The Iran Deal Is Strategically and Morally Absurd

It is less an arms-control agreement than cover for American inaction.

A display with missiles and a portrait of Ayatollah Ali Khamanei
A display featuring missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tehran, Iran, in 2017  (Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi / TIMA / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a debate about whether to stay in the Iran deal. Read the other entries here.

It was surely Barack Obama’s profound aversion to the use of American military power that so enfeebled his nuclear diplomacy and made his atomic accord with Iran the worst arms-control agreement since the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. I do not know whether a more forceful president and secretary of state—say a Democratic version of Ronald Reagan and George Schultz—could have gotten a “good deal” with Tehran; it just boggles the mind to believe that a better deal wasn’t possible. A stronger president and secretary of state certainly would have been willing to walk away. Neither captured by Iranian demands nor the mirage of “moderate” mullahs and engagement, more astute, less fearful men would have been more patient, and more willing to let sanctions bite deeper into the economy and political culture of the Islamic Republic.

Obama was, to borrow from The New York Times’s Roger Cohen, America’s first “post-Western” president, a man deeply uncomfortable with American hegemony and the essential marriage of diplomacy and force. By 2013, when Hassan Rouhani won Iran’s presidential election, Obama made it increasingly clear that he was unwilling to fight over the clerical regime’s nuclear-weapons ambitions. He was also unwilling to do anything to brake the Islamic Republic’s rising Shiite imperialism, which in Syria led to the massive slaughter and flight of Syrian Sunnis who’d rebelled against Bashar al-Assad’s tyranny. And what happened in 2012-2013 in Syria and Iraq—with the absence of America—triggered the rise of the Islamic State and has now set the stage for a regional conflict that we haven’t seen since Saddam Hussein was running amok.

With Iran, Obama certainly appeared to have a cause, something beyond just avoiding a fight. The Islamic Republic for Obama, and Secretary of State John Kerry, too, appeared to be a left-wing “realist” dream, offering a progressive version of Richard Nixon’s opening to Communist China. The many debilitating weaknesses of the JCPOA—for one thing, the strategic and moral absurdity of paying, via sanctions relief, for Iranian imperialism in the Middle East so we can have a short surcease to the mullahs’ quest for the bomb—stem directly from Obama’s paralyzing fear of war, as well as his aspiration for a Middle Eastern détente.

The suggestion that going to war with the clerical regime is too high a price to pay to stop the mullahs from acquiring nuclear weapons (which is what’s implied by defending the limited, temporary utility of the JCPOA) is downright odd. Obama was, in theory, willing to do just that in the nuclear negotiations. In theory, when he uttered the mantra that “all options are on the table,” Obama was—to borrow from La Rochefoucauld—giving the homage that hypocrisy pays to virtue. The nuclear deal wasn’t just “far from ideal”: It is the hinge of America’s downsizing in the region, the guarantor of a decent interval before nuclear proliferation comes to the Middle East.

Obama’s “wishful thinking” about the region was never more fully on display than when he speculated that his nuclear agreement with Tehran ought to allow the Iranians and the Saudis time to learn “to share” the region; it has, of course, done the opposite. The agreement—and the Iranian perception of that accord as a Western green light for its continuing aggression—has thrown jet fuel on the sectarian strife that Iran’s clerical regime has so malevolently encouraged. The Syrian war went from bad to catastrophic while Obama was engaged in his secret and then open diplomacy with Tehran. Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and most probably Turkey, too—the only Muslim power in the Middle East that has the industrial capacity to check Iran’s clerical regime—will probably soon start down the nuclear path because of Obama’s accord.

Obama provided the agreement that Ali Akbar Salehi was searching for. Salehi, the MIT-educated nuclear guru and negotiator who would be better described as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s bomb maker, sought the time and money to perfect the development of high-velocity centrifuges which, once deployed in small, easily concealed cascades, will guarantee the Islamic Republic an unstoppable means to produce weapons-grade uranium. I was recently listening to John Kerry in a small gathering. To hear him tell it, the JCPOA has “permanently shut down all pathways” to an Iranian bomb. The Obamaians like Phil Gordon, who were willing to admit the deal’s significant flaws, were in a small minority.

