When Interests and Values Collide in Middle East Policy

{Previously published in The Hill}

Advancing a country’s foreign policy interests usually means coming to terms with the inherent contradictions between national values and strategic interests. Translation: sometimes you must consort with unsavory characters. Just as the United States did during World War II, when it allied with the Soviet Union in the name of the greater good to defeat Nazi Germany, sometimes you have to temporarily align with a nation that commits despicable deeds to advance broader goals.

Europe soon will be asked to decide whether to support new U.S.-initiated, non-nuclear sanctions against Iran. Will the Europeans choose economic interests over their proclaimed liberal values?

To advance their national interests for trade, Europeans have turned a blind eye to Iran’s misdeeds: its direct support of Syria, a government that commits genocide; its attempts to eliminate Israel, a member state of the United Nations; its continued use of the slogan “Death to America!”; and its use of proxies such as Hezbollah to target civilians in terrorist attacks. Have European nations crossed a line by rationalizing their economic interests while enriching a regime that is a leading state sponsor of terror?

Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, has pointed out that Europeans aim to convince skeptics that “renewed economic activity in Iran (will) ultimately strengthen Iranian civil society.” But Iran has undermined this argument by using the billions of dollars in economic relief from the 2015 nuclear agreement not to improve quality of life for its citizens but instead to inflame conflicts in Yemen and Syria and to advance its expansionist goals.

European governments — and too many Americans — allow themselves to believe the protestations of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini that nuclear weapons conflict with Islam and that “the Iranian leadership’s aversion to developing chemical and nuclear weapons is deep-rooted and sincere.” Yet Iran unconditionally supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his use of chemical weapons on civilians.

After concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi reaffirmed: “Iran’s commitment to not seek nuclear weapons is permanent.” But this month, the head of Iran’s atomic agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, became the latest official to contradict Iran’s policy against acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities, saying, “If senior Islamic Republic officials issue an order to resume the 20 percent enrichment, we can do it in (the) Fordo (nuclear facility) within 4 days.” (As a reminder, there is no need to enrich uranium beyond 5 percent if your desire is a peaceful nuclear program.)

Mark Dubowitz, of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, notes that Iran’s threats “confirm that the Iranian regime never gave up on its atomic weapon ambitions. … Iran has pathways to dozens of nuclear-tipped missiles capable of striking U.S. forces, U.S. allies, and eventually the U.S. homeland.”

The JCPOA has allowed Iran to continue unfettered research and development for advanced centrifuges. That means the Obama administration and Europeans claimed a Pyrrhic victory, mothballing obsolete Iranian IR-1 centrifuges while acquiescing to the Iranian demand for the development of the next generation of ultrafast centrifuges for uranium enrichment.

Iran is not the only nation whose despicable behavior and anti-Western rhetoric have been met with a hands-off response by the United States and its European allies. Iran’s ally, Turkey, has shown its hypocrisy this month. Before the U.S.-led missile strikes on Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized the West for not doing anything about Assad’s use of chemical weapons and the Syrian government’s genocide. But because Turkey is allied with Assad’s patrons, Iran and Russia, Erdoğan refused to criticize Moscow for saying there was no evidence of a chemical weapons attack in Douma.

Gen. Joseph Votel in late February warned Congress about rising tensions among all these parties in Syria, and said that Russia and Iran will try to erode the strategic partnership between the United States and Turkey, a member of NATO.

Yes, sometimes it is indeed difficult to balance national values and strategic interests. But going forward, the Western allies need to draw a firm line with extremist, revolutionary and theocratic regimes that try to undermine our long-term security interests. Otherwise, we risk dangerous repercussions for emphasizing economic interests when security is paramount.

Eric R. Mandel is director of the Middle East Political and Information Network. He regularly briefs members of Congress and policy groups on the Middle East, and is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post.

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