America Deserved a Better Deal With Iran. To Get One It Needed a Better Negotiator

In December of 2013 President Obama laid out the baseline from which any deal with Iran over the future of their nuclear program would be judged:

“[W]e can envision a comprehensive agreement that involves extraordinary constraints and verification mechanisms and intrusive inspections, but that permits Iran to have a peaceful nuclear program. Now, in terms of specifics, we know that they don’t need to have an underground, fortified facility like Fordo in order to have a peaceful nuclear program. They certainly don’t need a heavy-water reactor at Arak in order to have a nuclear program. They don’t need some of the advanced centrifuges that they currently possess in order to have a limited, peaceful nuclear program.”

And yet, after months of negotiations it appears that the final deal includes none of those protections. Instead, it preserves Iran’s ability to fully develop a nuclear weapons program in 15 years, after which the United Nations will left almost all restrictions on the program. No centrifuges will be destroyed, and indeed the deal gives Iran tacit approval to conduct research on advanced centrifuges, which are necessary to enrich weapons-grade uranium. The Arak heavy water reactor will remain in operation and will not be downgraded to a light water reactor. It fails to give the International Atomic Energy Agency 24/7 access to Iran’s facilities, instead requiring them to send a request to a special commission that will take weeks to make a decision, more than enough time for Iran to hide its questionable activities. It also removes conventional arms and ballistic missile embargoes on Iran, which could fuel the regional proxy war and threaten our ability to police the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.

Finally, the deal commits Western nations to removing pretty much all sanctions on Iran, a move that will allow more than $150 billion to flow back into the country. This includes the un-freezing of accounts that were sanctioned for the specific reason that they were suspected of stoking terrorism and fueling the proliferation of weapons. The Wall Street Journal writes about how surprising, and disappointing, this is:

It is hard to imagine any other circumstance under which Tehran could have hoped to get an international, U.N. Security Council-backed commitment to remove the Republican Guard and Quds Force from any sanctions list, or to have the fate of the arms embargo placed in the hands of Vladimir Putin.

It is still more remarkable that the agreement says nothing about Iran’s terrorist activities, human-rights violations or role in regional weapons proliferation—all of which were drivers of the embargo in the first place. Iran makes no commitment to change its terrorist or oppressive ways, but the international community promises to eliminate those sanctions anyway.

The elimination of sanctions means that in the short-term the biggest threat is to the regional relationship between Sunnis and Shias, particularly in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen – not exactly bastions of peace. Iran, which is home to the world’s largest Shia population (between 90 and 95 percent of the nation’s Muslims) was able to fuel the fire of proxy wars that burn across the region even before they had access to billions in cash. Now that their vast sums of money will be brought into the fray there can be no doubt that the fire will burn hotter and the death tolls will escalate. Syria, where the Assad regime has engaged in a brutal crackdown on Sunni populations, is likely to suffer the most from the deal, as Iran will gain both funds and international legitimacy for the continued flow of funding, weapons, and manpower to the Shia government.

So how did we end up in this terrible place, a place where Iran “achieved all it wanted,” the Obama Administration caved on almost every priority, the region was thrown into deeper chaos, and the only justification we’ve heard is that he couldn’t do better? Sadly, as Alan Dershowitz writes, the answer to how we ended up here is sad, but simple:

We did so by beginning the negotiations with three important concessions. First, we took the military option off the table by publicly declaring that we were not militarily capable of permanently ending Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Second, we took the current tough sanction regimen off the table by acknowledging that if we did not accept a deal, many of our most important partners would begin to reduce or even eliminate sanctions. Third, and most important, we took off the table the option of rejecting the deal by publicly acknowledging that if we do so, we will be worse off than if we accept even a questionable deal. Yes, the president said he would not accept a “bad” deal, but by repeatedly watering down the definition of a bad deal, and by repeatedly stating that the alternative to a deal would be disastrous, he led the Iranians to conclude we needed the deal more than they did.

President Obama wanted a better deal. The American people wanted a better deal. Israel and other Middle Eastern allies wanted a better deal. The problem was that we needed a better negotiator.