U.S. President Barack Obama
Photograph by Brendan Smialowski — Getty Images
By Nina Easton
November 24, 2014

Like any high-wire negotiations, the Iran nuclear talks that blew through a second deadline today have a complicated—and evolving—back story. Behind them are an American president’s hunger for a foreign policy legacy, a shifting geopolitical terrain that puts two enemies on the same side of the war against ISIS—and a secret letter enraging Obama critics, including Israel, who fear he won’t halt Tehran’s march toward nuclear weapons.

Right now it appears today’s deadline will be extended, making this a good day to step back and put the talks in perspective, which I recently did with Danielle Pletka, veteran Middle East watcher and senior vp at the American Enterprise Institute. I interviewed Pletka for the latest episode of the iTunes podcast Smart Women Smart Power at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:


https://fortunedotcom.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/iran_smart-women-smart-power.mp3Smart Women Smart Power: Iran

To set the stage on Pletka’s analysis, here is a succinct excerpt from Reuters this morning describing what’s at stake:

The talks in Vienna aim for a deal that could transform the Middle East, open the door to ending economic sanctions on Iran and start to bring a nation of 76 million people in from the cold after decades of hostility with the West.

The cost of failure could be high. Iran’s regional foes Israel and Saudi Arabia are watching the Vienna talks nervously. Both fear a weak deal that fails to curtail Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, while a collapse of the negotiations would encourage Iran to become a threshold nuclear weapon state, something Israel has said it would never allow.

In print and on TV, Pletka been a salty-tongued critic of the Obama White House. (In a blog post she recently accused the President of trying to “suck up” to Iran by failing to remove its client, Syrian President Bashar al Assad. More on that below.) That said, her views reflect widespread skepticism about the Iranian regime’s intentions in the talks between Iran and six world powers that were put on hold in Vienna today.

Pletka argues that Iran’s hand was strengthened by a dramatic turn of events this year: Specifcally, the rise of the terrorist group ISIS, which found fertile ground in the chaos of Syria’s civil war and now controls a third of Iraq, including the country’s second largest city, and threatens Bagdad.

The rise of ISIS puts the U.S. and Iran on the same side of a military campaign against a terrorist group that threatens not only the Middle East, but also U.S. and Western targets. Even as the American military conducts air strikes against ISIS, Iranian forces are on the ground in Iraq and Syria battling the terror group (and not very successfully, Pletka notes).

“Sure we have common enemies. But the enemy of my enemy is my friend is not a good guide post for foreign policy,” says Pletka as she ticks off the names of Iranian-backed terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. “Instability is very appealing to the Iranians. They have no desire to see a stable, strong, independent Iraq on their border.”

The same, she adds, goes for Syria—and that’s where we get back to Pletka’s charge that the White House is “sucking up” to Iran, hoping for more cooperation in the nuclear talks. Despite the President Obama’s proclamation that “Assad must go,” the Syrian strongman and Iranian ally remains in power—a source of frustration even to many Democrats.

Former Obama official Anne Marie Slaughter told me she supports U.S. air strikes to destroy Assad’s air bases:

Pletka goes a step farther, arguing that if the U.S. had been willing to destroy those air bases earlier—and with them, Assad’s ability to drop bombs and chemical weapons on his enemies—“we would have never had to deal with the rise of ISIS.”

Instead, Pletka charges, the administration chose “to downplay hostility toward Assad in order to make nice with the Iranians for this strange bank-shot on the Iranian nuclear negotiations. [That is], if we let them keep their pal in Syria, then maybe they’ll think we’re good guys who understand their strategic priorities and they’ll give up their nuclear weapons program.” The failure to force out Assad has also contributed to Turkish resistance to helping in the war against ISIS, she adds.

“All because the president thinks he’s playing this particularly clever card with the Iranians,” says Pletka. “It’s a huge mistake.”

Two weeks before the Monday deadline, news reports revealed that President Obama had written a secret letter to Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei describing the U.S.-Iran shared interest in fighting ISIS, apparently hoping to encourage a Tehran to agree to a deal in the nuclear negotiations. Pletka called this letter—the President’s fourth to the Ayatollah—a “dangerous choice…like a spurned girlfriend’s notes to her unresponsive boyfriend…I think it also has that vibe to the Iranians.”

By the way, MPW watchers: The lead U.S. negotiator on the Iran talks is a woman to watch—Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs and now acting deputy Secretary of State. An appointee of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sherman will be in a glaring spotlight if and when a deal with Iran is reached. She served under President Clinton in the 1990s, where she was a lead negotiator with North Korea over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program.

“From the MPW Co-chairs” is a series where the editors who oversee the Fortune Most Powerful Women brand share their insights about women leaders.

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