BY PHILIP KLEIN
In the wake of the 1979 Iranian revolution in which Islamic radicals seized power — and American diplomats were held hostage for 444 days — President Carter cut off ties with the nation. During his own administration, President Obama has upended decades of U.S. policy, elevating the status of Iran on the world stage, even as the nation’s autocratic leader still calls for “Death to America.” In current nuclear negotiations with Iran, the Obama administration has been moving closer and closer to the position of the Islamic regime. But the process of capitulation to the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism has been years in the making, dating back to Obama’s first presidential campaign. Here is a brief history of Obama’s process of capitulation to Iran, which will be updated.
July 2007: No preconditions
During a July 23, 2007, debate for the Democratic presidential nomination in which Americans were able to submit questions via YouTube clips, one participant asked the candidates if they would be willing to meet, without precondition, within the first year of their administration, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela. “I would,” Obama said, touting the importance of negotiating even with governments who are dangerous and untrustworthy. He went on to say, “I think it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them” vowing that with regards to Iraq, “One of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward, is to send a signal that we’re going to talk to Iran and Syria.”
His opponent, Hillary Clinton, declined to make such a promise, saying that while she supported diplomacy, she wouldn’t want to commit in advance to such a high-level meeting, noting “I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes.” Following the debate, the Clinton campaign seized on Obama’s vow as evidence of his inexperience. “I thought that was irresponsible and frankly naive,” she said. Ultimately, though, Clinton’s attacks backfired, providing another opportunity for Obama to portray himself as the true change candidate before Democratic voters who were eager to move on from President George W. Bush’s foreign policy.
Obama used the occasion of his first Inaugural Address on Jan. 20, 2009, to extend an olive branch to Iran — an adapted formulation of his vow during the 2007 debate. “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” Obama said.
A week later, Obama made it clear that the statement included Iran. In his first formal sit down interview as president – with Arab television network Al Arabiya – Obama was asked how far he’d be willing to go to prevent a nuclear Iran.
For his first formal interview as president, he responded that, “I said during the campaign that it is very important for us to make sure that we are using all the tools of U.S. power, including diplomacy, in our relationship with Iran.” He acknowledged Iran had a record of threatening Israel, sponsoring terrorism, and pursuing nuclear weapons. “But,” he added, “I do think that it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress. And we will, over the next several months, be laying out our general framework and approach. And as I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.”
March 2009: “The Islamic Republic of Iran”
In the first of his annual messages on Nowruz, the Persian New Year, Obama addressed the Iranian people as well as the “leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” By referring to the “Islamic Republic” he immediately added legitimacy to the anti-American regime. Though Obama noted Iran’s use of terrorism and quest for nuclear weapons, he said, “We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect” and “The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations.”
June 2009: The Green Revolution
On June 12, Iran held its tightly-controlled elections, and after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, massive democratic protests broke out against the regime. Rather than support the dissidents in the face of a brutal crackdown by the Islamic nation, Obama was initially silent before offering a tepid response days later. On the one hand, he said he was “troubled by the violence” and thought that free speech should be respected – and he put the regime on notice that “the world is watching.” But he watered down his statement by saying, “we respect Iranian sovereignty” and “we will continue to pursue a tough, direct dialogue between our two countries, and we’ll see where it takes us.” Though he eventually ramped up his criticism as the crisis went on, as the Washington Post reported, “At the same time, the president and his aides made it clear that the extraordinary events in Iran have not caused the administration to rethink its desire to engage with the Iranian government in order to achieve a deal that would resolve international concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”
2009 — Present: Letters to the Ayatollah
During his presidency, Obama has become pen pals with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This despite the fact that Khamenei continues to back terrorism, has called for “Death to America” and declared that Israel is a “cancerous tumor that should be cut and will be cut” within the context of seeking nuclear weapons. In November 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that Obama sent his fourth letter to Khamenei since 2009 and the latest one referenced their supposedly mutual interests in combatting the Islamic State and reaching a nuclear compromise. In response to the letter, Suzanne Maloney, Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, wrote that “the move betrays a profound misunderstanding of the Iranian leadership, and is likely to hinder rather than help achieve a durable resolution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions as well as other U.S. objectives on Iran.”
