During the 1970s, Americans hotly debated whether we should approach the Soviet Union in the spirit of “détente” or confront it and, if possible, roll it back, but virtually everyone agreed that the Soviet Union must at a minimum be contained. Except on the far left, nobody seriously suggested scaling back U.S. power or accommodating Soviet demands on major fronts. Yet that is precisely the policy President Barack Obama has embraced toward Iran, in the teeth of opposition from U.S. allies, Congress, and public opinion. The result is a Middle East that grows more unstable and dangerous by the day.
What makes this particularly tragic is that, early in Obama’s first term, we had Iran on the ropes. After three decades of war, isolation, and sanctions, the Iranian regime was as hostile to the West as ever, yet by 2009 the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini, which was supposed to be a worldwide millenarian revolution like Communism, had been successful nowhere outside Iran except Lebanon.
After Iran’s secret uranium-enrichment plant at Fordow was discovered in 2009, Congress passed crippling sanctions, sailing past a veto threat with a 99–0 vote in the Senate. Together with those imposed by the European Union, they cut Iran off from the world financial system. As a result, Iran’s currency soon lost half its value, bringing rampant inflation inside Iran, and major customers such as India and China faced large difficulties paying for Iran’s oil deliveries once payments couldn’t be cleared through financial centers such as New York or London. A fiscal crisis loomed, threatening the government’s ability to keep subsidizing necessities such as food and gasoline.
The critical thing at that point was to maintain and strengthen a strategy of containment that was already mostly in place. Just as George Kennan had predicted it would, containment brought about the fall of the Soviet Union when outside pressure aggravated the regime’s intrinsic lack of legitimacy. Similarly, with support for dissidents, increased sanctions, and a powerful military presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. could have brought Iran to its knees.
In a 2007 paper for the center-left Brookings Institution, the late Peter Rodman, a former assistant secretary of defense and a former senior editor of National Review, advocated just such a policy. He called for supporting the Iranian pro-democracy movement, increasing sanctions pressure, and stabilizing Iraq as an American ally. In every particular, Obama has done the opposite, dismantling essentially every element of containment. Worse, Obama is actively helping Iran to fill the vacuum created by America’s retrenchment in the Middle East.
Almost from the start of his presidency, Obama made clear his willingness to accommodate Iran in order to get a nuclear deal. As Senator Jon Kyl said at the time, Obama’s approach resembled that of a man who walks into a car dealership and announces that he’s not leaving until he buys a car. Sensing their opportunity, the mullahs soon made it clear that they weren’t interested in negotiating anything except the terms of an American surrender on the nuclear front. They must have been stunned to discover that not only did Obama fully intend to oblige, but he was also thoroughly committed to helping Iran become a “successful regional power,” as Obama himself put it. The president was offering to accommodate Iran on every front.
Naturally, Iran hardened its positions in response and became dramatically more assertive, pouncing on opportunities to expand Iranian power throughout the region. Iranian military might has suddenly unfurled itself across the Middle East in two directions: north across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and south to Yemen, encircling the entire Sunni Arab heartland.
America’s Arab allies are visibly rattled by the sudden Iranian expansion, and even more by America’s apparent acquiescence and outright assistance. Several members of the anti-ISIS coalition have protested America’s de facto coordination with Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, which is cornering them into helping Shiite extremists murder their fellow Sunnis north and west of Baghdad. Far to the south, Saudi Arabia hardly bothered to consult the U.S. before launching a campaign of major air strikes in Yemen.
Obama clearly sees ISIS quite differently from the way he sees the government of Iran. He shouldn’t. Iran has killed as many Americans in Iraq as ISIS’s al-Qaeda precursors did. More fundamentally, the Islamic revolution of Iran is merely the Shiite equivalent of the Sunni revolution that produced the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, and ISIS. In fact, it is the same revolution, the goal of which is to establish a worldwide caliphate under the principle of velayat-e faqih, the unification of religious and political authority. Yet when asked why Iran must be stopped from gaining a nuclear weapon, Obama’s consistent answer is that it would start a dangerous regional arms race. In other words, he’s worried about nuclear weapons falling into the hands of our Sunni allies, but doesn’t seemed troubled by the prospect of Iran itself getting nuclear weapons.
