Philos Project, by Andrew Harrod, Feb. 8, 2016:
“It’s a fiasco,” Hudson Institute analyst Michael Doran said bluntly, as he assessedPresident Barack Obama and his Iran policy. Doran and his fellow panelists at the Hudson Institute presented the stark dangers involved in the administration’s naïve hopes that Iran’s Islamic Republic can reform and become a reliable Middle East regional partner for a weakening America.
According to Doran, officials in the Obama Administration “believe that they are domesticating the Iranians; that they are showing them that a partnership is possible and elevating those more pragmatic and defensive elements in Iranian society.” He argued that, as it confronts a volatile Middle East, the Obama Administration is “looking at this mess stretching from Baghdad to Beirut and it looks over at Teheran and it sees a big, stable country that behind closed doors talks the language of regional stability. [The administration] thinks, ‘Wow. If we could just incorporate the Iranians into the security architecture, then they will work with us to stabilize the region.’”
Guiding the president and his advisors is a “deep aspect of American thinking about international politics to believe in the gradual, moderating influence of international markets.” Doran added that the administration officials “want to create conditions in Iran that will bring about the same kind of change of calculus” that has made China leery of confronting its major trading partner, America. Those individuals have argued that – as with a post-Marxist China – no Iranian leaders really believe in the Islamic “revolutionary rhetoric” left over from the 1979 revolution.
While Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif and other Iranians “present themselves to the Americans as consummate players of realpolitik,” Doran pointed out that in reality, the Islamic Republic remains a radical danger. The Islamic Republic leaders have specified that they desire an international revolution in the Middle East, “in the sense that they want the American-dominated system that existed to disappear, and a new system [to arise] in which they are the central player. The Iranians play this game of being both the arsonist and the fireman in Middle East conflicts, and develop instruments to blow things up. And they tell you, ‘If you work with us we won’t blow it up.’”
Foundation for Defense of Democracies analyst Ali Alfoneh said that Iran is not a suicidal regime, nor is it comparable to Nazi Germany circa 1945, “but it is highly ideological.” His note that the most successful way to persuade the Iranian government to toe the line is to present it with existential threats was echoed by Washington Institute for Near East Policy expert Phillip Smyth, who pointed out that “just because you have a revolutionary mindset, it doesn’t mean you can’t pursue it pragmatically. A big term for the Iranians and for the Islamic Revolution is the saberin – the patient ones.”
Alfoneh said that Iran’s ruling Islamic ideologues view the “technocratic elites of Iran” as expendable. He added, “Now their time is over. They are now longer needed, because the nuclear deal is home, so you can activate the revolutionary elements again.” His prediction is that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will isolate moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by disqualifying many of his allies for the February legislative elections.
The panelists said that they believe Obama’s Iran nuclear agreement will ultimately fail to improve Islamic Republic behavior, as demonstrated by the recent Iranian seizure of two United States Navy patrol boats and their crew of 10 sailors. With this capture by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the “Revolutionary Guards got what it desired: to humiliate the U.S. and to assert itself as the one institution in Iran making decisions,” Alfoneh said, mocking Secretary of State John Kerry for touting the quick release of the American sailors as a triumph of improved American-Iranian relations.
According to Doran, the IRGC’s brief provocation brazenly risked the nuclear agreement’s then-imminent Iranian sanctions relief, which was valued at nearly $150 billion. The IRGC correctly assessed that the Obama Administration was “so hell-bent on achieving that nuclear deal that we will not take any kind of retaliatory action.” Alfoneh dismissed Obama Administration claims that sanctions relief would aid Iranian reform by strengthening Iran’s private sector. He said he believed the most likely scenario is that “the money is going to be transferred to the economic business empire of the Revolutionary Guards,” and to Iran’s security apparatus.
The panelists painted a picture of a Middle East power balance ominously shifting between an ascendant Iran and declining American influence. According to Doran, “Iran would love to crack up Saudi Arabia. Iran would love to take Mecca and Medina.” Alfoneh said that many Saudis often talk about “some hidden American-Iranian conspiracy to counter the Sunnis in the entire Middle East region.”
Smyth discussed the majority-Shiite Iran exploitation of repressed Shiite populations in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf State Sunni monarchies, calling this Iranian strategy a “low-burn trajectory until they want to turn up the flame.” With an increasing decline of American Middle East influence, “If they do feel emboldened, they might try to do something a little bit more spectacular.”
He explained that Gulf state responses to Iranian threats could threaten the United States, but added that “these Gulf states are going to be less considerate about the American point of view, the more we pull out.” Those countries have supported Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, against Iran’s Shiite proxies (Hezbollah and Bashar Assad’s dictatorship), and could similarly support Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula against Iran’s Yemen allies, the Shiite Houthi movement. According to Smyth, PoGulf State policymakers would rationalize supporting Al-Qaeda by arguing that “we might as well turn to them, because they know how to kill Iranians.”
Doran explained that the Iranian domination of Iraq and Syria alienated the Sunnis in the Gulf states, and he added that Turkey needed to defeat the 20,000-30,000 jihadists in the Islamic State. “If the choice is an Iranian-dominated order or muddling through with this horrible ISIS, they are going to muddle through with this horrible ISIS.” Obama’s leading from behind Iran gives hope only to the latter.