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Exclusive to the Trib: President Obama's policies are a disaster in Iran

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By John Bolton
Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Barack Obama's inexplicable and increasingly dangerous tilt toward Iran is getting harder to hide. Whether his administration is consciously shifting policy or simply making ad hoc, unrelated (even incoherent) decisions is unclear. But the cumulative effect is indisputable — a declining America in the Middle East inevitably means a stronger Iran, portending grave risks for Washington and its appalled friends and allies.

The first (and still the most significant and most damaging) shift toward Iran was last November's Geneva agreement regarding Tehran's nuclear weapons program. This deal, technically still not yet operational (and with specific provisions still being hammered out), represented a substantial victory for Iran.

The Geneva agreement, involving the Security Council's five permanent members plus Germany, effectively legitimized Iran's uranium-enrichment activities and other aspects of its nuclear program, enabling Tehran to continue progressing toward a nuclear-weapons capability at a pace of its choosing. The deal did not in any way address Iran's ongoing weaponization work or its ballistic-missile program, the intended delivery system for its nuclear warheads.

Iran also succeeded in weakening the international sanctions regimes imposed to thwart its nuclear program, an enormous economic and psychological win. Loosening the sanctions provides Iran with immediate economic benefits and also reverses the global political dynamic, making it harder to ratchet the sanctions back up during the undoubtedly lengthy process of Iran reneging on the superficial and easily reversible concessions made in the Geneva negotiations.

Accordingly, Iran achieved three major objectives:

• again becoming a legitimate negotiating partner for the United States and the West

• unraveling the economic sanctions

• shielding its nuclear program

Before Tehran could even contemplate resting on its laurels, however, Obama's White House was making more concessions.

Then, events deteriorated in Iraq. After the final withdrawal of U.S. military forces, Prime Minister al-Maliki showed himself to be the Tehran regime's willing puppet. By favoring Iraq's Shi'ites and allowing the mullahs full freedom to operate in and throughout Iraq to achieve Iran's objectives, al-Maliki drove Iraq's Kurds even further away from the Baghdad government.

In Sunni Arab provinces, al-Qaida and other terrorists have made a startling comeback, reflecting the unrelenting Sunni opposition to al-Maliki. And Iraqi security forces have repeatedly allowed Tehran's agents to shell anti-ayatollah Iranian refugees and have threatened to send these refugees back to Iran where they face certain imprisonment or death.

Al-Qaida in Iraq has been so successful that its forces recently seized control of Ramadi and Fallujah, scenes of intense Sunni rebellion after Saddam Hussein's overthrow in 2003. It is shameful that the American sacrifices that stabilized Iraq have now been obliterated. But the collapse of political legitimacy in Iraq is directly traceable to Obama's determination — clear from the 2008 campaign — to withdraw all U.S. troops. Now, the consequences are clear.

Nonetheless, al-Qaida's successes do not mean that the White House is justified in giving arms and other support to al-Maliki's government, which is effectively an Iranian satellite. A far better policy was that reportedly suggested by Henry Kissinger during the 1980s' Iran-Iraq war: “Perhaps both sides could lose.” There is obviously danger for the United States in a resurgent al-Qaida (which Obama had previously refused to acknowledge), but strengthening al-Maliki, and therefore his masters in Iran, is equally dangerous.

Unfortunately, there is more. After contending for years that it favored overthrowing Syria's Assad regime (while failing to supply the opposition with significant military assistance), Obama agreed in September to a deal on Syria's chemical weapons that gave Assad's beleaguered regime renewed legitimacy. Syria's opposition was demoralized and discouraged, al-Qaida affiliates increased their sway, infighting among the opposition spread and momentum shifted back toward Assad. As a consequence, many believe Syria's dictator might yet prevail.

Secretary of State John Kerry has now gone further. He has invited Iran, Assad's chief foreign supporter, to participate in upcoming Syrian peace talks (also in Geneva) without accepting that Assad must step down. Said Kerry last weekend: “Could (Iran) contribute from the sidelines? Are there ways for them, conceivably, to weigh in? Can their mission that is already in Geneva ... be there in order to help the process? It may be that there are ways that could happen.”

Perhaps Kerry was just speculating publicly, a remarkably dangerous propensity in America's secretary of State.

These three specific examples of tilting toward Iran — on Tehran's nuclear program, in Iraq and in Syria — form a pattern that deeply troubles Israel and America's Arab allies. They are already discounting Obama's ability and inclination to protect mutual interests in the Middle East. If Washington does not quickly change course, the loss of U.S. influence in that vital region will only accelerate.

John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His exclusive column to the Trib appears the second Sunday of every month.

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