Iran, Israel, and Syria: Does What Came Before Show What Will Come Next?

Location of the Golan Heights

Last night, it looked like we were about to plunge into the new and most dangerous phase of a constantly-mutating series of wars in the Middle East. Over a tense few hours, Iran and Israel exchanged strikes, in what was either a display of signaling or a sign of things to come.

Or, of course, both.

Israel carried out widespread deadly raids against what it said were Iranian targets in Syria on Thursday after rocket fire towards its forces which it blamed on Iran, marking a sharp escalation between the two enemies.

I know that yesterday I said today’s post would be about the medium-and-long-term ramifications of the US announcing it was going to violate the JCPOA, but events, as we see, quickly overtook long-term thinking. They have a way of doing that.

So what do these strikes mean? Since, as of this writing (around 1:00 CST), there haven’t been further significant exchanges, we can begin to hazard a few guesses, knowing all the while that predictions only serve to make you look foolish, and bland gamesmanship is grotesque when real lives are on the line.

So to do a quick recap of last night’s events: Iran, shortly after announcing that it would abide by the JCPOA, but making clear that could change if the European signatories changed their tune, launched rockets at Israeli positions in the Golan Heights, which has been occupied by Israel since the ’67 war.

Israel retaliated, claiming to take out “nearly all key Iranian military targets in Syria”. The reason for this significance isn’t just that Israel was attacked; that is common. But up until now, it has been through Iranian proxies, such as Hezbollah. This was the first actual Iranian strike, and the first time Israel has attacked Iranian forces/infrastructure directly.

So…does this mean war? Right now, it looks like it doesn’t. Indeed, on the surface, it looks like Iran swaggered, and Israel punched back, demonstrating clear power, forcing Iran to back off. That might be the case. This may have been a little bit of eagerness, a few punches thrown in the chaos of war, before both sides backed down.

Right?

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Anti-JCPOA Arguments: Should The US Violate Treaties?

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The President of the United States of America

Trust me: I’d much rather be talking about Michael Cohen getting millions of dollars from Russian billionaires and huge corporations in some kind of slush fund. I can’t wait to see the explanations for this. The dude has three clients! Were they hoping to buy face time with Sean fucking Hannity?

But, as fast as the news moves (and don’t get me wrong, this might be huge), the top story of the day is still the United States President, former reality TV host and failed casino owner Donald Trump, announcing that the US would violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The fallout of this is already beginning to take shape, although its outcome is very far from certain. Iran has announced that they are staying in the treaty, condemning the US for violating its agreements, and explicitly tying it to the Paris Accords. But at the same time, they also announced that they would prepare to ramp up their nuclear program is the other signatories followed suit.

This is pretty smart, I think, even if it is super predictable. The upshot is that the European countries in the JCPOA have to choose between an Iran acting all pious and responsible, and the United States, which Iran is painting as essentially a rogue state. That Iran, itself a very, very bad actor, is able to do this is because, between this and the Paris Accords and a million other pointless acts of dumbshow hostility, Trump is handing them a brush and the paints, and saying “I am a rogue state. Paint me like you do your French girls.”

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Iran Deal is Peak Trump: Reality Show Engineering, Fake Toughness, and Bone-Deep Ignorance

Spoiler! It won’t be the correct decision.

President Trump is expected to announce Tuesday that he will not continue a waiver of sanctions against Iran, according to current and former U.S. and foreign officials, a major step toward ending the nuclear agreement he has called an “insane” deal that “never, ever should have been made.”

The decision follows the failure of last-ditch efforts by the three European signatories to the agreement to convince Trump that his concerns about “flaws” in the 2015 accord could be addressed without violating its terms or ending it altogether.

In this one decision, a monumental decision, portentous in every way, we have the essence of the Trump administration boiled down.

Manufactured reality show drama. While other Presidents have made it clear when they are going to give a speech, only Trump likes to tease out his decisions, with the weight of a commercial break. He still sees himself as a reality show judge, sitting on the high chair, with supplicants having their fate decided. And in a way, he’s correct. There’s no doubt that he’s brought the language of the genre to our politics, with its phony drama, heightened personal confrontations, and (most importantly), the wholly false idea of Himself being a man to whom people need to listen. That it has become, well, reality, is our nightmare. The tweet tease is small in the grand scope of things, but demonstrates the essential seriousness with which he approaches his job (which is to say: none at all).

