With most of the attention focused on specifics contained in the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action JCPOA with Iran, aka the Iran Deal, concerning its nuclear program, it appears that the background of changes evidenced in the relationship between the West and Iran, and especially between the US and Iran, are being missed.
In the negotiations with Iran, the Obama Administration seems to have had three goals, not one:
- Prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon while enforcing the ideals of peaceful nuclear energy that are part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
- Adapt to the desire of, and increasing pressure from, Europe, Russia, and China to end the sanctions regime against Iran as soon as possible and to try to put the end of those sanctions in their best light as well as to obtain any concessions from Iran that might be possible.
- End the isolation–diplomatic, cultural, as well as economic–of Iran from the West and to bring Iran into the family of nations in the hope that doing so would ultimately lead to moderation of Iran’s behavior. This was a part of a larger philosophical change in how America would conduct relations with Muslim nations.
Viewing the negotiations with Iran as if part of the first of these goals, to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, has been the only operative goal necessarily leads to a misunderstanding of the situation.
There has been a fundamental shift in American strategic policy toward the Muslim world that has been underway since President Obama took office in 2009, and many of us have expressed strong concerns since it began.
In April of 2009, President Obama delivered a speech in Ankara to the Turkish Parliament. Turkey was the exemplar of what President Obama sought to see throughout Middle East, a democratic Muslim nation. That the Erdogan government has not always, in fact often not, supported Democratic principles through its actions is besides the point. The President’s speech, at the time, seemed to be primarily focused on strengthening America’s relationship with Turkey, which had been frayed during the Bush Administration, but in retrospect it was the initial introduction to the new US regional strategic policy of outreach to the Muslim world.
Then in June of 2009, President Obama spoke in Cairo at Al Azhar University and, building upon his Ankara speech, reinforced the idea that the United States was seeking to change its relationship with Muslims around the world. The initial assumption was that this change included a shift between supporting dictatorial regimes to more democratic ones in Sunni nations, such as Turkey, and put Hosni Mubarak on notice that Egypt needed to change. The immediate impact of this shift was the emboldening and, in many ways, empowering of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in Egypt, and along with other Islamist groups as they challenged Sunni dictators.
Within a short time after these speeches, we had Political Islamist revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria with mixed results in each nation, though a large amount of bloodshed in them all. I use the term, “Political Islamist,” to refer to those groups who seek to install Sharia law as the primary law of their nations, superseding secular law, and in most cases also seek the reconfiguration of an Islamic Caliphate ruling all similar nations.
In addition to the revolutions that occurred, often called the “Arab Spring,” the US withdrew its forces from Iraq, leaving a weak Shia controlled government to deal with a growing Sunni extremist opposition that had been suppressed at one time by a dictatorial regime led by Saddam Hussein and then by a strong US presence.
The focus of most western attention in the relationship between the US and Muslims was on the Arab world. Behind the scenes were more changes.
The desire was to change the relationship with Muslims, not just Arab Sunni Muslims. The Shia were always part of the plan.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that outreach to the Shia didn’t begin in 2009. It began in 2003, during the Bush Administration, when a Shia controlled Iraqi government was installed. At a time shortly after Sunni extremists affiliated with Al Qaeda had just killed thousands of Americans, September 11, 2001, the US made a strategic decision not to oppose Shia anti-Sunni activism in Shia dominated nations, especially against anti-American Sunni forces.
It was a priority of the Bush Administration to ensure stability of the Shia government in Iraq, while attempting to limit Iranian influence. President Bush hoped that the Shia government of Iraq would be a pro-American and not a pro-Iranian government that could influence changes in the US-Iran relationship by building a US-Shia Muslim relationship separate from a US-Iran one.
Things changed when President Obama took office. Here is what President Obama promised concerning Iraq in June of 2009 in his Al Azhar University speech in Cairo:
Today, America has a dual responsibility: to help Iraq forge a better future — and to leave Iraq to Iraqis. And I have made it clear to the Iraqi people — (applause) — I have made it clear to the Iraqi people that we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources. Iraq’s sovereignty is its own. And that’s why I ordered the removal of our combat brigades by next August. That is why we will honor our agreement with Iraq’s democratically elected government to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July, and to remove all of our troops from Iraq by 2012. (Applause.) We will help Iraq train its security forces and develop its economy. But we will support a secure and united Iraq as a partner, and never as a patron.
By withdrawing our troops and leaving a significant power vacuum in Iraq, we both abandoned the idea of fully developing a US-Shia Muslim relationship apart from a US-Iran one and allowed the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a.k.a. ISIS.
