Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iran

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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What Does Current Morass Say About Middle East Studies?

The Middle East is in chaos. And while the sectarian and ideological forces which tear the region apart would exist regardless of U.S. policy, decisions made by President Barack Obama and his team of advisors have effectively thrown fuel on the fire. While history might be critical of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, oust Saddam Hussein, and seek to establish a democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East, historians will likely be far more critical of Obama’s decisions or, in some cases, failure to make decisions, and the impact of that action and inaction on countries like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Turkey, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Egypt.

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The Middle East is in chaos. And while the sectarian and ideological forces which tear the region apart would exist regardless of U.S. policy, decisions made by President Barack Obama and his team of advisors have effectively thrown fuel on the fire. While history might be critical of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, oust Saddam Hussein, and seek to establish a democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East, historians will likely be far more critical of Obama’s decisions or, in some cases, failure to make decisions, and the impact of that action and inaction on countries like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Turkey, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Egypt.

For more than a half century U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East has been largely consistent and bipartisan. President Dwight Eisenhower briefly tried to reorient the basis of American policy away from close ties with Israel to a broader alliance favoring Arab states and the Arab narrative—hence the Suez debacle—but he quickly discovered that Israel simply made a better and more consistent ally than the likes of Gamal Abdul Nasser or the myriad Arab leaders, many of whom were simply the latest coup leaders.

It’s worth considering why Obama is such an outlier. While, on paper, Obama might be expected to be the most international president—with Kenyan family and a boyhood in Indonesia—when it comes to the Middle East, he had little practical background. His introduction to the region appears to have occurred in American universities, if not directly in Middle East Studies courses, than through his friendship and close association with Middle East Studies luminaries like Rashid Khalidi and perhaps Edward Said as well.

Martin Kramer, currently president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, penned in 2001 one of the best researched, careful, and damning assessments of Middle Eastern Studies, in which he traced the inverse relationship between its polemics and relevance. Much of this can be traced back to Edward Said. Said, is of course, famous for penning Orientalism, perhaps the most influential book in Middle East Studies in the last half century. Few people who cite Orientalism, however, have ever read it. If they had, they would readily see the emperor had no clothes, for Said’s essay is so full of errors of both fact and logic as to suggest scholarly incompetence if not academic fraud. Quite simply, the reason why Said is so popular on campus today is because his argument became a blessing to prioritize polemic and politics above fact and scholarly rigor. For Said, up was down, wrong was right, and power was original sin.

Rashid Khalidi, a close friend of Obama from their mutual University of Chicago days, now holds a chair named in Said’s honor at Columbia University. He has consistently argued that politicians and diplomats do not listen to those like himself who claim expertise in the Middle East. This was a complaint which permeated his 2004 book Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East, which I reviewed here. The irony here, of course, is that Khalidi, who was previously the PLO spokesman in Beirut, had never been to Iraq but nevertheless castigated policymakers for ignoring his advice on the subject.

Khalidi, as with many others in his field, both sought to prioritize and amplify the importance of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. At the same time, he appears obsessed with post-colonial theory. American power is corrosive, and the road to Middle East peace runs through Jerusalem. Likewise, cultural equivalence predominates: what the West calls terrorism is not so black and white. Hateful ideologies? They are simply the result of grievance. America should apologize and understand and accommodate to the position of the other if it is committed truly to peace.

Obama entered office internalizing such beliefs. Rather than act as leader of the free world, he approached the Middle East as a zoning commissioner. What he lacked in understanding, he compensated for with arrogance—dispensing with decades of accumulated wisdom and experience of predecessors both Democrat and Republican. Rather than jump start the peace process, Obama succeeded in setting it back decades.

When it comes to the U.S. military, there are few places with less trust and understanding than the university campus. Generations have now passed through the Ivory Tower since the end of conscription and, especially at elite universities, few professors or students have any experience in or with the military. The U.S. military is treated in an almost cartoonish, condescending fashion. Rather than see its projection as the enabler of peace, Obama—like many of his university colleagues—saw it as an arrow in the U.S. policy quiver with which past American presidents engaged in wars of choice and unjust gunboat diplomacy. Sovereignty and nationalism were enablers of evil; it was the United Nations and other multilateral institutions that held the key to peace and justice, if only they might operate unimpeded by the United States.

Of course, when put to the test, these assumptions failed completely. Obama’s promise to withdraw from Iraq did not win that country peace and stability, but condemned it to a return to terror and war. His failure to intervene in Syria early transferred a situation that might have been resolved with minimum force into a cancer which now spreads throughout the region. His outreach to Iran has shaken decades-long alliances with Arab allies to the core, and broken a trust in the United States and its red lines which will take decades to restore. Never before—not in 1979, not in 1967—has the Middle East been so torn asunder.

And yet, all Obama did was follow the prescriptions taught at so many American universities today: reconcile with Iran, condemn Israel, rationalize terror, trust Islamist movements, and refuse military solutions. The Middle East will test whoever succeeds Obama. It is doubtful that either a Democrat or a Republican will follow Obama’s path. History will treat him as an outlier. Still, it is worth considering whether Obama represents academe’s first grand experiment, enabling area studies professors to see their ideas put into action on the world stage. If so, perhaps it is worth considering whether many Middle Eastern studies programs are repositories of expertise, or rather have transformed themselves because of their own ideological conformity and blinders into a dustbin of wasted potential.

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Iran and the Problem of Off-Site Research

The current U.S. approach to the P5+1 nuclear negotiation seems so bizarre as to be lifted from the Twilight Zone: The deal as it is taking shape fails to address the key concerns which sparked the crisis. Both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry treat Iranian redlines as sacrosanct, but readily dispense with those of the United States or its allies. Obama effectively acts like a battered spouse: he insists the abuser truly loves him, and he lashes out at any friend who speaks honestly about how self-destructive his attitudes are.

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The current U.S. approach to the P5+1 nuclear negotiation seems so bizarre as to be lifted from the Twilight Zone: The deal as it is taking shape fails to address the key concerns which sparked the crisis. Both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry treat Iranian redlines as sacrosanct, but readily dispense with those of the United States or its allies. Obama effectively acts like a battered spouse: he insists the abuser truly loves him, and he lashes out at any friend who speaks honestly about how self-destructive his attitudes are.

As a result, John Kerry’s triumph not only fails to constrain Iranian enrichment or to answer questions about possible military dimensions and past military nuclear research, but also doesn’t address basic fallacies of logic such as why Iran says its motivation is an indigenous energy supply when its gas and oil resources provide far greater security at a fraction of the price, as well as why an above-board program would seek to construct covert, undeclared nuclear sites in the first place.

When it comes to potential weaponization work, there is one other major problem Kerry leaves unaddressed: the problem of off-site research. The Iranians have always been out-of-the-box thinkers. Putting aside that even inside Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) does not have the right by its own bylaws to inspect any covert site—it will only access declared nuclear facilities and sites—nothing in the agreement prevents Iran from setting up collaborative laboratories in countries like North Korea. North Korean and Iranian engineers already are present at each other’s ballistic-missile tests. Former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian has already called North Korea a model for the Islamic Republic to emulate.

And while North Korea is the most secure and likely venue for Iranian scientists to establish satellite laboratories, theHermit Kingdom is not alone as a possible venue for offsite Iranian nuclear work. Russian President Vladimir Putin has quietly encouraged Iran’s nuclear work from the get-go, and may see provision of laboratory space as a way to keep tabs on Iranian work he recognizes is going to continue anyway. Saudi Arabia is trying to flip Sudan, but may not be successful; Khartoum provides another possibility, even if less secure. And should Bashar al-Assad reassert control—as Obama and Kerry now seem to hope—then Syria too might provide some facilities.

Alas, the adage where there’s a will, there’s a way increasingly applies not only to the ability to achieve a preliminary agreement, but also to Iran’s ability to bypass inspections to achieve the weaponry so many Iranian figures have claimed they seek.

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New York Times Whitewashes Iran’s Religious Oppression

My oh my. The New York Times published an interview with Thomas Erdbrink, its man in Tehran, about life in Iran. Here’s what he had to say about religious minorities:

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My oh my. The New York Times published an interview with Thomas Erdbrink, its man in Tehran, about life in Iran. Here’s what he had to say about religious minorities:

Is there a Sunni population there or other minorities? How are they treated? – Phelps Shepard; Monmouth, Ore.

My mother-in-law, who taught me to speak Persian, is an Iranian Kurd. She is a proud and strong woman, loves Iranian Kurdistan just as much as she loves Iran. Kurds are Sunni, but not like Arab Sunnis. Her husband is Shia. They have been happily married for almost 38 years.

Now while there are issues for religious minorities, such as Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews, they are in much better positions compared with minorities in other countries in the region.

In Iran, those minorities have their own members of Parliament and are granted their places of worship. There are dozens of synagogues in Tehran, and thousands of Jews here — the most in the region after Israel.

The minority that has serious problems in Iran are the Baha’i, who are not allowed to attend universities or have houses of worship. Iran’s Shiite clerics do not accept the Baha’i belief that their prophet came after Mohammad, who the Muslims say is the final prophet. — T.E.

Where to begin? Firstly, Iran boasted a Jewish community of more than 100,000 before the Islamic Revolution. Today, it has just one-fifth that. When a community loses 80 percent of its population in a generation or two, that’s hardly evidence of religious and sectarian tolerance. The numbers Erdbrink cites have been cited as conventional wisdom for almost two decades. How sad it is that the paper for which Erdbrink works hasn’t seen fit to actually check the facts it takes at face value.

Nor for that matter are there dozens of synagogues in Tehran: There are a dozen, perhaps 13, many of which stand nearly empty. Does Iran boast more Jews than any other country in the region besides Israel? Hard to say any longer: Turkey may have more. But in a race to the bottom, second place isn’t necessarily a good sign.

Is there a seat in parliament reserved for a Jew? Yes. When I would attend synagogue in Isfahan and Tehran, however, congregants treated that parliamentarian with disdain. Nor did Jews feel free to speak openly inside synagogue; instead, they would hold certain conversations only outside walking along busy streets or against the backdrop of overwhelming noise to defeat the regime’s invisible ears.

Are the Baha’is the only minority to suffer serious problems? No. Sunnis constitute perhaps ten percent of Iran’s population, and are discriminated against hugely. There may be synagogues and churches in Tehran and, indeed, there is an Armenian cathedral in the center of town, but a Sunni mosque in a city of 14 million even though Sunnis number perhaps nine million in Iran? Good luck. Likewise, while Armenians might be tolerated, Protestant churches frequently run into trouble. Christians have disappeared and been murdered, as the State Department human-rights reports have chronicled over the years. How sad it is that Erdbrink doesn’t see fit to mention Saeed Abedini, an Iranian American imprisoned because of his Christian faith.

When it comes to religious freedom, there is no whitewashing Iranian repression. Unless, of course, one works for the New York Times. All the news that’s fit to print, indeed.

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Shi’ite Militias Don’t Cause Iraqi Sunni Extremism

The Obama administration’s willingness to ignore if not facilitate the spread of Iraqi Shi’ite militias into the traditional Sunni heartland of Iraq is shortsighted. Iraqis will say—rightly—that they turned to the militias in their moment of crisis as the Islamic State threatened not only Baghdad but also Karbala (which is closer, as the bird flies, to the Al-Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi than is Baghdad). When I visited a camp in southern Iraq in which Shi’ite volunteers trained to take on the Islamic State, most everyone was sincerely dedicated to the crisis at hand rather than geopolitics. That does not mean hardcore, pro-Iranian militias do not exist—indeed, they do; one only needs to look at Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Qatab Hizbullah and those served by Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani to see that reality—but not every militiaman has shed his Iraqi identity. This is why it’s important for the United States to develop a strategy to reach out to and cultivate Shi’ites without conflating Shi’ism with Iran.

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The Obama administration’s willingness to ignore if not facilitate the spread of Iraqi Shi’ite militias into the traditional Sunni heartland of Iraq is shortsighted. Iraqis will say—rightly—that they turned to the militias in their moment of crisis as the Islamic State threatened not only Baghdad but also Karbala (which is closer, as the bird flies, to the Al-Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi than is Baghdad). When I visited a camp in southern Iraq in which Shi’ite volunteers trained to take on the Islamic State, most everyone was sincerely dedicated to the crisis at hand rather than geopolitics. That does not mean hardcore, pro-Iranian militias do not exist—indeed, they do; one only needs to look at Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Qatab Hizbullah and those served by Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani to see that reality—but not every militiaman has shed his Iraqi identity. This is why it’s important for the United States to develop a strategy to reach out to and cultivate Shi’ites without conflating Shi’ism with Iran.

