The White House says it is fighting ISIS, but its Iranian and Iranian-backed partners say the war is about killing Sunnis. "There are no patriots, no real religious people in Fallujah," said the leader of one Iranian-backed Shiite militia. "It's our chance to clear Iraq by eradicating the cancer of Fallujah." That doesn't sound like the kind of ally the United States should be embracing. That sounds like the United States taking sides in a sectarian war, against the Sunni Arab regional majority.
There is no way to defeat ISIS unless the administration can get Sunni Arab leaders, especially tribal sheikhs, to join the fight. Only they have the local forces and knowledge to root out ISIS. But obviously no tribal leaders will enjoin their brothers to open up a Sunni civil war so that the Shiites and Iranians may profit from them spilling each other's blood.
To destroy ISIS, the United States will have to move against the Shiite groups that are terrorizing Sunnis. That's precisely how the surge worked. But that hasn't happened with this White House for the same reason that the administration never moved to topple Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad—Obama doesn't want to get their Iranian patrons mad.
There's been some confusion about the Obama administration's Middle East policy. It's typically understood as isolationist or "realist." On this reading, Obama just wants to withdraw from the Middle East. Why? First of all, he sees the allies in that part of the world as a nuisance. As he explained to the Atlantic, Obama is disappointed in his onetime pal, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Saudi Arabia keeps complaining about Iran, but, from Obama's point of view, all of Riyadh's worst problems are internal, and the Saudis brought those on themselves. And, as Obama sees it, the prime minister of Israel is in a league of his own when it comes to arrogance and ingratitude. Why deal with these guys if you don't have to?
Moreover, what was once our key strategic interest in the region has changed. Middle East oil is still vital to global stability, but not as central as it was 40 years ago. America can come home from the Middle East, which is a relief since from Obama's perspective it was always a toxic mix. It's bad for both America and the Middle East, he believes, for Washington to exercise force in the region. Thus, America, for better or worse, is on the way out, and a pox on everyone's houses.
Wrong. Obama is not a bystander, an impartial observer who just decided to let American allies—or in his words "free riders"—twist in the wind while America turned to its domestic issues. He switched sides. The president has been playing for the opposing team for several years now, and has enlisted the government of the United States, including its armed forces, intelligence community, and diplomatic corps, on the side of Iran.
The evidence of realignment has been out there for half a decade. The White House leaked news of Israeli strikes on Iranian arms convoys transiting Syria and destined for Hezbollah. Jerusalem was furious since it feared that publicity would embarrass their adversaries and drive them to make war. But what mattered to the Obama administration was keeping the Israelis off balance and proving to the Iranians that Washington had Benjamin Netanyahu on a short leash.
The administration shared intelligence with a Hezbollah-controlled unit of the Lebanese Armed Forces. When the White House finally decided to support Syrian rebels, it was on the condition that they fight only ISIS, and not Assad and his allies. And of course the key piece of evidence that Obama switched sides is that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action not only cost Iran nothing but showered Tehran with a windfall of hundreds of billions of dollars, money it can use to wage its war against Sunnis in Syria and Iraq.
But that windfall, say White House supporters and press surrogates, is not our money to give. It's Iran's own frozen funds. Except here's the thing—in the real world, it doesn't matter who the money belongs to, what matters is who controls it. And in this instance the United States controlled billions of dollars that Iran desperately wanted. Money is a powerful instrument of coercive diplomacy. When Obama gave up control of that money, he added to Iran's ability to make war.
If Obama had been serious about stopping the war in Syria, he might have conditioned sanctions relief on Iran's complete withdrawal. If you don't want to withdraw, fine. You don't get your money. Your people will eat cardboard and make grass soup—like the citizens of Daraya whom your clients Hezbollah surrounded and starved—and eventually they will drag your bodies through the streets of Tehran. But that wasn't Obama's play.
Now Iran wants its money, and the administration is doing everything it can to help. That's why John Kerry has effectively become Iran's investment banker, selling the post-industrialized nations on all the great investment opportunities this third-world state sponsor of terror has to offer. It's a low point for American diplomacy and for America. In World War II, the United States lent the Allies money and equipment to fight the Nazis. In the largest conflict of the still-young 21st century, the Obama administration has freed billions of dollars for Iran to use in its war against Sunni Arabs. Why? Because Obama sees Iran as an ally.
And that's the context in which his famous Iran deal should be understood. It is only partly an inept deal over Iran's nuclear arms program—it is also and most significantly a partnership agreement. It's a blueprint for realigning American interests with Iran. We're seeing it unfold on the ground in Fallujah.