Opinion

The Great Debate

In Iran talks, ‘no deal’ bests ‘bad deal’ for U.S.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at talks between the foreign ministers of the six powers negotiating with Tehran on its nuclear program in Vienna

With only days to go before the original July 20 deadline for negotiations over the future Iran’s nuclear program, there is scant sign that a breakthrough is imminent. The reason is simple: Iranian leaders’ refusal to move from what a senior Obama administration official recently described as “unworkable and inadequate positions that would not in fact assure that their program is exclusively peaceful.”

The stakes of the Vienna nuclear talks could not be higher. Although the past months have witnessed the proliferation of alarming new threats in the Middle East, including the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant across Iraq and Syria, these dangers are not equal to the catastrophic, transformational consequences of the Iranian regime, the world’s No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism, acquiring nuclear weapons.

If an agreement with Iran fails to materialize by Sunday, some will likely criticize it as a foreign-policy setback for the Obama administration, raising the specter of an additional national security crisis at a time when Washington is already stretched thin by many other challenges. For that reason, despite the administration’s oft-stated insistence that “no deal” is preferable to a “bad deal,” these critics will urge greater flexibility on key terms and conditions with Tehran going forward.

British Foreign Secretary Hague meets with U.S. Secretary of State Kerry at talks of Iran's nuclear program in ViennaThat course is profoundly mistaken.

Rather than being a defeat for the United States, a refusal to accept a bad deal in Vienna could strengthen the Obama administration at home and abroad. It would help rebuild its bruised credibility and influence in the Middle East and hopefully increase the odds that the administration can ultimately achieve the goal of peacefully, verifiably bolting the door on Iran’s illicit nuclear ambitions.

If the talks in Vienna end in failure because of Iranian intransigence, it should be seen as a foreign policy success for the Obama administration on multiple levels.

Getting to ‘yes’ on the Iran nuclear deal

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses the media during a news conference in Vienna

Iran’s past nuclear efforts are among the many thorny issues in the continuing Iran nuclear talks. But focusing on the past is a mistake. Instead of insisting on knowing all about what Iran’s nuclear program looked like 10 years ago, the United States and its allies should focus on preventing Tehran from building a nuclear weapon in the future.

Though discussions between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are proceeding in parallel to the six-power nuclear negotiations with Iran, some argue that Tehran must “come clean” on past military experiments before it can be trusted to make new commitments. But reaching and implementing a nuclear agreement should not be held hostage to resolving all the complicated questions about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s past nuclear programs.

We have good reason to believe Iran has been engaged in prohibited activities. In 2007, the U.S. intelligence community issued an assessment that, for a number of years, “Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons.” But intelligence indicated that these activities had ended in the fall of 2003.

from John Lloyd:

Are we at war? And why can’t we be sure anymore?

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron poses for group photograph taken with G8 leaders at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen

The question -- “Are we at war?” -- seems absurd. Surely, we would know it if we were. But maybe we’re in a new era -- and wars are creeping up on us.

In the decade after the collapse of communism, the United States and its allies seemed invulnerable to challenges, from military to technological to economic. All changed in the 2000s, the dawning of the third millennium: an Age of Disruption. Russia, under a president smarting publicly at the loss of the Soviet empire, has now delivered an answer to decline: aggressive claims on lost territories.

China, admired for its free-market-driven growth since the 1980s, is feared for the strategic expansion that now accompanies it. This happens in its own region: a dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over disputed ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands remains tense. It is also at work far beyond -- in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America -- where it seeks energy and natural resources.

from Mark Leonard:

Decline of U.S. influence in the Middle East could make for some strange bedfellows

RTR3U96U.jpg

Thirty-five years ago Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran chanting “death to America.” But today Iran wants to work with the United States to stabilize Iraq while negotiating a deal on its nuclear program. The journey from death threats to diplomacy is both a triumph of U.S. statecraft and a symbol of its declining power.

When I spoke to thinkers, politicians and business people on a recent trip to Tehran, I was struck by the strong consensus that America’s hegemony in the Middle East and in global affairs is giving way to a multipolar order in which power is more widely shared and where its nature is changing. Not long ago, they said, the United States bestrode the Middle East as a unipolar power, the main source of order and disorder, the biggest consumer of hydrocarbons and the most active military power. It was not for nothing that it was nicknamed the “Great Satan.” But today the United States is but one of many players in the region’s security struggles, and its purchases of oil are eclipsed by China’s.

The real Great Satan for today’s Iran is Saudi Arabia. As Nasser Hadian, a professor at Tehran University, explained to me in an interview last week: “It is the Saudis who are challenging us almost everywhere – increasing their oil output and bringing down the prices; forming a GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) oriented against Iran; challenging us in Iraq, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Lebanon, in Syria and building infrastructure inside Iran.”

Should U.S. work with Iran in Iraq? Yes, if it wants to take on the real challenge: China

A member of the Kurdish security forces takes up position with his weapon while guarding an oil refinery, on the outskirts of Mosul

To work with Iran or not to work with Iran? That’s the question dogging Washington as Iraq descends into chaos, reminding America that its mission there was never truly accomplished.

As Sunni militants move toward Baghdad, and Iran’s supreme leader condemns U.S. involvement in the conflict, reaching out to Iran is less about changing America’s regional alignments, and more about defining its primary goal in the Middle East: Does America want stability, or does it want domination?

If Washington’s goal is stability, then cooperating with Iran makes sense because Tehran needs a stable Iraq and has valuable intelligence and political influence that can advance U.S. security. Iran has invested heavily in maintaining Iraq’s geographic unity under a Shi’ite-led government over whom it holds significant influence. For Iran, a stable Iraq led by an ally is better than an unstable Iraq led by Sunni jihadists who hate Iran more than they hate America. For that reason, Rouhani and others in Tehran had expressed willingness to cooperate with Washington against the jihadists.

Is Iran being victimized by sanctions it doesn’t deserve?

A security official stands in front of the Bushehr nuclear reactor

Iranian officials met this week with their six-power counterparts to try to hammer out the outlines of a comprehensive nuclear deal set to last for several years. But its precise duration remains undecided.

Reaching an agreement will be a monumentally challenging task because all the parties have veered away from international law and are trying to make ad hoc arrangements. They should instead aim for a permanent, straightforward and legal solution whose basis already exists. Successfully sealing a deal with Iran may also help Western efforts to stabilize the situation in Iraq, where Iranian and Western interests align.

Late last year, the United States, Britain, China, Russia, Germany and France reached an interim deal with Iran to freeze and roll back some of its nuclear program in exchange for limited relief from sanctions. These interim arrangements are set to expire July 20. According to the agreed “Joint Plan of Action,” another six-month stopgap deal may be signed after the first one expires. But a comprehensive long-term agreement should be reached within a year, by late January 2015.

US-Iran relations: When history isn’t history after all

STUDENTS MARCH TO GATES OF TEHRAN UNIVERSITY AFTER NATIONAL STUDENT'S DAY RALLY.

I learned what a trickster history can be 20 years ago at Hanoi airport. After everything the United States gave and lost in Vietnam while trying to keep it safe from Communism, who would have thought you would find the lion lying down with the lamb at a business convention? But there it was, capitalism in capital letters, a billboard advertising VIETNAMERICA EXPO!

Who won that war again?

Things like that change how you understand the world — if only by teaching you to wonder about even those things you think you know for an absolute fact.

It happened again last weekend. I read something that laid waste one of the most common assumptions of Cold War history: that an expert 1953 CIA covert operation in Iran overthrew a democratically elected prime minister to put the shah back back in control of his country. Ray Takeyh, an Iranian-American historian and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues persuasively in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs that President Dwight Eisenhower’s CIA did not actually bring down Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh after all.

Obama’s impossible choices on Iraq

Volunteers who have joined the Iraqi Army to fight against the predominantly Sunni militants, chant slogans in Baghdad

Iraq was a bold U.S. experiment in nation-building. It turned out to be a flop.

That’s what we’re learning as we watch what the United States achieved there evaporate after nine years of war, after nearly 4,500 Americans were killed, 32,000 wounded and $800 billion in U.S. taxpayer money spent.

When George W. Bush first ran for president in 2000, he expressed contempt for nation-building. It was a point he made in rally after rally. “I’m worried about the fact I’m running against a man,” Bush said, “who uses ‘military’ and ‘nation-building’ in the same sentence.”

How — and why — the U.S. must support Iraq

Mourners carry the coffin of a victim killed by a suicide bomber who blew himself up inside a tent filled with mourners in Baghdad, during a funeral in Najaf A disaster is unfolding in Iraq. It is in part a result of the failed Syria and broader Middle East policies pursued by the West in the past four years.

Insurgents reportedly led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (also known as “ISIS”) have occupied Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and may be planning to push further south to the capital, Baghdad. ISIL, a largely Sunni jihadist group more radical than al Qaeda, seeks to establish an independent caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.

President Barack Obama said Thursday that he doesn’t “rule out anything” when it comes to U.S. involvement in the region, and some political analysts are already predicting possible U.S.-led drone strikes or even air strikes.

Putin’s new ‘values pact’

Now that Russia President Vladimir Putin has swallowed Crimea, the question becomes: What if the peninsula doesn’t satisfy his appetite for new Russian territory? What if the only thing that will satiate his hunger for power is the goulash known as eastern Ukraine? Or does he then move on to Moldova, and then on and on?

Indeed, while the world watched the protests in Kiev and the Sochi Olympics last month, the Moldovan territory of Gagauzia quietly held a referendum about whether or not to join Russia if the rest of the country opts for stronger ties to the European Union. Its citizens, just like those in Crimea, have argued that they would be economically better off on Putin’s planet, rather than as meager satellites in the Western solar system.

The prospect of joining Russia, of course, sounds far better on paper than in reality. The promise of benefits is likely to evaporate when robust Western sanctions throw Russia’s economy into a steeper downturn. The ruble has already lost almost 9 percent of its value this year against the dollar. Many have argued (myself included) that very soon Putin won’t be able to survive the international blowback.

  •