Two major events last week having nothing to do directly with American policy nevertheless served to highlight the folly of the Obama administration's approach to Iran.
The first was the assassination of Argentinian special prosecutor Alberto Nisman on the eve of his scheduled appearance before the Argentinian Congress. Nisman was to present his findings that President Cristine Fernandez de Kirchner and Foreign Secretary Hector Timerman had conspired to cover up Iran's involvement in the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and the 1994 bombing of the AMIA (Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Society) communal center in return for cheap Iranian oil and the purchase of Argentinian agricultural products.
Nisman had been investigating the two bombings since 2004, and succeeded in obtaining Interpol arrest warrants for senior Iranian officials, including a former foreign minister and a former presidential candidate, and Hezbollah terrorist mastermind Igad Mughniyeh. According to Nisman, the final decision to bomb the AMIA center was made by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khameini and then president Ali Akbar Rafshani, in retaliation for the 1992 decision of Argentinian President Carlos Menem to yield to American pressure and cut assistance to Iran's nuclear program. Prior to Menem's decision to sever nuclear ties, Argentina had been training Iranian nuclear technicians.
Lots of people had good reason to want Nisman dead. High on the list would be President Kirchner, who stood to be highly embarrassed by Nisman's revelations. The security detail assigned to protect Nisman was conveniently absent from the floor of his apartment building at the time of his murder. Iran too had good reason to want him dead. Seven years ago, on his first visit to Israel, Nisman, who was Jewish, told journalist David Horowitz that he had received death threats from Iran. In a subsequent conversation in 2013, Nisman told Horowitz of evidence he had uncovered of Iranian terror cells established in the '80s and '90s and still in place today to be used as needed in at least six Latin American countries
The same day that Nisman was murdered an Israeli helicopter gunship fired on a convoy of Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders in the Golan. Among those incinerated were three Quds Force commanders, including General Mohamed Allahdadi, and Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of the coordinator of the 1994 AMIA bombing and the Hezbollah commander on the Golan Heights.
General Allahdadi was a ballistics weapons expert, and news reports place him in the Golan for the purpose of creating a Hezbollah missile base to be used for firing missiles at Israel. In the wake of the considerable backlash in Lebanon against Hezbollah, after the destruction caused to Lebanese territory by the 2006 Second Lebanese War, Hezbollah has been eager for another launching pad for attacks on Israel. Israel's demonstrated last week that it has no intention of allowing Hezbollah and its Iranian patron to establish a missile base directed against it on Syrian territory in the Golan.
Taken together, the two events remind us of several unpleasant facts about Iran. First, Iran has long been the world's chief exporter of terror, often through its Hezbollah proxy. Hezbollah has the blood of hundreds of U.S. servicement on its hands, including 242 Marines whose barracks was blown up by a Hezbollah suicide bomber in 1982. As Nisman discovered, Iran has established sleeper terrorist cells around the world to be activated at a time and place of its choosing. And responsibility for those terror cells rests at the very top of the Iranian political hierarchy: Supreme Leader Ali Khameini.
Second, the Iranian nuclear program has been at the top of Iranian national priorities for over a quarter of a century. Third, Iran remains fully committed to the destruction of the state of Israel, as the dispatch of a top ballistics missile expert to establish a missile base on the Golan demonstrates.
Two other events of last week further show the extent to which Iran remains an aggressive, expansionist power. The first was the publication of Israeli satellite photos of a 27 meter-long Iranian ICBM missile with a range far beyond Western Europe. The second was the takeover over of the presidential palace in Yemen's capital of Sa'ana by Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi tribesmen the very day that President Obama proclaimed in his State of the Union address the success of his anti-terrorism efforts in Yemen.
IN SHORT, IRAN, EVEN WITHOUT NUCLEAR WEAPONS, remains the antithesis of a status quo state. It is bent on upending the established order everywhere to create an arc of its Shiite proxies on all sides of the Middle East. The idea, then, that Iran can be enticed into some grand rapprochement with the United States would appear to be delusional, in addition to constituting a thorough betrayal of America's staunchest Middle East ally, Israel, as well as its traditional Sunni allies.
And yet the pursuit of precisely such a grand bargain with Iran appears to be President Obama's goal. Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey told an Obama administration figure in Senate hearings on further Iran sanctions legislation of which Menendez is the co-sponsor, "The more I hear from the administration and its quotes, the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Iran." Senator Menendez later repeated that comment directly to the president during a meeting between the President and Democratic senators.
While harsh, Menendez's characterization is fully supported: The Obama administration is pursuing a consistently pro-Iranian foreign policy throughout the Middle East. Senior administration officials told the New York Times last week that the United States no longer seeks the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iran's most important ally. The American refusal to enforce a no-fly zone against Assad's air force and tepid support for Syrian rebels who are neither aligned to Al Qaeda or the Islamic State has resulted in a de facto division of the country between ISIS and forces loyal to Assad.
In Iraq, Obama has eschewed the one strategy that offers any hope of causing an Islamic State retreat from the more than fifty percent of Iraqi territory it now controls: arming Sunni tribesmen, as President George W. Bush did during the successful surge. That step too would meet with great disfavor in Teheran, which would prefer to maintain its control over a rump Shiite state.
The sanctions relief offered to Iran under the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), the deadlines of which have been twice extended, rescued the Iranian economy from collapse – at least until the Saudis fed up with American recalcitrance decided to drive the price of oil down to under $50 per barrel – and thus removed the greatest internal threat to the rule of the mullahs. After two years of contraction, the Iranian economy expanded after the signing of JPOA.
Besides sanctions relief, the Obama administration offered the Iranians huge concessions in order to convince them to enter nuclear negotiations. The JPOA grants Iran the right to enrich uranium, in contravention of at least two U.N. Security Council resolutions denying precisely that right. And it dropped its demands that Iran dismantle its centrifuges. Finally, the JPOA made no mention of Iran's ballistic missile program.
Once negotiations began, the U.S. followed with yet more concessions to coax the Iranians into an agreement, including the offer of a ten-year sunset limit on any restrictions on Iran's nuclear program. The administration's former insistence that Iran supply the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) all information about its previous nuclear weaponization research – a condition deemed by weapons inspectors necessary to any effort to verify Iranian compliance – has been dropped.
And despite repeated assurances to Congress and the American people that it would be quick to impose harsh new sanctions if Iran were caught cheating, the administration has either turned a blind eye to clear breaches of the JPOA or deemed them insignificant. The Iranians continue to deny the IAEA access to its nuclear installations. And Yukiay Amano, the director general of the agency, has accused Iran of failing to provide the material necessary for the IAEA to evaluate Iran's efforts at weaponization. Foreign Policy magazine revealed in October that Iran has been seeking to purchase parts for its Arak light-water reactor, which is designed to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. And it has developed and tested highly advanced centrifuges, upon which work was supposed to cease under JPOA.
In response to the administration's desperate pursuit of Iran as a potential key to stability in the Middle East, three former senior foreign policy officials, including two who held senior Iran-related portfolios in Obama's State Department and National Security Agency published a stern critique of the administration's approach. They noted that the Western nations had provided Iran with a generous package of concessions: the right to enrich, no need to dismantle centrifuges or any facilities. As a result, the Iranians have "grown accustomed to having their interlocutors return to the table with concessions meant to meet their mandates."
What is needed now, argue the former officials, is an end to concessions at the bargaining table. In their place should come a "revamped coercive strategy" that threatens just what the Islamic Republic values most – its influence in the Middle East and its standing at home."
Sadly, that is the last thing President Obama appears to have in mind, as he made clear in his State of the Union address, in which he promised yet again to veto any bill that seeks to impose sanctions on Iran in the wake of a failure to conclude an agreement under the JPOA.