The following are two separate interviews presenting contrasting opinions on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran Deal, negotiated between Iran and the “P5+1” nations, including the United States, in 2015.
Mark Dubowitz is the Executive Director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a foreign policy think tank, which opposed the Iranian nuclear agreement
BPR: One of your criticisms of this deal is that it gives Iran access to billions of dollars of its oil revenues that had been frozen, allowing it to potentially fund terrorism, while at the same time, lifting the arms embargo. Supporters counter that these funds rightfully belong to Iran, and that weapons it purchases can be countered by military support for allies, or interception of shipments. How do you respond?
MD: There was an alternative to giving Iran direct unlimited access to those oil funds. The idea being proposed was that Iran needed that money for its economy, not for funding of terrorists or buildup of its regional posture. If that is true, and there is an argument that Iran will spend most of the money on imports, even though there will be billions of dollars left for terrorist proxies, the option is to move funds from escrow accounts [all over the world] to accounts in the EU where Iran wanted to buy European goods and could have used them to pay for European imports. That would have been a much better way to control the use and access of those funds, rather than repatriating $100B+ back to Iran’s Supreme Leader so he can use it any way he wants … If you believe, which isn’t the case, that every country would comply with the embargo and not allow Iran to procure heavy weaponry, the fact of the matter is that when that arms embargo goes away in 5 years, countries will be able to do it legally, and China and Russia have been waiting, they are already negotiating multi-billion dollar deals. I find it hard to believe we will be able to police the use of this money, and stop weapons shipments.
BPR: A main concern of yours is the sunset clauses (points in time where provisions of the deal expire). Why are they such an obstacle? Won’t the US have the same or better military options in the future as now?
MD: We will still have the same military options, but Iran will be a much more difficult target. They will be a stronger power, moving toward an industrialized nuclear program that is much more widely dispersed, with multiple facilities buried under a mountain, with stockpiles of low and even highly enriched uranium. Military operations by their nature will be much more difficult then than today, when Iran’s nuclear facilities are relatively small and concentrated. We may only have a military option, we won’t have a sanctions option, because Iran’s economy will be stronger with hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign investment. People will be reluctant to agree to snapback sanctions, including our European allies. All the Iranians have to do is safely comply with the deal, not do anything that would precipitate a snapback sanction, and just wait patiently for these key restrictions to expire, so that at year 8 they can do advanced centrifuges R&D, at year 10 they can install unlimited centrifuges at Natanz, at year 15 they can build multiple emissions facilities and heavy water reactors, they can stockpile enriched uranium to 60% and keep thousands of kilograms around the country.
BPR: Opponents strongly objected to a provision stating that Iran can block for up to 24 days being forced to provide access to suspected (not-declared) military nuclear sites. However, supporters contended that the 24 days is a hard maximum, the first such provision in a non-proliferation deal, and that fissile material cannot be cleaned or hidden that fast. Respond
MD: My biggest concern with the inspections regime is not necessarily the 24 days, but is that the Iranians have made clear over and over that they will not allow the IAEA into military sites. The Parchin (a suspected military site) arrangement will be the Parchin precedent. The Iranians will say, we didn’t let you in to Parchin, we are not going to give you physical access of a military site, we may not even give you monitoring. Without physical access to military sites our ability to go in and verify that Iranian weaponization [is not taking place] will be severely curtailed. Whether or not we can get in in 2 days, 24 days, or 80 days for the process to make its way through, we can’t actually physically get in to that military site to see what they are doing and verify they are not engaged in weaponization activities, and the verification and inspection regime becomes meaningless. Most experts agree the Iranians are not likely to build a nuclear weapon in their declared facilities. What they are much more likely to do is use their declared facilities to expand from an industrial side, perfect the use of advanced centrifuges, accumulate huge stockpiles of enriched uranium, and then divert uranium to clandestine facilities where weaponization will take place. We will be blind with respect to what the Iranians are doing on the weaponization side, and a lot of weaponization activities do not involve the use of enriched uranium, and so there will be no telltale signature signs of that activity even if we ever get into that site. [An expert testified before Congress that] if he had to judge the inspection and verification regime on a scale of 0-10, he would give the declared facilities 7-8, ability to monitor and detect suspicious sites, 5, and the access to those facilities where Iran might engage in military activity related to its nuclear program, 0.
BPR: Is snapback (immediately restoring sanctions in the event of a violation of the deal) realistic and functional? Why or why not?
MD: Snapbacks are a delusion. The very nature of a snapback assumes a few things. The target needs to be susceptible to a snapback, and I think the ability to inflict asymmetric shocks on Iran’s economy as we did between 2010-13 will be significantly diminished. Second, we will require at least the support of the Europeans to snapback anything, and even though technically speaking we can snapback sanctions without Russian or Chinese or European support, practically speaking we will not do it without European support. The snapback assumes transatlantic unity throughout this process, which becomes doubtful when you move into a world where the Europeans have sunken tens of billions of dollars into Iran’s economy and don’t want to risk their economic interests. The Iranians will also threaten a nuclear snapback to neutralize their economic snapback, so they end up with a much more formidable snapback option than we have.
BPR: If Congress had succeeded in blocking the deal, what would the day after that vote have looked like? What comes next?
MD: This is where we are today. The US Congress has rejected the deal. 61% of Congress is on record having opposed the deal.
BPR: But the deal is in force under US law; an effort in Congress to block enforcement of it was filibustered by Senate Democrats. What if it had been blocked under law?
MD: That was an impossibility. Congress could not have stopped the deal, even if it had 67 Senators to overturn the President’s veto, the President retains enormous executive power to neutralize any sanctions block that was put in the Corker-Cardin legislation. There was no scenario in which the deal was not going to be in force. The real question was, would the deal enjoy bipartisan support in the US congress? Would that give it the kind of political durability to ensure that the deal would outlive the current administration? The deal was protected by a narrow partisan minority in Congress, and now with a bipartisan majority having rejected the deal, and certain polls showing only 21% of Americans supporting the deal, the real question is then what does this mean for the next administration?
BPR: So what was your goal then in opposing this deal in Congress?
MD: To delegitimize it. There was nothing else that could be done but to delegitimize the deal. It couldn’t be stopped, it was going to move forward regardless of how many members of Congress opposed it. The question was, could the deal be delegitimized, what would that take in terms of Congressional opposition, what would that translate to in terms of public opinion polls, what would this mean for positions in the general election, and what would this mean for the next President, whoever he or she is. It would matter if it is a Republican or Democratic president, a Republican president is more likely to want to aggressively move forward to try and unwind the deal, and a Democratic president, even in the case of Hillary, who says she supports the deal, is going to be much more aggressive in enforcing it, and imposing sanctions against Hezbollah. That is still part of the strategy – how do you mitigate the damage of the deal?
BPR: If, by your admission, it was not ever possible to block the deal through Congress, was a “better deal” ever possible?
MD: Sure. Over the history of arms control agreements, many were treated as treaties, where Senate advice and consent was required, and in some cases, the Senate required the administration to go back and renegotiate a deal in order to get specific amendments, and once the amendments were given, the deal was ratified. In this case, the administration decided not to treat it as a treaty, but instead as a non-binding executive agreement. From the administration’s perspective, the advantage is that they did not have to get Senate ratification. The disadvantage is that it is a non-binding executive agreement. By delegitimizing the deal, you lay the predicate for the next President to come in and negotiate a follow-on agreement, for example, that would address the sunset provision today, or in 2017, rather than waiting 8-10 years and having the sunset provision create all the problems I’ve described
BPR: And if the next President comes in and wants to do that and the rest of the P5+1 is not on board, how would that work?
MD: What the next President would have to do is initially go to the French, who were very unhappy with the deal, and see if there is a meeting of the minds between Washington and Paris on some specific aspects of the deal that can be addressed. Again, you are not going to be able to rip up the agreement, or start from day 1, or dismantle Iran’s entire nuclear program, or deny it enrichment, you are not going back to square one. But there are specific provisions of the deal that are highly problematic, the sunset provision, the lack of physical access to military sites, the nuclear snapback, specific provisions that the President would have to reach out to the French and see if they can get agreement in Paris and Washington to begin with. If they got that, it would be easier to get agreement from London and Berlin and then you’ve got a transatlantic agreement in trying to negotiate some follow-on agreement. I’m not suggesting this is easy, or will happen quickly, but I think there will be, particularly if there is a Republican president, a strong push to try and address some of the fatal flaws.
