February 12, 2015
Number 03/15 #03
US President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are both saying Iran now has to decide to accept or reject their proposals for a final nuclear deal and they do not plan to further extend the interim nuclear deal signed in 2013 – also extended twice. The outlines of what has been offered to Iran are now becoming clearer and have become subject to increasing criticism both in the US and elsewhere – this Update offers some comment on the US’s current Iran negotiating strategy and why concerns about the US proposal are so widespread.
First up is an editorial from the Washington Post making the argument that the deal that appears to be in prospect does indeed seem to raise serious concerns. It raises three in particular – 1. A process originally intended to eliminate Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons had become one to tolerate and temporarily restrict that capability; 2. The US Administation, in the course of seeking a nuclear deal, appears to be passively accepting aggressive Iranian expansionism across the region; and 3. The Administration is reportedly planning not to submit any deal to congressional approval. The paper also cites the argument of critics that a deal would likely be cheated on – as happened with North Korea. For the paper’s summary of all these important issues, CLICK HERE.
Next up is an editorial from the Wall Street Journal focusing primarily on the first of the issues raised by the Washington Post – the move to tolerate Iranian threshold status – as filtered through testimony by foreign policy eminence grise Henry Kissinger. Kissinger warned that, even if the inspection and verification regime indeed works and keeps Iran one year from bomb construction as is reportedly the aim, the proliferation consequences could be ominous and dangerous . Countries across the volatile Middle East would likely move to create at least a comparable level of nuclear readiness, which, needless to say, does not appear to be a model for stability for the region, or indeed the world, the paper argues. For this discussion of an important but often ignored element of the debate about Iran’s nuclear program, CLICK HERE.
Finally, noted US foreign policy pundit Walter Russell Mead offers a longer dissection of the assumptions behind the Obama Administration’s policy toward Iran and the objections being raised by its critics. Mead says it appears clear that the Obama Administration believes that a nuclear deal with Iran can open the door to “a much wider and more fruitful relationship” between Washington and Teheran, and has made the pursuit of this the lynchpin of its Middle East policy. Mead makes a detailed and convincing case that the Obama Administration needs to do more to respond to the serious criticisms being made of its policy, rather than dismissing them, as it usually does now, as warmongering or kneejerk rejection of any agreement with Iran. For this important analysis of all the issues related to the US Iran policy by one of America’s most original and knowledgeable experts, CLICK HERE. Mead discusses an article by Michael Doran which makes the case that the Obama Administration has placed a broad reconciliation with Iran at the centre of its foreign policy – it’s here.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Elliot Abrams takes on the US Administration’s claims that it is confronting Iran’s aggressive misconduct , including support for terrorism, by “calling out” Iran.
- US foreign policy writer John Hannah strongly argues that the US Administration appears to be seeking to prepare to shift blame to Congress if the Iran talks fail and also details the various ways in which the Iranians are using the current interim deal to continue to advance their nuclear program. More on Iran’s past and present nuclear deceptions comes from Iran policy author and expert Emanuele Ottolenghi.
- American academic Michael Koplow argues that the nuclear deal may make sense, but it should be divorced from the Administrations non-feasible ideas to create a new partnership with Iran afterwards. Also especially critical of this aspect of US policy toward Iran is author Lee Smith.
- Arms control expert Ariel E. Levite argues that it is time for the US government to start preparing to confront the shortcomings of a nuclear deal, if one eventuates, as well as preparing a plan B if Iran says no.
- Strategic expert Anthony Cordesman says Iran’s real goal is to dominate the Persian Gulf and its energy resources – and the state there know it.
- A report suggesting Iranian militias are effectively taking over Iraq’s army in the fight against ISIS. Two analysts, Michael Weiss and Michael Pregent, argue the Iranian role is making it virtually impossible to beat ISIS by rallying Sunni tribe against it.
- An excellent backgrounder on Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels – who now officially control the government of that country.
- Much continues to be written about the controversy over Israeli PM Netanyahu plans to speak about Iran to the US Congress in March in response to an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner. Both legal academic David Bernstein and writer Liel Leibowitz point out that whatever else one may think of the controversy, it is not true, as some have claimed, that Netanyahu accepted the invitation without the White House first being informed that it had been made.
- An excellent summary of the viewpoints of all parties involved in the controversy – Netanyahu, the Obama Administration and Congress – comes from Israeli intellectual David Hazony. Another good explanation of what both sides are saying comes from David Horovitz of the Times of Israel.
- Hazony comes down in favour of Netanyahu giving the speech – others who agree include columnist Noah Beck and the New York Sun. Meanwhile, arguing it is counterproductive are Michael Rubin, Jonathan Tobin and Israeli columnist Ben Dror Yemini, among many others.
- Author Rafael Medoff argues that Netanyahu’s taking of his case to Congress follows a precedent set in the 1970’s by Yitzhak Rabin.
- The New York Times printed an important and detailed piece of investigative journalism detailing Hezbollah’s role in the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri in 2005.
- Isi Leibler writes about the situation in Argentina in the wake of the suspicious death of AMIA Prosecutor Alberto Nisman – and its implications for the Iranian nuclear negotiations.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Video of a talk by academic and former Knesset member Dr. Einat Wilf, currently visiting Australia as a guest of AIJAC, on the subject of Israel’s battle against delegitimisation. Wilf also had a piece in the Australian on the Palestinian bid to go the International Criminal Court yesterday.
- Allon Lee’s latest “media week” column.
AS THE Obama administration pushes to complete a nuclear accord with Iran, numerous members of Congress, former secretaries of state and officials of allied governments are expressing concern about the contours of the emerging deal. Though we have long supported negotiations with Iran as well as the interim agreement the United States and its allies struck with Tehran, we share several of those concerns and believe they deserve more debate now -before negotiators present the world with a fait accompli.
The problems raised by authorities ranging from Henry Kissinger, the country’s most senior former secretary of state, to Sen. Timothy M. Kaine, Virginia’s junior senator, can be summed up in three points:
First, a process that began with the goal of eliminating Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons has evolved into a plan to tolerate and temporarily restrict that capability.
Second, in the course of the negotiations, the Obama administration has declined to counter increasingly aggressive efforts by Iran to extend its influence across the Middle East and seems ready to concede Tehran a place as a regional power at the expense of Israel and other U.S. allies.
Finally, the Obama administration is signaling that it will seek to implement any deal it strikes with Iran -including the suspension of sanctions that were originally imposed by Congress -without a vote by either chamber. Instead, an accord that would have far-reaching implications for nuclear proliferation and U.S. national security would be imposed unilaterally by a president with less than two years left in his term.
The first and broadest of these problems was outlined by Mr. Kissinger in recent testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. The talks, he pointed out, began as a multilateral effort headed by the European Union and backed by six U.N. Security Council resolutions intended to deny Iran the capability to develop a military nuclear option.Though formally the multilateral talks continue, these negotiations have now become an essentially bilateral negotiationbetween the United States and Iran over the scope of that [nuclear] capability, not its existence,Mr. Kissinger said.
Where it once aimed to eliminate Iran’s ability to enrich uranium, the administration now appears ready to accept an infrastructure of thousands of Iranian centrifuges. It says its goal is to limit and monitor that industrial base so that Iran could not produce the material for a warhead in less than a year. As several senators pointed out last month during a hearing of the Foreign Relations Committee, the prospective deal would leave Iran as a nuclear-threshold state while theoretically giving the world time to respond if Tehran chose to build a weapon. Even these limited restrictions would remain in force for only a specified number of years, after which Iran would be free to expand its production of potential bomb materials.
Mr. Kissinger said such an arrangement would very likely prompt other countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, to match Iran’s threshold capability. The impact will be to transform the negotiations from preventing proliferation to managing it, he said. We will live in a proliferated world in which everybody even if that agreement is maintained will be very close to the trigger point.
A related problem is whether Iran could be prevented from cheating on any arrangement and acquiring a bomb by stealth. Mr. Kaine (D) underlined that an attempt by the United States to negotiate the end of North Korea’s nuclear program failed after the regime covertly expanded its facilities. With Iran, said Mr. Kaine, a nation that has proven to be very untrustworthy the end result is more likely to be a North Korean situation if existing infrastructure is not dismantled.
The administration at one time portrayed the nuclear negotiations as distinct from the problem of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, its attempts to establish hegemony over the Arab Middle East and its declared goal of eliminating Israel. Yet while the talks have proceeded, Mr. Obama has offered assurances to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that the two countries have shared interests in the region, and the White House has avoided actions Iran might perceive as hostile -such as supporting military action against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
For their part, the Iranians, as Mr. Kaine put it, are currently involved in activities to destabilize the governments of [U.S.-allied] nations as near as Bahrain and as far away as Morocco. A Tehran-sponsored militia recently overthrew the U.S.-backed government of Yemen. Rather than contest the Iranian bid for regional hegemony, as has every previous U.S. administration since the 1970s, Mr. Obama appears ready to concede Iran a place in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and beyond -a policy that is viewed with alarm by Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey, among other allies.
Former secretary of state George P. Shultz cited Iran’s regional aggression in pronouncing himself very uneasy about the ongoing negotiations. They’ve already outmaneuvered us, in my opinion, he told the Armed Services Committee.
While presidents initiate U.S. foreign policies, it is vital that major shifts win the support of Congress and the country; otherwise, they will be unsustainable. Yet Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested in Senate testimony that the administration intends to postpone any congressional vote on a deal indefinitely, meeting its commitments to Iran by using provisions allowing it to suspend legislatively enacted sanctions. Mr. Blinken conceded that the Iranian parliament would likely vote on any accord but said that Congress should act only once Iran has demonstrated that it’s making good on its commitments.
Such a unilateral course by Mr. Obama would alienate even his strongest congressional supporters. It would mean that a deal with Iran could be reversed, within months of its completion, by the next president. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Mr. Obama wishes to avoid congressional review because he suspects a bipartisan majority would oppose the deal he is prepared to make. If so, the right response to the questions now being raised is to seek better terms from Iran – or convince the doubters that an accord blessing and preserving Iran’s nuclear potential is better than the alternatives.
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Has the U.S. already conceded a new era of nuclear proliferation?
Wall Street Journal, Feb. 9
One big question coming out of the Munich security conference this weekend is whether Iran and the U.S. can strike a nuclear deal before the next, and perhaps final, deadline in March. But the better question may be what happens if they succeed what happens if they sign an accord close to the parameters of the talks as we now know them? The Obama Administration may be underwriting a new era of global nuclear proliferation.
President Obama would claim the inspection regime is fail-safe, but Iran hid its weapons program from United Nations inspectors for years. That’s why the U.N. passed its many resolutions and the current talks began. Iran also hid its facility at Qum. All of this shows how difficult it is to maintain a credible inspection regime in a country determined to evade it. Or as Mr. Kissinger delicately put it, Nobody can really fully trust the inspection system or at least some [countries] may not.
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Walter Russell Mead
The National Interest, Feb. 6
The administration has persistently avoided dealing with the most serious critics of its Iran policy.
Suddenly, we seem to be having the conversation the administration didn’t want to have: a conversation about just where President Obama’s approach to Iran is taking us. A Washington Post editorial has put the issue on the agenda in a way that it will be hard for the spinners and Iran-apologists to dance past, and there are signs that bipartisan concerns are beginning to grow.
The Post, in one of the most important newspaper editorials of recent years, signals out three important concerns with the President’s approach:
- First, a process that began with the goal of eliminating Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons has evolved into a plan to tolerate and restrict that capability.
- Second, in the course of the negotiations, the Obama administration has declined to counter increasingly aggressive efforts by Iran to extend its influence across the Middle East and seems ready to concede Tehran a place as a regional power at the expense of Israel and other U.S. allies.
- Finally, the Obama administration is signaling that it will seek to implement any deal it strikes with Iran -including the suspension of sanctions that were originally imposed by Congress -without seeking a vote by either chamber. Instead, an accord that would have far-reaching implications for nuclear proliferation and U.S. national security would be imposed unilaterally by a president with less than two years left in his term.
As the Post points out, a cavalcade of distinguished American foreign policy voices, including Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, have issued warnings that the White House seems to have lost its way as it tries to navigate the complex minefield that is U.S.-Iranian relations. 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.
What’s interesting is that the growing disquiet about our Iran policy isn’t over the basic decision to negotiate with Iran. Although as usual the White House tries to portray its opponents as hot heads whose unreasoning hatred of Iran combines with a love of war to create a blind opposition to the President’s sensible and rational preference for diplomacy, the debate is not about whether to negotiate with Iran. It is about how to ensure that those negotiations advance important American interests.
The debate over Iran negotiations is really a debate over Middle East strategy as a whole. The Iran apologists inside the administration and out have a case that basically looks like this: Iran is the best possible long term partner for the United States in the region and American and Iranian interests are strategically aligned. The Saudis, who call themselves our allies, export religious extremism and are fundamentally committed to a backward form of political organization. The Saudi monarchy is a ticking time bomb that will one day explode when the population tires of a greedy, corrupt and incompetent royal family. Iran, by contrast, has a large and educated middle class; flawed as its current political system may be, forces are at work that will soon make Iran a much more modern and democratic country than any of the backward Arab states with whom the United States is currently allied. An end to U.S.-Iranian hostility over the nuclear issue will do more than lay a dangerous dispute to rest. It will open the door to a much wider and more fruitful relationship.
The goal of American policy should therefore be to create a relationship of trust between the two capitals based on this community of interest. When the regime feels less threatened by the United States, and when it understands that the United States wants to work with it towards a regional order that is in the interess of both countries, Iran will begin to work ‘within the system’ and become a responsible stakeholder rather than an exporter of subversion. Moreover, an end to sanctions combined with better relations with the United States will contribute to the democratization of Iranian society. The revolution, Iran apologists argue, is old and decrepit. The rising generations are tired of clerical rule and hunger for western modernity. The United States is actually popular among Iranian youth. The clerics and their repressive allies are only clinging to power because the sense of encirclement and danger drives nationalists into their camp and because the sanctions undermine the middle class and concentrate economic power in the hands of the Revolutionary Guard and other regime allies. By offering a face-saving compromise on the nuclear issue, ending sanctions and opening the door to a wider role for Iran in the region, the Obama administration can stabilize the region and democratize Iran while reducing the American profile and reducing our dependence on unsteady and problematic allies like the Gulf states.
This is an intoxicating vision, and a number of people have been intoxicated by it. But it is not the only reason the President can give to defend his policy approach. Besides hope, there is fear. What is the alternative, President Obama asks his critics, to the White House course? Strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities? Won’t those just set the nuclear program back by at most a few years while consolidating the power of a regime that will hate America more than before? War with Iranat a time when the region is already in flames and the American people are deeply war-weary? What happens to the international coalition that has been supporting the United States in the nuclear negotiations if the Americans are seen to be walking away from them?
There is merit to these points, more merit than some of the President’s harsher critics are prepared to acknowledge. It is much easier to criticize an existing Iran policy than to propose (and to execute) something different.
But the growing chorus of sober and informed critics of the White House approach to Iran aren’t for the most part attacking the idea of negotiations over the nuclear issue or even of a possible future rapprochement with Iran. This isn’t even primarily an argument about exactly how many centrifuges the nuclear talks allow the Iranians in the end or about any of the other technical details of a proposed nuclear understanding. The skeptics are criticizing what looks like a disjointed and misguided approach to the relationship with Iran that threatens to further destabilize the Middle East. It is possible that the administration has good answers for them, but up until now the White House has preferred not to engage with the serious arguments against its Iran approach. The longer the President and his top aides keep pretending that critics have no concerns that are worth taking seriously, the more they feed the narrative that the White House is in over its head on Iran that it has lost sight of some important considerations in a headlong drive to get a deal. That perception, unless refuted (rather than mocked, caricatured or ignored) will ensure that neither Congress nor the country will allow the White House to pursue an Iran strategy that lacks public buy-in and consent.
So what are the arguments the White House needs to address in order to shore up the eroding support for its Iran strategy?
The Balance of Power Problem
One of the strongest arguments in favor of this approach to Iran comes from those who see in it an opening for the United States to cut back its commitments in the Middle East without sacrificing core interests by adopting the posture of an offshore balancer. Instead of being intimately involved with all the nitty-gritty of Middle Eastern power politics, the United States could rely on an offshore naval and air presence to ensure that no single power in the Middle East can dominate the rest. In some cases offshore balancing serves as a code-phrase to suggest a loosening of the U.S.-Israeli alliance as part of a general pullback; in others it is a way one underlines one’s differences from George W. Bush and his strategy. Proponents of this strategy have been among the strongest supporters of the administration’s Iran approach.
It’s hard to see why the offshore balancers should support the White House on this. The gravest danger to the balance of power in the Middle East today is not Saudi Arabia, Israel, or Turkey. The greatest danger is Iran’s push to consolidate its domination of the swath of territory from Iraq through Syria to Lebanon. If the United States aimed to pursue an offshore balancing strategy, it would currently be coming down like a ton of bricks on Iran’s regional ambitions. Instead, the Obama administration appears to be edging toward embracing Iran as a useful partner against ISIS and its fellow travelers.
A nuclear deal under these circumstances that lifts the sanctions without addressing the question of Iran’s regional ambitions would have the inevitable effect of greatly strengthening Iran’s hand.
Intelligent skeptics want to understand what the administration thinks about Iran’s growing predominance in the region. Is our strategy one of offshore balancing, or is it based on something like a return to the Nixon strategy of relying on the Shah of Iran as our right hand in the region? If the former, what does the administration propose to do about the imbalance that increasingly favors Iran? If the latter, what assurances does the administration have that a regionally dominant Iran would be our friend?
The Strategic Alignment Problem
The offshore balancer question leads to the next issue that troubles informed skeptics of the current negotiations with Iran. Supporters of a new relationship argue that the United States and Iran can work together for the long term because their interests are broadly aligned.
That may be true and it may not be. It seems, for example, that Iran would be a much more hawkish leader of OPEC than the Saudis have been. With a larger population and an ambitious regional policy, Iran would likely use its enhanced influence in OPEC to push prices higher.
More fundamentally, for Iran to hold its position as a regional strongman, it would have to overcome deep-seated Sunni Arab prejudices against both its Shi’a faith and its Persian culture. Being identified as Uncle Sam’s closest regional ally and hired gun would not exactly strengthen Iran’s soft power in the Middle East.
So far, Iran has consistently cast its quest for regional power as a movement of Islamic Resistance against the United States and its sidekick in Jerusalem. It casts American allies like the Saudis and others as pawns and puppets of the anti-Islamic Crusader-Zionist alliance. Iran and its allies (Syria, Hezbollah, and, in the past and once again perhaps in the near future, Hamas) have identified themselves as the Resistance Front, and have consistently taken the hardest possible line against both the United States and Israel.
Perhaps the administration has solid grounds for the belief that a stronger Iran would be a friendlier power. To the naked eye, however, it would seem that the larger Iran looms in the region, the more it will need the image of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism to legitimate its position.
The Obama administration will not be able to address rising skepticism about its Iran policy unless and until it can show why it makes sense to think that a stronger Iran will choose alignment with the United States when its own political interests would benefit from a more anti-American posture.