Fake tough guy New York style negotiating, you understand? The essence of Trump is that he’s a fake tough guy. His entire persona, which he doesn’t try to hide, is that if you go after him, he’ll sue you. If you insult him, he’ll sue you. It’s maddening, because being able to afford high-priced lawyers is not actually tough! It’s hard-nosed, or whatever, and works really well in the world of New York real estate, I guess, where everyone thinks they’re some kind of street thug. Trump is part of this, Kushner definitely is, as is Rudy, and Cohen, and a ton of other people around him, who are beginning to realize that manipulating tabloids isn’t the same as life-or-death decisions with nowhere to hide.

This is painfully clear in Iran, where Trump brings his one negotiating idea- that you can walk away- to the table. That’s all he knows! It’s his one trick, because it makes him seem tough, but it has backed him into a corner. The other partners, especially Russia and China, aren’t about to back out of the JCPOA. In fact, those two are probably pretty glad America is, because it undermines US leadership even more (and that had little ground beneath its feet anyway), and forces Iran to turn more toward Eurasia.

There are times when this tactic works, even perhaps on the international stage. One could argue that being willing to go nuclear was a from of “walking away” in the Koreas. I personally think that it might have played a part, though once Kim had reliable ICBMs the game was essentially over. But even if you think it worked with North Korea, even if you think it was the only factor that has led to these historic times, you have to recognize that it doesn’t always work.

But these are essentially parochial dummies with one trick. And it isn’t going to work with Iran. Good luck telling Trump that, though, because of Point #3.

Essential bone-deep ignorance. The Iran deal was a masterwork of diplomacy, retroactive justification for Obama’s Nobel Prize. He (and John Kerry, and a host of others, but we have an auteur vision of geopolitics) convinced Russia and China to levy punishing sanctions on Iran, when neither of them particularly wanted to. In exchange, Iran essentially gave up its nuclear program, the one guarantee of non-interference, and agreed to the most invasive inspection regime in human history.

But Trump is clear this was the worst deal ever made, because Iran also got some things out of it.

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Nikki Haley and the Iran Deal: Willful Misunderstanding of the Past and Present

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Lots of countries think they have zones of influence.

It was washed away by storms last week, but Nikki Haley gave a speech to the AEI about the Iran deal, and the need to revoke or renegotiate it. It was a masterpiece of alternate realities, falsehoods, and outright lies. It was, in short, everything the right has been saying about the Iran deal for years.

That is was Nikki Haley is significant. She hasn’t come up much on this blog, mostly because, unlike nearly everyone else in Trump’s orbit, she isn’t trying to actively destroy her department (Pruitt, Sessions, Devos) or use it to further enrich their own class (Mnuchin, Cohn, the First Family). She seems to take her job seriously.

But at the end of the day, she’s still a Republican in 2017, and beholden to the idea–really, the totemic belief–that everything Barack Obama did was wrong, and evil. They’ve based an entire philosophy, nearly an eschatology, around that, and so it must be pursued. In very few places was that more clear than the Iran deal.

By literally every measure, the Iran deal was a sweeping success. As Stephen Walt points out in his dissection of Haley’s speech, in the deal “Iran gave up enriched uranium, destroyed 13,000 centrifuges, dismantled the Arak reactor, let the U.N. install monitoring devices, implemented the NPT Additional Protocol, and a host of other measures — all before the United States or anyone else began lifting sanctions.”

Iran went from zero centrifuges to 12000 between 2002 and 2012, when we were acting unilaterally. Then in a triumph of diplomacy for Obama, Kerry, and co, we roped in not just European allies but Russia and China to increase sanctions on Iran, which hurt them enough to get to the negotiating table. It not only got them there, but they gave up a lot.

The problem, from the right, is that Iran didn’t give up everything. They still have an army. They are still able to project influence across the region and interfere with US goals and interest, whatever they are now. They got some stuff out of the negotiations, which, as advanced, high-level students of diplomatic history will tell you, is the whole point of negotiations.

Look at how Haley spins this.

Iran was feeling the pinch of international sanctions in a big, big way. In the two years before the deal was signed, Iran’s GDP actually shrunk by more than four percent. In the two years since the deal, and the lifting of sanctions, Iran’s GDP has grown by nearly five percent. That’s a great deal for them. What we get from the deal is much less clear.

Sounds compelling! The only issue is that the GDP-pinching sanctions were levied explicitly as a way to get Iran to the negotiating table so it would stall and open up its nuclear program. Russia and China weren’t going to impose sanctions forever, and neither was Europe.

