News of America's misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
A man inspects a site hit by what activists said were missiles fired by Syrian Air Force fighter jets loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, in eastern Syria, on August 21, 2013. Reuters/Nour Fourat.
Here’s the core question now, in regard to Syria: If it’s true that President Bashar al-Assad’s government used poison gas in an incident that killed hundreds of people, at least, in the suburbs of Damascus, can the United States avoid military action in response? The answer is: yes. And it should.
That doesn’t mean that the United States ought to do nothing. The horrific incident, reported in detail by Doctors Without Borders, demands action. But the proper response by the United States is an all-out effort to achieve a cease-fire in the Syrian civil war. It’s late in the game, but it can be done. The first step would be for Washington to put intense pressure on Saudi Arabia, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and Turkey, to halt the flow of weapons to the Syrian rebels, while simultaneously getting Russia and Iran to do the same. A concerted, worldwide diplomatic effort along those lines could work, but there’s zero evidence that President Obama has even thought of that.
Indeed, it seems clear now that the United States is about to launch a series of cruise missile strikes against Syrian targets, including military command centers, airports, and other facilities. A US naval buildup in the eastern Mediterranean, off the coast of Syria, is underway, including four destroyers carrying cruise missiles. Ominously, the United States yesterday rejected as “too late” a Syrian offer—which, indeed, may have been disingenuous—to allow United Nations inspectors to visit the site where the gas was reportedly used. Virtually the entire Obama administration national security team huddled in the White House yesterday to decide what to do about Syria.
Obama, meanwhile, is busy building a “coalition of the willing” to back an American attack on Syria, calling the leaders of Britain and France, rallying support in Eastern Europe, NATO and the Arab League, and of course getting strong support from Saudi Arabia and Israel. The latter two countries see an attack on Assad’s forces as a proxy for an attack on what they consider their main enemy, Iran.
The Wall Street Journal reported that, meanwhile, the Obama administration is crafting legal justifications for unilateral action, perhaps under the umbrella of NATO and Arab League support, a la Libya 2011 (or Kosovo in 1999):
Administration lawyers have been crafting legal justifications for an intervention without U.N. approval that could be based on findings that Mr. Assad used chemical weapons and created a major humanitarian crisis.
At this point, if the United States bombs Syria, it will be mostly an emotional and reactive attack designed to protect President Obama’s right flank, because ever since he said that a chemical weapons attack would be a “red line” that would “change [his] calculus,” he’s been pilloried for holding off. And in addition—at the exact wrong moment, given Iran’s newfound moderate tone and a new president, Hassan Rouhani, who appears to be looking for an end to the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program—Obama would be bombing Iran’s main ally, strengthening the hand of hardliners in Tehran and undermining Rouhani’s room for maneuver.
And to what end? As General Martin Dempsey has outlined at length, in a letter to members of Congress and in testimony and speeches, there’s no obvious alternative to Assad yet. There’s no government-in-exile, and Al Qaeda types and radical Islamists of all kinds dominate the rebel movement.
Lost in the apparent tumble down the slippery slope to war is the question of why Assad would use chemical weapons now, given the near-certainty that it would provoke US action, since his forces have made major gains in the last two months or so. That’s a point made by Assad himself, in an interview with Russia’s Izvestia:
“Would any state use chemical or any other weapons of mass destruction in a place where its own forces are concentrated? That would go against elementary logic. So, accusations of this kind are entirely political and the reason for them is the government forces’ series of victories over the terrorists.”
It seems clear that the weapons were used, perhaps—if not by Assad’s own decision, by a military commander who took it upon himself to do so. Maybe we’ll never know, and it will be lost in the fog of war.
But it’s clear that both Israel and Saudi Arabia want war, and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu says it’s all about Iran. Reports the Times:
“This situation must not be allowed to continue,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, referring to the Syrian civilians “who were so brutally attacked by weapons of mass destruction.”
“The most dangerous regimes in the world must not be allowed to possess the most dangerous weapons in the world,” he said.
Some Israelis have argued that international intervention in Syria would distract the world from the crucial effort to prevent a nuclear Iran. But there is a growing sense among Israelis that Syria is now a test of how the world might respond to Iran as it approaches the ability to make a nuclear weapon.
“Assad’s regime has become a full Iranian client, and Syria has become Iran’s testing ground,” Mr. Netanyahu added.
An attack on Syria could easily spiral out of control in full-scale war. As The Wall Street Journal reports, citing the apparently dwindling administration contingent still urging caution:
Officials cautious of intervening say targeted strikes to punish Mr. Assad for using chemical weapons risk triggering a bloody escalation. If the regime digs in and uses chemical weapons again, or launches retaliatory attacks against the U.S. and its allies in the region, Mr. Obama will come under fierce pressure to respond more forcefully, increasing the chances of full-scale war, the officials say.
And, of course, Russia—which has declared that it won’t support an American action against Syria—could up the ante, too, by backing Assad more powerfully in response.
A man inspects a site hit by what activists said were missiles fired by Syrian Air Force fighter jets loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, in Raqqa province, eastern Syria August 21, 2013. (Reuters/Nour Fourat)
The reports of poison gas use in Syria—with casualty estimates varying from a few dozen to more than a thousand dead—signal a new phase in Syria’s civil war, one in which President Obama will come under intense pressure to use military force.
Despite Obama’s countless mistakes and a series of bad judgments in Syria, which have had the effect of escalating the war, triggering the insurgency and creating a no-win situation for the United States, the president has resisted calls from hawks to get the United States directly involved. Now, however, with the usual suspects on the right calling for blood, expect the White House to come under heavy pressure from liberal imperialists and others—including Secretary of State Kerry, UN Ambassador Samantha Power, and National Security Adviser Susan Rice—to take aggressive action.
The president may also face pressure from his political team, despite the fact that polls show that Americans are strongly opposed to war in Syria.
