Why Obama Wants Israel to ‘Do More’ About Civilian Deaths

Palestinians carry a body into the Shifa Hospital morgue, Gaza City, July 20, 2014.
Palestinians carry a body into the Shifa Hospital morgue, Gaza City, July 20, 2014. Alessio Romenzi

And why Israel doesn't like it

As the death toll in Gaza escalates, so does the pressure from Washington on Israel to limit the killing. President Obama has conveyed his “concern” about Palestinian civilian casualties to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Hell of a pinpoint operation,” John Kerry sardonically cracked on Sunday. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told CNN Tuesday that Israel appears to be “over doing it,” and is hurting its “moral authority.”

But while the U.S. is clearly distressed about the rising civilian death toll in Gaza, now at around 650 Palestinian dead, the Obama administration won’t say what it wants Israel to do about it.

“I think probably they could take some greater steps, maybe could do a little bit more,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Tuesday.

But when pressed to explain what “do more” actually means, Harf demurred. “I don’t have any specifics for you. It’s a conversation we’ll continue having with them.”

Harf wasn’t going off message. Later in the day, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes also said that Israel “can do more” to curtail the death of innocents. But Rhodes did not elaborate either.

So it’s not quite clear just what the Obama team is trying to say. There are a few ways Israel could “do more” to limit Palestinian casualties, but we have to guess at what Washington means.

One would be for Israel to hold its fire entirely. But that’s clearly not the U.S. position. Obama wants Israel to agree to a ceasefire, but not a unilateral one. U.S. officials repeat over and over that Israel has a right to defend itself from Hamas’s rocket attacks.

Is it Israel’s ground invasion that America opposes? It is true that the U.S. sought to dissuade it. “Nobody wants to see a ground invasion because that would put more civilians at risk,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on July 14, days before Israeli troops crossed Gaza’s border. But the U.S. has not appealed for an Israeli ground withdrawal.

That leaves the question of specific targeting decisions. Israel says it is extremely careful in this regard, noting that it takes steps to warn innocents about impending attacks, including evacuation notices, cell phone calls and low-explosive warning “knocks.” But it has still killed numerous Palestinians in their homes. Two weeks ago it killed several young boys playing on a beach. This week, its tanks shelled a Palestinian hospital that Israel said Palestinian militants were using as a base. Both tragic and damaging to Israel’s reputation, these are probably the sorts of incidents the U.S. would like to prevent.

Israeli officials say that of course they don’t want to bomb hospitals—but that they’re in an impossible position. Hamas fighters operate in civilian areas, and store weapons or plan battles from places like homes and hospitals, they say. The Israelis even argue that Hamas actually welcomes and facilitates the death of its people. Hamas has urged Gazans to ignore Israeli evacuation orders. In recent footage from Hamas’s television network shown to TIME by an Israeli official, a Hamas leader says: “We, Hamas, call on our people to adopt this practice” of “sacrificing themselves to defend their homes.”

In this challenging environment, Israeli officials say they analyze every strike, consulting military lawyers as they run a calculation that involves a kind of moral mathematics. As Israel’s ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer told reporters yesterday, that means weighing the civilian toll of a strike against the potential future harm to Israeli soldiers and civilians that might come from inaction.

That’s obviously an extremely difficult—and highly subjective—calculation. Dermer says Israel would never kill fifty children in a classroom to destroy one Hamas rocket; whereas he says one civilian death would be an acceptable price for destroying 200 rockets. But where’s the line? Would Israel accept the death of one child to destroy a dozen rockets? A dozen children for 500 rockets? Bear in mind that those rockets almost never land with lethal results; two Israelis have been killed by the roughly 2000 Hamas rockets fired this summer. That’s a 0.1 percent fatality rate per rocket. And yet any given rocket could destroy a school bus or nursing home and render that figure tragically obsolete.

Nor are fatalities the only relevant metric. Israel is also trying to measure the impact of those rockets on its society, economy, and tourism industry. And how to weigh the economic and psychological cost of cancelled flights into Israel’s Ben Gurion international airport? Then there’s the additional matter of Hamas’s underground tunnels, meant to enable terrorism and kidnapping within Israel, and the stated reason for Israel’s ground invasion.

When Obama officials ask Israel to “do more,” they seem to be encouraging a revised moral equation. Of course, the U.S. can never micromanage individual targeting decisions. But Obama may want Israel to conduct fewer strikes, perhaps omitting targets like hospitals, even that if it means accepting more risk to its soldiers and civilians. Some philosophers contend that demonstrably accepting more risk to protect civilians is the grim duty of a just combatant against an enemy using civilian shields.

Beyond the humanitarian and philosophical argument for that, there’s also a strategic one. Israel must weigh the Hamas threat against a more intangible threat to its international reputation. The United Nations’ top human rights official is suggesting that Israel (along with Hamas) may be guilty of war crimes. Yes, we’ve been here before: a 2009 U.N. report charged Israel with targeting civilians during its 2006 offensive in Lebanon. Its chief author later recanted that conclusion—but not before real damage was done to Israel’s image.

Which brings us back to Obama. The president doesn’t want to appear indifferent to Palestinian suffering—one senior official recalls how his standing in the Muslim world plunged after he seemed to condone Israel’s December 2008 Gaza incursion—even if he sympathizes with Israel, and might even respond in much the same way. Obama has accepted plenty of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and from U.S. drone strikes elsewhere, after all. But he evidently feels he needs to say something, even if it’s not very clear what he means.

TIME Foreign Policy

Inside John Kerry’s Diplomatic Save in Afghanistan

Presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah, right, and Ashraf Ghani embrace at a news conference with Secretary of State John Kerry where a deal to audit ballots was announced, in Kabul, Afghanistan on July 12, 2014.
Presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah, right, and Ashraf Ghani embrace at a news conference with Secretary of State John Kerry where a deal to audit ballots was announced, in Kabul, Afghanistan on July 12, 2014. Jim Bourg—The New York Times/Redux

Up to one million might have died, an Afghan leader warned.

As the sun went down over Kabul on Saturday July 13, Afghanistan’s future hung in the balance. Accusations of fraud in the country’s recent presidential election had paralyzed the country’s politics and threatened to trigger a civil war that could destroy the progress America’s costly military and diplomatic efforts had delivered since 2001. The parties in the dispute had convened at the residence of the American ambassador in Kabul, but the two sides couldn’t reach agreement.

Secretary of State John Kerry arrived on the scene that Saturday evening just as key Afghan players were headed out to the patio for their evening prayers. Scheduled to depart 90 minutes earlier for Vienna, where he was to join the ongoing international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, Kerry had delayed his departure to make a last ditch effort to broker a deal.

It was a dangerous moment, and not just for the Afghans. Without an agreement between second place finisher Abdullah Abdullah and the election’s declared winner, Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan was at risk of an implosion like the one that enabled the Taliban to take power in 1996—creating a safe haven for Osama bin Laden to plot the 9/11 attacks. And Kerry’s visit defied the advice of other Obama officials who warned any diplomatic intervention on the U.S. part held “the risk of complete failure,” in the words of a senior official.

The details of how Kerry defused the stalemate, based on accounts from a half-dozen officials familiar with the talks, reveals an Afghanistan closer to the brink than many outsiders may appreciate. It also illuminates rare foreign policy win for Kerry and for an Obama administration staggered by months of setbacks, one whose importance has been overshadowed by turmoil in the Middle East and Ukraine. Finally, it shows how fragile the country remains as the U.S. prepares to withdraw the last of its combat troops later this year.

The crisis was the result of the inconclusive June 14 presidential vote to replace the longtime Afghan ruler Hamid Karzai. Abdullah, the losing candidate, was insisting the vote had been rigged to the tune of hundreds of thousands of fraudulent ballots. By mid-July, Abdullah’s supporters had threatened to create a kind of protest government. Rumors swirled of an armed rebellion, with the potential to ignite dormant ethnic and tribal rivalries. “We will accept death but not defeat,” Ghani’s running mate, the notorious ex-warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, had recently vowed. “It was pretty frightening. People were preparing for civil war,” says one official.

On July 8 President Obama called Abdullah directly, warning that American aid to country could be cut off if he didn’t stand down. The call bought time but didn’t resolve the core dispute. “The president’s role was to intervene at a point where it looked like the dispute was threatening the stability of Kabul and the country. But that didn’t necessarily mean there was enough pressure to come to an agreement,” says one senior administration official. “Both candidates remained pretty dug in to their positions,” says another.

Kerry had arrived late on the night of July 10 from Beijing, diverting from his planned itinerary to Geneva for the Iran talks. Over the next three days, through long meetings, first with Abdullah’s camp, and then with Ghani’s, Kerry’s team hammered out a plan.

Afghanistan’s election commission, under international supervision, would audit every one of the eight million ballots cast in the June 14 vote (a runoff after an initial April 5 election.) The plan also called for a power-sharing arrangement that would give Abdullah an important role in the new Afghan government, potentially as a kind of deputy national leader. (The details have yet to be finalized and officials called reports of a European-style parliamentary system premature.)

A key asset in establishing the framework for the deal, officials say, was the relationship Kerry had built with the major players—Abdullah, Ghani, and also Karzai—over many years, dating to his tenure as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman. When Abdullah contested a fraud-rife 2009 election that returned Karzai to power, Kerry rushed to the country for long meetings with both men after a distrustful Karzai refused to talk to the U.S. special envoy to the country, Richard Holbrooke. Karzai is even less inclined to trust Washington today, and rarely speaks with President Obama. But the Afghan leader does maintain a good rapport with Kerry.

“Obviously a lot of the machinery of this took place from the White House and by phone. But ultimately a large part of why this got sealed is that Kerry had built up a relationship with Ghani, Abdullah and Karzai going all the way back to 2009,” says Jonah Blank, an Afghanistan expert with the RAND Corporation

Though the framework of the deal had been hammered out over the previous two days, the decisive moment came that Saturday evening, at the residence of U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham, after Abdullah and his retinue had finished prayers and broken their Ramadan fast. Ghani and his allies were elsewhere on the heavily fortified U.S. embassy compound; the two contenders for Afghanistan’s presidency had not yet met face-to-face.

Kerry had been buoyed by an earlier meeting with Karzai, who agreed to delay the country’s scheduled August 3 presidential inauguration, which a time-consuming audit of every ballot would require. But when Kerry arrived at Cunningham’s residence, Abdullah still wasn’t sold on a deal. Could he really trust an election process run by the government of Ghani’s ally Karzai?

Kerry pleaded with Abdullah to accept the deal. “I’m asking you as a friend to trust me,” he said. Kerry walked the group through several chapters in his life story, from the Vietnam War to the 2004 presidential campaign, and concluded by calling the meeting among the most important he’d ever attended. He urged Abdullah and his allies to consider the millions of Afghans who had voted despite Taliban threats—the Americans who had done so much for Afghanistan. “U.S. soldiers didn’t come here to fight and die to see this election fail,” Kerry said.

“You could tell that shifted the dynamic,” says an official who was present. Shortly after 9pm, Abdullah agreed to the deal.

Within half an hour, Ghani had arrived to clinch the agreement with his rival in person. The discourse between the Abdullah and Ghani camps had not been civil of late—at one rally, Abdullah’s running mate had called Ghani a name that roughly translates as “dried-up intestine.” But the men greeted each other warmly. If they felt personal hostility, says one official, “they did a good job of hiding it.”

