"I don't think we're stupid" — John Kerry, November 10, 2013
It's always a bad sign when your nation's chief diplomat begins a process of tough negotiations with some brutal authoritarian adversaries by protesting his non-stupidity. Then again, we've reached the point where even Parisian socialists feel the need to remind the U.S. Secretary of State of certain undeniable geopolitical realities on the ground. So here we are, seriously entertaining what the French Foreign Minister rightly warned could be a "fool's bargain" with Iran.
Attention last week was focused on the failure of the Western powers to reach an interim nuclear deal with Tehran. That was the potential deal that made the French nervous. The bigger picture, however, is the broader set of negotiations over the coming months and their implications for American national security.
If Iran actually were to agree to a complete and verifiable dismantling of its nuclear weapons program, stop enriching and reprocessing uranium, shut down key facilities, and ship out all related materials - in full cooperation with international inspectors - then, of course, this would be most welcome. But there is little prospect of this kind of cooperation, or of this kind of deal. Iran has never even admitted that it has a nuclear weapons program, and it has been regularly mendacious about the true extent of its uranium enrichment facilities. This is not the behavior of a country simply looking for the peaceful use of nuclear power ... or of one willing to give up the bomb.
Iran's new President, Hassan Rouhani, is a seasoned and skillful negotiator who has boasted in the past of his ability to keep Iranian centrifuges running through diplomatic diversion. He was not elected to give up his country's nuclear weapons program, nor will Iran's Supreme Leader allow him to do so. On the contrary, Rouhani's mandate is to win international approval for Iran as a kind of virtual nuclear weapons state while securing the economic benefits that will flow from the lifting of sanctions.
Unlike his openly outrageous predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the more polished Rouhani knows exactly which buttons to push in order to impress Western liberal opinion. By smiling for the camera and speaking of the need for peaceful dispute resolution across cultural boundaries, he charms his Western counterparts. For this reason, he is described in the press as a "moderate."
The reality, however, is that Rouhani leads a country and a regime that actively supports terrorism within the Middle East and beyond; that wages a proxy war against U.S. interests throughout the region; that declares its violent opposition to an American-led international order; that plots assassinations on U.S. soil; and that helps to kill American troops in Afghanistan. If he has any fundamental objection to these policies, he hasn't said so.
Rouhani's good fortune is that he faces a U.S. President who is very eager for a deal. Obama and his aides appear to view Rouhani as the answer to their prayers - the vindication of halting American attempts to conciliate Iran since 2009.
The New York Times may operate on the sincere but misguided assumption that any diplomatic arrangement with an adversarial foreign power makes the world a safer place. Obama is probably too intelligent to fully believe this. His priorities are a little different.
Obama really is determined to try to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapons test on his watch. That would be embarrassing for the President. But he is even more determined to avoid open conflict with Iran. If you pay close attention to Obama's words, he has never actually outlined any objection to advanced nuclear weapons capacity on the part of that country. He would very much like to be able to say that his Iran policy worked, capped off by a negotiated agreement during his time in office. If past precedent is any indicator, the exact content of such an agreement is probably not of great concern to him, so long as it can fly politically. He will be inclined to sign a deal, declare victory, and turn his attention home, in order to focus on domestic liberal policy legacies.
Unlike some of his starry-eyed devotees, Obama probably understands that a nuclear deal with Iran will leave that country as the leading force in the region, as a sort of legitimated and virtual nuclear power—and that this prospect deeply unnerves many of America's traditional allies. But it's a prospect that doesn't especially bother him, and therefore it's a deal he's willing to take.
John Kerry is a useful instrument to that end, since he appears to share the common belief inside this White House that completion of an Ivy League degree, good hair, a Boston Brahmin accent, and a Swiss-based location provide excellent and sufficient credentials for negotiating with some of the world's most mendacious and ruthless autocrats. Indeed, Kerry possesses the distinction of already having been outmaneuvered repeatedly within the space of only a few months by one such autocrat, Russia's Vladimir Putin. Perhaps the White House could save everybody time and roll international negotiations over Syria, Russian arms control, and Iran into a single bargaining process so that the United States can concede on all fronts at once without any wasteful duplication of effort.
Of course, there remains—apart from the French—one serious obstacle to these negotiations, and therefore, in the administration's mind, to world peace. You guessed it: congressional Republicans.
Congressional Republicans have suggested that the White House might want to avoid dismantling vital U.S. leverage, in the form of economic sanctions, before negotiations with Iran have actually begun in earnest. For making this commonsense suggestion, they have been denounced by the White House as aiding and abetting a "march to war."
This raises an interesting contrast between Obama's style in congressional negotiations and his style in international ones. In congressional negotiations, the President and his supporters have long since come to the conclusion that concessions toward a supposedly implacable adversary are pointless. In international negotiations, however, when dealing with actual enemies of the United States, the White House has never quite learned that lesson.
Thus, the play is to cut a deal with Iran that, for all practical purposes, leaves that hostile theocracy strengthened and validated as a virtual nuclear power, while describing said deal as a diplomatic victory for Obama. And if anything goes wrong, blame the Republicans—not Iran.
Still, a nascent Iranian nuclear weapons program is a very real threat to vital U.S. interests, and need not be legitimized by American consent.
For the United States, it's a fool's bargain.