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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.