Obama's Middle East(exerpt) IV. The Iran Trap; V. The Syrian Disaster; VI. The Turkish Model Collapses;XI. The Tilt Against Israel
Abe Greenwald 5-1-14
IV. The Iran Trap
Having pledged on the campaign trail to talk to Tehran without preconditions, Barack Obama telegraphed his position on Iran far in advance. He wanted solicitous, gesture-heavy diplomacy aimed at erasing the ill will between the United States and the Islamic Republic. Obama believed that mutual misconceptions had piled up and had made constructive engagement on the Iranian nuclear question unnecessarily difficult. Yes, the mullahs are deeply religious, so the thinking went, but they are not suicidal. Persians are a proud people with a great history and want respect from the international community. Treat Iran like a reasonable country acting on its own set of logical interests, and you will break out of the unproductive cycle of fantastic demonization.
If only any of it were true. The Islamic Republic was founded in 1979 on a theocratic and apocalyptic strain of Shia Islam. The regime is suicidal. “For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn,” said its founding visionary, Ayatollah Khomeini. “I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.” It is also exterminationist, having adopted as its sustaining myth the divinely ordained destruction of both Israel and the United States. In pursuit of its aims, Iran has been building a nuclear-weapons program complete with uranium mines, enrichment plants, hidden facilities, advanced centrifuges, and research-and-development sites devoted to perfecting a delivery system. The prospect of Iran’s using such a weapon on Israel is unthinkable only to those who are wholly unfamiliar with the Islamic Republic or the abominations of modern history. And the current Sunni-Shia tensions mean that a nuclear-armed Iran is certain to spark an atomic arms race in the region. Since 1979, successive American administrations have made extensive diplomatic overtures in hopes of negotiating away the Iranian threat, and they have all failed. Obama objected to an understanding of Iran that had been hard-earned, from experience—not fashioned to fit a prejudice.
Obama came into office extending an “open hand” to Tehran, and offered gesture after gesture to establish good faith. In his first video-recorded Nowruz (Persian New Year) message of March 2009, he appealed directly to Iranian leaders for mutual cooperation. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei responded with public insults. In his Cairo speech, Obama became the first serving American president to admit to American involvement in the 1953 ouster of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. This seemed a direct response to Ahmadinejad’s public demand, made months earlier, that Obama apologize for America’s role in the coup.
As he would do with Egypt, the president picked the wrong moment to ingratiate himself with the leadership of Iran. Following the June 12, 2009, reelection of Ahmadinejad, Iranians flooded the streets to protest what they saw as a rigged vote. The Green Movement, an unmistakable precursor to the Arab Spring, became the dominant global spectacle of the summer. The sea of green-clad Iranian protestors enraged by the Khomeinists captured the world’s attention. And so the world was watching when the brutal Khomeinist crackdown began a week into the demonstrations. Police and intelligence officers tortured, raped, and killed innocents. The gruesome murder of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan went viral and became an emblem of the regime’s inhumanity.
Although Iranians in enormous numbers rose up against a government that was our single most devoted enemy, Obama would not stand squarely with them. He stuck to tepid remarks about dignity and violence and proclaimed that his pursuit of constructive diplomacy with the regime was undeterred. His disregard for popular will in Iran was not lost on the Iranian public, who chanted, “Obama, are you with us or with the regime?”
He had made his choice.
The administration spent Obama’s first term using third parties and back channels to approach Iran with various schemes that would give it access to enriched uranium if its purely civilian use could be verified. These sagas followed a familiar pattern: newspaper headlines about hopeful officials and fresh starts, negotiations with little detail offered to the public, a new round of stories about the very brink of a breakthrough, and then word of Iran’s refusal to cooperate. Throughout the course of these failed attempts, the White House assured Americans and Israelis that “all options are on the table” for preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But little else indicated that this was so. The United States and Israel collaborated on the 2010 Stuxnet cyberattack that temporarily set back Iran’s nuclear program, but the Obama administration quickly leaked the details for political benefit, thus putting Israel at greater risk. In addition, Obama repeatedly insisted that Israel not launch a military strike against Iranian nuclear sites.
While the administration pursued its “open-hand” policy, the Iranian regime stepped up its provocations. The threats against the Jewish state and the United States were constant. In 2011, American officials revealed a foiled Iranian plot to kill a Saudi Arabian ambassador with a bomb in a Washington restaurant. Even that planned, state-sponsored terrorist attack did nothing to knock the administration off its course.
But all first-term negotiation efforts were mere prologue to the diplomatic push that began in June 2013, when Iranians elected a new president, Hassan Rouhani. Obama believed Rouhani to be a moderate and thus more receptive to American outreach than his predecessor. The administration clandestinely eased the bite of American sanctions by citing fewer violators than usual. The White House then opposed bipartisan legislation pushing for new sanctions. In September, days after Rouhani rejected a direct meeting with Obama in New York, the two spoke by telephone, constituting the highest-level contact between the countries since the shuttering of the American Embassy after the Iranian Revolution 34 years earlier. On November 22, the lopsided courtship came to its culmination. “Iran, world powers reach historic nuclear deal,” read the Washington Post headline atop the story about an agreement reached in Geneva that would supposedly freeze “key parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for temporary relief on some economic sanctions.”
The events leading up to and including the Geneva deal were certainly historic. They also constitute the single most dangerous shift in American foreign policy since the height of the Cold War.
For starters, Rouhani is not a moderate. He is a faux-moderate, hand-picked by Khamenei—the country’s actual ruler—to get exactly the kind of sanctions relief that Obama provided. During the Revolution, Rouhani was a close confidant of Ayatollah Khomeini. In 1999, he was behind a crackdown intended, in his words, to “crush mercilessly and monumentally” a student uprising. In 2004, he bragged of his Machiavellian moderation to the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council. “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the [uranium-conversion] facility in Isfahan,” he said. “In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.” The man’s sole purpose is to charm the West while Iran gets the bomb.
As it happens, the deal he has facilitated will probably achieve that aim. From disagreements on missile capabilities to the definition of “freeze” to inspections and the right to enrich uranium, the terms of the “framework” for a deal seem more like a season of geopolitical improvisational theater, with an ever shifting storyline made up on the fly. The framework is supposed to be concluded on July 20, at which point a final agreement may be negotiated. Meanwhile, sanctions have been lifted and centrifuges continue to spin. The administration has successfully fought congressional efforts to impose new sanctions on Iran aimed at getting it to honor its side of the deal. But the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) estimates that even if Iran lives up to our current conditions, its ability to “break out” with a completed nuclear weapon would be slowed by only two to three weeks. Little wonder that Rouhani bragged that the deal “means the surrender of the big powers before the great Iranian nation.” To make matters worse, the Obama administration laid the economic and diplomatic groundwork for the deal away from the eyes of the American public and behind Israel’s back. The Obama administration betrayed its closest Middle East allies to meet its most fanatical enemy all the way on a deal that might very well give the latter the means of mass destruction.
V. The Syrian Disaster
Syria is best understood as part of the Iranian threat. The Alawite dictator Bashar al-Assad is Iran’s closest ally and only link to the Mediterranean Sea, making his regime vital to the mullahs’ bid for Middle East dominance. When the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, Tehran jumped to Assad’s aid in waging war on the country’s mostly Sunni population. Hezbollah, a terrorist statelet loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei, was dispatched to fight alongside Assad’s men, and Assad was grateful for the help.
Here again, Barack Obama suffered from an unfortunate sense of timing. He began his presidency hoping to engage Syria and peel it away from Iran (a perpetually popular realist notion), as a means of putting pressure on the Islamic Republic to negotiate. Before Assad’s country erupted, the administration undertook high-level diplomatic discussions with Damascus, relaxed export licensing for Syria, tried to smooth its path to the World Trade Organization, established warmer ties with the Syrian foreign minister, and nominated Robert Ford to be the first U.S. ambassador to Syria since 2005, when the Syrian government was implicated in the killing of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Obama’s plan was undone by the events of March 2011, because Syria and Iran now needed each other more than ever. For this reason alone, the administration would have been wise to consider intervening on behalf of the Syrian rebels. A toppled Assad would have dealt a massive blow to Iran. What’s more, in the early days of the civil war, the rebels weren’t dominated by Sunni terrorist organizations.
