Archive for the ‘Iran’ Category

Obama’s Answer to Iran

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

That didn’t take long.

One day after Iran announced a nuclear deal with Turkey and Brazil — a transparent stalling effort designed to ward off international sanctions aimed at curtailing its nuclear program — the Obama administration has announced its own deal with the other major powers, including Russia and China, to go ahead with tough new sanctions.

It’s a draft plan. But, still, for those of use who care about Israel and Middle East stability, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement today is nothing short of huge.

As the negotiations on the draft resolution were in their final hours on Monday evening, a senior administration official said that one of the most critical sections of the proposed sanctions were modeled on a resolution passed last year against North Korea, after its second nuclear test. That resolution authorized all nations to search cargo ships heading into or out of the country for suspected weapons, nuclear technology or other cargo prohibited by previous United Nations resolutions …

Other elements of the sanctions resolution are aimed at Iranian financial institutions, including those that support the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The corps is responsible for overseeing the military aspects of the Iranian nuclear program. But it has also played a central role in suppressing protests against the government, and the Obama administration is betting that the organization is now despised by a large enough portion of the Iranian public that the sanctions may be welcomed by part of Iranian society. That is a big bet, however, because the corps also runs large elements of the country’s infrastructure, including its airports.

The deal, struck with the veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council (France, Russia, China, and the U.K.) plus Germany, is the Obama administration’s answer to Iran’s not-so-subtle high stakes gamesmanship.

Mrs. Clinton said the new offer [with Turkey and Brazil] would still leave Iran “in clear violation of its international obligations” because it “is continually amassing newly enriched uranium.” She also criticized what she called the “amorphous timeline for the removal” of the low enriched uranium. Reading the terms, she said, “that could take months of further negotiation and that is just not acceptable to us and to our partners.”

To those critics who say that sanctions will not hurt or deter Iran, I would ask: Why, then, is Iran going to such great lengths to undermine them?

As the Times reports:

Iran has been working mightily to ward off new sanctions, sending its foreign minister to the capitals of countries sitting on the Security Council to make the case that the sanctions amount to an American conspiracy to deprive Iran of its right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Maybe you saw this photo of a Ahmadinejad in today’s Times, raising the V for victory sign after inking the deal with Brazil and Turkey. If Obama and Clinton succeed in getting these sanctions through the United Nations, it will be the end of Ahmadinejad’s smirking.

Why I Mistrust Criticism of Obama on Israel

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

A good friend of mine in Israel sent me an article this morning from Y-Net, Israel’s largest and most popular news site. Headline: “U.S. ‘disappointed’ with Israel, Palestinians.”

My first thought: Oy. This is not the way to improve relations with the Jewish state, and earn back the trust of the Jewish community.

The subdeck went from bad to worse: “National Security Advisor James Jones says peace could prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but adds ‘it must be made by the parties and cannot be imposed from the outside.’ ”

Double oy, I thought. Peace preventing Iran from getting the bomb? It sounds foolishly naive: Obama, exactly as he is portrayed by his fiercest critics.

I read the article, an account of Jones’ remarks yesterday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Curiously, nowhere in the article was Jones quoted expressing disappointment with Israel. And nowhere was he quoted saying anything close to to what the subdeck asserted, vis-a-vis Iran and nuclear weapons.

So I went to the transcript. Jones doesn’t say he’s disappointed with Israel. (He does say: “we are disappointed that the parties have not begun direct negotiations.” But presumably, so is Bibi Netanyahu, who has repeatedly stated his desire to open direct negotiations toward peace.) And Jones doesn’t say peace between Israel and the Palestinians will prevent Iran from getting nukes. (He does say: “Advancing this peace would also help prevent Iran from cynically shifting attention away from its failures to meet its obligations.” This isn’t warm and fuzzy hope; it’s shrewd Realpolitik that, whether you agree with it or not, highlights Iran’s corrupt core.)

For those who haven’t read it, you should; Jones’ talk is a virtual love note to Israel. You can read it here.

