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


Iran Redux

Iran Redux


Howard Adelman

Senator Chuck Schumer has declared himself. He is sticking to his endorsement of the bill that insists that Congress approve of the Iran nuclear deal. “I strongly believe Congress should have the right to disapprove any agreement and I support the Corker [Bob Corker Rep.-Tenn and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee] bill which would allow that to occur.” Up until yesterday he had been equivocal and only seemed to endorse Congressional involvement and not outright approval.

I am all for enhanced democratic review, but what changed? Why now even before he is briefed in detail by the White House? Why before the final agreement is reached on 30 June? Why over the Iranian deal? Why is this deal different from almost all other foreign agreements? And why would a democratic senator push such a bill, and do so strongly, given the Republican adamant stance in opposing virtually anything Obama initiates?

Schumer is expected to become the Democratic leader in the Senate in 2017 now that Robert Menendez has been eclipsed because of the investigation of his affairs and allegations of corruption. Schumer’s support indicates that twelve additional Democratic senators are likely to follow. That would mean that the Senate is on the cusp of achieving a veto-proof majority. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the new ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, might add his support if he can obtain concessions ensuring that the bill could not derail the agreement ­– an unlikely prospect.

The proposed bill freezes sanctions relief for 60 days while Congress reviews the agreement, a seemingly relatively innocuous and eminently democratic requirement. But the bill as written also allows Congress to veto the agreement, an unprecedented development with respect to these types of foreign agreements. Democrats have until today to file proposed amendments to soften the legislation. Corker and his supporters argue that they are playing the role of a tag team to allow and permit Obama to remain tough in the negotiations between now and 30 June. However, that is misleading since there are many alternative ways of accomplishing the same goal that would not also possibly undermine the negotiations.

Everyone is aware – the Americans from all camps, the Iranians, the remainder of the P5+1, virtually all experts on the negotiations – that the sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and that the removal of the sanctions is Iran’s foremost foreign policy objective. Netanyahu and the Republicans believe that the Obama administration has not squeezed the Iranians sufficiently and that more can be gained in terms of foreign policy goals. The negotiators, on the other hand – not just the Americans but the Europeans as well – believe that they have squeezed Iranians as much as they could.

Like the Americans, the Iranians are also divided into two camps. President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are the doves. They are agreeable to severe limits on Iran’s nuclear program under two major provisos – sanctions are definitely lifted and Iran retains the right of any nation to use its nuclear program for peaceful purposes. The American negotiators are willing to lift the sanctions if reasonable guarantees via transparency, inspections and deconstruction of that portion of Iran’s nuclear program are sufficient to ensure that Iran cannot reconstruct its nuclear weapons program quickly.

The doves in each country face off with hawks. Most American hawks have a vested interest in retaining sanctions to use, not so much to confine Iran’s nuclear program to peaceful purposes, but to use the sanction pressures to extract other non-nuclear concessions from Iran on its missile program, on its support for Hamas and Hezbollah as well as the rebels in Yemen, on its hegemonic ambitions in the Gulf and, most importantly to them, to minimize Iran as a threat to Israel.

Some American hawks, like John Bolton, go further. They do not believe sanctions will modify Iranian policy in any significant ways and believe the only real option is war against Iran. “The only credible option for significantly delaying the Iranian nuclear program would be a bombing campaign,” wrote Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations. Billy Kristol agreed. “It’s long since been time for the United States to speak to this regime in the language it understands—force.” It is not clear whether other hawks believe this as well but focus on the attacking the deal with Iran as both flawed and inadequate because they do not believe that a policy objective of war with Iran is salable to the American public.

Rouhani’s and Zarif’s hard line opponents also have a vested interest in retaining sanctions. They benefit economically through their controls on smuggling and their ability to earn inflated profits on scarce goods through the businesses they inherited and developed. They also benefit politically in reinforcing the image of America as a bogeyman for the Iranian people. Like the extreme hawks in the U.S., no deal that is possible would be acceptable to them but they will go along with any deal approved by the Supreme Leader.

