The Iran Obsession Keeps Getting Worse

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

The Trump administration’s destructive Iran policy may be about to get even worse:

Under plans recommended by Mr. Pompeo and some White House officials, the State Department would designate Iran’s military Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. It would be a first instance of the United States designating a unit of another government’s military as a terrorist group; American officials said it could put United States troops and intelligence officers at risk of similar actions by foreign governments.

The plans also would designate some Iraqi Shiite militias as foreign terrorist organizations. As a result, the Iranian-trained militias – and Iraqi officials who support them – would be subject to new economic sanctions and travel restrictions.

The administration’s plans would be guaranteed to increase tensions with Iran and sour relations with the Iraqi government. The designation of the IRGC and Iraqi militias could very well provoke attacks on U.S. forces by those same groups. Previous proposals to designate the IRGC have prompted some of their officers to threaten to do just that. The designation could also provide a pretext for the administration to initiate hostilities against Iran and the armed groups that it supports in Iraq and Syria. When this bad idea first start cropping up over ten years ago, then-Sen. Obama opposed it because he argued that it could be used as an excuse for an attack on Iran. It is potentially very dangerous, and it isn’t going to achieve anything, so it is very much like the rest of the administration’s bankrupt Iran policy.

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Israel Is Not America’s Ally

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

Andrew Sullivan comments on the U.S.-Israel relationship and the role of “pro-Israel” lobbying groups in our politics in a new essay. There are several things that I think Sullivan gets wrong, but perhaps the most significant and pervasive error in the piece is his repeated description of the relationship an “alliance.” He notes that the U.S. gets nothing in return for the extensive military and diplomatic support that it provides, he acknowledges that the US“suffers internationally” on account of its close relationship with Israel, and he marvels at how badly its government under Netanyahu has behaved towards the US Nonetheless, he writes, “I would defend the alliance despite this, because of my core belief in a Jewish state.” The trouble with all this is that there is no alliance and Israel is not our ally. Its government does not behave as an ally does, it has never fought alongside US forces in any of our foreign wars, and its interests are not aligned with ours as an ally’s should be. There is no formal treaty and no binding obligations that require our governments to do anything for the other.

There are few words in US foreign policy debates used more frequently and with less precision than ally and alliance. Our politicians and pundits use these terms to refer to almost every state with which the US has some kind of security relationship, and it always grossly exaggerates the nature and extent of the ties between our governments. The exaggeration in Israel’s case is greatest of all because it is routinely called our “most important ally” in the region, or even our “most cherished ally” in all the world. These are ideological assertions that are not grounded in any observable reality. Dozens of other states all over the world are better allies to the United States than the “most cherished ally” is, and they don’t preside over an illegal occupation that implicates the US in decades of abuses and crimes against the Palestinian people living under that occupation, but none of them enjoys the lockstep, uncritical backing that this one state does. The effect of this constant repetition is to make the U.S.-Israel relationship seem extremely important to US interests when it is not, and that serves to promote the “illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists.” It is this illusion as much as anything else that prevents a serious reassessment of the relationship.

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Our ‘Allies’ the Saudis Tortured a US Citizen

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

When Mohammed bin Salman carried out his “anti-corruption” purge in November 2017, we already knew that many of the detainees were subjected to torture, and at least one of the detainees died from his injuries. One of the tortured detainees was Walid Fitaihi, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia:

A dual citizen of Saudi Arabia and the United States had been imprisoned in the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh for about a week when he heard a knock on his door.

Guards dragged Walid Fitaihi, a Harvard-trained physician, to another room, according to a friend who took down the prisoner’s detailed account of his treatment. Dr. Fitaihi told the friend he was slapped, blindfolded, stripped to his underwear and bound to a chair. He was shocked with electricity in what appears to have been a single session of torture that lasted about an hour.

His tormentors whipped his back so severely that he could not sleep on it for days, his friend said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals. The doctor had described the physical abuse, in general terms, to his relatives as well, a person close to them said.

Dr. Fitaihi is still being held without charge. It should go without saying that our government should be urgently seeking his release, and the Saudi government should expect to pay a price for imprisoning and torturing an American citizen. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has been embarrassingly subservient to the Saudi government for the last two years, and their evident failure to intercede on behalf of a US citizen wrongfully detained and tortured in Saudi Arabia is more of the same. No one should have any confidence that the same people that have bent over backwards to shield the Saudis from the consequences of their war crimes in Yemen and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi will do anything for Dr. Fitaihi. As usual, it will fall to Congress and human rights activists to call attention to yet another case of outrageous Saudi behavior.

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A Reality Check on Our Absurd Venezuela Policy

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

The Trump administration is running into the stubborn reality that the “government” they recognize in Venezuela doesn’t actually control anything:

It is a risky gamble for Mr. Maduro’s adversaries, who say they are unclear as to how they will break the blockade at the border on Saturday.

While Mr. Guaidó is regarded by the Trump administration as Venezuela’s rightful president, the White House is facing the reality that Mr. Maduro still controls the military, and with it, the state.

“If the opposition – and Trump administration – are trying to find ways to peel away military support for Maduro, threatening its monopoly on food distribution is not likely to be helpful in that regard,” said Cynthia J. Arnson, the Latin America director at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The opposition wants to use aid deliveries to emphasize Maduro’s illegitimacy, but if they cannot bring the aid in and deliver it because Maduro has the ability to prevent them from doing so it really just underscores how impotent the self-declared president is. Military officers aren’t likely to take the risk of defecting to the opposition side when they are in such a weak position, and without those defections the attempt at regime change cannot succeed. Meanwhile, U.S. sanctions will further devastate an already ravaged economy, and the civilian population’s misery will deepen.

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The Costs of Misunderstanding Iranian Foreign Policy

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

Ariane Tabatabai reviews Iran’s foreign policy ahead of the 40th anniversary of the revolution, and explains that Tehran’s foreign policy isn’t as ideologically-driven as the administration thinks:

This is because, contrary to what many believe, Iran’s foreign policy today is largely shaped by its threat perceptions and interests – not ideology.

Because the contours of Iran’s foreign policy appear to be drawn primarily by security considerations, including deterrence and power projection, the United States isn’t likely to fundamentally change the country’s behavior.

American policymakers have several blind spots when it comes to understanding the behavior of other governments, especially when they consider them to be adversaries. The worst of these is the tendency to ascribe profound ideological motives to a regime’s leadership when they are usually concerned much more with self-preservation and protecting their national interests as they understand them. During the Cold War, many anticommunists imagined that the Soviets were much more bent on pursuing a revolutionary foreign policy than they actually were. Those who understood that Soviet foreign policy had a great deal of continuity with the policy of pre-revolutionary Russia were more likely to make sense of what the Soviets were likely to do and why they were doing it. Interpretations of other states’ behavior that reduce everything to the official ideology of that state are always going to miss the mark because the real reasons for their conduct are to be found elsewhere.

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Survey: Two-Thirds of Americans Want To Keep the INF Treaty

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

A new survey finds broad public support for staying in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that Trump is killing:

Two-thirds of survey respondents oppose abandoning the treaty, and instead favor pursuing diplomacy to resolve the dispute over compliance by the Russians, according to the survey, conducted by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland in conjunction with the University’s Center for International and Security Studies. The Center for Public Integrity provided consulting for the survey.

Even the majority of Trump’s fellow Republicans who were surveyed – 55 percent – said they oppose withdrawal from INF, including more than half (51 percent) of self-described Trump voters polled. Among Democrats, 77 percent of respondents said they favor sticking with the treaty.

The survey’s findings make clear that Trump’s decision to exit the treaty doesn’t have popular support, and it shows once again that there is broad public support for arms control agreements. Even among Republicans and Trump voters, more respondents favored sticking with the treaty despite Russian violations. This is one area where there is overall agreement between the public and most foreign policy professionals. The vast majority of arms control experts don’t support withdrawing from the treaty and argue there is nothing to be gained by doing so.

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