Shadow Government

Second thoughts and renewed questions for Obama and Romney on the unfolding crisis in the Middle East

Like every other foreign policy specialist I know, I have spent the last week thinking and talking (hopefully in that order) about the unfolding crisis in the Middle East. My initial thoughts hold up pretty well, I think, but some revisions and extensions are in order.

First, an additional level needs to be considered: the ceremonial. The killing of Ambassador Stevens -- the first U.S. ambassador to be killed like this since 1979, a painful echo to the troubled times of the Carter administration -- elevated the crisis from mere anti-American riots into a far more serious dimension, one that called for a different, more elevated response than the Cairo riots required. President Obama performed well at this ceremonial level, and Governor Romney did not. For the subsequent 24 hours, Obama and his administration fulfilled the role of Mourner-in-Chief and Spokesman-for-the-Country, and did so with eloquent eulogies to the slain and to their professions. The anti-Romney critics were wrong to claim that Romney's less than satisfying performance of this ceremonial role called into question his capacity to be an effective commander-in-chief, but they had a legitimate point that Romney has a way to go before he can be as effective a Consoler-in-Chief as Obama. This is a reasonable, albeit limited, critique and the Romney team should take it on board and not dismiss it just because it is usually delivered in a package wrapped with partisan sneer.

Second, if I was too kind to Romney by omitting the ceremonial level of analysis, I was probably too kind to Obama on evaluating his performance at the tactical level. The more we learn about what was happening at the tactical level, the more troubling the picture gets. We still have much to learn, and hopefully a vigorous Congressional oversight process will bring this all to light, but here are just some of the questions that need to be resolved:

  • Did the administration ignore warnings of a deteriorating security situation, as CNN and the British Independent claim?
  • Of course the administration denies these explosive charges, but who is right in this classic he-said/she-said scenario and on what basis is the Obama administration issuing the denials?
  • Was the attack pre-planned, as the Libyan president claims, or was it merely a spontaneous outburst as the Obama administration claims? How does the Obama administration know it was merely a spontaneous attack?
  • If the Obama administration is right about the Benghazi raid, it does not absolve them entirely. How adequate were Ambassador Stevens' security arrangements and who approved them at higher levels? Did Secretary Clinton authorize a light-footprint security posture in Libya? How well did the administration weigh the risks associated with that decision? Why is the administration stonewalling on these questions now?
  • If the Obama administration is right about the Benghazi raid, it also raises the importance of the violent Cairo demonstrations. How well did the embassy manage those demonstrations and were any errors due to policy choices at a higher level? A friend of mine, a former ambassador from the region with extensive experience in these matters, asked me this question: Did Marine Security Guards (MSG) respond to the early formation of protests on the perimeter of the embassy according to standard operating procedures (which would have had the MSG patrolling in full combat gear as a deterrent that might have prevented the breaching of the embassy perimeter) and, if not, why not? If the story out of Cairo had been "Angry Protests Across the Street from U.S. Embassy" rather than "Egypt Protestors Scale U.S. Embassy Wall, Take Flag", it is reasonable to think the Benghazi copy-cat protests might have turned out differently (assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Obama administration is correct that there was nothing premeditated in the Benghazi attack).
  • Was Obama's Egypt-is-not-an-ally gaffe deliberate or merely sloppy? When he committed it, the administration was in fact pressuring Morsy, the Egyptian leader, to get on-side regarding the Cairo protests. It could well have been a deliberate slap designed to get his attention. Ironically, Romney showed some sympathy for the Obama position, so while this gaffe (alongside all of the other stumbles) proves that Obama has struggled to respond to the crisis, it does not by itself sharply distinguish Obama from Romney.

And, finally, those infamous tweets merit a bit more serious attention than most of the media has given them thus far. All along, Obama partisans have sought to criticize Romney for the timing and tone of his complaint about the tweet -- the complaint came late at night while the crisis was still unfolding and Romney reiterated the complaint rather than pivot to language befitting a Mourner-in-Chief once he learned about the fatalities in Benghazi. As I said in my original take, and repeat more forcefully here, I think there are legitimate complaints to make about Romney's timing and tone. But Romney's original complaint itself also had merit, and perhaps it is time to spend a fraction of the electrons devoted to criticizing how Romney said it to exploring what Romney said. When we do, several questions arise:

  • Why did the Obama administration criticize the tweets? Why is it acceptable for the Obama administration to criticize the tweets but wrong for Romney to do so?
  • What is the difference between the strategy underlying those tweets and the strategy underlying Obama's 2009 Cairo speech? Would an administration informed by a different "theory of the case" for how to respond to radical extremists in the region have produced similar tweets?
  • What is the difference between the tweets and Obama's own recent statements on the Cairo situation? The administration was actually asked this question and was totally unable to answer it. Why? 

Both the Obama and the Romney campaigns agree that the events of the last week raise important and perhaps awkward questions for the other side. I hope both sides will step up and answer those questions. That will only happen if we keep asking them.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Shadow Government

The only guarantee of a nuclear-free Iran? A free, democratic Iran.

As the Islamic Republic moves closer to obtaining a nuclear weapons capability, talk of an Israeli attack on Iran is increasingly the subject of articles and reports in the international media. On the one hand, it is certainly understandable why Israel is extremely concerned about the Islamic Republic's nuclear capability, particularly given the escalating anti-Israeli rhetoric coming from Tehran. On the other hand, is an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities really the best solution to the nuclear threat posed by the Islamic Republic?

The answer to this question lies in the effectiveness of the international sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic and whether a coalition of concerned countries, with American leadership, is now willing to support the Iranian freedom movement.

The international sanctions that have delivered the biggest punch to date have been those imposed on Iran's oil and gas industry and its financial institutions. Iran's crude oil shipments have dropped by 52 percent since July 1 and the Islamic Republic is losing $133 million a day all without the devastating oil-price spike that many had feared would happen. Sensitive internal government reports are beginning to leak in Tehran warning of an impending financial crisis in which the regime might not be able to meet the government payroll in the next three months.  The regime has warned its ministries to expect a 50 percent cut in the salary of all government employees.

While Ali Khamenei and his minions have been trying to minimize the effects of international sanctions, it appears that the regime's foreign currency reserve may be exhausted in the coming months. The IMF estimated that the regime had $106 billion in official foreign reserves at the end of 2011; estimates by private economists now put the regime's reserves remaining at $50 billion - $70 billion. In spite of Iran Central Bank Governor Mahmoud Bahmani's efforts to hide this alarming situation and halt the dramatic slide of the rial, the rial's unofficial rate is reported to have plunged to record low rates of 25,000 to 29,000 rials to the U.S. dollar. The regime anticipates that the rial may fall to a devastating 67,000 rials to the dollar as the Iranian central bank tries to curb the sharp drop in its reserves.   

Inflation has plagued the Iranian economy since the Islamic Revolution. The removal of government subsidies on food and fuel amplified this problem and sanctions have added to the inflationary pressures. With inflation now at 33 percent, prices have escalated to a point that the burden is very difficult if not unbearable for the average Iranian consumer. Discontent with the regime is on the rise. Indeed, if the leaked classified reports are to be believed, the regime should anticipate that riots will occur in border cities where day-to-day conditions are most rapidly disintegrating. The Iranian people blame the regime and its policies for their growing poverty, and food and fuel shortages. Momentum is shifting from the regime to those seeking a free, democratic Iran.

The regime's relentless pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability presents a genuine dilemma. While it is important to keep a credible military strike option on the table, a military attack, especially if Israel executes it unilaterally, will not have long-lasting effects in preventing a nuclear weapons-capable Iran. Israel and all countries concerned about the regime's nuclear threat should not lose sight of the fact that discontent among the Iranians is at its highest level since the Revolution. The Iranian people are capable of surprising the world again by rising up against this oppressive, illegitimate regime just as they did in the 2009 post-election protests.

It is impossible to predict the precise moment when another uprising will happen in Iran, but a military attack will be a serious impediment to the success of any democratic movement in Iran. It will give the mullahs the perfect chance to play victim on the international scene and to impose even greater oppression on the Iranian people. Perhaps this is why the public pronouncements of leaders of the Islamic Republic have been so provocative lately.

The regime believes that a nuclear weapons capability will bestow upon it what the Iranian people will not -- unchallenged legitimacy. Consequently, the Islamic regime will never abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. A free and democratic Iran is the only permanent solution to the Islamic regime's nuclear threat to the security of Israel and international peace. It requires a concerted international effort to financially paralyze the regime. It also requires a policy by the United States and its allies, including Israel, to support the Iranian freedom movement both inside Iran and abroad.

The Iranian people rose courageously once to show their opposition to this regime and their desire for a peaceful democratic government, but the governments of the free world failed to support them. Today, finally, these same governments, with U.S. leadership, are beginning to take major steps in the right direction through rigorous sanctions. Instead of a military attack, the U.S. and Israel should immediately launch major funding and human rights initiatives to support the Iranian freedom movement in its efforts to bring about a free, democratic Iran that is committed to playing a peaceful and constructive role in the Middle East. The Iranian freedom movement is not asking the United States or its allies to shed blood to advance its struggle with the regime in Tehran. Those seeking a free, democratic Iran are simply looking for strong international public support to secure their God-given freedom and fundamental human rights.

G. William Heiser is a former official in the Reagan National Security Council Staff and currently is an advisor to the Confederation of Iranian Students.

Amir Fakhravar is Secretary General of the Confederation of Iranian Students and a former political prisoner of the Iranian regime. He is presently a Research Fellow and Visiting Lecturer at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of international affairs in Washington, DC.

Getty Images