Adam Harmon

Why President Obama Wants To Build a Strategic Partnership With Iran

Ever since US negotiations with Iran first launched, this administration has been accused of appeasement. President Obama has been compared to Chamberlain. And in a world where the United States has reneged on its commitments to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, comparisons to the British abandonment of Czechoslovakia resonate.

That said, the comparison is unfair and incorrect in many ways. The most critical difference is that appeasing Iran won’t lead to a world war. Even if the fiercest critics of the US negotiation strategy are correct and Iran does become a nuclear power with ballistic missiles, it won’t lead to a world war.

Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East would assuredly follow – with Saudi Arabia and Egypt leading the charge – but oil at fair prices will continue to flow and battlefields won’t expand beyond what are essentially civil wars and border skirmishes. Terrorism in the West will be mostly limited in scope to Jews and those who vocally oppose Islamic Fundamentalism.

The world will not come to an end. The sky will not fall on America.

The American people are concerned about the human cost of the chaos in the Middle East. They want to help save lives. The White House is likewise concerned about the human cost of all the instability in the region, even if it doesn’t quite acknowledge that its failure to act in Syria, its leaving Iraq before its stability was assured, failure to deliver a comprehensive plan for Libya, and failure to secure Yemen have made matters substantially worse for millions.

But neither this Administration nor the American people care enough about the lives of Syrians and Iraqis to send tens of thousands of US soldiers back to the Middle East to keep the peace. We’ve been there, done that, spent billions, lost thousands of American lives, and have been lambasted for it.

Even as the Administration asks for authority to send troops back to the places the US left prematurely, the US will only play a supporting role in the effort to gain stability in the region. The US will not destroy ISIS. The Kurds, the Syrians, and the Iraqis are essentially on their own.

The Administration’s solution to this problem is more like Baltimore than Czechoslovakia. In Baltimore, correction officers wanted quiet and stability at their jail. There were far more inmates than guards. They were not going to get additional manpower to retain control of the facility. Their solution was simple. Let the leader of the Black Guerilla Family gang, Tavon White, take charge. During a recorded conversation, Tavon said, “This is my jail…I’m dead serious…I make every final call in this jail.” Court documents and investigative reporting indicate that this was true.

The guards just wanted quiet and stability. The solution was to outsource the problem to Tavon White, who was willing and able to use the force that was necessary to ensure quiet. In return, the guards protected him and did favors for his gang. Some guards garnered extra money due to their support of Tavon White, but that was an ancillary benefit to their decision to let him enforce quiet.

This Administration sees itself in the same situation as those guards in Baltimore. They don’t want to actively guard the Middle East any more. The manpower required won’t be coming from the US. Someone from inside the “jail” will need to control the most dangerous elements and ensure relative quiet.

The Saudis are long-term allies and they are willing to pour billions into infrastructure projects, but they can’t hold down the fort. Jordan can fly a handful of sorties, but they aren’t putting boots on the ground – and they have too few boots. Israel has the power, but no Arab state would publicly partner with Israel. Besides, Israel may not mind that groups – all of whom are calling for Israel’s destruction – are killing each other. Egypt has the power and the legitimacy, but they are only indirectly threatened by the chaos and in no mood to do the US any favors after the way their leaders have been treated by the White House.

Unlike other regional powers, Iran has the military might and the will to ensure regional stability. Iran already controls Lebanon through Hezbollah and Syria’s leadership owes its survival to Iran. Also, Iran has deep influence over Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Yemen as well.

In Baltimore, the best way to keep the criminals quiet was to empower the most organized and brutal criminal. He knew how they think and had the ability to keep everyone in line. Iran has been building and supporting terrorist organizations for decades. For Islamic Fundamentalists across the world, the Iranian Supreme Leader is the Godfather.

Like Tavon White, Iran can actually impose regional quiet and the kind of stability required for a relatively permanent US exit, but the Iranians must be paid to keep the peace.

In this context, the cozy terms of the Joint Plan of Action and the US negotiation stance with Iran – that has caused traditional US allies to voice deep concern – makes more sense. As does the way this Administration quickly turned on Egypt’s government when Arab Spring protests turned violent, but could not muster much of a response when Iranian citizens experienced even greater brutality.

And just like the guards in Baltimore who protected their arrangement with Tavon White, President Obama defends the arrangements made with Iran and works to undermine any attempt to question the wisdom of those arrangements.

For this reason, the Administration manufactured the crisis relating to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to a joint session of the US Congress. The Pope was invited in exactly the same way, but the Pope isn’t going to share his concerns about the emerging agreement between the US and Iran during his address to Congress.

Israeli concerns don’t interest the Obama White House – and that’s fair and reasonable because American interests do and must come first – but this Administration is concerned that Netanyahu will win enough support from Congressional leaders and the public to make it politically difficult to sign an agreement with Iran that doesn’t substantially reduce the Iranian capacity to build and deploy nuclear weapons.

The false accusations made against Netanyahu were likely part of a smear campaign designed to blunt Netanyahu’s criticism of the US partnership with Iran, encourage Congressmen to boycott Netanyahu’s address in order to generate a story about Israel losing support in Congress that could overshadow the content of the Prime Minister’s speech, and create a brouhaha that could keep Netanyahu from being reelected in March.

The Prime Minister of Israel isn’t the only that the White House has admonished. It suggests that public statements and legislation by US public officials that voice concern over the US negotiation strategy will be viewed by Iran as being hostile and may cause Iran to walk away from the table.

But the Administration must know that Iran will never pull up stakes. The Iranian partnership with the US has given the Iranians everything they want. Iran has been able to speed ahead with the development of its nuclear program, deepen its influence over Iraq, and expand into new strategic countries like Yemen.

Thanks to the US strategy, Iran now has substantially more forces and proxies on the borders with Israel and Saudi Arabia than ever before. As a regional power, it has never been in a better strategic position.

Also, ISIS poses more of a threat to Iranian interests than the US or traditional US allies. Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan don’t face a significant threat from ISIS. ISIS is primarily taking over territory in Syria and Iraq – which are both strategic client states for Iran.

The Kurds are protecting their semi-autonomous state, but Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah function as the backbone of resistance against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Technology-based targeting and air support from the US could substantially increase the effectiveness of Iranian forces, including Hezbollah. Some reports indicate that a level of coordination and support already exists in the field.

Iran would take on ISIS no matter what because ISIS poses a direct threat to Iranian interests. And just like the guards in Baltimore who took actions to protect Tavon White, the US – after years of inaction that allowed the ISIS threat to metastasize – is now on the verge of joining the fight alongside the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah. Other nations – from the West and from the Arab world – are joining the fight in limited ways, but the end result would be US-led military assistance that increases Iranian influence and power in the region at the expense of long-term US allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The idea of using Islamic Fundamentalists to fight Islamic Fundamentalists has many merits. There is a clear rationale. As the US moves forward with this approach, Americans will see fewer beheadings on TV and the extreme chaos due to ISIS may be contained.

And that’s OK as long as we understand and believe it is in US interests to trade in the Islamic State for the Islamic Republic of Iran. ISIS may be defeated and the crucifixions may stop, but more people in the Middle East would have fewer rights and far less personal freedom because the US would strengthen Islamic Fundamentalism.

In the end, the US would be giving Iran international legitimacy, enabling Iran to regain financial strength, allowing Iran to become a nuclear power, and making it the hegemon in the Middle East. All this in exchange for quelling ISIS and any other form of dissent that would disturb order in the region.

As a result, the US will likely experience some political, economic, and diplomatic losses that may be worth the price. As the US pivots toward Iran, the US will become less relevant to traditional allies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and even Israel. Egypt just spent six billion dollars of Saudi Arabian money to purchase fighter jets from France. It’s the first time since Anwar Sadat peeled Egypt away from Russia that Egypt has bought sophisticated weapons from anyone else but the US. For the French, this was a big win as no foreign country has purchased these fighter jets before. As Saudi Arabia and Egypt look to establish their own nuclear programs, Russia will be happy oblige. US influence over the most populous Arab country and the richest Arab country is already waning – but that will accelerate as the US deepens its relationship with Iran. Again, building a strategic relationship with Iran may be worth the price, but there does not seem to be much public debate on the topic.

As for Israel, the shared cultural and historical ties run deep – as does a similar moral code and vision for a future world based on individual freedom and human dignity. Israel will not shift allegiance away from the US, but Israel may feel the need to build deeper economic and military partnerships with emerging world powers like India and China as its ability to rely on the US diminishes. We may even see an increase in the sharing of Israeli military innovations as new strategic alliances are built.

Also, Israel may attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. The US opposed Israel’s attacks on Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities, but Israel destroyed them anyway. And despite all the focus on Netanyahu as if he is a hawk, in Israel he is believed to be overly cautious when it comes to committing Israeli troops to war and there is an overwhelming majority of Israelis that believe Israel should attack Iranian facilities if the US fails to bring about a negotiated settlement with Iran that removes the threat of nuclear weapons.

It is true that an Israeli attack will only delay Iran for a few years, but that is enough for Israel – especially if the US proposal leaves Iran capable of sprinting toward its goal in less than a year. If Israel attacks, will the US military try to stop it in order to protect its relationship with Iran?

Ironically, the US may find itself on the wrong side of history with Iran for a second time. The first time, the US supported the Shah as part of its security strategy in the Middle East. US support for the Shah cost the US dearly when his regime was ousted. Today, the US seems to be increasing its support for the Ayatollah. One day, there will be another Arab Spring and the people of Iran will head to the streets again. And on that day, we’ll either watch the Islamic Fundamentalists we support burn US flags as they suppress the desire of their people to be free or we will watch victorious secular moderates burn US flags in anger for our support of the Iranian Basij and Hezbollah.

The Prime Minister of Israel was asked by the US Congress to provide his assessment of the situation in the Middle East. The primary focus of that address is meant to be the Iranian nuclear weapons program, but Netanyahu will likely also talk about the Middle East that is taking shape as a result of US policies.

Given the complexity of the issues, the more information and the more insight US leaders have at their disposal the easier it will be to make political choices that are in the long-term vested interest of the United States of America. Inviting Egypt and Saudi Arabia next might not be a bad idea.



About the Author
Adam Harmon is the author of Lonely Soldier: Memoir of an American in the Israeli Army. He served with the Paratroopers and a Special Operations reserve unit for 13 years. He has provided consulting services for the US Defense and Intelligence community since 2003. And he's been a guest on numerous CNN, Fox, and NPR programs - sharing his insights regarding the Arab-Israel conflict. His forthcoming book - Unstoppable: Making Success Inevitable By Adopting the Unique Culture of the IDF - details a revolutionary approach to building and leading organizations that is based in part on the IDF and the best practices he experienced working at leading global corporations.
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