But there were also good reasons to stay out of the Syrian conflict. For one, U.S. intelligence on the rebellion was shoddy. Those opposing Assad comprised a confusion of organizations, some radical, some not, many with ties outside the country. Even early on, helping to topple Assad would have probably boosted the standing of some extremists. Additionally, no proponents of intervention were calling for a significant post-Assad American presence. This meant Washington would have scant ability to shape events in a new Syria. With all those caveats in play, however, it’s hard to think of a situation in which ridding Iran of its most important friend wouldn’t have been a net gain. And if Obama’s strategic thinking about Iran were different, he might have seen in Assad’s troubles an important opportunity.
Not only did the American president eschew support for the rebels; he didn’t publicly call on Assad to step down until five months after the initial uprising. During that time the White House had instituted some sanctions on Syria. But as Assad was fighting for his life, it was unlikely that he would hold back for the sake of a blip in oil revenue. What nonlethal aid Washington had promised to the rebels was slow and spotty in coming.
The president made his first allusion to using force in Syria at a press conference in August 2012. “A red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized,” he said. “That would change my calculus.” Obama used this tough line as his reelection contest with Mitt Romney was heating up. He did not want to appear weak and give his rival room to run at him as a weak-kneed Democrat. Obama won, of course, but he had set the stage for the most bizarre and damaging geopolitical blunder of his presidency.
Assad crossed the American red line on August 21, 2013, with a chemical attack that killed 1,400 of his own people. A week later, Secretary of State John Kerry gave a bold speech that pointed toward an American military response. The president then declared on television that he would hit Syria. And then, in the same speech, he punted to an out-of-session Congress, demanding he first be given authorization to act—even though he also said he was within his rights and powers as president to do so without Congressional approval.
Before members of Congress could vote, before Obama would be forced either to act without them or act with them, he was suddenly rescued altogether by an ad-libbed Russian-American deal to put Moscow—a Syrian ally—in charge of removing Assad’s chemical weapons.
The Russia deal is a great boon to the governments in Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow. It has effectively kept Assad in power as an American partner in the weapons-removal process. Iran has kept its key ally, and Russia’s profile has been elevated once more on the world stage. As for the rebels, they have been predictably overtaken by Sunni jihadist groups during the three long years of civil war. The non-radicals among them, like the liberals of Iran’s Green Movement and of the Tahrir Square protests, have no illusions about the American president’s lack of commitment to their cause. To the rest of the world, the American administration seems weak, wavering, and in over its head.
Meanwhile, the Russian deal is failing on its own terms. Deadlines for removing Assad’s weapons have come and gone and left Assad holding significant amounts—by some accounts, nearly 96 percent—of the proscribed items. Russian-American tensions over Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will probably add further delays.
The United States also shepherded two rounds of UN talks in Geneva aimed at bringing together the Assad regime and the rebels to form a transitional government. The talks failed on the most fundamental level. Syrian rebels are fractured among themselves and completely uninterested in sharing a transitional government with Assad. And the Assad regime is uninterested in talks with a party whose primary goal is the end of Assad’s rule.
Bashar al-Assad, perpetrator of a chemical-weapons attack, has gone unpunished. Three American antagonists have gained ground. And the Syrian civil war, with its death toll at 150,000, rages on. In March, the New York Times reported that al-Qaeda members are now setting up training operations inside Syria and that intelligence officials have reason to believe they are planning attacks on Europe and the United States.
VI. The Turkish Model Collapses
President Obama has praised Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan more effusively than any other leader on the world stage. “I think it’s fair to say that over the last several years, the relationship between Turkey and the United States has continued to grow across every dimension,” said Obama in 2012. “And I find Prime Minister Erdogan to be an outstanding partner and an outstanding friend on a wide range of issues.”
Chief among these issues was Turkey’s supposed standing as a powerful model for intertwining Islam, democracy, and economic growth. When he became prime minister in 2003, Erdogan seemed to strike a much-needed balance. His avowedly Muslim Justice and Development Party (AKP) attracted Islamists without taking a punitive line on non-radicals. As prime minister, he got off to a fine start. Turkey greatly improved relations with its Arab neighbors, achieved significant economic growth, and enjoyed an overall boost in quality of life. For Obama, who believed that working with “moderate” Islamists was key to more agreeable relations in the Middle East, courting Erdogan was a given. It was clear from his comments that the president sought to make his relationship with Erdogan the centerpiece of his Middle East diplomacy.
In late 2009, Obama lunched with Erdogan at the White House and proclaimed that Turkey would be an “important player in trying to move” Iran away from a bomb using diplomacy. There were already signs, however, that Ankara was moving closer to Tehran. In 2009, Erdogan took private meetings in Tehran with his “good friend” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and with Ali Khamenei. Turkey also abstained from an International Atomic Energy Agency board vote condemning Iran’s nuclear activity, and Erdogan claimed that Iran wasn’t pursuing a nuclear weapon at all.
At the same time, Erdogan was stoking tension between Turkey and Israel. He stormed out of a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres over Gaza; Turkish leaders announced the country’s first joint military exercises with Syria; and Turkey asked Israel to bow out of hosting a scheduled NATO exercise.
On May 31, 2010, a flotilla of six boats left Turkey with the express goal of breaking Israel’s blockade on Gaza. After the boats ignored repeated warnings, members of the Israel Defense Forces boarded the biggest of them, the Mavi Marmara, and were attacked by armed jihadists ready for battle. The IDF opened fire, killing nine, and the incident came under international scrutiny. Erdogan flew into a permanent outrage, ratcheting up regional anti-Israel sentiment, and demanding that the Jewish state pay for having used lethal force.
But by this point, it had already become clear that the Turkish model was disintegrating. Erdogan’s government has taken a steady path toward increased state suppression, borrowing policies from both the Islamist and secular autocratic playbooks. He has restricted alcohol sales and the use of sidewalk cafés, cracked down on press freedoms and citizens’ access to the Internet, nullified the independence of the Turkish judiciary, and abused his power in myriad ways.
Nonetheless, Obama’s original approach to Turkey remained intact. This once again impressed upon a Muslim country that the United States, for all its lofty pronouncements on freedom, was unconcerned about the threatened liberties of a real-world population. In March 2013, Obama took credit for organizing a phone call between Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in which the latter expressed regret over the deaths of those shot on the Mavi Marmara. The White House hailed this as a great leap toward normalizing relations between Israel and Turkey, yet the very next day Erdogan announced that he would not drop his case against the IDF, as he had apparently promised before the phone call had been made.
Two months later, Erdogan’s continued strangulation of freedoms inspired Arab Spring-style protests across Turkey, putting the lie to the Turkish model once and for all.
Obama had tried to get Erdogan to play a conciliatory role in Syria, but the Turkish leader took up support for the hard-core Sunnis among the rebels. This was in keeping with his strong and stated preference for Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt. Yet Turkey’s destabilizing role in Syria is overshadowed by its underhanded support for the regime in Iran. Erdogan has been anything but the diplomatic go-between Obama envisioned. In 2012 and 2013, Turkey helped Iran evade international sanctions through a “gold for oil” scheme involving the Turkish state-owned Halkbank, which made approximately $13 billion of gold available to Tehran during that time. This has now become part of a larger corruption and abuse scandal. Obama, hoping to maintain his relationship with Erdogan and to stick to his diplomatic course with Iran, did nothing to punish the Turkish bank. And in 2012, Turkish officials, with Erdogan’s express approval, exposed the identities of Iranians who were meeting with Mossad agents inside Turkey.
Obama’s own Iran policies are partially to blame for Turkey’s now overt move toward Iran’s sphere. First, with Assad now ruling Syria for the foreseeable future, Erdogan figured that warm relations with Tehran might mitigate some of the effects of that conflict’s impact on neighboring Sunni-majority Turkey. Second, Obama’s general enabling of Iran’s rise makes it a power that no regional leader can afford to snub. Not least of all in deference to an unsure American power.
XI. The Tilt Against Israel
Barack Obama came to office determined to take U.S.-Israel relations in a new direction. Where his predecessor had seen Palestinian intransigence as the main obstacle to Middle East peace, Obama saw Israeli rigidity as the culprit. And while American administrations traditionally understood that Israel was most willing to take risks when it felt its relationship with the United States was secure, Obama’s administration would make historically close American-Israeli ties partially contingent upon Israeli concessions to Palestinians. As he told a group of Jewish leaders at the White House, according to the New York Times, “For eight years [during the Bush administration], there was no light between the United States and Israel, and nothing got accomplished.” On a personal level, Obama considered Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a true partner for peace and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu an atavistic nationalist who would soon be replaced by the more liberal Tzipi Livni.
