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Doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity — except, it seems, for the Biden administration, where such folly passes for foreign policy.
This month, President Joe Biden and his team watched as another dismally unfree election in Iran resulted in Ebrahim Raisi taking the reins as president. What to do when your signature diplomatic initiative hangs on dealing with a regime now governed by a man best known for his role in executing thousands of political dissidents in the 1980s (the female ones raped to preemptively keep them from reaching paradise)?
The answer from the White House: Tell the same old story and hope for the best.
That story, authored by former President Barack Obama, is a simple one: Either we negotiate with Tehran or we risk a total, all-out regional war.
Writing in Foreign Affairs last year, Jake Sullivan, now Biden’s national-security adviser, expressed this idea succinctly. Washington, he argued, should use “US leverage and diplomacy to press for a de-escalation in tensions and eventually a new modus vivendi among the key regional actors.”
America, he added, “has repeatedly tried using military means to produce unachievable outcomes in the Middle East. Now it’s time to try using aggressive diplomacy to produce more sustainable results.” Which, translated to real-world policies, means lifting sanctions on Iran and resuscitating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Obama nuclear deal.
The election of a murderous barbarian, the Smart Set in Washington insisted this week, changes none of that, largely because it’s the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and not the president, who really pulls the strings.
“Iran will have, we expect, the same supreme leader in August as it will have today, as it had before the elections, as it had in 2015 when the JCPOA was consummated for the first time,” explained State Department spokesman Ned Price. In other words, don’t look at the bloody butcher, folks — it’s business as usual with Tehran.
It’s true that the Iranian presidency is toothless, but what the Smart Set misses is that Khamenei himself is an intransigent theocrat who will never, ever surrender his regime’s hatred for the West and designs on the region. And given Khamenei’s age (82) and ailing health (he reportedly has prostate cancer), the regime is sending an unmistakable signal about its future direction by selecting a hard-liner’s hard-liner in Raisi.
More important, the choice isn’t war or appeasement. Taking office, President Donald Trump challenged his predecessor’s core assumption with a smarter approach: applying maximum pressure on the mullahs to isolate them and keep them busy dealing with a restive population.
It worked. Despite Team Obama’s dire warnings that Iran was mere months away from full nuclear capability, the mullahs didn’t build a bomb. Instead, they were consumed with popular protests in more than 200 Iranian cities, by Iranians who sensed that the Trump presidency was a vulnerable moment for their corrupt and tyrannical rulers.
Meanwhile, reassured by Washington, a host of Arab nations signed the Abraham Accords, making peace with Israel and ushering in the most promising moment the region had known in decades.
Why, then, undo what’s been working? Why the return to assumptions and ideas proved false and harmful? Why does the president tell himself and us the same bad story, even as a man sanctioned by the United States for his role in crimes against humanity takes the helm?
It’s because Obama and Biden weren’t ever interested in solving a concrete problem, like improving relations with Iran or decreasing the likelihood of an armed conflict. They were, and remain, committed to a far more audacious — and dangerous — vision, one which involves remaking the Middle East with Iran at its center.
It’s what Michael Doran and Tony Badran, two of America’s most astute Mideast analysts, called the Realignment, a doctrine focused on getting all Middle Eastern nations to, as Obama memorably put it, “share the neighborhood” with Iran, believing the regime in Tehran to be a rational one that responds to traditional incentives and can keep the region balanced in ways that benefit US interests.
Let’s hope that the presidency (and perhaps future supreme leadership) of a mass murderer can focus minds in Washington about Tehran’s realities.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large at Tablet.
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