BPR: Is pushing back on the revolutionary guard’s activities complicated by US cooperation with Iran vis-a-vis ISIL?
MD: I think US cooperation with Iran regarding ISIL is foolhardy and wrongheaded and likely to [increase] ISIL’s advantage. If the US pursues a policy of partnering with Iran to fight ISIL, that will only help ISIL. If anything it will feed the fears of Sunis and Iraqis who are convinced that we are partnering with their mortal enemy, who is responsible for brutalizing them. We’ve got to make it very clear that we are not going to partner with Iran, not going to partner with Asad, or support the Russians….As long as we don’t it’s going to be a massive recruiting boon for ISIL.
BPR: Why were conservatives in the US uniformly opposed to this, while conservatives elsewhere, such as in Great Britain under David Cameron, were supportive?
MD: I can’t think of a time since the Suez Crisis that the US and Great Britain split apart on major national security issues, regardless of whether it’s a Republican or Democrat in the White House, or a Conservative or member of the Labor party in London. That so-called special relationship transcends party politics and ideology. The other reality is that Britain was quite disengaged with respect to Iran. Of the European powers, the French were most engaged and committed and had the longest experience and most expertise. The UK took a backseat. The other factor is that after the Syria chemical line debacle where Cameron felt very much let down by Obama, he wasn’t going to risk his political capital in any way on the Iran deal, so he sort of just quietly went along. Heading into reelection, he also understood that his road to reelection didn’t run through foreign policy.
BPR: How will this deal reshape the balance of power in the Middle East, the standing of the US and Israel individually, and their alliance?
MD: It is too early to tell. The US Israel relationship will certainly stabilize and grow closer again in 2017 probably regardless of who is elected. With respect to US credibility in the Middle East, that is where we are already seeing results, and the next President and the one after that will have to devote time and resources to repairing it. At this point, our enemies don’t fear us and our allies don’t trust us. That is going to be a challenge, because the next few decades are going to bring enormous national security challenges in the Middle East with respect to proliferation. You are starting to see the Emiratis, Saudis, and Egyptians moving in the direction of building their own civilian nuclear program, concluding multi-billion dollar deals with the Russians and South Koreans to build their own nuclear capability. None of the Sunni powers are willing to accept a status quo where Iran is permitted enrichment and is able to expand that enrichment capability over time.
BPR: Was the strategy that organizations opposed to this deal took wise? Was it worth the money and political capital to set the precedent you wanted for the next administration?
MD: Overall, most organizations I’m aware of had defined publicly or privately what their objectives were in a similar way, which was to delegitimize the deal. I think there were some organizations perhaps who believed you could actually block the deal, and there were others who knew better…. Absolutely [it was worth it]. Without 61% of the US Congress opposing this deal, or most Americans opposing it, there would be no follow-on strategy in 2017. …. With 25-30 Democrats opposing the deal, and deeply anguished statements even from supporters, saying the deal is dangerous and deeply flawed in the words of Cory Booker, and will trigger all these terrible consequences but I have to support the deal because I feel like I have no other choice, there’s a combination of opposition and deeply anguished support. That creates the necessary predicate for a potential reversal of the more dangerous elements of the deal and consequences it will trigger. And certainly it lays the foundation for a more aggressive posture towards Iran and its regional behavior.
Joseph Cirincione is the President of the Ploughshares Fund, which advances global denuclearization and nuclear nonproliferation through advocacy and funding of nonproliferation efforts.
BPR: How did your organization evaluate the terms of the deal?
