President Barack Obama is hailing completion of a deal that was only ever a means to an end. That’s the explanation for why it has been so urgent for Obama to reach a deal that gives up so much while getting so little from such an untrustworthy negotiating partner, Iran.
Basically, Obama is playing the long game. He’s given up on the idea of stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon in favor of trying to undermine the regime that will eventually wield a nuclear weapon.
In this picture released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, center, attends a graduation ceremony of army cadets, in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, Oct. 5 2013. (AP/Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader)
The reasoning is that the U.S. can only convince other countries (e.g., China, Russia, as well as European nations) to maintain sanctions on Iran for so long. While they’ve had an effect on Iran’s economy and currency, they haven’t kept Iran from furthering its nuclear program, and will eventually fray. (Note that North Korea, despite being virtually cut off from the rest of the world economically, has managed to build nuclear devices.)
So, rather than pursuing what it sees as a fruitless effort to halt Iran’s nuclear program with sanctions, and wary of the effectiveness and complications of striking Iran’s nuclear sites, the Obama administration has opted for regime change, albeit of the incremental variety.
Really, it’s the only option left once you rule out sanctions and military strikes.
The idea is that, by increasing trade with Iran, they will wind up with too much at stake economically to use nuclear weapons or terrorism to threaten their neighbors. With a less adversarial relationship with the rest of the world, Iran may replace Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei (who could easily die soon) with someone less fanatical and paranoid.
You could say that, rather than keeping Iran from owning a gun, Obama is trying to get Iran to be a responsible gun owner.
[sharequote align="center"]In the end, the U.S. never had many good alternatives for stopping Iran from getting a nuke.[/sharequote]
This is a huge gamble. The Iranian people are not monolithic, nor are their leaders. Many of them want more ties with the rest of the world, to trade and make money, and they’re the ones Obama is hoping will gradually take the reins. But Iran’s leaders are risk-takers as well, with a bent toward overseas violence and a history of supporting groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, the “trade makes nations friendly” philosophy has been applied to China for several decades now, and the results are difficult to gauge. China is currently building islands in the South China Sea, threatening Taiwan, and oppressing its citizens. But it’s also more preoccupied with its stock market than with war, so you could argue that it’s more restrained than it would have been otherwise.
Whatever the prospects, Obama has decided to effectively admit Iran into the pantheon of nuclear powers – currently including the U.S., U.K., France, Israel, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea – and to bet that trade will convince them to be roughly as semi-well-behaved as the rest of the group. The most that can be said for it is that it may be better than war or letting Iran become another North Korea.
“There are only bad options. It's about finding the best one.”
But, even if this gamble is the best way forward, Obama has played his hand poorly. He’s telegraphed how much he wants a deal – not once walking away from negotiations, despite deadline after deadline being violated – with the result that the deal is far more generous than it needs to be.
More, he’s passed up on several chances to highlight what’s wrong with the Iranian mullahs. He could have done more to support the 2009 Iranian protests, or offered to lift sanctions in return for free and fair elections. Or he could have delegitimized the regime by forcing them to admit that they’d violated their own religious decree (their fatwa) against developing nuclear weapons. That would have made it clear what it is we’re pushing for Iran to change from and into.
In the end, the U.S. never had many good alternatives for stopping Iran from getting a nuke. Time will tell if Iran lives up to its side of the bargain and whether they manage to strap a warhead to a long-range missile. (If you want some tea leaves to read, look at whether Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia start developing nuclear programs of their own.)
But, by failing to make a bigger case for what kind of regime Iran shouldn’t be, Obama has made a hash of this strategy of gradual regime change. He’s taken the best bad idea we have, and given us the worst version of it.
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