarks and those of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was so minimal as to remind even those least interested in pressuring Iran that he is part of a profoundly anti-Semitic regime. But he got back on message yesterday in his first press conference, where he began the process of entrapping the West in another protracted negotiation that will ultimately lead nowhere.

Rouhani stated his desire for a negotiated settlement of the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program and said that he was open to direct talks with the United States on the issue. Some focused on the fact that at this appearance, as well as in his inaugural address on Sunday, Rouhani repeatedly said his country would not give up its nuclear ambition and demanded that any negotiation must begin with the West retreating from, rather than intensifying, sanctions on the Islamic regime. But this was a clever move. While giving away nothing and even doubling down on his attempt to delegitimize Israel and its supporters, Rouhani probably showed just enough leg in this statement to entice the U.S. into more talks about talks. In doing so, Rouhani probably bought Iran’s nuclear engineers and scientists as much as another year of time to get closer to their goal of a weapon that would destabilize the region and threaten the existence of Israel. Though President Obama appears desperate to seize on any excuse to get out from under his promises never to allow Iran to go nuclear, this is a ruse that the United States shouldn’t fall for.

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New Iranian President Hassan Rouhani didn’t help himself last week when he gave a speech denouncing the state of Israel as a “sore on the body of the Islamic world.” Iran’s Western apologists may have sought to seize on the fact that he didn’t, as the first Iranian translation released said he did, proclaim that it ought to be removed. But the difference between Rouhani’s remarks and those of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was so minimal as to remind even those least interested in pressuring Iran that he is part of a profoundly anti-Semitic regime. But he got back on message yesterday in his first press conference, where he began the process of entrapping the West in another protracted negotiation that will ultimately lead nowhere.

Rouhani stated his desire for a negotiated settlement of the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program and said that he was open to direct talks with the United States on the issue. Some focused on the fact that at this appearance, as well as in his inaugural address on Sunday, Rouhani repeatedly said his country would not give up its nuclear ambition and demanded that any negotiation must begin with the West retreating from, rather than intensifying, sanctions on the Islamic regime. But this was a clever move. While giving away nothing and even doubling down on his attempt to delegitimize Israel and its supporters, Rouhani probably showed just enough leg in this statement to entice the U.S. into more talks about talks. In doing so, Rouhani probably bought Iran’s nuclear engineers and scientists as much as another year of time to get closer to their goal of a weapon that would destabilize the region and threaten the existence of Israel. Though President Obama appears desperate to seize on any excuse to get out from under his promises never to allow Iran to go nuclear, this is a ruse that the United States shouldn’t fall for.

Though Rouhani is often depicted in the West as a genuine moderate who represents a change in direction from the extreme Islamists that rule Iran, his attempt at a diplomatic opening made it clear that he is as obsessed with anti-Semitic delusions about the Jews as his boss, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As even the New York Times, whose editorial column has been transformed into a Rouhani fan page in the last two months, noted:

Numerous times during the question-and-answer session, Mr. Rouhani referred to unspecified “warmongering pressure groups” that he accused of confusing the White House at the behest of an unidentified country.

Mr. Rouhani apparently was referring to pro-Israel advocates of strong sanctions against Iran that have publicly praised Congress in recent days for advancing legislation that would greatly intensify the economic consequences on Iran unless it halts uranium enrichment. …

Mr. Rouhani never made any explicit reference to Israel at his news conference. But he said that the interests of “one foreign country” had been imposed on Congress, and that “even the interests of the U.S. are not considered in such actions.”

What Rouhani fails to understand is that opposition to Iran’s nuclear program isn’t the result of manipulation by the so-called “Israel Lobby” but a consensus position that has overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans. While Israel is endangered by Iranian nukes, so is the entire West, as well as moderate Arab regimes.

This reliance on the Jewish boogeyman should be a tipoff, even to an Obama administration that urgently seeks an excuse to keep negotiating with Iran after numerous rebuffs and failures, that there is no difference between Rouhani and the rest of the regime.

Rouhani knows that even Obama wouldn’t retreat on the sanctions that are crippling the Iranian economy without Tehran starting the process of dismantling its weapons project. But what he wants is to draw the Americans into another series of talks like the P5+1 multilateral negotiations that served only to buy the Iranians another year while the West achieved nothing. Having already participated in one of the earliest negotiating sessions with the West on the issue and successfully ensnaring his counterparts in a compromise agreement that was soon reneged upon, Rouhani knows the object of the game is that so long as Iran keeps talking about talking, the U.S. is hopelessly drawn into the trap.

President Obama may feel bound to test Rouhani’s sincerity, but if he is serious about keeping his word on the nuclear issue, he must set firm limits on the time he is willing to expend on such an experiment in spite of the temptation to keep the process going. As this process begins, the Obama foreign policy team should keep Rouhani’s provocations about Israel in mind. Far from being tangential to their goal of gaining an agreement, they are the tipoff that what will follow won’t be in the interests of the United States.

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Has Iran’s Maliki Ploy Hooked Obama?

After several years of vowing to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, President Obama has painted himself into a corner. Every one of his diplomatic initiatives intended to persuade or pressure the Iranians into halting their nuclear quest have failed ignominiously. From his laughable attempt at “engagement” to his assembling of an international coalition in support of sanctions on Iran to the latest failure of the P5+1 talks, the result has always followed the same pattern. The Iranians always welcome each new attempt at outreach, allow the United States to invest time and effort in the effort, and then, like the Peanuts cartoon character Lucy invariably did to Charlie Brown, snatch the football away just when the U.S. thought it was about to reach its goal. But experience is only helpful if you are willing to learn from your mistakes, and it looks as if the administration is about to play Charlie Brown again.

The election of a new supposedly moderate president was already being used by those who were eager to go down the garden path with Iran as an excuse for more pointless diplomacy, but now it appears that Tehran is using its close ally in charge of Iraq to convince the United States that it’s ready for direct talks. As the New York Times reports this morning, Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki was the conduit for a message from the ayatollahs that they were ready to open up a new round of nuclear negotiations. But in the absence of any change in Iran’s position on the issue in hand, the eagerness of the administration to jump at the chance for direct talks says more about their desire to avoid having to make good on the president’s promise than it does about the possibility of actually stopping the nuclear threat. The odds that this scheme is anything other than one more Iranian ruse designed to win them more time to build their program are slim.

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After several years of vowing to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, President Obama has painted himself into a corner. Every one of his diplomatic initiatives intended to persuade or pressure the Iranians into halting their nuclear quest have failed ignominiously. From his laughable attempt at “engagement” to his assembling of an international coalition in support of sanctions on Iran to the latest failure of the P5+1 talks, the result has always followed the same pattern. The Iranians always welcome each new attempt at outreach, allow the United States to invest time and effort in the effort, and then, like the Peanuts cartoon character Lucy invariably did to Charlie Brown, snatch the football away just when the U.S. thought it was about to reach its goal. But experience is only helpful if you are willing to learn from your mistakes, and it looks as if the administration is about to play Charlie Brown again.

The election of a new supposedly moderate president was already being used by those who were eager to go down the garden path with Iran as an excuse for more pointless diplomacy, but now it appears that Tehran is using its close ally in charge of Iraq to convince the United States that it’s ready for direct talks. As the New York Times reports this morning, Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki was the conduit for a message from the ayatollahs that they were ready to open up a new round of nuclear negotiations. But in the absence of any change in Iran’s position on the issue in hand, the eagerness of the administration to jump at the chance for direct talks says more about their desire to avoid having to make good on the president’s promise than it does about the possibility of actually stopping the nuclear threat. The odds that this scheme is anything other than one more Iranian ruse designed to win them more time to build their program are slim.

Maliki is in the unique position of being friendly with both the U.S. and Iran and his involvement in the setup is likely to lend credence to the initiative in Washington’s eyes. That is especially true since, according to the Times, Maliki is claiming that his information about the regime’s thinking comes from the inner circle of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and not from those close to new President Hassan Rowhani, who lacks real power.

However, the Iranians’ goal, as they made clear during the most recent round of negotiations with the West, is not to achieve even a favorable compromise that would enable them to retain their nuclear program–as might have happened had they followed through with administration’s 2009 attempt to forge an agreement on nuclear fuel that they eventually reneged on. All Tehran wants is a respite from the sanctions that, while not impeding its ability or desire to continue nuclear research and development, have harmed its economy and lowered the Iranian people’s standard of living. Obama has shown himself eager to make a deal on terms that while technically making an Iranian weapon impossible would leave in place a nuclear program that would, with the inevitable cheating and deceptions that will follow such negotiations, lead in the long run to the same result that the world has been trying to forestall.

The Iranians are past masters of manipulating the United States. They’ve been doing it to the West since long before Obama became president. For more than a decade, Khamenei has risked his nation’s economy and deepened its diplomatic isolation in order to achieve its nuclear ambition. Everything he and his regime have done and said would lead any rational person to believe that Iran is merely looking to play the same game again and to prolong negotiations—or, rather, the pretense of negotiations—for as long as possible.

President Obama’s willingness to embrace this latest plot as an actual chance for a solution is a crucial hint that tells us he is inching his way back toward a policy of containment of a nuclear Iran despite his campaign promise (issued at the 2012 annual conference of AIPAC) never to do so. Should the U.S. fall for the Maliki ploy hook, line, and sinker as it appears to be doing, it will involve what may be many months, if not more than a year, of more dead-end talks that will leave us back in the same position we are in today. The only difference is that by then it may be too late to credibly use the threat of force—which Obama insists is still on the table—in order to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

Observing the way the U.S. appears to be falling in line with the machinations of Iran’s leaders is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. We know there is little doubt about the outcome but still somehow hope against hope that it can be prevented. If President Obama truly intends to keep his word on Iran, this may be the last chance for him to alter course. If he doesn’t, there may be no turning back.

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Don’t Count on Iran Regime Change

Michael Rubin is on target when he writes today to say that in much of the discussion about the dangerous game Iran has been playing throughout the Middle East, too much focus has been on putting out the fire and not enough on stopping the arsonist. The main problem in dealing with the nuclear issue as well as a host of other conflicts in which the ayatollahs have a finger in the pie is the Islamist regime, not their specific decisions to create havoc. The problems of the United States, the moderate Arab regimes and Israel, will, as he says, never be fully resolved until the malevolent influence of Tehran is ended by replacing the Islamic Republic with a government that neither oppresses its people nor funds terror abroad. But to argue, as he also does, that this should be the sole focus of American policy toward Iran is not a practical plan for dealing with the situation in Syria, let alone the clear and present danger of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

While much can and should, as Michael wrote in COMMENTARY three years ago, be done to promote regime change, counting on such efforts bearing fruit in the limited time left until the Iranians are able to enrich enough weapons-grade uranium to create a bomb strikes me as being as realistic as the blind faith President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry seem to have in diplomacy doing the trick. Moreover, to rule out air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, as Michael also urges, would seem to be giving the regime an ironclad guarantee that no one will interfere with their plans. Whatever the ultimate effect of such strikes on Iran’s nuclear timetable might turn out to be—and others are far more optimistic about their impact than Michael—such an attack may not only be the best method available to stop the Iranians, they may also be the only measure that is remotely feasible for the United States to implement if President Obama is to make good on his pledge to never allow Tehran to get such a weapon.

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Michael Rubin is on target when he writes today to say that in much of the discussion about the dangerous game Iran has been playing throughout the Middle East, too much focus has been on putting out the fire and not enough on stopping the arsonist. The main problem in dealing with the nuclear issue as well as a host of other conflicts in which the ayatollahs have a finger in the pie is the Islamist regime, not their specific decisions to create havoc. The problems of the United States, the moderate Arab regimes and Israel, will, as he says, never be fully resolved until the malevolent influence of Tehran is ended by replacing the Islamic Republic with a government that neither oppresses its people nor funds terror abroad. But to argue, as he also does, that this should be the sole focus of American policy toward Iran is not a practical plan for dealing with the situation in Syria, let alone the clear and present danger of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

While much can and should, as Michael wrote in COMMENTARY three years ago, be done to promote regime change, counting on such efforts bearing fruit in the limited time left until the Iranians are able to enrich enough weapons-grade uranium to create a bomb strikes me as being as realistic as the blind faith President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry seem to have in diplomacy doing the trick. Moreover, to rule out air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, as Michael also urges, would seem to be giving the regime an ironclad guarantee that no one will interfere with their plans. Whatever the ultimate effect of such strikes on Iran’s nuclear timetable might turn out to be—and others are far more optimistic about their impact than Michael—such an attack may not only be the best method available to stop the Iranians, they may also be the only measure that is remotely feasible for the United States to implement if President Obama is to make good on his pledge to never allow Tehran to get such a weapon.

