As I write at around two p.m. on Thursday, April 2, 2015, a framework deal seems to have been reached in Switzerland, putting a temporary end to a game of diplomatic chicken that has held the world veritably spellbound for the past several days. But it really doesn’t matter much if this game has ended or if it has not ended. There will be an avalanche of hype about the supposed significance of this deal, and it will be wrong. No doubt the President’s supporters will portray him as a hero and a tactical genius. That is simply absurd.
A good deal has been made already, even before today’s announcement, over a last-minute March 31 teleconference between Secretaries Kerry and Moniz with the President, in which the President reportedly told the American negotiators to ignore the March 31 deadline, but to make clear to the Iranians that the United States was ready to walk away from the table, with all sanctions left in place. I’m sorry, but the hopeful interpretations attached to this decision, such as the one in today’s New York Times account, make absolutely no sense. The manifest unwillingness of the President to walk away from these increasingly pointless and even ridiculous negotiations on March 31 directly contradicts the intended message that he is, in fact, willing to walk away.
From the Iranian point of view there is simply no other way to read this signal. If it were ever true that “no deal would be better than a bad deal”, then the U.S. willingness to walk away should have been sitting right there at the table the whole time. The fact that the President could give such an instruction at the 11th hour is stark testimony that it wasn’t. Moreover, if U.S. negotiators make concession after concession after concession, as they have, then it leads others to wonder where the line is that changes a good deal into a bad one from which we walk away. Conclusion: There probably isn’t any such line.
Evidence? On March 30 the Iranians reneged on their promise to ship nuclear fuel out of the country, to Russia. This promise bore substantive import, but more important, it was at the time a critical confidence-building measure that we took as a sign of Iran’s seriousness to make a reasonable deal. To renege on it, by all rights, should have prompted a U.S. walkout, if any such walkout were really in the offing. The fact that the President did not pull up the carpet and make for the exit told the Iranians that even more American concessions were imminent.
Clearly, the Iranians kept hanging around precisely in hopes of major new concessions, particularly on the timing of sanctions relief. We will see what they achieved on that score when the details of the deal become known, assuming they become known in detail anytime soon. I do not have a good feeling about those details yet to be revealed.
Why? Well, when, not that long ago, DNI James Clapper removed Iran and Hizballah from their list of terrorist threats, many observers failed to take the full measure of its significance. It was widely pointed out that the IC report did not take them off the official sponsors list, so as to downplay the announcement’s importance. Ah, but there are several kinds of sanctions arrayed against Iran: some from the U.S. Executive Branch alone, some from the Congress, and some from the United Nations. They concern different things: failure to abide by IAEA inspections protocols is the main one, perhaps, but Iranian support for terrorism is another. Iranian decision-makers could not possibly have missed the operational meaning of Clapper’s statement: The Obama Administration was paving the way to lifting or suspending those sanctions that concerned Iranian support for terrorism as part of a package of sanctions relief related to the nuclear negotiations. And some of these sanctions the Administration can lift regardless of what Congress thinks or does. Again, the next day or two will perhaps shed light on this.
Clearly, the Iranians have gotten used to U.S. concessions in recent months. Look at what they have achieved: When these negotiations began they were aimed, from the U.S. and allied perspective, at preventing Iran from developing or keeping a nuclear infrastructure large enough to qualify it as a nuclear threshold state. Lately they have merely been about ensuring a decent interval of at least one year against a breakout. If the United States government did not walk away from the negotiations when its core aim failed to win the day, why would Iranian leaders think it would walk away now?
Moreover, the decent interval concept presumes that the President will order the use of force to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapons capability if he must. He has said it many times before; he even had Samantha Power say it to the AIPAC convention last month, and in terms so clear and direct that no sentient adult could possibly have mistaken her meaning. Yet, taking the full measure of this President’s fecklessness, one that seems in unprecedented fashion to abjure both American power and American principles, rather a lot of people simply don’t believe it.
Now, if one doesn’t believe that there are any circumstances under which President Obama would use force against Iran—or even engage in serious economic warfare and new levels of cyber-dirty tricks short of kinetic activity—then the value of the decent-interval approach drops to pretty near zero. If that is the belief, then what do such people think the President’s actual beliefs and aims are in these negotiations?
It turns out that rather a lot of people think the President really doesn’t care if Iran gets the bomb, and some even believe that the negotiations are actually a cover for shepherding that bomb into being as an ante toward bringing about an Iranian-U.S. condominium to “stabilize” the Middle East. Not a few Saudis think this is the case, and they now have not a few American Jewish boosters (odd as that may sound). Indeed, some of the latter believe that this is the payoff of the President’s early 2009 remark that he wanted to put some distance between the United States and Israel. The fact that in mid-February the Defense Department selectively declassified a 1987 document essentially outing Israel’s nuclear arsenal counts for many as evidence in support of this belief—and, as I have written before, if we start smelling the foul odor of Middle East nuclear-free zone proposals, then we will know that the President’s idea of “distance” amounts to undermining Israel’s ultimate security deterrent.
As I have indicated before, this assessment borders on a conspiracy theory. It behooves those who hold such views to explain why an American President would think that multinational nuclear proliferation in the Middle East suits mid- to long-term U.S. national security interests. It obviously doesn’t, and so they cannot explain their position rationally.
A kind of in-between assessment exists, however, that supports the supposed willingness of the Administration to allow if not enable an Iranian nuclear weapons capability—since it lacks any appealing way to prevent it, anymore than preventing a North Korean breakout some years back seemed doable at an acceptable cost. Despite the Administration’s insistence, for many years running now, that deterrence does not apply and cannot be trusted in a multivalent strategic environment like that of the Middle East, one can imagine a shift that would de facto create a deterrence (and extended deterrence) posture as a supposed bridge between an Iranian breakout and new U.S. efforts to roll back the Iranian program. To the extent that a breakout is ambiguous—and it can be made so, especially if the United States has reason to be very slow about detecting and admitting a problem—it opens the way for a line of talk that goes something like this: Iran may have one or two deliverable nuclear weapons, but absent any threats to use those weapons, the United States will engage in negotiations to roll back that capacity, and so will not preempt. Even if the word deterrence is never used, that’s what such a position would amount to.
Words matter. Note that despite the Administration’s insistence all along that “all options remain on the table”, coupled with the repeated assertion that Iran will not be allowed to have a nuclear weapons capability, it has never once used the word “preemption” to describe its policy. That, of course, is exactly what it comes down to, but to say that would be way, way too Bush-like. If preemption is now the policy but the word is never spoken, one can imagine without too great a strain a situation in which deterrence can become the policy without its ever being explicitly stated.
Despite the credibility hemorrhage of this Administration, there is a reason to take the President at his word. Avoiding mousetrap WMD proliferation in the Middle East is very much in the U.S. national security interest. Nuclear war anywhere is not in the U.S. interest; nor, certainly, is the spreading around of fissile material in a region where states are disintegrating and extremist, anti-American non-state actors are popping up almost weekly. It is because of this that I know no serious or experienced person in these matters who thinks that President Obama is actually secretly complicit in the rise of an Iranian nuclear capability.
More than that, the President over the years has given evidence that he really cares only about two, possibly intersecting, threats: another terrorist attack on American soil of a 9/11 or greater scale, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and above all the combination of the two. He has cared about these two threats because this has been the most politically partisan foreign policy I have ever seen. All administrations care about the partisan vectors thrown off by foreign policy decisions, of course, but most are capable of applying other criteria for what is proper to do and to avoid doing. Not these guys. The Obama Administration made a judgment during the first term that these were the foreign policy/national security events with the most negative potential partisan political implications, hence the avidity of the President’s fondness for drone attacks into Waziristan, hence the “global zero” nonsense, and hence—to the present point—the overriding concern about Iranian behavior (since it was too late by 2009 to do anything much about North Korea) to the extent that the Administration was prepared to delink Iranian regional behavior from the nuclear portfolio.
What really matters, of course, is not whether you believe that the President would use force against Iran if he lacked any other recourse, or whether I believe it—but whether Ali Khamenei believes it. Did Jeffrey Feltman convince him on his secret mission to Tehran that set up these negotiations, or did he not? I’m not sure if even Ambassador Feltman knows one way or the other. From the looks of things, the Supreme Leader is not a believer.
Why is that? As I have argued before, Iran is ultimately likely to walk away from this deal, no matter how “sweet” some Western observers think it has to look from Tehran’s perspective. It will not be Messrs. Rouhani and Zarif who walk away, and it will not be now, obviously, after today’s news; it will be at the Supreme Leader’s instruction, probably at or around the end of June—unless the Western position on sanctions relief has collapsed completely. Let me explain.
The Supreme Leader found himself at the outset in a no-lose situation with these negotiations. He sent Rouhani and Zarif out with instructions to get rid of the sanctions, but to concede nothing lasting or significant in return. In other words: Go see how divided, feckless, and decadent the West really is. If they collapse, good. We will then be able to pocket the money and the concessions and later walk out of any negotiated constraints we cannot cheat our way out of; and that we can do long before a ten-year sunset provision if we wish to. And above all, when that happens we will be able to say once again, as the Ayatollah Khomeini did, “The Americans cannot do a damned thing.” We will have gotten the best of them; they will have no rationale for even threatening to use force let alone to actually doing it, and everyone will know it.
If they don’t collapse, we will have bought a lot of time during which no serious constraints affect us, we will have presented an optic of reasonableness to the world, and we will not have to explain here at home how we came to make a deal with the Great Satan, in direct contradiction to our ideology. They will not attack us in any event, and we can tough out the sanctions until Western greed forces them to collapse in due course.
This judgment means that Iran will not accept, in good faith that is, any real constraints on its nuclear weapons ambitions. So unless the U.S. position really does collapse headlong, Khamenei cannot afford a deal built on real mutual concessions that threatens to unleash all sorts of pent up anti-regime energies inside Iran. The regime is fragile and unpopular, and he knows it. He cannot afford to risk the de-demonization of the United States, because that would give license to all sorts of demands from below with which the regime would be very hard-pressed to cope. So he needs to “win” the negotiations, now and through to the end of June (presumptively), or he will assess it to be too dangerous to proceed. If he cannot win, he will bolt, overriding his negotiators, and, at that point, he will blame the United States for disrespecting Iran and pressuring it as though it were not an equal. This will play wonderfully to an Iranian domestic opinion that is second to none in cultivating an historical victimization narrative.
Now, this is interesting in its own right from the U.S. perspective. It would render mostly moot this bad political theater between the White House and the Republican-dominated Congress—not that a lot of damage might not be done in the meantime. This should mean to Republicans that they ought to let the Iranians pull the plug, and so do nothing in the meantime that could deflect the blame for failure onto the United States. But they are just as politically avaricious as the White House, and so they will not be able to resist.
More important, though it is rarely stated as baldly as it should be, is the fact that this entire negotiation has been based on a bald-faced Iranian lie: that its nuclear program has no military application. It is passing strange for the Iranians to insist repeatedly that Iran be treated with respect and dignity and yet front a negotiating line that is patently dishonest, and hence unworthy of respect. But it is what it is, and the Administration abides it even as the Republicans speak of fire and brimstone for the White House’s sins.
But again, it doesn’t really matter, for arms control cannot create strategic conditions, whether for better or for worse, that do not otherwise have both feet planted in reality. It can affect the timing and shape of that reality, essentially by managing or distorting impressions of intentions, but more than that it cannot do. So what does reality look like when we remove the fuzzy lenses of the arms control fixation?
The first real fact that matters is that Iran is already a nuclear threshold state and will not cease to be one come June 30, regardless of what happens in negotiations between now and then (and just by the way, anyone who thinks that June 30 is a real deadline is delusional).
The second real fact flows from the first: We are already on the verge of multinational WMD proliferation in the region, an invidious impulse made vastly worse by the Administration’s perceived tilt toward Iran. That tilt has been magnified both by the Administration’s delinking of Iranian regional aggression from the nuclear portfolio and its penchant for “engaging” adversaries while demeaning, excoriating, or ignoring allies. In short, if the entire policy has been designed from the start to avoid the worst-case, mousetrap regional proliferation scenario, it is already far along the path of failure by dint of its means of application.
There is nothing to be done about this until January 2017 at the earliest; the die is cast, such that no one will take seriously a repentant Administration. It’s nice that the White House has finally rescinded the counterproductive “hold” it put on some weapons systems promised to Egypt. It makes that whole finger-wagging indulgence look as foolish as it was to start with, true, but it’s a marginal move in the larger scope of things.
Some twenty more months of the same in this regard is not the end of the world perhaps, but it certainly isn’t anything to smile at either. It will be, if we are lucky, twenty months of downward drift. Sooner or later, under either this Administration or its successor, we will be right back where we started before all the talking began: We will have to choose between living with an nuclear-armed Iran, letting some other power try to take care of it, or using a variety of moderate- to high-risk means to first paralyze and ultimately prevent it. When all is said and done, what happened today in Switzerland will be seen as not having made so much as a dent in this wall of bad options.