A Grim Assessment Of U.S.-Iran Tensions

Speaking to an adoring audience at the annual summit of the far-right Christians United for Israel (CUFI), Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the audience that the Trump administration was determined to continue ratcheting up pressure on Iran.

“The ayatollahs have grievously deprived the Iranian people of that most basic, simple, fundamental right, their right to worship,” Pompeo told the evangelical crowd. “That same twisted, intolerant doctrine that fuels persecution inside Iran has also led the ayatollah and his cronies to cry out, quote, ‘death to Israel’ for four decades now.”

Pompeo went on to tell the crowd that, were it not for the Trump administration’s efforts to strangle the economy, Iran would have greatly bolstered its efforts to destroy Israel, something it has never attempted in all those four decades. Ominously, he added, “You know the stories, but we’ve implemented the strongest pressure campaign in history against the Iranian regime, and we are not done.” Read more at LobeLog

Regime Changer Trump Puts World At Risk With Iran Deal Decision

In 2002 and 2003, as the United States geared up for the invasion of Iraq, many protests broke out across the country, as did a passionate public debate about why America was going to war and whether it should. That debate, sadly, was not proportionately reflected on Capitol Hill, but it still mattered.

The invasion destroyed Iraq as well as the dual containment policy that, despite its many flaws, had kept a relative lid on Iraq’s ambitions and Iraq’s ability to upset regional stability. The ensuing years of combat spawned the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, and destabilized the entire region, most severely affecting Syria.

Now, the same forces have come together to take down the most significant diplomatic achievement in the Middle East in recent memory and create a new, highly unstable future. Donald Trump today announced the reimposition of sanctions on Iran, putting the United States in direct violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), colloquially called the Iran nuclear deal. In Iraq, the United States went in with no exit strategy. The Trump administration likewise has no plan for the day after exiting the Iran nuclear deal. In both cases, however, the real goal is regime change. Read more at LobeLog

The Day After Leaving The Iran Deal

French President Emmanuel Macron likely wrote the epitaph for the Iran nuclear deal as he was leaving Washington. Based on his statements, U.S. relations with Iran and North Korea as well are becoming increasingly dangerous.

“(President Donald Trump’s) experience with North Korea is that when you are very tough, you make the other side move and you can try to go to a good deal or a better deal,” Macron said. “That’s a strategy of increasing tension … It could be useful.”

Trump accordingly believes that North Korea has agreed to talks because Kim Jong Un was intimidated by Trump’s belligerence. But this is unlikely to be the case. Colin Kahl, the former national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, wrote on Twitter that “Trump likely misreads Kim Jong Un’s reasons for agreeing to a summit: to legitimize rather than dismantle his nuclear program. Remember, Kim said North Korea could stop testing because the nuclear program was already complete.”

Although no one can be certain of Kim’s thinking, Kahl’s interpretation is much more consistent with what is known about Kim and the current diplomatic state of play. So, what does the US leaving the Iran nuclear deal mean for the relationships with Iran and North Korea? Read more at LobeLog

Trump Wins, Middle East Loses

Donald Trump’s first trip abroad seems to have been a successful one for him. Although controversies continue to rage at home, he seems to be accomplishing what he set out to do, at least in Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The mainstream media has had a good time with some Trump gaffes on this trip (including his wife slapping his hand away and, more importantly, Trump’s foolish confirmation that he divulged classified intelligence given to the US by Israel). But it has generally applauded his speeches and statements. Trump has set the bar so low that all he has to do is let the soberer minds around him write his speeches and no one will pay much attention to the policy implications of words and deeds.

What we actually saw in his brief but notable Middle East appearance should worry us all. The obvious part was the massive arms sale to Saudi Arabia, which included $110 billion in ordnance that Barack Obama had put a hold on. Obama reportedly was concerned about Saudi Arabia’s disregard for civilian casualties in Yemen and was worried that these arms would deepen the embarrassing US complicity in that devastation. Trump has no such concerns.

Trump’s response to the massive re-election victory of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was also noteworthy. He offered no congratulations, not even a statement of satisfaction that conservative forces in Iran had been roundly defeated. Instead, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, used the occasion to rebuke Rouhani.

We also hope that he puts an end to [Iran’s] ballistic missile testing. We also hope that he restores the rights of Iranians to freedom of speech, to freedom of organization, so that Iranians can live the life that they deserve.

Many were quick to comment on the irony of Tillerson making that statement not only in Saudi Arabia but while standing next to a senior minister in the Saudi government. It went very well with Trump’s statement that the US was not going to “lecture” its allies, a very clear message to Trump’s autocratic friends not only in Saudi Arabia but in Egypt, Turkey and elsewhere, that human rights concerns were a thing of the past. The administration’s comments underscore the same double standard that all previous U.S. administrations maintained toward Saudi Arabia. As for Iran, though it is far from an open society, its citizens can at least participate in more-or-less democratic elections and have considerably more personal freedom than Saudi citizens.

The ballistic missiles Tillerson is so concerned about demonstrate a much greater and more dangerous hypocrisy. As Senator Chris Murphy pointed out in an op-ed last weekend, “If we want Iran to end their ballistic missile program (which is primarily designed to confront the Saudi threat), then feeding the arms race between the two nations probably isn’t the best long-term strategy.”

That puts it mildly. Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. But unlike our own Cold War past, more direct conflict between the two is far from impossible. When Tehran sees a massive inflow of US arms, it has no choice but to bolster its own defenses.

Murphy, however, makes another very important point by saying that Iran’s ballistic missiles defend against the threat posed by Saudi Arabia. Washington, all too often, characterizes those missiles as a threat to the United States or Israel.

This kind of sobriety in foreign policy was absent from Trump’s Middle Eastern tour. Harkening back to a tactic favored by George W. Bush in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Trump spoke of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Iran in similar terms, implying a connection without explicitly making one. He also lumped together groups like Hamas and Hezbollah with IS and al-Qaeda, failing to see the important differences between nationalist militias that use terrorist tactics and those that simply try to sow chaos.

Trump’s goal has been to reverse the more nuanced view that Obama established in the region and return to a less realistic view of the region that more easily lends itself to “good vs. evil” approaches. Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia was very clearly crafted for this purpose, and the writer, said to have been Stephen Miller, demonstrated real skill in pulling this off.

Meanwhile in Israel

Much attention was paid to Trump’s visit to Israel, although this was really much more show than anything else. Trump continues to speak of making “the big deal,” but without any substance. Trump continues to press Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on “payments to the families of terrorists” (in reality, these payments are part of the social safety net, made to families to sustain themselves when the main breadwinner is killed or imprisoned). The Palestinian people overwhelmingly support Abbas on this point.

Israel passed a series of measures ahead of Trump’s visit to help the West Bank economy. The far right in Israel’s government opposed the measures, but without the usual kicking and screaming. This is hardly surprising, as the measures will have minimal effect on the Palestinian economy. They were a dramatic gesture to Trump, but there’s no substance here either.

What does all this amount to? That Trump’s mission to the Middle East was accomplished, at least in his own terms.

Trump’s impulsiveness showed up once, when he stopped journalists from leaving a press conference that had just ended to tell them that he never mentioned the name “Israel” to the Russians. He thereby confirmed sharing intelligence with the Russians: he just didn’t tell them the source (something no one ever said he did). It was a perfect image of why Trump’s temperament is so poorly suited to this job. There was no need for him to do anything but leave the room, and instead he revived an issue that made his host, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, decidedly uncomfortable.

Staying on Message

Overall, Trump took a break from the endless cascade of scandal that he has brought on himself since even before Election Day. He stuck mostly to his scripts for his talks in both Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Most importantly, Trump demonstrated that, with the enthusiastic support of key partners in the region, he was going to re-orient the US position on Iran to one of much greater belligerence. We’ve already seen a few examples of direct US involvement in the regional conflicts, although these were clearly one-off operations and not, at least to this point, part of a broader strategy of increased intervention.

Trump is attempting to shift the dynamic. Although he seems to realize that he can’t simply “tear up” the agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, he now wants to bury the agreement under increased conflict. With a new and very dangerous anti-Iran bill currently making its way smoothly through the Senate, combined with the new arms deal with the Saudis, the United States has embarked on a policy that is very likely to greatly increase the fighting and instability that attend the escalating tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In both the broader regional conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian one, Trump is determined to strengthen one side to such an extent that the other will be forced to settle on very unfavorable terms. This thinking has been tried before, and it’s always failed, with the people of the Middle East paying the price. With Trump in charge, there seems to be little doubt that this will happen again.

Iran Nuclear Talks: The Price of Failure

Once upon a time, it seemed that the Obama Administration had held off opponents in Congress as well as pressure from Israel in order to Khamenei_Rouhani_Ahmadinejad_Iran-620x350press forward with negotiations with Iran. It seemed that President Barack Obama’s penchant for diplomacy was finally bearing fruit and that the United States and Iran were coming to the table with a sense of determination and an understanding that a compromise needed to be reached over Iran’s nuclear program.

These days, the story is different. Almost halfway through the four-month extension period the parties agreed to in July, the possibility of failure is more prominently on people’s minds, despite the fact that significant progress has been made in the talks. Right now, both sides have dug in their heels over the question of Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities. Iran wants sufficient latitude to build and power more nuclear reactors on their own, while the United States wants a much more restrictive regime.

