An interesting new theory is gaining traction about President Barack Obama’s motives in the Iran nuclear deal, which not only allows Iran to retain nuclear enrichment but also effectively legitimizes the regime and boosts it as a regional power. On Monday, Lee Smith suggested that had Obama “switched sides,” and Michael Doran and James K. Glassman of the American Enterprise Institute speculate about his reasons for doing so.
Doran and Glassman suggest that Obama may see Iran as “the only island of stability in a sea of chaos and violence” with a government that, while brutally repressive, “hasn’t changed in 35 years” and a relatively vibrant economy even under sanctions. As I said Tuesday in discussing Smith’s theory, there are a number of counter-arguments, and it is likelier that Obama’s promotion of Iran’s interests is by accident rather than by design.
But let us assume, for argument’s sake, that Doran and Glassman are correct. There is an important aspect of Obama’s foreign policy that their theory brings into sharp relief, which is that Obama, like Jimmy Carter, prefers to deal with dictators and radicals rather than liberal democrats in the region. Carter once infamously claimed dictators simplify diplomacy. And the left in general sees radicals as more authentic, hence more stable.
These are both seductive fallacies, as the swift collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt recently showed. If Iran is a potential “island of stability,” that is not because of its genocidal regime but because of its dynamic civilization. It is not just a geographic area hacked out on a map by colonial powers, as Iraq and Syria are, for example. It has a social integrity, despite its troubled (and unstable) political history.
The goal of U.S. policy should be to liberate Iran from its regime. Unlike Iraq, where the removal of Saddam Hussein left a vacuum swiftly filled by competing sectarian interests and outside militias, the departure of the mullahs would leave behind one of the most advanced, aspirational, and–it is worth mentioning–pro-American societies in central Asia. Freed from tyranny, Iran could indeed be a great and stabilizing ally in the region.
The trouble is that the nuclear deal greatly reduces the chance of any sort of regime change–the second time in his presidency that Obama has saved the dictatorship. It is worth noting that the secret talks with the regime began while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still president. Again, all of this is likelier the result of incompetence than strategy on Obama’s part. Yet how much worse it would be if he actually did this on purpose!