Commentary: Trump-Kim Talks: Will Desire Obey Reason or Will Force Be Used to Overcome Force?

The Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un (above). When US President Donald Trump and Kim meet, hopefully their conversation will be positive, but an uncongenial exchange is possible, the portent of which may be war, made more horrible by nuclear weapons. Sangfroid, skilled diplomacy, and adjustments in thinking on both sides will be required if a sustainable agreement is to be reached. Trump has allowed Kim room to think it through. He must make the right choice.

On March 8, 2018, it was announced by the US and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), independently, that talks would be arranged between US President Donald Trump and the Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un. The decision was precipitated by efforts of the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in to end rather bellicose verbiage and repeated muscle flexing by the US, Japan, and his country as well, itself, and halt weapons testing by North Korea. The meeting between Trump and Kim would be the first time leaders of the two countries have ever met. Since the end of the Korean War, previous US administrations had no interest at all in the idea. Indeed, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has remained tense since the end of Korean War during which the US along with forces of the UN fought to eject the forces of North Korea, China, and Soviet Union (who were operating covertly), from sovereign South Korean territory. The very bloody fighting was halted by a July 27, 1953 armistice that established a roughly 160 mile long, 2.5 miles wide, Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the 38th Parallel. For 65 years, tens of thousands of troops on both sides of the DMZ have remained heavily armed and on alert in a stand-off. There have been hot and cold periods in relations between the former warring parties. Violent incidents have occurred between them on the ground and in the waters around in the Korean Peninsula. Yet, the armistice has held. While it is hoped that the talks between Trump and Kim will go well, uncongenial talks between them is a real possibility, the portent of which may be a new war, made more horrible, more destructive, by nuclear weapons. Sangfroid, skilled diplomacy, and some big adjustments in thinking on both sides will be required if a new sustainable agreement to end the extremely dangerous situation is to be reached. Here are a few considerations and an outlinng of some elements that may contribute to the forging of such an agreement.

As it was noted in the August 15, 2017 greatcharlie post entitled, “Trump Has Spoken, the Ball Is in Kim Jong-un’s Court, But This Is Not a Game!”, the Trump administration has tried to be reasonable with North Korea. Recall that Trump, with a positive mindset, tried to reach out to Kim. He tried to see the world through King Jong-un’s lens. Trump publicly expressed the view that it must have been difficult for Kim to take on so much responsibility at a relatively early age following his father, Kim Jong-Il. Trump even suggested then that he would be willing to meet with Kim to communicate head to head, brain to brain. A resolution might have been crafted from Kim’s elaborations on what troubles him. It was a sincere search for common ground. Kim did not budge in Trump’s direction. Rather, Trump was with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe in Florida on February 11, 2017 when the North Korea fired an intermediate range missile into the Sea of Japan. It became clear that efforts with North Korea have simply become a struggle against the inevitable. Trump had also urged China, North Korea’s economic lifeline, to assist in reducing tensions by talking frankly with Pyongyang.  The administration’s contact with China has resulted in a degree of solidarity from it. In August 2017, China voted to place sanctions against North Korean under UN Security Council Resolution 2371. Those sanctions limited North Korean exports of coal, iron, lead, and seafood. Restrictions were placed North Korea’s Trade Bank and prohibited any increase in the number if North Koreans citizens working in other countries. However, that effort initially did not seem to do much to stop Kim. Advancements made by North Korea and an escalation in provocations continued. To get even tougher on North Korea, in September 2017, UN Security Council Resolution 2375 was passed, limiting North Korea restricting North Korean crude oil and refined petroleum product imports, banned joint ventures, textile exports, natural gas condensate, and liquid imports, and banned North Koreans citizens from working in other countries. The administration intensified a “maximum pressure” campaign on Kim’s regime and its supporters, increasing military exercises in coordination with South Korea and Japan, deploying missile defense systems in South Korea with urgency, sending more firepower there, and encouraging Congress to enact the strongest sanctions possible against North Korea and its enablers. Eventually, in February 2018, the US imposed a raft of sanctions in an effort to target entities linked to North Korea’s shipping and trade sectors. Those entities included one individual, 27 shipping companies, and 28 vessels  Through such harsh economic sanctions, and the much needed, and very helpful cooperation from China and the Russian Federation, albeit with some reluctance, the entire matter has reached this point.

Trump’s Thinking on North Korea and Talks

In utrumque paratus. (Prepared for either alternative.) Trump has made a number of statements concerning North Korea. However, the best source for understanding his positions on Kim and North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs before the talks is perhaps his remarks before the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly on September 19, 2017. In his remarks, Trump explained that North Korea was a member of a small group of rogue regimes that represented “the scourge of our planet today.” Noting what those countries had in common, he explained that they violated every principle on which the UN is based. He added, “They respect neither their own citizens nor the sovereign rights of their countries.” Trump declared that North Korea was perhaps the worst aming them, being responsible for the starvation deaths of millions of its citizens and for the imprisonment, torture, killing, and oppression of countless more. Trump reminded that there were a number of very public displays of its outrageous behavior to include the mistreatment of University of Virginia college student Otto Wambier who died only a few days after being returned to the US; the assassination of Kim’s brother with banned nerve agents in an Indonesian international airport; and, the kidnapping of a 13-year-old Japanese girl from a beach in her own country to enslave her as a language tutor for North Korea’s spies. Trump explained that North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles was a manifestation of the same depraved mental attitude Kim evinced through his violent acts against foreign visitors, his family members, and citizens on the sovereign territory of their own countries. His work on nuclear weapons and missiles threatened the entire world with unthinkable loss of human life. Trump pointed to the fact that some countries not only trade with North Korea, but arm, supply, and financially support it. Trump insisted that it was not in the interest of any country to see North Korea arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles. Trump indicated that he felt Kim was “on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”  He declared: “It is time for North Korea to realize that the denuclearization is its only acceptable future.” Trump closed his remarks concerning North Korea by reminding that the US “has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” He added: “The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary. “

While his comments at the UN were somewhat severe, Trump has indicated that there is room for a degree of flexibility in his thinking by the mere fact that he has agreed to meet with Kim. More apparently, since those remarks were made, Trump has not launched an attack on North Korea to destroy its nuclear weapons and missile programs most likely hoping Kim can reach an understanding on his own of the dangerous situation in which he has put his country or that the maximum pressure campaign would eventually breakdown the ability of his regime to function because his activities would prove absolutely unprofitable. For the moment, Trump has elected to “give peace a chance.” Time will tell how long he will allow that window of opportunity for North Korea to remain open.

Kim’s Concept on the US and Talks

The emotional response of the North Korean people toward Kim, a near religious belief in him, is similar to that which they held for his father, Kim Jong-il, and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, before. The people’s fervor for Kim is at the foundation of opinions and actions formulated and implemented by the government in Pyongyang. Anything that could be considered reasonable must flow from Kim’s ruminations, meditations, concepts, ideals, and intentions. Contrary to practices in Western governments, reason and knowledge have little place. Kim’s intuitive, visceral thinking is cherished. As greatcharlie has emphasized in previous posts, wrong is wrong even if everyone else is doing it. Right is right even if nobody is doing it. However in North Korea, questioning, or worse, challenging a position or notion of the Kim will end badly: imprisonment or death. Given their acceptance of the reality created for them, North Koreans see Trump as a danger, and threat he poses is part of larger picture of the US, a capitalist adversary, seeking conquest, attempting to subordinate their smaller nation. They see Kim as defending them from Trump, from the US threat. They accept that Kim, their Great Leader, has built up the North Korean nuclear arsenal to a level that has given their countrt the capability and capacity to strike the powerful US. Kim’s father and grandfather were unable to achieve that. Inter cetera mala, hoc quoque habet stultitia proprium, semper incipit vivere. (Among other evils, folly has also this special characteristic: it is always beginning to live.)

What the world is hearing from North Korea since the talks were announced is a new Kim whose approach does not emphasize the need to challenge the US with force. North Korea’s official news organization, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), in a March 20, 2018 commentary reported that its country’s “proactive measure and peace-loving proposal” have caused a “dramatic atmosphere for reconciliation” to be “created in relations between the North and the South of Korea, and that there has been a sign of change also in the DPRK-U.S. relations.” KCNA further noted that North Korea had begun a “dialogue peace offensive.” To that extent, it explained: “The great change in the North-South relations is not an accidental one but a noble fruition made thanks to the DPRK’s proactive measure, warm compatriotism and will for defending peace.” KCNA also proffered: “Such an event as today could be possible as the DPRK’s dignity has remarkably risen and it has strong might.” The KCNA commentary strongly criticized current and former officials and experts in the US and Japan, as well as conservatives in South Korea, for claiming Pyongyang was pushed into a corner by sanctions. The commentary responded harshly to calls for sustained pressure on North Korea and to skepticism voice that suggests its “peaceful approach” is a ploy intended to gain time or drive a wedge between the US and South Korea. Additionally, KCNA declared: “The economy of the DPRK is rising,” and added, advances in science and technology around the country are “promising the bright future for the improvement of the people’s living standard.” It emphasized: “The dialogue peace offensive of the DPRK is an expression of self-confidence as it has acquired everything it desires.” Lastly,  KCNA called on all parties involved to act with “prudence, self-control and patience.” North Korea, since agreeing to meeting with Trump has gone a step further by scheduling a meeting between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in for April 27, 2018. While North Korea would have the world believe that a “new Kim” and new North Korea have emerged, one must never forget that Kim is the steward of a tyrannical government, and make no mistake, he rules with an iron fist. The North Korean people live under conditions that no one anywhere would envy. They only know the outside world through Kim’s lies, his deceptions. Only one who might be susceptible to gossamer fantasies could be seduced by Kim’s expedient “charm offensive” to support his supposed position on denuclearization. There is nothing that would lead any reasonable individual to be believe that Kim has a genuine interest in changing his thinking. North Korea has not moved beyond being the moral slum that it was when it emerged from the wreckage of World War II. Truthful assessments expressed in the West about North Korea’s broken society lhave mostly been looked upon by that country’s policy analysts and scholars with bewilderment. Not knowing why anyone would say there was anything wrong with their world, they typically chalk it up to a type of abstruse indignation. Among the more obedient, zealous government officials and other elites, such Western assessments are viewed as a manifestation of arrogance of Western powers which insist that any society or system not designed or created under their philosophies is subordinate in every way. 

What Baker’s Building Blocks Might Require

The building blocks for diplomatic talks and negotiations were well-outlined by former US Secretary of State James Baker over a decade ago. The renowned US statesman explained that his building blocks work well when properly applied through solid preparation, doing ones homework. Included among the building blocks were: 1) Understanding an opponent’s position; 2) Gaining trust through personal relationships; 3) Reciprocal confidence building; 4) Taking a pragmatic approach that does not sacrifice principles; 5) Being aware of timing; and 6) Maintaining a deep respect for the politics of the situation.

1. Understanding an opponent’s position

Amat victoria curam. (Victory favors those who take pains.) For negotiators, much as commanders on a battlefield, a full awareness of the situation is the first step in ensuring that once in contact with an opponent, one will be better prepared to cope with common contingencies as well as the unexpected, the reasonable “what ifs” that may arise. To that extent, the opposite party to talks as much as an opposing commander must be given his due. It must be accepted that he seeks success, and will take creative steps or may act in an unexpected manner, to accomplish that. For a smaller or weaker party or force, the aim would be to overcome the odds that are against them. 

For Trump, the goal of talks would be to initiate a process from which a sustainable agreement to halt North Korea nuclear testing, weapons development, and missile development can be reached. If the matter of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs is to be decided through diplomacy, reaching such an agreement is a immutable goal for Trump. He must be able to safeguard the safety and security of the US, the safety and security of US military forces and US interests in Asia and the Pacific, and the safety and security of US Allies and their interests in the region. However, Trump will not come to the table using some playbook to which he will adhere rigidly.North Korea can rest assured that Trump will come to talks well-informed and well-prepared to deal with Kim. Moreover, with Trump, Kim will face a US leader with an aptitude to find value in all of the information made available to him even at the negotiating table. He will use what he hears to find an opening in a position or argument or beginning planning future actions. Available information also allows Trump to develop thoughts about his opponents likely moves in advance. He studies how his opponent thinks. 

Kim likely hopes that the talks and negotiation process will result in the elimination of the longstanding policy that had the US provide a nuclear umbrella for South Korea and Japan, safeguarding them from nuclear attack by promising a nuclear response. Kim would also hope to severely limit, or at best, eliminate annual joint military exercises by the US, South Korea, and Japan. Through other efforts,  such as bilateral talks, Kim hopes to severely weaken, or at best, break the decades long security linkages between US, South Korea, and Japan. If Kim arrives at the table unwilling to discuss his nuclear weapons and missile programs and attempts to give a history lecture or offers positions on denuclearization and unification filled with political hyperbole supportive of the self-inflicted false reality North Korea has lived in for decades, there will be little chance of successful talks. A pragmatic, succinct discussion of the matter at hand will be the only way to move the discussion forward and reach any agreement. It is important for Pyongyang to keep that in mind. 

2. Gaining Trust through Personal Relationships

Trump and Kim have neither met nor have had any interaction by telephone. There is no degree of trust between them that would allow a relaxed exploration of territory outside their formal negotiating positions, nonetheless their assumptions, strategies, and even fears. Both have been working from reports in the abstract that presented observations and analyses of others about each other. For diplomats, positive personal relationships can be fostered by joint efforts in ordinary circumstances. However, only so much could ever have been hope for in terms of building personal relationships between US diplomats and fully indoctrinated North Korean officials. The development of such relations, would certainly be frowned upon by North Korea security elements as turning away from their country’s revolutionary ideals, a loss of patriotic zeal and faith in the Great Leader: in other words, treason. To the extent that Trump and Kim can reach agreements on smaller, common issues, there may be hope that they be able to broach larger ones. Reaching agreements on those smaller issues at an early stage, quickly, reasonably, and amicably, would represent the beginning of a constructive dialogue, which is one of the most important aspects of negotiations. Reaching an agreement on the site of the talks is a relatively small step that could begin the exchange between leaders.

There would be some common requirements insisted upon by protective security elements of the US and North Korea regarding a meeting site. A small sample of those likely required would be: the full consent and support from the leadership of a host country to hold the meeting in their country; the confirmed capability and capacity of security elements of the host country to provide granular security needs, and coordinate with and complement with security units, the efforts of US and North Korean protective security elements if it is anywhere other than the US or North Korea; acceptable facilities for transport of leaders of officials to and from the host country, appropriate accommodations to support leaders and officials traveling to the meeting, an appropriate sized and secure meeting site, whether a official office, hotel, official or historic residence, or some other facility that would appropriately meet the requirements for the meeting. These and other standard requirements must exist if a site even to be considered. Short lists for a meeting site created by both countries might include: the Demilitarized Zone between South Korea and North Korea; Pyongyang,in North Korea; Washington, D.C. in the US; Hawaii in the US; Stockholm or elsewhere in Sweden; Oslo or elsewhere in Norway; Copenhagenor elsewhere in Denmark; Helsinki or elsewhere in Finland; Geneva or elsewhere in Switzerland; Paris or elsewhere in France; Berlin or elsewhere in Germany; Rome or elsewhere in Italy; Beijing or elsewhere in China; Seoul or elsewhere in South Korea; Tokyo or elsewhere in Japan; Manila or elsewhere in the Philippines; Saipan Island in the Pacific; and, Wake Island in the Pacific. Every prospective site would need to meet the basic requirements for security. However, each has some political or emotional significance to both countries that might be an asset or liability to it in the selection process.

Regarding Stockholm, Sweden hosts the US interest section in its Embassy in Pyongyang and as has negotiated as a back channel between the US and North Korea on the release of Otto Wambier and has aided efforts concerning three US citizens now being held in North Korea. However, the matters involved is a presidential summit are different. The Swedish back channel should not be mixed up in the development of a new channel at the presidential level on nuclear weapons. Geneva, as a European site, might have value as a neutral site. It has been the site for the hashing out of issues and the crafting of many agreements in the years since World War II. The biggest issue might be distance for Kim. He might sense he too far away from his center of power. To rule with an iron fist, he must remain relatively close to home and keep his ear to the ground to detect even the slightest “revolutionary movements” by so-called reactionaries. While he has travel as recently as March 2018 to China, hidden adversarial elements could potentially see his scheduled absence as an opportunity to act against him. North Korean officials might also have concerns that most European countries that would qualify to host the summit are not only economic partners, but military allies of the US and willing to support US interests. The DMZ has traditionally been a site for talks between US and North Korean senior military officials since the end of the war. The South Korean President and North Korea’s Kim will meet there in April 2018. As South Korea and North Korea are engaged in separate talks, the issues of the Trump-Kim presidential summit should not be blended with that effort. Further, as the site for the first summit meeting between the US and North Korean leaders it may not be of appropriate stature as it evokes immediate memories of a past war and that may not be conducive to generating forward thinking to reach a sustainable, peace agreement agreement. Traveling to South Korea, away from the DMZ, would be fine for the US, but problematic for the North Koreans who would view Kim’s visit as a loss of dignity, and surrender to the notion that the South is the greater and the true Korea.  Pyongyang would certainly satisfy North Korea, but it might be deemed inappropriate to have a sitting US President visit there. Pyongyang much as the DMZ brings the past war to immediate perception and evokes the memory of United Kingdom Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier traveling to Germany for the disastrous Munich Meeting of September 1938. Trump would likely consider any similarity to that as anathema. For Kim, traveling to Washington, DC would be unacceptable in a similar way. Going there would not be felt as an act of peace, but politically and emotionally, an act of submission to Western authority and power. A meeting in Hawaii would evoke negative memories of the infamous surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Schofield Barracks, and Hickam Field on December 7, 1941. It may likely heighten the idea that handling a rogue threat to the US with nuclear weapons must not languish in talks but be dealt with swiftly and decisively. Beijing or elsewhere in China would unlikely be a desired choice by the US. China, with some coaxing by the US, has put tremendous pressure of North Korea with regard to it nuclear weapons development and missile development. Yet, China remains a political, economic, and military ally of North Korea, not a neutral party to events. In a similar way, Japan and the Philippines are allies of the US, likely obviating the possibility that Tokyo or Manila or any other site in those countries would satisfy North Korea. Japan has more than once faced the threat of North Korean missiles test fired in its direction. Japan might acquiesce to a US request if asked to host the summit, but the decision might cause some domestic political strains. In the Pacific, Saipan Island, might be a possibility. It was the site of a tragic battle between US and imperial Japanese forces during World War II. While remote, it should be close enough to North Korea that Kim would have less anxiety about traveling there for a day by air or sea. However, the North Koreans might view it as a negative given that it is a US Commonwealth and its the history of being a staging area for US covert intelligence operations in North Korea during the Korean War. Wake Island was the site of the historical October 15, 1950 meeting between US President Harry Truman and US Army General Douglas MacArthur on the status of the fighting in Korea and reaching some agreement on its course. It was also the site of a tragic battle between US and imperial Japanese forces during World War II. Much like Saipan, it would be close enough to North Korea that Kim should have less anxiety about traveling there for a day by air or sea. Unlike Saipan, Wake Island is an unincorporated US territory. Still, Wake Island is controlled by the US Army and the US Air Force which might make it undesirable to the North Koreans. Although all of these considerations could remove these cities and countries from consideration as a site for the summit, there is always the strong likelihood, that certain inconveniences will be tolerated by the US or North Korea and one of them will be selected. Reaching a common point of agreement on the site of the talks in a positive fashion might also serve to set the tone for the talks.

One site that may be a long shot, and may not be on the list of either US or North Korea, but certainly worthy of consideration is Mongolia. Mongolia has relatively positive relations with both the US and North Korea. Although Mongolia is bordered solely by the Russian Federation and China, Mongolia has described the US as its most important “third neighbor.” Currently, targeted US assistance has promoted good governance and the rule of law; helped to nurture a new generation of democratic leaders; invigorated private sector-led growth, economic diversification, and long-term capital investment; and mitigated transnational criminal activity, to include human trafficking, and reduced domestic violence, US training and equipment has supported the professionalization of Mongolia’s defense forces and their continued support for United Nations peacekeeping operations. Because of Mongolia’s long and highly porous borders. The US has also assisted Mongolia with its nonproliferation activities. The US and Mongolia have signed a Bilateral Transparency Agreement, an Investment Incentive Agreement, a Bilateral Investment Treaty, and a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement. US President George Bush visited Mongolia in November 2005 became the first US President to do so. Mongolian Presidents have visited the US on several occasions. They have also visited North Korea. Mongolia has injected itself in critical matters in Northeast Asia as the abduction issue between Japan and North Korea. It has urged North Korea to consider emulating its post-Cold War transition model, and uphold rule of law and respect human rights of its citizens. North Korea has sought Mongolia’s help in modernizing its economy and industries. Mongolia has invested in North Korea’s oil industry, reached agreements for 5000 North Korean workers to come to Mongolia. Beyond political and economic issues, an intriguing link between Mongolians and North Koreans are “unique ties of blood”. Reportedly, Koreans and Mongolians ethnically belong to the Altaic language family. Many Korean clans are believed to have come from eastern Mongolia. According to some experts, those ties encourage both countries with each other with mutual respect and understand in way unavailable, with the ostensible exception, mutatis mutandis, with South Korea. The most likely location for the meeting in Mongolia would be Ulan Bator, the capital. Certainly, Mongolia can meet basic security requirements. It is close enough for Kim to travel, either by air or by ground in a day.

3. Reciprocal Confidence Building.

Before any talks occur or follow-on negotiations between the two countries begin, there are certain mutual understandings that must exist between the US and North Korea. There must be mutual respect shown and understanding given to participants and positions expressed in negotiations. To that extent, use of respectful language in addressing issues public to support congenial relations and  promote increased exchanges. This has been a considerable problem to date, and some governance must be placed on public verbiage. No precondition of creating parity in status as powers as talks or negotiations begin. There is no need to create a faux levelling of the playing field established, whereas the negotiations could be described as an “exchange between equals.” In reality, the talks concern North Korea’s  survival, not the survival of the US. The result of talks cannot simply be temporary steps, but a verifiable, sustainable agreement to keep peace in Northeast Asia. Parvis componere magna. (To compare great things with small.)

Acts the US could perform  as confidence building measures might include temporarily reducing or halting aerial exercises until negotiations are established, and then a decision on how to proceed from that point forward would be made. More vigorous talks on reducing military forces along the DMZ in a mutually acceptable way could be arranged between senioe military officials of the US, North Korea, and South Korea. It would represent an effort to make the Korean Peninsula safer from conventional war as well as nuclear exchange. (It would be counterintuitive of North Korean officials to expect Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul to accept that with the destructive power of their massive build up of artillery aimed at Seoul that “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula would make South Korea safer.) These would be talks far beyond, more complex than those that have been occasionally held on the border between South Korea and North Korea at Panmunjom to handle contentious issues. Talks could be initiated by the most senior diplomats of the US and North Korea on crafting a final agreement on ending the Korean War. The US could recommend that a direct line of communication between Washington and Pyongyang at level of Foreign Minister and Secretary of State. There could be discussions arranged between diplomatic officials to mitigate “nagging issues” that have exist ed since the end of p hostilities in 1953. Incentives might be put in place, except financial giveaways, that would allow North Korea to rejuvenate its own society, reinvigorate its own industries. Suggestions could be sought from the North Koreans on what they feel would be helpful to aid the economic conditions in their country. Much as inviting a sizable delegation from Pyongyang to attend the PyeongChang Olympics, and creating a joint Korean Women’s Ice Hockey team allowed them to move from the shadows of the well walled-in, “hermit kingdom” into the light of the rest world. More visits, more congenial openings to the world could be proposed, encouraged to lift the shades, raise the blinds, and open the shutters for light from the outside world to come into North Korea. (It is likely that such openings would be limited by Pyongyang as such contacts with the outside world for too many North Koreans would be considered potentially destabilizing for its controlled society.) The North Koreans should hardly expect any huge giveaways, no Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) to result the talks or negotiations that would cover the enormous expenditures made on the nuclear weapons and missile programs so far. There would be no discussion of purchasing the program.

Acts the North Koreans could perform as confidence building measures could include: the release of three US citizens being detained on varied charges in North Korea; the return of any remains of US troops from Korean War collected by the North Korea; make its own recommendation to create a direct line of communication between Washington and Pyongyang at level of Foreign Minister and Secretary of State. A potent step that Kim or North Korean officials could take, but would seem unlikely, is the return of the USS Pueblo, a US Navy intelligence ship captured on January 23, 1968 and converted into a museum. (It is of questionable utility to officials in Pyongyang particularly now as their country is facing potential annihilation.) Kim or North Korean officials, on their own volition could indicate a willingness to pull back artillery aimed at Seoul. If in Pyongyang, taking these steps would represent a loss of dignity, particularly if they took those steps after talks with Trump, Kim or North Korean officials could claim it was more the result of bilateral talks with South Korea. All of this being stated, however, no matter what Kim may agree with at the talks, if he feels once back in Pyongyang, that he has given too much, he would not hesitate to walk-back, through official statements, any undesirable points. Qui cumque turpi fraude semel innotuit, eriemsi verum dicit amittit fides.  (Whoever has once become known for a shameful fraud, is not believed even if he speaks the truth.)

4. Taking a Pragmatic Approach That Does Not Sacrifice Principles

Trump does not intend to turn down a diplomatic detour similar to that taken while trying to build relations with the Russian Federation. Finding a way to establish an authentic positive relationship with Russia was a struggle US administrations have engaged in for a few decades. Trump said he would try to find the solution, and explained that he would give it his best effort. Then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson began with small steps, working groups to settle nagging issues. Although those small steps were supposed to lead to bigger ones, and confidence was supposed to grow that was not the case. Small steps led nowhere. It appears that Russia used then simply as distraction. Seemingly long planned moves in locations such Syria, Ukraine, Estonia, Moldova, the Czech Republic, France, Germany the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Serbia, and Montenegro were executed at the same time. No movement on Crimea was even considered or broached in conversations between Tillerson and Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, as well as talks between Trump and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. Denials regarding Russia’s military presence in Eastern Ukraine continued. Intermediate Range weapons were not removed from Kaliningrad. Incessant cyberattacks were followed by denials from Moscow. Reportedly, Russia continued operations to interfere in US elections process nationwide according to intelligence and law enforcement officials. Finally, Putin rolled out new generations of nuclear weapons and delivery systems that Putin claimed US could not defeat. Included was a presentation of how missile could hit Florida, the location of Trump’s Mar-a-Largo Estate. All of those issues eere topped off by Putin’s unwavering and antagonizing denial that Russia interfered in the 2016 US Presidential Elections. After starting with promise, the effort moved metaphorically, one step forward and two steps back. Tillerson is no longer at State, and Trump intends to repair the situation. Hopefully, North Korea has not found anything instructive in what Russia has done.

Despite the long observed attitudes and behaviors of Kim and bellicose rhetoric of government spokespeople in Pyongyang, it may very well be, as experts declare, that the North Koreans are not suicidal. Understanding that should ostensibly provide some edge for Washington. However, it is difficult to deal with a morally flawed leadership. For national leaders lacking moral guidance, there is a greater chance that a mistake, an uncontrolled impulse will lead to disaster.  Much of what Kim has done so far, invest the North Korean treasury into weapons that in the current environment may only lead to his country’s annihilation, has been both unconstructive and self-destructive. There are intelligence estimates that say Kim has used an exorbitant $300 million of North Korea’s national treasury on weapons development. Estimates are that another $180 million has gone toward the production of 460 statues or monuments glorifying the Kims. Without a doubt, Kim is truly wrapped up in himself. While it may seem unimaginable for Kim to trigger an unbalanced, nuclear exchange would bring satisfaction, the 17th century French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist, Blaise Pascal, offers an interesting thought that might lead one to think otherwise. In Pensées, there is his statement: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

5. Being Aware of Timing

As a political leader, there are no reelection worries for Trump at the moment that would lead North Korean officials to believe his decision making would be impacted by election or other political considerations. Trump’s foreign policy initiatives appear somewhat severed from issues shaping midterm elections for the US Congress . Kim also has no reelection worries for Kim. Kim, after all, rules everything in North Korea. However, while experts deemed would take a short amount of time before North Korea is close to developing a nuclear capability that could pose considerable danger to the US, there is an element of uncertainty in those calculations. Kim may achieve his goals even sooner than anyone might predict. Talks would hopefully quell Kim’s  nuclear ambitions before he reaches all of his development goals.

6. Maintaining a Deep Respect for the Politics of the Situation.

After mourning the death of his father Kim Jong Il on December 17, 2011,  the younger Kim tried to gain momentum during the fifth session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly in April 2012, where he was elected Supreme Leader of the country. Much as his father, he is also referred to as the “Great Leader” by the North Korean people. The title Supreme Leader conferred Kim with all power over the Korean Workers’ Party and other political bodies and effectively concluded the power succession. North Korean elites are obedient and terrified of him.

Fama, malum qua non allud velocius ullum. (Rumor, the swiftest of all evils in the world.) North Korean officials, attempting to prepare Kim for his meeting with Trump, invariably have already been mining through overt information about Trump, to try to more fully understand him, albeit in the abstract. They would undoubtedly like to determine how he will likely approach the talks and possible angles from which he might challenge Kim, and how Kim could explain North Korean positions and demands in a plausible, satisfying way. A task for North Korean officials would be to filter out distractive, musings about Trump presented by his critics. If their briefings are filled with reports based on such critiques of Trump, the talks could prove to be useless which would be tragedy for their side. Perhaps the most useful thing for them to know is that the current concept and intent of US foreign and national security policy is develop from Trump’s thinking. Professional, dutiful subordinates can at best offer policies and approaches impelled by the US President. Some journalists, former politicians and political operatives among Trump’s critics, have apparently become so habituated to engaging in narrow thinking and been victimized their own malicious rhetoric and hateful distortions, that they have completely ignored or forgotten this reality.

