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Throughout this climactic phase of diplomatic efforts to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, two of the most damaging charges leveled at President Obama are that (a) he’s more interested in any deal than in a good deal, and (b) a main reason is that his overriding aim is reaching a broad-ranging rapprochement between Washington and Tehran – which he thinks will eventually take care of the nuclear problem.

The president has denied prioritizing such lofty ambitions, insisting that “the key here is not to somehow expect that Iran changes — although it is something that may end up being an important byproduct of this deal — but rather it is to make sure that we have a verifiable deal that takes off the table what would be a game-changer for them if in fact they possess nuclear weapons.” Previously, he maintained that “you could argue that if they are implacably opposed to us, all the more reason for us to want to have a deal in which we know what they’re doing and that, for a long period of time, we can prevent them from having a nuclear weapon.”

Yet his decision, announced last Friday, to instruct American diplomats to use “creative negotiations” to resolve a crucial disagreement over when international sanctions on Iran are lifted, cannot help but bear out the critics’ worst fears.

Right at the outset, I should confess that I don’t believe that anything worthy of the term “deal” or “framework” or “parameters” even exists to begin with. If Iran and the other negotiators can’t even agree on questions as fundamental as when and how sanctions end, or whether Iranian nuclear sites can be inspected, then any meaningful consensus seems purely a function of diplomatic hopes and imaginations. That’s not to say that a deal is impossible by the June 30 deadline (though it does mean that the April 2 announcements of progress were thoroughly misleading).

Nonetheless, the president’s retreat, without any apparent Iranian reciprocity on any front, from the official U.S. pledge (contained in a White House release) that “Iran will receive sanctions relief, if it verifiably abides by its commitments,” cannot logically be reconciled with his promise that “Iran will not get a nuclear weapon on my watch….” For his new position – “there are a lot of different mechanisms and ways to” lift sanctions – inevitably informs a regime with a record of hiding nuclear activity that it can not only keep doing so with impunity, but that it can expect to reap rewards while it continues clandestine work. A stronger incentive to cheat is hard to imagine, especially given the ongoing disagreements between Iran and its interlocutors over vital inspection procedures.

Yet Mr. Obama’s casual attitude toward mechanisms and obligations that are necessarily central to arms control agreements – and indeed to most agreements that need to be codified – can easily be reconciled with other comments he’s made about bright Middle East futures that he believes an Iran nuclear deal of some kind can foster. In this vein, an answer he gave to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in an April 6 interview appears particularly revealing. Asked how he would address Israeli concerns about Iran’s longstanding hostility, he contended (in part):

[I] think the combination of a diplomatic path that puts the nuclear issue to one side — while at the same time sending a clear message to the Iranians that you have to change your behavior more broadly and that we are going to protect our allies if you continue to engage in destabilizing aggressive activity — I think that’s a combination that potentially at least not only assures our friends, but starts bringing down the temperature.”

This formulation indicates to me that the President believes that the Middle East can be pacified even if Iran goes nuclear provided the United States extends credible defense guarantees to all of Iran’s prospective targets – Israeli and Sunni Arab alike. More specifically, Tehran’s enemies will refrain from escalating a regional nuclear arms race or launching preemptive strikes on Iran, and Iran will moderate its actions, because American protection and imperfect restraints on Iran’s enrichment activity will jointly move the nuclear issue to the psychological back burner in all the capitols concerned.

If you’re thinking that this is a pretty muddled, even disjoint description of Mr. Obama’s ideas, you’re right – because I’m struggling to understand with any precision how and why any such scenario would unfold. I just wish I could feel confident that the president can.

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