Kerry Says Iran, World Powers Closer than Ever to Historic Nuclear Deal: Putin Has Learned Much from This Process

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (center) with Russian Federation Defense Minister and General of the Army Sergei Shoigu (left) and the commander of the Western Military District Colonel General Anatoly Sidorov (right). Through Russia’s participation in the Iran Talks, Putin learned much about decision making among the Western powers from the inside and likely feels better able to deal with them diplomatically and militarily.

According to an April 27, 2015 Reuters article entitled, “Kerry Says Iran, World Powers Closer than ever to Historic Nuclear Deal,” US Secretary of State John Kerry told the 191 parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at conference at the UN that the P5+1 was very near to a deal with Iran that would end a 12-year-old stand-off.   Kerry was quoted as saying on April 27th, “We are, in fact, closer than ever to the good, comprehensive deal that we have been seeking, and if we can get there, the entire world will be safer.” He stated further, “If finalized and implemented, [an agreement] will close off all of Iran’s possible pathways to the nuclear material required for a nuclear weapon and give the international community the confidence that it needs to know that Iran’s nuclear program is indeed exclusively peaceful.” Yet, despite progress made, Kerry emphasized “the hard work is far from over and some key issues remain unresolved.”

Such sober comments underlining the considerable amount of negotiating still required to reach a final nuclear deal have come as a reality check for many following the April 2, 2015 announcements by parties to the talks, with flourish, that parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding Iran’s nuclear program were agreed upon. The appearance of reaching a nuclear deal was as potent as actually reaching a final concordance for some. This was particularly true in Iran where ordinary citizens celebrated in the streets after the framework nuclear deal was reached. Public reaction within P5+1 nations was imperceptible. However, there was a significant reaction among foreign and defense policy analysts and others interested in the talks. Their comments were kind of lush, a bit soupy. Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association declared, “The parameters agreed upon by the United States, the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany with the Islamic Republic of Iran promises to lead to one of the most consequential and far reaching nuclear nonproliferation achievements in recent decades.” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies affirmed, “[T]he proposed parameters and framework in the Proposed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has the potential to meet every test in creating a valid agreement over time . . . It can block both an Iranian nuclear threat and a nuclear arms race in the region, and it is a powerful beginning to creating a full agreement, and creating the prospect for broader stability in other areas.” Joe Cirincione, President of Ploughshares Fund proclaimed, “The agreement does three things. It blocks all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb. It imposes tough inspections to catch Iran should it try to break out, sneak out or creep out of the deal. And it keeps our coalition united to enforce the deal. Under this deal, Iran has agreed to rip out two-thirds of its centrifuges and cut its stockpile of uranium gas by 97 percent. It will not be able to make any uranium or plutonium for a bomb. Many of the restrictions in the agreement continue for 25 years and some . . . last forever.”

Etiam sapientibus cupido gloriae novissima exuitur. (The desire for glory is the last infirmity to be cast off even by the wise.) Every step toward a final deal has brought US President Barack Obama closer to the legacy-defining foreign policy achievement he has sought. Obama’s desire to establish his legacy during his second term office has been a subject regularly discussed among White House officials and US political pundits. Yet, it is uncertain whether a final agreement can be reached and whether it would hold. The notion of how the P5+1, particularly the US, would likely respond to a violation of the treaty by Iran has gone through a transformation process during the negotiations. It was once understood that the US would inevitably decide to stop Iran from moving closer to developing a nuclear warhead by force of arms. Senior Obama administration foreign and defense policy officials made it clear that military intervention was “on the table.” Threats of regime change and of imposing a US form of democracy on Iran by the administration of US President George W. Bush were still ringing in Iranian leaders’ ears when the Iran Talks began. The idea of being attacked by the US became engrained in the psyche of Iran’s leadership, offsetting any idea Obama lacked the will to take military action following the Syria gas attacks debacle. Tehran’s views have changed since then.

Fas est et ab hoste doceri. (It is right to learn even from an enemy.) The P5+1 has served to present a united front to cope with the common danger of a nuclear armed Iran. However, the coalition has not been truly united. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has actually exploited the comity between Russia and its P5+1 partners to protect Russian interests. (The other P5+1 partners may very likely be aware of this.) Putin did not want the P5+1 to take military action against Iran, Russia’s strongest Middle East partner. During the Iran Talks, Russia and Iran made unilateral deals on matters from agriculture to weapon systems. The talks have helped Moscow better understand how Western powers approach issues as Iran’s nuclear program, making Russia better able to handle the West on issues as Ukraine. Russia, as Iran, is coping with Western economic sanctions. Putin has heard many threats to use force against Russia, albeit defensively, through NATO. However, Putin responds to such threats with an enigmatic face. Putin has Russia on the march, seizing territory in a piecemeal fashion, but he undoubtedly has a sense of how far he can go. Observing the decision making of Western powers up close on Iran, Putin likely believes military action against a capable opponent is the last thing Western political leaders want. (It is the last thing he wants, too!) To that extent, he also likely believes that after he has acquired enough, he will be able to legitimize Russia’s acquisitions through talks.

Initial Russian Concerns about Possible US Military Strikes in Iran

As a Member of the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council, Russia’s role as a party to the nuclear negotiation was essential, but it was also rather extraordinary given its ties to Iran. Russia had a very positive, congenial relationship with Iran unlike Western states in the P5+1. Iran’s Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan stated “Iran and Russia are able to confront the expansionist intervention and greed of the US through cooperation, synergy and actuating strategic potential capacities.” When the Iran Talks began, Russia was actually working closely with Iran in support of its longtime ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who Western members of the P5+1 opposed. However, despite Iran’s close business and economic ties or ongoing military cooperation with Russia, albeit limited, could not guarantee the US would refrain from moving against its strongest partner in the Middle East. For that reason, Putin likely had genuine concern that Iran would become a target of massive US military action if the Iran Talks did not succeed when they began. Putin had not forgotten that close cooperation between Russia and authorities in Tripoli and Damascus did not deter the Obama administration from promoting and supporting insurrection against them. Under UN Security Council Resolution 1973, multinational forces under NATO command went beyond imposing a no-fly zone and destroyed government forces loyal to Gaddafi as part of Operation Unified Protector. Gaddafi’s regime fell and he was killed. In Syria, the Obama administration responded in support of the Syria Opposition Movement which bloomed during the so-called Arab Spring. The removal of Assad and his regime was the Obama administration’s goal.

Moreover, before the Iran Talks began and during the negotiations, Obama and officials in his administration were unambiguous about plans to act militarily against Iran over its nuclear program. According to a March 14, 2013 article in the Times of Israel, Obama explained that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon in just over a year and diplomatic efforts have just less than that to halt Iran’s drive to the bomb. The Times of Israel determined Obama was intimating that if diplomatic efforts failed this year or early next year, the US would be forced to carry out military action against Iran. Obama also reportedly explained that he had been “crystal clear” that a nuclear-armed Iran was a “red-line,” and that the US was committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon with which it could threaten Israel or trigger a regional arms race. In a September 15, 2013 article in the Guardian, Obama sought to shore up the potency of US deterrence against Iran warning that he was still prepared to take military action against the Iranian nuclear program, which he described as “much closer to our core interests” than Syria’s chemical weapons. A February 26, 2014, Reuters article reported Kerry told a group of reporters that the US has an obligation to pursue nuclear negotiations with Iran before attempting to force Tehran to give up its nuclear activities with military action. Kerry also left no doubt that the US would seriously consider a strike on Iran if the diplomatic talks broke down. The Reuters article further explained that when Obama stated all options are on the table with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, he was using diplomatic code for the possibility of military action.

