As much as the Barack Obama administration generally approaches international affairs as someone with the mechanical inclination of Queen Victoria might approach a garage, the Iranian nuclear deal and Chinese saber-rattling in the East China Sea had to offer a welcome distraction from the ongoing cataclysm that is the administration’s (now unintentionally) defining achievement — Obamacare.
Welcome or not, foreign policy distractions mostly serve to highlight another area of governmental incompetence, albeit one with even more potentially dreadful consequences.
The deal made between Iran and six world powers led by John Kerry (let that sink in a while) is touted by some as a historic first step towards a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat and by others as a terrifying repeat of Chamberlain-at-Munich.
The deal essentially lifts many of the economic sanctions — yes, those sanctions that brought Tehran to the table in the first place — in exchange for diluting known stocks of enriched uranium to below 5 percent or converting them to oxide; freezing construction of any new centrifuges, enrichment beyond
5 percent and increases in current stockpiles of enrichable uranium; and expanding inspections of certain facilities.
On the surface, this might sound like a pretty good starting point, save for a few basic facts: Both the dilution of highly enriched uranium with unenriched stock and the conversion to oxide are entirely reversible. Uranium is easily enriched to weapons grade by running it repeatedly through centrifuges. Reducing 20 percent enriched uranium, or even higher, down to 3 percent only means you have set back the enrichment program by a matter of a few weeks.
What about the moratorium on the construction of new centrifuges? Fantastic, until you realize Iran has 19,000 of them. Some, but not all, will be left inoperable — but none will be dismantled. The deal also calls for halting work on the Arak reactor. But it is not yet operational, so this too amounts to little more than a temporary delay.
Granted, not all of the sanctions are lifted. Indeed, some of the most crippling — the sanctions on oil which cost the Iranian economy around $30 billion over six months, for example — will remain in place. But roughly $4.2 billion in frozen accounts will be released to the Iranian government and restrictions on the trade of certain high-value petrochemicals, precious metals and automotive parts will be eased, which amounts to another approximately $7 billion over six months. This is a considerable amount of economic relief in itself, nor should the psychological effects of these concessions be discounted.
Supporters of the deal also like to point out that it’s temporary — only good for six months as a stepping stone to further, more inclusive negotiations, rescindable in the event of Iranian
non-compliance. But re-imposing sanctions that took years of political wrangling with other western allies, not to mention the Russians and Chinese, is not going to be that simple a task. Meanwhile, we will have succeeded in removing our most potent bargaining chip from the table.
At the end of the day, the administration signed a deal that implicitly, if not explicitly, legitimizes Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and reduces economic barriers in exchange for a superficial and temporary suspension of progress. Would that the administration show that much commitment to American nuclear energy.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Eurasian supercontinent, China has taken the opportunity to flex its muscle over its claim to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea southwest of Japan by establishing an air defense control zone. The United States (quite correctly) ignored China’s new territorial claims, and rather ostentatiously flew a couple B-52 bombers deliberately into the new Chicom control area without incident. That is a good, symbolic start.
But the U.S. is going to have to do much more if it wishes to check this newly aggressive behavior of the Chinese in the west Pacific and reassure our allies in the region. Considering the trend of steady degradation of American power in the area, despite Obama’s talk of an “Asian pivot,” that seems unlikely.
Like nearly every one of his encounters in the foreign arena, these developments showcase a president who, whether because of ideological constraints or sheer ineptitude, simply doesn’t know how to handle national power. It’s ironic an executive who feels entitled to concentrate domestic legislative and economic power within itself is so woefully underequipped to exercise the power it intrinsically and legitimately possesses.