Iran Again

Iran Again

by

Howard Adelman

Will the framework agreement between the P5+1 with Iran be followed up with a full agreement on nuclear arms? How will that deal be evaluated by history? Further, how will the deal affect Israel? I am going to take a one month sabbatical from my blog in order to complete three academic articles that are overdue. However, before I do, I want to write two more blogs to deal with two different responses I received on my writings on the Middle East, one on Iran and Obama, and a second on Israel’s relations with the United States. Since the response to the challenge to my views on Iran is the older one, since I started to write a personal response as I try to do but never completed it, and since the Iran deal and the differences over it between the U.S. Office of the President and Israel has been the most important factor in muddying the relations between Israel and the United States, I will write my second last blog for a month on that topic first.

My reader wrote:

“I’ve not had the chance to read all of your blogs on the Iran nuclear deal…though this is the second one I’ve read, and I’m always appreciative at the wealth of knowledge you possess on every topic. Though, I wonder whether your position shifted at all after Obama’s NPR interview when he admitted that in 13 years the breakout time for Iran’s nukes will be minimal and it will be another president’s responsibility to prevent Iran from nuclear weapon capabilities? My layman view is that Obama is trying to build his own legacy as international peacemaker (perhaps so he won’t have to give back his Nobel peace prize?); but in doing so, he is recklessly taking a huge gamble. Knowing this, he is already setting up his ‘legal defense’ to insulate himself from fault, despite outlining and admitting the possible consequences of his deal: he says that in 2015, this deal is absolutely necessary (e.g., he could not take any other course of action, so if anything goes wrong like Iran not living up to its promises in the next 13 years, he cannot be blamed…he did all he could and had he not made the deal, they would have gone nuclear anyways); and in 2028, when Iran’s breakout time will be minimal because of his deal, the then elected president of the United States will be responsible for stopping Iran from producing a nuclear arsenal (once again shielding Obama from the crux of the blame…it was, or will be, his successors’ fault(s)). It seems unfair to refer to those opposing this deal as hawks (the Israeli left is now strongly opposing the deal as well, and the media reports that the French – who are historically on the dovish side of international conflict – are not keen for the deal either). On the contrary, the western countries and leftist politicians in favor of Obama’s deal are kicking the can down the road for an unavoidable – and presumably much more dangerous – war for the next generation to fight.”

Let me repeat the paragraph, but break it into the ten separate points being made:

On Obama’s Actions and his Alleged Motives

  1. He (Obama) admitted that in 13 years the breakout time for Iran’s nukes will be minimal
  2. It will be another president’s responsibility to prevent Iran from nuclear weapon capabilities?
  3. This deal is absolutely necessary (e.g., he could not take any other course of action)
  4. If anything goes wrong, like Iran not living up to its promises in the next 13 years, he (Obama) cannot be blamed

The Consequences of Obama’s Action

  1. Obama is trying to build his own legacy as international peacemaker (perhaps so he won’t have to give back his Nobel peace prize?)
  2. In doing so, he is recklessly taking a huge gamble.
  3. Thus, he is setting up his ‘legal defense’ to insulate himself from fault
  4. He did all he could and, had he not made the deal, Iran would have gone nuclear anyways

On My Characterization of the Opponents to and the Defenders of the Deal

  1. It seems unfair to refer to those opposing this deal as hawks (the Israeli left is now strongly opposing the deal as well, and the media reports that the French – who are historically on the dovish side of international conflict – are not keen for the deal either).
  2. The western countries and leftist politicians in favor [a clue that the writer is American] of Obama’s deal [presumably, including myself] are kicking the can down the road for an unavoidable – and presumably much more dangerous – war for the next generation to fight.
  1. The factual and interpretive claim re the situation in thirteen years.

Did Obama admit that in 13 years the breakout time for Iran’s nukes will be minimal? For the record, I have not changed my mind since Obama’s speech. One reason is, as I interpreted the speech and as subsequently clarified by the White House, Obama neither said nor intended to say any such thing. Secondly, this interpretation of what Obama said comes largely from critics who themselves believe that the deal will leave Iran with an enhanced ability to enrich uranium and hence a capability of resurrecting nuclear weapons production in a relatively short time because the agreement will leave a good portion of Iran’s known centrifuges intact. Further, the deal permits and gives Iran the financial ability to develop its arsenal of ballistic missiles, which could carry these nuclear warheads.

That interpretation is largely incorrect.

Let me deal with the three points in turn. What was Obama’s statement and what is a reasonable interpretation of that statement?

Three weeks ago, a few days after the framework deal was announced, Obama was widely reported as having given a speech in which he admitted that Iran could be able to obtain a nuclear weapon much more quickly after the first 13 years of any nuclear deal, but that, without a deal, the world would be even less equipped to stop it. The reasoning is as follows: The deal would provide for extending the breakout period for Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon for the first ten years.  However, when the restrictions on Iran are lifted. Iran would then be able to resurrect its nuclear enrichment capabilities and be in a position once again to produce a nuclear weapon in 2-3 months.

What did Obama say in that NPR interview? “Essentially, we’re purchasing for 13, 14, 15 years assurances that the breakout is at least a year. And then in years 13 and 14, it is possible that those breakout times would have been much shorter. But at that point we have much better ideas about what it is that their program involves.” Note that Obama did not say that the breakout period after ten years will be much shorter, but that it would have been. Oversimplified and without all the subtle qualifications, note the difference, crucial to the interpretation. “Will be” implies a high degree of certainty about a future outcome. “Could be” implies a degree of uncertainty about a future outcome. “Should be” refers to a subjective expectation. “Would be” implies an expectation based on some evidence offered. In this case, presumably to the removal of the restrictions on Iran after ten years. “Would have been,” however, refers to a possible world, an outcome that would be in place had the deal not been in effect at all.

Obama speaks like a former editor of a prestigious Harvard law journal. These subtleties in English grammar go over the heads of most American and Canadian listeners to the speech, and most journalists as it turned out. Admittedly, the statement could have been stated more clearly. However, it is reasonably clear that Obama was not making a statement about the future but about an alternate future that would have been in place if the deal had not been made. This was clear to many who heard his words, but evidently not to most since the White House was forced to clarify Obama’s meaning. The majority of people never heard or read the words of the speech directly but only the widespread interpretation – really misinterpretation – offered in the media. The lesson: do no trust newspaper journalists to understand even the basic grammar of conditionals.

Obama was not saying that with the nuclear deal, Iran could shrink its breakout period down to 2-3 months once again, but that whatever the breakout period is following ten years, it would be much longer that the alternative had the deal not been in place. Conclusion: Obama did not admit that in 13 years the breakout time for Iran’s nukes will or even would be minimal, but, quite the reverse, that the breakout time would be much greater than with an alternative scenario in which there had been no deal.

This, of course, leads back to comprehending the misinterpretation. For the interpretation projected onto Obama’s statement was what the critics were asserting, not what he said. The critics were saying that even Obama agreed with them and was finally owning up to what the agreement said. But, of course, he said no such thing. For, based on the framework agreement, assuming it gets translated into a full agreement – an outcome far from certain – this would not come close to being the case.

Though it is accurate to say that the deal offers Iran the financial ability to develop its arsenal of ballistic missiles capable of carrying and delivering nuclear warheads, it would definitely not have the capability of immediately using its arsenal of stored centrifuges to resurrect its nuclear enrichment program, Existing international nuclear treaties and procedures would kick in and, even if Iran ignored these, there would be far more time than the West has at the present to respond.

What I find so disturbing is that although there are legitimate and understandable qualms about the deal, as with any deal between former and, especially, continuing enemies, the real question is why the critics do not concentrate on these rather than on misinterpretations of both statements and reasonable expectations. My interpretation, and here I may be wrong, is that they are offering those criticisms in bad faith. For although they will often say that they are not opposed to a deal but only a bad deal, their words and actions seem to indicate that they are opposed to any deal whatsoever.

  1. The responsibility of a Future President in 10-15 years

Of course, it will be another president’s responsibility to prevent Iran from nuclear weapon capabilities, not in ten years, but in less than two years. For that will be a continuing responsibility of any president, to ensure that Iran does not break any agreement and, that after some terms of the deal expire, that the remaining conditions continue to prevent Iran from restarting its nuclear program, and, failing that, for the American president at the time to lead a union of the willing to stop Iran in its tracks.

  1. The Necessity of the Deal

My reader and correspondent also interpreted Obama as saying that this deal is absolutely necessary (e.g., he could not take any other course of action), but Obama and members of his administration have never said that. Of course, they could take other courses of action. However, the administration determined that, given the alternatives, a prudent deal, not a bad deal, would be better than the alternatives. It would be the least risky option. Though many variations can be articulated, there are basically two other prime alternatives. Those alternatives can be simply stated. Continue and even enhance the economic sanctions. Alternatively, bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Maintaining let alone increasing sanctions against Iran is even posing difficulties, including the unilateral sanctions imposed by the U.S. alone. Only the multilateral sanctions are affected by the agreement. And even with all of these in place, Iran has managed to produce enough enriched uranium to manufacture one nuclear-armed warhead within 2-3 months.

  1. Obama Free from Blame

Finally, in the initial attack directed against the Obama administration, my reader claims that if anything goes wrong, like Iran not living up to its promises in the next 13 years, Obama would feel relieved of any responsibility and further, that he could not be held responsible by others. Surely, this is not the case either objectively or subjectively. Obama would be held responsible, not only by his critics, but by many of his supporters unless there emerges an explanation for the failure that was totally exogenous.  He will not only be blamed but, I believe, will assume a great deal of the blame himself if the deal turns out to inadequate to its task. Whatever Obama is, he is not a leader who shuns his responsibilities.

TO BE CONTINUED

TO BE CONTINUED

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