TIME Foreign Policy

President Obama Compares U.S. and Israel Tensions to Family Feud

Obama Speaks Iran Nuclear Deal
Pete Marovich—AP United States President Barack Obama addresses American University's School of International Service in Washington on Aug. 5, 2015.

"Like all families, sometimes there are going to be disagreements"

(WASHINGTON) — President Barack Obama on Friday compared tensions between the U.S. and Israel over the Iranian nuclear deal to a family feud and said he expects improvements in ties between the longtime allies to come quickly after the accord is implemented.

“Like all families, sometimes there are going to be disagreements,” Obama said in a webcast with Jewish Americans. “And sometimes people get angrier about disagreements in families than with folks that aren’t family.”

The president also encouraged skeptics of the agreement to “overcome the emotions” that have infused the debate and evaluate the accord based on facts.

“I would suggest that in terms of the tone of this debate everybody keep in mind that we’re all pro-Israel,” he said. “We have to make sure that we don’t impugn people’s motives.”

The president’s comments came as momentum for the Iran accord grows on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers will vote next month on a resolution to disapprove of the deal. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., on Friday became the 30th senator to announce support for the deal, calling it a good deal for America and allies including Israel.

If Senate Democrats can amass 41 votes in favor of the agreement, they could block passage of the disapproval resolution. If that doesn’t happen and the GOP-led Senate votes to disapprove of the deal, Obama has vowed to veto it. Democrats then would need 34 votes — four more than they have now — to prevent a congressional override of the presidential veto.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the fiercest critics of the nuclear agreement, participated in an event hosted by the same Jewish organizations earlier this month. While Obama and Netanyahu have never had a warm relationship, the U.S. president’s pursuit of diplomacy with Iran has deeply strained ties between the leaders.

Obama has said once the nuclear accord is implemented, he expects “pretty quick” improvements in U.S.-Israeli relations. He called for resuming talks with Israel over ways to boost its security, discussions Israeli officials say they don’t want to have now because they would imply acceptance of the nuclear accord.

The U.S. negotiated alongside Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China for nearly two years before finalizing a landmark accord to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

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Associated Press writers Erica Werner and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.

TIME Turkey

The U.S. and Turkey Will Soon Launch ‘Comprehensive’ Operations Against ISIS

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu answers a question during an interview with Reuters in Ankara, Turkey, August 24, 2015.
Umit Bektas—Reuters Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu answers a question during an interview in Ankara on Aug. 24, 2015

The joint operations include providing air cover for moderate Syrian rebels

Turkey’s Foreign Minister said Monday that Washington and Ankara have agreed on a plan to flush out ISIS extremists from the Turkey-Syria border.

In an interview with Reuters, Mevlut Cavusoglu said the two nations would soon launch “comprehensive” air operations to clear ISIS from a 50-mile long border zone in northern Syria.

“The technical talks have been concluded [Sunday], and soon we will start this operation, comprehensive operations, against Daesh [Islamic State],” Cavusoglu told the news agency.

He added that regional allies including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar as well as France and Britain may also take part.

Reuters reports that the joint operations include providing air cover for moderate Syrian rebels and aim to create an ISIS-free “safe zone” along the border with Turkey. ISIS has been using the border to transport supplies and foreign fighters into Syria.

U.S. and Turkish aircraft would use military air bases in Turkey to launch strikes against ISIS, Reuters says.

[Reuters]

TIME Foreign Policy

Jewish Leaders Urge Congress to OK Deal With Iran

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during an event at the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building August 6, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong—Getty Images U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during an event at the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building August 6, 2015 in Washington, DC.

'While not perfect, this deal is the best available option to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program'

More than two dozen leaders of the Jewish community signed a full-page ad in Thursday’s New York Times urging Congress to support an international agreement that backers say will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon for at least a decade.

Organized by the non-profit No Nukes for Iran Project, the ad is the latest sign that White House allies are stepping up lobbying efforts to keep the deal with Tehran on track. For the moment, it looks as though Congress cannot block the deal, although some Democratic defections—Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey—are raising blood pressures ever so slightly inside the White House.

“We remain deeply concerned that Iran is unflinchingly anti-Semitic and an unapologetic state-sponsor of terrorism. However, a nuclear-armed Iran would be even more dangerous,” the pro-deal leaders write. “While not perfect, this deal is the best available option to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”

Its signatories include three former chairs of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, 10 former heads of many of its biggest member organizations and three former members of Congress.

Notable among the signatories is Thomas Dine, a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. That group, perhaps the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying Washington, is strongly opposed to the deal: “Congress should insist on a better deal,” AIPAC leaders urge in a call-to-action message.

Along with AIPAC, the studiously apolitical American Jewish Committee and the typically liberal Anti-Defamation League have also come out against the deal. The Iran deal faces opposition from some of the biggest Jewish Federations in America, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia and Miami.

The question of the deal with Iran is a tough one for Jewish voters, who overwhelmingly support Democrats. (The Pew Research Center finds that 61 percent of Jewish voters identified as Democrats or lean Democratic, while just 31 percent are Republican or lean that way.) Yet polls find Jewish voters souring on Obama; a Gallup poll in March found Obama’s approval rating among Jewish voters at 50 percent, down from 77 percent during 2009.

The Republicans looking to replace Obama at the White House have loudly opposed the deal, saying it was gives Iran too much in exchange for too little. Obama has stridently defended it and is urging Congress to get out of his way.

China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States negotiated the deal with Iran. Under the deal, Iran will get relief from sanctions and regain access to international oil markets, which will bring it a windfall of about $100 billion. In exchange, Iran must dispose of most of its low-enriched uranium, stop efforts to produce or acquire more nuclear fuel and consent to inspections.

Thursday’s ad was unlikely to change the overall tone of the debate, although it was a signal that supporters of the deal were starting to mobilize as Congress starts to make its way back to Washington after its August recess.

The ad quotes retired Admiral Ami Ayalon, the former Chief of the Israeli Navy and former head of the nation’s security service. “When it comes to Iran’s nuclear capability, this [deal] is the best option,” he is quoted as saying.

“We agree with Admiral Ayalon and leading Israeli military, scientific and intelligence experts who share this view,” the signatories echo.

The full list of supporters: S. Daniel Abraham, Chair, S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace; Michael M. Adler, President, Greater Miami Jewish Federation (2004-2006); Robert Arnow, Chair, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Board of Governors (1983-1994); Thomas A. Dine, Executive Director, American Israel Public Affairs Committee (1980-1993); Stanley P. Gold, Chair, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles (2008-2009); E. Robert Goodkind, President, American Jewish Committee (2004-2007); Alan S. Jaffe, President, UJA-Federation of New York (1992-1995); Marvin Lender, Chair, United Jewish Appeal (1990-1992); Carl Levin, U.S. Senator, Michigan (1979-2015); Jacqueline K. Levine, Chair, National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (1983-1986); Mel Levine, Member of Congress, California (1983-1993); Rabbi Brain Lurie, Chief Executive Officer, United Jewish Appeal (1991-1996); Lynn Lyss, Chair, National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (1994-1996); Theodore Mann, Chair, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (1978-1980); Ambassador (ret.) Alfred H. Moses, President, American Jewish Committee (1991-1994); Nancy Ratzan, Chair, National Council of Jewish Women (2008-2011); Seymour D. Reich, Chair, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (1989-1990); Robert S. Rifkind, President, American Jewish Committee (1994-1998); Greg Rosenbaum, Chair, National Jewish Democratic Council (2014-present); Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary (1986-20006); Ambassador (ret.) Alan Solomont, Chair, Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Great Boston (2003-2005); Alan Solow, Chair, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (2009-2011); Marc R. Stanley, Co-Chair, Foundation for Jewish Culture (2012-2014); Robert Wexler, Member of Congress, Florida (1997-2010); Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President, Union for Reform Judaism (1996-2012); Larry Zicklin, President, UJA-Federation of New York (2001-2004)

TIME Foreign Policy

Democratic Senator Bob Menendez Will Oppose Iran Nuclear Deal

Bob Menendez
Andrew Burton—Getty Images Senator Bob Menendez before giving a speech announcing he will not support President Obama's Iran nuclear deal on Aug. 18, 2015 in South Orange, N.J.

Menendez is the second Democratic senator to publicly reject the deal

(SOUTH ORANGE, N.J.) — New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez announced on Tuesday his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, the second Democratic senator to go against President Barack Obama, who is heavily lobbying for a congressional endorsement of the international accord.

Under the agreement, which the U.S. and other world powers negotiated with Tehran, Iran would curb its nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in relief from economic sanctions, which have been choking its economy.

Menendez, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joins Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York in rejecting the deal.

Menendez said his opposition is not an issue of whether he supports or opposes Obama, who has pledged to veto a congressional resolution of disapproval. He said he is opposed because Iran has violated various U.N. Security Council resolutions while advancing its nuclear program and that the agreement doesn’t require Iran to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure.

“Let’s remind ourselves of the stated purpose of our negotiations with Iran: Simply put, it was to dismantle all — or significant parts — of Iran’s illicit nuclear infrastructure to ensure that it would not have nuclear weapons capability at any time. Not shrink its infrastructure,” Menendez said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has expressed doubts that Congress could override Obama’s expected veto. Twenty-one Senate Democrats and Independents of the 34 needed to sustain a veto are backing the deal. Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate and the party leader-in-waiting, is the only other notable Democratic defection.

In the House, at least 50 Democrats have expressed support. Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California has spoken confidently about rounding up the votes to save the deal. Ten House Democrats have announced their opposition.

Menendez urged the Obama administration to authorize the continuation of negotiations and recommended several changes, including requiring Iran to allow permanent access to suspect sites; a ban on centrifuge research and development for the duration of the agreement; an extension of the agreement to at least 20 years, and authorizing Israel to “address the Iranian threat on their own” if Iran accelerates its nuclear program.

“We must send a message to Iran that neither their regional behavior nor nuclear ambitions are permissible,” he said. “If we push back regionally, they will be less likely to test the limits of our tolerance towards any violation of a nuclear agreement.”

TIME Foreign Policy

U.S. Investigating Whether ISIS Used Chemical Weapons

kurdish forces troops fight turkey isis
Rodi Said—Reuters Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters take up positions inside a damaged building in al-Vilat al-Homor neighborhood in Hasaka city, as they monitor the movements of Islamic State fighters who are stationed in Ghwayran neighborhood in Hasaka city, Syria on July 22, 2015.

Kurdish officials said their forces were attacked with something resembling chemical weapons

EDGARTOWN, Mass. (AP) — The United States is investigating whether the Islamic State used chemical weapons, the White House said Thursday, following allegations that IS militants deployed chemical weapons against Kurdish forces in northern Iraq.

Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, said the U.S. is taking the allegations “very seriously” and seeking more information about what happened. He noted that IS had been accused of using such weapons before.

“We continue to monitor these reports closely, and would further stress that any use of chemicals or biological material as a weapon is completely inconsistent with international standards and norms regarding such capabilities,” Baskey said in a statement.

Earlier Thursday, Kurdish officials said their forces, known as peshmerga, were attacked the day before near the town of Makhmour, not far from Irbil. Germany’s military has been training the Kurds in the area, and the German Defense Ministry said some 60 Kurdish fighters had suffered breathing difficulties from the attack — a telltale sign of chemical weapons use. But neither Germany nor the Kurds specified which type of chemical weapons may have been used.

Confirmation of chemical weapons use by IS would mark a dramatic turn in the U.S.-led effort to rout the extremist group from the roughly one-third of Iraq and Syria that it controls.

Although the U.S. and its coalition partners are mounting airstrikes against the Islamic State, they are relying on local forces like the Kurds, the Iraqi military and others to do the fighting on the ground. Already, those forces have struggled to match the might of the well-funded and heavily armed extremist group.

At the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said the U.S. was speaking with the Kurds who had made the allegations to gather more information. She said that if reports of chemical weapons are true, they would further prove that what IS calls warfare is really “just systematic attacks on civilians who don’t accord to their particularly perverse world view.”

“I think we will have to again move forward on these allegations, get whatever evidence we can,” Power said.

She added that as a result of earlier chemical weapons use by the Syrian government, the U.S. and its partners now have advanced forensic systems to analyze chemical weapons attacks. She said anyone responsible should be held accountable.

Similar reports of chemical weapons use by IS had surfaced in July. But it’s unclear exactly where the extremist group may have obtained any chemical weapons.

Following a chemical weapon attack on a suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus in 2014 that killed hundreds of civilians, the U.S. and Russia mounted a diplomatic effort that resulted in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government agreeing to the destruction or removal of its chemical weapons stockpiles. But there have been numerous reports of chemical weapons use in Syria since then — especially chlorine-filled barrel bombs. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the global chemical weapons watchdog, has been investigating possible undeclared chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria.

Word of the White House’s probe into possible chemical weapons use by IS came as President Barack Obama was vacationing with his family in Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Also on Thursday, IS militants claimed responsibility for a truck bombing at a Baghdad market that killed 67 people in one of the deadliest single attacks there since the Iraq War.

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Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

TIME Donald Trump

Here’s What Donald Trump Would Do About ISIS

Real estate tycoon Donald Trump speaks during the prime time Republican presidential debate on August 6, 2015 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.
MANDEL NGAN—AFP/Getty Images Real estate tycoon Donald Trump speaks during the prime time Republican presidential debate on August 6, 2015 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

He'd send in the military very quickly.

For anyone who thinks Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy is all bluster and no policies, check out this: The Donald has told the world exactly how he’d deal with ISIS.

The plan is sure to please the neoconservatives in the Republican party: use force.

“I would knock out the source of their wealth, the primary source of their wealth, which is oil,” he told MSNBC. “I would knock the hell out of them, but I’d put a ring around it and I’d take the oil for our country.”

Prior to the interview on Morning Joe, the hosts also ran a clip of Trump talking in 1987 about how he thought the US should invade Iran and take their oil, while leaving the rest of the country.

TIME Foreign Policy

29 Leading Scientists Back Obama on Iran Nuclear Deal

Obama Speaks Iran Nuclear Deal
Pete Marovich—AP United States President Barack Obama addresses American University's School of International Service in Washington on Aug. 5, 2015.

"This is an innovative agreement"

Twenty-nine of America’s leading scientists—from Nobel Prize winners to nuclear experts—co-signed a letter supporting President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal on Saturday.

“We consider that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) the United States and its partners negotiated with Iran will advance the cause of peace and security in the Middle East and can serve as a guidepost for future non-proliferation agreements,” the letter said. It went on: “This is an innovative agreement, with much more stringent constraints than any previously negotiated non-proliferation framework.”

The support from the scientific community comes at a critical juncture for Obama, who is facing criticism not only from the Republican party, but from also from fellow Democrats. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D.—N.Y.), a leading Democrat in Congress published a piece on Medium Thursday night explaining why he was against the Iran nuclear deal.

The scientists’ letter addressed fears that the deal was weak and gave in to much to Iranian demands. “Concerns about clandestine activities in Iran are greatly mitigated by the dispute resolution mechanism built into the agreement,” the letter said. “The 24-day cap on any delay to access is unprecedented, and it will allow effective challenge inspection for the suspected activities of greatest concern.”

TIME Opinion

Another Reason for Obama to Worry About the Iran Deal: The Treaty of Versailles

1919. TREATY OF VERSAILLES - FROM LEFT TO RIGHT, WILSON, CLEMENCEAU, LORD BALFOUR AND ORLANDO.
Keystone / Getty Images Wilson, Clemenceau, Lord Balfour and Orlando in 1919

If the Iran deal fails, there will be only one historical moment to which the defeat can be compared

Chuck Schumer is just one senator, but his announcement that he will oppose the international nuclear agreement with Iran is being hailed as a potential game-changer. House and Senate Republicans are unanimous in their determination to defeat the President’s signature diplomatic achievement, and Democrats face strong pressure from the powerful lobby AIPAC to reject it as well. If enough other Democrats in the House and Senate follow suit, Congress could override a presidential veto, defeat the agreement and leave the United States and Israel totally isolated within the world community. While foreign policy has often divided Congress and the executive branch, cases in which Congress actually stopped a major foreign policy initiative are extremely rare. If that happens, there will be only one historical moment to which the deal’s defeat can genuinely be compared: the Senate’s refusal, in 1919 and 1920, to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. There are noteworthy parallels between the two situations, and the consequences of another presidential defeat could be almost as serious as the end of Woodrow Wilson’s dreams of peace.

Confronted in 1914 by the First World War, President Wilson had spent almost two and a half years heroically trying to bring it to a peaceful resolution. In 1915, after the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine, he had resisted Theodore Roosevelt’s demands for immediate intervention. But in the spring of 1917, when Germany answered his last call for a “peace without victory” with a renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare, Wilson saw no option but to intervene. Yet he remained politically aloof from his allied partners, and in January of 1918, in his Fourteen Points, he held out his vision of a new world based on law, equality and what became the League of Nations. But, when the war ended in November 1918 with the collapse of Germany, the French and British—despite Wilson’s presence in Paris and his enormous international popularity—insisted on relatively harsh and unequal terms for Germany. The treaty Wilson brought home for ratification struck many liberals as a betrayal of his ideals.

Wilson, like Barack Obama, also had domestic political problems. Twice he had been elected without winning a majority of the votes cast. In the Congressional elections of 1918 he appealed to the people to elect a Democratic Congress to strengthen his hand in negotiations, but the Republicans won instead. Like Barack Obama, Wilson was a somewhat aloof leader who had little patience with his intellectual inferiors. He made no attempt to involve Republicans or Democrats from Congress in his negotiations. He also refused to accept relatively harmless Congressional reservations about the deal. The Senate eventually voted down the treaty, which failed to achieve a two-thirds majority.

The consequences were immense. When the treaty failed, France lost a promised Anglo-American guarantee of its border with Germany, and the United States washed its hands of European problems, with the exception of the war debts it still hoped to collect. The feeling that Washington could not be trusted to follow through on its noble declarations prevented the U.S. from regaining world leadership until 1941, when the Second World War was well underway. Rather than entering a new era of law and diplomacy, the world sank into anarchy.

Today, Barack Obama has even fewer cards to play than Wilson. There is not the slightest chance of his getting a single Republican vote in Congress, and his own party will—it now appears—be split. His deal with Iran represents a critical, desperately needed new departure in American foreign policy: an attempt to live with hostile regimes by engaging them diplomatically, rather than either going to war with them or pursuing an endless, futile confrontation. The deal also has the backing of the U.N. Security Council and of almost every other nation on earth, except Israel. And its failure would leave Iran utterly free to pursue any nuclear program that it wants. Like the Senate’s action in 1920, blocking the deal would end any possibility of genuine American global leadership for some time. If the agreement fails, the world’s new slide into anarchy will accelerate, with consequences we cannot foresee, even with the help of history. And that won’t be all the Democratic Party has to worry about if the President is beaten. In 1920, in the election after the Democrats failed to get the treaty through, the Republican candidate won in a landslide.

The Long ViewHistorians explain how the past informs the present

David Kaiser, a historian, has taught at Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Williams College, and the Naval War College. He is the author of seven books, including, most recently, No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War. He lives in Watertown, Mass.

TIME Foreign Policy

Chuck Schumer Plans on Rejecting Obama’s Iran Deal

The move is a blow to the Obama administration

(WASHINGTON) — New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the No. 3 Senate Democrat and next-in-line party leader, said late Thursday that he is breaking with President Barack Obama and will oppose the Iran nuclear deal.

“After deep study, careful thought and considerable soul-searching, I have decided I must oppose the agreement and will vote yes on a motion of disapproval,” Schumer said in a statement weeks before he will cast a vote.

Schumer is the first Senate Democrat to step forward to oppose the deal. His announcement came just hours after two other Senate Democrats — New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand and New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen — announced their support for the international accord.

The deal, struck last month with Tehran and Western powers, would curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in relief from crippling sanctions.

Schumer’s decision is a blow to the administration, though it remains to be seen whether other Democratic lawmakers will follow the New York senator. His split with Obama is remarkable for a senior leader in line to replace Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., after he retires at the end of next year.

Schumer’s decision also puts him at odds with the Democrats’ likely presidential nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has cautiously embraced the deal.

The administration, which has lobbied intensely for the pact, had secured the backing of more than a dozen Senate Democrats and more than two dozen House Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Republicans, who control the House and Senate, are uniformly opposed to the deal.

