Strategy: Where the Iran Deal Really Fails

John Kerry
Carlos Barria/Pool via AP

The Iran deal is unquestionably weaker than the one the Obama administration had promised. As Eli Lake recalled Friday at Bloomberg, in 2013 “Obama said he would trade the dismantlement of sanctions for the dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program. Under the deal agreed this week, Iran’s nuclear infrastructure largely survives.” In addition, the inspections system is extremely weak, the so-called “snap-back” mechanism is absurd, and Iran will receive roughly $150 billion in relief, plus an end to the arms embargo and ballistic missile sanctions.

Clearly, Obama violated his promises to the American people. But the administration continues to argue that the deal is good. And there are some nuclear experts who agree, given certain assumptions.

Over at Vox–usually a reliable Obama cheerleader–one expert awards the deal an “A,” given that the longer the U.S. and world powers allowed the process to drag on, the bigger Iran’s nuclear infrastructure grew. That presumes that the pressure for a deal was on us, instead of on Iran–a presumption apparently shared by President Barack Obama himself.

Recall what Obama said during his testy exchange with Major (“Lt. Col.“) Garrett, when explaining why he did not link the release of four American captives to the deal: “Suddenly, Iran realizes you know what? Maybe we can get additional concessions out of the Americans by holding these individuals.”

That implies that the Americans needed a deal far more than the Iranians did, despite crippling international sanctions. The reality was the opposite–though it seems Obama needed a deal more than America did, for personal and political reasons.

Obama used that press conference to argue that the alternatives to the deal are worse. He warned, for example: “Without a deal, the international sanctions regime will unravel with little ability to reimpose them.” If the sanctions regime is unraveling, that is because the Obama administration helped to unravel it–first, by resisting new congressional sanctions; second, by making it clear to other world powers that the U.S. was eager to sign almost any deal, which created new global anticipation and pressure to exploit new opportunities with Iran.

To sum up so far: Obama broke his word, and negotiated badly. But is the deal really unacceptable? To put it another way: just because Obama crossed his own “red lines,” does that mean he crossed America’s as well? Are there parts of the deal that are so bad that America cannot possibly accept it without threatening our security, our interests, and our allies?

The latter part of the question has a clear answer: our allies, chiefly Israel and Saudi Arabia, see the deal as a threat, rightly or wrongly. That alone should give us pause before accepting it.

To consider the rest of the question, let us examine the two alternative approaches to a nuclear Iran. One is to prevent or deter a nuclear Iran, by war if necessary. The other is the dreaded “containment”–a word synonymous with weakness, and which the White House has avoided, but which is actually a serious alternative, as outlined by Kenneth Pollack in his 2013 bookUnthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy. Under containment, the U.S. would accept a nuclear Iran, but seek to prevent it from ever using a nuclear weapon.

Pollack describes containment as “a muscular strategy that combines diplomatic pressure with military deterrence.” The problem is that Obama has abandoned both. Rather than containing Iran, he now seeks to build it up as a regional power.

The belief, apparently, is that since Iran’s underlying civilization is more stable than that of the post-colonial Sunni regimes, it is a more reliable hegemonic power than any other in the Muslim world, and can be coaxed into playing a more responsible role in the region once its demands for pride are satisfied.

Yet there are no provisions in the Iran deal that would steer the regime in a responsible direction–neither carrots, nor sticks. Instead, Iran is being rewarded for its aggression by being released, over time, from the current international arms embargo and ballistic missile bans.

Obama did not trade that concession for any change in Iranian policy–for a commitment not to support terror, or not to arm Hezbollah, for example. (The Obama administration says existing UN Security Council resolutions cover those problems–but Iran is clearly flouting them.)

Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday that ending the arms embargo would have happened anyway, since it is tied to the UN’s nuclear resolutions. But the parties could easily have negotiated to keep that embargo in place, along with the ballistic missile sanctions.

The upshot is that Iran used nuclear threats to win tacit U.S. backing for its destructive foreign policy (which has included terror against Americans). It has every incentive to continue doing so in the future, as it projects a possibly nuclear-backed conventional threat.

In negotiations with the Soviet Union, such as the Helsinki accords of 1975, human rights provisions were introduced that would gradually play a great role in communism’s unraveling. In contrast, there are no human rights provisions in the Iran deal that would tie sanctions relief to human rights advances. The Obama administration notes that existing human rights sanctions against Iran will remain in place. But those are are a small obstacle for the regime, since it has achieved its most fundamental interests without accepting any domestic reforms.

The Iran deal is a containment strategy without actual containment. Perhaps that is why the liberal, Obama-worshipping New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has apparently called for Congress to pass an authorization for the use of force against Iran in the event that it breaks the agreement. It is an idea with which I happen to agree–as a last resort, at least, it is a preferable policy for Republican presidential candidates to suggest instead of the perfunctory promise to cancel the deal, which lacks credibility. But it highlights the deal’s weakness.

Containment without a mechanism to enforce compliance is not containment, but appeasement. And worse, since Obama has been open about his ambitions to make Iran a regional power, the Iran deal is not even appeasement, but collaboration. Under the guise of peace-making, it introduces new instability into the Middle East by boosting the power of a radical Shia regime–and by downgrading the stable relations that America has enjoyed until now with other regional allies, who may feel they have no choice but to resort to war to stop Iran.

In sum: as a purely nuclear deal, the Iran agreement is very weak but debatable, depending on whether you believe it can be enforced. The non-nuclear part of the deal, however, concerning the arms and ballistic missile provisions, is a complete disaster. It rewards Iran for over a decade of nuclear cheating, meaning other countries will have an incentive to do the same. It allows Iran to continue fighting its proxy wars, arming terrorist groups, building up its own military, and promoting Israel’s destruction–all of which will make regional instability worse.

In March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Congress what a “better deal” would include. He said that the world should demand that Iran do three things. “First, stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East. Second, stop supporting terrorism around the world. And third, stop threatening to annihilate my country, Israel, the one and only Jewish state.”

All of these are non-nuclear–which may be why Obama pretended not to hear them. But they are the minimum Congress must demand–before the UN takes its own vote.


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