The Lord works in mysterious ways. That sentence does not appear in the Koran. Nor, actually, is it found in the Bible. But in recent days it has probably occurred to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader.
On the one hand, he is reportedly suffering from cancer, an advanced stage. On the other hand, he is tantalizing close to winning battles he has been fighting for more than a quarter-century, since he assumed the mantle of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, charismatic leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Most significant: His negotiators appear to be on the brink of concluding a deal with President Obama, who will suspend economic sanctions without congressional input (although the most onerous sanctions can be terminated only by Congress) and, in effect, guarantee Iran the right to possess nuclear weapons in the not-too-distant future.
In exchange, he is not being required to dismantle his illicit nuclear weapons program or stop sponsoring terrorism. He is only being asked to slow-walk the program. What if he agrees and then violates the agreement and the Americans find out? I doubt that worries him.
“I am not a diplomat. I am a revolutionary,” the supreme leader said two years ago. Paradoxically, that may be among the reasons Iranian diplomacy has been so effective. He drew red lines and wouldn’t move them. By contrast, his American and European enemies — he does not view them as “negotiating partners” — displayed flexibility in pursuit of “conflict resolution.” You might call this asymmetric diplomacy.
It has been obvious that Mr. Obama — who began writing letters to him in 2009 — was more eager than he to conclude a deal; more fearful of what might follow should the talks collapse. Over time, the American president’s definition of success grew modest: It would suffice to end up with a piece of paper that the naive could believe guarantees peace for our time — our time being roughly 10 years, when a “sunset” clause in the pending agreement kicks in and most restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program vanish.
During the course of the negotiations, Ayatollah Khamenei must have been encouraged — if not surprised — to find that nothing he and his deputies did provoked the Americans. For example, last year Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif placed a wreath on the grave of Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah leader believed responsible for the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut that together killed 268 Americans, as well as attacks in the 1990s on the Israeli embassy and a Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 114.
This past weekend, Iran announced a new surface-to-surface cruise missile system, an important addition to its arsenal of long-range rockets. Research continues on intercontinental ballistic missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads to American targets. And earlier this month, Iranian forces destroyed a replica U.S. aircraft carrier in the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s petroleum passes. A general in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said the exercise was intended to send a “message.”
Mr. Obama’s messages have been rather different. He has been instructing Congress not to pass legislation mandating additional sanctions in the event Iranian intransigence continues. Last week, Robert Menendez, the Democratic senator most adamant about stopping the Islamic republic from obtaining nuclear weapons, was accused of corruption by Mr. Obama’s Justice Department.
I suspect the supreme leader is clever enough to appreciate how lucky he has been to have America as his enemy. President George W. Bush took on the task of deposing Iran’s nemesis, Saddam Hussein. That achieved, Iraq might have been transformed into a U.S. ally, providing the Americans with a permanent military base right next door and in the heart of the Arab Middle East.
Mr. Obama chose instead to withdraw U.S. troops — essentially inviting the supreme leader to step in, which he did, supporting Iraq’s Shiites and the suppression of Iraq’s Sunnis. One consequence: the growth of the Islamic State, a Sunni jihadi movement and rival to the Islamic republic. The United States is helping confront the Islamic State — which means the U.S. is assisting Iranian-backed Shiite militias similar to the ones that a few years ago were killing American troops in Iraq.
Thanks to the supreme leader’s bold policies, Iran is now the dominant power in four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana’a. Hamas, which rules Gaza, maintains close ties to Tehran, which sends weapons when it can. For example, in March 2014 the Israeli navy stopped a commercial ship called the Klos-C, which was filled with Syrian long-range rockets.
Israel, along with America’s Arab allies in the region, e.g., Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, worry that Mr. Obama means to form a de facto alliance with Iran — one that could be maintained only at their expense. That may bring a smile to the lips of the supreme leader.
Perhaps the smile fades, though, as he ponders this irony: He has given his life to what Saeed Ghasseminejad, an Iranian dissident in exile and a colleague of mine at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, calls “a holy mission.” Like Moses, he has led his followers to the Promised Land — a land not of milk and honey but of power and glory. Also like Moses, he may not be able to accompany them on the final journey. Western intelligence sources quoted by the French newspaper Le Figaro estimate the 75-year-old cleric has no more than “two years left to live.”
Yes, the Lord works in mysterious ways. But a man of faith accepts that, counts his blessings, and submits to the Divine Will.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.