The Spin Zone: Don't Buy Obama's Hype on Iran

April 3, 2015 Topic: Diplomacy Region: Middle East

The Spin Zone: Don't Buy Obama's Hype on Iran

Washington may not have gotten the better end of the bargain...

President Obama got his wish: he can point to an agreement with Iran that, he claims, is the first step toward normalization of the two countries' relations. He clearly believes that by engaging Tehran, he can both prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and transform it into a force for stability in the Middle East.

The trouble is that no other state in the region, with the exception of that portion of Syria still under the control of Bashar al-Assad, and the Sh'ia-dominated government in Baghdad, has any confidence that Obama is correct on either count.

The so-called framework agreement, which actually is far more detailed than most observers expected, still has to win Ayatollah Khamenei's formal approval. Moreover, the American interpretation of that agreement may not be the same as Iran's, and most likely will differ in critical details. The overall tone of the agreement, as presented by the White House, is one that implies Iranian capitulation on almost every major issue. For example, Iran seemingly caved on the question of new research and development, as well as on the matter of shipping enriched material out of the country. Yet only a few days ago, these were major sticking points for the Iranian negotiators, and no doubt remain as such for the more hardline elements in Tehran. The Iranians also wanted the immediate removal of all sanctions, yet the agreement does not address any sanctions other than those related to Tehran's nuclear activities. Did Khamenei actually agree to such arrangements? It is hard to tell.

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Moreover, the White House asserts that the agreement posits that all previous Security Council resolutions regarding enrichment, Arak, Fordow and transparency would be lifted if Iran complies with its provisions, but then the Security Council would pass a new resolution restricting the transfer to Iran of "sensitive technologies and activities." But what are those activities? Will Iran accede to a Western definition of what those technologies and activities might be? And will Russia and China in particular actually vote for a new Security Council resolution of any kind?

The White House lists a number of restrictions on Iran that will not be lifted for fifteen or twenty years or even twenty-five years. But a critical provision relating to enrichment and enrichment research and development—the key to preventing a breakout of less than a year, according to the White House—will remain in force for only ten years. And then what? Ten years is the blink of an eye in the Middle East, or for that matter, anywhere else. And Iran could easily find ways to stall inspections for a year if it sought a nuclear "breakout," while getting the P5+1 to renew sanctions may take much longer and might never come to pass.

The agreement is silent on the question of Iranian support for terrorist activities and for organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, other than to specify that sanctions relating to these activities will remain in place. Yet because the agreement holds out the promise of Iran's reintegration into the international economy, additional resources will become available to Tehran that may well be directed toward additional terrorist activities, despite the retention of sanctions for terrorism, human rights and ballistic-missile development. After all, money is fungible.

Moreover, there is no way of knowing whether the Obama administration has made any secret undertakings to Tehran in order to win Khamenei's approval of the agreement. As Michael Pillsbury has demonstrated in detail in his recent book, The Hundred-Year Marathon, President Nixon and Henry Kissinger made a number of secret arrangements with Beijing, particularly in the field of military cooperation, to ensure that the "Opening to China" would indeed remain open. Have Obama and Kerry pursued a similar path?

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Perhaps, therefore, the administration's seemingly triumphant press release notwithstanding, the United States and the other P5+1 powers did not get the better end of the deal. The celebrations in Iran were hardly an indicator of a diplomatic defeat. And they certainly were not matched by similar revelry elsewhere.

Indeed, it appears that both America's Sunni allies and Israel have sadly concluded that President Obama is determined to restructure the Middle East by offshoring American responsibility for regional stability to Iran. And if the price of doing so is downgrading America's relations with them, so be it. It is difficult to offer any other explanation for Obama's over-the-top reaction to Benjamin Netanyahu's return to the premiership, however inappropriate and misguided the Israelis’ behavior both during his recent visit to Washington and during the election campaign may have been.

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Nor have America's erstwhile friends in the Gulf found any other way to interpret the administration's foot dragging on arming Assad's opposition after four years of civil war, or its reluctance to arm the Kurds without the approval of an Iraqi central government that is clearly under Tehran's strong influence. Indeed, it has not been lost on the Sunni Arabs that the administration moved far more quickly to support the Iranian-backed Sh'ia militias that were besieging Tikrit—although the militias insisted they wanted no help from what until now they viewed as the Great Satan.

The agreement with Iran is an especially frightening outcome for Riyadh, which already is having its worst fears realized with the Houthi takeover of most of Yemen. With Iraq under Sh'ia domination, the Iranian-backed Houthis represent a pincer movement that could ignite an insurrection among the restive Sh'ia in both Bahrain—only a causeway away from the Saudi Eastern Province—and in the Eastern Province itself; and the Saudis have long suspected Iran of fomenting trouble in Bahrain, which it has long claimed as its own, and in the Eastern Province. They could hardly have drawn reassurance from the announcement by General Mohammed Naqdi, commander of Iran's Basij Force, that if Riyadh continues to attack the Houthis, the Al-Saud will suffer the same fate as Saddam Hussein.

The Sunni Arabs have come to the conclusion that they no longer can solely rely on Washington's security blanket. Seeing the Americans turn their backs on their Israeli allies, as they once did on the Shah, the Sunni states have elected to take matters into their own hands. Ten countries have joined in the air war against the Houthis, including five of the six GCC states (Oman, traditionally close to Iran, being the exception): Morocco, Jordan, Pakistan, Egypt and Sudan, with the Saudis leading the way. Sudan was once an ally of Iran, but is now back in the Sunni camp. Moreover, in an unprecedented move, the Arab League is planning to mount a force of 40,000 troops, headquartered in either Cairo or Riyadh (not surprisingly, neither Syria, nor Iraq will contribute units to this force).

Sunni assertiveness is unlikely to end with the battle against the Houthis, however. Saudi Arabia's neighbors are convinced that Riyadh has a long-standing arrangement with Pakistan to obtain whatever assistance might be necessary to develop a nuclear-weapons capability of its own. The United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Turkey are sure to follow suit.

Finally, Israel has long fueled speculation that it would take matters into its own hands if it concluded that a deal with Iran was poorly negotiated and unenforceable. The administration's behavior has hardly been reassuring, nor has General Naqdi's assertion, unchallenged by any other Iranian leader, that the deal in no way prevents Iran from wiping Israel off the map. Israel might conclude that it can deter Iran with its own reported nuclear strike capability. But then again, it might not.

The U.S. Congress will surely take all of the aforementioned factors into account as it debates the provisions of the framework agreement and determines how to respond to a White House that would prefer it take no action in response to the deal. It can be expected that any such action will prompt a presidential veto. Whether the Congress can override that veto, that is, whether enough Democrats will break with the White House and join the Republican majority to reject the agreement, remains very much an open, but crucial, question. How it is resolved could well determine the future of the Middle East and, indeed, the prospects for international stability for decades to come.

Dov S. Zakheim served as the undersecretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001–2004 and as the deputy undersecretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985-1987. He also served as DoD's civilian coordinator for Afghan reconstruction from 2002–2004. He is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.

Image: Flickr/nordique