The Way Forward

In Act V, scene i of William Shakespeare’s play, Titus Andronicus, the Roman general, Titus Andronicus, has returned from ten years of war with only four out of twenty-five sons left. He has captured Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her three sons, and Aaron the Moor. Obedient to Roman rituals, he sacrifices Tamora’s eldest son to his own dead sons, earning him Tamora’s unending hatred. As fate would have it, the new Emperor Saturninus makes Tamora an empress and from her new position, she plots revenge against Titus. She schemes with Aaron to have Titus’s two sons framed and executed for the murder of Bassianus, the emperor’s brother. Unsatisfied, she urges her sons Chiron and Demetrius to rape Titus’s daughter Lavinia, after which they cut off her hands and tongue to prevent her from reporting their crime. Finally,  Lucius, the last son of Titus is banished from Rome. Lucius then seeks an alliance with his sworn enemy, the Goths, in order to attack Rome. Titus, feigning madness, manages to trick Tamora. He captures her sons, kills them, makes pie out of them, and feeds the pie to her. He then kill Tamora and his daughter Lavinia. In Lucius’ camp with the Goths, a Goth soldier who learned the fugitive Aaron, along with his baby, were in an abandoned monastery, brought them back to camp. Lucius’s impulse was to hang the child hang first and have Aaron watch. While in a noose, Aaron makes a bargain with Lucius to save his child in exchange for knowledge of all the horrors that have occurred. Once Lucius agreed to do so, Aaron revealed every violent act directed by Tamora. However, he then tells more about himself, listing other crimes he has committed. He states: “Even now I curse the day–and yet, I think, Few come within the compass of my curse,–Wherein I did not some notorious ill, As kill a man, or else devise his death, Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it, Accuse some innocent and forswear myself, Set deadly enmity between two friends, Make poor men’s cattle break their necks; Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night, And bid the owners quench them with their tears. Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves, And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors, Even when their sorrows almost were forgot; And on their skins, as on the bark of trees, Have with my knife carved in Roman letters, ‘Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’ Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things As willingly as one would kill a fly, And nothing grieves me heartily indeed But that I cannot do ten thousand more.” Eventually, Lucius has the unrepentant Aaron buried alive, has Tamora’s corpse thrown to beasts, and he becomes the new emperor of Rome. As Trump alluded to in his September 2017 remarks at the UN, Kim’s regime is extraordinarily violent and he seems to possess a homicidal ideation. South Korea’s main intelligence agency apparently examined the matter in December 2016. Indeed, according to a December 29, 2016 article in Yonhap, the National Intelligence Service (Gukga Jeongbowon), Kim is likely responsible for a record number of purges and executions since fully assuming power. Indeed, the white paper reportedly concluded that in the first five years of his reign, Kim may have dismissed or killed 340 North Koreans, many of them government officials. The white paper additionally explained that the number of purges and executions has also skyrocketed as Kim increased his authoritative grip on the country after he was elected Supreme Leader of the country in April 2012. It was concluded in the white paper that those mass executions of hundreds of high-ranking officials, including the public sentencing of Kim’s uncle-in-law Jang Song Thaek, were part of Kim’s plan to firmly consolidate his inherited power as the third-generation ruler of North Korea. Yonhap quoted the white paper as stating: “There were 3 [purged or executed] in 2012, more than 30 in 2013, greater than 40 in 2014, and more than 60 in 2015.” The white paper added:  “The numbers show a rapid increase.” The white paper further noted that North Korea “temporarily refrained” from mass purges after the sudden execution of Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol in 2015, but resumed killing senior officials in 2016.

Kim has initiated a charm offensive, presenting himself as an exponent of denuclearization, unification, and peace. However, he has already shown enough of his hand for anyone to conclude his intentions are likely  hostile. Trump knows Kim is a predator and simply trying to manage attention the world’s attention, but perhaps he also sees that Kim is in a dire situation. He seems to be allowing him some room to take a new tact. If everything goes the way of the US, North Korea will scrap its nuclear weapons and missile programs. Sadly, the very likely possibility is that Kim is not directing his efforts at Trump but at South Korea. Talking to Trump may serve to convince the South Koreans of their peaceful purpose. Getting an agreement on anything with the US may be inconsequential  to him. A signal of success in the talks for him would be a unilateral decision by South Korea to halt their participation in US-lead military exercises. Even better for him would be a request in the near future by South Korea for partial, substantial, or the complete withdrawal of US forces from their country before or simultaneous with a dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile programs. It all seems to be part of a North Korean strategy of gaining control of the Korean Peninsula by getting South Korea to buy into the fantasy that cooperating with it would create conditions for truly peaceful relations between the Koreas. Subsequently, the region would also be made safer, and the door would be opened to genuine Korean unification. If this sort of scenario has been presented to Kim by officials in Pyongyang mainly to soothe his ego regarding the talks, North Korea may be doomed. Negligentia semper habet inforturnam comiten. (Negligence always has misfortune for a companion.)

Tyrannical figures have often self-destructed once their power began slipping from their hands. While he speaks one way, consciously, he may be acting unconsciously to a deeper thought that his regime faces inevitable destruction. Unknowingly, he might very well be setting the stage to lash out in a spectacular way before Trump does. He may attempt to use as much of his existing stockpile of nuclear weapons as possible, any way he can. Kim apparently holds his sister, Kim Yo-jong, in high regard and seems to take counsel of her on occasions. She led a delegation of North Korean officials to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. However, there is no public indication that he has a close associate , a friend that he can rely upon consistently, much as Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar relied upon General Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, according him the status of Imperium, holding the power of the Emperor in the Eastern Mediterranean. To that extent, no one in a caring way could comfortably or confidently, approach Kim and counsel him to “Stop chasing your destructive dream of developing a large nuclear arsenal capable of striking the US.” Trump certainly is not a friend of Kim, but it appears that it has been left to him to convince Kim of the truth. Appetitus rationi pareat. (Desire ought to obey reason.)

Under Pressure Over Aleppo Siege, Russia Hints at Seeking Deal with US: Can Either Country Compromise?

US Secretary of State John Kerry (right) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) are the central points of diplomatic interaction between the US and Russia. They have worked together on a variety of urgent and important issues concerning their countries. They are now slogging away trying to find a way for the US and Russia to jointly end the Syria War and establish peace. Kerry has proposed US-Russian military coordination with preconditions. However, to secure an agreement on it, Kerry must convince Putin, not Lavrov, to change Russia’s positions.

According to an August 15, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Under Pressure over Aleppo Siege, Russia Hints at Seeking Deal with US,” Russia suggested that it was close to an agreement on a military collaboration with the US to attack ISIS fighters in Aleppo, Syria as part of a solution to the unfolding humanitarian disaster there. US officials had no immediate comment on that claim. That joint effort would represent a new level of cooperation between the two countries which seek an end to the five-year-old Syria War. They support opposing sides. The New York Times reported foreign policy analysts believe Russia was negotiating in an attempt to avoid the appearance of blocking humanitarian aid to civilians in war-torn Aleppo by its airstrikes in Syria, Russian Federation Foreign Minister noted however, “It is of utmost importance that terrorists would not be getting reinforced with militants, guns, and munition [sic] supplies under the humanitarian aid disguise.” Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was the official who made the statement on the possible agreement. He explained in a measured way: “We are moving step by step closer to a plan—and I’m only talking about Aleppo here—that would really allow us to start fighting together to bring peace so that people can return to their homes in this troubled land.”

Russia and its Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led allies have faced significant setbacks on the battlefield as a result of their opponents’ abilities to capitalize on their inadequacies and mistakes. Russia will need to decide whether its actions will remain in the gap between contributing significantly to the efforts of allies fighting in support of the regime of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad and working with the US to act more effectively and more decisively against mutual Islamic militant opponents. The prospective agreement, to which Shoigu referred, would stem from military talks underway in Geneva. Those talks were set up as a result of a proposal proffered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to share intelligence with Russia and coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. However, Putin and senior Russian officials seem to view the proposal less from how it will help end the war than how it may present the chance to get compromise from the US on Syria and promote Russia’s immediate objectives there. Kerry’s proposal has been put forward as the administration of US President Barack Obama comes to a close. Still, after eight years of contacts, a inordinate amount of obloquy has recently been hurled back and forth from officials in Washington to Moscow. Failure to get an agreement on coordination will undoubtedly make it more difficult for Russia to get an agreement from the US on reconstruction and peace-enforcement which would be important for Russia to have. Reconstruction in Syria will be a decades-long, very expensive effort. Russia will need to gather partners to help with its costs and its execution. A peace-enforcement mission, perhaps under UN auspices, will likely be needed to ensure that peace would be given a chance to take hold. Russia should keep in mind that the US has proven to be an invaluable partner in such complex reconstruction efforts and peace-enforcement missions worldwide in past years.

The Obama administration may not be enthused about working with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Syria, but it seems to recognize that Russia, with its considerable military investment in Syria, can play an important role in ending the war. Putin must recognize that much could be accomplished with US know-how and resources in both efforts. If he cannot recognize the good that cooperation would bring at first glance or simply refuses to make mutual compromises with the US to gain its assistance, what is left for the US is to get him to understand via diplomacy. US Secretary of State John Kerry has slogged away seeking the right approach to make that possible. A few recommendations are offered here. The Syria War appears to be getting worse. Experience may make US and Russian officials averse to finding compromise on military coordination on Syria. Pride and ego can also harden attitudes. If such influences cannot be set aside, the two sides may remain locked into their relative positions for a long while. Praeterita mutare non possumus, sed futuraprovidere debemos. (We cannot change the past, but we can anticipate the future.)

Often poker faced in talks, US Secretary of State John Kerry, a statesman, speaks in a manner that is easy, comfortable, assuring, and logical. He is an agile thinker who seeks creative solutions to problems, often requiring him to be discreet. He worked well with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria in 2013. They worked on the same side during the Iran Nuclear Talks during two years of negotiations from 2013 to 2015. He may achieve similar success with Lavrov on Syria.

US Inaction Leads to Russian Action

Obama made it clear from the start that he was skeptical of using US military force in Syria. In a notable August 18, 2011 speech, Obama made the direct statement, “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” There were many additional declarations, insisting that Assad step down. Yet, having taken that maximalist position, there was an unwillingness to act. Within the Obama administration, it was truly believed that Assad would simply fall away, but that did not occur. That led the Obama administration in 2012 to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement with its support in the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by Free Syrian Army advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. However, the US effort in Syria was designed and recognized by many as work on the margins. Obama would begrudgingly authorize the creation of a US-led coalition to airstrikes against the ISIS juggernaut that ran through Iraq in 2014. Those operations against ISIS were expanded to include ISIS targets in Syria. Obama sent US special operations forces to Iraq to advise and train Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi Kurd military formations. Still, there would be no US combat units sent to fight ISIS in Syria.

Putin, however, did what Obama said he never wanted to do in Syria. In September 2015, Putin took the option of solving the conflict in Syria on his terms using a strong military hand. He explained that Russian Federation forces were sent into Syria both to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad and to fight ISIS. He put a limited number of troops on the ground to protect Russia Federation military sites, and to serve as advisers and instructors for Syrian Arab Army units and volunteer units loyal to the regime. He would join Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led ground forces in battle against opponents using Russian Federation air power. Putin’s actions were mulled over, well-plotted, and implemented as to apply a calibrated amount of pressure on opponents of the Assad regime using measured amounts of military resources and controlling expenses. He was willing to accept a certain amount of risk in operations and was prepared to contend with some loss of personnel. Russia’s succor has benefitted Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led forces fighting on the ground not only in terms of military resources but also through guidance in the use of them.

Russia’s intervention did not mean an end to US-Russia diplomacy on Syria. Russia has supported talks between the Syrian Opposition and the Assad regime. Even before Russia went into Syria, Lavrov engaged in talks with the US to episodically establish a variety of cease-fires, nationwide and in specific provinces and negotiate humanitarian corridors. When Russian Federation military operations began, Moscow initially sought cooperation with Washington on Syria, but it was sought, however, solely on Russia’s terms. Those terms, in line with Putin’s concept for intervening in Syria, included providing diplomatic and military shelter to Assad and attacking, not only ISIS, but Western-backed rebel groups of the Free Syrian Army that oppose the Assad regime. Obama and other Western leaders sought to bring Putin into a US-led coalition. However, that would occur with the understanding that the goal of the coalition was the removal of Assad from power. Given the disparity between their positions, on November 27, 2015, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin,  played down the idea of cooperation at a Kremlin press conference. That announcement was surprisingly slow in coming given that the Obama administration was unsupportive of Russia’s intervention from the get-go. On September 30, 2015, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter forecasted about Moscow’s military involvement in Syria, “The Russian approach here is doomed to fail.” Obama stated on October 2, 2015: “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” Interestingly, Kerry was still authorized and ordered by Obama to negotiate some arrangement in which the US and Russia would coordinate in the ISIS fight.

Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has prying eyes that rarely turn away.  He has masterfully used diplomacy to turn policy into action in accord with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s concepts and intent. At this point, the Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry are well-versed on each other’s idiosyncrasies. They are able to gain insight from every inflexion, tone, and or change in voice.

Kerry-Lavrov Diplomacy

Diplomacy requires finding some middle ground, typically through some compromise, upon which an agreement can be reached and better relations can hopefully be built. Despite a divergence in interests, the US and Russia achieved early diplomatic success on Syria when an agreement was reached on a list of rules to ensure military aircraft from the US and Russia would not mistakenly run into or fire on one another as they conducted airstrikes. However, Kerry and Lavrov are the central points of diplomatic interaction between the US and Russia. Diplomatic success on Syria would eventually be achieved by them. They have worked together on a variety of urgent and important issues concerning their countries. They worked well together on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria in 2013. They worked on the same side during the Iran Nuclear Talks as the P5+1, the UN Security Council’s Permanent Five Members (the US, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China) plus Germany managed to construct an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program after nearly two years of negotiations from 2013 to 2015.   Often poker faced in talks, Kerry, a statesman, speaks in a manner that is easy, comfortable, assuring, and logical. He is an agile thinker who seeks creative solutions to problems, often requiring him to be discreet. Lavrov has prying eyes that rarely turn away.   He has masterfully used diplomacy to turn policy into action in accord with Putin’s concepts and intent. At this point, the two diplomats are well-versed on each other’s idiosyncrasies. They are able to develop insight from every inflexion, tone, and or change in voice. In oculis animus habitat. (In the eyes their character lives.)

