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Archive for September, 2013

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September 25, 2013

Iran Knows what the West Forgot: Charm is Cheap

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With starry-eyed optimism, Western leaders and members of the media have recently fawned all over the new Iranian president, Hasan Rouhani, as if he had taken any meaningful steps to reverse Iran’s illicit nuclear program, abysmal human rights abuses, or support for Hezbollah terrorism and Basher Assad’s murderous regime in Syria. Rouhani can thank his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for being so repugnant that virtually anyone succeeding him would be welcomed with relief. But the West’s premature exuberance over Rouhani undermines efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and dangerously signals to rogue states that a few weeks of charm can quickly compensate for decades of terrorism, genocidal incitement, and human rights abuses.

On the core issues, Iran’s behavior is the same, but with a more PR-savvy face. Rouhani has continued Iran’s support for the Syrian regime and Iran’s anti-Israel rhetoric and policies. About a month into Rouhani’s term, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declared that Iran’s nuclear program includes “strong indicators of possible nuclear weapon development.”  The program includes developing plutonium-based capabilities for building nukes, installing advanced uranium enrichment equipment that enables Iran quickly to weaponize its nuclear materials without detection by IAEA inspections, enriching uranium in defiance of UN Security Council and IAEA resolutions, and developing nuclear warheads and the missiles to deliver them.
These facts completely discredit Rouhani’s repeated claims that Iran’s nuclear program exists only for “peaceful” purposes. His boasts about playing for time (in a 2004 speech) when he served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator further undermine his credibility on this issue (in his words: “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the [nuclear conversion] facility in Isfahan”). Moreover, Iran has consistently deceived the international community about its nuclear activities, like when the Islamic Republic concealed its nuclear facility in Qom (which was uncovered by Western intelligence agencies).

But these facts don’t seem to matter because when Rouhani repeatedly drops the word “peace” in his speeches, Western media and diplomats swoon. “At the cost of thoughtful reporting” (as media watchdog CAMERA aptly summarized), Western media have also fallen for the “Twitter charms” reportedly sent by members of the Iranian regime.

And this same naive crowd celebrates the release of 80 Iranian political prisoners — timed for maximum PR effect — while forgetting that Iran has executed more than 170 political prisoners since Rouhani’s election and continues to imprison close to 800 (including U.S. citizen and former Marine Amir Hekmati, despite requests to release him from top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry). Indeed, a web site documenting Iran’s human rights abuses confirms that — under Rouhani’s rule — it’s very much business as usual in Iran, with public hangings, religious persecution, abuse of women, arbitrary arrests, and suppression of dissent. But why spoil the party with such details when Rouhani speechifies about “peace” and “friendship?”
Desperate for a sign of progress, delusional optimists point out that Rouhani hasn’t actively denied the Holocaust. That this could be considered a sign of Iranian “progress” shows just how pathetically low the bar has dropped (thanks, again, to Ahmadinejad’s fine work). But even by this measure, Rouhani just looks more sophisticated (opting to say that “he’s not a historian” instead of unequivocally denying the Holocaust). One Iran expert explained Rouhani’s shameful response as a result of local politics, but if Rouhani’s not even free to acknowledge a historical fact, how can he possibly change Iran’s nuclear policy? Rouhani may have subsequently realized that his media strategy required improving upon his initial answer, but the clarification he attempted in his recent interview with Christiane Amanpour left him plenty of room for Holocaust denial and revisionism. Equally troubling, starting around 4:00 of this video (which part was suspiciously excluded from CNN’s written interview summary), Rouhani goes on to suggest that the Jewish claim to the land of Israel is based only on the Holocaust, and — in equally twisted moral and historical logic — suggests an equivalence between the Holocaust and the Israeli “occupation” of Palestinians.
Only the credible threat of force has ever worked in stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and after Obama’s feckless and spineless approach to a far weaker adversary (Syria), the Iranians have all the more reason to doubt any U.S. military threat — particularly if Obama can be stalled by a diplomatic process that seems to offer progress now that the Iranian wolf has been redressed as a sheep.
While Obama likes to boast that his economic sanctions have brought Iran to the table, the only measure of success is whether Iran is closer to a nuclear weapons capability, and on that score Obama is a complete failure: Iran has been inching closer to nukes every day that Obama has been in office.
Moreover, the dynamics of Obama’s diplomatic efforts reveal who’s actually winning: Obama asked Rouhani for a meeting at the UN, only to be rejected. So the U.S. looks like the eager party here, making it that much easier for Iran to manipulate any eventual talks in its favor. Indeed, the more the West appears desperate to welcome Rouhani’s new tune, the less Iran has to make any meaningful concessions. In this way, Ahmadinejad’s revolting persona and style made it that much easier for his successor to succeed at playing the “good cop” in any negotiations. And it is actually Iran’s hardline supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on Iranian policy, so the Rouhani theatrics are ultimately meaningless anyway. While the country’s dictator recently said that Iran can show “heroic flexibility,” he’s not actually beholden to anyone, so he can easily change his mind after buying another 6-12 months of nuclear enrichment time by “negotiating” with the West through Rouhani.
To resolve a crisis that could otherwise end up as a massive regional war in the near future, Iran must: 1) stop all nuclear enrichment, 2) dismantle the illicit underground nuclear facility near Qom and the second-generation centrifuges in Natanz, 3) remove all enriched material from Iranian territory, and 4) stop the construction of the heavy water reactor in Arak.If the international community hopes to stop Iran’s nuclear program before it’s too late, any deal with Iran must ensure that the above four steps are verifiably taken. Any lesser deal would allow Iran to continue developing nuclear weapons capabilities behind a smokescreen of promises, as the North Koreans have done. Will the West be charmed all the way to Armageddon?

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September 10, 2013

Lavrov Helps Obama to Dodge the Syrian Bullet

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Any diplomatic initiative on Syria coming from Russia, whose UN votes have perpetuated Assad’s killing machine for over two years, should be viewed with extreme suspicion. Nevertheless, the latest Russian proposal merits serious consideration.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s proposal, which exploited an offhand remark by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, calls for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal in exchange for a cancellation of the U.S. military action against Syria being debated by Congress. Russian national interests underlie this proposal: helping Russia’s last Mideast client state to survive, reinforcing the image of Russia as a Mideast power broker, and diminishing the perception that Russia supports chemical weapons use. But these interests intersect with US interests insofar as a diplomatic solution decreases the odds of an Islamist takeover of Syria (should U.S. strikes actually alter the balance of power between the Syrian regime and the opposition) while possibly removing the need for potentially risky and costly U.S. military action — without further undermining U.S. credibility.
The humanitarian justification for intervention — with over two million Syrian refugees and 110,000 dead — grows stronger by the day. The geo-strategic reasons for U.S. action are also manifest: Syria’s chemical weapons could be used unpredictably by the Assad regime, its terrorist ally Hezbollah, or Islamist rebels; rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran will view U.S. inaction as a green light to oppose U.S. interests where they see fit (particularly with respect to their nuclear plans); and the toppling of Assad’s regime — Iran’s closest ally — would weaken the Iranian regime while signaling that it is next unless diplomacy quickly resolves the Iranian nuclear standoff.
But opinion polls have consistently revealed that the U.S. public opposes involvement in the Syrian conflict. Had Obama shown more active and forceful leadership on the Syrian conflict back when the opposition was comprised mostly of secular rebels, it’s unlikely that the tragedy — and related U.S. policy options — would have deteriorated into what they are today. Had Obama not drawn a “red line” to show that the U.S. still cares about international norms (particularly when their enforcement makes the U.S. safer), the potential damage to U.S. credibility caused by inaction might not have been so great. Finally, had Obama strongly backed the Syrian rebels from the outset, Russia might not have opposed U.S. interests as aggressively, U.S. allies might have been more forthcoming with their support for any eventual military action, and Americans might not have reflected the ambivalence and confusion of their president when it comes to Syria.
Given these policy blunders and the unfortunate circumstances they produced, Obama’s best move now is to explore the Russian proposal for the remote chance that it can improve the Syrian situation at little cost. Success would mean that Russia effectively enabled Obama to dodge the Syrian bullet. Failure would force Obama to return to the three bad options available before the Russian proposal: 1) stay out of the conflict (despite the damage to U.S. credibility and the risk of an even bigger crisis requiring intervention later), 2) enter with the necessary strategy and commitment for victory, or, worst of all, 3) launch “symbolic strikes” that only boost Assad’s standing (for successfully withstanding the “mighty” U.S. before continuing with his murderous military campaign) and possibly draw the U.S. into a much greater conflict on terms dictated by Assad, Hezbollah, and/or Iran.
Exploring the Russian diplomatic initiative offers two key advantages: 1) it will provide even greater legitimacy to any eventual U.S. military strike, if the Syrian regime violates the terms of an agreement to destroy its chemical weapons, and 2) if properly executed, Syria’s voluntary disarmament could actually be far more effective than military strikes, given the challenge of completely destroying all relevant targets comprising Syria’s chemical arsenal and the attendant risks of military escalation and collateral damage. Moreover, if implementation of the Russian proposal actually eliminates Syria’s chemical weapons, U.S. deterrence will be somewhat restored, because the U.S. will have demonstrated that it can rattle its saber and rally the international community to produce meaningful changes on the ground.

But to ensure that Russia’s proposal isn’t just a stalling tactic to benefit Assad, there should be very specific requirements and deadlines, any willful violation of which authorizes military action. The Assad regime must disclose a complete and accurate list of chemical weapons sites and materials, and this list must be verified and modified as needed using the best military intelligence available to the U.S. and its allies. A timetable for the confirmed removal and destruction of all chemical weapons must involve just enough time for the disarmament to be done safely and should include detailed milestones that can be easily monitored.

