Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society
Earlier this week, The New York Times reported on the “free fall” of President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy. While the President had “inherited a messy situation in the region with the war in Iraq … by the time he took office, [President George W.] Bush’s troop surge and Gen. David H. Petraeus’s strategy change had helped turn the war around”. This relative stability has given way:
Today there is no single overarching issue but multiple ones. Syria, Iraq and Yemen are caught up in war. Turkey and Jordan are inundated by refugees. Russia has reasserted itself as a major player in the region. Libya is searching for stability after the fall of its longtime dictator. The Kurds are on the march. Egypt is fighting off a terrorist threat at home. And Saudi Arabia and Iran are waging a profound struggle for the future of the region.
Many of America’s allies disagreed with Bush’s focus on Iraq, considering Iran to be the larger threat, but if they had considered Bush too assertive, they find Obama too timorous, stepping back as the situation spins out of control.
Curiously, the Times piece left out—entirely—the nuclear deal with Iran, negotiations for which began, in secret, in July 2012, before beginning overtly in November 2013 and concluding in July 2015. Perhaps this was because the Times had planned to handle the nuclear deal separately.
In an analysis piece the following day, the Times argued: “Just as conservative opponents of the nuclear deal with Iran had warned, Tehran seems to be moving aggressively to expand its regional influence while working to counter American interests throughout the Middle East,” but “just as proponents of the deal had promised, Iran is also slowly opening up, cutting deals with Western businesses”. In the Times’ telling, “Iran’s hard-line faction … has suffered a string of defeats,” including in the election that brought Hassan Rowhani, “a moderate,” to the presidency in August 2013, and some internal reforms. Yet, “both Iran’s partial opening up to the West and its involvement in Middle East conflicts are directed by [Supreme Leader] Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei”.
What to make of these apparent contradictions?
The notion of a schism within the Iranian theocracy, between moderates and hardliners, was one of the Obama administration’s key talking points in the narrative it used to sell the Iran deal: it was after Iran elected a moderate president and showed signs of wanting a better relationship with the West that the administration reached out, and this deal would strengthen the moderates further. But the best intelligence the U.S. had was that no such division existed. Leon Panetta, who served as both Defence Secretary and CIA Director under Obama, has stated plainly that he saw no evidence of this distinction: “The Quds Force and the Supreme Leader ran that country with a strong arm”.
As far back as 2009, President Obama was writing letters to the Supreme Leader offering a new relationship between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic. The Obama administration stayed quiet in June 2009 when the Iranian regime rigged an election and then began murdering those who protested about it because, as an administration official later explained, “we were still trying to engage the Iranian government and we did not want to do anything that made us side with the protesters.” This unpleasantness required a decent interval before Obama tried again. When he did, in 2012, the outreach was before Rowhani was put in office, when Mahmud Ahmadinejad was still in place.
The truth is that the U.S. signalled a willingness to deal with the most hardline forces in Iran, which was fortunate because that is what they got. Khamenei remained in control of the negotiating process, where all of his redlines were respected, and he was able to use the threat of leaving the negotiations to have the U.S. stand down on the use of military strikes to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons.
Had Rowhani been a reformer or moderate, he would have been in no position to operationalize this as the front-man for Khamenei’s diplomacy. This is not Rowhani, however. A cleric from the first-generation of revolutionaries, Rowhani was the deputy to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the handful of men most responsible for consolidating the revolution. Rafasanjani secured the succession for the current Supreme Leader after Ruhollah Khomeini died, and inter alia served as president between 1989 and 1997, during which he launched a killing-spree against Iranian dissidents in Europe and massacred Jews as far away as Argentina. Rowhani was at Rafsanjani’s side at all times. Rowhani later played a key role in crushing the student protests in 1999.
Rowhani’s only differences with the Supreme Leader have been tactical. Within the regime, Rafsanjani and Rowhani tried to bring the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) under control after the terrible war with Saddam Husayn, and Rowhani abhorred the crassness of Ahmadinejad, believing Tehran could achieve its end-goal of a nuclear weapons capacity, while also relieving the sanctions. Rowhani played divide-and-rule in the 1990s—peeling the Europeans off from the Americans—and didn’t see why it couldn’t work again. As it happened, Rowhani was pushing at an open door with the United States this time around.
The administration’s primary objective was a drawdown of U.S. resources from the Middle East and the nuclear deal facilitated that, which is why it was prepared to pay such a high price for it. After 2009, the Iranian regime narrowed into the hands of the most extreme actors, who would not have signed this deal if they thought it weakened them, at home or abroad. Apart from the “echo chamber” thesis of ascendant moderates, Iran’s expansion across the region—and the U.S. assistance to same—was rationalized as the U.S. and Iran having a common interest in fighting the Islamic State. This despite Iran’s growing power strengthening groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and posing a menace all of its own.
In the 1990s, Rafsanjani acquired the label “moderate” by being prepared to do sit with Westerners and organize billions of dollars of trade—even as he orchestrated attacks on Western interests and personnel from Khobar Towers to Vienna. There can seem to be what the Times calls a “puzzling contradiction” when actors engage in commerce with us while continuing to pursue anti-Western ends. But this contradiction is only detected on our side. In the present case of the Iran deal—where Iranian negotiators free-up billions of dollars and Iranian troops step up their imperial march across the region—it is difficult to detect even a superficial contradiction; the one underwrites the other.