‘So the Obama administration lied about the nuclear deal with Iran. We knew that already.”
That’s the message several conservative friends e-mailed me in response to David Samuels’s New York Times article on May 5 profiling Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.
Although Samuels’s article confirms what many Iran experts have said about the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, his profile of Rhodes is important because it explains the unprecedented incompetence, deceitfulness, and extreme partisanship of Obama’s National Security Council (NSC), and it further reveals that the president has allowed his NSC staff to run his foreign policy.
I have three main observations about the Rhodes profile.
The NSC Was Engaged in Systematic Lying to Ram Through the Iran Nuclear Deal
I have long argued that just about everything the Obama administration has said about the nuclear talks with Iran and the nuclear agreement have been exaggerations or outright falsehoods. Rhodes confirmed one of the most important of these deceptions.
According to Samuels, the Obama administration was “actively misleading” Americans by claiming that the nuclear deal came about because of the rise in 2013 of a moderate faction in Iran, with the election of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. Samuels says this claim was “largely manufactured” by Rhodes to sell the nuclear deal to the American people even though the “most meaningful part of the negotiations with Iran had begun in mid-2012.”
Rhodes confirmed what most experts have long known: Rouhani did not represent the rise of a new moderate government in Iran. Supreme Leader Khamenei, a hard-liner, handpicked him to be on a slate of presidential candidates. Rouhani answers to Khamenei.
The White house’s story succeeded in distracting attention from the huge concessions it was offering to Tehran. In November 2013, I wrote at National Review Online that the U.S. had made a major concession in May 2012 to allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium, and that this concession led to the November 2013 interim nuclear agreement with Iran. The White House made this concession before Rouhani won the July 2013 Iranian presidential election. Rhodes has now confirmed this. The Obama administration invented the moderate-Rouhani-faction story to create the illusion that it was taking advantage of a sudden opportunity to get a nuclear deal with a new moderate Iranian government. The White house’s story succeeded in distracting attention from the huge concessions it was offering to Tehran.
The Samuels article also contradicts recent accounts by aides to John Kerry and Hillary Clinton about what roles the two secretaries of state played in forging the Iran deal. In a September 2015 Politico article, Kerry and his aides attributed the deal to two years of intense U.S. diplomacy that included 69 trips across the Atlantic. In a May 2, 2016, New York Times article, journalist Mark Landler described former secretary of state Clinton’s reported leadership and caution on the nuclear talks with Iran; Landler contrasted this with a much more aggressive approach by Kerry while he was still in the Senate.
I didn’t believe either of these stories when they came out because the record indicates that Obama, from the day he became president, was determined to get a nuclear deal with Iran no matter what the cost. Samuels’s article only confirms this and indicates that efforts by Kerry and Clinton to get a nuclear deal were irrelevant — a deal was always in the cards.
The problem is that Iranian leaders knew what Obama wanted, which is why Iran’s nuclear program surged between 2009 and 2013: Tehran was working to establish as much nuclear capacity as possible before it struck a deal to freeze this program. This is why Iran had enough enriched uranium, according to President Obama, to make ten weapons by July 2015 — although it hadn’t had enough to make even one weapon in January 2009. The number of Iran’s uranium centrifuges used to enrich uranium also soared from about 5,000 in January 2009 to 19,000 in November 2013.
Rhodes and the NSC Manipulated Compliant Journalists and Experts to Sell the Iran Deal
Rhodes bragged to Samuels that he had manipulated the news media into publishing stories supporting the White House on the Iran talks. Rhodes made use of “legions of arms control experts [who] began popping up at think tanks and on social media” and became “sources for hundreds of clueless reporters.” According to Rhodes, this crop of newly minted experts cheerlead for the nuclear deal and, like ventriloquists’ dummies, “were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
I’m familiar with many of these newly minted, know-nothing nuclear experts frequently quoted by the press in support of the Iran deal. Many others, however, well understood how weak an Iran nuclear deal would be and were aware of the huge concessions the U.S. was offering. This includes people and organizations Rhodes singled out, such as liberal writer Laura Rozen, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Iran Project. In all likelihood, the reason these experts did not speak out against the administration is that they shared President Obama’s radical views on how to improve Iranian behavior and strengthen U.S.–Iran relations; in their view, allowing Iran to eventually go nuclear was worth the exchange.
Based on Iran’s ballistic-missile tests, continued sponsorship of terrorism, intervention in Syria and Yemen, and its recent threat to close the Strait of Hormuz to U.S. shipping, it’s clear this strategy has been a dismal failure.
Rhodes told Samuels he is proud of the way he sold the Iran deal. His tactics were effective, he boasted, and drove deal opponents crazy. I disagree. It’s true that the administration fooled many in the press, but a majority of Congress (including many Democrats) were not convinced by Rhodes’s deceptions and voted against the nuclear deal. Nor was the public fooled: When Congress moved to vote on resolutions of disapproval of the Iran agreement last September, polls showed the American people opposed the deal by a two-to-one margin and 64 percent believed President Obama and Secretary Kerry had misled the public about the agreement.
Articles, speeches, and rallies by conservative experts also helped counter the White House’s false narrative on the Iran nuclear agreement and provided Congress and the American people with an alternative, more accurate assessment.
Fred Fleitz is senior vice president for policy and programs with the Center for Security Policy. He followed the Iranian nuclear issue for the CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee during his 25-year government career. Follow him on Twitter @fredfleitz.