Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iran

What Does it Mean to Be a Political Prisoner in Iran?

Much has been written over the years about the Islamic Republic of Iran’s atrocious human-rights situation. The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (from which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to cut off funds) has a number of very well-researched reports. While some journalists, diplomats, academics, and, of course, Iran’s lobbyists in the United States depict current President Hassan Rouhani as some sort of reformer, the fact of the matter is that he is and always has been a loyalist to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s vision of theocratic dictatorship. While diplomats applauded his purging of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps veterans who populated predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s cabinet, they apparently failed to notice or do not care that he simply replaced these men with veterans of Iran’s equally lethal and repressive intelligence services.

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Much has been written over the years about the Islamic Republic of Iran’s atrocious human-rights situation. The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (from which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to cut off funds) has a number of very well-researched reports. While some journalists, diplomats, academics, and, of course, Iran’s lobbyists in the United States depict current President Hassan Rouhani as some sort of reformer, the fact of the matter is that he is and always has been a loyalist to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s vision of theocratic dictatorship. While diplomats applauded his purging of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps veterans who populated predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s cabinet, they apparently failed to notice or do not care that he simply replaced these men with veterans of Iran’s equally lethal and repressive intelligence services.

Iran’s strategy of repression is as sophisticated as it is evil. In 1999, the student uprising began when vigilantes attacked a student dormitory after a peaceful student demonstration earlier that day to protest the closure of a newspaper. The Iranian hardliners invaded the residence, bashed heads, and defenestrated students, sparking the largest anti-government protests since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Ahmad Batebi had the misfortune of becoming the symbol of these protests when The Economist pictured him on its cover and he suffered tremendously in prison.

In the wake of 1999, the Iranian regime understood it couldn’t simply bash heads because that only sparked greater protests. So, with the help of their good friends in the Chinese government, they imported and implemented a system that relied on facial recognition software. When protests occurred, Iranian authorities would simply snap a few photos, identify those involved, and then roll them up in the middle of the night when they were relatively isolated and when the risk of blowback was reduced.

But, it didn’t end there: Rather than simply lock people up and throw away the key, the Iranian judiciary issued draconian sentences and then, as in Batebi’s case, allowed furloughs. Their motive was not humanitarian. Sure, convicts had a weekend at home and could enjoy their grandmother’s fesenjoon and ghormeh sabzi rather than the maggot-infested swill offered in Iranian prisons. No one goes into Evin prison and comes out the same way. There are rapes of both men and women, and beatings are frequent. It’s amazing how many 30-somethings have heart attacks and strokes within its walls. During furloughs, all their friends and family could come visit them … and see exactly what happens when you cross the line. The same logic holds true with the Iranian regime’s penchant for public executions, a trend that has only increased since Rouhani took office.

Now, Iran has always had an endemic drug problem. Opium use goes back centuries, and intravenous drug use has only increased in recent years. As a result, HIV and AIDS are major problems, all the more so in Iranian prisons given the very real war on drugs that Iranian authorities wage.

Well, it seems the Iranian government now uses its prison AIDS crisis as a weapon against prisoners. The Human Rights Activists News Agency published a story about one Fakhroddin Faraji, whom the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps arrested in June 2011 in the Iranian Kurdish city of Sanandaj. Iranian courts convicted him on charges of membership in the Komala, a decades-old Kurdish political group, and sentenced him to 30 years exile and imprisonment in South Khorasan, hundreds of miles away from his home town. After they placed Faraji in a cell with intravenous drug users infected with HIV and hepatitis, evidently an increasingly common tactic to intimidate and sometimes infect political opponents, Faraji contacted the media and so he was transferred into solitary confinement.

Welcome to the new Iran, as bad if not worse than the old Iran. How tragic it is, therefore, that the Obama administration appears not only unwilling to use its leverage to demand freedom for Robert Levinson, an American held by Iran, but also Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian.

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Why Can’t the Iraqi Army Fight?

I hadn’t seen this article when it came out, but the Center for American Progress’s Brian Katulis’s always excellent national-security twitter feed pointed me to it. Basically, the Los Angeles Times’s David Zucchino explores through a series of interviews with American officials and Iraqi military veterans just what went wrong after the United States spent some $25 billion training the new Iraqi army. Here’s a sample of his piece:

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I hadn’t seen this article when it came out, but the Center for American Progress’s Brian Katulis’s always excellent national-security twitter feed pointed me to it. Basically, the Los Angeles Times’s David Zucchino explores through a series of interviews with American officials and Iraqi military veterans just what went wrong after the United States spent some $25 billion training the new Iraqi army. Here’s a sample of his piece:

“We felt like cowards, but our commanders were afraid of Daesh. They were too afraid to lead us,” said Shehab, 43, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. Shehab and others in his battalion describe Iraq’s security forces as poorly led and sparsely equipped, with soldiers suspicious of commanders and uncertain they would get enough food, water and ammunition in the heat of battle…. This army is not prepared to fight. Nobody trusts anyone, not even from their own sect,” said a 32-year-old federal police officer who asked to be identified only by his first name, Amar, for fear of retribution from his superiors…. Security force members acknowledge that many Sunnis and other minorities see the Shiite-led army as a brutal occupying force. Under former Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, Sunnis were driven out of the security forces and replaced by Shiites.

It’s an issue which I touched upon this past August, and Zucchino’s whole article is worth reading. Zucchino isn’t wrong, but there are a number of points which are not explored but still should be.

  • If the problem was simply sectarianism in the Iraqi Army, then what explains the disastrous performance of the Kurdish peshmerga against the Islamic State in the initial fighting in and around Mount Sinjar? The peshmerga weren’t affected by sectarian discord. This is especially important now as in the last few days, the Islamic State has again pushed into Gwer, an area just 15 minutes from the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil.
  • Some of the biggest names among America’s general officers were in charge of training Iraqi forces, for example, Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Martin Dempsey, who is currently chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. These men cultivated close relationships with journalists and often claimed great success. Here, for example, is Petraeus talking about his success in the training mission, and here is Dempsey singing his own praises. Perhaps Petraeus and Dempsey were accurately reflecting their own success at the time, but few generals who want promotions admit failure. It’s worth examining whether the commanders of the Multi-National Security Transition Command were realistic in their assessments at the time, or perhaps exaggerated.
  • No doubt that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fiddled with the Iraqi army after U.S. forces left, putting not simply his own handpicked men into top positions, but those approved by the Iranian government as well. If the Iraqi military leadership that confronted the Islamic State represented the best and brightest that Iranian trainers could offer, perhaps this suggests that Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani isn’t the military genius many of his supporters claim, and perhaps the Iranians are far weaker than they let on?

What happened to the Iraqi army was a disaster and it certainly exposed either a failure of U.S. training, the wrongheadedness of a withdrawal based on an arbitrary political deadline, or both. The focus on post-withdrawal sectarianism, however, shouldn’t be reason to question other aspects of the program, some of which may (or may not) have been just as deleterious to the end result.

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New Syria Threat Requires U.S. Action

As far as the Obama administration is concerned, the only thing to worry about in Syria these days is the still potent ISIS terrorist movement that has occupied a large section of the country as well as one in Iraq. U.S. efforts to roll back ISIS’s enormous gains in the last year have fallen flat, but that failure has been accompanied by a tacit alliance with the Assad regime and its Iranian ally that has led Washington to forget that only a year and a half ago it was prepared to use force to compel Syria’s government to give up the chemical weapons it had used against civilians. But according to Germany’s Der Spiegel, Obama’s sleight-of-hand diplomacy may eventually blow up in our faces. According to the paper, the Syrians have, with help from Iran and North Korea, begun to reconstitute their WMD program. In particular, they are seeking rebuild the same nuclear program the Israelis took out with a pre-emptive strike in 2007. If so, instead of helping to rid the region of nukes, the administration may be acquiescing to a profoundly dangerous instance of proliferation.

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As far as the Obama administration is concerned, the only thing to worry about in Syria these days is the still potent ISIS terrorist movement that has occupied a large section of the country as well as one in Iraq. U.S. efforts to roll back ISIS’s enormous gains in the last year have fallen flat, but that failure has been accompanied by a tacit alliance with the Assad regime and its Iranian ally that has led Washington to forget that only a year and a half ago it was prepared to use force to compel Syria’s government to give up the chemical weapons it had used against civilians. But according to Germany’s Der Spiegel, Obama’s sleight-of-hand diplomacy may eventually blow up in our faces. According to the paper, the Syrians have, with help from Iran and North Korea, begun to reconstitute their WMD program. In particular, they are seeking rebuild the same nuclear program the Israelis took out with a pre-emptive strike in 2007. If so, instead of helping to rid the region of nukes, the administration may be acquiescing to a profoundly dangerous instance of proliferation.

The Syrians are denying the Der Spiegel report but their claim that it is all lies is no more to be trusted than anything else that emanates from that despotic and murderous regime. Far more credible are the allegations that Syria has used the cover of the civil war to begin the work of reassembling a WMD threat even as Assad claimed to be getting rid of his chemical weapons under the supervision of his Russian ally. This is shocking because Israel had thought it had put to rest the nuclear threat with a daring raid that took out the Syrians’ reactor. According to the German paper:

Analysts say that the Syrian atomic weapon program has continued in a secret, underground location. According to information they have obtained, approximately 8,000 fuel rods are stored there. Furthermore, a new reactor or an enrichment facility has very likely been built at the site — a development of incalculable geopolitical consequences.

