Magazine | August 10, 2015, Issue

Tehran Triumphant

The nuclear deal is Iran’s win and the world’s loss

With the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by Iran, the United States, Russia, China, and three European countries (France, the U.K., and Germany), the action shifts to Capitol Hill. Congress will now devote part of its summer (though not the August recess, which is sacrosanct) to debating the 150-page agreement, and the big question facing elected representatives of both parties is: What is in this document before them? Is it a diplomatic achievement or a disgrace, a technical fix or a fundamental policy shift?

When conscientious legislators sigh, do their duty, and actually pick up the 150-page agreement, they will find that it takes them less time to read than they feared it might. Roughly 60 of those 150 pages comprise lists of all the Iranian entities — firms, companies, ports, ships, banks, individuals, and on and on — that will have sanctions on them lifted. As they peruse those lists, members of Congress should stop and reflect for a moment. It has taken decades for them to craft and entrench the current international sanctions against Iran. To believe that these sanctions can or will “snap back” into place if Iran violates the agreement is foolish. As Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has put it:

There is only one penalty for any infraction, big or small — taking Iran to the U.N. Security Council for the “snapback” of international sanctions. That is like saying that for any crime — whether a misdemeanor or a felony — the punishment is the death penalty. In the real world, that means there will be no punishments for anything less than a capital crime. . . . But the problem with snapback gets worse. The agreement includes a statement that Iran considers a reimposition of sanctions as freeing it from all commitments and restrictions under the deal. In other words, the violation would have to be really big for the Security Council to blow up the agreement and reimpose sanctions. That effectively gives Iran a free pass on all manner of small to mid-level violations.

Quite right, but it gets worse still: All of the above proceeds from the assumption that the Obama administration will actually try to use the agreement’s elaborate procedures, take disputes to the Security Council, and re-sanction Iran in the event that it violates its commitments. That seems a dubious bet, given that the administration has lately acted as Iran’s advocate, attacking the press for suggesting that the Islamic Republic had increased its stockpile of nuclear fuel in violation of existing agreements.

Satloff noted another remarkable aspect of the agreement. It seems that “all contracts signed by Iran up until [sanctions are reimposed] are grandfathered in and immune from sanctions. That means one can expect a stampede of state-to-state and private-sector contracts — some real, many hypothetical — all designed to shield Iran from the impact of possible reimposition of sanctions, thereby weakening the impact of the punishment.” That’s my reading as well. And let’s be realistic: Soon enough, the EU will have a huge economic investment in Iran, and its companies and trade unions will strongly resist any sanctions that could jeopardize profits or employment. EU politicians will listen to their constituents and protect those constituents’ economic interests before all else. The idea of restoring the sanctions regime is a fantasy.

About half of the American states have Iran-sanctions laws of their own on the books, so their congressional representatives may take an interest in paragraph 25 of the JCPOA:

If a law at the state or local level in the United States is preventing the implementation of the sanctions lifting as specified in this JCPOA, the United States will take appropriate steps, taking into account all available authorities, with a view to achieving such implementation. The United States will actively encourage officials at the state or local level to take into account the changes in the U.S. policy reflected in the lifting of sanctions under this JCPOA and to refrain from actions inconsistent with this change in policy.

Think about that: Obama has agreed that the federal government will fight any move by any state or locality to impose or maintain sanctions on Iran, for human-rights violations, support of terrorism, aggression in the region, holding American hostages, or any other reason. State sanctions of any kind, interfering with finance or commerce in any way, are surely “inconsistent with this change in policy.”

And what a change in policy it is. Under previous presidents, the U.S. had always aimed at a “zero” option: Iran zeroes out its nuclear program, and we zero out our sanctions. Satloff neatly summarized what happened once Obama took office: “The United States conceded to Iran the right to have its own nuclear reactors but not to develop indigenous capacity to enrich nuclear fuel, which doubles as the core element of nuclear weapons. Then, the United States conceded to Iran the right to enrich but under strict limitations. Then, the United States conceded to Iran that the strict limitations on enrichment would expire at a certain point in the future.”

Iran has been arguing for years that it has the right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States has always said “No way” — until now. The George W. Bush administration insisted that before Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, our allies, could sign a civil nuclear-cooperation agreement with us, they had to agree not to enrich any uranium — they weren’t permitted to spin even a single centrifuge. Now we allow Iran 6,000 centrifuges and legitimization as a nuclear state. Decades of American nonproliferation policy are undone.

What has Iran gained in this agreement? The reaction of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, as tweeted by the New York Times’ Thomas Erdbrink, makes it plain:

Our objective was to have the nuclear program and have sanctions lifted. At first they wanted us to have 100 centrifuges now we will have 6,000. They wanted restrictions of 25 years now its [sic] 8. First they said we could only have IR1 centrifuges, now we can have IR6, 7, and 8, advanced centrifuges. Heavy water plant at Arak had to be dismantled but now it will remain with heavy water under conditions. Fordo had to be closed now we will have 1,000 centrifuges there.

There are of course other ways to measure Iran’s achievement. Iran is holding four Americans hostage, and apparently it will keep all four; Secretary of State John Kerry has adamantly rejected the idea that he should have insisted on the hostages’ freedom before signing a deal. Iran has always argued that its nuclear program was legal, and we have always argued it was illegal; now, we give that up. Iran does not have to disclose previous work on nuclear warheads to the IAEA. It will get an immense influx of cash from the deal, perhaps $150 billion, plus the profits from future oil sales, gas development, and trade and investment. And worst of all, the arms embargo ends in five years, and the embargo on helping Iran build ballistic missiles ends in eight.

From Iran’s point of view, the JCPOA is neatly sequenced. At five years it can begin rearming without any limits; at eight years it can start modernizing and enlarging its ballistic missiles; and after ten years the nuclear limits start falling away entirely. That is, it can then develop warheads, and it will have the missiles on which to put them. The intervening years of Iranian conventional military buildup will make any Israeli or (under a future administration) U.S. strike on Iran’s nuclear-weapons program much harder and more dangerous.

All of this represents a complete abandonment of the policy toward Iran that the United States has pursued since the hostage crisis of 1979, through administrations of both parties and with the support of congressional majorities from both parties. On its very first page, the document says that the deal “will mark a fundamental shift” in how we approach Iran and its nuclear program. The agreement is certainly right about that. Once upon a time, faced with an implacable enemy, Ronald Reagan said we would do what Truman and Kennedy had aimed to do with the Soviet Union: persevere until we had won, until there was a fundamental shift in Soviet conduct or an end to the USSR. Obama is instead throwing in the towel: The fundamental shift in behavior he has engineered comes from the United States, not Iran.

The Islamic Republic remains an implacable enemy, holding hostages and supporting terror. It organized “Death to America” marches even as its negotiators sat in Vienna and Lausanne, smiling at John Kerry across the table. Ten years ago, the president and bipartisan majorities in Congress would not have tolerated Iranian expeditionary forces’ roaming in the Middle East, but here we are, with Iranian troops fighting in Syria and Iraq. Iran now controls four Arab capitals — Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, and most recently Sana’a, in Yemen — and continues to be the largest state supporter of terrorism in the world.

What does the JCPOA say about those ugly facts? Not a word. The agreement treats Iran as if it were Switzerland or Singapore. It is obvious to officials in other Middle Eastern states, and to many Europeans as well, that the JCPOA strengthens Iran, and in fact represents America’s recognition and acceptance of Iranian power — if not hegemony — in the region.

Why did the administration accept this deal, which essentially gives the world’s blessing to the ayatollahs’ view of Iran and its role? Did the president actually believe that such an agreement would curb the regime’s dangerous misbehavior? Obama has a theory, of course: that the main problems in world politics come from American militarism, aggression, and bullying, and that if we open our “clenched fists” and embrace hostile regimes, they will respond in kind. We’ve seen the results of such policies in Russia, in North Korea, and most recently in Cuba. Obama’s Iran deal is in fact based on his “Cuba model”: hand a lifeline to a regime in deep economic trouble, ignore its people’s long quest for human rights and decent government, and call the resulting deal a historic achievement, without bothering to bargain all that hard for recompense.

People who do not live in and bicycle around Lausanne or Vienna but must instead try to survive in Israel and the Persian Gulf countries understand all of this. Iran has won a great victory: Despite a seemingly weak bargaining position, it has outmaneuvered and outnegotiated the United States and the EU. Kerry and Mohammad Zarif, the lead Iranian negotiator, will probably share a Nobel Peace Prize, which is disgraceful, but Zarif does deserve recognition for producing a far better deal for Iran than he had any right to expect. He owes a huge debt of gratitude to Barack Obama and his view of the world. For the rest of us, this deal, and the rise of Iran, mean great danger ahead.

– Mr. Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.

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