Hillary appeared on CCTV’s The Heat this week to discuss the “framework” Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the P5+1 and Iran, see here (Hillary’s segment runs from 2:45 to 12:40). Hillary notes that, in itself, the JCPOA is not so important, that “there’s not so much of a ‘there’ there, to say that there’s an agreement.” But, she stresses, the JCPOA is very important in terms of its “potential”:
“It’s the potential, particularly for the United States, in our own interest, to get off this incredibly self-damaging trajectory of never-ending war in the Middle East—the failed military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria. This gives us the chance to get off of all that, and to actually have constructive relations with one of the most, if not the most important power in the Middle East.”
In multiple recent media appearances—on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Parry, see here, and The Cycle, see here and here; on CNN, see here, here, here, here, and here; on RT, see here; and on NPR, see here—Hillary has been emphasizing that the real value of a prospective nuclear deal is the “strategic opportunity” it presents for the United States to “come to terms with the Islamic Republic” as a “rising regional power” and to “realign its relations in the Middle East.”
But President Obama seems to be going out of his way not to seize this opportunity. Appearing on CNN’s New Day with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Hillary took on Albright’s defense of the JCPOA as a narrowly technical arms control agreement that is in U.S. interest primarily because it lets America and its allies put more constraints on a threatening actor. (Albright’s position, is, of course, very much in keeping with the Obama administration’s public defense of the JCPOA). More specifically, Hillary argued that
“[T]he critical problem here is for President Obama to make the strategic sell. If he focuses on it just as an arms control agreement, my concern is that it will die on the vine, just like President Carter’s SALT II treaty with the Soviets over their strategic arsenal.
We’ve seen failure before. We could see failure again if it’s a narrow arms control issue. If there’s a broader strategic case like Nixon and Kissinger vis-à-vis China, I think it will sell. But President Obama has been extremely reluctant to make that strategic case. Instead, he seems to be going down the path of President Carter, where he’s dependent on a Congress to OK an arms control agreement when there may not be any arms control agreement with Iran that would be good enough for them.”
More broadly, as Hillary explains on The Heat, unwillingness to adjust U.S. strategy to the reality of a truly independent Iran is the most basic, even primordial driver of opposition to a prospective nuclear deal:
“The problem the critics have here is not with the agreement itself; it’s with the system in Iran, with the Islamic Republic itself. What they want to see is a different government there, what we had under the Shah—a government that is very obedient to American interests and carries what we see as our policy preferences. Then they actually might be happy with that government having nuclear weapons, as they were apparently happy and prepared to have the Shah have nuclear weapons, as they are happy to have and prepared to accept Israel with nuclear weapons, and apartheid South Africa with nuclear weapons. The issue is not the nuclear program, even though so much of the attention is put on that; the issue is the system. And this is the central question for American policymakers: can we accept, in our own interest, this fiercely independent Islamic Republic of Iran, align with it where we can, like against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, perhaps even in Yemen against al-Qa’ida there, and bracket the areas where we disagree, perhaps like Israel?”
In this regard, if President Obama seizes the “strategic opening” that a nuclear deal with Iran can potentially create, then
“We could for the first time in decades decrease our dependency on our so-called allies, particularly the Saudis and the Israelis, that—for all Americans think they’ve benefitted the United States—have done things that have been profoundly damaging to U.S. interests: in the Saudi case, to fund and arm Sunni jihadists across the Middle East, and in the Israeli case, to be overseeing this perpetual, never-ending occupation. We could lessen our dependency on those countries—not dump them as allies, but lessen our dependency—and have more constructive relations with all the countries. That could be as profound as what Nixon and Kissinger did when they opened to China and realigned our relations fundamentally in Asia.”
The need for such realignment and diplomatic flexibility could hardly be clearer. As Hillary told Melissa Harris-Parry,
“Today, it is Iran that is fighting against ISIS, it is Iran that is fighting against al-Qa’ida, and it’s our allies, for example the Saudis, that are bombing in Yemen today, enabling al-Qa’ida to take over more and more territory there. It’s the Saudis that just supported a group, an al-Qa’ida group, to take over yet another Syrian city. That’s not going to end up well for the United States. We know where that trajectory goes; it leads to more and more war. [Obama] needs to make the strategic case, like Nixon did about China.”
Our colleague Seyed Mohammad Marandi, Dean of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran, appeared on the same episode of The Heat as Hillary; his segment starts 15:50 into the video. Mohammad underscores how the Obama administration’s efforts to “spin” the JCPOA, continuing uncertainty “whether the United States is ready to come to terms with post-revolutionary Iran, Iran as a sovereign and independent and powerful country,” and America’s unreconstructed Middle East policies are affirming already strong doubts in Tehran about U.S. intentions, toward the Islamic Republic and in the region more generally. Mohammad explores these themes as well in an important recent segment of RT’s Op-Edge, see here.
—Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett