In the last two days, the Obama administration has swung between conflicting signals on the Iranian nuclear deal. Unable to wave away the tough conditions laid down by Tehran, the US president was nonetheless optimistic about a final deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program in comments he made at the Americas summit in Panama Sunday, April 12. Obama said he was not surprised at the way supreme leader Ali Khamenei had characterized the framework agreement, because “Iran has it own politics and hardliners who need to be satisfied, but there may be ways to structure the final nuclear deal that achieve core objectives while satisfying Iran’s pride.”
Just Saturday, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said: “We have the capability to shut down, set back and destroy the Iranian nuclear program.” He referred to the Massive Ordinance Penetrator-MOP, aka the “bunker buster” which is capable of penetrating fortified facilities up to 200 feet underground. “My job is among other things to make sure that the so-called military option is on the table,” he said.
Iranian media headlines screamed: “US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has threatened Tehran with war.”
This is exactly what Khamenei was aiming for when on April 9, he laid down two implacable terms for a deal: the removal of sanctions on the day a final deal is signed and a firm refusal to allow international inspections of Iran’s military sites.
Both of these provisions contradicted Washington’s presentation of its core conditions for a comprehensive accord as being gradual sanctions relief and intrusive inspections.
One of Khamenei's objects was indeed to remove all suspicion on his home front that Iran’s negotiators had given ground to the world powers either in the overt agreement or in any secret annexes.
The Iranian media headlines achieved this purpose.
But underlying the vocal exchanges between the two capitals is Iran’s confidence that President Obama has discarded the option of military force against its nuclear sites. This confidence gave Tehran the edge in round after round of diplomacy with the US and the world powers.
Senior negotiator Foreign Minister Javad Zarif boasted on April 7, that Iran was “capable of producing an atomic bomb at any given moment,” and was contained solely by “religious Islamic injunctions.”
His boast was amply illustrated by the 20,000 centrifuges Iran had built up during the years of negotiations, plus thousands of advanced machines standing by to further accelerate uranium enrichment – even though its stockpile of 3.6 percent had soared to 10 tons – enough to build 4-6 nuclear bombs.
This edge further enabled the Iranians to bring the Arak heavy water plant capable of producing plutonium to its final stages of construction, without encountering a prohibition in Lausanne, any more than the Fordo enrichment site, stealthily installed some years ago, or its ballistic missile program were sentenced to be dismantled.
That Iran would continue to get away with its tactic of talking while enriching was borne out by Obama assurance Sunday that ways would be found “to structure the final nuclear deal that achieve core objectives while satisfying Iran’s pride.”
The negotiating tactics pursued by Secretary of State John Kerry in Lausanne and in the previous round in Geneva not only diluted America’s military option but virtually took it off the table – not only for America but for everyone else, including Israel. To put it back, much more is needed than Ashton Carter’s reference to the bunker-buster. To make it credible, the United States must rebuild its military presence in the Gulf and the Middle East – bringing back two aircraft carriers to reinforce the lone USS Carl Vinson, for starters.
This, however, would contradict the doctrine Obama expounded on April 2 when he said: “When you hear the inevitable critics of the deal sound off, ask them a simple question: Do you really think that this verifiable deal, if fully implemented and backed by the world’s powers, is a worse option than the risk of another war in the Middle East?”
But he failed to explain the multiple versions of the Lausanne deal published in Washington, Tehran and latterly Paris, whose discrepancies can no longer be glossed over.
Speaking after his historic meeting with Cuba’s Raul Castro Sunday, Obama rebuked Republican senators for pointing this out, accusing them of “partisanship which has crossed all boundaries.”
Sen. John McCain shot back that discrepancies between US and Iranian versions of the deal extended to inspections, sanctions relief, and other key issues. ‘‘It is undeniable that the version of the nuclear agreement outlined by the Obama administration is far different from the one described by Iran’s supreme leader,’’ he said.
This exchange took place two days before members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plan to vote on Senator Bob Corker's bipartisan Iran nuclear agreement review act. This would give members of Congress 60 days after a nuclear deal is reached to decide if they want to waive sanctions against Iran.
But most of all it calls into question the Obama administration’s presentation of a tentative set of disputed concepts reached in Lausanne as a finalized framework, which left just a few loose ends for resolving by the next deadline of June 30. The very real gaps have been highlighted and exploited by Tehran.
US tactics don’t work well in the Persian bazaar, where the carpet seller pretends to be unwilling to sell his merchandise to an interested customer, while putting the price up in round after round of haggling.
Khamenei falls naturally into the role of the reluctant carpet seller when he is confronted with an especially keen American customer.