The Illogic of Opposing Obama’s Nuclear Deal

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by Henry Johnson

A new report by the Iran Project elaborates on the basic reasons for supporting the comprehensive nuclear deal being negotiated between Iran and the U.S. The report, authored by distinguished former diplomats including Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Paul Pillar (whose National Interest blog posts LobeLog frequently features), demonstrates why Iran’s current leadership is unlikely to violate a final deal. The report uses as its premise the assertion by the U.S. intelligence community that Iran has not decided whether to acquire nuclear weapons. This question, and the logic that follows, is central to understanding the disputes over whether President Obama is pursuing the correct policy vis-à-vis Iran.

Perhaps the chief concern among detractors of the president’s diplomacy is that it does not go far enough in slashing and constraining Iran’s enrichment program. Many of the deal’s opponents, for whom Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks most forcefully, share the belief that the U.S. objective should be to eliminate Iran’s enrichment capability altogether. This all-or-nothing objective flows from the premise that Iran is actually deceiving the U.S. and is committed to obtaining at least a threshold weapons capability. Iran’s putative agreement to a deal, they worry, is nothing but a ploy to unravel the sanctions regime before bolstering its enrichment program and pinning all the blame on the U.S. In order to rationalize Obama’s failure to recognize this grandiose subterfuge, some commentators and political leaders have attempted to paint Iranians as untrustworthy and even dishonorable. Senator Tom Cotton, for example, libeled Iran’s foreign minister as a coward and a draft evader. Senator Lindsey Graham called Iranians liars and cheaters, and Netanyahu regularly draws parallels between present-day Iran and genocidal threats to the Jewish people throughout history.

The Iran Project’s new report argues that these concerns are unfounded. The U.S. government’s highest intelligence authority on questions regarding the military intentions of foreign nations has and still does contradict the belief that Iran harbors a secret long-term plan to acquire nuclear weapons. The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) has repeatedly testified in open session before Congress that Iran halted its weapons program in 2003 and has not made a decision to acquire nuclear weapons. Aside from the DNI’s “high-confidence” assessment, the report also outlines the difficulty that Iran would indefinitely face in trying to pursue a “sneak-out”—the use of undeclared facilities to enrich enough uranium for one bomb. This includes the contention that “Iran is the most watched country in the world,” and that “the unprecedented extension of inspections…will make it even more difficult for Iran to conceal a new facility.” The authors also point out that the U.S. intelligence community “has concluded that the IAEA would detect in a timely manner any direct violation of the agreement” and that it itself is capable of detecting undeclared facilities, “as it has done the two previous times Iran failed to declare in a timely manner its nuclear-related sites.”

The assumption that Iran is pursuing a bomb and a nuclear accord at the same time is simply illogical. Why would a country that is the closest it has ever been to a weapons capability forfeit its best “breakout” option, unless it did not ultimately want a bomb? Prior to the Joint Plan of Action, Iran had enjoyed the option of enriching enough uranium for one bomb in less than three months. A final deal will effectively push this window of time to at least one year. Iran presumably could have rejected substantive talks from the outset and in so doing inched closer toward a weapons capability. It is not in Iran’s interest to do this now, and it will be less in its interest to do so in the future, when the inspections regime is tougher and the length of its breakout time greater. The same basic cost-benefit analysis—weighing the risk of U.S. or Israeli strikes and isolation from Western economies—will apply 15 years from now, except that Iran would then be precluded, due to a permanent inspections regime, from a sneak-out option. As the report’s authors put it, “One must question why a country that could have developed a nuclear weapon any time over the last decade would now agree to restraints with unprecedented verification and then cheat.”

Even if a new geopolitical fact were to persuade Iran’s leadership into considering anew pathways to the bomb, the weight and seriousness of this fact would have to supersede several political interests in Tehran. Elites in the Islamic Republic have for the most part reached a consensus to support President Rouhani’s handling of the nuclear file. A successful deal would reinvigorate the economy and act as a pressure valve for the simmering discontent that boiled over once not too long ago. As noted in the report, “In recent months the IRGC and other institutional conservatives in Iran have refrained from public attacks on the agreement, and recently given it support, suggesting that they are falling in line with Khamenei, who appears increasingly supportive.” A major breach, furthermore, would “destroy the large invest­ment Iran’s leaders have committed politically and economically in reaching the agreement in the first place.” It would “entail re-imposition of U.S. sanctions with a consequent impact on third states dealing or trading with Iran…even if the full international sanctions regime is not restored.” These consequences would enrage some key voter demographics, not only for triggering economic fallout, but also for returning Iran to a detested pariah status. The consequences would doom President Rouhani’s reelection campaign and possibly lead to a repeat of the 2009 protests and the prospect of popular revolt.

