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Topic: Mohammad Javad Zarif

Iran Understands Momentum; Obama Does Not

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rouhani Throws Down the Gauntlet on Lifting Sanctions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Last Time Iran Lied

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry put a great deal of faith in their Iranian interlocutors, chief among them Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. After all, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei decreed that the negotiations should occur between foreign ministers, and if there has been one consistent pattern in the current negotiations, it is that Obama is unnervingly deferential to the Supreme Leader’s red lines.

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President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry put a great deal of faith in their Iranian interlocutors, chief among them Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. After all, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei decreed that the negotiations should occur between foreign ministers, and if there has been one consistent pattern in the current negotiations, it is that Obama is unnervingly deferential to the Supreme Leader’s red lines.

Too often, presidents enter the Oval Office convinced that the failure of diplomacy rests more with their predecessors than with their adversaries. Obama is no exception. The State Department meanwhile has not, in the last half century at least, conducted a lessons-learned exercise to determine why its high-profile engagement diplomacy with rogue regimes—North Korea, Saddam’s Iraq, the PLO, the Taliban, or Iran—never seems to work. All too often, it seems history repeats.

It’s worth considering, then, what happened the last time the United States negotiated in earnest with Zarif. In the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, both Zalmay Khalilzad (at the time a senior National Security Council official) and Ryan Crocker (then a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State), traveled to Geneva to meet secretly with Zarif. Their goal was to come to an understanding with Iran ahead of the start of hostilities commencing with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: Basically, the U.S. side sought not interference and non-intervention with Iran. Zarif readily agreed that Iran would not interfere with any American pilots who strayed into Iraqi airspace, nor would Iran interfere in Iraq by inserting Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or Iranian-backed militias into the country.

Just days later, Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced and almost immediately, more than 2,000 Revolutionary Guardsmen and militiamen infiltrated into Iraq. The Iranian movement was reported first by an Iranian journalist close to former President Mohammad Khatami. In other words, Zarif gave his firm commitment that Iran would not conduct an action, and then Iran subsequently and blatantly violated that agreement.

There are two possible explanations: The first is that Zarif lied. The second is that the then-UN Ambassador was sincere, but he had no power to force groups like the Revolutionary Guards to abide by his negotiated commitments. Either way, the result was the same: Hundreds of Americans died because senior diplomats and the Bush administration chose to trust the Iranians.

The stakes with Iran are even higher today; perhaps it’s time for Kerry to explain in precise detail how it is that a man whose word was without meaning a decade ago has become a trusted intermediary. No one should hold their breath, however, because there is no good answer.

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The Senate Should Wipe the Smile From Zarif’s Face

Secretary of State John Kerry returned to Geneva this week where he met again with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss the ongoing effort to forge a final agreement on that country’s nuclear program. But not even the secretary of his State Department spin masters tried to represent this latest effort to cajole the Iranians into giving the Obama administration a much-needed diplomatic triumph as anything other than just one more scene in a long-running play directed by the Islamist regime. That the Iranians have the patience and the confidence to wait out the administration until it is willing to give them whatever they want is no longer in question. But as Congress prepares to consider new sanctions legislation that could strengthen the hands of Western negotiators, the spectacle of Kerry scurrying to and from Geneva, in vain attempts to convince Zarif to play nicely while Iran proceeds with building new nuclear infrastructure projects, should only reinforce their resolve to stick to their guns despite threats of a presidential veto.

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Secretary of State John Kerry returned to Geneva this week where he met again with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss the ongoing effort to forge a final agreement on that country’s nuclear program. But not even the secretary of his State Department spin masters tried to represent this latest effort to cajole the Iranians into giving the Obama administration a much-needed diplomatic triumph as anything other than just one more scene in a long-running play directed by the Islamist regime. That the Iranians have the patience and the confidence to wait out the administration until it is willing to give them whatever they want is no longer in question. But as Congress prepares to consider new sanctions legislation that could strengthen the hands of Western negotiators, the spectacle of Kerry scurrying to and from Geneva, in vain attempts to convince Zarif to play nicely while Iran proceeds with building new nuclear infrastructure projects, should only reinforce their resolve to stick to their guns despite threats of a presidential veto.

