Obama Pitched a Great Iran Deal—in 2013
Obama’s deal with Tehran is beyond awful, but something along the lines of what he laid out in 2013 could have brought lasting peace.
To understand which side emerged victorious from the Iran talks, look no further than the words of President Obama himself. Back in December of 2013, President Obama spoke to the Saban Forum on the topic of Iran.
“[W]e can envision a comprehensive agreement that involves extraordinary constraints and verification mechanisms and intrusive inspections, but that permits Iran to have a peaceful nuclear program,” Obama said. “Now, in terms of specifics, we know that they don’t need to have an underground, fortified facility like Fordor [sic] in order to have a peaceful nuclear program. They certainly don’t need a heavy-water reactor at Arak in order to have a peaceful nuclear program. They don’t need some of the advanced centrifuges that they currently possess in order to have a limited, peaceful nuclear program.”
The president was correct at the time. And that is why it is so disconcerting that, under the announced terms of the proposed nuclear deal, the Iranians will retain every single one of these assets and capabilities. What’s more, they will now retain them with the explicit support and cooperation of the United States, receiving relief from the major point of leverage that brought them to the table, and possibly sparking a nuclear arms race that will now extend across the Middle East, to Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
You cannot blame Iran for openly gloating about this—their surrogates, Hamas and Hezbollah, are rejoicing as well. The Iranians believe they are walking away from the negotiations with nearly everything they wanted. They are getting immediate sanctions relief. They get to keep their facility deep underneath a mountain, the one likely able to withstand any ground-penetrating munitions, and they’re fine keeping a smaller amount of centrifuges, at least for the time being.
That last point may seem counterintuitive, until you understand that Iran is not interested in building a peaceful nuclear power program—they’re building a nuclear weapons program. If they wanted the former and not the latter, their priorities would be completely different. As former CIA deputy director Michael Morell and other experts have noted, the centrifuge capacity required to enrich enough material for nuclear power, to fuel a reactor over the course of the year, is very significant; the capacity needed to create a nuclear weapon is much less.
The White House doesn’t seem to care about this. As one Iranian official said in the course of the negotiations, “It’s our moon shot,” implying a dark paraphrase on Mort Sahl’s Wernher von Braun satire: “I aim at the stars, but sometimes I hit Israel.” The Obama administration is now aiding in this moon shot, oblivious to the fact that this agreement as it currently stands is a wonderful pathway to nuclear escalation and conflict.
From the beginning of these talks, it was apparent that the concessions would overwhelmingly come from one side of the table, and that the Iranian nuclear program was not going away. Now the very leverage that brought Iran to the negotiating table has been squandered, and is never returning. Though both the White House and Iranian talking points have emphasized that there will be penalties for any violation of the agreed terms, in reality no one believes they will be imposed.
In this case, I disagree with those Republicans who believe the next president will simply tear up the agreement. There is simply no going back. The coalition of states that imposed the nuclear sanctions upon Iran is exceedingly unlikely to be re-assembled. More important, a White House that has never acknowledged significant policy error simply won’t admit a policy failure that a re-imposition of sanctions would imply. An administration that continues to tout Yemen, of all things, as a policy success is hardly about to engage in the high-profile, high-political-cost self-repudiation and second-guessing that so-called “snapback” sanctions would entail.
As for those making the case that this deal will work, this requires deliberate misreading of the natures of both the Iranian regime and the White House. Each must lie about the other, and themselves, to make the arrangement plausible. The Iranian leaders have to pretend they are peaceful and transparent, and not actually murderous fanatics who think the Holocaust was a good start. The American leaders have to pretend they are strong defenders of agreements who will go to war on principle, and not weak appeasers seeking any way out.
Many on the right have drawn comparisons to the start of World War II, and this is understandable. But the better analogy here is not to the 1930s, but to 1973 and the Paris Peace Accords on the Vietnam War. In both cases we find the same sort of mutual nation-state dishonesty: The North Vietnamese had to pretend they were good-faith interlocutors who wanted peace, and not actually conquest-driven ideologues. The Americans had to pretend they were peace-with-honor seekers who would stand by their friends, and not cowardly sellouts who’d abandon battlefield allies.
In both cases, 1973 and 2015, the outcome is the same: The bad guys get the Americans out of the way so they can complete their bloody work, which Americans know full well is happening, but is planning to cooperate nonetheless.
A repeated problem with the Obama administration has been the lack of understanding that contracts only matter if they are enforceable—and if there is a party willing to do the enforcement. The fatal flaw of the Iranian nuclear deal is that that this enforcing party, which can only be the United States of America, is effectively absent, with the U.N. Security Council empowered in a ridiculous repeat of the policy that worked so well in Iraq.
What’s more, this deal is premised on the idea of Russia’s helpful enforcement while ignoring their practical incentives. Russia is currently the source for the enriched uranium supporting Iran’s nuclear facility in Bushehr, because Tehran can’t produce enough fuel to power the facility. The last thing we should be doing is trusting Russia to verify the peaceful nature of Iran’s program. The likeliest path forward is that Iran will insist upon a full implementation of the deal, trading their tactical concessions for our strategic ones, until we have nothing left to concede. And then, because we will not demand meaningful reciprocity, they will consider it no more than a scrap of paper.
The president, in preempting his critics, has challenged them to come up with a better deal—presenting a false dichotomy of this or nothing, and demanding that others imagine themselves doing what only he and his administration could. In that light, what would a better deal have looked like? We should take up President Obama’s challenge of spring 2015 by referring to a man who sought a much better deal with Iran: President Obama of 2013. His comments to the Saban Forum referenced above represent the bare minimum of what we should have accepted. As we know, the president initially sought much more in leveraging the sanctions regime for a total shutdown of the Iranian nuclear program. The better deal that the president implies is unavailable now is in fact the better deal that he himself sought. The much better deal would have involved the cessation of Iranian nuke-building that he himself once believed possible.
The White House riposte would be: That deal is not actually available—the Iranians wanted to keep their “moon shot.” Then there is something not as good but still preferable: the status quo. The status quo—which is not “nothing” but continued sanctions—had many flaws. But it achieved one big thing that this deal does not: It caused grievous harm to the Iranian regime and its terror apparatus, and it was painful enough to bring them to the negotiating table with the Great Satan. It would have been painful enough to curb their means and methods for years to come.
Iran was in a hurry to see these sanctions cast away, understanding that they could be imposed nearly forever. Yet this is the great mystery of these negotiations, and nearly every other episode where this president collides with a ruthless foreign power: They behaved as if they could take the punishment—and we behaved as if we could not wait to see it go.
That brings us to a more modern comparison: In spirit if not in aim, this deal very much resembles the resolution of the Syrian “red line” crisis of September 2013. There too, the president touted a peaceful resolution that supposedly achieved American aims with the support of the international community. Perceptive observers at the time understood that it was unlikely to last, both because it depended upon the goodwill and cooperation of bad actors, and also because it was widely understood that the American president was unlikely to enforce its terms.
It is better to set no red lines at all then to set them and back away. Back down once, and they have taken your measure. So it has proven once again. And so the Iranian nuclear-weapons program will endure long after Barack Obama has relinquished the presidency. It is no exaggeration to say that what the Obama administration has done here is set us on a fast track toward war based on the motivation of short-term domestic political gains.
Obama is preparing to sell this deal to the American people as “it’s this, or war”. Perhaps he should embrace the healing power of “and”.
Ben Domenech is the publisher of The Federalist.