Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iran

Zarif’s Bluster

Item #1: On Tuesday, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps gunboats seized the Maersk Tigris, a Danish-owned, Marshall Islands registered container ship that was peaceably transiting an international maritime route through the Straits of Hormuz. The ship is now being held by Iran along with its crew members.

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Item #1: On Tuesday, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps gunboats seized the Maersk Tigris, a Danish-owned, Marshall Islands registered container ship that was peaceably transiting an international maritime route through the Straits of Hormuz. The ship is now being held by Iran along with its crew members.

Item #2: On Wednesday in New York Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif gave a “blustery and self-righteous” series of remarks which made it seem as if a nuclear agreement is a done deal—on Iran’s terms. Obama “will have to stop implementing all the sanctions, economic and financial sanctions that have been executive order and congressional. However he does it, that’s his problem,” Zarif said, adding that a UN resolution endorsing the agreement would have to be endorsed by the U.S., “whether Senator Cotton likes it or not.”

Oh and Zarif made clear that the lifting of sanctions would occur within weeks of the agreement being signed (contrary to White House claims that sanctions relief would be phased), while also mocking Obama’s claims that sanctions could “snap back” in the event of Iranian violations: “If people are worrying about snapback, they should be worrying about the U.S. violating its obligations and us snapping back,” he said. “That is a point that the United States should be seriously concerned about. This is not a game.”

What’s the connection between these two seemingly unrelated events? Both, I submit, are evidence of Iranian arrogance. The kind of arrogance that Iran exhibits by hijacking a ship registered to an American protectorate and then by lecturing American leaders that they will have to abide by Iran’s terms for a nuclear deal—or else.

This is not the way Iran would talk or act if it feared the United States. But plainly it doesn’t. And why should it? Obama has made clear, repeatedly and emphatically, that he is desperate for a nuclear agreement because the alternative to such an agreement is war—and there is no worse option than that in the president’s mind. So desperate for an agreement, in fact, that the president is willing to overlook Iranian aggression in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—and even to overlook Iran’s jailing of three American citizens and its seizure of a ship belonging to allies that we are pledged to defend.

It is indicative of where we stand that there has been nary a peep of protest about the hijacking of the Maersk Tigris. The Pentagon even leaked word that the U.S. is not legally obligated to protect the Maersk Tigris, as if the U.S. cannot act to protect its moral and strategic interests even if not compelled to do so under the terms of some piece of paper. From the White House: “The White House said on Wednesday it was concerned about the impact on navigation caused by Iranian authorities’ seizure of the Maersk Tigris container ship in the Strait of Hormuz and said it was monitoring the situation.” Translation: “Ship, what ship? Who cares? The only thing that matters is the nuclear accord.” (Compare this anodyne language, incidentally, with the harsh invective directed at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for infelicitous campaign rhetoric.)

And yet the very reason why Iran is able to drive such an advantageous bargain—the reason why it has hijacked the negotiations to legitimate its illegal nuclear program—is precisely because the U.S. has spent years turning the other cheek at Iranian aggression. This is not exclusively a problem of the Obama administration—the Reagan administration, after all, traded arms for hostages and did not retaliate for the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks and embassy in Beirut, while the George W. Bush administration did nothing to punish Iran for killing hundreds of American troops in Iraq with its advanced munitions.

But the problem has become much more pronounced under the Obama administration, which sees détente with Iran as its lasting legacy. That’s why Iran’s foreign minister feels free to come to New York and act like a haughty master of the universe, knowing there will not be even a peep of protest from this thoroughly intimidated administration.

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It’s Still Too Late to Save Syria

It’s pretty clear at this point that Bashar al-Assad’s forces are in a state of alarm. A string of setbacks at the hands of rebel armies as well as from its own internal chaos has put the murderous Assad regime on the defensive. This is raising not just hope that Assad is in trouble but that the West might sense Assad’s weakness and be tempted to intervene to push him out. It is indeed a shame that we ended up here. But further intervention in the Syrian civil war would be a mistake. It’s still too late to save Syria.

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It’s pretty clear at this point that Bashar al-Assad’s forces are in a state of alarm. A string of setbacks at the hands of rebel armies as well as from its own internal chaos has put the murderous Assad regime on the defensive. This is raising not just hope that Assad is in trouble but that the West might sense Assad’s weakness and be tempted to intervene to push him out. It is indeed a shame that we ended up here. But further intervention in the Syrian civil war would be a mistake. It’s still too late to save Syria.

The deterioration of the Syrian government’s command was fully apparent earlier this week, when General Rustom Ghazali, a powerful intelligence official, died of wounds reportedly sustained at the hands of the guards of a rival general. Both men, according to the New York Times, were then fired. (It wouldn’t matter for Ghazali, who eventually succumbed to his injuries.) The Syrian command appeared to be splintering.

Then rebels took a strategic town and a military base in Idlib province, near Turkey. “The rebel gains in Idlib have put the opposition on a path to advance into the neighboring provinces of Hama and Latakia, bastions of support for Mr. Assad and key to his grip on power,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “Most of Idlib province is now under opposition control, giving rebels a firm foothold to advance on regime forces elsewhere in the country.” And as Max noted yesterday, some observers are starting to talk again about a Syria after Assad.

In light of all this, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Jeffrey White and Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai offer some reason to temper the rebels’ confidence: “Yet if the regime is able to hold on, prevent further serious losses, and retake more lost positions, the final outcome would represent something of a setback for the rebels. It would be an opportunity lost, and it would make the regime’s position in Idlib secure for the time being, albeit reduced — at least until the rebels could mount another major effort.”

But, they add, the Idlib campaign could turn out to change the entire trajectory of the war. And they suggest helping nudge that outcome along:

As of this writing, the Idlib campaign looks to be one of the more important developments of the war, possibly even the elusive turning point that signals a clear shift in momentum against the regime after four years of inconclusive fighting. For those seeking a positive outcome in Syria, now is a good time to apply maximum pressure on the regime, either forcing it to genuinely negotiate a transition or causing its military failure.

It must be tempting to see the possibility that Assad could fall as an opportunity for the West. But in fact some of the appearance of weakness on the part of Assad’s government is actually evidence of its strength–or at least durability and resilience–in the military realm.

To understand why, it’s instructive to go back to a quote from a Washington Post report on Ghazali that Max quoted in his post: “Western diplomats monitoring events in Syria from Beirut say the two men appear to have clashed with the Assad family over the growing battlefield role played by Iran.”

That, in a nutshell, is why Assad is not just a nudge away from falling. It’s no wonder Assad’s high command are bickering: they’re increasingly irrelevant, and have been for some time. Not entirely irrelevant, to be sure. But the fact of the matter is that the Syrian civil war has completed Assad’s turn to becoming a traditional Iranian proxy. And Iran is not going to let its proxy fall in Syria, Lebanon, or elsewhere.

Assad created a monster, not only in unleashing his family’s characteristic oppression and bloodlust on the opposition but also in deliberately allowing ISIS and other extreme Islamist groups to thrive at the expense of more moderate rebel groups. This not only ensured that the more moderate rebels, which had the West’s backing as an alternative government to Assad, would never get strong enough on their own to take power. It also meant that the only groups who could possibly finish Assad off were the ones the West was invested in defeating.

Those groups, like ISIS, were destabilizing Iraq next door. This drew the U.S. into a de facto alliance with Assad because it brought them into an alliance with Iran. The rise of ISIS–which, again, Assad facilitated–also ensured Iran would do whatever it took to keep Assad in power.

The internal turf wars in the Syrian command are not evidence that Assad is on his way out. They’re evidence that what remains of the Assad power base has become almost a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran.

Not only is the West fooling itself if it thinks it can push Assad out at this point with minimal military involvement, but it’s still in partnership with Assad through the Iranians.

From a military perspective, there is no “Syria.” There are three “Syrias,” which amount essentially to competing factions fighting for territory. We are currently aligned with the strongest of these, Iran, against the second-most powerful group. What we are not going to do is somehow throw in our lot now with the weakest of the factions, especially since we’ve constructed our management of Iraq by allowing Iran a significant role.

Syria can’t be saved. It’s a terrible tragedy, and there’s an argument to be made that it didn’t have to be this way. And certainly, the world should not ignore it. But those who dream of a Western military effort against Assad will keep dreaming.

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Can Iran Do Whatever It Wants?

Every day, everywhere around the world, a silent referendum is going on about the state of American power. President Obama has consistently failed that test. By demanding that Bashar Assad leave power and then letting him stay; by letting Assad cross a “red line” on chemical weapons with impunity; by talking big about ISIS (“degrade and destroy”) and doing little; by standing by as Iran expanded its power into Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, as Russia seized chunks of Ukrainian territory, and as China intimidated its neighbors to claim sovereignty over disputed island, the president has dissipated the most precious commodity in the world—American credibility.

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Every day, everywhere around the world, a silent referendum is going on about the state of American power. President Obama has consistently failed that test. By demanding that Bashar Assad leave power and then letting him stay; by letting Assad cross a “red line” on chemical weapons with impunity; by talking big about ISIS (“degrade and destroy”) and doing little; by standing by as Iran expanded its power into Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, as Russia seized chunks of Ukrainian territory, and as China intimidated its neighbors to claim sovereignty over disputed island, the president has dissipated the most precious commodity in the world—American credibility.

Today comes yet another test of American resolve. Details remain in dispute, but it appears that Iranian Revolutionary Guard gunboats seized the Maersk Tigris, a container ship traversing the Persian Gulf either through international waters or through a small section of Iranian waters that it would be allowed to traverse under the international legal doctrine of “innocent passage.” Instead of allowing the ship to go on its way, the IRGC fired a shot across its bow and detained the ship along with its crew. This is a vessel flagged in the Marshall Islands, a U.S. protectorate, owned by the Maersk line (a company with substantial American operations that is headquartered in Denmark, a NATO ally), and chartered by Rickers Ship Management, the Singapore-based subsidiary of a German company (two more U.S. allies).

The Iranian action may well be an indirect response to the U.S. decision to deploy an aircraft carrier strike group in order to intimidate Iran into turning back a cargo of supply ships reportedly bringing weapons to Iranian-backed Houthi fighters in Yemen. But whatever caused the Iranian action, it is a direct threat to freedom of navigation, which the U.S. Navy has defended around the world for centuries.

In the Persian Gulf, the U.S. commitment to that doctrine led President Reagan to order U.S. Navy ships to escort tankers and protect them from Iranian attacks, precipitating a short and sharp conflict (the Tanker War of 1987-88) between the U.S. and Iran. This was the last time, incidentally, that the U.S. used force to respond to Iranian attacks and it was an unqualified success—the Iranians lost some oil platforms and boats that they had been using to harass shipping. Finally the accidental shootdown of an Iranian airliner in 1988 by the USS Vincennes (an unintended and unfortunate consequence of these operations) helped convince the Iranian leadership to end their war with Iraq.

Today the U.S. still remains committed, at least on paper, to protecting freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf. In 2011, a 5th Fleet spokesman put it well: “The free flow of goods and services through the Strait of Hormuz is vital to regional and global prosperity. Anyone who threatens to disrupt freedom of navigation in an international strait is clearly outside the community of nations; any disruption will not be tolerated.”

Thus if the Obama administration were, in fact, to “tolerate” this disruption of the free flow of shipping it would send a dangerous signal, or to be more accurate, to reinforce a signal already sent: The U.S. lacks the will to stand up to predators in the international system, and in particular to Iran. Put another way, it would signal to the entire region that the president is so invested in reaching a deal with Iran that no Iranian misconduct—not the dropping of barrel bombs on Syrian civilians, not the takeover of Yemen, not the ethnic cleansing of Sunni communities in Iraq, and now not the seizure of a Western cargo ship—will be allowed to interfere with his objective.

The fate of the Maersk Tigris does not matter much in and of itself, but it will say much about this administration’s commitment to maintaining America’s traditional security responsibilities.

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Is Clinton Corruption Narrative the End of the “War on Women?”

Most of the candidates for president in 2016 have turned the announcement of when they’re going to announce into an announcement in itself, to drum up both attention and attendance for the big day. And so Carly Fiorina joined the meta-announcement crew two days ago by revealing she will announce her candidacy for president on May 4. This did not get a ton of attention, in part because the astounding revelations of Clintonian corruption have devoured the news cycle. But this also might not be temporary for Fiorina; she may have to get used to the strange way Hillary’s corruption could affect her own candidacy.

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Most of the candidates for president in 2016 have turned the announcement of when they’re going to announce into an announcement in itself, to drum up both attention and attendance for the big day. And so Carly Fiorina joined the meta-announcement crew two days ago by revealing she will announce her candidacy for president on May 4. This did not get a ton of attention, in part because the astounding revelations of Clintonian corruption have devoured the news cycle. But this also might not be temporary for Fiorina; she may have to get used to the strange way Hillary’s corruption could affect her own candidacy.

That’s because Fiorina is a perfect test case for how the full GOP field will tailor their attacks on Clinton according to the news cycle. This may sound obvious, but in fact it’s not: the media tends to be so far in the tank for major Democratic candidates that it’s a struggle to get the mainstream press to put Democrats on the defensive the way they prefer Republicans to be throughout the election.

But that’s simply not the case this time. Of course, Hillary’s corruption scandals do, to some degree, represent a media failure. After all, the latest revelations are that the Clintons were personally enriched by donors who they then helped access American uranium deposits only to sell them to the Russians, who were also supplying the Iranians while shoveling large sums of money at Bill Clinton, who facilitated the deal and whose wife, Hillary, signed off on it while she was secretary of state.

Which is to say, this is a monumental scandal involving the corruption of American foreign policy for profit while boosting America’s enemies at the expense of our own national security. Had the story come out when it happened, it could have ended Hillary’s political career by forcing her resignation from the State Department, and might have torpedoed President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and derailed whatever remained of the concessions Obama wanted to give Vladimir Putin as part of the failed “reset.”

That’s a worst-case scenario for this round of alternate history, but it’s hard to argue it wasn’t at least a possibility.

Additionally, some of this was prompted by conservative researcher and think-tanker Peter Schweizer, who endeavored to connect the dots that were hiding in plain sight. The New York Times, for example, should be commended for putting its resources behind expanding on Schweizer’s investigations. As Politico noted yesterday, “The fact that Schweizer’s revelations have now been vetted and reported out by the likes of the Times, POLITICO, etc., means the Clinton campaign can no longer be so dismissive.” That is true–and also quite an indictment of the reporting atmosphere in which Democrats can get away with far too much.

So the attempts to ghettoize conservative reporting this time around aren’t having much success. The stories themselves are far too explosive, and they’re not all coming from Schweizer either. Reuters, for example, revealed that the Clintons have been filing years of false tax returns in order to hide foreign donations. It turns out the Clintons are following neither the spirit nor the letter of the law, and that isn’t easy to hide in 2015.

And it changes the focus of Republican criticism as well. Now that the Clintons have failed to characterize the facts about their family foundation as right-wing conspiracy theories, the leftist game plan on the election has to be at least somewhat revised. Initial attacks on Hillary centered on her complete lack of accomplishments and sense of entitlement. To this, the left would respond by shouting “sexism!” In general, Hillary would like to steer the conversation toward all manner of “war on women” subjects.

But blatant corruption of the kind we’re seeing here makes it impossible for the Clintons to control the narrative right now. And the corruption storyline gives Republicans a way to criticize Hillary while avoiding the culture wars.

This is great news for the GOP field in general, but less so for Fiorina. As I wrote after her CPAC speech this year, Fiorina was able to talk about social issues and Hillary’s failings in a way that Republican men just weren’t. That’s not all there is to her candidacy; Fiorina speaks with fluency on a range of subjects, and her career in the private sector has given her both executive experience and an outsider’s perspective on government.

It’s possible the Clinton corruption stories will fade, or at least go through a lull at some point. Maybe Fiorina will still be in the race if that happens, maybe not. But if she was hoping for much of a poll bounce after her official campaign launch, she might find Clinton raining on her parade by, paradoxically, giving everybody something to criticize Hillary over.

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North Korea’s Nuclear Arsenal Is Bigger Than We Thought

A few weeks ago, I wrote about North Korea’s nuclear breakout, and that the U.S. government was finally beginning to acknowledge the degree to which North Korea’s nuclear capabilities could no longer be ignored. Yet even as the Obama administration continues to talk about the North Korean nuclear “program,” along come the Chinese, of all people, to tell us that North Korea is in reality a nuclear power, with a growing arsenal beyond what American experts suspected.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about North Korea’s nuclear breakout, and that the U.S. government was finally beginning to acknowledge the degree to which North Korea’s nuclear capabilities could no longer be ignored. Yet even as the Obama administration continues to talk about the North Korean nuclear “program,” along come the Chinese, of all people, to tell us that North Korea is in reality a nuclear power, with a growing arsenal beyond what American experts suspected.

Today, the Wall Street Journal reports on what many of us in Washington have been hearing for a while, namely that North Korea may possess as many as 20 nuclear weapons already, and that it could build 20 more by 2016, possibly having 75 nuclear bombs by 2020. The source of this latest intelligence (which, it must be acknowledged, is guesswork)? Chinese nuclear experts, who meet regularly with their American counterparts.

The American experts quoted in the piece take a lower-end estimate of Pyongyang’s nuclear inventory, but still believe that Kim Jong-un currently controls around a dozen bombs, with as many as 20 by next year. Combine either the Chinese or the American total with the North’s ability to launch a long-range ballistic missile that can travel up to 5,600 miles, covering most of America’s West coast, and the picture of strategic stability in Asia begins to look a little different.

By now, it must be clear to all but the most naive of observers that North Korea will never denuclearize. Any idea of returning to the moribund Six Party Talks to achieve that goal is a dangerous notion, as more negotiation over an unachievable outcome will only give Pyongyang more time to further build up its inventory and perfect its ICBM capability. Instead, it is time to put some intellectual firepower behind meaningful sanctions that harm the pocketbooks of North Korea’s leaders, and enhance anti-proliferation activities, to prevent the transfer of sensitive technology.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration may be guilty of hiding information of precisely such proliferation activities, so as to keep nuclear negotiations with Iran alive. Given the failed Bush-Obama attempts to keep North Korea from developing nuclear weapons during years of intense negotiations, the folly of pursuing a similar script with Iran becomes ever clearer. Now, North Korea is stockpiling an arsenal of nuclear weapons controlled by a paranoid, erratic, aggressive regime. Counting on Kim Jong-un’s rationality is a risky bet, but America’s diplomatic failures up to now give few other options for dealing with his threat. Thinking about the unthinkable may become fashionable again.

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Hillary, Obama, and the Corruption of American Foreign Policy

There has never been a better time to be a lame-duck president. Barack Obama may not instinctively agree–after all, he’s still negotiating the “ObamaCare” of foreign policy, the disastrous deal with Iran that legitimizes the Islamic Republic as a nuclear power. And he’s still trying to find ways to get attention by airdropping money over America like an angry version of the H&R Block ad spokesman. But the latest Clinton scandal–easily the worst yet–should make him happy his party has already moved on to Hillary. Because the corruption at the center of it is the corruption of Obama’s own foreign-policy apparatus.

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There has never been a better time to be a lame-duck president. Barack Obama may not instinctively agree–after all, he’s still negotiating the “ObamaCare” of foreign policy, the disastrous deal with Iran that legitimizes the Islamic Republic as a nuclear power. And he’s still trying to find ways to get attention by airdropping money over America like an angry version of the H&R Block ad spokesman. But the latest Clinton scandal–easily the worst yet–should make him happy his party has already moved on to Hillary. Because the corruption at the center of it is the corruption of Obama’s own foreign-policy apparatus.

We already knew the Russian “reset” was a humiliating failure, and that the Iran deal was well on its way to being one as well. But the latest Clinton scandal shows that the reset itself was also tainted by corruption and the product of Obama getting outmaneuvered even more than we previously thought. If you don’t think foreign policy is important in a presidential election, just take a look at how easily Obama was played by Putin and how detrimental to American interests Obama’s attempts to sit at the adult table have been.

Now we know, for example, that a Russian state energy company took control of one-fifth of American uranium production in a series of moves facilitated by Bill Clinton and approved by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as donations from the major players in this saga flowed into the Clinton family foundation and cash payments went directly to Bill Clinton from the Russians.

But there’s more. For obvious reasons, the official line was that the uranium mined here in the States by the foreign entities could not be exported without additional licensing. That was a lie–as the owner of a Wyoming ranch discovered when he noticed the uranium from his property leaving the country anyway:

Mr. Christensen, 65, noted that despite assurances by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that uranium could not leave the country without Uranium One or ARMZ obtaining an export license — which they do not have — yellowcake from his property was routinely packed into drums and trucked off to a processing plant in Canada.

Asked about that, the commission confirmed that Uranium One has, in fact, shipped yellowcake to Canada even though it does not have an export license. Instead, the transport company doing the shipping, RSB Logistic Services, has the license. A commission spokesman said that “to the best of our knowledge” most of the uranium sent to Canada for processing was returned for use in the United States. A Uranium One spokeswoman, Donna Wichers, said 25 percent had gone to Western Europe and Japan. At the moment, with the uranium market in a downturn, nothing is being shipped from the Wyoming mines.

Amazing. Even the truth is never the truth with the Clintons. They said don’t worry about exporting because Uranium One doesn’t have an export license. They just conveniently forgot to add that the license was given to the transport company instead. And the Clintons broke their agreement with the Obama administration to provide transparency on such deals and prevent direct foreign influence peddling, and they even filed false tax returns to hide their shenanigans from the IRS.

So it wasn’t only that Putin had run circles around Obama, using the “reset” to reach into Obama’s back pocket with one hand while shaking Obama’s hand with the other. He did so with the enabling of Obama’s own sitting secretary of state, who was running institutions of a parallel government allowing foreign dictators to circumvent U.S. rules to increase their control of American energy assets, all the while getting both the Russians and the Clintons rich.

