Shadow Government

What the President Got Wrong in His Defense of the Iran Deal

It’s hard to know where to begin a critique of President Obama’s speech on Wednesday at American University defending his Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This was indeed a target-rich environment. Let me touch on just a few points: 1. The president’s style of argumentation continues to disappoint. ...

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It’s hard to know where to begin a critique of President Obama’s speech on Wednesday at American University defending his Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This was indeed a target-rich environment. Let me touch on just a few points:

1. The president’s style of argumentation continues to disappoint. His opponents are all knee-jerk partisans, war mongers, even collaborators with Iranian hardliners. None of their concerns about the deal stand up to scrutiny. They are the same people who argued for war in Iraq. The only “understandable motivation” for skepticism relates to fears for Israel’s security — not America’s, mind you. Israel’s. What crowd do you think hears that particular whistle?

How to respond to this sort of pettiness, ad hominem, and demonization? Is it to remind the president of where Joe Biden, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton all stood on the Iraq war? Is it to accuse the JCPOA’s supporters of being the same people that told us withdrawing all our troops from Iraq would work out fine? Or that the Islamic State was the jayvee team of terrorism? Or that ignoring the jihadist incubator of Syria’s civil war was the only prudent course of action? Does the president really want to take this critically important national discussion down that dead end?

Apparently so. This is unfortunate, to say the least. It’s not presidential, for sure. Less an effort to educate and elevate the public discourse on a controversial issue of vital national concern than an attempt to bludgeon fence-sitting Democrats into line. It seeks to shut down honest debate, not encourage it, and to silence skeptics, not persuade them. The country deserves better from its commander in chief.

2. The president’s history was, well, questionable. Not content simply to argue that this was a good deal, or the best deal possible under the circumstances, Obama had to make the over-the-top claim that “this is the strongest nonproliferation agreement ever negotiated.” Huh? Does anyone recall the deal that Ronald Reagan and George Shultz negotiated that dismantled all Soviet intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe? That wasn’t too shabby. But perhaps Obama doesn’t consider U.S.-Soviet arms control accords to meet his technical definition of a “nonproliferation agreement.” OK. Then what about the deal that the Bush administration cut with Muammar Qaddafi? You know, the one that ended with all Libya’s nuclear infrastructure dismantled and shipped off to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee? Now that’s what I call ending a rogue regime’s nuclear weapons program.

3. The president’s absolute confidence in the deal’s verification provisions, and in the powers of U.S. intelligence to discover everything that Iran is trying to hide, is troubling. The fact that inspectors may not get access to undeclared facilities for at least 24 days is apparently not even an issue for him. Nuclear material, after all, “isn’t something you hide in the closet. It leaves traces for years.” According to Obama, “The bottom line is, if Iran cheats, we can catch them, and we will.” A slam dunk, you see? You’d hope that this president, in particular, so conscious of the lessons of Iraq, might be a bit more tempered in his judgements about our capabilities to know in real-time everything that’s happening in the dead of night in the darkest corners of a ruthless dictatorship that’s made lying and deception about its nuclear program a way of life for at least two decades.

Though the president sought to discredit as “armchair nuclear scientists” anyone who dares to question the judgements of his Secretary of Energy, he might well spend some time paying heed to the concerns of people like Olli Heinonen, the former head of safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and David Albright, a physicist, former nuclear inspector, and probably Washington’s most respected voice on the technical aspects of nonproliferation.

In late July testimony to Congress, Heinonen said that, on a scale of one to 10, the ability of the JCPOA’s inspection regime to detect work relating to the design of a nuclear weapon is “zero, not even one.” As Heinonen explained, some of the critical activities necessary for bomb design “are extremely difficult to verify given their non-nuclear nature and lack of easy signature to spot,” including the use of computer models to simulate nuclear explosive devices, and the use of multi-point explosive detonation systems for a nuclear explosive device.

In direct contradiction of Obama’s assertions, Albright has testified that, “Twenty four days could be enough time, presumably, for Iran to relocate undeclared activities that are in violation of the JCPOA while it undertakes sanitization activities that would not necessarily leave a trace in environmental sampling.” Like Heinonen, he specifically mentioned high explosive testing related to nuclear weapons, as well as the operation of a small centrifuge manufacturing plant or a small plant spinning at most a few hundred advanced centrifuges “organized in specially designed facilities suitable for rapid removal and with a containment system.” Now this may or may not constitute a fatal flaw in the verification regime. But it certainly rises to the level of a legitimate concern that you’d think the president might acknowledge and advance efforts to mitigate.

4. The President’s continued refusal to even acknowledge the profound challenges posed by the deal’s 15-year sunset provisions is, in a word, dishonest. Instead, he blithely declares that “if 15 or 20 years from now, Iran tries to build a bomb, this deal ensures that the United States will have better tools to detect it … and the same options available to stop Iran’s weapons program as we have today, including, if necessary, military options.”

It’s just not true. On our ability to detect: After 15 years, the special inspection regime requiring Iran to grant access to suspicious undeclared facilities will disappear. After 10 years, the deal’s critical enforcement mechanism of snap back sanctions will be gone. When all is said and done, all we will be left with is the Additional Protocol (AP), which in theory allows the IAEA access to suspect sites, but which in reality lacks any ability to impose immediate consequences when a state obstructs.

More fundamentally, in 15 to 20 years, we will be talking about an Iranian nuclear infrastructure that dwarfs that of today. Not 5,000 operating centrifuges, but possibly hundreds of thousands. Not IR-1 models, but advanced IR-8 centrifuges that enrich uranium as much as 20 times faster. Not spinning at a single enrichment facility, but at as many facilities as the Ayatollah’s heart desires. Not drawing on insignificant stockpiles of low enriched uranium, but on unlimited stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium, or even higher. Not with a breakout time to a bomb measured in years, but in days.

The simple fact is that in 20 years, when you’re dealing with an Iranian enrichment program that has been allowed to grow to unlimited size and scope, there is virtually no realistic inspection regime on earth that will allow you to detect in real time its effort to sneak out to a small arsenal of weapons, much less act to prevent it. Certainly not the Additional Protocol. Just think about it — the administration is demanding a regime above and beyond the AP today, when the size of Iran’s program is supposed to be significantly rolled back and constrained. Why in the world would the president argue without reservation that the AP will be sufficient 15 to 20 years from now when all relevant enrichment caps will be off and the program several orders of magnitude larger? It just doesn’t compute.

And don’t take my word for it. Just listen to what Albright had to say in testimony this week, in her typically understated and measured fashion:

A set of intrusive verification measures, such as the Additional Protocol, will remain in place after year 15 of the deal, but they are not sufficient to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Armed with a large centrifuge program, an Iranian attempt to break out to nuclear weapons would be detected, however probably not in time to take action to prevent it. Even with intrusive verification, the production of the first one or two significant quantities of weapon-grade uranium could well be missed by inspectors until after the fact, since breakout could happen so quickly at that point and Iran could take a few simple steps to delay the inspectors from becoming aware of the breakout. Moreover, small, secret enrichment plants using highly advanced centrifuges could escape detection for months.

As for the president’s claim that in 15 to 20 years, we’ll be in no worse position than we are today to exercise all coercive options to stop an Iranian dash to the bomb? Again, it’s — and I’m being charitable — just a highly dubious proposition. As a result of the JCPOA and the evisceration of the sanctions regime, there will be a massive influx of cash, investment, trade, and technology flowing into Iran over the next 15 years. Hundreds of billions of dollars worth in an economy whose total size today is probably less than $400 billion. Perhaps the vast majority of that will come from European and Asian countries whose cooperation in an effort to re-impose sanctions would be essential. In 15 to 20 years, when the JCPOA’s snap back provision is a long distant memory, do we really think that our allies will be ready, willing, and able to respond to an American call for crippling economic pressure against the mullahs? And let’s face it: even if they did, we’re talking about an Iranian dash to the bomb that by that point would be measured in days. No sanctions regime, no matter how crippling, is going to exert its effects in time to stop that. So whether the president wants to recognize it or not, the reality is that come 2031, the ability of his successor to use economic coercion to achieve our core objective vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear program will, as a practical matter, be dramatically diminished, if not gone altogether.

Which, of course, will leave that future commander in chief with no other option but war. And how does that scenario probably look 15 to 20 years on? The same as today? Hardly. Again, at that point, Iran will likely be within days of having a small arsenal of nuclear weapons, if it doesn’t possess them already. The president may well not know for sure when he decides to act. Thanks to the JCPOA’s lifting of U.N. restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program by 2023, the mullahs probably possesses intercontinental missiles capable of delivering a warhead on a major U.S. city. It certainly has hundreds of missiles that can rain down mass terror and destruction on virtually every Middle Eastern capital and most of those in Europe. Of course, the U.N. arms embargo will also be long gone by that time. Billions in sanctions relief and increased revenue will have been plowed into Iran’s air defenses, anti-ship capabilities, and enhancing the credibility of its threat to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, with devastating effects on the oil market and global economy. Facing all that, can anyone really state with confidence that the costs of a future war with Iran will likely be the same as they are today?

The president’s persistent refusal to even acknowledge the troubling trade-offs that might flow from the sunset clauses is certainly disturbing. If accompanied by a lack of immediate planning on how to mitigate the damage, it will be downright dangerous.

I could go on and on. The canard that most of the deal’s critics would be satisfied with nothing less than denying Iran “all vestiges of its nuclear infrastructure, even aspects that are consistent with peaceful programs,” has been floated repeatedly by the president and is particularly risible. The truth is that the absolute maximum that most opponents seek (and on which most have now given up) is for Iran to be allowed all the accoutrements of a civilian program, but without the indigenous capability to produce the fissile material necessary for a weapon. That happens to be consistent with the spirit of at least six binding U.N. Security Council resolutions targeting Iran’s nuclear program. It’s consistent with at least a half century of U.S. nonproliferation policy. And it’s consistent with the demand that we’ve historically imposed on some of our closest friends seeking peaceful nuclear programs, including several democracies. So how in the world did such a standard come to constitute, in the president’s words, “a total surrender of sovereignty” when it comes to the Islamic Republic — need I remind you, a serial violator of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, a country that has the blood of hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans on its hands, and whose most powerful leaders still lead chants of “Death to America” on a weekly basis?

Unfortunately, the president has fallen into a pattern that he seems unwilling, or incapable, of breaking. It’s a sales job that might make a used car dealer proud. But it’s hardly worthy of the leader of the greatest democracy in the world. Not on a question where the stakes are so high, the issues so complex and challenging, the trade-offs and risks so apparent, and potentially the fate of millions hanging in the balance. This is a time for sober, serious analysis, debate, exchange, and steps to mitigate risks — not for impugning motives and hiding behind straw men. We need the President of the United States to lead us down that better path. Winning this argument is no doubt important, even the most important thing. I’ll grant him that. But history will also record how he wins it. That’s also the stuff of which legacies are made. One hopes that the president might keep it in mind going forward.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.

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