President Clinton’s former Defense Secretary William Cohen is sounding the alarm that the perceived weakness of President Obama’s upcoming nuclear deal may drive Sunni countries to acquire the bomb. Bloomberg‘s Josh Rogin reports:
The administration argues that a deal with Iran will remove the need for other regional powers to pursue their own nuclear enrichment and weapons programs. Cohen, who served under President Clinton from 1997 to 2001, said the region doesn’t see it that way.
“Once you say they are allowed to enrich, the game is pretty much up in terms of how do you sustain an inspection regime in a country that has carried on secret programs for 17 years and is still determined to maintain as much of that secrecy as possible,” he said.
Other regional powers are further skeptical of the international community’s ability to enforce any deal with Iran because the Obama administration has lost credibility in the region, according to Cohen. He said America’s relationships in the region were damaged in 2013, when President Obama backed away from striking Syria after telling Gulf allies he would do so, even though the Assad regime had crossed his “red line” on chemical weapons.
Cohen, who follows a long tradition of cross-aisle service in national security posts (in his case, he was a former Republican Senator from Maine serving a Democratic President), has impeccable D.C. credentials. His remarks join a chorus of warnings about the same problem from former Obama Administration insiders that swelled to a crescendo in March before the interim agreement, died down in the wake of the President’s announcement, and now seem to be picking back up again as signs look increasingly poor for a good, enforceable deal at the end of the month.
As early as 2012 (and as recently as this morning) we at The American Interest have been warning about the Saudis’ deciding to go nuclear if they feel America has let Iran get too close to the bomb, either through outright purchase from Pakistan (to whom the Saudis have given $1.5 billion in “aid” the last year alone) or through (possibly assisted) domestic development. The Saudi actions over the past year, from forcing OPEC to tank the price of oil (which hurt Riyadh, but hurt Tehran more) to bombing Yemen to openly cooperating with Israel, should show how deadly seriously the country takes the Iranian threat. And those who hopefully take Pakistan’s denials in this regard at face value are, unfortunately, mistaken as to the structure of the Pakistani deep state. (All this is to say nothing of the idiocies, and continued costs, of the Syrian red line affair.)
As Walter Russell Mead put it in March:
President Obama has only herded some of the cats who need to be corralled; he appears to assume that if the P5+1 and Iran are agreed, the +3 powers (Israel, Congress, and Saudi Arabia) have no choice but to fall in line. Bibi Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and the Cotton letter were very public statements by two of the +3 that they are unhappy and don’t intend to go along. This week, the third power is speaking out; news that the Saudis are stepping up their own nuclear program suggests that President Obama can’t end the nuclear arms race in the Middle East without their support.
The Administration is in an unenviable position now. Having come so far and labored so hard to draw thiiiis close to an Iranian nuclear deal, it finds itself caught increasingly tightly in a double bind: any significant move to accommodate the Iranians and seal the deal may (especially in light of the Ayatollah’s comments yesterday) drive the Saudis into a nuclear race, gut the deal, and create a Middle East littered with nuclear proliferation—but if we stiffen our backs now and the Iranians walk, they will do so from a much stronger position than when they began negotiations. Indeed, as the President has said, Iran is just a few months from breakout capacity.
So while critics of the Administration might gloat as their predictions start to come true, we should all also be fervently praying someone in the West Wing can figure out how to thread this nuclear needle. Because the options are bad on both sides—and the next administration, which Cohen mentions will have “to deal with” these problems, is still a long nineteen months away.