When the next—and supposedly final—round of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program end next month, there are three possible outcomes:
- The “interim” deal, the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), will be rolled over for another six months after it was rolled over in July, and will, like so much else in the Middle East billed as temporary, begin to look permanent.
- A final deal is signed that is an Iranian victory in all-but name, putting them on the threshold of a nuclear weapon with only the regime’s goodwill stopping them crossing the finishing line to a bomb.
- Iran’s dictator, Ali Khamenei, refuses President Obama both of the above fig leaves and breaks off negotiations.
How did we get here?
The “Interim Deal”
Sanctions do not provide instant gratification in foreign policy, they are a cumulative process. The Mendendez-Kirk sanctions passed by the U.S. Congress in December 2011, bitterly opposed by the Obama administration, blockaded Iran from the international financial system and, in a moment of solar lunar eclipse, the European Union managed to agree a boycott of Iranian oil that took effect in July 2012. By late 2012, after a decade of escalating sanctions, they had finally bitten. The rial was in free fall, basic goods were disappearing from Iranian shops, and the constituencies the regime targets with economic favours were beginning to lose out. Iran’s buyer-pool for its oil was severely limited and it was reduced to medieval bartering. This was the moment for the West to stand back and let the sanctions grind away. That is not what happened. Instead, on November 24, 2013, the Obama administration signed the JPA with Iran, which gave Tehran relief.
The “deal” looked bad enough from the start. It was signed in the shadow of Obama’s humiliating retreat on his Syrian chemical weapons “red line”. This timing prompted suspicions that Obama let Iran’s client in Damascus off-the-hook as a pre-emptive quid pro quo for the nuclear deal. Such suspicions were soon confirmed. Beginning in July 2012 and getting serious in March 2013, Obama had been conducting secret negotiations with the Iranians that set the stage for the JPA. America’s closest allies were only told about this after the September 27, 2013, telephone call between Obama and Iran’s new, ostensibly-moderate president Hassan Rowhani. Not that they did not know. As one Israeli official testified, “we felt like we were being stabbed in the back,” and Israel only knew because the Saudis had told them.
As details of the deal—which wasn’t even implemented for two months—emerged, it became clear it was a “very bad deal,” to quote Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu correctly pointed out that Iran “got everything and paid nothing”.
The Obama administration tried to sell the deal by saying that it removed from Iran its highest-enriched stockpile of uranium enriched to 20% purity. It was true. It was also irrelevant. The deal did not dismantle a single centrifuge. At one point the Obama administration claimed that the word “dismantle” was in the text. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went straight on CNN to offer the most exact summary of the JPA: “The White House version both underplays the concessions [made to Iran] and overplays Iranian commitments.” As David Albright, one of the world’s leading experts on nuclear weapons, explained, Iran was allowed under the JPA to continue work on a second generation of centrifuges which would leave them able to “make up for time lost more quickly.”
Moreover, the deal gave the Iranians sanctions relief in the form of hard cash. This was supposed to be $7 billion; it was at least $20 billion. By early this year, Iran’s economy had stabilised and, with the fall of Yemen’s capital to Iran-backed Houthi (Zaydi Shi’a) rebels, Iran has been able to marshal the resources to effectively control four Arab capitals. Obama’s contention that, with the sanctions, “all we have to do is turn the dial back on … partly because 95% of it never got turned off,” looks flagrantly untrue at this remove. In addition to the direct relief, the JPA created an economic lobby within the West to push for the erosion of the rest of the sanctions, and it is succeeding.
Worst of all, the deal implicitly recognised Iran’s “right to enrich,” something six U.N. Security Council resolutions had forbidden. A “comprehensive solution would involve a mutually defined enrichment program,” the JPA said, and during the period the JPA is in force “Iran will continue … its current enrichment”. The JPA also made reference to a final deal encompassing the “comprehensive lifting of all … sanctions,” which is to say a sunset clause, a date when Iran will cease to have any restraints at all on its nuclear program. The highest number put on this is twenty years; most are under ten and Iran will surely push for fewer than five.
Iran was supposed to have turned over documentation to explain things like the work on nuclear detonators at Parchin; this has not happened. Indeed, the Parchin site, which is believed to have been stripped and cleaned, has remained off-limits to the IAEA. The Fordow enrichment site, built Bond-villain style into the side of a mountain, has remained active, and nothing has been done to block the plutonium path to a bomb at Arak’s heavy water plant. Iran’s missile program was unmentioned by the JPA.
