When the Obama administration began to contemplate testing the Iranians this summer after the “election” of Hassan Rouhani as their new president, it reassured both the American people and U.S. allies that it would not overreact to the charm offensive that event launched. The president and Secretary of State John Kerry promised that there would be no move to dismantle the economic sanctions that had been implemented against the Islamist regime for anything short of an agreement that would end Tehran’s nuclear threat. But it as it headed back to round two of the reconstituted P5+1 nuclear talks today in Geneva, the administration is steering in exactly the direction it said it would never contemplate. As the Washington Post reports, the United States has agreed to offer Iran an interim deal that would begin the process of dismantling the sanctions in exchange for a temporary freeze in uranium enrichment on the part of the Islamist regime.
Defenders of this strategy, including Kerry, say this is not appeasement or a step toward containment rather than stopping Iran’s nuclear program. It is, they claim, merely a finely calibrated effort to coax the Iranians back from the brink that would give them limited carrots in exchange for real progress toward making them give up their nuclear dreams. But even if the administration’s motives here are pure, what they are proposing is a path to let Iran off the hook, not a diplomatic solution to a threat posed to the West, the Arab world and the State of Israel.
The conceit of the proposal is, in the words of the Post’s anonymous administration source, to put “time back on the clock” by halting any further Iranian progress toward a bomb. That gives more room for diplomatic efforts as well as relieving the pressure on the West to act before it is too late. But while that seems to make a lot of sense, in practice it could work to undermine the goal that the president has been articulating since before he took office.
Iran saying that it has frozen enrichment is one thing. Making sure that they are abiding by such a pledge is quite another. The Iranians have repeatedly shown themselves to be very good at hiding their nuclear plants and equipment while inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency are left to chase their tails or kept outside the country. Just as the North Koreans lied and cheated their way to a nuclear bomb, it doesn’t take much imagination to conceive of how Iran could do the same.
But while the Iranians could easily be cheating on their pledge and keep some of their centrifuges spinning, the West would be keeping its word and easing up the pressure on the ayatollahs. Even worse, while Iran could resume uranium enrichment—as well as research on a plutonium alternative—any time it liked, the cumbersome sanctions process is not so easily turned on and off. Europe, like the Obama administration, was slow to impose tough sanctions (the U.S. only did so at the insistence of Congress over the protests of the White House). Once they start to unravel, it is almost impossible to imagine how they will be put back into place. That is especially true once these governments assure their people that diplomacy is working. Nothing, not even blatant Iranian cheating, is likely to be enough to motivate either Europe or President Obama to go back to them, let alone to toughen them, as Congress now rightly would like to do.
As I wrote yesterday, since it is understood that sanctions forced Iran to negotiate, it is simply illogical to assume that further economic pressure will scare them away from the table. But once unraveled, even if it is only supposed to happen for a limited period, it is not likely that we will ever see them put back together.
With each passing day, it is clear that the administration’s real priority with Iran is to avoid having to take action, not stopping the threat of an Iranian bomb. While it is right to argue that no stone should be left unturned in an effort to solve the problem by methods short of war, by undermining their negotiation position in this manner they are guaranteeing that diplomacy will fail. If that is not their intention, they need to refrain from measures that will only encourage the Iranians to believe they can’t be stopped.