The U.S. and Iranian nuclear negotiators have just announced a one week extension of their nuclear talks. If, as expected, there is an agreement next week, it will open a new stage of tension in the process leading to its final formal ratification by all parties. For then, the U.S. Congress will have 30 days to vote the agreement up or down. This vote, forced on an unwilling president by his own party’s Senate members several weeks ago, poses a new threat. For the Israel Lobby, it offers a new opportunity to sabotage the deal.
With this in mind, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), originally founded as Aipac’s policy think-tank, organized a letter (text) criticizing the impending Iran nuclear deal being finalized by the P5+1. Among its signatories are hawkish policy analysts who managed the Iran portfolio in the first Obama administration, and several retired generals. They include Lobby perennial-favorite, Dennis Ross; Gary Samore, who now leads United Against a Nuclear Iran; David Petraeus, former CIA director, adulterer and compromiser of U.S. national security, Robert Einhorn, the State Department’s sanctions czar, James Cartwright and Stephen Hadley, Dick Cheney’s national security adviser.
Since most of them formerly served Pres. Obama, the tone of the letter takes a curious passive-aggressive tone: we really don’t like the deal, except for the parts that are pretty good. Note, they all contributed at an earlier stage to devising the talking points for a deal. Their criticism at this juncture raises the question: what were they doing back then when they served in government? Were they raising these issues then? Or were they doing precisely what the current officials sitting in their seats at the negotiating table are doing now?
In fact, there is probably a good reason these individuals (especially Samore and Ross) are no longer in the Obama administration. They are the hawks, the maximalists who drove Iran policy in the first term. But when a softer, more flexible hand was necessary the president and Secretary Kerry chose Wendy Sherman to lead the talks.
Even in this statement from the letter, it hard to understand what the precise nature of the criticism is:
“Most of us would have preferred a stronger agreement,” the letter begins, going on to assess the proposed accord as useful for delaying Iran’s program, but not a long-term solution to the problem of a nuclear Iran.
“The agreement will not prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability,” it continues. “It will not require the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear enrichment infrastructure. It will however reduce that infrastructure for the next 10 to 15 years. And it will impose a transparency, inspection, and consequences regime with the goal of deterring and dissuading Iran from actually building a nuclear weapon.”
Their opening statement, saying they would prefer a stronger agreement, is probably shared by Secretary Kerry as well. Everyone on the U.S. side and in Israel would prefer Iran to give up its nuclear program entirely. But it ain’t gonna happen. So the question is, what is the minimum that will satisfy everyone’s concerns?
It continues that the nuclear deal won’t prevent an Iranian bomb. That’s not quite true. It will prevent an Iranian bomb for at least a decade or more. But it won’t prevent an Iranian bomb forever. This is true. What this letter doesn’t say is that both the U.S. and Iran aim to create an infrastructure during that period that will guarantee good relations and constructive engagement so that Iran will not feel the need to build a bomb 15 years down the line.
The letter implies that the signatories would prefer the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. Curiously, this is precisely the position of the Israelis and the Israel Lobby. One wonders how Israel’s position crept into this document! Similarly, it’s curious that WINEP’s key role in developing and publicizing the letter isn’t mentioned until the penultimate (26th) paragraph in Sanger’s story. One wonder: why bury the lede?
Letter Not Intended as “Poison Pill:” Who’s Kidding Whom?
David Einhorn is quoted in the report saying the letter is not intended as a “poison pill” to sabotage the negotiations. Which is, of course, nonsense. Of course it’s intended to sabotage a deal on any other than the Lobby’s terms.
How else to interpret this?
The letter said inspections “must include military (including I.R.G.C.) and other sensitive facilities. Iran must not be able to deny or delay timely access to any site anywhere in the country.
The inspectors, they write, must be able “to take samples, to interview scientists and government officials, to inspect sites, and to review and copy documents as required for their investigation of Iran’s past and any ongoing nuclear weaponization activities.” The letter adds, “This work needs to be accomplished before any significant sanctions relief.”
The signers of this letter must know that their position, if the government attempted to implement it, would end the talks. Ayatollah Khamenei has already said inspections would not include military sites. And he has also clearly indicated that Iran expects significant sanctions relief immediately after an agreement is signed. Making the prior fulfillment of all Iranian commitments contingent on such relief is akin to rejecting the deal entirely, since Iran will not sign such an understanding.
The following also offers an example of the bad faith of the letter-writers:
…The letter [insists] that the United States publicly declare — with congressional assent — that even after the expiration of the agreement Iran will not be permitted to possess enough nuclear fuel to make a single weapon.
This too is an absolute non-starter. No Iranian government will ever agree to a deal in which its negotiating partner publicly pledges Iran must never have a nuclear weapon. This too is an Israeli position.
In this passage the authors rattle those war sabers once again:
“Precisely because Iran will be left as a nuclear threshold state (and has clearly preserved the option of becoming a nuclear weapon state), the United States must go on record now that it is committed to using all means necessary, including military force, to prevent this.”
Iran has not “clearly preserved” the nuclear option. In fact, the Ayatollah has publicly stated just the opposite, that Iran will not develop or use nuclear weapons. The notion that Iran has an intent of nuclearizing is unsupported. To advocate threatening Iran with military attack is another tired old meme from the Bush-Netanyahu playbook. We will not attack Iran. Not even Israel will attack Iran. So let’s stop the theatrical brandishing of this sword in the final act of the nuclear drama.
It’s also no accident that the New York Times reporter who wrote this story is none other than David Sanger. Sanger’s Iran reporting relies heavily, at times, on Israeli talking points and reflects a hawkish perspective that includes maximum suspicion of Iranian intentions and motives.
Dexter Filkins: Iran on a Wire—Why Not Ask for More?
A corollary to the letter and Sanger’s report is a new piece by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, Why Aren’t We Asking Iran for More? His title brought to mind this lyric from Leonard Cohen’s Bird on a Wire:
I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
he said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
she cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”
That’s the tension that is at the heart of Filkins article. He says “why not ask for more” from the Iranians. While the pragmatists among us warn that asking for too much may end up getting you nothing.
Dexter Filkins is a stellar war correspondent. But in writing about Iran he comes a-cropper. The ostensible point he seeks to make is that while negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran is important, why don’t we also attempt to force Iran to become house-trained. Why don’t we force it to end its alliance with Hezbollah? Why don’t we force it to end its aggressive interventions in the affairs of other states?
The answer to the question is implied within it and Filkins even alludes to it himself. As a diplomat, you decide what are the most important issues to resolve and you set yourself the task of doing so. Of course, there will always be important issues you would like to address. But how important are they compared to your first priorities?
In this case, the Obama administration has correctly judged that limiting nuclear proliferation is the foremost goal. Changing Iran’s behavior in conventional conflicts in the region is a far more complex issue that includes many other players like Hezbollah, Syria, Israel, and others. If you follow Filkins suggestion you will likely get neither a nuclear deal nor a deal limiting Iranian interventions.
Further, Obama is betting that achieving a nuclear deal will bring about a sea change in U.S.-Iran relations. From this, it will be far easier to encourage Iran to restrain itself from military adventurism in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere.
The most disturbing aspect of Filkins piece is that he denies any context to Iran’s alleged (for Filkins it’s not even that, it’s assumed and unsubstantiated) involvement in various terror attacks over the past three decades. You won’t find “Israel” mentioned a single time here. You won’t hear of the interventionist role Israel has played in regional affairs for even longer than Iran. You won’t hear of the 1982 Lebanon invasion which spurred the creation of Hezbollah. You won’t hear the provocative role Israel has played in the Syrian civil war supporting Islamist rebels opposed to Iran’s allies: Pres. Assad and Hezbollah.
Considering Filkins’ previous excellent reporting on Iraq, it’s astonishing how ahistorical this piece is. It’s also worth mentioning that the reporter quotes two sources, one is Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA analyst and currently a fellow at the neocon Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and the self-same Gary Samore, head of United Against a Nuclear Iran. Interestingly, Filkins mentions Samore’s far more mainstream affiliation with Harvard’s Belfer Center and omits his affiliation with UANI.
The latter organization stands accused of using Mossad intelligence data to threaten businessmen with violating Iran sanctions. In a libel suit brought by one UANI victim, the Justice Department quashed the entire case claiming testimony would endanger U.S. security. In fact, it would have exposed Mossad collusion with the CIA and their dirty tricks in enforcing the sanctions regime.
Israel Lobby Strategy to Undermine Nuclear Deal
As the final deadline for a P5+1 nuclear deal nears, anti-Iran forces have kicked into high gear. But the Israel Lobby is engaging in rather clever strategy. It realizes that Bibi Netanyahu and Israel itself are “damaged goods” as far as impacting the domestic conversation. Instead, pro-Israel forces have turned to hawkish Democratic policy advisers and military figures to undermine the President’s agenda. It would be easy for Obama to overcome opposition from GOP and neocon naysayers. But it’s harder to refute those who once served in the Obama administration itself.
None of these efforts will succeed any more than Netanyahu’s address to Congress succeeded in undermining an Iran deal. Hawkish forces opposing such an agreement are a spent force. Though passage in the Senate is by no means a given. I believe the Lobby sees statements like WINEP’s as new ammunition it can bring to bear to sway senators against the deal.
Sanger, in his report, tries to make the case that there are hawks inside the administration echoing the position of Filkins and the WINEP letter. Regardless of whether this is true or not, the future holds not just a nuclear arrangement, but a resurgent Iran playing a much more constructive role in the region and, in the process, competing and possibly eclipsing Israel’s role. That’s the real threat that frightens Israel. It is used to having its own way both militarily and economically. It is not used to, and wishes to avert at all costs, having regional competitors who might circumscribe its freedom of action.
Mitchell Blood says
“.. David Petraeus, former CIA director, adulterer and compromiser of U.S. national security, Robert Einhorn, the State Department’s sanctions czar, James Cartwright and Stephen Hadley, Dick Cheney’s national security adviser.”
You may want to put a semi colon in there, if not, you run the risk of libeling Robert Einhorn.
Mitchell Blood says
“You won’t find “Israel” mentioned a single time here. You won’t hear of the interventionist role Israel has played in regional affairs for even longer than Iran”
Maybe because Israel isn’t a party to the negotiations?
Thanks for this rich and detailed analysis of the politics playing out about the Iran deal. I know for a fact that Israel’s “damaged goods” status is encouraging anti-Zionist organizations and activism in the US.
Yeah, Right says
Seconded. Richard, this is perhaps the best-written article I have seen from you; very well laid-out, very very persuasive.
Richard Silverstein says
@Yeah, Right & David: Thanks much!
I don’t think Filkins was a good war correspondent– when embedded with the Marines he denied that there were high civilian casualties in Fallujah because he saw no bodies– but he also saw no insurgent bodies until the Marines took him to see one at his request. Not all the civilians fled Fallujah and no one knows how many bodies both insurgent and civilian were buried in rubble. That is what he should have said, but he took a stand based on what he didn’t see– on the same logic he should have said only one insurgent died in Fallujah in the November 2004 battle.
In short, I think you can trust Filkins to tell the truth about what he saw with his own eyes, but beyond that take his analysis with a truckload of salt.
Mitchell Blood says
Obama….. “explicitly labeled the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an anti-Semite.”
Richard Silverstein says
@ Mitchell: What do you think Obama calls Bibi in private? I’d say it’s unprintable.
Mitchell Blood says
” The fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival,” the president said in the interview. “It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations.”
Neville Chamberlain probably said the same things about “Herr Hitler” (and would have been dead wrong).
Arie Brand says
That is about the extent of Bibi’s historical repertoire. Any diplomatic initiative he doesn’t
like is promptly compared to Munich. The comparison has been done to death. The world has since long stopped to listen.
Richard Silverstein says
@mitchell Blood: Obama is a politician. Politicians do and say absolutely stupid things for short term benefit and impact. Obama did precisely that here. It is an absolute comment rule violation to abuse Holocaust/Nazi references by implying any connection to Iran or its leaders. I put you on notice: Such references will get you moderated promptly. Read the comment rules carefully.
Arie Brand says
What if the Republicans prevent ratification of a deal but the Security Council (if it is not prevented to do so by a veto) endorses it?. The US is, after all, not the only nation dealing with Iran here. All the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany are involved. They can ignore votes by the US Senate.
This would leave the US isolated. Iran could happily deal with the world outside the US (and there really is one though many Americans are probably inclined to forget it) and even seek to share in the new international financial institutions that Russia and China are trying to create – and where would that leave the US? With strengthened ties with its “indispensable partner” Israel? Big deal.
PJ London says
Exactly, sanctions are dead. The rest of the world has already put the contracts in place, waiting only for the formal end of the SC sanction regime to implement.
Iran knows this, even USA knows this and that is why, in spite of AIPAC etc. Obama will continue to talk. Either the USA comes on board, with the best that it can get at this time, or they will be completely sidelined.
Russia and China are allowing the USA (with little France earning brownie points in Tel Aviv) to stall a little more, but they will get impatient and move forward anyway if it takes much longer. They are only interested in trade and economics, not pandering to political donors.