They seem skeptical, too.

Photographer: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

Obama Undermines His Own Case for the Iran Deal

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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In the aftermath of the Iran nuclear agreement reached last week, President Barack Obama has had a lot to say about sanctions.

On the one hand, the president doesn't think they really work. Obama now concedes -- as does Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif -- that while Iran was facing crippling sanctions it continued to install thousands of centrifuges at its illicit facilities. In his weekly address on Saturday, Obama said there were three options for Iran's nuclear program: aerial bombardment, his deal, and sanctions. Not surprisingly, Obama warned that sanctions "always led to Iran making more progress in its nuclear program."

Here's the catch: Two days earlier, at the announcement of the framework agreement, Obama praised the efficacy of renewing sanctions in case Iran cheats. "If Iran violates the deal," he said. "Sanctions can be snapped back into place."

All of this presents a major problem for Obama and his team as they try to sell their deal to a skeptical Congress. If Obama doesn't think the sanctions that have cut off Iran's banks from the international finance system and blocked the Tehran government from legally selling its oil will halt the regime's nuclear program, why does he think snapping them back would deter Iran from cheating?

I put that question to Darryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association and a supporter of the deal. He acknowledged that Iran built up nearly 20,000 centrifuges at the facility at Natanz since 2006, when the first United Nations Security Council sanctions were passed against the regime. And he acknowledged that the snap-back provision was designed to increase the cost of cheating. But he said the influx of trade and foreign investment may change the Iranians' sanctions calculations.

"They will have access to trade, foreign investment, oil sales to other countries, that will have a strong effect on their behavior too," Kimball told me. "As the foreign trade and investment increases over time, Iran's incentives to comply will become stronger than they are today."

This is possible. But another scenario is that Iran's leadership was never all that interested in the overall health of the country's economy, and instead wanted to avoid an economic meltdown that would cut into the personal wealth amassed by the regime elites. As a 2013 Reuters investigation found, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, personally controls a charitable fund with holdings worth $95 billion. Khamenei and his cronies have enough money to ride out the devastating sanctions their defiance has brought down on their people

To try to gauge Iran's likely behavor, two recent examples could be instructive. A similar kind of framework agreement was reached in 1994 with North Korea. At the time, President Bill Clinton said the deal -- which didn't touch on North Korea's missile development, but instead cut off its pathways to plutonium production -- was a good deal, just as Obama talks about his Iran agreement today.

By 2000, however, the U.S. intelligence community  judged that North Korea "had produced one, possibly two, nuclear weapons," by the mid-90s, "although the North has frozen plutonium production activities at Yongbyon in accordance with the Agreed Framework of 1994."

In other words, North Korea was able to comply with the terms of the framework agreement, but still violate its spirit by building a weapon at an undeclared facility.

The Iran framework agreement last week, at least according to the White House fact sheet, does provide for intrusive inspections. The International Atomic Energy Agency would get access to the facilities in Arak, Fordo and Natanz, and also to Iran's uranium mines and centrifuge-production facilities. But the parties have yet to work out a plan to answer the remaining 11 or so questions the IAEA has about the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program before 2003. The Iranians have stonewalled the agency on this issue. This is not irrelevant history. Answering these will give inspectors a baseline to know what they are looking for if they are to catch Iran cheating again.

The other useful historical example is Iraq. At the end of 1991, Saddam Hussein -- as a condition of the cease-fire that ended the Gulf War -- agreed to intrusive inspections and a full accounting of his previous program. The U.N. and the IAEA was never able to fully close the file on Iraq, even though it turned out that Saddam only wanted to make it appear he had a nuclear program that in fact had been shuttered.

Charles Duelfer, the U.S. weapons inspector who wrote the final report on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction in 2004, wrote Thursday in Politico that the inspections program for Iraq was stymied because violations and cooperation had to be determined by the 15 countries on the U.N. Security Council. Saddam knew how to divide the international community, paying off foreign officials in some cases.

The U.N. inspectors had access to advanced technology to detect cheating in Iraq,  just as they will in Iran if the new deal comes through. President Clinton even bombed Iraq after Saddam Hussein kicked out inspectors. But Saddam undermined the inspectors nonetheless, all while his country suffered crippling sanctions.

The sanctions-relief element of the Iran deal still has to be negotiated. It's not clear what Iran would have to do before U.N., European Union and U.S. sanctions on Iran are lifted. But based on comments by Zarif and others last week, the most crippling sanctions against Iran's oil sector and central bank would almost certainly be lifted in the beginning of the agreement. That means that the main deterrent -- at least in the agreement -- against Iran's cheating would be the threat that some could be snapped back.

It took a dozen years to put in place the crippling sanctions that Obama said this weekend didn't deter Iran from building up its illicit nuclear program. Now he is on the brink of signing an agreement that recognizes in the broadest terms the legitimacy of the facilities (albeit with important modifications) Iran built up as those sanctions escalated. Obama says snapping them back into place will deter Iran from cheating again. If he's going to sell this deal to Congress and the American public, he'll need to explain that contradiction.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net