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Tony Badran

There will be neither
snapback nor pushback

Iraqi government forces and members of the Popular Mobilization units, paramilitary forces that are dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militias, raise their weapons on the front line during battles with ISIS jihadists in Anbar Province on 4 August 2015. (AFP/Haidar Mohammed Ali)

President Obama views his deal with Iran as a stepping stone for a broader, strategic relationship with the Islamic Republic. "There is definitely a larger picture here,” an administration official told the New York Times last Friday. However, Obama’s problem is that his vision of a realignment with Iran is abhorrent both to the representatives of the American people as well as to America’s regional allies. So, he dissimulates.

 

The White House insists the deal is only a narrow arms control agreement and nothing else. Furthermore, skeptics need not worry about keeping Iran in check. The White House has it covered with two comprehensive coercive options: “snapback” and “pushback."

 

“Snapback” has been the administration’s stock retort against critics of the deal. If Iran cheats, the White House maintains, no problem, we’ll just “snap back” sanctions, and Tehran would once again be squeezed. More recently, the administration introduced “pushback” as its other preferred buzzword. Yes, as part of the deal, Iran will receive $150 billion in unfrozen funds, senior Revolutionary Guards officials and entities will get delisted by the European Union and the United Nations, and the arms and ballistic missiles embargoes will also be lifted. But rest assured, the administration will “push back” against Iran's malign regional activities, as Secretary of State John Kerry has repeated incessantly over the past couple of weeks, including in the recent hearings on the Hill.

 

“Snapback” and “pushback” are nifty conceits. But in practice they mean nothing at all. The deal effectively extends an American protective umbrella to Tehran, beyond its nuclear program to its regional position. It is designed to bind the US to Iran, in ways that go much deeper than the nuclear issue, well after Obama leaves office.

 

The text of the deal that the administration negotiated states explicitly that reinstating sanctions releases Iran of its obligation to the deal. This gives Iran leverage — a “nuclear snapback,” as my colleague Mark Dubowitz dubbed it — and effectively nullifies the notion of a sanctions “snapback.” Should Iran cheat, world powers will be disinclined to call it on its infractions for fear of collapsing the deal altogether. Shielding Iran’s program, therefore, is codified in the deal — precisely to lock in the next US administration.

 

The same principle applies to challenging Iran’s regional position. Obama is not about to jeopardize this deal by working against Iran regionally any more than he is by reinstating sanctions on it.

 

Despite its protestations that there’s a firewall separating the nuclear issue from regional ones, the administration’s behavior belies this assertion. Take, for example, Kerry’s recent admission that “on many occasions” he “tried very hard” to raise regional issues with his Iranian counterpart, only to be told by Javad Zarif that he “did not have that portfolio.”

 

For once, Zarif was telling the truth. But it’s not only that he doesn’t have the mandate to discuss regional issues, it’s also that this discussion has been long ongoing at a level above him, and Kerry for that matter, directly between Obama and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

 

We caught a glimpse of this conversation in reports of the secret letters Obama has sent to Khamenei. In those letters, Obama laid out the interests he believes are shared with the Islamic Republic, and reassured the Supreme Leader about his regional holdings — a reassurance that has translated into an open recognition of Iranian spheres of influence in the Middle East.

 

It is this broader understanding with Khamenei which underpins the nuclear deal and which forms its real objective. It is also why “pushback,” like “snapback,” is a myth.

 

Obama’s letters to Khamenei and the president’s decisions over the last four years demonstrate that the notion of the White House pushing back against Iran is absurd on its face. Consider, to give but one example, how the administration has publicized that any move that crosses Iranian “red lines” in places like Syria, and that starts to “infringe on what Iran sees as its long-term interest,” would result in Tehran directing its Shiite proxies in Iraq to target US personnel. Such was the administration’s accommodation prior to the deal. Now that the deal is concluded, Iran’s leverage only increases. It will now look to complement its “nuclear snapback” with a “regional snapback” — make a move against us in the region and all bets are off on the deal. So are we really to believe that Obama is about to risk sinking his legacy-setting deal and the regional partnership it’s designed to formalize?

 

Moreover, we know that “pushback” amounts to nothing from the way the administration is pitching it. Specifically, in explaining what the strategy entailed, Kerry pointed to the May summit at Camp David with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The reference was revealing because Obama had gone out of his way at the time to publicly reassure Tehran. Obama repeatedly remarked that he thought Iran was not the real threat to the Gulf. Most importantly, the president stressed that the purpose of the summit with the GCC states was not to confront “or even to marginalize Iran.” Rather, the White House made sure to clarify, it was about getting the Saudis to sit down and talk with the Iranians. All the Gulf allies got were reassurances of support in case of a conventional Iranian attack, as well as more arms sales. 

 

Far from having the slightest interest in challenging the Iranian regime, both on the nuclear deal and in the region, the Obama administration, post-deal, is even more invested in accommodating it. Anything that threatens the regime threatens both the deal and Obama’s strategy for the region, which is why the administration often sounds like Iran’s lawyer. At its core, the deal is conceived to achieve a broader realignment that binds the US with Iran. It provides a protective umbrella not just to the nuclear program, but to Iran's regional position more broadly.

 

Hence, there will be neither “snapback” nor “pushback.” Rather, the administration will continue to keep back. Meanwhile, the result of Obama’s hitching America’s bandwagon to Iran is blowback against the US position in the region — a region that this deal ensures will burn even more furiously for years to come.

 

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

Iraqi government forces and members of the Popular Mobilization units, paramilitary forces that are dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militias, raise their weapons on the front line during battles with ISIS jihadists in Anbar Province on 4 August 2015. (AFP/Haidar Mohammed Ali)

For once, Zarif was telling the truth. But it’s not only that he doesn’t have the mandate to discuss regional issues, it’s also that this discussion has been long ongoing at a level above him, and Kerry for that matter, directly between Obama and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei."

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    YAAAAWWNN....Another pathetic gotcha against Obama. Tony, time to start searching for another job: There won't be any Obama to keep you alive in a little more than a year.

    August 6, 2015