Commentary Magazine


Topic: nuclear diplomacy

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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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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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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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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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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The Iran Nuclear Deal Collapses

Today is National Nuclear Technology Day in Iran, and so a number of senior Iranian officials have given speeches regarding the ongoing negotiations process with the United States and the other members of the P5+1. Long story short: The Framework Agreement, at least that described by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, is dead. It was either a figment of Mr. Kerry’s imagination or simply rejected by the Iranian regime despite the promises and charm of Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister who, alas, has had a history of deceiving American negotiators.

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Today is National Nuclear Technology Day in Iran, and so a number of senior Iranian officials have given speeches regarding the ongoing negotiations process with the United States and the other members of the P5+1. Long story short: The Framework Agreement, at least that described by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, is dead. It was either a figment of Mr. Kerry’s imagination or simply rejected by the Iranian regime despite the promises and charm of Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister who, alas, has had a history of deceiving American negotiators.

Yesterday, the Iranian defense minister ruled out any inspections at military sites, a statement that contradicts Obama’s statements regarding verification. After all, most of the Iranian work on “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program occurred on military bases and, especially, at Parchin.

Today, the supreme leader of Iran, who has hitherto been silent, posted the following statement on his website which the Open Source Center translated:

The Leader of the Revolution, in a meeting with religious eulogists, said: They are asking why has he not taken a position on the nuclear [issue]. There was no need to take a position. The officials are saying that nothing has been done yet and nothing is obligatory. I neither agree nor disagree.

So, what Obama has called a “Framework Agreement” turns out to be nothing at all. Indeed, Khamenei is not optimistic:

Everything is in the details; it is possible that the untrustworthy side wants to restrict our country in the details. Your current congratulations to me and others are meaningless. Whatever has been done so far does not ensure either the principle — and content — or that the talks will reach the end.

Khamenei has thrown down the gauntlet: Either you accept Iran’s positions or Iran walks away. “Not making a deal is more honorable than making a deal that destroys our interests and the nation’s dignity,” Khamenei told an audience of religious eulogists.

And as for Rouhani, whom the Obama administration has consistently misread as a reformist, here’s what he had to say on Iranian television earlier today, with the transcript provided by the Open Source Center:

“The president of America said in those days ‘We have come to this conclusion that the Iranian nation will not surrender to pressure, sanctions and force,” Rouhani said. “Our victory is that the largest military and economic power of the world, that is to say America, and the president of this country, admitted this reality,” he said.

Rouhani then declared, “We will not sign any agreement that does not immediately abolish all economic sanctions from the first day of the implementation of the agreement.”

Completing the troika is Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator. Here’s what he had to say with regard to the State Department’s fact sheet: “The fact sheet is of no legal value and it should not be considered important.”

The Iranian behavior should not surprise. For Iran, the negotiations were never about resolving outstanding nuclear questions. Had they been, negotiations would hardly have been necessary; all Iran had to do was comply with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement with which the International Atomic Energy Agency had, in 2005, found it in breach. Rather, it was about sanctions relief. And, indeed, here Zarif’s behavior has been most telling. Asked on Iranian television about the idea that the sanctions’ architecture would remain in place, in effect allowing sanctions to “snap back” in case of Iranian cheating, as Obama has promised, he reportedly laughed and declared that the international sanctions regime had already collapsed.

President Obama has had his celebration, but it is now time to return to reality and address the farce which he, Secretary of State John Kerry, or their nuclear negotiation team has led the United States. This should not be a partisan football. It is hard to imagine any Democrat or Republican could agree to a plan whose basic principles as described by Obama and Kerry are now no longer valid. Mr. President, Mr. Kerry, please explain what has happened and how this has happened.

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Iran: Military Sites Off-Limits to Inspectors

President Barack Obama called the framework agreement Secretary of State John Kerry and other representatives of the P5+1 reached in Lausanne “historic.” Alas, as time passes and more is learned about the agreement and Iran’s understanding of it, the more it does seem to be “historic,” but for all the wrong reasons.

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President Barack Obama called the framework agreement Secretary of State John Kerry and other representatives of the P5+1 reached in Lausanne “historic.” Alas, as time passes and more is learned about the agreement and Iran’s understanding of it, the more it does seem to be “historic,” but for all the wrong reasons.

One of the key concerns of the international community and the International Atomic Energy Agency has been “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program (see the annex to this IAEA report for a listing of these). Much of the work Iran conducted on military dimensions of a nuclear program occurred in Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities and on their bases.

Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan today said that the Lausanne Framework does not commit Iran to provide international inspectors access to such military facilities. From Fars News:

Iranian Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Brigadier General Hossein Dehqan has rejected reports on inspection of the country’s military facilities being included in the recent deal achieved by Iran and the world powers (P5+1) in Switzerland’s Lausanne on April 2, Fars news agency reported on April 8. According to Fars, commenting on “domestic media highlighting such baseless claims by foreign media about the Lausanne agreement,” Dehqan said, “Such actions do not serve national interests, but in fact set the ground for enemy’s excessive demands… The Supreme Leader’s, the government’s approach and the determination of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team together do not allow the other party to impose anything on the Iranian nation.” Referring to “false claims by foreign media outlets such as the Guardian newspaper” on inspection of the country’s military facilities being a part of the Lausanne statement, Dehqan stressed: “There is no such agreement. Basically, inspection of military facilities is a red line and no inspection of any kind from such facilities would be accepted.”

So the Iranian government now contradicts President Obama’s announcement and the State Department fact-sheet with regard to when sanctions will be lifted, centrifuges, enrichment, and even plutonium. Now let’s add inspections and possible military dimensions to the list. Obama is right. The Lausanne agreement is historic. It will be studied by generations of diplomats who will use it to illustrate American naïveté, Iranian duplicity, and the dangers of not actually gaining agreements in writing.

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North Korea’s Nuclear Breakout: Canary in the Coalmine

Even a few months ago, nuclear war still seemed passé, an artifact of the Cold War, or derided as a fading dream for neoconservatives who want any excuse to increase defense budgets and meddle abroad. Sometimes, however, reality takes a bite out of comfortable establishment nostrums. Such was the case yesterday, when the commander of NORAD, Adm. William Gortney, admitted what many in D.C. have been whispering for months, that North Korea now has an “operational” road-mobile long-range ballistic missile, the KN-08, and that Pyongyang has “the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the [U.S.] homeland.”

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Even a few months ago, nuclear war still seemed passé, an artifact of the Cold War, or derided as a fading dream for neoconservatives who want any excuse to increase defense budgets and meddle abroad. Sometimes, however, reality takes a bite out of comfortable establishment nostrums. Such was the case yesterday, when the commander of NORAD, Adm. William Gortney, admitted what many in D.C. have been whispering for months, that North Korea now has an “operational” road-mobile long-range ballistic missile, the KN-08, and that Pyongyang has “the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the [U.S.] homeland.”

Thus, the fundamental goal of three U.S. administrations, to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear power that can threaten the United States and its treaty allies, has utterly failed. Two decades of intensive, repeated negotiation have resulted in the polar opposite of what Washington wanted. The nuclear non-proliferation model has been cracked, if not broken, and America’s ultimate security guarantee, “extended deterrence,” will now be called into question even more by nervous allies in Asia, and elsewhere.

Adm. Gortney’s announcement, which senior officials have been inching toward over the past year, now raises two distinct problems for U.S. policymakers, completely separate from the question of whether or not Pyongyang would ever use one of its nuclear weapons.

First, it is time to accept that we are moving into a future of nuclear proliferation, and therefore the increased likelihood of a nuclear event, be it an accident or a conscious act of aggression. In short, America’s holiday from nukes since the end of the Cold War is now over. In addition to smaller nuclear states, great power nuclear competition may well heat up. With Russia and China, two adversarial regimes, modernizing and increasing their nuclear forces, Americans and their allies will have to become used to nuclear saber rattling once again, as shown by recent comments from Vladimir Putin.

Will nuclear blackmail become a standard tool of statecraft in the 21st century? If so, will we simply ignore it, or decide to be more cautious in pursuing our interests? How do we begin thinking again about the unthinkable, yet also learn new lessons that may well have little connection to those from the Cold War, when there were primarily two stable nuclear blocs? We face, instead, a far more fragmented and complex nuclear future, in which aggressive, destabilizing rogue regimes will have control over the world’s most powerful weapons. What strategy will ensure the safety of the American homeland, and does the administration’s plans to slightly modernize, yet draw down our nuclear capability still make sense in this new world?

The second problem is how to deter would-be nuclear regimes, most obviously Iran, when the playbook for gaining nuclear weapons has now been written and published by the North Koreans. Pyongyang is the canary in the coalmine for nuclear proliferators. The failure of negotiation, the unwillingness of the United States to take serious steps to prevent proliferation, the wishful thinking on the part of diplomats and leaders from both parties, has led us to the threshold of a world far more terrifying than anything we’ve faced in a long time. The repeated assurances of U.S. officials that we would never permit nor accept a nuclear North Korea now ring hollow around the world. It can only be a balm to Tehran to look at our record, and to judge that both time and more sophisticated negotiating strategies are on their side.

