Happy Tax Day, from Remy

You knew this was coming—Remy on tax day travails (less than 2 minutes long—enough time to fill out one line on your Schedule A): (more…)

Russia takes an Israel-U.S. military option off the table

As Scott points out below, Russia has lifted its ban on the delivery of S-300 missiles to Iran. The groundwork has thus been laid for the sale of a powerful air-defense system to Tehran.

In the wake of this development, a reporter asked Marie Harf if the sale would have any effect on the ongoing Iran nuclear talks. Harf predicted it would not.

As discussed below, Harf’s view is subject to serious dispute. What’s indisputable is that the sale could have an enormous effect on the bigger question of whether Iran will obtain nuclear weapons — and isn’t this what the “nuclear talks” are supposed to be about?

An effective air-defense system would probably preclude a successful Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear capacity. It would also vastly complicate an attempt by the U.S. to employ a military option. Thus, the Russian sale is a huge step forward for Iran in its quest to become a nuclear power.

Appearing on Fox News, Charles Krauthammer blamed the Obama administration for Russia’s decision to sell the missiles to Iran. By claiming prematurely that the framework for a deal exists, Krauthammer argued, Obama removed the constraint on such a sale by Moscow.

Krauthammer is right. And now, Iran can negotiate from a position of increased strength, knowing that if it walks away from negotiations, future military action against it is less likely.

That’s why Harf strikes a false note when she claims that negotiations won’t be affected by Russia’s sale.

To me, the interesting question is whether, at this juncture, President Obama sees the Russian sale as a bad thing. I doubt that he does.

Obama views the Iran deal as legacy-making. He understands, however, that an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear capacity would upset his legacy. So would a U.S. attack under his successor. And Obama understands that he has less than full control over the first contingency and no control over the second.

As discussed above, the Russian sale makes a future attack on Iran — whether by Israel, the U.S. (once Obama is gone), or both — less likely. Thus, I suspect that Obama welcomes the sale. In any event, I doubt he’s concerned about it.

It’s true that Obama opposed the sale in 2010. But that was when he was still seeking leverage with which to bring Iran to the negotiating table so he could make his legacy. Five years later, Obama is ready to sign a deal, and now wants to protect his handiwork from Israel and from Republicans — whom he considers his real enemies.

Another red line done gone

On Monday the Wall Street Journal reported that “the Kremlin has formally lifted its own ban on the delivery of S-300 missiles to Iran, setting the legal groundwork for the possible Russian sale of a powerful air-defense system to Tehran.” On Tuesday the Journal reported that an Iranian official said he believed Iran would receive the air-defense system as early as this year, though Russian officials suggested the delivery could take longer. The Journal quotes officials as follows:

“I think [the S-300] will be delivered this year,” Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, told the Interfax news agency Tuesday in Moscow, where he was participating in a meeting for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. “The elimination of this issue will foster further development of our bilateral relations.”

Russian officials were vaguer about the time frame. Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said any delivery would take “some time,” citing a minimum of six months on any order. “It depends on our producers,” he said. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he couldn’t name a specific date.

The S-300 missile system reputedly provides sophisticated and effective air defense. It would vastly complicate any attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

Russia contracted with Iran to deliver the system in 2007, but in 2010 Russia suspended delivery. However, as the Journal puts it, Russia “pulled out of the deal in 2010 under pressure from the U.S. and Israel and banned S-300 sales to Iran, stimulating progress in the [nuclear] talks.”

In 2010 the Obama administration claimed credit for persuading Russia to kill the deal with Iran. At his Council of Foreign Relations blog Pressure Points, Elliott Abrams documents the statements of Obama administration officials crowing about Russia’s suspension of delivery of the missile system at the time.

Abrams links to Josh Rogin’s Foreign Policy article “How the Obama team convinced Russia not to sell arms to Iran.” Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, when the Obama administration could claim the fruits of appeasement before the bill came due. Abrams cruelly plucks this crowing of Obama administration officials from Rogin’s account:

“The decision was a bold one that acknowledges how important it is to us and how important Medvedev takes this reset with President Obama.” The officials explained that the Obama administration made clear to Medvedev and other Russian officials that the sale of the S-300 to Iran was a red line that couldn’t be crossed….

Another red line done gone. Or, as Abrams puts it:

Oh well: that was then and this is now. American “red lines” aren’t what they used to be, Medvedev is gone, and the “reset” with Russia is an embarrassment. So is the way the Obama administration claimed credit for changing Russia’s policy toward Iran.

For the record, Abrams notes the reservation entered at the time by former Bush administration official David Kramer as recorded by Rogin:

Not everyone got it wrong. That same Foreign Policy article contains this comment from David Kramer– assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights in the George W. Bush administration, then president of Freedom House, now a senior fellow at the McCain Institute: “Let’s wait a bit before we pop open the champagne.” Kramer added that “Alas, speaking the truth about Russia isn’t likely to happen as long as the Obama administration spins its ‘reset’ policy with Russia as one of its major foreign policy successes.”

For “Russia” then, substitute “Iran” now. Saying anything in a bad cause is the operative principle for the Obama administration. It is a principle that comes right from the top.

State Department spokesman Marie Harf, however, is on the case. “We’ve certainly made our concerns with the sale of the S-300 system to Iran known for some time, this certainly isn’t new,” Harf stated at Monday afternoon’s press briefing. Harf explained:

“The Secretary raised those concerns in a call with Foreign Minister Lavrov this morning. We don’t believe it’s constructive at this time for Russia to move forward with this, but we’ve worked very closely with the Russians on the P5+1 negotiations. We don’t think this will have an impact on unity in terms of inside the negotiating room. So they did discuss it, discussed the Iran negotiations in general as well…”

At the Washington Free Beacon, Bill Gertz reports that “North Korea transfers missile goods to Iran during nuclear talks.” Gertz states that the transfers from North Korea to Iran appear to violate sanctions on both countries. Gertz adds: “Details of the arms shipments were included in President Obama’s daily intelligence briefings and officials suggested information about the transfers was kept secret from the United Nations, which is in charge of monitoring sanctions violations.”

Ms. Harf must have her hands full. Gertz concludes: “White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan declined to comment. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf did not return emails seeking comment.”

The case against Marco Rubio

David Harsanyi makes the case for Marco Rubio, who entered the presidential race yesterday. The case is this: “When it comes to natural political talent, it unlikely the GOP can do better” than Rubio.

Harsanyi may well be right. We don’t know how Rubio will perform as a candidate over the long haul, but all indications are that he is a gifted politician.

But what kind of president would Rubio make? Surely the question is relevant, particularly because there may be other GOP hopeful who could run well against Hillary Clinton.

Here we come to the case against Rubio.

Rubio has been in the Senate for a little more than four years. During this time, his only major accomplishment was sponsoring and helping to pass (in the Senate) comprehensive immigration reform, which included amnesty and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

This is the essence of Rubio’s record. Sure, he cast plenty of good votes. But his votes don’t distinguish him appreciably from his rivals, most of whom either did or would have voted the same way on virtually everything except immigration reform.

Rubio has walked away from his comprehensive immigration reform legislation, so we need not discuss its flaws. In effect, they are stipulated.

It’s one thing to be too soft on immigration. I’d bet that, deep down, most of the serious GOP presidential contenders are; some are soft even on the surface.

Nor is Rubio the only GOP contender to have flip-flopped on the issue. Neither Jeb Bush nor Scott Walker has been a model of consistency.

But Rubio is the only serious contender (I don’t consider Lindsey Graham serious) who (1) reached across the aisle to collaborate on amnesty/path to citizenship legislation, (2) was rolled by Chuck Schumer and company into sponsoring a bill he no longer stands behind, and (3) helped smear key opponents of his legislation and, when called on this, did not disavow the smear.

A president will have to work with Democrats at times. Personally, I want a president who, when appropriate, is willing to do so. But I want that president to outmaneuver, or at a minimum hold his own with, the Democrats he works with. And I don’t want that president to demonize those in his own party who question the fruits of his collaboration with Democrats.

If we’re going to nominate a candidate for president who fails to meet this standard, why not nominate Lindsey Graham? At least he attacks his Republican critics head on, rather than relying on surrogates.

Marco Rubio is smart, likable, talented, and conservative. One day, I hope he has a record of conservative accomplishment that will make it easy for me to support him for president. Right now, there are precious few accomplishments that offset his collaboration with Chuck Schumer, just two years ago, on comprehensive immigration reform.

Hillary Says: Our Money Good, Their Money Bad!

Chutzpah is never in short supply in the Clinton household. Today in Iowa, in the course of her much-mocked bus tour–Hillary bought a burrito! Hillary had the students locked in their classrooms! Journalists outnumbered voters!–Hillary Clinton had harsh words for our “dysfunctional political system”:

Fresh off her entrance into the presidential race, Hillary Clinton on Tuesday appeared in Iowa for her first public appearance of the election, striking a populist note while railing against what she called the country’s “dysfunctional political system.”

Is there anyone in the U.S.A. who has more to do with our political system being dysfunctional than Hillary and her husband? No. The Clintons are the disease, not the cure.

“We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all,” the Democrat said during a roundtable at Kirkwood Community College. “Even if that takes a constitutional amendment.”

For Hillary to talk about money in politics is laughable. Barack Obama was the first billion dollar candidate–it will be, historically, his principal claim to fame–but Hillary promises to blow past that milestone with almost uncountable millions flowing in from Wall Street and Hollywood:

[M]any close to Clinton estimate she will raise and spend $1.5-to-$2 billion.

No Republican can come close to matching that level of fundraising. So what is Hillary’s complaint? She says she doesn’t like “unaccountable money,” which means money contributed to 501(c)(4) organizations, which do not have to disclose their donors, and by law can play only a limited role in election campaigns. Democrats have 501(c)(4)s too, of course, operating in part under the auspices of the secretive Democracy Alliance. But Democrats don’t like competition; they want all the money, not just most of it.

And what’s this about a constitutional amendment? Hillary is talking about the Udall Amendment, which we have written about many times. Democrats say that it will overturn the Citizens United case, but hardly anyone knows what that case actually held. Citizens United held that the federal government cannot make it a crime to put out a movie criticizing a candidate for public office shortly prior to an election. Don’t take my word for it, read the opinion yourself. Oh, and, by the way–who was the politician who was criticized by the movie at issue in the Citizens United case? Hillary Clinton.

The Udall Amendment would go far beyond repealing Citizens United, i.e., authorizing the federal government to fine people or send them to jail for producing movies and books that criticize politicians prior to elections. Bad as that certainly would be, the Udall Amendment goes much further. I wrote here:

Many observers have noted that if the Udall amendment became law, Congress could set ridiculously low contribution and spending levels, so as to virtually guarantee the re-election of incumbents. This is true–campaign finance “reform” has always been largely about incumbent protection. But I think the proposed amendment is even worse than that. Given its appallingly poor draftsmanship, I don’t see any reason why Congress couldn’t permit a high level of spending on behalf of incumbents (or no limit at all), while setting low limits for spending on behalf of challengers, or prohibiting such contributions altogether. The Democrats’ amendment would repeal the First Amendment with respect to its most fundamental application–supporting candidates in elections.

Or, if the Democrats want to go all the way, the Udall Amendment would allow Congress, next time the Democrats control it, to make it a crime to contribute any money to a candidate for public office who is not endorsed by the Democratic Party. The Udall Amendment would repeal the core of the First Amendment, the constitutional right to support and oppose candidates for office, and Hillary Clinton is in favor of it.

Why? She knows that Republicans believe in free speech and would never try to criminalize opposition to their policies and candidates. The Democrats, on the other hand, can’t wait to shut the rest of us up. That is why they keep talking about “money in politics.” They don’t mean their money, they mean ours.

Corker-Menendez, much ado about nothing?

I don’t understand the enthusiasm with which the Corker-Menendez legislation is being greeted, now that President Obama has agreed to sign it. Under the Constitution, treaties need to be approved by a super-majority (two-thirds) to be effective. Obama’s deal with Iran is a treaty, whatever ever label he gives it.

Yet under Corker-Menendez, a two-thirds super-majority is required to block Obama’s treaty. As explained in Scott’s post:

The legislation prohibits the President from implementing the provisions of a deal immediately, and instead provides lawmakers with 30 days to review its details. If Congress acts to block the deal, the President will presumably veto that action, at which point lawmakers will have the remainder of the 52 days to try to override the veto.

Overriding the veto requires two-thirds of the vote. Thus, the Constitution has been turned on its head.

Senator Corker’s hope is that the need to prevent a veto override will induce the president to take a tougher bargaining position with Iran. It’s possible that this dynamic will produce a better deal, but only at the margin.

When push comes to shove, Obama will be confident that, with a few cosmetic improvements, he can line up enough Democratic support to meet the low thresholds necessary to sustain a veto. And I fear that Obama’s confidence will be justified.

Democratic legislators don’t want to be cut out of the proceedings altogether, by neither do they want to thwart and humiliate their leader. Corker-Menendez satisfies these twin concerns.

There’s no harm in the legislation. As Scott says, it doesn’t diminish Congress’ position. I’m just not convinced that Corker-Menendez meaningfully improves it.

