President Barack Obama needs to do a much better job of explaining why the Iran nuclear deal makes good sense.
The case can be made, barely, but the president didn’t make it this week.
For one thing, the administration has yet to clarify the still murky details about how Iran will be prevented from cheating.
For another, Obama didn’t allay the fears of Israel and Sunni Arab states that the deal signifies his acceptance of Iran’s ambitions to dominate the region – efforts that are fueling the Islamic State’s expansion. The president denies any such intent, but no one in the region believes him, including Tehran.
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U.S. policies in Syria and Iran feed the belief that we have consigned the region to Iranian dominance. Unless Obama can convince Mideast leaders that they misunderstand his position, the nuclear deal will create more security problems than it resolves.
The flaw in the president’s case revolves around the fact that he has sought to separate the nuclear issue from Iran’s behavior in the region.
At one level that is understandable: Before these negotiations began, Iran was well on its way to becoming a threshold nuclear weapons power (although it denied any such intention). Tehran had 19,000 centrifuges spinning, more advanced ones on the way, and 10,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, with additional stocks enriched to a capacity closer to bomb-making level.
The president sought to stop the program before it produced enough fissile materiel for a bomb and triggered a nuclear arms race in the region.
So Obama’s strong point is that the deal stops Iran’s nuclear progress for the next 10 to 15 years – by sharply curbing the number of Iran’s centrifuges and limiting Iran’s fissile material to 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium. It also heads off a potential plutonium route to an Iranian bomb.
If this deal now collapses, Iran can spin its centrifuges unhindered toward “breakout” capacity. The international sanctions regime would likely collapse, as Russia and China blame Washington for the failure. Those who opposed Tehran’s nuclear program would have to decide whether it is worth bombing Iran’s facilities and starting another unpredictable war.
To solidify this case, the administration will have to spell out the details of the program to verify Iranian compliance. Congress should push the White House to clarify several worrying details.
First, contrary to the president’s earlier claims, Iran will not have to come clean to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors before a deal is closed about past military aspects of its program. The new deadline is Dec. 15, but it isn’t clear whether Iran will grant the inspectors access to key nuclear scientists and military sites. Sanctions relief depends on the IAEA confirming that Iran has met its basic obligations. It should not occur before Tehran clears up its suspect past.
Second, the mechanism to “snap back” sanctions if Iran stonewalls or cheats is clumsy and bureaucratic. Any complaints would be referred to a “Joint Commission” composed of Russia, China, Iran, Britain, France, Germany, and the European Union that would hear complaints.
The good news: The committee will operate by majority rule, which means neither Iran, Russia, nor China can prevent snapback. Still, it’s easy to imagine how Tehran could maneuver over and over to drag the process out and wear the inspectors down.
So, administration officials must do a lot of explaining about how Iran can be kept on the straight and narrow. But – even assuming they make a convincing case – Obama must spell out how he intends to prevent a sanctions-free Tehran from further destabilizing the Middle East.
In his Tuesday remarks, the president said, “We must be willing to test whether this region is willing to move in a different direction.” He said the deal offered Iran an opportunity “to move in a new direction” away from a “policy based on threats to attack your neighbors and annihilate Israel.”
Yet Iran’s leaders have repeatedly made clear they have no intention of changing their hostility toward America or Israel. By holding out false hopes, Obama convinces the region that he is naive or a secret backer of Tehran.
Meantime, Iran is the main supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and is backing Shiite militias in Iraq who are driving Sunnis into the arms of the Islamic State. Far from providing a partner in future U.S. efforts to degrade the Islamic State, Iran’s Shiite-centric policies ensure the current U.S. strategy will fail.
The president must explain why he caved in accepting a provision to lift an arms embargo on Iran in five years and an embargo on sales of ballistic missiles in eight years. He must also explain how he means to convince Iran that he isn’t its patsy.
Unless Obama can take off his blinders, this deal will encourage Iran to become even more aggressive in the region. It may also encourage Sunni Arab states to develop nuclear programs in an effort to match Iran.
Obama can’t make a convincing case for an Iran deal until he brings his Mideast policy in line with facts on the ground.
Trudy Rubin is an editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach her at email@example.com.