Secretary of State John Kerry opened a window into the worldview of the Administration yesterday while trying to sell the Iran deal in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic, and it exposed perhaps more than the Secretary realized:
Goldberg: But does it bother you that money [from sanctions relief] will be going to [Syrian President Bashar] Assad and Hezbollah?
Kerry: Yes, but it’s not dispositive. It’s not money that’s going to make a difference ultimately in what is happening. We have huge mechanisms by which we can push back and make the counter-difference. And the biggest, most important thing this is doing is that it is galvanizing a stronger, more defined security relationship between us and the Gulf states, and it will with Israel. We have countless ways to push back against those activities.
Likewise, President Obama has defended the Iran deal by arguing, as recently as yesterday, that we should give it a shot because, if Iran cheats, the U.S. will still have “the same options available to stop a weapons program as we have today, including—if necessary—military options.” On the one hand, Secretary Kerry and the President are absolutely right: we have those options. But on the other, we have not used them—and many in the Middle East suspect this Administration never will. Many wonder, in fact, whether America is actually taking Iran’s side, throwing its weight behind the Shi’a in the ongoing conflict between Shi’a and Sunni.
That’s a dangerous perception. If you’re a Sunni right now, times look apocalyptic. With the Shi’a ascendent in Damascus, Baghdad, and Yemen, heretics seem to be everywhere. And if you think that America is putting its weight behind not only Israel but also the Shi’a, it looks like ultimate alliance of all evil has formed against the remnant of God’s faithful (Sunni) people. That strengthens groups like ISIS and fuels millenarian thinking throughout the region, the very thing that we need to tone down rather than tune up.
As Walter Russell Mead testified yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, changing this dynamic may be key to salvaging the most we can out of the Iran deal:
A robust policy of regional containment combined with other pressures on Iran could significantly reduce the negative consequences of the agreement on American interests. This would almost certainly involve a much more active American role in Syria, where the struggle between a variety of Sunni groups and the Iran-aligned Assad regime has transfixed the region and led to the worst and most dangerous outbreak of Middle Eastern violence since the Iran-Iraq War. For many countries in the region, including close historical allies of the United States, a strong American military commitment to the overthrow of the Assad government would serve as an acid test for American seriousness against Iran. […] Ironically, in order to balance the regional consequences of the agreement, the United States may well need to assume an increased risk of war in Syria and other frontline states.
Secretary Kerry and the other leading figures in this Administration will, in short, have to make much better use of those “huge mechanisms” that we have in the Middle East than they have so far if they want this deal to improve the region, rather than send it into worse chaos.