Forget the Asia rebalancing. The president’s big legacy is likely to be seen as empowering Tehran.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
With President Barack Obama’s welcome and warmly received trip to India this week, commentators have dusted off the well-worn platitudes associated with the administration’s once-vaunted “pivot to Asia.” The week’s other events, however — from the president’s decision to cut his stay in Delhi short to attend King Abdullah’s funeral in Riyadh to the chaos in Yemen, from ongoing nuclear diplomacy with Iran to Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to ensure his relationship with Obama will be seen as the most toxic in the history of Israel and the United States — suggest this administration’s foreign-policy legacy may ultimately center on a different “strategic rebalancing.” This one will benefit, however, in ways once unimaginable in U.S. foreign-policy circles, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
It is quite possible that, by the time Obama leaves office, no other country on Earth will have gained quite so much as Iran. Not all of this will be the doing of the United States, of course, and in fact some of it may prove to be the undoing of our interests in the long run. But there is no doubting that some of the remarkable gains that seem to be on the near horizon for Tehran will have come as a result of a policy impulse that was far closer to the heart of the president than is the on-again, off-again Asia initiative (which was really much more the product of the ideas and efforts of a bunch of his first-term aides and cabinet members than it was of his own impulses or those of his innermost circle).
Consider the gains. First, there’s the issue of legacy. With negotiations continuing at a high simmer behind the scenes, the Obama foreign-policy team sees a nuclear deal with Iran as the one remaining brass ring that is there for them to claim. Elsewhere, there is the possibility of some progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, but promotional rhetoric surrounding it aside, it’s just not as big a game-changer as its proponents suggest. It’d certainly be a welcome development, but it’s incremental and, of course, doesn’t really improve our relations with Asia’s biggest long-term players, China and India. And beyond that, there’s not much else in the pipeline.
A deal with Iran, if it could be translated into action, would in theory produce a freeze on Iran’s nuclear program. That would certainly be a good thing. But it provides no guarantee that Tehran could not reverse course in the future, break its terms, or do as it has done for the past 30 years — namely, stir up mayhem in the region without the benefit of nuclear weapons. What it would provide — even in the midst of a congressional tug of war over Iran policy, with new sanctions coming from the Hill and presidential vetoes pinging and ponging up and down Pennsylvania Avenue — would be some White House-directed relief for Tehran. Presumably, a nuclear deal would further the thaw in the relations between the United States and Iran, while providing a great incentive for other countries to resume normal trading relations (to the extent they don’t have them already).
Iran would gain stature. Iran would have a better seat in the councils of nations. Iran would gain economic benefits. And Iran’s enemies would be furious.
If the president thinks a brief drop-by in Saudi Arabia is going to somehow offset the House of Saud’s fury at an Iran deal, he’s not paying attention. Obama can’t charm them into overlooking the chasm between their cultures that has developed over 1,000 years. It will be seen by Sunni allies in the Gulf as a betrayal. They’re pragmatic. Some are already preparing to deal with what they see as the inevitable rapprochement. And they do, in the near term, see Iran as a potential counterweight to their more immediately threatening enemies — extremist Sunnis. (After all, this is the land of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.) But happy they are not. Millennium-long antagonisms endure for a reason.
One reason they are so unhappy is not only that the United States is changing the terms of its relations with Iran and triggering a strengthening of that country economically and politically, but that Washington’s policies — inaction and action, both — have helped contribute to other ways Tehran has gained ground in recent years. Some of this is not Obama’s fault, but his predecessor’s: In case you missed it, blowing up Iraq was a bad thing. It unleashed forces like the Islamic State, but it also replaced a Baathist government in Baghdad with one that is openly dependent on Iranian forces for support and protection. What’s more, the United States is now providing the air power that is enabling Iranian forces to gain and hold ground for their client, effectively putting a big chunk of Iraq even deeper in Iran’s pocket. (It is an especially peculiar development of the past weeks that when America’s historic allies, the Israelis, launched an attack that killed an Iranian general in Syria, they were in fact eliminating a member of a military organization that is currently fighting alongside, and in coordination with, the United States next door in Iraq.)
Iran is the one country in the Middle East that seems to be racking up material gains as a result of the unrest that has beset the region. The Houthi coup in Yemen has brought an Iranian-backed Shiite group to power — at least, in a large part of that country. Baghdad is now more directly dependent on Tehran than ever before; Iran is providing a substantial number of the ground troops fighting the Islamic State and protecting Shiite Iraq from the terrorist fighters. Even in Syria, Iran’s ally Bashar al-Assad has been receiving a steady stream of signals that Washington is increasingly willing to let him remain in place. Meanwhile, Hezbollah remains strong in Lebanon and has carved out gains in southern Syria.