As they headed to a midnight press conference, officials present say the men seemed to take pride in an agreement that had spared their country the threat of a nightmarish descent into chaos.

On July 16, President Obama opened his press conference announcing new economic sanctions against Russia by congratulating his Secretary of State for brokering the Afghan deal. Obama said it had preserved “the first democratic transfer of power in the history of that nation.”

In a conversation the day after Kerry’s departure, Ghani shared his relief over the outcome. The agreement, he said, may have saved one million Afghan lives.

TIME Foreign Policy

Officials Say Iran Is Hamas’ ‘Enabler’ in Fight Against Israel

A picture taken from the southern Israeli Gaza border shows a militant rocket being launched from the Gaza strip into Israel, on July 11, 2014. Menahem Kahana—AFP/Getty Images

Tehran's fingerprints are all over Hamas's rocket arsenal, officials say

In a reminder of the Middle East’s intertwined nature, the latest violence between Israel and Hamas has U.S. and Israeli officials lamenting the role of a key actor hundreds of miles east of Gaza: Iran.

“Who is the enabler for Hamas? Where do they get those rockets?” asked House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce Friday morning. “It’s Iran.”

American and Israeli officials have long accused Iran of helping Hamas build up its massive arsenal of rockets, including some with a particularly long range, which it is now firing into Israeli cities and towns.

“Iran continues to do everything it can to push rockets into Gaza,” says Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer. “Iran obviously is a supporter of Hamas. And Islamic Jihad is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Iran” (Islamic Jihad is militant group smaller than Hamas that also operates within Gaza.)

The current wave of violence was triggered after the murder of several teenagers, three Israelis and then one Palestinian, apparently by extremists on both sides. More broadly, it is the product of the historical conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. But it also represents the latest chapter in an intermittently violent cold war between Israel and Iran, which has long funded and supplied arms to Palestinian militants who attack Israel.

At issue now is Iran’s shipments of rockets into Gaza, shipments that are thought to have gone on for years. The rockets are transported by ship from Iran to Sudan, driven into Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, and then smuggled into Gaza through secret underground tunnels that run from Egypt into Gaza. Israel has blockaded Gaza’s borders ever since Hamas—which openly calls for Israel’s destruction—assumed power there in 2007.

Hamas can probably thank Iran for some of the most dangerous rockets it fired into Israel this week. They appear to be M-302s, whose range of 100 miles is longer than most in Hamas’s arsenal—which typically travel about ten miles—and can threaten northern Israeli cities. In March, Israel interdicted a ship carrying forty M-302 rockets it said were destined for Gaza; a United Nations report concluded last month that the rockets originated in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Israeli officials don’t believe that shipment was the only one of its kind.

The good news from Israel’s perspective is that smuggling arms to Hamas has become harder since last summer’s military coup in Egypt deposed a pro-Hamas Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo. The new regime of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who strongly opposes Hamas, has mostly sealed the tunnels into Gaza (Both Hamas and Iran have denied such shipments.)

Hamas isn’t solely reliant on outsiders for its weapons. “A lot of the rockets are coming now from being domestically manufactured,” said Dermer on a conference call with reporters Friday. “That was not the case 18 months ago. Eighteen months ago, most of the rockets were coming from outside.”

However, even those homemade rockets bear Iranian fingerprints, say Israeli officials. Tehran has assisted Hamas and Islamic Jihad in developing their own manufacturing capabilities inside Gaza. “Iran is the principle source of know-how” for such efforts, an Israeli military intelligence official said in June.

There is no sign that Israel intends to retaliate against Iran. But some analysts believe that Israel uses confrontations like this one to send a message to Tehran, which also arms the anti-Israel group Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and whose nuclear program some Israeli leaders declare an existential threat. When Israel last clashed with Hamas in November of 2012, for instance, one columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz wrote that Israel’s response “seems to be aimed at the Palestinian arena, but in reality it is geared toward Iranian hostility against Israel.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may see the current crisis as an opportunity to deal a crippling blow to Hamas, which one former Obama administration official with Middle East expertise describes as “desperate” now that Egypt has sealed many of its underground smuggling routes. Hamas’s relationship with Iran has also wobbled over the Syrian civil war, as the the Sunni Palestinian group and Tehran’s Shi’ite clerical regime have supported different sides in that sectarian conflict (although the two have recently struck a friendlier tone.)

Iran’s stake in the Israel-Hamas fight means that Tehran has a hand in three live conflicts at the moment. In addition to its strong support of Syrian ruler Bashar Assad, Iran has provided military aid to Iraq’s Shi’ite ruler, Nouri al-Maliki, who is fending off an invasion from Sunni radical group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and its Iraqi Sunni allies.

Meanwhile, Iran’s support for groups that oppose and attack Israel will remain a thorny issue in U.S.-Iranian relations as Washington tries to strike a nuclear deal with Tehran. Many of the economic sanctions currently imposed on Iran are based on the country’s support for terrorism and weapons proliferation.

Iran’s supply of rockets to Hamas “does raise the issue of how Iran is a proliferator,” said Chairman Royce, who spoke at a breakfast with reporters in Washington. He said any talks with Iran should include the question of “how do you stop this penchant for proliferation?”

TIME Foreign Policy

Here’s What John Kerry Can Learn From Hillary About Israel’s New Crisis

Clinton writes that Obama was "understandably wary" about intervening the last time violence flared

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, amid rising fears that the confrontation between Israel and Hamas could escalate to new levels of bloodshed. But Kerry might also want to talk to his Foggy Bottom predecessor about how the last round of violence in the intractable conflict was defused.

