Goals and Significance of the Iran Deal
This past summer, John Robson wrote an op-ed in the National Post (17 July 2015) claiming that, “those most determined to stop Iran from going nuclear are most unhappy with the deal.” He went from that assumption to its presumed opposite, asserting that those most committed to the deal then must have a very different agenda than stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He speculated that it might mean a desire to promote regime change provided that this happens before Iran goes nuclear in ten years. Or perhaps the real motive is a soft-headed rather than hard-hearted intent simply to delay Iran going nuclear for just ten years. (He did not write soft-hearted versus hard-headed, but if he so deliberately turns what is written on its head, he perhaps deserves the same treatment, even if only for a weak attempt at humour.)
However, ignoring the extreme misrepresentation for the moment, just look at the bad logic. To repeat, he insists that, “those most determined to stop Iran from going nuclear are most unhappy with the deal.” But is it not more valid to assert that those most unhappy with the deal are more determined to continue economically crippling Iran so it is less able to pursue its hegemonic program in the Middle East and enhance its extreme antagonism towards Israel? Are these goals not the primary ones rather than any determination to stop Iran from going nuclear? The presumption that Netanyahu and his ilk are the ones most determined to stop Iran from going nuclear is a presumption, not a fact, and I would argue a false one. Further, even if it was accepted that the extreme opponents of the deal are the ones most determined to stop Iran from going nuclear – a very questionable assumption indeed – it does not follow that this is the reason that they are really unhappy with the deal. Nor does it explain their actions, particularly Netanyahu appearing before the American Congress to try to persuade Americans to kill the deal. Netanyahu said, “I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political; that was never my intention.” But how else can one describe the enormous effort the Jewish state put in to killing the deal. Motives can be overdetermined – to kill the deal, to prevent Iran from becoming an even more powerful economic and military power in the region, and even, perhaps, to heighten the political schisms already in America.
The false assumptions and illogic in reasoning is also to be found in the characterization of the proponents of the deal. While those proponents, as I indicated in my last blog, have a modest agenda focused only on making sure Iran does not develop nuclear weapons and that they have no agenda beyond that, the argument that they must have another hidden agenda, such as an illusionary expectation of regime change, does not follow from the argument that the opponents of the deal are most determined to stop Iran from becoming nuclear. It is both logically and empirically possible that the proponents and opponents are equally, or almost equally opposed to Iran not acquiring nuclear arms, but either side may have additional, and often very understandable and even commendable goals separate from that one, such as the fairly obvious one, that Netanyahu also has the goal of keeping Iran crippled economically.
Now I wish that John Robson were just an extreme example of a critic who is both illogical and misrepresents reality, but, unfortunately, this is not the case. He may teach history in Ottawa and be a journalist and documentary filmmaker, but he also may be one of the poorest critics of the accord. He, however, has lots of company, though many do not defend that opposition on the basis of sheer partisanship that is immune to wrestling with facts and rational argument.
Take another critic of the accord, Shimon Kofler Fogel, CEO for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the Canadian counterpart to America’s AIPAC. At least in his op-ed alongside John Robson’s, he says what he believes is wrong in his view of the deal, that it fails to leverage the diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran to reign in its hegemonic foreign policy goals and its extreme antipathy to Israel. He is absolutely correct. It does not do that. Further, all parties negotiating with Iran did not believe that was a feasible goal. But Fogel, though accurate about the non-achievement of the accord, is also guilty of false reasoning. If the weight of sanctions coerced the Iranian regime to come to the negotiating table, then, he argues, it follows that those conditions can and ought to have been used to modify Iranian foreign policy. But that does not follow at all, not only not for Iran, but for virtually all of the other representatives of the six nations negotiating with Iran.
The fact that Iran is the leading sponsor of terror in the Middle East (I personally think ISIS is, but Iran is horrible enough, and the point is not worth debating here), that it is a brutal regime with an enormous number of executions per year and extreme repression of its minorities, mainly Bahä.a’is, does not invalidate the value of the agreement. Fogel’s recommendation that relief from the sanctions should be tied to Iranian tangible progress on reducing Iran’s role as a state-sponsor of terror is disingenuous. For, to repeat, it was neither the goal of the negotiations nor one that any reasonably-knowledgeable person argues could be achieved by negotiations at this time. The agreement already allows for his other recommendations – continuing to define Iran as a state-sponsor of terrorism, continuing the criticism of Iran for its horrendous human rights record and the continuing use of sanctions for these reasons – quite separate from the provisions of the Special Economic Measures Act.
The goal of the negotiations with Iran was clearly spelled out in Obama’s first election platform, but particularly in the Prague Agenda articulated in an Obama speech in Hradčany Square of the Czech capital on 5 April 2009, which focused on Iran, not as a rogue state, not as a promoter of terrorism, not as a human rights abuser and, most of all, not as an intractable enemy of Israel. The focus was on promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy and reinforcing mechanisms in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Obama was intent on reducing the risks posed by nuclear weapons while simultaneously supporting and promoting nuclear energy as an alternative for peaceful purposes.
The Prague Agenda included a broad swath of goals, many since achieved:
- Negotiating a new START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) with Russia to reduce their strategic nuclear arsenals by 30%;
- Cancellation of the Bush plan to deploy ground-based strategic missile interceptors in Europe;
- Restricting the strategic use of America’s nuclear arsenal to deterrence only;
- Banning nuclear testing for the future.
The Prague Agenda included further restrictions on North Korea and Pakistan, but these have notably not been achieved. However, the goal of rallying international support and engaging Iran to resolve the crisis over its military nuclear program has now finally been achieved after over five years of work. The Majli, the Iranian parliament has just endorsed the deal. So has the Obama administration. “My administration will seek engagement with Iran based on mutual interests and mutual respect. We believe in dialogue. But in that dialogue we will present a clear choice. We want Iran to take its rightful place in the community.” (my italics) Israel wanted no such result for this regime.
Making the world safer from nuclear terror and reigning in Iran did not supplant the need for deterrence and a strong regional strategy. (It may have had an inadvertent impact on it.) Further, the achievement of such a goal of eliminating the prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear power had to meet a number of criteria:
- The strongest inspection and verification system ever;
- Elimination of advanced centrifuges and a significant reduction of older models;
- A virtual elimination of Iran’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium
- Sanctions relief as a quid pro quo;
- Spelling out repercussions in case of violations.
A further word is needed on the prospect of regime change in Iran and transformation of its confrontational ideology. Paul Berman in The Tablet on 15 July 2015 focused on a single paragraph in Obama’s speech about the conclusion of the Iran deal. Obama stated in reference to U.S./Iran relations, “Our differences are real, and the difficult history between our nations cannot be ignored. But it is possible to change. The path of violence and rigid ideology, a foreign policy based on threats to attack your neighbors or eradicate Israel – that’s a dead end. A different path, one of tolerance and peaceful resolution of conflict, leads to more integration into the global economy, more engagement with the international community, and the ability of the Iranian people to prosper and thrive.”
Paul Berman insisted that this one paragraph was crucial because, “if a change among the Iranians is not, in fact, possible, then Obama’s critics are right. The deal will turn out to be a disaster because, in the short run, it will strengthen the Islamic Republic conventionally and, in the long run, will strengthen the Islamic Republic unconventionally – and, all the while, the Islamic Republic will go on treading the dead-end path of violence and rigid ideology and the dream of eradicating demonic enemies. It is hard to imagine how, under those circumstances, the deal will reduce the chances of war. On the contrary, Iran’s endangered neighbors will contemplate their own prospective eradication and will certainly notice that time is against them, and they would be foolish not to act.”
It is one thing to argue that regime transformation may take place as a result of the deal and the insistence that it must take place or else the deal is more than worthless for it will enhance the prospect of war in the region. Obama made the former claim. Berman extracted from that slim possibility and transformed it magically into an absolute necessity. In that case, then the nuclear containment deal to peaceful uses is only as good as the strength of the possibility of transformation of the Iranian regime. That is clearly not Obama’s position.
