Millennial Letters

The President’s Preferred Bad Deal

“What is your preferred alternative?” President Obama challenged critics of his nuclear deal with Iran during a press conference last week. “There really are only two alternatives here,” he then claimed. “Either the issue of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through a negotiation or it’s resolved through force, through war.”

Upon announcing the nuclear deal the day before, Obama made a similar point. “Consider the alternative,” he warned. “Consider what happens in a world without this deal. … No deal means a greater chance of more war in the Middle East.”

It’s an argument the president has made many times before—and almost certainly will make again. But it’s a false choice. In fact, once upon a time, Obama himself and a wide array of senior officials acknowledged a third way. “No deal,” they repeated with apparent sincerity, “is better than a bad deal.”

The reasons are self-evident. A bad deal—that is, the deal reached last week—would leave Iran with billions of dollars in irretrievable sanctions relief that it would use to destabilize the Middle East. The deal ensures a nuclear arms race in the region—a process, in fact, that already has begun. The deal eviscerates the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, sending a message to rogue regimes throughout the world that they, too, can possess a significant nuclear capacity. And in merely 10 to 15 years, a cash-infused Iran would be a threshold nuclear state.

In other words, as the Obama administration once understood, or claimed to understand, a bad deal not only would fail to achieve US strategic objectives, but would exacerbate the Iranian threat as well as the global nonproliferation regime.

Obama’s comments last week suggest that he fails to recognize this reality. “We give nothing up by testing whether or not this problem can be solved peacefully,” he said. “If, in a worst-case scenario, Iran violates the deal, the same options that are available to me today will be available to any US president in the future.”

But in a world with this deal, the next president would actually face a far more powerful Iran and a far more dangerous—and nuclearized—Middle East. And with the dismantling of the sanctions infrastructure, the United States would have virtually no economic leverage to address Iranian misbehavior.

Thus, a bad deal constrains the options of the next president, not leaves them in place.

Still, consider the alternative to no deal or a bad deal: a better deal. Obama cavalierly dismissed such an option last week as unrealistic. But that’s only true if you accept the premise of his preferred negotiating strategy, which rests on the assumption that robust US concessions yield meaningful change in Iranian behavior.

Of course, as we now know, Iran pocketed the concessions and yielded no meaningful change. But what’s more disconcerting about the deal that resulted is that the US entered the negotiations from a position of strength. US-led international sanctions had crippled Iran’s economy. Tehran needed a deal far more than the United States. And the Obama administration was poised to use its significant economic leverage to extract significant concessions from the regime.

In this context, an alternative to lifting the arms embargo would have been not to lift the arms embargo. An alternative to billions of dollars in unconditional sanctions relief would have been zero dollars in unconditional sanctions relief. An alternative to leaving Iran’s nuclear infrastructure intact would have been not to leave Iran’s nuclear infrastructure intact.

This approach would have depended on the administration’s willingness to walk away from the table if Tehran refused to cooperate, forcing the regime to face the costs of escalating sanctions. Such a departure would almost certainly have proven temporary: Eventually, a more pliable Iran would have demanded the resumption of talks to stave off the economic damage.

Instead, fearing that the projection of US power and principle would permanently torpedo the negotiations, Obama threw away his leverage and adopted a new de facto policy: Any deal is better than no deal. Tehran drew a logical conclusion: It could extract whatever concessions it wanted.

Thus, Tehran negotiated from a position of strength even though it constituted the weaker party. And it drew out the talks as long as it could, because it recognized the implication of the administration’s posture. The arc of nuclear negotiations is long, but it bends toward ever-greater US concessions.

So yes, the president really had no alternative but to reach the agreement he did: His negotiating strategy allowed for no other outcome. As a result, when Iran cheats on the deal and approaches a nuclear breakout, as it inevitably will, his successor—bereft of any meaningful nonmilitary leverage—will be forced to consider the one alternative that the administration worked so strenuously to avoid.

Tzvi Kahn is a senior policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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