Wednesday, February 12, 2014

AIPAC reconsidered.

AIPAC is at a cross-road. It has sided with President Barack Obama in a very public dispute with some of the most pro-Israel members of both houses of Congress.

First the background. The U.S. and Israel share a foreign policy goal of keeping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Israel’s reasons are existential. The American administration is motivated by our strong commitment to Israel, as well as the realpolitik observation that Iran with nuclear weapons is unstable enough all by herself, but if that were to come about, the resultant nuclear arms race in the region would pose unacceptable risks.

The U.S. has waged a campaign against Iran that included sabotage, in which effort they have received support from the Israelis. Iranian nuclear scientists have a habit of dying in suspicious circumstances, though, of course, nobody is taking credit. And then there were the sanctions. Here’s where you can read about the history of the U.S. efforts to first support and then discourage Iran’s nuclear program. (Executive Summary: Democrats are tougher on Iran than Republicans. By far.)

The election of 2008 produced Democratic majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and, of course, a Democratic President. Congress passed “the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), with bi-partisan support and President Obama signed it into law July 1, 2010. The CISADA greatly enhanced restrictions in Iran. The sanctions regime had the desired result: Iran came to the negotiating table.

The negotiations resulted in an interim agreement which I discussed here. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu said that the agreement was the “deal of the century” for the Iranians, but President Obama argued that the interim agreement was a reasonable effort to avoid war, and further that the movement in Congress to pass additional, conditional sanctions would be counter-productive.  This is what he said at the State of the Union address:
 “It is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran's nuclear program -- and rolled back parts of that program -- for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium. 
“It's not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we're engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. 
 “These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran's support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we're clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don't rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.
 “The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible. But let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed. 
“If Iran's leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. But if Iran's leaders do seize the chance -- and we'll know soon enough -- then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.”

That “new sanctions bill” that the President referenced was actually a thing, and AIPAC had been pushing it for months. But last week AIPAC reversed course, and agreed with Democrats who had said that “now is not the time” for new sanctions.  This move angered Republican supporters of the new sanctions bill, and it didn’t go down too well with the Israeli administration. According to the Daily Beast one GOP Senate staffer put it like this: “Republicans responded with a big middle finger.”

How did it happen that AIPAC was on the wrong side of this issue for so long? And how could it be that AIPAC could fail so spectacularly in bringing along the Republicans when it saw the light? And worst of all, how could it possibly get cross-wise with the Israeli administration?

There are people – you may even know some of them – who just hate President Obama. Netanyahu’s strained relationship with the American President has been reported on extensively. Perhaps it is because of Bibi’s close association with Mitt Romney, which led to him breaching the well-known norm of international behavior and interfering in the American internal politics.

More likely, he regards the change in American policy as a cause of the Arab Spring and therefore a dangerous thing. He’s wrong, of course, since as we have seen, the Arab Spring has resulted in the defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, (exactly as I predicted here) and the emergence of a free Libya with the death of Quaddafi. And let's not forget the disarming of the Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles. So, AIPAC could be negative about Obama and be in line with the Israeli PM’s opinion, misguided though it was. And if Bibi said that the interim deal with the Iranians was bad, AIPAC can’t be blamed for saying so. After all, they are the Israel Lobby, aren’t they?

Well, actually, I do blame them for saying that the interim deal was bad. I’m willing to forgive and forget in light of the fact that they have come to the position that I advocated before last Christmas. But I would hope that AIPAC would learn from their mistake. And what was that mistake? The mistake was in confusing Israel’s interests with Bibi Netanyahu’s interests. It has been observed that AIPAC is no longer the Israel Lobby, but rather, the Likud Lobby. (President Shimon Peres and many other prominant Israelis were much less critical of the interim deal than the PM.) 

But Bibi isn’t the only one who doesn’t like Obama. There’s a contingent of Americans who can’t stand the sight of him. I won’t speculate on why that is, though others have suggested that, like everything else in America, considerations of race enter into it.

Although AIPAC has taken steps to reverse the perception (or fact) that it has a right-leaning bias, AIPAC has also reached out with renewed vigor to a core Republican constituency, viz., evangelical Christians. Groups like CUFI (Christians United For Israel) are a natural target audience for this effort.

Some Jews say that Israel – or Jews in general, for that matter – cannot be too selective in her friends. It’s a case I might have made with regard to Israel’s association with apartheid Union of South Africa in a by-gone era. But in that case, I would have been observing Israel’s relationship to a third party. Now, we are looking at the relationship between Israel – a country and a people I love –and the United States, a country that I am proud to call my own.

I am not the first person to question whether or not Israel can trust the love of our Christian brethren. One of the founding documents of Zionism was Leo Pinsker’s, Selbstemanzipation (Auto-emancipation), published in 1882. Or more recently, Bob Dylan wrote, “Well, he got no allies to really speak of; What he gets he must pay for, he don't get it out of love.”

I’m all in favor of making strategic alliances. But in this instance, we see that fundamentalist Christians’ love of Israel was trumped by their Republican hatred of Obama. And since Republican politicians are petrified of being challenged in a primary by some fundamentalist Tea-party buffoon, they dance to whatever tune these fundamentalists call. 

Even if that amounts to a big middle finger to AIPAC.

After all, AIPAC committed an unforgiveable offense: it agreed with Obama. 

“… and tell ’Big Mitch sent ya!”

Sunday, January 12, 2014

What does it mean if Chris Christie survives this political scandal?

Let’s begin with something we can all agree on: Chris Christie is a mean, vindictive son-of-a bitch.

It seems unbelievable that Chris Christie would exact retribution against a mayor in his state for the perfectly reasonable position that he, the mayor, as a democrat should not endorse a Republican candidate for governor. So much the more so because the prank didn’t hit directly at the mayor of Fort Lee, but rather severely inconvenienced (and endangered) Fort Lee residents, most of whom voted for Christie.

Rachel Maddow and Steve Kornacki have other theories to explain why Christie would take such a mean, punitive action. These theories might be right or they might be wrong, but the fact is that the prevailing story is that Christie was just being mean because Mayor Mark Sokolitch of Ft. Lee refused to endorse him.

When such stories are not dismissed out of hand, and indeed, they are widely believed, it’s time to look at the culture that prevails in New Jersey. The picture that emerges is one of a political culture that has been described as “brass knuckles,” where revenge is not merely to be expected, but rather it is engaged in with the glee and √©lan that attaches to a favorite sport.

Let's take a closer look.

Christie hectors a member
of the Teacher's union
When Christie disagreed with the politics of State Senator Raymond Lesniak, a Democrat, whose district includes Elizabeth, the governor shut down the DMV in that city, the fourth largest in the state, to show his displeasure.

Here’s another example: Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop accuses Christie’s office of canceling several meetings with N.J. department heads on the day after he refused to endorse the governor. You may remember that Fulop’s name has already come up in connection with Bridge-gate. Emails reveal that a top Christie aide asks then-Port Authority official David Wildstein whether the agency had responded to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s complaints about the closures. “Radio silence,” Wildstein, a Christie ally, wrote on Sept. 9. “His name comes right after Mayor Fulop.”

In the spring, when Christie asked Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer to endorse him for re-election during a face-to-face meeting, Zimmer, a Democrat, told the governor no. After Hurricane Sandy, she applied to the state for a Hazard Mitigation Grant. When her request for grant funding came back, she said, Hoboken received $300,000 of the $100 million in grants requested — less than 1 percent. Pay-back, as they say in N.J., is a bitch.

Do you will recall that in Christie’s marathon press conference he talked about how important loyalty was to him? After Christie won the last election in a landside, former Gov. Tom Kean, Sr. said, “Chris just won reelection, he’s popular, and there is a sense he would be able to compete everywhere.” Kean is the only Republican in modern political history to score a higher percentage of the vote than Christie did in November. When he ran for reelection in 1985, Kean won with 71 percent of the vote. More importantly, he was Christie’s first political mentor. There’s a guy who deserves loyalty.

Unfortunately, it didn't extend to Kean’s son, Tom, Jr., who was in the Senate. He had a rather public feud with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D), with whom Christie has to work to get legislation through. As part of his effort to produce a Republican majority in the Senate majority, Kean had targeted Sweeney’s seat in the election. This is considered bad manners: New Jersey legislative leaders usually do not target each other for electoral defeat, and it didn’t go down well with Sweeney.

Rather than support his fellow Republican, Christie avoided campaigning in Southern NJ, where Kean hoped to oust Democrats. At a post-election news conference, Christie wouldn’t say he supported Kean’s continued leadership of the Senate caucus. Instead, Christie pointedly said he had just spoken — with Sweeney.

In 2010, when a blizzard paralyzed the state, State Senator Sean T. Kean, (no relation to Tom Kean) a Republican, told a reporter that the “one mistake” the Senate president and governor had made was not calling earlier for a state of emergency, which might have kept more cars off the roads. Christie could not abide that level of criticism. As the NYT tells the story,
Mr. Christie was smarting from criticism that he had remained at Disney World during the storm. When he returned, he held his first news conference in Mr. Kean’s home district. Shortly before, a member of the governor’s staff called Mr. Kean and warned him not to show up. His seat was eliminated in redistricting the following year. 
In another incident, Christie used his line item veto to eliminate a program to help women who suffer from post-partum depression. Why? Because the head of the foundation was married to State Senator Richard Cody, who happens to be a former governor. And what was his gripe against ex-guv Richard Cody? Nothing in particular. “I have to send Codey a message about who’s in charge,” said Chris Christie.

On another occasion, Christie tried to blame Cody for stalling two nominations that were not progressing in the Senate fast enough to please the governor. Quite reasonably, Cody pushed back by pointing out that he had not only signed off on the nominations, but had held a meeting to try to hurry them along. Christie reacted by stripping Cody of the security detail that is customarily afforded former governors. And, just in case that was too subtle, “that same day, his cousin, who had been appointed by Mr. McGreevey to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was fired, as was a close friend and former deputy chief of staff who was then working in the state Office of Consumer Affairs,” according to the NYT.

Last year, another Republican, State Senator Christopher Bateman, voted against the governor’s plan to reorganize the state’s public medical education system. Mr. Bateman had been working with the governor to get a judge appointed in his home county. Suddenly, after months when it looked as if it would happen, the nomination stalled.

Consider the example of noted and respected Rutgers Professor of Political Science Alan Rosenthal. He had been the chair of the New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission in 1992 and again in 2001. His obituary notes that “Rosenthal cast the deciding vote in the 2011 legislative redistricting, a process that dragged on for weeks, approving the map favored by the commission’s Democratic members.”  What happened after that? The two programs at Rutgers that were most dear to Dr. Rosenthal were slashed in the next budget.

Bill Baroni, who resigned over Bridge-gate had in the past been tasked with executing the governor’s vengeance. When Bill Lavin, an officer with a state firefighters’ union, publicly called for more productive dialogue between his organization and the governor, he received a call from Baroni, who said more than once, “The governor told me to make sure you don’t get this message mixed up; say these exact words.” What were those exact words? The New York Times didn’t consider them fit to print, but other sources have said that Mr. Baroni, quoted Mr. Christie as, “Go fuck yourself.”

The question raised by this sordid portrait is this: Suppose Mr. Christie survives this scandal. Will this rough and tumble attitude play well in Iowa where it is assumed that traditional values of courtesy and fair play prevail?

Before Bridge-gate, Cristie was the leading candidate for the Republican nomination. It is not because he was a soft-spoken, “blow-dried” creation of image consultants. Rather, he was famously rude to teachers and other constituents. Although this might have been off-putting, it set him apart from the anodyne Washington politicians. Some regarded his brusque, no-nonsense manner as an endearing quirk. 

As Bridge-gate develops, the public will become more familiar with the dark underside of his cruelty, some of which is catalogued above. Psychologists and social scientists have long been aware of the authoritarian personality type. Originally, it was measured on something called the f-scale. The f stands for fascism. More recently, social scientists have refined the concept and now speak of Right Wing Authoritarian Personality Type.

Call it what you may, but one characteristic is that the authoritarian personality admires a “leader who will use any means necessary.” It values “power and toughness.”

If the good people of Iowa turn from the nice man in the sweater vest who won last go-round, and they decide that what the country needs is a mean son-of-a-bitch to run against Hillary Clinton, then we will know that the soul of the Republican is really, at its core, pretty high on the f scale.

Of course, in the meantime, a steady trickle of revelations may lead to a situation in 2016 where Christie is, at best, irrelevant, and, at worst, a pariah.

“... and tell 'em Big Mitch sent ya!”

Friday, December 27, 2013

Free Association

By the time Nelson Mandela died earlier this year, the idea of justifying apartheid was hard to fathom. Just what did P.W. Botha and F.W. de Klerk say in those pre-enlightenment days to excuse a hate-based system of oppression? Well, they started with a noble sounding sentiment: people have a right to freedom of association.

We all agree with that, but in South Africa it was understood to mean that white people could associate with whom they chose, i.e., whites, and also, that nobody could force them to associate with those with whom they chose not to associate, i.e., blacks. Of course that was then, and this is now.

And by “this is now,” I mean people are still claiming that their “freedom of association” is being violated so that they can justify raw bigotry. It’s happening in the U.S.A., and I don’t mean Union of South Africa.

As everyone knows by now, there has been a bit of a kerfuffle because as it turns out, Duck Commander Phil Robertson, patriarch of the Duck Dynasty family said some things that are not politically correct. (Neither were they factually correct, but people don’t seem to object to that so much.) That he would condemn homosexuality should surprise nobody, since his fundamentalist Christian faith is the hallmark of his TV persona. That he would express it in such harsh terms took some people aback, but still, he could justify the sentiments by selective reference to the New Testament.

What was really shocking was his assertion about life in Jim Crow Louisiana when he was growing up:
I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash. We're going across the field ... They're singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, 'I tell you what: These doggone white people' — not a word! Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.
The take-away from this is that Phil Robertson is a jerk. But who cares? Predictably, people criticized him, and A&E network suspended him from their mega-hit. That’s when the fight started.

Sarah Palin talked about Mr. Robertson’s First Amendment freedom, proving what we already knew: she’s an idiot. Later she defended herself by saying she hadn’t read the Robertson interview. Bobby Jindal said some nice things to say about Phil Robertson. “The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with. …  In fact, I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment.” 

In Alabama, State Sen. Jerry Fielding (R) promised to introduce a bill calling for the state to lend its support to suspended Robertson. Ian Bayne, a candidate for the 11th congressional district in Illinois sent out an email to his supporters comparing Phil Robertson to Rosa Parks. And Newt Gingrich takes a back seat to no one on the stupid bus: He compared Phil Robertson to Pope Francis.

All of this would be funny if it weren’t for the peculiar aspect of right-wing talk that is so obnoxious. I refer, of course to the victim stance, the most egregious example of which is the faux war on Christmas. It was wearing thin until the Duck Dynasty contretemps came along, to breathe new life into the conceit that Christians in America are somehow victims of oppression. 

Here's what Walter Hudson has to offer on his own a reactionary right-wing blog:
As the drama surrounding cable network A&E’s suspension of Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson enters its second week without losing steam, our analysis of the incident becomes more refined by critical thought. Where emotional reactions at first prevailed, we now see thoughtful consideration of why this episode matters so much to so many people.
Caring about Phil Robertson and his ordeal says something about those who stand with him. It reveals a solidarity informed by shared values, and similar experiences. For Christians in today’s increasingly secularized culture, there exists a persistent subversion of our religious expression. While it often takes the form of private censure, as it has in Robertson’s case, the influence of the state can be sensed bearing down on private decisions.
Actually, I can’t sense the influence of the state bearing down on private decisions.  So, as if to help those like me, the author asks what the ACLU would do if A&E had suspended a reality TV personality for urging closeted gays to come out.
We know the answer. We know it because the unequal recognition of the freedom of association lies naked in the various public accommodation and anti-discrimination laws strewn throughout various levels of government. Indeed, mere days before the Duck Dynasty controversy erupted, a judge in Colorado ordered a Christian baker to serve cake for a gay wedding or face fines. Where’s the ACLU on that one? Naturally, they represented the gay couple and stood against the baker’s freedom of association. ‘No one should fear being turned away from a public business because of who they are,’ they said in a statement.[emphasis added]
Did you catch the false dichotomy? You have “public accommodation and anti-discrimination laws” on one hand, and “freedom of association” on the other. Lest you think this was a casual usage of an ill-advised phrase, consider that on his own website his comment policy states: 
Free speech is great. You are entitled to speak your mind in whatever way you see fit – on your own blog. Here, we flaunt the right to free association.
It seems like an odd use of the word “flaunt” which means “display (something) ostentatiously, esp. in order to provoke envy or admiration or to show defiance." But perhaps it is more thoughtful than I gave the writer credit for.

The author is indeed defiant. He opposes government intervention into the private affairs of citizens even when it is to eliminate discrimination and segregation. He adopts the rationale for apartheid that the rest of the civilized world has rejected. Yes, he embraces it -- defiantly.

For a long time now, Progressives have had a strong feeling that Conservatives are racists. It’s a serious accusation and one that ought not to be made without strong evidence. It is true that Conservatives have found a home in the Republican Party, and starting with Nixon, the GOP pursued a Southern strategy that explicitly embraced racism. The vast majority of the South has moved on from the racism of those days, but there persists a strain of it in Dixie. Still, racism is so universally condemned that it is easy to assume that discriminatory laws, e.g. voter ID laws, are not aimed at Blacks because they are Black, but rather because they are Democrats.

When Rachel Maddow asked Rand Paul (R-KY) in May 2010 about his views of the landmark Civil Rights Act, he allowed that he has concerns about the idea of ordering private business owners to implement non-discriminatory practices. (Of course, he lied about it when speaking to Howard University students, but that's Rand Paul for you.)

De jure discrimination is dead in America. But there is a great divide between those who want to be able to discriminate in their private businesses and those who reject the philosophy of apartheid. The former are now embracing even the rationale of the apartheid regime. They flaunt the “Right of Association.”

Keep your eyes out for them …
“… and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Who can be tougher on Iran -- Democrats or Republicans?

Do you really have to ask? 

Some of my friends are saying that the current administration is not doing enough to oppose Iran’s quest for nuclear arms. It made me wonder: What is the Republican record on this crucial point?

Last year, just before the election, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) wrote to affirm President Obama’s strong support of Israel. He reminded us that, “President Reagan is rightly remembered as a strong friend of Israel, although he led the world’s condemnation of Israel at the U.N. when Israel knocked out Iraq’s threatening nuclear facility.” But that was then.

Back in 2006, I noticed that the Washington Post had reported that: 
President Bush declared [Friday, Jan. 13, 2006] that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose ‘a grave threat to the security of the world’ as he tried to rally support from other major powers for U.N. Security Council action unless a defiant Tehran abandons any aspirations for nuclear weapons.
I wondered at the time how it was that Iran was in a position to seek nuclear arms. As it turns out, it’s a pretty good tale.

In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford proposed to sell nuclear technology to the Iranians according to a declassified National Security Decision Memorandum, signed by Henry Kissinger. Iran was ruled by a Shah, and he convincingly made the case that oil was too valuable to waste on daily energy needs. The Ford strategy paper said the “introduction of nuclear power will both provide for the growing needs of Iran's economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals.” 

President Ford signed a directive in 1976 offering Tehran the chance to buy and operate a U.S.-built reprocessing facility for extracting plutonium from nuclear reactor fuel. It was a 6.4 billion-dollar deal that would have benefited principally two companies, Westinghouse and General Electric, and it would have resulted in Tehran having control of large quantities of plutonium and enriched uranium. Thank G-d the deal fell through when the Shaw was deposed.

The deal was for a complete “nuclear fuel cycle” -- reactors powered by and regenerating fissile materials on a self-sustaining basis. That is precisely the ability the current administration is now trying to prevent Iran from acquiring, as it was in 2005, during the G.W. Bush administration.

It’s interesting to note that in 1975, President Ford’s Chief of Staff was a man named Dick Cheney, and his Secretary of Defense was a man named Donald Rumsfield. Paul Wolfowitz was responsible for nonproliferation at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. This is the crew that was at the White House when George W. Bush, under false pretenses, removed the only regional counter-balance to Iran.

But let’s not get too far ahead of the story. Before he became Vice President, Mr. Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton. During the 1990’s, Halliburton paid out more than $3 million in fines for selling Libya nuclear detonator devices, which violated a U.S. trade embargo imposed on Libya because of that country's ties to terrorism. Also under Cheney leadership, Halliburton sold an Iranian oil development company key components for a nuclear reactor, according to Halliburton sources. More recently, Cheney has been critical of President Obama’s deal which halted Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.

While Cheney was busy helping a Iranian terrorist regime acquire nuclear capabilities, Bill Clinton was busy being President of the United States.  He imposed some of the toughest sanctions against Iran in 1995, prohibiting U.S. trade in Iran's oil industry in March, and prohibiting any U.S. trade with Iran in May. Trade with the United States, which had been growing following the end of the Iran–Iraq War, ended abruptly. He also signed into law the Iran–Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) imposing severe sanctions on all foreign companies that provide investments over $20 million for the development of petroleum resources in Iran.

The sanctions did have an effect. In 1997 a reformer, Mohammad Khatami, was elected President in Iran. President Clinton responded by easing sanctions somewhat. However, the basic outline of the sanctions regime remained in place, including ILSA.

In any event, George W. Bush was “elected” in 2000. What was going on when he was trying to get the U.N. to impose sanctions in 2006, as reported in the Washington Post, above?

After being elected president in 2005, President Ahmadinejad lifted the suspension of uranium enrichment that had been agreed upon with the France, Germany and the United Kingdom. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported Iran's non-compliance with its safeguards agreement to the UN Security Council. The U.S. government then began pushing for UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. What had the Bush government done on its own?

In June 2005, President George W. Bush issued an executive order freezing the assets of individuals connected with Iran's nuclear program. Some might say that was a pretty weak sanction. In fact, some did. In June 2007, the U.S. state of Florida enacted a boycott on companies trading with Iran and Sudan, while New Jersey's state legislature was considering similar action.

The election of 2008 produced Democratic majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and, of course, a Democratic President. Congress passed “the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), which President Obama signed into law July 1, 2010. The CISADA greatly enhanced restrictions in Iran.

These sanctions have been so effective that Iran has been forced to suspend its nuclear program for six months while a long term deal is worked out.

So, what can we learn from this history? If you want to cripple Iran to bring them to the negotiating table and get them agree to dismantle their nuclear weapons program, you’re better off going with the Democrats …

“… and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

Monday, December 23, 2013

More Sanctions for Iran? Why not.

So, there is a regime of sanctions that has crippled Iran’s economy, with the result that Secretary of State John Kerry has managed to get Iran to negotiate a stand down from their nuclear weapons program. Everybody with the good sense God gave animal crackers has made the observation that the Iranians cannot be trusted. Also, the sun rises in the east. Both observations are true, but since the interim agreement does not rely on trust, both are also useless in the context of new sanctions.

Rather than rely on trust, the interim deal provides daily access to Natanz and Fordo sites to IAEA inspectors and access to other facilities, mines and mills. The inspectors will be able to confirm compliance or report breaches of the other obligations imposed on Iran, namely:

·         Halt enrichment of uranium above 5% purity. (Uranium enriched to 3.5-5% can be used for nuclear power reactors, 20% for nuclear medicines and 90% for a nuclear bomb.)
·         “Neutralize” its stockpile of near-20%-enriched uranium, either by diluting it to less than 5% or converting it to a form which cannot be further enriched
·         Not install any more centrifuges (the machines used to enrich uranium)
·         Leave half to three-quarters of centrifuges installed in Natanz and Fordo enrichment facilities inoperable
·         Not build any more enrichment facilities
·         Not increase its stockpile of 3.5% low-enriched uranium
·         Halt work on the construction of its heavy-water reactor at Arak, not attempt to produce plutonium there (an alternative to highly enriched uranium used for an atomic weapon)
·         Provide “long-sought” information on the Arak reactor and other data
To put it mildly, this was a huge achievement. When Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu drew a red line on a cartoon bomb at the United Nations, he said that Iran must not be allowed to go any further than that. The interim agreement more than meets his demand at least as long as it holds up.

On the other side of the negotiation is the P5+1 (viz., five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France, plus Germany.) In return for the foregoing promises, the P5+1 has agreed to a “limited, temporary, targeted, and reversible” relaxation of the sanctions regime. Additionally the U.S. has agreed to transfer about $4.2 billion to Iran in installments from assets seized by the U.S. government from sales of its oil.

A key commitment that the P5+1 made is that it would not impose further nuclear-related sanctions if Iran meets its commitments. Now, several in Congress, including Senators Begich and Murkowsky and 22 other senators, want to impose further sanctions, a move which the Iranians say will queer the deal.

The supporters of new sanctions say that they will be conditional, i.e. would only go into effect if the Iranians fail to live up to their agreement. It is passing strange indeed, that the number one argument in favor of these new sanctions is that they are a hollow gesture. After all, is there anyone in his right mind who thinks that if the Iranians breach the interim deal, America and her allies will have any difficulty imposing new and harsher sanctions? And above and beyond that, the President of the United States has said he will veto the new sanctions bill, even if it were to pass through Congress.

So, there are no benefits to the bill to impose new sanctions. But, and my grandmother once said, “What could it hurt?”

Maybe Congress can over-ride his veto. But to what avail? In the end it is still a meaningless gesture and the debate attendant to a veto override will merely highlight to the Iranians the lack of unanimity in the Congress. If there is a fight over a veto over-ride, along the way, you can expect to see the usual accusations made in some quarters that the U.S. Congress and/or the President are controlled by AIPAC and the Jews. Pollyannas who don’t believe that there is a latent strain of anti-Semitism in America don’t worry about the effects of this kind of talk. I do.

Iran has asserted that if the new sanctions are passed in Congress, they will consider the interim deal breached and proceed accordingly. They express the view that it is a sign that Congress is not interested in a negotiated settlement. This latter point is not irrational, since there are many, including PM Netanyahu, who seem to believe that no deal is a good deal, and that war is the only response to the current regime.

The Wall Street Journal argues that Iran’s position is either a bluff, or a sign that it is looking for an excuse to break off negotiations. From there, it makes the extraordinary leap that we should therefore call the bluff, give Iran an excuse to break off negotiations and then … well, they don’t really tell us what to do then.

The supporters of the new sanctions claim they are a means of strengthening the President’s hand in his negotiations with the Iranians. It is quite obvious that this is a transparent after-the-fact rationalization. The President and Secretary Kerry are opposed to the sanctions bill, and presumably they know whether or not they need the help. Moreover, since when is it a sign of strength to tell your negotiating partner your next step if they fail to comply with your last demand? Rather it is a limitation on what the President will do, since presumably a bunker-busting strike and/or a decapitation strike is not off the table, at least until Congress dictates a different response.

There is another risk, that none of the supporters of sanctions have talked about. The U.S. has managed to persuade the EU, Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan to adhere to a steadily escalating catalogue of sanctions against Iran. These sanctions have been so damaging to the Iranian economy that the regime is now engaged in negotiations to end its nuclear weapons program. How has the U.S. been able to pressure the Europeans and the Asians to adhere to these severe sanctions?

A key has been to portray the Iranians as the crazies, the intransigents, and the blood-thirsty. The Iranians have helped lend credibility to this portrayal every chance they got with wild rhetoric and holocaust denial, etc. But that could change. The Iranians, having signed onto an interim accord could say with some credibility that the U.S. is being unreasonable, unwilling to take ‘yes’ for an answer, and thereby undermine the cooperation that is the bulwark of the current sanctions regime. If Iran can peel off just one or two of the Europeans/Asians, they can buy some more time to advance to a place where they can make a sprint for the bomb. At that point, it is game over.

American interests in the deal are broadly to keep Iran from getting a bomb, fulfill its moral obligation to defend Israel, and support our nominal ally, Saudi Arabia, who is Iran’s main regional competitor. If Iran obtains a bomb the Saudis, and the Jordanians would probably be compelled to seek nuclear weapons as well. These risks are unacceptable, as is the potential for Iranian nukes to fall into the hands of terrorists.

For the foregoing reasons, if Iran cannot be compelled to disavow its nuclear ambitions, there is no alternative to a military option, either by the U.S. or by Israel. Those who don’t trust President Obama to put into place crippling sanctions if the negotiations are not productive, argue that they can trust the U.S. to go to war for Israel. Beyond the fact that it is illogical, it must be observed that even if the President did undertake to go to war to destroy Iran’s nuclear bomb capability, Congress and the American people might not support him. Consider the fact that the President was rebuffed by Congress in his effort to use the military to disarm Syria of her chemical warfare capabilities and the idea was wildly unpopular.

It is true that many Republicans will do anything to see that the President fails. (Witness the unwillingness of Republican governors to take Federal money to expand Medicaid in their states.) But on matters of foreign policy there is a strong tradition and a good reason for entrusting it to the executive branch. Especially when, as now, he has accomplished so much that is so positive.

"... and tell 'em Big Mitch sent ya!"