I am not a foreign policy expert. But then again, it doesn’t take an expert to know that a president’s desire for a “legacy” is a terrible backdrop against which to negotiate with your enemies.
There is no doubt good intention behind the White House’s negotiations with Iran over its intention to build a nuclear program. The Middle East, after all, is a tinderbox of sectarian resentment. There is a divide between Sunni and Shi’a, in which both sides have lots of weapons, and there is a divide between Islamist and modernist, in which one side has lots of weapons and the other side has social media accounts. Each of these divides is made all the more unpredictable by the fact that many of the fighters have little regard for their own lives and absolutely no regard for the lives of others, especially infidels from the West.
Couple that with the threat of nuclear proliferation and you’ve got a situation that demands resolution. If Shi’a-led Iran develops a nuclear program you can bet there would be a race among surrounding Sunni nations like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Syria to develop a bomb as well. If that happens it appears to be just a matter of time until the fuse is lit.
In the middle of this showdown, reminiscent of the young, long-haired Vietnam protestor placing carnations in the barrels of rifles pointed at his head, is President Obama. The difference is that carnations don’t bloom in the desert. Iran (whose Ayatollah continues to shout “death to America” to anyone willing to listen), unlike the National Guardsman in the famous photo, will absolutely pull the trigger. Flower power is simply not an operational paradigm that the Middle East understands.
But, in some ways, it is the legacy that President Obama wants to leave. As Peggy Noonan writes in the Wall Street Journal, “[Obama] considers himself a serious man, he wants to deal constructively with a pressing, high-stakes international question, and none fits that description better than Iran and nuclear weapons.” If he can simply get one of the largest, most powerful nations in the world to set aside their nuclear aspirations then maybe, just maybe, the Middle East can begin to heal.
The problems with that thought process are myriad. First, it’s tough for any healing to occur when nearly every nation in the Middle East is currently involved in a war, many of which are the result of Iranian mischief. Second, many believe that one of the primary facets of the proposed deal—the lifting of economic sanctions—will be used to further finance Iran’s proxy battles in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. And third, the White House’s clear desirousness to get a deal done, because Obama is desperate for a foreign-policy win and is eager for a legacy-building project, is not exactly a good negotiating stance. It’s difficult to act tough when the people on the other side of a negotiation know how much you need a deal.
Nevertheless, the broad framework of a deal has been reached, the details of which are troubling. After the outline was released Abas Aslani, the head of the Iranian government news agency, began gleefully tweeting that “More than 5000 centrifuges will continue to enrich” uranium. That comes despite the president’s recent promise Americans that “the deal we’ll accept” with Iran “is that they end their nuclear program” and “abide by the U.N resolutions,” which have prohibited Iran from enriching any uranium.
Aslani also tweeted that “None of Iran’s nuclear facilities or activities will be suspended or shut down” and that “nuclear activities will continue in Natanz, Fordo, Isfahan and Arak.” As recently as 2013, Obama said that Iran would not need those facilities.
”They don’t need to have an underground, fortified facility like Fordow in order to have a peaceful nuclear program,” he said. “They certainly don’t need a heavy-water reactor at Arak in order to have a peaceful nuclear program.
Finally, Aslani tweeted that “All economic sanctions by EU, US will be lifted immediately, including financial, banking, insurance, oil.” The U.S. has previously said that it would only lift sanctions after Iran demonstrated compliance with terms of the deal.
That’s not to say that all is necessarily lost. The deal requires Iran to redesign its reactors so they cannot be used to create weapons-grade plutonium. It prohibits Iran from stockpiling things like heavy water and spent fuel, which are necessary for the production of a bomb. It forces Iran to “neutralize” all of its current stores of nuclear material that are enriched above 6 percent. And it sets up a monitoring program to—hopefully—ensure that any breakout effort to build a bomb would be detected and dismantled.
On Thursday, President Obama touted this as a “good deal,” and will likely be spending the next few months trying to assure the American public and skeptical lawmakers that that is indeed the case. I just can’t help but wonder, given the president’s past statements about what would constitute any deal, whether or not he believes for himself that this is a “good deal.”