Secretary of State John Kerry is set to meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif at the United Nations. Normally, conservative critics of the president would repeat standard objections: Iran has done nothing to earn this PR boost. There is nothing that can’t be done at a lower level. This shouldn’t be taking place.
But despair that the administration is itching to make a bogus deal is so widespread, their expectations are lower and their reaction more nuanced. Some critics quietly express thanks that at least President Obama is not meeting with the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani – at least not yet.
One former U.S. official sums up the dilemma: “[Kerry] is meeting with the representative of the leading state sponsor of terrorism, a state that has killed lots of Americans. On the other hand, if they reach out it is very hard to defend saying no, especially if in principle we are saying we may have to bomb them.” Like other administration critics, he suggests a sub-cabinet meeting might have been more appropriate.
Reuel Marc Gerecht likewise tells me, “Zarif will be all over town chatting with the usual Iran apologists and others of good heart and great credulity. Kerry might as well listen to him face to face. Although Kerry’s performance with Syria does not bode well, we have to work with the Secretary of State that we have.” He adds in a more hopeful vein: “Kerry can deliver a very stern message about the need for the supreme leader to fess up on militarization of the nuclear program — confession is an excellent place to start — and lay out how Tehran intends to proceed to derail a nuclear breakout capacity.”
The real issue, however, is not when and with whom Kerry meets. The problem, as President Obama advertised on Syria, is that the president will go to any length, accept any deal and overlook any defects to reach a paper agreement that lifts the onus on him to act militarily.
As former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton put it in an e-mail, “Negotiations are not going to deflect Iran from its nuclear-weapons objective. Diplomacy like all human activity has costs as well as benefits – the cost to the United States here is legitimizing a state sponsor of terrorism and allowing them to buy time to continue their nuclear program.” He observes, “Iran sees the Obama Administration’s weakness and is playing it for all it’s worth.”
This is precisely why both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are doing everything they can to keep the president from giving away the store. As Eli Lake of the Daily Beast reports:
On Monday, a day before the U.N. summit kicks off, Sen. Robert Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote in a letter to President Obama, “Iran is not a friend whose word can be taken as a promise.” The letter, co-signed with Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, goes on to say, “The test of Iranian seriousness must be verifiable action by Iran to terminate its nuclear weapons program, including compliance with the mandates of four U.N. Security Council Resolutions.”
Lake also quotes anti-Iran hawk Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) as saying that in order to lift sanctions, “[Iran] would need to stop spinning those centrifuges and stop the installation of new centrifuges and halt enrichment.”
There is another critical issue that is getting lost in the rush to reach an accommodation with the Iranian regime: Iran’s atrocious human rights record. That record in and of itself should be grounds for sanctions and for further diplomatic pressure; at the very least in private and in public we should continue to denounce the regime’s abuses. One would hope we are still reaching out to dissidents and providing, for example, technical assistance. And, as Radio Free Europe did in the Cold War, we should be supplying the Iranian people with an accurate take on the United States and the world, making clear that it is the Iranian regime that prevents Iran from having normal relations with the West.
The Iranians won’t like that? Too bad. The Soviets didn’t like it either, and yet they dealt with us out of self-interest. As badly as our credibility is currently damaged we should not deepen the impression that we are so desperate for a deal we’d abandon even rhetorical support for freedom.
Benjamin Weinthal, writing for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, observes:
The Obama administration’s willingness to entertain Iran’s regime as an honest negotiating partner is raising alarm bells in the Sunni Gulf monarchies and in Israel. To be fair, Obama’s national-security spokesman Ben Rhodes said last week, “We’ve always made clear that we’ll make judgments based on the actions of the Iranian government not just on their words.”
There is a reason why our allies are nervous. If the administration had not folded like a cardboard suitcase on Syria, Rhodes’s words might be reassuring. Unfortunately, very little of what the administration says can be taken seriously.