by Martin Sherman
The ongoing turmoil in Iran highlights both the duplicity to which the Obama administration resorted & the missed opportunity for a better deal.
The alternative is a region wide explosion with totally unpredictable consequences….Just think how that would work out in the end… I think that is a policy of self-destruction – Zbignew Brzenski, trying to justify Obama’s Iran deal by scaremongering, Apr. 4, 2015, MSNBC.
We created an echo chamber…They [legions of ‘freshly minted” arms-control experts who became key sources for hundreds of often-clueless reporters] were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.– Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s Advisor for Strategic Communications, revealing the duplicity resorted to in order promote the 2015-Iran nuclear deal, New York Times, May 5, 2016.
Things are going badly—very badly—for the Barack Obama “legacy”.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with what had been dubbed his “signature foreign policy goal”—the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Indeed, as time passes it is becoming ever-more evident that the entire arrangement with Tehran is on an inevitable collision course with recalcitrant realities.
For as more and more comes to light regarding what was done—and what was not—in order to ruthlessly and recklessly railroad the dubious deal through, the more astonishing—indeed, inexplicable—the Obama administration’s behavior seems to be.
Or does it?
After all, as more and more revelations emerge, so does what appears to be almost incomprehensible incompetence, and/or deliberate dereliction, making it increasingly difficult to accept unquestioningly that the negotiations with Tehran were conducted in good faith.
Indeed, as I have written elsewhere, the really chilling aspect of the Obama incumbency is that it is genuinely difficult to diagnose whether the abysmal results it produced, represent a crushing failure of his policies—or a calculated success; whether they are the product of chronic ineptitude or purposeful foresight; whether they reflect myopic misunderstanding, moronic incompetence or malicious intent.
At least two recent developments have propelled this quandary into even sharper relief —in two different ways: The one alludes to the depths of the duplicity to which the Obama administration was prepared to resort in order to push the deal through; the other, to the needlessness of the generous accommodation of the Iranian demands, which the deal entailed.
No rabid radical right-wing rag
The first of these developments was the December 2015 Politico exposé charging that the Obama administration purposely impeded a federal investigation into the drug and weapons trafficking of Tehran’s terror surrogate, Hezbollah, to avoid undermining the nuclear deal—a topic I dealt with in a recent column.
The other is the current wave of unrest sweeping across Iran, sparked by the dire economic conditions, spiraling unemployment and rampant corruption in the country, reflecting wide-spread disaffection and discontent with the incumbent tyrannical theocracy. This evident socio-economic disarray and civic dissatisfaction portray a picture of a country with a precarious political regime and a poorly performing economy—even in the relatively conducive post-sanctions conditions. This utterly belies the perception conveyed by the Obama team of a formidable foe, which could compel the US and its powerful allies to accept the highly accommodative 2015 deal, and the consequent ominous warning that there was “no alternative”, other than catastrophic war.
The fact that the almost 15,000 word exposé on the obstruction, orchestrated by the White House, of a federal investigation into Hezbollah was published in a major mainstream media outlet such as Politico, imparts weight to the gave allegations its lays out. After all, Politico is hardly a rabid rightwing rag, purveying radical Obama-phobic rumors. Indeed, soon after publication, Secretary of Justice Jeff Sessions, ordered the Department of Justice to initiate a review of the conduct of the federal investigation into Hezbollah’s illicit operations—including the funneling of cocaine into the US.
Accordingly, whatever the outcome of such a review, the fact that such grave allegations are not publicly perceived as totally implausible, is sufficient to cast a pall of doubt not only on the merits of the substantive content of the deal and the manner in which it was concluded, but inevitably, also on the underlying motivations of those who pursued it with such unswerving—read “obsessive”—vigor. Indeed, in the words of Bloomberg columnist, Eli Lake: “Obama from the beginning of his presidency tried to turn the country’s ruling clerics from foes to friends. It was an obsession.”
This diagnosis appeared in a 2016 analysis by Lake of why Obama turned his back on the Iranian demonstrators, who took to the streets in protest against the regime in what has become known as the 2009 “Green Revolution”.
This brings us back to the issue of civil discontent in Iran, and what it reveals about Obama’s fixation with making a deal—any deal—with the ayatollahs, and about what other alternatives, which could—indeed, should—have been pursued.
Indeed, Lake catalogues the sharp divergence between the manner in which the US responded to other cases of popular uprisings against despotic rulers, where it actively supported them; and the manner in which it responded to the Iranian uprising, where it explicitly prohibited extending backing to any opposition to the incumbent regime.“A deal at any cost…”
Lake’s bleak analysis is largely corroborated by former Israeli ambassador to the US during the Obama-era, Michael Oren.
In a recent interview, Oren noted that: “The Obama administration’s lack of support for the Green Revolution was part of a pattern in which it did not hold Iran accountable for any provocation. It would seem it was part of a general approach that began in Obama’s first week in office in 2009 of wanting to reach a deal with Iran at pretty much any cost.”
Indeed, perhaps one of Oren’s most troubling claims is that Obama failed to follow through on the “red line” he himself imposed on the Iranian backed Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, regarding the use of chemical weapons, so as not to undermine the prospects of the nuclear deal.
This excessive eagerness on Obama’s part for a deal, matched only by his far-reaching reluctance to hold Iran (or its proxies operating under its auspices) responsible for any malfeasance, however nefarious, cannot but raise disturbing and dismaying speculation by any fair-minded person as to the real motives that lay behind the Iran nuclear deal.
This sense of unease is heightened by the stark divergence between the stated objectives, set by the Obama administration itself, that were purportedly to be attained in any agreement with Tehran, and those actually attained in the final agreement.
Thus, in a debate in his 2012 bid for reelection, Obama himself proclaimed that the US’s goal was what he later claimed to be unattainable: “Our goal is to get Iran to recognize it needs to give up its nuclear program and abide by the UN resolutions that have been in place…the deal we’ll accept is: They end their nuclear program. It’s very straightforward”.
Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, who played the leading role in ushering in the Iran deal, echoed very similar sentiments. Appearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on December 10, 2013, Kerry declared: I don’t think that any of us thought we were just imposing these sanctions for the sake of imposing them. We did it because we knew that it would hopefully help Iran dismantle its nuclear program. That was the whole point of the [sanctions] regime.
Of course, the deal eventually concluded, came nowhere close to meeting these professed goals. Indeed, former Secretary of State and Nobel Peace laureate, Henry Kissinger, aptly articulated the abandonment of the original goals, lamenting that the US had shifted its focus from preventing, to permitting, proliferation. Thus, in a January 2015 appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee he warned: “Nuclear talks with Iran began as an international effort, buttressed by six U.N. resolutions, to deny Iran the capability to develop a military nuclear option. They are now an essentially bilateral negotiation over the scope of that capability…The impact of this approach will be to move from preventing proliferation to managing it.”
Iran on a glide path to nuclear weapons
Underscoring the deadly detriments in the then-emerging Iran deal, John Hannah cautioned ominously in “Foreign Policy” a few months prior to its conclusion.
“Make no mistake,” he warned “ …It puts us on a glide path to a world in which a militant Islamic theocracy — with the blood of at least a thousand Americans on its hands — that wants to destroy Israel and spread terror and violence across the Middle East is but a stone’s throw away from having the capacity to achieve a nuclear arsenal that… no one will have time to stop.”He reminded his readers: “This is exactly the outcome that U.S. policy has fought so mightily to prevent for the better part of two decades,” adding caustically: “That strikes me as a pretty good definition of a bad deal.”
He disdainfully dismissed the contention that no better alternative existed, pointing out that it was “irrelevant to the standard that the president himself has repeatedly insisted would guide his strategy. That is: No deal is better than a bad deal period. Full stop. End of sentence.” He ends his article endorsing the “No deal is better than a bad deal” principle, urging Obama to adhere to the policy parameters he himself set: “The president is right. Now, difficult as it may be, he needs to follow his own policy.”
Sadly, Obama chose not to.
What current unrest exposes: Cowardice or complicity
The claim that the US and its powerful allies could not coerce an impoverished, economically emaciated, drought stricken Iran to agree to a far more advantageous deal, that would not only compel it terminate its nuclear program, but also to curtail its other nefarious and bellicose operations—such as sowing regional instability, developing longrange missiles, and propagating global terror—has a distinctly hollow ring to it.
Elsewhere, I have detailed the overwhelming imbalance of power in favor of the US, essentially making a mockery of the implicit claim by the Obama White House that Iran could deter America from imposing the dismantlement of its nuclear facilities by threatening a military response.
However, the recent riots in Iran amplify the absurdity of such a claim. For they expose Iran—even after the lifting of sanctions–as an inherently weak, mismanaged nation, with a politically challenged leadership and dismally dysfunctional economy–crippled with cronyism and corruption and massive unemployment (13% overall, almost 20-30% among young people and in some cities reportedly as high as 60%).
The country is facing a dramatic water crisis, which according to some sources will compel the relocation of up to 60% of its population within the next 25 years.
It is thus inconceivable that if a pre-deal Iran, facing economic implosion, social unrest and simmering political insurrection, were confronted with a resolute demand to dismantle its nuclear installations; or face the specter of enhanced sanctions backed by a credible threat of coercive action aimed at destroying its national infrastructure – dams, power-stations, bridges, harbors and airports –it would not have been compelled to comply.
Only cowardice or complicity of the US administration can explain why this policy was not adopted.
Iran’s inalienable rights vs. the West’s unavoidable duty
To be sure, in an international system comprised of sovereign states, Iran, as a sovereign state, has an inalienable right to pursue weaponized nuclear capability.
However, as the current regime is manifestly inimical to everything the Free World purportedly holds dear, the countries comprising that group (aka “The West”), led by the US, have an unavoidable duty to prevent it from exercising this right.
That is the unavoidable dialectic dynamic that must be maintained in the international system, if it is not to spiral into a cataclysmic nuclear confrontation.
In the short-run, the potential for such a clash can only be averted by confronting Iran with a credible coercive option along the lines outlined above. In the long-run, it can only be avoided by a regime-change, in which the current rulers are replaced by less aggressive and less expansionist successors.
However, if the West could not find the resolve or courage to implement such a strategic blueprint when facing a non-nuclear Iran, economically depleted by sanctions, how plausible is it that it will be willing/able to do so when facing a nuclear Iran, economically replenished by sanction relief?
Could it be that ,at least on the Iranian issue, many Netanyahu-phobic critics, both in Israel and abroad, have some serious soul-searching to do?
Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies