Yesterday, President Barack Obama triumphantly announced that after months—nay, years—of parley with Tehran, overt and secret, through myriad interlocutors, an agreement had been reached, at the thirteenth hour, on the hotly contested issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
This is not a final agreement, rather an agreement that, at some point, there may be a final agreement with Tehran. Time has been bought, for whose benefit remains to be seen. Having pushed U.S. negotiators, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, past their appointed deadline for negotiations at Lausanne at the foot of the Swiss Alps, it’s evident that Obama was willing to pay almost any price to get any agreement with Iran. And any agreement he has gotten.
The deal looks substantial on paper. Tehran has agreed to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, the sort needed to possibly produce atomic weapons, by 98 percent and significantly scale back its centrifuges, which is what most of the knotty public debate has been about. However, Iranian negotiators wasted no time raining on Obama’s parade, undercutting the president almost immediately.
Wasting no time in humiliating his partners-in-negotiations, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who proved himself a gifted diplomatist in Lausanne, boasted within hours that, in effect, Tehran had played the Americans, the leaders of the so-called P5+1 talks, for fools. Iran, he explained, had no intention of shutting down anything that really matters to the mullahs. The winner, in Iran’s eyes, was clear.
In exchange, Iran will get onerous Western sanctions lifted on their lagging economy. These sanctions, implemented over a decade, at times over the objections of the Obama administration, are causing Tehran real pain, economic and political, and getting them lifted was Zarif’s real aim. This he has achieved. What the West gets in return is less clear.
Obama assured the world that, if Iran cheats on this agreement, “The world will know.” Yet there is no reason to be sanguine about this. In the first place, even if “the world” determines that the mullahs have violated the Lausanne agreement, what is to be done? Obama has made clear that the choice now is binary: Either his peace deal or a GOP-led war against Iran. Is the president, then, willing to embark on the path of war if Tehran reneges? Short of that, getting sanctions put back in place on a recalcitrant Iran will be difficult and slow, since it took a decade of multilateral diplomatic wrangling to get them set up in the first place. A redo will be neither quick nor decisive.
Moreover, there’s the problem of who, exactly, will know. In what represents the worst aspect of this flawed deal, Obama has placed responsibility for verifying the agreement back on the United Nations. This is a hazardous repeat of the flawed UN response to Iraq’s proliferation after the Gulf War. Simply put, the UN Security Council will have veto powers over anything Iranian and nuclear when it comes to verification. This gives Beijing, and even more Moscow, a critical lever over the process.
We’ve seen this movie before, with Iraq in the 1990s. Charles Duelfer, who led the UN’s nuclear inspection regime in Iraq from 1993 to 2000, has termed this the “fatal flaw” of Obama’s deal, and that may be charitable. Yeltsin’s Russia was not very cooperative about Baghdad’s nuclear game-playing, and we should expect Putin’s Kremlin, which is engaged in Cold War 2.0 against the West, to be anything but helpful.
While Tehran and Moscow have no love for each other, between mutual fear and loathing, they both hate the West more, and any deal that puts Putin’s Kremlin in a verification role over Iran’s nuclear program is a farce, not to mention a strategic delusion. At worst, this may give a strategic partnership between Russia and Iran, which has been growing slowly, a new life, with an explicitly anti-Western focus. None of this can be mistaken for good news for the West.
Why Obama would agree to such a flawed deal is an important question. There is ample evidence that the president is more interested in the domestic political impacts of this issue than anything else. In this calculation, what’s a nuclear arms race in the Middle East when the GOP and Fox News can be shamed and given their comeuppance?
That there will now be such an atomic arms race seems certain. Several key U.S. allies, above all Saudi Arabia, have been watching the P5+1 talks with fear and interest. If Iran is allowed to resume its nuclear program, in any guise, we would be naïve not to expect Riyadh, which lives in mortal fear of the mullahs, to respond in kind, soon. Turkey may not be far behind, and several other stakeholders in the region will investigate their own nuclear options, without delay.
For decades, bipartisan U.S. policy in the Middle East has sought to avoid a nuclear arms race there. Obama’s announcement has ended that, as all in the region understand. Nobody takes his assurances seriously, after years of rhetoric-as-action, and Obama’s signature accomplishment in the Middle East may be uniting it, at last – in fear of the United States and its empty promises.
I’ve long been of the view that Iran will seek a nuclear weapon, no matter the consequences, and pretending otherwise will lead to bad outcomes. This is something the mullahs will not be talked out of. Obama has decided to take another view, one which seems motivated by wishful thinking more than reality. After all, having seen this White House refuse to take the calls of Hosni Mubarak, its close ally, as he faced revolt, then condemn Muammar Gaddafi – who, after all, had given up his WMDs and support for international terrorism, and had kept that deal with Washington DC – to getting shot to death in a sewage ditch, half-clothed, why would anybody in Tehran take Obama’s promises seriously?
There is no chance that they will. Tehran will continue to pursue a nuclear weapon, because it is in their vital national security interest to do so. They have concluded a deal with the gullible Obama, because it is wise to do so. It will change nothing in the long run. Obama has defeated the GOP, for now, which was his real agenda. In the meantime, Tehran will address more serious matters, while the White House castigates doubters as war-mongers.