Obama’s Narrow Focus On Iran’s Nukes Misses The Larger Point

The U.S.-led six-month agreement with Iran over its nuclear program reflects not just Washington’s limited aspirations for its relations with Tehran but also its affinity for the regional status quo over possible change. Throw in its policy toward Syria both before and after the start of its horrific civil war, and we see an administration that prefers doing business with brutal dictators rather than pressuring them to end their atrocities – and one that has essentially removed U.S. efforts to promote human rights from its diplomatic arsenal. The problem is that a nuclear deal of any kind is only as good as the character, the aspirations, and the behavior of the parties themselves, making this deal in particular ever-more troubling.

Washington’s behavior of late showcases the shallowness of President Barack Obama’s vow, in a major speech at the State Department in May of 2011, “to promote reform across the region and to support transitions to democracy” – and to do it with “all of the diplomatic, economic, and strategic tools at our disposal.” It reflects, instead, Obama’s fondness for the “realpolitik” of the elder President George Bush (as Obama himself foreshadowed while running for President the first time) and his United Nations speech this fall in which he strikingly omitted human rights promotion as an integral part of U.S. policy in the region.

That Obama prefers the status quo to change, no matter how ghastly the former, is clear from his Iran and Syria policies from the start. Upon taking office, he sought warmer ties to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad – and he wouldn’t let their longstanding hostility to the United States, their terror sponsorship that has led to the deaths of hundreds of Americans over the years, their efforts to destabilize U.S. regional allies, or their grotesque human rights records at home stand in the way.

Obama stayed largely mute when millions took to Iran’s streets in mid-2009 to protest its fraudulent presidential election, refusing to lend even moral support to the many who were seeking democratic change. He refused, as well, to do anything of note to stop al-Assad’s unspeakable assault on his people other than calling for al-Assad’s departure and suggesting that diplomacy could make it happen. It is in this context that Washington’s narrow focus on reaching a nuclear deal with Iran should prompt worry.

After all, Washington’s decade-long concerns about Iran’s nuclear program have less to do with global nuclear proliferation writ large than about nuclear weapons in the hands of this regime, in particular. That is, we worry that, with nuclear weapons, this regime will be emboldened to sponsor terror more aggressively, to seek regional hegemony more boldly, to pursue its genocidal threats against Israel more eagerly, or even to slip a nuclear device to one of its terrorist clients to spread the mayhem. All of that, of course, brings us back to the problematic six-month nuclear deal that the United States just engineered.

Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry describe the six-month deal as the first step that they hope will lead to a comprehensive agreement that, presumably, would put an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons pursuit. But, in its tilt toward Iranian demands, the deal rests on hopes that Tehran has laudable intentions about the future. In particular, the deal provides Iran with $7 billion in relief from global economic sanctions, including more than $4 billion in oil revenues that are frozen in foreign banks. That will rescue Iran’s economy from collapse, boost the value of its rial on currency markets (as it’s already done), and reduce public pressure on the regime from a populace that was feeling the brunt of a carefully crafted sanctions system.

Also to Iran’s benefit, the deal essentially protects all of Tehran’s nuclear progress to date, lets inspectors into only a limited number of sites, and allows Iran to continue to enrich uranium at low levels. That means that Iran will add to its stockpile of low-grade enriched uranium that it can later convert to weapons-grade level, and it won’t have to dismantle any of the centrifuges it has installed. Washington is betting it can reach a long-term agreement through which Tehran will end its quest for nuclear weaponry, but nothing in this deal or in the regime’s character suggests that’s possible. Washington is missing the forest for the trees.

Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.” Follow him on Twitter @larryhaasonline.

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