Obama’s talk at the Saban Forum this past Saturday may have been the most impressive moment of his presidency. The topic, of course, was the Iran negotiation, and secondarily the Israeli-Palestinian talks. The Saban Forum is the zenith of the liberal wing of the Israel lobby; billionaire Haim Saban has purchased a large segment of a venerable American think tank to amplify his pro-Israel views, while serving as one of the main funders of the Democratic Party. Many Democrats, most notably the Clintons, take the money and support and bend the way the money intends. Obama is trying to keep the support without bending too much, and to watch him in action engaged in this most difficult of balancing acts is a window into an American politician working at the highest level.
To dispense first with the obvious, the President took questions for about fifty minutes, speaking without notes, before a well informed and highly skeptical audience, on a subject of tremendous gravity. He was nuanced and diplomatic, charming when he needed to be, subtle, precise. He knew just how to gently deflect a question towards grounds which allowed him to make a point he wanted to make. His mastery over the issue and how best to argue it was as complete as I’ve seen in a politician.
I think we all knew Obama was pretty smart, but this is a level of the communication altogether beyond the reach of the average Ivy League graduate or American politician. The fuddlement of the health care rollout and the drumbeat of Republican propaganda, even if one understands the source, has created an undertow of cynicism about Obama’s leadership abilities: that Obama is not that competent a President. There is a temptation to concede that while he is good at making speeches, he can’t administrate, lacks a vision of how to get things done. One need not buy into the ubiquitous Drudge snark that Obama is lost without a teleprompter to feel that his presidency has not been what his supporters (even his conservative ones) had hoped.
But here Obama was, on what I considered the most critical issue of his presidency, hitting it out of the park. Worth noting is the whole passive aggressive interplay between Obama and Haim Saban, the male banter about the wife being the person really in charge, and the pointed questions, from Saban and various Israeli journalists, designed to trip Obama up. He doesn’t make the case that I yearn for an American president to one day make, questioning whether American Mideast policy ought to be tied exclusively to the desires an aggressive and largely despised ethnocracy. But in that sense he is a political realist, a quality highly desirable in a president.
Instead with a politician masterfully exploring the realm of the possible, seeking to “test the possibility we can resolve this issue diplomatically,” connecting his Iran diplomacy to the concerns expressed in Prime Minister Netanhayu’s UN presentation, quietly reminding his hawkish audience (and the AIPAC-influenced Congress) that “if we did not show good faith in trying to resolve this issue diplomatically, the sanctions regime would begin to fray, and above all that “this is hard”—Iran having already mastered the nuclear fuel cycle. He was, by turns, charming, diplomatic, and frank, and it was—perhaps more than anything I’ve seen since the administrations of Reagan and George H.W. Bush, a moment to be proud of one’s president. Hanging in the balance is whether Obama will succeed in tempering the hostility of this audience to Iran diplomacy, which will help stay AIPAC’s efforts to blow it up by legislating new sanctions. At this writing that seems to me a 50/50 proposition. But to have achieved even those odds makes me pleased with my vote last November.
In a significant if veiled rebuff to the Netanyahu-Mark Kirk maintain-the-hate line, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz yesterday came out in favor of Obama and the rest of the P5+1′s negotiations with Iran. The two former secretaries of state opened their Wall Street Journal op-ed with piles of hawkish rhetoric, including the moving the goalposts assertion that the United States is “unalterably opposed to an Iranian military nuclear capability”. (The stated American position is that the United States will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.) Their tone is often somewhat overheated, with intimations that Iran threatens to lead an “Islamist” coalition devoted to an “anti-Western concept of world order.”
That said, it is more significant that Kissinger and Shultz did not denounce last month’s interim agreement at Geneva as a “bad deal,” nor did they condemn Obama’s secret diplomacy which preceded and prepared it, nor did they abhor the very idea of negotiation with the “mad mullahs.” They concluded their piece with the sensible admonition:
The next six months of diplomacy will be decisive in determining whether the Geneva agreement opens the door to a potential diplomatic breakthrough or to ratifying a major strategic setback. We should be open to the possibility of pursing an agenda of long-term cooperation. But not without Iran dismantling or mothballing a strategically significant portion of its nuclear infrastructure.
The course of negotiations will determine whether Iran and the P5+1 can agree on what kind of dismantling Iran needs to do. But I thought it significant that Kissinger and Shultz entertained the possibility of “long term cooperation” with Iran—a concept altogether alien to the John McCain, Mark Kirk, Lindsay Graham universe. Essentially their message is “negotiate a good deal,” which I’m pretty sure Kerry and his aides are trying to do. They precede that advice with the vague but evocative “Some adjustments are inherent in the inevitable process of historic evolution.” One can read this in various ways, and perhaps it’s merely a profound sounding throwaway line. But I don’t think so, and (as someone who has long respected, if not always agreed with, Kissinger) I’d read it as a rather subtle way of saying, “Look Iran is a strategically significant country with a large, educated and fairly pro-American middle class, and it makes no sense to treat it as a permanent enemy just because various so-called “traditional” allies may want you to.”
John Hannah here argues that Saudi fear and loathing of Iran destroys the case for negotiating with Tehran. He proposes that we walk the Saudis “back from the ledge” by promising to bomb Iran if Tehran doesn’t surrender virtually entirely its nuclear enrichment program. Inadvertently, he provides a textbook example of a superpower being led around by its “allies”—if we don’t do what they want, they will destabilize the region, find other partners, acquire their own nuclear weapons, etc.
Perhaps here one should recall a salient part of Hannah’s biography: he is one of several low profile but highly placed Bush and Cheney aides who worked to set the stage for the Iraq invasion. Hannah was instrumental in channeling (“stovepiping” is the term of art) false information from an anti-Saddam Iraqi exile group into the White House, circumventing regular US intelligence vetting. He wrote the original draft of Colin Powell’s famous pre-invasion U.N. speech, in which Powell made a false but tragically effective presentation about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. So we aren’t speaking here of a random neocon bloviating about Neville Chamberlin; Hannah is a man with an actual track record in making wars happen, one who understands that facts, or “false facts,” can acquire a life of their own within a complex government bureaucracy if you know how to insert them and get them repeated in the right places. It is a process somewhat analogous to money laundering, a sort of information laundering: if you get a lie reported as fact in New York Times, you can then uses it as source, and perhaps get Colin Powell to repeat it before a global audience. And the lie (Saddam’s nuclear weapons program) assumes a life of its own.
You might think that a record like this would be detrimental to one’s career. Not really. In Washington, a neoconservative hawk never has to say he’s sorry. After his “government service” as a Cheney aide, Hannah was snapped up by the Sheldon Adelson-financed Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, where he now works to set the stage for a war with Iran. (It should be pointed out that the Saudis vociferously opposed the Iraq invasion. What did Hannah think about Saudi concerns back then?)
The Beltway worry used to be that Iran would get a nuclear bomb, which would would set off a “cascade of proliferation” throughout the Middle East. But any successful diplomacy with Iran will ensure that Iran not have a nuclear bomb, but a scaled down and tightly monitored uranium enrichment program. Nevertheless, Hannah deploys the same overheated language, as if it makes no difference whether five Security Council members (plus Germany) had just reached agreement to allow Iran a bomb program, or, as is actually the case, not. Hannah rails against Iran’s “march to the bomb”; he refers to John Kerry’s “stab in the back” diplomacy (a trope oft-used in early Nazi propaganda against the Weimar government; one wonders if Hannah is aware of that).
In all candor, we don’t know what the Saudi reaction to an eventual American rapprochement with Iran might be. Serious people who study the matter doubt that even if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon the Saudis would try to do the same. It’s not clear how they would acquire one, even if they wanted to. It’s not as if Saudi Arabia produces a lot of nuclear physicists.
