Last week the White House puffed its feathers when Barbara Mikulski became the 34th Democratic senator to come out in favor of the nuclear deal with Iran. Mikulski’s support ensures enough votes in Obama’s pocket to sustain a presidential veto on a resolution of disapproval, but it’s still not clear why the administration is celebrating. A majority of senators and congressmen oppose Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative. So does most of the American public, by a two-to-one ratio according to a new poll released last week. In other words, the administration may have won this round, but the fight over the Iran deal isn’t over.
The other critical actor is the White House’s negotiating partner in Tehran. The clerical regime looks at the American political landscape and sees that it is operating in a protected environment that may change very quickly when a new administration comes to the White House in 16 months. Unlike the Obama White House, the Islamic Republic understands that the fight over its nuclear weapons program will continue.
Trust has been the cornerstone of the administration’s Iran policy from the very beginning. Sure, White House officials say the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action isn’t about trust—they quote Reagan and point to the (worthless) inspection regime and say it’s about verification. But for Obama, the issue was never really whether Iran could be trusted, but how to build Iran’s trust in Obama.
From day one, Obama set out to show the regime that he could deliver. He started a correspondence with the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. The American president apologized for imagined transgressions against Iran. He backed the regime against the Iranian people when they took to the streets in June 2009 to protest against their crooked leaders. Obama promised Tehran he wouldn’t touch their Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad. The White House repeatedly leaked Israeli operations against Iranian arms shipments to its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. The administration ordered airstrikes against Assad’s enemies and thereby helped the Syrian dictator survive, and sent American pilots to fly missions in support of IRGC troops in Iraq. The White House disregarded traditional U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey and insulted the prime minister of Israel.
Still the Iranians must have wondered: Could Obama be trusted? In the negotiations, the White House played the role of Iran’s lawyer, defending and supporting Tehran’s demands when France and other EU partners demurred. In Washington, the White House attacked recalcitrant members of the president’s own party, like Senators Robert Menendez and Charles Schumer, who opposed the Iran deal. They were beholden to donors and moneyed interests, said the administration. Anyone who was against the deal was putting America on a course to war, according to the president. Obama thus signaled to the Iranians that military force was not an option. He wasn’t going to hurt them. Really, they should trust him—he had shown them how roughly he treated allies, foreign and domestic, who tried to get in the way of their new relationship.
The Iranians trust no one. It’s a political culture where everyone has a dagger aimed at everyone else’s back. All the Iranians see is that they’re unlikely to ever have it so good again in Washington. Accordingly, the Iranian regime sees that it must move quickly to establish facts on the ground. Indeed, it seems Tehran is already moving assets into place. Recently, Ahmed al-Mughassil, the mastermind of the 1996 Khobar Tower bombing that killed 19 American servicemen and injured 372, was arrested in Beirut while traveling from Tehran on an Iranian passport. Presumably Mughassil was dispatched for a purpose—perhaps to assist Hezbollah on a project targeting either Israel or American allies in the Persian Gulf. Last month, Kuwaiti authorities captured an Iranian arms shipment destined for a local Hezbollah cell. Two Iranian diplomats operating out of the embassy in Kuwait City reportedly coordinated the shipment.
The Obama administration is celebrating the Iran deal as a political victory over its opponents—namely, the majority of the American people. But this “victory” comes at a high price. It has provided the Iranians with a window of opportunity. Contrary to the White House’s rhetoric arguing that the only alternative to the deal is war, the deal, in strengthening Iran, has made conflict more likely.