Skip to main content
Why the White House Is Getting Lonelier on Iran
An Iranian flag flutters next to a ground-to-ground Sajil missile before being launched at an undisclosed location in Iran on November 12, 2008. (-/AFP/Getty Images)

Why the White House Is Getting Lonelier on Iran

Walter Russell Mead

Suddenly, we seem to be having the conversation the administration didn’t want to have: a conversation about just where President Obama’s approach to Iran is taking us. A Washington Post editorial has put the issue on the agenda in a way that it will be hard for the spinners and Iran-apologists to dance past, and there are signs that bipartisan concerns are beginning to grow.

The Post, in one of the most important newspaper editorials of recent years, signals out three important concerns with the President’s approach:

  • First, a process that began with the goal of eliminating Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons has evolved into a plan to tolerate and restrict that capability.
  • Second, in the course of the negotiations, the Obama administration has declined to counter increasingly aggressive efforts by Iran to extend its influence across the Middle East and seems ready to concede Tehran a place as a regional power at the expense of Israel and other U.S. allies.
  • Finally, the Obama administration is signaling that it will seek to implement any deal it strikes with Iran — including the suspension of sanctions that were originally imposed by Congress — without seeking a vote by either chamber. Instead, an accord that would have far-reaching implications for nuclear proliferation and U.S. national security would be imposed unilaterally by a president with less than two years left in his term.

As the Post points out, a cavalcade of distinguished American foreign policy voices, including Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, have issued warnings that the White House seems to have lost its way as it tries to navigate the complex minefield that is U.S.-Iranian relations. As my colleague Michael Doran has recently pointed out in an article that contributed to the rising disquiet about the administration’s Iran strategy, the approach to Iran has been the centerpiece of the administration’s Middle East strategy from 2009 to the present day.

What’s interesting is that the growing disquiet about our Iran policy isn’t over the basic decision to negotiate with Iran. Although as usual the White House tries to portray its opponents as hot heads whose unreasoning hatred of Iran combines with a love of war to create a blind opposition to the President’s sensible and rational preference for diplomacy, the debate is not about whether to negotiate with Iran. It is about how to ensure that those negotiations advance important American interests.

The debate over Iran negotiations is really a debate over Middle East strategy as a whole. The Iran apologists inside the administration and out have a case that basically looks like this: Iran is the best possible long term partner for the United States in the region and American and Iranian interests are strategically aligned. The Saudis, who call themselves our allies, export religious extremism and are fundamentally committed to a backward form of political organization. The Saudi monarchy is a ticking time bomb that will one day explode when the population tires of a greedy, corrupt and incompetent royal family. Iran, by contrast, has a large and educated middle class; flawed as its current political system may be, forces are at work that will soon make Iran a much more modern and democratic country than any of the backward Arab states with whom the United States is currently allied. An end to U.S.-Iranian hostility over the nuclear issue will do more than lay a dangerous dispute to rest. It will open the door to a much wider and more fruitful relationship.

The goal of American policy should therefore be to create a relationship of trust between the two capitals based on this community of interest. When the regime feels less threatened by the United States, and when it understands that the United States wants to work with it towards a regional order that is in the interess of both countries, Iran will begin to work ‘within the system’ and become a responsible stakeholder rather than an exporter of subversion. Moreover, an end to sanctions combined with better relations with the United States will contribute to the democratization of Iranian society. The revolution, Iran apologists argue, is old and decrepit. The rising generations are tired of clerical rule and hunger for western modernity. The United States is actually popular among Iranian youth. The clerics and their repressive allies are only clinging to power because the sense of encirclement and danger drives nationalists into their camp and because the sanctions undermine the middle class and concentrate economic power in the hands of the Revolutionary Guard and other regime allies. By offering a face-saving compromise on the nuclear issue, ending sanctions and opening the door to a wider role for Iran in the region, the Obama administration can stabilize the region and democratize Iran while reducing the American profile—and reducing our dependence on unsteady and problematic allies like the Gulf states.

This is an intoxicating vision, and a number of people have been intoxicated by it. But it is not the only reason the President can give to defend his policy approach. Besides hope, there is fear. What is the alternative, President Obama asks his critics, to the White House course? Strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities? Won’t those just set the nuclear program back by at most a few years while consolidating the power of a regime that will hate America more than before? War with Iran—at a time when the region is already in flames and the American people are deeply war-weary? What happens to the international coalition that has been supporting the United States in the nuclear negotiations if the Americans are seen to be walking away from them?

There is merit to these points, more merit than some of the President’s harsher critics are prepared to acknowledge. It is much easier to criticize an existing Iran policy than to propose (and to execute) something different.

