So what if the sectarian conflict raging from Beirut to Baghdad claimed yet more lives last week? From the Obama administration’s perspective, all’s well with its Middle East policy. Not a bombing in the Lebanese capital, nor clashes throughout Iraq, nor even reports that Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime systematically tortured and executed 11,000 detainees can shake the White House’s confidence in its strategic vision. For Obama envisages, as he told the New Yorker last week, a “new geopolitical equilibrium” emerging in the Middle East. And as the White House measures progress—diplomatic frequent flyer miles, not body counts on the ground—all the relevant signs from last week pointed to a region moving in the right direction.
On Monday, the interim deal over Iran’s nuclear weapons program that was agreed to in Geneva in November was officially implemented. On Wednesday, the much-anticipated Geneva II talks, bringing together representatives from Assad’s regime and the opposition it has slaughtered for nearly three years, finally kicked off. The former, the White House argues, will prevent a war with Iran—provided Congress doesn’t pass new sanctions legislation. The latter will end the bloodshed in Syria—eventually. As U.S. officials have explained, it’s the beginning of a long process.
Sure, there will be some hiccups along the way. Assad’s representatives leveled threats at Geneva, while pro-regime thugs beat up anti-Assad protesters outside the conference. With even more at stake in Iran, it’s hardly surprising the clerical regime is also acting out—but that’s just to placate Tehran’s hardliners, say Obama aides. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Tehran’s point man for nuclear talks, said that, contrary to the White House’s talking points, Iran hadn’t agreed to dismantle anything under the interim agreement. That’s right, said Hassan Rouhani. The Iranian president told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that Iran won’t destroy any of its centrifuges under any circumstances and will continue work on its heavy-water plutonium reactor.
Why isn’t the White House worried? After all, it’s invested a great deal of American diplomatic and political prestige—conferences, negotiations, agreements—in these two manifestly intransigent regimes only to be repeatedly shown up on the world stage.
The sanctions relief that the administration provided with the interim agreement has boosted Iranian oil sales and brought about what Foundation for Defense of Democracies analysts Mark Dubowitz and Emanuele Ottolenghi describe as a “gold rush” in Tehran. Investors, corporations, and markets have gotten the message that Iran is open for business once again. What’s good news for Tehran should be bad news for the White House because the recovery of the Iranian economy means that the White House has all but lost the financial leverage that drove the clerical regime to the negotiating table in the first place.
But none of this seems to matter to Obama. No, he has a vision. In Obama’s new Middle East, the Sunni Arab states of the Persian Gulf and Iran will balance each other out. “I think each individual piece of the puzzle,” Obama told the New Yorker, “is meant to paint a picture in which conflicts and competition still exist in the region but that it is contained, it is expressed in ways that don’t exact such an enormous toll on the countries involved, and that allow us to work with functioning states to prevent extremists from emerging there.”
Obama’s “picture” of the Middle East is apparently not a landscape drawn from real life.
President Rouhani and his aides have been able to keep the “moderate” charade going for only so long. Two weeks ago Zarif placed a wreath on the grave of Imad Mughniyeh, a notorious Hezbollah commander responsible for, among other operations, the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks at the Beirut airport, which killed 241 American servicemen. Just so there was no mistaking the foreign minister’s gesture, a week later the Iranian press featured photos of Mughniyeh’s son Jihad at the right hand of Qassem Suleimani when the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ external operations unit, the Quds Force, buried his mother. The Iranian regime was thereby celebrating a continuity of terrorism and extremism, from legendary father to exalted son.
The Obama White House, in short, has tied American interests to a regime that boasts of sponsoring terror. Which is to say, Obama’s strategy for a new Middle East has nothing to do with facts on the ground. Rather, it’s based on a concept derived from international relations seminars. On this view, because Iran is a “functioning state,” it is susceptible to the various diplomatic, political, and military instruments that other states can deploy to engage or deter it. From the White House’s point of view, Sunni extremists are especially dangerous because, not being “functioning states,” they’re difficult to “engage”—except with drone strikes.
This concept, unfortunately, cannot account for the differing belief systems and ideological structures that motivate states. If Sunni extremism is often a result of the weakness of Sunni states incapable of controlling their jihadist hordes, Iranian-backed extremism is an index of the strength and coherence of a ruling regime that uses terror to advance its interests. Contrary to Obama’s vision of a new Middle East, the violence won’t be contained by our embracing Iran. What is likely to follow in the region is more bloodshed, not just for Middle Easterners, from Jerusalem to Damascus to Baghdad, but also for Americans.