Whatever else the Obama administration accomplished in the Iran nuclear framework, it did a good job keeping the bar of expectations low and then clearing it.
Many assumed various provisions would last 10 years or less; most are for 15 years or more. Many expected the number of operating centrifuges to exceed 6,000; the target is lower. Many expected the total amount of fissile material Iran is allowed to keep to be higher than the agreed 300 kilograms. These achievements created an initial halo of success.
But as former national security adviser Stephen Hadley emphasized to me, “things that seem too good to be true usually are.” In the days of Cold War arms-control agreements, Soviet negotiators would join in the announcement of notional goals. Later, they would claim that some elements would not fly with Moscow. The strategy was to pocket elements of consensus, then use this as the starting point for new negotiations and additional U.S. concessions.
Tehran can be expected to use every ambiguity in the agreement to its advantage as goals are converted into the language of a final deal. Disagreements are already emerging between the Obama administration and the Iranians on how and when sanctions will be lifted in exchange for compliance, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif essentially accusing the White House of deception.
Given the months of hard negotiations ahead, the self-congratulatory tone of President Obama’s speech announcing the agreement was extremely premature. “Depending on what we learn about critical details,” says professor Peter Feaver of Duke University, “this is not spiking in the end zone. It is spiking on the 5-yard line.”
A number of issues seem murky. What becomes of all the fissile material Iran has apparently agreed to export? What is done with the decommissioned centrifuges and infrastructure to make sure they can’t be easily reinstalled during a breakout attempt? What is the pace and ordering of sanctions relief by the United States, the European Union and the United Nations? How fully will Iran be required to account for past military dimensions of its nuclear programs?
But the largest question will not be answered by the next stage of nuclear negotiations. Will this agreement give the Iranian regime cover for what it is currently doing in the Middle East — actively spreading its influence and threatening our allies? Negotiations on the nuclear issue have taken place in isolation from the ballistic missile issue, the terrorism issue and the regional destabilization issue.
For all the praise Obama is claiming, the Iranian regime counts the most remarkable achievement. It has engaged in nuclear negotiations with the United States while actively engaged in a regional conflict against American friends and proxies. Since Obama has prioritized the nuclear negotiations — the only alternative to which, he constantly reminds us, is war — other concessions have seemed small in comparison. Opposition to Bashar al-Assad has become muted, even as he crosses every blood-red line of brutality, to avoid disrupting relations with his Iranian patron. Human rights issues within Iran have become secondary to avoid giving offense. Obama has sometimes seemed more tolerant and empathetic toward Iranian positions than those of allies and partners such as Israel.
Will Iran continue to hold U.S. policy in the Middle East hostage — causing the United States to hush its reactions to Iranian aggression for fear the regime will walk out of a nuclear deal? This is precisely what American friends in the region fear. The real test — for allies and for members of Congress — will be whether Obama can accompany a final nuclear agreement with a much more aggressive resistance to Iranian ambitions in places such as Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Otherwise, Iran will simply use the wealth that comes from lifted sanctions to cause more havoc.
If Iran is treated as a normal nation simply because of its nuclear cooperation — if it interprets a deal as a green light for its actions in the region — neither our traditional allies nor members of Congress will sustain Obama’s nuclear agreement in the long term. And the support of Congress could be dramatically helpful in surrounding a deal with snapback sanctions and the pre-authorization of military force in the event of an Iranian breach.
To secure his nuclear deal with Iran, Obama must show resistance to Iranian aggression across the range of our relationship.