In Europe, France—which seems not to have abandoned its fake-historic claim to Syria codified a century ago in the World War I–era Sykes-Picot Agreement—is calling for military action if the reports of gas use prove true. “There would have to be reaction with force in Syria from the international community,” said France’s foreign minister. Turkey, too, which once “owned” Syria in the days of the bygone Ottoman Empire, is thumping for war. Said its foreign ministry: “If these allegations are found to be true, it will be inevitable for the international community to take the necessary stance and give the necessary response to this savagery and crime against humanity.”
The Washington Post, which long ago became a bastion of neoconservative thought, is editorializing for war:
The United States should be using its own resources to determine, as quickly as possible, whether the opposition’s reports of large-scale use of gas against civilians are accurate. If they are, Mr. Obama should deliver on his vow not to tolerate such crimes—by ordering direct U.S. retaliation against the Syrian military forces responsible and by adopting a plan to protect civilians in southern Syria with a no-fly zone.
The Post, along with The Wall Street Journal and other neocon outlets, criticizes President Obama for his apparent refusal, once again, to act forcefully on the “red line” that he declared last year in regard to Syrian use of chemical weapons. That statement by Obama, which stupidly boxed him in and allowed hawks an opening to demand action, is one of the president’s major errors since the uprising began in 2011. Indeed, the White House statement on Syria yesterday makes no mention of any “red lines.” Here it is, in full:
The United States is deeply concerned by reports that hundreds of Syrian civilians have been killed in an attack by Syrian government forces, including by the use of chemical weapons, near Damascus earlier today. We are working urgently to gather additional information. The United States strongly condemns any and all use of chemical weapons. Those responsible for the use of chemical weapons must be held accountable. Today, we are formally requesting that the United Nations urgently investigate this new allegation. The UN investigative team, which is currently in Syria, is prepared to do so, and that is consistent with its purpose and mandate. For the UN’s efforts to be credible, they must have immediate access to witnesses and affected individuals, and have the ability to examine and collect physical evidence without any interference or manipulation from the Syrian government. If the Syrian government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria, it will facilitate the UN team’s immediate and unfettered access to this site. We have also called for urgent consultations in the UN Security Council to discuss these allegations and to call for the Syrian government to provide immediate access to the UN investigative team. The United States urges all Syrian parties including the government and opposition, to provide immediate access to any and all sites of importance to the investigation and to ensure security for the UN investigative team.
A news analysis in the Journal goes farther than the Post, comparing Obama unfavorably to George W. Bush:
In just a few years, the U.S. has executed a 180-degree strategic turn in the Mideast, from President George W. Bush’s muscular interventionism to President Barack Obama’s more backseat approach. That, according to some regional diplomats and experts, has disoriented Arab governments and Israel, who have become accustomed to extensive U.S. leadership in their region. …
But while the Pentagon and White House have continued to debate what steps to take in Syria, Iran and Russia have mobilized to prop up Mr. Assad. In recent months, Tehran has facilitated the flow of thousands of Shiite fighters from Lebanon and Iraq to join the fight with Syrian forces, according to U.S. and Arab officials.
Naturally, The Weekly Standard and other hawkish outlets are in full battle cry:
And what about Syria? In defending intervention in Libya, President Obama boasted that he had “refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.” The world has been seeing those images out of Syria for months. Isn’t the slaughter there a challenge that threatens our common humanity and common security? Does the president now find it acceptable, as he did not 18 months ago, for the United States “to turn a blind eye to the atrocities in other countries?” To abide “violence on a horrific scale?” Were the red lines and calls for Bashar al-Assad’s ouster merely “empty words” that threaten the future credibility of those who voiced them? Is our willingness to “brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and—more profoundly—our responsibilities to our fellow human beings” in the face of mass killings no longer a “betrayal of who we are?”
Leave it to General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to oppose war. Dempsey, who’s been critical of intervening in Syria before and who has expressed disdain for the various options open to President Obama, this week suggested that Syria’s Islamist rebels and ragtag fighters aren’t ready for prime time:
“Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides. It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.”
Why the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs opposes military intervention in Syria.
The cooling towers of Three Mile Island’s Unit 1 Nuclear Power Plant pour steam into the sky in Middletown, Pennsylvania, Tuesday, March 17, 2009. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
A horrifying account written from America’s largest coal mine in Wyoming and a leaked report, published by The New York Times, of the upcoming report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ought to convince some, at least, that nuclear energy should be a major part of the solution to the world’s greatest crisis.
The vast coal mine, which produces 10 percent of the coal that the United States burns, coughs up 108 million tons every year:
Scott Durgin, who manages the mine for Peabody Energy, tries hard to communicate its enormous scale.
In a typical day, Mr. Durgin tells me, 21 trains depart the mine, pulling 135 cars each. Each car bears 120 tons of coal. At this pace, he says, there is more than 20 years’ worth of coal ready to mine under my feet.
That puts an exclamation point on the Times’ report on the IPCC report, scheduled for release next month. The report, which is issued roughly at five-year intervals, raises from 90 to 95 percent the certainty that human activity is responsible for observed rises in world temperatures. Says the report:
“It is extremely likely that human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010. There is high confidence that this has warmed the ocean, melted snow and ice, raised global mean sea level and changed some climate extremes in the second half of the 20th century.”
Politico, reporting on the leaked IPCC report—which was first reported by Reuters—notes the significance of the change in certainty:
An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report due out next month will say there’s at least a 95 percent chance that human activities (mostly burning fossil fuels) have been the main cause of global warming since the 1950s, according to a draft version of the report seen by Reuters. “That is up from at least 90 percent in the last report in 2007, 66 percent in 2001, and just over 50 in 1995, steadily squeezing out the arguments by a small minority of scientists that natural variations in the climate might be to blame. That shifts the debate onto the extent of temperature rises and the likely impacts, from manageable to catastrophic. Governments have agreed to work out an international deal by the end of 2015 to rein in rising emissions.”
And the Times summarizes the range of outcomes like this, citing the IPCC draft report:
Regarding the likely rise in sea level over the coming century, the new report lays out several possibilities. In the most optimistic, the world’s governments would prove far more successful at getting emissions under control than they have been in the recent past, helping to limit the total warming.
In that circumstance, sea level could be expected to rise as little as 10 inches by the end of the century, the report found. That is a bit more than the eight-inch increase in the 20th century, which proved manageable even though it caused severe erosion along the world’s shorelines.
At the other extreme, the report considers a chain of events in which emissions continue to increase at a swift pace. Under those conditions, sea level could be expected to rise at least 21 inches by 2100 and might increase a bit more than three feet, the draft report said.
Eduardo Porter, in his account written from the Wyoming mine, strongly advocates a boost for nuclear energy, making the argument that solar and wind energy can’t supply enough power to allow nations to sharply reduce coal, oil and natural gas. That’s a view that has been embraced by increasing numbers of environmentalists, especially younger ones, he notes, citing the controversial film Pandora’s Promise:
Robert Stone, a documentary filmmaker who directed “Pandora’s Promise,” about the environmental case for nuclear power, argues that atomic energy’s time is coming. Younger environmentalists don’t associate nuclear power with Chernobyl and the cold war. Studies have revealed it to be safer than other fuels.
In the movie, Michael Shellenberger, an environmental activist whom Time magazine once named a Hero of the Environment, argues that beliefs that solar and wind power can displace fossil fuels amount to “hallucinatory delusions.”
Still, the hurdles are substantial. There are fewer nuclear generators in the United States than in 1987. Just maintaining nuclear energy’s share of 19 percent of the nation’s electricity generation will require adding several dozen new ones. Each will take some 10 years and $5 billion to construct. If nuclear power is to play a leading role combating climate change, it should start now.
In an editorial today, the Times praises a recent court decision aimed at compelling the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to move ahead with studies of the long-running—and long-stalled—Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository in Nevada. Concludes the editorial:
After spending decades and billions of dollars in studying Yucca, Congress ought to appropriate enough new funds to complete the overall licensing evaluation to determine whether or not Yucca would make an acceptable repository. Meanwhile, as a step in that process, we urge the commission not to appeal the court decision but instead use its remaining money to publish an unredacted safety evaluation. The information would be useful because underground burial, if not at Yucca then elsewhere, remains the preferred option for permanent disposal.
Liberals and the left are frequently critical of Republicans and the right for the manifest hostility to science, including of course their stubborn refusal to recognize the reality of human-caused global warming (not to mention, say, their denial of evolution). In the case of nuclear power, however, the left and many environmentalists have too often allowed themselves to be caught up in an almost superstitious fear of nuclear energy. Vast problems accrue to nuclear energy, of course, as with all technologies. But they can be solved.
Members of the Republican Guards stand in line at a barricade blocking protesters supporting deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo July 9, 2013. (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)
It’s not a good sign that the ruling military council in Egypt and its holdover judges are mooting the release of the imprisoned former president, Hosni Mubarak. Having crossed the line of no return, however, by killing as many as a thousand pro–Muslim Brotherhood protesters in a series of mass shootings, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and his cohorts are all in. It’s almost inconceivable that the military will seek to reconcile with Egypt’s Islamists, nor is the Muslim Brotherhood likely to respond to any overtures from the army.
President Obama has criticized the military, halted the delivery of four F-16s, canceled US-Egyptian military exercises, and may cut back on economic aid. Given the situation, a complete halt to US military support to Egypt is called for—but it will be useless, and it will likely backfire as happened in Pakistan after Washington broke with Islamabad over Pakistan’s nukes. Egypt’s military seems to know what it wants, and it won’t be deterred.
There are scenarios aplenty: a spiraling descent into Syria- or Algeria-1990s-style civil war; a long-running standoff with sporadic violence between the ruling military and Islamist radicals; the return of a veneer of democracy, if the military can coopt some civilians into serving as the face of what will be an authoritarian, army-backed government. For the United States, however, there are no good choices, no good options and almost no useful leverage.
Egypt’s new military government will probably be in power for the long haul, and it’s very likely that the Muslim Brotherhood will be dissolved and banned, returning to the underground status it maintained from 1954 to 1970. Whether it can survive without a major foreign patron is a question, since during the 1954–70 period the Brothers had the backing of Saudi Arabia, which, like them, bitterly opposed the government of then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Now, Saudi Arabia—like Israel—is strongly backing the armed forces. As The Wall Street Journal reported:
In a comparatively rare public foreign-policy statement read Friday on Saudi television, King Abdullah declared that what was happening in Egypt was an Arab affair. “Let it be known to those who interfered in Egypt’s internal affairs that they themselves are fanning the fire of sedition and are promoting the terrorism which they call for fighting,” he declared, without mentioning any country by name.
That’s almost precisely the language that Saudi Arabia used when it accused the United States of interfering in Egypt’s “internal affairs” back in 2011, when Riyadh blamed Washington for supporting the fall of Mubarak.
Israel, too, is planning a global campaign to convince the United States and the West not to abandon Egypt’s generals. As The New York Times reports, quoting an Israeli official:
“We’re trying to talk to key actors, key countries, and share our view that you may not like what you see, but what’s the alternative?” the official explained. “If you insist on big principles, then you will miss the essential—the essential being putting Egypt back on track at whatever cost. First, save what you can, and then deal with democracy and freedom and so on.
“At this point,” the official added, “it’s army or anarchy.”
Indeed, it may now be exactly that: the army or anarchy. Or, it could be the army and anarchy.
It’s interesting, of course, that while Israel and its American allies, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, lobby Washington to maintain its support for the generals, key conservative hawks such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham—who were dispatched to Cairo last week in a failed effort to prevent the crisis that has emerged full-blown—have chosen to veer off from the AIPAC line and argue that the United States has no choice but to condemn the coup, halt American support for Egypt, and renew a push for a restored democratic government in Cairo.
But the McCain-Graham view won’t have the effect they want, and it’s likely that Israel has figured that out. The Israelis are concerned that an American break with Egypt now will simply mean that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates—possibly with a chagrined Qatar in tow—will replace US financial aid and that Egypt will drift toward Russia and China for arms and political support.
The startling inability of the United States to talk sense to Egypt’s generals was recounted in two very important pieces in The New York Times and The Washington Post over the weekend. Most startling of all is that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who had convinced himself that he had established a rapport of sorts with Sisi and the generals, made no less than seventeen phone calls to Sisi aimed at convincing him not to move violently against the Muslim Brotherhood encampments in Ciaro and elsewhere, and he was rebuffed. Not only that, but countless US officials called and met with Egyptian military officials and others—including Mohammed ElBaradei, the foiled civilian leader, who resigned after the massacre—to no avail. None. As the Post reported:
Two weeks before the bloody crackdown in Cairo, the Obama administration, working with European and Persian Gulf allies, believed it was close to a deal to have Islamist supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi disband street encampments in return for a pledge of nonviolence from Egypt’s interim authorities.
All of the efforts of the United States government, all the cajoling, the veiled threats, the high-level envoys from Washington and the 17 personal phone calls by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, failed to forestall the worst political bloodletting in modern Egyptian history. The generals in Cairo felt free to ignore the Americans first on the prisoner release and then on the statement, in a cold-eyed calculation that they would not pay a significant cost—a conclusion bolstered when President Obama responded by canceling a joint military exercise but not $1.5 billion in annual aid.
While the United States was working with the UAE in the two weeks before the massacre, it appears that the UAE—which is aligned with Saudi Arabia—simply double-crossed the United States, says the Times:
But while the Qataris and Emiratis talked about “reconciliation” in front of the Americans, Western diplomats here said they believed the Emiratis were privately urging the Egyptian security forces to crack down.
Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the Emirati foreign minister, went to Washington last month and urged the Americans not to cut off aid. The emirates, along with Saudi Arabia, had swiftly supported the military takeover with a pledge of billions of dollars, undermining Western threats to cut off critical loans or aid.
Hagel’s calls to Sisi were especially ineffective:
Mr. Hagel tried to forge a connection with General Sisi, the defense minister who has become the country’s de facto leader. Mr. Hagel, a 66-year-old decorated Vietnam War veteran, felt he and General Sisi, a 58-year-old graduate of the United States Army War College in Pennsylvania, “clicked right away” when they met in April, an American official said.
In a series of phone calls, Mr. Hagel pressed General Sisi for a transition back to civilian rule. They talked nearly every other day, usually for an hour or an hour and a half, lengthened by the use of interpreters. But General Sisi complained that the Obama administration did not fully appreciate that the Islamists posed a threat to Egypt and its army. The general asked Mr. Hagel to convey the danger to Mr. Obama, American officials said.
“Their whole sales pitch to us is that the Muslim Brotherhood is a group of terrorists,” said one American officer, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the dialogue.
Both the Post and Times articles ought to be read in their entirety, as evidence of America’s near-total lack of influence over the course of events in Egypt.
Bodies of supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi lie on the floor of the El-Iman mosque in Cairo's Nasr City, Egypt, Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa)
UPDATE 10:40 am: President Obama spoke today of the “complexity of the situation” in Egypt. It is, indeed, complex. That’s why, as I wrote in the original post, the administration has been so irresolute in responding the Arab Spring’s events in Egypt since 2011. Today, Obama said he opposes the institution of martial law in Egypt and “strongly” condemned the violent crackdown. And, as expected, he announced the cancellation of a joint exercise with Egypt’s military, which is not exactly a big loss to the generals. The violence, Obama said, “needs to stop” and that the “state of emergency needs to be lifted.” The “cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop,” said Obama. More important, and exactly accurate, is his comment that the United States “cannot determine the future of Egypt.” He complained that both sides blame Washington for supporting the other side, which is the legacy of the fact that the United States actually has little or no influence over both sides.
There’ll be more to come from Washington, but not much that matters.
* * *
ORIGINAL POST: The Egyptian police state is dead! Long live the Egyptian police state!
Things have come nearly full circle in Egypt since 2011, when —in response to a popular uprising—Egypt’s military toppled President Hosni Mubarak and installed a ruling military council. Two years later, after the election of a Muslim Brotherhood president, the military stepped in once again in response to a popular revolt, an uprising that was likely orchestrated by the military from behind the scenes. That allowed Egypt’s armed forces to step intervene directly, with the clear intention of eliminating the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt’s political scene.
The result so far: three massacres, including yesterday’s slaughter in Cairo, where more than 300 died, and in other cities, where another 200 perished. There is, obviously, more to come. The Brothers, whose cult loves martyrs and martyrdom, is promising to take to the streets.
Since the start of Egypt’s Arab Spring—an ironic term now—in 2011, the Obama administration has seemed paralyzed, and for good reason. Most of what’s happened in Egypt since then has unspooled outside of American control and influence, and the White House has tacked this way and that for two years, managing only to convince both the Muslim Brotherhood and the army that it supported the other side. Since the fall of Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president, in early July the administration’s dithering has seemed particularly acute, but it stems from the fact that American influence in the region has fallen dramatically since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. No statement more underlines the poignancy of that reality than the comment yesterday from the White House spokesman, the aptly named Josh Earnest, of whom it can be said that it’s hard to tell if he’s joshing or being earnest:
“We have repeatedly called on the Egyptian military and security forces to show restraint and for the government to respect the universal rights of its citizens.”
True, that. Since the coup, they’ve called repeatedly for everyone in Egypt to be nice to each other. It hasn’t worked. But what leverage does the United States have? Much has been made of the fact that that the Obama administration hasn’t called the July military takeover a coup, since that could trigger the suspension of aid to the Egyptian military under US law. That made the administration look ridiculous, as the transcripts of countless State Department and White House briefings show—but so what? Had the United States cut off aid to the army, nearly all of which has already been delivered for 2013, Egypt’s generals would simply get help from Saudi Arabia and seek arms and support elsewhere, as Pakistan did when the United States cut off aid in the 1980s in response to Pakistan’s bomb. Now, the United States has announced that it will halt joint military exercises with the Egyptian armed forces, hardly an effective action. No doubt, when it wakes up, the administration will condemn the violence, as plenty of other countries have done. And the military will ignore the United States, too. It’s clear that the army has decided to wage total war against the Muslim Brotherhood.