Obama caves on Corker-Menendez

We’ve been following the political action following the arrangement in process with Iran mostly via the email reports of Omri Ceren. Today he mailed two reports on the Corker-Menendez bill, which passed unanimously out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this afternoon. In the second of the two messages below, Omri reports that the White House has backed off its veto threat in light of its impending loss on this matter. Some readers may want to skip to the second of these two messages.

These messages are not brief, but I think they summarize the information necessary to understand developments in this most consequential matter. Here is Omri’s first message, sent this morning.

Happy Markup Day.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee takes up Corker-Menendez at 2:15pm today, and it looks like the session will go quickly. The NYT, Reuters, CNN, etc. are reporting that Corker and Cardin came to an agreement on language earlier today, and the NYT quoted a senior Democratic aide saying that the changes mean the bill will “now have overwhelming, veto-proof support.” Reuters has more details on what the final provisions – which call for Congressional approval of any Iran deal – will probably look like.

I’ll send around whatever gets finalized this afternoon, but it looks like this is locked and everyone has their lines. Opponents from the left will say the vote damaged hopes for a deal. Supporters will respond that any deal that can’t stand up to Congressional scrutiny isn’t worth having. Opponents from the right will say the bill actually undermines Congressional prerogatives because it requires a supermajority to block a deal. Supporters will respond that any bipartisan compromise legislation capable of mustering a veto-proof majority is going to be imperfect.

All of which will get lost in what’s sure to be the broader takeaway: Congress looked at what came out of Lausanne and they didn’t like it. Then they got briefed by the administration – and they liked it even less. This is their way of sending a message to the President about the need to make any deal stronger, and this is their way of mobilizing pressure to make sure their message gets through.

The question is what exactly they didn’t like. On that point, I wanted to make sure you had the report on the Lausanne announcement published this weekend by David Albright’s Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which has been making the rounds on the Hill. ISIS is widely considered one of the most credible shops on Iran proliferation, if not flat out the most credible. But because their paper is so brutal – it’s tersely titled “P5+1/Iran Framework: Needs Strengthening” – Albright and his team had to open by reminding people of that: “no outside group has worked as much as ours on generating recommended provisions for this deal, identifying missing pieces, and assessing the strengths and weaknesses of proposed provisions… consistently we have been met with gratitude and positive feedback from negotiators in several countries about our contributions.”

Then there’s a brief bright spot for the administration – ISIS assesses that Iran’s concessions on the Arak heavy water reactor are adequate – before things get very bad on every other issue. The whole paper is 13 pages, it gets wonkish at times, and there’s no way a summary could be adequate. There are sections like the one on breakout times, where the authors are in disbelief that the administration refuses to include Iran’s 20% enriched uranium in breakout calculations, which just have to be slogged through.

But one useful way to wrap your mind around the paper – and this gets back to the conversation on the Hill – is that it’s a catalog of how the concessions made to Iran at Lausanne detonated the possibility of a good deal. In order to get even the contested announcement that came out, the Americans had to cave diplomatically on a variety of issues. The ISIS paper, in part, now describes the consequences of those concessions. It’s not written that way – it’s just a policy paper that goes issue by issue – but it can be usefully read like that to see how the political and policy debates are interacting. Remember how the news unfolded during Lausanne:

Wednesday 25th — the Wall Street Journal revealed that Iran will be allowed to put off making a full disclosure of its nuclear activities until after sanctions relief — now the ISIS assessment on disclosure: “Negotiators must not agree to lift UNSC sanctions before the IAEA has reached its broader conclusion about the peaceful nature of Iran’s program, including determining the extent of past progress on Iran’s military nuclear program and dismantling any remaining efforts… Unless this facet of Iran’s nuclear program is dealt with, no agreement should be made. It is a deal component that negotiators would ignore at the peril of regional security and peace.”

Thursday 26h — the Associated Press revealed that Iran will be allowed to continue spinning centrifuges in its underground military bunker at Fordow — now the ISIS assessment on Fordow: “A surprise in the Framework is the proposed continuation of the Fordow enrichment plant… If bans on producing near 20 percent LEU also sunset at year 15 (see above), this heavily fortified plant would be capable of producing enough weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon within a few weeks, or enough WGU for two weapons in less than a month.”

Monday 29th — the New York Times revealed that Iran will not be forced to ship its enriched uranium beyond its borders — now the ISIS assessment on stockpiles: “How will this material be disposed of so that the limit is not exceeded?… accumulations of more than 500 kilograms of 3.5 percent LEU above the 300 kilogram limit would lower breakout times significantly below 12 months… If Iran accumulates stocks of 3.5 percent LEU hexafluoride above 1,000 kilograms and can access quickly only 50 kilograms of near 20 percent LEU hexafluoride, it could reduce breakout times to less than six months.”

