Jeffrey Herf
Jeffrey Herf
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Wishful thinking and the path to trash talk

Obama’s policy rests on the reluctance to take the pronouncements of the Iranian leadership seriously

Last week, I examined the profane language used by a member of President Obama’s foreign policy team to describe the Prime Minister of Israel.

As the official who went on the public record the statement was not publicly and personally rebuked by the President, and the official was neither publicly named, shamed or fired, it is logical to conclude that it reflected sentiments the President holds but would not publicly express himself. In other words, the President was using his unnamed aide as a mouthpiece. The White House press corps was satisfied with some disavowals from the Secretary of State and a White House staffer. I argued that the deeper cause of the anger at Netanyahu was his challenge to Obama’s political judgment concerning the Iranian nuclear issue.

Sigmund Freud might have put it another way. In The Future of an Illusion, he argued that wishes, both conscious and unconscious can be far more powerful than rational arguments and the weight of fact and evidence. On February 2, Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC and a former senior director of the National Security Council in the administration of George W. Bush, published a 9,500-word essay in the online journal Mosaic that examines the power of wishful thinking in American policy towards Iran. The Mosaic editors called it “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy,” It could also be called the path toward trash-talk diplomacy.

Doran’s essay is important reading for anyone focused on the issue of Iran’s efforts to acquire the bomb. It will be many years until the White House and State Department archives are open and we will be able to examine the evidence of now-classified memos and position papers. For now, though, Doran’s remarkable essay offers a plausible and coherent account based on publicly available sources of President Obama’s policy towards Iran — and of how things got to the nadir of the trash talk moment. Here is a summary of Doran’s argument.

Obama’s Iran policy rests on the assumption that a change in American policy could break Iran from its isolation, cause it to abandon its nuclear ambitions and, in Obama’s words, enable it to become “a very successful regional power.” The barriers to such a policy are, however, “hostility and suspicion toward Iran, not just among members of Congress but the American people,” and the impact of Israel and its supporters in Congress on the issue. Such sentiments threatens to undermine the President’s efforts to reach a “comprehensive agreement” with the Islamic Republic. While the public policy of the United States remains that of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons by diplomacy if possible and military force if necessary, the actual policy of the Obama administration since it came into office has been to prioritize reaching an agreement with Tehran.

Doran divides the past six years of Obama’s Iran policy into three rounds. In Round One, 2009-2010, the new President adopted ideas proposed by former Congressman Lee Hamilton and former Secretary of State James Baker in the Iraq Study Group Report, a ten person committee appointed by Congress in 2006 to assess the Iraq war and its consequences. The group recommended that the United States “launch a diplomatic engagement with the Islamic Republic of Iran and its junior partner, the Assad regime in Syria.” Both regimes “supposedly shared with Washington the twin goals of stabilizing Iraq and defeating al-Qaeda and other Sunni jihadi groups. In turn, this shared interest would provide a foundation for building a concert system of states — a club of stable powers that could work together to contain the worst pathologies of the Middle East and lead the way to a sunnier future.” According to Doran, “expressing the ethos of an influential segment of the foreign-policy elite, the Baker-Hamilton report became the blueprint for the foreign policy of the Obama administration, and its spirit continues to pervade Obama’s inner circle.” Some of its authors became members of Obama’s foreign policy staff.

The policy of “outreach to Tehran” rested on two key assumptions, namely that Tehran and Washington are natural allies, and that Washington itself was and is the primary cause of the enmity between the two. Hence, if the US were “to adopt a less belligerent posture… Iran would reciprocate.” Although in 2010, the President signed into law the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA), which eventually would prove more painful to Iran than any previous measure of its kind, he had “actually opposed CISADA, which was rammed down his throat by a Senate vote of 99 to zero.” Obama’s Congressional critics argued that “the way to change Khamenei’s behavior was to place him before a stark choice: dismantle Iran’s nuclear program — period — or face catastrophic consequences. For Obama, to force a confrontation with Khamenei would destroy any chance of reaching an accommodation on the nuclear front and put paid to his grand vision of a new Middle East order.”

Round II, 2011-2012 brought Obama’s conflict with Benjamin Netanyahu to the fore. Netanyahu, along with the bulk of the Israeli political establishment, understandably regarded Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat. Hence for him, “Obama’s engagement policy was misguided from the start.” In the election year of 2012, due to the importance of Jews in both the electoral and donor base of the Democratic Party, Obama responded to Israeli threats to attack Iran “by putting Israel in a bear hug. From one angle, it looked like an expression of friendship. From another, like an effort to break Netanyahu’s ribs….With the aid of influential American Jews and Israelis who testified to his sincerity, Obama successfully blunted the force of the charge that he was hostile to Israel.”

Pointing to secret back-channel contacts with Iran, Doran argues that the turning point in the American-Iranian relationship was not the election of Hassan Rouhani in June 2013 but the re-election of Barack Obama in November 2012. The secret dealings with Iran intensified in summer 2012 as pressure was mounting on Obama to intervene in the Syrian civil war and again in early 2013, after the election. In April 2013, the Americans and their P5+1 partners made two concessions to the Iranians. They offered to relieve the sanctions regime in exchange for the elimination of Iran’s stockpiles of uranium that had already been enriched to 20 percent. Doran writes that “even more important was concession number two, which permitted the Iranians to continue enriching uranium to levels of 5 percent — this, despite the fact that six United Nations Security Council resolutions had ordered Iran to cease all enrichment and reprocessing activities.” Obama accepted a third Iranian demand, namely “recognizing its inalienable right” to enrich uranium to a level of 5 percent, and did so before the Iranian election that brought Rouhani to power. Doran writes: “By exaggerating the spirit of reform in Tehran, the White House was able to suggest that Rouhani’s embrace of the deal represented an Iranian, not an American, compromise. In truth, Obama neither coerced nor manipulated; he capitulated, and he acquiesced.” This was a view that was voiced at the time by Obama’s critics in Congress and in the Washington think-tank world.

Doran then places Obama’s decision not to intervene in the Syrian civil war — even following Assad’s use of chemical weapons — in the context of his policy of trying to engage Iran. Oddly, the rise of the Islamic State in the vacuum left by the American exit from Iraq and the refusal to intervene in Syria also served Obama’s policy of seeking to engage Iran. As Doran puts it, “the long game” of engaging Iran remained in place as administration officials now suggested that Iran and the United States had common interests.

Doran marks a third phase of Obama’s policy in 2015, when Obama “traded permanent American concessions for Iranian gestures of temporary restraint” concerning uranium enrichment, installation of new centrifuges and further construction of the Arak plutonium reactor. All could be easily reversed. “By contrast, the Americans recognized the Iranian right to enrich and agreed to the principle that all restrictions on Iran’s program would be of a limited character and for a defined period of time.” These were major concessions because they were the policy not only of the United States but also of the UN Security Council and Germany. Hence, Doran writes, “they will likely never be reversed.” As a result of this pattern of negotiations in 2015, “the Iranian nuclear program is poised to surge ahead.”

The invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu by Speaker of the House John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress in early March should be understood against the background of deepening concern in Congress and in Israel about the concessions being made and perhaps contemplated in the negotiations with Iran. This concern, explained by a large number of Senators, including Democrats, is about support for “legislation that will make the re-imposition of sanctions mandatory and immediate if the Iranians fail to make a deal by the time the current term of the JPOA lapses.” The President threatened to veto such legislation because he said it would undermine the prospects for a deal with Iran.

