Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iran

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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First Friday Prayers after Deal: “Death to America”

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

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

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

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

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

John Kerry, call your office.

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How Does Iran Interpret the Agreement?

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

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

Here’s what Obama had to say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the Tehran Times’s understanding:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lausanne and an Empowered Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Will Iran Celebrate National Nuclear Technology Day?

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

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

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

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

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This Is Not a Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What’s the Counter-Revolutionary Guard Strategy?

President Obama’s belief that a popular mandate motivates the Iranian regime’s desire to negotiate is naïve. After all, sovereignty in the Islamic Republic of Iran comes from God, not ordinary people. Still, among the true believers for the current outreach to Iran, Iranian politics is an important aspect of strategy. In private, Obama administration officials who push the current diplomacy track argue that this is a Deng Xiaoping moment, that is, by engaging with a supposed reformer like President Hassan Rouhani, the United States and the rest of the P5+1 can help him overcome his own internal adversaries and consolidate reformism within the Islamic Republic. Let’s put aside that this is a tremendous misreading of Rouhani, a regime loyalist whose career shows he is the supreme leader’s fixer and a man close to the intelligence ministry, an element clearly reflected in Rouhani’s cabinet picks. And let’s also put aside the fact that, on the 30th anniversary of the seizure of the American Embassy, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned the United States not to play this game. “[Reformists] can’t roll out the red carpet for the United States in our country,” he declared.

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President Obama’s belief that a popular mandate motivates the Iranian regime’s desire to negotiate is naïve. After all, sovereignty in the Islamic Republic of Iran comes from God, not ordinary people. Still, among the true believers for the current outreach to Iran, Iranian politics is an important aspect of strategy. In private, Obama administration officials who push the current diplomacy track argue that this is a Deng Xiaoping moment, that is, by engaging with a supposed reformer like President Hassan Rouhani, the United States and the rest of the P5+1 can help him overcome his own internal adversaries and consolidate reformism within the Islamic Republic. Let’s put aside that this is a tremendous misreading of Rouhani, a regime loyalist whose career shows he is the supreme leader’s fixer and a man close to the intelligence ministry, an element clearly reflected in Rouhani’s cabinet picks. And let’s also put aside the fact that, on the 30th anniversary of the seizure of the American Embassy, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned the United States not to play this game. “[Reformists] can’t roll out the red carpet for the United States in our country,” he declared.

The biggest gap in the logic of Obama’s nuclear talks and the broader strategy—if one exists—surrounding those talks has to do with the Revolutionary Guards. On one hand, if Obama really believes that the nuclear talks can bolster reformism inside the Islamic Republic, he must recognize that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is the regime’s Praetorian Guard, charged with defense of the revolutionary ideology against all enemies, foreign or domestic. This means that for muddle-through reform to occur, the IRGC must first be defeated or its power significantly diminished.

On the other hand, the military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program are likely controlled by the IRGC and should the Iranian government choose to develop a nuclear weapon, it would be the IRGC which would likely have command and control over any resulting arsenal. Then, too, it behooves the United States to have a strategy to degrade and defeat the IRGC.

Herein lies a major problem: While the Obama administration focuses upon (and perhaps misanalyzes) what we know about Iran, it ignores what we don’t know. Obsessed as American diplomats are with the spectrum of hardliners and reformers across the Islamic Republic’s political spectrum, they ignore the fact that they have little to no insight into the factional divisions within the IRGC. Now, such factional divisions do exist. Some Iranians anecdotally join the IRGC for the privileges membership bestows, but may not be true believers. Others, however, may truly subscribe to the xenophobic, paranoid, and aggressive ideology which the IRGC preaches. Other divisions are possible upon pragmatic rather than ideological fault lines. During my first trip to Iran in 1996, for example, it quickly became apparent that there was a major problem within the Iranian military broadly and the IRGC specifically with regard to the regime’s care for wounded warriors from the Iran-Iraq War.

Regardless of one’s reading of Iranian politics, and regardless about whether Iran cheats on any deal, it is going to be necessary to devise a strategy to exacerbate divisions within the IRGC in order to weaken and, hopefully, defeat that organization. Alas, here the Obama administration has fallen asleep at the switch. The true tragedy is, of course, that without a more coherent strategy to undercut the IRGC, any diplomatic deal limited to Iran’s nuclear program will backfire.

