Why Obama Couldn’t Do Anything on Iran While Ross Was There

by Jim Lobe

Following up on Paul Pillar’s excellent takedown of Dennis Ross’s remarkably crude display of Islamophobia (whereby Saudi Arabia is considered a “non-Islamist state,” while Syria’s Baathist regime is “Islamist”), it seems we can add Iranophobia to the list of the somewhat irrational feelings held by the man who was supposed to coordinate Iran policy during much of Obama’s first term.

It was demonstrated most recently in an op-ed, “Iran Remains Our Biggest Challenge,” published in the print edition of last Sunday’s Washington Post and co-authored with former Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman, who is identified by the Post as a distinguished fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments but who also serves as a director of the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative (successor to the Project for the New American Century), and Ray Takeyh, an Iran specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. Ross himself is described as a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and “special assistant to the president for the Middle East and South Asia from 2009 to 2011.” (What all three men have in common is membership in the neoconservative Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA’s) ultra-hawkish task force on Iran which, among other things has recommended that the US provide to Israel Washington’s most powerful bunker-buster bombs and the means to drop them on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Ross and Edelman serve as the task force’s co-chairs.

The op-ed’s argument has become an increasingly familiar refrain by neocons and the Israel lobby and their supporters in Congress since Obama first declared his intent to “destroy” the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL or IS); namely, whatever Washington does, it should not ally itself or cooperate in any with Iran or its regional allies in pursuit of that goal. Whatever threat may be presented by IS, they contend, is dwarfed by those posed by Iran and its presumed nuclear, hegemonic, and anti-American intentions.

Let’s stipulate at the outset that the authors have some valid points. For example, they argue essentially that the US cannot expect the indispensable cooperation of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies if it does anything that could be seen by Riyadh as cooperating with Iran. In their view, Riyadh and Tehran see their rivalry as a zero-sum game, and Riyadh is far more important to Washington’s anti-IS efforts than Tehran. (Of course, Monday’s meeting between two countries’ foreign ministers, as well as Rouhani’s optimism about bilateral relations at Tuesday’s press breakfast may offer some counter-evidence to their argument, not to mention the fact that Iran and Saudi Arabia have worked out their differences in the past, most notably in stabilizing Lebanon.) Similarly, any disinterested observer would have to agree with the authors that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is highly suspicious of, and deeply hostile to the United States (just as, perhaps, Josef Stalin felt about Winston Churchill during World War II, or Ho Chi Minh and his successors felt about China during the Vietnam War.) What the authors contend is “the essential axiom of Middle East politics”—that “the enemy of my enemy is sometimes still my enemy”—is not unique to the Middle East, as much as these culturally sophisticated Washington analysts believe it to be.

At the same time, let’s consider some other aspects of their analysis. On the one hand, they observe that “…both Washington and Tehran have an interest in defanging a militant Sunni group”—an assertion that is difficult to argue with. Yet, a few paragraphs later, they write: “Today, in the two central battlefronts of the Middle East—Syria and Iraq—Iran’s interests are inimical to those of the United States.” Yes, granted, in Syria, Iran prefers to keep Assad in power, while Washington wants him out. But, as the authors noted in the previously cited paragraph, both share an undeniable “interest” in defeating ISIS wherever it appears.

As for Iraq, it seems that both countries share the objective not only of defeating ISIS there, too, but also of stabilizing the country and maintaining its territorial integrity. After all, Tehran clearly played a role—and perhaps a decisive one—in ensuring the departure of Nouri al-Maliki as Iraqi prime minister and rallying the highly factionalized Shia leadership behind Haider al-Abadi—a result clearly supported by Washington as well. If Iran’s interests were truly “inimical” to Washington’s, Maliki would probably still be prime minister. No doubt, Iran is urging Abadi to retain the closest possible links to Tehran and to confine his outreach to the Sunni community to the minimum necessary to separate it from ISIS, while Washington would prefer a more wide-ranging power-sharing arrangement that would also substantially reduce Tehran’s influence in Baghdad. In that respect, the ultimate aims of the US and Iran in Iraq are different; but, at this critical moment, the overlap in their mutual interests appears far more significant.

