THE BIG PLAY

The Real Reason Obama Did the Iran Deal

The U.S. allows Tehran to keep its nuclear program with the secret hope that America’s foe will become a friend.

07.14.15 8:19 AM ET

Both Iran and the United States essentially got what they wanted from the 159-page nuclear deal agreed upon Tuesday in Vienna.

The Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s gains were more tangible than President Barack Obama’s. The Supreme Leader got significant sanctions relief for his ailing economy, the launch pad for Iran to become a more formidable Mideast power. Mr. Obama stretched Iran’s nuclear breakout time from a few months to over a year with strengthened inspection rights. But according to top administration officials, Mr. Obama has always been after something much bigger than capping Iran’s nuclear program, and he got it—the strategic opportunity to begin converting Iran from foe to “friend.”

Iranian negotiators understood well what’s been driving the U.S. president, and they have used the prospect of becoming “a friend” as their best bargaining card. For over a year now in small private conversations and strolls, they have been painting rosy pictures of Iranian-American cooperation.

The Iranian list of possibilities goes to most of Washington’s principal worries about the broad Middle East. They would step up their fighting alongside Iraqi troops to combat the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in central Iraq. And they would do much more in Syria to go after the headquarters and main forces that ISIS has there. They spoke of finding “solutions” to the civil war in Yemen between Sunnis and Iran-backed Shiites. They raised hopes of forging better relations with America’s “partners” in the Gulf. They pressed the idea of  renewing the cooperation they once had with the U.S. fighting the Taliban at the beginning of the Afghan war.

However, they said little or nothing about Lebanon, so as not to jeopardize the strong position there of their Hezbollah allies, or about their backing of Hamas in Gaza. And U.S. diplomats couldn’t get anything positive from them about Israel, the country that feels greatly threatened by Iran and fervently opposes any nuclear agreement with Tehran. But neither did Iranian diplomats close these doors.

To a large segment of foreign policy specialists and diplomats, such strategic openings are the very stuff of diplomacy, the real basis for reducing conflict and danger between nations, for putting the use of nuclear weapons into the background. But it seems for most politicians and legislators in Congress, these perspectives are too iffy and in the case of Iran, naïve.

So, as Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday, the deal will be a “hard sell” in Congress. And these opponents won’t be moved by the fact that the vast majority of Iranians seek close relations with the U.S.—just as they closed their eyes to popular wishes in Mr. Obama’s opening to Cuba. Besides, critics just don’t buy the idea that Iran’s ruling clergy and the Revolutionary Guard will surrender internal power to anyone, let alone the pro-Western majority, or modify anti-American and anti-Israeli policies.

With Iran’s more than 30 years of backing its own terrorists and threatening American friends in the Mideast, congressional opponents will be looking for any reasons, any excuses, to oppose the Vienna deal.

If the past is prologue, few legislators will actually read the long and complex document. Instead they will rely on like-minded staffers and experts to reinforce their own prejudices. (And fortunately for them, the press won’t ask them hard questions to reveal their ignorance.)

Here will be the main lines of opposition:

First, the White House originally promised it would totally eliminate Iran’s nuclear program. Essentially true. But it was a dumb promise. There was no chance Iran would agree to this—none—then or now. And notice that virtually all those who wanted Iran to give up all nukes never made remotely similar demands when it came to North Korea’s nuclear program and mostly just bit their tongues as Pakistan crossed the nuclear threshold on its way to building almost 150 nuclear weapons today. It has to be asked, who is more likely to use nukes—North Korea, Pakistan, or Iran? Most experts pick Pakistan first, then North Korea.

Second, critics will argue that Iran continues its support of terrorists and efforts to overthrow Israel and the Gulf states. Also true. Of course, Iran continues to damage American interests, but these talks are about slowing its climb toward nuclear weapons, not instantly settling steamy Mideast problems.

Third, the critics say the U.S. could have had its way with the mullahs had Mr. Obama only strangled the Iranian economy with more sanctions. There are only a couple of problems with this argument. One is that no nation, including those far weaker economically than Iran, has ever capitulated after economic sanctions. Notice Russia, Cuba, and North Korea. And two, while Iran’s economy is hurting, almost all experts agree that it is nowhere near crumbling. Recent studies by conservative outlets such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and The Economist demonstrate just that.

Iran has the 17th-largest economy in the world. Its growth has slowed in the face of sanctions, but it still manages, and it has also held up well enough in the face of declining oil and gas prices, the proceeds of which account for 60 percent or so of Iran’s economy.

As for the heart of the nuclear agreement— for certain it is not perfect, but it does represent clear steps forward in holding Tehran to account on its nuclear efforts. All provisions regarding developing uranium or plutonium hold Iran way below where it is at present and where it’s been headed.

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These restrictions aren’t everything, but they are far better than what exists without an agreement today—or what Iran could do tomorrow.

Inspection rights aren’t perfect either, but they go far beyond present commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. No inspection rights in any arms control treaty have ever been air tight. No country, neither Iran nor the U.S., would permit open-ended inspections.

The worrisome provisions pertain to the lifting of sanctions. Counter to Tehran’s wishes, they won’t be lifted all at once or all soon. A big chunk will be removed soon after the agreement is formally approved, but then, the bulk of the sanctions by the U.S. and others will come off over the course of years. Some might not be lifted by the U.S. Congress for many, many years.

A legitimate worry is that Iran will cheat or otherwise not live up to the agreement’s obligations, and that the sanctioning parties will let them get away with it. Indeed, China and Russia could look the other way and probably will. It’s also probable that the other signatories—Britain, France, Germany, and the European Union—won’t be tough in their responses to violations.

These concerns give real weight to the argument that this agreement in its execution could allow Tehran to have its nuclear capacity and a much stronger economy as well.

The only protection here would be for Washington to go to its negotiating partners now and try to tie down how they will deal with possible violations collectively. If Paris, London, Moscow, Beijing, and Berlin can’t agree with Washington on common strong actions at this point, they should realize they are jeopardizing congressional passage of the deal that has taken all of them three years to negotiate. This collective commitment by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany is the best counter argument to the criticism that Obama’s hope for a strategic opening to Tehran is a pipe dream.

This is the only way to show they won’t allow the great opportunity they have created to be subverted in a way that makes Iran stronger while it creates ever-greater problems.