Many political leaders, diplomats, and military officers are prone, however, to attribute Sunni extremism in Iraq to simply a backlash to Shi’ite sectarianism and the rise of militias. This may be putting the cart before the horse, although it is true that the goal of the United States should be to defeat extremism regardless of the sect.

There are two false assumptions that undercut the thesis that Iraqi Sunni extremism—not only that of the Islamic State but also that of men like Tariq al-Hashemi who sponsored sectarian terrorism to more limited ends—is simply a reaction to Shi’ite militias.

The first is that the evidence doesn’t fit the thesis. If the rise of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria is simply a response to grievances perpetrated by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Iranian backed militias–which the former selectively tolerated and which propped up the latter–then what explains the rise of the Islamic State in Libya or in the Sinai or elsewhere? After all, Sunnis in both Libya and the Sinai don’t face a threat from Shi’ite militias or Shi’ite sectarianism. The common denominator here is not abuses by nefarious, Iranian-backed militias but rather the extremism promoted by and funded through Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar. This is not to suggest that Iranian Shi’ite militias do not pose a serious challenge; they do and should be rolled back. But to focus solely on Shi’ites as the problem is to miss the point.

The second is that too many officials believe that a clear separation exists between Baathism and the most virulent forms of Sunni Islamist extremism. Baathism may have been founded by a Christian as an Arab socialist, secular ideology, but decades before Saddam Hussein’s ouster, it had shed its ideological pedigree and instead simply become a cover for bigotry and tyranny. After his 1991 defeat in Kuwait, Saddam Hussein found religion, hence the Koran written in his blood and “God is Great” written in Arabic on the Iraqi flag. In 2000 and 2001, the Fedayeen Saddam ran around Baghdad, beheading women it considered un-Islamic. The failure to recognize that Baathism is more about power and tyranny than loyalty to any single ideology has cost American lives. While heading the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, Gen. David Petraeus empowered former Baathists. They spoke English and told him the things he wanted to hear. Alas, they also cooperated with the Islamist insurgents, turning over the keys to the insurgents when the subsidies Petraeus paid to them ran dry upon his departure. Many made the mistake in subsequent years. After all, trapped within the walls of the U.S. embassy and seldom traveling outside their own diplomatic bubble, too many diplomats simply reinforced each other’s biases. Then, of course, there is the present crisis. According to former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed Islamic State caliph, had been a Baathist before he decided to form the Islamic State.

Sunni extremism in Iraq is not going to be resolved by blaming outsiders; it is going to require introspection. The real tragedy of Iran’s incursions is, beyond substituting one flavor of extremism for another, it simply provides a distraction and an excuse for Iraqi Sunnis not to address an extremist problem whose cause lies within their own community.

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Iran’s Existential Threat to Israel Not Exaggerated

As President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry rush to a nuclear deal that addresses few of the original issues that have sparked international concern with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, it may be useful to consider just why Israel has come to view a nuclear capable Islamic Republic of Iran as an existential threat. While there is much to criticize in the technicalities of the agreement, the consistency and frequency of Iranian threats against the Jewish state, as well as the prestige within Iran of those who have made such threats, are too often ignored.

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As President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry rush to a nuclear deal that addresses few of the original issues that have sparked international concern with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, it may be useful to consider just why Israel has come to view a nuclear capable Islamic Republic of Iran as an existential threat. While there is much to criticize in the technicalities of the agreement, the consistency and frequency of Iranian threats against the Jewish state, as well as the prestige within Iran of those who have made such threats, are too often ignored.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was an unabashed racist and anti-Semite. He began his seminal essay on Islamic government—the exegesis that underlays the Islamic Revolution and Islamic Republic—by cursing the Jews. “From the very beginning, the historical movement of Islam has had to contend with the Jews, for it was they who first established anti-Islamic propaganda and engaged in various stratagems, and as you can see, this activity continues down to the present,” he declared.

Then, of course, there have been the repeated declarations about Israel’s destruction. Iranian authorities have declared the last Friday in Ramadan to be “Qods [Jerusalem] Day” and have reserved it for the most vitriolic sermons and threats. It was on Qods Day in 2001 that Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and one of the most influential regime figures, declared, “If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession, the strategy of colonialism would face a stalemate because application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.” Hassan Rouhani was, of course, Supreme National Security Council chairman at the time. He applauded. Has he changed? No. One of his first actions as president was to underscore the importance of the annual Qods Day rally.

Other Iranian figures appointed by the supreme leader have also threatened to eradicate Israel by means of nuclear weapons. Why Western diplomats believe the assurances they receive in English when the supreme leader’s inner circle says quite the opposite in Persian is something someone might want to ask America’s nuclear negotiators. Likewise, while Obama seems to embrace the pre-World War I notion of secret treaties, there is no reason why the supreme leader’s fatwa against nuclear weapons should remain secret unless, of course, the assurance which Obama so often cites simply does not exist. Certainly, if the backbone of newfound trust in Iran is such a fatwa, the White House could provide its text. That it chooses not to do so again amplifies concerns that Obama has become Khamenei’s useful idiot.

Underlying concerns about Iran’s intentions have been frequent statements by Iranian officials attesting to Iran’s genocidal intent. When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that “Israel must be wiped off the face of the map,” academic apologists for Iran ran interference. Here, for example, University of Michigan professor Juan Cole suggested that the New York Times had mistranslated Ahmadinejad’s quote of Khomeini, and suggested the phrase he used was perhaps drawn from medieval poetry and had nothing to do with tanks. Of course, this is belied by the Iranian regime itself, which in bilingual posters made clear its intent and which tended to repeat its declaration not in poetry slams but rather in military parades.

And while Obama and Kerry put their head in the sand with regard to Iran’s nuclear intentions, those within range of Iran’s missiles remember the last will and testament of Maj.-Gen. Hassan Tehrani-Moghadam, the overseer of Iran’s missile program, who died in an explosion in 2011. While not published in English, the Iranian press highlighted how Moghadam had asked that his epitaph read, “Write on my tombstone: This is the grave of someone who wanted to annihilate Israel.”

Perhaps Obama and Kerry wish to ignore the frequency of Iranian statements seeking an end to Israel’s existence. They may see it as rhetorical excess only, but never bother to ask why a regime would embrace such rhetoric in the first place. Make no mistake: Anti-Zionism may be the cool new trend in Western Europe and in American universities, but wishing Israel out of existence is akin to seeking the eradication of the people who populate the country. And the Iranian regime, which has been a charter member of the “eradicate Israel” camp will, thanks to Obama and Kerry, soon have the means to fulfill their dream. The deal Obama now strikes is analogous to trusting Hutus in early 1990s Rwanda to manufacture and use machetes for agricultural purposes only despite their rhetoric to cut Tutsis to pieces.

Yes, Israel must take Iran at its word and recognize that the nightmare of an Iranian regime able to back its rhetoric with substance will soon be its new reality. Under such circumstances, the Israelis would be foolish to respond to the threat with inaction.

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Obama’s Other Turf War: Free Trade

Republicans frustrated by President Obama’s persistent efforts to avoid congressional input and oversight–for example, in the nuclear talks with Iran–have at times lamented that congressional Democrats don’t seem to want to defend their turf alongside them. But now it turns out that’s generally been the case because Democratic congressional leaders simply agree with Obama or trust him enough to cut a deal. Not so with free trade. And now Democrats are elbowing their way into trade negotiations at the president’s expense.

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Republicans frustrated by President Obama’s persistent efforts to avoid congressional input and oversight–for example, in the nuclear talks with Iran–have at times lamented that congressional Democrats don’t seem to want to defend their turf alongside them. But now it turns out that’s generally been the case because Democratic congressional leaders simply agree with Obama or trust him enough to cut a deal. Not so with free trade. And now Democrats are elbowing their way into trade negotiations at the president’s expense.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent details the efforts that labor groups are expending in trying to shape the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multinational trade deal that has been brewing for years and that the Obama administration continues to negotiate. What the president wants is “fast-track” authority, which would mean Obama could negotiate the deal itself and Congress would get an up-or-down vote on it, no amendments. But much like Republicans (and some Democrats) on the Iran deal, Democrats (and some Republicans) don’t trust Obama on trade.

And AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka is pushing Congress to adopt a rather creative way to get around fast-track authority:

But Trumka and other critics of the process are pushing for additional built-in accountability mechanisms. Among them would be a provision that would allow Congress to revoke this fast-track authority by a simple-majority vote, once the details of the trade deal are known. This would allow Congress to, in effect, press the administration to renegotiate a better deal if it falls short. The administration would surely argue that this risks scuttling the whole process. But such a move, the AFL-CIO maintains, would essentially reinforce Congressional oversight over the process and also place some accountability for it on Congress, rather than allowing Members to throw up their hands and say, “well, we only have the power to vote on the final bill now, so let’s approve it; it’s better than nothing.”

Trumka claims that a failure to pursue such changes would amount to Congressional abdication of responsibility. “The Constitution vests power over international trade with the Congress,” Trumka says in his letter to Senators. “Congress should not abandon its Constitutional authority by allowing the executive branch to disregard its objectives and hide its activities but still be awarded with preferential and expedited treatment.”

Trumka’s point about congressional oversight is well taken. But not only is his solution unrealistic; it appears to be nothing but a poison pill to scuttle trade talks.

The reason a president asks for “fast-track” authority (also known as Trade Promotion Authority) is because it can coax trade partners to the table–and get them to stay there. Trade deals are complex agreements, and foreign governments aren’t always willing to negotiate with the roster of the U.S. Congress in addition to the president’s team. Fast-track authority is a way to get around the thorniest possible sticking points, such as union and environmental concerns. And Congress still gets a vote.

Trumka’s idea of getting Congress to enact a rule enabling them to retroactively revoke fast-track authority once the deal is finalized is worse than opening the negotiations to Congress, as far as foreign governments are concerned. It means all their work could be undone because Congress doesn’t like the final terms, but congressional input won’t be part of the equation along the way, so they’ll all be flying blind.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but no negotiator worth his salt would ever agree to a deal with an American president under these circumstances, especially not when fast-track authority is still a possibility. Trumka’s idea is too clever by half. It would wreck the process.

Is that the intent? Perhaps. And Democratic opposition to trade is particularly challenging for a Democratic president (just as Republican opposition would be for a Republican president) because the party out of power tends to view trade with more skepticism than they do when their party controls the White House. As Gallup notes, a majority in the U.S. still see trade as an opportunity to grow the U.S. economy vs. a threat from foreign imports. But party affiliation tends to sway:

From 2001 to 2011, spanning the entire presidency of George W. Bush and the first two years of Obama’s presidency, the percentage of Republicans seeing foreign trade as an opportunity was higher than that of Democrats — in several cases, by double-digit margins. In 2012 and 2013, Democrats grew sharply more positive about trade, even as Republican views languished in the 40% to low 50% range. Opinion among the two party groups converged in 2014, but this year, Republicans’ optimism about foreign trade is flat at 51%, while Democrats’ has increased slightly, to 61%.

The good news for Obama, then, is that there is public support on the Democratic side for free trade. The bad news is they’re the ones digging in their heels against letting him negotiate a deal.

Those numbers tell us something else: Trumka is making a tough bet here. If a Republican wins in 2016, it’ll likely mean the Senate stays red too. With a Republican president, expect Republican support for free trade to increase again. (It’s still a majority, remember, so it’ll likely go even higher.) Does Trumka think he can stop a deal then? Maybe Obama’s his best chance to get a labor-friendly agreement.

The other issue here is that it’s not just the GOP that objects to Obama’s intent to go around Congress; the level of outrage just depends on the issue. Between Obama’s executive actions on immigration, his pending treaty with Iran, and the massive trade deal, among others, there does not appear to be any element of Obama’s second-term agenda he believes he needs Congress for. Even Democrats were bound to object once his quest for uncontested rule made their interest groups sufficiently uncomfortable.

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Rand Paul, Paleoneoconrealitarian Uniter

When speculation about the 2016 presidential election first began, the question about Rand Paul was whether his candidacy would closely mimic his father’s or whether he’d carve out his own independent identity. Now we know the answer: Neither. He’s running as Marco Rubio. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but it points to Paul’s recent moves that put him closer to the Republican mainstream and farther from his own distinctive base of support. And it’s beginning to look like if he had to choose between the two, Paul might choose not to dance with the one that brung ’im.

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When speculation about the 2016 presidential election first began, the question about Rand Paul was whether his candidacy would closely mimic his father’s or whether he’d carve out his own independent identity. Now we know the answer: Neither. He’s running as Marco Rubio. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but it points to Paul’s recent moves that put him closer to the Republican mainstream and farther from his own distinctive base of support. And it’s beginning to look like if he had to choose between the two, Paul might choose not to dance with the one that brung ’im.

