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patrick martin

U.S. President Barack Obama has "come full circle" in his Middle East policies, argues Lebanese-born Fouad Ajami, an author, columnist and senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. After years of ambivalence by the White House, the "opening" to Iran Mr. Obama promised in his first days in office back in 2009, has now come to pass in the form of the recent deal he made with Tehran on its controversial nuclear program.

Sadly for the West, "this interim deal does not bode well" for any long-term or permanent agreement, said Mr. Ajami, who was in Toronto on Thursday to deliver a lecture sponsored by the Donner Foundation.

Mr. Ajami, who describes himself as "completely secular," hails from a Shia family that moved to Lebanon from Iran in the middle of the 19th century. A former director of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University, the 68-year-old scholar has become increasingly critical of Mr. Obama's foreign policy.

I spoke with him Thursday morning at his hotel in Toronto.

PM: What was so bad about the deal with Iran?

FA: The whole thing was a matter of legacy – a second-term President is worried what history will say about him. Obama needed a deal, and that's not a good way to strike a bargain.

My mother taught me: When shopping in the bazaar you must be prepared to walk away. Obama couldn't do that. Now, the mullahs know their precious nuclear program will not have to be surrendered in any negotiations.

PM: Isn't President Hassan Rouhani a big change for Iran?

FA: Not really. Despite what people say, he's no [Mikhail] Gorbachev. And, even if he was, it's the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who needs to be changed. He's the one calling the shots.

PM: How should Obama have approached the negotiations?

FA: By first smashing Iran in Syria and thereby showing he was serious about negotiations with Tehran. That would have given him bargaining power.

When he disregarded his own "red line" on [Bashar] Assad's use of chemical weapons this past summer, he showed how weak he was.

He should have established a red line in Syria two years ago when the regime used air power against rebels in Aleppo. That doesn't mean that the U.S. would have had to invade, which is what everyone was worried about. Obama could have provided arms to the rebels and established no-fly/no drive zones on the Turkish and Jordanian borders. That would have been all the help the opposition needed.

Instead, he gave Syria a pass, and then pretended to be tough in negotiations with Tehran. No one believed him.

PM: But he got rid of Syria's chemical weapons, didn't he?

FA: This is not about chemical weapons. Assad was very happy to trade his chemical weapons for the survival of his regime.

It's part of a much larger conflict with Tehran's control stretching from Iran to Lebanon.

I'm not sure if the Obama administration realizes this, but they've handed the Shia bloc a big victory: We emancipated the Shiites in Iraq, then turned them over to [Nouri al-] Maliki, a pro-Iran Shia leader; we stood by and watched as Iran built up its strength in Lebanon; we did nothing to stop Iran's victory in Syria against the rebels, and now there's the deal that recognizes a nuclear program in Iran.

PM: Are you sure you want the Syrian opposition to win?

FA: Absolutely. Anything is better than the murderous Assads.

PM: Really? What about the jihadists in the opposition?

FA: I'm not worried about them. In the 1990s people used to worry about the jihadists fighting in Bosnia, said they'd create a Taliban-style state. But when the fight against the Serbs and Croats was over, most of the jihadists went home. Some stayed and married Bosnian women, but they didn't create an Islamic state.

PM: Just how bad are the tensions between Sunni and Shia?

FA: They're the worst they've ever been. The animus is very strong and the possibility of reconnecting between Shia and Sunni in Iraq or in Lebanon is very remote. In Iraq, it's Maliki, who's nothing more than a sectarian leader; in Lebanon, it's [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah who has deepened the canyon between his Shiites and the Sunnis. Nasrallah heeds the call of the Supreme Leader in Iran.

PM: Anything else worry you these days?

FA: I worry for the liberals in Egypt. They were right to want to get rid of Mubarak, and the Muslim Brotherhood behaved very badly in its year in office. But now I see a dictator coming – General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – and something more violent emerging from the Muslim Brotherhood. The security forces will try to crush the Brotherhood, but they've tried that before and it doesn't work.

Egypt's liberals are a little smug. They like to say that Egypt, with 90 million people, is too big to fail; that international organizations will step in to help. But outside the country, people are starting to say that Egypt is too big to be saved.

This interview has been edited and condensed.