Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Questions in Washington over the selling of the Iran Nuclear Deal

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Update from AIJAC

 

May 12, 2016

Update 05/16 #02

This Update offers a small taste of a debate occurring in the US about the means by which the Obama Administration sold their nuclear deal with Iran, following a piece in the New York Times focussed on and featuring some quotes from deputy national security advisor for strategic communications Ben Rhodes, the Administration's point man for public relations on the deal. These seem to imply that the Administration essentially fabricated elements of their narrative to help their public relations campaign.

We open with long-standing American journalist and columnist Cliff May, who explains what Rhodes appeared to be saying - and why he appears to be admitting deception. Essentially, May explains, in the name of making the argument on the deal a choice between peace and war, Rhodes appears to concede that the US created a narrative about helping moderates after the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2013, strengthening them against hardliners. But not only were the negotiations going on before Mr. Rouhani's election, there is now clear evidence including from senior figures within the Administration, May argues, that it was known that there was no meaningful division between a hardline and moderate camp in Iran. For May's important analysis, including details about other revelations by Rhodes, CLICK HERE

Next up is leading American foreign policy reporter Eli Lake, who takes aim at Rhodes' specific claims that deceptive methods were required to sell the deal because "reasoned public debate" was "impossible" in the face of what he called "The Blob" - the American foreign policy establishment.  Lake argues that, in fact, the position Rhodes was pushing - withdrawal and non-intervention, anger at the Iraq war, accommodation with Iran - is actually the position of the American foreign policy establishment, such as the State Department and associated think tanks, for the most part. He says what Rhodes was actually opposing was various groups that democratically lobby Congress to do things the Establishment does not like - and that Obama's policy has actually been a shift back to establishment policies after the Bush era, with dubious consequences in Lake's view. For his argument in full, CLICK HERE

Finally, Israeli non-proliferation specialist Emily Landau offers a particularly sharp look at how the Iranians, post nuclear deal, are attempting to use their own sort of bold-faced spinning to get more concessions. This involves flatly denying any reality that is inconvenient to Iran, stubbornly insisting on their own virtue and adherence to their obligations in the face of vast evidence to the contrary - and then turning the tables, making complaints and demanding the other side prove its bonafides, thus shifting the burden of proof. She notes examples regarding Holocaust denial and terrorism, but argues in particular the current Iranian demand for more economic concessions - by arguing that the US is not living up to its commitments under the deal - should be seen in this context. To read Dr. Landau's particularly insightful piece, CLICK HERE

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Article 1

Obama’s ‘boy wonder’

How Ben Rhodes helped the president manipulate the media and deceive the public
 
By Clifford D. May

Washington Times, May 10, 2016
 
Among the most serious charges that President Obama and his supporters have leveled against President Bush and Vice President Cheney: They “cherry-picked intelligence.” The phrase suggests that, while in office, they sorted through the information provided by America’s spy agencies, selecting the tidbits that supported their policies while discarding anything that might cast doubts on their conclusions.
 
So what has been Mr. Obama’s record in this area? Thanks to an incisive essay by David Samuels in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine, we now know.
 
To sell the Iran deal -- which Mr. Obama considers his signature foreign policy achievement -- the public was told there was “a new political reality in Iran, which came about because of elections that brought moderates to power in that country.”
 


The election of Hassan Rouhani as President in Iran's 2013 election was portrayed by the Administration as unique opportunity to engage with and strengthen the "moderate camp" in Iran

Mr. Samuels asks Leon Panetta, who served as CIA director in the Obama administration, “whether it was ever a salient feature of the CIA’s analysis when he ran the agency that the Iranian regime was meaningfully divided between ‘hard-line’ and ‘moderate’ camps.” Mr. Panetta answers without equivocation: “No.”
 
The intelligence community clearly understood that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “ran that country with a strong arm.” They faced no challenge from a rising moderate faction.
 
In other words: President Obama did not cherry-pick intelligence – he disregarded it entirely. He and his top foreign policy advisor, Ben Rhodes, made up a fictitious narrative that they thought would sell better than the truth.
 
