What is President Obama’s deal with Iran really, essentially about? I just realized that John Kerry has been trying to tell us all along, and it’s only yesterday that he finally said it clearly enough to make it register.
In last week’s Senate testimony, he first established the theme, warning that if Congress doesn’t approve the deal, “we will have proven we’re not trustworthy.” Get that? We have a Secretary of State who conducted negotiations from the premise that we, not the Iranians, are the ones who have to prove we can be trusted.
But that wasn’t just a gaffe or an isolated observation. Kerry expanded on it in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg that was published yesterday:
“The ayatollah constantly believed that we are untrustworthy, that you can’t negotiate with us, that we will screw them,” Kerry said. “This”—a congressional rejection—”will be the ultimate screwing.” He went on to argue that “the United States Congress will prove the ayatollah’s suspicion, and there’s no way he’s ever coming back. He will not come back to negotiate. Out of dignity, out of a suspicion that you can’t trust America. America is not going to negotiate in good faith. It didn’t negotiate in good faith now, would be his point.”
Have you ever seen a clearer case of Stockholm Syndrome, with Kerry so assiduously taking up the cause of his opponents in the negotiations?
Kerry also said that his chief Iranian interlocutor, the foreign minister, Javad Zarif, and Zarif’s boss, the (relatively) reformist president, Hassan Rouhani, would be in “serious trouble” at home if the deal falls through. Zarif, Kerry told me, explicitly promised him that Iran will engage with the United States and its Arab allies on a range of regional issues, should Congress approve the deal. “Zarif specifically said to me in the last two weeks, ‘If we get this finished, I am now empowered to work with and talk to you about regional issues.'” Kerry went on, “This is in Congress’s hands. If Congress says no, Congress will shut that down, shut off that conversation, set this back, and set in motion a series of inevitables about what would happen with respect to Iranian behavior, and, by the way, the sanctions will be over.”
On top of the incredible naiveté of believing Zarif’s assurances that Iran will suddenly become much nicer after the deal is signed (and we have lost all leverage), notice how fully he has bought into a perspective that could only be found in Iranian propaganda: that anything bad the Iranians do from now on will be our fault because we alienated them and failed to negotiate in good faith. As if the Iranian regime has not spent the last 35 years gleefully fanning the flames of conflict across the Middle East.
This warped, blame-America-first perspective is not just an argument Kerry is citing in support of the deal with Iran. It is the actual point of the whole deal.
Every negotiation with Iran in the past, and every public debate out it, has proceeded from the assumption that the Iranians are dangerous fanatics who need to be reined in, that they can’t be trusted and will have to make big concessions and reforms and agree to a lot of scrutiny before we welcome them back to the ranks of civilized nations.
But the idea behind this deal, and the theme of Kerry’s defense of it, is to get the United States to accept responsibility for causing conflict with Iran through our own belligerence and bad faith.
There is a lot of talk about how Kerry and Obama want this deal as part of their “legacy,” and the usual assumption is that this is about wanting awards and peace prizes, that it’s about accolades and ego trips. But there is another kind of legacy leaders seek, a far more important kind: the legacy of changing a whole process, changing the terms of the debate, and doing so in a way that programs their preferred policies into the system, making any alternative impossible.
This is the way in which President Obama is pursuing his legacy on global warming regulations. He knows that once the EPA establishes its new rules for power plants and adopts its long-term fantasy plan for an economy based on renewable energy, this will become the starting point for all future discussion. Any attempt by the next president to change it will face resistance from the EPA bureaucracy, who will seek to defend the established status quo.
From this perspective, we can see why John Kerry’s statement on Iran is so important. The point of the Iran deal is to put America in the position of being the bad guy who needs to be reined in, the rogue nation, the dishonest deal-breaker, the one who will be blamed if the deal falls apart and who will be responsible for every bad consequence that follows.
We’re the ones who are assumed to “not negotiate in good faith,” and who will “set in motion a series of inevitables about what would happen with respect to Iranian behavior.” Isn’t that last part great? We will be responsible for “Iranian behavior.” This is a regime motivated by a fanatical, totalitarian ideology, for which they have imprisoned, tortured, and killed their own citizens; they’re one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terror, from Lebanon to Gaza to Iraq and even all the way to Argentina; they routinely issue genocidal threats against Israel, and they’re practically running Bashar Assad’s brutal war of extermination in Syria. But no, no, no. If Congress doesn’t vote for a deal that accomplishes nothing, then we will be responsible for everything that happens from here on out.
It’s an insolent inversion of reality, of course, but it’s consistent with the worldview from which Kerry and President Obama emerged. Kerry is the man who launched his career by accusing his fellow veterans of war crimes in Vietnam, as if we were the oppressors and mass-murderers in Southeast Asia, rather than the totalitarian Communists. And notice that in his speech defending the Iran deal on Wednesday, President Obama began by reciting a selective, myopic history of the region that basically blamed all of the problems in the Middle East on George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. He went on to offer an idiosyncratic history of the Cold War in which the most important and admirable component of American strategy was our willingness to negotiate arms control treaties. And he closed by accusing all opponents of the deal of recklessly setting the Middle East on the path to war. So the root of all foreign policy problems is America’s own tendency toward warlike belligerence, which is what we must suppress in order to reassure our opponents.
No wonder he thinks that we’re the ones who have to prove our good faith while the Iranians can go on chanting “Death to America” and don’t have to give up anything to prove how serious they are about reining in their aggression. That is the worldview he’s seeking to establish—across the board, in ways that go far beyond this agreement—as his legacy in foreign policy.