In H.G. Wells’s short story “The Pearl of Love,” a young Indian prince loses his beloved bride in the flower of their union to a poisonous sting in a thicket. Inconsolable for days, he arises to embark upon a monument to her memory beginning first with a sarcophagus made of alabaster and precious stones and culminating with an enormous shrine which, the prince envisages, will be of “perfect grace and beauty, more marvellous than any other building had ever been or could ever be…” For years he toils upon his glorious mausoleum, modifying and perfecting every aspect of it until one day, nearly but not quite satisfied with his result, he discovers that there’s only one remaining aesthetic offense. So he turns to his architect and craftsmen, points to the coffin containing his dead wife and says: “Take that thing away.”
For the last 30 years, America has had a fairly intelligible and historically-precedented foreign policy when it came to the Islamic Republic of Iran: containment. The expansion of Khomeinism in the Middle East was something to be resisted as matter of national and international security. If our regional allies could agree on anything it was that it was a bipartisan priority in Washington to deter the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism, a regime that chanted “Death to America” at regular intervals and backed up such fulminations with lethal action.
Iran infamously orchestrated the murder of nearly 200 US servicemen in Beirut in 1983, the worst jihadist attack against Americans before 9/11. Even after 9/11, according to the congressional commission tasked with investigating that dire event, Iran harbored and facilitated members of Al-Qaeda and was duly and serially sanctioned by the United States for doing so. It has otherwise financed or armed or abetted a host of anti-American proxies and clients in the region. These include Hezbollah, which is credibly implicated in the murder of a former Lebanese prime minister; and the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which has evolved in the last decade from dispatching countless Al-Qaeda jihadists into Iraq to blow up American, European and Iraqi soldiers – not to mention scores of Iraqi civilians – to killing the majority of over 200,000 Syrians since the uprising began, some with chemical weapons.
Yes, the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 empowered Iran in the terrain vacated by its longtime nemesis, but the mullahs’ influence was nonetheless constrained by a 150,000-strong US garrison and concomitant intelligence footprint. Not for nothing was there a Joint Special Operations Command task force dedicated to “countering Iranian influence” militarily. In one of his more candid moments, David Petraeus stated the case to then-US Defense Secretary Robert Gates: “I am considering telling the President that I believe Iran is, in fact, waging war on the U.S. in Iraq, with all of the U.S. public and governmental responses that could come from that revelation. … I do believe that Iran has gone beyond merely striving for influence in Iraq and could be creating proxies to actively fight us, thinking that they can keep us distracted while they try to build WMD and set up [the Mahdi Army] to act like Lebanese Hezbollah in Iraq.”
Petraeus wrote that eight years ago. Iran has kept us plenty distracted in the intervening period, while a US president, who campaigned on a platform of engaging with America’s enemies, has made the resolution of Iran’s WMD program the cornerstone of his foreign policy for two successive terms. Barack Obama has pursued this goal with a single-minded determination and more than a little self-regard for his legacy, and nothing – not the Green Revolution, not Arab Revolution, not the collective nervous breakdown now transpiring across the Middle East and North Africa – has made him rethink or deviate from this trajectory. So, whether by accident or design, a quasi-nuclear Iran is no longer seen as something to be contained but rather embraced. The Islamic Republic, the president solemnly hopes, is to be welcomed into the “community of nations” and take its place as a “very successful regional power,” so long as it does what he asks of it. A 36-year American policy has become like the Indian prince’s sarcophagus; a relic to be taken away.
Several ironies and contradictions are the main yields of this geopolitical transformation. For one, the Mahdi Army is today more concerned with Iranian influence in Iraq than is the commander-in-chief, who repeatedly authorized American air cover to many of the proxies Petraeus darkly referred to, and even to IRGC operatives themselves, if the Farsi graffiti reading “Death to America” now adorning abandoned buildings in Tikrit is anything to go by. Now, experienced US military officials who advocate further countering Iranian influence – by interdicting weapons flows to Syria or Yemen or by killing IRGC operatives responsible for plotting failed assassinations of allied figures – are not promoted or given strategic portfolios, but rather shown the door. The US Secretary of State talks openly of a “common interest” with Iran, whose militias are chopping off heads, razing villages to the ground, burning whole families alive in their homes, and threatening to shoot down US warplanes owing to a prominent and Iranian-sold conspiracy theory that the Great Satan is behind demonic Daesh (ISIS), too.
