President Obama could be right to believe the promises of the despots in Tehran, but this would be the first time his thinking on the Greater Middle East has worked out. Obama was foolhardy to appoint Turkey’s Erdogan as his point man in the region, misguided to back the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, unfounded in his enthusiasm for the Arab Spring, mistaken describing the Republic of Iraq as “sovereign, stable and self-reliant” in December, 2011, ineffective when fulminating against civil war in Syria, hubristic describing America’s role in Libya as a “model intervention”, erroneous portraying the Islamic State group (ISIS/IS) as a “JV team” (junior varsity team) days after it captured Fallujah, lacking judgement in Yemen and imprudent countenancing Turkish and Qatari assistance to negotiate an end to the 2014 Hamas-Israel conflagration.
Barack Obama’s foreign policy initiatives always seem to finish not with a bang but a whimper, although in the case of the Iranian nuclear negotiations it might be a whimper followed by a bang.
President Obama dismissed the content of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3, 2015, speech to the US Congress as “nothing new” and yet Netanyahu’s suggestion about how to talk to the Islamic Republic represented a powerful alternative to the White House’s compliance:
First, stop its aggression against its neighbours in the Middle East. Second, stop supporting terrorism around the world. And third, stop threatening to annihilate my country, Israel, the one and only Jewish state.
Netanyahu noted that the “medieval creed” of the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran made them no less the enemy of United States (the “Great Satan”) than the State of Israel, and giving them the benefit of the doubt in a nuclear weapons agreement gambled “with our future and with our children’s future”. Obama’s overtures to the Islamic Republic, official or backdoor, have not demanded Tehran renounce its support of terrorism across the globe, from Argentina to Afghanistan.
There has always existed an enmity between Obama and Netanyahu, but that does explain why the latter accepted the invitation from Republican House Speaker John Boehner to address a joint sitting of Congress. Sceptics contend that Netanyahu took on Obama in order to boost his credentials on security issues, although that would be to pre-suppose Likud’s main challenger in Israel’s March 17 election, the leftist Zionist Union, had any credibility in that area. Netanyahu, without the benefit of hindsight, had as much to lose as win by going to Washington. To take issue with the US leader in such a pointed and public fashion could only poison what remained of their relationship – and endangering Israel’s alliance with America was no guaranteed vote winner in the March 17 election. Certainly Netanyahu’s domestic opponents, including Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livini, ran a blistering attack on the PM’s Congress speech, one they alleged would result in “blowing up” the special relations between Israel and the United States.
However, Herzog-Livini’s Zionist Union (constructed largely out of the Labor Party) became its own worst enemy by aligning itself not with United States per se but with Barack Obama’s modern-day leftist misunderstanding about how to ensure the security of Israel and the Middle East in general. The Zionist Union, perhaps under the influence of their “progressive” American advisors, ran on a platform of Hope-and-Change. However, the drawback with Hope-and-Change, at least in the form proffered by President Obama, is that every new instalment turns out to be a miracle in reverse – that is to say, extraordinary in a dangerously unintended way. Accordingly, campaigning on an Obama-style Hope-and-Change platform – which, in this case, would bring about the establishment of Hamastan B on Israel’s eastern front to complement Hamastan A in Gaza – proved ruinous for the Zionist Union at the March 17 election.
BARACK Obama’s Hope-and-Change negotiations with the Iranian regime has meant trusting the very same characters who deceived the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for nearly two decades, one example being the forced admission in September, 2009, of a clandestine uranium enrichment site at Fordow. The UN’s nuclear watchdog had thought it was doing sterling job monitoring the not-so-secret uranium site over at Natanz. The current Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has boasted of misleading the international community throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century in order to buy time for Iran’s attainment of nuclear weapons capability. The Khomeinists in Tehran refer to this kind of fraudulence as “righteous deception” (Tekiyah) and consider it perfectly legitimate for pursuing the objectives of the Iranian revolution. During the period that Rouhani, as senior envoy, “negotiated” with the Europeans, Iran built its top secret Fordow site and also a heavy-water plant in Arak capable of turning out plutonium.
In the light of this, Netanyahu’s warning to America – and the world – to be wary about the Iranian ruling clique is simple common sense. The same Hassan Rouhani who hoodwinked the West during the first decade of the twenty-first century managed to defer a final agreement with the P5+1 nations (US, UK, China, France, Russia + Germany) twice in 2013, followed by two more postponements in 2014. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israeli officials called President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry’s ever-increasing list of concessions to the Islamic Republic as a bad deal – “incomprehensibly” bad in the words of one Israeli spokesman – and much worse than no deal at all. The Obama-Kerry team responded by insisting that the choice open to America is a deal of some kind or military intervention in Iran. This was not true. There have always been four potential options: a bad deal that would leave Iran’s vast nuclear infrastructure in place, thousands of centrifuges left spinning and a break-out time of six months-to-a-year left unchecked; debilitating sanctions that might restrain the Mullahs; a good deal that would result in the genuine (and supervised) dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear weapons project; and, should push come to shove, military intervention in the Islamic Republic.
There is an urgent need to make sense of Obama’s Hope-and-Change foreign policy. Netanyahu had a shot at it on March 3 when he warned the United States against believing that the enemy of its enemy could be a friend:
Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. One calls itself the Islamic Republic. The other calls itself the Islamic State. Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire first on the region and then on the entire world…In this deadly game of thrones, there’s no place for America or for Israel, no peace for Christians, Jews or Muslims who don’t share the Islamist medieval creed, no rights for women, no freedom for anyone.
The premise of Netanyahu’s admonition to the American people – and, specifically, President Obama – is that “the enemy of your enemy is your enemy”. Implicit in Netanyahu’s message was that Washington’s engagement with Teheran amounts to a case of Realpolitik. Having been confounded and compromised by the emergence of the Islamic State group in both Syria and Iraq – or so the argument goes – the compromised Obama administration has jettisoned all moral and ethical considerations and initiated an alliance with the (Shiite) Islamic Republic and its adventurist Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Force (IRGC) in order to stymie the ambitions of the (Sunni) Islamic State.
What, exactly, might such a dangerous liaison achieve? Ex-CIA Head David Petraeus, interviewed around the time of Israel’s election, argued that President Obama’s compliance with Iranian interests represents not only a betrayal of all that America achieved in Iraq during the 2007-8 surge, but will make an already dire situation worse. Back in 2008, Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC, made this boast: “General Petraeus, you should be aware that I, Qassem Soleimani, control Iran’s policy for Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan.” Petraeus informed Soleimani, then a shadowy figure, that he could “pound sand”. Fortuitously, the nascent Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) won a decisive victory in 2008 over the Iranian-backed Shiite militia holding sway in southern Iraq. Today, regrettably, we witness Soleimani involving himself not only in Baghdad’s blundering attempt to rollback the Islamic State’s hold on Iraqi territory, Hamas’ confrontation with Israel, Hezbollah’s dominance in Lebanon and Assad’s homicidal brutality in Syria, but also Houthi gains in Yemen. David Petraeus is not alone in arguing that the re-emergence on the scene of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq signifies the “foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium”.
Masrour Barzani, Chancellor of Kurdistan Region’s Security Council, also questions the advisability of 20,000 members of the Shiite militias, the so-called Popular Mobilisation units, dominating Baghdad’s opening gambit to claw back Iraq’s Sunni heartland. It is Iraq’s lethal sectarian hostility, exacerbated during Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s years in office (2006-2014), that helped provide a context for the IS group’s conquest of western and some northern regions of Iraq during the summer of 2014, and the subsequent murder of at least 700 Iraqi troops, many of them Shia. The danger of religious and tribal retribution, according to Barzani, “is the principal thing that can unravel the campaign against IS”. David Petraeus has spoken of “the squandering of so much that we and our coalition and Iraqi partners paid such a heavy price to achieve”.
