Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Chlorine, Nukes, and American Credibility

by Elliott Abrams
May 2, 2014


One of the greatest Israeli concerns about a possible nuclear deal with Iran goes beyond the terms of any deal itself to the issue of enforcement.  The issue is summed up in a Laura Rozen piece:

The Israelis are also deeply concerned, the former US diplomat said, that if there is a violation by Iran of a final nuclear accord, that the violation will be seen by Washington as too ambiguous or incremental, that there “is no smoking gun.” The Israelis are “nervous that the U.S. will continuously say, ‘we are checking into it, we need more proof,’” the former diplomat described. “At what point does the cumulative effect of the small things add up to a violation?”

She describes the American as “a senior former US diplomat involved in the April consultations in Israel.”

The Israeli concern is serious, because the pattern they fear is familiar. Officials who have gone out on a limb to negotiate a deal despite criticism of it, rejected the criticism, defended the deal, and indeed celebrated the deal as a great diplomatic achievement, do NOT wish to find that it has been violated and that their achievement is in tatters. This was a key problem in our strategic arms limitations negotiations with the USSR. In the early 1980s, Congress passed legislation requiring the administration to report to it on any Soviet treaty violations precisely because it understood and feared the temptation to avoid finding violations or doing anything about them. (See, for example, the McClure-Symms-Helms amendment to the State Department authorization bill in 1983.)

Fast Forward to today, when it’s clear that the Assad regime is using chlorine gas in bomb attacks. This week the Daily Telegraph in London reported as follows:

President Bashar al-Assad is still using chemical weapons against civilians, a scientific analysis of samples from multiple gas attacks has shown. In the first independent testing of its kind, conducted exclusively for The Telegraph, soil samples from the scene of three recent attacks in the country were collected by trained individuals known to this news organisation and analysed by a chemical warfare expert. Our results show sizeable and unambiguous traces of chlorine and ammonia present at the site of all three attacks. The use in war of “asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases” – both of which can be produced by chlorine and ammonia – is banned by the Geneva Protocol, of which Syria is a signatory.

The facts are reasonably clear. The use of chlorine may not be covered by the agreement reached between the United States and Russia for the removal of Syria’s more potent chemical weapons, but it does violate international law. So, now what?  Here’s the CNN account:

The latest revelation poses a new dilemma for the administration on Syria, where civil war continues to rage. While chlorine is not as poisonous as chemicals like mustard gas or sarin, it would violate of Syria’s international obligations. While some of the administration feel a strong response is needed, officials said others are concerned a robust response would complicate ongoing cooperation with Syria on its more dangerous stockpiles. “There is not a consensus,” another U.S. official said. “Some would like to be stronger and some are more cautious. It can’t go unanswered but if we equate it to a chemical attack then the question becomes what are we going to do about it? And I don’t think we have figured that out yet.”

The chlorine gas incident in question occurred on April 11, three weeks ago today. What will the U.S. response be? “I don’t think we have figured that out yet.”

This is precisely what concerns the Israelis. Syria is a weak country, yet the United States has acted as if it were strong–excusing the failure to enforce the “red line” against use of chemicals by fanciful accounts of the military force that would be needed to punish the regime. As I noted in this blog last June, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Dempsey, fought off action this way: “Dempsey informed Kerry that the Air Force could not simply drop a few bombs, or fire a few missiles, at targets inside Syria: To be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria’s integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties.” This absurd argument apparently carried the day–while Israel was repeatedly attacking Syria from the air and never losing a plane.

Iran is larger and stronger than Syria, and the achievement of a nuclear deal will be touted by the administration as a far greater achievement than Kerry’s deal on Syria with Sergei Lavrov. Will the administration admit violations when they arise, or look the other way and try not to hear the bad news? If the bad news is clear, will we find that “There is not a consensus. Some would like to be stronger and some are more cautious….the question becomes what are we going to do about it? And I don’t think we have figured that out yet.”

Agreements are not self-enforcing; enforcement depends on the will-power and determination of the parties, and in this case of the United States. Our response to the Syrian gas attacks is teaching Syria, and Iran, and Israel, that the necessary determination is lacking. No wonder the Israelis worry.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by diana

    Sorry. I am convinced that Iran will have nuclear capabilities. The time to finish this horrible issue was in the PAST, and neither Bush nor his predecessors did a thing about it. The USA and the whole world is now in a bind. Europe turned a blind eye to Pakistan, though presently India is a good barrier. Once Iran has nukes, Saudi Arabia is next and so on……………..and since the ME is ruled by unstable leaders controlling unstable countries, the die is cast…………

  • Posted by diana

    BTW Mr. Abrams, can you explain Bush’s policies with Iran? I am quite curious. Thanks.

  • Posted by Elliott Abrams

    Very briefly, I think Bush believed there were years to go before Iran would approach a nuclear capability–and indeed, he left office over five years ago and still Iran has not reached it. So he thought his successor would have plenty of time to deal with Iran. Perhaps if that successor had been John McCain, as Bush had hoped, we would have done so.

  • Posted by EMT

    Dear Mr. Abrams, thank you for bringing this subject to light.

    We cannot count on the Obama Administration to do anything, as they always have an excuse.
    They have not provided safety for the remaining American personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

    How can we count on these people? However, I am sure that one of these days we will wake up and find out that the Israelis destroyed all nuclear installations in Iran, as they did it in Iraq and in Syria.

    As for Diana, we are more interested in the present than in the past.

  • Posted by Jassem Othman

    The nonviolent conflict with Mullahs always been useless, because Iran’s aim to be nuclear superpower in the region and they are protected all time by their close friends “Russians and Chinese”. In fact, all administrations, from President Carter to President Obama, every American president has sent emissaries to talks with Iranians, and every administration has made demarches to Tehran. To date, the net result is thousands of dead Americans and still continues more wickedly. After all, is still there some politicians, diplomats, journalists and others of this sort downplay the Iranian role and its evil intent, where they give the lie claims to American citizen that Americans are making progress in their talks with the Iranians but in fact they well know that they will never be accomplished any real progress in any negotiations with Mullahs of Iran.
    All that humiliating negotiations took place due to lack of will power to confront enemy. By this way they just legitimate that dangerous regime and reward its violent and hostile actions against the United States and its close allies, for instance, the Mullahs of Iran have stepped up their terrorist activity in Iraq since the Americans started talking them. I think the best way to deal with such regimes is by using the hard power. They should know that the military option is always on the table!

  • Posted by Jassem Othman

    “How can we count on these people? However, I am sure that one of these days we will wake up and find out that the Israelis destroyed all nuclear installations in Iran, as they did it in Iraq and in Syria.”

    Mr. ET, as usual, that Americans are waiting for the Israelis to do the dirty work against the evil regimes, while they are incapable.

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