Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Weekly column by Vic Rosenthal


What does the Biden Administration actually want?

One might think it is that Iran will not make nuclear weapons. But it’s more complicated than that. To try to answer the question, I looked at a recent article in America’s own Pravda, the NY Times.

Some of the arguments attributed to US officials that appear in that piece are difficult to criticize, because they are so bad that it’s impossible to take them seriously. For example,

American officials have warned their Israeli counterparts that the repeated attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities may be tactically satisfying, but they are ultimately counterproductive, according to several officials familiar with the behind-the-scenes discussions. Israeli officials have said they have no intention of letting up, waving away warnings that they may only be encouraging a sped-up rebuilding of the program — one of many areas in which the United States and Israel disagree on the benefits of using diplomacy rather than force.

Perhaps if Iranian leaders were indifferent about the importance of their nuclear program, then they might be spurred to give it a higher priority in response to sabotage. But their actions in recent years indicate that they will do whatever they can get away with in order to succeed. It is their top priority. The pedal is already to the metal. Of course they rebuild what is damaged or destroyed, but it’s silly to suggest that the overall time to completion of the project is reduced, rather than increased, by effective sabotage.

The article suggests, again, that Donald Trump’s decision to abrogate the original 2015 JCPOA allowed Iran to leap forward, as if Trump simply canceled the deal’s restrictions on Iran and did nothing else. But the sanctions of the “maximum pressure campaign” had brought Iran’s economy to the brink of collapse. Trump and Pompeo’s diplomacy made possible the Abraham Accords, a regional cooperation pact aimed at weakening and containing Iran. Trump also wanted to employ covert operations and the use of “force short of war” against the nuclear program, Iran’s missile development, and her regional terror infrastructure. The assassination of Qasem Soleimani was an extremely heavy blow.

Unfortunately, there was little cooperation from the CIA and the Pentagon, and although plans were made for a “campaign to conduct sabotage, propaganda and other psychological and information operations in Iran,” Trump left office before it could be carried out. The Iranians, assured by all the Democratic contenders for the presidency that Trump’s policy would be reversed if he lost, knew that all they had to do was hang on until January 2021.

A combination of economic sanctions, diplomatic initiatives, subversion and support for domestic opponents of the regime, along with the use of force short of war, could have brought the regime to a breaking point. It would then have had to choose between real concessions on its nuclear program and collapse. But the Biden Administration rejected this path, and chose instead to return to the 2015 deal, and somehow seek a better one later.

That agreement was flawed in many ways, which was why Trump decided to dump it. The deal’s provisions for inspections were weak and allowed the Iranians to cheat (which they did); it weakened existing UN sanctions on missile development and did not replace them, it provided a massive influx of cash that the Iranians could and did use to finance terror against Israel and in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen; and finally, it actually legitimized Iran as a nuclear weapons state after 2030.

However, even this poor deal is now unavailable. The Times article admits that “President Biden’s vision of re-entering the agreement in his first year, then building something ‘longer and stronger,’ appears all but gone.” This is not surprising, since the administration began weakening sanctions on Iran a month after taking office, and chose one of its most pro-Iranian (and anti-Israel) appointees, Robert Malley, to be head of the Iran team. The signals have been read clearly in Tehran, whose chief negotiator at the Vienna talks refers to them not as nuclear negotiations, but rather “negotiations to remove unlawful and inhuman sanctions.”

So what, precisely, does the US expect to get out of its diplomatic efforts? Maybe this, from the same Times story, will provide a clue:

… inside the White House, there has been a scramble in recent days to explore whether some kind of interim deal might be possible to freeze Iran’s production of more enriched uranium and its conversion of that fuel to metallic form — a necessary step in fabricating a warhead. In return, the United States might ease a limited number of sanctions. That would not solve the problem. But it might buy time for negotiations, while holding off Israeli threats to bomb Iranian facilities.

As in the original JCPOA, Iran will only agree to limitations that will not materially affect their progress. But they will accept any easing of sanctions that they can get. The problem with the diplomatic process is that the Iranians do not believe that the US is prepared to go back to “maximum pressure,” and certainly not to use force. Time is entirely on their side, and they can continue to temporize for as long as it takes to finish their project, while collecting whatever benefits Biden’s impulse to appease will bring them.

Meanwhile, Biden’s people feel it’s necessary to “hold off” the Israelis, who would like to cut off the head of the snake that is not only developing nuclear weapons, but behind most of the anti-Israel terrorism in the region. Yesterday, Israel’s PM Naftali Bennett noted that

Along with the advancements in its nuclear program, Iran also consistently surrounded Israel, arming militias and placing rockets on every side … Iran can be seen from every window in Israel.

[Iran] irritates us from abroad, uses our energy, chases us; causes us harm without even leaving the house …

Israel’s biggest strategic mistake was “attacking the messenger” [Hezbollah, Hamas] instead of Iran. Chasing after the terrorist of the day who is sent by the Quds Force is no longer logical. We have to get to the one who is sending them.

If the JCPOA was inadequate to prevent Iran from getting the Bomb, then a new deal that is even weaker will do even less. But the objective – as it was for Barack Obama in 2015 – seems to be to get a deal, regardless of its effectiveness, because in Obama and Biden’s view, nothing is more important than preventing Israel from stopping Iran. Is the tail wagging the dog much?

Consider: if the objective were actually to stop Iran, and if stopping Iran required economic pressure along with a credible military threat, then wouldn’t the best way to do it be to cooperate with Israel, instead of holding her back?

No, the objective is not to stop Iran. It is to prevent Israel from stopping Iran, and to avert the consequences that would follow.

Think about the likely results of an Israeli victory over Iran: the rise of a regional power bloc – even a world power – led by Israel and Saudi Arabia, including the Gulf states and maybe even the potentially greatest power in the Arab world, Egypt; the end of Hezbollah, Hamas, and the irredentist Palestinian movement; and the final eviction of western colonialism from the Middle East.

There are multiple reasons that various constituencies in the West would prefer a new Shiite caliphate to a regional Israeli-Arab bloc, ranging from simple antisemitism and a desire to see the “mistake” of a Jewish state “corrected,” to naïve leftist third-worldism, to a belief that Iran would be easier to control than Israel.

But the can cannot be kicked down the road any longer. The inexorable progress of Iran toward nuclear weapons will surely force a decision in a matter of months – or even weeks









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