Exclusive: Neocons are hoping that by raising the political cost of President Obama’s diplomatic opening to Cuba, they can scare him away from reaching a final agreement with Iran over its nuclear program and thus keep alive their Mideast “regime change” agenda, as Andrés Cala explains.
By Andrés Cala
Official Washington’s influential neoconservatives are complaining about President Barack Obama’s move to lift the half-century-old embargo against Cuba, in part, because of what it might mean for his completing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
Although some key neocons, such as Elliott Abrams, cut their teeth as U.S. government officials dealing with Cuba and other hemispheric issues Abrams as assistant secretary of state for Latin America in the 1980s their more recent focus has concentrated on supporting Middle Eastern policies that seek to derail any rapprochement with Iran, even if such a policy shift would further American interests.
So, when Abrams denounced Obama’s Cuba initiative, he did so in the context of how it might be viewed by Israel, Saudi Arabia and other enemies of Iran regarding a possible agreement to constrain but not eliminate Iran’s nuclear program.
At the neocon Weekly Standard, Abrams wrote: “Imagine for a moment that you are a Saudi, Emirati, Jordanian, or Israeli. Your main national security worry these days is Iran, Iran’s rise, its nuclear program, its troops fighting in Iraq and Syria, its growing influence from Yemen through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Your main ally against Iran for the past decades has been the United States. Naturally you worry about American policy.
“And now, you turn on the TV and see the announcement about the change in American policy in Cuba. Re-establishment of diplomatic relations. Lots of changes in the embargo that will mean plenty more cash for the Castros. A change in the whole American official position vis-Ã -vis Cuba. As to real changes in the regime changes in its foreign or domestic policies none. Zero. Zip. So, you conclude that in the long struggle between the United States and the Castro regime since 1959, the Americans have finally blinked.”
In other words, Washington’s neocons see the opening to Cuba as part of a possible diplomatic shift by Obama toward pragmatic accommodations with longtime international rivals and enemies. For Israel and its de facto Sunni Arab allies in the Persian Gulf, that could mean they won’t have Obama and the U.S. government around to help beat up on Shiite-ruled Iran.
But whether the Cuban initiative was a one-off move by Obama finally fulfilling a campaign promise to jettison an outdated Cold War policy or a way to test the waters before a more significant bid to reach out to Iran may well depend on the political and public reaction to his diplomatic opening to Cuba.
The typically cautious Obama rarely takes a risk without carefully gauging all likely reactions. Though the passing of the 2014 elections may have freed Obama up politically somewhat, he still seems to be moving at a measured pace mixing in tough-guy posturing toward adversaries such as Russian President Vladimir Putin with a hand extended to Cuban President Raul Castro.
Regarding the Cuban normalization, there was generally strong support among both businesses and the public for finally opening the door to Cuba, a Caribbean island of 11 million people with a gross domestic product of $68 billion just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. But Cuba’s significance has been more in its historical role as a Soviet beachhead in the 1960s rather than as a regional powerhouse, either economically or politically.
American attitudes are a bit more complicated regarding Iran, which is a regional powerhouse with 77 million people and a GDP of $369 billion, including huge oil resources. U.S. businesses are eager to enter the Iranian market and the American public seems largely ambivalent, with animosities over the 1979 hostage-taking of U.S. diplomats almost as faded as the anger over the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Although the Cuban and Iranian negotiations have little in common aside from the decades of U.S. sanctions, they are linked in the minds of U.S. neocons and other hardliners who want to ratchet up the political costs for Obama on Cuba so he will flinch at the prospect of announcing another breakthrough with Iran.
Regarding Cuba, Obama’s intentions were apparent even before he was elected, though he postponed action out of fear that an opening to Cuba could cost him the important swing state of Florida in 2012 and hurt Democratic chances there in 2014. But the talks were finally resolved with the most contentious issue the prisoner exchange, which involved returning two alleged American spies in exchange for three Cubans convicted of espionage.
Generally speaking, except for neocons like Abrams and other hardliners like Senators John McCain and Marco Rubio, the reaction to Obama’s Cuban initiative has been mild to positive, possibly suggesting to Obama that any fallout from a nuclear agreement with Iran might be manageable as well.
According to sources knowledgeable about the Iran negotiations, a deal was within reach at the November deadline, but Obama balked, instead accepting an extension of talks until March 2015 to reach a framework agreement and until July 2015 to hammer out the technical implementation between Tehran and the so-called P5+1, the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany.
Though it’s impossible to be sure, Obama likely concluded that the moment was not ripe at home for the Iran deal and possibly he didn’t want to complicate the politically easier Cuba opening. He does seem to favor a methodical approach toward taking on challenges, first one, then another, rather than bunching them into a package.
Obama could also be looking at possible shifts in Israeli attitudes if elections in March 2015 bring a change in leadership. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a major promoter of Israel’s hostile stance toward Iran, putting Israel into an odd-couple alignment with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states.
Both Israeli and Saudi officials have complained about the alleged threat from the Shiite crescent stretching from Tehran through Damascus to Beirut. And Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that the possibility Iran might eventually produce a nuclear bomb is an “existential threat” to Israel, though Israel has a large undeclared nuclear arsenal of its own.
However, U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed since 2007 that Iran stopped work on a nuclear weapon in 2003 and has not resumed that effort. Meanwhile, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khameini has renounced any interest in developing a nuclear weapon and insists that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
While Obama’s decision to postpone a final deal with Iran may have made sense in not complicating the Cuban timing, the delay does carry the risk that, in the coming months, political opposition might build both inside Iran and the United States, especially if the crisis with Russia over Ukraine deepens. Obama might feel compelled to act even tougher in global hot spots.
But the biggest threat to a possible opening to Iran could be a strengthening U.S. opposition from the well-connected neocons and from a Republican-controlled Congress. Along with Israel and the Sunni Arab countries, U.S. hardliners are pushing to expand the war in Syria to have the U.S. military join in attacking the Iranian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Worsening tensions over Syria could complicate the political situation inside Iran where Ayatollah Khamenei, the ultimate decider on nuclear negotiations, has given reformist President Hassan Rouhani some room to negotiate but that space could close down if Iran sees its ally in Syria further threatened.
While the Iranian-nuclear negotiations are highly technical at this point, both sides also want to save face at home. From the Western perspective, the sticking point has been over how fast Iran could enrich uranium and thus have a theoretical “break-out” toward a bomb. From Iran’s viewpoint, the issues are basically its right to develop civilian nuclear technology under international controls and whether a deal will lead to significant sanction relief.
Iran wants any deal to translate into immediate and noticeable sanction relief, while the U.S. wants to condition a relaxing of sanctions on Iran’s compliance with an agreement. In other words, Obama wants to keep some sanctions in play in case Iran violates the agreement, while Iran doesn’t want to deliver its end of the deal up front, wary that the West might renege.
Both sides have signaled that the mistrust is not insurmountable as are the technical specifics over the nuclear program. But there’s also the politics of a deal that Obama must manage in Washington and Rouhani and Khamenei must manage in Tehran.
Despite the neocon/hawkish opposition to a deal in Washington, there are also factors working in favor of one, particularly how some U.S. strategic interests are aligning with those of Iran, especially regarding the fight against the Islamic State and the need to bolster the embattled Iraqi military. Iran has provided support for Iraqi and Kurdish forces resisting the Islamic State’s Sunni jihadists, putting Iran on the same side of that conflict as the United States.
Obama’s relations with Israel’s Netanyahu and the Saudi monarchy are also strained, making the President unwilling to carry water for them in their rivalry with Shiite Iran. While Obama worries about the neocon influence in Washington, he also recognizes that he is unlikely to soften their opposition by simply giving in.
During Obama’s six years in office, the neocons have managed to impose their agenda on issues such as the Afghan War’s “surge” in 2009 and the Ukraine crisis in 2014 which undermined Obama’s private cooperation with Putin on Syria and Iran.
If Obama finally decides to complete the deal with Iran, he can expect a difficult time with not just Republicans but even Democrats in Congress, where the Israel Lobby remains one of the most powerful and effective. Indeed, the likely congressional pressure would be toward increasing sanctions on Iran, not removing them.
Yet, at least for the time being, it appears that the anti-Iran hawks in Congress lack the votes to defeat a hypothetical Obama veto of any bill that would expand sanctions on Iran and thus kill negotiations while making Iran look like the more reasonable party in the talks.
Arguably, Obama’s hand might be strengthened if Israel elects a new government less hostile to negotiations with Iran than Netanyahu’s or if sustained low oil prices largely driven by Saudi Arabia’s decision to maintain high production levels make Tehran even more desperate for a deal for sanctions relief.
Iran’s economy is hurting badly and there is little hope for improvement until sanctions are lifted, especially on financial dealings which have limited Iran’s ability to invest in industrial and other improvements. Without credit, insurance and spare parts for its oil industry, the Islamic Republic can endure, but not thrive.
U.S. business interests have long favored lifting sanctions on Iran. Western oil companies are gearing up to compete for up to $100 billion in Iranian investments in the coming years. Other sectors are also eyeing Iran: consumer goods, banks, telecommunication, autos and construction.
Iran has a large middle class itching to buy Ipods and luxury items. Amid hopes for an end to the sanctions, corporate delegations from the U.S., Canada, France, Germany and elsewhere in the West have been flocking to Iran to pave the way for reentry as soon as practical.
Iran’s Fallback Plan
Conversely, the failure to reach a deal could force Iran into its fallback plan, looking for new business partners including Russia, which is also facing Western sanctions over Ukraine.
Iran and Russia broadened economic ties only days after the failure to sign the nuclear deal in November. Though the two countries have historically had tense relations, they also have been stepping up their strategic cooperation around shared objectives in Syria and the Caucasus. But both now have something else in common, sanctions from the West.
Russia has been driving diplomacy in the Middle East more than any other country. Russia’s offer to build two nuclear power plants for Iran and expand the existing one has enabled Iran to accept more limits on its enrichment of uranium. Under the proposed deal, Russia would supply the nuclear fuel.
Indeed, Russia and Iran are overcoming mutual mistrust and signing all types of agreements, from intelligence sharing to industrial cooperation, and the Kremlin continues to leverage its own disputes with the West using Iran as a bargaining chip. This rapprochement, which raises suspicions among Washington and its allies, would likely deepen without a nuclear deal.
The core strategic alliance of Iran and Russia is in Syria, where they are cooperating to defend Assad’s regime. For Russia it’s about strategic access to the Mediterranean and the ability to retain and even expand influence in the Middle East. For Iran, it’s about preserving and even broadening its regional power struggle against its rivals Saudi Arabia and Israel.
From the view of some U.S. diplomats, Russian-Iranian cooperation could even unlock the stalemate in Syria by brokering Assad’s departure and his replacement with a leader who could gain more support from the Sunni population. Iran and Russia have signaled they would accept Assad stepping down and the inclusion of Assad’s opposition, as long as the status quo is otherwise maintained and the Alawites, Shiites, Christians and other minorities are protected.
But Obama has hesitated to play the Russian-Iranian card in Syria as he fends off pressure from Turkey, the Sunni Arabs and Israel to extend U.S. air strikes from the Islamic State to Assad’s forces. The crisis in Ukraine has further complicated Obama’s opportunity to use Russia as a diplomatic ally in resolving the Syrian civil war.
Yet, if he has the audacity to strike a deal on Iran’s nuclear program and sanctions, Obama could make Iran a partner, even if not friend, in pursuing other conflict resolutions in the Middle East. But that also could present Obama with problems because of Saudi Arabia’s economic clout in the West and Israel’s political muscle on Capitol Hill.
Or Obama can judge a deal as too risky and close the diplomatic window with Iran. That, however, could lead to worsening Middle Eastern instability and feed a new Cold War with Russia. Iran has explicitly said it will bolster its ties with Russia and China if negotiations break off. It has also said it will not extend negotiations again.
Andrés Cala is an award-winning Colombian journalist, columnist and analyst specializing in geopolitics and energy. He is the lead author of America’s Blind Spot: Chávez, Energy, and US Security.