Andrew Harnik - Pool/Getty Images
President Barack Obama, standing with Vice President Joe Biden, conducts a press conference in the East Room of the White House about the Iran nuclear deal, on July 14, 2015Andrew Harnik - Pool/Getty Images
Navigate to News section

The Iran Deal’s Inevitable Sequel

Barack Obama’s plan was never about stopping Iran from obtaining a bomb. It was about realigning American interests in the Middle East in order to remake the Democratic Party at home.

by
Lee Smith
March 11, 2021
Andrew Harnik - Pool/Getty Images
President Barack Obama, standing with Vice President Joe Biden, conducts a press conference in the East Room of the White House about the Iran nuclear deal, on July 14, 2015Andrew Harnik - Pool/Getty Images
collection
This article is part of The Iran Deal.
See the full collection →︎

Joe Biden’s commitment to reenter the Iran nuclear deal from which Donald Trump withdrew might strike observers as bizarre. After all, Barack Obama’s July 2015 agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was an expensive and comprehensive failure whose underlying premises have been shown over the past six years to be false. By contrast, Trump’s policy of returning to traditional regional alliance structures—boosting allies and deterring enemies—was a success. The United States entered no new Middle East wars and Iran didn’t build a bomb, despite supposedly being “months” or “weeks” away from a nuclear breakout during Obama’s second term in the White House.

But facts- and results-based analysis misses the main purpose of the JCPOA, which had nothing to do with preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons. Rather, the agreement guaranteed Iran the money and technology it needs to build a bomb while putting Iran’s nuclear program under the protective umbrella of an international agreement guaranteed by the United States. The purpose of the JCPOA, in other words, was to put the nuclear issue in brackets by giving the Iranians a bomb that they were manifestly unable to build on their own—and, in doing so, to remove the obstacle that prevented Obama from realigning American regional interests with those of the revolutionary regime.

None of this should be remotely surprising to anyone who has read the plain text of the deal, and who understands it in its regional context rather than in the context of America’s domestic political wars. What I learned over the course of nearly a decade reporting on the deal, its causes and its effects was that all the elaborate technical talk that was endlessly bandied about by “experts”—centrifuge arrays and stockpiles of enriched uranium, etc.—was simple persiflage, intended to distract attention from the underlying purpose of these arrangements, which was to dump America’s current Middle East allies in favor of Iran.

The patent lunacy of tilting against Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel and toward Iran— that is, weakening your allies in order to partner with your enemy—was reflected by the abject misery the strategy caused in the Middle East. Between 2009 and 2017, I covered the entire spectrum of U.S.-Iran relations, from the Iran lobby to how Obama facilitated the genocide in Syria to satisfy Bashar Assad’s Iranian patrons. I detailed how the Iranians had killed Americans in Iraq and Lebanon and plotted to kill them at home, too, even as Obama praised Iran’s terror master Qassem Soleimani. I reported on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech in front of Congress warning of the dangers of putting mankind’s most destructive weapon in the hands of a regime that embodies anti-Semitism, and the Obama administration’s deployment of anti-Semitic conceits to scare off Jewish Democrats from opposing the deal. I warned that empowering such a regime would bring more violence to the Middle East and license discord and give rise to a politics of paranoia here at home.

And here’s how anyone who was paying attention during the first iteration of the Iran deal debate knew the JCPOA was never about stopping Iran from getting the bomb­­: The key clauses of the agreement restraining Iran’s nuclear and nonnuclear activities were in no way permanent. In fact, they were specifically designed to expire over time. Had the deal been built to prevent Iran from a nuclear breakout, there would be no so-called “sunset clauses.” In other words, the JCPOA was written to ensure that a well-funded Iran (thanks to the elimination of American and U.N. sanctions), fortified with missing technology (also courtesy of the United States) got the bomb—once Obama was safely out of the White House.

Why give Iran the bomb? Because Obama wanted to give America’s old allies the boot. His motive for such rude treatment was that he wanted America to leave the Middle East for good, and to do so he needed a regional power that could manage American interests. Since the Gulf Arab powers are dependent on American protection, they are by definition incapable of handling America’s Middle East portfolio. Israel, though a nuclear power with a serious army, is a Jewish state and so has little ability to project power in a Muslim-majority region. Those are both rational observations, if not evidence of the need for a change in policy.

Yet seen simply as a device for buttressing American strategic primacy in the Middle East, Obama’s policy was never remotely rational. The consequences of the deal never mattered, because what mattered to its authors was simply the deal itself. Similarly today, there are no Iranian depredations—against Syrians, or Lebanese, or Iraqis, or Israelis, or Iranians, or perhaps even Americans—that will deter the same Obama staffers who fill all the same Iran policy posts in the Biden administration from reentering the JCPOA. They’re not going to be stopped from reversing Trump’s exit and fulfilling Obama’s pledge to protect Iran’s nuclear weapons program until it becomes fully operative—which is the only thing that can etch the new security structure in stone.

Why Obama didn’t settle on Turkey as America’s preferred regional hegemon was an early tell. The geopolitical entity now known as “Turkey” has been a dominant regional power center in the Levant for two millennia, under the Ottoman and Byzantine empires. Turkey would have been a logical choice, if the point was simply to make an ally a steward. It is a large Muslim country with a real economy that trades extensively with the West. It’s a democracy, albeit at times a troubled one; it is certainly far more democratic and far less oppressive and dictatorial than Iran. It’s also a NATO member with a NATO army, an important airbase, and several naval bases on vital waterways. And yet anonymous Obama officials kept leaking that Turkey’s army was a mess, an assessment that was later shown to be false when the Turks cut through Assad’s forces in Idlib like butter.

Obama officials lied about Turkey’s strength, and continue to demonize the imperfections of the Turkish government, because Obama’s project had nothing to do with advancing America’s geopolitical interests. He had his heart set on realigning the United States with Iran. He spoke of it in virtually every interview he gave about his Middle East policy. He talked about Saudi Arabia and Iran having to “share the neighborhood”; he wanted to create a geopolitical equilibrium between Arab Sunni “Gulf states and Iran”; “there are shifts that are taking place in the region that have caught a lot of them off guard,” he said of traditional American allies. “I think change is always scary.” He said it in speeches and press statements, too, like when he spoke of respecting Iran’s “equities” in Syria. He told interviewers that Iran was a real state, with institutions and interests and therefore Iranian behavior was fundamentally rational.

By making the U.S.-Israel relationship toxic, Obama made the pro-Israel wing of the party leprous.

So what if the Iranian regime galvanizes the masses with chants of “death to America”? It appears Obama reasoned that America could work with that. He said that even Iran’s state-sponsored anti-Semitism did not necessarily signal irrationality. Rather, it was an “organizing tool” that didn’t preclude the regime from making rational decisions about its own survival. Obama’s easy dismissal of Tehran’s insistent and loony anti-Semitism was another red light: There was something off about the president’s stated reasoning. Anti-Semitism, as I wrote at the time, is the form that unreason takes in modern politics. Who sees state-manufactured systemic and eliminationist hatred of an entire race as a mere detail?

Starting in January of 2014, Obama paid Iran $700 million a month to negotiate the nuclear deal. That is, the American president was paying for the war that the terror regime’s client Assad was waging against the Syrian people. But Soleimani feared he still couldn’t stop the armed rebels, even with hundreds of billions of dollars in JCPOA sanctions relief on the way. Obama had miscalculated: Iran couldn’t stabilize the Middle East. He had downgraded traditional American allies and helped fund a genocide in Syria, all for nothing.

With Trump entering the White House, more evidence that Obama had misread Iran’s strength became apparent. Trump left the JCPOA, just as he had promised, so where was the war that Obama said was inevitable? What happened instead was that the Iranian opposition turned on the regime and filled the streets to protest against a sclerotic ruling class that had squandered money on foreign wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Gaza, as well as Syria. When Trump reimposed sanctions, Iran did not set the region aflame, as Trump’s critics promised, because American sanctions had in fact crippled its ability to make war. After the Iranians used Iraqi proxies to attack the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Trump killed Soleimani—and still the apocalypse that Obama had forecast failed to materialize.

The premises on which the Iran deal was ostensibly based were proven false. But now, the Biden administration promises to return to it, and the Washington, D.C., foreign policy establishment is staging a revival of the original show—the purpose of which is to legitimize the failed JCPOA by pretending there is a genuine debate over how it might best be negotiated and implemented. Does it matter how this charade might affect the lives of millions of Middle Easterners, never mind the security and prosperity of American taxpayers? Of course not.

