On Friday afternoon, President Obama held a joint news conference with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy, and tucked into the president's somewhat predictable responses on issues like trade, the Sen. Bob Corker's bill, and the stalled nomination of Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch were a few foreign policy surprises.
Ever since the framework for an Iran nuclear deal was announced, the Iranians have insisted, publicly, that immediate sanctions relief was a must in order for a deal to be finalized, while the United States has consistently claimed that any sanctions relief will be phased in along with Iran's cooperation. The Corker bill, if passed, would prevent the president from waiving or suspending sanctions for 30 days, but beyond that, he has the authority to do so under laws already on the books.
Since then, the press corps has tried to draw the White House out on whether phasing in sanctions relief is a must for a final deal, and the White House has consistently stuck with the line that the Iranians are posturing for domestic political purposes, and that phased relief is the negotiating position of the U.S.
At Friday's presser, however, Margaret Talev of Bloomberg asked the president for a definitive answer on whether "there must be a phase out, rather than the immediate listing, of sanctions," and the president's response made it clear that other priorities took precedent over the order of sanctions relief:
"I don't want to get ahead in terms how to craft this. I will make a general observation, and that is how sanctions are lessened, how we snap back sanctions if there is a violation, there are a lot of different mechanisms and ways to do that. Part of John's job and the Iranian negotiators jobs and the P5 plus 1's job is to find formulas that get to our main concerns, while allowing the other side to make a presentation to their body politic that is more acceptable.
"Our main concern here is making sure that if Iran doesn't abide by their agreement, that we don't have to jump through a bunch of hoops in order to reinstate sanctions. That is the main concern. And I think that goal, of having in reserve the possibility of putting back and applying forceful sanctions, that goal can be met."
That doesn't necessarily mean that the president will suspend or waive all sanctions on day one, but clearly, he's reserving the right to serve up some carrots in order to come away with a sharper, more flexible stick. Moreover, it sounds like the president is anticipating that at least some immediate sanctions relief will be required in order to get the deal done. As dogged as the press has been to extract this bit of information from the Obama administration, no one seems to have noticed.
On a somewhat related note, the other surprise of the press conference was the president's reaction to the Russian sale of a defensive missile system to Iran, which he downplayed significantly. Opponents of the Iran deal have pointed to the sale as evidence of future treachery, but the Russians are selling it as a reward for Iran's cooperation in the talks thus far. The president didn't go as far as defending the sale, but took pains to point out that it was not a violation of any sanctions agreement, and said he was surprised the Russians held off as long as they had:
"This was a sale slated to happen in 2009. When I first met with then-Prime Minister Putin, they actually stopped the sale, paused or suspended the sale, at our request. I am surprised it held this long, given they were not prohibited by sanctions from selling these defensive weapons. When I say I am not surprised, given some of the decline in the relationship between Russia and the United States, and the fact that their economy is under strain and this is a substantial sale."
As the president also pointed out, the sale is also a preview of what can happen if the U.S. walks away from a credible deal, since it has not been our sanctions alone that have brought Iran to the negotiating table. But the missile sale, as provocative as it is to the United States, is also an example of the political salesmanship he referenced a few seconds earlier, giving Iran's hardliners a small victory to help the eventual deal go down easier.
Opponents of the deal will see this (and really, anything the president does) as a sign of weakness, but the President is absolutely right, it is far more important that we retain the ability to bring the hammer down, if necessary, than to quibble about how and when we dole out the nails.