Some of the uranium was apparently hidden for an extended period at Marj as-Sultan near Damascus, a site that the IAEA likewise views with suspicion. Satellite images from December 2012 and February 2013 show suspicious activity at Marj as-Sultan. The facility, located not far from a Syrian army base, had become the focal point of heavy fighting with rebels. Government troops had to quickly move everything of value. They did so, as intelligence officials have been able to reconstruct, with the help of Hezbollah, the radical Shiite “Party of God” based in Lebanon. The well-armed militia, which is largely financed by Iran, is fighting alongside Assad’s troops.

The report goes on to describe the effort as being largely the work of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and has been aided by North Korean advisers.

It should be conceded that no matter how much progress they’ve made in the last year, Syria is probably a long way from a bomb. But given Iranian involvement, the creation of this facility raises doubts about the efficacy of any nuclear deal with Tehran struck by an Obama administration eager for any agreement that could foster détente with the Islamist regime.

Just as dangerous is the thought that Assad, who is winning his civil war due as much to American indifference as to aid from Iran and Hezbollah, will not only survive but also emerge even more dangerous and powerful than he was before the rebellion against him began.

A Syria that is either on its way to becoming a nuclear threshold state or which will serve as a depository for an Iranian nuclear program that is forced to go partially underground by a sham deal with the West would, at best, be a destabilizing force in an already volatile region. At worst, it would be a standing invitation to a new war involving Israel, Hezbollah, and Hamas that sets the Middle East aflame.

The answer to this threat should be clear. The U.S. and its allies must either insist that this facility be shut down and destroyed or it must be taken out by air strikes either by Western forces or the Israelis, who continue to be available to do America’s dirty work in this regard.

But the most worrisome aspect of this issue is not only Assad’s determination to get back to the position of strength he occupied before the civil war. It’s that the U.S. policy in Syria is so deeply entwined with that of Iran and the Syrian government that it may not be possible to persuade Obama to act no matter what Damascus does. The administration seems intent on empowering Tehran and allowing it to keep its nuclear toys in the hope that this will cause it to abandon the pursuit of a weapon as well as allowing it to, in the president’s foolish phrase, “get right with the world.” But it appears détente with Iran may also mean a set of policies that causes the U.S. to acquiesce to a Syrian regime that is a danger to its own people and its neighbors. If there were ever a reason for the president to reevaluate a course that seems set for disaster, the news about Syria would seem to be it.

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NIAC Board Should Denounce Anti-Semitic Fundraising

The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a group which consistently lobbies to end sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran, has a new fundraising plea out on Facebook, which asks “Should the U.S. Congress follow Israel’s lead on #Iran, or yours?” Accompanying the question is a photo suggesting that Senator Lindsey Graham is telling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the Congress will take marching orders from him.

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The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a group which consistently lobbies to end sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran, has a new fundraising plea out on Facebook, which asks “Should the U.S. Congress follow Israel’s lead on #Iran, or yours?” Accompanying the question is a photo suggesting that Senator Lindsey Graham is telling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the Congress will take marching orders from him.

The “We will follow your lead” Graham quote was taken out of context and then promoted by the Ron Paul Institute and notorious racist David Duke. That’s probably not the company that most Iranian Americans want to keep, but for NIAC it’s nothing out of the ordinary. While NIAC claims to be mainstream (and has been welcomed into the White House under the Obama administration), it consistently aligns itself with not only Ron Paul, but also fringe or hard-left organizations like Code Pink and WarIsACrime.org. As for the Graham speech from which NIAC pulls its suggestion that Netanyahu is directing American policy, here it is:

I would love nothing better than a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear ambitions. I support the Administration’s effort to try to bring this to a peaceful conclusion. But you, above all others, have said that sanctions are what got Iran to the table, and it will be the only thing that brings them to a deal that we can all live with. I’m here to tell you, Mr. Prime Minister, that the Congress will follow your lead. In January of next year, there will be a vote on the Kirk-Menendez bill, bipartisan sanction legislation that says, if Iran walks away from the table, sanctions will be re-imposed; if Iran cheats regarding any deal that we enter to the Iranians, sanctions will be re-imposed. It is important to let the Iranians know that from an American point of view, sanctions are alive and well.

Now, even if NIAC disagrees with Senator Graham and sanctions, it is clear that Graham is discussing leverage in order to win the best possible deal from Iran. He also states his support for the White House’s efforts to negotiate a solution to the Iranian nuclear dispute.

What is most noxious, however, is the notion that Congress is pursuing Israel’s interest above that of the United States. This reeks of the dual loyalty canard and appears right out of the spirit of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Now, I happen to disagree with the policy pursued by retired Ambassadors Thomas Pickering and John Limbert, both of whom serve on NIAC’s advisory board, but I sincerely hope that they are not embracing the dual loyalty calumny that the organization which they advise pursues. If they wish to win the policy debate, they should do so on the facts of Iranian behavior and the results of the diplomatic strategies which they advise, not on the basis of suggesting that anyone who holds a different point of view is un-American and in the service of a foreign state. The same holds true for retired congressman Wayne Gilchrest. Does Gilchrest really believe that the hundreds of congressmen and senators with whom he once advised take marching orders from Israel?

There is real reason for diplomatic strain between the United States and Iran. The list of American grievances includes the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, the 1983 Marine Barracks bombing, the 1996 Khobar Towers attack, and the supply of explosively-formed projectiles to militias seeking to kill U.S. forces in Iraq. To suggest that Israel directs U.S. enmity toward Iran is to forget the last 35 years of Iran’s undeclared war against the United States. Let us hope that NIAC understands that charges of dual loyalty and other anti-Semitic tropes have no place in this policy debate but, if not, that Pickering, Limbert, and Gilchrest won’t soil their reputations on an organization that finds itself in the company of David Duke, Ron Paul, and other purveyors of conspiracy and hate.

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Iran to Announce New Nuclear Breakthrough

The Obama administration remains committed to its strategy of negotiation with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Public pronouncements and administration proxies continue to argue that the administration would rather have no deal than a bad deal, and that concerns are unwarranted regarding loopholes that might allow Iran to acquire a nuclear breakout capability let alone an actual nuclear breakout.

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The Obama administration remains committed to its strategy of negotiation with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Public pronouncements and administration proxies continue to argue that the administration would rather have no deal than a bad deal, and that concerns are unwarranted regarding loopholes that might allow Iran to acquire a nuclear breakout capability let alone an actual nuclear breakout.

Alas, it seems no one gave that message to the Islamic Republic, which seems intent on demonstrating just how far it can advance its program against the backdrop of Obama administration desperation to make a deal.

Hence, Asghar Zarean deputy head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, has this announcement, according to the Fars News Agency:

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

While the Iranians claim that their nuclear laser industry is for medical purposes, the program could have other applications. From Reuters:

A new way of making nuclear fuel with lasers may help cut costs and ensure energy security but could also make it easier for rogue states to secretly build nuclear weapons if they got hold of the know-how. A debate about the benefits and dangers of using lasers instead of centrifuges to enrich uranium underlines the sensitivities surrounding nuclear activity that can have both civilian and military applications.

Iran, whose underground centrifuge plants and history of hiding nuclear work from U.N. inspectors have raised Western suspicions of a covert atom bomb programme and prompted Israeli threats to attack Iranian nuclear sites, says it already has laser technology but experts doubt Tehran has mastered it.

Uranium can provide the explosive core of a nuclear warhead if refined to a high fissile concentration, explaining why any country or other actor interested in obtaining nuclear arms might be eager to learn about technical advances in enrichment.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) last month issued a license to a partnership between General Electric Co. and Japan’s Hitachi Ltd to build and run a laser enrichment plant for manufacturing reactor fuel…. “It appears that they have allowed the license to go forward without a serious review of the proliferation implications,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based advocacy and research group.

It’s been more than two years since the Reuters article appeared that spoke about Iranian interest in laser enrichment, but which noted that most experts doubted Iranian scientists had achieved the capabilities former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed. However, if the Iranian government is being so cocky as to announce a major breakthrough on April 9, Iran’s National Nuclear Technology Day, then perhaps it’s time to question whether the United States and Iran share the same goals in their diplomacy. Perhaps Obama seeks to end 35 years of enmity and distrust, but increasingly it appears that Iranian officials are approaching the talks seeing in Obama weakness, and in his advisors naiveté.

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Iran Extracts Its Price from Iraq

Both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have implied that they see in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) an opportunity for partnership with Iran. At the very least, they do not appear to oppose growing Iranian assertiveness inside Iraq both to fight the Islamic State directly or to build up Shi‘ite militias who can act as proxies for Tehran.

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Both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have implied that they see in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) an opportunity for partnership with Iran. At the very least, they do not appear to oppose growing Iranian assertiveness inside Iraq both to fight the Islamic State directly or to build up Shi‘ite militias who can act as proxies for Tehran.

Make no mistake—with Samarra and its holy al-Askari shrine—increasingly at peril due to recent Islamic State advances and with Iranian Qods Force general Qassem Soleimani highlighting Iran’s role in shoring up Iraqi defenses, most Iraqi Shi‘ites support Iranian efforts, even if they will quietly express distrust about Tehran’s intentions.

