Once again, Obama is hopelessly overmatched, and too vain to realize it. In Syria, Assad crossed Obama’s red line by using chemical weapons and emerged not only unscathed in the process, but with the increased stature of a statesman-like partner. At the same time, Mark Steyn points out, Obama managed to anoint Putin “as the international community’s official peacemaker, even as he assists Iran is going nuclear and keeping his blood-soaked Syrian client in his presidential palace.” The Iranians may well be banking on Putin’s ability to achieve similar results on behalf of their nuclear program.
After the president’s Syrian speech, the Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer prize-winning foreign affairs columnist Bret Stephens wrote me, “I hope the Israelis have realized this president is not coming to their rescue.” As a former senior U.S. diplomat told Peggy Noonan last week, “[Obama] doesn’t know what to do, so he stays out of it [and] hopes for the best.”
Yes, Israelis have his number. But there is not much to do about it, except pray – pray very hard.
THAT ANYONE COULD TAKE SERIOUSLY the latest Iranian charm offensive almost defies belief. In his speech at the U.N., Obama breathlessly cited a mythical (and long debunked) fatwa by Iranian Supreme Leader Khameini against the use of nuclear weapons and Rouhani’s assurances that Iran does not seek to develop nuclear weapons. But Iran has always denied that it seeks nuclear weapons.
Even without Iran’s numerous instances of lying about its nuclear program, its efforts (often successful) to hide key elements of its nuclear program, the 2008 discovery by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of Iranian plans for a nuclear warhead, and enrichment past the levels needed for any conceivable civilian use, the Iranian claim not to seek nuclear weapons is untenable on its face. Iran has sufficient oil and gas reserves for 200 years and has no need of nuclear energy. Moreover, even if it were seeking a nuclear energy alternative, it could simply import enriched uranium rather than set up the hugely expensive infrastructure needed for its own enrichment.
Equally implausible is the hope that Iran can be persuaded to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Nuclear weapons have been central to the strategic vision of the Islamic Revolution from the beginning. Possession of such weapons would allow Iran to provide cover to terrorist allies around the world and therefore facilitate the spread of the Islamic Revolution. They would also increase exponentially Iran’s ability to control the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf and thus world oil prices (and, with the latter, the entire international economy).
When a country has endured international isolation and prolonged and severe economic hardship to maintain its nuclear program, as Iran has done, two things are blatantly clear. One, that program is not just for the purpose of developing already plentiful energy resources. Two, it will not be abandoned, except by force.
Iran’s interest in negotiations is precisely what it has always been: to string along the West until Iran has achieved nuclear weapon capacity. For good measure, Iran will use those negotiations to secure relief from economic sanctions and to shore up the position of its most important regional ally – Assad. (According to the New York Times, the Obama administration has seriously entertained the lunatic notion that its refusal to try to bring down Assad will make Iran more malleable on the nuclear issues, and even dispatched Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman to Tehran to discuss possible linkage of the two issues.)
Amazingly, Rouhani has even boasted of his past successes, as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, of soothing the West to gain valuable time for nuclear development. In a speech to the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council in 2005, he noted cheerily, “While we were talking to the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the [uranium conversion] facility in Isfahan… In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.”
A September 3 editorial in the Iranian newspaper Baher, which has close ties to the regime, made clear that the same tactics are being employed today. The editorial criticized Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for adopting an aggressive stance guaranteed to engender Western resistance. The thrust of the editorial, according to Ray Takeyh, an Iran specialist with the Council on Foreign Relations, was that Iran’s nuclear aspirations are best served not by concessions on the scope of its program, but by improving its image as a trustworthy and accountable state. Hence Rouhani’s current charm offensive.
FEW EPIGRAMS ARE AS HACKNEYED AS SANTAYANA’S “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” But it is fully apposite with respect to Iran-American relations since 1979, as we witness the repetition of the same errors over and over again. The siting of a supposedly “moderate” Iranian president is already an oft-told tale signifying nothing. Even on the implausible proposition that Hasan Rouhani represents something new, and not just the diplomatic face the mullahs have chosen to put forward, remember that we are talking about a man who has faithfully served the Iranian theocracy in senior positions for 34 years and was one of only six out of 686 candidates vetted by the Guardian Council allowed to run for president. He has absolutely no independent authority over Iran’s nuclear program. That rests exclusively with Supreme Leader Khameini.
That lesson should have been learned at the very outset of the Islamic Revolution. After the 1979 seizure of American hostages, the United States engaged in ongoing futile negotiations with President Obolhassan Bani Sadr, despite the fact that the only one who could make any decisions was then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Though nothing came of those negotiations, Bani Sadr did extract crucial concessions from the U.S. that were viewed in much of the Muslim world as a humiliation of the United States and thereby increased the prestige of the Islamic Revolution throughout the Muslim world. For his part, Bani Sadr was ultimately impeached on orders of Khomeini, and lives, until today, as an exile in France.
Other “moderate” presidents were to follow. The 1989 election of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani generated much excitement in the West, particularly in Germany, which opened up a new “critical dialogue” in 1992. Two months after the opening of that dialogue, three leaders of the Iranian Democratic Party of Kurdistan were gunned down in a Berlin restaurant. Five years later, a German court implicated Supreme Leader Khameini and President Rafsanjani as among the masterminds of the assassination. As a result, every EU member nation withdrew its ambassador from Tehran.
In response, the mullahs had another “moderate,” Mohammed Khatami, elected president in 1997. He trumpeted a Dialogue of Civilizations. Yet, in the first two years of his “moderate” rule, a dozen writers and political leaders were murdered, and in 1999, student uprisings were brutally suppressed. Overseeing the suppression of the student protests, incidentally, was Hasan Rouhani, the latest incarnation of an Iranian “moderate” president.
DESPITE THE FATUITY of the claim of new winds blowing from Tehran, much of the Western media was eager to go along with the charade and act as a chorus for the bright hopes for a “comprehensive solution” expressed by President Obama after his chat with Rouhani.
CNN trumpeted an interview of Rouhani by Chistine Amanpour with a headline that Rouhani had repudiated Holocaust denial, a claim swiftly denied by the official Iranian news agency, which was backed up by independent translators. In fact, Rouhani never mentioned the Holocaust. He went no farther than to condemn the Nazis killing of a “group of Jews, among many, many people,” and refused to be drawn into a discussion of how many Jews were killed on the grounds that it is a question best left to the historians. “A group of Jews” is strange way to characterize six million people. It is itself a form of Holocaust denial, and precisely what Rouhani engaged in. Even David Irwing does not suggest no group of Jews were killed.
For its part, The New York Times accused Prime Minister Netanyahu of moving quickly “to block even tentative steps by Iran and the United States to ease tensions and move toward negotiations to end the nuclear crisis.” The Times apparently could find no basis for skepticism about the likelihood of yet another round of negotiations ending the nuclear crisis, or why Israel – a nation repeatedly threatened with annihilation by Iran – should have any grounds for concern, apart from Netanyahu’s perpetual bellicosity.
TEASING THE WEST with hope and stringing out negotiations on the basis of that hope can only serve the mullahs goal of attaining full nuclear capacity. Rouhani’s pointed avoidance of even the briefest photo-op with Obama at the UN, despite extensive American entreaties – he did have plenty of time for Louis Farrakhan – suggests the course the Iranians will follow: alternately playing hard to get and willing, while counting on Western desperation to believe in a diplomatic solution to drag things out.
Even as they play hard to get, the Iranians will not eschew occasional hardball, just as the 1992 “critical dialogue” with Germany did not prevent them from assassinating political rivals in a Berlin restaurant. Just this week, the U.S. Navy announced that government-supported Iranian hackers had recently gained entry to the Navy’s intranet.
Khameini will not want Obama to forget the capacity of Iran’s external operations unit, under the direction of Qassem Suleimani, to wreak havoc around the globe. As recently as 2011, the Iranians brazenly plotted to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States in Washington, D.C.
John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., as well as chief nuclear negotiator, writes in Sunday’s Wall Street Journal that Iran will attempt to extend negotiations as long as possible and gain from the West reductions of sanctions as “goodwill” gestures to lessen the mutual “mistrust” Obama described as existing between Iran and the United States. Once removed, sanctions will almost certainly never be reinstated, especially by European nations chafing at the bit to resume business with Iran.
While negotiations proceed, there is no chance of an Israeli air strike, which would be castigated worldwide for destroying the chances of peace or of more robust congressional sanctions. Thus, one of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s primary goals in his discussions with President Obama must be to secure a firm time limit for talks, within which either an agreement that puts Iran significantly further from nuclear capability than today will be achieved or the path of negotiations will be revealed to have failed resoundingly.
Amos Yadlin, former head of Israel’s Military Intelligence, outlines the elements of the former. Removal of all previously enriched uranium and its return to Iran only in a form that cannot be weaponized; the cessation of work on the Arak heavy-water facility, which will provide Iran with an option for a plutonium bomb; the neutering of the Fordow underground facility; and strict limits on the number of centrifuges and the degree of enrichment permitted – 3.5 percent, the maximum needed for civilian use – are crucial elements.
An agreement that leaves Iran with its existing stocks of 5% enriched uranium and the Arak and Fordow facilities capable of being fully activated any time that Iran decides to abrogate the treaty, as North Korea did shortly after the 2005 Pyongyang Accords, is much worse than no agreement from the point of view of Israeli security.
A purely cosmetic agreement that focuses only on inspection and transparency and allows Iran to maintain its current stock of 5% enriched uranium and its Arak and Fordrow facilities – in short, just enough to allow the United States to claim that it has achieved something, without significantly distancing Iran from its ability to break out to nuclear capability at a time of its choosing – would be the worst of all possible worlds for Israel.
How much would you like to bet on President Obama being unwilling to accept such a cosmetic achievement, secure in the support of a fawning media?