One of the ongoing conundrums of Middle East politics is the fact that the United States and Iran have wound up on the same side in the conflict against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But in this case the enemy of our enemy isn’t necessarily our friend. Or at least it shouldn’t serve to help weaken American resolve to stop Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon.
The complicated mess in Iraq is the sort of game in which, as the old baseball expression goes, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. But by overthrowing Saddam Hussein and his minority Baathist Sunni rule over a majority Shiite country, the U.S. unwittingly put the U.S. on the side of Iran, Saddam’s deadly enemy and a patron of Shiite dissidents against his despotic rule. Since Saddam’s fall, the U.S. and Iran have danced a delicate minuet in which Tehran alternately opposed and then sometimes backed America’s effort to stabilize Iraq and leave it with a working democracy. Suffice it to say that while the U.S. and Iran share a common agenda in not wishing to see Sunni extremists overrun Iraq, the differences between the two on the future of the country are considerable.
The Obama administration fled Iraq prematurely while staying out of the Syria conflict and thus set in motion the chain of events that led to the frightening rise of ISIS. So it is not in much of a position to pick and choose its allies in its halting efforts to stop the terrorist movement from taking Baghdad and extending the reach of its so-called caliphate. That means it has to welcome any help from Iran to the Shiite-dominated government but should also be extremely leery about allowing it to deploy its own forces, let alone Tehran’s terrorist auxiliaries run free in Iraq.
But that uneasy relationship should not be allowed to play any role whatsoever in the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran which will resume later this month in New York ahead of the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. Yet the tenor of those talks, which were extended into the fall after missing a July deadline, seems to indicate that the Obama administration is more interested in détente with Iran than in halting its nuclear ambitions.
Last fall, the administration discarded most of its enormous economic and political leverage over Iran when it signed onto an interim nuclear agreement that loosened sanctions and tacitly recognized their “right” to enrich uranium in exchange for largely meaningless gestures that did not significantly halt the Islamist state’s progress toward a weapon. Since then it has pursued negotiations toward a final deal but has been given the same runaround that Tehran’s past negotiating partners experienced. Iran has signaled that it no longer regards President Obama’s threats as serious and its negotiating position — in which it has sought Western approval for keeping its nuclear toys rather than pledging to dismantle them — has hardened.
Even before the current crisis in Iraq, there seemed little likelihood that the administration would show any resolve in the nuclear talks with Iran. Rather than persuading the Iranians to negotiate safeguards that would mandate the end of their nuclear program, Secretary of State John Kerry’s concessions seemed to have persuaded Tehran that it can keep its uranium stockpile, nuclear plants and military research facilities while sanctions gradually collapse. The fact that the administration thinks it needs to appease the Iranians on Iraq will only deepen their conviction that they can hang tough without facing any consequences.
If anyone doubted Iran’s resolve and its arrogant dismissal of Western attempts to monitor their nuclear program, the regime’s continued stalling of the International Atomic Energy Agency to investigate their program should convince them. Without real information about Iran’s military nuclear research any agreement, whether one with tough terms or one as weak as the document signed last fall by Kerry, will be meaningless.
It is to be hoped that President Obama will finally show some grit and destroy ISIS before it is too late. But if in the course of that effort he is prepared to appease Iran further, that will be a poor bargain. The U.S. doesn’t have to choose between an ISIS-run Iraq and a nuclear Iran. Both are disasters that must be averted at all costs. Strong American leadership could rally the world behind the fight against ISIS and efforts to isolate Iran until it renounces its nuclear ambitions forever. Unfortunately, that appears to be the one thing lacking in Washington these days.
Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of COMMENTARY magazine and chief political blogger at www.commentarymagazine.com. He can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at TobinCommentary.