Done Deal? Barack Obama’s Disastrous Iran Legacy

By Reuel Marc Gerecht

The Weekly Standard

May 20, 2016

All administrations are short-sighted. Even the brightest, most reflective people can develop acute tunnel vision when they join the paper-pushing, crisis-a-minute senior ranks of the National Security Council and the State Department. When the president becomes obsessed with one issue, as Barack Obama was with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, he and his advisers are less likely to appreciate the possible unintended consequences of their actions. Of course, with a president at odds with so much of American foreign policy since World War II, it is tricky separating unintended from desired consequences. Given how many bright people in Washington supported the nuclear agreement who aren't blind to Iran's nefarious behavior and don't want to handcuff Washington in the Middle East, though, it's possible the president, like so many others, failed to see how the agreement would circumscribe American action. But it's certainly clear now that if the next president intends to restore American primacy abroad, or just return some capacity to coerce adversaries in the Middle East, he or she will have to be prepared to watch the Iranians walk away from the nuclear agreement. Downing the Islamic State is probably impossible so long as Washington is held hostage by the accord. As unpleasant as it may be to accept, there is now only one presidential candidate who could abandon Obama's defining foreign accomplishment, challenge the Islamic Republic's regional ambitions, and destroy the caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

Though President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are quick to deny it, the nuclear accord has already become a straitjacket on policy. Just look at the administration's dithering awkwardness in responding to Russian plans to sell the clerical regime advanced fighter/fighter-bomber aircraft, which violate United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 and make a mockery of the timelines for legal conventional arms sales that were on the sidelines of the nuclear talks.

And look at the minor sanctions thrown at Tehran for its most recent ballistic-missile tests, which challenge the credibility of the agreement's time-limited restraints on the mullahs' atomic ambitions. There had been a blanket prohibition on nuclear-capable missile research under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929: "Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology." That wording was changed in Resolution 2231, which implemented the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action: "Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.  .  ." Kerry and Ambassador Stephen Mull, the lead coordinator on implementing the agreement, were either daydreaming or fibbing when they told Congress that Resolution 2231 clearly restricted Tehran's lawful capacity to launch long-range ballistic missiles. The White House tried to spin its response to the tests—minor sanctions against individuals and companies in easily replaced procurement networks—as a serious punishment for Iran's continuing missile development, which the Islamic Republic's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has declared off-limits to U.N. oversight.

Then consider the White House's assiduous ambivalence about extending the 1996 Iran Sanctions Act, which underpins the more punishing 2010 Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act and expires at the end of this year. Extension doesn't mean enforcement: It would allow the president to threaten "snapback" sanctions against Iran's energy sector, in particular the critical upstream foreign investments in the oil and natural-gas industries. The administration has urged Congress to hold off, obviously worried that an extension could seriously upset the mullahs. But it's been hinting it will support renewal later in the hopes of siphoning Democratic support from the bipartisan effort for extension, which would allow Congress to pass new sanctions against the clerical regime for its continuing ballistic-missile development, human-rights violations, and support to terrorists. If the administration is so reticent now about showing just a bit of muscle, there is little reason to believe that as the agreement progresses Obama will be any more inclined to play tough against Tehran. In the end, he may choose to veto an extension, so as not to legislatively arm his successor, who may not share his hope that commerce will moderate the mullahs.

Perhaps most tellingly, look at the restrained Washington rhetoric around the Islamic Republic's actions in Syria. The president and his aides are harsher towards Vladimir Putin than they are towards Khamenei, even though Iran's contributions, both military and financial, to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's survival have been greater than Russia's. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian Sunnis have been slaughtered in the last five years and millions have been made homeless, displaced, and pushed towards Europe, and it's the clerical regime, not Russia, that has been the primary enabler of this horror show.