It is and was certainly not the goal of the Iranians who stood steadfast in the opposition to the “arrogant” U.S., “the policies of which they viewed to be at 180 degrees to their own. The U.S. remained as the “Great Satan” ever after 18 months of negotiations. Israel remained its implacable enemy. Though Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei insisted that the deal was only about guaranteeing that Iran could continue its peaceful program of developing nuclear energy and had no wider goals, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani insisted there was another aim: opening a new chapter of cooperation with the outside world after years of sanctions. He predicted that the “win-win” result would gradually eliminate mutual mistrust. Similarly, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also saw the deal as going beyond the nuclear arrangements and hopefully could lead to greater regional and international cooperation.
What have Benjamin Netanyahu’s goals been in rejecting and criticizing the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program? Let me go back to his address to a joint session of Congress, not the one earlier this year, but the one he delivered on 24 May 2011 before the negotiations got underway and when the Arab Spring remained a gleam in many eyes, including Netanyahu’s. Though most of his address focused on the negotiations with the Palestinians, a small portion of his remarks addressed the question of Iran. Iran was depicted as the most powerful force in the Middle East opposed to modernity, opposed to democracy and opposed to peace. Here are Netanyahu’s words verbatim:
The tyranny in Tehran brutalizes its own people. It supports attacks against Americans troops in Afghanistan and in Iraq. It subjugates Lebanon and Gaza. It sponsors terror worldwide.
When I last stood here, I spoke of the consequences of Iran developing nuclear weapons. Now time is running out. The hinge of history may soon turn, for the greatest danger of all could soon be upon us: a militant Islamic regime armed with nuclear weapons. (my italics) Militant Islam threatens the world. It threatens Islam. A nuclear-armed Iran would ignite a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. It would give terrorists a nuclear umbrella. It would make the nightmare of nuclear terrorism a clear and present danger throughout the world.
These were not Obama’s words, but those of Netanyahu. Then he came across as the most vocal champion of ensuring that a militant Iran did not possess nuclear weapons. Just over seven months later, in the 2012 new year, when the U.S. led the successful charge to impose new and tough sanctions against Iran’s oil and banking industry as the “only” diplomatic measure that could force Iran to the negotiating table, after President Obama signed legislation imposing sanctions against Iran’s central bank to impede Iranian oil sales and the EU put plans in place for an oil embargo, this goal was no longer sufficient for Netanyahu. The consequent weakening of the Iranian rial led Iran to state that it was willing to permit a visit by a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which, independently of the world powers, had suggested that Iran was working towards acquiring the ability to make nuclear weapons. As the goal of dismantling Iran’s nuclear weapons came nearer, Netanyahu’s pitch shifted.
There was one discordant note at the time. Israel wanted the U.S. to warn Iran that if the sanctions and diplomacy failed to get Iran to abandon its nuclear program, the U.S. should warn Iran that the U.S. would resort to military means to stop Iran. While not ruling out such a possibility, the U.S. refused to threaten Iran if negotiations failed. In contrast, Netanyahu, while applauding the new economic sanctions aimed at stopping Iran’s military nuclear program, insisted that only if the sanctions were combined with the threat of military action would the effort succeed. Netanyahu was proven wrong. It succeeded beyond most expectations. No threat of military action was necessary.
That note threatening military action grew far more shrill when Netanyahu, during the period in which he was struggling to put together a new coalition government, addressed an AIPAC Policy Conference in March 2013. After the usual praise for the President and Vice-President of the U.S., after the accolades to the government of the United States as Israel’s best and most steadfast ally, Netanyahu now insisted far more vociferously that sanctions were insufficient and that Iran needed to be militarily threatened.
Iran has made it clear that it will continue to defy the will of the international community. Time after time, the world powers have tabled diplomatic proposals to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue peacefully. But diplomacy has not worked. (my italics) Iran ignores these offers. It is running out the clock. It has used negotiations to buy time to press ahead with its nuclear program. Thus far, the sanctions have not stopped the nuclear program either. The sanctions have hit the Iranian economy hard. But Iran’s leaders grit their teeth and move forward. Iran enriches more and more uranium. It installs faster and faster centrifuges Iran has still not crossed the red line I drew at the United Nations last September. But they are getting closer and closer to that line. And they are putting themselves in a position to cross that line very quickly once they decide to do so. Ladies and Gentlemen, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, we cannot allow Iran to cross that line. We must stop its nuclear enrichment program before it will be too late. Words alone will not stop Iran. Sanctions alone will not stop Iran. (my italics) Sanctions must be coupled with a clear and credible military threat if diplomacy and sanctions fail.
