Russia and Iran have built an alliance aimed at the United States. Iran not only sold cheap but highly effective drones that Russia has used to destroy Ukraine’s electric grid but has also reportedly agreed to establish drone manufacturing facilities in Russia and provide Putin with medium range ballistic missiles. This is not a natural alliance. Iran and Russia have a long history of antipathy and compete for the same customers as energy exporters. Nor do the mullahs share much ideologically with Putin. How could two such adversaries, who have often clashed in the past, form what appears to be a solid anti-American alliance? The answer: American partisan politics drove them together.
Our increasingly ugly partisan politics have done more than any foreign adversary to erode American interests. Gone are the days when political leaders declared “Politics stops at the water’s edge.” Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg voiced that sentiment when he proposed and passed the eponymous Vandenberg Resolution in 1948, opening the door to the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in cooperation with a Democratic President Harry Truman. Vandenberg put patriotism above politics and against his political ambitions. He had hoped to be the Republican nominee for resident against Truman in the 1948 elections. Instead, he helped burnish Truman’s image because it was good for America. Contrast Vandenberg with the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, who invited a foreign leader, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu (‘Bibi’), to insult the President of the United States, Barrack Obama. Boehner subordinated American foreign policy to those of a foreign state in pursuit of his political ambitions.
Netanyahu came to Washington specifically to thwart President Obama’s plan to stop Iran’s nuclear program, to deny a Democratic President a ‘victory’ that might help his reelection. That they chose to oppose an agreement that accomplished a major American foreign policy objective seemed not to bother them at all. The agreement effectively prevented Iran from developing nuclear weapons into the foreseeable future and thus defanged Iran’s ability to threaten its neighborhood, including Israel. Netanyahu objected because his vision for Israel required the continued existence of a powerful enemy, an enemy who could provide Netanyahu a campaign platform as defender of Israel’s very existence. Defanging Iran would defang his political future. Like other populists (i.e., Turkey’s Erdogan) Netanyahu needs foreign enemies for electoral success.
Obama persevered and finally got his agreement with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that reversed Iran’s progress in refining uranium to weapon’s grade. To do so, Obama rallied not only support from our traditional allies but form our current adversaries, Russia and China, as well. Unfortunately, a year later, Donald Trump exploited the JCPOA for political advantage. Calling it the ‘worst agreement ever’ Trump used it against Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent in the 2016 elections and Obama’s first Secretary of State.
Trump, on taking office, abrogated American participation in the JCPOA and instituted a ‘maximum pressure campaign’ of economic sanctions that he claimed would force Iran, begging, to sign a ‘better agreement’. Trump never wanted a better agreement; proving the point Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, issued a list of demands so harsh that no Iranian leader could accept them. Trump is not so simple-minded that he would have expected the Iranian leadership to self-immolate and surrender unconditionally to the Americans. To further prove the point that Trump had no interest in negotiating a better agreement, he made no effort overtly or in secret to engage the Iranians. Like Netanyahu, Trump needed a permanent threatening enemy that he could exploit for political advantage, not a solution.
To be fair, President Biden also bears significant blame for unwittingly driving Moscow and Tehran together. Upon assuming office, Biden failed to undo Trump’s self-serving but wrong- headed decision to walk away from the JCPOA. He spent almost a year showing no interest in restoring the JCPOA and then engaged in negotiations whose endgame seemed always in doubt. His negotiators appeared to have kept moving the goalposts, demanding further Iranian concessions before rejoining the JCPOA. The talks appeared to be on life-support when Putin attacked Ukraine last February. At that point, Biden missed an opportunity. The two sides were very close but bogged down over what appears to have been minor differences. Again, perhaps Biden felt that reviving the JCPOA would have provided the Republicans with campaign fodder and harmed Democratic chances in the November 2022 mid-terms.
Think how different the world would have been had Biden revived the JCPOA within a few months of entering the White House. Iran has enormous oil and gas reserves. Had we lifted sanctions, Iran would have quickly put about two million barrels of oil on the market. This additional supply would not only have lowered prices but would have made it much more difficult for Russia to sustain oil exports in the face of American and EU sanctions. Having gotten back into the market, Iran would also have had to carefully consider risking a U.S. reimposition of sanctions before supplying Russia with drones and missiles or building drone factories.
The story continues to play out. We have made both Russia and Iran dependent on China as their biggest customer for oil and gas is China. China has acquired even more leverage over both Putin and the mullahs, whose own survival is increasingly threatened by internal and external threats. Rather than dividing our adversaries, American domestic politics are driving them into China’s orbit.
This same dynamic continues to play out. Most dangerously, Republicans, having won the House, appear set to undermine U.S. support for Ukraine in its desperate fight against Russia, seeking to undermine Biden in 2024. One despairs – will we ever again see another generation of politicians like Vandenberg, who put country above politics?