Again, these are just part of the paper. But they’re enough to understand why Congress is demanding oversight: combined, the concessions made in just the last few weeks to the Iranians give Tehran a breakout time significantly shorter than 12 months, an enrichment facility where breakout can happen that’s impervious to most air attacks, and a verification regime so weak it threatens to undermine “regional security and peace.”

Here is Omri’s second message, commenting on the passage of the Corker-Menendez bill out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a unanimous vote:

That was quick. Apparently everything had indeed been worked out this morning. One token failed amendment, one vote on everything else in a single manager’s package, and then a quick vote. 19-0.

The big news from this afternoon isn’t actually the vote. It was already clear by late this morning that the legislation would get out of committee with strong bipartisan support, although I don’t think anyone was willing to predict unanimous support. As I wrote in the morning’s email with the Albright report, today’s compromise between Corker and Cardin guaranteed that the markup would be a snoozefest (let me know if you didn’t get that email, by the way, because the report at the bottom is now one of the most important policy document circulating around).

Instead the breaking news is that the Obama administration flipped this afternoon, just before the markup started, and withdrew its veto threat. Josh Earnest disclosed the move to reporters at today’s White House briefing. In retrospect this was probably just simple math. After the Corker-Cardin compromise, a Senate Democratic staffer told the New York Times that a veto-proof majority was now assured. McCarthy had already told reporters that he had the votes he needed in the House to sustain a veto. Someone in the White House seems to have counted to 67 and 290, and made the call.

The White House spin is that the Corker-Cardin compromise substantively altered the legislation, so that now just ‘a vote to vote later’ on sanctions. The spin is going to be tough to sustain, and it’s not yet clear what part of the legislation the White House is even claiming was substantively altered. One change reduced the time Congress gets to review a deal from 60 days to 52 days. Another change removed language linking sanctions to Iranian terrorism (Barrasso offered an amendment to put the restriction back in, which failed 13-6 and had Corker quipping that if Iranian terrorism kills Americans they’re going to get missiles not sanctions). Neither of those seem particularly dramatic.

The substantive problem for the White House spin is that this bill locks in what Corker-Menendez was always supposed to lock in: it gives Congress the ability to intervene after an Iran deal is signed by the parties but before it is implemented by Washington. The legislation prohibits the President from implementing the provisions of a deal immediately, and instead provides lawmakers with 30 days to review its details. If Congress acts to block the deal, the President will presumably veto that action, at which point lawmakers will have the remainder of the 52 days to try to override the veto.

Corker more or less rolled his eyes at the spin during today’s markup: “I think the reason the administration in the last 2 hours has chosen the path that they’re now taking, is the number of Senators that they realized were going to support this legislation.” He had already brushed aside the idea that there were any substantive changes: “This legislation is exactly the congressional review we’ve been working on since day 1.”

The political problem for the White House spin is that it looks like they lost big. They fought against oversight for months, up to and including accusing supporters of being warmongers (also something that came up during today’s session). The National Iranian American Council – one of the groups that has been at the front of the White House campaign to block Congressional action – issued a press release blasting the vote and declaring “the compromise amendment that was struck by Senators Corker and Cardin does not change the fundamental problems with this bill.” Beyond the substance, it’s just very difficult in DC to spin a loss like this. Votes spin themselves. The White House talk about substantive changes is probably aimed as much at preventing that narrative from taking hold, as it is anything else.

Let me add this: the bill is far from perfect. At best it just locks in how a post-deal vote would go down. Congress always would have needed 67 votes to do anything (imagine the first day after a deal; Congress passes new sanctions; Obama vetoes; Congress needs 2/3 to override). At worst it may help the President by letting him get a headline like “Congress approves Iran deal” if only 34 Senators approve.

But politically, it’s important to show that Congress disapproves of the President’s diplomacy to such an extent that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee just advanced legislation 19-0 prohibiting him from touching Congressional sanctions until they review a deal. It builds pressure on the administration to explain what they’re doing. It will serve as a formal way for the Senate to have a debate on the floor. It forces the issue.

UPDATE: Max Boot considers the bill in “Did Corker give Congress a fighting chance on Iran deal?” Jonathan Tobin asks: “Did Obama win by losing on Corker-Melendez?”

ONE MORE: Matt Continetti lays out a cogent case against the bill in “Corker’s folly.”