To be truly effective, the United States would have to risk a fundamental break with the military’s main backers in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Indeed, the United States alienated Riyadh thoroughly in 2003 by overthrowing the government of Iraq and installing a pro-Iranian Shiite-majority government, and it cemented that alienation in 2011 by applauding the toppling of Mubarak, who was seen by Saudi Arabia as a pillar of the pro-Saudi bloc in the Arab world. Cutting of military aid to Egypt, and unleashing anger at Saudi Arabia and its allies—including halting the $60 billion US arms sale to them—would be the right thing to do, but even that won’t have any effect other than erasing the last vestiges of American influence in the region. The Saudis, whose intelligence chief just visited Moscow and whose king has been building ties with China, their main future oil market, will just turn to others, too.
On the other hand, the seeming American complicity in the July coup—even though there’s zero evidence that the United States either orchestrated it or even supported it, other than hoping for the best, including the eventual return of some version of democracy—also carries serious risks. The vaunted American “democracy project” in the region is in tatters, made worse by the tepid response to the July coup. As Bruce Reidel, a former CIA Arabist, told The New York Times:
“If it looks like the U.S. effectively colluded in a counterrevolution, then all the talk about democracy and Islam, about a new American relationship with the Islamic world, will be judged to have been the height of hypocrisy.”
Exactly. Most people in the region didn’t think much of the American “Freedom Agenda” in the region before this anyway (case study: Iraq, 2003–13). Now, not only is the United States losing credibility with the region’s elite (read: Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s army) but with the people, too.
The Times, in reporting on the Obama administration’s response, slyly built opinion into its news analysis by noting that as Egypt burned Obama “was playing golf at a private club” and attending a cocktail party “at the home of a major political donor.” But doing nothing is better than plotting some sort of American “intervention” in the Middle East—either in Egypt, where things have spun out of control, or in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad is winning his civil war, or elsewhere. Recently, where the United States has intervened (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) it hasn’t worked out so well.
Syrian rebels attend a training session in Maaret Ikhwan near Idlib, Syria. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
General Martin Dempsey is at it again. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is traveling in the Middle East, seemingly making it clear that he doesn’t want any part of the war in Syria. As I reported a while back, in a letter to members of Congress Dempsey had earlier warned that all of the options open to the United States in the Syrian civil war are bad ones. At that time, Dempsey drew fire from hawks and from advocates who want more and stronger direct US involvement in the Syrian war.
Now, it appears that both Dempsey and the Obama administration are concerned about the Syrian war spreading into Jordan. In the past, the United States has used Jordan as a launching pad for CIA-trained rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad. But the rebellion in Syria is boomeranging, or “blowing back,” as these things usually do.
Following reports that Syrian rebels, especially the radical Islamists, are trying to spread the conflict into Jordan—particularly ironic, since Jordan is funneling weapons to the anti-Assad fighters—The New York Times reports that Dempsey is concerned over the threat to Jordan:
Syria has accused Jordan of acting as a transit point for weapons supplied to Syrian rebels, an accusation Jordan has denied. In recent days, the Jordanian authorities have detained suspected smugglers, including Syrians, accused of attempting to bring antitank missiles, surface-to-air missiles, assault rifles and other arms from Syria into Jordan—possibly part of an attempt by jihadists in Syria to foment unrest in Jordan as well.
Dempsey, whose earlier letter was released by Senator Carl Levin’s office, was outspoken during his trip to Israel and Jordan. Said Dempsey:
“I am very concerned about the radical element of the opposition, and I am concerned about the potential that extremist ideologies will hijack what started out to be a popular movement to overthrow an oppressive regime.…
“The issues that are fueling the conflict in Syria will not be resolved in the short term, even if the Assad regime were to fail tomorrow,” he said. “This is a regional conflict that stretches from Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad.”[…] “It is the unleashing of historic ethnic, religious and tribal animosities that will take a great deal of work and a great deal of time to resolve.”
Dempsey didn’t repudiate the Obama administration’s support for the rebels, of course, and he did say that the United States must find ways to work with the “good” rebels while avoiding the “bad” ones. That task, however, is virtually impossible.
The best option, the US-Russian peace conference, isn’t clicking yet, and yesterday the Russians suggested that it wouldn’t happen before October. Assad, for his part, has indicated he’ll send representatives to the conference, but the badly split rebels—who’ve been set back on the battlefield of late—still haven’t committed to attend. That’s a major embarrassment for Secretary of State Kerry, who’s organizing the conference. And, the Russians would like Iran to attend, while the United States has ruled that out so far.
The Washington Post, which has been way, way behind The New York Times in reporting on the role of Al Qaeda and other radical Islamists in the battle against Assad, ran a piece today suggesting that it’s worse than it looks:
A rebranded version of Iraq’s al-Qaeda affiliate is surging onto the front lines of the war in neighboring Syria, expanding into territory seized by other rebel groups and carving out the kind of sanctuaries that the U.S. military spent more than a decade fighting to prevent in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And it added, worryingly:
A Lebanese security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media, estimated that at least 17,000 foreigners had joined rebel forces in Syria, most of them from Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, a figure in excess of the number that U.S. officials have given. Iraqis, too, are playing an important role, especially in the east, Syrians say, though their numbers are more difficult to measure because they traverse the long border virtually unchecked.
Dempsey understates the problem when, according to Reuters, he says that it’s a “challenge” for the CIA to figure out which rebel is which. He said:
“The real challenge for the intel community, frankly, is to understand when they’re collaborating just for a particular issue at a particular time and when they may actually be allied with each other,” he said. “And to this point, I think, we’re not exactly certain where that fine line of distinction might reside.”
Bob Dreyfuss on why Iran may be the key to a peace deal on Syria.
A fully armed MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle taxis down the runway at an air base in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/US Air Force, Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)
It ought to be pretty clear that President Obama doesn’t have the slightest clue about what to do about terrorism and radical Islam.
