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Election 2010

Ominous signs for new Congress’ Iran agenda: sanctions, blockade, war

This past Wednesday, the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee convened for a hearing on “Implementing Tougher Sanctions on Iran” and offered a frightening preview of what will be on the House’s agenda next year.

At the hearing, Representative Don Manzullo (R-IL) laid out what may be the game plan by the new Republican Congress to drag the US into yet a third war in the Middle East:

“If these sanctions don’t work, then the next step would be a blockade,” Manzullo said looking over his shoulder to incoming chairwoman Ros Lehtinen.  “And the next step would be some type of—you hate to use the word—but military action.”

Even though it is evident that sanctions have weakened Iran’s economy, it should come as no surprise that Ileana Ros-Lehtinen now wants to pressure the Administration to impose even tougher sanctions on Iran.

“Since the 1990’s, the US and international efforts to stop growing Iranian threat have been half-hearted at best. The problem is not that a tough approach has failed, but that it has yet to be fully tried.”

When it came to the opposition Green Movement in Iran – a movement based on the civil and human rights on Iranians -Representative Ted Poe (R-TX) was incensed that his question about support  for that movement was answered instead with a response about supporting human rights. “My question is what are we doing to promote the opposition, not human rights.”

It appears that the representatives have blindfolded themselves to what is actually going on in Iran and are taking sides on issues that they don’t seem to fully comprehend.

Read NIAC’s report from the hearing

Will the Obama Administration Listen to Gates or Neo-Cons?

As a Bush Administration holdover, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has largely avoided Republican attacks.  A Republican working in a Democratic administration, Secretary Gates seems to enjoy broad support on both sides of the aisle, and his policy recommendations are generally approved of enthusiastically by both political parties.

His recent comments on Iran, however, have the potential to raise some neo-conservative hackles.  Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to convince Vice President Joe Biden, among others, to make the US military threat against Iran “credible.” Gates immediately responded, saying that “We are prepared to do what is necessary, but at this point we continue to believe that the political-economic approach that we are taking is in fact having an impact in Iran.”

Yesterday, Gates pushed back even further against callously wielding the military option:

A military solution, as far as I’m concerned … it will bring together a divided nation. It will make them absolutely committed to obtaining nuclear weapons. And they will just go deeper and more covert

The only long-term solution in avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is for the Iranians to decide it’s not in their interest. Everything else is a short-term solution.

Graham and Netanyahu pressure Obama to ratchet up war rhetoric

On Saturday, Senator Lindsey Graham reportedly “stunned” attendees at a Halifax International Security Conference when he called for a military strike that would “neuter” the Iranian regime “not to just neutralize their nuclear program, but to sink their navy, destroy their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard.”

NIAC addressed the bellicose remarks with a statement warning that, “Graham’s confrontational war rhetoric sets back America’s opportunities to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue peacefully and prevent a third costly and destabilizing US war in the Middle East.”

Meanwhile, that same day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in New Orleans advocating to Vice President Joe Biden that, in spite of all of the sanctions the US had put in place over the past year, the Obama Administration needed to start doing more saber rattling:

Israel’s media says the country’s prime minister has told U.S. Vice President Joe Biden that Iran must be made to fear a military strike against its nuclear program.

They say in their Monday editions that Benjamin Netanyahu told Biden that although sanctions have hurt Iran, Tehran will be determined to produce nuclear weapons unless it thinks a military strike is a real option.

This all comes just a week before proposed nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 approach, and is just the type of toxic rhetoric, coming from both the US and Iranian sides, that poisons the environment for successful diplomacy.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is apparently less willing to callously issue war threats and pledge American troops to a third Middle East war, took exception to the saber rattling on Monday:

“I disagree that only a credible military threat can get Iran to take the actions that it needs to, to end its nuclear weapons program. We are prepared to do what is necessary, but, at this point, we continue to believe that the political-economic approach that we are taking is, in fact, having an impact on Iran,” he said.

But the debate is symptomatic of a discussion going on in Washington, in both the White House and on Capitol Hill, as to whether the US should start raising the war rhetoric against Iran.  Returning to the Bush era of name calling and saber rattling would effectively guarantee that the Obama administration continues solely down the pressure track, rejects opportunities for a successful peaceful resolution to our issues with Iran, undermines Iranians fighting for the rule of law, and locks the US into a trajectory for war.

The Obama administration is reportedly mulling whether to ratchet up belligerent rhetoric towards Iran, according to the New York Times:

Two years into office, Mr. Obama has organized an impressive sanctions regime and managed to combine diplomacy and pressure better than many experts had predicted. But so far he has little to show for it, which has prompted a discussion inside the White House about whether it would be helpful, or counterproductive, to have him talk more openly about military options.

Further complicating this discussion is the November 2 midterm election “shellacking” that Obama and the Democrats received.  Some pundits believe the Democrat’s electoral defeat should cause Obama to tack right on Iran policy, either for purely politically reasons or, crazily enough, even to help jumpstart the economy.

Problem is, Obama has already tried this approach and received little credit from his opponents.  NIAC’s policy director writes in Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel:

Unfortunately, instead of fighting the Bush paradigm that rewards policymakers on the basis of bellicosity towards Iran, Obama has by and large perpetuated a political metric that defines success on Iran only in terms of pressure. Only if Obama raises the consequences of the dire alternative to a successful engagement strategy — war with Iran — and stakes out a new path to create his own political space for diplomacy, can the president effectively navigate the new reality in Congress and pursue a successful Iran agenda.

After coming into office promising to extend an open hand towards Iran, Obama gradually backed away from this position in favor of a tough sanctions regime.  Still, that wasn’t enough for many Republicans like Graham, because, simply put, Obama will never be able to out-hawk the hawks.  Repeating the mistakes of his first two years in office by further increasing bellicose rhetoric will only result in failure at the negotiating table and a crushing political defeat as Obama continually fails to live up to a standard of “toughness” that he himself set.

So far, it appears the administration is correctly distancing itself from Graham and Netanyahu’s comments.  But now the administration needs to go one step further and push back against provocative and counter-productive statements and generate the political space it needs for a major diplomatic effort.

  • 28 October 2010
  • Posted By Jamal Abdi
  • 2 Comments
  • Congress, Election 2010, Neo-Con Agenda, Nuclear file, US-Iran War

The Danger of the “Nuclear Capable” Standard

How difficult would it be for a President to drag us into another war in the Middle East based on questionable justifications?  According to George Friedman of Stratfor, it would be quite easy:

The most obvious justification would be to claim that Iran is about to construct a nuclear device. Whether or not this is true would be immaterial. First, no one would be in a position to challenge the claim, and, second, Obama’s credibility in making the assertion would be much greater than George W. Bush’s, given that Obama does not have the 2003 weapons-of-mass-destruction debacle to deal with and has the advantage of not having made such a claim before. […] The Republicans could not easily attack him. Nor would the claim be a lie. Defining what it means to almost possess nuclear weapons is nearly a metaphysical discussion. It requires merely a shift in definitions and assumptions. This is cynical scenario, but it can be aligned with reasonable concerns.

Friedman is right on one thing: while many policymakers intone the need to keep “all options on the table”, there is no real standard for what the US considers “unacceptable” in terms of Iran’s nuclear progress.  Previously, President Bush warned that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons “knowledge” it would trigger World War III.  Now, the current standard being thrown around in Washington is that a “nuclear capable” Iran is unacceptable.  But it is unclear what “nuclear capable”, actually means.  In fact, it is a completely malleable term—a placeholder—for which the “definitions and assumptions” could be adjusted at will.  Thus, there is an enormous vacuum that could be exploited by a President—or, more likely, a Presidential candidate or an opposition Congress seeking to paint a President into a corner.

Ron Kampeas writes in JTA on how a new Congress may press Obama for military confrontation and undermine engagement efforts with Iran (via Lobelog):

[GOP House Minority Whip Eric] Cantor, in his interview with JTA, emphasized that Obama must make it clear that a military option is on the table.

Congress, however, cannot declare war by itself, and while a flurry of resolutions and amendments pressing for greater confrontation with Iran may be in the offing, they will not affect policy — except perhaps to sharpen Obama’s rhetoric ahead of 2012.

Should Obama, however, return to a posture of engagement — this depends on the less than likely prospect of the Iranian theocracy consistently embracing diplomacy — a GOP-led Congress could inhibit the process through adversarial hearings.

One problem with Kampeas’ piece, however, is that Congress is the very branch of government that can declare war.  But short of such a drastic step, the power of the gavel means Congress could have plenty of options to confront Obama on Iran and help define the terms of the debate as we enter the 2012 Presidential campaign. A Congress itching to portray the President as soft on national security could unilaterally declare, with the help of a few hearings, that Iran is imminently “nuclear capable”.  And in lieu of a real standard for what that means, we could start hearing familiar echoes that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”.

  • 29 July 2010
  • Posted By Jamal Abdi
  • 4 Comments
  • Election 2010, Iran War related legislation

The Republican back door to war with Iran

A game plan to draw the United States into a third war in the Middle East may be quietly unfolding before our eyes.

Late last week, Republicans in the House or Representatives unveiled H.Res.1553, a resolution providing explicit support for an Israeli bombing campaign against Iran. The measure, introduced by Texas Republican Louie Gohmert and forty-six of his colleagues, endorses Israel’s use of “all means necessary” against Iran “including the use of military force”.

“We have got to act,” Gohmert has said in regard to the measure. “We’ve got to get this done. We need to show our support for Israel. We need to quit playing games with this critical ally in such a difficult area.”

But Gohemert’s resolution may be an unprecedented development–Congress has never endorsed pre-emptive military strikes by a foreign country.  What’s more, this is the minority party signaling to Israel that they can count on Republican support should the President object to Israeli strikes on Iran–as did George W. Bush in 2008.  The resolution also explicitly endorses “any means necessary”, a carte blanche for the use of nuclear bunker-busting bombs.

The measure may be overtly political, coming just one week before the Congressional recess in which Members of Congress will return home to their districts to campaign and raise money for the upcoming midterm elections. Democrats and Republicans are in a foot race to demonstrate who can be toughest on Iran. But while Democrats continue to tout newly imposed “crippling” sanctions as evidence of their commitment to pressure, Republicans appear to be moving on to the next phase and are openly endorsing an Israeli strike. Gohmert even argued that instead of sanctions, Congress should have passed his resolution green-lighting military strikes on Iran.

But by encouraging such an attack, supporters of war are effectively working to circumvent the President and his military leadership, who have warned in dire terms against military action in Iran, and instead goading a third country into launching the first strike. Once the bombing campaign has commenced, the authors of this resolution may believe, the US would have few choices but be dragged into war.

In fact, this measure is no small part of a neoconservative agenda to go to war with Iran. The green light resolution is precisely what John Bolton called for two weeks ago in a Wall Street Journal piece that reads as a playbook for dragging the US into military conflict with Iran.

Bolton lays out a game plan in which Congress can “reassure” Israel in order to make a military strike possible. He argued that with “visible congressional support in place”, the President’s concerns about an Israeli strike can be short-circuited.

Some of the resolution’s supporters, like Michelle Bachmann, face tough re-election bids this November and are looking for more red meat to throw the hawks that make up their base.

Bachmann, who for years supported budget-busting foreign wars under George W. Bush, is now the leader of the deficit-obsessed Tea Party Caucus. The caucus has yet to produce a policy paper outlining a plan for a budget-neutral war with Iran.

Others, such as Congressman Dan Burton–now the top Republican on the House Middle East Subcommittee–would hold important leadership positions to shape Iran policy were Republicans able to regain the majority this November.

