Tag Archives: JCPOA

Will Confronting Iran Lead to War or Peace?

1 Oct

[Prefatory Note: The post below is a slightly modified version of an interview published in The Nation on September 25th, following the September 14th attack on Saudi oil facilities. It follows a pattern with respect to Iran of accusations, denials, and public uncertainties. This combination of elements, given the leadership in Washington and Tehran, one blustering, the other inflexible, can easily produce an unintended stumble into war. A second shorter interview is appended, conducted prior to the attacks by an Iranian journalist, M.J. Hassani of Tasnim News Agency. It illustrates the seeming rigidity of Iran’s Supreme Guide, considered as having the final word on government policy, exceeding that of the elected leadership.]

 

Daniel Falcone Introduction to the Interview: After accusations of Iranian drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities, Iranian officials and authorities indicated that “full-fledged war” with the United States could be imminent, prompting Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state oil company, to suspend oil production by nearly 6 million barrels per day. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to the purported aggression as an “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.” The allegations caused other countries to ostracize Iran at the United Nations General Assembly and significantly complicated the prospects of a multilateral nuclear deal.

 

Falcone: Can you provide some context for this latest series of headlines regarding the “Iranian threat.” Is this just “old wine new bottles?”

 

Falk: The magnitude of this attack on Saudi oil facilities makes the situation more dangerous even if it is considered as nothing more than a quantitative escalation of Iran’s response to US sanctions and other provocations, an Iranian version of Trump’s proclaimed policy of applying ‘maximum pressure’ to bring Iran to its knees. Yet it could be a qualitative escalation if the attack is treated as the biggest test of the US commitment to dominance in the region since 1956 when the US sided with the UN in calling for France, the UK, and Israel to withdraw from the Sinai after the Suez Operation. As Falcone suggests, the American Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, made war-mongering remarks, including calling the attacks ‘an act of war.’ It is hard to deny that such an attack is an act of war, but against whom, by whom, has not been firmly established.

And yet, the hawks in the room clamor for blood, and do not seem to mind if the result is an all out regional war. Stephen A. Cook, the respected Council on Foreign Relations Middle East expert, endorsed this qualitative line of interpretation when he ended his analysis of the attack with some inflammatory words: “If Trump does not respond militarily, the United States should just pack up and go home.” [see Cook, “This is the Moment that Decides the Future of the Middle East,” Flash Points, Sept. 18, 2019]

 

At the same time, Trump seems to be inclined, at least for the present, to regard the attacks on the Abqaiq oil processing facility and the Khurais oil field as a big serving of the old wine. Trump in typical fashion has displayed both bluster and restraint. At least verbally Trump has spoken in a muscular vein, insisting that if Iranian responsibility for the attack can be demonstrated, then he will retaliate in some proportionate manner. Even under these circumstances, possibly with his eye on November 2020, Trump seems determined to avoid acts that would start an unwanted war. Although ambiguously, Trump still somewhat surprisingly appears to be keeping the diplomatic door ajar. He has been quoted as saying, probably much to Israel’s chagrin, “I know they [the Iranians] want to make a deal..at some point it will work out.” It will not work out if Trump uses this transactional language when approaching the religious leadership of Iran, even if directed at President Rouhani who leads the moderate forces in Tehran. To talk of ‘a deal’ is to demean the process, and helps explain the deep distrust of any American move toward negotiation that was unreservedly expressed recently by Iran’s supreme guide, Ayatollah Khamenei. U.S. leaders and diplomats should by now have learned that the language of the bazaar does not work if the objective is to find an agreement that serves the interests of both sides.

 

 

Falcone: With Iran, Trump seems to be caught in a pickle. On the one hand, he needs to undo the Obama legacy in the region with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). On the other hand, he runs the risk of looking like a neoconservative. What’s going on in your estimation?

 

Falk: I think you are correct in sensing the conflicting pressures on Trump. He cannot go back on his repudiation of the JCPOA agreed upon in 2015 and its Obama approach without seeming to be giving in to Iran’s pressure. At the same time, he evidently does not want to follow the Bolton/neocon/Pompeo path that leads to open military action, and most likely followed by a devastating war. In this sense, Trump’s ideal outcome would be some sort of diplomatic accommodation that he could ‘sell’ as a demonstration that ‘maximum pressure’ has yielded results. Whether he could spin such an outcome as a victory outside of his base seems doubtful as there would be many critics who would insist that any such result, even if it disguised the revival of JCPOA with another round of negotiations and a new name, would be viewed as at best a repetition of what had been achieved by the P5 + 1 Obama diplomacy of 2015. In fact, it now seems that to get any agreement with Iran there would have to be a much more solid commitment by the US and its allies that sanctions could not be again re-imposed on Iran in the future without a collective decision by the parties to the agreement. Such a condtion might possibly also be reinforced requiring a confirming decision on sanctions by the UN Security Council. If I were negotiating on Iran’s behalf, I would certainly insist on ironclad assurances that sanctions could not be renewed by a unilateral decree issued in Washington. Perhaps, Iran could be persuaded to accept some joint arrangements on regional peacekeeping and nonintervention that could be sold in Washington, and maybe even in Jerusalem and Riyadh as curtailing Tehran’s projection of regional power.

 

Falcone: John Bolton was recently fired. Can you talk about his role in the administration to get us to this point. I’m wondering if his dismissal is mere optics and the Bolton-Pompeo foreign policy is firmly in Trump’s hand.


Falk: We should realize by now that Trump’s highly quixotic style is resistant to all attempts at rational analysis. We do not really know whether Trump was reacting to Bolton’s belligerence with respect to foreign policy or to his aggressive, pushy personality that has long offended many prominent persons without achieving promised foreign policy victories. For instance, his advocacy of maximum pressure did not produce the desired regime change in Iran, or even a pullback on its regional involvements as in Gaza, Lebanon, and Yemen. All it did was to raise regional tensions to dangerous heights.

 

It does not appear that there is any sign of an ideological shift in the White House, although there does seem to be a more complex approach preferred by Trump, which fuses bluster and threats with this resolve to avoid outright combat, war, and any course of action that might lead to American casualties. This zigzag pattern of diplomatic maneuvering has so far seemed capable of absorbing Trump’s drastic mood swings and off the chart impulsiveness. The fact that it drives crazy the rational think tank gurus who dominate the Beltway can be regarded as a plus for Trump. Perhaps, the best explanation of Bolton’s dismissal was his fiery independence, which must have been fundamentally at odds with Trump’s insistence on low-profile deference from his top advisors and the shaping and reshaping of foreign policy on the basis of a constant search for transactional gains (even at the cost of diplomatic setbacks), which treats global policymaking as if it is just a replica of how to succeed in the urban real estate market without trying too hard.

 

It is lamentable that Bolton’s successor as National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, seems to be a milder version of the same hawkish pedigree, although seemingly more bureaucratic, less ascerbic, in style. A few years ago, O’Brien published a book of essays [While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis] that was highly critical of the supposed passivity of Obama’s foreign policy. In recent years, as State Department coordinator of hostage releases O’Brien has proven his value by being a Trump enthusiast, which in the present climate is the best credential a person can have who seeks a promotion to a high-status position in the federal government.

Falcone: How does oil, sanctions, and our relations with the Saudis contribute to the rising tensions in the region and the dangerous possibility of escalations?

 

Falk: There is no doubt that the sanctions imposed on Iran, coupled with the repudiation of the JCPOA, has escalated the conflict, and resulted partly from Washington seeking to please the Saudis and Israelis by adopting a more confrontational approach to Iran. As well, in the background is the dream scenario of toppling the regime, or at least forcing it to plead for mercy. There is no doubt that sanctions have caused great harm as measured by social and economic conditions in Iran, a collective and indiscriminate punishment mainly inflicted on the Iranian civilian population. Such coercion violates the UN Charter and international law. This punitive behavior against Iran resembles what was done to the Iraqi population in the twelve years after the First Gulf War. The frustrations with this reliance on sanctions eventuated in a devastating attack and occupation of Iraq initiated by George W. Bush in 2003. The Iraq War ended in a costly strategic failure given its supposed goals, including a boost to extremism concretely exhibited by the rise of ISIS almost in direct response to the heavy-handed American occupation policies in Iraq.

 

The prolonged strife in Yemen is part of this mindless militarism. It has included strong American backing for a brutal Saudi intervention from the aiir that has caused widespread suffering on the part of a largely helpless society, posing serious threats of massive famine and disease epidemics

Falcone: I’ve noticed whenever Trump wants to avoid delivering a foreign policy message and tone that sounds like Bush or Clinton he trots Pence out there to do the dirty work. Is this, in your view, to promote war with Iran yet try to create an intentional distance from neoliberals and neoconservatives?

 

Falk: As always, it is hard to interpret the logic behind Trump’s moves, or even to believe that a discoverable logic exists. He seems to act without calculating gains and losses unless money is involved, but is focused on trying to achieve immediate results that bring him notoriety if not glory. If there is a policy failure, then Trump does his best to shift the blame to others. Perhaps, because confronting Iran is a risky kind of diplomatic venture, it is best to put Pence out in front as often as possible, and thus seek to distance himself from responsibility if and when policy breakdowns occur. Trump consistently personalizes foreign policy and his leadership role demands above all that media attention is focused on himself. Trump stretches the reality of almost any situation to implausible extremes making it necessary to exonerate himself from distasteful and dysfunctional behavior by inverting and inventing facts, lying when it seems helpful, and disseminating fake news without blushing.

Falcone: Of course Israel will always be pertinent in figuring out the US method to the madness concerning Iran. How can following the US-Israeli alliance help us to get a sense of potential war with Iran. Or has this war already been underway?

 

Falk: The connections with Israel are vital to an understanding of the US role in the Middle East, and especially in the context of Washington’s ‘special relationships’ with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Israeli relationship is more deeply rooted in American politics than is the Saudi connection, which seems interest-based, relating not only to oil but also to its status as the world’s primary arms purchaser. With respect to both countries, it is arguable that these special relationships are contrary to American national interests in the Middle East, and also lead to behavior contrary to America’s professed values. With regard to the Saudis, their huge investment in the dissemination worldwide of a fundamentalist Wahabist doctrine of Islam would seem radically at odds with the US counterterrorist strategy, especially since 9/11. If Iran’s indirect involvement in the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities is established, then it would allow us to make a challenging comparison with the Saudi direct and indirect involvement in the 9/11 attacks, which according to the official version of the events implicated 15 Saudis of the 19 hijackers.

 

Most damaging is the FBI evidence of Saudi support for the attacks that killed almost 3,000 Americans that has been withheld all these years until families of victims finally obtained their release. The efforts of the presidency of George W. Bush with inappropriate help from the FBI director at the time who happened to be Robert Mueller, to shield Saudi embassy officials and others close to the royal family from any accountability, or even scrutiny. Only the pressure of survivors and survivor families seems finally to be prying some of this information loose in the course of a law suit charging Saudi complicity in 9/11. Shockingly, yet to be expected, hardly a word appears in the mainstream media, and even now Trump’s Attorney General, William Barr, is invoking the state secrets act to justify on national security grounds withholding evidence that evidently would further incriminate Saudi Arabia. These developments coming to light 17 years after 9/11 should give pause to those who still question the primacy of geopolitics and the unacceptable behavor of the deep state when it comes to the conduct of American foreign policy or even the protection of national interests and the wellbeing of American citizens. It also raises haunting questions about the effects of these two special relationships, and reminds us of the ugly connivance and coverup of the Israeli assault on the USS Liberty back in 1967 that killed 44 American naval personnel. For those who seek the full exposure of this incident, I urge a reading of Joan Mellen’s Blood in the Water, written with the cooperation of leading officers of the Liberty who survived the attack. In effect, bad as Trump is on these issues, he cannot be blamed for everything. These pernicious special relationships long preceded his presidency, and were bipartisan.

 

As for Israel, the relationship has definitely turned Arab public opinion and popular sentiments strongly against the US, and made the US continued dominance in the region depend on propping up anti-democratic autocratic leaders. The whole policy of confronting Iran has for many years been driven by the Netanyahu leadership, gravely weakening America’s role as a responsible global leader, and risking a war that would be a humanitarian and geopolitical disaster.

 

How far Israel, as a state, and Netanyahu, personally, are to blame for the escalated confrontation with Iran is difficult to assess, but it would seem to be substantial. What stands out for me is how supposed American ‘patriots’ can continue to swallow the toxic kool aid of these two special relationships. It may be time to reconsider what constitutes patriotism and what constitutes treason. In a world where Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning,  and Julian Assange are viewed as criminals but John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and Donald Trump are viewed as national patriots there is something terribly wrong with our political language.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tasnim News Agency Interview Questions, M.J. Hassani, 17 Sept 2019

Hassani: On Tuesday, Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei deplored the US’ calls for talks with Iran as a trick and said that Tehran will not negotiate bilaterally or multilaterally with Washington at any level. What do you think about Ayatollah Khamenei’s remarks?

Falk: With all due respect, I think that Ayatollah Khamenei’s remarks are phrased in too unconditional language. I believe that it is not desirable to shut the door to what I call ‘restorative diplomacy,’ and thereby avoid any further devastation caused by the current reliance on ‘coercive diplomacy’ by the adversaries of Iran and by Iran’s ‘active resistance.’ Trump is unpredictable and impulsive, and should not be challenged so directly as he might act irrationally in ways that could be mutually catastrophic. At the same time, the Iranian religious leader is correct to express the view that Iran will not engage in normalization talks so long as the United States and Israel seek to impose unacceptable restraints on Iran as a sovereign nation, while they engage in unrestrained and unaccountable military action throughout the entire Middle East.

 

Hassani: The reason behind this approach is that Iran sees the US calls for negotiation as a trick aimed at imposing its demands on the Islamic Republic and pretending that the “maximum pressure” policy has worked. This is while Iran has not given in to the US pressures so far. Is the reason justified? How do you assess Iran’s policy of “active resistance” against the US?

I agree with the view that Iran should not be lured into a negotiation that gives the US a public relations victory by claiming the success of its ‘maximum pressure’ approach, but this should be done by Tehran in ways that also expresses Iran’s search for an improved regional and global political atmosphere that is geared toward peace and co-existence rather than war and hostility. I believe Iran has effectively made its point that it will not back down in the face of harsh sanctions and other hostile acts that are contrary to international law. Now it can seize the initiative by proposing a constructive approach that shows that it seeks normalization on the basis of sovereign equality, and is not seeking confrontation for the sake of confrontation.

 

Hassani: Iran has described the US return to the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the removal of sanctions against the Islamic Republic as the only way that Washington can hold talks with Iran. How do you see the prospect of open diplomacy between Iran and the US as well as the other parties to the JCPOA?

Falk: Trump has wrongly, and for regressive political reasons, condemned the JCPOA, but would have incredible political difficulty and embarrassment if he now were to affirm it. The motivation for condemning JCPOA had to do with his efforts to repudiate Obama’s diplomacy and to show total solidarity with Israel, and is not really about the 2015 agreement, except incidentally. I think Iran should propose to reconvene the countries that negotiated in 2015, and produce a new agreement based on intervening developments, but making it clear that this would not be an acceptance of any preconditions put forward by Washington, and would not relate to non-nuclear issues.

 

Hassani: Can we regard the Islamic Republic’s strategy of “active resistance” against the US pressures as successful given Ayatollah Khamenei’s assertions?

Falk: I think ‘active resistance,’ depending somewhat on how it is defined has been successful so far, but in some ways a dangerous and high risk policy if adhered to much longer. Iran, having made its point effectively, should move to higher ground by proposing constructive deescalating steps such as reconvening the P5 +1 group to come up with a new framework agreement covering Iran’s nuclear program and the ending of US sanctions. The way forward should not be a continuation of the present, but an effort to occupy this high ground of law, morality, and peaceful conflict resolution. It may also be appropriate at this time to propose an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, which likely would be rejected by Trump, but would put Iran in a favorable light internationally as creatively engaging in restorative diplomacy. Taking a longer view, Iran should consider reviving discussion of a nuclear free zone for the entire Middle East, including Israel, a country that acquired nuclear weapons by stealth and covert assistance from those states now most objecting to Iran’s nuclear program.

 

 

 

 

 

Will Trump’s War-Mongering Lead to War with Iran

12 Aug
)

[Prefatory Note: This post is an edited version of an interview on 11 August 2019 by an Iranian journalist, Nozhan Etezad, and published in Iran Newpaper. It addresses various aspects of the troubled recent relationship between Iran/U.S.]

Will Trump’s War-Mongering Lead to War with Iran

1-Why is there a contradiction in Trump’s policy towards Iran? On the
one hand, he says he wants to negotiate, and on the other, US
government is boycotting Zarif and the supreme leader of Iran. What do
think about this issue?

You are quite right to take note of this striking contradiction, but the world has cometo expect such inconsistencies in Trump’s diplomatic style between Trump’s forthcoming and forbidding sides. He is consistently unpredictable, and as such, is capable of moving without much warning in either belligerent or accommodating directions when it comes to decisions involving action. On balance, he seems to prefer negotiations to warfare. If so, it would seem sensible for top Iranian political leaders to make clear statements indicating their willingness to discuss any concerns with Trump, expressing their interest in a meeting and their commitment to the avoidance of further war endangering confrontations.

Two important unknowns should be read as qualifications to my response: how much effective pressure are outside actors putting on Trump to maintain an aggressive approach to Iran; how strong is the opposition in Tehran to any Iranian compromises or to displays of an unconditional willingness to engage in direct talks with the U.S. Government given Trump’s hostile behavior up until now. Would too great a show of eagerness for accommodation and normalization suggest Iranian weakness, including a readiness to offer concessions?

2-Some say Rouhani is not on the sanctions list of US Because Trump
want to meet him. what is your opinion? Is it possible to negotiate
with him in the current situatio? Even when Ayatollah Khamenei has
stated that neither war nor Iran will be negotiated?

There are two concerns here. First, would Trump be more receptive to Rouhanithan Zarif as a negotiating partner? Possibly, because Rouhani is the president of Iran, thus possessing an equal status in government as Trump. It might be worthwhile for Iranian leaders to explore this possible diplomatic opening, and the fact that it seems inconsistent with other aspects of U.S. behavior should not be taken too seriously as an obstacle if the initiative otherwise seems worth exploring.

The second concern is on the Iranian side. Would Ayatollah Khamenei or others in Iran block such a meeting or oppose following up should it achieve a positive outcome? I have no special opinion about this, but a lack of sufficient support on the Iranian side could have the effect of making the current situation between the two countries even more dangerous by making diplomacy appear to be a dead-end, and this could give warmongers in the U.S. Government additional influence on policy toward Iran. 

3-How do you evaluate Iranian diplomacy as a means of countering Trump’s pressure?
Has Iran’s diplomacy been successful?

I think that Iranian diplomacy has so far exhibited composure and resolve, communicating to Washington a determination by Tehran not to be intimidated even by the ‘maximum pressures’ reportedly mounted by Trump. These signs of Iranian strength and political will may be over time improving the prospects for a diplomatic accommodation as it should now be clear that coercive moves by Trump short of war will not lead Iran to back down or surrender politically in response to sanctions or other hostile acts, and recourse to war, as dangerous as it would be, so far seems only to be. relevant as a default option, that is, occurring by miscalculation or accident.

4-Do you think it is possible in the current situation to create
Track II Diplomacy for behind-the-scenes negotiations between Iran and
the US? Is there any will in America for that? Do you think Iran is
interested?

 

These questions are all difficult to answer as Track II diplomacy to be effective must be undertaken and carried forward discreetly at its early stages without public disclosure or political comment. In my view, considering the difficulties of achieving a breakthrough by way of traditional diplomacy, it is worth giving consideration to a Track II approach. Whether either government has the will or capability to pursue such a course at this point is not evident. Finally, without proper authorization by political leaders, Track II initiatives have a risk of backfiring by being disowned through contentions that the initiative was improperly authorized or dealt with in bad faith.

5-Why was Zarif sanctioned in your opinion? Is Trump angry about his
diplomatic ability and his relations with the media and American
politicians? Will subtle sanctions make him unable to travel to New
York? Will the American media no longer interview him?

My response to these questions is necessarily highly speculative. Zarif has been quoted at one point saying that agreements with the U.S. are not worth the ink used to write them, and that might have been regarded by the White House as an unacceptable insult, although I regard it as a reasonable reaction to the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, familiarly known as the 2015 Iranian Nuclear Agreement) and other unprovoked unfriendly and damaging policies pursued by the United States. Other motivations may arise from Zarif being seen as the architect of the repudiated agreement that Trump has rejected in such a defiant manner, making him disposed to be a difficult negotiator.

If Zarif comes to NYC on an official visit to represent Iran at the UN I would expect that he would be allowed to enter the US, but restricted in his movements beyond the city. While present on a UN mission, I do not think the media would be hesitant or precluded from talking with him.
.

6-Some believe that Iran is now launching a maximum countermeasures
campaign against the United States and exerting pressure on the EU. These counter-measures have so far taken the form of increased uranium enrichment and the seizure of several foreign oil tankers in the Persian. Gulf. Why has Iran taken such action? Is it in the interest of Iranian diplomacy? Can Iran use the leverage of these measures in a possible future negotiation with the US?

Both the incremental withdrawal of Iran from the obligations of the JCPOA and the tanker seizures in the Gulf seem designed to demonstrate both Iranian readiness to stand upfor their national interests and legal rights, and its pursuit of a policy of retaliatory response to provocative actions taken against its country by Trump. By so acting Iran has is sending a message to the effect that if the U.S. or others act strongly to imperil Iran’s wellbeing, then Iran will react with equivalent measures of hostility and displays of defiance.

 

Iran’s approach has risks but it also is the most promising alternative to a no-win strategy of passivity. In effect, I think Iran is making it clear that the coercion of the sort deployed will not work to weaken their political will or alter their policies, and that either there must be genuine moves by the U.S. toward normalization and respect for Iran’s sovereign rights or there could be a war that would have bad effects for many political actors. I am assuming that Iran is hoping that its adversaries realize that war would be devastating for all involved, and that in the end compromise and accommodation is the best approach for both sides. We cannot be sure about this, especially considering the various irresponsible influences at work, both seen and unseen. Given the alternatives, I believe Iran has adopted correct policies to uphold its sovereign rights in this vigorous manner given Trump’s provocations.

7-Do you find it possible to negotiate with Iran during the Trump era?
If there is a negotiation, what kind of cards does Iran have for
playing?

 

We cannot be sure about anything with regard to international negotiations in the Trump Era, but it is probably helpful to remember that Trump would politically gain immensely from walking back the crisis and achieving normalization with Iran, and lose dramatically if the crisis spins out of control, and a costly and chaotic war ensues. Remembering that presidential elections in the US are scheduled for November 2020, American domestic politics exert a huge and greater than usual impact on foreign policy. In this sense, Iran holds the cards that could give or withhold a huge political victory for Trump by whether or not it reaches an agreement.

 

It may be instructive to consider the approach adopted by Trump toward North Korea in somewhat parallel circumstances. His Korean diplomacy can be interpreted as a sign of the willingness of Trump to pursue a war-avoidance diplomacy with a long-term adversary of the United States even in the face of criticism from some advisors. The. Iranian situation is, of course, different, especially as it is closely linked to the U.S. relationship with Israel, and touches on other complexities of Middle East politics. On balance, Iran should be cautious about being too hopeful about normalization in the near future, but at the same time should remain sensitive to the emergence of potential opportunities for a diplomatic breakthrough.

8-Do you think that if Trump is reelected there will be a change in Iran’s approach to negotiations? What should the Iranian diplomacy team do if confronted by a reelected Trump?

 

It is almost impossible to predict what Trump would do with respect to foreign policy if reelected. On the optimistic side, he might want to simplify the challenges facing the. U.S. by resolving foreign policy concerns to the extent possible so as to focus on such domestic priorities as health and immigration. His presidency might also shift from popularity with voters concerns to legacy concerns, and whether in the end Trump wants to be remembered as a geopolitical warrior or as an innovative peacemaker. We can only hope that the latter possibility prevails if political misfortune befalls, and Trump is reelected. I would also suggest that at this point it is not more than 50% likely that Trump will be reelected. It depends on whether has Democratic opponent has unified support among Democrats and whether the American economy remains strong (employment, stock market).

With respect to Iran’s response to Trump’s reelection, it seems like to depend on intervening developments, and whether Trump seems combative in depicting American foreign policy toward Iran and the Middle East. I would recommend that the Iran diplomatic team assess the situation as it unfolds without endorsing expectations either of accommodation or intensifying confrontation. The most likely future is continuity, a small variation in either direction as compared to the present unsatisfactory situation.

9-Why did Trump abandon a military strike against Iran? Was it because of the
fear of Iran’s military response deterred or because of Iran’s diplomatic consultations?

 

The true motives for such a sudden policy reversal are rarely truthfully disclosed by governments, I suspect a combination of factors converged in this instance of which the most important was the sense that the conflict would dangerously escalate once military force was used, raising the risks of a foreign policy disaster to unacceptable levels. Besides, Trump had campaigned in the past against war making in the Middle East, and during his presidency while he has often irresponsibly bluffed and threatened, so far he has not acted militarily.

10-How successful has Iranian media diplomacy been in influencing
regional and global public opinion to counter Trump’s policies?
Does Trump Really Want Negotiation or War?

Iranian media diplomacy has been successful in conveying to the world the resolve of Iran to resist by all available means pressures from the U.S. and its regional adversaries. This has likely made regional actors advocate caution on the part of U.S. allies at least via confidential communications. There are few voices in the region that view a war with Iran as a viable option, and what Iran has shown by its strong recent responses to the repudiation of JCPOA and sanctions is that without war no political victory can be achieved merely by relying on threats and various forms of coercion. Also relevant as discouraging military action are the experiences of war in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen

11-How successful has Iran’s diplomacy been in persuading Europeans to
profit economically under a nuclear deal?

I am not an expert on this, but see little evidence that Iran has been able to work out significant beneficial arrangements with European countries, especially with respect to arranging oil sales. My impression is that while Europe is critical of the Trump path it is not prepared to risk worsening its economic and diplomatic relations with the US by rescuing Iran from the sanctions policy.

12-Some believe the US cannot make peace in Afghanistan without Iran’s
participation. Is it possible for Iran and the US to discuss an Afghanistan arrangement
during the Trump era? Some reports suggest that Russia will hold a
summit on Afghanistan soon. Do you think a meeting is possible
between Iranian and US officials on the sidelines in the course of such an event?

