Opinion

The Great Debate

More anxious to agree than to disagree?

Iran’s recent elections produced a striking result. In a six-man race, one candidate won an easy victory without the expected runoff. More to the point, Hassan Rohani campaigned for policies of negotiation and engagement with the West, to lessen Iran’s international isolation.

The Supreme Leader gave his blessing — at least for now — by choosing not to interfere in the vote count. The new president, then, appears to have a mandate to engage the United States — if Washington is willing — in practice as well as in words.

Rohani, who officially takes office this weekend, is an experienced, well- informed and shrewd insider in Iran’s leadership. It is too early to know how much he can deliver, but there are positive signs. The Holocaust denier, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is out of the picture.

Rohani’s 40-year friendship with the Ayatollah Khamenei suggests a level of trust that could make him an effective interlocutor. He knows the nuclear issue inside out. He speaks fluent English. He has broad, popular support. Yet his mandate will be short-lived if he cannot show results.

U.S.-Iranian negotiations, now realistic for the first time in many years, are both more difficult and more important to U.S. interests than any Washington has faced in decades. Just getting started will be difficult.

The oil boom’s foreign policy dividend

The domestic benefits of the U.S. oil production boom are well documented — everything from the creation of high-paying jobs to sending less money to foreign oil producers.

Less well appreciated are the geopolitical benefits. U.S. oil production has already paid foreign policy dividends in at least one vital area: It has paved the way for stronger sanctions on Iran by helping to keep the global oil market well-supplied and minimizing oil price volatility.

This development is timely and instructive.

By the first half of 2014, according to credible estimates, Iran is likely to be able to covertly produce enough highly enriched uranium for one nuclear device in as little as seven to 10 days — before it could be detected by the international community. While it remains unclear how close Iran is to nuclear weapons capability, the consensus is that the window for preventing it from happening is closing.

D.C. scandals: They had Nixon ‘to kick around’

President Richard Nixon at a White House press conference during the Watergate scandal. REUTERS/Courtesy Nixon Library

The profusion of scandals bedeviling the Obama administration has evoked many comparisons with other presidencies — particularly Richard M. Nixon. There is no evidence, however, of serious skulduggery by White House officials or members of the re-election campaign, as in the Nixon administration. More important, America’s over-excited and enticed puritanical conscience has not been mobilized to impute what Kafka called “nameless crimes” to the president as there was with Nixon.

There seems no national desire to tear President Barack Obama down. Not like with Nixon, who faced an atavistic desire to destroy a distinguished administration and scuttle its entire effort in Vietnam, in which 57,000 Americans died and hundreds of thousands were wounded. A near unanimity of national media has not suddenly formed to crucify (bloodlessly but no less effectively) the leader of the country, nor is there any pandemic of the tribal conviction that “the king must die.” These were distinctive characteristics of the Watergate and Vietnam crises.

Why D.C. is wrong to discredit Iran’s new president

America finds itself exactly where Iran was four years ago. Back then, America had just elected a new, articulate president who offered hope and promised a new approach to the world and Iran. His election was a direct rejection of the foreign policy of his predecessor, President George W. Bush, whose favorite tools of statecraft appeared to be military force and confrontational rhetoric.

The question Iran grappled with in 2009 was whether this new president — Barack Obama — really represented change or if it was merely an act of electoral deception.

Today, the roles are reversed. Iranians have elected a new, articulate president who is promising both the Iranian people and the world community hope and a new approach. His election is seen as a direct rejection of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s confrontational policies and rhetoric. Iranians wanted hope and change and they went to the ballot boxes to obtain it.

Lessons for interpreting Iran

Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani speaks with the media in Tehran June 17, 2013. REUTERS/Fars News/Majid Hagdost

Almost two weeks have passed since Hassan Rohani, the mild-mannered cleric often described as politically and socially moderate, was elected president of Iran by a landslide — surprising virtually every expert and foreign government as well as many Iranians. The postmortems have been fast and furious — mostly from the same experts who got the elections wrong in the first place, which makes one wonder whether the proverbial monkey with a typewriter can predict Iran better than those with iPads.

Iran watchers now appear to be falling over themselves trying to parse Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s intentions in “allowing” a free election that defied every expectation. For it is Khamenei who reigns supreme over the land. When he wants to, that is.

from David Rohde:

The global middle class awakens

People stand during a silent protest at Taksim Square in Istanbul June 18, 2013.  REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Alper, a 26-year-old Turkish corporate lawyer, has benefited enormously from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule. He is one of millions of young Turks who rode the country’s economic boom to a lifestyle his grandparents could scarcely imagine.

Yet he loathes Erdogan, participated in the Taksim Square demonstrations and is taking part in the new “standing man” protests in Istanbul.

Why Russia won’t deal on NATO missile defense

President Barack Obama meets with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Mexico, June 18, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed

President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to discuss missile defense, their thorniest bilateral problem, at the G8 summit in Ireland on June 17 and 18. Previous talks between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have floundered over the alliance’s refusal to give Moscow legal guarantees that the system would not undermine Russian nuclear forces.

But the diplomatic dance around missile defense cooperation has always been like Kabuki theater — with officials playing out their designated roles. There is only the illusion of real engagement.

Learning the wrong lessons from Israel’s intervention in Syria

Israel’s recent attacks on military targets in Syria have made clear the widening regional dimensions of Syria’s civil war. They have also fueled debate about whether the United States should intervene. Look, some say, Israel acts when it sets red lines, and Syria’s air defenses are easy to breach. Israel’s involvement has energized those, like Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who argue for U.S. military intervention in Syria. Unfortunately, the interventionists are drawing the wrong lessons from the Israeli actions.

The first misconception is that the Israeli strikes showed how Israel stands by its red lines in ways that bolster its credibility – a sharp contrast to the perceived equivocation of President Barack Obama’s stated red line that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “game changer.”

Israel has stated that it views any transfer of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s regime to Hezbollah as unacceptable. So its targeting of missile arsenals believed to be capable of delivering such weapons appears to be making good on the threat. But while such Israeli action against Hezbollah within Syria is an escalation, it is not new. Israel targeted such missiles earlier in the year and has been targeting Hezbollah arsenals in Lebanon for years. It also fought a costly war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 largely to degrade (unsuccessfully, it turns out) the group’s missile capabilities. Israel was thus not acting in Syria to maintain the credibility of its red lines, but acting on specific perceived threats to its national security.

Helping Iran safeguard its nuclear stockpile

Diplomats from six world powers  are due back in Kazakhstan on Friday for talks with Iran about its controversial nuclear program. From the hawkish “bomb-bomb-bomb-Iran” crowd to the “jaw-jaw-not-war-war” folks, there is no shortage of ideas about how to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue.

Lost in the din is the prospect that the United Nations agency charged with monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities could settle the most pressing issue – by helping Iran convert its enriched uranium gas stockpile to safer metal form. If only the world powers will encourage it to do its job.

The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) not only monitors member states’ nuclear programs to make sure they are in compliance with required safeguards obligations, but it also provides technical cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear technology.

Can diplomacy prevail with Iran?

New talks with Iran ended Wednesday with a surprising forward spin. More meetings are planned in the now decade-long American-led effort to ensure the Islamic Republic does not get nuclear weapons.

Iran must now accept or reject a proposal that offers some sanctions relief in return for Tehran’s reducing its stockpile of uranium enriched close to weapon-grade. This hopeful note – Tehran’s reaction was positive – comes as a showdown looms, because Iran continues to inch ever closer to being able to make a nuclear weapon.

In a diplomatic process where expectations are low, the talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Tuesday and Wednesday were considered a success. The United States and its negotiating partners – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – got what they wanted. A senior U.S. official said Washington was “not expecting a breakthrough in Almaty.” It was enough, the official said, that the six major powers had the “opportunity to put a new and promising proposal on the table.”

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