Understanding Obama

Print More

The following is a thought experiment: an attempt to understand the Iranian deal by way of logical speculation regarding the issues and facts as perceived by the Obama administration.
I am assuming that Obama is not a Marxist/Islamist/Kenyan, consumed by post-colonial resentment and dedicated to destroying the Constitution and the United States. Nor a Black Nationalist anti-Semite, whose most important priority regarding Iran is to screw Israel. I am assuming he is a patriotic American who desires to be a historically great President.
I believe he is unsentimental regarding Israel (neither pro nor hostile) – unlike Truman, Clinton and Bush II; more like Eisenhower and Bush I. I believe he thinks that starting a 3rd Middle East war with Iran would be criminally stupid and devastatingly harmful to the United States.
Obama became President during a period of radical global transition, internal economic crisis and external weakness deriving from two failed wars. It is a period of uncertainty and reinvention of national identity; analogous to the periods that Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman inherited. Whether history judges him as a Hoover or a Truman (or something in-between) remains to be seen. I personally am agnostic on the issue. I give him good marks on some things (recovery from the economic crises and health care) and bad marks on other things, especially his pathological refusal to name the primary 21st century enemy, which is, as British PM David Cameron said, “radical Islamist extremism”. I admire his poise in overlooking vicious ad-hominem attacks (some of which derive from residual racism) and deplore his refusal to “play politics” in the Reagan/Tip O’Neil tradition (which I believe has made his job unnecessarily more difficult).
I believe that regarding Iran the United States, Europe and Israel have gravely divergent interests. When Obama says he wants to pivot from the Middle East to Asia he is referencing over a decade of American policy reevaluation (begun before his term in office) and is serious. Such a pivot would represent a reorientation of American grand-strategy of historic proportions. If the 20th century was America’s Atlantic century the 21st century will be its Pacific century, with profound implications for Europe and existential implications for Israel.
American involvement in the Middle East has been a derivative of the centrality of Europe during the Cold War and the primary challenge of the Soviet Union. The Middle East, with its vast oil reserves and geo-strategic location, was the soft underbelly of Europe during the Cold War.
The primary challenge has become China and the economic ascendancy of Asia. In aggregate the Asian economy is already bigger than the EU or NAFTA. In Obama’s view American involvement in the Middle East has been consuming valuable resources better applied elsewhere. Especially as the USA (unlike Europe) has no need for Middle East oil.
The responsible reduction of American involvement in the Middle East requires, amongst other things, manageable engagement with Iran; if not directly then indirectly by way of other global partners. This in order to gradually build Iranian interests in stability.
Obama receives intelligence reports daily from the CIA, NSA and Army Intelligence which, logic dictates, report:

  • Sykes/Picot is dead – Syria and Iraq have ceased to exist as functioning states in any meaningful way.
  • Saudi Arabia is a badly run family business. It has no historical, political, economic or institutional robustness. As available oil resources decline its future is bleak. Its culture is Wahhabi Islam – the most retrograde Sunni Muslim denomination in the world – which has funded the entire global educational infrastructure for modern day Jihadism and which is responsible for all of the terror attacks against the West (not Shiite Iran, which for the most part confines its trouble making to the region – the one exception being the Jewish community center in Argentina). Saudi Arabia, as presently constituted, is not a reliable component of a future stable Middle East.
  • The Gulf States are a figment of their own imagination; their very existence depends on the 50 billion dollars a year the USA spends on defending them. This has cost the American taxpayer 1.5 trillion dollars over the past 25 years, not including the expense of the two Iraq Wars. Without the American Navy presence in the Persian Gulf and rickety Saudi Arabia they would not continue to exist for long.
  • The continued existence of Lebanon and Jordon depends to a large extent on the implied military protection of Israel. If Israel disappeared tomorrow both would disappear the day after – swallowed up by ISIS anarchy.
  • There are three countries in the Middle East with historical roots and are relatively stable: Egypt, Israel and Iran. The other countries are 19th and 20th century western colonial inventions. Responsible disengagement from the Middle East requires various degrees of American engagement with the historical three.

Stability is the key. Anything that causes instability must be resisted. Obama’s massive contribution to Israel’s military deterrent (according to Ehud Barak more than any other President) is a reflection of his commitment to Israel’s security and thus stability. His uncompromising opposition to all aspects of the settlement project, and impatience with Israelis who support it, reflects the American belief (for almost a half a century) that it is a major destabilizerin the Mid-East equation. Regarding Egypt, the Americans apparently believe that el-Sisi is ‘overdoing’ his campaign against radical Islam; even while content he is purging them from the political equation. They believe his ‘overdoing’ is counterproductive and actually strengthens the radicals. The Iranian deal is perceived as giving the West at least an opportunity to engage Iranian civil society, thus beginning a long term process of creating alternative Iranian interests invested in stability.
The other partners to the sanctions – China, Russia, India, Japan and the Europeans – had been growing impatient with the sanctions and did not perceive they were slowing down Iranian progress towards nuclear capability. The Europeans want to leverage the ending of sanctions as a way to substantially slowdown (by 10-15 years) Iran’s nuclear development; especially as they are threatened by Iranian nuclear capability more than the USA. This explains why the French were tougher than the Americans in the negotiations.
It is clear that the administration believed that if there was no deal the sanctions would have quickly eroded in any case, with the Chinese, Russians and Indians promptly abandoning the sanctions regime. The Indians are desperate for Iranian natural gas, the Chinese for their oil and the Russians as an arms export market. Prior to the negotiations the Europeans were signaling to the Americans that the West had a small window of opportunity before ‘the worst occurs’ – the sanctions de-facto ending and no limit to the Iranian nuclear program. This explains Obama’s determined desire to enter into and hasten negotiations.
It is also clear that Shiite Iran will never give up its option to acquire nuclear weapons (no matter what they say publicly). At best Iran will agree to delay for a substantial period of time in return for a lifting of sanctions. Any claim to the contrary is ignorant demagoguery. Sunni Pakistan has the bomb and its client ‘state within a state’ el-Qaeda has declared that the Shia are “worse than the Jews” (can’t get much worse than that). Hindu India has the bomb, Communist China has the bomb, Orthodox Russia has the bomb (and they invaded and occupied part of Iran after WWII). Jewish Israel (little Satan) has the bomb and the USA (great Satan) has the bomb. The USA also overthrew a democratically elected Iranian government and installed the Shah. They also encouraged Saddam Hussein to attack Iran causing a war that resulted in millions of Iranian casualties. Not even a moderate alternative to the Ayatollahs will give up a nuclear option in perpetuity. Delaying it for 10 to 15 years while engaging with and encouraging the growth of Iranian civil society (as an antidote to the republican guard and the ayatollahs) is the optimum the West could expect at this time. This explains the concessions to the Iranians in the final deal.
The Shiites have no ambitions to create a global Caliphate and thus do not constitute a global threat. They constitute only 10% of the Muslim world and (like the Jews) have only one country, Iran. If a global Sunni dominated Caliphate were to be established it is likely they would be slaughtered – as Shia frequently are in Sunni Pakistan.
The Iranian populace, as distinct from the leadership, is the most pro American in the entire Middle East (excluding Israel). Over 70% had not been born or reached majority when the Islamic revolution took place. The desire for normalcy and normal relations with the rest of the world amongst the general population is overwhelming and a residual cause of dissatisfaction and unrest. The only reason the Ayatollahs have agreed to this deal is to appease this dissatisfaction. Over the next 10-15 years there is reason to expect that the soft power of western consumerism will reinforce Iranian social trends that are inimical to the Ayatollahs puritanical Islam. So, that by the time the period covered by this deal ends an entirely different more responsible Iran will have emerged.
Iran, more than likely, will continue to constitute a belligerent power in their immediate neighborhood, given their own geopolitical interests, resentment against ongoing Sunni persecution of non-Iranian Shia in the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia and the Ayatollahs’ genuine hatred for Israel. But, in light of America’s independence from Middle Eastern oil this should not be a major factor in hindering the American pivot to Asia. If this upsets Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states they should begin to treat their Shia populations better, as well as continue to reach out to Israel. If this upsets Israel it should engage with the Saudis regarding their comprehensive peace initiative, and the potential regional economic and defense alliances that would derive from that.
This of course would obligate the Saudis to radically reconstitute their internal social and political structure (creating institutions independent of the Royal Family) and would obligate the Israelis to reevaluate their settlements policy in the West Bank. The Israelis would have to decide if Itzhar and Alon Moreh were more important to the future security of Israel than a comprehensive peace agreement with the entire Arab League. In any case, this entire mess is no longer a vital American strategic interest.
These were, reasonable judgment would dictate, the objective constraints, issues and considerations that drove the Obama administration. History will judge Obama’s foreign policy on the pivot to Asia, and whether he managed it skillfully, more than on the details of the Iran deal or how he dealt with the Russians in Ukraine. The pivot is the big play, in the context of which the Iran deal will be played out.
Given all this Netanyahu’s policy is dangerously misconceived. The worst outcome for Israel would be if he convinces the Congress to reject the deal. The result of that would be the end of sanctions and the inspection regime, as well as having created a very hostile atmosphere in Washington. It would have made more sense to go to Obama and say please help us to create a substantive alliance with Arab League countries (especially Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States) by creating a comprehensive peace process. This of course would mean a resurrection of the Saudi peace proposal and thus real substantive progress towards a Palestinian state; something which is anathema to Bibi. But it would be a course of action completely in line with Obama’s ambition to pivot by creating an additional powerful component of mid-east stability and would garner his enthusiastic support. Such a gambit would enable Israel to get the optimum deal opposite the Palestinians (with pan-Arab support) as well as significant political and economic rewards from the Americans and the Europeans.

Tsvi Bisk(site)is director of theCenter for Strategic Futurist Thinkingand author ofThe Optimistic Jew: A Positive Vision for the Jewish People in the 21st Century(Maxanna Press, 2007). He also is Contributing Editor for Strategic Thinking forThe Futuristmagazine , the official publication of theWorld Future Society, and he has published over a hundred articles and essays in Hebrew and in English.