Paul Pillar

Revealed: The Lessons of Khobar Towers

Paul Pillar

Saudi Arabia reportedly has taken custody of Ahmed al-Mughassil, accused of being a central figure in the truck bombing at Khobar Towers in eastern Saudi Arabia in 1996 in which 19 American airmen died. The report immediately raises questions about the timing of this story, the motives behind it, and the circumstances of the reported arrest. Supposedly Mughassil had been living in Beirut and somehow, in a way as yet unexplained, was turned over to the Saudis. It is probably too much of a coincidence for all of this to be unrelated to efforts, including by the Saudis, to remind people of all the reasons they should dislike Iran, as the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program is under consideration in the U.S. Congress. (Investigation of the attack at Khobar eventually led to the conclusion that it was perpetrated by Shia Saudi militants working with Iranian military officers and Iran's ally Lebanese Hezbollah.) But set those questions aside and consider some legitimate lessons that the Khobar episode has for present issues.

Notwithstanding Saudi Arabia's recent tough talk about Iran, and the (mistaken) interpretation of leaked cables supposedly showing that Saudi leaders would like the United States to cut off heads of snakes, the preferences and concerns in Riyadh in 1996 were much different. As David Kirkpatrick accurately recalls in his article in the New York Times about Mughassil's reported capture, Saudi leaders were worried back then that the United States would react too strongly against Iran, especially with reactions involving military force. The Saudis were trying to improve their relations with Tehran, and they did not want any U.S. response to the Khobar attack to upset that process. The Saudis thus dragged their feet in their part of the investigation, so much so that senior U.S. officials complained publicly about the inadequate Saudi cooperation. Saudi officials were reluctant to join the United States in blaming Iran even after indictments of the suspects were announced. The foot-dragging strategy worked; by the time the slow-moving investigation was completed, too much time had passed for a military response to be politically feasible, especially given the election in the meantime of the moderate Mohammad Khatami to the Iranian presidency.

Insufficient Saudi cooperation in investigating terrorism that claimed American lives on Saudi soil had already been exhibited in 1995, with the bombing of a military training facility in Riyadh in which five American advisers were killed. Saudi authorities arrested some suspects and beheaded them before the FBI had any chance to question them. The evident Saudi concern this time was not anything having to do with Iran but instead where an investigation of these suspects, who were Sunni extremists, would lead inside Saudi Arabia itself.

The Khobar Towers episode underscores how what the Saudi government says today about Iran is not some universal truth about Iranian behavior but instead a reflection of an unsurprising Saudi preference for other countries not to get friendly with its major Persian Gulf rival. What the Saudis are saying today to the United States about Iran is in no way incompatible with their undertaking again, as in the 1990s, their own rapprochement with Tehran. That is how triangular diplomacy can be used to advantage. (E.g., in Richard Nixon's time it served U.S. interests for there to be tension between the USSR and China at the same time the United States was cultivating its own relationships with each.) If there is for now a more combative Saudi tone to relations with Iran than there was in the 1990s this probably is because the Saudis themselves are being more physically combative and have become the most destabilizing element in their immediate neighborhood, particularly with the destructive fight they have picked in Yemen.

As for actual Iranian behavior, the Khobar Towers attack was the last terrorist attack against Americans in which an Iranian hand was established beyond any reasonable doubt. (And no, militia activity against U.S. troops in Iraq during the Iraq War does not invalidate that statement.) The attack was reprehensible, and a forceful response would have been appropriate. There is every reason to believe that the Clinton administration would have responded forcefully if Iranian involvement could have been established promptly in an unimpeded investigation. That same administration retaliated against Iraq with cruise missile strikes in 1993 when an investigation rapidly determined Iraqi government responsibility for an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate former president George H. W. Bush during a visit to Kuwait.

The Khobar attack was nineteen years ago—more than half the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran. That regime has changed greatly in many ways, and one of those ways is that it does not do anti-U.S. terrorism any more. For those who take the “once a terrorist, always a terrorist” approach, that change won't make any difference. But that is not the approach that the United States has implicitly taken in managing its relations with many other states, groups, and individuals. And managing relations in such a way that the other party is less, rather than more, likely to slip back into terrorism because of a lack of alternative ways of competing for influence is all to the good.

Without diminishing for a moment the reprehensible nature of the attack at Khobar, one additional lesson can be drawn concerning the circumstances that stimulated it. Anti-U.S. terrorism with an Iranian dimension always involved U.S. military deployments in the Middle East. As in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, so it was in Lebanon in the 1980s, most notably with the truck bombing by Lebanese Hezbollah of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983—the deadliest terrorist attack against Americans until 9/11. Iran and its allies are by no means the only ones who react this way to the placement of U.S. military power in their neighborhoods and their homelands. The U.S. military build-up in Saudi Arabia following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990—a build-up of which the airmen who died at Khobar were still a part—was the development that most radicalized Osama bin Laden and stimulated him to take the violent anti-American course that he did.  

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

Terrorists Always Will Find Targets

Paul Pillar

The foiled attack last week by a heavily armed gunman on a Paris-bound express train has generated a surge of discussion and hand-wringing in Europe about how better to protect against such attacks. There is nothing new about European trains as a terrorist target; an attack against commuter trains in Madrid eleven years ago that killed 191 people was a far more significant event. And the policy challenges involved are hardly specific either to Europe or to trains.

Security for particular types of potential terrorist targets is routinely a topic after even failed terrorist attacks, and protective security countermeasures constitute a large proportion of public measures to counter international terrorism. Nonetheless, a serious and inherent limitation to what can be accomplished on this front is the unlimited number of potential targets. This limitation flows from the very nature of terrorism as the use of violence to elicit a broader political and psychological effect rather than merely to disable the particular target that is attacked. Soft targets can be made harder, but then terrorists will turn to other soft targets. Commercial aviation—still a juicy terrorist target for several reasons—has been made much harder than it once was, but there are still plenty of trains to go after. And it's not just transportation; any public place with a lot of people, such as shopping malls, will do.

The vast number of soft public targets means it is beyond the resources of public authorities to protect them at all. And with some targets, substantial protection quickly comes into conflict with normal commerce and everyday life. The sorts of security measures that now surround civil aviation could not practically be applied to mass transit and commuter railroads.

Trends in international terrorism in recent years have featured not only unlimited targets but also unlimited terrorists. All the soft, vulnerable targets in our open societies are vulnerable not only to well-organized groups but also to any individuals, or duets or trios, with a grievance, and if the grievance is political then any violent actions they take are by definition terrorism. ISIS has grabbed our attention with its land-grabs in the Middle East, but it is focused on trying to sustain its so-called caliphate. Many of the operations conducted in its name, especially the farther one gets from the Middle East, are generated elsewhere with only the ISIS brand name being borrowed. So-called lone wolves are a bigger part of the problem in the West than they would be in Morocco or Bangladesh, and a bigger problem for the West than any attacks there by ISIS.

Counterterrorist measures are still, as they always have been, a matter of shifting odds rather than of being able to eradicate a problem. This is true of security countermeasures, even for potential targets that have been substantially hardened. One of the few trains in the West that has airport-style security screening of passengers is the Eurostar train that uses the tunnel under the English Channel. One wonders what sort of security vulnerabilities regarding that train were demonstrated when an illegal migrant recently walked almost the entire length of the tunnel before he was caught.

The shifting of odds is also involved in anything that affects the motivations of would-be terrorists. The objective here is to reduce the chance of people being angry and frustrated enough to resort to the extreme of terrorism. The relevant public policies include ones that affect the personal circumstances in which such people live. They also include any policies of Western governments that become the objects of anger. The shaping of neither of these types of policies commonly bears the label of counterterrorism. They are nonetheless where there is likely to be, over the long run, even greater potential for changing the odds of our soft public spaces being attacked than there is through security countermeasures. The potential also is greater than through offensive kinetic action taken against people who already have crossed the line into terrorism, including action taken broadly against groups or more narrowly against individuals. With both types of action the severe limitations, as well as counterproductive aspects that can generate more angry people and more terrorism, have been repeatedly demonstrated.                              

TopicsTerrorism RegionsEurope

The Iran Issue and the Exploitation of Ignorance

Paul Pillar

Polls of American public opinion on the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program have produced widely varying results. One can find polls to support whatever position one would like to portray as the prevailing public view on this issue. Poll results on this subject are especially sensitive to the wording of the question that is asked. This has meant fertile ground for push-polls, in which questions are worded in a way designed to bring about the result that the sponsor of the poll seeks.

High sensitivity to the wording of the specific question a pollster asks reflects low public knowledge of the subject at hand. It means many members of the public have not focused on the subject enough to form a view that is either strong or well-informed, and that the responses of these people are thus easily swayed by the last words they hear from the poll-taker before answering. It is not surprising that this pattern should be true of opinion on the Iranian nuclear agreement, which involves numerous technical matters well beyond the normal cognizance of most Americans.

Low knowledge of the Iranian nuclear topic has prevailed for some time with the American public, even without getting into technical details of the current agreement. Three years ago the Chicago Council on Global Affairs asked Americans, in a multiple choice question, what was the assessment of the U.S. intelligence services about Iran's nuclear program—an assessment that has been constant over the last several years and repeatedly expressed publicly in statements and testimony. Only 25 percent of respondents picked the correct answer: “Iran is producing some of the technical ability to build nuclear weapons, but has not decided to produce them or not.” A mere four percent erred in the reassuring direction by choosing “Iran is producing nuclear energy strictly for its energy needs.” A plurality, 48 percent, incorrectly chose “Iran has decided to produce nuclear weapons and is actively working to do so, but does not yet have nuclear weapons.” An additional 18 percent chose “Iran now has nuclear weapons.”

It is easy to see how deficient public knowledge on such a subject undermines support for an agreement such as the one before Congress. If one believes that Iran is intent on finding a way to acquire nuclear weapons—or even worse, as nearly a fifth of respondents believed, that it already has such weapons—that puts the agreement in a very different, and unfavorable, light than if one understands that the agreement is a bargain that trades sanctions relief for Iran committing itself to remain a non-nuclear-weapons state and subjecting itself to restrictions that ensure it remains one. And in general, greater knowledge about the agreement and the issues it entails is associated with support for the agreement, and lesser knowledge is associated with opposition to it.

This pattern has been reflected in polling results that have shown greater public support for the agreement when some explanation of what the agreement is about is offered than when no such explanation is given. The pattern was particularly clear in a recent CNN poll that split the sampled population in two and asked each half a different version of the question about support for the new agreement. One-half was asked a bare-bones version of the question: "As you may know, the U.S. Congress must approve the agreement the United States and five other countries reached with Iran that is aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons before it can take effect. Do you think Congress should approve or reject the deal with Iran?" Among these respondents, 41 percent said accept and 56 percent said reject. The question presented to the other half provided just a bit more explanation: "As you may know, the U.S. and other countries have imposed strict economic sanctions against Iran while that country has nuclear facilities which could eventually allow it to produce its own nuclear weapons. Do you favor or oppose an agreement that would ease some of those economic sanctions and in exchange require Iran to accept major restrictions on its nuclear program but not end it completely and submit to greater international inspection of its nuclear facilities?" Here the result was 50 percent saying favor and 46 saying oppose.

To CNN's credit, the second question does not seem to be slanted either for or against the agreement. If one were to get very picky and try to find any such bias, one would be at least as able to see a slant going against the agreement as in favor of it. After all, the question points out that Iran's program includes facilities that "could eventually allow it to produce its own nuclear weapons" and that the agreement would "not end [the program] completely". And yet, even the very small amount of explanation yielded significantly more support for the agreement than the other question did, to the extent that the plurality was reversed. (To its discredit, CNN then in its own news coverage focused on the half of the poll result that showed disapproval and ignored the other half.)

Mustering support for the agreement thus has consisted in large part of educating the public about the deal itself and about the issues at stake regarding its fate in Congress. Mustering opposition to the agreement has consisted of whatever is the opposite of public education. That has included obscuring the basic nature of the issue at stake, especially by criticizing terms of the agreement without noting how the alternative of no agreement would be distinctly worse on the very points on which the agreement is criticized. It has included throwing every possible argument against the agreement up on a wall and seeing what sticks, without regard to whether the entire barrage has any coherence or internal consistency. It has included encouraging the public not to learn about the agreement so much as merely to feel disgust at doing any business with a detested Iranian regime. And it has included seizing on any detail or leak that, if creatively misinterpreted, can be portrayed as a major flaw.

That last tactic has been much in evidence regarding international inspections in Iran. It was in evidence most recently with the accusation that Iran would be allowed "to do its own inspections" at a non-nuclear military facility that has been the subject of old accusations about work said to have been done there years ago. The accusation is simply untrue, and there is no reason to believe, even taking the leaked supposed fragment of a draft agreement at face value, that inspection arrangements at that facility or anywhere else in Iran will depart from well-established standards of scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The tactic also has repeatedly surfaced with what became the "24-day" issue on inspections. The provision in the agreement that was seized upon in that case has nothing whatever to do with inspection of Iran's declared nuclear facilities, which will be subject to continuous monitoring. Even with undeclared, non-nuclear facilities the required advance notice is 24 hours, not 24 days. The provision that has been seized upon, far from being a loophole, was added as a further safeguard so that in the worst possible case, if Iran balked at a demanded inspection, a procedure would be in place to ensure that Iran would be outvoted and the inspection would take place (or in the very worst possible case, Iran would be found to be in violation with everything that implies regarding sanctions). Issues regarding inspection of undeclared facilities also have been treated in an anti-educational way by opponents of the agreement in that attention has been diverted from what really matters in any worrying about potential Iranian violations. What matters is not some single piece of work or equipment that could evade both inspectors' environmental swipes and the scrutiny of national intelligence services but rather a Manhattan Project-scale infrastructure—which would be too big to evade detection, especially with the enhanced international monitoring of all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle.

The chief consequence of the exploitation (and encouragement) of public ignorance and misunderstanding by opponents of the nuclear agreement is that the matter has become a much closer call in Congress than it ever should have been, especially given that the agreement is not at all risky for the United States because the United States is not giving anything up except for some of the punishment it doles out, and that the agreement is clearly superior to the alternative of no agreement and no special restrictions on the Iranian program. A subsidiary consequence is the corruption and degradation of public debate, as illustrated by the aforementioned inspection issues.

That in turn has led to a lot of debate about the debate, and not just about the substantive issues. President Obama has taken criticism for the candid way in which he has spoken, especially in his speech earlier this month at American University, about the nature of the opposition to the agreement. The criticism is valid only insofar as the president could have given more of a nod to those who are genuinely confused or conflicted, are sincerely trying to arrive at a well-founded opinion about the accord, and amid the confusing arguments have honest concerns and reservations. They are the victims of the exploitation of ignorance, not the exploiters. With regard to the exploiters—those driving the opposition to the agreement—the president was speaking the truth.

The message that members of Congress ought to take away from the polls is that as far as public opinion is concerned, members have ample space to make a principled decision about the nuclear agreement. They do not have to fight against some well-entrenched public view. They will not suffer a backlash of public opinion—genuine public opinion—if they do their own part in educating the public and explaining the reasons for their position.

A gold standard for such education and explanation was set by Representative Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who last week accompanied his announcement of support for the agreement with a remarkably thorough 5,200-word statement giving the reasons for his decision. The statement is one of the most insightful analyses of the relevant issues to come out of Congress or anywhere else, and it is very useful reading for any citizen looking for guidance and education on the subject. Not every member of Congress can be expected to be as thorough and diligent as Nadler has been, but he has shown what can be done along this line.

Members who come out differently are not necessarily intellectually lazy or incapable of understanding the relevant issues—and most of them aren't—nor are they misreading the public opinion polls. But they are being subjected to pressures that involve the role of money in politics, the Citizens United decision, and related matters that go beyond the direct influence being exerted on the Iran nuclear issue. This gets into reasons why even on some issues on which the American public does have a firm and reasonably well-informed prevailing view, such as Social Security, there still are significant political forces pushing in a different direction. It is for those general reasons, as well as the more specific sources of opposition to the Iranian nuclear agreement, that some members of Congress are exhibiting profiles in lack of courage. They are missing a good opportunity to show real leadership of the American public.

TopicsIran Nuclear Proliferation RegionsMiddle East

Washington on the Tigris: Reorganization Hits Iraq

Paul Pillar

The grand neoconservative aspiration underlying the invasion of Iraq twelve years ago involved an image of Iraq becoming more like the United States, with more free market economics and more resemblance to a liberal democracy. Iraq then would be, it was hoped, a model for similar political and economic change elsewhere in the Middle East. It is an understatement to say that this plan didn't quite work out as intended. But post-Saddam Iraq has come to resemble American governance and American politics in a few respects, one of which is reflected in the “reform” plan that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced earlier this month with much flourish and has been approved by the Iraqi parliament. The resemblance involves an urge to reorganize when one doesn't have any better idea, or at least any better politically feasible idea, for dealing with current problems.

The phenomenon has become familiar in Washington. Some of the most salient recent examples involve counterterrorism and homeland security, such as a reorganization of the intelligence community a decade ago. The attraction of the technique is obvious; it is a way of being seen to do something and to make changes, and more visibly so than many other possible steps that might actually have a better chance of ameliorating a problem. Reorganization also is the sort of thing that, unlike many other measures more worthy of the name “reform,” can be shaped without colliding with too many entrenched interests and thus has a chance of getting broad political support.

The most salient parts of Abadi's plan involve paring the organization chart of the Iraqi government. This especially includes eliminating vice presidencies and deputy prime minister positions, and reducing the number of ministries. Also reduced are the staffs and security details of some senior officials. The plan also purports to end the pattern of reserving certain positions for particular ethnic or sectarian groups (which is what the vice presidencies have been largely about).

Possibly some good can come of this. Corruption has been one of the subjects of popular grievances and a reason for pressure on Abadi to make changes, and reducing positions might marginally lower corruption by reducing the number of officials who can indulge in it and reducing the number of publicly funded goodies. And perhaps something can be said for even the appearance of activity and leadership. It may be mostly show, but leadership is partly showmanship. In the end, however, this “reform” consists largely of drawing or erasing lines on a wiring diagram. As for the ethnic and sectarian based apportionment of positions, that has been a symptom of, or an adjustment to, what ails Iraq and not a cause of the ailment.

Iraq's problems are rooted in fundamental unresolved questions of the distribution of power, distrust of power in the hands of others, and unwillingness to compromise. In other words, it is a matter of political culture that has not been ready to support a workable liberal democracy. That was the most important miscalculation underlying the launching of the Iraq War.

Contests on the ground with the so-called Islamic State or ISIS get most of the headlines coming out of Iraq these days, but that story also is ultimately one of politics, distribution of power, and how politicians in Baghdad deal with Iraq's demographic divisions. ISIS would never have made the gains that it has without severe Sunni Arab disaffection with the direction of Iraqi politics.

Prime Minister Abadi has been an improvement over his predecessor, and he deserves to be worked with. He will have to come up with more substantive leadership, however, than rearranging wiring diagrams. And the slow process of developing an Iraqi political culture that is more conducive to the kind of stable, free, and democratic system we would all like to see there will be a very long one.                     

TopicsIraq RegionsMiddle East

Senator Corker and the Nuclear Agreement

Paul Pillar

Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has long given us hope for reasonableness even when he and we have been surrounded by partisan rabidity and a lack of reason. Corker was one of the few Republican senators to refrain from signing the Tom Cotton letter that lectured the Iranians on how they cannot count on the United States sticking to any agreement that Iran may reach with it. When others in Congress were looking for ways to use new sanctions to torpedo preemptively any agreement on restricting Iran's nuclear program, Corker was working on legislation to provide structure to Congressional review of any agreement that emerged from the negotiations. The initial version of his bill was studded with poison pills, but Corker showed the flexibility, working with acting ranking Democrat Ben Cardin, to revise it into something balanced enough that it was enacted with broad bipartisan support and signed by the president.

It has been a fairly safe bet for some time that Corker would eventually oppose the nuclear agreement; with Jeff Flake, the only Republican senator who was possibly in play on the issue, having announced his opposition the other day, the GOP ranks in the Senate will be completely closed. But still one might hope to see signs of well-informed reasonableness, especially as a welcome contrast with the bombast of the presidential campaign, in which those vying for primary votes from the party base are striving to outdo each other in denouncing the agreement with comparisons to genocidal ovens and the like. We will have enough to worry about concerning the future of the agreement and thus the ability to restrain Iran's nuclear activities if one of those candidates, laden with such campaign baggage, makes it to the White House.

It thus is sad, but also revealing, to see how utterly weak are Corker's announced reasons for opposing the agreement, at least those he can fit into the space of an op ed. Well-informed reasonableness this is not.

Corker says that rather than ending Iran's enrichment program, the deal “industrializes” it—whatever that means. Ending Iranian enrichment of uranium altogether was never feasible. The agreement severely restricts both the level of enrichment and the amount of enriched uranium Iran can stockpile. Maybe “de-industrialization” is a term that could more aptly be applied to what the agreement accomplishes on that score compared to what the Iranians had been doing before the preliminary agreement was reached. In observing the terms of that agreement, Iran already has substantially walked back its program from what was taking place earlier.

The senator speaks of an inspection process that is “deeply flawed,” with “unorthodox arrangements” and “secret” agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency. In fact, the negotiated inspection arrangements are consistent with the Additional Protocol for IAEA inspections, and they conform to the usual practice of having individually negotiated procedures that are kept confidential between the IAEA and the member state. The only respect in which the procedures are “unorthodox” is that they are more extensive and more intrusive than any other nuclear inspection arrangement—the most extensive and intrusive that any nation has ever agreed through negotiation to place its own program under. The constant and detailed monitoring of declared facilities is supplemented by inspections of any other suspect Iranian facilities through carefully drafted procedures that ensure that if there is any disagreement, the Iranians get outvoted and the facility gets inspected.

Corker then gets into non-nuclear issues in ways that are nothing short of strange. He writes that “we will be relying on Iran to help achieve our goals in Iraq, Syria and perhaps elsewhere.” So is he saying it would be better if Iran not help us to achieve our goals in such places? He does say “this abrupt rebalancing could have the effect of driving others in the region to take greater risks, leading to greater instability.” The parties to the nuclear agreement have, throughout the negotiation, all stayed focused on the nuclear issue itself, and any rebalancing that results will hardly be “abrupt.” It also is hard to see how restricting what Iran can do with its nuclear program produces instability. Besides, if other parties in the region are going to engage in risky behavior that is a problem with them, not with Iran, and such behavior needs to be addressed directly. Corker tries to tie this confused set of issues back to the agreement by saying that Iranian awareness of all this “helped the regime continually erode the deal to its benefit.” Erode from what? The obligations in this agreement, other than reducing the punishment of Iran, are all obligations for Iran to fulfill. The starting point, before negotiations began, was an Iranian nuclear program subject to no restrictions at all beyond Iran's basic obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Corker tries to cast a general aspersion on the negotiations by stating that “since negotiations began in earnest” all sorts of nasty things have happened in the region that involve Iran in some way: that Iran has “doubled down on its support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad,” and “cemented Hezbollah as an expeditionary shock force” while lots of people have died in the Syrian civil war and ISIS has been doing bad things in Iraq. Nothing whatever is provided in the way of either evidence or reasoning that any of this has anything to do with either the negotiations or the agreement that emerged from them. Besides the absence of logic and evidence, this blurt contradicts Corker's use in the next paragraph of the now shop-worn theme that sanctions relief will give the Iranians “hundreds of billions of dollars”—a gross overestimate—to do those proverbially nefarious things in the region. If that theme were valid—i.e., that Iran's regional policy will be dictated by its available financial resources—then we should have seen a reduction in Iranian regional activity when the sanctions began to bite, and a further reduction when oil prices plunged. But Corker, in his effort to suggest that bad things happen whenever one negotiates with Iranians, is telling us that the opposite has occurred. In fact, if there is any pattern at all in Iranian regional activity over the last several years it is that the activity is reactive, with the Iranians responding to civil wars or the emergence of extremist mini-states or and any other events that affect Iranian interests.

Corker winds up by talking about “leverage” as if the more sanctions that are in place, the more leverage we have. That represents a fundamental misunderstanding, or misprepresentation, of leverage and where it comes from. Leverage comes from the ability and prospect to reward someone if they do as we want or to punish them if they were to act contrary to our wishes. The prospect of sanctions relief is what gave our side the leverage to induce Iran to agree to place its nuclear program under extraordinary restrictions. The prospect of reimposition of sanctions will be one of the incentives (though not the only one) for the Iranians to abide by their obligations in the agreement. Sanctions per se give us no leverage. The belief that sanctions will stay in place no matter what gives Iran no incentive to concede, to comply, or to do anything else in accordance with our wishes.

Bob Corker has an important role to play in Congressional oversight of implementation of the nuclear agreement, especially assuming continued Republican control of the Senate and thus continuation of Corker's chairmanship of the foreign relations committee. He can still play that role positively and constructively. He has been responsible enough and careful enough not to tie himself in the kind of constraining rhetorical knots that several of the presidential candidates have. Let us hope that he can discard the crummy arguments and, once the agreement is implemented, perform his oversight function vigorously. Meanwhile, his posture on the agreement is a demonstration of just how weak the arguments against it are.                                           


TopicsIran Nuclear Proliferation RegionsMiddle East

Bad Move: The Backfiring of Israeli Strategy on Iran

Paul Pillar

Those paying attention both to the Israeli government's implacable opposition against the agreement restricting Iran's nuclear program and to the issue of Iran's other activity in the Middle East might take note of some background that several analysts, including Shibley Telhami and Aaron David Miller, have noted: that Israeli agitation about the Iranian nuclear program was a principal impetus for negotiating the agreement on that subject that was finalized in Vienna last month. Miller goes so far as to suggest (presumably with tongue firmly in cheek) that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ought to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his activism that motivated other governments to negotiate the deal that he now is doing his utmost to shoot down.

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli official and current director of the Middle East program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, in an especially insightful article that explains positions on these issues both of Netanyahu's government and of other Israeli political leaders, adds additional detail to this background. He notes that it was Israel's government that had insisted at least as strongly as anyone that the nuclear file must be dealt with first and dealt with separately, without talking to the Iranians about regional issues or anything else.

That earlier Israeli position directly contradicts, of course, current complaints from Netanyahu's government and other opponents of the agreement that the deal does not address non-nuclear issues of Iranian policy and behavior—things the agreement never was intended to address. But this contradiction is no more nonsensical than the overall set of Israeli government positions on the nuclear issue if those positions are taken at face value. The positions have included incessantly ringing an alarm bell about how Iran's nuclear program could lead to a weapon and then trying to destroy the very measures designed to ensure that the program does not lead to a weapon. Things make sense, from the Israeli government's point of view, only if they are not taken at face value. An objective of that government, rather than achieving a nuclear agreement, has been instead to avoid any agreements with Iran, on nuclear matters or anything else. A calculation that there could be plenty of agitation on the nuclear issue without any agreement emerging was by no means crazy. U.S.-Iranian diplomacy, after all, was virtually nonexistent as recently as three years ago. Serious questions were being raised elsewhere about whether, when U.S. and Iranian diplomats did sit down to talk, there would be enough bargaining space to reach an agreement on the nuclear question. And even if a deal started to emerge, the Israeli government still would have a traditional and trusty weapon—its political lobby in the United States—to shoot it down.

Meanwhile all that agitation about a nonexistent Iranian nuclear weapon served a purpose somewhat akin to the neocon agitation a decade earlier about the nonexistent Iraqi nuclear weapons: it helped to scare people to get them in line to achieve other objectives. Nuclear weapons are inherently scary and therefore useful for that sort of thing, even when they are nonexistent. In the case of Iraq the neocon objective was to get public support for launching an offensive war. In the case of Iran an Israeli objective is to get people to be deathly afraid of Iran and to view the Middle East the way Israel wants them to view it: as a region in which Iran is the source of instability and evil, in which Iran thus should only be shunned and never partnered, and in which Israel is the most reliable and effective partner for anyone who wants to be on the side of good against evil, and especially for the United States.

Now it appears that the calculation about being able to agitate without bringing about an agreement on the nuclear issue, though not crazy, was mistaken. Some of the reasons for the miscalculation may have been ones that many others also might have had a hard time anticipating, including Hassan Rouhani's victory in the Iranian presidential election of 2013, the degree of unity among the P5+1 during the negotiations, and the skill and determination with which President Obama and Secretary Kerry tackled the task of achieving a readily defensible agreement. Probably also involved—and this was a reason for some of the mistaken analysis elsewhere about insufficient bargaining space—was a misbelief that Iran really is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and thus never would make the concessions necessary to close off paths to such weapons. Because of the tendency of people to come to believe their own rhetoric when it is repeated enough, this misbelief probably had become entrenched in Israeli government circles.

Whatever the underlying reasons for any miscalculation, Netanyahu and his government now face the reality of a negotiated agreement. An even more uncomfortable thought for them is that their own endless agitation on the nuclear issue, accompanied by their saber-rattling about what Israel might do militarily against Iran, helped to bring that agreement about. Possibly the discomfort of having scored an own goal is part of what has brought their opposition to the agreement to such a feverish pitch. They are using the trusty weapon of the lobby to make one last attempt to make an agreement go away, but there already are signs of their thinking moving on to a Plan B of how to subvert the agreement, or at least to keep it from leading to any more extensive dealings with Iran, if the U.S. Congress does not kill it in September.

That gets to what must be an even more discomfiting thought for Netanyahu's government, which is that their politicking and propagandizing around the nuclear issue may be backfiring not just in the sense of a nuclear agreement having been reached but also in the sense of moving regional alignments and especially the role of the United States in directions they don't want. This involves not only partial rehabilitation of Iran as a regional player but also disgust in the United States that raises new questions and doubts among Americans about the extraordinary U.S.-Israeli relationship. Indeed, this latter concern has been a theme of much criticism of Netanyahu by his Israeli political opponents, who charge him with mishandling relations with the United States. Levy probably is correct, however, that no major change in that relationship is imminent because “the role of money in U.S. politics guarantees against that, and anyway, Obama and the Democrats’ commitment to Israel’s well-being and security is sincere, Bibi or no Bibi.”

But this entire episode may, over the longer term and in combination with other concerns and controversies, at least marginally weaken the edifice that is the unusual U.S.-Israeli relationship. Levy makes the point well:

A process is in motion, a growing distancing between the Jewish communities of America and Israel, born of tensions between American Jewish liberalism and Israel’s denial of basic freedoms for Palestinians and an overall drift toward greater extremism and intolerance. It is a process that has been significantly accelerated by Netanyahu's brash and bullying foray into congressional politics. Netanyahu is unlikely to pay an immediate political price at home, but in the arc of Israel-U.S. relations, it is a moment that will echo long after the details of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are forgotten.

Those who wish for the United States to be able to pursue its own interests in the Middle East in a more flexible and effective manner than it has been able to hitherto can view such a process as an offsetting advantage of Netanyahu's bullying. 

TopicsIsrael Iran RegionsMiddle East

Right and Wrong Lessons From the Iraq War

Paul Pillar

It really rankles some people that Barack Obama was correct from the outset, before any unfolding of the history confirming he was right, that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a huge mistake. And one can understand how to some ears Mr. Obama's subsequent references to the Iraq War may have a grating “I told you so” quality. Those most likely to be annoyed are the president's most fervent political opponents, who include most of those who were the most fervent promoters of the Iraq War. Possibly there also is some unspoken annoyance among those who fit into neither of these categories but who allowed themselves to be swept up in the pre-war militancy that the war promoters skillfully exploited. These latter people include, as Washington Post editorial page chief Fred Hiatt reminds us, President Obama's vice president and both of his secretaries of state, all of whom were among the majority of Democratic senators who voted—along with nearly unanimous Republican ranks—for the war resolution in 2002. Hiatt makes this observation in the course of acknowledging his own support for the war at that time and suggesting that the Iraq War ought not to be a “single-issue litmus test”.

