The eventual fall of the Islamic Republic of Iran will reveal the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement to have been one of the worst unforced strategic errors in the history of U.S. foreign policy. At home, the Islamic Republic is the enemy of perhaps 80% or more of its own people, who see it as a criminal entity that murders them in the streets. Abroad, the clerical regime sows further chaos and bloodshed, threatening the United States and its allies and earning the hatred of peoples across the Middle East. Locking the United States in a nearly decadelong embrace of a failing theocratic totalitarian state is a policy disaster of unrivaled proportions, driven by no apparent external necessity. So why is the Biden administration finding it so difficult to move on?
Oddly, or not, the answers—or nonanswers—to this mystery seem to reveal as much about the unique psyche of the American president at the time, Barack Obama, as they do about the decadelong policy debate on Iran that continues to consume Washington. Yet for some of his supporters and detractors, Obama was simply a practioner of fact-based geopolitics—even if the facts in the end were against him. In this view, Obama as president understood the Islamic Republic as posing a severe threat to American interests and forged a limited agreement to constrain a regime that would be even more dangerous with nuclear weapons. To these critics, he pursued the right goals, but was just remarkably bad at achieving them. A more experienced bargainer might have achieved a better deal.
Alternatively, to others, the explanation of what went wrong is rooted in the unique character and upbringing of the American leader himself. According to this reading, Obama’s choices were rooted in a personal distaste for Western imperialism and American power that was not shared by many of the deal’s supporters or its detractors. It was Obama’s own picture of the world, not any broader consensus view of how American power should be employed or conserved in the Middle East, that led him into a delusional engagement with anti-Western Sunni and Shiite actors, notably the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Republic, and into a strategic realignment that strengthened these American adversaries against America’s traditional allies, notably Saudi Arabia and Israel.
In life, as in politics, incompetence can often explain more than bad ideas. In this reading, Obama deserves more blame for his negotiating ineptitude with the mullahs than he does for some ill-conceived scheme of Middle East realignment that supercharged Persian regional power. The 2015 deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, was simply a bad deal that wouldn’t stop Iran’s nuclear weapons programs, not a bad idea rooted in anti-Western theories from the American faculty lounge, where Obama had spent considerable time. But then why are we still stuck backing such an obvious loser?
Even as the clerical regime publicly disintegrates, JCPOA supporters continue to argue for the merits of a limited agreement that would even temporarily put Iran’s nuclear program “back in a box,” as Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, put it. Opponents counter that, more than seven years later, a return to the 2015 agreement would be even more wrongheaded than the original deal. Sunsets kick in over a few short years, and the regime would receive a windfall of an estimated $245 billion in sanctions relief in the first year, and over $1 trillion by 2030 when Iran’s nuclear program would be free and clear from meaningful limitations—rescuing a tottering, ill-intentioned and widely hated regime by pumping it full of cash that it would use to build nuclear weapons and sow regional chaos. The arms control paradigm, in which supporters and critics argue back and forth over what would constitute “a better deal,” is preventing a clear acknowledgement of Obama’s failure—and blocking the development of a workable strategy for dealing with current developments in Iran and throughout the region.
The faults of the JCPOA have been covered many times, including by this author. The Obama administration abandoned its negotiating leverage, provided mainly by a bipartisan Congress which passed biting economic sanctions on Iran between 2009 and 2012 over the objections of the Obama White House. The administration concluded a flawed interim nuclear agreement in 2013, and an even worse final agreement in 2015. The eventual deal trashed decades of bipartisan U.S. policy and multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to cease enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium on its soil. While it temporarily delayed Iranian nuclear expansion, the deal ceded the right to develop nuclear fissile material to the Islamic Republic and contained a series of sunset provisions under which nuclear restrictions disappeared. These sunsets permitted Tehran to develop, over time, an industrial-size enrichment program, near-zero nuclear breakout capability, and an advanced centrifuge-powered sneak-out capacity, as even Obama himself acknowledged after the deal was concluded.
Many critics of the deal argued that a longer, stronger, and broader agreement was possible if Obama had maximized the pressure on the regime, including through a credible threat of military force. Indeed, the Trump administration came into office promising to do exactly that. Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, imposed crushing sanctions that ravaged the Islamic Republic’s finances, and dealt a serious blow to Iranian regional power with the joint Mossad-CIA killing of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most competent military strategist and most feared battlefield commander.
