John Kerry is bullish on the Middle East. He believes that the Iran deal will make it possible for the White House and Tehran to tamp down wars in places like Syria and Yemen. And—who knows?—maybe even solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Since the deal was struck, says Kerry, Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, and President Hassan Rouhani “have made it clear that, with the agreement, they are prepared to discuss the regional issues.” And that’s a really good thing, because a “Middle East that is on fire is going to be more manageable with this [nuclear] deal, and opens more potential for us to be able to try to deal with those fires.”
Some of Kerry’s colleagues are much less sanguine. They think the Islamic Republic is less a fireman than a pyromaniac. “If Iran were to commit aggression,” said defense secretary Ashton Carter last week, “our robust force posture ensures we can rapidly surge an overwhelming array of forces into the region, leveraging our most advanced capability, married with sophisticated munitions that put no target out of reach.”
Kerry, confusingly, agrees with that, too. As he said in his testimony on Capitol Hill last week. “We will push back against Iran’s other activities.”
Why can’t Obama’s cabinet get its story straight? Is Iran a potential helpful partner or a strategic threat?
Kerry and Carter can’t get the story straight because the narrative is being woven above their pay grade. The only one who has the answer is Obama—and of course Ali Khamenei. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is an agreement between two supreme leaders. They sent their diplomats off to Europe to talk about the nuclear file, but the actual agreement is about far more than nukes.
With the Iran deal, the Obama administration aims to bring Iran closer into the American orbit and pushes traditional Middle East allies, especially Israel, further away. Both Kerry the eager peacemaker and Carter the diligent warrior have it wrong. The clerical regime is going to do exactly what it wants—or the Iranians will walk away from the deal. It didn’t have to be written into the deal that if the Western powers try to reinstate sanctions, Tehran can opt out of the deal. But it is written into the deal. Sanctions aren’t going to snap back, and the White House is never going to push back.
This means Iran will have enormous leverage in the region. Take Syria, for instance. Obama has talked for four years about arming Syrian rebels to topple the Assad regime, but he never did anything to bring down the Syrian butcher, Tehran’s man, because he didn’t want to damage Iran’s interests in Syria and risk the chance that Khamenei would stop opening his letters. Rather than enforce his own red lines, Obama laid off Assad to signal the Iranians that he wanted an accommodation with them: If he wouldn’t use military force against a Syrian mass-murderer who openly defied him, he surely wasn’t going to start a war with Iran.
So how do Kerry and the administration’s various media surrogates deal with the Syrian civil war post-deal? Well, they say, the Russians are starting to think Assad might be a bad bet, and even the Iranians are hinting at some flexibility. Maybe there’s a Syria settlement to be had.
Nonsense. What used to be the Assad regime is now under Iranian management, and what Iran wants from the Syrian war is to consolidate control over key regions, including along the Golan border with Israel. That puts Israel in conflict not only with Iran but also with a White House that has a deep commitment to its deal with Tehran. Obama didn’t go after Assad previously to keep Iran at the table. Why would he confront Iran now and risk seeing the deal fall apart?
Ashton Carter says the American military is prepared to confront Iran. And risk the deal that his boss has staked his legacy on? That, too, is nonsense. When Obama deployed force in Syria, it was to attack front-line jihadist units, like ISIS and the Nusra Front, which opened up space and time for Assad and his Iranian allies to chase other rebel forces. When the White House calls in anti-ISIS airstrikes in Iraq, no one is happier than Qassem Suleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force and guarantor of Iran’s interests in Iraq.