History never repeats itself exactly, which is why analogies are always on shaky ground. In order to learn from the past, we can explore similarities between distinct events, but significant differences always remain. Nonetheless, we can try to find parallels that are compelling, despite inevitable discrepancies, especially in order to avoid repeating mistakes—like the mistakes that pervade the Iran deal now before Congress. To understand them well, we have to find the right historical precedent.
Defenders of the deal have tried to link it to another grand turn around in U.S. diplomatic history, Richard Nixon’s opening of relations with Communist China in 1972. In both cases, China then and Iran now, a president stepped over a bitterly adversarial history in order to redraw the map of international relations.
Yet the similarity ends there because that comparison is deeply flawed. President Nixon was able to pry China away from the Soviet Union and fundamentally alter the logic of the Cold War in America’s favor. In contrast, President Obama has legitimated the revolutionary regime in Tehran, paved its way toward threshold nuclear status, and—by ending the sanctions regime—provided funding to support Iranian hegemonic ambitions. Nixon’s diplomacy strengthened the relative position of the United States in the world; Obama’s has weakened it.
While President Obama’s agreement with Iran has little in common with Nixon’s China policy, there is an alternative historical analogy that does shed considerable light on the agreements just reached in Vienna: Yalta. In February of 1945, as the collapse of Nazi Germany was coming into sight, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin gathered in this Black Sea resort to determine the future of post-war Europe. At that point in time, Russian troops in Europe greatly outnumbered American forces, while the United States was also embroiled in the Pacific theater, where Roosevelt wanted Russian support. In other words: the American president was eager for a deal.
At the end of the day, the high price of that fateful meeting included Soviet Union hegemony over Eastern Europe. The extent and character of Communist domination was not yet fully evident in the winter of 1945, but the agreement that “the Big Three” reached sacrificed the integrity of Poland to Soviet ambitions and set the stage for the Cold War. The mistakes of Yalta led to nearly fifty years of Russian rule in the region that only came to an end with the opening of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
The Iran deal is Obama’s Yalta. Of course, here too, as with all analogies, some specifics do not apply: Russia and the United States were wartime allies in Europe, while Iran and the United States have been emphatic enemies since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Nonetheless, at their core, these two historical moments share key similarities. The plan that has emerged from the Vienna negotiations echoes the Yalta outcomes for several reasons.
First, just as Yalta ceded to the Soviet Union hegemony over Eastern Europe, the Iran deal de facto establishes the Islamic Republic as the dominant power in the Middle East. The windfall of the sequestered funds and the lifting of sanctions will bankroll an aggressive Iranian foreign policy throughout the Shia crescent, from Tehran through Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut, all the way to the Mediterranean, as well as into Yemen via the Houthi uprising. The agreement with Iran is a decision that establishes its political preeminence across a broad region. A diplomatic decision with far-reaching consequences for the future of the Middle East has been made with none of the local players—except Iran—at the table.
Secondly, Yalta represented an enormous concession to a competing power—true, the USSR was still an ally in World War II, but the tensions between it and western democracies were clearly evident to anyone with eyes to see—just as the Iran deal amounts to a capitulation to a sworn enemy. President Nixon won China as a partner, while the Iranian leadership makes its continued virulent hostility to the United States abundantly clear. We have made significant concessions to an opponent who has given no sign of moderating its hostile behavior in the least toward us or our allies.
Still, the deal amounts to the realization of the Obama program, announced clearly in the Cairo speech, to reduce the American role in the Middle East. During the Cold War and its aftermath, the United States provided a modicum of stability in the region. Because the United States is now rushing for the exit, the chaos of ISIS has unfolded, and new, large-scale Shia-Sunni carnage—a reprise of the Iran-Iraq War—is on the horizon. As the United States retreats, its ability to influence developments on the ground is beginning to dissolve.
Once Iranian hegemony is firmly in place, the capacity for Washington to project its power will have vanished. When Tehran eventually chooses to crush Iraqi Sunnis or curtail Kurdish independence, the United States may have as little ability to influence events as it did when the Soviets crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956—the Yalta legacy.
Thirdly, while there were valid realpolitik grounds for the wartime alliance with Stalin to defeat Hitler’s Germany, it was at its core an alliance with a totalitarian regime with a revolutionary history and global ambitions. Half of Europe, yearning to be free of Nazi occupation, had to pay the price of a new dictatorship when the Red Army arrived, but Communist appetite did not stop there. Russia expanded its political conflict with U.S. interests into Western Europe, while supporting wars in East Asia and guerilla movements in Africa and Latin America, drawing the United States into an accelerating global struggle that would eventually bring the world close to a nuclear confrontation.
It would be foolish to overlook the revolutionary character of the Islamic Republic and its similarly global ambitions, driven by its culture of “death to America.” Barely a decade after Yalta, Stalin’s successor Khruschev was still promising to bury us; a decade from now, Khamenei or his heir will, thanks to the deal, have legitimate access to nuclear power and an easy path to nuclear weapons. But the danger is not a decade off: already now, with the sanctions regime crumbling, Iran is poised to acquire extensive resources to fund its proxy armies and international terrorism.
The Obama administration’s answer in 2009 to the democratic Green movement in Iran was near silence. The Obama administration’s answer to the hopes of the Arab Spring, which erupted, with all of its complexities, in late 2010, is the heavy hand of Iranian hegemony. Yalta handed Eastern Europe over to Moscow; President Obama and Secretary Kerry have given the Middle East to Tehran. The brief glimpse of freedom and democracy that the Arab Spring afforded disappeared with the handshakes in Vienna.
President Nixon was able to break up the Communist block, pulling China away from Moscow. President Obama has established a new geopolitical framework in which Iran is already growing closer to Russia, a key development in the grand game of power of control of the Eurasian land mass. It is hard to imagine a greater diminishment of American global influence.
Yalta continues to cast a long shadow, not only in terms of geo-strategy but politically as well. The cooperation with Stalin and the betrayal of the Eastern Europeans became key reference points in the foreign policy debates in the United States during the Cold War, and the Democratic Party bore the burden of this legacy, for decades vulnerable to the criticism of being weak on defense and soft on Communism. As the debate on the deal opens up, a key question will be whether Democrats are prepared again to become the party of retreat and conciliation, betraying American interests in order to embrace a repressive and revolutionary regime.
Every Democratic senator or representative who votes for the deal will have to defend its consequences in elections to come. This treaty, that is not called a “treaty” only in order to circumvent the constitutional requirement of Senate ratification, is bad for the US, and it will be bad for the Democrats who support it, just as Yalta was seventy years ago.