What Happens in Vienna . . .

Could spell disaster for the Middle East.

By Lee Smith

The Weekly Standard

July 10, 2015

In 1815, the European powers met here to establish the post-Napoleonic order and through a balance of power arrangement bring peace to the continent. Obama surely appreciates the historical echo, since 200 years later he, too, means to create a peaceful order in an especially volatile part of the world by balancing the regional powers—Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran—to ensure that none of them gets too large a piece of the pie and frightens the others into making war. The Iran nuclear talks are important because Obama, a U.S. diplomat circularly explained here last week, “believes a peaceful Iran could be .  .  . the key to peace.”

Oh, sure, you can trust us.

The difference between 1815 and 2015 is that Napoleon had to be defeated at Waterloo before the peace forged by the Congress of Vienna could hold, lasting nearly a century. The Islamic Republic of Iran, on the other hand, is on the march throughout the Middle East, controlling four Arab capitals, and waging war from the eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. Nonetheless, over the last two and a half years of negotiations with Iran, the Obama administration has offered Tehran virtually every concession it sought, which only spiked its appetite for more. Most recently, the Iranians have demanded that Western powers lift the U.N. arms embargo, a demand that could hardly be less subtle—we want weapons, the Iranians are saying, to make war.

The purpose of the Congress of Vienna was to create order. In contrast, the talks with Iran have jeopardized the order of the Middle East that the United States has maintained for more than half a century. The nuclear talks have legitimized and further emboldened a revolutionary regime. The White House’s string of concessions—from sanctions relief to acknowledgment of Iran’s right to enrich uranium—is tantamount to bankrolling Napoleon and arming him. The peace that Obama believes his diplomats are negotiating in the Austrian capital increases the likelihood of war.

The Iran nuclear talks were never exclusively about the clerical regime’s nuclear program. The administration has repeatedly insisted that a firewall separates the nuclear file from all other issues we might have with Iran—the Syrian civil war, the future of Iraq, Iran’s support for terrorism—but from the very beginning of his presidential term, Obama’s engagement with Iran meant everything was up for grabs. The White House believed the two governments had to learn to trust each other and was therefore quietly willing to do favors for the mullahs. 

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, the White House and Iran had “secret dealings” starting in 2009, when the two sides discussed a number of issues—like the three American hikers detained by the Iranians, eventually exchanged for four Iranians held in American prisons. So what if the administration was letting Iran set the terms of engagement by equating college kids, backpackers, with felons who were clearly working for the regime’s intelligence services? The point was to build confidence with the Iranian regime. Eventually they’d settle the nuclear issue and discuss a number of other matters important to both parties.

There were other secret overtures, like Obama’s letters to supreme leader Ali Khamenei. But much more important were the White House’s public shows of confidence-building. The White House gave the regime room to crack down on the Green Movement that took to the streets in June 2009 to protest likely fraudulent elections. And it also left alone Tehran’s friends, like Bashar al-Assad, who is still the president of Syria even though Obama demanded he step aside four years ago.

Further, and this was perhaps the most important aspect of engagement with Iran, the administration showed that it could control and even beat up on Tehran’s enemies, like Israel. The administration not only made a habit of excoriating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it also repeatedly leaked sensitive items, as if it were messaging Tehran directly. Among others, the White House leaked the Stuxnet exploit that had damaged Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, it leaked the fact that Israel was using Azerbaijan’s air space, it leaked Israeli strikes on Iranian arms convoys heading to Hezbollah. It boasted that it had deterred Netanyahu from striking Iranian nuclear facilities. Of course these leaks were damaging to Israel’s security interests, but the real point was to show Iran that Obama was sincere about wanting to bring them into the international community. They could trust him.

Indeed, maybe Iran could even be made to understand that it didn’t need a nuclear weapons program if it saw Washington as an honest broker. This White House, after all, didn’t automatically come down on the side of Iran’s nemeses in Riyadh and Jerusalem.

Obama may once have meant what he said about preventing a bomb, and the administration’s ostensible red lines were in keeping with decades of American policy opposing proliferation: The Iranians were going to have to dismantle their entire program; there would be no enrichment at all; they would have to ship their enriched uranium to Russia; Fordow would have to be shut; the ballistic missile program was a threat that would have to be addressed; Tehran would have to come clean about its past nuclear activities, to satisfy concerns regarding the program’s possible military dimensions.

But there is a very simple reason why the administration started to cave on all these issues with the Joint Plan of Action in November 2013, and why it continues to cave in Vienna today. Even before the Iranians began to talk publicly with the administration about the nuclear program, they saw that the negotiations had already been decided in their favor. When Obama declined to strike Assad in September 2013 and enforce his prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, the nuclear negotiations with Iran were effectively over. If he wouldn’t lob a few missiles into the Syrian desert to protect his own prestige, he certainly wasn’t going to order strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities and risk a larger war. The Iranians had nothing to lose by sitting with the Americans and could in fact earn more each time they threatened to walk away.

For nearly two years then, the Iran nuclear talks have been something like a puppet show. Neither side is really negotiating about Iran’s nuclear program since that’s already been decided. And besides, from Obama’s perspective, the nuclear file wasn’t the major issue—the larger point was the regional order and the new balance of power he was building.

The real subject of the nuclear talks is the role that Iran will play in that order. The White House seems to be hoping that if it keeps feeding Tehran concessions, the Iranians will finally see it is in their interest to help stabilize the Middle East. Obama is counting on Iran to be a cornerstone of a regional peace similar to what the Congress of Vienna built in 1815. The more likely result is that he has unleashed a monster.

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.