For the forty-plus years I have been involved, at one level or another, in National Security, Iran has been an issue that never fully resolves and often brings us to the brink of conflict. Who or what is Iran, in terms of our national security? Who are they, and what do they want? The recent negotiations to achieve a nuclear arms agreement, hailed as the centerpiece of the Obama foreign policy, only seem to continue the questions and the controversy. In my view, what is the REAL Iran is the central question in whether this agreement is even arguably acceptable or not, whether it will accomplish what is intended or not. Let’s take a step back and analyze how and why we got to this place, then see what we can learn about the intended and unintended consequences of dealing with terror sponsors.
The picture above is, of course, what the world often sees as Iran. The unbending anachronism of the mullahs, forcing conformity to ideas that were thought to be obsolete hundreds of years ago upon an Iran that was largely Westernized until the Revolution in the late 1970’s (and in many ways, remains so).
First, we should perhaps look at what motivates the Obama administration to seek a treaty that at best is a delay-tactic and at worst frees up scores of billions for the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism. When Obama took office, he said straightforwardly that he intended to extricate us from two pending wars and return us to the “liberal international order” that had been utilized and nurtured successfully by administrations going back to World War II. See, e.g., G. Rose, “What Obama Gets Right”, Foreign Affairs Sep 2015 at 2-3. Aimed at adopting a form of prudent internationalism and liberal diplomacy, Obama hoped to unwind costly wars without negatively impacting Middle East stability, and continue in a limited way a war on terror designed to decimate and dismantle terror networks such as al Qaeda, and salvage the international status of the US by unwinding from “misguided adventures” that overextended our military and our finances. In implementing that strategy, he is less the incompetent blunderer so many call him, and more the cautious risk manager. His retrenchment is intentional, if not always successful, and his view of US grand strategy is one that is willing to sit out or even lose small or irrelevant fights in support of a greater, longer view. He chose not to respond or react in the Ukraine or Crimea, neither of which impose treaty responsibilities on the US. After withdrawal from Iraq, he chose nonintervention in Syria, probably because he saw the problems of both as (1) unsolvable, and (2) not ours. History will judge whether those were wins or losses, and whether they moved us favorably toward the liberal order or not. The Iran deal is an extension of his strategy, and offers plenty for both supporters and doubters to debate endlessly. Obama said he would discuss without preconditions, and he did. He did nothing to support the Green Movement, and instead gave credibility to the IR by pursuing long-term diplomacy. Was his effort founded upon a belief that the mullahs would never fall, and therefore a deal that delayed them was the best we could hope for? Did he believe the sanctions were likely to lose international support as more and more nations sought trade, including oil, with the IR? Or does he believe, as many do, that the current government is doomed to failure by an increasingly skeptical and independent-minded citizenry, as reflected in the Green Movement, and that by the time the decade covered by the document is over, a much more open and democratic Iran will be in place? Is he offering Iran a chance to participate in his liberal world order, hoping that rather than hardening its ideological positions, such participation will slowly soften them? History would seem to support an approach that nurtures that order rather than using unilateral and preemptive adventurism to “force” democracy on the world, as he believes his predecessor had attempted unsuccessfully.
The picture above may be the real Iran, a Westernized soul hidden from the mullahs, waiting to be set free. Obama had better hope so.
As always, there is another side to the story. There are those who believe too much was given away, too much is not verifiable, too little is accomplished, and too many supporters are seeking only short-term benefits for this agreement to be a workable solution to the problem of Iran’s nuclear ascendancy. His detractors would point out his many apparent failures, including his initial pious but unsuccessful efforts to achieve some higher level of nuclear disarmament; his half-hearted policy in Libya that created a void to be filled by Islamic radicals; his failure to have the patience necessary to negotiate a withdrawal plan with Iraq, leading to still more chaos in the Middle East; his leap to dignify the Arab Spring that has now turned into a singular misjudgment; and the series of miscalculations leading to the resurgence of jihadism in the Middle East. As Bret Stephens says it, “if this administration can celebrate the success of its Iraq policy in 2012 — ‘less violent, more democratic and more prosperous, and the United States more deeply engaged’ — then maybe Bush can be exempted from blame for Iraq’s travails in 2014.” Stephens, “What Obama Gets Wrong”, Foreign Affairs Sep 2015, at 13. Stephens judges Obama’s success by his unfulfilled promises: the closure of Guantanamo, the “reset” with Russia, the restoration of our “good name” in the Middle East, blocking Israeli expansion in settlements, all to be achieved by the moral force of his personality and convictions. Obama’s detractors see his retrenchment as withdrawal and appeasement, replacing foreign policy with, well, nothing of substance. Chaos and jihadism are replacing whatever stability had been accomplished by the surge. He is viewed as faithless to our friends and unthreatening, perhaps unrespected, to our enemies. In the view of many, negotiating with a terror sponsor while it holds our own citizens hostage, allowing sanctions, that were working well enough to bring Iran to the table, to dissolve without quid-pro-quo, and to provide a direct avenue to threshold nuclear capability with almost no leverage and only a facade of verification is tantamount to a Chamberlain-esque appeasement of a sworn enemy of the US and its closest Middle East ally. It is part of a larger folly in which growing global disarray is fomented by American retreat and failure to take responsibility for our own vital interests. Even Obama, at the UN, indicated these to be our core interests:
“…confront external aggression against our allies and partners, … ensure the free flow of energy, …dismantle terrorist networks that threaten our people, …not tolerate the development of weapons of mass destruction.” Not even his strongest supporters can say that his success in pursuing and protecting these interests is not questionable.