Washington’s Iran Policy under the Microscope
Jan 29, 2015
January 29, 2015
Number 01/15 #07
In the wake of US President Obama’s State of the Union speech last week, in which Iran was mentioned primarily in terms of the Administration’s strong opposition to new sanctions being proposed by Congress, US policy policy on Iran and its nuclear program has been engendering much critical commentary. Moreover, much of it is coming from writers and analysts not known for their generally critical approach to the Obama Presidency. This Update includes some key commentators discussing why they believe the Administration is getting this key element of US foreign policy wrong.
First up is Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East mediator in 1990s under the Clinton Administration, who argues that there is evidence to conclude that Washington is pursing an “Iran-centric” strategy. He says it appears that the Obama Administration believes a rapprochement with Iran is the key to solving most of the US’ regional problems “nukes, oil, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, fighting the Islamic State, Persian Gulf security, Lebanon, and even the so-called peace process.” Miller urges the President to reconsider his courting of Iran, arguing that there is virtually no chance for the fulfillment of the Administration’s hope that a nuclear deal will lead to fundamental improvement in the relationship between the two countries or even a partnership. For this important perspective from a highly experienced American policymaker and analyst, CLICK HERE.
Next up, three senior policy experts on the Middle East – former Obama advisor Dennis Ross, former Bush Administration official Eric Edelman and noted scholar Ray Takeyh – all urge the US Administration to alter course in the nuclear negotiations with Iran. The argue that the current strategy is not working – that the Iranian regime is coming to expect continual American concessions but offering none of their own, and shows little sign of believing that they even need a deal. Ross, Edelman and Takeyh argue for a “revamped coercive strategy, one that threatens what the Islamic Republic values the mostits influence in the Middle East and its standing at home” and suggests some ways to achieve this. For all the details, CLICK HERE.
Finally, American columnist Charles Krauthammer looks at the regional reality of spreading Iranian influence – especially in the wake of the recent overthrow of the Yemen government to Houthi rebels allied with and armed by Teheran. He looks especially at the regional worries about the growing Iranian “empire” – not just Israel, but the Arab Gulf states even more so viewing this as a “nightmare” only exacerbated by the likelihood of Iran becoming a nuclear threshold state. Krauthammer argues that in view of this reality, the Administration’s fierce opposition to new sanctions proposals coming from Congress are “incomprehensible.” For his argument in full, CLICK HERE. More on Iran’s expanding regional influence from the Economist.
Readers may also be interested in:
- A report that Senate members of President Obama’s Democratic party are giving him two months before they will support additional sanctions against Iran. Plus, Israeli experts predict no nuclear deal with Iran can be reached due to the regime’s intransigence.
- Washington Institute scholar Michael Singh argues that Administration hopes of aligning with President Rouhani’s supposedly “moderate” faction in Iran against the hardliners will not work as a way of achieving American objectives. Plus, his colleague Patrick Clawson discusses Iran’s ability to adapt to existing sanctions and the need for more to maintain the pressure.
- Iranian-born writer Amir Taheri on the fate of two Iranian poets – and what it says about the clerical regime.
- A Wall Street Journal editorial on US Iran policy. Plus, the Washington Post’s “Factchecker” evaluates the truth of Pres. Obama’s State of the Union address claims about the achievements of his Iran policy.
- More on the situation in Yemen from David Ignatius.
- More on the Saudi succession from Simon Henderson.
- Isi Leibler writes about Israel PM Netanyahu’s controversial decision to accept an invitation to address the US Congress about Iran in March, two weeks before the Israeli election.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Sharyn Mittelman on the commemorations of 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz.
Why Obamas push to build a legacy relationship with Iran is only going to end in heartache.
Foreign Policy, January 21, 2015
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The stalemate over nukes, and now a Tehran-backed coup in Yemen, show that Obama isn’t tough enough.
The nuclear negotiations between the United States and Iran appear stalemated. Meanwhile Iran is on the march in the Middle East with its forces supporting the coup in Yemen, buttressing the Assad war-machine in Syria, mediating between factions in Iraq, and plotting with Hezbollah operatives on the periphery of Israel. Today, the American alliance system stands bruised and battered while our friends in the region perceive Iran and its resistance-front galloping across the region.
These two simultaneous developmentsthe deadlock in nuclear talks and Iran’s aggressive moves in the regionare not coincidental. They are intimately linked, and that should be a lesson for President Obama: The nuclear deadlock cannot be broken unless Washington reengages in the myriad of conflicts and civil wars plaguing the region, particularly now that Yemen is vulnerable and the Saudi royal family is in a state of turmoil following the death of King Abdullah on Thursday.
During the course of the nuclear negotiations over the past year, Iran has been the beneficiary of a generous catalogue of concessions from the West. The 5-plus-1 has conceded to Iranian enrichment, agreed that Tehran need not scale back the number of its centrifuges significantly or dismantle any facilities and could have an industrial-size program after passage of a period of time. The Iranians have, during the course of the ten years of negotiations, grown accustomed to having their interlocutors return to the table with concessions meant to meet their mandates while offering only limited compromises of their own.
Despite that no agreement was achieved at the end of the one year time-frame of the Joint Plan of Actionand the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continues to signal that Iran can live without an agreement. In fact, his negotiators are pressing for more concessions while not offering any of their own.
Hence it is time to acknowledge that we need a revamped coercive strategy, one that threatens what the Islamic Republic values the most – its influence in the Middle East and its standing at home. And the pattern of concessions at the negotiating table must stop if there is to be an acceptable agreement. Iranian officials must come to understand that there will be no further concessions to reach an accord and that time is running out for negotiations.
Historically, the Islamic Republic has adjusted its behavior only when its leaders saw high costs in not doing so. Iran needs to see that we are not so concerned about reaching a deal on the nuclear issue that we are indifferent to its behavior in the region. Should we seriously act to change the balance of power on the ground in Syria, we could raise the costs to Iran of supporting the Assad Dynasty, with the added potential benefit of making a political outcome in Syria possible. In Iraq, we should be concerned about what increasingly appears to be Irans invasion of the country under the banner of disarming the Islamic State. That should be the task of the Iraqi military working in close coordination with the United States and its Arab allies. And in the Gulf, it is time for Washington and Riyadh to collaborate on securing the waterways and isolating Iran in its immediate neighborhood. The guardians of the theocracy will only contemplate serious nuclear concessions once they see that all the walls around them are closing.
Along these lines, the United States should consider a political warfare campaign against Tehran to complement its economic sanctions policy. The administration officials and its broadcast services should draw attention to the unsavory nature of the theocratic regime and repressive behavior. Such language will not just showcase our values but potentially inspire political dissent. A regime stressed at home and under pressure abroad may yet consider the price of its nuclear intransigence.
As they once more meet their Iranian counterparts next week, the American diplomats should not be afraid to walk away from the table and even suspend the talks should they continue to meet an unyielding Iran. Another way of pressing Tehran would be to publicize all the concessions that 5-plus-1 have made and how little Iran has moved. In doing so, we would expose the emptiness of the Iranian claim that all they want is civil nuclear power and clearly signal to their leadership that we dont need an agreement as much as they do and that we are prepared to create conditions for international support for increased pressure.
While it may be difficult now to foster the impression of a unified domestic American front, the White House would be wise to engage Congress on various legislation working its way through the Hill. The congressional concerns regarding the direction of the talks are not unreasonable. To be sure, the administration has its own diplomatic equities and legitimate concerns regarding the unity of the 5-plus-1. The White House has constructive interlocutors on the hill and a sincere dialogue might yet produce an accommodation on these thorny issues. In the end, the absence of congressional involvement and approval could well mean that any deal negotiated by the White House will not survive the Obama presidency.
The United States and Iran are destined to remain adversaries. It may be possible for enemies to negotiate an arms control compacts, but the path to such an accord will not come from additional concessions by the 5+1; if we want an acceptable deal at this stage, Irans leaders need to see they have more to lose than gain by not concluding one.
Dennis Ross is a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and served as a special assistant to President Obama from 2009 to 2011.
Eric Edelman is a distinguished fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and served as undersecretary of defense during the George W. Bush administration.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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While Irans march toward a nuclear bomb has provoked a major clash between the White House and Congress, Irans march toward conventional domination of the Arab world has been largely overlooked. In Washington, that is. The Arabs have noticed. And the pro-American ones, the Gulf Arabs in particular, are deeply worried.
This week, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels seized control of the Yemeni government, heretofore pro-American. In September, they overran Sanaa, the capital. On Tuesday, they seized the presidential palace. On Thursday, they forced the president to resign.
The Houthis have local religious grievances, being Shiites in a majority Sunni land. But they are also agents of Shiite Iran, which arms, trains and advises them. Their slogan - God is great. Death to America. Death to Israel - could have been written in Persian.
Why should we care about the coup? First, because we depend on Yemen’s government to support our drone war against another local menace, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It’s not clear if we can even maintain our embassy in Yemen, let alone conduct operations against AQAP. And second, because growing Iranian hegemony is a mortal threat to our allies and interests in the entire Middle East.
In Syria, Iran’s power is similarly rising. The mullahs rescued the reeling regime of Bashar al-Assad by sending in weapons, money and Iranian revolutionary guards, as well as by ordering their Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, to join the fight. They succeeded. The moderate rebels are in disarray, even as Assad lives in de facto coexistence with the Islamic State, which controls a large part of his country.
Iran’s domination of Syria was further illustrated by a strange occurrence last Sunday in the Golan Heights. An Israeli helicopter attacked a convoy on the Syrian side of the armistice line. Those killed were not Syrian, however, but five Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and several Iranian officials, including a brigadier general.
What were they doing in the Syrian Golan Heights? Giving crucial advice, announced the Iranian government. On what? Well, three days earlier, Hezbollah’s leader had threatened an attack on Israel’s Galilee. Tehran appears to be using its control of Syria and Hezbollah to create its very own front against Israel.
The Israelis can defeat any conventional attack. Not so the very rich, very weak Gulf Arabs. To the north and west, they see Iran creating a satellite Shiite Crescent stretching to the Mediterranean and consisting of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. To their south and west, they see Iran gaining proxy control of Yemen. And they are caught in the pincer.
The Saudis are fighting back the only way they can with massive production of oil at a time of oversupply and collapsing prices, placing enormous economic pressure on Iran. It needs $136 oil to maintain its budget. The price today is below $50.
Yet the Obama administration appears to be ready to acquiesce to the new reality of Iranian domination of Syria. It has told the New York Times that it is essentially abandoning its proclaimed goal of removing Assad.
For the Saudis and the other Gulf Arabs, this is a nightmare. Theyre engaged in a titanic regional struggle with Iran. And they are losing - losing Yemen, losing Lebanon, losing Syria and watching post-U.S.-withdrawal Iraq come under increasing Iranian domination.
The nightmare would be hugely compounded by Iran going nuclear. The Saudis were already stupefied that Washington conducted secret negotiations with Tehran behind their backs. And they can see where the current talks are headed - legitimizing Iran as a threshold nuclear state.
Which makes all the more incomprehensible President Obamas fierce opposition to Congress offer to strengthen the American negotiating hand by passing sanctions to be triggered if Iran fails to agree to give up its nuclear program. After all, that was the understanding Obama gave Congress when he began these last-ditch negotiations in the first place.
Why are you parroting Tehran’s talking points, Mr. President? asks Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez. Indeed, why are we endorsing Iran’s claim that sanctions relief is the new norm? Obama assured the nation that sanctions relief was but a temporary concession to give last-minute, time-limited negotiations a chance.
Twice the deadline has come. Twice no new sanctions, just unconditional negotiating extensions.
Our regional allies - Saudi Arabia, the other five Gulf states, Jordan, Egypt and Israel - are deeply worried. Tehran is visibly on the march on the ground and openly on the march to nuclear status. And their one great ally, their strategic anchor for two generations, is acquiescing to both.