From 2009-2011, Uzi Arad was national security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Now he is contradicting his former boss by speaking publicly in support of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany).
“My position is in support of preserving the agreement and strengthening the agreement,” Arad said on Monday, in a conference call hosted by the dovish Jewish-American group J Street.
Arad is certainly not basing his support of the deal on trust in Iran or on an analysis that suggests Iran is not a security threat to Israel. “Iran is uppermost in our thinking,” he said. “Iranian deployment near Israeli borders in Syria presents a threat that is not nuclear, but it can cause friction and that can escalate. That should be discussed in international discussions involving Syria. But that is a separate issue.”
In early July, the Trump administration reached an agreement with Russia on a cease-fire zone in southern Syria, completely ignoring Israeli objections. Although this agreement obviously concerns Arad, it seems to have had little effect on Netanyahu, who complained briefly but quickly dropped the matter.
Arad believes that whatever serious issues Israel has with Iran, they are separate from the nuclear deal. “It was a decision by the P5+1 and Iran to go after a specific issue,” Arad said. “Iran also has political issues that were not discussed. The reasoning must have been that it was in the interest of both parties to go after a focused approach rather than a comprehensive one that might not be possible to attain.”
President Trump has been claiming that Iran is violating the “spirit of the deal” by testing ballistic missiles and supporting various groups in Syria, Yemen, and throughout the region. No doubt, these are problematic points for the United States and its allies in the Middle East. But, as pro-deal groups in the US have argued, and as Arad concurred, these were not meant to be covered in any way by the deal.
Arad also expressed concern that the United States was considering simply withdrawing from the agreement without having a plan for what comes after:
Doing away with the agreement is not a solution, it just takes away assets and replaces it with nothing.
[Iran] undertook quantitative and qualitative measures that in effect stopped its (nuclear) program. What is less understood, is that the deal also established benchmarks and yard sticks. The Iranians must meet those. You take those away and you’re in a void.
The reason sanctions were effective is because there was international support and international consensus. You need cooperation and compliance with other nations. Unilateral action may have some effect but may be much more limited. So cooperation with allies is crucial.
Indeed, sanctions were enacted specifically targeting Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities. When the deal was struck, those sanctions were lifted. Other sanctions by the United States remain in place, some of them dating back to 1979 and the Iranian revolution. But clearly those sanctions are insufficient to exact major concessions from Iran, otherwise the additional sanctions and the multilateral cooperation would not have been necessary.
This raises the question, which I put to Arad, about what incentive the United States could use to bring Iran back to the table, whether to negotiate an expansion of the nuclear deal or try to reach agreement on a separate deal covering these issues. He responded:
The tragic aspect is that in the past, the reward for Iran has been the removal of penalties. So you exact penalties, then you remove them. Iranians want to get nuclear (sic), but they want to do it safely and cheaply. So there are not many positive incentives except maybe some of their political ambitions or promising no efforts toward regime change. That would be very important to the Iranian regime. But there must be the threat of sanctions.
There were those who hoped that the more open dialogue between the West and Iran could lead to some understandings on these issues in the long run. Whether or not that was ever a realistic possibility, the bellicose rhetoric of the president and other members of his administration, most notably Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, has made such progress considerably less likely.
Speaking to the news outlet, Al-Monitor, an anonymous White House official responded to Arad’s statements, saying, “This administration believes strongly that the deal is bad for the US. In particular, the sunset clauses, inadequate inspections provisions and lack of coverage of the full array of Iran’s malign activities make the deal fundamentally flawed.”
A State Department official went farther. “The Trump administration is fully committed to addressing the totality of Iranian threats and malign activities and seeks to bring about a change in the Iranian regime’s behavior. The JCPOA was expected to contribute to ‘regional and international peace and security,’ and Iran’s regime is doing everything in its power to undermine peace and security.”
On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “If we can confirm that Iran is living by the agreement, if we can determine that this is in our best interest, then clearly, we should stay with it. I believe, at this point in time, absent indications to the contrary, it is something the president should consider staying with.”
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was even clearer. “Iran is not in material breach of the agreement,” he said. “And I do believe the agreement to date has delayed the development of a nuclear capability by Iran.”
Given such testimony from two men who are hardly considered doves, the president might think twice about not certifying Iran’s compliance when he is required to do so on October 15. At the very least, it would seem to tip the scales for Congress against reinstating the sanctions if the president does not recertify. But with this president and this Congress on such a highly politicized issue, even the words of the top military officials and an Israeli national security adviser could be smothered by politics.