Playing By Iran's Rules
Hassan Rouhani is not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Everyone in Washington pretty much agrees with that. On everything else the city divides into two camps. One holds that the new Iranian president offers an opportunity to engage with the regime. The other contends that that Tehran is more much interested in breaking out of the diplomatic and economic isolation imposed by the West than cutting a deal that will kill its nuclear weapons program.
President Obama will jump squarely into the “let’s talk” camp. And, there, he will get totally played. Tehran will get everything it wants, while Washington will end up worse for the wear.
Iran’s strategic direction is not about to change. We know that because the strategic course is set not by the Iranian president but by his overlords. Hassan Rouhani represents a change in style not substance. He has one mission: to get the Europeans to back off sanctions while preserving Iran’s option to go nuclear whenever it wants. The way to do that will be to 1) appear less threatening to the West, 2) offer to help the U.S. on some thorny geo-political problems and 3) slow-walk Tehran’s weapons programs while the regime perfects its long-range missiles.
Unfortunately, President Obama’s bumbling approach to Syria makes it all the more likely that Rouhani can execute this game plan successfully. Here is why.
If Obama had bombed Syria, Tehran would have had to take sides publicly—and perhaps even retaliate against the United States. Rouhani’s charm offensive would have lost all charm if, for example, Iran decided to express its displeasure by blockading the Straits of Hormuz.
Now, however, the likelihood of Washington and Tehran coming to blows over Damascus looks to be near zero. Even if Assad never hands over a canister of nerve gas, American intervention is about as likely as Miley Cyrus going back to Disney. If Obama couldn’t convince Congress that bombing was a good response to a red-line infraction, he’ll have an even tougher time winning their support just because it becomes evident that the Russian international weapons control “plan” is a dud.
That’s good news for Iran. Now it won’t have to pick an open fight with America over the Syrian Civil War. It can just continue to funnel support quietly to Assad, so he can continue to murder his own people.
Unfortunately, Obama weakened his hand by declaring that Syria came to the chemical weapons table because of his threat of force. To perpetuate that fiction, he will try to make the case that Iran also got the message and wants to avoid a similar threat-of-force fate over its nuclear program.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Tehran saw how the Russians played Obama—and they’ll do the same.
Desperate for a deal that shows the Obama Doctrine  (engage our adversaries with fairness and respect) actually works, our president will be ready to sign up for just about anything Tehran might put on the table. Expect Obama to be all smiles when he runs into Rouhani at the UN.
Iran will sweeten the pot for Mr. Obama by promising to help the U.S. extricate itself from the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan. Rouhani knows the White House wants to put both war zones in its rearview mirror. Obama knows the Iranians hold influence in both countries.
So the deal looks like this. Iran helps perpetuate the Administration’s face-saving fiction in Syria and its rush to the zero-option in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Tehran says less threatening things about Israel and goes slow on its nuclear program. For our part, the White House slow rolls sanctions and ignores European countries as they quietly ease their sanctions on Iran.
The deal helps Obama regain his image as the “smart power,” “I’m not Bush” foreign policy president. The Iranian regime gets some desperately needed economic relief from the West, while continuing business-as-usual with Syria and plowing full-speed ahead on its missile program.
It’s a win-win for Obama and Rouhani. But the Iranian people wind up losers. They will remain more firmly under the heel of one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Also among the losers: all the future victims of Iranian-state sponsored terrorism.
Meanwhile, the entire region will remain clouded by the shadow of the danger of a Tehran-triggered nuclear war. And the people of Afghanistan and Syria may have to resign themselves to living in endless civil war.
The United States, too, will not make out well. Administrations for decades to come will find themselves challenged with figuring out how to keep the Middle East mess left by Obama from spiraling into chaos.
- James Jay Carafano is vice president of defense and foreign relations policy for The Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in The National Interest.