Analysts and partisans continue to debate what could have transpired if this “maximum pressure campaign” had lasted longer than two years. But Biden reversed Trump’s pressure strategy, looked the other way as Chinese purchases of Iranian oil spiked, and waited too long before tackling a massive clandestine sanctions network that earned the regime tens of billions of dollars in hard currency. Predictably this “maximum deference” approach, meant to lure Iran back to the bargaining table, has failed to deliver any agreement, including even a return to a weaker version of the JCPOA. Instead, Iran’s nuclear program has rapidly and dangerously expanded under Biden’s watch, with no serious discussion about how to stop it—aside from stuffing the Islamic Republic’s pockets with more cash.
As protests continue to rage in Iran, with more than 2,000 demonstrations in over three months across all of Iran’s provinces and Iranians demanding regime change and “death to the dictator,” the place to start to answer the question of how we got ourselves into this mess is an earlier Iranian uprising: the 2009 Green Revolution. Then, the fraudulent reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in an even more blatant act of election manipulation than had been common in the Islamic Republic, led to massive pro-democracy demonstrations in Tehran.
The 2009 demonstrations were bigger in size than anything since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, including the current protests. The Green Revolution had clear leadership with support inside some elements of the regime itself; it arguably represented a more cohesive and threatening political opposition to the regime than this year’s leaderless street demonstrations. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself said that the 2009 protests had taken the clerical regime “to the edge of the cliff.” So why did the 2009 Green Revolution fail?
The key to the regime’s successful campaign of repression in 2009 was America’s decision to appease the Islamic Republic at the expense of the Iranian people. The demonstrators were clearly looking outward with the expectation of Western support, especially from the young, supposedly idealistic, newly elected American president. When Obama instead took pains to reassure the Iranian leadership of his commitment to engagement, he made it clear to the demonstrators that they were on their own against their jailers. Within a few weeks, the would-be revolution collapsed.
In the moment, many people outside Iran cut Obama considerable slack. It was just the beginning of his presidency, and his focus was clearly on getting out of Iraq, as he had promised. Yet, in retrospect, there is something disturbing about what Obama did in 2009 that looks even more troubling from the vantage point of Syria, Crimea, and the Donbas, and America’s continuing inability to forget about the JCPOA.
Why did Obama so comprehensively and demonstratively turn his back on the Iranian democracy protesters in 2009, in what was his first major foreign policy decision as president? It is a deep question, especially since Obama himself, after bipartisan and European support swung behind the 2022 protests, has belatedly acknowledged that his lack of support for the Green Revolution was a mistake.
The first set of answers again lies in the familiar area of realpolitik: Obama didn’t want any distractions in getting the United States out of Iraq, and he saw Iran as the keystone to a smooth withdrawal. Angering the Iranian leadership would only lead to greater American casualties, which could cause a political firestorm, with Obama blamed for getting U.S. soldiers killed. That would force him to surge in more troops to Iraq to assuage the Pentagon and Congress, rather than withdrawing them.
Yet Obama had a problem in carrying out his withdrawal from Iraq: Congress was passing tough sanctions on Iran over the objections of the White House. In response, he wrote letters to Iran’s supreme leader offering an end to U.S.–Iranian hostilities and greater political and economic engagement. As the regime took Obama’s messaging as a green light to rapidly increase its influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Gaza, even as America’s Sunni allies warned of a “Shiite crescent” that threatened their own stability, Obama did little to confront Tehran.
Yet Obama’s strategic priority in 2009 was not to cement a U.S. deal with Iran at any cost. It was to engage with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was seen as the commander of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. Obama characterized Erdogan as the type of moderate Muslim leader that could help him stabilize a turbulent Middle East. Turkey was a NATO member and major Middle Eastern military power. Engaging with Erdogan and the Muslim Brotherhood also meant taking out Egypt’s authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak, who had repressed the Brotherhood, and stood in the way of the Arab Spring.
It is possible from one angle to see Obama’s support for the Arab Spring as support for democracy in the Middle East. Yet as his decision to turn his back on the Iranian pro-democracy protesters suggests, Obama was hardly a supporter of regional democrats. Nor was he particularly interested in supporting Iraq’s struggling democracy, which he saw as a tar pit that would only prolong U.S. engagement in the region—which he strongly opposed. In place of U.S. engagement, Obama supported anti-Western, “one election” Islamists who, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Erdogan in Turkey, and Khamenei in Iran, used and abused democratic mechanisms to gain and keep power. His preference was not for democrats per se, but for anti-imperialists who overthrew or sought to overthrow autocratic U.S. allies.
Yet the Arab Spring turned out very differently than Obama expected. When the Arab Spring in Egypt led to the takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian military, backed by many secular Egyptians who had demonstrated against Mubarak, launched a coup to restore secular authoritarian rule. In Syria, a democratic uprising led to a brutal crackdown by Bashar Assad, with support from Iran-backed ground troops.
The failures of the Arab Spring meant the collapse of Obama’s vision for a Middle East led by the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates. It was only after that vision collapsed that Obama sent his advisers Jake Sullivan and Bill Burns to Oman in 2013 to explore nuclear negotiations with the Iranians—in the hopes of finding another Middle Eastern power aside from Turkey that could “stabilize” the region in the wake of America’s withdrawal from Iraq.
Unsurprisingly, Iran often seemed to exist for Obama not as a threat to U.S. interests but as a historical victim of Western imperialism, which supposedly overthrew a “democratically elected” Iranian prime minister and installed the shah. Iran’s repressive theocratic regime seemed less notable for its blatant offenses against its own people, or its efforts to destabilize neighboring states, than for its role as the bête noire of warmongering neoconservatives in the United States, who supported a regional structure that put America on the side of troublemakers such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Faced with the choice between the Islamic Republic and its enemies, Obama found it surprisingly easy to take the side of the mullahs—putting himself and the United States crossways both to U.S. interests and the hopes and dreams of the Iranian people.
Obama’s big Iran play was neither ‘values-driven’ nor purely pragmatic.
Obama’s big Iran play, which continues to shape U.S. regional policy to this day, was therefore neither “values-driven” nor purely pragmatic. His apparent goal was to extricate the United States from a cycle of endless conflict—one of whose primary causes, as he saw it, was Western imperialism. In doing so, Obama sought to be the first anti-imperialist American president since Dwight Eisenhower, who had backed Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser against the British, French, and Israelis in the 1956 Suez war. (Eisenhower later admitted that backing Nasser and abandoning the United States’ traditional allies had been one of the biggest mistakes of his presidency.)
Yet the Iranians were not, in fact, powerful enough to play the “balancing” role Obama envisioned for them, as their failure to stabilize Syria proved. He therefore stood aside, willingly or not, as the Russians intervened on the Iranian side to bomb the Syrian resistance. For rescuing the Islamic Republic and its allies in Syria, Putin was allowed to invade Crimea and the Donbas with minimal opposition from the Obama administration.
Anti-imperialist narratives were clearly important to Obama, and make sense as products of his unique upbringing. The fact that they utterly failed to correspond to regional realities caused multiple problems on the ground in the Middle East. Obama’s policy of trying to put the United States on the side of his own preferred client states created a slaughter in Syria that in turn led to multiple other slaughters throughout the region. The rise of ISIS was fueled partly in response to vicious Iran-backed attacks against Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis. The shocking rise of the Islamic State required Obama to send U.S. troops into Syria and back into Iraq. It also emboldened Putin, who invaded Ukraine for the third time in 2022.
Obama’s ongoing and catastrophic policy failure, which has blocked the Biden administration from developing any kind of workable strategic vision for dealing with current realities in Iran and throughout the region, demonstrates that substituting American narratives about purity and guilt for hard-power realities is a dangerous business. Ideologically driven anti-Western narratives led the United States to place dangerous and wrongheaded bets on Sunni Islamists and Shiite theocrats at the expense of our own interests and friends. Poorly executed policy led to a fatally flawed nuclear agreement that continues to bedevil the Biden administration and America’s European and Middle Eastern allies. The JCPOA was a big mistake. The longer we refuse to admit that, the higher the price we will continue to pay.
Mark Dubowitz is the CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.