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President Obama's Empowerment of Iran

This article is sourced from Chapter Five of my book "Oil and God. Sustainable Energy Will Defeat Wahhabi Terror"


The interview President Obama gave to Jeffrey Goldberg for the April 2016 issue of the Atlantic magazine, nine months before leaving the White House, shows Mr. Obama as holding a jaundiced view of Sunni Arabs in general and outright hostility toward Saudi Arabia in particular.
Referring to Obama, Goldberg wrote, “he broke with what he calls, derisively ‘the Washington playbook", that he has questioned, often harshly, the role that America’s Sunni Arab allies play in fomenting anti-American terrorism, and that he is clearly irritated that foreign policy orthodoxy compels him to treat Saudi Arabia as an ally.[1] 
On Indonesia, where Obama spent part of his childhood, Goldberg wrote:


In a meeting during APEC with Malcolm Turnbull, the new prime minister of Australia, Obama described how he has watched Indonesia gradually move from a relaxed, syncretistic Islam to a more fundamentalist, unforgiving interpretation; large numbers of Indonesian women, he observed, have now adopted the hijab, the Muslim head covering.


Why, Turnbull asked, was this happening?


Because, Obama answered, the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs have funneled money, and large numbers of imams and teachers, into the country. In the 1990s, the Saudis heavily funded Wahhabist madrassas, seminaries that teach the fundamentalist version of Islam favored by the Saudi ruling family, Obama told Turnbull. Today, Islam in Indonesia is much more Arab in orientation than it was when he lived there, he said.[2]


On the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington D. C., Goldberg revealed:


In the White House these days, one occasionally hears Obama’s National Security Council officials pointedly reminding visitors that the large majority of 9/11 hijackers were not Iranian, but Saudi.[3]


On Saudi treatment of women:


Obama himself rails against Saudi Arabia’s state-sanctioned misogyny, arguing in private that “a country cannot function in the modern world when it is repressing half of its population.” In meetings with foreign leaders, Obama has said, “You can gauge the success of a society by how it treats its women.[4]


On relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran:


Saudis need to “share” the Middle East with their Iranian foes. “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen—requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.[5]

Additionally, two statements from Mr. Obama’s speech at Cairo University on June 4, 2009 provide a helpful background to his ideas in the Atlantic magazine interview. In a conciliatory statement on Washington’s future relations with Iran, Obama said:


Rather than remain trapped in the past, I’ve made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question now is not what Iran is against but, rather, what future it wants to build.[6]


Obama’s patience with Saudi Arabia has always been limited. In his first foreign-policy commentary of note, that 2002 speech in Chicago, he said:


Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East—the Saudis and the Egyptians—stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality.[7]


These statements suggest that Obama’s empowerment of Iran could have been a strategy to punish Saudi Arabia for culpability for 9/11, for manipulating the Washington Playbook, for radicalizing Indonesia’s Islam, for state-sponsored misogyny, for suppressing dissent, and for tolerating corruption and inequality.

Obama’s Three Strategies That Empowered Iran
Obama pursued three strategies that benefited Iran and ruined Iraq and Syria.

The First Strategy – Midwifing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

In a sudden departure from previous US policy, the Obama administration announced on April 8, 2009, that the US would participate fully in the P5+1 talks with Iran.[8] In 1992, the US Congress had passed, theIran-Iraq Arms Nonproliferation Act of 1992. The Act prohibited the transfer of technology that might contribute to Iran’s proliferation of advanced weapons.[9] For seventeen years after the enactment of the law, successive US administrations required Iran to meet United Nations demands to suspend all enrichment and reprocessing related activities before Washington would negotiate incentives to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

On July 14, 2015, negotiations between the P5+1 and Tehran were successfully concluded.[10] In return for a delay in its nuclear program for 15 years, Iran gained access to some $100 billion in frozen assets and became able to export oil, after forfeiting more than $160 billion in oil revenue since 2012 as a result of the sanctions.[11] Lifting economic sanctions on Iran shifted the balance of power in the Muslim Middle East in favour of Iran. It energized the Shi’ite Crescent and the March of Shi’ism.