Instead, Americans will be sold the same faded bill of goods all over again. The warmup act will likely feature pillars of the peace process industry like Dennis Ross, Aaron David Miller, and Martin Indyk swearing out bona fides on behalf of the fact that Joe Biden is a “lifelong friend of Israel” who wouldn’t dream of jeopardizing the Jewish state by giving Iran the bomb. Next, the Biden administration and its Team Iran allies will be called on to defend the JCPOA against another Beltway clique, the Iran hawks, none of whom have the slightest actual leverage or power in the administration—and their good friend Benjamin Netanyahu. In return, the hawks will publish op-eds and whisper loudly about their extra-special-secret access to the administration’s good-guy moderates like National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who all love Israel just like Joe Biden does. The smart move, say the hawks, is to empower the Biden “moderates” so they can take on the administration’s hardliners, like Iran envoy Robert Malley.

But wait, doesn’t positing divisions in political institutions between moderates and hardliners sound familiar? Yes, it’s how American policymakers have mischaracterized the Iranian regime since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The idea of strengthening the “moderates” in order to push back on the “hardliners” is nonsense, of course; even if moderates really do exist in such institutions, they have no control over major policy decisions. While the Biden administration is hardly as bloody-minded as the Tehran clique, there’s no chance that any of the policymakers involved in Iran policy were hired in order to oppose what President Biden has identified as a foreign policy priority—reentering the JCPOA. When the negotiations reach a crucial stage in the coming months, Iran deal advocates will admit as they did last time that, OK, the deal isn’t perfect, but the only other option is war. And just as they did last time, they’ll say that if you don’t support the deal, you’re a warmonger.

In other words, the big Beltway foreign policy show is nothing but a sting. Who’s the mark? You are. The hawks have no more chance of stopping the deal than the Washington Generals do of beating the Harlem Globetrotters. The point of the show is to make sure that cash continues to flow into Team Biden’s coffers.

The Biden administration’s determination to reenter the Iran deal is a macabre scam virtually handing off a bomb to a terror state. And that’s why Tablet is not going to pretend that any of it is real by giving the play-by-play details of battles between “moderates” and “hardliners,” or the odds on a “hawk” victory, or any other part of this geopolitical con job.

And yet before the farce unfolds in full, there’s an important question that still needs to be answered: Why is the Biden administration reinvesting so enthusiastically in a failure that will damage America’s closest allies? After all, there are plenty of ways to raise money, and Jewish Democrats are nothing but eager to remain within the fold. The answer is that what you see as failures the White House and its satellites see as features.

America’s Middle East allies are in fact only the most visible targets of the Iran deal: As an intervention in American domestic politics, the JCPOA was designed as an instrument to break pro-Israel Democrats, who represent what Obama saw as the most powerful of the internal constituencies that might oppose his reordering of the Democratic Party. That is, the real realignment isn’t in the Middle East, which America is leaving anyway, but inside Obama’s own party.

I confess that I didn’t see the domestic thrust of the Iran deal clearly the first time around: Namely, that the point of the Iran deal as seen through the lens of American domestic politics was to dismantle the 20th-century Democratic Party and remake it in Obama’s own image. That’s why the Obama administration devoted nearly the entirety of its bandwidth during the president’s second term to getting the deal through Congress, rather than focusing on income inequality, minimum wage laws, rebuilding domestic industry in America, curbing the power of tech monopolies, or other potentially worthy and appropriately left-wing causes.

The deal was never about Obama’s personal feelings about Israel, whatever they are.

Downgrading Israel as an American ally was a way to take down the pro-Israel wing of the Democratic Party, whose power depends on the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship and which is generally seen as less “progressive”—and which had generally supported his rival, Hillary Clinton. By making the U.S.-Israel relationship toxic, Obama made the wing of the party leprous. Unmaking “Jewish power” within the Democratic Party meant permanently decoupling the United States from Israel by wedding America to the most credible anti-Israel force in the Middle East, the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was through that deliberate political math that Obama’s Democratic Party became the Party of Iran.

So please don’t waste your time trying to parse whatever Biden negotiators and Iranian diplomats in Vienna or Berlin are reported to be saying six months or a year from now. As far as the Middle East is concerned, none of what Iran deal supporters say about the JCPOA is real. And as far as Americans are concerned, the real explanations lie closer to home.

Join Us!

All of Tablet’s latest stories—in your inbox, daily. Subscribe to our newsletter.

Please enter a valid email
Check iconSuccess! You have subscribed to the Tablet newsletter.