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Washington’s Iran Policy under the Microscope

Jan 29, 2015

Washington's Iran Policy under the Microscope

Update from AIJAC

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 Takeyhall 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 most—its 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.

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Fatal Attraction


Why Obama’s push to build a legacy relationship with Iran is only going to end in heartache.

By Aaron David Miller

Foreign Policy, January 21, 2015

It’’s probably too early to be thinking about Valentine’s Day. But here’’s a half-serious romantic musing for you: Is U.S. President Barack Obama sweet on Tehran? Listening to his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, during which the president staunchly declared that he would veto any new sanctions, defended his diplomacy, rightly welcomed home Alan Gross from Cuba, but did not say one negative thing about Iran’’s imprisonment of U.S. citizens, you might think so. Is the president pursuing an Iran-centric strategy as the key to stabilizing and bringing order to a confused and muddled Middle East? And are the Iranians the prospective U.S. darlings of the region?

That’’s crazy, you say. Iran is still the (very) bad boy of Middle East politics. The mullahs support the murderous Bashar al-Assad of Syria, imprison American journalists, and back Hezbollah and Hamas. The president is too smart to think U.S. and Iranian interests coincide. And, after all, the United States has imposed nation-crushing sanctions on Iran, has attacked it with cyberoffensives, and has threatened the use of military force. Indeed, there’s so much historical baggage between Washington and Tehran, and so many policy divides in the region (see Syria), that it’s hard to imagine a budding relationship, nuclear deal or not. Besides, whatever this supposed lame-duck president tried to do on Iran would be checked by Congress, the Israelis, the Saudis, and perhaps the Iranians themselves.

But consider another possibility. The strategy-less president, the abdicator in chief, the leader who leads from behind, the guy who, at times, seems barely interested in foreign policy, actually has an organizing concept for this broken, angry region. And, in fact, it’s an Iran-centered one. Indeed, Tehran sits at the nexus of (or at least has influence on) just about every issue the United States cares about: nukes, oil, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, fighting the Islamic State, Persian Gulf security, Lebanon, and even the so-called peace process. And unsurprisingly, the perception that the president is pursuing an Iran-first approach has already taken its toll on the trust and confidence from America’s traditional allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel. Both countries worry for a living. But on this issue it’s not all that hard to see why. There’s a growing concern in both Riyadh and Jerusalem that Washington is naive, doesn’t understand Iran’’s regional ambitions, is reducing its profile in the region, and will cut a deal with Tehran on nukes that eases rather than increases the pressure.

And don’’t kid yourself. Obama’’s no lame duck on foreign policy. There’s plenty of juice left in his presidency. Cuba might only prove to be a warm-up. And like Cuba, the goal with Iran is not to transform things immediately, but to create a more transactional process that over time will fundamentally change the nature of the relationship between the two countries. Obama won’t be around to see the prospective benefits. The president’s legacy will be to have set those changes in motion.

For the short term, at least on paper, the logic goes something like this:

Other than a major terrorist attack on the homeland, the most immediate and strategic threat to U.S. interests comes from an Iran with nukes. An Iran seeking nukes could trigger an Israeli military strike (even an American one), lead to Iranian attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, trigger Hezbollah rockets on Israel, bump up oil prices, wreak havoc in financial markets, and over time launch a Middle East nuclear arms race.

So to avoid these catastrophes, the president authorized a strategy on the nuclear issue that has already taken him where none of his successors had been before. He said way back in 2008 that he’’d be prepared to engage his enemies. And he clearly meant it. Using secret diplomacy, his diplomats reached a historic interim agreement with Iran; they in turn created pretty friendly relations with Iran’s negotiators, and they all came to believe in the real possibility of a U.S.-Iranian groundbreaking deal on the nuclear issue. Obama himself sent letters to the supreme leader and had phone conversations with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. And given what we now know about both the secret U.S.-Cuba (Canadian) and U.S.-Iranian (Omani) channels, you can bet there’’s going to be another quiet channel operating as we approach endgame diplomacy on the nuclear issue.

The notion that the Obama administration is trying to keep Iran sweet to preserve the possibility of a nuclear deal is also evident in the president’s threat to veto current sanctions legislation, even though Iran’s behavior hardly warrants that restraint. Building new reactors and trying a Washington Post reporter are hardly confidence-builders. Listening to the administration’s rhetoric, particularly in Tuesday night’s State of the Union speech, you’’d think that Congress’s legitimate concerns are the problem, not the mullahs.

And when it comes to U.S. policy toward Syria, the signs that the United States is giving Iran some space are evident as well. The president isn’t pursuing a pro-Assad policy there by not going after the regime. Taking down Assad without any sense of who or what will replace him risks opening up the field to the best-organized forces in the country —the Islamic State and the Islamists. But the president is giving Iran plenty of operating room in Syria. Attacking Assad could trigger a proxy war with Tehran, resulting in the United States killing Islamic Revolutionary Guard forces and alienating Iran at the very moment when Washington is trying to reach a nuclear deal. Obama is also banking on Iran to help counter the Islamic State in Iraq.

Right now, reaching an agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue is probably the administration’s most important priority in the Middle East. But would such an agreement fundamentally alter the relationship between the two countries, and could Iran over time emerge as a partner of the United States in the region?

The advantages of a credible deal that prevented Iran from breaking out to attain a nuclear weapon or developing an industrial-grade nuclear infrastructure are obvious, including avoiding the drift toward a military conflict. But the notion of a partnership in the wake of such an accord is a stretch. The mullahs need to have the United States as an adversary to maintain their control and to avoid the slippery slope of uncontrolled openings to the West that might jeopardize it. And Iran and the United States have different interests and conceptions of both Iraq and Syria. Mobilizing against the Islamic State as a common enemy won’t be enough to overcome those differences.

As long as the mullahcracy and security establishment continue to see Iran as a revolutionary Islamic power at home and abroad, the chances of an Obama engagement strategy transforming the U.S.-Iran relationship — even over time — look pretty bleak. Indeed, perhaps the greatest danger is that a deal really won’t diminish Tehran’s determination to remain a screwdriver’s turn away from a weapon. And if the administration is too eager for an agreement, it will find itself with the worst of all possible worlds — with an emboldened Iran freed from sanctions and international pressure, untransformed, unrepentant, and in a stronger not weaker position to challenge U.S. interests in a turbulent Middle East. So come February, Mr. President, send you valentines to Michelle and the girls. Skip the mullahs. They really don’’t deserve it.

Aaron David Miller is vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His forthcoming book is titled The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.


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Time to Take It to Iran

The stalemate over nukes, and now a Tehran-backed coup in Yemen, show that Obama isn’’t tough enough.

Politico, January 23, 2015

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 developments—the deadlock in nuclear talks and Iran’’s aggressive moves in the region—are 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 Action—and 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 Iran’s 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 don’t 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, Iran’s 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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Iran’’s emerging empire



Washington Post, January 22  

While Iran’s march toward a nuclear bomb has provoked a major clash between the White House and Congress, Iran’s 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. They’re 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 Obama’s 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.

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