The latest round of nuclear negotiations with Iran, the April 8-9 talks that just concluded in Vienna, marked a midpoint between the interim accord of Jan. 20 and the July 20 date to sign a permanent deal. So how's Iran doing at midterm? Let me put it this way: If Iranian President Hassan Rouhani were my student at Michigan or Georgetown and I graded him for meeting the interim accord, he would be looking at a midterm "F," for failing. If, however, he were being graded on outfoxing Professor Barack Obama of the University of Chicago at midterm, Rouhani would earn an "A."
According to the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Tehran must be complying because he expects the talks to include drafting of the July agreement when they resume on May 13. He made that statement before the April talks even began, which implies back channels between American and Iranian negotiators to cook a deal for formalization in Vienna, which the leader of the U.S. delegation acknowledged.
Having represented the secretary of defense on a State Department-led delegation in 1985 arms talks that also met at the Hofburg in Vienna, I am concerned. As parties place brackets around "not agreed upon texts," the U.S. delegation may be too forthcoming in the bracket removal process. In our talks with the Russians in Vienna, contrary to the tougher approach of Defense, State delegates were too eager for proposal-counterproposal bargaining, while the Russians pocketed our concessions. I fear the same may be recurring at the Hofburg, but this time Iranians are picking our pockets.
Tehran is also bargaining by pushing the envelope of noncompliance. It is on a trajectory of cheating on its obligations in the Jan. 20 Joint Plan of Action. United Against Nuclear Iran states that, "Iran's oil exports have increased 117% since October. It is now statistically impossible for the [Obama] administration's assurances to be correct, unless oil sales go to effectively zero."
There are reports that Iran's oil exports stayed above levels allowed under sanctions for a fifth month. Tehran's exports should average 1 million bpd for six months to July 20. Shipments to Asia, however, have exceeded that threshold since November. To provide a happy face to naysayers, Team Obama assumes exports will fall in the next three months so the average will meet the 1 million bpd level of the interim agreement. But as economies pick up, so oil demands will increase.
This overstepping of the terms of the interim accord understandably prompted Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) to pen a letter to President Obama recommending "re-instating ... and sanctioning any violations" of crude oil sanctions, if Iran's oil exports stayed above levels allowed under sanctions. I concur.
It has also been reported that the oil-for-goods deal heating up between Moscow and Tehran would be worth up to $20 billion. What if Russian S-300 missiles that could defend Iran's nuclear sites from Israeli or American air strikes were in the mix? If so, the deal might be a game changer. Tehran would have both smashed the sanctions and received a deterrent that raised the cost of attacks by Jerusalem or Washington, in the event of Iranian moves toward breaking out -- dashing for the bomb before inspectors can detect it. The current western assessment for Iranian breakout time is two months.
Why the concern with likelihood of Iranian noncompliance at midterm? If Tehran cheats and we retreat, there may be more challenges across the globe against American interests and allies. Because the Obama administration lacks an overall strategy that measures actions in one arena by effects elsewhere, it tends to act tactically. Precipitous withdrawal from Iraq had unintended effects in Syria. Precipitate pullout from Afghanistan will reverberate in Pakistan and India. As Russia threatens more forays into bordering countries, China makes threats against Japan, and North Korea warns South Korea, now is not the time to show a weak hand to Tehran.
A feckless policy toward Iran in the nuclear talks is also manifest in abandonment of pro-American Iranian dissidents in Iraq, the Mojahedin. Although there was a Bush administration pledge to protect these dissidents if they disarmed during the takedown of Saddam, Obama left them exposed to proxies of Iran operating freely in Iraq.
And while Bush said to the Iranian people, "As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you," Obama declines to reach out to them with such inspirational rhetoric. Given the failing grade at midterm, now is the time to take a tough stand against Tehran in nuclear talks and to reach out to the Iranian people.