While Kerry was in Geneva, the Iranian media was trumpeting the fact that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced plans to construct two new nuclear power plants in the southern province of Bushehr. The supposed moderate claimed that this shows that Iran was only interested in peaceful uses of nuclear power, but the massive investment in nuclear infrastructure for a country with some of the largest oil reserves in the world is inherently suspicious. Western intelligence agencies have already conceded that they have little confidence about their ability to detect any secret military nuclear programs hidden throughout the country. The decision to build more expensive nuclear plants at a time when the country is financially pressed demonstrates that their commitment to expanding their capability is about more than clean energy.

We can’t know exactly what the Iranians are up to in Bushehr. But the brazen nature of this effort while they continue to stall the Geneva talks speaks volumes about their belief that they can tell the Americans anything they like and still expect Kerry to keep crawling back to see them in the vain hope that next time they’ll gratify his zeal for a deal.

Indeed, by talking about the need to pick up the pace of the talks, Zarif was teasing Kerry as if he was handing a ball of yarn to a kitten. As CBS News reported his remarks:

Zarif was coy when asked if he thought the deadline could be met and what particular issues were most vexing.

“We’ll see,” he said. “All issues are hard until you resolve them and all issues are easy if you resolve them,” he said. “I believe all of them are easy anyway.”

He’s right about that in the sense that since the prelude to the weak interim deal signed in November 2013, the Obama administration’s approach to resolving issues with Iran is to simply gradually concede all points to them. That’s how Iran got Kerry to tacitly recognize their right to enrich uranium and to allow them to hold onto their stockpile of nuclear fuel that could easily be re-activated and converted to use for a weapon in a breakout scenario. That’s also how they have managed to move the position of the U.S. from President Obama’s 2012 campaign pledge to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program to today’s laughable goal of lengthening a potential breakout period.

Zarif was also coy about whether he and Kerry could come to an agreement by the time the latest deadline for the end of the talks expires in July. But since two such deadlines have come and gone without this failure prompting Obama and Kerry to issue ultimatums to the Iranians, there is no reason for Zarif to think they will behave any differently in the future. He can merely wait for them to come to him. That means he thinks he can insist on a deal that will give an international seal of approval and end of sanctions while Iran is permitted to retain the infrastructure and capability to be a threshold nuclear power. Moreover, Zarif also has figured out that the president’s real goal is not so much an acceptable nuclear deal as a new détente with Iran. Since he knows the Americans fear offending him, that gives him the power to be as obdurate as he likes without fear of any consequences.

Obama and Kerry may seek to portray such a disastrous result as the best the West could get in much the same manner as the way they claimed the interim deal was an imperfect yet acceptable bargain. But what these talks desperately need is a change in the dynamic that will wipe that Cheshire cat smile off of Zarif’s face and inject some doubt into Tehran’s calculations about America’s willingness to swallow any Iranian demand or delay. Only more sanctions legislation will do that. The Senate should proceed accordingly.

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Iran Knows Where It’s Going. Does Kerry?

Secretary of State John Kerry’s cheerleaders in the foreign-policy establishment and the mainstream media continue to write of his nuclear deal with Iran as if it were an unalloyed success. Having defended the agreement on the premise that the choice was between recognizing the legitimacy of Iran’s nuclear program and war, Kerry’s supporters have treated criticism as tantamount to a rejection of peace. The decision to tacitly recognize Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and keep their nuclear facilities may have only made the threat more potent in the long run. But the willingness of the Iranians to sign any agreement seems to have engendered a sense that what the administration has done is to essentially take worries about conflict with Tehran off the table. But a look at what they’re saying about the agreement in Iran reminds us that whatever it is that Kerry did in Geneva, it did not alter Iran’s long-term goals and what they think the deal means for the future of their program and sanctions.

As the Times of Israel reports, the same foreign minister that Kerry has been dealing with told students in Tehran yesterday that the so-called freeze of enrichment that Iran agreed to can be reversed in a flash:

“The structure of our nuclear program has been maintained and the 20 percent enrichment can be resumed in less than 24 hours,” Mohammad Javad Zarif told a gathering of Iranian students in Tehran.