Rubin is right to raise the issue of regime change because one constant element of the P5+1 negotiations between the West and Iran has been the presumption that any deal would obligate the powers to foreswear efforts to overthrow the Islamist regime. While the Iranians show no sign of being wise enough to accept that deal, this is an extremely shortsighted policy. Nevertheless, even if all of Michael’s proposals to “hasten the day” when the world will no longer have to cope with this terrorist theocracy succeed eventually, there is no reason to believe that this would be the magic bullet that would eliminate the regime in time to avert the prospect of its Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei having his finger on the nuclear button.

In 2010, Michael rightly pointed out that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would probably cause most Iranians to rally around the regime even if they didn’t like being ruled by them. But he also said that didn’t rule out the need for an air strike: History offers lessons in what not to do. Iranians may dislike their government, but they dislike foreign invaders even more. Even limited U.S. military action would likely strengthen the regime even if the initial effect would be to cause it to teeter. This does not mean that military action might not be necessary; an Islamic Republic with nuclear weapons is the worst possible scenario. But we should not count on military action providing a deathblow to the regime.

That formulation of the relative importance of these two issues is even more apt today as the Iranians are three years closer to realizing their nuclear ambition and even more confident that their diplomatic prevarications will continue to succeed to fend off the feeble Western attempts to resolve the problem. It is possible that Michael is right that even successful air strikes on Iran’s facilities would not end the threat for all time and might necessitate further attacks in the future. But the assumption that an Iran whose economy is weakened by sanctions would be able to start again so easily may be mistaken. At worst, such strikes would give the West additional time to work on regime change or to tighten sanctions to the point where such an outcome might actually be possible. Without the credible threat of force, no effort at diplomatic engagement will ever resolve this problem. But by the same token, neither would efforts aimed at regime change work on their own.

Just as important is the fact that we can’t approach the Iranian problem as if it were a theoretical problem rather than one that takes place in an actual political context. Like it or not, Barack Obama is the president and will be in office for the next three years, not a figure like George W. Bush who would be more open to talk about regime change. Though he ought to be working toward that end, it is highly unlikely an Obama administration will ever do what is needed to facilitate a change in power in Tehran. Though it is far from certain that the day will ever dawn when the president will admit diplomacy has failed and take the necessary military action to forestall an Iranian bomb, there is a better chance that will happen than a scenario in which the U.S. actively pushes to overthrow the Islamists. At this point arguing against military strikes even as a last resort amounts to a unilateral pledge of non-interference against Iran, not a way to facilitate the end of Islamist tyranny.

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Rowhani and the Path to Containment

New Iranian President Hassan Rowhani is already proving the truth of my assertion that allowing his election was the smartest thing his country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has done in a long time. Speaking for the first time since winning in a landslide last Friday, Rowhani presented a far more reasonable face to the world than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Islamist cleric that had the distinction of being the most “moderate” of the regime supporters that Khamenei allowed to run said he wanted to reduce tensions with the United States. Though he reiterated that he would never budge from defending Iran’s “right” to continue to enrich uranium that the world rightly fears will be used to make bombs, this half-hearted olive branch is probably all he thinks he needs to do to string the West along for another round of negotiations that will do nothing but buy more time for Iran to achieve its nuclear ambition.

The bad news is that he’s probably right about that.

The willingness of White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough to embrace Rowhani’s election as “a potentially hopeful sign” was a signal that President Obama is ready to head down the garden path with the Iranians again despite the fact that every previous such effort has ended in a failure that only advanced the ayatollahs toward their nuclear goal. As our Max Boot noted earlier today, the “myth of the moderate mullah” dies hard in Washington. But the problem here probably goes a lot deeper than the nonsense being spouted on cable news shows about the nonexistent chances that Rowhani represents the start of a chance to transform Iran from an Islamist tyranny to something less awful. Given the fact that everyone knows that real power resides in the hands of the supreme leader, the desire to pump meaning into his election may be more about the desire of the president and those elements of the foreign policy establishment that are keen to avoid having to face up to the truth about the Iranian nuclear peril than any belief in Rowhani’s moderation.

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New Iranian President Hassan Rowhani is already proving the truth of my assertion that allowing his election was the smartest thing his country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has done in a long time. Speaking for the first time since winning in a landslide last Friday, Rowhani presented a far more reasonable face to the world than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Islamist cleric that had the distinction of being the most “moderate” of the regime supporters that Khamenei allowed to run said he wanted to reduce tensions with the United States. Though he reiterated that he would never budge from defending Iran’s “right” to continue to enrich uranium that the world rightly fears will be used to make bombs, this half-hearted olive branch is probably all he thinks he needs to do to string the West along for another round of negotiations that will do nothing but buy more time for Iran to achieve its nuclear ambition.

The bad news is that he’s probably right about that.

The willingness of White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough to embrace Rowhani’s election as “a potentially hopeful sign” was a signal that President Obama is ready to head down the garden path with the Iranians again despite the fact that every previous such effort has ended in a failure that only advanced the ayatollahs toward their nuclear goal. As our Max Boot noted earlier today, the “myth of the moderate mullah” dies hard in Washington. But the problem here probably goes a lot deeper than the nonsense being spouted on cable news shows about the nonexistent chances that Rowhani represents the start of a chance to transform Iran from an Islamist tyranny to something less awful. Given the fact that everyone knows that real power resides in the hands of the supreme leader, the desire to pump meaning into his election may be more about the desire of the president and those elements of the foreign policy establishment that are keen to avoid having to face up to the truth about the Iranian nuclear peril than any belief in Rowhani’s moderation.

As the New York Times notes today:

Many of the leading strategists on Iran from Mr. Obama’s first term have become increasingly critical of the president’s handling of the issue this year. Early optimism that Iranian negotiators were ready to discuss the outlines of a deal — one that would have frozen the most immediately worrisome elements of the country’s nuclear program in return for an acknowledgment of the country’s right to enrich uranium under a highly obtrusive inspection regimen — faded in April, when the talks collapsed.

But Mr. Obama chose, after some internal debate, not to allow the breakdown in talks to become a crisis, partly because he was immersed in the debate over American intervention in the Syrian civil war. “There were a lot of distractions,” said one former senior official who remains involved in the internal debates.

The implication of the outcome of this internal White House debate is deeply troubling and ought to chasten those of the president’s defenders who continue to insist that Obama will in the end do the right thing and stop Iran from going nuclear even if that means using force. The point is, if everyone in the administration already knows that what happened last Friday was, as Jeffrey Goldberg (one of those who have vouched for Obama’s policy on Iran as aimed at stopping their nuclear program) called it, a “fake election in a fake democracy,” then the willingness of his new foreign policy team to treat Rowhani’s victory as an excuse for more diplomacy stems more from a desire to avoid making a choice about taking action than it does about any actual confidence that more talks will succeed.

It should be conceded that there has never been anything wrong with the president’s rhetoric about stopping Iran. He has been consistent on that point since he was first running for president in 2008. Having wasted much of his first term on a feckless policy of engagement with an Iranian regime that wanted no part of such outreach and the rest of it on assembling a shaky international coalition on behalf of sanctions and failed diplomacy, the president has left himself very little wriggle room. His own experience, let alone that of his predecessors, shows that any further talks will only serve Iran’s interests in that they will help run out the clock until their bomb is finished. Rowhani has bragged about playing this game with representatives of the Europeans and the George W. Bush administration. If the president is to embrace Rowhani’s minimalist olive branch as an excuse for more diplomacy it can only mean that Obama is seizing any excuse to put off the inevitable moment of truth about whether he will keep his word on Iran.

The only question about Obama’s openness to using Rowhani as a pretext for more talks is whether they will treat it as the final opportunity for Iran to stand down or as the starting point of an administration walk-back on the nuclear issue that will end with a policy of containment. True believers in Obama will, no doubt, claim it is the former, but everything we’ve seen in the last four and a half years makes it hard to believe it is anything but the latter.

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If Obama’s Syria Promises Mean Nothing, How Can We Trust Him on Iran?

Yesterday’s admission by the White House and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that Syria appears to have used chemical weapons against its own people took the debate about American policy toward the embattled Assad dictatorship to a new level. There are still no good choices available to the United States since the rebels fighting the regime are, at best, a mixed bag, and if successful may bring Islamists to power in Damascus. But, as I noted previously, President Obama’s preference for “leading from behind” and simply sitting back and hoping for the best won’t work. Allowing an Iranian ally to use Sarin gas to commit mass murder without lifting a finger to stop it is both morally wrong as well as bad geostrategic policy. So too is a policy that would not give the U.S. the leverage to help those Syrian rebels who are not Islamists prevail over those who are extremists.

