Barack Obama, the answer to Ayatollah Khamenei’s prayers

Ray Takeyh, who served in the Obama administration focusing on Iran, has an illuminating piece on how Iran’s “Supreme Leader” is “patiently negotiating his way to a bomb.” Absent military intervention, Ayatollah Khamenei was always going to pursue his nuclear bomb. But it now looks like he will be able to pursue it in the most advantageous manner possible — with American cooperation.

Takeyh explains:

After years of defiance, Khamenei seems to appreciate that his most advantageous path to nuclear arms is through an agreement. To continue to build up his atomic infrastructure without the protective umbrella of an agreement exposes Iran to economic sanctions and the possibility of military retribution. . . .

Unlike many of his Western interlocutors, Khamenei appreciates that his regime rests on shaky foundations and that the legitimacy of the Islamic revolution has long been forfeited. The task at hand was to find a way to forge ahead with a nuclear program while safeguarding the regime and its ideological verities.

It was a daunting task as long as the West viewed Khamenei’s negotiating position — an agreement of limited duration during which Iran could construct a vast nuclear infrastructure in exchange for a leaky inspection regime — with great skepticism. But then, along came President Obama, and the Ayatollah’s prayers were answered:

Washington conceded to Iran’s enrichment at home and agreed that eventually that enrichment capacity could be industrialized. The marathon negotiations since have seen Iran attempt to whittle down the remaining restrictions, while the United States tries to reclaim its battered red lines.

For Khamenei, the most important concession that his negotiators have won is the idea of a sunset clause. Upon the expiration of that clause, there would be no legal limits on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. If the Islamic Republic wants to construct hundreds of thousands of sophisticated centrifuges, build numerous heavy-water reactors and sprinkle its mountains with enrichment installations, the Western powers will have no recourse.

What happens then?

Once Iran achieves that threshold nuclear status, there is no verification regime that is guaranteed to detect a sprint to a bomb. An industrial-size nuclear state has too many atomic resources, too many plants and too many scientists to be reliably restrained.

Khamenei. . .can also be assured that technical violations of his commitments would not be firmly opposed. Once a deal is transacted, the most essential sanctions against Iran will evaporate. . .And as far as the use of force is concerned, the United States has negotiated arms-control compacts for at least five decades and has never used force to punish a state that has incrementally violated its treaty obligations.

As the reaction to North Korea’s atomic provocations shows, the international community typically deals with such infractions through endless mediation. Once an agreement is signed, too many nations become invested in its perpetuation to risk a rupture.

Takeyh concludes that “Iran’s achievements today are a tribute to the genius of an unassuming midlevel cleric” who has “routinely entered negotiations with the weakest hand and emerged in the strongest position.” But Iran’s achievements are just as much a tribute to the egomania of a pretentious U.S. president who entered negotiations with the strongest hand and refused to play his best cards because he considered himself above the game, and imagined that there is bigger contest only he is able to perceive.

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