Foreign Policy

Obama’s misconceptions about Iran

A November 6 scoop by the Wall Street Journal revealed a secret letter sent by President Barack Obama to the Iranian regime’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei. In the letter, Obama tried to urge Khamenei toward achieving a comprehensive deal over Tehran’s nuclear program while dangling promises of cooperation against ISIS and assuaging the ayatollah by saying that Washington will not be targeting his ally in Syria, the embattled president Bashar al-Assad.

Obama’s one-sided correspondence with Khamenei ­– which happens to be the fourth of its kind during his six-year tenure – reveals that he has got it all wrong on Iran, and is poised to repeat previous mistakes despite his failed attempts at détente and rapprochement with the Iranian regime.

{mosads}First, Obama thinks that he can actually cajole Iran into giving up its nuclear ambitions, a strategic project for which the regime has spent billions of dollars’ worth of the country’s assets and which it sees as essential to its survival. The Iranian regime’s 35-year history proves that it only yields ground under pressure and in face of a resolute policy.

Even Secretary of State John Kerry, who touted the nuclear talks with Iran since Hassan Rouhani (Iran’s supposed “moderate” president) assumed office, admits that it’s not hard for Iran to prove that its nuclear program is not meant for building weapons. However, in past months, Iran has made it clear through its actions that its nuclear activities are not as peaceful as it insists. With less than a week remaining to the November 24 deadline for a final agreement to be hammered between Iran and the P5+1 (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China, and Germany), the Iranian regime continues its illicit activities and has yet to clarify obscure and suspicious aspects of its program pertaining to weaponization and possible military dimensions.

The Obama administration has already ceded too much to the Iranian regime in terms of nuclear concessions, and has gone back from dismantling Iran’s nuclear enrichment program to simply deferring its capability to produce a nuclear bomb. But given Obama’s weak approach, even the extension of Iran’s breakout time is becoming wishful thinking. With what little remains of the talks, only a tough stance will force Iran to acquiesce to any form of agreement that will – relatively speaking – limit its path to the nuclear bomb. Even then, granted Iran’s history of deceit and trickery, one should remain skeptical of the Iranian regime and expect it to cheat its way to the atomic bomb.

Second, Obama wrongly believes that the Iranian regime actually wishes to cooperate with Washington in regards with the threat of the Islamic State (also dubbed ISIS or ISIL), the extremist group that has occupied large stretches of land straddling Syria and Iraq in past months.

As it happens, the Iranian regime’s interests lie in having the Islamic State stay around for a while, providing Tehran with the perfect excuse to empower its militia proxies in Iraq. And Obama’s dithering in laying out an unambiguous strategy for fighting the extremist group is playing into the hands of Iran’s rulers, allowing them to reap the benefits of the airstrikes carried out by the U.S.-led coalition.

In past months, the Iranian regime’s proxy militia forces in Iraq have strengthened their numbers by the tens of thousands under the pretext of rallying against the Islamic State. They have expanded their influence in the country and are waging a campaign no less brutal than that of the Islamic State, threatening to further exacerbate tensions in a country that is already torn along sectarian lines.

Any form of cooperation with the international community would eventually require Iran to disband its terrorist proxy militias and would lead to its eviction from Iraq, a red-line for the mullahs ruling in Tehran. It is time for President Obama to understand that when it comes to the Islamic State, Iran is part of the problem, not the solution, and involving the Iranian regime in the fight against ISIS will only make a bad situation worse.

Third, Obama wrongly thinks he can fight the Islamic State in Syria while ignoring the root of the problem, which is the Assad regime. Obama’s reassurances to Khamenei that Assad will not be targeted will send the wrong message to his allies in the field – the moderate rebels – and his allies across the region, all of whom unequivocally call for the ouster of the Syrian dictator.

It will also be a great injustice to the 200,000-plus innocent people who have lost their lives in the past three years of the Syrian conflict. Neither will it warm the hearts of the millions of Syrians who have been displaced or forced to flee the country and are looking toward a freezing winter this year.

In fact, the only thing that Obama has gotten right is that it is the supreme leader who has the final say in Iran, and it is useless to deal with showcase pieces like Rouhani or his ever-smiling foreign minister Javad Zarif.

But Obama’s approach is tested and failed, and he should learn from his own previous mistakes. In 2009, when he first wrote to Khamenei, he chose to side with the dictators of Iran and opted to ignore the voices of millions of Iranians who took to the streets after the fraudulent presidential elections and called for the dislodging of the ruling mullahs from power. Absent the support from the international community, the Iranian regime boldly suppressed the protests, and the Iranian people’s desire for freedom and democracy was stifled. Obama’s erroneous policy of rapprochement with the Iranian regime later spilled over into Iraq and Syria.

Now, Iran (and the rest of the Middle East) is once again at a critical juncture. Obama can repeat his previous mistakes and, based on his misconceptions, chose to cast his lot with the brutal dictators wreaking havoc across the region. Such an undertaking would surely yield disastrous results, including a nuclear-armed Iran, and a war-torn Iraq and Syria with no prospect of peace on the horizon.

Alternately he can put aside his pen-palling attempts with the Iranian regime’s supreme leader, and make the right choice by adopting a tough stance against the Iranian regime, which is by all accounts the root of the problems in the Middle East. Such an approach would include forcing Iran to totally dismantle its nuclear program without any preconditions, and requiring it to rein in its militias in Iraq and put an end to its reign of sectarian terror in the country. It would also see the ouster of the Assad regime as part of the solution to the current crisis riddling Syria and Iraq. It might sound a bit too much for a leader that is used to watch and let things run their course and “lead from behind,” but delaying and kicking the can further down the road will only make future choices tougher.

Basiri is an Iranian human rights activist and supporter of democratic regime change in Iran. Follow him on Twitter: @Amir_bas

Tags Barack Obama John Kerry

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