Obama’s Blunder, and the Cotton Letter

In an unprecedented move, 47 of 54 Republican senators warned on Monday in an open letter to the leaders of Iran that a future U. S. administration -- presumably a Republican one -- may reverse or revoke "with the stroke of the pen" any deal on nuclear weapons made by the current administration. One may surmise that many Democratic senators were privately in agreement with that view.

The letter was mostly triggered by Benjamin Netanyahu’s superb address to the U.S. Congress one week earlier. The American legislators -- and by the same token, the American and Western public opinion -- knew for months that things were rapidly deteriorating in the Middle East. What they needed was a clearer picture: who is who in the mess, how we got entangled into it, and what is to be done now. This is precisely what Netanyahu provided.

He was probably the only leader in the Middle East to whom most congressmen and senators would listen, and the only one who would speak his mind and point to hard facts in an unrestrained way. Whether Netanyahu will be reappointed as Israel’s premier after the March 17 election or not (chances are that he will)  is irrelevant in that respect. Churchill’s defeat in the 1945 election did not mar his wartime achievements nor impair his personal authority as a statesman.

Netanyahu’s speech focused on three issues. First, he reminded the U.S. Congress that "the people of Iran,"  while "talented" and "the heirs to one of the world’s civilizations," had been "hijacked by religious zealots in 1979" and submitted to "a dark and brutal dictatorship":

America's founding document promises life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Iran's founding document pledges death, tyranny, and the pursuit of jihad.

He added that the regime never relented from such goals, even under allegedly "liberal" leaders:

Two years ago we were told to give President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif a chance to bring change and moderation to Iran. Some change! Some moderation! Rouhani's government hangs gays, persecutes Christians, jails journalists, and executes even more prisoners than before.

Iran, Netanyahu added, has been at war with America "for 36 years": from the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis in 1979 to the recent "military exercise near Hormuz" culminating in "blowing up a mock U.S. aircraft carrier." It routinely calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and the mass murder of its population. And "as states are collapsing across the Middle East, Iran is charging into the void (…) and now dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa."

The second issue, according to Netanyahu, is that Iran cannot be co-opted as a tactical ally against ISIS:

The battle between Iran and ISIS doesn't turn Iran into a friend of America. Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. One calls itself the Islamic Republic. The other calls itself the Islamic State. Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire first on the region and then on the entire world. They just disagree among themselves who will be the ruler of that empire.

The third issue:

The greatest danger facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons. To defeat ISIS and let Iran get nuclear weapons would be to win the battle, but lose the war.

Thoughout his speech, Netanyahu made sure to pay all due respects to President Barack Obama and to thank him for supporting Israel in many crucial instances. Nevertheless, the three issues he raised do amount to severe indictments of the current administration’s policies in the Middle East.

It was Obama’s decision from the very beginning of his administration to engage in a dialogue with the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was his decision never to relent from it. Obama stood idle, from 2011 on, in front of the unravelling of the Middle Eastern states system -- the so-called Sykes-Picot system -- and thus provided for the present Iranian expansion to the Fertile Crescent and South Arabia. Obama cooperated with Putin’s Russia in 2013 to salvage Assad’s regime, an Iranian proxy, in parts of Syria, even before ISIS had emerged as a player in the area. He then endorsed tactical cooperation with Iran against ISIS.

Moreover, the Obama administration is now packaging a nuclear deal with Iran that, for all practical purposes, will guarantee its accession to nuclear power status. To quote Netanyahu again:

The first major concession would leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure, providing it with a short breakout time to the bomb (…) True, certain restrictions would be imposed on Iran's nuclear program and Iran's adherence to those restrictions would be supervised by international inspectors. But here's the problem. You see, inspectors document violations; they don't stop them.

The North Korean precedent, when it comes to such matters, should be considered.

Even so, the Obama administration is readying for "a second major concession" which "creates an even greater danger that Iran could get to the bomb by keeping the deal. Because virtually all the restrictions on Iran's nuclear program will automatically expire in about a decade."

Retrospectively, it is clear that the Obama administration made a terrible blunder when it opposed House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu. Should it have gently allowed the Israeli prime minister to address the Congress, it would have notably diminished his speech’s impact. Both the U.S. legislators and the public opinion would have still entertained the view that even if the Israeli prime minister was right, the White House and the State Department knew better and should be trusted in last resort.

On the contrary, by losing their nerve and attempting to block Netanyahu at any cost, the president and his assistants aroused suspicion from all sides. All the more so when Marie Harf, the State Department’s spokesperson, warned in a press conference on March 2 that any disclosure by Netanyahu of confidential information on the American-Iranian nuclear talks would be a "betrayal" of American trust. The inescapable conclusion was that there were unpalatable details about these talks that the administration was hiding from Congress and to the nation.

Even worse and more pathetic was National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s remark on the same day, at the AIPAC Policy Conference. Running out of arguments, she insisted that "to halt Iran’s enrichment entirely" was neither "a viable negotiating position" nor "even an attainable" one. This was an admission that the administration had in fact already surrendered to the core of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The Arab allies of the United States were incensed.

Ahmed al-Faraj and Abdulrahman al-Rashed, Saudi journalists known for their close links with the royal family, wrote approvingly of Netanyahu’s speech. In a rhetoric twist, columnist Dawoud al-Shiryan wondered why "the Israelis haven't yet stopped the Iranian effort by force as they always do."

Under such circumstances, it was very difficult for the U.S. Congress not to oppose any nuclear deal with Tehran, and not to start some in-depth investigation of the foreign affairs decision-making process at the White House and the State Department. The Republican letter to the Iranian leaders is just a first step to this end.