The White House will not, as many critics have charged, accept a bad deal in its current negotiations with Iran here in Vienna. “We know that myth is wrong because we’ve had the opportunity to do that a couple times and we’ve passed,” Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Colin Kahl said recently. On the other hand, Kahl explained, it’s not going to be a perfect deal either. For instance, we’re not going to get Iran to dismantle its program, or stop enriching uranium. That’s just not realistic, said Kahl. “I call it the unicorn deal, because it’s very pretty but it’s ultimately mythical,” Kahl said. “We have no way to get to that outcome.”
What’s curious is that the deal that the Obama Administration now celebrates is based on the same principles that the White House now derides as fairy tales. Like parents putting their children to bed, the White House once sang lullabies to congress and U.S. allies to quiet their concerns about the administration’s diplomatic approach to the Iranian nuclear program. Comparing the administration’s past public statements about the deal with its current positions is a lesson in the political uses of fairy tales:
There was a time when the administration was intent on dismantling the Iranian nuclear program. As John Kerry said in December 2013, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Iran “because we knew that it would hopefully help Iran dismantle its nuclear program. That was the whole point of the regime.”
Today, the administration is not talking about dismantling anything. The whole point of the deal, as the White House sees it, is simply to extend Iran’s break-out time to a year, which won’t really be a year, according to the administration, but is still somehow a useful round number.
It used to be that the White House wasn’t going to let Iran enrich any uranium at all. As former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in April 2012, “Our position is clear: Iran must live up to its international obligations, including full suspension of uranium enrichment as required by multiple UN Security Council resolutions.”
However the Joint Plan of Action in November 2013 acknowledged Iran’s right to enrich uranium.
It used to be that the administration said it would leave Iran with “no more than 1,500 centrifuges left operating.” But according to the parameters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action: “Iran has agreed to reduce by approximately two-thirds its installed centrifuges. Iran will go from having about 19,000 installed today to 6,104 installed under the deal, with only 5,060 of these enriching uranium for 10 years.” As former deputy director-general of IAEA Olli Heinonen put it: “Six thousand operating centrifuges is—when looking from a technical perspective given the known enriched uranium needs of Iran—an excessive and odd number.”
In the fall of 2014, the administration said that Iran was going to “ship much of its huge stockpile of uranium to Russia.” But now the Iranians say they are not going to export any enriched uranium. This, said deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi, “is not in our program, and we do not intend sending them abroad.”
Once upon a time, the White House demanded the Iranians shut the facility at Fordo. In December 2013, Obama said: “We know they don’t need to have an underground, fortified facility like Fordo in order to have a peaceful program.”
But now, according to Heinonen, and Director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Simon Henderson, “the 1,044 centrifuges [at Fordo] designated only for non-nuclear enrichment will remain installed, so they could potentially be reconverted to enriching uranium in a short time regardless of technical or monitoring arrangements.”
Formerly, the United States saw Iran’s ballistic missiles as part of the country’s potential nuclear threat, and therefore a subject for the nuclear talks. As former White House spokesman Jay Carney said, “They have to deal with matters related to their ballistic missile program.”
But now, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman says that “We must address long-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. So, it’s not about ballistic missiles per se. It’s about when a missile is combined with a nuclear warhead.” This spring, according to diplomats, the topic of ballistic missiles had not been part of formal discussions for weeks. “Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad JavadZarif merely laughed and ignored U.S. negotiators when they sought to discuss Iran’s missile program and the possibility military dimensions of Tehran’s nuclear work.”
Previously, the administration demanded that Iran come clean about its past activities, including the nuclear program’s possible military dimensions. Without the IAEA able to inspect all sites, including facilities that Iran now says are off-limits, and can interview scientists thought to have participated in weaponization work, it’s impossible to set the benchmarks that would indicate whether or not Iran is upholding its end of the bargain. Thus, in April, Kerry said that Iran would have to disclose its past activities: “They have to do it. It will be done. If there’s going to be a deal, it will be done…Itwill be part of a final agreement. It has to be.”
But just three weeks ago, reports surfaced that the P5+1 are ready to sign a final agreement that doesn’t include an Iranian disclosure of their past atomic research.” Kerry also changed his tune: “We’re not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another,” he said recently. “We know what they did. We have no doubt. We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in. What we’re concerned about is going forward.”
Previously the administration contended that sanctions on Iran unrelated to the nuclear file, like “sanctions . . . for terrorism, human rights abuses, and ballistic missiles will remain in place under the deal.”
Not anymore. Recently, the AP reported that “administration officials say they’re examining a range of options that include suspending both nuclear and some non-nuclear sanctions.”
At one time, sanctions relief was tied to Iran’s behavior. Or, as Obama himself said, “In return for Iran’s actions, the international community has agreed to provide Iran with relief from certain sanctions — our own sanctions, and international sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council. This relief will be phased as Iran takes steps to adhere to the deal.”
But now, according to recent reports, Iran could receive somewhere between $30 billion and $50 billion just for signing the agreement.
The negotiations will almost surely extend beyond the June 30 deadline. But if there is a deal we already have a pretty good idea of what it will look like. Counter to what the White House says, it’s going to be a bad deal because the White House has offered concession after concession. What Congress and American allies like Israel expect isn’t a unicorn deal, but rather one that makes the Middle East more stable and prevents nuclear proliferation and keeps the bomb out of the hands of a terror-sponsoring regime of obscurantist anti-Semitic fanatics.
The only fantasists here in Vienna are those in the White House who think the deal they are currently pursuing is going to make the world safer, instead of radically more dangerous.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).