by Joe Cirincione
There is an overwhelming consensus among non-proliferation, nuclear policy, and national security experts that a negotiated accord is the best, and likely the only, way to ensure that Iran never builds a nuclear weapon. But you would not know that if you relied on congressional hearings or most media coverage of the negotiations.
No sooner had the ink dried on the April framework agreement to freeze and roll back Iran’s nuclear program than critics began decrying its supposed shortcomings.
It would “lead to a cascade of proliferation in the most unstable region in the world,” said Senator Marco Rubio (R.-FL) because it would only eliminate two-thirds of Iran’s 19,000 centrifuges. The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol claimed that leaving Iran with any enrichment capability would make “nuclear proliferation in an unbelievably unstable region of the world?…more likely and more imminent.”
As we have gotten closer to a final agreement, the torrent of criticism has grown, but very little of it comes from actual nuclear policy experts. In truth, the expert opinion is decisively in favor of the negotiating effort.
A Gathering Consensus
For example, a bipartisan group of more than 50 former national security and military leaders signed a letter in April applauding the negotiators and urging Congress to refrain from impeding ongoing talks. Although withholding judgment until the final deal is reached, these policy heavyweights found that “the framework represents important progress toward our goal of blocking an Iranian nuclear weapon.”
They warned further that “undermining the negotiations or blocking the chances of reaching a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” could have grave consequences. Among these are “creating the perception that the U.S. is responsible for the collapse of the agreement; unraveling international cooperation on sanctions; and triggering the unfreezing of Iran’s nuclear program the rapid ramping of Iranian nuclear capacity.” This, they said, “could enhance the possibility of war.”
Signers included former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; former National Security Advisors Samuel Berger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Brent Scowcroft; retired Generals Anthony Zinni and Frank Kearney; retired Admirals William Fallon, Eric Olsen, and Joe Sestak; former Ambassadors Thomas Pickering, Nicolas Burns, Chester Crocker, James Dobbins, Michael Armacost, Daniel Kurtzer, and Frank Wisner; and issue experts such as George Perkovich, Graham Allison, Robert Einhorn, Michèle Flournoy, and Gary Sick, among others.
Reflecting this consensus view, both Brzezinski and Scowcroft warned Congress earlier this year in a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee to “not take steps which would destroy the negotiations. “
Similarly, the Atlantic Council released a statement signed by 16 experts on its Iran Task Force—including Stuart Eizenstat, Jim Moody, William Reinsch, Greg Thielmann, Harlan Ullman, and retired Marine General James Cartwright— commending “the herculean efforts of the United States, the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran in achieving a framework for a Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action (CJPOA) limiting Iran’s nuclear program and shutting off its principal pathways to developing nuclear weapons.”
Agreement Strengthens Non-Proliferation
The vast majority of experts reject the claim that a deal with Iran would trigger a cascade of proliferation. They believe exactly the opposite is true.
Thirty non-proliferation experts wrote in early April that “the agreement reduces the likelihood of destabilizing nuclear weapons competition in the Middle East, and strengthens global efforts to prevent proliferation, including the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.”
Collectively, these experts have hundreds of years of experience monitoring the spread of nuclear weapons around the world—and working to reverse and halt this trend. The letter signers included internationally recognized leaders in the field such as Brooke Anderson, Bruce Blair, Barry Blechman, Matthew Bunn, Sidney Drell, Robert Einhorn, Steve Fetter, Robert Gallucci, R. Scott Kemp, Michael Krepon, Scott Sagan, Sharon Squassoni, Tariq Rauf, and Frank von Hippel.
They concluded that the agreed framework was “a vitally important step forward” for non-proliferation and global security, and that “when implemented, it will put in place an effective, verifiable, enforceable, long-term plan to guard against the possibility of a new nuclear-armed state in the Middle East.”
Ilan Goldenberg, one of the letter’s signers and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, wrote separately in a recent report that, “if the deal is achieved, in 10–15 years the world could see a more moderate Iran, reduced instability in the Middle East, a stronger global non-proliferation regime, and an environment in which America’s prestige and influence has increased as a result of the nuclear agreement.”
Former national security advisor Sandy Berger summarized the consensus view of nuclear security experts when he said that “the absence of a deal will more likely drive them [Iran’s neighbors] to buy or acquire nuclear weapons, because they’ll have an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program.”
Further validation of the proposed agreement has come from Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair of Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who wrote that:
The devil in any arms control agreement lies both in the details and how they are enforced over time… That said, the proposed parameters and framework in the Proposed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has the potential to meet every test in creating a valid agreement… It can block both an Iranian nuclear threat and a nuclear arms race in the region, and it is a powerful beginning to creating a full agreement, and creating the prospect for broader stability in other areas.
Media Blind Spot
The media rarely portrays this expert consensus in the coverage of the Iran negotiations. This is not to say that the nuclear policy experts are uniform in their views. There are nuances and shades of agreement. And several genuine non-proliferation experts have strong, principled disagreements with the proposed Iran deal. Some outright oppose it. They, however, represent a minority faction in the field. The overwhelming majority of experts favor the deal.
The media portrayal of expert opinion is driven partially by the custom to “balance” expert views in stories, so that pro and con are evenly represented—even if this gives a false depiction of the overall expert opinion.
It is also driven by the desire to make news. Conflict grabs attention; agreement is boring. “If it bleeds, it leads” guides not just the local nightly news but often the front page of The New York Times.
