Obama's Iran Deal Vaporizes An Outdated Red Line

Posted: Nov 27, 2013 12:01 AM

Remember when you were a kid and you would open a full refrigerator right after mom's latest grocery-shopping trip, only to complain that there was nothing to eat and that she was starving you to death? Well, that's Iran right now. Iran has enough energy to light up the entire planet several times over -- 138 billion exploitable barrels of oil and more than 28 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- yet it constantly whines that it's starving for desperately needed nuclear energy.

America and its allies have just pulled off the diplomatic equivalent of agreeing to take Iran to the McDonald's drive-thru -- an unspoken nod to the understanding that Iran is somehow going to end up scoring that Big Mac anyway, and that the smart strategy isn't to prevent it from going there, but rather to prevent it from wanting to.

It would be fair to assume that the latest lip-service "deal" is more about America looking to get out of an interminable babysitting gig than anything else. Unless current international legislation governing nuclear capabilities can be changed, there is little more that can pragmatically be accomplished.

U.S. President Barack Obama has announced that an interim agreement reached in Geneva between America, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany will provide Iran with "modest relief" from sanctions over the next six-months -- including access to billions in withheld revenue from its oil sales -- in exchange for Iran agreeing to roll back its nuclear program and allow new IAEA inspections. Not that Iran doesn't already have a long history of circumventing sanctions through front companies, ship reflagging, and the assistance of allies. And, of course, the IAEA can only inspect the operations that it knows about.

International nuclear law can't effectively police intent, which is exactly what would be required in Iran's case. It's already a problem that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty permits uranium enrichment by default and is therefore the nuclear equivalent of the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment right to bear arms: You get to own one right up to the point where you kill a bunch of people and prove yourself definitively incompetent to possess and use such a weapon. Under international law on nuclear weapons, you pretty much have to bomb something to be in violation. "They're totally insane" isn't a viable argument for disarming either your gun-loving neighbor or Iran.

The Iranian nuclear red line is outdated in this era of globalization, and this new agreement effectively just, uh, nukes it entirely. The technological difference between enriching uranium to an allowable medical isotope level of 20 percent and enriching uranium to weapons-grade 90 percent is negligible. Moreover, when a nuclear Russia is already building Iran's facilities -- picking up the ball dropped by a nuclear China in the early '90s -- and Iranian foe Saudi Arabia can have a nuclear bomb shipped from Pakistan within mere days, the debate over Iranian's capacity for nuclear-grade military power is moot.

Pragmatically speaking, two things can deter Iran from using military-grade nuclear capabilities.

First, the international community would have to stop debating whether Iran is in compliance with nuclear laws governing the entire globe and instead have the guts to pass laws that are framed in such a way that they pertain directly to Iran. If that country indeed poses a unique risk, then acknowledge that through law rather than declaring victory over the vaporization of a red line that is unenforceable anyway. That's not a victory of substance -- it's simply a cop-out.

Bailing on the babysitting of Iran wouldn't necessarily be a bad move for America. And if the new agreement is simply a face-saving move for Obama to do exactly that (which I suspect it might be), it's hard to take issue with it.

The Russians seem keen on taking over the babysitting job, given Russian President Vladimir Putin's masochistic affinity for mentoring "challenging" world leaders in his own backyard. America has already punted another problem child into Russia's care, washing its hands of Syria. There was a time when the Middle East and its energy reserves were of prime strategic importance to America, but with North American energy self-sufficiency reachable within the next few years, it's becoming harder to justify this ongoing geopolitical migraine and the allocation of resources that it requires.

Second, the threat of regional mutually assured self-destruction as a nuclear deterrent for Iran can't be undervalued. Saudi Arabia and Israel are both making clear their willingness to retaliate against any act of Iranian nuclear aggression in the region.

North America's primary strategic focus heading into the future -- on economic, military, and diplomatic fronts -- must be China. This applies to all of its activity around the world, particularly in emerging markets. Outsourcing the policing of the Middle East to state actors with greater stakes in the region makes sense.

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