Trump Backtracks on Cyber Unit With Russia: His Proposal Was Flawed, But His Thinking Is on Target

US President Donald Trump (above). Trump has engaged in negotiations for decades. In his face to face bilateral meeting with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, Trump was allowed the chance to adjust to circumstances, become more fluid in his thinking, more creative in his approach. His proposal for a joint cyber security unit, while scoffed at, and albeit, not viable under US law, appeared to be a product of his willingness to consider the full range of options. Moreover, as a confidence building measure, it may have had a positive impact on Putin.

According to a July 10, 2017 New York Times article entitled, “Trump Backtracks on Cyber Unit With Russia After Harsh Criticism”, US President Donald Trump, on July 10, 2017, backtracked on his push for a cyber security unit with Russia, tweeting that he did not think it could happen, hours after his proposal was harshly criticized by Republicans who said Moscow could not be trusted. The New York Times article explained the idea was a political non-starter. It was immediately scorned by several of Trump’s fellow Republicans, who questioned why the US would work with Russia after Moscow’s reported meddling in the 2016 US Presidential Election. The episode over the proposal unfolded on July 9, 2017 after his bilateral meeting with Putin in Hamburg, Germany during the G-20 Economic Summit. Trump emphasised that he raised allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election with Putin. Reuters reported on July 9, 2017 that Trump stated: “I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election. He vehemently denied it. I’ve already given my opinion…..” As an immediate response to Putin’s denials on the matter, Trump then proposed forming a cyber security unit. According to Reuters on July 9, 2017, Trump wrote in the actual tweet about the cyber security unit: “Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded and safe.”

When Trump broached the the issue of the Russia’s hacking of the 2016 Presidential Election and his discussion with Putin apparently became a bit scratchy. Putin’s denial of the facts presented most likely signalled to Trump that he would be engaged in a argument without end on the hacking. Trump had to either move away from the issue or move laterally on it in some way.  Surely, Trump did not want to abandon the matter. The proposal for a joint cyber security unit apparently stemmed from an intense discussion between Trump and Putin on how to remit Russian cyber warfare programs directed at the US and perhaps similar US programs aimed at Russia. It may have been the product of brainstorming by the two leaders. Trump’s proposal was never supposed to serve as a form retribution against Russia for its intrusions into the US democratic process. Surely, it was not created to be a final solution to the threat of hacking US election. Immediately after the bilateral meeting in Germany, it was revealed that forming such a joint cyber security unit with Russia was prohibited under US law. Yet, although creating an actual cyber security unit was out of bounds, the concept of bringing US and Russian cyber experts together in some way to talk about some cyber matters was not. Trump’s likely aim with the proposal was to create a situation in which US and Russian officials were talking about hacking. Ostensibly, those conversations would create goodwill, perhaps stimulate a more open discussion about the issue, and promote more fulsome, honest talks about the issue among senior officials. In that way, the proposal certainly would have served as an effective confidence building measure.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines an apologist as a person who offers an argument in defense of something controversial. That is not the intent here. The OED defines an analyst as someone who conducts analyses. Foreign policy analysts scrutinize facts and data and interpret them, often in different ways. Given what is publicly known about Trump’s proposal for a joint US-Russian cyber security unit, the analysis here explains that although flawed, it is the sort of unconventional product that can result from intense negotiations aimed at coping with a seemingly intractable issue. The troublesome issue in this case is Russia’s intrusions into the 2016 US Presidential Election with all of its considerable security and political implications. It is also explained here that Trump’s proposal reveals a bit about his negotiating style. Trump clearly becomes target-oriented in his talks, and will make smaller agreements to build his interlocutor’s trust in him. From congruences Trump discerns in his interlocutor’s thinking and his own, he will try to craft a mutually satisfying agreement that, of course, ensures he will get what he wants. At this stage, Trump is still trying to get answers from Russia about the election issue and mollify the anxieties of various constituencies in the US over the negotiations, while hard at work trying to improve relations with Russia. Using his skills and experience, he seems to be swimming in the right direction. Audacibus annue coeptis. (Look with favor upon a bold beginning.)

Over the past decade, Russia has mounted more than a dozen significant cyber attacks against foreign countries, sometimes to help or harm a specific political candidate, sometimes to sow chaos, but always to project Russian power. From June 2015 to November 2016, Russian hackers penetrated Democratic Party computers in the US, and gained access to the personal emails of Democratic Party officials. Russian officials deny engaging in such operations.  Russian officials almost never open up their covert intelligence efforts.

Russian Cyber Attacks during the 2016 US Presidential Election

As it was discussed in the July 6, 2017 greatcharlie post entitled “Trump to Meet with Putin at G-20 Gathering: Trump Seeks an Authentic Relationship with Russia”, over the past decade, Russia has mounted more than a dozen significant cyber attacks against foreign countries, sometimes to help or harm a specific political candidate, sometimes to sow chaos, but always to project Russian power. The Russian strategy is typically to pair cyber attacks with online propaganda. That approach has been refined and expanded by Russian intelligence. From June 2015 to November 2016, Russian hackers penetrated Democratic Party computers in the US, and gained access to the personal emails of Democratic officials, which in turn were distributed to the global media by WikiLeaks. Both the CIA and the FBI report the intrusions were intended to undermine the US election. Cyber gives Russia a usable strategic capability. If benefits from its use appear great enough, Moscow may want to risk additional attacks. Russian officials will normally vehemently deny launching cyber attacks. Russian officials almost never open up their covert intelligence operations. Putin has never publicly discussed them.

The report of the January 16, 2017 US Office of the Director of National Intelligence entitled, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Election” presents the best publicized assessment by the US Intelligence Community of the Russian cyber attack during the 2016 US Presidential Election. The Russian operation to influence the 2016 US Presidential Election demonstrated a marked escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of  Moscow’s longstanding desire and effort to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order. US Intelligence Community assesses that Putin, himself, ordered the influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s objectives were: to undermine public faith in the US democratic process; to denigrate former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and, to harm her electability and potential presidency.  The US Intelligence Community further assessed that Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for then President-elect Trump. In following, it also assessed Putin and the Russian Government aspired to aid President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. The approach the Russia took to operation reportedly evolved over the course of the campaign given its understanding of the US electoral prospects of the two main candidates. The Intelligence Community concluded that once it appeared to Moscow that Clinton would likely win the election, the Russian operation began to focus more on undermining her future presidency. It was uncovered by Intelligence Community that the influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blended covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls.”

The Intelligence Community has declared that much as its Soviet predecessor, Russia has a history of conducting covert influence campaigns focused on US presidential elections, using Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR intelligence officers and agents and press placements to disparage candidates perceived as hostile to the Kremlin. Russia’s intelligence services conducted cyber operations against targets associated with the 2016 US were Presidential Election, including targets associated with both major US political parties, were conducted by Russian intelligence services. The Intelligence Community assessed with high confidence that the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release US victim data collected in cyber operations publicly, in exclusives to media outlets, and transmitted material to WikiLeaks. Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards. US Department of Homeland Security assessments in the report explain that the types of systems Russian actors targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying. The Russia’s state-run propaganda machine Russia Today contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences.  The US Intelligence Community concluded that Moscow will apply lessons learned from its “Putin-ordered campaign” directed at the 2016 US Presidential Election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes.

Testifying before the US Senate Intelligence Committee on June21, 2017, Jeanette Manfra, the US Department of Homeland Security’s acting deputy Undersecretary of Cyber Security revealed that 21 US state election systems were targeted as part of Russia’s wide-ranging operation to influence the 2016 elections. She explained that a small number state election systems were also breached but there was no evidence any votes were manipulated. Manfra noted that the elections are resilient to hacking in part because they are decentralized and largely operated on the state and local level. Nevertheless, the hacking of state and local election databases in 2016 was more extensive than previously reported. According to Time, there was at least one successful attempt to alter voter information. Reportedly in Illinois, more than 90% of the nearly 90,000 records stolen by Russian state actors contained driver’s’ license numbers, and a quarter contained the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers.

According to the US Intelligence Community, 21 US state election systems were targeted as part of Russia’s wide-ranging operation to influence the 2016 elections. A small number state election systems were also breached but there was no evidence any votes were manipulated. However, there was at least one successful attempt to alter voter information.  In Illinois, more than 90% of the nearly 90,000 records stolen by Russian state actors contained driver’s license numbers, and a quarter contained the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers.

Reaching Agreements: Easier Said than Done

Before the Trump-Putin bilateral meeting, what had been observed in diplomatic exchanges between the US and Russia is a type of modus vivendi, a way of living, working together, between leaders and chief diplomats. After Putin granted US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson a meeting in Moscow after his talks with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Trump granted Lavrov a meeting in Washington during a visit to meeting with Tillerson. It also indicated a willingness to establish a balance in negotiations or quid pro quo on issues when possible. US State Department and Russian Foreign Ministry officials are also working together to resolve nagging issues that could serve to harm efforts to foster good relations. Such seemingly small steps helped to build confidence in both Washington and Moscow that the prospect for change was real, and it lead to the arrangement of a meeting between presidents. Those small steps also supported an open line of communication between chief diplomats which is all importance as US and Russian military forces work in close proximity in Syria, fighting continues in Ukraine, and aerial and naval intrusions remain constant in skies and waters in NATO, Canadian and US territory. If all went well, there will certainly be more to follow.

All of that being stated, the successful formulation and execution of such small steps is a daunting in public. When Putin initially took power on January 1, 2000, the West expected him to give it nothing less than his unequivocal cooperation in a manner similar to his predecessor, Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin. Western capitals also expected Putin to be a bit wobbly taking on so much responsibility at a relatively early age. Yet, Putin knew his shoulders could bear the burden. He had no desire to be just a man of the moment in Russia. Much as Yeltsin, Putin, too, showed patience toward the West for a while, but he did not procrastinate. He took on the mission of breathing fresh breath into a country that was dying. He pushed ahead with plans “to save” Russia from disintegration and frustrate what he sensed were Western efforts to weaken it. Indeed, Putin did not believe congenial relations with the West were authentic given the many years of geopolitical struggle. Putin believed then, and believes now, that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. He believes Western governments are driven to create disorder in Russia and make it dependent of Western technologies. Still, Putin has shown that would prefer to outthink his rivals in the West rather than fight them. That notion has influenced his responses in contentious situations. After the period of a term away from the presidency during which he served as his country’s prime minister, Putin was reelected for a third term on March 4, 2012. He clased repeatedly with US President Barack Obama and seemed to act more aggressively. The Russian military move that stood out was the annexation of the Crimea.

The US and EU took Putin to task for that bold military operation. Harsh sanctions were levied and Russia was cast out of the Group of 8 industrialized democracies. Putin has held on to the territory and has continued to do so in the face of even tougher sanctions against Russian interests. He levied his own sanctions against US and EU products and even began heavily supporting separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine. In a March 18, 2014 speech declaring Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin vented his anger at the US and EU, enumerating some Western actions that fostered contempt in Moscow. He mentioned: Russia’s economic collapse, which many Russians recall was worsened by destructive advice and false philanthropy of Western business and economic experts that did more to cripple their country; the expansion of NATO to include members of the Soviet Union’s own alliance, the Warsaw Pact; the erroneous Russian decision to agree to the treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe, which he refers to as the “colonial treaty”; the West’s dismissal of Russia’s interests in Serbia and elsewhere; attempts to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and the EU; and, Western efforts to instruct Russia on how to conduct its affairs domestically and internationally. Ulterius ne tende odiis. (Go no further down the road of hatred.)

Given the many years of geopolitical struggle, Putin was unconvinced congenial relations between Russia and the West could exist authentically. He believed the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. After Putin was reelected for a third term, he clashed repeatedly with US President Barack Obama. Putin became more aggressive; took more military action. After traveling a bumpy road with the Obama administration, Moscow hoped Trump’s approach to Russia in any direction would reflect the desire not just for new deals, but a new US-Russia relationship.

Trump’s Negotiating Style: It’s Similar to the “Harvard Way”

Parva scintilla saepe magnam flamam excitat. (The sparkle often initiates a large flame.) Given Trump’s gift for agile maneuver against opposite parties in negotiations and his ability to mask his approach, if he chooses to do so, his decisions cannot be forecasted with exactitude. Trump, a self-admitted master of the art of the deal.  His negotiating “tactics, techniques, procedures and methods” Trump appears to have used that were likely developed a tad via his graduate business education at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania along with heavy dose of experience gained after nearly five decades of business negotiations. His concepts appear similar to those promoted by Harvard University’s Program on Negotiation. Such concepts ostensibly guided him in his first “business meeting” with Putin. They include the following: promoting creativity by breaking problems into smaller components; by doing so, you can build a multi-issue business negotiation out of what might appear to be a single-issue deal; using multiple issues to make valuable tradeoffs and facilitate a good-faith negotiation; collecting important information by asking lots of questions and listening carefully to the answers; impressing the other side with your flexibility by putting forth several different proposals at the same time; contemplate unconventional deal-structuring arrangements to bridge the gap between what the seller wants and what the buyer can afford; exploring a contingent contract to help overcome differences in beliefs about future events and outcomes; creating even more value in business negotiations by adding conditions to your deal such as “I’ll do X if you do Y”; and, engaging in “mind games” like brainstorming to facilitate creative problem solving and unexpected solutions.

Trump surely had high hopes before and during his meeting with Putin. He likely would argue then, and would argue now, that bold action, when appropriate, would be the very thing to turn situations around. Ideally, if big agreements were reached, they could help modify Russian behavior, and get relations moving forward. Yet, Trump is also pragmatic and recognizes that plans must fit circumstances and circumstances cannot be created or imagined to fit plans. Trump understood that there would likely need to be initial, relatively small steps perhaps to unlock the diplomatic process on big issues. He would also seek to gauge actions and reactions of his interlocutor, Putin. If he discerned a positive way forward, his sense of possibility would broaden and he would open his mind up to more options. When Trump broached the issue of Russian cyber attacks and eventually presented his proposal, his goal was not to mollify Putin, but rather provide an opportunity for all sides to “clear the air” on the issue of Russia’s hacking of 2016 US Presidential Election but he was unable to receive anything other than denials. Trump is not happy about Russia’s interference with the 2016 Presidential Election both as a patriotic citizen and as a candidate in that election. He may not completely agree that Russia’s action greatly impacted his election victory, but he recognizes that the aesthetics of the intrusion over time could diminish his accomplishment in some minds, particularly among his supporters. Trump understood Putin would likely deny Russia had any connection to the election intrusion, but he undoubtedly believed it was worth a try to have him confirm what most in the US believe.

As Trump and Putin did not have a relationship established prior to the meeting, they did not possess the requisite degree of trust that would allow them to relax and explore the territory outside their formal negotiating positions. They could not talk about their assumptions, strategies, and even fears. They had to work in the abstract from reports of others’ observations and analyses about their respective interlocutors.

The ability of Trump in his negotiations with Putin, to restrain the expression of emotion, in this case anger, perhaps even rage, and not to publish to the world by changes of countenance those thoughts and feelings, was critical if relations were to move forward. To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to recreate oneself endlessly. Admitting errors, missteps, is a sign of maturity and wisdom. One evolves as a result of recognizing ones mistakes. The mature one has moved from the passive voice to the active voice–that is when one stops saying, “It got lost” and begins saying, “I lost it.” The bilateral meeting between Trump and Putin was a promising moment in relations between the US and Russia. In an advanced, mature way of thinking, a presidential way of thinking in 2017, Trump sought some temporary step on the issue of Russia’s intrusion into the 2016 US Presidential Election by taking into consideration the relative strengths of the positions and capabilities of all sides. Trump understands the peace that can be achieved must be the focus. The focus must not be how much each side can destroy the other through cyber warfare but rather how to end cyber as a mutual threat. One cannot solve a problem with the same thinking one used when one created the problem. Mens sibi conscia recti. (A mind conscious of its own rectitude.)

The Flawed Cyber Proposal: A Telling Product of the Negotiation Process

Six building blocks for diplomatic negotiations were superbly outlined by the renowned US statesman, former US Secretary of State James Baker over a decade ago. Baker explained that the building blocks worked well when properly applied through solid preparation and hard work. The building blocks included: 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.

As Trump and Putin did not have a relationship established prior to the meeting, they did not possess the requisite degree of trust that would allow them to relax and explore the territory outside their formal negotiating positions. They could not talk about their assumptions, strategies, and even fears. They had to work in the abstract from reports that presented observations and analyses of others about their respective interlocutors. With specific regard to reciprocal confidence building, both leaders demonstrated that they could negotiate. Baker suggested that at the earliest stage, one could arrange a series small negotiations on issues that could be resolved quickly, reasonably, and amicably to assist in developing a dialogue. Baker explained that finding even a minor, common point of agreement, for example on the shape of the negotiating table, can serve to set the tone of the relationship. It also helps develop a dialogue, which is one of the most important aspects of negotiations.

Former US Secretary of State James Baker (above). Six excellent building blocks for diplomatic negotiations were outlined by former US Secretary of State James Baker over a decade ago. Baker explained that they worked well when properly applied through solid preparation and hard work. Included among them 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.

Confidence Building Measures: In Brief

Perhaps the best definition for confidence building measures was provided by Simon Mason and Siegfried Matthias, in their seminal article, “Confidence Building Measures (CBMS) in Peace Processes” published in Managing Peace Processes: Process Related Questions. A Handbook for AU Practitioners, Volume 1 (African Union and the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2013). They define confidence building measures as series of actions that are negotiated, agreed, and implemented by parties in a dispute in order to build confidence without specifically focusing on the root causes of the dispute.

Confidence building measures are designed to build confidence. Confidence is a psychological state, whereby actors make themselves vulnerable and ready to take risks based on the expectation of goodwill and positive behavior from a counterpart. Confidence building measures can prevent a dispute or larger problem from escalating even if the negotiating process is to be started in the short term. Preventing escalation has value in itself and may also allow the negotiation process to begin again later on. Mason and Matthias intriguingly note that confidence building measures can prevent parties from escalating even when there is a denial of any problems or tensions that could escalate. Successful negotiations require risk taking by the parties. That is why a minimum degree of confidence is needed for negotiations to even start. For negotiating parties, confidence building measures are attractive because they are seen as a low-cost and low-risk activities, since they can be implemented with limited resources and calculated risks. The negotiating parties, themselves, must craft confidence building measures to fit their specific case. If not, what is agreed to will not be owned by the parties, and will not serve to build trust. Confidence building measures must also be reciprocal in nature. One party should not feel that it is going out on a limb without the other also doing so. To assist in ensuring confidence is sustained and agreements are appropriately implemented, confidence building measures concerning communication should be put in place.

In an incremental approach to confidence building measures, a series of agreements are used to slowly tackle the more difficult core issues later on. Under this approach, confidence building measures become stepping stones or a pathway to greater agreements. Indeed, agreements on confidence building measures early on generally build trust and interest in negotiating more complex agreements at a later stage. In this sense, confidence building measures create opportunities for parties to collaborate on something that is not strategically important to them and, in so doing, build the trust needed to subsequently discuss important strategic issues. Confidence building measures pull parties away from the obstacle they are blocked on. Once confidence exists, it is then easier to address the obstacles. Mason and Matthias use the metaphor of steps of a ladder also highlights the incremental nature of building trust which takes time and an accumulation of small steps. That is referred to by some as the confidence building process.

Mason and Matthias caution parties negotiating confidence building measures that wider constituencies may view a negotiation process with suspicion before, during, and after negotiations, and may not be willing to accept deals made. individuals from those constituencies typically will not be present at the negation and understand how agreements were arrived at. Plans for responding to the wider constituencies’ concerns must be considered. A mutual understanding that one party made need to break away from a confidence building measure must exist. An agreement could be negotiated that allows the parties an amount of time in which they could communicate to one another about the need to break away from a confidence building measure. Working together on such a matter in itself could build confidence, create some degree of trust.

US military personnel in Cyber Command (above). There is no doubt with regard to the legal barriers to Trump’s proposal for a joint US-Russian cyber security unit. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act prohibits the US Department of Defense, which is the parent organization of the US National Security Agency and the US Cyber Command, from using any funds for bilateral military cooperation with Russia. However, the mere fact that Trump offered to work jointly with Russia to sort out a cyber matter, and thought of creating an organization for that, seems to have had a positive impact on Putin.

Even though Trump’s proposal for a joint US-Russian cyber security unit was flawed, the dialogue among US and Russian cyber experts that might have resulted from it could have helped to develop a mutual understanding about the harmful effects of cyber activities and potential consequences, to include proportional asymmetric responses. Experts from the US side in any hypothetical liaison team would have likely been very experienced, highly qualified US personnel from the US National Security Agency and Cyber Command, and perhaps the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State, the primary US agency most major cyber negotiations. They might have caused Russia to halt its cyber operations against the US by helping to establish a modus vivendi, or way both countries could live together while possessing this significant strategic capability. One could speculate even further that talks may have even resulted in the very near-term suspension of any cyber attacks underway, or a reduction in the intensity or tempo of such attacks that have been sourced to Russia and perhaps some that have not as yet been identified as such. Trump’s proposal, encouraging talks, although flawed legally, ideally could have inspired both countries to move forward toward a greater agreement.

A Bad Reaction

As it was explained earlier, wider constituencies represented by negotiating parties may view the process with suspicion. In that vein, political allies and adversaries alike in the US rejected Trump’s proposal for a joint cyber security unit. There was an immediate rebuff from several Republicans, who questioned why the US would work at all with Russia after Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. US Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican, stated on the US Sunday morning news program “Meet the Press”: “It’s not the dumbest idea I have ever heard but it’s pretty close.” On Twitter, US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican, immediately criticized Trump’s cyber proposal. Rubio wrote: “While reality and pragmatism requires that we engage Vladimir Putin, he will never be ally or reliable constructive partner.” He further stated: “Partnering with Putin on a ‘Cyber Security Unit’ is akin to partnering with [Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-] Assad on a “Chemical Weapons Unit.” US Senator John McCain of Arizona, a Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, recognized Trump’s desire to move forward with Russia. However , McCain further explained on the US Sunday morning talk show “Face the Nation”: “There has to be a price to pay.” McCain went on to state: “Vladimir Putin … got away with literally trying to change the outcome … of our election.” He also added: “There has been no penalty.” US Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN’s Sunday morning program, “State of the Union”, that Russia could not be a credible partner in a cyber security unit. Schiff stated: “If that’s our best election defense, we might as well just mail our ballot boxes to Moscow,” Schiff added. A former US Secretary of Defense in the administration of US President Barack Obama, Ashton Carter, told CNN: “This is like the guy who robbed your house proposing a working group on burglary.”

There is no doubt with regard to the legal barriers to Trump’s proposal for a joint US-Russian cyber security unit. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act prohibits the US Department of Defense, which is the parent organization of the US National Security Agency and the US Cyber Command, from using any funds for bilateral military cooperation with Russia. The purpose of the law is avoid providing Moscow with insight into US cyber capabilities. In the US, it has been long-believed that Moscow is averse to revealing any of its cyber capabilities.

Multiple proposals will be presented in the process of improving US-Russian relations. Trump’s cyber proposal was one of many tabled by him during his bilateral meeting with Putin. As Trump tweeted, success was achieved in other areas. For example, Trump and Putin agreed over a ceasefire for southwest Syria that was set to begin on midday, July 9, 2017. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said it showed the US and Russia were able to work together in Syria and that they would continue to do so.

Dumping the Cyber Security Unit Proposal

It was only hours after Trump’s proposal for the joint US-Russian cyber security unit was harshly criticized by Republicans who said Moscow could not be trusted that he backtracked on it. He tweeted: “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t.”

Even without being implemented, the fact that Trump offered to work jointly with Russia to sort out a cyber matter, and thought of creating an organization to do so, may have had a positive impact on Putin’s thinking. Putin can choose cautious cooperation or subterfuge, which many in foreign policy circles would call his penchant. In his dealings with Trump, it seems to some degree Putin has chosen cooperation. Indeed, it must be noted that Putin discussed Trump’s proposal and was apparently open to some type of interaction between cyber experts of both countries. Recall also that Trump initially tweeted that Putin entertained the proposal. As Putin has the final say on all foreign policy matters in Russia, he established that Russia at the moment has an interest in reaching an understanding on cyber. Trump’s July 7, 2017 cyber proposal is dead. However, as the process of building relations between the US and Russia, there is a real chance that a new, better crafted proposal on cyber, within bounds legally, may surface, perhaps even from Moscow. Only time will tell.

Multiple proposals will be presented in the process of improving US-Russian relations. Trump’s cyber proposal was one of many tabled by him during his bilateral meeting with Putin. As Trump tweeted, success was achieved in other areas  For example, Trump and Putin agreed over a ceasefire for southwest Syria that started on midday, July 9, 2017. Tillerson said it showed the US and Russia were able to work together in Syria and that they would continue to do so. Tillerson announced some key understandings brokered in the meeting amounted to success. He explained: “We had a very lengthy discussion regarding other areas in Syria that we can continue to work together on to de-escalate the areas and the violence, once we defeat ISIS.” Tillerson also said the US and Russia would “work together towards a political process that will secure the future of the Syrian people.”

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s play, The Third Part of King Henry the Sixth, while King Henry away from the throne, the Duke of York, urged by Warwick, sat on it. Just then, Henry arrives with followers. Henry tells York to step away, but York announces an alleged claim to the crown against the King’s hereditary possession. Henry convinces York to wait to be crowned after he dies. Henry’s nobles are astonished that he disinherited his own son. Queen Margaret arrives and is struck by the news. York, at home, is convinced by Richard’s sons Edward and Richard, and his follower Montague to take the throne right away. A war for succession ensues. After several horrific battles, the opposing sides massed for a final engagement. In Act V, Scene iv of the play, Margaret leading Henry’s supporters gives a final stirring speech, summoning courage and the fighting spirit. On the plains near Teaksbury she states: “Great lords, wise men ne’er sit and wail their loss, but cheerly seek how to redress their harms. What though the mast be now blown overboard, the cable broke, the holding-anchor lost and half our sailors swallow’d in the flood? Yet lives our pilot still. Is’t meet that he should leave the helm and like a fearful lad with tearful eyes add water to the sea and give more strength to that which hath too much, whiles, in his moan, the ship splits on the rock, which industry and courage might have saved? Ah, what a shame! Ah, what a fault were this!” As Trump engages in efforts to improve relations with Putin and Russia, his opponents and a few fellow Republicans seem to feel the US is staring into a dangerous, dark abyss. They place little faith in Trump, and no trust or hope in Putin. Conversely, Trump, in thinking about the potential for improving relations, likely conjures panoramic views of endless vistas. While Trump’s critics would associate the disturbing sound of a dissonant flute with Trump’s effort to rebuild relations with Russia, Trump seeks to create a harmony between the US and Russia that even Johann Sebastian Bach would find sublime. The entire matter seems to enthral him. He remains optimistic and is pushing ahead in the face of considerable obstacles, the majority of which are actually unrelated to his efforts with Putin.

Trump has engaged in negotiations for decades. In his face to face bilateral meeting with Putin, Trump was allowed the chance to adjust to circumstances, become more fluid in his thinking, and more creative in his approach. Trump’s sense of possibilities was broadened. His proposal for a joint cyber security unit, while scoffed at, and, albeit, not viable under US law, undoubtedly resulted from his willingness to consider the full range of options. As a confidence building measure, it may very well have had a positive impact on Putin’s thinking without even being implemented.  Reports about the actual Trump-Putin meeting indicate both leaders had a good sense of one another’s positions but they also sought find out more about one another’s approaches. By doing so, both provided themselves with a better chance of reaching a successful conclusion. Both were attentive to how the other perceived issues, no matter alien that view may have been to their own. They noticed patterns of behavior, some perhaps influenced by history and culture, and recognized political constraints the other faced. Both Trump and Putin tried to crawl into one another’s shoes. As time moves on, that effort may very well assist the two leaders in building a relations that will facilitate the building of ties between the US and Russia. Durate, et vosmet rebus servate secundis. (Endure, and keep yourselves for days of happiness.)

US and Allies Extend Iran Nuclear Talks by 7 Months: A Deal May Be Reached with Trust, But Not with Certainty

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Commander General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari (right) stands close to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left), at a ceremony. For hard-liners as Jafari, the failure to reach a deal by November 24th proved the West only wants Iran to surrender its nuclear program. Fears of US military action are gone. Hard-liners have gained even more of Khamenei’s attention on foreign policy.

According to a November 25, 2014 New York Times article entitled “U.S. and Allies Extend Iran Nuclear Talks by 7 Months”, the US and partners in the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council—the US, United Kingdom, France Russia, and China—plus Germany), to declare an extension for talks with Iran on its nuclear program until June 30, 2015. The extension came after a yearlong effort to reach a sustainable agreement with Iran to dismantle large parts of its nuclear infrastructure. There was no indication of why negotiators felt they could overcome political obstacles blocking a deal. Until very recently, negotiators from all sides insisted that the November 24, 2014 deadline for a deal was hard and fast.

The November 25th New York Times article explained the already extended high-level diplomacy over the Iranian nuclear program was arguably US President Barack Obama’s top foreign policy priority. The results on November 24th had to be a disappointment for him. Negotiators did not even agree on the framework for a comprehensive deal. In expressing hope that a deal could still be reached, US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that a series of “new ideas surfaced” in the last several days of talks. He further stated “we would be fools to walk away,” because a temporary agreement curbing Iran’s program would remain in place while negotiations continued. Indeed, it has been reported that Iran has actually kept its end of the deal under the November 24, 2013 interim agreement, named the Joint Plan of Action, 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. In extending the interim agreement, Iran has ensured itself sanctions relief, bringing it $700 million a month in money formerly frozen abroad. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appeared on Iranian national television with a message of both reassurance and resistance. He told Iranians that a deal would end sanctions, but also said “the centrifuges are spinning and will never stop.” The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has rejected US demands for the deep reductions in Iran’s enrichment capability. His view may not change before a March 1, 2015 deadline for reaching a political agreement, the first phase in the seven-month extension.

For the hard-liners in Iran, the failure to reach an agreement proved the US and its allies were not negotiating honestly and simply wanted to take away Iran’s nuclear program. Iranian moderates however, seem to realize an authentic agreement that includes the removal of sanctions and an acceptable modification of Iran’s nuclear activities can be reached. Yet, they likely also worry that the failure to reach an agreement coupled with the lackluster US reaction over events in Iraq and Syria has strengthened hard-liners’ resolve, and worse, strengthened their position and influence with Khamenei. Threats made by the Obama administration to take military action if negotiations fail now ring hollow. Western negotiators remain concerned over how Iran will proceed with or without a deal. A deal would need to be made with the prayer that Tehran will not announce one day that it has a weapon.

Zarif Wants An Agreement to Resolve the Nuclear Issue in Tehran

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, was upbeat before reporters at a press conference on November 25, 2014 in Vienna saying with a broad smile that he was optimistic that in the next few months a solution would be found. He was quoted as saying “We don’t need seven months.” Zarif directed his words at the US Congress saying Iran would not be ending all of its nuclear activities. He explained “If you are looking for a zero sum game in nuclear negotiations, you are doomed to failure.” He also revealed that the step by step removal of sanctions was a stumbling block in the talks. Zarif apparently argued to the end in the talks that the sanctions must be lifted permanently and almost immediately. For both Rouhani and Obama, the next seven months may be difficult to manage. Opponents of concessions of any kind have been gaining strength in both countries. It seems time has quickly passed since the summer of 2013 when considerable enthusiasm was created in Washington and other Western capitals over the potential of negotiations with Iran. Rouhani made an eloquent case for opening a dialogue with the US before and after his inauguration.  Skepticism expressed in the US came mainly from Kerry.  He made it clear that the warming a relations between the US and Iran did not mean that the US would back off its demands on Iran’s nuclear program.  Kerry was also unequivocal about his willingness to shut down any talks if he discerned an effort to stall, misdirect, or deceive through the process. However, as the process got underway, there was a perceptible shift in the US position.  US negotiators seemed to fall over themselves just to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.  Talk of military action against Iran’s nuclear program has become a distant memory.  Obama administration officials pleaded with Congress not to levy new sanctions against Iran because sanctions would not convince the Iranians to accede to US wishes.  Simply put, the White House wanted to reach a deal, and US officials did not really hide that fact. Zarif apparently recognized the change in US attitude.  He told the Iranian media, “There are indicators that John Kerry is inclined [to advance the nuclear matter in Iran’s interests].”

By that point, Zarif saw the real possibility of reaching an agreement with the P5+1 that Tehran could live with. He argued with hard-line elements in Tehran, including the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and hard-line political and religious leaders, that a deal would be beneficial to Iran. The hard-liners did not desire to engage in negotiations, particularly with the West and remained reluctant, but, in obedience to Khamenei, they did not oppose his efforts. Zarif assures that Iran neither needs nor simply wants a nuclear weapons capability. That is to the best of his knowledge. Zarif believes Iran’s size and strength and level of technological development makes it unnecessary to augment its power with nuclear weapons. Zarif believes the goal of Iran’s nuclear program was to produce fuel for its nuclear reactor. That argument has remained at the root of his efforts during the entire negotiation process.  In a US television interview in July 17, 2014, he explained that nuclear weapons would likely reduce Iran’s security and influence in its region.  He said “It doesn’t help anybody.”  He went on to state “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.” Zarif argued: “Have they [nuclear weapons] 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.” To prove Western claims about Iran’s nuclear program untrue, Zarif has proposed confidence-building measures and responded to proposals from the P5+1. However, firm limits to what he could commit to were set by Khamenei. As the November 24th deadline approached, Tehran apparently pulled the reign on Zarif tighter. Zarif undoubtedly recognized that other events in the region were having an impact on Khamenei’s thoughts on the negotiations. Threats of US military action had already dissipated. However, once the Obama administration displayed great reluctance to act militarily in Iraq in the face of monstrous actions by Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), fears were mitigated within all quarters in Tehran that the US would act militarily against Iran.  Obama’s October 2014 letter to Khamenei may have further substantiated that view. With less worry that failed negotiations would lead to war, leaders in Tehran, particularly Khamenei and the hard-liners, saw no need to deal away any more of Iran’s nuclear program.

Hard-liners Strengthen Their Position with Khamenei

From the prism of hard-line elements in Tehran, the negotiation process has been a contest of wills. IRGC Commander General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali 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.” Yet, as the eagerness of the Obama administration to reach a deal became even apparent to them, the hard-liners watched, anticipating that the US would acquiesce to Iran’s demands. Previously, Iran contended with the administration of US President George W. Bush who threatened regime change and, hinted at a possible ground attack from Iraq. However, the Obama administration seemed less threatening and somewhat pliant to hard-liners. That perception was apparent iin the reaction of Jafari to the negotiations latest outcome. He explained “The Americans’ surrender to the authority of Iran is apparent by their behavior in the region and in the [nuclear] negotiations, and the issues of the enemy in combat with Iran were fully felt. Of course, their excesses in some cases are due to their fierce temper.” Jafari still expressed no genuine interest in reaching a deal with the P5+1. He stated, “The main elements of our power are in the hands of God and country. We should not seek our dignity and authority from the foreigners.”  He waxed on Iran’s potential to become a global power, and the need for a strategy to promote its interests and the Revolution worldwide. Jafari proffered, “Our problem is that we don’t have a broader outlook; the Supreme has also stressed this issue . . . If we don’t have a comprehensive and broader outlook, we will go wrong in all fields and decision-making, even the negotiations and nuclear issues.”

IRGC senior commanders have always looked with a bad eye at the size, power, and capabilities of the US military, and have wanted to surpass it in the Middle East and beyond. The IRGC and Iranian Armed Forces regularly declare their willingness to defend Iranian territory to the end and display Iran’s military capabilities. Jafari stated: “[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.” Senior Military Adviser to the Supreme Leader, General (Sarlashkar) Yahya Rahim Safavi, stated, “With God’s grace, Iran’s army has transformed into a strong, experienced, and capable army twenty-five years after the [Iran-Iraq] war’s end, and is now considered a powerful army in Western Asia.” On Syria, the US has not interfered with Iran’s military forces on the ground and efforts to shape events there. Despite declaring red-lines on the use of chemical weapons in Syria and publicly accusing the Assad regime of using chemical weapons, the Obama administration expressed fears over placing “boots on the ground” and eventually declined to act.  That led IRGC commanders in particular to publicly deride the US as being indecisive and predict it would be pliant to Iran’s demands. IRGC Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani said of the US, “There was a 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.”

In one of his early public statements on the Iraq, Khamenei said, “The Dominant System [US], using the remnants of Saddam’s regime as the primary pawns and the prejudiced takfiri elements as the infantry, is seeking to disrupt Iraq’s peace and stability and threaten its territorial integrity.” Hard-liners apparently had to convince Khamenei that the Obama administration did not have the situation under control and was not moving with an assured step. Much as Zarif seemingly recognized, hard-line military and security officials apparently concluded uniformly that the US has no intention of attacking Iran if the nuclear talks fail. The hard-liners appear to have convinced Khamenei that Obama’s reluctance to fight ISIS showed he would be even more reluctant to face the IRGC, Iranian Armed Forces, and other security elements globally if the US attacked Iran’s nuclear program.  The hard-liners also likely inferred from Obama’s reluctance he would not want to concurrently fight Iran and ISIS. Khamenei was able to see Iran was in, what Jafari would characterize as, a stronger position versus the US, even on the nuclear issue.

Jafari has always looked with a bad eye at the US military. He believes the US is in decline and wants Iran to acquire a broader outlook regarding its role in world affairs.

A maturing public relations apparatus in Khamenei’s office shaped official quotes from the Supreme Leader in response to the talks’ result. On Thursday November 27, 2014, Khamenei made it clear that he backed the extension of nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, and praised the negotiating team for its efforts. Khamenei expressed on his website, “For the same reasons I wasn’t against negotiations, I’m also not against the extension.” He characterized Iran’s negotiators as “hard-working and serious . . . [They] justly and honestly stood against words of force and bullying of the other side, and unlike the other side, they did not change their words every day.” In another message on his Twitter account, Khamenei stated “We accept fair and reasonable agreements. Where there’s bullying and excessive demands, all of Iran, people and officials, will not accept.”

However, in a more genuine manifestation of his feelings on the negotiations, Khamenei, in a November 25, 2014 meeting with Muslim clerics in Tehran, dismissed the diplomatic and economic pressure that world powers had brought to bear on his country over its nuclear ambitions. Khamenei said that the West had failed to bring Iran “to its knees.” On his website, he further stated that “In the nuclear issue, America and colonial European countries got together and did their best to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees, but they could not do so—and they will not be able to do so.” Several Twitter posts from an account used by Khamenei’s office, accused the West of meddling in the Middle East and using Sunni militant groups to thwart the Arab Spring uprisings with intra-Muslim infighting, “in line with arrogant [US] goals.” Some of Khamenei’s November 27th statements actually lapsed into the same aggressive tone. Khamenei said the US would be the biggest loser if the extended talks failed. He remarked “Know that whether or not we reach a nuclear agreement, Israel becomes more insecure day by day.” He then proclaimed, “Our people are willing to maintain their authority and values, and will bear the economic pressure.” Khamenei has stated repeatedly that Iran does not want a nuclear weapon. However, his statement likely came with caveats. If Khamenei, as the steward of Iran’s national security, felt a weapon was necessary for Iran’s security, he would build it and expect the Iranian people to faithfully overcome any Western efforts in response.

The Danger That Lurks: Real or Imagined?

Before the nuclear talks began, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) obtained information suggesting Iranian leaders are not completely opposed to developing a nuclear weapon. In an internal 2009 IAEA document, most of which was published by Institute for Science and International Security, is a section titled “Statements made by Iranian officials.”  It states: “The Agency [IAEA] was informed that in April 1984 the then President of Iran, H.E. Ayatollah Khamenei declared, during a meeting of top-echelon political and security officials at the Presidential Palace in Tehran, that the spiritual leader Imam Khomeini had decided to reactivate the nuclear programme. According to Ayatollah Khamenei this was the only way to secure the very essence of the Islamic Revolution from the schemes of its enemies, especially the United States and Israel, and to prepare it for the emergence of Imam Mehdi. Ayatollah Khamenei further declared during the meeting, that a nuclear arsenal would serve Iran as a deterrent in the hands of God’s soldiers.” The November 2011 IAEA Safeguards Report described the emergence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program that peaked in 2002 and 2003, and then was abruptly halted. The IAEA report also presented information from UN Member States indicating aspects of this program continued or restarted after 2003 and may be on-going.

The concern among US and European negotiators is that hard-liners in Tehran are using the on-going nuclear talks to misdirect them, enabling elements of the Iranian government to pursue the covert weaponization of the nuclear program.  Continued progress with the nuclear program has been a feature of Iran’s negotiations with the West since such talks began with the Bush administration. Iran may have the capability to engage in a dual-track approach to resolve problems over the nuclear issue with the West within the parameters of Khamenei’s concept of heroic flexibility.  Rouhani and Zarif would take a path toward diplomacy to acquire concessions from the P5+1while the IRGC, the Ministry of Defense, and other government elements secretly develop the ability to create a nuclear weapon. According to a May 27, 2014 Wall Street Journal article, Western intelligence agencies discovered Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear device dated back to the late 1980s, at a Defense Ministry-linked physics research center in Tehran.  According to the IAEA, Iran consolidated its weaponization researchers in the 1990s under an initiative called “AMAD Plan,” headed by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear engineer and senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).  The mission of AMAD Plan was to procure dual-use technologies, developing nuclear detonators and conducting high-explosive experiments associated with compressing fissile material, according to Western intelligence agencies.  AMAD Plan’s most intense period of activity was in 2002-2003, according to the IAEA, when Rouhani was Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.  The May 27th article asserted Fakhrizadeh has continued to oversee these disparate and highly compartmentalized activities under the auspices of Iran’s Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, known by its Persian acronym, SPND. Nulla tenaci, invia est via! (For the tenacious, no road is impossible!)

The Way Forward

While stumbling blocks are addressed, new approaches to ameliorate US concerns are being explored such as ways to provide the US with at least a year to discover if Iran was racing for a weapon, a standard that the US has set. Such steps could involve a combination of Iranian commitments to ship some of its nuclear stockpile to Russia, efforts to disconnect some of the country’s centrifuges in ways that would take considerable time to reverse, and limits on output that could be verified by international inspectors.   However, efforts in that direction may not amount to much in the current political environment, particularly in Iran and the US. When it was announced that no deal was reached and negotiations would be extended, lawmakers inthe Iranian Parliament erupted in chants “Death to America” after a lawmaker commenting on the deadline extension spoke of “the U.S.’s sabotaging efforts and its unreliability.” The lawmaker, Mohammad-Hassan Aboutorabi-Fard, who is the deputy speaker of the Parliament, said Iran had learned from the nuclear negotiations that it had a strong hand to play. “Today, we can speak to the U.S. and its allies with the tone of power,” he said in remarks quoted by the Fars News Agency. “A lesson can be taken from the recent nuclear talks that, for various reasons, the U.S. is not reliable.” The Republican controlled Congress really has no interest in restoring or improving relations with Iran while it has a nuclear program. Congressional Republicans have threatened to impose new sanctions on Iran regardless of whether such action interfered with the nuclear talks. Obama will no longer be able to rely on Democratic leaders in the Senate to bottle up legislation that would require new sanctions. Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the New York Times, “I don’t think Congress is going to sit still.” He further stated, “There is a fear the administration is being played for time, and there will be a desire to express that in some form of a sanctions bill.” Disapproval over the renewed sanctions relief that had brought Iran $700 million a month in money formerly frozen abroad may very well compel Congress to levy new sanctions. If the nuclear negotiations failed, any outrage expressed after such an occurrence would simply amount to lip service.  The use of military force would be unlikely given current circumstances in the Middle East and Obama’s disposition on it. There would be sanctions, but it is likely Tehran has already calculated what the consequences of such measures would be and how it could best mitigate their effects. Khamenei has assured that, if the extended talks fail, “the sky won’t fall to the ground.”

Evidence that the Iranian nuclear program has been militarized does not exist. Yet, despite what Zarif has argued, Khamenei and hard-line Iranian leaders may believe a nuclear weapon would make Iran more secure. At a minimum, they might seek the option to weaponize. Proceeding in that way would be very dangerous for Iran in the long-term. Iranian leaders know 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. As greatcharlie.com has cautioned more than once, 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 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 its nuclear activities. A new demand might be made for Iran to surrender its nuclear program or face military action.  If the current global perception that US leaders lack the will and power to act militarily still prevails in 2016, the next administration may not be able to compel outcomes on many issues with diplomacy or threats to use force. Favorable outcomes may result only from robust use of US military force.

An above average understanding of human nature and faith will be required to formulate a final decision on a deal under current circumstances. Clearly, some reasonable doubt exists, at least among Western partners in the P5+1, over whether the terms of a deal would be observed. With circumstances in the world seeming off-balance, George William Rutler, pastor of Saint Michael’s Church in New York City and author of Cloud of Witnesses, recently reminded greatcharlie.com of a live radio message by King George VI on New Year’s 1939, offering reassurance to his people. It would have an important effect on the listening public as they moved closer to war. King George VI acknowledged that there was uncertainty over what the new year would bring. He explained, “If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle we shall remain undaunted.”   He went on to quote a poem from Minnie Haskins of the London School of Economics entitled “The Gate of the Year” (The Dessert 1908). It seems apropos to present that quote here at the end of 2014, given the situation the leaders of the P5+1 nations will face in 2015 over the nuclear negotiations.

