I still haven’t yet examined all the statements made by participants about the nuclear weapons deal announced yesterday by the United States, five other major world powers, the European Union, and Iran. So I can’t comment on all of the possible loopholes created by the agreement, which include differing interpretations of its provisions by the signatories (not to mention the inevitable discrepancies among wording in different languages, plus any that might be deliberately created by the various governments involved). In fact, as far as I can tell, no actual agreement text has been made public by the Obama administration. The only official U.S. document I’ve seen is this description posted on the White House website.
So like most of us, I’m somewhat hamstrung in evaluating the accord – which, to complicate matters further, is a work in progress, that everyone acknowledges leaves many critical details up in the air. Further, I’m no expert in the technology involved in producing nuclear weapons and peaceful nuclear energy.
All the same, what I know of the deal worries me as much today as it did the day before its unveiling. My main – non-technical – concerns:
>Iran is an awfully big country – the world’s 18th largest. At more than 636,000 square miles, it’s just under 18 percent the size of the United States, and slightly less than 2.5 times bigger than Texas. A country that big will contain a great many hiding places, and will be challenging for the international community to monitor.
>All of the strategic conditions that, at least in principle, have been driving the Iranians to develop so many of the capabilities for building nuclear weapons remain firmly in place. Their theocracy represents a hated minority sect located in a region demographically dominated by its main theological rivals – which include not only large countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but unspeakably violent terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda and its various offshoots.
At least as important, Iran has used force to challenge the United States, which has in recent years toppled adversary regimes in Iraq and Libya, and has worked hard to oust the Assad dictatorship in Syria. Even a small nuclear arsenal would practically ensure the Iranian regime’s indefinite survival against its most powerful foreign threat by far.
And don’t forget – Iran’s neighborhood is overwhelmingly likely to remain hostile and dangerous long after the end of the various fixed-term provisions envisioned by the framework. Therefore, going nuclear could still just as strongly appeal even to a future Iranian regime much more moderate than today’s.
>America’s foreign policy team doesn’t even deserve to be called the JV. Secretary of State Kerry was known during his Senate career as a “showhorse,” not a “workhorse.” And even with a strong legislative record on Capitol Hill, there is no reason to consider him anywhere near a match for Iranian negotiators. Like Vice President Biden, he’s traveled extensively, and accumulated much face time with foreign leaders. Whether either of them has learned anything useful from these experiences is not entirely clear. As for national security advisor Susan Rice, she’s simply a climber devoid of any substantive accomplishment. Her career has been nothing more than a monument to over-promotion and possibly racial tokenism. And then there’s the president himself, who of course, had amassed only a half a Senate term’s worth of national policy-making experience before winning the White House in 2008.
Has foreign policy experience been any guarantee of good results for the United States? Hardly. It was the “best and the brightest,” after all, who led the nation into Vietnam and other debacles. What’s worrisome about the current administration is that it’s a combination of down-the-line (liberal) establishment thinkers completely lacking in any meaningful private sector or other real-world experience, and the wisdom and judgment they usually nurture.
>As has widely been noted, the Obama administration is heavily invested in Iran deal’s success for many reasons. Both the president and Kerry clearly have the legacy thing on their minds – both in the positive sense of achieving an historic and enduring breakthrough, and in the negative sense of burnishing records that look decidedly bleak so far. How enthusiastic will the president and his aides be to conclude that Iran is cheating? In fact, between now and the next (June 30) deadline, how plausible is it that they’ll hold fast on the framework’s decisive conditions when firmness could blow up an enterprise on which they’ve worked so hard for so long?
Add to these influences – to which all politicians, and other human beings, are subject – the strong tendency of the State Department, the diplomatic establishment, and their Mainstream Media enablers to value perpetuating diplomatic “processes” at least as much as achieving results. Just think of how the endless, on-and-off Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are continually described. Not that it’s out of bounds to believe that “talking is better than fighting.” But time is not necessarily America’s friend here – both because of Israeli threats to solve the problem militarily, and because of the related likelihood of continuing Iranian progress toward weapon-ization.
>America’s allies in keeping Iran nuclear weapons-free are hardly known for steadfastness. The European Union and most of its individual members have been ambivalent enough about responding to Russia’s expansionism over the last year – and that’s a threat in their own neighborhood. Economics looks like the most powerful explanation. The continent is stagnating economically, and even though Russia is no giant on the global economic stage, it’s been a major market, and fuel supplier, for many European countries – notably Germany. Growth-starved European economies are bound to be just as tempted by potential customers in Iran. As a result, it’s not just President Obama who could be reluctant to accuse Tehran of cheating. Many allies could be equally unwilling. Which means that, barring the most frightening and flagrant examples of Iranian cheating on a final nuclear agreement, the threat of promptly and completely reimposing sanctions to punish agreement violations looks ominously empty.
>Finally, the administration’s explanation of why Iran has come this far literally sounds too good to be true, especially given the existential advantages Tehran would create for itself by going nuclear. As Mr. Obama has made clear, he doesn’t believe that sanctions possible in current circumstances by themselves can change Iran’s nuclear plans. He has repeatedly stated that using force in the Middle East has usually been a disastrous mistake for the United States in recent years. Yet he credits current sanctions with, first, seriously committing Iran into a diplomatic exercise aimed expressly at eliminating any nuclear option and, second, with producing Iran’s signature onto a framework fully capable (as the president sees it) of achieving this epochal objective.
I readily concede that the sanctions have hurt Iran economically. Yet as a friend reminded me a few weeks ago, it’s a country for which levels of economic privation unknown to Americans are still a warm memory. The population’s ability to endure further hardships shouldn’t be underestimated – especially considering the national power it could bring and the pride it could foster. Indeed, Russia may be teaching Washington a lesson in economic resilience right now.
But let’s close on an encouraging note. The Wall Street Journal today reported that, as the Iran talks have proceeded, the Obama Pentagon has been upgrading its biggest bunker buster bombs – weapons that can be used in principle to destroy even heavily protected Iran nuclear facilities. Perhaps despite much evidence to the contrary, when administration officials keep saying that they’re not operating in a perfect world, they really do know it.