Obama’s Iran Endgame

The president of the United States is now flush with two significant legacy victories, trade and health care. Will he attempt to make it three by signing an historic nuclear agreement with Iran? And if he does, how many more concessions will he have to make to the Ayatollah? That’s the question that all of Washington has begun to ask itself. How far will this president go in order to appease the Islamic Republic without alienating Democrats in Congress, his allies in Europe and the Middle East, members of his first administration (including Hillary) and his much needed partners in Moscow and Beijing? Yes, I said Russian and Chinese partners. Because without the entire P5+1 on board, a successful end to a negotiated settlement is simply not possible.

Even President Putin of Russia seems to be worried that Obama might be poised to give away much too much. Thursday’s phone call to the White House was not only about Syria and the Ukraine; Putin has also been talking to his French counterpart. And I’m certain that he doesn’t like what he hears. France is playing hardball with Obama over the Iran nuclear deal, and it won’t accept any shortcuts to an acceptable deal. The Saudis have offered Paris far too sweet a potential arms deal, not to have President Hollande firmly committed to a tough verification regime. But it’s also NOT in Russia’s interest to have its southern neighbor in possession of nuclear weapons. Bottom line — a nuclear deal with Iran that could easily end up as a replay of a North Korean sneak-out to the bomb is in no one’s interest, Moscow and Beijing included.

However, the Supreme leader of Iran has made new last-second demands which, if agreed to by the administration, would make a mockery of what many say is already a mockery. President Obama doesn’t need Republicans to make a nuclear deal with Iran stick. But he does need Democrats. And this last-second shifting of the goalpost by Tehran has certainly caught the attention of everyone in Congress. The Ayatollah is demanding limited access to nuclear sites, zero access to military sites, no questioning of nuclear scientists or engineers, and a complete reworking of the terms and constraints on research and development. Within the last three days five major players, all of whom were past Obama administration officials, have signed on to an open letter denouncing these new Iranian redlines and urging the president to hold firm.

The signers of this open letter include James Cartwright, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who became known as “Obama’s General”. Another signer is former Obama Director of the CIA, General David Petraeus. Along with these two military figures are Dennis Ross, President Obama’s Iran Czar in his first term; James Jeffrey, formerly President Obama’s ambassador to Iraq; and Howard Berman, the last Democrat to chair the House Foreign Relations Committee. These are not right-wing neo-con celebrities, but liberal and centrist experts with vast professional experience. And they are all rightly concerned that the Ayatollah’s new endgame demands will alter the already blurred Obama redlines. Because of the complete lack of any solid military leverage with regard to the possibility of a negotiation failure, Obama has backed himself into a corner. The assumption within the administration is that any deal would be better than no deal. Because no deal would, according to Obama, mean that Iran would be too close to an atomic breakout. And such a scenario, as envisioned by the White House, might automatically necessitate military action. For this president, war is to be avoided at all costs.

But a really bad deal for the US is exactly what the Ayatollah is after. So Obama appears stuck for an adequate response, while the Iranian leader is gambling that the American military option is really off-the-table. And if such an option is gone, then aren’t the prospects of deeper concessions by the administration the only real possibility? But what of the other players? Will Obama’s own party agree to more concessions? Will the French, or the Saudis? And what about the Russians and the Israelis? Will they all sit idly by as centrifuge research and development proceeds unabated in underground facilities either known or unknown? And won’t such a bad deal become a “political football” for Democrats within the context of a long presidential election season? The questions within Obama’s Iran endgame are varied and gripping. I can hear the howls of political capitulation now as Republicans accuse Hillary Clinton of Israel abandonment and general weakness on foreign policy. In fact, how will Hillary react to any kind of deal with Iran, especially now after the open letter and her close connection to Chaim Saban and other prominent Jews within the Democratic Party?

Then there is the Israeli Labor Party. On Thursday, at a conference at Tel Aviv University, Amos Yadlin trashed the Obama nuclear deal in no uncertain terms (and rightly so). And that’s without any new concessions. What will the Labor Party do? On such a dire issue, an existential issue if there ever was one, (and there were other existential issues, as every Israeli Jew knows) a unity government would be the only national response for dedicated and responsible leaders. A left-right coalition would certainly grab the attention of official Washington and couldn’t be accused of partisanship. In fact, it would have the rapt attention of the entire Democratic Party, including the entire American Jewish community, which is something that Netanyahu alone has been singularly unable to accomplish. As I’ve asked before, will Isaac Herzog rise to the occasion? Or is he less concerned by the Iran nuclear deal than Amos Yadlin?

Obama’s Iran endgame needs a boost from an Israeli national unity government that is dedicated to expanding the concept of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. This zone would include a regional dimension that can offer the Russians and Americans a reason to seriously discuss the futures of both Syria and Iraq. Unless the P5+1 come together and begin to talk out their differences with regard to Europe and Asia, the prospects for a comprehensive Iran nuclear endgame, whereby war can be avoided, appear dim.

Israel and Israel alone can offer Russia, China and the US such a reason to come together. A nuclear Middle East is in nobody’s interest. But a nuclear Middle East is exactly where the region is headed, with or without an agreement. Israel could alter that direction, but it needs total peace, not just a nuclear dimension. Obama’s Iran endgame leads nowhere. It is in desperate need of an alternative. The Middle East nuclear quagmire is a lot more than just an Obama legacy issue, it’s an issue of global war and peace. The Iran issue in its entirety might not be confined to the region of the Middle East, any more than WWI was confined solely to Serbia, or WWII (1939) was confined to Europe alone. China, Russia and the US must begin to find a way out of their realist foreign policy trap (self-interest alone). Time is running out.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).