Ben Rhodes earnestly says that detente with Iran is to Obama’s second term what “health care” was to the first. His defining issue, the one that will define his place in the history books. Rhodes doesn’t put it as explicitly as I will, but it’s pretty clear that Obama wants his Nixon-to-China Moment: Air Force One carrying him to Tehran for the historic handshake or hug with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
You can understand our otherwise incoherent Middle East policy decisions if you keep that image in active memory, as Obama has for many years. He has long yearned for his Nixon Moment, as he told Khamenei et. al. even before the presidential elections of 2008. It may well be that he cherished the thought of another such triumphant embrace–with Putin in Red Square. But that hasn’t gone well at all.
So that leaves Iran, and he’s working very hard to get to Tehran: virtual silence about the Iranian-sponsored takeover of Yemen, strategic cooperation with Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, catering to Iranian wishes in Iraq and Syria, bending over backwards to accommodate Iranian nuclear ambitions, easing of sanctions, welcoming Iranian officials to a business conference in Pennsylvania (a promise of things to come).
The president’s lust for the Nixon Moment nicely accounts for his Israel policy, including the recent leaks. Remember that Nixon’s China deal was based on the two countries’ common strategic fear of the Soviet Union. What is our common strategic fear with the Iranians? There’s the Islamic State, and we are certainly catering to Iranian objectives on that front, albeit in a very restrained way. Some more menacing common enemy would be more in keeping with the Nixon model, and Israel fits the bill. In case you had any doubts, the White House has thoughtfully made it luminously clear that we restrained Israel on behalf of Iran, and the nasty anti-Israel language provided to journalists would pass muster at Friday prayers in an Iranian mosque.
Can Obama succeed in his quest for an alliance with the Islamic Republic? Both common sense and the China paradigm suggest not. Nixon’s deal with China provided the United States with real strategic gains: valuable listening posts along the Soviet border, military cooperation that forced the Kremlin to prepare seriously on two fronts, thereby lessening the threat to Western Europe, and expanding commercial arrangements. The imagined deal with Iran seems to me to be strategically lopsided — ending sanctions and easing Western demands on the Iranian nuclear weapons project — while providing benefits to Obama rather than our national interest.
If the Iranians were prepared to proclaim friendship with Washington, eliminate “Great Satan” from their official rhetoric, and terminate “Death to America” rallies in Iran and Hezbollahland, then the deal would be rather more Nixonian or Kissengerian. But it’s very hard to imagine Khamenei doing such a thing. He is very serious about his hatred of us — a core principle of his regime, after all — and he likely believes that he’s already getting plenty of concessions from Obama right now, with more seemingly in the pipeline. Why should he tell the Iranian people, and all his proxies around the world, that he’s compromising with the Americans and gainsaying 35 years of revolutionary rhetoric and activity?
Previous presidents, including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, thought they’d negotiated grand bargains with Khamenei, only to end up with spittle in their eyes. Is there any good reason to believe things are different today? Do you think of Barack Obama as the new Nixon, or Valerie Jarrett as a master practitioner of Kissingerian realpolitik?
Not I. The most likely outcome of all this seems to me to be an ever weaker America, an ever more aggressive Iran, quite possibly with nukes ready to launch, and lots of Iranian spittle in our national face. Yet again.