In its Last Days, Obama Administration Clings to Hope of a Positive Role for Iran

This cooperation was highlighted in the Fox News article, with specific reference to a number of instances of Iran helping North Korea with its nuclear program. In the view of the author and other critics of recent US foreign policy, this assistance has effectively been further enabled by a conciliatory approach to dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. As well as failing to address this alleged cooperation while negotiating the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, the Obama administration has also taken very little punitive action against Iran following its post-agreement ballistic missile tests, which were conducted in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions on the matter.

This has arguably given North Korea the impression that the United States is presently either unwilling or unable to react to such tests, of which the Fox News article says the east Asian dictatorship conducted 20 in the past year alone. But to whatever extent Obama-era permissiveness encouraged these activities, that permissiveness is all but certain to end when Donald Trump assumes the presidency on January 20. And the Fox News article concludes with recommendations as to what Trump can do to prevent North Korea’s nuclear development and missile testing.

Those recommendations include bolstering US defensive capabilities along the West Coast, and also constraining “enablers” of North Korean development, chiefly the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, the appropriate means for such constraint remain a serious topic of dispute. On the campaign trail, Trump frequently accused the Obama administration of handing the Iranians a nuclear agreement that brought little benefit to the West. He also threatened to tear it up – a measure that theoretically would have taken the world community back to the drawing board and allowed it to pursue a more comprehensive suite of Iranian concessions.

But subsequent to his election, Trump has taken a different tack, promoting renegotiation of the existing deal instead of its cancellation. Even some Republicans who opposed the deal or viewed it as seriously flawed have taken a similar view. As an example, The Guardian featured an article on Friday that detailed the input offered to Trump by Bob Corker, the Republican head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has been insistent that tearing up the nuclear deal would create more problems than it would solve, and that the best way forward is to enforce its existing provisions much more strictly than the Obama administration has done.

Iran has at various times been caught in the midst of small violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, including two instances of exceeding the deal’s defined limits on Iranian stockpiles of heavy water, a nuclear byproduct. The absence of consequences for these violations has gone a long way toward promoting the perception of the outgoing administration’s permissiveness. And there has been a great deal of associated speculation and analysis of the reasons for this. The most natural explanations deal with the administration’s fear of endangering Iranian participation in the agreement. But the situation may also be more complex than this and include worries about antagonizing Iran at a time when its participation in regional conflicts is occasionally viewed as a positive thing.

Real Clear Politics points out that this perspective was explicitly expressed by Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry in an interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “Together, Iran and Russia had to prop [Assad] up, and save him from the possibility that the extremists might take over the country,” Kerry said, apparently deviating from previous US positions calling for Assad’s ouster and promoting the possibility of a victory by moderate rebel groups led by the Free Syrian Army.

Iran and Russia have widely been credited with not only preventing Assad’s fall to these groups, but also with damaging them so severely as to push the Syrian Civil War toward a situation in which the only choices for the country’s future are the established Assad dictatorship and the militant rebels affiliated with ISIL and the Al Nusra Front. Meanwhile, Iran has done its best to advance the notion that its own interests in the region are adverse to Islamic extremism. But Tehran’s pro-democratic opposition the National Council of Resistance of Iran has often referred to the Islamic Republic as the “prototype” for Islamic extremism throughout the world.

On Friday, The Iran Project pointed to recent statements by Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of Iran’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, claiming that Iran has always been committed to a political solution in Syria. If taken at face value, those comments can be expected to encourage Kerry’s notion that under current circumstances, a victory for Iran in Syria is a defeat for Islamic terrorism. But the trouble with this claim is that it can only be reasonably defended if one takes “Islamic terrorism” to refer only to “Sunni terrorism.”

As a major part of Iran’s strategy not only in Syria but also in Iraq and Yemen, it has directed recruitment and deployment of multitudes of Shiite militant groups to those battlefields. Previous reports have confirmed that many of these groups swear allegiance to the Islamic Republic over and above the governments of the countries in which they are operating. In this way, Iran is evidently extending its Hezbollah model of foreign influence into other part of the region. And in Syria, it is a well-known fact that Iran is actually utilizing the Lebanese paramilitary group to strengthen its operations and build a large-scale network that spans several nearby countries.

On Thursday, Xinhua News Agency pointed out that the Iranian leadership had fervently disputed rumors that Hezbollah would be withdrawing from the Syrian Civil War. It is not clear what the ultimate source of those rumors was. But they are possibly rooted in Turkey’s demands for such a withdrawal as part of a political solution to the crisis, or else in the outgoing US administration’s optimism about Iranian “moderation” and willingness to cooperate over important foreign affairs. But although Boroujerdi’s comments about a desire for a political solution promote this perception, they are belied by the Iranian leadership’s clear unwillingness to withdraw its militant proxies, even as they continue to violate ceasefire agreements negotiated by Turkey, Russia, and others.

Nevertheless, Kerry’s remarks seem to imply that the Obama administration’s early claims about Iranian moderation will continue to be repeated until it departs the office. But the incoming administration cannot be expected to pick up that thread. And articles like the above-mentioned Fox News editorial indicate that on such issues as Iran’s coordination with America’s enemies, Donald Trump and his advisors will recognize the continuance of Tehran’s worst behaviors.