by Alexander H. Joffe
What were Obama's strategic goals in making the Iran deal?
Unless the US Congress votes in opposition, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal with Iran with go through. What really happened and why did it happen the way it did?
What happened is gradually becoming clear. It is revealed daily just how horrendous the deal really is. On every point — enrichment, centrifuges, stocks of fissile material, inspections, sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps members and businesses, "snapback," etc. — the Obama administration caved completely.
Concessions on ballistic missiles and arms sales were thrown in at the last minute; the administration lied about it all, while Iran touted its victories and American capitulation. All this went on amidst a background of Iranian chants of "death to Israel" and "death to America," which entered not at all into American calculations.
The Obama administration caved completely on every major point of contention.
But why this occurred is unclear. Clownish performance by the chief negotiator, Secretary of State John Kerry, a man driven equally by incompetence, ego, and pacifism, has long been the norm. But otherwise competent functionaries like Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz were dragged into negotiating and defending the deal. They have been no less implausible.
But their presence, along with Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, previously the midwife of the North Korean nuclear program, suggests the process was directed from the top. In contrast, the defense establishment was written out; protests by General Martin Dempsey, outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as retired leaders like Defense Intelligence Agency head General Michael Flynn and NATO commander Admiral James Stavridis, fell on deaf ears in the administration and have been ignored by a compliant media.
Lead US negotiator Wendy Sherman previously brokered an agreement with North Korea that failed to prevent its construction of a bomb.
First was American withdrawal from the Middle East and to diminish the possibility of a return to a Pax Americana. Withdrawal from Iraq was a stated campaign goal that was accomplished, and is now being slowly reversed as the threat of ISIS grows. American forces remain in Afghanistan to confront a growing Taliban threat. In both cases the number of troops will be deliberately inadequate to directly confront threats.
Re-escalation of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan appears inevitable, but the larger reality of an American defense umbrella has been diminished by the administration's alienation of traditional allies in the region, namely Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. This was done through its Iran policy and more broadly through US engagement with Islamists.
When coupled with enormous defense cuts at home, reducing the military to pre-World War II levels, any restoration of American influence, much less a defense presence in the Middle East, would be a protracted and expensive affair necessarily left to a future president, if ever.
A perverse pacifism is also at work. "There is no military solution" and "Ideologies are not defeated with guns" are pacifist mantras, repeated at the very top and used to avoid use of force, or the support of others using force, in Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria.
Obama has said the agreement offers Iran a path to being "a very successful regional power."
But these narratives do not offset the reality that conventional forces, of the sort necessary, say, to fight ISIS in Syria, will never deployed, no matter how many Christians and Yazidis are kidnapped or killed. And despite utterances that a military option was "on the table," it seems inconceivable that the administration ever contemplated using force against Iran.
But there are deeper reasons for the outreach to Iran. Some have suggested that the long-term Obama policy, from at least 2008, has been to reintegrate Iran into the Middle East, putting it on the path to becoming a "very successful regional power," as Obama put it, against an even longer term bet that moderate forces will become ascendant.
The White House expects Iran to act as a bulwark against the very Sunni extremism it helps provoke.
The theory of Iranian reintegration, however, captures only part of the administration's motives. At the root is something deeper still, reflected in Obama's most personal and idiosyncratic policy statement; that "America is not — and never will be — at war with Islam," that it is "part of [his] responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear," that "Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism — it is an important part of promoting peace," and that "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone."
These and other elements from Obama's Istanbul and Cairo speeches are the core of policy towards Iran, the Middle East, and the Muslim world as a whole. They have been translated directly into policies to support and facilitate "authentically" Islamic regimes in order to prove they can govern.
This was the theory behind support of the Muslim Brotherhood's short-lived election to rule Egypt, and the distance the US created when Egypt's military overthrew the increasingly tyrannical rule of Brotherhood President Muhammad Morsi. It has been the foundation of American support for the oppressive and bizarre rule of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP party. And it accounts for the constant disclaimers from administration spokespersons denying any connection between Islam and terror, the incessant "religion of peace" rhetoric, and support for the "Islamophobic" mindset of victimization among American Muslims.
Other policies as large as outreach to Iran, as dangerous as purging mentions of jihad from US counterterrorism training, and as absurd as the President's order to NASA "to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math and engineering," reflect the administration's goal of inculcating Islamic authenticity, self-esteem and good will.
In contrast to authentic Islam is "violent extremism." In this view Al Qaeda and ISIS are not Islamic at all but have, as the president stated in Cairo, "exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims." They are simply groups with no real relationship to Islam, despite their resolute Islamic self-conception and careful textual exegesis. Fatwas from Obama, Kerry and others, painstakingly separating Islam from the terror done in its name, are both perplexing, unpersuasive, and grist for ISIS and domestic Islamic terrorism. But they are self-satisfying.
The non-nuclear consequences of the Iran deal are already coming into view. European businesses are rushing for deals worth billions. Hamas has announced that Iran is financing new attack tunnels into Israel. Hezbollah, though badly bloodied from its defense of Iran's client, Syria's Assad regime, is reemphasizing its anti-Israel rhetoric and capabilities before what will be a horrifically violent war. Iran's subversion in Yemen, the Balkans, South America and the Gulf is at new heights. International legitimacy has brought neither Iranian moderation nor domestic development. It is unlikely to do so soon.
At the end of the day, an American administration led by social justice ideologues was fated to understand nothing about a revolutionary Islamist regime with global aspirations. The favor done Iran in the name of Islamic authenticity and regional reintegration will be a curse on the world for generations.
Alexander H. Joffe, a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum, is a historian and archaeologist.
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