On Thursday, at the invitation of the pro-Israel group JINSA, former George W. Bush administration officials John Hannah and Eric Edelman, together with Ray Takeyh, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Dennis Ross, former adviser to President Obama, assembled to discuss the prospects for a final Iranian deal. It was illuminating, to say the least.
Ross and Edelman said they took at face value the Obama administration’s promise that “a bad deal is worse than no deal.” (From our vantage point — call me cynical — a “bad deal” is in the eye of the beholder and considering the interim deal, the administration seems to be setting a very low bar for what is acceptable.) That makes the chance for a deal slim. At any rate, Ross — who certainly saw the administration up close in its first term — said that the key for the administration was to roll back sanctions in exchange for “dramatically” rolling back Iran’s nuclear program. Ross conceded that “everything they [the Iranians] are conveying is that they can’t roll the clock back. If it remains that way, there will be no deal.” He remained open to the possibility that Iran is just posturing in public, but didn’t quibble with the idea that Iran may be convinced that it doesn’t need to give up anything. Takeyh opined that if there is no deal by July 20, there will be no deal, even if the parties keep talking.
Ross and the other panelists were emphatic that bringing Iran into the Iraq picture and allowing the mullahs to succeed in their aspiration of a Shiite state beholden to Tehran was a very bad idea. Ross reminded the audience that Iran has killed numerous Americans by its manufacture of improvised explosive devices and “in many ways Iran is responsible for what is happening in Iraq.”
There was general agreement on the panel that we haven’t been very good at “coercive diplomacy,” as Ross put it. Hannah observed that “over the last three years the Iranians have done pretty well.” Indeed, the administration’s willingness to bug out of Iraq and Afghanistan with no residual troops; allow Iran free rein in Syria; permit Iran to continue sponsorship of terrorism with no real consequences; and give sanctions relief with no permanent dismantling of its nuclear program has conveyed the impression the United States is unwilling to assert its influence and protect its interests.
There were several takeaways from the discussion.
First, we risk being overeager. Hannah noted that the usual problem with arms deals is that the negotiators become “overly invested” in a deal. He fears that we are “being conditioned” to accept a very weak deal. He points to the Taliban trade as evidence that the administration is convinced of its ability to “sell” practically anything to the American people.
In the case of the Obama administration, the concern is even more acute given the administration’s desperation to come up with some plausible success to counteract the impression (a correct one) that it has suffered a loss of prestige and influence in the region.
All of the panelists agreed that it was a mistake to threaten to veto Kirk-Menendez sanctions that would have kicked in had Iran cheated or not completed a final deal. If the July 20 deal comes and goes, Takeyh and others would urge the president and Congress to work out a sanctions bill that would take effect in six months (in essence, what senators were pleading for in December and January).
Second, the irony is that we have leverage — we are simply not using it. We have military superiority. Most sanctions remain in place. The “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani promised he’d be able to get sanctions relief. Nevertheless, we repeatedly act as if we need a deal more than Iran does.
I asked the panelists if, in fact, it was too late to convince the mullahs that they must give up their nuclear ambitions. Aren’t the mullahs finally and fully convinced (by our bug-out from Iraq and Afghanistan, failure to act in Syria, etc.) that we have no stomach for any military action? Ross insisted that by actions we can at any time change that perception. We could, for example, start interdicting Iranian arms shipments in the area and provide bunker-buster bombs and B-52 aircraft to Israel. Edelman offered that even increasing our military budget would have some “kinetic” effect on the Iranians.
But that’s the problem, isn’t it? The administration refuses to use the leverage it has because it either doesn’t want to do the things necessary to exercise it (e.g. use air power) or because it is afraid of annoying Iran.
Takeyh had one of the most insightful comments of the day. While other administrations have shown weakness or had failures in the region, “This is the first administration to see the region as inconsequential.” Believing our “real” interests lay elsewhere (e.g. Asia) has led to a lack of focus and engagement in the Middle East. We continue to appear unserious because, in essence, we are.
Third, there is no doubt that the administration has rattled not only Israel but also our Sunni allies, and not only because of our willingness to give more than we got on the Iran interim deal. Ross said, “For the Saudis, the existential threat is what Iran is doing on the ground.” They fear with much justification that we will, in essence, give up containing Iran (let alone blocking its aggression) for the sake of a nuclear deal. Again, the only way to change that perception is for the administration to change its behavior.
Fourth, the idea that we can have a deal that simply freezes the Iranian program and relies on greater transparency/inspection is pure folly. Ross pointed out that our intelligence community could not even predict the surge of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq. So how could we be certain that we’d spot and then act upon evidence that Iran is ramping back up its nuclear weapons program? We can’t.
Fifth, Takeyh and Ross in response to my question agreed that it was a mistake to divorce human rights from the nuclear talks. Takeyh said that in the Cold War we did not necessarily link progress on human rights to arms deals, but we certainly discussed it at virtually every high-level meeting. From my vantage point, the administration will never push for human rights; only Congress, through sanctions legislation, can press Iran to ease up on repression at home and cease exporting terror. (Even that, I would argue, is unlikely to be effective especially with an administration afraid to call foul on the mullahs.)
And finally, Takeyh at the time of the interim deal was one of the few commentators to point out that Iran may already have gotten “the real prize” — a sunset clause on sanctions. If Iran can look forward to the day when all sanctions will expire and it will be freed from international constraints, then its ambition to be a nuclear power on a par with existing nuclear powers remains alive. In giving that up, almost without notice in the interim deal, the administration may have convinced Iran that it need only hang in there to eventually attain its nuclear ambitions.
It is easy to lose U.S. credibility in the world. We’ve done it before in the Middle East, Ross reminded us. But what is different now is that the administration thinks it has been wildly successful. It doesn’t use leverage and won’t use leverage because the president fails to admit that anything is amiss. As bizarre as this may sound, inside the White House bubble presidents — especially ones surrounded by political hacks — can convince themselves of a great many things. This one seems especially prone to do so.