Iranian Hardball

If the deal stands beyond Obama's presidency, there will be no meaningful pushback by the United States and Europe against Assad. Any serious military effort to aid the Syrian opposition would perforce target Iranians and Russians, who have become the linchpins of Assad's military power. Putin's recent decision to withdraw some of his forces doesn't really change this calculation. Russian aircraft are still bombing Syrian targets, and Moscow has kept naval and air bases in Syria, so any planes or helicopters withdrawn can quickly be sent back. If the United States decided to check the Assad-Iran-Russia axis, especially by giving military backing to the creation of a safe haven in Syria (once, perhaps still, Clinton's preferred Syrian strategy), it would challenge Iran's insistence on the survival of the Shiite Alawite regime.

Washington would also come into conflict with Tehran if the United States gathered and led a large Sunni Arab force in Iraq capable of pushing back against the Islamic State. The rise of the Wahhabi Sunni jihadist group has made Iraqi Shiite Arabs, who have had a long, tense, and sometimes bitter relationship with Shiite Iranians, much more dependent on Tehran. Iran has a strategic interest in preventing Iraqi stability and any Sunni-Shiite political settlement there.

Would an American administration attempt to counter seriously the clerical regime and concurrently enrich it through unfettered access to Western and Asian trade and financial markets? Would Congress stand for such a contradiction? A congressional veto-proof majority in favor of reimposing crippling sanctions would probably develop quickly if American soldiers started dying in Iraq or Syria through Iranian machinations, which isn't at all unlikely if Washington deployed significant numbers of combat troops in either country—the clerical regime effectively targeted U.S. soldiers in Iraq before 2011 via Iranian-made explosive devices, Iranian-trained militias, and hit teams. And if significant unilateral sanctions are thrown at Iran, for any reason, odds are excellent Khamenei, who obviously disliked the idea of making any concessions to Westerners during the nuclear talks, will abandon the deal. He might do so with considerable European indulgence, given how the agreement has whetted European commercial appetites.

More hawkish Democrats, who could come back into vogue if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, might want to believe that they can keep the atomic accord and stop the bloody chaos spilling out of Syria. They don't appear enamored of the progressive argument that Syria is a quagmire for Russia and Iran and thus no American action is required. At least publicly, they've not yet come to the position, more or less held by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, that Assad has slaughtered his way to a morally and strategically superior position: His regime, and its Iranian and Russian enablers, is preferable to the rebellious, jihadism-infected Sunni Syrians.

Yet any hope that a more aggressive president with tougher rhetoric can handle Syria will crash against the hard fact that Assad, Iran, and Russia haven't demonstrated they're losing the will to fight. At a minimum, the Iranians surely want to keep Syria in some chaos: The Assad regime's dependency upon Tehran and the Syrian militias that the Revolutionary Guards have formed will continue to grow, giving Tehran greater influence on the battlefield and in politics. An Iraqi parallel is obvious: Chaos there also redounds to Iran's advantage.

Ken Pollack, a fairly tough-minded analyst of the Middle East, recently wrote a blue-ribbon policy report, chaired by Bill Clinton's secretary of state Madeleine Albright and George W. Bush's national security adviser Stephen Hadley, suggesting Iran would come to the peace table in earnest if the United States and its European allies dedicated "far more Western energy and resources toward forming a more robust opposition army capable of dominating the Syrian battlefields," which would include "American advisors and fire support." He claims that when the United States appeared serious in Syria, before Obama ignored his own red lines about Assad's use of chemical weapons, Iranians "quickly telegraphed that they would gladly discard Assad so long as Alawite interests were duly represented in any future political settlement." But Pollack underestimates Iranian tenacity and the new sectarian alignment of the region.

A good rule for the Middle East, and an absolutely critical one for the Islamic Republic, is that private emissaries delivering messages that contradict strongly stated public positions should be viewed with the utmost suspicion. It is possible in certain dire situations that deeply felt ideology can be temporarily transgressed (during the dark days of the Iran-Iraq war, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini approved the missiles-for-hostages American mission to Tehran), but the written record is always the best guide to what men of serious faith will countenance. And the public commentary provides next to no evidence that the clerical regime would be willing to abandon Assad. Tehran has invested massively in his regime—overcoming, according to the late Iranian Revolutionary Guard general Hossein Hamadani, considerable resistance from Assad and the Alawite-dominated military to establishing militias modeled on the Lebanese Hezbollah. Assad and his loyal minions are now all-in with Iranian tactics and methodology.

The clerical regime is well aware that the Assad family built the Shiite Alawite dictatorship from scratch over five decades. It's a good guess Khamenei is deeply fearful that if the top comes off the Syrian power pyramid, the whole thing collapses. Revolutionary Guard losses are still relatively small in Syria. The corps has around 125,000 soldiers; it has deployed in Syria, according to Ali Alfoneh and Michael Eisenstadt, upwards of 3,000, though there may be only several hundred there today. Even if the regime is lying about how many have died in Syria (roughly 350), that number isn't likely to deter Iranian leadership, especially the leadership of the corps, which prides itself on the guards' love of martyrdom and hasn't had a chance to prove its worth since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. When Congress was considering the merits of the just-concluded Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action last summer, the administration was spinning journalists on the idea that Iran was tiring of its commitment in Syria and perhaps seeking a way out. Tehran was actually preparing a surge in coordination with Russia's military intervention in September. The White House and the State Department probably weren't being deceitful; they were just projecting their own intolerance for combat casualties.

The nuclear deal has helped relieve some of Tehran's financial stress from maintaining its commitments in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, but no bonanza has so far arrived, which has, predictably, reinforced the Obama administration's investment in Rouhani's future and its disinclination to do anything that could jeopardize Rouhani's reelection next year. The overarching political rationale for the deal—that the accord would strengthen moderates in Iran—obliges Obama to hang with Rouhani and ever-larger sanctions relief. Determining who is a "hardliner" and who is a "moderate," let alone figuring out how to support the latter against the former, hasn't been historically an American forte. The administration has tried to simplify the analysis: Anyone who supports the nuclear deal is a "moderate"; anyone who doesn't isn't. Although the White House denies it, the administration is almost certainly trying to figure out a means to allow the Iranians indirect access to large U.S. dollar transactions, though such access is not explicitly permitted under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Surprisingly short-sighted, Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, failed to demand this concession before the agreement was concluded. Rouhani's survival now trumps bipartisan American sanctions raised against the mullahs' support of terrorism, human-rights violations, the narcotics trade, money laundering, etc. If Rouhani fails to win reelection, administration officials fear, the atomic agreement could collapse. Reenergized "conservatives" could charge that the deal, compromising to Iran's national and Islamic integrity, failed to deliver the hundreds of billions of dollars Rouhani promised.

Valuing the nuclear agreement above all other Middle Eastern considerations unquestionably will disincline Obama's successor from looking at any nonnuclear nefarious Iranian actions with a critical, sanctions-friendly eye. If the Iranians hang tough with Assad, then Washington post-Obama would have to ratchet up pressure considerably if President Clinton really wanted to establish a safe haven in Syria. Supporting a "robust opposition" would require the United States to endanger the Damascus regime, which means that the American-supported Syrian opposition would need to kill more Revolutionary Guards. If Iran doesn't fold, the odds are high American soldiers in Iraq, and Syria if deployed to a safe zone, would be targeted. Would Congress and the next president just watch Iran kill Americans without reprisal?

The Political Reality

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action amplifies the president's predilections: Without the agreement, Obama wasn't going to forcefully punish the Islamic Republic for its sins, even for advancing a ballistic-missile program that everyone in Washington knows is designed, one day, to carry nuclear weapons. As the president shouted out to the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama doesn't think that the Middle East is worth its price. For those who believe that no menace from the region merits another war, the nuclear agreement has more plusses than minuses. A half-million dead Syrians is a catastrophe, but it shouldn't draw the United States into another protracted campaign against Muslim foes on behalf of Muslim civilians who, once saved, would likely reward us with an insurgency. More intervention in the region isn't opposed only by dogged "realist" foes of Pax Americana, like Andrew Bacevich, John Mearsheimer, and Stephen Walt, who don't find massive human suffering, certainly not in the Muslim Middle East, worth the risk of American lives and wealth. A penetrating observer of the Arab predicament, the chastened former Israeli-Palestinian negotiator Aaron David Miller, articulates well the dispiritedness of the foreign-policy set in Washington, who can't really see any way forward in "a broken and dysfunctional Middle East" where "common ground for comprehensive solutions to problems simply doesn't exist."

If it honors the accord, Iran can commence the mass production of advanced centrifuges in 2025, which gives Washington time to retreat from the Middle East and locals time to adjust, to ramp up their anti-Iranian defenses or acquiesce. If the United States is no longer concerned about internal Muslim dynamics so long as the Eastern Province in Saudi Arabia keeps pumping oil, if we are over 9/11 and prepared to absorb less-than-catastrophic terrorist strikes directed from holy-warrior emirates in the region, then do we really care whether the mullahs are expanding their power in the wake of collapsing Arab states? Are we really bothered by sectarian bloodletting among Muslims? Nuclear deterrence and proliferation may be a nightmare for Israel, which would have near-zero response time, not to mention the hair-raising complexity of countering and balancing the game of atomic chicken that could occur if Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran have nukes, but the United States has the distance and the nuclear arsenal, so the reasoning goes, to remain apart from Muslim-versus-Muslim-versus-Jew enmities. And if the Europeans come in range of nuclear-tipped Iranian missiles, well, that's their problem. The French and the British still have a force de frappe.

Could this mindset, which has gone mainstream in both the Democratic and Republican parties, change? Possibly. Events can alter foreign policy overnight. Syria could get a lot worse, sending even larger waves of refugees toward Turkey, Europe, and Jordan. Muslim refugees are already close to shattering the best and essential part of the European Union—open borders. President Obama has obviously been unmoved by European travails, but another, more transatlantic president might fear the North Atlantic Treaty Organization going down with the European Union. As Walter Russell Mead has highlighted, the global international order since WWII has held precisely because the United States had such disproportionate military power, responsibilities, and defense expenditures. A new president may discover, again, that Europe and the United States are joined at the hip, that the West really still means something, and that without "free-riding" Europe, the United States is alone and cannot for long act effectively overseas.

And European lives do matter. If Islamic terrorists keep striking our Western allies, a more transatlantic American president may decide that collective defense demands a larger, more determined military effort to destroy Baghdadi's caliphate and Assad's Sunni-killing machine, which is the root cause of the extensive radicalization of Syrian Sunnis. The French-speaking Islamic terrorists who struck in Paris and Brussels may view Europe as the ventre mou, the soft underbelly, of the West, but the overarching, if less accessible, target for such holy warriors remains America. One major terrorist strike against the United States, with hundreds dead, and what seems inconceivable now—an American military campaign in Syria—becomes compelling. Other regional realities that President Obama hasn't thought so important could also change American temperaments and priorities.

American Tripwires

Although the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, backed by Iranian-organized Shiite militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, probably cannot drive Islamic State forces out of Mosul and the Iraqi west without considerably more American support than Obama has been willing to commit, it's possible that the successes of the Assad axis against the Syrian opposition will force the Islamic State to hollow out its forces in Mesopotamia to protect its Syrian possessions. A more effective Iraqi offensive could follow. Jordan could get flooded with even more Syrian and Iraqi Sunni refugees, many of whom would be militant and battle-hardened. The Hashemite monarchy, America's and Israel's favorite royals, could find itself confronting a lot of militants inside Jordan. The Hashemites have had more than nine lives; King Abdullah's ability to navigate when his primary benefactors, Saudi Arabia and the United States, have been "defeated" and "coopted" in Syria isn't going to lengthen the monarchy's lifespan. If the Syrian contagion spreads to Jordan's increasingly disgruntled Sunnis, both Palestinian and "East Bankers," Washington and Jerusalem would quickly recalculate the cost of American retrenchment.

And Saudi Arabia will be the big Sunni Arab loser if the Russians and Iranians triumph in the Levant. Analyzing Saudi internal dynamics is difficult for outsiders and may not be that much easier for the Saudi royal family. When the Iranian nuclear negotiations became serious, the Saudis abandoned their preference for quieter diplomacy behind an American shield wall. They, like the Iranians, have reacted to Obama's aversion to the Middle East with a more militarized foreign policy—the exact opposite of what the president thought would happen with the "region-stabilizing" nuclear agreement.

If the Saudis are also defeated in Yemen, where they're battling Iranian-aided Shiite Houthis, then the kingdom, which is in the midst of a generational change of power, would face two lost wars at the very time oil income and hard-currency reserves keep shrinking. Saudi self-confidence will be shot. Tehran will press its advantage. We can be certain the Saudis will do what they always do when Shiites challenge: amp up Wahhabism at home and abroad in an attempt to claim the mantle of true Islam. Their response to the Islamic Republic's play for dominion will, in a replay of the 1980s, reinforce Sunni militants and fundamentalists uneasy with, if not dismissive of, the Saudi monarchy. Whereas the Iranian clerical regime keeps dividing against itself, creating opponents on its more Westernized "left," the Saudi regime creates its most potent internal enemies on its "right," religious dissidents, nourished by the Saudi Wahhabi religious establishment, who find the monarchy lax, immoral, and, given what is happening in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, probably feckless. The Islamic State and al Qaeda will reap the rewards. And it's a certainty that as the Iranian-Saudi clash intensifies, Saudi royals will aid both jihadist groups where they are combating Shiites, further eroding American and European military actions against the caliphate and al Qaeda.

Saudi Arabia suffers from the same syndrome as the Pakistani military: They can't stop supporting Islamic militants because foreign challenges and religious identity cross-fertilize each other. They persist in doing so even after bloody blowback. Princeton's Bernard Haykel, the most interesting scholar writing on the Islamic State, recently conjured up a scenario in which Saudi Arabia fractures into regions where Hobbesian Islamist war rages. Given the peninsula's tribal complexity, the intensity of its severe faith, and the House of Saud's many problems, this scenario is not implausible. The spillover from this, as Haykel notes, would be more destructive than Syria's crack-up, since the Eastern Province, where most of the country's oil and Shiites are located, would become a battleground. An American and European intervention there could be unavoidable if internecine strife, or the Iranians, threatened petroleum production. The idea that America's growing energy production will somehow insulate the United States from the global economic chaos that would arrive if the Eastern Province's production were in jeopardy just shows how many serious Americans, on both the left and the right, are in intellectual free fall in the age of Obama. And the Sunni-Shiite clash will, as the Saudi-Iran rivalry did in the 1980s, intensify anti-Americanism among Muslims. To most Americans, the distant war for Muslim minds seems abstract. Instability in the Persian Gulf and intensifying terrorism could bring it home immediately.

Post-Obama

The next president may find Obama's primary foreign-policy accomplishment has become a distasteful paradox: Maintain the nuclear agreement and the United States de facto becomes a partner to the Islamic Repub-lic's imperialism. There is probably no "Cold War" middle ground—an enforceable arms-control accord married to a muscular American effort to roll back Iranian adventurism. Any serious effort to push back Tehran will, at a minimum, include sanctions. Any new major sanctions would likely tank the nuclear accord. It is a conundrum the more forceful side of the Democratic foreign-policy establishment, which supported President Obama's nuclear diplomacy and, however reluctantly, his agreement, can't escape.

Congressional Republicans wanted to maintain the 2012 status quo—massive sanctions against the clerical regime. They were, however, profoundly uncomfortable articulating what they would advocate if sanctions didn't stop the installation of centrifuges or progress at the heavy-water reactor at Arak. In the heated exchanges that occurred during Obama's nuclear diplomacy and congressional deliberations on the accord, Obama accused Republicans of having no alternative to his diplomacy except war. Conservative columnists Charles Krauthammer and Bret Stephens, both steadfast hawks, argued in their withering criticisms of the nuclear talks that the answer to the president and the clerical regime should be more sanctions, that the president was setting up a false choice between the deal and war.

Perhaps. As tendentious as the president might have been, war has always been the threat that made sanctions credible. That hawkish conservatives were running away from this truth—that preventive strikes may well be necessary to deal with the mullahs' nuclear challenge—shows that most congressional Republicans probably agreed with Obama: War was just not an option.

It doesn't matter now if the sanctions advocates were right or wrong about whether Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guards, and Rouhani would have relinquished the nuclear-weapons program because of economic pain. What ought to be crystal clear is that the level of economic pain obtained by 2012, when Iran faced a severe hard-currency crisis, the Europeans imposed an embargo on Iranian oil, and Obama began the secret American-Iranian meetings in Oman, will not return—unless an American president can somehow persuade the Europeans to go along. European avarice, denied once through the embargo initiative, a historically astonishing, contre-nature diplomacy led by the French and the British, is a mighty force. What Obama gave away is unlikely to come back.

This is where imagining an alternative to Hillary Clinton becomes hard. Trump would likely accept the deal, let it run its course, whether that's a year, four years, or a decade, and move on. He has shown himself extraordinarily nonchalant about nuclear proliferation, among so many other things; he's been fervid and consistent, however, about not fighting wars in Muslim lands. He's profoundly uneasy with Muslims at home and abroad. He has been averse to military mission creep and supportive, until recently, of the Obama administration's reductions in defense outlays, prone to see defense spending as a big-ticket item driving up the deficit (his Indiana victory speech implied that defense spending and foreign aid, not entitlements, are the biggest factors increasing the national debt). Concerning Syria, Trump has allied himself with the Assad-Iran-Russia axis. He has been adamantly opposed to any military intervention, American-protected safe havens, or military aid to Sunni Syrians. Trump's fondness for Iran's and Putin's ally in Syria—he's against overthrowing Assad—could easily develop regionally into a strategic alignment of the United States with the Shiites against the Sunnis. Admittedly, trying to logically connect the dots with Trump is a near-impossible task given the contradictions he spews forth. But it beggars the imagination to believe that he could adopt in the Middle East a more forceful foreign policy, vis-à-vis Iran, Islamic State, al Qaeda, the Taliban, etc., than President Obama's. Trump is probably the most anti-interventionist presidential candidate since Eugene V. Debs, the indefatigable socialist, in 1912.

Hillary vs. Khamenei

As counterintuitive as it may seem to some on the right, the most effective way to derail the nuclear deal now is by accepting it while highlighting its flaws, and shifting the conversation about the Islamic Republic to its foreign policy and internal politics, especially its ruthless suppression of democracy. A president who starts to demand more of the agreement than Obama has—for example, curtailment of Iranian ballistic-missile development and the use of International Atomic Energy Agency standard practices in verification—would be a huge improvement. A president who is willing to counter Iran in Iraq and Syria, who can turn to the Europeans, as a card-carrying transatlanticist and supporter of the nuclear deal, and argue that more needs to be done to check the mullahs' imperialism, might just possibly reverse America's current trajectory in the Middle East.

