Critics justifiably fear latest Western deal-making with Iran

The secret text of recent days that reportedly describes how Iran will implement its six-month nuclear deal raises justifiable fears that, in fleshing out the details, Washington opened the door to more Iranian progress.

That neither the United States nor the European Union will release the paper seems ominous, for they’d do so if they didn’t feel vulnerable to attack by critics who already think the six-month deal tilts too much toward Iran.

We’re left to read the tea leaves, interpret the signals, and evaluate the atmospherics of late – none of which will reassure skeptics that a final agreement, should it ever come, will satisfy longstanding Western goals of preventing Iran from acquiring the technology and know-how of nuclear weaponry.

In question are two packets of paper: (1) the text to implement the six-month deal and (2) a separate side agreement on technical issues. White House officials have said a host of things about the paper – that it remains secret because the EU isn’t releasing it, that the EU and International Atomic Energy Administration will make the final call about release, that the EU and IAEA will release parts of it over the next six months, that the Administration may release parts of it on its own, and that Iran’s boasts about it are mere political fodder for its domestic audience.

Such incoherence raises suspicions of stonewalling, and both international and U.S. skeptics are pressing hard to see what the paper says.

“I don’t see anything that should block its release,” Ollie Heinonen, the IAEA’s former chief inspector, told reporters.

In Washington, Senators who already doubt White House resolve and are pressing, in the face of vehement White House opposition, for more sanctions on Tehran also want to see the details.

“Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator has claimed that, under this possible agreement, Iran will be permitted to keep all of its nuclear facilities open, continue its enrichment of uranium, and maintain and even expand its nuclear research, including into next-generation centrifuges,” Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham said. “We call on the Obama Administration to clarify this situation immediately and ensure that members of Congress are fully and promptly informed about its nuclear diplomacy with Iran.”

Widespread concern about the secret paper rests on widespread dismay about what’s in the six-month deal itself. It essentially protects Iran’s nuclear progress to date, limits inspections to a few sites, allows Iran to keep enriching uranium at low levels, doesn’t force Iran to dismantle any centrifuges it has installed, and provides sanctions relief that already has major corporations all over the world salivating at the prospect of restarting trade and investment with the Islamic Republic. Moreover, Secretary of State John Kerry this week acknowledged that any final agreement will likely let Iran enrich uranium at some level, which essentially confirms the somewhat ambiguous language in the six-month deal and undercuts a longstanding Western goal.

That the deal has left Tehran feeling emboldened, rather than encircled by dogged international pressure, seems obvious. Iran’s President, Hasan Rouhani, tweeted this week that, with the nuclear deal, “world powers surrendered to Iranian nation’s will,” and he added in a speech that it “means the surrender of big powers before the great nation of Iran.” Rouhani, by the way, will be Iran’s first leader in a decade to visit the World Economic Forum in Davos when he addresses a plenary session next week.

In a particularly galling example of Iranian eye-poking of the American “Great Satan,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif this week laid a wreath at the grave of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s military commander who spearheaded the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. servicemen.

If nothing else, Zarid’s visit further reinforces doubts about any supposed new moderation in Tehran in the aftermath of Rouhani’s election. Iran continues to shower Hezbollah with aid, works closely today with the terrorist group on operations in Syria and elsewhere, and was behind the 1983 attack.

That the White House is lambasting the new sanctions effort in Congress in especially vitriolic terms – suggesting that proponents are more interested in military action than anything else, which earned the White House a well-deserved angry rebuke by the second-ranking House Democrat – may reflect its own doubts that negotiations with Tehran will ever produce a legitimate final agreement.

But, secrecy will not satisfy the critics. It will merely boost their numbers. The White House needs to come clean.

Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Gore, writes widely on foreign affairs and is author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.”