Negotiations with Iran are set to conclude on Monday. What are the odds they will end with Iran’s rulers agreeing to verifiably dismantle their illicit nuclear weapons program? I’d wager 100 to one against that outcome — but I doubt I’d find a bookie willing to take my bet.
If a good deal is out of the question, what are the other options? The first is a “final agreement” that gives Tehran a lot in exchange for a little, but which President Obama would present as a triumph of diplomacy.
More likely is a “framework agreement,” a statement of principles that will be the subject of yet another round of talks. Such a deal could include another sweetener — e.g., billions of dollars of additional sanctions relief for Iran.
Not long ago, Mr. Obama was vowing to do whatever was necessary — the use of military force included — to prevent the Islamic republic, the world’s leading sponsor of jihadi terrorism, from obtaining a nuclear capability. “[A]s president of the United States,” he famously said, “I don’t bluff.” He added: “[W]hen the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.” Iran’s rulers never bought it.
Could economic warfare alone have been decisive? Nothing is more important to the regime than its survival. That was in jeopardy when, under the pressure of sanctions — pushed by Congress on a bipartisan basis and signed with reluctance by Mr. Obama — inflation was running at 40 percent (unofficially perhaps twice that high), Iran’s currency had crumbled, and a severe recession was reminding Iranians that the “glorious” Islamic Revolution has brought them few blessings. Under these conditions, Iran’s rulers came to the table.
Then, last year in Geneva, American negotiators agreed to ease the economic pressure in return for a Joint Plan of Action, an interim agreement under which Iran would continue to palaver at posh European hotels. Iran’s economy soon moved out of recession and into recovery. From that point on, Iran’s rulers have offered no meaningful concessions. On the contrary, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei laid down a series of “red lines” — issues that are not even to be discussed by his envoys. American negotiators acquiesced.
Why? Mr. Obama appears to have believed that Ayatollah Khamenei would respond better to carrots than sticks — that threats would not be productive, but that the prospect of the economic benefits resulting from rapprochement with the United States would impel the supreme leader to forgo nuclear weapons.
That strategy might have worked were Ayatollah Khamenei a moderate interested in improving the average Iranian’s quality of life. Like his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, though, Ayatollah Khamenei is firmly committed to the idea that the 1979 revolution was “not about the price of watermelons.” It was about a “spiritual awakening,” about leading the Islamic world in a historic and divinely ordained jihad that will, in time, defeat the “Great Satan” and other sundry “Crusaders and Zionists.”
Mr. Obama’s chief negotiator is acting Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. She is experienced, having served as lead negotiator in the talks conducted with North Korea under President Clinton.
In those talks, as my colleague Claudia Rosett recently recalled, Ms. Sherman looked across the table and saw what she wanted to see. In October 2000, she announced that dictator Kim Jong-il “clearly” had made a decision “to improve relations with us.”
She was dead wrong. In fact, Kim was already violating the 1994 Agreed Framework, another not-final deal intended to halt an illicit nuclear-weapons program.
In 2006, the North Koreans conducted their first nuclear test. Additional tests followed in 2009 and 2013. There have been no serious consequences for North Korea — and only accolades and awards for those responsible for the failed negotiations that led to the emergence of this clear and present danger. Nor, apparently, were lessons learned about the dangers of easing economic pressure on a hardened regime offering only reversible nuclear concessions in return.
Many members of Congress grasp this. Last week, Sens. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican, and Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, issued a statement declaring that “a good deal will dismantle, not just stall, Iran’s illicit nuclear program and prevent Iran from ever becoming a threshold nuclear-weapons state.” They vowed to “act decisively,” along with like-minded colleagues, to stop the president from relaxing sanctions so long as Iran’s rulers refuse to accept measures that would prevent them “from breaking-out or covertly sneaking-out” to a nuclear-weapons capability.
Under consideration: a bill that would require an up-or-down vote on the deal. If the president chooses to ignore Congress, funding for the deal’s implementation would be withheld.
Also possible: erecting a legislative “firewall” to prevent the president from unwinding the sanctions regimen by using executive orders and waivers without congressional consent, or a bill to reinstate sanctions the minute there is evidence Iran is playing fast and loose with its obligations — its consistent practice over the past 20 years.
Right now, Iran’s rulers are preventing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from visiting research and military sites where nuclear weapons development may have occurred, and barring them from interviewing Iranian nuclear scientists thought to have been involved in nuclear weapons research. Yukiya Amano, IAEA director general, said recently that such research may have been ongoing during negotiations — even as Iran’s rulers were insisting that they have never had a nuclear-weapons program, don’t need one and don’t want one.
If there is a new agreement — final or framework — they will cheat on that, too. I’ll give 100 to one odds. But again, I doubt I’ll find a bookie willing to take my bet.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.