Where Obama Went Wrong on Iran

by Shlomo Avineri Shlomo Avineri teaches political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and served as Director-General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. 19.07.2015
JERUSALEM – The pros and cons of the accord with Iran over its nuclear program will be debated extensively over the next two months, in the run-up to a vote on the deal by the US Congress. But the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will be judged by its implementation, which will take years.

Nonetheless, two things are already clear. First, the JCPOA’s weakest provisions – both cumbersome and open to competing interpretations – are those covering compliance and verification. So some skepticism about implementation is in order.

Second, and more immediately, the very achievement of an agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) has already begun to affect the regional balance of power. Indeed, it is legitimate to ask whether Western (and especially US) negotiators were aware of the geopolitical implications of the deal.

Even at this early stage, it is apparent that the agreement has empowered Iran regionally. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite regime lavished praise on the agreement, rightly recognizing that enhanced international legitimacy and financial resources will enable Shia Iran to provide greater backing. Assad’s other major regional ally, Lebanon’s Hezbollah (which the US classifies as a terrorist organization) also supports the deal. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is also happy to have received US assistance, however indirectly, in strengthening Assad’s hold on power.

Understandably, Iran’s empowerment has made America’s closest allies in the region extremely uncomfortable. In their different ways, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and some of the smaller, more vulnerable Gulf states have let their unease be known.

Turkey – an uncertain US ally nowadays, yet still a NATO member – may be too preoccupied with domestic political turmoil to respond in detail. But President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan certainly is skeptical of an agreement that Obama describes in almost messianic terms. The Egyptian leadership, also fighting internal challenges, is similarly unhappy with the JCPOA.

And, whether Israel benefits or loses, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is sure to come out ahead. A crafty fear monger, he will be able to present the agreement as further proof of Israel’s isolation and abandonment by the world, enabling him to leverage public anxiety into enhanced political support for his government.

Netanyahu may even succeed in bringing Yitzhak Herzog’s Zionist Union into his government, thereby shoring up his shaky coalition. His comparison of the Iranian threat to the Holocaust may be absurd and obscene, but it is politically effective. Nothing helps the Israeli right more than heightening the electorate’s sense of being under siege.

Obama’s defense of the JCPOA may be helping Netanyahu in this regard, thanks to some historical claims that may be even more dubious than his arguments regarding Iran’s nuclear policies. In some of his statements, and in his recent interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Obama compared the deal with Iran to Richard Nixon’s opening to China in 1972.

This is a savvy and enticing claim. But it is also a misleading one. Nixon’s secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, was pursuing a brilliant strategy to weaken Communism by exploiting the Sino-Soviet split. Emulating the French statesman Cardinal Richelieu, Kissinger helped the weaker power against the stronger one. No such overarching strategy underlies Obama’s policy, even if it may be justified on the more limited grounds of nuclear non-proliferation.

In this interview with Friedman, Obama also maintained that one should try to understand Iranian history and culture. This sounds unexceptional, even innocuous, until one realizes what Obama means. “The fact is that we had some involvement in overthrowing a democratically elected regime in Iran,” he says, referring to the 1953 coup that toppled Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh’s government. Moreover, the US “had in the past supported Saddam Hussein when he used chemical weapons against Iran.”

Therefore, according to Obama, the Iranians have “their own security concerns and their own narratives.” This is an extraordinarily ahistorical claim. Similarly, one could claim that Germany had its own “security concerns and narratives” during the 1938 Munich crisis. Is Obama suggesting that the US should have supported Mosaddegh in the midst of the Cold War, or tilted toward Iran during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s?

All of this may say something essential about Obama’s approach to the nuclear deal with Iran. Above all, while his negotiators’ unremitting focus on the issues before them – centrifuges, enrichment levels, the fate of spent fuel, and so on – undoubtedly permitted the deal to be done, the “success” of this approach has left the future of the region blurrier than ever.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.

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