ISIS Threat Could Be Obama’s Ace in the Hole on Iran Nuclear Deal

PM Netanyahu is waging a losing battle against the maxim: 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend,' to which even his hero Churchill subscribed.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian FM Mohammad Javad Zarif and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton attend meeting at the UN on Sept. 26, 2013.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian FM Mohammad Javad Zarif and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton attend meeting at the UN on Sept. 26, 2013.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Winston Churchill detested Communist revolutionaries. He described Bolshevik leaders as deranged criminals and morbid murderers, as insects, wolves and baboons, as typhus-bearing vermin and blood sucking vampires. He lauded Mussolini for his victories over ‘bestial Leninism”, backed Franco to beat the Communists in the Spanish Revolution and even blasted the Jews for their disproportionate representation in the “world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization.”

But from the moment Churchill recognized that it was Hitler and not Stalin who represented the ultimate clear and present danger, he swiftly turned on his heels. He preceded most of his fellow British Conservatives in calling for an alliance with the Soviet dictator and when the Nazis invaded Russia in June, 1941, he famously told his secretary: "If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons."

No one has volunteered yet to go to Congress and speak favorably of the ayatollahs of Iran, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is already wary of the famous maxim embodied in Churchill’s about-face: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Reacting to Bob Schieffer’s query on Sunday’s Face the Nation regarding President Obama’s letter to Iran’s spiritual leader Khamenei, which raised the possibility of collaboration against Islamic State after a nuclear accord is reached, Netanyahu said: “Don’t fall for Iran’s ruse. They are not your partner. They are not your friend.”

But Netanyahu’s battle may be lost already: Iran’s place as public enemy number one has been steadily receding in favor of China and/or Russia, even before Islamic State burst on to the scene. In an annual Gallup poll, only 16 percent picked Iran as America’s biggest enemy, compared to 32 percent a short two years ago. And in a survey of attendees of Foreign Policy’s “Transformational Trends” held in Washington Monday, 36 percent said extremist terrorist groups posed the greatest danger, compared to only 16 percent who picked “rogue nations” that develop nuclear weapons. It brings to mind another famous maxim in which the devil stars: Better the one you know than the one you don’t.

Any lingering doubts about American priorities should have been put to rest by Secretary of State John Kerry’s keynote address to the forum: He was long on ISIS but very short on Iran. “If we don’t defeat ISIL there will be no future for the Middle East,” Kerry said. He blasted the “symbiotic” relationship between ISIL and Syrian President Assad, but said not a word about Assad’s principal supporters in Tehran. And while his lopsided assessment may have been influenced by the news of Peter Kassig’s beheading by ISIS as well as Kerry’s own departure for crucial nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna, there was no mistaking his implicit message: ISIS is the ultimate enemy but Iran’s status is still up for grabs.

It’s hard to tell whether a nuclear agreement will be achieved before the November 24 deadline: Some experts expect a last minute, two-month extension of the talks to January 20, marking a year since the start of the implementation of the interim accord signed last year in Geneva. But even if Obama and Kerry succeed in convincing Khamenei and Rohani to accede to American demands, they will still face what the New York Times described Monday as “the biggest counterweight to the negotiating process” - the confrontational 114th Congress, including the newly-Republican Senate, which will be sworn in on January 3 of next year.

Both sides have already launched preemptive maneuvers: The administration has signaled that Obama may not seek Congressional approval for an accord that would see him ease or suspend sanctions rather than revoke them outright, while Senator Lindsey Graham is seeking to impose Congressional oversight over the talks and Republican Senator Kirk and Democratic Menendez have pledged to impose new sanctions if a “bad deal” is reached. And if there is one thing that is certain in this confused picture it is that any deal that is reached is bound to be defined as “bad” by Netanyahu and subsequently by American lawmakers.

But it’s too early to tell how this potentially historic showdown will develop or end. First of all, it will no doubt be influenced by the expected and concurrent clash over a completely different issue that is nonetheless strikingly similar: Obama’s threat to use executive privilege in order to enact immigration reform. Perhaps more importantly, it is also worthwhile remembering that for all their bellicose talk, senators and representatives are bound to be influenced by public opinion, which supports an accord with Tehran even before the administration takes out the ace up its sleeve: That when a homicidal group such as ISIS creates hell on earth, even the devil can be recruited to restore some law and order. And it was Churchill, Netanyahu’s idol, who said it first.

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