Skip to main content

In Iran, a bad actor gets a sweet deal

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
updated 7:51 AM EST, Mon November 25, 2013
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
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT