Trump’s New Policy Will Focus on Iran’s Meddlers

Iran

After more than nine months in office, President Donald Trump finally has an Iran policy.

Last month before the opening of the UN General Assembly, Trump approved the long-awaited strategy to deal with Iran, according to administration officials. These officials tell me it will outline a new aggressive approach to countering Iranian threats all over the globe and endeavor to use the leverage of Trump’s threats over the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, to spur US allies to begin to address its flaws.

On Wednesday at a press conference to dispel news reports that he considered quitting his post over the summer, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted the new policy was coming. Speaking of the Iran nuclear agreement, he said, “the JCPOA represents only a small part of the issues we have to address with Iran.”

The centerpiece of Trump’s new Iran strategy will be the designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, placing it in the same category as al-Qaeda and ISIS. Congress mandated this designation over the summer, but allowed Trump to waive the requirement.

The designation would be significant.

The Revolutionary Guard in Iran controls a large portion of the state’s economy. Iranian economist and businessman Bijan Khajehpour, in an article in al-Monitor in August, estimated that the guard was responsible for 15 percent of Iran’s gross domestic product. (He also acknowledged that it’s difficult to arrive at a precise statistic because there are no official statistics on the web of companies it controls and its stake in enterprises with state and semi-state entities in Iran’s economy.)

The designation of the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization could create problems for foreign companies seeking to invest in Iran. While the Treasury Department under President Barack Obama issued rules requiring private companies to do due diligence and avoid investment in the Revolutionary Guard, the rules were weakened in the final months of the administration. The new designation will make life harder for those companies.

“It’s important because it means if you are doing business with Iran in key sectors of its economy, you run a significant risk you are doing business with a terrorist organization,” Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told me this week.

The designation of the Revolutionary Guard is one element of what administration officials have described as a whole-government approach to pushing back against Iran’s regional aggression.

This includes a new policy on countering Iran’s threats to shipping lanes in the Arab Gulf and particularly the threat of anti-ship missiles and the harassment of US Navy vessels. It will include a new emphasis on countering Iranian networks inside Latin America; Iran’s development of ballistic missiles; Iranian human rights violations against its own citizens; and support for terrorist groups and proxies in the Middle East.

Two US intelligence officials tell me that an element of the strategy that will not be publicized includes a ramping up of intelligence operations against the Revolutionary Guard and other Iranian proxies like “Hezbollah” in the Middle East.

Already, CIA Director Mike Pompeo has approved new authorities for US intelligence officers to begin tracking and targeting Iranian agents abroad. These kinds of programs include psychological operations, such as placing funds in secret accounts belonging to Iranian officers in order to create the impression such officers are working for foreign powers.

Obama wound many of these programs down in his second term, particularly after the formal negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal began in 2013. Pompeo is winding them back up, according to these officials. As The New York Times reported in June, Pompeo has placed the CIA officer, nicknamed the “dark prince,” who led the hunt for Osama bin Laden, in charge of the agency’s Iran operations.

Despite the administration’s crystallizing policy on Iran, US officials tell me there is still no formal plan on how to secure Syrian and Iraqi territory after the ISIS is driven out. This is particularly important in Syria today as Iran’s proxies and the Revolutionary Guard have already begun to take over some of these areas as the war against ISIS has turned. In Iraq, militias loyal to the Revolutionary Guard still play a key part in the state’s war against the terrorist group. Since 2014, the US has at times provided air support in operations that include these militias.

Dubowitz told me that for now he is assessing how comprehensive the new effort against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard will be. “I’m looking for measures that will drain the Guard Corps’ resources and have an economic impact on their funding of aggression abroad and patronage networks at home,” he said.

If Dubowitz gets his wish, it’s likely the Iranians themselves will accuse Trump of violating the nuclear deal forged by his predecessor, and threaten to pull out. Unlike Obama, Trump would probably consider that a favor.

Bloomberg

Trump Evangelizes for American Exceptionalism

Trump

If you want to get a sense of the enduring power of American exceptionalism, watch President Donald Trump’s address Tuesday to the United Nations General Assembly. Here we got a clear message from the candidate whose foreign policy platform was “America first”: He implored the regimes of weaker rogues to clean up their acts, or else.

The president threatened total destruction for North Korea. Its leader, whom Trump called “rocket man,” is on a “suicide mission for himself and for his regime,” Trump warned. “The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.”

Iran? The deal his predecessor struck to temporarily limit the nuclear program was an “embarrassment to the United States.” But it doesn’t end there.

Trump says that sooner or later revolution is coming to the Mullahs. He asserted the whole world “understands that the good people of Iran want change, and, other than the vast military power of the United States, that Iran’s people are what their leaders fear the most.”

