Barack Obama can take credit for an array of substantial achievements during his tenure. Unsurprisingly, he is caricatured by Republicans as an advocate of sinister, un-American big government, while for many liberals his 2008 Presidential candidacy was not one of ‘hope and change’ but the locus of all their quixotic political dreams that he couldn’t possibly live up to in the Oval Office. However, Obama entered the White House at a time of preternaturally difficult circumstances. In January 2009, the Great Recession still raged, with Islamist terror remaining a continuing and rapidly evolving threat, while America had to carefully draw down its exhausting military entanglements in the Middle East, and the new President had to restore public respect for America across the world after George W. Bush’s disastrous tenure. In the midst of this maelstrom of circumstance, the Obama Administration restored the U.S. economy to health (it recovered faster than all other major economies except Germany), restored close ties with hitherto alienated allies, from France and Germany to Indonesia and South Korea, and achieved the holy grail of domestic policy for American progressives, of creating a universal healthcare system. But posterity will judge Obama severely for his disastrous nuclear deal with Iran.
For two decades there was a consensus between the Democrats and Republicans – acted on by Presidents from both parties – that the U.S., along with its allies, must prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. The most commonly cited reason for this is the lethal threat it would pose for Israel. And this has an understandable counter-argument: that the Iranians are not mad enough to launch nuclear strikes on a state with its own retaliatory capacity, as well as the world’s largest nuclear power behind it. But while the lethal danger to Israel has been exaggerated, it is still worthy of concern. Consider the particular hatred towards Israel – the noxious, nefarious rhetorical vitriol spat at the Jewish state – emanating from the apex of Iranian power structures. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s (his job description says it all about where power ultimately lies in Tehran) declaration on Twitter last year that “Israel […] has no cure but to be annihilated” is just the tip of the iceberg. Many analysts will argue that such utterances are nothing more than empty posturing; many others will argue that the hatred towards Israel and the desire to act on it are terrifyingly real. In truth we simply do not know. But as with any other country with prominent extremist tendencies, there is a risk that, in years to come, some severely irrational individuals might get their hands on the nuclear button and create a cataclysmic situation. It is a small risk of an extremely, extremely bad event, and Obama’s predecessors in the White House were perfectly rational in seeking to eliminate it by ensuring that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons.
That is the most alarming risk of Iranian nuclear capability; the most alarming certainty among its consequences is that of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. As President Obama himself put it in a 2012 interview: “It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons,” a situation which would lead to a “free-for-all”. Indeed, in the wake of this month’s deal, to quote a Telegraph report: “Prince Turki bin Faisal, the 70-year-old former Saudi intelligence chief […] has been touring the world recently warning of Saudi willingness to go nuclear.” Thanks to the financing they gave to Pakistan’s successful programme to develop nuclear weapons in the 1990s, as the New York Times points out, “it is widely presumed that Pakistan would provide Saudi Arabia with the technology, if not a weapon itself”.
Such an acceleration in nuclear proliferation will hugely increase the ever-present risk of cataclysmic nuclear accidents – a danger looked at in more detail by Jonathan Huse in his outstanding Globalist piece. As the renowned journalist Eric Schlosser states, summarising the thesis of his study Command and Control, “our ability to create dangerous things exceeds our ability to control them” – and consequently, in the U.S. alone, “nothing but a miracle has prevented an accidental Hiroshima or Nagasaki [from] taking place”. If nuclear weapons are created throughout the Middle East – and they certainly will be if Iran goes nuclear – the chances of such a heinous accident will increase to a perilous extent. And that is aside from the risk – a small one but with potentially cataclysmic consequences – that the nuclear buttons of Saudi Arabia or another such state could be seized by Islamic extremists.
