Lack of clarity

There has been a lot of guesswork in recent weeks regarding US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy goals vis-à-vis Iran.

February 9, 2015 23:36
3 minute read.
Obama and Khamenei

Obama and Khamenei. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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There has been a lot of guesswork in recent weeks regarding US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy goals vis-à-vis Iran.

Writing in the online journal Mosaic, Michael Doran, a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council, explicated – apparently based on inside sources and knowledge of the inner workings of the Obama administration – what he believed is the US president’s thinking on the Islamic Republic: “The president is dreaming of an historical accommodation with Iran. The pursuit of that accommodation is the great white whale of Obama’s Middle East strategy, and capturing it is all that matters; everything else is insignificant by comparison. The goal looms so large as to influence every other facet of American policy.”

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Walter Russell Mead, writing in The American Interest, also ventured to explain the thinking behind Obama’s Iran policy.

He reached a similar conclusion to Doran’s: “Iran is the best possible long-term partner for the US in the region and American and Iranian interests are strategically aligned…Iran…has a large and educated middle class; flawed as its current political system may be, forces are at work that will soon make Iran a much more modern and democratic country than any of the backward Arab states with whom the US is currently allied. An end to US-Iranian hostility over the nuclear issue will do more than lay a dangerous dispute to rest. It will open the door to a much wider and more fruitful relationship.”

Mead, Doran, and others may or may not be right. There is very little to go on. What we do know is that during negotiations with Iran, the P5+1, led by America, has shown a worrying willingness to accommodate the Iranians.

There appears to be a readiness on the part of the P5+1 to allow Iran to become a threshold nuclear state.

Initially, the express goal of the Obama administration was to eliminate Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons as part of a wider policy of anti-proliferation.

Now, the US seems willing to tolerate Iran maintaining several thousand centrifuges capable of enriching low-grade uranium within a few months.

Also, the Obama administration has declined to counter efforts by Iran to extend its influence across the Middle East.

From Yemen to Iraq to Syria to Lebanon to the Gaza Strip, the Iranians have been aggressively asserting themselves, in a clear attempt to build a broad swath of influence throughout the region. US inaction seems to signal a willingness to concede Tehran a place as a regional power at the expense of Israel and other US allies such as the Saudis and Egypt.

What stands behind the US president’s apparent willingness to reach a compromise with the Iranians that would allow them to become a threshold nuclear state? Why has the US refrained from standing in the way of Iranian expansionism? Perhaps Obama and others in his administration believe that a balance of power can be achieved in the region. In this ideal world, power would be shared among Sunni states that oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt; Sunni states that support it, like Turkey and Qatar; and non-Sunni states like Iran and Syria and now Yemen.

Under these conditions, the US would be freer to disengage from the region and concentrate more on domestic issues.

Perhaps there is also a belief that putting an end to the conflict between the US and Iran over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear weapons program will herald a gradual but steady process of moderation inside Iran. The Iranian middle class, so the thinking goes, is the most likely candidate to lead a movement for reform. But this can only happen once the economic sanctions, which have hurt those who do not enjoy close ties to the mullah regime, are removed and the middle class is allowed to thrive again.

Finally, perhaps the present US administration believes that, for the sake of creating a balance of power in the region and ending the conflict with the Islamic Republic, it is worthwhile for America to ignore the interests of allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, even if doing so results in a deterioration of relations.

If indeed these are the sorts of considerations that inform the Obama administration’s policy vis-à-vis Iran, the US president should say so. Articulating his vision of a Middle East in which Iran is afforded a central role would at the very least facilitate discussion, criticism and, ultimately, it is hoped, refutation. Unfortunately, the US president has chosen to operate secretively, knowing that a lack of clarity is a good defense against dissent.

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