Being president of the United States is often described as the most powerful job in the world not because the president can remake America with the stroke of a pen (he can’t), or because the United States is the most powerful nation in the world (although that helps), but because of the unrivaled power it gives the executive to chart America’s course in the world. At home, the president may not be able to do much about the roads, taxes, or even delivering the mail. Abroad, he can start and stop wars, make enemies into friends (and vice versa), and otherwise determine the tone and often the direction of the entire planet—or at least that part of the planet that responds to American economic, diplomatic, and military cues. Which is one good reason why that even presidents who come to office proclaiming their disinterest in foreign policy—like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—often wind up their second terms in office focused on the one policy area they can actually control.
With the Senate falling into Republican hands, then, the Obama Administration will naturally turn more of its attention to foreign policy. So, what’s on tap? The first and easiest prediction that any number of pundits have made is that the administration will circumvent Congress and push through a permanent agreement with Iran over its nuclear weapons program when the deadline comes up Nov. 24.
Any deal with Iran, the administration seems to believe now, is better than no deal at all. In fact, as we learned last week, the administration has already helped Iran get across the nuclear finish line—and they’re bragging about it. Lost in all the noise about an unnamed Obama Administration official telling journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “is a chickenshit,” for example, was the even newsworthier comment of another unnamed official who crowed that it is now too late for Israel to stop the Islamic Republic from getting a nuclear weapon—thanks to the White House’s own deliberate campaign of deception.
The White House fooled Netanyahu into believing it was serious about the military option, the Obama aide said. And now, he continued, the Israeli prime minister has no options left besides to whine and complain. “Two, three years ago, this was a possibility,” he explained to Goldberg. What sidelined the Israeli leader, the official continued, “was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”
The president has long insisted that his policy was not to contain or deter a nuclearized Iran, but to prevent the clerical regime from acquiring the bomb. According to the administration official quoted by Goldberg, this posture was simply a lie. Now Israel is going to have to learn to live with an Iranian nuclear bomb because, as Obama sees it, it’s in the American interest.
And there’s more. The reason that the White House wants Iran to have a bomb is that it’s the quickest route to what it really wants—which is a larger regional accommodation with Tehran. As Obama has explained, Iran is a rational actor that pursues its interests. If you fight the Islamic Republic, it’ll just make it angrier and more dangerous, so it’s best to try to get on its good side. A world where the United States and Iran are friends and allies will be a safer, more peaceful place. Or so Obama and his advisers seem to believe.
Another way to understand the upcoming new era in U.S.-Iran relations is as the age of Renfield. As horror fans will recall, Renfield is a character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He’s not a real vampire, but a madman whose appetites—for vermin and the proximity to power—are fed by the master whose evil he enables. Renfield, observes Dr. Seward, the asylum’s supervisor, “has certain qualities very largely developed, selfishness, secrecy, and purpose.” In the age of Renfield, people align themselves with darkness because it has the appearance of strength. In an era of robust American leadership, administration officials tasked to speak to the press praise allies and curse adversaries openly; when they criticize friends, it’s done in private and without invective. In the age of Renfield, faceless parasites hurl insults at allies from the shadows.
In the age of Renfield, what America’s regional partners most fear about the Islamic Republic is what makes it most appealing to the White House. Yes, Iran is an expansionist power that threatens total war against its neighbors. But that just means Tehran is an ideal regional enforcer. Saudi Arabia can barely manage its own citizens—who go off to wage jihad in Syria—never mind control hundreds of millions of Sunni Arabs in other countries. And Israel commands the loyalty of only 6 million Jews. In contrast, Iran now asserts de facto control of four Arab capitals—in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. For Obama, a president who believes he was elected to get the United States out of the Middle East, it’s a no-brainer—the Iranians can get things done in the region precisely because they are so vicious. As Renfield says of the count, “he began promising me things, not in words but by doing them.”
As for Bibi, he got outmaneuvered like an earnest but comically stiff hero in a B-film remake whose girlfriend is busy making out with Dracula. Bibi got played by a whole team of Renfields who vouched for Obama’s baseline bona fides regarding Israeli security—from policymakers like Rahm Emanuel and Robert Wexler to former ambassadors to Israel like Daniel Kurtzer and Martin Indyk. Now that the cat is out of the bag, you’d think some of them might take offense that their personal honor was compromised by a White House that boasts about having helped an American adversary and deterred a longtime U.S. ally. You’d think some of them might be annoyed that they gave their word that Obama has Israel’s back—now that it turns out that Obama was bluffing and deliberately stringing the Israelis along. But no one’s making too big a deal out of Obama playing Renfield to the Islamic Republic’s regional Dracula because he made everyone who vouched for him into an enabler, too. Washington is full of Renfields.
Accordingly, the next logical move for those who said Obama would strike to protect Israel is to rationalize that his not striking was actually in Israel’s best interests: All Obama did was to take away the keys to the F-15s. Had Netanyahu taken matters into his own hands, an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would’ve unleashed a wave of terror against Israeli and Jewish sites around the world. Moreover, it would’ve enraged the European powers that will soon be investing billions in Iran’s petroleum and automobile sectors.
The Europeans aren’t the only ones who’ll be gorging on table scraps—the nuclear agreement means there will be enough for all the Renfields of the world to feed. For Obama there’s a likely trip to Tehran to celebrate his historic achievement—reconciliation with the Islamic Republic after 35 unnecessary and costly years of enmity. For diplomats and policymakers there will be exciting meetings with their exotic Iranian counterparts. It was all a big misunderstanding, and now the old wounds—the toppling of Mossadeq, the takeover of the U.S. embassy—will be healed. Who in the end, besides the maniacs, is truly opposed to the benefits of peace?
There have always been Renfields, those who see darkness as strength. The academics and journalists who idealized the Soviet Union even after Stalin’s crimes were made public. The racists and anti-Semites whose hatred and fear is sublimated into collecting Nazi or Klan paraphernalia. The Hezbollah and Hamas groupies who flock to Beirut and Gaza to absorb the dark charisma of the resistance. The Islamic Republic always had its own Renfields, too, from Michel Foucault, who reveled in the orgiastic violence of the revolution, to former American policymakers like Flynt Leverett, whose case for the regime was never about its ostensible moderation but rather about his yen for its particular brand of violence.
What’s new is that an entire foreign policy establishment, led by the White House, has embraced the charms of the enabler. Bureaucrats who order the rape, torture, and murder of Iranian dissidents, the mid-level IRGC officials who manage the regime’s terrorist operations abroad, relations with Hezbollah and Hamas—they’re ready for their moment in the spotlight. Hey, did you see the Diane Sawyer piece on what Qassem Suleimani’s got on his iPad? Soon, an invitation to dine at Javad Zarif’s Tehran villa will become the hottest ticket in the foreign service: the tastiest, tenderest lamb shank, and the dill rice is to die for!
In honor of the new age of American policy in the Middle East, I propose a toast to Renfield—whose talents are selfishness and secrecy—the man of the moment. Raise your glasses high, gentlemen. Just don’t ask what’s in the glass.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).