Commentary Magazine


Topic: Saudi Arabia

Iran’s Coming Betrayal and Our Jilted Allies

The following is a dispatch from The Israel Project’s Omri Ceren regarding the state of Iran nuclear talks: Read More

The following is a dispatch from The Israel Project’s Omri Ceren regarding the state of Iran nuclear talks:

A couple of quick updates before everyone goes out to dinner here.

US diplomats are now telling journalists that talks will go beyond the original June 30 deadline. No surprise but consider it confirmed. The talks are still expected to conclude with a deal in the very early days of July. The current over/under is July 4th, which would give the Obama administration a full 5 days to meet the July 9 Corker deadline for filing the text of the agreement with Congress. If they file the deal before July 9, it sits in front of Congress for 30 days. If they miss the deadline, it sits in front of Congress for 60 days. The administration doesn’t want lawmakers to have an extra 30 days to discover the deal’s flaws, and so the State Department is under heavy pressure to conclude negotiations with enough time to get the text to Congress before the deadline.

Meanwhile the newest Associated Press article filed from Vienna – pasted below – is getting a lot of attention. It’s a broad overview of how US negotiations with Iran have created a “new normal” in which the Obama administration is far more comfortable talking to Iran than to America’s traditional Israeli and Arab allies. Lawmakers will ask how the administration can be trusted to enforce a deal: not only will evidence of Iranian cheating detonate the President’s legacy, but the President and his team have simply become – on a basic personal level – cozy with the Iranians:

Whether or not the U.S. and its negotiating powers can clinch a pact in Austria’s capital over the next several days, it’s hard to imagine the tentative U.S.-Iranian rapprochement ending anytime soon. It’s become the new normal… Although neither will use the word trust, for the first time in decades, U.S.-Iranian ties have in some ways “normalized.”… the interactions between Kerry and Zarif, and the two countries’ other negotiators, have expanded dramatically. They regularly chat in hotel breakfast halls before their daily discussions, hold regular calls and coordinate schedules…

In March, Kerry began a meeting by offering condolences to Rouhani after his mother died and wished the Iranians a happy Persian New Year with the traditional declaration of “Nowruz Mubarak.” Later, he approached Rouhani’s brother, a member of the Iranian negotiating team in Lausanne, Switzerland, and hugged him… And the good will has spread to others in the negotiating team.

Washington clearly remains light years closer to Middle East allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, but their coolness or outright hostility to the Iran talks has taken a toll. For the Obama administration, it has created the strange dynamic of sometimes finding it easier to discuss nuclear matters with Tehran… Only last week, many Iranian parliamentarians chanted “Death to America” as they passed legislation that would bar nuclear inspectors from visiting military sites – a key U.S. and international demand.

This article isn’t some random neocon opinion piece. It’s the Associated Press’s top diplomatic journalists filing a news report on the state of the talks.

When Iranian expansionism finally forces a future U.S. President to take action against Tehran – and it will, given that the Iranians are engaged in a region-wide hot war with the Arab world and are constantly looking to start another hot war with Israel – the Iranians will accuse that President of violating the nuclear deal and back out. Washington will then face an Iran that will be economically and militarily resurgent, opposite an array of abandoned allies.

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For the Iran Nuclear Deal, ‘the Game Is Pretty Much Up’

The following is a dispatch from Omri Ceren of The Israel Project regarding the state of nuclear negotiations with Iran. Read More

The following is a dispatch from Omri Ceren of The Israel Project regarding the state of nuclear negotiations with Iran.

The administration has rolled out three arguments for why the Saudis won’t go nuclear.

(1) ‘They’re too poor to go nuclear’ – this argument has appeared a couple of times in print in recent weeks. The assertion is difficult to square with the North Korean experience, where the DPRK has built industrial-scale nuclear infrastructure despite having functionally no economy.

(2) ‘They’re afraid of an international backlash, including an oil embargo’ – there are a couple of NSC staffers who are fond of this argument. I think it’s fair to say that the administration has had trouble getting people to accept that the West will forgo Saudi energy.

(3) ‘American security assurances will be sufficient to reassure the Gulf, so they won’t chart their own course’ – this was the point of the Camp David summit between the President and the Gulf states. There have been claims that it worked. According to what former Defense Secretary William Cohen told Bloomberg View this morning, it very much didn’t:

The administration’s intent was to have a counter-proliferation program. And the irony is, it may be just the opposite… Once you say they are allowed to enrich, the game is pretty much up in terms of how do you sustain an inspection regime in a country that has carried on secret programs for 17 years and is still determined to maintain as much of that secrecy as possible… [the Syria CW red line] was mishandled and everybody in the region saw how it was handled. And I think it shook their confidence in the administration… The Saudis, the UAE and the Israelis were all concerned about that… They are looking at what we say, what we do, and what we fail to do, and they make their judgments. In the Middle East now, they are making different calculations.

Remember how Saudi nuclearization plays out. It’s not just that the Sunnis will acquire nuclear weapons, and within a few years there will be a polynuclear unstable Middle East – although that’s a disaster all on its own. It’s also that Saudi nuclearization will rebound and destroy the JCPOA deal with Iran that started the cascade in the first place. There is no chance that the IRGC will sit on the sidelines while the Saudis go nuclear. Nobody pretends otherwise. They’ll back off the deal and match the Saudis.

That makes the deal all cost and no gain: the administration will have seeded a polynuclear Middle East, detonated Washington’s alliances with its traditional allies, and shredded the sanctions regime – and it won’t even have a denuclearized Iran to show for it. Instead of the status quo of no deal and no nukes, it’ll be a world of no deal but yes lots of nukes.

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Russia Outmaneuvers Obama in the Middle East

Being a revanchist means being keenly aware of your country’s history, its interests as defined by prior generations, and that which they so carelessly lost. Steeped as he is in revanchism, Vladimir Putin has put a premium on the national interests of Russia’s leaders of another era. He covets the Black Sea coast, as have all his predecessors dating back to Catherine. He views the United States has his country’s strategic competitor in Europe, as did the Soviets who inherited Stalin’s post-War order. And, like many of the ghosts who roam the Kremlin’s halls, Putin is uniquely conscious of the strategic value of the Middle East. He is fortunate in that the American president is equally determined to extricate his country from Middle Eastern affairs and is presently engaged in a disruptive project to reorder the region so as to facilitate that retreat. Putin has taken full advantage of the every opportunity American military retrenchment and diplomatic restructuring in the Middle East has afforded him, and the future will be darker for it. Read More

Being a revanchist means being keenly aware of your country’s history, its interests as defined by prior generations, and that which they so carelessly lost. Steeped as he is in revanchism, Vladimir Putin has put a premium on the national interests of Russia’s leaders of another era. He covets the Black Sea coast, as have all his predecessors dating back to Catherine. He views the United States has his country’s strategic competitor in Europe, as did the Soviets who inherited Stalin’s post-War order. And, like many of the ghosts who roam the Kremlin’s halls, Putin is uniquely conscious of the strategic value of the Middle East. He is fortunate in that the American president is equally determined to extricate his country from Middle Eastern affairs and is presently engaged in a disruptive project to reorder the region so as to facilitate that retreat. Putin has taken full advantage of the every opportunity American military retrenchment and diplomatic restructuring in the Middle East has afforded him, and the future will be darker for it.

In February, when Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi chose Russia as the first non-Arab state to which he would make a formal trip, it set off alarm bells in Washington. America’s bilateral relationship with that flawed but nevertheless critical nation’s military leadership had long been strained. Relations between American and Egyptian officials grew tense when President Barack Obama demanded Washington’s ally of over three decades, Hosni Mubarak, leave office amid anti-government protests and spiraling violence. At first welcoming the election of Mohamed Morsi and then standing by him when it became clear that he and his political allies would use every lever of Egyptian democracy at their disposal to destroy it, Barack Obama alienated the members of the Egyptian military with whom America had once had firm relations since the late 1970s. Finally, after being visibly paralyzed by events in Egypt following Morsi’s ouster – vexed by the notion of whether to punish the putsch leaders by calling the events they welcomed a “coup” – Obama’s government eventually withdrew a significant amount of the military aid the world’s most populous Arab country had come to rely upon.

The result of this fecklessness was to alienate Egypt’s democrats, frustrate its Islamists, and terrify the members of its military establishment. It’s one thing to have an idealistic foreign policy that eschews legacy obligations to unsavory actors established by foreign policy realists, but it’s quite another to adopt an approach to international affairs that apparently has no philosophical moorings whatsoever. Obama embraced the latter course.

“Washington’s rather limited criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood during its year in power, as well as the intensifying swirl of conspiracy theories about the U.S. role in Egypt, have fostered a severely anti-American political atmosphere that may welcome a shift away from Washington,” The Washington Institute’s David Schenker and Eric Trager observed.

If the alarm bells were ringing in February, they screamed like an air raid siren by March. It was then that the Sisi government announced that it had secured a deal to purchase $2 billion in arms from Moscow. The arrangement represented the ruination of the post-Sadat status quo, in which the former Egyptian leader and American administrations under three successive presidents over the skillfully disentangled Egypt from the Soviet sphere of influence. Indeed, the importance with which Russia viewed Egypt was revealed when Sadat flamboyantly expelled Soviet advisors and he was subsequently rewarded with even more military aid from Moscow. Putin had effectively reversed Leonid Brezhnev’s folly in Egypt.

But this would not be the end of the West’s humiliation on the Nile. According to a report via the Egyptian Independent, Cairo has agreed to establish a free-trade zone with the Eurasian Economic Union – a trade zone dominated by Russia and comprised of the former Soviet Republics Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia.

“Egypt’s trade agreement with the EEU would ideally give it preferential access to the integrated single market of 176 million people and a GDP of over US$4 trillion,” The publication wrote of the trade zone designed to serve as a counterbalance to the European Union. “A Russian industrial zone near the Suez Canal and a number of other joint projects in the areas of transport, manufacturing, and energy are on the table, and the upcoming free trade agreement, expanding the scope of cooperation, would undoubtedly contribute to increasing EEU’s influence…”

As Washington makes no secret of its desire to see Iran rise and become the region’s prohibitive stabilizing power, it isn’t just Egypt that has turned its jilted eyes toward Moscow. “Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman visited St. Petersburg in the last week and signed several agreements with the Russians concerning cooperation on oil, space and peaceful nuclear energy, as well as nuclear technology sharing,” Al-Monitor reported on Wednesday. Between the Saudis proxy war in Yemen against Iran-backed Shiite rebels and its speedy pursuit of nuclear technology from countries like France and Russia, the Saudi Kingdom’s behavior a virtual textbook example of how sovereign powers react to shifting regional dynamics and alliance structures.

In fact, the effects of the Obama administration’s approach to regional power politics in the Middle East might have been pulled directly from one of the late University of California, Berkeley, Professor Kenneth Waltz’s lectures. As the United States has become an unreliable ally, propping up a revisionist aspiring hegemon in their neighborhood, the region’s Sunni states have gone in search of some insurance. This real world experiment in international relations theory is actually quite fascinating. If only it were not so extremely dangerous.

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Saudi Wikileaks a Reality Check on Iraq

There has been surprising little press attention in the United States to the massive hack and exposure by Wikileaks of 60,000 Saudi diplomatic documents detailing behind-the-scenes maneuvering between Saudi Arabia and a number of Arab countries.

In Iraq, the exposure of Saudi documents has gotten significant attention, however, as it confirms a number of suspicions about Saudi Arabia’s continuous efforts to undermine Iraqi security and democracy and also debunks slightly some of the myths that consume many American policymakers. Read More

There has been surprising little press attention in the United States to the massive hack and exposure by Wikileaks of 60,000 Saudi diplomatic documents detailing behind-the-scenes maneuvering between Saudi Arabia and a number of Arab countries.

In Iraq, the exposure of Saudi documents has gotten significant attention, however, as it confirms a number of suspicions about Saudi Arabia’s continuous efforts to undermine Iraqi security and democracy and also debunks slightly some of the myths that consume many American policymakers.

One Saudi cable, for example, depicts how Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, sought to intercede with Iran to force then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to concede to the Kurds additional oil rights. Maliki refused to listen to the Iranians, however. Perhaps the former prime minister did put Iraqi interests first and foremost. The Saudis weren’t willing to put all their eggs in Barzani’s basket, however; the cables also reveal that in 2012, the Saudis contributed $500,000 to the Islamic Movement, Kurdistan’s more radical and sometimes violent Islamist movement.

Then, of course, was this cable in which the Saudi Foreign Ministry urged the Saudi King to host Barzani to encourage Barzani’s continued opposition to Maliki. Of course, when the Saudi king hosts a regional leader from whom it wants something, it seldom involves letting that politician return home absent a significantly augmented bank account. Iraqi politicians are seemingly unwilling to compromise post-election. Perhaps the problem was Shi‘ite intransigence after all. The cables also suggest that Barzani led a press campaign against Maliki on behalf of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

The Saudi dalliance in Iraqi politics was not simply limited to the Kurds. Ayad Allawi has long been a darling of certain diplomatic and military circles in Washington even though he has declining credibility in Baghdad, where he has cultivated a reputation for being lazy and for wanting to be coronated as Iraqi leader through the political intervention of regional states rather than working, campaigning, and competing in the democratic arena along with everyone else. Indeed, there’s an Iraqi joke about how Maliki once confiscated Allawi’s “Green Zone” pass, but Allawi didn’t realize it for seven months (the implication being he never showed up in Baghdad). Well, now it seems that Allawi was on the Saudi payroll as well: The documents appear to show that the Saudis gave Allawi 2,000 Hajj permits which he could distribute. (Not everyone can simply board a plane and show up for the Hajj; as part of their crown control, the Saudis allocate a quota to each country. Some countries distribute these by lottery, others sell the permits, and some simply use them as patronage). If Allawi sold his permits, he could reap quite a windfall.

Over the course of the last decade, the Iraqis have been resilient, surprising almost all diplomats and analysts who predicted doom and gloom. And while many of Iraq’s current political problems may be self-inflicted, the Saudi revelations show that a major reason why Iraqis seem unable to coalesce is that Saudi Arabia has given prominent politicians favors if not money in order to undermine any consensus. How ironic it is then that so many pundits continue to insist that the current or former leadership in Baghdad is the problem, while they put forward the very politicians that appear to have an unhealthy and unethical relationship with the Saudis as a solution.

To be fair, however, while there is no serious suggestion that the Saudi document cache is fraudulent, it is important to remember the parable of the blind men each describing different parts of the elephant. Saudi malfeasance does not mean exculpation of Iran, for which there is overwhelming evidence of bribery, extortion, and other methods of coercion. When I was preparing to do my Ph.D. at Yale, the faculty unofficially but persistently promoted a 30-year-rule: no serious academic work could be conducted without the passage of decades and without access to the full array of documents shaping those events. To do otherwise would simply be journalism rather than scholarship. The leak of Saudi documents shows once again that academics or journalists who believe they have written the history of the Iraq war and post-war period absent a full array of documents show how faulty their premise to be.

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Israel-Saudi Cooperation Debunks Obama’s Foreign Policy Vision

President Obama came into office promising to change the world, a pledge that has largely been unfilled. But in one significant respect, he has achieved a truly revolutionary change. His misguided pursuit of détente with Iran has united two nations that were the most bitter of enemies only a few years ago: Israel and Saudi Arabia. But unfortunately for the administration, the rapprochement between two very different U.S. allies has only been achieved as a result of their mutual opposition to the president’s Middle East policy. So while the president can take credit for achieving something that was once unimaginable but in doing so, he has debunked some of the key assumptions about his view of the world.

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President Obama came into office promising to change the world, a pledge that has largely been unfilled. But in one significant respect, he has achieved a truly revolutionary change. His misguided pursuit of détente with Iran has united two nations that were the most bitter of enemies only a few years ago: Israel and Saudi Arabia. But unfortunately for the administration, the rapprochement between two very different U.S. allies has only been achieved as a result of their mutual opposition to the president’s Middle East policy. So while the president can take credit for achieving something that was once unimaginable but in doing so, he has debunked some of the key assumptions about his view of the world.

That Israel and Saudi Arabia are now united in seeking to derail Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran is not a secret. But for the director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry to share a stage at a Council on Foreign Relations event in Washington with a former top advisor to the government of Saudi Arabia confirms this amazing turnabout. As Eli Lake reports in Bloomberg, Dore Gold, a key advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu and retired Saudi general Anwar Majed Eshki both largely agreed with each other on Iran. Both see Tehran as bent on achieving hegemony in the Middle East and must be stopped.

Despite the bellicose reputation of the Netanyahu government, it was actually the Saudi who sounded more extreme in his prescription for a solution to the problem. Eshki recommended a seven-point plan that starts with regime change in Iran as well as creating an independent Kurdistan form territory carved out of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Gold endorsed neither proposal.

It must be noted that the two were not in complete accord on everything. The Saudi general said that Israel would have to accept the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative before cooperation between the two nations could be formalized. But if you want to know why Netanyahu spoke in praise of that proposal last week in which he said he liked the general idea behind it, you now understand why he’s changed his mind about something he once rightly dismissed as a stunt with no real substance. The Saudis have yet to recognize Israel’s existence, let alone endorsed its legitimacy. Moreover, as Lake points out, 12 years ago, Gold wrote a book detailing Saudi involvement in financing Palestinian terror and hatred.

But thanks to Obama, the behind-the-scenes relationship between Israel and the Saudi has now come out into the open.

The two nations have little in common. Israel is a vibrant democracy while the Saudi kingdom is a theocratic oligarchy with little freedom. But both understand that Obama’s Iran-centric foreign policy threatens their security. With the Iranians financing and providing military assistance to Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Assad regime in Syria, its axis of influence is growing. Once it signs a deal with the United States and the rest of the West, it will become a threshold nuclear power and have two different pathways to a bomb, one by cheating and one by patiently waiting for Obama’s deal to expire. All that places Israel and the Gulf states in jeopardy, requiring them to begin working together on finding a way to put the region back into balance now that the president has destabilized it.

That America’s two key allies feel they have no choice but to begin tentatively working together to thwart U.S. policy isn’t merely ironic. It’s tangible evidence to the bad faith of an administration that has always been obsessed with appeasing enemies and discarding friends. But there is more to be unpacked from that CFR event than that obvious fact about the danger from Iran.

Obama came into office convinced that U.S. influence in the Middle East, as well as regional stability, revolved around one problem: the plight of the Palestinians. Resolving their conflict with Israel was the president’s top foreign policy from his first day in office. His belief that the U.S. was too close to Israel and that by establishing more daylight between the two allies, he could help broker an end to the long war between Jews and Arabs. To accomplish that goal, he picked fights with Israel, undermined its diplomatic position, and did his best to pressure the Israelis into making concessions that would please the Palestinians. The failure of this policy was foreordained since the Palestinians are still unable to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

But the events of the past six years have also shown that his focus on the Palestinians as the source of the problem was a disastrous mistake. The Arab spring, civil war in Syria, the rise of ISIS, and the Iranian nuclear threat proved that the Palestinians had little or nothing to do with the most serious problems in the region. Indeed, by forcing Israel and the Saudis to cooperate against Iran with little attention being paid to the dead end peace process with the Palestinians, Obama has effectively debunked the core idea at the heart of his foreign policy.

Israel-Saudi cooperation is certainly an example of how a president of the United States can create change. But it’s also proof of the bankruptcy of Obama’s dangerous vision for American foreign policy. His legacy won’t be so much an entente with Iran as it is the necessity of American allies having to band together to try to avoid the consequences of his disastrous misjudgments.

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ISIS’s First Foreign War

The ISIS proto-state knows how to fight a war. Following the group’s successful simultaneous assaults on Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, ISIS is pressing its advantage. On Thursday, twin car bombs exploded in the center of Baghdad. The attacks targeted the Babylon Hotel, a landmark located on the Tigris River across from the massive United States embassy facility in what used to be the city’s Green Zone. The attack killed 10 and wounded at least 30. A third car bomb that Baghdad police found in the hotel parking lot failed to detonate, or the toll would have been higher. Read More

The ISIS proto-state knows how to fight a war. Following the group’s successful simultaneous assaults on Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, ISIS is pressing its advantage. On Thursday, twin car bombs exploded in the center of Baghdad. The attacks targeted the Babylon Hotel, a landmark located on the Tigris River across from the massive United States embassy facility in what used to be the city’s Green Zone. The attack killed 10 and wounded at least 30. A third car bomb that Baghdad police found in the hotel parking lot failed to detonate, or the toll would have been higher.

Foreign affairs analysts have long suspected that ISIS, a primarily Sunni insurgency, cannot capture a sprawling city like Baghdad with its massive Shia-dominated neighborhoods. ISIS’s logistical lines would be too long, the indigenous resistance too fierce, and the cost in lives suffered by the terrorist group’s relatively modest forces too staggering for the city to fall. But others have speculated that ISIS does not need a 10,000-strong occupational force to crush the Baghdad’s will to resist; its present strategy of weakening the city’s defenses with high-yield, low-tech car bombs, and the infiltration of ISIS insurgents into the city concealed in the waves of refugees displaced from Western Iraq will eventually wear down the city’s defenses until the street fighting can begin in earnest.

While ISIS’s threat to Iraq’s greatest city is of grave concern, what should perhaps be more troubling is the Islamic State’s determination to export terrorism abroad. The Sunni insurgency demonstrated that it possesses not only the will but also the capability to mount an expeditionary terrorist campaign.

Last week, ahead of Friday prayers, a Saudi Arabian citizen walked into a mosque in the Kingdom’s Shia-dominated city of Qatif and blew himself up. The suicide assault on the Shiite mosque killed 21 and injured scores more. Shortly after that, the Saudi Kingdom confirmed the accuracy of ISIS’s claim to have orchestrated that attack.

The Saudi foreign ministry soon identified the explosives used in that attack as RDX, a military-grade compound also used in commercial demolition that is the basic chemical used to make C-4 and Semtex high explosives.

It was the largest terrorist attack on the Saudi state since 2004 when al-Qaeda militants targeted a foreign workers compound. “Unlike that attack over a decade ago, Friday’s strike targeted members of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority — a sect that both the Islamic State group and ultraconservatives in Saudi Arabia regularly denounce as heretics,” Fox News reported. Also unlike 2004, ISIS was able to repeat the feat just one week later.

On Friday, another ISIS-linked Saudi man approached a Shia mosque in the city of Dammam. Heightened security ensured that he could not enter that religious facility and, faced with insurmountable adversity, the attacker detonated his suicide explosives in the mosque’s parking lot. Four were killed in that attack, but the death toll would have been much higher had the yet-unidentified terrorist been allowed to enter the mosque.

These attacks come just one month after the Saudi Kingdom reportedly foiled an ISIS-led plot to target the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh with a suicide car bomb. 77 of the 93 people arrested in connection with that attack were reportedly Saudi nationals.

The attacks on Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority are not just tactically deft; they are strategically shrewd. Saudi Arabia is presently leading what can only be described as a coalition of Sunni-dominated Middle Eastern nations in a proxy war in Yemen against forces funded, trained, and supported by Shiite-led Iran. Exacerbating internal sectarian tensions inside Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter and a key Western ally for generations, would weaken the Saudi state considerably.

It is difficult to envision the collapse of the Saudi government amid internal tension and external pressure from antagonistic insurgencies presently occupying territory on Saudi Arabia’s northern and southern borders. It is similarly hard to imagine Baghdad falling to the nascent terrorist state. But ISIS has demonstrated that it does not lack for inventiveness and vision. A strategy aimed at igniting sectarian tensions in Saudi Arabia has the same prospects for success in Baghdad, where the heavy hand of Tehran-backed Shiite militias is acutely felt in the city’s Sunni neighborhoods. By contrast, the West’s luminaries have comforted themselves only months ago with the notion that many of ISIS’s present victories were impossible to achieve. Perhaps it is time for Western leaders to start entertaining the possibility that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the philosophies of those who write for The Daily Beast.

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Obama’s Not-So-Ironclad Guarantee

This was supposed to be the week when President Obama put on a show of his desire to reaffirm America’s support for its Arab allies. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states have spent the last year in the unusual position of agreeing more with Israel than the United States, as Obama pushes for détente with Iran. Like the Israelis, the Arabs are pondering their future in a region dominated by an Iranian nuclear threshold state that appears to be the lynchpin of the president’s foreign policy legacy. So to demonstrate his good will, Obama invited these nations to a summit at which he would convince them they had nothing to fear. But with the U.S. putting nothing on the table of substance that would allay those concerns about the weak nuclear deal being negotiated with Iran, the Saudi king and other leaders snubbed the event, turning it into a fiasco even before it began. But it turned out King Salman didn’t miss much. Though Obama offered what he called an “ironclad guarantee’ of America’s support for the Arabs, it was phrased in the kind of ambiguous language that rendered it meaningless. The meeting and especially the statement epitomized an Obama administration foreign policy that puts a premium on appeasing foes and alienating friends.

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This was supposed to be the week when President Obama put on a show of his desire to reaffirm America’s support for its Arab allies. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states have spent the last year in the unusual position of agreeing more with Israel than the United States, as Obama pushes for détente with Iran. Like the Israelis, the Arabs are pondering their future in a region dominated by an Iranian nuclear threshold state that appears to be the lynchpin of the president’s foreign policy legacy. So to demonstrate his good will, Obama invited these nations to a summit at which he would convince them they had nothing to fear. But with the U.S. putting nothing on the table of substance that would allay those concerns about the weak nuclear deal being negotiated with Iran, the Saudi king and other leaders snubbed the event, turning it into a fiasco even before it began. But it turned out King Salman didn’t miss much. Though Obama offered what he called an “ironclad guarantee’ of America’s support for the Arabs, it was phrased in the kind of ambiguous language that rendered it meaningless. The meeting and especially the statement epitomized an Obama administration foreign policy that puts a premium on appeasing foes and alienating friends.

The wording of the president’s “guarantee” is a marvel of lawyerly ambiguity that any connoisseur of diplomatic doubletalk must appreciate:

In the event of such aggression or the threat of such aggression, the United States stands ready to work with our GCC partners to determine urgently what action may be appropriate, using the means at our collective disposal, including the potential use of military force, for the defense of our GCC partners.

Let’s unpack this carefully so we’re clear about what the United States isn’t promising its Arab allies. As even Obama’s cheerleaders at the New York Times noted, this “carefully worded pledge that was far less robust than the mutual defense treaty the Gulf nations had sought.” In the event of aggression, the U.S. isn’t going to spring into action to defend them. Instead it will “work” with them to “determine” what they might do. That falls quite a bit short of a hard promise of collective action, let alone the drawing of a line in the sand across which the Iranians may not cross. In other words, if something bad happens, Obama will talk with the threatened parties but he won’t say what he will do in advance or if he will do anything at all. If that is an “ironclad guarantee,” I’d hate to see what a less binding promise might sound like.

To understate the matter, this is not the sort of pledge that will deter an Iran that is emboldened by its diplomatic victory in the negotiations that let them their nuclear infrastructure and continuing working toward a bomb. Iran’s push for regional hegemony has also been boosted by the triumph of their Syrian ally Bashar Assad with the help of Tehran’s Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries. With the Iran-backed Houthi rebels threatening to take over Yemen and Iran also resuming its alliance with Hamas in Gaza, the axis of Iranian allies has Arab states understandably worried about their future. Now that the nuclear deal makes an Iranian bomb only a matter of when rather than if, the Gulf nations were hoping for more than just a carefully worded expression of American indifference.

That’s why the statement at the end of the summit made no mention of America’s chief worry about the Gulf states: the possibility that the Saudis will, either acting alone or in concert with their neighbors, seek to match Iran’s nuclear potential. As critics of the Iran deal foretold, far from saving the Middle East from an Iranian bomb, it has set off an arms race that has will make the world a fare more dangerous place.

This omission will likely make the Iranians even more reluctant to give in to U.S. demands about sanctions, Tehran’s military research and the disposition of its stockpile of enriched uranium in the final stages of the nuclear talks. A better guarantee for the Arabs might have convinced the Islamist state that the president really meant business about strengthening the deal. In its absence, they have no reason to think Obama won’t fold as he has at every other stage of the negotiations.

Under the circumstances, it’s little wonder that Bahrain’s King Hamad preferred to go to a horse show London rather than confer with Obama. Just as Israel has learned that the United States is more interested in a new Iran-centric policy than it backing its traditional allies, so, too, must the Arabs come to grips with a new reality in which their Iranian foe is no longer restrained by the United States.

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Saudis Show Iran Deal Crackup Has Begun

President Obama is in the position of a high-school student who thinks that the cool kids are going to come to his birthday party and starts bragging about it around school, only to have his prized guests opt out at the last minute, leaving him looking considerably embarrassed. The guests in question are the leaders of America’s closest Gulf allies. They had been invited to a fence-mending summit at Camp David but only two—the emirs of Qatar and Kuwait—have accepted. All the others have suddenly discovered they have something else urgent to do that weekend. (Haircuts scheduled! Barbecues to attend!) Most embarrassing for Obama, as Jonathan Tobin noted earlier today, is that Saudi King Salman had at first accepted the invitation before declining it.

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President Obama is in the position of a high-school student who thinks that the cool kids are going to come to his birthday party and starts bragging about it around school, only to have his prized guests opt out at the last minute, leaving him looking considerably embarrassed. The guests in question are the leaders of America’s closest Gulf allies. They had been invited to a fence-mending summit at Camp David but only two—the emirs of Qatar and Kuwait—have accepted. All the others have suddenly discovered they have something else urgent to do that weekend. (Haircuts scheduled! Barbecues to attend!) Most embarrassing for Obama, as Jonathan Tobin noted earlier today, is that Saudi King Salman had at first accepted the invitation before declining it.

The administration spinmeisters can put a happy face on this all they want by claiming that they can still negotiate with the lower-level leaders the Gulf countries are sending but there is no doubt that this is a rebuke of the administration for putting Iran first. The Gulf leaders see the U.S. increasingly cozy with the rulers in Tehran, whose imperial designs they regard as a mortal danger, and they are not reticent about signaling their displeasure. Refusing to attend the Camp David summit is the least of it. Other actions that the Gulfies are taking are more serious—for example launching bombing campaigns against extremists in both Libya and, on a larger scale, in Yemen without asking for America’s permission or even bothering to notify us more than a few hours in advance.

As the New York Times notes, the Gulf states and in particular Saudi Arabia are manifesting their independence in other, even more disconcerting ways. For instance the hard-line King Salman is rethinking the opposition displayed by his more liberal predecessor, King Abdullah, toward the Muslim Brotherhood and possibly even toward more extreme and violent Salafists: “In Yemen, King Salman is working with Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood political party, and has warmed relations with Qatar, a backer of the Brotherhood. In March, he received Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in Riyadh. The two agreed to work together to support the rebels seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, according to Yasin Aktay, the foreign relations chief for Turkey’s governing party. Although Mr. Aktay said that only moderate groups received support, many of Syria’s most effective fighters are staunch Islamists who often fight alongside the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, raising the possibility that aid might also empower extremists.”

Put another way, because the Obama administration is refusing to do anything to oust Bashar Assad, the Saudis are getting together with the Turks and Qataris to back some of the more fundamentalist Islamist fighters working against the Assad regime—including, it is rumored, the Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate. This is what happens when the Gulf states lose confidence in America: they start taking matters into their own hands and that means they will increasingly forge a pact with extreme Islamists, possibly even with ISIS, because they see the extremists as the only reliable barrier to the spread of Iranian influence.

This is a catastrophic if wholly predictable development, and it is only the beginning of the fallout from Obama’s decision to align so closely with Tehran. The next step in the Sunni pushback is, as the Saudi leadership has loudly and long signaled, for them to acquire their own nuclear weapons. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Saudi Arabia is conveniently next to Jordan which has vast uranium reserves but no money to exploit them. The Saudis could easily fill that gap and develop their own nuclear capacity within a decade, the timeline of the Iranian nuclear deal. Or the Saudis could get nukes even sooner if their friends in Pakistan agree to provide them.

Nothing that President Obama will do or say at the Camp David summit can remotely offset this parlous trend. What America’s Arab allies are looking for is an American commitment to resist Iranian designs. Instead all they see is America standing aside while Iran threatens to dominate the region.

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Why the Snub? Saudis Know Obama’s Replaced Them With Iran

If the Obama administration thought it was successful in its half-hearted efforts to make up with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states outraged by its Iran policies, it’s got another thing coming. On Sunday, the Saudis told the White House that King Salman would not be attending meetings there or at Camp David this week. Later, Bahrain said its King Hamad would skip the same meeting. The snubs are as pointed as President Obama’s recent signals that he has no intention of meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu anytime soon. But while the president has little interest in patching things up with America’s sole democratic ally in the Middle East, he was quite interested in making nice with the Saudi monarch. But the Saudis and Bahrain, like the Israelis, are deeply concerned by the U.S. effort to create a new détente with Iran. It’s not just that Salman apparently has better things to do than to schmooze with Obama. The president may have thought he could essentially replace the Saudis with Iran as the lynchpin of a new Middle East strategic vision without paying a price. But the Saudis understandably want no part of this. The result will be a region made even more dangerous by the Arabs, as well as the Israelis, coming to the realization that they can’t rely on Washington.

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If the Obama administration thought it was successful in its half-hearted efforts to make up with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states outraged by its Iran policies, it’s got another thing coming. On Sunday, the Saudis told the White House that King Salman would not be attending meetings there or at Camp David this week. Later, Bahrain said its King Hamad would skip the same meeting. The snubs are as pointed as President Obama’s recent signals that he has no intention of meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu anytime soon. But while the president has little interest in patching things up with America’s sole democratic ally in the Middle East, he was quite interested in making nice with the Saudi monarch. But the Saudis and Bahrain, like the Israelis, are deeply concerned by the U.S. effort to create a new détente with Iran. It’s not just that Salman apparently has better things to do than to schmooze with Obama. The president may have thought he could essentially replace the Saudis with Iran as the lynchpin of a new Middle East strategic vision without paying a price. But the Saudis understandably want no part of this. The result will be a region made even more dangerous by the Arabs, as well as the Israelis, coming to the realization that they can’t rely on Washington.

The conceit of Obama’s strategy rests on more than a weak deal that he hopes will be enough to postpone the question of an Iranian bomb even as it essentially anoints Tehran as a threshold nuclear power. Rather it is predicated on the notion that once Iran is allowed to, in the president’s phrase, “get right with the world” and reintegrated into the global economy, it can be counted on to keep peace in a region from which Obama wants to withdraw.

That’s why the administration has tacitly allied itself with Iran in the struggle against ISIS in Iraq and, bowed to Tehran’s desire to leave its ally Bashar Assad in power in Syria even as they sought to restrain the Islamist regime’s Houthi friends in their effort to take over Yemen. But given Iran’s desire for regional hegemony, it’s reliance on terrorist allies like Hezbollah and Hamas as well as Assad’s criminal regime, the notion that it is a force for stability is as much a delusion as the idea that it is giving up its quest for nuclear weapons.

Just as important, the Obama foreign policy team was convinced that it could afford to ignore the Saudis’ concerns about their intended entente with Iran with as much impunity as it did those of Israel. As one expert quoted in the New York Times said, the Saudis have no alternative to the U.S. as a superpower ally. But it has not failed to escape their attention that “there’s a growing perception at the White House that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are friends but not allies, while the U.S. and Iran are allies but not friends.”

Under the circumstances, the Saudis are now prepared to show the president the extent of their disdain. But it may not stop at that.

The Saudis, like the Israelis, know that America’s promises about both the nuclear deal and the future of the region are not worth much. The Iranians have been granted two paths to a bomb by the United States. One is by cheating via the easily evaded restrictions in the nuclear pact with little fear of sanctions being snapped back. The other is by patiently waiting for it to expire while continuing their nuclear research with little interference from a West that will be far more interested in trade than anything else.

That leaves the Saudis thinking they may need to procure their own nuclear option and to flex their muscles, as they have been doing in Yemen. It also sets up the region for what may be an ongoing series of confrontations between Iranian allies and the Saudis and their friends, a recipe for disaster.

Will Obama get the message and change course? That’s even less likely than him embracing Netanyahu. An administration that came into office determined to create more daylight between itself and Israel has now embarked on a policy designed to alienate all of America’s traditional allies in order to appease a vicious Islamist foe. Anyone who thinks this will turn out well simply isn’t paying attention to the same events that have left the Saudis and other U.S. allies thinking they are more or less being left on their own.

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The Ineffective Campaign in Yemen

Almost a month ago, on March 25, the Saudis launched what they called Operation Decisive Storm to stop the onslaught of the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen. It turns out that, to no one’s surprise, Decisive Storm isn’t actually decisive.

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Almost a month ago, on March 25, the Saudis launched what they called Operation Decisive Storm to stop the onslaught of the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen. It turns out that, to no one’s surprise, Decisive Storm isn’t actually decisive.

The Saudis have been bombing rather freely, killing by UN estimates more than 600 people, at least half of them civilians. On March 31, for example, Saudi bombs hit a dairy factory killing 31 civilians, the kind of mistake that would be greeted with global outrage if it were committed by the Israeli Air Force but it is met with polite silence when it’s the Saudis.

Alas, while the Saudis are doing an efficient job of killing civilians (and thereby no doubt driving their relatives into the Houthis’ arms), there is little evidence that they are being effective in stopping the Houthis. Instead, the primary impact of their aerial campaign seems to be to create space for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to expand its sphere of control. To be sure, the U.S. continues to fly drones, now from Saudi soil, that continue to kill AQAP leaders. But that makes little difference on the ground where, with the disintegration of central authority, there is no longer an effective counterweight to AQAP.

As the New York Times reports: “Al Qaeda’s adversaries in Yemen are largely in disarray or distracted by other fighting. Military units have melted away or put up little resistance as Al Qaeda has advanced. The Houthis, a militia movement from northern Yemen that is considered Al Qaeda’s most determined foe, have been preoccupied with battles against rival militias across the country, and their fighters have been battered by aerial assaults from the Saudi-led Arab coalition, which is trying to restore the exiled government to power.”

As a result AQAP is on the march. The Times again: “Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen took control of a major airport and an oil export terminal in the southern part of the country on Thursday, expanding the resurgent militant group’s reach just two weeks after it seized the nearby city of Al Mukalla and emptied its bank and prison.”

Yemen, in short, is a mess and getting worse. And the U.S. role—carrying out a few drone strikes, while providing intelligence to the Saudis to facilitate their own bombing—seems to be almost entirely irrelevant. The Los Angeles Times reports, “Obama administration officials are increasingly uneasy about the U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led air war against rebel militias in Yemen, opening a potential rift between Washington and its ally in Riyadh.” But while the White House may be uneasy, there is no sign it is formulating a different strategy.

All of this is of a piece with the overall state of the war on terror: Both Shiite and Sunni jihadists are advancing across the Arab world while the U.S. fumbles for a response. Perhaps the next administration will formulate a more effective strategy, but unfortunately we can’t afford to wait more than 21 months before doing something about worsening conditions in this strategically vital region.

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Lausanne and an Empowered Iran

In his Rose Garden appearance touting the “framework agreement” concluded in Lausanne, President Obama said the U.S. and its negotiating partners had “reached a historic understanding with Iran, which, if fully implemented, will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

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In his Rose Garden appearance touting the “framework agreement” concluded in Lausanne, President Obama said the U.S. and its negotiating partners had “reached a historic understanding with Iran, which, if fully implemented, will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

Even based on the little we know about what was agreed, a couple of qualifiers are in order. First, even assuming the most heroic possible implementation of the accord, Iran will be prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon for perhaps ten years at most–not for all time. The mullahs, who do not have to shut down a single nuclear facility or (apparently) export already enriched uranium, can use that decade to enrich more uranium in their 5,000-plus legal centrifuges, weaponize nuclear warheads, and do everything else needed to assemble a formidable atomic arsenal the second that Iranian leaders decide to break out.

