The Middle East

Obama’s Munich Moment

iran rocketThe Third Reich might have desired a “wonder weapon” and yet for all its dark fantasies never achieved that goal. Unless you include the (relatively speaking) desultory V1 and V2 rockets in the category of Wunderwaffe, the Nazis fell well short of the mark—and thank God or the Grand Alliance for that. The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a regime no less defined by apocalyptic millennialism and eliminationist anti-Semitism than Hitler’s government, has now—thanks to Barack Obama—been given the wherewithal to obtain nuclear-weapons capabilities, if not in the next year or so, certainly within ten to fifteen years.

Nuclear diplomacy, as Michael Rubin argues in Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue States (2014), only works if a rogue regime wants to renounce its pariah status, as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi did in December 2003. Otherwise, sitting down at the table with the representatives of a miscreant regime—as per North Korea—seems more likely than not to reinforce the contrariness of the rogue entity, since it is that very defiance that brings Western offers of conciliation and recompense in the first place. Over twelve years of on-off-on nuclear talks with Iran has produced more negatives than dividends: “Iranian authorities have become masterful at taking ten steps forward toward their nuclear goal, so long as they mollify diplomats by occasionally taking one step back.” As has been argued by Kissinger and Shultz (see “Wiser Men on the Iranian Deal”, Quadrant, May 2015), Western negotiations with Tehran have had the paradoxical effect of making possible what they were originally intended to prevent: the legitimisation of Iran as a nuclear threshold power.

Afshin Ellian, a law professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands, is a member of the Iranian diaspora. His vocal opposition to Islamist extremism in general and to Iran’s theocracy in particular has necessitated his police protection. According to Ellian, who understands only too well the fervour and fanaticism of the rulers in Tehran, Iran has “played the West like a harp” by promising to scale back some of its particle-level activities in exchange for sanctions relief: “The Ayatollahs saw and see Western media as useful idiots, just like during the [1979] Iranian Revolution.” Moreover, the Obama-inspired deal with the Islamic Republic “jeopardises the Iranian people” because it confers “international legitimacy to the ayatollah regime” while at the same time affording it “more money to oppress its own people”.

It is easy to forget that from the beginning of Obama’s presidency there have been two relatively hard-nosed aspects to his foreign policy: the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden, mission accomplished May 2011, and—yes—the prevention of Iran becoming a nuclear power. This is Barack Obama at a March 2012 press conference: “And what I have said is, is that we will not countenance Iran getting a nuclear weapon.” The signing of the July agreement, in Obama’s opinion, only confirms that he has been on the right track all along, since it involves a “permanent prohibition” on Iran obtaining nuclear-weapons capabilities.

President Obama’s long-term uncompromising position on the inadmissibility of the Islamic Republic going nuclear on his watch has to be juxta­posed with the truly Big Idea of his presidency, which is the founding of a peacefully co-existing global community. Over the past seven years, Barack Obama has—at one time or another—made overtures to such disparate (and incongruous) characters as Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, Mohamed Morsi, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ali Khamenei, Raul Castro and so on, in an attempt to co-opt them for his modern-day leftist vision of a multipolar world. There have been more setbacks than successes in his brand of “twenty-first-century politics”, although the recent announcement that the United States and Cuba are set to re-establish full diplomatic relations would affirm, at least to Barack Obama, that progress of a sort has been achieved. The failure of US-Russian relations to “reset” and the fall of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, not to mention the rise and rise of the Islamic State, have taken much of the glow off Obama’s early optimism or, depending how you see it, hubris. As he conceded in a February 2015 interview with the news site Vox: “You take the victories where you can. You make things a little bit better rather than a little bit worse.”

Two years ago, in the wake of the November 2013 nuclear agreement with Iran, Benjamin Rhodes, a key member of Barack Obama’s inner circle, predicted that a 2015 pact would “probably be the biggest thing President Obama will do in his second term of office”. Rhodes—according to Michael Doran writing for Mosaic—disclosed to a number of people that his boss was keen to see the Islamic Republic break free from its “isolation” and enter “an era of harmonious relations with the rest of the world”. Unaware that he was being recorded, Rhodes confided to his guests that a modus operandi was being devised by Team Obama on how to evade congressional oversight in 2015: “We’re already kind of thinking through, how do we structure a deal so we don’t necessarily require legislative action right away.”

President Obama’s pursuit of the July P5+1 deal, therefore, should be seen in the context of two high-priority objectives: barring Iran from obtaining nuclear-weapons capabilities and getting the Islamic Republic on board with his healing-the-world project. The deal, in other words, has been anticipated all along by the White House as a two-for-one triumph: incontrovertible proof, at last, of Barack Obama’s strategic prowess, not to mention a sharp rebuke for “oh-so-twentieth-century” Realpolitik. The flaw in all of this, of course, is that President Obama’s two high-priority objectives are not necessarily complementary and, more than likely, never were. One of the basic pillars of the White House’s long-term planning has already collapsed because Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei refuses to ratify it.

Various forms of understanding and arrangement can exist between the United States and the Islamic Republic but a comprehensive rapprochement between the two is impossible because it would undermine the legitimacy of the Iranian regime. Ayatollah Khamenei owes his power, wealth and prestige to the alleged cosmological threat presented by the United States and Western-style modernity. That is why, in the days after the July agreement, he forcefully reiterated his claim that Iran’s foreign policy remained “at 180 degrees” to that of America. Some might argue that the clerico-religious figure President Hassan Rouhani enjoys an independent power base and holds views significantly different from those of the Supreme Leader, but there is no evidence, going all the way back to his time as Iran’s duplicitous nuclear weapons negotiator during the George W. Bush era, to corroborate this. President Rouhani, in consultation with Supreme Leader Khamenei, will re-activate Iran’s quest for nuclear-weapons capability whenever he deems the moment propitious.

Even Dennis Ross, a long-time diplomat and adviser on Middle East policy during Obama’s first term, acknowledges the unlikelihood of “snapback” sanctions being placed on Iran for anything other than major breaches of the P5+1 deal. If Iran cheats along the way—“for example, if they enrich uranium to 7 per cent, not the permitted 3.67 per cent”—the Joint Commission can always address the issue but in this new dispensation Iran might be chastised and yet never penalised for dishonesty on the margins. Any “snapback” of sanctions for a relatively minor breach seems unlikely since specified punishments for specific infringements of the accord do not exist. “Snapback” is more a matter of all or nothing and in virtually every case the latter option will win out.

Iran, inevitably, is going to threaten to nullify the July agreement if sanctions are re-introduced and that will be enough to coerce the P5+1 and the international trading community into doing nothing. All Tehran has to do is “declare it made a mistake and say it will stop doing it” and the carnival moves on. Ross, no White House foe, recognises that because Iran has not been forced to dismantle its enrichment infrastructure, it will certainly be a nuclear threshold power at the end of the fifteen-year agreement—if not well before—with the obvious consequence: “The gap between threshold weapons status and weapons status is small and will not take long to bridge.”

That only leaves the matter of whether Tehran wants to achieve weapons status in addition to attaining upwards of $100 billion sanctions relief. The Iranian negotiators gave the game away when, in the very final stages of negotiations, they frantically—and effectively—rebuffed the P5+1’s long-standing insistence on “anytime, anywhere” inspections. At the last moment, Tehran won the right to refuse international inspectors admission to “undeclared nuclear sites” for up to twenty-four days. The significance of this development is the long history of undeclared nuclear sites in Iran, Fordow being a case in point. If the dissident group the National Council of the Resistance of Iran can be believed—and their credibility in exposing undeclared nuclear sites has no equal—then Tehran is currently operating “an active and secret parallel nuclear program”. When Secretary of State John Kerry was confronted by members of Congress in February 2015 with the existence of a new secret facility in Iran, all he could do was obfuscate: “It has not been revealed yet as a nuclear facility. It is a facility we are aware of, which is on a long list of facilities we have.” Leaving this aside, surely the fact that Tehran has insisted all along on retaining a vast enrichment infrastructure would leave even a sceptic—let alone the President of the United States—to doubt Supreme Leader Khamenei’s assurances (or bogus fatwa) about exploiting nuclear energy for civilian purposes only.

Barack Obama has made an error of historical proportions and there are but two lines of justification open to him. The first is the “no alternative” defence. Hillary Clinton has admitted there is no trusting the Iranians but there was no alternative to negotiating the accord. In the same vein, the ever-predictable Peter Beinart, writing in the Atlantic, acknowledged that while the July deal might not be “your ideal outcome”, it compares favourably to “the alternative at hand”: that is to say, military action on the part of America or Israel, which would result in a catastrophic regional war “counterproductive” in holding up Iran’s path to the bomb. Failing to sign an agreement, Obama has likewise argued since the signing, “would be risking another war in the most explosive region in the world”. As if the region was not already in the midst of its own version of the Thirty Years War. Besides, military action has never been the only alternative to appeasement. Kerry could have done worse than busying himself with some other matter—a territorial dispute between two uninhabited islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, for instance—and simply left the stringent sanctions against Iran in place until the Islamic Republic crumbled or at least until the regime feared the imminence of such a turn of events.

Then, finally, there is the belief—disclosed by Benjamin Rhodes two years ago—that an Islamic Republic which was affirmed and vouchsafed by a P5+1 deal will somehow usher in an “an era of harmonious relations with the rest of the world”. The compact, apparently, is not only going to transform relations between Iran and its regional neighbourhood (including Israel) but make over the Islamic Republic itself and its relationship with the United States. Here, for the doubters, is President Obama in his initial speech after the Iran deal:

The path of violence and rigid ideology, a foreign policy based on threats to attack your neighbours or eradicate Israel—that’s a dead end. A different path, one of tolerance and peaceful resolution of conflict, leads to more integration into the global community, more engagement with the international community, and the ability of the Iranian people to prosper and thrive.

Mark Steyn has sardonically noted that any comparison between the July 2015 nuclear agreement and Munich 1938 is unfair to Chamberlain: “He was an honourable man who loved his country and just happened to get the greatest issue of the day wrong.” Barack Obama’s actions, contrariwise, have not only guaranteed the nuclearisation of Iran, “the biggest planetary sponsor of terrorism”, but also hindered the chances of Israel preventing this catastrophe. At the same time, the President of the United States has anointed the Islamic Republic as the dominant regional power and facilitated its full re-entry into the global economic community.

Supreme Leader Khamenei presides over a revolutionary state bent on exporting its radical ideology throughout the Middle East. Tehran, in a symbiotic dance with Sunni revivalism, is one half of the reason why Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other environs are gripped by civil war. The sense amongst Iran’s fearful neighbours that the Islamic Republic is now on its way to nuclear-weapons capability will force Obama’s presidential successors—unless they want Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Egypt et al to get the bomb—to provide a “nuclear umbrella” for Iran’s rivals. Paradoxically, perhaps, President Obama’s outreach to Iran, as Kissinger and Shultz have warned, ensnares America in the Middle East until the crack of doom.

Daryl McCann has a blog at


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