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Obama Passed the Buck. Trump Refused to Play.

The Iran deal was never meant to stop Iran from building a bomb—it was supposed to delay it until disaster happened on someone else’s watch

Lee Smith
January 14, 2020
Photo: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images
Former President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry meet with a small group of veterans and Gold Star Mothers to discuss the Iran nuclear deal in the White House, Sept. 10, 2015Photo: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images
Photo: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images
Former President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry meet with a small group of veterans and Gold Star Mothers to discuss the Iran nuclear deal in the White House, Sept. 10, 2015Photo: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

In the wake of the targeted killing of Iranian terror master Qassem Soleimani, an interesting fight has broken out—after Donald Trump failed to brief them in advance of the strike, Democrats began fulsomely criticizing the president. This led Republican lawmakers to accuse their counterparts across the aisle of pro-terrorist sympathies. Maybe Republicans are still sore that Barack Obama compared them to Iranian hardliners like Soleimani for denouncing his signature foreign policy initiative, the Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Or maybe it’s something else.

Because the fact is that the Democrats are not pro-terrorist. They’re simply intent on protecting the historic agreement that legalized the nuclear weapons program of a terror state.

Democratic leadership is angry it wasn’t briefed before the operation, as were some Republican lawmakers critical of the scant information in the White House intelligence briefing on the attack. But there is reason to believe senior Democrats would have leaked it to the press, as they’ve done repeatedly over the last three years to prosecute their anti-Trump campaign. In particular, House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff and his staff have used CNN as a platform to push the discredited Trump-Russia collusion narrative. Why would Democrats endanger U.S. national security by leaking highly classified plans of a major operation against a terror leader? Because Soleimani was the centerpiece of the nuclear deal.

The JCPOA was the instrument Obama used to secure the administration’s ultimate goal—realigning U.S. interests with those of Iran. For the U.S. to be able to minimize its footprint in the Middle East, the Obama White House needed a proxy force—much like the Iranians use proxies to advance their interests. Soleimani managed Iranian proxies and Obama, who praised the late commander, believed he was capable of stabilizing the region on behalf of America.

In 2015, when the JCPOA went into effect, Soleimani was removed from the U.N. sanctions list, a provision that, according to press reports at the time, the Iranians saw as “nonnegotiable.” That’s how Obama wanted it, too.

As I explained in Tablet last week, Obama had subscribed to the myth that U.S. policymakers had built up around Iran over 40 years—that the third-world obscurantist regime was in fact a formidable power that the U.S. dare not challenge lest it risk an apocalyptic war. Seen from Obama’s perspective, a nation this powerful was—unlike the incoherent Arabs, OR tiny Israel—singularly capable of maintaining order.

Former Bush administration Senior Director for the Middle East Michael Doran said on Twitter he had knowledge of messages from the Obama administration to Soleimani. “We don’t know the subject matter of the messages,” Doran told Tablet, “but given the tenor of Obama’s letters to [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei, it is a reasonable assumption that the administration wrote to Soleimani to court him rather than to deter him.” A senior U.S. official confirmed to Tablet the existence of the messages from the Obama administration to Soleimani.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also wrote the late terror master. In December 2017, the then CIA director said he’d warned Soleimani that the Trump administration would hold him and “Iran accountable for any attacks on American interests in Iraq by forces that are under their control.” The targeted killing that brought down Soleimani and his Iraqi deputy, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, two weeks ago made good on that warning.

The nuclear program, the regime’s crown jewel, is controlled not by the imaginary moderates who want rapprochement with the Great Satan. It is rather in the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the expeditionary unit Soleimani led, the Quds Force, which have been waging war on the U.S. and its allies for four decades. This is why the previous White House did not stand with the Iranian protesters who filled the streets in 2010. The Iranian security forces shooting civilians in the streets were the same people with whom Obama needed to make a deal. Taking sides against them would have made that harder; likely impossible.

Trump, by contrast, says he is not that interested in making a deal. “I couldn’t care less if they negotiate,” he tweeted Sunday about Iranian leadership. “Will be totally up to them but, no nuclear weapons and ‘don’t kill your protesters.’”

Trump has thereby distinguished himself from his predecessor. The world’s most famous dealmaker appears not to be angling for a deal, and for good reason—there’s no deal to be had because there’s nothing left to negotiate. Obama set it up that way. The JCPOA guaranteed that the Iranians would all but have a bomb within 10 years—or by the end of the second term of Obama’s successor.


JCPOA advocates claim Trump left the U.S. and the entire world vulnerable by leaving the Iran deal. The JCPOA, they say, was working. This is not true and hasn’t been true since the very beginning of the deal, at least not on the terms sold to Congress and the U.S. public. From the start, Iran was given secret loopholes that made it appear they were meeting the publicly stated terms of deal. Among other recent violations: The Iranians have exceeded the amount of uranium they’re allowed to enrich; they’ve exceeded the levels of purity of enriched uranium; they’ve violated the types of centrifuges they were allowed to spin; and injected uranium into centrifuges they were not allowed to use for enrichment.

Perhaps most tellingly, Iran’s nuclear archives, which Israel seized from a Tehran warehouse in January 2018 and made public months later, show that the regime never gave up its intentions to build a military nuclear program, despite promises in the JCPOA to never pursue nuclear weapons.