 

I think anything is possible along these lines with respect to finding a path to peace in Afghanistan, which seems a high priority of Trump, as well as of other political actors. It all depends on how priorities are weighed against one another by Washington and others. There is no requirement of overall consistency when it comes to policymaking. Iran might also resist constructive participation in Afghan negotiations favored by the West so long as Iran is targeted by sanctions and by threats/warnings.

 

Informal meetings on the sidelines are also quite possible as both sides may want to signal their willingness to find a mutually acceptable path to normalization and away from a slide toward war that would have catastrophic consequences for all involved.

14-Some people are saying that if US Senator Rand Paul’s meets with Zarif it could lead to improvements in Iran-US relations. What is your opinion? Others say appointing
a representative, such as Zalmay Khalilzad, would be a better idea to
negotiate with Iran because he had previously talked to Iranian
officials about Afghanistan. What is your opinion? If Trump wants to
deal with Iran might he indicate this by giving Paul a green light to go ahead?

I doubt that Rand Paul would be given any serious diplomatic role. He is looked upon in Washington as an eccentric and inexperienced outsider that is not trusted by the political mainstream, including by most members of his own political party. With Trump, nothing can be ruled out, and it is possible Paul would be used as an expendable triial balloon. In contrast, Khalilzad is an experienced and mainstream envoy whose appointment would signal an intention to give diplomacy a serious chance. But it might also require a commitment to diplomacy that Trump is not presently ready to make. If so, Paul could become a preferred option as there would not be strong expectations of success created by his appointment.

15-What will be the position of Trump as stand between Bolton and Pompeo and
the pursuit of his anti-war approach towards Iran?
How much diplomatically is it possible for Iran to convince the new
British government to come to an agreement with it? What is your
prediction? Will Boris Johnson be closely associated with Trump after Iran’s
election or will he pursue a more independent policy?

As far as the relationship of Boris Johnson’s leadership of Britain to Iran is concerned, I imagine that the most likely course is one openly supportive of Trump. Johnson will be preoccupied with minimizing the post-Brexit challenges facing Britain, and will be highly motivated to seek positive and enhanced trade and finance relations with the United States to offset an economic freefall some expect to follow quickly in the event of a no-deal departure from the EU. Under these conditions Johnson is almost certain not to allow any friction in relation to Iran to interfere with this overriding priority. At the same time, Johnson is ambitious, impulsive, and unpredictable, and might take the chance of adopting a more independent approach to Iran and the Middle East generally. 

16-Finally, Could Trump risk making a military strike against Iran before
the 2020 election? What if he wins again? Do you think it will be
possible for the US or its allies to attack Iran after the election?

 

Anything is possible, but as my earlier responses suggest, it is most likely but far from certain that Trump will seek to avoid war with Iran and not follow the advice of such anti-Iranian hawkish advisors as Bolton and Pompeo. I think the inhibitions on recourse to military action against Iran will be somewhat stronger before the 2020 election than after a Trump political victory in the form or reelection. At such a point, I would still expect that Trump would seek to avoid war with Iran, and also that even Israel in the end would also not want an. actual war, which could cause Israel to experience massive devastation, and therefore, behind the scenes Israel can be expected to push either for a continuation of the present diplomacy of exerting pressure as at present or even might favor deescalating the conflict for fear that it could at some point unintentionally produce a mutually destructive war. 

 

 

Alliance Blackmail: Israel’s Opposition to the Iran Nuclear Agreement

26 Jul

 

The Vienna Agreement [formally labeled by diplospeak as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)] reached by the P5 + 1 on July 14, 2015 has been aptly hailed as a political breakthrough, not only because it calms regional worries about Iran’s nuclear program, but more so because it has the potential to remove an ugly dimension of conflict from the regional turmoil in the Middle East. Such a diplomatic success, after so many years of frustration, chaos, and strife, should be an occasion for hope and celebration, and in many venues it is, although not in Israel or Saudi Arabia or among the neo-con kingpins in Washington think tanks and their numerous Republican allies in the U.S. Congress.

 

Which side will prevail in this dysfunctional encounter is presently obscure, which itself is an indication of the dismal conditions of political life in America. Many unanswered and unanswerable questions bedevil the process: Will this agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program be approved, and then implemented, or will it be blocked or unacceptably revised before coming into operation, or later on? Will Iran become associated more openly with Western attempts to defeat ISIS and in the desperate need to bring peace and humane governance to Syria where the people of the country have endured such severe suffering since 2011? Will these developments allow Iran to be treated as a normal state within regional and global political settings, and if this reduced atmosphere of external tension occurs will it also have moderating impacts on the internal governing process in Iran? Or will Israel and its allies succeed in keeping Iran in ‘a terrorist cage’ reserved for pariah states, and continue to insist upon a military option to wage war against Iran? Will Israel receive ‘compensation’ in the form of enhanced military assistance from the United States to demonstrate Washington’s unwavering commitment to the alliance? Will Israel’s secretly acquired nuclear weapons capability be called into question in an effort to achieve denuclearization, which is more consistent with peace and morality than calling into question Iran’s threat of nuclear proliferation? Further afield, will this gap between the American/European and Israeli/Gulf approach lead over time to new geopolitical alignments that broaden beyond policy toward Iran’s nuclear program?

 

At the core these many concerns, is the nature and health of the United States/Israel relationship, and more broadly the appalling balance of forces that controls political life from the governmental hub in Washington. The alliance bonding between the two countries have been called ‘unconditional’ and even ‘eternal’ by Obama, words echoed by every American public figure with any credible mainstream political ambitions, currently including even the supposed radical presidential aspirant, Bernie Sanders. And yet that is not nearly good enough for AIPAC and the Adelson-led legions pro-Israeli fanatics, which periodically lambaste this strongly pro-Israeli president for alleged betrayals of Israel’s most vital security interests, and generally take derisive issue with the slightest sign of accommodationist diplomacy in the region.

The most illuminating discussion of these issues from Tel Aviv’s perspective is undoubtedly the recently published memoir of Israel’s American born ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, who served in this key role during the period 2009-2013. Oren was elected to the Knesset earlier this year representing, Kulanu, a small centrist Israeli party focused on economic and social reform. Oren’s bestselling book, Ally: Managing the America/Israel Divide (Random House, 2015) succeeds in combining an intelligent insider’s account of the strained relations between the Netanyahu government and the Obama presidency with frequent vain and self-aggrandizing autobiographical reflections in the spirit of ‘Look Ma, I am dancing with the Queen,’ reinforced by analysis that justifies every aspect of Israel’s extreme right-wing and militarist approaches to security policy and diplomacy. To understand better the Israeli worldview that mixes genuine fears of its enemies with arrogant behavior toward its friends there is no more instructive book.

 

An American–born Jew, Oren conceived of himself both as a product of and an emissary to the Jewish diaspora in the United States, diplomat discharging his conventional government-to-government diplomatic role. Above all, Oren during his tenure in office (2009-2013) apparently did his best to keep political tensions between these two countries and their personally uncongenial leaders below the surface while unreservedly supporting the public claim that this special alliance relationship serves the interests and values of both countries. Oren ends his book with a dramatic assertion of this overlap: “Two countries, one dream.” Perhaps even more disturbing than the rationalization of all that is Zionist and Israeli throughout the book is the seeming sincerity of Oren’s sustained advocacy. A bit of cynicism here and there might have made Oren less of a self-anointed Manchurian candidate.

 

Given this posture of dedicated advocate, it is hardly surprising that Oren is a harsh opponent of those liberal groups that question AIPAC’s constructive influence on American policy debates or that he views initiatives critical of Israel, such as the Goldstone Report or the BDS campaign, as dangerous, disreputable, and damaging threats to Israel’s security and wellbeing. Even J-Street, harmless as it has turned out to be, was viewed as an anathema to Oren who turned down its invitations and regarded it as somehow exhibiting a leftist posture toward Israel. Only later when it became domesticated by denouncing the Goldstone Report and generally supportive of Israel’s use of force against Gaza did Oren feel it had joined what he calls ‘the mainstream’ of Beltway politics, which in his slanted vision is where he situates AIPAC and the U.S. Congress. Quite incredibly, even Martin Indyk, early in his career an AIPAC researcher and more recently the American ambassador to Israel, was viewed as a poor appointment as Special Envoy to the Kerry peace talks of 2013-2014 because he did not have a cordial enough relationship with Netanyahu. From my perspective, it was also a poor appointment, but for opposite reasons–an in-your-face display of pro-Israeli partisanship that undermined any credibility the United States claimed as a responsible intermediary at the resumed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

 

Central to Oren’s presentation of Israeli behavior is the one-way street that he treats as embedded in the word ‘ally,’ which for Oren expresses the peculiar and generally unacknowledged character of this ‘special relationship.’ It is well illustrated by Oren’s support for Israel’s effort led with undisguised bluntness by Netanyahu to undermine Obama capacity to negotiate a nuclear arrangement with Iran despite JCPOA being strongly endorsed as in the national interest of the United States, but also of France, United Kingdom, China, Russia, and Germany. The agreement also seems beneficial for the Middle East as a whole and indeed for the world. Such an encompassing consensus endorsing the elaborate arrangement negotiated was exhibited in a resolution of support adopted by the UN Security Council [SC Resolution 2231, 20 July 2015] by an unusual unanimous vote. Oren still complains bitterly that Israel’s rejectionist views toward an agreement with Iran were in the end circumvented, at least so far. At one point Oren even suggests that Israel was better off when the inflammatory Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Iran’s president rather than the more measured Hassan Rouhani. In his view, Iran remains just as aggressively disposed toward Israel despite the more moderate language of the present leadership, but that the West has been falsely reassured to the point of being willing to ease gradually the sanctions previously imposed in this latest diplomatic initiative, thereby raising the level of threat faced by Israel and accounting for Netanyahu’s frantic opposition to the agreement.

 

In the end, despite siding with Israel at every turn with respect to tension with the U.S. Government, Oren recognizes that Obama has been on balance been a faithful ally. Although indicting the Obama presidency the United States for being a disloyal ‘ally’ when the Iran chips were on the diplomatic table. It is not presently clear whether Netanyahu’s insistence that the nuclear deal (JCPOA) is ‘a historic mistake’ will overcome rationality and self-interest in the American setting either in the immediate future of approving the (non-treaty) agreement, or over a longer period should the United States have the misfortune of electing a Republican president in 2016 who are presently stumbling over one another in their competition to denounce more decisively.

