As the targeted deadline for achieving a nuclear weapons program deal with Iran draws near, Ayatollah Ali Khomenei has just overplayed his hand in what could turn out to be a historic misjudgment.

Presumably believing that President Barack Obama wants and needs a deal more than Tehran does, Khomenei laid down a series of outrageous demands, which he described as “major red lines.” Perhaps he figured that by doing so he would signal to the US and its allies that Iran’s negotiators have their hands tied by the Supreme Leader.

But if a final deal fails to be compleied and the world believes that fault lies with Iran, then the crushing economic sanctions may not only be continued, but perhaps even strengthened.

Recall Obama’s warning to Congressional skeptics that if a deal falls through, there are essentially only two alternatives–either heavy bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and consequently war,or watching as Iran hastily rushes to complete an arsenal of nuclear weapons, destabilizing the region.

But there exists a middle course, whether short term or long, to significantly tighten the economic screws on Iran. It was the pressure of sanctions, after all, that forced Iran into negotiations in the first place.

Regardless of whether the June 30 deadline is observed or extended, if a detailed agreement is negotiated and then rejected by the US Senate, some of those–such as Russia and China–who see advantage in ending the sanctions, would feel free to do so. The blame would then fall at the feet of the Americans.

But Khomenei’s eleventh hour demands raise the prospect that Iran would be blamed for failure to reach an accord. Among them:

First, all US and UN sanctions must be immediately lifted when an agreement is signed, rather than gradually lifted as Iran implements a series of agreed upon steps. This would allow Iran to pocket tens of billions of dollars of immediate economic relief.

There could be no freeze on nuclear research and development. Thus Tehran could continue to plough ahead on more effective, speedier uranium enrichment centrifuges.

International inspection of Iran’s military facilities would be forbidden, making it impossible to verify Iran’s compliance. It is believed that certain military facilities, such as Parchin, have been devoted to developing nuclear missile nose cones.

Additionally, there could be no long term restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment. Highly enriched uranium, of course, is not required for nuclear power plants, but rather for nuclear warheads.

The driving hope of the Obama Administration has been that if a cork could be kept in the bottle of Iran’s nuclear weapons program for ten years, maybe Iran would lose its appetite for such weapons as it enjoyed the fruits of unhindered international commerce. But that assumes that Iran’s strategic goal of becoming the hegemon of the Middle East and a world power will somehow disappear over the next decade.

And that would constitute quite a gamble.


This piece also ran in the World Policy Journal blog.

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