Throughout the last year former Middle East peace processor and Obama foreign policy staffer Dennis Ross has been sounding a note of caution about the nuclear talks with Iran. But after sober reflection, the veteran diplomat is endorsing the weak nuclear deal that has yet to be put to paper. But despite Ross’s optimism about the agreement’s ability to forestall Iran from getting a bomb for as much as 25 years, even he admits that the statements coming out of Tehran about the final written terms of the pact are troubling. Ross concedes Iran’s attitude can, in fact, render the framework a colossal failure if Western negotiators don’t stick to positions demanding transparency about their nuclear program. That’s true enough though why anyone would think President Obama would stand firm with the Iranians now it meant risking a deal he considers integral to his legacy is a mystery? That’s especially true after making concession after concession in order to get the deal. But scholar Michael Mandelbaum has an even better reason why this mess can’t be salvaged. As he explains in an article published in The American Interest, the problem here isn’t just bad negotiating tactics but a fundamental reordering of American foreign policy by Obama that undermines its credibility in enforcing agreements and restraining rogue regimes.
Let’s give some credit to Ross from trying to learn from his own mistakes. Writing this week in Politico, Ross notes that it would be a blunder to take the recent statements about the nuclear agreement by Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as meaningless rhetoric intended for domestic consumption. Ross says it’s entirely possible that Khamenei’s comments are an indication that the Islamist regime has no intention of allowing rigorous inspections of its facilities or to own up to their progress toward military application of their nuclear research. Just as Yasir Arafat’s statements about his unwillingness to live up to the Oslo Accords should have been taken seriously, so, too, must Khamenei’s lest the nuclear deal wind up being trashed by the Iranians the same way the Palestinians made a mockery of the peace deal with Israel (though it is disgraceful that Ross attributes such complacence to “many of my colleagues” instead of admitting that he was just as guilty of covering up and ignoring Palestinian misdeeds as anyone else).
But, the problem goes deeper than merely having the sense to take your negotiating partner’s threats seriously. Nor is it enough to insist on agreements achieving their stated objectives as opposed to negotiation for its own sake, as appears to be the case with the president’s push for détente with Iran rather than merely stopping its nuclear program.
As Mandelbaum points out, the mistake in the administration’s strategy on Iran is that it is based on an abandonment of American military, political and economic leverage. By stating that the only alternative to a policy of appeasement of Iran is war and that war is unacceptable under virtually any circumstances, the president has ensured that Iran will get its way on every key point in the negotiations:
If the Obama administration is in fact resolutely opposed to the use of force to keep Iran from making nuclear weapons, then American foreign policy has changed in a fundamental way. For more than seven decades, since its entry into World War II, the United States has carried out a foreign policy of global scope that has included the willingness to go to war on behalf of vital American interests. There is no higher or more urgent current American interest beyond the country’s borders than keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of an aggressive, theocratic, anti-American regime located in a region that harbors much of the oil on which the global economy depends. If fighting to vindicate that interest has become unthinkable, then American foreign policy has entered a new era.
Mandelbaum’s trenchant observation illustrates the key flaw in Ross’s facile call for the president to finally stand up to Khamenei in the talks. Having discarded not only his leverage but signaled that he will not defend U.S. interests and will abandon allies in order to pursue an entente with Iran, President Obama has made any outcome but a weak and unenforceable deal impossible. Unless there is a fundamental change in the administration’s approach, there is no saving this deal. That is something senators should remember when they are eventually asked to vote on this fiasco.