What is the president doing
April 16, 2015
“I have never seen anything
So I was told by a former U.S.
official, who had seen much as a senior diplomat. It has become hard to deny
that the rollout
of the Lausanne framework is a first-rate debacle — a dazzling
display of self-destructive incompetence.
Who proposed that the State
Department issue an interpretive fact
sheet before the deal was actually sealed? The Iranian negotiators
were bound to feel ambushed. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif,
had political work to do in selling an agreement at home. The Obama
administration’s interpretive victory dance made his job considerably harder.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei quickly denounced the fact sheet as “incorrect and
contrary to the substance of the negotiations.” Do the elements outlined in
that document now constitute a set of Obama administration “red lines”?
This dispute highlights the
fact that at least three parts of the deal are not settled: an Iranian
accounting for past research and development, the timing of sanctions relief and
the agreement’s verification mechanisms. So everything is settled — except
everything that matters most. “The
sanctions must all be completely removed on the day of the agreement,”
Khamenei demands. “One must absolutely not,” he continues, “allow
infiltration of the security and defense realm of the state on the pretext of
inspection.” Which is the meaning of inspection.
high-profile announcement of an embryonic nuclear deal has already had the
practical effect of undermining the isolation of Iran. Russia used the occasion
to announce its own agreement: an $800 million deal to provide Iran
with an advanced air-defense system. Russia claims this does not violate the
spirit of sanctions because it is a defensive technology. But it is a defensive
technology that may be used to shield the development of the ultimate offensive
technology. There are also reports that French and Chinese oil companies are
exploring deals with Iran. Sanctions have already begun to fall apart, which
will eventually free up billions of dollars for the Iranians to further
destabilize the Middle East.
Why would the Obama
administration claim victory in the middle of a sensitive negotiation, in a
manner that prods the other side to harden its demands and encourages the
unraveling of sanctions? Maybe for the same reason that the swap of five Taliban
commanders for Sgt.
Bowe Bergdahl was declared a national triumph and Bergdahl himself,
now charged by the Army with desertion, was praised for serving with “honor
and distinction.” On occasion, the administration seems so anxious
to score political points that it is incapable of acting with restraint.
There is another, related
explanation. President Obama oversold the Iran nuclear agreement in an obvious
attempt to back congressional opponents into a corner. It is, the administration
has repeatedly argued, a simple choice: concessions or war. But this strategy
actually backs the United States into a corner. Does Obama not think the
Iranians are listening when he sets out these alternatives? No one — not
enemies, not allies, not bystanders in the street — believes that Obama would
use force against Iran. And this means there is no theoretical limit to the
concessions that could be justified to avoid conflict. The argument of
“concessions or war” is another way of saying that any deal is better than
no deal. And this is a terribly weak negotiating position for the United States
The administration’s botched
announcement was accompanied by typically sensitive congressional outreach. At
first, members of Congress were declared irrelevant and told to butt out of an
executive agreement. Then Obama accused
his opponents of being irrational, militant and atavistic — the
functional equivalent of the Iranian mullahs. This campaign resulted in a
congressional consensus — to assert oversight over an
administration that is not inspiring confidence.
With all this, a deal with
Iran is still likely — and likely to be bad — unless Khamenei is incapable
of getting to “yes.” Obama’s grand strategy, meanwhile, remains a cipher.
He could believe that a nuclear agreement and the lifting of sanctions will help
transform Iran into a more benevolent regional power — which is naive. He
could be making the move of an uber-realist — trying to extricate the United
States from involvement in the Middle East by recognizing Iranian hegemony and
developing a working relationship with the worst of the worst. This would
fulfill the nightmares of Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Or Obama could have no
strategy at all — in need of a political win, desperately hoping for a legacy
and too invested to walk away.