Tony Badran/Lebanon Now
Obama has invited us to believe there is no connection between a nuclear deal and his vision for a new Middle East order, however it is obvious the opposite is true. Recent reports about the negotiations between the US and Iran indicate that the Obama administration is ready to make remarkable concessions to Tehran on its nuclear program. These reported concessions would leave Iran as a threshold nuclear state. The deal also comes with a 10-15 year sunset clause, after which, other restrictions on Iran’s enrichment capacity would be lifted.
The explanation the administration is offering for these concessions is revealing. Integral to the White House’s conception of the deal is President Obama’s vision of the new regional order, and Iran’s role in it. With this deal, Obama is looking to effect a far-reaching and long-lasting transformation of the existing order.
The link between the nuclear deal and Iran’s regional role came to light when European diplomats, concerned about the American approach, leaked to Israeli officials that the US side offered up the nuclear concessions in exchange for “Iranian promises to maintain regional stability.” Israel’s former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror corroborated this claim last week. Amidror relayed how during a recent trip to Washington, he learned that “senior State Department officials were trying to sell…the idea that a nuclear agreement with Iran will contribute to regional stability in the Middle East, and that future relations between Iran and the U.S. will advance U.S. interests…heading toward a special relationship with Iran.”
Amidror’s information is undoubtedly correct. In one of Obama’s several letters to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, he reportedly presented finalizing the deal on the nuclear program as the gateway to a broader regional partnership, especially against Sunni extremist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS).
This partnership is central to Obama’s broader objective of extricating the US from the Middle East and leaving in place new security structure, of which Iran is a principal pillar. His tacit policy from Baghdad to Beirut has been to partner with Iranian-backed forces as the boots on the ground in the campaign against Sunni extremists. In Iraq and Lebanon especially, the US partnership with Iranian assets and Iran-dominated state institutions has created a de facto condominium between the US and Iran.
The US president, then, doesn’t seem to regard the Qods Force, the elite shock troops of the Revolutionary Guards, and its Arab proxies as a destabilizing force. Rather, as Obama made clear in an interview last year, he sees whatever “misbehavior” Iran and its proxies are engaging in as “manageable.”
The administration is justifying the short sunset for the nuclear deal with the dubious claim that the leadership in Iran will be entirely different and much more moderate in 10 years. This attitude, too, traces back to Obama. As he explained to Bloomberg View last year, the Iranians could change “as a consequence of a deal…even if that takes a decade or 15 years.”
Obama’s prophecy that meek Iranians shall one day inherit the regime is a cover for aligning with Iran now, under its current leadership. As Obama’s letter to Khamenei makes clear, securing the deal simply legitimizes this partnership — not with the future moderates, but with Qassem Soleimani and his militias. It’s the Qods Force run by the extremists of today that Obama is counting on, not the meek Iranians of tomorrow.
This vision is deeply threatening to America’s traditional allies in general, and Israel in particular. The old American order in the region had rested on the US guaranteeing security in the Gulf, while Israel acted as the security pillar in the eastern Mediterranean. But Tehran’s ambition extends to both areas, and Iranian officials regularly talk about how their strategic borders stretch from Yemen to the Mediterranean. The Obama White House is hardly disapproving. It has recognized Iran’s spheres of interest in Lebanon and Syria. In particular, Washington’s reaction to the Iranian expansion into the Golan Heights is telling. The administration’s primary response was to ensure that the Israelis didn’t escalate. This is likely to be the template for how the White House will manage the new Iranian-Israeli front lines. After all, whatever “misbehavior” Iran and its proxies engage in is “manageable.”
In most of his statements about the Middle East, Obama has invited us to believe that there is no connection between the nuclear deal and his vision, more broadly, of regional order. Upon closer examination, however, it is obvious that the deal is part of a broader vision. A region wide arrangement with Tehran is taking shape – and it is changing the security environment around Israel for the worse. As he digested the implications of Obama’s approach to Iran, Amidror concluded that “Israel must prepare for a harsh period, at the end of which we will see a changed region.”
This is certainly true, but understated. The changes that Obama has wrought will be with us for a very long time. Even without cutting a nuclear deal, he has already reshaped the regional order in ways that are nearly impossible to reverse.
**Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.