Reflections on A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Part XII: U.S. Foreign Policy on Iran

America is facing a pandemic crisis that is predicted to get worse before it starts to improve. America is facing a communication crisis in a post-truth world in which a considerable majority of Republican Party supporters still believe that Joe Biden was not elected in a fair election, thus undermining his legitimacy. America faces a fiscal crisis in which government revenues are dropping, GDP is dropping, deficits are increasing, yet a much bigger stimulus package is required at this time to give the economy a boost while helping the unemployed and small businesses get over the financial slump as a direct result of the pandemic and which will also allow states to deliver the vaccines to get past the pandemic. We also have a worldwide climate crisis in which the years left to reverse the drift are shrinking rapidly.

Facing all these challenges, the American polity is split between activists who want to attack these problems directly at a time when the other almost half still favours less regulation and less government just at a time when more and better governance and government regulation are needed. And I have not even mentioned an immigration and refugee crisis, unfinished health care policy, protections needed for homeowners and renters, policies that are necessary to improve education, and on and on.

Where is there any room for attention to foreign policy? It is quite clear that the Biden administration is concentrating and must concentrate on domestic policy. Yet foreign policy, defense policy, intelligence, trade policy and the international banking and health systems all need urgent attention. And then there is the ever-present looming nuclear issue. This is particularly acute with respect to Iran, not only because Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, but because Iran’s nuclear program is complicated by domestic human rights abuses, Iranian foreign policy meddling in its neighbours as it tries to become a leading power in the Middle East, and its technical developments in acquiring mid-range and even intercontinental missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

In his memoir, Barack Obama describes his initial immersion into foreign policy with Russia, dealing with the G-20, attending a major NATO meeting and then with a Somalia pirate crisis eventually made into a film starring Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips. His Saudi Arabia visit was not primarily intended to be about the Saudi main rival, Iran, but about an effort to reset America’s relations with the whole Muslim world in the aftermath of Iraq and the rise of radical Islam. On 3 June 2009, Air Force One landed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Obama planned to deliver what became known as the “Muslim speech” in an effort to redress media portrayals of Muslims as either terrorists or rich self-indulgent sheikhs and to correct the image of America as exclusively interested in combating terrorism, defending the oil supplies to the West (even though, because of fracking, America was now independent of the need for Middle East oil) and America’s guardian role over the security of Israel.

Iranian policy not only suffered from historical hangovers – the American CIA sponsored coup against the Iranian elected leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1951, the hostage crisis that ended Jimmy Carter’s presidency in 1980 – but was further complicated by Iran’s relations with Russia and China. Vladimir Putin in Obama’s meeting with him in July 2009 dismissed Obama’s “concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and bristled at my suggestion that he suspend a pending sale of the powerful Russian-designed S-300 surface-to-air missile system to the regime.” (465) Putin insisted that it was just a defensive system. In any case, Russia could not afford either in money terms ($800 million) or in reputation canceling the arms deal.

“Since rejecting my offer of bilateral talks, Iran had shown no signs of scaling back its nuclear program. Its negotiators continued to stall and bluster in [UN] sessions with P5 +1 members [the permanent members of the UN Security Council + Germany], insisting that Iran’s centrifuges and enriched uranium stockpiles had entirely civilian purposes. These claims of innocence were spurious, but they provided Russia and China with enough of an excuse to keep blocking the Security Council from considering tougher sanctions against the regime.” (470)

In the case of China, America had a whole set of problems beside his seeking support for new sanctions on Iran. In addition to American complaints about artificial Chinese interventions to keep their currency at a low international value, U.S. priorities included, “managing the economic crisis and North Korea’s nuclear program; the need to peacefully resolve maritime disputes in the South China Sea; the treatment of Chinese dissidents.” The alleged genocide against the Uyghurs and the status of Hong Kong and Taiwan had not yet reached the top of the pile.  

On Iran, Obama on his visit to Beijing in November of 2009, “appealed to Chinese self-interest, warning that without meaningful diplomatic action, either we or the Israelis might be forced to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, with far worse consequences for Chinese oil supplies.” As expected, “Hu [President Hu Jintao] was noncommittal on sanctions, but judging by his shift in body language and the furious notetaking by his ministers, the seriousness of our message on Iran got his attention.” (481)

By June 2010, Obama’s efforts, begun a year earlier with Putin, bore their first fruits with respect to Iran. The UN Security Council, “passed Resolution 1920 imposing new sanctions on Iran, including a ban on weapons sales, a suspension of new international financial activities by Iranian banks, and a broad mandate to bar any commerce that could help Iran expand its nuclear weapons program.” As Obama wrote, the U.S. “now had the tools we needed to bring Iran’s economy to a halt unless and until it agreed to negotiate. It also gave me a powerful rationale for counselling patience in conversations with Israelis and others [presumably American hawks] who saw the nuclear issue as a handy excuse for a U.S.-Iran military confrontation.” (484)

Nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran alongside intercontinental missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead were strategic threats against America. But nuclear weapons owned and developed by Iran and capable of being delivered by intermediate range missiles were an existential threat to Israel. Iran had vowed to wipe Israel off the map. Preventing Israel from launching an attack on Iran that could lead to a wider Middle East war, and one that might inevitably draw the U.S. in on one side, was a major objective of getting the sanctions as the precondition of a new agreement.

The result was not only a product of multilateralism but was a multi-personnel affair requiring the depth of knowledge and breadth of diplomatic skills of Hilary Clinton and Susan Rice, and the technical and strategic support of Michael McFaul, Obama’s campaign adviser of Russia and the Director at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. He is the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Professor of International Studies in the Department of Political Science at Stanford University, and the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. In addition, there were Bill Burns, a career diplomat, former ambassador to Russia under George W. Bush and the National Security Council senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs, and the U.S. nonproliferation expert, Gary Samore.  Of course, as Obama acknowledged, it had to be topped off by Barack Obama’s personal diplomacy, especially with Dimitri Medvedev, president of Russia from 2008 to 2012.

What a contrast with the unilateralism, UN-bashing, singular and amateurish grandstanding of Obama’s successor. Donald Trump dashing off hither and yon without expert support or any in-depth study of an issue. With Joe Biden, there will be a return to professionalism in foreign affairs. However, Trump’s off-the-cuff unilateral diplomacy did prove how effective American sanctions could be and were, but at what cost in contrast to the internationally legal and multilaterally-based efforts of the Obama administration?

Other than the methods utilized, there was the central issue of substance. Obama in negotiations agreed to focus singularly on the nuclear issue and leave the issues of domestic human rights abuses, developments of missiles and missile technology and meddling in the affairs of other states in the region – Iraq and even Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon which had by then for a longtime been a satrap of Iran, Yemen on behalf of the Houthis, and whatever support the regime could offer to Gaza in its conflict with Israel.

Obama summarized the American position as follows: “By the time I took office, conservative hard-liners were firmly back in charge in Tehran, led by a new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose many anti-Western outbursts, Holocaust denial and persecution of gays and others he considered a threat made him a perfect distillation of the regime’s most hateful aspects. Iranian weapons were still being sent to militants intent on killing American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. invasion of Iraq had greatly strengthened Iran’s strategic position in the region by replacing its sworn enemy, Saddam Hussein, with a Shiite-led government subject to Iranian influence. [AN UNDERSTATEMENT!] Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy, had emerged as the most powerful faction in Lebanon, with Iranian-supplied missiles that could now reach Tel Aviv. The Saudis and Israelis spoke in alarming tones of an expanding “’Shiite Crescent’ of Iranian influence and made no secret of their interest in the possibility of a U.S.-initiated regime change.”

“Under any circumstances, then, Iran would have been a Grade A headache for my administration. But it was the country’s accelerating nuclear program that threatened to turn a bad situation into a full-blown crisis.” Obama determined to roll the crisis away from a full-blown catastrophe into a very serious international political and security annoyance. Why did he not go much further, and push the Iranians away from being a direct existential threat to both Israel and Saudi Arabia even without nuclear weapons? Certainly, this is what both Israel and Saudi Arabia wanted. And it need not have involved regime change.

Part of the answer is the seriousness of the nuclear threat. As Obama described it, “The regime had inherited nuclear facilities built during the time of the shah, and under the U.N.’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – to which Ian had been a signatory since its ratification in 1970 – it had the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful means. Unfortunately, the same centrifuge technology used to spin and enrich low enriched uranium (I.E.U.) that fueled nuclear power plants could be modified to produce weapons grade highly enriched uranium (HEU). As one of our experts put it, ‘With enough HEU, a smart high school physics student with access to the internet can produce a bomb.’”

In 1953, I did not have access to the internet. There was no internet. Nor did I have access to enriched uranium. But on parents night at Harbord Collegiate, I could offer a brief 15-minute talk – repeated four times during the evening – instructing parents on how to build a nuclear bomb. That is why the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty was so important. That is why Iranian compliance was so important.

Ironically, the Israelis who were most under threat from such a possibility were no less afraid of Iran’s conventional technology and its meddling in the domestic situation of neighbours that provided a more direct and real threat to Israel. Israel wanted to use the lever of restricting Iran’s nuclear program to also restrict Iran’s developments in missile technology and its deployment of surrogates and equipment to fortify Israel’s many enemies in the region.

Obama who had promised to consult and involve Israel on American initiatives involving Israel security, made two bets. It saw an opportunity to pursue a nuclear treaty with Iran under international law and the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and with the very difficult to get political support of both Russia and China (in the end, Russia even cancelled its S-800 sales to Iran (300)), get what would end up at the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5 +1 and the EU based on an April 2015 framework deal on 14 July 2015. Obama won that bet, in spite of enormous political interference run by Netanyahu that broke with the Israeli practice of a continued Republican and Democratic united policy. Netanyahu totally aligned himself with the Republican Party and denounced the deal.

Obama made another bet. Netanyahu in accepting a two-state solution and Abbas in insisting he would not negotiate with Israel while Israel continued its settlement program in the West Bank and Jerusalem, took advantage of the situation and got Netanyahu to agree to a ten-month freeze, at least on new settlements in the West Bank, but not Jerusalem, in order to explore the possibility of restarting peace talks. By the time Abbas came around, the ten-month period was almost over and Netanyahu refused to extend the freeze. As a result, Obama spent enormous political capital pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement when the prospects were very slim to begin with.

As a result, Netanyahu and the President of the United States had, to say the least, a political falling out. One of the results is that Netanyahu would become one of the most vocal critics of the Iran Nuclear deal claiming that both in what it included – weak inspection provisions, very short timelines for compliance before they expired, etc. – and even more importantly at what the agreement excluded with respect to missile development and sponsorship of proxy enemies against Israel. This critique formed one of the foundation stones for the rise of Donald Trump and his explicitly one-sided support for the Israeli position on both Iran and the absence of a real prospect of peace with the Palestinians.

I had become a strong supporter of the nuclear deal with Iran. Like Obama and his advisers, I recognized both its internal weaknesses and its narrow focus. However, I believed strongly that that imperfect deal was better than none as long as it worked to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Iranians. The deal proved to be even weaker than I thought even without Trump undermining it. Further, the Trump regime proved that unilateral American sanctions without the endorsement of China, Russia, the UN or even the P-4 +1, could be very effective in pushing Iran against the economic wall. However, though that resulted is some curtailment of Iranian interference in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Hamas, the programs still remained robust and were pursued with even more determination on behalf of Iran.

Given this inheritance on the Iranian portfolio, what can Joe Biden be expected to do based on lessons learned from both Obama and Trump policies?

Tomorrow: Part XIII: Biden’s Iran Foreign Policy

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