Commentary Magazine


Topic: Hassan Rouhani

Surplus Means Decision Time for Iran

It’s no secret that oil underwrites the Iranian economy, accounting for perhaps 80 percent of the Islamic Republic’s exports. Generations of Iranian officials have failed to diversify the Iranian economy, and so the Islamic Republic remains vulnerable to any fluctuations in the oil market. Certainly, that can be a detriment when the price of oil drops, but it can also mean a windfall when oil rises. One of the key factors which intelligence analysts and Iran watchers consider is at what price the Iranian government calculated their budget. If oil drops below that point, the Islamic Republic might have difficulty making payroll and so might spark a crisis or at least threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz to win a short-term spike in oil prices. When oil prices increase, however, then Iranian leaders have a slush fund with which to play. To what they allocate that extra money says more than any number of diplomatic statements about the direction in which the regime seeks to go.

That is exactly the situation in which the regime finds itself. According to the Iranian Oil Ministry, the average price of oil has been about $103, eleven dollars higher than the level authorities assumed when they set the budget. Back during the administration of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, there was a similar situation: the price of oil skyrocketed while simultaneously the European Union more than doubled its trade with Iran. Rather than apply the hard currency windfall to further Iran’s civilian economy, the regime invested that money into Iran’s then-covert nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Perhaps Khatami was lying when he spoke about a “Dialogue of Civilizations,” or perhaps he simply did not have the power to make the decisions that mattered in the Islamic Republic. Still, today he and his allies—including current President Hassan Rouhani—brag that they should gain credit for Iran’s nuclear program which advanced against the backdrop of the Dialogue.

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It’s no secret that oil underwrites the Iranian economy, accounting for perhaps 80 percent of the Islamic Republic’s exports. Generations of Iranian officials have failed to diversify the Iranian economy, and so the Islamic Republic remains vulnerable to any fluctuations in the oil market. Certainly, that can be a detriment when the price of oil drops, but it can also mean a windfall when oil rises. One of the key factors which intelligence analysts and Iran watchers consider is at what price the Iranian government calculated their budget. If oil drops below that point, the Islamic Republic might have difficulty making payroll and so might spark a crisis or at least threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz to win a short-term spike in oil prices. When oil prices increase, however, then Iranian leaders have a slush fund with which to play. To what they allocate that extra money says more than any number of diplomatic statements about the direction in which the regime seeks to go.

That is exactly the situation in which the regime finds itself. According to the Iranian Oil Ministry, the average price of oil has been about $103, eleven dollars higher than the level authorities assumed when they set the budget. Back during the administration of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, there was a similar situation: the price of oil skyrocketed while simultaneously the European Union more than doubled its trade with Iran. Rather than apply the hard currency windfall to further Iran’s civilian economy, the regime invested that money into Iran’s then-covert nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Perhaps Khatami was lying when he spoke about a “Dialogue of Civilizations,” or perhaps he simply did not have the power to make the decisions that mattered in the Islamic Republic. Still, today he and his allies—including current President Hassan Rouhani—brag that they should gain credit for Iran’s nuclear program which advanced against the backdrop of the Dialogue.

In my forthcoming book, Dancing with the Devil, a history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I have one chapter that examines the history of the politicization of intelligence going back to the Johnson administration. The pattern is clear: administrations often twist intelligence not to achieve a casus belli, but rather to exculpate bad behavior to keep diplomacy alive and avoid any conclusion that an opponent is cheating. Let us hope that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry—and, more importantly, anyone in the U.S. Congress who takes seriously his or her oversight role—are paying careful attention to how Iran is now spending its money, for that better than any statement by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will show the Islamic Republic’s true intent.

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Obama’s Rouhani Smokescreen

Speaking at the Saban Forum last weekend, President Barack Obama reiterated that the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani heralded a new direction in Iran that Washington would be irresponsible to ignore. “The Iranian people responded [to the sanctions] by saying, we need a new direction in how we interact with the international community and how we deal with this sanctions regime,” Obama declared. “And that’s what brought President Rouhani to power. He was not necessarily the first choice of the hardliners inside of Iran … And we should not underestimate or entirely dismiss a shift in how the Iranian people want to interact with the world.”

This explanation has been enthusiastically echoed by the media for months. But while it might have been possible for reasonable people of goodwill to believe it initially, today we know it’s a brazen lie. Obama didn’t start negotiating with Tehran because Rouhani’s election signaled an Iranian change of direction; his secret talks with Tehran started in March, three months before Rouhani’s election. Nor did Rouhani’s election in fact signal a public demand for change. On the contrary, it was deliberately engineered by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself–a fact that even the Iranians now admit, as the New York Times reported just last week: “A Tehran-based analyst with ties to the senior leadership, Amir Mohebbian, has said that Ayatollah Khamenei ushered Mr. Rouhani into power with the idea of shifting course from the Ahmadinejad years and testing President Obama’s sincerity about reaching a nuclear deal,” the paper wrote.

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Speaking at the Saban Forum last weekend, President Barack Obama reiterated that the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani heralded a new direction in Iran that Washington would be irresponsible to ignore. “The Iranian people responded [to the sanctions] by saying, we need a new direction in how we interact with the international community and how we deal with this sanctions regime,” Obama declared. “And that’s what brought President Rouhani to power. He was not necessarily the first choice of the hardliners inside of Iran … And we should not underestimate or entirely dismiss a shift in how the Iranian people want to interact with the world.”

This explanation has been enthusiastically echoed by the media for months. But while it might have been possible for reasonable people of goodwill to believe it initially, today we know it’s a brazen lie. Obama didn’t start negotiating with Tehran because Rouhani’s election signaled an Iranian change of direction; his secret talks with Tehran started in March, three months before Rouhani’s election. Nor did Rouhani’s election in fact signal a public demand for change. On the contrary, it was deliberately engineered by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself–a fact that even the Iranians now admit, as the New York Times reported just last week: “A Tehran-based analyst with ties to the senior leadership, Amir Mohebbian, has said that Ayatollah Khamenei ushered Mr. Rouhani into power with the idea of shifting course from the Ahmadinejad years and testing President Obama’s sincerity about reaching a nuclear deal,” the paper wrote.

There was, of course, ample evidence of this even back in June, which I detailed at the time. But we now have the missing link in this evidence–the motive for Khamenei’s ostensible about-face in ensuring the victory of the most “moderate” of the eight regime-approved candidates allowed to run, after having backed the most conservative candidate in the previous election. Having opened exploratory talks with Washington three months earlier and concluded that the Obama administration was prepared to give him the kind of deal he wanted, Khamenei naturally sought to put his best negotiator at the helm to conduct the talks.

Rouhani was unquestionably that. Prior to his election, he boasted–correctly–that as chief negotiator with the West a decade earlier, he secured a deal that enabled Iran to dramatically expand its nuclear program: The number of centrifuges grew from 150 to 1,700, and the Isfahan facility for yellowcake conversion was completed. What Khamenei and Rouhani understood was that even when Westerners are dying to sign a rotten deal, you still have to give them the fig leaf of a smiling face rather than a brazen Holocaust denier like former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Thus once he decided to pursue the talks, Khamenei ensured Rouhani’s election.

One can understand why Obama seeks to portray the nuclear deal as a response to growing anti-regime sentiment among the Iranian public; that’s something most Americans (and Israelis) would obviously like to encourage. But nobody should be fooled by this transparent lie. The deal Obama made is one that the worst elements of the Iranian regime consider to be in their own interests, and they deliberately engineered Rouhani’s election to secure it. All the administration’s talk of how the Iranian people brought Rouhani to power is nothing but a smokescreen thrown up in a desperate effort to obscure just how bad the deal really is.

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Iranian Regime: Israel Killed Kennedy

As Americans reflected on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Iranian government—now depicted as having moderated by journalists taken in by President Rouhani’s charm offensive—showed its true colors.

Press TV, Iran’s official English-language  propaganda outlet, published an article by an American 9/11 revisionist arguing that Israel “called the shots” from the grassy knoll:

Israel and its global Zionist crime syndicate were major players if not THE main player in the JFK assassination – must be taken seriously. Israel had a powerful motive… Ben Gurion haughtily refused to answer JFK’s letter demanding that Israel abandon its nuclear aspirations. Instead, he resigned. Six months later, JFK was publicly executed. A few years after that, Ben Gurion got his nuclear weapons… and his longed-for war of aggression to steal Jerusalem.

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As Americans reflected on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Iranian government—now depicted as having moderated by journalists taken in by President Rouhani’s charm offensive—showed its true colors.

Press TV, Iran’s official English-language  propaganda outlet, published an article by an American 9/11 revisionist arguing that Israel “called the shots” from the grassy knoll:

Israel and its global Zionist crime syndicate were major players if not THE main player in the JFK assassination – must be taken seriously. Israel had a powerful motive… Ben Gurion haughtily refused to answer JFK’s letter demanding that Israel abandon its nuclear aspirations. Instead, he resigned. Six months later, JFK was publicly executed. A few years after that, Ben Gurion got his nuclear weapons… and his longed-for war of aggression to steal Jerusalem.

