November 24, the deadline for a nuclear deal with Iran, approaches, and things aren’t looking good. With less than three weeks left, Iran is adopting a hardline negotiating position. And although there’s time left to reach a good deal, President Obama’s current strategy is problematic.
Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported that last month Obama wrote his fourth “secret” letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. According to sources, he did so in an effort “aimed both at buttressing the Islamic State campaign and nudging Iran’s religious leader closer to a nuclear deal.”
No problem, right? After all, what harm can a letter do? Actually, a lot. The Journal quotes a senior White House official who provides context for Obama’s outreach: “We’ve passed on messages to the Iranians . . . saying our objective is against ISIL. We’re not using this as a platform to reoccupy Iraq or to undermine Iran.”
Saying this to Iran is the diplomatic equivalent of telling an ill-reputed used-car salesman, “Money is no object, I don’t need a test drive, and I’m desperate to buy today.” It’s not very clever.
Iran’s hardliners are likely to see the president’s latest letter as a verification of increasing American malleability. But there’s a deeper issue here. As I noted in September, the administration’s willingness to see the best in Iran without challenging the worst manages to inspire only the latter. While we offer friendship, from Beirut to Baghdad, from Sanaa to Washington, Iran forges power through violent opportunism. Members of the Lebanese and Iraqi parliaments recognize Iran’s proclamations of peace for what they are: a thin veil concealing an absolutist agenda. Not incidentally, many American military personnel, through personal experience, share the same skeptical view.
Of course, diplomacy has its place. Indeed, I supported last November’s six-month agreement with Iran as a test of President Rouhani’s influence — we would see whether or not he was a Khamenei puppet. But there’s a difference between diplomacy and delusion. And more and more it appears that Iran is skillfully manipulating America into believing in no-nuke fairy tales. This isn’t to say that Obama shouldn’t make concessions in pursuit of a good deal. He must and he should. Yet, by simply offering carrots to Iran, Obama has whetted the hardliners’ appetite. Consider that a major sticking point in the current negotiations is Iran’s demand to retain its heavy-water reactor at Arak, a facility that could provide fuel for plutonium-based nuclear weapons. It’s a bad sign that this red-line issue is still under discussion. More broadly, it suggests that the White House’s current approach is weakening rather than strengthening President Rouhani.
After all, when he receives solicitous letters from the American president, Ayatollah Khamenei can only be encouraged to make a deal on Iran’s terms. It’s important to remember that while Khamenei is a hardliner amenable to pragmatic concerns, he’s only allowing Rouhani to negotiate for a simple reason: economics. With Iran’s economy suffering under the dual burden of sanctions and low oil prices (oil revenue being critical to Iran’s government expenditure), Iran must negotiate. As overlord of a young population that has increasing cultural and intellectual connections with the West, Khamenei fears that continued economic pain will feed social instability and threaten his ongoing Islamic revolution. His pragmatism is thus a consequence of Iran’s economic pain.
President Obama should pay closer heed to Iran’s economic pain and abandon his current carrot-heavy approach in favor of clarifying three precepts to the Iranians. First, America seeks a deal and will allow low-enrichment activities in return for an unimpeded inspections regime, the verified closure of high-risk weaponized facilities, and centrifuge limits. Second, America will not accept a bad deal and will introduce tougher sanctions if the deadline expires. Third, the military option, though complex, is very much on the table. Republicans should support President Obama in this effort.
In the end, however, Ayatollah Khamenei must understand that America is resolute, and that testing that resolution will set Iran on a one-way road to greater pain.
— Tom Rogan, based in Washington, D.C., is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and a contributor to The McLaughlin Group. He holds the Tony Blankley Chair at the Steamboat Institute and tweets @TomRtweets.