So the Obama administration is, after all, capable of tough, bull-necked diplomacy. These guys go for the jugular—for them diplomacy is a blood sport where anything is licit so long as victory is the endgame. Too bad the White House deploys those skills not against U.S. adversaries but against allies like Israel and France.
Haaretz reports that the administration misled Israel regarding the terms of the proposed interim agreement with Iran over its nuclear weapons program. One senior Israeli official explained that on Wednesday Israel had seen an outline that the Israelis “didn't love but could live with.” Thursday morning French and British officials, and not the White House, told the Israelis that the terms had changed and were much more favorable than what they’d been shown previously. “Suddenly it changed to something much worse that included a much more significant lifting of sanctions,” said the Israeli official. “The feeling was that the Americans are much more eager to reach an agreement than the Iranians.”
When Kerry landed in Geneva Friday, only a few small details were left to sort out before striking an agreement. But the problem wasn’t the Iranian side, rather it was France that wouldn’t sign off on the “bracketed text” in the draft document. In other words, after misleading the Israelis, the administration had hoped to present the deal as a fait accompli. In scuttling the agreement, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius saved the day—for the time being.
Fabius explained that France wouldn’t accept a “sucker’s deal”—namely, one that would allow the Iranians to continue enriching uranium, manufacturing centrifuges, and constructing a plutonium reactor at Arak, while providing immediate sanctions relief and unfreezing billions of dollars in oil revenues. Some are suggesting that France blocked the accord because of its arms deals with Saudi Arabia. Iranian officials contend that it must be the Zionists who brainwashed Fabius. Others think it must have something to do with Syria and how the White House hung French president François Hollande out to dry after Obama said he was going to strike Bashar al-Assad, won Hollande’s support, and then backed down. It could even be, as president of the National Iranian American Council Trita Parsi tweeted, that Fabius “simply has racist hatred for Iranians.” In short, there must be some really nefarious and top-secret explanation for the intransigence of the French, because they can’t possibly object to the deal on its merits.
“We are not blind,” Kerry said after the deal fell apart, “and I don’t think we’re stupid.” But the administration is deceitful, arrogant, and incompetent—a dysfunctional combination in international affairs. Now everyone, including U.S. lawmakers, is going to be watching the next round of negotiations, scheduled for November 20, very closely, especially Israel and France. Hollande is scheduled to visit Israel next week and to speak in front of the Knesset, where he’ll no doubt be warmly received and encouraged to hold the line. It’s possible the French will cave—the White House is likely exerting a great deal of pressure—but theoretically there’s no reason that Paris can’t maintain its position indefinitely.
As former French President Jacques Chirac showed in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, Paris’s ability to project power is keyed to U.S. foreign policy. To stay relevant, France must either take a very public position against the United States, as Chirac did with Bush on Iraq; or it must make its position indistinguishable from the White House’s, as Chirac did when he teamed with Bush to drive Syrian troops out of Lebanon in 2005. There’s no apparent reason for Hollande and Fabius to roll over on the interim agreement just to make Obama happy. And as the Iranian regime reminded us Sunday when the twitter feed apparently belonging to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei published thinly veiled threats against France, the French have had a very stormy relationship with the Islamic Republic, including Iran’s terrorist campaign in Paris during the ’80s.
Nonetheless, France’s show of courage cannot disguise the fact that the Obama administration is determined to strike a deal with Iran. The reason it’s made Iran a partner in negotiations and isolated U.S. allies is because the Iran deal is just one detail in in a much bigger picture. Obama wants to get it over with because the real issue is to create a new regional architecture—one that will bring Iran in from the cold, whether Israel and Saudi Arabia like it or not.
“There’s no Great Game to be won,” Obama said in October at the U.N. General Assembly. As he told the same gathering in 2009, “No balance of power among nations will hold.” Accordingly, allies don’t mean what they used to, nor does American primacy in areas of vital strategic interest, like the Persian Gulf. The effect of Obama’s grand strategy for the Middle East will be to undo the American position in the region.
It’s unclear whether administration officials like Kerry understand what they’ve signed on for. When he was in Jerusalem last week, Kerry warned of a third intifada, and railed against the occupation of the West Bank. “How,” he asked, “if you say you’re working for peace and you want peace, and a Palestine that is a whole Palestine that belongs to the people who live there, how can you say we’re planning to build in a place that will eventually be Palestine? So it sends a message that perhaps you’re not really serious.”
It was Kerry who was eager to restart the peace process, against the wishes of Obama, who in June gave him three months “to produce a resumption of negotiations.” But Kerry’s rant about settlements wasn’t about the peace process—the purpose was to batter Netanyahu. Even as Obama failed in his first term at peace processing, he saw that American pressure on an Israeli leader could tie Jerusalem down for months with anxiety. By making Netanyahu stay on defense with the peace process, the administration could push ahead with the Iran deal.
What’s interesting here is Obama’s instrumental, and cynical, use of the peace process, one of the American foreign policy establishment’s articles of faith, perhaps its holy grail. It’s almost touching at this point to see administration officials lavish such attention on a peace process that, given the state of the rest of the region, is entirely irrelevant. And yet as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently told Jeffrey Goldberg, the U.S.’s “main strategic interests” are “a peace settlement [between the Israelis and Palestinians], and working with our allies to bring some security and stability to the region, to continue to develop their respect for human dignity, recognizing that the ethnic and religious currents are running against those currents.”
As Goldberg notes, Hagel is a proponent of linkage, the idea that settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to solving the region’s many other problems. Maybe Obama used to think this way, too. Israeli-Palestinian peace, he said in 2008, “will also weaken Iran…If we’ve gotten an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, maybe at the same time peeling Syria out of the Iranian orbit, that makes it easier to isolate Iran so that they have a tougher time developing a nuclear weapon.”
If he believed it back then, Obama no longer sees the world like this. In pushing for a deal with Tehran that will not roll back, or even freeze, progress on an Iranian nuclear weapon, Obama is not trying to give them a tougher time developing a bomb. He doesn’t care if Syria is peeled out of the Iranian orbit, because in signing on to the Russian initiative to get rid of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons and thereby preserve the Syrian regime, Obama has acquiesced to Iran in Syria. Even after every senior administration official, except for White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, concluded that the United States should arm the rebels to bring down Assad, Obama, “impatient and disengaged” refused to budge.
That is to say, there is a mainstream American foreign policy consensus on the Middle East that broadly includes Democrats and Republicans, and Obama is outside it. Administration officials and Obama supporters in the press have assumed he saw the world like they do, which is why his ideas, taken individually, seem reasonable, even familiar. Sure, say the president’s advocates, Israel is an American ally, and an important one, but the Israelis can also be a nuisance, especially when they’re led by a Likud government. So what if Saudi Arabia is upset because they’re not getting enough love from Obama? Tough. Let them defend themselves for once. Anyway, the United States is moving toward energy independence so we don’t need the Saudis like we once did. We don’t want conflict with Iran because Americans are tired of war, and the Middle East, too, and we can contain and deter a nuclear Iran if we have to. And historical reconciliation, a grand bargain, with the clerical regime is one of the collective dreams of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. But of course what the administration is offering Iran is not really a bargain but acquiescence.
The president is diminishing a superpower and in due course Americans will feel that diminishment as their own.