Additionally, the Russian energy agency involved here, Rosatom, is a chief partner in Iran’s nuclear program with regard to reactors and uranium supplies. Sean Davis explains why this is such an important detail:

The former secretary of state has remained relatively silent on the proposed Iranian nuclear deal thus far, apparently for good reason. Her opposition could sink Rosatom’s 2014 deal to provide enriched uranium to eight Iranian nuclear reactors for their entire life cycles, potentially enraging the wealthy investors who funneled millions to her family’s foundation. And if she clearly endorses the deal and Iran ends up using the enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon, opponents could blame Hillary for approving the deal that enabled Russia to provide all that uranium to the Iranians.

She is, it should be pointed out once again, running for president of the United States. In the meantime, the country is still dealing with the fallout of the institutional corruption Hillary brought to the State Department and to American foreign policy. That foreign policy is Obama’s too.

It’s going to take a lot of time and effort to clean up this mess. But that effort will only be stymied by the fact that this mess is still the operating principle of American foreign policy, especially with regard to Iran.

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Is Iran the Next North Korea?

Yesterday Foreign Affairs posted an article I had written with Sue Mi Terry, once the CIA’s foremost North Korea analyst, arguing that the experience of the Agreed Framework was an inauspicious precedent for the proposed nuclear deal with Iran. We wrote: “The case of North Korea clearly exposes the dangers of the United States seeking a nuclear agreement with a state that has no intention of abiding by one. The 1994 U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework, which called on North Korea to freeze the operation and construction of nuclear reactors, collapsed within a decade of its signing. In 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, and today it is a full-fledged nuclear power. The United States’ experience with North Korea should make it wary of similar nuclear negotiations, especially with Iran.”

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Yesterday Foreign Affairs posted an article I had written with Sue Mi Terry, once the CIA’s foremost North Korea analyst, arguing that the experience of the Agreed Framework was an inauspicious precedent for the proposed nuclear deal with Iran. We wrote: “The case of North Korea clearly exposes the dangers of the United States seeking a nuclear agreement with a state that has no intention of abiding by one. The 1994 U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework, which called on North Korea to freeze the operation and construction of nuclear reactors, collapsed within a decade of its signing. In 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, and today it is a full-fledged nuclear power. The United States’ experience with North Korea should make it wary of similar nuclear negotiations, especially with Iran.”

Today the Wall Street Journal runs an article exposing just how grave the danger is. According to the Journal, Chinese experts have concluded that the North Korean nuclear program is even more advanced than the U.S. intelligence community has believed: “The latest Chinese estimates, relayed in a closed-door meeting with U.S. nuclear specialists, showed that North Korea may already have 20 warheads, as well as the capability of producing enough weapons-grade uranium to double its arsenal by next year.”

To add to the danger, the Journal notes, “Adm. William Gortney, head of U.S. Northern Command, said this month that defense officials believe North Korea can now mount a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile called the KN-08. U.S. officials don’t believe the missile has been tested, but experts estimate it has a range of about 5,600 miles—within reach of the western edge of the continental U.S., including California.”

It’s not too hard to imagine, a decade from now, reading similar reports about how Iran has dozens of nuclear weapons and missiles capable of hitting the United States, to say nothing of nearby targets such as Israel, which Iran can already strike with an arsenal of 50,000 rockets positioned in Lebanon. And there is no reason to believe that Iran is any more sincere than North Korea about giving up its nuclear program. Those who advocate the agreement with Iran imagine that we will be able to somehow monitor Iranian nuclear developments, but the North Koreans caught us by surprise by developing a secret plutonium enrichment program—and if the Journal report is accurate, North Korea continues to surprise us still.

The rapid pace of the North Korean nuclear and missile programs is alarming in part because of its implications for regional stability–will South Korea and Japan feel compelled to go nuclear too in their own defense? If so that could set off a nuclear arms race. South Korea and Japan have so far refrained from such actions, even though both have extensive civilian nuclear programs that could be weaponized in a heartbeat, because both countries shelter under the American nuclear umbrella.

Some suggest that our nuclear umbrella could be extended to states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to prevent them from going nuclear to counter the Iranians, but the major reason our security guarantees to South Korea and Japan have credibility is because we have tens of thousands of troops stationed in those countries. We don’t have any troops in Saudi Arabia, nor are we likely to put any back in, because we would regard that as a provocation for more terrorism. Absent Americans in harms’ way, however, any American security guarantees would be about as credible as the “red line” that Obama drew in Syria. Thus the U.S. would have little influence to stop an incredibly dangerous nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Another reason why the advanced state of the North Korean program should be of such concern is because North Korea is a notorious nuclear and missile proliferator. As the Journal notes, North Korea “previously exported nuclear technology to Syria and missile components to Iran, Yemen and Egypt.” North Korea could easily offer Iran a shortcut toward putting nuclear weapons on missile warheads, bypassing entirely all of the procedures put in place to monitor Iranian compliance with a nuclear accord—procedures which appear to be if anything less rigorous than those under the Agreed Framework.

And if Iran breaks out as a nuclear power after a bogus agreement with the West, as North Korea did, the consequences will be much more severe for the world. North Korea, after all, is a declining, bankrupt state whose leadership is primarily intent on staying in power. Its juche philosophy appeals to no one outside its borders, and few within. Iran is an expansionist state, by contrast, with a jihadist ideology that appeals to many Shiites and ambitions of dominating the entire Middle East.  The nuclear accord with Iran is, therefore, potentially far more dangerous than the Agreed Framework with North Korea—and we know how that worked out.

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Innocent Abroad: Obama’s Iran Disaster

I’m guessing that President Obama, despite his roots in Kenya and Indonesia, has never negotiated for a carpet or anything else in a Middle Eastern bazaar. If his negotiations with Iran are any indication, he is the kind of innocent abroad who pays $100,000 for a carpet that’s worth $100.

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I’m guessing that President Obama, despite his roots in Kenya and Indonesia, has never negotiated for a carpet or anything else in a Middle Eastern bazaar. If his negotiations with Iran are any indication, he is the kind of innocent abroad who pays $100,000 for a carpet that’s worth $100.

Already his talks with Iran have been characterized by American concession after American concession. Talks that started with the express goal of dismantling the Iranian nuclear program and exporting their stockpile of enriched uranium are ending up with the program wholly intact and the enriched uranium still in Iran, albeit in a diluted form. All that Iran has to do is to promise not to enrich too much uranium or weaponize for the next decade or so and in return the world will, in essence, apply its seal of approval to the Iranian nuclear program.

But that still isn’t enough for the rapacious mullahs. Among other conditions, they are demanding that sanctions be lifted the minute the agreement gets signed. Obama has been insisting that the U.S. would lift sanctions only in stages, as Iranian compliance is verified. But on Friday Obama signaled that he is willing to make preemptive concessions on this issue so as to ensure that a deal gets done by his artificial deadline of the end of June.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Iran could receive from $30 billion to $50 billion in frozen oil money as soon as it signs a deal, out of a total of $100 billion to $140 billion currently held in frozen offshore accounts. That’s a massive bribe to sign on the dotted line.

And that’s just what Obama is saying in mid-April. Imagine what will happen after the Iranian negotiators inform Secretary of State Kerry that $50 billion isn’t enough–oh and, they will add (as they have already done), they shouldn’t have to make a full accounting of their previous nuclear-weapons work, they shouldn’t have to allow inspectors unfettered access, and they shouldn’t have to export any enriched uranium. Think Obama will hold the line? Hardly. This is only the beginning of the complete cave-in that the White House is prepared to make in order to get a deal, any deal, the details be damned.

