The State Department now says that the United States has “shared interests” with Iran in Iraq, and talks are apparently ongoing between the two countries about the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the country that once hosted half a million American troops. However, the White House and Pentagon have rushed to make it clear that the administration would never, ever dream of coordinating military strikes with Tehran. So, the Obama Administration leaks when Israel strikes Iranian missile convoys to Hezbollah and negotiates with Iran about its nuclear weapons program, but it would never coordinate with Iran on Iraq, where Iran is the only actor on the ground with any capacity to stop the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Nope. The cat is out of the bag. The Iraq crisis has made it plain that Iran is now the main pillar of President Barack Obama’s Middle East strategy. Sure, America’s traditional regional partners, especially Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, aren’t going to like the White House’s cozy new arrangement with their most threatening foe. But Obama believes that a U.S. alliance with Iran is the best fit for a hobbled and impoverished superpower that is on its way out of the Middle East.
Obama gave our old allies plenty of warning that change was a-coming. “I think that there are shifts that are taking place in the region that have caught a lot of them off guard,” he told Jeffrey Goldberg in March. “I think change is always scary.” Washington Post columnist and White House sounding board David Ignatius thought Obama was set on building a new regional framework that accommodates not just our closest friends, but everyone—“the security needs of Iranians, Saudis, Israelis, Russians and Americans.” This new architecture, Obama told David Remnick, would create a geopolitical equilibrium “between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran.”
The obvious problem with that idea is that you can’t create a balance of power between two patently unequal entities. Yes, Saudi Arabia has lots of oil money that it uses to buy American airplanes, but without first-rate pilots, technical advisers, and satellite imagery, those high-performance aircraft are no more impressive a line of defense than the Saudi royal family’s collection of Lamborghinis. Unlike Iran, the Saudis also notably lack any capacity to project force beyond their own borders—the Saudis, for example, have no equivalent of the Revolutionary Guards Corps’ external operations unit, the Quds Force. The logical conclusion then was that Obama really meant to say that he was balancing Iran and Israel—the one country that had the means and a possible motive to disrupt his grand regional project.
Who knows when the idea first hit Obama that Iran was a better bet for a regional partnership with the world’s sole remaining superpower than either Saudi Arabia or Israel? Maybe it was after he saw that Turkey, the American policy-making establishment’s favorite example of Islamist democracy, was a paper tiger. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks a good game, but when he came up with goose eggs after Obama tasked him to solve Syria, he showed he was nothing but talk. Maybe Valerie Jarrett, his closest adviser in the White House, told him about her childhood in Iran and how nice the people are. Maybe he read some books about the U.S.-Iranian alliance under the shah. Maybe he thought that lifting sanctions and unfreezing Iranian assets was a much cheaper and less risky way of buying friends than sending special-forces trainers and pilots to Saudi Arabia and extending military credits to Israel.
One big part of Obama’s preference for Iran is no doubt a function of domestic politics, which appears to be the lens through which this White House usually interprets actors and events in the rest of the world. The Saudis have a long history of preferring Republicans—Riyadh’s most famous ambassador to Washington, after all, is nicknamed Bandar Bush. The same is true of the Likud crew now in power in Israel—Sheldon Adelson, the GOP’s favorite ATM, backs Bibi as well as Obama’s domestic opposition. With the Saudis and Israelis, the White House sees rich Republicans with a thing for hummus.
The bedrock issue in the Middle East isn’t the Israeli occupation of anything, but sectarianism
But what really irks Obama is the idea that America’s foremost allies in the Middle East hardly reflect his version of American values or interests. The Saudis are wildly undemocratic—they don’t allow women to drive, for Pete’s sake—and export a fanatical version of Islam to the rest of the world. The Israelis might be even worse—a bunch of arrogant light-skinned neo-colonialists who talk about darker-skinned Palestinians, and about Muslims in general, the way that Albert Shanker of the New York City Teachers Union once talked about Bobby Seale. Then there’s the small matter of the occupation, which turns the Muslim masses against Israel’s superpower backer in Washington.
OK, the Iranians aren’t exactly democratic, but they do have real political parties, a working parliament, and elections where the winners get less than 98.6 percent of the vote. Also, from Obama’s perspective, the Islamic Revolution must seem at its core to be a social justice movement, however flawed: The shah was a tyrant and a good friend of Richard Nixon. Overthrowing him was a good thing. In a sense, the Islamic revolution was a historical moment, similar to Obama’s election, putting a minority, the Shia, in power for the first time in history. Sure, there are plenty of problems with Iran, they support terror, as Obama noted in Remnick’s profile, but they’re also, as he explained, rational actors who pursue their national interests. Ergo, we can work with them.
Indeed, there are some clear strategic advantages to working with Tehran. The Obama White House sees five key issues in the Middle East right now—preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons; combating terrorism, of the Sunni variety like al-Qaida; the Arab-Israeli peace process; preventing Iraq from blowing up; and getting some handle on the Syria conflict. As it turns out, Iran also has a stake in all five.
The Saudis don’t. From the White House’s perspective, the Saudis back Sunni terror in Syria and Iraq, they have no chips in the peace process, and if they get a nuke, they’re likely to be much less responsible with it than Iran.
Israel is even worse. Yes, the Israelis set up field hospitals to help Syrian civilians but it plays no strategic role there, nor can it in Iraq, because everyone in the region hates them, at least in front of the cable news cameras. The way the White House sees it, Israel’s nuclear weapons program is also an incitement to its neighbors—Iran probably wouldn’t want one if it weren’t for Israel. And then there’s the way that Israel keeps jamming crowbars in the spokes of the peace process, undermining PA President Mahmoud Abbas, a man of peace, and casting aspersions on America’s dynamic Secretary of State John Kerry.
Iran, on the other hand, has big stakes in both Iran and Syria. In the Arab-Israeli arena, it controls at least one spoiler, Hezbollah, and can burn Gaza any time it likes, with Hamas or Islamic Jihad—and is therefore an excellent source of diplomatic breakthroughs. Iran also has a strong interest in defeating Sunni terrorism and in keeping Iraq and Syria quiet. And then of course there’s the Iranian nuclear file—if we can keep them happy on other fronts, while relieving sanctions, there’s a very good chance that they’ll postpone announcing their nuclear breakout at least until Inauguration Day 2017, by which point the mullahs will probably be too busy arguing over their favorite Hermes ties and Mercedes coupes to waste much time on boring stuff like nuclear triggers and centrifuges. It’s a no-brainer to hand U.S. Middle East policy off to Iran.
But there’s a sticking point, or actually two of them.
First, in making Iran the beneficiary of an American fire sale, Obama may believe that the Iranians will actually be grateful—and will show their gratitude by not embarrassing him in public. But that’s not how the game is played in the Middle East. The Iranians always understood the sanctions regime as a matter of will: If you stick to your position, the Americans will blink first, they’ll soften their position because it’s in their nature—what the Americans fear more than anything is not to be loved for their fairness.
And when you say you’re exhausted, as Obama has spelled out repeatedly, withdrawing from Iraq, scheduling a withdrawal date from Afghanistan, and staying out of Syria because the American people are tired of the Middle East, the Iranians will not come to the aid of a weary nation and its president to provide solace, shade, and a cool glass of water. No, they’ll beat us like the beaten dog we are. That’s why the Iranians have an external operations unit that manages terrorist attacks around the world—to make their adversaries go weak in the knees. The Islamic Republic is not merely an expansionist regime, but a predatory one as well, as is evidenced by its campaigns in Syria and Iraq. They recognize, correctly, that the United States lost, which means that they won.
However, this is the flip-side: The Iranians are not capable of shouldering the weight that Obama wants them to carry. Just like America’s traditional allies, Iran is limited in its ability to project power. And what we’re seeing in Iraq right now is Tehran coming up against its natural barriers.
Since the U.S.-led coalition’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, it has become increasingly clear that the bedrock issue in the Middle East isn’t the Israeli occupation of anything, but sectarianism. Iran, a Persian and Shiite power, is on the wrong side of the regional divide. As the regional majority, Arab Sunnis outnumber the Shia by something like 5 to 1, when most military strategists argue that a 3-to-1 ratio in the field almost always proves decisive. To date, Iran has been able to manage their various regional portfolios, in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, by convincing Arab Shiites to die for Persian causes. And yet the region-wide conflict is taxing the available troops in all three theaters and stretching Iran’s supply lines thin. ISIS’s blitzkrieg through northern Iraq may be a sign of things to come.
Thanks in part to the Obama Administration, Iran the last six years has enjoyed a triumphalist moment, believing that it has finally overturned thousands of years of Middle East history, with the Persians and the Shiites victorious at last over their historical enemies. But that moment—like America’s own post-Cold War moment of euphoria—appears to be at an end. The American interest in the Middle East now depends on Iran breaking before Obama does.
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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).