It’s not hard to see why the discussion of Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes’ exchanges with the New York Times Magazine’s David Samuels has received so much attention from the chattering class. A lot of it is all about them, after all, and we all love to talk about ourselves. By now, we’ve all heard the insults to the D.C. press corps (they’re 27 years old and don’t know anything about anything) and the self-satisfied account about how Rhodes and his colleagues, including Obama himself, deceived America about the Iran deal.
The deception hasn’t stopped, however, nor does it go away because Obama and Rhodes have given us a new account of the Iran deal. The old confusion began with the date the negotiations were said to have started (2013, after the Iranian elections) and the basic reason for progress (good old President Rouhani, the well-known moderate). The new deception says the negotiations started in 2011 and were driven by the White House.
But that’s at least half wrong. Negotiations with Iran started even before Obama was inaugurated, and had nothing to do with events over there. It was Obama’s initiative, and it’s the key to his foreign policy.
In a little-noticed phrase, Rhodes told Samuels the truth, but nobody noticed:
Obama’s closest advisers always understood him to be eager to do a deal with Iran…even since the beginning of his presidency. “It’s the center of the arc,” Rhodes explained…
As I have written, and with rare exceptions hardly any serious reporter or columnist has followed up, Obama’s secret diplomacy with Tehran actually predates his presidency. He sent a private emissary to Tehran during the campaign of 2008. That emissary was Ambassador William Miller, the former chief of staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Miller was a good choice. He speaks Farsi, and he agreed with Obama on the desirability and possibility of détente with Iran. Miller confirmed his trips in a conversation with me shortly after the elections, and I was surprised that he did not get a suitable post in the administration.
I would be astonished if there were no back-channel contacts between 2008 and 2011. We know that Obama sent letters to Khamenei in that period, and normal Iranian practice would have created private conversations. Perhaps the CIA had a good intermediary. Perhaps someone close to the president—Valerie Jarrett?—was involved. (She was certainly involved later on; she told Middle East leaders she was in charge of Iran policy, according to a very reliable American source). On the Iranian side, I was once told by a good source that members of the Jaffari family had discussions with American officials in Geneva and at the UN.
But aside from Rhodes’ passing reference, that period from 2008 to 2011 is more or less a black hole. And even though most journalists and commentators accept the now-standard version of events, there is a big missing piece in their account: the hostages. They were surely part of the deal negotiations, but we do not have any detailed understanding of their specific role, nor the role other countries in the region likely played. The Omanis were no doubt deeply involved, providing money, transportation and negotiating channels. To fully understand what has happened, we need those details.
If Rhodes is right, Obama has pursued détente with the Iranians from the very beginning. Events during his presidency did not create or even catalyze his Iran policy. Can no one get to the president’s root motivation? Or is Rhodes’ brutal assessment right? Do they really know nothing, and are they not interested in learning?
Finally, there’s the lack of explanation of the remarkable willingness of the Obama administration—Obama himself, Kerry, Rice, Rhodes et al.—to give the Iranians most everything they ask for. Indeed, Iranians I tend to believe have told me that the Tehran negotiators were often surprised when the Americans offered things the Iranians hadn’t requested. We all know the litany, from more and more money to less and less intrusive inspections, to support for Assad, to expressions of gratitude for Iranian actions against American sailors that could have been treated as acts of war.
This sort of appeasement was elegantly defined by Winston Churchill in his unforgettable speech after Chamberlain appeased Hitler. You had a choice between war and dishonor, he said. You chose dishonor, and yet you will get war even so.
When Obama posed the Iran deal as the only alternative to war, he was channeling Chamberlain. We have war with Iran, just as Chamberlain got war with the Reich. But the analogy ends there. Chamberlain’s appeasement was popular in Great Britain, but Obama’s wasn’t.
And it doesn’t seem likely we’ll soon elect a Churchillian successor.