Correcting the Critics of the Iran Nuclear Deal And Additional Notes

From the standpoint of U.S. security, the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program announced on July 14 is a very good one. Iran consented to a significant rollback of its nuclear capacity and to a level of monitoring far exceeding any other country. The main goal of the U.S. and its partners has been met: Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon has been blocked.

Opponents of the deal have responded both by misrepresenting what the agreement actually entails, and by insisting upon a “better deal.” Before talks even concluded, critics attempted to set red lines in a number of areas. Some of these were clearly intended as poison pills, provisions that Iran would never agree to. Beyond that, however, the opposition is distorting what the deal actually accomplishes. Let’s examine some of those points.

CRITICS SAY“This deal is dangerous because it fails to achieve ‘anytime, anywhere’ inspections… Inspections could require a 24-day approval process, giving Iran time to remove evidence of violations.”

THE FACTS: No country would ever agree to “anytime, anywhere” inspections, and opposition groups were well aware of this when they listed this “condition” and got some of their friends in Congress to parrot it for them. Its mere presence makes it abundantly clear that is not about opposing a “bad deal,” but rather opposing any deal, under any plausible conditions, no matter how good it is for American, or for that matter, Israeli security.

Iran’s declared nuclear facilities will be under 24/7 surveillance by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). When requesting access to an undeclared but suspicious location, standard practice is to gain access with 24 hours’ notice, but the IAEA can request access in less than 2 hours in certain circumstances. If access is disputed by Iran, it could take up to 24 days for the question to be resolved by the mechanism laid out in the JCPOA, but it is likely to take significantly less time. 24 days, however is nowhere near enough time to remove evidence of virtually any nuclear experimentation. It takes decades before all traces of such work vanish.

CRITICS SAYThe deal “is unclear to what extent Iran must come clean on its prior nuclear work.”

THE FACTS: We know what Iran did in the past. Forcing a politically problematic admission from the Iranian leadership would threaten the deal for little or even no practical gains. We are already aware of the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s prior work, the facilities they used and the supply chain they employed to stock their nuclear materials. It was not necessary to threaten the ability to reach an agreement over this issue.

CRITICS SAYThe deal would provide “immediate, rather than gradual, sanctions relief…Virtually all economic, financial and energy sanctions would disappear.”

THE FACTS: Sanctions will actually be phased, with some immediate relief for Iran and other sanctions that will be lifted after much longer periods of Iranian compliance. Sanctions that relate to Iran’s support for terrorism, its human rights record, and other weapons programs are completely unaffected by this agreement. Indeed, many opportunities for direct American business will remain covered by the sanctions.

CRITICS SAYThe deal legitimizes Iran’s nuclear program…It begins lifting key restrictions in eight years and “grants Iran virtual instant breakout time after 15 years.”

THE FACTS: Some of the deal’s provisions expire after 10 or 15 years, some 25 and some never expire. Iran has agreed to the Additional Protocol which means it has agreed to a higher level of monitoring than any other country in the world, and that Protocol does not expire. By the time Iran can begin accumulating fissile materials, we will have had 10-15 years of monitoring Iran, including its supply chain. It will take Iran considerable time to then assemble a nuclear weapon if it intends to do so. Without a deal, Iran will reach that breakout capacity in just a few months.

CRITICS SAY: Iran will still have most of its nuclear infrastructure, and won’t have to dismantle any centrifuges or any nuclear facilities.

THE FACTS: Iran will be decommissioning more than 2/3 of all its centrifuges, and only using its more advanced units for research purposes. All centrifuges in use will be placed under 24/7 IAEA monitoring, and the IAEA will monitor the storage of the rest on the same 24/7 basis. Contrary to another opposition talking point, reinstalling the centrifuges is a very cumbersome process, so this limitation cannot be “easily reversed.” Iran will also pour concrete into the core of the Arak reactor, rendering it permanently unusable, and will convert its reactor at Fordow so it can only be used for research purposes. Its remaining facilities, particularly the Natanz reactor, will also be under constant IAEA monitoring.

CRITICS SAY: The deal does not account for Israel’s concerns and was agreed to despite Israel’s objections.

THE FACTS: Israel, and especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been saying for years that a nuclear-armed Iran must be prevented at all costs. This deal pushes Iran farther away from nuclear weapons capability than any other possible outcome by far. Netanyahu’s tactics in working against the deal have been criticized by many Israeli security experts. And, while many Israelis agree with Netanyahu that the deal is not good for Israel, Netanyahu’s confrontational behavior (which included leaks to international media that forced the United States to limit the information it shared with its close ally, as well as the infamous speech to Congress arranged behind the President’s back earlier this year) eliminated many of the opportunities Israel might have had to have a louder voice in the talks. While Israelis certainly have legitimate concerns about this deal, the possibility of a nuclear Iran in the near future has been eliminated while the United States has intensified its commitment to Israel’s security, as well as those of its other regional allies, in the wake of this agreement.

CRITICS SAY: This is a bad deal.

THE FACTS: This is a very good deal that includes Iranian concessions that would have been considered pie-in-the-sky optimism two years ago. Unprecedented monitoring, some of which will be permanent; a massive rollback in Iran’s current nuclear capability; a phased easing of nuclear-related sanctions only; a clear system for investigating suspect sites; and a clear mechanism for penalizing Iran for violations make this not only the best possible deal, but a very good one for the West by any standard.

The opposition knows this. That is why the talking points we have just examined range from being partial and misleading to outright falsehoods. The conditions they outlined throughout the process for what would constitute a “good deal” were always unrealistic and unattainable. Indeed, they seemed to be designed to eliminate any possibility of an agreement. That leads to the conclusion that nothing short of regime change would satisfy opponents of this deal.

The current deal may not be the most perfect solution imaginable, but it is a very good one that achieves its key goals for the U.S. That is not only because there are no viable alternatives to it (and there aren’t, as the utter lack of any other suggestions by the opposition proves), but because this is a triumph of diplomacy that resulted in a good deal for all concerned.


Now that the Iran nuclear agreement is done, the Republicans, AIPAC, the neocons and the Israeli government have gone on the warpath (in more ways than one) to try and get Congress to kill the deal. 4688994752_853e3d2f46_b

The piece above takes on some of the most common criticisms of the deal and demonstrates that they are almost entirely smoke. In some cases, they’re based on outright falsehoods, in others on distortions of the facts.

A few other points should be stressed in addition to the ones I listed in my piece.  Continue reading

Congress Takes Aim At the Palestinians

The imbroglio over House Speaker John Boehner’s unseemly invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and John Boehner

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and John Boehner

Netanyahu after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last month is continuing to rage in Washington. But when it comes to the Palestinians, it is business as usual in Congress.

On February 4, the House of Representatives’ Sub-Committee on the Middle East and North Africa will hold a hearing on suspending aid to the Palestinian Authority as punishment for their temerity in exercising their legal right to bring their grievances against Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The sub-committee, chaired by hawk Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), has stacked the deck well against the Palestinians.

The panel appearing before the committee is a group of staunchly pro-Israel academics and think-tank pundits. It consists of Jonathan Schanzer of the neo-conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracy; Danielle Pletka from the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute; David Makovsky from the AIPAC-inspired Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Eugene Kontorovich, a professor of law who is one of a tiny handful of legal scholars who try to make the case that Israel is not actually an occupying power in the West Bank according to international law.

The constitution of the panel is not surprising, given the hard push AIPAC has been giving on this issue, the rightward tilt of the sub-committee, and the Republican impetus to confound any moderation on Middle East issues by the Obama administration. In many ways, though, this is a grandstanding play by Congress. They have, after all, already passed legislation mandating that aid to the Palestinian Authority be suspended if it initiates or assists in a case that the ICC pursues against Israel. Now, with AIPAC cheering hard behind them, they are pushing it a step further and demanding that the Palestinians completely withdraw from the Rome Statute (the treaty that created the ICC).

Congress and the White House do not have a sharp disagreement on this issue, unlike the question of a nuclear deal with Iran. Both the White House and the State Department have publicly expressed their displeasure at the Palestinian decision to join the ICC, and the State Department has initiated its own review of aid to the Palestinians as a result.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration would clearly prefer to deal with this issue in a way that doesn’t cause further, perhaps fatal, damage to the Palestinian Authority. But whereas in the past both the Israeli government and its advocates in the United States have agreed that sustaining the PA was a priority, Jerusalem seems to have changed its position.

The hearing follows a letter, signed by prominent members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs from both the Democratic and Republican parties. Addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry, the letter explicitly states that continued ICC membership would “threaten the viability of the PA itself.” It goes on to declare that the “United States should not support direct economic assistance to the PA until it demonstrates a meaningful reversal of this destructive course and proves it can be a willing partner for peace.”

Clearly, this Congress is determined to force the Palestinian Authority to abandon the ICC or it will destroy the PA entirely. This approach is not limited to the House. Last week 75 senators signed on to an AIPAC-authored letter spearheaded by Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) similarly urging harsh reprisals against the PA for its action.

Turning reality on its head, the Senate letter tells Kerry that “Israel needs a Palestinian partner that has renounced violence, refuses to partner with terrorists, accepts Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and is willing to make compromises for peace. President Abbas’ recent actions undermine these efforts.” With the lone exception of Israel’s insistence that, unlike every other country in the world, the Palestinians, and the Palestinians alone, recognize it as a Jewish state, Abbas has gone to extraordinary lengths over the last decade to fulfill all of these demands.

