The Obama administration described the theme of its foreign policy as “don’t do stupid shit,” or more specifically, do not engage in open-ended wars in the Middle East. The nuclear deal was intended to prevent such a war, but in doing so, Obama alienated long-time allies and provided Iran an opening for the most aggressive foreign policy in decades.
Unlike the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama voluntarily sought out a nuclear agreement with Iran. In fact, his administration pursued it before official negotiations started, corresponding with the Iranians in the early days of his administration. The deal was done, it was just a matter of settling the details. Unfortunately, the desire for a deal led to Obama turning a blind-eye to Iran’s steamrolling of the Middle East.
“There were more meetings on Iran than there were on Iraq, Afghanistan, and China in year one,” a senior White House official told David Sanger of the New York Times, describing the early days of the Obama administration. “It was the thing we spent the most time on and talked about the least in public.”
The path to the deal was clandestine, and concessions to Tehran began immediately. Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was feverishly spurring on the country’s nuclear program before Obama entered the White House. Meanwhile, Iran’s infamous “shadow general” Qassem Soleimani was actively supporting the Iraqi insurgency. As a result, Iran became a prime enemy of both Republican and Democratic congressional leaders.
Obama fulfilled the nuclear deal prophecy July 14, 2015, despite vocal domestic opposition, Iranian aggression and the concerns of major U.S. allies. The White House insisted throughout the negotiations that a final deal was not a certainty, famously repeating that “all options are on the table” to prevent a nuclear Iran.
Iran did not heed the threat, as it continued to stonewall the negotiations. Meanwhile, Tehran continued to dominate the Arab world by supporting the Yemeni Houthi rebellion, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the Hezbollah terrorist group and Shiite militias in Iraq.
The final text was dense, complex, and far from comprehensive. It contained secret side agreements, initially hidden from the public and sunset clauses that would effectively make many of its most important provisions irrelevant in five to 15 years. In exchange, Iran received the sanctions relief its beleaguered economy desperately needed.
“Obama went wrong the moment he thought there were moderates among the rulers of Iran,” Jonathan Schanzer, a former U.S. Treasury Department official and current vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an interview. “He also erred in thinking that he would be able to change the behavior of the regime over time.”
Schanzer also noted that the Obama administration missed a major opportunity to leverage Iran’s economic predicament.
“[Iran] was on the verge of a massive financial crisis, and the White House failed to use that leverage to get a better deal,” Schanzer told TheDCNF. “Instead, Iran recovered and managed to maintain key aspects of its nuclear program.”
In return, Tehran promptly doubled its efforts to destabilize the Middle East and assert authority in the region, now with cash in hand to afford it. The first target post-nuclear deal was Iraq, a country it already wielded substantial influence over after the U.S. invasion in 2003 and subsequent withdrawal in 2011. Iranian agents and their Iraqi proxies supplanted themselves at the highest levels of power in Iraq, including the military and government.
“What Obama and Kerry did was resource the Iranian military with a windfall equal to 10 to 20 times its annual budget,” Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and current resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute told TheDCNF in an interview. “Even if the world reimposes sanctions tomorrow, the Revolutionary Guards will have the resources to paralyze the region for a decade.”
The rise of ISIS offered Iran even more opportunity to seize power, as ISIS overpowered the inexperienced Iraqi army, left leaderless after the U.S. withdrawal. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was happy to incorporate Iranian-backed Shiite militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Units, into the regular Iraqi Security Forces. Iran would eventually send Soleimani and other operatives to Iraq in an effort to permanently supplant its former arch rival.
The Obama administration’s concessions were more obvious in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian ally, appeared to be substantially weakened by the summer of 2015, with some in national security circles predicting his eventual downfall. Once again, Iran, in coordination with Russia, seized upon an opportunity to further its influence. Iran sent thousands of conscripted militia fighters to bolster Assad’s ranks, while Russia provided air support from above. By 2016, Assad was making a comeback, and Obama was powerless to do anything about it, as Iran continued to threaten to ignore the deal’s provisions if any new sanctions were applied.
Tehran’s influence continues to spread across the Middle East. As an Iranian parliamentarian bragged, Iran now holds four historically Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana’a.
The nuclear agreement and its after effects also caused immense damage to U.S. alliances in the Middle East. Saudi Arabian leaders railed against the agreement behind closed doors, despite supporting it in an official capacity. Saudi Arabia and Iran are now fighting in a quasi-proxy war in Yemen, due to Iran’s support of the Houthi rebellion. Egypt followed suit, with officials reportedly telling congressional members in private meetings that they opposed the deal, while publicly offering tacit support.
No U.S. ally was more vocally opposed to the deal than Israel. Iran is well-known for its support of anti-Israel terrorism, and has repeatedly called for the country’s destruction. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the initial accord a “historic mistake,” even his political opponent Isaac Herzog criticized Obama for not working more closely with Israel on the deal. Israel had little influence in the negotiations, despite being the most likely target of a potential Iranian nuclear strike.
Netanyahu, fearing the worst, made a last ditch effort to push back on Obama’s expected Iran appeasement by delivering a controversial speech to a joint session of congress. But his efforts were in vain. The deal ultimately created a chasm in a U.S.-Israel alliance that was already drifting apart since the earliest days of the Obama administration.
Overall, the Iranian nuclear agreement is an example of what happens when tactics fail to match strategy. Preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is a cause Republicans, Democrats and the international community agree is beneficial, however, the JCPOA as it sacrifices comprehensive long-term strategy for a short-term nuclear agreement.
President Obama promised that any violation of the deal would result in the “snapback” of sanctions, but making good on that threat would be remarkably difficult. The P5+1 members have practical reasons never to snap back sanctions. Airbus, a French airline manufacturer with production facilities in Germany, secured a multi-billion dollar deal to sell aircraft to Iran after sanctions lifted. China, desperate for energy to power its voracious economy, is in the midst of securing a major oil deal with Iran potentially worth billions of dollars. Russia is on the cusp of securing an arms deal with Iran providing it a litany of weapons, including the S-300 air defense system.
President Donald Trump promised to tear up the nuclear agreement during his presidential campaign, but has since walked back his comments. At a minimum, Trump is left with Sunni and Israeli allies who no longer trust the U.S. and an Iran which has strengthened its grip on countries across the Middle East. The symptoms of the deal alone may be impossible to remedy.
“It’s a fallacy to believe that new administrations have the power to pick up the pieces,” said Rubin. “There’s a magic wand to restore political legitimacy every four or eight years inside the United States but, on the world stage, no magic wand exists.”
“The damage Obama did was gratuitous and long-lasting.”
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