If Iran admitted that it at one stage tried weaponisation but had abandoned the effort and provided at least some documentation, it would get itself out of a lot of trouble. European and Americans who just want this problem to go away could claim a victory and say Iran’s honesty showed it had really changed its intentions. The fact that Tehran continues with official mendacity while making open statements of contempt—on Saturday Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi said that Iran would never accept a deal that did not end all sanctions, nor one that did require the dismantling of a single centrifuge, and Ali Khamenei put out a tweet of his red lines a few weeks ago that were as hardline as ever—suggest it means a lot to the Islamic Republic to not only acquire the nukes but to publicly defy the West while doing so.
It was bad enough that Obama concealed his dealings with Iran from foreign allies and painted them as the problem, but he did it to Congress too. Whether Israel’s threat of military action was ever credible can be debated but it was the wild-card—and one to the West’s advantage. The “interim” deal took that away too. Now Iran’s nuclear program was protected by American power and if Israel struck she could be accused of wrecking a new era of peace and co-operation. To try to prevent Iran from stringing negotiations out to complete its nuclear-weapons program under this protective canopy, Congress proposed sanctions that would kick-in if Iran did not sign a final deal by this November. The Obama administration responded by saying:
“If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American public and say so.”
In other words, Obama called sanctions-supporting Senators warmongers. The Democratic Senate backed down.
Last November, the West was in a relatively strong position against the Iranian theocracy; by this November that is not the case. All Western leverage has been thrown away. The Iranians made temporary, reversible concessions and received irreversible concessions in turn. At best, the JPA extended Iran’s “breakout” time from four-to-six weeks to about eight weeks. The Iranians want a deal that gives them sanctions relief and nuclear weapons, but they will not give up the latter to achieve the former. The U.S. administration is clearly more desirous of a deal than the Iranians are, and now has to save face for the previous bad deal. Khamenei can either demand another payment to keep this “interim” racket going, advancing his nuclear-weapons program protected by U.S. power; can sign a final deal if it is devoid of real safeguards; or abandon the pretence of negotiations altogether and finish his nuke, sure that the President will not resort to force to stop him.
Part of a Broader Pattern
This was a disaster, but it continued a mistake of Western policy since the emergence of information about Iran’s nuclear-weapons program in the mid-1990s, to isolate the nuclear question from everything else about Iran: its export of terrorism, subversion of friendly governments, and gross abuses of human rights internally, symbolised so vividly when Obama remained silent during the repression of the Iranian uprising in 2009. The novelty of the Obama administration’s mistaken Iran policy was not that it emboldened the theocracy by displaying weakness, though it certainly did, but that this President had a positive policy of tilting toward Iran, and surrender in the nuclear negotiations was only an opening sweetener in what was intended to be a broader rapprochement.
Tony Badran at NOW Lebanon has probably been the most salient, but also Michael Doran, Lee Smith, Michael Weiss, and a small group of others have been presenting the accruing evidence of Obama’s pro-Iran tilt for many years. It boils down to this: Obama wished to accomplish his well-known desire to get out of the Middle East by forming a balance of power between Iran and the predominantly-Sunni States (Khaleejis, Egypt, and—more ambiguously—Turkey), which would allow them to settle their own affairs without America maintaining order.
To achieve a “balance,” it would axiomatically mean strengthening Iran’s regional position since it had been weaker at the start. The Obama administration does at least wish to appear to want to keep Iran from a nuclear bomb, which is the purpose of this attempt for a “permanent” agreement. The administration believes that by giving in to Iran’s regional ambitions, the theocracy can be dissuaded from completing the bomb—at least while Obama’s in office*. Ironically, this means that Obama actually does see the wider array of issues concerning Iran; he just imagines that for the right price they can be turned into assets.
This policy of the Obama administration’s has shown up in odd ways. During the recent flare-up of violence after HAMAS attacked Israel, John Kerry presented a ceasefire plan that tilted toward the most Iran-friendly actors in the situation—HAMAS, Qatar, and Turkey—and against America’s partners, namely Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Saudis, and the Egyptians. The theatres in which Obama’s policy has shown itself most obviously, however, are Iraq and Syria.
On August 7, the U.S. began a campaign of airstrikes in Iraq against the Islamic State. I was always sceptical of an intervention against the I.S. that was limited to Iraq and did not target the Assad regime in Syria simultaneously because it would, as I put it in July, risk “placing the West on the side of an Iraqi government that is a virtual satellite of Tehran’s.” We had no interest in the survival of the autocratic, sectarian government underwritten by Iran’s intelligence agencies. Obama ultimately squared this circle by focussing the problem of Iraq’s government on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki personally and pressing for his removal; not a bad idea in itself, but no panacea.
As it turned out, Maliki’s replacement, Haider al-Abadi, presented by the Obama administration as a victory for their strategy of forming an “inclusive” government, was if anything even worse. Maliki’s notorious thuggishness actually gave him an ability to resist Iranian pressure. Abadi has no such capacity. For example, Abadi wanted to appoint Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organisation, the oldest Iranian proxy organisation in Iraq from which many of the others originate, as Interior Minister. Badr’s anti-Sunni behaviour within the Interior Ministry was part of what tipped Iraq into civil war in 2006-07. Amiri was eventually vetoed in favour of Mohammed Ghabban, a de facto proxy for Amiri—and Iran. As Hussain Abdul-Hussain put it, with the U.S. bombing and mobilising the Sunni Arab tribes and Kurds against the I.S., “Iran got the West and Sunnis to fight its fight, and got the Iraqi prime minister it wanted.”
On the ground, my fears were borne out. The U.S. became Iran’s de facto airforce in Iraq, and these Shi’ite militias, often operating with official Iraqi uniforms, beheaded Sunni civilians on video, massacred hundreds of Sunni prisoners, and ethnically cleansed 7,000 Sunni families. In late August, with the help of American airstrikes, “fighters from Iraq’s various military and paramilitary forces” broke the I.S.’s siege of Amerli, a majority-Shi’a Turcoman town in northern Iraq.
As it turned out, these paramilitaries were Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), a squad of Khomeini’ist jihadists that was broken away from Muqtada Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi in 2006 when the Sadrists proved too independent of mind. AAH is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Pasdaran (Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC)), sworn to wilayat al-faqih, the ruling ideology of Iran’s Islamic Republic that has Ali Khamenei as Supreme Leader. Not only is AAH responsible for the murder of hundreds of American soldiers during the U.S. regency in Iraq, making them an undesirable partner, but they split apart the anti-I.S. coalition, notably by fostering tension with the Kurds who want no part of an Iraq that is going to be a Sister Republic to Iran.
Amerli made nonsense of the Obama administration’s many-times-repeated mantra that it would not work with Iran against the Islamic State. The U.S. was “coordinating airstrikes with Iranian militias by using Iraqi security forces as intermediaries“. David Ignatius, a journalist known to be close to the administration and the CIA, wrote at the beginning of September that “the United States has opened a quiet back channel to Iran to ‘deconflict’ potential clashes as both countries use air power to attack Islamic State targets.” The only thing America seems to have gotten out of being Iran’s air force in Iraq is a decision by the Quds Force, the foreign expeditionary wing of the Pasdaran, to go easy on America now she is back in Iraq on their side.
After 42 months of dithering, the U.S. finally struck into Syria on September 23—against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. It was obvious that if America could co-ordinate with Iran in Iraq she could do so in Syria too, since it is the same conflict. Ignatius didn’t leave this to speculation, noting that there were thoughts within the administration that co-ordination in Iraq “maybe the start of broader liaison discussions” between the U.S. and Tehran against Sunni jihadism. As it transpired, assurances were given to Iran before the U.S. strikes into Syria that Assad would not be a target.
It is easily forgotten that the Obama administration’s formal Syria “policy,” if one might coin a phrase, is regime-change, and Iran is still officially an enemy regime—registered as the lead State sponsorship of terrorism, for example—whose ambitions the U.S. is charged with containing. But the Obama administrations actions—or rather lack of them—in Syria evince a radical disconnect between the administration’s public diplomacy, which maintains some of the old language of containment, and its behaviour, which consistently tilts in Iran’s direction. All talk of equipping the rebellion to counter both the Assad regime (Iran) and the Salafi-jihadists is just that: talk. It has never materialised.
