President Obama defended his deal to Iran to Thomas Friedman of The New York Times yesterday. It was a bad deal and it represented a retreat on nearly every single element of the deal.

In any case this is what Obama told Friedman:

“We are not measuring this deal by whether it is changing the regime inside of Iran,” said the president. “We’re not measuring this deal by whether we are solving every problem that can be traced back to Iran, whether we are eliminating all their nefarious activities around the globe. We are measuring this deal — and that was the original premise of this conversation, including by Prime Minister Netanyahu — Iran could not get a nuclear weapon. That was always the discussion. And what I’m going to be able to say, and I think we will be able to prove, is that this by a wide margin is the most definitive path by which Iran will not get a nuclear weapon, and we will be able to achieve that with the full cooperation of the world community and without having to engage in another war in the Middle East.”

And what about the opposition to the deal?

”I think it’s doubtful that we get a lot of current Republican elected officials supporting this deal,” he said. “I think there’s a certain party line that has to be toed, within their primaries and among many sitting members of Congress. But that’s not across the board. It’ll be interesting to see what somebody like a Rand Paul has to say about this. But I think that if I were succeeded by a Republican president — and I’ll be doing everything that I can to prevent that from happening — but if I were, that Republican president would be in a much stronger position than I was when I came into office, in terms of constraining Iran’s nuclear program.

Of course this ignores the many retreats taken by the administration, which would prompt doubts in even the most loyal partisans. The Kirk-Menendez bill which forced oversight of the bill that the president desperately sought to avoid passed both houses by overwhelming majorities. So there is plenty of skepticism on the Democratic side.

And here’s how President Obama framed it elsewhere:

“I welcome a robust debate in Congress on this issue,” Obama said. But “now is not the time for politics or posturing.”

However, Obama also promised to veto any legislation that would derail the deal. In other words he wants only debate that leads to a specific result. Then he doesn’t was a robust debate, he wants a rubber stamp session. As with Obamacare he’s stuck with only Democratic support, though opposition is bipartisan, but postures that only his way is the right way.

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Later, Obama justified his deal:

The president added: “And what I’ve also tried to explain to people, including Prime Minister Netenyahu, is that in the absence of a deal, our ability to sustain these sanctions was not in the cards. Keep in mind it’s not just Iran that paid a price for sanctions. China. Japan. South Korea. India — pretty much any oil importer around the world that had previously import arrangements from Iran — found themselves in a situation where this was costing them billions of dollars to sustain these sanctions.
“In some ways, the United States paid the lowest price for maintenance of sanctions, because we didn’t do business with Iran in the first place. They made a significant sacrifice. The reason they did was because my administration, our diplomats, and oftentimes me personally, were able to persuade them that the only way to resolve this nuclear problem was to make these sanctions bite. And if they saw us walking away from what technical experts believe is a legitimate mechanism to ensure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon — if they saw that our diplomatic efforts were not sincere, or were trying to encompass not just the nuclear program, but every policy disagreement that we might have with Iran, then frankly, those sanctions would start falling apart very rapidly. And so, maybe Iran wouldn’t get $150 billion, but they’d get a big chunk of that, because we would not be able to sustain that support.”

First of all what Obama seems to be saying, he knows that the existing sanction regime when he came into office could not be maintained and this deal was the only way to maintain them. (Of course this implies that he got whatever deal he could, not the best deal.)

But a European arms control expert wrote an account of the Obama administration involvement in the nuclear talks. Here’s what he wrote:

However, it appears that some EU members were also worried about the possible drawbacks of full US engagement.79 There was a concern that a more prominent US role might reduce Europe’s leverage to
prevent a military escalation. At the same time, some EU states feared that the USA might shift the goalposts for a diplomatic solution. France particularly opposed any softening of policy on Iran.80

As the Obama administration was becoming privately convinced that the goal of zero enrichment as part of a final agreement with Iran was probably unrealistic, France continued to insist that Iran should not be allowed any enrichment under a future agreement.81 In June 2009 the British Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Bill Rammell, emphasized that while the UK welcomed Obama’s commitment to engage in a dialogue with the Iranians, this was ‘not an open-ended offer’. Should Iran not be ready to fulfill international conditions by the end of 2009, Rammell said, ‘we’re going to be in a much tougher position on sanctions’.82

Thus, ironically, ‘as [the USA] was ready to move toward diplomacy, the enthusiasm for engagement in parts of Europe was waning’.83

A more likely explanation is that Obama signaled his interest in reaching out to Iran. Others in the international community saw his disinterest in keeping Iran as a pariah state and maintaining sanctions. In other words, it appears quite likely that the lack of interest in maintaining the the sanctions regime, was because of how others read Obama’s resolve.

Finally Obama offered this about his successor:

“He will be in a position to know that 98 percent of their nuclear material has been shipped out. He would know that the majority of the centrifuges had been removed. He would know that there is no heavy reactor there. He’d know that the international community had signed on to this. He would know everything that we’ve learned from the inspection regime. And he’d still be in possession of the entire arsenal of our armed forces, and our diplomatic and intelligence services, to deal with the possibility that Iran was cheating. … They’re not going to admit that now. And that’s entire hypothetical, because I feel good about having a Democratic successor. But I think that this builds on bipartisan ideas, bipartisan efforts. We could not have succeeded without the strong support of Congress on a bipartisan basis to impose the sanctions we did on Iran. They deserve enormous credit for that. And as we implement this I think it will prove to be not just good for us but good for the world.”

But Iran will be a lot richer. With even greater influence in the Middle East. It may not have broken out with a nuclear test yet but its nuclear program will be no more than a year away.

The sanctions regime will have been shredded, so nothing short of military force would dissuade Iran from going nuclear. Iran likely has a hidden nuclear program, the scope of which we probably still won’t know. If Iran is suspected of cheating, there will be a committee, that includes Iran, that will make a determination, no sooner than a month, meaning that the threat of “snap-back” sanctions is meaningless.

Friedman asked Obama no hard questions, though he allowed Obama to address his own criticism that the United States had not done enough to force Iran to give up its nuclear program. Of course this was an interview, a chance for Obama to spike the ball.

And Friedman was there to be Obama’s stenographer.

What would have been nice would have been for Friedman to ask Obama just one tough question. Like: if all the punishments for Iran’s illicit enrichment program are erased, how can you hope to enforce the nuclear nonproliferation regime in the future?

The interview displayed Obama in all of his arrogant self-assuredness abetted by a journalist who hoped to be a part of history rather than do his job.

[Photo: The New York Times / YouTube ]