What Really Matters About Extension of the Iran Negotiations

Paul Pillar

The single most important fact about the extension of the nuclear negotiations with Iran is that the obligations established by the Joint Plan of Action negotiated a year ago will remain in effect as negotiations continue. This means that our side will continue to enjoy what these negotiations are supposed to be about: preclusion of any Iranian nuclear weapon, through the combination of tight restrictions on Iran's nuclear program and intrusive monitoring to ensure the program stays peaceful. Not only that, but also continuing will be the rollback of Iran's program that the JPOA achieved, such that Iran will remain farther away from any capability to build a bomb than it was a year ago, and even farther away from where it would have been if the negotiations had never begun or from where it would be if negotiations were to break down.

Our side—the United States and its partners in the P5+1—got by far the better side of the deal in the JPOA. We got the fundamental bomb-preventing restrictions (including most significantly a complete elimination of medium-level uranium enrichment) and enhanced inspections we sought, in return for only minor sanctions relief to Iran that leaves all the major banking and oil sanctions in place. If negotiations were to go on forever under these terms, we would have no cause to complain to the Iranians.

But the Iranians do not have comparable reason to be happy about this week's development. The arrangement announced in Vienna is bound to be a tough sell back in Tehran for President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif. The sanctions continue, and continue to hurt, even though the Iranian negotiators have conceded most of what they could concede regarding restrictions on the nuclear program. There will be a lot of talk in Tehran about how the West is stringing them along, probably with the intent of undermining the regime and not just determining its nuclear policies.

That the Iranian decision-makers have put themselves in this position is an indication of the seriousness with which they are committed to these negotiations. This week's extension is of little use to them except to keep alive the prospect that a final deal will be completed. Also indicating their seriousness is the diligence with which Iran has complied with its obligations under the JPOA. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed today Iran's compliance with its final pre-November 24th obligation, which had to do with reducing its stock of low-enriched uranium in gaseous form.

Because the P5+1 got much the better side of the preliminary agreement, the P5+1 will have to make more of the remaining concessions to complete a final agreement. The main hazard to concluding a final deal is not an Iranian unwillingness to make concessions. The main hazard is a possible Iranian conclusion that it does not have an interlocutor on the U.S. side that is bargaining in good faith.

We push the Iranians closer to such a conclusion the more talk there is in Washington about imposing additional pressure and additional sanctions, as people such as Marco Rubio and AIPAC have offered in response to today's announcement about the extension of negotiations. We have sanctioned the dickens out of Iran for years and are continuing to do so, but the only time all this pressure got any results is when we started to negotiate in good faith. Surly sanctions talk on Capitol Hill only strengthens Iranian doubts about whether the U.S. administration will be able to deliver on its side of a final agreement, making it less, not more, likely the Iranians would offer still more concessions. Any actual sanctions legislation would blatantly violate the terms of the JPOA and give the Iranians good reason to walk away from the whole business, marking the end of any special restrictions on their nuclear program.

Indefinite continuation of the terms of the existing agreement would suit us well, but completion of a final agreement would be even better—and without one the Iranians eventually would have to walk away, because indefinite continuation certainly does not suit them. And besides, the sanctions hurt us economically too. To get a final agreement does not mean fixating on the details of plumbing in enrichment cascades, which do not affect our security anyway. It means realizing what kind of deal we got with the preliminary agreement, and negotiating in good faith to get the final agreement.

Image: State Department Flickr.                            

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Obama’s Rebalance to Asia in His Own Words: Where Does it Stand?

The Buzz

President Obama had a better than expected visit to Asia for annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), East Asia Summit (EAS), and G-20 gatherings, due largely to a productive summit with Xi Jinping. At the end of his trip in Brisbane, Obama gave his second major speech on the US rebalancing policy to Asia, coming almost three years to the day following an address to the Australian parliament on his previous visit to Australia. A side-by-side reading of President Obama's two major Australian speeches on the subject (he has yet to give a major policy speech on the rebalance in the United States) provides a useful benchmark for assessing the administration's progress in implementing the policy. I found the following takeaways from my reading of the two speeches:

-The fundamental goals of the rebalance to Asia have remained consistent, focusing around the goals of shared security, shared prosperity, and commitments to advancing universal human rights in Asia. The Obama administration can justifiably point to progress in deepening alliances with Japan, Australia, South Korea, and the Philippines and strengthened partnerships with Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, and India, but fallout from a coup d'état has taken Thailand out of the mix (and out of Obama's Brisbane speech). Modernization of U.S. military forces in Asia has made slow and steady progress.

-The Obama administration's rhetorical commitment to energizing institutions such as the East Asia Summit as vehicles for applying international norms to regulate regional behavior remains constant. The United States has reiterated the importance of maritime security, freedom of navigation, and peaceful resolution of territorial disputes, but the Obama administration's words are at risk of being hollow if China takes actions to change the facts on the ground. As a vehicle for upholding mutual restraint among its members, the capacity of the East Asia Summit remains limited. There is clearly more work to be done on this front.

-On the goal of sustainable and shared economic growth, evidence of progress remains slim. Obama's claim that "the United States has put more people back to work than all other advanced economies combined" rings hollow in Asia, which features growth rates that rival the United States. China's slowing growth rate at 7.5 percent still doubles that of the United States. Moreover, the economic pillar of the rebalance depends wholly on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). This is especially the case now that China appears to have overtaken the United States rhetorically in its support for the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) concept that US officials in the Clinton administration had championed. Without TPP, there will in effect be no rebalance.

-The Obama administration turned allegations of distraction into a virtue by bringing the global agenda to Asia, arguing that the rebalance is "not only about the United States doing more in Asia, it's about the Asia Pacific region doing more with us around the world." In fact, the Obama administration's major successes in Beijing involved catalyzing China to show greater responsibility on global issues such as climate change, the Ebola crisis, and cooperation on countering violent extremism.

-Some Australian commentators have taken offense at Obama's touting of climate change policies in his Brisbane speech that are at odds with the Abbott administration. But a comparison of Obama's Brisbane speech with the one he gave three years ago in Canberra shows that it is not Obama's policies that have changed but those of the Abbott administration compared with its predecessor. Despite policy differences on this issue, security cooperation between the US and Australia has grown closer.

-While pursuing a "constructive relationship with China" and welcoming "the continuing rise of a China that is peaceful and prosperous and stable and that plays a responsible role in world affairs," President Obama insisted that "China adhere to the same rules as other nations," drawing a sharp line against Chinese exceptionalism or efforts to bend international rules to China's favor. In practical terms, the US response to new Chinese initiatives such as the BRICS bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is simultaneously testing both the Obama administration's ability to accept China's rise and whether new Chinese initiatives will abide by or challenge international practices and standards of good governance.

-Despite expanded functional cooperation with China on global issues, the rebalance to Asia continues to draw stark lines between the United States and China on universal human rights and rule of law. The Canberra speech in 2011 highlighted those values by pointing to the failure of forms of nondemocratic "rule by one man or rule by committee" that "ignore the ultimate source of power and legitimacy - the will of the people." This time around, in Brisbane, Obama argued for independent judiciaries and open government "because the rule of force must give way to the rule of law." The universality of human rights has not generally been perceived (or advertised by Obama administration officials) as a centerpiece of the US rebalance to Asia, but it may offer the strongest justification for the policy, even if it is also the most starkly divisive issue with which the region must grapple, as well as the most sensitive issue in the US-China relationship.

So where does the rebalance to Asia stand? The consistency of Obama's two speeches in Australia makes the case that the rebalance is real and credible. But whether or not it is sustainable or sufficient will not depend only on the Obama administration's continued commitment to the policy. It will also depend on the ability of the next American president to carry forward the rebalance in an Asian and global environment that will undoubtedly pose new and even more difficult challenges to US leadership.

Scott Snyder is Senior Fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author with Brad Glosserman of The Japan-Korea Identity Clash (Columbia University Press forthcoming, 2015). This piece first appeared in CSIS:PACNET newsletter here.

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Speaking Honestly about China's Rising Military Could Get You in Hot Water

The Buzz

Did China pressure the White House to fire U.S. Navy Captain James Fanell as the top intelligence officer in the Navy’s Pacific Fleet? Or did a self-censoring Pentagon simply do the deed on its own, based on trumped up charges of “revealing classified information.” Methinks Congress—and this nation—needs to get to the very bottom of a shortsighted decision that has profound, long-term implications for the Obama administration’s much-ballyhooed Asia “pivot.”

In fact, Fanell was one of the few top-ranking officers willing to blow the whistle on China’s own ongoing “Crimea moment” in the East and South China Seas. His sin was to go public last February in San Diego at one of the largest annual conferences attended by military personnel and scholars.

Ironically, this WEST 2014 meeting of the minds was sponsored by the U.S. Naval Research Institute. Its stated mission is “to provide an independent forum for those who dare to … speak… to advance …understanding of … issues critical to national defense.”

As to exactly what the good captain “dared to say” that got him fired, he quite accurately pointed out China is aggressively seeking to expand its territory and maritime rights in the East and South China Sea at the expense of virtually all its neighbors—and the U.S. military. In addition, based on his analysis of a Chinese amphibious exercise involving some 40,000 troops—one widely reported in the press—Fanell also stated China was preparing for “a short, sharp war” against Japan.

There is no question about the veracity of Fanell’s statements. Nor is anything he said “classified information,” as anyone can come to exactly the same conclusions from reports in this publication and in many others.

Indeed, the only thing Captain Fanell appears guilty of is telling a hard truth in an administration that apparently believes taking a soft line on Chinese expansionism is a better strategy. While that is debatable, firing an officer for speaking the truth at an academic conference is not just plain stupid; it also runs directly against the grain of the kind of free and open democracy the United States is supposed to be.

Here are two chillingly practical implications based on the Fanell situation. First, no military officer is ever going to tell uncomfortable truths to the American public while in uniform if he or she wants to keep adding stripes to the sleeve.

Second, no future conference putatively pledged to daring to speak the truth will ever have any credibility. Instead, such conferences will be seen, and rightly, as forums for the propaganda and spin of whoever is sitting in the White House or running the Department of Defense.

That said, here’s the far bigger implication: In firing Fanell, the Pentagon—already under the siege of sequestration—has shot itself in the budgetary head. Indeed, if American taxpayers are going to be counted on to foot the defense-budget bill, they certainly must be kept in the national-security loop. Absent candor on the growing China challenge, it will be impossible for the U.S. Navy to ever get the kind of budget support it is will need to truly pivot to Asia.

To this point, the putatively pivoting White House is doing a dandy version of “Honey, I shrunk the navy.” The U.S. fleet is down from a peak of 600 ships during the Reagan years to well below 300; and could be on its way to breaking the 200-ship barrier—unless you pad the count with hospital ships as the Pentagon has started to do.

To understand the looming problem, just work through this “pivot math”: President Obama has pledged to shift 60 percent of the fleet to Asia from an original 50 percent. However, 60 percent of a shrinking fleet will mean that by 2020 the United States will have fewer ships in the Pacific than it does now. That sounds more like a retreat than a pivot.

So how about we get to the bottom of a seemingly small story that might otherwise quickly die? There is indeed far more at stake here than one man’s career. Let the Congressional hearings begin.

Peter Navarro is a business professor at the University of California-Irvine and director of the Netflix documentary Death By China.

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Navy/CC by 2.0

TopicsDomestic PoliticsDefense RegionsChinaUnited States

The Danger of Derailing the Iranian Nuclear Deal

Paul Pillar

Inflection points in the history of U.S. foreign relations sometimes are marked by new departures and new roads taken. But they might instead entail blown opportunities to take new and better roads, with significant damage resulting from the failure to take them. That failure involves opportunity costs at a minimum, and other costs as well. We may be getting close to the latter type of inflection point, with significant danger that opponents of any agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program will succeed in wrecking the deal.

As of this writing the greatest chance of wrecking it appears to involve not what is going on at the negotiating tables in Europe but instead what the U.S. Congress may do back in Washington to sabotage the work of the diplomats. The energy for the Congressional wrecking ball comes, as it always has, from three sources.

One is a general need for a foreign enemy and a habit of viewing America's role as one of militant and uncompromising confrontation with that enemy. This habit and felt need have roots in some broader American attitudes, although they are manifested most starkly in neoconservatism. Iran has been filling this role of needed enemy for some time.

A second is the strong opposition of the right-wing Israel government—with everything that customarily implies regarding American politics—to anyone making any agreement with Iran. This opposition serves the Israeli government's purposes of fixing blame for regional problems firmly on someone else, of positing opposition to such an enemy as supposedly a basis for U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation, and of diverting international attention from problems directly involving Israel itself.

The third driver, which has become especially relevant the more that the Iran negotiations have become a prominent effort in Barack Obama's foreign policy, is the determination of much of the Republican opposition to oppose anything that Mr. Obama favors and to deny him any achievements. The heightened acrimony over the issue of immigration has made this even more of a factor than before, if that is possible. Amid talk about government shutdowns and freezing of all appointment confirmations, trashing of a diplomatic agreement with Iran would be done while barely batting an eyelash.

If the deal-wreckers succeed, we will have a negative turning point in U.S. foreign relations because the opportunity for any kind of nuclear deal with Iran will be lost for an indefinite future. The conditions that made it possible for the two sides to get as close to agreement as they now would quickly unravel in multiple ways. The Iranian president would in effect become a lame duck, the influence of hardliners in Iran would rise, and credibility that had been built up during the negotiations would dissipate. The alternative to whatever deal emerges from the current negotiations would be no deal at all.

Having an agreement emerge during a lame duck Congress was supposed to be the most sabotage-resistant timing, and it probably is. But expectations now are that what will most likely be announced this month is not a complete agreement but rather some version of an extension of the previous interim deal and a partial agreement with additional details yet to be negotiated. This situation unfortunately will be an invitation to those wielding the wrecking ball to do serious damage after the new Congress convenes. They probably will take multiple whacks with the ball. There is, for example, a bill sponsored by the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, that is designed to get a hasty vote of disapproval of the agreement before anyone would have much chance to study it. There also would be a push (most fervently from Senator Mark Kirk) to impose more sanctions, which would violate the interim agreements and provide cause for the Iranians to walk away from the table. The fact that keeping the terms of the current interim agreement in effect would achieve the presumed goal of freezing or rolling back the Iranian nuclear program would do little to slow down the deal-wreckers.

Blowing the opportunity for an agreement would be all the more a shame because, according to the preeminent criterion of preventing any Iranian nuclear weapon (not to mention other consequences of an agreement), the choice between a deal and no deal is almost a no-brainer. No deal would mean fewer restrictions on the Iranian program and lesser inspection and monitoring of it. Iran would have a much clearer path to a nuclear weapon, if it chose to take it, without an agreement than with one.

We are approaching a critical point in U.S. foreign relations. It is gut-check time especially for Democrats who have to decide whether they are going to take the responsible position for the sake of U.S. interests in the Middle East or instead be tempted into being part of a veto-proof Iran-bashing, “pro-Israel” majority. Perhaps taking the responsible route will be made a bit easier by seeing how the opposition to an agreement has become increasingly and blatantly partisan, as illustrated by a hard-line letter initiated this week by Kirk and Marco Rubio that got signatures from 43 Republican senators but not a single Democrat.         


TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Post 9/11 Stat You Should Know: America has now Conducted 500 Targeted Killings

The Buzz

The most consistent and era-defining tactic of America’s post-9/11 counterterrorism strategies has been the targeted killing of suspected terrorists and militants outside of defined battlefields. As one senior Bush administration official explained in October 2001, “The president has given the [CIA] the green light to do whatever is necessary. Lethal operations that were unthinkable pre-September 11 are now underway.” Shortly thereafter, a former CIA official told the New Yorker, “There are five hundred guys out there you have to kill.” It is quaint to recall that such a position was considered extremist and even morally unthinkable. Today, these strikes are broadly popular with the public and totally uncontroversial in Washington, both within the executive branch and on Capitol Hill. Therefore, it is easy to forget that this tactic, envisioned to be rare and used exclusively for senior al-Qaeda leaders thirteen years ago, has become a completely accepted and routine foreign policy activity.

Thus, just as you probably missed the tenth anniversary—November 3, 2012—of what I labeled the Third War, it’s unlikely you will hear or read that the United States just launched its 500th non-battlefield targeted killing.

As of today, the United States has now conducted 500 targeted killings (approximately 98 percent of them with drones), which have killed an estimated 3,674 people, including 473 civilians. Fifty of these were authorized by President George W. Bush, 450 and counting by President Obama. Noticeably, these targeted killings have not diminished the size of the targeted groups according to the State Department’s own numbers.

This piece comes courtesy of CFR's blog Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States