You Can’t Step in the Same River Twice—Iran Edition

There’s seems to be a consensus of sorts that the new Biden diplomatic team will be disappointed in any attempts at reviving the Obama Administration’s agreement with Iran. First, Tom Friedman gives his take in his column in the New York Times:

The best way for Biden to appreciate the new Middle East is to study what happened in the early hours of Sept. 14, 2019 — when the Iranian Air Force launched 20 drones and precision-guided cruise missiles at Abqaiq, one of Saudi Arabia’s most important oil fields and processing centers, causing huge damage. It was a seminal event.

The Iranian drones and cruise missiles flew so low and with such stealth that neither their takeoff nor their impending attack was detected in time by Saudi or U.S. radar. Israeli military analysts, who were stunned by the capabilities the Iranians displayed, argued that this surprise attack was the Middle East’s “Pearl Harbor.”

They were right. The Middle East was reshaped by this Iranian precision missile strike, by President Trump’s response and by the response of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to Trump’s response.

A lot of people missed it, so let’s go to the videotape.

First, how did President Trump react? He did nothing. He did not launch a retaliatory strike on behalf of Saudi Arabia — even though Iran, unprovoked, had attacked the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure.

A few weeks later Trump did send 3,000 U.S. troops and some antimissile batteries to Saudi Arabia to bolster its defense — but with this message on Oct. 11, 2019: “We are sending troops and other things to the Middle East to help Saudi Arabia. But — are you ready? Saudi Arabia, at my request, has agreed to pay us for everything we’re doing. That’s a first.”

It sure was a first. I’m not here to criticize Trump, though. He was reflecting a deep change in the American public. His message: Dear Saudis, America is now the world’s biggest oil producer; we’re getting out of the Middle East; happy to sell you as many weapons as you can pay cash for, but don’t count on us to fight your battles. You want U.S. troops? Show me the money.

That clear shift in American posture gave birth to the first new element that Biden will confront in this new Middle East — the peace agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, and between Israel and Bahrain — and a whole new level of secret security cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which will likely flower into more formal relations soon. (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel reportedly visited Saudi Arabia last week.)

In effect, Trump forced Israel and the key Sunni Arab states to become less reliant on the United States and to think about how they must cooperate among themselves over new threats — like Iran — rather than fighting over old causes — like Palestine. This may enable America to secure its interests in the region with much less blood and treasure of its own. It could be Trump’s most significant foreign policy achievement.

while the editors of the Wall Street Journal have a somewhat different view:

After last week’s assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist, it’s hard to tell who is more upset: Iran, or Barack Obama’s foreign-policy team. Tehran is blaming Israel and promising revenge, but consider the tweets by the men who gave the world the flawed 2015 nuclear deal.

Former national-security aide and media spinner Ben Rhodes: “This is an outrageous action aimed at undermining diplomacy between an incoming US administration and Iran. It’s time for the ceaseless escalation to stop.”

And this from former CIA director John Brennan, leading promoter of the false Russia collusion narrative: “This was a criminal act & highly reckless. It risks lethal retaliation & a new round of regional conflict. Iranian leaders would be wise to wait for the return of responsible American leadership on the global stage & to resist the urge to respond against perceived culprits.”

This turns the Middle East upside down, as the Obama foreign policy also did. The 2015 deal was supposed to restrain Iran’s nuclear-weapons development and moderate its regional behavior. It has done neither. But now the architects of that deal blame not Iran for its behavior but whoever is trying to slow Iran’s nuclear progress.

In other words, the Obama crowd is siding with Iran against Israel and the U.S. (though neither of the latter have claimed responsibility for the killing). The Obama crowd’s continuing illusions about their Iranian diplomacy shows that they have learned nothing in exile. Yet if Israel did plan the assassination, it surely did so because it fears that the same illusions about Iran are returning to U.S. power with the Biden Administration, and so it must act on its own.

While I have never opposed the Obama Administration’s agreement per se, I was never much of a fan, always suspecting it was more about burnishing resumes than any practical effect. What puzzled me in particular was that it was most useful if we assumed that we already knew where all of Iran’s nuclear development was taking place and practically useless if it had covert nuclear weapons development. I was actually more concerned about Iran’s missile development which the agreement unintentionally facilitated. It appears that my concerns were well-founded. I’m pretty sure that Iran could buy as many nuclear warheads as it wanted from North Korea.

U. S. policy with a respect to the Middle East has been in a shambles for decades, at least since the Iranian Revolution. Once upon a time we had something called the “Twin Pillars strategy” in which two U. S. allies—the Shah’s Iran and Saudi Arabia—furnished a bulwark against Soviet interests in the region. It was always flawed but it fell apart completely after the Iranian Revolution. Since then we’ve been assuming, incorrectly, that the Saudis were allies where actually they were among our worst enemies. We are opposed to nearly everything they support and vice versa. A marriage of convenience against common enemies is the most we could expect.

We are so gullible.

One more observation. I oppose foreign policy by assassination. Whether it’s us or the Israelis or anybody else. When we assassinate people we don’t like on what basis would we condemn it when people we don’t like assassinate our political leaders? Because we’re the good guys? Please.

7 comments… add one
  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    A contrary take; Biden may have a greater chance of success because he knows the weak points of the JCPOA.

    In particular, a new accord will be “lasting” if Saudi / Israeli are consulted on their interests and support (or at least not oppose) the new accord.

    The other failure was not to get Congressional approval. An accord with the explicit approval of Congress is far more binding on future Presidents then an agreement that received only veto-sustaining minorities from Congress. Certainly, I expect this would be an Iranian demand to signing any new accord.

    And circumstances could be conductive to peace, both Iran and Saudi Arabia are looking at several years of low oil prices. Israel has been hit hard by the coronavirus. That’s an incentive to cool down on adventurism while reforming the economy.

  • The other failure was not to get Congressional approval.

    It wasn’t precisely a failure. Not gaining the “advice and consent” of the Senate was the only way the Obama Administration could get the agreement it wanted.

    Israel has been hit hard by the coronavirus.

    ? Much less so than the U. S., less so than many European countries, and less so than Iran. About the same as Iraq which would appear to support my conjecture that policy has less to do with outcomes from the virus than other factors (like geography).

  • Andy Link

    I’m sure Iran now realizes that any agreement is valid only as long as the current administration is in power. I kind of doubt they’ll be willing to return to the status quo ante, especially now that the US has less leverage than it did when the Obama administration negotiated the original deal. That’s one of many reasons why Trump leaving it was dumb.

    I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen – I’d guess the current conditions will become the new status quo.

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    “I’m sure Iran now realizes that any agreement is valid only as long as the current administration is in power”

    This has been the longstanding lesson foreign countries have learned since the treaty of Versailles. If the goal is an enduring agreement; don’t negotiate only with the President, the key is getting Congress to sign on the dotted line.

    For the record, no senate ratified treaty or congressional-executive agreements have been unilaterally abrogated by an immediate succeeding administration.

  • That’s one of many reasons why Trump leaving it was dumb.

    I agree that leaving the treaty was dumb. The costs had already been sunk while most of the benefits were still in the future. I can only speculate that the purpose of leaving it was mostly to send a political message to a domestic audience of his supporters: he intended to reverse the accomplishments of the Obama presidency.

    Our politics have been hardball probably since the founding of the Republic but the political parties haven’t been as discrete as they are now. Presumably, Biden’s supporters expect him to do the same WRT Trump.

  • steve Link

    Trump was also catering to the desires of Israel, again to mostly make his base happy. At this point I wonder if Iran pretty much has to go on to make a nuke? How much longer can they tolerate Israel unilaterally doing whatever they want within Iran? Wonder if Israel would launch a pre emptive nuke? They are a theocracy.


  • Grey Shambler Link

    His base, Or his family?

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