The "legacy" speech.

Photographer: Evan Vucci - Pool/Getty Images

Iran Holds Obama’s Foreign-Policy Legacy Hostage

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Iran's seizure of two U.S. naval ships and President Barack Obama's response show that the country the president hoped would secure his foreign policy legacy now has the ability to hold it hostage.

Obama didn’t mention the incident in the Persian Gulf during his State of the Union speech because, according to administration officials, the U.S. does not consider the boarding of the ships and the seizure of 10 U.S. sailors to be a "hostile act." Instead, the president praised the diplomatic agreement on Iran's nukes.

“As we speak, Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile, and the world has avoided another war,” he said.

Even if Iran quickly releases the 10 U.S. military personnel it took custody of, as senior Obama administration officials assured reporters Tuesday evening, the incident is a significant escalation in the Persian Gulf. It shows that despite a nuclear agreement with the West, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps is willing to board U.S. vessels, take American soldiers into custody, and, according to CNN citing U.S. officials, confiscate the crew's communications and GPS equipment.

Officials pointed to Secretary of State John Kerry’s call to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif as evidence of an improved bilateral relationship. But there were several signs the administration and the Iranian government were not working well together. As the Iranian state press reported the sailors had been “arrested” for “snooping,” a senior Obama administration official gave reporters conflicting information, saying the boats had malfunctioned and the sailors would be released “promptly.” It took several hours before the captured sailors were allowed to make contact with their superiors.

The incident is just latest in a series of Iranian provocations since agreeing to the nuclear deal in July. In late December, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps vessels fired unguided missiles near the USS Truman; the U.S. did not retaliate. Also last month, Kerry wrote to the Iranian government to assure it the U.S. government would waive new visa restrictions passed by Congress, after Tehran objected. The U.S. indefinitely delayed imposing sanctions on Iran in response to its tests of ballistic missiles in violation of United Nations sanctions.

“This administration is going to remain hostage from now until they leave office to the games the Iranians play and to Iranian behavior that falls outside the four corners of the agreement,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator now at the Wilson Center.

The incident comes just as Western leaders were hoping to announce the implementation day for the nuclear agreement. The State of the Union speech, officials said, meant to highlight that legacy and present Obama’s case that the world was more safe and secure because of his diplomatic achievements. To put it mildly, Iran undermined that message Tuesday. 

“If you’re not drinking coffee tomorrow reading about how this thing got resolved, if this becomes the new hostage crisis, then it strikes me as virtually inconceivable that we could go ahead with implementation,” Miller said on Tuesday evening.

There’s a lot of information about Tuesday’s incident that remains unclear. It is not known whether the two small U.S. naval ships crossed into Iranian waters, and if so whether that was intentional. One Iranian news outlet said that the sailors were “rescued,” an indication the Iranian government had not settled on an official justification for taking the sailors captive.

But the administration's reaction, first to play down any incident and then to seek accommodation with Tehran, is becoming the norm in the U.S.-Iran relationship in the wake of the Iran deal, even as Iran escalates tensions with the U.S. and its allies. 

“The problem is, all indications are that the Obama administration is changing its overall approach to Iran, not standing up for its own rights,” said former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffrey, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “A lot of it is, ‘This is our legacy,'" he said, "and 'We can’t let anything get in the way of it.’”

The Iranians were clear when striking the deal that they would not change their negative views and aggressive policies against the U.S., Jeffrey said, and they have been consistent in that. To his thinking, it is the Obama administration that has wavered between hope and skepticism that the Iran deal would yield broader progress in the bilateral relationship.

The Iranians know the Obama administration is committed to preserving the Iran deal above all else and they are using that knowledge to get away with mischief, Jeffrey said. Miller said the Obama administration is so committed to claiming the Iran deal as part of its legacy, officials won’t reverse course and take a tougher line now.

“This administration is in a no-win situation with Iran. Once you start dancing with a bear, the only problem is, you can’t let go,” he said. “This administration has no choice but to keep on dancing.”

The incident also shows that the faction of Iran's government--led by its president, Hassan Rouhani--that negotiated the nuclear deal has little influence over Iran's national security state. U.S. analysts and most experts see these incidents as provocations aimed at weakening the nuclear agreement that is supported by Rouhani. This dynamic is particularly important because of elections next month for Iran's parliament and powerful assembly of experts, which will choose Iran's next supreme leader, which has the ultimate authority over Iran's nuclear program. 

On Capitol Hill, there is a determined behind the scenes effort to bring new Iran sanctions legislation to the Senate floor, focused on all of Iran’s non-nuclear bad behavior: its ballistic missile testing, human rights violations, holding of three other American hostages, and sponsorship of terror around the region. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is leading the effort.

The bill could cause a huge problem for the Obama administration in its final year, but only if a few Democrats join Republicans, enabling the bill to avoid a filibuster. Some Democrats are already signaling they are on board.

Senator Robert Menendez told us today, before the news of the captured sailors broke, that he supported new sanctions to punish Iran if it violates the nuclear deal. “I believe even many of those who support that agreement share that view,” he said.

The next 24 hours will test whether the Iranians who negotiated a deal to curb its nuclear program can stop its domestic opponents from creating a new hostage crisis. Obama's legacy as a statesman hangs in the balance.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the authors of this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net