Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S.-Iran relations

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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Is Iran Listening to Biden’s Threat?

The Obama administration may now have among its members a secretary of defense who can’t get its position on containment of a nuclear Iran straight. But the administration continues to lay down markers on its commitment to stopping Tehran’s nuclear ambitions as if Chuck Hagel’s nomination was an aberration, rather than a signal that is being interpreted in Iran to mean that it need not worry about President Obama’s threats. Vice President Biden’s speech at the annual AIPAC conference today in Washington contained more pledges that the president wasn’t bluffing on Iran. While nothing Biden said, let alone the utterances of the president on this subject, guarantees that the U.S. will ever act to stop Iran, the accumulation of their rhetoric is going to make it even harder for them to back away from their promises.

The vice president arguably went even further than the statement President Obama made at last year’s AIPAC conference when he specifically disavowed containment as an option. While Biden’s typically long-winded and meandering speech contained some highly questionable statements, such as his defense of engagement with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, his remarks also took the administration another step down the road to confrontation with Iran. Instead of merely alluding to the use of force by saying that all options were on the table, he made the case that the current futile diplomatic process with Tehran was defensible because it gave the administration the ability to tell the world that it had done everything possible to avoid conflict before resorting to force.

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The Obama administration may now have among its members a secretary of defense who can’t get its position on containment of a nuclear Iran straight. But the administration continues to lay down markers on its commitment to stopping Tehran’s nuclear ambitions as if Chuck Hagel’s nomination was an aberration, rather than a signal that is being interpreted in Iran to mean that it need not worry about President Obama’s threats. Vice President Biden’s speech at the annual AIPAC conference today in Washington contained more pledges that the president wasn’t bluffing on Iran. While nothing Biden said, let alone the utterances of the president on this subject, guarantees that the U.S. will ever act to stop Iran, the accumulation of their rhetoric is going to make it even harder for them to back away from their promises.

The vice president arguably went even further than the statement President Obama made at last year’s AIPAC conference when he specifically disavowed containment as an option. While Biden’s typically long-winded and meandering speech contained some highly questionable statements, such as his defense of engagement with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, his remarks also took the administration another step down the road to confrontation with Iran. Instead of merely alluding to the use of force by saying that all options were on the table, he made the case that the current futile diplomatic process with Tehran was defensible because it gave the administration the ability to tell the world that it had done everything possible to avoid conflict before resorting to force.

The “if we will be forced to use force” phrasing can, of course, be represented as an empty promise or just a cheap political point being made on the eve of the president’s trip to Israel. The U.S. decision to go along with the West’s decision to make concessions to Iran at the most recent P5+1 talks last week is hardly indicative of strength or resolve. Yet by spelling out a scenario in which, as the vice president said, “God forbid” the Iranians don’t give in on their nuclear ambition, the administration has raised the possibility of using force against Iran from the purely speculative to a rational scenario.

Hagel’s confirmation places a man who was an opponent of sanctions–let alone the use of force–against Iran in a position as a senior advisor to the president. That may have encouraged the Iranians to think that Obama doesn’t mean what he says about never allowing them to gain nuclear capability. But by sketching out a scenario in which four years of feckless engagement and a reliance on failed diplomacy and often unenforced sanctions was justified as a necessary preliminary to a last resort attack on Iran, Biden has turned up the heat on the Iranians and laid the foundation for public support for another Middle East conflict. If, as the New York Times reports today, Biden is going to play an outsized role in foreign policy during the president’s second term, his AIPAC speech may be looked back on as a moment when that claim was validated.

It is certainly possible to doubt Obama’s word–or Biden’s–on this subject. The Iranians may wise up and accept a weak offer from the P5+1 group that will defuse the crisis and allow them to eventually go nuclear anyway in the same manner that their North Korean allies did after signing nuclear agreements with the West. But if they continue, as they have for the last decade, counting on their ability to run out the clock with the U.S. via diplomatic delays and deceptions, Biden offered some hope that this administration might actually be considering taking action to end this farce before an inevitable announcement of an Iranian bomb. It must be hoped that Tehran was listening and drawing the appropriate conclusions about the need to abandon their nuclear gambit before American threats become reality.

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Iran’s Mixed Signals Designed to Mislead

Is Iran backing down on its plans to build a nuclear weapon? Some Western observers may be encouraged to think so after reading reports saying that Iran has decided to resume negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency about monitoring its program. Iran has been stonewalling the United Nations Agency for months and has prevented inspectors from visiting the Parchin site where military nuclear research has been conducted. As the New York Times reports, an Iranian news agency has also claimed that new and more sophisticated devices for enriching uranium being installed at the Natanz site have been designed so as to ensure that the product created by the process won’t be useable for weapons.

If true, both developments could be considered hopeful signs that Iran is responding to the pressure created by international economic sanctions in a way that may lead to a solution to the nuclear impasse. Even if that is a bit optimistic even for those who are still convinced that a window of diplomacy exists to end the dispute, it could at least mean that Iran is desirous of slowing down the pace of escalation of the conflict leaving more time for a deal to be worked out.

But after a decade of Iranian deceptions and diplomatic dead ends, taking this information at face value is the sort of mistake that Tehran has come to count on the West making on a regular basis. The one thing we know for sure is that Iran is installing more centrifuges and that the commitment of the Islamist regime to achieving its nuclear goal is undiminished. Moreover, the refusal of the Iranians to engage in direct talks with the United States shows that the only kind of diplomatic process it wants is a multilateral one with weak-willed Europeans like EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton that will let it get away with more delay. That’s why these mixed signals are far more likely to be just the latest in a long series of prevarications designed to convince the West that it has more time than actually exists before it is too late to do anything about the Iranian nuclear threat than a genuine breakthrough.

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Is Iran backing down on its plans to build a nuclear weapon? Some Western observers may be encouraged to think so after reading reports saying that Iran has decided to resume negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency about monitoring its program. Iran has been stonewalling the United Nations Agency for months and has prevented inspectors from visiting the Parchin site where military nuclear research has been conducted. As the New York Times reports, an Iranian news agency has also claimed that new and more sophisticated devices for enriching uranium being installed at the Natanz site have been designed so as to ensure that the product created by the process won’t be useable for weapons.

If true, both developments could be considered hopeful signs that Iran is responding to the pressure created by international economic sanctions in a way that may lead to a solution to the nuclear impasse. Even if that is a bit optimistic even for those who are still convinced that a window of diplomacy exists to end the dispute, it could at least mean that Iran is desirous of slowing down the pace of escalation of the conflict leaving more time for a deal to be worked out.

But after a decade of Iranian deceptions and diplomatic dead ends, taking this information at face value is the sort of mistake that Tehran has come to count on the West making on a regular basis. The one thing we know for sure is that Iran is installing more centrifuges and that the commitment of the Islamist regime to achieving its nuclear goal is undiminished. Moreover, the refusal of the Iranians to engage in direct talks with the United States shows that the only kind of diplomatic process it wants is a multilateral one with weak-willed Europeans like EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton that will let it get away with more delay. That’s why these mixed signals are far more likely to be just the latest in a long series of prevarications designed to convince the West that it has more time than actually exists before it is too late to do anything about the Iranian nuclear threat than a genuine breakthrough.

The claim that Iran is pulling back on its enrichment activities and diverting more of its fuel to research reactors may or not be true. If that is the case, then this would justify the continued patience of the Obama administration which has refused to set red lines about the nuclear threat that might give teeth to the threats it has issued about leaving nothing off the table when it comes to stopping the Iranians. A longer timeline before the Iranian stockpile of weapons-grade nuclear material would allow the P5+1 diplomatic process to be restarted and conducted with the sort of patience that the Europeans have always demonstrated when it comes to dealing with the Iranians.

But the very fact that this is exactly what Iran has always wanted the West to believe calls for some skepticism about the fuel conversion story. Without full access to all the relevant nuclear sites in Iran, it is impossible to be sure whether promises about enrichment are real or not. But even if some limited inspections are resumed with the IAEA, that can’t be considered a guarantee of progress since the Iranians have already shown their desire to conceal their actions as well as to deceive the inspectors.

Whether or not the enrichment process has slowed, there is no denying that the Iranians are still building their uranium stockpile and that sooner or later — with the emphasis on sooner — they will have enough to build a bomb.

In his State of the Union speech last night, President Obama devoted but one line to the issue that could prove to be the most fateful in his second term:

The leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.

These are fine words but the problem is that everything this administration and its European partners have done up until now has convinced the Iranians that they have nothing to worry about. The foolish attempts at engagement and the watered down sanctions that were belated implemented have done little to impress upon the ayatollahs the stern resolution that the president claims exists to halt their nuclear gambit. If the president buys into these latest mixed that may be exactly the mistake the Iranians are hoping for. 

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Grand Ayatollah Puts Obama on the Spot

There has always been a contradiction between the Obama administration’s reluctance to state “red lines” on Iran and its tough talk about never allowing the Islamist regime to achieve their nuclear ambition. The president’s supporters have resolved this piece of cognitive dissonance—at least in their own minds—by sticking to the belief that sooner or later Tehran will yield to reason and start negotiating toward a compromise that the U.S. could live with even if such a deal might scare Israel. This assumption was based on the idea that sanctions are gradually bringing Iran to its knees and that its leaders are reasonable people who understand their position is unsustainable.

Given the Iranians’ record of intransigence and duplicity in diplomatic encounters, such assumptions were always more a matter of wishful thinking than serious analysis. But the latest rejection of an American attempt to reach out to Iran should conclusively demonstrate that any hope that sanctions or diplomacy will persuade Iran to back off on its nuclear quest is entirely unrealistic. The statement by the supreme leader of the regime, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to the effect that he completely rejects any idea of direct talks on the nuclear question with the United States indicates that the latest bright idea about Iran hatched in the Obama administration was just as much a failure as its predecessors. Though some are interpreting the ayatollah’s statement solely through the prism of the power struggles inside Tehran, there should be no mistake about who is in charge and what his veto of new talks with the U.S. means.