This was just the warmup. Trump went full neocon for Venezuela. Its leader, Nicolas Maduro, is a dictator “stealing power from his own people.”

Whereas Trump was vague about what his plan was for North Korea and Iran, for Venezuela he came very close to calling for regime change. “The United States has taken important steps to hold the regime accountable,” Trump said. “We are prepared to take further action if the government of Venezuela persists on its path to impose authoritarian rule on the Venezuelan people.”

For a moment, I closed my eyes and thought I was listening to a Weekly Standard editorial meeting.

To be sure, this is not quite a return to the days of George W. Bush, who in 2005 made it briefly US policy to seek democratic transformation for friend and foe alike. Trump offered no critiques for the illiberal systems and strongmen that rule Russia or China. He briefly called out threats to the sovereignty of Ukraine and the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, without mentioning Russia and China by name.

And yet Trump, who ran in part against the folly of neoconservative nation-building, is also not quite ready to give up the power of America’s values in determining its interests. He calls his approach “principled realism.” And on the surface it nods to the respect traditional foreign policy realists pay to national interests. But there is also a paradox. Trump still wants nation states to serve the interests of their people.

Consider this line from the speech: “We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions or even systems of government, but we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties, to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.”

On the one hand, Trump is correct. States with governments that respect their own people are almost always less bellicose than states ruled by authoritarians. Dictators like Vladimir Putin often must start foreign wars to distract from their own corruption at home.

At the same time, Trump’s formulation leaves a lot of wiggle room for what traditional foreign policy realists deride as military adventurism. After all, who determines when a nation is respecting the interests of its people? Trump certainly isn’t saying that is for the UN to decide. He spent a good portion of his speech threatening unilateral action against Iran, North Korea and Venezuela.

Trump’s newfound enthusiasm is familiar to the public. America has been spreading its gospel for centuries, according to Robert Kagan’s 2006 book, “A Dangerous Nation,” which traced US foreign policy from the founders to the dawn of the 20th century. Kagan argues persuasively that because America is a country founded on democratic revolution, it has always threatened unfree countries by its very existence. From the very early days of the republic, US leaders have supported a kind of American exceptionalism we usually associate with the 20th century.

Trump’s speechwriters are beginning to understand this. It’s a lot better than some of Trump’s early signals on foreign policy, when he ingratiated himself to dictators like Filipino strongman Rodrigo Duterte.

Let’s hope Trump sticks with this new approach.

Bloomberg

Fans of Iran Nuke Deal Start to Acknowledge its Flaws

Iran

The public line from the supporters of the Iran nuclear deal in the last two years has been clear. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the core agreement is known, is wonderful. As Barack Obama said after its negotiations were completed in 2015: “There’s a reason why 99 percent of the world thinks that this is a good deal: It’s because it’s a good deal.”

All of this is reminiscent of what journalist David Samuels described in 2015 as an echo chamber of prominent arms-control experts, sympathetic journalists and Obama administration staffers deployed to sell the nuclear bargain to the public and Congress. Their party line is that the deal is the best possible way to limit Iran’s nuclear rise.

Nonetheless, many of these experts and former officials are also beginning to acknowledge that the nuclear deal they sold in 2015 is flawed. Next month, the Brookings Institution will host an off-the-record meeting of policy experts — some who favored the deal, some who oppose it — to discuss how to address the nuclear agreement’s flaws.

The State Department’s former special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control, Bob Einhorn, invited these nonproliferation experts to “one or more workshops to address the nuclear deal’s ‘sunset’ problem,” which he said was the risk that, “when key nuclear restrictions of the JCPOA expire, Iran will be free to build up its nuclear capabilities, especially its enrichment capacity, and drastically reduce the time it would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.”

This was a key objection voiced by Israel in 2015 when it publicly opposed Obama’s deal with Iran. Between 2025 and 2030, the agreement to limit Iran’s stocks of low-enriched uranium and the number of centrifuge cascades it can operate will expire, allowing Iran to erect an industrial-scale nuclear program if it chooses.

At the time, Israel’s objections were dismissed and derided by the White House. Obama called the deal’s critics warmongers.

Today, former Obama officials are singing a different song. Einhorn, who served from 2009 to 2013 in the Obama administration, told me: “Everyone recognizes that the deal is not ideal. I think President Obama would say the deal is not ideal.” He added: “There have been all kinds of ideas for how it can be strengthened. Strong supporters of the deal would acknowledge that. Let’s think of a strategy for how some of its shortcomings can be remedied.”

Iran has continued to test ballistic missiles and has warned it won’t allow inspections of military sites — highlighting ambiguities in the agreement. Einhorn’s quiet effort coincides with a new Trump administration strategy that looks to use the president’s de-certification of Iranian compliance with the deal as leverage to negotiate additional restrictions that address the sunset provisions.

So far, the echo chamber has opposed this strategy. The fear is that Trump’s de-certification, which would not automatically reinstate the crippling sanctions that were lifted as a condition of the deal, would potentially unravel the nuclear agreement and leave the international community with even less transparency about Iran’s nuclear program. Congress would have 60 days to debate whether to reimpose those sanctions.

Colin Kahl, who served as Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser in Obama’s second term, told me in an email this week that it was worthwhile to begin looking at the flaws of the agreement, but he opposed any strategy in which Trump would de-certify Iran’s compliance.

“There is no need to force a crisis over it at this very moment — as Trump and some deal opponents seem inclined to do — given that elements of the JCPOA don’t begin to sunset until 2026-2031,” he wrote. “And, as we engage in this conversation about possible arrangements to supplement the JCPOA, we should do so in a way that protects and stabilizes the current deal rather than threatening steps that would blow it up.” He added that any negotiations to further restrict Iran ought to include “possible positive inducements” for Iran.

*Bloomberg

Iraq’s Kurds, their Right to Independence

Consider the plight of an ethnic group seeking self-determination in the Middle East.

Its leaders have renounced terrorism. Their militias fight alongside US soldiers. While their neighbors built weapons of mass destruction, they built a parliament, universities and the infrastructure for an independent state. And they pursue independence through a recognized legal process, enshrined in their country’s constitution.

I am, of course, talking about Iraq’s Kurds. On Sept. 25, they will vote in a referendum to endorse a state of their own.

One might think the US government would see the Kurds as ideal candidates for statehood in a region where self-determination is often sought through violence. But the Trump administration so far has worked assiduously to dissuade the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq from giving its people the opportunity to vote for independence.

The US arguments against the statehood referendum revolve mainly around timing, according to both US and Kurdish officials. Next year, Iraqis themselves are supposed to have elections. A vote to break away from Iraq would weaken Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi at a moment when he has been helpful in keeping Iraq together and leading the fight against ISIS.

What’s more, the Kurdish referendum will offer Iraqis in disputed areas like Sinjar, and most importantly the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, the opportunity to choose between Iraq and an independent Kurdish state. Asking citizens to vote for independence in areas that are already disputed within Iraq is a recipe for trouble, US diplomats say. They want the Kurds to reconsider.

Michael Rubin, an expert on the Kurds at the American Enterprise Institute, told me the referendum “is being done for the wrong motives.” He said the decision to apply the referendum to people in Kirkuk and other disputed areas “will guarantee conflict.” “If they were to go independent, immediately Kurdistan would have a fight over its borders,” he said.

These objections, however well intentioned, have not deterred the initiative. The Iraqi constitution promised such a vote, and Kurdish leaders have delayed it for years. It is time for Iraq’s Kurds to at least formally convey what anyone who has followed this issue already knows: Kurds deserve their own country.

Aziz Ahmad, an adviser to Masrour Barzani, the national security adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government, told me senior delegations who traveled to Washington and Baghdad asked the US for some assurance in exchange for flexibility. “We told them, ‘If you have disagreements on the timing, give us formal guarantees of when we should hold the referendum.’ And they never did,” he said.

Instead of treating this like a problem, President Donald Trump should see the Kurdish referendum as an opportunity. Here we have an ethnic minority that has done — for the most part — everything we ask of groups seeking statehood. Compare this to the Palestinians, who have squandered billions in aid and years of exquisite international attention, yet still lack the kind of functioning institutions the world takes for granted in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region.

“We hear daily statements about the two-state solution and the right of self determination for the Palestinians, by the same officials who tell us we cannot have a vote to express the will of Kurds to have their own country,” Hoshyar Zebari, a former foreign minister for both the Kurdish region and Iraq, told me. “This is a double standard.”

There are of course important differences between the Palestinian and Kurdish cases for independence. Because the Kurds are not Arabs, their cause never got strong support from Arab states in the region, like the Palestinian cause has. And Israel never committed the kinds of large-scale war crimes against Palestinians that Saddam Hussein and Turkish governments have against Kurds. Also Kurds make no claim to Baghdad, the way both Palestinians and Israelis makes claims to Jerusalem. There is also still considerable support within Israel for a two-state solution, whereas there is no such support for Kurdish independence among Iraqi Arabs.

But the most consequential difference between the Palestinians’ case for statehood and the Kurds’ may end up being US national interests.

Ten years ago, the US needed to at least support a peace process for Israel and the Palestinians as a way to persuade Arab allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to join American efforts against Iran. The presidency of Barack Obama and the emboldened predations of Iran changed all of that. Today, America’s Arab allies in the region are frustrated at the lack of a more robust policy to counter Iran, peace process or not.

The Kurdistan regional government today is by no means perfect. Its politics are still dominated mainly by two families. They are three years past due for elections on a new government, though the region’s president, Masoud Barzani, today says there will be new elections in November, and he has pledged he will not stand for office. Corruption, like in all Middle Eastern governments, remains a problem.

But compared with its neighbors, the Kurdistan regional government is Switzerland. Kurdish leaders do not name parks and streets after suicide bombers. Kurdish leaders have implored their citizens to fight alongside the US against Iraq’s common enemies. The Kurdish people do not burn American flags. Most of them are not gulled by extremists. They have pursued statehood the way we hope the Palestinians would.

The Kurdish referendum this month closes a chapter that began 25 years ago, when President George H.W. Bush in the aftermath of the first Gulf War established a no-fly zone to protect Kurdish families driven into the mountains by Saddam Hussein’s storm troopers.

In the last quarter century the Kurdish people have built a state worthy of independence, under the protection of the US military. That should be a source of pride for all Americans. Our president shouldn’t quibble over timing. The administration should welcome Kurdish independence.

Bloomberg

State Department Had a Deal for Russia. It Was Spurned

Russia

President Donald Trump has publicly praised President Vladimir Putin, and slammed a Congress-led deal to punish Russia with more sanctions. He even agreed, at a meeting with Putin this summer, to a US-Russia dialogue on cyber issues, even though four US intelligence agencies assessed that Russian military intelligence hacked leading Democrats and probed state voting systems.  

Yet in spite of the president, the US government has appeared to take a tough line on Russia. The latest example came Thursday, when the State Department announced it was closing three Russian diplomatic facilities in New York City, San Francisco and Washington, in response to the Kremlin’s dramatic decision last month to expel hundreds of American diplomatic workers.

But the internal debate over US foreign policy toward Russia is a bit more complicated than that. US officials tell me that Undersecretary of State Tom Shannon, a career foreign service official appointed during the Obama administration, made a last-minute effort to stop the Russians from retaliating against the new sanctions, a response to Russia’s election meddling that Trump reluctantly signed.

At the end of July, Shannon presented a “non-paper,” a proposal with no official diplomatic markings, to his Russian counterpart that offered the return of two diplomatic compounds President Barack Obama shuttered in December.

The timing is important. Shortly after the offer, Russia announced the expulsion, which was widely seen as a major deterioration of already frosty relations between Washington and Moscow. It’s also important because Obama’s closing of the compounds at the end of his presidency has dogged Trump since he took office.

His first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, left his post in part because details of his monitored phone calls with Russia’s ambassador were leaked to the press that alleged Flynn was open to reversing Obama’s sanctions. The calls took place on the day of Obama’s announcement.

The State Department’s negotiations with Russia about returning the compounds began soon after Trump took office in February. As the Washington Post reported in May, the talks were aimed at de-escalating tensions with Moscow in the aftermath of the election. At first, the return of the compounds was tied to allowing the US to expand its consulate in St. Petersburg.

Normally something like this would go through an inter-agency process where the rest of the government would weigh in on the proposal and the president would make a decision. But Shannon’s last-minute offer in July was tightly held. A senior State Department official told me that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had made Trump aware of the diplomacy.

Almost no one else in the government knew about Shannon’s efforts. Two US officials who work closely on Russia told me that the FBI’s spy hunters in particular were furious when they found out Shannon had made the unofficial offer to return the compounds closed in December. Fiona Hill, the National Security Council’s senior director for European and Russian affairs, was also unaware of the offer, according to these officials.

Shannon’s non-paper was not a total giveaway. It included tougher terms for how the Russians could use their compounds, specifying they could only be used for recreational activities. It also explicitly gave US authorities the right to enter the compounds if there was suspicion of criminal activity or espionage.

That apparently was too much for Moscow. They went ahead with the diplomatic expulsions anyway. This time when the Trump administration considered its response, it went through a more rigorous inter-agency process, according to US officials who participated in it. The FBI in particular pressed for closing the consulate in San Francisco because it was a center for Russian espionage activities on the West Coast.

The episode remains telling for both governments. The early days of disorganization in the Trump administration are coming to an end, ushering in a more deliberate policy on Russia as a consequence.

The goals of Russia, whose leaders often call for easing tensions, came into focus, too. Despite an offer to return the compounds, the Russians chose escalation over accommodation. The Trump administration, in the end, chose retaliation.

Bloomberg View

ISIS Defeat, Iran Out of Syria

Last month Israel’s prime minister issued a rare dissent from President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. After Secretary of State Rex Tillerson helped broker a test ceasefire in southern Syria, a territory that borders the Jewish state, Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel opposed the plan.

Trump’s Syria policy has focused on eliminating the ISIS. But for Israel, the greatest threat was from Iran, whose allies and forces showed no signs of leaving. Tillerson’s ceasefire made no mention of the need for Iran and its proxies to get out of Syria. Israel understandably wondered: Was that arrangement a sign of Trump’s broader Middle East policy?

Evidently not. Last Thursday, a senior delegation of Israelis started consultations with their US counterparts to begin planning a wider strategy to pressure Iran, Hezbollah and other Shiite militias to leave the Levant as, they hope, the war in Syria peters out.

One senior National Security Council official told me the plan was to make it “less pleasant for Iran to stay than to leave.” A senior Israeli official confirmed that the two sides agreed to work together on a regional strategy to address Iran’s efforts to expand its presence in Syria and Lebanon.

The consultations included very senior officials from both countries. The Israeli side included the Mossad director Yossi Cohen, the acting national security adviser Eytan Ben-David, the chief of the Israel Defense Forces’ military intelligence directorate Herzi Halevi and the Israeli ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer. The US delegation included National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, CIA director Mike Pompeo, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates and Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt.

There are a few reasons why all of this is important. To start, it shows a continuing commitment to an initial project of McMaster’s predecessor, Mike Flynn: to drive a wedge between Iran and Russia.

Netanyahu, Cohen and other senior officials will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin Wednesday, and Syria will be on the agenda. Israel does not love Russia’s military involvement in Syria, but can tolerate it. Iran is a different story. Russia, unlike Iran, has not anchored its state ideology in the destruction of the world’s only Jewish state.

Trump’s team has also pursued cooperation with Russia in Syria, but has not sought such cooperation with Iran. Indeed, a US spokesman for the coalition to defeat the ISIS this week told Reuters the mission was to “defeat ISIS in designated areas of Iraq and Syria and to set conditions for follow-on operations to increase regional stability.”

As the Israeli official told me this week, it was important to Netanyahu’s government to make sure that the Russian-US cooperation in Syria did not entail acceptance of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria. Tillerson’s ceasefire could have opened the door to just that.

The consultations also indicate that McMaster has rebounded from his shaky start in the job. With the removal of his West Wing rival, Steve Bannon, McMaster now has a freer hand to coordinate US foreign policy from his perch at the National Security Council. The meeting last week with the Israelis helped smooth an important ally’s ruffled feathers.

The meeting also counters a narrative put out by McMaster’s adversaries in Washington that he is hostile to Israel. The Israeli official told me that he was particularly generous with his time, inviting the delegation to his home for dinner and impressing on the Israelis the importance the president places on countering Iranian influence in the Middle East.

Both Israeli and US officials tell me they expect more working-level follow-ups on the consultations. One factor that is likely to be part of the US strategy in Syria will be empowering both Egypt and Jordan to play a greater role in building on the ceasefires negotiated by Russia, Iran, Turkey and the US As Ha’aretz Middle East analyst Zvi Bar’el wrote Monday, Egypt is already conducting its diplomacy between rebel militias and the Syrian regime. That’s reassuring to Israel because Egypt too considers Iran to be a major threat to regional stability.

Including Israel in the US planning on countering Iran is also a change from the Obama administration. During the Iran nuclear talks, the Israelis were briefed on the status of the negotiations, but were not at the table to influence the eventual agreement, which both Netanyahu as well as his political rivals opposed. The tensions during this period soured the US-Israel relationship, especially after the Obama White House accused Israel of trying to spy on the talks and then brief Congress on them.

The world has been watching for signs of how Trump would navigate the Middle East. Last week’s talks in Washington show that Trump is taking a different approach with Netanyahu than Obama did, and is getting a different response.

Trump Just Came Very Close to Killing the Iran Deal

Iran

Under President Barack Obama this kind of thing was routine. Since the Iran nuclear deal was reached in 2015, every few months the State Department would inform Congress that the Tehran government was in compliance.

Then Donald Trump was elected president. He had campaigned against the agreement, and many of the top aides he brought into the White House believed the Obama administration had turned a blind eye to Iran’s regional predations to secure a bargain that in the end was harmful to US national security.

Nonetheless, Trump’s State Department in the spring certified Iran was in compliance. On Monday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was supposed to certify Iranian compliance again. Talking points were sent to columnists. Senior administration officials briefed analysts on a conference call. The Treasury Department was set to announce new sanctions against a number of Iranians to soften the blow for the Republican base. Allies in Congress were given a heads-up.

There was just one problem: Donald Trump. In meetings with his national security cabinet, the president has never been keen on Obama’s nuclear deal. What’s more, Iran’s regional behavior has only been getting worse since his inauguration.

So just as Tillerson was preparing to inform Congress on Monday that Iran remained in compliance with what is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Trump called it off, according to administration officials. He wanted to know his options and what would happen if Tillerson didn’t make the announcement.

And for a few hours on Monday afternoon, it looked like the White House was going to tell Congress it could not certify Iran was complying, without saying Iran was in breach of the pact. This would have triggered a 60-day period in which Congress could vote to re-impose the secondary sanctions lifted as a condition of the deal, or to strike it down altogether.

The predicament, according to administration officials, was that Congress (not to mention the other signatories to the seven-party agreement) was not prepared. Trump had yet to even put forward a broader Iran policy. What’s more, the US intelligence community feels that Iran is pushing the edges, but overall is in compliance.

Eventually, Trump walked back from the ledge, and the administration certified Tehran’s compliance.

But White House and other administration officials tell me the president nonetheless is serious about cracking down on Iran for its regional aggression, and is leaning closer to those of his advisers who are pushing him to pull out of the agreement that defines Obama’s foreign policy legacy.

In this sense, he is moving away from some of the most important members of his national security cabinet.

Administration officials tell me that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Tillerson have made the case that it was in the US national interest to certify Iran’s compliance. They argued that the deal is structured so that the US and its allies delivered the benefits to Iran up front. This included sanctions relief, a recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium, and removing Iranian companies and individuals from various sanctions lists.

The Iranians, on the other hand, have to keep allowing inspections of their nuclear sites and limit their stockpile of low-enriched uranium over the lifespan of the deal, which expires in the next 8 to 13 years. Iran has already received much of the money that was frozen in foreign banks under the crippling sanctions that brought its representatives to the negotiations. So pulling out of the deal now would leave Iran cash rich and under no obligation to cap its nuclear stockpiles or allow international inspections.

Bloomberg

Donald Jr.-Russia Revelations are a Tipping Point but not Treason

Trump

It’s fashionable among President Donald Trump’s defenders to dismiss the reports of his eldest son meeting with a Russian lawyer who promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton as yet another “nothing burger.”

You’ve heard the counterpoints. The Democrats are obsessed with the Kremlin. Nothing came of the Russian attempt to dish dirt. Donald Jr. made all his emails about it public. And, hey, whatever happened, it’s probably not even illegal

And while all of that is likely true, it misses a broader point. The emails the younger Trump received from music promoter Rob Goldstone, who promised official Russian “documents and information that would incriminate Hillary,” may have just been an opportunist trying to curry favor with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. But Goldstone’s successful effort to set up a meeting between members of the campaign’s inner circle and a lawyer with Kremlin connections puts the lie to Team Trump’s longtime defense in the brewing scandal: no contact, no collusion.

As someone who has written columns pointing out that many claims against Trump and his advisers have been speculative and unsubstantiated, I see this supposed nothing burger as a tipping point. From now on, it strains credulity to give the president and his aides any benefit of the doubt when it comes to Russia. After all, a little more than a month after his June 9, 2016, meeting with Kremlin insider Natalia Veselnitskaya, the president’s son was on CNN saying the entire Russia allegation was fake news. That line is no longer operative.

The best course now for the president would be full disclosure. He needs to tell us about any and all meetings his campaign and organization has had with Russians. If there was an offer of a heads-up on hacked emails — or, as McClatchy is reporting, a plan to coordinate with Russian fake news bots to target voters through data operations — he needs to acknowledge and apologize.

That said, Democrats should be careful. One element of the Russian influence operation that is often overlooked is that it was intended to sow discord inside the US body politic and discredit our democratic elections. Recall that the initial probing of Democratic National Committee computers by Russian hackers began in 2015, when no one believed Trump would even be the nominee.

As former FBI director James Comey testified in March, the hackers were unusually sloppy, leaving many clues for investigators to trace the hacks back to Russia. They “wanted us to see what they were doing,” Comey said.

In this respect, the partisan temptation to overstate the case against the president should be resisted. Unfortunately, many Democrats have gone the opposite route. Senator Tim Kaine, who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate, said this week that the Trump Jr. email exchange may be evidence of treason. Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts went further saying if the emails are not treasonous, “I’m not sure what is.”

Kaine and Moulton should consult the Constitution on this question. Treason is defined narrowly and applies only to aiding and abetting an enemy at a time of war. At this point, considering that all people in the meeting have said the promised information on Hillary Clinton was never offered, it’s not even clear if this is collusion.

This kind of hyperventilation is the analog of Trump’s campaign against the “fake news media.” It energizes loyalists at the expense of national unity, which is especially worrisome now, in an America so divided and at each other’s throats.

