On September 2, 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry told House Democrats that the United States faced a "Munich moment" in deciding whether to respond to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. He was referring to the 1938 agreement between Germany and Great Britain when then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain infamously declared it would lead to "peace in our time."
How words come back to bite. Mr. Kerry's own Iran nuclear agreement "Munich Moment" is at hand.
Will Kerry return to Washington by July 9th (a date that triggers a 60 day vs. a 30 day Congressional review) empty-handed or will he return waiving an agreement which Congress and the American people overwhelmingly reject?
Given the fever pitch of late-night machinations it feels as if an agreement is doomed to succeed in spite of the Ayatollah's penchant for obfuscation and demands for incessant concessions. Failure to reach an agreement seems not to be an option even if it should be.
No one expects Kerry to wing his way back to DC with an agreement that dismantles Iran's nuclear infrastructure. Those red lines evaporated under the unbearable weight of protracted negotiations that the Iranians dragged out. But in the weeks since Kerry proclaimed success reaching an April 2 Framework Agreement, so many red lines became blurred lines that Machiavelli would be proud of the Ayatollah's negotiating skills. Iranian cunning and duplicity have gotten them so fiendishly close to a deal they want -- rapid sanctions relief and a residual nuclear infrastructure on the cusp of weaponization.
Mr. Kerry must beware in the waning hours of feverish negotiations becoming color blind to inconcealable red lines. That will be his Waterloo. It will also be the Iran legacy of an Obama administration which is determined to run a victory lap to an empty grandstand but for the lonely few mesmerized by the falsetto rhapsody of so-called moderate Iranian leaders.
Kerry boasted before departing for Vienna that he "tuned out" criticism that he was not being tough enough. That is noble. Tuning out critics is one thing. Tuning out solemn obligations to the American people is another. That is why his Teutonic obsession for a "legacy" achievement will be judged not on his infamous penchant for hyperbole (see example, below) but what is on the paper he signs -- nothing more/nothing less. Why would he expect anything but that unless he is so out of touch as to defy reason?
Even the most sophisticated White House spin-meister will fail defending a bad deal. By the time Kerry arrives back in Washington the capital will be overrun with respected analysts whose abiding expertise will decipher the four corners of his handiwork no matter what the White House does to drown them out -- whether by ridicule or clinging to the swan song that "... this deal is better than no deal.." Conveniently crafted secret annexes deployed to hide what must be seen in clear daylight? Forget it! They will be find their way into the media in a New York minute.
By now we know what MUST be in any accord to protect the president from a Congressional train wreck:
First, it would be the cosmic height of cosmic irresponsibility to concede one iota to the Iranians on unconditional "anywhere/anytime" inspections by the IAEA. If Kerry foolishly concedes any mandatory "cradle to grave" verification which interferes with unimpeded access to any civilian and suspicious currently known or future military (aka Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps) site -- his will be a negotiation that will live in infamy. The Ayatollah and his parliament have ruled out permitting foreigners to visit any military site. If the Iranians hold to this position to the bitter end there is no acceptable alternative -- and he must walk away. Moreover, a bullet proof agreement must automatically punish Iran with any manipulation of the inspections regime -- which punishment must be in the form of "snap back sanctions" which are automatic, swift, and non-negotiable.
Second, if Kerry approves any immediate sanctions relief as soon as an accord is reached -- as demanded by Ayatollah Khamenei -- the accord should be D.O.A. The April Framework Agreement and its collateral written interpretation issued by the administration assured the world that ANY sanctions relief would be correlated to Iran's accord compliance. Need I remind Kerry that his cabinet colleague, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, publicly assured Americans in a speech he delivered on April 29th before the Washington Institute on Near East Policy that "..It would be unacceptable for us to lift the sanctions on Iran on the day it agrees to a deal." He went on to state that "Iran will receive relief from UN, EU, and US sanctions ONLY (his emphasis) after it verifiably completes major nuclear-related steps, ensuring that it is at least one year away from having enough fissile material to produce a nuclear bomb."
Third, Kerry repeatedly committed to only return with an agreement that requires Iran to reveal its past nuclear weapons activities (Possible Military Dimensions PMD, in IAEA parlance) -- an existing obligation under the so-called "Additional Protocols" of the Non-Proliferation Treaty to which Iran is a signatory. Without a full accounting of Iran's prior weaponization and missile programs there is no baseline against which to assess Iran's future actions. No full accounting by Iran is a deal killer. Kerry stated a few days ago (latest Exhibit A of his unappealing penchant for hyperbole) that the U.S. has "absolute knowledge" of Iran's prior nuclear weapons programs. How wrong he is! As much as he may attempt to deploy the "only we know what you don't know" debating point, no one outside his negotiating entourage agrees with that assertion -- not our ally, the French (who are the true canary in the coal mine), not the IAEA Director General, and certainly not the five members of the President Obama's former inner circle of Iran advisers who recently signed an open letter to President Obama dated June 24.
Fourth, any accord must place a quantifiable, verifiable strict limit on Iran's nuclear research and development, as well as the number and upgraded versions of its centrifuges to prevent a rapid "breakout" after ten years to a nuclear weapons program. Moreover, no measurable, verifiable elimination and limit on its uranium stockpile constitutes a fatal flaw in any agreement.
Finally, covering up in secret, confidential agreements what Iranians demand not be made public will only add to the widespread belief Kerry caved into unreasonable Iranian ultimatums. Classifying agreements on the core elements of a deal may be a convenient way for the administration to avoid disclosing its or Iran's concessions, but sooner or later they will leak out, and then what? Kerry may be long gone, but not forgiven.
Plain, simple, English is mandatory.
That is why Kerry must not succumb to the negotiator's eleventh hour temptation to "cut the difference" or conceal what must be clear, simple, straightforward Iranian commitments by resorting to unreadable fine print, secret annexes, side agreements or "Washington interpretations" on any of the remaining cornerstone sticking points that will earn him avoidable scorn.
However, if he returns empty-handed because Iran balked committing itself to unconditional "anywhere/anytime verification, or sequenced sanctions relief, or a quantifiable curb on its R&D and centrifuges, no one will blame him. Even the wretched soul who has not yet fallen off the turnip truck understands the Iranians will be to blame. So If Kerry holds true to his own public assurances that he would never negotiate away the store he will be heralded as a secretary of state who remained steadfast to his principles, protected the President from a potential Congressional debacle, and never lost sight of his oft-stated goal to verifiably impede Iran's breakout time to develop a nuclear bomb.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker wisely advised Kerry a few weeks ago that it's just as much a legacy to walk away from a bad deal given how much we know Kerry wants one.
Remember, time -- at least the next 6 months to a year -- is on our side and not the side of the Iranians. I say this knowing that no accord means Iran's nuclear program continues unabated and the consequences of Iran's unrestrained program are self-evident. But the regime desperately needs sanctions relief.
That is why the P5+1 nations have time as leverage -- not a year or two, but surely enough time to prove to the Iranians that they ultimately need a deal more than we do. So what if a June 30 deadline is extended. There is nothing sacrosanct about June 30, July 9, or even Halloween!
If Iran continues to balk on the cornerstone essentials of an accord how about lifting a page out of the hand-book of one of Kerry's esteemed predecessors -- former Secretary of State James Baker -- who sharply rebuked Israeli PM Yitzhak Shamir by handing him the White House phone number when and if Israel were to become serious about making peace.
If the Iranians are not willing to make the necessary compromises then Kerry will return to a huge bipartisan welcome if he hands Iranian FM Sharif the State Department's phone number to be dialed when the Supreme Leader reaches the inevitable conclusion he cannot afford to destroy a deal: 1-202-647-1500!
The consequences of failed negotiations are considerable. So, too, are the consequences of a deal that merits a rapid burial. I don't envy Mr. Kerry, but he insisted taking charge of the process so it is in his hands to ensure it does not become his ultimate undoing.