A product of efforts by Kerry and Lavrov to find common interests among the warring parties in order to stop the violence in Syria was the December 18, 2015 UN Security Council vote on Resolution 2254 on Syria. It called for a ceasefire and a peace process that held the prospect of ending the Syria War. The resolution was agreed upon unanimously, 15-0, but sharp differences remained between the US and Russian positions. Russia’s key demand was that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be allowed to remain in power. It is a position also supported by China and Iran. Removing Assad from power in Damascus remained a US requirement. Yet, the resolution made no mention of whether Assad would be able to remain in power or run in any future elections. UN Security Council Resolution on Syria 2254 essentially called for the following: a ceasefire had to be established and formal talks on a political transition had to start in early January 2016; groups seen as “terrorists,” including ISIS and the erstwhile Jabhat al-Nusra were excluded; “offensive and defensive actions” against such groups, referring to US-led and Russia airstrikes, could continue; UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was asked to report by January 18, 2016 on how to monitor the ceasefire; “credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance “ should be established within 6 months; free and fair elections” under UN supervision to be held within 18 months; and, the political transition should be Syrian led.

What followed Resolution 2254 was UN Security Council Resolution 2268, unanimously adopted on February 26, 2016. The new resolution, brokered by Kerry and Lavrov, called for an immediate “cessation of hostilities” in Syria upon which the Assad regime and the Syrian Opposition agreed.  Countries with influence on the parties agreed to press them to adhere to their commitments.. Then, on March 14, 2016, the Geneva Talks resumed. They were the first talks in two years and came at a time when a marked reduction in fighting was perceived. Still, what created real hope that the war might soon end was the surprise announcement by Putin on the same day as the resumption of the peace talks in Geneva that he was “ordering the withdrawal of the main part of our [Russia’s] military contingent” from Syria. Putin explained: “The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process.” He continued, “I believe that the task put before the defense ministry and the Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled.” Only the day before the announcement, Putin and Obama spoke by telephone, after which the Kremlin said the two leaders “called for an intensification of the process for a political settlement” to the conflict, but Assad’s future was not discussed. Putin’s decision pull his fprces put of Syria seemed to fall in line with that pledge. In addition to the withdrawal announcement, Russian Federation UN Permanent Representative Vitaly Churkin explained “Our diplomacy has received marching orders to intensify our efforts to achieve a political settlement in Syria.” Regarding what lied ahead in Syria for Russian Federation forces, Churkin noted, “Our military presence will continue to be there, it will be directed mostly at making sure that the ceasefire, the cessation of hostilities, is maintained.”

If a feigned retreat by Putin was synchronized with the “cessation of hostilities” and used to manipulate opponents of Russia and its’ allies, the move was effective. Islamic militant groups that were not included in the ceasefire agreement engaged in firefights and fired artillery across battle lines prematurely seeking to better position themselves to exploit expected advantages resulting from Russia’s departure. Ire over the shaky ceasefire and the Assad regime’s violations of it reportedly drove some moderate Opposition fighters over to ISIS and other Islamic militant groups.

Putin’s “Feigned Retreat?”

Russia Federation forces withdrew from Syria, but estimates are that only 10 to 25 percent actually left. Moreover, Russian activity in Syria increased. Reuters reported the “Syrian Express,” the nickname given to the ships that have kept Russian forces supplied via the Black Sea Russian port of Novorossiysk to the Russian naval base at Tartus, Syria. It shipped more supplies, equipment, and munitions into Syria in the two weeks following Putin’s withdrawal announcement than it had two weeks prior. Russian Federation Air Force and the Syrian Arab Air Force continued to destroy the opponent’s units, material, and command, control, communication and intelligence, training facilities, and other targets. The ground forces of Russia’s allies remained active and returned a good portion of Syrian territory back to the Assad regime. Kerry and Lavrov carried on with their diplomatic efforts, but the ceasefire did not hold.

The Obama administration seemed to view Putin’s withdrawal announcement as a type of feigned retreat. The feigned retreat is a military tactic said to have been introduced to the West in the 8th century by the Frankish Duke and Prince Charles Martel. Under it, an army would pretend to withdraw or behave as if it has been routed in order to lure an opponent into a position of vulnerability. It was a difficult tactic to execute, requiring the use of well-trained soldiers. Once the opponent presses into the withdrawing army, undisciplined troops would panic and lose coherence, and the rout would become genuine. Charles Martel used the feigned retreat to defeat the army of Chilperic II and Ragenfrid of Neustria at Ambleve in 716. He attacked their army as they rested midday, he then feigned retreat to draw them from their wooded defensive positions into open ground where the situation was reversed. Charles Martel used the tactic again to draw an invading Islamic army into attacking at Poitiers in 732 by leaving his defenses relatively open. He did not construct pits and other obstacles and positioned his horsemen in a way to convince the Islamic army that it would not be enveloped if it charged in. The feigned retreat reportedly was used with moderate success by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

One might postulate that Putin’s feigned retreat included synchronizing his withdrawal announcement with the resumption of the Geneva talks, and while the “cessation of hostilities” was in effect. In that environment, opponents of Russia and its allies were perhaps considered more apt to be manipulated. The maneuver, if actually executed, appears to have worked. Mainstream opponents of Assad were unable to control the actions of some Islamic militants some of which they were tenuously aligned. Islamic militant groups, not included in the internationally sponsored ceasefire, engaged in firefights and fired artillery across battle lines, apparently seeking to immediately exploit Russia’s departure. Accusations of ceasefire violations were heard from all sides around Syria. Ire over the shaky ceasefire and the Assad regime’s violations of it reportedly drove some moderate Opposition fighters over to ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamic militant groups. A coalition of Free Syrian Army units, Islamic militant groups already existed in the form of Jaysh al Fateh. The ceasefire became untenable once Russian Federation Air Force and Syrian Arab Air Force jets provided air support for Syrian Arab Army units and pro-Assad regime allies in those exchanges. Putin’s feigned retreat also ostensibly allowed Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led units to rearm and resupply for offensive action toward Palmyra.

The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services use their own intelligence tactics, technique, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of Russian Federation commanders and planners. Russian Federation commanders and planners certainly would like believe that by intensifying their own intelligence gathering activities, they can achieve success, particularly by using air power, without US assistance. However, their concern over recent successes of their opponents and their failure to effectively respond to them indicates they are not so certain of their capabilities

Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds?

The perception of a feigned retreat of Russia from Syria did not make US-Russia diplomacy easier. US officials were already regularly reproaching Russia over its repeated airstrikes upon “moderate” anti-Assad groups while ostensibly seeking to attack ISIS. Obama’s disappointment could be discerned in his statements. On August 6, 2016, Obama admonished Putin over Russia’s actions in Syria by stating: “I’m not confident that we can trust the Russians or Vladimir Putin.” He continued: “Whenever you are trying to broker any kind of deal with an individual like that or a country like that, you have got to go in there with some skepticism.” Timeo danaos atque dana ferentes. (I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts.)

Obama’s uncongenial words could be characterized as a shot across Russia’s bow and perhaps signaled fatigue over the diplomatic process with Russia had set in. However, in diplomacy, words and behavior matter absolutely. Kerry knows that diplomacy must be handled with a certain amiability and gentleness in order to create the environment for the development of mutual respect and understanding. In talks on Syria, he would hardly omit what some anonymous US officials have called “inconvenient facts” about Russian actions. He surely broaches such matters, but in way that avoids closing any doors and avoids igniting a negative exchange with Putin, Lavrov, or any official of the Russian Federation government. Regardless of any personal feelings he might have over an issue, he must maintain his balance in spite of them.

Russia will not be able to use its military wherewithal alone, at least in a limited way, to secure victory on its terms in Syria and “get out of Dodge.” Enough support exits for Islamic militancy in the world that a struggle over US and Russian interests in Syria is being overshadowed by the continuous rise of Islamic militant groups there. This was evident at Aleppo where Russia’s allies could not maintain their siege. Commanders of Islamic militant groups seem capable of constantly making adjustments and replenishing with fighters (as above) by the hundreds, creating a more vexing situation on the ground.

Kerry remains authorized and ordered to establish cooperation. Obama did indeed say with opprobrium, “The US remains prepared to work with Russia to try to reduce the violence and strengthen our efforts against ISIL [ISIS] and Al-Qaeda in Syria, but so far Russia has failed to take the necessary steps.” Kerry and Lavrov continued their diplomatic efforts, sponsoring the International Syria Support Group, a multinational effort seeking to create the conditions for peace talks. Moreover, remaining on the table was Kerry’s proposal offering to share US intelligence with Russia and coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, with the precondition that the Syrian Arab Air Force halt its airstrikes against mainstream Opposition military units. As mentioned earlier, senior US and Russian Federation military officials have been negotiating in Geneva over how they would coordinate under Kerry’s proposal as well as restore an overall ceasefire. The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services proudly use their own intelligence tactics, technique, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of commanders and planners. Russian Federation commanders and planners would certainly like to believe that by intensifying their own intelligence gathering activities, they can achieve success without US assistance. However, they have unquestionably been unsettled by the recent successes of their opponents and their failure to respond effectively to them. Beyond human intelligence collection—spies, the US gathers continuous signals and geospatial intelligence over Syria. Multiple streams could assist the Russian Federation commanders and planners in pinpointing ISIS and other Islamic militant groups on the ground even if they are dispersed. Air assets of the Russian Federation and its allies could destroy them, disrupt their attacks, and support ground maneuver to defeat them. In support of the proposal, Kerry and Lavrov have already agreed that a map could be drawn up indicating where Islamic militant groups are positioned. They also have agreed that US and Russian military personnel working in the same tactical room would jointly analyze the intelligence and select targets for airstrikes. Est modus in rebus. (There is a middle ground in things.)

Nevertheless, at this juncture, Kerry is not oriented primarily on drawing out compromise from Lavrov, Shoigu, or senior Russian military officials in Geneva. Indeed, Kerry knows he must convince Putin, himself, that it would be in Russia’s interest for him to change his position. Putin hardly believes that US assistance would have significant value to Russia. Regarding Syrian Arab Air Force airstrikes, Putin has said he has no control over what Assad does with his forces and has explained the Syrian leader does not trust the US. Much as Obama has negative impressions of Putin’s actions and intentions, Putin holds certain negative impressions of Obama. Putin may also feel uncertain about making any deals on Syria with one US leader now, only to face another in a few short months. Certainly, at the State Department, Defense Department, and other elements of the US foreign and defense policy establishment, legions of diplomats and officials are working on what was called in Ancient Rome a maremagnum, a complicated issue requiring the efforts of many to solve. As no approach has wangled compromise from Putin so far, new approaches are needed. Some alternative approaches are offered here.

The value of US assistance might be increased in Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s mind through a demonstration of US capabilities. The US could also demonstrate how US assistance would have value by using the intelligence resources it proposes to share with Russia in order to target and destroy a number battle positions of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria, and disrupt and destroy developing attacks and counterattacks against Russia’s allies. Russian Federation officials could also be given a US battle damage assessment.

Recommendations

To help Putin countenance Kerry’s proposal, Kerry could explain that cooperation on intelligence and an airstrikes against Syria will speed the end of the conflict. Russia may not be able to use its military wherewithal alone, at least in a limited way, to secure victory on its terms in Syria and “get out of Dodge.” Enough support exits for Islamic militancy in the world that the struggle by the US and Russian over their respective interests in Syria is practically being overshadowed by the continuous rise of Islamic militant groups there. Commanders of Islamic militant groups seem capable of constantly making adjustments and replenishing with fighters by the hundreds, creating a more vexing situation on the ground. That was evident at Aleppo where Russia’s allies could not maintain their siege. Indeed, Putin could be reminded that on July 28, 2016, after a month of negotiations and immense pressure from Qatari and Turkish representatives, Jabhat al-Nusra announced that it broke with Al-Qaeda and had officially changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Almost immediately, reinforcements for Jabhat Fateh al-Sham began to flow into Syria from the border with Turkey. At least 100 new fighters arrived in Aleppo each day, together with numerous convoys carrying arms, ammunition, and supplies. During the effort to break the siege, Opposition forces and Islamic militant groups were observed fighting side by side under the banner of Jaysh al Fateh. Even after the siege was broken, it was explained in a briefing at the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense, Russian Federation Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoi that about 7,000 Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters were massing south-west of Aleppo for over a week and still being joined by new fighters. Rudskoi said the fighters had tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery and vehicles with weapons mounted on them. Kerry could explain that the problem will grow exponentially over time as commanders of Islamic militant groups make further adjustments and reinforce by the hundreds, creating a new, more vexing situation on the ground. Kerry could point out that so far, Russian Federation Air Force has barely isolated the battlefield and has failed to deny their opponents reinforcements and supplies needed to win engagements. At best, its efforts could be measured by its contribution to the destruction in Syria to include civilian deaths and the obliteration of nonmilitary structures. As it was discovered after the destruction of the Abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy during World War II, Germans troops were afforded better concealment from Allied airstrikes and ground attacks in the structure’s debris. One might assume senior US military officers are discussing these matters with their Russian Federation counterparts in Geneva. However, these disconcerting facts about Russia’s Syria campaign may not have reached Putin.

To further encourage a change in Putin’s perspective on Kerry’s proposal, the US could increase the value of its assistance through an actual demonstration of US capabilities. That might be accomplished by providing Putin with a complete US military analysis of the setbacks Russia and its allies have faced in Syria, and the relative strengths and weakness versus their Islamic militant opponents. It might be demonstrated exactly how US intelligence resources it proposes to share with Russia and US military resources would have value to Russia by targeting and destroying a number battle positions of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria, and disrupt and destroy developing attacks and counterattacks against Russia’s allies. Putin could be shown via video how the unique capabilities of US weapons systems could enhance the quality of air strikes. He could also be provided with US military assessments of those attacks.

Kerry might also seek to connect with Putin by reminding him that leaving Syria without at least initiating some complex comprehensive plan for reconstruction and peace-enforcement would be a mistake. That would create ideal conditions for the resurrection of ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or the establishment of another Islamic militant group to fill the vacuum of power around the country. That was what occurred in Iraq after US forces departed, the problem in Libya with the removal of the regime of Muammar El-Ghaddafi, and it is a growing problem in Afghanistan. Putin must consider that cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups would set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries on a postwar reconstruction and peace-enforcement mission in Syria. Without it, Russia’s investment in Syria might amount to nothing in the end. In discussing postwar Syria, Kerry could give assurances on how the US will respond with regard to certain hot issues. For example, at a UN meeting in Vienna on November 14, 2015, Kerry proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora,” participate in national elections, betting that if Syrians around the world participated in it, Assad would lose. Putin was never going to standby for that and has used force, in addition to the fight against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, to best shape the situation in Syria to secure Russia’s interests. Mending that fence may require a very hard decision concerning Assad by the Obama administration. Further, Kerry could point to the international reconstruction effort launched in Bosnia in 1995 under the Dayton Peace Agreement and the creation of the multinational peace-enforcement force in support of the agreement’s implementation, I-FOR (Implementation Force). The US and Russia cooperated as members of that force and the follow-on force, S-FOR (Stabilization Force.).

By reaching an agreement now on Syria and conducting effective airstrikes against ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant group, there would be a greater chance that US-Russian coordination would be preserved by the next US administration. Further, that military cooperation might influence a US decision to assist at some important level in reconstruction and possible peace-enforcement mission in Syria. US participation in those efforts could encourage participation from other countries.

Regarding Russian concerns over the future of US leadership, Kerry could explain that Russia should act quickly now with the assurance that the US will be working directly to destroy ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. An agreement will at least allow for a US-Russian working relationship for few months, putting tremendous pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups from the air. Kerry could emphasize the reality that reaching an agreement now on Syria and coordinating effectively under that agreement would increase the possibility that US-Russian coordination at that level would be preserved by the next US administration. Further, that cooperation could greatly influence a US decision to assist at an important level in postwar reconstruction and a possible peace-enforcement mission in Syria. Russia has recently sought stronger ties with Arab countries, bolstering economic ties with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait and diplomatic overtures with Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt. Russia’s hope is by courting those countries they would become more receptive to its’ calls for a political solution in Syria. It is also hoped those countries would become responsive to an eventual campaign by Russia to gain financial support for Syria’s reconstruction. However, US participation in those efforts may do much to encourage participation from those Arab countries and Western countries as well.

Kerry’s words alone may no longer have any impact on Putin. To provide a new perspective on the proposal, Kerry could try to bring third parties that have some standing with Putin into the negotiation process. There are no national leaders who could serve as independent third party to address Kerry’s proposal with Putin. However, Kerry could perhaps seek assistance from Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church or Kirill Patriarch of Moscow and Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church to speak to Putin. They could discuss the need to forgo placing primacy on national interests and focus on the global threat posed by ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, and the tragedy that has befallen the Syrian people. They cannot support war, but they can support collaboration between the US and Russia to halt the evil of Islamic militancy in Syria.

These approaches should not be presented as guesswork on the potential success US assistance may bring. Rather, they should be presented as hard facts to get Putin to see what is possible and change his perspective on cooperation. Finding success from the approaches presented here may be a long-shot. Kerry knows that you miss 100 percent of the shots you do not take.

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above) and senior Russian officials are apprehensive over US actions and intentions on Syria. However, many US officials have been expressing concerns about coordination with the Russians. They doubt Putin will compromise. They believe that Putin cannot be trusted. On Syria, it may be best for the US and Russia to work as partners. Choice itself is not good. It is the right use of choice that counts. Nothing could be worse than thinking of what might have been if things had been done thusly. Hopefully, that will not be the case for the US or Russia on Syria.

The Way Forward

Tot capita, tot sententiae. (So many heads, so many opinions.) Putin and other Russian officials are quite apprehensive of US actions and intentions on Syria. However, many US officials have been expressing concerns about coordination with the Russians. They doubt Putin will compromise. Moreover, they believe Putin cannot be trusted. Trusting Putin may be difficult for them, but trust us not so relevant in this case. Senior US and Russian military officials would be working together on targeting and sending down missions to unit commanders in a joint operations room. If some shift in Russian behavior, no matter how slight, is discerned by the watchful eyes of senior US military officials, the entire operation could be halted immediately. Under Obama’s concept, what seems most important to him is that a good faith effort at coordination be made. Besides, doing the job of targeting ISIS and groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham will be difficult enough as they are now intermingled with many mainstream Opposition units. Many US officials have expressed concern that sharing intelligence with Russia could result in revealing US intelligence sources, methods, and capabilities. Yet, deciding what to share and reveal is a puzzle that can be resolved. Putin seems attached to the Assad regime. However, given what has been reported on Kerry’s proposal, it does not include a precondition on Assad’s presidency.

The problem of Islamic militancy in Syria emerged during the struggle between Assad and the Opposition and given the international threat it poses, it is an urgent problem. US President Franklin Roosevelt did not easily accept Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union as an ally, but given the threat of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the choice was clear. On Syria, it might be best for the US and Russia vraft an agreement to coordinate their efforts. Choice itself is not good. It is the right use of choice that counts. Nothing could be worse than thinking of what might have been if things had been done thusly. Hopefully, that will not be the case for the US or Russia on Syria.

Zarif’s “Meet the Press” Interview Offers Insight into His Thinking on the Nuclear Issue; US Critics Responded Harshly

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whose ministry has been Iran’s lead agency on the nuclear negotiations, would like to see a final agreement reached with the P5+1 countries.  Yet, he knows constructing a final deal would require a transformation in thinking among all parties at this late stage.  Given that, a final deal appears less likely.

On the July 13, 2014 episode of NBC News “Meet the Press”, a US Sunday morning news program hosted by David Gregory, a special feature presented was a recording of Gregory’s earlier interview with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in Vienna. Presented in a truncated manner, the taped interview covered an array of topics including Iraq, Syria, and why Iran wants an extensive nuclear capacity and whether it wants a nuclear bomb. Afterward on the program, Gregory asked a bipartisan guest panel of both Republican and Democratic political commentators to critique Zarif’s statements. Representing the Republican perspective was former US Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal. The Democrats present were former Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press. With a synoptic view, the commentators rejected Zarif’s statements with harsh remarks, expressing considerable mistrust over Iran’s intentions. They viewed Zarif’s statements as unhelpful, and highlighted what they felt was his shortsightedness and equivocation. However, the commentators’ examinations of Zarif’s statements were quite superficial. Their accusations that Zarif was insincere and that the Iranians were untrustworthy were already pretty well-worn.

It was initially difficult to fathom why Zarif would make the effort to provide an interview for the mainstream US news media when the nuclear negotiations were at a critical point. The issues surrounding the negotiations are not simple. Zarif has articulated Iran’s positions superbly. Perhaps he wanted to share insights to impact views of the negotiations in the US. Yet, the “Meet the Press” interview format did not allow him to truly delve into the matter. He could only touch the surface of important aspects. The interview turned into a shallow entrapment for Zarif. Heightened skepticism could have been expected from the commentators given the current uncertainty over where the nuclear negotiations are headed and the history of uncongenial relations between the US and Iran since 1979. However, Zarif’s remarks should have been looked at beyond the surface. Their value could be revealed only through a deeper, profound consideration of them.

Zarif’s Remarks

Among his most noteworthy comments, Zarif explained: “I think what we have said should give confidence to people that were not looking for nuclear weapons. We have said that our entire nuclear energy program can fit in a very clear and well defined picture. That is, we want to produce fuel for our own nuclear reactor. Nuclear power reactor! And we have a contract that provides us fuel for that reactor. But that contract expires in seven or eight years.”

Gregory asked Zarif how he “could not see the benefit in having a nuclear weapon, particularly as a Shi’a state surrounded by Sunni states, many of whom are your enemies.” Zarif responded by saying such calculations were wrong. He explained: “In fact, we need to go out of our way in order to convince our neighbors that we want to live in peace and tranquility with them, because the politics of geography, the fact that we’re bigger, the fact that we’re stronger, the we’re more populous, the fact that we have a [sic] better technology, the fact that our human resources is [sic] by far more developed than most of our neighbors. All of these provide us with inherent areas of strength that we don’t need to augment with other capabilities.”

Additionally, Zarif stated: “In fact, I believe nuclear weapons reduces countries’ influence in our region. It doesn’t help anybody.” “The fact that everybody in the international community believes that mutual assured destruction, that is the way the United States, Russia and others, get, seek, peace and security. Through having the possibility of destroying each other 100 times over is simply mad.” “And that is why this mentality that nuclear weapons makes anybody safe. Have they made Pakistan safe? Have they made Israel safe? Have they made Russia safe? All these countries are susceptible. Now you have proof that nuclear weapons or no amount of military power makes you safe. So we need to live in a different paradigm. And that’s what we are calling for.”

The Political Commentators’ Criticisms

The responses of the political commentators on Zarif’s remarks were wholly negative. Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal commented that the Iranian nuclear issue is “a good example of bipartisanship in Congress . . . both in the Senate and in the House. Democrats and Republicans, they don’t want to go backwards. They want tougher sanctions.” Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press commented, “I think anyone [sic] on the globe thinks that we don’t need more nuclear states in general. And we are certainly don’t need this state [Iran] which has shown itself to be responsive. The interview you heard earlier today shows how irrational the thinking is.”

Former Senator Rick Santorum stated “we were laughing at him [Zarif] saying, “He must have the toughest job. I wanna [sic] go after him lying, just bald face, irrational lying. No one believes him. Nobody on either side of the aisle believes that these folks [the Iranians] are trustworthy partners.” Former Governor Jennifer Granholm concurred about the group watching in the green room (the guests’ waiting room at the television studio) laughing at Zarif.

A Second Look

Unlike the political commentators, Zarif has been part of the nuclear negotiations. He has direct knowledge of the mystery of exactly where things are headed. By granting the interview, he provided policy analysts, academics, and political and business leaders in the US a delicate indication of a possible path to reaching some concordance on sanctions and Iran’s nuclear program. Zarif was not telling some Oriental tale full of distortion and exaggerations. Rather, his words were austere and natural sounding, stemming from deep thought and experience with the nuclear negotiation process. By their statements, the commentators seemingly sought to arrest Zarif’s efforts to share his insights.

Zarif does not proffer any illusions of assured success or narcissism for the nuclear negotiations as an enterprise. However, more percipient to him is the fact that the US is still fully engaged in the nuclear negotiations. It affirms the confidence the administration of US President Barack Obama, and the other P5+1 governments (The United Kingdom, France, Russia, China plus Germany), have in the process. They want a deal. Unlike Zarif, the “Meet the Press” commentators were apparently unaware that relations between the US and Iranian diplomats and officials have reached a more positive stage. The negotiations have provided a unique opportunity for US officials and their Iranian counterparts to acquire a better understanding of various aspects of one another’s thinking. The improved understanding of their respective positions was further strengthened by back channel talks. The commentators remarks indicated that the nuclear negotiations are not as “fashionable” an issue as they were in the exhilarating days in July 2013 when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani won the presidential election in Tehran, and in September 2013 when the first direct talks were held between Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry at the UN and Obama and Rouhani spoke directly by telephone.

Zarif statements may have provided a hint of the discourse in Tehran on the nuclear negotiations at the most senior level, and he is the one individual capable, and apparently willing, to do so. Zarif would undoubtedly be positioned on the more moderate side of the nuclear issue relative to the Supreme National Security Council, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and other key political and religious organizations and senior leaders concerned with foreign policy. He has publicly advocated for continued negotiations to reach an agreement with the P5+1 on the nuclear program before the Iranian Parliament. Perhaps Zarif was even presenting arguments he may have made in Tehran in sub rosa policy debates on the nuclear negotiations. He may very well have included in what he stated on “Meet the Press” points similar to those he has presented to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who will make the final decision for Iran on an agreement. The commentators heard those same words, but could not hear what Zarif said.

The Way Forward

All things considered, it appears, by providing the interview Zarif actually sought to “clear the air” with the US public regarding relations between the two countries. He sought to build confidence, eliminate some ambiguities about Iran’s positions, and quiet guessing over Iran’s actions, intentions, and motives. Looking through a lens untinted by the conviction that Iran is again engaged in a deception, Zarif spoke to the US audience with a certain kind of humility, not with an assertiveness that might be expected of a foreign minister speaking with certitude over his country’s positions. As the point man for Iran’s negotiation effort, under great pressure, Zarif appeared humble of heart. One would need to be humble of heart to hear what he was saying. The hardened heart would block the information. What is audible to the ear becomes incomprehensible. The “Meet the Press” commentators illustrated how hardened hearts react.

The prime way to understand the situation regarding the negotiations is by understanding human experience: history. Nearly every US president has had to take some major risk on foreign policy. Along with great achievements, there have been grand mistakes. Despite recent progress through talks between US and Iranian diplomats and officials in Geneva and Vienna, distrust lingers in their respective capitals after years of mutual loathing. All sides are very cautious. For a final agreement to be constructed, all sides must exhibit a requisite degree of generosity. That would mean risking much, making it less likely states engaged in the process would do such. If all sides cannot approach the process with this in state of mind, the desired outcome will not be reached. Everything achieved so far will likely fall by the wayside. The next debate will then begin on a way to move forward, as unpopular or undesirable as it may be.

US Projects Tough Stance to Both Sides of Syria War: Although the US Has Been Busy on Syria, Its Efforts Haven’t Been Fruitful

Uncertain of his future when the civil war began, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (above) now feels confident enough to remain in office for another term.

According to a May 15, 2014, New York Times article entitled, “US Projects Tough Stance to Both Sides of Syria War,” the administration of US President Barack Obama has sought to project a toughened posture in reaction to the fact that Syria peace prospects are collapsing.  Conducting military exercises with both air and ground forces in neighboring Jordan was one way used to project that posture.  The exercises were held in and around the Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in eastern Jordan, which has long been regarded as a likely staging ground for any possible US military intervention in Syria.  That event took place as US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was making a visit to the Middle East.  Part of his itinerary included conferring with senior Jordanian political and military leaders.  Another way the Obama administration sought to project a “toughened posture” was having the US Treasury Department designate Abd Al-Rahman Muhammad Zafir Al-Daysi Al-Juhni, of Saudi Arabia, and Abd Al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, of Iraq, both of whom are leaders of Syrian jihadist groups, as “global terrorists.”  They were also accused of exploiting the mayhem in Syria to advance the influence of Al Qaeda and its affiliates.  This step by the Obama administration was meant to serve as warning to other members of the Western-backed insurgency fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime that they should not have any dealings with Al-Rahman Muhammad Zafir Al-Daysi Al-Juhni and Abd Al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli.

These steps came a day after the resignation of Lakhdar Brahimi, the chief UN diplomat assigned to mediate a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict.  There was no immediate information provided on who might succeed him.  When news of Brahimi’s resignation came to light, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts from allied European and Arab nations that support the moderate Syrian opposition were preparing to meet in London.  They were gathering without a clear plan for reviving a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war.  It is estimated that 150,000 people have been killed in the conflict since it began in March 2011.

Although the Obama administration might argue that it was getting tougher with the both parties in the Syrian conflict, the reality is those steps will not shape events on the ground in its favor.  The main stumbling block to achieving both Obama administration’s objectives in Syria has been Islamic militant groups affiliated with Al Qaeda.  Certainly, the US is in a position to do much more, especially militarily, on behalf of the Syrian opposition’s Free Syrian Army (FSA), the umbrella organization under which opposition groups fight.  Yet, that is not likely.  The Obama administration never guaranteed that it will stand with the Syrian opposition to that extent. What will likely be seen from the Obama administration is much more of its tame effort.  It will remain busy at allocating funds, providing equipment, and deploying some very capable intelligence and military personnel on Syria issue, but hold back enough as not to be truly invested or fruitful in the endeavor.  That will certainly be to Assad’s benefit.

US Diplomacy

General James Jones, former National Security Adviser in the Obama administration described the White House as being delinquent on Syria.  During the four years of civil war, the Obama administration: has backed away from red-lines on chemical weapons use; taken a dogmatic position on Assad’s removal which has only served to harden the positions of parties to the conflict; struggled to organize a string of talks in Geneva that have proven less than promising; and, has engrossed itself in time consuming policy debate on the issue.