“I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year:

‘Give me a light, that I may tread safely into the unknown!’

And he replied: ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way’.”

Obama Wrote Secret Letter to Iran’s Khamenei about Fighting ISIS; Khamenei Is Counting on Suleimani, Not US Cooperation

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (above) travelled to Baghdad the week of June 9, 2014 with sixty-seven of his top advisers. An Iraqi official explained then that Suleimani was “in charge of arming, deploying forces, weaponry and planning the battles.”  He has achieved some success.  Iranian President Hassan Rouhrani said Iran would consider working with the US against ISIS if it sees the US begin to confront the terrorists.

According to a November 6, 2014 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Obama Wrote Secret Letter to Iran’s Khamenei About Fighting Islamic States”, in October 2014, US President Barack Obama sent a highly confidential communication to Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  The letter to Khamenei appeared directed at both bolstering the anti-ISIS campaign and prodding him toward a nuclear deal.  Those briefed on the letter familiarize the Wall Street Journal of its content.  Obama apparently wrote to Khamenei that expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) posed a threat to both the US and Iran, creating a common enemy for both countries. Obama stressed that both had the goal of defeating ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria.  While Obama did not recognize Iran as the primary power in the region, as Tehran insists, he acknowledged in a way that Iran was “important” to his military and diplomatic campaign to push ISIS from territory it has gained in past months and dubbed the Islamic Caliphate.  Obama ostensibly sought to mitigate Tehran’s concerns over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  Although the US is arming and training Syrian opposition rebels, Obama apparently wrote in his letter that US military operations in Syria were not targeted at Assad or his security forces.  Those familiar with the letter explained Obama did not explicitly propose that the US and Iran coordinate their military activities.  However, they said there was a strong implication that coordination was desired.  Concerning the nuclear negotiations, Obama informed Khamenei that cooperation on ISIS was largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive agreement with the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council—the US, United Kingdom, France Russia, and China plus Germany) on the future of Tehran’s nuclear program by November 24, 2014 deadline.  That point in the letter seemed to also imply cooperation would be more to Iran’s benefit.

News of Obama’s letter to Khamenei was somewhat confusing in the US given past statements by the administration on Iran.  When US National Security Adviser Susan Rice was asked on NBCNews “Meet the Press” on October 12, 2014, if Iran was providing help to the anti-ISIS coalition, she said “No!” Rice went on to state “We’re not in coordination or direct consultation with the Iranians about any aspects of the fight against ISIL [ISIS].  It is a fact that in Iraq, they are also supporting the Iraqis against ISIL [ISIS].  But we are not coordinating.  We’re doing this very differently and independently.”  Yet, despite Rice’s statement, Obama’s letter proposing the two countries cooperate in the anti-ISIS fight seems to be, at minimum, a move towards direct consultation with Tehran.  In the US Congress, Obama’s decision to send the letter revealed what the administration is saying about Iran may be different from its plans for Iran. Republican and Democrat Members of Congress are concerned that the administration is prepared to make far-reaching concessions to Tehran on a nuclear deal.  Members likely also sense the administration is uncertain of how to proceed regarding ISIS, having pledged not to commit ground troops for combat operations.  While willing to support the anti-ISIS fight with funding, they will likely wants to reign in what they see as Obama’s perilous approach toward Iran.

For leaders, discerning how to proceed on foreign policy is made more difficult in adverse circumstances.  Some choices that may appear wise are not.  Near desperation on wanting a situation to be a certain way has led many, well-intentioned leaders in error to project their “positive thinking” on that of a foreign counterpart, or worse, an adversary.  Such decisions are often supported by captivating assessments of positive outcomes not based in reality. Only a negative outcome would reveal the flaws of an approach for some.  Perhaps in its rush to respond to the ISIS problem, the Obama administration may have been blinded to the fact that it could be sending the wrong signals and creating conditions for future difficulties with Iran.  Qui totum vult totum perdit.  (He who wants everything, loses everything.)

Obama’s Letter: Cui bono?

Developing options for Obama has been vexing for administration officials and advisers. Obama has been adverse to taking military action. That has typically left a limited range of options that they have been able to present to Obama.  Even in situations where the use of force is almost absolutely necessary as with ISIS, officials and advisers likely presented options for actions that were light-weight, very small in scale, and calibrated precisely. The initial size and scope of the US anti-ISIS air campaign evinced that.  At the “human level,” among reasons sending a letter to Khamenei was determined acceptable may have been that letters had been sent to Khamenei in the past with satisfactory results.  (Indeed, the October letter marked at least the fourth time Obama has written Khamenei since taking office in 2009.)  Sending the letter was easy enough to do.  The option was a diplomatic tact and therefore more attractive to Obama than the “unappealing” military options already adopted for Iraq.  Discussion on the letter among officials and advisers fell outside the milieu of the unending military intervention debate in the White House.  Additionally, as previously discussed by greatcharlie.com, Obama has a predilection toward forgiving or, considering the overwhelming military power of the US, showing mercy toward an offending rogue actor.  The letter is one more example of that tack. The effort to bring Iran into the anti-ISIS fight as a partner, even nominally, certainly is in line with Obama’s policy of promoting multilateral cooperation, particularly regarding the  commitment of military forces.  His apparent obsession with making it work may be part of the impetus for his administration’s outreach to an unlikely ally. So far, the administration has not had much luck prodding its anti-ISIS coalition partners into ground combat operations against ISIS. In 2014, the Obama administration began insisting that the US would act only when multilateral approaches were available. The impression was given that this was a world in which once sufficient effort was made by the US to organize other nations, problems could be handled through cooperation. When ISIS was on the move, it seemed that the US State Department, in addition to “rearranging,” with good intentions, the Iraqi government, was most interested in gathering countries to become members of the “global coalition” to degrade and defeat ISIS. 

Qualifications for inclusion in that coalition were nominal. Of the sixty-two countries participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, the vast majority are not contributing militarily.  Many countries simply pledged their support.  As greatcharlie.com discussed in its October 25, 2014 post entitled, “Who Has Contributed What in the Coalition Against ISIS?; The Obama Administration Must Place Success Against ISIS Ahead of Creating the Appearance of a Broad Multilateral Effort”, the US has practically demanded more from some countries.  One country the US has pressured for action is Turkey. Although Turkey is a power in the Middle East region, the notion that Turkey, possessing far less military capabilities than the US would subordinate its own concerns and interests, to support and defend others under US pressure is flawed.  Turkey likely reached the same conclusions as the US about conditions for intervening in Iraq and Syria with ground troops.  In Syria, there would hardly be a Syrian opposition force with which Turkish troops could work.  If Turkey’s operations in Syria were to “creep” beyond destroying ISIS and the Assad regime was displaced, political leaders in Turkey would likely feel ambivalent about simply turning over a nation on its border, Syria, to the very dysfunctional Syrian opposition.  Even if Turkey controlled or greatly influenced the Syrian opposition, it is hard to see how taking on the stewardship of Syria, which would surely be a political, economic, and social basket case, would be to Turkey’s benefit.

Responses in Tehran to Obama’s Letter

The thinking on Obama’s letter in Tehran was certainly different than his administration must have hoped.  An adviser to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Ali Khoram, speaking in Oman, confirmed to the Arabic daily, Asharq al-Aswat, that Obama reached out directly to Khamenei in a mid-October letter.  However, Khamenei’s foreign affairs adviser, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iranian State media that he was not aware of Obama’s outreach.  Khamenei’s web-site does not acknowledge receipt of the letter.  Obama’s letter, on its face, likely aggravated Khamenei, particularly to the extent that Obama did not render appreciation or even praise for the considerable effort and sacrifices already being made by Iran against ISIS.  That was a massive “oversight” if the goal of the letter was truly to promote cooperation at some level with Iran.  Using the anti-ISIS fight as a basis for dialogue with Khamenei perhaps had become a futile effort after he declared in October 2014 that “America, Zionism, and especially the veteran expert of spreading divisions—the wicked government of Britain—have sharply increased their efforts of creating divisions between the Sunnis and Shiites [Shi’a].”  He further stated, “They created al Qaeda and ‘Islamic State’ in order to create divisions and to fight against the Islamic Republic [Iran], but today, they have turned on them.”  It is possible that to Khamenei, the letter may have appeared more as a manifestation of Obama’s attitude than a response to a foreign policy problem.  Khamenei may have viewed the letter as an expression of Obama’s uncertainty over the US’s ability to shape the outcome of the anti-ISIS fight on his terms.  Khamenei, a spiritual, religious leader, likely sensed Obama’s inner-struggle over using the US military.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had already expressed ambivalence about continued communication between leaders in Washington and Tehran.  The Associated Press reported Rouhani stated in October 2014 that the time “wasn’t right” for another phone conversation or a meeting with Obama “because of the sensitivity that still exists between the two countries.”  The Associated Press also reported Rouhani as stating there must be substantive reasons with “high objectives” for conversations between world leaders.  If not, he said, “telephone calls are somewhat meaningless.”  Rouhani explained a phone conversation between leaders “would only be constructive and fruitful when it is done according to a precisely laid plan with precisely clearly stated objectives.” Otherwise, he said, “it will never be constructive or effective.”

Obama’s letter most likely did much to boost confidence among Iranian leaders, particularly the IRGC and political and religious hardliners that the US was not moving with an assured step and posed no threat to plans Iran has in Iraq or the region.  The failure of the US to act effectively and decisively in Iraq right away and the abysmal results shown for the nearly decade long US training program for the Iraqi Army and police forces very likely mitigated fears within all quarters in Tehran that the Obama administration might take military action against Iran or use Iraqi security forces to attack Iran.  Officials and advisers to Khamenei likely feel the fight with ISIS has caused Obama to consider what the US might face from the Iranian Armed Forces and other security elements globally if it attacked Iran’s nuclear program.  They certainly believe going to war with Iran would be a far greater enterprise for the US than fighting ISIS.  They probably feel certain that the US would never attack Iran while the anti-ISIS fight was raging.  They likely believe Obama would totally reject the idea of fighting Iran and ISIS simultaneously.

Iran’s Efforts in Iraq

Sitting right across the border from Iraq, Khamenei, Rouhani, the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and hard-line political and religious leaders, saw an even greater danger from ISIS than the US did, and immediately attended to it.  Rouhani has stated “We’ve actually been the ones countering terrorism in the region for years.”  He also stated, “Had it not been for Iran’s timely assistance, many of the Iraqi cities would have fallen to the hands of these vicious terrorists.”  The Iranians were never going to wait and see what the US does next once ISIS was on the move. They needed to stop ISIS. Iranian leaders certainly realized that waiting could lead to tragic consequences.  ISIS had begun engaging in abuses and summary executions of civilians as well as captives.  Syria provided a reliable model to understand just how bad things can become for Iraqis in ISIS controlled territory.  Back on June 15, 2014, insurgent fighters from ISIS posted images purporting to show the execution of hundreds of Shi’a fighters.

Iranian military and security officials knew that ISIS could reach a level of strength that it could threaten to execute entire populations of towns and villages to deter attacks against its fighters.  ISIS would follow through with their threats without hesitation.  ISIS has since committed such acts in Iraq. The Iranians also knew ISIS would set up an Islamic state in captured territory, sustainable or not.  If ISIS managed to establish itself in Iraq, the Shi’a community in Iraq would not be the only ones at risk.  ISIS would surely attack Iran.

Iran has IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani handling the situation in Iraq. The eyes of Iran are on him.  The Sunday Times of London reported on June 15, 2014 that Suleimani travelled to Baghdad the week of June 9, 2014 with sixty-seven of his top advisers. A senior Iraqi official explained then that Suleimani was “in charge of arming, deploying forces, weaponry and planning the battles.”  The Iraqi source also said Suleimani brought “light and medium weapons, rockets, heavy machine guns and lots of ammunition.”  Much publicity has been produced by the Iranian government over Suleimani’s presence on the ground in Iraq.  As it was predicted by greatcharlie.com, Suleimani began his operations against ISIS by using the Quds Force, which are IRGC special operations forces that he directly commands, and small numbers of other IRGC combat units.  Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) personnel, supported by Quds Force troops increased intelligence collection through surveillance and reconnaissance in ISIS held territory.  By moving throughout Iraq, particularly in the so-called Islamic Caliphate, Iranian intelligence officers have gained information on all aspects of their opponent’s operations and kept their ear to ground, also getting a sense of the Iraqi peoples’ reaction to events. Positive links certainly have been established with commanders of Kurdish fighters and Iraqi security forces to make the process of gathering information about ISIS militants less complicated. Those contacts with the Iraqi security forces have reportedly also allowed for the collection of information on, and creation of informal communication with, US military and intelligence elements operating on the ground in Iraq.  Intelligence collected concerning ISIS has been utilized in the development of an operational plan. When necessary MOIS and Quds Force personnel, have been used tactically, fighting primarily alongside Kurdish fighters against ISIS.  Indeed, Iranian forces have done a lot of fighting, and they have gained the Kurds’ respect and confidence.  Suleimani ramped up the training and equipping of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen.  Battle-ready units have been deployed in defense of Shi’a dominated parts of Iraq and Holy Shrines.  Others are being sent directly into the combat against ISIS.  Suleimani has reportedly deployed Lebanese Hezbollah to Iraq to work with the Shi’a militias.  Truckloads of arms and equipment from Iran continuously flow to the Shi’a militiamen. Some supplies and weapons are being flown in.  Five Sukhoi-25 fighter-bombers were from Iran into Iraq for the Iraqi Air Force.

Once operating in the shadows, photos of IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (center) on the battlefield in Iraq have recently appeared in Iranian state media, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

How Iran Could Proceed

Iran is still not counting on the US to act on the ground in a muscular way against ISIS any time soon since it has just begun training “its Iraqis.”  In the meantime, Iran might opt to greatly increase its level of commitment in Iraq.  Back in June 2014, Senior Foreign Policy Adviser to the Supreme Leader and Head of the Expediency Discernment Council Strategic Research Center, Ali Akbar Velayati, in a lengthy interview with the Chinese CCTV network on June 19, 2014, stated, “We can do in Iraq what we did in Syria, meaning we are capable of providing the same type of training to the Iraqi Army that we have been able to provide the Syrian Army in confronting terrorists…We have much experience in this field.” That apparently meant having greater numbers of IRGC, Quds Force, and MOIS personnel pour into Iraq to join their comrades long since operating there.  The more Iran can accomplish against ISIS, the less the US will need to do.  There would also be less for US trained Iraqis to do.  Even with the specter of sectarian strife hanging over everything, Iran will be viewed among many average Iraqis as rescuers.

As discussed in greatcharlie.com’s June 30, 2014 post entitled “While the US Explored Talks with Iran on the Crisis in Iraq, Iran Acted, And May Do a Lot More!“, a  further increase in Iranian intervention might include bringing heavy artillery and rocket batteries in country. Massed fire missions could be executed with heavy artillery and heavy rockets, along with airstrikes, not coordinated with the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition, to destroy ISIS units being organized and armed for an attack or traveling. Marshalling points and supply routes for arms and military materiel away from urban areas could also face artillery onslaughts.  Armored and mechanized units would also become more apparent.  They would provide Kurdish fighters, Shi’a militia, some Iraqi security forces, and all Iranian units in Iraq with mobility and firepower and a maneuver capability that ISIS would be unable to match.  Combat support and combat service support units could be sent in to support the advance and help control recaptured territory.

With Iraq’s consent, Iran could deploy a close air support capability from attack helicopter units to fighter-bombers to facilitate movement by ground units.  A huge deficit in the Iranian effort if Suleimani’s plan is to defeat ISIS is close air support.  Regardless of the availability of artillery, close air support is the best, most rapid means to exploit tactical opportunities in the offense or defense.  It can provide fires, with appropriate ordinance, to destroy, disrupt, suppress, fix, harass, neutralize, or delay ISIS forces.  Iran’s fight against ISIS now is one-dimensional.

Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that Iran, just as the US, and just as Turkey, will not commit itself so heavily to Iraq without expecting to acquire even greater influence over it.  With greater control over the Shi’a community and increased influence with the Kurds, it is hard to see how Iran would not be able to shape the political, economic, and social situation in Iraq for years.  If the Iranians manage to shape the military situation on the ground in Iraq—and that could happen depending on the scale of its of intervention even though some Western analysts have expressed doubts, they will have much to gain.  Iran’s position as the dominant power in the region would be furthered.  Military and security officials may become the primary voice in the ear of Khamenei who still has a decision to make on Iran’s nuclear program.

The Way Forward

Unfortunately, on Iraq, as well as Syria, Obama really seems to be searching for answers. Some might derisively state he is paralyzed with uncertainty over what to do.  Given that possibility, Obama’s letter on ISIS likely satisfied Khamenei although he rejected it.  In the US, “cynics” among Obama’s political opponents hearing of the letter may have wanted to quote to their president the warning of conservative political commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. that there is always a need to combat the devilish conceit that peace might issue from a concordance with evil.  Intimation of a willingness to do so can only lead to disaster. Devising foreign policy approaches requires that US decision makers to possess shrewd insights into human nature.  Obama, himself, must respond to issues not based on his personal needs, values, and principles, but those of the US.  His country’s needs must come before establishing his legacy.

As US National Security Adviser Susan Rice confirmed in October 2014, US forces and Iranian forces are both operating in Iraq to support local elements in their battle against ISIS.  The Iranian commander, Suleimani, does not have any friends in the US military given his activities against US forces during the Iraq War.  US military and intelligence officials would certainly like to get their hands on him.  However, as US and Iranian forces have been tasked to operate in the same space, it had to be expected that they would cross paths.  Informal cooperation between Suleimani’s Quds Force operatives and MOIS officers and US special operators and intelligence officers, albeit through the Iraqi security force intermediaries, has resulted.  For example, in the fight for Amerli, Iraqi security forces, Shi’a militiamen, and Iranian operators, maneuvered on the ground against ISIS fighters while US airpower struck ISIS targets with multiple airstrikes.  US and Iranian commanders “coordinated informally” by passing messages to each other through commanders of the Iraqi security forces in the fight.  Such professionally handled interactions will likely continue to occur.  While some cooperation agreement by national leaders might prove helpful, US and Iranian interactions in Iraq must be sorted out on the scene.

The Commander-in-chief’s confidence in US military commanders at the Pentagon and US Central Command and officers and enlisted men on the ground in Iraq is the most important factor in all of this.  Rather the send letters to Iranian leaders at this juncture, Obama would do more to enhance chances of success in Iraq by communicating with, and encouraging, his own fighters.  He should meet those he has sent to Iraq confidentially, perhaps even on the ground, and let them know directly how important they are to him and how important their mission is to the US.  He must let them know that he has complete confidence in their capabilities and that he is relying on them to successfully complete their mission.  German Field Marshal Walter Model, the controversial World War II battlefield genius, was known to use a line from Goethe to praise his finest officers: “Den lieb ich, der umogliches begehrt! (I love him who craves the impossible!)”  The special operators that were sent to Iraq to perform the advise-and-assist mission may not be able to perform the impossible.  However, knowing they have the full support and confidence of their commander-in-chief, they will do whatever is humanly possible to destroy ISIS and perform beyond any projections by analysts in or out of the military.  Significant achievements of those “quiet professionals” in Iraq could inspire the Iranians to reach out to the US regarding “coordination.”  After all, when Rouhani was asked in September whether Tehran could formally work with the US to tackle ISIS, he stated, “We can think about it if we see America start confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq.  We all should practically and verbally confront terrorist groups.”

Negotiators Put Final Touches on Interim Iran Accord, But Ayatollah Khamenei Is Expressing Concern over Perceptions Created by Talks

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is frustrated by the popular perception that Iran was forced to make a deal on its nuclear program as a result of Western economic sanctions.

According to a January 13, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Negotiators Put Final Touches On Iran Accord,” Iran and the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia China, and Germany) completed a deal on January 12th that would temporarily suspend much of Iran’s nuclear program as of January 20th.  That would be done in exchange for limited relief from Western economic sanctions.  The interim agreement had already been announced in November 2013, however, its implementation was delayed until after negotiators and experts worked out technical details.  Reportedly, Iran will suspend 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 also agreed not to install any new centrifuges, start up any that had were not already operating, or build new enrichment facilities.

While Western officials touted the degree to which Iran’s nuclear program had be temporarily curtailed, as reported in the January 13thNew York Times article, 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 Araqchi, 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.

For Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, maintaining the nuclear program and the right to enrich was the main requirement that he gave to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when he released him to engage in a dialogue with the US and Western powers on economic sanctions, and consequently, 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.  However, as the process advanced, Khamenei began to publicly express concerns and some disappointment over its results.  Despite an initial sense inside Iran’s leadership that the negotiations would rapidly bring forth favorable results, it instead has been a complicated and deliberate process, the outcome of which remains uncertain.  Moreover, Iranian authorities became concerned by the fact that following their decision to engage in the negotiations with Western powers, a perception took hold that Iran was forced to make a deal on its nuclear program to stave off economic ruin.

In Iran, Khamenei is known as the leader of the Islamic Ummah and Oppressed People and the person in which the spiritual guidance and functional power Islamic republic resides.  For him, the notion that Iran was submitting to Western pressure is absolutely abhorrent.  Khamenei accused the US of engaging in strenuous efforts to promote this view of Iranian weakness.  He stated:  “The nuclear talks showed the enmity of America against Iran, Iranians, Islam, and Muslims.”  Nevertheless, the view that Iran was forced to negotiate in reaction to economic sanctions is not only accepted among most experts in the US.  It is the prevailing view worldwide.  Khamenei has held out hope that, through the Geneva process, Iran would reach an agreement that fits within the ideals of Islamic Revolution as well as achieve success over what he has referred to often as “the economic pressures and propaganda campaigns of the West.”  However, perceptions of Iran’s standing in the talks could very well impact Khamenei’s final decision regarding Geneva.  At this juncture, it is not necessary for Khamenei to decide whether to proceed to halt negotiations as a final agreement has not even been outlined.  In the interim, perhaps Khamenei and Iranian foreign and defense policymakers might consider how Iran’s own efforts to influence the global policy debate on the Geneva process in its favor, how in reality, it did more to propagate perceptions on why it entered into negotiations.  Interestingly, a few changes in Iran’s approach may ameliorate the situation and may very well make the situation tolerable enough to allow reaching an agreement to become the main focus of all parties.

Image of Iran’s Power to Khamenei

Khamenei’s frustration over worldwide perceptions that Iran was forced into the Geneva process is almost palpable.  Khamenei saw Iran’s decision to enter the Geneva process purely from a position of strength as a regional power.  Such power was the basis of equality.  Viewing its entry into the Geneva process from a perceived position of strength Khamenei has 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.”  When it began the talks, Khamenei and Iranian policymakers believed an agreement favorable to Iran’s interests would be rapidly constructed.  Among experts and advisers on foreign and defense policy in Tehran, the accepted view was that US had become disinterested in the Middle East as events and issues in the region do not align with US President Barack Obama’s new vision of its national interest.  The failure of the US to respond militarily to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, despite red-lines, is a reaction to the trauma of its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Moreover, they viewed US President Barack Obama as analytical and frail, lacking the will to fight.  They asserted that Obama would unlikely be predisposed toward declaring war on Iran regardless of how they might proceed appears to have become dogma among political and religious hardliners and in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).  It has 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 at Geneva.

Khamenei and Iranian officials saw Iran moving in the opposite direction of the US, gaining power and becoming the driving force in the Middle East.  Khamenei stated:  “a regional power [Iran] has emerged which has not been brought to its knees despite various political, economic, security, and propaganda pressures.”  He further stated that “this major power [Iran] has influenced regional nations.”  Iran’s recent record indeed includes a number of bold and decisive actions in the region.  According to the January 13th, New York Times article, Iran has been sought to influence events just about everywhere in the region.  In Syria, Iran has deployed significant numbers of IRGC, Quds Force and regular Army forces.  It has sent an estimated 330 truckloads of arms and equipment to Syrian through Iraq to support the armed forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  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 armed, equipped, and enabled Hezbollah to join the fight in Syria.  Iran has also facilitated the deployment of Iraqi Shiite militiamen trained by the Quds Force to Damascus.  To further supplement the Syrian Armed Forces hundreds of Shiites in Yemen and Afghanistan have been recruited for combat duty in Syria.  In Yemen, the New York Times reports Iran’s Quds Force has supplied arms to Houthi rebels fighting government forces in the northern part of the country.  Iran smuggles weapons into Yemen on small boats which are difficult for Yemeni authority to track.  It is estimated that only 1 out of 10 Iranian boats that illegally come into Yemen among the thousands of commercial and fishing boats in the Persian Gulf.  In Bahrain, Iran has capitalized on ties established with Shiite groups back in the 1990s, including some that have carried out small-scale attacks on police.  Bahraini operatives are typically trained in Iran and operationally controlled by Bahraini opposition leaders there.

Understanding US Power in Tehran

Despite Khamenei’s own perceptions of Iran’s power relative to that of the US and its Western partners, the US has proved not to be as relaxed on matters as his foreign and defense policy experts and advisers led him to believe.  Advice coming as a result of the “group-think” displayed in Tehran on the capabilities and possibilities of the US did not serve Khamenei well.  As a nation, the US is certainly not a push over.  It remains a nuclear armed superpower, regardless of any perceptions about its leadership.  It has become very apparent that for Iran, acquiring significant sanctions relief through the talks would be difficult, if not impossible to realize, without significant change regarding Iran’s nuclear program.  Additionally, the focus of the US and its Western partners in the Geneva process was not what Iran was doing away from its nuclear program regionally.  That has been put aside.  The focus of Geneva is specifically Iran’s nuclear program and potential for developing nuclear weapons.  The talks are aimed at preventing nuclear war.  For that reason, the talks to a great degree concern the very survival of Iran in the face of US military power.

Distress caused by coming to this understanding of the situation has increased Khamenei’s frustration over hearing economic causation theories on Iran’s decision to negotiation in the global media.  Clear and convincing evidence has been presented that Iran’s oil revenue has been reduced and its other trade has been disrupted.  Nevertheless, Khamenei still publicly rejects this perception of weakness.  He recently declared, “Our enemies do not know the great Iranian nation.  They think that their imposed sanctions forced Iran to enter negotiations.  No, it is a wrong.”

Iran has made an effort promote its own positions and arguments on the Geneva negotiations as part of the worldwide policy debate on its nuclear program and the Geneva talks.  This activity has been especially noticeable online, in the social media.  (See greatcharlie.com September 3, 2013 post entitled, “Iran’s President Tweets Condemnation of Syria Chemical Attacks: Is Twitter Part of Rouhani’s Approach to the West?”)  Indeed, just as many other nations, Iran has sought to adapt to emerging trends on the social media with the hope they can way global opinion and improve the nation’s public image as well.  However, perhaps its was not fully understood at the time the decision to engage in such activity was made that use of this type of eDiplomacy (via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, the blogishere, and other means) can create difficulties.  The real threat to national governments with an online presence or even in print, radio, and television media is the foreign and defense policy pundit.  Iran fell prey to endless numbers of pundits worldwide.

Iran’s Lost Cause Against the Pundits

The Oxford English Dictionary defines pundit as an expert in a particular subject or field who is frequently called on to give views about it to the public.  In the US, they are typically former government officials, political leaders and political operatives, think tank scholars, and academics allegedly with official access, particularly in Washington, DC.  Pundits respond to issues as they arise.  The serious foreign and defense policy observers among them will typically focusing on their areas of expertise.  Ideally, pundits will fill in information gaps to help an audience better understand an issue, policies, decisions, and actions taking place.  They may provide constructive criticism, “reality therapy,” and perhaps thinking that is outside of the box based on good judgment.  In this manner, pundits can make very valuable contributions to the foreign and defense policy debate.  (It is hoped visitors feel greatcharlie.com falls into that honorable category of punditry.)  However, there are also those pundits whose responses come in the form of trenchant criticisms of policies and decisions, pointing more to what is wrong than explaining how things could be improved.  Pundits are not journalists.  While they operate in the same sphere, they do so using different “standards.”  Some paraphrase and misquote to the extent that they occasionally create false impressions within the media of what was stated by an official.  This is made easier by use of sound bites and clips of official presentations.

Pundits respond to official statements on all issues that may arise.  Pundits, great and small, popular and unknown, are commenting on official statements and reports on such a rapid and immeasurable scale that even when corrections and misquotes are acknowledged such efforts to repair mistakes are obviated by new urgent and important issues.  Moreover, whenever official provide statements or attempts are made at leaking information through “trial balloons” and unofficial statements, in the end they are made in the pundits’ court: the media.  How those presentations eventually reach the public will be shaped by pundits responses, which some pundits often allege are gleaned from their own official sources.  The media is the pundits’ court, and within it, they cannot be defeated.  Whenever officials attempt to set the record straight by offering rebuttals or rebuffing such commentaries by pundits, their statements may drown among the thousands of commentaries on the blogisphere or may be met by an additional roundla of harsh remarks.  Interestingly, an effort by officials to engage a pundit in a debate in the media over a commentary, the pundit’s visibility and standing is elevated.

Grabbing the attention of an audience is most important in all media.  As a blog, greatcharlie.com, itself, is very interested in the number of visitors and views it receives on a given day, week, or month on its site.  While it would be better if blogs were sought out for their veracity and insights they present, attention is generally given to the ones that are more interesting or intriguing.  More often, those commentaries lack depth, and will more likely be unfriendly.  The more acceptable a negative view might be regarding a particular issue, the more likely this will be the case.  This has been one of Iran’s problems.  While Iran sought to promote its positions and arguments in the media, attempting to cope with popular pundits, who feel they should be hostile to its official statements, has proven to be a failed exercise.  Khamenei once expressed the hope that what he perceived to be an anti-Iran publicity campaign by the US would backfire and lead to its own global isolation.  However, that will unlikely be the case.  Among those people interested in foreign and defense policy worldwide, very few would ever take the position that Iran was equal or stronger than the US and its Western partners.  Far more people worldwide might accept more negative perspectives of Iran, due to security and economic concerns or ethno-religious and nationalist reasons.  The fact that the Geneva process is primarily referred to worldwide as the Geneva nuclear talks, which is how the US and its Western partners view the process, and not the Geneva talks on economic sanctions, as Khamenei and Iranian officials might view it, is an indicator of the perspective from which the global media has viewed the situation.

Assessment

As the supreme leader, it is understandable that worldwide perceptions of Iran would matter greatly to Khamenei.  Further, he was correct when he stated an enmity exists between Iran and the US.  Until the talks began, relations were uncongenial.  Yet, what is most important regarding the Geneva nuclear talks is what is said at the negotiation table and not what is stated in the media.  Boasts and declarations, the strong suit of the pundit, are of no value in the process.  Pragmatic thinking is required of all parties to the negotiation on this matter.

The quality of the agreement reached naturally should far outweigh concerns over what pundits far away from the negotiating table might argue.  An agreement, negotiated with the idea of equality among the parties at the table, that is respectful of the interests of all parties, that all feel is sustainable, and will preclude all from considering military solutions to the matters in discussion, will ensure peace.  This is the concept that should drive forward the Geneva process among all parties.

Suleimani Isn’t Finer’s “Man on Horseback,” But His Views and Those of Other Senior Military Commanders Will Impact Geneva’s Outcome

The young man in the photo above is Qassem Suleimani.  This photo of Suleimani, was taken during the Iran-Iraq War.  General (Sarlashkar) Suleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, currently serves as commander of Iran’s Quds Force.  The photo was presented on Twitter on December 20, 2013 by Will Fulton, a leading US expert on Iran policy and Iranian security issues. Also on December 20th, Fulton completed his outstanding service as part of American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Critical Threats Project where he published the Iran News Round Up.  Whether through his work at AEI or simply on Twitter, information provided by Will Fulton displayed  his remarkable depth of knowledge on Iranian security issues, shedding light on how and why events occurred and personalities who were moving events forward.

During the Iran-Iraq War, Suleimani was one of tens of thousands Iranian men engulfed in the fighting.  Relatives, friends, neighbors, and colleagues fell together during that fight for Iran’s very survival as a nation.  It was probably impossible for Suleimani to imagine then that he would survive or have a military career that would allow him to become the commander of Iran’s most elite formation.  For the past three decades, he has engaged in conventional and unconventional warfare, wherever required globally, to support and defend Iran and promote the Islamic revolution.  While pictured above riding a horse, he is far from being “The Man on Horseback,” a term Samuel Finer made popular in 1962, referring to a military figure whose ambitions and popularity mark him as a potential dictator.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine any Iranian military commander could be more patriotic, more devoted to Shi’a Islam, more dedicated to the Islamic revolution and the resistance against “oppression,” or more adoring of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  These qualities allowed him to become a trusted confidant and reliable commander for Khamenei.

Much as Fulton has steeped himself on Iranian security issues, for quite a while Suleimani has been quite focused on US security issues.  Consider that at one point the US had tens of thousands of troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, west and east of Iran respectively, and a fleet of warships deployed in the Persian Gulf.  As of late, his attention has expectedly been drawn to the bilateral talks between the US and Iran and the Geneva nuclear negotiations between Iran and the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council and Germany.  Suleimani has made public statements about the Geneva process.  However, in those public expressions, Suleimani does not display a depth of knowledge similar to Fulton’s.  Rather, his public assessments on the capabilities and possibilities of the US have been inaccurate.  This is surprising as Suleimani very likely understands the importance of the Geneva process to Iran.  The real focus of the US and its Western partners in the Geneva process is Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s potential for developing nuclear weapons.  The talks are aimed at preventing nuclear war.  For that reason, the talks to a great degree concern the very survival of Iran in the face of US military power.  The danger may not be clear and present as when Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Iran.  Nonetheless, pragmatic thinking is truly required of all elements of the Iranian government on this matter, not boasts and declarations.

In his address at the martyrs ceremony in Kerman Province, Suleimani was quoted by Fars News on December 22, 2013 as stating the following: “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.”;and, “In a situation in which the US is considered the world’s greatest power, they are ruined in every dimension.”  (This translation of the Fars News quotes was provided by Will Fulton)

A martyrs ceremony is typically a highly-charged political gathering at which passionate, patriotic statements are expected.  Suleimani’s address, while being such, also reflected the group-think among Iran’s hard liners about the US rather than a sound presentation of the current situation.  Indeed, in foreign and defense policy circles in Tehran, it seems to have been concluded that the US is now disinterested in the Middle East as it does not align with its new vision of its national interest.  The failure of the US to respond militarily to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, despite red-lines, is viewed as a reaction to the trauma of its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Moreover, they view US President Barack Obama as lacking the will to fight.  To that extent, Obama would unlikely be predisposed toward declaring war on Iran regardless of how they might proceed.

As Suleimani pointed out in his address, the US has actually suffered economic woes and political divisions, and steep reductions have been made in the US armed forces, but these are not signals the US has somehow become weaker as a nation.  The US remains a nuclear armed superpower, fully capable of acting militarily across the spectrum of warfare.  Its capabilities to defeat Iran’s efforts to establish a nuclear weapons program, a potential military mission, are continually considered and enhanced through the development of new systems and tactics.  The White House would not agree that the Obama administration not to take military action in Syria signaled an unwillingness to take military action.  Rather, the decision was viewed as a maturation of it approach to the use of force.  Iran must concern itself not only with the Obama administration response to a violation of an agreement with the US, but also the response of a prospective winner of the 2016 US Presidential Election to a violation or to the agreement itself. 

Interestingly, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, acknowledged worldwide as an expert on US foreign and defense policy issues, has a different take on US prestige, power, and authority in the world.  He has rebuffed statements made by Iranian military leaders such as Suleimani and General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the IRGC.  According to a December 20, 2013 article on BloombergZarif, on December 3, 2013, publicly declared that Iran’s military was not powerful enough to deter the West. 

Men such as Qassem Suleimani are unintimidated by war and are prepared to sacrifice themselves at a moment’s notice in the defense of Iran and the Islamic revolution.  However, the survival of Iran is central to the survival of the Islamic revolution.  In a war with the US, in which nuclear weapons are in the mix, the survival of Iran could not be guaranteed.  Good judgment requires the Iranian military commanders such as Suleimani to support the construction of an agreement that is acceptable to them, given the current realities, while at the same time being sustainable.  This would allow them to ensure Iran’s security and allow future generations to the opportunity to further the Islamic revolution.  Although it would not be a spectacular victory, it would nonetheless represent a victory for Iran.

Politics and a Ruptured Tendon Didn’t Faze the Lead US Negotiator, But They’ve Likely Fed into Iranian Perceptions of US Frailty

In a December 1, 2013 article in the New York Times entitled, “Politics and a Ruptured Tendon Don’t Faze Lead Iran Negotiator,” it was reported that US Under Secretary of State, and lead US negotiator with Iran, Wendy Sherman, fell and ruptured a tendon in her finger.  She was on her way to brief highly skeptical Members of Congress about the deal she was negotiating in secretive talks with the Iranians.  The article explained that Sherman simply packed her finger in ice right after her fall, went into a secure room, and continued her briefing to Congress on uranium enrichment levels and current intelligence on Iran.  Only afterward did she go to an emergency room.  The White House used the incident as an opportunity to influence perceptions of Sherman in the Congress and in Iran. She was called “focused” and “tenacious.”  Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken, who has coordinated Iran strategy, was quoted as saying, “She’s not the kind to pay attention to pain.”  While Members of Congress may have been impressed by reports of the very dutiful public servant’s dsiplay of physical toughness, the White House had little chance of using poaitive spin to influence perceptions of Sherman in Iran. 

In Iran, Sherman’s injury may very well have fed into a perception that the US government, has become weaker; somewhat frail, and willing to compromise when previous US administrations never would have. A specious notion of the flexibility displayed by the Obama administration in talks with Iran represented a type of frailty appears to have become dogma among hardliners in Tehran.  It has compelled many Iranian officials to publicly deride the US government as being indecisive and pliant to Iran’s demands at Geneva.  The recently signed interim accord represented nothing less than conquest over the US within certain power centers.  Conversely, US officials, particularly US Secretary of State John Kerry, Sherman, and Blinken have remained discreet and have refrained from making many public remarks about Iran and the Geneva talks.  Yet, the jabs have been not been one-sided.  Political pundits in the US, without much public rebuke or challenge from Obama administration officials, have characterized Iran’s chief negotiator, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, as being humbled by the negotiation process.  They have claimed Iran was driven to accept the recent accord constructed in talks with the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China.  (We now know there were also on-going, dual-track, bilateral talks between the US and Iran.)

In his public statements, Zarif has directly challenged the view that Iran caved in to US demands.  Moreover, he has made statements that unquestionably play into the sense that Iran “got one over” on the US and the West.  He appears extremely confident that he will reach all of Iran’s goals through the negotiation.  Nothing Zarif has said varies much from statements made by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders, and hardline political and religious leaders.  However, Zarif must be careful not to lean so far to satisfy superiors and hardliners with his public statements that he erodes existing trust Western negotiators have in him.  More importantly, he must be careful not to forge ahead, by taking steps shaped by dogma and public boasts.  That could lead to unintended consequences for Iran in the near future.

At first Zarif’s remarks seemed to be an attempt to publicly hash out difficult issues in negotiation.  Following the initial Geneva meeting between US and Iranian negotiators early in October 2013, Zarif requested a new proposal from the US, dismissing a February proposal from the Obama administration to presented to Iran.to which it did not respond.  However, soon afterward, the main concern in Zarif’s public statements became Iran’s right to enrich uranium.  Included among them was the “trial balloon” Zarif released of including the provision in the interim agreement by which the P5+1 would not need to recognize Iran’s right to enrich to remedy a stalemate on its language.  Zarif told the ISNA news agency, “Not only do we consider that Iran’s tight to enrich is unnegotiable, but we see no need for that to be recognized as ‘a right’. because this right is inalienable and all countires must respect that .” 

Once the November 23, 2013 agreement was reached in Geneva, Zarif’s comments seemed more assertive.  On Twitter, Zarif insisted that Iran retained its right to enrich despite comments to the contrary from US officials and political pundits.  He tweeted, “The right to enrichment emanates from the inalienable right in NPT, defined by 2010 NPT Review Conference to include fuel cycle activities.”  He stated that according to the 2010 NPT Review, “each country’s policies and choices with regard to peaceful nuclear energy including its fuel cycle policies should be respected.”  He further stated that the “US and all other E3+3 joined the 2010 consensus at the NPT Review Conference.  The right was first recognized by consensus in 1978 SSODI [Special Session on Disarmament].”  His statement was compelling, nevertheless, that issue was no longer being debated.  Iran agreed in the new accord to freeze the expansion of its nuclear activities, and refrain from uranium enrichment above low-level purity, including 20 percent.  Zarif appeared to be pointing out that the interim accord was at all not in line with the terms of international agreements Iran to which was already committed on nuclear technology and that Iran did not necessarily need to adhere to the new interim accord.

After the interim accord was reached, the official IRNA news agency quoted Zarif as saying in Tehran, “Iran will decide the level of enrichment according to its needs for different purposes.”  He made it clear that “Only details of the enrichment activities are negotiable” referring to the final accord.  According to the Fars news agency, Zarif stated “We have always said we will not allow anyone to determine our needs.”  He went on to state “But we are prepared to negotiate about it.”  However, the US, Britain, France, and Germany hope the final agreement will scale back Iran’s uranium enrichment activities, which could be redirected at producing highly enrich uranium for creating a nuclear device.  Zarif’s statements again indicated that although he helped cobble and sign the interim accord, however the decision on how Iran would proceed on the issues covered by the accord was open to the judgement of Islamic Republic’s leadership.  Choppy waters may lie ahead for the Geneva talks given Zarif’s intriguing representations of facts and their ambiguous statements about Iran’s rights after signing the interim accord.  

In a letter regarding the Geneva talks from Rouhani to Khamenei published in the Iranian news media, Rouhani stated “The first step advanced an acknowledgement of Iran’s nuclear rights and right to enrich by world powers—who tried to deny them for years—and opened a path for the next steps to protect the technological and economic advances of the country.”  Before and after his election, Rouhani insisted that Iran be treated as an equal in its relations with the US.  To support the dialogue between nations, the Obama administration approached bilateral talks with Iran based on this notion of equality.  In reality, however, thie two states are not equal.  In spite of steep cuts ib the size of the US armed forces by the Obama administration and economic woes, the US remains a nuclear armed superpower.  As a nation, the US is strong and certainly not a push over.  Despite the claims of some political pundits, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, a nuclear weapons program or a few devices will not deter a US attack.

Zarif’s superiors in Tehran want economic sanctions lifted and the ability to use their nuclear program as they choose.  However, Zarif, a true diplomat, is astute enough to know that Geneva will not be a “slam dunk.”  He must know that significant sanctions relief would be difficult, if not impossible to realize, without a significant and permanent change regarding Iran’s nuclear program.  Further, despite what might be thought in Tehran, the true focus of the Geneva process is not sanctions, but Iran’s potential development and use of nuclear weapons.  Talks about nuclear weapons concern nuclear war, and for that reason, the talks to some degree regard the very survival of Iran as a nation.  

For nearly six decades, the US has been engaged in nuclear talks, initially with the Soviet Union, and with Russia and North Korea since.  Those talks have concerned issues such as the size of nuclear forces, production of weapons, and testing.  Known better as as arms control talks when concerning the Russians, they have been important enough that summit meetings often become part of the process.  Public discussion of furtive aspects of such negotiations is typically negligible.  That should also be the case for the Geneva talks.

Perhaps the Obama administration has made significant concessions to reach an historic” agreement.  It could very well be that Zarif and the Iranian leadership have scored one on the White House.  Yet, the president, his cabinet, and his staff are caretakers of the US government.  A new administration will govern in the US in three years.  It would be a tragedy for the new administration to discover, after coming to office, that the Geneva negotiations were, as Khamenei indicated, “an artificial maneuver and utilized various methods to achieve various goals and ideals of the Islamic system.”  The incoming president’s response to a bad agreement reached now, or breached one, may be severe.  Given the list of prospective candidates for the 2016 US presidential election, it is almost certain that the requisite political will to take action will exist.  It would be in everyone’s interest for Zarif not to exploit problems he may perceive in the Obama administration, but rather, negotiate unequivocal terms Iran truly intends to keep.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (at right) confers with the Head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization (IAEO) Ali Akbar Salehi (at left), at the November 25, 2013 IAEO Basij Conference.  Salehi was President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s foreign minister.  Before taking that post, Salehi served as head of the IAEO for a year.  Prior to that, Salehi was Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency.  Both officials know what is at stake in Geneva.  Surely, Zarif hopes they will still be able to smile at the end of the negotiations.

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

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

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

Geneva: An Assertive Posture Morphs into Acquiescence

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward: US Allies Are Flummoxed

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

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

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

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

Divergence in Outlook

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

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

Assessment: A Lack of Confidence

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

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

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