But by endorsing military strikes, supporters of H.Res.1553 are playing games with US national security and could provoke the US into a third war in the Middle East.

By couching the resolution’s endorsement of bombing Iran as an issue of Israel’s right to self defense–an area that is sacrosanct for many in Congress–supporters of war are framing the question as one of support for Israel rather than the numerous other messy questions that one might want to answer before endorsing military strikes. Will this engulf the Middle East in a “destabilizing” (General Petraeus), “cataclysmic” (Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen) regional war? Will military strikes even stop Iran’s nuclear program? Or will they merely set the program back, convince Iran to leave the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, and guarantee that Iran aggressively pursues a nuclear deterrent?

The resolution does not go into the murky details of how devastating a military strike on Iran would be to the US and Israel, not to mention the civilian death toll in Iran, the collapse of Iran’s democratic opposition movement, and the consolidation of popular support by Iran’s now-disputed government.

It doesn’t take into account the dire warnings from US military leadership who have consistently expressed serious concerns about any military options.

But it does give House Republican supporters an opportunity to pretend that they are more concerned about national security and allow them to burnish faux pro-Israel credentials. In some districts, this will play quite well in November.

There are serious consequences for this transparent ploy. A Congressional green light for military strikes is not just politics; it could significantly alter perceptions for those in Israel pressing for strikes and undercut efforts by the President and US military leadership to protect against such impulses.

There is a reason Louie Gohmert is not President, Michelle Bachmann is not the Secretary of Defense,  and that the Tea Party does not comprise the Joint Chiefs. But the scary thing is that this resolution, just by being introduced, may very well represent one step forward towards the US being dragged into a war with Iran.

War with Iran will seem farfetched until it is a fait accompli.

Originally Posted at Foreign Policy Magazine’s Middle East Channel

  • 5 March 2010
  • Posted By Jamal Abdi
  • 2 Comments
  • Congress, Election 2010, Events in Iran, Legislative Agenda, Sanctions

Mark Kirk’s Fuzzy Iran Logic

On February 19, Mark Kirk, a Republican Congressman from Illinois running for a promotion to the US Senate, delivered a speech at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs to share his views on Iran policy.  While initial reports didn’t indicate anything much new was said by the Representative, who has been calling for a gasoline “quarantine” on Iranians since 2007, audio from the event has just been released that reveals some troubling insights into Kirk’s gasoline embargo rationale.

During the Q&A, Kirk brushed aside concerns that a gasoline embargo will hurt innocent Iranians and stated that, in fact, the US should punish innocent Iranians as a means to engineer anti-government protests in Iran:

Q: The oil embargo or quarantine sounds like a very plausible alternative … why the opposition from the administration?

Kirk: Um, in a discussion I recently had with administrative officials they said we would feel worried that it would hurt the Iranian people… (laughs)

But it’s that actual pain that I think has to be imposed, in my view, a gasoline quarantine would immediately trigger anti-American demonstrations in downtown Tehran, organized by the regime.

But over time the regime fears large groups of people gathering because as you know a mob can turn very quickly.

When you hear that you can’t get enough gasoline that day, and you read in the state controlled paper that it’s Barack Obama’s fault, you’ll be mad at Barack Obama that week.

But as your factory closed down and as the refrigerator starts to run out, the naturally tendency of any people is turn to their own leader and say “fix this”.

I cannot feed a nuclear weapon to my family. It is more important to feed my family than eat nuclear weapons. And that’s the dilemma you want to put them in.

So, the Kirk Plan, in a nutshell, is to cut off gasoline for Iranians and triggering anti-American protests in Iran.  Sounds bad so far.  But then, eventually, Kirk says, the “mobs” will turn and Iranians will suddenly start protesting against their own government.

I’m not sure if Kirk has been following Iran for the past nine months, but somebody better tell him that Iranians are already standing up to their government. And they didn’t even need Mark Kirk to engineer their discontent.