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There has always been a contradiction between the Obama administration’s reluctance to state “red lines” on Iran and its tough talk about never allowing the Islamist regime to achieve their nuclear ambition. The president’s supporters have resolved this piece of cognitive dissonance—at least in their own minds—by sticking to the belief that sooner or later Tehran will yield to reason and start negotiating toward a compromise that the U.S. could live with even if such a deal might scare Israel. This assumption was based on the idea that sanctions are gradually bringing Iran to its knees and that its leaders are reasonable people who understand their position is unsustainable.

Given the Iranians’ record of intransigence and duplicity in diplomatic encounters, such assumptions were always more a matter of wishful thinking than serious analysis. But the latest rejection of an American attempt to reach out to Iran should conclusively demonstrate that any hope that sanctions or diplomacy will persuade Iran to back off on its nuclear quest is entirely unrealistic. The statement by the supreme leader of the regime, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to the effect that he completely rejects any idea of direct talks on the nuclear question with the United States indicates that the latest bright idea about Iran hatched in the Obama administration was just as much a failure as its predecessors. Though some are interpreting the ayatollah’s statement solely through the prism of the power struggles inside Tehran, there should be no mistake about who is in charge and what his veto of new talks with the U.S. means.

The ayatollah’s cutting and sinister remarks about any Iranian who might consider talking with the Americans illustrates how deeply committed the government is to the nuclear program. He also gave a not-so-subtle hint about what would happen to any official who was foolish enough to think of compromising either on nukes or on warming up relations with the United States:

“I’m not a diplomat; I’m a revolutionary, and speak frankly and directly,” he said. “If anyone wants the return of U.S. dominance here, people will grab his throat.”

This puts a period on the notion of a new engagement policy in Iran that might have relieved President Obama of the obligation to make good on his promises about Iran. Negotiations might have yielded some sort of accord that might have been able to be represented as a victory for U.S. policy even if it fell short of actually removing the Iranian nuclear threat in the long run. But Khamenei’s contempt for Obama is so complete that he will not deign to negotiate directly with him. Instead, he seems to believe that if he sticks to his position on the nuclear question, he can eventually run out the clock through multilateral talks via the P5+1 group in which Russia and China will prevent anyone from applying real pressure on Tehran.

Khamenei can hardly be blamed for thinking the administration isn’t serious about rejecting any thought of containing them rather than forestalling their nuclear program via force even as a last resort. The nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense—a man who not only opposes force and supports containment but also can’t even be counted on to lie persuasively about it during his confirmation hearing—may have persuaded them that the president never meant what he said about Iran throughout his re-election campaign. The Iranians also read the American press and know that one of the rising figures in the Republican Party—Rand Paul—also supports containment.

The Iranian confidence that they can ignore American threats puts the administration in a pickle. The president will not pull the plug on the next round of P5+1 talks but even he knows that effort will never yield success. But he now knows, even if he didn’t before, that Khamenei would never yield on the nuclear question. Sooner or later that leaves him with either containment or force as his only two options on Iran. Given the consequences of allowing Iran to go nuclear, let’s hope he hasn’t been bluffing all along about leaving no option off the table.

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Brennan Vulnerable on More Than Drones

The consensus in the last month among political observers is that while Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be secretary of defense faced serious challenges that would ultimately fall short of stopping him, there was never a chance that the president’s choice to run the CIA would be turned down by the Senate. With so much fire concentrated on Hagel, it was assumed that White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan would skate to an easy victory even if tough questions were posed at his confirmation hearing. The day of that hearing has finally arrived, and though it is doubtful that he will be rejected, it looks as though he will face an even rougher time than expected when on the Senate hot seat.

Much of that has to do with the recent revelations about the administration’s guidelines about conducting drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets. Liberal Democrats like Ron Wyden and a libertarian Republican like Rand Paul will rake him over the coals about this controversial, though justified policy. Other Republicans will take him to task for the disaster at Benghazi and try again to probe into the questions of who in the White House knew what and when did they know it about the incident, as well as who changed the talking points which led to administration figures like Susan Rice putting out false information about the murders having resulted from a film protest rather than a terror attack.

Those will be the headlines of today’s hearings, and though they are topics that deserve scrutiny there are other questions that need to be asked about Brennan’s views that may be of even greater importance in determining his fitness to lead the country’s intelligence operations. Brennan’s positions on engagement with Iran, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood need to be given as much attention as that given to the drones and Benghazi.

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The consensus in the last month among political observers is that while Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be secretary of defense faced serious challenges that would ultimately fall short of stopping him, there was never a chance that the president’s choice to run the CIA would be turned down by the Senate. With so much fire concentrated on Hagel, it was assumed that White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan would skate to an easy victory even if tough questions were posed at his confirmation hearing. The day of that hearing has finally arrived, and though it is doubtful that he will be rejected, it looks as though he will face an even rougher time than expected when on the Senate hot seat.

Much of that has to do with the recent revelations about the administration’s guidelines about conducting drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets. Liberal Democrats like Ron Wyden and a libertarian Republican like Rand Paul will rake him over the coals about this controversial, though justified policy. Other Republicans will take him to task for the disaster at Benghazi and try again to probe into the questions of who in the White House knew what and when did they know it about the incident, as well as who changed the talking points which led to administration figures like Susan Rice putting out false information about the murders having resulted from a film protest rather than a terror attack.

Those will be the headlines of today’s hearings, and though they are topics that deserve scrutiny there are other questions that need to be asked about Brennan’s views that may be of even greater importance in determining his fitness to lead the country’s intelligence operations. Brennan’s positions on engagement with Iran, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood need to be given as much attention as that given to the drones and Benghazi.

As terrorism investigator Steve Emerson notes, Brennan wrote an academic paper in 2008 that championed engagement with Iran. The paper was the blueprint in some ways for much of the Obama administration’s foolish attempt to sweet talk the Iranians and was based on the fallacy that moderates within the Islamist regime could overcome the hardliners with enough encouragement. That was a misreading of the situation in Tehran that had already been debunked by events by the time it was written but which was more fully exposed during the years of the Obama presidency, as time after time Iran used the diplomatic process to manipulate the West into giving them more time to achieve their nuclear goal. Going forward the key question is how willing is the administration to go back down that dead end road and let the Iranians prevaricate long enough to get their bomb?

The same question must be posed about Brennan’s position about Hezbollah. Brennan has used the same sort of language about moderates within that terrorist organization that he used to justify the feckless engagement policy with Iran. Indeed, Brennan has even called for Americans to “cease public Iran bashing” and to “tolerate, and even … encourage, greater assimilation of Hezbollah into Lebanon’s political system.” Brennan has spoken as if the group was evolving away from terrorism even though the evidence for this is slight and the group is still operated by people who have killed many Americans and runs under orders from Iran. The recent murderous terror attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria carried out by Hezbollah demonstrates how wrong Brennan has been on this subject.

Brennan also appears to be part of the consensus within the administration that backed the U.S. embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt this year. Brennan has been at the head of an effort to do outreach with American supporters of the Brotherhood. He has also repeatedly sought to confuse the issue about support for jihadist goals by Muslims. His semantic arguments have been aimed at convincing Americans to view Islamist terrorism as somehow being motivated more by economics than religion. That is such a fundamental misunderstanding of America’s enemies as well as the history of the conflict and of the Arab and Muslim worlds that it is hard to see how a person who holds such views can be trusted to run the country’s intelligence operations.

John Brennan’s mindset about his supposed field of expertise—terrorism—appears to be stuck in a political vise that refuses to look clearly at the motivations of Islamists or at their goals. It is this kind of thinking that has led the administration to continually seek to appease Iran and Hezbollah and to empower the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The repercussions of these blunders are currently unfolding in the Middle East as Islamists tighten their grip on Egypt, revive a bloody terror campaign in North Africa and get closer to a nuclear weapon in Iran.

What is needed at the CIA is someone who will question the complacency about Islamism that predominated at the White House while Brennan ran its counter-terrorism shop. We can only guess at what new intelligence fiascos will occur on his watch at Langley. At the very least, the Senate should not let this nomination go forward without a thorough public examination of just how wrongheaded many of Brennan’s views have been. 

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Can Hagel’s Recantations Stand Up to Questioning?

After more than a month of argument over his nomination as secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel faces the first day of his Senate confirmation hearings on Thursday. The administration’s preparation for this event has been thorough, as the former senator has flipped on most of his controversial positions on Israel, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas and gained the support of some key pro-Israel Democrats like Chuck Schumer. That ought to have been enough to secure his confirmation and the expectation right now is that while the Nebraskan will be roughed up a bit in the hearings, he will still win easily when the votes are counted.

But even the most careful preparations and political groundwork with individual members of the Senate can be blown up by a hearing in which a nominee gives critics new and perhaps damaging ammunition. The advise and consent process can be gamed by a nominee who is willing to disavow many of his previously cherished viewpoints as Hagel has done. Yet if Hagel’s responses to questions lack credibility or come across as obviously insincere, the rumblings about Hagel’s unsuitability to run the Pentagon will get louder. Should the notoriously prickly politician, who is far more used to bullying witnesses at Senate hearings than he is to meekly submitting to such abuse, fire back at his tormentors the result could change the conversation about his nomination.

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After more than a month of argument over his nomination as secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel faces the first day of his Senate confirmation hearings on Thursday. The administration’s preparation for this event has been thorough, as the former senator has flipped on most of his controversial positions on Israel, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas and gained the support of some key pro-Israel Democrats like Chuck Schumer. That ought to have been enough to secure his confirmation and the expectation right now is that while the Nebraskan will be roughed up a bit in the hearings, he will still win easily when the votes are counted.

But even the most careful preparations and political groundwork with individual members of the Senate can be blown up by a hearing in which a nominee gives critics new and perhaps damaging ammunition. The advise and consent process can be gamed by a nominee who is willing to disavow many of his previously cherished viewpoints as Hagel has done. Yet if Hagel’s responses to questions lack credibility or come across as obviously insincere, the rumblings about Hagel’s unsuitability to run the Pentagon will get louder. Should the notoriously prickly politician, who is far more used to bullying witnesses at Senate hearings than he is to meekly submitting to such abuse, fire back at his tormentors the result could change the conversation about his nomination.

Those who want to get to the truth about Hagel’s views need to press him closely about what he meant when he bragged about standing up to pressure about the “Jewish lobby.” Does he think, as he previously argued, that the pro-Israel community has disproportionate or wrongful influence over Congress, as he implied? And why did he single out “Jewish” lobbyists as a threat to congressional independence and not other more powerful forces such as the oil lobby (not to mention the pressure put on Congress from the agricultural and corn lobby that drains the federal treasury with unnecessary subsidies)?

The public needs to know why he previously opposed sanctions on Iran. He needs to explain what, other than being nominated to run the Defense Department, made him change his mind about engaging the Islamist regime and protecting it from international pressure to drop its nuclear program. Why did he endorse a study published only a few months ago that sought to rally opposition to using force as even a last resort to stop Iran?

Hagel also must elaborate on why he favored engagement with the terrorists of Hamas and Hezbollah.

These are not minor points or details. While any candidate for high office can be expected to modify their positions on some issues in order to conform to those of the president, it is rare for any nominee to do a 180 on as many issues as Hagel has done in only a few weeks.

As Seth wrote earlier this week, the belief that Hagel is the president’s soul mate on war and peace issues ought to scare the country silly as details of the nominee’s out-of-the-mainstream views on key issues are explored. It may well be that Hagel will control himself and stick to his not-terribly-credible story about a change of heart and skate to confirmation. But should he succumb to the temptation to candidly explain himself, the ensuing fireworks may bring President Obama the first real setback of his second term.

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Why Hagel is Doing a 180 on Israel, Iran

How badly does Chuck Hagel want to be secretary of defense? As Politico reports, the answer comes in a letter he wrote to Senator Barbara Boxer that won the California Democrat’s support for his confirmation. In it, he didn’t merely apologize for his bragging about standing up to the “Jewish lobby,” but also backtracked from previous stands on the U.S.-Israel alliance, the threat from Iran and even specified that he now considers Hamas and Hezbollah to be terrorist groups.

As expected, Hagel flipped on his anti-gay stance as well as his opposition to abortion rights for members of the armed services—issues that are important to the liberal Boxer. But by explicitly reversing his positions on Middle East issues that he had held throughout his years in the Senate and after he left Congress, Hagel has made it clear that he is willing to say anything necessary to win the approval of pro-Israel Democrats without whom he cannot win confirmation. The man who once popped off about how he was not like all the members of the Senate when it came to embracing the pro-Israel and anti-Iran consensus now can’t be loud enough in his professions of support for that line.

This tells us two things.

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How badly does Chuck Hagel want to be secretary of defense? As Politico reports, the answer comes in a letter he wrote to Senator Barbara Boxer that won the California Democrat’s support for his confirmation. In it, he didn’t merely apologize for his bragging about standing up to the “Jewish lobby,” but also backtracked from previous stands on the U.S.-Israel alliance, the threat from Iran and even specified that he now considers Hamas and Hezbollah to be terrorist groups.

As expected, Hagel flipped on his anti-gay stance as well as his opposition to abortion rights for members of the armed services—issues that are important to the liberal Boxer. But by explicitly reversing his positions on Middle East issues that he had held throughout his years in the Senate and after he left Congress, Hagel has made it clear that he is willing to say anything necessary to win the approval of pro-Israel Democrats without whom he cannot win confirmation. The man who once popped off about how he was not like all the members of the Senate when it came to embracing the pro-Israel and anti-Iran consensus now can’t be loud enough in his professions of support for that line.

This tells us two things.

One is that the administration knows that the real Chuck Hagel who was well known to be hostile to the pro-Israel community and was an advocate of engagement with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah can’t be confirmed as secretary of defense. If they are to sell the Senate on their former colleague, it will require a complete rebranding in which the Nebraskan throws his “realist” foreign policy views, which endeared him to Israel-bashers and caused even the Iranians to embrace his nomination, out the window.

That means the campaign launched against his confirmation by those who rightly viewed him as a figure outside the mainstream when it came to many foreign policy issues is succeeding. Hagel’s cheering section in the media and the Washington establishment has sought to put down his opponents as mad dog neoconservatives and extremists. But the former senator’s willingness to abandon his views shows that his White House handlers understand that it was Hagel that was out of touch, not his critics.

Secondly, the process by which Hagel has been forced to do a 180 on stands that were integral to his worldview also illustrates that President Obama is not as free to pursue policies in his second term that contradict the rhetoric he used during his re-election campaign as some of his left-wing supporters hoped and his right-wing foes feared.

The president painted himself into a corner last year when he specifically disavowed the possibility that the U.S. might choose to “contain” a nuclear Iran rather than forestalling the Islamist regime’s production of such weapons. He also vowed that any deal with Iran would preclude their having a nuclear program. And though he spent much of his first term seeking to undermine Israel’s negotiating position with the Palestinians and trying to force it to make concessions, the president stopped talking about those issues last year and merely stuck, as Hagel did in his letter to Boxer, to enunciating support for the U.S.-Israel alliance.

This doesn’t mean that the second Obama administration can’t reverse itself on any of these points. It could back down on Iran and it is not unlikely that it will embrace a revived peace process aimed at pushing Israel into a corner. But the Hagel confirmation process shows that making such decisions will come at a high political price. There’s good reason to believe that Hagel was chosen precisely because the president privately shares some of those views that the nominee is now disavowing. But this is also a president who understands that his political capital is finite and can’t be squandered on anti-Israel grudges when there are much larger and more important battles to be fought in the next four years. The campaign against Hagel may not succeed in stopping his confirmation. But by forcing him to start talking like a neoconservative on Israel, it has demonstrated that there is a limit to how far even a re-elected Obama can go when it comes to straying from the foreign policy mainstream.

UPDATE:

Reports now say that New York Senator Chuck Schumer is satisfied with Hagel’s backtracking on Israel and Iran and is now prepared to endorse his nomination. This makes it a certainty that Hagel will be confirmed. But as I wrote earlier, the fact that he was forced to do a 180 on the positions that had endeared him to the foes of the Jewish state will make it difficult for Hagel to revert to his previous antagonism toward the pro-Israel community.

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What is the Purpose of VOA Persian?

I’ve been traveling and so a bit late getting to this, but last week, Sohrab Ahmari, an assistant books editor at The Wall Street Journal (and an occasional COMMENTARY contributor) had an excellent piece examining Voice of America broadcasting into Iran:

Critics also charge that VOA’s Persian coverage is often distorted by an editorial line favoring rapprochement with the mullahs. There is “a clear slant in favor of Iran in terms of its involvement in terrorism,” the current production staffer wrote in response to queries for this article. The network, he said, often refuses to air criticism of Iranian terror unless it is “balanced with the perspective of the Islamic Republic who vehemently [deny] any involvement.” And because “no one in the Islamic Republic gives us interviews anyway,” VOA Persian abandons otherwise informative segments about terrorism.

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I’ve been traveling and so a bit late getting to this, but last week, Sohrab Ahmari, an assistant books editor at The Wall Street Journal (and an occasional COMMENTARY contributor) had an excellent piece examining Voice of America broadcasting into Iran:

Critics also charge that VOA’s Persian coverage is often distorted by an editorial line favoring rapprochement with the mullahs. There is “a clear slant in favor of Iran in terms of its involvement in terrorism,” the current production staffer wrote in response to queries for this article. The network, he said, often refuses to air criticism of Iranian terror unless it is “balanced with the perspective of the Islamic Republic who vehemently [deny] any involvement.” And because “no one in the Islamic Republic gives us interviews anyway,” VOA Persian abandons otherwise informative segments about terrorism.

Ahmari continues to demonstrate that VOA Persian has jettisoned programs with millions of followers in favor of new programs that have no measurable impact.

What happened after publication was even more informative: A VOA Persian producer tweeted (via Sohrab’s twitter account), “Another BS story on VOA Persian but thankfully behind paywall” and then seemed to dismiss the idea of audience reach mattering. The producer then defined VOA Persian’s mission as, “to provide a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.”

Just my own three cents:

  • The idea that VOA Persian hasn’t allowed its own politics to corrupt it is risible. I had a run in with VOA Persian a couple years ago after I had written a post here questioning whether the State Department should be granting Iranian nationals multiple entry visas when many repressive regimes have used students in the past to spy on one another and dissidents and when the State Department lacked the ability to vet such visa holders adequately. In response, VOA Persian, in the course of a news item (as opposed to an opinion piece) cavalierly labeled me an enemy of the Iranian people. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I wrote about the episode, here. Needless to say, Ramin Asgard, the leader of VOA Persian at the time, lacked the professional courtesy to issue a correction, let alone apologize. His goal, however, was outreach and if that meant personal attacks on critics of Islamic Republic policies, so be it. Asgard has since left VOA.
  • Around the same time, I attended a roundtable that included a former head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which also broadcasts into Iran (among other places). One of the topics discussed was the role of U.S. broadcasting and broadcasting strategy. The former official said that the United States’ broadcasters built credibility by airing criticism of itself and simply being another news source. My response: The notion that the U.S. builds credibility by bashing itself is unproven pap. Credibility certainly depends on truthfulness, but editors can choose which news to publish, and both VOA Persian and often Radio Farda appear to lack a general strategy. So, here’s one: U.S.-funded broadcasters neither can do everything nor is it there job to replicate the private sector. Instead, they should focus on those subjects which journalists operating under repressive conditions cannot cover. VOA Persian should be the go-to source for news about human rights in Iran, corruption among the Iranian regime, and explanations countering rather than amplifying the official Iranian line.
  • Lastly, it is important to remember that toward the end of the Bush administration, the National Security Council asked a security-cleared, native Persian speaker to listen to and read VOA broadcasts and document the bias. She did as she was directed and yet Senate staffers—especially those attached to Joseph Biden and Chuck Hagel—tried to kill the report and attack the staffer who wrote the report, rather than the National Security Council official who assigned her the task. How unfortunate it is that VOA Persian complains that they are tarred unfairly and that no one has ever systematically shown bias and yet, when someone did, proponents of uncritical rapprochement with the Islamic Republic’s leadership tried to deep-six it.

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AIPAC’s Hagel Dilemma

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg homed in on an interesting aspect of the fight over President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense this morning when he noted how the issue put AIPAC in a tough position. There’s little question that the pro-Israel lobby is alarmed by the prospect of having a man running the Pentagon who thinks the U.S. ought to be tough on Israel and soft on Iran rather than the other way around. But, as Goldberg rightly pointed out, AIPAC is in the business of working with Congress and the White House, not fighting them tooth and nail.

Goldberg correctly notes that it would be bad judgment for a group that applauded Obama’s promises on Iran to attempt to thwart him on his choice to head the Defense Department. While Obama’s support for positions on Iran and Israel in the past year and a half have often seemed grudging, AIPAC is eager to maintain decent relations with the White House. That would, as Goldberg seems to imply, argue for the lobby to stand aside during the upcoming donnybrook over Hagel. But the problem with this reasoning is that it ignores what is fairly obvious to both friends and foes of the nominee: his appointment signals that the administration’s election year Jewish charm offensive during which the president stopped picking fights with Israel and pledged not to contain Iran, but to stop the Islamic Republic, is very much over.

The last thing AIPAC wants to do is to fight a losing battle over Hagel in which it would get the worst of both worlds—a bad appointment and a White House that will be interested in payback for being thwarted. But the stakes are sufficiently high that it ought not be too difficult a decision. If there is any chance that the nomination can be defeated—and if reports about pro-Israel Democrats being willing to jump ship on this issue are true, he can be —then those who wish to send the administration a message that the country will not tolerate Obama breaking his promises on Iran must do whatever they can to accomplish this goal.

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The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg homed in on an interesting aspect of the fight over President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense this morning when he noted how the issue put AIPAC in a tough position. There’s little question that the pro-Israel lobby is alarmed by the prospect of having a man running the Pentagon who thinks the U.S. ought to be tough on Israel and soft on Iran rather than the other way around. But, as Goldberg rightly pointed out, AIPAC is in the business of working with Congress and the White House, not fighting them tooth and nail.

Goldberg correctly notes that it would be bad judgment for a group that applauded Obama’s promises on Iran to attempt to thwart him on his choice to head the Defense Department. While Obama’s support for positions on Iran and Israel in the past year and a half have often seemed grudging, AIPAC is eager to maintain decent relations with the White House. That would, as Goldberg seems to imply, argue for the lobby to stand aside during the upcoming donnybrook over Hagel. But the problem with this reasoning is that it ignores what is fairly obvious to both friends and foes of the nominee: his appointment signals that the administration’s election year Jewish charm offensive during which the president stopped picking fights with Israel and pledged not to contain Iran, but to stop the Islamic Republic, is very much over.

The last thing AIPAC wants to do is to fight a losing battle over Hagel in which it would get the worst of both worlds—a bad appointment and a White House that will be interested in payback for being thwarted. But the stakes are sufficiently high that it ought not be too difficult a decision. If there is any chance that the nomination can be defeated—and if reports about pro-Israel Democrats being willing to jump ship on this issue are true, he can be —then those who wish to send the administration a message that the country will not tolerate Obama breaking his promises on Iran must do whatever they can to accomplish this goal.

The White House is, as Goldberg notes, sending a loud message to AIPAC that the president will be offended if they fight him on Hagel. The presumption is that any such decision would have a negative impact on Obama’s continuation of policies that the lobby supports on security cooperation with Israel.

Yet by picking Hagel for defense, what Obama has done is to signal Israel’s friends that any expectation that he would stick to his word about containment or the use of force against Iran is probably unrealistic. That’s what the Iranians and Israelis are probably thinking right now, a state of affairs that is likely to lead to trouble for the U.S. Though it would be wrong to think that AIPAC has nothing to lose in this battle, the consequences of allowing Hagel to skate through to an easy confirmation are immense for the group and the U.S.-Israel alliance. That’s especially true if a strong push from AIPAC might be enough to nudge a critical group of pro-Israel Democratic senators to commit to vote against him.

There are times when groups like AIPAC must play it smart and avoid confrontations with the president. This isn’t one of them. By speaking out forcefully, the group can transform the Hagel issue from what is being spun in the media as GOP revenge for his opposition to the Iraq War into a bipartisan revolt against his nomination. That’s exactly what they should do.

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Is Hagel Obama’s Cover for Iran War?

Pro-Israel Democrats are in a difficult spot this morning as President Obama prepares to nominate one of the least friendly members of the United States Senate in the last generation to the post of secretary of defense. Hagel’s comments about his antagonism toward the “Jewish lobby,” his votes against sanctions on Iran and Syria and his refusal to condemn anti-Semitism are a matter of record and make difficult reading for those who spent the last year working hard to persuade pro-Israel and Jewish voters that President Obama could be relied upon to maintain the alliance with Israel and to take action on the Iranian nuclear threat. At the very least, Hagel’s nomination complicates the narrative in which administration supporters claimed the president was prepared to go to the mat to stop Iran.

That’s why many Democrats as well as Republicans are casting doubt on the ability of the White House to ensure his confirmation. But some resourceful souls have been floating a counter-intuitive argument in order to smooth the way for what looks to be brutal fight in the Senate. According to this scenario, appointing Hagel actually is a signal that Obama is serious about taking on Iran. Choosing an open opponent of not only the use of force against Iran but also sanctions would, we are told, give the president cover when he is ready to go to war on Iran and silence any criticism from the left while also showing the world that America is united behind the president’s policies.

While those attempting to put forward such an idea deserve credit for both chutzpah and creativity, this is utter nonsense. It flies against not only logic but also everything we know about how the president operates. Far from providing a warning to Iran that America is prepared to take action against them, it is a neon sign proclaiming that, at best, the cabinet will be divided on what to do after the next round of no-hope negotiations fail. At worst, it will make it obvious what many have already long suspected: that President Obama has no intention of keeping his promise to stop Iran and to not consider containment as a viable option.

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Pro-Israel Democrats are in a difficult spot this morning as President Obama prepares to nominate one of the least friendly members of the United States Senate in the last generation to the post of secretary of defense. Hagel’s comments about his antagonism toward the “Jewish lobby,” his votes against sanctions on Iran and Syria and his refusal to condemn anti-Semitism are a matter of record and make difficult reading for those who spent the last year working hard to persuade pro-Israel and Jewish voters that President Obama could be relied upon to maintain the alliance with Israel and to take action on the Iranian nuclear threat. At the very least, Hagel’s nomination complicates the narrative in which administration supporters claimed the president was prepared to go to the mat to stop Iran.

That’s why many Democrats as well as Republicans are casting doubt on the ability of the White House to ensure his confirmation. But some resourceful souls have been floating a counter-intuitive argument in order to smooth the way for what looks to be brutal fight in the Senate. According to this scenario, appointing Hagel actually is a signal that Obama is serious about taking on Iran. Choosing an open opponent of not only the use of force against Iran but also sanctions would, we are told, give the president cover when he is ready to go to war on Iran and silence any criticism from the left while also showing the world that America is united behind the president’s policies.

While those attempting to put forward such an idea deserve credit for both chutzpah and creativity, this is utter nonsense. It flies against not only logic but also everything we know about how the president operates. Far from providing a warning to Iran that America is prepared to take action against them, it is a neon sign proclaiming that, at best, the cabinet will be divided on what to do after the next round of no-hope negotiations fail. At worst, it will make it obvious what many have already long suspected: that President Obama has no intention of keeping his promise to stop Iran and to not consider containment as a viable option.

For all of the talk about the Hagel nomination being evidence of bipartisanship, it is actually yet another example of the main theme of the Obama presidency. Though nominally a Republican, this is, after all, a Republican who endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008 as well as 2012 and has few ties left with the party that elected him to the Senate. More to the point, for good or for ill, this has been an administration in which open conflicts between cabinet secretaries has been rare. Far from encouraging independent thinking or diverse agendas, the White House has maintained a united front on big issues. So the notion that Obama is appointing someone to be the top defense and security official in the nation who has a markedly different view on Iran from his own core beliefs seems a stretch at best.

As for the idea that Obama is worried about criticism from the left should he decide to strike Iran, that is also ridiculous. As much as many liberals have expressed frustration with what they think is his weak stance toward the Republicans (at least they did before he hosed them in the fiscal cliff talks) and grumbled quietly about counter-terror policies that bear a striking resemblance to those of George W. Bush that he campaigned against, the left has done nothing to hinder this president. Should he decide on action against Iran, only the hard left would oppose him. Chuck Hagel neither enhances nor detracts from his ability to rally the nation behind any aggressive policy aimed at forestalling the Iranian threat.

The truth is far more obvious. President Obama is choosing Hagel not because he provides a dissenting view on Iran or Israel but because his views are entirely compatible with those of his future boss. The appointment is a signal to Iran that there is a senior U.S. cabinet secretary that isn’t interested in opposing them and to Israel that they may well be on their own.

That’s a tough pill for Obama’s pro-Israel supporters to swallow, but it is far closer to the truth than any scenario in which Hagel’s elevation is spun as anything but what it is: an indication of the president’s inconstancy on both Israel and Iran.

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Hagel Means Iran Containment

The news that President Obama has finally decided to move ahead with the nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel to be the secretary of defense illustrates the difference between politics and policy. Last year while in the midst of a re-election year Jewish charm offensive, the president not only reiterated that he would never allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon but explicitly disavowed any intention of backing off that pledge and adopting a policy centering on “containing” the Islamist regime. But election years are for promises and second terms are about policy implementation. The appointment of Hagel, who, despite strong opposition from the pro-Israel community and gays, is a lock to be confirmed by his former Senate colleagues, illustrates the gap between what Obama’s supporters were told and what is likely to happen over the next four years.

The president’s defenders spent the last year trying to convince others and themselves that Obama is not only a good friend of Israel but that he should be trusted to take action against Iran if diplomacy fails. But placing someone at the head of the Pentagon who has been an opponent of a tough policy on Iran and a stern critic of Israel and its supporters sends a clear signal that Tehran has little to worry about from a second Obama administration.

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The news that President Obama has finally decided to move ahead with the nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel to be the secretary of defense illustrates the difference between politics and policy. Last year while in the midst of a re-election year Jewish charm offensive, the president not only reiterated that he would never allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon but explicitly disavowed any intention of backing off that pledge and adopting a policy centering on “containing” the Islamist regime. But election years are for promises and second terms are about policy implementation. The appointment of Hagel, who, despite strong opposition from the pro-Israel community and gays, is a lock to be confirmed by his former Senate colleagues, illustrates the gap between what Obama’s supporters were told and what is likely to happen over the next four years.

The president’s defenders spent the last year trying to convince others and themselves that Obama is not only a good friend of Israel but that he should be trusted to take action against Iran if diplomacy fails. But placing someone at the head of the Pentagon who has been an opponent of a tough policy on Iran and a stern critic of Israel and its supporters sends a clear signal that Tehran has little to worry about from a second Obama administration.

Some of Obama’s critics have worried that once re-elected, he would end the U.S.-Israel alliance, but such a scenario was never in the cards even though he is the least friendly president to the Jewish state in a generation. The alliance has such a broad American constituency and security cooperation between the two countries has been institutionalized to the point where not even having a Hagel running the Pentagon can derail it. The next four years will see plenty of tension between Obama and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who will be re-elected later this month, but there are severe limits to how far the president can go when venting his spleen about the Israelis–and he knows it.

However, the Hagel appointment does illustrate not only his level of comfort with someone who has floated Walt-Mearsheimer-style rhetoric about the “Jewish lobby” but also a man who has been an advocate of taking the use of force against Iran off the table. It can be argued that having him at the table when the president will determine when diplomacy has failed (as if it has already not been demonstrated time and again that the idea of a diplomatic window with Iran is a myth) or if an attack to forestall an Iranian nuke is wise will not predetermine the outcome of those discussions. But how is it possible not to draw conclusions from the fact that Obama has chosen as his chief advisor on military and security issues a person who will fight tooth and nail to let Iran off the hook no matter what happens?

The president may have told last year’s AIPAC conference that the United States would not contain a nuclear Iran and then told the nation during his third debate with Mitt Romney that a deal with Tehran means that it must not have a nuclear program. But while Congress could make his life miserable if he tried to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, there will be no such leverage when it comes to forcing him to take action on Iran.

Four years of Obama’s of attempts to engage Iran or to negotiate with them coupled with belated and loosely enforced sanctions have already led the Iranians to conclude that the U.S. is a paper tiger that they need not fear. Hagel’s nomination will confirm them in this belief and dooms any effort to revive the P5+1 talks to failure. It will also make it clear to the Israelis that they are probably on their own when it comes to the Iranian threat.

There’s little doubt that Hagel will backtrack on some of his Iran positions during his confirmation hearings. And we will be reassured that the president makes policy and that Hagel’s job will be just to implement it. But an administration with such a person in a position of influence cannot be trusted to fairly evaluate the nature of the Iranian threat or to deal with it. No matter what was said by the president on the Iran issue last year, Hagel’s appointment shows his promises will have little to do with what ultimately happens during the next four years. That’s a point that the Senate needs to take into account as it prepares to consider this nomination.

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Obama Falling for Iran Deception Again?

During the last decade both the Obama administration and its predecessor went down the garden path with Iran several times. Yet every time Washington believed the Islamist regime was finally embracing diplomacy and that a solution to the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions was imminent, the ayatollahs pulled the rug out from under its gullible Western adversaries. This has happened so many times that one would think it would be impossible for the Iranians to pull off this trick again, but it appears that the United States is about to play Charlie Brown to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Lucy Van Pelt and her football again.

Using its usual anonymous sources within the Obama administration, the New York Times is claiming that Iran has sent a clear signal to the West that it is ready negotiate about its nuclear program. The paper reports that according to unnamed government officials Iran has slowed down its enrichment of uranium in recent months. The use of what is described as a “significant amount” of material for a small medical reactor may affect Iran’s nuclear timetable. This has led the U.S. to believe that the Iranians are sending a signal to the West that they are ready to negotiate rather than to continue to stonewall the world on the issue:

One American official said the move amounted to trying to “put more time on the clock to solve this,” characterizing it as a step “you have to assume was highly calculated, because everything the Iranians do in a negotiation is highly calculated.”

No doubt it was calculated, but there is plenty of reason to doubt that calculation has anything to do with a desire to negotiate an end to their program—the goal that President Obama said was the only sort of compromise he would accept during his foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney.

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During the last decade both the Obama administration and its predecessor went down the garden path with Iran several times. Yet every time Washington believed the Islamist regime was finally embracing diplomacy and that a solution to the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions was imminent, the ayatollahs pulled the rug out from under its gullible Western adversaries. This has happened so many times that one would think it would be impossible for the Iranians to pull off this trick again, but it appears that the United States is about to play Charlie Brown to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Lucy Van Pelt and her football again.

Using its usual anonymous sources within the Obama administration, the New York Times is claiming that Iran has sent a clear signal to the West that it is ready negotiate about its nuclear program. The paper reports that according to unnamed government officials Iran has slowed down its enrichment of uranium in recent months. The use of what is described as a “significant amount” of material for a small medical reactor may affect Iran’s nuclear timetable. This has led the U.S. to believe that the Iranians are sending a signal to the West that they are ready to negotiate rather than to continue to stonewall the world on the issue:

One American official said the move amounted to trying to “put more time on the clock to solve this,” characterizing it as a step “you have to assume was highly calculated, because everything the Iranians do in a negotiation is highly calculated.”

No doubt it was calculated, but there is plenty of reason to doubt that calculation has anything to do with a desire to negotiate an end to their program—the goal that President Obama said was the only sort of compromise he would accept during his foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney.

The diversion to the medical reactor was reportedly the reason why Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak thought that the deadline for stopping Iran had been moved back to late spring/early summer 2013. But since even according to these estimates Iran will have enough fuel for a weapon in only a few months, that doesn’t really alter President Obama’s dilemma.

The international sanctions imposed on Iran have created a great deal of pain for ordinary Iranians but haven’t altered the regime’s determination to press ahead toward a nuclear weapon one jot. The increased pace of enrichment and the move of most of their material to a hardened underground mountain facility at Fordow have been a flagrant demonstration of the regime’s contempt for the West’s calls for them to stop. In this context, the diversion to the medical reactor seems more like a tactical move designed to generate more U.S. confidence in diplomacy—boosted by articles in the Times—then a strategic decision to back away from their nuclear goal. If so, it has achieved exactly what they wanted at the cost of only a slight delay in their schedule.

So long as the administration and its European allies are convinced their diplomatic efforts have hope—no matter how faint or unrealistic that hope might be—the Iranians can rest assured that there is little danger of the president making good on his promise to do whatever it is necessary in order to forestall this threat.

After so many examples in recent years of Iran gulling the West on this issue, it is difficult to understand why the administration would even think about falling for the same trick again. The only possible reason to grasp onto such a hope would be the fact that neither the president nor any of his current foreign policy team or their second-term replacements are really interested in a confrontation with Tehran even over an issue as serious as this.

That’s why, as was the case in the past with similar diplomatic dead-ends pursued by first the George W. Bush administration and then its successor, a willingness to believe in the possibility of a diplomatic opening with Iran has more to do with a desire to punt on the issue rather than any sincere belief that a deal is even possible. It remains to be seen whether President Obama really means what he says about keeping all options on the table if diplomacy with Iran conclusively fails. But so long as his administration is determined to fall for every  Iranian  deception, there is little likelihood that promise will ever be put to the test until it is already too late to do anything about the threat.

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Did Hagel Backtrack on Iran?

Though many friends of Israel are dismayed at the prospect of former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel being the next secretary of defense, an effort is underway to portray the longtime critic of the Jewish state as having shifted his position, particularly on the Iranian nuclear threat. Anti-Defamation League chief Abe Foxman told the Times of Israel today he thinks a Washington Post op-ed co-authored by Hagel back in September shows that the former senator “is now in sync with the president’s position on Iran.”

But a close look at the piece published on September 28 and signed by Hagel, retired admiral William J. Fallon, Lee Hamilton and former Marine general Anthony Zinni, should give those counting on the administration doing what is necessary to stop Tehran little comfort. Though it pays lip service to the idea that force should be contemplated if all other attempts to persuade Iran to stand down fail, the main thrust of the article is to oppose any idea of military action. If this is indeed proof that Hagel and the president are on the same page on Iran, it makes it very likely that a second Obama administration with Hagel at the Pentagon is unlikely to scare the Iranians into giving up their nuclear ambitions.

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Though many friends of Israel are dismayed at the prospect of former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel being the next secretary of defense, an effort is underway to portray the longtime critic of the Jewish state as having shifted his position, particularly on the Iranian nuclear threat. Anti-Defamation League chief Abe Foxman told the Times of Israel today he thinks a Washington Post op-ed co-authored by Hagel back in September shows that the former senator “is now in sync with the president’s position on Iran.”

But a close look at the piece published on September 28 and signed by Hagel, retired admiral William J. Fallon, Lee Hamilton and former Marine general Anthony Zinni, should give those counting on the administration doing what is necessary to stop Tehran little comfort. Though it pays lip service to the idea that force should be contemplated if all other attempts to persuade Iran to stand down fail, the main thrust of the article is to oppose any idea of military action. If this is indeed proof that Hagel and the president are on the same page on Iran, it makes it very likely that a second Obama administration with Hagel at the Pentagon is unlikely to scare the Iranians into giving up their nuclear ambitions.

Hagel’s reputation as a critic of the U.S.-Israel alliance is well deserved. As Rick, Alana and the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens noted earlier today, his history of quotes raising dual loyalty charges against supporters of Israel, his equivocal positions on Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists as well as his open opposition to a tough stand on Iran ought to take him out of the running for any position of influence in an administration that calls itself “pro-Israel.”

It may be that Hagel will be prepared to mouth platitudes about Israel in his confirmation hearings as part of what Foxman calls a “pragmatic change” in order to gain a place at the Cabinet table. But the significance of the positions he has taken on Iran makes his presence at the Pentagon a particular problem. To assert, as Foxman does, that Hagel would be obligated to obey Obama’s orders misses the point. If there is anything that we have learned about the president’s governing style in his first four years in office it is that he is not likely to appoint anyone to a crucial post that is likely to differ from his views on important issues. Putting Hagel in charge of the defense establishment is a clear signal that the president has no interest in ever coming to grips with the Iranian threat.

Foxman’s unwillingness to take a stand on Hagel’s appointment is troubling. The ADL chief has been a stern critic of the infamous Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis that sought to demonize Jews and others who support the Jewish state. While Hagel has not gone quite as far as those two academics and their supporters, he has engaged in loose talk about the “Jewish lobby” intimidating critics and has publicly postured about being an American senator rather than an Israeli one–a not-so-subtle attempt to raise the dual loyalty canard against Jews.

Yet Foxman won’t join those protesting Hagel’s nomination:

“His positions on Israel could be much better; they are problematic,” Foxman said. “But here again, he will concur with the administration’s views and policies. He has evidenced tendencies which would give us pause for concern, but not enough to oppose him for a high-level position.”

In backing down on Hagel, Foxman is perhaps telling us that he thinks any attempt to derail the nomination would be futile. Given the unwillingness of Republican leaders such as John McCain to stop a former colleague the way they did Susan Rice’s hopes for the State Department, he’s probably right about that, but that doesn’t make this cynical calculation on the part of the ADL chief right.

But the bottom line here is not so much about Hagel as it is about Obama. Putting a man with his views about Israel and its enemies in charge at the Pentagon gives the lie to the election-year Jewish charm offensive that helped the president win re-election. The sounds of celebrating among Israel’s American foes as well as in Tehran makes it clear that any idea that this president will go to the mat on Iran was wishful thinking on the part of Jewish Democrats.

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Is it Already Too Late to Stop Iran?

A report published today in Britain’s Sunday Times says that the ability of Iran to move much of its nuclear program into hardened mountainside bunkers has already rendered it invulnerable to conventional air attack. This account relies on western intelligence and defense sources that may be intent on deterring an Israeli attempt to forestall Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But given the obvious difficulties involved in any such attack, especially with the more slender military resources available to Israel than the United States, it could be correct. According to the story, that leaves Israel with only two options: use its own nukes to destroy the site or deploy ground troops to Iran. Needless to say, neither is a realistic option for Israel.

While skepticism about any such story is in order, it does raise a couple of important questions. One is whether the reason for these Western intelligence leaks is behind an effort not so much to stop an Israeli strike as to prevent action by the West should President Obama need to use force to make good on his promise not to allow an Iranian nuke on his watch. It also places speculation about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s alleged order in 2010 to raise its alert level in preparation for a possible attack on Iran is a slightly different context. While that action has been depicted as reckless by some and even interpreted as a cynical attempt to provoke an Iranian attack on Israel or the West, if it is now too late to stop Iran perhaps Netanyahu’s concern was well placed. Just as important, it could be that the complacence exhibited by those in the security establishment in Israel that opposed any thought of action was far from wise. The same could be said about the conviction that still prevails in Washington that takes it as a given that there is still plenty of time to wait until decisions have to be made about the threat.

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A report published today in Britain’s Sunday Times says that the ability of Iran to move much of its nuclear program into hardened mountainside bunkers has already rendered it invulnerable to conventional air attack. This account relies on western intelligence and defense sources that may be intent on deterring an Israeli attempt to forestall Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But given the obvious difficulties involved in any such attack, especially with the more slender military resources available to Israel than the United States, it could be correct. According to the story, that leaves Israel with only two options: use its own nukes to destroy the site or deploy ground troops to Iran. Needless to say, neither is a realistic option for Israel.

While skepticism about any such story is in order, it does raise a couple of important questions. One is whether the reason for these Western intelligence leaks is behind an effort not so much to stop an Israeli strike as to prevent action by the West should President Obama need to use force to make good on his promise not to allow an Iranian nuke on his watch. It also places speculation about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s alleged order in 2010 to raise its alert level in preparation for a possible attack on Iran is a slightly different context. While that action has been depicted as reckless by some and even interpreted as a cynical attempt to provoke an Iranian attack on Israel or the West, if it is now too late to stop Iran perhaps Netanyahu’s concern was well placed. Just as important, it could be that the complacence exhibited by those in the security establishment in Israel that opposed any thought of action was far from wise. The same could be said about the conviction that still prevails in Washington that takes it as a given that there is still plenty of time to wait until decisions have to be made about the threat.

The American defense establishment has been eager to spread the idea that a strike on Iran is a bad idea because it would only delay rather than completely end the Iranian nuclear program. That is a foolish argument, since even a few years’ delay could buy Israel and the West the time it needs to pursue other options. It also fails to take into account the fact that an Iran that is devastated by effective economic sanctions that amount to a complete embargo (as opposed to the loosely enforced sanctions that are currently failing to persuade Tehran that it is in its interests to give up its nuclear ambitions) would probably not be able to afford to reconstruct its nuclear facilities.

Yet if it is now too late for Israel to stop Iran from the air, it is also entirely possible that the same will eventually be true for the United States, which is no more willing to launch a ground operation in Iran than is Israel (the nuclear option mentioned by the Sunday Times is one that neither country could choose so it is not even worth discussing). That means even in the unlikely event that the Obama administration or its European partners were ever to declare that diplomacy with Iran had definitively failed, there may be no path available to make good on President Obama’s promise to stop Iran from going nuclear on his watch.

Even if it really is too late for Israel to strike, given the strength of American air and naval aviation resources available to use against Iran in the region that may not be true of a U.S.-led effort. But the troubling aspect of these leaks is the impression it gives of a Western military and security establishment that is determined at all costs to influence its own political leadership to back away from confrontation with Iran.

President Obama has specifically and repeatedly disavowed any intention of being willing to “contain” a nuclear Iran. He also pledged in the last of the presidential debates that any possible compromise with Tehran must involve that country giving up its “nuclear program” and not just agreeing to a compromise about the storage of enriched uranium that might enable them to evade the restrictions and, like North Korea, obtain a weapon. But unless he sets some red lines about diplomacy, there is no chance to convince the Iranians that he is serious or that there will be any consequences for them in continuing to prevaricate with the West.

Many in Washington and the capitals of Europe seem to agree with French President Hollande, who is reported to have described Netanyahu as “obsessed with Iran.” That’s an odd way to describe the leader of a country whose existence is threatened by the possibility of an Islamist dictatorship getting the ability to make good on their threats. But given the Iranian success in making fools of Western diplomats and the eagerness with which the Western defense establishment seeks to downplay the chances of doing something about the problem, it’s hard to blame Netanyahu for being obsessed.

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Jarrett’s Secret Iran Talks Raise Questions About Obama’s Intentions

During the presidential debate on foreign policy, President Obama denied that his administration was preparing to conduct secret talks with Iran after the presidential election, as a New York Times story alleged. But according to a report published today in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot and on its English-language website Ynet.com, such talks are not only planned but have been going on for months and are being led by presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett. This raises questions not only about whether the president will stand by his pledge in the debate that any deal with Iran must require them to give up their “nuclear program,” but also whether she is negotiating a compromise along the lines sought by the Europeans in the P5+1 talks. In that compromise, Tehran would be allowed considerable leeway in terms of its nuclear future. It also places in context the administration’s absolute refusal to agree to “red lines,” in response to Israel’s request that the U.S. promise diplomacy would not be allowed to drag on until it would be too late to take action to forestall Iran’s nuclear goal.

That secret talks are going on with Iran is, in itself, hardly surprising since Tehran has been holding off-and-on talks with the West about the nuclear issue for years. But Jarrett’s involvement signals the importance the issue has for Obama because of her standing as a senior advisor and her close personal connection with the Obama family. But by putting someone with no background on security issues in charge of this track, Obama may be signaling that the president’s goal here is not an Iranian surrender of nuclear capability, but rather a political compromise that may not eliminate the threat of an Islamist bomb sometime down the road.

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During the presidential debate on foreign policy, President Obama denied that his administration was preparing to conduct secret talks with Iran after the presidential election, as a New York Times story alleged. But according to a report published today in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot and on its English-language website Ynet.com, such talks are not only planned but have been going on for months and are being led by presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett. This raises questions not only about whether the president will stand by his pledge in the debate that any deal with Iran must require them to give up their “nuclear program,” but also whether she is negotiating a compromise along the lines sought by the Europeans in the P5+1 talks. In that compromise, Tehran would be allowed considerable leeway in terms of its nuclear future. It also places in context the administration’s absolute refusal to agree to “red lines,” in response to Israel’s request that the U.S. promise diplomacy would not be allowed to drag on until it would be too late to take action to forestall Iran’s nuclear goal.

That secret talks are going on with Iran is, in itself, hardly surprising since Tehran has been holding off-and-on talks with the West about the nuclear issue for years. But Jarrett’s involvement signals the importance the issue has for Obama because of her standing as a senior advisor and her close personal connection with the Obama family. But by putting someone with no background on security issues in charge of this track, Obama may be signaling that the president’s goal here is not an Iranian surrender of nuclear capability, but rather a political compromise that may not eliminate the threat of an Islamist bomb sometime down the road.

Jarrett was born in Shiraz, Iran (her father ran a hospital there) but left when she was 5, though she is said to have spoken Persian as a child. But that’s the extent of her expertise on the country. Her main qualification is that she is a close confidante of both the president and his wife. She is also widely given credit for helping to jump-start the president’s career by introducing him into the corrupt world of Chicago politics, where she was a significant player. That gives her credibility with the Iranians since she has a direct line to the White House. But if a re-elected Obama is rightly suspected of wanting to show more “flexibility” with America’s foes, then the Jarrett caper seems to be evidence that he is more interested in making this sore issue go away rather than pushing Iran hard to give up the possibility of attaining a weapon.

Though Jarrett and Obama may think their Chicago background makes them tough, the Iranians have made fools of every Western negotiator they’ve dealt with in the past decade, because of their tenacity and willingness to use the charade of talks as a way to run out the clock while their scientists get closer to achieving the country’s nuclear ambition. While the sanctions that the administration reluctantly put in place against Iran have caused the country economic pain, the American conviction that this gives them leverage over the ayatollahs may be mistaken. So long as the Iranian regime believes they can outlast and out-talk the West on this issue, it’s doubtful they can be compelled to sign a deal that would eliminate the nuclear threat–or to observe it even if they did.