What Might Have Lurked Behind Obama’s Keen Interest in the JCPOA? 
Obama’s keen interest in the nuclear deal might have been driven by his eagerness to produce some success as a legacy for his 44th presidency, given his lack of achievements domestically and internationally. The Noble Peace Prize he received in 2009 might have added to the pressure on him to justify the honour.[12]
Obama's eagerness to smooth the negotiations toward the JCPOA may be seen through three acts:

1)   Ambivalence Toward the June 2009 Demonstrations by Millions of Iranians Following the Election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad[13]

Former Israeli ambassador to Washington at the time, Michael Oren, said, “Former US president Barack Obama chose not to support the 2009 Iranian Green Protest Movement because he hoped to reach a deal with Iran on its nuclear weapons that he signed six years later.”[14]

2)   Derailing Drug Enforcement Administration’s Narcoterrorism Probe into Hezbollah

The White House derailed a law enforcement effort targeting the billion-dollar narcoterrorism enterprise run by Iran’s surrogate, Hezbollah, even as the terror organization was funneling cocaine into the United States.[15] The campaign was launched in 2008 after the DEA amassed evidence that Hezbollah had become a crime syndicate dealing in drugs, weapon-trafficking, and money laundering.[16]


For eight years, American law enforcement followed Hezbollah’s “cocaine shipments and tracked a river of dirty cash” from Latin America to the United States, West Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.[17] But, according to interviews with dozens of participants who in many cases spoke for the first time about events shrouded in secrecy, and a review of government documents and court records by a Politico magazine investigation published on December 18, 2017, Obama administration officials threw an increasingly insurmountable series of roadblocks in its way.[18] When project leaders sought approval for some significant investigations, prosecutions, arrests, and financial sanctions, officials at the Justice and Treasury Departments delayed, hindered or rejected their requests.[19]


Obama “really, really, really” wanted the nuclear agreement with Iran, a former CIA officer told Politico, and an Obama-era Treasury official, Katherine Bauer, in written testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, acknowledged that “under the Obama administration …. [Hezbollah-related] investigations were tamped down for fear of rocking the boat with Iran and jeopardizing the nuclear deal.”[20]


3)  The Transfer of $1.7 billion in banknotes to Iran

Obama’s eagerness for a successful JCPOA agreement may be gauged from the way the US transferred $1.7 billion to Iran. In the age of electronic money movement, the White House chose to transfer this huge amount in the form of banknotes. In January and February 2016, three planes, on three different dates, were used. The first planeload transferred $400 million, and the other two transferred another $1.3 billion.[21]The cash was first flown to Switzerland aboard an unmarked chartered aircraft, and then converted into Euros, Swiss Francs and other currencies. An Iranian transport aircraft flew the cash to Iran in January and February 2016 in three shipments. The first aircraft arrived in Tehran on Jan. 16, 2016, with $400 million piled on wooden pallets.[22]  Two other aircraft shipments of cash were sent on January 22, 2016, and February 5, 2016, totaling $1.3 billion.[23]


The transfer of $1.7 billion in cash, not through an electronic bank transfer, is odd. Obama’s experts at the White House and Treasury Department should have suspected that the banknotes would be used to pay Iran’s militias in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Indeed, in the two years since the cash was transferred, the US government traced some of the $1.7 billion to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthi rebels in Yemen.[24] White House officials were either gullible, or wanted to help Iran circumvent UN sanctions on Hezbollah’s nefarious operations.


The Second Strategy that Empowered Iran – Obama’s Support of the Pro-Iran Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki (2006-2014)

Maliki is a divisive, anti-Sunni, Iranian surrogate. Obama’s indifference toward Maliki’s maltreatment of Iraq’s Sunnis engendered a deeper schism among Shi’ites and Sunnis than ever before in Iraq. For six years during Obama’s eight-year presidency, Maliki committed gross acts of discrimination and violence against Iraq’s Sunnis, while Obama looked the other way. US senators and American diplomats in Baghdad warned Obama about the danger to America’s interest in Iraq and the region from his embrace of Maliki, but to no avail.[25] 


Obama’s decision to withdraw the last US soldier from Iraq at the end of 2011, left the door open to Iran to fill the gap left by the departing Americans. It allowed Maliki a free hand to further marginalize and abuse Iraq’s Sunnis.


