The Obama administration’s latest approach to the Middle East may be its most dangerous yet, choosing terror-sponsor Iran over longtime Arab allies. And that’s on top of the president’s seeming desperation to strike a nuclear deal at any cost. What is going on?
The United States has entered a difficult period in its relations with its traditional Middle Eastern allies—especially Israel, Egypt, and the Gulf states. Much of the tension has resulted from what is often perceived as a confusing set of positions and shifts coming out of the White House: From the declared opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapons program, coupled with the easing of sanctions and a failed negotiation to stop the program; to declared support for Israel and deepened security ties, coupled with frequent public criticism and the desire for “daylight”; to declared support for the fall of the Assad regime in Syria, followed by a series of actions that can only be seen as propping it up (such as launching air strikes against ISIS, Assad’s main enemy); to the curious embrace of Qatar and Turkey—states that actively support the terror group and Iranian proxy Hamas—at the expense of traditional Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and others whose overthrow is sought by Islamists. Things have gotten so bad that the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulazeez, publicly assailed U.S. policy. “For all their talk of ‘red lines,’” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “when it counted, our partners have seemed all too ready to concede our safety and risk our region’s stability.”
But contrary to the common perception, while fundamentally flawed and dangerous for America and our allies, the policy this White House is pursuing is not as confused as it may appear.
In an interview last spring with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, then with Bloomberg View, Obama himself opened a clear window into his vision of a parallel universe in which the clerical regime running the Islamic Republic of Iran is a “force for stability” in the Middle East of today and tomorrow. It’s an idea that meets with ridicule among almost every party in the Middle East, legislators on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill, and even former members of the President’s cabinet, and whose main constituency appears to be in Damascus, Tehran and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Yet, as the region unravels along sectarian lines, the President is quietly attempting to cement a new American regional vision in which Iran is to play a central role.
Considered by most a dangerous rogue state, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, and a regime whose human rights behavior is so heinous that as recently as this year, female victims of rape were stoned to death for “adultery,” Iran is now embraced—not entirely without reason—as the critical player in the region capable of reestablishing order. Energized by the administration’s overriding desire to strike a nuclear accord and the president’s desire to avoid becoming militarily involved in the region at almost any cost, this has led to a major effort to cultivate a far more accommodating policy toward the Islamic Republic and its allies and proxies in the region—a policy simultaneously intended to pressure America’s traditional allies to fall in line with this administration’s new direction.
Many interpret America’s softening stance toward Iran as an attempt to make Tehran more amenable to a deal on its nuclear program. But the Obama administration’s new approach to Iran doesn’t end with the nuclear issue, and assuming it does is to miss the true danger of it all. This White House views the nuclear deal currently being negotiated as only a first step toward a general détente and broader cooperation between the two countries. The perception permeating the Situation Room is that filling the power vacuum created by recent Middle Eastern upheavals with Iranian forces—especially its Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its proxy Hezbollah—will help stabilize the ungovernable spaces of the region in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Getting the nuclear deal out of the way is therefore essential to progress on positioning Tehran as “a force for stability” in the region, as the President has described it.
For the Islamic revolutionaries and clerical dictators running the country, this new approach is a welcome change from decades of American efforts to sideline Iran. But Tehran is receptive to Washington’s changes for entirely different reasons. Seizing on what it sees as American weakness under this administration, Tehran believes it can break free of the diplomatic and economic sanctions that have crippled its economy, and freeze Western efforts to stall its regional ambitions. A nuclear deal in Iran’s favor may be with in its grasp, Tehran believes. And they may not even need to make such an agreement, if simply by negotiating with the West they can resurrect their economy and stall any U.S. action against their takeover of Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, removing further obstacles to their regional hegemony.
And it is here, in Iran’s very different view of a possible rapprochement with the United States, that the real danger to regional and American interests lies. Contrary to the expectations of many U.S. policymakers, giving Iran free rein in the Middle East would not be a major diplomatic victory, but a strategic nightmare. Replacing the putative caliphate of the Islamic State with the brutal Imamate of the Islamic Republic, the IRGC, Hezbollah and the rest of Iran’s regional proxies, would be a strategic and moral catastrophe.
Although the Obama administration has been pursuing a rapprochement with Iran for some time, the Islamic Republic has also been extremely lucky in recent months. In particular, the rise of ISIS, which Iran and its proxy Assad have adeptly exploited to their own geostrategic advantage, has given Tehran an unprecedented opportunity for exporting its revolution and expanding its footprint, while relieving American pressure on its economy and portraying itself as a cooperative actor fighting extremism.
The rising regional threat of ISIS, which very well could plunge the region into interminable sectarian violence, has drastically changed both Washington’s and Tehran’s policies in the Middle East. For the U.S., this failure to grasp the implications of empowering Iran comes on heels of the abysmal American experience in Iraq, which not only opened the door to expanded Iranian influence in the region, but also unleashed sectarian tensions which Saddam Hussein had previously suppressed through the brutal use of force. The defining ethic of President Obama’s foreign policy has been an “anti-Bush” path to withdrawal from the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States does not want to reenter or reoccupy Iraq, and the President has said sending troops to combat ISIS is not going to happen. Having failed once to bring order to the country, and more recently departing without an agreement that could have prevented Iraq’s disintegration and descent into chaos, the U.S. effectively handed control of Iraq over to a very hostile force. The one country that controls the politics of Iraq is Iran. The country that controls the tempo of violence in Iraq is Iran. (For details on Iran’s creeping conquest of the Iraqi state, see Jonathan Spyer and Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi’s essay in the current issue of The Tower Magazine.)
For the White House, the temptation to install Iran as the regional governor, even at the expense of America’s longstanding relationships with its Arab allies and with willful blindness to the true nature of the Islamic Republic, all in order to avoid another conflict, is almost too tempting for the President to pass up. And what’s more, by avoiding antagonizing Iran, and effectively handing them the region, Obama believes he can secure his own legacy of a nuclear deal with Iran, or at minimum be able to claim he stopped them from getting a bomb on his watch.
A recent report on defeating ISIS issued by the Center for a New American Security, a think tank closely linked to the Obama administration, sheds light on this revised American strategy. The report actively discouraged increasing American military commitment to the region, and warned that a war with ISIS may expand into a “region-wide confrontation with Iran with costs surpassing those of the catastrophic decade in Iraq.”
Giving Iran free rein in the Middle East would not be a major diplomatic victory, but a strategic nightmare.
The report criticized the views of analysts like former White House official and Brookings Institution scholar Michael Doran, now of the Hudson Institute, who have cautioned against cooperating with Iran or allowing it to obtain tangible gains in Iraq, due to the inexorable nature of the Iranian regime’s warlike attitude toward the West. On the contrary, the report asserted that excluding Iran makes saving Iraq and resolving the Syrian civil war impossible. “Unless the United States is willing to directly and massively intervene to tip the scales on the battlefield,” the report posited, “Iran will inevitably have to play a role.” Ultimately, the report recommended “seeking a working accord with Iran rooted in common interests in avoiding war over its nuclear program, stabilizing Iraq and Syria, and fighting jihadist groups.”
In reviewing the paper, Tony Badran of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies concluded that it “really just re-packages the White House’s current policy,” which is to limit America’s commitment to another Middle Eastern war, and, more importantly, “to integrate Iran into a new regional security structure” as an alternative to American intervention. The report essentially admitted as much, saying that it shares the Obama administration’s commitment to an ISIS-focused, minimalist approach, “and views the inclusion of Iran in a regional accord essential to any plausible strategy.”
Badran stresses that this strategy suffers from a “debilitating contradiction,” since stabilizing the Middle East cannot be squared with imposing “a new radical order on U.S. allies, who regard Iran as an enemy,” or by forming an alliance with a country which has contributed more than any other to the region’s destabilization. The new strategy’s “rosy view of Iran’s posture” is belied by facts on the ground, like Iran’s takeover of Yemen via its proxy Houthi militia, its support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, its deliberate violation of Lebanese sovereignty through its proxy Hezbollah, its drive for nuclear weapons, and its support for terrorism.
But the U.S. wants ISIS destroyed and Iraq held together, perhaps spurred on by a nostalgic attachment to traditional Middle Eastern borders, many of which effectively no longer exist. So it is contracting out the job to the one country it knows is capable of simultaneously crushing ISIS and quashing (or inflaming) sectarian violence—Iran. This, in effect, would make Iran the main pillar of American policy in the Middle East, based on the belief that, as Hudson Institute analyst Lee Smith put it, “Iran is the best fit for a hobbled and impoverished superpower that is on its way out of the Middle East.”
Current regional allies, the U.S. appears to believe, are ineffective and incapable of delivering the same results as Tehran. Saudi Arabia, despite its state-of-the-art army, lacks the will to fight and has no equivalent of the IRGC—Iran’s elite, quasi-terroristic paramilitary force—and thus no capacity to act militarily beyond its own borders and thus project its power regionally. Turkey has also demonstrated its unwillingness to go beyond fiery rhetoric by neither quieting Syria nor joining the anti-ISIS coalition.
The White House’s hopes do not end with an Iranian alliance on Iraq, however. America has a broad range of interests that it believes a rapprochement with Iran could ultimately serve. The United States’ primary concerns in the region are preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, combating Sunni Islamist terrorism, furthering the Arab-Israeli peace process, preventing the disintegration of Iraq and Afghanistan, and containing the Syrian crisis. Iran could have a hand in all of these issues, in some cases a decisive one, and there are increasing indications that the Obama administration is looking to build the Islamic Republic’s regional portfolio.
It now seems clear that the United States is pursuing not just the resolution of one issue or another with Iran, but a general détente. As Doran has put it,
The president is dreaming of a historical accommodation with Iran. The pursuit of that accommodation is the great white whale of Obama’s Middle East strategy, and capturing it is all that matters; everything else is insignificant by comparison. The goal looms so large as to influence every other facet of American policy, even so seemingly unrelated a matter as a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
Indeed, pursuing a policy that is all carrot and no stick, the United States is offering Iran one concession after another. It has softened its stance on the nuclear issue and played down Iran’s destabilizing role in the region. As an incentive to agree to a nuclear deal, it is offering Iran a direct banking channel between U.S. and Iranian financial institutions, which would lead in turn to the resumption of normal operations between Iran and European and other foreign banks. Circumventing America’s own sanctions regime, the Pentagon recently sought exemptions for major business investment ventures Iran is promoting in Afghanistan, hoping to prop up the flagging Afghani economy. The U.S. military is even playing down its annual minesweeping exercise organized by the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, long seen as a signal of opposition to Iranian activities in the Persian Gulf.
The administration has also softened its confrontational stance toward Iran’s regional proxies, many of them designated terrorist organizations. During Operation Protective Edge this summer, the U.S. indirectly engaged Hamas—which Iran admitted to arming and training—through Qatar and Turkey; Secretary of State John Kerry tried to push Israel into accepting a ceasefire agreement so bad that it raised the ire of Israelis across the entire political spectrum. The U.S. acquiesced, up front, to a number of Hamas’ key demands, without even mentioning Israel’s two primary concerns: tunnels and rockets. Doran called Kerry’s proposal “a windfall for the Iranians, who played an indispensable role in building Hamas’ military machine and who … egged Hamas on against Israel.” Reports have also surfaced that the United States tipped off Lebanese law enforcement agencies known to be close with, or under the control of, Hezbollah—another Iran-backed terrorist group—about threats from ISIS.
Administration officials have also repeatedly assured Iran that its anti-ISIS strikes in Syria will not harm the Assad regime, a close Iranian ally. General John Allen, who is coordinating the anti-ISIS coalition, said in a recent interview that, although some Free Syrian Army elements might exploit U.S. strikes to attack Assad’s forces, America’s goal is not to “liberate Damascus.” Indeed, America’s reluctance to back the Syrian rebels appears to be the result of its fear of jeopardizing the nuclear talks and further rapprochement with Iran. This fear has even led the administration to defund an organization dedicated to investigating Assad’s war crimes, of which there are many.
Most striking, and telling, of all was the recent report that President Barack Obama sent Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei a letter urging him to sign a nuclear deal and join the fight against ISIS, as well as cooperate on broader regional issues. This letter clearly emphasized Obama’s view of Iran’s regional importance. It also, in effect, legitimized the Iranian regime, which the U.S. has, up till now, rightfully officially regarded as a tyrannical rogue state. Perhaps most disturbingly, however, the letter appears to indicate that the U.S. sees Iran as a stabilizing force in the region—if not the stabilizing force in the region—and a partner in reshaping the Middle East along mutual lines.
American diplomats have even begun talking to their Iranian counterparts about Syria, noting that Iran has proposed a peace plan in which Assad will step down in favor of an Alawite regime that preserves Iranian interests. Iran will have thus retained a client state—it has no sentimental attachments to Assad, only to what he can offer—and the U.S. will have gained nothing.
It now seems clear that the United States is pursuing not just the resolution of one issue or another with Iran, but a general détente.
That the administration kept America’s top regional allies in the dark about the letter is both shocking and seems to reveal a perception of Iran as more useful than its current allies. Moreover, it indicates that the administration is determined to prevent its allies from scuttling any potential rapprochement with the Islamic Republic. Indeed, Israel only learned about the letter through unofficial channels. While it is true that the president does not need the permission and approval of foreign countries to carry out decisions he deems in the best interest of the United States, seeking cooperation with Iran behind the backs of the Israelis and the Saudis—two allies that have borne the brunt of Iranian terrorism firsthand—is not only poor diplomatic form, but signifies a major shift in administration policy toward its allies.
Many respected analysts have stridently criticized the letter. Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy notes that the letter suggests the United States sees Iran as a potential partner in Syria and Iraq, “when, in fact, Tehran is part of the problem.” He adds, “The implication that Washington is prepared to accommodate Iranian policies also relieves pressure on Tehran to undertake the strategic shift” that “is vital to a sustainable end to its nuclear ambitions.”
Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution has also noted that the letter was utterly futile, since it could not possibly have placated Khamenei. The ayatollah’s hostility toward the United States is “not opportunistic or transient. Anti-Americanism is Khamenei’s bedrock, engrained in his worldview, and as such is not susceptible to blandishments.”
Maloney also noted that, given Iran’s Hobbesian worldview, the letter would be read in Tehran as supplication. Coming at a critical juncture in the nuclear talks, it will be seen as a sign of American desperation and weakness in the face of Iran’s superior position, which Iran will exploit in order to extract more concessions from the United States. Instead of making Iran more flexible, it does the opposite, intensifying Iran’s contempt for the administration and its belief that, with enough pressure, it can extract maximum concessions from the United States. This is precisely the policy Iran seems to be pursuing. Believing that the U.S. wants a nuclear deal more than Iran does, Tehran is hardening its position while the U.S. and the West in general progressively weaken their demands.
More importantly, the Iranians do not view nuclear weapons as an end in themselves. They are a means through which Iran can pursue its imperialist policies, which seek to obtain regional hegemony and international power in order to export their Islamic revolutionary ideology. In fact, it’s entirely unnecessary for Iran to use the nuclear arsenal it acquires, since merely possessing nuclear warheads will be a strategic game-changer. Just as Pakistan was able to act conventionally with greater impunity against India after obtaining nuclear weapons—initiating the Kargil War—so too will Iran with its regional adversaries, either directly or through its many armed proxy groups.