 

More generally, Oren outrageously proposes that this alliance between Israel and the United States, to live up to its potential, should have three dimensions that would make it unlike all others: ‘no daylight’ on common concerns, that is, no policy differences; ‘no suprises,’ that is, advance notification to the other government of any international policy initiatives bearing on the Middle East; and never a public display of disagreements when policy differences between the two governments emerge as happened with Iran. The justifications given by Oren emphasize the usual litany of two states sharing commitments to political democracy, anti-terrorism, and having common regional strategic and security goals.

 

What seems superficially astounding is that the world’s number one state seems frightened to step on the smallest Israeli toe, while Israel is ready to do whatever it needs to do to get its way on policy issues in the event of a dispute with its supposedly more powerful partner. After negotiating a far tougher deal (on enriched uranium and intrusive inspections) with Iran than the realities warrant, at least partly out of deference to Israeli concerns, Washington still feels it appropriate and apparently necessary to indicate a readiness to provide ‘compensation,’ that is, enlarged contributions beyond the current $3.1 billion, offers of weapons systems designed to bolster further Israel QME (Qualitative Military Edge) in the Middle East. The White House additionally sends its recently appointed Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, to Israel with hat in hand, evidently to reassure the Israeli leadership that nothing about the agreement is inconsistent with continuing support of Israel’s right to defend itself as it sees fit, which appears to be a writ of permission in violation of the UN Charter and international law by granting Israel assurance in advance of U.S. support should it at some future point launch an attack on Iran. It should be noted that no state in the world enjoys such inappropriate benefits from an alliance with the United States. The whole dubious logic of QME implies a continuing willingness to put Israeli security permanently on an unlawful pedestal in the region that places other states in a subordinate position that makes them susceptible to Israeli military threats and hegemonic demands. It is tantamount to providing Israel with assured capabilities to win any war, whatever the pretext, that should emerge in the future, and also means that Israel is the only state in the Middle East not deterred by concerns about retaliation by an adversary. For years Israel has been threatening Iran with a military attack in flagrant violation of Article 2(4) that unconditionally prohibits “any threat or use of force” except in situations of self-defense as strictly limited by Article 51.

 

Oren, of course, sees things much differently. He repeats without pausing to entertain the slightest doubt, that Israeli is the only democracy in the Middle East and joined at the hip to American foreign policy as a result of these shared interests and values. He insists that the UN is biased against Israel, and is thankful for American blanket opposition to all hostile initiatives, whether justified or not, that arise within the Organization. For Oren UN bias is clearly evident in the greater attention given to Israel’s alleged wrongs than those of much bloodier international situations and worse violators. He also faults Obama, as compared to George W. Bush, for being a weak ally, too ready to please the Palestinians and indeed the entire Islamic world, and supposedly causing an unspecified ‘tectonic shift’ in the alliance with Israel during his presidency. In this regard, the Iran Agreement is the last straw for Oren, and the most damaging example of a departure from the alleged alliance code of no daylight and no surprises (epitomized by recourse to secret diplomacy between Washington and Tehran that left Tel Aviv out of the loop for several months leading up to the agreement). Of course, Oren is unapologetic about Israel’s obstructionist behavior. He treats Netanyahu’s conception of Israel’s security as essentially correct, if at times unnecessarily confrontational. He believes that in this instance Israel’s worries are sufficiently vital and well-founded as to deserve putting aside diplomatic niceties. This was the case when the Israeli leader was invited by the Republican leadership in Congress to speak on Iran at a special joint session convened for this purpose in early 2015 without even informing the White House in advance of the invitation, a violation of political protocol.

 

Deconstructing the Oren view of alliance politics makes it clear that its operational code would be better observed if the Congress and not the President represented the United States in matters of foreign policy. Netanyahu and a majority of the U.S. Congress do seem to see eye to eye, including of course on whether the Iran Nuclear Agreement, as negotiated, should be approved. Across the board of foreign policy in the Middle East, Netanyahu and Congress are bellicose, inclined toward military solutions despite the dismal record of failure, and inclined to decide about friends and enemies on the basis of geopolitical alignment and religious orientation without the slightest concern about whether or not supportive of democracy, human rights, and decency.

 

Should a Republican with these views be elected president in 2016, then Oren’s dream of the alliance as based on ‘no daylight, no surprises, and no public discord’ would likely come true, illustrating the proposition that one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare. More carefully considered, it would seem probable that if Hilary Clinton gets the keys to the White House her approach to Israel will be closer to that of Congress than that of Obama even recalling that Obama backed away quickly from his early demand that Israel freeze settlement expansion and has significantly increased military assistance for Israel without exhibiting much concern about peace and justice in the region, or with regard to the Palestinian ordeal. U.S. response to the Sisi coup in Egypt is indicative of a strategic convergence of approach by the Obama White House and Netanyahu’s Likud led government.

 

Two realities are present as surfacing in response to the Iran Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA):

-the presidency is on one side (along with Clinton) and Congress/Israel is on the other side;

–yet more broadly conceived, the alliance remains as unconditional and bipartisan as ever, defiant toward the UN and the constraints of international law whenever expedient.

 

A final point. JCPOA imposes more restrictions on Iranian enrichment capabilities and stockpiles, and on inspection and monitoring of compliance, than has been imposed on any country in the course of the entire nuclear era. Its regional justifications, aside from Israeli security, emphasize the avoidance of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East involving Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. And left out of consideration altogether was the nuclear weapons arsenal of Israel acquired with Western complicity and by covert means, as well as through operations outside the Nonproliferation Treaty regime, which is used to tie Iran’s hands and feet. Such are the maneuvers of geopolitics, that underpin the alliance so strongly celebrated by Michael Oren.