Those who see the Zionists as prime movers in the JFK assassination argue that none of the other anti-JFK factions had such an overpoweringly existential motive, nor a track record of such wildly reckless deception and violence. Without Zionist involvement, the U.S. military, CIA, and organized crime might have pushed back against JFK using gentler means.

Were the Zionists really in a position to set the JFK assassination wheels in motion? Skeptics argue that Israel is just a tiny entity of eight million people, so it is preposterous to imagine that it is dominating the U.S. empire or steering history. Yet the facts are otherwise: The tiny Zionist entity of eight million people, together with its millions of fanatical loyalists all over the world, clearly dominates U.S. foreign policy, and has done so since the murder of JFK.

The whole thing is noxious hate, but it is true to the ideology and conspiracy theories which Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Rouhani, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif endorse. Perhaps President Obama will congratulate himself on the temporary nuclear deal, but there should be no naïveté about the regime which he now treats as a diplomatic partner.

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What Obama Wrought: Iran’s Normalization

The news today out of Geneva remains inconclusive. Despite the best efforts of Western negotiators, a nuclear agreement with Iran still remains elusive. Though the talks continue there’s no guarantee they will succeed as the Iranians remain resolute about defending both their “right” to go on enriching uranium and to keep constructing a plutonium nuclear plant that gives them a second path to a bomb. The breathless pursuit of a deal on the part of the Obama administration despite the fact that their offer will allow the Iranians to retain their nuclear infrastructure and to keep enriching uranium is the main story here. It will allow the Iranians a path to a nuclear breakout in the North Korean mode and once sanctions are loosened and Washington can pretend it has resolved the issue, the likelihood of a strong Western response to such a development would be nil.

But whether Secretary of State Kerry and his P5+1 colleagues get the Pyrrhic victory they are seeking this week or are forced to wait weeks or months more for the ayatollahs to give their assent to a piece of paper they will almost certainly obstruct, the latest round of talks has achieved something very different that seemed almost unimaginable only a few months ago. By devoting so much effort to sell the world on the notion that Iran is moderating and wants to deal, the administration hasn’t just tried to create a constituency for engagement with Iran but has, in effect, normalized a rogue, anti-Semitic, terror-supporting regime that richly deserved the opprobrium that had been directed at it in the last decade. In doing so, they have not only handed Tehran an undeserved victory without getting anything in return. They have also rendered it even less likely that the international community will be able to muster the strength to restrain an Islamist government whose violent intent is not in doubt.

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The news today out of Geneva remains inconclusive. Despite the best efforts of Western negotiators, a nuclear agreement with Iran still remains elusive. Though the talks continue there’s no guarantee they will succeed as the Iranians remain resolute about defending both their “right” to go on enriching uranium and to keep constructing a plutonium nuclear plant that gives them a second path to a bomb. The breathless pursuit of a deal on the part of the Obama administration despite the fact that their offer will allow the Iranians to retain their nuclear infrastructure and to keep enriching uranium is the main story here. It will allow the Iranians a path to a nuclear breakout in the North Korean mode and once sanctions are loosened and Washington can pretend it has resolved the issue, the likelihood of a strong Western response to such a development would be nil.

But whether Secretary of State Kerry and his P5+1 colleagues get the Pyrrhic victory they are seeking this week or are forced to wait weeks or months more for the ayatollahs to give their assent to a piece of paper they will almost certainly obstruct, the latest round of talks has achieved something very different that seemed almost unimaginable only a few months ago. By devoting so much effort to sell the world on the notion that Iran is moderating and wants to deal, the administration hasn’t just tried to create a constituency for engagement with Iran but has, in effect, normalized a rogue, anti-Semitic, terror-supporting regime that richly deserved the opprobrium that had been directed at it in the last decade. In doing so, they have not only handed Tehran an undeserved victory without getting anything in return. They have also rendered it even less likely that the international community will be able to muster the strength to restrain an Islamist government whose violent intent is not in doubt.

When Hassan Rouhani won Iran’s faux presidential election in June, what followed was an orchestrated effort on the part of the regime to sell their new front man as someone who would effect genuine change. Given his long record as a faithful servant of first Ayatollah Khomeini and then his successor Ayatollah Khamenei, as well as his role in past diplomatic deceptions of the West, this was a stretch. But it wasn’t long before it became apparent that the supreme leader had made a clever tactical decision in allowing Rouhani to run and then win the election. Those in the West, like President Obama, who were desperate for a way out of the nuclear confrontation with Iran soon became as invested in the myth of Rouhani’s moderation and, by extension, that of the regime itself, as the Iranians had been. Thus, even when the person pulling the strings in Tehran issues forth another proclamation of hate, as Khamenei did this week, the muted response from Washington to the latest broadside of anti-Semitic slander said more about the change in attitude than even their defense of the negotiations.

In order to justify their decision to appease the Iranians, it is necessary to not just attempt to launder their image but to treat their representatives as reasonable actors and their positions as merely a different point of view about a difficult subject. But in spite of the U.S. commitment to engagement, this remains the same rogue regime that rightly earned in its place in George W. Bush’s famous line about an axis of hate alongside Iraq and fellow nuclear scofflaw North Korea. It still brutally represses religious minorities and dissenters within its borders and is one of the world’s leading sources of anti-Semitic hate. It is still the leading state sponsor of terror around the world. And its hostile intent toward both Israel and moderate Arab nations like Saudi Arabia is something that neither the supreme leader nor the rest of the regime bothers to hide.

It should also be recalled that Iran’s strategic ambitions were further bolstered this year by the administration’s astonishing retreat in Syria that ensured that Tehran’s close ally Bashar Assad would hold onto power despite President Obama’s repeated calls for his ouster. Indeed, with Hamas now seeking to re-establish ties with Iran after breaking them off in recent years over their disagreement about Syria, the web of the regime’s auxiliaries will stretch across the Middle East posing a threat not just to Israel and Saudi Arabia, but to the United States and the rest of the West.

Yet President Obama clings to the notion that Rouhani’s election means the Islamist regime has been housetrained to the extent that it can be lived with or at least contained. Doing so sets the stage for Iran’s return to the international stage as an accepted player even if it doesn’t observe their nuclear commitments. That’s why even if Obama or his successor has a change of heart about the deal on the table this week, it will be that much harder to ever again isolate it as much as it is today. The fateful step being taken is not just the possibility of Kerry signing a bad deal. It’s the process of normalization that goes with it that represents Iran’s greatest and undeserved victory.

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Learning from Iran’s Past Enrichment Suspensions

A pause in Iranian uranium enrichment seems to be the chief point upon which Secretary of State John Kerry will claim victory should Iranian and international diplomats hammer out an agreement. Celebration of any such agreement would be premature at best, not only because the American and Western goal was simply to entice Tehran to a second round of talks whose outcome would be far from certain, but also because Kerry’s triumph would be Pyrrhic at best given Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s history.

As Iran’s nuclear negotiator a decade ago, Rouhani also temporarily suspended uranium enrichment, a move for which he received hardline anger. In an interview with the state-run news website Aftab, he defended himself. His goal was “to counter global consensus against Iran,” he said, adding, “We did not accept suspension in construction of centrifuges and continued the effort. … We needed a greater number.” As I explained in a Wall Street Journal op-ed at the time, what American and European diplomats considered progress, the Iranian government understood to be an opportunity to expand their program.

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A pause in Iranian uranium enrichment seems to be the chief point upon which Secretary of State John Kerry will claim victory should Iranian and international diplomats hammer out an agreement. Celebration of any such agreement would be premature at best, not only because the American and Western goal was simply to entice Tehran to a second round of talks whose outcome would be far from certain, but also because Kerry’s triumph would be Pyrrhic at best given Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s history.

As Iran’s nuclear negotiator a decade ago, Rouhani also temporarily suspended uranium enrichment, a move for which he received hardline anger. In an interview with the state-run news website Aftab, he defended himself. His goal was “to counter global consensus against Iran,” he said, adding, “We did not accept suspension in construction of centrifuges and continued the effort. … We needed a greater number.” As I explained in a Wall Street Journal op-ed at the time, what American and European diplomats considered progress, the Iranian government understood to be an opportunity to expand their program.

It was a strategy about which other Iranian officials also bragged: Talk softly, lull the West into complacency, and then import everything needed for a technological leap to the next nuclear level. Rouhani, himself, outlined a doctrine of surprise in a February 9, 2005 speech to Iranian leaders. What is the key reason Iran is successful against the West, Rouhani asks, before he answers:

Even after the victory of the revolution – in all phases – the plots and plans they had designed against the revolution or against the development of the regime and the nation were defeated.  Why?  Again it was because they were taken by surprise.  The actions of the regime took the world by surprise and they were usually unpredictable. 

Rather than aim for suspension of enrichment—or at least some levels of enrichment–during an interim period, an issue which should be a no-brainer given the fact that six unanimous or near-unanimous UN Security Council resolutions call for just that, Rouhani’s history suggest that anything short of a freeze on all work, equipment installation, and construction in every facility would be counterproductive. Celebrating a pause which the Iranian regime uses to modernize, reconfigure, and install equipment to increase the effectiveness of their enrichment program would be strategic malpractice. Unfortunately, it seems, we live in a world where diplomats believe any deal, no matter how bad, trumps utilizing economic leverage to achieve a far better solution.

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Rouhani’s Moderate Iran Not So Moderate

Secretary of State John Kerry is asking Americans not to “break faith” with Iran as he attempts to convince the Senate not to pass tougher sanctions on the Islamist regime. Given Kerry’s obvious lust for a deal, even if it means recognizing Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and setting in place factors that will allow Tehran to eventually go nuclear, his credibility is shot and both Democrats and Republicans are calling into question the policy to which he has committed the administration. But rather than just focus on what’s wrong with a U.S. stand that is so weak that even the French couldn’t stomach it, it’s appropriate for the nation to also take another hard look at who Kerry is asking us to keep faith with.

If you listen to Kerry or watch the mainstream media in recent weeks, Iran’s defining characteristic has become “change” in the person of its new President Hassan Rouhani. The administration has bought into the conception that Rouhani’s election last summer as part of Iran’s faux democracy has heralded a new openness and an opportunity for the nation to change. But so far signs of change have been few and far between. Not only, despite Washington’s commitment to reviving diplomacy with Iran, has there been no give in the regime’s positions on nuclear issues or its involvement in Syria, the nation that Kerry believes he must reach out to has continued to promote anti-Semitism via its official media.

As the Anti-Defamation League reports:

Press TV, Iran’s government-run English-language satellite news network, has taken its usual viciously anti-Semitic conspiracy theories a step further. It now claims not only that Jews are to blame for the Holocaust, but also that because Jews did not learn from their supposed wrongs in Nazi Germany that “American Zionists” are “incubating another Hitler.”

The November 9 article, “American Zionists incubating another Hitler,” was written by a Press TV colum­nist named M.I. Bhat, who also writes for the conspiratorial anti-Semitic website Veterans Today. The Press TV piece was additionally published two days earlier in Veterans Today under the title “Are American Jews incubating another Hitler?”

In both articles, Bhat claims that “American Zionists” control America’s “banks, Wall Street, media, Hollywood, markets, politicians, foreign policy, indeed the whole life of Americans.” The article also asserts that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a “false flag” attack committed by “American Zionist Jews and Israel” to further their control of American foreign policy.

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Secretary of State John Kerry is asking Americans not to “break faith” with Iran as he attempts to convince the Senate not to pass tougher sanctions on the Islamist regime. Given Kerry’s obvious lust for a deal, even if it means recognizing Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and setting in place factors that will allow Tehran to eventually go nuclear, his credibility is shot and both Democrats and Republicans are calling into question the policy to which he has committed the administration. But rather than just focus on what’s wrong with a U.S. stand that is so weak that even the French couldn’t stomach it, it’s appropriate for the nation to also take another hard look at who Kerry is asking us to keep faith with.

If you listen to Kerry or watch the mainstream media in recent weeks, Iran’s defining characteristic has become “change” in the person of its new President Hassan Rouhani. The administration has bought into the conception that Rouhani’s election last summer as part of Iran’s faux democracy has heralded a new openness and an opportunity for the nation to change. But so far signs of change have been few and far between. Not only, despite Washington’s commitment to reviving diplomacy with Iran, has there been no give in the regime’s positions on nuclear issues or its involvement in Syria, the nation that Kerry believes he must reach out to has continued to promote anti-Semitism via its official media.

As the Anti-Defamation League reports:

Press TV, Iran’s government-run English-language satellite news network, has taken its usual viciously anti-Semitic conspiracy theories a step further. It now claims not only that Jews are to blame for the Holocaust, but also that because Jews did not learn from their supposed wrongs in Nazi Germany that “American Zionists” are “incubating another Hitler.”

The November 9 article, “American Zionists incubating another Hitler,” was written by a Press TV colum­nist named M.I. Bhat, who also writes for the conspiratorial anti-Semitic website Veterans Today. The Press TV piece was additionally published two days earlier in Veterans Today under the title “Are American Jews incubating another Hitler?”

In both articles, Bhat claims that “American Zionists” control America’s “banks, Wall Street, media, Hollywood, markets, politicians, foreign policy, indeed the whole life of Americans.” The article also asserts that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a “false flag” attack committed by “American Zionist Jews and Israel” to further their control of American foreign policy.

For anyone who has been following the conduct of the Iranian regime, there’s not much new here. Such views are mainstream discourse in Tehran. Iran has been a fount of anti-Semitic incitement ever since the Islamic Revolution. Its print and broadcasting services are consistent purveyors of conspiracy theories about Jews and hatred directed at Israel. But this must be understood in the context of a regime that doesn’t merely talk about hate, but practices it in the form of oppressing religious minorities and exporting terrorism.

While Kerry is telling himself that this time the Iranians mean it when they say they want détente with the West, the same regime has, with the help of its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries, kept Bashar Assad in power in Syria and secured it as a base from which Iran can threaten moderate Arab nations and Israel.

In fact, nothing about Iran has changed in the last several months and given Rouhani’s policy statements, there’s no sign that will change. This is not, as Kerry and other administration apologists claim, because the moderates are worried about being ousted by hardliners. It’s because the entire political class in Iran—including a faithful servant of the revolution like Rouhani—are in agreement about their government’s use of terrorism, hate speech, and nuclear program.

Contrary to the statements coming out of the White House and State Department, these issues aren’t peripheral to the question of whether to tighten sanctions on Iran, but integral to them. If Iran is ever to change, it can only be as a result of the regime admitting defeat in its nuclear standoff with the West. Only when the ayatollahs are forced to back down will the stirrings of dissent that took to the streets of Tehran in the summer of 2009 (and were ignored by an Obama administration still besotted with the idea of “engagement” with the regime) reappear and begin the process of transforming a dangerous tyranny into a nation that America really can do business with.

Détente with such tyrants and anti-Semites will only lead to more deceptions and diplomatic disasters for the West. That’s something Congress should keep in mind when it listens to the entreaties of Obama and Kerry for them to lower the pressure on Iran.

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Rouhani’s Reign of Terror

Diplomats have now left Geneva with a nuclear deal with Iran tantalizingly close, but uncompleted. Today, Le Monde outlined the French government’s reasons for refusing to sign onto the deal:

For the 5+1 group as a whole, “there are two or three points that are still causing difficulties with the Iranians, and I hope that they will be surmounted,” Laurent Fabius added.  “If we don’t reach an agreement, that will cause a major problem in a few months’ time….” France’s part in the failure of the negotiations has been criticized by several observers, who stress the French foreign minister’s omnipresence and tendency to warn against a cut price agreement.  According to Paris, clarifications are necessary on three main points –- the Arak power plant, the future of stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium, and the enrichment issue in general.

The current diplomatic process with Iran dates back 20 years when German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel proposed “a critical dialogue”–dialogue because that’s the lifeblood of diplomacy, and “critical” because Kinkel promised that the dialogue would tackle not only diplomatic issues relating to Iran’s external behavior but also tough issues such as Iran’s atrocious human-rights abuses.

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Diplomats have now left Geneva with a nuclear deal with Iran tantalizingly close, but uncompleted. Today, Le Monde outlined the French government’s reasons for refusing to sign onto the deal:

For the 5+1 group as a whole, “there are two or three points that are still causing difficulties with the Iranians, and I hope that they will be surmounted,” Laurent Fabius added.  “If we don’t reach an agreement, that will cause a major problem in a few months’ time….” France’s part in the failure of the negotiations has been criticized by several observers, who stress the French foreign minister’s omnipresence and tendency to warn against a cut price agreement.  According to Paris, clarifications are necessary on three main points –- the Arak power plant, the future of stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium, and the enrichment issue in general.

The current diplomatic process with Iran dates back 20 years when German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel proposed “a critical dialogue”–dialogue because that’s the lifeblood of diplomacy, and “critical” because Kinkel promised that the dialogue would tackle not only diplomatic issues relating to Iran’s external behavior but also tough issues such as Iran’s atrocious human-rights abuses.

There is a consistent pattern—certainly true under Iran’s former “reformist” president Mohammad Khatami—that as Iranian officials launch a charm offensive toward the West, they simultaneously crack down at home in order to make clear to the public that under no circumstances should the Iranian people believe that the Iranian leadership was abandoning their commitment to revolutionary values. Usually, those living in the periphery of the state suffer worse, if only because Iranian officials recognize that outside journalists do not cover those areas.

That appears to be what is occurring now. According to a Reuters report based on a conversation with Abdul Rahman Haji Ahmadi, the exiled leader of Iran’s most prominent ethnic Kurdish party:

“Obviously he has played very well so far, managing to escape from some crises as well as deceiving some of the Iranian peoples,” Haji-Ahmadi said, but this would end if he fell short of election pledges in a country hungry for change… Rouhani had released political prisoners, but none were of non-Persian ethnicity, he said. He highlighted the killings of 52 Iranian dissidents in a camp in eastern Iraq in September, which he said was neglected abroad. The dissidents belonged to the Mujahadin-e-Khalq (MEK), which wants Iran’s clerical leaders overthrown. They are no longer welcome in Iraq under the Tehran-aligned, Shi’ite Muslim-led government. Haji-Ahmadi also pointed to Iran’s execution of 16 people in a day last month, most of them Baluchi, Sunni Muslims who lived near the Pakistan border, as well as two PJAK members.

The United Nations’s special rapporteur has also said that the human rights situation has not improved under Rouhani:

“The human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to warrant serious concern, with no sign of improvement,” said Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran. Among other things, Dr. Shaheed expressed concern over Iran’s high level of executions, continuing discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, poor prison conditions, and limits on freedom of expression and association. He also said that religious minorities in Iran, including Baha’is, Christians, Sunni Muslims, and others, “are increasingly subjected to various forms of legal discrimination, including in employment and education, and often face arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment.”

The Geneva talks did not result in an agreement largely because of French objections. How sad it was that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were willing to sign off on an agreement that not only would do nothing to constrain Iran’s production of plutonium at Arak, but also would make no demands that Iran curb its imprisonment and executions of religious and ethnic minorities. At the same time, all those so willing to believe that Rouhani has brought change should simply take a look at his behavior inside Iran.

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The Bizarro Doctrine

American foreign policy in the Middle East has now entered Bizarro World–a place made humorously famous by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, describing a parallel universe where “up is down, down is up,” and where the opposite of what one expects occurs. Seinfeld was riffing off the comic book character Bizarro, the parallel character to Superman, who lived on a strange planet called Htrae (Earth spelled backwards).

Well, welcome to the Elddim Tsae. It’s a place where long-standing state sponsors of terrorism Iran, Syria, and Sudan are basking in the warmth of America’s evolving Middle East policies, while long-standing American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others are increasingly sidelined.

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American foreign policy in the Middle East has now entered Bizarro World–a place made humorously famous by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, describing a parallel universe where “up is down, down is up,” and where the opposite of what one expects occurs. Seinfeld was riffing off the comic book character Bizarro, the parallel character to Superman, who lived on a strange planet called Htrae (Earth spelled backwards).

Well, welcome to the Elddim Tsae. It’s a place where long-standing state sponsors of terrorism Iran, Syria, and Sudan are basking in the warmth of America’s evolving Middle East policies, while long-standing American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others are increasingly sidelined.

Iran, a country that has sponsored nearly every terrorist group on the planet and is now hurtling toward a nuclear weapon, is the biggest winner in the Elddim Tsae. Newly elected President Hassan Rouhani has Washington eating out of his hands after a charm offensive consisting of 140-character vows promising moderation, even as his boss, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, keeps the centrifuges spinning. The Obama administration is now mulling a grand nuclear bargain, which will provide Iran sanctions relief in exchange for vague promises of change.

Syria is also benefiting from America’s Bizarro Doctrine. In the span of days, America went from threatening punitive strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime for launching a chemical-weapons attack on his own people to enlisting Assad as a partner in his own disarmament, and then praising him for compliance he has yet to deliver on. Even if Assad does fully disarm, he will effectively have a green light to get back to the business of mowing down the Syrian opposition, which fights to end his family’s decades-long dictatorship.

Then there is Sudan, where the leadership has been indicted for genocide and which provided a headquarters to al-Qaeda in the 1990s. Khartoum is now indicating that ties with Washington are warming. This comes after two cordial meetings between Sudan’s foreign minister and Secretary of State John Kerry, first in New York and then Washington.

On the flip side of our parallel universe is Saudi Arabia. Admittedly, Riyadh is more of a frenemy. But America’s Saudi policy, designed to maintain good ties to the ruling family and access to an affordable and steady supply of their oil, has never wavered–until now. Riyadh is outwardly displeased with America’s warming ties to its arch-foe Iran, with fears that an ascendant Iran could pose a direct threat to the Kingdom’s stability. Washington’s recent lifeline to Syria, after months of calling for Assad’s removal, also has the Saudis seething.

Turkey and Qatar, it should be noted, are equally vexed by Washington’s Syria policy, prompting both countries to consider charting their own courses, which may involve the co-opting of jihadi groups to fight the Assad regime.

Egypt, another ally of the United States, has also recently fallen victim to the Bizarro Doctrine. To be sure, Egypt has brought many of its problems upon itself. The military’s toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was not its finest moment. But Washington has now taken it upon itself to cut aid to Egypt, dismantling an alliance that could require years to properly rebuild.

Then there is Israel, which is reeling from America’s decision to cut aid to Egypt. That aid was a cornerstone of the 1978 Camp David Accords, a peace agreement that has kept Israel’s southern flank quiet since the Accords were inked. It now is entirely unclear whether Cairo will want to uphold that agreement. The Israelis are further unnerved by America’s backtracking on Syria, particularly after Washington enlisted its help in calling for military intervention. And finally, the rapprochement with Iran has the Israelis wondering whether America will have its back when Tehran invariably makes that final dash for the bomb.

Fittingly, Bizarro World was first depicted by DC Comics in 1960. Today, Washington D.C. has become a parallel universe of a superpower’s foreign policies of the past.

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Iran Belittles Confidence-Building

As diplomats and journalists look forward to a new round of nuclear negotiations next month (with centrifuges spinning all the while), hope is rampant. Alas, it appears increasingly misplaced. President Hassan Rouhani promises talks—but speaking to the press back in Iran declares Iran’s uranium enrichment non-negotiable. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei speaks of Iran’s “heroic flexibility,” but his aides bend over backwards to explain that means a shift in tactics, not in policy. Now, Kayhan—a newspaper many Iran watchers pay close attention to because its editor is a Supreme Leader appointee and therefore seems to mirror Khamenei’s positions—has published a lengthy column belittling the notion of confidence-building measures that lay at the heart of Western diplomacy. According to the author:

When facing the international environment, especially when we are facing the enemies, we cannot begin based on confidence building; because, on the one hand, on this basis, we accept that our behavior and actions in the past have been such that they have created concerns for the other side and resulted in this dispute of several years. In other words, in this very first step, we are signing a document of indebtedness and allowing the rival to write whatever he wants above our signature, and then say, very well, and now you must answer these, for example, 100 questions, one by one, and for the other side to have the option in every case to say whether he agrees or does not agree. Instead of confidence, we must create in the enemy belief, belief in the fact that you have the ability, despite all this opposition and confrontation, to follow your own path. The enemy must believe that the effect of its pressures and the ability to impose pressures is not at such a level as to force the opposite side into submission. The fact is that the ability of the Iranian people is very high with regard to neutralizing the pressures by the enemy, and the ability of the enemy to impose its will on the Iranian people is not great… Confidence building is not under our control, because the other side needs to accept it. Our religious beliefs and experience and the imperialist nature of the domineering powers tell us that this confidence will never be gained unless, God forbid, our people become a dead people.

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As diplomats and journalists look forward to a new round of nuclear negotiations next month (with centrifuges spinning all the while), hope is rampant. Alas, it appears increasingly misplaced. President Hassan Rouhani promises talks—but speaking to the press back in Iran declares Iran’s uranium enrichment non-negotiable. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei speaks of Iran’s “heroic flexibility,” but his aides bend over backwards to explain that means a shift in tactics, not in policy. Now, Kayhan—a newspaper many Iran watchers pay close attention to because its editor is a Supreme Leader appointee and therefore seems to mirror Khamenei’s positions—has published a lengthy column belittling the notion of confidence-building measures that lay at the heart of Western diplomacy. According to the author:

When facing the international environment, especially when we are facing the enemies, we cannot begin based on confidence building; because, on the one hand, on this basis, we accept that our behavior and actions in the past have been such that they have created concerns for the other side and resulted in this dispute of several years. In other words, in this very first step, we are signing a document of indebtedness and allowing the rival to write whatever he wants above our signature, and then say, very well, and now you must answer these, for example, 100 questions, one by one, and for the other side to have the option in every case to say whether he agrees or does not agree. Instead of confidence, we must create in the enemy belief, belief in the fact that you have the ability, despite all this opposition and confrontation, to follow your own path. The enemy must believe that the effect of its pressures and the ability to impose pressures is not at such a level as to force the opposite side into submission. The fact is that the ability of the Iranian people is very high with regard to neutralizing the pressures by the enemy, and the ability of the enemy to impose its will on the Iranian people is not great… Confidence building is not under our control, because the other side needs to accept it. Our religious beliefs and experience and the imperialist nature of the domineering powers tell us that this confidence will never be gained unless, God forbid, our people become a dead people.

If Kayhan is outlining the Supreme Leader’s thinking, then he is suggesting that the basis for the negotiations in which President Obama has invested so much hope is false. He appears to be reassuring his hardline constituency which is worried about the seeming direction of Iran’s diplomacy that they need not worry: There will be no fundamental change, and that therefore the flexibility is for show only. How comforting it must be for the Iranian regime to know that they can be forthright in Persian about their strategy, and need never worry that Western officials will pay attention because the Western press has forfeited its analytical role in favor advocacy.

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Iran Talks: Perception Versus Reality

Iran is well pleased by the outcome of yesterday’s revived P5+1 talks and why shouldn’t they be? The convening of a new round of negotiations after previous incarnations of this process were pronounced dead because of Iranian intransigence and obfuscation was a victory in and of itself for them. The renewed enthusiasm for talking to a country that has proved time and again that it only uses diplomacy as a method for deceit and delay when it comes to Western efforts to restrain their drive for nuclear weapons was due entirely to the perception that new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a moderate. That Rouhani has been guilty of playing the same game when he was Iran’s nuclear negotiator is a fact that was ignored even as the U.S. and its European allies headed down the garden path with Tehran again. Just by showing up, the Iranians ensured that the meeting would conclude with announcements for another such rendezvous next month.

But just as important for the Iranians was the fact that theirs negotiating partners were so enthralled by the prospect of a new era of relations with Rouhani that they treated the Iranian proposal for ending the dispute as if it were actually something new and worth talking about. The Iranians appear to have impressed the representatives of the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany with a power point presentation that supposedly demonstrated how they could go on enriching uranium, hold onto their stockpile of nuclear fuel and yet somehow be trusted not to build a bomb. But once the Rouhani-inspired rose-colored glasses are off, it’s more than obvious to objective observers that the Iranians showed up in Geneva with nothing new to say. That raises the question as to whether the President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry understand this and even if they do, are they sufficiently committed to keeping their word on Iran that they will not be pressured into pretending that this is the prelude to a genuine breakthrough.

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Iran is well pleased by the outcome of yesterday’s revived P5+1 talks and why shouldn’t they be? The convening of a new round of negotiations after previous incarnations of this process were pronounced dead because of Iranian intransigence and obfuscation was a victory in and of itself for them. The renewed enthusiasm for talking to a country that has proved time and again that it only uses diplomacy as a method for deceit and delay when it comes to Western efforts to restrain their drive for nuclear weapons was due entirely to the perception that new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a moderate. That Rouhani has been guilty of playing the same game when he was Iran’s nuclear negotiator is a fact that was ignored even as the U.S. and its European allies headed down the garden path with Tehran again. Just by showing up, the Iranians ensured that the meeting would conclude with announcements for another such rendezvous next month.

But just as important for the Iranians was the fact that theirs negotiating partners were so enthralled by the prospect of a new era of relations with Rouhani that they treated the Iranian proposal for ending the dispute as if it were actually something new and worth talking about. The Iranians appear to have impressed the representatives of the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany with a power point presentation that supposedly demonstrated how they could go on enriching uranium, hold onto their stockpile of nuclear fuel and yet somehow be trusted not to build a bomb. But once the Rouhani-inspired rose-colored glasses are off, it’s more than obvious to objective observers that the Iranians showed up in Geneva with nothing new to say. That raises the question as to whether the President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry understand this and even if they do, are they sufficiently committed to keeping their word on Iran that they will not be pressured into pretending that this is the prelude to a genuine breakthrough.

While the details of the Iranian proposal were not made public the statements they have issued both before and after the meeting indicates that they haven’t actually budged an inch from where they were when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Iran’s front man. They are still refusing to shut down nuclear plants, to stop enriching uranium or to have their horde of enriched uranium shipped out of the country so as to ensure that it is not used for a weapon. Nor have they shown the slightest interest in halting their parallel plutonium project by stopping their heavy water research.

 For all the talk about the Iranian charm offensive in which Rouhani plays, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aptly put it, the “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” the fact is their nuclear stand is virtually identical to what it was when Ahmadinejad, the “wolf in wolf’s clothing,” was their president. If the West were to agree to their terms it would be merely a matter of time before the Iranians would, as the North Koreans did before them, evade their agreements and present the world with a nuclear fait accompli, secure in the knowledge that no one would be able to do a thing about it.

Given the fact that the real boss of Iran is Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and not Rouhani makes this easily understandable. All Rouhani has done is to change the atmospherics. When it comes to the actual policies of the country, they are unchanged because the real leadership is unchanged.

All that has changed is that for the first time, those in the West who want to find an excuse to back away from their commitments to stopping Iran have a rationale. In the past, Iran’s public leadership had no concerns about catering to Western sensibilities thereby rendering it difficult to make the argument that it was run by rational and sensible persons. Replacing Ahmadinejad with Rouhani allows those so inclined to project their own feelings about nuclear weapons onto Iran even if doing it so is the height of absurdity. But it is on that flimsy basis that Iran is asking the West to relax the economic sanctions that are crippling their economy.

Given the unchanged Iranian position, no one in Washington should be even considering loosening sanctions. To the contrary, this is exactly the moment for strengthening them and making it impossible for Iran to sell its oil or transact any business with the rest of the world. That is the only thing that could, even in theory, persuade Khamenei to authorize real concessions rather than merely recycling old proposals that were rightly rejected as merely slowing Iran’s march toward nuclear capability.

But with yet another round of negotiations scheduled for November, the Obama administration appears anxious to play along with Iran. By not contradicting the Iranians deceptive talk of progress, Washington is playing right into their hands. The more the talks are depicted as progressing, the harder it will be to break them off or to heighten the pressure on Tehran to do more than pay lip service to Western concerns. The result is a perfect storm that suits the ayatollah’s interests. They can play at moderation while their centrifuges keep spinning all winter if necessary. And that’s exactly what they’ll until Obama calls them out. But given the administration’s blind faith in diplomacy, it’s far from certain that moment will ever come no matter what the Iranians do.

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Who Let Iran Get So Close to a Nuke?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Bad Deal is the Only Kind Iran is Offering

Secretary of State John Kerry sounded a note of appropriate caution this past weekend when he said that although he believed the window for diplomacy with Iran was “cracking open,” he believes “no deal is better than a bad deal.” His willingness to admit that there was such a thing as a bad deal with Tehran was a sign that there were some limits to the wave of optimism sweeping through official Washington and the foreign policy establishment about the supposedly moderating influence of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Iran’s position on its drive for nuclear capability.

But coming as it did the same day that an Iranian government spokesman made it clear that all Tehran would offer the West tomorrow when the diplomats convene in Geneva for another round of the P5+1 talks was exactly the kind of bad deal that Kerry said he fears, it is by no means clear as to whether his stance is more than rhetoric aimed at soothing the fears of a gathering of supporters of AIPAC to whom Kerry’s remarks were directed. It remains an open question as to whether the U.S. would adhere to President Obama’s declared refusal to countenance an Iranian bomb and therefore insist that they cease refining uranium and export all of their existing stockpile even if that means passing up the opportunity for an agreement that would end the danger of a conflict over the issue. Just as important, it is also uncertain that even if Kerry means what he says about an American refusal to accept an obviously inadequate agreement whether its European allies would follow suit. As last week’s signals from Britain and France to Israel showed, the rest of the members of the P5+1 negotiating team are united mostly by their desire to get out from under their commitments to stopping Iran rather than following through with more sanctions or force if a deal is never reached. If France and France jump ship and join Russia and China in seeking to put the issue aside with a deal that Iran can easily ignore or break, then Kerry’s promise may soon be put to the test.

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Secretary of State John Kerry sounded a note of appropriate caution this past weekend when he said that although he believed the window for diplomacy with Iran was “cracking open,” he believes “no deal is better than a bad deal.” His willingness to admit that there was such a thing as a bad deal with Tehran was a sign that there were some limits to the wave of optimism sweeping through official Washington and the foreign policy establishment about the supposedly moderating influence of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Iran’s position on its drive for nuclear capability.

But coming as it did the same day that an Iranian government spokesman made it clear that all Tehran would offer the West tomorrow when the diplomats convene in Geneva for another round of the P5+1 talks was exactly the kind of bad deal that Kerry said he fears, it is by no means clear as to whether his stance is more than rhetoric aimed at soothing the fears of a gathering of supporters of AIPAC to whom Kerry’s remarks were directed. It remains an open question as to whether the U.S. would adhere to President Obama’s declared refusal to countenance an Iranian bomb and therefore insist that they cease refining uranium and export all of their existing stockpile even if that means passing up the opportunity for an agreement that would end the danger of a conflict over the issue. Just as important, it is also uncertain that even if Kerry means what he says about an American refusal to accept an obviously inadequate agreement whether its European allies would follow suit. As last week’s signals from Britain and France to Israel showed, the rest of the members of the P5+1 negotiating team are united mostly by their desire to get out from under their commitments to stopping Iran rather than following through with more sanctions or force if a deal is never reached. If France and France jump ship and join Russia and China in seeking to put the issue aside with a deal that Iran can easily ignore or break, then Kerry’s promise may soon be put to the test.

Caution notwithstanding, it’s clear that the administration is more than eager to play along with the Rouhanimania that has caused the West to revive a P5+1 process that has repeatedly failed. For all of the fact that President Obama and Kerry have always said the right thing about stopping Iran, their actions have never matched their rhetoric. From the point of view of this U.S. foreign policy team, the “window of diplomacy” they constantly refer to, is never closed no matter how often the Iranians have shut it in their faces. Their commitment to diplomacy and engagement with Iran is not so much a tactic as it is a function of their near blind faith in international agreements, the United Nations and multilateralism.

The Iranians know that as their decision to make it clear that they will never agree to the export of their stockpile of enriched uranium illustrates. They also know that the Europeans have never swerved from their intention to craft a nuclear deal that would allow the ayatollahs to hold onto a functioning nuclear program, albeit one with safeguards that would theoretically prevent it from being converted to nuclear use.

Thus rather than give the Iranians an incentive to face facts and give up their nuclear dream, the prelude to the latest talks have given them good reason to give nothing in their proposals that impinge on their ability to flout any deal and move quickly to realizing their nuclear ambition much as North Korea did after a similar round of diplomatic appeasement aimed at stopping them.

In Kerry’s favor is the fact that he won’t be in Geneva tomorrow, a source of no small amount of frustration for the Iranians. If he was offered the opportunity for a dramatic announcement and photo op, it’s hard to imagine that he would have the character or the principles to turn it down even if meant accepting a bad deal. What the Iranians are clearly hoping is that by using their time honored tactics of prevarication and delay, they can not only drag out the process — and thus buy their scientists even more time — but to lure Kerry to a future gathering where such a temptation might prove too much for him.

By now the administration should have learned that the only deal they would ever get from Iran is a bad one. No amount of economic pain felt by their citizens can convince Rouhani’s boss, Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to see reason and abandon their nuclear ambition. Nor do they believe in Obama’s threats. The ayatollahs see the president as a paper tiger that will never make good on the promise to use force as a last resort. And their contempt for him will grow if they can peel off his European allies away from the flimsy coalition against Iran that the president built. But in the long run, with Washington as enthralled by the false promise of Iranian moderation as London and Paris (let alone, Moscow or Beijing), the odds of Kerry being able to retain his aversion to a bad deal must be considered slim.

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Don’t Ignore Iran’s Revolutionary Guard

Political scientists who write about terrorism often discuss “spoilers,” those more radical personalities and outliers who seek to undercut any rapprochement by means of new attacks against the backdrop of diplomacy.

This was certainly the case with the Irish Republic Army and its talks with Great Britain, and it has also been true with regard to periods of rapprochement between the United States and Iran. In 1998, for example, vigilantes affiliated with the Iranian security forces attacked a busload of American businessmen in Tehran to study new opportunities given then-President Mohammad Khatami’s flirtation with change.

Let’s put aside the possibility that the Iranian government is simply playing good-cop, bad-cop in order to maximize the incentives it desires. Who wouldn’t want a loosening of sanctions when the economy has shrank 5.4 percent over the past year? And, instead, give Rouhani benefit of the doubt for a second. Even if he is sincere—and I see no reason to believe that is the case—then he still must overcome the overriding influence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in which, unlike his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he has not served.

In an interview today, Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the IRGC, had made clear that the IRGC opposes any rapprochement with the United States. According to the Fars News Agency (with a translation provided by the Open Source Center):

Major General Mohammad Ali Ja’fari, the commander-in-chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), has criticized the efforts of President Hasan Ruhani’s government to improve ties with the United States, calling them a “big mistake.” “Creating such moods is contrary to the words of the late imam [Ruhollah Khomeyni, the founder of the Islamic Republic] and the supreme leader [Ali Khamene’i] and is a big mistake,” Fars quoted him as telling Guards troops in North Khorasan Province. “The imam never said such a thing and never had a compromising stance toward America,” he added. Ja’fari said that certain people had misinterpreted and “misused” the leader’s remark on the importance of “heroic flexibility” in dealing with adversaries. These people wrongly think that “restoring relations with America will eliminate problems and sanctions,” he said. The IRGC commander said that “the people, the Guards Corps, and the Basij are vigilant and follow the path of the Islamic system.”

Let us hope that the United States will remain at least as vigilant as the IRGC, because the IRGC has the means and the will to test the United States Navy and challenge U.S. facilities and interests in the region. And, unlike the Iranian challenge posed to the Clinton administration in 1996 at Khobar Towers, let us hope that the United States will not let Iran’s good cop, bad cop strategy absolve the regime of accountability for its actions. It may seem ironic given Rouhani’s charm offensive, but Jafari’s posture suggests that the situation in the region is now far more dangerous than it was before Rouhani’s inauguration.

Political scientists who write about terrorism often discuss “spoilers,” those more radical personalities and outliers who seek to undercut any rapprochement by means of new attacks against the backdrop of diplomacy.

This was certainly the case with the Irish Republic Army and its talks with Great Britain, and it has also been true with regard to periods of rapprochement between the United States and Iran. In 1998, for example, vigilantes affiliated with the Iranian security forces attacked a busload of American businessmen in Tehran to study new opportunities given then-President Mohammad Khatami’s flirtation with change.

Let’s put aside the possibility that the Iranian government is simply playing good-cop, bad-cop in order to maximize the incentives it desires. Who wouldn’t want a loosening of sanctions when the economy has shrank 5.4 percent over the past year? And, instead, give Rouhani benefit of the doubt for a second. Even if he is sincere—and I see no reason to believe that is the case—then he still must overcome the overriding influence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in which, unlike his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he has not served.

In an interview today, Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the IRGC, had made clear that the IRGC opposes any rapprochement with the United States. According to the Fars News Agency (with a translation provided by the Open Source Center):

Major General Mohammad Ali Ja’fari, the commander-in-chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), has criticized the efforts of President Hasan Ruhani’s government to improve ties with the United States, calling them a “big mistake.” “Creating such moods is contrary to the words of the late imam [Ruhollah Khomeyni, the founder of the Islamic Republic] and the supreme leader [Ali Khamene’i] and is a big mistake,” Fars quoted him as telling Guards troops in North Khorasan Province. “The imam never said such a thing and never had a compromising stance toward America,” he added. Ja’fari said that certain people had misinterpreted and “misused” the leader’s remark on the importance of “heroic flexibility” in dealing with adversaries. These people wrongly think that “restoring relations with America will eliminate problems and sanctions,” he said. The IRGC commander said that “the people, the Guards Corps, and the Basij are vigilant and follow the path of the Islamic system.”

Let us hope that the United States will remain at least as vigilant as the IRGC, because the IRGC has the means and the will to test the United States Navy and challenge U.S. facilities and interests in the region. And, unlike the Iranian challenge posed to the Clinton administration in 1996 at Khobar Towers, let us hope that the United States will not let Iran’s good cop, bad cop strategy absolve the regime of accountability for its actions. It may seem ironic given Rouhani’s charm offensive, but Jafari’s posture suggests that the situation in the region is now far more dangerous than it was before Rouhani’s inauguration.

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Azerbaijan Convicts Iranian in Terror Case

On Friday, an Azerbaijani court convicted Fayzi Bahram on charges relating to a plot to attack the Israeli embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. According to the Azerbaijani press:

According to the indictment, Fayzi Bahram, an employee of the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security of the Islamic Republic of Iran, wanted to explode the Embassy of Israel in Azerbaijan. In his testimony during the pre-trial investigation, Fayzi Bahram said that he moved Baku in 2006. Fayzi Bahram said that he had been instructed to organize unauthorized protests outside the Embassy of Israel in Baku, inflict harm on embassy employees and explode the building….

The story should concern American policymakers for a variety of reasons. First, is the fact that Bahram came to Azerbaijan in 2006. This suggests he was part of a sleeper cell. The notion of Iranian sleeper cells has been the subject of much discussion in the Gulf Cooperation Council over the past several years. And, before that, the trial into the 1992 Mykonos Café assassinations in Berlin suggested the presence of Iranian sleeper cells in Germany. Should Tehran have infiltrated sleeper cells in Western-oriented countries, and if both President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are truly dedicated to a new approach, then step one would be for Tehran to unilaterally withdraw its operatives.

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On Friday, an Azerbaijani court convicted Fayzi Bahram on charges relating to a plot to attack the Israeli embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. According to the Azerbaijani press:

According to the indictment, Fayzi Bahram, an employee of the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security of the Islamic Republic of Iran, wanted to explode the Embassy of Israel in Azerbaijan. In his testimony during the pre-trial investigation, Fayzi Bahram said that he moved Baku in 2006. Fayzi Bahram said that he had been instructed to organize unauthorized protests outside the Embassy of Israel in Baku, inflict harm on embassy employees and explode the building….

The story should concern American policymakers for a variety of reasons. First, is the fact that Bahram came to Azerbaijan in 2006. This suggests he was part of a sleeper cell. The notion of Iranian sleeper cells has been the subject of much discussion in the Gulf Cooperation Council over the past several years. And, before that, the trial into the 1992 Mykonos Café assassinations in Berlin suggested the presence of Iranian sleeper cells in Germany. Should Tehran have infiltrated sleeper cells in Western-oriented countries, and if both President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are truly dedicated to a new approach, then step one would be for Tehran to unilaterally withdraw its operatives.

The second issue that is interesting is the fact that the suspect supposedly worked at the Ministry of Intelligence. While Western security officials tend to focus on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps when it comes to Iranian terrorism, Iran’s intelligence ministry has long run its own operations. In 2010, Kuwaiti security intercepted an Iranian intelligence ministry cell, allegedly planning assassinations of prominent Kuwaiti religious figures. The interesting thing about the intelligence ministry is that rather than contain them, Rouhani has actually empowered them.

Rouhani is a master diplomat. He has shifted Western perception of Iranian intentions. While the West is enthusiastic for diplomacy, it should take care about attributing sincerity to Rouhani, for there seems to be a dangerous dissonance between his words and the Islamic Republic’s actions.

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Iran’s False Charm Already Paying Off

Iran’s charm offensive is already paying diplomatic dividends, but its supreme leader is signaling that he is already starting to pull the plug on the supposed opening for nuclear diplomacy. Iran’s foreign minister told a pro-regime newspaper today that Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was none too pleased with Western favorite Hassan Rouhani for the new president’s phone call with President Obama as well as his meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry last month in New York. Khamenei, who is the real ruler of Iran, apparently thinks Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Rouhani exceeded their authority in the chats even though neither conceded much to American leaders who appeared desperate to seize the chance to reopen talks with the Islamist regime.

The exact meaning of Khamenei’s signal to the so-called moderates may be debated. But it repeats a familiar pattern in which Iran tricks the West into wasting time on diplomacy only to make it clear later that no deal is in the offing. Yet despite this, Western nations still appear to be doubling down on their willingness to believe in Rouhani’s supposed promise of moderation. Britain appears to be renewing diplomatic ties with Iran two years after severing relations in the wake of an attack on their Tehran embassy. And the United Nations has astonishingly named the nuclear scofflaw as special rapporteur of the United Nations General Assembly’s Committee on Disarmament and International Security.

Added to the prospect of the Obama administration’s eager desire to give engagement with Iran another try leading to more months of negotiations, these developments show just how much Rouhani has already achieved with a charm offensive that Khamenei is unlikely to bear fruit with actual progress on the nuclear issue.

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Iran’s charm offensive is already paying diplomatic dividends, but its supreme leader is signaling that he is already starting to pull the plug on the supposed opening for nuclear diplomacy. Iran’s foreign minister told a pro-regime newspaper today that Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was none too pleased with Western favorite Hassan Rouhani for the new president’s phone call with President Obama as well as his meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry last month in New York. Khamenei, who is the real ruler of Iran, apparently thinks Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Rouhani exceeded their authority in the chats even though neither conceded much to American leaders who appeared desperate to seize the chance to reopen talks with the Islamist regime.

The exact meaning of Khamenei’s signal to the so-called moderates may be debated. But it repeats a familiar pattern in which Iran tricks the West into wasting time on diplomacy only to make it clear later that no deal is in the offing. Yet despite this, Western nations still appear to be doubling down on their willingness to believe in Rouhani’s supposed promise of moderation. Britain appears to be renewing diplomatic ties with Iran two years after severing relations in the wake of an attack on their Tehran embassy. And the United Nations has astonishingly named the nuclear scofflaw as special rapporteur of the United Nations General Assembly’s Committee on Disarmament and International Security.

Added to the prospect of the Obama administration’s eager desire to give engagement with Iran another try leading to more months of negotiations, these developments show just how much Rouhani has already achieved with a charm offensive that Khamenei is unlikely to bear fruit with actual progress on the nuclear issue.

Khamenei’s signal that he isn’t going to let Rouhani go too far may seem to be counter-intuitive given all the talk of a new spirit in Iran has already accomplished. But it makes sense when you consider that Rouhani’s own positions on the key nuclear issue are little different from those of Khamenei despite the attempts of Westerners to convince themselves otherwise. As Jeffrey Goldberg wrote yesterday in Bloomberg, Rouhani “is proud of the work he did to advance his country’s nuclear program — and also of his efforts to stymie Western attempts to stop that work.”

Goldberg noted Rouhani’s past role in tricking the West on nuclear negotiations that he bragged about earlier this year. But the deceptive nature of Rouhani’s moderation that was on display at the U.N. still has not penetrated the consciousness of the Obama administration or its Western allies even though these facts are not exactly a secret. Yet few appear to be listening to such warnings or those of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who again said today that any deal with Iran must ensure the end of Iran’s uranium enrichment as well its plutonium program.

Western negotiators have been offering Iran deals which will enable them to keep their nuclear program for years, but Tehran has always preferred to preserve its ability to build a weapon rather than to accept and thus end economic sanctions. The Rouhani charm offensive sets up the West for a repeat of this farce even as Khamenei is making it clear that he will never give up the regime’s nuclear ambitions.

The bottom line is that while the West negotiates with itself in order to strengthen Iranian “moderates” against the supposed “hardliners,” the regime buys itself more time to get closer to its nuclear goal. Though Khamenei and Rouhani may appear to be at cross-purposes, they are working together to advance their common nuclear agenda. The only question is how long it will take President Obama to catch on.

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For Our Arab Allies, It’s “East of Suez” All Over Again

Evelyn Gordon is absolutely correct when she writes that the U.S. romance with Iran “terrifies” our Arab allies, but she hits only the tip of the iceberg. Obama’s “bromance” with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is only the latest in a long line of presidential statements, decisions, and actions which have antagonized America’s Arab allies.

Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and the Sultanate of Oman have quietly but steadily supported the United States for years. Bahrain and Kuwait host important U.S. military contingents (I write this from the Louisville, Kentucky airport where I am returning from a brief with a Fort Knox-based U.S. Army unit heading to Kuwait in a few months). The Sultanate of Oman has been a force for moderation and quiet backchannel diplomacy for years, and played a crucial role in the months after 9/11 as action neared in Afghanistan. The United Arab Emirates has been at the forefront of the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood, the most dangerous group to both democracy and stability in the Arab Middle East.

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Evelyn Gordon is absolutely correct when she writes that the U.S. romance with Iran “terrifies” our Arab allies, but she hits only the tip of the iceberg. Obama’s “bromance” with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is only the latest in a long line of presidential statements, decisions, and actions which have antagonized America’s Arab allies.

Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and the Sultanate of Oman have quietly but steadily supported the United States for years. Bahrain and Kuwait host important U.S. military contingents (I write this from the Louisville, Kentucky airport where I am returning from a brief with a Fort Knox-based U.S. Army unit heading to Kuwait in a few months). The Sultanate of Oman has been a force for moderation and quiet backchannel diplomacy for years, and played a crucial role in the months after 9/11 as action neared in Afghanistan. The United Arab Emirates has been at the forefront of the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood, the most dangerous group to both democracy and stability in the Arab Middle East.

Imagine how the “Pivot to Asia” sounded to Gulf Arab leaders who, in their childhoods, heard British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s “East of Suez” speech and then saw the British military promptly abandon their Arab allies. It was against the backdrop of the British withdrawal that the United Arab Emirates, for example, experienced Iranian aggression firsthand when the Iranian military (with President Richard Nixon’s tacit approval) seized the disputed Tonb islands and Abu Musa.

Then, early in Obama’s first term, Hillary Clinton floated a trial balloon to extend a nuclear umbrella over the Gulf states should Iran ever go nuclear. Privately, our Gulf partners asked how they could ever trust such a guarantee since Obama and Clinton had been so willing to abandon the previous rock-solid guarantee that Iran would never go nuclear.

The Obama doctrine is a doctrine of betrayal. Just ask Georgia, Israel, Taiwan, South Korea, Honduras, Poland, and every Gulf Arab ally. Maybe pundits can spin, but there is no denying it in the perception of our Gulf allies. Alas, the reverberations of so quickly dispensing with commitments to allies will last long after Obama retires, and will be an insurmountable burden for U.S. diplomacy for decades to come.

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Iran’s Imprisoned Ayatollah Suffers Heart Attack

In July, I reported on the grave situation of Hossein Bourojerdi, one of Iran’s most courageous dissidents. Bourojerdi, who carries the honorific Shia Muslim title of “ayatollah,” is a veteran opponent of Iran’s ruling system of velayat e faqih, whereby Islamic jurists exercise total control over society and its institutions.

Bourojerdi was first incarcerated in 2006. At the time, hundreds of the ayatollah’s supporters valiantly attemped to stop him from being dragged out of his south Tehran home by the police. Since then, reports of Bourojerdi’s failing health have regularly surfaced. Now, Iranian human-rights activists have passed on the news that Bourojerdi, who is languishing in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, began experiencing heart failure last Sunday.

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In July, I reported on the grave situation of Hossein Bourojerdi, one of Iran’s most courageous dissidents. Bourojerdi, who carries the honorific Shia Muslim title of “ayatollah,” is a veteran opponent of Iran’s ruling system of velayat e faqih, whereby Islamic jurists exercise total control over society and its institutions.

