Over the years, President Obama has been criticized and praised — but mainly praised — for lacking a driving foreign policy ideology. It seemed to be one of the “childish things” he promised to set aside as he launched his presidency in 2009. America’s conduct in the world would be characterized by outreach, consultation, flexibility and a prudent recognition of limits.
Now comes the prospect of a nuclear deal with Iran, forcing a revised assessment from future presidential historians.
Obama is contemplating what Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute calls “a revolution in the conception of America’s role in the region.” Since the Carter administration — which saw the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Iranian revolution — U.S. presidents have pledged to prevent any hostile power from controlling the Persian Gulf. A series of alliances and relationships were established and maintained — sometimes with difficult or shady partners — to enforce the Carter Doctrine.
Now Obama is offering Iran the prospect of being, in his words, “a very successful regional power” in exchange for limits on its nuclear program. Across the board, the administration emphasizes common interests with Iran in the defeat of the Islamic State. So the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, recently argued that Iran’s direct military intervention in Iraq may be a “positive thing.”
A sort of offer to Iran was always on the table, at least during the George W. Bush years, if the regime would: (1) abandon its nuclear ambitions, (2) respect human rights and (3) end support for terrorism. Iran, in essence, could be treated as a normal nation if it actually became a normal nation.
Obama has now narrowed U.S. demands entirely to the first category, the nuclear file. Concessions in this area — perhaps even temporary concessions — will allow Iran to escape sanctions, rejoin the global community and even become a partner in defeating Sunni extremism. It is, presumably, an offer the Iranians can’t refuse.
This was the context for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. He was attempting to reconnect Iranian nuclear ambitions to its broader conduct, ideology and ambitions. In the process, the leader of a Jewish state — extraordinarily — became a credible spokesman for America’s Gulf State allies, who fear that the United States is overturning old promises and relationships.
This is happening. In its bold attempt at an Iranian opening, the Obama administration views Netanyahu, AIPAC, the Gulf States, Congress and, perhaps, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as obstacles. Its partners are Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Obama and a small knot of advisers believe this deal could be the defining foreign policy moment of the second term — the Cuba opening, times 100.
This driving vision has already distorted U.S. policy in a variety of ways. Obama could not take forceful action against Iran’s proxy, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, for fear of undermining nuclear negotiations. The administration has downplayed the issue of human rights in Iran for the same reason. The United States has now blessed the operation of Iranian-dominated militias within Iraq — particularly in the liberation of Tikrit — raising the prospect of Iranian control over Iraq’s security and oil sectors. Iranian military forces and proxies now operate freely from Baghdad to Beirut, seemingly tolerated in the overarching strategic goal of defeating the Islamic State.
As Obama has avoided direct confrontation with Iran to preserve the viability of nuclear talks, Iran has been busy destabilizing the Middle East, replacing us as the major power and threatening our allies. And those allies have taken note.
All these risks and compromises make sense only if Obama reaches his transformational agreement with Iran. But Iran knows this as well, which puts America in a poor negotiating position. U.S. weakness has already been advertised. The original goal of the group of six — enshrined in three United Nations Security Council resolutions — was for Iran to stop all enrichment and reprocessing. Obama gave up this demand at the beginning of negotiations, instead of (perhaps) conceding minimal enrichment at the end.
The likely result? A bad deal, leaving Iranians with substantial nuclear capability and infrastructure, beginning a mad rush to lift sanctions, and essentially accommodating Iranian aggression across the region. If, as the Obama administration will certainly argue, there is no alternative to accepting this agreement, it is because it has worked for none and left none.