Iran and the State of the Union
Jan 29, 2014
Update from AIJAC
January 29, 2014
Number 01/14 #05
Today’s Update looks at some initial reactions to US President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, which he delivered before Congress earlier today. (The full text of the President’s remarks can be found here.)
Of particular interest to our readers would be two issues Obama touched on during his speech with regard to foreign policy. First, his succinct but important comments about the current negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians – where he implicitly backed Israel’s demand to be recognised as a Jewish state. Secondly, Obama vigorously defended his interim agreement with Iran as a peaceful step towards defusing its rogue nuclear program, warning Congress that he would veto any legislation for new sanctions during the interim period.
First up is Commentary‘s Jonathan Tobin, who focused his critical assessment of Obama’s speech on his domestic policies that dominated the narrative. On foreign policy, Tobin noted that the strongest words the President had were against his own Congress over their push for stronger sanctions against Iran, but that “his chutzpah in proclaiming Syria – where he endured total humiliation in 2013 – as a triumph for his policies shows just how shockingly removed from reality this administration has become.” For more, CLICK HERE.
Next, ahead of the speech, the Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan and Scott Clement offered three reasons why Iran and Syria are not Obama’s strong suits, calling special attention to new polls which show that the American public disapprove of the job Obama is doing handling both of those areas. For more of their commentary, CLICK HERE.
Lastly, writing for Politico, the Washington Institute’s Dennis Ross tries to plot a suggested course for the Obama Administration to follow in order to convince Iran to roll back its nuclear program in the next stage of negotiations. He says the key is to keep the pressure on Iran and respond to any signs Iran may be trying to advance its nuclear development during the next six months by working with Congress to prepare plans for more sanctions. In doing so, Ross writes, the President would signal to Teheran – as well as Congress – that the White House is serious about preventing Iran from becoming a permanent nuclear threshold state. For Ross’ full essay, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Khaled Abu Toameh on how the Palestinian Authority has turned on Tzipi Livini, Israel’s chief representative at the peace talks, after she criticised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ negotiating positions.
- An exhibition that was set to open at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris detailing the 3,500 year link between the Jewish people and Israel that was postponed due to pressure by Arab countries will now be held in June.
- Steve Apfel analyses the disturbing manifestation of genteel Holocaust denial that minimises Jewish suffering whilst also accusing Israel of acting worse than Nazis towards Palestinians.
- Michael Taube argues that President Obama has a flawed understanding of Muslim antisemitism, particularly in thinking that it is mostly tied to the creation of Israel.
- The Jerusalem Post takes a last look at the late Armerican folk music and left-wing icon Pete Seeger, who almost topped the US charts with a Zionist tune in 1950, visited a kibbutz with his family in 1964 and performed in Israel days before the Six Day War, but had a complicated relationship with Israel late in life.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- AIJAC Executive Director Dr Colin Rubenstein appeared on ABC News Breakfast on Sunday, January 12 to discuss the death of former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon.
- Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz looks at how strikes at UNRWA expose Palestinian internal tensions.
Obama Goes Through the Motions
Jonathan Tobin, Commentary
January 28, 2014
There was plenty of big talk in the 2014 State of the Union address. President Obama exhorted Americans to accept his baseless claim that the economy is reviving and urged them to believe his jarringly upbeat view of the nation’s future. He tried to sound assertive as he vowed to use executive orders to get his way if Congress didn’t give him what he wanted. He touted ObamaCare. And he closed with an inspiring story of a wounded Army Ranger. But there’s no mistaking that this was a speech given by a president mired in second-term doldrums. There were not only a total of zero new ideas; almost everything in it was recycled from past addresses including a grimly risible vow to close the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba that he has kept open throughout his presidency even though he’s been promising to close it since 2008.
Although everything in this message was poll-tested and designed to be popular, this State of the Union (SOTU) did nothing but reinforce the impression that the president is mechanically going through the motions. The press had been prepped to believe the president would come out swinging tonight, defying Congress and vowing to seize the reins of government into his own hands. But what the country heard instead was confirmation of what many had already suspected after a disastrous 2013 for the president: he has passed over the historic bridge from celebrated re-election to the status of an irrelevant lame-duck.
Virtually every item in the president’s speech had been heard before and introduced with greater passion and urgency in the past. Everything on his long, dreary laundry list had a tired feel to it, showing the country and the world that his only answer to the nation’s problems is to continue recycling the timeworn and ineffective policies that he’s been peddling for five years.
All his proposals were cribbed from the 2013 State of the Union including calls to address income inequality,raise the minimum wage, invest in solar energy, universal pre-kindergarten, and student loans. But the difference between the two speeches could be measured not simply in terms of the mind-numbing number of tedious repetitions, but in the drab, lethargic affect the president projected as he droned on. Last year he managed to convey the liberal agenda with confidence and urgency. That energy was completely lacking in tonight’s speech. After a year of scandals and a disastrous rollout of his signature health-care plan—whose problems were never once mentioned in the speech—the president seems unable to muster the requisite emotional enthusiasm or the intellectual firepower to challenge or inspire the nation.
As to specifics, the much-trumpeted “year of action” on inequality was merely a rehash of the same proposals that have already been rejected. The only new idea he presented was an absurd call for all employers to give their employees raises, a shameless populist appeal that makes no economic sense. The man who promised to turn back the oceans and remake America is now reduced to an utterly pathetic plea that America should get a raise. Even the talk of governing by executive orders was delivered more as a talking point than a genuine appeal for change.
On foreign policy, his strongest words were delivered in a threat to veto new economic sanctions on Iran that he thinks will upset his diplomatic outreach to the Islamist regime. His drive for détente with Iran—bolstered by false claims about inspections and Iran destroying its uranium stockpile—seems to fire him up but his chutzpah in proclaiming Syria—where he endured total humiliation in 2013—as a triumph for his policies shows just how shockingly removed from reality this administration has become.
With three years to go, there is still plenty of time for Obama to continue spinning his wheels on a health-care plan that is a fiasco and proposals such as the minimum wage that will only serve to increase unemployment. But tonight made clear that there is nothing new left in his bag of tricks. The sounds you’re hearing now, and will for the next three years, are the querulous quacks of a very lame duck.
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Three reasons why Iran and Syria are not Obama’s strong suits
Sean Sullivan and Scott Clement, Washington Post
January 28, 2014
If President Obama weighs in Tuesday night on his administration’s efforts in Syria and Iran, he will be hitting on issues that the American public has been none too pleased with lately.
Nearly half of Americans say they disapprove of Obama’s handling of the situations in Syria (45 percent) and Iran (49 percent), according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. Obama is underwater on both fronts, with 39 percent approving of his handling of Iran and 33 percent approving of his handling of Syria.
The depressed marks are surprising given that the vast majority of Americans expressed approval of deals the Obama administration struck to strip Syria of its chemical weapons (rather than launch missile strikes) and restrict Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing international sanctions.
Why the disconnect? Three factors could be at work simultaneously:
1. Republicans are loyal opponents. While clear majorities of Republicans supported the framework of Iran and Syria agreements, roughly three in four still disapprove of Obama’s dealings with Syria (76 percent) and Iran (73 percent). In short, Republicans are largely judging Obama by different metrics than the agreements described in the poll, such as Republican leaders’ vocal criticism of both deals as being too weak. They also might not have given much thought to Iran or Syria and be substituting their general disapproval of Obama. (That substitution can occur for Democrats too).
2. Democrats also are not fully on board. While 81 percent of Democrats approve of Obama’s overall job performance, far smaller majorities approve of his handling of Syria (57 percent) and Iran (63 percent). On Syria in particular, one in four Democrats simply have no opinion on the issue, indicating Obama has yet to enshrine confidence among his base of supporters.
3. No “Mission Accomplished” moment. Diplomatic agreements lack pomp and circumstance, and Obama’s Iran and Syria agreements were no exception. Iran’s nuclear program was not immediately dismantled, and Syria’s chemical weapons were not destroyed. Indeed, security challenges have slowed the destruction of Syria’s weapons, and Iran’s compromise is still contingent on that country making good on its promises (about which Americans are skeptical).
As The Washington Post‘s Scott Wilson writes, Obama is likely to call in his State of the Union speech for patience with regard to Iran, where new negotiations to pare down the nuclear program are underway. Some in the Senate have called for the U.S. to take a harder line and impose new sanctions.
Meanwhile, in Syria, a bloody civil war is nearing its three-year mark and effort to make peace from the U.S. and others have been snagged.
It’s not surprising that two key areas of U.S. foreign policy have divided the county along party lines in an age of intense partisanship and bickering. It’s a reminder that Obama faces many of the same challenges selling the public on foreign policy decisions as he does on domestic matters.
In short, for now, politics doesn’t always stop at the water’s edge.
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How to solve Obama’s Iran Dilemma
Dennis Ross, Politico
January 26, 2014
The six-month clock on world powers’ nuclear deal with Iran has finally begun to tick, but nobody seems optimistic.
President Obama puts the chance of translating this interim agreement into a comprehensive deal to ensure that Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon at less than 50 percent. The Iranian deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araqchi, believes that may be high—and points out that nothing the Iranians have accepted is irreversible. Indeed, he says they can undo the steps they have taken, including suspending the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, in a day. The U.S. government, meanwhile, says that this first-step agreement offers Iran very limited sanctions relief. And with the sanctions architecture intact, the United States can quickly ratchet up the pressures on the Islamic Republic if it violates the deal or if a comprehensive deal proves unachievable.
Why are both sides so downbeat? And what will give us the best chance of producing a lasting agreement?
To begin with, the comprehensive deal will be difficult to achieve precisely because it is about rollback. The interim agreement, officially called the Joint Plan of Action, was essentially a “cap for a cap.” The Iranians cap their program in the sense that they agree not to add to the number of centrifuges or to the overall amount of enriched uranium they have accumulated at the 5 percent level (though they must reduce to zero the 20 percent enriched material they have already accumulated). The Iranians are, however, allowed to build new centrifuges to replace ones that are damaged or break down, and they may continue research on even more modern and efficient centrifuges. In return, the United States promised to adopt no new sanctions for the next 6 months, while relaxing sanctions related to petrochemicals, precious metals and the Iranian automobile industry and allowing Iran to access $4.2 billion in previously blocked funds.
Producing a cap for cap was not easy, but is far less difficult than producing a rollback for a rollback. And that is what the negotiations are now about: Can the United States and its allies get the Iranians to roll back their nuclear program and infrastructure in return for a rollback of the sanctions on banking, commerce, shipping and insurance that have proven so onerous to the Iranian economy?
It should be doable in theory. After all, the U.S. position—and that of the so-called P5+1 grouping of world powers, America’s partners in these negotiations—is that Iran can possess civil nuclear power so long as it is not in a position to break out to a nuclear weapons capability. That is what the Iranians say they are doing: They insist that they only seek civil nuclear energy and don’t want nuclear weapons. Their president, Hassan Rouhani, has even said that Iran is prepared to adopt transparency measures to assure the rest of the world of Iran’s intentions. But in practice, what theoretically sounds bridgeable may not be so easy, particularly given the legacy of distrust and the scope of the Iranian nuclear program.
Consider, at a minimum, two elements of that legacy from a U.S. perspective. The Iranians have yet to answer the International Atomic Energy Agency’s questions about the “possible military dimensions” of their nuclear program, which involves, among other things, experimentation with nuclear trigger devices; in addition, they have now built nearly 20,000 centrifuges and accumulated approximately 5-6 bombs’ worth of enriched uranium. And you can throw in a third suspicious element: Iran’s infrastructure also includes the development of a heavy-water plant that is grossly inefficient for producing electricity, but not for generating plutonium for nuclear weapons.
With the Iranians proclaiming that their nuclear infrastructure is about their dignity and independence—and that international demands are about denying them each—one can assume that they will resist an extensive rollback of their program. Yet, they will not get the extensive sanctions rollback they seek without a massive reduction in their nuclear infrastructure. While the Obama administration is not demanding zero enrichment and the complete dismantlement of Iran’s enrichment facilities, as some on Capitol Hill are calling for, it is not prepared to accept Iran as a nuclear threshold state. In other words, Iran must not be left with a nuclear infrastructure that is sufficiently robust and advanced that it can break out to nuclear weapons at a time of its choosing.
How far back is rolled back enough? President Obama has said publicly that Iran can’t have either a heavy water plant or its enrichment facility at Fordow, and it must also reduce the number of its centrifuges—though he has maintained ambiguity on what that number would be. I am one of those who believe that the United States can accept a limited enrichment program for Iran, but I think the number of centrifuges must be small, certainly less than 10 percent of what they have now (nearly 20,000). That number, moreover, cannot include any next-generation centrifuges, which even now the Iranians are trying improve with new advances. In addition, Iran must have less than a bomb’s worth of accumulated enriched uranium in the country. All that will be a bitter pill for the Islamic Republic to swallow.
Indeed, there is nothing in what Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Rouhani or Foreign Minister Javad Zarif are now saying that suggests they believe they will have to reduce their program along these lines. Their concept at this point would no doubt leave them as a nuclear threshold state. Many observers, me included, believe that has been their goal all along.
So how can Obama break the impasse? The only chance of getting Iran to give up this objective is for Iran to believe that the cost of pursuing it is simply too high. President Rouhani’s desire to end Iran’s isolation and the sanctions that have done such damage to its economy has largely stopped the clock on the Iranian nuclear program. Clearly, Ayatollah Khamenei has accepted enough of Rouhani’s logic to support him at least to this point. It was not inducements that got us this far, but the pressure of the sanctions.
And that highlights an interesting gap between the White House and Congress. Senators like Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) believe that we must keep up the pressure if we are to have any chance of getting the Iranians to agree to roll back their nuclear program. The president and Secretary of State John Kerry argue that additional pressure now—at least in the form of a new sanctions bill—would undercut Rouhani, empower the hard-liners around the supreme leader and give the Iranians an excuse to walk away from the negotiations. Some in the White House have gone so far as to say that those who support sanctions now are choosing a path of war. Not surprisingly, such rhetoric has not won the White House more adherents.
I find the argument that adopting sanctions now will end diplomacy and make war the only option to be ironic. Ironic not because I necessarily agree that the choice at this point is, in fact, that binary, or that I am convinced that additional sanctions adopted now will produce the end of diplomacy. Ironic because most of the administration’s critics—and certainly the Saudis, Emiratis and Israelis—are all convinced that President Obama will not use force against the Iranian nuclear program under any circumstances.
But that is not the Obama administration’s argument. The administration is saying: If you undercut our effort at diplomacy—and legislating sanctions now will do that—you leave war as the only option. That hardly suggests President Obama is retreating from his oft-repeated declaration that all options are on the table. It is true that he does not want to be left with force as the only option. Who does? But the White House’s position should not give the Iranians any comfort. In effect, it is saying that if diplomacy fails, force will be inevitable because Iran cannot become a nuclear weapons state.
Adding to the irony for me is that the most likely way for the supreme leader to back Rouhani is for him to see the consequences of not doing so. Rouhani has little chance of being empowered if the supreme leader thinks Iran can have its yellow cake and eat it too. If Khamenei thinks the sanctions will collapse of their own weight or that there is no prospect for the use of force or that the United States is desperate for a deal, there is no prospect of the Iranians accepting that they must roll back their program to the point of not being a threshold state.
Some argue that the United States must insist that Iran be allowed no enrichment and dismantle the means for it. From the standpoint of strengthening the global non-proliferation regime, that would be the best outcome. But I agree with the Obama administration’s opposition to this posture for two reasons: First, I suspect there is a point where the supreme leader will see the absence of a face-saving compromise, such as a U.S. acceptance of Iran’s having rights to limited enrichment, as constituting a surrender that will threaten the Islamic Republic. He has repeatedly argued against making concessions to what he calls the “arrogant powers” because it will only feed their appetite to keep pressing for concessions until they achieve their aim of wholesale regime change. Second, if diplomacy fails, the United States will be far more credible in reinforcing sanctions or using force—or both—if it puts a proposal on the table that the rest of the international community will find serious and plausible. Excluding limited enrichment will deny us that plausibility; including it will allow us to unmask Iran’s true intentions if diplomacy fails: They want nuclear weapons, and not just civil nuclear power.
Is it possible to reconcile Congress’s belief that we need to adopt sanctions with the administration’s view that it will undercut diplomacy? I think so. But it will require lawmakers to accept the argument that adopting new sanctions now will allow the Iranians to walk away while our P5+1 partners blame us instead of them. Even the French, who tend to adopt the hardest line among the P5+1, now buy into this logic. Diplomacy is about taking away excuses, not giving them.
If Congress needs to recognize that, the administration needs to recognize the importance of being willing to add to the pressure and of working with the Hill to that end. For example, if the Iranians can create facts in anticipation that diplomacy might not work, so should we. When the Iranians are doing work on new and more advanced centrifuges—ones more powerful than their current IR-2s, which are already 4-5 times more efficient than their first-generation centrifuges—they are sending a signal to us about what they will do if diplomacy fails. The administration can match that by agreeing with key members of Congress on which new sanctions it would be prepared to adopt if there is no follow-on agreement to the Joint Plan of Action.
This is an elegant solution: Congress would not adopt the new sanctions during the life of the Joint Plan of Action, but the Hill would know that the administration is preparing the ground to increase the pressure in a meaningful way—and so would the Iranians, our partners and the international private sector, which is exploring the new business climate in Tehran. We would be giving the negotiations a chance while denying the Iranians an excuse.
A deal with the Iranians may or may not be possible, but one with Congress? That should be much easier.