How else to explain why the United States, after saying that Al Qaeda is pretty much dead and buried, closed nearly twenty embassies around the world last week after US intelligence agencies intercepted a single message from the leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in Pakistan to the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen? And then, making things worse, the United States unleashed an unprecedented barrage of terrorist-creating drone strikes against targets in Yemen? And, finally, with allied branches of Al Qaeda in both Syria and Iraq, the United States is offering to help Iraq’s government battle the group—which is setting off waves of suicide bombs that kill hundreds—while, at the same time, supporting the same Al Qaeda group in Syria?
The New York Times, in reporting on the Yemen drone strikes—which, it notes, in the past have “set off a major public backlash against the United States”—points out that the strikes have been targeting mid-level radicals, not its leaders and not necessarily anyone plotting any attacks against US targets:
Senior American intelligence officials said last week that none of the about three dozen militants killed so far in the drone strikes were “household names,” meaning top-tier leaders of the affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But the American official said the strikes had targeted “rising stars” in the Yemen network, people who were more likely to be moving around and vulnerable to attack. “They may not be big names now,” the official said, “but these were the guys that would have been future leaders.”
Meanwhile, in Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and elsewhere, radical Islamists and Al Qaeda types have been freed in bold prison raids and other releases, the same Times piece reports:
Al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate orchestrated attacks in late July that freed hundreds of inmates from two prisons in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib, American officials said. A few days later, more than 1,000 prisoners escaped under murky circumstances at a prison near Benghazi. In another attack, fighters stormed a prison at Dera Ismail Khan, just outside Pakistan’s tribal belt, freeing nearly 250 inmates.
Needless to say, the Obama administration’s overreaction to the threat of terrorist attacks, in Yemen and elsewhere, has much to do with the continuing aftermath of the September 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi, Libya—which was not Al Qaeda–related—that became a Republican party political football that is still being kicked around. (It’s also true, of course, that the Republicans refuse to fund better security for US embassies and other facilities around the world.)
It is the rebirth of Al Qaeda–style attacks in Iraq, though, that is most ironic. The United States has offered a $10 million reward for information about the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, who apparently now lives in Syria and runs an organization that he calls the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” As Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said over the weekend:
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also known as Abu D’ua, is now based in Syria and has changed the name of AQI to the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). He has taken personal credit for a series of terrorist attacks in Iraq since 2011, and most recently claimed credit for the operations against the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, the suicide bombing assault on the Ministry of Justice, among other attacks against Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi citizens going about their daily lives.
And she added:
In this regard, the United States is prepared to work closely with the Iraqi Government to confront the threat posed by Al Qaeda in Iraq and other terrorist groups. We look forward to discussing bilateral cooperation in this and other areas, pursuant to the Strategic Framework Agreement between our two countries, during the upcoming visit of Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari next week in Washington.
But the Iraqi foreign minister’s visit will be a confusing one, since Iraq has largely sided with Iran and with Iran’s Syrian ally, the government of President Bashar al-Assad, while the United States is backing the Syrian rebel allies of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
On August 8, The New York Times published an important analysis of the rising power of radical Islam among the Syrian rebels, under the headline “As Foreign Fighters Flood Syria, Fears of a New Extremist Haven.” The piece provided clear evidence that the most radical groups among the Syrian rebels are working side by side with the so-called Free Syrian Army, the American-backed force:
Yet the lines dividing the Free Syrian Army from jihadist groups are fluid, and the conflicts have not stopped F.S.A. leaders from working with their fighters, whose fierceness on the battlefield is undisputed. That has helped create a divergence between statements by exile opposition leaders rejecting extremists and their ideology and actions by ground commanders eager for any help they can get. …
This week, the jihadist group Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, or the Army of Emigrants and Supporters, led by a fighter from the Caucasus known as Abu Omar al-Shesheni—the Chechen—worked with Free Syrian Army battalions to take the Menagh air base in Aleppo Province after 10 months of trying.
As I reported last week, those Chechens, allies of Al Qaeda, pose a direct threat to Russia, which partly explains why Russia is supporting Assad so strongly. And one of the Syrian rebels interviewed by the Times reporter explicitly threatened Iran and, of course, Russia:
He also seemed to suggest that Russia would be a legitimate target for its role in supporting Mr. Assad and for its brutal suppression of Muslim militants in the Caucasus.
“Russia is killing Muslims in southern Muslim republics and sends arms and money to kill Muslims in Syria as well,” he said. “I swear by God that Russia will pay a big price for its dirty role in the Syrian war.”
Read Bob Dreyfuss on the Obama administration’s straining relations with Russia.
President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland, June 17, 2013. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Here’s a good way to start a new cold war: accuse the other side of reverting to the Cold War and then cancel a summit meeting. (And there’s not even a U-2 incident.)
President Obama took the occasion of an appearance on a comedy show to accuse Vladimir Putin of being a cold warrior, notedThe Wall Street Journal: “There are times when they slip back into Cold War thinking and Cold War mentality,” Mr. Obama said of Russia in an interview on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno on Tuesday night. “What I continually say to them and to President Putin, that’s the past.”
But it turns out that what’s past is prologue.
The obvious irritant is Russia’s decision to grant asylum of sorts to Edward Snowden, the contractor who leaked information about the National Security Agency’s spying machine. But it’s clear that underlying that excuse is that Obama and his diplomats, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, have been unable to make real progress on any of the key issues that might be talked about in what had been scheduled as a September summit in Moscow, namely arms control, missile defense, Syria and Iran, North Korea and more. Needless to say, problems between the two countries on those issues are reasons to have a summit, not to cancel one. (Need we point out that there were plenty of summits during the actual Cold War?)
The White House issued the following statement:
Following a careful review begun in July, we have reached the conclusion that there is not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda with Russia to hold a U.S.-Russia Summit in early September. We value the achievements made with Russia in the President’s first term, including the New START Treaty, and cooperation on Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea. However, given our lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society in the last twelve months, we have informed the Russian Government that we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit until we have more results from our shared agenda. Russia’s disappointing decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum was also a factor that we considered in assessing the current state of our bilateral relationship. Our cooperation on these issues remains a priority for the United States, so on Friday, August 9, Secretaries Hagel and Kerry will meet with their Russian counterparts in a 2+2 format in Washington to discuss how we can best make progress moving forward on the full range of issues in our bilateral relationship.