Iran has already exploited its perceived utility to the administration in order to neutralize America’s regional Sunni allies. But a greater obstacle to Iranian regional hegemony is Israel, and this is where the Obama administration’s recent and much-discussed hostility toward Israel comes in.
Iran’s hatred of the Jewish state has three major sources. One is messianic, because Israel’s destruction plays a key role in the apocalyptic religious beliefs of Iran’s leaders. Classical Islamic anti-Judaism is also a factor, as filtered through the teachings of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini. But perhaps the most important immediate factor is strategic: Israel is the only regional power with the military and economic capability to thwart Iran’s push for regional hegemony, as well as the will to do so.
Because Iran has determinedly placed the Jewish State in its crosshairs, Israel has pushed the hardest against Iran’s nuclear ambitions, mainly by campaigning for sanctions against the Islamic Republic. In this, it has the unflinching support of the U.S. Congress, which is more than eager to pass crippling sanctions against the Islamic Republic. And this autumn, as the November 24 deadline was approaching, the Israelis stepped up their campaign, even as the P5+1 negotiating countries (the U.S., UK, Russia, China, France, and Germany) were working to “bridge the gaps” with Iran.
“The international community faces a clear choice,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said. “It can cave to Iranian demands in an agreement that would be dangerous for Israel and the world. Or it can stand firm and insist that Iran dismantle its capacity to produce nuclear weapons.” He added that Israel would not support any agreement that allowed Iran to be a nuclear state, which is precisely the direction in which the United States seems to be moving. While negotiators met with the Iranians in Oman, Netanyahu ordered his office to send letters to the P5+1’s foreign ministers to warn them against agreeing to a “bad deal” that “would let Iran rush to the bomb.”
The White House clearly fears that Israeli pressure could jeopardize its deal with Iran—as do the Iranians. Because Iran has assumed a greater strategic importance to the U.S., the administration has adopted an unusually harsh attitude toward Israel in order to get the Israelis to fall in line.
Iran, of course, is more than happy to exploit the new U.S. posture to its own advantage. Because its ambitions in regard to Israel are ultimately the destruction of the Jewish state, its short-term goal is to weaken Israel in order to make it easier to eventually remove. Having learned from the Arab countries’—and its own terrorist proxies’—failure to do so militarily, Iran is now striking at Israel’s real Achilles’ heel: Its diplomatic vulnerability, particularly its all-important relationship with the United States. If Iran can sever, or simply weaken, these ties, it believes it can eventually corner Israel, as a preliminary step to its eventual destruction, and also dominate the region unchallenged.
Thus, Iran is using its newfound leverage in order to advocate a course of action that it knows Israel will not undertake, because it cannot do so without exposing itself to existential danger: Immediate withdrawal from the West Bank. This puts Israel in a lose-lose situation. If it concedes territory at this point in time in order to maintain vital American and international goodwill, Iran’s terrorist proxies—Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and even Hezbollah—will use that territory to bring daily life in Israel to a grinding halt under a barrage of missiles. If Israel refuses to concede territory, however, then its international standing will plummet. It will be viewed as not only uninterested in peace, but also an obstacle to the regional calm that Iran claims, and the Obama administration believes, it can secure.
The Obama administration’s recent and much-discussed hostility toward Israel may be explained by its increasing friendliness with Iran.
To accomplish this, Iran has skillfully exploited the ISIS issue in order to pressure Israel and weaken it strategically. Iran’s message is simple: ISIS is a top global threat, but what is fueling the rise of ISIS is Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. While the claim is completely and obviously untrue, it is appealing for fairly obvious reasons: It gives Western leaders hope that, if it can just get Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, ISIS will magically disappear.
The Iranians have been repeating this line endlessly. At the UN General Assembly, for example, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Aragchi said that ISIS’s demise is contingent upon ending “genocidal” Israel’s “occupation of Arab lands,” which, he claims, serves to bolster ISIS’s recruitment and popularity. Secretary Kerry was present in the room at the time.
Astonishingly, Kerry echoed Aragchi’s remarks days later—in softer terms—by tying ISIS’s popularity to Israel’s failure to end its control of the West Bank. “As I went around and met with people in the course of discussions about the ISIL [another name for ISIS] coalition,” Kerry said, “there wasn’t a leader I met with in the region who didn’t raise with me spontaneously the need to try to get peace between Israel and the Palestinians, because it was a cause of recruitment and of street anger and agitation.” The State Department attempted to deny that Kerry linked ISIS’s rise to Israel, but it seems difficult to interpret his statement in any other way.
Kerry’s statement seems tame, however, compared to the vitriol directed toward the Israeli government by certain U.S. officials in Jeffrey Goldberg’s now-infamous exposé in The Atlantic, in which one called Netanyahu “chickenshit,” and a “coward” on the issue of the Iranian nuclear threat. The Obama administration, the official said, no longer believes Netanyahu will launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
It’s too late for him to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late … the feeling now is that Bibi’s bluffing.
Goldberg himself has acknowledged that this unprecedentedly violent rhetoric was directly connected to the administration’s desperate desire to reach a deal on the nuclear issue. Defanging Netanyahu, Goldberg said, “has given U.S. officials room to breathe in their ongoing negotiations with Iran.”
It is true that some officials were quick to distance themselves from the attack on Netanyahu, particularly the use of obscenities; but as Alan Dershowitz noted in The Jerusalem Post, had the officials not been authorized to make those statements, they would have been fired. “These statements were not made behind closed doors,” he said. “They were made to a prominent journalist, with the intention of having them published and read not only by American and Israeli officials, but also by Iranian officials.” Such a disclosure strengthens Tehran’s bargaining position, Dershowitz argued, encouraging Iran to move forward more quickly with its nuclear program.
But why is the White House so gung-ho about reconciling with Iran, even at the expense of Israel?
One reason, as mentioned above, is strategic and pragmatic, albeit based almost entirely on misinformed premises. The Obama administration has likely been influenced by the opinions of many analysts who advocate cooperation with Iran. The writer and former CIA officer Robert Baer, for example, advocates using Iran’s capabilities to hold the region together in a manner the Obama administration seems to be currently following. Since Iran is the most influential country in the region, Baer posits, the United States should align and cooperate with it when its help is necessary. This, in turn, will ameliorate Iran’s fear of and hostility toward the West. Given the threat of ISIS, which in the words of career Iran apologist and founder of the National Iranian American Council Trita Parsi “threatens the very foundation of the state system in the Middle East” and threatens to turn it into a failed region whose spillover will affect Europe and beyond, it could seem logical to follow Baer’s advice.
Another reason is simple defeatism. It is no secret that the United States has lost its taste for long and costly wars. It has no interest in committing the troops necessary to hold the Middle East together. This is coupled with the outdated perception that the Middle East is “over there” and does not directly threaten the U.S. Added to this is the idea—strongly pushed by Baer—that if the U.S. directly confronts the Islamic Republic, Iran is virtually unbeatable absent the long-term commitment of an overwhelming number of troops.
Thus, the White House may believe that it should simply capitulate to Iranian ambitions—even on the nuclear issue—and assign it the duties America is unwilling to bear. It is even possible that, for those who embrace this fairly cynical point of view, the fact that Iran is an expansionist power seeking total war against its neighbors makes it the ideal regional enforcer, the countries that will be casualties—Lebanon and Bahrain, for example—be damned.
Israel cannot possibly play the role demanded by this partially cynical and partially defeatist strategy, because it is regionally hated. Indeed, in the administration’s view, much of what Israel does is, as Kerry put it, the “cause” of the region’s problems in the first place. Israel’s inability to deliver the same results as Iran, coupled with its constant resistance to the Islamic Republic’s imperialist designs, makes Israel an obstacle to the administration’s ambitions. Indeed, Israel’s entire foreign policy has been focused on obstructing and rolling back Iranian regional hegemony, which threatens the Jewish state’s very existence; but it is this same Iranian hegemony that the U.S. administration now sees as vital to its own interests. As Smith stated, “From the White House’s perspective … Israel is the source of regional instability. Iran, on the other hand, is a force for stability. It is a rational actor … pursuing its own interests. The White House, moreover, shares some of those interests.”