Reduced to its essence, Hannah’s argument is that American diplomacy should be tied, apparently forever, to the fears and ambitions of a reactionary medieval monarchy. But why on earth should it? Hannah invites us to share Saudi remorse that the United States didn’t “strike” Syria, as the Saudis hoped, in order to overthrow Syria’s tyrant and replace him with some Saudi-favored jihadists. Why is that an American interest? When one reads counsel like this, from someone who was once, and may be again, highly placed in Republican foreign policy circles, one can only note how far America has strayed from George Washington’s admonition about “entangling alliances. ”
The Foreign Policy comments following Hannah’s article are caustic and often illuminating. There is clearly an informed public that won’t get fooled again. One wishes one could say the same for elected Republicans.
Philip Weiss calls out WNYC host Brian Lehrer and others for emphasizing the non-Israeli opposition to the interim Geneva Iran deal:
One of the irritations of coverage of the Iranian deal is the extent to which the American media say reflexively that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States along with Israel oppose the deal. Yesterday on WNYC, for instance, Brian Lehrer urged listeners “not to pigeonhole Israel as the only major opponent of this. It’s also Saudi Arabia, it’s also Turkey… the other Gulf states like Qatar… don’t want Iran strengthened as they see it or even legitimized.”
This is important, because it’s becoming a standard argument against negotiating with Iran, echoed by the neoconservatives and hawks in Congress. We are, so the claim goes, ignoring or “abandoning” our “traditional” allies. The thing is, it’s simply not true. Saudi Arabia has already voiced support for the deal. I’m sure they don’t much like it, and the Sunni-Shia intra-Islamic rivalry weighs heavily on them. But they simply aren’t going for Netanyahu-style petulance. And not just Saudi Arabia. Juan Cole here outlines the extent of the Middle Eastern support of the p5+1 Iran negotiation, recording positive or favorable reactions from the governments or Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Lebanon, and Algeria. Of course Oman hosted secret talks between American diplomats and Tehran’s.
I don’t doubt the diplomacy is making the Saudis uncomfortable, and visitors to the kingdom have long remarked on visceral anti-Iran sentiment there. But they aren’t going to play a spoilers role. One diplomat who knows the country well described the Saudis as “realists” who will “adapt to what happens.” There is widespread Arab suspicion about Iranian intentions in the Gulf, and no desire to fall under Iran’s hegemony. But that’s an American strategic goal too, as can be made clear with words and deeds.
Moreover, for all the Arabs, there is a silver lining in the cloud of possible detente between Iran and the West: the possibility of renewed attention to the other nuclear proliferator in their region, the one which actually has introduced weapons to the region. On Monday, the Saudi Embassy tweeted out
#Saudi welcomes P5+1 nuclear agrmt w/Iran as primary step towards comprehensive solution to Iranian nuclear program & a ME free of all WMD
— Saudi Embassy (@SaudiEmbassyUSA) November 25, 2013
I doubt we can expect Saudi Arabia to take the lead in non-proliferation diplomacy, but I wouldn’t count on them plotting with Israel to carry out anti-Iran military strikes either. The Mideast “free of all WMD” is a rhetorical dagger aimed at Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Bit by bit that critical taboo subject is emerging from the shadows of journalistic neglect.
Like many—thousands? millions?—around the globe, I was glued to Laura Rozen’s twitter feed from Geneva on Saturday, fingers crossed for an Iran deal. Then we went out to dinner and a long movie, and when I returned it was done. As expected, it was a minimalist deal, in which neither Iran not the U.S. coalition conceded much in the nitty gritty of sanctions relief or nuclear scale-down. The deal does nonetheless promise to drain all the enriched uranium from the cartoon bomb Netanyahu waved in front of the UN last year, which raises the question of what further concessions Iran has available to make. (It’s not going to dismantle its nuclear program entirely.) And though the sanctions relief was minimal, in symbolic terms Tehran’s gains should not be underestimated. As one Iranian analyst pointed, though anti-Americanism has been a central ideological pillar of Iran’s government, signing an agreement with the United States has curiously legitimized it. The government has demonstrated it can negotiate with America without being humiliated—and if you know something of Iran’s history with the U.S., you can see how this would matter a great deal.
While Israel is not any kind of real loser in this negotiation—the Israeli stock market reached new highs on Sunday, as Israeli and global investors voted with their dollars—the more avowedly anti-regime Iranian groups certainly are. Does anyone now care about how the “formerly” designated terrorist MEK feels about the deal, a group catered to by American politicians across the spectrum? Or the Shah’s kid, Reza Pahlavi? My sense from Iranians I know is that these people are completely marginalized. The joy felt in Tehran is shared by Iranians the world over.
As the outlines of the deal were largely known before, the biggest news is that the Obama administration was conducting back-channel negotiations with Tehran through Nicholas Burns and Biden aide Jake Sullivan. Could such negotiations have been possible had Dennis Ross still held the Iran portfolio in the Obama administration? I doubt it. If Hillary had been secretary of state? Read More…
At this writing, it is Friday night in Geneva, and there are press rumors that Iran and the P5+1 have overcome most but not all of the remaining major sticking points in negotiating a preliminary deal. According to latest reports, Secretary of State Kerry may be Geneva bound, which he wouldn’t be if the negotiations weren’t on the cusp. So let’s assume a preliminary deal is achieved: Iran will get some very minimal sanctions relief in return for essentially freezing its nuclear program for several months while a more substantive deal is negotiated. Presumably the parties will have found a way to split the difference, in some diplomatically ambiguous way, on Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium. In any case, any deal will acknowledge that Iran has the capacity to enrich uranium to non-weapons levels and will continue to do so, albeit under strict supervision and inspection. I believe such a deal would be in the interest of the United States and all oil consumers, because otherwise Iran is on track to develop a bomb fairly quickly if it wants, and no one really thinks that a war to stop that would solve the problem in any constructive way. It is in Israel’s interest too, an opinion Israeli military intelligence services have been leaking (contradicting the alarmist rhetoric of the Netanyahu government.)
Of course there is some question whether the newly elected Rouhani goverment will be allowed, by Iran’s hard liners, to cut such a deal which clearly puts Iran under oath to not develop nuclear weapons and subjects its facilities to all kinds of inspections. But there are no Iran experts to my knowledge who think that the new government doesn’t have the authority to really negotiate. A greater question is whether Congress will allow the Obama administration to negotiate such a deal. And that is where things get interesting.
On the eve of the latest round of Geneva talks, Americans told pollsters by a striking 2-1 margin they favored a negotiated settlement with Iran over war. This was in the face of a startling anti-diplomacy fear campaign waged by Israel’s Likud leaders in the U.S. and a renewed Israel lobby campaign for more sanctions. One wonders if there is soul-searching in Likud or AIPAC offices about why their messaging is falling flat.
Certainly Israel’s reaction could be fairly called “wigging out.” But Netanyahu seemed almost measured next to some neoconservative intellectuals. Take this piece, published by Weekly Standard editor Lee Smith in Tablet. Smith essentially accuses Obama of biding his time during his first term in order to challenge “American Jewish power” in his second. He interprets the Obama administration’s stated desire to pivot away from the Mideast as fancy language to dump Israel. Still he puts up a brave front. Rest assured, right-wing Zionists, Israel doesn’t need America. It can ally with Russia, or China or someone else:
Israel will be fine on its own—even if some of the decisions it might make, like absorbing the West Bank, or refusing to recognize the legitimacy of American Jewish marriages, or cozying up to dictators like Vladimir Putin—will leave American Jews feeling alienated and bereft. Read More…
Former national security advisors Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski weigh in on a prospective Iran deal with the letter below, sent to Senator Durbin and key members of Congress. Republicans now have before them a pretty clear-cut choice, between the views of the man who helped guide George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy and those who counseled his son. Bush 41′s term was, of course, a mixed bag, but included overseeing the fall of the Berlin Wall, the break-up of the Soviet Union, the reintegration of East Germany into Europe, and a war kicking Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, paid for by a broad international coalition. The record of his son in office is, to put it gently, less impressive. But W’s key foreign policy advisors are, for some mysterious reason, still extremely prominent in the Republican Party foreign policy circles. While a few (David Frum?) have tip-toed around expressions of remorse over the Iraq war, most have not. To the contrary, they are trying hard to destroy negotiations with Iran, with war once again their preferred option.
