Last week Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to the U.N. General Assembly and the White House to warn against letting Iran become a nuclear threshold state. He may be too late. With the Obama administration walking back its longstanding demand that Iran dismantle its centrifuges, the clerical regime in Tehran will soon be on the threshold of a nuclear breakout.
This fact is not lost on the White House. Recent appointments and statements underscore the administration’s new posture toward Iran—détente.
Newly charged with overseeing Iran policy is Colin Kahl, appointed last week as Joe Biden’s national security adviser. A senior fellow at the Obama-friendly think tank Center for a New American Security who worked at the Pentagon from 2009 to 2011, Kahl replaces Jake Sullivan as point man for the administration’s secret talks with Iran. Sullivan’s job was to persuade Iran to sit for talks at which the White House would deal away all its leverage in exchange for nothing. Kahl’s job will be to convince U.S. allies and Obama’s opponents on Capitol Hill that acknowledging Iran’s right to enrich uranium and then easing sanctions is a really good idea—because, finally, the United States has no choice.
At his think tank job, Kahl oversaw a research project dealing with Iranian nuclear issues and coauthored a report, “If All Else Fails: The Challenges of Containing a Nuclear-Armed Iran.” It was widely regarded as a trial balloon to gauge public response to a policy, containment, that the administration claimed to oppose. Obama, after all, has said he means to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb. However, Kahl and his colleagues argued, “prevention—up to and including the use of force—could fail, leaving Washington with little choice but to manage and mitigate the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran.”
The question that Kahl’s paper failed to answer was this: Given America’s vastly superior military, diplomatic, political, and financial resources, and an abundance of resolve in protecting our interests in the Persian Gulf as well as our regional allies, how could we, a superpower, fail to prevent a third-world regime from acquiring the bomb? The answer is that the White House could fail at prevention because it didn’t believe success was worth the cost.
After all, Obama officials have contended, military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities might force Tehran to retaliate by ordering terrorist attacks against American regional interests and allies as well as the U.S. homeland itself. It’s worth noting, however, that the White House hasn’t balked at waging a preemptive military campaign against the Islamic State and other Syria-based jihadist organizations that are planning, or may in time plan, attacks on American targets.
Applying to the Islamic Republic the logic the White House applies to the Islamic State would suggest a massive aerial campaign against Iranian targets. But that’s not what the administration has in mind at all. As Obama has explained, the Iranians are rational. Yes, it’s a shame they employ terrorism to advance their interests, but at least they have strategic interests. In contrast, as Obama told the U.N. two weeks ago, organizations like the Islamic State only understand the language of force. And yet a state sponsor of terror like the Tehran regime has earned the right to sit with the United States and other world powers and bargain over its nuclear weapons program.
So the Islamic State controls territory between Syria and Iraq and rightly has the administration’s attention. Iran, an expansionist regime waging war throughout the Levant, controls four other capitals in the Middle East besides its own—Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Sana’a. Yet administration officials see a bright future ahead working with it.
“A nuclear agreement could begin a multigenerational process that could lead to a new relationship between our countries,” said Philip Gordon last week. Gordon, the White House coordinator for the Middle East, was last heard from at the height of the Gaza war, when he advised Israel to treat its neighbors better. That Hamas rocket fire forced the evacuation of the Tel Aviv conference hall where Gordon was speaking is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of the White House’s Middle East policy.
The Obama administration has a picture of the Middle East that is impervious to reality. The Islamic Republic is not more rational than the Islamic State simply because it is a real nation-state. Far more human suffering has been caused by states than by terrorist militias. And that is the reason Iran is so dangerous: It has devoted the resources and institutions of a state to acquiring nuclear weapons and to creating a terror infrastructure outside its borders. Détente is really too euphemistic a term. The White House’s new Iran policy is appeasement of the regime and acquiescence in its nuclear ambitions.