Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Are Syria, Iran playing Obama for a fool?

By Frida Ghitis
updated 8:55 AM EST, Fri January 31, 2014
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
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT