Opinion

The Great Debate

Looking to diplomacy with Iran

President Barack Obama has decided to test whether Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s “charm offensive” is a legitimate effort to reach an agreement on a more constricted and transparent Iranian nuclear program. With this decision, he embarks on the most transformative and important diplomatic initiative of his presidency.

The closest historical analogy is President Richard M. Nixon’s opening to China in 1971. Nixon had recognized a major adversary’s new willingness to change course and he seized the opportunity to further vital U.S. national security interests.

This China analogy, however, has some flaws. Most important, Nixon and his national security adviser Henry A. Kissinger began their quest in secrecy to avoid a divisive public debate that could have scuttled the initiative. Obama’s public commitment to test an opening to Iran, though, will be subjected to fierce scrutiny by domestic and foreign opponents.

But other historic analogies now being suggested do not work at all. The much cited Munich analogy of “appeasement” of Adolf Hitler on the eve of World War Two is absurd, since Iran’s Supreme Leader has neither the stated objective, nor the capability to take over the Middle East. Iran also has no history of military expansionism.

Nor is Rouhani Iran’s version of Mikhail Gorbachev, as some have suggested. Rouhani’s objective is to strengthen Iran’s governing system, not to “restructure” it, after the crippling eight years of the Ahmadinejad regime. He is working for a Supreme Leader who is determined to hold on to power and to strengthen the Islamic Revolution.

The danger in shutting down national security

The nation awoke Tuesday to find much of the federal government closed for business. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives had refused to fund essential government functions until the rest of Congress and President Barack Obama agreed to reverse a healthcare law passed three years ago and deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court. By doing so, they put reversing healthcare reform ahead of protecting the nation.

Hundreds of thousands of national security professionals are now on furlough. The latest Office of Management and Budget guidance notes no function has been discontinued that would “imminently threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property.” The Defense Department made clear that “military personnel would continue in normal duty status.”

But even furloughing “non-essential personnel” undermines U.S. security. It hits three critical areas: the Defense Department’s civilian employees, the intelligence community and the agencies that respond to health emergencies.

from David Rohde:

The key stumbling blocks U.S. and Iran face

A historic phone call Friday between the presidents of the United States and Iran could mark the end of 34 years of enmity.

Or it could be another missed opportunity.

In the weeks ahead, clear signs will emerge whether a diplomatic breakthrough is possible. Here are several key areas that could determine success or failure:

Enrichment in Iran?

Throughout his New York “charm offensive,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made one demand clear: Tehran will rebuff any agreement that does not allow it to enrich some uranium.

IAEA and Iran: Resolving the nuclear impasse

President Hassan Rouhani generated a positive buzz yesterday with his United Nations General Assembly statements about Iran’s determination to resolve the nuclear impasse with the international community. Though he argued Tehran was not prepared to give up its enrichment program, the new president declared “nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security,” adding that his government was now committed to “time-bound and result-oriented talks to build mutual confidence and removal of mutual uncertainties with full transparency” to resolve any doubts.

While this lays the basis for the resumption of negotiations with the United States and its allies, we need not await the results to test Rouhani’s sincerity. That can begin Friday, September 27, when Iranian and International Atomic Energy Agency officials sit down in Vienna in a long-scheduled meeting to break the protracted deadlock over unanswered questions about the breadth of Tehran’s nuclear enterprise.

Director General Yukiya Amano summed up the stakes in his September 9 statement to the IAEA’s board of governors: “The agency has not been able to begin substantive work with Iran on resolving outstanding issues, including those related to possible military dimensions on Iran’s nuclear programme.” The Vienna talks now provide the best opportunity to make progress.

For U.S.-Iran, it’s all in the timing

Four years after President Barack Obama famously extended his hand of friendship to Iran, Tehran finally seems willing to unclench its fist. The most decisive geopolitical handshake of this decade may take place today at the United Nations.

Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani and Obama may have this encounter at the luncheon of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Tuesday or in the U.N building’s corridors.

This new opening has taken the world by surprise. Washington’s dual track policy over the past three years — a combination of a little bit of diplomacy and a whole lot of strangulating sanctions — has produced a hardening of the Iranian position. Tehran’s nuclear activities have continued unabated, while its regional policies, particularly its support for the Assad regime in Syria, have intensified.

On U.S.-Iran deal, devil is in the details

The feel-good mood engendered by promising overtures from Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani and President Barack Obama has raised hopes for a settlement in the Iranian nuclear crisis. But the devil — especially in this case — is in the details.

The nuts-and-bolts of Iran’s nuclear program, and whether Tehran can give guarantees that it is not designed to make nuclear weapons will determine whether a deal with the United States is possible.

Here is a look at what Iran has achieved in a decade of intense nuclear work; what the main areas of concern are, and how the Iranian program can be reined in to give adequate guarantees that Iran does not seek the bomb.

from David Rohde:

Iran’s offer is genuine — and fleeting

President Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday is not expected to generate much excitement. Battered by his uneven handling of Syria, no bold foreign policy initiatives are likely.

Instead, the undisputed diplomatic rock star of the gathering will be Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani. In his first six weeks in office, the cleric has carried out one of the most aggressive charm offensives in the 34-year history of the Islamic Republic. And the Obama administration responded Thursday, saying the president would be open to having a meeting in New York.

If Obama and Rouhani, who will both address the assembly on Tuesday, simply shake hands in public, it will be the seminal event of the gathering’s first day.

A potential turning point for Syria

In the dizzying debate over U.S. military intervention in Syria, one key point of consensus stands out: Both the Obama administration and Congress recognize that the resolution to Syria’s conflict must come through a negotiated settlement. Key international actors share the same conclusion.

But how do we get there? Russia’s recent proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control could open a viable path to a long-sought diplomatic solution.

This initiative is a long shot. Yet, its potential payoff as a diplomatic breakthrough demands it be taken seriously. Not only would Syrian civilians be spared any unintended consequences of U.S. military intervention, but the Russian proposal’s successful implementation could be a real turning point.

In Syria, try banks before bombs

As President Barack Obama weighs the U.S. response to chemical weapons attacks against Syrian civilians, one soft power option should still be at top of his to-do list: cutting off access to the U.S. financial system to those doing business with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Russian banks and others are reported to be helping the Assad regime circumvent U.S. and EU sanctions by holding Syrian money while continuing to do business, legally, in the Europe Union and the United States. With a more aggressive and coordinated approach to financial sanctions, Obama could inflict serious capital damage on Assad’s enablers — without collateral damage in the form of slain or injured civilians.

Aggressive sanctions could be more effective than bombing in hastening the end of the Syrian civil war by imposing substantial financial costs on those who are propping up Assad — without enraging the Arab street.

Time for action on Syria

The Syrian civil war now threatens to split the Middle East along a Sunni-Shia chasm. The horrifying news reports Wednesday about the Assad government’s possible chemical attack on civilians, if proven true, mean that the Obama administration’s “red line” has been crossed yet again.

Thursday, both France and Turkey called for stronger action — including a possible use of force. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) renewed his call for a no-fly zone.

But does all this mean that the United States and the European Union will now follow a more assertive policy in Syria?

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