Recent developments in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have shined bright light on the weakness of President Obama’s strategy.
Genuinely or not, Iran has disavowed the most critical provision cited by the president and his minions in their defense of the framework agreement. In an official statement, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei insisted that Iran would honor no agreement which failed to remove economic sanctions immediately. Then on Twitter he underscored the issue, declaring “all sanctions should be removed just when the deal is reached.”
Gradual relief upon proof of compliance had been a primary selling point to Western audiences. Critics had worried that Iran would feign compliance to earn sanctions relief, not that it could obtain relief with mere promises. Now it seems the bad deal is even worse than advertised.
On April 7 in The Wall Street Journal, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz took the administration to task for its shortsightedness. Pushing back on their thoughtful analysis, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf complained she “didn’t hear a lot of alternatives of what they would do differently.”
This retort was non-substantive and essentially false. The statesmen had meticulously advocated for a more coherent regional strategy, including a firmer line against the Iranian regime.
Beyond Harf’s petulance, though, it is worth noting that you don’t hear anyone on the Iranian side talking about the lack of alternatives. Unlike our hapless American president, the Iranians drive a hard bargain because they choose not to negotiate against themselves.
Call it “good cop/bad cop” or “Negotiation 101,” but it is just common sense to posit an alternative which your adversary fears, not one that you and your allies wish to avoid.
President Obama is so fearful of losing a deal that he is fighting to disarm the very people who could give him the most leverage: his skeptics in the U.S. Congress. If he were to embrace Congressional oversight, he could actually use it as a battering ram to gain concessions at the bargaining table.
Imagine a counterfactual, but plausible scenario:
– [Iranian negotiator Mohammad Javad] Zarif: We cannot allow inspections of our military sites.
– Kerry: I understand the sensitivity, but I won’t be able to sell a deal back home without it.
– Zarif: We have our own political constraints.
– Kerry: With all due respect, my boss is no “supreme leader.” He cannot impose an agreement against the wishes of our people’s representatives. You’ve got more flexibility. Now do you want this deal or don’t you?
Instead of this exchange, we have the charade of President Obama trying to explain to us that Khamenei does not mean what he says. “Even a guy with the title ‘Supreme Leader’ has to be concerned about his own constituencies,” Obama told reporters on April 11 at the Americas summit in Panama.
If anyone has his own constituents to placate, it is the popularly elected leader of a democratic republic, and yet Obama seems to think the principle does not apply to himself. Until lawmakers substantially watered it down, he threatened to veto pending bipartisan legislation which imposes Congressional review on the prospective deal.
When one side argues that a better deal is not possible, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Negotiation of a better deal in fact becomes impossible because the other side feels no incentive to compromise.
We have heard this record played before, also when Israel’s vital interests hung in the balance. In his first term, Obama broke with his predecessors by publicly demanding a total freeze of Jewish construction beyond pre-1967 borders — and then declaring those borders the starting point for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. While a final peace deal would certainly use these borders as a guidepost, the president undermined any leverage Israel had to preserve its claims beyond the Green Line.
Of course, Abu Mazen was not going to take a less aggressive position than his American interlocutor. And when Prime Minister Netanyahu predictably objected, talks with the Palestinians hit a stalemate from which there has been no meaningful reprieve — even with the concentrated attention of Secretary of State Kerry over the past two years.
Why would the Iranians behave any different from the Palestinians? Obama has given Iran the opening it needs to preserve its nuclear weapons program or, short of that, to undermine the coordinated effort which has until now hemmed it in.