Just as John Kerry was meeting with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif in Geneva last week as part of the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran announced it was building two new nuclear reactors in the Bushehr region. That’s perfectly okay, said the State Department, since that’s allowed under the Joint Plan of Action: They can build as many reactors as they want. It seems the Iranians can get away with a lot under the JPOA—the agreement reached in November 2013 that eased sanctions on Tehran—because the White House has hardly batted an eye over any of Iran’s actions.
Of course, the notion that it’s fine to build more reactors somewhat complicates the Obama administration’s claims that the agreement froze the Iranian nuclear program. But in the year since the interim agreement with Iran was signed, it’s become clear that the White House defines “froze” very flexibly. The agreement also acknowledges Iran’s right to enrich uranium. It allows Iran unlimited work on its plutonium reactor at complex at Arak, provided Iran does not touch the reactor itself. It ignores Iran’s ballistic missile program. All this while the administration has provided sanctions relief that has rescued the Iranian economy and encouraged European businesses to seek opportunities in Iran.
Like any competent negotiator, Iran is employing a two-track policy—negotiating while it enhances its leverage by establishing facts on the ground. Why, on the other hand, is the Obama administration forfeiting what leverage it has?
An argument commonly made by critics of the White House is that Iranian negotiators have run circles around the Americans. It is easy to think so, but the reality is that Iran, despite its worthy history as a great civilization, to say nothing of its chess masters and master carpet weavers, has not cornered the market on cunning. For every wheeler-dealer at the Iranian bazaar, America produces a dozen corporate lawyers. The Obama administration isn’t getting outhustled. If it wanted to negotiate a tougher deal, it surely could. It just doesn’t want to.
The Iranians understand that they’re pushing against an open door—across a threshold that happens to lead to the rest of the Middle East, where Tehran’s men are busy empire-building. Tehran, as the clerical regime likes to boast, now controls four Arab capitals—Baghdad, Beirut, Sanaa, and Damascus. Iran’s holdings in Syria may at present be the most threatening. Last week came reports that Iran was building missile sites in Syria.
This news was followed by a report in Der Spiegel that Syria may be trying to restart its nuclear weapons program in a site close to the Lebanese border. Some regional experts counsel caution about the report. They argue that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his Hezbollah allies do not have the time and opportunity to build a nuclear facility while they’re fighting for their lives against antiregime rebels. However, the important fact is that Syria is hiding 50 tons of enriched uranium, which went missing from the Iranian nuclear program. In other words, Iran is dispersing its nuclear infrastructure and materials. What if Iran is able to move parts of its program to Baghdad, Beirut, and Sanaa as well?
The issue isn’t just the nuclear deal. Sure, you can’t have a meaningful agreement to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program if it’s moving material to another country. But you also can’t have a meaningful agreement if the administration doesn’t push for one. As we’ve seen repeatedly over the last year, the White House refuses to call the Iranians to account. That means we have a big problem. If Iran is determined to have the bomb, and this administration is very clearly less determined to stop them from acquiring and dispersing the equipment and material it takes to build a bomb, then Iran’s growing Middle East empire will be a nuclear one.
Maybe there are enough votes in the new Republican Senate to pass more meaningful sanctions legislation. They had better act fast, because the fact is we’re soon going to reach the point when sanctions will be largely irrelevant. Sanctions will be an empty threat against an Iranian empire under a nuclear umbrella.