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Opinion How Clinton can clean up Obama’s Iran mess

Hillary Clinton, who has supported the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action but sounded a tougher rhetorical line against Iran, is going to have quite a mess on her hands if she takes office, which is increasingly likely, in January.

To begin with, the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress who have defended it don’t pass the straight-faced test. The latest from the Wall Street Journal on the don’t-call-it-ransom scandal:

New details of the $400 million U.S. payment to Iran earlier this year depict a tightly scripted exchange specifically timed to the release of several American prisoners held in Iran.
The picture emerged from accounts of U.S. officials and others briefed on the operation: U.S. officials wouldn’t let Iranians take control of the money until a Swiss Air Force plane carrying three freed Americans departed from Tehran on Jan. 17. Once that happened, an Iranian cargo plane was allowed to bring the cash home from a Geneva airport that day.

Shocking, I know, but the administration misled the American people. Even worse, the Obama White House has now removed any inhibitions Iran and Russia might have about acting aggressively in contravention of our interests. We have done nothing in response to the illegal missile tests. Secretary of State John Kerry acts like the Chamber of Commerce of Tehran in trying to drum up business. The administration got caught trying to loosen restrictions on Iran’s access to dollar transactions. It looks the other way when German intelligence reports that Iran sought nuclear materials. It refuses to follow up when a new report provides concrete evidence of Iran’s past nuclear program. It continues to falsely insist that all pathways to nuclear weapons have been blocked.

This week we have also learned that as many as 100,000 Iranian-backed militia members are fighting in Iraq, raising the potential that if radical Sunni jihadists (the Islamic State) are defeated, radical Shiite jihadists backed by Iran will take their place. Meanwhile, as Kerry pleads with Russia to help enact a cease-fire (which would only lock in gains made by Moscow’s ally Bashar al-Assad), Russia is expanding its alliance with Iran and influence in Syria in unprecedented ways. Russian planes are now taking off directly from Iran to bomb Syrian targets:

The Iranian deployment increases Russia’s foothold in the Middle East and widens Moscow’s bombing campaign in Syria, bolstering President Bashar Assad’s government ahead of a new round of peace talks the United Nations hopes to convene in coming weeks.  . . .
It is virtually unheard of in Iran’s recent history to allow a foreign power to use one of its bases to stage attacks. Russia has also never used the territory of another country in the Middle East for its operations inside Syria, where it has been carrying out an aerial campaign in support of Assad’s government for nearly a year.
Tuesday’s action suggests cooperation on the highest levels between Moscow and Tehran, both key allies of the embattled Syrian president, and sends a powerful message to the United States and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, which have seen Iran as the arch-enemy.
The Russian move provides a psychological boost for the Assad-Iran-Hezbollah alliance, illustrating that Russia is strategically committed to stay on course in Syria.

In other words, the administration has given Iran a green light to pursue its interests, has shown Russia that it is entirely feckless and has thereby sacrificed (once more) our own interests and that of our Sunni allies. Clinton will inherit the consequences of President Obama’s policy of appeasement.

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The incoming president and Congress would be wise to keep in mind several points.

First, whatever her complicity in initiating the JCPOA, Clinton did not countenance Obama policy post-JCPOA. Democrats and Republicans alike are gravely concerned about Iran’s increased aggression, no matter how predictable. The administration should and would get strong support for sanctions to punish Iran for missile tests, attempted acquisition of prohibited materials and human rights violations. Clinton will need to ignore threats from Iran and from nervous Nellies in her base that these moves will unravel the JCPOA.

Second, rather than pleading with Russia, we can make clear that we will be establishing a new policy of direct action against the Assad regime, including establishment of safe havens. Vladimir Putin has had a risk-free policy of aggression up to now; that should change. A “dissent cable” signed by 51 State Department officers recommended just this approach in June:

The cable warns that the U.S. is losing prospective allies among Syria’s majority Sunni population in its fight against the Sunni extremist group Islamic State while the regime “continues to bomb and starve” them. Mr. Assad and his inner circle are Alawite, a small Shiite-linked Muslim sect and a minority in Syria. In Syria’s multisided war, the regime, Islamic State and an array of opposition rebel groups are all battling each other.
“Failure to stem Assad’s flagrant abuses will only bolster the ideological appeal of groups such as Daesh, even as they endure tactical setbacks on the battlefield,” the cable reads, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. . . .
The cable asserts Mr. Assad and Russia haven’t taken past cease-fires and “consequential negotiations” seriously and suggests adopting a more muscular military posture to secure a transitional government in Damascus.
It calls for the U.S. to change course and create a more robust partnership with moderate rebel forces to fight against both Islamic State and Mr. Assad’s government. Many Syrian Arab rebels have been reluctant to join the U.S.-led coalition because of its singular focus on Islamic State and not on the regime.
Such a force would shift “the tide of the conflict against the regime [to] increase the chances for peace by sending a clear signal to the regime and its backers that there will be no military solution to the conflict.”

Former Obama adviser Dennis Ross and Andrew Tabler concur, urging that we should be punishing “the Syrian government for violating the truce by using drones and cruise missiles to hit the Syrian military’s airfields, bases and artillery positions where no Russian troops are present.” They caution:

Opponents of these kinds of limited strikes say they would prompt Russia to escalate the conflict and suck the United States deeper into Syria. But these strikes would be conducted only if the Assad government was found to be violating the very truce that Russia says it is committed to. Notifying Russia that this will be the response could deter such violations of the truce and the proposed military agreement with Moscow. In any case, it would signal to Mr. Putin that his Syrian ally would pay a price if it did not maintain its side of the deal. . . .
Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry have long said there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict. Unfortunately, Russia and Iran seem to think there is — or at least that no acceptable political outcome is possible without diminishing the rebels and strengthening the Syrian government. It is time for the United States to speak the language that Mr. Assad and Mr. Putin understand.

In short, the first priority of the new administration should be a clear and unmistakable shift in policy toward Iran, Syria and Russia in the Middle East. If Clinton takes these steps — none of which per se contradict her support of the JCPOA and which build on her initial sound judgment that the United States should have intervened swiftly to usher out Assad — we may be able to halt the emergence of an Iranian/Syrian/Russian-dominated Middle East. As a byproduct, we will restore credibility with our Sunni allies, making it that much easier to assemble a broad coalition to defeat the Islamic State. Once we show we have spine and skin in the game, our foes will be forced to adopt a different cost-benefit analysis and our friends will once again be able to rely on the U.S. president.