Iranian president Hassan Rouhani didn’t have to snub Obama yesterday by choosing not to meet with him on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting. But, as with Vladimir Putin’s victory lap op-ed in the New York Times, Rouhani chose to rub Obama’s face in the dirt because he could. Obama hung a “kick me” sign on his back and Rouhani simply took him up on it.
As for Rouhani, his speech yesterday revealed rather less about the man than the regime he represents. Forget about the Islamic Republic’s theological foundations, ignore the conviction, held by various regime figures, that the Mahdi is destined to return. Rouhani, like every Iranian president before him and like thousands of other Iranian clerics and regime figures, is one part Polonius, one part Wizard of Oz, a mid-level manager thrilled by the prospect of his own muddled thought becoming reality.
“Violence,” the Iranian president said yesterday, “has gone beyond the physical realm, and has penetrated the psychological and spiritual realm of human existence." The fact that a world leader stood before his peers to utter this mystical nonsense would be funny—except for the fact that standing behind the great and powerful Rouhani is the very serious head of the regime’s external operations unit, Qassem Suleimani (profiled by Dexter Filkins in this week’s New Yorker) whose violence in the physical realm against Americans and our allies is quite real and may already have convinced the White House that any military action against Iran’s nuclear program will be met with terror operations against Americans around the world, and even here at home.
As head of the Qods Force, Suleimani stands apart from the rest of this regime, a gang of philosopher-magicians dancing on the head of a pin and looking to push the others off. Indeed, that’s all Iran’s presidential elections are—a version of “Survivor,” where the last man that the Supreme Leader leaves standing becomes president. If the Arabs are too often content with a strongman, the Persians love their court intrigue, with one courtier smiling to another while yet another stabs him ever so gently, ever so cleverly in the back. If the Americans are easily gulled by the charade, hoping that maybe this president will prove to be the pragmatist, the moderate, the savior come to sign a deal, then that’s just a bonus—the game is played primarily in order to entertain an Iranian audience.
This is who Obama is chasing after, a mystical mannequin in long black robes, and, as Fouad Ajami writes, the American is “decisively outclassed. There is cunning aplenty in Persia, an eye for that exact moment when one’s rival has been trapped.” And indeed Obama has caught himself in his own pincers move. By announcing that his administration’s diplomatic efforts will focus on “Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons,” as well as the peace process, Obama has made Rouhani a partner, with the ability to make an American president dependent on his cooperation look like a fool anytime he wishes, as he did yesterday. Obama effectively told America’s regional allies that he’s got new friends now, no matter how badly they treat him.
In making the peace process the White House’s other key diplomatic initiative, Obama signaled to Israel, as well as the Arabs, that in the end, the Iran issue isn’t that big a deal—or no more important than a peace process that everyone in the world except for John Kerry thinks is at the present moment absurd. Obama is sick and tired of the Middle East but he won’t take responsibility for his own wounded pride, so he hangs it on the American public. The fact that the Arabs always blame the United States, said Obama, has “a practical impact on the American peoples’ support for our involvement in the region, and allows leaders in the region—and the international community—to avoid addressing difficult problems.”
There’s no doubt that a war memorial in, say, Baghdad, or Basra, or Beirut, to our fallen dead is long overdue. But a little respect and appreciation from the Arab world is not the main thing that’s missing. What has a practical impact on the American people is the incompetence of the commander in chief. It’s his job to explain to the American public why the Middle East matters, why maintaining and advancing our interests there also means security at home.
As for the tendency of leaders in the region to skirt tough issues, the unpleasant fact is that Obama is in no position to lecture them on this particular failing. Whoever heard a superpower whine about its allies? American policymakers never deluded themselves that the planes, tanks and other weapons sold to Saudi Arabia meant that Riyadh was capable of taking care of itself. The purchases kept production lines running and were a pledge of U.S. support and investment in the region’s stability. When it came to ensuring open sea-lanes in the world’s most strategically vital body of water in the Persian Gulf, it was up to the United States, not Saudi Arabia, to do it.
Moreover, it cannot have escaped Obama’s notice that our regional allies have indeed tried to address one rather significant difficult problem on their own—the Syrian civil war. Obama has not only rebuffed their request that we take a leading role among them, he has undermined their efforts.
The conflict in Syria, said Obama, “is not a zero-sum endeavor. We are no longer in a Cold War. There’s no Great Game to be won, nor does America have any interest in Syria beyond the well-being of its people, the stability of its neighbors, the elimination of chemical weapons, and ensuring it does not become a safe-haven for terrorists.” That’s not how our allies see it. For them it is zero-sum. An Iranian victory in Syria, regardless of whether Bashar al-Assad survives, further expands Tehran’s reach and puts Qassem Suleimani on the border of Israel, Jordan, and Turkey.
From their perspective, the White House has changed sides. In agreeing to the Russian initiative to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, Obama legitimized an Arab butcher whose departure he called for two years ago. Obama made Putin as well as Assad partners. Given that the process to find and destroy all of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons will last at least until mid-2014, or Syria’s next presidential election, Obama is ensuring that when the only Syrians unafraid of sticking their head out of the rubble go to the polls, Assad will still be the only name on the ballot.
If the president of the United States wants to hazard his own prestige on a diplomatic breakthrough with Rouhani that’s one thing. It’s something else when he uses American prestige in order to defend the interests of our adversaries, like Russia, Syria, and the Iranian-led resistance bloc.