The Magazine

The Obama Complex

Feb 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 21 • By MICHAEL MAKOVSKY and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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President Obama couldn’t resist confiding to a recent interviewer, “I am comfortable with complexity.” In fact, he is comfortable with a kind of pseudo-complexity that lends itself to pseudo-thoughtful formulations.


Thus, in his State of the Union address last week the president explained to his benighted and presumably bellicose fellow citizens: “You see, in a world of complex threats, our security and leadership depends on all elements of our power​—​including strong and principled diplomacy.” (The “you see” is particularly condescending, even by Obama’s standards.) The point is, with respect to Iran, “we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.”

The trouble is that, in a world of complex threats, diplomacy won’t succeed unless backed up by the other elements of our power. And Obama has abandoned everything but diplomacy. Sanctions are being dismantled. The threat of military action has virtually disappeared. Obama’s Iran policy now rests exclusively on diplomacy and will therefore fail.

As did the diplomacy-only policy he pursued for the first 18 months of his presidency. Obama desperately wanted to talk to the mullahs in Tehran. So he said nothing as the regime crushed pro-democracy protesters in 2009 and then announced in February 2010 that it would begin to enrich uranium from 3.5 percent, the highest level it had previously achieved, to 20 percent, beginning its final dash toward nuclear weapons capability. 

In light of his diplomatic failure, and faced with overwhelming bipartisan pressure from Congress, Obama finally tried a more complex strategy, supplementing diplomacy with new sanctions on Iran. During the Bush administration there had been five U.N. Security Council resolutions supporting sanctions. In the summer of 2010 Obama reluctantly moved toward a Bush-like approach, and sanctions were toughened periodically until he was safely reelected. But since then, and given the excuse of a charm initiative by the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, Obama has lost interest in sanctions. It’s once again diplomacy-only. 

Obama’s most recent effort culminated in the interim deal known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), which went into effect on January 20. This deal grants Tehran significant concessions while getting little in return. It doesn’t roll back Iran’s nuclear program. At best, it puts some parts of it on pause while permitting others to move ahead. No part of the nuclear infrastructure is dismantled. That’s why experts report the deal​—​if adhered to by the regime​—​would delay Iran’s nuclear progress by perhaps one or two months. And even that’s debatable. Because Iran can continue to build up its stockpile of 3.5 percent enriched uranium and can continue to tweak its centrifuges, improving their performance, the regime might be able to offset any aspects of its program that will be slightly delayed. It can also continue work on the Arak heavy water plant designed only to produce nuclear weapons. 

So the deal doesn’t roll back Iran’s nuclear program. It does concede Iran’s right to enrich, and it does roll back sanctions, thereby returning billions of dollars to the regime’s coffers. And it requires the United States to refrain from imposing any additional sanctions on Iran.

The deal has a six-month term, but it can be renewed for another six months, and the administration anticipates doing this. So the Obama administration is embarking on crucial talks with Iran having given up its main point of leverage, the ability to impose new sanctions. As for its other lever​—​a credible threat to attack Iran’s nuclear sites​—​that’s gone too. After the failure to act in Syria, after making withdrawal the priority in Iraq and Afghanistan, no one believes Obama will act against Iran.

So for a year we could have talks dragging on, with Iran selling more oil, generating more revenue, and poking more holes in a sanctions regime that was decades in the making. Meanwhile Iran will continue to accumulate its stockpile of enriched uranium, drawing closer to nuclear weapons capability. With decidedly less leverage, the chances of concluding an acceptable final deal, already low, will greatly diminish.

To be sure, there are those outside the administration who would put U.S. efforts to prevent a nuclear Iran on more solid footing. Fifty-nine senators, including 16 Democrats, have cosponsored legislation to impose new sanctions if Iran cheats or if there is no sound and comprehensive deal in a reasonable time. The Iranians have declared that passage of this bill would prompt them to walk away from the negotiating table, and Obama has accordingly pledged to veto the legislation.

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