Can Obama Seal The Iran Deal Without Congress?

Earlier this week, David Sanger reported that the administration is looking at ways to avoid a Congressional vote on a nuclear agreement with Iran, including ways to suspend sanctions via executive fiat. Jack Goldsmith takes issue with that approach, arguing that it would make any eventual deal very tenuous:

The fact that the President does not think he can get Congress on board for any deal with Iran signals to Iran that any deal would be with the President alone, and would last only as long as his waiver authority – i.e. two more years.  The deal could last longer, as it did with the last major unilateral presidential deal with Iran, the 1981 Algiers Accords that effectuated the release of the hostages.  In the transition between the Carter and Reagan administrations in January 1981 some in Congress and the press questioned whether President Reagan should honor the deal that Carter struck with Iran through Algerian intermediaries.  President Reagan did honor it, of course, and the courts upheld his and Carter’s actions.  But the situation with Iran today is different than 1981. …

The bottom line, then, is that any deal struck by President Obama with Iran will probably appear to the Iranians to be, at best, short-term and tenuous.  And so we can probably expect, at best, only a short-term and tenuous commitment from Iran in return.

William Tobey is on the same page:

For good or for ill, he will own any agreement completely.  If a deal is reached, 35 years of American foreign policy designed to isolate Iran, will inevitably be reversed, with no enabling legislation by Congress and no supporting consensus required or expected in the foreign policy community.  While the American president has broad Constitutional discretion to make foreign policy, the most effective and enduring decisions have enjoyed bi-partisan support. American politics can be unpredictable, but we know that in 27 months Barack Obama will no longer be president.  His successor will then be responsible for implementing any agreement with Iran.  Unbound by treaty, or even any implementing legislation, his or her discretion will be nearly absolute. This is a fragile foundation for an enduring agreement.

Paul Pillar, on the other hand, argues that “for anyone who realizes the advantages of having a deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program versus not having a deal, the less Congressional involvement right now the better”:

The agreement would impose no new costs on the nation; in fact, it would involve reducing the cost that sanctions inflict on the United States. It does not create, as warfare does, any new exceptions to normal peacetime relations with other states; instead, it would be a move toward restoring normality. It does not, as do some other matters that are appropriately codified in treaties subject to Senate confirmation, impose any new legal obligations on U.S. persons; instead it is a step toward reducing the costly and cumbersome restrictions on U.S. business that the sanctions involve. It does not mark a departure in national goals and objectives, because it is an almost unanimously shared objective that Iran not acquire a nuclear weapon. The issue instead is what is the best way of executing policy to achieve that objective; that is part of what the executive branch is supposed to do.

Drezner’s contribution to the conversation:

Iran appears to recognize that it won’t be able to get all of the sanctions lifted in this round of negotiations. This means that there’s less bypassing of Congress anyway.

More importantly, it seems increasingly clear that the negotiation process itself is less than half the game when it comes to this particular interaction. Any deal between Iran and the United States will also require a long, drawn-out process of trust-building on both sides. Even if it appears thatIran is complying with the interim nuclear deal, members of Congress will need to be persuaded that this represents a genuine shift in Iranian policy. So it’s premature for Congress to permanently revoke sanctions anyway. My hunch is that it would take a less hawkish Prime Minister of Israel years of observed and verified Iranian compliance before Congress could be persuaded to authorize a permanent lifting of sanctions.

Inching Closer To An Agreement?

Iranian officials are reportedly considering a compromise offer by the US that would resolve one of the main sticking points in the slow-going negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program:

At issue is Iran’s uranium enrichment program, which can make both reactor fuel and the fissile core of nuclear arms. Tehran insists the program is only for future energy needs. Iran is refusing U.S. demands that it cut the number of working enriching centrifuges from nearly 10,000 to only a few thousand. That dispute has been the main stumbling block to progress since the talks began early this year.

Ahead of a Nov. 24 deadline to seal a deal, diplomats told the AP last m nth that U.S. had begun floating alternates to reducing centrifuges that would eliminate the disagreement but still accomplish the goal of increasing the time Iran would need to make a nuclear weapon. Among them was an offer to tolerate more centrifuges if Tehran agreed to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, which can fuel reactors but is also easily turned into weapons-grade material. Back then, Iran was non-committal. But the two diplomats said Thursday it recently began discussions with Moscow on possibly shipping some of its low-enriched stockpile to Russia for future use as an energy source.

Suggesting some other potential compromises, Reza Marashi hopes that both the Obama and Rouhani administrations can overcome the domestic political challenges that stand in the way of an otherwise feasible and necessary deal:

The reality facing both sides will not change:

There are spoilers in the U.S. and Iran who will try to torpedo a deal, no matter the details. Precisely because it is impossible to satisfy ideologues, they only way to defeat them is to have a deal in hand that both sides believe is a win-win outcome. That will force the ideologues to publicly flesh out the details of their alternative — and the only alternative to a comprehensive deal is war. That is Obama and Rouhani’s trump card, and as November 24 approaches, they must play to win the game.