In what might otherwise be taken as an encouraging sign, Assad and the IRGC are actually losing ground in Syria, but it is mainly to Islamist or jihadist rebels including Al-Qaeda. This is because Obama writes to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to assure him that his client in Damascus is secure from American intervention and that Iranian assistance against ISIS would be welcome in Iraq pending Khamenei’s commitment to a comprehensive nuclear accord. (The Pentagon also fears that the same Iran with which Washington professes to have a common interest might again kill US servicemen in Iraq if American-backed rebels in Syria fight anyone but ISIS.)
Last week, a collection of Sunni-led states – including one that is guilty of genocide and led by a fugitive from the International Criminal Court – is waging its first major Arab war in the Middle East since before the Islamic Revolution; not against Israel but against IRGC-backed Houthis in Yemen. Saudi Arabia leads this tenuous coalition and is reported to have assembled it because of what it believes is a significant crisis to its national interest: the disintegration of Pax Americana in the Gulf. To emphasize the point, the commander of Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, was informed only an hour before Operation Decisive Storm was launched in his area of operations. Saudi officials warn threateningly that any Iran with an active nuclear infrastructure will lead Riyadh to go nuclear, likely with the assistance of Pakistan. Such are the costs of de-proliferation. The Houthi advance, meanwhile, continues unabated; they sacked Aden late last week as rumors of Saudi or Egyptian ground forces landing abounded in the press. More sectarian wars like these now seem inevitable in the Middle East, as do more terrorist plots emerging therefrom. Such is the price for peace in our time.
All of which is to say that the real news out of Lausanne on Thursday didn’t actually make the news at all and has barely been discussed or debated or alluded to in the mostly jubilant commentary since. The “framework agreement” struck by the P5+1 and Tehran has been judged on the particulars or ambiguities of uranium enrichment, working centrifuge limitations, possible military dimensions, an inspections regime, and when and how Iran obtains international sanctions relief. A lot can go wrong between now and 31 June, when a permanent deal is meant to be inked: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif came right out and accused the Americans of lying mere hours after appearing the happiest man at a joint press conference at the Rolex Learning Center. But a lot has already gone right for Iran.
A decade’s worth of diplomacy and dirty warfare with the world’s only superpower has seen Iranian hegemony metastasize exactly where it was meant to be isolated or diminished. Thus the outcome that typically coincides with the possession of a nuclear weapon and indeed serves as the motive for building or obtaining one has been achieved by the mere pursuit. Any permanent deal, if it does come to pass, will only certify and internationalize America’s acquiescence to that hegemony since the attendant risks of trying to counter Iranian influence will mean threatening the compact, much as the chemical disarmament program for Syria gave Assad a year’s worth of impunity by making him a necessary partner in dismantling his own nerve gas stockpiles. Many intelligent and well-meaning people believe that legitimating the actually existing Khomeineist regime will result in its eventual moderation or extinction. Ivo Daalder, told the Washington Post of Obama: “He believes the more people interact with open societies, the more they will want to be part of an open society.” This is a curious observation coming from the former US ambassador to NATO, an alliance that is now terrified of a country for which that teleological theory of liberalization has failed spectacularly: Russia. (Vladimir Putin, as it happens, will have an outsize role in ensuring that the Iranians don’t cheat on a final deal or, if they do, will be punished accordingly.)
Bassam Barabandi is a former diplomat in Assad’s embassy in Washington who helped many dissidents and defectors obtain passports in the dark days following the revolution. He does not believe that Iran is on the mend as a result of Obama’s “historic” achievement. “A peaceful deal is good, but my country is under Iranian occupation and I did not hear from any Western officials a word or promise that this deal will bring the stability to Syria or to Iraq or to the Middle East,” Barabandi told me. “Iranian ideology is more dangerous than its nuclear project.”
Mouaz Mustafa, a Palestinian refugee from Syria and the senior political advisor to the Coalition for Democratic Syria, makes the crucial point that if you liked what Qassem Soleimani has done under the sequestration budget of a pariah economy, then you’ll love what he’s about to do now with billions in freed up riyals. “So far, the Obama administration seems to be using the excuse that allowing for Syria to be controlled by Iran is a measure of force protection in Iraq, not a thaw in relations,” Mustafa said. “But what will definitely happen is increased support for Assad as a result of lifting sanctions.”
Mohammed Ghanem, a senior advisor to the Washington-based Syrian American Council was less guarded: “It is unacceptable that Iran is being reintegrated into the world community even as it facilitates the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. Like most Syrians, most residents of the Middle East are extremely hostile to Iran’s regional expansionist ambitions. Sectarian tensions are sure to increase unless the world makes sanctions relief contingent on an end to Iranian regional aggression.”
Barabandi, Mustafa and Ghanem are all patriotic Syrians. They will no doubt be patted on the head by friendly types at the National Security Council and State Department and reassured by Samantha Power that America will spare no hashtag in defense of their homeland.