As Western diplomats prepare to sit down with their Iranian counterparts in Baghdad, wishful thinking and a desire to reach a deal regardless of its contents appears increasingly to shape American strategic thinking. It is fair, however, to ask what shapes Iranian strategic thinking. Here, Iran’s Supreme Leader, his inner circle, and former Iranian negotiators provide important clues.
Take Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The Iranian government says their goal is energy generation, while Western officials believe the regime wants nuclear weapons capability. (The Obama administration’s argument parsing the difference between nuclear weapons capability and nuclear weapons possession misses the point, as only about a week of hard labor separates the two, and the U.S. does not have the intelligence assets to determine whether Iranian authorities have taken the final leap until it will be too late).
- On December 14, 2001, Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani –often described as a pragmatist in Western circles, declared, “The use of an atomic bomb against Israel would totally destroy Israel, while the same against the Islamic world would only cause damage. Such a scenario is not inconceivable.”
- Iran Emrooz quoted Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Kharrazi, secretary-general of Iranian Hezbollah, as saying on February 14, 2005, “We are able to produce atomic bombs and we will do that. We shouldn’t be afraid of anyone. The U.S. is not more than a barking dog.”
- On May 29, 2005, Hojjat ol-Islam Gholamreza Hasani, the Supreme Leader’s personal representative to the province of West Azerbaijan, declared possession of nuclear weapons to be one of Iran’s top goals. “An atom bomb . . . must be produced as well,” he said.”That is because the Qur’an has told Muslims to ‘get strong and amass all the forces at your disposal to be strong.'” Hasani may be widely reviled by Iranians, but he is nevertheless the Supreme Leader’s direct appointee and charged with carrying his messages.
- On February 19, 2006, Rooz, an Iranian website close to the Islamic Republic’s reformist camp, quoted Mohsen Gharavian, a Qom theologian close to Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, one of the regime’s leading ayatollahs, as saying it was only “natural” for the Islamic Republic to possess nuclear weapons.
No less important are the admissions by various Iranian officials that the purpose of negotiations was to divert Western attention while the Iranian regime accelerated its nuclear program:
- On June 14, 2008, Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, former President Muhammad Khatami’s spokesman, debated advisers to incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ramezanzadeh counseled Ahmadinejad to accept the Khatami approach: “We should prove to the entire world that we want power plants for electricity. Afterwards, we can proceed with other activities,” Mr. Ramezanzadeh said. The purpose of dialogue, he argued further, was not to compromise, but to build confidence and avoid sanctions. “We had an overt policy, which was one of negotiation and confidence building, and a covert policy, which was continuation of the activities,” he said.
- This past October, Hassan Rowhani, Iran’s nuclear negotiator between 2003-2005, also acknowledged Iran’s insincerity: “We did not decide the nuclear goals of the country; they were decided by the regime. When I was trusted with the responsibility of the nuclear team, two goals became our priorities: The first goal was to safeguard the national security, and the second goal was to support and help the nuclear achievements… When I was entrusted with this portfolio, we had no production in Isfahan. We couldn’t produce UF4 or UF6. Had Natanz been filled with centrifuges, we did not have the material which needed to be injected. There was a small amount of UF6 which we had previously procured from certain countries and this was what we had at our disposal. But the Isfahan facilities had to be completed before it could remake yellow cake to UF4 and UF6. We used the opportunity [provided by talks] to do so and completed the Isfahan facilities… In Arak we continued our efforts and achieved heavy water… The reason for inviting the three European foreign ministers to Tehran and for the Saadabad negotiations was to make Europe oppose the United States so that the issue was not submitted to the Security Council.”
More telling has been the Supreme Leader’s comments on rapprochement with the United States. While diplomats and journalists cheered Obama’s offer to outstretch his hand if the Islamic Republic unclenched its fist, few bothered to cover the Supreme Leader’s response, delivered on the 30th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran:
“This new president of America said beautiful things. He sent us messages constantly, both orally and written: ‘Come and let us turn the page, come and create a new situation, come and let us cooperate in solving the problems of the world.’ It reached this degree! We said that we should not be prejudiced, that we will look at their deeds. They said we want change. We said, well, let us see the change. On March 21, when I delivered a speech in Mashhad, I said that if there is an iron fist under the velvet glove and you extend a hand towards us we will not extend our hand… [Reformists] can’t roll out the red carpet for the United States in our country. They should know this. The Iranian nation resists.”
Just last month, Rafsanjani asked why, if the Islamic Republic had relations with Moscow and Beijing, relations with Washington should be out of the question. Hardliners surrounding the Supreme Leader pounced. Alef, a site close to the Supreme Leader and managed by his supporters, published an interview with Abbas Salimi-Namin, director of the Office for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies, in which he dismissed any notion of relations with the United States and suggested that Ayatollah Khomeini—the regime’s founding father—forbade them.
Only useful idiots would prioritize a deal over its substance. The Iranian regime reads poll numbers as much as any American inside-the-beltway politico. They understand that Obama will be much less likely to quibble over Iranian nuclear aims than would Governor Mitt Romney. No deal will change the overall trajectory of Iranian nuclear aims, however. The regime has already made those too clear, not only in terms of rhetoric but also in terms of action.
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What Motivates Iran’s Nuclear Program?
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A sensible policy on Iran and North Korea.
Almost a year into the Trump presidency, this administration’s foreign policy could be best described as confused. Reports suggest that the president is in a constant state of displeasure with his subordinates in the foreign-service establishment, and the feeling is mutual. On issues ranging from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s conflicts in Yemen and Qatar to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula, the president and the administration he leads frequently contradict one another. Trump’s reckless antagonism toward strategic competitors like China strikes a perplexing contrast with his conciliatory appeals toward Russia. And no one in the White House seems to know what the trade deficit is.
This chaotic approach to the pursuit of American interests abroad can lead observers to overlook or even ignore altogether the strides this administration is making to correct the foreign-policy mistakes of past administrations. The Trump administration’s welcome shifts are most evident in a review of its approach to containing two of the three remaining members of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil”—North Korea and Iran.
On Monday, the president announced that North Korea would again be formally designated a state sponsor of terrorism. President Bush removed Pyongyang from that list in 2008, not because North Korea ceased to sponsor terrorism abroad, but as a reward for verifiably halting some of its nuclear activities. This was an illusory foreign policy success for an administration that was bereft of them at the time, and it perverted the intention of the list of state terror sponsors.
Almost a decade later, the error of this decision is self-evident. North Korea’s suspension of nuclear activities was only a ploy to extract concessions from the West. It is today on the cusp of achieving a reliable and deliverable nuclear deterrent. More important, the DPRK never stopped sponsoring terrorism. In February, Pyongyang deployed VX nerve agent—a compound the United Nations classifies as a weapon of mass destruction—on foreign soil to assassinate Kim Jong-un’s half-brother. This was the first overt act of foreign terrorism linked to North Korea in decades, but its covert support for bad actors abroad has remained steadfast.
Pyongyang has exported conventional weapons and nuclear and missile technology to other U.S.-designated state sponsors of terrorism, such as Iran and Syria, and terrorist groups including Hamas and Hezbollah. It helped to construct a nuclear reactor in Syria, which Israel thankfully destroyed just a few years before the region in which it was built fell into the hands of the Islamic State. Pyongyang was blamed for a number of high-profile cyber-attacks, as well as attacks that went overlooked. In 2009, for example, the DPRK was accused of being responsible for 35 separate attacks on South Korean and American infrastructure. Perhaps most important, as the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea’s Joshua Stanton complained, America’s standard for defining a state sponsor of terror were rendered “vague and inconsistent” by North Korea’s expulsion from that list. Pyongyang’s relisting has restored some consistency to its North Korea policy.
Since Trump has taken office, the administration has been busily restoring sanctions on the Iranian regime that were relieved as a result of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aka the Iran nuclear deal. President Trump’s decision to punt the Iran deal back to Congress is likely to preserve the deal while avoiding responsibility for that outcome. Yet his administration’s outward determination to abrogate the agreement has allowed it the freedom to call balls and strikes when it comes to the Islamic Republic, even if that angers America’s “partners” in Tehran.
Take, for example, the U.S. Treasury Department’s most recent sanctions on Iran. On Monday, Treasury singled out a network of Iranians believed to be responsible for counterfeiting hundreds of millions in Yemeni bank notes for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Qods Force. The scheme allegedly circumvented European sanctions and allowed the IRGC to support what Secretary Steven Mnuchin called “destabilizing activities” in Europe and the Gulf States. Trump declared the IRGC a terrorist network last month, providing the Treasury with all the authority it needed to take action against this plot.
This is not the first time Iran has been implicated in currency counterfeiting. In 2010, U.S. military officials seized at least $4.3 million in counterfeit American dollars in Iraq. Some of it, officials said, was crude and easily detected while many of these $100 notes were printed on special presses using sophisticated ink and paper—a revelation that indicated some level of complicity by or cooperation with the Iranian government or its regional proxies. The sudden influx of false notes was believed to be part of a campaign by Iran to influence forthcoming elections in Iraq, which was apparently successful. Within days of those elections, three of the country’s four major political alliances sent delegations to Iran for political guidance. The head of Iraq’s secular, anti-Iranian bloc noted at the time that America’s silence was deafening. Now, with a new round of Iraqi elections scheduled to take place next year and amid increasing sectarian divisions and Iranian interference, the United States is abandoning its self-defeating neutrality. Try as we might, the U.S. cannot pretend it has no stake in Iraq’s political evolution.
Donald Trump’s flatterers like to reinforce this administration’s image as a group of outsiders “draining the swamp” of its corrupt professional class. That’s a self-serving narrative that confounds the diplomatic class and has led to a confused foreign policy. At the same time, though, declaring North Korea and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps supporters of terrorism is a decision that seems obvious only to those who are not steeped in granular diplomatic contrivances. In May, I noted that no American governmental institution would benefit more from an outsider-led shakeup than the diplomatic corps. The Trump administration’s actions over the last 48 hours show how true that was.
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A conversion of convenience.
While Republicans are wrestling over whether to fully embrace a lecherous scofflaw, Democrats are finally breaking with one. This is how the latter party would prefer the nation’s narrative-shapers frame the left’s apparent determination to confront the allegations against President Bill Clinton. The fact that this great coming to terms occurs at a moment of utmost political opportunity is, they’d contend, pure coincidence.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, has adopted the noble cause of confronting sexual harassment and abuse in public institutions, ranging from the military to Capitol Hill, and making it easier for victims to come forward. The passion with which she confronts these issues is laudable. So, too, is her decision to come out against Bill Clinton, one of her party’s formerly untouchable serial offenders.
Democrats have displayed few qualms about attacking Republicans for elevating to the presidency a boastful adulterer who bragged on tape about his penchant for forcing himself on women. Nor have they shown any compunction about criticizing a party that refuses to rule out swearing in a prospective U.S. senator accused of “dating” a 14-year-old girl while in his 30s. But some Democrats have struggled to square those criticisms with the imperative of defending Bill Clinton, who was also credibly accused by multiple women of sexual assault and harassment. Gillibrand found a novel way around this moral conundrum: don’t.
Asked last week by New York Times reporters about whether Clinton should have resigned the presidency after it was revealed that he did, in fact, have consensual sexual relations with a White House intern, “Gillibrand took a long pause and said, ‘Yes, I think that is the appropriate response.’” That comment supposedly sent “shockwaves” rippling throughout the Democratic establishment, but few beyond an aging cast of satellites trapped in the Clintons’ orbit reacted with much public consternation. Why should they care? After all, Gillibrand’s allegedly fearless denunciation of Clinton comes just a few months after the Clintons’ political utility was entirely spent.
In 2012, Bill Clinton was the invaluable “explainer-in-chief,” a potent contrast to the staid and professorial Barack Obama. In 2016, Bill Clinton was the epitome of grace, the admiring husband swallowing his pride and vacating the stage for his wife. Today, with the GOP having abandoned a zero-tolerance policy for impropriety and the Democrats having adopted one, the Clintons are more a burden than a benefit. Accordingly, Democrats’ calculations have changed.
Gillibrand displayed no outward signs of gripping internal conflict when she often appeared alongside the former president on the campaign trail in 2016. Presumably, no one blackmailed her into expressing how “truly honored” she was to receive Bill Clinton’s assistance in her campaigns dating back to 2006. Gillibrand evinced no displeasure when the Clinton machine in New York muscled former Harold Ford Jr. out of a prospective race to take Hillary Clinton’s old Senate seat. Only Gillibrand’s closest friends know if she was concerned about appearances when New York Gov. David Paterson picked her to fill Clinton’s term in 2009 after Caroline Kennedy, an early Obama endorser, mysteriously withdrew from consideration. If she considered resigning as a special counsel to Bill Clinton’s HUD Secretary, Andrew Cuomo, she kept that information to herself.
Gillibrand’s reluctance to adopt a long-standing conservative line on Bill Clinton until he achieved maximum political worthlessness might look to outside observers more like calculation than conscience, but the senator has an excuse for her lateness. “Things have changed today,” she told the Times. She expanded on her thoughts in an interview with MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt. “My point is that the tolerance that we had 25 years ago, what was allowed 25 years ago, will not be tolerated today, is not allowed today,” she said. Who could forget the 1990s, when only prudes concerned themselves with illicit extramarital sex, alleged rape, character assassination, perjury, and impeachment?
Gillibrand is also expressing disappointment with Senator Al Franken, who is, as of this writing, accused by two women of inappropriate behavior. When pressed as to what the standard should be for an elected official to resign amid allegations like those faced by Franken, Gillibrand said she did not know—perhaps forgetting that her newfound place in the national spotlight is a result of her establishing that very bar just a few days ago. As it happens, Franken remains a beloved figure in the party and a major draw at fundraising dinners. Surely another coincidence.
As Gillibrand continued, though, she gave away the game. “We need to have the highest standards for elected leaders,” she said. “And I think in light of this conversation, we should have a very different conversation about President Trump, and a very different conversation about allegations against him.” It’s not Gillibrand’s fault that English suffers from a frustrating lack of synonyms for the word “conversation,” but she deserves some censure for coming to the right conclusion about Bill Clinton only when it became impossibly hypocritical to credibly attack the 45th President while standing by the 42nd.
Some Democrats who are longing to end the Clintons hold on the Democratic Party believe that Gillibrand’s break from this old political family is an honorable move, and that she should, therefore, be above criticism. Scolding her obvious opportunism might dissuade other Democrats from following her lead. But that’s not how principle works. Consistency is a virtue even when it goes unrecognized.
According to Gillibrand, this “is a moment of reckoning.” Indeed, it’s long overdue. Bill Clinton’s star has faded to the point that the accusations against him can be considered on their merits. In the age of “the right to be believed,” the truly courageous would also face up to Hillary Clinton’s hypocrisy on the matter. Sure, the women whose accounts she once sought to “destroy” and “crucify” were not afforded the credibility Democrats now believe is an alleged victim’s due. But you have to remember, she did win the popular vote.
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Myths and fables.
The Democrats seem to have three and only three principles when it comes to tax policy.
1) Oppose any and all Republican tax proposals.
2) Insist that tax cuts never affect the economy as a whole.
3) Require that any tax cuts be proportional across the whole income range, never putting more money into the pockets of the rich than is put into the pockets of everyone else.
The first principle, of course, puts the interests of the party over those of the country. That’s not exactly unknown in democratic political systems, but it’s exactly the reason politicians rank in popularity with used-car salesmen and diabetes.
The second principle is demonstrably false. Income taxes were substantially cut four times in American history. In the early 1920s (Republicans were in charge), the 1960s (Democrats were in charge), the 1980s (mixed control in Washington), and the 2000s (Republicans in charge). In each of these instances, despite a rapidly evolving technology and consequent economic change, the economy grew much more strongly than it had before the cuts. If you do A four times and B follows each time, only a Democrat would argue that that was coincidence not causation.
As for the third principle, it is, of course, mathematically impossible. The upper income brackets pay an overwhelming percentage of total income taxes (a higher percentage than in any other developed country, by the way). So any substantial tax cut has to go disproportionally to the rich or there can be no tax cut.
This, then, is not a principle at all. It amounts to nothing more than a way for Democrats to oppose any and all tax cuts without actually having to say that. It’s a bit like insisting you have nothing against eating meat as long as no animals are harmed in the process.
Is it a bad thing for the rich to get most of the benefits from a change in tax policy? Not if the tax policy change has positive effects on the economy as a whole, as tax cuts always have. As President Kennedy famously said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
Let’s perform a thought experiment. Imagine that someone invented a magic bullet. If Congress passed the necessary legislation and the president signed it, then everyone’s after-tax, take-home income would double in real terms. But there’s a catch. Incomes will double for those earning up to $100,000. But for those earning between $100,000 and $1 million, incomes will quadruple. For those earning more than $1 million, incomes will go up by a factor of ten. So a family living on $50,000 will see their income go up to $100,000. A family earning $200,000 will see theirs go up to $800,000. And the corporate CEO pulling down $2 million will see his income soar to $20 million.
Would Democrats support such a bill? Judging by Democratic rhetoric, absolutely not. But if the bill failed because of Democratic opposition, they might be surprised to find themselves wiped out in the next election.
Why? Because of the millions of voters whose incomes did not double, thanks to the Democrats. Families earning $50,000 a year would find an extra $50,000 a godsend. They don’t give a damn what some corporate CEO or hedge fund billionaire is earning.
As Irving Kristol wrote in the 1970’s, “Anyone who is familiar with the American working class knows . . . that they are far less consumed with egalitarian bitterness or envy than are college professors or affluent journalists.”
But the Democratic Party, about the time Kristol wrote those words, ceased to be the party of the working man. In the last forty years, it has become ever increasingly the party of college professors and affluent journalists; elitist to its core. That’s why a billionaire carried more than 3,000 counties and won the White House last year.
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Podcast: The great outing of sexual harassers.
On the first of this holiday week’s COMMENTARY podcasts, we delve into the question of what the sexual harassment scandals of the past seven weeks have in common with previous moments in American history. And we talk tax reform and where you can get a cheap cooked turkey. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
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A shameful movement ashamed?
Since 2002, student activists have tried to pass anti-Israel divestment resolutions at the University of Michigan. This month, they succeeded on a 23-17 vote of the university’s Central Student Government. But opponents of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement should not be demoralized by this result.
In spite of favorable circumstances for BDS in the United States, where fervent opposition to Donald Trump has opened a space for even marginal elements on the left, the BDS brand has not been selling at our colleges and universities. Perhaps it is the flirtation with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Perhaps it is BDS’ effective endorsement of violence against Israeli civilians wherever they may reside. Or perhaps it is BDS’ romance with unrepentant terrorists. But the University of Michigan’s resolution mentions the call of “Palestinian civil society” that supposedly initiated the BDS movement just once. And Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE), whose very name obscures its primary purpose, the promotion of BDS, didn’t mention “Palestinian civil society” at all in its statement of support for divestment.
For BDS to triumph with students, it has to obscure just what it is students are being asked to vote for. One supporter of the resolution described its effect this way: “I understand the very deep connection many, many students have with Israel . . . I want to emphasize over and over again that this resolution emphasizes the voices of Palestinian students . . . and to give this community a voice for the first time in CSG history is to not take away from any other community.” That this claim, by no means limited to one student, had any purchase suggests that some proponents were not clued in to the resolution’s intent, however softened for pragmatic reasons. This is a movement dedicated to casting Israel out of the family of nations.
To make sure that representatives would be as clueless as possible, the resolution’s supporters successfully persuaded student government to deny history professor Victor Lieberman the opportunity to speak. Lieberman, who has written about and taught courses on the Arab-Israeli conflict, has apparently been too effective in opposition to BDS in the past. University of Michigan’s Hillel has rightly condemned the student government’s positive aversion to hearing from someone who has devoted years to studying a conflict on which these students have now pronounced their verdict, although most have presumably not studied it at all.
One frustrating feature of the BDS movement on campuses is that organizations like University of Michigan’s Hillel are constantly playing defense. It is hardly surprising that, after 11 years, a student government sufficiently naïve or partisan to pass a divestment resolution was in place. Once a divestment resolution passes on a campus, attempts to reverse it are rare.
But at places like U of M, an attempt at reversal may well be warranted. In the past, I have doubted the use of such efforts because the ugly debate that BDS produces can dirty Zionism. Students that are more or less indifferent to the issues and dislike all the yelling may see the two sides as equally suspect. In that respect, in spite of its remarkable skill at embarrassing itself, BDS can do some harm even when it loses. At the same time, it hardly seems likely that pro-BDS students, having secured this small victory (the university will not actually divest), will stop campaigning against Israel. In light of that, and the closeness of this year’s vote, why should pro-Israel students on campus withdraw from a fight they have won more times than they’ve lost?
A successful campaign need not imitate the propagandistic tactics of BDS. It can instead begin by discussing the origins and meaning of the movement from which this year’s resolution emanates, a movement that even a campus like Vassar College, no hotbed of pro-Israel activism, has rejected. Student government representatives, manipulated by BDS activists, may be able to prevent knowledgeable people from speaking the truth during their debates. They do not have same power in the wider campus debate.
At the University of Michigan, and wherever BDS supporters have barely won after years of failing, the students and faculty that have fought BDS resolutions should not shy from seeking to have them reversed. Let them, for once, set the terms of the debate and put BDS, which cannot sustain close scrutiny, on the defensive.