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The Deadly Diplomatic Cult of ‘Restraint’

July 1st, 2014 - 2:08 am

Three Israeli teenagers are kidnapped and murdered. Their bodies are found in a rock pile near the West Bank  city of Hebron. It is horrible. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says “Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay.”

And from the wood-paneled office suites and limousine back seats of the diplomatic sphere — from Washington, the European Union and the United Nations — comes the usual chorus, urging that all parties show “restraint.”

That call for restraint is prefaced, of course, by expressions of sympathy and condemnations of the murders. But there is always that culminating line — the call for restraint — which undercuts all the rest. There was no restraint involved in the terrorist triple murder of those teenagers. But the hollow diplomatic default is to demand that the Israelis refrain from striking the terrorist leaders who spawn these attacks. That’s a brand of “restraint” that translates into an invitation for more terrorism.

From Secretary of State John Kerry, we hear that the news of murder is “simply devastating…a horrific loss…. We condemn this despicable terrorist act in the strongest possible terms” and “the perpetrators must be brought to justice.” But then there’s the thud of that closing line: “This is a time for all to work towards that goal without destabilizing the situation.”

From the EU comes a statement expressing “profound sorrow.” The EU condemns the killing of the three Israeli youths, sends condolences to their their families and friends, and professes to “share their grief.” The EU further trusts that “the perpetrators of this barbaric act will swiftly be brought to justice.” But then comes that inevitable disclaimer to round it off: “We call for restraint of all parties concerned in order not to further aggravate the fragile situation on the ground.”

From a spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon comes word that Ban believes “there can be no justification for the deliberate killing of civilians.” Ban hopes the perpetrators will be swiftly brought to justice, etc., etc., but then comes the ritual kicker:  Ban “calls on all parties to abide by their obligations under international law and to refrain from any actions that could further escalate this highly tense situation.”

Changing the mindset behind this diplomatic cult of “restraint” is a tall order. But one place to start would be to demand that our high-minded diplomats practice some restraint of their own — and alter the template for these statements. By all means, retain the condemnations, the expressions of sympathy and grief, and the calls for swift justice. But stop there. Show some genuine respect, not to mention decency and basic sense. Scrap the last line.

Cement, Lies, and Iranian Weapons Deals

June 27th, 2014 - 10:54 pm

Quick quiz. What do the following items all have in common?

Bags of cement, crates of marble, polyethylene pellets, lentils, cotton and powdered milk.

Answer: All these items, in recent years, have been used by Iran to conceal illicit weapons cargoes, shipped in alleged violation of United Nations sanctions.

The source for this information is a confidential 14-page report produced by the United Nations Panel of Experts on Iran sanctions, and obtained this Friday by Reuters — whose Louis Charbonneau has written a story disclosing some of its contents, under the headline “Exclusive — U.N. experts trace recent seized arms to Iran, violating embargo.”

The particular Iranian duplicity on which this UN report focuses is the shipment earlier this year of weapons hidden among bags of cement aboard a Panamanian-flagged ship, the Klos C. The weapons — including rockets, fuses, 120 mm mortar shells and roughly 400,000 bullets — were loaded onto the Klos C in an Iranian port. The Klos C then called at the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, before heading to the Red Sea, where the ship, making for Sudan, was intercepted by Israeli naval forces.

According to Reuters, the UN panel’s confidential report confirms that the weapons hidden aboard the Klos C were shipped from Iran, in violation of UN sanctions. (Apparently the report does not speculate on the ultimate destination for the weapons — which the Israelis said was Gaza. Nor could the UN experts confirm the Israeli account that the weapons were smuggled into Iran from Syria, before being loaded aboard the Klos C. Perhaps Israeli authorities have better intelligence on Syria, Iran and Gaza than do the eight experts on the UN panel? But the UN report does confirm that the weapons were shipped from Iran).

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The Labor Theory of the Iran Nuclear Talks

June 24th, 2014 - 9:38 pm

Karl Marx brought us the labor theory of value, which posited that the more work you put into producing something, the greater its worth.

That turned out to be rubbish. If you build a bridge to nowhere, then no matter how much labor you have poured into the project, the bridge is useless. You could spend months digging a huge hole in the ground with a teaspoon; it would be a lot of work, but that is no guarantee that by the end you would have produced anything of value. Quite likely you would simply have squandered time, effort and better opportunities in order to dig yourself into a large hole in the ground.

So it goes for U.S. negotiators at the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, who seem to be laboring under the theory that if they just work hard, and harder, and even harder, then in concert with Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany, they will produce a deal that will stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Actually, it’s even muddier than that. The aim by now seems to be to leave Iran with a nuclear program, but somehow promise that there will be no Iranian bomb at the end of this rainbow, and assure the world that Iran’s nuclear program will be — in the oft-repeated words of a U.S. senior administration official — “exclusively peaceful.”

It remains a mystery how that might work in practice, or what power, precisely, might enforce this vision of “peace” buttressed by Iranian nuclear facilities. On Tuesday, senior U.S. officials gave a briefing on the Iran nuclear talks — dubbed the P5+1 negotiations — to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Following the briefing, Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the committee, released a statement noting that “many Members of the Committee are concerned about the direction of these negotiations,” the biggest concern being that they are leading to a situation in which, ultimately, “it would be very easy for Iran to produce material for nuclear weapons — on a massive scale.”

But for U.S. officials engaged in these talks, the guiding imperative seems to be some sort of labor theory of diplomacy. Never mind the direction in which this diplomatic work crew might be shuffling. The idea seems to be that if the U.S. just works hard enough, with its cohorts, to produce a deal, then the deal will surely be worth something.

By now, the P5+1 talks are becoming an industry unto themselves. The Joint Plan of Action that provides the framework for these interim negotiations was struck last November, setting a July 20th deadline for talks meant to reach a lasting and comprehensive agreement with Iran — unless they don’t, in which case the deadline might be extended to next January. The talks, hosted in Vienna, began in February, and have continued since then with monthly high-level rounds, and multiple “technical” rounds between. In other words, it is now seven months since Iran agreed to talk, and for five months all parties to this endeavor have been talking.

Yet, in a background press briefing following the most recent round, last Friday, a senior U.S. administration official — so punch drunk as to remark “I’ve lost all track of time” — was still saying “we have serious work, very serious work left to do.” That’s not for lack of work having already been done. This same U.S. official elaborated that “an enormous amount of work has gone into this by everyone — enormous.”

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At the United Nations, it’s a pretty reliable rule that when something looks bad on the surface, there’s worse rot beneath. That’s no accident. It’s a natural product of UN secrecy, bureaucracy and membership freighted with unfree states. Mix those elements together, and they yield a moral compost heap in which bad policy and bigotry flourish. By the time something troubling sprouts into plain view,  it has already set down a massive root structure within the UN hothouse.

For the past six years, one product of this mulch was the UN Human Rights Council’s sponsorship of Richard Falk as a special rapporteur for what the UN Human Rights Council is pleased to call “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” This has been a lopsided anti-Israel mandate since its conception, and Falk with great zeal translated it into a platform for attacking Israel and the U.S. That made waves in the U.S. last year when Falk blamed America for the Islamist terrorist bombings of the Boston Marathon. More than two dozen members of Congress called for the UN to fire Falk. As it turned out, the UN Human Rights Council (reborn in a 2006 flurry of “reform” from the irredeemably corrupt UN Commission on Human Rights) has no procedure for firing a special rapporteur, nor does the UN require its rapporteurs to divulge such niceties as other sources of funding and support. Falk carried on until his term expired this month, only to be replaced by a candidate with a similar anti-Israel record, Indonesia’s Makarim Wibisono. So far, so bad.

But neither is the Falk connection entirely gone.  The UN Human Rights Council has now appointed, as another of its special rapporteurs, none other than Richard Falk’s wife — Hilal Elver. She shares her husband’s work, agenda and predilection for 9/11 conspiracy theories, Israel trashing and so forth. You can read more about her on the web site of Geneva-based UN Watch, which called her UN appointment “bizarre, nepotistic, and politically driven.” UN Watch in its online briefing includes a link to Elver’s application for the post, complete with “self-disqualifying answers, non-sequiturs, and more than 20 spelling mistakes.” Her specific post is special rapporteur “on the right to food,” a post which UN Watch notes was initiated by Cuba and “first held by Jan Ziegler, founder and recipient of the Muammar Qaddafi Human Rights Prize.”

To this I’d add, if the UN’s aim is to ensure that people around the globe have enough to eat, the real project should be the right to freedom — the point being that free people have a far better record of ensuring all can eat well than do oppressed people whose “right to food” is overseen by state planners and UN rapporteurs. But campaigning for freedom to choose is not an agenda that would generate much business for the UN or its deep bench of cronies.

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Here we go again. On the heels of the fourth round of Iran nuclear talks in Vienna — which evidently went so badly that a senior U.S. administration official described them Friday as having reached “a moment of great difficulty” — Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is twittering that “peaceful nuclear power is the inalienable right of our entire nation.”

Everything about that Rouhani tweet is a lie. Iran’s nuclear program is patently not peaceful. To believe that, you would have to believe that rather than comply with international norms for nuclear power, the terror-sponsoring messianic regime of one of the world’s most oil-rich states has been willing to suffer international sanctions for years, building secret uranium enrichment facilities, working on an industrial-scale plutonium factory in the form of a heavy water reactor and developing long-range ballistic missiles (while threatening Death to America and the eradication of Israel). All this is for what? To power the electricity grid?

Nor does Rouhani speak for the entire Iranian nation. He speaks for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has ruled Iran since taking over from the late Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. If the people of the Iranian nation happen to disagree with the edicts of their rulers, their recourse is not to freely change their government, but to risk their necks seeking some way to protest — at risk of being imprisoned, tortured, and possibly killed. Amid the diplomatic whirl of the nuclear talks, has the world forgotten the carnage in the streets of Tehran in 2009, including the lethal shooting, caught on camera, of Neda Soltan?

And then there is the matter of Iran’s satraps claiming that they may engage in their nuclear projects as an “inalienable right.”

This has been the Tehran regime’s refrain for years. Here’s an account of Iran’s recent ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, talking in 2012 in New York about Iran’s “inalienable right” to enrich uranium (Khazaee, as well as his predecessor at the UN, Javad Zarif — who is now Iran’s foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator — also apparently both felt they had an inalienable right to abuse their UN diplomatic privileges by overseeing multi-million dollar money laundering operations in New York for the Iranian government, via the Alavi Foundation).  Here’s Zarif, this past March, on Iran’s PressTV, speaking in English (presumably for international consumption), about Iran’s nuclear program as an “inalienable right” — and then defining that to mean something that “cannot be taken away” and “does not need recognition.”

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Credit the Geneva-based UN Watch with dredging the diplomatic swamps of the United Nations to bring to light the appalling information contained in an April 23 UN press release. The soporific headline of the release: “Economic and Social Council, Opening Coordination, Management Meetings, Adopts Five Decisions, Holds Subsidiary-Body Elections.”

I’ll get to the bombshell in a minute. But first, for those who might not be familiar with the UN’s Economic and Social Council, best known to its intimates as ECOSOC: this is a body enshrined in the 1945 UN Charter. It consists of 54 member states, elected to three-year terms by the UN General Assembly. Within the UN, ECOSOC is no small presence. On its web site, ECOSOC describes its portfolio as including “[t]he world’s economic, social and environmental challenges,” and claims “broad responsibility for some 70% of the human and financial resources of the entire UN system, including 14 specialized agencies, 9 ‘functional’ commissions and five regional commissions.”

Thus laden with responsibilities, ECOSOC met this Wednesday, and — as mentioned in its eye-glazing press release — held elections “to fill numerous vacancies in 17 of its subsidiary bodies.”

So what? Here’s what: here’s information on that same ECOSOC meeting translated into the more forthright language of the UN Watch press release:

“Iran sweeps coveted UN rights posts.”  

Yes, ECOSOC has just elected Iran — again — to the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women.

ECOSOC also elected Iran to the Commission on Science and Technology for Development, and (by acclamation, which presumably means the U.S. agreed) the Commission on Population and Development. Iran is also among ECOSOC’s nominees — to be elected by the General Assembly — for the Committee for Programme Coordination.

For good measure, ECOSOC also elected Iran to the 19-member Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations. As UN Watch notes, this is a powerful committee because it decides which NGOs are allowed official access to the UN system. Membership on this committee, according to UN Watch, is “a coveted position because it allows governments to silence criticism by acting as the gatekeeper and overseer of all human rights groups that seek to work inside the world body.”

America’s UN ambassador Samantha Power pronounced the U.S. “very disappointed” by the results of ECOSOC’s NGO Committee election. She noted that Iran’s authorities “regularly detain human rights defenders, subjecting many to torture, abuse, and violations of due process.” Power further noted that in the regional-bloc voting system of the UN, where Iran is a member of the Asia-Pacific group, it is particularly troubling that Iran won its NGO Committee seat by running unopposed.

Amid the murk of UN elections, that’s an interesting bit of information. One might well wonder why the U.S. government — considering its official “pivot” to Asia — did not do more to persuade one of Asia’s democracies to run against Iran.

Perhaps there’s room here for some creative diplomacy. Given Iran’s eagerness to serve on UN commissions, committees, conferences, governing boards, and anything else up for grabs, perhaps it’s time the U.S. campaigned for the UN to establish a Committee for Misogynistic, Sanctions-Violating Human Rights Abusers. ECOSOC seems to like that sort of thing; Iran would fit right in.

At least it appears the U.S. administration has few illusions left about Russia’s further designs on Ukraine, from which Vladimir Putin last month swiped Crimea. On Sunday, as Russia pressed ahead with a similar script in eastern Ukraine, the State Department put out a cascade of statements detailing Russia’s campaign of causing bloody trouble in order to justify intervention.

The State Department’s diplomatic blog carried a report that in Ukraine this weekend “Coordinated, well-armed Russian-backed militants attacked government buildings in a professional operation in six cities in eastern regions. Many of the attackers were carrying Russian-origin weapons and outfitted in bulletproof vests and camouflage uniforms with insignia removed.” The State Department press office released a fact sheet titled “Russian Fiction the Sequel: 10 More False Claims,” refuting Russia’s “false and dangerous narrative to justify its illegal actions in Ukraine.”

A State Department media note warned that the methods of the armed takeovers of government buildings in half a dozen cities in eastern Ukraine, apparently planned in advance, “strongly suggest that in eastern Ukraine Russia is now using the same tactics that it used in Crimea in order to foment separatism, undermine Ukrainian sovereignty, and exercise control over its neighbors in contravention of international law.”

All of which might be effective if Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had a deep and abiding respect for “international law.” Or if the U.S. still had a credible policy of supporting and potentially enforcing such concepts with military muscle — which is the language Putin speaks.

But U.S. credibility is becoming a relic of a bygone era — fading like the “red line” in Syria, shrinking like U.S. military resources, dwindling like the U.S. nuclear arsenal and worth about as much as the promises to stand (with the international community) against a Russian grab for Crimea. The U.S. default is to talk…and talk… and talk… relying on words, backed by more words; hoping for the grand diplomatic solution (Iran, Syria, the Palestinians, and now Ukraine) as the words carry ever less weight. In February, as Russia threatened Ukraine’s Crimea, President Obama declared that “The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.” In March, as Russia was in the process of annexing Crimea, Obama said that “the United States has mobilized the international community in support of Ukraine to isolate Russia for its actions” and noted that “We saw this international unity… when Russia stood alone in the Security Council defending its actions in Crimea.”

Evidently, the Kremlin has decided that its armed provocateurs backed by 40,000 troops on the eastern border of Ukraine will trump any amount of isolation at the UN Security Council. This was excruciatingly clear at an emergency meeting of the Security Council Sunday evening. It was the Security Council’s 10th meeting this year on Ukraine, and there was no sign that it was any more successful at corralling Russia than the previous nine. Not that this should be a surprise, given that Russia holds one of the Permanent Five veto-wielding seats — meaning that an actual resolution, whatever that might be worth, is out of the question.

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Iran—It’s Not Just About the Nukes

April 11th, 2014 - 12:53 am

Under the headline “U.S. needs to plan for the day after an Iran deal,” Thursday’s Washington Post carried an op-ed by former Gen. David Petraeus and former Senate staffer Vance Serchuck, in which they made some vital points about what might lie beyond the Iran nuclear talks. Most important: Even if the U.S. and its negotiating cohorts reach the desired nuclear deal with Iran, the threat from Iran does not by any stretch end there. Petraeus and Serchuk argue that the result could make Iran, in some ways, even more dangerous.

Why? Well, under the Joint Plan of Action that frames the nuclear bargaining sessions in Vienna, the aim is to reach a “comprehensive agreement” that would stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Iran, in turn, would enjoy among other things the lifting of the large web of nuclear-related sanctions that have been constraining its economy.

But, as Petraeus and Serchuk point out, “lifting sanctions would also lead to the economic empowerment of a government that is the leading state sponsor of terrorism.” And once the U.S. and its partners go down that road, they say, the likeliest result would be to “strengthen Tehran’s ability to project malign influence in its near-abroad, including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, the Arabian peninsula and the Palestinian territories.”