Everyone will admit, however, that they never expected the United States to allow Iran to become so powerful and influential in the first place. The issue isn’t simply that the George W. Bush administration abandoned the “dual containment” of the Clinton years by choosing to oust Saddam. Bush administration officials understood Iranian ambitions, although within the State Department and National Security Council officials argued that diplomacy with Iran would lead Tehran to check its ambitions.

Iraqi Shi‘ites aren’t naturally political clones of their Iranian counterparts, but the precipitous U.S. withdrawal in 2011 both left a vacuum for Iran to exploit and pulled the rug out from beneath Baghdad, which traditionally had carved independent space for itself by playing Iran and the United States off each other. It is no coincidence, for example, that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was an adversary of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad until the United States drew down its forces, and then became a link in Assad’s lifeline. Haider al-Abbadi may genuinely want to reassert Iraq’s independence and probably personally resents the pressure put upon him by Iran, but with U.S. commitment to the region weak and with Obama’s redlines evaporating, Abbadi and others in the region have no choice but to defer to Iranian interests.

Well, now the price Iran seeks is starting to become clear. According to this report in the Fars News Agency, Iraqi Oil Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi will visit Tehran on Monday to “discuss joint Iran-Iraq oil fields, export of Iran’s gas to Iraq and trade of oil products.” The article continues to say that Iran and Iraq have “agreed to develop their joint oilfields through setting up joint companies under a single management.”

While many analysts recognized the danger of the vacuum which the United States withdrawal in Iraq created, the intelligence community failed to recognize the gravity of the Islamic State threat, nor predict their seizure of Mosul and Tikrit. While President Obama has ordered symbolic actions in the wake of the beheading of American journalists, the Obama administration seems once again to be content to lead from behind. Obama and Kerry should have no illusions, however: Iran’s goal isn’t simply to defeat the Islamic State; it is to intertwine itself in Iraqi affairs in a manner similar to how Syria dominated Lebanon for decades.

In effect, Obama is sacrificing Iraqis and Syrians in the same way that President Roosevelt betrayed the freedom of Poles and other eastern Europeans in the Yalta Conference.

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Cuba’s Backtracking Is the Rule, Not the Exception

The logic behind President Barack Obama’s outreach to Cuba is that it is easier to address problems between countries ranging from terrorism to human-rights violations when governments talk directly and countries maintain normal relations. That claim is already in doubt given Cuba’s apparent backsliding on its reported commitment to release 53 prisoners. If Cuban President Raúl Castro calculated that once the United States began a diplomatic process, it would be loath to end it and forfeit promised trade just because Cuba had backtracked on its commitments, he would be right.

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The logic behind President Barack Obama’s outreach to Cuba is that it is easier to address problems between countries ranging from terrorism to human-rights violations when governments talk directly and countries maintain normal relations. That claim is already in doubt given Cuba’s apparent backsliding on its reported commitment to release 53 prisoners. If Cuban President Raúl Castro calculated that once the United States began a diplomatic process, it would be loath to end it and forfeit promised trade just because Cuba had backtracked on its commitments, he would be right.

Jonathan Tobin is correct to observe that totalitarianism trumps capitalist engagement. The simple fact is that “critical engagement”—diplomacy geared to bring rogues in from the cold and simultaneously address tough issues they are reticent to address—has seldom if ever worked. Former German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel first conceptualized critical engagement in the context of Iran. On May 18, 1992, he became German foreign minister, trumpeting human rights as his top priority. At the same time, the German government sought to expand trade with the Islamic Republic. While the U.S. government promoted a policy of “Dual Containment,” European governments argued that Iran was simply too important to isolate.

On December 12, 1992, the European Union endorsed Berlin’s proposed “critical dialogue,” in which greater European trade with Iran would be correlated toward Iranian improvements on human rights and Tehran’s greater conformity with international norms of behavior. The European Council declared, “The European Council reaffirms its belief that a dialogue should be maintained with the Iranian Government. This should be a critical dialogue which reflects concern about Iranian behavior and calls for improvement in a number of areas, particularly human rights, the death sentence pronounced by a Fatwa of Ayatollah Khomeini against the author Salman Rushdie, which is contrary to international law, and terrorism.” The Council continued, “Improvement in these areas will be important in determining the extent to which closer relations and confidence can be developed.” Weapons of mass destruction received subsequent mention. European officials assumed that increasing trade, meanwhile, would strengthen the hands of pragmatists against more hardline elements.

European officials saw the designation of “critical” as important because it emphasized that the engagement would tackle contentious issues. Iranian officials appear never to have taken the new approach to heart. Over subsequent years, Iranian authorities arrested German citizens in Iran, more often as bargaining chips to influence negotiations than on any evidence-based charges. Initially, Kinkel and his cohorts continued to pay lip service to human rights, but as Iranian diplomats signaled Tehran’s annoyance and suggested further queries could impact commercial ties, Kinkel backed off. By 1995, German exports to Iran had increased to $1.4 billion, more than twice the level of any other country.

Meanwhile, European Commissioner Hans van der Broek met Rushdie to assure him that Iranian respect for human rights, the lifting of the fatwa, and greater respect inside Iran for international law would be preconditions for the establishment of closer EU-Iran ties. They weren’t. The EU-Iran rapprochement continued, even without progress on Rushdie’s case. The following year, the EU sought again to have the fatwa lifted but failed to win written Iranian assurances and, in 1995, Iranian Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi reiterated that Tehran would not lift the call for Rushdie’s murder.

European trade meanwhile flourished. By 1996, economic and trade relations between the European Union and the Islamic Republic reached $29 billion. With trade in the balance, European leaders dropped any pretense of demanding improvement on critical issues. When, amidst low oil prices, the German government had the opportunity to utilize its economic leverage to force concessions on issues of concern, the German government and German banks declined and instead agreed to reschedule Iran’s debt. European governments followed suit, rescheduling $12 billion in credit.

While Iranian President Mohammad Khatami entered office in 1997, executions increased alongside trade. Rushdie remained under constant threat: even after Iranian diplomats promised to waive the execution order so as to enable the British government to return their ambassador, the Iranian regime simply re-imposed the death sentence the following day. Iran’s military nuclear program continued apace. Indeed, reformists brag that they deserve credit for the nuclear program which advanced against the backdrop of the European and subsequent Clinton administration initiatives.

The same held true with Clinton-era American diplomacy toward the Taliban. Once diplomats began their initiative, no matter how much the Taliban reneged on agreements and promises, there was no reversing the process–that is, until nearly 3,000 American lost their lives. And the idea that money can buy responsibility has been behind the logic of aid to the Palestinian Authority and Gaza Strip. But even with the Palestinians receiving more per capita than any other people on earth, radicalism and terrorism has only increased.

Critical engagement—and the belief it never hurts to talk to enemies—has been a diplomatic mantra for decades. But such diplomacy has never reformed an adversary’s behavior; it has simply let them off the hook. Rogues know talk of human rights is simply the West posturing to its own domestic audience. Until Washington or other Western countries show a real willingness to walk away from the table and re-impose and augment sanctions when a country backtracks from its commitments, rogues will calculate correctly they can get away with murder, and get paid for it.

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Iran Depicts American Navy as Weak, Cowardly

Iran’s Fars News Agency has released footage of an Iranian plane buzzing the USS Gridley, an American destroyer, apparently in the Persian Gulf. The video depicts de-conflicting communication between the Iranian Air Force and the U.S. ship, and concludes with the USS Gridley acceding to the Iranian aircraft’s demands.

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Iran’s Fars News Agency has released footage of an Iranian plane buzzing the USS Gridley, an American destroyer, apparently in the Persian Gulf. The video depicts de-conflicting communication between the Iranian Air Force and the U.S. ship, and concludes with the USS Gridley acceding to the Iranian aircraft’s demands.

Now, the Gridley may have acted normally given its location but, even if not, it is the policy of the Obama administration to seek to de-escalate conflict by withdrawing from confrontation (in sharp contrast to Ronald Reagan, for example, who in both the Gulf of Sitra and the Persian Gulf used the U.S. Navy to confirm the sanctity of international waters).

But it does say a lot about Iranian cockiness and how they wish to depict their strength relative to the United States Navy that the Iranian Air Force would offer Iranian journalists a ride essentially to seek out an American ship and depict it following Iranian orders and “fleeing.”

President Obama may believe concession shows sincerity and provides a path to peace but, alas, to many states in the Middle East, compromise is a sign of weakness. Regardless, as optimistic as Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry may be about bringing Iran in from the cold, the Iranian press—strictly controlled by the Iranian leadership—appears not to have gotten the message; quite the contrary, it seems prepared to ramp up its efforts to humiliate rather than seek partnership with America. If Obama is truly interested in bringing peace and security to the region, he might reflect on his instincts and do the exact opposite. Sometimes, standing one’s ground, abiding by red lines, and showing seriousness of purpose sends a message that even Tehran cannot ignore.

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Iran Should Confront Its Own Racism

In recent days, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has taken to his twitter feed to condemn American racism, even using the trending hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter. CNN.com asked me to respond to his tweets, which I did here. In short, there’s something rather hypocritical about the Iranian leader calling the United States—or any other country racist. The Islamic Republic of Iran is today among the world’s most racist and religiously intolerant countries. Culturally, many Iranians look down upon all the other peoples surrounding them (this is a theme explored in my 2005 co-authored book, Eternal Iran). After all, the Middle East is a region of artificial countries, shaped largely by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and nineteenth and twentieth European colonialism. Iran is an exception, however: it is the successor to great empires and has its own imperial legacy. Iranian racism against and abuse of Afghan refugees and workers is well known.

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In recent days, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has taken to his twitter feed to condemn American racism, even using the trending hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter. CNN.com asked me to respond to his tweets, which I did here. In short, there’s something rather hypocritical about the Iranian leader calling the United States—or any other country racist. The Islamic Republic of Iran is today among the world’s most racist and religiously intolerant countries. Culturally, many Iranians look down upon all the other peoples surrounding them (this is a theme explored in my 2005 co-authored book, Eternal Iran). After all, the Middle East is a region of artificial countries, shaped largely by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and nineteenth and twentieth European colonialism. Iran is an exception, however: it is the successor to great empires and has its own imperial legacy. Iranian racism against and abuse of Afghan refugees and workers is well known.

Whereas Iran once counted Baha’is among its cultural and economic elite, Revolutionary leader Ruhollah Khomeini and Khamenei, his successor, have ushered in an era of state-sanctioned religious discrimination. And while Khamenei has become fond of citing Jesus Christ in his recent tweets, let us not forget all of the Christian pastors whom the Khamenei regime has murdered. Of course, Jews also suffer at the hands of Khamenei’s regime. Sure, it’s not uncommon to hear that Iran has the second largest Jewish community in the Middle East, but it’s just 20 percent of what it was before Khomeini and Khamenei seized power. Anti-Semitism is nothing new in Iran. While former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called international attention to it with his repeated Holocaust denial, it was actually his predecessor, the so-called reformist Mohammad Khatami, who welcomed prominent Holocaust deniers to Iran and gave them a forum at the foreign ministry’s think tank.

Nor has Khamenei showed particular enlightenment toward blacks, either in his own country or abroad. When President Obama won election in November 2008—like Obama or dislike him, it was surely a historic day in American history—the Iranian press (and al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri) both dismissed Obama as a “house slave,” according to the Open Source Center, a U.S. government-run translation service. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ weekly Sobh-e Sadegh editorial discussing Obama’s election was entitled, “A Dark Person Rises to Remove Darkness From America,” but then continued to condemn the president for appointing a Jew as his chief-of-staff. Jomhuri-ye Eslami dismissed Obama as merely “a black immigrant.”

There is an unfortunate tendency in the United States toward moral and cultural equivalency. Is there racism in America? Certainly, although far less than decades ago (and enshrined too often in policies which promote color consciousness such as affirmative action). And is there racism in Iran? Of course. But to say the two are equivalent is to compare the heat from a camp fire to that of the core of a nuclear reactor. The difference in the two cases is that America has free press—remember the Emmett Till case 50 years ago—and Americans are introspective enough to confront problems and seek improvement. In Iran, however, speaking openly about anti-Semitism, discrimination against Christians and Baha’is, seeking justice for Afghans, or preventing discrimination against minorities like the Baluch or Kurds will lead to lengthy jail terms.

It’s time to call Khamenei out on his racism and bias. He is an embarrassment to what Iran could and should be and, for that matter, to any notion of human rights and decency. To let his preaching continue unanswered is simply to cede the moral high-ground to a bigot more comfortable promoting genocide than striving after any notion of justice.

If Obama is serious about race and teachable moments, perhaps it’s time to call Khamenei out on his racism.

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The Real Key to ISIS’s Appeal: Stopping Iran

Apparently the U.S. Special Operations Command is wrestling with the question of what makes the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria “so magnetic, so inspirational.” This is an interesting question to ponder, but it’s not as puzzling as the military makes it out to be.

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Apparently the U.S. Special Operations Command is wrestling with the question of what makes the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria “so magnetic, so inspirational.” This is an interesting question to ponder, but it’s not as puzzling as the military makes it out to be.

At one level, obviously, ISIS has some ideological appeal by claiming to represent the forces of “true” Islam. By creating a modern-day caliphate where their fundamentalist version of sharia law will be enforced with brutal force, ISIS has tapped into a deep vein of longing in the Muslim world for the return of a golden age when Islamic states were the richest in the world–a far cry from the perceived humiliations that Islam has suffered ever since Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798.

But this appeal exists mainly among those not actually living under ISIS control–among a small minority of far-away Muslims who have the luxury of romanticizing what these thugs and killers are up to. There have been numerous reports, by contrast, that Iraqis and Syrians actually living under ISIS control are unhappy about the group’s brutality and its inability to deliver even minimal governmental services. So why don’t ISIS’s subjects revolt?

In the first place because ISIS has the guns and they don’t. The group has shown how high-profile atrocities can cow a larger subject population. But there is another, practical aspect to why ISIS manages to retain control of a vast territory the size of Great Britain: it has managed to make itself into the leading defender of Sunni interests against Shiite oppression.

This is the true key to the group’s ideological appeal and it will not be dispelled by fuzzy American propaganda campaigns excoriating ISIS for its atrocities or putting forward moderate Muslims to proclaim that ISIS does not speak for the religion of Mohammad. The only way to dispel ISIS’s core appeal is to show that Sunnis can be protected against Shiite depredations without flocking to ISIS for protection. And that in turn will require the U.S. to show that it is willing to fight against Iranian-backed Shiite extremism as much as it is against Sunni-backed ISIS extremism.

Instead the Obama administration has given every indication that it is trying to accommodate an Iranian power grab in both Syria and Iran. The president has further reinforced that impression with an interview in which he said that Iran can be a “very successful regional power” if it gives up its nuclear program.

But whether Iran has nukes or not, it is seen by Sunnis as an existential threat because of its attempts to dominate the region. Indeed Iran-backed forces in both Iran and Syria have carried out terrible atrocities against Sunni civilians, yet the Obama administration is cooperating with the Iranian-backed regimes in Damascus and Baghdad and doing precious little to aid the Sunnis who could in theory launch another Awakening movement to overthrow ISIS.

To truly sap ISIS’ ideological appeal, the U.S. needs to stop flirting with Tehran and start acting to mobilize a Sunni rebellion against ISIS with guarantees that Sunni communities will have their rights respected after ISIS is overthrown. This could, for example, involve engineering a deal in Iraq to give Sunnis a regional status akin to that of the Kurds. Until that happens it will be nearly impossible for the U.S. military, no matter how tactically skillful its efforts may be, to defeat this terrible threat..

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2014: Bashar al-Assad’s Comeback Year

The idea that there are no winners in war has long been a rallying cry for peace. But right now in the Middle East, what should concern American policymakers most is that the reverse is never true: whether or not there are winners, there’s always a loser. And in Syria at the moment, every side seems to be winning except ours.

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The idea that there are no winners in war has long been a rallying cry for peace. But right now in the Middle East, what should concern American policymakers most is that the reverse is never true: whether or not there are winners, there’s always a loser. And in Syria at the moment, every side seems to be winning except ours.

NPR tempers the holiday spirit today with an important reminder of just how much has changed, for the worse, in the Syrian civil war and the cross-border ISIS insurgency in Syria and Iraq. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, NPR notes, is ending the year in a far better place than he started it. Although that seems obvious, it’s disturbing to think back what a difference a year makes:

At the beginning of 2014, Syrian President Bashar Assad had agreed to send his ministers to take part in negotiations in Switzerland, and his future as Syria’s ruler was not looking very bright.

He was accused of killing tens of thousands of his own people in a civil war that was nearly three years old. The opposition was demanding Assad’s ouster. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Switzerland and called loudly for a political transition in Syria. He was clear about who would not be involved.

“Bashar Assad will not be part of that transition government. There is no way — no way possible in the imagination — that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern,” he said.

Fast-forward to the present. Those talks were abandoned. Assad is still in the presidential palace in Damascus. And although the United States is bombing Syria, it’s not targeting Assad’s army but the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS.

The key quote comes next from Joshua Landis. “I think Assad is in a stronger position today in many respects, certainly on the battlefield, and he has the United States as a strategic ally,” he told NPR.

Think about that. It was less than a year ago that the American secretary of state was asserting unequivocally that Assad was done and that certainly his days of being treated as a legitimate head of state were over. Now “he has the United States as a strategic ally.”

This isn’t some random simple twist of fate. Assad’s survival depended on his playing his cards just right. In the preceding years of the civil war that still rages in his country, Assad was facing a collection of rebels, a disorganized circus of armed opposition. Assad knew how to prioritize his defense.

In August, the New York Times’s Room for Debate feature asked the following question: “Should the U.S. Work With Assad to Fight ISIS?” One of the panel contributors, The National columnist Hassan Hassan, pointed out the absurdity of relying on Assad as a partner against ISIS:

The idea that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can be a partner in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, ignores a basic fact: Assad has been key to its rise in Syria and beyond. When Islamic radicals took over Raqqa, the first province to fall under rebels’ control in its entirety, it was remarkable that the regime did not follow the same policy it had consistently employed elsewhere, which is to shower liberated territories with bombs, day and night.

Raqqa was saved the fate of Deir Ezzor, Aleppo, Homs and Deraa. ISIS soon controlled the province, painted government buildings in black and turned them into bases. The group’s bases were easy to spot, for about a year and a half. Elsewhere, too, Assad allowed ISIS to grow and fester. The regime has been buying oil from it and other extremist groups after it lost control of most of the country’s oilfields and gas plants.

Assad has gone from dead man walking to the once and future king in the space of a year because he made many enemies but then outmaneuvered them all. Earlier in the conflict, Assad was losing. He’s not anymore.

