Some in the White House doubt a nuclear deal would alter the regime’s attitude toward the U.S.
By MICHAEL CROWLEY for politico.com —
Both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have suggested that a nuclear deal with Iran could be a step towards thawed relations between Washington and Tehran. But experts and even some senior administration officials are more skeptical, warning that a deal might not moderate Iran’s clerical regime and could even embolden it.
Sources familiar with the Obama administration’s thinking describe a split among top officials over what to expect from Iran after a deal, a debate that could determine America’s wider strategy in the Middle East.
“So many proponents of the deal have argued that there will be a spillover effect — that if we can get this deal then we would be likely to alter Iran’s trajectory on its regional approach as well as its domestic policies,” says Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution.
“I don’t tend to think that’s the case. There are plenty of reasons to question how this deal is going to play out with regard to Iran on the other issues of concern to the U.S.”
For instance, some Iran watchers fear that if Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, accedes to pressure from moderates and business leaders to approve the nuclear deal, he may try to appease hardliners and demonstrate his resolve by opposing the U.S. more strenuously in other ways.
Watching closely are Israel and America’s Sunni Arab allies, like Saudi Arabia, who fear that Obama may envision a grand strategic shift in which Iran transforms from an enemy of America to a regional partner. So are military planners who warn against the temptation to think that a post-deal Iran will require a smaller U.S. presence in the region.
Obama has hinted as much. After the first interim nuclear deal was struck in November 2013, he suggested it had implications that went beyond uranium stockpiles and centrifuge counts.
“If Iran seizes this opportunity, the Iranian people will benefit from rejoining the international community, and we can begin to chip away at the mistrust between our two nations,” Obama said.
Iran and the U.S. have been enemies locked in a cold war since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, which was largely driven by anti-American hatred. To this day, some crowds in Tehran chant “Death to America,” a phrase Khamenei approvingly repeated in an appearance last month.
Kerry was more cautious on the point during a Thursday night press conference in Switzerland, when asked if the negotiations might lead to improved relations between Iran and the U.S. more broadly.
“I’m not going to speculate on that,” Kerry replied. But then he added: “The one thing we do know is that if we can eliminate this question of the nuclear issue, it begins to at some point, conceivably, provide an opportunity for change.”
In private, Kerry has been more optimistic, sources said, as he often is about the power of diplomacy to bridge strategic differences.
More doubtful is Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, who evinces little hope that Iranian behavior will change anytime soon. “[E]ven if the nuclear issue was eventually settled by an enforceable agreement, Iran’s support for terrorism and its aggressive behavior in the region would remain a threat” to the U.S. and its allies, Clinton wrote in her 2014 memoir, adding of the nuclear diplomacy itself that “I had seen too many false hopes dashed over the years [by Iran] to allow myself to get too optimistic now.”
The aggression Clinton described has continued apace, as Iran sends money and troops to prop up the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, supports Lebanese Hezbollah fighters who threaten Israel, and aids the Shiite-friendly Houthi rebels who toppled a U.S.-friendly government in Yemen.
One concern about a nuclear deal is that the end of international economic sanctions on Iran would fill its coffers with billions of dollars that Tehran can devote to supporting terrorism and regional proxy wars.
“At one end of the spectrum is a view is that a deal increases Iranian standing in the region and frees up resources to pursue policies antithetical to our own,” says Matthew Waxman, a former senior national security official in the George W. Bush administration who is now a professor at Columbia Law School.
“At the other end is a view that it could strengthen moderate political forces within Iran and open up possibilities for warmer Iranian relations with the West,” Waxman added.
History is one factor driving the optimistic view. Tehran and Washington were closely allied until Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. The Shah of Iran was regularly toasted at state dinners until his overthrow, and Henry Kissinger would later describe him as “a leader whom eight Presidents of both parties proclaimed — rightly — a friend of our country and a pillar of stability in a turbulent and vital region.”
No one in the Obama administration sees a return to that relationship soon. Some do believe that a nuclear agreement can disprove claims by Iranian hardliners that the west can never be trusted or dealt with.
They also hope that a deal which ends sanctions and breathes life into Iran’s economy will be a boon for reformers led by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani.
“If there’s an agreement, that gives Rouhani a lot of wind at his sails. Internally, the pragmatists pick up a lot of juice,” Ilan Goldenberg, a former official in the Obama State and Defense departments, told POLITICO in February.
Better ties with Iran could make the task of policing the Middle East easier for Washington in some ways. The U.S. and Iran share a common enemy in the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), though bitter relations between the two governments have prevented them from coordinating their military efforts against the group in Iraq.
Some doubt that can change anytime soon. “Since 1979, the United States and Iran have faced common adversaries in the USSR, Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and now [ISIL],” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Yet successive U.S. presidents failed to turn these overlapping interests into a sustained, cooperative working relationship.”
No one is more skeptical than America’s Gulf Arab allies — Sunni-dominated nations who view Shiite Iran as a mortal threat.
Assuaging them after Thursday’s framework deal is now a top priority of the Obama administration. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken is headed to the region this month, where he will meet with restive U.S. allies.
In his Rose Garden remarks Thursday, Obama announced that he had invited leaders from the six Sunni Arab countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – to a summit at Camp David this spring.
GCC officials are hoping for more than a sales pitch about the nuclear deal’s provisions. They want to hear that the U.S. has a larger plan to check Iran in their neighborhood.
“We look forward to the meeting, but it needs to address how this nuclear deal fits into a broader strategy on containing Iranian influence in the region and strengthening US-GCC security cooperation,” said one Gulf state diplomat.
After Clinton’s 2008 primary defeat, Sullivan followed her to the State Department — first as deputy chief of staff and then as State’s youngest-ever director of policy planning. | AP Photo
Reassuring those Arab governments would be smart politics — and prudent strategy, argues William J. Burns, who stepped down as Deputy Secretary of State in November.
“I do not assume that progress on the nuclear issue will lead anytime soon to a relaxation of tensions with Tehran on other regional problems, or to normalization of United States-Iranian relations,” Burns wrote in an April 2 New York Times op-ed.
“Nor do I assume that the Iranian leadership will make an overnight transformation from a revolutionary, regionally disruptive force to a more ‘normal’ role as another ambitious regional partner.”