Barack Obama has repeatedly compared himself to Ronald Reagan as a transformative president. But labels mean nothing. Obama could demonstrate that he learned something meaningful from the Reagan legacy by showing some backbone in his nuclear negotiations with Iran. He should order his Secretary of State John Kerry to walk away this week if Iran does not immediately concede on such vital points as allowing unfettered international inspections “anywhere at anytime,” including inspections of any military sites where suspected nuclear-related activities may have taken place in the past. Moreover, Obama should instruct Kerry to walk away if Iran continues to reject phased sanctions relief tied strictly to verifiable proof of Iran’s compliance with each stage of its obligations under the terms of a final deal. If Obama were to do so, taking full advantage of the leverage afforded by tight economic sanctions imposed on Iran, he would be following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan, not Neville Chamberlain.
To be sure, both President Obama and his Secretary of State Kerry have been talking tough lately. Kerry repeated this weekend President Obama’s warning that the United States would be willing to walk away from the negotiating table if it concluded that an acceptable nuclear deal with Iran was out of reach. “We are not yet where we need to be on several of the most difficult issues,” Kerry said in Vienna where the final terms of an agreement are being negotiated. “We want a good agreement, only a good agreement, and we’re not going to shave anywhere at the margins in order just to get an agreement.” What that actually means is anyone’s guess.
Threatening to walk away from a negotiation, but not following through in the event your bottom-line demands are not met, is even worse than simply staying put and not saying anything at all. Obama has already lost credibility in the eyes of friends and foes alike with past assertions of red lines that he would later ignore. Repeating this pattern now with empty bluster and no follow-through will only embolden the Iranian leaders to become even more aggressive in their demands, carrying over to Vladimir Putin and other dictators in the process.
Ronald Reagan preferred to follow the advice of President Theodore Roosevelt: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Reagan walked away from summit talks with the Soviet Union’s leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which were held in October 1986 at Reykjavik, Iceland. He held out for a deal on nuclear arms reduction that would fully protect U.S. national security interests. Reagan had the audacity, far beyond Obama’s “audacity of hope,” to tell Gorbachev what the United States demanded and what it would not be willing to concede in order to coax the Soviet Union into meeting those demands. Reagan used his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) as leverage to pressure Gorbachev into offering historic concessions, including steep reductions in the number of its nuclear weapons. Gorbachev also agreed to elevate human rights to a regular place on future summit agendas. Still, Reagan was willing to walk away when Gorbachev insisted in return on requiring the United States to limit SDI research strictly to laboratory testing for at least ten years. Reagan would not yield on something he considered to be a fundamental protection against cheating by the Soviet Union. Nor would he agree to any contrived solutions.
“Gorbachev came to Reykjavik prepared to make concessions because of the pressure of SDI, but he also came to kill SDI, and he went to the well once too often.”
The Reykjavik summit was widely described at the time as a failure. Reagan had been too stubborn, his critics carped. Congressman (now Massachusetts Senator) Ed Markey complained that Reagan “had a chance to cash in ‘star wars’ for the best deal the Russians have offered us since they sold us Alaska.” But Reagan’s willingness to draw a red line and stick to it paid off. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which had been foreshadowed at Reykjavick, was signed at the Washington Summit on December 8, 1987. Meanwhile, trying to match SDI helped stretch the Soviet Union’s budget to the breaking point. It was only a matter of time when the Soviet Union’s economy crumbled under its own weight.
Unlike Reagan, Obama is not meeting face-to-face with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, much less Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Kerry is Obama’s highest level negotiator. However, Obama knows that Khamenei is Iran’s ultimate decision-maker. And the stark reality is that Khamenei’s stand on the key issues is a bridge too far to accept and still protect the national security interests of the United States and its allies.
For example, Khamenei said late last month that “All financial and economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. Congress or the U.S. government should be lifted immediately when we sign a nuclear agreement.”
“Inspection of our military sites is out of the question and is one of our red lines,” Khamenei added. “Lifting sanctions can’t depend on implementation of Iran’s obligations.”
To the contrary, lifting sanctions must depend entirely on verifiable implementation of all of Iran’s obligations, certified by the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who have unfettered access to any Iranian sites of their choosing.
If Obama were to have a real Reagan moment, his immediate response to Khamenei’s self-proclaimed red lines would have been something like this: “We have our own red lines and you have crossed them. You might as well call back your negotiators to Tehran so that they can enjoy the remainder of Ramadan with their families while you reconsider your unreasonable positions. I have instructed Secretary of State Kerry and his team to return to the United States immediately. In the meantime, the sanctions will remain fully in place.”
Iran’s long record of cheating, which has continued in 2015, demands no less. For example, Iran was blocked earlier this year from completing an illicit purchase of “a large shipment of sensitive technology useable for nuclear enrichment after false documentation raised suspicions,” Reuters reported. The purchase, blocked by the Czech Republic, involved dual-use compressors made by a U.S.-owned Czech company. Such compressors are “useful when working with higher enrichment such as 20 percent enriched uranium,” according to Olli Heinonen of Harvard University, former deputy head of the IAEA. There have been other recent reports of an active Iranian nuclear procurement network that could be used to end run any sanctions, but the Obama administration does not seem to be worried. They believe that the final deal will take care of the problem. It would presumably include special procurement and supply chain monitoring mechanisms and case-by-case reviews of specific transactions from which Iran could receive nuclear-related and dual-use technology and equipment if approved. How exactly does the Obama administration think such a monitoring and approval process will work in the face of Khamenei’s intransigence and Iran’s long history of stonewalling the IAEA in its attempts to get truthful and complete answers to its questions? Do Obama, Kerry and their negotiating team seriously think that Iran’s leaders will ask for permission before entering the black market or purchasing what they need from North Korea?
The Institute for Science and International Security, a non-proliferation think-tank, concluded in an analysis issued on July 1, 2015 that Iran’s conversion of at least some of its low enriched uranium was to a form of oxide relatively easy to convert back to usable enriched uranium. Iran chose to vary the form that had been originally agreed to by the parties in the Joint Plan of Action signed in November 2013.
Instead of holding Iran’s feet to the fire, the Obama State Department has chosen to look the other way and downplay the significance of Iran’s bait-and-switch tactics. According to a co-author of the Institute for Science and International Security analysis, the Obama administration was engaging in a reinterpretation of the Joint Plan of Action technical parameters to avoid any implication that Iran was not in full compliance. Olli Heinonen, the former deputy head of the IAEA, was quoted by Reuters as warning that “[a]ny concessions in the implementation of agreed parameters will further reduce the breakout time and erode the credibility of the agreement.“
Perhaps President Obama will follow Ronald Reagan’s course after all and walk away from the negotiating table this week rather than accept a fundamentally flawed deal. Miracles do happen, after all. However, the more likely scenario will be a final deal with so much flexibility and deliberate ambiguity in its terms of implementation that Iran will have no problem achieving its nuclear arms ambitions. At the same time, immediate sanctions relief as part of such a deal would allow Iran to amass a war chest sufficient to fund its global terrorist networks and proxies, including on our southern border.