To justify his premature concessions, Obama claims that the amount of money that the Iranians will receive upon signing the deal won’t matter–even if $50 billion is more than enough to turbo-charge the Iranian power-grab across the region. “Our main concern here is making sure that if Iran doesn’t abide by its agreement that we don’t have to jump through a whole bunch of hoops in order to reinstate sanctions,” the president said at a news conference.

This is a reference to Obama’s vaunted “snap back” ideas for reimposing sanctions if the Iranians don’t meet their obligations. But only a credulous sixth-grader could imagine that in the event that there is some evidence of Iranian cheating (and the evidence inevitably will be murky, incomplete, and subject to debate) that countries such as France and Germany, which are eager to do business with Tehran, much less countries such as China and Russia, which are not only cozy with Tehran but hostile to Western interests in general, will agree to reimpose sanctions.

Obama’s comments on Friday, and the Journal leak that accompanied them, are further evidence of how the Iranians are taking the president to the cleaners–or more accurately to the bazaar. At this rate he will be lucky to leave the negotiations with the clothes on his back.

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Will Money Moderate Iran?

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry seem intent on reaching a deal with Iran at any price. Not only did Obama authorize the release of $11.9 billion just to have Iranian representatives sit at the same table as Kerry and his team, but the Wall Street Journal now reports that the Islamic Republic of Iran could receive perhaps $50 billion as a “signing bonus.” That’s right: faced with pushback from the leading state sponsor of terrorism on Obama’s previous insistence that sanctions relief would be calibrated to Iranian compliance with its commitments, Obama has surrendered once again: the pay-out will be immediate.

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President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry seem intent on reaching a deal with Iran at any price. Not only did Obama authorize the release of $11.9 billion just to have Iranian representatives sit at the same table as Kerry and his team, but the Wall Street Journal now reports that the Islamic Republic of Iran could receive perhaps $50 billion as a “signing bonus.” That’s right: faced with pushback from the leading state sponsor of terrorism on Obama’s previous insistence that sanctions relief would be calibrated to Iranian compliance with its commitments, Obama has surrendered once again: the pay-out will be immediate.

Acting State Department Spokesman Marie Harf insists that Iran will use that money, and perhaps the total $100 billion in sanction relief it expects, to rebuild its economy. While risible, Harf’s claim seems to reflect thinking by everyone from Jake Sullivan, Hillary Clinton’s presumptive national security advisor who initiated the Iran talks in the first place, to John Kerry, to Barack Obama himself. Unfortunately, it also reflects true ignorance of recent Iranian history.

Between 2000 and 2005, the European Union more than doubled its trade with Iran on the philosophy that the “China model” might work. That is, trade and economic liberalization might lead to political liberalization. At the same time, the price of oil—and therefore Iran’s income—nearly quintupled.

That cash infusion, alas, coincided with the collapse of the reform movement under President Mohammad Khatami—reformism more or less ran out of steam by 2000—and it also coincided with a massive infusion of cash into Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs and the construction of the then-covert enrichment plant at Natanz. Indeed, this is the whole reason why those claiming to be reformists (Hassan Rouhani, for example, who as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council supervised the build-up of the nuclear program) claim credit for advancing the nuclear program.

It is true that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) does profit to some extent off of sanctions; after all, they control most of the black market. But the logic that an end to sanctions would disadvantage the IRGC and regime hardliners is disingenuous. After all, Khatam al-Anbia, the economic wing of the IRGC, alongside the revolutionary foundations control perhaps 40 percent of the Iranian economy. Any oil deal or serious import-export contracts would disproportionately empower the Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian regime over ordinary Iranian people or so-called “moderates” or “pragmatists.”

To suggest infusing cash into the Iranian economy will repair that economy rather than enable Iranian hardliners to further support and sponsor terrorism throughout the region is simply ignorant. It is ignorant of Iran’s ideology, ignorant of the outcome of past episodes where similar strategies were tried, and ignorant of the economic and political structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran. To infuse such money into Iran’s economy is, effectively, to sponsor a state sponsor of terrorism.

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The Holocaust and History’s Many Lessons

Debate continues over the relevance of the Holocaust to today’s Iran crisis, in the wake of Yom HaShoah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments about learning the lessons of history. Jonathan Tobin covered the Iran issue on Wednesday, and Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer takes up what he imagines to be the West’s perspective today. Pfeffer’s column is thoughtful and well worth reading. And he makes some very important points about how the West has clearly learned at least some lessons of the Holocaust, as demonstrated in some of its policies toward Jews and Israel. But there’s also another aspect of this that’s worth some consideration, and it has more to do with non-Jewish victims than with the Jews.

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Debate continues over the relevance of the Holocaust to today’s Iran crisis, in the wake of Yom HaShoah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments about learning the lessons of history. Jonathan Tobin covered the Iran issue on Wednesday, and Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer takes up what he imagines to be the West’s perspective today. Pfeffer’s column is thoughtful and well worth reading. And he makes some very important points about how the West has clearly learned at least some lessons of the Holocaust, as demonstrated in some of its policies toward Jews and Israel. But there’s also another aspect of this that’s worth some consideration, and it has more to do with non-Jewish victims than with the Jews.

But first, one quibble. Pfeffer writes that the West would of course have noticed Netanyahu’s comment about Arab voters being bussed to the polls, and should have expected backlash. But in this lies a crucial point: it’s understandable to have been irked by the comment, but look at the double standard. When Iranian leaders make extreme comments the Obama administration dismisses them as intended for a domestic political audience, nothing more. The press isn’t exactly blameless here either. In fact, it should be central to the discussion.

When we talk about historical analogies and the Nazis, we often stress the comparison between regimes more than the comparison between reactions to the regimes by gullible Westerners. It’s not that we ignore the latter–we don’t–it’s just that we tend to focus on the evil party asserting its genocidal intent.

But what lessons have Westerners learned from their own history? Here, it’s instructive to glance at Andrew Nagorski’s book Hitlerland. One of the stories he tells is of Chicago Daily News reporter Edgar Mowrer, who was reporting on Germany in the 1930s and even wrote an early book on the emergence of the Hitler era. Nagorski writes:

Yet even Mowrer wasn’t quiet sure what Hitler represented–and what to expect if he took power. “Did he believe all that he said?” he asked. “The question is inapplicable to this sort of personality. Subjectively Adolf Hitler was, in my opinion, entirely sincere even in his self-contradictions. For his is a humorless mind that simply excludes the need for consistency that might distress more intellectual types. To an actor the truth is anything that lies in its effect: if it makes the right impression it is true.” …

As for the true intentions of his anti-Semitic campaign, Mowrer sounded alarmed in some moments but uncertain in others. “A suspicion arises that Adolf Hitler himself accepted anti-Semitism with his characteristic mixture of emotionalism and political cunning,” he wrote. “Many doubted if he really desired pogroms.”

Well, we know how that story ends. The point is, proper historical reflection takes into account not only whether and how the current Iranian regime is animated by common principles with Nazi Germany but also whether we can really say we’ve learned the proper lessons from the past if we’re still dismissing unhinged rhetoric as play-acting for a domestic crowd. (We also should ask if play-acting for a domestic crowd is, in light of history, really as harmless as we sometimes make it out to be.)

Nonetheless, Pfeffer’s larger point about how the Jews have been welcomed in certain corners of the West–America being the shining example–is well taken. So is his point about America’s staunch pro-Israel policies.

Yet there is a difference between treating victims a certain way and preventing others from becoming victims. This is where, I think, many critics are coming from.

Pfeffer’s column has the bad luck to be timed just as the release of hundreds of pages of newly declassified documents, reported first by Colum Lynch yesterday at Foreign Policy, draws new attention to Western inaction during the Rwandan genocide. It’s a long story, and it doesn’t necessarily change the underlying dynamics all that much, though it does shift some more of the weight of the Clinton administration’s bystander role to Richard Clarke and Susan Rice.

Rice’s inclusion there should not be shocking. She is, after all, the official once quoted as cautioning Bill Clinton against recognizing the genocide for what it was because of the effect that could have on the Democratic Party’s electoral fortunes in the congressional midterms. Here’s Lynch introducing the revelation:

But the recently declassified documents — which include more than 200 pages of internal memos and handwritten notes from Rice and other key White House players — provide a far more granular account of how the White House sought to limit U.N. action. They fill a major gap in the historical record, providing the most detailed chronicle to date of policy instructions and actions taken by White House staffers, particularly Clarke and Rice, who appear to have exercised greater influence over U.S. policy on Rwanda than the White House’s Africa hands.

Just as relevant here is the sentence that comes next: “The National Security Archive and the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide obtained the documents during a two-and-a-half-year effort to amass long-secret records of internal deliberations by the United States, the U.N., and other foreign governments.”

The Holocaust Memorial Museum was a driving force in getting these documents released. That’s no coincidence. And Rwanda’s far from the only case of Western inaction. Not every mass killing amounts to genocide, but we’re seeing campaigns of ethnic violence and ethnic cleansing across the Middle East and Africa. The most recent example is the Yazidis of Iraq, which ISIS tried to exterminate. But the general treatment of Christians–Copts in Egypt, various Christian groups in Nigeria–suggests we are, unfortunately, far from seeing the end of such campaigns.

So has the West learned its lessons from the Holocaust? The honest answer is: some of them. It would be grossly unfair to claim they’ve learned nothing. But it would be wishful thinking to suggest they’ve learned everything.

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Embrace, Don’t Cut off Iraq

Yesterday, Max Boot argued in a powerful post that given the extent of Iranian influence in Iraq, the United States should not be training Iraqi F-16 pilots let alone delivering the planes to Iraq. Here’s the core of Max’s argument:

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Yesterday, Max Boot argued in a powerful post that given the extent of Iranian influence in Iraq, the United States should not be training Iraqi F-16 pilots let alone delivering the planes to Iraq. Here’s the core of Max’s argument:

Is this really a wise move? As noted above, the government of Iraq is heavily infiltrated by Iranian agents. Does it really make safe under those circumstances to deliver to Iraq three dozen high-performance fighter aircraft? I, for one, am worried that the fighters could eventually wind up in Iranian hands, buttressing an Iranian Air Force that until now has had to rely on aging F-14 fighters from the 1970s and even F-4s and F-5s from the 1960s. Granted, F-16s aren’t top of the line aircraft anymore—they are outclassed by F-22s and F-35s—but as a matter of policy and law the U.S. does not sell arms to hostile states or to states that might transfer them to hostile states.

I certainly share Max’s concern with regard to Iranian efforts to infiltrate and influence Iraq’s government, but I disagree with his conclusions, first with regard to his reading of sectarianism, and second with regard to the meaning and purpose of the bilateral U.S.-Iraq partnership.

Iraq is unfortunately sectarian, but sectarianism is neither one-way-only, nor should it be exaggerated. The roots of Sunni extremism are not any particular grievance suffered at the hands of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, though his rule was far from perfect and enlightened. Rather, it is the ethnic and sectarian chauvinism of the Baath Party and its evolution into partnership if not symbiosis with the Islamic State. The bombs which, until recently at least, terrorized Baghdad were the work of Sunni sectarian groups. That Abadi has restored a modicum of security to Baghdad, and that Sunnis, Shi’ites, Kurds, and Christians are now restoring the (admittedly, less alcohol-centric) night life for which Baghdad was once known, is a sign that there is progress.

This past fall, I visited the Shi‘ite holy city of Karbala as a guest of the Imam Hussein shrine. Driving from the Najaf International Airport north toward Karbala, the main highway was flanked by refugees from the al-Anbar Governorate which, then as now, the Islamic State threatened. They had taken refuge in the Husainiyahs (Shi’ite meeting and prayer halls) that dot the roadside between the two cities to, in normal times, cater to pilgrims. They had opened their doors instead to Sunni refuges who were fed, clothed, and their kids educated in ordinary Iraqi schools. Many displaced Anbaris seemed to feel better treated in largely Shi’ite southern Iraq than in Iraqi Kurdistan, where ethnic discrimination Arabs face trumps the sectarian discrimination Sunnis might feel elsewhere in Iraq.

At any rate, the complex I stayed in played host not only to Sunni refugees from Fallujah, but also to Shi’ite volunteers who had answered Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call. I would see teens and men ranging in age, by my own estimate only, from 15 to 60 years old, get off the bus, ready to begin their 30-day crash training course. Few if any I met were fighting on behalf of Iran or actually cared about the geopolitical competition; most simply wanted to defeat the scourge of the Islamic State. That is not to say that the Iranian government has not tried to co-opt some of the volunteers, but if there’s one thing that has become clear over the past decade-plus of U.S. and Iranian involvement in Iraq, it is that Washington constantly overestimated the psychological impact of occupation, whereas Tehran consistently underestimates the importance of Iraqi nationalism.

Certainly, militias like Asa’ib al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah represent important exceptions which cannot be tolerated. And, where Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani goes, death and destruction follow. Besieged Shi’ites will accept help from whomever offers it—and the Iranians offer it more consistently and with greater sustained attention than does the United States—but Iraqi Shi‘ites are also realistic enough to know that Iran is not an altruistic power. Max Boot is correct to fear Iranian ambition in Iraq.

The danger, however, is that walking away from a military partnership with Iraq because of fear of Iranian influence will lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which Iran gets to consolidate control over Iraq. That smaller, weaker states in the Middle East maintain their independence by playing larger, stronger rivals off each other is Arab statecraft 101. Kuwait balances its interests against Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Iran as well. Qatar famously plays the United States and Iran off each other, as does Oman and even the United Arab Emirates. Iraqi Shi’ites are not Fifth Columnists. While the war against Iran was unjust and initiated by Saddam Hussein, when called to military service, Iraqi Shi’ites fought with honor against the Iranians.

In southern Iraq, Shi’ites from both the ruling party and many opposition groups are desperate to win American investment and bolster the American presence in order to balance out Iranian inroads. Maliki changed in Baghdad and became increasingly deferential to Iranian demands once he recognized that the White House was determined to withdraw U.S. forces. As Maliki told me once in a meeting after the U.S. military withdrawal, the White House and State Department simply would not take yes for an answer. (It was the White House that insisted that immunity for U.S. forces be passed through the Iraqi parliament, a political non-starter; had they accepted an executive guarantee, it was a done deal.) The worst thing that ever happened, as far as many Iraqi Shi‘ites are concerned, was the precipitous withdrawal which pulled the carpet out from the Iraqi government’s ability to tell Tehran, “We’d love to comply with your demands, but we have to consider the Americans.”

Washington needs to recognize, as the New America Foundation’s Douglas Ollivant said at a recent panel discussion, that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abbadi is effectively offering the United States the right of first refusal on Baghdad’s future direction. But if Washington falls short on his requests, then he might just as easily seek what Iraq needs in Tehran or Moscow. American policymakers should never forget that the United States and Iraq are not the only players in the sandbox.

So now we come to the training of the F-16 pilots. It is an irony of diplomacy that sometimes the best diplomats reside in Defense Ministries rather than Foreign Ministries. Diplomats rotate in and out of countries and strike up relations that are as often characterized by fakeness as friendliness. But when military officers undergo training, they develop lifelong relationships with their colleagues of the same rank who are in the trenches with them around the clock. As they rise through the ranks, they often constitute an important backchannel when a crisis strikes. During the 1998 Kargil Crisis between Pakistan and India, the Clinton administration ended up relying disproportionately on the relationships which American officers had struck with their Indian and Pakistani counterparts, relationships which were far deeper and more mature than corollary ties between diplomats. To cut off the training relationship—or undercut the ability of Iraq to defend itself—would represent a self-inflicted wound by which the Iraqis conclude they have no choice but to cast their lot with Iran. That would be the greatest gift the United States could give to the Islamic Republic, given how the Iranians struggle to win hearts and minds inside Iraq.

So, what might be done instead?

  • It’s time to dispense with the simplistic sectarian narrative which Gulf allies whisper into the ears of American officials and which, by osmosis, has become the dominant narrative in CENTCOM and CENTCOM circles as well. It’s all well and good to talk about re-Baathification and forcing undemocratic concessions under terrorist fire, but that would simply throw the baby out with the bathwater and convince the more than 60 percent of Iraq which is Shi’ite that the United States seeks to disenfranchise them. Rather than pursue a sectarian strategy which pits Sunni vs. Shi’ite, the United States should embrace a nuanced strategy which seeks to win Shi‘ite hearts and minds by protecting their freedom of conviction against an Iranian government which seeks to subordinate it to Tehran’s will while at the same time concentrating on the real problem, which is the Qods Force and a small minority of Shi’ite militiamen among a larger corpus of volunteers.
  • Rather than walk away from the Iraqi government, it’s time to double down on the military-to-military relationship so that the United States has leverage to exert pressure to increase the space between Baghdad and Tehran. A diplomatic conference builds relations for the duration of the conference; a military training program cements ties for years. It is time to recognize the importance of the U.S.-Iraqi relationship on its own terms rather than only through the lens of Iran policy.
  • Make no mistake: I won’t downplay the threat Iran poses, but the proper way to counter the Iranian threat is to, well, counter the Iranian threat. There needs to be a strategy to undercut the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and, if possible, even grab Qassem Soleimani, a man responsible for the murder of hundreds of Americans, more than any other living terrorist.

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Why Are We Giving F-16s to an Iranian-Infiltrated Government?

The summit meeting between President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi on Tuesday went about as well as expected. That is to say, it was, like most high-level summits, full of affirmations of friendship and good will but few if any concrete achievements. Obama was predictably effusive about Abadi, whom he called a “strong partner”: “Although there is the natural back-and-forth that exists in any democracy, Prime Minister Abadi has kept true to his commitments to reach out to them and to respond to their concerns and to make sure that power is not solely concentrated within Baghdad.”

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The summit meeting between President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi on Tuesday went about as well as expected. That is to say, it was, like most high-level summits, full of affirmations of friendship and good will but few if any concrete achievements. Obama was predictably effusive about Abadi, whom he called a “strong partner”: “Although there is the natural back-and-forth that exists in any democracy, Prime Minister Abadi has kept true to his commitments to reach out to them and to respond to their concerns and to make sure that power is not solely concentrated within Baghdad.”

In reality, while Abadi seems well intentioned, he is also fairly ineffectual. He may not actively be victimizing Sunnis, as his predecessor and rival, Nouri al-Maliki, did, but he has not succeeded in creating a government-supported Sunni militia to fight ISIS. Nor has he been able to stop Shiite militias from rampaging through Sunni towns. The reality is that Abadi is far from the most powerful man in Iraq, a title that probably belongs rightfully to Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force, who is the puppet-master pulling the strings of the Shiite militias. Nevertheless, it is in America’s interest to buttress Abadi’s power, and having the president of the United States effusively compliment him in public makes sense, even if those compliments are not, strictly speaking, truthful.

While I wasn’t troubled by this fulsome praise of the Iraqi prime, I was troubled by something I read in the very last paragraph of the New York Times article reporting on his visit: “On Tuesday, Mr. Abadi was scheduled to meet with Iraqi pilots who are being trained in the United States to fly F-16s. Iraqi officials said that 14 pilots were scheduled to be trained by September, when the Iraqi military hopes to start flying the planes in Iraq.”

Huh? I remembered that the delivery of the F-16s had been delayed last year after ISIS fighters imperiled the Balad air base where they were supposed to be based. I didn’t realize that the F-16 delivery was on again. But apparently it is. Googling around, I quickly found a Reuters dispatch which said that Iraq is scheduled to take its first delivery of the fighter aircraft this summer. In all, 36 F-16s are eventually to be delivered.

Hold on a minute. Is this really a wise move? As noted above, the government of Iraq is heavily infiltrated by Iranian agents. Does it really make safe under those circumstances to deliver to Iraq three dozen high-performance fighter aircraft? I, for one, am worried that the fighters could eventually wind up in Iranian hands, buttressing an Iranian Air Force that until now has had to rely on aging F-14 fighters from the 1970s and even F-4s and F-5s from the 1960s. Granted, F-16s aren’t top of the line aircraft anymore—they are outclassed by F-22s and F-35s—but as a matter of policy and law the U.S. does not sell arms to hostile states or to states that might transfer them to hostile states.

Paging the House and Senate Armed Services Committees! Congress needs to get involved in this issue urgently to assess whether it makes sense to continue with the F-16 transfer to Iraq—and, if it doesn’t, to block the sale before Gen. Suleimani’s boys are using F-16s to drop bombs on the heads of American or Israeli soldiers.

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Tom Friedman’s Iran Ignorance

Jonathan Tobin highlights well some problems with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s defense of President Barack Obama’s empathy with Iran. Perhaps a greater irony, however, is how wrong Friedman gets Iranian history. Friedman describes how:

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Jonathan Tobin highlights well some problems with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s defense of President Barack Obama’s empathy with Iran. Perhaps a greater irony, however, is how wrong Friedman gets Iranian history. Friedman describes how:

We, the United States, back in the ’50s, we toppled Iran’s democratically-elected government. You know, there might be some reason these people actually want to get a weapon that will deter that from happening again.