When Israel and Hamas last fought in Gaza in November 2012, President Barack Obama dispatched then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to broker a cease-fire. As Israel called up 75,000 reservists for a possible ground invasion, Obama was “understandably wary” of the U.S. taking a direct mediation role, Clinton writes in her new book, Hard Choices.

“If we tried to broker a cease-fire and failed, as seemed quite likely, it would sap America’s prestige and credibility in the region,” Clinton says. American involvement might also risk undercutting Israel, whose “right to defend itself” Clinton underscores. Obama officials also worried a U.S. role might “elevate” the conflict’s profile, leading both sides to harden their negotiating positions.

Even so, Clinton and Obama concluded that it was “imperative to resolve the crisis before it became a ground war.” Clinton knew that Netanyahu didn’t want to invade Gaza — but that he faced domestic pressure to do so and had no clear “exit ramp” that would allow him to de-escalate without seeming to back down, Clinton writes.

Just over 18 months later, many of the same dynamics apply as Obama weighs whether Kerry can — or should — broker a deal like the one Clinton struck.

For now, Obama officials have two public messages. One is that Israel is entitled to hit back at Hamas when the hard-line Palestinian group launches rockets at its territory. “No country can accept rocket fire aimed at civilians, and we certainly support Israel’s right to defend itself against these attacks,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday. The other is that the two sides should rein in the violence — which now takes the form of Hamas rocket attacks and Israeli air strikes. “We’re continuing to convey the need to de-escalate to both sides,” Psaki said.

That may not happen on its own, warns Dennis Ross, a former Obama White House aide who has handled Middle East issues for multiple Presidents. “Even if neither side wants it to spin out of control, the potential for that is quite high,” Ross says.

That’s why Obama has to decide whether to step in, especially given growing signs of an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza. Israel’s 2009 incursion into the Hamas-governed coastal territory left 1,400 dead, and badly damaged Israel’s international image. A second invasion was averted in November 2012 only by the Clinton-brokered cease-fire, a deal struck just 48 hours before Israeli troops planned to swarm into Hamas’ stronghold.

Just before Thanksgiving that year, Clinton flew to the region and met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. She also saw Egypt’s then President Mohamed Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood government was friendly with Hamas. The result was a mutual cease-fire, overseen by Egypt, with the promise of future negotiations about Hamas’ rocket arsenal and Israel’s Gaza blockade. Those talks never went far. But the cease-fire held. (Netanyahu won another concession, Clinton recalls: a phone call from Obama promising U.S. help against rocket smuggling into Gaza. “Did [Netanyahu] take some personal satisfaction from making the President jump through hoops?” Clinton wondered.)

Obama faces a different calculus today, including the recent collapse of Kerry’s push for a Middle East peace deal, and a new Egyptian regime that is decidedly hostile to Hamas, making Cairo unlikely to mediate again.

But many of the core principles that Clinton says swayed Obama in 2012 likely still resonate at the White House: that peace in the Middle East is a key U.S. national-security priority, that a ground war in Gaza would be disastrous, and that there is “no substitute for American leadership.” Indeed, Clinton writes that after the 2012 cease-fire deal, an Israeli official told her that “my diplomatic intervention was the only thing standing in the way of a much more explosive confrontation.”

The burning question for Obama is whether the same holds true today.


Iran’s YouTube Message to Obama: Don’t Bully Us

Tehran takes a hard line as a July 20 nuclear deadline nears


Iran’s foreign minister posted a defiant YouTube message on Wednesday, just as high-stakes talks over Iran’s nuclear program are resuming amid dim hopes for a breakthrough by a mid-July deadline.

“Iranians are allergic to pressure,” Mohammad Javad Zarif says in the English-language video. “Let’s try mutual respect.”

Zarif’s digital salvo came the day before the formal resumption of talks between Iran, the U.S., and five other major powers—and less than three weeks before the July 20 expiration of November’s interim nuclear agreement, which froze the progress of Iran’s nuclear program in return for relaxed international sanctions.

Experts call the video a clear message to the West and an effort to gain a public relations advantage as the final round of nuclear talks get underway. “Given that the video is in English, Zarif is clearly speaking to a foreign rather than a domestic audience,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “His message to Washington is that a failure to reach an agreement today will only result in a more advanced Iranian nuclear program tomorrow. His message to the world is that a failure to reach an agreement will be America’s fault.”

In talks that began last fall, the Obama administration hopes to reach a long-term agreement trading sanctions relief for limits on Iran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb. Such a deal might be Barack Obama’s last chance for an enduring foreign policy triumph in a star-crossed second term.

Zarif’s defiant tone, however, reinforces pessimism about the prospects for such a comprehensive deal, at least this summer.

“This probably isn’t going to get done by July 20,” says George Perkovich, also of the Carnegie Endowment, who recently returned from meetings in Tehran with people informed about the negotiations.

November’s interim deal allowed for a six-month extension, until January 2015, and many experts predict that outcome. Earlier this year Obama officials seemed to raise expectations for a more comprehensive deal, one that could last for a decade or more, but have recently struck a much more pessimistic tone. Even so, most close observers expect that the talks will continue rather than collapse entirely.

“I don’t think either side can afford to take the blame for walking away from the table if the other side is prepared to continue,” said Gary Samore, who formerly handled the Iran nuclear issue for the Obama White House, said in recent public remarks.

In latest example of Iran’s canny digital diplomacy, Zarif’s new video presents a soothing tone, opening with a shot of the diplomat strolling past a trickling fountain. A piano gently plays. But Zarif’s tone is stern. Speaking in fluent English, Iran’s western-educated negotiator denounces U.S.-led efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program over the past decade, including “the murder of our nuclear scientists, the sabotage of our facilities” and “military threats” from Washington.

