Commentary Magazine


Is Obama Signing Away the Last Chance to Stop the Iranian Nuclear Threat?

The Iran nuclear talks resumed in Vienna today with Western negotiators still saying that their goal is to prevent Tehran from getting a nuclear weapon. But while Secretary of State John Kerry was talking tough when he declared that the Islamist regime faced tough decisions in the talks, now it is the Iranians who are laying down the law. On the eve of the resumption of the P5+1 negotiations, Iran’s Press TV reported that the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi declared, “The U.S. must make tough decisions in negotiations and stop threats and sanctions.” While Washington is acting as if the Iranians are blowing smoke, the initial reports coming out of today’s meetings make it clear that they are not. If, as Reuters reported, the talks have past the exploratory stage and the parties are now preparing to draft an agreement, it may be that the real decisions have already been made.

Since Iran is already signaling that it has refused to reduce the number of its centrifuges enriching uranium–let alone eliminate them and put an end to the nuclear threat–the choice is no longer the one Kerry spoke of after signing a weak interim agreement with Iran last November in which he said no deal was better than a “bad deal.” If the drafting of the next-stage nuclear agreement has indeed begun, then the decision facing President Obama is not between a bad deal and a good one but between a bad one and none at all. Unfortunately, every signal coming out of Vienna, as opposed to the administration spin heard in Washington, must lead to the conclusion that Obama and Kerry believe they can sell an increasingly isolationist and war-weary American public on the virtues of a bad deal in order to put the issue, if not the threat, to rest.

It should be remembered that the president sought reelection in 2012 by promising never to contain a nuclear Iran and to demand that Tehran’s entire program be halted. But in getting the Iranians to return to the table in exchange for loosening economic sanctions, the administration has been slowly backing away from those principled stands. At this point the talks seem to center on a proposed deal that would do nothing more than extend the time the Iranians would have to conduct a nuclear “breakout” and build a bomb in exchange for dismantling sanctions.

While U.S. diplomats have indicated that there are still considerable “gaps” between their position and that of Iran, there is no sign that this disagreement involves an American effort to ensure that the Islamist regime won’t have the capacity to build a bomb anytime it decides it is in its interest to do so.

Obama would like nothing better than to declare victory in the talks and then hope that the Iranians delay their breakout until after he leaves office. But by backing away from demanding an end to enrichment, the U.S. is tacitly endorsing not only Iran’s “right” to create nuclear fuel but leaving it both a stockpile of uranium and the infrastructure by which it could race to a bomb assuming that the ayatollahs even bother to sign the deal that Obama is so desperate to conclude. By leaving their centrifuges in place and by not making them surrender their stockpile of uranium, which could easily be reconverted to weapons use, Tehran’s path to a bomb is not obstructed.

As the negotiators are busy drafting their document, the administration will do its best to shroud the effort in secrecy. But this is exactly the moment when they should be putting their cards on the table. Obama and Kerry already showed that they will exchange tangible concessions on sanctions in exchange for very little in return from Iran and the likelihood is that they will get even less this time while more or less dismantling the economic pressure that created an opportunity for stopping the nuclear threat. With the focus shifting to sanctions on Russia, European support for holding Iran’s feet to the fire is rapidly evaporating.

Once the agreement is drafted, the president will, as he did last November, present the public with a fait accompli and brand anyone who points out the gap between his promises and what the deal delivers as warmongers. If the West is signing away what could be the last chance to prevent a nuclear Iran, then Congress and the American people deserve to know about it before it is already a done deal.

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