By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
Here’s the latest episode of outreach to Iran from the lips of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. After condemning, during a press conference in Bahrain, the “destabilizing actions” of Iran in the Middle East, he then followed up with a plea. “Help us end the war in Yemen,” Kerry implored the Tehran regime. “Help us end the war in Syria, not intensify, and help us to be able to change the dynamics of this region.”
What do you call this? Naiveté? Hard-nosed realism? The actualization of President Barack Obama’s deeply held belief that American diplomacy must be humble and post-imperial? Or just the plain old enabling of a rogue state ruled by clerics who practice censorship and torture?
Perhaps the fairest way to adjudicate this would be to judge Kerry by his results. There is no chance that Iran is going to perform a 180-degree turnaround in its foreign policy, and Kerry knows it. In Syria, Iran has worked with Russia to stabilize the bloodstained tyrant Bashar al-Assad, while in Yemen and elsewhere in the Gulf, it is systematically baiting the conservative Sunni monarchies quivering in the face of rising Shi’a power.
Still, one can only say that Kerry has failed if one believes that the Obama administration’s policy is aimed primarily at curbing Iranian provocations. Now, when you look at the administration’s policy on Iran, it becomes clear that Kerry’s expressed concern about Iran’s behavior was a sop to his Bahraini hosts. When it is remembered that current administration policy is to disengage from the region, thereby empowering Iran, it can be argued that Kerry’s results have actually been a resounding success in the context of that policy.
Part of that policy is to occasionally indulge America’s Arab allies by sharing their alarm at what Iran is getting up to. And the Iranians know very well that this will be the limit of American opprobrium. They also know that they can easily wring concessions from Obama and Kerry. When the Iranians complained that they were not feeling the benefits of the surrender on Tehran’s nuclear program negotiated last year, the Americans let it be known that they were looking into how offshore financial institutions might conduct “legitimate business” with Iran in U.S. dollars—a currency to which up until now they have been denied access.
Such trading would certainly lubricate Iran’s economy, which has weathered several years of international sanctions. And in any case, Iran has already enjoyed a productive relationship with offshore institutions, as the “Panama Papers” leaked from shady law firm Mossack Fonseca amply demonstrate. One of several Iranian clients was Petropars, an oil firm sanctioned in 2010 by the U.S. Treasury Department for its involvement in Tehran’s nuclear program.
In that light, it’s hard to take seriously State Department assurances that its guidance to companies doing business in Iran will be aimed at keeping them within the law. Iran, we can be confident, will do everything it can to circumvent international regulations.
Momentum, thankfully, is building up in Congress to counter Iran’s re-entry into a global financial system in which the U.S. is still the most powerful player. In early April, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) introduced a bill that will prevent Iran from gaining even indirect access to American banks and other financial institutions, while also imposing secondary sanctions against any financial institutions that assist Iran in offshore dollar trading.
At the same time, the House Intelligence Committee has announced an investigation into whether the Obama administration misled Congress over the nuclear deal with Iran, on such critical issues as continuing Iranian missile tests and the character of the nuclear facilities inspections regime. Moreover, the anxiety over these concessions to Iran is bipartisan in nature. Prominent Democrats pushing back against administration policy include House Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who told the recent AIPAC policy conference that blocking Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons—a potential outcome that the nuclear deal has no power to prevent—needs to be our “number one” focus.
Meanwhile, Iran is doing everything it can to remind the world that its stance will only become more belligerent. After one of the regime’s missile tests in early March, Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh issued a brazen threat to Israel, stating that the “reason we designed our missiles with a range of 2,000 kilometers is to be able to hit our enemy the Zionist regime from a safe distance.”
That has now been followed up with another demonstration of intent. On April 7, Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Hossein Dehqan inaugurated a new Octogen power plant. Octogen is an explosive used in penetrating missile warheads. It can also be deployed as a detonator for an atomic weapon.
A statement from the Iranian Defense Ministry didn’t need to pretend that the Octogen manufacture was for defensive purposes. “The Defense Ministry has also paid attention to boosting the destructive and penetration power of different weapons’ warheads and has put on its agenda the acquisition of the technical know-how to produce Octogen explosive materials and Octogen-based weapons,” the statement said.
What should worry us here in America is that our current administration is quite satisfied with this current threat level. When it comes to the presidential race, fear of further strategic giveaways to the Iranians will remain locked in place for as long as Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), with their isolationist platforms, maintain their bids for their respective parties’ nominations.
The present activity in Congress is our best hope of pushing back against Iran, but it will not undo the nuclear deal. Nor will it prevent further Iranian missile tests, or Iran’s backing for such monsters as Assad and the Islamist terrorist organization Hezbollah. Given that, why would Iran conduct itself any differently?
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).