Nouri al-Maliki’s pro-Iran credentials were well known. It is inconceivable that White House was ignorant of Iran’s desire and capacity to fill the vacuum US’ withdrawal would create. That US troops were withdrawn because Maliki rejected American demands for a Status of Forces agreement to shield US troops in Iraq from prosecution or lawsuits is a politically convenient excuse.[26] Maliki’s insistence on rejecting the Status of Forces agreement was designed to hand Iran control of the Baghdad government under his stewardship. Indeed, if Obama refused to withdraw, what could Maliki and the Qom ayatollahs have done? Obama, Maliki, and Iran share the responsibility for the emergence of the so-called Islamic State.

Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq and his keen interest in the success of the P5+1 negotiations with Iran energized the Qom ayatollahs. They acted as if Washington has given them the green light to encroach upon their Sunni neighbours. The destruction of much of Syria followed.

The Third Strategy that Empowered Iran - Handing Syria to Iran
For six years, Obama not only refused to supply defensive anti-aircraft guns to Syria's anti-Asad army, but also prevented other countries from supplying such weapons. He refused to punish the Asad regime for its use of chemical weapons on August 21, 2013 in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, where 1,400 people were poisoned to death, repudiating his own infamous "red line"[27]

Syria was not going to be allowed to derail Obama’s nuclear deal. Nor was Iran going to allow Obama to attack Assad, even if that meant walking away from the nuclear deal. Reportedly, Obama declined to enforce the red-line after Iran threatened to back out of the nuclear deal if Assad’s forces were bombed.[28] According to Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon, "When the president announced his plans to attack [the Assad regime] and then pulled back, it was exactly the period in time when American negotiators were meeting with Iranian negotiators secretly in Oman to get the nuclear agreement."[29] The timing of Obama’s pull back is curious. On August 31, 2013, the US military strike against Syria for the chemical attack was unexpectedly put on hold, when Mr. Obama decided to first seek the approval of Congress. This approval never came.[30] Two days earlier, on August 29, 2013, Ed Miliband, leader of the Labor Party in the UK, scuttled a vote in parliament to bomb Assad’s forces for the chemical attack.[31] Were the two events coordinated?


Risks Obama Ignored

In empowering Iran, Mr. Obama opened the gates of hell wider than ever before in the Muslim Middle East. He ignored the realities and fundamental religious, political, and historical facts of the Middle East and Islam. As a student of history, the son of a father who “came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims,”[32] Mr. Obama should have known that there was no realistic possibility of “sharing” the Middle East between an Iran ruled by extreme Shi’ite clerics and a Saudi Arabia ruled by an equally extreme Sunni Wahhabi regime. The theological plus ethnic differences are too wide and the long history of war that separates Shi’ite Persians from Arab Sunnis is deeply ingrained in their collective memories.


The so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was created by the Systemic marginalization of Iraq’s minority Sunnis by the Iran-controlled Shi’ite government in Baghdad during the eight-year reign of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (2006–2014) and by Assad’s 10 percent Alawite regime against most of Syria’s 75 percent Sunni population since 1963. 


Outcomes of Obama’s Iran Policies

When Obama wrote his own version of the Washington Playbook, he set the stage for the restoration of relations with Iran after 38 years of estrangement since Ayatollah Khomeini deposed the Shah of Iran in 1979 and held 52 US diplomats and citizens as hostages for 444 days (November 4, 1979-January 20, 1981). In his rehabilitation of Iran, Mr. Obama’s new playbook upended US strategy in the Middle East. His actions were a win for the United States:  


·     It preoccupied Shi’ites and Sunni in wars thousands of miles away from the US in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.


·     The confrontation with Iran left Riyadh with no option but to purchase more US weapons. The Obama administrationsold Riyadh $112 billion in weapons and another $110 billion package was under negotiation before the Trump administration took office, which materialized when President Trump visited Riyadh on May 20, 2017.[33]


·     Saudi fear of the Shi’ite Crescent paved the way to seeking good relations with Israel. It is an open secret that senior officials from Saudi Arabia meet with Israeli officials in Israel and outside the Middle East with the aim of establishing cooperative relations.[34]


·      By lifting crippling economic sanctions on Iran, Obama opened Iran’s markets to US companies, a market of eighty million consumers. Boeing agreed in December 2016 to sell 80 aircraft to IranAir while Obama was in office.[35] Since President Trump took office, Iran’s Aseman Airlines announced on June 10, 2017 that it has signed an agreement to buy 30 Boeing-737 jets in Iran's first contract with an American company.[36]


The Snubbing of Obama in Riyadh

On January 20, 2017, when Obama left the White House, he left behind a Muslim Middle East on fire. He had dealt a severe blow to Arab Sunnis, brought them monumental losses and suffering, added gasoline to the fires of Sunni/Shi’ite wars that were started by G.W. Bush, and made the soil more fertile for big jihadist recruitment.

