Former Obama adviser Dennis Ross wrote a curiously incomplete and unsatisfying piece for Politico, expressing concern that the Iranians won’t do what we want them to — dismantle their nuclear weapons program to such a degree that the country ceases to be a “threshold” nuclear power. Hmm. How did things go wrong? What happened here?

President Barack Obama talks with members of his first term Middle East Policy team, including from right, George Mitchell, special envoy for Middle East Peace; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Dennis Ross, senior director for the Central Region; and Dan Shapiro, senior director for the Middle East, in the Oval Office, Sept. 1, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Then I received in my inbox a report excoriating the interim deal. The report came from a task force put together by JINSA, an international pro-Israel organization, and was co-authored by respected conservative foreign policy guru Eric Edelman and, yup, Dennis Ross. How curious that Ross wouldn’t share the full extent of his concerns with Politico readers nor give them an appreciation for how we got to this point and how entirely misguided is the administration’s current approach.

The task force’s executive summary explains the depth of the concern about the interim deal (the “JPA” or the Joint Plan of Action):

We believe the JPA is deeply flawed because the combination of interim and final concessions it contains undermine[s] the effort to prevent a nuclear Iran.

Our previous report, issued in the run-up to Geneva, spelled out six principles to which any deal must conform to protect U.S. national security interests. To be acceptable, we argued any deal must require Iran to resolve outstanding international concerns, adhere to international legal requirements and roll back its nuclear program. It would also need to put in place a strict inspections regime and clear deadlines for Iran to uphold its commitments. Finally, we made the case that, to obtain such a deal, the United States would have to negotiate and enforce it from a position of strength, to make it unmistakably plain to Tehran that it has the most to lose from the failure of diplomacy.

The rest of the report explains the ways in which the interim deal is a setback.

The task force was divided on whether the complete elimination of Iran’s nuclear program is needed. It nevertheless argues, “All task force members agree an acceptable final deal must require Iran to meet all of its international legal obligations, come clean about its past nuclear weapons research and work, and accept a much more intrusive inspections regime.”

The most serious problem is the one Congress has already identified: “The JPA will cause U.S. leverage against Iran to diminish while a comprehensive settlement is negotiated and implemented. This is because the deal has begun unlacing the international sanctions regime that initially helped force Iran to the negotiating table. In addition, the deal has been interpreted by both the Rouhani and Obama administrations as obliging the United States not to legislate further sanctions – or even to pass legislation that threatens to implement further sanctions in the event Iran fails to fulfill its obligations.” We therefore have been put on the road to capitulation.

Contrary to the administration’s representations, it does not alter Iran’s timeline, the authors report, because Western negotiators “needed to secure a final settlement with a clear short-term timeframe for Iran to uphold its commitments. Instead, the JPA is a longer-term, multi-stage agreement with moveable deadlines and ultimately no permanent limits on Iran’s ability to pursue nuclear weapons. By doing nothing to prevent a nuclear Iran, this lax timeline could encourage further regional instability, including a stronger Israeli sense of urgency to launch a preventive military strike.”

In essence, we give up a good deal of leverage in exchange for a deal that “does not place strict enough limits on Iran’s enrichment program to deny it nuclear weapons capability. It does not begin rolling back Iran’s enrichment progress before the mid-2014 deadline. Instead it caps certain enrichment levels, stockpiles, centrifuges and the plutonium track while a comprehensive agreement is worked out. It also allows Iran to build up its nuclear program to temporarily build down its enrichment levels and stockpiles. It does not cover work on weaponization or delivery systems. Iran could thus continue approaching nuclear weapons capability during this time, all the more so if the interim deal is renewed. Afterward, the JPA does not place permanent limits on Iran’s enrichment. This would do little to nothing to prevent a nuclear Iran over the long term.” In fact, it recognizes enrichment will be subject to mutual agreement, which Iran (or any reader) would assume preserves its claimed “right to enrich.”

The task force recommends some steps to try to improve the deal: “to pressure Iran to return to the negotiating table.” (Given the president we have, I find that possibility to be remote.) The task force argues for the opposite of what the president is doing — increase sanctions and make the military threat more credible: “emphasizing advanced U.S. military capabilities (namely the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator bunker buster for neutralizing the buried Fordow facility) and playing up, not down, the viability of military action in official statements. The United States must also begin military deployments to convey concretely its readiness to execute a preventive strike. It should also undertake all such actions in concert with regional allies.”

If we have essentially given up on dismantling Iran’s entire nuclear program, the task force argues that, at the very least, we must reach a final deal in six months that allows no enrichment above 5 percent, a full inspection regime, strict limits on the number of centrifuges and the dismantling of Fordow. In addition, “The United States must use all leverage available to insist any endgame agreement be permanent, with no expiration clause. Under the JPA, a timeframe is to be mutually agreed by the P5+1 and Iran, and thus there is no certain limit to how long the deal can remain in effect. This would be in keeping with previous U.S. arms control agreements.”

This is from the president’s first-term adviser on Iran, mind you. We would hope Congress pays close attention. But even this report leaves me with some questions for Mr. Ross, specifically:

  • Does the president think we can disable the threat of a Iran as a “threshold nuclear power”? (In his Politico piece, he hints he had doubts about this all along.)
  • If not, how did he remain in the administration and how did he not alert the country?
  • If he does still believe that is possible, why is he pursuing a course of action that will make that goal harder to reach (e.g. poor advisers, his own world view)?

In short, the JINSA report is invaluable in telling us what is wrong with the JPA, but Mr. Ross should tell us what is wrong with the president. He knows him, and he began this policy that has led to ruin. The administration has done exactly the opposite of what is required and hampered our ability to attain a goal that the country thought it shared. If out of design or ignorance the president is moving us to an alternative of containment or a nuclear-capable Iran, we need to know about it.

That is really the key to determining what the administration’s real policy is here and how and when Congress needs to act. At issue here is a nuclear-capable Iran. This is no time for Mr. Ross to hide the ball.