The letters to Khamenei are just one part of Obama’s outreach effort. In September 2013, Obama spoke on the phone with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani – representing the highest-level contact between the U.S. and Iran since the Carter administration cut off ties with the regime in 1980.
2009 — 2011: Resisting tougher sanctions
At many points when it has suited his political interests, Obama has boasted of having ratcheted up sanctions against Iran in his first term. Though it’s accurate that more sanctions were imposed, the important context is that Obama continually fought back Congress in an attempt to weaken sanctions. In December 2009, for instance, the State Department sent a letter to then Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, expressing concerns against legislation tightening sanctions, writing “that this legislation, in its current form, might weaken rather than strengthen international unity and support for our efforts.” As legislation progressed, the Obama administration continued to fight to soften it. In June 2010, sanctions against Iran’s energy and banking industries passed 408 to 8 in the House of Representatives and 99 to 0 in the Senate, at a time when Democrats had overwhelming majorities in both chambers — and Obama had no choice but to sign the legislation.
In 2011, Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J, and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., crafted a bipartisan measure imposing sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran. On Dec. 1, 2011, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner warned, “I am writing to express the administration’s strong opposition to this amendment because, in its current form, it threatens to undermine the effective, carefully phased, and sustainable approach we have taken to build strong international pressure against Iran.” The Democratic Senate voted later that day to pass the sanctions bill 100-0, again forcing Obama into signing it.
2013 — Present: Nuclear concessions mount
On Nov. 24, 2013, the Obama administration announced an “interim agreement” with Iran that provided immediate sanctions relief in exchange for concessions on its nuclear program. The agreement was supposed to last six months, but has since been extended multiple times. And as time goes on, the U.S. moves closer and closer to the Iranian position.
The negotiations had been pitched as a way to make sure Iran “doesn’t have the capacity to develop a nuclear weapon,” but now, the stated goal is to make sure that the U.S. can tell when Iran is a year away from a nuclear weapon – and the hope of reaching even that lower bar appears to be fading.
Initially, the U.S. denied that the interim agreement recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium, but Secretary of State John Kerry later sang a different tune. There has also been a clear shift in the number of centrifuges Iran will be allowed to operate. In April 2012, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said, “Our position is clear: Iran must live up to its international obligations, including full suspension of uranium enrichment as required by multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.” By September 2014, the U.S. was saying that the goal was to limit the number of centrifuges to 1,500. The latest reports are that Iran will be allowed to keep around 6,000 centrifuges – which will make it a lot harder to limit Iran’s so-called breakout time to obtaining a nuclear weapon to a year.
An April 2012 New York Times report revealed that the Obama administration and its European allies were “demanding the immediate closing and ultimate dismantling” of Fordo, a nuclear facility built deep under a mountain. But the Associated Press reported last month that under the current deal, the facility would remain operational.
On top of all of these concessions, the emerging deal would allow Iran to maintain its plutonium pathway to a nuclear weapon and it hasn’t addressed its ballistic missile program. Despite the fact that Obama had wanted a deal that would last 20 years — the deal is now expected to expire in as early as 10 — leaving Iran free to pursue a nuclear weapon at that time.
Ongoing: Realigning U.S. Middle East policy toward Iran
As the Obama administration engages in nuclear diplomacy, it has shifted its broader foreign policy in the Middle East so that it’s closer to Iran, as detailed by the Washington Examiner‘s Charles Hoskinson. Recently, Kerry said the U.S. might have to negotiate with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, an ally of the Iranian regime. The U.S. has tolerated a growing role for Iran in Iraq. The administration has had a tepid response to the takeover of Yemen — once hailed as a model of counterterrorism — by Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels. Obama has also taken an increasingly belligerent attitude toward Israel.