Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Barack Obama's Middle East legacy: Being played for a fool by Iran

In my estimation, President Obama has given up on the hundred year old effort, first by France and the UK and then after WWII the U.S., to keep the peace in the Middle East. Aside from the constant tribal flare ups which the U.S. didn't bother with, there is the much larger millennial conflict between Persians and Arabs that is now turbocharged by the Shia-Sunni divide.

Instead of the U.S. trying to keep that confrontation contained like it did when Saddam fought Khomeini for nearly ten years, and from going nuclear, Obama is now quite satisfied with their keeping each other in check without our involvement. ISIS then is the fighting force of the Sunni Arabs that is balancing the Shia Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Obama's miscalculation, however, may be that the conflict and calculus are essentially religious. Moreover, as Bernard Lewis, one of the most knowledgeable scholars of the Middle East wrote some four years ago in these pages, the clerics in Iran believe they've entered the apocalyptic period of their history and thus actually using nuclear weapons to bring matters to a head with a Shia victory is not out of the question.

Indeed, Lewis said that "the mullahs 'are religious fanatics with an apocalyptic mindset. In Islam, as in Christianity and Judaism, there is an end-of-times scenario—and they think it's beginning or has already begun.' So 'mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent—it's an inducement'."

There is a very interesting redrawing of boundaries of the Middle East taking place that seems to be going unnoticed. I believe it is happening in preparation of Iran getting its nuclear weapons, the Arabs following them, and then it becoming more difficult to solve old problems.

Notice how in the North of Arabia, in Lebanon and Syria running through to Iraq and Iran, there have been powers under Iranian Shia influence, namely Hezbollah and Syria, and parts of Iraq. ISIS, which is Sunni and I am betting an instrument of the Arabs, has now taken huge chunks of those territories. So to the North the Arab Sunnis are consolidating their positions. But on the South in Yemen the Iranians have now taken over.

I fear that what we are seeing is a redrawing of the battle lines of the millennial Persia-Arab conflict, now turbocharged by a Shia-Sunni religious divide. We may be on the threshold of a monumental war some five or ten years down the road, a war with nuclear weapons, and a major disruption to the world’s oil supplies.

I’ve written elsewhere describing in some detail how I hypothesize that George W. Bush went into Iraq precisely to try to avoid a deterioration of the situation as now seems to be happening. If you study a map you’ll see that in 2003 NATO, with Asian support, had Iran surrounded, which I believe was to guarantee their security from Arab encroachment and thus get them to stop their nuclear program, and they did for a while until the Democrats in 2006-2008 made it clear that if they came to power any such deal would be off.

Up until Obama took office that scenario was consistent with past Western policy, both European and American going back to the end of the first World War. Obama changed that entirely and gave Iran a free run in the Middle East. It is therefore not surprising that the Arabs have now made overtures to Russia.

We need to go on the offensive. Last summer Obama said disdainfully that playing Whac-A-Mole was not productive and that the US would no longer be doing it. Yet, Obama's removal of troops from the Middle East has exposed the country to danger.

Playing Whac-A-Mole was actually a strategy to take the fight to the terrorists and keep them in their caves so they wouldn't have a free run at us. It worked for G.W. Bush but now look at the strength and freedom of action to mount attacks that ISIS and its franchised terrorists have gained.

Do we wait for them to come here or do we take the fight to them? I say we get the before they do us.

The United States once supported Iran having nuclear power technology.

Eisenhower was the first to provide nuclear technology to Iran in the 50’s with a 2MW nuclear reactor fuelled by enriched uranium. This led a decade later to a full blown program to install 23 nuclear power reactors in Iran that would have provided around $300 billion(2012 dollars) in orders for western companies. But this was all under the Shah.

When the Khomeini led revolution came into power all these dreams of lavish nuclear reactor orders vanished.

When the Iranians saw that the U.S. resolve on preventing rogue states such as North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons was non-existent and saw the Saudi funded Pakistan bomb program produce its device, the Iranians realized that they could produce their own bomb without much risk of attack.

The last time the U.S. had a chance to affect the development of nuclear bomb technology in Iran was 2009 when the Green Movement posed a serious political threat to the Supreme Leader. There were several covert programs ready to be initiated by the US to help this movement overthrow the theocracy, but Obama wouldn’t support it either because he was intellectually incapable of grasping its significance or had other motives.

Either way, Obama stood by as the leaders of that movement were systematically “disappeared”.

There’s also another aspect to why this agreement was inevitable.

During the sanctions, Germany maintained active trade with Iran becoming its largest trading partner. Given that the EU is struggling economically, not to mention the US, the prospect of releasing all this pent up demand for western trinkets and the money it would produce among all EU countries is simply too great.

What makes this all dangerous over the long run is the trajectory its following is much the same as that which was followed when Nazi Germany was building its war machine. The U.S. and other western countries were competing to get Nazi orders to help their struggling companies during that time of economic stagnation.

History seems to be repeating itself again with only the nature of the fanatics having changed, but fanatics still.

It’s really astonishing. Prior to Hassan Rouhani being elected president of Iran, the leadership of that country shouted its hatred of the west generally and of the U.S. specifically at the top of its collective voice; and had been doing so for a generation. One man three micrograms more moderate than Ali Khamenei, and not a patent psychotic, is allowed by the hard-line leadership to be elected and the experience of an entire generation is to be put aside.


Ali Khamenei, facing a balance-of-payments and currency crisis; and faced with the demands of all the regional destabilizing activities in which Iran in intimately involved in funding and guiding; and seeing general western foreign policy drift, particularly with regard to the Middle East and North Africa; wound up Hassan Rouhani, set him on the chessboard and told him “offer a gambit — let’s see how far we get”.

Astonishingly, the gambit was taken up. Why?

For 6 years it has not been the policy of the U.S. that Iran’s march to nuclear weapons be “leashed”, but that we would not tolerate nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran, a policy re-validated by President Obama just this year. Yet, the latter very clearly has now morphed into the former, and in just a few months.


Clearly, President Obama is retreating from the Middle East and North Africa, as he’s materially retreated from Asia, South America and Eastern Europe . Obama was never particularly attentive to the Pacific Rim countries. It’s all about better focusing on and funding domestic free cheese factories and Band-Aid dispensaries.

If this is suffered to stand, it could become the most obvious gambit that succeeded in geopolitical history. And have us wondering what happened first to our regional allies, then to what was going to be a friendly Iran, once they have as many warheads and delivery vehicles as Israel.

The critical flawed assumption underlying these negotiations is that the Iranians will act in a “rational” way in the sense that western democracies define “rational.” The Iranian definition of “rational” is fundamentally different from ours.

For Iran, it may be “rational” to destroy Israel, even if the consequence is that much of Iran will also be destroyed. The Iranians therefore don’t negotiate with the objectives we attribute to them.

Perhaps the best example of this is North Korea, which is starving its people in order to maintain a million plus man army (over 5% of its population), nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. That is irrational in any common understanding of the word, but to the North Korean government it makes sense.

The sanctions were hurting Iran, but they probably weren’t impeding the nuclear weapons program. Iran’s concern was primarily that its people and commercial sector were being so harmed by the sanctions that the mullahs feared their own people would turn against them.

The sanctions will now be eased, allowing the Iranian civilian/commercial sectors some respite, and, perhaps after a short pause to keep the inspectors happy (Iran will disclose to the inspectors only the facilities the west already knows about), covertly ramp up the weapons program.

What did this bad deal with Iran over its nuclear program actually accomplish? Nothing. I predict:

1. Iran will keep all existing centrifuges and refining capacity intact. Iran has (according to the IAEA) more than 18,000 centrifuges. This deal will do nothing to roll back Iran’s ability to produce weapons grade Uranium, which was supposed to be a primary objective going into the talks.

Score: Iran 1, Civilized World 0.

2. Iran will not dilute its current highly enriched Uranium stockpiles or covert them to “non-weapons useable oxide. But Uranium enriched to 5% is almost three-quarters of what is required to produce 90% weapons-grade material, and that which is diluted (not one gram will end up being converted to oxide!) can be quickly refined to the current 20%+ level, particularly with the aforementioned centrifuges left completely intact. According to experts, Iran can be right back to where it is today within 3 months.

Score: Iran 2, Civilized World 0

3. A huge percentage of the economic sanctions imposed on Iran will be removed. The Obama administration estimates that the sanctions-relief provides Iran with about $7 billion over six months, an increase in Iranian access to completely unrestricted foreign reserves of about 30%. That is not a “small”, no matter how you slice it.

But worse, many analysts outside of the Obama administration have already identified value of over $20 billion in immediate value to Iran. That, by any definition would constitute an almost complete capitulation by the P5+1 on the economic sanctions that we all recognize was the one pressure point that was forcing the Iranian regime to the table in the first place.

Score: Iran 3, Civilized World 0

4. Iran will continue to enrich Uranium, completely reversing multiple UN Security Council Resolutions and guaranteeing that future negotiations will be sucked into an endless spiral of nitpicking about how much is allowable and to what levels. Take it to the bank that this is the rock upon which the so-called “follow-on accords” will founder.

Score: Iran 4, Civilized World 0

5. Iran will continue construction of the Arak heavy water project, the purpose of which can only be to produce weapons grade Plutonium. The only thing the Iranians cannot do is actually move the equipment into the facilities. Dismantling of this facility was a primary objective of the P5+1 going into the negotiations.

Score: Iran 5, Civilized World 0

Seems to many like the Obama administration was completely screwed by the Iranians, bringing home nothing but a promise to keep talking, in exchange for granting Iran almost everything they wanted. If this was a “good” agreement, I would hate to see what the Obama folks would define as a ‘bad’ agreement.

Iran has played Obama for an idiot with this nuclear deal. John Kerry is too vacuous to know he was conned.

If the Iranians are serious about this agreement let them grant free and easy access to all their nuclear sites for verification of this treaty.

For 6 years under the Obama administration, it’s been the stated policy of the United States not “to slow down” Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, but that we would not tolerate such weapons in Iranian hands. Apparently, this immense sea-change, unannounced and substantially undiscussed, is only a few months old, since Rouhani offered the gambit that Khamenei approved. “We’ll pretend to like you as we build our bomb if you let us sell our oil”.

So, Iran will still insist that their nuclear program is peaceful and always was, adding that they deserved respect from the West. How has this familiar refrain changed in any way in five years? What really was accomplished in this grand accord that serves to defend western interests and the cause of stability in the Middle East and North Africa?

Iran has given up nothing for the first easing of sanctions that likely will morph into additional easings, and with no verifiable dismantling of nuclear weapons program infrastructure. In the meantime, will have the use of billions that they did not before, to continue policies of destabilization through the region, including a Syria that has become largely a religious war for their support of Bashar al-Assad.

How is this agreement materially better than the one described by the French as a “sucker deal”?

At this stage, the only thing that can derail this “sucker deal” is Congress. They don’t need to strengthen sanctions, they merely need to require that we re-impose those that will be eased by this agreement. That would be most wise. A “break-out” by Iran calls for absolute global embargo of them.

Do not accept for one moment what we are being fed by the Obama administration about this deal with Iran. Iran is giving up not 1 iota of capability; not 1 gram of production capacity and not 1 centrifuge.

Iran has, as a result of this agreement, an imprimatur from the west to enrich uranium, which it never had before. Sure, the ‘approval’ is for non-weapons grade production, but until this agreement the rest of the world did not concede Iran’s right to enrich any uranium, which was a major negotiating point.

Now, future negotiations will get bogged down in nitpicking over the intent of enrichment rather than the enrichment itself.

Under this agreement, Iran needs only dilute existing stocks of enriched uranium, which can within a matter of a several months be reconstituted, should a long-term deal not be reached. Iran does not have to dismantle any facilities whatsoever. They have only agreed to ‘mothball’ the most controversial installations.

In return for giving up essentially nothing, economic sanctions are being lifted across the board. Billions and billions will not flow into the Iranian economy, dramatically lessening the pressure to negotiate seriously. Exactly what incentive will the Iranians have to continue talking?

The only thing the world gets out of this is the ability to tell themselves that they negotiated an “historic” agreement. That and a nickel will buy you a cup of coffee.

If you don’t think the Iranians picked the P5+1’s pocket on this deal, just tune into Iranian TV. They are bragging about how they got everything and gave up nothing; and the facts seem to support that claim. But beyond that, listen closely to the reactions from all of Iran’s neighbors. Do you hear the Turks, Saudis, Iraqis, and of the Gulf States or Egypt trumpeting this ‘historic’ deal? Cue the sound of crickets.

And the Israelis are apoplectic, as they know very well who Iran’s main target will be once they develop the bomb. That is not a matter of Israeli paranoia, but the explicitly stated intention of Iranian leadership.

Care to bet whether there will be any further deal in 6 months time?

It seems that for a small delay in Iran’s enrichment program, which they don’t really care about, on the way to a nuclear bomb they get the beginning of the dismantling of the sanctions program and the Obama administration now effectively acting as a partner with Iran.

The agreement parts that are being trumpeted by the Obama folks sound ok on paper but they leave out critical issues, such as:

1. The many UNSC resolutions demanding the removal of enrichment have been simply ignored. Iran has effectively secured the agreement and right to continue fuel enrichment, albeit at lower levels for the moment.

2. The agreement says nothing about Iran’s military fuel enrichment facility at Parchin which is notably not part of this agreement and so continues to be unmonitored.

3. The agreement will allow the continual building of centrifuges, but not their installation, for the moment.

4. Demands for Iran reversing its nuclear progress was simply ignored.

On balance this is a big victory for Iran. Now that Iran and the Obama administration are in further “secret” talks, who knows what exciting developments are in store.

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