Part of the calculus on each side is the cost to the other of the failure of talks. Iran is certainly aware that, along with escalating tensions with Russia, the U.S. is heading into what is sure to be a drawn-out conflict with the Islamic State (IS). The U.S. and its partners would clearly prefer to avoid a new crisis with the Islamic Republic, especially when the they need to work with Iran on battling IS forces, however independently and/or covertly they may do it.

The U.S. certainly recognizes that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani staked a good deal of his political life on eliminating the sanctions that have been crippling the Iranian economy. But both sides would be wise to avoid a game of chicken here, where they are gambling that the other side will ultimately be forced to blink first.

On the U.S. side, there are many in Washington who would not be satisfied with anything less than a total Iranian surrender, something the Obama administration is not seeking. Those forces are present in both parties, and, indeed, even if Democrats hold the Senate and win the White House in 2016, those voices are likely to become more prominent as time goes on.

But many believe that on the Iranian side, this is a life-or-death issue politically for the reform-minded Rouhani, and that may not be the case. It is certainly true that conservative forces in Iran, which had been ascendant under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are lying in wait to pounce on Rouhani if he doesn’t manage to work out a deal that removes U.S.-led sanctions against Iran. It is also true that Rouhani deals with a Supreme Leader who is highly skeptical not only of Washington’s sincerity,  but of the kind program Rouhani’s reform-minded allies wish to pursue on the domestic front. Rouhani’s support derives most reliably from an Iranian public  fed up with the failure of the conservatives to improve their lives. He dare not disappoint them.

But if Washington policy-makers believe that this amounts to a political gun to Rouhani’s head, they are mistaken.  In a just-released paper published by the Wilson Center. Farideh Farhi,  the widely quoted Iran expert at the University of Hawaii Manoa (and LobeLog contributor), points out that Rouhani does have options if the negotiations fall apart.

“To be sure, Rouhani will be weakened, in similar ways presidents in other countries with contested political terrains suffer when unable to deliver on key promised policies,”  according to Farhi.

But he will continue to be president for at least another three, if not seven, years. The hardliners will still not have their men at the helm of the executive branch and key cabinet ministries. Given their limited political base for electoral purposes, they will still have to find a way to organize and form coalitions to face a determined alliance of centrists, reformists, and moderate conservatives—the same alliance that helped bring Rouhani to power—in the parliamentary election slotted for early 2016. And, most importantly, Rouhani will still have the vast resources of the Iranian state at his disposal to make economic and social policy and will work with allies to make sure that the next parliament will be more approving of his policies.

Farhi’s point is important. Rouhani has options and he need not accept a deal that can be easily depicted by conservatives as surrendering Iran’s independent nuclear program. As pointed out in a recent survey of Iranian public opinion we covered earlier in the week, this issue is particularly fraught in Iran. It has been a point of national pride that Iran has refused to bend to Western diktats on its nuclear program, diktats that are seen as hypocritical and biased by most Iranians. That estimate is not an unfair one, given previous demands by the U.S. (and one still insisted upon by Israel and its U.S. supporters) that Iran forgo all uranium enrichment. Such a position would force Iran to depend on the goodwill and cooperation of other countries — Russia, in the first instance — whose reliability in fulfilling commitments may depend on how they perceive their national interest at any given moment.  Other countries are not held to such a standard, a source of considerable resentment across the Iranian political spectrum.

Rouhani has wisely chosen not to challenge the public on this point, but rather commit himself to finding an agreement that would end sanctions while maintaining Iran’s nuclear independence, albeit under a strict international inspection regime. This is far from an impossible dream. The Arms Control Association published a policy brief last month with a very reasonable outline for how just such a plan which would satisfy the needs of both Iran and the P5+1.

In principle, both sides could live with such an outcome if they can put domestic politics aside. But of course, they cannot.

Still, the consequences of failure must not be ignored. With Barack Obama heading into his final two years as President, it is quite possible, if not probable, that his successor — regardless of party affiliation — will be much less favorable toward a deal with Iran. In that case, we go back to Israeli pressure for a direct confrontation between the United States and Iran and escalating tensions as Iran feels more and more besieged by the Washington and its western allies.

Rouhani, for his part, may be able to continue his path of reform and re-engagement with the West, but the failure of these talks would be an unwelcome obstacle, according to Farhi.

Rouhani and his nuclear team have had sufficient domestic support to conduct serious negotiations within the frame of P5+1. But as the nuclear negotiations have made clear, the tortured history of U.S.-Iran relations as well as the history of progress in Iran’s nuclear program itself will not allow the acceptance of just any deal. Failure of talks will kill neither Rouhani’s presidency nor the ‘moderation and prudence’ path he has promised. But it will make his path much more difficult to navigate.

All of this seems to amount to sufficient incentive for the two sides to bring themselves toward the reasonable compromise that both can surely envision. At least, one hopes so.