Hiatt is right that no one issue should be such a test, but meaningful distinctions can and should be made between those who actively promoted the invasion and those whose offense consisted instead of insufficient attention to the consequences of what the promoters were promoting or insufficient political courage to try to stop the train that was hurtling down the tracks toward war. Moreover, correctness or incorrectness about the war today is not, as the headline of Hiatt's piece on the Post's op ed page suggests, merely a matter of hindsight. Careful attention to the realities of Iraqi political culture and political demography provided ample basis for anticipating before the invasion the sorts of difficulties that would come after it, and multiple sources of expertise did anticipate those difficulties—but the war promoters ignored them. Belief that the invasion was a good idea (and not just going along with it for the political ride) was rooted in destructive patterns of thought that Mr. Obama referred to the other day as a "mindset" that is also destructive when applied to other issues. Even if a past position on a single issue does not disqualify one as a source of policy advice, repeatedly exhibiting such patterns of thought ought to be a disqualifier.

Hiatt, giving himself a pass for his own support for the Iraq War, offers us a couple of “lessons” from the war that he says should be applied to the issue of the nuclear agreement with Iran. The most obvious lesson, he asserts, “is that intelligence on nuclear capabilities is notoriously unreliable.” Maybe many people see that as the most obvious lesson, but it is certainly not the most important one, given that—as I have discussed at length elsewhere—intelligence on Iraqi nuclear capabilities did not drive the decision to go to war at all. I won't repeat all the evidence that it did not, but suffice it to note that in the intelligence community's comprehensive, annual unclassified statement of worldwide threats—and specifically the statement in 2001, the latest one before the war-selling campaign began—the possibility of an Iraqi nuclear weapon did not appear at all. It didn't even make the cut of what the intelligence community considered to be worth mentioning in the statement.

Hiatt accuses President Obama of not taking Hiatt's “lesson” to heart when the president expresses confidence that any Iranian cheating under the nuclear agreement will be caught. But regardless of whether one regards U.S. intelligence on such subjects as reliable or unreliable, any problem or challenge in following Iranian nuclear developments certainly would be no worse with the agreement than without it. In fact, the ability to follow those developments will be substantially greater with the agreement. That gets to what is actually the most important lesson from the Iraq War about understanding a foreign state's nuclear capabilities: that there is no substitute for on-site monitoring and inspection. International inspectors were doing their job in Iraq in the weeks prior to the war. Their leaders expressed well-founded confidence that if they were permitted to keep doing their job they could reach accurate conclusions about what Iraq was or was not doing in the way of nuclear and other unconventional weapons. But they were not permitted to keep doing their job. The Bush administration kicked them out of Iraq to make way for the invasion. The war-makers had already decided what they wanted to do and were not interested in hearing any findings from international inspectors. The Iran agreement of today reflects a taking of the relevant lesson very much to heart by establishing the most comprehensive and intrusive international monitoring regimen ever applied to any nation's nuclear program.

The rest of Hiatt's piece seems to be saying that the usefulness of military force hasn't been given a fair shake and that you never know when you might need more of it. He argues that President Obama has not used it, or persisted in using it, enough. He gives Mr. Obama a well-deserved slap for the way Libya has turned out, but then contends that the problem there was in not committing enough “U.S. resources for postwar stabilization.” Apart from the fact that the Libya situation has never gotten to a postwar stage, this seems to assume that nation-building in a badly divided and violent society would somehow go more smoothly in Libya than it has in Afghanistan or Iraq. It likely would have gone even worse, even with more application of U.S. military force, given the vacuum left with the removal of Qadhafi's personalized rule. The problem was not in any follow-up but rather in the initial decision to join in a military effort to topple the dictator—which, by the way, sent a very unhelpful signal to the Iranians and others, given that Qadhafi had reached an agreement with the United States and Britain to completely give up his unconventional weapons programs peacefully and to forswear international terrorism.

The notion of insufficient military follow-up leads Hiatt to recite one of the most persistent myths about the Iraq War: that the war was won at the time that George W. Bush left office and that Barack Obama snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by withdrawing U.S. troops too soon. It is not surprising that this myth has been relied on as heavily as it has. For the fervent crowd that was pro-Iraq War and is now anti-Obama, the myth is a twofer: a way to attack Obama as well as a way to relieve the mountain of cognitive dissonance that comes from having thought the invasion of Iraq was a swell idea but then seeing the violent mess that resulted from the invasion. It is remarkable how much purveyors of the myth express it in terms that are so patently divorced from reality. In a public debate in which I participated last year, the neocon pundit Bret Stephens stated that Iraq was “at peace” as of 2009. Hiatt's formulation is that at the time President Obama was withdrawing troops from Iraq, the country had achieved “unity and relative stability.” To speak of Iraqi unity at this time is a joke; the country was at least as fractured along ethnic and sectarian lines as it has ever been. And as for being at peace, the number of Iraqis killed in the continuing civil war in the year 2009 was around 5,000—which by way of comparison is more than the total number of U.S. troops killed there in eight and a half years of war.

Iraq's troubles are a direct consequence of the U.S. invasion. Toppling Saddam Hussein unleashed the civil war. The supposed alliance between Saddam and Al-Qa'ida that was one of the war-selling themes was another myth, but once the United States invaded, Al-Qaeda in Iraq became a reality and evolved into what we know today as Islamic State or ISIS. The “surge” of U.S. troops during the latter part of the Bush administration gets described by the myth-purveyors as a success, but as Peter Beinart aptly reviews that piece of history, it was not. It was a blatant failure regarding the objective of leading to political reconciliation among the contending Iraqi factions. It was a stopgap step, fortuitously coinciding with some other developments that reduced the intensity of the civil war, that enabled the war-makers in the Bush administration to slam shut the door on the mess they had created and to get out of town before it would be said that the war had been lost on their watch.

No one perpetuating these myths explains why there should be any reason to expect that keeping ten thousand or fifteen thousand or some such number of U.S. troops in Iraq for however long they would be there could have accomplished what 160,000 troops and more than eight years of war did not. Nor is it explained how any of this constitutes a criticism of the Obama administration when it was implementing a troop withdrawal schedule that had been negotiated by its predecessor.

Now the Republican presidential candidate who is the front-runner for the nomination among those whose name is not Trump has joined in the promoting of the Iraq War myth. The twofer becomes a threefer, with the added motivation being that it is a way of attacking the front-runner for the other party's nomination, the idea being that she somehow should have done more to fix Iraq while she was secretary of state. Or maybe it is a fourfer, given that it is a way of dealing with the political liability that association with his brother's war is for Jeb Bush. So expect to hear more of this in the coming months of campaigning.

