- The Joint Plan of Action: P5+1 and Iran
Part IV: The Washington-Jerusalem-Buenos Aries-Tehran Quadrangle
In the ongoing dispute between the White House and the Israeli government over the invitation to Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on the Iran nuclear negotiations, we supposedly learned that Netanyahu would no longer be updated on the progress of those negotiations. The explanation: fear that Netanyahu will use the information for political needs. But that is not all. In addition, Obama’s National Security Advisor was said to be cutting off all contact with the Israeli National Security Council. If true, a brouhaha would now have become an imbroglio, for the dispute now would directly affect the security of Israel. Obama appeared to have declared diplomatic war against Israel, showing, perhaps for the first time since he has been president, that he too can play hardball.
In what sense could informing Netanyahu on the status of the talks allow Bibi to use that information for political purposes since he has always used information for political purposes? That was the whole point of promising to keep Jerusalem updated – as a quid pro quo to getting Israel to step down from plans to bomb the Fordow reactor and other nuclear installations in Iran. Was Obama trying to provoke Israel into using the bombing card?
When Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary of State in charge of the nuclear talks with Iran, was reported as announcing that she ceased briefing and updating Israel on the talks, were there any reports that she offered evidence that Netanyahu was using the material she supplied inappropriately to advance his own political prospects within Israel? When Susan Rice, Obama’s National Security Advisor, purportedly announced that she was cutting off all contacts with the Israeli National Security Council, and its chief, Yossi Cohen, she allegedly claimed that Israel was turning a U.S. national security issue into a political issue within the U.S. to interfere in U.S. domestic politics. But if the White House had responded in this way, Obama’s office would have been responsible for turning a minor diplomatic misstep and, in my mind, inadvisable visit, into a major security issue.
In other words, Netanyahu was being portrayed as having committed a double boo-boo and the revenge by the White House had reportedly come down swiftly and heavily. One reaction: what is Israel supposed to do when it feels the progress of the negotiations is undermining the understandings between the U.S. and Israel on the quid pro quo? Go quietly into the night?
Netanyahu’s office, however, kept its cool about the latest purported revelations as it has over the invitation to address Congress. In the latter case, Israel simply slipped out the information that Netanyahu had indeed followed protocol and informed the White House about the invitation before he accepted. (If the Oval Office only learned about the invitation from Netanyahu, their intelligence on gathering information on what is going on in Congress must be dreadful.) If Obama’s White House had indeed responded to Netanyahu’s plan to speak to a joint sitting of Congress as reported, a really serious breach in protocol would have taken place, now by the White House, for Obama’s office could have let Netanyahu know that if he accepted the invitation from the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the White House would come out with full guns blazing.
Was this only the opening salvo? Something seemed fishy. First, the alleged White House reaction was so disproportionate to the alleged offense. Second, such a response would not have been self-serving as it would have alienated much of the Jewish base who support the Democrats which would then rally on behalf of Israel – not Netanyahu – because such a response would have gone far too far. Third, Netanyahu, who is a street brawler, did not respond and return diplomatic artillery fire. His office only stated that, “The relations between the two nations are deep” and that Yossi Cohen will leave for Washington next week to take part in a conference when he will meet with Sherman and Rice, totally contrary to the report that Rice would no longer meet with Cohen.
I thought the invitation to Netanyahu was only a brouhaha, but if the report had been accurate, the tension between Netanyahu and the White House would certainly no longer be just that. Personal animosity would have risen to fever pitch and threatened the deep relations between the two countries. I had thought the acceptance of the invitation to address Congress was inadvisable, but I did not think that Obama would suddenly raise the stakes and plant a minefield for Israel around the Iran negotiations.
Are the negotiations going so badly that Obama wants to blame Israel for torpedoing them and then justify why the U.S. will not support Israel in seeking increased sanctions or even diplomatically supporting Israel in dealing with the existential threat of a nuclear-armed Iran? Is there time to step back from the breach? Certainly John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives, had issued the invitation without keeping the White House in the loop. I suspect that may have been unprecedented, not only in relations between the White House and Congress, but in the war between the Republicans and the Obama administration thus far. And clearly John Boehner has not yet bought into the compromise of a Netanyahu meeting with Congress that is a private briefing. As Boehner said, “It’s an important message that the American people need to hear.”
If the story on the White House cutting off briefings on the progress of the talks and cutting off contacts between Israel’s National Security Agency and Washington’s had been accurate, what was taking place was not only an all-out diplomatic war between Israel and the White House, but an all-out-war between the Republicans and the White House over the most important foreign policy initiative of Obama’s second term. Obama needed that like he needed a hole-in-the-head.
Before the purported huge increase in temperature in the war of words between the White House and Netanyahu, a few House of Representative democrats had tried to cool things down by asking Boehner to postpone Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress. Representatives Keith Ellison, Steve Cohen and Maxine Waters were collecting signatures to that effect when the White House salvo allegedly went off. The petition said that, “as members of Congress who support Israel, we share concern that it appears that you are using a foreign leader as a political tool against the president.” 13 Democrat representatives indicated that they did not intend to attend the speech in addition to Vice President Joe Biden. Was the White House now undercutting the counter-attack of the Democrats in Congress by alienating a significant portion of their constituency by an unprecedented breach in the relations between the U.S. administration and Netanyahu?
As you have almost certainly learned, the Monday story in the Hebrew press has since been reported as erroneous. If so, some Haaretz reporter will have to pay a high price. The White House and the State Department both categorically denied the report that it had significantly upped the ante well beyond its clearly signaled displeasure at Netanyahu coming to Washington to address Congress in March. In fact, the day before the report appeared, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough explicitly repudiated all reports of a widening rift between the Obama administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On NBC’s Meet the Press, he repeated the well-worn mantra: “Our relationship with Israel is many-faceted, deep and abiding…focused on a shared series of threats, but also, on a shared series of values that one particular instance is not going to inform overwhelmingly.” Inform overwhelmingly?
So why tell a story about what turns out to be a non-story? Because it may not just be a non-story. It may have been a false leak, a way of warning Netanyahu without actually starting a full-scale diplomatic wary? Because it is important to differentiate between diplomatic artillery fire using live ammunition, artillery fire using simunition (non-lethal ammunition used in target practice and simulated war games) from a fireworks display. This may not have been a lethal salvo in a diplomatic war. But it may not just have been fireworks. Obama may have been using simunition. Further, it is important to learn the Talmudic practice of analysis based on the principle of, “On the one hand…then on the other hand.” For it is too easy to select one of the hands and presume that is the story. All hands must be analyzed and the purpose of each assessed to reveal a larger picture.
The gap between Netanyahu and Obama is deep enough. The rift between the Democrats and the Republicans in contrast to a time when politicians previously sought bipartisan support for foreign policy initiatives need not be expanded into a wide and much deeper chasm. Were the Republicans merely up to their customary obstreperous shenanigans or had Obama made so many compromises in dealing with Iran that both Israeli and U.S. vital security interests had been compromised?
There was a substantive issue that needed to be explicated. According to the Obama administration, the negotiations managed, thus far, to extract enormous concessions from Iran in the first round, a position, incidentally, echoed in Tehran by Iranian domestic critics who insist that Iran gave up too much. On the other hand, the Republican threat to pass new sanctions legislation has accelerated the tortoise-paced style of the negotiations, enough so that the White House is now leaking reports of major progress — that 80% of the differences have been resolved and a positive outcome can be expected by the March deadline. The new Senate de facto deadline had made Obama’s plan for an interim agreement on principles with a follow-up comprehensive agreement by 30 June a chimera.
That plan already had run up against the declared policies of the Iranian government. Iranian leaders have repeatedly insisted that the next stage must not be an interim deal, but must be a comprehensive one. Both sides have insisted that no agreement is better than a bad agreement. But that insistence is totally beside the point and window dressing since any agreement once made will be presented as a win-win for both sides and, hence, a good agreement. The more important procedural difference is that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who will have the final say in Iran, has insisted that he would oppose an interim agreement based on “general principles in one step, then get to specifics.” He had informed Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, his chief negotiator, that he would only endorse a comprehensive agreement based on the corollary to the November interim agreement “to build on a current momentum in order to complete these negotiations within the shortest possible time, up to four months, and if necessary to use the remaining time until the end of June to finalize any possible remaining technical and drafting work.” He would not tolerate the Sword of Damocles and the prospect of renewed sanctions hanging over the government of Iran.
Thus, both sides are now working on concluding a substantive agreement before the end of March that may include some items that still need to be resolved before the end of June. Whatever is agreed, if an agreement is reached, will not be presented as an interim agreement, but as a final one with only a few loose ends left to be tied.
However, before I get into what we know about the essential terms of the deal, it is important to understand the terms of the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) and its shortcomings. The JPA set out to provide a negotiating framework to allow Iran and the P5+1 to reach a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear program would be exclusively peaceful. Since few countries trusted Iran to abide by its agreements given its previous behavior, the terms would have to meet two almost irreconcilable goals: putting practices in place that would prevent a nuclear breakout using Iran’s supposedly peaceful nuclear program. Secondly, it would have to satisfy the Ayatollahs that such limitations did not compromise Iran’s supposed plans for the peaceful use of its nuclear technology even if one did not buy into Iran’s protestations all along that “under no circumstances would Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons.” Its very enrichment program of U-235 could have no other purpose than use in nuclear weapons.
