On July 15, 2015, President Obama arrived at his press conference in the East Room, well- briefed to defend his controversial deal with Iran. After twenty months of negotiations, the United States had finally reached an agreement to end the international sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy. Terminating the sanctions will trigger an an immediate windfall of approximately $150 billion for the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. In exchange for receiving the bounty, the Islamic Republic will obtain an easy pathway to acquiring nuclear missiles within ten years.
Later, there was some controversy over whether the event in the East Room was actually a press conference. It was more like a speech with interruptions from reporters. The President had scripted statements pertaining to particular criticisms of the Iran deal and he used reporters to push those talking points to the public.
Obama began his answer to the first question by telling the reporter he was going to ignore what was asked and repeat some more of what he had just said: “If you don’t mind, just because I suspect that there’s going to be a common set of questions that are touched on – I promise I will get to your question, but I want to start off just by stepping back and reminding folks of what is at stake here. And I already did in my opening statement, but I just want to reiterate it because I’ve heard already some of the objections to the deal…”
In a lengthy opening statement, the President boasted that the agreement constituted a “powerful display of American leadership and diplomacy” that showed “what we can accomplish when we lead from a position of strength.” Over and over, he reiterated that the deal’s objective was to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and that the deal achieved that objective. While acknowledging that it would have zero effect on Iran’s sponsorship of worldwide terrorism, Obama maintained that it was the best way possible to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon.
He projected unmitigated faith in the will and ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency (the “IAEA,” a UN affiliated agency based in Vienna with a budget equal to that of the San Diego Police Department) to monitor Iran’s internal affairs “for perpetuity.” Similarly, last May, Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken asssured skeptical U.S. lawmakers that Iran would be prohibited from developing a nuclear bomb “for perpetuity.”
No one should take the assurances seriously and few do. Iran is the largest sponsor of terrorism in the world. A repressive theocracy with militaristic ambitions. The agreement is predicated on the belief that Iran is actually seeking to expand its centrifuges for domestic energy, but this is provably false.
Consider that the deal allows Iran to retain 5,000 running centrifuges, far fewer than would be necessary to run a nuclear energy program. Currently, after a costly fifty year quest for nuclear power, Iran has 20,000 centrifuges and one nuclear power station, a plant at Bushehr that it bought from the Russians and keeps running via fuel also bought from the Russians. To keep the facility running on nuclear power, Iran would need to increase its centrifuge capacity ten-fold.
On the other hand, as former deputy director of the CIA, Mike Morell told Charlie Rose on February 18, 2015: “The potential Iran nuclear agreement would limit Iran to the number of centrifuges needed for a weapon but too few for a nuclear power program. If you are going to have a nuclear weapons program, 5,000 is pretty much the number you need. If you have a power program, you need a lot more. By limiting them to a small number of centrifuges, we are limiting them to the number you need for a weapon.”
The President’s tone remained confident throughout his briefing. He even called for more questions concerning talking points that had been missed after April Ryan of the American Urban Radio Networks graciously threw some softballs unrelated to Iran. Yet the facade of celebration had already been punctured by the preceding exchange that began with the following question from Major Garrett of CBS News.
“As you well know, there are four Americans in Iran, three held on trumped-up charges that, according to your administration, one whereabouts unknown. Can you tell the country, sir, why you are content with all the fanfare around this deal to leave the conscience of this nation, the strength of this nation, unaccounted for in relation to these four Americans?”
Later, Charlie Rose would try to shame his colleague by asking Garett if he felt he had crossed a line. Garett confounded Rose when he replied that he was embarrassed that he hadn’t done more reporting about the four Americans imprisoned in Iran.
Who are they?
Robert Levinson is a retired FBI agent, snatched up after a meeting on Kirsch Island in Iran on March 6, 2007. There is no information about his whereabouts or condition since a video from several years ago showed him pleading for help and saying his diabetes was going untreated. Although the U.S. government insisted that Levinson was traveling in Iran as a private citizen, a lawyer for the disappeared man’s family told NBC News that he was on a secret unsanctioned mission for the CIA.”This was a dangerous mission,” said attorney David McGee. “Bob knew it was dangerous. And he got caught and the U.S. left him there.”
Jason Rezaian is an American-Iranian journalist who has worked for the Washington Post since 2012. In July, 2014, he and his wife were arrested at their home in Tehran. The wife was released but Rezaian was put in solitary and held for months on zero charges. Eventually, the government charged him with espionage and other crimes, including “collaborating with hostile governments,” “propaganda against the establishment” and “collecting classified information.” The trial started behind closed doors in May, 2015.
Amir Hekmati is a decorated U.S. Marine vet who was born in Arizona. In August, 2011, he was arrested, imprisoned, and interrogated on charges of being a spy after he traveled to Iran for the first time to visit his grandmother. Four months later, Iranian TV broadcast a forced confession where Hekmati said that he was a CIA operative. Shortly thereafter, Iran’s Revolutionary Court adjudged him “Corrupt on Earth (Mofsed-e-filarz) and Mohareb” (English: an enemy of God) and sentenced him to death. In March, 2012, a higher court overturned the death sentence and ordered a retrial because the verdict was “not complete.”
Saeed Abedni is an American-Iranian who was born in Iran. Abedni converted from Islam to Christianity and became a pastor in Idaho. In January, 2012 while traveling in Iran to visit family and assist in starting a church-affiliated orphanage, he was arrested by the Iran Revolutionary Guard to face charges related to his Christian faith. He quickly graduated from house-arrest to solitary confinement, interrogation, and beatings. Abedni has been denied treatment for infections and internal injuries from the beatings because, as a Christian, he is considered “unclean” by prison personnel.
The President flashed an angry smirk as he listened to Garrett’s question. He began his response by sarcastically congratulating the reporter for his phraseology then reprimanded him for implying that he was in any way “content” about the four U.S. citizens left behind (this was not quite what was conveyed in the question). He further mentioned that he had talked to the families of “some” of the four men and issued a stupefying defense.
“Now, if the question is why we did not tie the negotiations to their release, think about the logic that that creates. Suddenly, Iran realizes you know what? Maybe we can get additional concessions out of the Americans by holding these individuals. Makes it much more difficult for us to walk away if Iran somehow thinks that a nuclear deal is dependent in some fashion on the nuclear.”
There’s an apparent rhetorical error in the last sentence, where Obama says that negotiating for the release of hostages would have made a “nuclear deal dependent in some fashion on the nuclear.” Presumably, he meant to say “dependent in some fashion on the release of the imprisoned Americans” since “dependent in some fashion on the nuclear” makes no sense.
“And, by the way, if we had walked away from the nuclear deal, we’d still be pushing them just as hard to get these folks out. That’s why those issues are not connected.”
How does the hypothetical of the U.S. walking away from the deal (and thereby retaining leverage to secure their release) accord in any way with the present situation? How does failing to secure their release accord with “lead[ing] from a position of strength?” The President was boasting that he refused to condition the agreement on their release. Therefore, he claims, the “issues are not connected.”
In fact, the imprisoned Americans were part of the negotiations from start to finish, per the public statements of the President and John Kerry, who said that there was “not one meeting that took place” at which the U.S. didn’t raise the issue. Their release and return should have been a preliminary, non-negotiable condition to any negotiations.
Instead, the President caved. Now he boasts about failing to stand on principle like it was a virtue. After twenty months of administration officials promising to do their best, he now says “Oh, we never wanted to link their release to this deal,” a slap in the face to the hostages’ families.
The President publicly disavowed ever making their release (or the release of any of the hostages) a condition of the deal, a remarkable gesture. He says he delivered a $150 billion windfall to Iran and never tried to condition it on freeing Levinson, Rezaian, Hekmati, or Abedni from the circumstances of their unjust and abject imprisonments. Then he acts like it’s an accomplishment.
The next day, in a supreme display of irony, Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to visit a prison as he swooped into the El Reno prison, outside Oklahoma City, to meet with half a dozen inmates campaigning for prisoners’ rights.