Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iran

ISIS and the Stalingradization of Yarmouk

In 2009, Jeffrey Goldberg recounted a conversation he had with a Kurdish leader who told him that his fellow Kurds had been cursed. Goldberg asked him to be more specific. Goldberg relates the response: “He said the Kurds were cursed because they didn’t have Jewish enemies. Only with Jewish enemies would the world pay attention to their plight.” It’s a principle proved over and over again, and the plight of the Palestinian residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp is yet our latest example.

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In 2009, Jeffrey Goldberg recounted a conversation he had with a Kurdish leader who told him that his fellow Kurds had been cursed. Goldberg asked him to be more specific. Goldberg relates the response: “He said the Kurds were cursed because they didn’t have Jewish enemies. Only with Jewish enemies would the world pay attention to their plight.” It’s a principle proved over and over again, and the plight of the Palestinian residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp is yet our latest example.

Yarmouk is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, not far from Damascus. The refugees, already struggling through Syria’s civil war, found themselves in an almost Stalingrad-like state this month when ISIS laid siege to the camp. CNN describes what happened next:

Besieged and bombed by Syrian forces for more than two years, the desperate residents of this Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus awoke in early April to a new, even more terrifying reality — ISIS militants seizing Yarmouk after defeating several militia groups operating in the area.

“They slaughtered them in the streets,” one Yarmouk resident, who asked not to be named, told CNN. “They (caught) three people and killed them in the street, in front of people. The Islamic State is now in control of almost all the camp.”

An estimated 18,000 refugees are now trapped inside Yarmouk, stuck between ISIS and Syrian regime forces in “the deepest circle of hell,” in the words of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. …

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front control about 90% of the camp. The organization also claims that the Syrian government has dropped barrel bombs on the camp in an effort to drive out armed groups.

The plight of the Yarmouk camp isn’t exactly capturing the world’s attention. And a big reason for that, as even Israel’s critics are now acknowledging, mirrors the Kurdish complaint to Goldberg. The Palestinians of Yarmouk are cursed with three barbaric enemies, none of them Jews. And so the world yawns.

Mehdi Hasan, who would never be mistaken for a Zionist shill, takes to the pages of the Guardian, which would never be mistaken for a pro-Israel bullhorn, to call out the hypocrisy. He explains the terrible condition of the camp and the horrors endured by its residents throughout the civil war. Then he (of course) engages in the requisite throat-clearing about Israel’s “crimes” and the “occupation of Palestine.”

But he finally gets around to his point:

Can we afford to stay in our deep slumber, occasionally awakening to lavishly condemn only Israel? Let’s be honest: how different, how vocal and passionate, would our reaction be if the people besieging Yarmouk were wearing the uniforms of the IDF?

Our selective outrage is morally unsustainable.

That is the first of three lessons of the story of Yarmouk: that the world cares about Palestinian suffering when it can be blamed on the Jews. For the sake of posterity, Hasan even runs down a list of atrocities perpetrated on the Palestinians by other Arabs. It’s not a new phenomenon, nor would anybody in his right mind try to deny it. At least Hasan wants to change it.

The second lesson is that the Palestinians and their advocates often have unexpected allies, and rather than embrace even a temporary alliance they live in denial. Hasan illustrates this as well when he writes:

So what, if anything, can be done? The usual coalition of neoconservative hawks and so-called liberal interventionists in the west want to bomb first and ask questions later, while the rest of us resort to a collective shrug: a mixture of indifference and despair. Few are willing to make the tough and unpopular case for a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict or, at least, a truce and a ceasefire, a temporary cessation of hostilities.

That is an Obama-level false choice hand in hand with a straw man. And it shows just how unwilling Hasan is to make common cause with people he dislikes politically. Neoconservatives are not nearly so pro-intervention in Syria as Hasan suggests (this is a common mistake that virtually every non-neoconservative who talks about the Syria conflict makes). But notice how quickly Hasan seems to change key: it’s a crisis, and has been a burgeoning disaster for years, and yet those who want to intervene are slammed as wanting to “ask questions later.”

Meanwhile, the negotiated track has failed. This is the reality: Assad has the upper hand, and ISIS has had success with their brutality, and neither one is ready to sit down at the table with representatives of Palestinian refugees to shake hands and end the war.

And that brings us to the third lesson, related to the second. Just as the Palestinians’ opponents are sometimes their best allies, the Palestinians’ friends often turn out to be anything but. There is no negotiated solution for the Palestinians of Yarmouk on the horizon because President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have already thrown them to the wolves.

The Obama administration, which happily hammers Israel for every perceived violation of Palestinian rights, has struck a bargain to reorder the Middle East by elevating Iran and its proxies, such as Assad. The plight of the Palestinians in Yarmouk does not interest this president and his team in the least. After all, it can’t be blamed on Israel.

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Iran Sanctions and Missile Defense

That didn’t take long. It’s been less than two weeks since the unveiling of the “framework” agreement at Lausanne between Iran and the West, and already we are seeing one of the consequences of lifting sanctions, with Russia’s announcement that it would finally begin to deliver components of the advanced S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Tehran. The Iranians had bought the S-300 in 2007 for $800 million but the deal was suspended because of United Nations sanctions. Now, with the end of sanctions in sight, Russia is predictably rushing in to reap the benefits, regardless of the consequences of further beefing up Iran’s military might.

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That didn’t take long. It’s been less than two weeks since the unveiling of the “framework” agreement at Lausanne between Iran and the West, and already we are seeing one of the consequences of lifting sanctions, with Russia’s announcement that it would finally begin to deliver components of the advanced S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Tehran. The Iranians had bought the S-300 in 2007 for $800 million but the deal was suspended because of United Nations sanctions. Now, with the end of sanctions in sight, Russia is predictably rushing in to reap the benefits, regardless of the consequences of further beefing up Iran’s military might.

A couple of points are worth making.

First, this shows how easily sanctions crumble and how hard it is reassemble them in the future. The administration brags about “snap back” provisions in its negotiations with the Iranians, but does anyone seriously believe that a nation like Russia will ever vote on the UN Security Council to hold Iran accountable for violations of a nuclear accord, when by doing so Moscow would be hurting its own economic interests?

Second, this shows how much more formidable Iran will be with sanctions lifted. If Iran ever gets the S-300 operational, that will make air strikes on the Iranian nuclear complex much harder for the United States or Israel. And that’s just a start. Imagine how much military hardware—everything from rockets to tanks to complex cyber weapons—the Iranians will be able to buy with all sanctions lifted. Already Iran is a potent threat to its neighbors. Already Iran is on the verge of dominating the region from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. All of those trends will accelerate with Iran having billions more to spend on its hegemonic power grab.

As a result, the lifting of sanctions, should it occur, will be an irreversible step with momentous consequences for the future. No responsible leader in the West should contemplate such a drastic move unless Iran, at a minimum, makes a full accounting of its past nuclear-weapons work (without which it is impossible to judge its future compliance), agrees to export the uranium it has already enriched, agrees to permanent limits on its nuclear activities, and allows completely unfettered access to international inspections—none of which Iran has yet agreed to, at least not according to the public comments of the supreme leader.

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The Growing Chorus Against the Iran Deal

President Obama would like to pretend that anyone who opposes the nuclear deal with Iran which he is in the process of striking must be a warmonger—because war is the (supposed) consequence of not doing a deal. But that charge is hard to level against some of the high-profile critics who had spoken out in recent days.

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President Obama would like to pretend that anyone who opposes the nuclear deal with Iran which he is in the process of striking must be a warmonger—because war is the (supposed) consequence of not doing a deal. But that charge is hard to level against some of the high-profile critics who had spoken out in recent days.

—In the Wall Street Journal, former secretaries of State George Shultz (architect of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Soviet Union) and Henry Kissinger (architect of the Strategic Arms Limitation Agreement with the USSR and the “opening” to China) blast Obama’s deal-making. They warn that not only will the agreement be extremely difficult to enforce, it is unlikely sanctions will be reimposed even if Iran is caught cheating: “Iran is in a position to violate the agreement by executive decision. Restoring the most effective sanctions will require coordinated international action.”

The result of these talks, they warn, will be an increase in Iran’s regional power and a nuclear arms race in the Middle East: “For the U.S., a decade-long restriction on Iran’s nuclear capacity is a possibly hopeful interlude. For Iran’s neighbors—who perceive their imperatives in terms of millennial rivalries—it is a dangerous prelude to an even more dangerous permanent fact of life. Some of the chief actors in the Middle East are likely to view the U.S. as willing to concede a nuclear military capability to the country they consider their principal threat. Several will insist on at least an equivalent capability. Saudi Arabia has signaled that it will enter the lists; others are likely to follow. In that sense, the implications of the negotiation are irreversible.”

—On the Journal’s website, Aaron David Miller (one of Bill Clinton’s chief negotiators in the 1990s working on a deal between Israel and the Palestinians) is even more stark—“what we know now,” he writes, “suggests that the mullahs got the better end of the deal.” “The U.S. went from seeking to dismantle a putative nuclear weapons program to trying to impose limitations on one,” he explains. “Score one for the mullahs. By the time a final agreement is reached, Iran’s right to enrich uranium and its nuclear infrastructure may be validated in a U.N. Security Council resolution. That would be another win for the mullahs.” Finally Miller notes: “it’s stunning that the president of the United States is protesting Mr. Netanyahu’s terrible statements about Israeli Arabs and not blasting Tehran for its human rights abuses.”

—Also in the Journal, William Galston (another former Bill Clinton aide and a veteran Democratic thinker) doesn’t come out completely against the agreement but he advocates greatly strengthening it, in ways that, among others, the Israeli government has advocated—and that Obama is certain to reject. He also writes: “Many of our traditional allies in the Middle East fear that they are being sacrificed to Mr. Obama’s aspiration to achieve a historic breakthrough with the Islamic Republic. He should reassure them by strengthening U.S. security guarantees, pledging the long-term presence of U.S. military assets, and by acting far more forcefully against Iranian meddling in the internal affairs of other countries.…. And finally, the Obama administration should relax its opposition to meaningful congressional involvement in vetting a final agreement.”

Asked about the Kissinger-Shultz op-ed, the best that the State Department spokesman could do was to describe it as a “lot of big words and big thoughts,” as if that’s a criticism. (Does this administration favor small words and small thoughts?) Wonder what the White House thinks about what Shultz, Kissinger, Miller, and Galston have said? Are they neocon warmongers too? Or is it just possible that they are reasonable centrists who have grave reservations about the unprecedented concessions that the president is making to a regime whose animating slogan is “Death to America”?

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Obama to Bibi: The Jerk Store Called, They’re Running Out of You!

After State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf dismissed Henry Kissinger and George Shultz’s critique of the Iran framework deal as “a lot of big words and big thoughts,” David Brooks responded by asking, “Are we in nursery school?” The evidence for answering that question in the affirmative continued to mount yesterday. Following on last month’s Twitter trolling of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (broadly criticized as mortifyingly undignified), the Obama administration did it again, proving once again the administration’s embarrassing immaturity and the fact that it is Obama who is keeping the public feud with Israel alive.

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After State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf dismissed Henry Kissinger and George Shultz’s critique of the Iran framework deal as “a lot of big words and big thoughts,” David Brooks responded by asking, “Are we in nursery school?” The evidence for answering that question in the affirmative continued to mount yesterday. Following on last month’s Twitter trolling of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (broadly criticized as mortifyingly undignified), the Obama administration did it again, proving once again the administration’s embarrassing immaturity and the fact that it is Obama who is keeping the public feud with Israel alive.

This time the White House tweeted out a picture that was expressly intended to mock Netanyahu’s famous bomb diagram at the UN in September 2012. At that time, Netanyahu used the picture to illustrate Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon. The cartoon bomb appeared to backfire because it looked like something out of a Warner Bros. cartoon, no doubt leading the White House to hope an Acme anvil would drop out of the sky and onto the podium at that moment. But the illustration did at least draw attention to Netanyahu’s message, and succeeded in driving the conversation in the media.

Yesterday, the White House tweeted out the following picture:

whbomb

The “facts” in the diagram are mostly spin, though I don’t think anyone expects anything accurate out of the Obama administration’s press shop. The point of the diagram–the only point, since the picture isn’t actually informative and the president could have put out this information any number of ways–was to mock the Israeli prime minister on Twitter for something that happened in 2012.

Obama is essentially George Castanza finally coming up with what he believes is a great, though hilariously delayed, response to an earlier insult. Obama’s message to Bibi is: “The jerk store called, they’re running out of you!”

On a more serious note–though at this part we’ll surely lose the president and his spokespersons–does the Obama administration consider how this looks to the world? I doubt it. For example, the Russians just loved it–not because it was funny, but because the Kremlin-directed media expressed what appears to be Vladimir Putin’s uncontainable glee at watching the supposed leader of the free world (or at least Stephen Harper’s deputy leader of the free world, at this point) throw food at the Israeli prime minister in public.

If you’re an American adversary, you don’t even really have to do anything at this point. You can just sit and watch the Obama administration melt down under the weight of its own childish ignorance. Here’s Sputnik:

In three hours, the image had been retweeted nearly 700 times, with one user quipping “Apparently, the #WhiteHouse has hired #Netanyahu ‘s graphic design team.”

All in good fun. Except, you know, for the fact that the Obama administration apparently thinks a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is a big joke.

The last time the Obama administration did this was in early March. Its trolling then was more explicitly aimed at picking a fight with Netanyahu but, unlike this latest trolling, was at least above the intellectual maturity of a preschooler. The National Security Council tweeted out a column by Fareed Zakaria attempting to rebut Netanyahu. But the NSC’s tweet was more than just a link; it also added this administration’s trademark bitterness:

Yesterday’s trolling, ironically, actually confirmed Netanyahu’s success at controlling the conversation about Iranian nukes. The president has been trying to think of a comeback for two and a half years. And the picture, clearly, stuck in the minds of those who saw it.

If you’re thinking that, for an Ivy League-educated president of the United States, we’re sure using the word “trolling” an awful lot–well, yes. That’s one lesson of this whole affair. The president likes to troll allies on Twitter. Is there a better use of his time? I would imagine so.

But to realize that he would need a certain degree of self-awareness. It’s times like this the president’s tendency to hire young communications officials, inexperienced campaign hacks, and a Cabinet and inner circle of yes-men catches up with him.

The other lesson here is that it shows beyond all doubt (if anyone still had doubts) that Obama is the one who wants to keep this feud going, and publicly. At this point it’s obvious that Obama’s obsessive focus on Netanyahu’s campaign comments were merely a pretext to threaten to take action the administration was always planning on taking.

But this makes it crystal clear that when the administration gets all the mileage possible out of one manufactured controversy, and the prime minister hasn’t said anything they could harp on again, they’ll merely drop all pretense and just start taking potshots. Obama does not want this feud dropped, and he does not want reconciliation. He just wants to keep fighting. And our adversaries are just enjoying the show.

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Omniscience or Hackery on Iran Verification?

There is a major problem with non-proliferation specialists who repeat and attest to the merits of President Barack Obama’s promise that “This deal is not based on trust, it’s based on unprecedented verification.”

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There is a major problem with non-proliferation specialists who repeat and attest to the merits of President Barack Obama’s promise that “This deal is not based on trust, it’s based on unprecedented verification.”

Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund which underwrites groups like the National Iranian American Council, endorsed the deal heartedly, “In short, this deal will verifiably prevent Iran from building a bomb for at least 15 years. No American troops will be killed, and it won’t cost us a dime. What’s not to like?”

The Arms Control Association, a group which shed its bipartisan history a decade or two ago and now largely plays a partisan political game and has since defended North Korea against allegations of cheating and embraced the discredited notion that Iran offered a grand bargain in 2003, issued a statement declaring, “When implemented, it [the April 2, 2015 P5+1 Framework deal with Iran] will put in place an effective, verifiable, enforceable, long-term plan to guard against the possibility of a new nuclear-armed state in the Middle East.”

Here’s the problem: The framework is a political framework (and even that may not exist anymore). The technicalities of verification are only to be worked out in the next phase of negotiations which ends on June 30. So, Cirincione and the signatories to the Arms Control Association are exposing themselves as either omniscient or prioritizing politics above technocratic expertise.

Many scientists with both technical and verification experience—and they are not the same—are quite dubious with regard to how the agreement is shaping up. Olli Heinonen, former deputy director-general of the IAEA and head of its Department of Safeguards, said, “I’m a little puzzled by the political agreement. You’re going to leave Iran as a threshold state. There isn’t much room to maneuver.”

The fact that the Ploughshares Fund and the Arms Control Association are endorsing the verification aspects of the deal before they have been written—there’s a lot more than just a few “remaining technical details;” this isn’t a case of dotting i’s and crossing t’s—suggests that political hackery has triumphed over any claim to objective non-proliferation expertise. That is a legacy that, alas, will tarnish these organizations long after the current episode of U.S.-Iran talks is over.

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The Iran Nuclear Deal Collapses

Today is National Nuclear Technology Day in Iran, and so a number of senior Iranian officials have given speeches regarding the ongoing negotiations process with the United States and the other members of the P5+1. Long story short: The Framework Agreement, at least that described by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, is dead. It was either a figment of Mr. Kerry’s imagination or simply rejected by the Iranian regime despite the promises and charm of Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister who, alas, has had a history of deceiving American negotiators.

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Today is National Nuclear Technology Day in Iran, and so a number of senior Iranian officials have given speeches regarding the ongoing negotiations process with the United States and the other members of the P5+1. Long story short: The Framework Agreement, at least that described by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, is dead. It was either a figment of Mr. Kerry’s imagination or simply rejected by the Iranian regime despite the promises and charm of Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister who, alas, has had a history of deceiving American negotiators.

