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Fatal Attraction

Why Obama’s push to build a legacy relationship with Iran is only going to end in heartache.

US President Barack Obama speaks during the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly at the United Nations in New York on September 24, 2014. Obama on Wednesday urged Iran to seize the "historic opportunity" of reaching a deal with world powers on its contested nuclear program. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s probably too early to be thinking about Valentine’s Day. But here’s a half-serious romantic musing for you: Is U.S. President Barack Obama sweet on Tehran? Listening to his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, during which the president staunchly declared that he would veto any new sanctions, defended his diplomacy, rightly welcomed home Alan Gross from Cuba, but did not say one negative thing about Iran’s imprisonment of U.S. citizens, you might think so. Is the president pursuing an Iran-centric strategy as the key to stabilizing and bringing order to a confused and muddled Middle East? And are the Iranians the prospective U.S. darlings of the region?

That’s crazy, you say. Iran is still the (very) bad boy of Middle East politics. The mullahs support the murderous Bashar al-Assad of Syria, imprison American journalists, and back Hezbollah and Hamas. The president is too smart to think U.S. and Iranian interests coincide. And, after all, the United States has imposed nation-crushing sanctions on Iran, has attacked it with cyberoffensives, and has threatened the use of military force. Indeed, there’s so much historical baggage between Washington and Tehran, and so many policy divides in the region (see Syria), that it’s hard to imagine a budding relationship, nuclear deal or not. Besides, whatever this supposed lame-duck president tried to do on Iran would be checked by Congress, the Israelis, the Saudis, and perhaps the Iranians themselves.

But consider another possibility. The strategy-less president, the abdicator in chief, the leader who leads from behind, the guy who, at times, seems barely interested in foreign policy, actually has an organizing concept for this broken, angry region. And, in fact, it’s an Iran-centered one. Indeed, Tehran sits at the nexus of (or at least has influence on) just about every issue the United States cares about: nukes, oil, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, fighting the Islamic State, Persian Gulf security, Lebanon, and even the so-called peace process. And unsurprisingly, the perception that the president is pursuing an Iran-first approach has already taken its toll on the trust and confidence from America’s traditional allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel. Both countries worry for a living. But on this issue it’s not all that hard to see why. There’s a growing concern in both Riyadh and Jerusalem that Washington is naive, doesn’t understand Iran’s regional ambitions, is reducing its profile in the region, and will cut a deal with Tehran on nukes that eases rather than increases the pressure.

And don’t kid yourself. Obama’s no lame duck on foreign policy. There’s plenty of juice left in his presidency. Cuba might only prove to be a warm-up. And like Cuba, the goal with Iran is not to transform things immediately, but to create a more transactional process that over time will fundamentally change the nature of the relationship between the two countries. Obama won’t be around to see the prospective benefits. The president’s legacy will be to have set those changes in motion.

For the short term, at least on paper, the logic goes something like this: Other than a major terrorist attack on the homeland, the most immediate and strategic threat to U.S. interests comes from an Iran with nukes. An Iran seeking nukes could trigger an Israeli military strike (even an American one), lead to Iranian attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, trigger Hezbollah rockets on Israel, bump up oil prices, wreak havoc in financial markets, and over time launch a Middle East nuclear arms race.

So to avoid these catastrophes, the president authorized a strategy on the nuclear issue that has already taken him where none of his successors had been before. He said way back in 2008 that he’d be prepared to engage his enemies. And he clearly meant it. Using secret diplomacy, his diplomats reached a historic interim agreement with Iran; they in turn created pretty friendly relations with Iran’s negotiators, and they all came to believe in the real possibility of a U.S.-Iranian groundbreaking deal on the nuclear issue. Obama himself sent letters to the supreme leader and had phone conversations with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. And given what we now know about both the secret U.S.-Cuba (Canadian) and U.S.-Iranian (Omani) channels, you can bet there’s going to be another quiet channel operating as we approach endgame diplomacy on the nuclear issue.

The notion that the Obama administration is trying to keep Iran sweet to preserve the possibility of a nuclear deal is also evident in the president’s threat to veto current sanctions legislation, even though Iran’s behavior hardly warrants that restraint. Building new reactors and trying a Washington Post reporter are hardly confidence-builders. Listening to the administration’s rhetoric, particularly in Tuesday night’s State of the Union speech, you’d think that Congress’s legitimate concerns are the problem, not the mullahs.

And when it comes to U.S. policy toward Syria, the signs that the United States is giving Iran some space are evident as well. The president isn’t pursuing a pro-Assad policy there by not going after the regime. Taking down Assad without any sense of who or what will replace him risks opening up the field to the best-organized forces in the country — the Islamic State and the Islamists. But the president is giving Iran plenty of operating room in Syria. Attacking Assad could trigger a proxy war with Tehran, resulting in the United States killing Islamic Revolutionary Guard forces and alienating Iran at the very moment when Washington is trying to reach a nuclear deal. Obama is also banking on Iran to help counter the Islamic State in Iraq.

Right now, reaching an agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue is probably the administration’s most important priority in the Middle East. But would such an agreement fundamentally alter the relationship between the two countries, and could Iran over time emerge as a partner of the United States in the region?

The advantages of a credible deal that prevented Iran from breaking out to attain a nuclear weapon or developing an industrial-grade nuclear infrastructure are obvious, including avoiding the drift toward a military conflict. But the notion of a partnership in the wake of such an accord is a stretch. The mullahs need to have the United States as an adversary to maintain their control and to avoid the slippery slope of uncontrolled openings to the West that might jeopardize it. And Iran and the United States have different interests and conceptions of both Iraq and Syria. Mobilizing against the Islamic State as a common enemy won’t be enough to overcome those differences.

As long as the mullahcracy and security establishment continue to see Iran as a revolutionary Islamic power at home and abroad, the chances of an Obama engagement strategy transforming the U.S.-Iran relationship — even over time — look pretty bleak. Indeed, perhaps the greatest danger is that a deal really won’t diminish Tehran’s determination to remain a screwdriver’s turn away from a weapon. And if the administration is too eager for an agreement, it will find itself with the worst of all possible worlds — with an emboldened Iran freed from sanctions and international pressure, untransformed, unrepentant, and in a stronger not weaker position to challenge U.S. interests in a turbulent Middle East. So come February, Mr. President, send you valentines to Michelle and the girls. Skip the mullahs. They really don’t deserve it.

Photo credit: Jewel Samad/AFP

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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