The Iran Deal’s Fundamental Flaw is Revealing Itself in Iraq
After Kata’ib Hezbollah killed an American civilian contractor and wounded four soldiers last Friday, the United States responded with retaliatory airstrikes. That in turn led to U.S. Embassy in Baghdad being besieged by pro-Iranian elements, likely at Tehran’s command. Naturally, such events have led to talk about President Trump’s Iran strategy and everything that is supposedly wrong with it.
A good many of the people get invited onto cable news to discuss Trump’s Iran policies are former Obama or Clinton officials and their argument is something like this: by withdrawing from the nuclear deal, Trump boxed Iran in and this, and all of Iran’s other recent malign behavior, is just Iran lashing out and trying to break out of that box.
There’s just one problem: this has nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear program. Even if we buy the argument that the nuclear deal is a good and necessary thing to curtail Tehran’s nuke program, it did nothing to address Tehran’s expansionist policies elsewhere. It did not address its missile program, its support for terrorist organizations and other bad actors, or its institutional anti-Semitism. Nor did its bad behavior on the high seas start with Trump.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry was forced to admit that sanctions relief would not turn Iran into a responsible actor, “I think that some of it will end up in the hands of the IRGC or other entities, some of which are labeled terrorists. You know, to some degree, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that every component of that can be prevented.”
The justification that President Obama, Kerry, and the rest of Ben Rhodes’ so-called “echo chamber” gave for that is that they put it aside to focus on the nuclear program, which was and is the most important issue. The problem is that they threw away all leverage and now Trump is left in an awkward position.
If he did not respond to attacks on Americans where his own red line was violated he looks weak. If he did, he looks like he’s escalating without the consent of the host government in Iraq. Trump has little leverage. He can admit defeat and reverse course, but in which case he will be looked at by Tehran as not a partner in peace, but a pushover and the Iranians will have no incentive to give him anything or he can continue trying to maintain the delicate carrot-stick balance, but with little hope of addressing not only the flaws inherit in the nuclear deal as they relate to nuclear issues, but the non-nuclear issues the deal ignored as well.
Team Obama usually responds to this by saying Trump needs to and should have worked with our allies, but here we run into even more problems.
The first is, which allies? Our European allies or our Israeli and Arab ones? If we came to an agreement with our European allies who are still parties to the original deal, the question as to what to do about the Russians and the Chinese, who are also parties to the deal, remain.
This was the fundamental flaw about the Iran deal that tied the hands of all future presidents. It had no mechanism to allow for course correction. It was not the sanctions relief, those can and have been re-applied, but rather the Iran deal, by taking the pariah state label off, made Iran a legitimate power that Moscow and Beijing could do business with.
The idea that the purpose of the Iran deal was to make Iran into a successful region of power is not the stuff of crazy right-wing conspiracy mongering, Obama himself said as much:
They have a path to break through that isolation and they should seize it. Because if they do, there’s incredible talent and resources and sophistication inside of — inside of Iran, and it would be a very successful regional power that was also abiding by international norms and international rules, and that would be good for everybody. That would be good for the United States, that would be good for the region, and most of all, it would be good for the Iranian people.
Sounds like Trump talking about luxury hotels in North Korea.
The fundamental problem with bringing in Russia and China into a deal that would ensure Iran acts by “international norms and international rules” should be apparent. Even if Trump convinces the Europeans to join him, he’ll never get the U.N. sanctions regime that President Bush got because Obama threw that away forever and Moscow and Beijing view Tehran as a partner in their anti-Washington objectives. Good luck getting them to re-apply sanctions when Russia is working with Iran in Syria and China needs Iranian oil to fuel its economy. Just this week the three countries held naval drills in the Gulf of Oman.
Then there is the Middle East. Speaking of not working with allies, while Obama was able to bring the Europeans on board, the same could not be said of our allies that share the same neighborhood as Iran. The predicament now is if Trump accommodates the Europeans, he upsets the Israelis and our Arab allies and vice versa.
The logic behind Obama’s “responsible power theory” was that all Iran really wanted was to be seen as a legitimate country and that the way to do that was to make a deal with the P5+1 on its nuclear program. If it could be seen as a responsible power it could live at peace with its neighbors and the wider world who would have no need to feel threatened by it, but to do this Obama downplayed the regime’s revolutionary and ideological nature and motivations its politicians hold.
A Metternich or Castlereagh-esque Concert of the Middle East, as it were, falls apart when one member becomes expansionist and especially when it carries with it an ideology, in this case Shia fundamentalism and extremism.
In this, Trump’s relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman is less proof that Trump loves autocrats who kill journalists, than a repudiation that the nuclear deal could turn Iran into a responsible actor. Similarly, while it is impossible to deny that Trump‘s relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu is at least somewhat influenced by domestic politics, Israel has been taking the fight to Iran in Syria, something that is unlikely to change even if Netanyahu eventually loses, whenever Israel’s domestic political situation eventually works itself out.
Obama’s signature foreign policy legacy item was critical to his idea of a Middle East strategy. Unfortunately, missing from that strategy was any effort to tackle Iranian behavior outside of Iran’s borders. They painted a false choice between the deal and war and misread Iran’s foreign policy priorities. Trump has been far from perfect on Iran, but let us dispel with the notion that Obama’s nuclear deal solved the Iranian question and that Trump’s ego, driven by the need to be the anti-Obama messed it all up and all he needs to deal is drop the sanctions and re-enter the deal.