People who believe that conflicts are best resolved through concessions and cordial dialogue typically say they want to strengthen the moderates within the opposing regime. But as Rodman pointed out, moderates are risk-averse and apt to argue that hardline policies carry unacceptable risks. “We can strengthen their arguments by actually posing such risks,” he noted. Obama’s approach, on the other hand, has only disheartened the moderates in Iran. He failed to say a word in support of the “green movement” after the fraudulent 2009 elections and is now doing virtually everything possible to extend the life and prestige of the Islamic revolution. It’s hard to imagine what circumstances could be more demoralizing for the pro-democracy movement.
The nuclear talks, meanwhile, have been a fiasco of historic proportions. At the end of March, the U.S. and its partners reportedly reached an agreement with Iran that limits growth in the various elements of its nuclear-weapons program and subjects the facilities to enhanced inspections. Since our diplomats apparently don’t bother with negotiating actual agreements that can be written down anymore, we don’t really know what has been agreed, and the Iranian and U.S. explanations diverge on key points, including the timing of sanctions relief and the scope of inspections. What’s clear is that the U.S. has given in to Iran on all the essentials: Iran will get to keep its nuclear-weapons program while sanctions are lifted, without having to answer the International Atomic Energy Agency’s many outstanding questions about the possible military dimensions of its program. And while the White House claims that the sanctions will “snap back” into place if Iran fails to comply with its obligations, the deal doesn’t attach automatic consequences to Iranian noncompliance.
Secretary of State John Kerry recently testified to Congress that we have to accept a large-scale enrichment program in Iran because the Bush administration failed to stop it. He has a point. But saying that Iran refuses to give up its enrichment capability and therefore we must accept it is not a statement of fact, but rather a bargaining position. Besides, however intransigent Iran might be, sanctions still had a crucial role to play, in making clear to Iran (and any potential imitators) that it was headed down a blind alley and would never know prosperity or normal international relations unless it dismantled the program or fundamentally transformed itself. The sanctions were a pillar of containment, the best hope for transforming Iran into a peaceful democracy.
The central pillar of any containment strategy is of course a system of regional alliances such as we have in NATO. America’s Arab allies remain steadfast on the surface despite their mounting criticism of Obama. The problem is that Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq, and his subsequent accommodation of Iranian hegemony over that country, undermines the entire alliance. It’s as if John F. Kennedy had abruptly pulled out of West Germany and invited the Soviets to occupy it in our stead. Saddam Hussein shielded the Sunni Arabs from Iranian hegemony, but that was not a long-term solution because he was a hegemon in his own right. Having removed Saddam, the U.S. needed to remain a stabilizing, dominant force in Iraq for years to come. Holding that central position in the Middle East would have allowed us to deal with almost any situation, in the process rendering our Arab allies unassailable and effectively containing Iran. What Rodman said in 2007 remains true today: “There is no way for the United States to be strong against Iran if we are weak in Iraq.”
Instead Obama precipitately withdrew all U.S. forces in 2011, and has since in effect turned Iraq over to the Iranians. The ubiquitous General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Iranian Quds Force, is present all along the ISIS front, along with heavy Iranian weapons. The U.S. has assembled a coalition of air forces that are now operating as de facto Iranian proxies, softening up ISIS targets so that the Iranian-backed militias can take over, as seen in the recent operation to retake Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown. U.S. air power allowed Iranian-backed militias and the increasingly Iranian-dominated Iraqi army to occupy the city and exact revenge on suspected ISIS supporters, many of whom are just innocent Sunnis. Our Arab allies warn that any operation against Mosul must guarantee the safety of Sunnis, but it cannot, because Obama refuses to involve U.S. combat troops.
The Obama administration’s decision to end the containment of Iran, let it keep a nuclear-weapons program, and help it expand its hegemony throughout the region, all while providing billions of dollars in sanctions relief, is a strategic debacle bordering on material support for terrorism.
The Islamic revolution wasn’t going to stay in what Rodman called its “exuberant phase” forever. Containment was bringing Iran to its knees. Now Obama has given the murderous revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini a whole new lease on life.