Clinton has pledged to "vigorously enforce and strengthen if necessary the American sanctions on Iran .  .  . for its sponsorship of terrorism, its ballistic missile program, and other destabilizing activities." We can certainly doubt whether her actions will match her words. Her aides had an instrumental role in Obama's atomic diplomacy. Her primary foreign-policy adviser, Jake Sullivan, commenced the nuclear discussions in secret in Oman; even after his departure from government, he saw the negotiations through to their conclusion from his teaching perch at Yale. And Clinton didn't, so far as we know, strongly disagree with the president's decision to go to the left of the Europeans in 2012, thereby undercutting the French, who'd taken the toughest line against Tehran, and U.N. Security Council resolutions, which were much more demanding than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

And there is no reason to believe that Clinton was at odds with the major American concessions in the accord: a recognized Iranian "right" to uranium enrichment, continuing advanced centrifuge research and development, the exclusion of ballistic-missile development from the agreement, accepting (and agreeing to fib about) an Iranian prohibition against international nuclear inspectors visiting Revolutionary Guard and military bases, and, last but not least, the accord's sunset clause, which allows Iran, after a decade, a massive industrial nuclear program through which the development of atomic weapons could be rapid and undetectable.

Yet Clinton is an insider with doubts. Her language about Iran hasn't been Obamaesque. She doesn't seem to believe in the transformational promise of greater trade with the clerical regime. Although she was out of office when the nuclear talks kicked into high gear, she didn't manifest any of the giddiness that afflicted many in the administration—the president, his communications alter ego Ben Rhodes, the nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman, and especially Secretary of State Kerry. To Clinton's good fortune, she never dealt with the clerical regime's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, easily the most talented Iranian diplomat since the revolution. We don't know how she would have reacted to his reality distortion field, which inclines American officials to believe they aren't dealing with a sincere, mendacious Islamist. It's hard to imagine, however, that she would have conducted herself with as much diplomatic exuberance as Sherman, Kerry, and Obama.

Clinton may well remember the high hopes her husband's administration had for an evolution in U.S.-Iranian relations when Mohammad Khatami, a reformist cleric, unexpectedly won a landslide presidential election in 1997. The White House chose not to dwell, after Khatami's election, on the substantial intelligence connecting the Iranian regime to the deadly bombing against American soldiers at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996. She surely remembers the disappointment in Washington when Khatami's reformers were downed by the supreme leader and the so-called pragmatists revolving around former president Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and his often ruthless aide-de-camp, Rouhani. She may remember how apologetic her husband became in an attempt to entice Khatami and Khamenei into better relations. And how his apologias failed.

Clinton was a pretty mundane senator, who worked the nuts and bolts of both domestic and international problems. She voted for the war in Iraq—as did every Democrat with presidential aspirations. She'd also watched her husband try to deal with Saddam Hussein after the Gulf war. Anyone who watched her twist in the Democratic primary battle of 2008 knows she didn't enjoy becoming a war critic to keep up with Obama and the antiwar fervor of the American left. As the New York Times's Mark Landler recently pointed out, she confessed in 2008 to General Jack Keane, an architect of the surge in Iraq, that she'd been wrong about opposing the surge. According to Landler, General Keane is "perhaps the greatest single influence on the way Hillary Clinton thinks about military issues." If that is true, then Clinton is capable of putting more American boots on the ground in the Greater Middle East.

If elected, Clinton will surely try to triangulate, maintaining the nuclear agreement while exploring options to counter the clerical regime's regional ambitions. This exploration will lead back to the cul-de-sac: Any serious opposition to Iran will inevitably include sanctions, which will imperil the agreement. It's not unlikely that Clinton and Sullivan didn't think through how tactically and strategically confining the accord would prove to be, in part because they may have shared Obama's general desire to downsize America's presence in the Muslim world.

For Clinton, the test will probably come over Syria and Iraq, where around 5,000 American soldiers are again serving. Iranian hubris always blossoms when others are weak. Clinton has surely noticed that the nuclear deal hasn't helped stabilize the Middle East. Assuming President Obama finds a legal way to allow the Islamic Republic to indirectly use American financial institutions to make large dollar-denominated transactions, she will get to see the mullahs' hubris grow quickly. The more cash the clerical regime has, the more trouble it will cause.

A race is on: Will what's left of America's will to intervene against a resurgent clerical regime, even one openly striving to advance its nuclear aspirations, evaporate before the mullahs push too far, either on the ground in Syria or Iraq or in their contempt of Western surveillance of their nuclear and ballistic-missile programs? Washington is currently in an acrimonious period of "bipartisan isolationism," to borrow from Ray Takeyh at the Council on Foreign Relations. Both Democrats and Republicans bristle at the "isolationist" label, but they are, with almost equal vigor, running from the Middle East and ambivalent about other commitments.

She's not a neoconservative, but Hillary Clinton isn't uncomfortable with American power. Unlike Obama, she isn't the apologetic type. Whatever her opinions were in the Vietnam era, she doesn't now view the Cold War ambivalently. She's certain that might married right in that struggle, even in the Third World, where Obama and many on the left have serious doubts. Any flirtation she's had with Iran is likely to follow the way of the French.

In 1993, France started "engaging" the Islamic Republic, hoping to profit from and moderate the regime's behavior. Despite the Iranian intelligence ministry's past bombings and assassinations on French soil, the French turned the other cheek, hoping for something new with President Rafsanjani. They hung in there when Khatami's presidency effectively collapsed in 1999 and led the charge in 2002 to engage Tehran anew when an Iranian opposition group revealed what the French intelligence service had known for some time: The mullahs had a clandestine nuclear-weapons program. The French, Germans, and Brits started "EU3" diplomacy because they feared George W. Bush's bellicosity as much as they feared the clerical regime's atomic ambition. When that diplomacy became more intense, however, the French hardened towards Tehran. As Thérèse Delpech, the senior French official who wrote extensively on nonproliferation and Iran, put it, Paris just grew tired of the Iranians "always lying." Although French president François Hollande would likely not have publicly supported American preventive military strikes against the mullahs' nuclear sites, he was prepared to support America demanding far tougher positions than Obama did in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

A second Clinton administration will grow frustrated with the clerical regime's mendacity, anti-Americanism, and imperialist ambitions. Iran's ballistic-missile advances, echoing the progress in North Korea, with which Tehran has had close technical cooperation, will cause increasing concern. Time will shrink rapidly; envisioning the mullahs with an industrial-scale uranium-enrichment program will become more threatening. Rouhani's presidency, assuming he is reelected, will prove no more "moderate" than Rafsanjani's was in the 1990s. Rouhani, a founding father of the Islamic Republic's intelligence ministry, is a creature of the regime's deep national-security state. The common leftist refrain about Iran fighting the "good fight" against the Islamic State and al Qaeda will probably not play well with Clinton, who wanted to use American airpower against Assad. President Obama is content to allow history to judge his Iran gamble, admitting that in twenty years, if Iran proceeds with its nuclear designs, his bet may prove a colossal mistake. Clinton seems less of a gambler. Yet she will confront the same question that Obama did: If you're not really prepared to threaten war, how far can you make the Iranians bend through sanctions? If she isn't willing to fight, is she willing to bluff?

Given the insatiable demands of the welfare state, the decline of the United States' military—and with it the country's willpower, optimism, and strategic imagination—may be irreversible. Given the history of Iranian-American relations, how Washington has usually blinked at the mullahs' violent provocations, the odds have always been good that the clerical regime would win its nuclear struggle with the United States. But Hillary Clinton has the component parts to break free from Obama's legacy—provided Middle Eastern events prove sufficiently shocking. She seems tough enough to challenge the Iranians and the growing passivity and pacifism of her own party. She could make the case with our allies for re-isolating the mullahs. If America's writ is to be restored, if Islamic militants who intend us harm are to be thwarted, a liberal internationalist, one of the last ones standing, will have to do it.