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 kg. 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 American 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.
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Given the months of hard negotiations ahead, the self-congratulatory tone of President Obama’s speech announcing the agreement was extremely premature.
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 U.S., the European Union and the United Nations?
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; the regional destabilization issue.
The broader offense
For all the praise Obama is claiming, it is the Iranian regime that counts the most remarkable achievement. It has engaged in nuclear negotiations with America while actively engaged in a regional conflict against American friends and proxies.
Will Iran continue to hold American policy in the Middle East hostage – causing the U.S. 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 the U.S. 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, neither America’s traditional allies nor members of Congress will sustain Obama’s nuclear agreement in the long term.
To secure his nuclear deal with Iran, Obama must show resistance to Iranian aggression across the range of our relationship.