Obama's Unnecessary and Risky Foreign Policy Gamble
The President's supporters say he's taking America 'out of the rut of history' with Iran, but he's actually making a generational mistake.
“The president said many times he’s willing to step out of the rut of history.” In this way Ben Rhodes of the White House, who over the years has broken new ground in the grandiosity of presidential apologetics, described the courage of Barack Obama in concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the Islamic Republic of Iran, otherwise known as the Iran deal. Once again Rhodes has, perhaps inadvertently, exposed the president’s premises more clearly than the president likes to do. The rut of history: It is a phrase worth pondering. It expresses a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture, an arrogance about old struggles and old accomplishments, a hastiness with inherited precedents and circumstances, a superstition about the magical powers of the present. It expresses also a generational view of history, which, like the view of history in terms of decades and centuries, is one of the shallowest views of all.
This is nothing other than the mentality of disruption applied to foreign policy. In the realm of technology, innovation justifies itself; but in the realm of diplomacy and security, innovation must be justified, and it cannot be justified merely by an appetite for change. Tedium does not count against a principled alliance or a grand strategy. Indeed, a continuity of policy may in some cases—the Korean peninsula, for example: a rut if ever there was one—represent a significant achievement. But for the president, it appears, the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. Certainly it did in the case of Cuba, where the feeling that it was time to move on (that great euphemism for American impatience and inconstancy) eclipsed any scruple about political liberty as a condition for movement; and it did with Iran, where, as Rhodes admits, the president was tired of things staying the same, and was enduring history as a rut. And in the 21st century, when all human affairs are to begin again!
Obama’s restlessness about American policy toward Iran was apparent long before the question of Iran’s nuclear capability focused the mind of the world. In his first inaugural address, he famously offered an extended hand in exchange for an unclenched fist. Obama seems to believe that the United States owes Iran some sort of expiation. As he explained to Thomas Friedman the day after the nuclear agreement was reached, “we had some involvement with overthrowing a democratically elected regime in Iran” in 1953. Six years ago, when the streets of Iran exploded in a democratic rebellion and the White House stood by as it was put down by the government with savage force against ordinary citizens, memories of Mohammad Mosaddegh were in the air around the administration, as if to explain that the United States was morally disqualified by a prior sin of intervention from intervening in any way in support of the dissidents. The guilt of 1953 trumped the duty of 2009. The Iranian fist, in the event, stayed clenched. Or to put it in Rhodes-spin, our Iran policy remained in a rut.
But it is important to recognize that the rut—or the persistence of the adversarial relationship between Iran and the United States—was not a blind fate, or an accident of historical inertia, or a failure of diplomatic imagination. It was a choice. On the Iranian side, the choice was based upon a worldview that was founded in large measure on a fiery, theological anti-Americanism, an officially sanctioned and officially disseminated view of Americanism as satanism. On the American side, the choice was based upon an opposition to the tyranny and the terror that the Islamic Republic represented and proliferated. It is true that in the years prior to the Khomeini revolution the United States tolerated vicious abuses of human rights in Iran; but then our enmity toward the ayatollahs’ autocracy may be regarded as a moral correction. (A correction is an admirable kind of hypocrisy.) The adversarial relationship between America and the regime in Tehran has been based on the fact that we are proper adversaries. We should be adversaries. What democrat, what pluralist, what liberal, what conservative, what believer, what non-believer, would want this Iran for a friend?
When one speaks about an unfree country, one may refer either to its people or to its regime. One cannot refer at once to both, because they are not on the same side. Obama likes to think, when he speaks of Iran, that he speaks of its people, but in practice he has extended his hand to its regime. With his talk about reintegrating Iran into the international community, about the Islamic Republic becoming “a very successful regional power” and so on, he has legitimated a regime that was more and more lacking in legitimacy. (There was something grotesque about the chumminess, the jolly camaraderie, of the American negotiators and the Iranian negotiators. Why is Mohammad Javad Zarif laughing?) The text of the agreement states that the signatories will submit a resolution to the UN Security Council “expressing its desire to build a new relationship with Iran.” Not a relationship with a new Iran, but a new relationship with this Iran, as it is presently—that is to say, theocratically, oppressively, xenophobically, aggressively, anti-Semitically, misogynistically, homophobically—constituted. When the president speaks about the people of Iran, he reveals a bizarre refusal to recognize the character of life in a dictatorship. In his recent Nowruz message, for example, he exhorted the “people of Iran … to speak up for the future [they] seek.” To speak up! Does he think Iran is Iowa? The last time the people of Iran spoke up to their government, they left their blood on the streets. “Whether the Iranian people have sufficient influence to shift how their leaders think about these issues,” Obama told Friedman, “time will tell.” There he is again, the most powerful man in the world, backing off and bearing witness.
If I could believe that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action marked the end of Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon—that it is, in the president’s unambiguous declaration, “the most definitive path by which Iran will not get a nuclear weapon” because “every pathway to a nuclear weapon is cut off”—I would support it. I do not support it because it is none of those things. It is only a deferral and a delay. Every pathway is not cut off, not at all. The accord provides for a respite of 15 years, but 15 years is just a young person’s idea of a long time. Time, to borrow the president’s words, will tell. Even though the text of the agreement twice states that “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop, or acquire any nuclear weapons,” there is no evidence that the Iranian regime has made a strategic decision to turn away from the possibility of the militarization of nuclear power. Its strategic objective has been, rather, to escape the sanctions and their economic and social severities. In this, it has succeeded. If even a fraction of the returned revenues are allocated to Iran’s vile adventures beyond its borders, the United States will have subsidized an expansion of its own nightmares.
But what is the alternative? This is the question that is supposed to silence all objections. It is, for a start, a demagogic question. This agreement was designed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. If it does not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons—and it seems uncontroversial to suggest that it does not guarantee such an outcome—then it does not solve the problem that it was designed to solve. And if it does not solve the problem that it was designed to solve, then it is itself not an alternative, is it? The status is still quo. Or should we prefer the sweetness of illusion to the nastiness of reality? For as long as Iran does not agree to retire its infrastructure so that the manufacture of a nuclear weapon becomes not improbable but impossible, the United States will not have transformed the reality that worries it. We will only have mitigated it and prettified it. We will have found relief from the crisis, but not a resolution of it.
The administration’s apocalyptic rhetoric about the deal is absurd: The temporary diminishments of Iran’s enrichment activities are not what stand between the Islamic Republic and a bomb. The same people who assure us that Iran has admirably renounced its aspiration to a nuclear arsenal now warn direly that a failure to ratify the accord will send Iranian centrifuges spinning madly again. They ridicule the call for more stringent sanctions against Iran because the sanctions already in place are “leaky” and crumbling, and then they promise us that these same failing measures can be speedily and reliably reconstituted in a nifty mechanism called “snapback.” And how self-fulfilling was the administration’s belief that no better deal was possible? On what grounds was its limited sense of possibility determined? Surely there is nothing utopian about the demand for a larger degree of confidence in this matter: The stakes are unimaginably high. It is worth noting also that the greater certainty demanded by the skeptics does not involve, as the president says, “eliminating the presence of knowledge inside of Iran,” which cannot be done. Many countries possess the science but do not pose the threat. The Iranian will, not the Iranian mind, is the issue.
The period of negotiations that has just come to a close was a twisted moment in American foreign policy. We were inhibited by the talks and they were not. The United States was reluctant to offend its interlocutors by offering any decisive challenge to their many aggressions in the region and beyond; we chose instead to inhibit ourselves. This has been an activist era in Iranian foreign policy and a passivist era in American foreign policy. (Even our refusal to offer significant assistance to Ukraine in its genuinely noble struggle against Russian intimidation and invasion was owed in part to our solicitude for the Russian standpoint on Iran.) I expect that the administration will prevail, alas, over the opposition to the Iran deal. The can will be kicked down the road, which is Obama’s characteristic method of arranging his “legacy” in foreign affairs. Our dread of an Iranian bomb will not have been dispelled; we will still need to keep “all options on the table”; we will continue to ponder anxiously the question of whether a military response to an Iranian breakout will ever be required; we will again be living by our nerves. All this does not constitute a diplomatic triumph. As a consequence of the accord, moreover, the mullahs in Tehran, and the fascist Revolutionary Guards that enforce their rule and profit wildly from it, will certainly not loosen their grip on their society or open it up. This “linkage” is a tired fiction. The sanctions were not what cast Iran into its political darkness.
This accord will strengthen a contemptible regime. And so I propose—futilely, I know—that now, in the aftermath of the accord, America proceed to weaken it. The conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action should be accompanied by a resumption of our hostility to the Iranian regime and its various forces. Diplomats like to say that you talk with your enemies. They are right. And we have talked with them. But they are still our enemies. This is the hour not for a fresh start but for a renovation of principle. We need to restore democratization to its pride of place among the priorities of our foreign policy and oppress the theocrats in Tehran everywhere with expressions, in word and in deed, of our implacable hostility to their war on their own people. We need to support the dissidents in any way we can, not least so that they do not feel abandoned and alone, and tiresomely demand the release of Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi from the house arrest in which they have been sealed since the crackdown in 2009. (And how in good conscience could we have proceeded with the negotiations while the American journalist Jason Rezaian was a captive in an Iranian jail? Many years ago, when I studied the Dreyfus affair, I learned that there are times when an injustice to only one man deserves to bring things to a halt.) We need to despise the regime loudly and regularly, and damage its international position as fiercely and imaginatively as we can, for its desire to exterminate Israel. We need to arm the enemies of Iran in Syria and Iraq, and for many reasons. (In Syria, we have so far prepared 60 fighters: America is back!) We need to explore, with diplomatic daring, an American-sponsored alliance between Israel and the Sunni states, which are now experiencing an unprecedented convergence of interests.
But we will do none of this. We will instead persist in letting the fire spread and letting time tell, which we call realism. Wanting not to fight wars, we refuse to join struggles. Sometimes, I guess, history really is a rut.