Iran: Where Biden and Israel’s legal fraternity converge

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The US media is treating the leaked recordings of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s conversations with a journalist allied with President Hassan Rouhani as a major scoop. The recordings were allegedly set for release after Rouhani leaves office following this summer’s presidential elections.

While there is good reason to doubt their authenticity, assuming the recordings are authentic, Zarif told his interlocutor two notable things. First, he said the Iranian government is merely a mouthpiece. All decisions related to Iran’s foreign and security affairs are made by the Revolutionary Guards in conjunction with Iran’s dictator Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Zarif said that his own contribution to foreign policymaking was “nil.”

As a historical document, the recordings, (if authentic) were helpful. It was good to hear Zarif admit this truth in his own voice. But he didn’t say anything that wasn’t already widely known.

Since the first “moderate” Iranian president appeared on the scene with Mohamed Khatami’s election in 1997, thousands of articles and still more intelligence reports have been written asserting and proving that Iran’s president and his ministers have no actual decision-making power in regards to anything with strategic significance to the regime.

When Rouhani, the “moderate” presidential candidate was elected in 2013, Israel brought reams of proof to the Obama administration that Rouhani had no influence on regime policy and that anyway, there was nothing moderate about him. Then-President Barack Obama, his vice president Joe Biden and his secretary of state John Kerry along with all of their advisors were unmoved. They didn’t care. They wanted to say the Iranian government was “moderate” to sell the policy of realigning the US towards Iran. It was an ideological position and they had no interest in reconsidering it. So the facts were dismissed.

The second significant thing Zarif allegedly said was that Kerry essentially acted as his agent. Zarif said that Kerry told him about 200 Israeli military strikes on Iranian targets in Syria. It bears noting that Zarif cultivated ties with Kerry since his service as Iran’s UN ambassador. Zarif’s time at the UN overlapped with Kerry’s tenure as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In the recordings, he indicated that Kerry had developed an emotional attachment to Zarif over the years.

While Kerry denied transferring the information to Zarif during his tenure as Secretary of State or in their meetings after he left office, Kerry didn’t mention his actions in the Senate.

Whether or not Kerry actually told Zarif directly about Israeli operations, the fact is that senior Obama administration officials repeatedly leaked the media information about Israeli military strikes against Iranian targets in Syria to the media. And since they told CNN, why wouldn’t they tell Zarif and his associates?

Kerry is currently a member of Biden’s National Security Council and also serves as his envoy for climate change. Zarif’s alleged revelations provoked calls from Republican lawmakers that Biden fires him from his positions.

Even in the unlikely event that Biden dumps Kerry, it won’t have an impact on his administration’s policies towards Iran. Every senior official involved in the administration’s Iran policy shares Kerry’s pro-Iran and anti-Israel positions.

Take Colin Kahl. Biden’s appointment of Kahl to serve as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy was confirmed this week by the Senate. After word broke of the Mossad’s May 2018 seizure of Iran’s nuclear archive, Kahl posted a tweet insinuating that the archive was faked and the entire operation was an Israeli conspiracy to drag the US into war with Iran.

Speaking in opposition to Kahl’s confirmation, Senator Ted Cruz called Kahl, “the most virulently anti-Israel nominee that would serve in the Biden administration.”

Recalling Kahl’s conspiracy theory about the Iran’s nuclear archive, Cruz remonstrated that Kahl has “a lifelong obsession with and antipathy for the State of Israel, and he’s demonstrated a willingness to endanger Israeli lives and American lives to advance that hostility.”

Cruz placed Zarif’s claims about Kerry in the context of Kahl’s appointment saying that like Kerry, Kahl, “has been credibly accused of weaponizing and leaking classified information.”

Now, thanks to the Democrats who approved his nomination, Kahl is responsible for determining the US security posture towards Iran together with the Robert Malley, the State Department envoy to negotiations with Iran. Like Kahl, Malley has a long history of obsessive hostility towards Israel and support for Iran and its terrorist proxies.

Working with them is CIA Director Bill Burns, who ran secret negotiations with Iran for then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice towards the end of George W. Bush’s second term. This week Iran scholar Michael Rubin reported that Burns was in Baghdad over the past several days. There he reportedly met with Iranian officials in private homes.

Rubin reported that top administration officials have asked Iraq to release $4 billion “from an Iran escrow account that the Iraqi government had established during the Trump administration in order to ensure that Iraq could purchase Iranian fuel while ensuring that the proceeds would not subsidize Iranian terror.”

These moves align with the Biden administration’s previous successful effort to persuade South Korea to unfreeze $1 billion in Iranian funds after Iranian forces illegally seized a South Korean ship and held its sailors captive.

The goal of these efforts is clear. The Biden administration is seeking to give Iran money now, before it is in a position to cancel the economic sanctions the Trump administration applied to Iran because Iran refuses to curtail its illegal nuclear activities.

Burns moves, it should be noted are taking place as Malley is carrying out indirect negotiations with Iran in Vienna. The goal of those talks was previously to bring Iran into full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal in exchange for the end of US economic sanctions. Malley has since adopted a position that Iran must merely return to the state of its nuclear activities before the Trump administration abandoned the deal. That is, Iran may continue to cheat, but at the level that it was cheating in 2018.

Under the 2015 agreement, all limitations on Iran’s nuclear activities are due to end in nine years. So at best, all Malley’s talks will do is postpone Iran from fielding a nuclear arsenal until 2030.

This brings us to Israel. This week, the heads of Israel’s security establishment traveled to Washington to brief top Biden administration officials on the latest developments in Iran’s nuclear project. On its face, the trip was an obvious move. The Americans are holding diplomatic talks with Iran. As the US’s chief Middle East ally, Israel sent its top officials to coordinate its efforts to block Iran from becoming a nuclear power with those of its ally. Unfortunately, the trip was an exercise in futility.

Even before Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, National Security Advisor Meir Ben Shabbat and head of Military Intelligence Dorector Maj. Gen. Tamir Heyman left their offices, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that their briefings would have no impact on US policy towards Iran. Like the Obama administration before it, the Biden administration is ideologically committed to realigning US policy towards Iran and away from Israel and the Sunni Arab states. And no facts will sway it from that course.

So too, just as Kerry could not be trusted with classified information Israel shared with him and his Obama administration colleagues, so his colleagues in the Biden administration can be expected to misuse information Israel provides them about Iran.

Facing this reality, in which the US – the most important strategic actor in the region – is now openly in Iran’s corner, Israel needs to conceive and implement a strategy to bypass the US and achieve its goal of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

As a general rule, strategic policies are developed through political processes. Although it will be difficult, Israel has the ability to develop an international political strategy that achieves its goal while bypassing Biden. But this brings us to Israel’s domestic political morass. Here it is far from clear that Israel’s elected leaders have the political power to develop and implement a coherent and successful strategy for preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Moreover, the domestic political obstacles harm Israel’s ability to implement a successful international strategy.

Consider past efforts. According to a 2012 exposé by Israel’s investigative journalism program Uvda (“Fact”), in 2010, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the IDF and Mossad to prepare plans to attack Iran’s nuclear installations. Then-Mossad director Meir Dagan and then IDF chief of general staff Gabi Ashkenazy refused to follow the order. They claimed that Netanyahu and Barak lacked the legal authority to give such an order. At the time, current attorney general Avichai Mandelblit served as the IDF’s Military Advocate General. In a posthumously broadcast interview, Dagan insisted that Netanyahu’s determination to destroy Iran’s nuclear program was driven by “political” considerations.

In 2016, Uvda broadcast an interview with Leon Panetta. In 2010, as Obama’s CIA director, Panetta was Dagan’s counterpart. In the interview, Panetta revealed that after refusing Netanyahu’s order, Dagan travelled to Washington and informed Panetta about the order – thus alerting the US to Israel’s plans.

Dagan’s move was arguably treacherous, but more to the point, the fact that in 2010 he had faith in the Obama administration’s commitment to Israel’s security than he had in Netanyahu shows that at a minimum, Dagan had no understanding of international politics. The year before, at his address at the American University in Cairo, Obama declared before the world his intention to realign US policy away from Israel and the US’s traditional Sunni Arab allies and towards Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. Dagan clearly failed to grasp the implications of the speech. Netanyahu and Barak clearly understood them.

As Attorney General, the same Mandelblit who claimed in 2010 that Israel’s elected leaders lacked the authority to determine strategic policy has even more aggressively eroded the governing powers of Israel’s political leadership, while arrogating those powers and authorities to himself and his office. Just this week, Mandelblit took his legally ungirded efforts to new heights by declaring illegal a legal vote of the government which approved the appointment of a justice minister that Mandelblit didn’t want.

In this state of affairs, with elected leaders hamstrung by unelected lawyers devoid of international political awareness or accountability to the voting public, the likelihood that Israel’s elected leaders will be capable of conceiving and carrying out a policy to block Iran’s rise as a nuclear power is not high.

The Israeli public discourse about legal reform generally focuses on the domestic implications of the legal fraternity’s seizure of the political powers of elected officials. But as the episode from 2010 makes clear, the current power imbalance between unelected lawyers and elected politicians has acute strategic implications. Until Israel’s elected leaders seize back their powers from the government attorneys, they will be unable to contend with the strategic challenge posed by the Biden administration’s embrace of Iran and gutting of the US-Israel alliance.

Originally published at Israel Hayom.

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