18-hole diplomacy?

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Corker: 'Obama Doctrine' Means Abandoning Middle East

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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President Barack Obama finally got his framework nuclear deal with Iran, and now has to convince Congress to back off its demand for an up-or-down vote on the final package. Its going to be a tough sell: As of now, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee doesn’t even agree with Obama on what the deal will mean for the region and the world.

In an interview with me last week, before the Obama administration announced the breakthrough between Iran and six major world powers, Republican Senator Bob Corker said he had figured out the overarching objectives of the president’s various moves in the Middle East, including not just Obama’s drive to get a deal with Iran but also his reluctance to get involved in Syria and his treatment of Arab allies and Israel. Corker said Obama just wants to get out of the region.

“It’s become very evident as to what the administration is doing relative to the Middle East,” Corker said. “The administration’s view is that in order to extract ourselves in the Middle East, we need to move away from our relationship from Israel and we need to more fully align ourselves with Iran, so we create this balance in the Middle East between Iran and its influence and the Arab Sunni influence in the region.” He added: “That seems to be our strategy. And that’s what’s creating all of this turmoil in the region.” 

According to Corker, the Iran deal is the lynchpin of Obama’s drive to change the balance of power in Iran’s favor and then remove America’s role from the region. But he said Obama’s plan was fatally flawed because Iran has no intention of reforming.  “The P5+1 discussions are central to that,” Corker said. “The problem with that today, the fact is, Iran hasn’t changed its behavior. That’s why you see so much of what’s happening in the Middle East.”

Obama and Corker have been trying to work together as the Iran negotiations enter their final phase. Corker plans to move forward with his legislation that would mandate a 60-day review period before any deal Obama signs with Iran could go into effect. The White House has promised to veto that bill, but Obama said in an interview with the New York Times’s Thomas L. Friedman that he was open to working with Corker on a rewrite that would allow Congress to express its views but that would not impinge on the presidential prerogative to make foreign policy.

In the Times interview, Obama said that the Iran pact, if it materializes, will be a good deal even if Iran doesn’t change its behavior. But he added that he hopes a deal will turn the page both inside Iran and in the U.S.-Iran relationship. “I’ve been very clear that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon on my watch, and I think they should understand that we mean it,” Obama said. “But I say that hoping that we can conclude this diplomatic arrangement -- and that it ushers a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations -- and, just as importantly, over time, a new era in Iranian relations with its neighbors.”

Obama defined his own doctrine as: “We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.” American core concerns in the region no longer include oil or territory or strategic interests, the president said. “Our interests in this sense are really just making sure that the region is working,” he said. “And if it’s working well, then we’ll do fine.”

In regard to Israel and the Arab states, Obama denied that he is moving away from them at all. He did say that Sunni Arab countries have to do more to reform politically and respond to the concerns of their people. “When it comes to external aggression, I think we are going to be there for our friends,” said Obama. “But I think the biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries.”

Corker has been more moderate on the Iran talks than most of his Republican colleagues. He declined add his name to the letter that 47 of them sent to the Iranian regime promising to scuttle any deal after Obama leaves office. He has been working with Democrats including Robert Menendez and Tim Kaine to craft legislation that will get broad bipartisan support.

But Corker and Obama fundamentally disagree on the impact a nuclear Iran deal will have on the region; Obama thinks it will be helpful, Corker thinks it could be catastrophic. Before Obama will be able to convince Congress to trust him on a deal he says will prevent Iran from getting the nuclear bomb, he will have to convince the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that their views of how the deal will affect the world can mesh.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net