To be sure, Paul is far from a carbon copy of defense hawks. But he’s spending considerable energy blurring those distinctions. And a turning point does seem to have been reached, ironically, thanks to the recent open letter to Iranian leaders signed by Republican senators who are opposed to a nuclear Iran and the president’s attempts to go around Congress. Paul, surprisingly, also signed the letter. And he’s continuing down that path with his proposed amendment that would, as Time revealed this morning, boost defense spending:

In an olive branch to defense hawks hell-bent on curtailing his White House ambitions, the libertarian Senator introduced a budget amendment late Wednesday calling for a nearly $190 billion infusion to the defense budget over the next two years—a roughly 16 percent increase.

Paul’s amendment brings him in line with his likely presidential primary rivals, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who introduced a measure calling for nearly the same level of increases just days ago. The amendment was first noticed by TIME and later confirmed by Paul’s office.

The move completes a stunning reversal for Paul, who in May 2011, after just five months in office, released his own budget that would have eliminated four agencies—Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Education—while slashing the Pentagon, a sacred cow for many Republicans. Under Paul’s original proposal, defense spending would have dropped from $553 billion in the 2011 fiscal year to $542 billion in 2016. War funding would have plummeted from $159 billion to zero. He called it the “draw-down and restructuring of the Department of Defense.”

But under Paul’s new plan, the Pentagon will see its budget authority swell by $76.5 billion to $696,776,000,000 in fiscal year 2016.

I have been sympathetic, as I’ve written in the past, to Paul’s objections to what he and his supporters see as the exaggeration of the extent of his apparent political conversions. But his claim to consistency is going to start looking absurd on its face, and his defense-spending amendment is one reason why.

The Time piece helpfully goes back about four years to show just how far Paul has come on this issue. But even as his term in the Senate went on, Paul continued to be an advocate for cutting defense spending not only on fiscal grounds but on national-security grounds as well. Paul had crafted a very clear rationale for reducing the defense budget, and even sought to draw a contrast with Mitt Romney’s own views on the subject less than a month before the 2012 presidential election. In an op-ed for CNN, Paul wrote:

Romney chose to criticize President Obama for seeking to cut a bloated Defense Department and for not being bellicose enough in the Middle East, two assertions with which I cannot agree.

Defense and war spending has grown 137% since 2001. That kind of growth is not sustainable.

Adm. Michael Mullen stated earlier this year that the biggest threat to our national security is our debt.

If debt is our gravest threat, adding to the debt by expanding military spending further threatens our national security.

Paul’s decision to sign the open letter to Iran, an effort led by Senator Tom Cotton, attracted two kinds of very interesting criticism. One was the antiwar movement’s treatment of Paul as a sellout to the cause. The other was the more muted criticism from the realist and paleoconservative right, which seemed to accept Time’s own formulation that Paul is extending an “olive branch”–or, at this point, a series of olive branches–to those with whom he disagrees. That is, their criticism of him is tempered by their belief he’s not being wholly honest.

That resulted in a moment of near-unity as conservatives pushed back on the hysterical attempt by the left to brand the dissenting senators’ actions as treasonous. There were far fewer cases of terms like “neocon warmonger” being tossed casually at those who oppose the emerging nuke deal with Iran than there might otherwise have been.

Again, muted criticism of Paul is not the same as no criticism of Paul. But suddenly hawkish policies were being combed for nuance. It was a glimpse of what the foreign-policy debate on the right could look like when advocates of greater restraint are willing to characterize hawks as something other than a cross between Dick Cheney and Dr. Strangelove.

That moment of grace will surely pass. But there are likely to be other such moments, as long as Paul continues his flirtation with a more hawkish approach to foreign affairs. The question, then, will be whether he will have mortgaged his candidacy’s raison d’être in the process and allowed his carefully cultivated image to disintegrate. To prevent that, he’ll need to find a balance between those he hopes will believe him and those he needs to assume he’s merely pretending.

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In Sunni-Shiite Split, Oppose Extremism on Both Sides

General Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, provided, in Senate testimony today, some further insight into the thinking behind the U.S. decision to launch air strikes on Tikrit. He said that the decision was made at the request of Iraq’s prime minister Haidar al Abadi and that the U.S. was not supporting a Shiite militia assault—the Shiite militias have pulled back and the U.S. is only supporting Iraqi security forces. Further leaks suggest that some in the administration view this as a good opportunity to wean the Iraqis away from Iranian support and to show that the US can do what the Iranians couldn’t—i.e., help dislodge ISIS fighters from the a town they have held in the face of Iranian-directed attacks for the past month.

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General Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, provided, in Senate testimony today, some further insight into the thinking behind the U.S. decision to launch air strikes on Tikrit. He said that the decision was made at the request of Iraq’s prime minister Haidar al Abadi and that the U.S. was not supporting a Shiite militia assault—the Shiite militias have pulled back and the U.S. is only supporting Iraqi security forces. Further leaks suggest that some in the administration view this as a good opportunity to wean the Iraqis away from Iranian support and to show that the US can do what the Iranians couldn’t—i.e., help dislodge ISIS fighters from the a town they have held in the face of Iranian-directed attacks for the past month.

This may sound plausible in a Washington briefing room, but there are holes in this strategy big enough to drive an Iranian T-72 tank through. While it’s true that the Shiite militias appear to have pulled back a bit, they remain close to Tikrit. They were apparently pulling back anyway before the U.S. launched air strikes because of the mauling they have taken in heavy street fighting for which they were manifestly unprepared. Rumors suggest that the militias may have lost as many as 6,000 fighters out of a force of 20,000—staggering losses that would render the attacking force combat ineffective. That’s why in recent days there was word that the attackers would be “regrouping,” and cordoning off Tikrit rather than storming it, supposedly to spare civilian lives.

Problem is, U.S. airstrikes may well be bailing the Iranians and their proxies out of the jam they’re in. Assume that somehow the U.S. attacks dislodge the ISIS fighters. There are only an estimated 3,000 Iraqi troops in and around Tikrit (and many of them will also have affiliations with the Badr Organization or other militias, which makes it likely that many of their requests for air strikes will originate with the militia commanders). They will be in no position to clear, much less to hold, Tikrit by themselves. It’s a safe bet that the Shiite militias will then rush in and claim credit for a great victory over ISIS, arguing, as they are already doing, that U.S. airstrikes were not needed. Given the dismal human-rights record of Shiite militias in previous Sunni towns they have captured, it’s hard to know what would prevent them from abusing the population of Tikrit. And the U.S., having helped to rout ISIS, will then become morally and politically culpable for the crimes they commit.

It is a poor bargain, as I have previously argued, to rout ISIS out of Tikrit only to allow Iran’s proxies to occupy it. The U.S. would be better advised to stick to training and arming Sunni tribesmen to fight ISIS and doing what we can to oppose, rather than advance, Iranian designs.

The Saudi bombing of Yemen, designed to roll back the Iranian-supported Houthis, is a welcome sign of long overdue efforts to oppose the Iranian power grab in the region, and the Obama administration is to be commended for providing intelligence and other support for this operation—but of course this is a move being driven by Riyadh, not Washington. In fact General Austin said he learned of the Saudi bombing only shortly before it began.

Increasingly, with Washington seemingly tilting toward Tehran (a point I make in the Wall Street Journal today), our regional allies are going their own way. The coalition of Egypt and Saudi Arabia has already attacked Islamist radicals in Libya; now they are attacking Shiite radicals in Yemen. This is a sign of what the U.S. too should be doing in opposing the extremes of both the Shiite and Sunni sides—instead of appearing to tilt toward one side, the Iranian side, as we seem to be doing in Tikrit despite all the official protestations to the contrary.

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America’s New Role: As Iran’s Air Force

Perhaps it’s time to rename the USAF (U.S. Air Force) as the IAF (Iranian Air Force).

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Perhaps it’s time to rename the USAF (U.S. Air Force) as the IAF (Iranian Air Force).

That, at least, is the only conclusion I can draw from news reports that the U.S. is now conducting bombing as well as surveillance flights in support of the Iranian-directed forces that are besieging Tikrit. The operation, launched almost entirely by Shiite militias under the supervision of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, began on March 2. The Iraqis were quite proud of the assistance they received from Iran, which included Iranian tanks and rockets arriving in Iraq.

The attacking forces soon advanced into town and all but declared victory. Prematurely, as it turns out. Nearly a month later, hundreds of ISIS fighters are still dug in behind thick belts of IEDs and they are reportedly taking a terrible toll on the attackers.

All of this is hardly a surprise, given the difficulties experience by far more capable U.S. forces in two offensives in Fallujah in 2004. Urban combat is hard against fanatical, dug-in defenders. It’s especially hard when sectarian Shiite forces are attacking a Sunni town. The town’s residents are hardly going to welcome Shiite ethnic-cleansing squads with open arms—not when they know what the Shiite militias have done in other Sunni towns they have taken. Human Rights Watch, for example, recently released a report on the aftermath of the conquest of the town of Amerli last September, when “militias looted property of Sunni civilians who had fled fighting, burned their homes and businesses, and destroyed at least two entire villages.”

The U.S. had stood aloof from the Tikrit offensive until recently—not denouncing the attack but not actively assisting it either. But now that the offensive has stalled, the Iraqis have screamed for American assistance and the Obama administration has delivered.

I can sympathize with the impulse to battle the evil that is ISIS. But we gain nothing if we replace the murderous theocratic control of ISIS with the murderous theocratic control of Iran. That’s a basic truth that this administration is willfully blind to.

All the way back in January 2014, Michael Doran and I warned that Obama was acting as if Iran were our ally rather than our enemy. Recent developments in Tikrit, alas, simply confirm the validity of that analysis. While Obama appears intent on treating Benjamin Netanyahu as our enemy, he gives every indication of treating Ayatollah Khamenei as our friend—even going as so far as to ignore or explain away the supreme leader’s ritual chants of “Death to America.” And now—in a day that I thought would never come—the U.S. is sending our pilots in our aircraft to drop our bombs in support of Shiite militias who not long ago were killing our own troops in Iraq.

The White House may think that this will demonstrate to the Iraqis that they need U.S. help and that the Iranians can’t deliver; but Iranian proxies such as the Badr Organization and Asaib ahl al-Haq are hardly going to turn on their patrons no matter how much support the U.S. provides. They will simply think the Americans are useful idiots, and they will be right.

Perhaps this is meant as a sweetener to get the Iranians to sign on the dotted line in Geneva, where nuclear talks face a March 31 deadline? A signal of how much we will do to assist the Iranian power-grab in the region in return for some modest controls on the Iranian nuclear program? As if any of that would actually lead the Iranians to give up their long-cherished dreams of becoming a nuclear power.

Whatever the thinking behind this move, this is a tragically misguided, indeed perverse policy that will enhance both the power of Iran and of the Sunni jihadists in ISIS who will be seen, more and more, as the only defenders left of Sunnis against Shiite aggression.

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Obama’s Speech Revealed Ignorance of Iran

I’ve been traveling and away from email and, indeed, the internet for much of the past two weeks and so just now read President Barack Obama’s March 19 Nowruz speech to the Iranian people. It is a depressing read, not because Obama delivered it; indeed, reaching out to the Iranian people is a good thing. But rather because it reflects a huge ignorance of Iran in the White House and, presumably, at the State Department and National Security Council, both of which likely had inputs into the draft.

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I’ve been traveling and away from email and, indeed, the internet for much of the past two weeks and so just now read President Barack Obama’s March 19 Nowruz speech to the Iranian people. It is a depressing read, not because Obama delivered it; indeed, reaching out to the Iranian people is a good thing. But rather because it reflects a huge ignorance of Iran in the White House and, presumably, at the State Department and National Security Council, both of which likely had inputs into the draft.

First, the fact that Iran is not a democracy should be Iranian Studies 101. Yes, there are elections for the president in Iran, but they are so tightly controlled that usually less than one percent of the candidates who register are allowed to run; the other 99 percent are disqualified for being too liberal or insufficiently committed to the Islamic Revolution. In effect, to call Iran a democracy would be akin to calling the Soviet Union a democracy if it held elections in which only central committee members of the Politburo could run.

The 2013 election in which Hassan Rouhani was elected are no exception. Nor is it clear that such elections are free and fair. Iran doesn’t allow independent monitoring and those organizations that accept Iranian government-provided statistics at face value—alas, the White House and major newspapers like The New York Times and Washington Post among them—are doing themselves and the Iranian people a disservice. Iranian elections are less about expressions of popular will than they are about recalibrating the system to bring those too powerful down to size and replace them with the weaker. It is by being the master marionette that the supreme leader prevents any one power center or faction from consolidating so much power that they pose a challenge to him. It was no coincidence that former military man Mahmoud Ahmadinejad replaced reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami and proceeded then to push out many of the reformist clerics who staffed government under him and replace them with veterans of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The rise of Rouhani was as deliberate: he is a regime operator, not a reformer. That is why he replaced IRGC veterans in the cabinet with intelligence ministry veterans. In effect, he presides over a KGB cabinet.

And, yet, Obama continues to believe that, under the dictatorship that is the Islamic Republic, somehow the attitude of the Iranian people matters to their rulers. Hence, he frames his speech as a direct appeal “to the people and leaders of Iran,” as if the Iranian people have a choice. If he did believe they had a choice, perhaps he would have spoken up on their behalf in 2009 when they came to the streets to protest against the dictatorship.

Obama then declares, “Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons, and President Rouhani has said that Iran would never develop a nuclear weapon.” This is simply ignorant. It’s time for Obama to publish the fatwa if any such fatwa exists. The simple fact, however, is that while various Iranian propagandists and officials have referred to such a fatwa it is suspiciously absent from the Supreme Leader’s collections of fatwas. And when Iranian officials pretend to quote it, the comparison of their quotes suggest they are making it up as they go along. What about the idea that Rouhani has sworn that Iran would never build a nuclear weapon? There are many instances (some of which are listed here) in which Iranian officials have talked about producing nuclear weapons. And then, of course, there was former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s threat not only to produce but also to use nuclear weapons in a first strike back in 2001. This is significant, of course, because Hassan Rouhani was at the time the chairman of the Supreme National Security Council and chose not to correct his colleague. Perhaps he should read Rouhani’s February 9, 2005 speech in which he outlined a doctrine of surprise in which he suggested the Islamic Republic would always be victorious so long as it lulled the United States into complacency before delivering a knockout blow.

As for the idea of a fork in the road for Iran, Obama needs to start measuring time as B.O. and A.O, Before Obama and After Obama, for history did not begin the moment he entered the Oval Office. When he declares:

Iran’s leaders have a choice between two paths.  If they cannot agree to a reasonable deal, they will keep Iran on the path it’s on today—a path that has isolated Iran, and the Iranian people, from so much of the world, caused so much hardship for Iranian families, and deprived so many young Iranians of the jobs and opportunities they deserve. On the other hand, if Iran’s leaders can agree to a reasonable deal, it can lead to a better path—the path of greater opportunities for the Iranian people.

He forgets that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a very similar speech nine years ago, in which she declared:

Today, the Iranian regime can decide on one of two paths, one of two fundamentally different futures for its people and for its relationship with the international community. The Iranian government’s choices are clear. The negative choice is for the regime to maintain its current course, pursuing nuclear weapons in defiance of the international community and its international obligations. If the regime does so, it will incur only great costs.

We and our European partners agree that path will lead to international isolation and progressively stronger political and economic sanctions. The positive and constructive choice is for the Iranian regime to alter its present course and cooperate in resolving the nuclear issue, beginning by immediately resuming suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, as well as full cooperation with the IAEA and returning to implementation of the Additional Protocol providing greater access for the IAEA. This path would lead to the real benefit and longer-term security of the Iranian people, the region and the world as a whole.

In hindsight it was clear that Rice’s words were empty. Iran suffered no real consequence for its nuclear defiance; quite the contrary, it has collected great rewards. Obama has even less gravitas when talking about coercion than Rice. The president has never met a red line he has not rationalized and voided. There is simply no reason that a regime paid almost $12 billion for defying its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Safeguards Agreement would believe that Obama’s threats of coercion are serious.

Obama was not the first president to send Nowruz greetings to the Iranian people, but he was the first, back in 2009, to acknowledge the Islamic Republic as their legitimate representative. The president might believe he is extending an olive branch to the Iranian people, but he is patronizing them, using the most important holiday in Iranian culture to validate their oppression and broadcast his ignorance of their plight. It is both embarrassing and a sign of just how under Obama, the United States has shifted from being a beacon of freedom for the oppressed to an apologist for their oppression.

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Heed Petraeus’s Critique of Obama

For various reasons, David Petraeus has been relatively quiet in public since leaving his CIA post. But now he is starting to speak out more—and boy does he have trenchant comments to make. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said, among other things:

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For various reasons, David Petraeus has been relatively quiet in public since leaving his CIA post. But now he is starting to speak out more—and boy does he have trenchant comments to make. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said, among other things:

“The foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by — and some guided by — Iran.”

“The current Iranian regime is not our ally in the Middle East. It is ultimately part of the problem, not the solution. The more the Iranians are seen to be dominating the region, the more it is going to inflame Sunni radicalism and fuel the rise of groups like the Islamic State.”

“As for the U.S. role, could all of this have been averted if we had kept 10,000 troops here? I honestly don’t know. I certainly wish we could have tested the proposition and kept a substantial force on the ground. For that matter, should we have pushed harder for an alternative to PM Maliki during government formation in 2010? “

“Whether fair or not, those in the region will also offer that our withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011 contributed to a perception that the U.S. was pulling back from the Middle East. This perception has complicated our ability to shape developments in the region and thus to further our interests. These perceptions have also shaken many of our allies and, for a period at least, made it harder to persuade them to support our approaches. “

“Any acceptable outcome (in Syria) requires the build-up of capable, anti-Daesh opposition forces whom we support on the battlefield. Although it is encouraging to see the administration’s support for this initiative, I think there are legitimate questions that can be raised about the sufficiency of the present scale, scope, speed, and resourcing of this effort.”

The word “Obama” is never once mentioned by the ever-diplomatic General Petraeus, but reading between the lines this is a devastating criticism of the president’s policy from the man who was once his CIA director, Central Command commander, and Afghanistan commander.

When Petraeus feels compelled to point out that Iran “is not our ally,” he is speaking directly to a White House that imagines otherwise. When he says that the U.S. pullout from Iraq in 2011 “complicated our ability to shape developments in the region,” he is indirectly criticizing Obama, in part, for failing to win a Status of Forces Agreement. And when he criticizes the “scale, scope, speed, and resourcing” of US efforts to support the moderate Syrian opposition, he is indicting the president for not backing the Free Syrian Army, as CIA Director Petraeus and much of the Obama security cabinet had proposed to do in 2012.

Obama wasn’t listening to Petraeus then. Let’s hope he—and the whole world–is listening now. Petraeus’s comments are entirely on the mark.

