The Iran Hawks Chomping At The Bit For War

While Secretary Kerry and Iran’s minister of foreign affairs, Mohammad Zarif, met in Geneva to continue their pursuit of a nuclear deal, Josh Rogin reports on the new GOP-led Senate:

The final language for the updated Iran sanctions bill by Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Robert Menendez was agreed on this week, according to several lawmakers and senior staffers in both parties. The bill, which both senators want to pass as soon as possible, would impose several escalating rounds of increased sanctions on the Iranian economy that would begin on June 30 — but only if Iran fails to sign on the dotted line of any negotiated agreement or fails to live up to whatever it stipulates.

The Obama team has made it clear they oppose Congress voting on a new law before the negotiations are complete, even though the actual sanctions implementation would be delayed. The new Republican Senate leadership, however, is committed to moving forward, setting up a political brawl that could peak just as the negotiations enter their crucial final stages. … [Bob Corker, the new chair of Foreign Relations,] is preparing his own legislation that would mandate that the Senate vote on a joint resolution of disapproval of any final nuclear deal with Iran. He feels this is necessary in case the White House decides not to designate any new Iran pact a “treaty,” and thus avoid a ratification process in the Senate.

Larison responds to newly minted senator Tom Cotton’s remark that the US needs to make our military threats to Iran “more credible”:

Hawks imagine that Tehran sees Washington as weak vacillating when Iranian leaders have consistently perceived the U.S. as an extraordinarily powerful, menacing, and implacable foreign power. The Iranians are the ones caught in the bind of having to appease Washington or potentially face even more serious consequences. Our threats are not doubted. It is our pledges not to strike that so few believe, and after the last fifteen years it is no surprise. … Of course, hard-liners everywhere always assume that the other regime in any negotiation is getting the upper hand, because that is what being a hard-liner requires, but it makes for appallingly bad “analysis.”

And doing their part, the hardliners in Iran are still attacking President Rouhani over his administration’s continued push for a deal. Roger Einhorn believes one is still possible, but it won’t be easy:

[W]hile the Republican-controlled Congress will undoubtedly give the administration a tough time, it is likely that President Obama will be able, without legislative interference, to continue negotiating an agreement that he believes is in the U.S. interest. … [T]he domestic obstacles are more formidable on the Iranian side.  Iran’s failure to show sufficient flexibility over the last year on the central issues in the nuclear negotiations has raised questions not just about its willingness to reach a balanced agreement but also, given internal divisions, its ability to do so.  The answer to the question of whether Iran is capable of reaching a nuclear agreement lies with the Supreme Leader.  If he is prepared to overcome his own reservations, overrule hardline opponents of a deal, and give his negotiators the green light to work out the necessary compromises, there can be an agreement.  If not, there will be no deal.

Potentially making matters worse for the US side, Rouhani just announced that Iran would be building two more reactors in the country’s southern province of Bushehr. Jonathan Tobin pounces:

The supposed moderate [Rouhani] claimed that this shows that Iran was only interested in peaceful uses of nuclear power, but the massive investment in nuclear infrastructure for a country with some of the largest oil reserves in the world is inherently suspicious. Western intelligence agencies have already conceded that they have little confidence about their ability to detect any secret military nuclear programs hidden throughout the country. The decision to build more expensive nuclear plants at a time when the country is financially pressed demonstrates that their commitment to expanding their capability is about more than clean energy.

We can’t know exactly what the Iranians are up to in Bushehr. But the brazen nature of this effort while they continue to stall the Geneva talks speaks volumes about their belief that they can tell the Americans anything they like and still expect Kerry to keep crawling back to see them in the vain hope that next time they’ll gratify his zeal for a deal.

Meanwhile, it’s the price of oil that may be having the biggest effect on ordinary Iranians:

The nosedive in global crude oil prices to around $50 a barrel places additional strain on next year’s state budget, which reckoned with a projected rate of $72 per barrel. The budget for this fiscal year, which ends in March, assumes a rate of $100 per barrel. While the general population has yet to feel the impact of the resulting spending cuts, it makes for foreboding news at the currency bazaars as well as supermarkets.

Rouhani The Democrat

On Sunday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani suggested invoking a provision of the Islamic Republic’s constitution that would allow him to put issues of major national import to a popular referendum:

Rouhani, speaking during a conference on the country’s economic problems, said that Iranians were entitled to have major issues put to a nationwide vote, as described in the 1979 Constitution. “It will be good to, after 36 years, even for once, or even every 10 years if we implement this principle of the Constitution, and put important economic, social and cultural issues to a direct referendum instead of to the Parliament,” Mr. Rouhani said.

In the opaque world of Iranian politics his remarks are a clear warning to hard-liners, who control the Parliament, key decision-making councils, the state-run media, the security forces and the intelligence services, but who have a shrinking base of support in the country.

While Rouhani didn’t refer to the nuclear negotiations specifically, many Iran watchers interpreted the speech as a signal that he might try to use the referendum process to bypass hard-line opposition to a deal with the US. “Rouhani’s gambit is very clever,” Juan Cole writes:

Likely there are people in his circle who have been influenced by the California referendum system. Rouhani is popular, and his policies are for the most part welcomed by the general public, however much the hard liners despise him for his shift to the left. If he does conclude a deal with Barack Obama this summer, allowing Iranian nuclear enrichment but forestalling any weaponization of the program, Rouhani could confront a risk of the deal being undone by hard line opposition. A popular referendum would give him the proof of popular backing he would need to over-rule the hawks.

But his opponents were quick to push back:

In an interview with Fars News Agency, conservative Kayhan newspaper’s editor Hossein Shariatmadari said that Rouhani misunderstood the two articles in the constitution pertaining to referendums. He said that Article 59 refers to a “legislative referendum” that needs two-thirds approval by the parliament to be put to the people. The second reference, Article 177, concerns appealing or revising laws. Rouhani appears to have invoked Article 59, which outlines a “legislative referendum” and not an “executive referendum.”

Conservative Mashregh News reported that instead of distracting the public, Rouhani should “give the reasons for the ineffectiveness” of his foreign policies. Its article read that many people are wondering why despite Iran’s “suspending a great deal of the nuclear program, the price of the dollar has increased and the price of oil has dropped? Why have the sanctions increased? What is the limit of [Rouhani’s] confidence-building with the enemy? And finally, when are the people going to see the results of a different diplomacy in their lives?”

In the same speech, Rouhani also called for opening up the largely state-controlled economy and ending Iran’s international isolation—another implicit criticism of his conservative rivals:

His appeal in a speech to 1,500 economists appeared to be critical of hardliners who oppose his efforts to deliver Iran from years of erratic economic management by the previous administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “Our economy will not prosper as long as it is monopolized (by the government). The economy must be rid of monopoly and see competition,” he said. “It must be freed of insider speculation, be transparent, all people must be aware of the statistics. If we can bring transparency to our economy, we can fight corruption.” He added: “Our political life has shown we can’t have sustainable growth while we are isolated.”

Here’s hoping the Iran hardliners in Washington can see past the turban and understand that this is a man we can work with. On that front, though, Derek Davison is bearish:

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) visited Israel late last month and told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that there would be a vote on the previously stymied Kirk-Menendez bill (to impose additional sanctions on Iran) sometime in January, and that the new Congress would “follow [Netanyahu’s] lead” on dealing with Iran and the nuclear talks. Putting aside the astonishing sight of a US senator pledging allegiance to a foreign leader, sanctions are a clearly decisive issue for Tehran. The imposition of another round of broad US sanctions, even if they are made conditional on Iran abandoning the talks or breaking its obligations under the existing negotiating framework, would strengthen hardliners in Tehran who have long argued that Washington cannot be trusted. The Obama administration has pledged to veto any additional sanctions on Iran so long as talks are ongoing, but that may not matter; Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) told reporters last week that he expects the new Congress to pass a new sanctions bill with veto-proof majorities in both the House and the Senate.

Iran Talks Get An Extension, Ctd

Aaron David Miller and Jason Brodsky are skeptical that the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, which were just extended, will ever bear fruit, given the toxic domestic politics in both Tehran and Washington. “But,” they add, “there may well be something even more fundamental at work: a strategic disconnect”:

We can’t end Iran’s nuclear capacity, so we are working to constrain it through buying time. Iran is trying to preserve as much of that capacity as possible while easing and eliminating economic pressure. And Iran is also playing with and for time. There’s really no end state, either on the nuclear issue or sanctions relief. And thus any comprehensive agreement is, by definition, interim at best. That just doesn’t add up in today’s highly charged and suspicion-laden political environment, no matter how moderate and well-intentioned the negotiators themselves may be.

The fact is that Iran knows what it wants: to preserve as much of its nuclear weapons capacity as possible and free itself from as much of the sanctions regime as it can. The mullahs see Iran’s status as a nuclear weapons state as a hedge against regime change and as consistent with its regional status as a great power. That is what it still wants. And that’s why it isn’t prepared — yet — to settle just for what it needs to do a deal. Ditto for America. And it’s hard to believe that another six months is going to somehow fix that problem.

With Republicans champing at the bit to push through more sanctions, Jeffrey Lewis figures any future talks are doomed:

The wave of Republicans who swept into office during the midterm was always going to be a problem, but coming home with yet another extension makes this problem much, much worse. Remember, the argument for imposing congressionally administered poison-pill requirements in the middle of a negotiation was that the threat of new sanctions would “strengthen” the president’s hand in dealing with those shifty Iranians. Had the White House come back with at least a “framework” agreement, the president might have been able to make the argument that Congress was about to piss away a once-in-a-generation chance at constraining Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, another extension plays right into the argument that the president needs Congress to help strengthen his hand by being maximally insane.

To Larison’s mind, that kind of pessimism is just what opponents of a comprehensive deal were looking for:

There is a reason why Netanyahu was pleased by news of the extension, and it isn’t because he has suddenly become a supporter of diplomacy with Iran. He guesses that the longer the negotiations wear on, the more pressure opponents of any deal can bring to bear on the administration. The more time that it takes to reach a deal, the more likely it is that opponents can spoil the negotiations by pushing for new punitive measures against Iran. Unfortunately, he’s probably not wrong. While it is better to have extended the talks and kept the possibility of a deal alive, the fact that the talks had to be extended gives opponents of any deal an opening to reject further diplomacy as a waste of time. They are wrong about this, but the longer that the negotiations take without conclusion the harder it becomes to argue that the talks are still worth pursuing.

But Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, sounds a hopeful note to Laura Rozen, “comparing this week’s Iran nuclear talks in Vienna with the 1986 Reykjavik summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that led to the first US Soviet arms control treaty a year later”:

“In 1986, Gorbachev and Reagan had an arms control negotiation in Iceland which had the exact same parameters,” as the Iran talks in Vienna this week, Vaez said. “They were very close, they could see the light at the end of the tunnel, but the talks failed. However, because at that point [the two sides’] positions became 100% clear and they knew the advantages and disadvantages of not reaching an agreement, they went back a year later, and got the first arms control between the United States and the Soviet Union.”

Similarly, the United States and Iran, in these negotiations in Vienna, over the past year have persistently seen an agreement as in their respective countries’ national interests, despite the enormous difficulties and complexities of the negotiations as well as the fact that the two countries have not had formal diplomatic relations for 35 years. “For the first time, [each side’s] real positions are 100% clear to the other side,” Vaez said. “There is a limited window of time … If they want to make progress, the chance is the best it has ever been.”

Walter Russell Mead, on the other hand, attributes the lack of a deal “the failure of American policy across the region and the splintering of U.S. alliances which the outreach to Iran has caused”, which in his view “now makes a deal with Iran much harder to reach and much more expensive to pursue”:

The Iranian nuclear issue has become hopelessly entangled in the vicious politics of the Sunni-Shi’a war now engulfing Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq. Iran has effectively held out the prospect of a nuclear deal to get the U.S. to step back from the regional competition, making it look to many Sunnis that the U.S. has tilted toward the Shi’a and dreams of a New Middle Eastern Order based on a U.S.-Iranian alliance that marginalizes the Sunni Arabs, the Turks, and the Israelis. Keeping the U.S. focused on the (unlikely) prospect of a nuclear deal while undermining U.S. alliances across the region as Iran and its proxies tighten their grip is exactly what Iran wants. The Obama Administration, despite occasional signs that it recognizes the trap, so far seems to lack the vision and decisiveness needed to break out of the current destructive impasse.

Roger Cohen underscores why calls for total dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, such as those emanating from Jerusalem, remain misguided:

Because it is not achievable in the real world; the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. Diplomacy is about tough compromise, not ideal outcomes. The nuclear know-how attained by Iran cannot be undone. The aim must be to ring fence for at least a decade a strictly monitored program, compatible only with peaceful use of nuclear power, where enrichment is kept below 5 percent. Iran, a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, will not renounce the right set out in that treaty to “nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” at the behest of a nuclear-armed nonsignatory of that treaty, Israel. This is reality; deal with it. Iran’s nuclear program has the emotional resonance the nationalization of its oil had in the 1950s. That nationalization prompted a never-forgotten Anglo-American coup. Calls for dismantlement are seen in Iran through this prism. As Kerry’s negotiating partner, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, said, “You are doomed to failure” if you seek “a zero-sum game.” Setting impossible targets is code for favoring war.

Iran Talks Get An Extension

After failing to reach a permanent agreement, the officials representing Iran and the P5+1 in the ongoing nuclear negotiations in Vienna extended the talks for seven more months:

“We have had to conclude it is not possible to get to an agreement by the deadline that was set for today and therefore we will extend the JPOA to June 30, 2015,” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told reporters at the end of the talks. He was referring to the so-called Joint Plan of Action, an interim deal agreed between the six and Iran a year ago in Geneva, under which Tehran halted higher level uranium enrichment in exchange for a limited easing of sanctions, including access to some frozen oil revenues abroad.

Hammond said the expectation was that Iran would continue to refrain from sensitive atomic activity. He added that Iran and the powers “made some significant progress” in the latest round of talks, which began last Tuesday in the Austrian capital. Hammond said that there was a clear target to reach a “headline agreement” of substance within the next three months and talks would resume next month.

The failure to meet today’s deadline was not unexpected. Elias Groll and John Hudson look over the sticking points that remain unresolved:

“There are still gaps on some of the major issues, particularly the size of Iran’s uranium enrichment program and the sequence of sanctions relief,” Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, told Foreign Policy. “Both Iran and the United States will need to be flexible and willing to make concessions to overcome the remaining hurdles.” At the moment, American diplomats are refusing to provide a date by which sanctions will be lifted and inspectors can ensure Iran is complying with the deal. … Among the other points of disagreement is how long it will take for Iran to be allowed to freely develop a civilian nuclear infrastructure and how much freedom inspectors will have inside Iran to carry out their work.

Morrissey isn’t surprised:

In reality, the gaps have always been big, and they will remain big as long as Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons. They have played this strategy of using negotiations as stall tactics for more than a decade, after their nuclear-weapons program got exposed in 2003. The Iranians make a big show of holding talks and sometimes even reaching interim agreements, always to find some excuse or provocation to renege or pull out. They then dangle the possibility of talks in order to forestall tougher consequences for their intransigence. Barack Obama and John Kerry were foolish enough to buy this routine as sincere, throwing away the tougher sanctions that forced Iran to deal with West at all.

Time is running out, all right. The Iranians are making sure of that by running out the clock while they finalize their entry into the nuclear-armed state club. They just bought themselves seven more months of time to complete their efforts and deliver a fait accompli. The West is digging its own grave, and Iran is providing the shovels.

The new deadline, of course, means that any prospective deal will come up against the implacable obstacle of the incoming Republican Congress. John Bradshaw encourages Congressional hawks to take a deep breath, think back to the bad old days of negotiating arms control with the Soviets, and not be willfully blind to the benefits of a deal:

Conservative hardliners in Congress say they would support a deal if it guaranteed that Iran would never be able to build a nuclear weapon. This disingenuous claim ignores the fact that the Iranians already have the necessary knowledge to build a weapon. A good agreement can minimize the risks that Iran can clandestinely move toward building a nuclear weapon, and it can provide incentives for the Iranians to step back from the path toward nuclear arms. More thoughtful members of Congress recognize that without a deal Iran can resume activities that can lead to a nuclear weapon, leaving us with only two options: military action or dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran. Without a deal, the international sanctions regime will likely unravel, diminishing pressure on Iran to allow continued intrusive inspections. The world will be more dangerous and unstable in this scenario than it would be if there is a good, verifiable deal that still entails some uncertainties and risks. A little historical perspective can help spark the political courage needed now in Congress to back a deal which will make America safer and prevent an unnecessary war.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is pleased about the extension, mainly because it means there’s no deal yet:

“The right deal that is needed is to dismantle Iran’s capacity to make atomic bombs and only then dismantle the sanctions,” the prime minister continued. “Since that’s not in the offing, this result is better. A lot better. I think Iran should not have any capacity to enrich. There is no right to enrich. What do you need to enrich uranium for if you are not developing an atomic bomb?”

Netanyahu highlighted the fact that in addition to its uranium enrichment program, Iran has also also been developing intercontinental ballistic missiles. “The only reason you build ICBMs is to launch a nuclear warhead,” he said. “So I think everyone agrees that Iran is unabashedly seeking to develop atomic bombs and I think they shouldn’t have the capacity to enrich uranium or to deliver nuclear warheads.”

Larison points out that Bibi and other opponents of a comprehensive agreement are in effectively rooting for their own worst-case scenario:

The failure of negotiations with Iran would not be to the advantage of Israel or any of the Gulf states that claim to be so horrified by a deal. Failure would strengthen Iranian hard-liners, it would likely increase tensions between Iran and many other regional governments, and would leave the path open for the nuclear program’s continued development. Republicans may want to deprive Obama of a major achievement for partisan reasons, but Republican Iran hawks shouldn’t want the negotiations to fail. A deal that imposes significant limits on Iranian enrichment would restrict the Iranian nuclear program in a way that nothing else available could. Despite this, the regional governments and hawks here at home have been demanding conditions for a final deal that can’t possibly be met, and they have declared their hostility to any agreement that could be reached. The only conclusion we can reach from all this is that most of these actors are hostile to any diplomacy with Iran and want to make conflict between the U.S. and Iran more likely.

What Happens To The Iran Talks Now?

Monday is the deadline for reaching a comprehensive agreement on Tehran’s nuclear program. Despite some hopeful signs in recent weeks, it is not likely to be met: not only have the negotiators failed to resolve some of the major sticking points in the talks, Senate Republicans once again made clear in a letter to Obama this week that they will kill any deal they don’t like – possibly meaning any deal at all -especially if the president attempts to circumvent Congress in enacting it. Acknowledging this reality, Fred Kaplan favors extending the talks for another interim period, given the grim alternative:

As Winston Churchill famously said, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,” and the situation is no different here, as long as it’s clear we’re not being taken for a ride. As long as the interim accord isn’t altered, Iran will not easily be able to move closer to a nuclear bomb. And on a broader level, the United States and Iran have some common interests, not least in countering Islamist extremists in the Middle East (or at least Sunni extremists, such as al-Qaida and ISIS).

The P5+1 talks are the two countries’ only diplomatic forum; as long as it’s not a forum for deception, it’s a good idea, on many grounds, to keep them going.

The same was true of the U.S.-Soviet Strategic Arms Limitation Talks during the Cold War. For their first 15 years or so, the talks accomplished little in reducing strategic arms; but, had the forum not existed, it would have been much harder to make genuine progress, in cutting arms and ending the Cold War, when the time grew ripe. Who knows: the same may be true, a decade or so from now, with Iran.

But Gary Sick fears that failure to reach a deal will empower opponents of detente in Tehran and weaken the US’s leverage:

The primary leverage that the U.S.-led side has brought to the table is the international sanctions regime that has limited Iran’s energy exports and choked off its access to international financial networks. But those are not U.N. sanctions; they rely primarily on Washington’s ability to persuade or pressure companies in countries whose governments do not endorse those sanctions to refrain from trade with or investment in Iran, under threat that noncompliance could result in their being shut out of the international banking system. But if Iran is internationally perceived to have made a good-faith offer of compromise to no avail, the dynamic could change. Washington might no longer have that leverage.

Nazila Fathi notes how the long-running dispute has already empowered the Iranian hardliners, making the case for an amicable resolution all the stronger:

When the sanctions made it difficult for the government to sell oil legally, the Revolutionary Guards took charge of Iran’s underground, illegal oil market. The Guards were also able to seize control of oil projects left incomplete by foreign investors forced to abandon them because of the sanctions. All this has helped the Guards to expand their political and economic influence. If the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program ends, the Guards will lose much of this power. As Tehran economist Saeed Laylaz explains: “The hard-liners are opposed to a deal because they will lose their control over huge revenues that they have controlled and wasted over the past few years.”

Bearing this in mind, Rouhani’s conservative opponents warned him ahead of his trip to the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September to avoid reconciliation with the United States, which is widely seen as the key to ending the sanctions.

And Charles Recknagel reviews the benefits of a deal to both Iran and Western countries:

For both Iran and the West, the potential benefits of ending the nuclear crisis and lifting international sanctions on Tehran could be enormous. Iran, which has seen sanctions dramatically reduce world demand for its oil, not only wants to increase its exports again, it also needs Western investment and technology to revitalize its oil and natural-gas industry, kick-start its economy, and lift its standard of living. At the same time, many Western energy companies want to return to work in Iran, which holds the world’s fourth-largest proven crude-oil reserves and the world’s second-largest gas reserves. Many other Western, nonoil, businesses regard Iran — with 80 million people — as a rich potential consumer market.

But nobody expects a nuclear deal to lead to instantaneous changes.

What’s actually happening behind closed doors in Tehran and Vienna this week remains opaque. But the underlying reasons for continuing this dialogue remain powerful: Iran’s nuclear program is currently suspended, and the consequences of a breakdown for the entire region are dire. We need persistence. And, somehow, hope.

Why Iran’s Liberals Are Rooting For The Nuclear Deal

Azadeh Moaveni brings up a little-discussed reason:

The hard-line political forces in Tehran most opposed to a nuclear compromise with the West also dominate the institutions—the Revolutionary Guards, the judiciary, and various security bodies—that perpetrate the most serious rights abuses, ranging from summary executions to the detention of journalists, religious and ethnic minority activists, and Iranians with connections to the West. For most of the past decade, these hard-liners exploited times of tension with the West, such as periods when the threat of a U.S. military strike was amplified, or when Iranian nuclear scientists were being assassinated. For the hard-liners these were opportunities to crack down on regime critics, and expel them from universities, newspapers, government ministries, and city councils.

The fear among Iranian dissidents is that a breakdown in nuclear talks would prompt another wave of repression. Inevitably, a breakdown would be seen in Iran as the West having rejected reasonable Iranian overtures (just as the West would see it as Iranian rejection of reasonable Western overtures). Hard-liners would depict this rejection as more evidence of Western disrespect, even contempt, for Iran, and would try to exploit any sense of renewed tension to push their oppressive agenda. That would be especially easy if threats of a military strike by the United States or Israel were revived.

Obama’s Supreme Pen Pal In Tehran

Yesterday, the WSJ broke the news that President Obama sent a secret letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last month, “aimed both at buttressing the campaign against Islamic State and nudging Iran’s religious leader closer to a nuclear deal”:

Mr. Obama stressed to Mr. Khamenei that any cooperation on Islamic State was largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive agreement with global powers on the future of Tehran’s nuclear program by a Nov. 24 diplomatic deadline, the same people say. The October letter marked at least the fourth time Mr. Obama has written Iran’s most powerful political and religious leader since taking office in 2009 and pledging to engage with Tehran’s Islamist government. The correspondence underscores that Mr. Obama views Iran as important—whether in a potentially constructive or negative role—to his emerging military and diplomatic campaign to push Islamic State from the territories it has gained over the past six months.

The letter represents a significant shift in the administration’s approach to Iran:

The disclosure of the letter is likely to raise the political pressure on the White House, which is already coming under fire from lawmakers in both parties concerned that the administration is prepared to make far-reaching concessions to Tehran in order to strike a landmark nuclear deal before a Nov. 24 deadline. It also raises new questions about the precise contours of the White House’s Iran policy. Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last month, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said the U.S. wasn’t working with Iran on the fight against the Islamic State.

Tom Rogan rejects that shift:

[W]hen he receives solicitous letters from the American president, Ayatollah Khamenei can only be encouraged to make a deal on Iran’s terms. It’s important to remember that while Khamenei is a hardliner amenable to pragmatic concerns, he’s only allowing Rouhani to negotiate for a simple reason: economics. With Iran’s economy suffering under the dual burden of sanctions and low oil prices (oil revenue being critical to Iran’s government expenditure), Iran must negotiate. As overlord of a young population that has increasing cultural and intellectual connections with the West, Khamenei fears that continued economic pain will feed social instability and threaten his ongoing Islamic revolution. His pragmatism is thus a consequence of Iran’s economic pain.

President Obama should pay closer heed to Iran’s economic pain and abandon his current carrot-heavy approach in favor of clarifying three precepts to the Iranians. First, America seeks a deal and will allow low-enrichment activities in return for an unimpeded inspections regime, the verified closure of high-risk weaponized facilities, and centrifuge limits. Second, America will not accept a bad deal and will introduce tougher sanctions if the deadline expires. Third, the military option, though complex, is very much on the table. Republicans should support President Obama in this effort.

Allahpundit on the letter:

Riddle me this, though. Why would Khamenei care about formal U.S. cooperation against ISIS? Western airstrikes appear to be making headway against the group, slowing its advance if not quite reversing its gains (yet). Americans support the anti-ISIS campaign heavily so Obama’s going to keep it up whether Khamenei will take his calls or not. The main virtue of formal cooperation, I would think, is the propaganda value in it. Having the U.S. coordinate with Israel’s and Saudi Arabia’s sworn enemy would be a humiliation to both allies. Maybe there’s something in that for Khamenei, but to get it he’d have to step back (a little) from the anti-Americanism that helped birth Khomeinism. How do you go from “Death to America” to “Let’s fight ISIS with America” overnight?

John McCain and other Iran hawks are predictably furious. Juan Cole rolls his eyes at the shallow analysis their reaction betrays:

[T]he US needs Iran in Iraq, but views Iran as an enemy in Syria. McCain’s reaction is mainly about Syria, not Iraq. But if you look closely at the latter country, you can see that ISIL probably cannot be defeated without Iranian help. McCain has never appeared to meditate the mistakes he made in arming Muslim radicals to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, which led in some ways to the rise of al-Qaeda.

Great powers always have to make friends among states that are enemies of one another. The US has to have good relations with Greece and Turkey, and with Pakistan and India. Obama needs Iran in Iraq. It may be unpalatable, but the US needs Iran. Moreover, the US cannot defeat ISIL in Syria if it concentrates on bombing the al-Assad government, as McCain wants. McCain, who doesn’t usually show evidence of being capable of a nuanced or subtle foreign policy, doesn’t appreciate this need.

Barak Ravid notes that Israel might not have been told about the letter, speculating that “if Israel … learned of it only from the Wall Street Journal, that is liable to deepen the already severe lack of trust between Jerusalem and Washington on an issue –Iran – that is critical to their relationship”. Dov Zakheim accuses Obama of pushing Israel toward war:

[I]f an arrangement with Iran is seen to be likely to hold, the result could well be another American war in the Middle East. Israel has been threatening for years that it is prepared to take unilateral action against Iran if that country does not discontinue its nuclear weapons program. Given the total lack of trust between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were there no real prospect that Congress could block the deal from taking place, Israel might well launch an attack against Iranian targets. In response, Tehran would not only attempt to retaliate against Israel, it would most certainly hold the United States accountable as well, regardless of any denials emanating from Washington. Should Iran attack American forces, or ordinary Americans anywhere in the world, the administration would have no choice but to react. The president would find himself doing exactly what his appeasement of Iran sought to avoid: a costly war whose demands on American personnel and materiel would stretch the military to its limits.

The usual threats from the Israel lobby should be treated with the contempt they deserve. Zack Beauchamp cautions that the move could easily backfire:

Obama’s goal is probably in part to use this letter, by setting up linkage with Iran between nukes and ISIS, as a incentive to make Iran more willing to strike a nuclear deal. But Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, thinks the linkage idea could make ISIS cooperation needlessly harder to get. Maloney argues that if the US-Iran negotiations had stayed on two separate tracks, nuclear and ISIS, the success of one wouldn’t be dependent on the success of the other. But once Obama’s position is that the US needs nuclear concessions in order to consider ISIS cooperation, then getting ISIS cooperation becomes harder.

But cooperating with Tehran on ISIS might be a bad goal in itself. In Syria, Iran’s principal objective isn’t destroying ISIS: it’s defending Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime. Making a deal with Iran would likely mean an at least implicit degree of alliance with Assad, which might actually end up making ISIS stronger. This is more possible than you think, and underscores just how dangerous a game Obama is playing with Khamenei.

I’d love to know who leaked the letter and why. It’s a bold move, it seems to me. But very hard to read in the context of negotiations we have, understandably, little access to. Overall, I find it encouraging – evidence that the president knows how crucial this move will be, and how central to his legacy it could become. It will be fascinating to see Hillary Clinton’s response to the deal, if it emerges. She may actually have to take a stand at some point, after all.

Obama’s Next Legacy: Detente With Iran

Amid all the drama of the last few days – in which the inevitably triumphant Democratic coalition scenario segued seamlessly into the Republican lock on the Congress for decades – it’s worth taking a deep breath to see what’s really changed under Obama. On domestic policy, we had a huge shift toward universal health insurance – a shift that looks very likely to stay in place. On foreign policy, Obama has bet a huge amount on a long-game engagement with Iran. So far, the strategy has worked far better than most predicted. The sanctions have been effective in both getting rid of Ahmadinejad, and getting Iran to the negotiating table; the international coalition has stayed rock solid; Rouhani’s election made detente feasible; lower oil prices have given Iran an incentive to deal to save its economy; and slowly, Iran itself has changed in a way that makes an opening to the West much more feasible. For a sample of that, I recommend the Economist’s latest survey on the country. Money quote:

While the world has been cut off from Iran, it has failed to notice how much Iranians have changed. No longer is the country seething with hatred and bent on destruction. Instead, the revolution has sunk into the disillusion and distractions of middle age. This is not always a nice place, perhaps, but not a Satanic one, either.

As if on cue, this week saw a potential breakthrough in the nuclear negotiations, three weeks before the looming deadline for a deal:

Iran has tentatively agreed to ship much of its huge stockpile of uranium to Russia if it reaches a broader nuclear deal with the West, according to officials and diplomats involved in the negotiations, potentially a major breakthrough in talks that have until now been deadlocked. Under the proposed agreement, the Russians would convert the uranium into specialized fuel rods for the Bushehr nuclear power plant, Iran’s only commercial reactor. Once the uranium is converted into fuel rods, it is extremely difficult to use them to make a nuclear weapon. That could go a long way toward alleviating Western concerns about Iran’s stockpile, though the agreement would not cut off every pathway that Tehran could take to obtain a nuclear weapon. … For the United States, the fuel agreement would give negotiators more flexibility.

Perhaps the most striking thing is the role of the Russians. Despite a dramatic worsening of the relationship with the US, Russia has twice now cooperated in key WMD restrictions in the Middle East – first by brokering the deal that destroyed Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons, and now in helping nudge the negotiations past a stumbling block. At some point, those dismissing the reset may have to rethink when it comes to broader international problems. I’d argue that the next deadline can be breached, as long as serious progress is still being made and as long as Iran’s ongoing suspension of its nuclear program continues. But the deal is easily the most substantive foreign policy achievement in a generation. It should not be lost over an arbitrary deadline.

The incoming Republican Congressional leadership, of course, has other ideas:

Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican likely to replace Rep. Mike Rogers as the next chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told The Daily Beast Wednesday that he would like to begin digging into the administration’s Iran talks—in particular, the role played in those talks by the U.S. intelligence community. … Nunes said he thinks the deal being contemplated could lead to disaster. “Shouldn’t the Congress be concerned about the Iranians getting a nuclear weapon,” he said. “They are going to be close to getting a nuclear weapon because of this deal, this should matter to the American people.”

McCain said he, Corker, and Burr are also interested in pursuing more vigorous oversight of the Iran deal as well. “The Iranians are helping [Syrian dictator] Bashar Assad,” McCain added. “They are the ones that got the 5,000 Hezbollah guys into the fight [against Syria’s rebels], they are gaining more and more influence in Baghdad. And we somehow believe we make a nuclear deal with them and that will lead to other areas of cooperation.”

John Hudson wonders how presumptive Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell will approach the Iran file:

One thing McConnell did not mention that will surely loom large in the coming months is congressional action on Iran’s nuclear program. This year, Reid single-handedly prevented a bipartisan bill leveling new sanctions on Tehran from reaching the Senate floor because the White House feared it would upend the fragile nuclear negotiations the United States is conducting with Tehran in Vienna. Republicans have shown no such concern about disrupting the talks with punishing sanctions. “The pressure is now on President Obama to bear down and negotiate a good Iran deal or face a resounding political defeat when the Senate votes ‘no’ on the deal,” Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Foreign Policy.

But more opposition from the right and the Greater Israel lobby might actually help get the deal off the ground – especially as the administration does not need the Congress to relieve some financial sanctions as part of an ongoing confidence-building deal. In this vein, Golnaz Esfandiari listens to what Iranian officials had to say about Tuesday’s Republican rout and what it portends for the nuclear talks:

Iranian Communications and Information Technology Minister Mahmud Vaezi said the victory of the Republicans in the November 4 elections will not have “any effect” on the nuclear negotiations. … But former diplomat Ali Khorram, who reportedly advises Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, said that the Obama administration could be forced into taking a harder line in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, if both sides fail to reach a final agreement by November 24. “Obama has to use the remaining time to reach a deal with Iran,” Khoram said.

Apparently addressing domestic critics, he said those who oppose the talks “out of ignorance” should “wake up” because he said Iran’s national interests could be jeopardized if there was no deal. “We should not allow Republicans to unite with Israel and witness the tensions we saw under [former President] Mahmud Ahmadinejad and George W. Bush because it is not in the interests of Iran and the region,” Khorram said in an interview with the official IRNA news agency.

Arash Karami rounds up some more Iranian reactions:

Outspoken University of Tehran professor Sadegh Zibakalam, who is politically aligned with moderates, told Khabar Online, “Republicans do not believe in decreasing conflict and creating friendly relations with Iran.” He said the Republican victory is “not to our benefit,” as “Within the Republicans, there are more who are opposed to Iran, and they think the way our own conservatives do.” … Fars News Agency interviewed analyst for US affairs Fouad Izadi, who said that he believes the chances of new sanctions being passed is much higher now, given the Republican victory. He criticized domestic analysts and officials who have focused entirely on Obama while “The problem is in the Senate.”

Izadi said that this victory should be a “wake-up call” for some in Iran and predicted that Iran’s problems with Congress in the last 30 years “will become more clear in the coming days and months.”

The Bloomberg View editors weigh in, warning DC not to spike the talks:

The alternatives to Obama’s sanctions-plus-diplomacy approach are two: sanctions alone, or airstrikes. Neither of these would end Iran’s nuclear-weapons program for good. On the contrary, they would probably accelerate Iran’s bid for the bomb and undermine critical support for sanctions in Europe. So long as Iran sticks to the restrictions on its enrichment program, and the current sanctions remain in place, there is no hurry to end this negotiating process. What matters is getting the right deal. Iran’s nuclear program is largely frozen. At the same time, Iranian society is gradually becoming among the least religious and least anti-American in the Middle East. Yes, the conservative regime remains hostile and committed to creating a nuclear weapons capability. Yet it also needs a deal to keep its growing consumer society happy.

Comparing Obama’s effort to seal the Iran deal with FDR’s struggle to get Congress on board with entering World War II, Scott McConnell urges the president to fight like hell for it, because his legacy may well depend on it:

There is little doubt that if Obama reaches a deal, Israel and its advocates will be able to generate a seemingly massive Congressional uproar to undermine the President’s diplomacy. But larger forces, both inside and beyond the Beltway, line up on Obama’s side. The Pentagon, it was reported recently, has been seeking to make deals with Iranian companies in order to stabilize Afghanistan. Will the U.S. military brass, having expended large amounts of blood and treasure to wrest Afghanistan from the Taliban, wish to see it revert to Islamic extremism because Israel doesn’t want Iran involved in stabilizing the country?

Maneuvering for an Iran deal will take all the political acumen Obama can muster, and more than he has demonstrated in previous dealings with Congress. And in terms of political skill and appeal, Obama is no Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the president has powerful cards to play, and will have the support of much of the world if he plays them well. One day peace with Iran may seem as inevitable as did war with Germany. Even though he was drubbed in the midterms, Obama’s chance to forge an historic and positive legacy still lies very much before him.

He should seize it with both hands.

The Return Of The Hawks, Ctd

Following the victories of pro-war candidates like Tom Cotton and Joni Ernst, Rosie Gray looks ahead to how the Republican Senate is likely to muck up Obama’s foreign policy agenda:

Most immediately and maybe most importantly, Republicans will try to nix any Iran deal that they deem unsatisfactory — and on this, they have the support of plenty of Democrats. The deadline for the nuclear talks is Nov. 24. The new Senate will have the will and the manpower to push through new sanctions legislation if it chooses, and the fight over Iran policy could prove to be one of the defining battles of the waning Obama presidency.

It’s unclear where exactly the new Republican conference will be when it comes to foreign policy, but Tom Cotton and Joni Ernst, the new senators from Arkansas and Iowa, have seemed to exhibit a fairly hawkish foreign policy instinct. Foreign policy isn’t the top issue voters care about, but their election could represent a cooling of enthusiasm for the anti-interventionist policies of libertarian Republicans that have garnered much attention in the past few years.

Fairly hawkish? Cotton’s view is that the Iraq War was a fantastic moral cause and we should be on the look out for more opportunitiees to spread “democracy” at the barrel of a gun. Juan Cole braces for the worst:

Barack Obama was convinced or bamboozled by the Pentagon to do the Afghanistan troop escalation in 2009, and he has conducted drone wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and some other countries. The GOP may see him as not ultimately committed to keeping US troops out of Iraq and Syria, and will almost certainly attempt to force him to put more boots on the ground (John McCain will be chairman of the Armed Services Committee). If the GOP Senate objected to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, it could refuse to fund it (getting out will be expensive). And, if Obama manages a breakthrough in negotiations with Iran that requires a reduction in US economic sanctions, the Republican House might be able to find ways to block that reduction, so as to go back on a war footing with Iran (war is good for the arms industry, which funds a lot of congressional campaigns).

Karlyn Bowman observes what the exit polls showed about foreign policy-minded voters:

55% of voters who chose foreign policy as the most important issue facing the country voted for Republican candidates: about 4 in 10 of them voted for Democrats. The issue ranked behind the economy and health care as the top issue and tied with immigration. 58% of voters in House races approved of the US military action against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In another question, seven in ten said they were very worried about another major terrorist attack in the US, including 28% who were very worried.

But Larison notes that the voters who elected the hawks aren’t necessarily hawks themselves:

[Cory] Gardner won 52% among those that disapproved of the military action despite launching the most shamelessly demagogic attacks on his opponent on this very issue. This pattern was repeated nationwide: opponents of the war against ISIS tended to vote for Republican House candidates (55-43%), most of whom have been reliably in favor of the intervention, and a slim majority of supporters of the war (51%) voted for Democratic candidates. It is no wonder that the more hawkish candidates prevail when relatively dovish voters back them regardless of their positions. Nonetheless, this also gives us another reason to be skeptical when hawks claim that these election results are proof that aggressive foreign policy is a political winner.

Acid Burns In Isfahan

A series of acid attacks on women in Iran’s third-largest city prompted thousands to protest on Wednesday, denouncing the attackers and demanding that authorities take action. The attacks “had coincided with the passage of a law designed to protect those who correct people deemed to be acting in an ‘un-Islamic’ way”:

A local official said on Wednesday that “eight to nine” women had been attacked over the past three weeks by men on motorcycles who splashed them with acid in Isfahan, one of Iran’s largest urban centers and the country’s chief tourist destination. Some of the women were blinded or disfigured. The protesters — more than 2,000, according to the semiofficial news agency Fars — gathered in front of the local judiciary office and shouted slogans against extremists whom the protesters likened to supporters of Islamic State militants. They also called for the city’s Friday Prayer leader and the prosecutor to step down, witnesses said. Critics have long accused the Iranian authorities of playing down episodes that could embarrass leaders rather than investigating the cases.

Acid attacks on women are depressingly familiar events in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but rare in Iran. Rick Noack focuses on the new law, to which President Rouhani has come out in opposition:

“It is upon all Muslims to exhort love, respect for others and human dignity,” Rouhani reportedly said Wednesday, a comment that was widely perceived as being in support of the protesters. Although Rouhani did not mention the protests or the acid attacks, the statement was remarkable, and it could be the latest public acknowledgement of an internal fight between Rouhani’s government and other, more conservative Iranian institutions. …

The passage of the new law, pursued by religious hardliners, represented a setback for Rouhani’s government. Although the details of the law are unclear, it is expected to empower citizens and government officials to correct Iranians who fail to follow rules defined by the country’s religious leaders. Given that some of those strict Iranian norms seem to have motivated the acid attacks, the law has drawn criticism from more liberal voices. They fear that the law could legitimize violence against women for minor rule violations like wearing inappropriate clothes.

Shima Shahrabi suspects the attacks may be connected to threats by extremists to revive their role as vigilante morals police:

The attacks follow a September announcement by Ansar-e Hezbollah or the “Supporters of the Party of God, a paramilitary fundamentalist group, that it would resume vigilante-style moral policing, couched in the Islamic notion of “enjoining good and forbidding wrong.” Through much of the 1980s and 1990s, the group terrorized Iranians by attacking civic gatherings, lectures by progressive academics, and women on the street deemed insufficiently covered. The group’s re-emergence marks a new strategy in the hardline assault on President Rouhani’s efforts to moderate Iranian society. 

In Isfahan, people are speaking about an organized campaign to enforce strict Islamic moral and social codes, lending credence to the link between the acid attacks and Ansar-e Hezbollah’s announced resurgence. But officials in Tehran are pushing back against these perceptions. “These acid attacks have nothing to do with people’s hejab,” Ahmad Salek, an Isfahahn MP, told IranWire. “One of the targets of the attack was wearing full hejab and chador. These rumors are made up by the mercenaries who live in the West and want to weaken the regime.”

Reza HaghighatNejad observes how Iran’s hardline conservatives are reacting to the protests:

Many hardliners claim that protests against the acid attacks were planned by enemies of the regime, an attempt to discredit Iran’s most committed religious forces. For them, the West and other regime enemies are to blame for growing discontent in Iran, which explains how a hardliner MP could state that the acid attacks in Isfahan were potentially started by intelligence agencies belonging to Israel and the West. Though it might seem that recent moves to clamp down on social freedoms strengthen the regime, a further polarization within society and widening social divides are probably closer to the truth. And with these rifts come wider reaching pockets of anger and distrust. For many, what has happened in Isfahan signals just how out of control the regime actually is: what started as a campaign for morality has now led to vicious attacks on innocent, law abiding citizens.