Supreme Irony

Those in America’s foreign policymaking circles who are concerned about the emerging U.S.-led nuclear agreement with Iran are increasingly pinning their hopes not on Washington changing its negotiating posture but, instead, on Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei walking away from the table.

They’re doing so for two reasons. First, with President Barack Obama and his top aides viewing a deal as their foreign policy equivalent of health reform, they don’t believe Washington will reject any deal to which Iran will agree. Second, they think the supreme leader, who presides over a “death to America”-chanting regime that views the United States as “the Great Satan,” may worry whether he can ink a deal and survive.

That such hope among U.S. foreign policymakers increasingly rests on Khamenei – based on discussions with some of them – reflects their anguish about where the negotiations are going and what they’ll produce.

Simply put, more and more ex-U.S. foreign policy officials, nuclear experts and Iran watchers agree that, due to the state of negotiations and U.S. concessions to date, any likely agreement will be disastrous to U.S. regional and global interests and will bring more chaos to an already turbulent region.

In all likelihood, Tehran will be no more than a year from nuclear weaponry, international inspectors won’t get the needed access to confirm that Iran is complying with a deal, a U.S. “signing bonus” will give Iran tens of billions of dollars to sponsor terror groups and destabilize regional governments, and sanctions relief will let Western firms pour billions into investment and trade opportunities in Iran – all while Tehran continues its ballistic missile program without restrictions.

Blunt criticism of the U.S. posture emerges not just from Republican circles but, increasingly, from the Democratic side as well, and it includes ex-Obama officials who played key roles in shaping U.S. policy toward Iran and the negotiations.

“We know much about the emerging agreement,” a bipartisan group of 19 experts convened by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy declared in a June 24 statement. “Most of us would have preferred a stronger agreement.” The group – which includes Gary Samore, Obama’s former coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction; Dennis Ross, his former National Security Council senior director for the central region; and Robert Einhorn, the State Department’s former special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control – called for tighter monitoring and verification; disclosure of Iran’s military-related nuclear work; stricter limits on advanced centrifuge research, testing, and deployment; more conditional sanctions relief; and stronger consequences if Iran violates the agreement.

“Most importantly,” they wrote, the president and Congress should reaffirm America’s vow to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and use all means, including military force, to do so. “Without these features,” the group wrote, “many of us will find it difficult to support a nuclear agreement with Iran.”

Also on June 24, former Clinton Defense Secretary William Cohen blasted the emerging deal, predicting it will prompt worried regional nations to develop their own nuclear programs, enable Iran to expand its power in the region, and do nothing to convert the Islamic Republic from a “revolutionary country” to a more cooperative one.

If Washington seems unduly eager to ink a problematic deal, however, the same can’t be said for Tehran, whose supreme leader is setting new demands and raising doubts that Tehran will ever sign on. A day before Cohen spoke, Khamenei delivered a fiery, nationally televised speech that – in demanding sanctions relief up front, ruling out a 10-year limit on nuclear research and development, and vowing not to let international inspectors visit military sites or interview scientists – seemed to undermine some of the positions to which his nuclear negotiators had tentatively agreed.

Reflecting sentiment in government circles, Khamenei’s speech was interrupted by Iranian officials who chanted, as they often do at official events, “Death to America! Death to England! Death to the hypocrites and the infidels! Death to Israel!”

That Khamenei, though Iran’s most powerful leader, faces pressures at home related to the negotiations seems clear. The tentative agreement of April 2 between the U.S.-led negotiators and Iran ignited “an elite firestorm,” in the words of Cliff Kupchan, the Eurasia Group’s chairman and practice head for Eurasia. Critics include, the Los Angeles Times reported, “conservatives in parliament, the religious establishment, state media, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, all key parts of Khamenei’s power base.”

Thus, for U.S. critics of the emerging deal, hope is not lost. That it rides on Khamenei, however, is both ironic and depressing.

Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.

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