Obama on Iran deal: You're welcome, America

We really don’t thank him enough, you know.

Here’s all I’ll say for his deal: If the inspections provisions are applied as written then there’ll be plenty of UN oversight over their program, which is more important than even the one-year “breakout period.” Problem is, it’s not really up to us whether the provisions are applied as written. As Charlies Duelfer notes, it’s up to Vladimir Putin.

Iran will have learned from Saddam’s experience too. Tehran will know that support can be bought in the Security Council. Tehran will know that some countries have an immediate financial interest that Tehran can exploit. And some Council members will have a political incentive to build a relationship with Iran. The leaders in Iran, like Saddam in Iraq, play a long game. So do the Russians.

The IAEA inspectors will be reporting whatever evidence they are permitted to collect to a Council that will have competing aims. They will be pressed to make judgments that suit various members. Iran would have to do something incredibly blatant for some Council members to not be able to debate the meaning of the evidence. Council members coached Saddam; they will coach Tehran as well.

Inspectors are also subject to direct actions by interested parties—for and against the inspected country. Iraqi weapons inspectors encountered active steps being taken by Council members to warn Iraq of upcoming inspections. This is to say nothing of the measures Iraq took to penetrate UNSCOM inspection planning and actions. IAEA will also be a prime target for Iranian intelligence. In my experience in Iraq, even with all the measures UNSCOM took, I doubt there was ever a truly “surprise” inspection. The IAEA will be a similar target.

The key line from Obama’s presser today was, “If Iran cheats, the world will know it.” But, per Duelfer, that’s simply not true. It might be true if power at the UN resided with western nations that have strong security interests in keeping a bomb away from Iran, but that’s not how the UN works. If it did, it would be a useful organization instead of what it is. Here’s Michael Hayden and former IAEA honcho Olli Heinonen gaming out how things will go at the Security Council after the final deal is in effect and U.S. intelligence gets wind that Iran’s trying to cheat:

History suggests the Iranians would engage in protracted negotiations and much arcane questioning of the evidence. Iran could eventually offer some access while holding back key data and personnel. It would be only after tortured discussions that the IAEA could proclaim itself dissatisfied with Iran’s reaction. This process also could take months

Once the IAEA arrived at a verdict of noncompliance, it would forward its grievances to the U.N. Security Council for adjudication. The United States would have to convince the other member states invested in the agreement — including veto-wielding Russia and China — that the accord was being violated and that forceful action was needed. Time would be spent quarrelling over divergent views, with several outcomes possible, including a Security Council presidential statement or a resolution whose content would need to be agreed upon. And only then could new economic sanctions be imposed on Iran. So, add at least a few more months

And the reality is that any cheating by Iran would always be incremental and never egregious. Throughout the duration of an agreement, there would be occasional reports of Iran enriching to unacceptably high levels and revelations of unreported nuclear installations and experimentation in weapon designs. Iran’s habit of lulling the world with a cascade of small infractions is an ingenious way to advance its program without provoking a crisis. In the end, a year simply may not be enough time to build an international consensus on measures to redress Iranian violations.

In other words, even Obama’s big “achievement” of extending Iran’s “breakout” period to a full year from two to three months isn’t a major achievement when you remember the sort of sluggish timetable that the UN works on, especially with U.S. enemies like Russia grasping for ways to gum up the works. That wouldn’t be a huge deal if Obama were prepared to attack Iran’s nuclear program unilaterally in the event of a major breach of the deal, but of course he isn’t. It’s unlikely he’d attack even with UN approval. The worst that’ll happen for Iran if they break the agreement is the reimposition of sanctions by (some) western countries like the U.S.; when you look at today’s agreement from that standpoint, you see how little it actually achieves. The current status quo involves Iran under sanction while they mull how aggressive to be with their nuclear program. The worst-case scenario for them under the new deal is … Iran under sanction after they choose to be more aggressive on their nuclear program. This is why Netanyahu complains so bitterly about the deal. When negotiations first began, the west’s goal supposedly was to get Iran to agree to dismantle its program. In the end, we’ve gotten them to agree to slow down their program with no prospect of meaningfully greater penalties than they’re already suffering should they choose later to renege.

Oh, two more fun bits from O at today’s presser. He reminded Iranians once again that their supreme leader has issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons, even though there’s zero evidence that that’s true. And he helped Iran’s propaganda machine out by reminding Congress that if they reject this deal, as is likely, it’ll naturally be America that’s blamed for having let the deal go bad. Good soundbite, champ. That’ll make things easier for Russian and Iranian state TV.

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