Turkey's President Abdullah Gul (right), meets with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani at the Cankaya Palace in Ankara, Turkey.

Turkey's President Abdullah Gul (right), meets with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani at the Cankaya Palace in Ankara, Turkey. AP Photo

Why Is the US Yielding to Iran Now?

The Obama administration does not need to make nuclear concessions to Tehran to gain its support against ISIL. By David Frum

If there has been one consistent theme to the Obama administration’s foreign policy, it has been the yearning for some kind of deal with the ruling Iranian regime.

President Obama reportedly sent a sequence of messages to Iran’s supreme ruler, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the early months of 2009. The U.S. president held his tongue during the first 10 days of violently repressed protests against the falsified Iranian presidential election of 2009. Obama resisted the tough Kirk-Menendez sanctions against Iran’s central bank until the Senate approved them on a vote of 100-0. When nuclear negotiations with the rulers of Iran failed to yield results by the declared deadline, the administration extended the deadline—and the sanctions relief Iran receives for as long as negotiations continue.

Little has come of all these attempts, for the uncomplicated reason that the rulers of Iran are not much interested in them. Or, to put it a little more complexly, the rulers of Iran value other priorities more highly than they value any benefit that might come from improving relations with the United States.

There’s a line of argument among certain foreign-policy types that imagines Iran as an “Open Sesame” kind of problem: Just intone the right verbal formula, and the obstructions will all roll away. Its proponents claim that the rulers of Iran and the United States might have reached a rapprochement after 9/11 if only the Bush administration had not labeled the ruling Iranian regime as part of the “axis of evil” in the 2002 State of the Union speech. This fantasy is built on the assumption that the rulers of Iran have no intentions or agency of their own. It assumes that the United States dictates the terms of the relationship, and that Iran merely reacts.

That’s not how it looked at the time, however. The United States government believed that Iran had offered the Taliban military assistance against coalition forces as early as November 2001. In January 2002, Israel intercepted a ship, the Karine A., loaded with advanced Iranian weaponry to be used against Israel in the murderous terror campaign then entering its bloodiest phase. The list of similar infractions could be extended to tedious length, but maybe the single most alarming at the time was the discovery in 2000 and 2001 that Hezbollah was operating smuggling operations in the Western hemisphere, most notably on the border between Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. Hezbollah was regarded as a vastly more sophisticated operation than al-Qaeda. In 2001, memories were still fresh of the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah terror rampage of 1992-1996, that had taken hundreds of lives from Berlin to Buenos Aires, including 17 U.S. service personnel blown up at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.

Hard experience seemed to teach the lesson: The rulers of Iran acted on their own impetus and for their own purposes. They perceived both their interests and their values as radically opposed to those of the United States—so much so, in fact, that they were fully capable of jettisoning almost any other prior ideological principle or strategic priority to sustain their anti-American hostility. One might assume that because Iran and the Taliban came to blows in 1998 that the rulers of Iran would welcome U.S. intervention against the Taliban in 2001, on the “enemy of my enemy” principle. The rulers of Iran, however, saw the U.S. as a greater enemy than the Taliban. "The enemy of my enemy" principle therefore led them to reconcile with the Taliban against the U.S., not with the U.S. against the Taliban. Ditto with their relationship with the atheist Leninist regime in North Korea. Ditto with their relationship with the Sunni terrorists of Hamas. Through the early Bush years, foreign-policy types would repeatedly explain that it was impossible for Iran to do this or that thing based on their assumptions about what the rulers of Iran should or must think. They would continue explaining that it was impossible even as evidence came to light that Iran was in fact doing precisely what they said it could never do.

Which brings the story to today. A major effort is under way to persuade Congress to accept a nuclear agreement with Iran that falls far short of the Obama administration’s stated goal to end the Iranian regime’s weapons program. Fareed Zakaria, a writer close to White House thinking, published a column on September 25 urging the administration to work with Iran to stop ISIS. "If President Obama truly wants to degrade and destroy the Islamic State, he must find a way to collaborate with Iran," he wrote. Among the things necessary to find that way, says Zakaria, is to somehow "get past" the nuclear issue. Given Iran’s long record of nuclear deception and intransigence—given its willingness to accept severe economic punishment in order to sustain that nuclear program—how could such a huge obstacle be “got past”? The short answer: by the U.S. tacitly acquiescing to the Iranian position. U.S. officials have confirmed that they offered the rulers of Iran a deal that would allow them to disconnect rather than dismantle their nuclear centrifuges. Why is the U.S. yielding? “There’s a bit of a sense of desperation about coming up with ways to break the logjams, on the nuclear talks and the larger relationship,” a person described as a “participant in the negotiations” told The New York Times.

Isn’t this all bizarrely upside down? It’s Iran's client states in Iraq and Syria that are threatened by the Islamic insurgency of ISIS. One might think that ISIS was more Iran’s problem than America’s. It’s the Iranian economy that was collapsing under the pressure of economic sanctions, at least until the Obama administration relaxed them last year. Why isn’t it the rulers of Iran who feel a “sense of desperation” about breaking the logjam with timely concessions to U.S. concerns about their nuclear ambitions? The answer to this question lies in the realm of psychology, not strategy: The Obama administration wants to escape the confrontation with the rulers of Iran—and is looking for a face-saving escape route.