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 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
updated 3:00 PM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
updated 8:57 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
updated 4:40 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
updated 10:01 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
updated 8:32 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
updated 2:05 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT