Obama’s Ill-Advised Gamble

Of the new framework accord with Iran over its nuclear program, President Barack Obama said he hopes “that we can conclude this diplomatic arrangement – and that it ushers a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations – and, just as importantly, over time, a new era in Iranian relations with its neighbors.”

In his weekend interview with the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, Obama argued that the United States is “powerful enough” to test his view that “engagement” with problematic regimes like that of Iran could better serve America’s interests than continuing our policy of sanctions and isolation. He suggested a final nuclear agreement might empower more moderate forces in Tehran that want to focus less on Iran’s “war machine” and more on job creation and other domestic concerns.

U.S. and Iranian negotiators, who face a June 30 deadline to convert the accord into a final detailed agreement, are headed for a few rocky months as they iron out the permissible leeway for nuclear inspectors, the timetable for sanctions relief and the location for Iran’s enriched uranium.

But as supporters and critics at home and abroad debate the accord and any final agreement, the more interesting question is whether Obama’s vision for future U.S.-Iranian relations and Iran’s regional status will survive his presidency. That’s because, as the president suggests in the words cited above, a nuclear agreement is one piece of a larger geopolitical puzzle – one in which the United States would welcome Iran’s rise to regional power in hopes that, with the nuclear issue off the table, Iran could play a more stabilizing role in the region.

“It’s possible,” Obama told Friedman, “that Iran, seeing the benefits of sanctions relief, starts focusing more on the economy and its people. And investment starts coming in, and the country starts opening up.” If, at the same time, America strengthens its ties to Sunni states like Saudi Arabia who fear the rise of Shiite Iran and also ensures Israel’s security, “then what’s possible is you start seeing an equilibrium in the region, and Sunni and Shia, Saudi and Iran start saying, ‘Maybe we should lower tensions and focus on the extremists like [ISIS] that would burn down this entire region if they could.’”

Obama is not the first president of the post-World War II era to invite sworn U.S. enemies to share global power with the United States – and earlier efforts to do so offer a cautionary tale for the current president.

“I think it will be a safer world and a better world,” President Richard Nixon told Time magazine in 1972, as America was winding down its efforts in Vietnam, “if we have a strong, healthy United States, Europe, Soviet Union, China, Japan, each balancing the other, not playing one against the other, an even balance.”

Much like Obama, who was photographed in 2008 carrying Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, Nixon envisioned a world in which America’s relative power would decline with the rise of other nations. Consequently, Nixon (and then Gerald Ford) sought not confrontation with Moscow but détente with it.

Then came President Jimmy Carter, who bemoaned America’s “inordinate fear of communism,” sought an even less confrontational and more cooperative relationship with Moscow, and pressured America’s right-wing allies in Latin America and elsewhere to improve their human rights records. The Soviets, however, smelled American weakness and opted not for more U.S.-Soviet cooperation but for more global expansionism. In the mid-to-late 1970s, the Soviets and their Cuban minions sent troops or military equipment to spur or support Third World revolution in such African nations as Ethiopia and Angola. Then in late 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, prompting Carter to reverse course and promise to use force if necessary to meet Soviet threats to U.S. regional interests. Not surprisingly, the American people, who had grown accustomed to and assured by U.S. supremacy after World War II, reacted as well. They dumped Carter in 1980 and elected Republican Ronald Reagan, who had lambasted Carter-era weakness and pledged to restore American strength.

Now with Iran, the question is whether the past will prove prologue – or Obama’s gamble will bear fruit. Anyone would hope that a nuclear deal, which will boost Iran’s economy by lifting sanctions, would moderate the regime, thus easing Israeli worries, reducing Sunni-Shiite infighting and stabilizing the region.

The smart money, however, would bet that the deal, which paves the way for eventual Iranian nuclear weaponry, will embolden the regime to double-down on its anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism and hegemonic activism. That, in turn, will force a change in approach to Iran by whoever follows Obama in the Oval Office.

Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.


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