Jones was absolutely steadfast on the need to stop Iran from getting a bomb, asserting that if Iran continues on its current path, it “will face ever deepening isolation.”

Iran’s government must face real consequences for its continued defiance of the international community.  We hope that Iran will make the right choice and acts to restore the confidence of the international community in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program. However, should Iran’s leaders fail to make that choice, President Obama has been very clear, and I want to repeat it here: the United States is determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. 

He goes on to say there has been “a lot of distortion and misrepresentation” of U.S. policy regarding Israel. Though the two have had differences, he said, “we will always resolve them as allies.” Not once, but twice he referred to the absolute imperative for Israel to be a “secure, Jewish state.” Note the emphasis: Jewish.

As President Obama declared in Cairo, “America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known.  This bond is unbreakable.”  They are the bonds of history—two nations that earned our independence through the sacrifice of patriots.  They are the bonds of two people, bound together by shared values of freedom and individual opportunity.  They are the bonds of two democracies, where power resides in the people.  They are the bonds of pioneers in science, technology and so many fields where we cooperate every day.  They are the bonds of friendship, including the ties of so many families and friends.

 This week marked the 62nd anniversary of Israeli independence—a nation and a people who have survived in the face of overwhelming odds.  But even now, six decades since its founding, Israel continues to reside in a hostile neighborhood with adversaries who cling to the false hope that denying Israel’s legitimacy will ultimately make it disappear.  But those adversaries are wrong. 

 He goes on to criticize the Palestinians for refusing to recognize Israel’s legitimacy. “America’s commitment to Israel will endure,” the National Security Advisor said:

And everyone must know that there is no space—no space—between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security.  Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakable.  It is as strong as ever.  This President and this Administration understands very well the environment—regionally and internationally—in which Israel and the United States must operate.  We understand very well that for peace and stability in the Middle East, Israel must be secure. 

 The United States will never waiver in defense of Israel’s security. 

The United States will never waiver in defense of Israel’s security.

That’s why, he explained, the U.S. spends billions of dollars annually in security assistance to Israel; consults with Israel to ensure its “qualitative military edge”; and undertakes joint military exercises, including one that involved more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers.

I can also say from long experience that our security relationship with Israel is important for America. Our military benefits from Israeli innovations in technology, from shared intelligence, from exercises that help our readiness and joint training that enhances our capabilities and from lessons learned in Israel’s own battles against terrorism and asymmetric threats. 

Over the years, and like so many Americans—like so many of you here tonight—I’ve spent a great deal of time with my Israeli partners, including my friends in the IDF.  These partnerships are deep and abiding.  They are personal relationships and friendships based on mutual trust and respect.  Every day, across the whole range of our bilateral relationship, we are working together for our shared security and prosperity.  And our partnership will only be strengthened in the months and years to come.

And yet Y-Net, the most popular news site in Israel, chooses to run with: “U.S. ‘disappointed’ with Israel, Palestinians”?

What bothers me most about this, is not only that it’s inaccurate, but destructive. And whether this particular headline was intentional or not, it fits a false narrative — purveyed by too many in the Jewish community – that goes back to before the election: Obama is a Muslim; he has anti-Israel advisors; he removed “Next year in Jerusalem” from the White House Passover seder; his State Department is denying visas to Israeli nuclear scientists; he snubbed Bibi Netanyahu; he “hates” Netanyahu; he hates Israel.

False. False. False. False. False. False. And false.

It’s dishonest. And it’s a big reason that, while I have specific concerns about how Obama’s handled Israel and the peace process, some of which I’ve blogged about, at the end of the day, my money’s on him.

An ‘Unbreakable Bond of Friendship’

Monday, April 19th, 2010

A good friend of mine in Israel sent me a powerful column this morning by Haaretz political columnist Ari Shavit, “An Open Letter to Netanyahu: Act Before It’s too Late.”

It’s a moving, personal missive. In it, Shavit argues that on the eve of Israel’s 62 Independence Day, the state faces an existential crisis like none other in its history.

