The Iranian nuclear deal may be the most audacious diplomatic effort that any president has ever launched and, tragically, it rests on a set of beliefs that belie any serious understanding of Tehran or the region.
By his own words, President Barack Obama is trying through this deal to turn a sworn and longstanding U.S. enemy into if not an ally, then at least a partner with which the United States and other regional players can work on such challenges as combating the Islamic State group and ending Syria’s civil war.
The effort has no obvious precedent in U.S. history, and analogies to earlier landmark successes – arms control with the Soviets and President Richard Nixon’s opening to China – don’t withstand scrutiny. And if Obama’s problematic theory of global change doesn’t bear fruit, the deal will severely imperil U.S. national security.
Though recognizing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as Iran’s ultimate decision-maker, Obama believes that Tehran is split between hardliners and moderates and that the nuclear deal could empower the latter. If so, he’s hoping that, with this deal, Tehran will invest its hundreds of billions of new revenues from sanctions relief not in its military or terror proxies but instead in Iran’s people.
“[I]f we’re able to get this done,” he told The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman in April, “then what may happen … is that those forces inside of Iran that say, ‘We don’t need to view ourselves entirely through the lens of our war machine. Let’s excel in science and technology and job creation and developing our people,’ that those folks get stronger.”
With its economy growing and its global isolation ending, Obama told National Public Radio a few months earlier, Iran “would be a very successful regional power that was also abiding by international norms and international rules, and that would be good for everybody. That would be good for the United States, that would be good for the region, and most of all, it would be good for the Iranian people.”
That theory, however, belies reality on several fronts. For starters, stronger economic growth doesn’t necessarily push an autocratic regime toward moderation. Beijing and Moscow have presided over sharp economic growth in recent years, but Chinese and Russian leaders have grown more aggressive on the world stage.
Nor, at least initially, did the Iranian nuclear deal prompt any early signs of moderation in Tehran. Quite the contrary, Khamenei and other officials made clear that they’ll happily pocket the huge new revenues without changing course with the United States, rethinking their regional ambitions or abandoning their terror sponsorship.
Just days after negotiators inked their deal, Khamenei reaffirmed the “Death to America” mantra that pervades the regime – and that’s routinely chanted at public events across the country. “The entire country is under the umbrella of this great movement,” Khamenei stated in reference to this mantra, adding that America’s leaders “should be brought to trial for supporting and assisting terrorism.” Just days before the deal, the supposedly “moderate” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appeared at a “Death to America”-chanting Al Qods Day rally.
That the regime is reaffirming its hard line is hardly surprising. It reflects the contempt with which the regime views the United States in light of the relentless series of concessions Washington made during two years of negotiations, discarding its supposed red lines on enrichment, inspections, sanctions and so on.
Across the Middle East, as Lee Smith and other experts have written, regimes respect strength, disparage weakness and associate concessions with the latter. Rather than appreciate Washington’s flexibility, Tehran will deride it. Rather than return favors, Tehran will presume it can get more from Washington by hanging tough.
“We negotiated arms control agreements with the Soviet Union when that nation was committed to our destruction,” Obama said in announcing the Iran deal. That’s true, but the analogy makes no sense. U.S.-Soviet arms control involved two nations of roughly equal military strength, each with nuclear weapons. With the Iran deal, the nuclear-armed United States has carved out a path for the far weaker Islamic Republic to join the world’s nuclear club at some point in the future.
Nor does the analogy to Nixon’s opening to China, to which some pundits point, make more sense. There, Nixon sought to counter-balance the growing strength of its biggest adversary in Moscow. Here, Obama is encouraging the rise of a lawless regime that frightens America’s closest regional allies.
A problematic theory. An audacious gamble. And, all too likely, an America in new peril.
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.