The Second Sucker’s Game

The difference between France and the US on the Iranian nuclear program speaks volumes as to the naivete of the Obama administration. France is a staunch defender of strict non-proliferation. They are skeptical when it comes to the Islamic Republic. They will only accept a good deal as defined by a breakout capacity of at least a year. With very strict intrusive oversight, the French have positioned the P5+1 to a tough bargaining position. Paris places equal emphasis on centrifuge numbers and quality, stockpiling of enriched materials and irreversibility, potential for plutonium production, and the future of underground sites. The Americans, on the other hand, have bought into the myth that the new Iranian president represents some kind of shift toward moderation. Unlike France, Obama’s position is weighted more toward the political and not the technical or scientific. This dramatic American shift has caused a rupture in relations between Washington and its traditional allies in the Arab world. Israel, too, feels the grave stress of the Obama misperception.
Washington’s new policy in the Middle East is to bet heavily on President Rouhani. The hope is that Iranian “moderation” will deliver not only a nuclear deal but also a solution to the Syrian regional war. But such a policy can only be described as “jeux de dupes” (a sucker’s game). First, there are virtually no Iran analysts who believe that Rouhani has the authority for such a Syrian deal. Second, even if the Iranian president was allowed to link the two issues, the price the P5+1 would have to pay would be far too high. In other words, either the “moderation” is a complete myth (a high probability) or it is merely another card in the large deck of Iranian subterfuge to achieve a much shorter breakout capacity (more like two months or less).
Iran’s number one enemy is Israel. Syria is the red-hot vortex of the Middle East’s big triangle — Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel. The Saudis have no diplomatic relations with Israel. Neither do the Iranians. Yet Riyadh and Jerusalem share the same concerns when it comes to Iranian hegemonic designs for the region. The old Middle-East adage holds true: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”. When Rouhani was first elected (through the permission of the Supreme Leader), he claimed that establishing good relations with his immediate neighbors would be a high priority. At his inauguration and his initial press conference, the Iranian president went out of his way to stress that an improvement in relations with Saudi Arabia ranked high on his agenda. The Saudis were cordial. But they weren’t buying. As long as the Shia crescent stretched deep into the heart of the Levant, all the Iranian soft-sell soap could not wipe the slate clean. In the Middle East, actions speak much louder than words.
Israel wasn’t buying the moderation soft sell either. Iranian support for Hezbollah was a direct threat to the entire Israeli population. Meanwhile, in Syria, the independent and cautious Arab nationalism of Hafiz al-Assad (the father) had given way to his vassal-like son, Bashar. Both Iran and Hezbollah were deeply involved in the Syrian War and the Israeli security establishment held no illusions as to Iranian intentions. For Iran’s Supreme Leader, Syria and Hezbollah ranked on the same strategic scale as the nuclear program. In fact, they are closely linked and complementary. The purpose of Iranian nuclear capability is to limit Israel’s freedom of action when it comes to Syria, Hezbollah or Hamas. Nuclear ambiguity is an avenue to maximum-strength potential and/or the slow demoralization of a population caused by a successful campaign of guerilla warfare. The ideological rationale of the Islamic Republic is the removal of Israel from the Middle East. When the Iranian leadership says that they will not compromise on their “principles”, the eventual defeat and destruction of the Jewish State is the first “principle” on which they stand. For Israel, like Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arabs, Iranian strategic actions held sway. Neither Arabs nor Jews were buying into the Rouhani “charm offensive”.
However the US, under its Nobel Prize winning peace president, Barack Obama, latched on to Rouhani’s spiel like a local yokel on his first visit to New York City. Obama had little choice. After seventy-five years of being the world’s policeman, the US was broke. Its people were getting poorer. Its infrastructure was in need of vast repair. Its military budget was out of control. Its economy remained in crisis. Its monetary policy had become the world’s first trillion dollar laboratory experiment. So, after nearly ten years on the ground in the Middle East, the Americans simply packed up and went home.
Unlike nearly every other nation on the planet, the American geopolitical position is heaven-like. The US rests on a continental island with a strategic depth that stretches two oceans and half of another continent (Europe). The Americans weren’t exactly defeated in Iraq, but their small professional army was exhausted. For the brave contingent of volunteers, two and three tours of duty were common. Lives and families were severely disrupted. The all-volunteer army in Iraq proved not to be the answer to the politically unstable draft of the 1960’s. Slowly but surely, the very idea of a commitment of ground troops to the Middle East lost sway with a more isolationist public opinion. Obama’s two presidential victories were a direct negative response to both liberal interventionists and neo-con foreign entanglements. Obama’s hesitations (some would say vacillations) on Syria can be easily explained through public opinion. Americans are fast becoming libertarian in their approach to foreign policy.
While this American president has been politically successful in the IT age, he’s not street smart. He’s essentially a professor. He didn’t grow up in the inner city of Chicago or Detroit. Toughness is not his thing. He’s a thinker and an extremely talented speech maker. The Middle East is not the kind of environment that a Barack Obama can flourish in. On the contrary, perceived weakness invites deception and escalation, or both. So the combination of an exhausted American public and a hesitant president brought about the first sucker’s game (a weak interim nuclear deal rejected by the French). The second sucker’s game (the president’s belief that Iranian policy in the Levant will be moderate) has altered the political landscape throughout the region and even into Europe.
The leadership of Iran is most certainly street smart. For anyone intimate with the Oriental bazaar, human fallibility is a character trait of instant recognition. President Obama has been pegged. The three legs of the stool of US policy — negotiation, sanctions and potential military action — are now perceived to be only two. No one fears that Obama really means that “all options are on the table”. From the Iranian perspective, negotiations with the Americans will most certainly lead to a deal of some kind. North Korea is their model. They fear no attack from their new friend in the White House. They are most likely whispering all kinds of tales of goodwill into the professor’s ear. Once the sanctions are lifted, the oil will flow. Plus there are a million ways to prevent a serious negotiation over the conflict in Syria. The Iranians probably already have their excuses ready to go. After all, Obama believes AQ and not Hezbollah or Iran to be the problem.
In the meantime, however, the Syrian offensive proceeds unabated at Qalamoun. The airplanes still fly across Iraq bound for Damascus loaded with men and materiel from the Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Supreme Leader still calls the “Zionist entity” a cancer to be extracted from the Middle East. Assad continues to hide a portion of his chemical weapons, and a hundred thousand missiles are aimed at Israel from Iranian territory in Lebanon and Syria. The second sucker’s game is as dangerous as the first.

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).