In light of all this, world powers have spent twelve years engaged in negotiations with the objective of stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Sanctions have been painstakingly formulated and ratcheted up, wreaking havoc on Iran’s economy and causing commensurate public unrest – exactly what the conservative regime in Tehran doesn’t need, considering that it has lost the popularity contest with the West among much of the country’s rapidly growing under-30s demographic. But as Henry Kissinger and George Schultz summed up the glaring fatal flaw at the core of Obama’s deal: “Negotiations […] to prevent an Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal are ending with an agreement that concedes this very capability.” Tehran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is now permitted and legitimised. It is merely delayed.
After 8 years, Iran is allowed to further its research on advanced centrifuges – the tools for enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels. After 15 years, Iran is allowed to produce as much nuclear fuel as it likes, while the agreement purports to cap its ‘breakout time’ (the time it will take to turn their material and know-how into a nuclear bomb with operational capacity) at one year. But, even if Iran obeys the terms of the agreement (a big if), to quote none other than President Barack Obama, in “year 13, 14, 15 […] breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero”. In other words, Iran will be able to get its long desired nuclear arsenal, creating for the world all the aforementioned risks and repercussions, and there will be nothing the U.S. and its allies can do about it.
However, even while the deal still stands, its provisions for enforcing Iranian compliance are a joke. ‘Anytime, anywhere’ snap inspections of suspicious sites were long seen in the West as a necessary component of any agreement. But now the agreement allows Iran to object to inspections of any secret nuclear facilities. Any proposal to inspect facilities will be put to an eight-member panel of world powers, including Iran itself. While there will be an inbuilt Western majority to this committee (Iran might win Russian and Chinese backing, but would be outnumbered and thus overruled), this process of adjudication will allow Tehran to delay an inspection by 24 days: nearly a month to remove evidence and create plausible deniability of forbidden nuclear activity.
But even if that weren’t the case, inspections of Iran’s facilities will still be ineffective, because the U.S. and its partners have failed to enshrine in the deal Iranian honesty about illicit actions on nuclear weapons development in the past. As its chief has acknowledged, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the body charged with conducting inspections, has previously requested information on this issue, but Tehran stonewalled. The nuclear deal offers no means for the IAEA (or the U.S., or any of its partners) to get truthful answers about the past actions of Iran. We need this information because, as nuclear weapons expert David Albright explains, we won’t know Iran’s starting point for any illicit activities if there is no baseline to see how updates their nuclear infrastructure would add to their programme as a whole. And, even more worryingly, in Albright’s words: “If Iran is able to successfully evade addressing the IAEA’s concerns […] when biting sanctions are in place, why would it address them later when these sanctions are lifted?”
Meanwhile, “snapback sanctions”, touted by Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry as a key aspect of ensuring Iranian conformity to the agreement, are a chimera. The sanctions programme on Iran was driven by the U.S., and it took more than ten years to integrate the Chinese, Russian and even the European economies into it. It was a complex framework that took painstaking work to create. Such a system cannot just snap back into existence. But in order to work at all, snapback sanctions must be enforced by all of the major powers to have signed the deal – and that is unlikely. The EU might re-impose sanctions; however, Iran will provide a huge, growing market for trade, giving a boost to the troubled economies of numerous member states – forecasts predict that, in just three years, Iran-EU trade will quadruple.
One could argue that the sanctions imposed on Russia show that the EU is willing to unite and act against the economic interests of member states in order to punish rogue nations. But the two situations are not comparable. Moscow created an unhappy situation for several Eastern European countries in particular, when Russia’s growing fossil fuel production in the 1990s was used to create a monopoly on their imports of oil and gas. Thus, over the long term, sanctions will benefit the EU as countries reliant on Russian energy diversify their supplies and remove their dependence on Moscow. And, an even more important point of contrast, with its burgeoning young population, Iran can only grow as an export partner throughout the following decades. Russia, on the other hand, for all its great power status, is in intractable demographic decline, and has an economy riddled with problems even without sanctions – making it a poor market for European exports in the years to come. Therefore it is by no means likely that the EU would bring back the necessary sanctions. The Russians and Chinese would not, given their vexed relationship with Washington. So there will be no effective sanctions programme implemented by all the major powers. Obama has given sanctions away, and America will not be able to get them back.
