FPI Bulletin: Obama Offers a False Choice on Iran

August 6, 2015

Speaking at American University on Wednesday, President Obama defended the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that his administration has negotiated with Iran and castigated its opponents.  In a rhetorical flourish that characterized the speech, he simultaneously bemoaned the “knee-jerk partisanship” of contemporary Washington and accused his critics of making “common cause” with Iranians who chant “death to America.” Most clearly, the speech highlighted President Obama’s desire to frame congressional deliberations over the JCPOA as a choice between his deal and war.

If this is true, then it marks a repudiation of the President’s earlier promises about these talks. After all, President Obama has long insisted that “No deal is better than a bad deal.” In the final days of the talks, the President reminded us, “I’ve said from the start I will walk away from the negotiations if, in fact, it’s a bad deal.” In other words, President Obama always believed that he had options other than a bad deal and war. Yet he now says, “let’s not mince words. The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war – maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon.”

Yet prominent experts who are still making up their mind about the deal have rejected the false choice between this agreement and war. Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center has criticized the President for “shackling the public and congressional debate with this binary choice and the horrific consequences should Congress reject the accord and overturn a presidential veto.” Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute writes that congressional rejection of the deal would be messy, “but that messiness is a far cry from war.”

In his speech, President Obama also made the untenable claim that critics have simply not proposed reasonable terms for a better deal. “I have repeatedly challenged anyone opposed to this deal to put forward a better, plausible alternative,” the President said, “I have yet to hear one.” If that is the case, then the President appears to have not been listening. 

In the years leading up to the deal, the President’s own administration described reasonable objectives for an agreement with Iran, many of which it discarded while negotiating the JCPOA.  Moreover, in the weeks since the deal was announced, thoughtful critics have suggested many ways to strengthen the agreement.

One set of recommendations has focused on the need for Iran to fully resolve International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concerns about the “possible military dimensions” (PMD) of its nuclear program.  Although a full accounting of Iran’s prior efforts to develop a nuclear bomb will be necessary to verify its future compliance with any deal, the JCPOA does not explicitly require that the IAEA’s questions be answered before Tehran receives sanctions relief.  The report that Iran is attempting to sanitize Parchin, the military site where much of its nuclear weapons work is believed to have occurred, puts a fine point on this question. 

In response to these concerns, David Albright and the experts at the Institute for Science and International Security have recommended that the United States refuse to end sanctions until Iran fully answers the IAEA’s concerns about PMD.  Until recently, one of the most forceful advocates of resolving PMD concerns was Secretary of State Kerry who said, “If there’s going to be a deal, it will be done.”

A second set of recommendations would have Congress direct the administration to renegotiate key provisions of the agreement. In his recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies noted several changes that could significantly strengthen the JCPOA.  For example, rather than stick to sunset provisions that President Obama has acknowledged will provide Iran with “breakout times [that] would have shrunk almost down to zero” in little more than a decade, the United Nations Security Council could be required to approve the termination of the agreement’s most stringent restrictions on Tehran’s  nuclear program.

Similarly, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute writes that an improved deal should include “a genuinely phased agreement linked to performance, an end to research and development on advanced centrifuges, a sharper reduction in operating centrifuges, shuttering the underground facility at Fordow and the Arak heavy water reactor, shipping out Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile, anywhere-anytime inspections, and, most important of all, no lapse of Iran’s obligations after 10-15 years.” 

These are not impossible demands, and they should come as no surprise to the President. They reflect the terms that the administration itself once described as the conditions for a good deal.

It is unfortunate that rather than address these thoughtful criticisms of the JCPOA, the President delivered remarks yesterday that were characterized by ad hominem assaults, the burning of straw men, and the presentation of a false choices.  The good news is that a respectful and substantive debate about the nuclear deal is now underway on Capitol Hill. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress appear to be working toward a higher standard, and one that the President should recognize – that no deal is better than a bad deal.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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