A few days ago, there were shouts of “Vive la France!” as la France Surcouf stepped in to stop the Obama administration from concluding a bad nuclear deal with Iran. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France wouldn’t be party to a “con game.”
But darned if the Obama administration isn’t back in the truffle hunt, rooting around for a deal with Iran. You thought Team Obama was determined, against all signals from reality, to force a deal on Israel and the Palestinian Arabs? That seems to be nothing, compared to Obama’s determination to sign a deal with Iran.
The smoke signals from last week suggested that the current round of P5+1 talks with Iran would break up without an agreement being reached. That outcome would have had the merit of reflecting political reality: Iran and the other nations don’t agree on terms. Iran wants to continue doing whatever she likes with uranium enrichment, whereas that intention is a central sticking point for the Western members of the P5+1. Making verifiable commitments to cease “medium”-level enrichment (i.e., enrichment to 19.75 percent) is one of the key things the Western negotiators want Iran to do, in exchange for a relaxation of sanctions. Iran, by contrast, wants sanctions lifted as a condition of negotiating on enrichment.
In outline, it’s similar to the classic impasse in the “Quartet”-brokered peace process between the Palestinian Arabs and Israel. The Palestinian Arabs want concessions from Israel up front, as the price of continuing to negotiate, whereas Israel won’t make those unilateral concessions on the final-status issues for which the Palestinians demand them.
Team Obama seems to be calculating that its negotiating allies – the EU-3 – will capitulate in a way Israel has ultimately declined to. If Team Obama can get a deal of some kind, no matter how bad it is, the EU-3 will accept it as a fait accompli. That, at least, appears to be the administration’s thinking, in continuing to pursue a deal at all costs with Iran.
Under the bus: Israel
What are the costs being accepted? One is throwing Israel under the bus. I do think it’s important not to oversell the damage to a longstanding alliance from the careless, overly ideological, or just silly actions of a single administration. But there really is no other way to describe what John Kerry and the State Department have been doing over the last week.
Kerry’s latest foray into under-bus-ery couldn’t have been more unmistakable or pointed. In a meeting with U.S. lawmakers on the Senate banking committee on Wednesday afternoon, he told the senators not to listen to the Israelis about Iran:
A Senate aide told BuzzFeed that during the meeting, “every time anybody would say anything about ‘what would the Israelis say,’ they’d get cut off and Kerry would say, ‘You have to ignore what they’re telling you, stop listening to the Israelis on this.’”
Senators were the opposite of reassured by this approach. This morning, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki dismissed the concerns expressed by an Israeli official – in light of the unlikelihood that Iran’s uranium enrichment would be curtailed – about the economic boon Iran would receive with a lifting of sanctions:
[Israel’s] Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Wednesday that the sanctions relief package offered to Iran could be worth as much as $40 billion to Tehran.
But when asked about Steinitz’s estimate, State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki criticized Israel and said that Steinitz’s “number, I can assure you, is inaccurate, exaggerated, and not based on reality.” Psaki did not offer an American assessment, but did say it was considerably lower than that of Israel.
As a reminder (considering that it’s been a while since we had an administration that engaged in more normal diplomacy): when your ally expresses substantive concerns, you don’t just dismiss those concerns with adjectives like “inaccurate” and “exaggerated.” You might in fact have genuine disagreements with you ally on particular assessments, but if you discuss them in public, you do so respectfully, and while maintaining propriety of both tone and perspective. You focus, for example, on the legitimate importance of your ally’s security, and your certainty that you can allay or address his concerns, even when you don’t agree with the analysis behind them. That’s just Diplomacy 101.
If Team Obama reminds you of nothing so much as Progressive Insurance’s “Flo” character, insisting to uneasy insurance customers that they can’t see her when it’s obvious that they can, you’re not alone. The vaguely menacing atmosphere of the “Peer Pressure” commercial, with the shadows and flashing lights and convenience-store venue, fits nicely with the tone of the veiled threat in Kerry’s drive-by warning on 8 November about a “third Intifada”:
“The alternative to getting back to the [peace] talks is the potential of chaos,” Kerry said. “Does Israel want a third Intifada?”
A crime boss couldn’t have said it better. But it’s not just Israel that’s being heaved under the bus in Team Obama’s increasingly demented-looking search for a deal – any deal. The Saudis have a sense of trying to dust themselves off from a stint under the bus as well.
Under the bus: Saudi Arabia
Neither David Kenner nor the Foreign Policy website can be accused of having a right-wing, anti-Obama perspective. But Kenner points out in a post today that the Saudis are some of the strongest critics of Team Obama’s deal-desperate Iran policy. Kenner quotes Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East studies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
[Saudi officials] don’t think this leads to a deal that leads to peace, they think this leads to Iranian domination of the Gulf. … To their minds it doesn’t do anything about Iranian ambitions, it just takes the United States out of the equation as a force that’s helping box Iran in.
