Obama places a bet on Iran
As a presidential candidate seven years ago, Barack Obama shook up the foreign policy world by declaring that he favored “direct diplomacy” to reshape U.S. relations with long-standing adversaries like Syria, Cuba and North Korea. Critics, including Hillary Clinton, called him naive, and until now they have proved right. Yet as he heads into the last stretch of his presidency, Obama is doubling down on a bet that in one last case — Iran — his strategy will yield a spectacular payoff.
The news that Obama dispatched yet another letter to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei broke this month as U.S. negotiators worked feverishly to complete a deal on Iran’s nuclear program by a Nov. 24 deadline. A pact that restrains — but does not eliminate — Tehran’s ability to produce a weapon for a decade or so — but not indefinitely — is the administration’s current, discounted goal.
Increasingly, however, senior administration officials talk about the nuclear diplomacy in the context of a larger effort to stabilize the shattered Middle East with Iran’s cooperation.
U.S. and Iranian forces already are working in tacit alliance in Iraq against ISIS, a point Obama apparently made to Khamenei. As they look beyond a potential nuclear deal, the president’s aides are suggesting that Iran could also support a new attempt to reach a political settlement in Syria, one that would leave at least part of the current, Iranian-backed regime in place.
But does Obama’s approach makes sense for the United States and its traditional allies in the Middle East? The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu certainly doesn’t think so, nor do most leaders of the Persian Gulf states. They continue to view Iran as an existential threat, best treated with crippling economic sanctions, proxy war against its allies in Syria and Lebanon and, if necessary, direct military action against its nuclear installations. A bipartisan majority of the U.S. Congress agrees with them.
Detente with Iran is one reason Obama still refuses to extend U.S. military strikes in Syria to the regime of Bashar Assad, even though it is assaulting the moderate rebels the United States is counting on to fight ISIS.
Attacking Assad, the reasoning goes, might cause Iran to use its Shiite militias in Iraq to retaliate against U.S. forces there. Better to try enlisting Iran in an effort to forge a political settlement that removes Assad. Such a compromise would probably mean allowing Assad’s Alawite sect — a Shiite offshoot and Iran’s ally — to remain in power; the hope is that Sunni states will swallow that solution as preferable to another failed Arab state.
In essence, the United States faces a choice in the Middle East of trying to defend its interests and restore stability with or against Iran. A policy of marginalizing Tehran (in keeping with that of the past three decades) would mean seeking the defeat of Assad’s army, pressuring Iraq’s government to curb Iran’s proxy Shiite militias and stepping up sanctions until Iran agrees to dismantle — not just temporarily limit — its nuclear infrastructure.
Obama’s bet is that the course of “direct diplomacy” is more likely to produce an acceptable outcome. His assumption is that there is a formula for an Iranian nuclear program and governments in Syria and Iraq that both Khamenei and U.S. allies can live with. Most likely he is wrong. But the audacity of his policy reflects a president bidding for vindication if not a legacy.
Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Post.