Zarif may have been responding, in part, to a Wednesday Washington Post op-ed by Secretary of State John Kerry, warning Tehran not to “squander a historic opportunity to end Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation,” and to accept limits that would allow for a peaceful nuclear program.

Obama officials in Vienna are pressing Iran to dismantle several thousand of its roughly 10,000 centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium into a more fissile form, and to accept other limits on its nuclear facilities and research programs. Their goal is to extend the “break out” time required for Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to make one nuclear bomb, to as long as one year, thereby giving the international community time to detect and respond to the move. In return, Iran would get relief from harsh economic sanctions against its banking, energy and other key sectors.

Congressional Republicans and some Democrats are skeptical of such a deal, and argue for cranking up economic sanctions until Tehran, in effect, cries uncle and dismantles its nuclear program entirely.

Zarif insists that won’t happen. “To those who continue to believe that sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table, I can only say that pressure has only been tried for the past eight years…. It didn’t bring the Iranian people to kneel in submission and it will not now, nor in the future,” he says in his message.

Zarif’s tone reflects a bargaining gulf that remains over everything from the number of centrifuges Iran will retain to the operation of a heavy water plutonium reactor at Arak, whose fuel can easily be fashioned into bombs. The U.S. also wants more transparency about any military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program. Iran maintains that the world has no right to dictate its use of nuclear technology for what it says are peaceful energy and medical purposes.

Complicating matters are renewed concerns that Iran could might try to build a bomb in secret after striking a deal that covers its known nuclear sites. A new report from Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs warns against the potential false comfort of a “nuclear Maginot line.”

Meeting with the Iranians in Vienna are the U.S., Great Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia—a group known as the P5+1, because, along with the U.S., it includes the five permanent members of the United Nations security council, plus Germany.

Casting a long shadow, meanwhile, is Israel, which sent a delegation to Washington on Sunday to repeat their government’s view that Iran should surrender its nuclear infrastructure entirely. In an interview after his arrival here, Israeli intelligence minister Yuval Steinitz cited the success of the deal that forced Syrian president Bashar Assad to give up his declared chemical arsenal, which has now been removed from the country. Only “total dismantlement” can ensure that Iran doesn’t test the international community’s will in the future.

Zarif wants the world to believe that Iran has no such intention. “We still have time to put an end to the myth that Iran is seeking to build a bomb,” he says. “My government remains committed to ending this unnecessary crisis by July 20. I hope my counterparts are, too.”

Even if both sides are genuinely committed to a deal, however, that doesn’t mean they can agree on one.

TIME Foreign Policy

Iraqi Ambassador Confirms ISIS Attack on Shi’ite Shrine

Baghdad's envoy to Washington has confirmed that the perimeter of Samarra's al-Askari mosque in Iraq was targeted by Sunni militants


Fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) struck the perimeter of one of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest shrines in Iraq in a mortar attack yesterday, the country’s ambassador to the United States confirmed Tuesday.

“They hit the outer perimeter of the shrine and some people were killed,” the ambassador, Lukman Faily, said in response to a question from TIME about Samarra’s al-Askari mosque, where a 2006 attack was a catalyst for nationwide sectarian civil war. U.S. and Iraqi officials are extremely worried that a successful ISIS attack on the shrine, commonly known as the Golden Dome mosque, could re-inflame sectarian rage.

Faily did not say whether the shrine’s famous golden dome, which was blown up by Sunni jihadists in 2006 and later rebuilt, was damaged as unconfirmed reports suggest. But he insisted that ISIS, which reportedly overran much of Samarra in mid-June, no longer holds territory within the city. “It was a hit-and-run situation,” he said.

The shrine itself is heavily guarded by Iraqi forces, along with foreign fighters who consider it a sacred duty to defend Iraq’s holy sites from Sunni vandals. One of those reportedly killed in fighting at the shrine last month, for instance, was Pakistani man studying in Iraq who volunteered for its defense. He is now memorialized as a Shi’ite martyr.

Six more people are reported to have been killed by Monday’s mortar attack.

Samarra is about 60 miles north of Baghdad and 30 miles south of Tikrit, the site of intense fighting between Iraqi government forces and ISIS fighters who seized the city, where former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was born, earlier this month.

Faily said that ISIS no longer controls central Tikrit, but said countless buildings, including homes and places of worship, had been booby-trapped and would take time to clear.

Speaking before an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, Faily also said it is “likely” that Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will retain his job. He added: “Is it certain? Nothing is certain.”

Faily said Iraq’s purchase of Russian aircraft, amid complaints from Baghdad about slow delivery of American F-16s, isn’t a sign of a fraying alliance with Washington. “Our countries are forever tied together because of the lives we lost and the treasure we spent in the past decade in the fight against terrorism,” he said.

For more on the Golden Dome shrine and what its fate could mean for Iraq, click here.

TIME Foreign Policy

Israeli Official: Kidnapped Teen Murders Show Hamas Is Like ISIS

Developments In Case Of Missing Israeli Teenagers
Israeli settlers hold flags on June 30, 2014, at the entrance to Halhoul, north of Hebron, West Bank Lior Mizrahi—Getty Images

The murder of three teenagers should make the new Palestinian government a pariah, Israel's Intelligence Minister argues

A senior Israeli government official on Monday likened Hamas to the brutal fighters sowing chaos in Iraq and said there could be no dealing with a Palestinian government that includes the group, just hours after three Israeli teenagers believed to have been kidnapped by Hamas were found dead.

“This is just a reminder that Hamas is a cruel terrorist organization that sent 100 suicide bombers, terrorists, into Israel in the past, and has now executed three teenagers, three young boys,” said Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s Minister of Intelligence.