Kenner alludes to the Saudi announcement in October of a “major shift” away from the U.S. in the kingdom’s foreign relations and alignments, because of Obama’s Iran and Syria policies. As he observes, the Saudis have more than Iran’s nuclear ambitions on their minds:
While the Obama administration’s focus is clearly on Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi royals see potential threats in a range of other Iranian activities, such as its support for the Assad regime, its patronage of the Lebanese paramilitary organization Hezbollah, and what they perceive as its intent to use Shia communities to stoke unrest in the Arab Gulf. …
The threat of Iran destabilizing the governments of the Arab Gulf may not be the top concern of anyone in Washington, but analysts say that it’s an issue officials in Riyadh take seriously.
Of course they do. They have to live in the region. The concern that a nuclear-armed Iran will have a freer hand to foment unrest by proxy – especially when the U.S. is sidelined as a factor in regional relations – has long been an obvious one.
Under the bus: The hopes of mankind
Meanwhile, a significant and obvious cost of the Obama policy on Iran is that it will guarantee the opposite of what the entire world believes the P5+1 group is negotiating for: a cessation of, and/or better international supervision over, Iran’s undesirable uranium enrichment. As blogger and analyst David Gerstman summarizes it, the whole purpose of Iranian agreement to nuclear deals has always been to buy time for violating them:
In 2006, Rouhani boasted how he had duped the West. It was a boast that he repeated again in an interview before the elections in Iran earlier this year, Rouhani was anxious to show that he was not too moderate to lead the country.
Far from honoring the commitment, in which Iran said “it has decided voluntarily to suspend all uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities,” Rouhani told the interviewer that all Iran did was merely suspend “ten centrifuges” in the Natanz enrichment facility. “And not a total suspension. Just reduced the yield.” …
The agreement of ten years ago, was not made in good faith. It was made to hold off the referring of Iran’s nuclear violations to the Security Council.
If Obama hands Iran a deal even more mechanically weak than the 2003 deal with the EU-3, it will be even easier for Iran to violate it. (For more on the extreme lack of “moderation” in Hassan Rouhani’s c.v., see Gerstman from June 2013. For more on Rouhani’s record of boasting about duping the West, see here.)
Why make a deal with Iran under these circumstances? That’s the question no one can seem to answer.
There’s been a lot of useful analysis in the last few days about the threat represented by the plutonium reactor at Arak, which is the concern raised by France in her official objection to the deal Team Obama was working on. A plutonium reactor, like North Korea’s, but (in Iran’s case) more powerful and productive, is a source of alternative fissile material for a nuclear bomb: it yields plutonium from the reactor process, rather than relying on a uranium enrichment sequence that can eventually produce U-235. The latter is the path Iran has already made progress down, with her “medium”-level uranium enrichment activities.
The Obama deal didn’t sufficiently address the plutonium reactor, whose construction has no civilian purpose. But the deeper problem with the whole negotiating process is the Obama administration’s seeming desperation for a deal. Obama’s policy team is stonewalling the concerns and objections of U.S. lawmakers, as well as those of our closest Middle Eastern allies. Apart from any other consideration, pursuing this course is inherently destabilizing: it will drive the stakeholders to look for security solutions outside of U.S. leadership and U.S.-brokered diplomacy.
A future full of consequences
The Saudis’ “major shift” away from the U.S. is one obvious consequence. Another is the potential for Israel to mount an attack, if the “conclusion” reached by the U.S.-led negotiating process looks both unfavorable and unrepealable.
But there is a subtler and more pervasive consequence to be borne, and that is the creation of a clear termination point for the credibility of American leadership. A bad American deal with Iran, one that no one else can believe in – one that starts driving other nations to peel away from even the perfunctory observance of the Pax Americana’s forms – will be a signal flare that can’t be ignored.
Up to now, it has been possible to pretend that the signal hasn’t been given yet. Even Russia and China have enjoyed some benefits from the pretense that the Pax American still exists; heck, even Iran and North Korea have had benefits from it. It has at least kept the international environment stable and predictable, making it easier, in some ways, to maneuver against or exploit it. No one yet, other than some (not all) Islamist radicals, has wanted to try to push the tottering status quo to collapse.
But a bad American deal with Iran would force the responsible nations to make choices they haven’t had to, up to now. It would change, for the worse, the comparative value of alignment with the United States. It’s not just regional or specific matters that would come into question; it’s basics like whether the time is right to attack the U.S. dollar in global markets, or whether someone else’s political leadership is better able, or more likely, to guarantee the energy or foreign markets that a given nation needs. No great power other than the United States can make such guarantees on a globally unifying, impartial basis – on the basis of principle – and no other great power even wants to. But for most nations out there, the choice to fall in with divisive, exclusionary, hegemonic schemes of economic guarantees – i.e., the schemes that Russia or China, or even the EU, would propose – will start looking better than having no guarantees at all.
It’s not clear to my mind how well Obama understands that he will not keep being the “leader of the free world” if he achieves his foreign policy goals. His administration doesn’t take the responsibilities of leadership seriously. But it clearly relishes a sort of zestful, sophomoric independence of action that it will lose summarily if it remains on its current, heedless course. Torpedoing your own ship ends badly for you when you’re at the helm.
Perhaps cooler heads will prevail, and Team Obama’s near-psychotic pursuit of a deal with Iran will quietly subside. If it doesn’t, however, America is in for some lessons we have not had to mull for many years. Our network of alliances, and our economy and national security, depend on America being a solution for others, not an added source of problems. You don’t have allies because you need them. You have allies because they need you.