Commenting on the gullibility of the credulous American consumer nearly a century ago, the famous showman PT Barnum is said to have remarked that "there's a sucker born every minute." To see what this looks like in practice, you need only look at the deal that the Obama administration was on the verge of signing with Iran.
Several days of frenzied talks in Geneva between the "P5+1" powers (China, Russia, France, Germany, England and the U.S.) and Iran netted a notional agreement over the latter's nuclear program. Only last-minute objections by the French government scuttled what would have been, in the words of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, a "fool's deal."
France's skepticism was certainly warranted. The deal on the table in Geneva purportedly included a major preemptive lessening of economic pressure on Iran. This could have included, among other things, some $3 billion in repatriated assets, a rollback of sanctions on Iran's gold trade (worth as much as $1.6 billion monthly), and a loosening of penalties for exports from Iran's oil and automotive sectors.
The net result, according to some back-of-the-envelope calculations by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is that Iran's flagging foreign exchange reserves would be boosted by a whopping 25%. That's nothing short of a godsend for an Iranian economy now suffering from soaring inflation, a devaluation of its national currency and widespread fiscal malaise.
What's more, these concessions would essentially have been cost-free. That's because the notional deal did not include a requirement for Iran to at least temporarily cease its enrichment of uranium — something that had been widely seen as a prerequisite for serious talks. Nor, reportedly, did it require Iran to dismantle any uranium enrichment centrifuges, ship out any of its existing stockpile of enriched uranium, or shutter any of its nuclear production facilities. That meant that Iran could continue making progress toward nuclear status even as Western powers were trying to talk it out if doing just that.
Rumors of the agreement's demise, moreover, look to be greatly exaggerated. Administration officials like Secretary of State John Kerry, having invested considerable time and effort in "getting to yes" with their Iranian counterparts, have talked up the benefits of the purported deal — and indicated that they are more than willing to try again. Kerry himself took to the Sunday talk shows to defend the administration against charges that it had "folded" in negotiations with Iran. "We are not blind, and I don't think we're stupid," Mr. Kerry told NBC's Meet the Press.
Others might beg to differ, however. Some foreign officials have charged that the terms offered to Iran in Geneva (or similar ones) could have the effect of causing a breakdown of the international sanctions regime so painstakingly erected by the West over the past decade-and-a-half. Or, for that matter, of prompting an Israeli military strike. According to the Times of Israel, one of France's major considerations in opposing the Geneva deal was a credible warning that the deal could have forced Israel to take unilateral action.
That's not nearly as remote a possibility as some may think. Although its Iran policy is far from settled, Israel has long calibrated its approach based on America's. So long as Washington appeared to be pursuing a serious strategy for preventing Iranian from going nuclear, officials in Jerusalem were generally willing to bide their time. But perceptions that the White House has gone wobbly could well force the Israeli government's hand.
It's a bad sign, then, that at the moment official Washington looks like it is profoundly unserious. In its pursuit of some sort of bargain with Iran's ayatollahs, the White House now runs a real risk of accidentally playing midwife to a nuclear Iran — or of precipitating Israel to act on its own. PT Barnum would be proud.