For the past five years defenders of President Obama’s Iran policy — such as Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg — have been telling us that when push comes to shove the administration will do the right thing. Their assumption has been that although the president will give diplomacy every possible chance to succeed, he takes his responsibility to defend U.S. interests as well as to ensure the security of Israel and other Middle East nations threatened by the Iranian nuclear program very seriously. Though he was slow to adopt the kind of crippling sanctions that are now doing the Iranian economy real harm and wasted years on feckless attempts to engage the ayatollahs, they told us he would stick to his principles and not relent until the danger was averted even if that meant the eventual use of force.
But that argument lost some of its already shaky credibility this week with the administration’s over-the-top reaction to Iran’s performance at the revived P5+1 talks in Geneva. The enthusiasm with which Iran’s proposals for lifting international sanctions were received betrayed what many of the president’s critics already feared: Washington’s desire to find a way out of the confrontation with Iran is far greater than its determination to actually end the Iranian threat. And that is why the new proposal being put forward for non-sanctions financial relief for Iran in exchange for nuclear concessions is a bad idea. It’s not just that any easing up of the pressure on Tehran will only encourage the Islamist regime to believe that they needn’t sacrifice their nuclear ambitions. It’s that this administration can’t be trusted to implement a plan, however well thought out, that charts a path for a retreat from its responsibility to see to it that Iran doesn’t get a bomb.
As Goldberg wrote on Wednesday and the New York Times reports today, the plan for allowing Iran access to some of the $50 billion of its assets that are currently frozen in U.S. financial institutions was conceived at a highly reputable institution: the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies which is home to scholars who have been at the forefront of the battle to sound the alarm about Iranian nukes and other important issues. According to these reports, Mark Dubowitz, the Foundation’s founder is the author of a scheme by which the U.S. would trade chunks of that cash that Iran wants in exchange for various Iranian moves such as the closing down of some or all of its nuclear plants, suspension of enrichment or the export of its stockpile of enriched uranium.
The motivation for the idea seems sound. Its authors rightly believe that if the administration were to begin the process of dismantling the restrictions on dealing with Iran as payment for some concessions, it would lead to the quick unraveling of all the sanctions. Since Europe is desperate to get Iranian oil back on the market, that would mean the Iranians cold make promises (as they have done before) and be rewarded with tangible benefits. And once the sanctions are cracked open it will be impossible to re-impose them leaving Tehran free to go back to nuclear development with little to fear from the West.
But by leaving the sanctions in place and merely doling out some of Iran’s frozen cash, the U.S. could retain control of the process and keep the pressure up on the ayatollahs without worrying about sanctions enforcement falling apart. What’s more this could also allow the U.S. layer in the even tougher sanctions now before Congress should the Iranians balk at taking the first steps toward dismantling their drive for a weapon. Using the frozen assets as the bait for Iran seems to be a way of protecting the sanctions while giving President Obama some leeway to negotiate.
It all makes perfect sense but the problem with it remains the people being entrusted with the tools for pressuring Iran.
It has taken several long years for Congress, the White House and then America’s European allies to assemble the sanctions that are now being used against Iran. Once the administration starts buying into Iran’s attempts to wriggle its way out of sanctions, there may be no stopping them. After Washington starts dispensing cash to Iran, it will be a short hop and a skip to ending sanctions, especially for those here and in Europe that were never happy about them in the first place.
Moreover, as this week’s diplomatic contacts illustrated, this may not be an administration that can be trusted to properly evaluate Iran’s moves.
The Iranians have repeatedly demonstrated the way they use diplomacy to buy time to further their nuclear development and to deceive the West. Any agreement, partial or otherwise that leaves in place their ability to enrich uranium, continue heavy water research for a plutonium alternative or allows their facilities to keep operating will allow Tehran to eventually evade or trash any restrictions on their nuclear development.
But just as the Iranians must not be given an inch to maneuver to lie their way to a bomb neither should the Obama administration be given any method by which it can find a way to avoid keeping its promises on the issue.
By giving the administration a method to start dealing out goodies to the Iranians, pro-sanctions advocates are, in effect, negotiating with themselves and accepting the premise that the current diplomatic track is one that can lead to a real solution. That’s opening a pathway that will grant legitimacy to a strategy whose only real aim is to cut a deal with Iran, not ending the nuclear threat. Give the president an excuse to start backing down and, no matter how well-crafted the plan might be, he is almost certain to use it to move away from pressure on Tehran.
As even Goldberg has conceded, there is little reason to believe Iran has any intention of giving up its nuclear ambition. And nothing they have proposed this week, despite the joy their recycled offer brought to the administration, has undermined that conclusion. Iran’s charm offensive is working because they are feeding Washington lies the administration wants to believe. The Iranians already view President Obama with contempt. Once he starts rewarding their disingenuous promises with cash, that will only grow. Any loosening of sanctions of any kind prior to a complete dismantling of the Iranian program is a guarantee that diplomacy will fail. And any deal based on such a notion is more likely to get us closer to an Iranian bomb than it is to ending the threat.