by Hooman Majd
The NY Times Magazine profile of Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, in the May 8 issue, is a story that seemingly won’t die—albeit among inside Beltway or inside (political) baseball freaks—for those who are instinctively anti-Obama, anti-Iran, and certainly anti-the-Iran-deal. It’s become infamous because not unlike the accusation that the Bush White House lied about Iraqi WMD which led us into a devastating war, to say nothing of a complete reordering of the Arab Middle East which few would say has been favorable to U.S. interests, the central thesis of David Samuels’ extensive profile of Obama’s aide is that the administration manipulated—through Rhodes’ handpicked media sources—Congress and the American people into buying the Iran deal, one that is not only deeply flawed but the side benefits of which, loudly proclaimed by Obama, are never going to be realized. Ben Rhodes later took to a medium, I mean Medium, to walk back some of his comments, but Samuels, who doesn’t seem to have much of a social media (to which he ascribes boundless power and influence) profile, only responded to the exploding commentary, journalists Jeffrey Goldberg’s and Laura Rozen’s (whom he named as being the administration’s “echo chamber”) reactions, and to Rhodes’ Medium essay by taking to the pages, and kilobytes, of the NYT.
This, however, is not about the Ben Rhodes profile (although scarcely a day goes by that there is another fallout from the piece, usually in a Congressman’s statement, open letter, or committee hearing that deserves comment or ridicule, depending on where one stands in the political spectrum). While that piece brought up issues of whether the White House intentionally misled the media and the American public on the Iran nuclear deal (which it clearly didn’t, despite the accusation by Samuels), the issue for the deal-phobic today is more whether the administration is going too far in appeasing Iran post-nuclear deal. Specifically whether it is necessary, legal (or even becoming) for the United States to be assuring or encouraging businesses to enter Iran, which is, after all, a country that U.S. has designated a leading “state sponsor of terror”. The Ben Rhodes profile only raised the issue, largely dormant and of little interest to the American public in the Primaries’ news cycle, to the forefront. A fait accompli turns out, it appears, to have not been quite as accompli as the White House, or Iran, hoped. It is true that the nuclear deal—the JCPOA—doesn’t require the U.S. to do assist in reviving Iran’s economy. It also doesn’t require the U.S. to lift its own non-nuclear sanctions, including banking sanctions. But therein lies the problem with the deal as it stands today, and the non-accompli-ness of it.
The whole point of the deal, as far as Iran (and more importantly the Iranian people) was concerned, was to eliminate its status as a pariah to the world business community, and to the international banking system. From the Rouhani administration’s perspective, the U.S. was welcome to stay away from Iran, as long as it wouldn’t prevent Europeans and Asians from doing business with Iran and individual Iranians. The whole point of the deal for the U.S. on the other hand, was to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, at least for the foreseeable future, and nothing more. Yes, there could be potential other benefits, as the White House maintained all along, but those benefits were neither counted on nor conditions in the negotiations. Not even the release of American prisoners was made a condition—something the media, and to the dismay of some of its members, both knew and advertised all along.
The problem today is that while the U.S. can claim it has accomplished its goal with the JCPOA—namely that Iran, having shipped out most of its enriched uranium stockpile, essentially shuttered one impenetrable (to conventional weaponry) facility and taken out the core of a reactor, is in no position to go nuclear anytime soon—Iran and some of its former business partners, especially the Europeans who were party to the deal, argue that U.S. laws and unilateral sanctions are presenting major obstacles to their being able to do business with each other. And the Iranian people are, unfortunately, not yet witnessing any significant personal benefits to the deal, which was one aspect that the White House hoped, but did not count on, would result from the deal. An Iran where a pragmatic and moderate government (as opposed to a Holocaust-denying, Israel-baiting and self-defeating one), elected by the people, that delivers real economic benefits (along with a measure of international goodwill) to its people, after all, could only be good for a region where trouble seems to have secured permanent residency.
While some—on both the left and the right of the U.S. political system—argue that that benefit has not been witnessed because Iran has not changed its behavior one whit since agreeing to the deal, Iranians supportive of the deal might argue that it hasn’t been witnessed yet. And won’t be, unless with lifting of sanctions there is truly a benefit to the people and not, as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has said, with a strong hint of I-told-you-so, merely benefits “on paper”. John Kerry and other administration officials are traveling the globe trying to assure banks and companies that doing business with Iran is perfectly alright as far as the U.S. is concerned, but as one major bank’s executive put it, after a group meeting with Kerry in London, it’s a little bit rich for the Secretary of State to tell them to do something the U.S. tells its own banks to not do under penalty of law. As long as Iran doesn’t have access to the U.S. banking system, something Congress is insisting the Obama administration must not allow (partly because it’s not in the deal)—not even “u-turn” transactions are, where Iranian dollars run through the U.S. system for a microsecond before being converted to Euros or another convertible currency?—and as long as major banks refuse to do business with Iran, then Iranians will unlikely see the full benefits the JCPOA promised them.
This is very good news to the hardliners in Iran who despise President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif only marginally less (and sometimes more) than they despise the U.S., and excellent news to staunch opponents of the deal in the U.S., who have either wanted to “tear up” the deal, or in the case of one presidential candidate, renegotiate it once in office. Unless the Obama administration can come up with a solution that will satisfy the minimum expectations of Iran and the international community for economic relief and expansion; a solution that will both escape legislative interference as well as survive the transition to a new administration next year, the signal foreign policy achievement of Barack Obama (to say nothing of potential for cooperation on resolving Iraq, Syria, and ISIS concerns) will, as Iran’s Central Bank Governor said last month, collapse under its own terms. It’s a tall order, but a president who’s landed Air Force One in Havana should be able to fulfill it.
Reprinted, with permission, from Medium.
Hooman Majd is an Iranian-American journalist, author, and commentator who writes on Iranian affairs. He is based in New York City and regularly travels to Iran.