Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Are Syria, Iran playing Obama for a fool?

By Frida Ghitis
January 31, 2014 -- Updated 1355 GMT (2155 HKT)
Hundreds of refugees make their way across the Syrian border into Jordan. Many have walked up to 20 kilometers to flee the ongoing civil war in Syria. Hundreds of refugees make their way across the Syrian border into Jordan. Many have walked up to 20 kilometers to flee the ongoing civil war in Syria.
HIDE CAPTION
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
Syrian refugees flee to Jordan
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Syria has only removed about 4% of priority one chemical weapons, U.S. says
  • Frida Ghitis: Syria, Iran seem willing to toy with the U.S., raising doubt about negotiations
  • She says U.S. needs to make clear that it will back up its positions with action

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis.

(CNN) -- Remember Syria's chemical weapons? Yes, those, the ones the Syrian regime agreed to give up after President Obama threatened to bomb.

All of the "priority one" the most dangerous of those weapons, were supposed to be gone by December 31 last year. They're not. Almost all of them -- more than 95% -- are still in Syria despite a commitment by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to get rid of his deadly arsenal.

The deal to remove Syria's stock of WMD was the one tangible accomplishment of the Obama administration's approach to the Middle East's multiple crises. Now that deal looks to be failing, even as red flags also start flying along the path to a deal with Iran.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

It's hard to escape the impression that Iran and its close ally, Syria, are toying with the U.S.

America is earnestly seeking a diplomatic solution. And we should all hope diplomacy succeeds in securing an agreement that stops the carnage in Syria and one that prevents Iran from becoming a greater threat to its neighbors. But there is a reason these efforts are already running into trouble.

Secretary of State John Kerry is valiantly pursuing the suit-and-tie approach to peace, but Kerry is handicapped by the growing perception that Obama will not use military force under any circumstances. The U.S. doesn't need to release bombs to show it is powerful. What it needs to do is remind its adversaries, its enemies, that it has options beyond the well-appointed rooms of hotels along Lake Geneva.

Obama can do this by speaking directly and firmly about those choices. That alone would go a long way in reshaping some points of views, and could produce results. If it doesn't, more concrete steps would be required, from increasing material support for specific anti-al-Assad forces to a tightening of sanctions against Iran and other steps.

Diplomats can help concentrate the mind of their interlocutors when the people on the other side of the table worry about the possible cost of failure.

This is true of Syria's al-Assad, who has heard Obama's threats on the use of chemical weapons starting in the summer of 2012, and is still playing games with America while relentlessly slaughtering and starving his people.

And it is true about Iran, which just heard Obama during the State of the Union threaten to veto a plan to set the stage now for additional sanctions against Iran if negotiations fail in the next six months. Iranian officials presumably also heard the president state what so many have stopped believing: that he is prepared "to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon."

Iran foreign minister says Obama's remarks are for "domestic consumption"

The more we hear from the Iranians, the less likely it seems that a successful agreement can be reached.

After CNN's Fareed Zakaria talked to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last week, he concluded there's a "train wreck" on its way in negotiations. The U.S. is moving forward on the assumption that a deal would involve the dismantling of some key nuclear facilities, but Rouhani, the moderate face of the Islamist Republic, made it "categorically, specifically and unequivocally" clear that Iran has no intention of ever rolling back its nuclear program.

Playing for time with human lives
A Syrian refugee's story
Satellite photos show Syrian devastation
What's behind the new al Qaeda warning?

On Syria, I had heard rumors that the removal of its most terrifying weapons was not going as scheduled. Then an anonymous source told Reuters that the regime has delivered a dismal 4.1% of the 1,300 tons of toxic agents it has reported, "and there is no sign of more," on the way.

Then the U.S. confirmed it.

On Thursday, Ambassador Robert Mikulak, who heads the U.S. delegation to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, told the group that Syria is ignoring the timeline for removal of banned weapons and displaying "a 'bargaining mentality' rather than a security mentality." In addition, he said, there is little progress on Syria's commitment to destroy its chemical weapons production facilities.

If Syria's games over its chemical weapons sound familiar -- agreements followed by "misunderstandings" and endless delays -- it is because we see much the same already unfolding with Iran.

Iran's President and foreign minister are well versed in their communications strategy with the West. They are charming and fluent, speaking directly to Western publics who would like nothing better than to be done with the threat of a confrontation. And how great it would be to truly resolve the issue diplomatically.

Hope, however, is not a strategy any more than closing your eyes when you don't like what you see, as when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted that in the Geneva agreement the "world powers surrendered" to Iran. That's when the White House dismissed the worrisome statement as a play for a domestic audience.

Since then, however, one after another Iranian official has maintained they have no intention of taking apart any of their nuclear program. Without destroying any centrifuges, reactors, or other facilities, Iran can negotiate with the West, and receive political, diplomatic and economic benefits from the loosening of sanctions, as it already has. And then, as top Iranian officials have said, it can reverse any freeze and resume high-level enrichment in 24 hours. That's the vow from the top nuclear negotiator and the foreign minister.

Making matters worse, much worse, we have just learned that American intelligence officials believe Iran has essentially already reached the "nuclear breakout" capability it sought. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress this week that Iran has made "technical progress in a number of areas -- including uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors, and ballistic missiles -- from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons." In other words, he concluded, the only thing between Iran and nuclear weapons is a political decision to build the bomb. Everything else is already in place.

That extraordinary revelation received little attention in the U.S., where the headlines were consumed with the crisis in ice-logged Atlanta. In other places, the news was cause for alarm. "Heaven help us," tweeted a respected Israeli journalist, "Iran can now build and deliver nukes."

How is it possible that Iran and Syria are getting away with this?

Iran and Syria are not the only countries convinced that the U.S. will not take military action. Saudi Arabia apparently has reached much the same conclusion.

After his 2012 red lines became blurred, the deal to get rid of al-Assad's chemical weapons allowed Obama to claim he had succeeded in showing consequences for their use, even if al-Assad stayed in place and the killing continued. But now it looks as if essentially nothing has changed. Except that tens of thousands more have died.

To support American diplomacy, Obama needs to erase that image of a weak America. Again, there is no need to launch attacks and deploy troops. But there is a need to show to America's enemies they cannot play the U.S. for a fool. The President needs to assert convincingly that he will be able to exercise power if that becomes necessary. Nothing would be more helpful to the chances for diplomatic success.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
ADVERTISEMENT