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Why the Iran nuclear deal is a hard sell

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses reporters during a joint news conference with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in Paris on March 7, 2015, following a bilateral meeting focused on the nuclear negotiations with Iran and other regional issues. Credit: U.S. State Department.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses reporters during a joint news conference with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in Paris on March 7, 2015, following a bilateral meeting focused on the nuclear negotiations with Iran and other regional issues. Credit: U.S. State Department.

With the June 30 deadline for a deal with Iran over its nuclear ambitions looming ominously, the Obama administration is having a hard time persuading a skeptical public that these negotiations are going to tame the Tehran regime.

On the two critical issues—preventing Iran from weaponizing its nuclear program and rolling back the expansion of Iranian political and military influence throughout the region—all the evidence suggests that the White House is engaged in what Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the former head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, has bluntly called “wishful thinking.”

“It is clear that the nuclear deal is not a permanent fix but a placeholder,” Flynn told the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week. Iran, he continued, has “every intention” of building a nuclear weapon, and the desire of its Islamist regime to wipe Israel off the map is “very real.”

“Iran has not once contributed to the greater good of the security in the region,” Flynn declared, before concluding that “regime change” is the best means of preventing the mullahs from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Regime change is a concept that couldn’t be further from the Obama administration’s agenda. Not only does it jar with the president’s views on how foreign policy should be conducted—which explains not just America’s stance on Iran, but also its flimsy response to Russian aggression in Ukraine—it directly contradicts the goal of strengthening and stabilizing Iran under its current tyrannical rulers. As Michael Doran of the Washington, DC-based Hudson Institute think tank explained it in a recent essay for Mosaic magazine, in President Barack Obama’s thinking, “détente will restrain Iranian behavior more effectively than any formal agreement.”

Now, you wouldn’t necessarily reach that conclusion by listening to certain of Obama’s remarks. When he spoke at Washington’s Adas Israel synagogue in May, Obama was clear: “I’m interested in a deal that blocks every single one of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon—every single path. A deal that imposes unprecedented inspections on all elements of Iran’s nuclear program, so that they can’t cheat; and if they try to cheat, we will immediately know about it and sanctions snap back on.”

Not for the first time, the president reminded his audience that “all options are and will remain on the table”—which implies that military action is still being considered. Other senior Obama officials have made similar points before anxious Jewish crowds. At this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, said, “As President Obama has repeated many times, we are keeping all options on the table to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.”

That rhetoric, which hasn’t been believable for many months, seems almost laughable now. Indeed, most of Rice’s speech at AIPAC justified the concessions which the Obama administration has made on Iran, going onto warn that “walking away” from negotiations would lead to Iran’s rebuilding its “uranium stockpile and we will lose the unprecedented sanctions and transparency we have today.” In fact, as the International Atomic Energy Agency reported earlier this month, Iran increased its uranium stockpile by around 20 percent over the last 18 months of negotiations.

The dominant perception in the region, shared by many Arab states and Israel alike, is that Iran is moving towards a nuclear weapon. The Iranians know that’s how they are seen, and frankly, it suits them. It certainly hasn’t curbed Tehran’s backing of militias in Iraq who would swap out the Sunni Islamic State terrorists for a Shi’a version of the same, nor has it curbed its support for the barbaric regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, along with his Hezbollah allies.

The prospect that Iran will receive a “signing bonus” of $50 billion should it agree to the nuclear deal remains a live one. While the Obama administration apparently believes that the Iranians will spend the money to revive their flagging economy, that shouldn’t be taken to mean better roads, more schools, more career training, or any of the other measures that might revive Iranian society. Strategically, it makes far more sense for the regime to spend the money on shoring up Assad, because without him Iran will become a much weaker power regionally. Similar logic applies to Hezbollah, which has been fighting Islamic State on Assad’s behalf and which has also, according to Israeli officials speaking in May, set up rocket silos, terror tunnels, and artillery positions in Lebanese villages close to the border with Israel.

It’s not just that the Obama administration isn’t bothered by these developments. It looks, rather, as if the White House and the State Department are actively encouraging them. During his Adas Israel speech, Obama insisted that he wants a deal “that makes the world and the region—including Israel—more secure.” But when you examine the tangible benefits accrued from the negotiating process thus far, it’s the Iranian regime whose security has been enhanced at the expense of other states in the region. One gets the distinct sense that Obama and his colleagues are, behind the scenes, bending over backwards to accommodate the Iranians and their allies. What else could explain Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to slash funding for anti-Hezbollah initiatives in Lebanon, like Hayya Bina, a moderate Shi’a organization?

According to Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, Hayya Bina is so valuable that it “should be cloned: There would be no better way to undermine Iran’s growing influence with the Shi’a of the Middle East than to take up their often just causes.” But this week, a letter sent from the U.S. State Department informed Hayya Bina that “all activities intended [to] foster an independent moderate Shiite voice be ceased immediately and indefinitely… Hayya Bina… must eliminate funding for any of the above referenced activities.”

One more reason, then, for Iran’s clerical rulers to feel reassured that the U.S. has taken the best interests of the mullahs to heart. I’m just waiting for the Obama administration to tell us that the next step in persuading Iran to act with wisdom and restraint is getting the regime a temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014). 

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