Barack Obama’s Gamble on the Future of Iran

Nixon+ChinaMy Comments: I must confess to being tired of all the crap going on in politics, whether its local, state, national or international. Increasingly my opinions, concerns, fears, hopes, expectations, etc., seem irrelevant. The temptation is to walk away and try to ignore it.

That’s an emotional response and there’s a parallel with my universe as a financial planner. I’ve preached that “hope” is not a valid investment strategy. To be successful, you have to be proactive and alert and overcome emotion. And there’s still a chance you’ll fail. The alternative is to roll over and die. Which is not going to happen.

With respect to Iran, I don’t see a reason not to try and work with them. We hated China, and we are now friends. We hated Japan, and we are now friends. We hated Germany, but are now friends. Hell, if you go back far enough, we hated the French. At some point, someone has to reverse course and I see no reason to favor war without first trying to establish a negotiated truce. For that to happen, you have to at least talk with them.

Edward Luce March 15, 2015

At stake is the idea that talking to your worst enemies makes sense

President Barack Obama is poised to take the biggest foreign policy gamble of his presidency. Ignoring opposition at home, and near unanimous dissent in the Middle East, he looks likely to push ahead with an Iran nuclear deal in the coming days. His bet is that the world’s most hardline theocracy can be induced to change for the better. Over time Iran’s silent majority will gain sway over their ayatollahs.

At stake is the idea that talking to your worst enemies makes sense. Mr Obama’s bet on diplomacy could hardly differ more from George W Bush’s world view. Yet they share a weakness — the belief that one inspired move can transform the game. Mr Bush thought he could implant democracy in the Middle East by toppling its most brutal autocracy. Mr Obama hopes to create stability by engaging its most dangerous regime. In American football they call this a ‘Hail Mary’ pass. Will Mr Obama’s fare any better?

The more you listen to Mr Obama’s critics, the more you sympathise with his approach. From Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu to Saudi Arabia’s rulers and nearly every Republican in the US Senate, Mr Obama’s detractors believe Iran’s word is not worth the paper it is written on. At best, Mr Obama is naive. At worst he is un-American. Making deals with a rogue regime betrays US values.

In fact, such trade-offs are very American. For the greater good, Franklin Roosevelt struck an alliance with Joseph Stalin, one of history’s most prolific mass murderers. Richard Nixon made peace with Mao Tse Tung, who killed even more people than Stalin. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan backed Afghanistan’s mujahideen. By these standards, Iran’s transgressions are small potatoes.

Furthermore, Iran poses no threat to America’s universal values. Communists claimed to speak for all mankind. Iran only appeals to about 2 per cent of it — the world’s Shia population. As Mr Obama was fond of quoting John F Kennedy: “If you want to make peace you don’t talk to your friends, you talk to your enemies.”

Mr Netanyahu says no deal is better than a bad one. Here again, Mr Obama is more grounded in reality than his critics. If the choice is between a bad deal or war, the former is far better. Others glibly talk about bombing Iran. In an ideal world, Mr Obama would have persuaded Iran to dismantle its civil nuclear programme, rather than capping its resources at a low ceiling. The deal would hold indefinitely rather than for 10 to 15 years. Iran’s “nuclear breakout time” would last for ever, rather than just a year. Tehran would end its support for Hizbollah, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and others, rather than pledging to do nothing. It would also be legally binding, rather than a political document. Alas, no such terms are realistic. Mr Obama is not permitting the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

So what could go wrong? The flaw in Mr Obama’s logic is that Tehran will pay no real price for breaking its word. Compared with five or 10 years ago, it is negotiating from a position of strength. If it implements the deal, Mr Obama will gradually relax economic sanctions. If it breaks its word, they will be reimposed. Iran’s worst case scenario would mean reverting to today’s status quo. What does it have to lose? This is where Mr Obama’s innate reasonableness can count against him. His administration insists that “all options remain on the table” — including military strikes. But Mr Obama makes no secret of the fact that he would never exercise that option.

His hope is that Iran’s moderates, led by Hassan Rouhani will gain popular support as growth picks up with the gradual lifting of sanctions. Domestic backing for the deal would therefore rise. In turn, Iran will dilute its sponsorship of the Shia militias and terrorist groups in the region. Moderate Sunni regimes will also pull back. The logic of economics will replace the lure of sectarianism. Mr Obama would have converted today’s vicious circle into a virtuous one. It is an optimistic vision that is worth pursuing. No one has any better ideas. But it needs a plan B and Mr Obama does not seem to have one.

His approach has two further drawbacks. First, the US-led war on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is largely being fought by Iran and its Shia allies in Iraq and Syria. Mr Obama is relying on an unspoken alliance with Iran to do most of the fighting. Mr Obama’s reluctance to put US boots on the ground has increased Iran’s leverage.

Second, America’s Sunni allies, led by the Saudis, Egypt and Turkey, believe Iran will bide its time before abandoning the deal. It will first pocket the rewards. They have little faith in Mr Obama’s grasp of Iran’s internal dynamics. Ayatollah Khamenei’s declining health adds another imponderable. The danger of a Middle East nuclear arms race has never been greater.

Mr Obama risks sharing another legacy with his predecessor. Mr Bush tried to install democracy at the point of a gun. In practice he created a vacuum that was filled by Iran. Baghdad became a satellite of Tehran, which is what it remains today. Iran was the largest beneficiary of Mr Bush’s blunders in the Middle East. Its power has continued to grow during the Obama years. It would be an irony if the impending deal were only to cement that trend.

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