Skip to main content

In Iran, a bad actor gets a sweet deal

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
November 25, 2013 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Chief negotiator Catherine Ashton and Iran's foreign minister announce agreement on Iran's nuclear program early on Sunday, November 24 in Geneva. Chief negotiator Catherine Ashton and Iran's foreign minister announce agreement on Iran's nuclear program early on Sunday, November 24 in Geneva.
HIDE CAPTION
Iran nuclear deal reached
Iran nuclear deal reached
Iran nuclear deal reached
Iran nuclear deal reached
Iran nuclear deal reached
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: Was deal smart? If Iran wasn't close to building a nuke, deal looks reckless
  • He says deal relaxes sanctions just when they'd left Iran close to economic collapse
  • He says some view President Hassan Rouhani as a Gorbachev-type figure
  • Frum: Deal doesn't address Iran as bad actor in Syria and beyond; does that not matter?

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) -- To assess this weekend's nuclear deal with Iran, here are the key questions that must be answered:

1) How close was Iran to building a nuclear weapon?

The deal does not stop the Iranian nuclear program. It merely slows certain elements of that program for six months while others continue. After six months, Iran can resume where it left off. Iran made no concessions that cannot be reversed.

David Frum
David Frum

More telling, Iran has protected its top nuclear priority. The deal allows it to continue enriching uranium, a stark departure from previous U.S. policy and a clutch of U.N. Security Council Resolutions that declare enrichment by Iran illegal and unacceptable, period.

If Iran was on the verge of a nuclear breakout, it might make sense to pay a high price to slow the Iranian nuclear program. If nuclear breakout was less imminent, the trade-off looks reckless.

20 questions about the Iran nuclear deal

2) How close was Iran to economic collapse?

The Iranian economy is staggering. Its currency has lost three-quarters of its value over the past two years. Goods have vanished from shops. Unemployment is high, and inflation roars.

This year -- and over the objections of the Obama administration -- Congress imposed the most effective round of sanctions yet: the Kirk-Menendez sanctions that barred Iran from the international payments system.

Sanctions have squeezed one of the world's major oil producers to the point where it has access to perhaps only $20 billion in usable hard currency, barely more than Bangladesh. This deal unfreezes $7 billion in cash, a big infusion.

Potentially even more important, the deal relaxes sanctions on gold, opening the way to the resumption of an old sanctions-busting trick: selling oil abroad in exchange for gold trucked in from neighboring Turkey. Iran will also be allowed to buy spare parts for its aging civilian aircraft.

3) How much do we care about making Iran's new president look good?

What Iran nuclear deal reveals
Deal struck on Iran's nuclear program
Analysis: Nuclear deal with Iran

Iran is no democracy, but it has a political process. Elections are manipulated, and candidates unacceptable to the religious establishment are barred from the ballot, but there is some space for some limited discussion of issues. In the presidential elections this summer, the winning candidate, Hassan Rouhani, pledged to obtain relief from sanctions.

Some in the Obama administration seem to have decided that Rouhani is an Iranian Mikhail Gorbachev, a leader with whom the West can do business. In this view, a "win" for Rouhani is important to the West, strengthening moderates against hardliners and opening the way to a broader detente.

The trouble with this view, however, is that the evidence is strong that Rouhani is really the Iranian Yuri Andropov, the former Soviet secret police chief who preceded Gorbachev. Less doctrinaire and stupid than other Communist leaders, Andropov was no less hostile to the West. Rouhani led the long effort to dupe Western governments about Iran's nuclear program in the earlier 2000s.

There's every reason to fear that the "detente" he wants is one that allows Iran to obtain a respite from sanctions while continuing its development of weapons of mass destruction.

4) How little do we care about the anxieties of regional allies?

Israel and Saudi Arabia have vociferously voiced their dismay at this agreement. Smaller allies such as the United Arab Emirates have been less vociferous but no less dismayed.

The Obama administration answers, "We know better. We have larger interests and therefore larger perspective. We put our interests ahead of yours." That's what great powers do. But is this particular great power correct at this particular time? Being big is not the same thing as being smart.

5) How much do we care about other forms of Iranian misconduct?

Even if Iran had never started its nuclear program, it would qualify as a major bad actor. Without Iranian support for Syria's Bashar al-Assad, that country's civil war would have ended long ago. Iran makes mischief in Iraq and Afghanistan, bankrolls terror attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia, and trains and supports anti-U.S. movements and regimes in places as far away as Venezuela.

None of that behavior was on the table on Geneva, and therefore that behavior will continue after Geneva.

Does that behavior not matter?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT