photo by Blondinrikard Fröberg
Iranian leaders celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year, (which began with the spring equinox and lasts 12 days) must be asking themselves: Is there any way the coming year could make them happier than the one that just ended?
Granted, Tehran may walk away empty-handed from the latest round of negotiations over its nuclear program, which is reaching its climax this week in Lausanne, Switzerland. No deal probably means no further relief in the short term from financial sanctions that have hobbled the Islamic Republic’s economy. And since the sanctions are probably what drove the Iranians to the negotiating table in the first place, we might ordinarily think they would be anxious to leave with something to show for their efforts.
But that’s the rub: Even in the absence of a deal, Iran has gained tremendous strategic advantages from the bargaining itself. Sitting alone on their side of the negotiating table, Tehran’s negotiators can easily hold firm to the positions dictated by their country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. On the other side of the table sit the P5+1, consisting of Germany and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, a group nominally led by the United States. Iran’s adversaries - those who are included in the negotiations and some, most prominently Israel, who are not - are so severely divided that Iran cannot help coming out of these talks with its position greatly improved.
The relationship between the U.S. and Israeli governments is in tatters. Last week the Obama administration gave itself a hall pass from its usual war against security leaks by passing word to The Wall Street Journal that Israel had been “spying” on the United States’ activities in the negotiations, whose objective has been to prevent Iran from acquiring either a nuclear weapon (the U.S. position) or the capability of making one that the Israelis consider a mortal threat (Israel’s stance).
Think about this for a moment. The Iranians, obviously, knew what the U.S. negotiators were demanding - or conceding. So did the Russians and Chinese, who sit alongside us on the Security Council but are generally not upset when Washington fails to get its way. The French, Germans and British governments knew what was happening in the negotiations. But the Obama administration, ostensibly fearing leaks, chose to keep the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the dark - knowing full well that the Israelis would keep themselves informed by spying on the other participants. Jerusalem had no need to spy on Washington, and insisted last week that it had not done so.
To whom, then, did President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry want to prevent this information from leaking? Well, to you and me, and especially to members of Congress who were apt to rally behind the Israeli view that Obama is too eager to reach a legacy-making deal that would all but ensure that, after a decent interval, Tehran will be able to develop atomic weapons. All of which explains exactly why Team Obama was so infuriated when Netanyahu went around the White House earlier this month in order to address Congress on this very topic.
Anything that splits Israel from America, its key military and geopolitical backer, serves Iranian interests very well indeed. But even more so, Iran’s rival across the Persian Gulf - and across the wider gulf that divides the Shiite and Sunni branches of Islam - is Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are just as discomfited by Iranian nuclear capability as are the Israelis, though they are less vocal about it. U.S.-Saudi relations have also suffered greatly from the perception, perhaps soon to become a reality, that Obama is prepared to give away the nuclear farm to Tehran to secure what he seems to think is his rightful place in history. Obama is, after all, the president who sought to deter an Israeli pre-emptive strike against Tehran by declaring that America will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran and telling The Atlantic magazine, “I don’t bluff.” Except when he does. Which is often.
The negotiating table is far from the only place where Iran is making progress. Tehran and its allies are literally gaining ground across the Middle East. Just last week, Yemen’s president reportedly fled the country as Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels seized control of key cities in the south, having already occupied the seat of government in Sanaa. Obama pulled American anti-terrorist special forces out of Yemen earlier in the week, as the rebels advanced. These developments leave the Saudis surrounded by the Tehran regime and its clients: by Iran itself across the water to the east; by Iraq to the north, where Iranian military advisors have just led the campaign against the Islamic State group in Tikrit; by the Houthis to the south, in Yemen; and by the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad to the northwest, which continues to maintain power after four years of civil war due mainly to Iranian intervention.
Like the Israelis, who confronted Iranian-backed Hezbollah to their north and Hamas to the south, the Saudis see little but American abdication when they survey this scene. Obama failed to back up his early position that Assad had to leave power in Damascus, even after the Syrian strongman crossed Obama’s famous “red line” and used chemical weapons against civilians. Eliminating Assad could have cut off the Iranian resupply corridor to Hezbollah in Lebanon, just as maintaining American troops and aircraft in Iraq would have complicated Iran’s support of Assad in Syria. Instead, the Iranians had a clear field to enter Iraq after Obama withdrew, leaving a vacuum that has now been filled, from the U.S. perspective, by Iran (bad) and the Islamic State group’s depravity (much worse).
France, seldom known for putting military toughness ahead of its commercial interest, has emerged as the Western hard-liner in the Iranian nuclear talks. Maybe it is an artifact of the recent terrorist assaults France has experienced, or maybe it is because Paris verges on being within range of Iranian missiles that could someday carry a nuclear device; whatever the reason, it is the French who seem inclined to try to do something more than just slow down Tehran’s march toward a bomb.
If French leadership is the best the West can muster, the Iranians find themselves in a very good place - one they could never have even dared hope for, prior to having five or six years to measure the gap between what the current American president says he will do and what he actually does.
Yes, the past year was an excellent one for Iran. The rulers in Tehran surely hope their negotiations with Obama will deliver an even better new year, but regardless of the talks’ outcome, the Islamic Republic finds itself sitting pretty, pretty much everywhere.