The White House description of Boehner’s invitation and Netanyahu’s acceptance as an unacceptable breach in protocol and an insult to the President transformed a serious strategic difference of opinion into a personal rift. By focusing on Netanyahu’s supposed tactical blunder, according to Doran, the White House “also diverted attention from the fact that the entire Israeli elite, regardless of political orientation, as well as much of the U.S. Congress, regards the president’s conciliatory approach to Iran as profoundly misguided.” Doran’s summary of the past six years places the current uproar, as well as the gutter language interview of this past November, into a proper historical context. The Israeli Prime Minister has made no secret of his view that Obama’s policies rest on wishful thinking and denial of unpleasant realities.

Doran’s incisive view of the past six years leads me to conclude that Obama’s policy rests on what historians have called “the problem of underestimation,” that is, the reluctance to take the pronouncements of the Iranian leadership seriously. It assumes that the leaders of the Islamic Republic do not mean what they say when they express their desire to destroy the state of Israel or when they have street mobs chant “death to America.” It rests as well on an overestimation of the impact of American policy on the thinking of Iranian leaders and an inability to believe that ideological fanaticism will persist in the Iranian leadership should it get the bomb. It perhaps also rests on a notion current among some international relations “realists” that possession of nuclear weapons enforces a modicum of rationality because, so the thinking goes, all states want to survive. And it also rests on a refusal to take the radical anti-Semitism of the Iranian leadership with the seriousness that it deserves.

Benjamin Netanyahu is not at all alone in concluding that there is nothing realistic about such views–that they are wildly optimistic and ignore the stubborn facts of Iranian ideological consistency. Doran echoes the assessment of other well-informed observers of the Iran negotiations, such as Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation of the Defense of Democracies and most prominently, Senator Robert Menendez, now ranking Minority Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

So rather than acknowledge that the President’s policy towards Iran rests on a set of illusions and that Iran is not reciprocating his good will and concessions, the Obama White House has taken the low road, first with the disgusting gutter-language interview in November and now with indignation about a speech by Netanyahu to Congress. Accusations that those who disagree with Obama are destroying the hopes for peace and that the “Israel lobby” in the United States is — once again? — pushing the United States into war may once again find their way into public discussion in the coming weeks and months.

To those in the Democratic Party in the United States who are upset about the upcoming speech by Netanyahu and who are urging the Prime Minister to cancel it, it’s important to ask hard questions. Are you or are you not in favor of an American policy of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? If serious, well-informed people tell you that the current negotiations will make it possible for Iran to reach that goal, are you willing to criticize that approach and call for stiffer sanctions? If you are not willing to call for stiffer sanctions, how do you propose to prevent Iran from getting the bomb? Is it your preference that the United States bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities? If you do not support stiffer economic sanctions or a US military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, how do you propose to prevent Iran from getting the bomb? Or is it your view that a nuclear Iran is compatible with peace and security in the region and the world? Why do you believe that a regime led by religious fanatics can be contained and deterred by the prospect of nuclear retaliation? If, after all these years, Iran succeeds in getting the bomb, will not many other dictatorships with fanatical ideologies get the bomb?For those who focus on the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe, what is the source of your optimism that a nuclear Iran would not use it against Israel, that is, to carry out a second Holocaust or that an arms race in the region will not lead to nuclear war? In view of modern and contemporary history, what is the source of your optimism that the concessions that President Obama has already offered will lead Iran to abandon its longstanding and deeply-held ideological convictions?

As Doran’s excellent first cut of contemporary history reminds us, these are among the many questions that Obama’s critics in Congress, prominent members of the US foreign policy establishment and the press have been asking for the past six years. They are among the questions that any Israeli Prime Minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s position must pose as well. They are irritating and discomforting. Anyone who poses them is bound to have tense relations with advocates of a policy driven more by wishful thinking than sober recognition of unpleasant realities.

About the Author
Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. He has published extensively on modern German and European history including Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, He is completing a study entitled “At War with Israel: East Germany and the West German Radical Left, 1967-1989" (Cambridge University Press, 2016). His "Israel's Moment: The United States and Europe between the Holocaust and the Cold War" is forthcoming.