Today President Obama met the White House press corps at length to defend his Iran nuclear deal. One could deconstruct his evasions line by line, but that would largely duplicate the content of many posts we have done over the past weeks and months. Instead, I want to focus on a few key issues. But first, this observation: if any of the reporters present had read the agreement, which is only 159 pages long, it was not apparent. Maybe reporters are not accustomed to reading legal documents; maybe they are too lazy to try; maybe they have read and understood the agreement and are just partisan hacks, covering for their president. But I have a full-time job, and nevertheless have read the agreement several times. Why can’t reporters do the same? That would seem to be a prerequisite to participating intelligently in a press conference on the subject.
The following observations are, I think, the most important points that emerged from the press conference.
1) President Obama persisted in his false dichotomy: the alternative to this agreement is war with Iran. He says this despite the fact that no major American or European political figure advocates war with Iran.
I’m hearing a lot of talking points being repeated about “This is a bad deal. This is a historically bad deal. This is a historically bad deal. This will threaten Israel and threaten the world and threaten the United States.” I mean, there’s been a lot of that.
What I haven’t heard is what is your preferred alternative? …
And the reason is because there really are only two alternatives here. Either the issue of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through a negotiation or it’s resolved through force, through war. Those are — those are the options.
There is a blindingly obvious third alternative, which we and countless others have advocated, and which Obama, despite his disingenuous disclaimers, is obviously aware of: don’t do anything! Keep the sanctions in place and keep the pressure on Iran’s rulers with a view toward ultimate regime change, the only contingency that will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and using them to threaten the United States and our major population centers.
2) The worst feature of the Iran agreement is that as soon as it is implemented, Iranian assets that have been frozen in Western countries will be “thawed” and sent to the mullahs. The total of such assets is estimated at $100 billion to $150 billion. Iran’s rulers will use this money to fund their proxies in Syria, Yemen and Iraq and terrorists around the world. Understand that this is an enormous amount of money: the entire GDP of Iran is only around $369 billion. The prospect of $100+ billion flowing into their coffers is what makes Iran’s leaders (and Syria’s, and Hezbollah’s) delirious with joy.
Iran has made promises extending over the next 15 years in exchange for this $100+ billion and other considerations. This is a simple way of illustrating what a terrible agreement the Obama/Kerry team has negotiated: shortly after Implementation Day (as defined in the agreement), $100+ billion will flow into Iran, under the regime’s control. Once that money has been collected, the mullahs could say, “Ha ha! Fooled you!” and terminate the agreement. They would be $100+ billion the richer, and Obama would look like an idiot.
Do I think they will do that? No, only because they will want to profit from a few years of sanctions-free economic growth to cement their hold on Iran. But at any moment they deem opportune, the mullahs can simply walk away from the deal.
It was only at the tail end of the press conference that a reporter finally brought up the fact that the mullahs get $100+ billion up front, in exchange for a list of promises:
Q. The argument has been made that Iran now has a cash windfall, billions to spend. Your people seem confident they’re going to spend it at home. Why are you confident they’re not going to spend it on arming Hezbollah, arming Bashr al-Assad, et cetera?
OBAMA: I — I think that’s a great question, and I’m — I’m glad you brought it up. I think it is a mistake to — to characterize our belief that they will just spend it on daycare centers and — and — and roads and — and paying down debt. We think that they have to do some of that, because Rouhani was elected specifically on the premise of improving the economic situation inside of Iran. That economy has tanked since we imposed sanctions.
Which is why we should keep them in place.
So the notion that they’re just immediately going to turn over $100 billion to the IRGC or the Quds Force, I think runs contrary to all the intelligence that we’ve seen and the commitments that the Iranian government has made.
What commitments? There are none in the agreement. And in any event, reliance on the mullahs’ “commitments” not to use the money to advance their geopolitical interests would be ridiculous.
Do we think that with the sanctions coming down, that Iran will have some additional resources for its military and for some of the activities in the region that are a threat to us and a threat to our allies? I think that is a likelihood that they’ve got some additional resources.
Do I think it’s a game-changer for them? No.
They are currently supporting Hezbollah, and there is a ceiling, a pace at which they could support Hezbollah even more, particularly in the chaos that’s taking place in Syria.
So can they potentially try to get more assistance there? Yes.
Should we put more resources into blocking them from getting that assistance to Hezbollah? Yes.
So Obama concedes the cogency of this argument against his deal. He admits that Iran will use some of the $100+ billion to support Hezbollah and otherwise wreak havoc in the region. But, hey! They are doing that already!
