Friday, May 30, 2014



 Impact of Interim Deal with Iran 
JINSA’s Gemunder Center Iran Task Force 
Co-Chairs Ambassador Eric Edelman and Ambassador Dennis Ross 
May 2014
DISCLAIMER
This report is a product of JINSA’s Gemunder Center Iran Task Force. The findings expressed herein are those solely of the Iran Task Force. The report does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of JINSA, its founders or its board of directors.
Task Force and Staff
Co-Chairs 
Ambassador Eric Edelman
Former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy
Ambassador Dennis Ross
Former special assistant to President Obama and NSC Senior Director for the Central Region
Members 
The Honorable Chris Carney
Former U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania
Professor Eliot Cohen
Director of Strategic Studies Program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
Lt. General (ret.) David Deptula
Former Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, U.S. Air Force Headquarters
Larry Goldstein 
Founder and Director of Energy Policy Research Foundation, Inc.
John Hannah
Former Assistant for National Security Affairs to the Vice President
Admiral (ret.) Gregory Johnson
Former Commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Europe
Steve Rademaker 
Former Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control and Nonproliferation
Ray Takeyh 
Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
General (ret.) Charles Wald 
Former Deputy Commander of U.S. European Command
Mort Zuckerman
CEO and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Boston Properties, Inc.
JINSA Policy Staff
Dr. Michael Makovsky
Chief Executive Officer
Ashton Kunkle
Research Assistant
Jonathan Ruhe
Senior Policy Analyst
Table of Contents
Overview 5
Prevent Nuclear Weapons Capability 6
Negotiate from a Position of Strength 8
Don’t Waste Time 9 
Impose Strict International Inspections Regime 9
Resolve International Concerns about 
Iran’s Nuclear Program 10
Adhere to International Legal Requirements 10 
Endnotes 11 
Impact of Interim Deal with Iran 
Overview 
More than three months since the implementation of the interim deal with Iran over its nuclear program, formally known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), we thought it valuable to offer an assessment of the impact of the agreement. Evidence suggests the JPA has set back Iran’s breakout timing by nearly one month. However, that benefit is more than offset by provisions which: allow Iran to enrich uranium more rapidly than before the deal; steadily reduce the pressure on Tehran from sanctions; and fail to resolve international concerns about Iran’s weaponization activities. As a result, in our judgment the JPA is not making a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program more likely to be achieved. 
This is based on three key trends we observe thus far, all of which are permitted under the JPA. First, increased centrifuge efficiency could negate the ongoing neutralization of Iran’s most advanced uranium stockpile. As a result, Tehran’s overall progress toward nuclear weapons capability could be unchanged, or even advanced, during the interim period. Second, even as the JPA leaves Iran’s potential breakout timing unchanged, it is decreasing U.S. leverage for compelling Iran to conclude and adhere to an acceptable final deal. Specifically, we estimate increased oil exports resulting from the JPA’s unlacing of sanctions will yield Iran $9- 13 billion more in revenue between the deal’s announcement in November 2013 and the end of the six-month interim deal than if it had not been agreed. Third, despite some transparency improvements, Iran continues to deny the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) full access to suspected military dimensions of its nuclear program. As before the JPA, this leaves inspectors largely in the dark about the true extent of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. 
Tehran’s compliance should not obscure the fundamental character of the regime with which the United States is trying to negotiate a final deal. Amid the hopeful atmosphere surrounding these talks, the Islamic Republic remains the leading international sponsor of terrorism and the backbone of the Syrian regime’s brutal suppression of its own citizens. It continues rejecting international law and global norms – including binding U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on it to suspend its nuclear program and comply with its non-proliferation obligations – as self-serving instruments of Western repression. This is part of the regime leadership’s conspiracy-laden worldview. Only days before the JPA was announced, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei claimed publicly the United States used nuclear weapons against Japan after Tokyo was ready to surrender, “with the excuse of war so that it becomes clear whether these bombs work properly or not.” During the JPA interim, he described the Holocaust “as an event whose reality is uncertain, and, if it happened, it’s uncertain how it happened.” This should inform U.S. negotiators’ ongoing approach to a comprehensive settlement: how can a regime with such ingrained radical policies be entrusted with sensitive nuclear technologies?
Considering how close the Iranian regime remains to nuclear weapons capability, we therefore believe it is critically important to gauge the effectiveness of the interim deal in the wake of February and April 2014 IAEA reports on Iran’s nuclear program. We frame our assessment according to six principles, listed individually below, to which we believe any deal must conform to protect U.S. national security interests.
Impact of Interim Deal with Iran 
Prevent Nuclear Weapons Capability 
The interim deal has been hailed by the Obama Administration as pushing back Iran’s nuclear timeline, thus justifying an easement in sanctions and creating diplomatic space to pursue a final agreement. Indeed, some elements of Iran’s nuclear program have been set back, compared to where they would be without the JPA. The pause in 20 percent enriched uranium production, and ongoing neutralization of that stockpile, have expanded Iran’s current estimated breakout window from 59 to 82 days. However, the IAEA reports reveal other elements have advanced in ways permitted under the JPA, most crucially an increased production rate of 3.5 percent enriched uranium. If Iran continues to boost this production rate, and/or increases the number of centrifuges operating at higher rates, it could cut its breakout timing to near the pre-JPA level – and even reduce it below this level – by the end of the six-month interim without violating the deal. 
Enriching uranium to 20 percent consumes nine-tenths of the time required to reach weapons grade. The JPA has increased Iran’s breakout timing by pausing enrichment to this level and neutralizing (though not irreversibly) its preexisting stockpile. According to IAEA reports, Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium has dropped 75 percent since November 2013. This keeps it roughly on schedule to convert half to uranium oxide by July 20, having already diluted most of the other half to 3.5 percent enriched uranium by April 20. However, even if Iran completes this entire process, it would be able to recreate its 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile through both reconversion and re-enrichment. Indeed, it can thaw what it must now freeze.
Impact of Interim Deal with Iran 
Though less immediately threatening than its 20 percent stockpile, Iran’s ability to enrich uranium up to 5 percent still places it fully 80 percent of the way to weapons grade. Under the JPA, it can keep its pre-January 20 stockpile at this level as is, leaving it with more than two bombs’ worth. It may also continue enriching at this level using the same number and type of centrifuges it had prior to the deal, though any new 3.5 percent enriched uranium produced during the interim must be oxidized before July 20. However, because Iran is behind the JPA’s schedule for completing the relevant facility by December 2013, its 3.5 percent stockpile grew more than 14 percent since November 2013. Even if and when this facility is fully operational, the stockpile created in the interim could still be reconverted. 
The production rate to 3.5 percent enriched uranium is currently Iran’s highest ever, and is allowed by the JPA. This is due partly to switching operational centrifuges (IR-1) previously enriching to 20 percent over to 3.5 percent, since these IR-1s are now producing 3.5 percent enriched uranium faster than the IR-1s that have been enriching to 3.5 percent all along. This jump also stems from Iran’s efforts to make the IR-1 more effective – permissible under the JPA’s allowance for enrichment research and development (R&D) activities – and its ability to replace broken units with more efficient versions of the same model. If Iran can bring all operational IR-1s up to the highest rate it has yet reached, the jump in enrichment speed largely would offset the loss of its 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile. If it tunes its operational centrifuges to achieve even greater output, Iran might be able to cut its breakout time below the pre-JPA level, all while conforming to the letter of the deal.
Separately, Iran is adhering to the JPA requirement that it pause construction on the heavy water reactor (IR-40) at Arak and related fuel assemblies. However, it has continued producing heavy water necessary for weapons-grade plutonium (not covered by the JPA), and a potential agreement to reduce Arak’s plutonium output under a final deal would still allow Iran to keep its heavy water stockpile and production facility. 0 50 100 150 200 November 2013 February 2014 April 2014 KILOGRAMS 20% Enriched Uranium Stockpile IAEA Report No JPA (projected) - 1,000 2,000 3,000 4,000 5,000 6,000 November 2013 February 2014 April 2014 KILOGRAMS 3.5% Enriched Uranium Stockpile IAEA Report No JPA (projected) 0 50 100 150 200 November 2013 February 2014 April 2014 KIOGRAMS PER MONTH 3.5% Production Rate IAEA Report No JPA (projected)
Impact of Interim Deal with Iran 
Negotiate from a Position of Strength 
For the United States to have any hope of achieving an acceptable final settlement, Iranian leaders must believe they have more to lose than their U.S. counterparts. However, the pause on oil sanctions is undermining this pressure by boosting Iran’s export revenues, and by making it increasingly difficult to re-impose suspended sanctions if diplomacy fails. Iran could emerge from the interim period facing less international pressure, even if its breakout timing ends up largely unaffected by the deal. 
The primary loss of U.S. leverage comes from Iran’s rejuvenated crude oil exports, which prior to sanctions were more than half the government’s budget (including the nuclear program). Average monthly exports fell 40 percent year-on-year for the twelve months prior to the JPA being announced, from 1.7 million barrels per day (mm b/d) to 1 mm b/d, as Iran’s buyers cut imports to receive periodic U.S. waivers. Monthly oil exports rebounded 50 percent since then, from 800,000 b/d in October 2013 to 1.2 mm b/d in March 2014.
Iran is accumulating windfall oil export revenue as a result. Using the Obama Administration’s figure of 1 mm b/d as the level permitted by the JPA, through March Iran earned $5 billion more than it would have if sanctions were not paused. Compared to the maximum Iran could export if its customers had to continue reducing purchases to receive waivers (“waiver line” in chart below), the figure rises above $6 billion. Both estimates are significantly more than the JPA’s sticker price for Tehran’s cooperation: the tranches unfrozen during this period totaled $1.6 billion. If Iran’s exports for the first quarter of 2014 hold steady to the end of the six-month interim, this would be an estimated additional $4 billion windfall compared to the Administration’s benchmark (and $7 billion more than the maximum allowable under waivers). This would be 50- 70 percent more than it could earn legally if sanctions were in place over the same period, and notably more than the $2.8 billion it is set to receive in remaining unfrozen assets.5
Impact of Interim Deal with Iran 
The United States retains some leverage here, since financial sanctions hinder Iran from directly repatriating much of this windfall revenue. Nevertheless, the Obama Administration has publicly vowed to veto new sanctions, even though they would only start at the end of the interim or if Iran cheats, have the support of a bipartisan majority in Congress and would not violate the JPA.6 This could make Iran less inclined toward concessions necessary for an acceptable final deal. 
At the same time Iran evidently is building its own leverage. Relatively moderate regime elements, primarily associated with the Rouhani Administration, are actively courting foreign companies (despite sanctions merely being paused, not lifted) and issuing maximalist redlines for agreeing to a final deal. Iran is simultaneously testing new missiles that could potentially deliver nuclear warheads (even though this is prohibited by a legally-binding U.N. Security Council resolution), announcing plans to send warships across the Atlantic Ocean, using a mock-up of a U.S. aircraft carrier as a target in Iranian naval exercises and shipping weapons to militant groups in Gaza. 
Don’t Waste Time 
Thus far, the JPA has complicated what should be American policymakers’ ultimate goal: forcing Iran to give up its nuclear program before it could attain an undetectable nuclear weapons capability. Nor has it met the less ambitious goal of freezing Iran’s nuclear progress. However, the P5+1 and Iran appear to be working toward an agreement before the July 20 deadline, even though the interim is renewable. 
Impose Strict International Inspections Regime 
Inspections are necessary to verify Iran adheres to the interim deal and does not attempt to break out. To this end, the agreement provides for more regular IAEA inspections and enhanced monitoring at Iran’s declared enrichment facilities. The February 2014 IAEA report suggests these measures have helped ensure Iran’s compliance with the JPA thus far, in particular the freeze on enriching uranium to 20 percent. However, that same report pinpoints the insufficiency of existing IAEA safeguards for verifying Iran has no undeclared activities that could contribute to an undetectable nuclear weapons capability. The JPA provides no such mechanism for the interim, though it commits Iran to ratifying the Additional Protocol to its existing IAEA Safeguards Agreement in a final deal (a decision the Deputy Foreign Minister has since announced is in the hands of Iran’s parliament7). While not airtight, the Additional Protocol would at least allow inspectors greater access to declared sites as well as suspected undeclared facilities.10 
Impact of Interim Deal with Iran 
Resolve International Concerns about Iran’s Nuclear Program 
The February IAEA report notes unresolved concerns about Iran’s possible violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its Safeguards Agreement as pertains to weaponization. Since that report’s release, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said it would “take some time” and “not rush” these concerns. Tehran has also continued to deny inspectors access to Parchin military base – where the IAEA suspects previous weaponization work occurred – maintaining it will allow minimal, “managed access” if and when it accedes to the Additional Protocol (in other words, only after a final deal is agreed). Iran can remain defiant under the JPA, which explicitly does not require Iran to resolve these issues to the IAEA’s satisfaction. However, this seriously complicates inspectors’ understanding of Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons capability, and signals Tehran is not ready to make its nuclear program more transparent as it negotiates a final deal.
Adhere to International Legal Requirements 
Iran’s failure to resolve such concerns previously prompted unanimous legally-binding U.N. Security Council resolutions requiring it to suspend enrichment and come clean on possible weaponization activities. Iran has yet to satisfy these requirements and the JPA does not appear to be moving it any closer to doing so. The interim deal calls for all parties – including all of the five permanent UNSC members which passed these resolutions – to address (but not resolve) Iran’s violations. Iranian leaders – both in and outside the Rouhani Administration – are unwilling to meet even this standard, demanding instead recognition of their declared “right” to enrich uranium.911 
Impact of Interim Deal with Iran 
Endnotes 
  1. The Office of the Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Khamenei, “Supreme Leader’s Speech in Meeting with Basij Commanders,” November 20, 2013. On March 21, 2014, Khamenei’s Twitter account tweeted “[the] Holocaust is an event whose reality is uncertain and if it has happened, it’s uncertain how it has happened,” See: “Khamenei on Nowruz: Questions Holocaust,” The Iran Primer (United States Institute of Peace), March 21, 2014. 
  2. This Task Force articulated six principles to which any deal must conform to be acceptable: it must require Iran to resolve outstanding international concerns, adhere to international legal requirements and roll back its nuclear program. It would also need to put in place a strict inspections regime and clear deadlines for Iran to uphold its commitments. Finally, we made the case that to obtain such a deal the United States would have to negotiate and enforce it from a position of strength, to make it unmistakably plain to Tehran that it has the most to lose from the failure of diplomacy. See: “Principles for Diplomacy with Iran,” JINSA Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy, October 14, 2013. We define undetectable nuclear weapons capability as the ability to manufacture fissile material for a nuclear device in less time than will be required to detect and respond to such activity. 
  3. According to the February 2014 IAEA report, Iran’s operational IR-1 centrifuges which formerly enriched uranium to 20 percent are enriching to 3.5 percent at a rate 25 percent faster than the operational centrifuges which have been enriching to 3.5 percent all along. For detailed analysis of the implications of the latest IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program, see: Blaise Misztal, “A Tale of Two Irans in New IAEA Report,” Bipartisan Policy Center, February 24, 2014. 
  4. The waiver line in the chart is the threshold for combined imports of all non-E.U. countries receiving U.S. sanctions waivers, assuming they reduced their purchases of Iranian crude 20 percent over each six-month waiver period compared to the previous six-month waiver period (the Obama Administration’s interpretation of NDAA FY2012 Section 1245’s requirement that purchasers make “significant cuts” to be eligible for waivers), starting from June 28, 2012, when sanctions initially took effect. The line does not factor in E.U. purchases of Iranian oil exports, which are subject to an ongoing separate Iran oil embargo. Thomas Moore and Mario Loyola, “Outstanding Questions: Why the Iran deal could be a devastating blow to the nonproliferation regime,” Foreign Policy, December 13, 2013. 
  5. Estimates for Iranian windfall oil export revenue were calculated using two separate baselines. The first is the Obama Administration’s unofficial interpretation of the JPA’s language to “pause efforts to further reduce Iran’s crude oil sales,” as allowing for Iranian oil exports of 1 mm b/d during the interim period beginning January 20, 2014. The second is the maximum total oil export revenue Iran could generate were relevant U.S. sanctions still in place between the November 24, 2013, announcement of the JPA and the six month interim’s July 20, 2014, expiration (the waiver line in Endnote 3); and comparing this to Iran’s actual oil export revenue over the same period. In each case, monthly revenue was calculated by multiplying average monthly oil price, by days per given month, by average daily oil exports for that month. Data for Iran’s actual exports from January 2012 through March 2014 are taken from individual countries’ customs administrations, International Oil Daily and Reuters. Actual oil prices are taken from OPEC data for Arab Light crude, which is the closest quality match for oil exported by Iran; monthly oil prices for April 1 - July 20, 2014, were forecast using Energy Information Administration projections for Brent crude spot prices, and deducting a $2/bbl discount based on the differential between the two prices for the same period of 2013 (though a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation, this helps guard against overstating the windfall Iran could receive). Iran’s forecasted monthly exports through July 20 were simply held at the current 2014 rate, for the lack of any certain projections of significant increases or decreases during that time. 
  6. White House Office of the Press Secretary, “President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address,” January 28, 2014. 
  7. “Iranian Deputy FM Warns US to Avoid Endangering Nuclear Talks,” Fars News Agency (Tehran), March 11, 2014. 
  8. Laurence Norman, “Iran Wants to Address Questions About Military Work in Nuclear Program Later,” Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2014; “Iran: IAEA Not Entitled to Visit Parchin,” Fars News Agency (Tehran), May 3, 2014. 
  9. Iran’s Foreign Minister and lead negotiator Mohammad Zarif, the week before the JPA was agreed in Geneva: “The mastery of civil nuclear technology, including the enrichment of uranium, on Iranian soil is the absolute right of Iran.” President Rouhani has declared this to be a redline. See: Michael Crowley, “The Fight for a ‘Right’: How an Iran Deal Might Hinge on One Simple Word,” Time, November 18, 2013.

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In Iran Dealings, the Fantasy of a Grand Bargain Persists—but It’s Actually Just a Bad Deal
Lee Smith|May 29, 2014

The Obama Administration’s plans to exit the region are a gift to the regime in Tehran, nuclear deal or no



Last week, Senate Democrats called off a vote on a bill that would have, among other things, relaxed visa requirements for Israelis after Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee tried to add an amendment demanding a congressional say in any final nuclear deal with Iran. The bill’s sponsor, California Sen. Barbara Boxer, was clear about why she withdrew the legislation: “I pulled it down because of the Iran amendment.”
But amid signs that the administration may be moving toward a final agreement when the Joint Plan of Action comes up for renewal July 20, even former Obama officials—most notably Dennis Ross and Ray Takeyh—are calling for congressional buy-in. “Notwithstanding partisan difficulties, seeking congressional endorsement is essential lest any agreement rest on a shaky foundation and be difficult to implement,” they wrote in the Washington Post, a few days after Boxer made her comments.
But the real concern isn’t that a deal on the nuclear program will fall apart because of partisan squabbling in Washington. It’s the prospect of a comprehensive agreement tackling a host of regional issues in ways that will come at the expense of American interests. In other words, what should worry both the administration’s allies and its critics is that we’re moving toward a so-called “grand bargain” with Iran, with the United States getting the short end of the stick.
***
As readers may recall, the idea of a “grand bargain”—an agreement that would in theory end decades of enmity between the United States and Iran—can be traced back to a memo reportedly faxed from Tehran to the State Department in 2003. The document laid out the terms of a prospective deal and what each side could expect. For instance: Iran would stop supporting terrorist groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, while the United States would cease all efforts at regime change and drop sanctions.
Proponents of the grand bargain narrative, like former National Security Council staffers Flynt Leverett and his wife Hillary Mann Leverett, contend that neoconservative hardliners in the Bush White House ignored the initiative. For a while, the Leveretts became media stars who were welcomed on the Daily Show and elsewhere as truth-tellers who stepped forward to expose the warmongering George W. Bush Administration from the inside. With the United States fighting two wars in Muslim countries, Bush’s failure to seek historical reconciliation with the Islamic Republic amounted to what Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a prominent cheerleader of the grand bargain theory, called “diplomatic mismanagement of the highest order.”
Bush Administration officials say the grand bargain fax was nothing but a red herring, conceived either by a freelancing Swiss ambassador to Iran—who represents American interests in Tehran—alone, or in tandem with the Leveretts. “It is inconceivable that if there was such a serious initiative that it wouldn’t have come to the national security council, or secretary of state,” Bush’s former Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams told me recently. “The whole thing is absurd.” Indeed, the notion that the Iranians ever put a serious offer on the table has been thoroughly debunked, even by some who were once true believers, including the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler.
However, the dream of the grand bargain persists, because the terms laid out in the 2003 document, whatever its actual provenance, have become the de facto guideposts for the Obama White House’s Iran policy—not just regarding the nuclear weapons program, but Iran’s regional project as a whole.
While the P5+1 negotiations in Geneva have become a political football in Washington and get the lion’s share of global media attention, Iran is moving on several fronts throughout the region, most notably in Syria. The Syrian civil war has further expanded Iran’s reach across the Middle East. Tehran’s efforts on behalf of Bashar al-Assad have put not only IRGC troops in Syria but also Iranian-backed forces from around the region. Indeed, among the most important developments to come out of Syria is that Iran has dispatched militias there from third countries—notably Lebanon and Iraq, as well as Afghanistan. In other words, Iran has employed the same model it used with Hezbollah in Lebanon and seeded other creeping vines elsewhere to advance its interests throughout the region.
Instead of pushing back against Iranian expansionism, the White House has essentially assisted Iran and its allies. First, President Barack Obama has refused to arm the anti-Assad rebels while the administration has repeatedly insisted that in Syria the major strategic threat to U.S. interests came not from Iran and its allies, but from certain Sunni extremist groups. To be sure, the White House is right to be worried about non-state actors like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—but the truth is that these jihadist groups are small potatoes compared to an Iran with strategic resources, like its armed forces, and particularly compared to an Iran with a nuclear weapons program.
“The White House’s policy in Syria has helped create this argument that we are or should be pursuing policies parallel to those of Iran and Hezbollah,” noted Abrams. “We have a common enemy in Sunni jihadists, the argument goes, and hence we have common interests, and hence we should be cooperating.”
In practice, that means the people this White House is cooperating with are the Iranian resistance bloc. In Lebanon, the U.S. intelligence community has teamed up with the Lebanese Armed Forces’ military intelligence, essentially now a subset of Hezbollah, to fight Sunni extremists. In Iraq, the administration has dispatched arms to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, another Iranian asset who is allied with groups that have killed American soldiers, like Asaib Ahl a-Haq, to support his counter-insurgency against Sunni fighters. This isn’t how it was supposed to be. In the framework of the grand bargain, one of the benefits the United States was supposed to reap was Iran’s agreement to desist from supporting terrorism. Instead, not only do the Iranians continue to back terrorist groups, but the White House is all but helping them do so.
For all the mythical nonsense surrounding the origins and significance of the grand bargain, it still would have been a much better deal for the United States than the one the White House has implicitly acquiesced to. To see how badly the Obama Administration is getting played, it’s worth looking at some of the other terms laid out in the grand bargain memo. Compare it to how the White House has kept up its end of the bargain, in spades, while getting nothing in return:
  • The United States was supposed to stop supporting any efforts at regime change. When the Green Movement took to the streets in the aftermath of Iran’s likely fraudulent June 2009 elections, the White House proved its bona fides to Tehran and neglected to support an opposition movement that the regime was killing in the streets.
  • The United States was to abolish sanctions. The interim deal agreed to in November relaxed sanctions, which the White House says that it can tighten back up again at any time. The reality, however, is that sanctions relief revived Iran’s economy, turning a risky bet into a promising business opportunity, with foreign delegations exploring deals in a number of profitable sectors, like energy and automobile manufacturing.
  • The United States was supposed to take action against and support repatriation of Iraq-based members of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, an anti-Iranian regime resistance movement that Iran labels a terrorist organization. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton removed the MEK from the list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2013, but the United States has repeatedly failed to protect them against Iran and its allies, as it had promised when the MEK complied with a 2003 request to disarm after the U.S. invasion. One raid on an MEK camp last September, with 50 killed and seven taken hostage, was committed by Iranian commandoes.
  • The United States would to allow access to peaceful nuclear technology. With the interim agreement, the White House acknowledged Iran’s right to enrichment. In return, the US was to get “full transparency… that there are no Iranian endeavors to develop or possess WMD.” Even if we were to believe that the interim agreement has set back a possible nuclear breakout by one month, it’s important to remember that the deal permits Iran to enrich uranium more quickly than it could before the agreement. Moreover, the interim deal only tackles one part of Iran’s nuclear program, enrichment, and ignores the two other components, the weaponization and ballistic missile program. In other words, the deal doesn’t make Iran’s program transparent, but helps make it yet more opaque.
The grand bargain was a fantasy, but one grounded in the strategic reality of what is now a bygone era—a period in American history that also seems festooned in the cobwebs of ancient legend. It used to be that U.S. policymakers believed the Persian Gulf was part of our postwar legacy, a strategically vital body of water that we protected in order to ensure the free flow of affordable energy that allowed America to buy and trade the goods that made it a superpower. Under these conditions, Washington was prepared as the regional hegemon to cut deals with lesser actors, even revolutionary regimes it might be able to draw back into the community of nations, while America’s continued presence in the region assured our allies that nothing would touch them on our watch.
But that’s not how Obama seems to see it. America is packing up and leaving, and there’s no time left for a grand bargain. What we’re watching instead is just a fire sale, as the world’s one superpower abandons its holdings to an obscurantist third-world soon-to-be-nuclear state sponsor of terror.
***

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Iran Supreme Leader Vows to Destroy America, Says Promoting Negotiation is Treason     Joshua Levitt    5-27-14 

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali holiday on Sunday vowed to destroy the US she held responsible for sorting. His story indiscriminate wars according to the semiofficial news agency farmers, many said that she had her physically able to continue to exist as a whole and with the society can get rid of the oppressors from with America that. Which is extracted clause argument by many of our lives requires a difficult and lengthy struggle to me great strides he said today's world is full of a plumber is a you are dignity and morality are equipped with knowledge wealth and power pretense of humanity easily cries and Tracy about ideals and start wars in different parts of the world on? Negotiations with world powers they should have development of its nuclear program and source said those Iranians who want to promote negotiation and surrender to the oppressors Islamic Republic is a formal hearing of the requirements is itself a must-have capability to accelerate scientific advances of the last 12 years. Under any circumstances the ayatollahs addressed in our democracy in Iran the ayatollahs reaching the 4th round of talks ended without an agreement historic nuclear deal, while Lisa and is

In a speech to parliament, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Sunday vowed to destroy the U.S., which he held responsible for distorting the world’s values and starting indiscriminate wars.
According to semi-official news agency Fars, Khamenei said,“Battle and jihad are endless because evil and its front continue to exist. … This battle will only end when the society can get rid of the oppressors’ front with America at the head of it, which has expanded its claws on human mind, body and thought. … This requires a difficult and lengthy struggle and need for great strides.”
He said, “Today’s world is full of thieves and plunderers of human honor, dignity and morality who are equipped with knowledge, wealth and power, and under the pretense of humanity easily commit crimes and betray human ideals and start wars in different parts of the world.”
On the question of Iran’s negotiations with world powers aimed at checking the development of its nuclear program, the Ayatollah said, “Those [Iranians] who want to promote negotiation and surrender to the oppressors and blame the Islamic Republic as a warmonger in reality commit treason.”
“The reason for continuation of this battle is not the warmongering of the Islamic Republic. Logic and reason command that for Iran, in order to pass through a region full of pirates, needs to arm itself and must have the capability to defend itself,” he said. “The accelerated scientific advancement of the last 12 years cannot stop under any circumstances.
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The Ayatollah’s speech came after the fourth round of talks in Geneva ended without an agreement, and with Iran presenting its red lines, “including the expansion of research and development for its nuclear program, the need of the country to continue enrichment, and the fact that the country’s ballistic missile program — despite U.N. sanctions — is not up for negotiation,” Kahlili wrote.
“The Obama administration had hoped that with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif showing an eagerness to solve the nuclear issue and address the West’s concerns, there would be a possibility for a negotiated solution. An interim agreement penned last November in Geneva was touted as an ‘historic nuclear deal,’” Kahlili said.
“At the same time, IAEA officials met again with their Iranian counterparts last week in Tehran to discuss information on the work on detonators and needed collaboration by the regime to clear outstanding issues on its nuclear program as part of seven transparency steps Iran had agreed to fulfill by May 15, which has yet to take place,” Kahlili said.



Saturday, May 24, 2014


He's Made It Worse: Obama's Middle East   Abe Greenwald  5-1-14

I. From Bush to Obama
In the last days of George W. Bush’s presidency, the Economist delivered a damning assessment: “Abroad, George Bush has presided over the most catastrophic collapse in America’s reputation since the second world war.” In the view of the magazine’s editors, “a president who believed that America’s global supremacy was guaranteed by America’s unrivalled military power ended up demonstrating the limits of both.”
Without question, the United States paid a large price for Bush’s policies outside the United States. There were two unresolved wars, thousands of American dead, and the lingering castigations of assorted parties around the globe.
Of course all policy decisions are trade-offs, and Bush’s demonstrated not only the limits of American power but also its possibilities. In return for our sacrifices we saw al-Qaeda decimated and the American homeland secured against attack. By the time the 43rd president left office, an American-led coalition had established a flawed but democratic ally in the heart of the Muslim world. Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, moreover, had given up his weapons of mass destruction, a development whose full benefit would be appreciated a decade later when Qaddafi’s regime fell and his conventional arms were dispersed to jihadists in North Africa.
By the end of Bush’s presidency, some saw the United States as fearless, others saw us as stumbling, and still others as dangerously belligerent. But for all the outrage about unilateralism and cowboy diplomacy, American relations in the larger Middle East functioned within long-standing diplomatic boundaries. Bush promoted freedom in the region but never jeopardized pragmatic relations with the most important autocracies and monarchies, for better or worse. Some European capitals were upset with Washington, but this caused no long-term rift in transatlantic relations.
The most tangible change brought on by Bush’s foreign policy was its domestic impact. By 2008, Americans were sick of war and tired of the Middle East
altogether. Thus, one of Barack Obama’s biggest selling points was his promise to end the war in Iraq, extricate the country from the region, and pursue a more contrite foreign policy. Once elected, President Obama set out to honor his campaign pledge. The question of his ideological disposition can be debated endlessly, but whatever its precise contours, it translated into policies that largely reversed Bush positions in the Middle East. Where Bush was particularly supportive of our closest regional ally, Obama pressured Israel for concessions. Where Bush reached out to the Iranian people in solidarity against the regime that was our chief antagonist, Obama rebuffed ordinary Iranians and offered an “open hand” to the regime itself.
Between the two poles of Israel and Iran, Obama made clear to other Middle East leaders that his main concern was staying out of their affairs. As he told the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news station soon after taking office: “Too often the United States starts by dictating.” Unlike Bush, Obama implied, he would stand back and “listen.” And he has made good on his word to shrink American influence and undo the disruptive excesses of the Bush years.
What have we gotten in return for our more humble posture in the Middle East? The answer, as a case-by-case examination of the most important examples reveals, is this: a new age of great peril. Under Barack Obama’s leadership, in almost every square inch of the Middle East, the strategic position of the United States has decayed. And the region itself is far worse off than it was when he took office.
II.  The  Egypt  Reversals
Barack Obama chose Egypt as the site of his opening gesture to the Muslim world. The address he delivered on June 4, 2009, at Cairo University is known as the Cairo speech, but its actual title, “A New Beginning,” offers a better sense of his ambition. The president filled the hour-long speech with blandishments aimed at easing tensions between the United States and the world’s Muslims. Among his noteworthy comments was his stated approval of observant women who choose to cover their heads—a signal to those he considered moderate Islamists that the United States would treat them as political equals. Although the address was broad in scope, Obama’s words about democracy would prove to be directly relevant to Egypt itself. He expressed a commitment “to governments that reflect the will of the people” and vowed that the United States “will welcome all elected, peaceful governments—provided they govern with respect for all their people…because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others.”
Less than two years later, a quarter-million Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square to end the 30-year reign of autocratic president Hosni Mubarak. Despite Obama’s earlier focus on “the will of the people,” the White House was initially supportive of Mubarak. Vice President Joseph Biden denied that Mubarak was a dictator and recommended he not step down. Similarly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described him as a close family friend. Days later, Obama praised Mubarak as a valued American ally who should begin the process of democratic reform rather than leave office. But as protests grew, it became clear that there was no sense in fighting Egyptian popular will. Within days of his initial vote of confidence in Mubarak, Obama declared that it was time for the Egyptian leader to go and that “an orderly transition must begin now.” By this time, however, protestors in Cairo were carrying signs that read, “Shame on you, Obama.” If there had been a window of opportunity for the administration to back up the freedom rhetoric of the Cairo speech, it had passed. The White House zigzag alienated Egyptians who were trying to steer their country’s politics in the wake of Mubarak’s departure.
The administration had good reason to support Mubarak. He was a secular leader who honored his peace treaties with Israel, supported the United States in opposing Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon, and provided what stability the region had enjoyed. But the United States misread the state of affairs inside Egypt and looked flummoxed responding to real-time events. Diplomatic cables made public by the group WikiLeaks reveal that the Obama administration had earlier assessed Mubarak as a “tried and true realist” whose record of survival boded well for his staying in power. On the matter of human rights, the State Department had ceased the Bush-era practice of calling out Mubarak for his abuses, and the administration decreased funding for civil-society programs in Egypt. In other words, Obama was cozying up to the dictator just as the legitimacy of his three-decade reign was falling apart.
Obama’s habit of misreading Egypt was only getting started. When the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi was elected president, the United States wasted no time in pronouncing him a legitimate democrat. Morsi, for his part, turned at once to theocratic authoritarianism. He bypassed the judiciary, wrote up an oppressive Islamist constitution, and prayed publicly for the destruction of the Jews. If anyone fit Obama’s Cairo-speech description of the elected anti-democrat, it was the fanatical Egyptian president. This was not lost on Egyptians, who, within a year, were once again out on the streets calling for the ouster of an incompetent oppressor. And once again, the oppressor was supported by the Obama administration. Behind the scenes, Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to convince Morsi to call for elections, while other administration officials attempted to prevent the Egyptian military from launching a coup.
Neither side listened.
The United States managed to make an enemy of every party in the course of two Egyptian revolutions. What’s worse, Obama failed to support and exploit an Egyptian public ferociously determined to rid itself of Brotherhood rule.
In October 2013, when the military took over the country, it initiated a harsh crackdown on the Brotherhood. This time, most Egyptians seemed to support their government’s extreme measures—yet this time the Obama administration decided to punish the repressive government by withholding a significant portion of America’s $1.3 billion in annual aid. Perhaps Obama hoped this shift in policy would finally give him some leverage over Cairo.
But if so, it’s hard to explain why the administration then decided to reestablish the flow of aid in January. After all this, Egypt has signaled a further drift out of the American orbit and toward Russia, with whom it is negotiating a $2 billion arms deal. In modern Egypt, rulers come and go. Only American incoherence endures.
III.  Leading  from  Behind  in  Libya
The great Arab upheaval hit Libya on February 15, 2011, when protestors took to the streets of Benghazi. Muammar Qaddafi, a bona fide madman, offered no palliative speeches about reform. He described the protestors as “cockroaches” who were “serving the devil” and vowed to “cleanse Libya house by house.” Within the first few days, Qaddafi’s forces killed hundreds of Libyans, which provoked protestors to take up arms. A full-scale civil war was soon under way as rebels fought Qaddafi for control of city after city. Libya’s tattered army gained the upper hand, and by the first week of March, the poorly armed rebels were asking the West to help prevent a grand-scale massacre.
After scolding the United States for its foreign adventures during the Bush years, France (with Great Britain in tow) now took the lead in formally recognizing the Libyan opposition and laying out a case for intervention. France got a significant percentage of its oil from Libya and has deep, historic ties to its former colonies in Northern Africa. Also, the proximity of the two countries meant that a flood of war refugees could become a French problem. But there seemed to be virtually no compelling American interests in Qaddafi’s country. And for Obama, whose fundamental foreign-policy concern was keeping America’s nose out of the Muslim world, intervention was especially unappealing.
And yet the United States doesn’t have the luxury of looking at the globe through the narrow lens of national interests alone. Our power and credibility derive from our singular willingness and capacity to protect a relatively peaceful world order. When the specter of mass atrocities arises, America has to determine whether it can do anything about it. In the 1990s, we twice led the effort to halt large-scale killing in the Balkans, although our national interests there were nil. The atrocity we didn’t stop—the Rwandan slaughter—continues to haunt our national conscience. With uprisings suddenly rampant in dictatorships around the Arab world, the refusal to prevent one bloodbath could give a green light to other embattled dictators. For these reasons, leaders in Europe and some members of Obama’s administration expected us to intervene.
At a G8 foreign ministers’ meeting in Paris, Hillary Clinton, who personally favored intervention, responded to European calls for action (now supported by the Arab League as well) with noncommittal language meant to stall any effort. European leaders were baffled by the uncharacteristic American indifference and incoherence. “Frankly we are just completely puzzled,” said one diplomat. French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with Clinton to urge the United States to take the case for action to the United Nations. He, too, was stonewalled.
Obama, who had lambasted Bush for disregarding the wishes of allies, had created his own “go it alone” crisis.
Eventually, the cry for action both in and out of the administration became so great as to shame Obama into following the Europeans’ lead. The United Nations Security Council authorized military force on March 17, and the first bombs were dropped on regime-related targets two days later. Reluctant and regretful, Obama repeatedly professed that the United States was playing only a peripheral support role. In truth, the American role was large and the five-month campaign that ousted Qaddafi wouldn’t have been as successful without our unparalleled military might.
When the dust settled, administration supporters began to tout the Libya episode as a “new model” for American intervention. Unlike the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, it had been low-risk and required no boots on the ground. The approval of the Arab League lent it regional legitimacy, and the approval of the French somehow translated into global legitimacy (even though the Germans, Russians, Chinese, and others disapproved).
