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Obama Wants Neither the American nor Iranian Public Getting in His Way

The Obama administration is showing signs of growing confidence that they will actually get a nuclear deal with Iran. As Eli Lake and Josh Rogin report, officials are starting to temper expectations for what such a deal could accomplish, suggesting they’re moving beyond the stage of overselling the deal and beginning to plan for the political fallout at home. And it leaves two distinct impressions about President Obama’s plans for a deal.

The first is that Obama expects to go it alone and bypass Congress. This isn’t too surprising, considering both the president’s record on pesky rule-of-law restrictions and also the fact that there is no deal that Iran would agree to that would also pass the U.S. Senate. If Obama thinks he might be close to a deal, it’s a deal that would be far more favorable to Iran. And the recent reports on the outlines of that deal confirm as much.

He can’t get the Senate to ratify that treaty. So he won’t. He’ll just call it something else and sign it. This is what Obama considers his second-term legacy accomplishment. There is just no way he’d subject it to the people’s representatives, especially after coming this far with it. If he can get Iran to sign, so will he. If Obama wanted Congress more involved in crafting a deal, they would be. I don’t think anybody expects Obama to abide by the will of the Senate on this.

The second impression is that Obama is buying into the same fallacy that has snared other world leaders when dealing with terrorist-sponsoring regimes, most famously by Yitzhak Rabin’s belief that Yasser Arafat could crack down on terrorism and deliver calm because he could act “bli Bagatz uvli B’tselem,”–basically, that he had no high-minded independent courts and no NGOs to monitor his preservation of human rights.

It is easier–or, at least, it appears to be easier–to deal with autocratic regimes because they can presumably do whatever they want. (Though as Obama learned the hard way with Vladimir Putin, the tendency to believe they can act with impunity should be a warning sign.) Thus, when Lake and Rogin write that Obama is backing off claims that a nuke deal will result in domestic reform, it’s because his legacy on this issue is dependent on there being no domestic reform.

Lake and Rogin write:

As details of a proposed pact leaked out of the Geneva talks Monday, administration officials told us they will ask the world to judge any final nuclear agreement on the technical aspects only, not on whether the deal will spur Iranian reform.

“The only consideration driving what is part of any comprehensive agreement with Iran is how we can get to a one-year breakout time and cut off the four pathways for Iran to get enough material for a nuclear weapon, period,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. “And if we reach an agreement, that will be the basis upon which people should judge it — on the technical merits of it, not on anything else.”

When asked if the State Department would argue the benefits of any deal in part by saying it would help Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, against his country’s hard-liners and therefore promote reforms, Harf said: “This is absolutely ridiculous.”

Well, sure it’s “absolutely ridiculous,” and it always has been. The idea that Rouhani is a reform-minded moderate trying to steer his country to the center and away from the hardliners is an idea the Obama administration bought into but it was never remotely believable. That the president is basically giving up this line of argument shows he wants to sign a deal that will do nothing in this regard and doesn’t want it thrown back in his face.

And more than that, the president actually needs the status quo in Iran to hold. He and the deal are essentially dependent on Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. If anything shakes Khamenei’s hold on the country’s politics and government, all bets are off.

And this deal gives that away, at least as its details have been reported. If the Iranians are allowed to simply slow down their quest for a nuke so that it occurs on someone else’s watch in return for alleviating sanctions, the Iranian leadership will have won a victory at home and strengthened its ability to control its proxies abroad.

As Times of Israel editor David Horovitz wrote yesterday, “This deal, indeed, will help cement the ayatollahs in power, with dire consequences for Israel, relatively moderate Arab states, and the free world.”

It’s unclear why anybody would have expected otherwise. The president saw the ayatollahs’ power challenged by pro-democracy activists in Obama’s first term. He could not possibly have been less interested in helping or encouraging them. He does not like the messy unpredictability of democratic politics, as his spectacular failure in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks demonstrated. Nor does he like complexity.

It behooves the president’s cause for Rouhani and Khamenei to be “bli Bagatz uvli B’tselem.” And his strategy for nuclear diplomacy is designed accordingly.



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