It reminds me of one of the most toxic episodes of Trump’s presidential campaign. In the final debate, he would not say whether or not he would accept the results of the election. “I will keep you in suspense.”

It turned out that it was the Trump resistance that never really accepted him as a legitimate president. Armed with suspicion, leaks, open questions and an opposition research dossier, Democrats beat the drum for months that Trump was the Siberian candidate.

Now it turns out the president’s son was eager and willing to accept information that was promised as part of a Russian government effort to aid his father’s campaign. This doesn’t prove the Democratic narrative about Trump. But it does discredit the evasions, denials, obfuscations and dissembling from the president and his supporters. We have reached the point where Trump must come clean. If he doesn’t, he will be abetting a Russian plot to discredit the election they tried to help him win.

Bloomberg

Julian Assange Joins Trump’s War on CNN

Assange

Julian Assange has had it with CNN. Since July 4, the founder of WikiLeaks has tweeted 14 times in support of Donald Trump’s latest battle with the media: Gif-Gate.

Like many controversies in Washington these days, this one involves a tweet. Last week Trump tweeted a gif that portrayed him putting fake wrestling moves on a body with the CNN logo for its head.

Assange’s interest in this is all about CNN’s response. On July 5, the network’s master internet sleuth, Andrew Kaczynski, tracked down the Reddit user who came up with the Trump-CNN wrestling video. But because the maker apologized on the forum, CNN decided not to name him. That said, “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.”

That last sentence has inspired some pearl clutching among Trump’s supporters. The alt-right has accused CNN of blackmailing some poor Reddit user who just likes trolling the media.

Now it should go without saying that this is a very thin reed. According to CNN, the Reddit user voluntarily apologized for the gif and other memes that were racist. Also, CNN never threatened to disclose reams of private information on the Reddit user, just his name. But such is the nature of these social media kerfuffles in the age of Trump. Both sides try to maximize grievance. CNN accuses the president of inciting violence. Trump’s supporters accuse CNN of mafia tactics.

What’s interesting here is how Assange responded. “When Trump goes low CNN goes lower: threatens to dox artist behind ‘CNN head’ video if he makes fun of them again,” he tweeted, referring to the online tactic of posting someone’s personal details on the web. For two days, Assange continued along these lines, speculating that CNN may have even violated the law in “censoring” this “artist.”

Doxxing, as it’s known, usually applies to an online persona who wishes to remain anonymous. But the concept is closely related to the kind of thing Assange himself has been doing since he founded WikiLeaks, publishing the private communications of public figures.

Methinks the WikiLeaker doth protest too much. After all, Assange’s organization posted the personal emails of John Podesta, Neera Tanden and other Democrats. And while some of those emails had legitimate news value, most of them didn’t. Did the public really have a right to know Podesta’s risotto recipe?

The hacked emails WikiLeaks disclosed last year are different from the State Department cables provided to the organization by Chelsea Manning. While some of those cables endangered US government sources in dangerous places, government documents in our republic belong to the people. The same cannot be said for the personal emails of Democratic operatives, who are exercising their right to political participation.

Assange is hardly alone as a participant in this new threat to online privacy. I wrote articles based on the hacked emails WikiLeaks published, as have many other journalists. Anonymous, the online hacker group, has doxxed people before as well. But Assange, as an advocate for radical transparency, has done much to usher in this new era.

And this new era should trouble us. In the 20th century, the state was the greatest threat to the individual’s privacy. But in the internet era, where so much of our lives is online, this threat has democratized. Individuals today pose a threat to privacy in a way we used to think was the sole province of the NSA and FBI. At any moment, an email, text or browsing history could be hacked and posted on the web for all to see. In an instant, our private lives can become public.

More recently, foreign governments have become threats to our privacy. Four US intelligence agencies assess that Russia orchestrated a campaign to advantage Trump in the election through hacking and leaking the emails of leading Democrats. The Russians used this tactic in 2014 in combination with their special forces, when RT, the Kremlin-funded network, would post audio recordings of US diplomats.

We are already starting to see imitators. Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon lost his job because emails and texts were leaked to the Associated Press that made it appear that he sought a business relationship with one of his sources. Solomon has said he never entered into such a relationship.

None of this is to say that there is not news value to some of these disclosures. It’s always a balance. The problem is that people like Assange never cared about this balance until now. For years he believed the public’s right to know outweighed the privacy rights of his victims. Today he argues the privacy of an online troll outweighs the public’s right to know who exactly is making the memes the president tweets in his war against CNN.

