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Trump’s Clueless Iran Policy Blunders Toward War

The Trump administration’s unbending policy toward Iran was supposed to force the foe into submission. President Barack Obama’s conciliatory caresses, we were told, had only emboldened the Iranians. President Donald Trump’s strength and toughness would leave them no choice but to capitulate.

Well, it was nice to think so. But now the administration accuses Iran of attacking tankers in the Gulf of Oman, and Tehran has announced plans to violate the nuclear deal that the U.S. renounced. Iran is not backing down. It’s digging in and acting out.

That response should confirm that Trump and his advisers don’t know how to get their way. Curiously, the rulers in Tehran reject taking steps that make them look weak. They look for ways to show their resolve.

Maybe the president and his aides didn’t see this coming. Or maybe what they predicted would happen is not what they were hoping to get. Instead of making Iran less of a threat, they have made it more of one – which is a positive development only if you want an excuse to go to war.

The 2015 pact signed by Obama was designed to keep Iran at least a year away from being able to make a nuclear bomb. Trump killed the deal because it would allow Iran to escape these constraints in 2031. By killing the deal, he allowed Iran to escape right away.

The regime has chosen to do so by moving to produce and stockpile more enriched uranium than the agreement allowed. The regime said it may also enrich the material to even higher levels than before, putting it closer to being able to produce bomb fuel.

At this juncture, Trump might reflect on the value of established credibility. If Americans have learned you can be trusted to tell the truth, they are more likely to believe you when you need their support. But after spending four years in a nonstop flurry of brazen lies, you can hardly expect them to take your word for anything.

The evidence that Iran attacked a pair of tankers with mines is less than airtight. The owner of the attacked Japanese vessel said the damage was inflicted by a flying object, not a mine. The fact that Iranian sailors were photographed removing an unexploded device from the ship does not prove that they put it there. If the Iranians were keen on not being caught, this was a strange way to go about it.

Even if we could trust Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others not to lie about what the Iranians did, there is no reason to trust their response. Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton have long advocated regime change in Tehran, and you know what? They just might use these events to advance their plans.

Nor can we put much faith in their competence. Trump hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed defense secretary since last year; his acting secretary just resigned; and his new acting secretary will have no grace period.

This is the same administration that set out to make North Korea surrender its nuclear arsenal, and that arsenal is still growing. With Trump in charge of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, the Taliban now control more of the country than they have since we arrived in 2001.

Trump says he doesn’t want war with Iran, and it’s conceivable that he means it. But his aggressive tone and tactics may provoke miscalculations by Iran that lead to direct hostilities.

According to The Washington Post, “Pompeo has privately delivered warnings intended for Iranian leaders that any attack by Tehran or its proxies resulting in the death of even one American service member will generate a military counterattack, U.S. officials said.” That pledge gives any rogue group the power to enmesh us in war.

An all-out conflict with Iran would not end well. The enemy might survive an onslaught, inflict a significant number of casualties and bog us down among a hostile people. Or the regime could collapse, creating a vast ungoverned space that would attract the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups.

Best-case scenario: We win a smashing victory and then enjoy the privilege of occupying the country, which has more than three times the land mass of Iraq and twice the population. Sound tempting?

The U.S. relationship with Iran has long been a problem. But there is no problem so bad that Trump can’t make it worse.

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

IMAGE: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to the crowd in the holy city of Qom, 120 km (75 miles) south of Tehran, October 19, 2010. REUTERS/Khamenei.ir

Arrogant And Ignorant, Trump Is Making The World More Dangerous

This planet just became a more dangerous place to live.

It may not have seemed so last week, when Donald Trump agreed to meet Kim Jong Un for negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Trump’s abrupt diplomatic offer was certainly an improvement on his jeering, boasting, and threatening on Twitter — even if he doesn’t understand that he gave away exactly what the dictator wanted most, without getting anything in return. The prospect of talks is almost always preferable to the possibility of war, which is why previous presidents consistently sought ways to engage the hereditary despots in Pyongyang.

The difference is that those presidents also knew enough not to approve any discussion without adequate preparation, let alone the total absence of rational planning and knowledgeable staff. Only a figure as arrogantly stupid as Trump would assume that he can handle such a complex and delicate situation on his own, without the military and diplomatic expertise that is at every president’s disposal.

That was why the State Department and the National Security Council spent many hours secretly preparing former president Bill Clinton and his companions for their August 2009 trip to bring home two American journalists imprisoned by the North Korean government.

Although the Obama administration publicly pretended to keep the rescue mission at arm’s length, its officials informed and oversaw everything that the Clinton party did, down to their deadpan facial expressions in the official photograph taken after their encounter with Kim Jong Il, the late father of Kim Jong Un.

Every word was scripted with absolute precision.  Not only were Laura Ling and Euna Kim released, but so were several South Korean prisoners. More important, Clinton’s discussion with Kim led directly to the resumption of talks with the United States, which delayed the North’s acquisition of nuclear bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles for years.

The results of the 2009 mission were a testament to the 42nd president’s own skills, yet he would be the first to admit that the weeks of instruction and preparation — not to mention the knowledge about North Korea acquired during his presidency — had been crucial to a happy outcome.

Flash forward to a new president who starts off knowing nothing, who refuses to read anything longer than a page or two, and whose hostile belligerence has led to the rapid dismantling of the State Department. As Trump contemplates meeting with Kim in just two months, he has fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, further destabilizing the apparatus needed to support his diplomatic adventure. And he has replaced Tillerson with Mike Pompeo, a former Congressman from Kansas who has been running the CIA.

Pompeo’s appointment is not a promising development.

While it is hard to imagine him making matters any worse for the deeply demoralized Foreign Service, Pompeo clearly shares the blustering, foolhardy attitudes toward nuclear negotiation voiced by Trump himself. He has hinted that the solution to our problems with North Korea may lie in military action, and even joked about assassinating Kim.

More troubling still is that Pompeo, like Trump, believes the United States should scuttle the nuclear agreement with Iran that was achieved after years of negotiation supported by our European allies, Russia, and China. Although the Trump administration certifies that the Iranians have lived up to its requirements in every respect, Pompeo has said, “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal.” Which would free the Iranians to resume their own nuclear program — and increase the likelihood of another disastrous war in the Middle East.

Indeed, Trump appears prepared to reinstate sanctions on Iran, in violation of that agreement, on May 12 — just around the time he is expecting to sit down with Kim to forge a similar agreement with North Korea. Evidently neither he nor Pompeo nor any of the strutting hawks in the White House realize that the chances of a deal with Pyongyang are unlikely to survive a rupture with Tehran.

Nobody will accept the word of an American president after Trump violates the agreement that his predecessor reached with Iran. Even if North Korea signs an agreement, its erratic leader will hardly feel obligated to honor the deal when the United States so casually discards its own commitments.

 Let’s hope someone can explain all this to Trump, in two pages or less, before it is too late.

IMAGE: Mike Pompeo testifies before a Senate Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington January 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

One Last Time: Be Thankful For President Obama

On a holiday when many Americans may feel less thankful as they consider the nation’s future, it is worth recalling again how much we should appreciate the service of Barack Obama. The profound gratitude that we owe him is only underscored by the prospect of the next president, whose name I frankly hesitate to mention on this hallowed occasion. And as he looks forward to leaving the White House, Obama remains keenly focused on how best to serve his country in a moment of unexpected peril.

In Hamilton, the hit Broadway musical that recently delighted the incoming vice president, one of the show-stopping numbers is “One Last Time,” in which George Washington explains why he will step down from the presidency to teach the new America about orderly democratic succession. The spirit of that wonderful song, whose message is essential to our way of life, lives in Obama as he seeks to prepare his woefully unready successor for the rigors of the presidency.

Amazingly, the fact that this individual spent years abusing him with calumnies, lies, and disrespect, in an ugly racist style, has not discouraged Obama from showing him and his family every courtesy – or from attempting to educate him about the gigantic challenges that await him in the Oval Office. Obama’s painstaking efforts to provide a presidential education have been so tactful and so kind as to evoke expressions of astonished praise from the pupil — an uninformed egomaniac who apparently believed, until lately, that he knew everything.

Now that he knows Obama a little, perhaps he is learning a little more about how wrong his assumptions have been about many other matters, from the Affordable Care Act to the Iran nuclear agreement. For the moment, we can only hope.

The president is more popular today than he was at many times during his tenure, presumably because people better understand both his considerable achievements and his innate decency. As we contemplate the coming period of misrule, it is worth reflecting on how much worse our situation might be today if one of Obama’s partisan opponents had been in control of events since January 2009.

For much of that time, a mindlessly negative attitude colored assessments of him and his presidency. More flawed than his most zealous supporters would ever have admitted when he first ran for president, he left many of them disproportionately disappointed. From his first day in office, he never benefited from the “fair chance” or “national unity” that his partisan opponents now demand for his successor. Certainly he made regrettable mistakes in both policy and politics, and suffered declines in public confidence that injured his image and the fortunes of his party. But there will be many reasons to remember him with admiration, and they are sure to loom larger when he is judged against those who follow him.

The undeniable truth is that Obama righted the nation in a moment of deep crisis and set us on a better course, despite bitter obstruction by conservative extremists who were eager to sink us rather than see him succeed.

So we should be forever thankful that Obama was president at the nadir of the Great Recession, rather than a Republican who might have insisted on austerity and rejected the stimulus spending that saved us from economic catastrophe. While not large enough to prevent grave suffering, that spending was sufficient to bring recovery more rapidly than most countries have recovered after a major panic. The proof lies in a record of growth that outpaced every other industrialized country in the world – a record that seems even more impressive because the crash began here, as a consequence of irresponsibility and criminality in American financial markets.

We should also be thankful that Obama – a politician who respects science and knowledge — was president as we began to encounter the frightening reality of climate change. Under his guidance, the federal government has acted against excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, required automakers to double their fuel economy by 2025, ordered agencies to achieve sustainability in operations and purchases, and invested tens of billions in smart electric grids, conservation, and clean fuels. And he — along with Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, among others — brought the United States into the Paris global climate agreement that, with luck, his successor will not attempt to unravel.

We should be thankful, too, that he pushed through the most extensive and generous reform in American health care since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act – which now protects millions of Americans. It is a mark of that legislation’s landmark success that the Republicans, now empowered to repeal it, are promising to preserve many of its important benefits. Whether they can fashion a viable alternative remains to be seen, but it will be instructive to watch them try. Meanwhile health care costs have slowed, Medicare’s solvency has improved, and millions more of the country’s poor and working families are covered by Medicaid, in spite of Republican legislators and governors who would, quite literally, let them and their children die.

Throughout his presidency, Obama has remained admirably cool in the face of vicious attacks that would madden most people — notably including the incoming president. This president has refused to imitate the mindless and often revolting conduct of his adversaries. Not for a moment has he abandoned American values of shared responsibility and prosperity, of cooperation and community, of malice toward none and charity for all.

Those ideals were epitomized by this national holiday’s presidential founders – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. We will work toward the day when we have another leader who seeks to uphold that legacy.

GOP’s Last Shot At Iran Deal

Since he began his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump has repeatedly promised to undo the multi-national agreement that has frozen Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon.

“My number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran,” Trump said recently.

In June, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded with his own inflammatory rhetoric, referring specifically to Trump’s most recent attack on the agreement. “We do not violate the deal, but if the other party violates it, if they tear the agreement up, we will light it on fire,” Khamenei said.

Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was more circumspect. The accord, Zarif said, “is not an Iran-U.S. agreement for the Republican front-runner or anybody else to renegotiate. It’s an international understanding annexed to a Security Council resolution.”

It’s unclear whether Trump knows the accord was negotiated by the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council—the United States, China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom—plus Germany. His grasp of foreign policy seems tenuous, at best.

It’s also unclear if he is aware of what the accord means to the U.S. economy.

In mid-June Boeing reached a tentative agreement to sell 80 commercial airplanes, and to lease an additional 29, to Iran Air. The agreement would have the American company building and delivering planes for 10 years (beyond the end of Trump’s second term in office) and is valued at $25 billion.

President Obama made the commercial aircraft deal possible, as officials in the Treasury Department issued a special permission for Boeing to negotiate with Iran, to avoid handing over the entire Iranian market to the European consortium Airbus.

Would President Trump deliver on his campaign promise if it forced the abrogation of a $25 billion deal and surrendered a lucrative market to a European business rival?

Perhaps. Absolute opposition to improved relations with Iran has been a canonical position for Republicans since Vice President Dick Cheney slapped down a 2003 proposal the Swiss ambassador delivered on behalf of Iran—to begin bilateral negotiations with the United States on Iran’s nuclear program, its hostile posture toward Israel, and handing over terrorist suspects then in Iranian custody.

Like Cheney, congressional Republicans believe “you never negotiate with your enemy.” They went to unprecedented extremes to derail the agreement, including inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an implacable opponent of the accord, to address a joint session of Congress.

They narrowly lost, despite a $40-million campaign attacking the accord. Progressive organizations including J Street, Women’s Action for New Directions, the Ploughshares Fund, and MoveOn organized a national effort that built a Democratic majority in the Senate to support the President’s initiative.

With time running out, the Republicans in Congress have one last shot at Barack Obama’s most significant foreign policy achievement. (They failed in May, when the Senate voted down an amendment to an Energy Department spending bill by Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton, which would have prohibited U.S. purchase of heavy water from Iran. Heavy water is a key component in nuclear weapons development, and its purchase is part of the denuclearization of Iran.)

Republicans will now target the Iran Sanctions Act, which provided the leverage for the negotiations that led to strictly monitored limits on the fissile material Iran is allowed to possess. The act expires in 2016.

Congress is certain to extend the law, Barbara Slavin, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative, said at a WAND webinar on the one-year anniversary of the negotiated agreement. The  sanctions act is critical, Slavin said: “What will it look like and what other sanctions will be added?”

The accord with Iran is based upon a simple premise: “Iran will shrink its nuclear program and we will shrink out sanctions.”

Republicans will attempt to add sanctions, or to extend the sanctions bill beyond a “transition day” written into the accord. On transition day, if the International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring Iranian nuclear activity issues a clean bill of health, all nuclear-related sanctions will be lifted.

Extending sanctions beyond the October 2023 transition date, or adding sanctions, will be read by the Iranians as a signal that Congress isn’t serious about the United States honoring the agreement it negotiated, Slavin said.

Iran, thus far, has honored its obligations. There have been no violations detected by the IAEA onsite, or by U.S. and European intelligence agencies monitoring from afar. Two IAEA reports have described Iran as in full compliance with all conditions stipulated in the accord.

Look for several congressional Republicans to get behind an amendment intended to kill the agreement.

If the amendment passes, look for Ayatollah Khamenei to light the agreement on fire.

 

Image Credit: European External Action Service