Former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and so many others were just disingenuous in how they marketed the nuclear diplomacy and the final deal.  An honest approach would have been to straightforwardly enumerate the agreements many flaws and then say what we all knew to be true: This administration is unwilling to use military force to stop the mullahs’ quest for the bomb. We are unwilling to contain Iranian aggression in the Middle East. This is the best that we can do under those circumstances.

But if one were serious about non-proliferation, if one fully comprehended the consummate mendacity of the regime (as if we needed to see the nuclear archive that Mossad just snatched), why in the world would anyone agree to an accord that allows the clerical regime to develop advanced centrifuges? Why in the world would anyone agree not to put severe restrictions on ballistic-missile development in the JCPOA? Or allow the Iranians to soften the language in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, so that there is no longer a blanket prohibition against the development of long-range ballistic missiles? In one of my favorite moments in the Washington debate about Obama’s diplomacy, I asked the undersecretary of state for political affairs, Wendy Sherman, why, for Allah’s sake, were we exempting missiles from the JCPOA’s purview. There wasn’t a soul in the Pentagon or the Central Intelligence Agency (with the possible exception of John Brennan) who believed the clerical regime wasn’t developing ever-longer range ballistic missiles to carry nuclear warheads. Her response: We decided to put the emphasis on preventing Tehran from developing warheads.

To translate for those unfamiliar with such intelligence details: The United States was going to ignore that which is easy to detect—the design and testing of missiles—and focus on what is impossible to detect unless you get really lucky with human-intelligence penetrations or walk-ins—the development of warheads. And where have the mullahs probably put warhead design? On Revolutionary Guard Corps bases like Parchin. When we get a chance to review the Iranian archive snatched by Mossad (and I certainly hope the Israelis release all of the material), I suspect we will see in detail what we have long known: Nuclear-weapons research and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are inseparable.

In other words, the organization that is responsible for internal oppression, foreign wars, overseas terrorism, and an expeditionary army of non-Iranian Shiites is the overlord of the nuclear-weapons program. Which brings up the most comedic moment in Obama’s nuclear adventure: the remote-controlled soil sampling of earth at Parchin, where International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors were not permitted to enter. According to Obama, Kerry, Sherman, and so many others, the JCPOA granted the International Atomic Energy Agency access to Iranian military bases for inspections. But “access” here doesn’t meet the standard, say, of the Oxford English Dictionary, where it means:  “Admittance (to the presence or use of a thing or person); the action or process of obtaining stored documents, data, etc.” Not only did Obama debase American diplomacy, but his mania for a deal debased the International Atomic Energy Agency, too.

It is striking that Kerry throughout the talks was so cavalier about the clerical regime’s past “possible-military-dimension” nuclear research. If America had insisted on standard IAEA procedures (they turn over all of their paperwork and have their nuclear scientists and engineers sit down for thorough discussions with IAEA inspectors), we would have, of course, discovered the vast range of their mendacity, as well as the intimate details of the global dual-use import network that the regime has used to build clandestinely their nuclear-weapons program. Such routine discussions and verification would have exposed Salehi, Khamenei, Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif, and so many others, as just stellar liars. I really don’t recall Rhodes and Kerry before the JCPOA was concluded harping on the consummate dishonesty of these people.

As my colleague, the former No. 2 at the IAEA, Olli Heinonen has pointed out, the clerical regime could have a lot of components for the clandestine production of high-velocity centrifuges, but we can’t verify their stockpiles and compliance because we can’t answer the big questions about Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. At this moment, the clerical regime could have a clandestine centrifuge site in Mashhad in northeastern Iran. And we would not know it. I worked on Iranian operations for nearly a decade in the Central Intelligence Agency. I have a decent idea of what the National Security Agency can and cannot intercept. There is nothing in the JCPOA that would aid us in discovering this or any other possible secret facility.