He added that “the structure of the sanctions and the antagonistic atmosphere created by the West against Iran is falling apart,” according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

Javad Zarif is right. Though Kerry and administration apologists defend the deal because it prevents Iran from enriching uranium at weapons grade levels, all it would take is a snap of Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fingers to turn up the dials on the centrifuges that President Obama and Kerry have decided they can keep.

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Secretary of State John Kerry’s cheerleaders in the foreign-policy establishment and the mainstream media continue to write of his nuclear deal with Iran as if it were an unalloyed success. Having defended the agreement on the premise that the choice was between recognizing the legitimacy of Iran’s nuclear program and war, Kerry’s supporters have treated criticism as tantamount to a rejection of peace. The decision to tacitly recognize Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and keep their nuclear facilities may have only made the threat more potent in the long run. But the willingness of the Iranians to sign any agreement seems to have engendered a sense that what the administration has done is to essentially take worries about conflict with Tehran off the table. But a look at what they’re saying about the agreement in Iran reminds us that whatever it is that Kerry did in Geneva, it did not alter Iran’s long-term goals and what they think the deal means for the future of their program and sanctions.

As the Times of Israel reports, the same foreign minister that Kerry has been dealing with told students in Tehran yesterday that the so-called freeze of enrichment that Iran agreed to can be reversed in a flash:

“The structure of our nuclear program has been maintained and the 20 percent enrichment can be resumed in less than 24 hours,” Mohammad Javad Zarif told a gathering of Iranian students in Tehran.

He added that “the structure of the sanctions and the antagonistic atmosphere created by the West against Iran is falling apart,” according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

Javad Zarif is right. Though Kerry and administration apologists defend the deal because it prevents Iran from enriching uranium at weapons grade levels, all it would take is a snap of Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fingers to turn up the dials on the centrifuges that President Obama and Kerry have decided they can keep.

Optimists about the deal are also ignoring the dynamic between the two sides since the deal was signed on November 24. The agreement has not gone into effect because it is such a complicated mess that it requires follow-up negotiations to implement it. This is considered a mere detail to be cleared up by those extolling the accord, but it is actually a crucial reason why Iran thinks it is still in control of the conflict. By continuing their normal diplomatic practice of prevarication during the negotiations about implementation (as evidenced by their walk-out from those talks in Vienna last week), Iran hopes to delay and confuse an Obama administration that seems more interested in creating an opening for a game-changing détente with Iran than in spiking their nuclear ambitions.

But as Javad Zarif indicated, not only is the restriction on enrichment above five percent essentially meaningless in terms of its ability to prevent or lengthen the period of an Iranian “breakout” to nuclear capability, Tehran also thinks Kerry’s loosening of sanctions means that the West’s campaign of economic restrictions is doomed. As much as Kerry has been at pains to argue the contrary opinion, it’s hard to argue with the Iranian’s logic.

The whole point of the sanctions had been to persuade the Iranians to give up their nuclear dreams. But now that Kerry has signaled that Tehran will keep its nuclear program even after a final agreement, the implicit threat of the use of force should Iran balk is effectively off the table. Under those circumstances its difficult to imagine Washington’s European partners will be any more enthusiastic about enforcing the existing sanctions, let alone toughening them during follow-up negotiations.

More to the point, the Iranians seemed to have made their point about what they consider the spirit of Geneva. By arguing against an effort to toughen sanctions against Iran proposed by a bipartisan congressional coalition, both Obama and Kerry have said any further pressure on Tehran would “break faith” with their diplomatic partners. That gives the Iranians the power to brand any effort by the United States, including the enforcement of existing sanctions, as a reason for breaking off negotiations. This will allow them to drag out the preliminaries as well as anything that follows the six-month period when the two sides will supposedly be working on a final agreement.

The point is, Iran no longer thinks, if it ever did, that the U.S. has the will to stop them. And having gotten the administration to agree to the maintenance of their nuclear infrastructure, it is only a matter of time before they get their bomb, whether by evading agreements or stonewalling their implementation. As Javad Zarif’s statement and others coming out of Tehran demonstrate, they know where they’re going. The question is, does Kerry?

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