The Atlantic magazine’s interview was a humiliating public rebuke of Saudi governance and values from top to bottom. It was the last straw that broke the Saudi back.[37] Despite their desperate need for US protection, the King decided to say his farewell to a hostile president Obama, who was on his way out of the White House, with the biggest insult he knew how, in the hope that the next president would reverse course.

Obama was not welcomed at the airport by King Salman, as protocol provides, and not even by the foreign minister, but by a lowly governor of Riyadh, on his visit to Riyadh on April 20, 2016.  The King snubbed the US president despite the fact that on the same day, Saudi state television showed King Salman personally greeting officials from Gulf States at the airport.[38]In terms of Arab culture, un-graciousness towards a guest is the ultimate insult.[39]


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[1] Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine.” The Atlantic, (April 2016 Issue).                       


[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6]Barack Obama's Speech” The Telegraph.

[7] Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic, (April 2016 Issue).

[8] Arms Control Association, “Timeline of Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran.”


[9] US Department of State,Iran-Iraq Arms Nonproliferation Act of 1992,”


[10] US Department of State, ”Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” https://www.state.gov/e/eb/tfs/spi/iran/jcpoa/

[11]Iran Nuclear Deal: Key Details,” BBC, (January 16, 2016).


[12] Nobel Secretary Regrets Obama Peace Prize,” BBC, (September 17, 2015).


[13] Josh Levs, “Fact Check: Was Obama 'silent' on Iran 2009 protests?,” CNN, (October 9, 2012).


[14] Gil Hoffman, “Michael Oren: Obama rejected Iran Green Revolution for nuclear deal,” The Jerusalem Post, (January 1, 2018).


[15] Josh Meyer, “The secret backstory of how Obama let Hezbollah off the hook,” Politico, (December 18, 2017).


[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Jay Solomon and Carol E. Lee, “U.S. Transferred $1.3 Billion More in Cash to Iran After Initial Payment,” The Wall Street Journal, (September 6, 2016).


[22] Bill Gertz, “Obama-era cash traced to Iran-backed terrorists,” The Washington Times, (February 7, 2018).


[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Peter Beinart, “Obama’s Disastrous Iraq Policy: An Autopsy,” The Atlantic, (July 23, 2014).

[26] Lara Jakes and Rebecca Santana, “Iraq Prime Minister: Immunity Issue Scuttled US Troop Deal,” The Washington Times, (October 22, 2011).


[27]Syria Chemical Attack: What We Know”, BBC, (September 24, 2013).


[28] Pamela Engel, “Obama reportedly declined to enforce red line in Syria after Iran threatened to back out of nuclear deal,” Business Insider UK. (August 23, 2016).


[29] Ibid.

[30] Pau Lewis, “US attack on Syria delayed after surprise U-turn from Obama,” The Guardian, (September 1, 2013).


[31] Nicholas Watt and Nick Hopkins, “Cameron forced to rule out British attack on Syria after MPs reject motion,” The Guardian, (August 29, 2013).


[32]Barack Obama's Speech” The Telegraph.

[33] Bruce Riedel, “The $110 Billion Arms Deal to Saudi Arabia is Fake News,” Brookings, (June 5, 2017).


[34] Yoel Guzansky and Clive Jones, “Why Are Israelis and the Saudis Cozying Up?,Newsweek, (May 18, 2017).


[35]Iran Says It Sealed Boeing Plane Deal at Half Price,” Reuters, (December 25, 2016).


[36]Iran's Aseman Signs Final Deal for 30 Boeing 737s: IRNA,” Reuters, (June 10, 2017).


[37] On March 10, 2016, the Atlantic published a summary of the forthcoming interview for the April issue; so when Obama visited Riyadh on April 20, 2017, Saudi officials must have known its contents.

[38] Andrew Buncombe, “Barack Obama Gets Diplomatic Snub as Saudi Arabia Shows Its Anger over 9/11 Bill,” The Independent, (April 20, 2016).


[39] The Arabic proverb: Oh friend, if you visit with us, you will find us to be the guests and you being the host.