According to the terms of the Iran deal announced in Vienna on Tuesday, U.N. Security Council sanctions regarding nuclear-related issues will be lifted on a number of entities and individuals—from Iranian banks to Lebanese assassins, like Anis Nacacche. The name that most sticks out is IRGC-Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani. Administration officials counsel calm, and explain that Suleimani is still on the U.S. terror list and will remain on the terror list. But that’s irrelevant. The reality is that Suleimani is the key to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The White House’s so-called nuclear talks with Iran over the last 18 months were never about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Like everyone else in the Middle East, the Iranians understood that when Obama failed to strike Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in September 2013 for crossing his redline against the use of chemical weapons, there was no way the president would ever order military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. When Obama took that option off the table, he signaled to Iran that he wasn’t going to stop them because he thought there was no way to do so. When he leaked information about the Stuxnet worm, he suggested that he could help with Israel, too.
The negotiations were about something else entirely—they were about what Obama has described as a new geopolitical equilibrium, which would stabilize the Middle East and allow the administration to further minimize its role in the region. The way Obama described it publicly, this new security architecture was going to balance Iran against traditional American allies, like Saudi Arabia. However, it soon became apparent that the White House wasn’t really balancing at all, but had rather chosen one team over the others, Iran. Obama made his preference for Iran and its allies clear—in Lebanon, Syria, and most obviously in Iraq where the White House ordered air strikes on ISIS positions that allowed various Iranian-backed outfits, under the leadership of Qassem Suleimani, to take Tikrit.
Obama likes Suleimani, and admires his work. As the president reportedly told a group of Arab officials in May, the Arabs “need to learn from Iran’s example.”
In fact, they need to take a page out of the playbook of the Qods Force — by which [Obama] meant developing their own local proxies capable of going toe-to-toe with Iran’s agents and defeating them. The president seemed to marvel at the fact that from Hezbollah to the Houthis to the Iraqi militias, Iran has such a deep bench of effective proxies willing to advance its interests. Where, he asked, are their equivalent on the Sunni side? Why, he wanted to know in particular, have the Saudis and their partners not been able to cultivate enough Yemenis to carry the burden of the fight against the Houthis? The Arabs, Obama suggested, badly need to develop a toolbox that goes beyond the brute force of direct intervention. Instead, they need to, be subtler, sneakier, more effective — well, just more like Iran.
And it’s largely because the Arabs haven’t assembled their own version of IRGC-QF, and instead rely primarily on the United States for their security, that Obama thinks the Iranians are a much better bet. From Obama’s perspective, the Sunnis aren’t going to stop ISIS—in fact, they helped create it. However, the Iranians can do it, and plenty of other things as well. They can make sure Iraq stays stable—or the administration hopes Iran will play that role because it has no other options. Same, the White House thinks, with Syria, where Iran can manage the inevitable transition, after Assad steps aside, thanks to the Iranians, or is killed. The way Obama sees it, the Quds Force can be the administration’s boots on the ground.
So-called Iranian moderates like Javad Zarif may have negotiated the deal, but the real agreement is not with the regime’s so-called moderates. In fact, Obama doesn’t really care if the JCPOA forces a sort of Persian perestroika and brings moderates to the fore. Sure, “ideally, we would see a situation in which Iran, seeing sanctions reduced, would start focusing on its economy, on training its people, on reentering the world community, to lessening its provocative activities in the region,” as Obama told NPR in the spring. “But if it doesn’t change, we are so much better if we have this deal in place than if we don’t.”
The deal is with the hard men of the regime, the extremists—the deal is with Qassem Suleimani.
It’s not the moderates who control the nuclear file, but the IRGC. Accordingly, insofar as the United States and other world powers will have an interest in ensuring that the nuclear weapons program is not subject to turmoil should internal divisions in the regime turn dangerously nasty, the administration and other signatories to the deal now have a stake in ensuring the stability of the hardliners.
The White House is hardly shy about signaling the nature of its relationship with the regime, even if it’s lost on some regional actors. “If sanctions are lifted,” a Saudi diplomat said, “Iran will try even harder to redesign the region. Iran may see this as acceptance from America to play a bigger role.” The point of course is that Obama is counting on Iran to play bigger role in the Middle East, which is why the White House also agreed to drop the U.N. arms embargo.
The administration argues that Tehran will spend most of the money from sanctions relief on rescuing the economy, or fixing street lamps and potholes, and not so much on terrorism and other foreign adventures. But there can be no similar argument about buying and selling and smuggling arms since ending the embargo can only help the hardliners. Combining the two—tens of billions of dollars in immediate sanctions relief and an end to the embargo—is like loading a gun and handing it over to Qassem Suleimani. And that’s precisely what Obama intended: The way he sees it, he’s arming an American ally.