Israel, moreover, is not alone in being a target of the administration’s discontents. As Badran has noted, the insults to Netanyahu and the increasingly hostile rhetoric over settlements “are part of a much wider story, namely the deteriorating relations between Washington and all of its traditional Middle Eastern allies” who “have recoiled in horror as the president has pursued rapprochement with Iran.” As an example, Badran points to how the administration used Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s involvement with Sunni Islamism to back them into a corner, in order to pursue cooperation with Iran in Syria. Doran said that the administration is using a similar strategy with the issue of settlements, building in Jerusalem and the “peace process,” to keep the Israelis off-kilter. All of this, it seems, is being done in the pursuit of a larger, Iran-centered regional strategy.
However pragmatic or realist the administration’s apparent strategy may appear at first glance, it is, in fact, very close to pure fantasy. Should it be implemented, it would be an unquestionable disaster, setting back American interests in the region for decades.
Doran has rightly compared it to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s courting of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s, which was also pursued at Israel’s expense. This strategy backfired completely. Nasser simply exploited U.S. overtures to his benefit while continuing to act according to his own ideological and strategic views, leading to a long alliance between Egypt and the USSR. The administration’s failure then, as it is now, was to discount its foe’s ideological motivations.
Singh has pointed out that whatever Iran can offer in the short term, its expansionist ideology—wholly hostile to the United States and the West—will remain unchanged, making it a long-term force for instability and violence. Every gain Iran is allowed to make will be a problem to confront in the future. In fact, even in the short term, Iran is not the force for stability that the administration seems to think it is, nor do its interests align with the U.S. in any way. Iran’s continued support of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank inflames the regional instability which the U.S. so desperately wants to extinguish. Its exacerbation of sectarian tensions in Iraq by strengthening Shi’a militias is directly at odds with the U.S. strategy of a politically inclusive Iraq that will restore Iraqi Sunnis’ confidence in the Baghdad government. In Syria, the United States wants Bashar al-Assad to cede power in favor of genuine reform, whereas Iran does not want to lose an important ally; even if it agrees to Assad’s departure, it will do so only if his replacement is more or less identical. And while Iran might temporarily restrain its terrorist proxies, it will retain the ability—and the will—to reactivate them whenever it so chooses. As Badran put it, “Not only will Obama’s strategy not achieve his own stated goal of defeating ISIS” and quieting the region, “it will bring untold disruption to a Middle East that has already seen enough.” A “Pax Iranica” would benefit Iran alone, not the U.S. or its regional allies.
Right now, however, the Obama administration is effectively granting Iran the regional empire it has striven to build for 35 years. It is doing so based on a naïve understanding of Iran’s goals, which do not respect borders or boundaries. It is, according to Singh, “a Faustian bargain with Iran against [ISIS] that leaves unaddressed Tehran’s own contributions to regional instability.” Iran is not interested in existing under the aegis of a regional Pax Americana, acting as the United States’ Middle Eastern ally and enforcer. It will take what it can get through the administration’s miscalculations and America’s waning power and influence in the Middle East, and then press for further gains when the time is right. Placing Israel on par with Iran, eliminating the Jewish state’s hard-won and vital edge over its enemies, will not satisfy Iran; instead, it will make Israel a more tempting target. The same fate awaits America’s other regional allies, including the Gulf states, whose fall to Iran would turn the Islamic Republic into an energy superpower. In the end, Iran will have exploited the Obama administration’s fear and lack of will in order to establish Khomeini’s dream of a Shi’a Islamist empire.
Banner Photo: U.S. Department of State / flickr