Skip to main content

Iran was never ready to deal on nukes

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
November 12, 2013 -- Updated 0010 GMT (0810 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum says no real deal with Iran came out of Geneva
  • Iran still wants a nuclear weapon, he says
  • United States is more interested in a deal than Iran, Frum says

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- Instead of opining on the proposed deal with Iran taking shape in Geneva, let's decode it.

From the reported outline of the proposal, we learn four things:

1) Iran remains intensely committed to achieving a nuclear weapon.

Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, promised his countrymen relief from international sanctions. Since coming into office this summer, he has made various conciliatory noises. Was he readying Iran for a real deal?

The message of Geneva is: No, no real deal.

David Frum
David Frum

Iran's red line at Geneva, the thing it would not trade away, was a capacity to continue and resume nuclear bomb development at any time. Iran's offer at Geneva amounted to a six-month delay of its nuclear program that will not in any way impair its ability to get back to bomb-making at any time.

Iran won't neutralize or surrender any of its fissile material; that is, material used to fuel reactors—or nuclear bombs. It won't disable any of its nuclear facilities. It will only pause. Economists use the phrase "revealed preference" to describe the way in which our actions indicate our priorities. Iran's priority remains gaining a weapon; post-Geneva, there can be no doubt about that.

2) The Iranian economy has collapsed into desperate condition.

At Geneva, Iran gained a promise of the potential release of $3 billion in frozen international reserves and the right to import potentially up to $9.5 billion of gold. For a major oil producing nation, these should be petty sums. (Iraq's oil revenues amounted to about $7 billion per month in 2013.)

Iran itself holds title to an estimated $80 billion of international reserves. The Kirk-Menendez sanctions passed by Congress at the end of last year, then reluctantly accepted by the Obama administration, have effectively denied Iran the use of these funds. Any bank anywhere in the world that deals with Iran will be cut off from the international payments system. If Iran earns $1 billion inside a sanctions-busting country, it must either buy goods worth $1 billion inside that country or else find a way to physically move that much cash -- assuming the sanctions-busting country has that much physical cash, which few do. (A billion dollars in cash would fill all the carrying space on a large truck.)

A study conducted for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies by Roubini Global Economics estimates that Iran's actual on-hand, accessible foreign reserves have dwindled below $20 billion, and maybe further. This amount could cover only three months worth of minimally essential imports, a level that would normally be considered a warning of crisis ahead. In Iran's case, however, the crisis has already arrived. In just the past two years, the rial has plunged from 10,800 to the dollar to about 32,000 to the dollar. Prices have soared, and goods have vanished from Iran's shelves. By any usual definition of the word "desperate," Iran desperately needs a deal on its nuclear program. If Iran still won't yield, that is one more confirmation of point 1.

3) The Obama administration wants an Iranian nuclear deal more than Iran does.

By most reports, it was the United States that came to Geneva armed with proposals, and Iran that did most of the refusing.

As Eli Lake and Josh Rogin reported in the Daily Beast last week, the Obama administration began relaxing sanctions simply to get talks started. Iran, by contrast, has offered no such concessions to the United States.

Since the breakdown of the talks last week, Iran has insisted on its willingness to walk away if it does not gain a deal to its liking. Secretary of State John Kerry - by contrast again - has blitzed the media, defending the agreement as better than nothing at all.

Iran is the country more willing to live with the failure of the talks. Its worst-case scenario at Geneva is more sanctions, more economic privation, more public discontent, and more need for political repression. This last is not an outcome that need frighten the regime very much: The mullahs crushed protests in 2003 and 2009 and there's no reason to doubt that they can crush any future protest equally effectively.

The Obama administration seems much more frightened of its worst-case outcome: the need to use military force to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Compared with that scenario, it seems to prefer any deal, no matter how flimsy or one-sided. And the Iranians seem to understand that preference.

4) America's allies are not deferring to American leadership on this one.

It's not only France that has rebelled against the outlined deal in Geneva. Israel is protesting vocally and publicly; America's Gulf Arab allies are protesting less publicly, but nearly equally vocally. On "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Kerry insisted that there was "zero gap" between the United States and its regional allies. Then he immediately got on a plane to the United Arab Emirates on Sunday, presumably to try to upgrade his Sunday talk-show words into something closer to reality.

Just in case, though, the UAE will also be buying $4 billion worth of U.S. munitions -- its own private line of defense against a threatening Iran and the turmoil that will ensue if America's deal-at-all-costs mentality compels Israel to strike Iran on its own. As of today, you have to guess that it's that latter scenario that looks like the most likely outcome of American over-eagerness.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT