The Iran nuclear deal and the Obama Doctrine

The US president’s use of ‘smart power’ can outsmart his opponents for the moment, but Iran is not lagging behind.

Obama is just a cleverer version of Bush, and chances are that Hillary Clinton will do as Obama does, writes Dabashi [AP]

Though long in the offing, it will be quite sometime before we completely figure out what exactly happened in Vienna on July 14, when Iran and its European adversaries led by the US signed a “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” easing a crippling economic sanction regime imposed on it for years in exchange for the suspension of its nuclear programme.

A key conceptual cornerstone of understanding the unfolding significance of this accord is the political thinking of the US President Barack Obama, single-mindedly pushing for this momentous event against all domestic and regional odds.

‘Historic’ nuclear deal agreed with Iran

An Obama Doctrine?

In a perfectly timed interview with the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, President Obama went out of his way to assure him and his fellow Zionists that his attempts at reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran was in no shape or form at the expense of his commitment to the Jewish apartheid state and he was “absolutely committed to making sure that they [Israelis] maintain their qualitative military edge”.

In the course of this overstretched appeasement of the Israeli lobby through one of their chief lieutenants at the New York Times, Obama and Friedman explored what now they both termed “the Obama Doctrine”.

What is the Obama Doctrine? 

As Friedman phrases and Obama acknowledges it, the Obama Doctrine articulates “a common denominator to his decisions to break free from long-standing US policies isolating Myanmar, Cuba, and now Iran. 

Obama said his view was that “engagement”, combined with meeting core strategic needs, could serve American interests vis-a-vis these three countries far better than endless sanctions and isolation.

He added that the US, with its overwhelming power, needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks to open important new possibilities – like trying to forge a diplomatic deal with Iran that, while permitting it to keep some of its nuclear infrastructure, forestalls its ability to build a nuclear bomb for at least a decade, if not longer.


Obama further qualifies his doctrine: “We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk […] Iran’s defence budget is $30bn. Our defence budget is closer to $600bn. Iran understands that they cannot fight us […] You asked about an Obama Doctrine. The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.”

Making of a proxy empire

What to his Republican opponents and neo-con detractors appears as appeasement and disengagement is actually a much smarter form of imperialism that works like a ringmaster in a circus, or perhaps a chess player would be a better metaphor, where the master player knows both the power and the weakness, the kneejerk reactions and hidden desires, of all his players and by making one smart move allows for the rest to adjust their positions and moves according to their whims, which serve the chess master’s design.

Obama allows the Saudis to do their thing in Yemen, and Iranians to do what they desire in Iraq and Syria, and other Arab Gulf states to pursue their fears and anxieties in Syria, and if the world expects him to make a move on Syria he looks at Turkey and wonders why President Recep Tayyip Erdogan does not do it. This is imperialism by proxy, not by direct hard power intervention, which he uses or refrains from using judiciously.

RELATED: Obama urges passage of Iran nuclear deal in US Congress

It is in this context, that the Iran nuclear accord – if it goes smoothly through the treacherous spin of the US Congressand their conservative counterparts in Iran, will be the crowing achievement of this Obama Doctrine, the articulation of a new mode of “smart power” that seeks to manipulate the existing propensities of power politics in the region without overcommitting US military force on the ground, with the full assurance that the threat of power is far more effective that the delivery of power.


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is imperialism by proxy, not by direct hard power intervention, which he uses or refrains from using judiciously.”]

From ‘soft power’ to ‘smart power’

In exchange for returning Iranian frozen assets and easing off the regime of sanctions against them, Obama is employing and implicating Iran into the geopolitics of the region. This is Harvard University professor Joseph Nye’s notion of “smart power” par excellence, the combination of hard and soft power that enables domination and legitimacy.

According to its authors, “Smart power is neither hard nor soft – it is the skilful combination of both. Smart power means developing an integrated strategy, resource base, and tool kit to achieve American objectives” – and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is already on board with the idea.

Obama is just a cleverer version of Bush, and chances are that Hillary Clinton will do as Obama does – and the domain of this smart power, Obama Doctrine, is far beyond Iran and its nuclear programme.

The Iranian natural gas flowing towards Europe will considerably diminish their reliance on Russian supply, and turn the Iran deal into leverage against Russia in Ukraine and elsewhere!

RELATED: Analysing the analysis: The nuclear deal

But among the intention of the author of any doctrine, and the text of that doctrine, and the way it is read and reversed by others, there will always be a vicious hermeneutic triangle.

Call it Obama Doctrine or “smart power”, both Barack Obama and Joseph Nye have to pack their lunch bags and go back to school at a Qom Seminary to learn what “smart power” is. The ruling clerics in Iran, compared to whom, Shakespeare’s Gloucester in Henry VI is a pussy cat, “Can add colours to the chameleon/Change shapes with Proteus for advantages/And set the murderous Machiavel to school.”

Through the same porous borders that the UN inspectors and the Israeli spies among them are going to go to Iran to inspect and monitor the Iranian nuclear facilities and thus to compromise the Iranian national sovereignty, Qassem Soleimani has already gone the other way outsmarting Barack Obama and Joseph Nye put together.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.