But there is another angle to the decision that the administration will have to make on Syria that has wider implications for the region. With even ardent Obama supporters like Jeffrey Goldberg reminding the president he has made it crystal clear that chemical weapons use would be a red line that would trigger a strong U.S. response, what follows will not only tell us whether that promise would be kept. It will also illustrate just how seriously to take other pledges the administration has made, specifically its vow never to allow Iran to go nuclear. With the White House desperately trying to buy time before making a decision on Syria, it’s fair to ask why anyone should regard American rhetoric on Iran as anything more than an elaborate bluff if Obama won’t keep his word about Assad’s behavior.

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Yesterday’s admission by the White House and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that Syria appears to have used chemical weapons against its own people took the debate about American policy toward the embattled Assad dictatorship to a new level. There are still no good choices available to the United States since the rebels fighting the regime are, at best, a mixed bag, and if successful may bring Islamists to power in Damascus. But, as I noted previously, President Obama’s preference for “leading from behind” and simply sitting back and hoping for the best won’t work. Allowing an Iranian ally to use Sarin gas to commit mass murder without lifting a finger to stop it is both morally wrong as well as bad geostrategic policy. So too is a policy that would not give the U.S. the leverage to help those Syrian rebels who are not Islamists prevail over those who are extremists.

But there is another angle to the decision that the administration will have to make on Syria that has wider implications for the region. With even ardent Obama supporters like Jeffrey Goldberg reminding the president he has made it crystal clear that chemical weapons use would be a red line that would trigger a strong U.S. response, what follows will not only tell us whether that promise would be kept. It will also illustrate just how seriously to take other pledges the administration has made, specifically its vow never to allow Iran to go nuclear. With the White House desperately trying to buy time before making a decision on Syria, it’s fair to ask why anyone should regard American rhetoric on Iran as anything more than an elaborate bluff if Obama won’t keep his word about Assad’s behavior.

Judging by the reaction in Washington to the news about the proof of the Assad regime using chemical weapons, many in the administration may now regret the president’s willingness to make promises about Syria. It is likely that he and his foreign policy team naively believed that Assad would fall long before they were called to account for their loose talk about being willing to act if the dictator went too far in trying to preserve his regime. Moreover, having largely been propelled into office by American war weariness, it will be difficult for a president who prefers to lead from behind to convince his supporters to back American involvement in Syria.

But if after his trademark slow decision-making process unfolds, the president decides that the U.S. will still not do anything to prevent the future use of chemical weapons or to limit Assad’s ability to use them, a crucial red line will have been crossed.

As I have written many times, its more than clear that the ayatollahs neither respect nor believe President Obama’s many warnings about their nuclear ambitions. The president’s record of dithering, feckless engagement policies, slowness to enact and then enforce economic sanctions and his commitment to a diplomatic process that has repeatedly failed have given Tehran good reason to doubt that he means business about the issue or that he regards force as an option that is truly still on the table.

Yet the president’s continued use of strong words about Iran leaves open the possibility that they are wrong. But if he cannot muster the will to do something about Syria even after the death of 70,000 people at Assad’s hands and the use of chemical weapons, then why should anyone think Obama will ever act against Iran?

That places the Syrian decision in a context in which the possible costs of inaction are far greater than the justified worries about those of intervention. There may be no good options in Syria, but the blowback from a realization that the U.S. won’t stop mass killings in this manner may be far more costly. The price may not be paid by Americans, at least not immediately, but the toll in blood and diplomatic and security complications will be great. If American “red lines” mean nothing, then Obama’s blind faith in diplomacy will be exposed as a disastrous sham.

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Will Obama Heed Push to Appease Iran?

Over the course of the last year, President Obama has escalated his rhetoric against Iran. His repudiation of a policy of containment of a nuclear Iran and his repeated promise never to allow the Islamist regime to gain such a weapon has left him little room to maneuver. Tehran continues to stonewall the diplomatic process initiated by the United States and its partners in the P5+1 process. Just as ominously, the ayatollahs have doubled down on their efforts to strengthen their nuclear program. The number of centrifuges spinning away to enrich uranium to bomb-level grade in their underground mountain bunker facility has increased while international inspectors continue to be kept away from sites where military applications of nuclear technology can be found.

