By Aaron David Miller • Wall Street Journal

It’s not clear how much worse things will get for the Obama administration over its $400 million payment to Iran in January, but the cash-for-prisoners scandal may end up being the least of U.S. concerns in all this.

I write that knowing that Congress plans to hold hearings in September. I also know that so close to Election Day, this issue is likely to remain a highly politicized he-said/she-said among Republicans eager to take aim, an administration on the defensive, and a Democratic nominee in an increasingly difficult position because of the optics: a choreographed and sequenced transaction in which cash was delivered after U.S. prisoners were released, regardless of whether you consider it ransom.

Here’s the larger and more potentially damaging perception beyond the general embarrassment: In the Middle East, strength and negotiating acumen are prized; they demonstrate power and credibility. And the region tends to consider actions and strategy in a time frame that stretches far beyond the four- and eight-year scale of U.S. politics. Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s handling of Iran in this situation plays into the narrative that the U.S. is weak and feckless and behaving as if it doesn’t know what it’s doing.

Some will see this as proof that the U.S. is unable or unwilling to contain Iran’s influence in the region, whether because the administration fears that pushing the Iranians too hard on Syria might jeopardize the international agreement over Tehran’s nuclear program–a seminal achievement for Mr. Obama–or because the U.S. is wary of deeper involvement in the region.

Others will notice that Iran is cementing ties with its friends–Russia, Turkey, Hezbollah, Iraqi militias that support Iran, and the Assad regime–while the U.S. is losing regional clout by becoming estranged from its friends, notably Israel and Saudi Arabia, also because of the nuclear accord.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is tripping over itself trying to explain how and why it didn’t pay ransom as Iranian hard-liners contend that that is precisely what happened–adding to the perception that Washington was played and is violating its own pledge of not bargaining for imprisoned Americans.

All of this feeds into an image of U.S. policy fundamentally constrained by a changing region, one that seems beyond Washington’s willingness and capacity to manage. The central actor in this new landscape is a rising Iran, willing to sacrifice much for its vital interests. What can be hard to keep in mind in all the back-and-forth is that Iran isn’t 10 feet tall–its regime has its own constraints in Syria and Iraq. But in a region of weak Arab states, alongside a Russia willing to assert its power, and a Washington constrained by a nuclear accord that has expanded Iran’s ambitions, Tehran is a force to be reckoned with. This will be the case even more when the constraints on its nuclear program begin to sunset in a few years. At which point cash-for-prisoners may end up being the least of U.S. concerns.

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