Yesterday, the Iranian defense minister ruled out any inspections at military sites, a statement that contradicts Obama’s statements regarding verification. After all, most of the Iranian work on “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program occurred on military bases and, especially, at Parchin.

Today, the supreme leader of Iran, who has hitherto been silent, posted the following statement on his website which the Open Source Center translated:

The Leader of the Revolution, in a meeting with religious eulogists, said: They are asking why has he not taken a position on the nuclear [issue]. There was no need to take a position. The officials are saying that nothing has been done yet and nothing is obligatory. I neither agree nor disagree.

So, what Obama has called a “Framework Agreement” turns out to be nothing at all. Indeed, Khamenei is not optimistic:

Everything is in the details; it is possible that the untrustworthy side wants to restrict our country in the details. Your current congratulations to me and others are meaningless. Whatever has been done so far does not ensure either the principle — and content — or that the talks will reach the end.

Khamenei has thrown down the gauntlet: Either you accept Iran’s positions or Iran walks away. “Not making a deal is more honorable than making a deal that destroys our interests and the nation’s dignity,” Khamenei told an audience of religious eulogists.

And as for Rouhani, whom the Obama administration has consistently misread as a reformist, here’s what he had to say on Iranian television earlier today, with the transcript provided by the Open Source Center:

“The president of America said in those days ‘We have come to this conclusion that the Iranian nation will not surrender to pressure, sanctions and force,” Rouhani said. “Our victory is that the largest military and economic power of the world, that is to say America, and the president of this country, admitted this reality,” he said.

Rouhani then declared, “We will not sign any agreement that does not immediately abolish all economic sanctions from the first day of the implementation of the agreement.”

Completing the troika is Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator. Here’s what he had to say with regard to the State Department’s fact sheet: “The fact sheet is of no legal value and it should not be considered important.”

The Iranian behavior should not surprise. For Iran, the negotiations were never about resolving outstanding nuclear questions. Had they been, negotiations would hardly have been necessary; all Iran had to do was comply with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement with which the International Atomic Energy Agency had, in 2005, found it in breach. Rather, it was about sanctions relief. And, indeed, here Zarif’s behavior has been most telling. Asked on Iranian television about the idea that the sanctions’ architecture would remain in place, in effect allowing sanctions to “snap back” in case of Iranian cheating, as Obama has promised, he reportedly laughed and declared that the international sanctions regime had already collapsed.

President Obama has had his celebration, but it is now time to return to reality and address the farce which he, Secretary of State John Kerry, or their nuclear negotiation team has led the United States. This should not be a partisan football. It is hard to imagine any Democrat or Republican could agree to a plan whose basic principles as described by Obama and Kerry are now no longer valid. Mr. President, Mr. Kerry, please explain what has happened and how this has happened.

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Iran: Military Sites Off-Limits to Inspectors

President Barack Obama called the framework agreement Secretary of State John Kerry and other representatives of the P5+1 reached in Lausanne “historic.” Alas, as time passes and more is learned about the agreement and Iran’s understanding of it, the more it does seem to be “historic,” but for all the wrong reasons.

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President Barack Obama called the framework agreement Secretary of State John Kerry and other representatives of the P5+1 reached in Lausanne “historic.” Alas, as time passes and more is learned about the agreement and Iran’s understanding of it, the more it does seem to be “historic,” but for all the wrong reasons.

One of the key concerns of the international community and the International Atomic Energy Agency has been “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program (see the annex to this IAEA report for a listing of these). Much of the work Iran conducted on military dimensions of a nuclear program occurred in Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities and on their bases.

Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan today said that the Lausanne Framework does not commit Iran to provide international inspectors access to such military facilities. From Fars News:

Iranian Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Brigadier General Hossein Dehqan has rejected reports on inspection of the country’s military facilities being included in the recent deal achieved by Iran and the world powers (P5+1) in Switzerland’s Lausanne on April 2, Fars news agency reported on April 8. According to Fars, commenting on “domestic media highlighting such baseless claims by foreign media about the Lausanne agreement,” Dehqan said, “Such actions do not serve national interests, but in fact set the ground for enemy’s excessive demands… The Supreme Leader’s, the government’s approach and the determination of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team together do not allow the other party to impose anything on the Iranian nation.” Referring to “false claims by foreign media outlets such as the Guardian newspaper” on inspection of the country’s military facilities being a part of the Lausanne statement, Dehqan stressed: “There is no such agreement. Basically, inspection of military facilities is a red line and no inspection of any kind from such facilities would be accepted.”

So the Iranian government now contradicts President Obama’s announcement and the State Department fact-sheet with regard to when sanctions will be lifted, centrifuges, enrichment, and even plutonium. Now let’s add inspections and possible military dimensions to the list. Obama is right. The Lausanne agreement is historic. It will be studied by generations of diplomats who will use it to illustrate American naïveté, Iranian duplicity, and the dangers of not actually gaining agreements in writing.

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Iran Announces Film to Celebrate Israel’s Coming Destruction

President Barack Obama has dismissed arguments that U.S. negotiators should demand that Iran recognize Israel and Israel’s right to exist as part of any final agreement. To do so would be too difficult, the president argues, and not relevant to the narrow goal at hand which is simply to strike an accord to constrain Iran’s nuclear breakout ability for a decade or so. Perhaps no statement better illustrates the moral and cultural equivalence that infuses President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.

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President Barack Obama has dismissed arguments that U.S. negotiators should demand that Iran recognize Israel and Israel’s right to exist as part of any final agreement. To do so would be too difficult, the president argues, and not relevant to the narrow goal at hand which is simply to strike an accord to constrain Iran’s nuclear breakout ability for a decade or so. Perhaps no statement better illustrates the moral and cultural equivalence that infuses President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.

It is akin to saying North Korea seeks South Korea’s destruction and it would be too complicated to impede Pyongyang’s murderous intent. Russian President Vladimir Putin has expansionist intent? Well, let’s not let his imperialist ambitions toward the Baltics, Poland, and the rest of Ukraine get in the way of our diplomacy.

The Iranian regime’s character isn’t some inconvenient detail; it is the central problem. And as if to underline the problem, the Islamic Republic has announced a new documentary film which will celebrate the life of Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani. It’s bad enough lionizing a master terrorist responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the description of the film is even more telling: The film Commander will depict Iran’s and Soleimani’s strategic approach to destroy not only the Islamic State but also “the Zionist regime.” Importantly, the article describing the film was published after agreement on a nuclear framework between the P5+1 and Iran. Let’s hope that with their willful naivete, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry don’t get credit for small but important bit roles.

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Obama’s Right

Whenever Barack Obama says, as he often does, that another war in the Middle East is the only alternative to the deal he is making with Iran, his critics immediately accuse him of setting up a straw man, which indeed he also often does. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the sternest and most effective critic of Obama’s deal, declares that the true alternative to it is not war but “a better deal.” So, too, leading domestic opponents like Senators Lindsay Graham and Tom Cotton.

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Whenever Barack Obama says, as he often does, that another war in the Middle East is the only alternative to the deal he is making with Iran, his critics immediately accuse him of setting up a straw man, which indeed he also often does. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the sternest and most effective critic of Obama’s deal, declares that the true alternative to it is not war but “a better deal.” So, too, leading domestic opponents like Senators Lindsay Graham and Tom Cotton.

Now I consider the agreement Obama has negotiated a dishonorable and dangerous product of appeasement, and so it pains me to side with him against political figures I admire and generally support. Nevertheless, I have to confess that I think he is right in arguing that the only alternative to a deal is war.

By this I do not mean that war is the only alternative to Obama’s deal alone. What I mean is that war is the only alternative to any deal the Iranians would be willing to sign–if, that is, the purpose is really to prevent them from getting the bomb. Obama keeps insisting that this is what his deal will accomplish. But it seems increasingly clear that he no longer thinks, if he ever did, that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons would be so dangerous that it must be prevented at all costs from getting them.

Up until a few years ago, there was hardly any dissent from this conviction. Yet while just about every political leader and pundit throughout the West agreed that the threat of military force had to be “kept on the table” in order for peaceful means to succeed, most of them were confident that a judicious combination of carrots and sticks would do the trick and that military force would never need to be taken off the table and actually used.

There was, however, a small minority–myself included–who contended that the Iranians were so determined to build a nuclear arsenal that nothing, not sanctions and not the chance (in Barack Obama’s words) to “get right with the world,” could ever induce them to give up their pursuit of it. And since we were convinced that negotiations could accomplish nothing but buy the Iranians more time to forge ahead, we also thought that the sooner we bombed their nuclear facilities the better.

We were fully aware that such a course was very risky. It would almost certainly trigger Iranian retaliation against our troops in the region and against Israel, and it might well lead to the dire economic consequences that Iran could let loose by blocking the flow of oil. Yet in our view all this was as nothing compared with the nuclear arms race that an Iranian bomb would set off throughout the Middle East.

Even worse, there was also the high probability that Iran–once possessed of the means to make good on their openly and repeatedly stated dream of “wiping Israel off the map”–would either provoke the Israelis into a preemptive nuclear strike or try to beat them to the punch with a preemptive nuclear strike of its own. Either way, the casualties and the destruction would reach unimaginable heights.

Our position was summed up in the slogan “the only thing worse than bombing Iran is letting Iran get the bomb.” And to those like President Obama who charged us with warmongering, our response was that the choice was not between a negotiated settlement and war. It was between a conventional war now and a nuclear war later.

As for the Obama deal, if its purpose were really to prevent the Iranians from getting the bomb, it would be a total failure, if only because it leaves their nuclear infrastructure intact and gives them plenty of room to cheat. But judging by deeds rather than words, it is reasonable to conclude that what Obama is trying to do is not to keep Iran from getting the bomb but to further his quest for a detente, or even a de facto alliance, with Iran. Already we see the foreshadowing of such an alliance in his willingness to cooperate with the Iranians in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and his reluctance to take any steps in the Middle East (against their ally Syria, for example) that might displease them.

At this point, the slogan that best applies comes from Winston Churchill’s devastating comment on Neville Chamberlain’s pact with Hitler at Munich in 1938: “You were given a choice between dishonor and war. You have chosen dishonor and now you will get war”–and this time a nuclear war at that. Unless, that is, the Israelis were to choose conventional war now over nuclear war later. My guess is that they will, but it is just as likely that Obama, despite his repeated assurances that he “has Israel’s back,” will stop them by threatening to withhold the diplomatic support and the resupply of lost weaponry they would need. In that case God help us all.

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Did the Revolutionary Guards Really Endorse the Nuclear Deal?

One of the problems with American journalists who feel themselves vested in a topic is that they become prone to cherry pick. Hence, the New York Times reported Iranian celebrations in the streets, but failed to report the “Death to America” chants at the state-sanctioned, supreme leader-directed weekly prayers in Tehran and every provincial capital.

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One of the problems with American journalists who feel themselves vested in a topic is that they become prone to cherry pick. Hence, the New York Times reported Iranian celebrations in the streets, but failed to report the “Death to America” chants at the state-sanctioned, supreme leader-directed weekly prayers in Tehran and every provincial capital.

Now, both Agence France Presse and the Associated Press are reporting that Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), has endorsed the nuclear deal. From the Associated Press:

Iranian state television is reporting that the chief of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard has offered his support to Iranian nuclear negotiators. The reported comments by Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari come as some 200 hard-liners protested Tuesday against the framework deal struck last week between Iran and six world powers. State TV’s website quoted Jafari as saying: “With God’s grace, the revolutionary children of Islamic Iran have succeeded in defending the rights of the Iranian nation and the Iranian nation and the Guard appreciate their honest political efforts.” He also said Iran as a nation supported the diplomatic efforts.

Make no mistake, IRGC endorsement would be a positive sign; the lack of IRGC buy-in has been a consistent worry. Alas, the wire services are a bit selective is shaping Jafari’s statement. Here, for example, is Jafari in the Iranian press outlet Tasnim:

“The resistance of the Iranian nation against the United States rendered ineffective the US attempt to impose [its] political will against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Jafari said on the sidelines of a conference. “Thank God, the revolutionary children of Islamic Iran have managed to decently uphold the rights of the Iranian nation in their diplomatic campaign. The Iranian nation and the IRGC appreciate these dear [officials] for their honest efforts, political endeavors, and their resistance [defense] of the specified red lines,” the commander said.

Jafari warned that Washington’s “dishonesty” will create a challenging path ahead of “this diplomatic jihad,” but expressed confidence that Iran’s red lines, including the recognition of its nuclear rights and the removal of all sanctions, will remain “the focal point of the Iranian nation’s demands.” The Iranian nation will support “its nuclear diplomatic front and will not allow misleading tricks from the enemy, particularly the US, in the recent talks, [such as] the fake translation of the joint statement, to tarnish the trust between the nation and government,” the commander added.

Hence, Jafari is not agreeing to the parameters announced by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, but the significantly more permissive interpretation announced by Iranian leaders to their own people. Jafari simply reiterates the idea that Iran’s redlines are restrictions on uranium enrichment and continued sanctions.

The BBC, much like the Open Source Center, also maintains a translation service which has surveyed IRGC-linked websites:

  • The Ammariyon website, close to the IRGC, published an article by hardliner MP Hamid Rasa’i titled “Red lines violated by Lausanne Treaty of Turkmenchay.” (The Treaty of Turkmenchay was the agreement imposed by the Russian Tsar on Iran following its defeat in 1828 which permanently separated what now is Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.)
  • The 598.ir website, also close to the IRGC, likewise criticized the discrepancies between the U.S. version and Iranian versions of the framework. The U.S. factsheet is a non-starter, it suggested.
  • Farhang News, another IRGC outlet, demanded the Iranian government publish its own factsheet.

It’s all well and good for journalists to engage in political spin in order to support a process with which they agree. But, simply repeating mantras of success or cherry picking what news to report does not further understanding; rather, it makes the crash seem all the more sudden.

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The Most Troubling Line in Obama’s NYT Interview

Barack Obama sat down with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman over the weekend to defend his framework nuclear deal. Obama argues that he had a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” and so he gave it a chance. And he also suggests that it was a risk worth taking. “We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that’s the thing … people don’t seem to understand,” he said. This, of course, is ironic because the outside world often accuses Americans of navel-gazing and not caring about reverberations in the rest of the world. Here, however, the president once embraced as a multilateralist messiah—and a leader who won a Nobel Peace Prize on rhetoric alone—pretty much acknowledges that he discounts regional reverberations to his actions.

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Barack Obama sat down with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman over the weekend to defend his framework nuclear deal. Obama argues that he had a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” and so he gave it a chance. And he also suggests that it was a risk worth taking. “We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that’s the thing … people don’t seem to understand,” he said. This, of course, is ironic because the outside world often accuses Americans of navel-gazing and not caring about reverberations in the rest of the world. Here, however, the president once embraced as a multilateralist messiah—and a leader who won a Nobel Peace Prize on rhetoric alone—pretty much acknowledges that he discounts regional reverberations to his actions.

It’s almost as if Gerald Ford held an olive branch out to the Khmer Rouge, saying, “We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk,” never mind the regime’s genocidal ideology. Obama and supporters of his deal, of course, would argue that such a characterization isn’t fair: Obama took pains to tell Friedman how hurt he was that so many in Israel and the United States believed the U.S. president was willing to throw the Jewish state under the bus.

Obama also subtly changes U.S. policy. While across administrations, the policy of the United States was that Iran would not get a nuclear weapon, President Obama now seems to envision a Plan B of nuclear deterrence:

The notion that Iran is undeterrable — “it’s simply not the case,” he added. “And so for us to say, ‘Let’s try’ — understanding that we’re preserving all our options, that we’re not naïve — but if in fact we can resolve these issues diplomatically, we are more likely to be safe, more likely to be secure, in a better position to protect our allies, and who knows? Iran may change. If it doesn’t, our deterrence capabilities, our military superiority stays in place.

First of all, Obama’s confidence is misplaced. The Iranian regime may not be suicidal, but what if it’s terminally ill? The most ideologically pure elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would have custody over any nuclear arsenal, and if the regime were collapsing around them, they might launch for ideological reasons knowing the regime was over anyway. This is one of the reasons why America’s Gulf allies were so upset when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised a trial balloon of a nuclear umbrella should Iran achieve a nuclear weapon.

The most troubling line in Obama’s interview—and one upon which Friedman didn’t push the president—was this:

I’ve been very clear that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon on my watch, and I think they should understand that we mean it.

Here’s the problem: Obama’s watch will last just over another 20 months. The job of a U.S. president isn’t to squander tremendous diplomatic capital and leverage to kick the can down the road for 20 months and then claim, well, “it didn’t happen on my watch.” With this statement, Obama is effectively acknowledging that Iran very well develop a military nuclear capacity during the next administration. After all, the so-called nuclear fatwa which Obama repeatedly cites very specifically avoids the word never.

Obama’s political career may end in 2017. He may be short-sighted enough to care only about what such a deal would mean for him. Alas, neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia nor the rest of the world has the ability to force its security to conform to the exigencies of a Washington political calendar. It’s not Obama’s watch—or any politician’s tenure—that should be the basis for judging a deal’s success. It should be whether or not the deal allows Tehran to pursue a nuclear weapon should it so choose. Alas, it seems, Obama has just acknowledged voiding another red line.

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Iran Understands Momentum; Obama Does Not

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Does Iran Agreement Make an Israeli Unity Government More Likely?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iran Funds the Building of New Terror Tunnels for Hamas

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

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

As Britain’s Daily Telegraph reports:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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America’s Cooperation with Iran in Iraq Has Consequences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rouhani Throws Down the Gauntlet on Lifting Sanctions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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