WASHINGTON – Like most of Washington, I was under the impression that the nuclear negotiations with Iran ended in July. There was the press conference in Vienna, the U.N. resolution that lifted the sanctions on Iran and the fight in Congress that followed. That turns out to have been wrong.
I should have been more suspicious when no one actually had to sign anything at the end of the negotiations or when the “deal” was not submitted to the Senate as a treaty for ratification. And while it’s true that the Iranians have disposed of nuclear material, modified sites and allowed more monitoring, they also keep haggling over the terms.
Now, according to an Associated Press report, the Obama administration is considering a rule change to allow some Iranian businesses to use offshore financial institutions to access U.S. dollars in currency trades.
When the White House sold it to Congress, senior Treasury officials promised the nuclear agreement would not allow such dollar transactions, since Iran’s financial system has been repeatedly designated as a concern for money laundering. It was not part of the “deal” that was agreed in July, which only lifted nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, but kept in place other sanctions to punish the country’s support for terrorism, human rights abuses and its ballistic missile program.
In a Thursday statement urging the Treasury department not to go through with the rule change, Democratic House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said:
“I want to make clear my concerns that the administration had indicated that there would be no further concessions beyond those specifically negotiated and briefed to Congress. I do not support granting Iran any new relief without a corresponding concession.”
This is not how the Iranians see it. Over the last month, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has complained that the U.S. was not upholding its end of the bargain. He implied that Iran may have to back out of its own commitments if the U.S. does not do more to signal to foreign banks and businesses that it’s safe to invest in his country.
And that’s just the latest example of a new concession won by Iran. Over the summer, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress that the U.N. resolution that ended international sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program would nonetheless retain language that prohibited Iran from testing ballistic missiles. And yet a March 28 letter from the U.S. and the European Union to the U.N. secretary general conspicuously declined to call Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests a “violation” of that resolution.
This caught the attention of Rep. Mike Pompeo and two of his fellow Republican House members, Pete Roskam and Lee Zeldin. In a letter to Kerry sent Thursday, they write, “The seeming American refusal to name these Iranian tests as violations is in direct conflict with the administration’s earlier commitments.”
The White House sees it differently. Last week Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser for strategic communications told reporters that Iran’s missile tests were not part of July’s nuclear agreement, which is strange because most experts consider missiles that can deliver a nuclear weapon to be part of a country’s nuclear program.
Again, the Iranians have been firm on this point. There is barely a day that goes by when the country’s leaders don’t affirm that they have a sovereign right to test as many missiles as they choose. And in case the message wasn’t clear, Iranian television made sure to broadcast images of those missiles emblazoned with Hebrew words that said “Israel must be wiped off the earth.”
This pattern began over the summer when Obama himself assured Congress and the public that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would have the ability to inspect any suspicious site that it wanted. The Iranians countered that their military facilities were off limits.
It turns out they were right. When the IAEA devised a plan to inspect Iran’s Parchin facility, the Iranians refused international inspectors access and allowed only a ceremonial visit from the agency’s director. The Iranians were allowed to collect their own site samples.
Experts disagree on whether any of these post-deal concessions are significant. The administration argues that Iran has complied with its primary commitments — the removal of low-enriched uranium, the modification of key nuclear sites like Arak and allowing far greater transparency of its program.
But this misses the point. Despite Obama’s 2012 campaign promise, the president accepted an agreement in July that allowed Iran to keep in place the industrial-sized nuclear program it had built in defiance of the United Nations. This gives Iran a loaded gun with which to blackmail the rest of the world. If more concessions are not granted, then Iran can always restart its program.
In theory, Obama and future presidents could then re-impose sanctions. But realistically it will be much harder to persuade America’s allies and adversaries to take drastic steps, particularly as so many other countries are now looking to reinvest in Iran’s economy. After all, it took years to carefully build the coalition that imposed the sanctions that forced Iran to negotiate.
Iran’s leaders seem to understand this. So does the Obama administration. And the terms of the agreement we thought was completed in July keep changing to the benefit of Iran.
Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake writes about politics and foreign affairs.
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