Is the incremental additional money that they’ve got to try to destabilize the region or send to their proxies — is that more important than preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon? No. Alright?
But the agreement doesn’t prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Some think it actually facilitates it, but, best case, it might delay acquisition of such weapons by the regime for a few years, at the regime’s discretion. They can pull out of the deal at any time, and the administration admits that at that point, they will be within 12 months having the bomb.
So Obama offers another argument:
What — that — that argument is also premised on the notion that if there is no deal, if Congress votes down this deal, that we’re able to keep sanctions in place with the same vigor and effectiveness as we have right now, and that, I can promise you, is not true. That is absolutely not true. I want to repeat: we’re not writing Iran a check. This is Iran’s money that we’re able to block from them having access to. That required the cooperation of countries all around the world: many of whom really want to purchase oil from Iran. The imposition of sanctions, their cooperation with us has cost them billions of dollars, made it harder for them. They’ve been willing to do that because they believe we were sincere about trying to resolve the nuclear issue peacefully, and they consider that a priority, a high enough priority that they were willing to cooperate with us on sanctions.
If they saw us walking away, or more specifically, if they saw the U.S. Congress effectively vetoing the judgment of 99 percent of the world community, that this is a deal that resolves the Iranian weapons program, nuclear weapons program, in a equitable way, the sanctions system unravels.
So far, the sanctions regime against Iran has held with remarkable consistency–unlike, for instance, the sanctions against Saddam’s Iraq. Is there some reason to think that sanctions are about to unravel? Not that I know of. Maybe our State Department should devote itself to working with allies to maintain sanctions, rather than working with Iran to end them.
Obama’s final comments on this topic are pathetic:
So maybe they don’t get $100 billion dollars. 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. We have lost credibility in the eyes of the world. We will have effectively united Iran and divided ourselves from our allies: a terrible position to be in.
If you understand that, let me know. Faced with a softball question, the president fell to pieces.
3) President Obama repeated the claim that under the agreement, sanctions will “snap back” if Iran is caught cheating. This is frankly a ludicrous assertion. First and most important, how will the $100 to $150 billion that Iran will get after Implementation Day “snap back”? Does Obama think the regime will refund the money? Presumably not. Any “snap back” is prospective at best, and in fact, under the agreement any “snap back” will not affect any contracts or commercial arrangements that have been entered into in the meantime.
Obama is talking about paragraph 37 of the agreement, which sets out the dispute resolution process. The “snap back” relates only to United Nations sanctions, not sanctions imposed by the U.S. or the E.U. The relevant language represents an effort to get around the fact that Russia, Iran’s ally, has a veto on the Security Council which would block any effort to re-impose sanctions following Iran’s breach of the agreement. Paragraph 37 attempts to set up a presumption that goes the other way, so that U.N. sanctions will be re-imposed unless a resolution to the contrary passes the Security Council. That’s the point, but the language is mind-numbing; feel free to skip it unless you have the misfortune to be a lawyer:
Upon receipt of the notification from the complaining participant, as described above, including a description of the good-faith efforts the participant made to exhaust the dispute resolution process specified in this JCPOA, the UN Security Council, in accordance with its procedures, shall vote on a resolution to continue the sanctions lifting. If the resolution described above has not been adopted within 30 days of the notification, then the provisions of the old UN Security Council resolutions would be re-imposed, unless the UN Security Council decides otherwise.
Does this paragraph actually bind the United Nations to “snap back” its anti-Iran sanctions unless the Security Council unanimously decides to the contrary? Doubtful. Putting aside the basic question whether this agreement can bind future U.N. action, the paragraph leaves plenty of wiggle room: the Security Council will vote “in accordance with its procedures,” and sanctions will be re-imposed “unless the UN Security Council decides otherwise.” The fact that Russia, the party whose powers are ostensibly circumscribed by this paragraph, enthusiastically endorses the agreement and regards it as a triumph of its own diplomacy, suggests that its powers will not be significantly impaired.
In any event, the agreement gives the mullahs $100 billion to $150 billion up front, which will not be “snapped back,” nor will any contracts or projects in progress as a result of the cessation of sanctions be “snapped back.” Nor is there any guarantee that the E.U. or even the U.S. will choose to re-impose sanctions. Obama’s comments here are either uninformed or deliberately misleading.
4) I won’t say much about Major Garrett’s question about the Americans held prisoner in Iran, to which Obama responded petulantly. But if Barack Obama and John Kerry seriously doubt that they could have said, “Oh–if you want that $100+ billion, one more thing you have to do–let these four people go”–if they doubt that the mullahs would have agreed in a heartbeat, they are the worst negotiators in the history of the world.