The Obama administration is entitled to be furious with Israel. Although the U.S. got bragging rights for its (one-sided-not-in-our-favor) deal with Iran, Prime Minister Netanyahu remains determined publicly to say what the President wants to hide: Iran’s nuclear program could not be negotiated away, rolled back significantly or inspected properly. The only means to a signed document was for the U.S. to abandon its principles and pressure its allies. The U.S. has done that.
It was hard to oppose negotiations, it always is hard. Churchill said, “Its better to jaw, jaw than war, war” (you need the accent to make it work). But a deal that is not a capitulation by one side requires two conditions: the parties must equally value the process; and there has to be a compatible endgame. The West invested the process with much more value than did Iran, providing the mullahs with instant leverage, but most important, there was no agreed-upon end game.
The P5+1 wanted to negotiate the terms of Iran’s nuclear surrender; Iran was negotiating the conditions under which it will operate its nuclear program.
We’re familiar with the rules of buying a rug in the souk. The goals are compatible – he wants to sell, you want to buy. If you want the rug more than he wants the deal, you will overpay; if he wants the deal more than you want the rug, you win. But either way, money and rug will change hands. Alternatively, if you want to buy a rug and he wants to sell a camel, no matter how ardently you bargain there will be no deal. Unless you change your mind and take the camel.
The White House took the camel.
Here is how it happened. At the UN General Assembly this year, President Obama put forward his theory of Iran’s bellicosity, ascribing motives and goals to the Islamic regime that mirror American motives and goals - starting with American mistakes. “Iranians have long complained of a history of U.S. interference in their affairs and of America’s role in overthrowing the Iranian government during the Cold War.” Since he asserted that the nuclear program stemmed from Iranian fear of American meddling, he assuaged what he said were their concerns. “We are not seeking regime change, and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy.” Then he promised what he called a better future. “I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road toward a different relationship based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”
But what if Iran doesn’t believe we have “mutual interests” and seeks a future in which the Islamic Republic is the hegemonic Gulf power and the United States is banished from the region, leaving its Sunni allies and Israel without a patron? (Russia is already taken.) What if Iran seeks religious hegemony over the world’s Muslim population, which requires supporting Syria and Hezbollah in the face of more numerous Sunni adversaries?
In that case the nuclear program is not an “issue” to be “resolved,” but a means toward a considered end. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – the only real power in Iran – believes, as did the Ayatollah Khomeini before him, that the program is the determinant of Iran’s power and prestige, and necessary to resist political and economic domination by the West. A nuclear-capable Iran would be a power with influence in the Muslim and the wider world, equal to the nuclear-armed United States and, as an oil-producing country, superior to Israel.
From that angle, the Administration’s belief that a mild easing of sanctions (a "tiny portion," according to Secretary of State Kerry, and “very limited, temporary and reversible” according to President Obama) would induce Iran to begin the process of de-nuclearizing or denuding itself under the watchful, powerful, and punitive eye of the despised West was farfetched at best. Even large-scale bribery (the $20 billion or so FDD’s Mark Dubowitz estimated might become available to the regime) would be unlikely to move the Iranians from their national nuclear project.
That was the most important understanding in the development of international sanctions. Sanctions were NOT designed to force Iran choose between nuclear progress and “mutual respect” with the West. Sanctions, rather, were designed to force Iran to negotiate with itself. To choose between two of its own national goals: the nuclear project and economic stability. But at the very moment sanctions began to work and Iran began the internal conversation, the White House decided to buy the camel Iran was selling – temporary, reversible paper promises - for which the West would pay with eased sanctions and at least tacit acceptance of Iran’s “right” to uranium enrichment.
France (for itself, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. Congress) saved the Western position for a week. Unable to acknowledge the fundamental American shift, and having pulled France back into the fold, the administration continues to blame Israel and, if reports are true, has warned it not to consider military action against Iran without American “permission.” Somehow, the U.S. has become the guarantor of the security of Iran’s nuclear program, and thus the guarantor of the Islamic Republic’s rotten regime.
The implications are staggering. Iran has supported militias that killed American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. It traffics in weapons and missile technology with North Korea, some of which it then supplies along with troops to the gruesomely murderous regime of Bashar Assad and the equally murderous Hezbollah. Iran ships weapons through Somalia and across North Africa to jihadists in Sinai and Hamas in Gaza. It stirs trouble for American allies in the Gulf and threatens Israel with genocide on a regular basis.
The election of the so-called “moderate” Hasan Rouhani made no difference at all to the Iranian people. In the first 100 days of his administration, 207 people have been executed, some publicly. Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedani, in prison for over a year for practicing Christianity, was been moved to the “violent criminal” ward and denied medical treatment for injuries suffered in prison. Veteran Iran-watcher Michael Ledeen has chronicled the regime’s domestic violence, including the stoning deaths of four women and mass arrests of Kurds in Tehran in October.
Putting international priority on Iran’s nuclear program might have been reasonable given the stakes, but Iran presents a basket of issues for the West, the Sunni Muslim world and Russia. The Administration’s willingness to undermine the allied position on the nuclear program has left no room to maneuver on the other points – if it wants to.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center.
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