“I’m here until I have a deal in my hands,” Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif just said here in Vienna. “I think we can do it.”
What Zarif is really saying is that during his one-day trip to Tehran, he got a green light from supreme leader Ali Khamenei to make a deal. Now it’s only a matter of getting the American side to show a liiiittttttle more flexibility.
And Zarif knows the Obama administration can do it because they’ve been bending over backwards since Obama first came to office six years ago. As The Wall Street Journal reported Monday, the White House has been trying to prove American “good will” toward Iran since 2009 through what are referred to in the diplomacy industry as “confidence-building measures.” For instance, the White House released four Iranians detained in U.S. prisons, “two convicted arms smugglers, a retired senior diplomat and a prominent scientist convicted of illegal exports to Iran.” In exchange, the Iranians released the three American college kids they kidnapped in July 2009.
What the White House won in this unequal-seeming exchange was the opportunity to negotiate with Iran—a three-year process that seems likely to soon culminate in an agreement that will guarantee Iran an immediate $150 billion in sanctions relief, pave the pathway for an Iranian bomb within the next decade, and usher in an age of multinuclear proliferation in the ever-volatile Middle East.
Why would any sane person make such a deal? There is no shortage of explanations, beginning with President Obama’s distaste for putting American troops in the Middle East after the Iraq War. Iran offered the convenience of a one-stop insurance policy: A potential local superpower that could cover America’s retreat from the Middle East and stabilize Iraq while helping to keep America safe at home by fighting ISIS and other Sunni terrorist groups. The prospect of Obama signing a deal with a longtime American adversary fit nicely with the narrative of transformative leadership that won him the presidency.
And what alternative did the Americans have? They are weak and exhausted. And their onetime client Israel is a global pariah, and too scared to attack Iran’s nuclear sites when they had the chance. If the Americans don’t sign the deal, any deal, it is quite possible that bombs will go off in European capitals, and in American cities. How much safer will the world feel then?
That’s more or less how the world looks today to members of the Iranian delegation in Vienna. And it is hard to say that the view of reality on which their negotiating posture appears to be premised is in any way delusional. Great, nearly miraculous things have transpired ever since Obama began writing letters to the Supreme Leader in 2009, which was also the year in which the Iranian regime was nearly overthrown by a populace that had grown sick and tired of the totalitarian lies and the miserable standard of living that the Mullahs offered them. Then, the American President started writing letters to the Supreme Guide, and everything changed.
First, the American withdrawal left Iraq wide open. Now, Iran gets to make the important calls and siphons money out of Iran’s oil revenues, and the Americans still do the heavy lifting on unpleasant issues—like air campaigns against ISIS. Iran won a position in the strategically vital Bab al-Mandab Strait by staking the Houthis. Now the Saudis have to worry about Iranian missiles on their southern border, just like Israel does.
The $150 billion Iran will get for signing a deal will go a long way in supporting the spread of Iranian influence throughout the Middle East, and to strengthening all those terror and smuggling networks you’re building around the world—from Latin America to Asia, and Africa to Europe—which are likely to be very useful when you do decide on a nuclear breakout. Just about the only thing not going your way these days is the war in Syria, which is taking a toll on your Lebanese subsidiary, Hezbollah. But that new cash windfall might just turn things around in Syria—especially if you can get enough IRGC guys up on the Golan to create a second front.
Today, you have to admit that Obama was serious after all. Six years ago, you didn’t believe his rhetoric about the U.S. putting daylight between itself and Israel. But then the president beat Bibi like a dog—and if he treated the Israelis so poorly, it wasn’t hard to imagine how he dealt with the Arabs. He laid off Iran’s soldiers and clients in Syria, which made the Arabs mad. His partnerships with your allies in Lebanon and Iraq made the Arabs madder. But Obama couldn’t care less. In Iraq, your militias now share military bases with American soldiers. So much for the Arabs’ fabled influence in Washington.
And oh yeah, how could you forget? Obama deterred the Israelis from striking your nuclear facilities. And the administration bragged about it! For nearly thirty years you’ve been trying to build a bomb but someone kept blowing up nuclear facilities. You mastered the technology long ago—it didn’t really matter then how many of your scientists got killed—but the problem was building the infrastructure under the pressure of sanctions and the threat of disruptive attacks like Stuxnet. And once the U.S. committed itself to protecting that infrastructure instead of destroying it, the work went faster. The end of sanctions will help it go faster still, as will increased access to advanced Western nuclear technology.
The steadfast resolve of the Supreme Leader in the face of Western threats has proven to be wise policy, which is why he will deserve the credit for the Iranian nuclear bomb. He saw the weakness of the West, where Iran’s so-called democrats saw strength.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).