The limited American airstrikes into Syria, by focusing solely on the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, played straight into Iran’s hands. Iran’s proxy regime determined early on to drive the insurgency into takfirism so as to force a binary choice on the population and the world between itself and the Zarqawi’ites, hoping to draw America into Syria to put down the insurgency; with this action, Obama has essentially obliged. With the U.S. checking the takfiris in the east, who had gotten a bit out of control and disrupted Iran’s client in Baghdad, Assad is free to savage the nationalist rebels and other potential American partners in the west, and try to finish them once and for all at Aleppo. Sadly, to President Obama, Syria is an incidental part of his Iraq strategy and nothing more.
The creation by Iran of an Iraqi version of the Hizballah on Syrian territory is testament to the Obama administration’s lack of will to contain Iran.
AAH looked dangerous enough in late 2012 when it was on a trajectory to becoming an Iraqi Hizballah within Iraq, mixing social service-provision with involvement in the political system, including quasi-electoral participation, and the maintenance of an armed capacity to impose its will as a final resort. But even then there were signs its role was larger. AAH had opened a Lebanese branch, and—as part of Jaysh al-Mahdi—had already participated in an overseas war in alliance with the Lebanese Hizballah against Israel in 2006.
In the summer of 2012, Clerical Iran mounted a massive rescue effort for the Assad dictatorship, which included flooding in thousands of Shi’a jihadists, including AAH. Assad’s formal Army had virtually collapsed and the rag-tag pro-regime militias like the “popular committees” and the various killer squads labelled Shabiha were too dispersed to be very effective.
Iran oversaw an effort, through the Quds Force and the Hizballah, to build a counterinsurgency force, which folded in all these disparate forces. The result was the National Defence Forces (NDF), announced in January 2013, which had about 100,000 men by the summer of 2013, drawn mostly from the minorities, specifically the Alawites. The NDF is trained, equipped, and commanded by Iran. The NDF works in close co-ordination with Iranian cut-outs like Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA), which are comprised of Iraqi (and indeed international) Shi’ite jihadists from AAH, Kataib Hizballah, Badr, and other Iranian proxy organisations.
The formation of the NDF was part of Iran’s broader strategy to create a force on the ground in Syria that can protect its interests even if Assad eventually falls. The Syrian uprising was a great chance to damage Iran’s Jabhat al-Muqawama (Axis of Resistance), to remove Iran’s access to the Hizballah and its ability to deter Israel, but the Axis is now “more integrated and capable” all across the region.
The movement of vast numbers of Iranian proxies into Syria is not just a regional danger. Asaib Ahl al-Haq is fully integrated within Iran’s global terrorist network. AAH interfaces with the Quds Force via Abdul Reza Shahlai, who directs the Quds Force’s external operations, including the effort to blow up the Saudi ambassador in Washington. The potential threat from a handful of al-Qaeda veterans, the so-called “Khorasan Group,” moving into Syria prompted American airstrikes; thousands of globally-focussed Shi’a jihadists with State backing apparently do not merit a response.
Obama says he does not want an Assad victory, but the kindest reading of his Syria strategy is that he wants a negotiated settlement that balances Iran’s interests with those of the Gulf States. However, Obama’s fear of being dragged into a ground war in Syria and his prioritising the threat of al-Qaeda and its off-shoots, which have formed a central part of the argument for an accommodation with Iran, have created an incentive structure that leaves the way open to an Assad victory, something powerful voices in the administration consider a less bad outcome than the dictator’s fall. The continuing failure to seriously support the Syrian opposition, the calling off of the airstrikes against Assad after the Ghouta chemical attack to appease Iran in the nuclear negotiations, and the assurances given Iran that their client regime in Damascus is safe now that American airstrikes are falling inside Syria suggests that Obama has ceded Syria to Iran, thus his policy would not be devastated by an Assad victory.
The astonishing thing is that Iran has been able to present itself as the solution to regional order while overseeing killing and mayhem on this scale. Respectable people like Les Gelb can write that working with Iran and its satellites is the only way to defeat I.S., and is even the way to “lessen the humanitarian nightmare” it has caused in Syria.
Obama’s public redefinition of America’s interests vis-à-vis the Middle East, focussed on the Iranian nuclear program and Sunni jihadism, is what has allowed this. Removing all talk of Iran’s connection to terrorism, for example, and laying emphasis on the sectarian elements of the war in the region, made it possible to see Iran as a solution to this wave of Salafi-jihadism. But what is to be done with Iran’s longstanding support for Sunni jihadist groups?
The fact is that States remain the prime movers in the region. Iran helped Assad incite a sectarian war in Syria because it frightened the minorities and sections of the Sunnis to cling to the regime, and a sectarian war in Iraq likewise makes the Shi’a-led Iraqi government more pliable. In other words, the main assumption of the Obama administration’s strategy—that Tehran is interested in defeating I.S. and stablising the Middle East—is a fallacy. Iran, like the Salafi-jihadists of al-Qaeda and its bastard children, thrives on chaos.
The argument for isolating Iran’s nuclear program as an issue falls of its own weight. Iran wants the nuke to advance its imperial interests in the region and to stave off internal reform. The Obama administration has telegraphed that it wants to give Iran a generous nuclear deal and has already ceded to it large sections of the region, hoping Iran will forgo the bomb (at least for now) and that Iran will support a “concert of powers,” as Robert Kaplan put it, to replace American hegemony in the region, which has as a core mission the containment of Sunni radicalism.
Unfortunately, while Iran has read its opponents intentions clearly, the Obama administration has not. Iran has managed to leverage the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State into U.S. ratification of their regional ambitions in the Fertile Crescent, Obama has all-but taken the regime’s side in the internal struggle for Iran, and all the while the centrifuges continue to spin and Iran has no intention to stop them.
[*] While it would obviously be a PR disaster for the “nuclear zero” President to have Iran become a nuclear power on his watch, Obama doesn’t seem to view a nuclear Iran as a bad outcome per se, certainly not as bad as military action to stop it. Obama thinks the Iranian regime is rational (“self-interested,” as he put it), and thinks that a deal with the theocracy that removes the sanctions, even at the cost of making the regime a latent nuclear power, will bring victory in the long-term by causing change from within. “[I]f … as a consequence of a deal on their nuclear program those [moderate] voices and trends inside of Iran are strengthened, and their economy becomes more integrated into the international community, and there’s more travel and greater openness, even if that takes a decade or 15 years or 20 years, then that’s very much an outcome we should desire,” Obama has said. There is very good reason to think that a regime given this extra dose of power would become further entrenched, and indeed the regime itself sees things that way: the nukes are part of the campaign thwart the internal reform movement, seen by Tehran as part of the nefarious external effort to penetrate the Islamic world with secularism and democracy.
Update (Oct. 27): In an interview on Saturday, which I have just seen, Gen. John Allen, the “Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL,” said:
[W]e haven’t invited Iran into the coalition but we have welcomed Iran’s constructive role in Iraq and, of course, Iran is very attentive in terms of what we are doing and saying in terms of Syria as well. So it is important, once again, to be very clear that we seek a political outcome where there will be many voices that contribute to that political outcome [in Syria]. That political outcome will not include Assad and I don’t want to get into the details of interim governments and all of those measures that are on the table. However we recognize that Iran is a key influence in Iraq, in Syria and in the region. As we continue to move forward we are going to continue to listen very carefully to the things they [Iran] have to say and we will see where that goes.
A reference to “Iran’s constructive role in Iraq” needs no parsing, but examining the rest makes plain the administration’s tilt toward Iran. The Obama administration regards Syria as an Iranian sphere of influence and Iraq as a U.S.-Iranian condominium; Obama was never going to support the Syrian rebellion, except to use them against the Sunni jihadists, because allowing Tehran a free hand with its client dictatorship in Syria was part of the price the U.S. was going to pay to get Iranian buy-in to a new “concert of powers” to oversee regional order; and while Allen seems to say that Bashar has to go, the administration is still keen to keep the “institutions” of the Assad tyranny (which had “failed” by early 2013) and attach to them some sections of the rebellion to form an anti-Salafi-jihadist force.
How many rebel volunteers there will be to be cannon fodder against the I.S. while the regime is left alone, and what Obama’s policy is on protecting his own proxy from the regime’s air attacks, are open to speculation.
Update 2 (Oct. 28): The original title focussed too narrowly on the nuclear question; it has been changed to reflect the contents of the article.
Update 3 (Oct. 30): The day after this post went up the Wall Street Journal published an article simply entitled, “U.S., Iran Relations Move to Détente,” which buttressed the main argument made here, that Obama is trying to move toward a rapprochement or détente or Grand Bargain with the Iranians, using the Islamic State issue as its key point of co-operation. The U.S. and Iran are co-ordinating the anti-I.S. campaign on the ground, the Journal explains, especially in Iraq, and the U.S. has explicitly told the Iranians it will not target their client regime in Syria—both crucial points made above.