If Iran did wish to acquire nuclear weapons, it would not agree to the parameters set by the Obama administration—and no policy other than war could commit it to a zero-enrichment capability, according to the report. Fortunately, though not for the sake of clarity, international politics is scarcely characterized by such extremes. States usually prefer making a bargain that ends in peace to imposing their will by war. The environments in which diplomatic bargains can grow and ripen, however, are prone to outside interference, both from within the state and without. Internal political opponents may prize the scuttling of their adversary’s legacy over progress in the name of international peace. Foreign interlopers may, in pursuit of narrow self-interests, attempt to goad a superpower into taking actions that they themselves balk at. So far, Obama has deftly fended off these outside pressures. The survival of his foreign policy legacy will be decided by the strategy he devises to placate restless allies and protect his deal from whatever hawkish tendencies the next U.S. administration might exhibit.

Photo: DNI James Clapper

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3 Comments

  1. Mr. Johnson, why is a “moral” US negotiating with a Iran who holds US citizens, and threatens to annihilate Israel? Why does the POTUS say he will not demand from the Iranians to destroy Israel? Isn’t that tolerating terrorism? Why do the Iranians continue to enrich weapon grade uranium when they have enormous proven oil reserves? Do you not believe that their form of religion is to subjugate or kill all opponents? What is the difference between the Ayatolas and Hitler?

