Commentary Magazine


Iran Understands Momentum; Obama Does Not

President Barack Obama bases his surrender to Iran’s nuclear ambitions on the notion that his olive branch is reversible. In effect, he believes, it can’t hurt to talk. That’s a notion inculcated into diplomatic culture, and put forward by at various times by accomplished diplomats like Nicholas Burns and Ryan Crocker. It’s also a notion which is demonstrably wrong.

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President Barack Obama bases his surrender to Iran’s nuclear ambitions on the notion that his olive branch is reversible. In effect, he believes, it can’t hurt to talk. That’s a notion inculcated into diplomatic culture, and put forward by at various times by accomplished diplomats like Nicholas Burns and Ryan Crocker. It’s also a notion which is demonstrably wrong.

A nuclear deal isn’t like mail ordering a child’s toy with 100-percent guarantee on returns. Once Obama went down the path toward even a framework agreement—never mind that the framework seems increasingly illusionary by the day—he effectively ceded any and all momentum to the Iranians.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif once studied in the States. He speaks English. But spending time in America and speaking English does not make a foreign ideologue sympathetic to America; rather, it simply enables that ideologue to be able to communicate more easily with Americans. Just as after a visit to Damascus as senator, John Kerry became convinced of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s reformist nature, now as secretary of state, Kerry has allowed Zarif to substitute charm for sincerity.

Hence, Zarif’s triumphalist gloating upon his return to Tehran: Bahman Kalbasi, a correspondent for BBC TV Persian Service, tweeted, “State TV host: ‘But the US says the architecture of sanctions stays?’ Zarif laughs: It has already collapsed.” Rouhani, likewise, has been triumphalist as he once again lives up to his reputation as the regime’s “Mr. Fix-It,” getting the financial relief the Iranian leadership so craved at little or no cost to the Islamic Republic itself. The sanctions, Obama promised, would “snap back into place” if Iran didn’t meet its obligations.

But since the death fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, through the early days of Critical Dialogue (when, against Europe’s outstretched hand, Iranian hitmen assassinated dissidents in downtown Berlin), and after the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center, the Iranian government understands that the European Union cares more about mercantile issues than human rights or international security. Nor does Russian President Vladimir Putin even bother about the pretense of caring about human rights. Zarif is right; international sanctions crafted and carefully pushed through the Security Council by men like John Bolton (something Obama and partisans forget) have effectively been squandered upon the altar of Obama’s ego and Kerry’s ambition. There is no going back. Deal or no deal on June 30, Iran’s goal in negotiations has always been sanctions relief, not nuclear normalization. Tehran has won; international momentum against it has evaporated. From Iran’s perspective, Zarif has reason to gloat.

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Does Iran Agreement Make an Israeli Unity Government More Likely?

The negotiating posture of the Jewish Home party’s Naftali Bennett can best be described as a strange mix of hardball and desperation. After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud won the most seats in last month’s Knesset elections, he was tasked with forming a governing coalition. Jewish Home’s share of the Knesset seats dropped to single digits. The result has left Bennett demanding a princely sum to join the coalition while also insisting he’s being ignored so Likud can bring Labor into the coalition. Only a couple of weeks ago it seemed completely unrealistic, but is it less so now in light of the U.S.-Iran “framework” agreement?

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The negotiating posture of the Jewish Home party’s Naftali Bennett can best be described as a strange mix of hardball and desperation. After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud won the most seats in last month’s Knesset elections, he was tasked with forming a governing coalition. Jewish Home’s share of the Knesset seats dropped to single digits. The result has left Bennett demanding a princely sum to join the coalition while also insisting he’s being ignored so Likud can bring Labor into the coalition. Only a couple of weeks ago it seemed completely unrealistic, but is it less so now in light of the U.S.-Iran “framework” agreement?

The argument goes something like this. The classic cliché of Israeli politics is that only the left can make war and only the right can make peace, because each would have enough support for the initiative from the opposition leaders to prevent domestic politics from getting in the way. It’s an exaggeration but there’s much truth to it. Netanyahu signed a deal with Arafat at Wye River and Ariel Sharon instituted the Gaza disengagement, while Israel’s major land wars were mostly wrapped up by the time the left lost its first Knesset election.

This dynamic, plus the politician’s ever-present desire to be a part of legacy-defining events, has made a possible unity government in which Likud would bring Labor into the coalition more realistic. The event in question, of course, is an attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

If a final deal on Iran’s nuclear program does actually get signed, whether it’s by the June 30 deadline or a later date, the devil will be in the details. But the framework agreement, intended to be an outline for a final deal, is a monument to the Obama administration’s serial capitulation.

A best-case scenario is that the deal would establish and legitimize Iran as a threshold nuclear power–though it is unlikely anyone will be able to see the best-case scenario from wherever we actually end up in late June. All of which means Obama is willing to toss some more fuel on the fires of the Middle East on his way out the door. The allies he’s abandoned to this future will have to decide how best to put out the flames of Obama’s failures.

One way would be do something Netanyahu has always wanted to avoid: an Israeli strike on Iran. The Obama administration has boasted in the past that it exploited Netanyahu’s hesitation to use military force and Israel’s trust in America to prevent a strike on Iran. Team Obama now thinks an Israeli strike is so unlikely as to openly mock Bibi’s moderation (a moderation they won’t admit to unless it involves getting to toss grade-school insults at the Israelis).

Isaac Herzog, whose Labor Party seemed poised to go into the opposition, is not the dove the White House obviously thinks he is. Hence, a unity government might make sense.

But those who advocate a unity government, such as Haaretz’s Aluf Benn, are missing the fact that it is Herzog, not Netanyahu who is likely to be the largest impediment to such a coalition. Benn writes:

Netanyahu needs Herzog as a moderate foreign minister, who will be in charge of repairing relations with the Obama administration. There is no one suitable for the job in the proposed right-wing government. … Appointing Herzog will also enable Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, a right-wing political hack who is disconnected from the administration, to be replaced by a professional diplomat with experience and multiple connections, such as Israel’s ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor.

Why would Netanyahu dislike this arrangement? He would oppose swapping out Dermer not because he’d have any objection to Prosor but because it would be a stinging rebuke to his own close advisor. But giving a major position like foreign minister to Herzog would have a great deal of upside for him. Bringing Herzog into the government gives him an excuse not to have to choose between Avigdor Lieberman and Bennett for the Foreign Ministry. It would give him a more expansive governing mandate. It would not only tamp down leftist discontent if Israel does decide it needs to strike Iran but would also make it more challenging for Western leaders to whine about right-wing militancy after such a strike. It would clear the space, also, for possible electoral reforms that might make coalition-building less of a headache. And it would have Labor buy-in on Netanyahu’s preferred economic policies.

Indeed, in 2009 Netanyahu brought Labor into his coalition, though he perhaps wanted to have Ehud Barak as his defense minister more than any other benefit the party brought to the table. And he wanted the opposition party, Tzipi Livni’s Kadima, in the coalition too. Why not? The more the merrier.

But is there such a clear case for Herzog? Here he has to game out a few scenarios. Kadima went into steep decline soon after that election and Livni lost a battle for the party’s leadership. So Herzog might look at that and think the lesson is he should join the government when given the opportunity. Yet at the same time, Labor’s joining the Netanyahu government in that very same coalition was the final straw for Laborites who finally had their opportunity to get rid of Barak.

Herzog also has to be quite careful about internal dissent. After improving Labor’s gains in the last election, then-party leader Shelly Yachimovich lost her leadership battle to … Herzog. Meanwhile, Yachimovich might have been better positioned to lead Labor in this past election, in which economic issues played an important role. The last thing Herzog needs now is buyer’s remorse from his own supporters.

Additionally, Labor was neck and neck with Likud in the polls and then established a lead before the elections. Yet they lost, and it wasn’t all that close either. Perhaps Labor dropped the ball, or perhaps they just didn’t see what Likud pollsters swear they saw all along. Whatever the case, discontent with Herzog is likely to bubble up to the surface.

Will joining a Netanyahu government protect his leadership? It can be argued that it will increase his national stature by demonstrating a willingness to put patriotism above politics. And it might show the country that he is, in fact, no dove, and thus make him a more plausible prime minister going forward.

The problem is that all these benefits will likely inflame his leftist base, who are not so hawkish and who are sensitive to the idea of being coopted by Likud. Herzog will try to find the right balance, but it’s doubtful Netanyahu is the one who needs convincing here.

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Iran Funds the Building of New Terror Tunnels for Hamas

President Obama’s all-out effort to sell his deal with Iran has largely gained a sympathetic hearing in the press. But while Obama is trying to pretend to be on his guard about Iran’s ambitions and even, in a departure from recent statements, showing respect for Israel’s legitimate concerns about this, the Iranians are, once again, demonstrating their contempt for Western illusions. The point isn’t just that Iran’s understanding of their commitments under the yet-to-be-drafted deal differs markedly from what the United States has claimed. It’s that the underlying purpose of President Obama’s initiative—allowing Iran to “get right with the world” and to inaugurate a new era of cooperation with Tehran—is being undermined by Iranian actions that already demonstrate that they intend to redouble efforts to achieve their goal of regional hegemony and destabilization of U.S. allies. Even before the announcement of last week’s agreement, Iranian-backed Shia rebels were taking over Yemen. But now comes news that makes the president’s hopes for a more moderate Iran seem even more ludicrous: the Islamist regime is funneling money to Hamas in Gaza to help it rebuild the tunnels it hopes to use to launch new terror raids inside Israel.

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President Obama’s all-out effort to sell his deal with Iran has largely gained a sympathetic hearing in the press. But while Obama is trying to pretend to be on his guard about Iran’s ambitions and even, in a departure from recent statements, showing respect for Israel’s legitimate concerns about this, the Iranians are, once again, demonstrating their contempt for Western illusions. The point isn’t just that Iran’s understanding of their commitments under the yet-to-be-drafted deal differs markedly from what the United States has claimed. It’s that the underlying purpose of President Obama’s initiative—allowing Iran to “get right with the world” and to inaugurate a new era of cooperation with Tehran—is being undermined by Iranian actions that already demonstrate that they intend to redouble efforts to achieve their goal of regional hegemony and destabilization of U.S. allies. Even before the announcement of last week’s agreement, Iranian-backed Shia rebels were taking over Yemen. But now comes news that makes the president’s hopes for a more moderate Iran seem even more ludicrous: the Islamist regime is funneling money to Hamas in Gaza to help it rebuild the tunnels it hopes to use to launch new terror raids inside Israel.

As Britain’s Daily Telegraph reports:

Iran has sent Hamas’s military wing tens of millions of dollars to help it rebuild the network of tunnels in Gaza destroyed by Israel’s invasion last summer, intelligence sources have told The Sunday Telegraph. It is also funding new missile supplies to replenish stocks used to bombard residential neighbourhoods in Israel during the war, code-named Operation Protective Edge by Israel.

Much like the White House’s determination to ignore everything the Iranians have continued to say about eliminating Israel, not to mention its history of violating commitments, this effort isn’t influencing the administration’s determination to press ahead with the nuclear agreement. Everything that might distract us from embracing the possibility that Iran is changing and will use its nuclear technology for peaceful purposes is deemed irrelevant to the issue at hand by the president and his defenders. So no one should think the thought of Iran directly attempting to foment a new war between Israel and Hamas will lessen the president’s enthusiasm for what he clearly believes to be a legacy achievement.

But those who, unlike President Obama, are not already besotted with the notion of détente with Iran should think very seriously about what this means for the future of the Middle East.

Even if the Iranians observe the rather loose limits on their nuclear ambitions and do not cheat their way to a bomb—as they could easily do given their continued possession of their nuclear infrastructure and stockpile—it must be understood that the deal makes their eventual possession of a bomb inevitable once the agreement expires. But even if we are to, as the administration demands, ignore this certainty, we must confront just how much the economic boost the deal will give its economy and the legitimacy it will grant the regime will impact its efforts to spread its influence and sow the seeds of conflict between Arab and Jew as well as Sunni and Shia.

It is one thing to claim, as President Obama does, that he got the best deal with Iran that was possible. On its face, that assertion can sound reasonable even if it is given the lie by the fact that he spent the last two years discarding all of his political and economic leverage over the Islamist regime and making endless concessions that make it a threshold nuclear power. But it is not much of a secret that the president sees his diplomatic efforts as having a larger goal than a technical and rather insubstantial check on the nuclear program that he pledged to dismantle in his 2012 reelection campaign.

The ultimate goal of the negotiations is to end the 36 years of strife between Iran and the West that followed the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought the theocratic regime to power. After decades of supporting terrorism against the West and threatening Israel’s destruction, the president is laboring under the delusion that what he has done is to open up a chance for a true rapprochement with Iran. That’s the argument some of his cheerleaders like the New York Times’s Roger Cohen and Nicholas Kristof have been making. They have long campaigned for changing the West’s view of Iran from that of a rigid, tyrannical, aggressive, and anti-Semitic regime to one that Americans can feel comfortable doing business with and embracing. The images of a kind, friendly Iran these writers and others like them have worked so hard to promote is based on the notion that the differences between the countries are just politics. The president’s own assertions about Iran being a “complicated” country that is on some levels no different from the United States echoes these disingenuous claims.

But while Iran has political factions that contend for influence and is populated by many nice people who might want to be kind to visiting Americans, none of this changes the fact that its government and military have very different intentions. The real Iran is not the picture postcard version writers like Cohen and Kristof give us but the cold hard facts of Iranian arms shipments and financial support for terrorists in Gaza and its auxiliaries in Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria. None of those “complicated” factions disagree about war on Israel or their nuclear goals.

This agreement will not just empower Iran’s nuclear efforts but will strengthen the regime economically in such a way as to make its replacement by more moderate forces unthinkable.

While Americans dream of an entente with exotic Persia, Iran’s leaders are busy preparing the way for violence. The Gaza terror tunnels and missiles are just the tip of the iceberg of Iranian efforts. The American seal of approval that the deal will give will make it easier for them to spread their influence, further isolating and endangering both moderate Arab governments and Israel. That is the cold, hard reality of Iranian power that defenders of this effort to appease Tehran must take into account. Senators pondering whether to vote to give themselves the right to approve the deal should be focused on events in Gaza and Yemen and not just the president’s empty promises about a new era of hope and change in the Middle East.

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Steven Salaita at the University of Washington

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” By and large organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) have encouraged that way of dealing with offensive speech. So, for example, when Steven Salaita, then of Virginia Tech, tweeted his wish that “all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing” as a desperate search was underway for three kidnapped Jewish teens already feared dead, a principled defender of academic freedom could reasonably think that Salaita’s words were despicable but protected. If you thought, as I do not, that Steven Salaita had a binding contract with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, you might also think that the University violated Salaita’s academic freedom when it decided not to go through with hiring him for a tenured position there.

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“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” By and large organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) have encouraged that way of dealing with offensive speech. So, for example, when Steven Salaita, then of Virginia Tech, tweeted his wish that “all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing” as a desperate search was underway for three kidnapped Jewish teens already feared dead, a principled defender of academic freedom could reasonably think that Salaita’s words were despicable but protected. If you thought, as I do not, that Steven Salaita had a binding contract with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, you might also think that the University violated Salaita’s academic freedom when it decided not to go through with hiring him for a tenured position there.

Supporters of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement have gone much further than that, as I have reported here, hosting Salaita at venue after venue as if he were a hero. That is not surprising, since, despite their official nonviolent stance, BDS supporters have been known to stand with figures and organizations who preach and sometimes practice violence against Israeli civilians.

What is surprising is that one local branch of the AAUP, at the University of Washington, has also decided to fete Salaita. To be more precise, they are co-sponsoring an April 6 lecture by Salaita. This lecture takes place just a little more than a month after BDS leader Omar Bhargouti’s appearance, which I wrote about here.

The University of Washington AAUP insists that it is not endorsing Salaita’s views but merely taking a position that both the national AAUP and FIRE have taken: that the University of Illinois did Salaita wrong. Sponsoring Salaita is simply signaling UW-AAUP’s “unwavering support of the core principles of our profession and the academy.” This defense is, of course, preposterous. The AAUP and FIRE defend all kinds of people who say terrible things. Presumably UW-AAUP would not sponsor a talk by a person who had been fired for uttering racial slurs or denying the Holocaust, even if its members considered the firing unwarranted. Even a child can tell the difference between sponsoring an advocate of academic freedom who thinks that even neo-Nazi speeches and writings require protection, and sponsoring a neo-Nazi.

If this distinction is lost on this particular AAUP chapter, that may have something to do with the anti-Israel views of some of its members. As is par for the course of anti-Israel efforts in academia, these members have attempted to use the AAUP to attack Israel, even though the mission of the organization has absolutely nothing to do with the Middle East conflict.

In April 2013, the UW-AAUP circulated a resolution urging TIAA-CREF, which handles retirement funds for many colleges and universities, to drop four companies from its “social choice” fund. These companies, according to the resolution, produce military equipment used to “oppress the Palestinian people.” In other words, UW-AAUP was urging a divestment action directed solely against Israeli policies. Although some members questioned “the focus on Israel,” a vote went ahead, and the resolution just barely failed to gain a majority, with six votes for and six votes against.

Also in 2013, Robert Wood, professor of atmospheric science, president of UW-AAUP, and amateur Middle East policy maker signed a letter denouncing Caterpillar Inc. for selling to the Israel military.

Professor Wood is, of course, entitled to his opinions, but dues paying members of UW-AAUP should be asking why their organization is being used to prop up Salaita, whose comments have been called “loathsome,” “incendiary,” “violent,” and “racist” even by those inclined to defend his academic freedom. I’m afraid this kind of thing is unlikely to end until people start withholding their dues.

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America’s Cooperation with Iran in Iraq Has Consequences

The Obama administration seems to be taking a victory lap after ISIS fighters were pushed from Tikrit, but the aftermath of the town’s fall has not been pretty. The Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which the administration disingenuously claimed had left the scene prior to the start of U.S. bombing, rushed into the Sunni town and launched a wave of looting, murder, arson, and general mayhem.

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The Obama administration seems to be taking a victory lap after ISIS fighters were pushed from Tikrit, but the aftermath of the town’s fall has not been pretty. The Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which the administration disingenuously claimed had left the scene prior to the start of U.S. bombing, rushed into the Sunni town and launched a wave of looting, murder, arson, and general mayhem.

Reuters reports: “Near the charred, bullet-scarred government headquarters, two federal policemen flanked a suspected Islamic State fighter. Urged on by a furious mob, the two officers took out knives and repeatedly stabbed the man in the neck and slit his throat….In addition to the killing of the extremist combatant, Reuters correspondents also saw a convoy of Shi’ite paramilitary fighters – the government’s partners in liberating the city – drag a corpse through the streets behind their car.”

Some might say “good riddance” to the supposed ISIS fighters who are receiving what might be seen as rough justice. But of course there is no impartial court to judge guilt or innocence. Those being tortured could have been chosen simply because they are Sunnis, not because they were members of ISIS. Certainly the stores being looted and the homes being burned did not belong to ISIS but to local Sunnis. The abuse they have suffered at the hands of Shiite militias will make Sunnis resist all the harder in places like Mosul when the Shiite hordes appear before their gates.

And who is responsible for this undisciplined mob violence? The primary perpetrators are of course the Shiite militias themselves, but their enablers are both Iran and the United States. In a remarkably candid account, the New York Times disposes of administration claims that it is not cooperating with Iran.

Writes the Times: “In the battle to retake Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit, from the Islamic State, the United States and Iran have found a template for fighting the Sunni militancy in other parts of Iraq: American airstrikes and Iranian-backed ground assaults, with the Iraqi military serving as the go-between for two global adversaries that do not want to publicly acknowledge that they are working together.”

Further, the Times quotes a “senior administration official” disavowing the comments made by Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, who told Congress: “I will not — and I hope we will never — coordinate or cooperate with Shiite militias,” which of course  were responsible for killing hundreds of U.S. soldiers in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. The administration official told the Times that Austin’s comments  “may have gone a little far.” “What we’ve been trying to say is that we are not coordinating directly with Iran,” said the official, suggesting that indirect cooperation is just fine.

The administration may be proud of its Machiavellian machinations, but it should own up to the consequences of its indirect cooperation with Iran: The U.S. is enabling an Iranian power grab in Iraq that is not only enhancing Iran’s regional power but also marginalizing the Sunni community and driving them further into the arms of ISIS. It is hard to imagine a more self-defeating or ill-advised policy.

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Inability to Free Iran’s American Hostages Shows Deal’s Faulty Logic

With the United States, as part of the P5+1, striking a framework deal with Iran, the issue of the four American hostages seized in and still held by Iran has once again come to the forefront. It’s hard to conceive that the United States would have given the Islamic Republic of Iran $11.9 billion in unfrozen assets and not received a simple gesture of goodwill in return, although it is also true that the United States should not offer concessions to regimes like Iran and North Korea which so often seek to profit from seizing Americans.

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With the United States, as part of the P5+1, striking a framework deal with Iran, the issue of the four American hostages seized in and still held by Iran has once again come to the forefront. It’s hard to conceive that the United States would have given the Islamic Republic of Iran $11.9 billion in unfrozen assets and not received a simple gesture of goodwill in return, although it is also true that the United States should not offer concessions to regimes like Iran and North Korea which so often seek to profit from seizing Americans.

Beyond the fate of the individual hostages, the inability of the Obama administration to release them—despite Secretary of State John Kerry insisting he raises their cases at every opportunity—suggests a greater logical flaw in Obama’s outreach to Iran. In briefings with Congress, former Policy Planning Director Jake Sullivan—an initiator of the talks under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—has suggested that Team Obama sees Rouhani as a Deng Xiaoping figure. They believe that by working with Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and giving them a victory of an economy-rescuing deal, they can permanently strengthen the reformist camp against regime hardliners. This represents a fundamental misreading of Rouhani, who is Khamenei’s “Mr. Fix-It,” but even that can be put aside.

Here’s the problem: If Obama and Kerry give Rouhani and Zarif a pass on the hostages because, presumably, Rouhani and Zarif say that they are held by hardline circles to embarrass the United States and cannot easily be sprung, then what does that say about Rouhani and Zarif’s ability to impact the more troubling aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, for example its possible military dimensions. After all, if Rouhani and Zarif cannot overcome hardliners on such a simple matter as the hostages, how can they be expected to overcome the Iranian hardline bureaucracy which controls the nuclear program? Obama may believe he has negotiated a “historic” deal, but all indications are he might have simply bought the Brooklyn Bridge—or perhaps the Karun River Bridge—because if Team Obama’s failure to spring the hostages is any indication, they are negotiating with Iranian figures who lack the power to impact Iranian policy. No wonder Rouhani is already back-peddling.

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Religious Liberty and the Intolerance of the Left

The explosion of criticism against Governor Mike Pence and his state, in the aftermath of Indiana passing a state version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is quite telling in several respects.

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The explosion of criticism against Governor Mike Pence and his state, in the aftermath of Indiana passing a state version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is quite telling in several respects.

The first is that there’s a great deal of misunderstanding of what the law does, as this editorial in the Wall Street Journal from earlier this week makes clear. The Indiana law is a version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that passed the Senate by an overwhelming margin in 1993 (97-3) and was signed into law by President Clinton. As the editorial puts it:

Individuals must show that their religious liberty has been “substantially burdened,” and the government must demonstrate its actions represent the least restrictive means to achieve a “compelling” state interest. Indiana’s law adds a provision that offers a potential religious defense in private disputes, but then four federal appellate circuits have also interpreted the federal statute to apply to private disputes.

If florists or wedding photographers don’t want to work a gay wedding based on their religious convictions, under the RFRA test,

such a commercial vendor would still have to prove that his religious convictions were substantially burdened. And he would also come up against the reality that most courts have found that the government has a compelling interest in enforcing antidiscrimination laws. In all these states for two decades, no court we’re aware of has granted such a religious accommodation to an antidiscrimination law. Restaurants and hotels that refused to host gay marriage parties would have a particularly high burden in overcoming public accommodation laws.

The RFRA law, then, is a careful, prudential law, attempting to balance competing claims and interests–and in any event, the type of cases we’re focused on involving florists and wedding photographers is extremely rare.

Whatever you think about Governor Pence (and I think he did a very poor job of defending his actions on ABC’s This Week on March 29) and the decision by florists and photographs to boycott gay weddings, what is most alarming to me, and should alarm you, is the rising intolerance and mob mentality that is evident on the left.

We saw it in the Mozilla case, in which the CEO, Brendan Eich, was forced out after having given money in support of a California referendum supporting traditional marriage, as well as in the effort to target (possibly through the denial of accreditation) Christian colleges like Gordon, whose Life and Conduct Policy limits students and employees to sexual activity in the context of marriage, defined as the union of one man and one woman. “Never mind that the policy allows any person of any sexual orientation to attend Gordon, teach at Gordon, or serve in its administration,” as David French of National Review writes. “The fact that its Life and Conduct Policy prohibits ‘sexual relations outside marriage’ and ‘homosexual practice’ (explained as ‘sexual intercourse’) was enough to take action, to declare it bigoted and not fit for inclusion in society.”

This is a deeply illiberal impulse, aimed at the core of American freedom (religious liberty), and if it is not checked, it will do tremendous damage to our civil culture as well as to our basic freedoms. To be sure, this illiberal impulse isn’t characteristic of everyone who champions gays rights (Jonathan Rauch is an admirable example). And I’ve pointed out before where I think evangelical Christians have erred in their cultural engagement, in ways that I believe are both counterproductive and at times deeply at odds with the spirit of Christian faith.

But that is only part of the story; and the case of Indiana is only the latest example of a crusading and authoritarian mindset on the left, which is both quite worrisome and potentially explosive. It is one thing to have differences over issues like gay marriage, which intelligent and honorable people can disagree on. It is quite another to try to force Christians to choose between progressive orthodoxy and their deeply held (and centuries-long) religious beliefs–and to punish them if they refuse not only to support gay marriage but actively participate in ceremonies. As my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin has written, if reasonably possible “people should not be compelled as the price of entry to the public square to honor as true what their understanding of their religious obligations compels them to judge false.”

That is what some on the left seem determined to do–and if they keep doing it, this won’t end well.

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Can U.S. Slash Military Budget When Russia’s Preparing for War?

The battle over sequestration continues, as Congress mandates that the Pentagon continue to slash the U.S. army down to pre-World War II levels. Meanwhile, the Iranian military is resurgent, peace deal or not, with the Islamic Republic increasing its defense budget by some 33.5 percent. Then, again, being militarily active in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq takes money.

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The battle over sequestration continues, as Congress mandates that the Pentagon continue to slash the U.S. army down to pre-World War II levels. Meanwhile, the Iranian military is resurgent, peace deal or not, with the Islamic Republic increasing its defense budget by some 33.5 percent. Then, again, being militarily active in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq takes money.

Perhaps President Obama believes he has solved the Iran problem, or is well on his way to doing so. But even if his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to insist her “reset” policy with Russia worked, Russian President Vladimir Putin poses an increasing threat to international security, as anyone in Georgia or Ukraine can attest. Obama may believe the situation has stabilized—after all, press attention has moved on—but it looks like the situation might soon go from bad to worse.

According to this analysis in The Interpreter, Russian military spending has increased sharply. Of course, it is pretty certain that the real budget is even higher than the official, sanitized version. According to the article, based on the analysis of Russian economist Andrey Illarionov as published on opposition leader Garry Kasparov’s website:

Between the time that Putin came to power up to January 2014, the Moscow economist and commentator says, Moscow has spent on average 2.5 to 3.2 percent of GDP on the military, with the figure tending to rise over time. During the first 13 years of his rule, Illarionov says, spending in constant prices went up 2.6 times…. After Putin made his final decision to intervene in Ukraine in February 2014, he says, Moscow’s military expenditures “were increased by more than twice,” a figure that suggested the Russian government intended not only to seize and occupy Crimea but all of what it calls “Novorossiya.” In February, March and April of last year, Russian military spending amounted to 6.7 percent of GDP and 27.7 percent of all budget expenditures.

The situation is getting worse. Here’s the alarming section:

According to Illarionov, official Russian government figures show that “the situation radically changed” in the first two months of this year, the latest period for which figures are available. Average monthly military spending increased 2.3 times, compared to the May-December 2014 period, 3.3. times compared to the last pre-war period, and 8.8 times compared to 2000. For those two months alone, he says, military spending was more than 1.3 trillion rubles – that is, more than 20 billion US dollars – and it constituted 43.3. percent of the federal budget and 12.7 percent of Russia’s admittedly diminished GDP.

So, the Russian economy is getting worse, yet Putin is rapidly expanding his defense budget. The question is to what end? Alas, it seems not to be a question which the White House cares to consider, although certainly the leaders of the Baltic States and Poland are. Perhaps Congress should as well, because continuing sequestration is leaving the United States dangerously unprepared to face a mounting crisis which, if Illarionov’s analysis is true, seems to be looming ever larger. Vladimir Putin exploits weakness and indecision, characteristics which for too long Obama has projected. The United States cannot afford sequestration. Rather than resolve budget deficits, sequestration will make them worse because such weakness is encouraging dictators to aggression in a manner which no U.S. president will be able to long ignore.

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Rouhani Throws Down the Gauntlet on Lifting Sanctions

Despite President Obama’s straw man argument positing a false choice between diplomacy and war, critics of Obama administration strategy object not to the idea of diplomacy with Iran, but rather the manner in which Team Obama carried it out. Whereas Ronald Reagan prefaced his diplomacy with the Soviet Union with a massive military buildup both to negotiate from a position of strength and, in hindsight, to bankrupt his Soviet adversary, President Obama’s willingness to unfreeze assets and offer sanctions relief suggested the White House considered leverage a dirty word.

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Despite President Obama’s straw man argument positing a false choice between diplomacy and war, critics of Obama administration strategy object not to the idea of diplomacy with Iran, but rather the manner in which Team Obama carried it out. Whereas Ronald Reagan prefaced his diplomacy with the Soviet Union with a massive military buildup both to negotiate from a position of strength and, in hindsight, to bankrupt his Soviet adversary, President Obama’s willingness to unfreeze assets and offer sanctions relief suggested the White House considered leverage a dirty word.

When engaging rogue regimes—and Iran is the textbook example of the concept encoded by President Clinton’s national security advisor Tony Lake—it is important to recognize that not all parties come to the bargaining table motivated by the same desires. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry may truly have sought to bring an enemy in from the cold, and their actions may also have been motivated by ambition, hence the liberal use of the term “historic” in their subsequent statements. But for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, traditionally the supreme leader’s Mr. Fix-It, the goal was simply to relieve the financial pressure decades of mismanagement, declining oil prices, and sanctions had put upon the Islamic Republic.

Hence, as Seth Mandel notes, the idea of how to implement, and the extent of, sanctions relief seems increasingly to loom large and could potentially disrupt the entire accord. Obama suggested—wisely—that any relief would be gradual, calibrated to Iranian behavior. Speaking from the Rose Garden yesterday, he said:

In return for Iran’s actions, the international community has agreed to provide Iran with relief from certain sanctions — our own sanctions, and international sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council.  This relief will be phased as Iran takes steps to adhere to the deal.

The State Department’s press sheet, for its part, says:

Iran will receive sanctions relief, if it verifiably abides by its commitments. U.S. and E.U. nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended after the IAEA has verified that Iran has taken all of its key nuclear-related steps. If at any time Iran fails to fulfill its commitments, these sanctions will snap back into place… All past UN Security Council resolutions on the Iran nuclear issue will be lifted simultaneous with the completion, by Iran, of nuclear-related actions addressing all key concerns (enrichment, Fordow, Arak, PMD, and transparency).

That’s not the Iranian understanding, however, nor does the Iranian leadership believe this to be an issue that can be swept under the rug. Speaking on Iranian television today at around 2 p.m. Tehran time, Rouhani said:

All sanctions will be terminated on the day of the agreement’s implementation. Based on this framework, all sanctions — financial, economic, and banking sanctions — will be terminated on the same day that the agreement is implemented. On the same day of the deal’s implementation, all [UN Security Council] Resolutions against Iran — meaning six resolutions — will be terminated.

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has been increasingly strident in his tweets regarding the question of when Iran would see sanctions relief.

The questions before President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are: first, whether they will forfeit what little remaining leverage the international community has in order to keep Iran at the table. And, second, how such a misunderstanding could occur between Kerry and Zarif after the two spent so much time together. Simply put, did Zarif say one thing to Kerry, and then another to Rouhani? If so, then what does this suggest about the charming diplomat’s integrity and the future course of the agreement?

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Obama’s Legacy and the Verdict of History

Yesterday’s announcement of a framework for a nuclear deal with Iran is being sold by the administration as a historic foreign-policy triumph for President Obama. Most of his press cheering section seems to agree. The president has told us that he has begun a process that forecloses Iran’s path to a bomb. Just as importantly, he sees it as an achievement which, like his massive federal health-care initiative, will fulfill his boasts about changing the world that were so much a part of his initial campaign for the presidency. Though the Iran framework is filled with so many caveats and loopholes that may allow Iran to easily evade its strictures and will, in any event, grant it impunity to do as it likes in ten or 15 years, this seems a flimsy foundation for a legacy. Yet the president may be right about it being integral to his legacy. The only problem is that what could follow from this turning point may not burnish his reputation as a peacemaker as much as it will solidify his place in history as an appeaser that empowered a violent, hate-driven regime.

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Yesterday’s announcement of a framework for a nuclear deal with Iran is being sold by the administration as a historic foreign-policy triumph for President Obama. Most of his press cheering section seems to agree. The president has told us that he has begun a process that forecloses Iran’s path to a bomb. Just as importantly, he sees it as an achievement which, like his massive federal health-care initiative, will fulfill his boasts about changing the world that were so much a part of his initial campaign for the presidency. Though the Iran framework is filled with so many caveats and loopholes that may allow Iran to easily evade its strictures and will, in any event, grant it impunity to do as it likes in ten or 15 years, this seems a flimsy foundation for a legacy. Yet the president may be right about it being integral to his legacy. The only problem is that what could follow from this turning point may not burnish his reputation as a peacemaker as much as it will solidify his place in history as an appeaser that empowered a violent, hate-driven regime.

It is possible that some of the president’s hopes will be fulfilled. Perhaps Iran’s leaders have been telling the truth about not wanting to build a bomb, though everything they have done leads to the opposite conclusion. Perhaps they will keep their promises and not cheat on a deal that will give them ample opportunities to do so even though the history of this regime tells us that this would be the first time such a thing would happen. It is also possible that those who constantly tell us of the innate moderation of the Iranian people will be right and the opening up of the Iranian economy to the world will set in motion fundamental changes in their society that will transform its government and cause it to cease its campaign to undermine the stability of Arab governments in the region, stop supporting terrorism, and give up its dream of obliterating Israel.

If all those things happen, then President Obama has been right and his critics, including the majority of both houses of Congress and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, will have been wrong. But everything we know about the nature of the regime that he has pursued so relentlessly informs us that this is unlikely to be the case.

Indeed, the course of the negotiations into which the president has invested so much time and political capital shows that Tehran is prepared to ferociously defend not only its nuclear options but also its ideology. Even as the president was instructing his negotiators to give way on almost every key point during the negotiations—including the location of Iran’s stockpile of nuclear fuel, the retention of thousands of centrifuges, the reimposition of sanctions, and its unwillingness to tell the truth about the extent of its military research program—the Islamist regime was expanding its reach throughout the Middle East as its auxiliaries and allies strengthened their hold on Syria, Iraq, and now Yemen. Nor did it trouble to lower its voice about threatening Israel with destruction (a point which one of its top military leaders said was “not negotiable” just days before the happy announcement in Lausanne). Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plea that final deal signed in June includes Iran’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist is a forlorn hope that has zero chance of fulfillment. That’s not only because Iran would never do so but because the United States has not asked for such a thing any more than it has demanded that an end to Iranian support for terrorism or its building of ballistic missiles be included in the deal.

Having agreed to measures that will jumpstart an Iranian economy that might have been brought to its knees had President Obama stuck to the strategy that brought the regime to the negotiating table, the notion that it will moderate its ambitions is simply wishful thinking. Nor is there any reason to think that a government that has always treated its nuclear program as a key symbol and tool of their ability to defy the West will step back from their ambition to create a weapon.

At the same time, Arab governments whose existence is being threatened by Iranian-back subversion, and who rightly understand that they are as much in the crosshairs of Tehran as Israel, will now begin their own races to a bomb. Though President Obama clings to the notion that what he has done is to help Iran “get right with the world,” its neighbors understand that what is happening is the strengthening of a dangerous revolutionary power whose goals have nothing to do with peace.

President Obama may get his deal in June and he may even be able to pick off enough Democratic senators whose party loyalty exceeds their devotion to principles to prevent the passage of the Corker-Menendez bill that would force any such agreement to be subject, as it should under the Constitution, to a vote by Congress. He may well exit the White House claiming that his diplomacy has prevented Iran from getting a bomb, making him a great success in his own eyes and in those of his many fans in the press and the country.

But if we strip away the gloss of false optimism and subject the deal to cold, hard logic, the best-case scenario for this effort is that it will put off an Iranian bomb by a decade, though it will become a threshold nuclear power almost immediately. In the meantime, a dangerous Islamist regime will be strengthened, American allies weakened, and the stage will be set for a series of proxy wars across the Middle East as well as a surge in Iranian-backed terrorism. A more pessimistic assessment would see Iran cheat its way to a bomb much sooner with an emboldened Tehran using its enhanced diplomatic, economic, and political power to transform the Shia-Sunni split from a regional source of tension to a new age of religious wars in the region with untold consequences and casualties. Either way, U.S. influence will suffer a blow with equally uncertain costs.

President Obama should enjoy the adulation he is receiving today. He is a young man who will hopefully enjoy a long post-presidency that will enable him to witness what his attempt to forge a legacy will mean for the world. But that is a dangerous position for any appeaser to be in. If, contrary to his hubristic assumptions, Iran is not transformed into a peaceful partner of the U.S., he will have an equally long time to account for his folly and to face the awful truth about the destruction caused by his feckless pursuit of détente with Iran.

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The Iran Deal “Framework” Is Bad, But It’ll Probably Get Even Worse

Lost in much of the discussion about why President Obama was so determined to announce a “framework” for an Iran deal this week is that, in addition to delaying sanctions and portraying opponents of the agreement as warmongers, the president was surely aware that before it’s actually signed, this deal is likely to get worse. And there are two ways the already disappointing deal can degenerate further between now and then.

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Lost in much of the discussion about why President Obama was so determined to announce a “framework” for an Iran deal this week is that, in addition to delaying sanctions and portraying opponents of the agreement as warmongers, the president was surely aware that before it’s actually signed, this deal is likely to get worse. And there are two ways the already disappointing deal can degenerate further between now and then.

The first way is obvious: all the vague language in the deal leaves it open to fudging on both sides. And the Obama administration, which has telegraphed its desperation for a deal, will be negotiating from a position of weakness until the June 30 deadline. Will Obama walk away from an imperfect PMD (possible military dimension) verification regime? Almost certainly not. And so that’s precisely the kind of verification regime the Iranians and Russians will demand, making Obama’s “unprecedented” claims look silly. (Throughout his presidency, when Obama says something is “unprecedented” it usually means he must assert it because he can’t demonstrate it or prove it.)

Indeed, the language on PMDs is quite telling: “Iran will implement an agreed set of measures to address the IAEA’s concerns regarding the Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) of its program.” In other words, on this crucial aspect of inspections and verification, we’re still at square one. It’s the kind of detail that could make or break a deal under any sane negotiations, but Obama’s basically saying “we’ll get around to it.” As such, it doesn’t really exist in a meaningful sense right now.

The sanctions relief is also quite vague, and the Iranians are already telegraphing they expect Obama to cave on them too. The sanctions most certainly cannot be “snapped back” into place as soon as the Iranians are accused of cheating, as the president dishonestly claimed yesterday. Any sanctions lifted are likely to stay that way. This will encourage the Iranians to cheat sooner rather than later, because the Obama administration will let them keep their Fordow facility as well, meaning the deal could quite possibly enable Iran to get the bomb soon and free of (most) sanctions. It’s a worst-case scenario, but it’s also quite likely.

The second way the deal could deteriorate between now and June 30 is on the hard numbers already “agreed to.” Remember, as our Abe Greenwald made a point of saying yesterday, there is no deal.

So ask yourself the following question: From what we know of the nuclear diplomacy with Iran thus far, are the Iranians more likely to take the current non-agreement as sincere obligations, or are they more likely to use this list of understandings as a baseline for the next three months of negotiations?

As you consider the question, remember that Obama has already capitulated on various aspects of the deal on which he supposedly stood firm in the past. When you look at the list of details in this framework, what you are seeing is confirmation of the erosion of America’s demands over time.

As Michael Rubin noted yesterday, the baseline trick is a regular feature of rogue regimes’ negotiations with the West. Rubin wrote:

Here’s how it goes: When the United States (or any other democracy) is making a big push for a final agreement, negotiate, extract compromises, and collect those final last-minute concessions while up against the wire. Then go home, and treat those concessions as a baseline for the start of new negotiations: What had been the last-minute deal suddenly becomes the opening position in a pattern that provides a distinct disadvantage to the party which wants the deal more.

We don’t yet know if Iran is willing to get to yes. But we know they’d be willing to walk away. So far, that hasn’t been true of Obama. The president and Secretary Kerry, over the next few months, are going to be presented with more Iranian demands, and each time those demands will be important enough to the Iranians to walk away from the table. That won’t be the case for Obama and Kerry, who have shown a willingness to capitulate on all manner of demands precisely because they can’t stomach the idea that this or that one concession could torpedo everything.

They’ve invested too much in this. This is, as the president’s advisor once said, the ObamaCare of the administration’s second term. It is the central pillar in Obama’s foreign-policy legacy. And it’s why the agreed framework, as weak a deal as it already portends, is likely to get even worse for the West from here on out.

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Russia to Take Iran Deal to the Bank—By Selling Arms

Well, if President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are to be believed, then the preliminary framework accord that the P5+1 struck with Iran was truly historic, and will usher in a new era of peace.

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Well, if President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are to be believed, then the preliminary framework accord that the P5+1 struck with Iran was truly historic, and will usher in a new era of peace.

Someone may have forgotten to tell Russian President Vladimir Putin that. According to RIA Novosti (and translated by the Open Source Center):

Russia may resume the implementation of the contract to ship S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to Iran if the UN Security Council lifts sanctions against Tehran, head of the Centre for Analysis of World Arms Trade Igor Korotchenko was quoted as saying by RIA Novosti (part of the state-owned International News Agency Rossiya Segodnya) on 3 April. “The lifting of sanctions from Iran, including sanctions on arms trade – would be a perfectly logical development of the current situation. The contract to ship the latest modifications of the S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran is of key importance to Russia. That contract may be renewed on conditions that Moscow and Tehran find suitable,” Korotchenko said.

The S-300, of course, is one of the most sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons. In 2007, Iran agreed to purchase the S-300 for $800 million, but delayed the sale as a result of U.S. and European diplomatic pressure, ultimately suspending it in 2010, citing United Nations sanctions. Thanks to Kerry et al., it seems to be back on. Given Iran’s promise to export such weaponry, perhaps Obama simply hopes to add it as an agenda item at his after-the-fact Camp David consultation with the Gulf Cooperation Council leaders and, separately, in his telephone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Alas, the rest of the Middle East resides in the real world rather than a bubble of rhetoric. They understand that the tremendous infusion of power with which Obama bestowed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will cost lives. Who wins? Alas, only Putin, and of course his bank account.

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First Friday Prayers after Deal: “Death to America”

Well, Mohammad Javad Zarif might know how to charm politicians like Secretary of State John Kerry and his diplomatic team but, increasingly, it seems as if President Obama’s notion of a historic change in Iranian behavior was, well, a bit premature.

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Well, Mohammad Javad Zarif might know how to charm politicians like Secretary of State John Kerry and his diplomatic team but, increasingly, it seems as if President Obama’s notion of a historic change in Iranian behavior was, well, a bit premature.

Every Friday afternoon in Iran, in Tehran and every major provincial capital and town, a senior cleric will give a sermon which outlines the themes and beliefs of the regime. Think of it as a religiously-oriented weekly State of the Union address.

Two weeks ago, chants of “Death to America” against the backdrop of a sermon by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made headlines, although some journalists tried to put a positive spin on the event. Well, fast forward two weeks. As Iran is 8.5 hours ahead of the East Coast of the United States, Friday afternoon has come and passed in Tehran, so what happened after yesterday’s game-changer?

Crowds chanted “Death to America” and “Death to the al-Sa’ud” according to the Iranian press, not just in one city but across the country. Indeed, here it says that finally, the “Death to America” mantra is being realized.

John Kerry, call your office.

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The Jobs Report

The unemployment picture darkened unexpectedly last month, with a mere 126,000 jobs created, the smallest job gain since December 2013. Economists had been expecting about 250,000. January and February jobs figures were revised downwards. January went from 239,000 to 201,000 and February’s from 295,000 to 264,000. The average for the last three months is 197,000, way down from the average of 324,000 in the last three months of 2014.

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The unemployment picture darkened unexpectedly last month, with a mere 126,000 jobs created, the smallest job gain since December 2013. Economists had been expecting about 250,000. January and February jobs figures were revised downwards. January went from 239,000 to 201,000 and February’s from 295,000 to 264,000. The average for the last three months is 197,000, way down from the average of 324,000 in the last three months of 2014.

The unemployment rate held steady at 5.5 percent while wages ticked up .3 percent and the participation rate declined slightly to 62.7 percent.

The brutal winter experienced by much of the country didn’t help, nor did the slide in oil prices that has caused the oil rig count to decline. Mining jobs have declined by 30,000 this year. Of course, bad news for oil companies is good news for consumers who are benefiting from lower gas prices and thus have more disposable income.

As a result of the March jobs report, the Federal Reserve is likely to remain cautious about raising interest rates for a while.

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How Does Iran Interpret the Agreement?

Well, this is a bit inconvenient. Iran’s state-controlled Tehran Times gives a breakdown of the takeaway from its nuclear negotiations. And it’s not exactly consistent with President Barack Obama’s triumphalist take.

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Well, this is a bit inconvenient. Iran’s state-controlled Tehran Times gives a breakdown of the takeaway from its nuclear negotiations. And it’s not exactly consistent with President Barack Obama’s triumphalist take.

Here’s what Obama had to say:

And after many months of tough and principled diplomacy, the United States — joined by the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the European Union — achieved the framework for a deal that will cut off every pathway Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon… It will not enrich uranium with its advanced centrifuges for at least the next 10 years.

Here’s what the Tehran Times took away with regard to the research and development Obama blessed:

Iran will continue research and development program on advanced centrifuge machines and will be also able to keep initiating and completing its R & D program on IR-4, IR-5, IR-6 and IR-8 machines in the 10-year period of the agreement.

So, far from being limited to less powerful centrifuges, Iran simply is able to bypass a few generations, and then be ahead of the game when the sunset period expires.

As for the once-secret Fordow plant buried under a mountain near Qom, Obama said:

Iran has agreed that its installed centrifuges will be reduced by two-thirds.  Iran will no longer enrich uranium at its Fordow facility.  Iran will not enrich uranium with its advanced centrifuges for at least the next 10 years.  The vast majority of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium will be neutralized.

Here’s the Tehran Times’s understanding:

According to the joint statement, Fordow nuclear facility will be turned into a research center for nuclear science and physics. More than 1,000 centrifuges will be maintained at this facility and two centrifuge cascades will keep operating.

And the concern with regard to the plutonium produced at Arak? Obama minced no words:

First, Iran will not be able to pursue a bomb using plutonium, because it will not develop weapons-grade plutonium.  The core of its reactor at Arak will be dismantled and replaced. The spent fuel from that facility will be shipped out of Iran for the life of the reactor.  Iran will not build a new heavy-water reactor.  And Iran will not reprocess fuel from its existing reactors — ever.

Alas, the Iranian understanding seems to be that plutonium production will be reduced, but they specifically do not say it will be eliminated:

…The heavy water reactor in the Iranian city of Arak will remain in place but will be redesigned and updated. The redesigning process will greatly increase efficiency of the reactor while reducing the amount of plutonium produced in the facility.

Again, the difference between eliminated and reduced could be the difference between zero nuclear bombs and ten. The devil is in the details, and the Iranian negotiators have been masters at massaging the language to achieve what they need.

How about that unprecedented verification? Obama said, “This deal is not based on trust, it’s based on unprecedented verification.” But, according to Iran, its compliance with such verification as laid out in the Additional Protocol will only be done on a voluntary basis:

Iran will implement the Additional Protocol temporarily and voluntarily in line with its confidence-building measures and after that the protocol will be ratified in a time frame by the Iranian government and parliament (Majlis).

Sure, that includes a promise to ratify it. But a promise that could be a year away or ten years. It’s certainly not the fool-proof verification which Obama claimed.

And, lastly, the idea of sanctions relief. Obama suggested it would be gradual:

In return for Iran’s actions, the international community has agreed to provide Iran with relief from certain sanctions — our own sanctions, and international sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council.  This relief will be phased as Iran takes steps to adhere to the deal.  If Iran violates the deal, sanctions can be snapped back into place.

That’s not the Iranian understanding (I’ve added emphasis):

Following the implementation of the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action, all the UN Security Council sanctions as well as all economic and financial embargos by the US and the European Union, including bans on banks, insurance, investment, and all other related services in different fields, including petrochemical, oil, gas and automobile industries will be lifted. Besides, all nuclear-related sanctions against real and legal entities, state and private organizations and institutions, including those sanctions imposed against the Central Bank of Iran, other financial and banking institutions, SWIFT system, and the country’s shipping and aviation sectors, and Iran’s tanker company will be immediately lifted all at once.

Furthermore, that Iranian belief about sanctions relief suggests that Iran expects not only sanctions related to its nuclear program, but those imposed on its other proliferation activities will be lifted. But what of Obama’s promise to “snap” those sanctions back in place? Missing from Obama’s statement is any indication about who will make such a determination regarding Iranian cheating, and who will snap those sanctions back in place.

President Obama has never been a student of history, and it’s always dangerous when politicians claim the foresight to know what represents historic breakthrough. In the case of Iran, it seems, Obama had not read his history and does not understand the “Tehran two-step,” i.e., one step forward two steps back. It seems Obama’s self-congratulations may have been a bit premature. Unfortunately, the president’s ego will likely prevent him from acknowledging that.

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Lausanne and an Empowered Iran

In his Rose Garden appearance touting the “framework agreement” concluded in Lausanne, President Obama said the U.S. and its negotiating partners had “reached a historic understanding with Iran, which, if fully implemented, will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

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In his Rose Garden appearance touting the “framework agreement” concluded in Lausanne, President Obama said the U.S. and its negotiating partners had “reached a historic understanding with Iran, which, if fully implemented, will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

Even based on the little we know about what was agreed, a couple of qualifiers are in order. First, even assuming the most heroic possible implementation of the accord, Iran will be prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon for perhaps ten years at most–not for all time. The mullahs, who do not have to shut down a single nuclear facility or (apparently) export already enriched uranium, can use that decade to enrich more uranium in their 5,000-plus legal centrifuges, weaponize nuclear warheads, and do everything else needed to assemble a formidable atomic arsenal the second that Iranian leaders decide to break out.

But–and this is the second caveat–even this assumption, which stops far short of what Obama is promising, is itself based on the belief that Iran will abide by the accord. Given the history of other hostile states, such as the Soviet Union and North Korea, in cheating on arms-control agreements, that is quite a Panglossian assumption to make. Perhaps there will be truly strict verification procedures that the Iranians will not be able to subvert–by, for example, setting up a separate, undeclared nuclear facility as they have done in the past–but there is reason for skepticism given how hard the Iranians bargained simply to be able to keep all of their existing facilities open.

While Iranian compliance with the nuclear accord–should one actually be completed in June–remains a speculative proposition, there is much greater reason to think that multilateral sanctions will be lifted and stay lifted no matter if Iran abides by the agreement or not. One of the many unknowns regarding what was announced in Lausanne–an unknown that could actually scuttle the real agreement supposed to be reached in June–is when the sanctions will come off. The Iranians are saying they will be lifted the second a final agreement is signed. The Americans are saying they will be lifted in stages based on Iranian compliance. We’ll see which version is closer to reality if and when the world is actually allowed to read the fine print of any agreement–and assuming there are no secret codicils that remain classified.

But it seems safe to speculate that if Iran signs a piece of paper in June the multilateral sanctions regime will collapse sooner rather than later. This means that Iranian coffers will be flooded with hundreds of billions of dollars in new income.  What will the money be used for? Some undoubtedly will go for social services to buy off a long-suffering Iranian population and prevent an insurrection against the ayatollahs. But it is certain that a large chunk of the money also will go to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which not only runs the nuclear program and a ballistic-missile program but also is in charge of exporting the Iranian revolution abroad. There is absolutely nothing in the Lausanne accord that does anything to hinder much less stop Iran’s support for terrorism or its ballistic-missile programs–both subjects ignored in the Obama administration’s frenzied quest for a nuclear accord, no matter its specifics.

The IRGC, and specifically its elite Quds Force under Gen. Qassem Suleimani, has been busy for decades exporting Iranian power to countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Its subversive efforts have borne fruit in recent years by creating a virtual Iranian Empire stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. Iranian lucre has funded the barrel bombs that Bashar Assad has been dropping on civilians and the abusive militias which Shiite leaders in Iraq have been assembling to undermine the Iraqi state. And that is what Iran has achieved with an economy still in a sanctions straitjacket. What will it be able to do once that straitjacket has come off?

That is the grim prospect that will now confront Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other states that feel a mortal threat emanating from Iran. They will now have to face an Iran with a nuclear program delayed but not dismantled, and an Iran with growing power to undermine and dominate its neighbors. Under such a scenario do not be surprised if Saudi Arabia proceeds with a nuclear program of its own, as it has long threatened to do.

President Obama likes to claim, erroneously, that anyone who opposes his accord must be in favor of World War III. He would make a more persuasive case for the accord if he would more honestly grapple with its baleful consequences for enhancing Iran’s regional power–power which is already at a 30-year high and which now promises to grow even greater.

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How Will Iran Celebrate National Nuclear Technology Day?

It says a lot about the Islamic Republic that it annually celebrates a “National Nuclear Technology Day,” a state-directed rally and stage-managed media event to cheerlead for future nuclear breakthroughs. While the state-directed Iranian press has now removed the story from the Internet and blocked its access through archival sites, it’s worth asking why it was that earlier this year the deputy head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) declared that on April 9, 2015, the Islamic Republic would announce breakthroughs in laser enrichment:

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It says a lot about the Islamic Republic that it annually celebrates a “National Nuclear Technology Day,” a state-directed rally and stage-managed media event to cheerlead for future nuclear breakthroughs. While the state-directed Iranian press has now removed the story from the Internet and blocked its access through archival sites, it’s worth asking why it was that earlier this year the deputy head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) declared that on April 9, 2015, the Islamic Republic would announce breakthroughs in laser enrichment:

The AEOI has acquired the technology for the production of different types of lasers, and there are more successes which will be declared soon,” [Asghar] Zarean said, addressing a number of Iranian officials during a tour of Iran’s nuclear installations in Fordo, Natanz and Isfahan. Stressing that the sanctions couldn’t undermine the country’s determination to make progress in using the civilian nuclear technology, he announced that the Iranian nuclear experts’ new achievements will be unveiled on April 9 (the National Nuclear Technology Day in Iran).

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have blessed a research and development capability at the underground Fordo facility, but it’s unclear what research and development Iran will undertake. When President Obama suggests that Iran has adhered to its commitments under the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), the limited demands of the JPOA make that analogous to a policeman saying a drunk driver passed his sobriety test because he counted to one. Laser enrichment was not included in the JPOA, and yet provides a path to the bomb. Iran can try to sink those stories to the memory hole. The question is whether Obama will let them.

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This Is Not a Deal

Today in Lausanne, Switzerland, officials from the United States, Iran, and other world powers delivered big news about the negotiations aimed at halting Iran’s quest for a nuclear bomb. But they didn’t announce a deal. In fact, they didn’t even announce an agreement. Rather, they revealed, according to the New York Times, a “specific and comprehensive general understanding about the next steps in limiting Tehran’s nuclear program.” There’s a lot of padding in that description for a reason: the P5+1 powers are far off from anything resembling a nuclear deal with Tehran.

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Today in Lausanne, Switzerland, officials from the United States, Iran, and other world powers delivered big news about the negotiations aimed at halting Iran’s quest for a nuclear bomb. But they didn’t announce a deal. In fact, they didn’t even announce an agreement. Rather, they revealed, according to the New York Times, a “specific and comprehensive general understanding about the next steps in limiting Tehran’s nuclear program.” There’s a lot of padding in that description for a reason: the P5+1 powers are far off from anything resembling a nuclear deal with Tehran.

What we now have is confirmation that negotiations will continue. There’s good reason to believe that this is what both sides were after above all else. For Tehran it means continued sanctions relief, and for the Obama administration it means its diplomacy cannot yet be judged a failure.

Going by social and professional media responses, the administration has achieved its goal in spades. Today’s announcement is largely being seen as cause for optimism. This is foremost a measure of how low Americans have set the bar for diplomatic progress in the Obama age. Today’s “understanding” is actually verification—on paper—of long-rumored American capitulations on Iran’s nuclear program.

The official American capitulations: First, Iran would be allowed to continue operating 5,060 uranium-enriching centrifuges for ten years. Experts agree that’s enough to fuel one nuclear bomb per year. Before the Obama administration began talks with Iran, United Nations resolutions had prohibited Iran from enriching uranium, period.

Second, Iran is permitted to keep its underground enrichment facility at Fordow. The administration claims it will be transformed into a “nuclear, physics, technology, research center” that won’t enrich uranium for 15 years. But as Barack Obama has previously said, “We know they [Iran] don’t need to have an underground, fortified facility like Fordow in order to have a peaceful program.”

Third, any nuclear deal would not be indefinite, but time-limited. Today, John Kerry assured the American people that a deal would not include “sunsets,” but that’s precisely what these 10-year and 15-year limits are. Extending a deal would require that the Iranians choose to extend it.

Fourth, according to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, all American and European nuclear-related sanctions on Iran will terminate at the start of a deal, not in response to Iranian compliance. If this is true, it is a dangerous American capitulation: What incentive would Iran have for keeping up its side of the bargain? If Zarif is lying, it goes to show just how far from a good-faith deal we are.

Fifth, the framework includes only the vaguest of language about Iran’s responsibility to detail the possible military dimensions (PMD) of its nuclear program to date. This is important because without a baseline understanding of Iran’s nuclear weaponization efforts, the United States cannot accurately confirm any progress on this front.

In exchange for all this, the administration wants Americans to believe that Iran will enrich uranium to only 3.67 percent (for 15 years), allow vigorous international inspections, refrain from future nuclear-weapons work, ship out a good deal of enriched nuclear material, and generally abide by the terms of an eventual deal with the United States. Will any of that even happen? Considering that Zarif is already publicly questioning the administration’s account of the “understanding” on Twitter, it seems unlikely. No, we don’t have a deal, but we have a fuller understanding of Barack Obama’s desperation for one.

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Obama’s Preemptive Attack on Critics of the Iran “Framework”

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry went to some lengths to head off criticism of today’s framework agreement with Iran. And the president himself indicated just how concerned he was about the reaction among our allies by calling out potential critics–in the case of the Israeli prime minister, doing so by name–before they could fire the first shot.

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President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry went to some lengths to head off criticism of today’s framework agreement with Iran. And the president himself indicated just how concerned he was about the reaction among our allies by calling out potential critics–in the case of the Israeli prime minister, doing so by name–before they could fire the first shot.

Obama’s press conference this afternoon was notable for its tone. Though he was ostensibly announcing what he considers something of a diplomatic victory, he was agitated and defensive. But it was not just the tone. Here is what Obama said about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

It’s no secret that the Israeli prime minister and I don’t agree about whether the United States should move forward with a peaceful resolution to the Iranian issue. If in fact Prime Minister Netanyahu is looking for the most effective way to ensure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon, this is the best option.

It is a remarkably spiteful comment. What the president is saying is not that he and Netanyahu disagree about how to achieve a peaceful resolution. He says they disagree on “whether the United States should move forward with a peaceful resolution” (emphasis added). In other words, Obama is saying publicly that Netanyahu wants war with Iran, and he wants the United States to fight it.

This is significant not just because of what it says about the president’s opinion of Netanyahu. It’s also important because Netanyahu is not just speaking for Israel. As we’ve seen throughout this process, Netanyahu has of late become the public spokesman for a coalition consisting of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other regional allies. And he’s voicing concerns that the French clearly possess as well, but won’t risk their seat at the table to say publicly.

Ironically, Obama’s shunning of Netanyahu has made such public criticism more likely, not less. By putting Netanyahu on the outside looking in–as opposed to giving him more of a stake in the discussions, as he’s done with the French–he’s given the Israeli prime minister and other skeptics in Israel’s security establishment more room to rally opposition to any element of a deal that would put them in grave danger.

That’s why Obama wanted to have some kind of agreement to announce this week, well ahead of the June 30 deadline for a more complete deal. Throughout this process the president has insisted that the only two options on the table are the deal or war. It was untrue, and not very convincing. After all, some details kept changing, and others were never set, so what the president really meant was it’s either whatever deal they can scrounge together or war, which was intended to insulate the administration against criticism for some of the inevitable concessions made to Iran.

But critics of the way the administration handled the negotiations could always credibly say that this wasn’t true–that there were other options, namely a better deal. As long as the parameters were theoretical, they had room to maneuver. What Obama wanted to do is box them in by announcing the parameters well ahead of the announcement of a final deal. This would give the administration a three-month head start to say that it really is this deal or war. Either way, it’s a fait accompli: these are the terms, they’ll say, and no other terms are relevant now.

The purpose of Obama declaring a victory of sorts and calling out Netanyahu today, then, was to send the following message: Critics of this framework must, by process of elimination, want war. It’s why Obama felt so confident smearing Netanyahu as being against a “peaceful” resolution. Because the narrative the administration will hammer home now is that there is only one peaceful resolution on offer.

If it was intended to prevent criticism, it didn’t work. The Times of Israel reports that Jerusalem is already reacting:

In Jerusalem, officials slammed the framework as “a capitulation to Iranian dictates.” The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, called it “a bad framework that will lead to a bad and dangerous agreement. If finalized, it would make the world “far more dangerous.”

The agreement constitutes “international legitimization of Iran’s nuclear program” whose “only purpose is to build nuclear weapons.”

That shouldn’t be surprising. Just because these are the terms the administration could get doesn’t mean it’s not a bad deal. If our allies in the region are on the same page, it also means the Saudis will be unconvinced and are likely to continue exploring their own route to nuclear capability, with the Egyptians not far behind. If Obama thinks this is a victory, it’s easy to see why our allies don’t agree.

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The Tricks Obama Is Trying to Play with the Iran Announcement

If you look at what happened today between the U.S. and Iran through the lens of domestic American politics, Barack Obama has made a very clever play here—because what might be called “the agreement of the framework of the possibility of a potential deal” gives him new leverage in his ongoing battle with the Senate to limit its ability to play a role in the most critical foreign-policy matter of the decade.

The “framework” codifies the Obama administration’s cave-ins but casts them as thrilling reductions in Iran’s capacities rather than what they are—a pie-in-the-sky effort to use inspections as the means by which the West can “manage” the speed with which Iran becomes a nuclear power.

Obama’s tone of triumph this afternoon was mixed with sharp reminders that the deal is actually not yet done—and that is entirely the point of this exercise from a domestic standpoint. the triumph signals his troops and apologists that the time has come for them to stand with him, praise the deal sheet and pretend it’s a deal, declare it historic, and generally act as though the world has been delivered from a dreadful confrontation by Obama and Kerry.

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If you look at what happened today between the U.S. and Iran through the lens of domestic American politics, Barack Obama has made a very clever play here—because what might be called “the agreement of the framework of the possibility of a potential deal” gives him new leverage in his ongoing battle with the Senate to limit its ability to play a role in the most critical foreign-policy matter of the decade.

The “framework” codifies the Obama administration’s cave-ins but casts them as thrilling reductions in Iran’s capacities rather than what they are—a pie-in-the-sky effort to use inspections as the means by which the West can “manage” the speed with which Iran becomes a nuclear power.

Obama’s tone of triumph this afternoon was mixed with sharp reminders that the deal is actually not yet done—and that is entirely the point of this exercise from a domestic standpoint. the triumph signals his troops and apologists that the time has come for them to stand with him, praise the deal sheet and pretend it’s a deal, declare it historic, and generally act as though the world has been delivered from a dreadful confrontation by Obama and Kerry.

But since the deal is not yet done, it could still be derailed. And that is where Obama’s truly Machiavellian play here comes in: He may have found a way to put the Senate in a box and keep Democrats from melting away from him on Iran and voting not only for legislation he doesn’t want but also to override the veto he has promised.

The Senate has two provisions at the ready with which it could go ahead any time. One, called Kirk-Menendez, imposes new sanctions on Iran. Obama promised a veto of this bill should it pass, and after today, one ought to presume that it’s dead.

The other, Corker-Menendez, requires the administration to submit any deal to the Senate within 60 days of its signing. This is a key provision because, of course, what the Iranians want—and what they said today they got—was the lifting of all sanctions. The president, in his statement, vowed to lift the “nuclear” sanctions (there are others involving human rights) if the Iranians comply by the terms of the deal.

Existing sanctions legislation features waivers the president can arguably use to do that. But those sanctions were put into place specifically to make it incredibly painful for Iran to retain any nuclear-weapons capability—not as a means of acceding to Iran’s retention of a nuclear capability.

For this reason, and for the reason that the president is essentially negotiating an arms-control treaty with Iran, the Senate should approve any final deal. Obama disagrees and claims this is merely a nuclear-agreement, not a treaty, and therefore Congress has no role.

That’s a very nervy argument. It is not only disrespectful of the Senate but it misrepresents the nature of what’s being negotiated. And that’s why it’s an argument it appeared the president would lose—that senators would not only vote for Corker-Menendez but would override his veto of it.

Which is why the deal-that’s-not-yet-a-deal works in his favor. Talks are now to continue until the end of June. Obama can and will argue to Democrats that they owe it to him, to their base, and to their governing ideology to give him all the room he needs to get to June 30.

Of course, if the legislation does not pass by June 30 and Obama signs a final deal, the game is up; the Senate can’t retroactively insist in July he bring it to them for a vote.

Will there be a deal by June 30? Maybe, maybe not; maybe they’ll finish, maybe they won’t; maybe the Iranians will say they didn’t agree to this or that and blow up the whole thing; who knows. Probably the total collapse, after all this, would bring the Kirk-Menendez sanctions back to life. Which is why there will never be a total collapse—because these talks can simply go on….

 

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