U.S. and Israel: The Manufactured Crisis
ELLIOTT ABRAMS 2-26-15
The crisis between the United States and Israel has been manufactured by the Obama administration. Building a crisis up or down is well within the administration’s power, and it has chosen to build it up. Why? Three reasons: to damage and defeat Netanyahu (whom Obama has always disliked simply because he is on the right while Obama is on the left) in his election campaign, to prevent Israel from affecting the Iran policy debate in the United States, and worst of all to diminish Israel’s popularity in the United States and especially among Democrats.
Suppose for a moment that the Netanyahu speech before Congress is a mistake, a breach of protocol, a campaign maneuver, indeed all the bad things the White House is calling it. Grant all of that for a moment for the sake of argument and the behavior of the Obama administration is still inexplicable. Clearly more is behind its conduct than mere pique over the speech.
First comes the personal relationship and the desire to see Netanyahu lose the election. Recall that Obama became president before Netanyahu became prime minister, and it is obvious that the dislike was both personal and political before Netanyahu had done anything. Obama does not like people on the right, period—Americans, Israelis, Australians, you name it. Obama also decided immediately on taking office to pick a fight with Israel and make construction in settlements and in Jerusalem the central issue in U.S.-Israeli relations. Remember that he appointed George Mitchell as his special negotiator one day after assuming the presidency, and Mitchell was the father of the demand that construction—including even construction to accommodate what Mitchell called “natural growth” of families in settlement populations—be stopped dead. A confrontation was inevitable, and was desired by the White House.
Obama has overplayed his hand, in the sense that in poll after poll Israelis say that they do not support his Middle East policies. Historically, an Israeli prime minister loses domestic support when he cannot manage relations with Washington. This year may be the exception, the time when Israelis want a prime minister to oppose U.S. policies they view as dangerous. They may also believe that the Obama administration is simply so hostile that no prime minister could avoid confrontations.
I well remember how we in the Bush White House handled the poor personal relations between the president and French president Jacques Chirac. In 2004-2005 especially, the two men did not get along (arguing mostly about Iraq and just plain disliking each other as well) but we wanted to prevent their poor personal chemistry from damaging bilateral relations. So National Security Advisor Condi Rice in 2004, and then her successor Steve Hadley in 2005, set up a work-around. The French National Security Advisor Maurice Gourdault-Montagne traveled to Washington almost every month and came to the White House. There the French ambassador to the U.S., Jean-David Levitte, joined him for meetings with key NSC, DOD, and State Department officials. In 2005, Secretary of State Rice would come over from State to join Hadley and several of us on the NSC staff, and in the course of a half-day we would review every issue facing the United States and France. It was a serious time commitment for the American and French officials, but that is because we were determined to quarantine bad personal chemistry and prevent it from infecting the entire relationship—a goal set by President Bush himself.
Quite obviously, President Obama has no such goal. Israeli officials have complained to me for several years about the lack of contacts and communications with the White House. Susan Rice has determined that her job is to make bilateral relations worse, and has established no relationship with her Israeli counterpart Yossi Cohen. So the problem is not just bad chemistry at the top; it is an administration that has decided to create a tense and negative relationship from the top down.
Saturday, February 28, 2015
Appeasement in Our Time
By Dr. Michael Makovsky 2-27-15
it's become impossible not to think of the 1938 Munich conference where Britain and France agreed that strategically and economically vital check territory ceded to GermanLeaving soon after the German conquest of Czechoslovakia in world war 2 America's lead you with online community is unnecessary and catastrophic recklessness is an inexplicable unforced error that will have disastrous consequences unless Congress or Israely-27-15
Is Barack Obama another Neville Chamberlain? I've been reluctant to make the comparison, but as talks with Iran have unfolded, it's become impossible not to think of the 1938 Munich conference, where Britain and France agreed that strategically and economically vital Czech territory be ceded to Germany, leading soon after to German conquest of Czechoslovakia and World War II. America's looming deal with Iran rivals Munich in its unnecessary and catastrophic recklessness. It is an inexplicable unforced error that will have disastrous consequences unless Congress, or Israel, does something to stop it.
An acceptable diplomatic solution to the danger posed by Iran's nuclear program might have been available, but only had the United States maintained tough sanctions and a credible threat of military force and the danger posed by Iran's nuclear program might have been available. President Obama instead utterly undermined U.S. leverage and has offered so many irresponsible concessions that any deal struck under this president would be a dangerous deal.
First, the administration, through the Joint Plan of Action interim deal, conceded that Iran can maintain its nuclear program, contravening decades of U.S. policy and multiple legally binding U.N. Security Council resolutions. We won't be able to stop the proliferation cascade that will ensue in a region already rife with violence and instability.
Second, the administration moved its stated red line from denying Iran nuclear weapons capacity to ensuring its nuclear breakout time is at least a year. But there's really no way to guarantee that. The multitude of steps across multiple institutions that would have to be taken to detect, verify, and try to resolve diplomatically any Iranian attempt to sneak out or break out means a year would pass before a military strike could even be considered. In any case, prompt and thorough verification would be virtually unachievable because the deal won't require full Iranian transparency on its past research into nuclear weapons technology.
Third, with the latest U.S. offer reportedly allowing 6,500 operating centrifuges, Iran would have to verifiably export or eliminate almost all its enriched uranium stockpiles to push the breakout time to more than 12 months-something it won't do. It would also have to verifiably dismantle the rest of its 19,000 centrifuges-something it won't be required to do.
Fourth, the deal will include a sunset clause whereby Iran eventually would become a normalized nuclear power operating as large an enrichment program as it likes. So in perhaps a decade, based on recent reports, Iran could be treated like Japan.
Finally, the deal ignores Iran's ballistic missile program-the largest in the Middle East-despite ongoing advances that could allow it to develop the capability to target the United States around the same time the agreement would expire.
One could go on, but it's clear that Obama is not trying to prevent a nuclear Iran and merely hoping to manage its approach to that point. This is an error of potentially catastrophic significance, representing in several ways a more unnecessary and unjustified betrayal than Munich.
Chamberlain believed he alone could secure peace with Hitler and integrate Germany into the community of nations. He chose not to work with the Soviet Union or the United States, which would have given him more leverage against Berlin. In cutting out potential partners and capitulating completely to Hitler, he upended a growing anti-German coalition and solidified the Führer's domestic position. Notably, though, Britain didn't have deep-seated strategic ties with or treaty obligations to the Czechs or neighboring countries.
The United States, however, does have enduring strategic relationships with the countries whose existence is threatened by a nuclear Iran. We have supported Israel since its founding. For decades, U.S. policymakers have spoken of the country as our closest ally in the region, with whom we have close cultural, diplomatic, economic, military, and intelligence ties. We also have supported the Sunni Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, through military sales, basing agreements, intelligence cooperation, and the (Jimmy) Carter Doctrine's explicit promise to defend the region from outside aggression. The primary threat to both our Arab and Israeli allies for decades has been the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Obama administration is willing to ignore these close ties and betray our allies-completely unnecessarily. In 1938, Britain's global position was in decline while Germany was rearming. In contrast, the United States today remains the world's sole superpower, capable of inflicting tremendous damage on Iran-a third-rate power suffering from sanctions-that would set back its nuclear program for years. Yet Obama has chosen to put himself into as weak a position as Chamberlain found himself in.
As damaging as Munich was to Britain's global position, a bad deal with Iran could do worse damage to American global leadership. Given our historical interests in the region and 20-year bipartisan commitment to preventing a nuclear Iran, American credibility would be severely undermined. Any offer of a "nuclear umbrella" to protect our Arab allies will ring hollow if America isn't prepared to fight a limited conventional war to prevent a nuclear Iran now, when the costs and risks are lower. America's Arab allies would pursue their own nuclear deterrents, and/or feel compelled to cut deals with Iran, Russia, or China. Credibility is the currency of a deterrent posture, and few countries in Asia or Europe would believe in American commitments once the United States abandoned its core, longstanding, prominent interests in the Middle East. Israel could choose not to become another Czechoslovakia and preemptively attack Iran's nuclear facilities. All this makes the prospect of wars in the Middle East-including nuclear conflicts-much more likely. Congress should vote to reject the deal if it's made, and presidential candidates should declare they will not be bound by any such deal if they are elected.
Chamberlain told the British public that in Munich he had achieved "peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time." Churchill argued in response, "You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war." The same can be said of President Obama as he approaches his Munich.
Brigitte Gabriel keynote speaker at United Nations Sept 2014. Video 13:58
Brigitte Gabriel heads ACT for America, the biggest national security organization in America with chapters in eleven countries.
Friday, February 27, 2015
MIL-ED submission by Dr. JL: " I believe this is a succinct, forceful and accurate synopsis of our quandary today. Give this a serious look and listen. I believe that this is a speech that every American should hear as to the threat and as to our government's handling of the threat."
THE WORLD MOVES TOWARD A BAD DEAL
Dore Gold 2-28-15
Just last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran's declared nuclear facilities, issued its latest report. As in previous reports, Iran's stock of low-enriched uranium from all its nuclear facilities together continues to grow -- it is now understood to be at 14,174 kilograms (31,248 pounds).
The report does not say this, but a quick calculation leads to the following disturbing conclusion: The roughly 8,000 kilograms (17,637 pounds) of that amount that are already in a gaseous form and can be injected into centrifuges for further enrichment are sufficient for at least seven atomic bombs. The speed with which the Iranians could do this largely depends on the number of centrifuges any future agreement will allow them to keep.
But the most disturbing part of the new report has to do with the ongoing concern of the IAEA with what it calls "the possible military dimensions" of the Iranian nuclear program. It refers to "undisclosed nuclear related activities," which involve military-related organizations. According to the report, these activities include "the development of a nuclear payload for a missile." In other words, Iranian work on a nuclear warhead.
The IAEA refers to a detailed study it presented a few years ago in 2011 on this subject. At that time the IAEA disclosed that the Iranians were working on "the removal of the conventional high explosive payload from the warhead of the Shahab 3 missile and replacing it with a spherical nuclear payload." The Shahab 3 missile, which became operational in the Iranian armed forces in 2003, has a range of 1,300 kilometers (808 miles) and can reach Israel even when launched from Iranian territory.
The Shahab 3 has also been regularly displayed in Iranian military parades. On the missile carrier, on which it is transported, there is usually a sign attached stating that "Israel must be wiped off the map" (as was the case in 2004) or that "Israel must be destroyed " (as in 2013).
By presenting the data it possessed on the possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program, the IAEA completely contradicted Iran's claim that it is only enriching uranium for civilian purposes, like the production of electricity from nuclear reactors. In 2011, the IAEA carefully checked the sensitive information it acquired about "a nuclear explosive device" and concluded it was "credible." Now in its latest 2015 report, the IAEA added that it had since that time received more information that "further corroborated the analysis" from 2011.
Yet according to the latest IAEA report from last week, Iran was still hiding its military program. It refused to provide any details about the concerns raised in past IAEA reports. It also refused to give the IAEA access to its Parchin weapons facility, which the West had repeatedly requested.
Instead, Tehran tampered with the site making verification of any work on nuclear weapons more difficult for inspectors in the future: The Iranians poured asphalt on large areas inside of the Parchin complex, making soil samples for checking the presence of radioactivity hard to obtain. With no baseline on how far the Iranians have progressed in their weapons work, there is no way the new agreement can cover the whole issue of weaponization, leaving a huge hole in any agreement.
Iran dismissively stated that all these issues related to its military program were "mere allegations and do not merit consideration."
Unfortunately, the P5+1 did not put the clarification by Iran of its past military activities as a requirement in its interim agreement with Iran in 2013. Originally, when the interim agreement was reached, the White House put out a "fact sheet" stating that the U.S. understood that Iran would have to address the military dimensions of its nuclear program, including the Parchin issue.
But that did not happen and nonetheless the P5+1 progressed with Iran nonetheless, focusing mainly on uranium enrichment, and here only partly. A senior U.S. official, who preferred to remain anonymous, stressed in a February 2014 press conference in Vienna, that this important issue of Iran's past military activities was between the IAEA and Iran but was not part of the understandings between the P5+1 and Iran. Parchin illustrated the Iranian tendency to hide facilities from the West that were later discovered. It showed why it was so difficult to trust the Iranians to keep their written agreements.
Indeed, Parchin was not the only problem. This Tuesday, on Feb. 24, the MEK -- the Iranian opposition group that disclosed in the past many of Iran's secret facilities, like Natantz and Arak -- made yet another revelation about the Iranian nuclear program during a press conference in Washington. It uncovered an underground facility near Tehran called Lavizan-3, where Iran was secretly developing a new generations of centrifuges that could enrich uranium at much greater speeds.
The U.S. has known for years about faster Iranian centrifuges, but the question that arises from this latest revelation is why Iran was determined to keep the production of these fast centrifuges a secret. Perhaps, the facility was part of a parallel nuclear program which would allow Iran to break out of any limitations that were instituted by the international community in the future.
The new agreement between Iran and the P5+1 that is presently being completed will leave Iran's massive nuclear infrastructure largely intact. But if Parchin teaches the West any lesson, it is that Iran has not put its weaponization efforts on the negotiating table, nor will it. Neither has it agreed to allow its huge ballistic missile forces to become a subject of discussion. For that reason, Israeli spokespeople have been saying that Iran will be at the threshold of having nuclear weapons, and can be described as a threshold nuclear power. Undoubtedly, there are those in the West who are convinced that if Iran violates its agreement and crosses the threshold to assemble a nuclear weapon it would immediately face a strong reaction which could include the use of force.
There is an enormous problem for anyone who thinks that this last stage of assembling a nuclear weapon can be reliably detected. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made this point on April 11, 2010, when he appeared on the American news show "Meet the Press." He stated: "If their policy is to go to the threshold but not assemble a nuclear weapon, how do you tell they have not assembled? I don't know how you would verify that." Gates understood how intelligence collection worked since he was head of the CIA in the 1990s.
The former head of the CIA, Michael Hayden, reached a similar conclusion in testimony he gave before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Nov. 20, 2014. He told the Congressmen bluntly: "Absent an invasive inspection regime, with freedom to visit all sites on short notice, American intelligence cannot provide adequate warning of Iranian nuclear developments."
In short, Iran could acquire nuclear weapons without being detected unless a future agreement gave the West the right to move all over Iran with little notification. Given the struggle over Parchin and other sites, there is no indication that the West will have an inspection regime of this sort.
THE FATAL FLAW IN THE IRAN DEAL Charles Krauthammer February 26 , 2015
A sunset clause?
The news from the nuclear talks with Iran was already troubling. Iran was being granted the “right to enrich.” It would be allowed to retain and spin thousands of centrifuges. It could continue construction of the Arak plutonium reactor. Yet so thoroughly was Iran stonewalling International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors that just last Thursday the IAEA reported its concern “about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed . . . development of a nuclear payload for a missile.”
Bad enough. Then it got worse: News leaked Monday of the elements of a “sunset clause.” President Obama had accepted the Iranian demand that any restrictions on its program be time-limited. After which, the mullahs can crank up their nuclear program at will and produce as much enriched uranium as they want.
Sanctions lifted. Restrictions gone. Nuclear development legitimized. Iran would reenter the international community, as Obama suggested in an interview in December, as “a very successful regional power.” A few years — probably around 10 — of good behavior and Iran would be home free.
The agreement thus would provide a predictable path to an Iranian bomb. Indeed, a flourishing path, with trade resumed, oil pumping and foreign investment pouring into a restored economy.
Meanwhile, Iran’s intercontinental ballistic missile program is subject to no restrictions at all. It’s not even part of these negotiations.
Why is Iran building them? You don’t build ICBMs in order to deliver sticks of dynamite. Their only purpose is to carry nuclear warheads. Nor does Iran need an ICBM to hit Riyadh or Tel Aviv. Intercontinental missiles are for reaching, well, other continents. North America, for example.
Such an agreement also means the end of nonproliferation. When a rogue state defies the world, continues illegal enrichment and then gets the world to bless an eventual unrestricted industrial-level enrichment program, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is dead. And regional hyperproliferation becomes inevitable as Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others seek shelter in going nuclear themselves.
Wasn’t Obama’s great international cause a nuclear-free world? Within months of his swearing-in, he went to Prague to so declare. He then led a 50-party Nuclear Security Summit, one of whose proclaimed achievements was having Canada give up some enriched uranium.
Having disarmed the Canadian threat, Obama turned to Iran. The deal now on offer to the ayatollah would confer legitimacy on the nuclearization of the most rogue of rogue regimes: radically anti-American, deeply jihadist, purveyor of terrorism from Argentina to Bulgaria, puppeteer of a Syrian regime that specializes in dropping barrel bombs on civilians. In fact, the Iranian regime just this week, at the apex of these nuclear talks, staged a spectacular attack on a replica U.S. carrier near the Strait of Hormuz.
Well, say the administration apologists, what’s your alternative? Do you want war?
It’s Obama’s usual, subtle false-choice maneuver: It’s either appeasement or war.
It’s not. True, there are no good choices, but Obama’s prospective deal is the worst possible. Not only does Iran get a clear path to the bomb but it gets sanctions lifted, all pressure removed and international legitimacy.
There is a third choice. If you are not stopping Iran’s program, don’t give away the store. Keep the pressure, keep the sanctions. Indeed, increase them. After all, previous sanctions brought Iran to its knees and to the negotiating table in the first place. And that was before the collapse of oil prices, which would now vastly magnify the economic effect of heightened sanctions.
Congress is proposing precisely that. Combined with cheap oil, it could so destabilize the Iranian economy as to threaten the clerical regime. That’s the opening. Then offer to renew negotiations for sanctions relief but from a very different starting point — no enrichment. Or, if you like, with a few token centrifuges for face-saving purposes.
And no sunset.
That’s the carrot. As for the stick, make it quietly known that the United States will not stand in the way of any threatened nation that takes things into its own hands. We leave the regional threat to the regional powers, say, Israeli bombers overflying Saudi Arabia.
Consider where we began: six U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding an end to Iranian enrichment. Consider what we are now offering: an interim arrangement ending with a sunset clause that allows the mullahs a robust, industrial-strength, internationally sanctioned nuclear program.
Such a deal makes the Cuba normalization look good and the Ukrainian cease-fires positively brilliant. We are on the cusp of an epic capitulation. History will not be kind.
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
by David P. Goldman February 24th, 2015
The world now anticipates that the U.S. will reach a strategic agreement with Iran. Russia and China are responding by offering their own deals to Tehran. A possible game-changer is Russia’s offer of the Antey-2500 air defense system to Iran. After canceling the planned delivery of the older, shorter-range S-300 system in 2010, Russia has now escalated drastically by proposing to sell Iran a much more effective system. Western air forces have never engaged the Russian system, so we don’t know how exactly good it is. No-one I know in the military wants to find out; by Western estimates, the Russian systems are extremely good. It is possible that Russia’s unwelcome intervention might make Iran effectively impregnable from attack by Israel. The Antey-2500 can take down missiles as well as airplanes.
In addition, Russia is retaliating against the West’s stance on Ukraine. Russia has made it clear all along that it would respond to Western efforts to remove Crimea from Russia by making trouble in Iran, as Russia’s deputy foreign minister warned last March. Russia, unlike the U.S., views the world as a single chessboard: attack my position here, and I will hurt you somewhere else where you are not prepared. Putin isn’t crazy; he’s a Russian commander in the classic mold, forcing the burden of uncertainty onto his adversary, muddying the waters and leaving his opponent guessing. His countermoves on the global chessboard include a prospective alliance with China as well as mischief in the Persian Gulf. My conservative friends who urge us to “stand up to Putin” should take a cold, dispassionate look at the whole of the chessboard and anticipate moves of this sort; otherwise, the whole thing is a lot of beery blather. As I wrote recently, Israel takes the brunt of American policy blunders. What happens if Putin gives Iran the means to shoot down anything Israel (and a good deal of what the U.S.) might throw at it? No-one in Washington seems to ask such questions. I’ve been warning about such a development for the past five years (see “When the Cat’s Away, the Mice Kill Each Other,” Oct. 20, 2009).
China, which depends on Persian Gulf oil more than any other major economy, is watching these developments with alarm, as a Feb. 22 Xinhua commentary makes clear (hat tip: M.K. Bhadrakumar):
U.S. President Barack Obama, who admitted that Washington “brokered a deal to transition power in Ukraine” a year ago, has warned that a collapse in the peace process could push his country into approving deliveries of weapons to the East European country. Such a proposal is not only counterproductive, but also dangerous. Indeed, the Americans might be the only one poised to gain from the Ukraine crisis with both Europe and Russia being weakened, but they should be mindful that one who sees the crisis as a power game would only drag itself into the quagmire. By antagonizing Russia, for instance, Uncle Sam might lose a possible – and powerful – partner in its ongoing anti-terrorism drive in the Middle East.
That hardly needs translation: Beijing is worried about instability in the Persian Gulf, whose oil China needs more than any other major economy, and observes that Russia is in position to stir up instability in retaliation for Western intervention in Ukraine. Russia may be a second-rate power, but it still is a power in the Middle East, as well as the purveyor of game-changing military technologies.
China, meanwhile, is courting Iran. Visiting Tehran Feb. 15, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi “said that increasing relations with Iran is one of his country’s foreign policy priorities….Cooperation between Beijing and Tehran is of strategic importance and beyond bilateral relationship, Wang added. The Chinese foreign minister also said that the nuclear talks between Iran and the 5+1 group (the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) have entered final phases and nothing should be done to prevent the talks to yield a result….Wang also expressed his country’s opposition to Western-led sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program.” China operates on the principal that one should keep one’s friends close and one’s enemies closer. It has sold a great deal of weapons to Iran, but sold much better weapons to Saudi Arabia, including top-of-the-line intermediate range missiles that give KSA “a formidable deterrence capability” against Iran, in the words of one Chinese analyst.
Now Beijing faces the prospect that Iran will become the dominant regional player with de facto help from the United States, and is trying to reposition itself as an Iranian ally — while Russia does the same thing. It’s a bidding war for the good graces of the craziest regime on earth.
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Our Dangerous Historical Moment---
Obama and European leaders are repeating the mistakes of their 1930s predecessors.
By Victor Davis Hanson — February 19, 2015
World War II was the most destructive war in history. What caused it?
The panic from the ongoing and worldwide Depression in the 1930s had empowered extremist movements the world over. Like-minded, violent dictators of otherwise quite different Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Imperial Japan, and the Communist Soviet Union all wanted to attack their neighbors.
Yet World War II could have been prevented had Western Europe united to deter Germany. Instead, France, Britain, and the smaller European democracies appeased Hitler.
The United States turned isolationist. The Soviet Union collaborated with the Third Reich. And Italy and Japan eventually joined it.
The 1930s saw rampant anti-Semitism. Jews were blamed in fascist countries for the economic downturn. They were scapegoated in democracies for stirring up the fascists. The only safe havens for Jews from Europe were Jewish-settled Palestine and the United States.
Does all this sound depressingly familiar?
The aftershocks of the global financial meltdown of 2008 still paralyze the European Union while prompting all sorts of popular extremist movements and opportunistic terrorists.
After the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, America has turned inward. The Depression and the lingering unhappiness over World War I did the same to Americans in the 1930s.
Premodern monsters are on the move. The Islamic State is carving up Syria and Iraq to fashion a fascist caliphate.
Vladimir Putin gobbles up his neighbors in Ossetia, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine, in crude imitation of the way Germany once swallowed Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.
Theocratic Iran is turning Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon into a new Iranian version of Japan’s old Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
The Western response to all this? Likewise, similar to the 1930s.
The NATO allies are terrified that Putin will next attack the NATO-member Baltic states — and that their own paralysis will mean the embarrassing end of the once-noble alliance.
The United States has now fled from four Middle Eastern countries. It forfeited its post-surge victory in Iraq. It was chased out of Libya after the killings of Americans in Benghazi. American red lines quickly turned pink in Syria. U.S. Marines just laid down their weapons and flew out of the closed American embassy in Yemen.
America has convinced its European partners to drop tough sanctions against Iran. In the manner of the Allies in 1938 at Munich, they prefer instead to charm Iran, in hopes it will stop making a nuclear bomb.
The Islamic State has used almost a year of unchallenged aggression to remake the map of the Middle East. President Obama had variously dismissed it as a jayvee team or merely akin to the problems that big-city mayors face.
Europeans pay out millions to ransom their citizens from radical Islamic hostage-beheaders. Americans handed over terrorist kingpins to get back a likely Army deserter.
Then we come to the return of the Jewish question. Seventy years after the end of the Holocaust, Jews are once again leaving France. They have learned that weak governments either will not or cannot protect them from Islamic terrorists.
In France, radical Islamists recently targeted a kosher market. In Denmark, they went after a synagogue. In South Africa, students demanded the expulsion of Jewish students from a university. A Jewish prosecutor who was investigating the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina was found mysteriously murdered.
Meanwhile, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being blamed for stoking Middle Eastern tensions. Who cares that he resides over the region’s only true democracy, one that is stable and protects human rights? Obama-administration aides have called him a coward and worse. President Obama has dismissed the radical Islamists’ targeting of Jews in France merely as “randomly shoot[ing] a bunch of folks in a deli.”
Putin, the Islamic State, and Iran at first glance have as little in common as did Germany, Italy, and Japan. But like the old Axis, they are all authoritarians that share a desire to attack their neighbors. And they all hate the West.
The grandchildren of those who appeased the dictators of the 1930s once again prefer in the short term to turn a blind eye to the current fascists. And the grandchildren of the survivors of the Holocaust once again get blamed.
The 1930s should have taught us that aggressive autocrats do not have to like each other to share hatred of the West.
The 1930s should have demonstrated to us that old-time American isolationism and the same old European appeasement will not prevent but only guarantee a war.
And the 1930s should have reminded us that Jews are usually among the first — but not the last — to be targeted by terrorists, thugs, and autocrats.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals. You can reach him by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2015 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
Monday, February 23, 2015
By Fred Hiatt Editorial page editor washington post
February 22, 2015
Can President Obama sell an Iran deal at home?
If his negotiators strike an agreement next month, we already know that it will be far from ideal: Rather than eradicating Iran’s nuclear-weapons potential, as once was hoped, a pact would seek to control Iran’s activities for some limited number of years.
Such a deal might be defensible on the grounds that it is better than any alternative, given that most experts believe a military “solution” would be at best temporary and possibly counterproductive.
But making that kind of lesser-evil defense would be challenging in any circumstances. Three conditions will make it particularly hard for Obama to persuade Congress and the nation to accept his assurances in this case: the suspicious, poisonous partisanship of the moment here, with Israeli politics mixed in; worries that he wants a deal too much; and the record of his past assurances.
The partisanship needs no explanation, but the record of foreign-policy assurances is worth recalling:
●In 2011, when he decided to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq, Obama belittled worries that instability might result. Iraq and the United States would maintain “a strong and enduring partnership,” Obama said. Iraq would be “stable, secure and self-reliant,” and Iraqis would build a future “worthy of their history as a cradle of civilization.”
Today Iraq is in deep trouble, with a murderous “caliphate” occupying much of its territory and predatory Shiite militia roaming through much of the rest.
●That same year, Obama touted his bombing campaign in Libya as a model of U.S. intervention and promised, “That’s not to say that our work is complete. In addition to our NATO responsibilities, we will work with the international community to provide assistance to the people of Libya.”
The United States and its NATO allies promptly abandoned Libya, which today is in the grip of civil war, with rival governments in the east and west and Islamist terrorists in between.
●Obama also said then, “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
That was before Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs, systematic and well-documented prison torture and other depredations of civil war killed 200,000 of his compatriots , and drove millions more from their homes.
●In August 2011, Obama declared that Assad must “step aside.” In a background briefing a senior White House official added, “We are certain Assad is on the way out.” In August 2013 came Obama’s statement that “the worst chemical attack of the 21st century . . . must be confronted. . . . I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets.”
No military action was taken, and Assad remains in power.
●In September, the president said his strategy for defeating the Islamic State “is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” Shortly thereafter, an Iran-backed rebellion deposed Yemen’s pro-U.S. government, forcing the United States to abandon its embassy and much of its anti-terror operation.
●Just last month, in the State of the Union address, Obama presented his Ukraine policy as a triumph of “American strength and diplomacy.
“We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small by opposing Russian aggression and supporting Ukraine’s democracy,” he said.
Since then Russian forces have extended their incursion into Ukraine, now controlling nearly one-fifth of its territory. Russia’s economy is hurting, but Ukraine’s is in far worse shape.
This litany of unfulfilled assurances is less a case of Nixonian deception than a product of wishful thinking and stubborn adherence to policies after they have failed. But inevitably it will affect how people hear Obama’s promises on Iran, as will his overall foreign policy record.
That record includes successes, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden, warming ties with India and a potentially groundbreaking agreement with China on climate change. By most measures, though, the world has not become safer during Obama’s tenure. Islamist extremists are stronger than ever; democracy is in retreat around the globe; relations with Russia and North Korea have worsened; allies are questioning U.S. steadfastness.
Friday, February 20, 2015
The U.S.-Israel divide on Iran
By Dennis Ross February 20, 2015
The writer, a counselor and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was a special assistant to President Obama from 2009 to 2011.
The controversy over Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of Congress has had the ironic effect of diverting attention from the very topic the Israeli prime minister wants to discuss: the problems with a potential deal on the Iranian nuclear program. Although everyone debates the propriety of the Israeli prime minister challenging President Obama’s policy in such a setting, the partisan nature of the invitation and the timing of the speech — just two weeks before an Israeli election — the substance of the issue has been pushed aside. Why is there such a divide between the United States’ and Israel’s positions, and can they be bridged?
There is no disguising the gap between the president and prime minister. Obama is clearly prepared to accept a deal that would limit the Iranian nuclear program for perhaps the next 15 years and in a way that ensures the Iranians would be a year away from being able to produce weapons-grade uranium. Iran, however, would not be required to dismantle any nuclear facilities or infrastructure — and, after the agreement expires, would be permitted to have an industrial-size nuclear program and be treated like any other party to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).
In Netanyahu’s view, however, that means leaving Iran as a nuclear-threshold state. Though the prime minister’s public posture is that Iran must not be allowed any enrichment capacity and that its nuclear facilities should be dismantled, my conversations with Israelis suggest that they could, in fact, live with an agreement that permits Iran a small enrichment capability. Their view is that, in return for a rollback of sanctions, there must be a serious rollback of the Iranian nuclear program. By contrast, the deal reportedly under consideration would limit the Iranian nuclear program, not meaningfully diminish it, in return for a rollback of sanctions.
The Israelis argue that if Iran is permitted to have an industrial-size nuclear energy program, it would be able to become a nuclear weapons state at a time of its choosing. Indeed, the transparency or verification system needed to detect a so-called breakout by a small program is unlikely to work for a very large one. Olli Heinonen, a former official at the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is responsible for verification, has been outspoken on this point. Heinonen has emphasized that what might be effective for a program with 1,000 to 2,000 centrifuges will not work for one with tens of thousands of centrifuges unless new protocols are developed, access is redefined and additional inspectors are permitted.
Thus, at least in part, the Israeli fear is related to the difficulty of verifying that the Iranians are complying with the NPT once they have an industrial-size program. No doubt it is also driven by concerns about the will of the United States and other nations to prevent Iran from crossing the weapons threshold, particularly if they have accepted a deal in which Iran is permitted a large nuclear infrastructure. Could the Obama administration address those fears?
Yes, provided that the administration is prepared to take two steps.
First, it should ensure that the verification measures in the deal provide for “anywhere, anytime” access to all declared and undeclared facilities, and buttress these measures, which are in the additional protocol of the NPT, with new means to enable effective inspection of a large nuclear program. Since any deal with Iran would serve as a precedent, the United States’ five negotiating partners should support this.
Second, it should be prepared to spell out in advance the consequences for all classes of violations of the agreement. For the most egregious, indicating a dash toward weapons-grade production, the use of force should be the result. Such consequences would be far more credible if the administration worked them out with Congress and they were enshrined in legislation — and if those consequences, especially the use of force, were also applied to an Iranian move to develop nuclear weapons after the term of the agreement.
Incorporating these measures in legislation would send a clear signal and demonstrate that the president and Congress are unified on this issue. It would also serve as a deterrent to Iran and reassure the Israelis about the certainty of our action — removing a key source of their fear of the agreement.
The administration, too, should find this approach acceptable. It would not jeopardize current diplomacy, it would give the administration a way to cooperate with Congress and it would give those on the Hill an outlet for their desire to have an imprint on the deal. And it would be consistent with the core of the administration’s argument: The agreement would limit the Iranian program and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons — and we would be able to deter the Iranians even after the 15-year period of the deal. It just might also bridge the gap between Obama and Netanyahu.
Thursday, February 19, 2015
On Obama's Iran Strategy
1. Obama's Secret Iran Strategy
MICHAEL DORAN 2-2-15
Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a former senior researcher at Brookings,deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council.
The president has long been criticized for his lack of strategic vision. But what if a strategy, centered on Iran, has been in place from the start and consistently followed to this day?
President Barack Obama wishes the Islamic Republic of Iran every success. Its leaders, he explained in a recent interview, stand at a crossroads. They can choose to press ahead with their nuclear program, thereby continuing to flout the will of the international community and further isolate their country; or they can accept limitations on their nuclear ambitions and enter an era of harmonious relations with the rest of the world. “They have a path to break through that isolation and they should seize it,” the president urged—because “if they do, there’s incredible talent and resources and sophistication . . . inside of Iran, and it would be a very successful regional power.”
How eager is the president to see Iran break through its isolation and become a very successful regional power? Very eager. A year ago, Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national-security adviser for strategic communication and a key member of the president’s inner circle, shared some good news with a friendly group of Democratic-party activists. The November 2013 nuclear agreement between Tehran and the “P5+1”—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—represented, he said, not only “the best opportunity we’ve had to resolve the Iranian [nuclear] issue,” but “probably the biggest thing President Obama will do in his second term on foreign policy.” For the administration, Rhodes emphasized, “this is healthcare . . . , just to put it in context.” Unaware that he was being recorded, he then confided to his guests that Obama was planning to keep Congress in the dark and out of the picture: “We’re already kind of thinking through, how do we structure a deal so we don’t necessarily require legislative action right away.”
Why the need to bypass Congress? Rhodes had little need to elaborate. As the president himself once noted balefully, “[T]here is hostility and suspicion toward Iran, not just among members of Congress but the American people”—and besides, “members of Congress are very attentive to what Israel says on its security issues.” And that “hostility and suspicion” still persist, prompting the president in his latest State of the Union address to repeat his oft-stated warning that he will veto “any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo [the] progress” made so far toward a “comprehensive agreement” with the Islamic Republic.
As far as the president is concerned, the less we know about his Iran plans, the better. Yet those plans, as Rhodes stressed, are not a minor or incidental component of his foreign policy. To the contrary, they are central to his administration’s strategic thinking about the role of the United States in the world, and especially in the Middle East.
Moreover, that has been true from the beginning. In the first year of Obama’s first term, a senior administration official would later tell David Sanger of the New York Times, “There were more [White House] meetings on Iran than there were on Iraq, Afghanistan, and China. It was the thing we spent the most time on and talked about the least in public [emphasis added].” All along, Obama has regarded his hoped-for “comprehensive agreement” with Iran as an urgent priority, and, with rare exceptions, has consistently wrapped his approach to that priority in exceptional layers of secrecy.
From time to time, critics and even friends of the president have complained vocally about the seeming disarray or fecklessness of the administration’s handling of foreign policy. Words like amateurish, immature, and incompetent are bandied about; what’s needed, we’re told, is less ad-hoc fumbling, more of a guiding strategic vision. Most recently, Leslie Gelb, a former government official and past president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has charged that “the Obama team lacks the basic instincts and judgment necessary to conduct U.S. national-security policy,” and has urged the president to replace the entire inner core of his advisers with “strong and strategic people of proven . . . experience.”
One sympathizes with Gelb’s sense of alarm, but his premises are mistaken. Inexperience is a problem in this administration, but there is no lack of strategic vision. Quite the contrary: a strategy has been in place from the start, and however clumsily it may on occasion have been implemented, and whatever resistance it has generated abroad or at home, Obama has doggedly adhered to the policies that have flowed from it.
In what follows, we’ll trace the course of the most important of those policies and their contribution to the president’s announced determination to encourage and augment Iran’s potential as a successful regional power and as a friend and partner to the United States.
2009-2010: Round One, Part I
In the giddy aftermath of Obama’s electoral victory in 2008, anything seemed possible. The president saw himself as a transformational leader, not just in domestic politics but also in the international arena, where, as he believed, he had been elected to reverse the legacy of his predecessor, George W. Bush. To say that Obama regarded Bush’s foreign policy as anachronistic is an understatement. To him it was a caricature of yesteryear, the foreign-policy equivalent of Leave It to Beaver. Obama’s mission was to guide America out of Bushland, an arena in which the United States assembled global military coalitions to defeat enemies whom it depicted in terms like “Axis of Evil,” and into Obamaworld, a place more attuned to the nuances, complexities, and contradictions—and opportunities—of the 21st century. In today’s globalized environment, Obama told the United Nations General Assembly in September 2009, “our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. . . . No balance of power among nations will hold.”
If, in Bushland, America had behaved like a sheriff, assembling a posse to go in search of monsters, in Obamaworld America would disarm its rivals by ensnaring them in a web of cooperation.
For the new president, nothing revealed the conceptual inadequacies of Bushland more clearly than the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Before coming to Washington, Obama had opposed the toppling of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein; once in the U.S. Senate, he rejected Bush’s “surge” and introduced legislation to end the war. Shortly after his inauguration in January 2009, he pledged to bring the troops home quickly—a commitment that he would indeed honor. But if calling for withdrawal from Iraq had been a relatively easy position to take for a senator, for a president it raised a key practical question: beyond abstract nostrums like “no nation can . . . dominate another nation,” what new order should replace the American-led system that Bush had been building?
This was, and remains, the fundamental strategic question that Obama has faced in the Middle East, though one would search his speeches in vain for an answer to it. But Obama does have a relatively concrete vision. When he arrived in Washington in 2006, he absorbed a set of ideas that had incubated on Capitol Hill during the previous three years—ideas that had received widespread attention thanks to the final report of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan congressional commission whose co-chairs, former secretary of state James Baker and former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton, interpreted their mission broadly, offering advice on all key aspects of Middle East policy.
The report, published in December 2006, urged then-President Bush to take four major steps: withdraw American troops from Iraq; surge American troops in Afghanistan; reinvigorate the Arab-Israeli “peace process”; and, last but far from least, launch a diplomatic engagement of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its junior partner, the Assad regime in Syria. Baker and Hamilton believed that Bush stood in thrall to Israel and was therefore insufficiently alive to the benefits of cooperating with Iran and Syria. Those two regimes, supposedly, shared with Washington the twin goals of stabilizing Iraq and defeating al-Qaeda and other Sunni jihadi groups. In turn, this shared interest would provide a foundation for building a concert system of states—a club of stable powers that could work together to contain the worst pathologies of the Middle East and lead the way to a sunnier future.
Expressing the ethos of an influential segment of the foreign-policy elite, the Baker-Hamilton report became the blueprint for the foreign policy of the Obama administration, and its spirit continues to pervade Obama’s inner circle. Denis McDonough, now the president’s chief of staff, once worked as an aide to Lee Hamilton; so did Benjamin Rhodes, who helped write the Iraq Study Group’s report. Obama not only adopted the blueprint but took it one step further, recruiting Vladimir Putin’s Russia as another candidate for membership in the new club. The administration’s early “reset” with Russia and its policy of reaching out to Iran and Syria formed two parts of a single vision. If, in Bushland, America had behaved like a sheriff, assembling a posse (“a coalition of the willing”) to go in search of monsters, in Obamaworld America would disarm its rivals by ensnaring them in a web of cooperation. To rid the world of rogues and tyrants, one must embrace and soften them.
How would this work in the case of Iran? During the Bush years, an elaborate myth had developed according to which the mullahs in Tehran had themselves reached out in friendship to Washington, offering a “grand bargain”: a deal on everything from regional security to nuclear weapons. The swaggering Bush, however, had slapped away the outstretched Iranian hand, squandering the opportunity of a lifetime to normalize U.S.-Iranian relations and thereby bring order to the entire Middle East.
Obama based his policy of outreach to Tehran on two key assumptions of the grand-bargain myth: that Tehran and Washington were natural allies, and that Washington itself was the primary cause of the enmity between the two. If only the United States were to adopt a less belligerent posture, so the thinking went, Iran would reciprocate. In his very first television interview from the White House, Obama announced his desire to talk to the Iranians, to see “where there are potential avenues for progress.” Echoing his inaugural address, he said, “[I]f countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.”
Unfortunately, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, ignored the president’s invitation. Five months later, in June 2009, when the Green Movement was born, his autocratic fist was still clenched. As the streets of Tehran exploded in the largest anti-government demonstrations the country had seen since the revolution of 1979, he used that fist to beat down the protesters. For their part, the protesters, hungry for democratic reform and enraged by government rigging of the recent presidential election, appealed to Obama for help. He responded meekly, issuing tepid statements of support while maintaining a steady posture of neutrality. To alienate Khamenei, after all, might kill the dream of a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations.
If this show of deference was calculated to warm the dictator’s heart, it failed. “What we intended as caution,” one of Obama’s aides would later tell a reporter, “the Iranians saw as weakness.” Indeed, the president’s studied “caution” may even have emboldened Tehran to push forward, in yet another in the long series of blatant violations of its obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), with its construction of a secret uranium enrichment facility in an underground bunker at Fordow, near Qom.
When members of Iran’s Green Movement appealed to Obama for help in 2009, he responded meekly—after all, to alienate Khamenei might kill the dream of a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations.
This time, Obama reacted. Revealing the bunker’s existence, he placed Khamenei in a tough spot. The Russians, who had been habitually more lenient toward the Iranian nuclear program than the Americans, were irritated by the disclosure of this clandestine activity; the French were moved to demand a strong Western response.
But when Khamenei finessed the situation by adopting a seemingly more flexible attitude toward negotiations, Obama quickly obliged. Delighted to find a receptive Iranian across the table, he dismissed the French call for toughness, instead volunteering a plan that would meet Iran’s desire to keep most of its nuclear infrastructure intact while proving to the world that it was not stockpiling fissile material for a bomb. In keeping with his larger aspirations, the president also placed Moscow at the center of the action, proposing that the Iranians transfer their enriched uranium to Russia in exchange for fuel rods capable of powering a nuclear reactor but not of being used in a bomb. The Iranian negotiators, displaying their new spirit of compromise, accepted the terms. Even President Ahmadinejad, the notorious hardliner, pronounced himself on board.
Obama, it seemed to some, had pulled off a major coup. Less than a year after taking office, he was turning his vision of a new Middle East order into a reality. Or was he? Once the heat was off, Khamenei reneged on the deal, throwing the president back to square one and in the process weakening him politically at home, where congressional skeptics of his engagement policy now began lobbying for more stringent economic sanctions on Tehran. To protect his flank, Obama tacked rightward, appropriating, if with visible reluctance, some of his opponents’ rhetoric and bits of their playbook as well. In 2010, he signed into law the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA), which eventually would prove more painful to Iran than any previous measure of its kind.
In later years, whenever Obama would stand accused of being soft on Iran, he would invariably point to CISADA as evidence to the contrary. “[O]ver the course of several years,” he stated in March 2014, “we were able to enforce an unprecedented sanctions regime that so crippled the Iranian economy that they were willing to come to the table.” The “table” in question was the negotiation resulting in the November 2013 agreement, known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), which we shall come to in due course. But masked in the president’s boast was the fact that he had actually opposed CISADA, which was rammed down his throat by a Senate vote of 99 to zero.
Once the bill became law, a cadre of talented and dedicated professionals in the Treasury Department set to work implementing it. But the moment of presumed “convergence” between Obama and his congressional skeptics proved temporary and tactical; their fundamental difference in outlook would become much more apparent in the president’s second term. For the skeptics, the way to change Khamenei’s behavior was to place him before a stark choice: dismantle Iran’s nuclear program—period—or face catastrophic consequences. For Obama, to force a confrontation with Khamenei would destroy any chance of reaching an accommodation on the nuclear front and put paid to his grand vision of a new Middle East order.
2011-2012: Round One, Part II
“The hardest cross I have to bear is the Cross of Lorraine,” Winston Churchill supposedly cracked about managing his wartime relations with Charles de Gaulle. As Obama sees it, his hardest cross to bear has been the Star of David, represented by Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
To the Israelis, who have long regarded Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat, Obama’s engagement policy was misguided from the start. Their assessment mattered, because influential Americans listened to them. What was more, American Jews constituted an important segment of the Democratic party’s popular base and an even more important segment of its donors. In the election year of 2012, for Obama to be perceived as indifferent to Israeli security would jeopardize his prospects of a second term—and hardly among Jews alone.
When the Israelis threatened to attack Iran, Obama responded by putting Israel in a bear hug. From one angle, it looked like an expression of friendship. From another, like an effort to break Netanyahu’s ribs.
The Israelis did more than just criticize Obama; they also threatened to take action against Iran that would place the president in an intolerable dilemma. In 2011, Ehud Barak, the defense minister at the time, announced that Iran was quickly approaching a “zone of immunity,” meaning that its nuclear program would henceforth be impervious to Israeli attack. As Iran approached that zone, Israel would have no choice but to strike. And what would America do then? The Israeli warnings grew ever starker as the presidential election season heated up. Netanyahu, it seemed, was using the threat of Israeli action as a way of prodding Washington itself to take a harder line.
To this challenge, Obama responded by putting Israel in a bear hug. From one angle, it looked like an expression of profound friendship: the president significantly increased military and intelligence cooperation, and he insisted, fervently and loudly, that his policy was to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon by all means possible. With the aid of influential American Jews and Israelis who testified to his sincerity, Obama successfully blunted the force of the charge that he was hostile to Israel.
From another angle, however, the bear hug looked like an effort to break Netanyahu’s ribs. Even while expressing affection for Israel, Obama found ways to signal his loathing for its prime minister. During one tense meeting at the White House, for example, the president abruptly broke off to join his family for dinner, leaving Netanyahu to wait for him alone. In mitigation, Obama supporters would adduce ongoing friction between the two countries over West Bank settlements and peace negotiations with the Palestinians. This was true enough, but the two men differed on quite a number of issues, among which Iran held by far the greatest strategic significance. In managing the anxieties of his liberal Jewish supporters, Obama found it useful to explain the bad atmosphere as a function of Netanyahu’s “extremism” rather than of his own outreach to Iran—to suggest, in effect, that if only the hothead in the room would sit down and shut up, the grownups could proceed to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem along reasonable lines.
The tactic proved effective. At least for the duration, Obama prevented Israel from attacking Iran; preserved American freedom of action with regard to Iran’s nuclear program; and kept his disagreements with the Israeli government within the comfort zone of American Jewish Democrats.
If, however, Netanyahu was Obama’s biggest regional headache, there was no lack of others. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was certainly the most consequential. Obama had assumed that the king would welcome his approach to the Middle East as a breath of fresh air. After all, the Baker-Hamilton crowd regarded the Arab-Israeli conflict as the major irritant in relations between the United States and the Arabs. Bush’s close alignment with Israel, so the thinking went, had damaged those relations; by contrast, Obama, the moment he took office, announced his goal of solving the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all, and followed up by picking a fight with Netanyahu over Jewish settlements in the West Bank. How could the Saudis react with anything but pleasure?
In fact, they distanced themselves—bluntly and publicly. While meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the end of July 2009, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal announced that Obama’s approach to solving the Arab-Israeli conflict “has not and, we believe, will not lead to peace.” Behind that statement lay a complex of attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, but much more than that. At the end of the Bush administration, King Abdullah had made his top regional priority abundantly clear when, according to leaked State Department documents, he repeatedly urged the United States to destroy Iran’s nuclear program and thereby “cut off the head of the snake” in the Middle East.
When Obama strode into office and announced his desire to kiss the snake, the Saudis lost no time in making their displeasure felt. Three months later, the king responded gruffly to an extensive presentation on Obama’s outreach program by Dennis Ross, then a senior official in the State Department with responsibility for Iran. “I am a man of action,” Abdullah said according to a New York Times report. “Unlike you, I prefer not to talk a lot.” He then posed a series of pointed questions that Ross could not answer. “What is your goal? What will you do if this does not work? What will you do if the Chinese and the Russians are not with you? How will you deal with Iran’s nuclear program if there is not a united response?” The questions added up to a simple point: your Iran policy is based on wishful thinking.
As it happens, one traditional American ally in the region was—at least at first—untroubled by Obama’s policy of Iran engagement: the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Indeed, Erdoğan found much to extol in the new American initiative, which dovetailed perfectly with his own foreign policy of “zero problems with [Arab and Muslim] neighbors.” Among other things, Erdoğan meant to establish Ankara as the middleman between the United States and Iran and Syria, Turkey’s traditional adversaries. This vision nested so comfortably within Obama’s planned concert system that Erdoğan quickly became one of the few international personalities with whom Obama developed a close personal rapport.
Contrary to what observers have long assumed, Obama does connect his Iran policy and his Syria policy: just as he showed deference to Iran on the nuclear front, he has deferred to the Iranian interest in Syria.
Soon, however, serious tensions arose. By the summer of 2012, one problem overshadowed all others: Syria—and behind Syria, Iran. Erdoğan watched in horror as the Iranians together with their proxies, Hizballah and Iraqi Shiite militias, intervened in the Syrian civil war. Iranian-directed units were not only training and equipping Bashar Assad’s forces in his battle for survival, but also engaging in direct combat. At the same time, within the Syrian opposition to Assad, a radical Sunni jihadi element was growing at an alarming rate. In short order, the Turks were adding their voice to a powerful chorus—including Saudi Arabia, the Gulf sheikhdoms, and the Jordanians—urgently requesting that Washington take action to build up the moderate Sunni opposition to both Assad and Iran.
The director of the CIA, David Petraeus, responded to this request by America’s regional allies with a plan to train and equip Syrian rebels in Jordan and to assist them once back in Syria. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all supported the Petraeus plan. But Obama rejected it.
Why? Undoubtedly the president had a mix of reasons and possible motives, which were the objects of extensive speculation in the media. But one motive was never included in the list: namely, his fear of antagonizing Iran. For the longest time, it was simply assumed that Obama drew no connection between his Iran policy and his Syria policy. This, however, was not the case. In fact—as we shall see below—just as, from the beginning, he showed deference to Iran on the nuclear front, he showed the same deference to the Iranian interest in Syria.
2013-2014: Round Two, The Secret Backchannel
An ostensible thaw in American-Iranian relations occurred early in the president’s second term. To hear him tell it today, what precipitated the thaw was a strategic shift by Tehran on the nuclear front. In his version of the story—let’s call it the “official version”—two factors account for the Iranian change of heart. One of them was American coercive diplomacy; the other was a new spirit of reform in Tehran. And the two were interrelated. The first, as Obama himself explained in the March 2014 interview cited earlier, had taken the form of “an unprecedented sanctions regime that so crippled the Iranian economy that [the Iranians] were willing to come to the table.” The second was a corollary of the first. The same sanctions regime had also helped bring to power the new government of Hassan Rouhani, whose moderate approach would in turn culminate in the November 2013 signing of the interim nuclear deal, which “for the first time in a decade halts their nuclear program.”
Obama’s version is an after-the-fact cocktail of misdirection and half-truths, stirred by him and his aides and served up with a clear goal in mind: to conceal Round Two of his Iran outreach.
The turning point in the American-Iranian relationship was not, as the official version would have it, the election of Hassan Rouhani in June 2013. It was the reelection of Barack Obama in November 2012.
In early 2013, at the outset of his second term, Obama developed a secret bilateral channel to Ahmadinejad’s regime. When the full impact of this is taken into account, a surprising fact comes to light. The turning point in the American-Iranian relationship was not, as the official version would have it, the election of Hassan Rouhani in June 2013. It was the reelection of Barack Obama in November 2012.
Indeed, the first secret meeting with the Iranians (that is, the first we know of) took place even earlier, in early July 2012, eleven months before Rouhani came to power. Jake Sullivan, who at the time was the director of policy planning in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, traveled secretly to Oman to meet with Iranian officials. The Obama administration has told us next to nothing about Sullivan’s meeting, so we are forced to speculate about the message that he delivered.
Most pertinent is the timing. At that moment, pressure was mounting on the president to intervene in Syria. Sullivan probably briefed the Iranians on Obama’s strong desire to stay out of that conflict, and may have sought Tehran’s help in moderating Assad’s behavior. But summer 2012 was also the height of the American presidential campaign. Perhaps Sullivan told the Iranians that the president was keen to restart serious nuclear negotiations after the election. Recall that this meeting took place shortly after a hot microphone had caught Obama saying to Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved, but it’s important . . . to give me space. This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.”
Did Sullivan give the Iranians a similar message? Did he tell Ahmadinejad’s officials that Obama’s need to secure the pro-Israel vote had forced him to take a deceptively belligerent line toward Iran? That Iran had nothing to fear from an Israeli attack? That after the election Obama would demonstrate even greater flexibility on the nuclear issue?
Whatever the answers to these questions, it is a matter of record that Obama opened his second term with a campaign of outreach to Tehran—a campaign that was as intensive as it was secret. By February 2013, a month after his inauguration, the backchannel was crowded with American officials. Not just Sullivan, but Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, National Security Council staffer Puneet Talwar, State Department non-proliferation adviser Robert Einhorn, and Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice were all engaging their Iranian counterparts.
According to the official version, this stampede toward Tehran had no impact on Iranian-American relations. Nothing notable occurred in that realm, we are told, until the arrival on the scene of Rouhani. In fact, however, it was during this earlier period that Obama laid the basis for the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action. And that agreement was the product of three American concessions—two of which, and possibly the third as well, were made long before Rouhani ever came to power.
In April 2013, the Americans and their P5+1 partners met with Iranian negotiators in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where they offered to relieve the sanctions regime in exchange for the elimination of Iran’s stockpiles of uranium that had already been enriched to 20 percent. This was concession number one, bowing to the longstanding Iranian demand for economic compensation immediately, before a final agreement could be reached. Even more important was concession number two, which permitted the Iranians to continue enriching uranium to levels of 5 percent—this, despite the fact that six United Nations Security Council resolutions had ordered Iran to cease all enrichment and reprocessing activities.
Iranian negotiators rejected these two gifts—or, rather, they pocketed them and demanded a third, the one they coveted the most. Hailing the proposals by their counterparts as a step in the right direction, they criticized them for failing to stipulate the Iranian “right to enrich.” There was a difference, they argued, between temporarily permitting Iran to enrich uranium to 5 percent and recognizing its inalienable right to do so. If Obama wanted a deal, he would have to agree to shred the Security Council resolutions by offering, up front, an arrangement that would end the economic sanctions on Iran entirely and that would allow the Iranians to enrich uranium in perpetuity.
By exaggerating the spirit of reform in Tehran, the White House was able to suggest that Iran, and not America, had compromised.
Obama’s acceptance of this condition, the third and most important American gift, is what made the Joint Plan of Action possible. The American negotiators transmitted the president’s acceptance to the Iranians in the backchannel, and then John Kerry sprang it on his hapless negotiating partners in November. We do not know when, precisely, Obama made this offer, but the Iranians set their three conditions before Rouhani took office.
In brief, the Iranian election was hardly the key factor that made the interim deal possible. But it did supply window dressing at home when it came to selling the deal to Congress and the American public. By exaggerating the spirit of reform in Tehran, the White House was able to suggest that Rouhani’s embrace of the deal represented an Iranian, not an American, compromise. In truth, Obama neither coerced nor manipulated; he capitulated, and he acquiesced.
Round Two: Iran, Syria, and Islamic State
The nuclear issue wasn’t the only tender spot in U.S.-Iran relations in this period. Before returning to it, let’s look briefly at two other regional fronts.
Obama’s second term has also included efforts to accommodate Iran over Syria. Susan Rice, by now the president’s national-security adviser, inadvertently admitted as much in an address she delivered on September 9, 2013, a few weeks after Bashar Assad had conducted a sarin-gas attack on Ghouta, a suburb outside Damascus, that killed approximately 1,500 civilians. Reviewing past American efforts to restrain the Syrian dictator, Rice blithely depicted Tehran as Washington’s partner. “At our urging, over months, Russia and Iran repeatedly reinforced our warning to Assad,” she explained. “We all sent the same message again and again: don’t do it.”
Why did Obama back off on strikes against Syria? Could it have been fear of scuttling the biggest—and still secret—foreign-policy initiative of his entire presidency?
Rice’s remarks were disingenuous. In reality, the Islamic Republic was then precisely what it remains today, namely, the prime enabler of Assad’s murder machine. But Rice’s intention was not to describe Iranian behavior accurately. In addition to accustoming the American press and foreign-policy elite to the idea that Iran was at least a potential partner, her speech was aimed at influencing Congress’s deliberation of air strikes against Syria—strikes that Obama had abruptly delayed a week and a half earlier in what will certainly be remembered as one of the oddest moments of his presidency.
The oddity began shortly after Obama sent Secretary of State John Kerry out to deliver a Churchillian exhortation on the theme of an impending American attack. While that speech was still reverberating, the president convened a meeting of his inner circle in the Oval Office, where he expressed misgivings about the policy that his Secretary of State had just announced. Curiously, the meeting did not include either Kerry or Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the principal members of his senior national-security staff. Obama then invited Denis McDonough to break away from the others and join him for a private walk around the White House grounds. On his return, Obama stunned the waiting group with the news that he had decided to delay the strikes on Assad in order to seek congressional approval.
What thoughts did Obama share with McDonough? We can dispense with the official explanation, which stresses the president’s principled belief in the need to consult the legislative branch on matters of war and peace. That belief had played no part in previous decisions, like the one to intervene in Libya. Clearly, Obama was hiding behind Congress in order either to delay action or to kill it altogether. The true reasons for the delay were evidently too sensitive even for the ears of his closest national-security aides. Could they have included fear of scuttling the biggest—and still secret—foreign-policy initiative of his second term, possibly of his entire presidency?
In the event, the punt to Congress bought Obama some time, but at a significant political cost. At home the decision made him appear dithering and weak; on Capitol Hill, Democrats quietly fumed over the way the White House was abruptly ordering them out on a limb. In Syria, Assad crowed with delight as his opponents crumpled in despair. Elsewhere, American allies felt exposed and vulnerable, wondering whether Obama would ever truly come to their aid in a pinch.
As we know, Obama’s quandary would become Moscow’s opportunity. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov offered the president a way to regain his balance. Russia and the United States, Lavrov proposed, would cooperate to strip Assad of his sarin gas. From the sidelines, the Iranians publicly applauded the proposal, and Obama jumped to accept it.
But the deal was a quid pro quo. In return for a minor (though highly visible) concession from Assad, Obama tacitly agreed not to enter the Syrian battlefield. In effect, the Russians, Assad, and the Iranians were offering him, and he was accepting, surrender with honor, enabling him to say later, with a straight face, that the episode was a successful example of his coercive diplomacy. “Let’s be very clear about what happened,” he bragged in his March 2014 interview. “I threatened [sic] kinetic strikes on Syria unless they got rid of their chemical weapons.” In reality, Assad only gained—and gained big. Obama immediately muted his calls for Assad to step down from power, and his behavior thoroughly demoralized the Syrian opposition. Nor did the deal stop Assad from launching further chemical attacks. Once deprived of his sarin stockpiles, he simply switched to chlorine.
During an interview on primetime television shortly after Lavrov offered his country’s help, Obama pointed to Russian and Iranian cooperation with Washington as one of the bargain’s greatest benefits. The “good news,” he said, “is that Assad’s allies, both Russia and Iran, recognize that this [use of sarin] was—this was a breach, that this was a problem. And for them to potentially put pressure on Assad to say, ‘Let’s figure out a way that the international community gets control of . . . these weapons in a verifiable and forcible way’—I think it’s something that we will run to ground.”
This was fictive. Obama made it sound as if Tehran was eager to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons, but nothing could have been farther from the truth. Even as he was speaking, Iran was publicly blaming the Syrian rebels, not Assad, for the Ghouta attack. Nor was stopping the slaughter ever the president’s true goal. From his perspective, he did not have the power to prevent Assad’s atrocities. He did, however, have the sense to recognize a good thing when he saw it. The opportunity to join with Iran in an ostensibly cooperative venture was too good to let slip away—and so he seized it.
That Obama has treated Syria as an Iranian sphere of interest all along has been brought home in a recent report in the Wall Street Journal. In August 2014, according to the Journal, the president wrote a letter to Ali Khamenei, acknowledging the obstacle to their cooperation presented by the nuclear impasse but taking pains to reassure Khamenei regarding the fate of Assad, his closest ally. American military operations inside Syria, he wrote, would target neither the Syrian dictator nor his forces.
This element of the president’s thinking has received remarkably little attention, even though Obama himself pointed to it directly in a January 2014 interview with David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker. The Arab states and Israel, Obama said then, wanted Washington to be their proxy in the contest with Iran; but he adamantly refused to play that role. Instead, he envisioned, in Remnick’s words, “a new geostrategic equilibrium, one less turbulent than the current landscape of civil war, terror, and sectarian battle.” Who would help him develop the strategy to achieve this equilibrium? “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now,” the president responded, alluding to the acknowledged godfather of the cold-war strategy of containment. What he truly needed instead were strategic partners, and a prime candidate for that role was—he explained—Iran.
Obama was here revealing his main rationale in 2012 for rejecting the Petraeus plan to arm the Syrian opposition that we examined earlier. Clearly, the president viewed the anti-Assad movement in Syria just as he had viewed the Green Movement in Iran three years earlier: as an impediment to realizing the strategic priority of guiding Iran to the path of success. Was the Middle East in fact polarized between the Iranian-led alliance and just about everyone else? Yes. Were all traditional allies of the United States calling for him to stand up to Iran? Yes. Did the principal members of his National Security Council recommend as one that the United States heed the call of the allies? Again, yes. But Obama’s eyes were still locked on the main prize: the grand bargain with Tehran.
The same desire to accommodate Iran has tailored Obama’s strategy toward the terrorist group Islamic State. That, too, has not received the attention it deserves.
Last June, when Islamic State warriors captured Mosul in northern Iraq, the foreign-policy approval ratings of the president plummeted, and Obama’s critics claimed, not for the first time, that he had no strategy at all. Ben Rhodes sprang to his defense, suggesting that despite appearances to the contrary, the administration actually had a plan, if a hitherto unannounced one. “We have longer-run plays that we’re running,” he said. “Part of this is keeping your eye on the long game even as you go through tumultuous periods.”
The administration has subtly exploited the rise of the Islamic State to elevate Obama’s outreach to Iran. Behind the scenes, coordination and consultation have reached new heights.
Rhodes offered no details, and subsequent events seemed to confirm the impression that Obama actually had no long game. In addition to being caught flat-footed by Islamic State, moreover, he was reversing himself on other major issues: sending troops back to Iraq after having celebrated their homecoming, ordering military operations in Syria that he had opposed for years. How could such reversals be consistent with a long game?
The answer is that the reversals, although real, involved much less than met the eye, and the long game remained in place. In August, it seemed as if the American military was preparing to mount a sustained intervention in both Iraq and Syria; today, however, it is increasingly apparent that Obama has at best a semi-coherent containment plan for Iraq and no plan at all for Syria—a deficiency that was obvious from the start. At a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Senator Marco Rubio pointed to the obvious weaknesses in the administration’s approach, and asked John Kerry how to fix them. Kerry stunningly suggested that the gaps would be filled by . . . Iran and Assad. “[Y]ou’re presuming that Iran and Syria don’t have any capacity to take on” Islamic State, Kerry said. “If we are failing and failing miserably, who knows what choice they might make.”
Here, giving the game away, Kerry provided a glimpse at the mental map of the president and his top advisers. The administration has indeed subtly exploited the rise of terrorist enclaves to elevate Obama’s outreach to Iran. Behind the scenes, coordination and consultation have reached new heights.
Meanwhile, so have expressions of dissatisfaction with traditional allies for taking positions hostile to Iran. Our “biggest problem” in Syria is our own regional allies, Vice President Joseph Biden complained to students at Harvard University in early October. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were “so determined to take down Assad” that they were pouring “hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons” into the Syrian opposition. A few weeks later, a senior Obama administration official cuttingly described another ally, Israel’s prime minister, as “a chickenshit,” and a second official, similarly on the record, bragged about the success of the United States in shielding the Islamic Republic from Israel. “[U]ltimately [Netanyahu] couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”
Of course, administration officials routinely insist that the United States is not working with Tehran. The coordination, however, is impossible to disguise. Thus, when Iranian jets recently appeared in Iraqi skies, they professed ignorance. Reporters, noting that the jets were flying sorties in the same air space as American jets and striking related targets, asked the Pentagon spokesman how the American and Iranian air forces could work in the same space without colliding. “We are flying missions over Iraq, [and] we coordinate with the Iraqi government as we conduct those,” said the spokesman. “It’s up to the Iraqi government to de-conflict that airspace.” When Kerry was asked about the news that the Iranian air force was operating in Iraq, he responded that this was a “net positive.”
A positive? With American acquiescence, Iran is steadily taking control of the security sector of the Iraqi state. Soon it will dominate the energy sector as well, giving it effective control over the fifth largest oil reserves in the world. When the announced goal of the United States is to build up a moderate Sunni bloc capable of driving a wedge between Islamic State and the Sunni communities, aligning with Iran is politically self-defeating. In both Iraq and Syria, Iran projects its power through sectarian militias that slaughter Sunni Muslims with abandon. Are there any Sunni powers in the region that see American outreach to Tehran as a good thing? Are there any military-aged Sunni men in Iraq and Syria who now see the United States as a friendly power? There are none.
In theory, one might argue that although an association with Iran is politically toxic and militarily dangerous, the capabilities it brings to the fight against the Islamic State more than compensate. But they don’t. Over the last three years, Obama has given Iran a free hand in Syria and Iraq, on the simplistic assumption that Tehran would combat al-Qaeda and like-minded groups in a manner serving American interests. The result, in both countries, has been the near-total alienation of all Sunnis and the development of an extremist safe haven that now stretches from the outskirts of Baghdad all the way to Damascus. America is now applying to the disease a larger dose of the snake oil that helped cause the malady in the first place.
The approach is detrimental to American interests in other arenas as well. We received a portent of things to come on January 18 of this year, when the Israel Defense Forces struck a convoy of senior Hizballah and Iranian officers, including a general in the Revolutionary Guards, in the Golan Heights. Ten days later, Hizballah and Iran retaliated. In other words, by treating Syria as an Iranian sphere of interest, Obama is allowing the shock troops of Iran to dig in on the border of Israel—not to mention the border of Jordan. The president’s policy assumes that Israel and America’s other allies will hang back quietly while Iran takes southern Syria firmly in its grip. They will not; to assume otherwise is folly.
Round Three: 2015-
In November 2013, when Obama purchased the participation of Iran in the Joint Plan of Action, he established a basic asymmetry that has remained a key feature of the negotiations ever since. He traded permanent American concessions for Iranian gestures of temporary restraint.
The most significant such gestures by Iran were to dilute its stockpiles of uranium enriched to 20 percent; to refrain from installing new centrifuges; and to place a hold on further construction of the Arak plutonium reactor. All three, however, can be easily reversed. By contrast, the Americans recognized the Iranian right to enrich and agreed to the principle that all restrictions on Iran’s program would be of a limited character and for a defined period of time. These two concessions are major, and because they are not just the policy of the United States government but now the collective position of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, they will likely never be reversed.
In his negotiations with Iran, the president has traded major American concessions for Iranian gestures of temporary restraint. These concessions will likely never be reversed.
Obama has repeatedly stated, most recently in his 2015 State of the Union address, that the interim agreement “halted” the Iranian nuclear program. Or, as he put it in his March 2014 interview, the “logic” of the JPOA was “to freeze the situation for a certain period of time to allow the negotiators to work.” But the agreement froze only American actions; it hardly stopped the Iranians from moving forward.
For one thing, the JPOA restricts the program only with respect to enrichment capacity and stockpiles; it is entirely silent about the military components: ballistic missiles, procurement, warhead production. For another, to call what the JPOA achieved even in these limited domains “a freeze” is a gross exaggeration. Iranian nuclear scientists have continued to perfect their craft. They are learning how to operate old centrifuges with greater efficiency. And thanks to a loophole in the JPOA permitting work on “research and development,” they are also mastering the use of new, more effective centrifuges.
Therefore, the Iranian nuclear program is poised to surge ahead. The moment the JPOA lapses—a date first scheduled for July 2014, then rescheduled to November 2014, then re-rescheduled to June 30 of this year, possibly to be re-re-rescheduled yet again—Iran will be in a stronger position than before the negotiations began. This fact gives Tehran considerable leverage over Washington during the next rounds.
We can say with certainty that Obama has had no illusions about this asymmetry—that he conducted the negotiations with his eyes wide open—because the White House took pains to hide the truth from the American public. In 2013, instead of publishing the text of the JPOA, it issued a highly misleading fact sheet. Peppered with terms like “halt,” “roll back,” and “dismantle,” the document left the impression that the Iranians had agreed to destroy their nuclear program.
The Iranian foreign minister, however, refused to play along. He protested—loudly and publicly. “The White House version both underplays the [American] concessions and overplays Iranian commitments,” Javad Zarif correctly told a television interviewer. “The White House tries to portray it as basically a dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program. That is the word they use time and again.” He defied the interviewer to “find a . . . single word that even closely resembles dismantling or could be defined as dismantling in the entire text.”
President Rouhani went even further. In an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, he emphasized not just that Iran had refused to destroy centrifuges within the terms of the JPOA, but that it would never destroy them “under any circumstances.” Currently Iran has approximately 9,000 centrifuges installed and spinning, and roughly 10,000 more installed but inactive. Until Rouhani made his statement, the Obama administration had led journalists to believe that the final agreement would force the Iranians to dismantle some 15,000 centrifuges.Rouhani disabused the world of those expectations.
“This strikes me as a train wreck,” a distraught Zakaria exclaimed after the interview. “This strikes me as potentially a huge obstacle because the Iranian conception of what the deal is going to look like and the American conception now look like they are miles apart.” Not long thereafter, as if to confirm the point, Ali Khamenei called for an outcome that will permit the development of an industrial-sized nuclear program over the next decade.
Khamenei’s hard line no doubt came as a surprise to Obama. When the president first approved the JPOA, he failed to recognize a key fact: his twin goals of liberating Iran from its international isolation and stripping the Islamic Republic of its nuclear capabilities were completely at odds with each other. From Obama’s perspective, he was offering Khamenei an irresistible deal: a strategic accommodation with the United States. Iran analysts had led the president to believe that Khamenei was desperate for just such an accommodation, and to achieve that prize he was searching only for a “face-saving” nuclear program—one that would give him a symbolic enrichment capability, nothing more. What soon became clear, however, was that Khamenei was betting that Obama would accommodate Iran even if it insisted on, and aggressively pursued, an industrial-scale program.
In theory, Khamenei’s intransigence could have handed Obama an opportunity. He could admit the “train wreck”—namely, that Round Two of his Iran engagement had followed the disastrous pattern set by Round One—and begin working with Congress and our despairing allies to regain lost leverage. This he obviously declined to do. Instead, he has chosen to keep the negotiating process alive by retreating further. Rather than leaving the table, he has paid Iran to keep negotiating—paid literally, in the form of sanctions relief, which provides Iran with $700,000,000 per month in revenue; and figuratively, with further concessions on the nuclear front.
Over the last year, Obama has reportedly allowed Iran to retain, in one form or another, its facilities at Natanz, Fordow, and Arak—sites that Iran built in flagrant violation of the NPT to which it is a signatory. This is the same Obama who declared at the outset of negotiations that the Iranians “don’t need to have an underground, fortified facility like Fordow in order to have a peaceful nuclear program. They certainly don’t need a heavy-water reactor at Arak in order to have a peaceful nuclear program. . . . And so the question ultimately is going to be, are they prepared to roll back some of the advancements that they’ve made.” The answer to his question, by now, is clear: the Iranians will not roll back anything.
The president believes that globalization and economic integration will induce Tehran to forgo its nuclear ambitions. Meanwhile Iran’s rulers are growing stronger, bolder, and ever closer to nuclear breakout capacity.
For a majority in Congress, and for all of America’s allies in the Middle East, this fact is obvious, and it leads to an equally obvious conclusion: the only way to salvage the West’s position in the nuclear negotiations is to regain the leverage that the president’s deferential approach has ceded to Iran. With this thought in mind, a large group of Senators is currently supporting legislation that will make the re-imposition of sanctions mandatory and immediate if the Iranians fail to make a deal by the time the current term of the JPOA lapses.
In an effort to bolster that initiative, Speaker of the House John Boehner invited Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington to address Congress on Iran. Netanyahu accepted the invitation without first consulting the White House, which reacted in a storm of indignation, describing the move as an egregious break in protocol and an insult to the president. Instead of trying to paper over the disagreement, Obama has done everything in his power to advertise it. In making his personal rift with Netanyahu the subject of intense public debate, the White House means to direct attention away from the strategic rift between them—and from the fact that the entire Israeli elite, regardless of political orientation, as well as much of the U.S. Congress, regards the president’s conciliatory approach to Iran as profoundly misguided.
Meanwhile, the president is depicting his congressional critics as irresponsible warmongers. He would have us believe that there are only two options: his undeclared détente with Iran and yet another war in the Middle East. This is a false choice. It ignores the one policy that every president since Jimmy Carter has pursued till now: vigorous containment on all fronts, not just in the nuclear arena. Obama, however, is intent on obscuring this option, and for a simple reason: an honest debate about it would force him to come clean with the American people and admit the depth of his commitment to the strategy whose grim results are multiplying by the day.
As a matter of ideology as much as strategy, Obama believes that integrating Iran into the international diplomatic and economic system is a much more effective method of moderating its aggressive behavior than applying more pressure. Contrary to logic, and to all the accumulated evidence before and since the November 2013 interim agreement, he appears also to believe that his method is working. In his March 2014 interview, he argued that his approach was actually strengthening reformers and reformist trends in Tehran: “[I]f as a consequence of a deal on their nuclear program,” he said, “those voices and trends inside of Iran are strengthened, and their economy becomes more integrated into the international community, and there’s more travel and greater openness, even if that takes a decade or 15 years or 20 years, then that’s very much an outcome we should desire.”
Perhaps the president is correct. Perhaps globalization will remove the roughness from the Islamic Republic just as ocean waves polish the jagged edges of shells. If so, however, it will happen on much the same, oceanic schedule. In the meantime, the seasoned thugs in Tehran whom the president has appointed as his strategic partners in a new world order grow stronger and bolder: ever closer to nuclear breakout capacity, ever more confident in their hegemonic objectives. On condition that they forgo their nuclear ambitions, the president has offered them “a path to break through [their] isolation” and become “a very successful regional power.” They, for their part, at minuscule and temporary inconvenience to themselves, have not only reaped the economic and diplomatic rewards pursuant to participation in the JPOA but also fully preserved those nuclear ambitions and the means of achieving them. Having bested the most powerful country on earth in their drive for success on their terms, they have good reason to be confident.
2.What the President Thinks He's Doing
ELLIOTT ABRAMS 2-9-15
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he maintains a blog, Pressure Points. He is the author of, most recently, Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
The ideological roots of his disastrous Iran strategy.
President Obama’s foreign policy cannot be understood or defended as an effort to advance American national interests as they are normally understood. By any usual definition—strengthening of allies, defeat of enemies, military advances, nuclear nonproliferation—his administration’s policies have been disastrous. That leads logically to the question: “Well, what does the president think he’s doing?”
In “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy,” Michael Doran has tried to answer this question, and has offered a superb analysis. No one has more persuasively explained the connections between that strategy’s various parts, such as the president’s inaction in Syria and his hostility toward Israel, and the primary Obama goal of a rapprochement with Iran. Doran is especially effective in analyzing policy toward the Assad regime: “Obama has treated Syria as an Iranian sphere of interest all along,” and in his August 2014 letter to Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei took “pains to reassure Khamenei regarding the fate of Assad, [the latter’s] closest ally. American military operations inside Syria . . . would target neither the Syrian dictator nor his forces.”
If I have one disagreement with Doran, it is over the origins of Obama’s approach to foreign policy. According to Doran, Obama “believed he had been elected to reverse the legacy of his predecessor, George W. Bush,” and “Obama’s mission was to guide America out of Bushland.” What was the origin of these beliefs and this mission? In arguing that “Obama does have a relatively concrete vision,” Doran points out that on joining the Senate in 2006, “he absorbed a set of ideas that had incubated on Capitol Hill during the previous three years—ideas that had received widespread attention thanks to the final report of the Iraq Study Group.”
In fact, Obama came to Washington with his beliefs about American foreign policy and our role in the world already well set in his mind, and needed no guidance from the Iraq Study Group. We were given some insight into those basic beliefs early in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. While in Iowa in 2007, as Politico reported at the time, he visited Adair County, making a stop in the hometown of one of the saints of the American left, one-time vice president and Progressive-party presidential candidate Henry Wallace. “We’ve got some progressives here in Adair. I’m feeling really good now,” Obama said. . . . “That’s quite a lineage there. . . . It’s a blessing.”
This, about the man whom FDR dumped from the 1944 ticket for his espousal of leftist causes, the man who ran against Truman and the Democratic party in 1948, and who argued that peace with the Soviet Union only required more American understanding and outreach in place of militarism and cold-war hostility.
Given all we know, I would argue that Obama’s mission is to guide America not only out of Bushland (as Doran puts it) but out of Rooseveltland, Kennedyland, and Clintonland—and indeed to reverse most of the foreign-policy legacy of his own party, with the exception of that of Wallace and its 1972 candidate for the presidency, George McGovern. The ideas espoused by Obama “incubated” decades ago, and were most likely adopted back at Columbia University or in the Chicago kitchen of his friends of Weathermen fame, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn.
Doran refers several times to Obama’s “strategic vision.” I would prefer the term “ideology.” The enduring hold of that ideology is visible not only in his Iran policy but also, most recently, with respect to Cuba. There, too, he has reversed decades of American foreign policy, and has done so, as in the case of Iran, without seeking any deep concessions from the Castro regime.
In concluding the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action with Iran, Doran notes, Obama accepted a “basic asymmetry,” trading permanent American concessions [in exchange] for Iranian gestures of temporary restraint.” Similarly, in Cuba, Obama’s recent deal—call it another “Joint Plan of Action”—abandons previous American demands for real political change on the island prior to any lifting of the embargo. And just as he has offered his regrets to Tehran for the (long exaggerated) American role in the 1953 overthrow of the Mossadegh government, so too has he expressed apologies—in this case, in a telephone call with Raul Castro—“for taking such a long time” to change U.S. policy. In both instances, Obama has acted not to advance American national interests but to make amends for U.S. policies and actions that he views as the immoral and retrograde detritus of the “cold-war mentality.”
Of course, Obama’s defenders acknowledge none of this. Instead, they invoke his putatively superior understanding of reality. As Doran paraphrases it, the president believes that, over time, “integrating Iran [and, I would add, Cuba] into the international diplomatic and economic system is a much more effective method of moderating its aggressive behavior than applying more pressure.” Obama and his supporters also assert that, in any event, the only alternative to his approach is war. Doran rightly dismisses both arguments. One need only look at the success of the Reagan administration in dealing with the Soviet Union to know that military power, strong alliances, and ideological clarity—what Doran refers to as “vigorous containment on all fronts”—do not lead to war. They lead to success.
Doran concludes his essay on a very pessimistic note: “Having bested the most powerful country on earth in their drive for success on their terms, [the Iranians] have good reason to be confident.” Allow me to conclude on a more optimistic note: they have reason to be confident for now, but current policy may not outlast Obama. It remains to be seen whether, after January 20, 2017, the American people and their leaders in Washington will really permit a nation of 70 million, with a third-rate military and a damaged economy, to dominate the Middle East and threaten all of our allies and interests there
3. The Obama Doctrine: Constraining American Power
ERIC EDELMAN 2-16-15
Eric Edelman, a former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, is Hertog distinguished practitioner in residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
An ideological aversion to American power is at the core of the president’s foreign policy.
Michael Doran’s long essay in Mosaic, “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy,” and Elliott Abrams’s response to it, “What the President Thinks He’s Doing,” command the attention of anyone seriously interested in the administration’s policies and plans for the Middle East. I agree with Abrams that Doran’s analysis is superb, and that “no one has more persuasively explained the connections” among the various parts of the Iran policy being pursued by the White House.
I’m also in broad agreement with Doran’s conclusion: namely, that “the only way to salvage the West’s position in the nuclear negotiations is to regain the leverage that the president’s deferential approach has ceded to Iran.” As I testified in late January before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, rather than actively seeking Iran’s partnership, the United States must be willing to compete with it:
On one level, this requires a change in tone. The administration must emphasize its readiness to exert more pressure on Iran instead of exerting pressure on Congress with talking points that come “straight out of Tehran,” according to a ranking member of the Senate. On another level, the United States must respond more robustly to Tehran’s ongoing efforts to shift the balance of power in the Middle East. Rather than asking its cooperation and blessing—especially in Iraq and Syria—the United States should undertake every possible effort to isolate Iran in its own backyard.
Concerning one point,
the origins of Obama’s “secret” strategy, Abrams takes issue with Doran, suggesting that they can be found less in the work of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, whose report was issued in 2006, than in Obama’s overarching, “progressive” aversion to American power and its uses in the world, an ideological stance that connects many points of reference in the president’s life from Henry Wallace to George McGovern to Reverend Jeremiah Wright to Bill Ayres and Bernadine Dohrn. That both Doran and Abrams are correct, each in his own way, emerges from an examination of the White House’s larger global strategy. This, as it happens, is the subject of an excellent new study, The Obama Doctrine, by Colin Dueck, forthcoming from Oxford in May.
In Dueck’s judgment, Obama’s approach to the world is predicated first and foremost on his bedrock intention to be a “transformational” president. The transformation in question is largely domestic—hence his preoccupation with the Affordable Care Act, which remakes a rather large swath of the American economy. Abroad, and in aid of the main focus on his domestic agenda (“nation-building at home”), the president’s overwhelming objective has been to keep international affairs at bay. But when world events do inevitably impose themselves, Obama is no less confident of his unique ability to exert a transformational impact. “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now,” Doran quotes him as saying, an attitude fully in keeping with his expressed view that “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”
How, then, does the president mean to execute his global transformation? As Dueck sees it, the strategy is twofold: retrenchment, and accommodation. Retrenchment means liquidating some of what Obama construes to be overinvestments the U.S. has made around the world, particularly in the Middle East, while also reducing the strength of the U.S. military—since, in his view, our temptation to resort to military force has itself been responsible for many of the world’s ills. Accommodation, in turn, means reaching out and “engaging” America’s adversaries, thereby turning them, in the common phrase, from part of the problem into part of the solution.
Understanding this strategy of retrenchment and accommodation is a useful vehicle for explaining many apparently discrete episodes in Obama’s tenure, from the early “strategic reassurance” of China, to the “reset” of relations with Russia, and of course to the “open hand” approach to Tehran that Michael Doran dissects so well. It also clarifies the chronic neglect of allies, and it illuminates, as Abrams rightly underlines, the president’s chronic need—the political equivalent of Tourette syndrome—to express regret and apologize publicly for past exercises of American power in pursuit of our national interests.
As for the tactical implementation of the strategy in individual cases, that has been delegated to individuals like Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin Rhodes, who helped write the Iraq Study Group report. Doran, it seems to me, is correct to see that document as key to grasping the administration’s Iran policy, and to the coherent, step-by-step unfolding of that policy, though perhaps less so to understanding the larger strategy as a whole.
Is any of this a “secret,”
as Doran suggests? When it comes to the ultimate sources of Obama’s views and his conduct in national-security affairs, the evidence has been hiding in plain sight since before he was elected. As Abrams points out in his response to Doran, and more extensively in a profound essay, “The Citizen of the World Presidency,” in Commentary (September 2013), those sources were implicit in the president’s personal history and in his various mentors and associates as he came to political maturity. Moreover, he and his acolytes have continued to articulate his ideas in public documents and, usually without attribution, in comments to the press. Doran’s essay itself is replete with such quotations from Obama and his staff.
In the case of Iran, the veil of secrecy has descended not over the conception or expression of Obama’s strategy but over his diplomacy, which Doran masterfully untangles. But that, in and of itself, does little to distinguish him from other presidents. Nor, in itself, is the outreach to Iran a new thing in our politics. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates used to say, every administration since Jimmy Carter’s has come a cropper in the vain search for Iranian moderates.
What distinguishes Obama is the ideological aversion to American power and the formulation of a strategy whose overriding impetus is to constrain that power. The scandal is not that the administration has kept this a secret but that a supine press and intellectual class have failed—“declined” may be the better (if much too polite) word—to explain it to the American people.
Response: What They're Saying about "Obama's Secret Iran Strategy"
Michael Doran’s essay provoked a “firestorm in the policy world.” Here’s a roundup of arguments for and against his thesis.
In the week-and-a-half since it’s been published, Michael Doran’s “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy” has provoked an extraordinary degree of public debate, from Washington, D.C. to Jerusalem to, perhaps, Tehran. In addition to the invited responses from, so far, Elliott Abrams and Eric Edelman, we’ve collected some of the more notable public comments for the benefit of readers who may have missed them. Clips from each and links are below.
- “Either, as asserted in articles such as Michael Doran’s ‘Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy,’ the Obama administration is in the grip of a blinding ideological fog. . . . Or, as asserted by the prime minister’s critics, Benjamin Netanyahu is misrepresenting the dangers and those around him are mischaracterizing the terms being negotiated.”
- As my colleague Michael Doran has recently pointed out in an article that contributed to the rising disquiet about the administration’s Iran strategy, the approach to Iran has been the centerpiece of the administration’s Middle East strategy from 2009 to the present day.
“This Is the Best Explanation of What Conservatives Don’t like about Obama’s Foreign Policy” by Zack Beauchamp, Vox
- Though Doran’s argument “relies on a real degree of unevidenced speculation about what happened within closed-door administration meetings to guide these policies,” it’s “an essential window into the politically salient mainline conservative criticism of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy.”
- Michael Doran “reminds us of a revealing line from a profile of the Obama administration’s foreign policy decision making: ‘The thing we spent the most time on’ was also the thing ‘we talked least about in public.’ In that case, the ‘thing’ was the project to achieve détente with Iran. But other projects also signal their importance by going undiscussed, and near the top of that list is the Obama administration’s distinctive counter-terrorism policy.”
- “Without [a nuclear] agreement, it is impossible to imagine cooperation with Iran on regional issues; with an agreement, collaboration on issues of common interest becomes possible, much as Obama is reported to have suggested in his November 2014 letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader and much as some conservative commentators mistakenly believe is already taking place.”
- “Doran and others may or may not be right. There is very little to go on. What we do know is that during negotiations with Iran, the P5+1, led by America, has shown a worrying willingness to accommodate the Iranians.”
“Losing the Forest of Iran Policy for the Trees of a Nuclear Deal” by Michael Koplow, Ottomans and Zionists
- “There has been tons of discussion over the past week about Mike Doran’s recent voluminous piece in Mosaic. . . . I have quibbles with some of his details and sub-arguments, but I find the overarching thesis convincing: that the White House’s ultimate goal is to turn Iran into an ally based on the view that the U.S. and Iran are natural partners with a set of common interests.”
- “Downplaying global anti-Semitism fits in with the president’s broader Middle East strategy, which consists of distancing the United States from its traditional ally in the region, Israel, while opening its doors to historic enemy, Iran. The history and reasoning behind this policy is explained in a new, magisterial essay in the online magazine Mosaic by Hudson Institute scholar Michael Doran.”
- “Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, has not just speculated about Mr. Obama’s ‘secret strategy.’ He has painstakingly combed through the record and produced a 9,000-word report persuasively establishing that Mr. Obama, since early in his presidency, has been in pursuit of a “comprehensive agreement” that would allow Iran to become what the president has called ‘a very successful regional power.’”
- Doran makes “a powerful case” that “‘a grand bargain with Iran’ has been and remains the central goal of Obama’s foreign policy. . . . Just as George W. Bush thought Iraqis were yearning for American-style democracy and capitalism, so Obama seems to be assuming that Iran seeks to be an American-style power, prosperous and generous-minded.”
- “Important commentators have come around to the view that [I] have long expressed — that President Obama is in thrall to Iran and that the nuclear negotiations aren’t really about curbing Iran’s nuclear capacity, but rather about striking a grand bargain with the mullahs. Michael Doran’s excellent essay in Mosaic, which was one of our Power Line “picks,” is a good example of recent commentary to this effect.
- As Doran shows “in his factually grounded analysis of Obama’s Iran policy, when it comes to negotiating with the Islamic Republic, the Obama Administration is committed to keeping everyone in the dark.”
- As Michael Doran “meticulously lays out in his recently published tour-de-force ‘Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy,’ the U.S.-Iran partnership that is reshaping the Middle East has been in the making since Obama first came to office.”
- “As Michael Doran argues in Mosaic, President Obama is carrying out a secret strategy to court Iran.”
- “The conflicts in the Middle East are much more complex than ‘Iran on the march’ theories would have us believe. A diplomatic resolution of the nuclear issue can allow Washington more room to deal with Iran’s regional influence.”
Stephen Hayes A provocative, bracing and ultimately persuasive essay on Iran and Obama
Brit Hume If you're wondering why so many in Congress, in both parties, are alarmed about Obama policy toward Iran, read this: http://
Obama’s policy to allow Iran expand influence in the Middle East is a feature, not a bug. Read @Doranimated http://mosaicmagazine.com/essay2015/02/obamas-secret-iran-strategy/
Read @Doranimated on the vanity and delusion that drive the Obama admin’s Iran policy
John Podhoretz Remarkable, thoroughgoing analysis by @Doranimated about the Obama administration and Iran. Must, must read. http://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/2015/02/obamas-secret-iran-strategy/
The arc of Obama's Middle East strategy bends towards Tehran. Myth-busting must-read from @Doranimated http://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/2015/02/obamas-secret-iran-strategy/
@Doranimated's thesis of an #Obama determined to push for a deal with #Iran at any price rings worryingly true >
Melanie Phillips Devastating with clear ring of truth: Obama's secret 6-year strategy of appeasing Iran 'incl exploiting terror rise'.
Jennifer Rubin A smart, smart take on Iran et.al
- Daniel Pipes @doranimated convincingly dissects "Obama's Secret #Iran Strategy," shows that #Obama has an Iran idea - a bad one.