Tuesday, Slate published an article reassessing the wisdom of the Iran deal. The article quickly dispenses with the objections made to the deal by many on the right (more on that later) but does take a fairly hard look at what the deal has wrought in terms of international chaos, particularly in Yemen and Syria. The Obama administration stance in favor of the deal was that it was avoiding a worst-case scenario, i.e. a nuclear Iran. But author Joshua Keating says, in retrospect, it’s not completely clear that we aren’t living through the worst-case scenario.
Since 2015, the Middle East’s sectarian conflicts have only become deeper, more violent, and more intractable. From the half-million people killed in Syria to the rise of ISIS to the massive refugee crisis that has strained the world’s humanitarian capacity to its breaking point and contributed to the rise of right-wing populists in the West, it’s much harder now to say that Obama made the right decision in prioritizing the Iran deal above all else. The concessions the U.S. had to make in order to get the agreement were judged at the time as necessary to prevent the worst-case scenario—an Iranian nuclear weapon. But what if what’s happened since is the worst-case scenario?…
Following the nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, with aid from the U.S., stepped up their involvement in the tragic and destructive war in Yemen to counter perceived Iranian encroachment in their backyard. The Saudis also exacerbated the region’s sectarian tensions by executing a prominent Shiite cleric in January 2016. This, predictably, led to the ransacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the cutting off of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The Saudi moves were viewed as a reaction to warming U.S. ties with Iran. As political scientist and Mideast analyst Marc Lynch wrote, “Saudi Arabia views Iran’s reintegration into the international order and its evolving relationship with Washington as a profound threat to its own regional position. Mobilizing anti-Shiite sectarianism is a familiar move in its effort to sustain Iranian containment and isolation.”
At the same time, rather than moderating its regional ambitions as the JCPOA’s proponents might have hoped, Iran has spent the years since the deal was signed supporting a network of Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and other countries, part of a larger project to, as BuzzFeed’s Borzou Daragahi put it, “establish territorial dominance from the Gulf of Aden to the shores of the Mediterranean.” Iran might have done all this regardless. But it was also responding to the Saudi actions. Either way, there’s certainly no evidence that nuclear diplomacy, or the lack of a nuclear weapon, has helped the neighbors overcome their differences.
The most serious reason to reconsider the wisdom of the deal comes is the Syrian civil war. Here, Keating writes, a desire to protect the Iran deal kept the Obama administration on the sidelines of arguably the largest crisis of his tenure.
Any consideration of Obama’s priorities in the Middle East has to address the most contested part of his legacy, the still unfolding crisis in Syria. Many critics, including former members of his administration, have charged that Obama’s reluctance to intervene to a greater extent in Syria was motivated in part by the desire to achieve the nuclear agreement with Bashar al-Assad’s patron, Iran. In the new documentary, The Final Year, which follows Obama’s foreign policy team throughout 2016, adviser Ben Rhodes essentially legitimizes this claim by defending Obama’s hands-off policy in part by saying that if the U.S. had intervened more forcefully in Syria, it would have dominated Obama’s second term and the JCPOA would have been impossible to achieve. Rhodes may be right, but it’s less and less clear as time goes on that this was the right trade-off. Looking at the devastating consequences of the Syrian war, not just for that country but for the region and the world, it’s hard not to argue that Obama should have made Syria his main and overwhelming foreign policy focus, to the exclusion of nearly everything else, Iran deal be damned…
What seems likeliest is that a president who was elected promising to end the Bush administration’s wars was wary of yet another costly quagmire in the Middle East. But the Trump administration’s limited airstrikes on Assad’s air force last April in response to a chemical weapons attack—an action the previous administration famously did not take in a similar situation—has not sucked the U.S. into a larger unwanted war against Syrian forces or led to an accidental clash between the U.S. and Russia, as Obama defenders would have predicted.
In short, a combination of timidity and focus on the grand bargain made the U.S. a passive observer to a tremendous amount of devastation (in Syria) and a participant in some of it (in Yemen). And here let’s backtrack to Keating’s dismissal of opposition to the deal. He writes:
The common complaints about the deal—that it includes a sunset provision, that it involved returning funds to Iran that were frozen after the Iranian revolution, that it did not address Iran’s ballistic missile program or support for foreign militias—seem predicated on the dubious notion that Iran would ever have agreed to a deal in which it got nothing in return, and remain unpersuasive.
Having written an entire piece explaining why, in retrospect, a laser focus on the nuclear deal at the expense of everything else going on in the region may not have been such a good idea, Keating seems unable to acknowledge that others got there long before he did. For instance, opposition to giving Iran a literal planeload of foreign cash was not premised on the idea that Iran should be willing to take the deal for nothing. It was premised on the idea that Iran would divert substantial portions of those resources into financing the regional chaos Keating says makes the Iran deal itself dubious.
Similarly, the complaints about Iran’s missile program not being included in the deal were again intended to point out the very failure Keating has just spent several thousand words pointing out, i.e. Iran would remain a dangerous provocateur in the region even if the nuclear deal went through. In short, complaints about the deal were aimed at questioning whether it was really worthwhile given the trade-offs we were making. As Keating himself puts it, “In order to address a terrifying but hypothetical danger—an Iranian nuke—the Obama administration’s foreign policy accepted a real and catastrophic one.” Keating is now saying it may not have been such a good bargain, yet he also insists on brushing aside everyone who said the same thing even before the deal was done.