Bloomberg

Negotiations Won’t Stop North Korea From Getting a Nuke

Negotiations Won't Stop North Korea From Getting a Nuke

When North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile this week — what its boy tyrant called a “gift to the American bastards” — the response from the Trump administration was fairly conventional.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson correctly called it an escalation. He announced America’s intention to bring the matter before the UN Security Council. And he assured, “We will never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because not tolerating a nuclear North Korea has been a pillar of U.S. policy since the peninsula’s first nuclear crisis in the early 1990s. Keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of this regime is an admirable goal; a government is hardly a model of restraint if its prisons are so vast they can be seen from space. And a few years ago, it might have even been an achievable goal. But in 2017, it is at best quaint and at worst delusional.

The sad truth is that North Korea is dangerously close to going nuclear, and almost every expert who has studied the problem understands there is nothing the U.S. can do about it.

The North Koreans are much closer to going nuclear than they were when the U.S. negotiated a flawed interim deal in 1994, known as the Joint Framework Agreement, to halt their progress.

Pyongyang has already detonated nuclear devices on five occasions. The first of these tests was in 2006, and the last two were in the final year of the Obama administration. The North also has continued to make progress on ballistic missiles. The latest test went farther and higher than previous ones had. It’s only a matter of time until the regime of Kim Jong-un will perfect this technology, along with the relatively easier task of shrinking a nuclear device to fit on a warhead. Then the North will have a nuke.

North Korea will arm itself with nuclear weapons, because the regime knows that its survival depends on it. In the first round of nuclear negotiations, there was a credible threat of force against North Korea. The deal offered for the last quarter century was essentially: We let you survive if you give up your nuclear ambitions.

Today, that offer is no longer credible. North Koreans delivered this message as recently as last month to a group of Western experts who met with them in Sweden in what is known as Track 2 diplomacy. Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst and expert on North Korea, explained it to her counterparts at an event last month at the Asia Society.

“The North Koreans emphasize over and over, denuclearization is completely off the table,” she said. “We are smoking something if we think this is something that is achievable. They say it’s not negotiable, it’s over, it’s done, this is not something we can talk about.”

Terry went on to say her North Korean counterparts said, “We are so close to completing the nuclear program, we are so close to perfecting this nuclear arsenal, we did not come this far to give it up.” She added that they gave the examples of Libya and Iraq as regimes that abandoned nukes only to face regime change later.

It’s not just Terry who at this point is persuaded the goal of a denuclearized North Korea is not attainable. Bill Clinton’s former secretary of defense, William Perry, told a group of journalists last month in Washington that the best the U.S. could hope for now would be a freeze on North Korea’s program, similar to the one the Obama administration negotiated with Iran. But again, this would not roll back the considerable progress the regime has made. What’s more, he said he would not recommend today a pre-emptive strike against the regime’s arsenal. This is in part because North Korea has thousands of mortars capable of hitting Seoul, but also because a military strike wouldn’t be able to take out the country’s entire nuclear infrastructure.

Perry is less gloomy than other experts. Michael Auslin, the Williams-Griffis fellow in contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution, was blunt. He told me: “Negotiations won’t work.”

Auslin explained that over a quarter century, Pyongyang has used the negotiations to buy time and extract concessions from the West. Among the concessions the North Koreans have gained from the negotiations are being removed from the U.S. list of regimes that sponsor terrorism, shipments of food and fuel, the promise of light water plutonium reactors and the removal of crippling economic sanctions.

Despite all of these carrots, the regime has cheated on the commitments it has already made. The George W. Bush administration discovered this in its first term when it learned of North Korean work on a uranium enrichment facility. In 2002, an envoy for the regime acknowledged it in talks, and the Bush administration pulled out of the 1994 joint framework negotiated by Clinton.

The truth is there are no good policy options today for North Korea. It’s doubtful that regime change is even possible. The US government is culturally ill-equipped to foment insurrection inside such a notoriously closed society. And an invasion of North Korea would be about as popular in America today as cancer.

It’s possible that sabotage and other forms of cyber attacks could delay the North’s nuclear capability. What about working with China? President Donald Trump acknowledged Wednesday morning in a tweet that his desire for China to apply more pressure on North Korea has not worked.

“There is no good existential answer to North Korea,” Auslin told me Wednesday. “It’s not just about negotiations. It’s about the entire set of political, economic, social, security threats we face.” He said at this point the regime had accomplished a stalemate, and was close to achieving a checkmate against the West.

That’s not the kind of thing Americans like to hear. We dream big. But in foreign policy, it’s important to be realistic. The Trump administration has an opportunity to level with the public in a way prior administrations did not. If you want to stop North Korea from getting a nuke, that requires war. If you’re not prepared to go that far, stop pretending the US can achieve its goals with more talking. It won’t work.

(Bloomberg)