President Obama’s perilous road to Iran

After six long years of travel on the road to Iran, president Obama finally laid his eyes on his Iranian prize

Hisham Melhem

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President Obama’s long and treacherous journey to a rehabilitated Iran began simultaneously with his improbable march to the White House. During a July 2007 debate among Democratic presidential candidates one participant asked if they would be willing to meet with the leaders of pariah states such as Iran, Syria, and North Korea among others. Candidate Obama was emphatic saying ‘I would’, then indignantly protested that ‘it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them’ and vowing that he would send ‘a signal that we are going to talk to Iran and Syria’. The signal was sent loud and clear on his first Inaugural Address on January 29 2009.’ To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.’ President Obama intoned.

The pursuer and the pursued

A week later, I had my proverbial ‘17 minutes of fame’ when President Obama gave me, as the Bureau Chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington his first formal sit down interview as president. I asked him how far he would be willing to go to prevent a nuclear Iran. The president’s answer was true to form. ‘I said during the campaign that it is very important for us to make sure that we are using all the tools of U.S. power, including diplomacy, in our relationship with Iran.’ After acknowledging the Islamic theocracy’s threatening rhetoric against Israel, Iran’s sponsoring of terrorism and its quest of nuclear power, he added, ‘but, I do think that it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress. And we will, over the next several months, be laying out our general framework and approach. And as I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.’

After six long years of travel on the road to Iran, president Obama finally laid his eyes on his Iranian prize

Hisham Melhem

There were other gestures and signals to the hardened leaders of Iran from the politically correct American president in the form of Nowruz, (Persian New Year) greetings to the people of Iran and the ‘leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran’, and an acknowledgement of America’s role ‘in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government’, circa 1953 during his Cairo speech on June 4, 2009.

Return to sender

The relentless pursuer continued on his perilous Persian trek in search of an interlocutor. Not even Obama’s shockingly tepid response to the brutal suppression of the peaceful Green Revolution in June 2009 following what was seen by many as rigged presidential elections, would soften the sullen and cold supreme leader or drawing him out of his solitude. The solicitations, resumed later in the form of four letters Obama sent to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei between 2009 and November 2014. According to the Wall Street Journal, President Obama used the November letter to make the case for the common struggle against the Islamic State ISIS, and the need for a nuclear accord. According to press reports the Supreme leader answered two of President Obama’s letters but other letters were not answered. We don’t know if Khamenei treated those letters from Obama the way Elvis Presley’s lover treated his letters, by writing upon them; Return to sender, address unknown. No such person, no such zone.’

After six long years of travel on the road to Iran, president Obama finally laid his eyes on his Iranian prize. It was not as dramatic as Saint Paul’s vision when he was on the road to Damascus, but the ‘Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program’(JCPOA) arrived at on April 2nd can be considered as proof that the American sojourner has almost arrived.

The ‘Parameters’ of our times?

By now, the parameters of the ‘Parameters’ of Lausanne, are well known, sort of. There are enough items in the preliminary accord to allow the United States and Iran to claim that each party had achieved its basic objectives. The U.S. can rightly claim that Iran has agreed to considerably reduce its enrichment capabilities, that it will mothball about 14000 centrifuges of its estimated 20,000 centrifuges, and the little it will be allowed to enrich will not accede the level of 3.67 percent (not enough to develop a nuclear weapon) for the next 15 years and that most of its stockpile of enriched uranium will be neutralized. Also, Iran has agreed to dismantle the core of its plutonium reactor at Arak thereby eliminating another pathway towards nuclear weapons. More importantly, according to President Obama, Iran agreed to be subjected to a very intrusive inspection regime, where ‘ International inspectors will have unprecedented access not only to Iranian nuclear facilities, but to the entire supply chain that supports Iran’s nuclear program, from uranium mills that provide the raw materials to the centrifuge production and storage facilities that support the program’. For the U.S. and its allies prolonging Iran’s ‘breakout time’ (the time required to manufacture a nuclear weapon in a hurry) from 3 months now to about a year, if the accord is signed by the end of June, has been one of the most important objectives.

Iran, can rightly claim that it succeeded in resisting America’s initial insistence on the dismantlement of some of its reactors such as Fordow, an underground facility hardened against bunker buster bombs. Iran, still retain the ability to continue low level enrichment activities at its Natanz facility, another hardened and reinforced-concrete structure that was once used for covert enrichment program. Other than dismantling the core of the plutonium plant at Arak, Iran will keep all of its physical nuclear infrastructure, and following the expiration of most of the items in the accord ten years from now, Iran can resume most of its nuclear program unhindered. But most of what Iran wants from the accord is immediate sanction relief. All the U.S. and International sanctions related to the nuclear program will be gradually lifted, after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certifies that Iran has kept its end of the bargain. Iran has been bleeding financially because of three factors: a very effective sanction regime imposed by the U.S. and its allies, and brilliantly designed by the U.S. Treasury Department which deprived Iran from conducting business using the international banking system, the precipitous decline in oil prices, and finally the burden of financing Iran’s proxy wars in Syria in particular, but also financing its military activities in Iraq, and supporting groups like the Lebanese Hezbollah, considered Iran’s most lethal regional ‘Janissaries’.

Military option, but no military solution

It is too early to say with certainty that the ‘Parameters’ will be signed, sealed and delivered by the end of June, given that the devils who live in the details will be expected to bedevil the negotiators, and that the ‘hardliners’ in Tehran and Washington, not to mention America’s allies and friends in the Middle East; Arabs, Israelis and Turks who already feel rejected and dejected, could conceivably work in concert to scuttle the accord.

Those who call for the use of military force to eliminate Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, should realize that there may be a military option, but there is no military solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. At best a military attack could retard Iran’s programs by few years, but such course will not eliminate Iran’s human know how. And the program will be rebuilt. If a politically primitive, isolated country like North Korea and a non-oil rich country like Pakistan can develop nuclear power and weapons, surely a country like Iran can do the same.

In a perfect world, Iran would rightly be considered a major power in the Middle East, given its geographic size, demography, a strong sense of identity and permanence, and its old and rich cultural history, which puts it in a unique category with Egypt as ancient lands with great pre-Islamic and Islamic histories. And while one should expect a country like Iran, whether its ruler wears a crown or a turban or a three piece suit to throw its weight around, one should not tolerate such a power when it exhibits such unbridled hegemony and runs roughshod over the entire region.

But it is conceivable, even in an imperfect world and a fragmented region, to check Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions by tightening the sanction regime, and by a comprehensive strategy where the U.S. will work with its regional allies to check Iran’s proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon where Iran’s influence has reached unprecedented levels, and in Yemen where its influence has increased recently following the tactical advances of its Houthi friends.

The day after

But, if we assume that the deal is consummated by the end of June, what will be the regional reverberations of the deed on July first? On the day after the world powers have recognized Iran’s ‘right’ to enrich uranium and maintain its considerable nuclear infrastructure, and after putting the hitherto isolated country on the road to rehabilitation and welcoming it back into the global economy, while tolerating its regional depredations, including its outrageous complicity in the Syrian regime’s war crimes, the Middle East will look more inhospitable and bleaker than ever. On the day after, those states living in the shadow of a nuclear Iran will start searching for a nuclear shield. In such a broken region nothing could be more lethal or more nihilistic.

The nuclear accord with Iran comes at the worst time imaginable. The Middle East region has descended to depths of depravity not seen in more than a century. Civil and regional wars are intertwined in a web of sectarian demonization and violence on a scale never experienced since the formation of the state system following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The prospects of ending or even containing these wars any time soon are non-existent. There is a kernel of truth in the claim by the allies of the United States, that the nuclear accord with Iran reflects inter alia the relative decline of America’s stature and influence in the region. Signing a deal with Iran that would practically ratify its stature as a legitimate nuclear power that would be free a decade from now to pursue its nuclear ambitions unencumbered, and at a time where Iran is the most influential player in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and probably Yemen, is tantamount to ordaining Iran as the region’s hegemon.

The United States not only failed to extract concessions from Iran to curb its regional ambitions during the nuclear negotiations, it in fact unwittingly enabled Iran in Syria and Iraq. It is true as Ayatollah Khamenei said recently that Iran ‘will not negotiate with America over regional matters. The goals of the Americans on regional matters are exactly the opposite of our goals’, but why couldn’t the Obama Administration do what U.S. administrations did during the Cold War, when they negotiated nuclear treaties and agreements with the Soviet Union while simultaneously maintaining pressure on Moscow to stop violating human rights in general and defending the dissidents and helping them politically, morally and materially. More importantly, engaging Moscow did not stop U.S. attempts at rolling back Soviet and Communist advances in regional conflicts from the Korean War to the Afghan War.

The elusive search of leadership and strategy

Already, Iran’s friends and apologists in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon are interpreting the preliminary accord as a victory for Iran and a vindication of its policies. Washington’s Arab friends feel abandoned, while Iran’s coalition feels empowered, even triumphalist judging by press reports and the loud noise of Iran’s Arab satraps. That, in part explains the decision by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) led by Saudi Arabia to form a regional military coalition to try to change the military balance in Yemen and check the advances by the Houthis, Iran’s new allies. The preliminary attempts at forming a joint Arab military force should be seen in this light.

The U.S. anticipating a deal with Iran, decided to placate the GCC by declaring its support for the air campaign against the Houthis and by providing limited support for the effort. Also, President Obama’s decision to resume arms supplies to Egypt should be seen in this context. The planned summit between President Obama and the leaders of the GCC states to be held in the next few weeks at Camp David is designed to assure disillusioned friendly leaders that the U.S. remains solidly behind them, a tall order indeed. One would hope that the summit will give the Arabs the chance to speak with one voice, also a tall order.

President Obama’s decision not to push very hard for a residual American force in Iraq, after the withdrawal of most American troops, and his refusal to own the Iraq policy, and subcontracting it to his feckless vice president has worsened the original sin committed by his predecessor George Bush. And by refusing to be pro-active to force Bashar Assad to step down, or even sincere in translating his words of support to the Syrian opposition, or delivering on his threats to the Assad regime, President Obama has been a silent contributor to the worst humanitarian tragedy in this young century.

We may be engaging in wishful thinking when we keep urging and searching for American leadership and a comprehensive strategy to prevent the total collapse of the Middle East region and to restore America’s stature and safeguard its influence and shore up its interests and the interests of its friends. But there are certain things only the U.S. can – or should- do.

William Burns, the former deputy secretary of state, who played a leading role in the secret and open talks with the Iranians that led to the accord, wrote on Thursday ‘we should urgently pursue new forms of security assurances and cooperation. Taking a firm stance against threatening Iranian actions in the region, from Syria to Yemen, not only shores up anxious longtime friends. It also is the best way to produce Iranian restraint, much as a firm stance on sanctions helped persuade Iran to reassess its nuclear strategy’. This is a sound advice from one of the best American diplomats in his generation, but somehow I don’t anticipate that it will penetrate the insular world President Obama lives in, or can convince him that his Iranian interlocutors are complicit in sectarian slaughter in Iraq and crimes against humanity in Syria.

Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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