Vladimir Putin may indeed be a vile thug with an authoritarian mindset. So? We don’t talk to him? Recent Russian actions, such as persecuting prominent dissidents and introducing odious ant-gay legislation, don’t pass the smell test, but since when did the United States cancel summits over human violations in Russia (or in Saudi Arabia, for that matter)? Russia’s support for President Assad in Syria may rankle American diplomats, but Russia has real interests there.
President Obama, again on Leno, didn’t flinch when Leno invoked the trump card of all criticism, Nazism, when referring to Putin’s anti-gay machinations:
“This seems like Germany, let’s round up the Jews, let’s round up the gays,” Leno said.
“I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in a way that intimidate them or are harmful to them,” Obama responded, while stressing that “Russia is not unique,” and noting he’s had to balance his pressure over laws like these within larger relationships with several African nations as well.
But is that a reason to cancel an important summit?
The New York Times, in a churlish editorial (written before the cancellation was announced), suggests that maybe not going to Moscow is a good idea:
The partnership that Mr. Obama sought to build with Russia is seriously broken. Ever since Mr. Putin reclaimed the presidency in 2012, he has been profoundly at odds with the administration over the Syrian civil war, missile defense issues and further reductions in nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Mr. Putin is a repressive and arrogant leader who treats his people with contempt, as the recent crackdown on gays and lesbians demonstrates. … There is no reason for Mr. Obama to attend unless Mr. Putin provides solid assurances that he is prepared to address contentious issues in a substantive and constructive way. Otherwise, what’s the point?
The point, of course, is diplomacy. But diplomacy is not something that happens exclusively at summits. The task for President Obama is engage with Russia, across the board and on all the issues at stake, constantly—so that summits mean something. Obama has to end this cold war before it starts.
Stephen Cohen on how President Obama undermined his “Russia reset.”
A Syrian soldier, who has defected to join the Free Syrian Army, in the Damascus suburb of Saqba January 27, 2012. (Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah)
President Obama’s decision to send military aid to the rebels in Syria can be construed as a direct threat and challenge to Russia. In the United States and in Europe, plenty of those who can’t understand why Russia is supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus say that Russia has no real interest in Syria. But that’s not true.
In today’s New York Times, there’s a snippet that suggests why Russia is so concerned about events in Syria. The amalgam of Islamists that is assembling to fight Assad appears to include a healthy contingent of radical-right Islamists from Chechnya, and they’re reportedly among the toughest fighters in the anti-Assad coalition. Their contingent, according to the Times, led the assault that took control of a Syrian air force base in the country’s northern sector:
The base was first besieged by a Free Syrian Army brigade called North Storm, and joined by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and a group calling itself Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar. Muhajireen means emigrants, and the group, which carried out several suicide attacks at the base, is led by Russian speakers from Chechnya and other parts of the Caucasus.
Mr. Farzat said Chechen Islamist fighters near the airport had refused to let the defecting government soldiers flee, so he helped them escape by another route. “I give the Islamic fighters credit for the liberation,” he said. The seizure of the base could have an impact on the stalemated fight for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, by freeing up rebel fighters and antiaircraft weapons to put pressure on Aleppo’s airport, which rebels have been unable to take despite months of trying. It could also dampen the morale of government troops in other remote outposts.
The Boston Marathon bombers, of course, were Chechen Islamists.
This isn’t a new story. It’s been widely reported for quite a while that Chechens are involved in the Syrian civil war. In June, RFE/RL reported extensively on the Chechen angle. Some of the fighters, it reported, are “battle-hardened veterans of the North Caucasus insurgency.” RFE/RL added:
It has been suggested, but not proven, that Qatar and Saudi Arabia financed the recruitment of those experienced former insurgents because “the Chechens are regarded as the best of the jihadist fighters.”
The Guardian reported on the Chechen angle last year, in a lengthy piece describing the makeup of the Syrian rebels. In it, The Guardian described a fighter named Abu Omar al-Chechen who led a “ragtag band of foreign fighters, known as ‘muhajiroun brothers.’” It added:
The disparate levels of fighting ability among the men was immediately clear. The Chechens were older, taller, stronger and wore hiking boots and combat trousers. They carried their weapons with confidence and distanced themselves from the rest, moving around in a tight-knit unit-within-a-unit.
Apparently, few of the Chechens fighting in Syria have come directly from Chechnya. Instead, many seem to have assembled from among veterans of the Russia-Chechnya wars of the 1990s who fed to Europe and the Middle East. Says RFE/RL, citing the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov:
Kadyrov categorically denied last summer that any “Russian citizens from the Chechen Republic” were fighting in Syria. But over the past two months he has admitted on several occasions that Chechens from both Chechnya and the émigré community in Europe and Turkey had traveled to Syria to fight.
On May 6, Kadyrov implied that the latter category far outnumber the former: he said “a few” Chechens from Chechnya were fighting in Syria, and that “hundreds” from Europe and Turkey had been killed. Two weeks later, however, Kadyrov said “just a few” Chechens from Europe had been killed in the fighting.
In backing the rebels in Syria, Obama says that he wants to support only “moderates” among the fighters. But nearly all analysts agree that it would be very difficult to control the aid, including weapons, once it gets inside Syria. So, in effect, Obama will be aiding battle-hardened fighters who want to take their struggle to Russia.
Let’s end with a quote from Al Monitor’s report in April on the Chechens in Syria:
The group, which identifies itself as Jaish Muhajirin Wa Anshar or Army of Emigrants and Helpers, is not limited to Chechen fighters, although most of the fighters on the website identify themselves as Chechen and speak a mixture of Russian and Arabic.
In the latest post on April 24, the group claimed to have taken over Minnigh military airport, which has been the site of clashes between the Syrian government forces and foreign fighters for months, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The rights group’s director, Rami Abdel Rahman, confirmed that foreign-sponsored militants entered the airport for the first time in months.
The group documents the use of Russian weapons fired on civilians in the ongoing standoff between the Syrian military and Syrian rebels. “Our goal is to establish Shariah law, God willing,” one fighter says in a recruiting video. “We have 30 years of history in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq; our goals are the same.”
Would does Samantha Power’s confirmation change US policy in Syria?
Iran’s new President Hasan Rouhani delivers a speech after his swearing-in at the parliament in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, August 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
President Obama could have been more effusive in welcoming the start of Hassan Rouhani’s term as president of Iran. But it could have been worse, too. Regardless, we should find out over the next few months if Iran and the United States can work out a deal that includes, at the minimum, Iran’s nuclear program—but which could extend to Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, too. Diplomacy, however, will take many months, if not years.
Here’s the full text of the White House statement on Rouhani’s taking over from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:
On the occasion of Dr. Hojjatoleslam Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration today as the Islamic Republic of Iran’s seventh president, we again congratulate the Iranian people for making their voices heard during Iran’s election. We note that President Rouhani recognized his election represented a call by the Iranian people for change, and we hope the new Iranian government will heed the will of the voters by making choices that will lead to a better life for the Iranian people. The inauguration of President Rouhani presents an opportunity for Iran to act quickly to resolve the international community’s deep concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. Should this new government choose to engage substantively and seriously to meet its international obligations and find a peaceful solution to this issue, it will find a willing partner in the United States.
You’ll note that the statement is not in President Obama’s name, just issued as a generic White House comment. (Obama didn’t bother to congratulate the apparently deal-seeking, moderate Rouhani on the occasion of his election on June 14, either.)
The Guardian, and others, chose to characterize the White House statement as an “olive branch,” though it’s really more like an olive twig. But The Guardian hastens to add that the hawks, including those in Congress, are ignoring the whole transition in demanding more sanctions and a tough military posture. Said The Guardian:
But the apparent olive branch comes amid hawkish calls in Washington for tougher sanctions on Tehran and the possibility of military action if no resolution is found. In a letter sent to President Barack Obama, 76 senators demanded tougher economic punishment for Iran until the Islamic republic scales back its nuclear ambitions. It also urged Obama to keep all options on the table, while keeping the door open to diplomacy.
Said the letter, organized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee:
“Until we see a significant slowdown of Iran’s nuclear activities, we believe our nation must toughen sanctions and reinforce the credibility of our option to use military force at the same time as we fully explore a diplomatic solution to our dispute with Iran.”
As I reported recently, not only the Senate but the ultra-hawkish House, too, are pushing for new sanctions on Iran, amounting to a virtual oil embargo. And even though, as cited in that piece, 131 more moderate members of the House urged Obama to avoid “taking provocative actions” in regard to Iran because doing so could strengthen hardliners opposed to Rouhani, as Ali Gharib points out, eighty of those very same members of Congress voted for AIPAC-backed sanctions against Iran, i.e., they supported precisely the “provocative” action they seemed to oppose! (That bill passed the House with a staggeringly veto-proof vote of 400-20. Says Gharib:
The effort to dismiss Iran’s elections as unimportant—despite millions of Iranians’ willingness to come out and vote for Rouhani—and forge ahead with sanctions stem largely from efforts backed by the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The latest sanctions bill, the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act , which passed the House 400 to 20 last night, would impose the as yet toughest measures to date, just days before Rouhani’s inauguration. With AIPAC backing, the bill got 376 co-sponsors before Rouhani’s election. Some 80 of those were among the 131 members who signed a letter pushing diplomacy and urging restraint—but that letter took no positions on new sanctions. In another letter yesterday, 16 members of Congress urged that the bill be delayed on the grounds that it would be “counterproductive and irresponsible to vote on this measure before Iran’s new president is inaugurated.” The 16 called for the bill to be revamped to strengthen presidential waivers to sanctions and make clear it doesn’t authorize the use of force.
Rouhani has focused heavily on rebuilding Iran’s economy, crippled by shortages and high inflation—and of course, a big part of that is the result of economic sanctions imposed by the United States and its partners. Rouhani rightly calls them “oppressive,” but ending them depends on an agreement with the United States. He’s sending lots of positive signals that he wants a deal, including the naming of an apparently non-confrontational cabinet made up mostly of technocrats affiliated with former President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who endorsed Rouhani for president and who sat next to Rouhani during his swearing-in. Potentially the most significant appointee was Javad Zarif as foreign minister, who last served in that post from 2003 to 2007 (under President Khatami, the leader of the reformists), and who is associated with the failed effort to convince the George W. Bush administration to engage in a Grand Bargain with Iran.
Mr. Rouhani’s choice for foreign minister, Javad Zarif, raised the most eyebrows. Mr. Zarif, 53, has lived half his life in the United States, is a fluent English speaker and served from 2002 to 2007 as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations. He was also part of Mr. Rouhani’s nuclear negotiating team, which in 2003 struck a deal with European nations to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment.
Still, it’s discouraging that the White House and its allies seem to hope that Rouhani’s election will lead Iran to cave in to the West’s demands without reciprocal concessions—something that’s so unlikely as to be impossible. Over at Going to Tehran, Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett note:
But the focus on [Rouhani’s moderate traits] suggests that Western elites still look for Tehran to accommodate the West’s nuclear demands—above all, by compromising Iran’s right, as a sovereign state and signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to enrich uranium indigenously under safeguards. This motivates them to interpret Rouhani’s election as evidence of Iranians’ growing weariness with sanctions and, by extension, with their government’s policies that prompt escalating international pressure on Iran’s economy.
The bottom line is that Iran is a complex country, with various factions and centers of power that don’t always agree with each other. Because Rafsanjani, a compromise-minded businessman whose priority seems to be to end sanctions, backs him, he has a constituency for a deal. Because Khatami backs him, he can bring along the Green Movement, which might otherwise try to block a deal negotiated by hardliners, as it did with Ahmadinejad’s proposed 2009 accord. And, because he has the support of the powerful (but not all-powerful) supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Rouhani can expect support from that power center, too. Obama’s main challenge is to offer Iran a deal that is win-win.
Why a deal with Iran is critical for addressing the civil war in Syria.