Sunday, Nov 28, 2021

A Very Bad Deal

I have a friend blessed with a calm disposition, vast erudition, and a long historical view, who has become my personal Prozac over the years whenever I'm convinced that the sky is falling. Imagine, then, my funk after receiving this email in the wake of the interim accord between the P5-plus-1 and Iran: “I cannot perform my usual service and tell you the Iran deal is not as bad as it looks. It probably is at least that bad.”

Yossi Klein Halevi pretty much summed up the situation in the New Republic in “Israel’s Freakout, Explained.” There are essentially two ways in which Iran’s rush towards nuclear weapons might be halted. The first path is a sanctions regime so biting that Supreme Leader Khameini would deem it necessary to give up the nuclear program rather than face an internal revolt that would end the Islamic Revolution. The second path is an Israeli air strike, which, if successful, could set back the Iranian nuclear project three years or so. (There is, at least theoretically, a third path: American air strikes from aircraft carriers stationed nearby. But no one – least of all the Iranians – have considered that even a remote possibility for some time.)

 

Both of those paths were significantly weakened, if not permanently foreclosed, by the interim accord. Though the interim accord is only set to last for six months, it contemplates the possibility of unlimited renewals, as negotiations allegedly proceed. And that is what will likely happen. Having staked its reputation, such as it is, on the successful signing of an accord with Iran, it is virtually inconceivable that the United States will ever be willing to pronounce the negotiations to have reached a dead end. And as far as the Iranians go, there is little incentive not to continue operating pursuant to the interim accord, which allows them to continue increasing their stockpiles of enriched uranium while they work on key aspects of their nuclear weapons program.

 

A prolonged period operating under the interim accords will make both the paths towards setting back the Iranian nuclear program far less likely. Getting international agreement on sanctions has been rightly compared to herding cats. China, Russia and India only reluctantly agreed to participate in the sanctions regime in the first place and will look for the first opportunity to resume full trade ties with Iran. Ditto European companies. The longer that Iran is in apparent compliance with international agreements, the more it comes to look like a respectable member of the international community and thus the harder it will be to resist those parties eager to reduce sanctions.

 

The biggest problem facing Israel as it contemplates an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities has always been one of timing. Attack before the Iranian program nears the stage where it is capable of producing a bomb in one or two months – i.e., breakout – and Israel becomes the aggressor. Attack while negotiations are ongoing and Israel becomes the warmonger nation unwilling to give peace a chance. And to attack while Iraq is operating pursuant to an international agreement is even more problematic.

 

Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu was likely hoping that negotiations with Iran would break down at some point or else that an agreement would be achieved that would set back Iran’s nuclear weapons program in some material fashion. What he could never have contemplated is the agreement actually agreed to, which effectively ties his hands.

 

IN A RECENT OP-ED PIECE, former Secretary of State George Schultz outlined some of Ronald Reagan’s rules for negotiations, using seven years of American-Soviet negotiations over Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) as his model. At the beginning of negotiations, the Soviet Union had deployed 1,500 such weapons to zero for the United States. Reagan’s goal was to get the Soviet Union to destroy all theirs. And he succeeded, though only after “upping the ante” by deploying his own INFs in Germany.

 

Among the rules enunciated by Schultz, two stand out: (1) Remember the guy who is anxious for a deal will have his head handed to him; (2) Know what you want so that you don’t wind up negotiating from the other side’s agenda. Unfortunately, the Iranians followed these rules; the Americans and their Western partners did not. The U.S. negotiated as if they were the desperate party.

 

Despite the pain inflicted on Iran by sanctions, and the long-range threat that those sanctions represented to the mullahs’ rule in the form of internal opposition, rather than pressing its advantage and upping the pressure, the West offered Iran $7 billion dollars in immediate sanctions relief. And the Iranians controlled the agenda, because they knew clearly what they wanted. Every time they said no, no it was, as far as the West was concerned.

 

Mark Steyn summed up the proceedings with his usual black humor. Both sides got what they wanted: the West got an agreement and Iran got its nukes. Bret Stephens, writing in the Wall Street Journal, was surely right that comparisons of Kerry/Obama to Neville Chamberlain were highly unfair to the latter.

 

Neither Great Britain nor France were militarily prepared for war at the time Munich. By contrast, the United States possesses overwhelming military and economic superiority over Iran. (Nuclear weapons, however, would be a great equalizer. Today, the United States has the power to prevent Iran from closing the Straits of Hormuz, through which over 20% of the world’s oil passes. If Iran possessed nuclear weapons, the equation would change greatly.)

 

JUST HOW BAD was the agreement? Very bad.

 

The accord provides Iran legitimacy and removes it from the category of rogue nations for pursuing nuclear enrichment. The interim accord grants Iran the right to keep enriching up to 5% and contemplates a final agreement concerning a “mutually defined enrichment programme.” The accord thus explicitly recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium – however much the White House and Secretary of State sought to spin this point – overturning, in the process, six U.N. Security Council resolutions to the contrary.

 

The U.S. administration touted Iran’s commitment not to produce a nuclear weapon, but that commitment is laughable and only makes Iran look more responsible. Many elements of the Iranian nuclear program have no conceivable civilian use – e.g., its enrichment of uranium to 20%, the heavy-water reactor at Arak designed to produce plutonium for use in a bomb. Over the years, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has amassed a large dossier on Iranian work on nuclear triggers and weaponization. Finally, the entire enrichment program is economically irrational for oil-rich Iran, since it could purchase all the enriched uranium needed for a civilian nuclear program at a fraction of the cost of producing it itself.