It would be nice to see just one Republican senator take note of Scowcroft’s sterling record, his wisdom about Iran here, and the fact that he was prescient about the sheer stupidity of attacking Iraq in 2002.
Below is the Zbig-Scowcroft letter: Read More…
One remarkable aspect of the Iran debate now taking place in Washington is its lack of balance. From Israel and the various Iran hawks, no argument, no matter how over the top, can be in bad taste. For them it is permissible, nearly mandatory, to liken the graying revolutionary regime of Iran (a state which, for all its undeniable faults, has suffered invasion at the hands of Saddam Hussein, was an extremely valuable ally of the U.S. in Afghanistan after 9-11, was the only Muslim country in the Mideast in which there was open mourning for the World Trade Center attack, and has never invaded anybody in anyone’s memory) to that of Adolph Hitler. Mark Kirk, the main Senate spokesmen for the hawks, denied there could be any such thing as a sincere Iranian moderate. When administration aides went to Capitol Hill to explain the kind of interim deal which was in sight—basically a freezing Iran’s nuclear program in return for giving Iran access to a small percentage of its own money, now tied up in foreign banks—they were met with countless senators and Congressmen who would claim that Israel had given them more accurate information. John Kerry was reduced to saying that Israel, not party to the negotiations, just maybe knew less of the details than the American diplomats who were there. Kerry had a plaintive tone and felt compelled to add that he talked to “Bibi” a great deal too.
In the realm of published opinion, in the press and the specialized foreign-affairs journals, you can find many defenders of the current negotiation, which almost certainly has the support of the vast majority of foreign-affairs specialists. But one strained to hear an open public defense of an Iran deal from a single congressman or senator. When White House spokesman Jay Carney mentioned that the alternative to diplomacy with Iran was probably war, it seemed almost shocking—for once someone had used strong language in favor of negotiating. But on Capitol Hill the battle of words was lopsided. Against Kirk and company, supporters of the adminstration’s diplomacy praised Israel and maneuvered behind the scenes to ensure that the Senate’s calendar and arcane rules delayed an escalation of sanctions vote before Kerry’s team could try another round of negotiating. But they did nothing to rally public opinion. Read More…
John Kerry’s visit to the Senate Banking Committee in an effort to stave off a further round of sanctions while U.S.-Iran negotiations are proceeding in fits and starts produced revealing comments from Mark Kirk, currently the Senate’s leading Netanyahuite.
Kirk first challenged the professionalism of State Department number three Wendy Sherman, followed with his now standard references to Munich and Chamberlin, and then, in a bold bid to produce a memorable soundbite, said “How do you define an Iran moderate? An Iranian who is out of bullets and out of money.”
What does this mean exactly? That Kirk believes all Iranians are—by their genes—bloody minded killers if given the chance? That only if they are starved and beaten down is it possible to deal with them? Or does it not apply to ordinary Iranians, but only their politicians? Kirk perhaps had in mind Mir Hussein Moussavi, the leader of the Green movement, and possibly the presidential leading vote-getter in 2009, now under house arrest. Perhaps he was a moderate only because he was out of bullets. (Like pretty much all Iranian politicians, Moussavi supports maintaining Iran’s ability to enrich uranium. I doubt you will find any Iranians who back Netanyahu’s view that only Israel, of all the nations in the Mideast, should be permitted full access to the nuclear fuel cycle.)
If this is what passes for foreign policy thinking among top Republicans, the party is in a very bad way. I suspect there are Republican office holders who hold alternate views—including those that understand Iran as a complicated country in a mellowing phase a generation and a half after a tumultous revolution, one which probably can be dealt with on a rational basis, as we now deal with Russia and China. But they are almost completely silent. In the vacuum, the Mark Kirks represent the brand of the GOP. Making ignorant and belligerent comments about Iran has now become a form of Republican electioneering.