Quote of the Day

It seems that not one single thing escapes the attention of hardliners in Iran, bent on using the extraordinary powers they hold to suppress every effort by Iranians to exercise their right to freedom of expression. They have even decreed that men should refrain from sporting various hairdos and—yes I am not kidding—from plucking their eyebrows, because those are considered to be indications of “devil worshipping” and homosexuality.

Although such preoccupations may seem risible to some, the people who are caught up in this dragnet are suffering very real and harsh consequences.

Atena Farghadani is a 28-year-old artist and women’s rights activist. She drew a cartoon depicting some members of Iran’s Majles (Parliament) with animal heads, as a form of protest against bills that are in different stages of moving through the parliamentary process that, in an effort to boost child-bearing, would among other things, restrict access to contraception and establish preferences in hiring for married women over single women.

We just learned that she has been sentenced to an astonishing twelve years and nine months in prison on spurious charges of “spreading propaganda against the system,” “insulting members of the parliament through paintings” and “insulting the Supreme Leader” because of her cartoon. She is also being charged with “gathering and colluding with deviant groups” because she has met with the families of those killed by government agents in the unrest following the 2009 presidential elections and because of an art exhibition she held which was attended by members of Iran’s persecuted Baha’i community.

Elise Auerbach. Still more proof that the Iranian “leadership” class is unworthy of the Iranians it purports to lead.

(Cross-posted.)

How to Be Smarter about Dealing with Iran

Iran Human Rights Abuses

I was struck by the following in Aaron David Miller’s piece, which argues that Iran is outwitting and outmaneuvering the United States in the Middle East: [Read more…]

“This Deal Is Getting Worse All the Time”

The tentative nuclear agreement with Iran was initially hailed as a triumph of diplomacy on the part of the Obama administration. But the more one examines the deal, the more one ought to be concerned about its terms. [Read more…]

More on the Nuclear Deal with Iran

I like to think that I am a fair-minded fellow, so in the interests of fairness and presenting both sides on the Iran nuclear deal, here is Fred Kaplan telling us that the framework for a nuclear deal with Iran is really and that we should be very glad indeed to have it as we work towards a comprehensive negotiated settlement. Read the whole thing, but note that even Kaplan is forced to admit that there are ways in which the new framework leaves us with more questions than answers: [Read more…]

The Tentative Nuclear Deal with Iran

It is just that–tentative. The details of the deal have to be worked out later, and the parties to the talks have given themselves until June 30 to do so. (One wonders whether they will stick to that timeline.) The outlines of the deal can be read here. Note that there is absolutely no provision whatsoever in the deal to limit or control the production of ballistic missiles; indeed, sanctions for ballistic missile production remain in place, as Iran has apparently not done anything to alleviate the concerns of the international community regarding that issue.

This report is of concern:

Negotiators working on a nuclear accord with Iran are discussing a secret annex that would contain detailed commitments by both sides, diplomats from three countries involved said, as talks entered their final hours.

The negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland, which stretched into a diplomatic marathon amid missed deadlines and all-night sessions, appeared set to end with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini expected at a 7 p.m. press conference.

The goal of the diplomacy is an agreement to end the 12-year standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, restricting its atomic work and easing the sanctions that have isolated its economy and slashed exports of oil. But with consensus on key issues elusive, diplomats have scaled back expectations of what they can achieve this week. Another three months are envisaged to reach a detailed final accord.

If the six powers negotiating with Iran reach accord on major principles, a general public statement will be released while specific commitments will be enshrined in a confidential annex, according to officials from a European nation, Russia and a third country, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the talks.

Such a document would help U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to persuade Congressional skeptics that tangible progress had been made, while Iranian leaders would also have something to show to domestic hardliners, the diplomats said.

I can appreciate the need for negotiations to remain secret, but if we have some kind of tentative deal, then we ought to know what the details are of that deal. It is not right that the United States should be able to spin the deal one way, while the Iranians are able to spin the deal another way, and the rest of the world is left in the dark as to who is right simply because the details of the deal are contained in a “secret annex.” If “trust us, we negotiated a good deal and you don’t need to worry your pretty little heads about the details” is the line of the day, then all of us have reason to worry.

This analysis should worry us as well:

THE “KEY parameters” for an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program released Thursday fall well short of the goals originally set by the Obama administration. None of Iran’s nuclear facilities — including the Fordow center buried under a mountain — will be closed. Not one of the country’s 19,000 centrifuges will be dismantled. Tehran’s existing stockpile of enriched uranium will be “reduced” but not necessarily shipped out of the country. In effect, Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will remain intact, though some of it will be mothballed for 10 years. When the accord lapses, the Islamic republic will instantly become a threshold nuclear state.

That’s a long way from the standard set by President Obama in 2012 when he declared that “the deal we’ll accept” with Iran “is that they end their nuclear program” and “abide by the U.N. resolutions that have been in place.” Those resolutions call for Iran to suspend the enrichment of uranium. Instead, under the agreement announced Thursday, enrichment will continue with 5,000 centrifuges for a decade, and all restraints on it will end in 15 years.

I’d like to think that my skepticism concerning this deal is unwarranted. But while there are many who are celebrating today’s agreement, there is much about it that will–and should–give us pause.

Waiting for a Nuclear Godot

I am not one of the people advocating war with Iran in order to eliminate Iran’s ability to manufacture a nuclear arsenal. I don’t believe that military action is feasible at this point without a large scale invasion and an Iraq-style takeover of the country, which would bring even larger headaches for the occupation forces. That having been written, I’d like to know precisely what the Obama administration thinks will change if negotiators hang around in Switzerland and continue to press for a nuclear deal. There has been no give from the Iranian delegation regarding the remaining stumbling blocks to a deal; if anything, there has been retrenchment on Iran’s part that will only serve to sabotage hopes for a workable deal. The March 31 deadline for the completion of a deal represents yet another allegedly firm Obama administration negotiating stance that got tossed to the side once the administration’s bluff was called. If members of the international community have not yet learned that they should not take the administration’s red lines seriously, then they frankly have not been paying attention.

There is no one in firm control of American foreign policy. The design and implementation of policy is a complete and tangled mess. Allies no longer trust us and adversaries simply do not take us seriously; it’s not for nothing that the Saudis are now freelancing in the realm of foreign affairs, convinced that they cannot trust the United States to lead, or to support those who are willing to lead in America’s stead.

In 2008, candidate Obama promised us a smart foreign policy if only we would be enlightened enough to elect him to the presidency. In 2012, President Obama assured us that we were getting a smart foreign policy, and that we would continue to get one if only we would be enlightened enough to re-elect him. Political promises get broken often. Few have been broken as dramatically.

The Decline and Fall of American Foreign Policy

American foreign policy is–to put matters bluntly–in free-fall. The United States is significantly less able to influence events around the world, it is not trusted or respected by allies, and it has undermined its negotiating position with Iran in the nuclear talks by making it abundantly clear that it is desperate for a deal. If you care about the state of American foreign policy, you should be very scared right now.

Let’s start with the recently concluded Israeli elections. Benjamin Netanyahu won, and that made the Obama administration mad. So the administration decided to work to delegitimize Netanyahu’s election by denigrating him at every turn, and openly speculating about reconsidering the American-Israeli relationship–to the point where the Obama administration stated that it may not be as willing as it was in the past to veto anti-Israel resolutions in the United Nations Security Council. But if the intent of the administration’s anti-Netanyahu campaign was to get Israelis to rethink their support of their prime minister, the campaign may have failed:

Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser, is hardly an advocate for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr. Eiland called on Mr. Netanyahu to cancel his speech to Congress this month, and he has criticized the prime minister’s strategy for fighting both the Iranian nuclear threat and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In last week’s election, he cast a ballot for someone else.

But in the days since, he and many other Israelis have been astonished by the unrelenting White House criticism that has helped sink relations between Washington and Jerusalem to a nadir not seen for more than 25 years. Even some who mainly blame Mr. Netanyahu for antagonizing President Obama over the last six years now see the scales flipped.

“Everybody understands this is part of the political campaign,” Mr. Eiland said of Mr. Netanyahu’s pre-election comments promising that a Palestinian state would not be established on his watch. “To try and say: ‘I caught you; I heard you say something. Since that’s what you said, I’m going to make a reassessment,’ it sounds like, ‘Well, I have been waiting until you make such a mistake, and now I’m going to exploit it.’ ”

[. . .]

Israeli analysts are now suggesting that Mr. Obama and his aides might be overplaying their hand, inviting a backlash of sympathy for Mr. Netanyahu, and that they may not have clearly defined what they expected to gain diplomatically by continuing to pressure the Israeli leader.

The president’s harsh words have been deemed by some to be patronizing and disrespectful not only to Mr. Netanyahu but also to the voters who rewarded his uncompromising stances with a resounding mandate for a fourth term.

Recall that in 2008, Senator Barack Obama–and his supporters–said that an Obama administration would not do what the Bush administration supposedly did; enrage and alienate American allies. Now look at what is happening with the American-Israeli relationship.To be sure, Netanyahu’s comments about the prospects for a Palestinian state and his stated concern on election day that Arabs were going to the polls “in droves” and endangering his government did not help matters, but the Obama administration has taken the anti-Netanyahu campaign too far, and the backlash has set in. Netanyahu now looks like he is championing Israel against the Goliathesque United States, and the administration looks positively churlish on the world stage.

Speaking of alienating allies, the president of the United States apparently can’t be bothered to meet with the Secretary General of NATO when the latter is in Washington, and indeed, has never met Jens Stoltenberg, even though the latter requested a meeting with the president well in advance of his visit. This is, to say the least, incomprehensible. If the president had met with Stoltenberg, the two would actually have a lot to talk about–especially with all that is going on between Russia and Ukraine these days. Sometimes, one wonders whether the Obama administration has simply checked out mentally, when it comes to foreign policy.

Currently, the Middle East is going to the infernal regions in a remarkably ugly hand basket. There is a civil war raging in Yemen, and the consequences of that war are quite significant:

What began as a peaceful struggle to unseat a Yemeni strongman four years ago and then mutated into civil strife now risks spiraling into a full-blown war between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran over a country that lies at the choke point of one of the world’s major oil supply routes.

With negotiators chasing a Tuesday deadline for the framework of a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, it seems unlikely that Iran would immediately respond militarily to this week’s Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, analysts say.

But the confrontation has added a new layer of unpredictability — and confusion — to the many, multidimensional conflicts that have turned large swaths of the Middle East into war zones over the past four years, analysts say.

The United States is aligned alongside Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and against them in Yemen. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, who have joined in the Saudi offensive in Yemen, are bombing factions in Libya backed by Turkey and Qatar, who also support the Saudi offensive in Yemen. The Syrian conflict has been fueled by competition among all regional powers to outmaneuver one another on battlefields far from home.

Not since the 1960s — and perhaps going back even further — has there been a time when so many Arab states and factions were engaged in so many wars, in quite such confusing configurations, said Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“It’s so dangerous,” he said.

The Iranians are backing the Zaydi Shi’ite Houthi insurgency in Yemen, which is helping to destabilize an already fragile region. While the United States is not pleased about that, the Obama administration may not be able to pressure Iran all that much because to do so might jeopardize any nuclear deal with Iran (more on the administration’s dealings with Iran later). So other Arab countries have stepped into the void left by the United States to counteract the Houthi insurgency. The Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, believes that a “united Arab force” should counteract “regional security threats” like the one in Yemen. The conflict in Yemen runs the risk of turning into a larger proxy war between Arabs and Iranians. Eventually, American dithering in Yemen–and the deleterious consequences of American inaction–could force the Obama administration to take a firm stand against Iran, but if that happens, any hope for a viable and acceptable deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program could go out the window.

It is worth noting that the Obama administration cited Yemen as a model for how to do counterterrorism right. Even as Yemen continued to descend into utter chaos, the administration insisted that all was going according to plan. It takes a lot to get the folks at Vox to (a) inveigh against the Obama administration; and (b) write accurate pieces, but the Obama administration has apparently done the impossible by forcing Vox to come out with a clear-eyed article detailing just how bad the Obama administration has been when it comes to handling the crisis in Yemen.

And then, there are the negotiations with Iran over the country’s nuclear program. As mentioned above, the United States is positively desperate for a deal, and the Iranians know it, which helps give Iran the upper hand in negotiations. American diplomacy regarding the issue has apparently yielded the condition that Iran “would run no more than 6,000 centrifuges at its main enrichment site for at least 10 years, with slowly easing restrictions over the next five years on that program and others Tehran could use to make a bomb.” That hardly sounds like Iran has been permanently denied nuclear weapons. As the two sides may not reach a nuclear deal by the self-imposed deadline of . . . well . . . today, the talks may extend until June. The longer the talks are extended, the more time Iran has to work on producing a nuclear weapon. Knowing that they have the United States and its allies over a barrel, the Iranians have retreated from a key concession, stating that “they are no longer willing to ship their atomic fuel out of the country.” This, of course, serves to undermine efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

The American negotiating stance in the Iran talks has hardly inspired confidence among American allies. Between the Obama administration’s handling of the Iran talks and its response to the crisis in Yemen, the Saudis have been alienated, and have decided that it is better for them to act alone than to wait for the Obama administration to adopt and implement a coherent policy addressing the nuclear buildup in Iran and the Yemeni civil war. This is, of course, a remarkable slap in the face for the United States:

“Taking matters into our own hands is the name of the game today,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist and former adviser to the government. “A deal will open up the Saudi appetite and the Turkish appetite for more nuclear programs. But for the time being Saudi Arabia is moving ahead with its operations to pull the carpet out from underneath the Iranians in our region.”

With the approach of a self-imposed Tuesday night deadline for the framework of a nuclear deal between Iran and the Western powers, the talks themselves are already changing the dynamics of regional politics.

The proposed deal would trade relief from economic sanctions on Iran for insurance against the risk that Iran might rapidly develop a nuclear bomb. But many Arab analysts and diplomats say that security against the nuclear risk may come at the cost of worsening ongoing conflicts around the Middle East as Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Muslim allies push back against what they see as efforts by Shiite-led Iran to impose its influence — often on sectarian battle lines.

[. . .]

“The Americans seem nonchalant about this, like, ‘This is your sectarian problem, you deal with it,’ ” Mr. Khashoggi said. “So the Saudis went ahead with this Yemen operation.”

[. . .]

“There is a disbelief in the Arab world that these negotiations are only about the nuclear file, and a frequent complaint here is that we are kept in the dark, we are not consulted,” said Gamal Abdel Gawad Soltan, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. “The U.S. is much less trusted as an ally, as an insurance policy towards the security threats facing the governments in the region, and so those governments decide to act on their own.”

Again, recall that this alienation of allies and loss of American prestige was not supposed to happen, now that the big, bad George W. Bush administration is no longer in office and the Obama administration is. But here we are. Incidentally, now that there is a very real danger that Iran will have a nuclear arsenal, the Saudis have stated that they too may work to obtain nuclear weapons. Thus, an arms race begins in the region. I suppose that I might feel a little better if the Obama administration decided to be as tough on Iran as France is. But I’m not betting that this is going to happen.

It is, of course, possible for American foreign policy to recover from the wounds that have been inflicted upon it by Obama administration mismanagement. But it will take a lot for American prestige and influence to rebound, and for the United States to become a major and respected player again in world affairs. As things currently stand, the Obama administration seems content to oversee ongoing foreign policy/national security catastrophes playing out in various regions of the world. If you aren’t having sleepless nights over the state of American foreign policy, you are either not paying attention, or you are pleased by the loss of American power and influence throughout the world.

UPDATE: Cross-posted.

Obstructionists

I write this blog post to condemn and denounce a faction of Congress that seems bound and determined to prevent the passage and implementation of a host of Obama administration policy initiatives. It seems like on a regular basis, this particular faction–which of course is substantially represented in Congress–tries to throw a plethora of monkey wrenches into just about any Obama administration proposal. Frankly, the whole thing is unseemly and appalling; doesn’t this group of representatives and senators have anything better to do than to reflexively oppose the president and his policies?

The faction I am condemning and denouncing is, of course, the congressional Democratic caucus:

Congressional Republicans may be singularly focused on unraveling President Obama’s executive orders and actions, but when it comes to what is left of his viable policy agenda on Capitol Hill, Mr. Obama’s biggest problems are now often with Democrats.

The administration’s most pressing goal, expansive trade legislation, is adamantly opposed by scores of Democrats in the House and Senate even as most Republicans support it. Mr. Obama’s formal request for congressional authorization to fight the Islamic State is deeply imperiled, in no small measure because Senate Democrats find it wanting.

The president’s dismissal of the role of Congress in approving any nuclear agreement with Iran was facing a potential veto override before Republicans scrambled the political dynamic by sending a letter directly to the Iranian leadership. But if international negotiators reach an accord this month, Democrats’ concerns are all but certain to roar back.

Efforts to change a national security program that sweeps up Americans’ phone call data and other records have also stalled over disagreements with Democrats, even though both parties seek changes to the program.

My goodness, what’s next? Claims from the Democrats that the president is not a natural-born citizen of the United States?