But in the hubristic aftermath, things unraveled. As there was no sufficient presence on the ground to look after the dictator’s abandoned arsenal, a terrorist weapons bazaar sprouted up that not only armed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Hamas in Gaza, but also changed the course of a rebel war in Mali (ironically prompting French intervention there as well). A UN report documented internationally smuggled Libyan weapons, including “rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns with antiaircraft visors, automatic rifles, ammunition, grenades, explosives (Semtex), and light antiaircraft artillery (light-caliber bi-tubes) mounted on vehicles.”
“Leading from behind,” as one administration official notoriously characterized the Obama approach in Libya, didn’t turn out to be so low-risk. Insufficient post-Qaddafi planning had made sitting ducks of the four American officials at a diplomatic mission in Benghazi who came under terrorist assault on September 11, 2012. All four were killed. The details surrounding the attack ignited an enormous controversy that still rages on.
Unsurprisingly, Libya remains a land of chaos and tribalism. In no way is that Barack Obama’s fault. But a genuine commitment to action instead of a grudging and pusillanimous cave-in to other powers would have gone some way toward making things safer after Qaddafi was gone. Neither in nor out, neither leading nor following, in Libya America sounded an uncertain note to allies and offered a new model of superpower ambivalence.
IV.  The  Iran  Trap
Having pledged on the campaign trail to talk to Tehran without preconditions, Barack Obama telegraphed his position on Iran far in advance. He wanted solicitous, gesture-heavy diplomacy aimed at erasing the ill will between the United States and the Islamic Republic. Obama believed that mutual misconceptions had piled up and had made constructive engagement on the Iranian nuclear question unnecessarily difficult. Yes, the mullahs are deeply religious, so the thinking went, but they are not suicidal. Persians are a proud people with a great history and want respect from the international community. Treat Iran like a reasonable country acting on its own set of logical interests, and you will break out of the unproductive cycle of fantastic demonization.
If only any of it were true. The Islamic Republic was founded in 1979 on a theocratic and apocalyptic strain of Shia Islam. The regime is suicidal. “For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn,” said its founding visionary, Ayatollah Khomeini. “I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.” It is also exterminationist, having adopted as its sustaining myth the divinely ordained destruction of both Israel and the United States. In pursuit of its aims, Iran has been building a nuclear-weapons program complete with uranium mines, enrichment plants, hidden facilities, advanced centrifuges, and research-and-development sites devoted to perfecting a delivery system. The prospect of Iran’s using such a weapon on Israel is unthinkable only to those who are wholly unfamiliar with the Islamic Republic or the abominations of modern history. And the current Sunni-Shia tensions mean that a nuclear-armed Iran is certain to spark an atomic arms race in the region. Since 1979, successive American administrations have made extensive diplomatic overtures in hopes of negotiating away the Iranian threat, and they have all failed. Obama objected to an understanding of Iran that had been hard-earned, from experience—not fashioned to fit a prejudice.
Obama came into office extending an “open hand” to Tehran, and offered gesture after gesture to establish good faith. In his first video-recorded Nowruz (Persian New Year) message of March 2009, he appealed directly to Iranian leaders for mutual cooperation. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei responded with public insults. In his Cairo speech, Obama became the first serving American president to admit to American involvement in the 1953 ouster of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. This seemed a direct response to Ahmadinejad’s public demand, made months earlier, that Obama apologize for America’s role in the coup.
As he would do with Egypt, the president picked the wrong moment to ingratiate himself with the leadership of Iran. Following the June 12, 2009, reelection of Ahmadinejad, Iranians flooded the streets to protest what they saw as a rigged vote. The Green Movement, an unmistakable precursor to the Arab Spring, became the dominant global spectacle of the summer. The sea of green-clad Iranian protestors enraged by the Khomeinists captured the world’s attention. And so the world was watching when the brutal Khomeinist crackdown began a week into the demonstrations. Police and intelligence officers tortured, raped, and killed innocents. The gruesome murder of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan went viral and became an emblem of the regime’s inhumanity.
Although Iranians in enormous numbers rose up against a government that was our single most devoted enemy, Obama would not stand squarely with them. He stuck to tepid remarks about dignity and violence and proclaimed that his pursuit of constructive diplomacy with the regime was undeterred. His disregard for popular will in Iran was not lost on the Iranian public, who chanted, “Obama, are you with us or with the regime?”
He had made his choice.
The administration spent Obama’s first term using third parties and back channels to approach Iran with various schemes that would give it access to enriched uranium if its purely civilian use could be verified. These sagas followed a familiar pattern: newspaper headlines about hopeful officials and fresh starts, negotiations with little detail offered to the public, a new round of stories about the very brink of a breakthrough, and then word of Iran’s refusal to cooperate. Throughout the course of these failed attempts, the White House assured Americans and Israelis that “all options are on the table” for preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But little else indicated that this was so. The United States and Israel collaborated on the 2010 Stuxnet cyberattack that temporarily set back Iran’s nuclear program, but the Obama administration quickly leaked the details for political benefit, thus putting Israel at greater risk. In addition, Obama repeatedly insisted that Israel not launch a military strike against Iranian nuclear sites.
While the administration pursued its “open-hand” policy, the Iranian regime stepped up its provocations. The threats against the Jewish state and the United States were constant. In 2011, American officials revealed a foiled Iranian plot to kill a Saudi Arabian ambassador with a bomb in a Washington restaurant. Even that planned, state-sponsored terrorist attack did nothing to knock the administration off its course.
But all first-term negotiation efforts were mere prologue to the diplomatic push that began in June 2013, when Iranians elected a new president, Hassan Rouhani. Obama believed Rouhani to be a moderate and thus more receptive to American outreach than his predecessor. The administration clandestinely eased the bite of American sanctions by citing fewer violators than usual. The White House then opposed bipartisan legislation pushing for new sanctions. In September, days after Rouhani rejected a direct meeting with Obama in New York, the two spoke by telephone, constituting the highest-level contact between the countries since the shuttering of the American Embassy after the Iranian Revolution 34 years earlier. On November 22, the lopsided courtship came to its culmination. “Iran, world powers reach historic nuclear deal,” read the Washington Post headline atop the story about an agreement reached in Geneva that would supposedly freeze “key parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for temporary relief on some economic sanctions.”
The events leading up to and including the Geneva deal were certainly historic. They also constitute the single most dangerous shift in American foreign policy since the height of the Cold War.
For starters, Rouhani is not a moderate. He is a faux-moderate, hand-picked by Khamenei—the country’s actual ruler—to get exactly the kind of sanctions relief that Obama provided. During the Revolution, Rouhani was a close confidant of Ayatollah Khomeini. In 1999, he was behind a crackdown intended, in his words, to “crush mercilessly and monumentally” a student uprising. In 2004, he bragged of his Machiavellian moderation to the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council. “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the [uranium-conversion] facility in Isfahan,” he said. “In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.” The man’s sole purpose is to charm the West while Iran gets the bomb.
As it happens, the deal he has facilitated will probably achieve that aim. From disagreements on missile capabilities to the definition of “freeze” to inspections and the right to enrich uranium, the terms of the “framework” for a deal seem more like a season of geopolitical improvisational theater, with an ever shifting storyline made up on the fly. The framework is supposed to be concluded on July 20, at which point a final agreement may be negotiated. Meanwhile, sanctions have been lifted and centrifuges continue to spin. The administration has successfully fought congressional efforts to impose new sanctions on Iran aimed at getting it to honor its side of the deal. But the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) estimates that even if Iran lives up to our current conditions, its ability to “break out” with a completed nuclear weapon would be slowed by only two to three weeks. Little wonder that Rouhani bragged that the deal “means the surrender of the big powers before the great Iranian nation.” To make matters worse, the Obama administration laid the economic and diplomatic groundwork for the deal away from the eyes of the American public and behind Israel’s back. The Obama administration betrayed its closest Middle East allies to meet its most fanatical enemy all the way on a deal that might very well give the latter the means of mass destruction.
V.  The  Syrian  Disaster
Syria is best understood as part of the Iranian threat. The Alawite dictator Bashar al-Assad is Iran’s closest ally and only link to the Mediterranean Sea, making his regime vital to the mullahs’ bid for Middle East dominance. When the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, Tehran jumped to Assad’s aid in waging war on the country’s mostly Sunni population. Hezbollah, a terrorist statelet loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei, was dispatched to fight alongside Assad’s men, and Assad was grateful for the help.
Here again, Barack Obama suffered from an unfortunate sense of timing. He began his presidency hoping to engage Syria and peel it away from Iran (a perpetually popular realist notion), as a means of putting pressure on the Islamic Republic to negotiate. Before Assad’s country erupted, the administration undertook high-level diplomatic discussions with Damascus, relaxed export licensing for Syria, tried to smooth its path to the World Trade Organization, established warmer ties with the Syrian foreign minister, and nominated Robert Ford to be the first U.S. ambassador to Syria since 2005, when the Syrian government was implicated in the killing of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Obama’s plan was undone by the events of March 2011, because Syria and Iran now needed each other more than ever. For this reason alone, the administration would have been wise to consider intervening on behalf of the Syrian rebels. A toppled Assad would have dealt a massive blow to Iran. What’s more, in the early days of the civil war, the rebels weren’t dominated by Sunni terrorist organizations.
But there were also good reasons to stay out of the Syrian conflict. For one, U.S. intelligence on the rebellion was shoddy. Those opposing Assad comprised a confusion of organizations, some radical, some not, many with ties outside the country. Even early on, helping to topple Assad would have probably boosted the standing of some extremists. Additionally, no proponents of intervention were calling for a significant post-Assad American presence. This meant Washington would have scant ability to shape events in a new Syria. With all those caveats in play, however, it’s hard to think of a situation in which ridding Iran of its most important friend wouldn’t have been a net gain. And if Obama’s strategic thinking about Iran were different, he might have seen in Assad’s troubles an important opportunity.
Not only did the American president eschew support for the rebels; he didn’t publicly call on Assad to step down until five months after the initial uprising. During that time the White House had instituted some sanctions on Syria. But as Assad was fighting for his life, it was unlikely that he would hold back for the sake of a blip in oil revenue. What nonlethal aid Washington had promised to the rebels was slow and spotty in coming.
The president made his first allusion to using force in Syria at a press conference in August 2012. “A red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized,” he said. “That would change my calculus.” Obama used this tough line as his reelection contest with Mitt Romney was heating up. He did not want to appear weak and give his rival room to run at him as a weak-kneed Democrat. Obama won, of course, but he had set the stage for the most bizarre and damaging geopolitical blunder of his presidency.
Assad crossed the American red line on August 21, 2013, with a chemical attack that killed 1,400 of his own people. A week later, Secretary of State John Kerry gave a bold speech that pointed toward an American military response. The president then declared on television that he would hit Syria. And then, in the same speech, he punted to an out-of-session Congress, demanding he first be given authorization to act—even though he also said he was within his rights and powers as president to do so without Congressional approval.
Before members of Congress could vote, before Obama would be forced either to act without them or act with them, he was suddenly rescued altogether by an ad-libbed Russian-American deal to put Moscow—a Syrian ally—in charge of removing Assad’s chemical weapons.
The Russia deal is a great boon to the governments in Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow. It has effectively kept Assad in power as an American partner in the weapons-removal process. Iran has kept its key ally, and Russia’s profile has been elevated once more on the world stage. As for the rebels, they have been predictably overtaken by Sunni jihadist groups during the three long years of civil war. The non-radicals among them, like the liberals of Iran’s Green Movement and of the Tahrir Square protests, have no illusions about the American president’s lack of commitment to their cause. To the rest of the world, the American administration seems weak, wavering, and in over its head.
Meanwhile, the Russian deal is failing on its own terms. Deadlines for removing Assad’s weapons have come and gone and left Assad holding significant amounts—by some accounts, nearly 96 percent—of the proscribed items. Russian-American tensions over Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will probably add further delays.
The United States also shepherded two rounds of UN talks in Geneva aimed at bringing together the Assad regime and the rebels to form a transitional government. The talks failed on the most fundamental level. Syrian rebels are fractured among themselves and completely uninterested in sharing a transitional government with Assad. And the Assad regime is uninterested in talks with a party whose primary goal is the end of Assad’s rule.
Bashar al-Assad, perpetrator of a chemical-weapons attack, has gone unpunished. Three American antagonists have gained ground. And the Syrian civil war, with its death toll at 150,000, rages on. In March, the New York Times reported that al-Qaeda members are now setting up training operations inside Syria and that intelligence officials have reason to believe they are planning attacks on Europe and the United States.
VI.  The  Turkish  Model  Collapses
President Obama has praised Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan more effusively than any other leader on the world stage. “I think it’s fair to say that over the last several years, the relationship between Turkey and the United States has continued to grow across every dimension,” said Obama in 2012. “And I find Prime Minister Erdogan to be an outstanding partner and an outstanding friend on a wide range of issues.”
Chief among these issues was Turkey’s supposed standing as a powerful model for intertwining Islam, democracy, and economic growth. When he became prime minister in 2003, Erdogan seemed to strike a much-needed balance. His avowedly Muslim Justice and Development Party (AKP) attracted Islamists without taking a punitive line on non-radicals. As prime minister, he got off to a fine start. Turkey greatly improved relations with its Arab neighbors, achieved significant economic growth, and enjoyed an overall boost in quality of life. For Obama, who believed that working with “moderate” Islamists was key to more agreeable relations in the Middle East, courting Erdogan was a given. It was clear from his comments that the president sought to make his relationship with Erdogan the centerpiece of his Middle East diplomacy.
In late 2009, Obama lunched with Erdogan at the White House and proclaimed that Turkey would be an “important player in trying to move” Iran away from a bomb using diplomacy. There were already signs, however, that Ankara was moving closer to Tehran. In 2009, Erdogan took private meetings in Tehran with his “good friend” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and with Ali Khamenei. Turkey also abstained from an International Atomic Energy Agency board vote condemning Iran’s nuclear activity, and Erdogan claimed that Iran wasn’t pursuing a nuclear weapon at all.
At the same time, Erdogan was stoking tension between Turkey and Israel. He stormed out of a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres over Gaza; Turkish leaders announced the country’s first joint military exercises with Syria; and Turkey asked Israel to bow out of hosting a scheduled NATO exercise.
On May 31, 2010, a flotilla of six boats left Turkey with the express goal of breaking Israel’s blockade on Gaza. After the boats ignored repeated warnings, members of the Israel Defense Forces boarded the biggest of them, the Mavi Marmara, and were attacked by armed jihadists ready for battle. The IDF opened fire, killing nine, and the incident came under international scrutiny. Erdogan flew into a permanent outrage, ratcheting up regional anti-Israel sentiment, and demanding that the Jewish state pay for having used lethal force.
But by this point, it had already become clear that the Turkish model was disintegrating. Erdogan’s government has taken a steady path toward increased state suppression, borrowing policies from both the Islamist and secular autocratic playbooks. He has restricted alcohol sales and the use of sidewalk caf├ęs, cracked down on press freedoms and citizens’ access to the Internet, nullified the independence of the Turkish judiciary, and abused his power in myriad ways.
Nonetheless, Obama’s original approach to Turkey remained intact. This once again impressed upon a Muslim country that the United States, for all its lofty pronouncements on freedom, was unconcerned about the threatened liberties of a real-world population. In March 2013, Obama took credit for organizing a phone call between Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in which the latter expressed regret over the deaths of those shot on the Mavi Marmara. The White House hailed this as a great leap toward normalizing relations between Israel and Turkey, yet the very next day Erdogan announced that he would not drop his case against the IDF, as he had apparently promised before the phone call had been made.
Two months later, Erdogan’s continued strangulation of freedoms inspired Arab Spring-style protests across Turkey, putting the lie to the Turkish model once and for all.
Obama had tried to get Erdogan to play a conciliatory role in Syria, but the Turkish leader took up support for the hard-core Sunnis among the rebels. This was in keeping with his strong and stated preference for Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt. Yet Turkey’s destabilizing role in Syria is overshadowed by its underhanded support for the regime in Iran. Erdogan has been anything but the diplomatic go-between Obama envisioned. In 2012 and 2013, Turkey helped Iran evade international sanctions through a “gold for oil” scheme involving the Turkish state-owned Halkbank, which made approximately $13 billion of gold available to Tehran during that time. This has now become part of a larger corruption and abuse scandal. Obama, hoping to maintain his relationship with Erdogan and to stick to his diplomatic course with Iran, did nothing to punish the Turkish bank. And in 2012, Turkish officials, with Erdogan’s express approval, exposed the identities of Iranians who were meeting with Mossad agents inside Turkey.
Obama’s own Iran policies are partially to blame for Turkey’s now overt move toward Iran’s sphere. First, with Assad now ruling Syria for the foreseeable future, Erdogan figured that warm relations with Tehran might mitigate some of the effects of that conflict’s impact on neighboring Sunni-majority Turkey. Second, Obama’s general enabling of Iran’s rise makes it a power that no regional leader can afford to snub. Not least of all in deference to an unsure American power.
VII.  Losing  Iraq, Leaving  Afghanistan
In Barack Obama’s own words, he “was elected to end wars, not start them.” What’s most interesting about that formulation is that he offered it in 2013. Obama promised something different when he was first elected: He would end the war in Iraq “responsibly,” so that he might better fight the war in Afghanistan. “For six years, Afghanistan has been denied the resources that it demands because of the war in Iraq,” he said soon after taking office. “Now we must make a commitment that can accomplish our goals.”
Let’s take the two parts of this twin promise in turn. In 2009, Iraq was no longer the nucleus of regional chaos. It had, in fact, become a kind of shining light. The government of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, had legitimacy and was a functioning, if young, parliamentary democracy. What’s more, Maliki proved willing to take on both Sunni jihadists and Iranian-backed Shiite radicals in order to deliver to the long-suffering Iraqis some modicum of peace. In June, the United States ceased to handle security for cities and the Iraqis were managing the job reasonably well. American casualties in Iraq for 2009 hit a wartime low.
This relative calm allowed the Obama administration to pursue its plan of disengagement. If the previous administration had been fixated on Iraq, Obama’s would catch up on all the other things the war had pushed out of view. The president announced his plan to withdraw most troops from the country by the end of 2010, and the rest by the end of 2011. And then never looked back.
With a disengaged Washington, the democratic project in Iraq began to drift. In March 2010, Maliki refused to honor election results that had handed a partial victory to Ayad Allawi’s moderate Iraqi National Movement. The ensuing crisis birthed an open-ended power struggle in the Iraqi Parliament. For a country so recently liberated from tyrannical rule, the instability proved to be too much. Bit by bit, Maliki’s government began to resemble a typical strongman regime, trading legitimacy for power.
At the time, the United States had more than 100,000 troops in Iraq, extensive security contracts with Baghdad, and leftover working relationships from the Bush years. Nudging the country back on its democratic course would have required exercising some of this formidable American leverage, not any further military commitment. But Obama was determined to keep America out of Iraqi affairs, no matter how serious the circumstances or how light the demands.
