Last week, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, Japan, a city utterly destroyed 71 years ago by an American nuclear bomb. After Obama delivered a speech about morality and science, a photographer for The New York Times captured a striking image: An American president sharing an embrace with an aged survivor of the nuclear attack.
Strangely, the picture reminded me of probable next president Hillary Clinton and her attitude towards one of America's longstanding geopolitical antagonists, Iran. I have argued that the nuclear bargain with that country provides the most promising route forward for Western nations to begin to co-exist peacefully with Islamic ones.
Yet I very strongly suspect that Hillary Clinton will not seize this opportunity. Instead, she will work against it.
As foreign policy analyst Derek Davison argued in a recent interview, it's unlikely that she will ditch the deal altogether. It's one of President Obama's signature accomplishments, and he is far more popular than her or Donald Trump, especially among Democrats. Moreover, there is a tremendous amount of momentum built up behind it, particularly among European nations that have a lot more trade with Iran.
But she almost certainly won't try to build on the deal to continue to nudge Iran into becoming a full-fledged member of the international community — thus discarding the deal's brightest promise.
One strong piece of evidence of this is simply Clinton's long career as a suspicious hawk who is fairly aggressive with the use of military force. She's voiced repeated skepticism of the Iran deal, she's extraordinarily close with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and she's long favored a close alliance with Saudi Arabia (which despises Iran as a regional threat). As Secretary of State, Clinton celebrated a huge sale of fighter jets to the Saudis, and the Clinton Foundation has taken at least $10 million in donations from them.
But perhaps more importantly, the Washington foreign policy establishment (or "the Blob," as Obama adviser Ben Rhodes calls it) is firmly set against the idea of Iran making further inroads into the international community. A recent bipartisan report from the Center for a New American Security, put together by the group of liberal interventionists and neoconservatives that is coalescing around Clinton, makes this clear. This is a Blob pseudopod if there ever was one, and here's part of what they have to say about the Iran deal:
First, Tehran should understand that Washington is not expecting the nuclear agreement to lead to a changed relationship with the government of Iran. The nuclear agreement should not be linked to Tehran’s expectation of some kind of détente or broader opening to the United States. If Iran chooses to change its dangerous policies toward the region, Washington will welcome such changes. But that is not part of the accord, and the prospect of such change will not affect U.S. determination to guard against any violation of the agreement, large or small. ["Extending American Power"]
For all its many, many flaws, Iran is one of the more free and democratic nations in the Middle East — far more so than Saudi Arabia, and arguably more so than Israel, given the millions of Palestinians under Israeli rule who have no political rights.
Iran has been abused and manipulated by Western powers for hundreds of years, and has attacked U.S. interests many times. But if the two nations could work past their mutual grievances, and Iran could develop into a strong, reasonably prosperous Islamic democracy, accepting international institutions and norms, then it will provide a powerful counter-narrative to jihadists (and American hardliners alike) who argue that Islam is incompatible with democracy and freedom. Better still, it might provide a political model by which other Middle Eastern nations might slowly climb out of the disastrous chaos left by decades of Western meddling.
If my fears prove grounded, this will be a huge missed opportunity. As former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara once said, "The U.S.-Japanese war was one of most brutal wars in all of human history." Even setting aside the nuclear attacks, anyone familiar with the vicious island-hopping battles in the Pacific theater — or General Curtis LeMay's campaign of terror bombing — would have to agree. But look at that picture again.
In it, the American head of state whose birthplace is where that war infamously started embraces a man who lived through the most brutal single act of war in history. If those two nations can become close trading partners — indeed rather close friends, as far as nations go — then I refuse to believe that Iran cannot become at least one ordinary nation among the crowd.