Belmont Club

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Tonight President Obama announced a deal with Iran to halt its progress towards nuclear weapons. Whether the deal accomplishes that is still unknown.

There is plenty of detail about the interim promises. Iran has promised to freeze its nuclear enrichment, and President Obama has decided to trust it by scaling back existing sanctions and undertaking not to reimpose them until Tehran has a chance to prove itself. But none of the detail is relevant to the underlying issue: whether the talks will curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions or merely serve as cover to advance them. Media coverage has been uncharacteristically cautious, oscillating between optimism and dire warnings that the agreement is but temporary and may in fact increase risks.  As MSNBC put it: Obama has a deal with with an untrusted party.

Those kinds of deals can be good news. They can also be bad news.

Obama himself characterized it as a first step. He was at pains to point out that the real deal that is supposed to inhibit Iran from nuclearizing is still in the future; that tonight’s agreement was but the first step on a ladder of uncertain height. In the metaphor of theater, Obama has raised the curtain, but is unable to say what the ending of the play will be.

There will of course be guesses. Some will argue that Obama made a pre-arranged deal with Iran that sells Israel out. Others will argue that Obama has seized an “historic opportunity” that will help Israel in spite of itself. What no one, either for or against, can dispute is that the package which Obama dramatically laid on the table is still unopened.

It’s still a box of mysteries, a delivery receipt on a future event. What does it contain?  A recipe for regional peace? Or does it conceal a ticking timebomb?

The dice are still in midair.

The regional powers will react based on the belief of its probable outcome even before the dice land. Tehran’s past behavior and the singular ineptitude of Obama in Middle Eastern politics make peace less than a sure thing.   Given what is at stake, nations of the region can hardly trust to Obama’s luck. Everyone — and that includes Iran — will hedge their bets.

What is interesting about Obama’s mystery box deal is it has the potential to both stabilize and destabilize the current situation.  Israel and Saudi Arabia are under particular pressure to make up their minds about whether to sign on. For the deal has set in train both a set of opportunities and dangers and the regional powers must be ready for either.

This deal is unlikely to convince the skeptics to get on board. If Obama wanted to encourage them to sign on, he might have provided more detail, more surety of its destination. But he himself cannot say. President Obama’s description of his “historic” deal was so bereft of detail it almost amounted to a full-page ad announcing that he had kicked the can down the road yet again.

For in truth Obama had to make two sales tonight: the obvious one to Iran and the less obvious one to the Gulf states and Israel.  He sold Iran nothing. Rather, he bought a promise from them and a process to revisit the whole issue in six months. He traded in Hope, which is always what he sells anyway. But in the past he mostly sold hope to dopes, and in this case his market is a regionful of cynics. They will be more discriminating. The actual product is little to be seen. The very vagueness of  his deal may actually militate against closing any deal with Israel and the Saudis.

When a salesman cannot show a product, but only the promise of a product, he inevitably raises the question of whether it exists at all; or whether vaporware is all there is.  And what is the product? The ultimate foundation for peace in the Middle East is not keeping Iran from obtaining a particular weapon but forestalling a dynamic of fear and mistrust in which an arms race and rising tensions spiral uncontrollably.

Obama has a piece of paper. What he does not have in hand yet is a vehicle for reducing tensions in the region. He can pour gasoline on the flames to be sure. The Arab Spring and the red lines have by accident produced a most contrary result. The great danger is that the price of his piece of paper will also be to increase, rather than reduce, the suspicion and enmity in the region.

The next few days will show whether Iran’s neighbors are calmed by Obama’s demarche or whether they are spurred to panic. Their fears might have subsided if they trusted Obama.  But if they misgive him and from this pact mistrust him even more, then they will assume worst and prepare — alas — accordingly.

The greatest contribution to peace that Obama can make in the Middle East would be to restore his — and America’s — credibility. If the dice come down Snake Eyes, who’ll be around for the second throw?


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