Pundits are fond of saying that “elections have consequences.” So do policy failures. The consequences of two lost decades that have allowed one of the world’s most evil regimes to gain the ultimate weapon could be unthinkable. It is a black mark against the comfortable belief that “a bad deal is better than no deal.” Such statements only reveal the poverty of thinking among those who do not show the imagination to see how quickly the world can change for the worse, and how the spillover effects of our misguided approaches can themselves cause far greater disruption than the particular policy failure itself.

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Iran Announces Film to Celebrate Israel’s Coming Destruction

President Barack Obama has dismissed arguments that U.S. negotiators should demand that Iran recognize Israel and Israel’s right to exist as part of any final agreement. To do so would be too difficult, the president argues, and not relevant to the narrow goal at hand which is simply to strike an accord to constrain Iran’s nuclear breakout ability for a decade or so. Perhaps no statement better illustrates the moral and cultural equivalence that infuses President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.

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President Barack Obama has dismissed arguments that U.S. negotiators should demand that Iran recognize Israel and Israel’s right to exist as part of any final agreement. To do so would be too difficult, the president argues, and not relevant to the narrow goal at hand which is simply to strike an accord to constrain Iran’s nuclear breakout ability for a decade or so. Perhaps no statement better illustrates the moral and cultural equivalence that infuses President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.

It is akin to saying North Korea seeks South Korea’s destruction and it would be too complicated to impede Pyongyang’s murderous intent. Russian President Vladimir Putin has expansionist intent? Well, let’s not let his imperialist ambitions toward the Baltics, Poland, and the rest of Ukraine get in the way of our diplomacy.

The Iranian regime’s character isn’t some inconvenient detail; it is the central problem. And as if to underline the problem, the Islamic Republic has announced a new documentary film which will celebrate the life of Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani. It’s bad enough lionizing a master terrorist responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the description of the film is even more telling: The film Commander will depict Iran’s and Soleimani’s strategic approach to destroy not only the Islamic State but also “the Zionist regime.” Importantly, the article describing the film was published after agreement on a nuclear framework between the P5+1 and Iran. Let’s hope that with their willful naivete, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry don’t get credit for small but important bit roles.

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Obama’s Right

Whenever Barack Obama says, as he often does, that another war in the Middle East is the only alternative to the deal he is making with Iran, his critics immediately accuse him of setting up a straw man, which indeed he also often does. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the sternest and most effective critic of Obama’s deal, declares that the true alternative to it is not war but “a better deal.” So, too, leading domestic opponents like Senators Lindsay Graham and Tom Cotton.

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Whenever Barack Obama says, as he often does, that another war in the Middle East is the only alternative to the deal he is making with Iran, his critics immediately accuse him of setting up a straw man, which indeed he also often does. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the sternest and most effective critic of Obama’s deal, declares that the true alternative to it is not war but “a better deal.” So, too, leading domestic opponents like Senators Lindsay Graham and Tom Cotton.

Now I consider the agreement Obama has negotiated a dishonorable and dangerous product of appeasement, and so it pains me to side with him against political figures I admire and generally support. Nevertheless, I have to confess that I think he is right in arguing that the only alternative to a deal is war.

By this I do not mean that war is the only alternative to Obama’s deal alone. What I mean is that war is the only alternative to any deal the Iranians would be willing to sign–if, that is, the purpose is really to prevent them from getting the bomb. Obama keeps insisting that this is what his deal will accomplish. But it seems increasingly clear that he no longer thinks, if he ever did, that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons would be so dangerous that it must be prevented at all costs from getting them.

Up until a few years ago, there was hardly any dissent from this conviction. Yet while just about every political leader and pundit throughout the West agreed that the threat of military force had to be “kept on the table” in order for peaceful means to succeed, most of them were confident that a judicious combination of carrots and sticks would do the trick and that military force would never need to be taken off the table and actually used.

There was, however, a small minority–myself included–who contended that the Iranians were so determined to build a nuclear arsenal that nothing, not sanctions and not the chance (in Barack Obama’s words) to “get right with the world,” could ever induce them to give up their pursuit of it. And since we were convinced that negotiations could accomplish nothing but buy the Iranians more time to forge ahead, we also thought that the sooner we bombed their nuclear facilities the better.

