Get Tough with Tehran

Three distinguished former U.S. ambassadors, Ryan Crocker, William Luers, and Thomas Pickering (a Brookings Distinguished Fellowtook to the pages of The Washington Post last Saturday to warn President Obama against walking away from the negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program. Reaching an agreement in Vienna, they argue, is the key to unlocking a regional partnership with Iran and its ally, Syria. The ambassadors, however, would do well to remember the Arab proverb that says, “al-hamiya haramiya” — “the guardian is the thief.” For years Iran has been stealing from the United States and its allies; now, suddenly, it is presenting itself as the guardian of their interests.

In embracing Iran as a partner of the United States, Crocker, Luers, and Pickering make three analytical errors. First, they mistakenly claim that “the breakup of Iraq and the creation of a radical Islamist Sunni state next door would be catastrophic” for Iran. This is an overstatement. It was the grueling Iran-Iraq war that forged the perspective of the ruling elite in Tehran. That conflict, which lasted eight years and brought the regime to the brink of ruin, taught the guardians of the Islamic Republic the dangers of a powerful and united Iraq, which they prefer to see weak and divided.

This is not to say that they welcome the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) with open arms. The appearance of the caliphate is a severe headache for Tehran, but it also brings a number of benefits. For one thing, it forces the Maliki government in Baghdad into an ever-greater dependency on Tehran. And, for another, it prompts influential figures in Washington to lobby President Obama in favor of not just of abandoning the traditional American policy of containing Iran, but also of taking a more flexible position in the nuclear negotiations. In other words, the very existence of the op-ed by Crocker, Luers, and Pickering is Exhibit “A” for the case against their own argument.

The second error of the three ambassadors is to blame “the Persian Gulf monarchies” for “clandestinely supporting radical Islam.” This is a serious allegation — one that requires far more evidence and greater specificity than the authors offer. Which monarchies are they indicting? To which representatives of “radical Islam” are they referring? Are they suggesting, for example, that ISIS is a client organization of Saudi Arabia?

To be sure, money from the Gulf has been making its way to Islamist organizations in Syria and Iraq. But the primary sources of this funding are Islamic charities supported by wealthy individuals, not governments. Moreover, that money is a drop in the bucket compared to the million dollars a day that, according to credible reports, ISIS receives from oil sales to Turkey and Iran.

You heard that right: Iran. Indeed, the ambassadors’ accusation against the Gulf monarchies entirely ignores the role that Tehran and Damascus have played in building up ISIS — a role that extends well beyond the purchase of oil. ISIS is the latest emanation of what used to be called al-Qaeda in Iraq . In March 2010, General Petraeus, then the commander of U.S. Central Command, testified before Congress that Iran was aiding al-Qaeda, allowing its territory to be used as a “key facilitation hub, where facilitators connect al-Qaeda’s senior leadership to regional affiliates.” For its part, the Assad regime permitted the free flow of suicide bombers to al-Qaeda in Iraq for years. When all is said and done, Iran and Syria have played a far more pernicious role in the rise of ISIS than have the Gulf monarchies.

The ambassadors’ third error is to accept at face value the arguments of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who whispers in the ear of Secretary of State John Kerry that conciliatory gestures by the United States will strengthen moderate forces in the Iranian elite. But the exact opposite is more likely the case. American concessions breed contempt from men like Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force. Soleimani is a close confidant of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and, unlike the ubiquitous Zarif, plays a determinative role in Iranian policy toward Iraq and Syria. The very significant concessions that President Obama has already made to Iran have given the likes of Soleimani the basis to argue that the Americans are retreating from the Middle East, and that, therefore, striving to comprise with them is both unwise and unnecessary.

But Crocker and his colleagues advocate for yet more American concessions. Their position calls to mind another Arab proverb: “Yalli bi jarrib mjarrab, ‘aqloh mkharrab” – a saying roughly equivalent to the old adage, often attributed to Einstein, which defines insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result.”

To get a truly desirable outcome, President Obama should take a reasonable but unmovable position in the nuclear negotiations in Vienna. If the Iranians balk, then he should walk away and reappraise his approach. The time has come to halt the American retreat from the Middle East.