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The nuclear deal with Iran is a head-scratcher. After all, a basic rule of Negotiation 101 is that, when you have your adversary on the ropes, keep punching him (with sanctions in this case) until he gives up. Why settle for an agreement that doesn’t even meet the standards of United Nations resolutions accepted by China and Russia?
Perhaps President Obama wants to distract the US public from the collapse of the Affordable Care Act. Or perhaps the deal is another example of an ad hoc, inept decision by an administration far more interested in domestic than in foreign matters and that seems to find the Middle East an annoyance. As Susan Rice said last month, “We can’t just be consumed 24/7 by one region, important as it is.”
There is, however, another explanation – a far more troubling one. Rather than merely being feckless, the administration may actually have a long-term plan, and this initial nuclear deal is only a tactic in a broader strategy. The overall aim is a strategic partnership with Iran because the administration sees that country as the only island of stability in a sea of chaos and violence.
Iran has a population of 76 million, a government that hasn’t changed in 34 years, and a GDP greater than Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, and Yemen combined. No one knows who will be running Egypt or Saudi Arabia a few years from now, but Iran has withstood a serious rebellion with impressive resilience – and has rescued the Syrian regime from an even more threatening uprising.
That, at any rate, is how a self-styled realist might view Iran. Blinkers are clearly required. The administration has to ignore what a tilt to Iran would do to relations with the Israelis, Saudis, and Sunnis in general. It has to ignore that the United States has traditionally stood for freedom and against religious tyranny – both for moral and practical reasons. But what are the other choices? The Iranian temptation is strong.
Imagine a kind of order that Prince Metternich pulled together for Europe with the Congress of Vienna: a century (1815-1914) practically without warfare. The White House evidently sees the modern analogue as an alliance among the US, Russia, China, Europe, and…Iran.
We draw this conclusion not from any special knowledge of presidential deliberations but from simple deduction. First, why would the administration – any administration – duck the opportunity to strike Iran a significant blow by helping the insurgents in Syria? Or by using force in response to Bashar-al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons? In fact, the White House opened a back channel to Iran at least eight months ago, and we can only assume that the president decided not to attack Syria in part because he saw the event as a prelude to the Iranian nuclear negotiation – and that negotiation was another step closer to a strategic partnership.
Second, an entente cordiale with Iran would be just the kind of grand gesture that would justify and sanctify five years of what has appeared to be a stuttering, meandering foreign policy. So this is what the president was up to! Finally, a broader deal would mean that the president could get back to work on domestic affairs without having to worry about pesky international problems.
Again, we are speculating. But from the facts at hand, we find no better explanation. The administration may be on its way to fulfilling – with a vengeance – its initial pledge to “engage” with Iran. Unfortunately, by doing so the president will make the world a more dangerous place.
There is no evidence whatsoever that Iran has given up its ambition to be the dominant power in the Middle East. Rather than becoming a partner in stability, it is more likely to exploit American overtures in order to undermine traditional allies of the United States. The president will be leaving longstanding friends like Israel to live by their wits and, inadvertently, encouraging the Saudis to get their own bomb.
Hard-bitten realists sacrifice values for stability. They make a poor tradeoff, but at least their calculation is perfectly understandable. A strategic partnership with Iran, however, is far from realistic. It represents the sacrifice of traditional allies and principles for a dream of stability that won’t be realized.
As Henry Kissinger wrote in 1957, “It is a mistake to assume that diplomacy can always settle international disputes if there is ‘good faith’ and ‘willingness to come to an agreement…. Appeasement is the result of an inability to come to grips with a policy of unlimited objectives.” He was talking about France under Napoleon and Germany under Hitler, but he might as well have been speaking of Iran under the mullahs.
Michael Doran is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. James K. Glassman is visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Both were national security officials in the George W. Bush administration.
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