Mideast Media Sampler 01/03/2014

The Diplomacy that Enables Tehran

When I was almost fifty four, it was a very good year
It was a very good year for kindly faced clerics
Whose Justice Minister was an executioner
And Defense Minister waged an anti-American war
When I was almost fifty four

Nearly two years ago Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed President Obama about how he would deal with the threat from Iran. Given Goldberg’s support for Israel, the interview was part of an administration campaign to tell Israel and Israel’s supporters in the United States that “we’ve got Israel’s back.”

It’s unsettling now, that Goldberg has declared that For Iran, 2013 Was a Very Good Year.

Remember that interim Iranian nuclear agreement forged in Geneva on Nov. 24, the one accompanied by blaring trumpets and soaring doves?

Would it surprise you to know that the agreement — a deal that doesn’t, by the way, neutralize the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, just freezes the program, more or less, in place — has not yet been implemented? Would it surprise you to learn that this deal might not be implemented for another month, or more? Or that in this long period of non-implementation, Iran is free to do with its nuclear program whatever it wishes? And that one of the things it is doing is building and testing new generations of centrifuges? Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, recently said , “We have two types of second-generation centrifuges. We also have future generations which are going through their tests.”

Happy New Year, everyone.

If there was urgency on the part of the West, the deal would have been in force by now. In fact the negotiations for the implementation of the deal were put on hold for a week, for a Christmas break! Goldberg’s miffed that the administration doesn’t view the urgency of holding Iran’s nuclear program in place – he doesn’t seem to accept President Obama’s claim that the deal would significantly “roll back” Iran’s nuclear program.

The Goldberg makes a very astute observation.

The smartest decision Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made this year was to allow the smiling cleric (and former nuclear negotiator) Hassan Rouhani to win the election for the country’s presidency. Rouhani might very well turn out to be more moderate than Khamenei — superficially, of course, he is far more palatable than the man he replaced, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – but so far, there are no signs that Rouhani’s putative moderation has led to meaningful shifts in the policies of the Islamic Republic. Iran continues to be the most potent state sponsor of terrorism in the world; it is still the prime backer of Hezbollah in Lebanon and of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria; and it hasn’t shown any inclination to actually roll back its nuclear program.

Rouhani didn’t exactly win in an independent vote; he was allowed to win by the real leader in Iran. As Prime Minister Netanyahu has aptly described Rouhani, he is “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Underneath Rouhani’s superficial trappings of moderation he is and always has been part of Iran’s senior leadership.

But now Goldberg gets to why 2013 was so good for Iran:

And ever since the so-far unimplemented interim deal was struck, Western companies have been sniffing around Tehran, looking for footholds in what they have been led to believe is a soon-to-open market. Merck is trying to partner with an Iranian drug company, and firms from France and Italy have entered talks with Iranian automakers and mining concerns. If Rouhani succeeds in improving Iran’s economic prospects even before the interim agreement goes into effect, his government will find itself under much less pressure to negotiate a final nuclear deal.

Even though the deal to freeze Iran’s nuclear program has not been implemented, Iran has, already, started to reap the economic benefits of the deal. As much as President Obama claims that the sanctions relief would be “reversible” the increase in economic activity confirms the critics’ view that the sanctions relief threatens the whole sanctions regime.

Goldberg ends by noting (and reinforcing an earlier point) that Lebanese politician, Mohamad Chatah wrote an open letter to Rouhani asking Iran to stop meddling in Lebanon’s affairs. Last week, before he could get signatures for his letter from other members of the Lebanese parliament, Chatah was killed by a car bomb likely by Iranian proxies, leaving Goldberg to lament:

The chance that anyone associated with the Iranian regime will pay for this murder is almost nonexistent.

Given Goldberg’s open support of President Obama in the past and even without his directly blaming the President for failing to live up to his words, this is a devastating indictment. Goldberg has illustrated that despite the President’s claims to be committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons or that he’s under no illusions about the nature of the regime; Obama actions – or more precisely, his inaction – show that neither concern him much.

A couple of recent news stories make this abdication of responsibility even worse. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times both reported (though citing different sources) that Iran and Syria have sneaked new sophisticated missiles into Lebanon.

(While it’s uncertain that he was necessarily referring to these missiles, an Iranian political commentator recently boasted that “It has been revealed that our missiles can now very easily reach Tel Aviv. We have weapons that can make Israel go blind.” In the same interview he compared the Geneva deal with the P5+1 to the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, which would mean that it is a tactical and temporary deal that Iran intends to keep only as long as it is to its benefit.)

Israel and Lebanon aren’t the only countries being further threatened by Iran’s seeming new aggressiveness. Michael Rubin writes that Bahrain is too and that means:

… despite hope in Western capitals that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s election matters, it seems the Islamic Republic—or at least its Revolutionary Guards (IRGC)—are resurgent and bent on taking the constitutionally-mandated “export of revolution” to a new level. With Iran resurgent in Syria and still overwhelmingly influential in Iraq (and Iraqi Kurdistan), it seems that Tehran seeks to be turning its attention to its proxy war against Saudi Arabia on other fronts.

Finally, one aspect of the P5+1 deal that Goldberg didn’t address but is still important is the effect the P5+1 deal will have on the Security Council resolutions governing Iran’s illicit nuclear program. Not only by delaying the implementation of the Joint Plan Action do the P5+1 allow Iran to continue flouting Security Council resolutions obligating it to stop its enrichment program, but the language of the Joint Plan of Action itself undermines the force of those resolutions. Non-proliferation experts Olli Heinonen and Orde Kittrie wrote last month:

Article 25 of the UN Charter specifies that “The Members of the United Nations agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council.” Since Iran is a member of the United Nations, it is explicitly required to abide by Security Council resolutions, including those which required it to suspend its enrichment-related and Arak construction activities, not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, and “provide such access and cooperation as the IAEA requests” to resolve IAEA concerns about Iran’s nuclear warhead research and development.

Yet the Joint Plan of Action nowhere recognizes the Security Council’s authority to legally bind Iran. Iran’s steps to comply partially with its Security Council obligations to suspend enrichment and work at Arak are labeled “voluntary measures” in the Joint Plan of Action. Iran will use this to bolster its patently false argument that the Security Council has no legitimate legal authority to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. Since Iran is quite clearly wrong on this point, it is unclear why the P-5 plus 1 were willing to agree to undercut the Council’s authority with such a formulation.

The administration seems to be so hellbent on having achieved that Lee Smith observed:

In other words, from the point of view of the administration and its surrogates in the press, if you believe sanctions—rather than good will—is what got Iran to the table in the first place and further sanctions are likely to produce a better deal than relieving pressure on Iran, then you’re a warmonger. If you believe that sanctions should not be lifted until Iran complies with U.N. Security Council resolutions and ceases all activity on its nuclear weapons program, then you’re with Netanyahu and the rest of those Israeli liars.

Effectively then, the P5+1 generally and the Obama administration specifically, view the Security Council resolutions as impediments not expedients to reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Given Goldberg’s critique, it’s disturbing to see that the Wall Street Journal reported on The Test for Diplomacy With Iran. (Google search terms)

U.S. and European diplomats have identified several vital issues to be negotiated following the interim deal Iran reached over its nuclear program with the five permanent members of the United Nations and Germany in late November.

Are they deluding themselves? Why are the West’s negotiators focused on the state of negotiations? Why are they not focused instead on Iran’s behavior that shows contempt for any of the goals that the West supposedly seeks?

Whether it is President Obama promising that he’s “got Israel’s back” or Secretary of State John Kerry insisting that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” the actions of the administration show otherwise. The American administration doesn’t fear a nuclear Iran as much as it fears not reaching a deal with Iran, no matter how empty the deal may be.

That’s why it’s been such a good year for Iran.

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I'm a government bureaucrat with delusions of literacy.
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