IF PRESIDENT Obama’s tacit support of Iranian intervention in Iraq can be labelled dangerously cynical, his nuclear weapons pact with Tehran might fit the category of dangerously naïve, a theme that has characterised negotiations between Washington and Tehran since the hostage crisis of 1979-81. Michael Rubin’s Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes (2014) gives a remarkable insight into President Jimmy Cater’s diplomatic ineptitude while criminal – or radical, if you like – operators in Tehran held American embassy staff captive for 444 days against all international and humanitarian conventions. Not only did Carter’s ineffectiveness fail to result in the liberation of his compatriots (or “Den of Spies”), it actually strengthened the anti-American elements within the revolutionary regime.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei played President Carter (1977-81) for a fool. By seeming to take the military option off the table and treating the “declared grievances” of religious fanatics as legitimate, Carter allowed the hostage-takers “to position themselves as arbiters of the revolution’s purity”. Khomeini and his revolutionary courts purged all of the Iranian officials the hostage-takers exposed as having connections with the US embassy. Carter’s pusillanimous attempt to seek dialogue and reconciliation in the midst of such a brutal assault on American authority allowed the Iranian leadership to “exploit his weakness” and destroy any remaining moderates in power: “Diplomacy prolonged the crisis to 444 days and allowed radical factions to consolidate around Khomeini.” It also empowered and legitimised a range of anti-American intermediaries, “ranging from the PLO and the Syrians, to Libyans, Cubans and Algerians.” Undeterred by his extraordinary failure, Carter absurdly sought credit for the eventual release of the hostages when Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president on January 20, 1981.
It was not diplomacy that encouraged Tehran to change course. Finding themselves in a catastrophic war with Iraq (which would last until 1989), Khomenei decided discretion was the better part of valour, especially with a more formidable character in the White House. Nevertheless, Dancing with the Devil chronicles how even President Reagan allowed himself to be betrayed by Tehran, courtesy of the Iran-Contra Affair. In early 1984, Reagan stood strong by designating Iran a state sponsor of terrorism and encouraging American allies to embargo arms sales to Iran, “a measure designed to bite the Islamic Republic as its war with Iraq dragged on”. Not long afterwards, though, the Reagan administration commenced offering inducements to Tehran in order to ameliorate its rogue behaviour, especially with regard to American hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran duly received American-made guided missiles and Hezbollah released a number of Western hostages, but the U.S. authorities’ confidence that Iranian officials would keep their silence proved mistaken. When the moment was propitious they blithely broke their word and the “resulting crisis paralysed Reagan’s second term”.
There are no examples, at least according to Rubin’s Dancing with the Devil, of the Islamic Republic responding to American diplomatic outreach in a spirit of reciprocity. President George H.W. Bush made tentative moves towards reconciliation with Tehran in 1989 after Khamenei succeeded Khomeini as Supreme Leader and the “centrist” and “pragmatic” Rafsanjani assumed the presidency. Unfortunately, the Iranian regime interpreted Bush’s attempt at engagement as appeasement:
It was after Bush began his proxy talks with Tehran that Iranian officials supplied terrorists in Europe with weaponry to target Western interests, and also formed a hit squad to kill Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses.
Even during the administration George W. Bush (2001-09) many in the US State Department dreamed of a “Grand Bargain” that would pool the resources of the Islamic Republic and the United States to thwart the Taliban, Al Qaeda and sundry “extremists” in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Nothing of the sort eventuated. As Netanyahu outlined in his Washington address: “Iran’s goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon, its revolutionary guards on the Golan Heights are clutching Israel with three tentacles of terror.” Netanyahu, unusually, spoke not only for the people of Israel, but also for everyone across the Greater Middle East who opposes Iranian hegemony:
Backed by Iran, Houthis are seizing control of Yemen, threatening the strategic straits at the mouth of the Red Sea. Along with the Straits of Hormuz, that would give Iran a second choke point on the world’s oil supply.