Even with congressional efforts to scuttle the U.S.-Iran nuclear talks by putting in place new sanctions, it seems clear that Iran will someday look back on the Obama years as ones that may have started painfully — with tightening sanctions — but ended considerably better.
That won’t be the view of the two countries the United States fought in to help stabilize, Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which are certain to end up by 2016 riven with divisions and beset by brutal and destabilizing fighting. It won’t be Washington’s Gulf allies, which are feeling the squeeze of increasing global oil and gas production (led by the United States) amplified by the development of renewables and new breakthroughs in energy efficiency. Virtually every Gulf nation is threatened by the spread of extremism and has been harmed by the tepid nature of U.S. support for our traditional alliances with these states. The fact is: They just don’t trust America to be there for them as it once was. Egypt and Turkey, the other two regional powers with historical influence comparable to Iran, have been rocked by internal upheaval.
And Israel? Well, one senior former top Obama administration official confirmed my assertion that the Obama-Netanyahu relationship had deteriorated to the point that it was now the worst relationship in the history of ties between the leaders of the two countries. “It’s not even close,” he said, “Carter and Begin was bad. But this is worse.” That seems about right to me. While Obama has done plenty to damage the relationship (and his staff hasn’t helped with descriptions of the Israeli prime minister as “chickenshit”), the most recent downturn is all Bibi’s fault (with a profoundly unconstructive assist from House Speaker John Boehner). Netanyahu’s decision to accept Boehner’s invitation to address the U.S. Congress on the dangers of the Iran nuclear deal is a case of sending the wrong man at the wrong time to give the wrong speech in the wrong place.
If Bibi really wanted to assure Israel’s security, as he asserts, he would wait and hope — and quietly pressure the administration to make sure — that it’s a good one and a peaceful way to stop Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. If it turns out to be lousy or unenforceable, he can always oppose it. But for a foreign leader to come before Congress to seek to play U.S. politics and derail an ongoing negotiation is unprecedented and inappropriate. Moreover, it’s likely to backfire on many levels — not the least of which is cementing the inclination among many of Obama’s closest advisors that if they’re doing something that really pisses off Bibi, they must be doing something right. This, of course, is deeply unhealthy for a key relationship and only highlights the extent of shared blame and the need for, well, a reset.
When the reset comes (and whoever is the next U.S. president will certainly work to engineer one … and if they are lucky, it will be with someone other than Netanyahu) it will be in the context of a very different Middle East.
It will be a region upon which the world is less dependent. It will be a region in which more countries are less stable and local unrest is a global threat. It will be a region in which the vast majority of the problems that loomed large back in 2008 will be seen as having deteriorated, in which new ones have emerged, and in which U.S. initiatives have largely either exacerbated the problems or kicked the can down the road. And it will be a region in which traditional U.S. alliances are largely weakened.
The changed Iran relationship will be at the center of all this. If an Iran deal helps forestall development of a nuclear weapon, that has to be seen as a benefit. If it has produced a partner in helping to contain Sunni extremism, that will also be seen as a net good. If it forms the foundation for a new U.S. regional policy that is based on enlightened management of the balance of power between key regional actors to maintain stability and contain threats, that is to the net good. If it finds a way to work with traditional allies from Israel to the Gulf, restore stability and promote progress in Egypt, foster reforms in Turkey, fight support for extremists among some of our so-called allies in the Middle East, and move toward the establishment of a Palestinian state that respects Israel’s right to exist, then that is to the net great. Then the Obama vision will be seen as a breakthrough — and he’ll deserve all the credit he gets. Remember, it was during the 2008 campaign that Obama asserted that one of the ways that his foreign policy would be different would be that he would engage with Iran. If he can make that happen through careful, strategic management of U.S. relations in the region and follow through on all the steps required to make this work, it’ll be quite an accomplishment.
But if Iran receives much-needed economic relief and yet still continues to make mischief in the region, if it cheats on a deal, if it further institutionalizes the spread of Iranian influence threatening the Saudis and other important Gulf allies, if Washington’s empowerment of Shiite Iran becomes a recruiting tool for groups like the Islamic State or al Qaeda, if Israel so distrusts U.S. diplomacy that it triggers conflict with Iran, if key U.S. relationships in the Gulf continue to deteriorate, if American disengagement (or desultory, strategically impaired engagement) stimulates rather than contains the rise of new strongholds of terror, then this pivot to Iran is going to seem like a great blunder. And America is going to feel like its 44th president got played.
I will leave it to you, dear reader, to determine which is more likely given the lessons of recent history. One thing seems certain, though. When you look up Barack Obama’s foreign policy in the history books, far more attention will almost certainly be devoted to his outreach to Iran and his actions and inaction in the volatile Middle East than to his efforts at strategic rebalancing to Asia — or his now poignantly unsuccessful efforts to declare an end to America’s war on terror.
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