Whether it was theatrics aimed at Congressional critics or the Iranian leadership, Secretary of State John Kerry sounded pretty tough yesterday when discussing what Tehran would be required to do in the final written version of the nuclear deal he struck with the Islamist regime last week. Kerry said Iran would have to open up its facilities to United Nations inspectors so that they could gauge the extent of research that had been conducted on possible military dimensions of their work. What’s more, a State Department spokesperson said today that sanctions on Iran would only be ended in a phased manner as the regime proved itself to be in compliance with the restrictions in the agreement. Yet today we also heard from Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who stated clearly that while he was not directly opposed to the deal, sanctions would have to be lifted the day it was signed and that he would never allow the United Nations to inspect the military sites Kerry referenced. Does anyone want to bet on who will prevail in this test of wills?
In the best tradition of the perennially over-optimist Kremlin watchers of the Cold War era, some supporters of the Iran deal are claiming that Khamenei’s speech constitutes a victory for President Obama. That argument, an opinion put forward in the guise of analysis in the New York Times news story about the speech, holds that the ayatollah’s remarks constitutes a grudging acceptance of the need to make peace with the West and a signal to the country’s “hardliners” that they will gradually have to get used to the limitations on their nuclear program.
That’s an interesting theory that tells us more about the hopes of supporters of the president’s effort to create a new détente with Iran than it does about Khamenei and his followers. Moreover, it is flatly contradicted by the history of the past two years of nuclear negotiations with the Islamist regime. Every previous time the Iranians have said no to the West on an important issue, the result is always the same: President Obama and his envoys are the ones who gradually get used to not having their way and eventually bow to the demands of Iranian negotiators who are, by the way, the ones that the smart analysts consider to be the “moderates” in the Iranian political universe.
After all, it wasn’t that long ago that President Obama was vowing during his re-election campaign that any deal with Iran would involve the end of their nuclear program. Yet last week he boasted of an agreement that would leave it with thousands of centrifuges.
We were also told that Iran would have to submit to rigorous inspections of its facilities anytime and anywhere without prior warning. This week the administration is defending the absence of such inspections and telling us they are unnecessary.
The world was assured that Iran would have to ship its stockpile of nuclear fuel out of the country in the event of an agreement. Now we understand that it will remain on Iranian soil where it can be easily reconverted to use for a bomb.
Indeed, the list of U.S. concessions to Iran is endless. That is why the president is forced to defend a deal with a sunset clause that will, at best, limit Iran’s ability to build a bomb for only 15 years. Thanks to Iran’s tough stands in the talks, it can easily cheat its way to a bomb but it can also get one by complying with the deal’s terms if it is patient enough.
The reason for all these concessions is that the president decided that a deal that imposes even a slight burden on Iran’s ability to construct a weapon is better than no deal at all. When faced with the possibility of Iran walking away from the talks over any of these and other significant points of contention, the U.S. decided that squandering a chance for an agreement on virtually any terms would be a far worse outcome than watering down an already weak deal.
Why then should we believe that now that the president has achieved what his media cheering section is calling a legacy-making diplomatic triumph, he will throw it away just for the sake of closing a few more loopholes through Iran could squeeze through to make a bomb?
As has been the case throughout the negotiations, Iran continues to hold the whip hand over the U.S. because the president and Kerry want a deal a lot more than the Iranians. That’s in spite of the fact that it is an economically distressed Iran that has far more to gain from a deal than the Americans. Yet that didn’t stop Obama from throwing away the vast economic and political leverage that he had over Khamenei throughout the talks. Having already given up so much to get so little, the president is in too deep to pull back now. Nor can the president, who has invested so much scarce political capital in the effort to fend off Congressional or Israeli interference in his rush to an entente with Tehran, suddenly declare that the deal is off because of problems that he has already dismissed as mere details.
That’s why Khamenei is confident that, as he has at every previous impasse in the talks, it will be Obama who blinks first. Given Obama’s track record, it seems as if the Iranians are a safe bet to prevail once again and that it will be Kerry who will be eating his words in June, not the Grand Ayatollah.