National Security & Defense

Obama, Iran, and the Kidnapping of Realism

(Alex Wong/Getty)

Inspectors will monitor Iran’s key nuclear facilities 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” President Obama promised yesterday. Praising the Iran deal’s implementation, he asserted that Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon and that the Middle East has been made safer. Tellingly, the president also referenced Iran’s detention of U.S. sailors last week: “We worked directly with the Iranian government and secured the release of our sailors in less than 24 hours.” 

These two quotes illustrate President Obama’s kidnapping of realist international-relations theory, which, as he sees it, involves balancing U.S. interests with the realities of a complicated world. Or, as he puts it, “Don’t do stupid sh**.” The president believes that, with a mix of hard compromise and unwavering leadership, he has prevented a nuclear-arms race and facilitated Iranian political moderation. But this isn’t realism; it is delusion.

First off, it’s willfully ignorant. Consider again President Obama’s remark on inspecting “Iran’s key nuclear facilities.” It’s relevant because it reminds us that the deal in fact prevents timely inspections of other Iranian military sites. And by describing only some nuclear facilities as “key,” President Obama is tacitly accepting Iran’s obstruction of non-key facility inspections. Iran will simply use military sites for nuclear-weaponization research and then claim those facilities are off limits or clean them up before inspections.

This isn’t really debatable; after all, Iran’s ongoing ballistic-missile tests prove its public determination to build a nuclear-weapons delivery platform. Of course, announcing new sanctions yesterday on eleven individuals and organizations connected to Iranian ballistic-missile research, the president said he will “remain steadfast in opposing Iran’s destabilizing behavior elsewhere.” He neglected — as do most in the media — to mention that these new sanctions are so weak that they’re functionally irrelevant. Iran will simply use new cut-out entities and further evasion to continue its ballistic activities. The Obama administration knows this, the Sunni monarchies know this, the Iranians know this, and the Europeans — who cannot wait to get their hands on Iranian business contracts — are banking on it.

The president’s realist delusion is enabled by many in the international-relations community.

The second way in which this deal distorts realist theory is in its fatally narrow-minded strategic vision. As I noted recently at National Review Online, Iran’s unchallenged dissection of U.S. credibility on inspections, missile tests, support for regional terrorism, etc., is fueling reciprocal escalation by the Sunni-Arab monarchies. As a consequence, opportunities for political moderation in the Middle East are rapidly being displaced by sectarian extremism. Making matters worse, as attested by President Obama’s failure to meet with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Washington last week, the president seems to have decided to simply ignore America’s Sunni allies. This preference for a short-term perceived win (the Iran deal) over long-term U.S. influence with the Sunni kingdoms (promoting political reform and restraining their sectarian impulses) further exemplifies the president’s defective realism.

Yet the president’s realist delusion is enabled by many in the international-relations community. Just contemplate how his Twitter supporters mobilized this weekend. Professor Daniel Drezner of Tufts University gleefully tweeted: “All US negotiations with Iran this week have been a win-win. Which, if you believe relations with Iran’s regime are zero-sum, is infuriating.” Drezner also claimed that the Iranians released in exchange for Jason Rezaian and Amir Hekmati and two other Americans were largely insignificant actors. Vox’s Max Fisher tweeted: “Amazing fact: Iran surrenders the bulk of its nuclear program, and it is considered a partisan issue in America whether that is good or bad.” From the Council on Foreign Relations, Micah Zenko tweeted that every Joint Staff and Central Command defense planner is “elated.”

All these claims deserve great scrutiny. First, while defense planners hope the Iran deal will hold, they also know it fuels second- and third-order risks of sectarian escalation. Moreover, although I support the deal to release Rezaian and company, we shouldn’t pretend that the released Iranians are insignificant. They were variously involved in supporting Iran’s satellite communications capability, in stealing U.S. technology for the Iranian military, and in hacking into the U.S. power-grid and airline-service databases. According to an American cyber-investigations firm, the airport hacking involved Iranian attempts to access ground-crew credentials. It doesn’t take a genius to understand why Iran wants access to civilian aircraft and power infrastructure: the capability to launch spectacular attacks on U.S. and allied interests. Again, realism demands our assessment of the facts in the context of Iran’s previous actions. For one, we should remember Iran’s 2011 attempt to blow up a packed Washington, D.C., restaurant.

Oh, and as Josh Rogin reports, two other Iranian suspects the Obama administration has agreed to stop pursuing are involved in the drowning and starving of Syrian civilians.

Related: Assad Is Deliberately Starving Sunni Muslims in Syria

Finally, any true realist must also accept what this deal means for hard-liners aligned with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). Holding dominion over key sectors of Iran’s economy and controlling foreign commercial access to the economy, the IRGC is getting a big payday. Realism also requires our objective assessment as to where the IRGC will spend its money: exported death.

Consider that in the past five years, the IRGC has plotted an attack on the U.S. capital, supported the Taliban, assassinated U.S. allies in cities such as Beirut, and kidnapped U.S. citizens. And upon presenting these tests of U.S. resolve, the IRGC has witnessed two distinct Obama-administration responses: silence and, as in the case of last week’s sailor kidnap, gratitude. Yesterday, we learned of another Iranian test: Within the past few days, several Americans were kidnapped by a militia in Baghdad. I would confidently venture that an IRGC-proxy such as Kataib Hezbollah is responsible. As I warned back in December, “if the IRGC leadership senses American weakness, it will take hostile action (directly, via KH, or via covert subgroups) against U.S. interests.” 

Don’t get me wrong; realism demands that we actively pursue diplomacy with Iran. Iran’s youthful population is an existential threat to the theocrats and a source of major internal political pressure. We must not alienate these future leaders with a leap to military action. Yet by our failure to deter Iran’s hard-liners, we only encourage them further. And in their empowerment, political moderation perishes. Foreign-policy realism demands that we sometimes deal with unpleasant people. But it also requires our commitment to honest policy.

Tom Rogan — Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at TRogan@McLaughlin.com

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