April 07, 2014

Empty Rhetoric in the Obama Administration's Iran Policy

U.S. President Barack Obama reviews an honor guard upon his arrival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on March 28, 2014. Obama met with Saudi King Abdullah during his visit to the region. (Reuters)

The Obama administration has often responded to crises of confidence in its foreign policy by treating unease and skepticism among international allies and partners, and among critics at home, as a messaging problem. It has interpreted failure to secure buy-in or cooperation as a failure to communicate effectively, rather than as a potential sign of flawed substance.

Administration officials have attempted to dispel the “perception” in recent months that the U.S. is negotiating with the Iranian regime at the expense of American interests and the security and stability of its allies and partners in the region. They will continue to meet resistance, however, as long as the negotiations appear to be neither fully resolving the nuclear threat nor dealing with the broader challenge posed by Iran in the Middle East. The White House does not have a messaging problem regarding its negotiations with Iran; it has a policy problem.



Administration officials stressed during the president’s recent trip to the region and in the weeks preceding it that the U.S. acknowledges the totality of the threat posed by Iran and is committed to confronting it. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, a key interlocutor in negotiations with Iran in 2013, said in a major speech previewing the trip that the U.S. “will not relent in our efforts to confront Iran’s destabilizing behavior” and identified Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula as key theaters in that struggle.[1] Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson assured members of Congress in February that negotiations over the nuclear issue “will not stop us from taking decisive steps with our partners to prevent [Iranian] interference” in the region.[2] Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, speaking on the way to Riyadh, said the president would reassure Saudi officials “that even as we are pursuing the nuclear agreement with the Iranians, our concern about other Iranian behavior in the region -- its support for Assad, its support for Hezbollah, its destabilizing actions in Yemen and the Gulf -- that those concerns remain constant… we’re going to keep the pressure on all those other issues.”[3]

This rhetoric suggests that the Administration is clear-eyed about the regime and is publicly committing to countering its behavior. There is, however, little substance to support these statements and much evidence against them. Opportunities to challenge Iran’s regional strategy, demonstrate resolve in pushing back against its actions, and develop approaches to enhance leverage, such as a competitive soft power strategy,[4] have been squandered rather than seized.

The war in Syria is a prime example where the Administration has passed up an opportunity to deal Tehran a significant setback that would have weakened its power projection capabilities and undermined its regional ambitions. Defenders of a minimalist approach in Syria have argued that prolonging the conflict in Syria will help weaken Iran. The president’s chief of staff Denis McDonough has reportedly been a key advocate of this approach.[5] President Obama also recently hinted at this line of reasoning:

I'm always darkly amused by this notion that somehow Iran has won in Syria. I mean, you hear sometimes people saying, ‘They’re winning in Syria.’ And you say, ‘This was their one friend in the Arab world, a member of the Arab League, and it is now in rubble.’ It’s bleeding them because they’re having to send in billions of dollars. Their key proxy, Hezbollah, which had a very comfortable and powerful perch in Lebanon, now finds itself attacked by Sunni extremists. This isn’t good for Iran. They’re losing as much as anybody.[6] 

Set aside the moral depravity of consciously prolonging a conflict that has left nearly 150,000 people dead and millions displaced. There are strategic considerations for why such an approach is misguided. Iran is indeed expending considerable economic and military resources to prop up the Assad regime and to maintain its foothold in Syria. It is not clear, however, that an extended Iranian intervention would weaken the regime across the board. Iran is also benefiting from the conflict, on the contrary, in ways that may prove strategically significant over the long term. It is creating battle-hardened militias inside Syria, drawing from the local population, the militias it stood up during the Iraq war, and other Shi’a communities. These forces will expand the scope of the Iranian threat network over time. Moreover, the Syrian state’s dependency on Iran increases as the war goes on. Greater Iranian influence over Assad’s decision-making, a larger Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force presence in Syria, and a permanent, expanded forward operating base for the Iranian military are likely byproducts of this dependency, all of which would pose an increasing threat to Israel’s security and to regional stability.

The Arab Spring cost Iran a reliable and stable proxy in Syria, forcing it to draw on its own resources to maintain its interests.  But Tehran may end up with a solidly-established military base in Syria manned by its own forces and direct allies and equipped with whatever weapons they choose to bring with them. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei might well decide that the benefit was well worth the cost.

Syria is unique in that it involves a number of American interests apart from combatting Iranian efforts to dominate the region: preventing the use and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), defeating the broader al Qaeda network, the stability of key allies and partners, and addressing humanitarian concerns. President Obama’s decision to forego military action in response to a violation of his red line—and with it any prospect of the U.S. leading a coalition to help end the war on terms favorable to American and allied interests—may have been shaped in part by the secret negotiations the Administration was pursuing with Iran last year. The president called off a strike against the Assad regime about a month before senior White House and State Department officials secretly met with Iranian negotiators, as was reported late last year, and two months before the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) was signed between the P5+1 and Iran.[7]

Whether or not the desire to secure an agreement directly contributed to the decision to pull back from a strike, it is certain that the White House has never had a coherent strategy to roll back the Assad-Iran-Hezbollah axis, deny al Qaeda a safe haven, and pave the way for a political transition led by a viable opposition in Syria. Whatever his motives, President Obama has done virtually nothing to contain Iranian involvement in the Levant, despite the fact that Iran has deployed conventional military forces as trainers and advisers beyond its borders in significant numbers for the first time since 1982. 

The Administration has maintained a similar hands-off approach in other key theaters across the region. A senior administration official, briefing reporters after the president’s meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, explained: “As near as we can tell, their [Iran’s] actions in terms of their regional behavior is the same today as it was before these nuclear talks began. And our efforts to counter those Iranian actions are the same today as they were before the nuclear talks began.”[8] The second part of that statement is precisely the problem. The U.S. had been doing nothing meaningful to contest Iranian activities in Syria before the talks began, and continues to do nothing meaningful.

In neighboring Iraq, the Obama administration has been pursuing policies over the last several years that effectively buttress the Iranian agenda.[9] In Lebanon, there has not been a concerted effort to push back against the most nefarious Iranian force there, Hezbollah, despite the unprecedented use of thousands of Hezbollahi troops in an overt invasion of neighboring Syria at Iran’s behest. Iran’s destabilizing support to groups in Yemen continues to pose a threat to the stability of a state with which we are partnering to battle the most virulent al Qaeda franchise; Iran’s role there and countering it has not been given much attention.

Major Iranian weapons transfers have been seen primarily as a task for Israel to deal with. As has been suggested by others, the recent Iranian weapons shipment, eventually seized by the Israeli Navy, offered a unique opportunity for the U.S. to match rhetoric with action by leading a military operation to prevent Iran from arming its terrorist proxies.[10] Iran’s systematic effort to upgrade Hezbollah’s missile arsenal over the last several years, too, has been largely left for Israel to counter without any overt American participation.[11]

The reality is that the Administration was not undertaking significant action to push back against Iran prior to the negotiations. It is puzzling that it continues to pursue “the same today,” even as it recognizes the need to shape perceptions of U.S. commitment, yet expects to accrue greater credibility.



How has the substance of the negotiations matched up to the promise of a resolution to Iran’s nuclear weapons program? The Administration has been at pains to defend diplomacy with Iran as a cost-free exercise to advance a core strategic interest: countering the proliferation of WMD. As President Obama argued recently, “Let us test whether or not Iran can move far enough to give us assurances that their program is peaceful and that they do not have breakout capacity…If, in fact, they can’t get there, the worst that will have happened is that we will have frozen their program for a six-month period.”[12] The interim agreement, however, did not fully freeze the nuclear program. Iran continues to produce 3.5% enriched uranium; average monthly production increased slightly in the period between the agreement and the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report.[13] It also has maintained its research and development program for advanced centrifuge machines and continued production of heavy water, a critical ingredient for operating the Arak reactor (its plutonium option for making nuclear weapons fuel).[14]

Neither is this interim period risk-free on the economic side. The JPOA granted Iran a $7 billion cash infusion, representing, by one estimate, a “35% increase in Iran’s fully accessible foreign exchange reserves.”[15] Some of Iran’s economic trends, including a decreasing inflation rate and increasing currency value,[16] may signal the erosion of the economic pressure built up against Iran.[17] Additionally, Iran appears to be pursuing other avenues for relief despite warnings from the Obama administration. Iranian and Russian officials are closing in on an oil-for-goods deal reportedly valued at $20 billion and international trade delegations have been lining up to explore potential opportunities in the Iranian economy.[18]

If the current talks were likely to end with the Iranian leadership coming clean regarding its nuclear ambitions, providing full transparency into all aspects of its program without delay or misdirection, eliminating its nuclear weapons capability (including the equipment and material needed to produce weapons-grade fuel), there would be a more persuasive argument for accepting a certain level of risk in other areas in pursuit of a deal. Such steps might be an indicator that the regime is willing to undertake fundamental changes in its broader strategic aims and ambitions. This scenario, however, is not on the horizon under the current circumstances. The regime may well be looking for a deal that relieves sanctions pressure, but it is not at this point willing to relinquish its development of nuclear weapons capability in exchange for economic inducements. Iranian officials have already ruled out dismantling key nuclear infrastructure and relinquishing the material necessary for the development of nuclear weapons. They are also clinging to the falsehood that their nuclear pursuits never had a military component, all but ruling out the prospect of full transparency.

President Obama has said that he envisions Iran maintaining a “modest [uranium] enrichment capability” as part of a final deal.[19] The JPOA agreed to between the P5+1 and Iran, further, contains the following sunset provision: “The final step of a comprehensive solution…would have a specified long-term duration to be agreed upon.”[20] At the end of the agreed upon period, which American and Iranian negotiators reportedly want to define as 20 and 3-5 years, respectively,[21] “the Iranian nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT.” In other words, under the framework that we can glean from public statements, Iran will retain and continue to refine core elements of its nuclear weapons capability in the near-term, and will be given carte blanche to pursue that capability unrestricted in the future as a normal NPT signatory.

By failing to match its rhetoric with concrete action while simultaneously working toward an agreement that does not appear aimed at verifiably eliminating Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the Obama administration is heading toward the worst of both worlds: a marginalized U.S. role in an increasingly destabilized Middle East and an emboldened, nuclear threshold Iranian regime.


[1] William J. Burns, “A Renewed Agenda for U.S.-Gulf Partnership,” February 19, 2014, http://www.state.gov/s/d/2014/221809.htm.
[2] Anne W. Patterson, Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, February 11, 2014, http://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS00/20140211/101730/HHRG-113-AS00-Wstate-PattersonA-20140211.pdf.
[3] “Press Gaggle by Secretary Jay Carney and Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes en route Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,” The White House, March 28, 2014, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/03/28/press-gaggle-press-secretary-jay-carney-and-deputy-national-security-adv.
[4] Danielle Pletka, Frederick W. Kagan, and J. Matthew McInnis, “America VS. Iran: The Competition for the Future of the Middle East,” American Enterprise Institute, January 2014, http://www.irantracker.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/imce-imagesKagan_America_versus_Iran_January_2014-1.pdf.
[5] Mark Mazzetti, Robert Worth, and Michael Gordon, “Obama’s Uncertain Path Amid Syria Bloodshed,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/23/world/middleeast/obamas-uncertain-path-amid-syria-bloodshed.html.
[6] Jeffrey Goldberg, “Obama to Israel – Time Is Running Out,” Bloomberg, March 2, 2014, http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-03-02/obama-to-israel-time-is-running-out.
[7] Bradley Klapper, Matthew Lee, and Julie Pace, “Secret US-Iran Talks Set Stage for Nuke Deal,” The Associated Press, November 24, 2013, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/secret-us-iran-talks-set-stage-nuke-deal.
[8] “Press Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on the President’s Bilateral Meeting with His Majesty King Abdullah,” The White House, March 28, 2014, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/03/28/press-briefing-senior-administration-officials-presidents-bilateral-meet.
[9] Pletka et al., January 2014.
[10] Dennis Ross, “Next test for Obama: Soothing the Saudis,” Los Angeles Times, March 24, 2014, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/commentary/la-oe-ross-saudi-arabia-obama-20140325,0,4405842.story#ixzz2xYYN9sYK.
[11] Adam Entous, Charles Levinson, and Julian E. Barnes, “Hezbollah Upgrades Missile Threat to Israel,” The Wall Street Journal, January 2, 2014, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304361604579290613920542386.
[12] Goldberg, March 2, 2014.  
[13] David Albright, Christina Walrond, and Andrea Stricker, “ISIS Analysis of IAEA Iran Safeguards Report,” Institute for Science and International Security, February 20, 2014, http://isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/ISIS_Analysis_IAEA_Safeguards_Report_20February2014-Final.pdf.  
[14] “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolution in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” The International Atomic Energy Agency, February 20, 2014, http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2014/gov2014-10.pdf.  
[15] Mark Dubowitz, Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, February 4, 2014, http://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Dubowitz_Testimony.pdf.
[16] David S. Cohen, Testimony of Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, February 4, 2014, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl2280.aspx.  
[17] Tasnim News Agency, February 26, 2014, http://www.irantracker.org/iran-news-round-february-26-2014.  
[18] Jonathan Saul and Parisa Hafezi, “Iran, Russia working to seal $20 billion oil-for-goods deal: sources,” Reuters, April 2, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/02/us-iran-russia-oil-idUSBREA311K520140402. Benoit Faucon, “As Iran Sanctions Ease, Western Firms Seek a Way In,” The Wall Street Journal, March 27, 2014, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304418404579463430826548444.   
[19] “Remarks by the President in a Conversation with the Saban Forum,” The White House, December 7, 2013, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/12/07/remarks-president-conversation-saban-forum.  
[20] “Summary of Technical Understandings Related to the Implementation of the Joint Plan of Action on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program,” The White House, January 16, 2014, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/01/16/summary-technical-understandings-related-implementation-joint-plan-actio.
[21] “Final Iran deal needs to balance out the concessions,” The Washington Post Editorial Board, November 28, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/final-iran-deal-needs-to-balance-out-the-concessions/2013/11/28/72741e92-5772-11e3-835d-e7173847c7cc_story.html?hpid=z3
View Citations