Some reporters, for instance, used a recent letter from a bipartisan group of experts to generate headlines that former top officials of the Obama administration were condemning the Iran deal. This, even though several of these former officials, including Bob Einhorn, Gary Samore, and Gen. James Cartwright, had already signed letters in support of the agreement.
Einhorn felt compelled to write a rebuttal of this media misrepresentation, explaining that the signers, including several former Republican security officials such as Bush national security advisor Stephen Hadley, were not challenging the administration’s negotiating positions or asking them to adopt new and more demanding postures. Rather, he wrote,
The significance of the statement is that this diverse, bipartisan group was able to come together on a number of reasonable and achievable recommendations for concluding an agreement that would serve U.S. interests and the interests of U.S. friends in the Middle East. Unlike some recommendations made by other groups and individuals, these contained no “poison pills” designed to complicate or even sabotage the negotiations.
Aggressive Tactics from Deal Foes
The mistaken impression of where the experts stand also stems from the aggressive tactics of the opposition forces. Though light on nuclear policy experts, the groups working to kill a deal with Iran are exceptionally well funded, heavily staffed, and relentless in their bombardment of the media and the Congress with “fact sheets,” reports, letters, visits, and tweets. As several Senate staffers told me recently, “We feel under siege.” With a few exceptions, pro-deal experts are, to put it politely, more restrained in offering their opinion. Nor do liberals have the massive propaganda machine that conservatives enjoy.
The distorted impression that nuclear policy experts are evenly divided or that most are critical of the deal also stems from the imbalance of witnesses on congressional panels. It is difficult to find an expert in favor of the Iran agreement on any witness list in the Republican-controlled Congress.
In the past 18 months, Congress has staged 21 public hearings on the Iran agreement, calling 41 witnesses. Of these, four have been witnesses from the administration while 36 came from non-governmental organizations. Of the outside witnesses, an overwhelming 28 were clear critics of the Iran agreement and only 7 could be called supportive. That is a ratio of four to one, critics to supporters.
Moreover, several of the most critical witnesses testified multiple times, appearing in three, four, or even six different hearings. None of the supportive non-government witnesses testified more than once. This totals an astonishing 45 appearances from deal critics versus seven appearances from deal supporters outside the government. When a supportive witness is allowed to testify, he or she is usually outnumbered two to one at the witness table. They invariably speak last and are asked only a few questions.
These hearings generate considerable media coverage, and the organizations involved often trumpet their testimonies in press releases, email blasts, and social media. Any reporter covering such hearings is left with a stacked deck of negative testimony, buttressed by the torrents of criticism that pour forth from the members themselves.
These show hearings do not serve the congressional interest. During the more than nine years that I served on congressional staff, we always sought to present members with a healthy debate. This made for a more informed and more interesting hearing. But these staged Iran productions have likely left members with the view that the large majority of experts are skeptical of an agreement or oppose it outright. This could not be further from the truth.
Perfect Should Not Be Enemy of Good
This is not to say that all experts are ecstatic with the coming deal. On the contrary, most know that it will not be perfect. It will certainly have flaws. But the relentless effort to condemn the deal, to jettison the entire operation because some part of the agreement may not meet arbitrary red lines drawn by critics far from the negotiating table, is foolish and dangerous.
James Walsh of MIT, one of the few supportive witnesses invited to testify, cautioned Congress in June against “making the perfect the enemy of the good.” Providing some historical context largely absent from congressional hearings, he said:
If perfect were the standard, we would have no NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty], no arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, no nuclear deal with Libya, no Proliferation Security Initiative, and the like—all of which have advanced American national security…
The NPT, like all nonproliferation and arms control agreements, was not perfect and did not eliminate all risk, but it was spectacularly successful. It helped prevent the cascade of proliferation that virtually every government and academic analyst had predicted in the years prior to its passage.
Jessica Mathews, one of the nation’s leading policy authorities who led the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for almost 20 years, summarized the view of many experts on the relative merits of this particular agreement in her article for The New York Review of Books:
Those who worry that a deal with Iran will entail some risk should remember that preventing nuclear proliferation almost never happens in a single leap. Countries change direction slowly. International rules and norms are built up brick by brick over years. Technical capacities to monitor and political expectations are gradually but steadily strengthened. The agreement with Iran, if one is finally reached, will not be the end, but a beginning. It must be strong and carefully framed and minutely monitored, but it need not be watertight in order for it to ultimately open the way to a permanently nonnuclear Iran.
Similarly, on the critical issue of our ability to verify the agreement, Thomas Shea, a 24-year veteran of the IAEA Department of Safeguards, wrote recently that the Iran deal “marks the first time that the five Security Council members have acted collectively to prevent a state from acquiring a nuclear arsenal.” Moreover, “if the IAEA receives the support it needs, which is likely, it will be able to verify Iran’s commitments effectively. Even the skeptics should have confidence that if Iran changes course, IAEA verification will work in time for intervention to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
That is where most nuclear policy experts stand. They are cognizant of the shortcomings and aware of the advances. Scores of experts hold these views. In fact, there are too many to list in this article.
If you are one of these experts, listed herein or not, please consider making your views more widely known. If you are a journalist, please consider including some of these neglected experts in your next report.
If you are neither an expert nor a journalist, please don’t be confused by the loudest or the best funded. Look at all the facts, assess the overwhelming consensus, and don’t be bullied. Make up you own mind.
Joe Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund. He served previously as vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress, director for non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, senior associate on nuclear policy at the Stimson Center and on the professional staff of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Government Operations Committee.