But–and this is the second caveat–even this assumption, which stops far short of what Obama is promising, is itself based on the belief that Iran will abide by the accord. Given the history of other hostile states, such as the Soviet Union and North Korea, in cheating on arms-control agreements, that is quite a Panglossian assumption to make. Perhaps there will be truly strict verification procedures that the Iranians will not be able to subvert–by, for example, setting up a separate, undeclared nuclear facility as they have done in the past–but there is reason for skepticism given how hard the Iranians bargained simply to be able to keep all of their existing facilities open.

While Iranian compliance with the nuclear accord–should one actually be completed in June–remains a speculative proposition, there is much greater reason to think that multilateral sanctions will be lifted and stay lifted no matter if Iran abides by the agreement or not. One of the many unknowns regarding what was announced in Lausanne–an unknown that could actually scuttle the real agreement supposed to be reached in June–is when the sanctions will come off. The Iranians are saying they will be lifted the second a final agreement is signed. The Americans are saying they will be lifted in stages based on Iranian compliance. We’ll see which version is closer to reality if and when the world is actually allowed to read the fine print of any agreement–and assuming there are no secret codicils that remain classified.

But it seems safe to speculate that if Iran signs a piece of paper in June the multilateral sanctions regime will collapse sooner rather than later. This means that Iranian coffers will be flooded with hundreds of billions of dollars in new income.  What will the money be used for? Some undoubtedly will go for social services to buy off a long-suffering Iranian population and prevent an insurrection against the ayatollahs. But it is certain that a large chunk of the money also will go to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which not only runs the nuclear program and a ballistic-missile program but also is in charge of exporting the Iranian revolution abroad. There is absolutely nothing in the Lausanne accord that does anything to hinder much less stop Iran’s support for terrorism or its ballistic-missile programs–both subjects ignored in the Obama administration’s frenzied quest for a nuclear accord, no matter its specifics.

The IRGC, and specifically its elite Quds Force under Gen. Qassem Suleimani, has been busy for decades exporting Iranian power to countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Its subversive efforts have borne fruit in recent years by creating a virtual Iranian Empire stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. Iranian lucre has funded the barrel bombs that Bashar Assad has been dropping on civilians and the abusive militias which Shiite leaders in Iraq have been assembling to undermine the Iraqi state. And that is what Iran has achieved with an economy still in a sanctions straitjacket. What will it be able to do once that straitjacket has come off?

That is the grim prospect that will now confront Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other states that feel a mortal threat emanating from Iran. They will now have to face an Iran with a nuclear program delayed but not dismantled, and an Iran with growing power to undermine and dominate its neighbors. Under such a scenario do not be surprised if Saudi Arabia proceeds with a nuclear program of its own, as it has long threatened to do.

President Obama likes to claim, erroneously, that anyone who opposes his accord must be in favor of World War III. He would make a more persuasive case for the accord if he would more honestly grapple with its baleful consequences for enhancing Iran’s regional power–power which is already at a 30-year high and which now promises to grow even greater.

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Obama’s Preemptive Attack on Critics of the Iran “Framework”

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry went to some lengths to head off criticism of today’s framework agreement with Iran. And the president himself indicated just how concerned he was about the reaction among our allies by calling out potential critics–in the case of the Israeli prime minister, doing so by name–before they could fire the first shot.

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President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry went to some lengths to head off criticism of today’s framework agreement with Iran. And the president himself indicated just how concerned he was about the reaction among our allies by calling out potential critics–in the case of the Israeli prime minister, doing so by name–before they could fire the first shot.

Obama’s press conference this afternoon was notable for its tone. Though he was ostensibly announcing what he considers something of a diplomatic victory, he was agitated and defensive. But it was not just the tone. Here is what Obama said about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

It’s no secret that the Israeli prime minister and I don’t agree about whether the United States should move forward with a peaceful resolution to the Iranian issue. If in fact Prime Minister Netanyahu is looking for the most effective way to ensure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon, this is the best option.

It is a remarkably spiteful comment. What the president is saying is not that he and Netanyahu disagree about how to achieve a peaceful resolution. He says they disagree on “whether the United States should move forward with a peaceful resolution” (emphasis added). In other words, Obama is saying publicly that Netanyahu wants war with Iran, and he wants the United States to fight it.

This is significant not just because of what it says about the president’s opinion of Netanyahu. It’s also important because Netanyahu is not just speaking for Israel. As we’ve seen throughout this process, Netanyahu has of late become the public spokesman for a coalition consisting of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other regional allies. And he’s voicing concerns that the French clearly possess as well, but won’t risk their seat at the table to say publicly.

Ironically, Obama’s shunning of Netanyahu has made such public criticism more likely, not less. By putting Netanyahu on the outside looking in–as opposed to giving him more of a stake in the discussions, as he’s done with the French–he’s given the Israeli prime minister and other skeptics in Israel’s security establishment more room to rally opposition to any element of a deal that would put them in grave danger.

That’s why Obama wanted to have some kind of agreement to announce this week, well ahead of the June 30 deadline for a more complete deal. Throughout this process the president has insisted that the only two options on the table are the deal or war. It was untrue, and not very convincing. After all, some details kept changing, and others were never set, so what the president really meant was it’s either whatever deal they can scrounge together or war, which was intended to insulate the administration against criticism for some of the inevitable concessions made to Iran.

But critics of the way the administration handled the negotiations could always credibly say that this wasn’t true–that there were other options, namely a better deal. As long as the parameters were theoretical, they had room to maneuver. What Obama wanted to do is box them in by announcing the parameters well ahead of the announcement of a final deal. This would give the administration a three-month head start to say that it really is this deal or war. Either way, it’s a fait accompli: these are the terms, they’ll say, and no other terms are relevant now.

The purpose of Obama declaring a victory of sorts and calling out Netanyahu today, then, was to send the following message: Critics of this framework must, by process of elimination, want war. It’s why Obama felt so confident smearing Netanyahu as being against a “peaceful” resolution. Because the narrative the administration will hammer home now is that there is only one peaceful resolution on offer.

If it was intended to prevent criticism, it didn’t work. The Times of Israel reports that Jerusalem is already reacting:

In Jerusalem, officials slammed the framework as “a capitulation to Iranian dictates.” The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, called it “a bad framework that will lead to a bad and dangerous agreement. If finalized, it would make the world “far more dangerous.”

The agreement constitutes “international legitimization of Iran’s nuclear program” whose “only purpose is to build nuclear weapons.”

That shouldn’t be surprising. Just because these are the terms the administration could get doesn’t mean it’s not a bad deal. If our allies in the region are on the same page, it also means the Saudis will be unconvinced and are likely to continue exploring their own route to nuclear capability, with the Egyptians not far behind. If Obama thinks this is a victory, it’s easy to see why our allies don’t agree.

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Why Yemen Will Continue to Be a Mess

News that Iraqi forces have conquered Tikrit should be taken with caution: victory has been claimed before and it has not materialized. And if it is the case that ISIS fighters have been expelled from Tikrit, the triumph will belong to Iranian-backed Shiite militias which constitute the vast majority of the attacking force and which, in spite of U.S. claims, have not pulled back. Thus if U.S. airpower succeeds in routing ISIS out of this town, it will be a victory for Iran and its proxies.

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News that Iraqi forces have conquered Tikrit should be taken with caution: victory has been claimed before and it has not materialized. And if it is the case that ISIS fighters have been expelled from Tikrit, the triumph will belong to Iranian-backed Shiite militias which constitute the vast majority of the attacking force and which, in spite of U.S. claims, have not pulled back. Thus if U.S. airpower succeeds in routing ISIS out of this town, it will be a victory for Iran and its proxies.

Whatever its impact, the offensive in Tikrit contains an important lesson for the Saudi/Egyptian offensive now occurring in Yemen: namely, that it is not enough to hit your enemies from the air as the Saudis are now doing with the Iranian-backed Houthi militia. Military success requires a combined-arms assault—i.e., there must be ground troops in place to exploit the opening created by modern airpower. In Tikrit, as previously mentioned, most of those ground troops are Iranian-backed militiamen. What about in Yemen?

There are troops still loyal to deposed president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who are now battling Houthi fighters in the streets of Aden, but it is far from clear that, even with Saudi air support, they will be able roll back the Houthi militia—not to mention al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is also a major threat but one that the Saudis aren’t focusing on at the moment. Perhaps there is coordination between the Saudi air strikes and Hadi’s ground troops, but so far it isn’t apparent. And perhaps the Saudis are providing support in terms of arms and training to Hadi’s troops, but that too isn’t apparent.

What is apparent is that the Saudis are bombing pretty freely and not in a very precise way. The latest reports indicate that Saudi aircraft struck the Al Mazraq refugee camp, killing at least 19 people, including women and children. If it had been Israeli warplanes dropping those bombs, it would have been described as a war crime and pressure would have been applied at the United Nations to stop this barbarous assault. Because it’s the Saudis, the international community will not say or do much, but there is still the real risk that by inflicting needless civilian casualties the Saudis will alienate potential allies and drive them into the arms of the Houthis or AQAP for protection.

The Saudis, and the Egyptians who are helping them, have made some threats about sending ground forces to clean out Yemen but they do not appear to be doing so, at least not for the time being—which may be just as well. We have all seen the difficulties encountered over the last decade by U.S. troops—the best in the world—fighting guerrillas in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no reason to expect that the challenge of pacifying Yemen, a notoriously lawless land, would be any less, but there is a great deal of reason to worry that Egyptian and Saudi troops don’t have nearly the combat capacity of U.S. forces.

