By the time this column appears in print on July 9, the U.S.-led P5+1 may have already reached an agreement with Iran on the nuclear talks in Vienna.
That, at least, was the reigning speculation last week when the talks exceeded the June 30 deadline set by the West. Yet with Obama administration widely seen as extremely eager for a deal, and with Iran hungry to have sanctions relief worth tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars, most pundits were predicting that an agreement would be reached by July 9. (If the deal goes past that date, according to the “Corker bill” the U.S. Congress will have 60 days instead of 30 to scrutinize the agreement.)
Whatever the case may be, sanctions relief for Iran could be a massive windfall for its aggressive ambitions in the Middle East. These ambitions have not exactly been constrained over the past several years when Iran was operating under serious financial and economic sanctions imposed by the UN and a range of countries (including Canada, the U.S., and EU member states) for cheating on its nuclear treaty obligations.
After all, Tehran has been determined to extend its tentacles from the Mediterranean to the Gulf, exercising its power in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Potentially flush with countless billions it didn’t have during this period, Iran’s malign ambitions may well leap to new heights.
According to the U.S. State Department’s “Country Reports on Terrorism, 2014,” released just last month, Iran (along with Syria and Sudan) remains one of the world’s leading sponsors of international terrorism — clearly the leading sponsor, with terrorist activity extending to Africa, Asia and even Latin America.
Yet President Obama believes that reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran will lead the Islamic Republic to be a force for stability. As Obama told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria back in February, “Iran has the ability over time to re-enter the community of nations as a responsible player.”
That optimistic attitude strikes many analysts as naïve at best.
Ray Takeyh, a highly respected observer of Middle East affairs with the Council on Foreign Relations, described Iran’s Supreme leader Ali Khamenei in the Washington Post “as one of the most successful Persian imperialists in the history of modern Iran,” and argued that those who believe “that Iran will not become a more aggressive regional power in the aftermath of a [nuclear] deal” don’t have a firm grasp of either Iran or a rapidly evolving the Middle East.
He warned: “[T]he most important legacy of the prospective agreement many not even lie in the nuclear realm. The massive financial gains from the deal would enable the Islamic Republic’s imperial surge while allowing a repressive regime that was on the brink of collapse in 2009 to consolidate power. This would be no small achievement for Iran’s emboldened rulers.”
While Obama is securing a legacy on the domestic front – especially following the Supreme Court’s landmark rulings on Obamacare and nation-wide same sex marriage rights – his policies abroad, specifically in the Middle East, have been marked by failures. Iran, the most difficult and consequential foreign affairs issue of his tenure, he hopes, will give him the foreign policy legacy he lacks — ”[I]t’s my name on this” as he told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in May.
Yet in his eagerness to gain the cooperation of Iran – even to the extent, American denials aside, of coordinating with Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq against ISIS – Obama has dismayed long-standing Sunni allies like Egypt and especially Saudi Arabia. (They are increasingly turning to Israel for support and intelligence sharing.) But not only has Obama failed to weaken ISIS (let alone destroy that fanatical movement), he’s arguably strengthened Iran’s hand in the region. Iran has been free to solidify its hold on parts of Iraq while, with its proxy Hezbollah, it props up the murderous regime of Bashar Assad.
Unfortunately, at the risk to its national interests the United States has failed to connect the dots between Iran’s nuclear and aggressive regional ambitions.