Ed Levine Dissects Menendez-Graham Letter

by Jim Lobe

*This article has ben modified.

Ed Levine, an arms control specialist who worked for both Republican and Democratic senators for 20 years on the Intelligence Committee and another ten on the Foreign Relations Committee, wrote a detailed and devastating analysis of S. 1881, the Kirk-Menendez bill (or, as I called it, the Wag The Dog Act of 2014), for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation on whose advisory board he currently serves. That analysis, which we republished on LobeLog in mid-January, played an important role in solidifying Democratic opposition in the Senate to the Kirk-Menendez bill, eventually forcing a humiliating retreat by AIPAC, which we chronicled in some detail during the winter months.

Levine has now written a second memo, this one on the Kirk-Menendez letter to President Barack Obama, which I wrote about last night about last night. Like its predecessor, it details the problematic and unrealistic nature of many of the key demands contained in the letter and thus deserves the widest possible circulation.

  • The underlying demand that Iran dismantle all its “illicit nuclear infrastructure” is simply not a feasible negotiations outcome. So, if the signatories really mean what that phrase says, then they do not want these negotiations to succeed.
  • In particular, the demand to dismantle the Fordow site and the Arak reactor seems to go beyond what is really needed. The Fordow site can be limited in what is allowed to be done there, and the Arak reactor can be modified to prevent much plutonium production. Those lesser objectives are very important, and should indeed be seen as P5+1 demands in any comprehensive agreement. But complete dismantlement is unnecessary and, therefore, would at some point be seen as provocative and intended to subvert the negotiations.
  • The goal that a comprehensive agreement be one “such that Iran does not retain a uranium or plutonium path to a weapon” is unrealistic. The uranium path is there, and Iran may have already mastered all the techniques that are needed to take that path. We can make that path more difficult, slower to complete, etc., such that the likelihood of Iran choosing that path is reduced because the likely consequences would be too great; but it is too late to expect that path to disappear.
  • The point that “any deal must fully resolve concerns” about Iran’s past and present nuclear programs is a fair goal, but one that may prove very difficult to obtain up front. The authors seem to realize this, as later they tie it to major sanctions relief, which would not be granted up front anyhow. Both the authors and the administration should understand that a sliding scale of sanctions relief is likely (just as was used in the Joint Plan of Action). It would be reasonable to make some of the sanctions relief dependent upon the IAEA saying that certain questions have been cleared up and that access to the relevant documents and personnel has been achieved. But in all likelihood, the deal itself will not resolve concerns; rather, implementation of the deal will require such resolution.
  • It would be nice to achieve an extraordinary inspections regime (i.e., one that goes beyond what is permitted under the Iran-IAEA Additional Protocol that Iran will ratify and implement pursuant to any comprehensive settlement) lasting 20 years or more, but that is unlikely. Signatories should understand that something in the 12-15 years range may be the best we can get.
  • The idea of demanding independent P5+1 monitoring seems rather risky. If we demanded and got such a role for ourselves, then Russia, China and Germany would surely do the same. That could easily lead to a situation in which the coalition members put out differing inspection results, busting the coalition – and the prospect of renewed international sanctions – apart. A more reasonable idea might be to require that the IAEA share its inspection data with the P5+1. (Normally the IAEA does not share details of what it finds; but these inspections would be pursuant to a negotiated agreement, rather than just to IAEA-Iran safeguards agreements, so it ought to be possible to get more access than we normally get to whatever the IAEA finds.)
  • More frequent access for IAEA inspectors is not a panacea. I wonder whether it might be more useful to create a registration and monitoring regime for significant centrifuge parts and assemblies (rotors, cases, I don’t know what else) so that there would be a paper trail to verify, analogous to our ability to follow the movement of Russian missiles under the New START Treaty. Giving IAEA inspectors that sort of a baseline to work from might be more useful than just letting them in more often.
  • The emphasis on “snapback” sanctions in the event of an Iranian violation or noncompliance can be self-defeating. Every country makes mistakes, and every country engages in minor violations of its arms control agreements. We commit such “violations,” as do others. After all, the recent discovery of vials of smallpox virus is, in some ways, the discovery of a rather significant U.S. violation of an international commitment to have no such stockpiles other than at the CDC or at the one permitted lab in Russia. The violation was very likely inadvertent, indeed unknown to the national authority responsible for compliance; but it was still a violation, and a big one. Should the US be sanctioned for it? Similarly, in the case of the nuclear agreement with North Korea, the DPRK was not the only party that committed violations. The other countries all too often were behind schedule in their provision of assistance to North Korea. By focusing on those embarrassing but largely unintended violations of our commitments, the DPRK was able to build a case (at least in its own mind) for its own violations. So, it’s important to understand that we really want to talk about only material orsignificant violations, only violations that the US (or the IAEA or the P5+1) judges to warrant the reimposition of sanctions. Thus, while we want a regime in which, for some years, sanctions are only suspended and can be reimposed if necessary, we really want not so much a “snapback” system as an understanding among the P5+1 (and perhaps in writing) that Iran will be in a probationary period for some time and subject to renewed sanctions if there is a serious compliance concern that cannot be resolved in short order.

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly cited a Royce-Engel letter. It has been corrected to reflect that the letter in question was written by Senators Robert Menendez and Lindsey Graham.

Menendez Graham

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. Good post Mr Lobe. Showing examples of violations to signed agreements by the U.S. as well as others, should wake up those who are trying to scuttle the opportunity to end this situation. Ignorance might be bliss in some circles, but stupidity knows no bounds. Those who insist that only tougher sanctions work, are blind to the effect they have on the civilian population, who are hurt the most,. especially the poor. But they sing the tune that it’s all the Leaderships fault that the suffering takes place, not the ones who impose them.

  2. Once again we have to encourage people to understand that there is only one core issue separating the West ( and I mean China and Russia too) from Iran in talks and that is Iran’s insistence on expanding its centrifuge capability. No other issue stands int he way of a resolution and no other issue better illustrates why Iran (and I mean Khamenei) will never exist amicably with the West. Iran desire to expand it capacity to refine fuel to weapons grade levels with a new system ten times faster means it never really wants to let go of its vision of a nuclear weapons capability to offset Israel’s advantage and allow it supremacy over its neighbors in the Gulf. The West knows it which is why all of the P5+1 are adamant on this point. It also shows why even with Rouhani’s installation, all the real policy making power still resides within Khamenei and the military leadership of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard which stands to lose the most from a dismantling of its weapons making potential.

    The question has been raised by analysts — and correctly so — does Iran’s desire to lift economic sanctions trump its desire to maintain its hopes of nuclear weapons capability. The answer to that question will be answered on July 20th because if Zarif doesn’t deliver an agreement then the West will know truly how committed Iran is to its path of nuclear arms development.

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