And neither is ISIS. After Assad allowed the terrorist group to fester and hold territory, it has been controlling areas of Syria and Iraq while using the resources of those territories to fund its terror state. Since the Obama administration’s plan has been to delay sending troops and then sending too few to defeat ISIS, disrupting the group’s revenue streams would be the next obvious step.

Unfortunately, the two can’t be so easily separated. As Foreign Policy reports, the anti-ISIS alliance has had some success in stemming oil revenue. But they haven’t stopped it. And disrupting other streams of terrorists’ revenue requires–you guessed it–boots on the ground: “But cutting off the group’s proceeds from other illegal activities like kidnapping and extortion is harder to do without first reconquering the territory where the militants operate what are effectively mafia-style criminal enterprises.”

So for now, ISIS isn’t losing either. We had two enemies in Syria, and they’re both doing OK for themselves at the moment. But someone has to be losing, and by process of elimination you can pretty much guess who it is. The “moderate” rebels–our previous strategic ally, before Assad supplanted them–have found themselves in a vicious cycle. They struggle because we aren’t helping them enough to succeed, which we then use as an excuse to help them less, which in turn leads to them struggling even more:

Reflecting that dissatisfaction, the Obama administration has taken a series of steps in recent weeks to distance the U.S. from the moderate rebels in the north, by cutting off their weapons flow and refusing to allow them to meet with U.S. military officials, right at the time they are struggling to survive in and around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

And there’s one more loser in all this: America’s strategic interests. ISIS is undermining our attempts to leave behind a stable Iraq and splitting territory next door in Syria with Assad, Iran’s proxy. It’s true that Assad had a pretty good year considering where he was heading into 2014. But that’s another way of saying America’s enemies had a pretty good year.

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Israel’s Critics Say Nothing as Hamas Rebuilds Tunnels With International Aid

Five months ago Hamas rained down rockets on Israeli cities and attempted to use a tunnel network to infiltrate into the Jewish state and kidnap and kill as many Jews as they could. But predictably most of the world’s attention was focused on Israeli counter-attacks to suppress the missile fire and take out the tunnels and it came under severe criticism, even from its American ally, for the toll of civilian deaths that were caused by Hamas using the population of Gaza as human shields. But those who deplored the 50-day war as a tragedy for the Palestinian people now need to ask themselves whether they are really interested in watching another such round of fighting in the future. The same international community that blasted Israel for having the temerity to defend itself now needs to address the fact that the aid that is pouring into the strip for the purpose of rebuilding homes destroyed in the fighting, is actually being used to rebuild the terror tunnels. If they don’t, they’ll have no right to criticize Israel when it is once again forced to act to defend itself.

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Five months ago Hamas rained down rockets on Israeli cities and attempted to use a tunnel network to infiltrate into the Jewish state and kidnap and kill as many Jews as they could. But predictably most of the world’s attention was focused on Israeli counter-attacks to suppress the missile fire and take out the tunnels and it came under severe criticism, even from its American ally, for the toll of civilian deaths that were caused by Hamas using the population of Gaza as human shields. But those who deplored the 50-day war as a tragedy for the Palestinian people now need to ask themselves whether they are really interested in watching another such round of fighting in the future. The same international community that blasted Israel for having the temerity to defend itself now needs to address the fact that the aid that is pouring into the strip for the purpose of rebuilding homes destroyed in the fighting, is actually being used to rebuild the terror tunnels. If they don’t, they’ll have no right to criticize Israel when it is once again forced to act to defend itself.

As the Times of Israel writes, the Israel media is reporting that:

Some of the cement and other materials being delivered to the coastal Palestinian territory, as part of an international rebuilding effort, has been diverted to the tunnels.

The story goes on to detail some things that can’t come as a surprise. Even as it rebuilds its terror tunnels, Hamas is replenishing its supply of missiles and rockets. Given that the group has just kissed and made up with Iran, the flow of money and munitions into the strip by one means or another is bound to increase.

Though expected, this does increase Hamas’s leverage over the Palestinian Authority, which isn’t interested in making peace with Israel but will certainly never do so while it remains under threat from its erstwhile unity partner. Though many in Israel and elsewhere assumed Hamas would emerge weakened from a war in which Gaza was flattened and little material damage was done to the Jewish state, it is more popular than ever (especially in the West Bank which did not suffer much from the terror group’s murderous policies) and may soon be as much of a threat to Israel as it was before the fighting started. Indeed, if, as reports indicate, Hamas is working on ways to defeat Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system succeed, the danger will be far worse the next time the terrorists decide they wish to try their luck.

That is a daunting prospect for Israelis and poses difficult questions for Prime Minister Netanyahu who is now criticized for his handling of the war even if most of his critics would not have supported a bloody campaign to evict Hamas from Gaza and thus eliminate the threat for the future.

But it should also pose serious questions for those countries like the United States and its European allies that were so quick to bash Israel for its efforts to silence the missile fire and demolish the tunnels.

This week, both American and European diplomats wasted their time negotiating over the text of a United Nations Security Council resolution that would recognize Palestinian independence proposed by the PA. The proposal was a non-starter that in the end even the Obama administration had to oppose, but the talk about Palestinian independence ignored the fact that there is already an independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza that is using its autonomy to continue its never-ending war to destroy Israel.

By acquiescing to a situation in which a criminal terrorist group not only continues to rule over a captive population and threaten war against a neighboring sovereign state but also standing by silently as Hamas creates the conditions for another terror war, the West is demonstrating its moral bankruptcy on the Middle East. Those who talk about helping the Palestinians cannot ignore the fact that what Hamas is doing is preparing to set in motion a chain of events that will lead to more bloodshed and suffering. By their silence and, even worse, refusal to halt the flow of material that is being used by Hamas to prepare for another war, they are morally responsible for every drop of Arab or Israeli blood that will be shed.

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What About Responding to the Iranian Cyberattack?

The New York Times reports that the Obama administration is “considering a ‘proportional response’ against those who hacked into Sony Pictures computers.” Okay. Sony Pictures Entertainment is an American subsidiary of a Japanese corporation, and lunatic dictatorships like the one in Pyongyang shouldn’t be allowed to attack private corporations with impunity. Responding would be advisable. What, then, is the American response to the suspected rogue-regime cyberattack on an American corporation earlier this year?

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The New York Times reports that the Obama administration is “considering a ‘proportional response’ against those who hacked into Sony Pictures computers.” Okay. Sony Pictures Entertainment is an American subsidiary of a Japanese corporation, and lunatic dictatorships like the one in Pyongyang shouldn’t be allowed to attack private corporations with impunity. Responding would be advisable. What, then, is the American response to the suspected rogue-regime cyberattack on an American corporation earlier this year?

As I noted on Wednesday, Iranian hackers launched a massive attack on Sheldon Adelson’s Sands Corporation in February. They inflicted perhaps more than $40 million in damage. That’s on par with the $44 million Sony spent making The Interview. And as Bloomberg noted, “it’s unlikely that any hackers inside the country could pull off an attack of that scope without [the government’s] knowledge, given the close scrutiny of Internet use within its borders.” That point is sharpened when you consider that the hackers claimed they were responding to Adelson’s hawkish remarks on Iran. And, just as with the Sony hack, there were threats: They defaced the Sands’s website, posting “a photograph of Adelson chumming around with Netanyahu, as well as images of flames on a map of Sands’ U.S. casinos….The hackers left messages for Adelson himself. One read, ‘Damn A, Don’t let your tongue cut your throat.’”

Maybe President Obama draws a bright red line when it comes to Angelina Jolie, but forgetting the movie stars and the nasty emails, the Sands attack is every bit as serious as the Sony job. Arguably, more so. After all, we’re not currently involved in extended nuclear negotiations with North Korea. If our current negotiating partners in Tehran are (at least) complicit in attacking American corporations it might say something important about their sincerity in negotiations.

That, of course, is Obama’s problem. He’s staked his foreign-policy legacy on the decency of America’s enemies. He can’t upset our pitiful Iranian diplomacy, so Adelson will just have to take one for the team.

Which means we’ll all take one for the team. If the United States is not going to respond decisively to acts of cyberwar on its citizens, it’s only a matter of time until the next attack, and the next, and so on. If you’re lucky, celebrities will be involved in the one that hits you. Whatever retaliation the administration is mulling, it isn’t about comprehensive national-security policy. It’s PR whack-a-mole in response to a hot news story. Obama doesn’t do wake-up calls.

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Hamas-Iran Rapprochement Bodes Ill for Israel and U.S. Interests

With many European nations clamoring for recognition of Palestine as an independent state, the Palestinian state that already exists was busy reconciling with its most important patron. Hamas, which operates as an independent state in all but name operating in Gaza, quarreled with Iran about the Syrian civil war. But after several months of efforts to patch up that spat, it appears that relations between the two are now back on track. That should worry those who hoped that Hamas would be chastened by the disastrous war with Israel it launched last summer. It should also bother those who think the Obama administration’s effort to create a new détente with Tehran won’t have an impact on the rest of the Middle East and in particular, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. A resurgent Hamas-Iran alliance makes the region more dangerous for both the Jewish state and the United States.