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Repercussions from Bad Iran Deal Go Beyond Region

It’s become conventional wisdom—rightly—to assume that a bad Iran deal will unleash a cascade of proliferation across the region. Saudi Arabia has made no secret that it will purchase a nuclear weapon (or capability) should a deal confirm Iran’s nuclear-weapons capability. And if Saudi Arabia goes nuclear, then so too will Egypt and Turkey. But, as my American Enterprise Institute colleagues Dan Blumenthal and Ed Linczer have pointed out, the reverberations will go far beyond the region. Indeed, to look into the crystal ball on the Iran deal is simply to see North Korea today. North Korea often plays “Look at me” when it feels ignored or slighted. The Iran deal already appears far more generous than that offered to Pyongyang twenty years ago by the Clinton administration, and so it is natural that North Korea will now sabre-rattle in order to extract a far higher price than even that unwisely offered by Clinton two decades ago.

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It’s become conventional wisdom—rightly—to assume that a bad Iran deal will unleash a cascade of proliferation across the region. Saudi Arabia has made no secret that it will purchase a nuclear weapon (or capability) should a deal confirm Iran’s nuclear-weapons capability. And if Saudi Arabia goes nuclear, then so too will Egypt and Turkey. But, as my American Enterprise Institute colleagues Dan Blumenthal and Ed Linczer have pointed out, the reverberations will go far beyond the region. Indeed, to look into the crystal ball on the Iran deal is simply to see North Korea today. North Korea often plays “Look at me” when it feels ignored or slighted. The Iran deal already appears far more generous than that offered to Pyongyang twenty years ago by the Clinton administration, and so it is natural that North Korea will now sabre-rattle in order to extract a far higher price than even that unwisely offered by Clinton two decades ago.

The question is whether that will be a price the United States can afford. After all, Obama’s “pivot to Asia” has been rhetorical only; the U.S. Navy had more ships in the Pacific Ocean under President Jimmy Carter than it has in its entire arsenal today. And, while Iran’s ability to eradicate Israel is today merely theoretically, the South Korean capital Seoul is well within North Korean artillery range.

Secretary of State John Kerry may celebrate an agreement to reach an agreement. And, if that’s the only metric by which he judges international security, then he will have been successful. But if the goal was to prevent an Iranian nuclear breakout and to make the world safer, he has failed, and failed miserably.

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Don’t Fall into Ratcheted Negotiation Trap on Iran

My recent book, Dancing with the Devil, examines both the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and the strategies U.S. adversaries use when sitting across the negotiation table from American diplomats. While the State Department has never conducted a lessons-learned review from past episodes of diplomacy with rogue regimes in general or Iran in particular, Iranian diplomats are negotiating straight from a well-established and successful playbook, one used successfully by Tehran in past rounds and also used to maximum advantage by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

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My recent book, Dancing with the Devil, examines both the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and the strategies U.S. adversaries use when sitting across the negotiation table from American diplomats. While the State Department has never conducted a lessons-learned review from past episodes of diplomacy with rogue regimes in general or Iran in particular, Iranian diplomats are negotiating straight from a well-established and successful playbook, one used successfully by Tehran in past rounds and also used to maximum advantage by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

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.

Cases in point: On May 31, 2006, Condoleezza Rice announced the resumption of direct U.S. talks with Iran and the enhancement of the incentive package. It was supposed to be the final, leave-it-or-take-it moment to get Iran to negotiate seriously. Alas, that never happened. But because that had already been put on the table, the next time diplomats wanted to achieve the same aim, there simply was an inflation among incentives. Then, On September 15, 2006, the European Union dropped its demand that Iran comply with IAEA and Security Council demands for enrichment suspension. Some proponents of the current talks, the National Iranian American Council for example, say that diplomacy is the best option because Iran had continued to enrich uranium during periods of coercion. What they omit, however, is that it was actually periods of diplomacy which blessed that Iranian practice. It was during this period of diplomacy that Iran increased its centrifuge capacity from 164 to 3,000.

So what will the next round bring? For Secretary of State John Kerry, getting the Iranians to the table might be a sign of progress. But if he had any sense of Iranian negotiating behavior, he would recognize a pattern. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sees him not as a friend, but rather a fiddle to play. Alas, Zarif has proven himself the maestro.

How to counter the problem? Iran must know that every deal on the table is the most generous deal they can ever expect. Every time talks break off, coercion (for example, banking sanctions must snap back to their full application) and the future incentives must lower considerably. With oil half of what it was last year–and, therefore, Iran’s income taking a significant hit–it’s time to let Tehran truly ponder what the road not taken would mean.

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The Menendez Indictment and the Future of the Pro-Israel, Hawkish Democrat

To adapt the old saying about luck: It sometimes seems as though if New Jersey residents had no corrupt politicians, we’d have no politicians at all. That perception of ever-present corruption can warp the expectations game. And it can also work against accused politicians: the astounding power of federal prosecutors is no doubt abused and sometimes the accused is innocent. This is what the Jewish supporters of Bob Menendez, who was indicted on corruption charges today, are struggling with as they face losing an increasingly rare pro-Israel liberal.

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To adapt the old saying about luck: It sometimes seems as though if New Jersey residents had no corrupt politicians, we’d have no politicians at all. That perception of ever-present corruption can warp the expectations game. And it can also work against accused politicians: the astounding power of federal prosecutors is no doubt abused and sometimes the accused is innocent. This is what the Jewish supporters of Bob Menendez, who was indicted on corruption charges today, are struggling with as they face losing an increasingly rare pro-Israel liberal.

There are several clouds hanging over this situation, complicating the issue. The first is the horrid behavior of federal prosecutors in recent years. There was the witch hunt over the Valerie Plame leak, in which prosecutors turned their attention to hounding, harassing, and threatening to jail and bankrupt Karl Rove and in the end jailing Scooter Libby (on perjury) while ignoring the actual leaker in the case, Richard Armitage.

More recently, we saw the appalling case of Ted Stevens, the long-serving Republican senator from Alaska. In 2008, just a few months before Election Day, federal prosecutors indicted him on false charges relying on allegations coaxed from a cooperating witness who was saving his own skin. He was convicted a week before the election, which he lost. Roll Call recounts what happened next:

After trial we learned that government prosecutors concealed compelling evidence from the defense. The cooperating witness did not come up with the “covering his ass” testimony until right before trial and his previous inconsistent statements were hidden from the defense. Likewise, the government concealed evidence that its star witness had suborned perjury from an underage prostitute with whom the star witness had an illegal sexual relationship. And the government concealed evidence that another witness — whom the government flew back to Alaska away from the Washington, D.C., trial after their mock cross-examination of him went poorly — had told the senator that the bills he received and promptly paid included all of the work that was done.

Stevens was finally cleared after the election, and died in a 2010 plane crash. It is this behavior that reminds us someone must be watching the watchers, that the abuses of a government prosecutor with an axe to grind won’t be hypothetical, they will be real and they will cost innocent people dearly. The case against Menendez will also probably hinge on getting the cooperation of his associate Salomon Melgen, who was also indicted and therefore will be pressured to make a deal and turn on Menendez, and the all-too-real corruption of federal prosecutors should loom in the public’s imagination before they jump to conclusions and declare Menendez guilty from the start.

Another cloud over this case is the timing. There is no evidence that the charges against Menendez, who has been the most strident critic of President Obama’s appeasement of Iran, were ginned up to silence him. And it’s quite likely that the statute of limitations on bringing charges is the deciding factor here. Just because he’s being prosecuted does not mean he’s being persecuted.

Nonetheless, losing a powerful Democrat who is both a dedicated friend of Israel and an opponent of capitulation on Iranian nukes right at the moment a deal appears to be taking shape leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of the Jewish community. President Obama has gone on a public campaign against Israel’s government and even downgraded the U.S.-Israel military alliance while Israel was at war, and he has had success in his campaign to turn Israel into a partisan issue to drive a wedge between the remaining pro-Israel Democrats and the Jewish state.

All of which is why the Jewish community hasn’t been shy in voicing its support for Menendez. This support was the subject of a New York Times article this week:

By the end of 2014, Mr. Menendez had raised more than $200,000 for his legal fund — nearly a quarter of all its receipts — from political donors who have also given to pro-Israel political action committees, according to an examination of financial documents filed by the Robert Menendez Legal Expense Trust.

The Times gets at why the Israel issue is so important:

That line of thinking frustrates some Jewish and pro-Israel Democrats, who say Mr. Menendez has earned their gratitude but who will not go quite as far in alleging a conspiracy against him.

What’s more, Jewish leaders said, Mr. Menendez has won over the community on issues outside Iran’s nuclear program. He has been a staunchly liberal voice on matters of social policy; as the Senate’s only Hispanic Democrat, Mr. Menendez has been a champion of immigration reform, a popular measure in the Jewish community.

Certainly true. But if Menendez goes away, whoever replaces him in the Senate will hold the liberal line on immigration and social policy anyway. Much of the Jewish community adheres to a liberal policy agenda that is a dime a dozen in New Jersey. What bothers Jewish Democrats about all this is the suggestion–wholly and completely true–that Menendez’s approach to Israel and Iran policy sets him apart.

He is not the only pro-Israel Democrat, far from it. And he is not the only Democrat with concerns about Obama’s détente with Iran or the president’s relentless sniping at the Israelis. But as ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and with his willingness to publicly dress down the president from the floor of the Senate, he represents a species of Democrat that is going quickly extinct.

A voting record only tells part of the story (much of the Obama presidency has been spent trying to stop Iran bills from coming to the floor in the first place). When Jewish Democrats see the adulation for Menendez in their community, especially one that crosses party lines, they know it’s not because of immigration, even if they’d like it to be.

It’s understandable for the Jewish community to show Menendez their support, especially before a trial even takes place. But it’s also important for Democrats to realize how their party will look to that same community if there’s no one to fill his shoes.

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Iran and the John Kerry School of Negotiation

Last year, I traded in my old 2003 Nissan for a new car. I wish I hadn’t and instead had the opportunity to sell it either to Secretary of State John Kerry or the American negotiating team with Iran. It’s blue book value was probably around $1,500. I’m sure if I made $1,250 my opening bid, Kerry would come back with $5,000. Maybe I could reach an agreement on that figure, but back away at the last minute and perhaps get $20,000. Now, three of the four door handles had broken on the car and it had a big rust stain on its side panel thanks to a careless parker at Dulles Airport, but perhaps I could feign grievance and demand an extra $35,000 just so Kerry could demonstrate he wasn’t guilty after all.

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Last year, I traded in my old 2003 Nissan for a new car. I wish I hadn’t and instead had the opportunity to sell it either to Secretary of State John Kerry or the American negotiating team with Iran. It’s blue book value was probably around $1,500. I’m sure if I made $1,250 my opening bid, Kerry would come back with $5,000. Maybe I could reach an agreement on that figure, but back away at the last minute and perhaps get $20,000. Now, three of the four door handles had broken on the car and it had a big rust stain on its side panel thanks to a careless parker at Dulles Airport, but perhaps I could feign grievance and demand an extra $35,000 just so Kerry could demonstrate he wasn’t guilty after all.

I wish this was a silly example, but increasingly it seems accurate. And I wish we were talking about negotiating poorly over a used car rather than allowing Iran a capability which could endanger millions of lives.

It’s worth remembering where this started: President Barack Obama entered office promising a new era for multilateralism and diplomacy. Heck, he won a Nobel Peace Prize on his rhetoric alone. He has transformed himself into the most unilateral president the United States has experienced. It’s all well and good to bash George W. Bush, but under Bush there had been a succession of unanimous or near-unanimous UN Security Council resolutions all demanding Iran cease enriching uranium. Obama and Kerry came in, however, affirming Iran’s right to enrich uranium, undercutting the will of the international community with a wave of their hand. But was it realistic to demand zero enrichment? The Kuwaitis should be thankful that Iraq did not invade them under the watch of Team Obama. After all, Obama might simply have acquiesced to Iraqi tyranny by saying it was no longer realistic to expect Kuwaiti sovereignty.

It’s not just blessing Iran’s enrichment that is problematic. The “Possible Military Dimensions” is not something which should be shunted aside. After all, if Iran’s goal was simply to power air conditioners or plasma flatscreens in Tehran’s swank northern neighborhoods, it’s doubtful they would have experimented with nuclear bomb triggering devices. But they did. Oh, Mr. Kerry, I didn’t mention that my 2003 Nissan only has three wheels? Oops, my bad. Now, it may be true that the Iranian leadership changed their mind about the direction of their nuclear program back around 2003 (against the backdrop of the invasion of Iraq, it might be impolite to add). But what’s to stop them just as easily from changing their minds again in the future? It’s a question which Kerry should answer. And if he cannot provide that guarantee, then maybe I should demand another 100 grand for my Nissan. After all, Kerry’s a man who at this point will accept anything.

The silliest part of this whole process is that the United States and, more broadly, the P5+1 had amazing leverage. Iran’s economy had shrunk 5.4 percent before negotiations ever began, and that was before the price of oil halved, with Iran’s income along with it. Most Cold War historians now acknowledge that the United States won the Cold War by bankrupting the Soviet Union, though they disagree on largely partisan lines about the degree to which Ronald Reagan deserves the credit. That’s an argument for another day. The proper analogy for Kerry and perhaps Obama would be if they threw all Western allies under the bus in order to gather up the funds to subsidize the failing Soviet Empire in its hour of need. Actually, an even better analogy would be if they donated billions of dollars to the Soviet cause, all the while acquiescing to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its consolidation of power in Southeast Asia and Africa. It’s time to step back, see the forest through the trees, and recognize the Iran deal for what it is. And, while we’re at it, Mr. Kerry, my Nissan is yours for only $2,350,000; please excuse the cracks in the windshield and the missing trunk.

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How Republicans Keep Bailing Out Obama’s Inept Foreign Policy

The Obama administration’s nuclear negotiators are learning a tough lesson: you can’t succeed in high-stakes international diplomacy with only carrots. So naturally, they’re leaning on Republicans in Congress–the group the Obama White House has treated as the true enemy here–for the sticks. It’s not the first time. It turns out Obama doesn’t really want to exclude the GOP from foreign policy after all; he merely wants them to wait until he’s on the verge of failure to intervene on his behalf.

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The Obama administration’s nuclear negotiators are learning a tough lesson: you can’t succeed in high-stakes international diplomacy with only carrots. So naturally, they’re leaning on Republicans in Congress–the group the Obama White House has treated as the true enemy here–for the sticks. It’s not the first time. It turns out Obama doesn’t really want to exclude the GOP from foreign policy after all; he merely wants them to wait until he’s on the verge of failure to intervene on his behalf.

A couple of news outlets picked up on State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf’s comments yesterday, in which she expressed the administration’s growing frustration with Iran. The Iranians have been offered the store, and they keep delaying. Harf was reduced to wondering what the Iranians could possibly want–How can we get you behind the wheel of this nuclear accord today?–and threatening to get the adults involved. From Haaretz:

The deadline for reaching a framework agreement between Iran and the six world powers — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — on Iran’s nuclear program ends at midnight Tuesday. Despite continuous talks and marathon meetings between the negotiating teams at this city’s Beau Rivage Palace Hotel Monday, gaps still remain between the parties’ positions.

The American team began showing signs of irritation at Iran’s conduct Monday afternoon, with acting State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf saying in an interview with CNSNews.com that the time had come to see whether the Iranians were capable of taking decisions. “So we really need to see from the Iranians if they’re willing to get to yes here,” she said.

“Everyone knows that Congress is waiting to act if we can’t get to an agreement,” she noted.

Let’s set aside whether in fact “everyone knows” that piece of information, because the Obama administration has been working to undermine, water down, delay, and in many cases prevent sanctions against Iran throughout this presidency, present time very much included. The interesting aspect to Harf’s comments is that the administration is not even attempting to play both good cop and bad cop here (the State Department used to utilize the late Richard Holbrooke for such roles); she’s pointing out that if negotiations fail Congress will act, and the president might not be able to stop them.

This is nothing new. I wrote in June 2012 that when the State Department was trumpeting the freeing of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng while Hillary was in Beijing, it turned out that what had the greatest effect on the negotiations over his release were the actions of Congress. Republicans held a hearing to draw attention to Chen’s plight, and it made the Chinese government nervous. That, at least, was what the Chinese government seemed to indicate.

And it’s been confirmed by Chen as well. “The Blind Dissident,” as he’s known, just released a memoir of his struggle for freedom. The Wall Street Journal’s David Feith reviewed it, and pointed to Chen’s own characterization of the fight over his release. Here’s Feith:

Once in talks with their Chinese counterparts, though, U.S. officials, fearful of spoiling the bilateral mood before a high-level summit set for the following week, buckled. According to Mr. Chen, within two days they began pressuring him to leave the embassy and accept assurances of his safety from the same Chinese government that had detained, tortured and otherwise brutalized him for seven years. “Negotiating with a government run by hooligans,” he writes, “the country that most consistently advocated for democracy, freedom, and universal human rights had simply given in.”

So how’d he get free? Feith explains: “Republican Chris Smith, Democrat Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers ‘proved to be principled and fearless friends of the Chinese people,’ he writes, and ‘the voice of the American people made itself strongly felt at the bargaining table.’ Two weeks later, with his wife and two children, Mr. Chen was on a flight to the U.S.”

The point isn’t to remove all credit from Clinton. I imagine that having the secretary of state in Beijing for a high-profile visit and negotiating in person helped tremendously. It’s possible, even likely, that both Clinton and the Chris Smith-led congressional effort were necessary, and that Chen’s freedom wouldn’t have been secured without them.

And that’s the point. In neither case–the China deal or the Iran deal–were Congress’s essential efforts recognized and appreciated by the administration at the time. Congressional Republicans, especially, were treated as boorish intruders who didn’t understand the intricacies and delicate nuances of international diplomacy. That was false then, and it’s false now.

The truth is that Obama needs congressional Republicans. He has a habit of wandering into situations for which he’s unprepared, and he needs Republicans to intervene to stave off disaster. The idea of the Republicans as the adults in the room certainly clashes with the media’s shallow narrative of events. But what matters most is that despite his public statements, Obama seems to realize that responsible international diplomacy requires the involvement of his political rivals, whether he likes it or not.

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America’s Doing More Harm Than Good at the UN Human Rights Council

Not much attention is paid to the activities of United Nations agencies. To the extent that some of the world body’s work is on behalf of the world’s disadvantaged populations or children, that’s too bad. But the fact that the arm of the UN that is tasked with monitoring human rights around the world remains a cesspool of anti-Semitism and hatred against Israel and Jews is something that also deserves more attention than it gets. As UN Watch reports, the 28th session of the UN Human Rights Council wrapped up last week by passing four resolutions condemning Israel for alleged violations while largely ignoring much of what goes on in countries that actually trash the rights of their people. This isn’t surprising since that’s what the UNHRC has been doing throughout its history. But this latest instance of bias and lack of concern for its actual responsibilities on the issue does raise an important question: what the heck are representatives of the United States still doing there dignifying the HRC’s proceedings with its ineffectual presence at their deliberations in Geneva?

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Not much attention is paid to the activities of United Nations agencies. To the extent that some of the world body’s work is on behalf of the world’s disadvantaged populations or children, that’s too bad. But the fact that the arm of the UN that is tasked with monitoring human rights around the world remains a cesspool of anti-Semitism and hatred against Israel and Jews is something that also deserves more attention than it gets. As UN Watch reports, the 28th session of the UN Human Rights Council wrapped up last week by passing four resolutions condemning Israel for alleged violations while largely ignoring much of what goes on in countries that actually trash the rights of their people. This isn’t surprising since that’s what the UNHRC has been doing throughout its history. But this latest instance of bias and lack of concern for its actual responsibilities on the issue does raise an important question: what the heck are representatives of the United States still doing there dignifying the HRC’s proceedings with its ineffectual presence at their deliberations in Geneva?

The good news about the UNHRC votes is that in each of the four condemnations of Israel, the United States provided the sole no vote. President Obama’s defenders cite this as proof that he is not hostile to the Jewish state. Though the claim would be a little easier to accept if the president did not seek applause for doing something that any American leader ought to take as a matter of course, nevertheless the U.S. did the right thing. It would also be a little easier to cheer these stands if the president and various senior administration officials were not threatening to abandon Israel at the UN in the future because Prime Minister Netanyahu does not always follow Obama’s orders, but that is an argument for a different day.

But however much we might be glad that the U.S. is there to be a sole voice of sanity at the HRC, it’s arguable that even if the president doesn’t decide to stab Israel in the back to vent his pique about the results of the recent election there, America is doing more harm than good by legitimizing this farce by its continuing membership on the council.

It should be pointed out that the UN HRC managed to pass eight resolutions condemning alleged human-rights abuses at its recent sessions. That meant that half of its output was pro-forma attacks on Israel. One of the four resolutions condemned Israel’s presence on the Golan Heights, which it claims harms rights of the inhabitants. Another did the same for its presence in the West Bank and Jerusalem. One demanded “self-determination” for the Palestinians and another treated the existence of Jews living in these areas as an offense against their Arab neighbors.

One may debate the wisdom of Jewish settlements as well as the virtues of a two-state solution, even if the Palestinians have repeatedly demonstrated that they have no interest in such a scheme but prefer to hold onto their desire for destroying the one Jewish state no matter where its borders may be drawn. But to represent the situation in the territories, where the greatest threat to human life remains Palestinian terrorism and the efforts of groups like Hamas to rain down thousands of rockets on Israeli cities last year, as the worst thing happening in the region, let alone the world, illustrates how the HRC remains a theater of the absurd.

As scholar and activist Anne Bayefsky writes on the Fox News website, China, Qatar, Russia, and Saudi Arabia are all members of the HRC, because “protecting human rights is not a condition of being elected to the Council.” The Council ignores or dismisses other more pressing concerns (one resolution about a human-rights catastrophe in Syria where hundreds of thousands have died in the last four years and one non-condemnatory procedural measure about the Islamist tyranny in Iran) while devoting the lion’s share of its time to the campaign to delegitimize Israel.

In doing so, the HRC isn’t merely being unfair or disproportionate but is doing something far more insidious. As Bayefsky writes, “Subverting human rights principles for all turns out to be the other side of the coin of subverting human rights for Jews.” She’s right. Instead of treating the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel as one in which the two sides must try to reconcile competing rights, the HRC renders Jewish rights to self-determination and self-defense as unworthy of respect. That is to say, the HRC refuses to grant the one Jewish state in the world the same rights granted without argument to every other people. The term for such discriminatory treatment meted out to Jews is anti-Semitism.

As such, this is a forum that no self-respecting democracy ought to dignify with their presence. The lonely U.S. votes against this madness are not so much principled as they are granting the HRC an undeserved legitimacy. Past presidents have at times tried to step back from this disreputable body but President Obama’s obsessive affection for the UN has taken such a step off the table. Indeed, by staying on there, he seems to be using America’s votes as leverage to pressure Israel’s governments into taking steps its electorate has already specifically rejected at the polls.

Whoever it is that replaces President Obama in the White House will have a full plate of inherited foreign-policy crises to untangle in January 2017. But last week’s votes serve as a reminder that one of the items on the 45th president’s “to do list” ought to be pulling out of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

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Was the Houthi Takeover in Yemen Inevitable?

Yemen is in free-fall. Its former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was a cynic, and his vice president and post-Arab Spring successor Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, indecisive. Throw into the mix ungovernable spaces, southern separatism, and an al-Qaeda branch, and the Houthis are simply the icing on a cake of dysfunction.

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Yemen is in free-fall. Its former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was a cynic, and his vice president and post-Arab Spring successor Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, indecisive. Throw into the mix ungovernable spaces, southern separatism, and an al-Qaeda branch, and the Houthis are simply the icing on a cake of dysfunction.

The Houthis, of course, have not always been Iranian proxies. Just a few years ago, the Iranian press largely ignored them. They might have been Shi‘ite, but they were Zaydi rather than Twlever Shi‘ites. Theologically, this means that they diverged in their recognition of who was the rightful Imam somewhere toward the end of the seventh century AD. In reality, while technically Shi‘ite, the Houthis have long hewn closer to the Sunnis in terms of jurisprudence. When I bumped into a Houthi delegation in Karbala, Iraq, late last fall, some joked that they were there to get up to speed on the Shi‘ite credentials they had lacked for centuries.

That said, it’s hard to deny Iranian influence among the Houthis, circa 2015 at least. When looking back over the past few months, the rise of the Houthis to their current position seems far from inevitable. The Houthis waited several weeks on the outskirts of Sana’a before taking the capital in September 2014. Even then, however, they waited several months before staging the coup against Hadi, never mind driving southward toward Aden.

Many analysts have compared the Houthis to Lebanese Hezbollah. They are both members of the Shi‘ite minority within their respective countries, but have accepted Iranian largesse and training and, apparently, at times command and control. There are major differences, of course. The Houthis are far from as disciplined and organized as Hezbollah although, to be fair, Hezbollah has more than a 30-year head start on that. Nor did Hezbollah ever try to digest the whole country as it appears the Houthis now aspire, at least since late January.

The Houthis probably never imagined getting this far. At first, it seemed as if the Houthis were simply taking a page from Hezbollah’s 2008 playbook. That year, Hezbollah deployed its fighters to the center of Beirut and turned its guns on fellow Lebanese, Sunni, Christian, Druze, and Shi‘ite. Hezbollah did not stage a coup, however, choosing instead to accept veto power over the Lebanese government. Why take responsibility for governance, they seem to have figured, when they can blame the government for any ills, not have to hold themselves accountable for the delivery of services, and prevent their political opponents from acting in any way that undercuts their organizational interests?

So why have the Houthis pressed on while Hezbollah stopped? Alas, the answer is more opportunity than naked ambition. At every key moment, the Houthis paused. They stopped outside Sana’a waiting for the United States and the wider world to react, to send some signal that they should not push on. There was none. Then, they entered Sana’a, but then stood down. Again, they were waiting for a response which never came. Fearing no consequence for their actions, they next staged their coup. Then, they pushed further south and eventually came to Yemeni military bases. But here, too, they paused. Some in the military and State Department have suggested that if only the United States had reinforced its presence rather than evacuated it, the Houthis and their sponsors would have understood they could go no farther. I’m not on the ground in Yemen, and certainly am not privy to the intelligence surrounding the Houthi advance, so that’s just speculation, albeit conjecture based on those who are or have been there in recent weeks and months. Regardless, the Houthis advanced, seized the bases, and, along with them, sensitive U.S. intelligence information.

The Houthis and their Iranian sponsors may have pushed too far this time, however, as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and like-minded Arab countries decided enough was enough. Nevertheless, in hindsight, it’s pretty incredible: One of the most amazing things about the complete and utter strategic collapse of the United States in the Middle East is that even U.S. enemies wait to see a response and seem unable to believe their luck when they understand that none will be forthcoming. Seldom if ever are ice hockey metaphors made with regard to Yemen, but there’s always a first time: When we look at how the strategic situation plays itself out there, it’s almost as if President Obama was coaching an ice hockey team and simply decided to pull his goalie in the first period for no reason whatsoever, handing his opponent an effective victory.

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What If There’s No Iran Deal?

Each week seems to bring a new damning portrait of President Obama’s foreign policy from a different major news outlet. They say essentially the same thing but, like fingerprints, aren’t exactly the same. And Politico’s piece on Thursday by Michael Crowley stood out for providing a quote from the Obama administration that may rise above even the infamous “leading from behind” slogan the White House has rued since the words were spoken. What it lacks in bumper-sticker brevity it more than makes up for in stunning honesty.