The Saudis have essentially no combat experience and what combat experience the Egyptians have comes from internal security operations against the Muslim Brotherhood and various jihadist groups in the Sinai. It is a very different matter to project force into a foreign country—one that is on Saudi Arabia’s border, admittedly, but that is 1,400 miles from Cairo—and to put down a foreign insurgency. The Egyptians last tried that trick in Yemen in the 1960s and they lost at a cost of 25,000 fatalities. The danger is that if the Saudis and Egyptians were to go in on the ground and if the campaign were to go badly for them, the resulting backlash could destabilize the Sisi regime and the Saudi royal family.

The fear of getting embroiled in what could prove to be a quagmire may very well deter the Saudis and Egyptians from sending ground forces to Yemen, but failing an outside intervention it’s hard to see how it will be possible to defeat the Houthis, much less AQAP, and pacify Yemen. The best bet is for the U.S., working with the Saudis and other allies, to put a lot more time, energy, and resources into training Hadi’s troops than they have hitherto done, but such training programs are protracted affairs and are unlikely to produce results unless the regime the troops are fighting for is widely perceived to be legitimate—which is probably not the case in Yemen. Hadi, after all, took office after the overthrow of the previous dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was once fighting the Houthis but is now in league with them.

Sadly Yemen is a mess and likely to stay that way. The best bet may simply be that the Saudis, through the judicious application of air power, can prevent Iran from consolidating its grip on that country. But if the Saudis have a strategy for actually defeating the Houthis (and AQAP!) and pacifying Yemen, it remains a closely guarded secret.

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What If There’s No Iran Deal?

Each week seems to bring a new damning portrait of President Obama’s foreign policy from a different major news outlet. They say essentially the same thing but, like fingerprints, aren’t exactly the same. And Politico’s piece on Thursday by Michael Crowley stood out for providing a quote from the Obama administration that may rise above even the infamous “leading from behind” slogan the White House has rued since the words were spoken. What it lacks in bumper-sticker brevity it more than makes up for in stunning honesty.

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Each week seems to bring a new damning portrait of President Obama’s foreign policy from a different major news outlet. They say essentially the same thing but, like fingerprints, aren’t exactly the same. And Politico’s piece on Thursday by Michael Crowley stood out for providing a quote from the Obama administration that may rise above even the infamous “leading from behind” slogan the White House has rued since the words were spoken. What it lacks in bumper-sticker brevity it more than makes up for in stunning honesty.

Here’s how the Politico article closes, with a quote from an administration official:

“The truth is, you can dwell on Yemen, or you can recognize that we’re one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord on Iran that tackles what every one agrees is the biggest threat to the region,” the official said.

The Obama administration’s official perspective on the Middle East currently engulfed in brutal sectarian conflict, civil war, and the collapse of state authority is: Let it burn. Nothing matters but a piece of paper affirming a partnership with the region’s key source of instability and terror in the name of a presidential legacy.

But there’s another question that’s easy to miss in the frenetic, desperate attempt to reach a deal with Iran: What if there’s no deal?

Obviously the president wants a deal, and he’s willing to do just about anything for it. The Obama administration long ago abandoned the idea that a bad deal is worse than no deal, and only recently began hinting at this shift in public. Officials have no interest in even talking about Yemen while they’re negotiating the Iran deal. It’s a singleminded pursuit; obsessive, irrational, ideologically extreme. But it’s possible the pursuit will fail: witness today’s New York Times story demonstrating that the Iranians are still playing hardball. (Why wouldn’t they? Their demands keep getting met.)

Surely it’s appalling for the administration to be so dismissive of the failure of a state, such as Yemen, in which we’ve invested our counterterrorism efforts. But it also shifts the power structure in the region. Take this piece in the Wall Street Journal: “Uncertain of Obama, Arab States Gear Up for War.” In it, David Schenker and Gilad Wenig explain that “The willingness of Arab states to finally sacrifice blood and treasure to defend the region from terrorism and Iranian encroachment is a positive development. But it also represents a growing desperation in the shadow of Washington’s shrinking security role in the Middle East.”

They also note the Arab League’s record isn’t exactly a monument to competent organization, so it’s not a great stand-in for an American government looking to unburden itself as a security guarantor for nervous Sunni allies. And it adds yet another note of instability.

Yemen’s only the latest example of the realignment, of course. The death toll in Syria’s civil war long ago hit six digits, and it’s still raging. Bashar al-Assad, thanks to his patron Iran and Tehran’s complacent hopeful partner in Washington, appears to have turned a corner and is headed to eventual, bloody victory.

The Saudis are toying with joining the nuclear arms race furthered by the Obama administration’s paving the Iranian road to a bomb. In Iraq, as Michael Weiss and Michael Pregent report, our decision to serve as Iran’s air force against ISIS has grotesque consequences, including that our military is now “providing air cover for ethnic cleansing.” Iran’s proxies, such as those in Lebanon and on Israel’s borders, will only be further emboldened.

And the lengths the administration has gone to elbow Israel out of the way–from leaking Israel’s nuclear secrets to intervening in its elections to try to oust those critical of Obama’s nuclear diplomacy–only cement the impression that to this president, there is room for every erstwhile ally under the bus, if that’s what it takes to get right with Iran. The view from France, meanwhile, “is of a Washington that seems to lack empathy and trust for its long-time friends and partners — more interested in making nice with Iran than looking out for its old allies.”

The ramifications to domestic politics are becoming clear as well. The point of Obama portraying foreign-government critics as Republicans abroad is that he sees everything in binary, hyperpartisan fashion. The latest dispatch from the Wall Street Journal on the issue includes this sentence:

In recent days, officials have tried to neutralize skeptical Democrats by arguing that opposing President Barack Obama would empower the new Republican majority, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Taking a tough line on Iranian nukes is bad, according to Obama, because it could help Republicans. It’s a rather amazing bit of myopia and partisan mania from the president.

And yet all this damage Obama is doing is for an Iran deal that might, in the end, not happen. And what if that’s the case? We can’t stitch Yemen, Syria, and Iraq back together. The failure of the negotiations won’t make the Saudis or the Israelis or the French trust Obama any more.

Obama’s clout on the Hill will plummet. And his legacy will be in ruins. After all, though he has been on pace to sign a bad Iran deal, it would at least buy him time for his devotees to spin the deal before its worst consequences happen (which would be after Obama leaves office, as designed). In other words, signing a bad deal for Obama allows him to say that at least from a narrow antiwar standpoint, all the costs we and our allies have incurred were for a purpose.

Of course, the grand realignment Obama has been seeking with Iran can’t and won’t be undone. That’s happening whether a deal is signed or not. And while Obama will have spent much of his own political capital, the president’s wasted time will pale in comparison to the smoldering ruins of American influence he leaves behind.

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In Sunni-Shiite Split, Oppose Extremism on Both Sides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hillary’s Undeserved Reputation as a Champion of Women Is Imploding

Hillary Clinton’s decision to base her 2016 presidential campaign on the fact that she’s a she is running into some problems. DNC vice chairwoman Donna Brazile wrote last week that “This time, Hillary will run as a woman.” Brazile said Hillary spent “much of her 2008 campaign seemingly running away from the fact that she is a woman,” and that this time she’s clearly made the decision to run toward her womanity. Whatever that means in practice, the recent Clinton Foundation scandals have converged with her unimpressive record as secretary of state to complicate the narrative.

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Hillary Clinton’s decision to base her 2016 presidential campaign on the fact that she’s a she is running into some problems. DNC vice chairwoman Donna Brazile wrote last week that “This time, Hillary will run as a woman.” Brazile said Hillary spent “much of her 2008 campaign seemingly running away from the fact that she is a woman,” and that this time she’s clearly made the decision to run toward her womanity. Whatever that means in practice, the recent Clinton Foundation scandals have converged with her unimpressive record as secretary of state to complicate the narrative.

Last week I wrote about Carly Fiorina’s longshot candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, highlighting her CPAC speech and her effective line of attack against Hillary Clinton. We’re now seeing just how effective it is. Two of Fiorina’s sound bites in particular stand out. Of Clinton, she said: “She tweets about women’s rights in this country, and takes money from governments that deny women the most basic human rights.” And: “Like Mrs. Clinton, I too have traveled the globe. Unlike Mrs. Clinton, I know that flying is an activity, not an accomplishment.”

Those attacks have now found their way into a New York Times story on the hypocrisy of Hillary talking up women’s rights while her foundation was accepting hefty donations from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other countries with poor records on women’s rights. And it threatens to turn the Hillary campaign’s entire raison d’être into a liability.

From the Times’s Amy Chozick:

And for someone who has so long been lampooned, and demonized on the right, as overly calculating, playing up her gender as a strength would also allow her to demonstrate her nurturing, maternal — and newly grandmotherly — side to voters whom she may have left cold in the past.

Even her most strident critics could not have predicted that Mrs. Clinton would prove vulnerable on the subject.

But the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation has accepted tens of millions of dollars in donations from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Algeria and Brunei — all of which the State Department has faulted over their records on sex discrimination and other human-rights issues.

The department’s 2011 human rights report on Saudi Arabia, the last such yearly review prepared during Mrs. Clinton’s tenure, tersely faulted the kingdom for “a lack of equal rights for women and children,” and said violence against women, human trafficking and gender discrimination, among other abuses, were all “common” there.

Saudi Arabia has been a particularly generous benefactor to the Clinton Foundation, giving at least $10 million since 2001, according to foundation disclosures. At least $1 million more was donated by Friends of Saudi Arabia, co-founded by a Saudi prince.

I don’t really understand the editorializing comment “Even her most strident critics could not have predicted that Mrs. Clinton would prove vulnerable on the subject,” which doesn’t really sound plausible at all, but everything else is about right. It’s the collision of two critiques of Clinton that make this such a complicated story for Hillary. First, there has been the ongoing (and at times unintentionally comical) attempt by Hillary’s partisans to name any serious accomplishment in her time at Foggy Bottom and coming up emptyhanded. And the second is the rank hypocrisy and influence peddling at the Clinton Foundation.

The first critique makes the second harder to deflect. If Hillary had been able to accomplish anything besides logging lots of miles, she could balance the fact that her foundation was taking cash from the subjugators of women worldwide. At the same time, it’s a problem of Hillary’s own creation, not only because of her role in the scandals but also because she’s apparently chosen to make women’s rights the central plank in her campaign.

That, in its own weird way, makes a great deal of sense. The actual reason Hillary is running for president is because she believes it’s her turn and she’s entitled to it. That’s it, but it’s not a very compelling personal story. Running as the potential first woman president is a way of projecting that entitlement onto half the electorate. She’s entitled to it because you’re entitled to it, or so goes the logic. She’s running as Oprah; look under your seat, ladies: there’s a presidency for each of you.

This would be the moment for Hillary and her defenders to point to all her major accomplishments in the world of women’s rights. But they don’t exist. And the Times story makes this abundantly clear. Here is how the story begins:

It was supposed to be a carefully planned anniversary to mark one of the most important and widely praised moments in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s political career — and to remind the country, ahead of a likely 2016 presidential campaign, about her long record as a champion for the rights of women and girls.

Instead, as Mrs. Clinton commemorates her 1995 women’s rights speech in Beijing in back-to-back events in New York, she finds herself under attack for her family foundation’s acceptance of millions of dollars in donations from Middle Eastern countries known for violence against women and for denying them many basic freedoms.

Hillary Clinton is going on tour to remind voters that she made what she considers a great speech in 1995. And instead of unadulterated adulation, she’s dealing with the dawning realization on the voting public that an old speech promoting women’s rights is all she’s got. Once she attained power on the world stage she became not a liberator of women but the beneficiary of largesse from some of the world’s worst oppressors of women.

All Hillary Clinton’s been able to change in the last twenty years is her address. And dredging up an old speech will only serve as a reminder of that fact.

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Obama’s Main Achievement: Iran in Iraq

Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Saudi Arabia trying to reassure one of America’s most important Arab allies that the administration wasn’t selling them down the river. The Saudis, like many Arab regimes in the region, are actually in agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the nature of the nuclear threat from Iran and President Obama’s reckless pursuit of détente with that regime. But Kerry’s efforts to calm the Saudis didn’t appear to succeed. Despite the secretary’s claim that the U.S. wasn’t seeking a “grand deal” with Iran and would, “not take our eye off of Iran’s other destabilizing actions,” the Saudis were well aware of the fact that Iranian-supported Shiite troops were playing a leading role in the effort to reclaim the Iraqi city of Tikrit from ISIS. As the New York Times reports today in a front-page feature, in the wake of the president’s complete withdrawal from Iraq, Iran has virtually replaced the U.S. as the dominant foreign power in that country. In other words, it’s too late for Kerry or American allies to worry about whether Iran’s efforts to gain regional hegemony will succeed. That’s because they already have.

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Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Saudi Arabia trying to reassure one of America’s most important Arab allies that the administration wasn’t selling them down the river. The Saudis, like many Arab regimes in the region, are actually in agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the nature of the nuclear threat from Iran and President Obama’s reckless pursuit of détente with that regime. But Kerry’s efforts to calm the Saudis didn’t appear to succeed. Despite the secretary’s claim that the U.S. wasn’t seeking a “grand deal” with Iran and would, “not take our eye off of Iran’s other destabilizing actions,” the Saudis were well aware of the fact that Iranian-supported Shiite troops were playing a leading role in the effort to reclaim the Iraqi city of Tikrit from ISIS. As the New York Times reports today in a front-page feature, in the wake of the president’s complete withdrawal from Iraq, Iran has virtually replaced the U.S. as the dominant foreign power in that country. In other words, it’s too late for Kerry or American allies to worry about whether Iran’s efforts to gain regional hegemony will succeed. That’s because they already have.

As the Times notes:

The road from Baghdad to Tikrit is dotted with security checkpoints, many festooned with posters of Iran’s supreme leader and other Shiite figures. They stretch as far north as the village of Awja, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, on the edge of Tikrit, within sight of the hulking palaces of the former ruler who ruthlessly crushed Shiite dissent.

More openly than ever before, Iran’s powerful influence in Iraq has been on display as the counteroffensive against Islamic State militants around Tikrit has unfolded in recent days. At every point, the Iranian-backed militias have taken the lead in the fight against the Islamic State here. Senior Iranian leaders have been openly helping direct the battle, and American officials say Iran’s Revolutionary Guards forces are taking part.

The president’s apologists may blame this on George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq in the first place as well as his kicking the can down the road on Iran’s nuclear program. There’s some truth to that but Bush left Obama a war that was already won by the 2007 U.S. surge. Bush may have laid the groundwork for the current mess. But its shape and the scale of the disaster is Obama’s responsibility.

Iranian influence among fellow Shiites in Iraq is nothing new. But the scale of the current effort and the open nature of the way Iran’s forces are now flexing their muscles — even in the Tikrit region where Sunnis dominate — demonstrates that the rise of ISIS was not the only negative consequence of President Obama’s decision to completely pull U.S. forces out of Iraq when negotiations about their staying got sticky. That enabled him to brag during the 2012 presidential campaign that he had “ended” the Iraq War (the same campaign where he pledged Iran would not be allowed to keep a nuclear program) but neither ISIS nor Iran got that memo. The war continues but the difference is that instead of an Iraq influenced by the U.S., it is now Iran that is the dominant force.

The same is true throughout the region. President Obama spent years dithering about the collapse of Syria even while demanding that Bashar Assad give up power and enunciating “red lines” about the use of chemical weapons. But while he stalled, moderate rebels withered, ISIS grew and Iran’s ally Assad stayed in Damascus, bucked up by Iranian help and troops supplied by Tehran’s Hezbollah auxiliaries.

So when the Saudis look at a potential deal that will allow Iran to keep its nuclear infrastructure and ultimately expire in ten years, they know that it is directly connected to America’s apparent decision to acquiesce to Iranian dominance in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

Though Netanyahu’s speech centered mostly on the nuclear threat, like their Arab neighbors, Israelis are well aware of the peril that Iranian hegemony poses to their security. The brief bout of fighting on the northern border after Hezbollah and Iran attempted to set up a base to shoot missiles into the Jewish state from Syria showed the depth of the Iranian connection to the terror war against Israel.

Should the Iranians sign the deal, the administration will claim it as a triumph. But while the president pats himself on the back for appeasing Iran on the nuclear issue, Israelis and Arabs will also focus on the way Iran has used Obama’s desire to abandon the region as a wedge by which they have advanced their interests. Détente with Iran means more than an ally against ISIS; it means a Middle East in which Iran is the strong horse. That’s a development that gives the lie to Kerry’s reassurances.

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Bibi’s Speech Already Bearing Fruit

Part of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s role today was as a representative of his region of the world. It tells you just how concerned those who deal with Iran are about the pending nuke deal that the Israeli leader was voicing–genuinely and accurately, by the way–the nervousness of not just Israel but Saudi Arabia, among other Gulf allies of the U.S. And on that front, Netanyahu may have already succeeded.

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Part of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s role today was as a representative of his region of the world. It tells you just how concerned those who deal with Iran are about the pending nuke deal that the Israeli leader was voicing–genuinely and accurately, by the way–the nervousness of not just Israel but Saudi Arabia, among other Gulf allies of the U.S. And on that front, Netanyahu may have already succeeded.

Obviously the main point of the speech was Iran’s nuclear program. But Netanyahu also sought to convey the kind of regime Iran is and what it does with its military and financial might. “If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country,” Netanyahu said. He recited a litany of examples of Iranian troublemaking, and pointed out that these are all recent–that this is the regime on a path to a nuclear bomb. Netanyahu said:

Iran’s goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon, its revolutionary guards on the Golan Heights are clutching Israel with three tentacles of terror. Backed by Iran, Assad is slaughtering Syrians. Back by Iran, Shiite militias are rampaging through Iraq. Back by Iran, Houthis are seizing control of Yemen, threatening the strategic straits at the mouth of the Red Sea. Along with the Straits of Hormuz, that would give Iran a second choke-point on the world’s oil supply.

Just last week, near Hormuz, Iran carried out a military exercise blowing up a mock U.S. aircraft carrier. That’s just last week, while they’re having nuclear talks with the United States. But unfortunately, for the last 36 years, Iran’s attacks against the United States have been anything but mock. And the targets have been all too real.

Iran took dozens of Americans hostage in Tehran, murdered hundreds of American soldiers, Marines, in Beirut, and was responsible for killing and maiming thousands of American service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Beyond the Middle East, Iran attacks America and its allies through its global terror network. It blew up the Jewish community center and the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. It helped Al Qaida bomb U.S. embassies in Africa. It even attempted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, right here in Washington, D.C.

In the Middle East, Iran now dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. And if Iran’s aggression is left unchecked, more will surely follow.

Netanyahu wants the West’s negotiators to curb Iran’s terrorism and expansionism as part of the negotiations. And he’s not alone.

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry cannot dispute the characterization of Iran in Netanyahu’s speech, and don’t try to do so. What he said is the uncontested truth. Obama sees Iran’s regional influence as either inevitable or ultimately desirable. Yet those in the region are well aware that Obama’s view of Iran is a fantasy; Tehran is the prime agent of destabilization throughout the Middle East.

One triumph of Netanyahu’s speech today seems to have been to get Obama and especially Kerry to do something they often appear completely incapable of doing: listening to allies. AFP reports that Kerry is heading to the region to try to convince allies that the Obama administration takes the Iranian threat much more seriously than they appear to, nuke or no nuke:

The United States will “confront aggressively” Iran’s bid to expand its influence across the Middle East even if a nuclear deal is reached, a State Department official said Tuesday.

The official’s comments came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a controversial address to the US Congress, sought to highlight Iran’s expansionist hopes as one reason to halt the nuclear talks.

Top US diplomat John Kerry will travel to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to reassure US Gulf allies that an Iran deal would not mean Washington would turn a blind eye to the Islamic Republic’s regional ambitions.

“Regardless of what happens in the nuclear file, we will continue to confront aggressively Iranian expansion in the region and Iranian aggressiveness in the region,” the official said.

It’s a tough sell. The Obama administration has found itself enabling that very expansion in the stubborn belief that the U.S. and Iran not only share interests but can cooperate to the West’s benefit on various conflicts around the Middle East.

The administration wants to divorce its nuclear diplomacy from Iranian expansionism because it doesn’t want an Iranian retreat in the Middle East, not while ISIS slaughters its way across Iraq and Syria, and not while the administration is intent on leaving a vacuum of American influence into which any number of militant groups can step.

It’s also a tough sell because of the administration’s own rhetoric. AFP quotes a State Department official today as follows: “You can’t read into the nuclear negotiation any kind of determination of where the US relationship with Iran may go in the future.”

In fact, you absolutely can. The administration’s posture toward Iran, as evident in this conciliatory deal on the table, is that Tehran is a power with legitimate “rights” to enrich uranium and have a nuclear program in place, and that it’s a country that can be trusted with a sunset clause to boot. Netanyahu’s speech clearly and convincingly laid out the case against that view. And Kerry knows it.

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Clintons’ Qatari Cash Should End Democrats’ Koch Attacks

When people mention the trouble that Bill Clinton might cause if he’s returned to the White House for a Hillary Clinton presidency, the implication is usually about the trouble he caused the last time he was in the White House, only this time he’d presumably have more time to make such trouble. But the recent stories on the once and possibly future first couple raise a host of red flags having (almost) nothing to do with the former president’s pursuit of–let’s call it companionship. It’s not about skirt chasing, so it’s less headline grabbing; but it’s far more relevant to the presidency.

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When people mention the trouble that Bill Clinton might cause if he’s returned to the White House for a Hillary Clinton presidency, the implication is usually about the trouble he caused the last time he was in the White House, only this time he’d presumably have more time to make such trouble. But the recent stories on the once and possibly future first couple raise a host of red flags having (almost) nothing to do with the former president’s pursuit of–let’s call it companionship. It’s not about skirt chasing, so it’s less headline grabbing; but it’s far more relevant to the presidency.

The first two stories were from the Wall Street Journal, showing the Clinton Foundation was raking in donations from foreign governments as Hillary’s candidacy gets underway and also that Hillary had promoted as secretary of state companies that donated to the foundation. The latest such story is from Politico, and it details the problematic role that Bill Clinton has played in all this.

The story concerns the “big-money” speeches Clinton gave while his wife was secretary of state. He was required to get approval from his wife’s State Department in case there were any ethical gray areas and, wouldn’t you know it, he almost always got them.

There are two separate issues. The first is influence peddling:

The records also highlight a blind spot in the ethics deal the Clintons and the Obama transition team hammered out in 2008 with the involvement of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: While the pact subjected Bill Clinton’s moneymaking activities to official review, it imposed no vetting on donations to the Clinton Foundation by individuals or private companies in the U.S. or abroad.

Concerns about individuals seeking influence by dropping money in both buckets arose soon after the first few Bill Clinton speech proposals landed at Foggy Bottom. In a 2009 memo greenlighting those talks, a State Department ethics official specifically asked about possible links between President Clinton’s speaking engagements and donations to the Clinton Foundation. However, the released documents show no evidence that the question was addressed.

That phrase, “imposed no vetting,” is essential to the Clintons’ scheme. A donation to the Clinton Foundation is not instead of a donation to Bill or Hillary; it’s just a way to hide the details of a donation to Bill or Hillary.

And that’s related to the second issue: transparency. The Clintons were only technically vetting money given directly to Bill under this State Department setup. And yet, even those records are incomplete:

Doubts also remain about the transparency of the ethics deal. Obtaining details on how the approval process played out in practice has been difficult and slow. For nearly three years after POLITICO filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the records in late 2009, the State Department released no information.

Heavily redacted documents began to emerge only after the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit in 2013. So far, the department has not committed to a date to produce all of the records.

And, further:

How thoroughly State Department ethics officers vetted the requests remains unclear because of document redactions.

Some show lawyers there searching the Internet for information on the people or entities involved. One speech request generated a query to the acting chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, but the details of the exchange were redacted in the released documents.

Painter said that if the State Department did not know in advance about the specific fees involved for speeches or consulting deals, it would be difficult to judge whether sponsors were overpaying for Bill Clinton’s services.

“That would be a gap if they didn’t find out at all,” the ethics lawyer said.

Now, to suggest that this is solely a Bill Clinton problem for Hillary is not quite right. After all, the foundation was in his name while she was secretary of state and yet companies she would champion as the nation’s chief diplomat were plunking money into the foundation. The foundation also had a self-imposed ban on foreign-government contributions while she was at Foggy Bottom but the “ban wasn’t absolute,” so it wasn’t much of a “ban.”

When Hillary left the State Department, her name was added to the foundation and it resumed accepting the foreign money, eschewing even basic subtlety. So it’s not just about Bill; Hillary has been quite active in passing the hat herself once she turned toward running for president.

Now that there have been calls from both Republicans and Democrats to rein in the sleaze, the Clintons are contemplating going back to the old system. But that old system is the one with horrendous transparency, obvious ethical problems, and the appearance of impropriety at all times.

One thing is for certain: with the Clintons raking in the cash from foreign governments in anticipation of her candidacy, every single Democrat’s accusation of “dark money” and “Koch brothers cash” levied at Republicans should be ignored, without exception. As Kim Strassel wrote, the Clinton Foundation is essentially a super-PAC. And the candidate accepting contributions from Qatar and Saudi Arabia is in no position to lecture anyone on influence peddling and American democracy.

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Conservatives and the War on Modesty

By now, you’re probably aware that first lady Michelle Obama did not wear a headscarf when she and President Obama met with new Saudi king Salman on Tuesday. You may have heard that this was a scandal; or you may have heard that it was not. You may have heard that this was practically revolutionary; or you may have heard that it was simply protocol. But whatever you’ve heard, there’s one question to which I’ve been searching, in vain, for a good answer: Why are we hearing anything about it at all?

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By now, you’re probably aware that first lady Michelle Obama did not wear a headscarf when she and President Obama met with new Saudi king Salman on Tuesday. You may have heard that this was a scandal; or you may have heard that it was not. You may have heard that this was practically revolutionary; or you may have heard that it was simply protocol. But whatever you’ve heard, there’s one question to which I’ve been searching, in vain, for a good answer: Why are we hearing anything about it at all?

The fact of the matter is that Michelle Obama’s decision to forgo a headscarf was nothing new. Laura Bush did the same, as did Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, etc. So why is it a big deal for Obama to follow in their footsteps? Here’s the Washington Post’s case:

But Obama is much more associated with clothes and fashion; she sets trends and boosts brands. And in the age of social media, she has an unparalleled global audience. …

Keep in mind that Michelle Obama does not make fashion choices lightly, particularly on the world stage. Her fashion choice comes as the late Saudi king Abdullah’s legacy on women is considered in light of the ascension of Crown Prince Salman to the throne.

Nonsense. I don’t have any desire to play armchair psychologist and go into the Obamas-Kennedys-Camelot fixation. But it is true that Obama received plaudits from both sides of the aisle for exposing her hair to the Saudis. Some women with roots in the Muslim world cheered her for what was treated as a silent protest on their behalf. On the right, politicians like Ted Cruz expressed their admiration. At Hot Air, Allahpundit supported the move but asked a more interesting question as to whether the significance was not in Obama breaking from the past but that she might be the last not to.

And this gets at the problem with celebrating this decision one way or the other: it’s just a different kind of conformity.

To be clear: I don’t think Michelle Obama should be forced to wear a headscarf in Saudi Arabia. But I also don’t think she should be pressured not to wear one. I simply don’t see what’s wrong with the choice–emphasis on choice–to cover one’s hair in a voluntary show of respect.

I get the opposition to bowing; it suggests subservience. But I don’t think the headscarf does, at all. I understand that many women in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere are forced to cover up, and that this is a form of subservience. But so is, by this logic, being precluded by law from wearing one, as was once the case in Turkey and which has been discussed in Western Europe, though in the latter case only a ban on covering the face tends to be politically viable. Covering the face is obviously different than covering the hair, and this difference is recognized throughout the world.

Covering the head, in fact, is something that religious cultures often require of the men as well as the women, and so a headscarf does not strike me as a violation of feminist principles, such as they are. (I’m an Orthodox Jew, and cover my head–though not my hair, and yes I acknowledge the difference there. And plenty of Orthodox men wear hats, covering their whole head anyway.)

Is it offensive when Barack Obama wears a yarmulke at the Western Wall? If not (and it isn’t), then it shouldn’t be offensive if Michelle Obama chooses to wear a headscarf in Saudi Arabia (though she didn’t). One mistake too many conservatives make is to conflate any outward expression of Islamic adherence with oppression. This strikes me as flatly wrong, and irrationally so: donning a headscarf voluntarily is not the same thing as being prohibited by law from driving, to take just one example.

Additionally, conservatives should stand athwart Western culture’s assault on modesty whenever they can. And they should also understand that such modesty, and religious adherence in general, can be as freeing as it appears constricting. It might not be that way for everyone, but eliminating certain superficialities from everyday interactions can be its own form of liberation. Linda Sarsour tried to make a similar point on MSNBC yesterday:

As you can see, I wear hijab. It is a choice for me to wear and cover my hair for religious observation; and I consider myself to be a feminist and someone who supports the upholding of all rights, specifically of women. So this conversation we’re having needs to be more about not obsessing over Michelle Obama wearing a headscarf or not wearing a headscarf — which she is not mandated to do or required in a place like Saudi Arabia, specifically in Jeddah. Also, she is wearing modest clothing, but she was not at a mosque, so she wasn’t required to wear it. But this conversation about, oh, she was standing up for women for not wearing hijab, what about women who do wear hijab, and who choose to wear hijab? I’m very proud of my religion, and my faith, and I’m very proud of the hijab that I wear.

Ostracizing modest dress and voluntary respectful gestures strikes me as a bizarre cause for conservatives (or anybody, really) to take up. And I would hate to see women who cover their hair depicted as anti-freedom by a Western society that claims religious liberty as a paramount value.

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