Iran Again – CONTINUED: Part 2

Iran Again – CONTINUED: Part 2


Howard Adelman

Before I move on to discuss items 5-10 as listed in my last blog, two issues have been raised concerning my interpretation last week of Obama’s views based on his interview on National Public Radio and another with Tom Friedman of The New York Times. In particular, I was asked why I did not deconstruct two other assertions made by President Obama in those interviews.

First, let me deal with the interview Obama had with Tom Friedman of The New York Times. Obama said to Friedman that, “I’ve been very clear that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon on my watch.” Immediately, Obama was jumped on and criticized, not because he wanted his legacy protected, but because he seemed to be saying, in one interpretation, that he was satisfied with any deal as long as Iran could not get a nuclear weapon while he was president. Even Ari Shavit (My Promised Land), not known as a hawk, in his Ha’aretz column chimed in, “the man leading a hair-raising historic adventure says he’s committing that Iran will not become nuclear before January 20, 2017.”

This satiric response and the interpretation behind it does not consider a far more obvious alternative interpretation much more consistent with what Obama has said many times and in many other places. Obama was not saying that he would be satisfied with a deal as long as Iran did not get a nuclear weapon while he was president. Rather, while he was president, he did not want Iran to have the capacity to build a nuclear weapon, a situation which would have to continue long after he left the presidency. Obama did want a legacy, and was not ducking out on the issue in favour of a short term gain. .

The second statement is slightly more tricky and is part of what he said when I offered my analysis in my last blog. In that interview with National Public Radio, Obama said, “What is a more relevant fear would be that in Year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point, the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.” As I indicated in my last blog, Obama was not endorsing this fear as a consequence of the agreement, but pointing to an alternative scenario, another possible world, in the ten to fifteen year period when Iran would have high speed centrifuges that could enrich uranium at least twenty times as fast and could produce enough enriched uranium in days to make a nuclear weapon. In contrast, after the restrictions imposed on Iran by the deal and after thirteen years of inspecting Iran’s nuclear program, the combination of tough scaling back and widespread and thorough inspections would be the best alternative available to prevent the emergence of such a scenario.

With those clarifications and additions, let me return to finishing the agenda of topics listed in my previous blog.

The Consequences of Obama’s Action

  1. Obama’s Legacy

My original reader who instigated this blog claimed that Obama was using the Iran agreement to build his legacy. I agree. Obama is indeed trying to build his legacy. As he should. Let me, in turn, engage in imagining possible worlds by considering what the legacy would be if Netanyahu and his Republican allies are able to scupper the deal. I am not merely talking about legitimate criticisms of the need to clarify and elaborate on certain aspects of the deal. I am talking about the thrust to kill a deal altogether. For make no mistake, though the statements made are that these critics are not against a deal per se, but only against a bad deal, the nature of their criticisms indicate that no achievable deal would satisfy them.

If the Republicans succeed in blowing up the deal – assuming it does not implode on its own given the difficulties remaining – what would the legacy be? First, the most serious blow would be inflicted on the western alliance of states since the Suez Crisis in 1956. Even though France has been more hawkish about the deal than Washington (more on this later), the U.S. coalition with Britain, France and Germany, not to mention Russia and China, would be shattered beyond recognition. Further, since those nations would go ahead with lifting sanctions, since the agreement made was not simply between Iran and the U.S., but between Iran and the P5+1, those other states would go ahead and lift sanctions thereby rendering a unilateral U.S. sanctions regime far less effective. Since the deal would be endorsed by the UNSC, because of American Congressional action, America would be isolated diplomatically, a situation that would have drastic negative effects on all other areas of American foreign policy except with Israel and Canada.

Further, since the negotiation route did not work, since the economic sanctions regime would emerge far weaker, the only third route to pressuring Iran would be a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Quite aside from the question of how effective such an attack would be, such an initiative runs totally contrary to American public opinion. Even the majority of Republican voters are opposed to war with Iran.

Yet Bill Kristol, John McCain, John Bolton and Lindsey Graham all call for bombing Iran. If a deal is forged this summer based on the framework document, and if, admittedly a big if, Iran upholds its end of the bargain, Obama’s legacy in foreign affairs would be assured as Nixon’s was as a result of ping-pong diplomacy and the opening up to China. For instead of 19,000 centrifuges, thousands of the newer high speed design, Iran would retain only just over 5,000 operating centrifuges of the old slow type. All of its enriched Uranium beyond 3.29% would be gone. The Arak facility would no longer be able to produce plutonium. Iran’s nuclear program would be subject to an unprecedented inspection regime. What a terrific legacy in contrast to the possible legacy of choosing the alternative path.

6. A Reckless Huge Gamble.

But what if the deal does not work? What if Iran cheats? Isn’t Obama gambling on Iran keeping its word? Not really. First numerous safeguards have been put in place, such as the inspection regime itself, suspending rather than retracting sanctions, and including a snap-back provision. This is not akin to Munich in 1938 where Hitler conceded nothing and Chamberlain gave away the store. In these negotiations, Iran was the country giving and the allies were only removing pressure and not giving anything substantive away.

Nor is this deal comparable to lifting sanctions and making a deal with the South African government that left apartheid in place. For the sanctions against South Africa were not imposed to ensure that South Africa did not develop a nuclear program but precisely because the government ruled to keep apartheid in place.

Further, if Iran cheats, the West would still be better off, for much more would be known about Iran’s capabilities and Iran would be far further from making a bomb than at present. I do not believe that Obama is being reckless in making a deal. On this occasion, his team is performing brilliantly. In my evaluation of the deal, it is a gamble in a number of areas, but I believe the team has behaved with remarkable prudence.

The real gamble is not in the nuclear area but over Iran’s enhancing its missile capability, its support of radical insurrections in the region, its antipathy to Israel and its own enhancement as a regional power. Last week, news reports went out of Iranian Navy Revolutionary Guards boarding and seizing a Marshall Islands flagged container ship, the Maersk Tigris, in the Strait of Hormuz (between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman). USS Farragut as part of the U.S. Naval Force Central Command in Bahrain responded to the distress call. The U.S. has a defence treaty with the Marshall Islands that gives the U.S. the authority and responsibility for acting on behalf of that sovereign state. Further, since that aggressive action by Iranian naval units, the U.S. announced a policy of providing a naval escort for commercial vessels using the Strait of Hormuz.

My conviction is that this is simply a signal that the nuclear deal will not temper Iran’s ambitions in the Persian Gulf or the region, will not dampen its support for “terrorism”, will not diminish its desire to become a regional power and will certainly do less than nothing to diminish its antipathy to Israel. Those optimists who think it will, I believe, will be proven wrong but I hope they are correct and I am wrong. On the other hand, those pessimists who would gamble away a chance to make Iran a non-nuclear state in terms of military weapons because they insist that the nuclear negotiations should achieve much broader goals are the ones taking the huge gamble. An Iran in pursuit of those goals using those means would be worse if it had nuclear weapons than an Iran doing so without those weapons or the capabilities of manufacturing them even when relief from the sanctions increases its room for manoeuvrability and its capacity to be troublesome.

This is the real gamble. I am unsure who is correct in their prognostications. However, I think it is absolutely disingenuous to take this risk under the cover that the main concern is over Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. To use the issue of the acquisition of nuclear weapons as an unstated and unacknowledged stalking horse in the hope (misplaced in my mind) of achieving other strategic regional goals, is the height of irresponsibility.

Make no mistake. Iran would like to destroy Israel. As Commander Mohammad Reza Naqdi stated, “Destroying Israel is non-negotiable.” For the Iranian leadership, whether in the dovish or hawkish camp, Israel is a Zionist cancer in the region. Perhaps the difference between the Iranian hawks and the doves is that the hawks include all Jews whereas the doves restrict their horrific characterization only to Jewish Israelis. This position will be unlikely to change as long as the reign of the ayatollahs continues, with or without nuclear weapons. If Iran is to continue to have such a goal, I much prefer that the leadership espouse such a nauseous aspiration without rather than with a strong capacity to make nuclear weapons in a relatively short span of time. Further, such an outcome has the added benefit that when Iran enunciates such a repugnant aspiration, Western leaders might feel freer to denounce such a goal. But I do not hold much hope for that. I suspect that as Western economic interests are enhanced with the increasing prospect of more trade with Iran, Western leaders will be more inclined to hold their tongues. Silence in the face of such libels is the problem, not negotiating with exterminationists.

7. Legal Defense to Insulate Himself (Obama) from Fault

On this issue, Obama needs no legal defence. Right or wrong, he is making a political judgment, not committing treason. The use of such language is insulting as well as irresponsible.

  1. If No Deal, Iran would have Gone Nuclear

This is an interesting point because I suspect that even if there were no deal, Iran would not travel along the path of developing nuclear weapons. Many of those promoting the deal with Iran suggest this as the alternative to a deal. It may be. However, I suspect that Iran merely wants, and feels it needs, to have the capacity to do so. Further, the capacity alone facilitates its policy goals without the moral opprobrium accompanying the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Iran would lose its ability to broadcast its moral superiority over Israel. Further, if it acquired weapons, Iran would prove that its insistence that its nuclear program was only for peaceful purposes would be falsified. The risk, I believe, of a failed deal, is not Iran acquiring the weapons, but the continuing threat of its developing an enhanced capacity to do so, and to do so in a shorter and shorter time.

8.Characterization of the Opponents of the Deal as Hawks

As for calling those opposed to the deal “hawks,” that is the general nomenclature used by both those who believe in war and coercive diplomacy as a frontline strategy versus doves who. believe in war only as a last resort when other alternatives fail. Doves fail when their insistence on taking all factors into consideration and attempting another round of talking leads to serious and fatal delays in the necessity to use coercive force rather than relying only on diplomacy. Hawks fail when their knee-jerk responses undermine both security and stability and often end up involving America in wars that are destructive for the people in whose countries the wars are fought and for America. The latter has been true from Vietnam to Iraq.

Hawks tend to raise important but relatively small side issues as major barriers to an agreement — such as allowing Iran continued use of centrifuges for research. But if Iran is to be allowed to have a peaceful nuclear program, a premise to the negotiations in the first place, then it follows that Iran must have the ability to undertake nuclear research as long as it is confined to peaceful objectives. The difficulty here is that some of that research serves both purposes. That only means that reasonable judgment is required, not slogans. Iran’s use of proxies in the Gulf to enhance its power is extraneous to the negotiations for a very different reason than peripheral issues within the negotiations. Hawks tend to blend the two types and forcefully harp on the outlier issues as well as those that do not belong to the same solar system.

Criticism that the deal fails to address all or even most of the problems in the region is simply off the mark. It is a distraction, not a critique, for those who prefer no deal in the name of a better and unachievable one. And it feeds into those in Europe and elsewhere who believe that elements in the U.S. have positioned America as the wrong leader of the free world. For extreme hawks, Iran is so fundamentally evil that no deal should ever be negotiated with the regime even when a deal entails Iran surrendering the vast majority of its nuclear program.

What I find most repugnant in some hawks is their contempt for traditional American principles in the name of protecting those principles. Though I personally would prefer more oversight on foreign policy by the elected legislature in that democratic monarchy called the United States of America, to have the purveyors of an unrestricted imperial presidency now insisting that the president be hidebound and shackled in negotiations when the presidential office is occupied by a dove seems to me to be the height of hypocrisy. Why challenge the limited role of the Senate to advise and consent when a dove is in office but omit real oversight when imperial presidents occupy the highest office? And to do so by echoing Netanyahu’s false claim that the deal paves the way for Iran acquiring nuclear weapons just multiplies that hypocrisy for it was the hawks who wanted to blast Iran to smithereens because the existing Iranian nuclear capability was “the greatest threat to the U.S.” For hawks, eliminating that threat was an immediate priority. However when the significant reduction to that threat is led by a dovish president using diplomacy rather than coercion, it becomes totally suspect.

9. France as a Hawk

As for the hawkishness of the French on the negotiations, my reader was correct. France has historically been more hawkish on Iran than even the U.S. Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador in Washington, opposed setting deadlines for agreements. “Repeating that an agreement has to be reached by the end of March is a bad tactic,” he wrote because it put pressure on the allies to conclude an agreement at too high a price. Just two weeks before the framework deal was concluded, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius insisted that, “France wants an agreement, but a robust one that really guarantees that Iran can have access to civilian nuclear power, but not the atomic bomb.” However, although France has consistently struck a tougher posture in its dealing with Iran, it was not pretending to want a better deal so that no deal could be concluded. France supported the deal agreed upon.

France used to be a leader in international diplomacy. It has never adjusted to its role as a second tier player. The French feel a sense of superiority in their skills in conducting negotiations, and, to some degree, they are correct. The same people have been in charge for a decade and have had a continuous engagement with respect to the Iranian portfolio in contrast to the turnover in the American administration. But Americans have often been very creative innovators as they were in the negotiations between Sudan and its breakaway south. However, French feel far more involved with Iran both because of its historical relations with that country and its involvement in Lebanon.

I will deal with the issue of Herzog being a hawk in my next blog focused on the effects of the deal on U.S.-Israel relations.

Tomorrow: Iran Again – CONTINUED: Part 3: The Zionist Union Position


Responses to the Iran Deal

Responses to the Iran Deal


Howard Adelman

Rabbi Dow Marmur’s last blog ended by quoting my blog and writing that my analysis helped enhance his enjoyment of Passover. I was both flattered and delighted, of course. But the blog itself was far more interesting and I noticed a pattern between it and many of the other post-deal commentators who supported the nuclear framework agreement with Iran. Dow wrote that he came to his support by examining the alternatives. He focused on war against Iran as the alternative. Other commentators concentrated on containment and increased sanctions as the real alternative that Netanyahu really favours. There is, of course, a third alternative, continuing the pressure of the existing sanctions at the current level, perhaps Netanyahu’s fallback position.

However, it is not only the comparison of the deal with other possible alternatives that caught my interest, but the analysis of the pros and cons relative to the alternatives. The critics of the deal did not proceed in that way. Instead, they began with the undisputed conclusions of most observers of Iran that the government there sponsors terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, persecutes minorities, particularly the Baha’is, denies rights, has ambitions to become a dominant regional power and has, as an ultimate objective, the extermination of Israel. The factual premises of both groups are the same. What divides the doves and the hawks is whether the nuclear deal helps or hinders the West in its conflicts with Iran.

Thus, the leader of the US House of Representatives, Republican Speaker John Boehner, in a written statement, focused on his fears, after visiting the Middle East, about Iran’s efforts to spread terrorism. Easing economic sanctions will permit Iran “to further destabilize the region.” But there was a note of hope. For he did not blast the agreement as Netanyahu did, but insisted that Congress be able “to review details of any pact before sanctions are lifted.” Aside from the House of Representatives not having any constitutional rights to approve or vote down agreements with other states, his statement could suggest that the Republicans have shifted their attack mode from the substance of the agreement to procedural processes. I would contend, however, that the essential question is not whether the deal enhances or interferes with a larger political and security agenda, but whether it successfully enhances the objective of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. If it may also advance a larger political agenda, that would be a bonus.

For the hawks, the issue is not really how good or bad the deal is, though they spend enormous efforts seeking out flaws, but that any imaginable deal, even one that ended up totally destroying every single bit of Iran’s nuclear capability, would not be good enough for most of those critics. Why? Because the confrontation on the nuclear issue unites West and East in opposition to Iran. Removing that incentive, the anti-Iran coalition weakens considerably, hence undermining the opposition to Iran’s foreign policy ambitions and its support of terrorism, quite aside from Iran’s ambitions against Israel. An effective nuclear deal allows Iran increased economic capacities to support terrorists and develop its non-nuclear technological military capabilities.

However, there are also those who criticize the deal whose position I cannot understand at all. They include Benjamin Netanyahu. Although he did not repeat his silly notion that Iran had to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a condition for an agreement on the use of nuclear energy, the latest iteration of his position is that the agreement with Iran will spark a nuclear arms race among Sunni countries in the Middle East. His message then struck a familiar note common to many post-deal critics. His position is the precise opposite of my own. Instead of characterizing Iran as capitulating on a number of items, he dubbed it “a dream deal for Iran and a nightmare deal for the world.” Why? Because it “leaves the preeminent terrorist state of our time with a vast nuclear infrastructure.”

The contention that it will spark a Middle East arms race may have been set off by the reported Saudi and other Gulf Sunni Arab states that the agreement is dangerous because it effectively gives Iran the resources and carte blanche to pursue its expansionist agenda against Sunni Arab states in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and, most recently, in Yemen. Further, Hani ala-Jamal, as one example, in al-Wafd, a newspaper published by the Wafd party in Giza, Egypt, argues that, “The deal means that the international community has accepted Iran as a nuclear power.”

It would be helpful to the debate if the conflict over the political and strategic significance of the deal was not littered with so much shrapnel. For example, Netanyahu has insisted that “not one centrifuge is destroyed” in the framework agreement. But of 19,000 centrifuges in Iran’s possession, 13,000 are decommissioned. The ones retained are all the old slower models. The de-commissioning and mothballing is subject to stringent inspection and transparency requirements. Effectively, this means significant delays before Iran could make them operational with plenty of time for the UN and Western countries to respond, especially since the removal of the sanctions has a snap-back provision. But when one reads critics like Netanyahu, all one gets is rhetoric, not considered argument, and rhetoric that distorts to the point of obfuscation and incredulity.

What is interesting is that some of the stalwarts of opposition to the agreement in the American Congress have been much more cautious in responding to the framework agreement. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, commented that, “I don’t know how someone can ascertain whether this is something good or bad,” until he had more details about the framework agreement, an implicit criticism of Netanyahu. This is the same Corker who just two weeks previously had been insisting that Congress, especially the Senate, have not only a say in the deal, but would have to approve the agreement in accordance with the proposed Bipartisan Iran Nuclear Review Act of 2015 if it is passed on 14 April. That bill had been proceeding through the Senate, but there are even more doubts now that it would be approved given both Democratic hawks who would question opposing such a strong agreement as well as some wavering Republicans. Further, some Republican supporters of strong presidential power would be reluctant to support such a measure lest a bad precedent be set. Even if approved, it would certainly be vetoed by Obama.

Obama has plenty of precedent to insist that this agreement is not a treaty requiring two-thirds assent in the Senate, but an executive agreement made between and among heads of government and internationally binding on the states which enter into the agreement. Unless Corker could muster a two-thirds veto-proof majority for his own bill requiring Obama to obtain Congressional approval, which seems far less likely that just a few weeks ago given the toughness of the agreement, Obama seems to have a clear path to conclude his greatest foreign policy achievement. Obama could just issue executive orders through the Treasury Department to lift the sanctions. As John Bolton, the former Bush State Department official, U.N. ambassador, champion of the Iraq war and stalwart opponent of an agreement with Iran, has said in all honesty, 90% of post WWII foreign agreements have been made without Congressional input let alone approval.

Corker is simply not able to muster 13 Democratic Senators and 46 House Democrats to place such binding restrictions on a presidential initiative simply on the basis that Iran has been able to retain some operational centrifuges and can enrich some uranium to a limited degree. Some hawks, including independents like Sen Angus King of Maine, might still support Corker’s bill, but even King is opposed to making Iran a partisan issue. After all, this was the premise of the Joint Plan of Action that set off the negotiations and Congress did not exert any effort to reign in that effort. Ben Cardin (D-MD), another hawk, also supports a strong president. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), another strong anti-Iran hawk, remains a conundrum. He has strong Jewish backing, but given the terms of the agreement, would he vote to reduce presidential authority significantly because of this issue? In any case, there are enough members of Congress who previously supported Corker’s bill to back off and ensure that a two-thirds majority could not be mustered to flout the president.

There is another aspect to the considerations. Any effort to scuttle the agreement would set off a severe schism between the U.S. and its allies that are part of the P5+1. They would feel betrayed and a deep rift would emerge between the U.S. and Europe, much deeper than the one between the U.S. president and Netanyahu. Perhaps the hawks would be better off to see if the framework agreement could be translated into an actual detailed agreement. That is another hurdle, and not a small one. But given the prospect of Congress failing to impede the president on a deal that on the non-proliferation issue seems very strong even if ineffective when it comes to Iran’s non-nuclear political, military and strategic goals, I would claim that if the framework can actually be translated into a full agreement, a prospect that seems very likely at this moment, the President can expect relatively smooth sailing in spite of the head winds coming from his Congressional enemies.

For the reality of the deal is that it contains provisions that detached observers previously thought might be impossible to achieve – exceeding the ambition of 6,000 operational centrifuges, eliminating any advanced design centrifuges, reconfiguring the heavy-water reactor Arak and ensuring that any plutonium produced is stored offshore, reducing the amount of enriched uranium by 97% to only 300 kg. for fifteen years, keeping that uranium at a level of 3.67 instead of 5% enrichment, and redesigning Fordow so that it cannot even enrich uranium. However, the key victory is a stringent inspection and transparency regime. It is no surprise then that the Committee of Independent Scientists who have never taken a partisan stand on the Iran issue has cautiously approved the framework agreement.

The Obama administration did not intend to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities and such an initiative independently by Israel was strongly opposed by its own intelligence and security apparatus. Now that America’s European allies have signed onto the framework agreement the prospect of retaining the sanctions at the present level never mind increasing them seems unlikely. The real alternative if America does not sign the final agreement is that a much weaker sanctions regime would be the result. To take up the issue raised at the beginning of this blog, it is no wonder that the hawks do not consider alternatives but simply blare out their opposition to the deal. The hawks have been deeply wounded by the actual results.

Why did Netanyahu not seek further side agreements and letters with its European and American allies to doubly ensure that the provisions of the agreement could not become ineffective and to ensure Israel’s security? As Maj. Gen. (Res.) Amos Yadlin, former head of the Israeli Military Intelligence, said, “If we had a prime minister who knows how to talk to the Americans and enjoyed the president’s trust, this would have been the time to jump on the bandwagon and demand clarification of all the points that require clarification. There are still things that can be achieved in this agreement. At the same time, this is the time to reach understandings with the Americans, and perhaps even to reach a parallel Israeli-US agreement, providing Israel with clarifications, assurances and perhaps even defense compensation for the risks it is taking. We did things like that after the peace agreement with Egypt and at different points in time, too.”

One explanation is that Netanyahu was playing the bad cop, but this seems highly unlikely given the actual severe negative consequences on U.S.-Israeli relations. The only realistic judgment, and one made increasingly by the mavins in Israel’s intelligence and military apparatus, is that Netanyahu in his strident and absolute opposition to the framework agreement just dug his own grave.

The reality is that the deal does not pave the way for Iran to become a nuclear military power but rather turns a superhighway that Iran had constructed and was already in place into a dirt path for all terrain vehicles. But that is not the real issue. Opponents of the deal wanted to use sanctions to weaken Iran militarily and economically so the country could not pursue its foreign policy agenda. They were not just after implementation of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Relief from the sanctions will enable Iran to pursue its foreign policy objectives with more resources and more concentrated effort. More to the point, Israel – and Saudi Arabia – have great fears that the agreement will pave the way, not for a nuclear Iran, but for further collaboration in the future between Iran and the U.S.

There is some hope among doves that increasing engagement with Iran will lead to further moderation in Iran’s foreign and domestic policy. I do not feel as sanguine on that score, but still feel a non-nuclear Iran is both better for the world and for Israel. The framework deal goes a very long way to achieving that goal, though there are never any absolute guarantees. The agreement has been part of a long sustained process begun when the U.S. discovered the underground facility at Fordow. The U.S. introduced and gradually enhanced sanctions in concert with other powers while, at the same time, the U.S. and Israel used covert espionage and cyber warfare, in particular, the Stuxnet virus, to damage the Iranian nuclear program. Other even more destructive techniques have been held in abeyance. At the same time, Obama repeatedly offered diplomacy and the other unclenched hand as an alternative.

In contrast to the George W. Bush rash militarism without thinking through the methods let alone the possible unanticipated unintended consequences of war, Obama has taken a modest and situational approach that is both cautious and incremental. Sometimes it has been too cautious. At other times, too aggressive, as in Libya. However, relatively the policy has avoided America becoming involved in wars it cannot win. Thus, the success of the Iran framework agreement has not been a one-off success but part of a broader approach of which this has been the preeminent achievement.