The Magazine

Faith-Based Negotiations

When liberals meet mullahs

Dec 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 13 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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But a basic understanding of international trade, a bit of common sense, and a quick glance at how the administration has conducted foreign policy in the region might make one skeptical about President Obama’s achievement in Switzerland. Every billion in hard currency counts, especially abroad, where Iran’s accessible hard-currency reserves are only around $20 billion. Even the administration’s dubious figure for sanctions relief—$7 billion over six months—is a lot of money for the Islamic Republic, which has probably burned up several billion dollars in Syria since Damascus’s savage dictatorship almost cratered last year. If that $7 billon figure is low, then the aid that President Obama has now given the mullahs is far from paltry. Anyone who has tracked how the administration calculated its gold-trading offer to the Iranians at the nuclear negotiations in Almaty in February and April 2013 (Turkish customs data clearly show that Iran pocketed $6 billion in a U.S. sanctions loophole; the administration claims it gave away nothing to Tehran) cannot be sanguine that the White House has any firm idea of how international commercial markets operate. Rouhani’s post-Geneva bragging about “breaking” the West’s sanctions regime is probably premature. But given his plausible assertion in his memoir that it was he who cleverly protected Iran’s nuclear program in 2003, one might want to give the cleric a bit more time before damning him as “specious.” 

At the core of Washington’s debate about Iran’s nuclear program is a confluence of naïveté and fear of another war in the Middle East. The latter reinforces the former and bends the analysis of Iran’s internal politics. It makes America’s foreign policy elite, which has never been a particularly God-fearing crowd, even more blind to the role of religion in Iran’s politics. The president himself appears to believe passionately that an irenic American foreign policy insulates the United States from Muslim anger and terrorism. Yet who knows for sure whether Barack Obama has the will to preempt Tehran’s nuclear program militarily? If Khamenei got caught enriching uranium to bomb-grade or kicked IAEA inspectors out of the country, the president might strike. Even the president’s omnipresent desire to pivot the United States away from any region of conflict might not be enough to stop him from launching preemptive raids against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites. The closer we get to an Iranian breakout capacity, the more serious Washington’s deliberations on the ramifications of an Iranian nuke become. The most deadly and probably the most powerful man in uniform is Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force, the paramilitary and terrorist expeditionary unit within the Revolutionary Guard Corps, who unquestionably authorized the plan to bomb the Saudi ambassador in a Georgetown restaurant in 2011. Imagining Suleimani with atomic weapons is appreciably more disturbing than imagining Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, or Kim Jong-un with a nuke. 

No one in the Middle East, however, believes that Obama would strike. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in particular revel in mocking the president’s occasional “all-options-are-on-the-table” rhetoric. The left-wing base of the Democratic party certainly doesn’t think the president will lead America into another war. Mention Obama’s pledge to take out Tehran’s nuclear sites to the nonproliferation soldiers at the Ploughshares Fund and they yawn or snicker. The only man in Washington who may still seriously believe that Obama retains the requisite bellicosity after his red-line debacle in Syria is Dennis Ross, the president’s former Middle Eastern adviser and über Israeli-Palestinian peace-processor, whose capacity for perseverance and faith in the darkest circumstances is unparalleled. 

Much of Washington’s foreign-policy establishment, especially that residing in influential left-of-center think tanks, long ago conceded the bomb to Iran. Pollack’s new book, Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy, advances an argument for containment, a position he has held for years. For those who want to default to containment, any diplomatic path will take them there. It doesn’t really matter whether Geneva is a good deal or bad one; the only thing that matters is that we not bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. And for most on the left—who unlike Pollack don’t envision any need for a militarily strong and aggressive United States pushing back against Iranian adventurism—containment has become a synonym for patient, peaceful engagement and American withdrawal. (The crippling weakness of Pollack’s grand strategy is that it presupposes tough Democrats and Republicans guiding American foreign policy; but the toughness necessary for containment is no less than that required for preemption.)  

 

President Obama’s heart and mind are, in all probability, in the same orbit as those of the nonproliferation crowd, who really liked nuclear nonproliferation so long as the United States was disarming and Washington didn’t have to go to war to stop a third-world country from going nuclear. The president’s post-Geneva stop-the-“endless cycle of violence” speeches certainly make one think that Obama will fold when Khamenei’s men have made it crystal clear that nuclear rollback isn’t an option. Ramping up sanctions globally—recapturing the momentum that Congress and the European Union had built by ever-escalating sanctions—will likely prove much more difficult than the White House now thinks. The all-important psychology of escalating sanctions, and the increasing American willpower that produced them, will soon be replaced by a spirit of compromise and, among foreign businesses, greed and a new resolve to test the administration’s willingness to punish companies, especially European and Chinese firms, that violate U.S. sanctions. 

European unity on Iran has always been in part a function of fear of American and Israeli preemptive military action. Fear of Israel has dissipated in Europe. In Paris, London, and Berlin, few now have much regard for—let alone fear of—President Obama. In the White House, transatlantic relations have become an afterthought, as French foreign minister Laurent Fabius made furiously clear during the first round in Geneva. And without crippling sanctions, Washington will have no real leverage left over the Iranian regime. President Obama’s eagerness to avoid an unpleasant binary choice—surrender publicly to Tehran’s nuclear fait accompli or preempt militarily—will have led him to a situation where he confronts the same choice, but with Iran’s hand stronger and America’s weaker. Khamenei will have called Obama’s bluff—and will have billions more in his bank account. In all probability, the president has bought into a process of diminishing returns that he cannot abandon for fear of the cruel binary choice. For that matter, he may already have decided that the left wing of the Democratic party is right: Better Khamenei and Suleimani with a nuke than America in conflict. The odds are, he has. 

In about six months’ time, Khamenei’s “step-by-step” counsel to his most loyal followers may well prove prescient. His loyal servant Rouhani, who jumped off Rafsanjani’s sinking ship in 2005 for a stronger alliance with the supreme leader, will have again proven that Western-educated Iranians with decent English can do wonders with Americans. Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, when asked about Khamenei’s November 20 speech at Khomeini’s Grand Mosque, remarked that “comments like these are not helpful, but we still believe that both sides are negotiating in good faith.” More than she probably knew, Ms. Psaki was right.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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