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With many European nations clamoring for recognition of Palestine as an independent state, the Palestinian state that already exists was busy reconciling with its most important patron. Hamas, which operates as an independent state in all but name operating in Gaza, quarreled with Iran about the Syrian civil war. But after several months of efforts to patch up that spat, it appears that relations between the two are now back on track. That should worry those who hoped that Hamas would be chastened by the disastrous war with Israel it launched last summer. It should also bother those who think the Obama administration’s effort to create a new détente with Tehran won’t have an impact on the rest of the Middle East and in particular, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. A resurgent Hamas-Iran alliance makes the region more dangerous for both the Jewish state and the United States.

Iran was Hamas’s patron throughout the second intifada as it shipped arms and money to the terror group that enabled it to open a southern front to compliment the one on Israel’s northern border where Tehran’s Hezbollah auxiliaries operate. Iran played a crucial role in ensuring that not only could Hamas keep firing rockets on Israeli cities, towns, and villages but that the Islamists could wield an effective veto on any moves toward peace undertaken by the supposedly more moderate Palestinian Authority.

That changed in 2011 when Iran and Hamas quarreled over Syria. Iran was fully committed to the survival of its ally, the brutal Bashar Assad regime. But Hamas, following the lead of some of its Gulf State friends as well as Turkey, backed Assad’s opponents. The decision stemmed in part from the one big difference that had always made Iran and Hamas an odd couple. As a Sunni group, Hamas felt closer to Sunni Arab states that feared the spread of Iran’s Shi’a sphere of influence. The result was that the political office of the group left Damascus and Iran turned off both the funding and the arms it had been sending Hamas.

But as the West failed to act to oust Assad, it was soon clear that Hamas had bet on the wrong side. Fortunately for them, Iran seems to be willing to forgive and forget and Tehran, which had supported Hamas’s smaller Islamic Jihad rival, may now be ready to invest heavily in Gaza once again. For all of their religious and political differences, their mutual commitment to Israel’s destruction has once again brought Hamas and Iran together.

The timing couldn’t be better for Hamas, which has been financially squeezed by the fall of its Muslim Brotherhood ally in Egypt and the consequent decision of Cairo to shut down the smuggling tunnels into Gaza that provided the terrorists with their principal source of income. It needs more money than the foolish Western nations that are contributing to the rebuilding of Gaza after last summer are willing to give. That’s because its goal isn’t to construct homes but rather to rebuild the strip’s military infrastructure (including terror tunnels along the border with Israel) and replenishing its arsenal of rockets and other munitions. While it was going to be able to divert some of the humanitarian aid donated by the West for this purpose, generous Iranian contributions will both speed up the process and ensure that Hamas will soon be in as strong a military position as it was before its foolish decision to start shooting at Israeli cities.

But the implications of the move are broader than just the already tense front along the Israel-Gaza border.

By rekindling its alliance with Hamas, Iran is demonstrating its ability to wield influence across the Middle East in a manner that is profoundly destabilizing for moderate neighboring Arab states such as Jordan and Egypt. With Hamas back in Tehran’s fold, it not only gives Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei the ability to put military pressure on Israel from two directions. It also reinforces the impression that its grip on the region is growing with Assad still firmly in place in Syria and Hezbollah pulling the strings in Lebanon.

Moreover, Iran’s growing power can’t be separated from the direction of the nuclear talks it is holding with the United States and other Western allies. With the Obama administration desperate to get Iran to sign a nuclear deal no matter how weak it may be, pressure on Tehran to modify its behavior is diminishing. It’s not just that it’s obvious that an agreement will signify Western acquiescence to Iran becoming a nuclear threshold power. Any deal, accompanied as it will be by the end of sanctions, will make it easier for the Islamist regime to aid Hamas and strengthen that terror group immeasurably because other Arab states will have good reason to fear Iran’s displeasure.

The result of this series of events will not make Israel less secure. But U.S. influence will be similarly diminished and American allies will have good reason to worry about Obama’s determination to retreat from the region and embrace good relations with an Iran they rightly fear.

Europeans are moving toward legitimizing Hamas, as the recent decision from the European Union court indicated. But in doing so, they are making it less likely that the Palestinian state or states they wish to establish will have any interest in peace. And with America appeasing Iran, there seems to be no reason for Sunnis who want to back the strong horse to avoid embracing Iran.

Seen in that light, President Obama’s decision to appease Iran is even more dangerous than it seems. With a potentially nuclear Iran backing Hamas to the hilt, the prospect of peace between Israel and the Palestinians is more remote than ever.

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This Is Cyberwar, Not Tabloid Fodder

The Sony hacking story has largely been treated as a juicy showbiz gossip scandal. We’re probably going to regret that. Read More

The Sony hacking story has largely been treated as a juicy showbiz gossip scandal. We’re probably going to regret that.

If North Korea is behind the computer hacks and threats to terrorize theaters showing The Interview, it confirms a new era of rogue-state terrorism, one for which there’s no counterterrorism blueprint. According to the New York Times, Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema has killed its scheduled New York premier of the anti-Kim Jong-un comedy. The Hollywood Reporter says that the country’s top five theater chains have pulled out of showing the film. Time says the movie’s stars, James Franco and Seth Rogen, have called off their publicity tour. A spate of film executives are backpedaling for their lives as their emails are picked through and published to viral derision. The Times’s Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes write that the theater threat “opens a new range of worry for Hollywood.”

But the danger is larger and graver than that.

In February, hackers laid digital waste to Sheldon Adelson’s Sands casino, forcing the Sands to temporarily disconnect from the Internet. It was a massive undertaking that wiped out or compromised millions of files. Bloomberg reports that “recovering data and building new systems could cost the company $40 million or more” (a figure coincidently close to the $44 million Sony sunk into The Interview). Why did hackers target Adelson? The cyberterrorists who hit him call themselves the “Anti-WMD Team.” They are based in Iran, and claim retaliation for Adelson’s hawkish remarks about the Islamic Republic. Here’s the rub, via Bloomberg:

The security team couldn’t determine if Iran’s government played a role, but it’s unlikely that any hackers inside the country could pull off an attack of that scope without its knowledge, given the close scrutiny of Internet use within its borders. “This isn’t the kind of business you can get into in Iran without the government knowing,” says James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

So, if the evidence is pointing in the right direction, dictatorships are tanking our enterprise, holding us hostage, and essentially turning us into their offshore subjects.

This isn’t a gossip story or an industry problem. It’s war. Moreover, it’s a war we don’t know how to fight. In 2011, the U.S. military declared cyberattacks tantamount to acts of war and therefore liable to military response. But that statement concerned cyberattacks on our government or infastructure. We now have rogue regimes going after American citizens and corporations. There’s nothing on the books for that. There’s been talk of “hacking back” among corporate victims, but that’s a reckless and probably illegal option. There needs to be fresh strategic thinking about this, and fast. We’re catching up to a challenge that’s already out of control.

In his worthwhile 2008 book, Terror and Consent, Philip Bobbitt noted the paradox of increased technological interconnectivity. As digital networks grow and grow, larger numbers of people become vulnerable to a simple malicious flick of the switch. Today, we live and breathe online. Our money, our secrets, our stray thoughts are now potential weapons to be used against us. What’s most interesting about the attacks on Sony and the Sands is that they weren’t the grand cyberthefts we’d been warned about for years (and which are already happening regularly). The hackers weren’t interested in stealing money. Their aims were anarchic, seeking to disrupt operations and to blackmail with information.

The hackers behind the Sony attack have invoked comparisons to 9/11. They are right in at least one respect. Look where they attacked: The American film industry carries as much symbolic weight as did the World Trade Center. Culturally, perhaps more so. Hollywood movies are a monolithic U.S. export that have served to plant American notions of freedom and unbridled possibility in the minds of untold millions. From now on, filmmakers will think twice before crossing the next paranoid despot. That’s tragic.

But as for all that goofy Dear Leader humor—good riddance. A psychopathic dictator imprisons and starves 25 million people and we make fun of his haircut. That’s a shabby response from history’s greatest defender of human liberty. It’s no wonder that Hollywood laughed at Kim’s fragile ego right up until it found itself cowering before it. Political satire is only effective when it dissuades those who would otherwise aid or support the target of the joke. On this point Kim humor is doubly useless. No citizen of North Korea sees these gags, and, even if they did, their opinion is irrelevant to the whims of the regime.

Perhaps such jokes make us feel better about our own inaction. North Korea propagates an evil too great to countenance. Its very enormity has become its defense. “The wicked know that if the ill they do be of sufficient horror that men will not speak against it,” said one of Cormac McCarthy’s characters in his novel The Crossing. “That men have just enough stomach for small evils and only these will they oppose.” So while North Korea goes on the attack Americans denounce the perceived racial insensitivities of a film executive’s email correspondence.

With the United States now taking big commercial hits, inaction may no longer be an option. But before we can figure out how to fight back, we need to be clear about the difference between show-business inanities and enemy attacks.

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Yes, It’s Time to Lift the Cuban Embargo

Better Cuba than Iran. That’s my reaction to the news that after months of secret negotiations the U.S. has agreed to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than half a century.

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Better Cuba than Iran. That’s my reaction to the news that after months of secret negotiations the U.S. has agreed to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than half a century.

This is part of a broader effort by President Obama to reorder American diplomacy during the last two years of his presidency in keeping with his 2008 campaign pledge to talk to any dictator anytime without any preconditions. The centerpiece of his push is an effort to restore relations with Iran in return for a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program. That is a very bad idea because (a) Iran is certain to cheat on any such deal, (b) such a deal would not address Iran’s attempts to dominate the Middle East through the use of its terrorist proxies, and (c) such a deal would likely cause Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia to launch their own nuclear weapons. More broadly, Iran is an expansionist power that threatens core American interests in a vital region of the world; it is also supporting the slaughter of more than 200,000 people in Syria. We should be trying to contain Iran rather than cuddling up to it.

Cuba is different. I recall going to Cuba a few years ago and finding a sad, decrepit relic state–a place where old American clunkers from the 1950s somehow stayed on the road, the buildings were falling down, and people lined up for hours to buy eggs. Its biggest ideological export these days seems to be doctors, not bombs. It’s hard to see this broken-down Communist has-been, ruled by a pair of geriatric brothers, as a major threat to American interests.

Once an exporter of revolution to Africa and Latin America, a trend made famous by Che Guevara, Cuba is now but a shadow of its old subversive self. It still remains a sponsor of terrorism but just barely. According to the State Department, Cuba remains on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list because of its links to the Colombian FARC and ETA groups but those are largely beaten and not much of a threat anymore; indeed Cuba is now facilitating peace talks between FARC and the Colombian government. Certainly the groups sponsored by Cuba are not remotely as dangerous as Hezbollah, the Houthis, Asaib Ahl ah-Haq, and other Iranian proxies.

Cuba also remains a notorious human rights violator but its record is not as bad as Iran and it’s cheering to see that as part of the deal to restore relations with the U.S. it is releasing 53 political prisoners, in addition to two Americans who are being swapped for three Cuban spies held in the U.S. Certainly Cuba’s human-rights record is no worse than Vietnam, another Communist state with which the U.S. restored diplomatic relations. Indeed over the years the U.S. has had diplomatic relations with many more noxious regimes including the Soviet Union–so why not Cuba?

The restoration of diplomatic relations will, in any case, deliver some benefits to the U.S. by allowing us to beef up the staff of the American interests section in Havana, thus increasing our ability to (at least in theory) subvert the regime through the promotion of human rights. Moreover the U.S. embargo on Cuba stays in effect, although President Obama is urging Congress to lift it.

After more than 50 years, it seems hard to argue that the embargo is doing much to undermine the rule of the Castro brothers. It’s time, at long last, to lift the embargo and see if it’s possible to do more to promote a post-Communist future for Cuba with openness than we have been able to accomplish with a standoffish attitude over the past half century.

This is one diplomatic initiative on Obama’s part that I can applaud. I just hope it will sate his appetite for diplomatic achievements before he makes ruinous concessions to the Iranians.

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Cuba and the Price of Normalization

Then news this morning that the Cuban government is finally freeing Alan Gross, an American unjustly imprisoned there for the last five years, is cause for celebration. The release of Gross, a Jewish aid worker who was trying to help the Cuban people, not to spy on their government, was long overdue and the seemingly lackluster efforts to free him by the Obama administration were discouraging. But the administration and the Cuban government obviously was interested in achieving something more than a prisoner exchange as they engaged in negotiations. The result of a reported 18 months of talks was not merely the end of Gross’s ordeal but the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba’s Communist government after more than a half century of conflict. This is something about which Americans should feel less than enthusiastic.

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Then news this morning that the Cuban government is finally freeing Alan Gross, an American unjustly imprisoned there for the last five years, is cause for celebration. The release of Gross, a Jewish aid worker who was trying to help the Cuban people, not to spy on their government, was long overdue and the seemingly lackluster efforts to free him by the Obama administration were discouraging. But the administration and the Cuban government obviously was interested in achieving something more than a prisoner exchange as they engaged in negotiations. The result of a reported 18 months of talks was not merely the end of Gross’s ordeal but the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba’s Communist government after more than a half century of conflict. This is something about which Americans should feel less than enthusiastic.

We are told that Gross’s freedom, along with that of 53 human-rights prisoners, is for humanitarian reasons and not part of a prisoner exchange in which Havana released another person (dubbed a U.S. “intelligence asset”) for three Cuban spies. But the real focus of American policy here was on President Obama’s goal of engagement with America’s foes. As with his outreach to Iran, the president’s belief that diplomacy can smooth out if not entirely erase our differences with dangerous regimes has become the engine of American foreign policy during his administration. Whether it is the failed attempts at resets of relations with the Putin regime in Russia or the long-running effort to appease the Islamist regime in Tehran, the point of American efforts is not so much the achievement of tangible goals or the enhancement of U.S. security as it is on the promotion of good will with nations that have little or no regard for U.S. values or interests.

In pursuit of this amorphous goal, the administration has made bargains, like the interim nuclear accord signed with Iran last year, that do little to promote U.S. goals but allow the president to keep talking with hostile nations. It is in this context that we must view any effort to normalize relations with a tyrannical Cuban government.

It should be conceded that the American embargo on Cuba, which can only be lifted by Congress and not by presidential fiat, has not been effective in isolating that country or in promoting change there. But even if we recognize that this is true, neither should the U.S. be blamed for the endemic poverty in Cuba. After all, many American businesses have obtained exemptions for conducting commerce there and virtually every other nation on the planet does have trade with Cuba. Poverty in Cuba is caused by Communism and the repression that is inherent in the system that the aging Castro brothers have imposed on this tortured island prison.

The arguments for opening U.S. trade with Cuba revolve around the idea that engagement will undermine the Communist system and the regime. It should also be noted that when you consider that America has intense economic relations with China, the world’s largest tyranny, the insistence on isolating a far smaller one in Cuba doesn’t seem to make sense. Seen from that perspective, President Obama’s decision to end 51 years of diplomatic estrangement and to open up trade with it will probably do little harm and perhaps lead to some good.

But there are two underlying dynamics to the decision that are deeply troubling.

The first is that this rapprochement has been achieved by blackmail by a vicious totalitarian state rather than an honest and open diplomatic process. Though we are supposed to believe that Gross’s freedom was incidental to the agreement, it’s clear that his unjust imprisonment raised the price of the payoff Obama was preparing to hand the Castros in order to achieve what he is claiming as a foreign-policy triumph. This is a clear signal to other tyrannies that Washington can be fleeced if a U.S. hostage can be held for ransom.

Second, while America’s efforts had not led to freedom for Cuba, it’s far from clear that what will follow the president’s decision will actually end the Cuban people’s long Communist ordeal. Here, the China precedent is both instructive and chilling. By cooperating in this manner the U.S. is going from a position of futile hostility against Communism to one in which it will be directly complicit in the efforts of this brutal regime to survive. Just as American economic ties helped the communists in Beijing to succeed where those in Moscow failed at the end of the Cold War, so, too, is it likely that all that will be accomplished here is an infusion of American cash and legitimacy that will give a failed, bankrupt yet vicious government a new lease on life.

Though he paid lip service to the cause of promoting freedom when he spoke today, as with so many of his foreign-policy initiatives, the president’s focus is more on repudiating longstanding American policies than on actually helping anyone in Cuba. Nor has he extracted a fair price for granting the Castros what they have been demanding for decades. At a time when Cuba’s main allies, especially Venezuela, are in extremis due to the fall in oil prices, this was the moment for the U.S. to get more than just the freedom of Gross. But, as he has done with the even more dangerous regime in Iran, Obama paid a lot and got nothing for the Cuban people.

We can hope that Cubans will benefit to some extent from this decision but it is doubtful that they will be freer or that their prospects for liberty have been improved. Though the end of the break with Cuba is not nearly as significant as it might have been during the Cold War, it does send a message to every other American foe that the U.S. can be bought off cheaply. That’s an ominous precedent for the nuclear talks with Iran and every other dangerous situation faced by the U.S. while Obama is in the White House.

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Obama’s ISIS Boasts Ring Hollow

President Obama went to New Jersey yesterday to speak to troops at a military base to thank them for their service, as is appropriate for the commander in chief. But the president used the occasion to tout the campaign against the ISIS terror group he began at the end of the summer as a success. Comparing this effort to America’s encounters with al-Qaeda, the president boasted of “hammering” ISIS and having “put them on the defensive.” But as the year heads to a close, there is no sign that the group’s grip on much of Iraq and Syria is slipping. Though Americans must hope that Obama’s optimism about ISIS’s certain doom is well founded, given the half-hearted nature of the U.S. commitment to the fight and the paucity of results, it may be that the group’s continued strength is doing more to undermine confidence in the U.S. commitment to the fight than bolstering it.

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President Obama went to New Jersey yesterday to speak to troops at a military base to thank them for their service, as is appropriate for the commander in chief. But the president used the occasion to tout the campaign against the ISIS terror group he began at the end of the summer as a success. Comparing this effort to America’s encounters with al-Qaeda, the president boasted of “hammering” ISIS and having “put them on the defensive.” But as the year heads to a close, there is no sign that the group’s grip on much of Iraq and Syria is slipping. Though Americans must hope that Obama’s optimism about ISIS’s certain doom is well founded, given the half-hearted nature of the U.S. commitment to the fight and the paucity of results, it may be that the group’s continued strength is doing more to undermine confidence in the U.S. commitment to the fight than bolstering it.

As our Max Boot wrote last month, the administration has only been taking small steps toward assembling the forces needed to defeat ISIS, let alone implanting a war-winning strategy. The few troops and air crew being used to hit ISIS may have done some hammering of the Islamists, but to date there is nothing indicating that either the U.S. or its allies in this battle are anywhere close to being able to start rolling back ISIS’s massive territorial gains of the past year.

The comparison between past American campaigns in both Kosovo and Afghanistan is apt. When those commitments began, the U.S. deployed the kind of force and began bombing the foe on a scale that soon crumpled the resistance of the Serbs and the Taliban respectively. Though the Afghan war continues to this day, the offensive to rout the Islamists out of control of most of the country was successful. But what the U.S. has done so far in the fight against ISIS are pinpricks by comparison. Given the vast territory it has gained on Obama’s watch, the notion that three months of combat have merely “blunted its momentum” is hardly comforting to those suffering under its murderous rule or neighboring countries that were hoping the U.S. would act decisively.

The president was dragged into this fight reluctantly after years of refusing to take action in Syria as the situation there worsened along with the options available to the U.S. The U.S. is paying a high price for Obama’s Hamlet-like dithering before the decision to fight ISIS was taken. But it is also going to be paying a price for the half-hearted nature of the efforts against ISIS going on now.

It’s not just that it is appalling that the world’s sole superpower finds itself either unable or unwilling to muster sufficient force to be able to defeat a group that Obama continues to speak of with contempt. Nor can he use the excuse that it is a guerrilla group hiding out in the mountains that can’t be defeated by the conventional military tactics and airpower that the U.S. military excels in using. ISIS has, in fact, conducted its own conventional war and has managed somehow to go on fighting on two fronts in two countries with no signs that it is cracking.

That was bad enough when the administration was still able to pretend that this wasn’t their fight. But once the beheadings of American citizens forced Obama to act, he has continued to treat this as a minor affair that the U.S. can conduct on the cheap. But wars fought on the cheap tend to be very expensive in the long run. So far, all this campaign has gotten Washington is a closer relationship with an equally dangerous Iranian regime and the loss of trust in American power on the part of its allies.

Though the temptation to speak is obvious, it is a mistake for the president to be running his mouth about desultory achievements that do more to highlight the shortcomings of his strategy than proving their value. So long as it stays in the field in control of the bulk of the territory of two countries while fighting the U.S., ISIS is winning and showing the people of the region that they would be fools not to back the “strong horse” that is standing up to the Americans. Until he can announce some real victories against ISIS, President Obama should stop drawing attention to his failures with foolish boasts that do more to undermine U.S. security than to enhance it.

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Why Do States Choose to Kill Dissidents in Paris?

Over the past couple days, I have been in Brussels to attend and speak at a conference addressing the challenges Turkey and the Kurds pose to the European Union. One speaker, French lawyer Antoine Comte, provided an update into the investigation concerning the murders almost two years ago of Sakine Cansiz, a co-founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), as well as Kurdish activists Fidan Doğan and Leyla Söylemez, shot dead in their office in Paris. He noted the long history of political assassinations in Paris. In 1965, Moroccan dissident Mehdi Ben Barka disappeared in Paris, allegedly killed by the Moroccan security services. And a few years later, Chadian dictator François Tombalbaye apparently had exiled politician Outel Bono killed in Paris. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, the Islamic Republic has assassinated at least 11 dissidents in Paris. Algerian, Syrian, Palestinian, South African, and Basque activists, politicians, and terrorists have all been killed in Paris.

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Over the past couple days, I have been in Brussels to attend and speak at a conference addressing the challenges Turkey and the Kurds pose to the European Union. One speaker, French lawyer Antoine Comte, provided an update into the investigation concerning the murders almost two years ago of Sakine Cansiz, a co-founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), as well as Kurdish activists Fidan Doğan and Leyla Söylemez, shot dead in their office in Paris. He noted the long history of political assassinations in Paris. In 1965, Moroccan dissident Mehdi Ben Barka disappeared in Paris, allegedly killed by the Moroccan security services. And a few years later, Chadian dictator François Tombalbaye apparently had exiled politician Outel Bono killed in Paris. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, the Islamic Republic has assassinated at least 11 dissidents in Paris. Algerian, Syrian, Palestinian, South African, and Basque activists, politicians, and terrorists have all been killed in Paris.

Back to Cansiz, Doğan, and Söylemez: At the time, I speculated the Iran might have been responsible. The preponderance of evidence which has emerged since the murders, however, makes it pretty clear I was wrong, and that Turkey’s security service was to blame. The most damning evidence is a leaked, ten-minute conversation in which the alleged assassin discusses the mission and targets with members of the Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı (MIT), Turkey’s intelligence service. In addition, a leaked MIT document (consistent with MIT paper stock including watermarks) corroborates those who allege MIT complicity. The French daily Le Monde summarizes the allegations.

The French government, however, has gone silent on its investigation and the French Interior Ministry appears to be stopping its investigation so as not to antagonize the Turkish government. After all, should Paris pursue an investigation that might antagonize Ankara, contracts could be at risk. Alas, with France, the same story repeats.

And it will keep repeating—with Paris being ground zero for murders of dissidents and political opposition—until the French government recognizes that putting its own commercial interests above the rule of law makes it not a dream destination for honeymooners but rather a playground for regimes seeking to quiet their oppositions. Rather than deep-six the investigation into the three Kurdish activists, it is long past time for the French government to pursue the investigation quickly and publicly, wherever it may lead and whomever it might implicate.

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Human Rights Hypocrisy Charge Doesn’t Fly

Hard on the heels of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the use of torture by the CIA after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has come under attack from foreign nations accusing Americans of being hypocrites on the question of human rights. China, the world’s largest tyranny as well North Korea, arguably the craziest and most repressive nation on the planet, as well as other massive human rights violators such as Iran, have all thrown the report’s revelations in America’s face. While even those Americans most critical of the practice may not take anything said on the subject by these countries seriously, they do argue that U.S. use of torture undermines efforts to rally support for international human rights. But while the torture story is seen as a black eye for the U.S., there’s no comparison between what the CIA is accused of doing and what goes on elsewhere. Americans may not have clean hands but they are not hypocrites.

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Hard on the heels of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the use of torture by the CIA after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has come under attack from foreign nations accusing Americans of being hypocrites on the question of human rights. China, the world’s largest tyranny as well North Korea, arguably the craziest and most repressive nation on the planet, as well as other massive human rights violators such as Iran, have all thrown the report’s revelations in America’s face. While even those Americans most critical of the practice may not take anything said on the subject by these countries seriously, they do argue that U.S. use of torture undermines efforts to rally support for international human rights. But while the torture story is seen as a black eye for the U.S., there’s no comparison between what the CIA is accused of doing and what goes on elsewhere. Americans may not have clean hands but they are not hypocrites.

China, North Korea and Iran assert that America’s brutal interrogations of al-Qaeda suspects means that everything the U.S. has said about human rights should be ignored, vindicating them as well as lending credence to calls for prosecutions of those involved. American liberals seem to implicitly agree with them even if they disagree that U.S. behavior lets anyone else off the hook for human rights violations. But charges of U.S. hypocrisy are nothing more than tyranny talking points.

Whatever one may think of the rough treatment meted out to al-Qaeda prisoners, they were terrorists waging a brutal and bloody war against the West and the United States. As terrorists they were not covered by the protections of the Geneva Convention, nor do they have the same rights as citizens accused of crimes in a court of law. The torture may or may not have effective in getting them to give up vital intelligence but to compare even the nastiest things done to them to the actions of countries like China, North Korea and Iran is more than absurd.

Those tortured in those countries are not accused terrorists but ordinary citizens or dissidents striving for freedom or merely caught up in the grips of a state terrorism. When China, North Korea or Iran, or the many other countries that routinely violate human rights torture, the purpose of the activity is to preserve the ability of the state to go on oppressing people. When the CIA did it, it was part of an effort to defend the lives and the freedom of the American people and those elsewhere struggling to fend off al-Qaeda’s efforts to transform the world into an Islamist caliphate.

Do the motives of the torturers not count? Some would argue that torture is itself a crime and cannot be used under any circumstances. Even more, they say that tolerating torture gives the lie to America’s claim to be the defender of freedom. There is a certain moral logic to such a stand and, in the context of ordinary police work it can be argued that torture can never be contemplated by a just society. Yet the situation the U.S. found itself in after 9/11 was not ordinary. It was a war in which the stakes were as high as they have been in any conflict fought by Americans.

Both in the context of that perilous moment after 9/11 and the long war against Islamist terror that is still going on, the claim that keeping America’s hands clean is more important than the goal of crushing al-Qaeda and its successor groups and thereby defending the future of freedom, may be consistent but it is morally unserious. The first obligation of any democracy at war with tyranny is to defeat the enemy, not to avoid embarrassing revelations about interrogations. It is comforting to assert that victory does not require democracies to sully themselves with brutal behavior but such statements are pious hopes or retroactive pronouncements, not realistic analyses of options in the heat of battle.

By contrast, the efforts of tyrannies to oppress their peoples via torture and other human rights violations have no such justification or motive. To claim that there is no moral distinction between freedom defending itself with brutality and tyranny defending itself with similar methods is to construct a philosophical model that has not connection to real life or the necessarily ambiguous dilemmas of war. Nor should anything that was revealed this week about the CIA deter the United State or its allies from criticizing the widespread human rights violations going on around the world. No nation is perfect. But America’s willingness to do whatever it takes to defend the homeland against Islamist murderers does not make it a nation of hypocrites. That is a label best placed on those who cry out for security when under attack but then second-guess and smear as criminals those who successfully defended them.

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