Three problems with this conventional wisdom:

  • Firstly, Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq was not much of a democrat. Or, if he was a democrat, then he was a democrat in the mold of Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide: he was democratic so long as you agreed with him; Iranians who voiced opposition might easily find themselves lynched.
  • Second, while Kermit Roosevelt wrote the main English-language account of the 1953 coup in Countercoup, he exaggerated his own and the United States role in what was a much broader operation. The idea for the coup was British because Mosaddeq had nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (a predecessor of British Petroleum) and then refused to negotiate. The United States was more concerned by Mosaddeq’s pro-Soviet proclivities. So too were the Iranians themselves, especially the military and the clergy. That’s right, the folks who run the Islamic Republic today were co-conspirators with the United States and deeply opposed to Mosaddeq’s anti-clerical attitudes. So when Friedman self-flagellates, he essentially is apologizing to the Iranians who supported the coup.
  • Third, Friedman gets the shah wrong. Mohammad Reza Shah was a deeply problematic figure, and he grew far more dictatorial after the 1953 coup, but at the time of the coup, he was a popular head of state whom Mosaddeq was seeking to force out in order to assume dictatorial power himself. Then again, he was a dictator in the mold of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey: he sought dictatorial powers to modernize Iran, making Iranians equal under the law regardless of religion and enfranchising women. Still, the shah’s regime was brutal at time, and there were no angels in this story. But the idea that the 1953 coup motivates the Iranian nuclear program is bizarre. While the shah had a nuclear program himself, the resurrection of the Iranian nuclear program after the Islamic Revolution can be traced more to Iraqi chemical weapons attacks on Iran.

There’s also a broader problem underlying both Obama’s and Friedman’s assumptions about Iranian motivations, and that is the assumption that grievance motivates the Iranian nuclear drive. That’s lazy thinking and belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the Islamic Revolution and the Islamic Republic. At its heart, the Islamic Republic is an ideological state. The reason why Obama’s interpretation that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s statements can be discounted because he’s playing to a political constituency are so bizarre is that such an explanation suggests ignorance of the fact that the supreme leader derives legitimacy from God rather than from the Iranian public. The Islamic Republic simply isn’t a normal, status quo state; it’s a revisionist, ideological power. Iran’s nuclear behavior is rooted not in grievances real or imagined, but rather in a desire to export its revolution.

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Did Corker Give Congress a Fighting Chance on Iran Deal?

Bipartisanship is as rare these days in Washington as a duck-billed platypus. That it prevailed on so controversial an issue as the Iranian nuclear deal is a tribute to the negotiating skills of Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has long been pressing for legislation, co-authored with Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, that would force President Obama to submit any deal for congressional approval. The president has been threatening to veto any such legislation, claiming that “partisan” criticism of the deal “needs to stop” and not-so-subtly suggesting that his critics must be in favor of war with Iran—because that is the only alternative to the generous deal he has crafted. Or so he claims.

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Bipartisanship is as rare these days in Washington as a duck-billed platypus. That it prevailed on so controversial an issue as the Iranian nuclear deal is a tribute to the negotiating skills of Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has long been pressing for legislation, co-authored with Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, that would force President Obama to submit any deal for congressional approval. The president has been threatening to veto any such legislation, claiming that “partisan” criticism of the deal “needs to stop” and not-so-subtly suggesting that his critics must be in favor of war with Iran—because that is the only alternative to the generous deal he has crafted. Or so he claims.

Yet today Corker managed to convince every member of the Foreign Relations Committee to endorse a bill that would give Congress the right to approve any lifting of sanctions as a result of the nuclear deal. So thoroughly did he manage to win over Democrats that Obama, facing a veto-proof majority, had no choice but to concede that he would sign the legislation. How did Corker do it? It’s hard to know exactly from the outside but it sounds as if, in negotiating with committee Democrats, he made some cosmetic changes, such as shortening the congressional review period from 60 to 30 days and not requiring Obama to certify that Iran has gotten out of the business of supporting anti-American terrorism. Such changes will spark criticism from some on the right, but the essential point appears intact—namely, that Obama will have to allow Congress to weigh in, something that he has so far adamantly resisted doing.

Ironically, this legislation could actually strengthen Obama’s hand with the Iranians: Secretary of State John Kerry can now plausibly tell his Iranian interlocutors that, however much he would like to concede their points, Congress won’t stand for it. But the larger message of today’s action should not be comforting to a president who has bet his entire foreign-policy legacy on reaching a deal with Iran regardless of its contents.

The basic message, from Democrats and Republicans alike, is that there is deep unease in Congress, as well as in the country at large, about the terms of the accord that Obama is negotiating. And for good cause: As former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger have noted, “negotiations that began 12 years ago as an international effort to prevent an Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal are ending with an agreement that concedes this very capability, albeit short of its full capacity in the first 10 years.” Those concerns were only exacerbated by Russia’s announcement yesterday that it will move ahead with the delivery of a sophisticated S-300 air defense system to Iran that will make its nuclear plants much harder to hit from the air in the future. Now at least there will be a fighting chance for Congress to try to stop a bad deal, even if the odds still favor the president, given his enormous leeway in the conduct of foreign affairs.

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Why China Won’t Support “Snapback” Iran Sanctions

No one can accuse the Iranian government of being stupid. They entered into negotiations with their economy tanking and very little leverage, and came out of talks with an outright victory. It was the equivalent of a pair of twos beating a full house in poker.

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No one can accuse the Iranian government of being stupid. They entered into negotiations with their economy tanking and very little leverage, and came out of talks with an outright victory. It was the equivalent of a pair of twos beating a full house in poker.

President Barack Obama has famously promised “snapback” sanctions: If Iran doesn’t meet its obligations, then the sanctions that brought Tehran to the table will simply be restored. What Obama ignores, however, is that the United Nations is not an institution in which members leave national interests at the door in order to embrace lofty values, but rather a tool by which the world’s dictatorships launder their cravenness through the illusion of principle.

Hence, for snapback sanctions to be successful, Obama will needs Russian President Vladimir Putin or his representatives not only to agree that the Islamic Republic is in violation but also that snapping sanctions back in place is in Moscow’s interests. That will be a tough hurdle, given Russia’s military and nuclear investment in Iran. Regardless, the Kremlin believes it has found a win-win formula: Support Iran’s nuclear program and make billions of dollars selling goods to the Islamic Republic. If, however, the situation collapses and Israel or some other power launches military strikes on Iran, sending the price of oil and gas through the roof, then Moscow laughs its way to the bank.

China has traditionally approached both the Middle East and Middle Eastern issues at the United Nations with exceeding caution. When most countries vote up or down on issues, China abstains. The Iranian government, however, recognizes that to make China into a reliable ally, it needs to rope China into the Iranian economy in a way that re-sanctioning hurts. And that is exactly the effect of the deal that Iranian authorities have just announced.

Today, according to this Fars News Agency article (alas, still only in Persian), Behruz Kamalvandi, deputy director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, announced that China will help Iran build a new nuclear power plant, a multibillion dollar exercise. But with Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry releasing nearly $12 billion in previously frozen assets, cash is no longer a problem.

Two years ago, I published an analysis for the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office examining Iran’s diplomatic outreach toward Africa. What immediately became clear was that Tehran targeted those countries who sat as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council or were on the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In effect, Iran sought shamelessly to buy their votes.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Obama and Kerry may have overseen the normalization of Iran’s once-covert nuclear program, but the Islamic Republic knows that the United States is a democracy and that the diplomatic duo will soon be lounging in Hawaii or yachting off Nantucket. They do not know who will be in the White House next and so they want insurance; i.e., the Chinese vote in Tehran’s pocket. More importantly, Iran’s efforts to buy votes to ensure that sanctions never snap back is as good an indication as ever that Tehran plans to comply neither with the letter nor spirit of its nuclear agreements.

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ISIS and the Stalingradization of Yarmouk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he finally gets around to his point:

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

Our selective outrage is morally unsustainable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iran Sanctions and Missile Defense

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

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

A couple of points are worth making.

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

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

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

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The Growing Chorus Against the Iran Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yesterday, the White House tweeted out the following picture:

whbomb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Omniscience or Hackery on Iran Verification?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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