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Illustration by Michael Daley

The day after President Barack Obama withdrew his threat to veto legislation that gives Congress a say over a looming Iran nuclear deal, the Daily Beast ran the headline “Obama Blinks on Iran Nuke Vote.” The Iran deal may turn out to be the signature foreign policy legacy of his presidency. Why then, given the importance the president attaches to the deal, did he give up his fight with Congress?

The answer is that the president cannot hold his ground against more determined adversaries. His presidency is a litany of red lines and principled policies announced and then scrapped when the going got tough. Nowhere is this more evident than in foreign policy, especially Iran.

Since the president opened a secret back channel with Iran in Oman in 2013, he has been reluctant to apply pressure to its government, lest  they should walk away from the negotiations.

Recall the “Assad must step aside” public demand Obama made in August 2011. By the look of it, Assad will still be in office on January 20, 2017, to watch the inauguration of Obama’s presidential successor from afar. Recall also that the president made Assad’s use of chemical weapons a red line that would invite military strikes. Assad used chemical weapons and continues to use chlorine bombs to terrorise and murder civilians.

Obama did not exact the price he promised Assad would pay. Bombing Assad would have upset Tehran. Obama blinked. Critics of the nuclear deal which is shaping up as negotiations race towards the June 30 deadline will note that the president has done the same on virtually every red line the United States and its allies announced over the years with regard to Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Since the beginning of the nuclear standoff with Iran, the official position of the international community was expressed in six UN Chapter VII Security Council resolutions demanding the complete suspension of any nuclear enrichment activity as a precondition for testing the real nature of Iran’s nuclear programme. The US was particularly invested in this aspect; Iran’s demand for a right to enrich ran contrary to a long-held US interpretation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), according to which NPT members were only entitled to peaceful nuclear energy, not necessarily enrichment — a key component to bomb-making but not essential to nuclear energy production. Most countries with nuclear power plants, including Iran, generate electricity from nuclear fuel supplied by a handful of producers.

Iran has resisted demands to suspend enrichment and dismantle its enrichment facilities. The emerging nuclear deal will now concede Iran a right to enrich uranium. Such recognition — which Iran implicitly extracted already in the interim deal of November 2013 — mortally weakens the previously held US position. Any member of the NPT wishing to develop its own indigenous enrichment programme need only mention the Iran nuclear deal to fend off any future objections. The president who bet his presidency on standing firm against nuclear proliferation has just undermined a decades-old US policy against proliferation. Another blink.

Much like the right to enrich, preserving an industrial-sized nuclear programme has always been Iran’s red line. By contrast, the Obama administration has repeatedly committed itself to the dismantlement of Iran’s key facilities of Fordow, an underground uranium enrichment installation, and Arak, a heavy water reactor suitable for plutonium production.

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