In his column on Wednesday, Thomas Friedman, the foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, retreated from his previously articulated position that Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. In this, he mirrored a similar shift made by President Barack Obama.
On Wednesday, Friedman wrote:
The Obama team’s best argument for doing this deal with Iran is that, in time, it could be “transformational.” That is, the ending of sanctions could open Iran to the world and bring in enough fresh air — Iran has been deliberately isolated since 1979 by its ayatollahs and Revolutionary Guard Corps — to gradually move Iran from being a revolutionary state to a normal one, and one less inclined to threaten Israel. If one assumes that Iran already has the know-how and tools to build a nuclear weapon, changing the character of its regime is the only way it becomes less threatening.
The challenge to this argument, explains Karim Sadjadpour, a Middle East specialist at the Carnegie Endowment, is that while the Obama team wants to believe this deal could be “transformational,” Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, “sees it as transactional” — Iran plugs its nose, does the deal, regains its strength and doubles-down on its longstanding revolutionary principles. But, then again, you never know. What starts out as transactional can end up being transformational in ways that no one can prevent or predict.
The qualified nature of this argument—with phrases such as “could be” and “you never know” couched inside—differs significantly in tone from the unequivocal language that Friedman—citing Obama—used just three years ago.
In that context, President Obama, in his interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and in his address to Aipac, the pro-Israel lobby, offered the greatest support for Israel that any president could at this time: He redefined the Iran issue. He said — rightly — that it was not simply about Israel’s security, but about U.S. national security and global security.
Obama did this by making clear that allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons and then “containing” it — the way the U.S. contained the Soviet Union — was not a viable option, because if Iran acquires a nuclear bomb, all the states around it would seek to acquire one as well. This would not only lead to a nuclear Middle East, but it would likely prompt other countries to hedge their commitments to the global Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The global nuclear black market would then come alive and we would see the dawning of a more dangerous world.
“Preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon isn’t just in the interest of Israel, it is profoundly in the security interests of the United States,” the president told The Atlantic. “If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, this would run completely contrary to my policies of nonproliferation. The risks of an Iranian nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorist organizations are profound. … It would also provide Iran the additional capability to sponsor and protect its proxies in carrying out terrorist attacks, because they are less fearful of retaliation. … If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, I won’t name the countries, but there are probably four or five countries in the Middle East who say, ‘We are going to start a program, and we will have nuclear weapons.’ And at that point, the prospect for miscalculation in a region that has that many tensions and fissures is profound. You essentially then duplicate the challenges of India and Pakistan fivefold or tenfold.” In sum, the president added, “The dangers of an Iran getting nuclear weapons that then leads to a free-for-all in the Middle East is something that I think would be very dangerous for the world.”
In 2012, the certitude expressed by Obama and cited by Friedman that the “dangers of an Iran getting nuclear weapons” must be prevented has been replaced with “If one assumes that Iran already has the know-how and tools to build a nuclear weapon, changing the character of its regime is the only way it becomes less threatening.” The mantra of “no deal is better than a bad deal” has been replaced with “a bad deal is our only choice.”
There’s a second retreat apparent in Friedman’s column. Not only have Friedman and the president seemingly given up on preventing a nuclear Iran, but Iran and its nuclear program are secondary concerns of the administration’s Middle East policy.
This is apparent from Friedman’s argument in the final two paragraphs.
But, given the disarray in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, do we really care if Iran tries to play policeman there and is embroiled in endless struggles with Sunni militias? For 10 years, it was America that was overstretched across Iraq and Afghanistan. Now it will be Iran’s turn. I feel terrible for the people who have to live in these places, and we certainly should use American air power to help prevent the chaos from spreading to islands of decency like Jordan, Lebanon and Kurdistan in Iraq. But managing the decline of the Arab state system is not a problem we should own. We’ve amply proved that we don’t know how.
So before you make up your mind on the Iran deal, ask how it affects Israel, the country most threatened by Iran. But also ask how it fits into a wider U.S. strategy aimed at quelling tensions in the Middle East with the least U.S. involvement necessary and the lowest oil prices possible.
Friedman is arguing that “wider U.S. strategy” supports an American retreat from the Middle East, not the nuclear deal. The nuclear deal is a sweetener, with Friedman hoping that the deal will make Iran “less threatening.”
Friedman’s argument might be convincing if engagement with Iran had led to better behavior. But over the past year and a half, Iran has become more aggressive, not less, as evidenced by the growing sectarian violence fueled by Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Yemen.
He is arguing that the nuclear deal is what will enable the administration to withdraw from the Middle East and depend on Iran to keep order.
Three years ago, Friedman touted Obama’s toughness in confronting Iran. Now he’s justifying the president’s retreat.
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