The JCPOA, then, isn’t really an arms-control agreement; it’s just cover for American inaction, and for President Obama’s acute desire to leave the Middle East. So, let us go post-JCPOA. The deal’s defenders have understandably and quite correctly expressed dismay that the Trump administration doesn’t appear to have done much preparation for the day after. That is undoubtedly true: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis obviously didn’t want to withdraw from the nuclear agreement. When you don’t want to do something, it’s human nature not to prepare. The easier route is always to maintain the status quo. The democratic way is to punt problems down the road, to hope that the unpleasantness goes away. Then add on the Trump factor, which is discombobulating. But also let us be historically fair: Even the best of planning isn’t necessarily worth much when things get messy, as they often do in foreign affairs, which is defined by the unexpected. And withdrawing from the JCPOA is going to be messy.

So far Trump’s Iran policy doesn’t make a lot of sense. On one hand, his rhetoric is commendably harsh. His selection of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo has certainly gotten Tehran’s attention. It is always good to see a Revolutionary Guard Corps website announce about Bolton that “Trump’s Raging Bull has arrived.” As I and Ray Takeyh mentioned in our Washington Post op-ed, American resolve always convulses and paralyzes the clerical regime. It was no accident, as Rouhani himself explained, that Iran froze its just-revealed clandestine nuclear program in late 2002 because of fear of George W. Bush. And yet Trump’s commendable personnel choices and rhetoric are betrayed by his actions in Syria and Iraq, where he is, more or less, continuing Obama’s policy.

So the pro-deal argument is that if President Trump’s is going to continue his predecessor’s disastrous policies in Syria and Iraq, he should logically continue Mr. Obama’s pivotal accomplishment—the nuclear deal. They work together. We could have an even more calamitous situation develop: Trump pulls America out of Syria, Iraq, and the atomic deal. After withdrawing from the JCPOA, Trump could then do nothing to check the clerical regime as it tests whether Washington is serious economically and militarily. It is bizarre but conceivable that Trump could exempt the Europeans from the extraterritorial reach of snapped-back American sanctions against Iran. We know that French President Emanuel Macron made this pitch on his recent visit to Washington. And Trump doesn’t appear to understand how U.S. sanctions work. He suggested once on Fox News that he would allow the Europeans to continue to invest in the Islamic Republic’s heavy industries after he pulled out of the JCPOA. Needless to say, this would be nuts—Iran would still get many of the economic benefits of the deal without having to abide by its restrictions.

And yet it isn’t that hard to devise a credible post-JCPOA approach to the clerical regime. We can use America’s approach to the Soviet Union as a model: Contain, roll back, and squeeze. The Islamic Republic now resembles the Soviet Union of 1979: a police state, incapable of reforming itself while drowning in corruption and economic ineptitude, expands abroad to protect the nation and its “faith.”  Now, unlike the U.S.S.R., which in the end just had Marx’s and Lenin’s desiccated orthodoxy to sustain an empire, the Islamic Republic has a still vibrant Shiite identity. It is the only idea, mixed with revolutionary intent, that the mullahs can lock on to that can motivate the faithful and undermine critics who stopped believing in the cleric-constructed Islamic state. But as we have seen repeatedly, Iranians have been willing in significant numbers to express their disgust for this tyranny. In the nation-wide demonstrations that started last December, even those that the regime thought were loyal to the theocracy—the provincials—shouted their opposition to imperial adventures.

As long as Trump is willing to use military force against the regime’s nuclear sites, and we don’t know whether he is, then time is on our side, not theirs. America is the stronger party, by far. Let us try to crack the regime. The contradictions that gnaw at the mind, heart, and muscles of the clerical regime are as great as those that debilitated the Soviet Union. As you know, most Democrats and some Republicans went soft by the end of the Cold War. They wanted détente and cohabitation. But the hawks like Reagan and Henry “Scoop” Jackson won that struggle, not Henry Kissinger and the Carterites. I do not know whether Trump is capable of pulling this off. Odds are he is not. But we don’t get the president that we want; we get the president that the American people choose.