Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in 2012.
Photo courtesy Presidential Press and Information Office/www.kremlin.ru.
A bomb that fails to explode after it is dropped is called a dud. Occasionally that dud goes off long after the battle is over, causing casualties among people who thought they were no longer in harm’s way.
Politico published a story in April about how the Obama administration undermined its own anti-proliferation and sanctions-enforcement efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. It should have been a bombshell when it was published. But if it made any noise at all, the sound was lost amid the cacophony over supposed collusion between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign.
In reaching its 2015 deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for lifting international and some – but not all – U.S. sanctions, the Obama administration released seven Iranian prisoners (six of whom were Iranian-American) and dropped international extradition efforts to try to gain custody of 14 others. This much became public knowledge when the deal was implemented in January 2016.
But the report from Politico said the former president downplayed the offenses for which the detainees had been held and the others were being sought. Three of the released prisoners were part of a procurement network that sought microelectronics for Iranian anti-aircraft and cruise missiles. Another had been sentenced to eight years for supplying Iran with satellite technology. The 14 fugitives who the U.S. had sought to apprehend included the alleged ringleader of a group that acquired vital American-made parts for Iranian centrifuges via China. Those centrifuges were a key component of the very Iranian nuclear program that the administration was trying to stop.
That’s just what happened in 2016, after the deal was signed. Politico also reported that the Obama administration began slow-walking efforts to apprehend Iranian arms-smugglers and sanctions-busters as early as 2014, when talks on the potential nuclear deal were still a secret held closely within the White House and a small circle of senior executive branch officials.
Obama’s under-the-table concessions on Iran’s procurement agents, like the overall Iran nuclear deal itself, are arguably unwise but unarguably legal. The determination and execution of American foreign policy are the purview of the executive branch, subject to congressional prerogatives over appropriating funds, confirming nominees, declaring war and ratifying treaties. Despite the fact that it involved American commitments to Iran and collaboration with multiple other countries, the nuclear deal was presented as an executive agreement rather than a treaty, which is why President Trump is free to disavow it if he should choose. So far, he has not.
American allies as diverse as Israel and Saudi Arabia instantly saw the Obama agreement as a concession to an implacable enemy and a threat to their own security. No doubt they knew the extent of the concessions regarding the sanctions-evading individuals well before Politico brought this to wider attention. With America’s reliability as a bulwark against Iranian aggression undermined, the Saudis in particular embarked on a much more muscular response of their own, including the current near-blockade of neighboring Qatar for being insufficiently loyal to the anti-Tehran cause.
While Obama may have been kowtowing to the Iranians, he certainly wasn’t “colluding” with them in any reasonable sense of that word. He was acting as an elected official within what he (at least) believed to be the scope of his constitutional powers. This was true, as well, back in 2012 when Obama famously told Dmitry Medvedev, “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.” At the time Medvedev was keeping Russia’s presidential seat warm for Vladimir Putin, who had temporarily stepped down in 2008 to become prime minister due to term limits, only to reclaim the seat a few weeks after Obama’s remarks to Medvedev were inadvertently captured on an open mic. “I understand,” Medvedev replied. “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”
Was Obama “colluding” with the Russians amid his 2012 presidential campaign? Not unless collusion has been redefined to include the conduct of international diplomacy by a sitting president.
Trump, of course, was not a sitting president during the 2016 campaign. Nothing has surfaced to indicate that he or the people around him had anything to do with the hacking of Democratic campaign files and subsequent releases of embarrassing emails that U.S. intelligence agencies (then run by Obama appointees) concluded were the work of the Russians. And while some in Trump’s circle surely had business dealings with Russian executives and officials during that time, those likewise were not illegal, and had even been encouraged by the Obama administration.
Well after the election and just a few weeks before Trump’s inauguration, Obama retaliated against the alleged Russian electoral interference with new sanctions, including the ban of 35 Russian individuals from U.S. soil. According to news reports initially sourced to anonymously leaked intelligence, Trump’s incoming national security adviser, Michael Flynn, discussed those sanctions with a Russian diplomat and may have indicated that Trump would revisit the actions once he took office. (Thus far Trump has let Obama’s steps stand.) Flynn served in the administration for less than a month before being forced to resign, largely for telling Vice President Mike Pence that he had not discussed sanctions with the Russians – denials which were later contradicted, to Pence’s embarrassment.
So for the past four months we have been exposed to an endless deluge of columns purporting to explore and explode the alleged “cover-up” for which there is, as far as anyone yet knows, no underlying crime, based on leaks from the administration of a president who, after boasting of his own forthcoming “flexibility,” sought to tie his successor’s hands in dealing with the still-emerging disclosures of Russian interference in an American election.
It has been a lot of noise and smoke, but with very little actual explosive force. Meanwhile, an actual bombshell landed almost unnoticed and sits waiting for someone to stumble across it. It may never go off. Then again, especially if one of Obama’s catch-and-release proliferators is ever linked to a successful hostile event, it could someday yield a pretty big bang.