President Trump’s decision to eliminate Iranian terror master Qassem Soleimani followed Tehran’s repeated violent escalations aimed at the United States and the region. But to hear former Obama administration officials tell it, Iran’s continued violence is America’s fault. For Team Obama, the cause of Iran’s region-wide belligerence and attacks on U.S. targets is simple: Trump renounced the Iran nuclear deal.
Today’s crisis, wrote President Barack Obama’s top Middle East deputy Robert Malley, is “rooted in President Trump’s ill-advised and reckless decision to exit the nuclear deal and embark on a policy of ‘maximum pressure.’” And it was all predictable, too. “This moment was nothing if not foreseeable the moment Mr. Trump abandoned the 2015 agreement, which was working,” added former Secretary of State John Kerry.
But what does Obama’s nuclear agreement have to do with stopping Iran’s destabilizing actions across the region? After all, the former president and his aides always insisted, when making their sales pitch for the deal back in 2015, there was no connection. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, they said, was simply about reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It was a narrow arms control agreement that had nothing to do with Iran’s terrorism and adventurism around the Middle East and beyond. When critics pointed to Iran’s expansionist and destabilizing campaigns in the region, its ballistic missile program, and its sponsorship of terrorism, Obama officials waved them off dismissively: We have no illusions about Iran, but that’s not part of this.
So, why is Team Obama livid about Trump pushing back against Iranian attacks? It’s because the nuclear-deal sales pitch was insincere, cover for a strategic vision that it knew was politically indefensible. The accord was never just an arms control agreement. It was an instrument for geopolitical realignment designed to elevate Iran.
Even as Obama officials pitched it in 2015, the administration was simultaneously putting out a parallel message about the real objective of its deal with Iran. An anonymous American diplomat in July 2015 floated that Obama believed Iran “could be a bulwark against ISIS in the Middle East and the key to peace there.” That same month, another unnamed official agreed. “There is definitely a larger picture here,” the official told the New York Times. Namely, “the possibility of a new [regional] equilibrium … a potential shift in alliances.” Obama himself had made the latter point in several interviews in 2014 and 2015.
Obama also linked the nuclear deal and realignment in the letters he sent to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, nudging Khamenei to embrace the agreement and pursue a regional partnership with the U.S. in 2014.
Tethering the nuclear deal to the U.S. counterterrorism campaign against the Islamic State would serve to reinforce the realignment and the larger, geopolitical scope of the deal. The primary theater for this partnership was Iraq, where Soleimani’s Shiite militias ran the show. For all the lip service the Obama administration paid to “empowering the moderates” in Iran, its real partnership was with Khamenei and his right-hand man, Soleimani. This is likely why, as former Bush administration senior director for the Middle East Michael Doran recently revealed, and as a Trump administration senior official confirmed, the Obama administration also sent letters to Soleimani, presumably to explore the possibility of jointly combating ISIS.
What that meant in practice was that the U.S. would help prop up Iranian political orders in Iraq and Lebanon and help to put down any Sunni insurgencies against those orders. As an Obama official put it in 2015, “Because we have a common enemy, a common goal, everybody is moving in the same direction.” The trick was for the U.S. to avoid crossing Iran’s “red lines,” or else jeopardize the partnership. As the official cautioned, “You cross a red line in Syria, you start to infringe on what Iran sees as its long-term interest, and those Shia militias could turn in the other direction.” In other words, crossing Iran would lose the U.S. permission from Tehran to kill Sunni insurgents and put the lives of American soldiers in Iraq at risk. Obama committed to that arrangement in writing, reassuring Khamenei in his letters that Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria would not be touched, only ISIS.
The pretext of the nuclear deal also served to boost the other side of the equation, distancing the U.S. from its traditional allies, especially Israel. Like clockwork, whenever the Israelis would take action about the growing Iranian threat, an anonymous Obama official could be trusted to leak that the Israelis were recklessly endangering our counterterrorism partnership and risking the lives of American men and women in Iraq and elsewhere.
This cooperation component of the deal was of particular importance for the Obama administration’s ability to put the agreement into place in the face of congressional pushback because it tethered realignment with Iran to counterterrorism, which ensured a broader base of support in Washington.
For this reason, Team Obama is now engaged in an all-out messaging campaign premised on the idea that withdrawal from the nuclear deal is collapsing the security partnership it built. “Up until President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal … there were no proxy attacks by Iranian proxies on U.S. personnel in Iraq,” former national security adviser Susan Rice told MSNBC. “Iraq welcomed our presence fighting ISIS,” wrote Kerry. But, as a result of our withdrawal from the accord, “the U.S. presence in Iraq … is now hanging by a thread,” added Malley.
When this crew talks about “withdrawing from the deal,” therefore, it means the geopolitical deal to realign with Iran — the deal to achieve a new regional “balance,” or “equilibrium,” as Obama explained. “Rebalancing” required movement away from traditional allies in Iran’s favor. The accord was the vehicle for that rebalancing. On its own terms, the deal not only did not constrain Iran’s nonnuclear activities, but it also enabled them, namely, by setting a timeline for lifting the arms embargo on the Islamic Republic and the ban on its ballistic missile program. Moreover, it provided sanctions relief that filled up Iran’s war chests as it prosecuted its regional campaigns, with some of the funds sent straight in cash on wooden pallets. This is why Team Obama’s messaging today focuses on the lifting of U.S. sanctions and the end of the “maximum pressure” campaign.
All of this is on top of the nuclear concessions. When the temporary restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities expire, according to the so-called sunset clauses in the deal, Iran will have been given a legal, full-scale nuclear program. Talk about rebalancing.
Obama officials are now incensed because Trump has upended this new geopolitical “equilibrium” and realignment that his predecessor had worked so assiduously to achieve. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The realignment was supposed to have been locked in by a true custodian of Obama’s legacy, Malley candidly explained in a recent essay. It was “premised on his being succeeded by someone like him, maybe a Hillary Clinton, but certainly not a Donald Trump.”
Trump’s elimination of Soleimani symbolizes the end of the Obama strategy of realigning the U.S. with the Islamic Republic. But to bury that strategy, Trump still needs to end the nuclear deal fully. The arms embargo on Iran is set to be lifted at the end of this year. The expiration of other sunset clauses will be prevented only when the U.S. activates the so-called snapback mechanism at the United Nations Security Council, which would restore the international restrictions and sanctions on Iran that the nuclear deal shredded.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @AcrossTheBay.