Western negotiators sat down again today in Geneva with Iran’s representatives hopeful that they could strike a nuclear deal with Tehran. But after seemingly coming so close to an agreement when the parties last met two weeks ago, most of the spin coming from the Obama administration about this issue wasn’t so much on whether they could entice the Islamist regime to sign an accord as it was on aggressively pushing back against critics of their approach to Iran. In the last several days, the president’s foreign-policy team has been intent on squelching dissent from Israel and Saudi Arabia about Washington’s desire to strike an interim deal with Iran that would leave in place the regime’s nuclear program and its “right” to enrich uranium. The president and Secretary of State Kerry have gone all-out to lobby Congress against increasing sanctions on Iran as well as to justify a decision to start the process of loosening sanctions without Iran having to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure. Enlisting their allies in the media like the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman and a host of others, their main goal has been as much to delegitimize skeptics about their Iran policy, especially supporters of Israel who rightly see what is going on as the beginning of a betrayal of the president’s repeated promises on the subject.
For the moment, the administration has succeeded. The Senate will not vote on increasing sanctions until after the Thanksgiving recess, giving Kerry plenty of time to get his deal before Congress could theoretically scare the Iranians away from the table. Moreover, by seeking to depict the argument as one between those seeking a peaceful solution to the problem and those who really want the U.S. to fight a war, they have put themselves in line with the same war weariness that helped obstruct the president’s faltering attempts to deal with the crisis in Syria. But the collateral damage from this strategy will be considerable. While Obama and Kerry seem most focused on beating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Jewish state’s American supporters, what they have failed to realize is that by shifting their focus in this manner they may have actually made their goal of an agreement with Iran even more difficult to obtain. And by alienating both Israel and moderate Arab states and treating their understandable concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions as secondary to the president’s desire to get out from under his campaign promises on the issue, they may have set the stage for a train of events they will not be able to influence or stop.
The main problem with the current U.S. approach to Iran is that it is based on the assumption that Iran’s desire to get economic sanctions lifted is greater than their commitment to achieving their nuclear goal. Preserving their nuclear option is, as they have repeatedly stated, their “red line” in negotiations. Having prevaricated and delayed talks with the West with this object in mind for more than a decade, it is a fundamental error to think that they have any intention of giving up now, especially since they have gotten so close to achieving it.
From the Iranian point of view, the charm offensive led by new President Hassan Rouhani has already succeeded since it has driven a wedge between the United States and Israel as well as Saudi Arabia. But by escalating the argument with Israel in this manner, President Obama has failed to realize that by demonstrating his zeal for a deal, even at the cost of heightening tensions with two key allies and alienating a key domestic constituency, he may be influencing the Iranian negotiating position more than he imagines. By trashing all those counseling caution in dealing with Iran as warmongers, the administration may have not so much empowered the alleged “moderates” in Iran but actually given the country’s supreme leader a reason to hold out for even better terms than the West is offering.
The regime’s true boss, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made clear his contempt for President Obama’s diplomatic efforts yesterday in a speech to members of his Basij paramilitary forces broadcast live in on Iranian TV when he not only put the U.S. down as weak but supplied the usual denunciation of Israel as “an “illegitimate regime” led by “untouchable rabid dogs.” Having demonstrated throughout the last five years that he thought President Obama was a paper tiger whose threats should be discounted, it is difficult to imagine that the last two weeks–during which the administration has shown its eagerness to find a way to appease Iran and its desire to distance itself from Israel and the Saudis–have altered Khamenei’s view of the confrontation.
By beating back efforts to impose even tougher sanctions on Iran and essentially marginalizing Israel in this fashion, the president may think he has given himself more room to make diplomacy work. But what he may really have done is to convince Khamenei that, as with Iran’s past decisions to stonewall the West’s efforts, further delay will only net him an even more favorable deal. While raising the pressure on Iran would have given the regime an incentive to compromise or even back down, the American decision to cut Israel loose in this fashion may have done the opposite.
Just as bad is the long-term damage the president’s push for an Iran deal has done to America’s allies in the Middle East. Both Israel and the Saudis understand, even if Obama does not, that Iran will not abide by even the most generous of Western deals and sooner or later will evade or cheat their way to a nuclear weapon. But after being cut out of the diplomatic process in this fashion, they will have less reason to listen to American advice in the future and may even consider acting on their own to stop Iran despite Obama’s insincere assurances that he is looking out for their interests. The net result is a lack of trust that will only undermine Middle East stability and make it less likely anyone will heed the president’s warnings or advice even after Iran goes nuclear.
By downgrading the alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia and trying to delegitimize his critics as warmongers, the president has strengthened Iran’s bargaining position and made it less rather than more likely that there will be a satisfactory conclusion to both the current negotiations and those that will follow. Rather than allowing diplomacy to succeed, what he has done may have ensured that Iran will never be convinced to give up its nukes by any means short of a use of force that no one wants.