But with the clock ticking down toward the moment when the Iranians will have enough fuel to make bombs, much of the foreign policy establishment in the United States is still trying to influence the president to back away from his pledge. The Iran Project has assembled a formidable array of former diplomats and political figures to urge Obama to not just stop talking about force but also to move away from the economic sanctions he has belatedly implemented to pressure Tehran. The group, which has strong ties to the administration, has issued a new report, “Strategic Options for Iran: Balancing Pressure with Diplomacy,” that is aimed at providing a rationale for Obama to embark on yet another attempt at engagement with Iran that would effectively assure the ayatollahs that they have nothing to fear from the West.

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Over the course of the last year, President Obama has escalated his rhetoric against Iran. His repudiation of a policy of containment of a nuclear Iran and his repeated promise never to allow the Islamist regime to gain such a weapon has left him little room to maneuver. Tehran continues to stonewall the diplomatic process initiated by the United States and its partners in the P5+1 process. Just as ominously, the ayatollahs have doubled down on their efforts to strengthen their nuclear program. The number of centrifuges spinning away to enrich uranium to bomb-level grade in their underground mountain bunker facility has increased while international inspectors continue to be kept away from sites where military applications of nuclear technology can be found.

But with the clock ticking down toward the moment when the Iranians will have enough fuel to make bombs, much of the foreign policy establishment in the United States is still trying to influence the president to back away from his pledge. The Iran Project has assembled a formidable array of former diplomats and political figures to urge Obama to not just stop talking about force but also to move away from the economic sanctions he has belatedly implemented to pressure Tehran. The group, which has strong ties to the administration, has issued a new report, “Strategic Options for Iran: Balancing Pressure with Diplomacy,” that is aimed at providing a rationale for Obama to embark on yet another attempt at engagement with Iran that would effectively assure the ayatollahs that they have nothing to fear from the West.

The timing of the release of this report couldn’t be any worse. It comes only weeks after the president reaffirmed his commitment to stopping Iran during his visit to Israel and in the direct aftermath of the latest diplomatic fiasco in which the P5+1 group’s attempt to entice Tehran to give up its nukes with concessions flopped. But given the influence that signatories such as Thomas Pickering, Zbigniew Brezezinski, Daniel Kurtzer, Lee Hamilton, and Richard Lugar have with the Obama foreign policy team—especially former Iran Project board member and current Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel—it’s an open question as to whether this document will provide a template for a new round of appeasement of Iran.

While the report is couched in language that agrees with the objective of preventing Iran from going nuclear, its recommendations are primarily aimed at convincing Americans to embrace Tehran’s goals rather than the other way around. Reading it one quickly realizes that the author’s main fear is not so much the likelihood that Iran will obtain nuclear weapons as it is the possibility that the United States may be obligated to use force to prevent that from happening.

While the use of force, which a previous Iran Project paper signed by Hagel sought to prevent, would entail grave risks, it is increasingly clear that the alternative is not a diplomatic solution by which Iran renounces its nuclear ambition but the containment policy that Obama has specifically rejected.

But rather than endorse a strengthening of the sanctions regime which has at least inflicted some pain on the Iranian economy and given the ayatollahs at least a theoretical incentive to negotiate, the Iran Project seeks to abandon this track. Their focus is solely on negotiations.

The rationale for this puzzling strategy is an assumption that sanctions only alienate and isolate the Iranians and will never persuade them to give up positions they believe are essential to their national interests. They are probably right when they argue that the combination of diplomacy and sanctions will never convince Iran to surrender its nukes. But they fail to explain how or why Tehran would do so without the stick of sanctions or force hanging over their heads.

The report’s main interest is really not about the nuclear threat but in promoting some sort of a rapprochement between Iran and the United States. They acknowledge the wide gap between the two governments in terms of their positions on terrorism, Middle East peace and human rights. But they think it is possible for there to be mutually satisfying relations if only the Americans put to rest any fears in Tehran that the United States is interested in regime change in Iran.

It should be admitted that the chances that any putative American efforts to topple the tyrannical Islamist regime short of invasion (which not even those who advocate bombing their nuclear facilities advocate) would not meet with success given the ruthless nature of the Iranian government. But what these foreign policy “realists” are advocating is a U.S. endorsement of one of the most repressive and anti-Semitic governments in the world. This would be another betrayal of American values as well as of a suffering Iranian people, who waited in vain for the Obama administration to speak out against the 2009 crackdown against dissent.

While there are issues on which Iran and the United States might find common ground, such as the drug trade and Afghanistan, the nature of the Iranian regime is such that it is incapable of regarding America as anything but its enemy. So long as the Islamists are in charge hope of reconciliation or a restoration of the warm ties that existed prior to the 1979 revolution are absurd.

While the Obama administration was slow to enact sanctions and is still giving time to a diplomatic process that has only given the Iranians the opportunity to stall the West, it is nevertheless committed to doing the right thing on this issue. But we know the Iran Project’s siren call of appeasement resonates with many working inside Obama’s inner circle. The message between the lines in this report is one that will pave the way for a containment policy that would reward Iran for its flouting of the diplomatic process. If there is even the slightest hope left that diplomacy and sanctions will work, it is vital that the president reject this report and signal to the Iranians that they will wait in vain for the U.S. to start another bout of appeasement.

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Obama’s Iran Approach Already Failed

In January, Max Boot wrote about the unfortunate decision of the administration to push out one of the country’s top soldiers: Marine General James Mattis, the head of the nation’s crucial Central Command. As Max said, it appeared that “the White House does not appreciate his blunt advice and thinks he is too hawkish on Iran.” Yesterday, we got a good example of the blunt advice Mattis has been offering up when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee “sanctions and diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities are not working”:

General James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran has a history of denial and deceit and is enriching uranium beyond any plausible peaceful purpose. While it may still be possible to use sanctions and other pressure to bring Tehran to its senses, he added, Iran is using the negotiations to buy time.

Mattis is obviously right about what has happened in the last decade as the United States wasted time on foolish attempts at engagement, weak diplomacy and loosely enforced sanctions as the Iranians ran out the clock, getting closer every day to realizing their nuclear ambition. But the question that should be on the minds of Americans is whether the people who showed the general the door understand this commonsense evaluation.

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In January, Max Boot wrote about the unfortunate decision of the administration to push out one of the country’s top soldiers: Marine General James Mattis, the head of the nation’s crucial Central Command. As Max said, it appeared that “the White House does not appreciate his blunt advice and thinks he is too hawkish on Iran.” Yesterday, we got a good example of the blunt advice Mattis has been offering up when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee “sanctions and diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities are not working”:

General James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran has a history of denial and deceit and is enriching uranium beyond any plausible peaceful purpose. While it may still be possible to use sanctions and other pressure to bring Tehran to its senses, he added, Iran is using the negotiations to buy time.

Mattis is obviously right about what has happened in the last decade as the United States wasted time on foolish attempts at engagement, weak diplomacy and loosely enforced sanctions as the Iranians ran out the clock, getting closer every day to realizing their nuclear ambition. But the question that should be on the minds of Americans is whether the people who showed the general the door understand this commonsense evaluation.

Earlier this week, Vice President Biden articulated what might have been the most bellicose expression of administration sentiment toward Iran. He told the annual AIPAC conference that President Obama’s reliance on diplomacy and sanctions was justified, because it would allow the United States to say it had done everything to avoid war if the moment came when force must be used to prevent Tehran from going nuclear. But that stand was undermined by what transpired last week in Almaty, Kazakhstan when the P5+1 group met for the latest round of talks with the Iranians.

At those talks, the Western powers made concessions to the Iranians, saying they would allow them to keep their nuclear plant at Fordow open and that they could continue to refine uranium. Just as bad, they made it clear that if Iran would agree to suspend some of its nuclear activities, some of the sanctions that had been put into place so slowly and with such difficulty would be lifted.

Though the Iranians were clearly pleased by this retreat, they didn’t agree to the terms since they quite understandably believe they can do even better by continuing to stonewall the West. It must be understood that such a stand is an invitation for the Iranians to get a nuclear weapon since the terms of such an accord would give them plenty of latitude to evade the restrictions–much as the North Koreans have done.

The point is not just that, as General Mattis has rightly noted, diplomacy and sanctions have failed up until this point, but that by signing on to the strategy being employed by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton—the leader of the P5+1 group—the administration is doubling down on that failure and locking itself into a process that may ensure that it will be impossible to stop the Iranians.

It is to be hoped that Biden’s bluster represents the genuine sentiments of the president and that it shows he is thinking clearly about the necessity to act before it is too late. But the continued support for more diplomacy and the insistence that sanctions will eventually do the trick may betray a very different mindset.

President Obama is clearly a person who has little patience for opposing views, so it is no surprise that General Mattis will soon leave office. In his absence, it isn’t clear who will continue to tell the president truths that he doesn’t want to hear or whether the tough talk about Iran will continue to be given the lie by more diplomatic surrenders.

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