On Tehran's Terms

Getty Images

"It will be a lot easier for us to check Iran's nefarious activities, to push back against the other areas where they operate contrary to our interests or our allies' interests, if they don't have a bomb."

So said President Obama just after the United States and its partners reached the landmark nuclear deal with Iran. Nearly four months later, the Islamist regime has repeatedly tested this claim – and the results should not inspire confidence.

Since the July 14 agreement, Tehran has increased its support for the Assad regime, Hezbollah and Hamas; strengthened its joint military operations with Russia; provided arms and money to the Taliban; constructed a bomb-making factory in Bahrain; smuggled arms into Kuwait for use by a Hezbollah cell; arrested an Iranian-American citizen as well as a Lebanese citizen with a U.S. green card; launched cyberattacks against the United States; continued its brutal human rights abuses against its own people; and threatened America and Israel with destruction.

In response, the Obama administration has remained strikingly inert.

Washington does not lack options. On July 14, President Obama asserted that the United States "will maintain our own sanctions related to Iran's support for terrorism, its ballistic missile program, and its human rights violations" under the deal. For example, as some lawmakers noted this week, the United States could sanction the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which not only oversees Tehran's global terrorist operations and cyberwarfare but also controls at least one-sixth of the Iranian economy.

What accounts for the administration's inaction? The answer stems from a U.S. misreading of Iran's intentions – and from a contrasting Iranian ability to read America's intentions all too clearly.

During the nuclear talks, Iran quickly learned that America's eagerness for a deal would enable Tehran's negotiators to extract concessions that the White House had previously pledged to resist. The Obama administration calculated that it could afford to risk accommodating the regime because the deal's verification and enforcement measures – particularly the threat of snapback sanctions – would ensure Tehran's compliance. It also presumed that the agreement's narrow focus on the nuclear file would still allow Washington to punish Iran for its nefarious activities in other arenas, thereby preserving the image of American strength and resolve.

What the White House failed to calculate, however, is that Iran would use America's longing to reach – and preserve – an agreement to extract further concessions even after the parties had concluded it. The administration also failed to anticipate that Tehran would belatedly announce – months after reaching the agreement – that it disputed Obama's interpretation of the deal.

Thus on October 21, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared that he would accept the deal but only conditionally. Citing ambiguously worded passages in the agreement, Khamenei stated that America and the European Union must affirm that the future imposition "of any type of sanctions, at any level or under any pretext" – including terrorism and human rights violations – would constitute a violation of the deal, thereby releasing Iran from its obligations.

Of course, such terms contradict the U.S. interpretation of the agreement, which rests on the assumption that Washington can impose nonnuclear and snapback sanctions. In effect, Tehran is working to renegotiate the deal such that any U.S. effort to enforce it becomes impossible.

And America's previous willingness to offer ever-greater concessions to secure an agreement has given Khamenei not unreasonable confidence that he can actually pull this off.

To be sure, in the short term, Iran will likely retain its formal commitment to the deal in order to ensure that it receives its long-sought sanctions relief. At the same time, Tehran could proclaim that the United States has materially breached the deal by failing to accept the supreme leader's interpretation. Such an objection would lay the foundation for Iranian withdrawal from the agreement at a time of its choosing.

If the Obama administration believes that the nuclear deal will make it a lot easier to check Iran's nefarious activities, it must possess certainty that Tehran accepts Washington's interpretation of the agreement. The White House's silence thus far sends a troubling message that Khamanei's interpretation may yet prevail – and that he may continue to dictate the deal's terms to an administration that prioritizes the preservation of the deal over its actual substance.

Mission Statement

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.
Read More