THIS IS OBAMA’S SECRET IRAN STRATEGY—ITS A LONG ONE SO I’VE MADE IT INTO PARTS—IF THIS JUST DOESN’T TAKE THE CAKE—WHAT WILL?
Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy:
Round Two: part 5 of 6
Iran, Syria, and Islamic State—Rice’s remarks were disingenuous. In reality, the Islamic Republic was then precisely what it remains today, namely, the prime enabler of Assad’s murder machine. But Rice’s intention was not to describe Iranian behavior accurately. In addition to accustoming the American press and foreign-policy elite to the idea that Iran was at least a potential partner, her speech was aimed at influencing Congress’s deliberation of air strikes against Syria—strikes that Obama had abruptly delayed a week and a half earlier in what will certainly be remembered as one of the oddest moments of his presidency. The oddity began shortly after Obama sent Secretary of State John Kerry out to deliver a Churchillian exhortation on the theme of an impending American attack. While that speech was still reverberating, the president convened a meeting of his inner circle in the Oval Office, where he expressed misgivings about the policy that his Secretary of State had just announced. Curiously, the meeting did not include either Kerry or Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the principal members of his senior national-security staff. Obama then invited Denis McDonough to break away from the others and join him for a private walk around the White House grounds. On his return, Obama stunned the waiting group with the news that he had decided to delay the strikes on Assad in order to seek congressional approval.
What thoughts did Obama share with McDonough? We can dispense with the official explanation, which stresses the president’s principled belief in the need to consult the legislative branch on matters of war and peace. That belief had played no part in previous decisions, like the one to intervene in Libya. Clearly, Obama was hiding behind Congress in order either to delay action or to kill it altogether. The true reasons for the delay were evidently too sensitive even for the ears of his closest national-security aides. Could they have included fear of scuttling the biggest—and still secret—foreign-policy initiative of his second term, possibly of his entire presidency? At home the decision made him appear dithering and weak; on Capitol Hill, Democrats quietly fumed over the way the White House was abruptly ordering them out on a limb. In Syria, Assad crowed with delight as his opponents crumpled in despair. Elsewhere, American allies felt exposed and vulnerable, wondering whether Obama would ever truly come to their aid in a pinch.
As we know, Obama’s quandary would become Moscow’s opportunity. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov offered the president a way to regain his balance. Russia and the United States, Lavrov proposed, would cooperate to strip Assad of his sarin gas. From the sidelines, the Iranians publicly applauded the proposal, and Obama jumped to accept it. But the deal was a quid pro quo. In return for a minor (though highly visible) concession from Assad, Obama tacitly agreed not to enter the Syrian battlefield. In effect, the Russians, Assad, and the Iranians were offering him, and he was accepting, surrender with honor, enabling him to say later, with a straight face, that the episode was a successful example of his coercive diplomacy. “Let’s be very clear about what happened,” he bragged in his March 2014 interview. “I threatened [sic] kinetic strikes on Syria unless they got rid of their chemical weapons.” In reality, Assad only gained—and gained big. Obama immediately muted his calls for Assad to step down from power, and his behavior thoroughly demoralized the Syrian opposition. Nor did the deal stop Assad from launching further chemical attacks. Once deprived of his sarin stockpiles, he simply switched to chlorine.
Obama pointed to Russian and Iranian cooperation with Washington as one of the bargain’s greatest benefits. This was fictive. Obama made it sound as if Tehran was eager to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons, but nothing could have been farther from the truth. Even as he was speaking, Iran was publicly blaming the Syrian rebels, not Assad, for the Ghouta attack. Nor was stopping the slaughter ever the president’s true goal. From his perspective, he did not have the power to prevent Assad’s atrocities. He did, however, have the sense to recognize a good thing when he saw it. The opportunity to join with Iran in an ostensibly cooperative venture was too good to let slip away—and so he seized it.
That Obama has treated Syria as an Iranian sphere of interest all along has been brought home in a recent report in the Wall Street Journal. In August 2014, according to the Journal, the president wrote a letter to Ali Khamenei, acknowledging the obstacle to their cooperation presented by the nuclear impasse but taking pains to reassure Khamenei regarding the fate of Assad, his closest ally. American military operations inside Syria, he wrote, would target neither the Syrian dictator nor his forces. The Arab states and Israel, Obama said then, wanted Washington to be their proxy in the contest with Iran; but he adamantly refused to play that role. Instead, he envisioned, in Remnick’s words, “a new geostrategic equilibrium, one less turbulent than the current landscape of civil war, terror, and sectarian battle.” Who would help him develop the strategy to achieve this equilibrium? “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now,” the president responded, alluding to the acknowledged godfather of the cold-war strategy of containment. What he truly needed instead were strategic partners, and a prime candidate for that role was—he explained—Iran.
Obama was here revealing his main rationale in 2012 for rejecting the Petraeus plan to arm the Syrian opposition that we examined earlier. Clearly, the president viewed the anti-Assad movement in Syria just as he had viewed the Green Movement in Iran three years earlier: as an impediment to realizing the strategic priority of guiding Iran to the path of success. Was the Middle East in fact polarized between the Iranian-led alliance and just about everyone else? Yes. Were all traditional allies of the United States calling for him to stand up to Iran? Yes. Did the principal members of his National Security Council recommend as one that the United States heed the call of the allies? Again, yes. But Obama’s eyes were still locked on the main prize: the grand bargain with Tehran.
Last June, when Islamic State warriors captured Mosul in northern Iraq, the foreign-policy approval ratings of the president plummeted, and Obama’s critics claimed, not for the first time, that he had no strategy at all. Ben Rhodes sprang to his defense, suggesting that despite appearances to the contrary, the administration actually had a plan, if a hitherto unannounced one. “We have longer-run plays that we’re running,” he said. “Part of this is keeping your eye on the long game even as you go through tumultuous periods.” Rhodes offered no details, and subsequent events seemed to confirm the impression that Obama actually had no long game. In addition to being caught flat-footed by Islamic State, moreover, he was reversing himself on other major issues: sending troops back to Iraq after having celebrated their homecoming, ordering military operations in Syria that he had opposed for years. How could such reversals be consistent with a long game?
Marco Rubio pointed to the obvious weaknesses in the administration’s approach, and asked John Kerry how to fix them. Kerry stunningly suggested that the gaps would be filled by . . . Iran and Assad. “[Y]ou’re presuming that Iran and Syria don’t have any capacity to take on” Islamic State, Kerry said. “If we are failing and failing miserably, who knows what choice they might make.”
Here, giving the game away, Kerry provided a glimpse at the mental map of the president and his top advisers. The administration has indeed subtly exploited the rise of terrorist enclaves to elevate Obama’s outreach to Iran. Behind the scenes, coordination and consultation have reached new heights.
Meanwhile, so have expressions of dissatisfaction with traditional allies for taking positions hostile to Iran. Our “biggest problem” in Syria is our own regional allies, Vice President Joseph Biden complained to students at Harvard University in early October. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were “so determined to take down Assad” that they were pouring “hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons” into the Syrian opposition. A few weeks later, a senior Obama administration official cuttingly described another ally, Israel’s prime minister, as “a chickenshit,” and a second official, similarly on the record, bragged about the success of the United States in shielding the Islamic Republic from Israel. “[U]ltimately [Netanyahu] couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”
Of course, administration officials routinely insist that the United States is not working with Tehran. The coordination, however, is impossible to disguise. Thus, when Iranian jets recently appeared in Iraqi skies, they professed ignorance. Reporters, noting that the jets were flying sorties in the same air space as American jets and striking related targets, asked the Pentagon spokesman how the American and Iranian air forces could work in the same space without colliding. “We are flying missions over Iraq, [and] we coordinate with the Iraqi government as we conduct those,” said the spokesman. “It’s up to the Iraqi government to de-conflict that airspace.” When Kerry was asked about the news that the Iranian air force was operating in Iraq, he responded that this was a “net positive.”
When the announced goal of the United States is to build up a moderate Sunni bloc capable of driving a wedge between Islamic State and the Sunni communities, aligning with Iran is politically self-defeating. In both Iraq and Syria, Iran projects its power through sectarian militias that slaughter Sunni Muslims with abandon. Are there any Sunni powers in the region that see American outreach to Tehran as a good thing? Are there any military-aged Sunni men in Iraq and Syria who now see the United States as a friendly power? There are none. Over the last three years, Obama has given Iran a free hand in Syria and Iraq, on the simplistic assumption that Tehran would combat al-Qaeda and like-minded groups in a manner serving American interests. The result, in both countries, has been the near-total alienation of all Sunnis and the development of an extremist safe haven that now stretches from the outskirts of Baghdad all the way to Damascus. America is now applying to the disease a larger dose of the snake oil that helped cause the malady in the first place.
In other words, by treating Syria as an Iranian sphere of interest, Obama is allowing the shock troops of Iran to dig in on the border of Israel—not to mention the border of Jordan. The president’s policy assumes that Israel and America’s other allies will hang back quietly while Iran takes southern Syria firmly in its grip. They will not; to assume otherwise is folly.
Sources—ben rhodes, david sanger, nyt, leslie gelb, ehud barak, saud al-faisal, recep tayyip erdogan, jake sullivan, puneet talwar, susan rice, robert einhorn, denis mcdonough, the new yorker, david remnick, farred zakaria, javad zarif, lee smith, hudson inst.,