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Team Obama’s Strategic Shortfall on Iran

Team Obama’s Strategic Shortfall on Iran

Two events have converged, which signal the poor fit between President Barack Obama’s positive narrative about Iran in the nuclear talks and Tehran’s negative role as a sponsor of terrorism described by the State Department. Expert-level nuclear talks between Iran and the major powers in New York are underway from May 5-9, on the sidelines of the Preparatory Committee of the 2015 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, and there is the April 30 release of the Department of State Country Reports on Terrorism 2013.

The bureaucratic gap laid bare in these events points to a strategic shortfall in Obama’s plan for how to deal with Iran.

In logic, a syllogism is a narrative of premises and a conclusion that must be true if the premises are correct. A reversal can also produce a syllogism with false premises and a conclusion that is true. Because it is possible to deduce a true conclusion from two false premises, Team Obama has to pay attention to the veracity of its premises.

The first narrative below illustrates the administration’s logical fallacy, which seems to be based on a valid argument but irrespective of the facts. The second takes evidence from the U.N. (nuclear) and State Department (terrorism).

Illogic of Team Obama

Major Premise: Unlike states that eventually dashed for the bomb before outsiders could detect the breakout, Iran will refrain from breaking out because of its desire to receive sanctions relief. 

Minor Premise: Iran’s terrorism sponsorship is irrelevant to its nuclear ambitions. 

Conclusion: Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful, its state sponsorship of terrorism is not contrary to peaceful nuclear goals, and Tehran is likely to cut a deal to limit nuclear breakout capability permanently for full sanctions relief. 

Logic of Critics

Major Premise: States with nuclear programs that eventually developed the bomb denied intent to build it, e.g., India and Pakistan. And there is little evidence Tehran values partial sanctions relief over becoming a nuclear-capable state.

Minor Premise: States sponsoring terrorism deny the charge, e.g., Syria and Iran, despite evidence to the contrary. And terrorism and proliferation are twin pillars of Tehran’s priority of religious ideology over its national interests.

Conclusion: Tehran is likely to embrace a deal that only temporarily limits its nuclear breakout capability for full and permanent sanctions relief, while continuing to sponsor terrorism.

Regarding Iran’s nuclear file, there are six U.N. Security Council Resolutions. The granddaddy is Resolution 1696, from July 2006. It demands Iran suspend uranium enrichment and reprocessing, which Iran has yet to do. Resolution 1835, from September 2008, restates the demands of 1696. And Resolution 1929, from June 2010, calls on Iran to open up suspect nuclear-related military sites.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is unable to substantiate that Iran’s nuclear program is free of military purposes because inspectors are unable to access all suspect sites. At Parchin, Iran may have constructed a large explosives containment vessel to conduct hydrodynamic experiments, "strong indicators of possible nuclear weapon development," according to the IAEA. Despite appeals by the IAEA to visit Parchin, Iran has remained adamant in its refusal to grant access to this site, having engaged in a massive cleansing effort already. Iran is following "best practices" of states with nuclear programs that produced a bomb — hiding and denying intent to build until it is too late to stop them.

The evidence is overwhelming that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism and follows the playbook of rogue regimes — to hide involvement and deny the accusation. But Department of State Country Reports on Terrorism 2013, abounds with references to Tehran’s sponsorship of terror.

Chapters two and six of the Reports include segments on the Middle East and North Africa and on foreign terrorist organizations, respectively; there are some 23 references to Iran’s involvement in terrorism. And Iran continues to be listed as one of the state sponsors of terrorism in the third chapter.

In a State Department fact sheet accompanying the April 30 release, Iran and Syria are the only state sponsors highlighted: "Since 2012, the United States has also seen a resurgence of activity by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard[s] Corps’ Qods Force," the report claims, as well as "the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security…and Tehran’s ally Hizballah."

Designated as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1984, "Iran continued its terrorist-related activity, including support for Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza, and for Hizballah." Tehran denies it is a state sponsor but provides no evidence to substantiate denial. Iran admits it is especially galling for Israel to be absent from the State Sponsors list and an Iranian dissident group, the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), is not on the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list; yet Tehran remains listed as a sponsor of terrorism. To its credit, State said that if Iran did not want to be accused of sponsoring terrorism it "should stop supporting terrorism."

Team Obama needs to pay attention to facts of Iran’s hiding and denying its quest for the bomb. A sponsor of terrorism that defies demands to demonstrate peaceful nuclear intent is not an ideal candidate with which to sign a contract. Disconnect between narratives about Tehran in the nuclear talks and its role as sponsor of terrorism is yet another sign of lack of strategic vision in the Obama administration.