The removal of Assad and his regime has been the expressed desire of the Obama administration, but it appear to be in a hurry to achieve that goal.  In his famous August 16, 2011 speech, Obama made the direct statement, “Assad must go!”  However, the Obama administration’s actions to date indicate a lack of commitment to that goal. Assad’s removal has not been established as part of a national security directive.  In fact, the US still recognizes the Assad regime, and has never hinted that it would withdraw its recognition of it while Assad was in power.

The Syrian opposition, from which the leadership of Syria would ostensibly come in a transitional government, has many problems.  Its membership has not done anything to demonstrate the ability to take power in Syria.  They have not proven to be politically astute.  There is always some form of infighting underway.  It takes weeks for opposition groups to organize its meetings in Istanbul, which members often refuse to attend.  No serious effort to form a shadow government has been made by the US or Western powers.

The Obama administration has made public its efforts to support the FSA against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with arms and equipment and a moderate degree of training.  The Obama administration provided its support with the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by FSA advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement.  Cynics might say the Syria effort by the US, as well as the EU, and Arab states has appeared more like an effort to simply hassle the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran.  The Syrian opposition could not fully appreciate the limited extent of the US commitment.  Commanders and fighters have been very impatient with the Obama administration over the degree of its efforts.  They constantly point to the size and scope of efforts from the US and other Western benefactors as the cause for their lack of truly significant success against Assad’s forces and allies—the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), IRGC Quds Force, Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces militia, and Iraqi Shi’a militia brigades.  However, the real problem has been the lack of military capabilities among the FSA units and their resulting inability to act decisively. In addition to their failure to defeat Assad’s troops and allies, mainstream FSA units have found themselves constantly under the attack of Islamic militant groups linked to Al Qaeda.  Consequently, FSA efforts became split between fighting Assad and rogue Islamic militants.

Forcing Assad to surrender his chemical weapons stockpile was a big step.  However, it was done with international consensus.  Russia, Iran, and China were just as happy as the US to get chemical weapons out of Assad’s hands.  Assad, himself, may have recognized that having such weapons in country with little ability to exploit their potential, and sacrificing forces to protect them, was not doing any good for his cause.  Besides, the whole matter provided Assad with the opportunity to be seen as the leader of Syria, implementing an agreement his regime reached with the major world powers.

The resignation of Brahimi as explained by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon came as the result of a collective failure by parties to the conflict.  The secretary-general suggested Brahimi was overwhelmed by both the Syrian government’s inflexibility and the inability of the Security Council to take assertive action to support his efforts and alleviate civilian suffering.  All of that was topped off by Assad’s defiant announcement that he would seek a third seven-year term in elections held in June, in which his victory is considered assured.  Since the removal of Assad was considered key to allowing a transition of government to occur, his announcement to run for the presidency again resulted in the collapse of Brahimi’s peace efforts. Syria’s official news media welcomed Mr. Brahimi’s departure, accusing him of bias favoring Assad’s political opponents.  The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency quoted Bashar al-Jaafari, the Permanent Representative of Syria to the UN, as saying Brahimi had committed many errors, “including his interference in Syria’s internal affairs.”  However, only outside efforts, far beyond what he is already receiving, would Syria be able to cope with the Al Qaeda linked Islamic militants, a threat to the Assad’s regime more immediate than US military intervention: .

Islamic Militant Groups

The current size and strength of Al Qaeda linked Islamic militant factions in Syria is considerable.  Allowing them to become a fixture in Syria would hobble a transitional Syrian government, and lead to its eventual collapse. Unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the Syrian opposition, it is inconceivable that the Islamic militant groups linked to Al Qaeda would cease their struggle under any peace agreement with the Assad regime.  The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the concepts and intent of the Syrian opposition’s leadership. While mainstream FSA forces are directed at creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, rogue Islamic militant groups seek to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory, under Sharia law.  Indeed, in towns and villages of the rather large segments of Syria that they control, rogue Islamic militant groups have imposed a strict form of Sharia law on their 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.

Such atrocities have been well documented by the US, the EU, Russia, the UN, NATO, nongovernmental organizations, humanitarian organizations, and especially the news media.  A rift between that foreign fighter laden Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Syria), and Jabhat al-Nusra, a mostly Syrian member Islamic militant faction, once surfaced as Syrians of Al-Nusra grew angry at the foreign fighters mistreatment of Syrian citizens as well as their announced plans to create their own Islamic state Syrian territory.  It was reports of horrific acts by ISIS against Syrian civilians that led Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to renounce ISIS’ activities as being too extreme to tolerate.  With every passing day, the mistreatment and killing intensifies. Islamic militants have poured into Syria at a rate so high that the FSA cannot contend with them alone.

Obama’s Military Option

Despite stating that the military option remains on the table and conducting military exercises in Jordan, it seems unlikely that Obama would ever give the order for military action in Syria, even against Al Qaeda linked Islamic militant groups.  As Obama’s foreign policy agenda is rife with challenging issues, including Ukraine and Iran, using political capital and vital resources now on Syria would hardly be in the cards.  Obama was skeptical that military force would be useful in the Syrian context once the civil war began. Within the Obama administration, it was truly believed that Assad would simply fall away.  Among those statements expressed by administration officials about Assad were: “Assad is toast!”; “The winds of change would sweep Assad off the stage!”; and, “Nature would take its course!”

Obama’s thinking on military action today is most likely still guided by ideas he expressed in August 23, 2013, when he backed away from military action for the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians.  Obama recognized that the US military was over-extended in the previous Bush administration and he wanted avoid making that same mistake. Obama stated: “Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”  Obama did not indicate, even at that time, any intent to have US forces engaged in a long term action in Syria. Obama’s thinking was also influenced by his background as a legal scholar and his concerns over international law. Obama went on to explain that there were “rules of international law” guiding his response.  He went on to state, “You know, if the US goes in and attacks another country without a UN mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work, and, you know, those are considerations that we have to take into account.”  Further, Obama was concerned with what US interests truly were in Syria. While he admitted that there was some criticism and push for strong action by some Members of Congress at that time, Obama explained, “What I think the American people also expect me to do as president is to think through what we do from the perspective of, what is in our long-term national interests?”  With those words, Obama signaled that getting involved militarily in Syria was not in the long-term interests of the US.

The Way Forward?

In designating Abd Al-Rahman Muhammad Zafir Al-Daysi Al-Juhni and Abd Al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, David Cohen, the Under Secretary of the Treasury responsible for sanctions enforcement, was quoted as stating the decision “sends a strong warning to the legitimate Syrian opposition and those who wish to support it” to avoid any dealings with them.  However, the degree of harm that will be caused to those individuals by impounding assets they have in US jurisdiction and banning any commercial contact with them by US citizens should be considered sensibly. Such steps will unlikely lead to tragic consequences for their groups.  There are a variety of other sources, known and perhaps some unknown to the US, their groups might continue to seek aid from in the future.  Interestingly, a few months before this step was taken, there was an idea discussed and acted upon by the Obama administration to negotiate with the Islamic militants.  This approach was non-starter.  It seemed questionable to think in 2014 that results could be achieved through formal talks with jihadists.  As was discussed in the July 11, 2013 greatcharlie.com post entitled, “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” only through military action, unilateral or multilateral, could the US relieve Syria of a barbaric Al Qaeda linked Islamic militant threat.  A transitional Syrian government will not have the means to eject rogue Islamic militants from sovereign Syrian territory.  As long as the rogue Islamic militants remain active in Syria, it will remain a state hampered by disunity and conflict.

The US effort in Syria hinges on how it responds to the Islamic militant presence.  The Obama administration needed to see this truth early on.  The administration seemingly closed its eyes to this fact. Without military action, US policy will not be advanced.  However, it seems the ship has already sailed on the use of force in Syria.  The Obama administration appears willing to let the entire Syrian episode pass, while continuing a small, questionable assistance effort, projecting toughness through legal maneuvers and military exercise, never taking military action, and allowing Assad to remain in power.  Perhaps in 2017, a new US administration might implement a policy in which the US is more invested in Syria.

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.

Obama Signs Bill That Bars Iran’s UN Envoy: Hopefully, the Rejection of Abutalebi Hasn’t Jeopardized the Nuclear Talks

The bill that US President Barack Obama signed into law on April 18th blocks any individual from entering the US, including a Member State’s appointee to the UN, who has been found to have been engaged in espionage or terrorist activity against the US and its allies or if that person may pose a threat to national security.

According to an April 18, 2014 New York Times report entitled, “Obama Signs Bill That Bars Iran’s Envoy,” US President Barack Obama signed into law the bill that prevents the granting of a US visa for Iranian diplomat Hamid Abutalebi.  The bill, itself, was unanimously passed by US House of Representatives and approved by the US Senate on April 10th.  The vote in Congress was supposed to send what sponsors called a blunt rejoinder to the Iranian government for having selected a nominee who played a role, however minor, in the 1979 American hostage crisis in Tehran.  Iranian officials have said Abutalebi’s appointment was decided months ago, but it is still believed by US experts that hardliners in Iran urged Abutalebi’s appointment as Iran’s UN permanent representative to create controversy, snuff out reconciliation efforts, and halt the nuclear talks.  Compassion and sympathy should be felt toward the former embassy staff members who suffered during the hostage crisis.  Yet, while Iran might decide upon a candidate based on domestic political considerations, it is not useful for the US officials to reject an Iranian candidate based on domestic political considerations.  Given all that has been articulated so well by the Obama administration the possibilities that could come from newly established diplomatic engagement between the US and Iran, his decision to block the visa does not appear rise up to that same positive spirit.  Obama’s support for the Congressional legislation, that banned Abutalebi and dredged up the many visceral issues associated with the hostage crisis, makes the administration’s statements in support of building better ties seem more as mere lip service to the process rather than a genuine effort. 

What remains to be seen is whether a strong enough communion exists among US and Iranian officials that would allow them to overcome such stumbling blocks as a disputed appointment to the UN.  Unless Iran can use legal means and negotiations with the US to reverse the decision on Abutalebi, the ship has likely sailed on the issue of his appointment.  Before Obama signed the Congressional bill, an April 10th New York Times article informed that some US specialists on Iran said optimistically that despite the sharp language, they did not forsee the dispute over Abutalebi sabotaging the broader efforts at achieving a nuclear agreement.  Cynics, waging a “legislative war” against Iran, are unable to see the value of the improved relations and idealist are unable to discern the capability of provocative statements and acts to effectively derail the nuclear negotiation process. Yet, perhaps this might be a case when cynics and idealists alike in the US are unable to fully discern the situation before them.  In the end, to avoid war and to ensure greater confidence that what is happening both in Iran and the US is known, both cynics and idealists must oddly come together, along with pragmatists, to help establish a sustainable agreement satisfactory to all.  Such steps taken now will facilitate efforts to maintain the agreement by its future stewards.

The Concerns Over Abutalebi

This episode regarding Abutalebi is not the case of one hand not knowing what the other is doing.  In Iran, the selection of Abutalebi to replace the current permanent representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the UN, Mohammad Khazee, hardly could have been made without input from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.  It was undoubtedly tacitly supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and hardline political and religious leaders.  However, when the selection of Abutalebi was made in Tehran, even if months ago, it had to be recognized then, as it is quite apparent now, that his selection would cause a strong response within official Washington, given his connection to the infamous capture of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. In the US, the decision to withhold a visa from Abutalebi gained impetus in the US Congress after legal representatives of the 52 embassy staff members of the captured US embassy in Tehran reported that he was among the revolutionaries, some of whom engaged in acts of mental and physical abuse against many of them during the 444-day hostage crisis.  Misgivings about Abutalebi rapidly built among Members of Congress and were manifested in a bill to prohibit him from entering the US.  Given the significant progress made in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program both in Geneva as well as back channel talks between US and Iranian officials, it was incumbent upon Obama to fully weigh blocking one Iranian diplomat, albeit with a problematic history, against paving a smooth course toward an historic agreement with Iran before placing his signature on it.

Abutalebi is a veteran diplomat who began working in the Iranian Foreign Ministry in the early 1980s.  He has held key European postings in the past.  He served as Iran’s ambassador to Italy, Belgium, and Australia. Abutalebi is said to be connected to circles close to Rouhani as well as former President Akbar Hashem Rafsanjani.  In September 2013, Abutalebi was appointed as deputy director of Rouhani’s political affairs office.  He also headed the Central Asian branch at the research center of the Expediency Council lead by Rafsanjani.  Abutalebi is said to be close to former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist.

Abutalebi stated that while he was a part of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line, the student group that occupied the US embassy in November 1979, he was not among the core group of student activists and was not inside the embassy during the crisis.  Nothing stated or reported indicates Abutalebi’s actions 35 years ago were of an egregious nature.  In fact, Abutalebi claims he was Ahvaz during the occupation of the US embassy.  It was only when he came back to Tehran that he was asked to help with some translation and he accepted to do it.  Abutalebi was quoted on the Iranian Khabaronline website as stating “I did the translation during news conference when female and also African-American employees of the embassy were released.”

Yet, Abutalebi’s explanation of his involvement in the embassy seizure was never relevant to US officials.  A spokesman and attorney from the legal team representing former hostages who have made compensation claims, Alan Madison, admitted that very little concrete information was available about Abutalebi’s role in the hostage-taking. Madison stated, “After 34 years, it’s difficult to say this was a central character or this was a tangential character. But he was there, and it’s our understanding that having been a participant, he still has some political credibility with some of those folks in Iran.”  Madison also presented a statement from former hostage, Barry Rosen that explained, “It’s a disgrace if the USG (U.S. government) accepts Abutalebi’s Visa as Iranian Ambassador to the U.N.”

The Abutalebi Case Shows US-Iran Relationship Requires Far More Work

Relations between the US and Iran remain far from perfect, however they are at a new stage as a result of the nuclear negotiations.  The talks have provided a unique opportunity for US officials and their Iranian counterparts, through close contact, to acquire a better understanding of each other.  Much of what has been learned since surely contradicts Iranian leaders’ prior assessments of capabilities and possibilities regarding the US.  For the US and Iran, the improved understanding of mutual positions was further strengthened by back channel talks, some conducted by officials from the US National Security Council. Indeed, progress has been made of the nuclear issue and sanctions.  Key Iranian leaders at this point may be able to see, even with the most powerful revolutionary slogans in mind, the real possibilities of a final agreement. US Secretary of State John Kerry, the senior US authority on diplomacy, admits that Iran has kept its end of a deal reached on November 24, 2013.  On February 24, 2014, Kerry stated Iran had reduced its stock of 20 percent enriched uranium, not enriching uranium above a purity of 5 percent and not installing more centrifuges in addition to other things.  Kerry explained that “They [the Iranians] are in the middle of doing all the things that they are required to do.”

However, cynics ignore such truths.  The truth, itself, is seemingly viewed as treason for those against the change in relations between the US and Iran.  Despite progress, enough US and Iranian leaders have not moved forward at all in their thinking and they seem determined to have a negative impact on the negotiation process.  As the IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari has stated, “Anti-Westernism is the principle characteristic of the Islamic Republic.”  On the Geneva talks, Khamenei from the beginning made statements such as: “We had announced previously that on certain issues, if we feel it is expedient, we would negotiate with the Satan [US] to deter its evil.” In the US, it remains dogma among policy analysts and think tank scholars to view Iran as determined to pursue nuclear weapons through its nuclear program.  The idea that nuclear talks may be the path for new, positive relations between the US and Iran, probably will not gain acceptance among cynics until a final agreement is achieved.  Even then, some will cling to doubts.

Given emnity that surfaced in both Tehran and Washington over the matter of Abutalebi’s selection as Iran’s permanent representative to the UN, it is clear that hardliners in Tehran or Members of Congress persist in viewing policy goals and approaches giving primacy to information developed in the abstract long before the negotiations began.  A new understanding of each other’s ideas on issues and intentions should have been developed given the months of talks between the US and Iran.  If a more positive understanding of respective concepts and intentions is not reached soon, the failure of the direct talks will practically be ensured.  Moreover, with a limited understanding of a counterpart’s thinking, cynics significantly lessen the possibilty of achieving their own policy goals.

The Way Forward

Despite what idealist may hope, how Obama handled this matter will determine what type of confidence he builds among leaders in Tehran.  Having stood with what Iranian officials see as the banality of Congress’ rejection of Abutalebi over his nearly indiscernible role in the US embassy seizure, Tehran may use the signing of the bill to gauge whether Obama would challenge Congress on other issues concerning US-Iran relations, to include the nuclear talks.  Although Obama cannot prevent Congress from passing sanctions or force Congress to remove them, he could greatly curtail or remove sanctions over the nuclear program under a final deal by waiving them until he leaves office if he chooses.  The Iranians probably recognized that was the most they could expect.  Now, even that outcome has been put into question.

At the UN, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, other senior officials, and even UN Member States most friendly with the US, would unlikely require or expect Iran to repeatedly present candidate after candidate until one would finally be found acceptable to the US.  Some of those friendly states have already accepted Abutalebi as an ambassador in their capitals.  The bill that Obama signed into law blocks any individual from entering the US who has been found to have been engaged in espionage or terrorist activity against the US and its allies or if that person may pose a threat to national security.  From the information that has been presented about Abutalebi so far, it does not seem that by his mere presence in New York City as Iran’s UN permanent representative, he poses any threat to the US.  Interestingly, Abutalebi’s actions during the embassy takeover were undoubtedly far less egregious than that of some diplomats past and present from states whose forces have engaged in combat against the US military since World War II, including China (The Korean War 1950-1953), Vietnam (The Vietnam War 1964-1973), Cuba (Grenada, Operation Urgent Fury  1983), Serbia (Operation Allied Force, 1999), Montenegro (Operation Allied Force, 1999), or Iraq (The Gulf War 1991 and The Iraq War, 2003-2011).  Except in the case of Cuba, the US has normalized relations with those states.  There is plenty of literature available that explains known or detected members of the intelligence services in the UN Missions, embassies, or consulates of states such as Russia, China, or the North Korea are, more often than not, granted visas and not expelled from the US as persona non grata.  Perhaps it should be considered by Congress that if Abutalebi is kept from assuming his post as Iran’s UN permanent representative, perhaps out of spite and due to extraordinary pressure from hardliners, Tehran might just send a new appointee, a very capable government official outside of the Foreign Ministry, who may have a less obvious profile but later may be discovered to have committed acts against the US and interests.

Rather than just deciding on whether to accept or reject the Congressional bill on Abutalebi, Obama could have used the situation as an opportunity to demonstrate what good things can come from thoughtful, direct presidential involvement in foreign policy efforts.  His personal involvement in US policy on Iran should always result in the injection of fresh thinking to the process to keep things moving forward.  The same should be expected of Rouhani.

The nuclear negotiations have meaning for present and future US-Iran relations.  Will and intellectual power is required to recognize the benefit of constructing a satisfactory and sustainable agreement.  True, a healthy dose of cynicism must exist in the process despite the best intentions.  However, the cynics must not be allowed to win the day.  For them, relations between the US and Iran appears to boil down into a competition over who has the upper hand in the relationship outside of the military sphere. Idealists would likely agree that a deal can be reached without the assistance of Iranian hardline political and religious leaders and the US Congress, yet it cannot be successfully concluded without their help.  Perhaps a focus could be placed on encouraging cynics on both sides.  As a result, they just might be helped to see, in a new way, the possibility of an agreement, and appreciate its value would be akin to that of a pearl of great price.

US Must Pursue Iran Talks Before Considering Going to War, But If Talks Fail, Iran Will Be Attacked, Eventually!

Pictured above are two of Iran’s most senior leaders, President Hassan Rouhani (right) and IRGC Commander (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari (left), in an impromptu discussion of security issues.

According to a February 26, 2014, Reuters article entitled, “Kerry: US Must Pursue Iran Talks Before Considering Going to War,” by Lesley Wroughton and Arshad Mohammed, US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly 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 further explained, “We took the initiative and led the effort to try to figure out if before we go to war there actually might be a peaceful solution.”  On November 12, 2013, Iran reached a landmark preliminary agreement with the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia China, and Germany) to halt what were alleged to be its most sensitive nuclear operations in exchange for some relief from economic sanctions.  The interim deal was completed on January 12th, and the parties set forth to continue negotiations for six months after which, it is hoped, a final accord will be signed.  However, a positive outcome is not guaranteed.  The Reuters article’s authors explained that when he states all options are on the table with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, US President Barack Obama is using diplomatic code for the possibility of military action.  His predecessors and a long line of US officials have held out that same threat.  Yet, when Kerry spoke to the reporters, he apparently left no doubt that the US would seriously consider a strike on Iran if the diplomatic talks breakdown.

Kerry’s public comments concerning the Geneva talks were uncharacteristic of him. Kerry is an extremely capable Secretary of State, and he has a genuine interest in improving relations with Iran.  He is a discreet person who would hardly want to do anything to derail the Geneva process.  The Reuters article’s authors asserted that Kerry’s statements were in reaction to pressure placed on the Obama administration by Congressional Republicans who threatened to revive a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran.  The Obama administration has cautioned Congress that such action could interfere with delicate nuclear talks to find a lasting agreement.  The article’s authors also assert that pressure from Republican lawmakers will likely increase with signs that the easing of sanctions is allowing for the boost in Iran’s oil exports.  However, Kerry’s comments on going to war with Iran were doubtlessly also heard in Tehran.  As Iranian Foreign Minister and lead Iranian negotiator for the Geneva talks, Mohammad Javad Zarif, stated in December 2013, “When Secretary Kerry talks to the US Congress, the most conservative constituencies in Iran also hear him and interpret his remarks. So it’s important for everyone to be careful what they say to their constituencies because others are listening and others are drawing their own conclusions.”  Kerry’s comments were very threatening in nature.  Yet, at this point, it is that the leadership in Tehran probably did not become too concerned about US military action.  Indeed, they feel that such action is unlikely.

Among the key power centers in Iran, to include the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and hard-line political and religious leaders, there was an understanding that Iran would be negotiating in Geneva from a position of strength as a military power.  Such power was in part the basis of their belief that the US needed to negotiate with Iran as an equal.  Iranian leaders likely reached this conclusion as a result of an assessment of the “capabilities and possibilities” for likely US military action.  Certainly, Iranian leaders regularly receive a wealth of detailed reports from official and unofficial sources, including the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, on information such as US approaches to the nuclear negotiations, policy and decision making and statements made by senior US political, diplomatic, and military officials on Iran.  Yet, the consideration of capabilities and possibilities is a standard procedure and favored methodology for foreign affairs, defense, and intelligence organizations in Iran to assess, in the abstract, capability to effectively perform a proposed action and the real possibility for success.  It also allows for an assessment of an opponent’s capability to respond to that action and possible decision making and reaction to it.  By wrongly giving higher meaning to certain facts and assumptions and incorrectly weighing relative strengths and weaknesses of Iran’s military power versus the US, it becomes clear how Iranian policy analysts and decision makers would reach the conclusion that they would not face a military response if talks failed or if they took the step to develop a nuclear weapon.  Based on one member’s experience working with Iranian officials on the nuclear issue, a truncated assessment of capabilities and possibilities, comparable to those done in Tehran, is presented here by greatcharlie.com in order to demonstrate how the Iranian leaders most likely acquired certain views, and why they have taken certain approaches toward the US.  If Iranian leaders decide to drop the Geneva talks and actually develop a nuclear weapon, its decision will be based on a flawed understanding of US capabilities.  There is a real possibility the US will attack Iran.  However, there is also the possibility that as the Geneva talks advance, and greater contacts occur among US and Iranian officials and diplomats, some prevailing views in Tehran on US military capabilities may be modified.  Those contacts may also create interest among Iranian leaders to seek a sustainable final agreement on economic sanctions and their nuclear program, if a final decision on how to proceed on the nuclear issue has not already been made.

“Capabilities”

The IRGC and Iranian Armed Forces have declared their willingness to defend Iranian territory with military power, and are convinced that they have such capabilities.  IRGC Commander General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari has explained: “[The US and Israel] know well that they have been unable to take any military action against the Islamic Republic of Iran, and if they make any foolish move of this sort, there are many options on the table for Iran and deadly responses will be received.”  Regular displays of military strength through exercises and parades, along with hubristic declarations regarding Iran’s power, serve to assure the Iranian people that their government has the capability to defend them, and are also intended to serve as a deterrent to potential aggressors. Although the impact of US directed international sanctions on Iran’s economy has been considerable, Iranian leaders have vowed not to allow US sanctions prevent Iran from pursuing a nuclear program.  Concerning sanctions, Jafari explained: “Today, Americans and Westerners have understood that pressure on Iran not only does not lead to the advancement of their desires but also has the opposite effect.  Iran has progressed day by day.”  Jafari’s statement is indeed accurate.  Regardless of the state of negotiations between the US and its Western partners and Iran over the years, and the ferocity of the US threats, advances would continue to be made on the nuclear energy program.  Iranian leaders have also appreciated the deterrent effect created by Western intelligence assessments that Iran is close to breakout capacity with its nuclear program; some estimates are that Iran is only six months away from having the technology to develop a bomb.

Iranian leaders feel Rouhani can capture the imagination of the US and its European partners making them more pliant to compromise.  Regarding negotiations, there is a sense among Iranian leaders that Zarif has capabilities as a diplomat and advocate that are superior to his Western counterparts and is capable of driving them toward compromise on sanctions without surrendering nuclear rights.  While rifts between hard-line elements in Iran with Rouhani and Zarif over the Geneva talks have been highlighted in the West, there is actually an understanding among Iranian leaders of the need to support the negotiations team.  Indeed, concerning Zarif and the negotiations team, Jafari stated: “All must help the negotiations team of our country and the foreign policy apparatus in order to create consensus and public unity at the current time in order to help them demand the fundamental rights of the nation of Iran in the nuclear field and stand against Arrogant [US] blackmail and greed during negotiations and meetings.”

On regime change, a threat posed by the administration of US President George W. Bush against Iran, Iranian leaders are certain their security apparatus is too strong for the US to ever defeat and the US has backed away from that effort.  Addressing the issue of regime change, IRGC Quds Force Commander General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani stated: “the important side of your [US] attempts today have been to confront the Islamic Republic.  Your [Obama] statement [at the UN] that ‘We are not seeking the Islamic system’s overthrow’ is not a statement of kindness, but rather an announcement of incapability.  You have been and will remain unable to be successful in overthrowing the Republic’s system.”

There is a sense among Iranian leaders that Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan’s efforts to revamp and enhance Iran’s advanced defense research programs and strengthen Iranian defense industrial base will greatly enhance Iran’s warfighting capabilities at the present and in the future.  Iran has already made great strides in satellite technology, drone, and stealth technology.   Iran has successfully used a base in Venezuela as a test bed for new technologies.  Regarding application of those new technologies, in the Gulf, Iran believes it can establish dominance with the advent of new anti-ship system and naval technologies.  Ali Shamkani, the new Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council directed the IRGC attempts to realize Iranian dominance in the Gulf while serving as IRGC Commander.  He retains a strong interest in that effort.

On its borders, Iran has demonstrated its capability to effectively combat narcotics traffickers and rogue Islamic militant groups such as al-Qaeda and Jundallah, as well as the Peoples’ Mujahedeen, a group some Western policy analysts suggest that the US use as a means to weaken the government in Tehran.  In Iraq, Iran has trained and equipped Iraqi Shi’a militiamen and sent them into Syria to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In Syria, Iran has demonstrated its capability to project power beyond its borders, deploying significant numbers of IRGC, Quds Force and regular Army forces there in support of the Assad regime.  Iran has trained and equipped Syria’s shabiha (militiamen), and organized them into the National Defense Front.  It is known that Iran has sent at least 330 truckloads of arms and equipment through Iraq to support the Syrian Armed Forces in 2013.  An air corridor over Iraq has also emerged as a major supply route for Iran to send weapons, including rockets, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades to Assad.  Iran has also armed, equipped, and enabled Hezbollah to join the fight in Syria.  Further, Iran has facilitated the deployment of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen trained by the Quds Force to Damascus.  To further supplement the Syrian Armed Forces, hundreds of Shi’a, among the Arabs in Yemen and Pashtun in Afghanistan, have been recruited for combat duty in Syria.  In Yemen, Iran’s Quds Force has supplied arms to Houthi rebels fighting government forces in the northern part of the country.  In Bahrain, Iran has capitalized on ties established with Shi’a groups back in the 1990s.  Calling themselves the Bahraini Rebellion Movement, some have carried out small-scale attacks on police.  Bahraini rebels are operationally controlled by Bahraini opposition leaders, but typically trained in Iran.  Iranian leaders feel they could utilize these diverse forces against the interests of the US and its friends and allies in retaliation for US military action.

As events and issues in the Middle East do not align with US President Barack Obama’s new vision of its national interest, some Iranian leaders feel the US has become disinterested in the region.  Most also recite the global mantra that the US has been traumatized by its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan both in which Iran supported opponents of the US.  Obama, himself, appears to Iranian leaders as being skeptical about the use of the US military anywhere to create desired outcomes other than actions where participation by US personnel is very limited in scope as in Libya.  Iranian leaders observed the Obama administration’s decision to make steep reductions in US conventional forces, leaving them somewhat less able to project robust power, take and hold ground in a non-permissive environment or engage in sustained ground combat operations in defense of the interests of the US, its friends, and allies.  They have also observed Obama administration effort to make steep reductions in its nuclear forces, the crown jewels of its military power, only to be thwarted by Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Putin refused to negotiate on the matter concerned with the efficacy of taking such an audacious step.  Additionally, they were amused over the way in which the Obama administration buckled under pressure from academics, policy scholars, and activists over drone use.

