Desperately Seeking Obama

For months the problems of ObamaCare have dominated politics in Washington. The botched rollout of the individual mandate part of the law, the loss by millions who have had their policies cancelled, the inability of the main web site to function properly, have led to a political disaster for President Barack Obama, whose popularity has sharply declined. Similarly, in foreign affairs during the last year he resembled Hamlet in the White House, experiencing difficulty in making up his mind to decide on a policy on Syria. On both domestic and foreign policy Obama's credibility has been challenged.

Politically, if Obama is not an isolationist in foreign policy he has with the deal made with Iran on November 24, 2013 become desperate to achieve what he perceives as success at all costs. The President, anxious after his domestic and international failures to make a deal with Iran has persuaded the so-called P5+1 countries to ignore the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions that call for suspension by Iran of all enrichment-related activities. The UNSC called for Iran not to undertake "any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons."

The Obama Administration, disregarding its rhetoric about international consultation, even engaged for several months in secret talks with Iran at a variety of locations, concealing them from other friendly countries. The so-called interim, six-months agreement between the six powers and Iran signed in November contradicts those UN resolutions that resolved there be no lifting of sanctions against Iran until that country suspended its enrichment of uranium.

It is perplexing that this interim arrangement does the opposite. It provides relief, amounting to more than $6 billion, from the economic sanctions that had proved successful. The Western countries are lifting the bans of Iran's trading facilities. Iran can now engage in oil exports, especially to China, India, South Korea, and Japan, especially since transportation will become less expensive, and can also deal in precious metals. In addition it can import much needed spare parts for aircraft and cars.

The agreement purports to be an interim compromise to be greeted with cautious optimism. That optimism relates to the six months of the agreement which is supposed to allow Iran to show that it is serious about freezing its weapons program. Fundamentally, the agreement accepts the right of Iran to have access to peaceful nuclear energy. It therefore allows Iran to maintain its 19,462 centrifuges that help enrich uranium. The compromise is that those centrifuges capable of enriching uranium beyond 5% will be disconnected. Of the total centrifuges, 10,000 will continue to enrich uranium, though the enrichment will stop at 20% purity, a level that is close to weapons grade. Iran is supposed to degrade its supply of 200 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are supposed to be allowed to pay daily visits to Iran's nuclear plants.

The problem in this rather confusing picture is that the essential nuclear apparatus is left intact. It is arguable that the agreement is a first step to a comprehensive solution because it does not solve the issue of Iran's nuclear facilities. No centrifuges are actually being dismantled. Most important, Iran maintains the plutonium reactor at Arak about which France two weeks earlier was so concerned. Iran will only suspend, not end, activity on all heavy-water related projects, such as Arak, that relating to production of plutonium which is on the path to a bomb. France and Israel were both aware that the reactor in Arak can produce that plutonium for making a bomb in just over a year.

Unquestionably, Iran and its leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have benefitted from the deal. The six-month ongoing process of the arrangement involves the comprehensive lifting of all UNSC sanctions as well as multinational and national sanctions relating to Iran. The European Union announced it was lifting sanctions immediately. President Obama, forgetting that it was the success of the sanctions that led Iran to the bargaining table, appealed for no new sanctions to be imposed, which has been suggested by members of Congress, during the six-month interim period. Not unexpectedly, the agreement was greeted by enthusiastic crowds in Tehran.

If Obama does have a coherent foreign policy, it is one of nonintervention and fear of military entanglements. Certainly the U.S., as Saudi Arabia has made clear, is no longer a leader in Middle Eastern affairs. His own words illustrate this when he said regarding Iran, "I have a profound responsibility to try to resolve our differences peacefully, rather than rush towards conflict." This disregards the fact that the conflict produced by Iran has been present since 1979, and that the threat of a bomb in the hands of Iran has been pointed out for over a decade.

The reality today is that both the State of Israel and Saudi Arabia feel threatened by Iran's ambitions to have nuclear power. The six-months deal may make conflict and military action more likely than before. Saudi Arabia sees Iran not only as a rival religious authority, and a competitor for political hegemony in the region, but so as a threat to its very Arab civilization from the rival Persian one. The Saudis may well be encouraged to seek their own nuclear weapons capability, through purchases from fellow Muslim countries such as Pakistan. The Saudis are aware that Iran, the Shiite power, will continue to help maintain President Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria and that it will strengthen Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israel has long made pointed out the danger of an Iran that has called on numerous occasions for its elimination. The new deal has again raised the issue in an acute form of whether Israel will take preemptive unilateral military action against a state that threatens its existence. As a minimum the international community will do wise to insist that Iran dismantle its ability to enrich uranium, as well as insist that Iran forego its determination to eliminate the State of Israel. In explaining his decision not to act in the Syrian situation President Obama declared the "The United States military doesn't do pinpricks." The deal with Iran, if left in its present form, may oblige Israel to undertake more vigorous action.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East