Tag Archives: Iran

Obama negotiates against himself

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Recent developments in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have shined bright light on the weakness of President Obama’s strategy.

Genuinely or not, Iran has disavowed the most critical provision cited by the president and his minions in their defense of the framework agreement. In an official statement, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei insisted that Iran would honor no agreement which failed to remove economic sanctions immediately. Then on Twitter he underscored the issue, declaring “all sanctions should be removed just when the deal is reached.”

Gradual relief upon proof of compliance had been a primary selling point to Western audiences. Critics had worried that Iran would feign compliance to earn sanctions relief, not that it could obtain relief with mere promises. Now it seems the bad deal is even worse than advertised.

On April 7 in The Wall Street Journal, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz took the administration to task for its shortsightedness. Pushing back on their thoughtful analysis, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf complained she “didn’t hear a lot of alternatives of what they would do differently.”

This retort was non-substantive and essentially false. The statesmen had meticulously advocated for a more coherent regional strategy, including a firmer line against the Iranian regime.

Beyond Harf’s petulance, though, it is worth noting that you don’t hear anyone on the Iranian side talking about the lack of alternatives. Unlike our hapless American president, the Iranians drive a hard bargain because they choose not to negotiate against themselves.

Call it “good cop/bad cop” or “Negotiation 101,” but it is just common sense to posit an alternative which your adversary fears, not one that you and your allies wish to avoid.

President Obama is so fearful of losing a deal that he is fighting to disarm the very people who could give him the most leverage: his skeptics in the U.S. Congress. If he were to embrace Congressional oversight, he could actually use it as a battering ram to gain concessions at the bargaining table.

Imagine a counterfactual, but plausible scenario:

– [Iranian negotiator Mohammad Javad] Zarif: We cannot allow inspections of our military sites.

– Kerry: I understand the sensitivity, but I won’t be able to sell a deal back home without it.

– Zarif: We have our own political constraints.

– Kerry: With all due respect, my boss is no “supreme leader.” He cannot impose an agreement against the wishes of our people’s representatives. You’ve got more flexibility. Now do you want this deal or don’t you?

Instead of this exchange, we have the charade of President Obama trying to explain to us that Khamenei does not mean what he says. “Even a guy with the title ‘Supreme Leader’ has to be concerned about his own constituencies,” Obama told reporters on April 11 at the Americas summit in Panama.

If anyone has his own constituents to placate, it is the popularly elected leader of a democratic republic, and yet Obama seems to think the principle does not apply to himself.  Until lawmakers substantially watered it down, he threatened to veto pending bipartisan legislation which imposes Congressional review on the prospective deal.

When one side argues that a better deal is not possible, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Negotiation of a better deal in fact becomes impossible because the other side feels no incentive to compromise.

We have heard this record played before, also when Israel’s vital interests hung in the balance. In his first term, Obama broke with his predecessors by publicly demanding a total freeze of Jewish construction beyond pre-1967 borders — and then declaring those borders the starting point for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. While a final peace deal would certainly use these borders as a guidepost, the president undermined any leverage Israel had to preserve its claims beyond the Green Line.

Of course, Abu Mazen was not going to take a less aggressive position than his American interlocutor. And when Prime Minister Netanyahu predictably objected, talks with the Palestinians hit a stalemate from which there has been no meaningful reprieve — even with the concentrated attention of Secretary of State Kerry over the past two years.

Why would the Iranians behave any different from the Palestinians? Obama has given Iran the opening it needs to preserve its nuclear weapons program or, short of that, to undermine the coordinated effort which has until now hemmed it in.

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Obama can’t be trusted on Iran

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Leaders in Washington are grappling with what is arguably the most important foreign policy challenge of our time — how to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Why are the stakes so high?  For one, Iran is a troublemaker.  As a geopolitical strategy to spread its brand of theocratic domination, it is actively destabilizing countries and sponsoring terror.  Its forces and proxies have caused havoc across the Middle East and murdered civilians on every continent.  Its weapons have killed our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In 2011 Iranian agents even tried to commit violence in our nation’s capital.  Lacking a nuclear capacity today, the Islamic Republic largely goes unchecked.  With a bomb to back it up, the rogue behavior would only get worse.

To be sure, Israel has got a problem with this picture.  Not only does Iran funnel arms and resources to Hezbollah and Hamas, but its leadership threatens the Jewish state directly with annihilation (on Twitter no less).  What’s even scarier is the likely reaction of the Arab world to Iranian nuclearization.  To counter Iran, Sunni rivals from North Africa to the Persian Gulf would quickly embark on weapons programs of their own.  Proliferation would explode in the world’s most volatile region, raising the likelihood of nuclear warfare.

Negotiations are underway to reverse course.  Every sensible American hopes that diplomacy can succeed and obviate the need for military action to combat the threat.  Critics may be skeptical of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s motivations, but few could argue he prefers a military solution.  Israel is on the front lines. Whether or not it were to lead a military strike, Israel would surely bear the brunt of an Iranian response.  For the same reasons, Israel has more skin in the game.  It has the most to lose in this poker match.  It can only support a negotiated agreement that genuinely reduces the risk of a nuclear Iran.

Herein lies the source of the political drama playing out in Washington this week.  Because Israel does not have a seat at the table, it is relying on the so-called “P5+1” to negotiate a “good deal.”   Netanyahu ruffled White House feathers by accepting the Republican-led invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress.  He spoke passionately to a receptive audience because neither he nor the majority of our lawmakers trust the administration to get it right.  Pundits have mistakenly focused on the personal tensions between Obama and Netanyahu, with many blaming the prime minister for inserting partisanship into the alliance.  In reality, relations would not be so strained had this administration not lost the confidence of our allies around the globe.  Israel is struggling to work with this president because this president’s word does not count when it matters most.

Obama and his defenders protest that it is Netanyahu who has lost credibility.  They cite the prime minister’s resistance to the interim “Joint Plan of Action,” without which there would be no brakes on Iranian enrichment activities.  They bristle at Netanyahu’s criticisms because they think he has offered no viable alternative to military action.  They hasten to remind everyone how much the administration has provided security assistance and defense of Israel against biased U.N. resolutions.

These objections might hold some water if we could believe the administration knew what it was doing, would stand firm when the going got tough, and would not substitute wishful thinking for sound strategic assessment.

But on all these counts Obama fails to deliver.  I’ve written before how the White House is flailing in matters of national security.  Obama sees the world as he wishes it would be rather than how it is.  His commitments he subordinates to his political calculations and his aspirations for a legacy as the president who ended wars and avoided new conflicts.

On Monday night, National Security Advisor Susan Rice addressed 16,000 delegates at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington.  “We have Israel’s back,” she declared, “come hell or high water.”  About Iran she added, “a bad deal is worse than no deal.  And if that is the choice then there will be no deal.”  These are comforting sentiments, but it’s far from clear that anyone with a sober understanding of Iranian aggression and deception would share the administration’s view of a good deal.  And, while Ambassador Rice speaks with sincerity, it’s hard to trust that her boss won’t yet again hang her out to dry.  You only have to consider her comments about the attacks on our consulate in Benghazi and the “honor and distinction” of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl to realize how little we can trust her representations.

On Friday Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN), together with eleven bipartisan co-sponsors, introduced the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, which asserts Congressional prerogatives to review any prospective agreement with Iran over its nuclear program.  President Obama objects.  Apparently, even he doesn’t trust his capacity to deliver.  His threat to veto the bill tells you everything you need to know about the value of this deal.

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