Hardly a week has passed since last year’s introduction of the Iran nuclear deal without reports of an unsavory Iranian action or an American surprise disclosure or obfuscation. Last week’s surprise was about White House manipulations to gain support for the agreement. Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser to President Obama, admitted that the administration’s touting of a new “moderate” Iranian leadership had been a deception. It was “largely manufactured for the purpose of selling the deal.” Further, he boasted that “freshly minted” experts and compliant reporters had echoed whatever talking points the White House gave them.
A hoped-for benefit beyond curbing Iran’s nuclear program was that the deal would ultimately change Iranian behavior. Although the agreement was struck last July implementation officially began in January 2016. In exchange for billions of dollars made available by the lifting of sanctions imposed by the United States and others, Iran has curtailed some weapons-intended activities. It has dismantled equipment at several nuclear facilities including the core of a nuclear reactor and centrifuges that enrich uranium fuel. But continuing Iranian belligerence and American concessions have been dismaying.
The rush by so many countries to discard previous inhibitions about engaging with Iran makes unlikely the reversal of this new reality. Days after implementation, an array of post-sanctions activities were undertaken. Besides sanctions relief by the US, the United Kingdom ended its ban on 22 banks and companies previously blacklisted for engaging in nuclear-linked financing; Germany’s trade arrangements with Iran rose by 33 percent; China signed contracts to help build five more Iranian nuclear reactors; Russia began delivery to Iran of S300 anti-missile systems; France sent a 100 member delegation to Iran in search of business contracts. The pre-deal assurance by the US that sanctions could be “snapped back” if necessary now seemed more a wish than a possibility.
When the implementation began, Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, put a damper on prospects for success. The belief that Iran over time “will abandon its theological revolutionary underpinnings, its aspirations in the region, or even its aspirations for nuclear weapons is unrealistic,” he said. He rued the Obama administration’s concessions to get Iranians to accept the deal, including dropping the administration’s earlier insistence on “anytime anywhere” inspections.
Thus far, Iran’s behavior has validated Gates’s skepticism. Iran continues to export terrorism, call for the annihilation of Israel, and develop long-range missiles that could carry nuclear warheads. In March Iran added a new twist to its defiance by not only test firing long-range missiles in violation of a UN Security Council resolution. The missiles were inscribed in Hebrew: “Israel must be wiped off the Earth.”
The American response was hardly satisfying. Secretary of State John Kerry said the US would continue to lift sanctions as part of the nuclear accord even while imposing new sanctions in response to Iran’s missile tests. This posture was akin to hosing a single room in a burning building as fire rages throughout the building.
Events last month were especially disheartening to those who had hoped for better from Iran. Yousef al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the US, observed that “Iran is as dangerous as ever.” It remains “hostile, expansionist [and] violent.” Reports also appeared of further US concessions. The administration was yielding leverage by incentivizing banks to lend to companies doing business with Iran. After concessions to get the deal the Obama team was still making concessions to keep it.
Two more troubling reports surfaced at the end of April. The first, described as a loophole in the deal, could allow Russia and China to procure materials and renovate Iranian nuclear facilities without informing Western powers. The second was the news that the Obama administration had agreed to buy heavy water from Iran. Heavy water can be used to develop nuclear weapons. The deal had called for Iran to reduce its supply though it did not say that Iran should receive remuneration for doing so. The American payout of $8.6 million for 32 tons of the material reportedly was made “to encourage Teheran to stick to the nuclear agreement.”
The passionate intensity of opposition to the Iran nuclear deal has subsided since Congress failed to block it last September, but the worries of opponents have not. In a recent US poll only 30 percent of respondents approved of the agreement and 57 percent disapproved. The sentiment has changed little since the eve of the Congressional vote when 56 percent of surveyed Americans believed Congress should reject the deal.
Longstanding and broad-based Jewish organizations including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and more than two-dozen Jewish Federations across the country issued statements of opposition. Many of the other 100-plus Federations expressed concern while taking no formal public position. None issued a statement of support.
Most members of Congress were in sync with the public and voted against the agreement. In the House the margin was 269 to 162, and in the Senate, 58 to 42. Yet the deal went forward because the Senate majority fell two votes short of the 60 required for rejection. As reported in the New York Times, most Democrats voted their loyalty to President Obama rather than to their constituents.
Therein lies the core fallacy of the debate on the nuclear issue. The outcome was and still is perceived by many as determined by loyalty to the President and enhancement of his legacy. The matter should have been seen as beyond partisanship. Too bad that Obama has also framed the issue as a matter of legacy. If the deal ultimately fails to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, he said in a much publicized Atlantic interview, “it’s my name on this.” Apart from national security, “I have a personal interest in locking this down.” To Obama a key risk of a failed policy appears to be a bruise to his ego. Unmentioned in the interview is the catastrophic risk of a nuclear Iran to the international order or to fulfillment of Iran’s threat to wipe out Israel.
Of course, several supporters of the deal said that it was the best option available regardless of partisan considerations. They also admitted their decision was a close call. Now we may wonder which lawmakers might have voted differently had they known of the administration’s manipulations or the continued intensity of Iran’s belligerence.
Whether or how long the nuclear deal holds remains uncertain. But many skeptics, like New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, believe its demonstrated flaws have already validated their opposition.
Menendez’s wise words deserve repetition: “legacy is not a policy, and hope is not a national security strategy.”