From March 2013 until November 2013 when the negotiators were on the verge of a tentative deal with Iran, and with the US Senate poised to authorize new sanctions, and after Obama phoned Netanyahu to ask him not to oppose the deal, Netanyahu did just that, openly opposed the deal by phoning all the other leaders asking them to block it. French President François Hollande agreed. The French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, carried the message to his colleagues in the negotiations which bought time for Israel to take further steps to try to stop the deal after Netanyahu had failed to persuade John Kerry at Ben Gurion Airport not to loosen sanctions without the Iranians agreeing to halt the nuclear project altogether. The sticking points then were Iran’s stock of enriched uranium and the heavy water reactor at Arak that could produce plutonium from spent fuel.
The delay turned out to be temporary only. On 24 November 2013, an interim agreement, called the Joint Plan of Action, was agreed upon in Geneva that provided for a short-term freeze on much of Iran’s nuclear program in return for a decrease in the economic sanctions against Iran, the agreement to commence on 20 January 2014. Iran agreed not to commission or fuel the Arak heavy-water reactor or build a reprocessing plant to convert spent fuel into plutonium, agreed not to commission the Bushehr Nuclear Plant, the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plan, the Isafahn uranium-conversion plant, the Natanz uranium-conversion plant and the Parchin military research and development complex. Iran also agreed to stop enriching uranium above 5% reactor-grade, and to dilute its stock of 20%-enriched uranium. As well, Iran agreed not to increase its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and to leave half its 16,000 centrifuges inoperable, all this to be verified by more extensive and frequent inspections.
That is when Netanyahu first labelled the deal a historic mistake and became an implacable foe to the negotiations. But not because it left Iran as an implacable foe of Israel. Not because of Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region. Those reasons would come later. At that point the deal was opposed because it did not dismantle Iran’s nuclear capacity altogether. In other words, Netanyahu now opposed Iran even having the ability to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
Netanyahu had upped the ante and produced a deep gulf between Israel and the P5+1, for the premise of the negotiations from the get-go was that Iran would be allowed to use its nuclear knowhow and facilities for peaceful purposes. In his speech to the Knesset on the Plan of Action, Netanyahu admitted that sanctions without a military threat had, in fact, produced significant and successful results, but the deal was still bad because the results were not tangible. Effectively shutting down Iran’s nuclear military production was insufficient.
From then on, the line of attack grew more shrill, more definitive, and the grounds expanded until the bulk of the weight was not on the efficacy of inspections or the length of time Iran’s military nuclear program would be in place, though these were always there and were almost always deformed with less and less resemblance to the actual terms of the agreement. It soon became obvious and clear that Netanyahu was not really after an agreement that halted the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons, but that he opposed the deal because Iran without nuclear arms would be an even more dangerous foe of Israel. However, preventing Iran from using its facilities for peaceful purposes had never been a premise of the negotiations or there never would have been any negotiations. Further, that goal of dismantling Iran’s nuclear facilities altogether had not been Netanyahu’s goal eighteen months earlier.
Netanyahu was now engaged in gross exaggeration if not an outright lie. “Today the world has become a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world has taken a significant step toward attaining the most dangerous weapon in the world .” (my italics) This is a bad agreement; this is a historic mistake. This became his mantra. Both were evaluations of a very dubious nature as more and more information emerged about both the Action Plan and the terms of the ongoing negotiations. Netanyahu’s efforts to weave his new critique and reconcile it with his old support for simply a ban on Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons was skating on thinner and thinner ice. The release of the final agreement in July allowed him to fall through the ice, but the freezing water has not reduced the pitch of his hysteria one iota. Netanyahu had established to any objective observer, as distinct from his horde of cheerleaders, that he was not the one most opposed to Iran developing nuclear weapons; he wanted to keep Iran impoverished for very understandable reasons given Iran’s irrational and extreme antipathy towards Israel.