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Each week seems to bring a new damning portrait of President Obama’s foreign policy from a different major news outlet. They say essentially the same thing but, like fingerprints, aren’t exactly the same. And Politico’s piece on Thursday by Michael Crowley stood out for providing a quote from the Obama administration that may rise above even the infamous “leading from behind” slogan the White House has rued since the words were spoken. What it lacks in bumper-sticker brevity it more than makes up for in stunning honesty.

Here’s how the Politico article closes, with a quote from an administration official:

“The truth is, you can dwell on Yemen, or you can recognize that we’re one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord on Iran that tackles what every one agrees is the biggest threat to the region,” the official said.

The Obama administration’s official perspective on the Middle East currently engulfed in brutal sectarian conflict, civil war, and the collapse of state authority is: Let it burn. Nothing matters but a piece of paper affirming a partnership with the region’s key source of instability and terror in the name of a presidential legacy.

But there’s another question that’s easy to miss in the frenetic, desperate attempt to reach a deal with Iran: What if there’s no deal?

Obviously the president wants a deal, and he’s willing to do just about anything for it. The Obama administration long ago abandoned the idea that a bad deal is worse than no deal, and only recently began hinting at this shift in public. Officials have no interest in even talking about Yemen while they’re negotiating the Iran deal. It’s a singleminded pursuit; obsessive, irrational, ideologically extreme. But it’s possible the pursuit will fail: witness today’s New York Times story demonstrating that the Iranians are still playing hardball. (Why wouldn’t they? Their demands keep getting met.)

Surely it’s appalling for the administration to be so dismissive of the failure of a state, such as Yemen, in which we’ve invested our counterterrorism efforts. But it also shifts the power structure in the region. Take this piece in the Wall Street Journal: “Uncertain of Obama, Arab States Gear Up for War.” In it, David Schenker and Gilad Wenig explain that “The willingness of Arab states to finally sacrifice blood and treasure to defend the region from terrorism and Iranian encroachment is a positive development. But it also represents a growing desperation in the shadow of Washington’s shrinking security role in the Middle East.”

They also note the Arab League’s record isn’t exactly a monument to competent organization, so it’s not a great stand-in for an American government looking to unburden itself as a security guarantor for nervous Sunni allies. And it adds yet another note of instability.

Yemen’s only the latest example of the realignment, of course. The death toll in Syria’s civil war long ago hit six digits, and it’s still raging. Bashar al-Assad, thanks to his patron Iran and Tehran’s complacent hopeful partner in Washington, appears to have turned a corner and is headed to eventual, bloody victory.

The Saudis are toying with joining the nuclear arms race furthered by the Obama administration’s paving the Iranian road to a bomb. In Iraq, as Michael Weiss and Michael Pregent report, our decision to serve as Iran’s air force against ISIS has grotesque consequences, including that our military is now “providing air cover for ethnic cleansing.” Iran’s proxies, such as those in Lebanon and on Israel’s borders, will only be further emboldened.

And the lengths the administration has gone to elbow Israel out of the way–from leaking Israel’s nuclear secrets to intervening in its elections to try to oust those critical of Obama’s nuclear diplomacy–only cement the impression that to this president, there is room for every erstwhile ally under the bus, if that’s what it takes to get right with Iran. The view from France, meanwhile, “is of a Washington that seems to lack empathy and trust for its long-time friends and partners — more interested in making nice with Iran than looking out for its old allies.”

The ramifications to domestic politics are becoming clear as well. The point of Obama portraying foreign-government critics as Republicans abroad is that he sees everything in binary, hyperpartisan fashion. The latest dispatch from the Wall Street Journal on the issue includes this sentence:

In recent days, officials have tried to neutralize skeptical Democrats by arguing that opposing President Barack Obama would empower the new Republican majority, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Taking a tough line on Iranian nukes is bad, according to Obama, because it could help Republicans. It’s a rather amazing bit of myopia and partisan mania from the president.

And yet all this damage Obama is doing is for an Iran deal that might, in the end, not happen. And what if that’s the case? We can’t stitch Yemen, Syria, and Iraq back together. The failure of the negotiations won’t make the Saudis or the Israelis or the French trust Obama any more.

Obama’s clout on the Hill will plummet. And his legacy will be in ruins. After all, though he has been on pace to sign a bad Iran deal, it would at least buy him time for his devotees to spin the deal before its worst consequences happen (which would be after Obama leaves office, as designed). In other words, signing a bad deal for Obama allows him to say that at least from a narrow antiwar standpoint, all the costs we and our allies have incurred were for a purpose.

Of course, the grand realignment Obama has been seeking with Iran can’t and won’t be undone. That’s happening whether a deal is signed or not. And while Obama will have spent much of his own political capital, the president’s wasted time will pale in comparison to the smoldering ruins of American influence he leaves behind.

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