Barack Obama will never forgive Benjamin Netanyahu for being right about the Iran nuclear deal. In his new memoir, Promised Land, Obama writes that the Israeli prime minister’s “vision of himself as the chief defender of the Jewish people against calamity allowed him to justify almost anything that would keep him in power.”
In fact, Netanyahu put his job on the line by doing something few Israeli voters support—he challenged an American president and potentially endangered the U.S.-Israel relationship. In March 2015, he went over Obama’s head to make his case to the representatives of the American people and told Congress that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) would give Iran a clear path to the bomb. Since many restrictions were due to expire by 2025—the so-called “sunset clauses”—Iran would have an industrial-scale nuclear weapons program in about a decade.
“We’re being told that the only alternative to this bad deal is war,” Netanyahu told Congress. “That’s just not true.”
Netanyahu was right. Donald Trump pulled out of the JCPOA in May 2017 and there was no war. Trump sanctioned the Tehran regime into penury and instead of war, Iranian demonstrators took to the streets to protest against those who’d squandered the country’s wealth by funding international terror.
In January, the president ordered the killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani. Middle East experts warned that he’d woken a sleeping giant and the region would shortly go up in flames—but again, there was no war. In fact, the Trump White House’s clear stance against the world’s leading sponsor of terror made room for peace in the Middle East. In the summer, the Abraham Accords gave Israel new regional partners, with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan all agreeing to normalize relations.
Obama’s Iran deal was the costliest mistake of his presidency for the peoples of the Middle East. The premises on which it was based were proved false. And yet Joe Biden can’t wait to reenter the JCPOA, with Secretary of State-apparent Antony Blinken pledging to keep “non-nuclear sanctions” intact, signaling his clear intention to lift nuclear-related sanctions against Iran.
The only thing that could interfere with such wonderful plans, the press warns, is an impending Trump strike on Iran, which might come any day now. According to The New York Times, Trump asked his cabinet for military options after the U.N. reported that Iran had exceeded its limit of enriched uranium.
Does that mean Trump or Bibi is actually on the verge of attacking Iran? Of course not. On both the American and the Israeli fronts, Trump administration policy was to get American troops out of global hot spots as fast as possible—not start wars. What the war drums mean is that the phony communications infrastructure that marketed the Iran deal from 2013-2016 is up and running again.
“Trump would become an international pariah, shunned at Davos,” exclaimed an American Enterprise Institute scholar in the pages of The Atlantic—one of the key press organs that Obama used to market the Iran deal—warning against a strike. Heavens, no—not Davos! But that’s really how many Beltway deep thinkers evaluate national security policy.
In retrospect, the talking points that the Obama echo chamber used to sell the Iran deal were even more transparently fraudulent than the talking points they later used to sell the Russiagate hoax. To wit: Iran will make war across the Middle East and target American troops unless the United States and its global partners pay Iran the money it needs to underwrite its wars and terror armies. Facts, logic, evidence, and even the Iranian regime’s part in the mass slaughter of Syrians simply don’t matter to this crew.
Obama refuses to accept he was wrong about his signature foreign policy initiative, and he intends to use his third term—an administration run by his former aides, who are now being recast as “moderates”—to make it stick. “I believe that in the first months [of Biden’s presidency],” said former Obama State Department official and current Biden adviser Amos Hochstein, “we’ll either see him rejoin the deal fully, or what I would call ‘JCPOA-minus,’ meaning lifting sanctions in exchange for suspending some of the Iranian nuclear programs [developed] in the past three years.”
Many Jewish voters, whether they voted for Biden or Trump, appear to understand what is coming. Biden lost Florida not just because Trump took a large share of the Hispanic vote but also because he lost 22% of the Jewish voters in Dade County who supported Hillary Clinton. Trump may have turned even greater numbers of strongly Jewish-identified voters from blue to red in New York state, where they were formerly invested in housing and educational subsidies from the dominant Democratic Party machine. At a certain point, trying to rationalize the actions of people who continue to make bad decisions in order to fund people who promise to exterminate you is no longer reasonable.
Biden’s prospective Middle East team shows very clearly that Obama will be calling the shots. Reportedly in line for a top job is Obama’s Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who spent the last four years threatening America’s key regional ally that it better not get too comfortable with Trump—or else the next Democratic administration would punish them. Rob Malley is also likely to be a major presence. Obama’s key point man on the Middle East recently lamented that the legacy of his boss “was premised on his being succeeded by someone like him, maybe a Hillary Clinton, but certainly not a Donald Trump.” The “experiment that got suspended halfway through,” as Malley put it, can now be completed under the protective cover of a “moderate” Biden administration.
What Obama subsequently learned about the JCPOA was that giving Iran the bomb at some indefinite time after he left office was a mistake, because such pledges are vulnerable to the vagaries of the American political system, which never liked the deal in the first place. That’s why Biden, or Kamala Harris if she winds up with the reins sooner than anticipated, seems unlikely to kick the nuclear can down the road again in the pursuit of a new and improved Iran deal 2.0. Instead, they will move to quickly lift sanctions, which will remove any incentive for Iran to make a deal—and help it get the bomb as fast as possible.
Americans don’t want Iran to have the bomb. In 2015 the House and Senate both opposed the deal by 2 to 1, reflecting the opinion of the American public. So why are Obama and his team so eager to repeat their worst debacle?
His aides reasoned publicly in 2014 and 2015 that since Iran already had the know-how, the JCPOA was the only way to slow their nuclear program down. But as Netanyahu explained in his congressional speech, the hard part of building a bomb isn’t the theoretical know-how—you can find out how to make a nuclear bomb on YouTube. The tricky part is building and maintaining the expensive and complex industrial infrastructure that supports the manufacture of nuclear weapons.
It took the Iranians 35 years to haltingly built portions of that infrastructure—until Obama created an international lobby for the Iranian bomb based on lifting trade restrictions and flooding the country with cash. As long as Iran is under the control of a supreme leader, opening up the Iranian economy or whatever other euphemisms one chooses for funding the Iranian regime means funding Iran’s pursuit of a bomb. The best way to normalize Iran’s place in the region is therefore by taking the nuclear issue off the table.
The former president gave the JCPOA a strategic spin when he said he was building a new geopolitical equilibrium “between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran.” He said that the Saudis and the Iranians “need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.”
Yet while it is true that Tehran aspires to dominate the Middle East, Riyadh has never seen itself as a regional great power. It’s a religious touchstone and a financial center that has always looked to America as its protector since the end of the Second World War. In other words, the JCPOA wasn’t balancing Riyadh against Tehran; it was balancing Tehran against Washington.
Obama pulled the same head fake when it came to Israel. He told Jewish leaders that it’s bad when there’s no “daylight” between Washington and Jerusalem because it “erodes our credibility with the Arab states.” But like Israel, Arab states saw the major problem in their region wasn’t the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather Iran’s destabilizing wars and, most important of all, its pursuit of a bomb. Weakening Israel was meant to weaken the regional alliance structure through which the United States projects power, thus weakening it as well.
The Iran nuclear deal was never about the Middle East, which opposed the deal from the start. It was about America. The Iran deal was a part of the worldview that Obama lays out in his new memoir when he writes that he isn’t “yet ready to abandon the possibility of America.” That’s an interesting locution for a man who was elected president of America twice. What does it mean?
What Obama means is that he understands himself as the president of an America that has not yet been realized.The country he led, and leads, is not the historical American nation-state, but a theoretical place that exists “not just for the sake of future generations of Americans but for all of humankind. I’m convinced that the pandemic we’re currently living through is both a manifestation of and a mere interruption in the relentless march toward an interconnected world, one in which peoples and cultures can’t help but collide,” he writes. “In that world—of global supply chains, instantaneous capital transfers, social media, transnational terrorist networks, climate change, mass migration, and ever-increasing complexity—we will learn to live together, cooperate with one another, and recognize the dignity of others, or we will perish.”
The flawed Americans of the here and now may have elected Obama president twice, but they also cling to things like national borders, religion, and guns. Obama’s America is a place without borders. It’s a country in which Big Tech oligarchs, social media warriors, and powerful bureaucrats join hands to destroy those who don’t follow a media-enforced ruling-class consensus. The wealth of Obama’s America isn’t in the hands of families of any race, color, or creed; it belongs overwhelmingly to an oligarchy that partners with the Chinese Communist Party, which uses its massive pool of slave labor to produce cheap goods that destroy hundreds of thousands of small businesses and reduce millions of American workers to penury.
Obama understands that his prophetic vision of a new world is scary to lots of people who live in the contingent historical construction called America. And the Iran deal is a central component of that vision, or else his aides working through Joe Biden wouldn’t be so keen to make it stick. The point of empowering a regime that is anti-American at its core is to help bring the America that is to heel, so it can be transformed into the America that Obama envisions. If it brings chaos and war to the Middle East, why are the lives of Israelis and Saudis worth more than the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who died last time in the service of one man’s obsessive vision?
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).