They built on that falsehood, persuading journalists that Iran’s “moderates,” in particular Hassan Rouhani, elected Iranian president in 2013, were open to compromise and eager to improve relations – an opportunity too good to pass up.
 
In fact, however, the president’s envoys had begun negotiating with Iran’s rulers long before the elections. Indeed, from his first days in the White House, a time when the decidedly immoderate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Iran’s president, Mr. Obama’s goal was a “pivot toward Iran.” And to achieve that, he was willing to give away a lot while demanding little in return.
 
All this and more, Mr. Rhodes acknowledges to Mr. Samuels. Indeed, he seems proud of his ability to manipulate the media, poke a finger in the eye of foreign policy experts – he refers to them as “the Blob” -- and deceive the public.
 
Mr. Rhodes, now 38, was a student of fiction writing at New York University on 9/11/01. Mr. Samuels details the path he followed to become “the Boy Wonder of the Obama White House” -- “the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from Potus himself.”
 
Mr. Samuels adds that Mr. Rhodes’s “lack of conventional real-world experience of the kind that normally precedes responsibility for the fate of nations – like military or diplomatic service, or even a master’s degree in international relations, rather than creative writing – is still startling.”
 
And note Mr. Rhodes’s title: deputy national security advisor for strategic communications. In the past, there has always been some appropriate distance between those responsible for crafting national security policy and the spin-meisters responsible for selling it. It is unprecedented for policy making and public relations to be fused as they have been in the Obama administration.
 
You’ll be unsurprised to learn that Mr. Rhodes had no difficulty finding credulous cheerleaders in the press as well as “groups like Ploughshares, the Iran Project and whomever else” that he could utilize as “force multipliers” to help him shape the news and spread his preferred story lines. 
 
Those story lines, Mr. Samuels concludes, were riddled with “misleading or false” implications. That enabled the president to “evade what might have otherwise been a divisive but clarifying debate over the actual policy choices that his administration was making.”
 
“We drove them crazy,” Mr. Rhodes says of the deal’s opponents. That, at least, is no lie.  What was so maddening (to people like me) was that the White House seemed impervious to evidence. We now know it was worse than that: Evidence was irrelevant and unwelcome. Mr. Rhodes was no more constrained by the facts than a novelist would be.
 
“Framing the deal as a choice between peace and war was Rhodes’s go-to move – and proved to be a winning argument,” Mr. Samuels writes. Here is my one quibble with Mr. Samuels: Mr. Rhodes and President Obama actually lost the argument.
 
The Iran deal was not presented as a treaty because Mr. Obama and his young factotum knew they couldn’t garner the Senate’s consent. In the end, 60 percent of Congress disapproved the deal. Polls showed public disapproval running 2-to-1. 
 
The deal was concluded despite that because Mr. Obama used – and perhaps exceeded – the powers of the presidency. He framed it as a “non-binding political agreement,” an imaginative construct that Congress could neither check nor balance. And he attempted to shut down further debate. “It’s those hardliners chanting ‘Death to America’ who have been most opposed to the deal,” Mr. Obama said in a speech -- written by Mr. Rhodes -- last August. “They’re making common cause with the Republican caucus.”
 
Where all this has left us: Iran’s rulers have agreed to delay a nuclear weapons program they do not acknowledge exists in return for money, the lifting of sanctions and, most consequentially, “sunset” provisions -- a promise to welcome the Islamic Republic, the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, into the nuclear club in a decade or so. The hope held out by President Obama and Mr. Rhodes is that by that time the moderates will have brought about significant change.

But since those moderates are only figments of the imagination, such a happy ending is unlikely. By contrast, Iran’s hardliners, imperialists and America-hating jihadis remain non-fiction.
 
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times

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Article 2

Obama's Foreign Policy Guru Is the 'Blob' He Hates

 
By Eli Lake

Poor Ben Rhodes. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy message guru inhabits a world filled with groupthinkers and militarists. If only he could reason with them. But the establishment doesn’t care for reason. So Rhodes must create an echo chamber, spinning stories to the press and shading the truth to prevent our nation’s next disaster.

This is the upshot of a revealing profile in the New York Times Magazine of Rhodes by David Samuels. The Washington foreign policy establishment is broken, so virtuous men like Rhodes must short-circuit the discourse to overcome it.

Rhodes came to this conclusion early in his career. When he was a staff writer on the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group in 2007, Samuels reports, Rhodes concluded most foreign policy decision makers were “morons.” Jon Favreau, another speechwriter who worked closely with him in Obama’s 2008 campaign and first term, explained to Samuels that Rhodes doesn’t really care what the establishment thinks of him. Rhodes “won’t care if he’s never again invited to a cocktail party, or asked to appear on ‘Morning Joe,’ or inducted into the Council on Foreign Relations hall of fame or whatever the hell they do there,” Favreau said.

This is instructive for understanding Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, the nuclear deal with Iran. Rhodes was the architect of selling that deal to Congress and the public. He tells Samuels that the White House “created an echo chamber.” He had arms control wonks, presented in the press as independent experts, “saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”

On the one hand, Rhodes takes some pride in his work. “We drove them crazy,” he says of the deal’s critics. On the other hand, he says, “I mean, I’d prefer a sober, reasoned public debate,” after which members of Congress would reflect and take a vote. “But that’s impossible,” he concludes.

Rhodes calls the foreign policy establishment “the Blob.” He doesn’t like this Blob. The Blob supported the Iraq War in 2003, supported sanctions on Iran, and opposes accommodation with our adversaries. It’s a familiar pose to anyone who read progressive blogs in the 2000s. Bloggers such as Matthew Yglesias (now an editor at Vox) delighted in mocking how “serious” foreign policy always seemed to mean supporting war. 

In that free-wheeling era, this pose went unchallenged. But when applied to the Obama White House in 2016, it is piffle. The idea that Rhodes is somehow independent of, or in opposition to, the foreign policy establishment is delusion. He embodies that establishment, particularly when it comes to the Iran deal.

Let’s start with our Holden Caufield character. When Rhodes decided to give up fiction writing and take up foreign policy, he landed his first job at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He got a job with Lee Hamilton, the former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Hamilton brought Rhodes onto the Iraq Study Group, whose co-chairman was George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state and campaign manager, James Baker.

In future dictionaries, the entry for “foreign policy establishment” should include an illustration of Baker and Hamilton enjoying martinis at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The Iraq Study Group was not an independent challenge to the foreign policy establishment. That gets it backwards. Rather, it was the establishment’s reaction to the Iraq War.

After Sept. 11, George W. Bush and several of his advisers realized that the establishment’s vision of stability -- of a Middle East managed by dictatorships -- had led to massive instability and the rise of al-Qaeda. Yet the study group recommended a U.S. withdrawal and cooperation with Iraq’s neighbors -- who were supporting various terrorists and ethnic cleansers in Iraq at the time -- to try to reach the peace.

If that approach sounds familiar, it should. This is pretty much what Obama today is trying today in Syria. It is also the impulse that led to Obama’s bargain with Iran. Rhodes has portrayed the Iran deal as a great accomplishment over the Blob, which was incapable of evaluating it on its merits. So he chose to sell the deal as a rare opportunity that presented itself after Iran’s relatively moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, came to power in 2013. (Even though, as Samuels makes clear, Obama had made an offer to the Iranians in 2012 before Rouhani was elected.)

Rhodes and his echo chamber would have you believe that striking a deal with Iran was a bold challenge to the foreign policy establishment. But again, he has this backward. Every president since Ronald Reagan has reached out to Iran in search of moderates. Even George W. Bush reluctantly authorized emissaries to explore negotiations with the Tehran regime, before and during the Iraq War.

Specifically, the idea of a reset in relations with Iran after Sept. 11 was the brainchild of something known as the Iran Project. As Peter Waldman of Bloomberg News reported in July, the Iran Project was funded by the Rockefeller Brothers foundation. Its participants included: Jessica Mathews, the former president of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace; Tom Pickering, a vice president Boeing and former undersecretary of state for political affairs; and Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books. Does Rhodes think these people are not part of his establishment Blob?

And this gets to a very basic error that has become a feature of the Rhodes-Obama mind-meld on foreign policy. What they oppose is not the foreign policy establishment, but often the Americans who lobby Congress for policies that displease that establishment. First and foremost on this list is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“We can do things that challenge the conventional thinking that, you know, ‘Aipac doesn’t like this,’ or ‘the Israeli government doesn’t like this,’ or ‘the Gulf countries don’t like it,’ ” Rhodes told Samuels. “It’s the possibility of improved relations with adversaries. It’s nonproliferation. So all these threads that the president’s been spinning -- and I mean that not in the press sense -- for almost a decade, they kind of all converged around Iran.”

While it’s true that Aipac is influential in Congress, it has never had much purchase inside the State Department or other institutions of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Some presidents have worked closely with Aipac and others have not. But whatever one wants to say about it, or the anti-Cuba lobby or dozens of similar groups, they all advance their policies through the democratic process, by petitioning Congress. The same cannot be said about the foreign policy establishment, which is an expert class that derives most of its power from the presidents who seek its members’ advice.

If Rhodes and Obama really want to challenge the foreign policy establishment, I suggest they dig up the second inaugural address from George W. Bush. In 2005, he boldly proclaimed that it would no longer be U.S. policy to support dictatorships for the sake of stability, that his administration would support democratic movements all over the world. Bush never implemented that bold vision -- in part because the foreign policy establishment had turned on him over his Iraq war. Mandarins such as Baker and Hamilton, with the help of a young Ben Rhodes, did their best to leave Iraq to the mercies of Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Bush declined their advice at the time and surged troops. It would take the election of Barack Obama to put in place the establishment’s vision for the Middle East. We are now living with those consequences.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Article 3

How Iran Is Twisting Reality to Get What It Wants

It's not just centrifuges that they're spinning.

For years Iran has been a formidable challenge in the nuclear realm—a fact that has not changed since the deal. When Iran finally began to negotiate seriously over its nuclear program in 2013, it was only in order to lift the biting sanctions; indeed, nothing had changed in terms of its military nuclear ambitions, and Iran continues to advance its program where it can (for example its long range missile program, and R&D on advanced centrifuge models). All the while, Iran profusely denies ever having pursued a military option, despite the definitive IAEA report released in December 2015 that deems otherwise.

In the post-deal period, Iran continues to try to squeeze more concessions from the West—to ensure improvement of its economic situation beyond what was agreed to in the nuclear deal, in return for the minimal nuclear concessions that it made. In this effort, Iran recruits the power of the word: the steadfast and stubborn narratives that Iranian leaders promulgate with rhetorical acumen. Iran forever paints a slanted picture of reality that glosses over its aggressive regional behavior, gross human rights violations, and missile and nuclear advances, presenting itself as a virtuous and stellar international player that faces a relentless Western bully.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has "become a master" of the game of painting a slanted picture of reality featuing a virtuous Iran subjected to Western bullying.

After months of negotiations with the P5+1, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has perfected the art, and become a master of this game. The most recent examples appear in his op-ed in the Washington Post, and interview with Robin Wright in the New Yorker. In the April 20 op-ed, Zarif notes the “artificial crisis over my country’s peaceful nuclear program,” depicts Iran as the only state seeking to eradicate “militant extremism” and complains that everyone mistakenly focuses on Iran’s “indigenous defensive capabilities” while ignoring massive military buildups in other regional states. When he refers to Iran’s “stable, safe and healthy environment for our citizens and for those visiting,” one can only imagine what the many Iranians who have been incarcerated, tortured and executed for their religious beliefs or sexual orientation would say in response. And as far as its military nuclear program, no matter what evidence is produced, Iran deems everything a lie and fabrication.

In addition to the false narrative that Iran churns out at every turn, another one of its well-known rhetorical tactics is to turn the tables. Whatever the West says about Iran, Iran hurls back at the West, employing a rather crude form of mirror imaging. So, for example, in the April 25 New Yorker interview, Zarif claimed that Iran had upheld its end of the nuclear deal, but that the United States had not, quoting a Farsi saying: “First, prove your brotherhood, and then ask for inheritance.” Every question posed about Iran’s problematic behavior was answered with an example of someone else’s bad behavior. Even when asked about the Holocaust cartoon contest to take place in Tehran, Zarif swiftly retorted: “Why does the United States have the Ku Klux Klan?” A former spokesman for Iran’s nuclear negotiating team (now at Princeton University), Seyed Hossein Mousavian, presented a particularly sharp mirror image in a recent op-ed entitled “U.S. Torpedoing the Nuclear Deal Will Reaffirm Iran’s Distrust.” In his view: “For Iran, the JCPOA was a criterion for judging whether it could trust the West to cooperate on other issues. If the United States faithfully abides by its commitments under the deal, then the view of Iranian leaders toward broader negotiations would be positively affected.” So the burden of proof is on the United States; America, not Iran, must prove its trustworthiness.

Against this backdrop, current Iranian accusations that the United States is not providing Iran with the economic boost it was counting on come as no surprise. In attempting to squeeze more concessions, Iran adamantly claims that it has upheld its end of the bargain meticulously, while accusing the United States of bad-faith behavior and of shirking its commitments. These accusations were predictable from the start, because the tactic has been employed so many times before. It is what Iran has claimed for years vis-à-vis its NPT commitments, even after its work on a military nuclear program was confirmed by the IAEA, and it is the exact pattern that Iran followed in the early stage of negotiations with the EU-3, from 2003–05.

Iran is already seeing favorable results in the U.S. approach. After Iran accused the United States that by continuing to demonize Iran—in Khamenei’s words, promoting “Iranophobia”—the latter is effectively torpedoing economic deals between Iran and European companies, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Zarif to try to smooth over the differences. The administration announced that it would not stand in the way of foreign entities doing business with Iran; moreover, it announced its intent to buy thirty-two tons of Iran’s excess heavy water to the tune of $8.6 million, making good on its show of goodwill. While justifying this decision as a worthwhile deal for the United States, the administration ignored the implicit message to Iran that it is fine to produce heavy water in excess of the JCPOA limit. Generally speaking, while President Obama has noted that it is may be Iran’s problematic behavior that is scaring off foreign investors, the United States has nevertheless refrained from pushing back with determination against Iran’s false narratives. The administration’s response to Iran’s missile tests that violated UN Security Council resolutions was delayed and relatively mute, failing to highlight Iran’s ongoing support for terror.

Iran’s success in the long and drawn-out negotiation with the international community from 2003 to 2015 was due to its ability to manipulate the weaknesses in the NPT long enough, so that when it was finally forced to negotiate seriously, it already had an advanced nuclear program. One of the factors that helped Iran along the way was its ability to plant serious seeds of doubt as to whether it was working on a military program—enough to fuel the divisions among the P5 over how to handle the crisis. By the time more serious negotiations began, the program was quite advanced, and the only realistic option for dealing with Iran was to negotiate a deal

Iran’s leverage in the talks themselves emanated primarily from the other side’s demonstrated eagerness to strike such a deal. But its ability to manipulate narratives helped. This was clear when the IAEA report on Iran’s past military work was finally produced, and the P5+1 caved to Iran’s demand to simply close the file, while inadvertently strengthening Iran’s narrative of having done no wrong in the nuclear realm.

There are those that scoff at the significance of narratives, claiming that they have no meaning in the “real world”; Iran can say whatever it wants, because “we know” the truth. This is a dangerously naïve position, especially in today’s global debate, strongly influenced by social media. Words matter, and it is well known that narratives repeated over time, especially when unchallenged, can become “reality” in people’s minds. Iran’s demonstrated ability to squeeze concessions on the basis of its false narrative—not only with a straight face, but without being challenged—is a wake-up call. If America finally calls Iran’s bluff and begin to push back, threats of further sanctions should go hand-in-hand with exposing Iran’s rhetorical tactics for what they are: a war of words that require the United States to fight back.

Emily Landau is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and head of its Arms Control and Regional Security Program.

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