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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Our New Ally Iran

by Elliott Abrams
January 14, 2016


USMC seized by Iran

This photo tells us a great deal about American foreign policy today.

Human Rights Watch, not known as a right-wing group, has noted that it appears to violate international agreements prohibiting the use of photos or videos of military detainees for propaganda purposes. Moreover, the entry into Iranian waters (if that happened) by a boat that had lost its engines is obviously “innocent passage” under international law.

Nevertheless, Secretary of State Kerry offered effusive praise of Iran.

The new relationship with Iran is at the top of his agenda. The old-think concept of “allies” is out. Consider this from the AP:

Since the beginning of the year, Kerry and Zarif have spoken by phone at least 11 times, according to the State Department. They’ve focused on nuclear matters, Iran’s worsening rivalry with Saudi Arabia and peace efforts in Syria.

By contrast, America’s top diplomat has talked to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir only twice. He has consulted once each with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Jordan’s King Abdullah and the foreign ministers of Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Russia and the European Union.

Once upon a time, during the Clinton administration, the foreign visitor who was invited to the White House most often–13 times–was not Tony Blair or some other ally; it was Yasser Arafat. We know what Clinton got for all that courting: nothing, and the failure of his Camp David peace efforts.

Such treatment of enemies, by Clinton then or Kerry and Obama now, and such treatment of allies never ends well. When the United States appears unable to differentiate between enemies and allies, it gets fewer allies and its enemies grow stronger. Iran is an enemy of the United States, which has killed hundreds of Americans in terrorist attacks over the decades since 1979 and most recently in Iraq.

Throughout the Middle East and no doubt more widely, this photo is half of a moment that will deeply unsettle America’s friends. The other half is the Obama administration’s reaction to this humiliation: to welcome it and thank Iran for it. America’s friends are without doubt thinking “If this is how the Americans react to their own humiliation through an aggressive act, how will they react when we are in danger?”

There’s an old proverb that goes something like this: There are some people so foolish that when you spit in their face they think it’s raining. In the Persian Gulf today, it isn’t raining. Iran just spit in our face, and humiliated the United States; there is no other interpretation of the photo above. If the United States Government cannot even realize what happened, our own interests and those of our allies will be further compromised by Iran in the year ahead.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Shahin

    The problem with many Americans is they cannot put themselves in other nations’ shoes and always look at matters through the goggles of American exceptionalism that translates for them as the U.S. having all the rights and others none.

    Imagine an Iranian or say, Chinese military boat approaching as close as 3 miles a US base in the Gulf of Mexico with an engine problem. What would and should the U.S. Navy do?

    If you could reflect truthfully on the situation above and answer the question honestly, then you would write a different article. But of course you’re going to say, we’re not the terrorists, they are. Again, if you tried to be less biased in your judgment, you would know that the US shot down an Iranian civilian plane 30 years ago killing over 250 and openly helped Saddam Hussein kill hundreds of thousands of Iranians in the eighties.

    Despite this, the Iranian people (not the regime that does not represent even 5% of its people) love America and many of the great American values. But even the Iranian regime is not made of a bunch of crazy fundamentalists like the Taliban (created and helped by the Saudi wahabism)! The Iranian regime is a corrupt dictatorship that wants to stay in power. The U.S. Should pursue diplomatie like it has done with many other corrupt governments and connect with the Iranian people, assisting them in the long run to get rid of the regime.

  • Posted by D'Allessandro

    Once again the Obama administration has shown that it has no appetite to confront aggression. This relentless foreign policy of allowing our enemies to gain high ground is inconceivable. The murder of Ambassador Stevens in Libya; the territorial conquest of ISIS in Syria and Iraq; the Russian Federation annexation of Crimea and subsequent destabilization of Ukraine; the Chinese assertive behavior in the South China Seas; North Korea’s Kim Jong Un constant nuclear saber rattling attitude and a slew of other actions against US interests without any forceful response is baffling to say the least. Hopefully the next administration will discard this defeatist policy; if not the possibility exists that the liberal world order as we’ve known it since the end of World War II will disintegrate and the chaos that existed among nations will return to the fore.

  • Posted by Omerli

    Indeed, how sad and pathetic and inevitable. Once you do decide to declare peace no matter what the provocation, you do find yourself running around declaring victories and peace at every opportunity. If there is a JV team on the world stage, it is the Obama team. Let’s hope the U.S. Is able to establish credibility then without having to use violence but seems ever more unlikely as Kerry grabs the cheerleader’s poms poms with each humiliation.

  • Posted by Steven

    I’m glad to see warmer relations between Iran and the U.S. It makes me look back at the 80s with with great nostalgia and I want to thank you for your honest help in the opening of warmer relations with Iran so many years ago. I know you lawyers love facts, how about a personal history lesson for your next post? Btw, how’s the weather today?

  • Posted by jeb

    A better question is who hasn’t Obama alienated or made to feel contemptuous of American leadership.
    Jordan (Is now seeking Russian alliance and will probably end America’s support of “rebels”.
    Syria? Is it even a country?
    Saudi Arabia?
    Questiion marks, but not when Bush was President.

  • Posted by Acher E BenAbuya

    Iran got a photo-op they can claim is a triumph against the Great Satan. One where they re-enforced their image as a state that can’t abide by international norms (innocent passage/ use of captives for propaganda).
    We’re expected to believe that a pair of USN vessels connected to the most sophisticated and precise navigation system on the planet “accidentally wandered” into Iranian territorial waters. We know it wasn’t engine trouble because they left under their own power.
    IMHO it was a sop to Iran. Possibly deliberate. The spoonful of sugar to help the concrete go down the Arak core; and to spring the Iranian/American hostages.
    Now the Mullahs get to enjoy the privilege of selling their oil at $20 a barrel (or maybe less). While the last of their water runs out [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_crisis_in_Iran] and their population collapses from chlamydia. [http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/MID-02-300115.html]

  • Posted by Peter

    America’s friends are without doubt thinking “If this is how the Americans react to their own humiliation through an aggressive act, how will they react when we are in danger?”

    Exactly. The exertion to clean up after these naive, egotistical know-it-alls is going to be arduous and long lasting, assuming that much of the damage isn’t permanent. And the unknown unknowns are many. I quote Elliott’s point above because even some of the most articulate critics of the Obama-Kerry folly have not thought ahead to this dimension.

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