Foreign Affairs

Stern criticism for the White House deal with Iran

Stern criticism for the White House deal with Iran

The Obama Administration’s proposed deal with Iran came in for sharp criticism immediately, both in the United States and abroad.  The big problem with the deal is that, contrary to lots of White House happy talk about “freezing” crucial elements of their nuclear weapons program, Iran really doesn’t give up anything – certainly nothing they can’t take back at the end of the six-month temporary framework, if not sooner.  They won’t destroy any of their uranium enrichment centrifuges.  They’re promising not to build any more, but they’ve already got plenty.  In fact, the Iranians have been jubilantly declaring that the deal secures a “right of enrichment” for them, leaving America’s buffoonish Secretary of State, John Kerry, to mumble vague denials in the background, already a forgotten man in the arrangement he helped to broker.

In return, the Iranians will enjoy the immediate easing of sanctions – which President Obama used to brag about, as the only effective tool for thwarting the nuclear ambitions of the theocracy – plus a gigantic pile of cash up front.  The $7 billion cash stimulus will be nearly impossible to take back, and despite Administration promises about the “architecture” of sanctions remaining in place, there might be a lot of resistance to restoring them from parties who stand to benefit from trade with Iran.  Six months from now, the mullah’s nuclear weapons will be even more widely viewed as a fait accompli, and there will be grousing about the pointlessness of restoring sanctions that cost Iran’s trading partners a bundle.

There’s also no way to “take back” the international prestige Iran gains from signing on to this deal, even if the whole thing falls apart in the ensuing months.  They’re crowing about winning the capitulation of the United States, while the U.S. is claiming credit for bringing Iran to the table for tough negotiations… but if the Iranians do something to scuttle the agreement during the next six months, only one of those narratives will suddenly look foolish.  Also, American allies are nursing hurt feelings over the discovery that Obama and Kerry have been holding secret talks with Iran, and that diplomatic damage will not be easily repaired.

History provides little reason to trust Iran to live up to even the meager burdens laid upon it by the deal.  ”First of all, since when do we trust Iran?” asked House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) during a CBS News interview.  ”Iran has demonstrated again and again, it cannot be trusted. I believe that the attitude should be mistrust and verify. And what this agreement does is it just allows Iran to continue with all that it has in terms of centrifuges. It doesn’t require any dismantling. It allows for the enrichment up to five percent, which used to be something that we wouldn’t stand for. Iran could once again turn around tomorrow and throw this away.”

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) observed that the Iranians certainly seem to believe they just took Barack Obama to the cleaners:

All the smiling embraces between diplomats after the interim deal was signed notwithstanding, the Iranian regime remains a brutal and oppressive dictatorship that pursues nuclear weapons for the purpose of dominating the Middle East and threatening America and our allies, notably Israel. President Obama and Secretary Kerry should reconsider their policy of rapprochement with Iran that is dismaying to Jerusalem and encouraging to Tehran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu predicted this agreement would be a ‘very, very bad deal’ and has now correctly identified it as an ‘historic mistake.’ Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted his satisfaction as the ‘breaking down the architecture for sanctions has begun.’ The administration has gotten it backwards and it is time to reverse course before any further damage is done.

The language of the deal does seem to support Iran’s contention that its “right of enrichment” has been secured, because it talks about limiting the amount of enrichment that can take place, not abolishing the process entirely.  There are supposed to be more inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities as part of this agreement, but critics say that will just amount to more frequent oversight visits to facilities that are already under scrutiny.

The Obama Administration is warning congressional critics – including quite a few Democrats – to refrain from inserting more sanctions into the deal, because they’re afraid the furious Iranians might walk away.  Iran, on the other hand, has every reason to stretch the terms of the deal as far as possible, because they know how desperate Obama and his team are to keep it alive.

The New York Times quotes Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) growling that “it was strong sanctions, not the goodness of the hearts of the Iranian leaders, that brought Iran to the table,” and threatening to pack more punishment for Iran into the deal after Thanksgiving.  While the Times sounds generally supportive of the deal, describing it as a historic diplomatic opening to Tehran, they also note that Obama will be signing up as an accomplice to all of Iran’s future bad behavior:

To some extent, Mr. Obama finds himself in a predicament similar to that of his policy toward Syria, where allies like Saudi Arabia favor more robust support of the rebels fighting Mr. Assad. Some experts predicted that the tensions over Iran would only deepen because the administration would be determined to prevent the deal from unraveling.

“The administration is now a little bit hostage to Iran’s behavior going forward,” said Elliott Abrams, a foreign policy official in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. “Iran’s bad behavior — whether it’s the Revolutionary Guard in Syria or the ayatollah’s vicious speeches about Israel — it’s going to be linked to the deal.”

The Israelis also think this is the “deal of the century” for Iran, as related by Time:

“This is the first time the world’s leading powers have agreed to uranium enrichment while ignoring Security Council resolutions which they led and years worth of sanctions which contain the key to a peaceful diplomatic solution,” Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly Sunday-morning cabinet meeting. “These sanctions are now being removed in return for cosmetic concessions which can be undone by the Iranians within weeks.”

He followed the criticism with the kind of threat of military action that first brought the Iranian nuclear portfolio to global prominence three years ago. “Israel is not bound to this agreement while Iran is committed to the destruction of Israel,” Netanyahu said. “Israel has the right to protect itself in the face of any threat. I wish to reiterate that as the Prime Minister of Israel — Israel will not allow Iran to develop nuclear military capabilities.”

Some other Israeli officials were even more critical than the Prime Minister:

This is the Islamic Republic’s biggest diplomatic victory since Khomeini’s revolution, and the result here will be an arms race,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Army Radio on Sunday morning, as details of the agreement first became known. Recently returned to his job after being acquitted of corruption charges, Lieberman was among the Israeli officials lambasting the agreement for failing to cut back on the number of centrifuges currently operating, which stands above 18,000. The machines produce fissile material that can be used to create energy, or be upgraded to the intensity required to fuel a nuclear weapon. “The Iranians have material to manufacture a number of bombs, not [just] one,” Lieberman noted.

The head of the most right-wing faction in Netanyahu’s governing coalition, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, was more graphic: “If a nuclear suitcase blows up in New York or Madrid five years from now, it will be because of the deal that was signed this morning.”

Israel is understandably putting little stock in Obama’s “if you like your country, you can keep your country” promise.  Some observers think the Saudis will also conclude that American influence in the Middle East has dissolved completely with this capitulation to Iran, and will take steps to arm themselves with a nuclear deterrent of their own.  The BBC muses that the Saudis might also quietly share some intelligence on Iran with the Israelis, and perhaps even grant passage through their airspace to support attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities – a move unlikely to occur while a six-month US-Iran deal is in effect, but might come soon after the arrangement expires or collapses.

Whatever other advantages supporters might insist this deal conveys, it’s very difficult to square with the longstanding and often-stated objective of halting Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  At best, this deal might be said to slow it down… but probably only by a matter of months.  That’s not what most people have in mind when they think of “non-proliferation.”  Iran should be able to get plenty of mileage with their “right of enrichment” claims.  They can, not unreasonably, point out that their long-term objectives remain intact, while the West’s goals of non-proliferation just became formally negotiable.

Update: A member of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party told the Jerusalem Post that Bibi gave Barack quite an earful during a phone conversation about the agreement with Iran: ”The prime minister made it clear to the most powerful man on earth that if he intends to stay the most powerful man on earth, it’s important to make a change in American policy because the practical result of his current policy is liable to lead him to the same failure that the Americans absorbed in North Korea and Pakistan, and Iran could be next in line.”

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