Little Positive Change in Mideast

Terry H. Schwadron

June 22, 2021

When it comes to saber-rattling, the United States simply lags well behind its authoritarian targets, even well behind its allies.

There are differences in approach, of course, but almost regardless of party in the White House, we speak sternly, but with less clout than in the past, as if that tone should be enough to dissuade evil doers or international conflict.

We always make one repeated mistake — we think our expressed, controlled national opinion is what matters, rather than what the other guy is actually doing.

Iran has “elected” Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-line cleric president, a guy already under U.S. sanctions, who is committed to our demise, to Israel’s destruction and to locking up Iranian dissidents (Where were complaints about this “Big Steal,” clearly rigged election?). A new Israeli president, in place for two days, already and Hamas terrorists in Gaza are already poking at each other anew. And in North Korea, the ever-weird Kim Jong Un is making odd threats and actually continuing to launch missiles in would-be attack distances into the sea.

So here was National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Sunday saying that preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon remains a “paramount priority” for the United States,” emphasizing that diplomacy “is the best way to achieve that rather than military conflict. And so, we’re going to negotiate in a clear-eyed, firm way with the Iranians to see if we can arrive at an outcome that puts their nuclear program in a box.”

It’s good that the issue is front and center, and that we’re keeping our U.S. ammunition dry. Honestly, if that statement is supposed to ward off bad acts by Iran, it seems pretty tame.

Effective diplomacy may be to keep the talk alive, but to have the intelligence and clenched fist to be able to deliver an advantageous outcome.

As you go through the list of America’s adversaries, Russia, China, Iran, Syria Turkey all take actual actions, whether they own up to them or not, and it is the United States that insists, at least officially, about playing by the rules.

Drawing Red Lines

While that principled approach is highly valued, the question always has been how to draw red lines in the sand — and to enforce them — something that drew criticism for former presidents Barack Obama and even George W. Bush.

Of course, Donald Trump would have argued that his bull-in-china-shop approach was more effective than Joe Biden’s diplomatic style, but so far, Iran and North Korea are still building nukes and changes in governments in the Middle East are not providing any sense of calm.

Trump had years of economic sanctions in place against Iran and even North Korea, insisting that trade bans and money squeezes would force compliance with America’s objectives, but in any useful analysis, these proved less than successful. In both Iran and North Korea, leaders have been willing to let their own citizens starve to preserve and accelerate nuclear weapons development. Even European countries continued doing business with Iran, in a snub of the Trump approach.

Trump took great pride in having dropped a single missile on a single Iranian leader while instigating trouble in Iran, provoking an international tongue-wagging. But that stopped nothing, neither weapons development nor Iranian supply of stand-in terror groups in the region. There was no follow-up.

At the same time that Jake Sullivan was talking, newly sworn-in Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was warning to “wake up” before pursuing a deal with Raisi, adding that the Iranian leader would bring about a “regime of brutal hangmen (that) must never be allowed to have weapons of mass destruction.” You know the Israelis are willing to do a lot more than talk about Iranian aggression, and while the recent attacks against military or scientific targets or the theft of an entire warehouse of nuclear documents may have further inflamed relations, Iran clearly takes Israel very seriously.

By contrast, Iran’s rekindled roundabout talks with the United States and European leaders are based on delay and bait-switching.

We should remember that getting bad guys to do good deeds for a common welfare of the globe is a stretch of anyone’s imagination.

Changes in Government

The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, who was held hostage by the Iranians a couple of years ago, wrote this week that Raisi, who was voted in by less than half of eligible voters, could be the most repressive figure to ever hold office. The election scales were so obviously tipped in his favor that millions of Iranians decided to skip voting, he reported. Raisi has ordered the deaths of thousands of dissidents, as documented by human rights groups, and represents the latest of a series of leaders who look inward at control rather than outward at joining the world.

Rezaian remined that Raisi matters for the Iranian people and for the prospects any Iran-U.S. agreement to restart a nuclear ban. Raisi has pledged to adhere to any deal reached, but prospects for that are not great. Meanwhile, Iranians can expect more discontent in their streets. The single key figure remains the Iranian ayatollah who has allowed the talks in Vienna to get underway.

Just yesterday, Raisi said he opposes talks on limiting ballistic missiles or support for regional proxy forces, and ruled out any meeting with Joe Biden.

Nor is the U.S. position on North Korea any clearer. The deterioration of relations with China removes an important chance to share pressure and intelligence from the secretive nation-state, and Sullivan’s remarks that “time will tell” whether another round of multilateral negotiations is possible hardly seem positive. According to the Korean Central News Agency, during a ruling-party meeting last week, Kim “stressed the need to get prepared for both dialogue and confrontation” with the United States — “especially to get fully prepared for confrontation in order to protect the dignity of our state,” the Associated Press reported.

And in Israel, the change to a coalition government that excludes right-leaning Benjamin Netanyahu feels overly fragile, while the actions of sending warplanes for retribution of Gazan weapons launched this week are just the same.

Our foreign policy seems directed as much toward domestic political audiences as it is to foreign leaders.

Our question should be whether any of what is going on makes us more safe, more secure or better off in any way. Changes among Middle East leaders, and our American response, offer little positive news.