Bourojerdi was first incarcerated in 2006. At the time, hundreds of the ayatollah’s supporters valiantly attemped to stop him from being dragged out of his south Tehran home by the police. Since then, reports of Bourojerdi’s failing health have regularly surfaced. Now, Iranian human-rights activists have passed on the news that Bourojerdi, who is languishing in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, began experiencing heart failure last Sunday.

Only after Bourojerdi coped with extreme pain and shortness of breath for a full day did the Evin guards finally escort him from his cell for what passes for medical attention, by which point the ayatollah had undergone a heart attack. “Not only was he not given any medication while at the infirmary,” noted the latest bulletin on Bourojerdi’s plight, “the prison authorities continued to refuse his family’s delivery of medication that he had been prescribed before.”

A few days before his heart attack, Bourojerdi sent a thunderous appeal to the United Nations General Assembly urging the international body to once and for all confront the issue of human-rights abuse by the Iranian regime:

I sit here, at the start of my eighth year of captivity; jailed by a religious dictatorship and charged with defending the freedom of thought, speech and expression and refusing to align with tyrants who forcibly lord over Iran… Has the time not come for your assembly to demand that these brutal totalitarians respond to how they dare to speak of Bahrain, Syria and Palestine, under the guise of sympathy, when they have plundered and stolen the wealth and national income of every Iranian, rendering them impoverished and putting them in the ultimate financial and economic crisis?

That time, of course, has not come. Bourojerdi’s missive passed unnoticed amidst all the cooing over the charm offensive launched by Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new and–as we are endlessly informed–“moderate” president. While President Obama did, in his phone call with Rouhani, raise the continuing imprisonment of Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor with American citizenship who has also been detained in Evin for the last year, the suffering of a Muslim cleric who has tirelessly advocated for the separation of mosque and state was deemed unworthy of even a mention.

But Bourojerdi’s case may yet receive the attention it warrants from an unexpected source. Ahmad Shaheed, the former foreign minister of the Maldives who presently serves as the UN’s “Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” has won plaudits from Iranian democracy activists for his forthright reports on the mullah’s human-rights abuses. Shaheed is certainly aware of Bourojerdi’s situation, having received a letter from supporters and family members of the ayatollah in 2011, in which they asserted that an “illegal ban” on prison visits was designed to compel Bourojerdi to confess to fabricated crimes.

In his most recent report, Shaheed carefully traced the regime’s repression of religious minorities, citing the predicament of Christians and Bahais who are especially vulnerable to legal charges of heresy and apostasy. Significantly, Shaheed concluded that:

There has been an apparent increase in the degree of seriousness of human rights violations in the Islamic Republic of Iran…alarming reports of retributive State action against individuals suspected of communicating with UN Special Procedures raises serious concern about the Government’s resolve to promote respect for human rights in the country (my emphasis.)

In other words, as well as refusing cooperation with UN nuclear inspectors, the regime is also criminalizing those who talk to the international body’s human-rights investigators. So far, Rouhani has given no indication that he will curb this intimidation. Indeed, his appointment of a hardliner with strong ties to Iran’s security apparatus, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, as the country’s minister of justice, does not bode well for Ayatollah Boroujerdi or any of the other activists that have run afoul of the Tehran regime.

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NYT’s Anti-Bibi Editorial Not Aging Well

Yesterday’s edition of the New York Times featured the paper’s very silly editorial attacking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for advocating on behalf of his country’s fundamental rights–a basic responsibility of political leadership and one that should not be considered controversial. But the editorial was unwise not only for its inanity but also because it was the kind of editorial that would most likely rot rather than ripen with age.

And it only took a day for that process to emerge, as several stories today make clear. But first, it’s instructive to review the point of the editorial, which can be understood in one of the paragraphs helpfully placed early on in the editorial:

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Yesterday’s edition of the New York Times featured the paper’s very silly editorial attacking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for advocating on behalf of his country’s fundamental rights–a basic responsibility of political leadership and one that should not be considered controversial. But the editorial was unwise not only for its inanity but also because it was the kind of editorial that would most likely rot rather than ripen with age.

And it only took a day for that process to emerge, as several stories today make clear. But first, it’s instructive to review the point of the editorial, which can be understood in one of the paragraphs helpfully placed early on in the editorial:

Mr. Netanyahu has legitimate reasons to be wary of any Iranian overtures, as do the United States and the four other major powers involved in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. But it could be disastrous if Mr. Netanyahu and his supporters in Congress were so blinded by distrust of Iran that they exaggerate the threat, block President Obama from taking advantage of new diplomatic openings and sabotage the best chance to establish a new relationship since the 1979 Iranian revolution sent American-Iranian relations into the deep freeze.

They are not Netanyahu’s supporters in Congress but rather supporters of preventing a nuclear Iran. But acknowledging that would disrupt, of course, the leftist media’s obsession with the idea that Netanyahu is ever meddling where the New York Times thinks he doesn’t belong, namely American politics. The editors also stop just shy of calling the Israeli prime minister a liar, but indicate that they expect him to manipulate Congress into spreading false information. They also seem to think the American political system is powerless to stop Netanyahu from controlling American foreign policy even when the president of the United States disagrees with him.

And that’s only the third paragraph. “Wait till I get going,” a Times editorialist might say, echoing Vizzini. A day later, however, it’s appearing that the Times’s faith in Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s willingness to negotiate in good faith is baffling to … Hassan Rouhani:

Elsewhere, Rouhani elaborated on the achievements of his recent visit to New York during which he attended and addressed the UN General Assembly session, held meetings with different world leaders, and had a phone talk with US President Barack Obama, and said, “During the recent visit to the UN, we strove to prevent a new war in the region and we came to be successful in the trip.”

Referring to his phone talk with Obama on the way back to Iran from New York, he said, “Before my trip (to New York), the Americans had sent 5 messages to arrange a meeting between me and Obama, but I turned them down.”

Now, Rouhani did not, according to this report in the Iranian news agency, rule out the very idea of a “meeting,” though he does not get any more specific about the details of such a meeting. But he’s basically bragging about turning down the American president, who appears desperate to meet with him in this account. If Rouhani is telling the truth, then he assesses communication with the Obama administration strictly through its propaganda value. And if he’s not telling the truth, then he assumes he can make up stories designed to embarrass Obama with no consequences. Because Rouhani’s past does not reveal an inclination toward peaceful statesmanship, none of this will come as a surprise to those familiar with recent history.

And as Michael Rubin noted this morning, Rouhani is also apparently ruling out the contours of any reasonable deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Meanwhile, it appears that even John Kerry thinks Netanyahu was making sense:

Secretary of State John Kerry, in his first remarks about Iran since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel warned the United States to be wary of talks with the country, said on Thursday that the United States would negotiate with Tehran only if it provided proof that it would not pursue nuclear defense programs.

“Our hope is that there is a way forward,” Mr. Kerry said at a news conference here after a meeting with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the Japanese defense and foreign ministers, adding that he could assure Israel that “nothing we do is going to be based on trust. It’s going to be based on steps,” in which Iran must prove it is not going to pursue a nuclear program, or it will face a cold shoulder from the United States. “A country that generally wants to have a peaceful program does not have difficulty proving that it’s peaceful,” he said.

If the Times has lost John Kerry, Benjamin Netanyahu should be the least of their worries.

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Rouhani Declares Enrichment Non-Negotiable

Last Friday, President Obama surprised the press when he announced that he had a telephone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the first direct conversation between the U.S. and Iranian presidents since the Islamic Revolution. Obama expressed his optimism after his conversation that a nuclear deal was possible.

Perhaps someone should tell that to Rouhani. On October 2, Rouhani spoke to the Iranian press and gave his summary of the conversation. According to a translation provided by the Open Source Center, Voice of the Islamic Republic Radio 1 reported: “Speaking to journalists after a cabinet meeting on 2 October, Rouhani assured his countrymen that there will be no talks about the issue of nuclear technology and enrichment inside Iran.”

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Last Friday, President Obama surprised the press when he announced that he had a telephone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the first direct conversation between the U.S. and Iranian presidents since the Islamic Revolution. Obama expressed his optimism after his conversation that a nuclear deal was possible.

Perhaps someone should tell that to Rouhani. On October 2, Rouhani spoke to the Iranian press and gave his summary of the conversation. According to a translation provided by the Open Source Center, Voice of the Islamic Republic Radio 1 reported: “Speaking to journalists after a cabinet meeting on 2 October, Rouhani assured his countrymen that there will be no talks about the issue of nuclear technology and enrichment inside Iran.”

Rouhani’s statements are not the exception, but the rule. Over at the Iran Tracker, analysts Will Fulton and Amir Touraj have catalogued a number of Iranian officials’ press statements in the past day or two walking back some of the flexibility that Rouhani implied.

Oops. Just as Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat once said one thing to American officials and quite the opposite to his domestic audience, so it seems that Rouhani is now doing the same. President Clinton for too long was willing to ignore Arafat’s duplicity, ultimately leading to a foreign policy train wreck. Let us hope that Obama has learned that a real change of Iranian policy would require saying the same thing to American and Iranian journalists. The White House should accept nothing less.

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Iran Danger Is Delay, Not Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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