Obama's Dangerous Iran Gambit

The mainstream media is out to bolster the president’s coming “détente” with Iran as roughly outlined in his recent interview with NPR. But typical of Obama’s excursions off-teleprompter, the meandering multi-topic NPR interview hardly presents an analysis of American relations with Iran, as opposed to Obama’s penchants for bragging and wishful thinking, (e.g., outwitting the Iranian mullahs by agreeing with his interviewer that he is going to outwit them.)  A day before the NPR interview the Washington Post ran a headline touting the blooming alliance between United States and Iran in Iraq.  But I suspect the true rationale and outlines of Obama’s “grand bargain” with Iran are better explicated in a piece in the current Atlantic by Robert Kaplan, which serendipitously just arrived in my mailbox.

The Kaplan article is particularly interesting and worth analyzing in detail. While not quite in the same league as his Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg as a reliable Obama mouthpiece, it is still probably safe to assume that Kaplan’s piece presents the Obama administration blueprint for a coming reconciliation with Iran. Kaplan’s article even reads a lot like an Obama speech: Assertions of foreign-policy realism, invocations of inevitability, comparisons to admired former presidents, specious references to history, grand gestures, faulty stratagems, throwing friends and allies under various busses, and damning Israel with faint praise. 

The centerpiece of the argument appears to be that Obama’s Asian pivot (so far as ineffectual if not yet quite as disastrous as his other initiatives) is necessary, but conditional on rapprochement with Iran. In this view, the standoff with Iran prevents application of American power in the “Indo-Pacific” though why that is, beyond the marginal reallocation of some naval resources, is not explicated (Kaplan mentions Indian Ocean seaports but not American naval strategy.) Rather, as Obama has intimated, restoring relations with Iran would supposedly create a kind of grand strategic realignment comparable to Nixon’s opening to China in the early seventies. In the midst of the Cold War, that initiative served American interests vis a vis the Soviets, and made it easier for the United States to terminate our involvement in Vietnam, albeit with catastrophic results for many Southeast Asian nations. 

The pitch on Iran is that a similar détente would balance American interests as effectively as it did with China forty or so years ago. To buy in, one has to accept that the mess in the Middle East today threatens America as comprehensively as the Soviets did, and that restoring relations with Iran would advance American interests. But such an argument is specious in the extreme. 

Obama’s mishandling of the Syrian crisis, combined with his failure to secure a status-of-forces agreement with Iraq, led to the rise of ISIS, which now essentially constitutes a small bandit nation that threatens Iranian interests far more than American. The Iranians can assist in neutering ISIS, but will act against the group whether we choose to appease the mullahs or not. The United States doesn’t “need” Iran as Kaplan argues -- it’s more the opposite. 

In Kaplan’s (and likely Obama’s view) a cooperative Iran will rein in Sunni extremists western Iraq, and moderate Shia extremists in eastern Iraq. But it’s even more magical than that in Obamaland. A more pro-American Shia Iran will balance an increasingly Islamist and anti-American Sunni Turkey. “After all” Kaplan notes Turkey and Iran have “offset each other since the Safavid-Ottoman War of the early 17th Century [sic].” But why is a rapprochement with America a necessary condition for the Iranians to keep a militant Sunni Turkey at bay, when they did so for centuries before America even existed, much less had interest in the region? Answer -- it’s not.

But the reference to Turkish-Iranian hostility reaches a major issue Kaplan elides (along with Obama.) That is the nature of the Twelver Shia regime that controls Iran. Yes, Turkey is an increasingly problematic and potentially hostile state, but for now it is a de jure American ally. Not only that, but while some Sunni regimes (and terror groups) harbor broad anti-Western political ambitions (e.g., the reestablishment of Ottoman hegemony or a reborn Caliphate) Iran’s Shia regime is explicitly theocratic and apocalyptic.

The Battle of Chaldiran (1514) was the most famous engagement of the Savavid-Ottoman War. The clash saw musket-armed Janissaries cut down bow armed Safavid cavalry, producing a decisive Ottoman victory. It wasn’t that the Safavids were unaware of gunpowder weapons, but that they considered them unmanly, and believed their pleated bonnets (one pleat for each of the 12 holy imams of Shia Islam) would miraculously protect them from Sunni bullets, or at worst, send them directly to paradise. Four centuries later during the Iraq-Iran War, Shia imams sent thousands of Iranian teens into Iraqi minefields with much the same idea.

The effective sine qua non for a rapprochement with Iran, which both Obama and Kaplan know, is acquiescing to a nuclear Iran -- regardless of Obama’s mealy-mouthed appeals to Iranian nuclear restraint. Obama’s appeasement of the regime has already almost guaranteed a nuclear Iran -- if they are not nuclear capable already

A nuclear nation with a theocratic apocalyptic regime is an experiment without precedent, making comparisons with Nixon’s opening to China even more obtuse.  China is anything but an apocalyptic nation. Indeed, even China’s dalliance with Communism is really an aberration, as it defaults to traditional autocracy and mercantilism.  Iran on the other hand, has grown more radical, not less.

Finally, there is Israel. Kaplan excuses Obama’s hostility toward the Jewish state with that weak and overused leftist canard -- inevitability. No matter Obama’s personal predilections, a break with Israel was going to happen anyway because of “emerging geopolitics… with its vast and changing undercurrents of culture, geography economics and natural resource supply chains, and military acquisitions.” Obamaesque nonsense if ever there was. 

A logical view suggests that Israel, a growing, Western-oriented, technologically advanced, economically strong, militarily capable nuclear power, without a dog in the Sunni-Shia fight, is a critical asset in a troubled region, which could help relieve American military responsibilities if properly supported, as it did in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Cold War. Kaplan merely credits Israel with being a “valuable chess piece.” And as every chess player knows (the Iranians invented the game) every piece but one is expendable. I doubt Obama plays -- but sacrificing Israel as part of a phony “strategic calculation” -- would suit him well. 

Appeasing Iran will not bring stability to the Middle East, or give America flexibility in East Asia.  It is a fool’s errand, or in chess terms, a gambit that will end in disaster. As Obama telegraphs his moves, the mullahs await the endgame with glee.