A Guide to the Risky Promises in Obama's Iran Deal Speech

If the nuclear deal fails, these six promises may come back to haunt him.

One sentence, even one phrase, can set a politician’s legacy in public memory forever. If a leader plainly states that something is so, and it plainly is not, people will remember it for years. “Read my lips,” said George H. W. Bush, “no new taxes.” New taxes followed, as did Bush’s defeat in the next election. “We still seek no wider war,” said Lyndon Johnson after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. His presidency and his legacy were then ruined by a vastly widened war in Vietnam. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” said Bill Clinton. Months later, he revealed that wasn’t true; similar statements in a deposition led to his impeachment. Across the pond, Neville Chamberlain said he believed the deal he’d made with Hitler at Munich was “peace for our time.” Six months later, the Munich agreement was broken as the German army rolled into Czechoslovakia; eleven months later, Chamberlain’s United Kingdom was pulled into one of history’s deadliest wars.

Barack Obama is surely familiar with this phenomenon—witness “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.” That’s what makes his speech this morning defending his Iran deal remarkable: he didn’t shy away from clear statements that will certainly haunt him if the deal fails. Six of these were particularly risky.

This deal “will prevent [Iran] from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

If the deal is implemented successfully and Iran keeps its promises, Obama will be proven right. It’s almost unimaginable, at this point, that Iran will obtain a nuclear weapon in the next several years, and that’s a direct consequence of this deal. For Iran to back out in the near future would make it look downright mendacious. But much of the deal is necessarily temporary. As the temporary elements begin coming off over the next two decades, Iran’s nuclear efforts will have more legitimacy. The great fear is that Tehran will use that legitimacy to expand its nuclear program before finally breaching its international commitments and rushing the rest of the way to a bomb before Washington can act. That’s not impossible. However, if this happens, Obama’s legacy might not be utterly shattered—for if Iran’s goal all along has been a nuclear weapon, this deal will have at least delayed them on the way. (The prudence of that delay is a separate question that I’ll address shortly.) But Obama didn’t promise a mere delay.

“We have stopped the spread of nuclear weapons in this region.”

Some of Iran’s neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, have expressed great alarm about the negotiations and Iran’s nuclear progress. The Saudis have said that they want whatever Iran gets, and there have also long been rumors that they’ll try to buy a bomb from Pakistan. So if Iran’s long-term plans prove nefarious or regional actors simply don’t accept the deal, that spread may still occur. However, we shouldn’t overstate the current risk of that happening. An indigenous Saudi nuclear program would face lots of obstacles, particularly as the modern nonproliferation regime will make it hard for them to acquire the necessary tools. The program would also require an enormous investment of resources, and though the Saudis are rich, low oil prices, a growing population and a more troubled region are already putting their coffers under strain. A nuclear program would be expensive and almost certainly wasteful—although the same things are true of Iran’s nuclear program, and that didn’t stop them.

A Saudi purchase of a nuclear weapon would also be uncertain, for buying something is not a unilateral act. The Pakistanis must sell it to them. That sale would come with serious consequences for Pakistan. The fact that Pakistan recently refused to join the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen suggests that the country does not see its security policy in purely financial terms, which can’t be comforting to any Saudi leaders in the market for a bomb.

“Because of this deal, Iran will not produce the highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium that form the raw materials necessary for a nuclear bomb.”

The text of the deal appears to only put clear restrictions on enrichment levels for fifteen years, although there may be something more explicit in forthcoming voluntary commitments by Iran. If Iran were to build a bomb someday, it’d render this Obama promise false in the process. Even if, as some believe, Iran doesn’t actually want a bomb but does want an ability to build one relatively quickly, this promise may still be broken. There are also legitimate (but often dubious) peaceful uses for highly enriched uranium, uses which this deal and Iran’s other commitments don’t appear to conclusively block. That question may develop an unpleasant relevance in fifteen years, although it reflects a weakness of the nonproliferation regime rather than the final Iran deal.

“Inspectors will also be able to access any suspicious location—put simply, the organization responsible for the inspections, the IAEA, will have access where necessary, when necessary.”