There is, however, a case to be made that the deal was serving its purpose. But that interpretation requires a markedly different understanding of the JCPOA than what the Obama administration sold to Congress and the American public. The point of the deal was not to stop Iran from ever building a bomb but to prevent the Iranians from doing so until Obama left office.

The Obama administration went to extravagant lengths to hide the obvious, hidden in plain sight. It’s all spelled out in the JCPOA’s so-called “sunset” clauses, the restrictions on the nuclear program that were designed to evaporate after Obama moved into private life.

In 2023, the U.N. ban on assistance to Iran’s ballistic missile program will end. The ban on the manufacture of advanced centrifuges will begin to expire, shortening the amount of time it will take to build a bomb. Perhaps most importantly, in 2025, the U.N. snapback mechanism allowing the U.S. to reimpose sanctions will expire, meaning that we would need to persuade Russia and China to restore international sanctions on Iran. The effect is that there is nothing short of military action to stop the Iranians from marching toward the bomb. It was Obama who said that by years 13, 14, or 15 of the deal Iran would be within a hairbreadth of a nuclear bomb By 2031 with all nuclear restrictions lifted, the Islamic Republic will have a full-scale nuclear weapons program.

The Iranians agreed to pretend to restrictions only because the Obama administration bribed them handsomely. There were several money streams the former White House poured into the regime. One was sanctions relief, worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Last month Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that in leaving the JCPOA and reimposing sanctions, Trump cost the regime $200 billion. The Obama administration provided another source of income by unlocking escrow accounts when the deal was implemented in January 2016, flooding the regime with some $100 billion in previously frozen oil receipts.

The most infamous payoff was the $1.7 billion in cash the administration shipped off to the IRGC on wooden pallets in exchange for U.S. citizens held hostage by the regime. The White House said that there was no “quid pro quo,” that it was Iran’s money to begin with—$400 million the pre-revolutionary government had deposited in 1979 to buy U.S. arms, plus interest. But the U.S. had already used the $400 million to compensate terror victims of the Islamic Republic. That was Iran’s money. The $400 million the Obama administration used to “pay back” the Iranians belonged to the U.S. taxpayer.

The administration argued that the U.S. had to pay the ransom in cash because Tehran had been cut off from the financial system and there was no other way to transfer the funds. That was not true. The Obama administration had wired payments to Iran before and after the wooden pallets episode. The Iranians wanted cash so it would be harder to track their terror financing.

The Obama administration even paid the Iranians when they violated the deal. The Iranians overproduced reactor coolant, (heavy water, a key ingredient in nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons) in violation of the JCPOA, and the administration offered to buy it for $10 million to keep them in compliance. But that wasn’t enough for Tehran—or the White House. In exchange for giving up the nuclear-related material they had promised not to have in the first place—the heavy water—the regime then demanded more nuclear material in exchange. And the American administration agreed: In January 2017, Obama greenlighted the shipment of 130 tons of uranium to Iran.

If this all seems unbelievable, it’s because it is—and also because you’re probably still imagining that Obama’s goal was to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But once you understand the real purpose, these moves become much clearer. To wit: Why did Obama give the regime enough uranium to make 10 nuclear bombs? To pressure the incoming Trump administration to stick with the nuclear deal. If Trump chose to leave the JCPOA, he’d have to deal with the fact that with 130 tons of uranium already on hand Iran had an easier path to the bomb. In effect, the last president handed the Iranians a loaded gun to be pointed at his successor.

The press corps was crucial in helping Obama deceive the American public. There were some journalists at the time who asked important questions about the JCPOA; most of them on the State Department beat, like the AP’S Matt Lee and Bradley Klapper. The media echo chamber, on the other hand, who helped sell the deal, consisted largely of reporters covering the White House and national security beat who were accustomed to being hand-fed by the Obama inner circle. This group would later form the core of the media operation pushing the Trump-Russia collusion narrative.

For the Iran deal, the task of these correspondents was to drown out anyone who challenged the wisdom of Obama’s fire sale, including senior Democrats, like Sens. Chuck Schumer, Ben Cardin, and Bob Menendez. They were smeared as dual loyalists in formerly prestige press outfits like The New York Times, aghast at the “the unseemly spectacle of lawmakers siding with a foreign leader [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] against their own commander in chief.” The administration also spied on Democrats and pro-Israel activists critical of the deal.

Cory Booker was the one candidate among the field of Democrats running in 2020 who understood the nature of the JCPOA. He backed it at the time but said in a June debate that he wouldn’t necessarily reenter the deal. On Monday Booker announced he was dropping out of the race. And what about the Democrat leading the polls? Obama’s Vice President Joe Biden is proud of his role pushing the JCPOA, even if he’ll have to manage the consequences of the deal if he defeats Trump in November. As for the rest of the field, they’re making their opinions known with their silence regarding the Iranian protesters.

Now three years after Obama left the White House, it’s clear why the former president’s party is worried about the fate of his signature foreign policy initiative. By killing the Iranian commander Obama officials were sending messages to, Trump has shown his fiercest critics to be right—he’s nothing like Obama.

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