Shadow Government

The Problem with the White House Case Against New Iranian Sanctions

I am inclined to be sympathetic to the White House argument (presented ably by Colin Kahl here) that we must be careful lest the imposition of new sanctions becomes an excuse for the Iranian regime to renege on a possible deal to end Iran's nuclear weapons program. As I have been arguing for some time, negotiations with Iran will end successfully only if we maintain sufficient pressure, and yet also only if we can credibly promise the Iranian regime that truly cooperative behavior will be rewarded. One has to thread a narrow needle.

Back in August, before the latest round of negotiations with Iran had started in earnest, I thought threading the needle would entail passing new sanctions but giving President Obama a national security waiver on them and having Obama exercise that waiver.

Now that the negotiations have reached a more advanced state -- with a reported interim deal, albeit an "interim deal" that has not started because there are still apparently irreconcilable technical differences between the two sides -- defenders of Obama's preferred approach can make a partially compelling argument that my gambit would not work.

Their argument is only partially compelling, however, because the Obama team is not as candid as it could be in explaining how we got here. The Obama team version of the story is one in which a tough-minded president musters robust international support for crushing sanctions and then deftly moves to the negotiating table at just the right moment. That is not quite how it happened. The administration squandered the first couple years of handling the Iran file, and only reached the current level of economic pressure when Congress ignored earlier pleas by the administration and imposed over administration objections the very sanctions the administration now credits with having brought Iran to the bargaining table. It is true that the administration has said that no deal is better than a bad deal, but there are reasons to worry that the president may be so eager for any deal that he will make greater concessions than are prudent. 

A fairer reading of the history shows that the hawks have at least as compelling an explanation of how we got here as the doves. That does not mean that the hawkish option is always the right one tactically at every turn, but it does mean that it deserves a more careful hearing than it has gotten thus far.

In other words, President Obama would be more persuasive in making the case for the dovish no-more-sanctions option right now if he could be more forthright about the relative merits of the hawkish critique. And failure to do so reinforces concerns that his rhetoric about having a policy of "prevention" and not "containment" is just rhetoric, and not a red line he actually would defend. Those concerns, in turn, make it harder to give him the diplomatic leeway he says he needs to test the Iranians.

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

It is almost impossible to toss away a win through foolish mistakes; nevertheless, President Obama has lost Iraq. Recall the saying, "The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer." But losing Iraq took half a decade, beginning with the 2008 presidential campaign.

Milestones included Barack Obama's opposition to the military surge of his predecessor and inexplicably turning his back on the political surge he once favored; abandoning Iranian dissidents in Iraq, although we pledged to protect them if they disarmed during the 2003-2004 takedown of Saddam and who induced Sunni tribes to support American forces; and failure to bargain to leave a residual military presence in Iraq during Status of Forces talks between Baghdad and Washington in 2011.

During 2008, a debate raged about whether the surge reduced American casualties and produced relative stability in Iraq. John McCain credited the surge in American troops; Obama opposed the surge, but falsely assumed it was contrary to a political surge:

"Sunni Awakening changed the dynamic in Iraq fundamentally. It could not have occurred unless there were some contacts and intermediaries to peel off those who are tribal leaders, regional leaders, [and] Sunni nationalists from a more radical, messianic brand of insurgency."

During my secret, dangerous research in Iraq during October 2008, I found scores of Iraqi Arabs attributing the reduction in violence to the surge and Sunni Awakening: By taking over 100,000 Sunnis away from the insurgency against the American military, the Awakening was the political surge that could continue if there were a responsible U.S. troop reduction and transition of Awakening tribes to the government of Iraq.

Tribal leaders formerly affiliated with the insurgency against U.S. forces explained their longstanding relationship with Iranian dissidents, the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), based at Camp Ashraf, Iraq. Sheikhs said without such a mediator, negotiations with the U.S. military would have been unthinkable. Indeed, I discovered that the safest place in Iraq to interview Arab tribal leaders was in Ashraf.

My research in Iraq during October 2008 marked the official assumption of responsibility for payment, treatment, training, and deployment of the 100,000 strong "Sons of Iraq," as coalition forces relinquished control of them. And the rest is history: Baghdad saw these Awakening tribes as a political threat to Shiite and Iranian control over Iraq and presided over their demise.

One reason the MEK has close relations with the U.S. military is because its members were classified as "protected persons" by Washington under the Fourth Geneva Convention since July 2004. With the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq, Washington turned over protection of the Iranian dissidents to Iraqi Security Forces, which unfortunately were penetrated by local enemies of the United States sponsored by Tehran. Instead of protecting the MEK, Baghdad facilitated a series of attacks against them in 2009, 2011, and 2013.

Prior to his precipitous withdrawal of American forces as 2011 closed, Obama was fond of saying the United States "must be as careful getting out of Iraq as it was reckless going in." In hastily drawing down the U.S. military, he failed to follow his own dictum, creating a security vacuum ably filled by al Qaeda in Iraq.

Now let us fast-forward to the present.

First, there are reports that American intelligence believes Iranian commandos participated in the September 2013 attack on Camp Ashraf, Iraq, and then "spirited seven members of the group back to Iran, highlighting Tehran's increasingly free hand inside Iraq in the wake of the U.S withdrawal from the country." But it is nonsensical to believe Ashraf was attacked without the active participation of Iraqi forces. It is guarded by fences, checkpoints, and more than 1,200 Iraqi troops, which makes it very difficult for Iranian commandos to reach the camp without close cooperation with Iraqi forces.

Second, a Spanish court extended its investigation into the three raids on Ashraf during 2009, 2011, and 2013. U.N. rights experts demanded in December for Baghdad to determine what happened to the seven hostages. Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, of which the MEK is the largest unit, reiterated her call for hunger strikers to end their actions.

Third, it is not too late to avoid losing Iran, which would require Obama to toughen terms of the November Geneva accord and stand with the dissidents against their tormentors. President Obama, now is the time to support the Iranian people against the tyrannical regime in Tehran; if not you, then who? Now is your time.

SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images