Correcting Obama’s Iran speech

Like much political rhetoric, President Barack Obama’s speech in defense of the Iran nuclear deal at American University August 5 contained trenchant insights, but also falsehoods and half-truths. This blog post aims to correct several of the speech’s most erroneous claims.

1. Obama admits the deal doesn’t solve many problems, but he maintains that it “ultimately must be judged by what it achieves on the central goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” In reality, however, it only prevents Iranian nuclearization in a strictly legalistic sense. In practice, it opens up at least two new avenues for Iran to pursue nuclear weapons.

First, since the sanctions relief is frontloaded and snapback sanctions are unlikely to work as envisioned, Iran can wait for the pressure to lift and then dash to a nuclear breakout in plain sight, daring this gun-shy President to use force (our only remaining source of leverage at that point) to stop it.

Second, Iran can simply be patient, wait for the nuclear restrictions to expire in ten to fifteen years, and, without violating its international commitments, build up its nuclear infrastructure until its breakout time shrinks, in the words of Obama, “almost down to zero.” At this point, Tehran can build nuclear weapons at its leisure because the world will no longer be in a position to stop it.

2. Obama used the word “permanent” no less than four times to describe the limits on Iran’s program, but the most important limits, those on Iran’s enrichment program, begin to expire after ten years and are lifted completely in fifteen years.

3. Obama claims that the sunset of restrictions after fifteen years is not a problem because “if fifteen or twenty years from now, Iran tries to build a bomb, this deal ensures that the United States will have better tools to detect it, a stronger basis under international law to respond, and the same options available to stop a weapons program as we have today, including—if necessary—military options..”

But it will be much harder to address Iran’s nuclear program on the back end of this deal. For practical reasons, to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons by force, Washington would need to strike as Iran’s enrichment program was expanding and well before Tehran makes any blatant moves to build nuclear weapons. It is hard to imagine, however, a US President using force against a nuclearizing Iran that is more fully integrated into the international economy, has built up its air defenses thanks to the lifting of the conventional arms embargo, and is abiding by terms of an agreement designed in Washington and approved in a United Nations Security Council resolution. As noted above, this deal will pave a clear path to a nuclear bomb once the restrictions expire.

4. Obama argues that sanctions relief will support, not undermine, Iranian compliance because “if Iran abides by the deal and its economy begins to reintegrate with the world, the incentive to avoid snapback will only grow.” On the other hand, international business interests, including in the United States, will have a strong economic incentive to make sure that sanctions never snap back, regardless of Iranian compliance. 

5. Obama got laughs from the audience by arguing that Iran won’t be able to cheat because “nuclear material isn’t something you hide in the closet” and because radioactive material “can leave a trace for years.” But Iran can do work on warhead design, perhaps its most important remaining obstacle, without leaving behind radioactive signatures. Moreover, since International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors have not been able to access the Parchin military base, we still do not know how far Iran has progressed on this front and there is reason to be skeptical that this deal will ever provide sufficient access to Parchin and other military sites.

6. Obama claims that “this is the strongest nonproliferation agreement ever negotiated,” but this is clearly false. Many times in the past, including with Libya in 2003, the United States has convinced countries to completely give up uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing programs. In contrast, this deal allows Iran to keep a large enrichment program and to reprocess in the future.

7. Obama often employs false dichotomies to defend his policies and this speech is no different. He claims that opponents of the agreement calling for a “better deal” are demanding nothing less than a “surrender of [Iranian] sovereignty” and for “Iran to completely dismantle all vestiges of its nuclear infrastructure.” This is not true. Critics are willing to allow Iran to have a peaceful nuclear program, but there is no reason for Iran to enrich uranium. Like the vast majority of countries with peaceful nuclear energy programs, Iran can import enriched uranium fuel from abroad. This principle of allowing nuclear power but restricting nuclear fuel-making has guided US nonproliferation policy for decades and there is no reason to make an exception for Iran.

8. In an attempt to claim that opposition to the deal is partisan, not principled, in nature, Obama maintained that “before Congress even read it, a majority of Republicans declared their virulent opposition.” But once the administration decided to cave on enrichment in late 2013, it was clear that the negotiations were heading in the wrong direction. Despite what many have said, the devil is not in the details. The fundamental premises underlying these negotiations have been fundamentally flawed for some time.

9. The other major false dichotomy in the speech is the claim that, if Congress votes down the deal, the only alternative is war. But, given that the administration knew that a congressional vote of disapproval was possible, let us hope they have a sound Plan B ready to go that does not involve immediate wheels up for the B-2s. The better and more realistic path (as I’ve argued elsewhere) is to return to the pressure track, set clear military red lines to deter Iran’s march to the bomb, allow time for economic pressure to mount, all while holding out the conditions for an acceptable and realistic diplomatic compromise along the lines described above. Obama claims he has not yet heard a “plausible alternative” to his deal. He must not have looked very hard. I hope his aides bring this blog post to his desk.

10. In the speech, Obama contrasts his diplomatic approach with the “tough talk” of his critics. But, these are not mutually exclusive options. Tough talk supports diplomacy, it does not undermine it. Or as Frederick the Great said, “diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.”

11. Obama argues that returning to the pressure track is not an option because “our closest allies in Europe or in Asia, much less China or Russia, certainly are not going to agree to enforce existing sanctions for another five, ten, fifteen years according to the dictates of the US Congress.” But one seldom hears this argument in London or Paris, or, in fact, anywhere outside of Washington. Other countries have always been reluctant to support sanctions against Iran, but we have brought them along for almost a decade and they will keep the pressure on if we have a clear rationale for why it is necessary. On a recent visit to Beijing, Chinese foreign policy elites told me that they would be willing to get tougher with Iran if that’s what Washington wants and that a choice between doing business with the United States and doing business with Iran “is not really a choice at all.”

12. Obama claims that a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities “would only set back Iran’s program by a few years at best,” but these estimates are based on worst-case scenarios in which Iran decides to immediately reconstitute its program and does not encounter any substantial difficulties. In the real world, Iran might wait some time before reconstituting and will almost certainly encounter international resistance and domestic political friction as it does so. In reality, therefore, a strike would buy a few years at worst. At best, a strike would forever prevent Iran from going nuclear. The most likely outcome is somewhere in between.

13. In the speech’s opening and closing, Obama likens this deal to America’s past role in building international institutions that have made the world a better place. In reality, however, this deal undermines key pillars of the international order, spreading thin the resource-constrained IAEA and setting a dangerous precedent for the nonproliferation regime.

14. Obama argues that “if Congress kills this deal, we will lose … America’s credibility as a leader of diplomacy.” This may be true, but much of the responsibility must lie with the administration that negotiated a weak agreement that does not enjoy the support of the American people or their elected representatives.

Matthew Kroenig is a Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

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Image: "Congressional rejection of this deal leaves any US administration that is absolutely committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon with one option—another war in the Middle East," US President Barack Obama said in an August 5 speech at American University in Washington in which he defended a nuclear deal with Iran. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)