“I don’t see much difference between these Hamas terrorists and the people from ISIS who executed the Iraqi soldiers,” Steinitz told a group of reporters in Washington, D.C., referring to the latter group’s mass execution of hundreds of captured Iraqi security forces during its mid-June blitz into northern Iraq.

The three boys were abducted while hitchhiking on June 12. Their fate consumed Israel as a massive hunt was conducted, but their bodies were discovered in an open field near Hebron Monday.

Steinitz said that the killings reinforce Israel’s position that it could not negotiate with a Palestinian unity government combining the Palestinian Authority, which holds power in the occupied West Bank, and Hamas, which has ruled over Gaza since 2007. Despite Israeli protests, the Obama Administration continues to work with and fund the Palestinian government, led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, on the grounds that it does not include any cabinet ministers affiliated with Hamas.

U.S. and Israeli officials say Abbas’ June 1 deal forging a unity coalition between the two long-divided Palestinian factions was the final blow to an already faltering Middle East peace process. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the Palestinian deal, insisting that Israel refuses to negotiate with “terrorists.”

Though both ISIS and Hamas are Sunni radical groups, they have very different identities and agendas and ISIS employs violence on a much larger scale. But Steinitz hopes that the killing of the teenagers will “remind the world” of Hamas’ true nature, and insisted Abbas “cannot proceed with this unity government with this terrorist organization.”

U.S. officials have not publicly confirmed that Hamas is behind the abductions and killings. On Monday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki wouldn’t say whether that conclusion would lead the Obama Administration to sever ties with the Palestinian government.

Steinitz also argued that Abbas himself bears responsibility for the killings, noting that the abductions took place near that Palestinian Authority–controlled town of Hebron. “Those Hamas terrorists came from Hebron and are under total control of the Palestinian Authority,” Steinitz said.

Steinitz is in Washington as part of an Israeli delegation of nine, including officials from the Mossad, Israel’s national security council and its atomic energy agency. They met Monday with senior Obama officials who are negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, including the State Department’s Iran lead negotiator, Wendy Sherman, and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns.

The meeting was arranged on short notice, a day before the U.S. delegation leaves for a final round of talks with Iran in Vienna, Steinitz said. He reiterated Israel’s position that Iran should not be allowed to retain domestic uranium-enrichment capability or to operate a “heavy water” nuclear reactor whose fuel can be fashioned into bombs. He cited the removal of chemical weapons from Syria as a model of deal that involves total dismantlement of a weapons capability.

The current interim nuclear deal between Iran and the U.S. expires on July 20. Few observers expect the two sides to reach a comprehensive agreement by then; many expect an extension that could range from a few weeks to several more months, although even an extension will be politically complex proposition for both sides. U.S. officials have given no indication that Iran might be willing to surrender its domestic nuclear program entirely as Israel wants.

Despite all the chaos in the region, including in Iraq and Syria, he said, “we regard the Iranian nuclear issue as the most important in the Middle East — and the world.”

Steinitz was also skeptical about Iran’s potential to play a positive role in stabilizing Iraq. “It doesn’t seem to me that Iran is eager to cooperate with the U.S. or the West as regards Iraq, because Iran’s goals are different,” he said.

TIME Foreign Policy

Why Obama Is Finally Getting Serious About Syria

Rebel fighters carry their weapons as they run past damaged buildings to avoid snipers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Mleha suburb of Damascus May 26, 2014. REUTERS/Badra Mamet (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT MILITARY) - RTR3QXRJ Badra Mamet—Reuters

A White House reversal after months of rejecting calls for more aid to moderate rebels

For the better part of three years, President Barack Obama kept a wary distance from Syria’s civil war. He had little appetite for getting entangled in another Middle East conflict, and knew the public agreed with him, while also doubting that the U.S. could hope to control the bloody chaos there. In 2012, he resisted pressure from Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta and David Petraeus to provide the rebels with more support. Even after Syrian President Bashar Assad murdered civilians with nerve gas last year, Obama backed away from threatened air strikes and approved only limited arms transfers and CIA training of moderate fighters on a small scale. His ambassador to Syria resigned in February, saying he could no longer defend Obama’s cautious policy.

Now Obama has dramatically reversed his position. The White House is asking Congress for $500 million to create a Pentagon program to train and arm what it called “appropriately vetted elements of the moderate Syrian armed opposition.”

This is no quick fix. It may not be a fix at all. Obama’s plan will take months to get off the ground, even if Congress agrees to it. But it does amount to a clear admission—you might even call it a concession—by Obama that his Syria policy is not working.

Why the shift now? The short answer is Iraq. The ISIS blitz through northern and western Iraq shows how the festering wound of Syria’s civil war is infecting the wider region. ISIS has drawn manpower, money and momentum from the Syrian civil war, and now controls a large swath of Syrian territory. To prevent it from burning down Iraq, the ISIS fire needs to be squelched in Syria.

Assad can’t do that. He has reached a kind of stalemate with his rebel enemies, and at times has even seemed to be in a de facto truce with ISIS. Obama won’t do it either. For now, military action to tilt the Syrian battlefield is not a live option.

A partial solution could come in the form of moderate Syrian rebels, who don’t subscribe to radical anti-western Islamic dogma, and who don’t want to see ISIS, and similar radical groups, gain power in Syria.

Obama says that full solution to the Syria crisis, and the radicalism it breeds, is a political settlement. The goal is for Assad to step down, making way for a new multisectarian government in his place.”[W]e continue to believe that there is no military solution to this crisis,” national security council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a June 26 statement.

A stronger Syrian opposition might be able to break the stalemate and pry Assad from his grip on power, Obama’s ex-ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford, told PBS earlier this month. “We can’t get to a political negotiation until the balance on the ground compels — and I use that word precisely—compels Assad … to negotiate a political deal,” Ford said.

But here’s where things get complicated: Do we still want Assad gone? ISIS’s frightening offensive in Iraq has made the tyrannical opthamologist seem like a potentially useful ally. Loathsome as Assad may be, it’s hard to argue that his defeat is more important than that of ISIS—which, unlike Assad, aspires to start a regional civil war with Shi’ites and even launch terror attacks against western targets. Assad, whose jets bombed ISIS positions along Iraq’s border this week, is the enemy of our enemy. Does that make him our friend? Some foreign policy thinkers suggest so, calling for a short-term U.S. alliance with in the anti-ISIS fight.

Obama’s not there yet. He still wants Assad gone. He just doesn’t want him toppled by ISIS.

It’s not exactly a simple plan. And it will unfold slowly. If Congress approves Obama’s plan, it will be months longer before a Pentagon training program gets underway—and more time still before it forges enough skilled fighters to shape the Syrian conflict.

What’s clear is that Obama understands the status quo in Syria is a disaster, on that is creating what the recently-departed United Nations special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, called a “failed state” prone to “blow up” the wider region.

And so Obama may be admitting he’s wrong. After months of arguing that taking serious action in Syria is too risky, Obama is signaling that the consequences of inaction— now unfolding across northern and western Iraq—are too dangerous to tolerate.

TIME Foreign Policy

How the Fate of One Holy Site Could Plunge Iraq Back into Civil War

Iraq Violence
Iraqis walk past the damaged al-Askari mosque following an explosion in Samarra, 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq on Feb. 22, 2006. Hameed Rasheed—AP

Officials fear repeat of 2006 attack on sacred Shi'ite mosque

When Secretary of State John Kerry visited Baghdad on Monday, he arrived in a city bracing for war with the brutal fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who have taken control of Iraq’s north and west.

The fall of Baghdad to ISIS would be a disaster. But U.S. officials call that scenario unlikely, thanks to the city’s vast size and the hostility of its large Shi’ite population towards to Sunni ISIS. It does appear that ISIS’s lightning offensive has stalled out north of the capital.

That’s why U.S. officials are now anxiously focused elsewhere, on a thousand-year-old sacred site in Samarra, a city 80 miles north of Baghdad now mostly controlled by ISIS.

“Clearly, everyone understands that Samarra is an important line,” Kerry said in Baghdad. “Historically, an assault on Samarra created enormous problems in Iraq. That is something that we all do not want to see happen again.”

Kerry was referring to the events of Feb. 22, 2006, when members of al-Qaeda in Iraq, a group that later morphed into ISIS, infiltrated Samarra’s al-Askari mosque. After tying up sleeping guards inside, the fighters planted bombs that destroyed its famous gilded dome. That savage act of religious vandalism “started Iraq’s slide into civil war,” a senior Obama Administration official said—one that U.S. officials fear could be re-ignited again today.

Back then, the bombers’ design was chillingly sinister. Also known as the Golden Dome Mosque for the resplendent coat added to the ancient structure’s teardrop-shaped dome a century before, al-Askari is one Shi’ite Islam’s holiest sites. Built in 944, it not only houses the tombs of two 9th-century Shi’ite imams but is said to stand near a supernatural site: a tunnel into which their descendent, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who is known as the 12th Imam, disappeared into occultation in 878. Most Shi’ites believe this so-called Hidden Imam, or Mahdi, will one day reappear as a messiah and bring salvation to Shiite believers.

The mosque’s bombing shattered a relatively optimistic moment for Iraq, following the country’s successful December 2005 elections. The bombs which reduced the mosque’s upper exterior to a pile of rubble and twisted metal killed no one. But the explosion probably led to the slaughter of thousands—which was exactly the plan. The leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq at the time, the notoriously murderous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, pursued the explicit goal of a nationwide religious civil war.

His sadistic plan’s success was soon easily measured in blood. Some Shi’ites called the attack their 9/11. “Within hours, spontaneous sectarian killing broke out through most of Iraq,” General Stanley McChrystal, then a senior U.S. commander in Iraq, recalled in his 2013 memoir. “Thousands of [Shi'ite] men gathered… in [Baghdad's heavily Shi'ite] Sadr City, loading onto the back of flatbed trucks and slinging weapons. Sunni mosques were torched or strafed with bullets.”

McChrystal estimates that a thousand Iraqis were killed in the next five days, and says the ensuing months brought widespread massacres and torture: “Sunni bodies were found with their kneecaps drilled hollow, while severed heads of Shia were carefully spotted for public view.”

Memories of that hideous time in Iraq explains why Obama officials are so alarmed by the presence of ISIS in Samarra. It was only thanks to prompt mid-June counterattacks by Iraqi security forces—with the help of Asaib Ahl al-Haqq, an Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’ite militia—that ISIS fighters didn’t overrun the mosque, which they surely would have destroyed. The area of Samarra around al-Askari is now heavily fortified. But ISIS remains inside the majority-Sunni city of about 350,000, and has reportedly been lobbing mortar shells at al-Askari, whose dome was restored in 2009, along with a pair of minarets also bombed in 2007.

Like Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq before them, “ISIS intends to trigger a full-fledged civil war in Iraq,” says Ahmed Ali of the Institute for the Study of War. “For ISIS, the fastest mechanism to trigger the civil war would be by targeting the al-Askari shrine in Samarra and other shrines in Iraq. In essence, ISIS seeks to replicate the post-shrine attack environment of 2006.” Ali says Iraq’s Shi’ites have shown notable restraint in the face of ISIS’s provocations thus far, but adds that “the consequences of an attack on the shrine will be grave.”

The al-Askari mosque is just one of several precious Shi’ite holy sites now under heavy guard. Ali says the Iraqi government is concerned about Kadhmiyah shrine in Baghdad and the Sayyid Mohammed shrine in the town of Dujail in northern Baghdad, which are more accessible to ISIS than holier sites in Karbala and Najaf, both south of Baghdad.

In remarks earlier this month, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said that his group, which is already defending Shi’ite holy sites in Syria, might join the emerging fight in Iraq. “We are ready to sacrifice martyrs in Iraq five times more than what we sacrificed in Syria, in order to protect shrines, because they are much more important than [the holy sites in Syria],” Nasrallah reportedly told an audience.

The 2006 bombing of the Golden Dome Mosque in Samarra produced a horrific civil war with Iraq. But if ISIS manages to strike again at al-Aksari, or any one of several other Shi’ite holy sites in Iraq, the result could be an even wider conflict involving Iran and Hezbollah.

And that is something, as John Kerry put it, that we all do not want to see happen.

TIME Foreign Policy

A ‘Chilling’ Verdict in Egypt After U.S. Floats More Aid

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Hassan Shoukry hold a joint press conference regarding developments in Syria and Iraq on June 22, 2014 in Cairo.
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Hassan Shoukry hold a joint press conference regarding developments in Syria and Iraq on June 22, 2014 in Cairo. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Cairo was quickly followed by the conviction of 3 Al Jazeera journalists, prompting Kerry to denounce the "chilling, draconian" just after he looked forward to a resumption of military aid

You’ll be hearing a lot in the coming days about John Kerry’s visit to Baghdad Monday, where the Secretary of State held meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other leaders in an effort to prevent the country’s explosion into a new sectarian civil war. But Washington has limited influence in Baghdad, and it’s not clear what Kerry’s visit can accomplish.

That’s why it’s worth focusing on Kerry’s earlier stop in Cairo, which was more revealing about U.S. policy in the region. After his Sunday meeting with Egypt’s military ruler Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, he signaled the Obama Administration wants to fully restore U.S. military aid to Cairo—choosing the priorities of influence and stability in Egypt over a principled defense of human rights under a government that a top U.S. Senator recently branded “a dictatorship run amok.”

That’s a retreat from Obama’s earlier, and half-hearted, punishment of al-Sisi’s repressive regime, which has showed no signs of moderation. To the contrary: Hours after Kerry left Cairo, an Egyptian court convicted three Al Jazeera journalists and 15 others people for alleged collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood. That prompted Kerry to issue a statement from Iraq denouncing the “chilling, draconian” sentences.

“Egyptian society is stronger and sustainable when all of its citizens have a say and a stake in its success,” Kerry said in a statement. “Today’s verdicts fly in the face of the essential role of civil society, a free press, and the real rule of law.”

Kerry’s trip to Egypt was the clearest statement yet that President Barack Obama would rather work with al-Sisi than punish him, and his conciliatory words in Cairo before the verdict were not surprising, says Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official and Egypt expert now with the Brookings Institution. “I think the trajectory has been clear for a while.”

Meeting with reporters in Cairo, Kerry said he and al-Sisi discussed their “mutual determination for our countries to work together in partnership in order to deal with the challenges that we face.” Kerry also noted America’s support for political freedoms and “a vibrant civil society.” But his overall tone was supportive of the military general who led the July 2013 coup against Egypt’s Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government and was elected the country’s president this month.

Put an asterisk after “elected,” though. Sisi won in a phony “campaign” carefully restricted by his military regime with a comical 97 percent of the vote. That tells you a lot about the nature of Egypt today: a politically repressive dictatorship which has banned its main political opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, and wantonly imprisons its critics. Once home to the stirring mass protests on Tahrir Square, Egypt now quashes virtually all political dissent.

Last fall, the White House announced a partial suspension of the $1.5 billion in U.S. military aid Egypt receives each year, an enduring legacy of the country’s 1979 peace deal with Israel. Even at the time, an Obama official explained that the suspension “is not meant to be permanent; this is meant to be the opposite.” (The Obama Administration never officially recognized al-Sisi’s seizure of power as a coup; doing so would have automatically triggered a full aid cutoff under U.S. law.)

That move didn’t exactly prompt moderation from al-Sisi. His crackdown against Islamists continued, punctuated by a court’s recent death sentences for a Muslim Brotherhood cleric and 182 of his supporters who were accused of inciting violence that killed a single police officer.

But Obama wants to maintain a strong relationship with Cairo, not least for strategic reasons like access to the Suez Canal, and U.S. officials believe that continued military aid buys us influence over the country’s future. The U.S. also has little love for the Muslim Brotherhood, which, although it governed peacefully, has radical Islamist elements and allies.

And so, speaking to reporters in Cairo, Kerry explained that the Obama Administration supports fully restoring U.S. aid to Egypt—despite a recent move by Democratic Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy oto chop $650 million from America’s annual aid package and halt the shipment of 10 Apache attack helicopters the Egyptians say are vital to battling militants in their Sinai region, a goal very much shared by Washington.

“We will work that out, and I am confident that we will be able to ultimately get the full amount of aid for precisely the reasons that I describe—because it is strategic and it is important for us to be able to work together,” Kerry said, adding that he had spoken to Leahy from Cairo. “I am confident… that the Apaches will come and that they will come very, very soon.”

Unfortunately, the same probably can’t be said for political reform in Egypt, which Wittes calls essential to reforming Egypt’s shattered economy, currently propped up by billions in aid from Gulf Arab states, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which are hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood.

“It’s very hard to see how with [al-Sisi] could make the really painful economic choices needed to revitalize Egypt’s economic growth, and address the needs of Egypt’s young men without broader political support,” says Wittes. “You cannot separate the economics from the politics.”

And with the U.S. aid spigot likely to reopen in full, it’s also hard to see what might make al-Sisi seek that broader support.

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