In 2011, American neglect was made formal and permanent when the Obama administration failed to negotiate a renewed status-of-forces agreement with Baghdad that would have left behind much-needed U.S. troops. The popular explanation is that Maliki would not countenance immunity for American troops accused of breaking Iraqi law. But the Bush administration had overcome the same sticking point in 2008 when the first status-of-forces agreement was negotiated. The truth is that the Obama administration made an 11th-hour, perfunctory effort at negotiations and Iraqi leaders calculated that risking popular disapproval to maintain such a weakened relationship was not worth the trouble.
In December 2011, the last U.S. troops left the country. Predictably, things spiraled out of control. Maliki never pivoted back toward less oppressive rule, and the uprising in neighboring Syria fueled anti-Maliki sentiment in Iraq. Maliki then sidled up closer to Iran and committed himself to more heavy-handed anti-Sunni measures.
This sent the country’s Sunnis into the embrace of al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations. By 2012, a terrorist group named the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was killing more civilians with greater frequency than were its al-Qaeda brethren in Yemen and Somalia. Things steadily fell apart as the Syrian civil war spilled over that country’s eastern border. In 2013, more Iraqi civilians were killed than in any year since 2007. In early 2014, militants took the city of Fallujah and brought it under Sunni control. Al-Qaeda raised its flag over the city that American soldiers and their Iraqi partners had died fighting for 10 years earlier. America’s bloody 2004 fight for Fallujah had facilitated the emergence of a pacified, democratic Iraq. That real and precious American achievement is now history.
In a nod to the severity of the circumstances in Iraq, the United States recently agreed to supply the Maliki government with Hellfire missiles. Too little, too late? Certainly. And given the saga of looted Libyan weapons, probably risky to boot.
When the entire Muslim Middle East was set aflame, it would have been no small prize to have a real ally in the best-governed Muslim-majority state in the region. As American influence is at an all-time low, a grateful and malleable Baghdad might have been the friend Obama never found in Ankara. Perhaps more important, a flourishing, stable, and democratic Iraq would have stood as a true regional model for a post-autocracy Middle East. It’s hard to think of another American achievement at once so important and hard-won that was so unnecessarily thrown away.
Regarding the war in Afghanistan, Obama initially supported a surge of 33,000 troops in 2009. The results of this surge were mixed, owing mostly to the president’s simultaneous announcement of a troop drawdown 18 months later. America’s enemies knew exactly how long they’d have to wait us out. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates details in his recent memoir, Duty, Obama “eventually lost faith in the troop increase he ordered in Afghanistan, his doubts fed by top White House civilian advisers opposed to the strategy, who continually brought him negative news reports suggesting it was failing.” And so the war in Afghanistan became another war that needed ending, not winning.
As he did with Iraq, the president expended little energy on Afghanistan. His relationship with the highly erratic Afghan President Hamid Karzai drifted into near nonexistence. Thus, the administration began to reach out to the Taliban in hopes of securing a peace agreement. This approach made matters worse. Since it was clear the United States wanted out of Afghanistan, the Taliban saw no reason to negotiate with a party in retreat. Karzai, for his part, recognized that in a post-American Afghanistan, his best hope for survival was not to get on the Taliban’s bad side by doing too much American bidding. Having communicated every move to all sides in advance, the United States saw its influence fizzle everywhere. American troops are scheduled to leave at the end of 2014 with few hopes of a bilateral security agreement with the Afghan government. This means no troops will stay behind, and the Taliban will probably stage a massive comeback largely unopposed. By the end of Obama’s second term, Afghanistan could come to recall its pre-9/11 days once again.
VIII.  The  Lebanon  Tinderbox
Lebanon, like Turkey and Iraq, has the great misfortune of bordering Syria. But unlike Turkey and Iraq, it was dominated by Syria for three decades, until 2005, and the two countries remain firmly intertwined. Roughly 1 million Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon since the start of the Syrian uprising. Gebran Bassil, the Lebanese foreign minister, has described the refugee crisis rightly as “threatening the existence of Lebanon.” And because the country is a perpetually unstable patchwork of religious enclaves, it is particularly hospitable to spillover battles from the neighboring war. The Sunni majority naturally support the Syrian rebels, but the Shiite group Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside the Assad regime, is a strong force inside Lebanon. The divide between the two sides is sharp and deep, owing in part to likely Syrian involvement in the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Like so many other spots in the region, the tinderbox of Lebanon has now been made especially flammable by American neglect. When Obama reduced U.S. influence, he opened up a power vacuum that sucked in all comers. “I think we are witnessing a turning point, and it could be one of the worst in all our history,” Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury told the New York Times. “The West is not there, and we are in the hands of two regional powers, the Saudis and Iranians, each of which is fanatical in its own way. I don’t see how they can reach any entente, any rational solution.”
Indeed, without American involvement, U.S. ally Saudi Arabia has taken it upon itself to blunt Iranian influence in Lebanon. In January, it pledged $3 billion to the Lebanese army, hoping to counter Hezbollah’s power. But Assad’s all but certain victory in Syria means that Iran will continue to exert great cultural and political force in Lebanon.
Just as bad, the Obama administration’s early refusal to back non-radical Sunni Syrian rebels resulted in a greater al-Qaeda presence not only in Syria but in Lebanon as well. As Assad continues to drive the rebels from their strongholds, they have been fleeing to Lebanese border towns. Today, Lebanon’s two largest al-Qaeda-associated groups, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades and Jabhat al-Nusra (which took its name from the Syrian group), constitute a growing and deadly threat. They are stepping up suicide attacks on Shiite targets, and Hezbollah is countering with roadblocks and attacks of its own. It wouldn’t take much for ongoing reprisals to lead to civil war. Jabhat al-Nusra has additionally declared the nonsectarian Lebanese army a legitimate target of attack, accusing it of aiding Hezbollah.
The pervasive sectarian strife is maiming Lebanese politics. For nearly a year, reverberations from the Syrian war had deadlocked the parliament’s two main factions. In late March, the parliament finally approved Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s government. His mandate is over on May 25, and there’s little reason to doubt that the country’s leadership will once again be at an impasse. After Salam’s government was approved, Obama spoke with him by phone. The president urged upcoming elections to be held on time and “emphasized the importance of all parties observing Lebanon’s policy of disassociation.” This bit of phoned-in encouragement, divorced entirely from Lebanese reality, makes it clear that the policy of disassociation is an American one.
IX.  The  Jordan  Weather  Vane
Of all the Arab countries, Jordan has the strongest and longest record—stretching back four decades—of pro-American sentiment and policy; the Jordanians also have a uniquely close working relationship with the Israelis (“cousins,” as King Abdullah II refers to them). So the fate of Jordan is of supreme importance to the United States. The king is a reform-minded and modern monarch, and this largely accounts for the monarchy’s ability to survive (so far) the Arab Spring. Protestors in Jordan were not, by and large, subjected to the degree of police-state brutality that took place in neighboring countries. What’s more, Abdullah II quickly enacted electoral reforms that went some way in satisfying Jordanians.
But Jordan is hardly inoculated from the new Middle East upheaval. An influx of some 600,000 Syrian refugees is just one of the Hashemite kingdom’s recent challenges, and it’s proving to be a formidable one. Most of the refugees are making their way to cities, where they are putting unmanageable strain on the country’s already ailing economy and infrastructure. That strain, in turn, is igniting broader unrest that could potentially spark, in the words of one Jordanian official, “a new Arab Spring.” King Abdullah II has recently asked for $4.1 billion in aid to ease the plight of the refugees and mitigate the impact on the country.
Naturally, there’s the challenge of Iran. During the presidency of the fanatical Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the majority-Sunni Jordan recalled its ambassador from Tehran. But today, with the U.S.-led rehabilitation of the Khomeinist regime, there are indications that Jordan has found it prudent to draw closer to the Persians. In February, Haaretz reported that Jordan and Iran would be exchanging ambassadors once again.
And the Muslim Brotherhood is at work there, too. Abdullah II’s father, King Hussein, managed to subdue the Brotherhood and even gain their support for his rule. But the younger, more liberal king has denounced them to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg as a “Masonic cult” and “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” confiding that “behind closed doors, the Muslim Brotherhood here wants to overthrow [the government].”
It must have come as quite a surprise, then, when the king heard from “some of his Western interlocutors,” as Goldberg put it, that “the only way you can have democracy is through the Muslim Brotherhood.” One can only speculate about the identities of these interlocutors, but if they were from Washington, the formulation would fit in with the Obama administration’s belief that the Brotherhood plays a vital role in forging a democratic Middle East. This also jibes with the larger disconnect between observers of the Middle East over here and our most dependable allies in the region. In 2011, Abdullah II told the Washington Post:
I think everybody is wary of dealing with the West…Looking at how quickly people turned their backs on [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, I would say that most people are going to try and go their own way. I think there is going to be less coordination with the West and therefore a chance of more misunderstandings.
In no way does this mean that the Obama administration was wrong to endorse finally Mubarak’s ouster. But Abdullah II’s complaint is further evidence of how the administration’s aimless handling of Egypt failed to earn influence anywhere or gain the respect of any interested party, including our close friends. And his prediction of less coordination and more misunderstanding is proving true. Jordanians, however, are not quite “going their own way.” They’re looking to the Saudis and other Sunni Gulf states for some of the monetary support they used to get from America. In America’s absence, regional influence can be fought for or bought outright. One way or another, the power vacuum will be filled.
As for Jordan’s Syria problem, Obama recently announced that he’d renew a five-year aid package to Jordan and guarantee $1 billion in loans to go toward handling the flood of refugees. These are perfectly fine decisions, but they are small-bore measures compared with the early actions the United States might have taken in trying to prevent the widening gyre of
Syrian chaos.
X.  See-Saw  in  the  Gulf
Saudi Arabia has a long history of funding and fomenting radical Sunni Wahhabism. It played an essential role in creating the jihadism that now threatens the United States and the entire world. But statecraft is about choosing among bad options and frustrating trade-offs, and the world’s largest oil producer is also a tremendously important American ally. For the better part of a century, Saudi Arabia and the United States have been locked into an energy-for-security pact that has proved to be remarkably solid.
The post-9/11 years, paradoxically, have created additional reasons for maintaining the American-Saudi connection. First, the kingdom has come grudgingly to realize that the fundamentalism it fueled now poses a threat to the existence of Saudi Arabia itself. Al-Qaeda attacked the United States foremost because of the American military’s presence in Saudi Arabia during and after the first Gulf War in 1991. The partnership between the two countries has been mutually beneficial, and enemies of the American-Saudi relationship are enemies of the Saudi Royals. Second, the United States and Saudi Arabia share a dangerous and determined enemy in Iran. Khomeinist Shiism is predicated not only on anti-Americanism, but also on an ancient animosity toward Sunni Islam. (Remember, the United States foiled an Iranian plot to kill a Saudi ambassador in Washington D.C.) An Iranian rise necessarily means a Saudi decline. And an Iranian nuclear bomb would be a horrifying reality for Riyadh.
Barack Obama has, in several related ways, jeopardized the Saudis’ standing in the Middle East. First, the United States has failed to back the region’s more moderate Sunnis against the more radical Sunnis. After Mubarak fell in Egypt, the Obama administration endorsed the democratic legitimacy of the Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia (and the United Arab Emirates) put up billions of dollars in support of the secular Egyptian Army. As noted above, Jordan’s moderate Sunnis are now looking to Saudi Arabia for the support that the United States no longer gives. In Syria, the United States failed not only to support the non-radical Sunni rebels early on but also to carry out its threatened strike on Iranian ally Assad. After the American mishandling of Syria, Saudi Arabia saw little choice but to support whatever enemies of Assad they could find. Thus the Saudis, who are combating the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda elsewhere in the region, are now supporting al-Qaeda franchises such as the Nusra Front in Syria.
Of even greater concern is what the Saudis see as Obama’s diplomatic folly with Tehran. Along with many skeptics in Israel and the United States, Saudi Iran-watchers are convinced that the Obama diplomacy track is leading straight to an Iranian nuclear weapon. To demonstrate its seriousness on the matter, Riyadh has all but promised to get a nuclear bomb of its own in the event of Iranian nukes. Naturally, this concern over a rising nuclear Iran has brought the Saudis and the Israelis closer. Saudi Royal Prince Alwaleed bin Talal told Bloomberg News, “The threat is from Persia, not from Israel.” He added: “There’s no confidence in the Obama administration doing the right thing with Iran.” Both the Saudis and Israelis also feel burned by the Obama administration for keeping its diplomatic machinations with Iran largely secret. The Jewish state, in fact, first learned of Obama’s recent deal with Iran from an equally distressed Saudi Arabia. In October, Saudi Arabia took the unprecedented step of walking away from a seat on the UN Security Council in protest of the new global leadership void.
If Saudi Arabia is the big Gulf-Arab loser, then the winner is clearly Qatar. This smaller gas-exporting Sunni monarchy has brilliantly exploited the power vacuum the Saudis abhor. And it’s done so by backing radicals at every step of the way. In Doha, Qatar hosts the extremist Muslim Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi. And Qatari money is behind the Brotherhood in Egypt and al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria. Last year Qatar pledged $400 million in aid to Hamas in Gaza. Recently, the U.S. Treasury tracked big sums going from Qatari and Kuwaiti charities to extremists in Iraq as well. But Qatar isn’t merely throwing money at Islamists. It uses its global broadcasting company Al Jazeera to promote Brotherhood views and criticize its
Gulf rivals.
By deepening ties with ascendant radicals in other countries, Doha hopes to exercise leverage with foreign heads of state. So far the tactic has brought tremendous strain on relations in the Gulf. Obama was supposed to attend a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council this March, but Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain pulled their ambassadors from Qatar in protest over its courting and funding of radicals, and the summit fell apart. The United States is in a difficult position with Qatar because of important military and commercial ties. But the larger point is that the Obama administration’s withdrawal from the region left an enormous space open for energy-funded bad actors to advance their cause.
XI.  The  Tilt Against  Israel
Barack Obama came to office determined to take U.S.-Israel relations in a new direction. Where his predecessor had seen Palestinian intransigence as the main obstacle to Middle East peace, Obama saw Israeli rigidity as the culprit. And while American administrations traditionally understood that Israel was most willing to take risks when it felt its relationship with the United States was secure, Obama’s administration would make historically close American-Israeli ties partially contingent upon Israeli concessions to Palestinians. As he told a group of Jewish leaders at the White House, according to the New York Times, “For eight years [during the Bush administration], there was no light between the United States and Israel, and nothing got accomplished.” On a personal level, Obama considered Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a true partner for peace and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu an atavistic nationalist who would soon be replaced by the more liberal Tzipi Livni.
As he said in his Cairo speech, Obama believed that peace between Israel and the Palestinians “would have a profound and positive impact on the entire Middle East and North Africa.” In other words, he saw an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal as the key to a more pacified Muslim world. So he quickly set about enacting his policy changes. In his first face-to-face talk with Netanyahu in May 2009, Obama told the prime minister that “settlements [on the West Bank] have to be stopped in order for us to move forward.” The theme of stopping settlements was repeated and echoed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who specified that this meant all such settlements, “not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions.”
In November 2009, Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month settlement freeze in order to kick-start new U.S.-led peace negotiations. But if the American approach had changed, the Palestinian one had not. For nine months, Abbas refused to talk. With one month to go, he sat through two meetings before once again walking away from
the process.
And thus the template for Obama-era Israel policy was set. The president would publicly pressure Netanyahu into taking some action (freezing settlements, apologizing to Turkey, releasing Palestinian prisoners), and the Palestinian leadership would brazenly fail to step up to negotiations. As the failures built up, the administration took a heavier line with Israel. In March 2010, Hillary Clinton berated Netanyahu by phone for 43 minutes over settlements. That same month Obama snubbed Netanyahu at the White House. And so a personal animosity would steadily become another unhelpful feature in the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem.
In Obama’s second term, with John Kerry as secretary of state, American disapproval morphed into something closer to American threat. Kerry organized a new round of peace talks (predicated on Israel’s release of dangerous Palestinian prisoners), and those talks stalled due to the Palestinians’ inability to meet the most preliminary demands. In Kerry’s frustration, he wondered aloud last November on Palestinian television, “Does Israel want a third intifada?” In February, he wondered aloud once again, this time in Germany: “There are talks of boycotts and other kinds of things,” he said. “Are we all going to be better with all of that?” These were barely veiled threats that Israel would face boycotts and violence if it didn’t sign on to his “Framework Agreement” for peace.
But when talks resumed, it was Abbas who would not comply with three key details of the Framework: He refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, refused to give up the “right of return” for millions of Palestinians and generations of their descendents, and refused an “end of conflict” with Israel, which is, more or less, the essence of peace itself. In response, Kerry began to downplay the importance of Israel’s being recognized as a Jewish state in the hope that he could get one yes on the board.
The administration’s miscalculations on Israeli-Palestinian peace are multiple and have been self-reinforcing. First, Obama simply inverted the positions of the Palestinians and the Israelis. It is the Palestinian leadership that remains unable to agree to peace with Israel. After decades of making anti-Semitism a foundation of Palestinian culture, Palestinian leaders who would now dare make peace with the Jewish state would live in fear for their lives. Public-opinion polls demonstrated that Israel’s electorate, on the other hand, wants nothing so badly as it wants peace with its neighbors.
Second, while the public criticism of Israel brought about a great many Israeli concessions, it reinforced Palestinian intransigence. What Palestinian leader could take steps toward peace with Israel while Israel’s closest ally is calling the Jewish state stubborn and unreasonable? The disapproval from America also made Netanyahu stronger domestically, as Israelis began to understand just how strong he had to be under these unprecedented circumstances. Finally, as events from 2011 on have demonstrated, the Israel-Palestinian problem has played no role whatsoever in the chain reaction of instability and violence set off by the Arab Spring.
On the matter of stopping Iran’s nuclear quest, the administration has repeatedly reassured Israel that “we’re not going to have talks [with Iran] forever” and that “all options are on the table.” All along, Obama has seen the specter of an Israeli strike on Iranian targets as a potential spoiler of his diplomatic plan to disarm the mullahs. And, now, with the advent of direct negotiations between Washington and Tehran, an Israeli attack would be widely condemned as an act of war on the eve of diplomatic success.
In truth, such an attack has become more likely and more necessary owing to the lengthy and mistaken diplomacy of the Obama administration. In March, Israel Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told a crowd at Tel Aviv University, “We have to behave as though we have nobody to look out for us [on Iran] but ourselves.” And so they must.
It would be the height of unfairness to blame the Obama administration outright for everything that’s happened in the Middle East in the past five years. The region’s bad actors and cultural disorders are often well beyond the reach of the United States, regardless of who’s in office. But limitations are one thing—ineptitude another. It’s simply hard to find a single instance of President Obama responding to recent regional events in a way that has paid off either for the United States or its allies. At the same time, America’s antagonists—chiefly Iran and its enablers—have been emboldened and are now ascendant.
If this is what the Obama administration has gotten in return for a more humble American posture, then it’s time to drop that posture. Dangers like rolling civil wars, a near-nuclear Iran, a re-Talibanized Afghanistan, and a resurgent al-Qaeda will not vanish on their own. This administration has three years to reduce the damage that’s been done. The challenge is enormous, but, despite all these setbacks, the United States remains the strongest power in world history. And, as we’ve seen, a lot can happen in a short amount of time.