During the talks, urgency was placed on having Iran allow rigorous monitoring measures to remain in place to ensure any movement toward a nuclear weapon would be detected and the West could intervene. If Iran could be kept from moving close to a nuclear weapon, Western leaders could avoid facing the decision to respond militarily to its existence.

Western Allies Prefer Sanctions Over US-Led Military Action

As the nuclear negotiations progressed, it became more apparent to Putin and Russian foreign and defense policy officials that despite their insecurities about US intentions, the threat of military action was a fiction. Russia’s European counterparts in the P5+1 coalition began expressing doubts about the willingness of the US to use military force against Iran. The French were perhaps the first to publicly appraise Obama as unwilling to use military action to respond to Iran’s nuclear program. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius tried to outline what he thought were the reasons for Obama’s tack in a 2013 speech. He stated: “The United States seems no longer to wish to become absorbed by crises that do not align with its new vision of its national interest.” He suggested this explained “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.” Fabius stated further that a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and what he perceived as the current “rather isolationist tendency” in American public opinion. Fabius lamented that without US engagement, the world would find “major crises left to themselves,” and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.” According to a May 2, 2014 Reuters article German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program must be given a chance, but she also said “If Iran does not meet its obligations, or does not meet them adequately, we remain ready to take back the current limited suspension of sanctions.” Merkel’s statement diverged considerably from those of Obama and Kerry who indicated a US readiness to act militarily if negotiations failed. The reluctance of Germany to support US military action sent a message to Russia that there was no unity in the West on it. Sanctions remain the greatest threat European leaders alone can pose to Iran if the talks failed. Only the US can effectively act with force against a nuclear capable Iran, but Obama would never want to go it alone against Iran.

In sessions leading to April 2, 2015, urgency was placed on having Iran agree to keep rigorous monitoring measures to remain in place not just throughout the long duration of the agreement but even after the core limits of the agreement expire. That would ensure any movement toward nuclear weapons will be detected and providing the opportunity to intervene decisively to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. There was an apparent belief that if Iran was kept from moving secretly toward a nuclear bomb, Western leaders could avoid facing the decision to respond to its existence. As long as Obama was uncertain military action would achieve all objectives based on his concepts, Putin could imagine Obama refusing to go to war.

Israeli F-16 jets flying in formation. US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman told Israel’s diplomatic reporters that a military operation against Iran would not stop its nuclear program. She explained “the best option is a diplomatic negotiated solution.” For Putin, Sherman’s words ended all guessing on US intentions with Iran.

Military Action Is Sidelined

Ultra vires! (Beyond ones powers!) Guessing over US intentions ended when Putin and his foreign and defense policy officials heard US officials confirm that in which Moscow could not be certain. On April 13, 2015, Haaretz reported US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman told Israeli reporters that a military operation against Iran would not stop its nuclear program. She stated, “A military strike by Israel or the US would only set back the nuclear program by two years.” She said further, “You can’t bomb their nuclear know-how, and they will rebuild everything. The alternatives are there but the best option is a diplomatic negotiated solution.” She noted, “There is no difference [between the US and Israel] on the concern about the Iranian nuclear program but on the way to deal with it.” Despite fears expressed in 2013 that Iran would soon have a nuclear weapons, Sherman explained that the US and Israeli intelligence communities agree Iran is not close to producing one and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has made no decision to produce one. Sherman said, “They don’t have enough fissile material and don’t have delivery system or weapon per se.” She proffered, “It would take them a considerable period of time to get all that.”

Even the tone in the US Congress softened. Congress drafted a bill that would require that the administration send the text of a final accord, along with classified material, to Congress as soon as it is completed. Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner stated “Congress absolutely should have the opportunity to review this deal.” He explained further, “We shouldn’t just count on the administration, which appears to want a deal at any cost.” The focus of most observers was the fact that the bill would halt the lifting of sanctions pending a thirty day Congressional review, and culminates in a possible vote to allow or forbid the lifting of sanctions imposed by Congress in exchange for the dismantling of much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Actually, if Congress rejects the final agreement, Obama could still veto its legislation. It would take only 34 senators to sustain the veto, meaning Obama could lose upward of a dozen Democratic senators and still prevail. However, what was most important about the bill for Putin was that Congress accepted more sanctions as means to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, not war.

Putin operates within a practically all-male, nationalist, power-oriented environment in the Kremlin. He sees Obama is confident in the better side of human nature, and likely views that as a weakness. Putin undoubtedly wants to find ways to exploit the benign, less aggressive side of Obama to the greatest degree possible before the end of his second term.

Reality Check Concerning Putin

Unlike the diverse group of cabinet-level officials and policy makers and analysts that advise Obama, Putin operates within a practically all-male, nationalist, power-oriented environment in the Kremlin. In thinking about Obama, Putin undoubtedly recognizes his US counterpart wants to be an honest broker. He sees Obama is confident in the better side of human nature, and operates under the notion that issues in foreign affairs can be resolved at the negotiating table. Given that, Putin and his advisers undoubtedly view Obama in a way akin to renowned United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s “boneless wonder.” Putin very likely hopes to exploit the benign, less aggressive side of Obama to the greatest degree possible before the end of his second term. Putin and Obama are very different men. After the Soviet Union’s collapse and internal chaos of the 1990s, Putin restored order in Russia by reestablishing the power of the state some might say with little regard for human and political rights. Putin’s style of management was shaped by his initial career as an officer in the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. He reached the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring. Putin has been assisted by a small group of men who served alongside him during his KGB career. These men are referred to as siloviki (power men). At the pinnacle were those who came from a community of families in Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg whose “roots” go back to first political police of the Communist Party known as the Cheka. Putin’s Cheka heritage includes a father and grandfather who served in the security service. He went to schools and a university Chekisty (Chekist) community progeny typically attended.

Chekists share a view that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. They believe Western governments are driven to weaken Russia, create disorder, and make their country dependent on Western technologies. They feel that under former President Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leadership made the mistake of believing Russia no longer had any enemies. As Putin has noted in public statements, Chekists consider the collapse of the Soviet Union, under Western pressure, as the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century. In a March 18, 2014 speech, Putin enumerated some actions taken by the West that have fostered his contempt. He mentioned: Russia’s economic collapse, which many Russians recall was worsened by destructive advice from Western business and economic experts that did more to cripple their country; the expansion of NATO to include members of the Soviet Union’s own alliance, the Warsaw Pact; the erroneous Russian decision to agree to the treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe, which he refers to as the “colonial treaty”; the West’s dismissal of Russia’s interests in Serbia and elsewhere; attempts to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and the EU; and, Western efforts to instruct Russia on how to conduct its affairs domestically and internationally.

Paradoxically, the aggressive behavior Putin attributes to the US has been displayed by him time and again. In 2008, Putin forced Armenia to break off its agreements with the EU, and Moldova was placed under similar pressure. That same year, Putin invaded Georgia. Russian troops still occupy the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. In November 2014, Putin signed a Russia-Abkhazia Treaty of Alliance and Integration which meant in practice Moscow is responsible for the customs, defense, and security of the separatist republic. In March 2015, Putin signed the Russian-South Ossetian Treaty of Alliance and Integration which has similar terms. Georgia has no chance of regaining its territories. In November 2013, using economic influence and political power, he drove then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to abort a deal Ukraine had with the EU that would have pulled it toward the West. When the Ukrainian Parliament removed Yanukovych, Putin grabbed Crimea. Such moves legitimize NATO’s worries.

Putin’s uncongenial attitude toward the West was very apparent while the Iran Talks were still underway. Incursions by Russian Tu-95 Bear H bombers (as the one shown above) in US and European airspace prompted the scrambling of fighter jets. Russia also sold its S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Iran.

Lessons Learned Through the Iran Talks Putin May Be Applying

This uncongenial attitude Putin has harbored toward the West was apparent during the Iran Talks. Perhaps he was testing his P5+1 partners. In August 2014, Russia signed a deal with Iran that undermined Western-led sanctions against the two countries. The memorandum of understanding between the two governments envisaged wider economic cooperation to include closer ties in the oil and gas sector, construction and rebuilding of generating capacity, development of a power supply network infrastructure, machinery, consumer goods, and agriculture. It laid the foundation for a multi-billion dollar deal between Moscow and Tehran, the so-called oil-for-goods contract. In addition to that contract, there was the sale of the S-300 anti-aircraft missile to Iran. The S-300 would neutralize any possibility that Israel could take unilateral action against Iran. That would remain the case until the Israeli Air Force receives F-35 fighters from the US. Only the US Air Force’s small fleet of B-2 stealth bombers would have a chance of hitting Iranian targets properly now. If the US and Europe repeatedly threaten and levy sanctions, Putin and his advisers may take audacious steps. Sensing his back is up against the wall, and unable to project strength otherwise, Putin might seek to deter further Western action by making extraordinary threats to use Russian military power. The Russian Ambassador to Denmark threatened that the Danes would become a target of Russian nuclear weapons if they participated in any missile defense program. Danish jets scrambled 58 times in 2014 to head off Russian aircraft. Russian strategic nuclear bombers also conducted numerous incursions into northwestern US air defense identification zones. Incursions by Russian Tu-95 Bear H bombers and intelligence-gathering jets in US and European airspace have prompted the scrambling of fighter jets. Russian military aircraft have been flying without transponders over Europe close to civilian aircraft. Putin warned Russia was developing new strategic nuclear weapons that would catch the West by surprise. Russia has moved Iskandar ballistic missiles to its Kaliningrad enclave between Lithuania and Poland and long-range, nuclear-capable bombers to Crimea.

An April 18, 2015 Reuters article stated Putin recently softened his anti-US rhetoric only a week after accusing the US of trying to dominate world affairs and saying what it wanted was “not allies, but vassals.” Putin reportedly said on April 18th, “We have disagreements on several issues on the international agenda. But at the same time there is something that unites us, that forces us to work together.” He then stated, “I mean general efforts directed at making the world economy more democratic, measured, and bilateral, so that the world order is more democratic. We have a common agenda.” Similarly, the BBC reported that on March 6, 2014, after seizing Crimea, Putin told Obama by telephone that US-Russian “relations should not be sacrificed due to disagreements over individual, albeit extremely significant, international problems.” Regarding Crimea, Putin said Russia could not “ignore calls for help and acts accordingly, in full compliance with international law.” Given Obama’s record on the use of force, and what Russia observed during the Iran Talks, Putin may have calculated he has pushed hard enough, and he now can reap a negotiated resolution from Obama. Perhaps Putin assessed that as with Iran, talks might provide him with the chance to achieve many objectives.

The Way Forward

Fene libenter homines id quod volunt credunt. (Men readily believe what they want to believe.) The decay of Europe’s defense came as a result of a lack of commitment of the European countries, and to an extent the US, to the stewardship of NATO, militarily. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, NATO members became weary of investing financial resources in a deterrent force that did not face an apparent threat. There was no change in thinking despite Putin’s aggressive stance and actions against countries that are part of Russia’s “near abroad.” To surmount the impact of what the Western capitals were seeing, they ignored what they saw, made massive military cuts, and failed to meet their military commitments to NATO.

Non mihi, non tibi, sed nobis! (Not for you, not for me, but for us!) Meetings between NATO allies can no longer simply amount to rhetorical conversations about collective security in Europe, pledges to do more, and proposals to rearrange the meager military resources currently available to face the vast, mobile, hard-hitting Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Decisions must be made now on what will done in the face of a confrontation with Russia over future aggressive moves against Ukraine or any other sovereign state in Europe. Too many ambiguous political speeches and statements on US military power have already been made to create doubt over whether the US might respond at all. There must be clear discussions on a mutually acceptable political rationale for military action, despite its difficulties and horrors, must be established between the US and the Europe. US and European leaders must confirm now what they will commit and exactly how they will act together militarily. In a manner loud enough for Putin to hear, Obama, in particular, must continually confirm at the UN, in NATO, and in its members’ respective capitals that Europe can count on US support if a military confrontation becomes imminent.

Chechen in Syria a Rising Star in Extremist Group; US Must Act in Iraq Now to Eclipse Such Stars!

Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria military commander, Omar al-Shishani, is an ethnic Chechen and one of the many Russians and Europeans fighters that Russian President Vladimir Putin warned in 2013 were going into Syria and becoming part of a dangerous, internationalized Islamic militant group.

According to a July 2, 2014, Washington Post article entitled, “Chechen in Syria a Rising Star in Extremist Group, “ a young, red-bearded ethnic Chechen named Omar al-Shishani has rapidly become one of the most prominent commanders and was the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Al-Qaeda linked group as it recently overwhelmed Iraqi security forces and took control of large swaths of Iraq. Al-Shishani, whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, is an ethnic Chechen from the Caucasus nation of Georgia, specifically from the Pankisi Valley, a center of Georgia’s Chechen community and a stronghold for militants. He is also one of the hundreds of Chechens who have been among the toughest jihadi fighters in Syria, hardened from years of wars with Russia in the Caucasus region.

Al-Shishani has been the group’s military commander in Syria, leading it on an offensive to take over a broad stretch of territory leading to the Iraq border. Al-Shishani surfaced in Syria in 2013 with his nom de guerre, which means “Omar the Chechen” in Arabic, leading an Al-Qaeda-inspired group called “The Army of Emigrants and Partisans,” which included a large number of fighters from the former Soviet Union. A meeting was soon organized with al-Baghdadi in which al-Shishani pledged loyalty to him, according to Lebanon’s al-Akhbar newspaper, which follows jihadi groups. He first showed his battlefield prowess in August 2013, when his fighters proved pivotal in taking the Syrian military’s Managh air base in the north of the country. Rebels had been trying for months to take the base, but it fell soon after al-Shishani joined the battle, said an activist from the region, Abu al-Hassan Maraee. He may have risen to become the group’s overall military chief, a post that has been vacant after the Iraqi militant who once held it—known as Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi al-Anbari—was killed in the Iraqi city of Mosul in early June. ISIS began as Al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, and many of its top leaders are Iraqi. But after it intervened in Syria’s civil war last year, it drew hundreds of foreign fighters into its operations in Syria. Now with victories on the two sides of the border, the two branches are swapping fighters, equipment and weapons to an even greater extent than before, becoming a more integrated organization. Its declaration of the caliphate—aspiring to be a state for all Muslims—could mean an even greater internationalization of its ranks. Interestingly enough, in June 2013, at conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Syrian opposition fighters’ ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting Syrian opposition fighters to discover who among them are Islamic militants, the Russian intelligence service apparently already possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of Syrian opposition fighters.

US power is not only measured by its size, but its moral behavior in the world. The virtues of the US have stood out in the world in the presence of vice. While grave errors in foreign policy decision making during the administration of former US President George W. Bush have been very apparent, the history of US foreign policy did not begin and end in those eight years. There is a greater history of success in US foreign and defense policy and decision making which must not be forgotten. For years as a leader in world affairs, the US has set the standard for performance in international affairs. Its behavior on the world stage manifested US values and principles. Discussion of the ability of the US to meet that standard does mean waxing nostalgically of the past. If it put its mind to it, the administration of US President Barack Obama could very well meet that standard today. What has been promoted instead is a type of international philanthropy proffered by the current administration that scoffs at military power, without realistic alternative options. In speeches, press conferences, and interviews of Obama and administration officials, the discourse on foreign policy appears more as form of pastoral guidance, helping the US public understand and accept a new, less active role of the US in the world. For some in the US public, less desirous of military intervention overseas given the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences, expressions of a reformed approach to foreign policy has been seductive and caused some satisfaction. This approach has also helped to guide the establishment of the defense posture, by providing a further rationale for dramatic cuts in the US military and its capabilities. However, the notion that the US can remain dominant in world affairs by doing nothing is false. In the long run that would require reaching agreements with evil maniacs or turning a blind-eye toward their acts to maintain peace. Lately, when US interests or the interest of an ally or partner have been threatened, questions over the availability of the military means to limit that behavior usually arise. That has been the case regarding ISIS in Iraq. Superficial discussions of facts, use of sensationalism, sophistic arguments on military power, and intellectualized explanations of recent events veiled the growing problem of ISIS in Iraq as well as Syria. The Obama administration has taken the US down a path, requiring it to respond or tolerate Iraq’s unraveling and the emergence of ISIS. Obama has explained that the US isis still the world’s leader. However, the US must act in a manner consistent with that title if the administration wishes to retain it

Managing News on the Islamic Militant Problem in Syria

The situation in Syria was presented as urgent issue by Obama administration officials, yet manageable. Once the anti-regime movement in Syria became an armed struggle, the US considered various ways to support the opposition. Multilateral approaches were taken toward organizing opposition political groups as well as their fighters on the ground   Among steps taken was the establishment of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the umbrella group for the multitude of different opposition fighting units. Its leadership was placed under the Supreme Military Council. As a possible military response in support of policy goals, the idea of the US launching kinetic strikes against targets in Syria was bandied about. However, there was an understanding established that such strikes would be impeded by the lack of intelligence from the ground, and there was the risk of civilian causalities and US losses. Indeed, the idea of “boots on the ground” was soundly rejected from the start. Eventually, it was reasoned that the FSA, with US supplied arms and training would advance against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and pressure him into stepping down at the negotiation table. Pressing this issue with US Congress, the Obama administration sent it senior foreign and defense policy officials to Capitol Hill to promote the matter with relevant committees. Yet, Members of Congress were skeptical of the feasibility of that approach. US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly told Congress on September 3, 2013, that “the opposition is getting stronger by the day.” However, Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, challenged Kerry’s assertions at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on September 4, 2013. McCaul asked Kerry: “Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time.” McCaul then explained, “And every time I get briefed on this it gets worse and worse, because the majority now of these rebel forces—and I say majority now—are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world.” Kerry replied: “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaida and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists . . . Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.”

The administration’s public assessments were captivating and satisfying enough for those who chose not to look deeply and those who chose simple answers. Yet, evidence of the true nature of the situation in Syria was being presented from other sources (i.e., nongovernment policy analysts, journalists, as well as pundits). That information, while not rejected by the administration, was never confirmed. Instead, the administration stated the realities about the Islamic militant presence and growing strength was said to be unavailable. Administration officials proffered the idea that it could not gain a full picture of what was happening on the ground. For the US public, this was a pleasant and unchallenging fantasy. For whatever reasons, perhaps the national elections for the presidency and the Congress were among them, the conscience of the US public appears to have been deemed too delicate for the reality of the situation. There apparently was some fear that a type of upheaval within the US public over Syria would have occurred. However, the truth was not inaudible to the public’s ears. The perpetuation of the inaccuracy that the situation was under control would lead to disappointment for the US public. Indeed, the truth would eventually overwhelm the superficial assessments being offered.

It is now accepted that unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the Syrian opposition, Islamic militant groups as ISIS never intended to cease their struggle with the Assad regime under any peace agreement. The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the concepts and intent of the Syrian opposition’s leadership. While mainstream FSA forces have been directed toward creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups have only wanted to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory, under Sharia law. Indeed, before the new Islamic Caliphate was established, in towns and villages of rather large segments of Syria that ISIS and rogue Islamic militant groups control, they have imposed a strict form of Sharia law on inhabitants. Infractions of that law have resulted in merciless abuses and gruesome murders of Syrian citizens. Syrian military personnel and regime supporters are rarely spared by the rogue Islamic fighters. ISIS, while still viewed as part of opposition forces, began regularly attacking more moderate Islamic militant groups and secular units. As the FSA was not truly successful at all on the ground, the added pressure of an additional struggle with ISIS helped to derail the Syria effort of the administration of US President Barack Obama. The US effort in Syria hinged on how it would respond to the Islamic militant presence. The Obama administration needed to see this truth early on. Yet, the administration seemingly closed its eyes to this fact. Without military action, US policy could not be advanced. The administration appeared willing to let the entire Syrian situation fall into stalemate while continuing a small, ineffective assistance effort, projecting toughness through legal maneuvers and military exercise, avoiding military action, and allowing Assad to remain in power.

Sensationalism: The Threat to the Homeland From Syria

Soon enough there was a shift in perspective from the administration. The presence of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria was recognized as a danger, but far beyond the Middle East. At a US Senate Intelligence Committee hearing held on January 29, 2014, Committee Chairman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, stated: “Because large swaths of the country . . . of Syria are beyond the regime’s control or that of the moderate opposition, this leads to the major concern of the establishment of a safe haven and the real prospect that Syria could become a launching point or way station for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations. Not only are fighters being drawn to Syria, but so are technologies and techniques that pose particular problems to our defenses.” Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center testified the same day to Senator Feinstein’s committee that “a permissive environment, extremist groups like Al-Nusra and the number of foreign fighters combine to make Syria a place that we are very concerned about—in particular, the potential for terrorist attacks emanating from Syria to the West.” The National Director for Intelligence, James Clapper, in his testimony that day explained succinctly, “What’s going on in there [Syria], and the attraction of these foreign fighters is very, very, worrisome.” Given such grim assessments from senior US officials, a decision to take action in Syria would seem inevitable.

These synoptic assessments of potential attacks on the US came from the same sources that had minimized the capabilities and possibilities of the Islamic militants only a few short months before. Evidence of the problem was not being rejected by Obama administration officials, it was, to some extent, being sensationalized. Alerts to threats from Islamic militant groups, even those that were Al-Qaeda linked, no longer create real urgency in the US public. Such alerts came so regularly during the Bush administration that to some degree the US public became desensitized to them.   Moreover, for many in the US public, media reports of such threats came as interesting stories or amusements. Interest was heightened, only to be doused by the next things that came along. In January 2014, the “next things” were events surrounding Super Bowl XLVIII, the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and pop singer Miley Cyrus.

Wielding US Power in the Middle East

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, at one point gravely concerned over the course the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, lamented about the Obama administration’s handling of US foreign policy. He explained that without US engagement, the world would find “major crises left to themselves,” and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.” Fabius was disappointed and discouraged by “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.” Fabius stated a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and his perception of a “rather isolationist tendency” in US public opinion. Yet, despite such pleas from close allies as the French regarding his administration’s approach to foreign policy, Obama confirmed the worst assumptions made by Fabius in his May 28, 2014 Commencement Address at West Point. Obama explained: “For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism, but a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy, drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.” Obama further explained that there was a need for: “a new strategy reflects the fact that today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized Al-Qaeda leadership. Instead it comes from decentralized Al-Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate. And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of US personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi. It heightens the danger to less defensible targets, as we saw in a shopping mall in Nairobi. So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat, one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stir up local resentments.”

Through this mellifluous speech about multilateral approaches to threat to peace and stability and terrorism in particular, Obama presented a world where problems could be handled through cooperation. This is not a new idea. Regional alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, Central Treaty Organization, and the Organization of American States were created to bring resources of nations together to cope with the “Communist threat.” Even on terrorism, multilateral approaches were viewed as required when modern-era counterterrorism was established during the administration of former US President Ronald Reagan. Yet, the idea that the US can today rely upon multilateral solutions requiring joint action with allies and partners who themselves face drastic military cuts and economic difficulties is unwise. No Western European state with real military capabilities will go into Iraq now, to take on risks while fighting ISIS, especially when its political leaders feel that issue does not fall within their interests. Obama spoke of a hesitancy of the US to act militarily, yet assumes others in the region possessing far less capabilities than the US would subordinate their own interests. concerns, and limitations, to support and defend others. Most states are aware that warfare lately has been asymmetric and not set piece engagements to win quickly. Obama presents this notion of multilateralism to a US public confused about the contrast between the certitude with which Obama speaks, and regular breakdowns in administration foreign policy initiatives that they witness.

The US must look strong. In past cases, what others have thought about the US has deterred them from hostile action. Relative peace was maintained through strength. US diplomacy has been supported in many cases by the credible threat of force. The failure of Obama administration to project authentic US strength globally is not subject to rationalization by its officials. ISIS is unconcerned with US military power and possible US intervention. Among such unenlightened, uncivilized, violent men, reason has little place. Hoping that they might eventually establish some concordance with the government to work toward peace and stability in Iraq and obey international law is absurd. Only the use of force will have a strong educational effect upon them. Given that, the administration’s approach is questionable.

Intellectualization of the Iraq Crisis

ISIS and other insurgent groups have rapidly advanced through the mostly Sunni areas of Iraq. In a matter of days, they have captured several cities including Mosul, Tikrit, Tal Afar, and are driving on Baghdad from two directions. It has declared the captured territory the Islamic Caliphate. The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, recently appeared in public to make that declaration. As for US airstrikes to reduce ISIS controlled territory, military experts have explained that they would be impeded by the lack of intelligence from the ground. The idea of multilateral action was dead from the start.

Although Obama explained that the goal is to prevent ISIS from achieving a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter, he proffered that the issue goes beyond security assistance. Confronted with this unacceptable situation, Obama has rationalized that part of the challenge is the lack of representation of Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds in the Iraqi government. Obama blames divisions for Iraq’s inability to cope with ISIS. Administration officials, at least publicly, have focused not on the ISIS assault, but rather on the idea that from the chaos, they can cobble together a new, more inclusive government in Baghdad. In Obama’s view the formation of a new government will be an opportunity to begin a genuine dialogue and forge a government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis. Obama believes leaders who can govern with an inclusive agenda will be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis. It is difficult to understand why the Obama would believe the type of representative government he seeks for Iraq could be designed at the point of an ISIS gun. The majority of Sunnis, Shi’as, and Kurds would never genuinely subsume their interests to satisfy the US regardless of the circumstances. The fact that Maliki came to power evinces the limited US understanding of Iraq’s political situation.

The Way Forward

Obama has been pilloried with scathing criticisms from his Republican Members of Congress and other political rivals over his handling of Syria, Iraq, and the crisis with ISIS. Many of Obama’s harshest critics are former officials from the Bush administration who were themselves directly responsible for plunging the US, unprepared and off-balance, into the Middle East. Polls on the US public’s satisfaction with the Obama administration’s handling of foreign policy rely on snap judgments of a sample of the population. It is easy to say things. Yet, a mature examination of the innermost feelings of the US public would likely yield that there is great disappointment over the handling of US foreign policy.

Obama does not want the US military to intervene on the ground in the Syria. However, the conscience of the US public has been struck by news media reports that ISIS fighters have moved en mass with near impunity through Iraq, a country in which the US, for over eight years, invested so much blood and treasure. Watching reports on mass executions and the establishment of a terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East, many are left with a vapid, noncommittal sadness. Hearing the Obama administration claim that there is little the US can do just makes things worse. Leaving the Iraqis to their own devices against what has appeared as an unstoppable blitzkrieg will somehow return to haunt the US. There is a sense of “Minatur innocentibus qui parcit nocentibus” (He threatens the innocent who spares the guilty). In the long-run, the US public will not concede to this situation. The US public seeks to meet the fullness of its humanity. Where there is a need to act in the name of humanity to defend civilization against darkness, they expect action. That is how the US, as the world’s leader, is expected to behave.

Merkel Says Give Iran Talks a Chance, But Be Ready to Act if Needed; However, the US and Europe Must Decide How They Will “Act” Together

Pictured above is the launch of an Iranian Shahab long-range missile. The fear that nuclear-tipped Shahab missiles might strike Europe in part has kept the option of US military action on the table regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

According to a May 2, 2014 Reuters article by Krista Hughes entitled “Merkel: Give Iran Talks a Chance, But Ready to Act if Needed,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that sanctions could still be reinstated against Iran if needed, but negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have to be given a chance.  Merkel reinforced that statement by saying, “If Iran does not meet its obligations, or does not meet them adequately, we remain ready to take back the current limited suspension of sanctions.”  She then went on to state Iran must comply with an interim deal under which Tehran agreed to limit parts of its nuclear work in return for the easing of some sanctions.

The Geneva nuclear negotiations have been moving very slowly, but progress has been made.  That is why Merkel and other Western leaders have publicly asked for patience with the process. Insisting that the negotiations be rushed will result in the process becoming a forced public performance, perfunctory in nature, with no real chance for success.  What is sought by the West is a transformation in the thinking of Iran’s leadership. Interestingly enough, the new dialogue between Iran and the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Member States of the UN Security Council—US, Britain, France, Russia, and China—plus Germany) has built confidence, eliminated many ambiguities about positions, and lessened the guessing over actions, intentions, and motives.  Even more, there have been hints that Iranian leaders may be able to see the real possibilities of a final agreement. Iran’s adherence to the interim deal has been a good first step and could mean Iranian leaders sense the promise of a peace agreement.  A negotiated agreement on Iran’s nuclear program would be a treasure of great value reached as a result of the hard work of diplomats and officials of all parties involved.  Yet, the bitter scenario of Iran backing out of the process after all that has been achieved remains a real prospect.  All parties went into negotiations knowing that reaching a final deal was far from a fait accompli.

Merkel was expressing strong language regarding the potential response of leveling harsh sanctions against Iran if the Geneva process failed.  Yet, her response hardly matches the February 26, 2014 statement made by US Secretary of State John Kerry that “the US has an obligation to pursue nuclear negotiations with Iran before attempting to force Tehran to give up its nuclear activities with military action.”  His statement left no doubt that the US would seriously consider a strike on Iran if diplomatic talks were to breakdown.  There is a considerable divergence in thinking between Merkel and Kerry when they indicate they are ready to take action.  Sanctions may indeed have the potential to be very harmful and could possibly turn Iran into an “economic basket case.”  However, military action would be calibrated to destroy Iran’s nuclear program to the greatest extent possible.  The apparent reluctance of Germany to support US military action sends a message to some in Iran that there is a schism between the US and Europe on the Iran’s nuclear program, and the US would need to go it alone against its nuclear program.  Clearly, Germany, much as other European states, does not appear fully committed to its own defense against the potential threat Iran can pose to Europe.  If European leaders do not feel the collapse of the talks would warrant a military strikes against Iran, let it be.  However, if military response is desired, European leaders should standby the US, and avoid contradicting its policy in public statements.  They should explore ways to effectively support, encourage, and affirm US action.

European Security and Iran

A little over a decade ago, there was a consistent view among leaders of Germany, France, and Britain, regarding their Iran nuclear dossiers which was, “Iran wants a nuclear weapon and only a strong, consistent approach will stop it.”  European states were frightened then by reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stating Iran was trying then to create a Plutonium capacity, had built a heavy water facility, and was engaged in laboratory research for Uranium-238, and had worked with Uranium-239, which could detonate spontaneously.  Iran also had done research on Polonium 2010, a high neutron source which can eject neutrons, and is an element for nuclear devices. While some European countries used Polonium 2010 in laboratories as part of their fundamental research, Iran at the time had no fundamental research. Iran was also engaged in detonics research, especially catastrophic blasts.  Moreover, Iran had a rapidly growing ballistic missile research program, and had the capability with its Shahab-3 missiles to place 1 ton 1500km to reach inside Turkey and Israel.  It was developing the capability to reach Greece, and its Shahab-5 missile eventually would be able to reach Russia and Western Europe.  For the Europeans, the primary way to cope with the Iranian threat was through negotiations. Germany, France, and Britain, as Members of the European Union, were dubbed the “EU-3” in their talks with Iran.  It is somewhat unclear even at that time whether European leaders were ever fully behind military action.  However, the negotiations between Iran and the EU-3 had begun during the administration of US President George W. Bush, who seriously threatened military action against Iran.  He dubbed Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil,” and indicated the US would attack Iran to protect the Europeans and other friends from nuclear armed Iranian missiles.

Based on Merkel’s latest comments, it seems the Europeans are willing to step away from a truly tough approach to Iran.  The comments are reflective of European attitude of wanting security but not wanting to invest in it. Interestingly, according to US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, European friends and allies within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have failed to meet their defense spending pledges.  Hagel noted that US outlays on security are three times that of the other 27 partners combined, even though the US gross domestic product (GDP) is smaller than their total GDP, a longstanding US concern about NATO defense spending.  Hagel is correct when he explains that “This lopsided burden threatens NATO’s integrity, cohesion and capability—and ultimately, both European and transatlantic security.”  Only four of the NATO partners met their agreed target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense in 2013—Estonia, Greece, Britain and the US. France and Turkey fell just shy of the 2 percent goal.  The failure of European leaders to invest money and capabilities into their armed forces has left them unable to influence outcomes on issues such as Ukraine and Syria, and militarily irrelevant regarding Iran.  If the Europeans are reluctant to meet their 2 percent commitments for defense under the NATO, there is little chance they would boost their military capabilities to respond to the possible challenge of Iran.

European Criticism of the US

In addition to what could be seen as lethargy among the Europeans regarding defense, there is a sense among them that in its foreign policy, the Obama administration seeks politically expedient solutions rather than well-considered approaches based on analyses. The French seem convinced that the US was becoming disinterested in the Middle East.  French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius expressed his dismay with the US in a November 2013 speech, stating: “The United States seems no longer to wish to become absorbed by crises that do not align with its new vision of its national interest.”  For him, that explained “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.”  Fabius stated further that a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and what he perceived as the current “rather isolationist tendency” in US public opinion.  Fabius lamented that without US engagement, the world would find “major crises left to themselves,” and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.”  In other Western capitals, there is a view that US foreign policy is driven by Obama’s desire to establish his legacy.  The perception that Obama is taking a “legacy quest” approach has more than perturbed Russian President Vladimir Putin.  In many capitals around the world, this signaled the US may be willing to make risky concessions in talks to reach agreements.  All of these criticisms coalesce to create the impression in some parts of the world, even Europe, that the US government under Obama’s leadership is weak and willing to compromise when previous US administrations would not.

The sense of uncertainty about US intentions and capabilities led the British Parliament to vote down Prime Minister David Cameron’s request that British force join the US in military action against the Syrian government for its use of chemical weapons.  What created real upheaval among European leaders were revelations by US National Security Agency whistleblower, Edward Snowden, that the US engaged in electronic surveillance to monitor the communications of European leaders, including their personal cellphone conversations.  Expressions of outrage and criticisms over US actions were strong enough to evoke the worst reaction possible from Obama.  Yet, for his part, he has displayed great calm.  While he speaks with a golden tongue about European friends and allies, he knows that forgiveness will not be felt any time soon.  He likely senses European leaders will be difficult to work with for a while.

Nevertheless, the heaviness of maintaining Europe’s defense falls squarely on the shoulders of each respective country’s leaders.  They are the stewards of their country’s national security.  There is no desire to send anyone on a “guilt trip,” but the need to voice rage should be tempered by the demands of European security.  No benefit will be received from undermining the US leadership when a response from Obama against Iran might prove critical to Europe’s wellbeing. US support for the defense of Europe should not be taken for granted.  It has value and must be appreciated.

The Realities of the Military Option and the “Collaborative” Approach

A breakdown of the nuclear negotiations would be a weighty matter and impossible for the Europeans to handle effectively alone.  Statements about sanctions and conveying outrage after such an occurrence would simply amount to lip service.  The Iranians are capable of calculating what the consequences of such measures would be, and would try to mitigate the effects of them as best as possible.  The Europeans would need to support diplomacy with the threat force, but that cannot be achieved without US cooperation.  No state can replace the US on the world stage.

If the European leaders fully agree with taking action, they may find it necessary to press the matter forward with the US.  Despite stating that the military option remains on the table, the Obama administration might find it difficult to decide on military action against Iran.  The White House may calculate that attacking Iran preemptively to protect Europe is not a viable option because the costs for the US are too high.  Obama’s foreign policy agenda is rife with challenging issues, including Syria and Ukraine.  After fully considering what a US attack on Iran will mean for their countries, European leaders must examine ways in which their relationships with Obama might promote a decision to proceed.  They should consider taking a more cooperative, supportive approach with him to ensure the matter is moved forward.

None of this is intended to suggest European leaders embark on an approach akin to manipulation.  Rather, they should engage in a collaborative effort with Obama.  European leaders must embrace the reality that the US holds the lion’s share of military power in the West and it is the only country that would contend with Iran if it poses a threat to Europe (even though Britain and France have nuclear forces of their own).  To that extent, the US has the greatest stake in the success of the Geneva talks in the West because a breakdown in the nuclear negotiations could lead it to war.  Although backchannels and bilateral talks between the US and Iran may be a source of consternation for European leaders, they must remain patient while the US finds its way through the process.

There must also be forthright discussions with the US on a mutually acceptable rationale for military action and the difficulties of taking military action.  They must be willing to ask the US to guarantee that it will stand with them to the extent that it would act preemptively to protect European territory; if that is what they want. European leaders must consider how they can work in partnership with the US to the greatest extent possible to formulate and implement a plan for responding against Iran.  They must make it known at the UN, in NATO, and in their respective countries capitals, that the US can count on their support.  If military action is deemed necessary, Obama should be encouraged to rise up to meet the situation.

The Way Forward

If the Geneva nuclear negotiations breakdown, the Europeans can either hope for the best or support military action.  Sanctions are the greatest threat European leaders alone can pose to Iran if the Geneva talks fail.  However, cutting off business deals will unlikely serve their security needs regarding Iran.  Even if European leaders were to agree that a military response is necessary, the truth is no European country has the capability to act.  A united European front in support of a military response would not help either.  The only country capable of attacking Iran to protect Europe is the US.  The US pledge to defend its European partners and allies is unwavering.  Yet, the prospect of a new war is abhorrent to the Obama administration.

It is uncertain whether pre-emptive action would be taken by the US despite having the ability to respond militarily to Iran’s program.  For Obama, the alternative exists of waiting to see if Iran will take action with a newly developed, long predicted, nuclear capability. That could have devastating consequences for Europe.  Ensuring US action will prove to be daunting.  The Europeans will need to team-up with the US and support its Iran policy. European leaders must guarantee they will stand by the US if military action becomes necessary.  Contradictory statements on Iran policy emanating from the US and Europe do not foster a perception of unity.  Unity is crucial and it will help ensure the continent remains secure.  Given the low cost that would be incurred by a collaborative and supportive approach with the US on military action, if talks fail, it would hardly make sense not to try this tact.

Kerry Presses Iran to Prove Its Nuclear Program Is Peaceful; The White House Presses Kerry to Make a Deal

In a November 18, 2013 Reuters article entitled “Kerry Presses Iran to Prove Its Nuclear Program Peaceful,” Lesley Wroughton reported that US Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to lower expectations for the next round of talks in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear program. Kerry’s comments, which were made at a press conference in Washington DC, ran counter to the optimism expressed after the previous round of talks one week before.  Currently, the talks seek to reach an interim agreement to allow time to negotiate a comprehensive, permanent agreement that would end a ten year impasse and provide assurances to the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China that Iran’s nuclear program will not produce weapons.  Wroughton quoted Kerry as stating “I have no specific expectations with respect to the negotiation in Geneva except that we will negotiate in good faith and we will try to get a first-step agreement.”  Wroughton reported Kerry hoped “Iran will understand the importance of coming there prepared to create a document that can prove to the world this is a peaceful program.”  Kerry declined to discuss details of the proposal under discussion.  Kerry was also reported as stating: “I am not going to negotiate that in public.  We all need to be respectful of each others’ processes here and positions—and so it’s best to leave that negotiation to the negotiating table.”

The restraint Kerry wisely displayed by refusing to discuss the substance of upcoming talks contrasted greatly with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s public discussion of the talks.  On November 17, 2013, Zarif presented his idea for overcoming the stumbling block of enrichment in the upcoming round of negotiations.  The US argues that Iran does not intrinsically have the right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Iran claims that it retains that right.  To get around this sticking point, Zarif reportedly explained to the ISNA news agency in Iran, “Not only do we consider that Iran’s right to enrich is unnegotiable [sic], but we see no need for that to be recognized as ‘a right,’ because this right is inalienable and all countries must respect that.”  In Zarif’s statement lies a major problem concerning trust among the negotiating parties.  Unless the necessary work is done on uranium enrichment at the talks in Geneva to a concrete agreement, the negotiations may be in jeopardy.  Moreover, unless the US takes a consistent course of assertive diplomacy toward Iran, it will most likely end up with an agreement it does not really want and may not be sustainable.  Even if a nuclear agreement of some type is preferred by the Obama administration over military response or further economic sanctions, the best agreement possible within the interests of the US and its allies still must be sought.

Geneva: An Assertive Posture Morphs into Acquiescence

There was considerable expectation created in Washington over the potential of negotiations with Iran given the eloquent case Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made for opening a dialogue with the US before and after his inauguration.  There was also skepticism expressed in the US, mainly by Kerry.  He made it clear that the warming a relations between the US and Iran did not mean that the US would back off its demands on Iran’s nuclear program.  Kerry was also unequivocal about his willingness to shut down any talks if he discerned an effort to stall, misdirect, or deceive through the process.  When Zarif suggested that the US should bring proposals to an October bargaining session, Kerry bristled and rejected the idea, stated at a press conference that the Islamic Republic still had not responded to the last offer put forth by the US, Russia, and others in February.  In some quarters of the US government, the increased requests for proposals and other deliverables from the US by Iran and the effort to shift nuclear away from bilateral engagement with the US talks to broader negotiations with the Europeans and Russia was itself an Iranian effort to stall the negotiations.

However, as the process got underway, there was a perceptible shift in the US position.  US negotiators seemed to fall over themselves just to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.  Talk of military action against Iran’s nuclear program became a distant memory.  Regarding the use of further economic sanctions, the Obama administration officials made it clear to the US Congress that they would not convince the Iranians to accede to US wishes.  The White House wanted to reach a deal.  Things proceeded in this way regardless of any further skepticism or even doubts Kerry might possess over Iran’s intentions and actions.  Kerry, a discreet and honorable man, who is bound by a sense of loyalty to his president as a secretary of state and to Obama personally, was prepared to press forward as directed.  The veil of skepticism that draped initial US efforts to establish dialogue with Iran was lifted.  Zarif apparently recognized the change in US attitude.  He was correct when he declared in the Iranian media, “There are indicators that John Kerry is inclined [to advance the nuclear matter in Iran’s interests].”

According to a November 18, 2013, New York Times article, weeks before the Geneva meeting at which hopes for an accord first soared and then sank, the US and Iran had opened a quiet two-way negotiation on a six-month interim deal. Officials close to Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister, told the New York Times that those bilateral discussions had produced an agreed US-Iranian text (with caveats) by the time the Geneva talks opened. When French officials became cognizant of it they were distressed.

When the US delegation arrived in Geneva on November 7, 2013, they explained that they wanted to construct a deal that would freeze the Iranian nuclear program, to buy some time to negotiate a more ambition deal, and to stop two separate methods of developing a bomb: one involving uranium and, the other plutonium.  In return, the Iranians would receive modest relief from sanctions, but not what they desperately desire, the ability to again sell oil around the world.  That would come only later as part of a final agreement that would require the Iranians to dismantle much of their nuclear infrastructure.  Talk at the bargaining table focused on those three areas: The heavy-water plant at Arak that the Iranians are building, where the outline agreement seemed to allow continued construction; language that appeared to concede prematurely an Iranian “right to enrich” or something close to it; and, what measures exactly Iran would take to dispose of its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium.  France, gravely concerned with all that had transpired, sought to close any loopholes.  French changes to the proposed agreement proved unacceptable to the Iranian delegation

The Way Forward: US Allies Are Flummoxed

According to a November 19, 2013, New York Times article, based on what is known about the agreement, it neither froze the Iranian program nor rolled it back.  Rather, only some elements are frozen, and the rollbacks in the initial agreement are relatively minor.  Iran would continue adding to its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, meaning uranium enriched to reactor grade or less than 5 percent purity.  The US maintains that the overall size of Iran’s stockpile would not increase.  The November 19th article also explained that the reason for that is Iran would agree to convert some of its medium enriched uranium—fuel enriched to 20 percent purity is bomb grade—into an oxide form that is on the way to becoming reactor fuel.  Yet, that process can be easily reversed.

Based on the US effort, the French are convinced that the US seems a bit disinterested in the Middle East.  French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius expressed his dismay in a recent speech, stating: “The United States seems no longer to wish to become absorbed by crises that do not align with its new vision of its national interest.”  He suggested this explained “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.”  Fabius stated further that a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and what he perceived as the current “rather isolationist tendency” in American public opinion.  He was concerned that no state could replace the US on the world stage.  Fabius lamented that without US engagement, the world would find “major crises left to themselves,” and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.”

In other Western capitals, the foreign policy of the Obama administration is driven by US President Barack Obama’s desire to establish his legacy.  The perception of a “legacy quest” approach taken by Obama and his administration on foreign policy has more than perturbed Putin.  In many capitals around the world, this signaled the US may be willing to make risky concessions in talks to reach agreements.

The Israelis are the most vocal critics of the proposed agreement and alarmed by its terms.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition to the agreement has been reported by some Israeli analysts as being both substantive and political.  Reportedly, he truly believes that a deal lifting sanctions without fully halting enrichment and dismantling centrifuges would be a terrible mistake.  Netanyahu speaks as if he had some type of “intimation” based on his “dominant knowledge” of the Middle East, that Iran was engaged in a major deception.  Some Israeli security analysts disagree with Netanyahu’s views.  Yet, the weight of maintaining the security of Israel falls on his shoulders.  Perhaps it would behoove Netanyahu to consider that the US decision may have been impacted by his own uncongenial relationship with Obama despite the strong ties between the US and Israel.  He should consider the possibility that difficulties the Obama administration has had getting Israel to agree on Arab-Israeli peace process, Palestine, the occupation, settlements and other issues has influenced US actions.  Netanyahu must not be dismissive of the stinging memory of what some US analysts have described as a manipulation of the Bush administration policymakers by Israeli security officials on the Iraq issue.  Israeli intelligence findings, claims and pleas regarding Iraq supported the invasion that led to a very difficult period in US foreign and defense policy and a national nightmare for the American people.  There is also the somewhat expedient argument that Israel has “cried wolf” too often.

Divergence in Outlook

Two of the most imminent members of the foreign policy establishment, former US national security adviser in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and former national security adviser in the administrations of Presidents Gerald R. Ford and George H. W. Bush and US Air Force lieutenant general, Brent Scowcroft, issued a joint statement on November 18, 2013.  They explained, “should the United States fail to take this historic opportunity, we risk failing to achieve our nonproliferation goal and losing the support of allies and friends while increasing the probability of war.”  They repeated Obama’s central argument, “Additional sanctions now against Iran with the new the view to extracting even more concessions in the negotiations will risk undermining or even shutting down the negotiations.”

The joint statement was significant, given the knowledge and experience of Brzezinski and Scowcroft in international affairs.  However, while they centered their argument on negotiating in support of nuclear nonproliferation and to avoid the need for war, in Iran the argument for negotiations centered on the economic harm resulting from US coercive diplomacy.  The goal of the negotiations from Tehran’s view is not as much to find compromise on its nuclear program as it is to gain some compromise from the US on economic sanctions.  The nuclear program is seen by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), as well as hardline political leaders and clerics, rightfully Iran’s to keep, and a necessity, even though it was the pursuit of the essentials for a nuclear capacity that has made Iran much poorer.

Assessment: A Lack of Confidence

There is a sense among US allies that negotiations with Iran have reached this point as result of the White House’s desire to seek political expedient solutions rather than well-considered approaches based on analysis.  To date, no publicly released US government data has indicated that Iran intends to develop a nuclear weapon.  Yet opinion among US allies who have assessed the situation falls mostly on the side that there are too many loopholes in the proposed agreement, and Iran could potentially run in the open field toward developing a nuclear device at will.  Israel in particular has been very vocal about its concerns over US attitude and effort regarding the Geneva negotiation process.  Iran is not pleased by Netanyahu’s statements regarding its negotiation efforts, but has left it to the US to manage its relationship with Israel on the matter.  To Iran’s satisfaction, the US has essentially ignored Israel’s concerns, as well as resisted calls for caution from allies, and has pushed forward with the Geneva talks and the current proposed interim agreement.

In addition to his joint statement with Brent Scowcroft on the Obama administration’s efforts in Geneva, Zbigniew Brzezinski used Twitter o November 19, 2013, to proffer that Obama and Kerry were the best foreign policy team since President George H. W. Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker.  However, to be forthright, there are differences.  George H. W. Bush was elected to two terms as a Member of the US House of Representatives much as Obama was a elected to one term as a Member of the US Senate.  Yet, Bush also served as a diplomat (US Ambassador to the UN), an intelligence expert (Director of the CIA), and, a US Navy aviator (a combat torpedo bomber pilot in World War II).  Together with Secretary Baker, his chief diplomat, was amassed a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience that has not been matched since.  This is in stark contrast with the understanding of world affairs in the abstract from intelligence and the first-hand reports of others which Obama has acquired.  That may be the source of much concern in Paris, other European capitals, Tel Aviv and within the US Congress.

Indeed, there may very well be doubt whether Obama is able to fully synthesize the issues at hand concerning Iran’s nuclear program beyond the pure legalities of it.  At this point, the French appear to have appraised the Obama administration as unwilling to use military action to respond to Iran’s nuclear program.  The Iranians, themselves, may have also concluded that Obama was not predisposed toward declaring war regardless of how they might proceed.  The Iranians essentially see Obama as lacking the will to fight.  Given that perspective, eliminating sanctions, even if for six months would be preferred maintain the status quo.  While its figures were debunked by the US State Department given sanctions relief would be in effect for only six months and not a year, Israel continues to state the proposed deal would directly erase $15 billion to $20 billion of what was $100 billion the current sanctions are costing Iran annually, and lead to relief of up to $40 billion because of indirect effects.  In the meantime, with whatever short-term concessions on sanctions that might be allowed, the hardliners in Iran, particularly IRGC commanders, who are unfortunately convinced Obama is timorous, given recent declarations, may see a golden opportunity to develop a nuclear device.  Perhaps they believe what they would undoubtedly characterize as their “bold and decisive action,” could be reconciled with rest of the world through the negotiation powers of the Iranian Foreign Ministry.  They would call it all a spectacular victory for the Islamic Republic.  Whether the world truly faces that possibility remains to be seen.