But the growing chorus of sober and informed critics of the White House approach to Iran aren’t for the most part attacking the idea of negotiations over the nuclear issue or even of a possible future rapprochement with Iran. This isn’t even primarily an argument about exactly how many centrifuges the nuclear talks allow the Iranians in the end – or about any of the other technical details of a proposed nuclear understanding. The skeptics are criticizing what looks like a disjointed and misguided approach to the relationship with Iran that threatens to further destabilize the Middle East. It is possible that the administration has good answers for them, but up until now the White House has preferred not to engage with the serious arguments against its Iran approach. The longer the President and his top aides keep pretending that critics have no concerns that are worth taking seriously, the more they feed the narrative that the White House is in over its head on Iran—that it has lost sight of some important considerations in a headlong drive to get a deal. That perception, unless refuted (rather than mocked, caricatured or ignored) will ensure that neither Congress nor the country will allow the White House to pursue an Iran strategy that lacks public buy-in and consent.

So what are the arguments the White House needs to address in order to shore up the eroding support for its Iran strategy?

The Balance of Power Problem

One of the strongest arguments in favor of this approach to Iran comes from those who see in it an opening for the United States to cut back its commitments in the Middle East without sacrificing core interests—by adopting the posture of an “offshore balancer.” Instead of being intimately involved with all the nitty-gritty of Middle Eastern power politics, the United States could rely on an offshore naval and air presence to ensure that no single power in the Middle East can dominate the rest. In some cases offshore balancing serves as a code-phrase to suggest a loosening of the U.S.-Israeli alliance as part of a general pullback; in others it is a way one underlines one’s differences from George W. Bush and his strategy. Proponents of this strategy have been among the strongest supporters of the administration’s Iran approach.

It’s hard to see why the offshore balancers should support the White House on this. The gravest danger to the balance of power in the Middle East today is not Saudi Arabia, Israel, or Turkey. The greatest danger is Iran’s push to consolidate its domination of the swath of territory from Iraq through Syria to Lebanon. If the United States aimed to pursue an offshore balancing strategy, it would currently be coming down like a ton of bricks on Iran’s regional ambitions. Instead, the Obama administration appears to be edging toward embracing Iran as a useful partner against ISIS and its fellow travelers.

A nuclear deal under these circumstances that lifts the sanctions without addressing the question of Iran’s regional ambitions would have the inevitable effect of greatly strengthening Iran’s hand.

Intelligent skeptics want to understand what the administration thinks about Iran’s growing predominance in the region. Is our strategy one of offshore balancing, or is it based on something like a return to the Nixon strategy of relying on the Shah of Iran as our right hand in the region? If the former, what does the administration propose to do about the imbalance that increasingly favors Iran? If the latter, what assurances does the administration have that a regionally dominant Iran would be our friend?

The Strategic Alignment Problem

The offshore balancer question leads to the next issue that troubles informed skeptics of the current negotiations with Iran. Supporters of a new relationship argue that the United States and Iran can work together for the long term because their interests are broadly aligned.

That may be true—and it may not be. It seems, for example, that Iran would be a much more hawkish leader of OPEC than the Saudis have been. With a larger population and an ambitious regional policy, Iran would likely use its enhanced influence in OPEC to push prices higher.

More fundamentally, for Iran to hold its position as a regional strongman, it would have to overcome deep-seated Sunni Arab prejudices against both its Shi’a faith and its Persian culture. Being identified as Uncle Sam’s closest regional ally and hired gun would not exactly strengthen Iran’s soft power in the Middle East.

So far, Iran has consistently cast its quest for regional power as a movement of “Islamic Resistance” against the United States and its sidekick in Jerusalem. It casts American allies like the Saudis and others as pawns and puppets of the anti-Islamic “Crusader-Zionist” alliance. Iran and its allies (Syria, Hezbollah, and, in the past and once again perhaps in the near future, Hamas) have identified themselves as the “Resistance Front,” and have consistently taken the hardest possible line against both the United States and Israel.

Perhaps the administration has solid grounds for the belief that a stronger Iran would be a friendlier power. To the naked eye, however, it would seem that the larger Iran looms in the region, the more it will need the image of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism to legitimate its position.

The Obama administration will not be able to address rising skepticism about its Iran policy unless and until it can show why it makes sense to think that a stronger Iran will choose alignment with the United States when its own political interests would benefit from a more anti-American posture.

The Regime Change Argument

One of the most attractive arguments in favor of the current course is that moving to a less polarized relationship with Iran will accelerate a transition toward a more democratic and less theocratic regime within Iran. A new and democratic Iran is struggling to emerge from the chrysalis of the revolutionary government; by opening Iran’s economy to the world we can help the Iranian people change the regime from within. The new Iran that comes to life in this way will be a reliable partner for the United States and other free countries in remaking the region.

This argument is extremely popular and indeed is a mainstay among the many Iranian exiles and expats who are lobbying for improved relations between their countries of adoption and origin. It is passionately advanced; many of its advocates have friends and family back in Iran who long for this kind of opening and have high hopes for the results.

It may be true, but again it may not be. Most revolutions fail, if our criteria for success is the destruction of a dictatorship and its replacement by a stable, democratic regime. Exiles and upper middle class liberals are notoriously out of touch with political developments in their own countries. Look at the Egyptian liberals who passionately believed that the overthrow of Mubarak would lead to the kind of liberal democracy they so deeply and sincerely long for.

One of the things that keeps Iran skeptics up at night worrying is the fear that in fact the White House is betting the ranch on some kind of democratic evolution in Iran as the sanctions come down and the nuclear standoff ends. Certainly a democratic revolution in Iran would be a welcome development, but the Obama administration has a terrible track record in predicting the outcomes of Middle East political turmoil. Americans generally are bad at predicting when revolutions will take place in foreign countries, and we are if anything worse at predicting the course those revolutions take once under way.

Those who currently oppose the President’s strategy on Capitol Hill and elsewhere want to know that the President isn’t pursuing a strategy that depends on the deus ex machina of a timely, friendly, and successful democratic revolution that has us all getting along like there had never been any bad blood to begin with. They want to be sure that the President and the very tight and close circle of relatively inexperienced people on whom he relies haven’t swallowed the Kool Aid passed out by Iranian exiles—remarkably similar in many ways to the Kool Aid that Iraqi exiles passed out to members of the Bush administration. How does the President’s strategy hold up if we assume that the same of assemblage of messianic ayatollahs and thuggish Revolutionary Guards will be running Iran when the sanctions are lifted?

The Alliance Problem

Finally, there is the question of our current unhappy allies. In pursuit of a new understanding with Iran, the White House has put severe stress on our existing relationships with countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel. As a result, Iran has been able to watch America’s regional position and alliance network weaken without lifting a finger or spending a dime. Seeing public quarrels erupt between Riyadh and Washington, and Jerusalem and Washington, makes people feel all warm and fuzzy in Tehran.

One can imagine situations in which the United States would switch from one set of allies to another. Something very like that has been gradually happening in South Asia as the United States and Pakistan move away from each other while the United States and India draw nearer. But the case in India for a U.S.-India alliance seems much stronger than the case for a U.S.-Iran alliance seems in Tehran. The administration has never articulated a compelling case for the belief that the U.S. and Iran are natural allies in today’s Middle East. Nor has much on this subject been heard from Tehran.

Under the circumstances, it looks to many as if the United States is dumping its old allies without securing a replacement. More may be said behind closed doors than is heard on the street, but even those who participate in high level briefings do not seem to have much confidence that the nuclear talks are simply an overture that looks almost certain to produce a much wider and sturdier U.S.-Iranian partnership that will be more useful and stable than the network allies we currently have.

If the administration has a serious case for how its Iran policy will leave the United States with a stronger and more useful regional alliance network than it now has, that case has not been made, not only to the public at large, but to the congressional leaders and former secretaries of state who could be expected to be convinced by strong arguments along these lines.

And this, finally, is why the chorus of concern about the President’s Iran strategy is becoming so much louder this winter. The bits and pieces of the strategy that we know about don’t make sense, and the President and his team don’t seem to understand how weak and vapid the case they make to the public really is. We are reduced to hoping that there is some kind of Top Secret strategy of genius that the circle of advisors close to the President isn’t sharing, but the President’s very checkered record as a global strategist makes this kind of confidence hard to sustain.

Unless President Obama can make a much stronger case for his Iran policy than he has so far done, expect skepticism and opposition to grow.

Related Articles

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Understood the Importance of Defending Taiwan

Satoru Nagao

Satoru Nagao on Shinzo Abe and Japan's role in defending Taiwan from Chinese aggression...

Continue Reading

Correcting the Media Record on Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran

Mohammed Khalid Alyahya

Mohammed Alyahya discusses media misconceptions about Saudia Arabia, Israel, and Iran with Jason Greenblatt...

Listen Now

Understanding and Countering China's Approach to Economic Decoupling from the United States

John Lee

John Lee on China's evolving economic ties to the US and Indo-Pacific and how the Biden administration can respond...

Continue Reading