While the Obama administration systematically engages Iran as the centerpiece of a Middle East strategy, my distinguished colleague, David Goldman, writes that President George W. Bush adopted a similar strategy after 2006 based on the guidance of Robert Gates, former secretary of Defense.
Relying on the work of Michael Doran, erstwhile Bush aide, Goldman notes that the Iraq Study Group — a bipartisan commission including former Secretary of State James Baker, former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) and Gates — proposed a diplomatic engagement with Iran "and its junior partner, the [President Bashar] Assad regime in Syria."
Moreover, the history of this proposal has its origin in a Council of Foreign Relations report written by Gates and Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser. In this report, the U.S. is criticized for creating security concerns on Iran's western border after toppling Saddam Hussain's Iraqi regime. "By contributing to heightened tensions between the Bush administration and Iran, the elimination of Saddam's rule has not generated substantial strategic dividends for Tehran. In fact, together with U.S. statements on regime change, rogue states, and preemptive action, recent changes in the regional balance of power have only enhanced the potential deterrent value of a 'strategic weapon.'"
After the 2006 congressional elections, the Bush administration did attempt to placate Iran, even though it rejected most of the study group proposals. Surely Bush never would have conceded as much as Obama, despite embrace of the general strategy. Gates described his position as "realistic," a condition that led to his reappointment with the Obama team. But one can only wonder what "realism" meant at the time.
The Iranians played Brzezinski like a Stradivarius in 1979 when the shah was deposed and apparently conveyed the impression that they could be a responsible partner in Middle East stability, notwithstanding their promotion of terrorism from Yemen to Argentina. For those who believe the U.S. is the main instigator of world problems, the rapprochement with Iran seems sensible. From the worldview of U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Powers, among others, the U.S. invasion of Iraq precipitated a fearful and angry response in Iran and hastened the Iranian desire for nuclear weapons. As a consequence, the Obama team believes that if we can assure Iran our motives are not malevolent or intimidating, the Iranian leadership will be accommodating.
This view is simply lacking any historical perspective. Iran wants to dominate the region with its own brand of a Shiite religious orientation. It has surrounded Saudi Arabia through Houthi control of the Red Sea and domination of the Strait of Hormuz. It has influence through the vassal states of Beirut, Damascus, Sana'a and Bagdad. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard operates throughout the region and abroad. In addition, it has supplied Hamas and Hezbollah with thousands of missiles aimed at Israel.
To conjure a responsible Iran willing to stabilize the Middle East is a fantasy that can only reside in the minds of State Department Arabists and establishment figures in the foreign policy elite. This position is clever by half and dangerous in its full implications. Giving Iran leverage for the realization of its ambitions has alarmed the Sunni nations in the area. It may also be the catalyst for nuclear proliferation, with both Saudi Arabia and Egypt poised to act should Iran acquire nuclear weapons or the fissile material to produce nuclear weapons. Israel, facing an existential challenge to its very survival, may be obliged to attack Iran.
For President Obama and his team, the illusion persists. The faux dream about Iran is intoxicating, since evidence to the contrary tends to be ignored. Even if one can make the case that there is continuity in this policy, it is a misguided view of reality whether formerly adopted by Republicans or by Democrats in the White House. Iran is not an ally, nor will it be an ally, however many concessions this government makes to the mullahs. If anything, we should recognize the blunders in the past so they aren't repeated in the present.