Then there is the authors’ rather bizarre assertion about Iran’s role during and immediately after the US-led offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan, an assertion that contradicts the testimony of virtually everyone directly involved in the aftermath of the Taliban’s ouster in late 2001 and the creation of the new regime in Kabul:

[quote]“In Afghanistan, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the misapprehension was born that the United States needed Iran’s assistance to rehabilitate its war-torn charge, and this misbegotten notion has since migrated from crisis to crisis. The tactical assistance that Iran offered in Afghanistan in 2001 was largely motivated by its fear of being the next target of U.S. retribution.” [endquote]

This is a radically revisionist interpretation of those events for which the authors provide no supporting evidence whatsoever. In fact, it was quite clear even before the Taliban was ousted that Iraq—not Iran (as much as Ariel Sharon would have preferred)—was the next target, at least for those, including then-Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle and then-VP Dick Cheney, not to mention Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, who were by then dominating policy making. It was Rumsfeld, for example, who was telling aides on 9/11 itself that the attack offered an opportunity to take out Saddam, and it was Perle and a host of his fellow-neocons who were busy trying to tie Saddam to 9/11 and raising the specter of a nuclear-armed Iraq, a nightmarish vision quickly embraced by Cheney himself! While Tehran was no doubt made uncomfortable by the presence of US forces close to its eastern border, it would be very difficult for Iran’s leaders to seriously believe that they were “the next target” given all of the anti-Saddam hysteria that had been whipped up by the neocons back in Washington, especially when Iran’s good friend and informant, Ahmad Chalabi, was being promoted by the war party here as the presumptive leader of a newly “liberated” Iraq.

No, despite its concerns about the presence of US ground forces, Tehran’s cooperation with Washington in ousting the Taliban and constituting a successor government that could successfully resist the group’s return, respect the rights of the Shia community there, and stabilize the country appears to have been motivated entirely by the very rational calculation of Iran’s national interests, interests that coincided substantially with those of Washington. It was, of course, only when Iran found itself grouped with Saddam and North Korea in the “axis of evil” that anti-US hard-liners in the regime got the upper hand in the internal debate in Tehran, no doubt turbo-charging Khamenei’s pre-existing suspicions about Washington’s intentions and trustworthiness. By all accounts—from US, European, and Iranian officials directly involved in Afghanistan policy—the explicit hostility expressed by George W. Bush in his January, 2002, State of the Union speech marked a turning point in Iran’s willingness to cooperate with a US administration that had turned abruptly and seemingly gratuitously—not to say irrationally (given the extent of Iran’s cooperation in Afghanistan up to that point)—hostile.

Now let’s consider some of the other assertions made by the authors such as: The ebbs and flows of the war on terrorism should not be allowed to conceal the fact that the theocratic Iranian regime and its attempt to upend the regional order remains the most consequential long-term challenge in the Middle East.

Well, let’s see, we’ve been engaged in the “war on terrorism” now for 13 years and have been told—even by the Obama administration—that we’ll be battling IS alone well into the next presidency. And, in those 13 years, it seems that Washington’s biggest, bloodiest, and most expensive pre-occupation by far has been combating Sunni Muslim extremism—as manifested by al-Qaeda and its many affiliates, the Taliban, and Sunni insurgencies, of which the latest is the Islamic State—most of them inspired by the Wahhabi theology native to (when not promoted by) our “non-Islamist” ally, Saudi Arabia. (A lot of effort has also been devoted to working out a reasonable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which virtually every administration has called a highly consequential long-term challenge in the region, but apparently Ross, for obvious reasons, doesn’t want to bring that up in this context.) While curbing Iran’s nuclear program and weakening Iran’s closest allies in the region—most importantly, Syria and Hezbollah—have gained a lot of attention, it has not been so much in the context of the authors’ “war on terrorism.”

As for “upend[ing] the regional order,” Iran’s efforts have been miniscule compared to those of the Bush administration (in which Edelman served) when it invaded and occupied Iraq. And let’s not forget that it has been Saudi Arabia and the UAE that have led and financed the counter-revolution against the democratization movements of the Arab Spring across the region. Which raises the question, what kind of “order” do the authors believe the US should be defending? And how likely is any kind of “order” to be established if the US, as they recommend, undertakes “a systematic effort to isolate Iran in its immediate neighborhood” given its size, population, geostrategic importance, and its unquestioned influence in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as with Assad and Hezbollah? (Fareed Zakaria, who spent a lot of time with Rouhani in New York this week, makes this case quite persuasively in “The Enemy of Our Enemy” published in the Post’s print edition Friday.)

Here’s another statement—or neoconservative cliché—that deserves some serious scrutiny:

[quote] The Islamic Republic is not a normal nation-state seeking to realize its national interests but an ideological entity mired in manufactured conspiracies.[quote]

Compared to whom? Was the US a “normal nation-state” when its leadership invaded Iraq under the highly questionable, if not manufactured, pretext that Saddam represented an imminent threat to our national security due to his alleged support for al-Qaeda and possession of weapons of mass destruction (and then, post hoc, that we were trying to “upend the regional order” in favor of democracy and human rights)? Is Saudi Arabia a normal nation-state when it actively promotes and finances the spread of Wahhabism throughout the Muslim world and beyond and actively supports a bloody and highly repressive dictatorship in Egypt in order to extirpate the Muslim Brotherhood? Of course, this notion—that the Iran is more an ideology than a government—has been around since 1979 (and heavily promoted by Israel’s political leadership), but most serious Iran experts believe that, at the age of 35, the Islamic Republic has settled into middle age, pursuing its national interests as it defines them—and, above all, its survival—in a relatively rational and predictable way.

[quote] The United States and Iran stand at opposite ends of the spectrum of Middle East politics.[endquote]

Given the Rubik’s Cube of Middle Eastern politics at the moment, what does this mean? Even if you accept Ross’s frankly idiotic bipolarization of the region between “Islamists” (like the Muslim Brotherhood, IS, Assad, Hamas, Turkey, Qatar, and Iran) and “non-Islamists” (like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Gen. Sisi, the PLO, Bahrain, Morocco, and the UAE), the spectrum is decidedly non-linear and thus challenges the notion of what constitutes “opposite ends.” The region is obviously multi-polar with many different actors whose interests are sometimes clearly at odds and sometimes clearly overlap. The failure to take that multi-polarity into account is what makes the analysis so crude and unhelpful, to say the least.

Yes, if you consider Syria the critical dividing line, then Iran, which has supported Assad, takes a position that is precisely contrary to Washington’s. But why should Syria serve as the critical reference point? If you take Bahrain, where Iran and Saudi Arabia are at opposite corners, it appears that Washington is somewhere in-between, though leaning increasingly toward Riyadh’s point of view, especially now that Manama has joined the US-led air campaign against IS in Syria. But if you take Iraq, as noted above, Washington and Tehran are closely if uncomfortably aligned, especially compared to, say, Saudi Arabia or IS.

If you take Israel—which appears central to the worldviews of Ross and Edelman—in particular, as your point of reference, then the notion makes a bit more sense, especially given Netanyahu’s avid courtship of the region’s Sunni-led states (minus Turkey and Qatar, at least for the moment) against Iran. But despite the strenuous efforts of the neocons, Netanyahu, and the Israel lobby to make them appear so, the fact is that Israel’s and US interests are not identical, including regarding Iran itself. Israel, after all, is doing virtually everything it can to sabotage the chances of Washington striking a nuclear agreement with Iran, while the Obama administration is trying very hard to reach one, in part because it believes strongly that its regional position will be much improved and because the alternative is potentially so destructive. Similarly, Israel believes that the perpetuation of the Sunni-Shia conflict across the region serves its interests, in part because it diverts the world’s attention from the Israel-Palestinian struggle. Washington, on the other hand, has made clear that the continuing sectarian conflict serves only to further destabilize the region, which is very much contrary to its interests. In that respect, Israel and the US are in very different camps.

In any event, the repetition of these hoary stereotypes of Iran disguised as expert analysis—at a moment when Washington’s need for Tehran’s (at least tacit) cooperation in both Iraq and Syria, not to mention Afghanistan, has become, as noted by Zakaria, so clear—helps illustrate the intellectual and analytical bankruptcy of these authors and their ideology.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. Mr. Ross, is a contentious diplomat whose close bonds to Israel make him an Israeli citizen.

    It was an utter mistake for President Obama to allow him serve as a senior “adviser” on Middle East matters in the National Security Council. As a plant of Israel, Mr. Ross worked in several other administrations, both Republican and Democratic, during which he sabotaged negotiations on Middle East peace and other foreign policy issues. No wonder there is no peace between Israel and Palestinians!

    He, just like Mrs. Clinton, is closely tied to hawkish “pro-Israel” factions in the US. In my view. He is a traitor to the US.

  2. Mr Montaser makes a correct point, but he should have gone further in saying that all the neocons are traitors, as are the pro-Israel types too, especially when they put Israel first before the country that they live and prosper in. As to whether or not “O” is going to lead or bend over and let these traitors stick it ti him, we will have to wait and see.

  3. Thanks for this rebuttal Jim. I found it difficult to finish that article, it was the most intense Iranophobic diatribe I have come across in the recent times. So I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued when I came across your critique of that same article that had irked me so much. As you mention Iran was fighting Taliban long before USA came to the scene. So to suggest that Iran only co-operated out of fear shows either a deliberate attempt at misguiding public opinion or a gross ignorance, neither of which should be becoming of gentleman of such supposed stature. The painful part is, as you mention, the ease these individuals with clearly twisted and misguided agendas, serving the interests of a very narrow cliche of ruling elite, get to shape mainstream public opinion without any scrutiny…..

  4. I thought Obama blundered badly when he made Dennis Ross part of his team and in that way virtually guaranteed resolving Israel/Palestine problem during his presidency would be impossible.

Comments are closed.