Schumer signaled that he wouldn’t lobby hard against the accord. The House and Senate will begin debate on a resolution of disapproval when lawmakers return to Washington on Sept. 8 after their August recess. The administration needs Democratic support to sustain a widely expected veto by Obama of any resolution of disapproval.

“There are some who believe that I can force my colleagues to vote my way,” he said. “While I will certainly share my view and try to persuade them that the vote to disapprove is the right one, in my experience with matters of conscience and great consequence like this, each member ultimately comes to their own conclusion.”

Schumer has been under pressure as a congressional ally of Israel, leading fundraiser and strategist for his party, and lawmaker from a state that is home to more than a million-and-a-half Jews.

“The very real risk that Iran will not moderate and will, instead, use the agreement to pursue its nefarious goals is too great,” he said in opposing the pact.

Schumer said he based his decision on the nuclear and non-nuclear elements of the accord and on the question of “Are we better off with the agreement or without it?”

He complained that the pact does not allow inspections “anywhere, anytime” and that the United States cannot demand inspections unilaterally.

Schumer joins a handful of Jewish Democrats who have announced their opposition — Reps. Steve Israel and Nita Lowey of New York and Ted Deutch of Florida. Michigan Rep. Sander Levin, however, has endorsed the deal.

The powerful pro-Israel lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee is vehemently opposed to the deal, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denounced as undermining the security of Israel and the region. Opponents of the pact have targeted Schumer in campaign-style ads.

The media-friendly Schumer made the announcement through the blog Medium, not in a high-profile speech on the Senate floor like several of his colleagues. His statement also was posted as much of the political world was focused on the first Republican presidential candidate debate.

The announcement came hours after the Senate left Washington for its recess. The move spares Schumer weeks of intense lobbying from proponents and foes of the deal.

TIME Iran

Tehran’s Triumph of the Nil

President Barack Obama speaks about the Iran nuclear agreement August 5, 2015 at American University in Washington, DC. Obama is pushing for congress to appove the nuclear deal reached with Iran.
Pool—Getty Images President Barack Obama speaks about the Iran nuclear agreement August 5, 2015 at American University in Washington, DC. Obama is pushing for congress to appove the nuclear deal reached with Iran.

President Obama made about as sound a case as could be made on Wednesday for Congressional approval of the nuclear deal with Iran. It was a nice stroke to borrow both the venue and the logic of John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech at American University; JFK’s argument for “a practical and obtainable peace” and putting faith in the “gradual evolution in human institutions” land right in the wheelhouse of Obama’s argument for cementing the pact, the alternative to which really is war.

But the Cold War comparison was also immensely flattering to Iran, which is, to the Soviet Union roughly what Costa Rica is to the United States. Iran, known as Persia for most of its 2,500 years, can rightly claim an extraordinary role in world history, as a seat of empire, a fount of learning and wellspring of the greatest aesthetic and intellectual achievements of Islam’s glory years. It may even have been the source of monotheism, if as some sources say Zoroaster predated Abraham.

But in the 36 years the mullahs have been in power, Iran has been reduced to the status of gadfly. It makes almost nothing except trouble. Its economy is dominated by the state, which is widely understood as corrupt, and produces a gross domestic product less than half the size of neighboring Turkey, which has almost exactly the same number of people and none of Iran’s oil and gas.

The Islamic Revolution brought education to much more of the population, but unfortunately, not nearly enough work; 150,000 college graduates leave the country every year. The country leads the world in two categories: opium addiction, and traffic fatalities, the latter a seldom-cited but excellent marker for the government’s level of competence, or its most basic regard for its citizens.

The painful truth is that Tehran’s singular achievement has been getting the goat of the world’s only superpower, albeit by accident — those students weren’t supposed to take over the U.S. Embassy, but when Ayatullah Khomeini saw the Americans’ reaction, he decided to ride the bronc. His successors are riding it still. Obama paid them a great compliment in comparing them to the godless Soviets who, as their empire crumbled, Khomeini urged in a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev to take up the study of Islam. The bomb sure didn’t save them, a lesson the mullahs would do well to consider themselves.

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