My meeting with Senator Carl Levin – a Michigan Democrat, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, to retire at the end of this term – was mentioned in yesterday’s post about the Iran sanctions. So you already know that the senator, “skeptical” as he may be about the talks, supports a two-month halt in congressional action on Iran. Testing Iran’s true intentions is the “responsible thing to do”, the senator says. He supports it, and so does the Israeli government. The fact that “every statement” from US officials on Iran contains skeptical ingredients is a testimony to how no one is deluding himself into believing that an agreement is a sure thing. Levin doesn’t see much difference between the opinions of the many people absorbed by the Iran issue– the main difference is where in the statements the skeptical reference appears.
He doesn’t want to say in advance what the US should do if the talks with Iran fail to achieve their goal. It's better, he says, “to take it one step at a time” and "not to speculate” on what will happen after that. One might find a clue to his view on Iran in what he says about Syria, where recent events have proved that “the threat of force has impact”. Levin believes that the Obama administration deserves “more credit” for the success in Syria and doesn’t see the current state of affairs as a chemicals-go-Assad-stays deal. “Assad should go”, he says – that’s both his and the administration’s public position.
The delay in providing support to the rebels in Syria seems to annoy him a little. But he can see why it happened: because the US military believed that the arms shouldn’t be delivered to rebels who are not fully vetted. But Levin has by now reached “a level of confidence” that the US can adequately identify those opposition forces that merit support.
We also talked about Egypt, where US support is shaky and Israeli apprehension about US policy is noticeable. Senators that are usually attentive to Israeli concerns – such as Levin, but also Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham – weren’t convinced by Israeli claims that an American insistence on punishing the Egyptian government would not be a good idea. Israeli officials are worried- as are some US legislators- when they see the Egyptian Foreign Minister suggesting to look “beyond the US for arms”. Levin is not as impressed. “We can’t ignore our law”, he says, referring to the law (which he quotes from memory) that forbids assistance to regimes that came to power by a coup against democratically elected governments. “It was a coup”, he says – even though the Obama administration was careful not to officially designate the events in Egypt as a coup.
John Kerry’s visit to Egypt last week, and his stated commitment “to work with” the Egyptian government – the Americans insist on calling it an “interim” government – “signals that we intend to keep the relations with the government”. Yet the law is the law, and it should be followed – aid should be cut – because this law “reflects a value”. It is important to Levin to “send a signal” to Egypt that it should keep its eye on the ball – moving back to democracy.