Nixon went to China. Obama will not be going to Iran.
The 1972 visit of President Richard M. Nixon to the People’s Republic included meetings with both Chairman Mao Zedong, the communist revolutionary leader, and Premier Zhou Enlai, the pragmatic head of the government. Detente and normalization of relations followed.
By stark contrast, Ali Khamenei, the Islamic republic’s revolutionary leader, and Hassan Rouhani, the pragmatic president of the theocratic regime, will not deign even to share a bottle of pomegranate juice with Barack H. Obama, president of “satanic” America, their avowed “enemy.”
President Obama appears unperturbed, confident that detente and normalization of relations — not to mention a more stable Middle East — lie at the end of the road he began to pave with his 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a nuclear deal that garnered neither Congress’ endorsement nor the public’s approval.
The fraught controversy over how we got to this point and where we’re heading is the subject of a new book: “The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals that Reshaped the Middle East,” by Jay Solomon, chief foreign affairs correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.
What I found striking in this first draft of contemporary history: the opportunities Mr. Obama missed — or, more precisely, dismissed. In 2009, the brutish Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner of presidential elections that were not just manipulated by Supreme Leader Khamenei — that’s standard procedure — but almost certainly falsified as well. Iranians went out into the streets chanting “Death to the dictators!” and “President Obama, are you with us or against us?”
According to Mr. Solomon, not only did Mr. Obama refuse to support them, he ended programs to document Iranian human rights abuses and ordered the CIA to turn its back on the Green Movement. “The Agency has contingency plans for supporting democratic uprisings anywhere in the world,” Mr. Solomon writes. “This includes providing dissidents with communications, money, and in extreme cases even arms. But in this case the White House ordered it to stand down.”
Mr. Obama also was unenthusiastic about sanctions. He and Secretary of State John Kerry believed that showing Iran’s rulers respect and engaging them in dialogue would be sufficient to mitigate their animosity and bellicosity. “So many wars have been fought over misunderstandings, misinterpretations, lack of effective diplomacy,” Mr. Kerry told Mr. Solomon in a 2016 interview. “War is the failure of diplomacy.”
I suspect Clausewitz and Sun Tzu would beg to differ. More to the point, quite a few members of Congress, including such Republicans as Mark Kirk, Ed Royce and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and such Democrats as Robert Menendez, Eliot Engel and Howard Berman, were convinced that talking softly was not enough, that when dealing with Iran’s rulers it was necessary to carry a sizable stick. Mr. Solomon notes that congressional staffers partnered with several Washington think tanks to find “new ways to squeeze Iran’s oil profits and ability to conduct financial transactions.”
In particular, he adds, a “lethal weapon” came from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (the think tank I founded after Sept. 11, 2001, and where I serve as president) which “focuses on combating Middle East extremism and, in particular, promoting the security of the United States, Israel and other democracies threatened by radical Islam.” FDD’s executive director, Mark Dubowitz, and his Farsi-speaking research team “provided a constant stream of reports to U.S. lawmakers on Iranian companies and individuals that they believed should be sanctioned for their roles in developing Iran’s nuclear program.”
Eventually, Mr. Dubowitz, working with Sen. Kirk’s then-deputy chief of staff Richard Goldberg, came up with a “financial bomb”: a Belgium-based financial firm called SWIFT, “which hosts the international computer network that facilitates virtually every banking transaction in the world through an extensive messaging and financial tracking system.” The Obama administration opposed expelling Iran from SWIFT but “Congress once again overrode the White House’s concerns and unanimously passed” legislation in 2012 that “de-SWIFTed” Tehran.
By 2013, such measures, “were crippling Iran’s economy.” Had the pressure been intensified — or even just maintained — who knows what concessions Iran’s rulers might have made to avoid economic crisis and collapse? But Mr. Obama eased up on Iran in exchange for an interim agreement. After that, few if any Iranian concessions were forthcoming. Ayatollah Khamenei insisted that his red lines be observed while those laid down by Mr. Obama were transgressed — one after another.
In the end, Iran would not even have to acknowledge that it ever had a nuclear weapons program, much less reveal how far that program had progressed. Nevertheless, the Obama administration would agree that Iran “be allowed to build an industrial-scale nuclear program, with hundreds of thousands of machines, after a ten-year period of restraint.”
“I have no doubt we avoided a war,” Mr. Kerry told the author in an interview early this year. He could be right. Alternatively, what he sees as avoidance could turn out to be only postponement.
Based on faith rather than evidence, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Obama believe that the Islamic Republic will moderate; that it will give up its ambition of establishing a vast new Islamic empire; that it will no longer dream of bringing “death” to America, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other “infidel” nations; and that it will not evolve into a more formidable and lethal adversary.
“Obama has wagered that Khamenei and his revolutionary allies won’t outlast the terms of the nuclear agreement,” Mr. Solomon concludes. “If they do, the United States risks unleashing an even larger nuclear cascade on the Middle East.” Yes, that’s the wager. Seems like a long-shot to me.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times