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.
Obama exposed the Fordow facility in September 2009. In his own words, “the size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful programme”. When critics questioned his ability to stand his ground, after important initial concessions were made in the November 2013 interim deal, the president snapped back. At a policy conference in Washington DC, in December 2013, Obama said: “Now, in terms of specifics, we know that they don’t need to have an underground, fortified facility like Fordow in order to have a peaceful nuclear programme. They certainly don’t need a heavy-water reactor at Arak in order to have a peaceful nuclear programme. They don’t need some of the advanced centrifuges that they currently possess in order to have a limited, peaceful nuclear programme.”
Iran would have none of that, however, and Obama blinked again. The announced deal merely seeks a temporary reconfiguration and downsizing of the two facilities. Once the deal restrictions expire in a decade, Iran will be able to revamp the two facilities as it pleases.
Verification was also critical for the Obama administration, especially in line with the president’s signature policy of nuclear disarmament and arms control. Given Iran’s history of nuclear lies and subterfuge, a lengthy and intrusive enforcement and verification mechanism was in order. But Iran has stonewalled again and Obama, so keen for an agreement, appears to have blinked. The announced deal merely stipulates that Iran will provisionally implement a verification regime its government already ratified 11 years ago. It will be up to Iran to maintain that commitment. And given that Iran had provisionally done the same under the 2004 Paris agreements, only to abruptly suspend such stricter monitoring arrangements when it chose to begin uranium enrichment, none of this is very promising.
That is especially true when one looks at the so-called Possible Military Dimensions of Iran’s programme. The US insist they have overwhelming evidence that Iran was seeking nuclear weapons until recently. A deal that restores the confidence of the international community in the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear activities needs first to address all Iran’s past suspicious activities. Yet Iran is no longer expected to show accountability until well past the agreement. Knowing what Iran did in the past is critical in order to verify its future compliance with the NPT. The Obama administration has instead agreed that a vague commitment to answer questions in the future will suffice. One more blink.
None of this is surprising. In the first major foreign policy speech of his presidency, Obama addressed the topic of nuclear disarmament before a vast crowd of Czech citizens in Prague on April 5, 2009. Referring to Iran’s combined threat of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, Obama said: “Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile activity poses a real threat, not just to the United States, but to Iran’s neighbors and our allies. The Czech Republic and Poland have been courageous in agreeing to host a defence against these missiles. As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile defence system that is cost-effective and proven. If the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security, and the driving force for missile defence construction in Europe will be removed.”
Six months later, Obama scrapped the missile defence commitment to the Czech Republic and Poland. And when, five years later, Iran refused to discuss its missile programme, he agreed to let it fall by the wayside of the negotiations. If you like your missiles, you can keep your missiles. Obama blinked, blinked, and blinked again. Why is anyone surprised that he continues to do so?