Iranian leaders have noted the Obama administration’s insistence on deploying a European based missile defense system to defeat an imagined Iranian nuclear-tipped missile attack.  To Iranian leaders, the deployment of the missile defense system indicates that there is a willingness within the US to rely on defense and deterrence rather than offensive military action to cope with Iran’s nuclear program.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration’s behavior has been perceived by Iranian leaders as being very awkward.  Regarding those military operations, Suleimani stated: “What achievements did the American army have with $700 billion budget . . . They expended approximately $3 trillion for the war in Iraq but the American army was unable to gain immunity in Iraq for [even] a single flight and exited Iraq with disgrace.  The result of all war in the region was the Iranian nation’s victory.”  In the view of some Iranian leaders, the Obama administration withdrew from Iraq as a result of a promise made during Obama’s first presidential campaign rather than strategic considerations.  Consequently, Iranian leaders surprisingly found themselves left with an opportunity to strengthen Iran’s position in Iraq.  However, the door was also opened for a growth of al-Qaeda’s presence there.  The initial increase in force in Afghanistan after a long, agonizing decision by Obama in 2009 was made with the goal to create the opportunity for the US and NATO to succeed there.  Iranian leaders have observed how that approach transformed into a decision to withdraw.  Indeed, the US has now declared its intention to withdraw from Afghanistan by December 2014 without a security agreement with the Afghan government.  Iranian leaders have been presented with an opportunity to further Iran’s dominance in the region, but recognize the US withdrawal may open the door to a growth in al-Qaeda’s presence there.

Among experts and advisers on foreign and defense policy in Tehran, the popular view espoused was that the Obama administration was forced into an aggressive stance against Iran with manipulation from Israel.  Senior Military Advisor to the Supreme Leader and Former IRGC Commander General (Sarlashkar) Yahya Rahim Safavi stated, “It is sad that the US President is under the influence of [Netanyahu’s] pressure and lies about Iran to such an extent, that he changed his tune and stance towards the Iranian issue. This leads to the US President’s weakness of independent thought and policy and has shown the power and influence of the Zionist lobby . . . .”  Jafari stated in September 2013, “We hope that the Americans let go of their intransigence with Iran and become less affected by the Zionist lobby.”  However, Iranian leaders now believe the US has retreated from its aggressive stance toward Iran fearing further military engagement in the Middle East.  Iranian leaders want to believe that the Obama administration has very negative relations with Israel, and has pursued the Geneva negotiation process, despite Israel’s objections.  They are convinced that uncongenial relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has served to stymie Israeli plans to take any action against Iran.

In Syria, the US has not interfered with Iran’s efforts to establish itself as the state with predominant military force on the ground and the complete capability to shape events, with the financial support from Russia and China.  Despite declaring red-lines on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the Obama administration hesitated and backed away from military action after very publicly accusing the Assad regime of using chemical weapons.  Iranian leaders’ views of Obama’s unwillingness to take military action anywhere were confirmed when the Obama administration expressed “fears” over placing troops on the ground and was indecisive in choosing targets in Syria for military strikes before eventually declining to act altogether.  That actually compelled many Iranian officials, IRGC commanders in particular, to publicly deride the US government as being indecisive and predict it would be pliant to Iran’s demands.  Suleimani made the following statement about the US: “There was day when the US used three options: political, economic, military.  Today they lie and say ‘we have forced Iran to negotiate with sanctions’ or the Islamic system is weaker.’  Really, today, the US has the most debt of any country in the world.  The US has also failed everywhere they have interfered militarily.  From a political perspective, they are not accepted anywhere in the world.  In a situation in which the US is considered the world’s greatest power, they are ruined in every dimension.”

Iranian leaders watched as Democratic and Republican Members of the US Congress failed to support Obama’ s plan to take military action in Syria.  They recognized that as being indicative of a greater problem between Obama and Congress.  Iranian leaders feel the Congress would likely deny Obama support for military action elsewhere.  The willingness of opponents in Congress to inflict harm on the US military, the security apparatus, and the US public, through sequestration and a government shutdown, convinced to Iranian leaders that there is outright hostility from Congress toward the Obama administration akin to an animus toward an enemy.  The Iranian view of the Obama administration were supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his now infamous September 12, 2013, New York Times Op-Ed entitled, “A Plea for Caution from Russia.”  Putin’s negative perceptions of Obama’s motives and the US have very likely found their way into Russia’s dialogue with Iran and have had an impact. Russia’s most recent military action in Ukraine demonstrates to Iranian leaders that there is little reason to be concerned or intimidated by a possible response from the Obama administration.  Iranian leaders’ views on the role of the US in the world as a predominant power were also supported by China.  Chinese views were represented in an editorial by the Chinese official news agency, Xinhua, calling for a “de-Americanized” world.

“Possibilities”

On the Geneva talks, Khamenei from the beginning made statements such as: “We had announced previously that on certain issues, if we feel it is expedient, we would negotiate with the Satan [US] to deter its evil.”  Maintaining the nuclear program and the right to enrich were the main requirements that he gave to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when releasing him to engage in a dialogue with the US and Western powers on economic sanctions, and Iran’s nuclear program.  Khamenei viewed the Geneva process primarily as an opportunity to counter economic sanctions while progressing in the area of nuclear technology.  Jafari has stated: “The people expect their officials to demand the complete nuclear rights of the nation of Iran, including the nuclear fuel cycle, complete and official recognition of the right to enrich, and the elimination of all unjust sanctions.”

Given the nature of relations between Obama and Netanyahu, Iranian leaders felt it was unlikely the US would agree to Israeli demands for Iran to cease all uranium enrichment and to remove all enriched uranium from its territory; dismantle its Fordow nuclear facility hidden in a mountain near Qum; dismantle its newest generation of centrifuges at Natanz; and, stop construction of a heavy water reactor at Arak.  They know that the US has engaged in an effort to quell very audible concerns expressed by Israel and other Middle East allies over concessions made to Iran, particularly on sanctions.  Iranian leaders truly believe Zarif is the best diplomat possible to promote the legitimacy of Iran’s positions.  The popular notion, that the Obama administration’s foreign policy was initially driven in great part by the White House’s desire to establish Obama’s legacy, signaled to Iranian leaders that the US may be willing to make concessions in talks to reach an agreement.  Zarif could deliver success at Geneva on Iran’s terms, exploiting the US desire to make a deal.

It may very well be that Iranian leaders want to use the Geneva talks to gain time to make greater advances in the nuclear program.  Continued progress in the program has been a feature of Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the US and its Western partners since such talks`began with the Bush administration despite the ferocity of threats of military intervention and the imposition of sanctions.  From a darker perspective, true conservatives among Iranian leaders may wish to use the diplomatic efforts of Rouhani and Zarif simply to misdirect the US and its European partners, enabling other elements of the Iranian government to pursue the covert weaponization of the nuclear program.  Iran has the possibility to engage in a dual-track approach to resolve problems over the nuclear issue with the US and its Western partners within the parameters of Khamenei’s concept of heroic flexibility.  Rouhani and the Iranian Foreign Ministry would take a path toward diplomacy to acquire concessions from the US while the IRGC, the Ministry of Defense, and other government elements take a path toward accomplishing the military goals of the nuclear program.

Whether through the current course of research or a covert program, Iranian leaders are aware that once a significant level of competence with nuclear technology is successfully acquired and tested, the genie will be out of the bottle and a new situation will immediately exist. Iranian leaders believe that threats of further sanctions or military action against Iran would unlikely be viewed as constructive internationally, other than by Israel.  Iranian leaders believe particularly that it would less likely face any consequences if it achieves nuclear weapons technology when US mid-term Congressional elections occur in 2014.  Democrats in the US Senate and House of Representatives, especially those seeking re-election, would not want to have to explain a new war in the Middle East declared by a president from their party.

What Has Occurred So Far

Under the agreed pause of its nuclear activities, Iran has suspended its nuclear program to the extent that enrichment of uranium would be halted beyond 5 percent, a level deemed sufficient for energy production but not for developing a nuclear device.  Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a step toward weapons grade fuel, would be diluted or converted to oxide, preventing it from standing prepared for military purposes.  Iran already produced more than 20,000 pounds of enriched uranium gas that is three quarters of the way to weapons grade material.  Iran also agreed not to install any new centrifuges, or start up any that were not already operating. Between 2009 and 2013, Iran’s inventory of installed centrifuges increased from 5,500 to 19,000.  Iran agreed not to build any new enrichment facilities.  An undeclared enrichment facility at Fordow, buried inside of a mountain and outfitted with centrifuges over the last several years, was exposed by US and allied intelligence efforts prior to the negotiations.  Iranian officials indicated that their program had not been curtailed at all. They claimed that Iran by its own volition, reached an interim agreement with the P5+1, but did not give up the right to enrich or the ability to return to enriching at any time.  To them, the interim agreement did not prevent Iran from enriching uranium above 3.5 percent or to dismantle any existing centrifuges.  Iranian deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs as well as lead negotiator, Abbas Arachi, made it clear that while Iran would separate connections between centrifuges that have been used to enrich uranium to 20 percent, the interconnections could be reconnected in a day.  The entire feed stock for producing nuclear weapons fuel and infrastructure remains intact.  Additionally, the Iranians were able to retain achievements made through their development of a heavy water reactor in Arak which provides a plutonium pathway to producing nuclear weapons fuel.

However, the agreement, more importantly, has reversed the momentum of sanctions and provided some relief from the threat created by the notion of impenetrable sanctions.  Some US policy analysts may believe that Iran may be buying time in order to advance its nuclear program while giving key concessions on the sanctions front.   Yet, what may really be happening is that Iranian leaders are giving new consideration to the Geneva process.  Considering how to proceed against the US and its European partners in the abstract, is quite different from engaging with US officials in actual negotiations.  Information gleaned from US officials and diplomats should provide fresh information about US actions and intentions.  It is difficult to say whether such information from the talks might have an impact on thinking among Iranian leaders.  Nonetheless, while enduring Kerry threats of war, Iran has actually kept its end of the deal under the November 24th agreement by reducing its stock of 20 percent enriched uranium, not enriching uranium above a purity of 5 percent and not installing more centrifuges in addition to other things.  Kerry, himself, told reporters that “Generally speaking, they have done I think everything that they were required to do with respect to the reductions.”  Kerry further explained that “There’s no centrifuge challenge. They haven’t put any in. They … have reduced their 5 percent. They have reduced the 20 (percent),” he added. “They are in the middle of doing all the things that they are required to do.”

The Way Forward

Khamenei and other Iranian leaders believed an agreement favorable to Iran’s interests, particularly on sanctions and Iran’s nuclear rights, would be rapidly constructed.  As the negotiation process dragged on, they were recognized as a complicated and deliberate process, the outcome of which is uncertain.  Khamenei began expressing doubts that an agreement acceptable to Iran could be constructed.  Nevertheless, once an interim deal was reached, and Khamenei and Iran so far have adhered to it.  There is real hope among negotiators that a final agreement can be reached.  However, the talks could also fail, and that would not be a simple matter at all.  Iranian leaders may conclude the US will not attack, given the predilection of the Obama administration to shy away from military action, and speculation on the US included in some analysis of “capabilities and possibilities” developed in the abstract by policy experts in Tehran.  Yet, the US military, in reality, possesses the capability to successfully execute a decisive blow against the Iranian nuclear program and effectively deal with Iran in the aftermath of any strikes.

US military planners develop concepts for operations using their expertise based on a long career in their respective branches of the armed forces that includes continuous military education and training and considerable experience warfighting.  They would be the ones responsible for developing plans for military action against Iran for the Obama administration.  They know the capabilities of specific individuals and units, the effectiveness of their weapons systems, and what the real possibility for success of any given operation would be.  All tools, both conventional and nuclear, would be available to them.  If ordered by the president to present a plan for such an attack, senior US military planners will more than likely produce something that displays a high level of acumen and creativity, utilizing advanced technologies in a manner that neither analysts nor the potential opponent could foresee.  A plan to put the full panoply of security measures in place not just in the region but in the US and territories of friends and allies to thwart retaliation would also be produced and implemented.  The worst way for Iranian leaders to discover the US military’s capabilities would be through an attack.

Iranian leaders must realize that when dealing with the US, ultimately, issues do not center on whoever occupies the Oval Office at any given time.  Term-limits set by the US Constitution prevent Obama for serving a third term.  Striking a balance between demands for relief from economic sanctions and the gradual cessation of the nuclear program may not be at issue for the next US president.  To the extent that the US is a staunch ally of Israel and to a similar extent, Saudi Arabia, the next US president might decide to ameliorate the US approach, requiring new concessions from Iran, to include an immediate halt of all its nuclear activities.  The demand could possibly be made for Iran to surrender its nuclear program or face military action.

Another realization that must be reached is that rather than focus on comments that are meant for domestic political consumption in the US, Iranian leaders must stay focused on what is best for Iran and what can truly be achieved through the nuclear negotiations.  Relations between the US and Iran are at a new stage as are the nuclear negotiations. The P5+1 Talks have provided a unique opportunity for US officials and their Iranian counterparts, through close contact, to acquire a better understanding of various aspects of one another’s thinking.  Much of what has been learned since surely contradicts Iranian leaders’ prior assessments of capabilities and possibilities regarding the US.  For the US and Iran, the improved understanding of mutual positions was further strengthened by back channel talks, some conducted by officials from the US National Security Council.  Those talks also allowed very senior officials to “clear the air” regarding any personal concerns and relations between the two countries.  The new dialogue has built confidence, eliminated many ambiguities about positions, and lessened the guessing over actions, intentions, and motives.  Jafari has been quoted as saying, “Anti-Westernism is the principle characteristic of the Islamic Republic.”  However, Iranian leaders at this point may be able to see, even with such slogans in mind, the real possibilities of a final agreement.  Adhering to the interim deal, as Kerry himself has confirmed, is a good first step and serves as recognition by Iranian leaders that a peace agreement has promise.  Although it has been dogma among US policy analysts and think tank scholars to view Iran as determined to pursue nuclear weapons through its nuclear program, it may very well be that a final decision on how to proceed has not been made in Tehran.  Recall that Khamenei has stated repeatedly that Iran does not want a nuclear weapon.  If Iran were trying to develop a nuclear weapon, the effort could only be justified by Iranian leaders as a matter of absolute necessity for Iran’s security.  Evidence does not exist that the nuclear program has been militarized.  Whether Iranian leaders truly believe a nuclear weapon would make them more secure is not certain.  With great expenditure, Iranian leaders may be both creating a nuclear energy program, and simply creating the option to weaponize if it became necessary.

If a final decision truly has not been made on developing a nuclear weapon, it may still be possible, in Geneva and through back channel discussions, to convince Iranian leaders that pursuing a weapon would not be necessary.  Zarif, Kerry, and all parties to the negotiations may very well be able to deliver a deal that satisfies Tehran and all parties to the negotiations.  It is certainly worth the try.  If they fail, then a war will likely be declared, if not immediately, in the near future.