So the November 24 deadline for reaching a comprehensive agreement with Iran over its nuclear program—itself an extension of an earlier deadline—has come and gone with a whimper, and with another extension. The frenetic, feverish, and foolish pursuit of a deal by the Obama administration, marked by one concession after another to Iran, raised the real possibility that the United States and its international partners would make a historically dangerous mistake that could ensure a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran in short order. It was something of a relief when Iranian obstinacy again saved the day, and the parties in Vienna merely agreed to extend the talks.
The focus in America quickly shifted to sanctions, and whether the deterioration of the sanctions regime engineered by the Obama administration a year ago could be halted, and sanctions now strengthened. We strongly support an urgent congressional effort along these lines. But it’s also time to step back and ask how we got to the point where the United States is begging a third-rate power like Iran to make a deal that undermines our strategic interests and those of our allies. Maybe it’s time to learn the lessons of years of diplomatic failure and adopt a new Iran strategy.
The chances of achieving an acceptable deal with Iran were always remote. It was always unlikely that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei would accept anything short of complete American capitulation, given that hostility to the Great Satan is central to his regime’s raison d’être. Still, diplomacy was perhaps worth pursuing up to a point. The United States had a strong hand to play—a vast network of regional military assets and allies, some ability to cripple Iran economically, and the capability to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, if it came to that. Iran, meanwhile, has a strong terror network and a growing missile force, but an unimpressive military, few regional allies, and many powerful foes, while being dependent upon energy exports to support its economy and rule of terror.
When President Obama began his diplomatic efforts, he pledged his readiness “to use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.” But he then spent years undermining the credibility of this pledge, and thus undermining what leverage the United States had with Iran. He unilaterally and voluntarily turned a reasonably strong hand into a weak one.
Obama seemed to believe the key to resolving differences with Tehran was to allay Iranian suspicions. So in 2009 he wrote a letter to Khamenei. That same year he failed to support the antiregime demonstrators who rose up following Iran’s fraudulent presidential elections. By 2014, Obama was still sending letters to Khamenei, pleading that Iran work with Washington. These entreaties were ridiculed by Tehran and interpreted as supplications from a weak and declining power.
Similarly, Obama failed to confront Iran or its allies in the region. Especially noteworthy was his refusal to support moderate Syrians in their uprising against Bashar al-Assad or to do anything subsequently to undermine Assad’s rule, even after saying in 2011 that the Syrian dictator had to go.
At the same time, Obama distanced himself from Israel and America’s traditional Arab allies, all ardent foes of Iran. Senior Obama officials had secret talks with Iran over its nuclear program in Oman without telling the Israelis or the Saudis. And Obama went out of his way to pick public fights with the Israelis and demonstrated a general lack of concern for the security of Arab allies. All of this emboldened Iran in its dreams of regional hegemony.
Furthermore, the Obama administration often didn’t seem serious about its claim that it was committed to preventing a nuclear Iran, raising suspicions that its true policy was one of containment. In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested consideration of a regional “nuclear umbrella,” implying the United States was prepared to live with a nuclear Iran. Even when administration officials spoke about prevention, they spoke only of stopping Iran from achieving a nuclear “weapon,” instead of nuclear “capability.”
Meanwhile, Congress did force the imposition of tough sanctions, causing Iran’s oil exports to plunge and its economy to contract. Sanctions may have brought Iran to the negotiating table, but they have failed in their main purpose: stopping the nuclear program. And when President Obama foolishly relaxed the sanctions regime in January 2014, U.S. leverage virtually disappeared.