Of all of the surreal moments Tuesday in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal, the most bizarre was the conclusion of President Barack Obama’s address from the White House. After touting the pact’s promises of greater monitoring and transparency, and the limits it places on Iran’s nuclear enrichment, Obama appealed to the importance of American global leadership.
“History shows that America must lead, not just with our might, but with our principles,” Obama said. “It shows we are stronger, not when we are alone, but when we bring the world together. Today’s announcement marks one more chapter in this pursuit of a safer and more helpful, more hopeful world.”
These are pleasant and unremarkable words. But they are also deceptive. The agreement ironed out in Vienna is not a chapter in America’s long tradition of pursuing a safe, helpful and hopeful world. Rather, it’s an abandonment of traditional American leadership in the Middle East and in the areas of non- proliferation and terrorism.
To start, the agreement will end up unfreezing around $150 billion in assets to a regime that has neglected its own domestic economy so it could prop up a Syrian dictator at war with his own citizens — to the tune of billions of dollars.
The initial reaction from America’s traditional Middle Eastern allies has been a combination of shock and horror. Just as they see an Iran more brazen than ever, Obama is talking about the possibility of a new relationship with their arch-enemy.
Many proponents of the deal argue that, while the initial avalanche of money to support destabilizing the Middle East is regrettable, the long-term gains in non-proliferation more than make up for it. It’s true the accord will place significant limits on Iran’s enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. In principle, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors will be granted access to suspected military sites.
The deal also allows the international monitoring of Iran’s uranium mines and enrichment facilities.
But there’s no ignoring that the deal also leaves most of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in place. After 10 years, Iran can enrich as much uranium as it likes. After 15 years it can begin enrichment at the facility it hid from the world, built into a mountain near Qom. What message does it send to the rest of the world that a country that built up an industrial scale-nuclear program (and stonewalled the International Atomic Energy Agency in the process) will be allowed to keep it in exchange for allowing the enhanced monitoring and inspections it previously agreed to and then reneged on 12 years earlier? It doesn’t seem like a solid foundation for Obama’s long-held dream for a world free of nuclear weapons.
Finally there is the problem of terrorism. The U.S., particularly since the Sept. 11 attacks, has sought to isolate and punish those states that sponsor terrorism. Admittedly the list of official state sponsors is clunky, and included countries such as North Korea whose support for terrorism was more historical than threatening.
But Iran is consistently designated by the State Department to be the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. It’s not just that Obama’s deal will enrich that regime — it also offers it political legitimacy, without asking Iran to end its support for its terrorist proxies.
Despite all these weaknesses, it’s possible Obama’s Iran deal could be worth it. If Iran keeps its word and over time the government changes or moderates, then Obama will have kept the world’s most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the world’s most dangerous regime. He could even be taking advantage of what Council on Foreign Relations president emeritus Leslie Gelb on Tuesday called “the strategic opportunity to begin converting Iran from foe to ‘friend.’ ”
But given the Iranian’s aggression during the negotiations when they had so much to lose, that seems unlikely.
Maybe the real benefit, at least from Obama’s perspective, is that the nuclear deal will pave the way for America’s full exit from the Middle East. After more than a decade of war and nation-building, the region is less stable and more dangerous than it was on 9/11. The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart, who supports the deal, says what its critics are really doing is “blaming Obama for the fact that the United States is not omnipotent.” Perhaps we have reached the limits of what American leadership can do in that part of the world. But if that’s true, Obama should have the decency to level with us about it. This deal is not an affirmation of American leadership.
It’s a recognition of American exhaustion.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist.