The closer one looks at the Framework Agreement with Iran, and the more we hear from Iran, the more apparent are its gaps. Conflicting public statements in Tehran and Washington suggest that there are serious differences yet to be resolved. For some observers, the framework has the texture of Swiss cheese with a distinct whiff of Limburger.
Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei insists that “sanctions must be completely removed on the day of the agreement.” The U.S. Congress has already emphatically said otherwise, signalling apprehension over the Obama Administration’s ability to conclude any air tight agreement and asserting final oversight on what may ultimately be agreed.
The Ayatollah has also publicly ruled out any “infiltration of the security and defence realm of the state on the pretense of inspection”. So much for the credibility of after-the-fact inspection, the fundamental pillar of proof for any agreement.
The Russians quickly moved to spoil any premature celebration about the deal by agreeing to provide Iran with an $800-million advanced air defence system on the spurious grounds that this is merely defensive weaponry. Though there are now reports that the sale may not necessarily go through right away, by signalling its intent to lift restrictions, Russia has crossed another one of President Barack Obama’s “red lines.” Russia has also concluded a trade deal with Iran for oil, grain and construction equipment that is worth billions.
The dyke on sanctions – the main source of leverage on Iran – is springing leaks in all directions. In addition to Russia, the Europeans and the Chinese, also parties to the framework, are rushing to feast on commercial opportunities in Iran even before a final text is concluded and sanctions are supposed to be eased. “Snapback sanctions” promised in response to Iranian breaches of the ultimate agreement may be as porous as red lines especially when the latest estimates suggest that Iran is only two or three months away from nuclear weapons capability. What seems forgotten in the rush for commercial dividends is that crippling sanctions brought Iran to the negotiation table in the first place. The leverage to ensure compliance is gradually dissipating.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who certainly deserves credit for effort and stamina, initially stared down attempts by his former Senate colleagues to impose themselves as adjudicators of a final agreement. However, he has now been left stranded, as David Ignatius of the Washington Post observed, “like a beached whale” when the White House chose to blink in the face of a unanimous, bipartisan Committee resolution requiring Congressional oversight and approval of any final deal.
As the U.S. stations an aircraft carrier off the shores of Yemen to restrict Iran’s efforts to arm the Houthi rebels, the prospects for consensus at the negotiating table under the latest, “hard and fast” deadline seem less than robust. So much for the hope that a breakthrough, nuclear agreement would prompt a more benevolent Iran in the region. Robert Litvak of the Wilson Center wonders, as do others, whether “a deal that doesn’t change character can change behaviour”.
The allure of Mr. Obama’s legacy has been driving this negotiation from the beginning as the sun begins to set on his administration. Many a president has wanted to leave office wearing the badge of peacemaker. In Mr. Obama’s case, the intent may have been noble enough but the result is now looking more like a triumph of hope over experience and concrete achievement. America’s hand in the Middle East, with enemies and allies alike, is becoming weaker by the day, as is any notion of regional stability. Meanwhile, according to the Chinese who are becoming increasingly nervous and publicly so, North Korea is ramping up production of nuclear weapons. Perceptions of U.S. weakness in one region can be infectious. A New York Times editorial recently cautioned that “concern is growing in many quarters that the U.S. is retreating from global leadership just when it is needed most”.