  2. Thank you Mr.Henry Johnson. While endorsing some of Don Bacon’s valid comment, I welcome a move by learned experienced people to prevent a great disaster before it happens- a disaster far greater than what happened and is happening in Iraq, If that can be called a disaster which is not by people like Netanyahu’s value system.
    Netanyahu and his administrations’ character and policies are well known to journalists,political analysts,intelligence agencies of western countries and even heads of states like Obama,Sarkosy,Putin….their comments on this man outside diplomatic protocol are known to everyone.He and his administration are irresponsibly playing dangerous political games that would undoubtedly have adverse consequences on,not only Israeli interests,but also on American and Western interests in total and could push the world to the brink of a disastrous situation with the possibility of irreversibility. The fact that all countries in the world,with the exception of a few,recognised Palestine as an independent state,the unpopularity of Israel among the ordinary people of the world,rise of anti-Jewish and even greater than that anti-zionists sentiments in the west are but a few examples of Netanyahu’s anti-Israeli behaviour and policies. We must not forget Israeli role in the creation of Iraq invasion catastrophe,which is considered by Netanyahu ‘s administration a great success !! They are thinking of Iran in a similar terms and system of value that led to the invasion of Iraq. Iran is feared and quite unpopular among Arab poppet regime of the area.This is not new but the previous regime enjoyed a good relationship with the west and Arabs did not enjoy so much atrocious and false confidence to openly express their animosity towards Iran.Incidentally, a main reason for Arabs’ unfriendly feelings towards Iran was Iran’s open good relations with Israel !! Netanyahu is trying to take advantage of the circumstances to hit Iran with the approval and help of poppet rootless Arab countries and total active participation of the US, to score a positive political point for himself and Israel.This is all childish dreams as some other of Netanyahu’s policies. You don’t know Iran and Iranians Mr.Netanyahu. If you enter a war with Iran you will find Iranian Jews on the Iranian side fighting Israel.
    Iran is feared and quite unpopular among Arab rootless poppet regime of the area.This is not new but the previous regime enjoyed a good relationship with the west and Arabs did not enjoy so much atrocious and false confidence to openly express their animosity towards Iran. The main reason for Arabs’ unfriendly feelings towards Iran was Iran’s open good relations with Israel !!This bring us to the next point which Mr.Netanyahu atrociously ,ungratefully and deliberately lied about the historical relationship between Iranians and the Jews.
    “…. Iran’s historical genocidal threats to the Jewish people throughout the history…..” Not a normal person of moderate dignity,integrity,fairness and justice could ever make such a statement. As said by Mr.Don Bacon, I could talk about it weeks !! I INVITE IRANIAN JEWS IN IRAN OR ABROAD,INCLUDING THOSE IN ISRAEL AND AIPAC TO FURNISH MR.NETANYAHU WITH A SUITABLE ANSWER OF THEIR OWN.
    Exactly contrary to Mr.Netanyahu’s statement, Iran has always been the only,yes the only, sure and safe haven for Jewish people in the world throughout the history.They always lived In Iran as equals and enjoyed very high positions in the government and hierarchy of the Iranian power pyramid.True, in the IR of Iran minorities cannot occupy certain positions,as it is for Arabs and Muslims in Israel.However there is a difference. In Iran Jewish people are not marked as Jewish in anyway and are not distinguishable from muslims in anyway- name,appearance,birth certificates,identity cards…. unless they deliberately want to be distinguished.Consequently many people of Jewish background are occupying high government positions without being known as Jewish. Most recent example was Mr.Ahmadi-Nejad, the previous president who was from a Jewish family. The 25,000 self declared Jews in Iran have their own elected member in the National Assembly ( just like Arab members in the Knesset ) and enjoy life without any prejudice , are well integrated with the rest of the people ,Iranian culture ,customs and live as one of several ethnic groups ( Kords, Lors, Azaris,Rashtis …). Thus, majority of Iranian Jews refused to go to Israel despite incentives offered by Israeli government or if some did,most came back via third countries after utilising and saving all the advantages handed out by the Israeli Government. The old Iranian Jews in Israel or other countries consider Iran as their home and every year celebrate Norooz(the Iranian New Year) and wish to return home before they die. Thus the biggest Jewish population in the ME outside Israel live in Iran by their own choice.The 25,000 official figures of Iranian jews is the figure for self declared Iranian Jews. According to some Iranian Jewish sources, if we take the undeclared Iranian Jews into account,which we should really do, about 10 % of the population of Iran are from jewish backgrounds !! Yes,Mr.Netanyahu !! I expect Iranian jews’ testimony .
    I advise Mr.Netanyahu and his gang to read their Tore properly. Who is Cyrus The Great,as mentioned in Tore,and what did he do for the Jews and how do the Jews revere him even today? You don’t know your history and your Tore Mr. Netanyahu ,because you are not Jewish,by religion or by race .
    As for Iran Talks, the west,specially the US,better cease the opportunity for a respectable peaceful settlement to the dispute. The other side of the coin is not advantageous to either-side of the negotiations and both are capable of throwing all the achievements away and enter a new phase of animosity, which would be a humanitarian catastrophe.Feel responsible and put unnecessary doubts aside.

  3. The Iran Project Report is about what might expect from a select group of US establishment foreign policy operatives, quite insular and without any consideration of not only the views of the other five US confederate nations in this matter but also (especially) a lack of understanding of Iran and of Iran’s positions especially its sovereignty concerns and its past experiences with US perfidy including cyberattacks, assassinations and unwarranted sanctions as well as the torpedoing of the previous Brazil/Turkey nuclear agreement in 2010.

    Examples from the study:
    –President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zari have led the government…The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) plays a particularly important policy role in Iran’s neighborhood and is directly responsible to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. — Actually Khamenei is chief of state
    –Granting sanctions relief in exchange for severe restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program will mean that sanctions have served their purpose. –Actually Iran greatly expanded its peaceful nuclear program under sanctions, and the talks were the US idea

    There are other obvious errors.
    –The report quotes “U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) has repeatedly testified….”..becomes…WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS OF THESE FINDINGS…becomes…The intelligence community’s ?ndings on Iran could be mistaken…and then….The intelligence community learned from its past mistakes, and has new and powerful tools. –Sure.
    –that factors into: [The intelligence community] was aware of the Iranian undeclared facilities before they were publicly disclosed, and of?cials have often characterized their conclusions about Iran as “high con?dence” assessments. –what undeclared facilities? If this is a reference to Fordow it is incorrect.
    –There are many other questionable assumptions and “facts” in the report. I could spend a week on it.

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