One of the frustrating aspects of the nuclear deal with Iran is the degree to which the Obama administration, especially the President has adopted the premises of the Iranian regime.

It isn’t just off-putting to hear  Obama using the language of a regime that hates the United States, but it raises the question of how successful the administration could be at negotiating the nuclear agreement if it accepted the other side’s arguments as valid.

Two examples come to mind.

First, in his American University speech three weeks ago, Obama said:

Those making this argument are either ignorant of Iranian society, or they’re just not being straight with the American people. Sanctions alone are not going to force Iran to completely dismantle all vestiges of its nuclear infrastructure — even those aspects that are consistent with peaceful programs. That oftentimes is what the critics are calling “a better deal.” Neither the Iranian government, or the Iranian opposition, or the Iranian people would agree to what they would view as a total surrender of their sovereignty.

So here is Obama saying we didn’t ask for a better deal, meaning an end to enrichment because Iran would never consent to it. This was certainly Iran’s stated position but why is this even relevant?

Iran was under sanctions because it pursued uranium enrichment without explaining possible military dimensions of its nuclear program to the the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Enrichment can be for peaceful purposes, but it can also be to produce fissile material for a nuclear device.

Given Iran’s cheating on its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations and its hidden nuclear program. (It didn’t admit to its enrichment facilities at either Natanz or Fordow until other parties discovered them.) That is why ensuring that Iran’s was peaceful or could not be used for military purposes should have been a prerequisite for allowing it to enrich at all.

Rouhani Iran nuclear announcement

I’m not certain why what Iranians “would agree” to has relevance here.

Iran was in violation of international and was penalized. The proper attitude would be that if Iran wants to be trusted with a peaceful enrichment program, it must prove it doesn’t have a military nuclear program. (And really, when you have a Supreme Leader, it really doesn’t make a difference what the Iranian people want or don’t want.) There is no reason that national pride should excuse defiance of international law.

Iran, of course, refers to its right to enrich, but the NPT only refers to an “inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” Iran in its rhetoric conflates the right to a peaceful nuclear program with a “right” to enrich. However, enrichment is not necessarily peaceful, so Iran should have no right to enrich until the peaceful nature of its nuclear program is confirmed. Unfortunately Obama adopted the Iranian stance towards enrichment. (As we now know, he conceded this even before negotiations formally began in 2013.)

When Obama said that there was no better deal, he is really saying he never considered the better deal.

Sanctions is another area where the administration has adopted Iran’s argument. To be sure the administration has been all over the place regarding sanctions. Sanctions brought Iran to the table. But sanctions were also unraveling. But if Iran cheats on the nuclear deal, sanctions will snap back into place. (Not all of these are consistent, but that’s not my focus here.)


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Obama, in an interview with Reuters in advance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, said:

And we know that because during the period in which we applied sanctions for over a decade, Iran went from about 300 or a couple of hundred centrifuges to tens of thousands of centrifuges in response to sanctions.

This meshes very closely with what Iran’s foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said in an interview at the end of last year.

All that is required is for the U.S. to come to the understanding that sanctions are not an asset. And I think that calculation is not that difficult. If I may, I’ll just give you a very, maybe simplistic, but realistic calculation. For the past eight years, there have been sanctions imposed on Iran—by the United Nations with the pressure of the United States, and by the United States. The net result of all these sanctions is that when the sanctions started to be imposed, we had less than two hundred centrifuges. Today, we have twenty thousand. So if people start calculating, they’ll see that sanctions have produced all these centrifuges. So Iran can claim that we have withstood all this pressure—we have paid the economic price, but withstood the pressure. At least we gained this. Now, I’m asking the United States, what did you gain from sanctions?

But Rouhani on at least two occasions boasted that it was the during his time as nuclear negotiator that allowed Iran to fully develop its centrifuge program. Michael Rubin has shown that it was actually the rapprochement with Iran during the  years of 2000-2005 that allowed Iran to earn the money to afford its enrichment program.

Why would Obama adopt this line of argument?

My best guess, it’s a way of arguing that we’re better off without sanctions they weren’t working anyway. (Of course this is inconsistent with the idea that punishing sanctions brought Iran to the table.)

But what’s disturbing about the president echoing Zarif, is that he’s turning a vice into a virtue.

The United Nations sanctions were imposed on Iran due to its nuclear cheating. If the sanctions brought Iran to the table, that was an effect of the sanctions, not their primary goal. Obama, echoing Zarif, is saying that sanctions were counterproductive, and that Iran is resilient. That was instead of pointing out that Iran maintained its enrichment program in defiance of the United Nations Security Council. Instead of acknowledging Iran’s continued law-breaking, the administration not only is ending sanctions on Iran but also wiped out its past criminal record.

By adopting Iran’s narrative in these areas, accepting Iran’s refusal to stop enrichment and that Iran enriched as a reaction to sanctions, President Obama ensured that there was no better deal to be had.

[Photo: Washington Post / YouTube ]