When seemingly spontaneous protests erupted in cities across Iran, beginning in the last days of 2017, the prospect of a new, uncertain, and even hopeful chapter in the country’s tortured history seemed possible. But in Washington, there was little indication of change or opportunity. Instead, the same old debate about the Iran nuclear agreement unfolded.
As thousands of Iranians took to the streets, critics immediately bellowed that the protests proved that the Iran deal was a failure because it had not improved the lives of ordinary Iranians, or claimed that it legitimized the regime and was the reason such unrest had not come about earlier, practically blaming former President Barack Obama for the Islamic Republic’s continued existence.
Indeed, for many opponents of the Iran deal, it has become the single explanation for every (allegedly bad) decision Obama made on Middle East policy over his entire presidency, ranging from his restrained approach to the Green Revolution protests in Tehran in 2009 to his reluctance to become more militarily engaged in Syria. Such airbrushed history distorts the debate — and does little to illuminate what the United States should do next on Iran.
By caricaturing the complex reasons Obama chose to make the decisions he did, critics squander the opportunity to forge a way forward on Iran, driving a wedge through the common ground that exists. As two people who were in the room for many interagency discussions on Obama’s Middle East policy, we can attest that while the effort to address Iran’s nuclear program was of course important, it was not the determinative issue in every decision about the region — and in fact, on many decisions, it was not a factor at all.
To be sure, not all of those decisions were correct. The Obama administration certainly made mistakes in trying to manage a highly chaotic Middle East, especially after 2011 (although we are confident history will record that those mistakes will pale in comparison to those made between 2003 and 2006, under President George W. Bush). But to learn from these events, we need to be able to have an honest discussion about the reasons why the United states pursued certain policies, any why they failed or succeeded, instead of just falling back into the same old trap of rehashing the Iran deal.
For example, take Obama’s decision to show restraint in 2009 during the Green Revolution protests in Iran. Critics contend this silence was due to the fact that he did not want to jeopardize his nascent engagement with the Iranian regime. But only three months later, Obama surprised the world by exposing a secret nuclear facility Iran was building deep in the mountains outside the city of Qom, which had no other plausible purpose than the pursuit of a nuclear weapons program. Within a year, the United States had worked with its partners to pass U.N. Security Council resolution 1929, which significantly stiffened sanctions on Iran and was quickly followed by U.S. legislation that cut off Iran from much of the global financial sector. And soon after that, the administration concluded several record-setting arms sales to its Gulf partners, and provided significant security support for Israel, which enhanced these countries’ military capabilities against Iran.
These weren’t the actions of an administration afraid to confront the Iranian regime. This was all in the service of turning the tables on Iran — manufacturing leverage and pursuing what then-National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon described as a “simultaneous multivector pressure strategy,” which was indispensable to bringing Iran to the table.
In 2009, the fair explanation was that Obama was hesitant because of his fear that publicly supporting the protestors would make the United States a lightening rod and undercut their support inside Iran. In fact, this is what the administration was hearing from many protestors. Moreover, given America’s limited influence over domestic Iranian politics, it was not clear how much of a difference Washington could make. This issue is hardly settled — as the similar debate in recent weeks, about what the United States should or shouldn’t say about the protests, shows.
It is perfectly legitimate to question whether Obama’s approach in 2009 was right. One could argue that since the Iranian regime was going to try to blame the United States and accuse it of being behind the protests regardless, Obama should have spoken out more quickly and loudly. It may not have made much of a difference — just as there’s no evidence Trump’s tweets about the recent protests mattered at all — but at least the United States would have been on the right side of history. Yet that is entirely different from the question of whether or not the president stayed silent because of some misguided hope for reapproachment with Iran, which was nowhere on the horizon.
Another recent example was a long article by Politico that focused on Project Cassandara — an effort by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration during the Obama years to track Hezbollah’s use of drug smuggling networks to fund its operations. The first sentence of the nearly 15,000-word article sets the stage: “In its determination to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration derailed an ambitious law enforcement campaign targeting drug trafficking by the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah.” This slanted claim only caused Iran deal critics to pounce further, even as former Obama administration officials attacked the article as at best misleading and at worst false.
The actual situation was far more complex than the article revealed. Career officials at the CIA, Treasury, and State Department all objected to the DEA’s proposals to target Hezbollah — because they believed the evidentiary basis was not strong enough, and because they thought moving forward could jeopardize ongoing intelligence operations in Lebanon and delicate diplomatic efforts. There was also concern about whether targeting Lebanon’s financial system could destabilize a weak American partner, and also fear that further targeting Hezbollah could provoke retaliation. But despite the article’s substantial word count, it didn’t surface any evidence showing the Iran deal as the determinative factor.
The fate of Project Cassandra warrants a genuine debate. One could argue that the Obama administration was too risk averse, or that bureaucracy got in the way of a creative initiative. Perhaps the administration was justified in not moving forward for the various reasons that caused the program to shut down. But that debate never really happened — because it immediately devolved into a highly contentious food fight about the Iran deal, fueling the false claim that Obama went out of his way to accommodate Tehran. Daniel Byman, the Foreign Policy editor of Lawfare, recently provided an example of the kind of sober and smart analysis we’re thinking of by thoroughly deconstructing the Politico article and the underlying questions it raises.
None of this is to say that the Iran nuclear deal doesn’t matter — it is one of Obama’s most important diplomatic achievements, one that we believe puts the United States in a better position to work with its partners to address the challenge posed by Iran. To argue that Obama approached every policy decision in the Middle East with the desire to close the Iran deal is simply wrong. This is no different from faulty claims offered by liberal critics who spent years saying that George W. Bush’s policies in Iraq were all about oil or spawned from some dark conspiracy cooked up in the evil lab of Vice President Dick Cheney.
And in many ways, this helps explain the Trump administration’s struggle with what to do about the Iran deal today. The Trump team’s approach rests on a cartoon of Obama’s policies, one those currently in power have invested years — and significant financial and political resources — constructing. Yet they have found it hard to reconcile their assertion that the nuclear agreement is the “worst deal ever” with a viable plan to replace it. Instead, the best they can do is bluster and punt — warning that they will pull the plug on the deal unless others (Congress and the Europeans) fix it.
America faces profound challenges in the Middle East, and needs a robust, clear-eyed, honest debate about what to do. And there is plenty of common ground upon which to build a new approach. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen if Trump and his supporters continue to obsess about the Obama presidency instead of looking forward.