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The Unraveling of Iran Sanctions

There are two major, competing alliances in the Middle East: pro- and anti-Iran. The “pro” bloc obviously includes Iran in addition to Syria, Hezbollah, and arguably the Iraqi government. The “anti” bloc includes just about everyone else–from Israel to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has long been seen as the strongest supporter of the “anti” bloc, which is hardly surprising since the Iranian regime has been waging war on the United States since its inception, whether with hostage taking or terrorist bombings.

But that perception is fast changing. First the American pullout from Iraq, then the deal with Syria, now the deal with Iran cast into serious doubt American resolve to stop Iran’s power grab and understandably alarm our allies. It feels as if there is a realignment of power taking place, with the U.S. counting for less and less: Both our friends and our enemies are less respectful now of American power and less likely to defer to us.

At least in the case of Syria, one can make the case that we are getting something substantial in return for providing de facto legitimacy to the Assad regime. At least Assad is actually allowing the dismantlement and destruction of his chemical weapons. That is not the case with Iran, which is slightly slowing down–by no more than a few weeks–its pell-mell rush to acquire an atomic bomb in return for at least $7 billion in sanctions relief (and possibly more) along with de facto recognition of its supposed “right” to enrich uranium.

I can understand why the Obama administration reached the deal with Tehran and why so many have embraced it. No one wants a war with Iran–and no one wants an Iranian bomb. It certainly appeared that Iran was on a trajectory to acquire a bomb and that the only thing truly standing in its way was the threat of an Israeli air strike. Given that President Obama long ago sacrificed any credibility in threatening Iran with the use of American force (if he won’t even bomb Syria after the use of WMD, who would imagine he would bomb Iran while it was still trying to acquire WMD?), one can make the case that a deal that delays the Iranian program, however slightly, is worth the price in a few billion dollars in sanctions relief.

The problem is that sanctions were finally, belatedly starting to bite. The Iranian economy has been in freefall since more restrictive economic sanctions were imposed last year. This is the point of maximum leverage–and Obama and Kerry have just taken their foot off the Iranian windpipe. If the Iranians would not agree to a Libya- or Syria-style deal that would dismantle their nuclear complex now, it is hard to imagine they will agree to do so in six months, when their economy will have gotten some badly needed relief. (Already, the Wall Street Journal reports, Western European firms are preparing to rush back into Iran.) The likelihood is that, six months from now, the Iranians will simply extract more concessions for not ramping up their nuclear program once again, all the while maintaining their ability to keep enriching uranium and keep designing and building ballistic missiles capable of carrying  a nuclear warhead.

Confidence in the U.S. among our Middle Eastern allies is plunging to new lows, and no wonder: Countries from Israel to Saudi Arabia, which see Iran as a mortal threat, no longer feel they can count on American protection. This is a dangerous perception because it encourages those states to take actions that no American president would favor–whether bombing Iran (in the case of Israel) or acquiring its own nuclear bomb (in the case of Saudi Arabia). The risk of appearing feckless may be worth running if it actually results in a deal that dismantles the Iranian program. But the odds are that Obama’s high-risk gamble won’t pay off.