Matthew McInnis suspects the Iranians are under more pressure now than before:

Perhaps the eagerness we are seeing from some in Tehran reflects a regime realizing it must reach an agreement even if the deal may be a more painful pill to swallow than expected. The recent substantial drop in oil prices may have convinced Rouhani and the senior leadership that their critical domestic economic reforms are in potential serious jeopardy and that sanctions relief must happen soon. That is not to mention the conflict with ISIS is also bleeding valuable resources. Fears of the Israelis starting a covert campaign against their nuclear facilities may have spooked the military.

But Drezner is less optimistic:

Complaining that domestic politics is getting in the way of a nuclear deal is a little like complaining that enriched uranium is getting in the way of a nuclear deal — they are both intrinsic to the negotiations. … It’s also not obvious to me, by the way, that either President Obama or President Hassan Rouhani will be able to make the hard sell on a compromise to their respective legislatures. It’s not like Obama’s national security street-cred is riding terribly high at the moment, and Rouhani has his own hardliners to massage.

So the political scientist in me thinks that a nuclear deal would be good for the United States in the short and long runs. But that same political scientist in me is also increasingly skeptical about arguments that leadership will somehow be able to override hardliners in both countries to get to that deal.

A Well-Timed Mishap

The was a mysterious explosion near Tehran on Sunday, allegedly at the Parchin military facility. Some observers are wondering whether it was an accident or an act of sabotage:

According to the BBC, one Iranian opposition site described the event as a massive explosion that lit up the sky and shattered windows over nine miles away. The semi-official Islamic Republic News Agency dubbed the episode a “fire [that] broke out in an explosives producing factory in eastern Tehran,” neglecting to include the name Parchin and adding that two people had died. Neither source mentioned or even speculated upon the cause of the incident.

It’s widely believed that the United States and Israel have engaged in a heavy regimen of sabotage against the suspected Iranian nuclear program including, but not limited to, crippling computer viruses, the assassination of nuclear scientists, and a series of mysterious explosions that have killed high-level targets and damaged facilities. This development comes just hours before Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were reportedly set to meet in Tehran. The Parchin complex, which has long been a site that the U.S. and Israel say might be part of an illicit Iranian nuclear program, has not been inspected by the IAEA since 2005. If the episode in Iran is some kind of sub-rosa attack, the timing couldn’t be better.

Jim White speculates:

Another possibility that I haven’t seen mentioned is the potential of a semi-intentional accident that would destroy the building that is at the heart of the negotiations.

It is only a matter of days before satellite imagery of the blast site become public, so we will know fairly soon whether the particular building with the blast chamber in question was destroyed. If the site is completely destroyed, that would be a convenient way for Iran to prove, without saying it, that no further work of this type will take place.

Allahpundit finds this story suspicious:

If Parchin really is a test site for atomic weapon technology, go figure that a test might occasionally go bad. Which raises the question of just what sort of explosion this was. If it broke windows miles away and emitted a bright glare, that could mean either a really large conventional blast (e.g., if the fire reached the base’s weapons depot) or a small atomic blast — and of course western governments who detected it would have an interest in hushing it up too, lest they’re forced to admit that they failed to stop Iran from getting the bomb. But if there really was a huge explosion, how come social media wasn’t instantly inundated with “whoa!” tweets from Iranians living in and around east Tehran and Parchin? Seems hard to believe Iran’s Internet censorship could be so thorough that no trace of a reaction like that was detected online by western media. Which means maybe there was no such reaction, and thus no explosion.

To Frum, the fact that the IAEA hasn’t inspected Parchin in nearly a decade “reminds us how limited and defeated U.S. inspection rights have been in Iran, through this year of negotiation”:

Here’s the key point: The rulers of Iran clearly want sanctions relief. They have got a considerable measure already, and will likely soon obtain more from the Obama administration. The rulers of Iran are not, however, looking “to come in from the cold.” They are not looking to rebuild a more normal relationship with the United States. They are looking for the maximum economic benefit consistent with not abandoning their pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Any inspection rights the U.S. may ultimately obtain will be inspection rights within the context of persistent and profound Iranian rejection of the goals of an inspection regime.

The Geopolitics Of Slightly Cheaper Oil

Looking over Russia’s budget for the coming year, Callum Williams observes how many of its assumptions depend on oil prices remaining pretty high:

graph_3In 2015 Russia will need an oil price of about $105 a barrel to balance its budget (see chart). But crude is currently trading in the mid-$90s, down by about 10% since May. Weak demand from China and healthy supply from America help explain the drop.

Lower dollar-denominated oil prices are not so bad for Russia, given that the rouble has weakened so much. But over the past few years the budget’s reliance on oil revenues has increased. When excluding oil, there was a shortfall of 3.6% of GDP in 2007, but now it is more like 10%. Russia expects to run a small budget deficit (about 0.6% of GDP) this year. That prediction is optimistic—the Kremlin is banking on an oil price of $100. The latest predictions from Energy Aspects, a consultancy, show that the price of Brent is not expected to pass $100 for about nine months.

Steven Mufson details how the dip in demand and surge in US production is bad news not only for Russia, but Iran as well:

Crude oil and oil products made up 46 percent of Russia’s budget revenues in the first eight months of this year. At a time when the West is trying to sanction Russia for its incursions in Ukraine, a 10 to 20 percent drop in oil prices could prove powerful. Still, it’s still a far cry from the 1980s, when Saudi Arabia produced enough oil to flood the market and drive prices down so far that many experts say it sped up the fall of the Soviet Union. That’s not going to happen now, but Russia could be squeezed a bit.

Iran, whose oil exports are limited by sanctions related to its refusal to limit its nuclear program and open it up to greater international scrutiny, will also suffer a setback. Iran’s oil minister Bijan Namdar Zangeneh late last month called on the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to keep oil prices from falling any further. “Given the downward trend of the oil prices, the OPEC members should make efforts to offset their production to keep the prices from further instability,” Zangeneh said according to Shana, a news agency supported by Iran’s oil ministry.

But according to Keith Johnson, the other Gulf petrostates are much less vulnerable:

“In the short term, the Saudis are the last ones who need to worry. They can sit it out for a couple of years, even with oil below $90,” said Laura El-Katiri, a research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. Other Gulf states, such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, can also resort to deficits or spending tweaks to weather a price storm, she said. That may partly explain the deaf ears turned by Saudi Arabia and other big OPEC members to Iran’s pleas. Of the big producers, Iran by far requires the highest prices to remain fiscally sound, by some estimates as much as $130 a barrel. Further, Iran has been hammered by Western sanctions that have cut its oil exports — and earnings — almost in half.

Yet Saudi Arabia, still the world’s swing oil producer and a visceral opponent of Shiite Iran, has little interest in slashing output. Quite the contrary: Saudi Arabia on Wednesday suddenly started offering discounts to maintain its market share, even if it undermines overall crude prices.

Rouhani Doesn’t Have To Cut A Deal

 

 

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As Iran and the P5+1 resume negotiations at the UN in New York over the country’s nuclear program, Trita Parsi flags a new poll of Iranians that “may shed light on the thinking behind Iran’s negotiating position, but also explain why the Rouhani government may think it can live with a no-deal scenario”:

The poll shows that the Iranian public is resistant on two key matters: rolling back the number of operating centrifuges and limiting Iran’s ability to conduct nuclear research. Demands for strict limitations on these issues by the P5+1, the group of six world powers negotiating with Iran, would essentially be deal breakers for the Iranian public: 70 percent oppose dismantling half of Iran’s existing centrifuges and 75 percent oppose limits on Iran’s research activity.

The public’s position on these matters is likely rooted in both a long-standing narrative of the West seeking to keep Iran weak, dependent, and downtrodden by depriving it of access to advanced science, as well as the government’s own rhetoric about nuclear “red lines” on centrifuges and nuclear research. Regardless, the public’s position on these critical variables poses a major challenge for the Rouhani team. It’s not a coincidence that these are the very issues that have caused a deadlock in the talks.

Mitchell Plitnick considers Rouhani’s motivations, noting the political pressures the Iranian president faces from all sides. He also cautions against assuming that Rouhani will agree to a deal for the sake of his political survival:

Rouhani has options and he need not accept a deal that can be easily portrayed by conservatives as surrendering Iran’s independent nuclear program. 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 that are widely regarded as biased. That estimate is not an unfair one, given the history of this dispute and the long-standing Western standards for Iran that include a prohibition on Iran enriching uranium itself. That created a dependency on other countries, most notably Russia, which is subject to the whims of international politics. Other countries are not held to such a standard, a point that is deeply held 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 an 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 just such a plan which would satisfy the needs of both Iran and the P5+1.

(Photo: By Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Militias Don’t Want To Be Our Frenemies

A day after Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi ruled out allowing the US to re-station ground forces in his country, Juan Cole observes that the country’s Shiite militias, widely considered proxies of Iran, are also warning against American intervention:

Hamza Mustafa reports from Baghdad that Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Iran-backed Badr Corps, warned that the American plan is to take credit for the victories of the Iraqi armed forces and the popular militias. He called for a rejection of the plan and dependence solely on Iraqi military and paramilitary to defeat ISIL. … The Bloc of the Free (al-Ahrar) led by Shiite cleric Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr called on al-Abadi to reject the US plan. Muqtada al-Sadr warned the US against trying to reoccupy Iraq and threatened, “If you return, we will return.” This was a reference to his Mahdi Army, which had subsided in importance after the US withdrawal. Muqtada boasted that the militia had inflicted heavy casualties on US troops and forced the US out. He also said that if the Mahdi Army “Peace Brigades” discovered an American presence in any province where they were fighting ISIL, they should immediately withdraw from the fight.