Barack Obama, during his first term of office (2009-13), ingratiated himself with the Islamists of Turkey and the Islamists of Egypt, but cosying up with the Islamists of Iran proved elusive. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13), an unsophisticated adventurer amongst highbrow zealots, was more likely to ruminate about the apocalyptic return of the 12th Inman than to engage in Khatami-style rhetoric about world harmony. Ahmadinejad’s embarrassing re-election in 2009 against Mir-Hossein Mousavi was more preposterous than the usual Iranian “vote”, resulting in massive protests – “Down with the dictatorship!” – and a bloody crackdown. Who can forget the death of Neda Agha-Soltan? Thirty-six protesters died in massive public demonstrations (the largest since the turmoil of 1979) and as many as seventy-two people were later murdered in policy custody. President Obama’s initial silence and then muted criticism of the “irregularities” of Iran’s election process was startling. A week of pitiless violence belatedly prompted the Leader of the Free World to offer a carefully worded condemnation in the mannered style of the Secretary-General of the United Nations.
IN ONE sense, at least, Benjamin Netanyahu got it wrong in his Washington address. He claimed Barack Obama was pursuing rapprochement with the Iranian regime along the lines of my enemy’s enemy is my friend. But foreign policy is not, in the first instance, a dangerously cynical game of Realpolitik, just as it is not a simple matter of dangerous naïveté. It does, of course, involve cynicism and naivety but also something more perilous than that – ideology. The Obama Doctrine is ideological in a modern-day leftist sense that needs to view the Islamic Republic of Iran as not merely a convenient enemy of an enemy but as an authentic ally in a cooperative global community (“The Radical Realism of Barack Obama”, Quadrant, September 2014). President Obama’s Utopian ideology licenses him to discount Daniel Pipes’ warning of over two-decades ago that, while the Iranian political system might be a “republic” and possess a “parliament”, it remains a volatile and expansionist theocratic-fascist entity at odds with the world. The paranoia of the Guardian Council, the true rulers of Iran, will not be assuaged until nuclear weapons capability is attained.
President Obama spelt out his approval of “mild Islamism” back in 2009 with addresses to the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo and the Turkish parliament in Ankara. Opening up the lines of communication to Tehran was always going to be trickier, though this did not prevent presidential candidate Obama sending an emissary to Tehran during the 2008 campaign assuring Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of his good intentions. The charm offensive has not worked. As recently as March 2015, on the occasion of the Persian New Year (Nowruz), Iran’s Supreme Leader continued to disparage the USA as the Great Satan – its “objectives on regional matters are the opposite to our objectives” – in front of a crowd of frenzied activists. While Khamenei reiterated his desire that the P5+1 negotiations result in a treaty, his primary concern was that all sanctions against his country be lifted forthwith: “Sanctions are the only tool the enemy has against our nation.”
Khamenei went on to blast Obama’s annual five-minute Nowruz video addressed to the Iranian people as “insincere” and ridiculed the idea that there could ever be normal, let alone fraternal, relations between America and the Islamic Republic. The Supreme Leader’s hour-long demagoguery ended with the usual Orwellian chant: “Death to America! Death to Israel!” Iran’s Guardian Council, suffused with the unmovable spirit of Khomeinism, cannot be normalised in 2015 any more than Nazi Germany could have been “brought in from the cold” by the international community in 1935. On March 31, 2015, a commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, repeated the regime’s sacred pledge – “erasing Israel off the map” remained “non-negotiable”, adding that war with Saudi Arabia was on the cards and that the Saudi leaders “will have the fate of Saddam Hussein”. Peace in our time.
President Obama’s Iranian diplomacy, under the latter-day stewardship of John Kerry, steered the current round of P5+1 negotiations to their farcical dénouement. More talks, this time with a cut-off date at the end of June, are set to follow, leaving Iran’s simultaneous quest for nuclear weapons capability and the lifting of UN sanctions still on track. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s March 3 warning retains its potency: only the indisputable dismantling of Iran’s “vast nuclear infrastructure” and a lengthened “break-out time” can safeguard the world from “horrific consequences”.
Daryl McCann is a frequent contributor to Quadrant and Quadrant Online. He blogs at Daryl McCann Online