Iran’s ship seizure, rogue behavior, and plausible deniability

Iranian press has reported that Iranian forces have intercepted a cargo vessel—which they erroneously claim to be American—and directed it to Bandar Abbas, Iran’s main port in the Persian Gulf. There are reports that up to 34 Americans may be onboard, but that too isn’t yet certain, and the Pentagon is denying any American citizens are on board. Regardless, a few thoughts:

  • It would be wrong to believe that this action was undertaken by rogue elements. After all, according to Article 110 of the Iranian constitution, the Supreme Leader is “Supreme commander of the armed forces” with power to appoint and dismiss the Chief of the General Staff, IRGC commanders, and supreme commanders of the army, navy, and air force. If Ayatollah Ali Khamenei really disapproved of his officers’ actions, he would fire them immediately.
  • Inevitably, the US intelligence community will be tasked with determining the complicity of top officials. And, to do this, they will scour communications intercepts. But the absence of a direct order in the signals intelligence should not suggest exculpation. After all, the Iranian hierarchy is designed to enable plausible deniability. The Supreme Leader is a dictator by veto power. He gives orders not about what to do, but about what not to do. Anything he doesn’t forbid is okay. This is what happened against the backdrop of the seizure of the British sailors in 2007, and this is likely what happened today. To understand Iranian decision-making, see this essay.
  • The Iranian government often plays good cop-bad cop. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) at no time bought in to the current nuclear negotiations. That Secretary of State John Kerry did not insist on proof that the IRGC would subordinate itself to the process is an American failure. The same sort of episode (albeit on a smaller scale) occurred against the backdrop of German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel’s 1992 call for “Critical Engagement,” and also in 1998, when a busload of American businessmen were attacked in Tehran against the backdrop of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s “Dialogue of Civilizations.” More on IRGC “rogue behavior” here, and more in this monograph on the history of Iranian vigilantism.
  • Regardless, let’s be clear although in a world where common sense prevailed in Washington, the following statements would be unnecessary: The problem is not that President Obama hasn’t apologized enough. Nor is the problem that the West hasn’t given Iran enough incentives. Rather, the issue is the character of the regime and its reluctance to abide by the norms of international behavior. This is why the Clinton administration characterized it as a rogue regime, and this is why the history and lessons of US diplomacy with rogue regimes still apply.

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Obama’s deceptions on Iran and Cuba

Remember Jonathan Gruber, the Obamacare architect who as caught on tape boasting how the president had taken advantage of the “stupidity” of American voters to pass his health-care law?

Well it seems, Obama is applying the “Gruber Doctrine” once again — this time to foreign policy.

The Gruber Doctrine is based on the premise that, in the words of the now infamous MIT professor, “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage” and that the “basic exploitation of the lack of . . . understanding of the American voter” is “really, really critical” for enacting your preferred policies.

That is precisely what Obama is doing when it comes to Iran and Cuba.

With Iran, the administration is once again relying on a “lack of transparency” to ram through its nuclear deal. Even Iran’s foreign minister dismissed the administration’s talking points describing the framework agreement as “spin.” Obama is warning that the only alternative to his deal is “another war in the Middle East ,” even though he has yet to reveal the key details: Will sanctions relief be front-loaded, as Iran insists, or will sanctions come off gradually, as the Iranians meet certain performance benchmarks? Will there be any transparency into Iran’s past secret nuclear activity, information that is critical to verifying its compliance today? Will there be “snap inspections” and access to all Iranian facilities, both civilian and military? Iran says no. Obama is counting on the fact that Americans won’t be able to follow all the details about “centrifuges” and “domestic enrichment capacity.” He won’t share the details but wants us to trust him that there will be “unprecedented verification.” If you believe that, you probably still think that if you like your health plan, you can keep your health plan.

Obama is also counting on exploiting the “lack of understanding of the American voter” when it comes to his normalization of relations with the Castro regime in Cuba. At a news conference in Panama this weekend, Obama declared that “There is majority support of our policy in the United States” and that “the American people don’t need to be persuaded that this is in fact the right thing to do.” A new poll commissioned by my American Enterprise Institute colleague Roger Noriega for InterAmerican Security Watch finds that Americans do support Obama’s plan by a margin of 51 to 38 percent . . . until they learn some basic facts about Cuba. When Americans are told that Cuba is hosting Russian ships in its harbors, opposition to normalization jumps to 58 percent while support sinks to 30 percent. When Americans are told of Cuba’s attempts to smuggle 240 tons of weaponry to North Korea, opposition jumps to 63 percent and support drops to 26 percent. When Americans are told that Cuba is harboring a cop-killer and terrorists, opposition jumps to 63 percent, and support plummets to 23 percent. When asked whether sanctions should be maintained pending Cuba’s progress on human rights and free elections, Americans agree by a margin of 64-16. And when asked whether Cuba’s designation as a supporter of terrorism should be maintained because it harbors terrorists, respondents agreed 68 percent to 16 percent.

