Who Bamboozled Whom?
By Michael Doran
July 30, 2015
Those who think the Iranians outwitted us fail to recognize one
very important thing: the White House never intended to contain Iran.
The nuclear deal with Iran is a wildly lopsided agreement.
Whereas Iran received permanent concessions, the United States and its partners
managed only to buy a little time. The agreement will delay the advent of a
nuclear-capable Iran for about a decade—and much less than that should Tehran
decide to cheat. Meanwhile, thanks to the deal, Iranian influence in the Middle
East is set to grow. All of these benefits accrue to Iran without its ever
having given any guarantee that it will change its revolutionary, expansionist,
and brutal ways.
Why did the
Obama administration accept such a deal? In trying to answer this question, some
critics have claimed that the president and his negotiator, Secretary of State
John Kerry, were simply no match for their opponents. The Iranians, so the
argument goes, are master negotiators—they play chess while the Americans play
checkers. “You guys have been bamboozled and the American people are
going to pay for that,” Senator Jim Risch of Idaho told Kerry during recent
hearings on the nuclear deal.
sympathizes with the senator’s frustration, but his criticism is misplaced.
The Iranians are not nearly so talented as claimed. While Foreign Minister Javad
Zarif did exhibit skill in the negotiations, he also resorted to blatantly
underhanded tactics that, opposite a different American team, would have
rebounded against him. Zarif made concessions one day, only to revoke them the
next; raised new issues at the eleventh hour; and blurred the lines of authority
between himself and the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei,
to the point where Kerry never knew for certain whether a deal could actually be
These were the
tactics of a used-car salesman, not a master statesman. If the White House had
been so inclined, it could have invoked them as justifying a redoubling of the
pressure on Iran. But the president and the secretary of state consciously
rejected that path—and not for the first time.
2013, the administration agreed to an interim deal that both granted Iran the
right to enrich and accepted the idea that all restrictions on the Iranian
program would be of limited duration. In so doing, the interim deal already
incorporated the main lines of the comprehensive agreement that we see before us
today. And long before November 2013—indeed, from the very beginning of his
presidency—Obama has consistently dangled before the Iranians the prospect of
gaining what they have most wanted: to become, in his words, “a successful
regional power.” Toward that end, as he has stipulated on more than one
occasion, the message he has sent to Tehran is that it would have more to gain
by working with us than by defying us.
This is what
many of Obama’s critics, including in Congress, have yet to absorb. When they
suggest that the White House has been taken in, they tacitly assume that the
president shares their goal of containing and rolling back Iran—an enemy power
bent on ousting the United States from the Middle East and vanquishing
America’s allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia foremost among them—but has
somehow become confused about how best to achieve this. But he does not see Iran
that way at all.
In his news conference after the signing of the comprehensive agreement, Obama emphasized
that the deal only “solves one particular problem”—that is, the nuclear
issue. But he also expressed the hope that it would also “incentivize” the
Iranians “to be less aggressive, less hostile, more cooperative.” This gets
to the heart of his approach, adumbrated again and again in his own statements
and in those of his key advisers. Here is the president in a January 2014
interview in the
If we were
able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist
organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries,
and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing
between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran.
And here more
recently is Ben Rhodes, the deputy national-security adviser for strategic
communication: “We believe that a world in which there is a deal with Iran is
much more likely to produce an evolution in Iranian behavior.”
eyes, containment is a fool’s errand, and continuing to treat Iran as a pariah
will simply ensure that it will never help us damp down Middle Eastern turmoil.
To him, therefore, the nuclear deal is not an end in itself; it is a means to
the larger end of a strategic partnership that will conduce to his sought-for
“equilibrium” in the Middle East. It is only because of the president’s
awareness that the very idea of such a strategic partnership is anathema to a
majority of the members of Congress, as it is to America’s allies in the
Middle East, that he has pretended otherwise, framing the deal as a narrowly
conceived and heavily qualified arms-control agreement that will in any case not
affect America’s interest in countering Iranian mischief.
Of course, the
agreement is no such thing, and Congress is right to be treating it with the
utmost gravity. Much of the debate centers on technical questions—on whether
the inspection regime is tight enough, the snap-back mechanism reliable enough,
and the enrichment quotas restrictive enough. In addition to these
far-from-trivial issues, critics also point to the havoc in increased Iranian
aggressiveness that the deal promises to bring to the Middle East and elsewhere.
By immediately channeling upward of $150 billion to Iranian coffers, it will
inevitably contribute to funding the regime’s terror network. (Significantly,
a cessation of Iran’s support for terror was not a condition of
sanctions relief.) And as economic ties with Europe and Asia expand, and new
avenues of diplomatic and military cooperation open up with Russia and China,
Iran will become ever more confident and bellicose.
House has replied to the latter concerns by claiming that the regime will spend
its windfall on butter, not guns. “They’re not going to be able to suddenly
access all the funding that has been frozen all these years,” President Obama
asserted in April—and besides, he added, “a lot of that [money] would have
to be devoted to improving the lives of the people inside of Iran.”
Even to some
advocates of the deal, the absurdity of this argument—when in the course of
human history has getting $150 billion at the stroke of a pen ever convinced
anyone to change his ways?—is too patent to be ignored. Thus, Nicholas Burns,
a distinguished former diplomat and a staunch supporter of the nuclear
agreement, has acknowledged its deficiency in this respect and has joined a
growing chorus in proposing an antidote. “This is no time to help Iran augment
its power in a violent and unstable region,” Burns has testified to Congress.
“Instead, the U.S. should impose a containment strategy around Iran until it
adopts a less assertive and destructive policy in the region.”
Burns and others advancing this view are caught in the same contradiction as are
Obama’s critics; inadvertently, both parties are reinforcing the fiction that
Obama is truly interested in containing Iran. In fact, the White House has
consistently displayed an aversion to countering Iran. Time and again,
America’s allies in the Middle East have begged the president to help them
curtail Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, and time and again
he has refused. His aspiration for equilibrium is instead based on the
conviction that, thanks to his diplomacy, Iran will voluntarily come to place
limits on its own ambitions. With that aspiration, the nuclear deal—an
explicit recipe for strengthening all elements of Iranian power, political,
military, and economic—is entirely compatible.
if Obama were to agree with the need for punitive measures to curb Iran’s
“malign influence,” in the phrase of Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, the
deal will vastly complicate any such project. One of the text’s more
remarkable passages reads: “Iran has stated that if sanctions are reinstated
in whole or in part, Iran will treat that as grounds to cease performing its
commitments under this [agreement].” With this statement the Iranians have
warned America that any
action designed to weaken Iran will be met with nuclear blackmail.
If the Iranian nuclear program has been a knife held at America’s neck, the deal has, temporarily, moved the knife away by at most a few centimeters. To achieve this paltry, equivocal, and evanescent benefit, the deal has permanently ceded diplomatic leverage to Iran and nullified vigorous containment as a serious option. Anyone who claims otherwise has certainly been bamboozled—but not by the Iranians.