For Obama, the interim Iran agreement route: embrace the enemy, convince the friends

Late on Saturday, the US, UK, Germany, France, Russia and China (along with the EU’s foreign policy directorate) reached agreement with Iran on that country’s nuclear ambitions. The deal isn’t a final agreement, but an interim measure giving the parties a chance to negotiate their way forward to a larger, more comprehensive agreement a half year from now. While this deal is already being heralded as a historic, precedent-setting agreement and a sea change in US-Iran relations, for the United States president at least, sorting out the repercussions of this deal with American allies Israel and Saudi Arabia – and with the US Congress – are on an urgent to-do list. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.

Two weeks ago, this writer predicted the agreement that would come out of the next round of major talks with Iran would put the not-yet-completed plutonium generating reactor on a temporary hold – pending further action from reaching a larger agreement to regulate the enrichment of uranium, as well as a calibrated easing of international sanctions against Iran “until the level of mutual confidence is considerably higher than it is now. Notable in all of this has been the relative lack of any visible public opposition to Western approaches for a deal with Iran from either the Chinese or the Russians. And then, too, there is the potential of the useful threat that the Israelis might, somehow, find some way of deciding to take action themselves, if they decide their fundamental interests are seriously compromised by a bad deal or no deal at all.” (More about that latter point in a moment.)

Moreover, we said then that if an agreement came to being, it would come both from the momentum already generated internationally over the negotiations as well as that “pent-up demand for the economic relief among the Iranian population that could flow from the relaxation of sanctions, and that no amount of pride in a nuclear weapons capability in that intensely proud nation can reasonably produce for the people of that nation.” Well, here it is.

As agreed in Geneva over the weekend, the new agreement would have Iran halt most of its uranium enrichment efforts, eliminate stockpiles of uranium already purified to near weapons grade quality, open up its nuclear facilities to daily monitoring by international inspectors – and significantly slow the construction of its heavy water, Arak plutonium reactor. Because nuclear weapons can be made out of either enriched uranium or plutonium, this agreement is designed to make it difficult, if not impossible, for Iran to accumulate sufficient quantities of either element to construct a nuclear device.

In return, Iran is supposed to obtain some relief from the punishing economic sanctions that had been maintained by Washington and its allies in recent years, freeing up an estimated $6 billion for its hard-pressed economy. Tehran also won a commitment that its negotiating partners would not set up any new sanctions for the next six months. For the Iranians, this is a win since the sanctions in place have cut its oil exports roughly in half and driven its currency to a historic low.

Looks like a win – win settlement and a serious victory for negotiations over military confrontation. Reaching such an agreement, for the Obama administration, became a relatively simple wager – but one with really big consequences. Moreover, it seemed to fit into a much larger, still-evolving, framework for the larger context of the Middle East. If things go as hoped for by the negotiators, it would be the Obama presidency’s biggest, most successful roll of the dice internationally.

In the meantime, however, the Obama team faces some stormy political times in his relationships with Congress, as well as with its Middle East allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia (along with most of the other Persian Gulf states) – all of which will press the Obama administration hard about what will happen if things do not go well. And looming in the background of all this, of course, is this agreement’s impact for the overall security of the US and its strategic architecture for the region – if Iran somehow ends up assembling enough nuclear material to create a device after all.

After the deal was signed, President Obama said it had “halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program” and “cut off Iran’s most likely paths to a bomb,” adding it was just an interim measure to give negotiators six months more to reach a broader, more permanent nuclear agreement. If such a deal could not be achieved – or if the US found evidence Iran secretly was continuing to work on its nuclear weapons program – the president promised the re-imposition of the lifted sanctions – and to add new ones.

The Obama administration has already moved to pre-empt critics complaining that this agreement has given the Iranians too much in exchange for their promises. One senior official already said the key US sanctions against the Iranian petroleum and banking sectors would remain fully intact and that “Iran will actually be worse off at the end of this six month deal than it is today”. That translates into about $30 billion in oil revenue over the next six months, rather more than the $6 billion it stands to gain as part of the first agreement.

The Obama administration’s first test, therefore, is with the US Congress. Sanctions were not imposed unilaterally by the president, but rather through congressional action. The administration must now convince Congress to postpone even considering – let alone attempting to impose – any new sanctions on Iran over this six-month trial marriage. That may be a hard sell, given the support this idea has been accumulating on both sides of the party division. Even Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated he is prepared to take up a tough new sanctions bill when the Senate reassembles after its Thanksgiving recess. And more worrisome still for Obama, congressional observers say such a measure might well pass if it were put to a full vote. Of course the president could – and almost certainly would – veto such legislation, but that is one battle he would love to avoid, what with all the contentiousness between Congress and the president on so many other topics already. And hearings preliminary to such legislative action would enormously stir up anti-Iran voices coming from many directions, making further progress that much more complicated.

Once the deal had been announced, the AFP reported, “Obama’s Iran policy, however, faces intense opposition from Republicans and some Democratic hawks on Capitol Hill, an early hint of the tough sales job he and Secretary of State John Kerry face.” Republican House Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor said, “While I await specific details of the interim agreement, I remain concerned that this deal does not adequately halt Iran’s enrichment capabilities. Numerous UN Security Council resolutions have called for the full suspension of Iran’s nuclear activities, so it is troubling that this agreement still permits the Iranians to continue enriching…. Iran’s long history of noncompliance with the U.N. Security Council is well known, as is its use of secret facilities to pursue its nuclear program. Iran remains the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism and the most destabilising force in the Middle East.”

And House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Republican Ed Royce added, “I have serious concerns that this agreement does not meet the standards necessary to protect the United States and our allies. Instead of rolling back Iran’s program, Tehran would be able to keep the key elements of its nuclear weapons-making capability. Yet we are the ones doing the dismantling – relieving Iran of the sanctions pressure built up over years. This sanctions relief is more lifeline than ‘modest.’ Secretary Kerry should soon come before the Foreign Affairs Committee to address the many concerns with this agreement.”

Even Democrats such as Congressman Eliot Engel, also on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, “While I am concerned that this interim agreement does not require Iran to completely halt its enrichment efforts or dismantle its centrifuges, I hope that over the next six months, Iran takes the necessary steps to finally end its quest for a nuclear weapons capability. If Tehran thinks that this agreement will simply afford it another six months to stall for more time and position itself for a breakout capacity, it is sadly mistaken.”

And taking disagreements right over into the domestic policy sphere, Republican Senator John Cornyn tweeted, “Amazing what WH will do to distract attention from O-care”, while his co-party member, Lindsey Graham, sent out his message, “Unless the agreement requires dismantling of the Iranian centrifuges, we really haven’t gained anything”. Meanwhile, Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican eyeing a run for the White House in 2016 said, “This agreement will not ‘freeze’ Iran’s nuclear program and won’t require the regime to suspend all enrichment as required by multiple UN Security Council resolutions. By allowing the Iranian regime to retain a sizable nuclear infrastructure, this agreement makes a nuclear Iran more likely.”

Second, of course is vociferously expressed concern by Benyamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government that the agreement does not sufficiently restrain Iran’s presumed nuclear ambitions to work out a comprehensive agreement, thereby obviating the need (from the Israeli perspective) for a possible unilateral military strike. Netanyahu has strongly criticised earlier versions of the proposed deal and has previously promised to do whatever is necessary to protect his country. Obama administration officials believe Netanyahu – despite his feelings about the deal – is, reluctantly, willing to give the Americans their six months to test out Iranian intentions. One such official, briefing the media, said, “Bibi will hold his nose, but he’ll let us have six months.” The administration’s argument goes on to assert Netanyahu surely understands that any unilateral military action – given the new agreement – would risk shattering Israel’s ties with the US, China and most of Europe.

But Michael Doran of the Saban Center for Middle East Studies of the Brookings Institution, a major US think tank, cautions that the larger context of this dispute over Iran is symptomatic of a growing, broader mistrust between Israel and the US. Doran recently wrote, “Israeli-American relations are in free fall. Why? On the face of it the key issue is the terms of the draft deal with Iran that Secretary of State John Kerry was reportedly ready to sign in Geneva, week before last. Yesterday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated yet again that it is ‘a bad deal.’ And last week Israel’s intelligence minister, Yuval Steinitz, claimed the concessions to Tehran that the United States is contemplating will funnel between $20 and $40 billion to Iran’s coffers. The State Department’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, dismissed Steinitz as a fabulist. ‘Without going into specifics about what we’re considering, that number, I can assure you, is inaccurate, exaggerated, and not based in reality,’ she said. The disagreement over the deal is significant; there can be no doubt. But the debate over its terms diverts attention from another factor of great significance—namely, Netanyahu’s growing distrust, in general, of the Obama administration.”

The third element is the Saudi reaction. While Saudi officials have been rather less relentlessly public in making their feelings known than the Israelis, in reporting from the al-Arabiya network (a Saudi-operated international broadcast channel), it was reported that Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UK, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, said on Friday (and sounding remarkably like the Israelis) that his kingdom would not “sit idly by” if world powers fail to halt Iran’s nuclear program, calling the Obama administration’s “rush” to embrace Tehran as “incomprehensible.” The ambassador added, “We are not going to sit idly by and receive a threat there and not think seriously how we can best defend our country and our region. Let’s just leave it there, all options are available.”

Not surprisingly, however, given his nation’s own long-time policies, the Saudi ambassador also felt constrained to add that Israel should also have to show that its nuclear program is peaceful. He commented, “The whole region will suffer from producing these weapons. It happens everyone is talking about Iran, but Israel also has to prove that their program is a peaceful program, as we are demanding from the Iranians.” So far at least, there is no clear sense of any specific action being planned by either the Israelis or the Saudis, let alone a tacit but joint strategy between the two – but stranger things have happened and as the old Arabian (or perhaps Chinese) adage has it, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” is lurking out there somewhere in the secret spaces of the Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape.

The final unknown – and perhaps the biggest one of all – is what this interim agreement will come to mean for America’s own national security. If it ends up being fully implemented, it would make it extraordinarily difficult for Tehran to obtain a bomb. Nevertheless, the deal as agreed to by the parties in Geneva, does not require Iran to disassemble any of its nearly 20,000 nuclear gas separation centrifuges or to destroy its uranium enrichment equipment. One key to Netanyahu’s critique of the agreement, as well as that of others, therefore, is that allowing the core infrastructure of Iran’s nuclear program to remain intact means Iran could restart a weapons push at the time of its choosing – especially if the Iranian leadership comes to believe the Western nations have given up on the idea of imposing new sanctions – or the potential use of military force – if things go south.

Making things more complicated still are the facts that Iran and the US continue to be on starkly opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, Iran’s on-going support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and its support for Shiite activist groups in Sunni-adhering Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states. At the same time, the success of this first nuclear deal, and the tantalising prospect of a larger, more comprehensive agreement six months from now, could well open the way for further agreements on such things as Tehran’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. All of this simply helps to remind just how big the gamble Obama has actually taken by giving a thumbs-up for this new nuclear deal. DM

Read more:

  • Iran nuclear talks: Uncharted territory, at the Daily Maverick;
  • Secret US-Iran talks set stage for nuke deal at the AP;
  • U.S. Relations With Allies In Free Fall, Michael Doran’s article at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution;
  • Accord Reached With Iran to Halt Nuclear Program at the New York Times;
  • A Step, if Modest, Toward Slowing Iran’s Weapons Capability at the New York Times;
  • Israel minister: Iran deal based on ‘deception’ at the AP;
  • Saudi Arabia would not ‘sit idly by’ if West fails with Iran at;
  • Expert: We will get an Iran deal — Middle East Analyst Robin Wright says she’d be “surprised … if we don’t get a deal.” at CNN;
  • Congressional reaction to the Iran nuclear deal at the Washington Post;
  • What Obama Wrought: Iran’s Normalisation, Jonathan Tobin’s comments at Commentary magazine;
  • Netanyahu says Iran nuclear deal is ‘historic mistake’ at the Jerusalem Post.

Photo: The Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power reactor in southwestern Iran. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl REUTERS