Social Media: Not the Place to Go for Sober-Headed Legal Analysis

There has been a lot of debate about the letter sent by 47 Republican senators to the Iranian regime regarding the negotiations over nuclear energy use–likely for weapons–by Iran. I happen to think that sending the letter was a bad idea; foreign policy has been found to be the province of the executive branch, with a few exceptions, and I generally don’t like it when people of either party freelance in opposition to any White House when it comes to foreign policy–even if I disapprove of the White House’s foreign policy.

But while it is one thing to disapprove of the letter, it is another thing to sign on to two of the sillier claims that have polluted social media over the past day or so. Those claims are as follows:

  1. By sending out the letter, Republican senators “committed treason.”
  2. By sending out the letter, Republican senators committed a Logan Act violation.

Let’s take this nonsense in turn.

First, the treason claim. Art. III, Sec. 3 of the Constitution of the United States defines treason as follows:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.

The Republican senators are not “levying war” against the United States. Also, they are not “adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” Thus: No treason. This is a remarkably easy call, but you wouldn’t know it from reading all of the self-proclaimed lawyers pontificating on Facebook and Twitter.

Now, the Logan Act claim. First of all, the claim is defeated by the Speech or Debate Clause, which can be found in Art. I, Sec. 6, and which states the following in pertinent part:

The Senators and Representatives shall receive a compensation for their services, to be ascertained by law, and paid out of the treasury of the United States. They shall in all cases, except treason, felony and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any speech or debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other place.

“But Pejman,” I hear you cry, “the letter doesn’t constitute ‘speech or debate in either House’!” Well, actually, it likely does, my fine-feathered friends. I give you Gravel v. United States, in which the Supreme Court stated that a written communication may be considered protected by the Speech or Debate Clause if it is:

an integral part of the deliberative and communicative processes by which Members participate in committee and House proceedings with respect to the consideration and passage or rejection of proposed legislation or with respect to other matters which the Constitution places within the jurisdiction of either House.

Senators will likely be able to claim that the letter to Iran relates to “the consideration and passage or rejection of proposed legislation” in the event that any nuclear deal with Iran is presented as a treaty, or in the event that enabling legislation is needed to pass any executive agreement. Certainly, as foreign policy oversight–including, but not limited to advice and consent given to treaties–is placed in the Senate, the senators will also be able to claim that the letter relates to “other matters which the Constitution places within the jurisdiction of either House.”

Even if the Speech or Debate Clause were not found to apply, the Logan Act would likely not be found to have been violated in this case. As Steve Vladeck points out, the legal justification for a violation of the Logan Act is just not there.

So much, then, for the absurd contention that 47 Republican senators are going to prison, or might be convicted of the capital crime of treason. Let’s note a few other things in addition:

  1. A whole bunch of non-Republicans chortled when the foreign minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif, allegedly schooled the 47 Republican senators on international law. In fact, Zarif didn’t know what he was talking about.
  2. As we continue to peruse Jack Goldsmith’s excellent post, note that back when Joe Biden was a senator, he demanded that a nuclear arms reduction agreement with Russia be approved via the treaty process. Now, we are supposed to believe that treaties are bad, and that executive agreements are the way to go. Why? Because the president is a Democrat and the Senate is controlled by Republicans. What a shock.
  3. Let’s remember all of the times when Republican presidents had their foreign policy positions undermined by Democratic freelancers. They include (a) the “Dear Commandante” letter to Daniel Ortega (see also this);(b) Nancy Pelosi visiting Syria; (c) Jimmy Carter writing to leaders of other governments on the Security Council in order to frustrate attempts by the George H.W. Bush administration to obtain a resolution authorizing the use of force to liberate Kuwait from Iraq; and (d) Edward Kennedy asking the Soviets to help Democrats defeat Ronald Reagan in 1984(!) in exchange for Kennedy “lend[ing]” the Soviets “a hand” in dealing with Reagan. None of the people yelling and screaming about treason and Logan Act violations over the past day or so ever said one word about these attempts to undermine White House prerogatives when it comes to foreign policy. Wonder why?

A Modest Improvement in Internet Freedom in Iran

Instead of banning websites completely, the Iranian regime is now just censoring their content. Sure, Iranians will only see redacted versions of websites, but at least they’ll see them. I guess this is supposed to mean that everything is both hunky and dory in Iran now.

How very wonderful all of this is. Utopia has finally been achieved in Iran. Must be the effects of all of that political liberalization.

Nota bene: Some people might think that this blog post is featuring sarcasm rather heavily. I can’t possibly imagine where they would get such an idea.

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