Monday, July 20, 2015

Iran’s Attention-Span Advantage

Tehran’s goals haven’t wavered since 1979. The U.S. couldn’t even keep track of its concessions.


Dealing effectively with Iran requires understanding the differences between an Islamic theocracy and a democracy. One is a gap in attention spans: The mullahs since their 1979 revolution have patiently built a formidable terrorist state. Their negotiating partners are from an American political culture that has a hard time keeping straight from week to week what the negotiations were supposed to be about.

When the nuclear talks began, President Obama said the goal was to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons without the U.S. or Israel having to use military force. Now Mr. Obama can’t imagine anyone opposing a deal that creates a calendar for Iran getting nuclear weapons and meanwhile provides a road map for Tehran to continue evading inspections.

Mr. Obama last year told the New Yorker, “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now.” He rejects long-term strategic thinking represented by Kennan’s plan to contain the Soviet Union. Instead of a sustained strategy, Mr. Obama has hope that Iran will change, despite the most recent assessment by the State Department: “Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism worldwide remained undiminished.”

A realistic view starts by recognizing Iran’s consistency in word and deed since the 1979 revolution. Tehran has never wavered in its goals of getting a nuclear bomb and exporting its Islamic revolution through groups such as Hezbollah. Its decades of achievements range from the 1983 bombing of U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut to killing more than 1,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and now keeping Bashar Assad in power in Syria with the help of chemical weapons used against civilians.

Unlike most nuclear arms-control agreements, this one does not include a baseline of how much progress Iranians have made because they refuse to disclose it. The deal says if there is evidence of further cheating, a committee of countries—including Iran—will decide if an inspection is justified. If so, Iran gets 24 days’ notice, during which it can hide the evidence.

Ben Rhodes, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, defended the deal last week by claiming: “We never sought in this negotiation the capacity for so-called ‘anytime, anywhere’ where you could basically go anywhere in the country.” In April Mr. Rhodes said: “Under this deal, you will have anywhere, anytime 24/7 access as it relates to the facilities that Iran has.”

Mr. Obama was indignant at his news conference last week when a reporter asked why he didn’t insist that Iran free four American hostages. He said hostages were a separate topic from nuclear arms. But the U.S. gave in to many Iranian demands that have nothing to do with centrifuges. Top among these is that the deal ends the embargo on sales of conventional weapons to Iran. That concession came despite the Senate testimony of Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “Under no circumstances should we relieve pressure on Iran relative to ballistic missile capabilities and arms trafficking.” Gen. Dempsey said that July 7. The deal was announced July 14.

U.S. negotiators couldn’t keep track of all the Iranian demands they caved in on. Secretary of State John Kerry at first denied the deal took Iran’s Gen. Qasem Soleimanioff the sanctions list, but his name is in the annex to the agreement lifting sanctions. Gen. Soleimani runs the Quds Force, Iran’s global paramilitary and covert operations group. He is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops in Iraq.

The mullahs have a track record of sticking to their plans, no matter what pieces of paper they sign, but with this agreement they win even if they abide by its terms. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, last week urged a focus on “the risk of what will happen if Iran does comply with the agreement.” When it expires in 15 years, there will be nothing to stop Iran from activating multiple nuclear weapons.

In the short term, Iran will use the $150 billion it receives under the deal to continue its mission, including buying new weapons to threaten U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf and adding to its support of terrorists around the world.

We’ll now see if Congress can close the attention-span gap in the 60 days it has to create a veto-proof majority. Lawmakers should take a long-term view of the result of legitimizing Iran as a nuclear state. History will judge their reputations in addition to Mr. Obama’s.