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From the Axis of Evil to appeasement

EARLIER this week, Politico revealed some of the inner workings of the Obama administration in the run up to the nuclear deal with Iran, in an investigative piece well worth the read. In January 2016, as the US magazine reports, the Obama administration announced the release of seven Iranian-born prisoners, described by the then-president as “civilians” and by a senior administration official as businessmen convicted for, or accused of, violating the trade embargo.
In fact, some were accused by the Justice Department of being threats to national security. Three of them belonged to an illegal procurement network that supplied Iran, as the piece describes, with “US-made microelectronics with applications in surface-to-air and cruise missiles like the kind Tehran test-fired recently.” Another was serving an eight-year sentence “for conspiring to supply Iran with satellite technology and hardware.”
Following the nuclear deal, Arab Gulf governments were often criticized for obsessing about the Iranian threat and exaggerating the extent to which the Obama administration cosied up to Tehran. Politico’s story is yet another vindication of those concerns beyond the evident effects across the Middle East, in Syria, Iraq or Yemen.
These specific concessions to draw Iran into the nuclear deal did not end there. The Justice Department dropped charges and international arrest warrants against 14 other fugitives. Among their activities are believed to be the smuggling to Iran of US military equipment and high-tech components for improvised explosive devices (IEDs), then used by pro-Iran Shiite militias to kill hundreds of US soldiers in Iraq.

A glaring case was the withdrawal of the charges against a suspected member of a network that for years procured thousands of pieces of equipment (including US-made sensors for uranium enrichment centrifuges) with nuclear applications, via China, with Iran as the final destination.
Based on interviews with key government people involved and an analysis of court records, Politico reports that since 2014 officials in the Obama administration began “slow-walking some significant investigations and prosecutions of Iranian procurement networks operating in the US.”
These actions, which run against decades of counter-proliferation efforts by US authorities, are part of a larger picture. Tehran obtained unprecedented access to the world economy and global oil markets, without any positive impact on its internal politics or changes in its regional behavior. If anything, the opposite is true.
The former president’s determination to strike a deal with Iran no matter what, in search of an achievement that would go down in history as the high mark of his presidency, is well-known. Yet there was a deeper logic at play.
Although often criticized by regional experts for having no Middle East policy beyond fighting terrorism and striking a deal with Iran, Barack Obama had a specific vision of what US foreign policy and its global role ought to be.
Two interviews, with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in March 2016 and with the New York Times’ Tom Friedman in April 2015, remain the best summary of the problematic Obama Doctrine. Asked by Friedman if there was a common thread to his administration’s moves to put an end to the longstanding policies of isolating Cuba, Myanmar and Iran, Obama replied that engagement coupled with awareness of US strategic needs was a far more promising approach.

Following the nuclear deal, Arab Gulf governments were often criticized for obsessing about the Iranian threat and exaggerating the extent to which the Obama administration cosied up to Tehran. Politico’s story is yet another vindication of those concerns beyond the evident effects across the Middle East, in Syria, Iraq or Yemen.

Dr. Manuel Almeida


The president compared the cases of Cuba and Iran, and defended engagement with both. He described Cuba as “a tiny little country” that did not represent a threat to the “core security interests” of the US, and Iran as “a larger country, a dangerous country, one that has engaged in activities that resulted in the death of US citizens.”
But Obama dismissed the scale of the Iranian threat by noting the difference between the US and Iran’s military budgets. “The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities,” Obama concluded.
A year later, he proudly told Goldberg that not having enforced the famous red line he had set on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime was “the right decision to make.” By dropping one of the two key pillars of his doctrine, the threat of the use of force in extreme circumstances, Obama completely discredited it. It sent all the wrong signals to the genocidal Syrian regime, its Iranian backers and rogue regimes such as North Korea. Inevitably, any attempts by his successor to reverse course were bound to be interpreted in Tehran (or Pyongyang for that matter) as offensive moves.
Obama also hinted to The Atlantic that Saudi Arabia needed to “share” the region with Iran, thus significantly downplaying the fact that Iran’s foreign policy is deeply imperial, aggressive and well-versed in using religion, sectarianism, militias and terrorists as tools. It is bent on overturning the regional order without having anything good to replace it with. Obama’s fatalistic view of the region led him to believe there was little the US could to change things on the ground.
Ultimately, his notion of engagement with regimes as different as Cuba’s, Myanmar’s or Iran’s is as problematic as the much-vilified notion of the Axis of Evil, the term coined by then-President George W. Bush in 2002 to refer to Iran, Iraq (then under Saddam Hussein) and North Korea.
Ideologues of the Axis of Evil such as the firebrand John R. Bolton, who added Cuba, Libya and Syria to the list, must feel at least partially vindicated today regardless of the Iraq debacle.
The same cannot be said of Obama’s one-size-fits-all approach to remarkably different cases, such as the radical Iranian regime and its military backers, and a persistent but today strategically irrelevant and externally harmless communist regime in Cuba.
He was right to engage Cuba and lift trade restrictions. His reasoning that the best way to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions was through negotiations was sound. Anyone in their right mind should know a war with Iran would be terrible for the Middle East. On Iran, however, his administration went too far in the opposite direction: Appeasement. The consequences are all too evident today.

• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a leading political analyst, providing research and consultancy services focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be reached on Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida.