Michael Gerson: Obama desperately seeking a legacy in Iran deal

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Michael Gerson
April 16, 2015

WASHINGTON -- “I have never seen anything like it.”

So I was told by a former U.S. official, who had seen much as a senior diplomat. It has become hard to deny that the rollout of the Lausanne framework is a first-rate debacle—a dazzling display of self-destructive incompetence.

Who proposed that the State Department issue an interpretive fact sheet before the deal was actually sealed? The Iranian negotiators were bound to feel ambushed. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, had political work to do in selling an agreement at home. The Obama administration’s interpretive victory dance made his job considerably harder. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei quickly denounced the fact sheet as “incorrect and contrary to the substance of the negotiations.” Do the elements outlined in that document now constitute a set of Obama administration red lines?

This dispute highlights the fact that at least three parts of the deal are not settled: an Iranian accounting for past research and development, the timing of sanctions relief and the agreement’s verification mechanisms. So everything is settled—except everything that matters most.

“The sanctions must all be completely removed on the day of the agreement,” Khamenei demands. “One must absolutely not,” he continues, “allow infiltration of the security and defense realm of the state on the pretext of inspection.”

Which is the meaning of inspection.

The administration’s high-profile announcement of an embryonic nuclear deal has already had the practical effect of undermining the isolation of Iran. Russia used the occasion to announce its own agreement: an $800 million deal to provide Iran with an advanced air-defense system. Russia claims this does not violate the spirit of sanctions because it is a defensive technology. But it is a defensive technology that may be used to shield the development of the ultimate offensive technology. There are also reports that French and Chinese oil companies are exploring deals with Iran. Sanctions have already begun to fall apart, which will eventually free up billions of dollars for the Iranians to further destabilize the Middle East.

Why would the Obama administration claim victory in the middle of a sensitive negotiation, in a manner that prods the other side to harden its demands and encourages the unraveling of sanctions? Maybe for the same reason that the swap of five Taliban commanders for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was declared a national triumph and Bergdahl himself, now charged by the Army with desertion, was praised for serving with “honor and distinction.” On occasion, the administration seems so anxious to score political points that it is incapable of acting with restraint.

There is another, related explanation. President Obama oversold the Iran nuclear agreement in an obvious attempt to back congressional opponents into a corner. It is, the administration has repeatedly argued, a simple choice: concessions or war. But this strategy actually backs America into a corner. Does Obama not think the Iranians are listening when he sets out these alternatives? No one—not enemies, not allies, not bystanders in the street—believes Obama would use force against Iran. And this means there is no theoretical limit to the concessions that could be justified to avoid conflict. The argument of “concessions or war” is another way of saying that any deal is better than no deal. And this is a terribly weak negotiating position for America to occupy.

The administration’s botched announcement was accompanied by typically sensitive congressional outreach. At first, members of Congress were declared irrelevant and told to butt out of an executive agreement. Then Obama accused his opponents of being irrational, militant and atavistic—the functional equivalent of the Iranian mullahs. This campaign resulted in a remarkable, bipartisan congressional consensus—to assert oversight over an administration that is not inspiring confidence.

With all this, a deal with Iran is still likely—and likely to be bad—unless Khamenei is incapable of getting to “yes.” Obama’s grand strategy, meanwhile, remains a cypher. He could believe that a nuclear agreement and the lifting of sanctions will help transform Iran into a more benevolent regional power—which is naïve. He could be making the move of an uber-realist—trying to extricate America from involvement in the Middle East by recognizing Iranian hegemony and developing a working relationship with the worst of the worst. This would fulfill the nightmares of Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Or Obama could have no strategy at all—in need of a political win, desperately hoping for a legacy and too invested to walk away.

Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email [email protected].



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