Friday, August 26, 2016

What Might Have Been (Iran Edition)

For the second time in three days, there has been a confrontation between U.S. and Iranian naval vessels in the Persian Gulf.  During today's incident, an American patrol craft fired three warning shots into the water after four Iranian boats harassed U.S. and Kuwaiti Navy vessels in the northern Persian Gulf. As CNN reports: 

"At one point, the Iranian boat came within 200 yards of one of the US Navy boats. When it failed to leave the area after the Navy had fired flares and had a radio conversation with the Iranian crew, the US officials said, tthree he USS Squall fired three warning shots. Following standard maritime procedures, the Navy fired the shots into the water to ensure the Iranians understood they needed to leave the immediate area."  

The episode came just two days after four Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps vessels staged a "high-speed intercept" of the guided missile destroyer USS Nitze in the Strait of Hormuz.  

American officials said two of the vessels slowed and turned away only after coming within 300 yards of the US guided-missile destroyer as it transited international waters near the Strait of Hormuz, and only after the destroyer had sent multiple visual and audio warnings.  In response, a senior IRGC naval officer said Iran will continue its close-quarters intercepts of American vessels, maneuvers deemed "unsafe" and "unprofessional" by the U.S. Navy.  

The most recent showdowns in the Gulf are merely the latest in a string of dangerous incidents involving Iranian military forces.  Last December, one of its vessels fired a rocket near the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman; that was followed by the capture and brief detainment of 10 American sailors whose Riverine broke down during a transit from Kuwait to Bahrain and drifted into Iranian waters.  And just last month, one of Iran's naval craft sailed close to the USS New Orleans while the Commander of US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, was on board.   
And, did we mention recent revelations that the Obama Administration paid a $400 million ransom to secure the release of four American hostages from Iran last year?  Or that more money is on the way, helping Tehran finance its own military modernization program, and fund terrorist proxies around the world. 

Then, there's the nuclear deal, which places Iran squarely on the path to developing those weapons.  Iran's partnership with North Korea will provide the expertise needed to extend the range of Tehran's ballistic missiles, so an Iranian ICBM--capable of a nuclear warhead to the CONUS--is a virtual certainty, and perhaps by the end of this decade.

Against that grim backdrop, it's a fair question to ask what might have been, particularly if the U.S. had pursued regime change as a priority in Iran.  And there were opportunities, most recently during the so-called "Green Revolution" in 2009.  After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his faction won the presidential election ("stole" is probably a better term), thousands of Iranians took to the streets, demanding change. 

The widespread unrest threatened to topple the Tehran regime, which responded brutally.  Between 800 and 3,000 protesters were killed in the street; hundreds more disappeared and were executed in Iranian prisons.  President Obama refused to lift a finger in support, claiming the demonstrators--which represented a broad cross-section of Iranian society--didn't represent "real change."  He never admitted publicly that the Iranian election was riddled with fraud, aimed at keeping Ahmadinejad and the mullahs in power.

Why was Obama so insistent on letting the Iranian revolution die on the vine?  We finally have some answers, thanks to Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon and his new book, The Iran Wars.  Eli Lake of Bloomberg devoted a recent column to Solomon's work and its revelations.  He affirms what many long suspected; Obama's obsession over reaching some sort of deal with Iran overruled any other considerations; he was quite willing to let the Green Revolution die on the vine, to preserve his then-secret overtures to Tehran.  As Mr. Lake writes:

It's worth contrasting Obama's response with how the U.S. has reacted to other democratic uprisings. The State Department, for example, ran a program in 2000 through the U.S. embassy in Hungary to train Serbian activists in nonviolent resistance against their dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic, too, accused his opposition of being pawns of the U.S. government. But in the end his people forced the dictator from power.

Similarly, when Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze met with popular protests in 2003 after rigged elections, George W. Bush dispatched James Baker to urge him to step down peacefully, which he did. Even the Obama administration provided diplomatic and moral support for popular uprisings in Egypt in 2011 and Ukraine in 2014.

Iran though is a very different story. Obama from the beginning of his presidency tried to turn the country's ruling clerics from foes to friends. It was an obsession. And even though the president would impose severe sanctions on the country's economy at the end of his first term and beginning of his second, from the start of his presidency, Obama made it clear the U.S. did not seek regime change for Iran.  

And, as Mr. Solomon reveals, the president's over-arching desire to strike a deal with Iran influenced critical decisions in other areas.  It's the main reason he walked away from the infamous "red line" in Syria three years ago.  Iranian negotiators told their American counterparts the nuclear talks would end if the U.S. intervened against Syrian dictator--and Iran ally--Bashir Assad.  Obama blinked.  The President also took the unusual steps of ending U.S. programs that documented human rights abuses in the Islamic Republic and wrote letters to Iran's Supreme Leader, assuring him that the we had no plans to overthrow him.  

In the end, Obama got his badly-flawed nuclear deal--and a lot more.  Iran is more belligerent and aggressive than ever before, as evidenced by the recent naval encounters in the Gulf.  And the situation isn't likely to improve anytime soon.  Tehran got everything it wanted in the nuclear accord, and the return of long-frozen Iranian assets in the U.S. will provide a funding stream for new military hardware, the nuclear program and various terrorist allies.  

To be fair, there is no guarantee that American support would have guaranteed the success of the Green Revolution.  But as Mr. Lake writes, it was definitely worth a gamble.  Installing a new Iranian regime would have been a game-changer across the Middle East, likely resulting in a nuclear deal that effectively dismantled the Iranian program and eradicated the emerging threat.  The situation in places like Syria might have become more manageable and there's even the possibility that Tehran's support for groups like Hezbollah would fade.  Without that assistance, the group would become less of a threat to Israel and its stranglehold over Lebanon might decrease as well.  

Unfortunately, all of those scenarios are permanently banished to the realm of what "might have been," thanks to the obsessive and feckless behavior of Barack Obama.  Mr. Solomon's book is on our reading list, since he clearly breaks new ground in reporting one of the story's most important diplomatic stories.  One thing we're wondering about: what role did Presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett play in all of this?  Ms. Jarrett, the president's closest confidante was born in Iran to American parents and, by some accounts, retains a certain affinity for the land where she grew up.  

Nothing wrong with that, but Jarrett seems to be an invisible hand in the diplomatic activity that pursued the nuclear deal to the exclusion of everything else.  One report indicates that Ms. Jarrett played an active role in secret talks with Iran before the public negotiations began.  Never mind that the presidential adviser has no real experience in diplomacy or national security matters.  But she does have Mr. Obama's ear, and some observers believe that Jarrett played a role in the departure of Ambassador Dennis Ross from the president's national security team early in his tenure.  Ross, a veteran Middle East hand, favored a much tougher approach in negotiations with Iran.  Needless to say, that didn't sit well with Mr. Obama or Ms. Jarrett. 

In the end, the president's singular focus on "winning over" Iran--encouraged by members of his inner circle--spelled doom for brave Iranians who rose up during the Green Revolution.  Some of them still languish in prison to this day.  Not surprisingly, the Obama administration isn't doing anything to help them, since we no longer track human rights abuses in Iran.                 



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