While the president has been talking tough about Iran during the election year, it remains to be seen how tough his envoy has been with the Iranians in their secret talks. If Ms. Jarrett emerges with a deal sometime after the election, the suspicion is that her goal is more to get the president off the hook for his promises than to actually stop the Iranians.

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What Are the Stakes for Israel? Part Two

As I discussed in part one of this post, the discussion of the impact of the U.S. presidential election on Israel tends to be exaggerated. Just as it is absurd to speak of a man who clearly has little genuine sympathy for the Jewish state as its best friend ever to sit in the White House (as Democrats falsely assert), it is equally foolish to claim that Israel’s survival hangs on the outcome, since the alliance between the two countries is so entrenched in our political culture that severing it is probably beyond the capacity of even a re-elected president. However, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that four more years of Barack Obama will mean more tension between the U.S. and Israel that will undermine the relationship and encourage the Jewish state’s foes, to no purpose. Yet the inevitable spats over the peace process with the Palestinians pale in significance when compared to what may be Israel’s greatest current security challenge: a nuclear Iran.

Any account of the last four years of U.S. policy toward Iran must begin with the fact that President Obama has left himself very little room to maneuver out of a commitment to stop Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The president has been consistent in stating that he will not allow this to happen on his watch since he was first running for president in 2008. Since then, he has repeated this mantra and significantly elaborated on it while running for re-election. He has acknowledged that a nuclear Iran is a danger to U.S. security, rather than just an existential threat to Israel. This past March, the president specifically repudiated the possibility of “containing” a nuclear Iran but said that it must be stopped from attaining such a weapon. During the third presidential debate, he said the only deal he will accept with Iran is one that precludes their having a “nuclear program,” something that would preclude the sort of compromise favored by America’s European allies that would allow Tehran to keep its reactors and fuel–leaving open the possibility of a North Korea-style evasion of international diplomatic efforts.

Yet the question remains what will a re-elected President Obama do if the belated sanctions he imposed on Iran (and whose loose enforcement is itself an issue) do not convince them to give in to his demands? Will he keep the “window for diplomacy” open to allow the Iranians to go on delaying until they reach their nuclear goal? That’s something no one can know for sure, but which must haunt friends of Israel.

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As I discussed in part one of this post, the discussion of the impact of the U.S. presidential election on Israel tends to be exaggerated. Just as it is absurd to speak of a man who clearly has little genuine sympathy for the Jewish state as its best friend ever to sit in the White House (as Democrats falsely assert), it is equally foolish to claim that Israel’s survival hangs on the outcome, since the alliance between the two countries is so entrenched in our political culture that severing it is probably beyond the capacity of even a re-elected president. However, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that four more years of Barack Obama will mean more tension between the U.S. and Israel that will undermine the relationship and encourage the Jewish state’s foes, to no purpose. Yet the inevitable spats over the peace process with the Palestinians pale in significance when compared to what may be Israel’s greatest current security challenge: a nuclear Iran.

Any account of the last four years of U.S. policy toward Iran must begin with the fact that President Obama has left himself very little room to maneuver out of a commitment to stop Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The president has been consistent in stating that he will not allow this to happen on his watch since he was first running for president in 2008. Since then, he has repeated this mantra and significantly elaborated on it while running for re-election. He has acknowledged that a nuclear Iran is a danger to U.S. security, rather than just an existential threat to Israel. This past March, the president specifically repudiated the possibility of “containing” a nuclear Iran but said that it must be stopped from attaining such a weapon. During the third presidential debate, he said the only deal he will accept with Iran is one that precludes their having a “nuclear program,” something that would preclude the sort of compromise favored by America’s European allies that would allow Tehran to keep its reactors and fuel–leaving open the possibility of a North Korea-style evasion of international diplomatic efforts.

Yet the question remains what will a re-elected President Obama do if the belated sanctions he imposed on Iran (and whose loose enforcement is itself an issue) do not convince them to give in to his demands? Will he keep the “window for diplomacy” open to allow the Iranians to go on delaying until they reach their nuclear goal? That’s something no one can know for sure, but which must haunt friends of Israel.

The worries about Obama and Iran center on doubts about whether he will keep his word about containment and no nukes for Iran. Given the president’s “hot mic” promise to Russia that he will be “more flexible” with the Putin regime if he is re-elected, it is reasonable to ask whether he will show just as much flexibility on this issue and either punt or craft some compromise that will leave the door open to a nuclear Iran some time in the future.

Obama’s defenders insist that he means what he says about stopping the Iranians. But critics ask why a president who has always shown a greater inclination to talk about the danger than to do anything about it would ever move on Iran. Obama’s instincts have always inclined him toward pursuing the sort of diplomatic activity that allows the Iranians to keep spinning their centrifuges. The president insists that he will not allow himself to be played for a fool by a series of talks whose only purpose is to let the Iranians run out the clock until their program becomes unstoppable. Yet he has specifically refused to agree to the sort of “red lines” that Iran would not be allowed to cross without risking U.S. action. The president’s palpable anger at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for making such a request reminded observers that throughout his presidency he has always seemed a lot more anxious about preventing the Jewish state from acting on its own against Iran than in stopping the ayatollahs.

Even if one takes Obama at his word on Iran in terms of his intentions, the idea that he has another year or two or three that he can use to wait out the ayatollahs while sanctions weaken them may be mistaken. The staying power of the Islamist regime should not be underestimated. Nor should we assume that there are years rather than months before the Iranian stockpile of enriched uranium safely stored in underground bunkers is so great that force will no longer be an option.

Lack of faith in Obama’s willingness to act on Iran is not just the product of the fact that he seems an unlikely candidate for launching a limited war on Iran over its nuclear program, though that is certainly true. The bigger problem is that the president is so in love with the United Nations and the idea of negotiations that it is hard to imagine that he will ever come to a moment where he will be willing to accept that diplomacy is no longer an option.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that if Obama cannot be trusted to do the right thing on Iran — even if that means the use of force — that this will have a tremendous impact on Israel’s security as well as that of the United States. Should Israel ever conclude that Obama has no intention of doing more than talk about Iran it may decide to act on its own, a course that brings with it a host of military and diplomatic problems that are almost too great to contemplate.

While there is no way of knowing for sure what Obama will do, the reasonable doubts about him are part of the reason why the Iranians have been so confident about their ability to outwait the West.

In part three of this series of posts, I will discuss whether it is fair to assert that Mitt Romney will be different than Obama on Iran and other aspects of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

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Iran Talks Set Stage for 2nd Term Sellout

The New York Times is reporting that for the first time the United States has agreed to direct talks with Iran about its nuclear program. Obama administration officials speaking off the record confirmed the announcement but at the moment the White House is publicly denying it. The one-on-one negotiations will, the newspaper says, not commence until after the presidential elections. While the Times says the delay is at the request of the Iranians, that time frame also works well for the administration. It allows the president to boast that he is doing everything to try and persuade the Iranians to abandon their ambitions during the election campaign while leaving him room should he be re-elected to exhibit the “flexibility” to strike a compromise with Tehran after November that could leave the Islamist regime’s nuclear capability intact.

While it can be argued that any opportunity to talk sense to the Iranians should be explored, the problem here is twofold. On the one hand, for the past decade the Iranians have shamelessly exploited every Western diplomatic initiative to buy time for their program to get closer to weapons capability. On the other, given the refusal of the Obama administration to contemplate setting down “red lines” that would set clear limits to how close the Iranians could get to a nuke, there is a very real possibility that any deal they strike will allow the ayatollahs to retain their nuclear program. Such a deal would be represented as a victory for diplomacy that would avert the danger of an Iranian weapon. But the odds are it would only serve as an excuse to lessen the pressure on Tehran and allow it to eventually circumvent any agreement in much the same manner the North Koreans made fools of the Clinton and the Bush administrations’ efforts to spike their nuclear program. Assuming that the Iranians even choose to talk or agree to even the most generous deal before inevitably breaking their word, the direct talks set the stage for a second Obama term sellout of Israel.

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The New York Times is reporting that for the first time the United States has agreed to direct talks with Iran about its nuclear program. Obama administration officials speaking off the record confirmed the announcement but at the moment the White House is publicly denying it. The one-on-one negotiations will, the newspaper says, not commence until after the presidential elections. While the Times says the delay is at the request of the Iranians, that time frame also works well for the administration. It allows the president to boast that he is doing everything to try and persuade the Iranians to abandon their ambitions during the election campaign while leaving him room should he be re-elected to exhibit the “flexibility” to strike a compromise with Tehran after November that could leave the Islamist regime’s nuclear capability intact.

While it can be argued that any opportunity to talk sense to the Iranians should be explored, the problem here is twofold. On the one hand, for the past decade the Iranians have shamelessly exploited every Western diplomatic initiative to buy time for their program to get closer to weapons capability. On the other, given the refusal of the Obama administration to contemplate setting down “red lines” that would set clear limits to how close the Iranians could get to a nuke, there is a very real possibility that any deal they strike will allow the ayatollahs to retain their nuclear program. Such a deal would be represented as a victory for diplomacy that would avert the danger of an Iranian weapon. But the odds are it would only serve as an excuse to lessen the pressure on Tehran and allow it to eventually circumvent any agreement in much the same manner the North Koreans made fools of the Clinton and the Bush administrations’ efforts to spike their nuclear program. Assuming that the Iranians even choose to talk or agree to even the most generous deal before inevitably breaking their word, the direct talks set the stage for a second Obama term sellout of Israel.

The arguments in favor of the talks, such as those put forward by R. Nicholas Burns, an undersecretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, are that before the U.S. even thinks of tightening the screws further on Iran, let alone contemplating the use of force, it must pursue every possible diplomatic avenue. That makes sense, but the weakness with this piece of conventional wisdom is that it ignores the fact that the West has been trying to talk with Iran for years to no avail. Every negotiation, whether it was the talks that were conducted by the Bush administration via German and French surrogates or the Obama administration’s comical attempt at “engagement” with Iran or the subsequent equally unsuccessful P5+1 talks held this past year, all had the same purpose and the same result. The Iranians sought to drag out the talks for as long as possible without ever budging an inch on their nuclear goal. So to pretend, as some of those who defend this latest initiative do, that diplomacy must be tried, is more than a bit disingenuous. There is no credible reason to believe that the Iranians will fold this time.

