No one will be angrier than President Obama when he hears this on the evening news. Two days ago, Barack Obama gave an angry response to CBS reporter Major Garrett on why he and John Kerry didn’t attempt to negotiate the release of four Americans detained by Iran as part of the talks on nuclear weapons. Today, Kerry insists that he did negotiate for their release during the talks, especially during the stretch run:
Secretary of State John Kerry says there was “not one meeting that took place” during the recent Iranian nuclear talks at which the U.S. didn’t raise the issue of four Americans still held captive by Tehran.
In fact, Kerry adds, the issue was discussed during his last meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, before they announced the landmark deal that is meant to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability in exchange for sanctions relief.
He did? On Wednesday, Obama got into high dudgeon with Garrett when the reporter challenged him on why the US did not demand the release of the Americans as part of the deal. Obama explained at some length the strategic reasons why he had decided not to link the nuclear deal with the detainees:
Now, if the question is why we did not tie the negotiations to their release, think about the logic that that creates. Suddenly, Iran realizes, you know what, maybe we can get additional concessions out of the Americans by holding these individuals. It makes it much more difficult for us to walk away if Iran somehow thinks that a nuclear deal is dependent in some fashion on the nuclear deal [sic – presumably he meant ‘detainees’ here]. And, by the way, if we had walked away from the nuclear deal, we’d still be pushing them just as hard to get these folks out. That’s why those issues are not connected. But we are working every single day to try to get them out, and won’t stop until they’re out and rejoined with their families.
This argument was nonsensical on its face from the beginning. The US was willing to tie the arms embargo and economic sanctions relief to this deal; the latter for obvious reasons, but the former most certainly not an obvious linkage considering Iran’s activities in the region. Iran got to keep its nuclear-development program mostly as is, only pledging to turn over some of its enriched uranium and reduce operating centrifuges to a little over 5,000. The Iranians demanded a lot of “good faith” on its previously clandestine nuclear work, and it would be common to tie that allowance of good faith to reciprocal acts of good faith — including the release of detainees.
As Obama asked on Wednesday, think about the logic of not making that demand as part of this deal. What leverage does Obama have left to get the four Americans released now? As for risking the idea that Iran would get “additional concessions,” what else would they have wanted? They have their assets back and their markets reopened, plus remain on the cusp of becoming a nuclear power.
Today, the White House offered this spin:
New WH talking point on imprisoned Americans – We didn't know nuke deal would succeed, didn't want to tie their release to deal uncertainty
— Charlie Spiering (@charliespiering) July 17, 2015
That might explain why Obama and Kerry gave away the store on the nuclear deal, but not why they didn’t demand the release as part of the deal.
Kerry’s remarks offer an interesting bit of nuance to this sanctimonious response. The negotiations apparently took place in parallel to the nuclear negotiation, with the exact same negotiators handling the talks. So much for worrying about “additional concessions,” eh? Obama and Kerry can pretend that the two weren’t tied together with some diplomatic double-talk, but only because the US didn’t insist on tying them together. That allowed the Iranians to shrug off the detainees — and it appears that Kerry and Obama did the same thing, rather than demand a reciprocal act of good faith in their release. They were, to use Garrett’s word, content to get a bad nuclear deal with Iran even without getting the Americans back from Tehran.
Update: Omri Ceren points out in an e-mail that this deal provides the worst of both worlds for US regional security:
The JCPOA introduces an additional wrinkle into both debates. The agreement commits the international community to actively helping Iran perfect its nuclear program over the life of the deal (!) On a policy level, it means Iran’s breakout time will be constantly shrinking. On a political level, it means that the deal will be seen as accomplishing the exact opposite of what the Obama administration promised Congress: instead of rolling back Iran’s nuclear program, it will commit the U.S. and its allies to funding and boosting it.
The commitments are sprinkled across the JCPOA and obligate a range of global powers:
— Russian sponsorship/cooperation on nuclear research at Fordow — The Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) will be converted into a nuclear, physics, and technology centre and international collaboration will be encouraged in agreed areas of research. The Joint Commission will be informed in advance of the specific projects that will be undertaken at Fordow… The transition to stable isotope production of these cascades at FFEP will be conducted in joint partnership between the Russian Federation and Iran on the basis of arrangements to be mutually agreed upon.
— European sponsorship of nuclear security, including training against sabotage — E3/EU+3 parties, and possibly other states, as appropriate, are prepared to cooperate with Iran on the implementation of nuclear security guidelines and best practices… Co-operation through training and workshops to strengthen Iran’s ability to protect against, and respond to nuclear security threats, including sabotage.
— International sponsorship/cooperation of Iranian fuel fabrication, which will help Iran complete its mastery of fuel cycle, making Iran’s program harder more opaque and difficult to regulate — The Joint Commission will establish a Technical Working Group with the goal of enabling fuel to be fabricated in Iran while adhering to the agreed stockpile parameters… This Technical Working Group will also, within one year, work to develop objective technical criteria for assessing whether fabricated fuel and its intermediate products can be readily converted to UF6.
This deal does the opposite of rolling back Iran’s nuclear program. It funds, protects, and perfects the nuclear program.
Again … what more in concessions could Obama and Kerry have feared than this?