In other words, Noriega says, “When Americans hear basic facts about Castro’s hostility and human-rights violations, they know that the president’s unilateral concessions only emboldened a dangerous, despotic regime.”

Look for Obama to continue employing Gruberesque tactics to sell his appeasement of Cuba and Iran. No doubt the final Iran deal will be presented in a “tortured way” to “mislabel” Obama’s concessions to Tehran and make the inspections seem more intrusive than they are. The same will be true of Obama’s coming decision to lift Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terror. There will be no mention from the White House of terrorists being protected and supported by the Castro regime, such as Joanne Chesimard — who murdered a New Jersey state trooper and was named in 2013 by Obama’s own FBI as one of its Most Wanted Terrorists . There will be no mention of the 70 other U.S. fugitives that Obama’s own State Department reports “The Cuban government continued to harbor” while providing “support such as housing, food ration books, and medical care” — or of the Spanish and Colombian terrorists receiving similar support from the Castro brothers.

Why would they tell Americans these things? Obama’s attitude, to paraphrase Gruber, is that “I wish . . . we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have [these agreements with rogue regimes] than not.” Obama and his foreign policy team know what is good for us. And if we’re too “stupid” to catch the deception, that’s our problem, not theirs.

It worked for Obamacare, they figure, so why not Iran and Cuba?


Gulf Armies Are Doomed in Yemen

Brian M. Downing

Security, Middle East

Despite the poor record of their armies, an emerging Arab alliance worries both Iran and Israel.

Sunni Arab Gulf states have great wealth, spend immense amounts on defense, and command large numbers of troops. They have nonetheless depended on foreign powers, chiefly the United States, for their security. Paradoxically, their arms purchases seek to obligate Western powers to defend their big Arab customers, as they try to build competent militaries.

This was made clear when the startling rise of the Islamic State (IS) last year led to proclamations and bravado from Sunni Arab capitals, but little of military significance. The bulk of the forces fighting IS in Iraq are Shia soldiers and militias and Western fighter pilots.

The Sunnis are trying to change this dependency by building an international force of land, sea, and air units to deal with the Houthi rebels in Yemen. What will come of this coalition in Yemen? What does it portend for the Middle East?

The Rise of the Houthis

Yemen has been continuously rent by conflict and civil war for decades. Political unity has proven short-lived. The recent Houthi offensive is simply the most recent war between the north, which was governed by the Ottoman Turks, and the south, which was a British colony.

Sunni capitals are in considerable alarm over the rise of the Houthis. The Houthis are seen as proxies of Iran and a vanguard of Shia expansionism. This concern is widely repeated in the U.S. Congress but is not well-founded. U.S. intelligence, for example, sees Iranian influence in Yemen as recent and not especially large. The driving forces behind the Houthis come from inside Yemen.

Read full article


Why Iran hawks can’t be honest about what they really want

Senator Lindsey Graham was for the interim deal with Iran before he was against it.

Sorry, let me back up. In 2013, as a major first step in securing a nuclear deal, Iran and the US, along with other world powers, agreed to an interim deal known as the Joint Plan of Action. The agreement froze Iran’s nuclear program and lifted some economic sanctions temporarily, as a hold-over until the countries could reach a final, comprehensive agreement.

As The Hill’s Jordan Fabian points out today in a sharp article, at the time Sen. Graham was outraged by the interim deal, saying “you can’t trust the Iranians” and pledging that Congress would pass new sanctions, thus violating America’s commitment in the interim deal and killing it.

Now, as Fabian notes, Graham suddenly loves the interim deal. He’s said the US should not sign a comprehensive final deal with Iran at all, but rather should just stick to the interim agreement for the remainder of President Obama’s time in office. The interim deal “has worked pretty well for the world,” he said on Face the Nation, but the US should “not do a final deal” until Obama leaves office. In other words, he wants to halt the diplomatic process outright.

Graham’s spokesman explained to Fabian that the senator “wasn’t wild about the interim deal when it was announced but it’s looking better in light of what President Obama is now discussing.”