The Regime Change Argument
One of the most attractive arguments in favor of the current course is that moving to a less polarized relationship with Iran will accelerate a transition toward a more democratic and less theocratic regime within Iran. A new and democratic Iran is struggling to emerge from the chrysalis of the revolutionary government; by opening Iran’s economy to the world we can help the Iranian people change the regime from within. The new Iran that comes to life in this way will be a reliable partner for the United States and other free countries in remaking the region.
This argument is extremely popular and indeed is a mainstay among the many Iranian exiles and expats who are lobbying for improved relations between their countries of adoption and origin. It is passionately advanced; many of its advocates have friends and family back in Iran who long for this kind of opening and have high hopes for the results.
It may be true, but again it may not be. Most revolutions fail, if our criteria for success is the destruction of a dictatorship and its replacement by a stable, democratic regime. Exiles and upper middle class liberals are notoriously out of touch with political developments in their own countries. Look at the Egyptian liberals who passionately believed that the overthrow of Mubarak would lead to the kind of liberal democracy they so deeply and sincerely long for.
One of the things that keeps Iran skeptics up at night worrying is the fear that in fact the White House is betting the ranch on some kind of democratic evolution in Iran as the sanctions come down and the nuclear standoff ends. Certainly a democratic revolution in Iran would be a welcome development, but the Obama administration has a terrible track record in predicting the outcomes of Middle East political turmoil. Americans generally are bad at predicting when revolutions will take place in foreign countries, and we are if anything worse at predicting the course those revolutions take once under way.
Those who currently oppose the President’s strategy on Capitol Hill and elsewhere want to know that the President isn’t pursuing a strategy that depends on the deus ex machina of a timely, friendly, and successful democratic revolution that has us all getting along like there had never been any bad blood to begin with. They want to be sure that the President and the very tight and close circle of relatively inexperienced people on whom he relies haven’t swallowed the Kool Aid passed out by Iranian exiles remarkably similar in many ways to the Kool Aid that Iraqi exiles passed out to members of the Bush administration. How does the President’s strategy hold up if we assume that the same of assemblage of messianic ayatollahs and thuggish Revolutionary Guards will be running Iran when the sanctions are lifted?
The Alliance Problem
Finally, there is the question of our current unhappy allies. In pursuit of a new understanding with Iran, the White House has put severe stress on our existing relationships with countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel. As a result, Iran has been able to watch America’s regional position and alliance network weaken without lifting a finger or spending a dime. Seeing public quarrels erupt between Riyadh and Washington, and Jerusalem and Washington, makes people feel all warm and fuzzy in Tehran.
One can imagine situations in which the United States would switch from one set of allies to another. Something very like that has been gradually happening in South Asia as the United States and Pakistan move away from each other while the United States and India draw nearer. But the case in India for a U.S.-India alliance seems much stronger than the case for a U.S.-Iran alliance seems in Tehran. The administration has never articulated a compelling case for the belief that the U.S. and Iran are natural allies in today’s Middle East. Nor has much on this subject been heard from Tehran.
Under the circumstances, it looks to many as if the United States is dumping its old allies without securing a replacement. More may be said behind closed doors than is heard on the street, but even those who participate in high level briefings do not seem to have much confidence that the nuclear talks are simply an overture that looks almost certain to produce a much wider and sturdier U.S.-Iranian partnership that will be more useful and stable than the network allies we currently have.
If the administration has a serious case for how its Iran policy will leave the United States with a stronger and more useful regional alliance network than it now has, that case has not been made, not only to the public at large, but to the congressional leaders and former secretaries of state who could be expected to be convinced by strong arguments along these lines.
And this, finally, is why the chorus of concern about the President’s Iran strategy is becoming so much louder this winter. The bits and pieces of the strategy that we know about don’t make sense, and the President and his team don’t seem to understand how weak and vapid the case they make to the public really is. We are reduced to hoping that there is some kind of Top Secret strategy of genius that the circle of advisors close to the President isn’t sharing, but the President’s very checkered record as a global strategist makes this kind of confidence hard to sustain.
Unless President Obama can make a much stronger case for his Iran policy than he has so far done, expect skepticism and opposition to grow.