These letters and hearings have come about under the shadow of the controversy over Netanyahu’s announced address to Congress in March. As such, they have received relatively little attention in Washington. But they represent a significant upgrade in the intensity of congressional action against the Palestinian Authority.

Neither the House nor the Senate letter makes any mention of urging Kerry to push for a resumption of negotiations, even though both note that this is, in the view of the signatories, the “only path” to resolving the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. Considering that the upcoming House panel doesn’t have a single voice on it that is anything less than hostile toward the Palestinians, the inescapable conclusion is that these congressional actions are, in fact, intended to strip the Palestinians of any means to defend their rights and claims in a non-violent fashion.

In March, whether Netanyahu addresses Congress or not, he will be coming to Washington. He will be coming with the clear purpose of scuttling the efforts of the Obama administration, as well as of the key European allies of Israel – Great Britain, France, and Germany—to reach a diplomatic resolution to the long nuclear standoff with Iran. A few days ago, Marsha Cohen and a team of experts ably deconstructed the likely substance of the case he will be bringing.

In light of those realities, the question that needs to be asked of both Netanyahu and the Obama administration is, quite simply, “why aren’t we talking about the Palestinians?” Instead of scuttling peace talks with Iran and blocking every non-violent route the Palestinians have to address their ongoing occupation and dispossession, would we not do better to seek peaceful and reasonable resolutions to both? Or is that just too much to ask of the United States?

Iran Nuclear Talks: The Price of Failure

Once upon a time, it seemed that the Obama Administration had held off opponents in Congress as well as pressure from Israel in order to Khamenei_Rouhani_Ahmadinejad_Iran-620x350press forward with negotiations with Iran. It seemed that President Barack Obama’s penchant for diplomacy was finally bearing fruit and that the United States and Iran were coming to the table with a sense of determination and an understanding that a compromise needed to be reached over Iran’s nuclear program.

These days, the story is different. Almost halfway through the four-month extension period the parties agreed to in July, the possibility of failure is more prominently on people’s minds, despite the fact that significant progress has been made in the talks. Right now, both sides have dug in their heels over the question of Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities. Iran wants sufficient latitude to build and power more nuclear reactors on their own, while the United States wants a much more restrictive regime.

Part of the calculus on each side is the cost to the other of the failure of talks. Iran is certainly aware that, along with escalating tensions with Russia, the U.S. is heading into what is sure to be a drawn-out conflict with the Islamic State (IS). The U.S. and its partners would clearly prefer to avoid a new crisis with the Islamic Republic, especially when the they need to work with Iran on battling IS forces, however independently and/or covertly they may do it.

The U.S. certainly recognizes that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani staked a good deal of his political life on eliminating the sanctions that have been crippling the Iranian economy. But both sides would be wise to avoid a game of chicken here, where they are gambling that the other side will ultimately be forced to blink first.

On the U.S. side, there are many in Washington who would not be satisfied with anything less than a total Iranian surrender, something the Obama administration is not seeking. Those forces are present in both parties, and, indeed, even if Democrats hold the Senate and win the White House in 2016, those voices are likely to become more prominent as time goes on.

But many believe that on the Iranian side, this is a life-or-death issue politically for the reform-minded Rouhani, and that may not be the case. It is certainly true that conservative forces in Iran, which had been ascendant under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are lying in wait to pounce on Rouhani if he doesn’t manage to work out a deal that removes U.S.-led sanctions against Iran. It is also true that Rouhani deals with a Supreme Leader who is highly skeptical not only of Washington’s sincerity,  but of the kind program Rouhani’s reform-minded allies wish to pursue on the domestic front. Rouhani’s support derives most reliably from an Iranian public  fed up with the failure of the conservatives to improve their lives. He dare not disappoint them.

But if Washington policy-makers believe that this amounts to a political gun to Rouhani’s head, they are mistaken.  In a just-released paper published by the Wilson Center. Farideh Farhi,  the widely quoted Iran expert at the University of Hawaii Manoa (and LobeLog contributor), points out that Rouhani does have options if the negotiations fall apart.

“To be sure, Rouhani will be weakened, in similar ways presidents in other countries with contested political terrains suffer when unable to deliver on key promised policies,”  according to Farhi.

But he will continue to be president for at least another three, if not seven, years. The hardliners will still not have their men at the helm of the executive branch and key cabinet ministries. Given their limited political base for electoral purposes, they will still have to find a way to organize and form coalitions to face a determined alliance of centrists, reformists, and moderate conservatives—the same alliance that helped bring Rouhani to power—in the parliamentary election slotted for early 2016. And, most importantly, Rouhani will still have the vast resources of the Iranian state at his disposal to make economic and social policy and will work with allies to make sure that the next parliament will be more approving of his policies.

Farhi’s point is important. Rouhani has options and he need not accept a deal that can be easily depicted by conservatives as surrendering Iran’s independent nuclear program. As pointed out in a recent survey of Iranian public opinion we covered earlier in the week, this issue is particularly fraught in Iran. It has been a point of national pride that Iran has refused to bend to Western diktats on its nuclear program, diktats that are seen as hypocritical and biased by most Iranians. That estimate is not an unfair one, given previous demands by the U.S. (and one still insisted upon by Israel and its U.S. supporters) that Iran forgo all uranium enrichment. Such a position would force Iran to depend on the goodwill and cooperation of other countries — Russia, in the first instance — whose reliability in fulfilling commitments may depend on how they perceive their national interest at any given moment.  Other countries are not held to such a standard, a source of considerable resentment across the Iranian political spectrum.

Rouhani has wisely chosen not to challenge the public on this point, but rather commit himself to finding an agreement that would end sanctions while maintaining Iran’s nuclear independence, albeit under a strict international inspection regime. This is far from an impossible dream. The Arms Control Association published a policy brief last month with a very reasonable outline for how just such a plan which would satisfy the needs of both Iran and the P5+1.

In principle, both sides could live with such an outcome if they can put domestic politics aside. But of course, they cannot.

Still, the consequences of failure must not be ignored. With Barack Obama heading into his final two years as President, it is quite possible, if not probable, that his successor — regardless of party affiliation — will be much less favorable toward a deal with Iran. In that case, we go back to Israeli pressure for a direct confrontation between the United States and Iran and escalating tensions as Iran feels more and more besieged by the Washington and its western allies.

Rouhani, for his part, may be able to continue his path of reform and re-engagement with the West, but the failure of these talks would be an unwelcome obstacle, according to Farhi.

Rouhani and his nuclear team have had sufficient domestic support to conduct serious negotiations within the frame of P5+1. But as the nuclear negotiations have made clear, the tortured history of U.S.-Iran relations as well as the history of progress in Iran’s nuclear program itself will not allow the acceptance of just any deal. Failure of talks will kill neither Rouhani’s presidency nor the ‘moderation and prudence’ path he has promised. But it will make his path much more difficult to navigate.

All of this seems to amount to sufficient incentive for the two sides to bring themselves toward the reasonable compromise that both can surely envision. At least, one hopes so.

Learning from Syria

It seems the overwhelming opinion, from across the political spectrum and around the globe, is that we must stand aside and let Syria

A US protester in support of the late, lamented Egyptian revolt. (photo courtesy of Sasha Kimel, published under a Creative Commons license)

A US protester in support of the late, lamented Egyptian revolt. (photo courtesy of Sasha Kimel, published under a Creative Commons license)

burn, offering a bit of humanitarian aid but doing nothing else substantive. This arises for a variety of reasons, including the sordid history of outside intervention and a binary bit of thinking where the only options are to support Assad or to support the dominant militias like al-Nusra and ISIL (sometimes referred to as ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant/Syria). Personally, I’m not satisfied with any of the options being proposed, but I also recognize why we are so limited and why the international community is stymied.

Rather than simply bemoan the horror, I propose a new idea for how such tragedies might be addressed. If it, or something like it, were even attempted, it would be too late, at this point, for it to help Syria, more than likely. But the world needs some new system, some new entity, that provides a third choice, that addresses both regional and great power interests that are causing the current paralysis. I describe my ideas in Souciant today.

Peace With Iran: Obama’s New Middle East Strategy

The Obama Administration has never had the best relationship with Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu has never hidden his disdain for Barack Obama, and worked for his defeat in 2012. But the level of invective between the US and Israel in recent days is quite unprecedented.

No doubt, a lot of this has to do with Netanyahu’s inability to chart a course for Israel that includes resolution of any of its conflicts–either diplomatically as the center-left would prefer or by massive exercise of force, as the right favors. Instead, he has chosen a path of perpetual conflict, which has not sat well in Washington and Brussels, where the past decade has whetted their appetites to turn attention elsewhere and, most of all, to extricate themselves from the spreading conflicts and increasingly hostile politics in the Middle East.

But a good deal also is due to an apparent determination on the parts of Obama and John Kerry to change the way the US pursues its agenda in the Mideast. Despite the hysteria of those, such as Abe Foxman, Malcolm Hoenlein, David Harris and Netanyahu himself, who prefer to see Israel in perpetual conflict, the US is not about to abandon Israel, nor its new BFF, Saudi Arabia. But Obama’s opponent in ’12, Mitt Romney, actually laid out the issue very well. When he describes how he would decide on US foreign policy in the Mideast, he said his first step would be to phone his friend, Netanyahu. That’s actually how it has worked for some time, and Obama is trying to change that, though the odds are against his success. I explore in Souciant.