His conclusion:

It is difficult to tell how serious these militia leaders’ pronouncements are, since they might be attempting to save face with their followers even as they benefit from the US air cover. On the other hand, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq actually did in the past kidnap US troops, and the Mahdi Army fought them tooth and nail in spring of 2004, inflicting high casualties on them. Since President Obama’s air campaign requires Special Ops forces like Navy Seals or Green Berets to be on the ground with the Iraqi Army, they should apparently watch their backs. The people they are trying to help against ISIL don’t seem to appreciate their being there. And many of them seem to prefer Iran’s help.

So there are indigenous forces against ISIS that are telling us: we’ve got this. And we’re over-ruling them. Eli Lake, on the other hand, interprets these statements as evidence that Iran is working against us, noting that Tehran itself opposes US involvement in the conflict on the ground:

[Mohammad] Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday evening that Iran provides the militias with help organizing, some weapons, and military advisers. He also stressed they were disorganized. Nonetheless, Zarif said that any U.S. ground presence in Iraq would likely spur opposition. “The problem also when it comes to the United States is that the presence of foreign forces in any setting creates domestic opposition and domestic resentment,” he said. “And it is best, whether we support this or not—and we certainly do not support anybody engaging in anything that would complicate the situation—is to allow the Iraqis to fight this.”

Phillip Smyth profiles the resurgent Shiite militias, which he calls “highly ideological, anti-American, and rabidly sectarian organizations” and nearly as much of a security problem as ISIS itself:

Shiite militias have embedded themselves within the structures of the Iraqi government, which has become far too reliant on their power to contemplate cracking down on them. Together, they have committed horrifying human rights abuses: In early June, Shiite militias along with Iraqi security forces reportedly executed around 255 prisoners, including children. An Amnesty International report from June detailed how Shiite militias regularly carried out extrajudicial summary executions, and reported that dozens of Sunni prisoners were killed in government buildings. …

The growing power of these militias is a sign that, despite Maliki’s removal as prime minister, the Iraqi government remains beholden to deeply sectarian forces. These militias have generally retained their operational independence from Baghdad, even as they exploit the country’s nascent democratic system to gain support through their domination of official bodies. They are not simply addendums to the state — they are the state, and do not answer to any authority in Baghdad, but only to their own clerical leaders or Tehran.

All the same, Ben Fernandes argues that cooperating with Iran against ISIS carries fewer risks than not cooperating with Iran:

The current U.S. strategy to defeat ISIS unintentionally incentivizes Iran to build a nuclear weapon by increasing Iran’s perception of external threats and a need for the protection afforded by the possession of nuclear weaponry.  The U.S. intent to arm “moderate” Sunni groups in Syria to fight ISIS will simultaneously (if inadvertently) increase the “Sunni threat” to Iran and Iranian allies like the Assad regime.  Iran perceives all Sunni groups in the Levant as threatening regardless of a Sunni group’s views of the United States as the enemy.  Just as Saddam Hussein prioritized potential threats from Iran and internal dissidents far above the threat of external attack from the United States, Iran acts similarly towards internal dissidents, Saudi Arabia, and other Sunni groups vis-à-vis the United States.

ISIS credibly threatens regional stability, Iranian interests, U.S. interests, Iraq, and many others.  As such, there may be a way to find common ground with Iran in the fight against ISIS.  Iran will not become a reliable U.S. partner, but can be a transactional partner for specific issues of mutual interest just as the U.S. partnered with the Soviets in World War II.  A grand U.S.-Iran bargain over Syrian governance, ISIS, Iranian nuclear weapons, and sanctions may be more practical than dealing with each of these issues in sequence, per the current “ISIS first” approach discussed in GEN Dempsey’s testimony.

Is The Anti-ISIS Coalition Coalescing? Ctd

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Ali Murat Yel defends Turkey’s reluctance to join the war coalition against ISIS:

Public opinion in Turkey holds that a Muslim cannot be a terrorist and any terrorist cannot be a Muslim. In other words, terrorism and Islam cannot be reconciled. This public conviction is certainly the real attitude of the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has formed the Alliance of Civilizations with Spain against the expectation in some quarters of a “clash of civilizations” and has been trying to restore peace with different ethnic groups in Turkey. The President himself and the majority of Turkish people believe that terrorism could be defeated intellectually not through waging war on them.

Turkish foreign policy has been formed on the principle of “zero problems with neighbors” because we believe that stability in the region would only bring more peace and wealth. … Instead of an external military operation the local politicians and people should come together and find their own solution according to their own realities and circumstances. Outsiders cannot understand all the local realities like the ethnic origins, sectarian divisions, or the political or ideological power structures of these peoples. Turkey, finally, does not want to be in the position of going to war in another, neighboring Muslim country.

Sanity! But we, thousands of miles away, know better. Amos Harel takes a look at the background role Israel is playing:

Despite the growing concern, it should not come as a surprise that the Netanyahu government has not yet taken any immediate steps against IS. The government has only announced that the organization would be considered illegal in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and decided to focus intelligence-gathering on the group’s activities in Syria and Lebanon. But while IS might not present an imminent threat at home, Netanyahu has been extremely eager to aid the Arab world in the battle against the group. Last week, the prime minister confirmed media reports that Israel was supplying intelligence to the new anti-IS international coalition. Jerusalem no doubt has useful information to contribute: For decades, it focused on acquiring first-rate intelligence about events in Syria, which it considered its toughest enemy.

Michael Crowley turns to Saudi Arabia, the linchpin of the coalition, and what King Abdullah al-Saud brings to the table:

While Saudi money has long helped nurture a fundamentalist Sunni doctrine that inspires groups from al Qaeda to Boko Haram, Islamic radicalism has come to threaten the king as well. … ISIS seems to have raised the king’s anxiety another notch, however. He has banned Saudis from traveling to join the fight in Syria, lest they return to threaten his regime. Last month Saudi authorities arrested dozens of suspects linked to ISIS — including members of an alleged cell plotting attacks within the country. But Abdullah wields a potent weapon in his defense: his influence over Saudi Arabia’s religious leaders. The king has a symbiotic relationship with his kingdom’s hardline clerics, whose words hold sway far across the Muslim world.

But Simon Henderson suspects that the Saudis will prefer to play both sides:

Despite the diplomacy of recent days, which suggests an emerging coalition that includes Saudi Arabia and will take on the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and perhaps Syria, the House of Saud will likely continue to try to balance the threat of the head-chopping jihadists, while also trying to deliver a strategic setback to Iran by overthrowing the regime in Damascus. From a Saudi point of view, the move of IS forces into Iraq contributed to the removal of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad, whom they regarded as a stooge of Tehran. Despite official support by Riyadh for the new Baghdad government, many Saudis who despise Shiites probably regard IS as doing God’s work.

Which is why this really is whack-a-mole. The administration, meanwhile, is engaging in linguistic contortions to explain how we’re not “coordinating” with Iran or Syria even if we’re talking to them and perhaps sharing intelligence:

“Coordinating means we talk directly to [the] Syrian Air Force and coordinate our attacks against ISIS with their operations against ISIS,” Christopher Harmer, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, told Foreign Policy, using one of the Islamic State’s acronyms. “That’s not happening, won’t happen.” But “deconflicting,” Harmer explained, means that the United States will monitor where the Syrian aircraft are flying and stay out of their way, thus avoiding any potential skirmishes. “That way we don’t accidentally intrude on their operations, or they on ours,” he said.

Harmer said the United States and Iran followed this protocol during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “The U.S. did not coordinate with Iran, but Iran definitely deconflicted their normal military operations to avoid any unwanted interaction with the U.S., particularly in the Persian Gulf,” he said. In that case, Harmer said, the Iranian Navy held back patrol boats that had often harassed U.S. Navy ships in the Strait of Hormuz. “They backed way down off of their normal operations in order to deconflict with the U.S. operations,” Harmer said.

But Jacob Siegel rightly worries that Iran could become our shadow enemy in Syria:

As Iran showed in the last war in Iraq, when it armed and backed insurgent groups fighting U.S. forces, having a common enemy, as Saddam Hussein once was, won’t prevent Tehran from trying to counter American influence in the Middle East. For Iran, the question is what comes after ISIS. In Iraq there is already a Shia-led government in Baghdad broadly aligned with Tehran. But in Syria, where Shia are a minority, a post-ISIS future threatens to freeze Iran out.

To defeat ISIS, the U.S. is relying heavily on Sunni coalition partners to give its aims local legitimacy and ensure that constructing the post-ISIS political order won’t fall solely to America. Fearing the loss of its power, Iran could try to destabilize U.S.-led efforts in Syria, causing a protracted conflict that would weaken the allied participants. Alternately, if Tehran resigns itself to Assad’s ouster, it may seek other means to maintain its influence in Syria. One option would be controlling the political transfer of power from Assad, to ensure that the new government installed in Damascus remains receptive to Iranian interests. Then there’s the real long shot: that Iran reaches a détente with its Sunni rivals and accepts a power-sharing arrangement rather than a client state in Syria.

(Chart of Middle Eastern relationships via The Economist)

Is The Anti-ISIS Coalition Coalescing?