We were fully aware that such a course was very risky. It would almost certainly trigger Iranian retaliation against our troops in the region and against Israel, and it might well lead to the dire economic consequences that Iran could let loose by blocking the flow of oil. Yet in our view all this was as nothing compared with the nuclear arms race that an Iranian bomb would set off throughout the Middle East.

Even worse, there was also the high probability that Iran–once possessed of the means to make good on their openly and repeatedly stated dream of “wiping Israel off the map”–would either provoke the Israelis into a preemptive nuclear strike or try to beat them to the punch with a preemptive nuclear strike of its own. Either way, the casualties and the destruction would reach unimaginable heights.

Our position was summed up in the slogan “the only thing worse than bombing Iran is letting Iran get the bomb.” And to those like President Obama who charged us with warmongering, our response was that the choice was not between a negotiated settlement and war. It was between a conventional war now and a nuclear war later.

As for the Obama deal, if its purpose were really to prevent the Iranians from getting the bomb, it would be a total failure, if only because it leaves their nuclear infrastructure intact and gives them plenty of room to cheat. But judging by deeds rather than words, it is reasonable to conclude that what Obama is trying to do is not to keep Iran from getting the bomb but to further his quest for a detente, or even a de facto alliance, with Iran. Already we see the foreshadowing of such an alliance in his willingness to cooperate with the Iranians in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and his reluctance to take any steps in the Middle East (against their ally Syria, for example) that might displease them.

At this point, the slogan that best applies comes from Winston Churchill’s devastating comment on Neville Chamberlain’s pact with Hitler at Munich in 1938: “You were given a choice between dishonor and war. You have chosen dishonor and now you will get war”–and this time a nuclear war at that. Unless, that is, the Israelis were to choose conventional war now over nuclear war later. My guess is that they will, but it is just as likely that Obama, despite his repeated assurances that he “has Israel’s back,” will stop them by threatening to withhold the diplomatic support and the resupply of lost weaponry they would need. In that case God help us all.

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Did the Revolutionary Guards Really Endorse the Nuclear Deal?

One of the problems with American journalists who feel themselves vested in a topic is that they become prone to cherry pick. Hence, the New York Times reported Iranian celebrations in the streets, but failed to report the “Death to America” chants at the state-sanctioned, supreme leader-directed weekly prayers in Tehran and every provincial capital.

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One of the problems with American journalists who feel themselves vested in a topic is that they become prone to cherry pick. Hence, the New York Times reported Iranian celebrations in the streets, but failed to report the “Death to America” chants at the state-sanctioned, supreme leader-directed weekly prayers in Tehran and every provincial capital.

Now, both Agence France Presse and the Associated Press are reporting that Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), has endorsed the nuclear deal. From the Associated Press:

Iranian state television is reporting that the chief of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard has offered his support to Iranian nuclear negotiators. The reported comments by Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari come as some 200 hard-liners protested Tuesday against the framework deal struck last week between Iran and six world powers. State TV’s website quoted Jafari as saying: “With God’s grace, the revolutionary children of Islamic Iran have succeeded in defending the rights of the Iranian nation and the Iranian nation and the Guard appreciate their honest political efforts.” He also said Iran as a nation supported the diplomatic efforts.

Make no mistake, IRGC endorsement would be a positive sign; the lack of IRGC buy-in has been a consistent worry. Alas, the wire services are a bit selective is shaping Jafari’s statement. Here, for example, is Jafari in the Iranian press outlet Tasnim:

“The resistance of the Iranian nation against the United States rendered ineffective the US attempt to impose [its] political will against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Jafari said on the sidelines of a conference. “Thank God, the revolutionary children of Islamic Iran have managed to decently uphold the rights of the Iranian nation in their diplomatic campaign. The Iranian nation and the IRGC appreciate these dear [officials] for their honest efforts, political endeavors, and their resistance [defense] of the specified red lines,” the commander said.

Jafari warned that Washington’s “dishonesty” will create a challenging path ahead of “this diplomatic jihad,” but expressed confidence that Iran’s red lines, including the recognition of its nuclear rights and the removal of all sanctions, will remain “the focal point of the Iranian nation’s demands.” The Iranian nation will support “its nuclear diplomatic front and will not allow misleading tricks from the enemy, particularly the US, in the recent talks, [such as] the fake translation of the joint statement, to tarnish the trust between the nation and government,” the commander added.

Hence, Jafari is not agreeing to the parameters announced by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, but the significantly more permissive interpretation announced by Iranian leaders to their own people. Jafari simply reiterates the idea that Iran’s redlines are restrictions on uranium enrichment and continued sanctions.

The BBC, much like the Open Source Center, also maintains a translation service which has surveyed IRGC-linked websites:

  • The Ammariyon website, close to the IRGC, published an article by hardliner MP Hamid Rasa’i titled “Red lines violated by Lausanne Treaty of Turkmenchay.” (The Treaty of Turkmenchay was the agreement imposed by the Russian Tsar on Iran following its defeat in 1828 which permanently separated what now is Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.)
  • The 598.ir website, also close to the IRGC, likewise criticized the discrepancies between the U.S. version and Iranian versions of the framework. The U.S. factsheet is a non-starter, it suggested.
  • Farhang News, another IRGC outlet, demanded the Iranian government publish its own factsheet.

It’s all well and good for journalists to engage in political spin in order to support a process with which they agree. But, simply repeating mantras of success or cherry picking what news to report does not further understanding; rather, it makes the crash seem all the more sudden.

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The Most Troubling Line in Obama’s NYT Interview

Barack Obama sat down with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman over the weekend to defend his framework nuclear deal. Obama argues that he had a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” and so he gave it a chance. And he also suggests that it was a risk worth taking. “We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that’s the thing … people don’t seem to understand,” he said. This, of course, is ironic because the outside world often accuses Americans of navel-gazing and not caring about reverberations in the rest of the world. Here, however, the president once embraced as a multilateralist messiah—and a leader who won a Nobel Peace Prize on rhetoric alone—pretty much acknowledges that he discounts regional reverberations to his actions.

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Barack Obama sat down with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman over the weekend to defend his framework nuclear deal. Obama argues that he had a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” and so he gave it a chance. And he also suggests that it was a risk worth taking. “We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that’s the thing … people don’t seem to understand,” he said. This, of course, is ironic because the outside world often accuses Americans of navel-gazing and not caring about reverberations in the rest of the world. Here, however, the president once embraced as a multilateralist messiah—and a leader who won a Nobel Peace Prize on rhetoric alone—pretty much acknowledges that he discounts regional reverberations to his actions.

It’s almost as if Gerald Ford held an olive branch out to the Khmer Rouge, saying, “We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk,” never mind the regime’s genocidal ideology. Obama and supporters of his deal, of course, would argue that such a characterization isn’t fair: Obama took pains to tell Friedman how hurt he was that so many in Israel and the United States believed the U.S. president was willing to throw the Jewish state under the bus.

Obama also subtly changes U.S. policy. While across administrations, the policy of the United States was that Iran would not get a nuclear weapon, President Obama now seems to envision a Plan B of nuclear deterrence:

The notion that Iran is undeterrable — “it’s simply not the case,” he added. “And so for us to say, ‘Let’s try’ — understanding that we’re preserving all our options, that we’re not naïve — but if in fact we can resolve these issues diplomatically, we are more likely to be safe, more likely to be secure, in a better position to protect our allies, and who knows? Iran may change. If it doesn’t, our deterrence capabilities, our military superiority stays in place.

First of all, Obama’s confidence is misplaced. The Iranian regime may not be suicidal, but what if it’s terminally ill? The most ideologically pure elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would have custody over any nuclear arsenal, and if the regime were collapsing around them, they might launch for ideological reasons knowing the regime was over anyway. This is one of the reasons why America’s Gulf allies were so upset when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised a trial balloon of a nuclear umbrella should Iran achieve a nuclear weapon.

The most troubling line in Obama’s interview—and one upon which Friedman didn’t push the president—was this:

I’ve been very clear that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon on my watch, and I think they should understand that we mean it.

Here’s the problem: Obama’s watch will last just over another 20 months. The job of a U.S. president isn’t to squander tremendous diplomatic capital and leverage to kick the can down the road for 20 months and then claim, well, “it didn’t happen on my watch.” With this statement, Obama is effectively acknowledging that Iran very well develop a military nuclear capacity during the next administration. After all, the so-called nuclear fatwa which Obama repeatedly cites very specifically avoids the word never.

Obama’s political career may end in 2017. He may be short-sighted enough to care only about what such a deal would mean for him. Alas, neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia nor the rest of the world has the ability to force its security to conform to the exigencies of a Washington political calendar. It’s not Obama’s watch—or any politician’s tenure—that should be the basis for judging a deal’s success. It should be whether or not the deal allows Tehran to pursue a nuclear weapon should it so choose. Alas, it seems, Obama has just acknowledged voiding another red line.

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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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