The President brought into the White House, an entirely new philosophy in regard to foreign policy. This was perhaps best expressed in the President’s September 2009 speech to the United Nations:
It is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009 — more than at any point in human history — the interests of nations and peoples are shared…Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone. We have sought — in word and deed — a new era of engagement with the world. And now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.
America would take a step or more back and try to engage with countries from which we had distanced ourselves. Connected to this was a primary policy change in relation to Muslims expressed in President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech:
America will defend itself, respectful of the sovereignty of nations and the rule of law. And we will do so in partnership with Muslim communities which are also threatened. The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer.
Because the priority of our overall strategic policy was not to support a secure region controlled by pro-American regimes, though we hoped for one and still do, but to absent America from what could appear as meddling or significant influence through military power, we abandoned the peacekeeping role in Iraq and refused to truly take sides in any of the conflicts in the Muslim world even when they were between US allies and US enemies.
The priority of the Obama Administration was to change how America acted in relation to Muslim countries, to work with Muslim regimes as partners, not as a patron. Our new policy was to respect the sovereignty of Muslim majority nations, which in practice meant, to leave them to deal with their problems instead of dealing with them ourselves in our ways.
This virtually ensured that Sunni insurgents would rise to challenge the Shia Iraqi government and that Iran would replace the United States as that government’s primary supporter, creating the situation that President Bush’s foreign policy hoped to avoid, namely an Iranian controlled Iraq.
This also meant tens of thousands of innocent casualties including genocide of the Yazidis, whom the Shia did not choose to defend, or were unable to defend, US allied Kurdish forces facing fierce battles in Iraq, and hundreds of thousands of casualties in Syria, where we chose not to aid our friends or harm our foes. It did not matter whether America’s use of military power would be against Sunni extremists or Shia ones. We were content to back away.
That is except when those extremists were or are a threat to us. Hence, we did use and continue to use military force to target Sunni anti-American extremists.
At first, we only conducted operations against Al Qaeda, including launching an operation to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. We launched strikes against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and against other leaders in Afghanistan. But we left-alone extremists, both Sunni and Shia, who were targeting those in their own countries or in the region for nations in the region to handle on their own.
Hence, we made no effort to aid anyone in the Syrian civil war. We threatened to act, but did not act, against Assad’s regime. We utterly failed to respond to the rise of the Islamic State, Da”esh, until it’s supporters began acting in Europe and America. We did nothing to involve ourselves in the Yemeni civil war, where Iranian backed Houthi Shia have taken over the country from American allied Sunnis, nor did we involve ourselves in either the initial Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt or the later overthrow of that regime by the pro-American Al Sisi, though for a while we did seem to disapprove of the latter as anti-democratic.
In regard to Iran, our policy appears to attempt to prevent Iran from threatening America through the acquisition of nuclear weapons, but not necessarily to try to prevent it from threatening its neighbors through the use and support of terrorism, insurgency, and proxy movements.
Our policy in regard to Iran changed. President Obama said in his speech to the Turkish Parliament on April 6, 2009, less than three months into his first term in office:
I have made it clear to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran that the United States seeks engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. We want Iran to play its rightful role in the community of nations. Iran is a great civilization. We want them to engage in the economic and political integration that brings prosperity and security. But Iran’s leaders must choose whether they will try to build a weapon or build a better future for their people.
Add to this, what the President said in his 2009 UN speech about Iran’s nuclear program specifically:
I am committed to diplomacy that opens a path to greater prosperity and more secure peace for both nations if they live up to their obligations.
But if the governments of Iran and North Korea choose to ignore international standards; if they put the pursuit of nuclear weapons ahead of regional stability and the security and opportunity of their own people; if they are oblivious to the dangers of escalating nuclear arms races in both East Asia and the Middle East — then they must be held accountable. The world must stand together to demonstrate that international law is not an empty promise, and that treaties will be enforced. We must insist that the future does not belong to fear.
These words are almost verbatim the President’s commentary on the 2015 Iran Deal and, more specifically, the echo his views about what he accomplished with the deal. The question is whether or not these sentiments are an accurate assessment of the decisions that Iran’s leaders have made or of wishful thinking based upon what the President hopes that his new American approach toward Muslim nations and specifically toward Iran will produce.
No matter which is true, this policy requires the end to sanctions or at least a dramatic weakening of them. In fact, with this policy, the Obama Administration would not see maintaining sanctions against Iran as beneficial to America, even were there no concessions regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
In other words, sanctions relief against Iran is not seen as a concession to Iran, but as a part of a new approach toward Iran.
Coupled with pressure to end sanctions from Europe, Russia, and China, this explains why the Obama Administration appears eager to end nuclear related sanctions, though it suggests that doing so does require action by Iran in regard to its nuclear program. A similar approach, the ending of sanctions, was put into place in regard to Cuba as well, but in that case without any proposed action by Cuba. The Administration believes that the ending of sanctions will positively impact Iran’s behavior.
In this circumstance, the nuclear agreement is both an attempt to halt Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon and, functionally, cover for a desired broader policy change. Rather than the ending of sanctions being a concession made in exchange for Iranian nuclear concessions, the ending of sanctions and an indefinite delay in the Iranian nuclear weapons program were two distinctly separate goals.
Think about this quote from the 2009 Ankhara speech in relation to the 2015 Iran JCPOA:
The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam. In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical not just in rolling back the violent ideologies that people of all faiths reject, but also to strengthen opportunity for all its people.
Above all, above all we will demonstrate through actions our commitment to a better future… We want to expand the trade and investment that can bring prosperity for all people. In the months ahead, I will present specific programs to advance these goals. Our focus will be on what we can do, in partnership with people across the Muslim world, to advance our common hopes and our common dreams. And when people look back on this time, let it be said of America that we extended the hand of friendship to all people.
There’s an old Turkish proverb: “You cannot put out fire with flames.” America knows this. Turkey knows this. There’s some who must be met by force, they will not compromise. But force alone cannot solve our problems, and it is no alternative to extremism. The future must belong to those who create, not those who destroy. That is the future we must work for, and we must work for it together.
You need not look far beyond these statements to understand why the negotiating position of the United States in regard to the Iranian nuclear program and therefore the resulting JCPOA is seen as so problematic by many people. The negotiating position itself is a radical departure from the traditional strategic posture of the United States, one based on the level of threat that Iran’s government poses to the US and its allies. This position is instead based on an understanding that America’s past actions in regard to Iran caused much, if not most, of the West’s current problems with Iran and that it behooves the US and the West to attempt to improve Iran’s financial situation irregardless of its behavior in an attempt to influence average Iranians to advance pro-American policy changes. We are seeking engagement and even a partnership with Iran which the President believes will affect the changes that we seek in Iran.
Furthermore, seeing Iran currently as an ally against those Sunni extremists and terrorists who threaten the United States and its allies, ISIS and Al Qaeda, the US seeks to empower Iran to act more vigorously against them in Iraq and Syria.
The Obama Administration realizes that this will also strengthen Iran’s ability to act against Israel and other American allies in the region and has pledged to stand by America’s allies, but hopes that the new approach to Iran and interaction with Iran will moderate it in the long term, if not the short term.
The idea that the Iranian people will swiftly overthrow their current regime and take their place as a Shia version of Turkey, perceived as a friend of the West, is highly questionable. The substantial financial influx not only will aid Iran in supporting its proxies, especially Hizballah and the Assad regime, but it could strengthen the regime itself, especially in the short term, as its controlled companies will gain influence within the country and increase dependence on the regime. Perhaps, things will change for the better when Khameneii dies, but the opposite could come to pass as well.
Whether or not this new strategic approach to the Middle East works, it is a high risk proposition, especially for America’s allies in the region. Even if the JCPOA will work exactly as the Administration hopes and prevent any advancement of Iran toward the acquisition of a nuclear weapon, the strategic policy shift that I have described will negatively impact the security of our allies in the region in the short term, both through the withdrawal of the threat of significant American military action over conventional military action by Iran, directly or through proxies, and through the resulting necessity of each enemy of Iran having to make up the difference through the acquisition of their own arms. The foreign policy changes since 2009 along with the 2015 JCPOA with Iran and its aftermath will make Israel’s neighborhood a far more dangerous place to live in the short term and present it, along with America’s Sunni allies, with existential challenges.
In the aftermath of this agreement, but moreso through the changes in America’s regional policies, not only will Israel face a stronger Iran and stronger Iranian proxies, it will be surrounded by militarily stronger Arab nations, because they have no choice but to make themselves stronger in the face of the Iranian challenge.
It is absolutely vital to understand that Israel’s relationship with America will become even more essential to its prosperity and security than it is now. No matter where we find ourselves in support or opposition of the Iran Deal, whether we oppose it altogether, want to tweak it, or see it as reasonable or better, no matter whose “experts” we trust, it is for certain the case that those of us who care about Israel must strive to strengthen the US-Israel relationship going forward.
In the meantime, it is important to express concerns about US policy changes in the Middle East and the the Iran Deal specifically, both in regards to potential faults in its provisions and to the absence of provisions addressing Iranian behavior going forward. The consequences of these in combination will be have a profound impact upon the region, especially upon Israel, and upon America.