Washington Post 7-19-2017

The U.S. and Iran are heading toward crisis

Monday was a tough day for President Trump’s agenda. As the Senate’s bid to overturn Obamacare collapsed amid Republican infighting (more on that later in the newsletter), the White House reluctantly certified Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal signed by the Obama administration in 2015. This was the second time the Trump administration has done so — it is required every 90 days to notify Congress whether Iran is living up to its commitments.

Trump assented to the move with profound reservations and pushed for more sanctions on Iran. “Senior administration officials made clear that the certification was grudging,” my colleague Karen DeYoung wrote, “and said that President Trump intends to impose new sanctions on Iran for ongoing ‘malign activities’ in non-nuclear areas such as ballistic missile development and support for terrorism.”

Trump reportedly fumed at having to assent to another certification of Iran’s compliance, which was confirmed by international monitors and the other signatories to the agreement. Key U.S. allies, including Britain, France and Germany, see the deal as an effective curb on Tehran’s putative nuclear ambitions. They don’t link its implementation to concerns about Iran’s other troublesome behaviors, including its support for various militant groups in the Middle East and its unjust detentions of foreign nationals.

“The nuclear agreement helps significantly to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Peter Wittig, the German ambassador in Washington, wrote this year. “But we remain very realistic about Iran’s problematic role in the region.”

Iran's Revolutionary Guard troops march in a 2016 military parade in Tehran marking the 36th anniversary of Iraq's 1980 invasion of Iran. (Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press)</p>

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard troops march in a 2016 military parade in Tehran marking the 36th anniversary of Iraq’s 1980 invasion of Iran. (Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press)

Iran remains the president’s No. 1 geopolitical bugbear. Trump, who seems determined to smash every pillar of former president Barack Obama’s legacy, repeatedly cast the deal as a capitulation to the Islamic Republic. The only memorable event in the short-lived tenure of ousted national security adviser Michael T. Flynn was his cryptic statement “officially putting Iran on notice.” In Saudi Arabia, on his first foreign visit, Trump signed on to Riyadh’s vision for the Middle East — one that is shaped first and foremost by antipathy toward Tehran.

According to Peter Baker of the New York Times, “Trump had told his security team that he would not keep [certifying Iran’s compliance] indefinitely” and complained at an hour-long meeting last week about doing so this time. His top advisers, including national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis — none of whom have much sympathy for the Iranians — had to convince him to abide by the accord.

While Candidate Trump blustered about scrapping the nuclear deal altogether, his administration has been compelled to shy away from such drastic unilateral action. Still, it seems Trump himself is eager for the deal to unravel.

The Trump administration has “deliberately created an environment of uncertainty by consistently questioning the validity” of the deal, said Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, which seeks better ties between Washington and Tehran, “hinting that the U.S. might quit the agreement, and by suggesting that it might pursue regime change in Iran.” Parsi said in an email that rather “than pursuing dialogue with Tehran to resolve remaining disputes, as every one of our European allies have done, the Trump administration has chosen to escalate tensions and eschew opportunities to come to a mutual understanding.”

At a NATO summit in May, Trump tried to convince European partners to stop making trade and business deals with Iran — a move that could in itself constitute a violation of the deal, which stipulates that its parties will “refrain from any policy” that would damage Iran’s economic dealings while it complies with the accord.

But officials from other governments that are signatories to the deal show little willingness to renegotiate its terms. Just last month, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel hailed the pact as “a great sign of hope” and a “historic window” for a rekindling of ties. Numerous European companies are plunging into the Iranian market. This month, French energy giant Total signed a landmark gas deal with Iran worth close to $5 billion.

“There is a clear division between where the Europeans are going and where the Americans are going on Iran,” Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said to my colleague Erin Cunningham. “The Europeans have embarked on a path of rapprochement. The U.S. is looking at a policy of isolationism and containment.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel speak to the media on June 27 in Berlin. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)</p>

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel speak to the media on June 27 in Berlin. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

That was not lost on Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who was in New York this week. At the Council on Foreign Relations, Zarif said the White House was sending “contradictory signals.” In an interview with the National Interest, Zarif scolded Trump’s supposed “violation” of the spirit of the deal.

“If it comes to a major violation, or what in the terms of the nuclear deal is called significant nonperformance, then Iran has other options available, including withdrawing from the deal,” he said. Although the White House would love to coax an Iranian withdrawal, that is unlikely to happen. Zarif also used his platform to chide Trump over the unraveling of his anti-Iran agenda, including the crisis among the Gulf states that flared up after Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia.

“We need to be more careful about the signaling, because we’ve seen that wrong signaling in the past few weeks in our region, particularly after the Riyadh summit, has caused a rather serious backlash in the region — not between U.S. allies and Iran, but among U.S. allies,” Zarif said, referring to the impasse over Qatar. “So I believe it would be important to keep that in consideration, to understand the complexities of the situation.”

“It is a devastating sign … that an American president is being outflanked so easily by an Iranian foreign minister,” Slate’s Fred Kaplan wrote. “It’s a sorrier sign still that the Iranian foreign minister is in the right.”

• The entire interview with Zarifconducted by the National Interest’s Jacob Heilbrunn, is worth reading. Zarif talks about how he doesn’t like the term “fake news,” suggests mediation with Saudi Arabia and reprises his regime’s usual talking points about the perils of American intervention in the Middle East. He also calls on the White House to recognize Iran’s political freedoms, such as they are, compared to their Arab neighbors across the Persian Gulf.

“The White House has to look at Iran as the only country in the region where people stand in line for ten hours to vote,” said Zarif. “It has to put aside those self-serving assumptions that some members of this administration have repeatedly stated. It has to set aside the assumption that it can create turmoil in the region and draw financial benefits from it.”

• Meanwhile, in Iran itself, the arrest of a U.S. scholar highlights an escalating power struggle between Zarif’s immediate boss, President Hassan Rouhani, and hard-liners opposed to him and the nuclear deal itself. Here’s my colleague Erin Cunninhgam again:

“But the moves by Iran’s judiciary — including the sentencing of a Princeton graduate student, Xiyue Wang, to 10 years in prison for spying — also undermine Rouhani’s attempts to build better relations with the West, which more-reactionary Iranian institutions such as the judiciary oppose. And they suggest an effort by ruling clerics to pressure the president to back down from confrontation on the domestic front, particularly ahead of the official inauguration of his second term next month, when Rouhani will pick his new cabinet.

“More broadly, however, the actions by the judiciary and Khamenei paint a picture of a hard-line establishment hitting back at an outspoken and popular president who has promised to curb some of the regime’s worst excesses.”

• In the latest sign of the “Islamization” taking place in Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish government announced a new school curriculum that excluded Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The curriculum also mandates that the once stoutly secular country’s increasing number of religious schools teach the concept of “jihad” as a form of national patriotism.

The head of a prominent science teachers’ union panned the move, telling Reuters: “The bottom line is: generations who ask questions, that’s what the government fears.”

• And, yet again, it’s time for a Trump-and-Russia story: It emerged on Tuesday that President Trump had a second, unofficial meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Hamburg. My colleagues Karen DeYoung and Philip Rucker reported that the hour-long conversation took place unexpectedly over a dinner for the G-20’s leaders; the White House confirmed that the talk took place, but countered that it was merely a “brief conversation.” From my colleagues’ story:

“Halfway through the meal, Trump left his own seat to occupy a chair next to Putin. Trump was alone, and Putin was attended only by his official interpreter.

“The encounter underscores the extent to which Trump was eager throughout the summit to cultivate a friendship with Putin. During last year’s campaign, Trump spoke admiringly of Putin and at times seemed captivated by him…

“The only version of the conversation provided to White House aides was that given by Trump himself, the official said. Reporters traveling with the White House were not informed, and there was no formal readout of the chat.”

As the story points out, the conversation — and the lack of other Americans taking part in it — will not help the White House’s efforts to put its Russia problems to bed.

An opposition activist holds a flag reading &quot;No more dictatorship&quot; during protest against Venezuelan President Nicol&aacute;s Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, on July 18. (Juan Barreto/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)</p>

An opposition activist holds a flag reading “No more dictatorship” during protest against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, on July 18. (Juan Barreto/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Collateral damage

When it comes to sanctioning Venezuela, the Trump administration has not dragged its feet.

In February, the White House slapped a sanction on the country’s vice president, allegedly because of his involvement in drug trafficking. In May, officials did the same to members of the country’s Supreme Court after it attempted to strip power from the opposition-led National Assembly.

President Trump said these policies were designed to punish the country’s increasingly autocratic leaders. Venezuela has “been unbelievably poorly run for a long period of time. And hopefully that will change,” he said at a press conference.

That change has not materialized so far. For months, thousands of activists have taken to the streets to decry President Nicolás Maduro’s efforts to dismantle the country’s democracy. More than 100 people have died, most at the hands of the army or police officials.

Now the U.S. is poised to tighten sanctions even further. It’s a response to Maduro’s latest maneuver: He’s endeavoring to replace the National Assembly with a new “Constituent Assembly,” which could rewrite the constitution — presumably in Maduro’s favor. A national referendum on the move will be held at the end of the month.

President Trump called Maduro a “bad leader” and “aspiring dictator,” warning that Maduro’s actions would bring about a “strong and swift economic” response. What that will look like, though, is still unclear.

Bloomberg has reported that the White House is considering measures that would target a couple of top officials who have committed human-rights violations. Others are pushing for a broader ban on crude oil imports from Venezuela. The country is the third-largest supplier of crude oil to the United States, and America is Venezuela’s biggest buyer.

Experts say that if the U.S. wants Maduro to step down, it needs to impose this kind of broad sanction. “Sanctions on oil exports … would be much more explosive” than targeted strikes against particular officials, said Edward Glossop, a Latin America economist with the London-based economic think tank Capital Economics, to CNN.

