Weekly Standard

Iran as Partner

Former Senior Fellow

Last week it was reported that the White House and Iran may be moving toward a deal over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. The proposed phased agreement, lasting 10-15 years, would initially attempt to freeze the program. But during the last years of the agreement, Iran would be allowed to resume activities that would lead to a nuclear bomb. The deal’s “sunset clause” means that after the agreement has expired, this state sponsor of terror will become legally entitled to the same treatment in nuclear energy matters as Japan, say, or Germany, or any other non-nuclear-weapon state with a civil nuclear program.

For the sunset clause to kick in, of course, Iran must fulfill its obligations under the terms of the agreement. The problem, however, is that Iran could get away with pretty much anything it wanted because no one’s watching—or more specifically, no one would be allowed to watch. The International Atomic Energy Agency would be responsible for monitoring compliance, but just last week the U.N. agency reported that Tehran still refuses to allow inspections to address concerns regarding the possible military dimensions of the nuclear program. The IAEA, said the report, “remains concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear-related activities involving military-related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.”

According to the IAEA report, it is because Iran has not answered all the outfit’s questions that “the agency is not in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”

In other words, the deal under discussion is a very bad one even on the administration’s own terms. After first claiming that its goal was to halt the Iranians’ march toward a bomb, the White House lowered the bar and is now apparently content with slowing the program. At least that’s what the administration says, which is why it wants to lengthen the time it will take Iran to “break out” and make a bomb. But there is no way to know the time frame for a breakout without a rigorous inspections regime. But that is impossible to establish unless the Iranians satisfy concerns regarding the possible military dimensions of the program, and allow regular and unannounced inspections of all their facilities. That would include controversial sites like the military base at Parchin, which the regime has made off-limits to inspectors. Therefore, even under the best of circumstances, the proposed deal would leave Iran a screwdriver’s turn away from a nuclear weapon.

It’s finally beginning to dawn on people what a comprehensive agreement with Iran really means. The foreign policy establishment, Democratic and Republican, has long dreamed of a historic reconciliation with the clerical regime, which would include not only a deal over the nuclear program but also agreements on a broad range of other matters of vital interest to both parties. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that very few have imagined what rapprochement would actually look like on the ground.

For example, even Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, purveyors of the myth that Iran was rebuffed when it reached out to strike a “grand bargain” with the Bush administration, and longtime advocates of such a bargain, have assumed that as part of a deal Iran would agree not to develop a nuclear weapon. But the Obama administration is paving the path to an Iranian bomb. In the Leveretts’ imagined deal, Iran stops supporting terrorism in exchange for recognition of its interests. But in fact, the White House is already recognizing those interests for nothing in exchange—reportedly sharing intelligence with Hezbollah and coordinating its campaign against the Islamic State with Iranian proxies in Syria and Iraq, while it accedes to Iranian expansionism, from Beirut and Damascus to Baghdad and Sanaa.

Elsewhere, the White House has virtually teamed up with Iran. Most notably in Tikrit, where Iran’s terrorist in chief, IRGC-Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, is, it appears, going to be overseeing the Iraqi forces—trained and equipped by the United States—in their campaign to wrest the Sunni city from the Islamic State. How is it possible that the same White House that thinks Israeli settlements are a source of Arab frustration and despair also thinks it’s a good idea to back Suleimani in a likely campaign of sectarian cleansing of a Sunni Arab region? Maybe the White House’s Middle East policy is a deranged plan to destroy the lives of thousands of Middle Easterners and ruin the American position in the region. Or maybe there is some method to the apparent madness.

Compared with the surge in Iraq, which the Bush administration counts as one of its signal achievements, the Obama administration’s policy is the antisurge. Where the surge backed Sunni Arab tribesmen against a Sunni insurgency led by foreign fighters, the antisurge virtually guarantees the Sunni rebellion will grow exponentially, as Sunni tribesmen make common cause with the Islamic State to protect themselves against Iran and its allied Shiite militias. It also means that Sunni Arab powers like Jordan, now enlisted in the coalition against IS, will have no choice but to drop out of a military campaign led by Iran’s Shiite triumphalists.

One way to see the White House’s policy in Iraq is that it really had no choice but to go along with Iran. Sure, the administration has paid lip service to the notion of getting Sunnis to fight against IS, but it has no ability to make that happen. With the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces, the White House left Iran the sole kingmaker in Iraq. Any U.S. arms, supplies, or money sent to whatever is left of the Sunni Awakening has to go through the government in Baghdad, which means Tehran has the final say.

The other possibility is that the White House’s Iraq policy is the result of a conscious choice. That is to say, what many Middle East experts, journalists, and policymakers thought unimaginable until only recently is really and truly the case: The Obama administration seeks to enter into a condominium with the Islamic Republic.

This is such a dangerously bad idea that it’s given rise to bipartisan opposition, even on the part of former administration officials. “It is fanciful to imagine that the United States could convince Iran to shift from the region’s most threatening revisionist power and become instead a partner in establishing a new order in the Middle East,” writes Martin Indyk, the Obama administration’s former envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

American allies are also aghast. “I still thought it impossible that anyone in Washington would pin their hopes on Iran,” the Netanyahu government’s former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror wrote recently. Now Amidror is more inclined to believe his own eyes and ears. “During my visit to the United States two weeks ago I heard from several people,” Amidror elaborated, “that a nuclear agreement with Iran will contribute to regional stability in the Middle East, and that future relations between Iran and the U.S. will advance U.S. interests; an American U-turn, heading toward a special relationship with Iran.”

Up until now, those in the U.S. foreign policy establishment who have fancied striking a grand bargain with the clerical regime didn’t understand what historical reconciliation would really mean. Presumably, they imagined the two nations would have comity and peace and mutual respect, even if the United States were required to atone for its transgressions against this great and ancient civilization (as they would put it). Maybe in time the regime would in turn apologize for taking Americans hostage in 1979 and targeting American soldiers, diplomats, and intelligence officers in, among other places, Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan over the last 35 years, as well as plotting countless terror operations against American citizens, allies, and interests. Friendship might not come right away, but the two nations would eventually come to see not only their mutual interests, but also their shared values.

But this sentimental view is precisely why American policymakers have failed to come to an agreement with the Islamic Republic over the course of the last four decades and six administrations. At some point, the Iranians would do something to appall the American side and push it from the table. It is a revolutionary regime and its actions have repeatedly borne out its indelible character.

Obama understood early on that if you really want to make a deal with Iran you need a strong stomach. From this perspective, it’s easier to understand how the nuclear negotiations fit into Obama’s new reality, which is an Iran with the bomb and regional hegemony. This isn’t a bug in Obama’s Middle East system. It’s a feature—perhaps the main feature.

This article originally appeared in the March 9, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 25 issue of the Weekly Standard.