Shadow Government

Obama Administration Is Right: Interim Iran Deal Only Matters in Terms of What Comes Next

Defenders and critics of the interim deal with Iran on nuclear issues apparently agree on one thing: What is most important about this deal is what will come next.

To their credit, officials within Barack Obama's administration have been more careful than some outside boosters in emphasizing how limited this deal is. It does not stop Iran from making progress toward building a nuclear weapon. It does not even irreversibly slow Iran's progress. At best, it slows that progress slightly and, more consequentially, introduces more intrusive inspections that offer the hope of detecting violations sooner.

The most important result of the interim deal is the establishment of a short six-month timeline for securing the ultimate long-term deal. In the next six months we will discover whether the critics are right that the Obama administration made too many concessions on the pressure front -- alleviating the pressure that had helped propel the diplomacy thus far and thus eroding our bargaining leverage too much. If the defenders of the deal are right, then Iran will negotiate in good faith and, if not, the West will have the wherewithal to re-ratchet up the economic pressure.

This will likely prove harder than the boosters admit. The Achilles' heel of most multilateral sanctions regimes is that it's usually easier to pressure too little than it is to pressure too much. Once sanctions are relaxed a little bit, it is even harder to reimpose them. And if sanctions are linked directly to ongoing diplomatic negotiations, this problem is multiplied many-fold. It is always easier to block or delay new sanctions even if they are warranted on the grounds that imposing them would kill off what little diplomatic momentum remains in the negotiations. (Remember: President Obama vigorously opposed the sanctions he now claims were decisive in bringing Iran to this point -- it was congressional hawks who forced the pace, not the administration.) Even if some states are willing to run that risk, it is hard to reach consensus across a large and diverse coalition. That is why hawks were so eager to keep the maximum sanctions in place at the outset of the direct negotiations and why they worry that the relaxation in sanctions already promised to Iran will be a one-way door to ever-decreasing economic pressure.

(Doves had a compelling answer to this concern, but one that raised other worries: Doves pointed out that if the United States did not reach this interim deal, then the global support for sanctions would erode markedly and so sanctions would be eased regardless. This may well have been true, but it raises doubts about the ability to reimpose sanctions if Iran cheats in clever ways. If the international coalition is so fraught, is it likely to support renewed sanctions if circumstances warrant?)

Yet there is one more less-heralded way that this interim deal is but a precursor to the more decisive showdown: It was the necessary antecedent to the military option.

Although Obama has been adamant that "all options are on the table," in fact the credibility of military options has been receding dramatically in recent years. The dramatic growth in Iran's nuclear program means that there is a more sizable nuclear footprint that would need to be destroyed to have high confidence that a military strike had "succeeded." Moreover, for the past five years, the Obama administration has signaled in myriad ways that it is reluctant in the extreme to resort to military force on Iran -- and, for that matter, the Bush administration signaled a similar reluctance in the last five years of its tenure.

In other words, Obama made it clear that he considered the military option to be so undesirable that he would only consider it if all other alternatives that offered any prospect of preventing Iran from developing a weapons capability had been exhausted. The only way to convince Obama -- as well as the domestic and international allies that Obama would need in order to support a military option -- that all other alternatives had been exhausted was to pursue the apparent opening offered by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's charm offensive. Put another way, the necessary first steps either toward a diplomatic deal or toward a military confrontation were one and the same: securing an interim agreement that put Rouhani to the test.

Only if Rouhani failed that test would other options be politically viable.

Even that may not be enough. People much closer to Obama than I am have told me they think Obama might opt to learn to live with a nuclear Iran in the same way that the world learned to live with a nuclear China and a nuclear Pakistan rather than launch a military strike.

We will discover whether this is the case soon enough, just as we will discover whether Israel can live with this interim deal. Either way, what matters most is not what happened this past weekend but what transpires from here on out.


Shadow Government

Kerry Whiffs on Latin America Opportunity

In between his shuttle diplomacy trips regarding Iran, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made the two-block trip to the Organization of American States (OAS) on Nov. 18 to deliver a speech on U.S.-Latin America relations. But anyone hoping that he was going to jump-start the administration's moribund hemispheric policy would have come away disappointed.

In place of articulating an aggressive, forward-looking strategy for the Americas, he offered just more-of-the-same style over substance, another stop on the administration's apology tour, with the main media takeaway being Kerry's apology for the Monroe Doctrine, promulgated in 1823, which he mischaracterized as a U.S. license to intervene in the affairs of other states in the Western Hemisphere.

(For the record, the Monroe Doctrine stated that the United States will not abide outside imperial powers interfering in hemispheric affairs. Whether that is to be apologized for, I suppose, depends on whether you trust the intentions of the United States or those of 19th-century European powers and the 20th-century Soviet Union. If it is none of the above, then that too tells you something.)

In any case, raising the issue of the Monroe Doctrine today is just plain silly, as the number of Latin Americans who still care about it could fill the OAS's ornate Hall of the Americas -- and apparently did. Pandering to this minority cohort in the region is pointless, as distrust of the United States is as embedded in their DNA as is their fear of participating in the 21st-century international economic order.

U.S. policy should instead be focused on making common cause with those millions more Latin Americans who could not care less about wallowing in historical grievances. They are instead eager to embrace the challenges and opportunities of the new global economic order. Yet all Kerry could offer them was little more than bromides about the importance of education and "continu[ing] to open up trade and investment in our children's futures."

Kerry did recognize the progress made on the trade front, including the Colombia and Panama free trade agreements (both George W. Bush's initiatives) and Latin American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but other than citing a recent initiative to provide $98 million in private financing for regional small and medium-size businesses, he offered no administration plan to continue expanding the prosperity generated by trade and energy integration.

It is evident that senior U.S. officials don't consider a region of much importance when they hand the policy keys to second-tier officials to test-drive ideological pet projects. Accordingly, Kerry spent nearly half his speech reciting the "grave threat" of "climate change" and why it must be a priority in hemispheric relations.

Yet extolling the wonders of wind power and biomass to major oil producers like Mexico and Brazil comes off as a bit jarring. These countries and others in the region are understandably more concerned about how cheap, affordable energy can continue to foster their own development and progress. They are not about to divert from that path based on an unproven theory that will necessarily constrain their economic prospects.

It seems that the United States' southern neighbors would be more interested in learning how the dramatic revolution in the U.S. energy sector -- the unlocking of huge new oil and gas reserves through new technologies -- can meet their own energy needs by transforming the international energy market.

I have written repeatedly on Shadow Government that Barack Obama's administration has missed a great opportunity to enhance hemispheric economic ties that will necessarily allow other problems to be addressed more efficiently. The administration has chosen instead to focus more of its effort on trying to convince countries that do not share the U.S. vision for the hemisphere that the United States is really not that bad after all. It ought to be focused on making sure that those that do share the U.S. vision and are making the right choices succeed in delivering the benefits of democracy and open markets to their citizens.

Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images