The levels of diplomatic activity, fear and even desperation regarding Iran’s steadily advancing nuclear-weapons program are rising rapidly in the White House.
The same is true for Israel and America’s Arab allies in the region, but for very different reasons.
Israel and friendly Arab states worry that the religious fanatics and militarists ruling Tehran will achieve their long-sought goal of possessing deliverable nuclear weapons.
President Obama worries that his endless concessions to and compromises with these same fanatics and militarists will fail to produce a piece of paper he can call a diplomatic success.
With the Nov. 9-10 talks in Oman apparently producing no breakthroughs, it’s looking likely that the looming Nov. 24 negotiating “deadline” will simply be extended — though Iran may even force Obama to offer further sanctions relief before it will consent to another extension.
Tehran has Obama exactly where it wants him.
The past year’s intense “P5 + 1” negotiations (culminating a dozen years of such diplomacy) have seen the Security Council’s five permanent members and Germany make one concession after another.
This is not speculation: The White House has cheerfully leaked details of these concessions to friendly reporters to encourage news stories about how close a deal is.
Sadly, this practice is more evidence that it is the “deal” itself, rather than its substance, that constitutes Obama’s Holy Grail.
Reports that Obama has written to Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, linking cooperation against the terrorist Islamic State (or “ISIS”) with an agreement over Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, only further confirms this point.
Obama’s serial entreaties to Khamenei are both naïve and dangerous.
Obama’s weakness is also evident to other US enemies.
North Korea recently released its last three American prisoners, with no publicly known quid pro quo. Since Pyongyang never does anything for free, we can deduce the likelihood of secret diplomatic overtures there as well.
And from Pyongyang’s perspective, why not? If Iran can extract concessions and gain legitimacy from Obama without conceding much if anything, why should Kim Jong-un not demand the same?
US competitors like China and Russia can read the calendar. They see Obama’s tenure coming to a close in 2017, and surely doubt that his successor will be as weak or inattentive.
Nations out to enhance their interests at America’s expense will obviously try to exploit Obama’s last years in office. The just-announced agreement for Russia to build six or more nuclear reactors in Iran, over 10 years in the making, illustrates how this phenomenon will unfold.
As for Iran’s continuing proliferation threat, last week’s International Atomic Energy Agency report is deeply troubling. It shows Iran continuing to obstruct IAEA efforts to investigate its nuclear-weaponization activities and stonewalling many other long-pending questions.
The IAEA is a serious organization, professional and dedicated at its operational levels. Though politicized under Director-General Mohammed el-Baradei, who re-wrote staff-level reports on Iran’s activities and generally provided Tehran political cover, it has returned to balance under el-Baradei’s successor, Yukiya Amano of Japan.
Tehran’s persistent refusal to cooperate is important for two reasons.
First, the IAEA is not an intelligence agency. In many critical areas, it acts on information it receives from others (including the United States and Israel), trying to validate that information by other means.
By preventing IAEA from establishing an accurate “baseline” against which to measure future Iranian nuclear activity, Tehran undercuts the essential prerequisites for later verification.
(If inspectors don’t know what the starting point is, they can’t measure subsequent cheating.)
Second, we must worry whether any deal with Iran is truly verifiable. If Iran isn’t improving its conduct before a deal is signed, why expect its performance to improve once it succeeds in legitimizing its program and eliminating sanctions?
Only those unfamiliar with recent history could be confident that US, Israeli and other intelligence services actually know the full measure of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Hubris when it comes to atomic bombs is a dangerous mistake.
Iran’s continued duplicity underlines how little faith we can place in any commitments the regime makes. At this point, we can only hope that Tehran saves us from ourselves by overreaching, as it has so often before.
Sadly, with Obama so eager to declare victory, there may be no practical limit to what Iran can achieve.
John Bolton is a former US ambassador to the United Nations.