He did it again, as we should have expected. Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei walked us right up to the finish line, spat on us, and walked away. Months and months of secret and public talks, letters, back channels, and gestures produced nothing of the sort the president, assorted foreign ministers, pundits, and politicians had been predicting. Instead we are to keep talking, and keep paying the Islamic Republic for the pleasure and privilege.
It's not Barack Obama's unique failure; the same thing happened to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Both of them came to believe they had a deal with Khamenei, and both of them were rudely disabused of their error when the Iranians walked away. Bush's secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, was so sure it was a done deal, and so intent on getting it signed and sealed, that she issued three hundred visas over a single weekend in September 2006, for passengers to travel on Ali Larijani's plane to New York for a signing ceremony at the UN. She then flew to New York to await the Persians. But Larijani's plane sat on the tarmac in Tehran, and neither he nor the 300 ever came.
It's time for serious students and policy makers to draw appropriate conclusions from this consistent pattern, and to rethink their Iran policy views.
The basic conclusion: Khamenei does not want a deal with the United States (aka “The Great Satan”). Obama has been pursuing a strategic alliance with Iran since 2008, well before his inauguration and even before his election. During the election campaign he quietly dispatched retired Ambassador William Miller to Tehran to inform the mullahs that a new era in Iranian-American relations was about to begin, and the "dialogue" between Washington and Tehran has continued for more than six years. No sensible person doubts Obama's willingness to be generous to the Iranians. Any lingering skepticism should be definitively eliminated by the latest "extension," which reportedly bestows $700 million on Khamenei every month for continuing to talk.
Khamenei could certainly have had a very good deal if he wanted it. If he didn't take one, it's because he doesn't want it. Why? Because it's all about core convictions: he hates us, and he doesn't want to go down—possibly quite soon, if reports of the gravity of his prostate cancer are accurate—as the ayatollah who came to terms with Satan.
Moreover, he doesn't need to get in bed with the devil in order to achieve his basic objectives. The interim agreement gives him plenty of nuclear wiggle room, as we see from the rude treatment of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency. They insisted on visiting the suspected nuclear facilities at Parchin, the Iranians told them to go to hell, and nothing happened. On the sanctions front, Khamenei certainly hates them, but he's grinding down their enforcement, finding myriad ways to avoid them, and getting cash money in the bargain.
On the battlefield, he's doing quite well, thanks in no small part to American cooperation in support of his (and his Russian ally's) prime regional objective, namely the survival of the Assad regime in Syria. We are not seriously supporting anyone who threatens Assad. And the new Iraqi government leaders, whom we purport to trust and support, zipped off to Tehran within days of taking office. In these and several other ways, Obama's quest for an alliance with Tehran has progressed considerably, but mostly on Khamenei's terms.
I can't prove it, but I suspect that Zarif and Rouhani convinced Khamenei to approve the talkathon with The Great Satan because they had understood that Iran could get most anything it wanted from Obama. I don't think they were dragged to the negotiating table by "biting sanctions," even though the sanctions hurt the Iranian people and sensitive parts of the economy. Their nuclear activity has increased as sanctions tightened, and Iranian military activity in Iraq and Syria is mounting. These matter much more to Khamenei than a chicken shortage in the markets.
There is no deal, and the evidence suggests there isn't going to be one. What, then, to do?
Obama's apologists, including distinguished diplomats and one-time associates from Dennis Ross to Robert Gates, repeatedly told us that the "opening" to Iran would be brief, and if it became clear the deal was not in the cards, Obama would get tough. Remember "I don't bluff"? Is six years-plus long enough? If so, it's prudent to retool our policy, starting with the Washington Post's simple dictum, if you want to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, you've got to have regime change in Tehran.