When trying to make sense of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that a great deal of it has been meant to reward, placate, or at least avoid angering Iran.
With the world in flames after six years of Obama, there are two things he wants to fish out of the smoldering wreckage and hold up as “legacy” triumphs: a nuclear deal with Iran and a Palestinian state.
Certain events have left Israel less than enthusiastic about Palestinian statehood, or Barack Obama. That leaves the Iranian deal as the only foreign-policy prize Obama can grab for. (To put it even more cynically, Obama and his team understand how disastrous it will be for his “legacy” if Tehran detonates nuclear weapons before he’s been out of office for a while.)
David Rothkopf at Foreign Policy lays out the case for Iran as the biggest winner in the Age of Obama:
It is quite possible that, by the time Obama leaves office, no other country on Earth will have gained quite so much as Iran. Not all of this will be the doing of the United States, of course, and in fact some of it may prove to be the undoing of our interests in the long run. But there is no doubting that some of the remarkable gains that seem to be on the near horizon for Tehran will have come as a result of a policy impulse that was far closer to the heart of the president than is the on-again, off-again Asia initiative (which was really much more the product of the ideas and efforts of a bunch of his first-term aides and cabinet members than it was of his own impulses or those of his innermost circle).
In order to get that Iran deal, or at least keep the Iranians from embarrassing him, Obama is willing to put a lot on the table:
A deal with Iran, if it could be translated into action, would in theory produce a freeze on Iran’s nuclear program. That would certainly be a good thing. But it provides no guarantee that Tehran could not reverse course in the future, break its terms, or do as it has done for the past 30 years — namely, stir up mayhem in the region without the benefit of nuclear weapons. What it would provide — even in the midst of a congressional tug of war over Iran policy, with new sanctions coming from the Hill and presidential vetoes pinging and ponging up and down Pennsylvania Avenue — would be some White House-directed relief for Tehran. Presumably, a nuclear deal would further the thaw in the relations between the United States and Iran, while providing a great incentive for other countries to resume normal trading relations (to the extent they don’t have them already).
Iran would gain stature. Iran would have a better seat in the councils of nations. Iran would gain economic benefits. And Iran’s enemies would be furious.
As Rothkopf points out, these gains would come on top of Obama’s predecessor doing Iran the favor of crushing their old adversary Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Under Obama’s indifferent eye, Iraq is splitting into at least three sizable chunks, one of which is falling into Tehran’s orbit, as Iranian-backed forces take ground against ISIS under the umbrella of American air power. The fall of the government in Yemen at the hands of Shiite tribesmen will turn most or all of that nation into an Iranian satellite as well, depending on how much of it al-Qaeda gobbles up.
Then there’s Syria, where Obama briefly came as close as he ever has to thwarting Iranian ambitions by seeking to depose Bashar Assad. The liveliest moment in that little drama came when the feckless Obama, irritated at badgering from his critics about inaction in the face of Assad’s atrocities, made an ill-considered, off-the-cuff comment that if the dictator ever got around to using weapons of mass destruction against dissidents, he would cross a “red line,” triggering American action.
Unfortunately for Obama, Assad did indeed cross that red line, leading to a bumbling comedy of errors that ended with Secretary of State John Kerry shooting his mouth off and giving Russia’s Vladimir Putin the rhetorical leverage he needed to erase America from the Syrian equation.
Not long after that farce wrapped up, an unwilling Obama was once again forced to take action by global horror at ISIS’s atrocities against the Yazidis and their penchant for beheading Western hostages. The need to cobble together an effective strategy against what Obama once dismissed as the harmless, ineffective junior varsity league of al-Qaeda transformed Assad into America’s de facto ally against the Islamic State, and there have been discussions about making the alliance more formal.
Assad went from the gas-spewing monster who could have been targeted by American smart bombs into our partner against the even more horrible vermin infesting the rebellion against him, practically overnight, while Team Obama was left to stumble around the Syrian hinterlands, looking for a reasonably “moderate” group of militarily-effective rebels they could support. They’re still looking.
The curious part of Rothkopf’s analysis is that he gives Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a ton of grief for being mean and rude to Obama, giving Netanyahu most (but not all) of the blame for a relationship that has “deteriorated to the point that it was now the worst relationship in the history of ties between the leaders of the two countries.”
Rothkopf is particularly cross with Netanyahu for not being patient and waiting to see how Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran works out, instead accepting an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner to deliver a congressional address that will doubtless be strongly critical of the deal.
“If Bibi really wanted to assure Israel’s security, as he asserts, he would wait and hope — and quietly pressure the administration to make sure — that it’s a good one and a peaceful way to stop Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons,” advises Rothkopf.
If it turns out to be lousy or unenforceable, he can always oppose it. But for a foreign leader to come before Congress to seek to play U.S. politics and derail an ongoing negotiation is unprecedented and inappropriate. Moreover, it’s likely to backfire on many levels — not the least of which is cementing the inclination among many of Obama’s closest advisors that if they’re doing something that really pisses off Bibi, they must be doing something right.
Given the history of Obama foreign policy, how can anyone say Netanyahu is wrong to be deeply skeptical? Who really expects the Obama advisers that lost Yemen, snoozed through the rise of ISIS, turned Libya into an Islamist militia apocalypse, frantically tried to spin the murder of a U.S. ambassador into a movie review gone wrong, tried to shame Vladimir Putin and Boko Haram into good behavior with Twitter hashtags, claimed to be unaware that the Charlie Hebdo rally in Paris was a big deal, and worked to set the Muslim Brotherhood up as masters of Egypt, to drive a hard bargain with Tehran that neutralizes the threat of atomic theocracy?
Look at how this White House is beclowning itself in Afghanistan, certifying the Taliban as legitimate non-terrorist armed insurgents even as they detonate suicide bombs at funerals and use illegal operatives to slaughter Americans. The Taliban knows that Obama must confer legitimacy upon them, or else he looks like a fool for letting them run wild, and the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap looks even more like an act of delusional folly. The Taliban can take Obama to the cleaners because they know he needs a deal with them. Tehran is secure in the same knowledge, so they pocket one concession after the other while resolutely failing to hold up their end of a bargain they know Obama will never back out of—especially not if it would vindicate the American President’s number one personal adversary, Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Jerusalem Post on Friday relayed a report that Israeli officials think Obama has “already agreed to most of Iran’s demands in the P5+1 negotiations over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program,” unhappily judging that Washington “has given the Iranians 80 percent of what they want.” Does anyone who has followed Obama’s long, slow dance with Iran think that doesn’t sound plausible?
Rothkopf touches on the animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a point explored in greater detail by Adam Garfinkle at the American Interest. In essence, the Sunni vs. Shia struggle behind much of the Middle East’s strife is likely to continue heating up, and with ISIS and al-Qaeda on the Sunni side, there are strategic arguments for backing the Shia as the less murderously insane contestant and/or the side more likely to win the inter-Islamic struggle. That means backing Iran, either directly or indirectly—either is just fine with the mullahs. Actually, indirect backing from the Great Satan is preferable, because the mullahs seem inclined to demonstrate very little gratitude to the Obama administration for six very good years.