So nice they published me twice

I’m grateful to the folks at LobeLog for publishing me twice today, and I’d be grateful to you folks for heading over there and checking both pieces out. First up was something I’d been working on last week with Jim Lobe, the “Lobe” in LobeLog, on what Donald Trump’s rise in the Republican Party (and his likely upcoming matchup with Hillary Clinton) is doing to the neoconservative movement. A lot of them are really quite unhappy with Trump as Republican nominee. They’ve spent a great deal of effort trying to sway Republican voters against him and, now that it appears to have all been for naught, many leading neocon voices are saying they won’t support Trump in the fall:

But Kagan isn’t the only prominent neoconservative to express his dissatisfaction with Trump. In early March, former Bush administration official Eliot Cohen wrote a letter denouncing Trump that was signed by over 100 influential Republican foreign policy thinkers, nearly all of them neoconservatives. Then, in another Washington Post editorial written after Cruz and Kasich had dropped out of the race, Cohen declared that “it is time for a third candidate, and probably for a third party.” In an interview with Vox.com in March, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Max Boot said “I disagree with Hillary a lot less than I disagree with Donald Trump” and called Clinton “vastly preferable.” Elliott Abrams, formerly on Trump rival Ted Cruz’s foreign policy team, told Politico that he would be “unable to vote for Trump or Clinton” if those were the two nominees. Columnist Charles Krauthammer recently told Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly that “I don’t think I’d be capable of voting for Donald Trump.” Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens wrote on March 28 that “Trump is Obama Squared” (he didn’t mean it as a compliment), though he’s not yet said whether he could support Trump in November.

Robert Kagan, one of the most influential figures in neoconservatism over the past couple of decades, has already said he’ll vote for Clinton in the fall. Stephens just today wrote a column openly rooting for a Clinton victory, though where Kagan sees Clinton has preferable to Trump Stephens seems to be looking at it in terms of the survivability of movement conservatism. A Clinton presidency gives them all something to rally against, you see, while a Trump presidency would simply wreck everything. You have to assume for the sake of Stephens’s argument that Donald Trump isn’t the literal embodiment of all of the grossest, most hateful and xenophobic, aspects of movement conservatism. He is, of course, but Stephens won’t even admit that to himself, much less to his marks readers.

My second piece of the day was something I wrote on the fly this morning, in response to a profile in The New York Times Magazine last week of White House Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. Continue reading

So that’s done

The full-text of the Iran agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) has been posted online by the EU here. I’ve been reading it bit by bit all morning, and so far it seems to align with the fact sheet that was put out by the State Department after the initial framework was outlined at Lausanne in April. That’s a good thing in my view. As to the issues that were still outstanding after Lausanne and continued to be problematic over the past three months:

  • It appears (according to the Russians) that the UN arms embargo against Iran will remain in place for at least another five years.
  • If a dispute arises the issue will go to a “joint commission” that includes representation from Iran, each of the P5+1 countries, and the EU, for a total of 8 members. If the commission, plus an advisory board and the various foreign ministers of the participating countries, can’t resolve a dispute over Iran’s compliance, the party that brought the dispute can then take it to the Security Council. At that point, the Security Council would have to vote on a resolution to continue lifting sanctions, and if that vote failed (say, if the US were to veto it), sanctions would go back in place. Sanctions can theoretically be back in place within 65 days if it comes to that.
  • Sanctions will be lifted on “implementation day,” which the agreement defines as the point when the IAEA verifies that Iran has met its nuclear-related obligations.
  • Iran will “provisionally apply” the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, pending its ratification by their parliament, which gives IAEA inspectors increased monitoring rights. Iran is also obliged to meet IAEA demands for information on past militarization activity.
  • The question of inspector access to Iranian military sites has been muddled. If the IAEA wants access to an undeclared site, it will have to negotiate the issue with Iran. If they can’t reach an agreement, then the joint commission gets to vote on the matter (which significantly means that an Iran-Russia-China bloc would still need at least one “Western” vote to prevent inspections), and could send it to the Security Council for treatment as a treaty violation. This suggests that the IAEA will be able to get access when and where it wants for the most part, but the lack of a clear statement to that effect makes this the weakest part of the agreement as far as I can tell, and will probably be the issue that deal opponents immediately criticize.

Most of the rest of the terms have already been out there for a while now: Iran will mothball the old Arak reactor and replace it with one that doesn’t produce plutonium; Iran’s enrichment stockpile and centrifuge activity will be strictly capped; the Fordow enrichment facility will be mostly shut down for the next 15 years, though a part of its equipment will remain active for separating non-nuclear isotopes; Iran will be able to do some limited centrifuge R&D, but will have to stick with its inefficient IR-1 models for its enrichment operations for the next decade. Continue reading

Wild weekend in Vienna

The Iran talks, plus the interim nuclear agreement under which they’re operating, have been extended through Monday. Progress is being made, supposedly, but not enough and not fast enough to get anything done this week. If no deal is reached by Monday…

Remember how I said you should ignore stuff coming out of Vienna that sounds hyperbolic? Yeah, that still applies. The talks may very well “end” on Monday without a deal, but there’s a difference between ending the talks, which could mean anything from a temporary pause to a total breakdown, and the “failure” of the talks, which is pretty specific. Iran does have the least to gain from indefinitely keeping these talks going under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action, so it would likely be the party that chooses to walk away, but the Iranians will want to make a case that American intransigence and intra-P5+1 discord left them no other choice. They may have already started doing that:

The Iran nuclear talks shifted Friday to a blame game, as Iran’s foreign minister accused the United States of shifting its demands and dismissed a warning that the U.S. was ready to quit the negotiations.

Still, disagreements also have surfaced recently between the U.S. and Russia. Moscow supports Iranian demands for at least a partial lifting of the conventional arms embargo as part of any deal. That’s something Washington opposes — and an issue Zarif appeared to touch on in his comments to Iranian state television.

Beyond “witnessing a change of stances” from the other side, Zarif noted a “different stand” on some issues among the six nations. “This situation has made the work difficult,” he said.

It sounds like the key issues are still the key issues: inspector access to military sites, the nature of UN sanctions relief, and how Iran will be punished if it fails to uphold its obligations, so how much “progress” has actually been made is unclear.

If the choice is between completely ending the talks and staying in Vienna for another several days, then staying in Vienna is the right call. But if “ending” the talks means just taking a break, frankly that might not be such a terrible idea. The negotiators must be pretty exhausted by now, and that’s not going to make for great negotiations.

Hey, thanks for reading! If you come here often, and you like what I do, would you please consider contributing something (sorry, that page is a work in progress) to keeping this place running and me out of debtor’s prison? Thank you!

An Iran PSA

Hi there. I’m Some Guy on the Internet, who has an unexpected free few minutes today to give you some friendly advice about getting wrapped up in all the latest Iran nuclear talks news from Vienna and elsewhere: don’t do it. Oh, I mean, if you’re interested in the outcome of the talks or, I don’t know, following international negotiations is a hobby for you, then by all means stay on top of what’s going on. Just don’t put much stock into most of the drama. Don’t get yourself worked up when Barack Obama says that there’s now a “below 50/50” chance of a deal being reached, and don’t have a cow when you read that US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif have been having “heated exchanges” behind closed doors; so heated, apparently, that aides have had to caution them to keep their voices down. Don’t get too high or too low when Reuters tells you that a deal is “close, but…”; a deal has been “close, but…” for a while now. And don’t reach for the smelling salts when you hear that Zarif has been uttering “threatening” lines that sound like they belong in a 1950s B movie, like “Never threaten an Iranian” (I’m sure Zarif thought it sounded threatening, anyway).

It is impossible, at this point in the process, to separate how much of this kind of stuff reflects real sentiment and how much of it is put on for show to try to nudge some last bit of concession out of the other side. Maybe a really seasoned negotiator who was directly familiar with what’s going on in Vienna could separate one from the other for you, but I’m not one of those people, I’m assuming you’re not either, and I know the reporters covering the talks aren’t, even the ones who are very good at what they’re doing. So my advice would be to ignore it; pay attention to the substance of the talks but forget about anything that looks like it might be posturing, because there’s a very good chance that it’s precisely that.

Thanks for your time and I hope this helps. Enjoy your day!

Hey, thanks for reading! If you come here often, and you like what I do, would you please consider contributing something (sorry, that page is a work in progress) to keeping this place running and me out of debtor’s prison? Thank you!

If we talk about nothing else, let’s have an Iran update

Folks, today was a long day, and tomorrow promises to be more of the same, so I hope you’ll forgive the lack of posting today and tomorrow.

Before I pour myself a big glass of chocolate milk and put on a Simpsons DVD, though, I’ve got enough mental space for a short update about the Iran talks, which after all is probably the number one topic on this here web log. Simply put, the chances for getting a deal done this week aren’t so hot. After delaying the deadline until Tuesday, then Thursday, then Friday, thereby blowing past the one physical constraint left on the talks (the extension of Congress’s review window to 60 days, which kicks in tomorrow), it’s not surprising that, at least according to The Wall Street Journal (which is paywalled, so try this The Times of Israel version instead), the Obama administration is considering once again extending the Joint Plan of Action, this time maybe indefinitely. The administration doesn’t want to give up on the work that’s already gone into the talks, and it definitely doesn’t want to be the party that the rest of the world blames for breaking up the talks, but it seems that no agreement on a comprehensive plan is actually in sight so we’re getting these trial balloons instead.

The thing is, it’s hard to imagine Iran, which didn’t plan on freezing its nuclear program indefinitely when it agreed to the temporary Joint Plan of Action, and Russia, which frankly might actually benefit from the talks breaking up, going along with indefinitely extending the talks under the current terms. The Iranians are saying that they’re happy to keep going as long as it takes to get a good deal, but then they don’t want to be blamed as the party that walked away either. They may be counting on another member of the P5+1, presumably either Russia or a fed-up France, to be the catalyst for ending the talks altogether. The outlook in the event that the talks do break down is bleak to say the least; here’s RAND’s Dalia Dassa Kaye: Continue reading

The correction never makes up for the “error”

Apart from the news that their deadline has been extended through Friday (at which point it will…be extended again, I would imagine), there’s not a whole lot to say about the Iran talks at the moment. But there is always something to say about how the “no deal” folks are covering the talks, because they always find some new and creative ways to do it. And when I say “creative,” I mean “creative with the truth,” because that’s how these folks have been rolling lately. Inevitably the “creative” part of the story gets corrected somehow, but as in most things the correction never quite makes up for the initial error.

Take this recent case that was highlighted by Media Matters. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes spoke with Jeffrey Goldberg at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and now you’ve either just scored a BINGO! on your natsec wonk card or you’ve checked off the final couple of boxes on my “if you ever see me write this phrase, please take my computer away from me” list. Anyway, Rhodes said that the Obama administration thinks (hopes) that a nuclear deal would lead to political change inside Iran (“we believe that a world in which there is a deal with Iran is much more likely to produce an evolution in Iranian behavior than a world in which there is no deal”). But he also made the inarguable, if somewhat hollow, point that any Iran deal has to stand on its own merit for the duration of the deal, or in other words that it can’t be so weak that it depends on such political change for its terms to be effective.

Nobody could possibly dispute this logic, since the Islamic Republic probably ain’t going anywhere in the next decade despite our best hopes. Well, almost nobody could object; enter Very Serious National Security Wonks like the Brookings Institution’s Mike Doran, who will object to anything that anybody from this administration has to say about Iran short of an announcement that the airstrikes have commenced. On Twitter, always the place for high-minded discourse, Doran ignored what Rhodes said about how the deal can’t rely on Iran changing, then did a little artful paraphrase of the rest of his comments:

The paraphrase is a tried and true Twitter joke format, and yes Doran could have made it clearer that he was paraphrasing Rhodes, but that would have been an extraordinarily dumb thing for Rhodes to have actually said. If you were, say, a journalist interested in writing about Rhodes’s interview with Goldberg, instead of relying on a single tweet about that interview, you could, you know, watch the video of the thing yourself to see if those words actually came out of Rhodes’s mouth. These guys were speaking to each other at the Aspen Ideas Festival, not in a parking garage under the Hoover Building, so the whole thing was available on YouTube. As it turns out, actually, Doran linked to the freaking YouTube video in his tweet.

Now enter the “journalists” at Breitbart.com, specifically editor Joel Pollak, who elected not to watch the video but to just cite Doran’s tweet as though Rhodes had spoken those exact words: Continue reading

Looks like this might be an interesting week

It’s only Monday, so who knows what could happen, but at the moment this is looking like a pretty consequential week, isn’t it?

First there’s the Iran deal deadline, which is theoretically tomorrow but really Thursday, the last day a deal can be submitted to Congress before its “review period” under the Corker bill goes from 30 to 60 days. As to whether the negotiators will meet even the Thursday deadline (after which there’s no deadline left at the moment, so they could go on well after that), put me in the “believe it when we see it” camp. “Serious differences” remain, as they will, and negotiators are floating the possibility that talks may go past tomorrow; plus, there’s always the possibility of an 11th hour breakdown (either an actual breakdown or one that’s feigned for negotiating effect).

On the plus side, the two sides have apparently gone so far as to draft language related to US and EU sanctions relief, but on the minus side, the sticking point seems to be over the language of a UN Security Council resolution lifting its sanctions, as well as the mechanism for reimposing sanctions if Iran violates the agreement (which is an internal P5+1 issue as much as it’s a P5+1 and Iran issue). The Iranians are behaving in an odd way, talking openly about their plans to double oil exports once a deal is signed and yet simultaneously demanding that the UN arms embargo against it also be lifted as part of the deal. I’m no negotiator, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea to show your eagerness for a deal at the same time that you’re trying to leverage additional concessions out of the other side. You might see some kind of promise to discuss the arms embargo at a future date, but I have a hard time believing that the US (and if not the US, then France) will acquiesce to lifting it as part of this deal.

This week should also see some fascinating fallout from Greece’s clear “no” vote to more forced austerity on Sunday. Greece’s Finance Minister (well, ex-FM now), Yanis Varoufakis, resigned earlier today in what was probably an attempt by the Greek government to show its Troika negotiating partners (who apparently don’t like Varoufakis so much) that the vote doesn’t mean that Greece is walking away from negotiations or the Euro, just that it needs the other side to give a little on its Austerity Forever demands. There seems to be a lot of “hell no” sentiment floating around Europe to that idea, but that might be just the heat of the election talking. Interestingly, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble suggested last week that Greece could still remain in the Eurozone even with a “no” vote, perhaps via a “temporary” exit from the currency union, so I guess we may see if he’s right. Greek and Troika negotiators have a lot of work ahead of them.

“Most Interesting Economist in the World” Thomas Piketty gave an interview (in German) to Germany’s Die Zeit a few days ago where he harshly criticized austerity as “the idea of endless penance,” and compared it to Europe’s tradition of debt forgiveness. Specifically, Piketty hilariously explained to his seemingly incredulous interviewer that Germany really shouldn’t be lecturing other countries on the importance of paying debts, since the modern German economy is essentially built on a mountain of post-World War II debt forgiveness:

“When I hear the Germans say that they maintain a very moral stance about debt and strongly believe that debts must be repaid, then I think: What a huge joke!” Piketty said in the interview, translated by the site Medium.com (though later taken down due to copyright concerns). “Germany is the country that has never repaid its debts. It has no standing to lecture other nations.”

Somehow I doubt that message is going to resonate in Berlin, but somebody needed to say it anyway.

By the by, keep an eye on Ukraine as the next country to get on the IMF’s bad side and to ask its bondholders to take a haircut, though they likely won’t find themselves in Greece’s position so long as they’re still in conflict with Russia.

This also promises to be an eventful (though not in a good way) week in Burundi, as presidential elections approach on July 15. Incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza is still planning to run for an unconstitutional third term, and plenty of Burundians still seem very much not to want him to do that.

Hey, thanks for reading! If you come here often, and you like what I do, would you please consider contributing something (sorry, that page is a work in progress) to keeping this place running and me out of debtor’s prison? Thank you!