Iran Revisited

There is no simple narrative for Iran or the Iran deal. Let’s start with the runoff elections for the Majlis (Iranian Parliament). AFP reports, ‘Reformist and moderate Iranian politicians allied with President Hassan Rouhani won a big victory in second round parliamentary elections and capped a remarkable comeback Saturday after years of isolation. The outcome represents a significant realignment of competing factions in the Islamic republic, with conservative MPs losing their dominance and being outnumbered for the first time since 2004.’ Quantitatively, ‘That gives reformists 133 seats in the new 290-member parliament, 13 shy of a majority but more than their rivals’ 125 MPs. Remaining seats went to independents and minorities who could hold the balance of power.’

Does that mean that the moderates have taken power in Iran and everything is coming up roses? Of course not. First of all, the ‘moderates’ in Iran are moderate only when compared to the faction associated with the Revolutionary Guard. Second, the real power is held by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. What Ali wants, Ali gets. On the bright side, the election results tell us that the Iranian people are fed up with the rule of the clerics and would like to rejoin the rest of the world. In fact, 17 women were elected to the Majlis and just 16 clerics.
How disastrous was the role of Netanyahu in the passage of the JCPOA – the nuclear non-proliferation deal with Iran. According to Meir Dagan, a former head of the Mossad, (Times of Israel- May 6),” Dagan tore into Netanyahu for his outspoken resistance to the Iran deal, accusing him of making an enemy of Israel’s closest ally, the United States, and of pursuing personal political interests when he repeatedly and publicly signaled that Israel planned to attack Iran to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. “The person who brought about the [Iranian nuclear] deal was Bibi [Benjamin] Netanyahu,”

It’s certainly true that Bibi made it easier for President Obama to get approval for the JCPOA by his atrocious behavior. Going behind the back of the President and arranging to speak to a joint session of Congress without the President’s knowledge was the equivalent of spitting in the President’s face. That pushed all wavering Democrats to vote in favor of the JCPOA. If they had not done so, every other two-bit politician would feel free to attack the US government without fear of consequences.

However, what would have happened if Bibi had not misbehaved? To answer that question, let’s consider a fascinating article that appeared in the New York Times on May 5. It is titled ‘The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru’ by David Samuels. We have included the article in the complete version of the newsletter. It is long, but worth reading. The guru in question is Ben Rhodes – a Presidential advisor, speech writer and liaison with the press.

It’s hard to believe that Rhodes, who is touted to be a media genius, could have made the foolish comments that appear in the interview. In one shot, Rhodes manages to discredit the administration’s narrative on Iran and alienate the Washington press corp. As my high school Latin teacher used to say, ‘Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.’

Samuels writes, ‘In the narrative that Rhodes shaped, the “story” of the Iran deal began in 2013, when a “moderate” faction inside the Iranian regime led by Hassan Rouhani beat regime “hard-liners” in an election and then began to pursue a policy of “openness,” which included a newfound willingness to negotiate the dismantling of its illicit nuclear-weapons program. The president set out the timeline himself in his speech announcing the nuclear deal on July 14, 2015: “Today, after two years of negotiations, the United States, together with our international partners, has achieved something that decades of animosity has not.”

While the president’s statement was technically accurate — there had in fact been two years of formal negotiations leading up to the signing of the J.C.P.O.A. — it was also actively misleading, because the most meaningful part of the negotiations with Iran had begun in mid-2012, many months before Rouhani and the “moderate” camp were chosen in an election among candidates handpicked by Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The idea that there was a new reality in Iran was politically useful to the Obama administration. By obtaining broad public currency for the thought that there was a significant split in the regime, and that the administration was reaching out to moderate-minded Iranians who wanted peaceful relations with their neighbors and with America, Obama was able to evade what might have otherwise been a divisive but clarifying debate over the actual policy choices that his administration was making.

By eliminating the fuss about Iran’s nuclear program, the administration hoped to eliminate a source of structural tension between the two countries, which would create the space for America to disentangle itself from its established system of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey. With one bold move, the administration would effectively begin the process of a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East.’

Samuels goes on, ‘One of the few charter members of the Blob {Washington foreign policy establishment} willing to speak on the record is Leon Panetta, who was Obama’s head of the C.I.A. and secretary of defense and also enough of a product of a different culture to give honest answers to what he understands to be questions of consequence. At his institute at the old Fort Ord in Seaside, Calif., where, in the days before he wore Mr. Rogers sweaters, he served as a young Army intelligence officer, I ask him about a crucial component of the administration’s public narrative on Iran: whether it was ever a salient feature of the C.I.A.’s analysis when he ran the agency that the Iranian regime was meaningfully divided between “hard-line” and “moderate” camps. “No,” Panetta answers. “There was not much question that the Quds Force and the supreme leader ran that country with a strong arm, and there was not much question that this kind of opposing view could somehow gain any traction.”’

As secretary of defense, he tells me, one of his most important jobs was keeping Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, from launching a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “They were both interested in the answer to the question, ‘Is the president serious?’ ” Panetta recalls. “And you know my view, talking with the president, was: If brought to the point where we had evidence that they’re developing an atomic weapon, I think the president is serious that he is not going to allow that to happen.” Panetta stops. “But would you make that same assessment now?” I ask him. “Would I make that same assessment now?” he asks. “Probably not.”

Responding to Panetta’s critique, “Oh, God,” Rhodes says. “The reason the president has bucked a lot of establishment thinking is because he does not agree with establishment thinking. Not because I or Denis McDonough are sitting here.” He pushes back in his chair. “The complete lack of governance in huge swaths of the Middle East, that is the project of the American establishment,” he declares. “That as much as Iraq is what angered me.”

Samuels goes on to ask, ‘What I don’t understand is why, if America is getting out of the Middle East, we are apparently spending so much time and energy trying to strong-arm Syrian rebels into surrendering to the dictator who murdered their families, or why it is so important for Iran to maintain its supply lines to Hezbollah. He mutters something about John Kerry, and then goes off the record, to suggest, in effect, that the world of the Sunni Arabs that the American establishment built has collapsed. The buck stops with the establishment, not with Obama, who was left to clean up their mess.’

It’s easy to understand Rhodes’ (Obama’s) contempt for establishment thinking on the Middle East. We have squandered our blood and our money in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria with little to show for it. This makes a strong case for the neo-isolationist Middle East policy of the Obama administration. One must question, however, whether the choices made by the Obama administration have been any better.

Let’s not rehash the terrible tactical mistake that that the Obama administration made by drawing a red line in Syria on the use of poison gas and then ignoring that red line. Here we question the strategic choice that the Obama administration has made to prop up corrupt central governments in Iraq and Syria.

In a thoughtful article that appeared in the Washington Post of May 3, David Ignatius questions that choice. He writes, ‘This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that formed Iraq, Syria and the other fragile nations of the modern Middle East. The past few weeks have provided dramatic new evidence, if more were needed, that the old colonial framework created by Britain and France isn’t working. Iraq and Syria are coming apart: Iraq is effectively divided into three warring regions: a Sunni area ruled by the Islamic State, a Kurdish mini-state that’s nearly autonomous, and a zone from the capital south that’s controlled by the Shiite-led regime. A similar fragmented structure exists in Syria. Central government in both countries has vanished.’

Here’s a challenge for the rest of President Obama’s term and the first months in office of the next president: Start building the foundations for a new order in the Middle East that can provide better security, governance and economic well-being — for Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and for the smaller minorities that are interwoven in the fabric of the region.

Trying to hammer the pieces into unitary states just won’t work. America tried and failed in Iraq. Now, Iran, too, finds itself unable to maintain order there. That’s the lesson of last week’s mayhem in the Shiite-dominated Iraqi parliament, which was largely an internal Shiite-on-Shiite quarrel. “The Iranians are making the same mistakes the U.S. did after 2003,” explains one prominent Iraqi. “They went in too heavy. They thought they could do it all. But the Shiite monolith is breaking down.”

David Ignatius is a real reporter – the byline for his article is Sari Rash, Iraq. Not all reporters are so knowledgeable and thoughtful. Therein lies the basis of Rhodes’ contempt for most of the Washington press corp. Samuels writes, ‘Rhodes singled out a key example to me one day, laced with the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of his private utterances. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

In this environment, Rhodes has become adept at ventriloquizing many people at once. Ned Price, Rhodes’s assistant, gave me a primer on how it’s done. The easiest way for the White House to shape the news, he explained, is from the briefing podiums, each of which has its own dedicated press corps.’

Rhodes’ job is to present the Administration in as favorable a light as possible. (He certainly fell flat on his face this time.) Historically there was, and should be, an adversarial relation between administration spokesmen and the press. Unfortunately, today, much of the press is untrained and incapable of the sort of reporting that is so necessary to make a democracy function.

About the Author
Richard Chasman, 1934-2018, was a member of the Modern Orthodox community in Chicago. Professionally, he was a theoretical nuclear physicist. Richard, who described his perspective as "centrist," wrote a newsletter for more than 20 years called "Chovevai Tsion of Chicago," on subjects of interest to the Modern Orthodox community.