We are in an odd situation. President Barack Obama is trying to coerce and cajole Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, to compromise on his nuclear quest without using America’s only possible trumps: more sanctions and a serious threat of force. These negotiations are unlikely to end well, unless one deems any deal better than the possibility of American preemptive strikes.
It’s certainly possible that neither more sanctions nor the threat of preemptive attacks will now work with Khamenei, who has shepherded the nuclear-weapons program since he became supreme leader in 1989. He is a cleric of revolutionary faith. He loathes the United States. His religious identity, let alone the Islamic Republic’s entire defensive strategy since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, is wound around the nuclear program. Kowtowing to America and Europe on anything, let alone the centerpiece of the revolution’s defense, would surely be in his eyes an act of monumental cowardice.
It’s possible the administration knows this, which is why President Obama has given ground on every single issue of importance in the nuclear talks. If a bad deal is better than no deal, then it’s best not to provoke Khamenei’s ire, which could torpedo everything. Fear of the supreme leader and his Islamic Revolutionary Guards, who oversee the regime’s atomic aspirations, has fed a vaguely expressed belief among some senior administration officials that Western compromises help the cause of the “moderate” president Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Muhammad-Javad Zarif. This sentiment is never explained, perhaps because Rouhani’s own history in Iran’s nuclear-weapons program—he and his former mentor Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani were the primary drivers of the program during its formative period in the 1990s—doesn’t suggest that the man is antinuclear today. It is a delicious irony that so many folks who lambasted the Reagan administration’s Iran-contra outreach to so-called moderates now applaud President Obama’s outreach to the same men. Rouhani, if we recall, tried to extort as many Hawk missiles as possible for American hostages in Lebanon in the 1980s. It’s a good guess that in the current negotiations his penchant for extortion and mendacity continues.
Let us see where the talks have taken us. Americans and Europeans have moved from insisting on a rollback of Iran’s atomic program to recognizing almost all of Tehran’s nuclear progress. The West has now recognized the clerical regime’s “right” to uranium enrichment. It has bridled at accepting all of Tehran’s currently spinning centrifuges (around 10,000). But Washington appears ready to accept several thousand operational machines, along with Iran’s “right” to continue centrifuge research and development at the buried-in-the-mountain Fordow site, which President Obama once demanded be closed. The White House hasn’t demanded that the Iranians fess up about their massive smuggling and engineering efforts behind the production of their ever-improving centrifuges; Obama appears satisfied with frequent inspections at acknowledged nuclear facilities—no need to challenge the Revolutionary Guards, who oversee all of the now-known-but-formerly-hidden sites. The Additional Protocol Plus, which allows for spot inspections of any suspicious facility belonging to a refractory signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty such as Iran, appears too provocative for the White House.
The West has also accepted the idea of a “sunset clause” on any restrictions on the clerical regime’s nuclear infrastructure (Tehran has suggested 3 to 7 years; Washington would like at least 10), which means that after the stated period, Iran could legally develop an industrial-sized program with a nuclear-weapon breakout time dropping to a matter of days. President Obama is practicing a novel form of appeasement: Behave now and we promise to surrender later. Perhaps the White House believes that in a decade the Islamic Republic as we have known it will have collapsed.