On Iran, Obama’s bigger challenge is with his allies

By Mark Leonard
October 15, 2013

The things that probably keep Barack Obama up at night — terrorist networks, covert nuclear programs and chemical weapons — can often be countered with off-the-peg reasoning: drones, sanctions, inspections, or even the threat of intervention. Much more difficult is working out how to stop allies from destroying what he hopes will be the signature achievement of his second term: a historic opening to Iran. When it comes to the Middle East, Obama’s thorniest problems come not from his enemies, but from his friends.

With the possibility of bilateral meetings between the U.S. and Iran in Geneva, and supported by the U.S.-Russian deal on chemical weapons in Syria, there is a tantalizing prospect that the Iranian regime could become a partner to the U.S., rather than a rival.

It is too early to know if Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is able to deliver, but as diplomats gather in Geneva for U.N. talks, it is not hard to see why President Obama would invest so much hope in a deal. A former Democratic congressman who knows Obama well explained to me that, like healthcare on the domestic front, it would be a bold, game-changing initiative. And, like healthcare, an alliance with Iran eluded President Bill Clinton.

Obama recognizes that there is the danger of a full-blown regional sectarian conflict in the Middle East. If diplomacy fails with Iran, Obama could find himself remembered as the president who took the United States into two new Middle East Wars — in Iran and Syria — rather than the one who ended two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Rouhani’s stated goals seem straightforward: reversing the crippling sanctions in Iran to improve the economic situation and elevating his country’s international standing. Javier Solana — Europe’s former top diplomat who opened nuclear talks with Rouhani when Rouhani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator — told me that Rouhani “is a rational person who you can do business with.” Since coming to power, Rouhani has taken steps to change the mood. He appointed the intelligent and western-friendly Mohammad Javad Zarif to the foreign ministry, wresting control of the nuclear dossier from the country’s Supreme National Security Council and handing it to Zarif’s foreign ministry. Most intriguingly, he appointed Ali Shamkhani, an Iranian war hero of Arab origin, to be head of the Security Council.

In talks this week, Zarif called for a road map for a nuclear deal within a year by tying confidence measures on the nuclear program to a progressive lifting of sanctions and diplomatic hostilities. He has hinted at a willingness to restrict the amount of highly-enriched uranium in Iran and other measures to reassure the world that Iran will not be able to develop nuclear weapons. If there is progress in the talks, it would open the possibility for a normalization of the relationship between Iran and the U.S. and move toward a political solution on Syria.

But not everyone is pleased by the prospect of these historic enemies becoming friends. U.S. allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia fear that the price for accommodation will be paid in the currency of their core interests.

As diplomats prepared for talks in Geneva, Benyamin Netanyahu headed to the Knesset and said, “it would be a historic mistake to reduce pressure on Iran now, a moment before sanctions achieve their goal.” Netanyahu’s most obvious leverage is over U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is strongly focused on peace between Israel and Palestine.

Washington’s most attractive offer to Iran is lifting sanctions — something that would require congressional approval. Although the Israeli Labor leader, Shelly Yachimovich, mocked Netanyahu’s apocalyptic language — “We survived Pharaoh, we survived 2,000 years in exile, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, we’ll survive this” — it reminds us that Obama’s attempts at détente with Iran are likely somewhat less resilient in a battle with Congress.

The other American ally — Saudi Arabia — has a murkier modus operandi. Rather than relying on American politics to subvert rapprochement with Iran, Riyadh will put more efforts into proxy wars on the ground, above all in Syria, to upset the nuclear deal and the idea of a negotiated political solution to the Syrian conflict. A well-placed Saudi told me of Riyadh’s complete unwillingness to accept any diplomatic process involving Iran and Assad, and claimed that Saudi Arabia would be using “unlimited resources” to win the battle. As Marc Lynch argues in Foreign Policy, “the Saudis are always willing to fight Iran to the last dead American (or Syrian).”

As American domestic politics go from bad to absurd, Obama may increasingly look abroad in search of a legacy, and his frustrations could soon be transferred from Congress at home to foreign allies. As Israel and Saudi Arabia show, it is often easier to gain leverage over enemies than with countries bound by alliances and friendships. In relationships where there is an (often mistaken) assumption of mutual interests, cooperation is usually taken for granted.

At the United Nations last month, Obama talked in strikingly undiplomatic language about the growing war-weariness of the American people and of the temptation for isolationism that will come from energy independence.

“We’re far more likely to invest our energy in those countries that want to work with us,” Obama said.

Superficially, this seemed to be a warning against Arab dictators, but reading between the lines, it may have been a warning to his closest allies: cooperate with us or we will withdraw. Obama seems set to follow the strictures of Jeremiah in the biblical lands, the weeping prophet in the Old Testament who warned: “Beware of your friends; do not trust anyone in your clan.”

PHOTO: Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani takes questions from journalists past a bouquet of flowers at a news conference in New York September 27, 2013. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

4 comments

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Don’t get me wrong, I think having Iran as a partner rather than an adversary would be great. But aren’t we perhaps getting a bit overly optimistic here? Iran’s hardliners most likely oppose a deal, and even moderate Iranian leaders seem reluctant to curb their country’s nuclear enrichment. Meanwhile, with AIPAC’s lobbying it’s unlikely Congress will allow any lifting of sanctions…though perhaps with some arm-twisting Obama could get Democrats to go along.

I suppose if ordinary Iranians want to have their country’s international standing elevated and some measure of “national dignity” restored, that could be arranged. We could pull out all our military forces from the Persian Gulf region and lift all sanctions, in return for Iran ceasing all uranium enrichment…after all since when does national pride require a nuclear enrichment program? But on the other hand, would Khamenei ever allow such a rapprochement to occur?

Posted by delta5297 | Report as abusive

Wants and needs of Middle East countries.
Israel – really badly needs water. That is why Israel backs US/Saudi foreign intervention in Syria. If government of Syria is toppled, and country is flooded with anarchy (like for instance Libya 2 years ago) Israel could get Golan Heights plus more Syrian/Libanian territory which is abundant in water.
Saudi Arabia – it is a simple exchange: SA sells oil in US dollar, United States backs its absolutistic hereditary monarchy. Even 9/11 or open Al-Quaida sponsorship by Saudi oligarchs has not changed this.
Saudi Arabia also wants to dominate Middle East. But they have serious Human Resources problem. Saudi economy is totally oil based and staffed by skilled foreign workers. The only other candidates to MENA dominance were: Iraq (after 2004 war a non issue) and Iran.
Iran – they like SA want to dominate Middle East.
In fact Iran build sustainable, diversified modern economy. It is the only country in MENA that has skilled workforce and economy the least dependent on oil exports (they are at a pretty good shape at low level oil exports in the range of 1,5 m bpd and all these sanctions).
Somehow Iranians were not good at pursuit of their Grand Strategy – Middle East dominance, in latest 15 years.
But it has changed. Of course they will not build nuclear weapons. But to cease the sanctions and let the economy thrive they would probably completely fulfill any requirements on international community, at least for the next 20 years. It would be sth like Syrian plan under sponsorship of Russia and China. They would get significant Chinese investments in oil industry in return and sell a lot oil in any currency bar US dollars.
United States and Israel will try to destroy any such agreement. It is not in US interest to watch calmly when oil is sold in other currencies and for Israel to watch strong Iran backs Syria, Liban and Iraq (I 100% understand Israel position, for water anybody would do the same). It is real politik.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

Obama is a naif, willing to sell friends and allies for the unlikely possibility that the current Iranian regime will warm to America. His actions are based on his campaign theme of Hope, the same reason that he was prematurely awarded the Nobel Peace prize shortly after taking office. His headlong rush into the arms of the ayatollahs foretells a disastrous outcome.

Posted by CharlesParisFR | Report as abusive

Its interesting how the media in general is equating countries sworn to Americas destruction with forces sworn to defend it. As if any sustainable progress in the direction of peace with them is possible. The author’s most important prerequisite, as so many journalists in America now, is ignorance. Which he/they were educated into. To quote a sworn enemy as a reliable and trustworthy source for character analysis is naive at best. And unspeakable at its worst. The guidance of such journalist is equivalent to that of a pills-bury dough boy. Which also shows the depth of the problems in America. The masses have been trained to consume food “products” that are unhealthy via food additives (which are really just drugs) and convenience. And the resultant illnesses are treated with phamasudicals., which only mask the problem and ultimately further the illness in the body (typically). So the integrity (physical, emotional, mental) of the people has decreased, to the point where the majority can no longer interpret who the real enemy is: their own corruption via arrogance. Which has caused them to believe lies to the point of electing the embodiment of corruption: Barry Oblasphemous. As if corruption and integrity are “substitutively equivalent”. Which is the precondition necessary for tyranny.

Posted by Truth559 | Report as abusive