The big risk is that lots of innocent people will be hurt. “There is no real indication that the U.S. is willing to go as far as sanctioning the oil industry because it’s not clear who that hurts,” said Glossop. “It might hasten the end of Maduro’s regime but would also definitely make the humanitarian crisis worse in the near-term at least.” — Amanda Erickson

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaking to&nbsp;reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on June 17. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)</p>

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaking to reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on June 17. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

The big question

The Republican plan to end Obamacare died two separate deaths in 24 hoursOn Monday, two Republican senators came out against their party’s health-care bill, ending its chances of passage in the Senate. The next morning, the same thing happened to the backup plan of simply repealing Obamacare without a replacement and crafting a new bill later. President Trump seemed untroubled. “We’ll just let Obamacare fail,” he said. “We’re not going to own it.” But plenty of observers are placing blame at his feet for not leading an effective campaign in support of the health-care overhaul. So we asked reporter Aaron Blake of The Fix, the Post‘s politics blog: Is the latest health care failure Trump’s fault?

“In large part, yes.

“Passing large-scale health legislation, which undoes what basically amounts to an entitlement program, was always going to be difficult — especially in the Senate, where Republicans only have two votes to spare.

“As we’ve seen throughout this process, there is plenty for everyone to hate in these proposals. To conservatives, they leave too much of Obamacare intact. To moderates, they cut too much from Medicaid and will likely kick too many Americans off their insurance.

“In situations like that, you need a cohesive team. You need to believe your leadership has your back — or that running afoul of your leaders will have consequences. Trump has failed on this in two ways, by 1) Not really having a core set of beliefs on what this bill should look like and making them clear, and 2) Not applying presidential pressure.

“Trump has done little to suggest he cares or even knows about what’s in these bills. In fact, he has regularly suggested he’s not enamored of them. He called the House’s bill ‘mean’ and said the Senate’s version needed ‘more heart.’ After the bill was effectively killed on Tuesday, he basically gave the members who killed it a pass. ‘They’ll have to explain to you why they did, and I’m sure they’ll have very fine reasons,’ said Trump.

“That kind of comment has to drive Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) nuts. The one guy who could arguably bring the pressure needed to pass this bill basically thumbed his nose at the whole thing. Once it was over, he effectively shrugged his shoulders.The message to GOP lawmakers is now clear: Trump doesn’t really care if you don’t fall in line. That doesn’t bode well for equally difficult things like tax reform.”

President Trump is also getting flack for his Iran policy from the right, as a piece in the New York Times shows, with some conservatives seeing him as too soft. A soft approach may be the ticket on the North Korean issue, though, and South Korea may have the leader to pull it off. Meanwhile, Slate looks at how the investigation into President Trump by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III could be tripped up, while The Post has a shocking warning about the U.S.’ silence on child sexual abuse among our allies in Afghanistan.

On Iran, Trump is Obama 2.0
A Princeton student was just sentenced to 10 years for “spying.” Don’t expect the president to aggressively seek his release.
By Reuel Marc Gerecht | The New York Times  •  Read more »
South Korea’s president could be just the man to solve the North Korea crisis
Just as only the conservative Richard Nixon could thaw U.S.-China relations, the supposedly dovish Moon Jae In could defuse tensions with the Kim regime.
By S. Nathan Park | The Atlantic  •  Read more »
The many ways Robert Mueller’s Trump investigation could be derailed
If a president misuses his legitimate powers for illegitimate ends, that misuse can itself be an impeachable offense.
By Frank Bowman | Slate  •  Read more »
Afghan soldiers are using boys as sex slaves, and the U.S. is looking the other way
Afghan commanders compete — and sometimes battle — one another to snatch boys.
By Anuj Chopra | The Washington Post  •  Read more »
The average American’s chance of being struck by lightning is about one in a million, according to the National Weather Service — except if you’re in Florida. The New York Times recounts the incredible stories of four strike survivors from the state with more lightning than any other. Meanwhile, Reuters shows how women from rural areas are losing access to maternity care because of an increasing number of hospital closings, while Quartz explains how the trucking industry’s move toward automation will devastate the small towns that rely on human truckers’ business.

Hit by lightning: Tales from survivors
Florida has more lightning strikes and fatalities than any other state. Four tales of survivors with disparate stories that all began with a bolt from the blue.
By Lizette Alvarez | The New York Times  •  Read more »
Lights out
Rural hospitals are closing at an alarming rate, making it difficult for many women living in rural areas to get the same quality maternity care as their urban counterparts.
By Christine Chan, Jilian Mincer and Han Huang | Reuters  •  Read more »
A look inside the small US towns that will be crushed by the trucking revolution
“If the trucks are robotic and don’t stop anymore, these [small, trucking-dependent] towns cannot exist.”
By Dave Gershgorn and Mike Murphy | Quartz  •  Read more »

As you can tell from this shot, India’s Ganges River is polluted — almost unbelievably so. Shortly after Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister in 2014, he pledged to spearhead an effort to clean up the river, but the estimated $3 billion cleanup plan has faltered. “The Ganges is getting dirty day by day but nobody cares. Not even its children,” said one Hindu priest. Reuters photographer Danish Siddiqui traveled the supposedly dying river to document the lives and rituals at risk. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

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