The Iranian nuclear deal is based on verification, not trust, the Obama administration has repeatedly declared, yet its own words also point to another dynamic at play: its eagerness to persuade the Iranians that they, in fact, can trust the United States.
Of course, authentic trust is mutual. And so, at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Iran last Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry — minutes after declaring, once again, the centrality of verification in the deal — offered a little-noticed declaration of trust in the regime.
Asked by Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) to respond to a recent statement by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that the agreement would not stop Iran’s nuclear program, Kerry advanced a defense of the Iranian dictator notable for its astoundingly tortured logic:
KERRY: And do you know why he’s saying that? Because he doesn’t believe the Americans stopped them, he believes he stopped them because he issued a fatwa, and he has declared the policy of their country is not to do it. So he is, as a matter of sovereignty and pride, making a true statement. He doesn’t believe the Americans stopped them. He said they didn’t want to get one in the first place.
In other words, Iran already stopped its nuclear program; hence the nuclear deal stops nothing.
Of course, throughout the negotiations, Secretary Kerry as well as President Obama had routinely quoted the supreme leader’s multiple pronouncements that Iran seeks no nuclear weapons.
But Kerry goes further here, offering a tautology that fully embraces Khamenei’s denial of his nuclear ambitions. In this sense, it’s not surprising that the secretary of state believes the agreement will prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb. His own words suggest that he trusts the supreme leader.
As such, Kerry can now turn his attention elsewhere, to persuading Iran that it can trust us. And of course, the chief obstacle to that goal lies in the prospect that Congress will reject the deal — an outcome, he said during the hearing, that would prove “we’re not trustworthy.”
Put differently, Kerry believes that Iranian trust of the United States remains indispensable for the deal — but not the reverse.
Kerry’s unfortunate comments would matter little if, in fact, the deal contained the sort of intrusive verification measures that would make it impossible for Iran to cheat. The absence of these provisions suggests that the secretary of state should worry more about our ability to trust Tehran than Tehran’s willingness to trust us.