It’s not clear when (or whether) the Obama White House will conclude a final agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. The extended deadline for the interim deal known as the Joint Plan of Action is set to expire November 24. And the president very much wants a deal that would cement his foreign policy legacy. On the other hand, there are still gaps on key issues, like how many centrifuges Iran gets to keep.
But here’s the heart of the matter: The White House has caved on so much already that whether or not a final agreement is reached at the end of the month, American interests have already been damaged by the administration’s pliant dealings with a state sponsor of terror. Its record on Iran—not only during nuclear negotiations, but also in its larger regional policy—is nothing but a chronicle of concessions to the Islamic Republic.
It’s instructive to recall that very early in his presidency Obama promised that the military option was still on the table, if all else failed to stop the Iranians from building a bomb. The concern, as White House officials warned back then, was that strikes—American or Israeli—on Iranian nuclear facilities might cause Tehran to retaliate against American -targets in the region, especially U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Never mind that the Iranian regime was already responsible for thousands of American deaths, and tens of thousands of wounded, in those two theaters. What’s telling is that the White House saw the U.S. military not as the guardian of American interests, the best friend of American allies, and the dread enemy of American adversaries, but as potential hostages.
In other words, Obama was keen to forfeit his advantages from the outset of his dealings with Iran. In due course, he would trade away American leverage and get nothing in return.
Last year in Geneva the administration agreed to ease sanctions, which, with the credible threat of military force already eroded, was the most powerful instrument the White House had left at its disposal. Prior to the de-escalation of new sanctions and the provision of sanctions relief as part of the Joint Plan of Action, explains Mark -Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “the Iranian economy was on its back. Inflation was officially at 40 percent, and unofficially above 80 percent, and [there was] a severe recession. The JPOA triggered a change in expectations and psychology.” The Iranian economy “was helped to its knees,” says Dubowitz. “A final deal will stand it up again.”
What did the Obama administration get in exchange for rescuing the Iranian economy and thereby saving the clerical regime from domestic turmoil that might have toppled it? Nothing.
Instead, the interim deal acknowledged Iran’s right to enrich uranium. It ignored Iran’s ballistic missile program (the most obvious delivery mechanism for a bomb), despite a U.N. Security Council resolution (1929) as well as several pieces of congressional legislation requiring Iran to cease such -activities. It allowed Iran to continue building its heavy-water plutonium facility at Arak. The deal sought to limit Iran to research and development work on advanced centrifuges, but Tehran exploited that allowance and reportedly built up to 5,000 advanced centrifuges in the last year.
The issue is not just that Iran has repeatedly cheated, but that the administration keeps helping. When it became clear Iran was selling more than the million barrels of oil per month that sanctions relief permitted, White House spokesmen counseled patience: Maybe next month, they said, Iran would sell less and get under the cap. And when it didn’t, all the administration could do was shrug.
It’s the same now with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Iranians won’t let the U.N. agency in to count and catalog the entirety of their program. It’s a concern but not a deal-breaker, says the State Department. After all, any agreement will include a mechanism to monitor whether Iran is keeping up its side of the bargain. But if the IAEA can’t get in to find out exactly what Iran has now, post-deal inspections to see if Iran is keeping its word are all but irrelevant.
Iran’s nuclear weapons program is just one part of its expansionist regional project, which now boasts control of four Arab capitals—Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, and Sanaa. The administration has acquiesced to Iran’s ambitions throughout the region by, among other things, coordinating policy with Iranian surrogates in Lebanon and Iraq, and forgoing the opportunity to help topple Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad, even though Obama had demanded the Syrian president step aside.
Odds are good the White House will strike a deal with Iran. All indications are that Obama wants a deal—any deal. As the president has explained in a number of interviews, he is aiming for a new geopolitical equilibrium balancing traditional American allies, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, against their longstanding adversary in Tehran.
From his perspective, we need to build up the Iranians’ confidence. Sure, it would be better if they didn’t have the bomb, but maybe having it will make them less paranoid. If the regime is no longer scared of being toppled, from within or without, it can become normal and real moderates might then come to power in Tehran. In short, Obama sees himself sowing the seeds of a Persian perestroika, and if the path to Middle East peace has to start with a nuclear-weapons-capable state sponsor of terror, so be it.
So much of this administration’s Iran policy has been conducted in secret it’s hard to know what they’re thinking. Obama writes private letters to Ali Khamenei because Iran’s supreme leader makes the final call. Perhaps the American president has come to imagine that he, too, is a supreme leader, who can circumvent the representatives of the American people.
Fortunately, Congress understands the stakes involved. The new Republican majority in the Senate wants oversight of any agreement with Iran, and it may be joined by Democrats like Robert Menendez in a bipartisan push. To date, the administration keeps telling its critics to wait and see what a final deal looks like—in other words, it’s trying to keep them at bay until it’s too late to do anything about a nuclear agreement. But the White House has already established a clear pattern of caving to Iran, on the nuclear file and elsewhere. There’s no need to wait.
This article originally appeared in the November 24, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 11 issue of The Weekly Standard.