Thursday, May 3, 2018

Bibi and the Nukes

It is long past time for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to leave office. He’s got more baggage than Samsonite.

Among many people there is now an unfortunate knee-jerk reaction against Netanyahu on virtually every issue he raises. It is not always deserved, even though there is a good argument that he contributed to this near Pavlovian reaction.

Netanyahu has acted responsibly on some issues, particularly when it comes to the security of Israel which, for understandable reasons, is a very high priority here. For example, during the last Gaza War, undertaken to stop the missiles being fired into Israel and to stop the tunnels used to terrorize the south and to attempt to kidnap soldiers, there was much pressure from the right to go further into Gaza and to overthrow Hamas.

Netanyahu did what was necessary for Israel's defense but he resisted the pressure to go any further, knowing that it would create an untenable situation. He took a lot of flak for, in the view of those advocating such an action, not eradicating the problem once and for all.

Regarding the recent showcasing of Iranian documents and discs that demonstrate that Iran lied when it told the world it never had a nuclear weapons program, I could have done without Netanyahu's public show. I would have preferred that he present the information privately to relevant leaders around the world. Now, instead of the focus being on the issues, i.e. does Iran pose a nuclear threat and should the current deal be modified or rescinded, much of the focus is on Bibi’s presentation and veracity.

Of course, that problem is irrelevant if the intended audience was simply Donald Trump and it was determined that this was the best way to reach him. Coming just hours after Secretary of State Pompeo’s visit, one suspects this may have been a requested performance with that one-person audience in mind.

It is unfortunate that Netanyahu’s presentation is the focus of attention and that many doubt its authenticity. Of course, one can argue that without the presentation, or performance, no one would have paid any attention to the issue.

The criticism of the presentation is unfortunate for several reasons. First, just in terms of intelligence work, i.e. the spy game, this operation made James Bond and anything written by Tom Clancy look like minor league play. They spymasters should be given credit, anonymously, of course.

More importantly, what Netanyahu presented should be taken seriously and should be the focus of attention. Bibi did not say Israel found proof that Iran is now violating the deal by developing nuclear weapons at this time, However, there is a legitimate argument that the keeping of the materials it had in its archives is, in and of itself, a violation.

Moreover, the fact that Iran did not come clean about its previous nuclear development program and the materials it had on hand is a serious violation of the spirit if not the letter of the agreement. It means that the entire basis upon which the agreement was built is fraudulent.

What is clear in no uncertain terms is that because Iran lied about its past activities, it cannot be trusted to comply with the provisions of the agreement. Moreover, there is a strong point to be made that if the international community was fooled before on such a crucial matter, there is a very strong likelihood that it is being fooled again.

The view from here in Jerusalem is a worrisome one, to put it mildly. The deal assures the Iranians that, if they are patient and stick to the terms of the deal, in a few short years they will become a nuclear power with international legitimacy. Israel cannot live with that since Iran has declared its intention to destroy Israel. This is pretty much a guarantee of a terrible war.

Some argue that the deal "was the best that was possible at the time." Wrong. It was the best deal that President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry could get at the time. Any experienced negotiator can sense when the opponent has fallen in love with the idea of getting a deal regardless of the terms. Obama and Kerry repeatedly broadcasted loud and clear that they wanted a deal, almost any deal.

Kerry kept moving the goal posts closer. He made concession after concession, with rationale after rationale, without getting anything in return. Out came missiles. Out came effective, no-notice inspections. Out came military bases. And on and on. To quote Abba Eban: “Once everyone knows your fallback position, you’ve fallen back.” Kerry demonstrated Eban’s point repeatedly.

It was clear that President Obama did not want to impose strong sanctions. Congress kept pushing him to impose them, and he resisted. There were many more things the U.S. could have done to push the other partners to hold fast for better terms, but it refused to do so.

To paraphrase Alan Dershowitz, I wouldn't have hired that crew to negotiate a one-month lease.

The Obama Administration was so intent on getting a deal that it obstructed and eventually halted a large-scale investigation into Hezbollah's finances, terror, and crime so as not to upset Iran and the possibility of a deal. While this may be relatively small potatoes in the U.S., this leads directly to terror and death here. It has received remarkably little attention.

In short, Kerry and Obama took a fairly strong hand and turned it into weakness. There is a fairly good case that this was part of a larger design. 

Some say: "Of course there are other issues we would like to see addressed but they are not part of the deal." And not having them be part of the deal was and is a fatal omission. Not including Iran's other bad behavior in a deal that lifted sanctions gave Iran a green light to continue and increase that bad behavior.

President Obama said repeatedly that the deal would encourage and empower the moderates in Iran and help bring it into the family of nations. Virtually anyone familiar with the Middle East knew that this was either the height of ignorance or a deliberately misleading statement indicating his desire to get a deal no matter the terms or the consequences.

As everyone here knew and feared, Iran was emboldened. Its missile program continues unabated and grows more dangerous every day. Its efforts to cause instability and to support terror and war in Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and in Lebanon have been greatly enabled, financially, militarily, and politically.

The deal, combined with the policy of both the Obama and Trump administrations of playing a less dominant role in the region, has created a vacuum happily and quickly filled by Russia and Iran, who are now very much involved in Syria.

Israel now has a dangerous tinderbox on the Israel-Syrian front. Iran is trying to establish a permanent military presence there. Israel cannot allow that to happen for three reasons: 1) Iran has declared its intentions to destroy Israel. 2) Even if it were not to launch an all-out attack, it clearly would use its position in Syria to inflict terror on Israel. 3) The Iran deal helped give it the financial means to make a credible effort to achieve its objectives and, combined with other policies, has emboldened it.

Israel is in a bind: if it takes Iran on, it risks a huge war. If it accidentally hits Russian assets or personnel, all hell breaks loose. While some of this may have happened even without the nuclear deal, there is no doubt that the deal greatly emboldened and provided resources and political cover to the extreme forces in Iran who are behind this aggression and the drive toward hegemony in the region.

Some argue: "The deal was designed only to slow and halt progress toward a bomb by Iran, nothing more. It has and is doing that." Regarding the deal’s goals: At the outset we were told that the deal would stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power and that it would cause it to moderate its actions and become a responsible member of the family of nations. See above about Kerry moving the goal posts closer.

We do not know if it "has and is doing that [slowing and halting progress toward a bomb.]” As Netanyahu's presentation showed, Iran has lied over the years. What assurances do we have that it is being truthful now? We were originally told that there would be no-notice inspections and that nothing would be off-limits. In the end inspections are delayed and military installations are off-limits. Again, those moving goal posts.

But is there an alternative to the current deal? Of course. Does demanding changes or scrapping it mean war? Not at all.

Just a few alternative steps that could be considered if necessary: Negotiate better. Stop allowing refined oil into Iran. Stop buying any of its products. Don't sell it parts for its industries. Don’t provide its economy access to the international financial system. Re-start the program of sabotage and assassination.

One of the less than honorable tactics of President Obama and his team when advocating for the deal was framing it as a "this deal or you are for war" proposition. It was an effective tactic, although it was not honest and was not conducive to a serious debate. It also was disingenuous since the Administration said for a long time that no deal was better than a bad deal.

The other less than honorable tactic used by some on the Obama team, without any known objection by the President, was from the outset asserting that the Administration was up against a powerful lobbying force, big powerful interests, etc. Gee, I wonder who they were referring to?

When proponents assert that the deal is better than war and prevents a war, they overlook one little detail: The deal has not avoided war. Rather, it has encouraged it.

The US is just not significantly involved in the war. . . yet.

As discussed earlier, the deal, along with Obama and Trump policies, has emboldened Iran to become heavily involved in Syria, a development Israel cannot allow. Israel has gotten increasingly involved to thwart Iran's efforts to establish a permanent presence in Syria. For the first time it is now engaged in direct conflict with Iran.

As Iran takes more substantial steps to plant itself in Syria, Israel takes bolder and more direct steps to prevent it from doing so. Iranian assets have been destroyed and Iranian military personnel have been killed. Israel anticipates Iran attempting to retaliate for these losses. This can blow up at any time.

If Israel inadvertently hurts or kills Russians, all hell will break lose. If it ends up having to take out a nuclear installation in Iran, not only will all hell break lose, but it is very possible that radioactive materials will be released. Radioactive materials will travel to American installations and personnel in the region, to allies, to oceans, and possibly to the U.S.

Iran is providing critical support to the Houthis in their war in Yemen. They or their proxies are now firing missiles into Saudi Arabia. The first time they hit an oil installation, the region will very likely go up in flames.

The list of Iran’s aggression and transgressions goes on and on. Contrary to President Obama’s representations, the deal did not stem its support of terrorism, its military aggression in the region, or its efforts to cause instability in other countries. Given that at the very least Iran lied about its nuclear program, the current compliance regime gives no assurance that it is not doing so again. In any event, under the terms of the current deal it becomes a nuclear power in a few short years.

Iran is on the march toward hegemony. The US may currently be largely not involved, but don't think that war is not happening and don't think that eventually it won't involve the U.S.

I have recently read several books about the Eisenhower presidency. Ike was an internationalist, an interventionist who kept the U.S. out of wars for eight years. He believed in a steady, considered, but firm American assertion of power. He prevailed over the Republican isolationists led by Taft. Many of the arguments made by those supportive of the deal and against a more assertive, involved U.S. policy sound remarkably similar to those made by Taft and the isolationists.

It would not have worked then. It’s not working now.

(Originally published in The Times of Israel)

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