John Bolton and Michael Ledeen presented a disturbing picture of Obama Administration national security policy adrift amidst a continually crisis-laden Middle East on August 28, 2013. In particular, these two leading foreign policy experts foresaw no truly effective international policy to stop Iranian nuclear weapons proliferation, leaving Israel to confront this existential danger unilaterally.
Bolton and Ledeen appeared at the briefing “Who is the Real Rouhani?” at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. The Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), described by its founder and president Sarah Stern as “unabashedly pro-American and pro-Israeli,” sponsored the event. Stern introduced Bolton and Ledeen by discussing how Hassan Rouhani had appeared to American media as a “great moderate” following his June 14, 2003, election to the presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Yet Ledeen described the “big difference” between Rouhani and his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as being “exactly the same as the difference between Pepsi Cola and Coca Cola.” In contrast to Ahmadinejad, Rouhani “is more charming,” his “face is prettier,” and “he knows the West” due to his Western education. Such attributes, though, simply reminded Ledeen of how some Western observers had expectantly noted Yuri Andropov as a “jazz fan” after this KGB chief succeeded Leonid Brezhnev as the Soviet Union’s leader in 1982. Rouhani’s exposure to the West, rather than moderating his views, seems to have instilled anti-Western vitriol in Rouhani, just as other Islamist leaders like the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) ideologue Sayyid Qutb “learned to hate America in America.”
Ledeen also rejected speculation of Rouhani being part of a “cunning scheme” to present an “apparent moderate.” Ledeen believed that Rouhani’s election was a “surprise” in an “honest vote” within the Iranian theocracy. Here again the difference between Rouhani’s “moderation” and Ahmadinejad was minimal, for the latter could also “buy endless time” in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
In such dictatorships “you are dealing with a regime” that has “core policies,” Ledeen argued. “It doesn’t matter who the person is.” Rouhani, moreover, has personally been “fully committed…fully engaged” during his career in Iran’s terrorism and nuclear programs, central concerns for the international community. Citing the former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, Ledeen considered a dictatorship’s domestic behavior indicative of foreign policy. “The way they treat their own people is the way they want to treat us.”
Bolton as well saw no moderation in Rouhani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator during 2003-2005. This background meant that “Rouhani could not be a better public face” for Iran now. Reflecting upon his negotiating experience, Rouhani had subsequently often “boasted” of his success in shielding Iran’s nuclear program from interference.
Bolton attributed the origins of these negotiations to a European desire in 2003 for “showing up the United States” after its Iraq invasion. With the controversial Iraqi regime change as a backdrop, “we suave and sophisticated Europeans” sought to tame the Iranian nuclear program. The European concept then was a “macro-solution” following an Iranian enrichment freeze and today “they are still pursuing the same elusive goal.”
Iranian stalling tactics in the following negotiations recognized, Bolton observed that weapons proliferators “need time and they need legitimacy.” Iran, moreover, was “scared to death” after American invasions not only in Iraq but Afghanistan as well brought American troops to Iranian borders on opposing sides. Thus Iran has had no hesitation in suspending enrichment in the past, especially when temporary technical difficulties made the issue moot. Looking to the future, Bolton considered it “clear beyond dispute that the Europeans are getting ready to be suckered again.”
Bolton predicted that the Iranians would make diplomatic overtures to the American diplomats as well. Iranian officials would claim that their nuclear program was peaceful and transparent, while sanctions hurt the Iranian people. In response, American officials might well offer phased plans of reciprocal Iranian-international actions. “When you hear sequencing” from diplomats, Bolton warned, “you know they are talking about surrender.” With sanctions “once dialed back,” it will be “almost impossible to torque them back up again.” “What we don’t know cannot be good news,” Bolton meanwhile speculated about the progress of the Iranian nuclear program in light of past intelligence failures in Iraq.
In contrast to the Iranian regime, Ledeen believed that the Iranian people sought to emulate the Egyptian overthrow of the MB. Ledeen attributed to Iranian opposition leaders under house arrest a “huge following” such that the regime dared not execute them. Additionally, the “Iranian opposition is fundamentally pro-Western and anti-Islamist.” Speaking of senior Iranian ayatollahs in opposition to the Iranian regime as well as Muslim opposition to the MB in Egypt, Ledeen also warned “don’t write off all Muslims” as allies against Islamism. Ledeen lamented, however, that the United States had done nothing to foment this internal Iranian opposition, something not requiring American military force. Yet “Iran is the key to international terror,” while Iraq in 2003 was only a secondary terrorism supporter.
“We would have to have an Iran policy,” Ledeen argued, for regime change in Syria, a country under “virtual Iranian control” in the guise of the Lebanese Hezbollah (“that’s Teheran”) and Iran’s Al-Quds Force. The “road to Damascus starts in Teheran,” Ledeen said. The “problem in Syria is Iran,” Bolton agreed; focusing on Syria was “defining the problem much too narrowly.”
In particular, if the Assad regime perpetrated the latest chemical attack in Syria, then Ledeen saw “no way that that happened at a minimum without Iranian approval.” The Iranians might have even provided “know-how.” Syria regime change would be a terrible Iranian loss, thus in their view “Assad must be preserved.”
Contemplating a pending strike in Syria under the Obama Administration, Bolton foresaw this involving “some number of cruise missiles used against some number of empty buildings.” The response of the Assad regime and its Iranian supporters will be “that’s it” with no effect upon chemical weapon use.
For deterrence, by contrast, a response must be “absolutely punishing.” Opposed to a Syrian intervention, Bolton nonetheless criticized British Prime Minister David Cameron’s suggestion of a “proportionate response” to the Syrian gas attack. “Why respond proportionately?” Bolton asked. “You have to act decisively,” Ledeen concurred, proportionate response is “for little countries. Otherwise, why be a superpower.”
The “worst outcome is that we do something and it has no effect,” Ledeen worried, merely making a “moral demonstration.” Bolton as well warned that an ineffective “tank-plinking kind of raid” will have an “immeasurable effect” on American credibility. President Barack Obama’s personal “credibility has already been shredded” by earlier chemical attacks in Syria following his ill-conceived “ad lib” of a chemical attacks “redline.” Ledeen assessed the Obama Administration as now “leading with the behind.”
With respect to the critical question of Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, Bolton thought that the “prospects are grim.” The Iranians “are going to get nuclear weapons,” Bolton predicted, setting off Middle East regional proliferation as a result. This is the most possible outcome “by a long shot.” Current sanctions against Iran merely “give the illusion of doing something” and thereby cover the reluctance of congressional leaders and the Obama Administration to intervene in Iran. “The Iranians are convinced that they are dealing with an American administration that does not have the will to fight,” Ledeen likewise assessed.
In the end, the crisis of Iranian nuclear proliferation, “for well or ill…is going to be Israel’s to solve,” according to Bolton. Bolton criticized the past Israeli “mistake” of having allowed the first operational nuclear reactor in a “hostile state” in Bushehr, Iran. Now, though, he considered an Israeli military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities the last viable nonproliferation option in the face of American inaction.
The “Israelis won’t talk to us about” an Iranian strike, Ledeen predicted. “We’ll know about it when the attack begins,” Bolton seconded. As with past Middle East nuclear dangers in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, the pair foresaw Israel decisively acting alone for its own freedom and survival. Yet the interests of a wider but more timid free world, however ungrateful, would also hang in the balance.
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