As they further argue: “Rather than marking the end of our long struggle with Iran, therefore, a successful nuclear deal could result in the United States and our partners in the Middle East facing a better-resourced, and, in some respects, more dangerous adversary.”

They prescribe a number of steps that should be taken to try to mitigate these risks, including “a clear plan for immediate reimposition of crippling sanctions in the event of inadequate Iranian implementation of an agreement.”

Please allow me to rephrase that last item more bluntly. The further danger is that Iran might reap the benefits for its terror networks and malign reach — but also cheat on a deal and get nuclear weapons anyway. To my mind, if these nuclear talks keep rolling forward — as the Obama administration seems desperately eager for them to do — that mix of enhanced terror reach, plus nuclear weapons, seems the likeliest result. Perhaps that explains the chronic grin on the face of Iran’s foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif.

On Thursday the United Nations General Assembly weighed in on Russia’s seizure of Crimea, inspiring headlines to the effect that Russia is becoming a pariah at the UN. For instance, the New York Times reported: “Vote by U.N. General Assembly Isolates Russia.”

If only it were that straightforward. But if you look at the actual resolution, and the vote, it’s more like the UN General Assembly has sort-of-maybe-somewhat semi-isolated Russia. The point being that, unfortunately, the UN is no place to go for any solution to Russia’s territorial grabs.

The UN body that should really be objecting to Russia’s seizure of Ukraine is the UN Security Council. But with Russia holding one of the Permanent Five veto-wielding seats, the Security Council is even more impotent than usual. So Ukraine had to take its case to the General Assembly, where the resolutions can carry a certain heft as a reflection of general opinion, but have no binding force.

So it was that the General Assembly took up a resolution on the “Territorial integrity of Ukraine.” Clearly the spirit behind this resolution is outraged protest over Russia’s heavily armed grab of Crimea from Ukraine. The actual language, however, is so demure that Russia is mentioned exactly once, and then only by way of a reference to Russia’s 1997 Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation with Ukraine. There is no mention of Russian troops, or that the March 16 secessionist referendum in Crimea — leading to Russian annexation — was held at Russian gunpoint. The resolution calls on “all States” to “desist and refrain” from any attempt to carve off pieces of Ukraine. (It seems safe to assume that Canada, Belgium and the Marshall Islands will take heed). The resolution further calls on “all States, international organizations and specialized agencies” to reject the March 16 referendum in Crimea.

The vote on this resolution was 100 in favor, 11 against. That is certainly a sweeping majority of yeas versus nays. And if the UN had no more than 111 member states, it would be an emphatic majority opposed to Russia carving up Ukraine. Russia would indeed be isolated in this crowd.

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In response to U.S. and European Union sanctions on a number of Russian officials, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, has threatened that Russia might change its stance on the Iran nuclear talks. That could put an end to the official unity with which the permanent five Security Council members — the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia, plus Germany (dubbed the P5+1) — have been holding talks in Vienna with Iran, over Iran’s nuclear program.

And if the P5+1 start quarreling among themselves, while bargaining with Iran, that might sabotage the Iran nuclear talks.

This is playing in the press as something to be alarmed about. Actually, if Russia does go ahead and cause trouble at the Iran nuclear talks, Moscow might quite unintentionally be doing the West a great favor. I’ve been in Vienna for the first two rounds of these talks, Feb. 18-20 and March 18-19, and there’s no sign that this diplomatic process is going to stop Iran from getting the bomb. Rather, Iran is making some temporary and reversible concessions, while continuing to enrich uranium, and refusing to give up its ballistic missile program or abandon construction of a heavy-water de facto plutonium-factory reactor near Arak. Reuters reports that Iran is continuing its illicit activities for procuring items for its missile and nuclear programs.

Meanwhile, as part of the diplomatic interim deal known as the Joint Plan of Action, Iran is enjoying some relief from sanctions, and Iran’s foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has been jetting around the world declaring his country has an “inalienable right” to enrich uranium, and soliciting help for Iran with nuclear technology. Whatever “isolation” had been imposed on Iran’s diplomats (and there has been precious little of that, if any), Zarif when he comes to Vienna for the nuclear talks is treated as a special guest of the Austrian government, which has been picking up the tab for Zarif to bunk down in a former Viennese palace, now a gorgeously restored, lavishly appointed hotel. For more on both the amenities and the follies of these nuclear talks, see my Wall Street Journal op-ed on “Waltzing With Iran in the Nuclear Ballroom.”

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