The Obama administration is now saying that “several” Arab countries will participate in an air war against ISIS but won’t say which:

Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking from Paris, declined to say which states had offered to contribute air power, an announcement that White House officials said could await his return to testify in Congress early this week. State Department officials, who asked not to be identified under the agency’s protocol for briefing reporters, said Arab nations could participate in an air campaign against ISIS in other ways without dropping bombs, such as by flying arms to Iraqi or Kurdish forces, conducting reconnaissance flights or providing logistical support and refueling. “I don’t want to leave you with the impression that these Arab members haven’t offered to do airstrikes, because several of them have,” one State Department official said.

Ian Black considers the interests of our likely partners, saying Arab support is symbolically important but might not be that helpful:

Military capability is not a problem: Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar together have hundreds of advanced fighter aircraft, though the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has next to no experience of coordination. Politically, however, fighting with the US would require greater determination than they have yet shown to tackle the jihadis who have sent shockwaves across the region.

Offers of help – most likely from the Emiratis and Saudis – attest to the gravity of the situation. Washington may be cautious given that the Iraqi military has extensive experience of working with the US but none with the Gulf states. The UAE is the most assertive country in the GCC and recently sent jets to Egypt to bomb Islamist targets in Libya. But the more reluctant royals in Riyadh may prefer to be told they can make a more useful contribution in counter-extremism messaging, bankrolling Iraqi tribes or training Syrian rebels.

The administration continues to insist that Iran will not be part of our anti-ISIS coalition, but Jack Goldstone argues that we need them in this fight:

If Iran can be persuaded to adopt a similar role in Syria to the role it is already accepting in Iraq—assent to an inclusive, majority-led but minority-respecting regime, with the United States playing an active role in supporting the military forces of the government—and therefore to withdraw its active support of Assad, Iran can align itself with the broader Sunni coalition that President Obama is seeking to back a political solution in Syria. Creating such an alignment will be incredibly difficult, but it could bring huge benefits to the entire Middle East. Beyond the immediate crisis of ISIL in Syria and Iraq, co-operation between the United States and Iran, and between Iran and Sunni states in the region, in supporting inclusive states in both Syria and Iraq could help to reduce the Sunni-Shia rifts that have kept the region in turmoil.

Khamenei claims we actually did invite Iran into the coalition, but he turned us down:

“Right from the start, the United States asked through its ambassador in Iraq whether we could cooperate against Daesh,” Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei said in a statement on his official website, using the Arabic acronym for IS. “I said no, because they have dirty hands,” said Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of state in the Islamic Republic. “Secretary of State (John Kerry) personally asked (Iranian counterpart) Mohammad Javad Zarif and he rejected the request,” said Khamenei, who was leaving hospital after what doctors said was successful prostate surgery.

At the same time, Allahpundit doesn’t see how we realistically dismantle ISIS in Syria without Assad’s help:

[I]t’s not Americans who are going to be fighting street to street in ISIS’s Syrian capital, Raqqa. That’s so far afield politically from what Obama promised on Wednesday night, it’s hard to believe voters would ever tolerate the casualties. It’s also hard to believe any “moderate” rebel force will be strong enough within the next, say, five years to do that fighting for us. If anyone’s going to do it, it’s going to be — ta da — Assad’s troops, with Iranian backing. Right? And that assumes that Assad will have the means and motive for reconquering cities in Syria now held by ISIS. If the U.S. can hem ISIS in to a few strongholds like Raqqa, maybe Assad will be content to leave them alone there while he re-consolidates power in the rest of the country. Why, we might even end up with U.S. and Syrian air assets bombing Raqqa in tandem informally. Either way, to truly “destroy” ISIS, there’s bound to be some sort of quiet coordination with Assad at some point.

By way of explaining its reluctance to participate in this war, Adam Taylor takes a look at Turkey’s complicated relationship with ISIS:

Turkey’s entanglement with the Islamic State goes deeper than the hostages, however. Turkey shares a long border with Syria, and some towns in southern Turkey ended up becoming staging grounds for Islamist rebel fighters, including the Islamic State, in the early days of the Syrian war. Ankara tolerated their presence, apparently believing that anything bad for Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime was good for Turkey.

They were wrong. As Anthony Faiola and Souad Mekhennet reported for The Post this year, Turkey did eventually crack down on the Islamist fighters, but only after things began to go bad for Turkey: Last year,  the border town of Reyhanlı was hit by a wave of bombings that were blamed on the Islamic State, and there are fears that the extremist group might try further to provoke and destabilize Turkey.

And Rami Khouri is skeptical of the entire coalition-building endeavor:

Announcing a coalition before its members are on board is an amateurish way of operating, because it makes the local players – Arab governments of already mixed legitimacy in this case – look like hapless fools who snap to attention when an American gives the order. Washington is correct to say that a combination of effective local military action and inclusive domestic political systems are required for progress in destroying ISIS, in Iraq especially. I lack confidence in this aspect of the American approach because it is foolhardy to expect that such important requirements can be forged quickly and in the heat of battle – after the U.S. has just spent a full decade and trillions of dollars in Iraq trying but failing to achieve precisely those two important goals. We can even see some counterproductive consequences of the U.S. legacy, such as rampaging ISIS troops taking from the retreating Iraqi security forces the fine arms and equipment that Washington had provided.

The Problem With Partners, Ctd

John Kerry - Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Thomas Seibert scrutinizes Turkey’s reluctance to commit to anything beyond a “passive role” in the war on ISIS:

Officially, Turkey argues it has to keep its operations low-key because a more active posture would endanger the life of 46 of its citizens held hostage by ISIS. The jihadists kidnapped the Turks and three of their Iraqi colleagues when they overran the Turkish consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June. Ankara says it is trying to secure the hostages’ release, but has ordered a news blackout that makes it difficult to assess where those efforts stand. …

Even without the hostage situation, Ankara would face difficult options. Turkey could take part in Western strikes against ISIS and risk a backlash from the jihadists themselves and other Islamist groups in the region. Or Turkey could refuse to have anything to do with the strikes, angering its Western allies and being a mere spectator despite its ambition to become a regional leader. Faced with that choice, Ankara appears to have decided to muddle through, officially joining the alliance against ISIS, but keeping out militarily.

Shane Harris expects the US to depend heavily on Jordan, particularly its intelligence service:

Jordanian intelligence “is known to have networks in Iraq which date from 2003 [the year of the U.S. invasion] forward,” said Robert Blecher, the acting program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. “The Jordanians have good connections and have tapped them before,” Blecher added. They’ll have to do so again. But it’s not just Jordan’s spying prowess that the United States needs. Jordanian intelligence also has ins with Iraqi Sunni tribes aligned with the Islamic State. …

The Jordanians are also likely to provide logistical support to the American air campaign, which has so far launched more than 150 strikes against Islamic State fighters, vehicles, and artillery using drones and manned aircraft. (The CIA now says that the militant group has recruited as many as 31,500 fighters, up from an earlier estimate of 10,000.) Blecher said that Jordan has allowed the U.S. military to use its air bases throughout the past decade, though Jordanian officials are reluctant to acknowledge that. [Former Jordanian foreign minister Marwan] Muasher said the country will likely lend logistical support but that he didn’t envision a role in direct military operations.

Adam Taylor and Rick Noack round up some international reax to Obama’s speech. They notice that Egypt is also toeing the noncommittal line:

Perhaps in response to Obama’s speech, Egypt’s Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shokri called Thursday for a global strategy for dealing with extremists. However, when a diplomat was asked whether Egypt would cooperate with Obama’s strategy against Islamic State, they offered a vague reassurance. “Cairo will discuss every effort which can be made by the alliance to eradicate the phenomenon of extremist groups in the region,” the unnamed diplomat told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Ed Krayewski is dismayed to see our allies abandon their own national security commitments and let America do most of the work:

Countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia have given varying degrees of support to the virulent strains of Islam that feed extremists like those in ISIS. Yet ISIS is hardly a puppet. Whether they decide to move north to Turkey or south to Saudi Arabia will be a decision over which those two countries will likely have no influence. But why bother treating ISIS like a national security threat when the United States is doing it for you?

Saudi Arabia, Turkey, other nations in the region, Arab and otherwise, are all threatened by ISIS in a way the United States isn’t, and in a way I think their leaders intrinsically understand they’re not being threatened by other countries in the region despite the official propagandas. Though the U.S. is the worldwide leader in military spending, these countries have spent decades building their militaries. They ought to make the decision to use them or not, to work with other countries in the region or not, and not have those decisions deferred by U.S. action from afar.

Likewise, Rosa Brooks argues that we should step back and let our local “partners” fight this war themselves:

Obama says the United States will “lead” a coalition against IS, but the United States should instead step back and let other regional actors assume the lead. They have a strong incentive to combat IS (an incentive we undermine when we offer to do the job for them), and the common threat of IS may even help lead to slightly less chilly relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia (though I won’t hold my breath). Other Middle East powers also have greater ability than we do to understand local dynamics, not least of which because many share a common language with IS or with other actors in the mix. The Kurds and the Jordanians may need some U.S. help to protect their own territory, and other states may need intelligence or other forms of logistical assistance. But we can provide such support to any of our allies and partners without putting ourselves front and center in the effort to combat IS.

Keating notes that other than Russia, none of our rivals seems to have a problem with us bombing Syria—even the Damascus regime itself is signaling that they’re OK with it:

Another interesting wrinkle is the ramifications of this Amerian operation for Assad’s backers in Moscow. Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin said today that if the United States bombed Syrian territory “without the Syrian government’s consent,” it would “complicate international operations and will pose problems for Russia as well as for many other countries respecting international law, including China.” But Russia may be the only country bothered by Obama’s campaign. It appears the Syrian government isn’t going to object too much to the operation. China, which has concerns about its own citizens cooperating with ISIS, seems likely to offer quiet support. Even Iran seems finally to have found an American war in the Middle East it can get behind.

Judis isn’t impressed with Obama’s stated strategy for a number of reasons, one of which is that it ignores Iran:

In trying to answer IS’s challenge in Iraq, the United States needs Iran’s cooperation. Obama didn’t mention Iran at all in his speech but instead referred to “Arab” countries and even to the NATO countries that he claims are going to join the anti-IS coalition. Arab countries are imporant, and one NATO country, Turkey, also is.  But Iran is crucial. It’s the main backer of the Shiite Iraq government and of Assad.  What, at this point, is the American strategy toward working with or against Iran in the region?  And what can be done to ease relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which would be important to resolving conflicts in Iraq and Syria? How much bearing do the nuclear talks, which seem to have stalled, have on the possibility of cooperation with Iran in the region?

And the way Tom Ricks sees it, our perforce partnership with Iran is really the only news here:

I think the Iraq war is best seen as one continuous conflict since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990. I remember getting on the Metro that morning, seeing the headline, and thinking, “Hey, we’re gonna go to war.” And so we did, with an air campaign followed by a short ground campaign. When that was over, we went back to several years of air campaigning, complemented by some covert operations on the ground. Then, in 2003, we had another major ground campaign. It was supposed to last a few months, but instead lasted 8 years. And now we are back to an air war, probably again supported by occasional covert ops. The biggest difference I can see is that where once some Americans said we were doing this to prevent Iran from gaining influence, now we are working alongside the Iranians in Iraq.

(Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) during Kerry’s official visit at Cankaya Palace in the capital Ankara, Turkey on September 12, 2014. By Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Will We Ally With Iran?

In his ISIS speech, the president stressed that the US would not enter a partnership with Bashar al-Assad to fight ISIS, but didn’t explicitly rule out working with Iran. Now the chairman of Iran’s Expediency Council, Hashemi Rafsanjani, says Tehran is ready to cooperate with the US. Obama might not be, but Murtaza Hussain suspects he won’t have much choice:

Thus far, U.S. hopes against ISIS have been pinned on the group’s most palatable enemies: The Iraqi Army, Kurdish Peshmerga, and more moderate Syrian rebels. While those groups have not been defeated, their position today is weaker than ever. As such, some cooperation with America’s ostensible enemies in the Iranian military will likely be necessary to any plan to defeat the Islamic State. Obama’s non-Iranian options look particularly bleak after [Tuesday’s] shocking assassination of one of Syria’s top anti-ISIS rebel commanders and dozens of his lieutenants. The commander, Hassan Abboud, was killed in an explosion during an underground meeting. So many members of his group, Ahrar al-Sham, were killed in the explosion that it’s now unclear whether it will continue to exist and provide a key counterweight to ISIS. Ahrar al-Sham was one of the best organized Syrian opposition factions aside from ISIS.

Brian Murphy believes that “Iran is likely to be drawn into any Western-led scenarios against the Islamic State militants and their networks.” One reason why:

The fight against the Islamic State must eventually cross the border to Syria, where the militants have important strongholds. Here’s where it gets really complicated. Obama had suggested that the ground game in Syria could be led by “moderate” rebels whose main goal – until now – has been trying to topple Syrian President Bashir al-Assad. Iran remains a critical ally of al-Assad. The West doesn’t want to deal directly with al-Assad to coordinate any strategies. But Iran could emerge as an intermediary.

Noah Smith argues that a reset with Iran would pay dividends both in the Middle East and in our dealings with Russia:

U.S. aerial firepower and Iranian troops could defeat ISIS, but more crucially, Iran is also in a position to stabilize the region. Assad is a monster, but if the U.S. and Iran were allied, he might be pressured into sharing power with the anti-ISIS rebels after ISIS goes down; as it is, our unrelenting commitment to get rid of Assad is assuring that Syria will remain in a state of anarchy, a vacuum that only an ISIS-type entity will ever fill. If anyone can pressure both Assad and the Iraqi Shiites into sharing power with local Sunnis, it’s an American-Iranian duo.

But there is another big, important reason for us to join with Iran: oil. The Iranian oil industry is currently restricted by U.S.-led sanctions that deprive it of Western technology and investment. With those sanctions removed, Iranian oil would begin to flow; if Iran helps stabilize Iraq, the effect will be multiplied. A flood of Iranian oil would give the U.S. the ability to level much heavier sanctions against Russia, and would ensure global oil supplies in the event that a broader conflict in Eastern Europe disrupts Russian oil supplies. In other words, becoming friendlier with Iran would strengthen our hand against the suddenly aggressive Russians.