That is especially true since they are so much closer to achieving their objective. The latest reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran have showed that the Iranians are doubling the number of centrifuges enriching uranium at their underground bunker at Fordow. Within months, it is more than likely that they will have compiled enough enriched uranium to make a bomb practicable. Nor is there any reason to think that Western intelligence agencies that have failed to sabotage the Iranian program (despite illegal leaks to that effect from the administration aimed at puffing up the president’s image during his re-election campaign) will be able to give sufficient notice prior to the assembly of such a weapon from this material.

The talks should also set off alarms among those who fear that the administration’s goal is a deal that will leave the Iranians with some sort of nuclear capability. This is something that both Israel and the Mitt Romney campaign rightly oppose since any restrictions on enrichment could easily be violated once the international sanctions on Iran are dropped and the world loses interest in the problem. The only acceptable solution to this threat is Iran’s decision to give up its nuclear capability. Anything else will simply make a repeat of the North Korean fiasco in which that rogue regime went nuclear despite signing agreements with the West.

Talks are always better than war, but little good can come from negotiations that only serve the interests of a regime like Iran that plots genocide and sponsors terrorism. Given the track record of both Iran and the Obama administration, the announcement of post-election negotiations is an ominous portent of what the president might do in a second term.

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The Costs of Inaction on Iran

Last month, liberal outlets touted a report aimed at stifling calls for action on Iran. “Weighing the Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran” was seen as the definitive answer to those calling for the establishment of red lines about Iran’s nuclear program. The report, sponsored by The Iran Project, was signed and endorsed by an all-star cast of foreign policy establishment figures (including some who have a record of hostility toward Israel) who were eager to support a study that purported to prove that an attack on Iran’s facilities would not be worth the effort in the event that the United States were to decide that all other options had been exhausted in the effort to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. That report’s one-sided arguments were all that was needed for those who aren’t particularly enthusiastic about American action on Iran to claim that the military option ought not be considered. But the biggest problem with the study was the question it did not ask: What are the costs of doing nothing about Iran?

That more pressing question is answered by a new study that has just been published by the Foreign Policy Project of the Bipartisan Policy Center, “The Costs of Inaction: Analysis of Energy and Economic Effects of a Nuclear Iran.” The report acknowledges that taking action entails courting severe risks for the United States, the West and Israel. But it makes clear that these not inconsiderable dangers pale beside the consequences of a policy rooted in a foolish belief that Iran can be talked out of its nuclear ambitions. The result will be the creation of an Islamist nuclear power led not by rational military figures such as in Pakistan but by a theocracy whose extremist leaders may well seek to use such weapons as well as to employ them to back up their terrorist auxiliaries. But less understood is the way a nuclear Iran would have a significant impact on the cost and supply of oil. While Americans are understandably war weary after a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, they need to know that listening to the counsels of those who wish to accommodate or ignore the Iranian threat will lead not just to a more unstable Middle East but bring with it a rise in the price of oil that could lead to them paying as much as an extra $1.40 per gallon of gas at the pump.

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Last month, liberal outlets touted a report aimed at stifling calls for action on Iran. “Weighing the Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran” was seen as the definitive answer to those calling for the establishment of red lines about Iran’s nuclear program. The report, sponsored by The Iran Project, was signed and endorsed by an all-star cast of foreign policy establishment figures (including some who have a record of hostility toward Israel) who were eager to support a study that purported to prove that an attack on Iran’s facilities would not be worth the effort in the event that the United States were to decide that all other options had been exhausted in the effort to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. That report’s one-sided arguments were all that was needed for those who aren’t particularly enthusiastic about American action on Iran to claim that the military option ought not be considered. But the biggest problem with the study was the question it did not ask: What are the costs of doing nothing about Iran?

That more pressing question is answered by a new study that has just been published by the Foreign Policy Project of the Bipartisan Policy Center, “The Costs of Inaction: Analysis of Energy and Economic Effects of a Nuclear Iran.” The report acknowledges that taking action entails courting severe risks for the United States, the West and Israel. But it makes clear that these not inconsiderable dangers pale beside the consequences of a policy rooted in a foolish belief that Iran can be talked out of its nuclear ambitions. The result will be the creation of an Islamist nuclear power led not by rational military figures such as in Pakistan but by a theocracy whose extremist leaders may well seek to use such weapons as well as to employ them to back up their terrorist auxiliaries. But less understood is the way a nuclear Iran would have a significant impact on the cost and supply of oil. While Americans are understandably war weary after a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, they need to know that listening to the counsels of those who wish to accommodate or ignore the Iranian threat will lead not just to a more unstable Middle East but bring with it a rise in the price of oil that could lead to them paying as much as an extra $1.40 per gallon of gas at the pump.

The bipartisan study analyzes a number of different scenarios that would likely arise in the event of Iran reaching its nuclear goal. Among them is domestic instability in Saudi Arabia, the destruction of Saudi oil facilities and the possibility of nuclear exchanges between Iran and Israel as well as Saudi Arabia, which would almost certainly try to acquire nukes if its dangerous Gulf rival got them.

All those scenarios point not just to the possibility of catastrophe in terms of lives lost and regimes toppled, but to disruptions in the global oil supply that will devastate economies and lead to price spikes that will be felt far away from the battlefields of the Middle East.

The futility of the P5+1 negotiations and the other attempts to talk the ayatollahs out of their nuclear plans show that faith in diplomacy and sanctions not backed up by a credible use of force means only one thing: a nuclear Iran. While the study lauded by the New York Times that sought to caution against the use of force pointed to problems that would arise from military action, the Bipartisan Center’s analysis gives a clearer picture of what will happen if the “realists” get their way.

Containment of Iran is, as even President Obama has conceded, not a viable option. Without the red lines sought by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that imply that force will be used if Iran continues to prevaricate on this question, the world will be faced with a terrible choice. But that choice is not between a world spared from the after shocks of military action and one in which Iran is denied nuclear weapons. It is between using force and facing the sort of catastrophic consequences that will create economic chaos as well as untold human suffering. Looked at in that way, it’s really not much of a choice at all.

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Iran’s Long Term Diplomatic Plan

The latest feeler from Iran about negotiating an end to their nuclear standoff with the West appears to have been slapped away rather quickly by the Obama administration. That’s a hopeful sign for those who have worried that a desperate desire to back away from the confrontation would lead Washington to buy into any deal, no matter how bad it might be. The Iranian offer would have required the West to drop the existing sanctions against the country in exchange for minimal concessions that would have allowed Tehran to restart its nuclear push at the drop of a hat. But having fended off Israeli calls for establishing red lines about Iran with such trouble, such an act of craven appeasement from the president isn’t in the cards. At least not in the foreseeable future, that is.

Though they can have few illusions about getting even the most tractable Western negotiators to accept such a bad bargain, the Iranians should be even more confident than ever that the U.S. is uninterested in joining or even condoning an Israeli military strike to take out their nuclear facilities. That’s because the demonstrations this week in Tehran over the collapse of the rial may have had the unintended effect of encouraging both Americans and Israelis to believe that the sanctions are not only working but could conceivably force the Iranian government to give up their nuclear goal or even force a change in regime. Even though such scenarios are far-fetched at best, they may serve to reinforce the Obama administration’s reluctance to go beyond the existing plan. Thus, rather than helping to topple the Islamist regime or even to weaken its nuclear resolve, the demonstrations may actually wind up helping the ayatollahs achieve their nuclear ambition.

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The latest feeler from Iran about negotiating an end to their nuclear standoff with the West appears to have been slapped away rather quickly by the Obama administration. That’s a hopeful sign for those who have worried that a desperate desire to back away from the confrontation would lead Washington to buy into any deal, no matter how bad it might be. The Iranian offer would have required the West to drop the existing sanctions against the country in exchange for minimal concessions that would have allowed Tehran to restart its nuclear push at the drop of a hat. But having fended off Israeli calls for establishing red lines about Iran with such trouble, such an act of craven appeasement from the president isn’t in the cards. At least not in the foreseeable future, that is.

Though they can have few illusions about getting even the most tractable Western negotiators to accept such a bad bargain, the Iranians should be even more confident than ever that the U.S. is uninterested in joining or even condoning an Israeli military strike to take out their nuclear facilities. That’s because the demonstrations this week in Tehran over the collapse of the rial may have had the unintended effect of encouraging both Americans and Israelis to believe that the sanctions are not only working but could conceivably force the Iranian government to give up their nuclear goal or even force a change in regime. Even though such scenarios are far-fetched at best, they may serve to reinforce the Obama administration’s reluctance to go beyond the existing plan. Thus, rather than helping to topple the Islamist regime or even to weaken its nuclear resolve, the demonstrations may actually wind up helping the ayatollahs achieve their nuclear ambition.

The unrest in Iran is a clear manifestation of the pain being felt by ordinary Iranians as a result of the sanctions. But that pain is not being shared by the government. As the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported, far from slowing down its efforts, the regime has increased the pace of development of their nuclear project this year as the sanctions were belatedly imposed by the United States. Though they cannot be pleased by the violence in Tehran, there should be little doubt about the willingness of the Islamist clerics who run the country to shed blood in order to preserve their hold on power. Having withstood a far greater challenge in the summer of 2009 when they stole the presidential election for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while President Obama was silent, they are not likely to loose their nerve now when they are getting closer to a bomb.

The latest feeler from Tehran may have just been for show, but it is possible that the Iranians hope that once the presidential election is over they may find President Obama adopting a more “flexible approach” to them. The danger is not that the U.S. and its European negotiating partners will succumb to such a non-offer from Iran prior to November or even after it. But so long as Washington holds on to the hope that negotiations can avert the nuclear threat, the Iranians are going to keep prevaricating and seeking to string their antagonists along while their centrifuges keep spinning.

The administration may have quieted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for the moment, but the more confident they are about the success of the partially enforced sanctions already in place, the more likely it is that they will sooner or later have to listen to his advice and contemplate sterner action. If Washington makes the mistake of underestimating the Islamist regime or overestimating the impact of the sanctions, the next president is going to be faced with two unpalatable choices: using force or acquiescing in a nuclear Iran.

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