Are there moderate Iranian hawks who simply believe Iran could get a better deal? Undoubtedly, but I believe the Iranians are desperate enough that virtually any deal that does not cross their red lines would be acceptable. They have clearly enunciated those red lines – lifting all the nuclear sanctions and conceding that Iran has the right to retain and use its nuclear infrastructure for peaceful purposes.

This red line enjoys widespread support. Even Mir-Hossein Mousavi, leader of the Green Movement, insisted that, “we will not abandon the great achievements of Iranian scientists. I too will not suspend uranium enrichment.” Even a hawk such as the Commander of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, Mohammad Ali Jafari, has insisted, an immediate lifting of sanctions is a red line for Iran. Thus, although the Iranian hawks oppose the deal, but have acceded to it because it is now supported by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, they hope Congress will push America into a position of refusing to lift all sanctions related to nuclear weapons when and if Iran carries out its part of the bargain. Thus do American hawks strengthen Iranian hawks.

On the other hand, the doves on each side have also become interdependent. It seems clear from both statements from the White House and from the current Iranian political leadership that both sides hope that the nuclear deal will have wider ramifications, including with respect to Iran-U.S. relations, even though those prospects are not part of the agreement. Rouhani stated that, “Some think that we must either fight the world or surrender to world powers. We say it is neither of those, there is a third way. We can have cooperation with the world…With those countries with which we have a cold relationship, we would like a better relationship. And if we have tension or hostility with any countries, we want an end to tension and hostility with those countries.” Rouhani will not be the first leader of a repressive country to initiate domestic pressures for reform by engagement with the rest of the world.

Netanyahu has correctly insisted that, “we can’t bank on the nature of the regime changing.” But the agreement is not dependent on such a change. Nor is it conditional upon the regime changing as a result of the agreement. That is a hoped-for plus. As Netanyahu has also said, if the regime changed, there would be no need for an agreement. One of those hoped for consequences is that ]ran will give up on its objective of exterminating Israel. But to make that a necessary condition of the deal is both unfeasible and will more likely ensure that intractable hostility will remain. “Israel will not accept an agreement which allows a country that vows to annihilate us to develop nuclear weapons, period.”

Netanyahu’s assertion is totally understandable. But to make the goal regime change or even, now that the rest of the world has accepted it, that the sanctions regime  ensure that Iran’s capability of eventually making nuclear weapons is totally destroyed, is to desire perfection and, unfortunately, as has been said many times, perfection is the enemy of the possible. Making a deal conditional upon Iran recognizing Israel’s right to exist is a total non-starter. As Obama said, “The notion that we would condition Iran not getting nuclear weapons in a verifiable deal on Iran recognising Israel is really akin to saying that we won’t sign a deal.”

If the American hawks undermine the deal, especially now that the rest of the world has endorsed it, if Iran keeps to the deal without American participation, the international nuclear sanctions regime will collapse on their own. America would find itself to be internationally isolated on the issue with dramatic negative effects on the rest of its foreign policy objectives. Once the deal has been agreed to and once the details are filled in by 30 June to the satisfaction of both sides, America will be not only the only loser, but a huge loser if the hawks win the day.

Further, Iran would be the real winner because it could, and might be forced to by internal pressures, to resist many of the concessions it has already made. Iran would be unwilling to craft any deal on such unfavourable terms to itself as has been the case under American leadership. The European Council on Foreign Relations warned that American hawks, “could endanger the international consensus backing sanctions against Iran” with the prospective result that Europe would unilaterally ease easing its oil embargo against Iran.

China and Russia would seize “the opportunity to further advance their own interests at the expense of the U.S.” Igor Korotchenko, head of Moscow’s Centre for Analysis of World Arms Trade suggested that Russia sell S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran. Enhanced sanctions against Iran without the cooperation of the rest of the world would make the whole sanctions regime irrelevant. America would have shot itself in the foot. On the other hand, if the agreement holds, the revival of Iran’s energy sector will undermine Russia’s ability to blackmail Europe because of its role as a major supplier of oil and gas. Further, American companies can be in the front row with other competitors in the lucrative prospective business of rehabilitating Iran’s oil sector.

Given all of these factors, why have some influential congressman seemingly joined the efforts to undermine the deal? My conviction is that it has nothing to do with foreign policy and everything to do with both domestic policy and Congressional politics. I will have to expand on this at another time.