If you want to understand Graham’s seemingly baffling flip-flop, you need to understand that Iran hawks like Graham believe that Obama is focusing on the wrong issue. The fundamental problem isn’t Iran’s nuclear program, they believe: it’s that the Iranian regime is so fundamentally evil that America’s only viable choice is to destroy it outright. But proposing war with Iran is wildly unpopular, so they can’t actually say that. Instead they need to say something else — something less unpopular — that makes a deal impossible.

Graham opposed the interim deal when it looked like the interim deal could be sunk; now that the interim deal is a fact of life, he opposes the next step in Iran negotiations. Republicans like him (as well as some Iran hawks in the Democratic party) in fact oppose any deal of any kind with Iran.

You see this not just in the brazenness of flip-flops like Graham’s, but in the earlier Republican demands that Congress pass new Iran sanctions to “strengthen” Obama’s hand in negotiations, when in fact new sanctions would violate America’s promises and thus sink talks. Similarly, you see it in hawks insisting that the US make poison-pill demands that Iran could never possibly agree to, such as surrendering even the components of peaceful nuclear energy development.

These are all just different ways of trying to kill any deal whatsoever without coming out and saying as much. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, who organized the Republican letter to Iran’s leaders warning them against signing a nuclear deal, laid the strategy out clearly. “The end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of congressional action. It is very much an intended consequence,” Cotton said in January. “A feature, not a bug, so speak.”

These Iran hawks are not just trying to deny Obama a politically beneficial foreign policy victory. If you actually listen to them, it becomes clear that they believe that the fundamental problem is core to the nature of the Iranian regime, and this problem can only be solved by destroying that regime entirely.

Any nuclear deal, in this view, no matter how favorable the terms, is a major step in the wrong direction because it creates the conditions whereby the US and Iran can peacefully tolerate one another. The more peace there is between the US and Iran, the less likely it becomes that American power can be deployed to destroy the Iranian system of government.

This is not a secret position. Leading Republicans, along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have repeatedly compared the Iran nuclear negotiations to Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 Munich agreement with Adolf Hitler, in which the UK tolerated Germany’s annexation of parts of Czechoslovakia in exchange for peace.

Never mind that comparison is nonsense: the Iran deal involves Iran surrendering the vast majority of its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief; in other words, Iran is giving things up, which is the exact opposite of what happened at Munich. The point is that these hawks see the Iranian government as akin to Nazi Germany: a problem that can only be resolved once the enemy regime has been obliterated.

But Iran hawks can’t openly argue for destroying the Iranian government, because that would almost certainly require a repeat of what we did in Iraq, with a massive ground invasion and a bloody, years-long occupation that would cost thousands of American lives. And that is not a politically palatable idea.

It may not be that all hawks desire war. There are certain fantasies that the Iranian people will rise up against their government and replace it with a pro-American, free-market democracy, if only economic sanctions are given time to work. This often involves highly superficial readings of the 2009 “green movement” protests in Iran.

This is the very same argument that justified a half-century-long US embargo of Cuba that only entrenched Fidel Castro’s regime and worsened the lives of Cuban families. The difference from Cuba, of course, is that in the absence of a deal, Iran will be building an ever-growing nuclear program that will at some point force the US to choose between allowing Iran to build a nuclear bomb or war. Which do you think Iran hawks will choose?

This is how you have Iran hawks arguing that the status quo is working great, even when they were arguing only months earlier that the status quo was a disaster that proved Obama’s fecklessness. The more that the status quo stretches on, the more that Iran’s nuclear program will grow and grow, and the more that military conflict between the US and Iran becomes likely.

You already see hawks like Cotton arguing that this US-Iran conflict would be a breeze, with a few days of US bombing solving the problem. The fact that arms control analysts agree that bombing Iran would only set them back a few years, and if anything would lead them to decide to build a bomb as quickly as possible, is irrelevant. The nuclear weapons program has never been the issue for hawks. The real issue has been allowing this regime to exist. If the bombings fail to forever halt Iran’s nuclear program, as they surely would, then that’s great news, because it would leave the US and Iran in a state of war with Tehran rushing towards a nuclear bomb, thus edging the US even closer to an all-out invasion to destroy the Iranian regime once and for all.

But the proponents of blowing up the Iran deal can’t say any of this, because the inevitable conclusion of their logic is too terrible to even propose, so you have nonsense like Graham supporting the interim deal he once hated.


How France Became an Iran Hawk | Foreign Policy

How France Became an Iran Hawk


A Nuclear Iran? | The Weekly Standard

Nuclear Iran?

via A Nuclear Iran? | The Weekly Standard.


2 big nuclear concessions to Iran are coming into focus

afp iran nuclear talks get down to nitty gritty

The terms of a possible nuclear deal with Iran are now out, as the AP has gotten its hands on a draft version of a framework agreement.

Tehran and the US-led group of countries (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, a group known as the P5+1) are negotiating an end to the international standoff over the Iranian nuclear program.

The AP’s reporting suggests that the sides aren’t exactly close to reaching even such a preliminary deal, which has a March 31 deadline and would prefigure a final agreement to be signed by the end of the June.

It’s still unclear how long an agreement would even last, with France pushing for a 25-year lifespan, according to AP. The sides are also split on how and when various international sanctions on Iran would be lifted, and on the extent of nuclear research and development Iran would be permitted to continue over the life of a deal.

But AP reporting confirms two fairly substantial P5+1 concessions to Iran.

Firstly, it says that the P5+1 has agreed to let Iran operate 6,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges. Both Israeli and US sources have previously reported that the P5+1 was considering letting Iran run between 4,000 and 6,500 centrifuges under a final agreement. But the AP report is the best confirmation so far that the P5+1 has substantially shifted its negotiating posture, eroding its demands on Iran’s centrifuge capacity.

The 6,000 number is a huge increase on the 1,500 machines the P5+1 was demanding a year ago, according to the AP.

Iran nuclear facility

That’s about 185,000 centrifuges fewer than Iran would need to feed its Bushehr nuclear reactor without having to import enriched uranium from a foreign seller.

But as Olli Heinonen, a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former deputy director general for safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency, told Business Insider last month, it’s also 5,000 centrifuges more than Iran needs to run a “demonstration cascade” that would allow the country to maintain its nuclear scientists’ expertise and keep up its mastery of the fuel cycle.

Six-thousand centrifuges can produce about 6,000 separative work units‘ worth of uranium enrichment a year, which has a market cost of only $852,000. Iran has no specific civilian need to operate 6,000 machines, and buying enriched uranium on the international market would be far cheaper than running the centrifuges anyway.

But it does allow Tehran to remain between six months and a year of nuclear breakout, and that’s assuming its stockpile of low-enriched uranium remains constant and there are no additional secret nuclear facilities. Iran has cheated on both counts in recent years, so the 6,000 centrifuge number takes a huge gamble with Tehran’s future compliance — in addition to giving it a capability that isn’t strictly necessary to its civilian nuclear needs.

kerry zarif

Secondly, the AP reported that elements of the arms embargo on Iran would be rolled back early on in the life of the deal.

“If a deal is reached, officials say various layers of UN sanctions on Iran will be eased,” the AP reports. “That will include parts of the UN arms embargo, with Russia and China, in particular, more forward-leaning on that front and talking about acting within weeks of a full accord.”

This would be a double concession. International sanctions have forced Iran to develop one of the world’s most comprehensive domestic arms industries. But while Iran is one of the only countries on earth capable of building submarines, warships, and ballistic missiles, their materiel isn’t up to Russian or Chinese standards.

Russia and China are both members of the P5+1. And they both have a history of backing Tehran on various issues — Russia and Iran are the Assad regime’s only two remaining state allies in the Syrian civil war, after all. And they’re both energetic arms exporters, with China’s exports increasing 143% in the past five years, according to the Financial Times.

russia s-300

The end of the embargo opens up a new arms market for both countries. Iran is one of the region’s rising powers, according to no less an authority than President Barack Obama. China and Russia realize they both have something to gain from that.

There are still plenty of nuclear-related issues that haven’t quite been resolved in the negotiations, or at least where there hasn’t been a publicly reported fix. The status of the Arak plutonium reactor, Iranian disclosures of the military dimensions of their nuclear program, limits on centrifuge testing and construction, and the exact process and timetable for lifting international sanctions are still up in the air.

The question now is whether these will be dealt with through further P5+1 concessions — or whether Iran is willing to give the ground needed to reach a final resolution to the nuclear standoff.

SEE ALSO: An Iran nuclear deal is coming into focus, but there’s one glaring problem

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Thiessen: Obama’s failed Iran policy, not protocol, is the problem

So let’s get this straight: Iranian-backed rebels have overthrown the pro-American government in Yemen that was helping us fight al-Qaeda’s most dangerous branch. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has deployed its terrorist Quds Force into Iraq, and its infamous commander, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, is on the ground leading the offensive against the Islamic State. Iran is on the verge of getting the world to lift economic sanctions in exchange for a nuclear agreement so bad that it has actually united Arabs and Israelis in opposition.Read full article >>


France talks tough on Iran as US looks to strike a deal

As US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for nuclear talks on Sunday, some analysts say that France has adopted a tougher stance on Iran while the US now seems eager to clinch a deal.