Politics & Policy

Reagan’s Lesson to Obama: ‘No Agreement Is Better Than a Bad Agreement’

Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986

The United States entered negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran in an undeniable position of strength. Sanctions on Iran were working as intended: causing the Iranian currency to crumble, wreaking havoc on Iran’s financial sector, and dramatically cutting Iran’s oil exports. Iran’s economy was teetering on the verge of collapse. As President Obama noted earlier this year, the United States imposed “the toughest sanctions in history” that “helped bring Iran to the negotiating table.”

During the final presidential debate in October 2012, the president outlined his necessary condition for a deal, declaring: “The deal we’ll accept is they end their nuclear program. It’s very straightforward.”

However, once at the negotiating table, it was clear that President Obama wasn’t motivated to strike the best deal possible to end Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, he was intent on striking any deal — even a bad one.

Throughout the process, President Obama’s chief negotiators ignored nearly 40 years of open Iranian hostility toward America and our allies. They also chose to ignore the fact that Iran has repeatedly broken the terms of its previous international agreements — breaches that prove Tehran’s word is worth only as much as the paper it’s written on.

This is evident from the endless list of concessions the administration gave Iran, a sharp reversal of the president’s own words and his repeated assurances to the America people:

‐The administration conceded by forcing no limits on Iran’s ballistic-missile force, the means for deploying nuclear weapons.

‐The administration abandoned its position that effective verification required full access to Iran’s facilities. Iran was instead given up to 24 days to prepare for inspections, including the statutory flexibility to stonewall inspectors and drag out the inspection process for months. 

‐The administration completely backed away from the previous goal of “zero enrichment” and “zero centrifuges,” which President Obama later declared “unrealistic.” Instead, he allowed Iran to continue operating 6,000 centrifuges.

‐The administration reversed the longstanding policy of previous administrations to make restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities permanent. Instead, the restrictions in the deal will phase out entirely after ten years. President Obama himself admitted that this ten-year timeframe gives Iran virtually zero breakout time to develop a nuclear weapon.

The end result is a disastrous deal that not only fails to stop Iran’s nuclear weapon capability — it also paves the path for Iran to become a nuclear state.

The deal frees tens of billions of dollars in assets to the ayatollahs that they use to advance their nuclear-weapons program and fund their global terror network. The lifting of sanctions opens up the floodgates to new foreign investment and economic development in Iran, a rush of money that will undoubtedly tighten the fundamentalist regime’s grip on power. The deals poses a direct danger to Israel and our other longstanding allies in the Middle East. It forever alters the global geopolitical landscape and will spark the beginning of a regional nuclear-arms race.

And now, President Obama confidently boasts that there was no alternative to this bad deal.

However, there was a very good alternative: Walk away, sustain the sanctions, and force Iran back to the negotiating table to get a better deal. The standard was set in 1986, when President Reagan met with the Soviet Union’s Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavík to negotiate the elimination of all ballistic missiles owned by the U.S. and Soviet Union.

Negotiators made much progress during the summit, but Gorbachev demanded late in the process that the U.S. limit its Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) missile-defense system. Such a concession would’ve violated President Reagan’s core principles, so — to the shock of even some in his own administration — he turned down the chance to sign a historic agreement and instead walked away.

‘Our approach is not to seek agreement for agreement’s sake but to settle only for agreements that truly enhance our national security and that of our allies.’

The media were quick to label Reagan’s decision a failure, but they were proven wrong shortly thereafter. Within a year, Gorbachev was forced back to the negotiating table, having dropped his demands on SDI. This led to the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which significantly limited the superpowers’ nuclear arsenals; this treaty is now regarded as one of America’s top diplomatic victories during the Cold War.

Indeed, during his 1988 State of the Union address, Reagan explained why he had stuck to his principles and walked away at the Reykjavik Summit: “Our approach is not to seek agreement for agreement’s sake but to settle only for agreements that truly enhance our national security and that of our allies. We will never put our security at risk or that of our allies just to reach an agreement. . . . No agreement is better than a bad agreement.”

If only President Obama and his negotiators in Geneva had followed those invaluable words of wisdom.

—Thom Tillis represents North Carolina in the Unites States Senate.

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