Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
They Said It:
As evening fell the day’s oppression lifted:
Far peaks came into focus; it had rained:
Across wide lawns and cultured flowers drifted
The conversation of the highly trained.
Two gardeners watched them pass and priced their shoes:
A chauffeur waited, reading in the drive,
For them to finish their exchange of views;
It seemed a picture of the private life.
Far off, no matter what good they intended,
The armies waited for a verbal error
With all the instruments for causing pain:
And on the issue of their charm depended
A land laid waste, with all its young men slain,
Its women weeping, and its towns in terror.
W.H. Auden, “Embassy,” Journey to a War, 1939.
IRAN AND THE NUKE CHARADE.
As you may have heard, President Obama’s patented “smart diplomacy” has finally paid some dividends. Last week, American negotiators, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, reached an agreement with Iranian negotiators regarding the future of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Peace for our time, to coin a phrase!
The only catch, unfortunately, is that the collected diplomats didn’t actually reach an agreement on nuclear weapons. Rather, they claimed to have reached an agreement to reach an agreement, some unspecified day in the future, regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program, which is to say that they agreed – or claimed to have agreed – to keep negotiating.
Sadly, even this claim proved somewhat dubious, as the Iranian leaders took to their country’s airwaves to complain about American lies and deception, even as the American leaders were taking to their country’s airwaves to brag about their own personal awesomeness. While Barack Obama was out in the White House Rose Garden trumpeting “a historic agreement” between the two nations, the Iranian leader (the real Iranian leader, that is) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was on Twitter calling Obama a liar, declaring that Iran had neither agreed to nor rejected anything, and insisting that everything the Americans were saying about the alleged agreement was entirely false. As Thomas Joscelyn wrote for The Weekly Standard:
Earlier today, Khamenei broke his silence on the supposed “framework” the Obama administration has been trumpeting as the basis for a nuclear accord. Khamenei’s speech pulled the rug out from underneath the administration.
Khamenei accused the Obama administration of “lying” about the proposed terms, being “deceptive,” and having “devilish” intentions, according to multiple published accounts of his speech, as well as posts on his official Twitter feed.
Khamenei also disputed the key terms Obama administration officials have said were agreed upon in principle. Economic sanctions will not be phased out once Iran’s compliance has been “verified,” according to the Ayatollah. Instead, Khamenei said that if the U.S. wants a deal, then all sanctions must be dropped as soon as the agreement is finalized. Khamenei also put strict limits on the reach of the inspectors who would be tasked with this verification process in the first place….
“The White House put out a statement just a few hours after our negotiators finished their talks . . . . this statement, which they called a ‘fact sheet’, was wrong on most of the issues,” Khamenei said, according to Reuters. Khamenei added that the fact sheet, which doesn’t match Iran’s understanding, exposes America’s “devilish” intentions.
Khamenei was not alone in disparaging the so-called agreement. A veritable Who’s Who of conservative intelligentsia also derided the “historic” deal. Former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz penned an op-ed published by the Wall Street Journal in which they argued that the proposed deal would contribute to greater instability in the Middle East, perhaps even setting off a nuclear arms race. “Until clarity on an American strategic political concept is reached,” the pair wrote, “the projected nuclear agreement will reinforce, not resolve, the world’s challenges in the region.”
Likewise, the best and the brightest conservatives in the media attacked the Iran deal. George Will blasted Obama as self-serving and his Iran agreement as unconstitutional. Charles Krauthammer lamented Obama’s willingness to concede everything to the Iranians, just so that he could say he got a deal, any deal, good or bad. Jonah Goldberg and Andrew McCarthy both echoed the aforementioned Ayatollah Khamenei, pointing out that Obama’s historic “deal” was no deal at all, simply a decision by both parties not to end negotiations . . . yet. McCarthy, the former federal prosecutor who prosecuted the first World Trade Center bombing, put it this way:
There is not, nor has there ever been, an Iran deal. The “framework” the president announced last week was just a stunt. As yet another negotiations deadline loomed with the president plainly unwilling to walk away despite Iranian intransigence, Congress appeared poised to end the farce by voting to stiffen sanctions. The “framework” is a feint designed to dissuade Congress and sustain the farce.
In reality, what we have is simply an Obama administration assumption and a timetable. The assumption is that Iran will become a nuclear-weapons power. The timetable involves dragging out the enervating negotiations-to-nowhere for as long as it takes to inure Americans to the prospect of a nuclear Iran.
For our part, we’re a little more circumspect with respect to the framework/agreement. On the one hand, we agree with many of its critics. We don’t like the fact that Iran is required to dismantle none of its nuclear infrastructure and will thus always be one year or less away from a “breakout” in nuclear weapons production. We don’t like the fact that this means that Barack Obama has broken another promise, the promise that he and at least three of his predecessors made repeatedly, namely to prevent, at any cost, a nuclear Iran. We also don’t like the fact – first pointed out by The American Interest’s Adam Garfinkle – that in his much-ballyhooed interview with Thomas Friedman, Obama explicitly endorsed a “deterrence” position that has long been rejected by both the U.S. government and its intelligence apparatus.
On the other hand, we agree with Garfinkle that “the President acquitted himself well” in his interview with Friedman, demonstrating both knowledge of the issues involved and the nature of the challenges that remain to any long-term deal. For once, he even behaved like “the grown-up in the room” that he has always insisted he is, selling his deal, but not over-selling and not belittling or mocking those who might disagree with him.
Nevertheless, on the third hand – which we are granted by poetic license – who cares? (Yes, we know Hillary has already stolen this line. But, who cares?) If the consensus forecast is correct that Iran is at least three years away from the acquisition of a nuclear weapon, then the current dust up over a nuclear weapons treaty is largely irrelevant.
And no, we don’t mean “irrelevant” in the sense that Goldberg and McCarty mean, which is to say that a framework does not equal a treaty. We mean it in the sense that nukes or not, Iran is ALREADY at war with the entire rest of the Middle East, and the entire rest of the Middle East is already at war with Iran or some party on Iran’s side. So worrying about whether Iran will have a bomb in three years is a little like a boxer in the old days worrying about whether Rocky Graziano had a left hook.
The fact of the matter is that if the on-going wars in the Middle East continue for another three years, Iran will either be exhausted and unable to bomb anyone, or it won’t have to bomb anyone, or there won’t be anything left to bomb. Oh, in case you hadn’t heard, Russia just lifted its ban on the sale of sophisticated air-defense systems to Iran. The United States has called this move “not constructive,” and Israel, for its part, likely sees it as a reason to do something to stop Iran from having the bomb well before it actually gets one.
In other words, long before the term of any potential agreement will expire; long before Iran is able to restart its centrifuges and “breakout;” long before anyone can look directly into the television camera and tell Barack Obama “I told you so,” the Middle East as we know it will be a very different place than it is now.
Take a look at a map of the Middle East. There is almost no place on said map where Iran is not currently supporting terrorists, financing rebels, or inciting violence. The Iranians have been actively engaged in Iraq almost since the start of the American invasion more than 12 years ago. Some estimates place the number of AMERICAN service men and women killed by Iranian forces or Iranian-backed forces during the Iraq war at more 1,000. The man most responsible for the deaths of those forces, Iranian General Qassem Suleimani, led the recent Shiite attack to retake the Iraqi city of Tikrit from ISIS forces. Indeed, that offensive stalled for several days as the Iraqi army waited for American air strikes against ISIS, but American forces held off until Suleimani left the area, so as not to be seen providing tactical support for a man with so much American blood on his hands.
Much the same – or more – can be said of Syria, where the regime of Bashar Assad survives in name only and survives because the Iranians will it. Many analysts and political opponents of the American administration have argued that the rise of the Islamic State is attributable to Barack Obama’s decision to remove all American troops from Iraq in 2012. There’s considerable truth in this, of course, but blame can also be laid at the feet of Iran and its Hezbollah proxies. Had they not propped up the Assad regime, the Syrian civil war would have ended long ago and the Islamic State would never have become such an important opposition force in Syria. As it stands now, Syria is, more or less, an Iranian protectorate. Writing for the Middle East Institute, Fouad Hamdan and Shiar Youssef put it as follows:
It is no longer accurate to describe the war in Syria as a conflict between Syrian rebels on the one hand and Bashar al-Assad’s regime forces “supported” by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG), Hezbollah, and Iraqi militias on the other. Most major battles in Syria—along the frontlines of regime-held areas—are now being directed and fought by the IRG and Hezbollah, along with other non-Syrian Shi‘i militias, with Assad forces in a supportive or secondary role.
The Iranian regime has spent billions of dollars on weapons and fighters shipped to Syria since the start of the Syrian revolution in March 2011. It has also financed a large part of the economy in the regime-controlled parts of Syria through loans and credit lines worth billions of dollars. The Assad regime would have collapsed were it not for this Iranian support.
One result of this heavy Iranian involvement in the war in Syria has been a change in the nature of the relationship between the Syrian and the Iranian regimes. From historically being mutually beneficial allies, the Iranian regime is now effectively the dominant force in regime-held areas of Syria, and can thus be legally considered an “occupying force,” with the responsibilities that accompany such a role.
Obviously, Iran is and has been active in Yemen as well, where it funds and supports the Shiite Houthi rebels who have, over the last few weeks, overthrown the Yemeni government and currently threaten stability throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia is leading a Sunni coalition that includes Egypt and the UAE against the Iranian-backed Houthis. Predictably, though, this coalition has failed to do much damage.
Iran has long fostered Shiite unrest in Saudi Arabia, where the Shiite people tend to live in the richest oil provinces. Last week, Walter Russell Mead, writing at The American Interest, noted that the war in Yemen is not only causing a severe water crisis in the capital city of Aden, but threatens to spread not just to Saudi Arabia, but to involve the lone Sunni nuclear power on the planet. To wit:
[T]he next shoe to drop may be stability in Saudi Arabia itself, where a police officer was killed in the Shi’a-majority Eastern province during a raid on suspected terrorists…
Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province has been unstable ever since protests erupted in 2011. More than 20 people have been killed since then, and Saudi forces killed four militants in a shootout as recently as last December.
A Shi’a revolt in Saudi Arabia could have major consequences. The Shi’a-majority Eastern province also happens to be where much of Saudi Arabia’s oil is found.
Beyond that fact, a fight in Saudi Arabia could pull more countries into the war in Yemen—most notably Pakistan. Pakistan’s Defense Minister admitted today that Saudi Arabia had asked for warships, planes, and troops to help in Yemen. Thus far, mindful of the sensitivities of its own Shi’a minority, and of its relationship with neighboring Iran, Pakistan has been unwilling to commit fully, saying it will only send troops to help defend Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity. If conflict spreads to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan will find it difficult to maintain its delicate balancing act.
We should note here that all of this on top of Iran’s history as the most prolific state sponsor of terrorism both today and over the course of the last three-and-a-half decades. Iran of course, held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. Iran supported and trained the Hezbollah militia men who drove a truck bomb into the US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 American service men. Iran bombed the Israeli diplomatic residence in India. Iran bombed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Ares in 1992, killing 29. Iran bombed the Israeli embassy in London in 1994, injuring more than 20. Iran bombed the Jewish cultural center in Buenos Ares, killing 95. Iran bombed the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, killing 19 American service men. Etc., etc., ad nauseam. Iran supports, trains, and supplies Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories. In short, Iran has been fighting a global war for 30-plus years. Only recently have a handful of its victims/enemies finally decided to fight back.
Way back in late 2002 and 2003, as the George W. Bush administration was debating the next step in its war on terror, a small number of strategists argued that he was making a mistake by taking the war to Saddam Hussein. These analysts – chief among whom was Michael Ledeen – did not think that Bush was being too aggressive or too war-monger-ish. Rather they thought that he had chosen the wrong target. Saddam Hussein was a chump; a brash blowhard with little intelligence and even less capacity for war. He was the typical Arab tyrant, which is to say all hat, no cattle.
The real menace in the Middle East, folks like Ledeen argued, was Iran. The Iranians were both ruthless and clever. The mullahs had fought Saddam by sending out children to serve as human mine sweepers and to clear the battlefield for the real soldiers. The mullahs had waged a covert and overt war against the West from the moment the Shah was overthrown. And the mullahs had both a plan and the ambition to become the regional hegemon.
That plan, unfortunately, has had a dozen years or so to gestate and is now in full motion. And the negotiations currently under way between the U.S. and Iran regarding the latter’s nuclear weapons program will not change any of this one little bit.
David P. Goldman, the analyst and essayist better known by the pseudonym “Spengler” has argued – indeed, has written a book arguing – that the Iranian regime is in a terrible and extremely dangerous position. The Iranian nation is quickly dying – economically, culturally, and demographically. The mullahs want to control the region and they want to dominate the Sunnis in preparation for the prophesied return of the 12th Imam. What this means, therefore, is that Iranians are desperate and know that this is their last chance for supremacy. In a column last week, Goldman put it this way:
Iran has an apocalyptic regime with a great deal to be apocalyptic about. As I have argued in these pages since 2005, no poor country in the entire troubled history of the world has seen its fertility rate plunge from 7 children per female just one generation ago to only 1.6 children per female today. There is no explanation for mass rejection of a nation’s demographic future except for deep cultural pessimism. Islamism, whether of the Sunni variety propounded by Sayyid Qutb or the Shia version of Ayatollah Khomeini, rejects modernity, which it views as corrosive of Muslim society. Iran had the misfortune to be the most modernized Muslim nation (thanks to the Shah’s commitment to universal female literacy), as well as the most backward in ideology under the Islamic Republic. Its unsuccessful engagement with modernity has left a childless country plagued by social pathologies, including some of the world’s highest rates of opium addiction, venereal disease, and prostitution.
As a matter of arithmetic, Iran will have an elderly dependent ratio worse than Europe or the United States one generation from now, with one-tenth the per capital GDP. Demographic problems which barely are soluble in rich countries are a death sentence for a poor country. This is a train wreck that cannot be averted. Even in the unlikely event that Iran were to raise its fertility rate through incentives to families (as it recently proposed to do), it will have negligible impact on the rapid aging of its population and the ensuing collapse of its economy. . . .
As a matter of arithmetic, Iran can sustain a third of its population as elderly dependents only by acquiring the wealth of its neighbors, for example, Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, which has a Shia majority, and where Iran already is attempting to subvert the Saudi monarchy. That is why Iran is aggressive, and why no negotiation will contain it.
The Iranian war with the Arabs is only just beginning. The Arabs know that they must defeat Iran and they know that they must do so regardless of the cost. What this means is that eventually they will make more concrete and more obvious overtures toward the one nation in the region that has both the military capabilities and the wherewithal to do battle with Iran. In short, Iran’s more aggressive posture is already changing the face of the Middle East forcing the Saudis, the Egyptians, and the rest of the Sunni Arabs to ally themselves, at least for the time being, with Israel.
It is impossible to say where this is headed. One thing seems certain and that is that the Middle East, and thus the world, is likely to be a very different place in eighteen months when Americans start paying particular attention to the imminent presidential election. By that point, we suspect that the reality of Barack Obama’s ineptness and obsession will have sunk in among most American voters. The deal with Iran, to which Obama has tied his presidential legacy, will have been completed, will have been celebrated, and will have been proven completely and utterly pointless.
The Middle East will still be on fire. Erstwhile American allies – Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia – will have positioned themselves in this war on the opposite side of Obama’s celebrated negotiating partner, the Islamic “Republic” of Iran. Terrorism will have exploded globally. Islamic State and al Qaeda viciousness will rock the West, even as the broader war takes geopolitical precedent and garners more of the headlines. The Middle East will be awash with millions of refugees, all hungry, homeless, and scared. Food will be scarce, as will water.
Oil prices will be exceptionally volatile, rising dramatically on one day, falling even more dramatically the next. The Straits of Bab el-Mandeb and eventually the Straits of Hormuz, through which roughly 15% of the world’s oil moves every day, will be threatened. And if the recent fall in oil prices is considered a de facto tax cut for consumers, the resultant spike in prices will be a de facto tax hike, bringing the threat of across-the-board inflation and a falling dollar along with it.
On the domestic political front, that mess will make it possible for anyone, especially a longshot candidate, to sell himself/herself to the American people. In 1968, when the world seemed to have gone crazy both at home and abroad, the erstwhile Alabama segregationist George Wallace threatened the two-party system’s stability by winning more than 10,000,000 votes and becoming the last non-major-party candidate to win a state (he won five) along with votes in the electoral college. In 1980, as Jimmy Carter presided over a nation that appeared weak, deflated, and defeated, an allegedly washed-up movie actor who was considered too extreme for American voters nonetheless defeated the incumbent president in a landslide. And in 2008, in the midst of a financial panic unlike any the world had seen in more than three-quarters of a century, a young, inexperienced, one-term Senator from Illinois shocked the world and became the first African-American President of the United States.
What will a massive Middle East war mean in 2016? Well, among other things it means that the incumbent president’s first Secretary of State will bear the additional burden of having to defend her own record while divorcing herself from the administration in which she served. It will also mean that any candidate who can distinguish himself or herself from the usual Inside-the-Beltway crowd that facilitated the war will have a better than usual shot at a nomination and then at the White House.
Rand Paul, the isolationist reactionary; Ted Cruz, the slick, fast-talking rebel; and Scott Walker, the average Joe who has always overachieved, will all stand better chances than they would otherwise. By contrast, Jeb Bush, the son and brother of the presidents who started the country’s last two (unsuccessful) Middle East wars respectively, will stand to be the big loser of the Republican side.
What will it mean beyond this? Well . . . that’s anyone’s guess. All we can say for certain right now is that the world will be a much different place and, more to the point, the on-going talk over a treaty with Iran will be nothing more than a lesson in fecklessness and perfidy, much like Chamberlain’s visit to Germany in 1938.