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Obama explains the Iran deal

President Obama appeared at the Brooking Institution’s Saban Forum in Washington yesterday. He responded to questions put to him by Haim Saban, the forum chairman. The discussion focused on the interim deal with Iran, although it also covered the Israel-PA peace talks and the agreement with Syria to destroy its chemical weapons. C-SPAN has posted the video of Obama’s appearance here. The White House has posted the embeddable video below.

The Washington Times covers Obama’s appearance here, Politico here. Both accounts are worth reading if your pain threshold prevents you from watching the video.

We’ve linked previously to the text of the agreement and provided grounds for assessing it a pathetic joke. In exchange for the relaxation of sanctions, Iran agrees to the monitoring of two known uranium enrichment facilities and limitations on enrichment that might extend its breakout time by a month or two. No disclosures are required. No inspection of Iran’s Parchin facility is contemplated. The Arak plutonium enrichment facility remains untouched. I think the agreement can best be explained on the hypothesis that the United States accepts Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.

At the outset of his remarks to Saban Obama states: “We put in place an unprecedented regime of sanctions…” on Iran. As Tonto says to the Lone Ranger in the joke, “What you mean we, kemosabe?”

In Reid Epstein’s account for Politico, Obama explained the limited nature of Iran’s concessions to Saban this way:

“You’ll hear arguments, including potentially from the prime minister, that said we can’t accept any enrichment on Iranian soil, period, full stop, end of conversation,” Obama said at the Saban Forum of the Brookings Institute.

He continued: “One can envision an ideal world in which Iran said, ‘We’ll destroy every element and facility and you name it, it’s all gone.’ I can envision a world in which Congress passed every one of my bills that I put forward. There are a lot of things that I can envision that would be wonderful.”

Iran, Obama said, will always retain some nuclear enrichment capability simply because it is no longer a terribly difficult process.

“Theoretically, they will always have some capability because technology here is available to any good physics student at pretty much any university around the world,” he said. “And they have already gone through the cycle to the point where the knowledge we are not going to be able to eliminate. But what we can do is eliminate the incentive for them to want to do this.”

As he has before, Obama defended the six-month deal to relax some economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for some weapons inspections as not ideal, but better than the alternative of doing nothing.

“When I hear people criticize the Geneva deal say it’s got to be all or nothing, I would just remind them that if it’s nothing, if we did not even try for this next six months to do this, all the breakout capacity we are concerned about would accelerate in the next six months,” Obama said. “They’d be that much closer to breakout capacity six months from now. And that’s why I think it’s important for us to test this proposition.”

Throughout his 47-minute discussion with Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban, Obama reiterated his defense of the Iran deal as good for American national security. Though he touched on his disagreement with Netanyahu over the deal, Obama said he and the Israeli prime minister have merely a disagreement over tactics and share the same end goals.

Netanyahu has denounced the deal, saying it will only embolden Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“Bibi and I have very candid conversations and there are occasionally significant tactical disagreements,” Obama said. “But there is a constancy in trying to reach the same goal, and in this case that goal is to make sure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon.”

Obama said the Israeli position that Iran will eventually relent under sanctions and offer an unconditional surrender of its nuclear program is unrealistic.

“The idea that Iran, given everything that we know about their history, would just continue to get more and more nervous about more sanctions and military threats and ultimately just say, ‘We give in,’ I think does not reflect an honest understanding of the Iranian people and the Iranian regime,” Obama said. “I think even the so-called moderates or reformers inside of Iran would not be able to simply say, ‘We will cave and do exactly what the U.S. and the Israelis say.’”

You see, we can’t expect Iran to relinquish its nuclear program because it won’t! Yes, indeed. Thanks for the explanation.

One could criticize Obama’s understanding of conflict resolution, negotiation and diplomacy at length if one thought that preventing Iran’s development of nuclear weapons were the object of the exercise. If that is the object of the exercise, the deal is incomprehensible. The simplest explanation of the deal is that we seek to protect Iran’s nuclear program and accept Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. With this understanding, a critique of Obama’s understanding and skills is moot.

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