The initial framework agreement in itself provoked consternation in both Israel and a significant part of the Washington security establishment. First of all, not only was there no statement that the negotiations were intended to place boundaries on Iran’s quest to become a regional power – a quest which the White House had not only acceded to but has since endorsed – but there was nothing in the statement of purpose to address the problem of Iran’s continuing drive to perfect its international missile delivery system. Instead, the purpose of the negotiations as set forth was to arrive at a comprehensive solution that, “would enable Iran to fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”
The two omissions and this positive formulation of goals in terms of protecting Iran’s rights, not ensuring its obligations, were sufficient to produce apoplexy in critics. However, the proposition ensuring Iran’s rights to a peaceful use of nuclear power was followed by a subsequent sentence that read, “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons.” Note the difference. The agreement will ensure that Iran can use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The JPA does not then say that the agreement is intended to ensure that Iran can never use its nuclear capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Only that Iran affirms that intention. But Iran can affirm that it has changed its mind. The opening paragraph of intentions in the JPA could not have been more alarming for Israel, even without citing Iran’s past practices of deceit and even without the issue of Iran as a regional power and its development of missile technology.
There is clearly a Machiavellian way to read Iran’s assurance that, “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons.” For, as stated above, the statement did not say that the agreement was intended to accomplish that goal, but that Iran affirmed that it had no intention to ever seek or develop such weapons. But Iran had always insisted on that, even as it secretly pursued a program that could only be for the production of nuclear weapons. What did Iran’s avowal mean? Was it not just posturing, lying for the sake of what Iran saw as a greater good – the extermination of Israel, a goal embraced by both so-called moderates and extremists in Tehran? Why would Israel not be frightened by such a formulation?
If in past agreements, the Iranian regime had agreed precisely to such a formulation and had broken every agreement heretofore, why repeat the process? The answer was that this time the deal would be comprehensive with respect at least to nuclear issues, and no piece of the puzzle would be agreed to until the whole puzzle was resolved. Plans for either an interim framework agreement or even a comprehensive agreement with loose ends to be subsequently cleaned up already breached that requirement. Both the transparency requirements and the limitations placed on the program would be practical. That was more than a non sequitur; the wording implied that past agreements had been impractical. In retrospect and in one sense, everyone could agree to that since, because of Iran’s non-compliance, the clauses had not achieved their stated purposes. Nevertheless, the wording clearly implied that the problem was not that Iran deliberately flouted the terms to which it had agreed, but that the terms themselves were flawed.
Anyone critical of Iran’s intentions and the integrity of its promises would be bound to be upset before finishing the first paragraph. Further, if one suspected the Obama administration of naiveté even if you were not among the nutty right who believe that Obama is a stooge to advance Islam in the world, the sensitive antennae had to go off. The opening paragraph was clearly designed only to protect the so-called moderates within Iran and not protect the believers in diplomacy and engagement in Washington from their hawkish critics. What about the agreement on a step-by-step implementation program? That seemed to contradict the need for comprehensive agreement and, presumably, implementation, before sanctions were lifted. What if the whole step-by-step process was only being used by Iran to escape as many of the existing sanctions as possible, let alone any new threatened ones, while pursuing its “peaceful” development of a nuclear capacity?
After all, the core problem was dual use. Once the enrichment capacity was in place, gearing up to produce sufficient military grade nuclear material was only a matter of time, not of capacity or skills or knowledge. Whistles were blowing. Sirens were wailing. Alarm bells were clanging. Critics were being wakened to a call to arms. And we have only read the first paragraph. After all, critics argued, when has anyone ever threatened Iran’s capacity to develop a peaceful use of nuclear energy? This was always a fictional posture of the Iranian regime. And the opening paragraph of the JPA bought into that narrative without mentioning explicitly that the intention of the agreement, not Iran’s testimony, was to ensure that a cluster of practices guarantee that Iran was permanently incapable of developing nuclear weapons. But we already know that the goal had been revised from that. It was now simply to ensure that Iran could not achieve breakout within a year.
One last point needs to be reiterated. As one of my Canadian Foreign Affairs friends assured me bluntly, and undiplomatically, I would never make a diplomat for I did not understand that the goal of diplomacy was not clear and distinct thinking, but obfuscation and equivocation. My scholastic nitpicking of the first paragraph of the JPA, I could hear him say, was beside the point. More precisely, the equivocal manner of surrendering to the other side was the point. The preamble was designed to allow one side to win rhetorical brownie points when the meat of an agreement belonged to the actual practices. What is given away in the general introductory portion of an agreement is retrieved in spades in the very specific substantive clauses.
The JPA required Iran to comply in good faith with all its previous commitments as near-term measures to be monitored by a Joint Commission made up of Britain, France and the U.S. as well as Europe + China, Russia and Germany (E3/EU+3). A key is that IAEA was tasked with verification of actions by Iran. In the first six months after the agreement was signed in November 2013, Iran was required to fulfill a number of specific requirements that IAEA would have to be able to verify.
Was IAEA up to the task? Did Iran comply with those terms?
Tomorrow: Verification of the Substantive Clauses of the JPA