Sanctions are also being lifted immediately. The initial plan was for sanctions relief to be phased in while Iranian compliance was ensured, but – like “anytime, anywhere” sanctions, like making Iran come clean about its previous activities – this has been thrown out of the window. A whopping $150 billion of previously frozen assets will be injected straight into the Iranian economy. And as even Susan Rice, Obama’s protégée and National Security Adviser, has admitted, a fair amount of this gargantuan sum will “go to the Iranian military” in order to fund “bad behaviour” – diplomat-speak for terrorism. Vast financial resources will flow to Hamas and Hezbollah, funding murderous attacks on Israeli civilians and, through the latter group, the fight to prolong Assad’s blood-soaked rule in Syria.
With just eighteen months to go before his term expires, Obama is seeking to secure his legacy. His Secretary of State John Kerry signed the nuclear agreement in Vienna, along with his fellow foreign ministers of the P5 + 1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council – the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China, plus Germany) and the EU’s external affairs representative Federica Mogherini. However, no one seriously doubts that the main driver of this deal with Iran was the U.S. President. Since he stated in his inauguration speech that “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”, it has been a key goal for Obama to end hostile relations with Iran, linked to a long-term aim of bringing Tehran in from the cold.
This prospect of pulling off a “Nixon in China” move is the likely explanation for how and why Obama was so keen to get a deal that the Iranians could outfox him. His rapprochement with Cuba was also compared to Richard Nixon’s celebrated 1972 restoration of ties with communist China, but in reality the Iran deal is comparable to neither. As I wrote in the Globalist shortly after its announcement, restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba is a very good policy. There was simply no need to punish Cuba with any severity: it poses no real threat to U.S. interests or to regional peace and stability, as Iran does. Yet it seems there was an another motivation for Obama to get any sort of nuclear deal with Iran, besides going down in history as the architect of great rapprochements with antagonists of America. There has been a tactical lowering of expectations – as epitomised by Obama’s statement in a New York Times interview that “we’re not measuring this deal by whether we are solving every problem that can be traced back to Iran, whether we are eliminating all their nefarious activities around the globe”. But Obama’s comparisons of his policy to Nixon’s pact with China and Reagan’s deal with the USSR in that interview suggest that he thinks of his settlement with Iran as a big step towards a geopolitical realignment – with Tehran gravitating towards bonds with Washington. After all, the situation in the Middle East is dire, with ISIS in unchecked control of vast swathes of Iraq and Syria, and Iran is both a great regional power and an enemy of ISIS. Perhaps, therefore, a nuclear deal might lead to a broader alliance between Iran and the West against the supreme malevolence of ISIS.
Here we see the classic logic of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. Applied to Middle Eastern geopolitics, it is simplistic nonsense. As I have written in a piece analysing the provenance of the appalling current conditions in Iraq, a majoritarian Shia government in Baghdad, at the forefront of Iran’s militant advocacy of their side of Islam’s divide, has been a major factor in exacerbating Sunni extremism and leading to the rise of ISIS. The prospect of an Iran that will help the West achieve its objectives in the Middle East is illusory. Obama’s keenness for a deal is based on bad faith.
The deal effectively enshrines the Iranians’ legitimate acquisition of a nuclear arsenal in 15 years’ time. The plans to enforce compliance are so lacking that this may well happen long before. A nuclear Iran will pose an unacceptable threat to Israel and the Gulf states. It will engender an unprecedented escalation of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, creating further extreme security risks. And with money gushing in as sanctions are precipitously revoked, the deal allows Tehran to be a generous benefactor to terrorist groups.
It is a tragedy that, despite his considerable domestic achievements, all these consequences of Obama’s capitulation to Iran will be at the heart of his legacy.