Hiatt's concluding application of his “lesson” about military force to the Iran agreement is that insufficient brandishing by Obama of the threat of military attack means Iran has not made as many concessions at the negotiating table as it otherwise would have. The Iranians, upon hearing this sort of contention, probably wonder whether, as far as lessons from the Iraq War are concerned, most Americans think the way Hiatt is thinking and whether disinclination to start another Middle East war is just a matter of wimpiness on the part of Barack Obama. Whether the Iranians wonder that or not, we should wonder why anyone should expect that a threat of armed attack would make the Iranians any more inclined to accede to U.S. demands on points on which the Iranians have shown firmness for reasons of pride, sovereignty, credibility, and internal politics. We should especially wonder that about a nation that endured what the Iranians endured with stoicism and determination for eight years the last time someone else attacked them. Hiatt also needs to explain how threats of military attack are supposed to reduce, rather than increase, any remaining Iranian interest in developing a nuclear deterrent, the very purpose of which would be to ward off such attacks.

Yes, let us not establish one-issue litmus tests. But let's use the evidence from recent experience to identify where sound judgment has existed and where it has not. And as we draw lessons let's make sure they are the right ones.  

TopicsIraq Iran RegionsMiddle East

Turkey and the Twilight Zone in Syria

Paul Pillar

The conflict in Syria, complex even by the standard of civil wars, has not presented U.S. policymakers with anything close to a clear opportunity to weigh in on the side of good guys against bad ones. There have been too many bad guys on multiple sides of this war. The understanding that the United States reached last month with Turkey, according to which the latter evidently agreed to focus more on countering the so-called Islamic State or ISIS as distinct from its other objectives in Syria, would appear to have simplified a bit the lines of contention in the war from the U.S. point of view. But only a bit, if that. Turkish military operations in the area since announcement of the agreement with the United States have focused at least as much on Kurdish militias as on ISIS.

A prominent feature of the U.S.-Turkish accord is the declared intention of both governments to exclude ISIS from a zone along the border area of northern Syria. Given continued uncertainties about Turkish priorities, major questions persist about just what this zone entails. The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front has expressed its own uncertainties about this. An even bigger question is: if this zone is not to be a depopulated no-man's land, then who will control it and administer it? The ludicrously few vetted “moderates” trained with U.S. help are in no position to do so, and reportedly part of the understanding with the Turks was that Kurdish militias were not going to be allowed to move into any vacuum in the area in question.

A look at a map shows the prospective zone to be a useful plug of a gap in a cordon sanitaire along the norther border of Syria—useful from the U.S. point of view in reducing the ability of radicals from abroad, including from the West, to move into the “caliphate” and go to work for ISIS. Turkey, which has been touched by ISIS violence on its own territory, ought to value such a barrier to inhibit ISIS infiltration in the other direction. But Kurdish forces already control most of the rest of the border region—making them the otherwise logical candidate for establishing a presence in the newly declared zone—and this means that the Turkish hang-up about Kurds comes into play.

The United States may have been more solicitous than it ought to be about such Turkish hang-ups, partly because of our own rigid reliance on lists and a “once a terrorist, always a terrorist” way of categorizing some groups and movements. The principal Syrian Kurdish armed organization, known as the YPG, is closely affiliated with the PKK, the Kurdish group that waged a long and bloody insurrection in Turkey, in addition to conducting terrorist operations in the West. One need not excuse for a moment any of the PKK's past political violence to realize that the PKK's position on lists of terrorist groups ought not to be the deciding factor in what use should be made of the YPG in Syria today. An additional factor to consider is that the PKK had done much to move away from its violent path, and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to his credit, had done much to get a peace process with the Kurds underway. But more recently Erdogan, to his discredit, abandoned that process evidently for reasons related to his own domestic political and coalition-forming needs.

So the lines of conflict in the Syrian conflict are as complicated as ever. This does not mean that the United States cannot do some useful business there with other players whose goals and priorities are much different from our own. The United States and Britain did ally, after all, with Stalin's USSR for the sake of defeating Nazi Germany. But we ought to recognize fully the differing goals and priorities. And unanswered questions about things such as the zone in the north need to be answered.                

TopicsTurkey Syria ISIS RegionsMiddle East

Iraq, Iran, and the President on Mindsets

Paul Pillar

President Obama's speech at American University was a thorough enough review of the issues that have come to surround the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program that any fair-minded listener who focuses on merits rather than politics would reach the conclusion, as Mr. Obama has, that completion of this agreement as being in U.S. interests was not a difficult decision or even close to being one. But although the president's main purpose in the speech was to review the reasons this is the case and to beat back ill-guided attempts to destroy the agreement in the U.S. Congress, he made some more general points about the attitudes and beliefs that underlie those attempts and also underlay the launching of a disastrous war in Iraq 12 years ago. Here is how the president put it:

“When I ran for President eight years ago as a candidate who had opposed the decision to go to war in Iraq, I said that America didn’t just have to end that war -- we had to end the mindset that got us there in the first place. It was a mindset characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy; a mindset that put a premium on unilateral U.S. action over the painstaking work of building international consensus; a mindset that exaggerated threats beyond what the intelligence supported. Leaders did not level with the American people about the costs of war, insisting that we could easily impose our will on a part of the world with a profoundly different culture and history. And, of course, those calling for war labeled themselves strong and decisive, while dismissing those who disagreed as weak -- even appeasers of a malevolent adversary.”

The comparison with the Iraq War is apt, and not only because some of the most enthusiastic promoters of that ill-fated expedition are today among the most vocal opponents of the Iran agreement. The same sort of thinking has led to each of those mistaken positions, and the president identified some of the elements of that thinking.

The preference for military action over diplomacy is indeed one of those elements, although the observation can be broadened a bit beyond a simple preference for one tool of statecraft over another. The attitude involves a preference for destroying things without thinking much about why people built whatever is being destroyed, or how people will react to the destruction. It involves a narrow focus on capabilities—and military force unquestionably is the instrument best able to destroy capabilities—and insufficient attention to intentions and motivations.

The preference for unilateral U.S. action and disdain for the judgments of most of the rest of the world is another of those elements, with the parallels extending even to some of the same major U.S. allies being the object of disdain. It was “old Europe” that became an object of contempt at the time of the Iraq War, a time when French fries became freedom fries. Today the same old Europeans of France and Germany are being ignored by opponents of the Iran agreement even though they are among the parties who helped to negotiate the agreement. And the same is true of that very close U.S. ally, the United Kingdom; David Cameron is not John Boehner's poodle (or Barack Obama's), even if Tony Blair was George W. Bush's.

What the president identified as the exaggeration of threats beyond what intelligence supports is another common element. The makers of the Iraq War launched their project despite judgments by the U.S. intelligence community that contradicted the war-makers' mythical “alliance” between the Iraqi regime and al-Qa'ida, not to mention the community's judgments about the mess likely to ensue in Iraq after Saddam was overthrown. Today, opponents of the agreement speak endlessly about what an Iran that supposedly is salivating over the prospect of getting a nuclear weapon could do to cheat, despite the intelligence community's repeatedly expressed public judgment that Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon and gave up whatever work it may have done on a weapon more than a decade ago. This opposition attitude is remarkably similar to how the promoters of the Iraq War went on endlessly about what Saddam Hussein “could” do with unconventional weapons he was presumed to have, despite the intelligence community's public judgment that he was unlikely to use such weapons against U.S. interests or to give them to terrorists unless we invaded his country and started to overthrow his regime.

The belief in the ability of the United States to impose its will in the Middle East is certainly another common thread in the thinking involved, and it is not only a matter of faith in the efficacy of military force. The belief that a liberal democracy would easily fall into place in Iraq once Saddam was gone and if the United States so willed is of a piece with the belief that a “better deal” could be obtained once the current nuclear agreement is destroyed and if the United States so wills. In each case there is obtuseness about how real human beings react to real events, whether it is reaction to the “birth pangs of democracy” in Iraq or to attempts to coerce a proud Iran.

Another element of this thinking that could be mentioned, but that President Obama did not explicitly do so, is a black-and-white perspective that tends to see the Middle East as starkly divided between good-guy allies and bad-guy adversaries, with Iran currently occupying the most prominent place in the latter camp. Although the president did speak of the wisdom of making deals with one's adversaries, he did not fundamentally challenge this perspective, despite its incongruence with reality. That is probably understandable and forgivable, given the need for him to maintain enough political correctness about Iran (and about Israel) to get the nuclear agreement through the Congressional gauntlet and across the finish line.

“Mindset” is an appropriate term for the president to have used. That term implies persistence and difficulty in dispelling the thought patterns involved. If the nuclear agreement survives it will be a major blow against the kind of insalubrious thinking that the mindset represents. But the mindset itself will survive. It is rooted primarily in certain parts of the politically active American elite, especially the part that usually carries the label neoconservatism. And those parts exploit some similar strains of thinking that are spread more widely in the American public. That exploitation helps the mindset to survive, despite even a disastrous collision with reality such as the Iraq War.            

TopicsIraq Iran Nuclear Proliferation RegionsMiddle East

John Bolton's Reverence for the United Nations

Paul Pillar

As implacable opponents of the nuclear agreement with Iran continue to scramble for any argument that has a chance of helping to shoot the deal down, a prize for originality ought to go to John Bolton for a new idea he tries out on us in an op ed today. The idea involves sanctions, and it involves the United Nations. Bolton got a recess appointment in the George W. Bush administration as ambassador to the United Nations for a little more than a year, although it would be more accurate to describe his role then as ambassador against the United Nations. One of Bolton's more notable comments about the global organization was that if ten stories were removed from the 38-story U.N. Secretariat building, “it wouldn't make a bit of difference.”

It should not be surprising that the posture of Bolton, hard-core neocon that he is, regarding sanctions against Iran is that the more of them there are, and the longer they can be kept imposed on Iran, the better. And part of his opinion piece is about the possibility, as he sees it, that any lifted or suspended international sanctions would not be reimposed with sufficient certainty and swiftness in the event of any Iranian violation of the agreement. One could reasonably think that one aspect of the agreement about which Bolton would not be complaining is the procedure for dispute resolution whereby if any party to the agreement believes a violation has occurred and the matter has not been resolved at other levels, it would take a positive vote of the U.N. Security Council for any further lifting of sanctions. In other words, the bias is in favor of not lifting sanctions, and sanctions against Iran would stay in place as long as anyone who has the power to stop Council action wants them to stay in place. The subtext for the writing of this provision is that if the United States believes that Iranian behavior warrants a halt to sanctions relief, it will get its way even if Russia or China (or Europeans hungry for economic deals with Iran) want sanctions relief to continue.

But, says Bolton—and here is his original notion—there is a “hidden danger” in this for America. “By concocting a procedure that elides the Russian or Chinese vetoes,” Bolton writes, “Mr. Obama has surreptitiously accomplished a prized objective of the international left, which always disapproved on principle of the veto power. Through 70 years of United Nations history, one lodestar emerges clearly: Washington’s only immutable protection has been its Security Council veto. Mr. Obama’s end-run around the veto poses long-term risks that far outweigh whatever short-term gain is to be had from boxing in Russia and China now.”

Set aside any search for the “international left” that supposedly has been waging a 70-year campaign against Article 27 of the U.N. Charter and reflect on a couple of other things. One is that far from representing any weakening of “Washington's only immutable protection,” the provision Bolton is criticizing is a recognition of, and bowing to, U.S. veto power. Even if the United States were to stand entirely alone in its interpretation of an alleged Iranian violation and everyone else on the Council wanted sanctions relief to continue, the United States could use its veto and sanctions would stay in place. If Bolton were to have his former job back, one could picture him, mustache twitching, in the Council chamber, casting his lonely “no” vote to stop giving any further sanctions relief to the perfidious Iranians.

In his op ed Bolton is being more solicitous of Russian and Chinese veto power than U.S. veto power. It is odd for an American, and a neocon at that, to frame things that way. But we needn't feel sorry for the Russians and Chinese; they were parties to the negotiation that produced the agreement with Iran. Far from being end-runned by President Obama, Russia and China participated in writing the very provision that Bolton is knocking.

Bolton then tries to make a comparison with the “Uniting for Peace” procedure during the Korean War, in which recourse was made to the General Assembly to get around a Soviet veto of any action on the subject by the Security Council. But the comparison isn't valid at all. No one is talking about taking any compliance issues on the Iran agreement to the General Assembly. And what happened during the Korean War was, quite unlike the Iran agreement, very much an end run around the Soviets, who strenuously opposed both the procedure and any U.N. involvement in the war.

Perhaps there are three takeaways from this strange offering from Bolton. One is the comic relief we can get from such a bizarre argument. A second is validation of the wisdom of those in the U.S. Congress who opposed the confirmation of someone who doesn't know, or doesn't care, about such distinctions as the one between positive and negative action by the Security Council, and who demonstrably was unfit to represent the United States before the preeminent global organization. The third is the conclusion that resort to sophistry such as this demonstrates that the die-hard opponents of the Iran agreement really are short on valid arguments.             

TopicsIran United Nations RegionsMiddle East