By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
When Barack Obama began his first term as president almost six years ago, foreign policy chatter was prone to including terms like “regime change” and “axis of evil” in discussions about Iran. But as Obama sought to break decisively with the legacy of his predecessor, George W. Bush, he moved rapidly in the opposite direction, offering an olive branch to the Iranian regime within a few weeks of assuming office.
In March 2009, Obama delivered a message to mark the Persian New Year in which he said, “The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right, but it comes with real responsibilities. And that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization.”
As a declaration of policy intent, those remarks were refreshingly free of ambiguity. The reference to Iran as an “Islamic Republic” indicated that Washington’s goal from that point forward would not be getting rid of the regime that seized power during the 1979 revolution, but rather stabilizing it and encouraging it to behave more responsibly.
By the close of 2014, though, it was abundantly clear that America’s Iran policy—based on Obama’s “Islamic Republic” doctrine of trust in the regime—was in a dangerous mess. The nuclear negotiations between Iran and Western powers have yielded not a single gain, allowing the Iranians to continue with their uranium enrichment program while the International Atomic Energy Agency frets about the likely prospect that Tehran is continuing to operate clandestine nuclear facilities.
At the same time, the brutal civil war in Syria, which has claimed 200,000 lives and turned more than half the country into refugees, has massively boosted Iran’s regional standing. The Iranian mullahs now stand at the head of a coalition that includes the dictator of Damascus, Bashar al-Assad, the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah, and various Shi’a terror groups from Yemen to Iraq. Yet Western public opinion is continually fed a stream of stories about how “moderate” Iran is under President Hasan Rouhani, and how we have an opportunity here that we cannot afford to lose. When you look at how Iran’s military interventions are destabilizing the region, and when you realize that its human rights record is as lousy as it was last year (and the year before that), one can only conclude that Obama will stick to the policy of turning enemies into friends even when those enemies don’t want to become friends.
Against that backdrop, we come to the president’s recent interview with National Public Radio, in which he restated, when talking about Iran, his conviction that engaging with “rogue regimes” is the right thing to do if it advances American interests.
The question is this: Does Obama still regard Iran as a rogue regime? It would be more accurate to say that he regards it as a regime with rogue elements, but you can only accept that analysis if you share the president’s view that there are moderate parties in Iran whom we can trust. “They have a path to break through that isolation and they should seize it,” Obama declared. “Because if they do, there’s incredible talent and resources and sophistication 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.”
Everybody? That’s not how the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates, to name just two Gulf states, see it; to the contrary, preventing Iran from becoming a “very successful regional power” is their top priority. Ditto for Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and a host of other Arab and Muslim states. As for Israel, it is impossible—literally impossible—to imagine the Jewish state’s enjoying cordial relations with Iran while the Islamist regime remains in power. Because even if Israel were willing to entertain such an outcome, none of the mullahs—whether we’re talking about Supreme Leader Khamenei or President Rouhani—would do the same.
As for the Iranians’ “abiding by international norms,” their slippery and dishonest approach to their nuclear negotiations acutely demonstrates what they think of that idea.
It’s therefore tempting to believe that his personal legacy, and not any dispassionate assessment of geopolitics, is what lies at the heart of Obama’s calculations. As Associated Press reporter Matt Lee observed at a White House press briefing, “Since 1979, American foreign policy, with respect to Iran, has been designed to keep it from becoming a successful regional power.” So what has changed? Certainly not the behavior or the stance of the Iranians. As a senior Iranian military commander said only last week, “There are only two things that would end enmity between us and the United States. Either the U.S. president and EU leaders should convert to Islam and imitate the Supreme Leader, or Iran should abandon Islam and the Islamic revolution.”
Yet Obama wants to be remembered as the president who made peace with states that were previously regarded as this country’s implacable enemies. If we can make peace with Cuba, the logic goes, and end a trade embargo that has prevailed for more than 50 years, why can’t we do the same with Iran?
One president’s legacy of peace, however, can quite easily be another president’s inheritance of war and conflict. The present time would have been an ideal opportunity for Obama to get tough with the Iranians, given that oil prices have collapsed and the Saudis are content for the price to remain at rock bottom if that makes life harder for the Tehran regime. Instead, America is leading the world—from the front, this time—into another series of open-ended negotiations with the mullahs that could well result in the weaponization of Iran’s nuclear program by the time Obama leaves office.
Never did the bitter words of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah ring truer: “Peace, peace, they say, when there is no peace.”
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.
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