As he said in his Cairo speech, Obama believed that peace between Israel and the Palestinians “would have a profound and positive impact on the entire Middle East and North Africa.” In other words, he saw an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal as the key to a more pacified Muslim world. So he quickly set about enacting his policy changes. In his first face-to-face talk with Netanyahu in May 2009, Obama told the prime minister that “settlements [on the West Bank] have to be stopped in order for us to move forward.” The theme of stopping settlements was repeated and echoed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who specified that this meant all such settlements, “not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions.”
In November 2009, Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month settlement freeze in order to kick-start new U.S.-led peace negotiations. But if the American approach had changed, the Palestinian one had not. For nine months, Abbas refused to talk. With one month to go, he sat through two meetings before once again walking away from
And thus the template for Obama-era Israel policy was set. The president would publicly pressure Netanyahu into taking some action (freezing settlements, apologizing to Turkey, releasing Palestinian prisoners), and the Palestinian leadership would brazenly fail to step up to negotiations. As the failures built up, the administration took a heavier line with Israel. In March 2010, Hillary Clinton berated Netanyahu by phone for 43 minutes over settlements. That same month Obama snubbed Netanyahu at the White House. And so a personal animosity would steadily become another unhelpful feature in the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem.
In Obama’s second term, with John Kerry as secretary of state, American disapproval morphed into something closer to American threat. Kerry organized a new round of peace talks (predicated on Israel’s release of dangerous Palestinian prisoners), and those talks stalled due to the Palestinians’ inability to meet the most preliminary demands. In Kerry’s frustration, he wondered aloud last November on Palestinian television, “Does Israel want a third intifada?” In February, he wondered aloud once again, this time in Germany: “There are talks of boycotts and other kinds of things,” he said. “Are we all going to be better with all of that?” These were barely veiled threats that Israel would face boycotts and violence if it didn’t sign on to his “Framework Agreement” for peace.
But when talks resumed, it was Abbas who would not comply with three key details of the Framework: He refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, refused to give up the “right of return” for millions of Palestinians and generations of their descendents, and refused an “end of conflict” with Israel, which is, more or less, the essence of peace itself. In response, Kerry began to downplay the importance of Israel’s being recognized as a Jewish state in the hope that he could get one yes on the board.
The administration’s miscalculations on Israeli-Palestinian peace are multiple and have been self-reinforcing. First, Obama simply inverted the positions of the Palestinians and the Israelis. It is the Palestinian leadership that remains unable to agree to peace with Israel. After decades of making anti-Semitism a foundation of Palestinian culture, Palestinian leaders who would now dare make peace with the Jewish state would live in fear for their lives. Public-opinion polls demonstrated that Israel’s electorate, on the other hand, wants nothing so badly as it wants peace with its neighbors.
Second, while the public criticism of Israel brought about a great many Israeli concessions, it reinforced Palestinian intransigence. What Palestinian leader could take steps toward peace with Israel while Israel’s closest ally is calling the Jewish state stubborn and unreasonable? The disapproval from America also made Netanyahu stronger domestically, as Israelis began to understand just how strong he had to be under these unprecedented circumstances. Finally, as events from 2011 on have demonstrated, the Israel-Palestinian problem has played no role whatsoever in the chain reaction of instability and violence set off by the Arab Spring.
On the matter of stopping Iran’s nuclear quest, the administration has repeatedly reassured Israel that “we’re not going to have talks [with Iran] forever” and that “all options are on the table.” All along, Obama has seen the specter of an Israeli strike on Iranian targets as a potential spoiler of his diplomatic plan to disarm the mullahs. And, now, with the advent of direct negotiations between Washington and Tehran, an Israeli attack would be widely condemned as an act of war on the eve of diplomatic success.
In truth, such an attack has become more likely and more necessary owing to the lengthy and mistaken diplomacy of the Obama administration. In March, Israel Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told a crowd at Tel Aviv University, “We have to behave as though we have nobody to look out for us [on Iran] but ourselves.” And so they must.