Why Obama’s best defense of his Iran deal falls short

John did an excellent job of dissecting President Obama’s efforts, during his press conference yesterday, to defend the Iran nuclear deal. However, Obama made one point that I consider substantial (perhaps because I raised in this post). Obama stated:

So maybe [Iran’s mullahs] don’t get $100 billion dollars [if there is no deal]. Maybe they get $60 billion or $70 billion instead. The price for that, that we’ve paid, is that now Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon. We have no inspectors on the ground. We don’t know what’s going on. They’re still getting some cash windfall.

Obama is referring to the fact that the sanctions regime has already started to crumble and can’t fully be resurrected given the eagerness of Russia, China, and many in the West to see it fall. To be sure, it was Obama who cleverly brought this situation about by entering into negotiations and easing sanctions.

Nonetheless, Obama’s argument is substantial at this point and it represents his answer to the claim that there is an alternative to the deal other than “war” — namely, crippling sanctions that could bring about regime change. If Iran will get massive relief from sanctions even in the absence of a deal, then maybe there is no alternative to the deal other than “war.” Maybe too, our best hope now is a deal that will at least give us inspectors on the ground and some reduction in Iranian nuclear development.

Ultimately, though, Obama’s argument is unconvincing. First, as John pointed out, the sanctions regime has held up fairly well and still has substantial support in the West. In the absence of a deal, Iran will move aggressively towards developing nukes. The West, some of whose governments were far less enthusiastic than Obama about reaching an accord, will likely respond by doing what it can to maintain sanctions. China and Russia will very likely defect, but Iran still will receive less than the 100 to 150 billion dollars of relief bestowed by Obama’s deal.

How much less? No one knows. But let’s assume that Iran would get about half of that relief absent Obama’s deal. We’re talking then about 50 to 75 billion dollars in lost revenue. That’s somewhere between about one-seventh to one-fifth of Iran’s GDP.

It also approaches the amount Greece will receive over a three-year period under the EU bailout. The shortfall to Iran could make the difference between a viable Iranian economy and an economy in bad enough shape to prompt regime change.

But what about the loss of the “inspectors on the ground” whom Obama touts? Isn’t it worth giving Iran the full sanctions relief provided by the deal in order to get those inspectors in so we “can know what’s going on”?

It is not for two reasons. First, as I noted here, these inspectors will face major limitations in their ability to monitor the totality of Iran’s nuclear program. Second, and more importantly, Iran can expel the inspectors at any time.

The minute the mullahs believe they have received enough sanctions relief to ensure their hold on power, they can void this deal and complete the development of nuclear weapons. Yes, we will know that this is “going on.” But what, short of the war Obama dreads, what will be able to do about it? Nothing.

Obama has done everything possible to narrow the options through which we can thwart the mullahs. He’s like a man who gave away all of his family’s clothing and now responds to its complaints about having to wear fig leaves by asking “what’s your alternative?”

Even so, as I have tried to demonstrate, there remains a better non-military alternative to this deal. That alternative is no deal and the maintenance of as tough a sanctions regime as possible.

Finally, Obama assumes that his deal is superior to a military option. I dispute this, but that’s a subject for another post.