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Obama’s Wishful Thinking

Last week, Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution and I had an op-ed in the New York Times which suggested that President Obama is looking not just to sign a nuclear deal with Iran but to convert that state from a destabilizing force into part of a concert of the Middle East that would keep the peace along with the U.S., EU, and Russia. Our argument, that Obama is seeking a “Nixon to China” moment, was based not on the president’s explicit remarks, which are characteristically cautious, but rather on reading between the lines of his rhetoric and actions.

Now comes further evidence that we were right, in the form of New Yorker editor David Remnick’s revealing interview with the president.

Remnick writes as follows:

Ultimately, he envisages a new geopolitical equilibrium, one less turbulent than the current landscape of civil war, terror, and sectarian battle. “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” he told me. “And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.

This is wishful thinking, not a realistic assessment of U.S.-Iran relations at a time when the mullahs are more active than ever in backing violent proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain, among other states. The problem is that the costs of Obama’s Iran gambit are considerable. As Doran and I noted, the less that the U.S. does to oppose Iranian designs, the more that Sunni states will do—and in the process they will wind up empowering extremists of the kind who currently roam freely through western Iran and northern and eastern Syria. But the president seems blind to the costs of his outreach to Iran, which is worsening a regional civil war, because he is so mesmerized by the prospect of an agreement that will secure his place in foreign-policy history.

At one point Remnick, who seems to be channeling the inner Obama (he claims, echoing the president, that the GOP is “fuelled less by ideas than by resentments”), writes:  “A final pact, if one could be arrived at, would end the prospect of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and the hell that could follow: terror attacks, proxy battles, regional war—take your pick. An agreement could even help normalize relations between the United States and Iran for the first time since the Islamic Revolution, in 1979. Obama put the odds of a final accord at less than even, but, still, how was this not good news?”

The problem is that this is undoubtedly how Obama views the issue too—with the biggest threat coming not from an Iran in possession of nuclear weapons but from the “prospect of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.” Because the mullahs know where he stands, and realize how little they have to fear from Obama now that they have succeeded in getting him to back off crushing sanctions, he is unlikely to achieve his ambition of stopping the Iranian nuclear program, much less his grand design of integrating Iran into a peaceful new equilibrium in the Middle East.