Lamentations about what has become of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East miss the point. The remarkable thing about President Obama's diplomacy in the region is that it has come full circle—to the very beginning of his presidency. The promised "opening" to Iran, the pass given to Bashar Assad's tyranny in Syria, the abdication of the American gains in Iraq and a reflexive unease with Israel—these were hallmarks of the new president's approach to foreign policy.
Now we are simply witnessing the alarming consequences of such a misguided, naïve outlook.
Consider this bit of euphoria from a senior Obama administration official after the Oct. 16-17 negotiations in Geneva with the Iranians over their nuclear program: "I've been doing this now for about two years, and I have never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before."
In Iran, especially, Mr. Obama believed that he would work his unique diplomatic magic. If Tehran was hostile to U.S. interests, if Iran had done its best to frustrate the war in Iraq, to proclaim a fierce ideological war against Israel's place in the region and its very legitimacy as a state, the fault lay, Mr. Obama seemed to believe, with the policies of his predecessors.
In Tehran last November at the annual state-backed commemoration of the 1979 seizure of American hostages, a participant burned a caricature of President Obama.
When antiregime protests roiled Iran in Mr. Obama's first summer as president, he stood locked in the vacuum of his own ideas. He remained aloof as the Green Movement defied prohibitive odds to challenge the theocracy. The protesters had no friend in Mr. Obama. He was dismissive, vainly hoping that the cruel rulers would accept the olive branch he had extended to them.
No one asked the fledgling American president to dispatch U.S. forces into the streets of Tehran, but the indifference he displayed to the cause of Iranian freedom was a strategic and moral failure. Iran's theocrats gave nothing in return for that favor. They pushed on with their nuclear program, they kept up the proxy war against U.S. forces in Iraq, they pushed deeper into Arab affairs, positioning themselves, through their proxies, as a power of the Mediterranean. This should have been Mr. Obama's Persian tutorial. Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had no interest in a thaw with the Great Satan.
Yet last month at the United Nations Mr. Obama hailed Khamenei for issuing a "fatwa" against his country's development of nuclear weapons. Even though there is no evidence that any such fatwa exists, the notion that the Iranian regime is governed by religious edict is naïve in the extreme. Muslims know—unlike the president, apparently—that fatwas can be issued and abandoned at the whim of those who pronounce them. In any event, Khamenei is not a religious scholar sitting atop Iran's theocracy. He is an apparatchik. As the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself put it in 1988, when his regime was reeling from a drawn-out war with Iraq: "Our government has priority over all other Islamic tenets, even over prayer, fasting and the pilgrimage to Mecca."
We must not underestimate the tenacity of this regime and its will to rule. We should see through the rosy Twitter messages of President Hasan Rouhani, and the PowerPoint presentations of his foreign minister, Mohammed Jawad Zarif. These men carry out the writ of the supreme leader and can only go as far as the limit drawn by the Revolutionary Guard.
In a lawyerly way, the Obama administration has isolated the nuclear issue from the broader context of Iran's behavior in the region. A new dawn in the history of the theocracy has been proclaimed, but we will ultimately discover that Iran's rulers are hellbent on pursuing a nuclear-weapons program while trying to rid themselves of economic sanctions.
True, the sanctions have had their own power, but they haven't stopped Iran from aiding the murderous Assad regime in Syria, or subsidizing Hezbollah in Beirut. And they will not dissuade this regime from its pursuit of nuclear weapons. In dictatorial regimes, the pain of sanctions is passed onto the underclass and the vulnerable.
Just as he has with Iran, President Obama now takes a lawyerly approach to Syria, isolating Assad's use of chemical weapons from his slaughter of his own people by more conventional means. The president's fecklessness regarding Syria—the weakness displayed when he disregarded his own "red line" on Assad's use of chemical weapons—was a gift to the Iranian regime. The mullahs now know that their nuclear program, a quarter-century in the making, will not have to be surrendered in any set of negotiations. No American demand will be backed by force or even by force of will.
The gullibility of Mr. Obama's pursuit of an opening with Iran has unsettled America's allies in the region. In Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates there is a powerful feeling of abandonment. In Israel, there is the bitter realization that America's strongest ally in region is now made to look like the final holdout against a blissful era of compromise that will calm a turbulent region. A sound U.S. diplomatic course with Iran would never have run so far ahead of Israel's interests and of the region's moderate anti-Iranian Arab coalition.
In Washington, the threats represented by Tehran's theocrats are forgotten in this time of undue optimism, as is the Assad regime's continued barbarity. With the Russian-brokered "deal" on Syria's chemical weapons, Mr. Obama has merely draped American abdication in the garb of reason and prudence.
Those who run the Islamic Republic of Iran and its nuclear program, like most others in the region, have taken the full measure of this American president. They sense his desperate need for a victory—or anything that can be passed off as one.
Mr. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and the author most recently of "The Syrian Rebellion" (Hoover Press, 2012).