The biggest challenge will be establishing an efficient and safe disarmament process that can be reasonably executed and verified in the middle of a civil war, while minimizing the opportunity for Syrian rebels to exploit the situation by trying to seize the chemical weapons and/or causing the Assad regime to violate its commitments under the disarmament schedule. Force might still be required to enforce any agreement with the ruthless and mendacious Assad regime, but the justification — and the domestic and international support — for military action will then be far greater.

The Russian proposal demonstrates what Obama himself acknowledged when discussing it: a credible military threat generates diplomatic openings that otherwise would not exist. Will Obama remember this truth when dealing with the far more serious threat of a nuclear Iran, looming just around the corner?

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9/11 Reflections: 2001, 2012, and 2013

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In the 16-month period following Osama Bin Laden’s assassination (on 5/1/2011), national confidence increased in a way that was almost reminiscent of the pre-9/11 days. The economy was gradually coming back from the Great Recession (much as the pre-9/11 economy was recovering from the “Dot-Com Crash”) and — more importantly — there was a sense that the worst national security fears of the U.S. were behind us.

The brave U.S. special forces who killed Bin Laden brought a much needed sense of justice and closure regarding the mastermind behind the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, and for many months President Obama was able to spin the symbolic victory into far more than what it was. But on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi claimed four American lives and shattered the false sense of security that had begun to creep back into the American psyche. Within a year of that attack, the Boston Marathon bombings killed three people and injured an estimated 264 people (last April), and the U.S. was forced to close over 20 embassies around the world because of terrorist threats (last month).

Making matters worse, the Obama administration misled the American public about 9/11/12 to preserve a presidential national security narrative that was critical to Obama’s reelection about two months later. As the Washington Times recently reported, “As President Obama ran to election victory last fall with claims that al Qaeda was ‘decimated’ and ‘on the run,’ his intelligence team was privately offering a different assessment that the terrorist movement was shifting resources and capabilities to emerging spinoff groups in Africa that posed fresh threats to American security.”
Obama’s renewed lease on power was promptly followed by a series of scandals that have yet to be fully understood or addressed: Benghazi-gate, Associated Press-gate, IRS-gate, and most recently NSA-gate. All of these have undermined the public’s trust that the U.S. government conducts itself fairly, transparently, and constitutionally.

Rather than address these issues honestly, Obama initially stonewalled and then dismissed everything with the label “phony scandals” — as if that could persuade anyone that nothing improper ever happened. As bad as each of the various scandals might have been in isolation, they are collectively far more ruinous because each one independently suggests the same thing: an administration that has breached the public trust, violated constitutional values, and abused its power – particularly when that power might have been checked by the will of the people at elections. And instead of reassuring the public, when each scandal broke, that his top priority was to investigate and address each issue, Obama looked like any other politician clinging to power however he can, volunteering nothing until compelled to do so.

And so the public was left to draw the inevitable conclusions: that the Obama administration was so determined to win reelection that it whitewashed the September 11 attacks in Benghazi, used the IRS to weaken political opponents, and penalized the Associated Press for issuing a May 7, 2012 report that undermined Obama’s we-beat-terrorism election campaign narrative.

Much is still unknown about the latest breach of trust with the American public — the National Security Agency’s domestic spying program. But the Guardian recently reported that the NSA worked with U.S. tech giants to defeat whatever privacy and encryption technologies Americans thought were in place to ensure that “their communications, online banking and medical records would be indecipherable to criminals or governments.” As if to grant the NSA’s greatest wish, Apple’s new iPhones feature a biometric fingerprint scan that replaces password-based security (and Apple competitors will undoubtedly start offering the same feature), so potentially hundreds of millions of people will soon be giving their fingerprints to the U.S. government.

Still not bothered? The New York Times just reported that the U.S. government also “uses border crossings to seize and examine travelers’ electronic devices instead of obtaining a search warrant to gain access to the data.”

The biggest loser from so much abuse of power and deception is the American electorate. Voters wanted to believe that Obama was somehow different: more grounded, more ethical, more committed to some lofty ideal that had eluded prior politicians. The audacity of disappointment involves cultivating a cult of personality with soaring oratory and then letting down all of those faithful voters with politics as usual.

And now, the alarming reality of post-9/11/13 is arguably more unsettling than that of post-9/11/1. Twelve years ago, the main concern was Al-Queda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now that threat has metastasized and — partly thanks to Obama’s feckless Mideast and Africa strategy — has proliferated to many more places, including Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, Iraq, the Egyptian Sinai, and Syria. More importantly, Obama’s policies have eroded U.S. deterrence and emboldened some of the world’s most dangerous regimes — which can cause far more harm than non-state actors can.

Twelve years after 9/11, the U.S. president has misled the public about its security, abused power in ways that are still not fully understood, and failed to provide strategic leadership in a world that gets more dangerous by the day. Iranian nukes are around the corner, Syria could explode in countless different ways, and Obama seems ill-prepared to handle any of this. But Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are watching opportunistically for the next U.S. misstep, and the consequences could extend well beyond Obama’s second term.

How many more 9/11 anniversaries are needed before Americans can once again trust their government and feel truly safe from security threats?