Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had some contradictory announcements to make when he visited Lebanon this week. First, Zarif paid his respects and laid a wreath at the tomb of his fallen comrade Imad Mughniyeh in Beirut. Mughniyeh was a senior Hezbollah commander who was killed in 2008 by a car bomb of unknown origin. He is deemed responsible for orchestrating the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed hundreds of Americans. Zarif then met with Hassan Nasrallah, the chief of Hezbollah, and several Lebanese government officials before giving a press conference. At the press conference, he announced Iran’s commitment to “combatting terrorism,” which is a “dangerous phenomenon” that requires “international cooperation.”
It might seem strange for the Iranian Foreign Minister to first pay his respects to a deceased mass murderer and terrorist, then hold a meeting with the head of one of the most powerful terrorist organizations in the world, then claim to be committed to eradicating terrorism across the Middle East. But there’s a method to his madness: Iran is using the discussions on its nuclear program to project an image of moderation even as it dramatically steps up its campaign to establish itself as the leading power in the Middle East.
The strategy is working, in part because Washington is afraid to call Tehran on it. Desperate for a nuclear deal (reflecting both President Obama’s deep convictions about the importance of non-proliferation and the administration’s headlong rush for the exit from a Middle East it has signally failed to stabilize), Washington appears ready to swallow any toads Iran wants to jam down its throat.
While officials from the P5+1 countries congratulate each other on an “interim agreement” and a “temporary freeze” on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, the Iranian negotiating team claims that there is a secret side deal with details on Iran’s right to continue nuclear development over the next few months. While President Obama fights to prevent new Iran sanctions, saying they would be a “march toward war,” Iran is stepping up its military and economic support for Hezbollah, the Assad regime in Damascus, and Shiite militia groups in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain. While Washington tries to spin the interim agreement with Iran as a step forward for “peace and diplomacy,” Iran’s Foreign Minister pays his respects to notorious mass murderer (of Americans!), and Iran’s “moderate” new President Hassan Rouhani went on Twitter to boast that “world powers surrendered to the Iranian nation’s will.”
Some have claimed that these actions by Iranian officials signal “insincerity,” but we don’t see anything insincere here. Iran sincerely wants to establish an Iran-dominated Shia Crescent from Basra and Baghdad in Iraq across Syria and into Lebanon, and it sincerely believes that the Obama Administration is weak, vacillating, and desperate enough for the facade of a nuclear agreement to let that happen. Iran sincerely believes that the Sunni world has never been in such disarray or so weak; given all this, a sketchy nuclear deal with the United States that would cement Iran in place as the region’s dominant power looks genuinely attractive to the mullahs in Tehran. Why wouldn’t it?
As long as Iran thinks it can have it all, we won’t be testing whether it is really prepared to settle for a fair compromise in the Middle East. As long as this administration keeps the nuclear talks rolling and enforces a rigid separation between Iran’s activities beyond the talks and progress on sanctions, we won’t know Iran’s real bottom line.
Franklin Roosevelt once said that you can’t turn a tiger into a kitten by stroking it. President Obama appears to disagree. Time will tell who was right.