Mr. Prime Minister, here are the basic facts: The grace period granted the Jewish state by Auschwitz and Treblinka is ending. The generation that knew the Holocaust has left the stage. The generation that remembers the Holocaust is disappearing. What shapes the world’s perception of Israel today is not the crematoria, but the checkpoints. Not the trains, but the settlements. As a result, even when we are right, they do not listen to us. Even when we are persecuted, they pay us no heed. The wind is blowing against us.

The zeitgeist of the 21st century threatens to put an end to Zionism. No one knows better than you that even superpowers cannot resist the spirit of the times. And certainly not small, fragile states like Israel.

Shavit argues that Israel has been abandoned by its allies, including the United States, and stands at the precipice of war with Iran, besieged. ”The sense that once again, we must meet our fate alone.”

You are a hated individual, Mr. Prime Minister. The president of the United States hates you. The secretary of state hates you. Some Arab leaders hate you. Public opinion in the West hates you. The leader of the opposition hates you. My colleagues hate you, my friends hate you, my social milieu hates you.

The possibilities — what to do going forward — are known, Shavit writes:

Offer the Syrians the Golan Heights in exchange for ending its alliance with Iran. Offer Abbas a state in provisional borders. Initiate a second limited disengagement. Transfer territory into the hands of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, to enable him to build a sane Palestinian state. Reach an agreement with the international community on an outline for partitioning the land into two nation-states.

Ultimately, he urges the prime minister — who he clearly respects tremendously — to change his approach:

Israel needs a courageous alliance with the Western powers. In order withstand what is to come, Israel must once again become an inalienable part of the West. And the West is not prepared to accept Israel as an occupying state. Therefore, in order to save our home, is necessary to act at once to end the occupation. It is essential to effect an immediate and sharp change in diplomatic direction.

It’s a powerful argument, coming from one of Israel’s leading thinkers: End the occupation to save the Jewish state — not because of demographics; not because it will end terrorism; not because it is risk-free — but so that Israel can face down Iran fully supported by the West.

Obama could help Netanyahu choose this path by visiting Israel himself, and by making more public statements like the one he released today, on the occasion of Israel’s 62nd Independence Day:

Minutes after David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence, realizing the dream of a state for the Jewish people in their historic homeland, the United States became the first country to recognize Israel. To this day, we continue to share a strong, unbreakable bond of friendship between our two nations, anchored by the United States’ enduring commitment to Israel’s security.  Israel remains our important partner and key strategic ally in the Middle East, and I am confident that our special relationship will only be strengthened in the months and years to come. 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments over the weekend, praising Netanyahu, strongly urging Palestinian President Abbas to join talks with Israel, and calling on the Palestinian Authority to “redouble its efforts to put an end to incitement and violence, crack down on corruption, and ingrain a culture of peace and tolerance among Palestinians,” were also welcome.

More is needed.

I know, because I correspond with my friend in Israel nearly every day, that there is a true siege mentality in Israel right now. Iran has said repeatedly it wants to wipe Israel off the map, and it is actively seeking the nuclear weapons to do so. Sitting here in relative safety thousands of miles away, it’s easier for this threat to be intellectualized; our children are not threatened by a lunatic Iranian regime. In Israel, there’s not much room for nuance; the last time we heard talk like Ahmadinejad’s, 6 million Jews were annihilated.

Shavit is wrong about one thing, though. Obama and Clinton don’t hate Netanyahu.

It’s incumbent on the U.S. president and secretary of state to make him believe it.

Iran Will Not Aquire ‘Nuclear Capability’

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

Last July, I blogged about a Ha’aretz article: “Obama: World Won’t Allow Iran to Develop Nukes.” 

At the time, Obama was trying to engage Iran — the right move – to see if it could be persuaded to give up its weapons, in response to carrots from the international community. Obama gave Iran a deadline — the end of 2009 — to meet its nuclear nonproliferation responsibilities. When that deadline passed, it became clear Iran was not serious. (Iran first lauded, and then scorned, a U.S. plan to exchange most of its low-enriched uranium fuel for a medical reactor in Tehran.) So Obama has moved on to Plan B. He’s working diplomatically to entice China and Russia to join an international sanctions regime against the rogue Republic.

While there have been encouraging signs from both Russia and China, the jury is still out on whether those countries will join the effort. Without them, sanctions are not likely to have a serious impact.

Which is why it was extremely heartening to read in the Times this morning a senior administration official has said, as the newspaper puts it, “there was a clear line Iran would not be permitted to cross.”

The official said that the United States would ensure that Iran would not “acquire a nuclear capability,” a step Tehran could get to well before it developed a sophisticated weapon. “That includes the ability to have a breakout,” he said, using the term nuclear specialists apply to a country that suddenly renounces the nonproliferation treaty and uses its technology to build a small arsenal.

In other words, this official — on the front page of the Times — is going even beyond what Obama said last July.  Not only will the U.S. stop Iran from acquiring a bomb. It will not let Iran get to the point where it has all the parts it needs (fuel, designs, and detonators) — i.e., becoming a “virtual” nuclear state. 

This is the right line to drawn. The only question left is how best to draw it.

Is Jon Kyl Paying Attention?

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Jon Kyl, a Republican Senator from Arizona, had this to say about President Obama’s nuclear summit:

“The summit’s purported accomplishment is a nonbinding communiqué that largely restates current policy, and makes no meaningful progress in dealing with nuclear terrorism threats or the ticking clock represented by Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”

Consequently, he has vowed to oppose nuclear treaties that Obama is working so hard to sign.

Sometimes I wonder where Republicans get the chutzpah.

Did Kyl miss the part where China agreed, for the first time this week, to discuss a serious sanctions regime against Iran?

Did Kyl not notice that Canada, Mexico, and Ukraine promised to eliminate or give up their surplus weapons-grade materials?

No meaninfgul progress? Really?

Did Kyl miss this, from the Times:

At the end of two days of meetings, Mr. Obama could claim two major accomplishments: The summit meeting forced countries that had failed to clean up their nuclear surpluses to formulate detailed plans to deal with them, and it kicked into action nations that had failed to move on previous commitments.

These are steps. Yes, meaningful steps.

Obama is showing true leadership on this issue, because, as he says, one of the gravest threats to our security is a nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist. Would Kyl disagree that this is a threat? If not, why would he throw such prominent darts at the first serious diplomatic effort in a decade to address it?

Wouldn’t it be better — and in our national security interest — for lawmakers (even Republicans!) to forcefully articulate whether they agree with Obama’s assessment of the threat, and at least fairly note the steps taken this week to make the world safer? Couldn’t you do this — and still offer constructive criticism, instead of a broadside? Wouldn’t such a broadside ultimately undermine any positive steps, weaken the overall effort, and thus make America less safe?

Ask Jon Kyl.

Welcome to the Table, China

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Whether President Obama’s first term is ultimately viewed as a success, I believe, will depend on two things:

  • How well has the economy rebounded — and what is the employment situation like? And …
  • Has Iran been thwarted — or quantifiably set back — in its effort to build a nuclear bomb?

Which is why it’s a very welcome development that China has finally agreed to join negotiations over a new package of sanctions against Iran.

As the NY Times reports, the Chinese import nearly 12 percent of their oil from Iran, and are reluctant to join a sanctions regime, because Iranian retaliation would cost them dearly.

The key appears to be that the Obama administration is actively working to ensure that, should China agree to sanctions, it will have access to other oil. Here’s the nut:

“Until two weeks ago, the Chinese would not discuss a sanctions resolution at all,” [an administration] official said. But the Obama administration, in hopes of winning over Beijing, has sought support from other oil producers to reassure China of its oil supply. Last year, it dispatched a senior White House adviser on Iran, Dennis B. Ross, to Saudi Arabia to seek a guarantee that it would help supply China’s needs, in the event of an Iranian cutoff.

“We’ll look for ways to make sure that if there are sanctions, they won’t be negatively affected,” said the senior official.

According to the Times, Obama wants serious sanctions in place against Iran by this spring.  As Iran well knows, any sanctions against it would by pyrrhic without Russia and China joining in. China’s decision to pull up a chair at the table does not of course mean it will ultimately stand with America behind a package of sanctions. But in what will continue to be a difficult diplomatic tango for Obama, today’s news is a welcome step.

Oh, Jerusalem

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

President Obama is taking a bit of a beating these days for allegedly taking a hard line on Israel. See, for example, this opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, which takes Obama to task for demanding “that Israel freeze construction in East Jerusalem.”

Never mind that, according to all I’ve read, Obama himself has done no such thing.  Rather, according to the NY Times, a State Department official “raised concerns” over the East Jerusalem project with Israel’s new ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren.

The American officials suggested that going ahead with the development now would cause problems in negotiations toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The hawks — and even some of Obama’s supporters in the Jewish community – have reacted to this by intimating that Obama has crossed another red line. It’s as if the president has personally challenged Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem, and taken a pot-shot at the Jewish world.

“If Jews were prohibited from buying property in New York, London, Paris or Rome, there would be an international outcry,” writes Mackubin Thomas Owens in the Journal.  ”Why, [Israeli Prime Minister Bibi] Netanyahu wondered, should the standard be different for Jerusalem?”

Last I checked — unlike East Jerusalem — New York, London, Paris, and Rome were not home to 300,000 Palestinians, and were not candidates to be the capital of a future Palestinian state, but I digress.

Put me in Jeffrey Goldberg’s camp. In one of his most recent blogs, ”In Defense of J Street,” The Atlantic reporter, whose dispatches from the Middle East are very even-handed, puts a “kosher stamp of approval on Obama’s approach to Israel.”

I’m not naïve about Arab intentions – or should I say, I’m no longer naïve about Arab intentions. I don’t automatically believe that the creation of a Palestinian state will lead to an end of claims, or an end to the conflict. But I know that Israel’s continued entanglement with the Palestinians, an entanglement deepened and exacerbated by its addiction to settlements, will eventually lead to the demise of the Jewish state. So I’m glad that “Obama’s Jews” support his demand for Israeli self-reflection (are we so wonderful that we couldn’t use a little self-examination now and again?), and I’m surprised that people are surprised by Obama’s modest demand. He said in his campaign that he would hold up a mirror to Israel, and he is. He’s also holding up a mirror to the Arab side, and that’s all for the good as well. Time is running out – if Israel doesn’t achieve permanent, internationally-recognized borders and diplomatic relations with the bulk of Muslim-majority countries soon, the campaign to delegitimize the very idea of Israel will become even more ferocious than it’s been.

To his point about the Arab side, as the Forward is reporting: “Freezing the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank was once seen as a unilateral Israeli obligation. But the Obama administration is now treating this as part of a package that will require concessions from Arab states, as well.”

“The Americans now understand that if they get anything from us on the settlement issue, it will only be in the broader context of some kind of Arab return,” said an Israeli diplomat, one of many similar comments from Israeli officials recently.  …

America’s request for signs of normalization with Israel is focusing now on symbolic steps. According to Arab and American diplomatic sources, Washington is now asking for the reopening of commercial interest offices of Oman, Qatar and Morocco in Israel and for permission for Israeli commercial airliners to fly over Gulf states, shortening by several hours flight routes from Israel to East Asia.

I’d like to also note that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today warned Iran that its pursuit of nuclear weapons is “futile,” adding: “we’re not going to let that happen.” This, just days after she raised the possibility of an American-created “defense umbrella” over the Middle East “to counter Iran’s efforts to build its power in the region by trying to develop weapons capacity.”

I admit, these facts are particularly inconvenient for the “Obama takes a hard line on Israel” crowd. Do not expect the Wall Street Journal to opine about them any time soon.