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Supporters of the Iran deal are ignoring this huge potential problem

President Obama speaks to the press on April 2 discussing the framework nuclear terms with Iran.
President Obama speaks to the press on April 2 discussing the framework nuclear terms with Iran.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The debate around the nuclear negotiations with Iran tends to focus on one of two issues: are the terms of the deal good enough, and can Iran be made to stick to its end of the bargain?

Those are both significant issuesBut there's another question hanging over the viability of any Iran deal, one that proponents of talks have not paid much attention to: will the US be willing to hold Iran to account?

As Yair Rosenberg recently pointed out on Twitter, this is a really important question, and one that especially concerns US allies in the region:

There are, of course, many reasons several Middle East states, including US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, are worried about the Iran nuclear talks. But Rosenberg alludes to an especially imminent concern: that should Iran be caught breaking its end of the deal, the US will fail to sufficiently enforce the agreement.

After all, Iran has cheated in the past, and even deal proponents acknowledge that for this deal to work, Iran will have to believe it would be severely punished for violating the obligations it imposes. If Iran believes the US is full of hot air, it has more incentive to cheat, and if it does cheat it will be much easier for the country to get a nuclear bomb.

President Obama has faced this issue before. In 2009 and 2010, when he first began offering outreach to Iran, he also repeatedly warned that he would be willing to use military action to keep Iran from getting a nuclear warhead. He knew he needed to use both the carrot and the stick to get Iran's attention, and it seems to have worked.

But that was five long years ago. Rosenberg is correct that in the meantime — rightly or wrongly — America's Arab allies in the Middle East have become concerned about Obama's willingness to enforce US demands in the region. They saw him set a red line on Syria against using chemical weapons, and then they saw Syria use chemical weapons and Obama back off military action.

That decision can be defended on its merits, but it has nonetheless contributed to a view of Obama in the Middle East as highly cautious, to the point that many may well wonder whether he would follow through on punishing Iran for cheating on its nuclear agreements.

That concern is valid in itself, but it also speaks to the skepticism in the region about the nuclear talks — and regional allies' wariness about supporting the deal.