Since signing a nuclear deal with the Obama administration last summer, Iran's theocratic regime has twice been caught testing ballistic missiles, in one case firing them near a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. This is a black-and-white violation of the nuclear deal and it carries a prescribed consequence in the form of new punitive sanctions.
In fact, when Congress considered whether to block the deal or allow it to proceed, many nervous Democrats were persuaded by this provision and others like it.
Yet now that the Iranians have violated it, Obama prefers to throw away one of the few solid achievements that emerged from his negotiations with the mullahs. His administration announced last week that sanctions would be delayed, prompting statements of disappointment from Republicans and Democrats alike.
The reason for the delay is that Iran is threatening to back out of the deal if Obama enforces it. Iran's defiance and Obama's havering demonstrate that the mullahs feel less bound by the deal than he does. He's worried that it will collapse, but they aren't. Obama seems willing to sacrifice enforcement to preserve the illusion that a two-sided deal really exists.
Because the president wants this deal more than the Iranians do, the only truly binding part is the bit that imposes obligations on Washington, such as $100-150 billion in sanctions relief.
The deal ties the hands of U.S. leaders, current and future, whenever they try to deal with sectarian conflict in the Muslim world. It may not be inconvenient when soliciting Shiite Iranian help against the Sunni Islamic State, but it it is grossly inconvenient when, for example, dealing with mounting tension between Riyadh and Tehran. (Iranian threats about incinerating Israel are, of course, entirely overlooked.)
The provision on ballistic missiles is perhaps the most straightforward and non-controversial element in the entire deal. No one in Congress objected to its inclusion. On the contrary, it was used to persuade skeptical Democrats that Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry had not been outmaneuvered in negotiations. After all, unlike nuclear materials and centrifuges, ballistic missiles do not have a peaceful application.
Iran's regime, which insisted throughout the talks that its nuclear ambitions are peaceful, appears to have called Obama's bluff. If even obvious violations like this one cannot be punished, how will any other element of the deal be enforceable?