We didn’t give Iran an out from a crippled economy; we crippled it so that they would give up their nuclear program to heal. Haley’s argument is entirely mendacious, misleading nonsense that demonstrates embittered opposition to reality.

Musical interlude! 

Walt, in his vivisection (which you should read: he offers a point-by-point rebuttal, even as he acknowledges that it is way easier to them to lie than for us to point out the truth), gets to the heart of the issues.

When facts and logic fail them, opponents of the JCPOA resurrect the myth of a “better deal.” Having failed to stop Obama’s original negotiation, they now claim decertifying the deal is the first step to persuading Iran and the other members of JCPOA to agree to major revisions or new restrictions. As I’ve written before, this is a vain, even laughable, hope. Contrary to unreliable sources like Bloomberg reporter Eli Lake, the other signatories remain strongly committed to the agreement and want it to remain intact, even if they would also like Iran to modify some of its other behavior in other ways. More importantly, this view incorrectly assumes the United States has unlimited leverage over Iran, and that getting tough now will magically produce a better deal.

This is it exactly. For one thing, it is crazy to think that after years of holding together a multinational sanctions regime to get a deal that gave the world what they most wanted, i.e. an Iran that can’t restart its nuclear program for 15 years, the rest of the world will be thrilled that we ripped up the deal. It’s crazy to think they’d want to start over, and wildly delusional to think they’d trust the United States at all. They wouldn’t if a normal GOPer like Rubio or Cruz tore it up; they certainly won’t trust Trump.

And more than that, do you really think Iran would actually respond to that? That they’d say “OK, now that you’ve made it clear we get nothing at all for giving up our weapons program, we’ll be sure to come to the table. What’s that? You actually want us to give up more? To stop trying to influence our region? To stop acting like the historic power we are, and let America do whatever it wants in the Middle East? Great! Where do wanna do this? We’ll bring orange slices!”

It’s madness and fallacy to think that the Iranian regime, or really, any post-Shah Iranian government, would enter into any agreement that lessens their regional power and increases that of the West. To believe that is to have zero historical understanding, of the near or the distant past.

The Iranian revolution wasn’t about Islam, or not entirely. There was a mix of anti-imperialist leftists, communists, other various secularists, religious types who didn’t want clerical rule (which remember, is what Khomeini first promised) and non-ideological nationalists who were just tired of western interference.

Western Europe and Russia had eclipsed Persian power in the region in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until oil that the West really started controlling what was happening in Iran. Lopsided deals with venal flunkies gave England and then America a dominant role in the expropriation of Iranian resources. Shahs got rich, the west got rich, and most Iranians stayed poor. The same thing happened in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc.

Western colonialism in the Middle East was a 20th-century phenomenon, which in our lifetime seems like all of eternity, but was really a blip. It was a terrible one, from the perspective of the inhabitants, of course. It was dirty and condescending and venal and greedy and grubbing. It was literally crude. Khomeini wasn’t just deposing a shah for the sake of Islam: he was kicking out the west for the sake of Iran.

That’s the heart of this. Iran, after a low and brutal, but historically brief, interregnum, is trying to reassert itself in a changing and fluid Middle East, still reeling from the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the perversions of 20th-century colonialism and nationalism.

To think that it won’t continue this process is madness. To think that we still have unlimited influence is absurd. The US hasn’t had any real influence in Iran since 1979, and even before that it was limited, as the Shah clumsily played the US and the USSR against each other. Even where we had influence in the region, it clashed with the waves of current politics and with history, and the way those two smashed and foamed into each other.

It isn’t a unique American delusion to think that we can control everything everywhere. Iran believes that too! They are trying to influence Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and more. And that’s the point. Iran sees itself as a major player in an important part of the world, a hinge part of the world. It is right to see itself that way. Historically that has been the case, and now that it once again has control of its resources, it wants to reassert itself.

Our goal shouldn’t be unlimited influence. The history of Asia has been major and minot powers balancing themselves with others, dominating when they can and cooperating when they can’t. Our influence in the region is extremely limited. That Barack Obama was able to get Iran to give up its single-biggest asset was a miraculous display of geopolitical reality.

The attempt to destroy that comes from Obama blindness. It comes from ignorance of the 20th century and a misperception of how powerful we actually were. It comes from a complete denial of the way history actually works, and Iranian self-perception. Combined, it is a potential disaster. But then, what else is new?