 

Not one element of Iran’s enrichment infrastructure is scaled back in any manner. Iran will not dismantle a single centrifuge nor limit its production of new ones. It did not even agree to hand over its stock of 20% enriched uranium (which is of use only for weapons), only to oxidize half that stock to 5%, from which it can quickly be enriched again to 20%. Iran did not agree to dismantle the heavy water reactor at Arak or its underground facility at Fordow.

 

Iran agreed only to heighten inspections in the enrichment facilities to which it admits. (No Iranian nuclear facility has ever been disclosed voluntarily.) But the agreement is silent as to inspection of sites of possible weapons research, including nuclear triggers. No mention is made of the Parchin site, which the IAEA is convinced was used for weapons research and testing.

 

Here is the summary of the agreement produced by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, which is unfortunately a good deal more accurate than the White House talking points: “None of the enrichment centers will be closed and Fordow and Natanz will continue their work and the Arak heave water program will continue in its present form and no material [i.e., enriched uranium stockpiles] will be taken out of the country and all enriched material will remain inside the country. The current sanctions will be decreased . . . .”

 

If that is the deal that John Kerry was able to extract when his leverage was at its height – i.e., before mass defections from the sanctions regime, what possible reason is there to think that any subsequent agreement will succeed in lengthening Iran’s path to nuclear weapons more than a few months at most. That certainly seems to be the Iranian view. In the week since the interim accord was finalized, the Iranians have been busy making clear what they will never agree to – e.g., to any limits on their right to enrich, or to closing down the Arak heavy-water reactor or the Fordow underground site. The Iranian deputy foreign minister brazenly announced that Iran does not view the interim accord as legally binding and does not trust the West. The minute the West fails to comply with any provisions to Iran’s satisfaction, he threatened, Iran will immediately return to the status quo ante.

 

SO UNFATHOMABLE IS THE interim accord from an American point of view that a number of foreign policy experts, including the non-partisan Walter Russell Mead and Michael Doran of the liberal Brookings Institute, have concluded that the accord is but one aspect of a larger Obama agenda – perhaps fostered by his closest advisor, Iranian-born Valerie Jarrett – to downgrade traditional Middle East allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and to turn Iran into a major bulwark of Middle East stability. According to that reading, the administration has either decided that containment will work with a nuclear Iran or that Iran will be so grateful to the U.S. for leaving its aspirations to regional hegemony unchallenged that it will voluntarily eschew its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

 

That thesis follows the principle of Occam’s Razor – prefer the simplest explanation that explains all the data – by making sense of many of the administration’s foreign policy “errors.” Consider some of the strange decisions that now make sense. Obama ignored pleas from Iranian protesters during the 2009 mass demonstrations following the stolen presidential elections for some expression of American support.

 

He steadfastly refused to take advantage of the civil war in Syria to end the Assad reign and thereby shatter Iran’s dream of a Shi’ite Crescent from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Syria is the main transport point through which Hezbollah is supplied by Iran. And he backed down when Iranian client Bashir Assad crossed his own “red line” by employing chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. He appointed Chuck Hagel, who had multiple connections with the Iranian Lobby in Washington, Secretary of Defense, and John Brennan, who never fails to discern signs of moderation among Islamist groups, from Hezbollah to the Muslim Brotherhood, to head the CIA. And we now know that for the last six months or more, the president has been unilaterally weakening sanctions without informing Congress by failing to report violators of sanctions, an effective green light to all would-be violators.

 

Even Iranian expressions of the most virulent anti-Semitism earned little reproof from the White House. On the eve of the interim accord, Iranian Supreme Leader (“Fuhrer” in Parsi) Khamenei called Israel a “rabid dog” that is doomed to be “annihilated,” without arousing the ire of the president. Obama apparently did not notice the crowds at Khameini’s speech picking up the familiar refrain of “Death to America.”

 

The outreach to Iran arises out of the repeated liberal folly of imagining that all people want just what they want – a few more material goodies – and that ideology and theology are not serious. They cannot comprehend that highly ideological and theological regimes tend to be both more honest about their intentions and to mean what they say. (Goebbels is said to have been astounded at Munich by the apparent ignorance of French and English leaders of everything Hitler ym”sh had written of his plans for German conquest.) They cannot just pivot on a dime, because they actually believe in certain principles.

 

The Islamist Revolution is based on an explicitly expansionist ideology and views itself as locked in a theological struggle with the West. Not by accident is it the world’s leading supporter of terrorism. A writer for Kayhan, the voice piece of the Khamenei, put it bluntly to the Wall Street Journal’s Sohrab Ahmari last week: “The nature of the opposition of the Islamic revolution with the regime of liberal democracy is fundamentally philosophical. It’s an ideological difference. It is not a tactical enmity or one that has to do with temporary interests, which can be shifted and the enmity done away with…. [Those who say] these negotiations are a step toward peace between Iran and the United States . . . are completely mistaken.”

 

Someone should tell President Obama. But he’s too much of an uber-chochom and wouldn’t listen anyway.

 

SO IF MY FRIEND can provide no consolation, where will those of us living in Israel find our hope? Only in the lights of the Chanukah licht and the knowledge that the same Hashem who enabled a rag-tag band to defeat one of the world’s best-trained and equipped armies and caused enough oil for one day to burn for eight still protects His People.

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