Obama’s unconvincing case for the Iran deal

President Obama conducts a press conference in the White House Tuesday in response to the Iran deal.
President Obama conducts a press conference in the White House Tuesday in response to the Iran deal. POOL/GETTY

President Barack Obama needs to do a better job explaining why the Iran nuclear deal makes good sense.

For one thing, the administration has yet to clarify the murky details about how Iran will be prevented from cheating.

For another, Obama didn’t allay the fears of Israel and Sunni Arab states that the deal signifies his acceptance of Iran’s ambitions to dominate the region. The president denies such intent, but no one believes him, including Tehran.

U.S. policies in Syria and Iran feed the belief that we have consigned the region to Iranian dominance. Unless Obama can convince Mideast leaders that they misunderstand his position, the nuclear deal will create more security problems than it resolves.

The flaw in the president’s case is that he has sought to separate the nuclear issue from Iran’s behavior in the region.

Before negotiations began, Iran was well on its way to becoming a nuclear power (although it denied this). Tehran had 19,000 centrifuges spinning, and 10,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, with additional stocks enriched closer to bomb-making level.

So Obama’s strong point is that the deal stops Iran’s nuclear progress for the next 10 to 15 years by curbing the number of Iran’s centrifuges and limiting Iran’s fissile material.

If this deal collapses, Iran can spin its centrifuges unhindered toward “breakout” capacity, the international sanctions regime would likely collapse, and those who opposed Tehran’s nuclear program would have to decide whether it is worth bombing Iran’s facilities and starting another war.

To solidify this case, the administration must verify Iranian compliance. Congress should push the White House to clarify several worrying details.

First, Iran will not have to come clean to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors before a deal is closed. The new deadline is Dec. 15, but it isn’t clear whether Iran will grant inspectors access to key nuclear scientists and military sites. Sanctions relief depends on the IAEA, and should not occur before Tehran clears up its suspect past.

Second, the mechanism to “snap back” sanctions if Iran cheats is clumsy. Any complaints would be referred to a “Joint Commission” composed of Russia, China, Iran, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union.

The committee will operate by majority rule, but it’s easy to imagine how Tehran could maneuver the process and wear inspectors down.

So, administration officials must explain how Iran can be keptstraight and narrow. But Obama must spell out how he will prevent a sanctions-free Tehran from further destabilizing the Middle East.

The president said Tuesday that the deal offered Iran an opportunity to move “in a new direction” away from a “policy based on threats to attack ... and annihilate.”

Yet Iran’s leaders have made clear they have no intention of changing their hostility toward America or Israel. By holding out false hopes, Obama convinces the region that he is naive or a secret backer of Tehran.

Meantime, Iran is the main supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Far from providing a partner in future U.S. efforts to degrade the Islamic State, Iran’s Shiite-centric policies ensure the current U.S. strategy will fail.

The president must explain why he caved on lifting an arms embargo and a ballistic missiles embargo.

Unless Obama can take off his blinders, this deal will encourage Iran to become even more aggressive.

Obama can’t make a convincing case for an Iran deal until he brings his Mideast policy in line with facts on the ground.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.