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Obama Evolves on the Concept of Credibility

As Congress has attempted to assert its role in the ongoing Iran negotiations, one of the interesting objections from the Obama White House has been on the grounds that it will erode Obama’s credibility. It’s interesting because defenders of the White House’s various zigs and zags on foreign policy have argued against elevating intangibles like credibility where foreign affairs are concerned. To be clear, Obama’s defenders have not been entirely wrong; as I’ve argued before, there are always risks in trying to pin down evasive concepts like credibility. But it does mean that the White House’s new foreign-policy mantra, Don’t undermine me bro, rings a bit hollow.

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As Congress has attempted to assert its role in the ongoing Iran negotiations, one of the interesting objections from the Obama White House has been on the grounds that it will erode Obama’s credibility. It’s interesting because defenders of the White House’s various zigs and zags on foreign policy have argued against elevating intangibles like credibility where foreign affairs are concerned. To be clear, Obama’s defenders have not been entirely wrong; as I’ve argued before, there are always risks in trying to pin down evasive concepts like credibility. But it does mean that the White House’s new foreign-policy mantra, Don’t undermine me bro, rings a bit hollow.

The president’s most famous brush with the issue of credibility is, of course, Syria. In August 2012, Obama very clearly and very plainly said, regarding Syria: “We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”

Any attempt to deny he set such a red line would be absurd, which is why he did exactly that. “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line,” Obama said once the red line was crossed. If a credibility gap were to open up, that would seem to be the time. In addition, Obama had gone from asserting that Bashar al-Assad would have to end his rule in Syria to making Assad a partner in the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons, which would turn out to be a failure as well once Syria continued using chemical weapons.

But no, said the president: “My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America’s and Congress’s credibility is on the line.” His credibility is not at risk, and if it were, so is yours. So there. The food’s no good and the portions are too small.

Next was Ukraine. The president’s dithering on Ukraine sent a dangerous message to Russia, didn’t it? And in fact, it sent a message about the president’s credibility more broadly, since the administration was trying to reassure countries in the Middle East about protecting them from an Iranian nuke and yet here was Ukraine, a country we (in the Budapest Memorandum) got to give up its own nukes on the promises its sovereignty would be respected. It turned out everybody lied–that’s got to deplete our credibility, right?

The Economist said yes, Peter Beinart said no, and Tom Rogan sided with The Economist:

For a start, take Dexter Filkins’s study of Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds Force and an archetypal hardliner of the regime. In his meticulous analysis, Filkins shows how the sharp edge of Iranian strategy is shaped significantly by perceptions of American global resolve. Where America is seen to be resolute and determined, Iran is deterred. Where America is seen to be timid and uncertain, Iran is emboldened.

And perceptions of U.S. credibility among players who are not part of a foreign regime are also important. Take America’s adversaries in the Middle Eastern media. Opinion makers there now present Obama as the master of a rudderless agenda. These populist narratives are important — they mobilize political agendas in ways that are either favorable or problematic for the United States.

Point to Rogan, I would think. Do our past actions really not indicate a future course, especially under the same president? That might be why the administration has evolved, as the president might say, on the issue of credibility.

When Tom Cotton and 46 other senators wrote their open letter to the Iranian government asserting congressional authority over arms treaties, the White House responded with a statement from Vice President Biden: “This letter sends a highly misleading signal to friend and foe alike that that our Commander-in-Chief cannot deliver on America’s commitments — a message that is as false as it is dangerous.” Credibility was back in vogue.

And it continued to be. Republican Senator Bob Corker, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, told the White House Congress was considering new legislation that would give Congress a say on the agreement the president is negotiating with Iran. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough wrote back to Corker that the president would prefer to sign the deal first, present a fait accompli to the Congress, and grant Congress permission to rubber-stamp the deal. For credibility’s sake:

We believe that the legislation would likely have a profoundly negative impact on the ongoing negotiations–emboldening Iranian hard-liners, inviting a counter-productive response from the Iranian majiles; differentiating the U.S. position from our allies in the negotiations; and once again call into question our ability to negotiate this deal.

Put simply, the Obama administration wants it both ways on credibility. And for their own legacy, they should probably hope they’re wrong this time. After all, if credibility truly matters, the Obama administration’s legacy is going to consist of a Europe at war for the near future, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and general instability as states react to the president’s continuing incoherence on foreign affairs.

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Kerry’s Accidental Admission on Assad

All the way back in August 2011 President Obama said, “The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

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All the way back in August 2011 President Obama said, “The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

That was then, this is now. Having done virtually nothing to compel Assad to step down, the Obama administration appears to have accommodated itself to his indefinite continuation in office, even as he continues to drop barrel bombs on civilians, pushing the death toll of the civil war well north of 200,000. Naturally the administration won’t admit what it’s doing, which appears to be part of a wider outreach to Iran, Assad’s No. 1 sponsor. But occasionally an administration official “misspeaks” and reveals a bit of the truth.

Thus on Face the Nation on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry said, in the words of a news article, “that he still believed it was important to achieve a diplomatic solution for the conflict in Syria and that the negotiations should involve President Bashar al-Assad.” True, Kerry said that he would talk to Assad only if he committed to the goal of the Geneva process that Kerry set up with Russia, designed to eventually ease Assad out of power through some kind of constitutional process. But his words will be read in the Middle East as a sign that the administration is reaching out to Assad and seeking to accommodate him–a perception that was already strong when in September 2013 the administration, rather than bomb Assad for his crossing of a “red line,” instead reached an accord with him to remove his chemical weapons from the country.

Naturally State Department officials rushed in to deny that Kerry said what he plainly said. As the New York Times noted: “State Department officials later said that the United States was not open to direct talks with Mr. Assad, despite what Mr. Kerry appeared to suggest in his television appearance.”

For my part, I’m skeptical of the denials. This sounds to me like Michael Kinsley’s classic definition of a Washington gaffe, which occurs when a politician speaks the truth.

In this case the truth appears to be that the administration has decided that Assad is the lesser evil, next to ISIS, and that it is willing to throw him a life preserver to get in good with the mullahs in Iran. Too bad the administration isn’t willing to come clean about what it’s up to in pursuing this amoral (and, I would argue, futile) policy that is likely to strengthen the hand of both ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, which will posture as the defenders of Syria’s Sunni majority against the Alawites and Shiites, Hezbollah and the Quds Force.

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