JC: In the non-proliferation community this was a no-brainer. The overwhelming consensus of nuclear experts was that this was a great deal. It wasn’t so much that one organization or one expert thought this – I can’t name a major non-proliferation expert who opposed the deal. Almost all the opposition was political, not based on policy analysis. What happened was because a group disagreed with making any deal with Iran, they started cherry picking the agreement and exaggerating and distorting certain aspects to make it seem like it was a cave in to the Iranians, or that it was paving the way to a bomb rather than preventing one. It was one of the most intensely politicized policy exercises that I have ever seen. When you strip away the politics and the advocacy groups like AIPAC or FDD, or the Emergency Committee for Israel or the Israel Project, all groups with a political agenda, and you look at what the policy experts thought, it was an open and shut case.
BPR: Can the US realistically counter Iran’s regional ambitions after they gain access to additional resources?
JC: Any agreement with Iran was going to lift the sanctions, even if you had negotiated an agreement that completely bulldozed the entire nuclear complex of Iran, you would still lift the sanctions. If you object to lifting the sanctions because it will somehow aid Iran’s other activities, what you are really saying is that you are against any deal at all. In fact, the monies that will flow to Iran are much less than critics claim, and even after government officials repeatedly testified that the amount released would be under $50B, opponents continued to throw around false numbers, $100-150B. US officials testified that of the monies released, they felt very little of it would flow to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and I believe that to be the case. Finally, the years of sanctions against Iran have crippled their economy, but there is no evidence they ever slowed the Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and there is no reason to think that keeping these sanctions in place would somehow prevent Iranian support for those groups.
BPR: But opponents say that opposition to the cash repatriation is not opposition to any deal, but rather, that conditions should have been placed on how those funds could be spent.
JC: How do you do that? How do you dictate to a government how they are to spend money you are releasing to them? Where has that ever been done? It’s never been done.
BPR: A main concern of opponents is the sunset clauses in the deal. Supporters say that the US will not have any reduced leverage when the sunsets hit. Is that true, since Iran will have access to much more capital by then and be tied into the global economy?
JC: Most arms control agreements end over a certain period. Even the non-proliferation treaty was negotiated for only 25 years. The very first strategic arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union only last 5 years. Having an agreement that lasts 15, 20, 25 years is a remarkable achievement and it is longer than most agreements.
The ideal solution to the Iran problem is to eliminate Iran’s nuclear complex entirely. Many experts 10 years ago were in favor of such a solution, myself included. You want to have 0 centrifuges. We ran that play and it didn’t work. The Bush administration favored the 0 option, no capability ever. They tried threats of war, and increased sanctions, and the result was that Iran went from 0 centrifuges to 6000 at the end of the Bush administration, and 19,000 by the time the Obama administration started negotiations. The only negotiated solution you could get was one that allowed Iran some capability with limitations. The goal was then not to eliminate entirely Iran’s capability, but to make sure they couldn’t use that capability to build nuclear weapons.
That’s what this deal does. It rips out 2/3rds of Iran’s centrifuges, it forces them to ship out of the country almost their entire stockpile of uranium gas, they have to pull out the core of the plutonium reactor, drill it full of holes, and pour concrete into it, and they have to then agree to the most intrusive inspection regime ever negotiated, which runs for at least 25 years, at which point some of the terms lapse, but most of the inspections are like diamonds, they last forever. Iran is forever banned from producing or deploying a nuclear weapon.
In the course of doing this, at some point you have to relax the restrictions so that Iran can pursue a program for civilian use of nuclear technology. Some of the restrictions end at 10 years; it allows them for example to start developing more advanced centrifuges. But the limit on the number of centrifuges and the gas lasts for at least 15 years, so for 15 years you have a full 1-year breakout time. The key is what do we do between now and years 15, 20, 25? How can we take those restrictions on Iran and apply them to global standards, so that when Iran leaves one set of restrictions they actually enter a new global set of restraints that exert the same constraints on their nuclear program? There are experts already working on this. … There is not one treaty or agreement that solves the problem, rather what we’ve built up over the last 70 years of the nuclear age is overlapping, interconnected treaties, agreements, and security assurances that can slow, prevent, and reverse the nuclear threats. … It is a false claim that this is just kicking the nuclear can down the road.
BPR: Is snapback realistic and functional?
JC: Absolutely. This agreement allows one country, say the US, to re-impose the sanctions if it believes there is a violation, no matter what the UN security council does. I’ve never seen a provision written like this. If one country believes there a violation they can bring a resolution before the UN security council, and the resolution is in the form of a double negative, so if one country, say Russia, vetoes it, it has the effect of putting the sanctions back in place! It is remarkable. They built in enough flexibility so there can be selective application of sanctions to meet the perceived violation. You never want to be in a position where it is all or nothing, so if there is a minor violation you are afraid to call it because it would jeopardize the entire agreement.
BPR: Opponents say that the 24 days before the US can force access to a suspicious site is too much time, that there is not anytime anywhere inspections, and that the Administration crossed its so-called “red lines.” How do you respond?
JC: These charges are complete nonsense. They are polemical tricks rather than accurate assessments. All of Iran’s declared nuclear facilities are under 24/7 inspection. State of the art tools are being applied – fiber optic radio frequency seals, for example, that can detect any violation just as a home alarm system reports a break in to the police. The solution they developed for the inspections of suspect sites is a breakthrough in non-proliferation agreements. Up to this point, there has been no time limit on how long a country could block a challenged inspection. Disputes have gone on for years. UN inspectors have been trying to get into the Parchin facility for 10 years, this agreement limits any obstruction limits a challenge to any inspection for 24 days! In the inspection world that is the blink of an eye. Here is why. It is impossible in that short of a time to hide evidence of nuclear material experimentation. How do we know this? Because our nuclear scientists tested this provision out at secret facilities in the US, where Department of Energy nuclear scientists intentionally contaminated the site and then tried to clean it up in 24 days. They couldn’t do it. This is what you have to understand: the objections to this agreement are being raised almost exclusively by political opponents, but every sentence, every phrase was vetted by our best intelligence experts and nuclear scientists. We actually built Iranian model centrifuges and ran them at DOE laboratories to test out various formulas for how much uranium gas could be allowed, how many centrifuges could be allowed to operate, what quality the centrifuges could be. This is one of the most rigorous, detailed, non-proliferation agreements I have ever seen. It is a model for how you stop a country from misusing their nuclear technology.
BPR: Do think this bill could lead to Saudi Arabia and other nations working to match the nuclear capacity left to Iran?
JC: This deal stops a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, it doesn’t start one. It makes an example of Iran. In fact, if there is another country in the Middle East that wants to have uranium enrichment capability, they will have to agree to the same onerous inspection regime that Iran has. I don’t believe there is any other country that is going to start up a uranium enrichment capability. There has been some loose talk from a few political officials in some of these governments, and a lot of wild claims raised by political opponents of the agreement, but there has been nothing actually done. There is no government that is moving to develop this kind of capability. Nothing, no sign, no research program, no procurement. And remember, if any country wants it, to have an uranium enrichment capability, they would have to buy it from the few countries who control this technology, and there would be strong opposition to the sale of technology to countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, etc. Any country that was investing in fuel technology at this point would be looked on as suspect.
BPR: Some members of congress have introduced legislation to bolster enforcement of the deal and shore up alliances. What is your position on this bill?
JC: Congressional oversight is going to be absolutely essential to the successful implementation of the Iran agreement. Congress needs to be involved. What is not needed is more sanctions, trick legislation to try to subvert the agreement before it is even implemented, or massive new military aid packages. None of that is necessary now. This agreement reduces the military threats in the Middle East, it doesn’t increase them. I don’t see any justification for increased military aid to any of our allies in the Middle East.
BPR: Iran claims that the biggest source of regional instability in the wake of this deal is Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Do you support that position? Should Israel be opened to international inspections, and forced to relinquish its arms?
JC: We don’t believe any country in the world needs nuclear weapons, and we are working to reduce and eventually eliminate everyone’s nuclear weapons. This includes Israel. But Israel is never going to agree to giving up its nuclear weapons as long as there are unresolved conflicts in the region, so the path to a nuclear free middle east has to go through a resolution of the conflicts now plaguing the area, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
BPR: Did you agree that the choice facing Congress was this deal or war? How do you substantiate that claim? Was a better deal possible?
JC: If we had walked away from this deal, General Brent Scowcroft said, we would walk away alone. One of the most important briefings that Senators got during their deliberations was the meeting they held with Washington based ambassadors of our partners in the negotiation: the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China all came and met with Senators, and they told them that it was this deal or nothing. No one was going to go back and negotiate a new deal because politicians killed this one. For the rest of the world this was not a controversial agreement. The only country in the world that opposed this agreement was Israel. Among our allies, including the conservative governments of the UK, France, and Germany, it was unanimous support. This is a damn good deal.
If the US tried to impose unilateral sanctions, even our closest allies would not conform to them, and you would be faced with a collapsing sanctions regime, an Iran that was now free of any restrictions on its nuclear program and doing business with the rest of the world. Iran would restart centrifuges, install new centrifuges, enrich more uranium, start operating plutonium production reaction, and that would put tremendous pressure on Israel or the US to consider military action. It would put us on a course for military conflict. That is why this deal became so much more than just an agreement on limiting nuclear technology. It was clearly a war and peace issue, and most objective observers saw it exactly that way.
Fueling concern about this was that most of the people who had supported a US invasion of Iraq were now against this agreement. They were now playing the same playbook, arguing there were no negotiations possible with this Middle East regime, that it was so evil that it could not be trusted, that it had links to terrorists that would threaten the US, and that in the end, only actions to overthrow this regime would solve the problem. Thankfully people understood what was going on here, rebuffed their attempts, and the agreement got overwhelming support in the national security establishment of the US, among our allies, and eventually, enough support in the US Congress to stop all efforts to kill the deal.
BPR: What was the reason for opposition if this deal was so universally recognized as a good?
JC: The opposition to this agreement came from three sources. One was the people who genuinely had doubts about the deal, as would be the case in any discussion of this magnitude, and were wrestling with the issues. But the majority of the opposition was political. The Republicans in Congress decided early on they would not give a Democratic President a major foreign policy victory. There was not one Republican vote for this agreement – that should tell you something. And they were very clear about it, they spoke quite frankly about blocking this agreement on political grounds. The third source was ideological opposition to any agreement with Iran. And that really fueled the fire here in a way that mere politics could not. Much of this stemmed from the position taken by the government of Israel, even though the Israeli military and intelligence officials disagreed with the assessment of Prime Minister Netanyahu. A lot of it came from supporters of the Likud party in the United States, like AIPAC and Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) and Israel Project and others, who were opposed to any agreement with Iran that would legitimize the government. Their goal was to overthrow the regime, not to come to a compromise with it. Those groups have a lot of political influence in the United States, a lot of donor money involved in it. They poured resources into this in a way that I have never seen in a national security debate. You think this is normal? It’s not. This is not the way we normally debate major national security issues.
BPR: All of the Republican candidates for President oppose this deal. What will happen to this deal if one of them becomes President? Can it be unwound?
JC: Presidents can pull out of treaties. George W Bush abrogated the anti-ballistic missile treaty, and he walked away from the agreed framework with North Korea, which allowed that country to then go build and detonate nuclear weapons. The next President can do this, but is that what they are really going to want to do? Will they want to lift all restraints on Iran’s nuclear program? Are they going to want to have Iran reinstall centrifuges, rebuild polonium production reactors, or enrich uranium to near weapons grade? Is that what they are going to want to do? I don’t think so. I find it inconceivable that the next President of the United States would jeopardize US national security in such a cavalier manner just to make a political point.
BPR: What is next for US foreign policy, with regards to Iran, non-proliferation, and your work?
JC: There are three schools of thought now contending. The opponents to this agreement will continue their efforts to kill it, to slow or delay its implementation, and to put on a confrontation with Iran. The second approach has been articulated by Hillary Clinton, who embraces the deal, but wants a new policy of containment toward Iranian influence in the region. The President has laid out the third path, which is to explore the diplomatic openings that have been created by this deal. By solving the biggest disagreement we had with Iran, it opens the door to conversations with Iran about other security issues in the region: Syria, fighting ISIS, stabilizing Iraq, stabilizing Afghanistan. We don’t know if those conversations will prove fruitful. We do know they would have been impossible to have without this nuclear agreement. I think it is in the United States national security interest to be exploring those discussions, to see if there are ways we can cooperate with Iran to reduce some of the conflicts that are now ripping throughout the middle east.