A foreign affairs columnist for The Wall Street Journal blasted the Obama administration for nearly agreeing to a treaty with Iran, which he says would have left its nuclear program intact while weakening sanctions against the country.
Bret Stephens, deputy editorial page editor at the Journal, who is responsible for international opinion pieces, also took the president to task for not striking Syria after the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people, when he previously said he would.
“He said ‘I’m the president of the United States; I don’t bluff,” Stephens said. “We’ve seen what’s happened in Syria, and it was a bluff.”
Speaking Tuesday at the Zionist Organization of America-Pittsburgh District’s 2013 Awards Dinner at Congregation Beth Shalom, Stephens spoke of the need for America to maintain a “muscular foreign policy” in the region to protect its interests.
The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist also spoke of a “meltdown of American credibility” in the region, which he said started under the Bush administration, but has accelerated under Obama.
“The red lines the president has announced are not red lines he is seriously prepared to honor,” Stephens said.
Talks between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the five permanent members of the United Nations General Assembly plus Germany) on limiting Iran’s nuclear programs broke down a week ago. Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Iran walked away form the deal, but Stephens credited France for standing firm against a bad deal, citing as proof, a tweet from the Iranian foreign minister contradicting Kerry. The talks resumed this week.
(JTA has reported that France took a hard line on the Geneva deal partly because of lingering anger with Iran over the murders of dissidents in its country following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, but also because France wants to close a lucrative arms deal with Iran’s neighbor, Saudi Arabia.)
Stephens added that Iran has become emboldened by mixed signals coming out of Israel over whether the Jewish state could militarily set back its nuclear program.
After 2010, he said, “Israel had a very nervous public breakdown about whether they could conduct a military strike against Iran.”
While sovereign states may legally have a right to develop nuclear weapons, Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, which legally checks that right.
“Iran is not a suicidal regime,” he said. “But it does plan to become the most assertive Muslim country in the world. Countries that have nuclear weapons matter in a way that countries don’t.”
Elsewhere in the region Stephens said the Arab states bordering Israel — Egypt and Syria — are in a “meltdown,” and he is especially concerned about Jordan, which has already taken in some 500,000 Syrian refugees — the equivalent to one in every 13 Jordanian residents.
He wonders how such an influx will affect the stability of Jordan, which has a peace treaty with the Jewish state.
“People need to think seriously what it means if the Hashemite Kingdom [Jordan] dissolves; what does Jordan become?” he said. He thinks Jordan could dissolve into another Yemen perched on Israel’s border, much like Sinai is becoming.
He also told the crowd to watch Egypt, which could “bleed political capital” in the year ahead, then collapse much like Algeria in the 1990s. Additionally, Libya, he said, could break apart into three to five different parts.
“What we see is this process of a kind of Middle East sort of vanishing, and we have no idea know precisely what is going to take its place,” Stephens said. “This ought to worry all of us, but it also ought to make us alert to the fact that the kinds of concessions that Israel might be contemplating vis-à-vis the Palestinians might be offered in a time and under circumstances which simply aren’t going to exist in five or 10 or 20 years time.”
He believes Israel is mindful of this, but not Western policymakers.
Stephens has visited Pittsburgh several times in the past and has personal connections to the city. He works closely with Pittsburgher Bari Weiss, associate editorial features editor at the Journal whose wedding he attended here earlier this year. Also, his wife was a German exchange student here and attended Pittsburgh Allderdice High School.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)