On Monday, a panel of bipartisan experts hosted by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, including the president’s former senior adviser on the Middle East, Dennis Ross, agreed essentially with two propositions. First, President Obama is blowing it on Iran. Second, his conduct on the Gaza war isn’t helping matters.
On Iran, Ross put it this way: “What can be different in the next 4 months? . . . We need to find a way to put pressure on the Iranians. Based on what we saw in the first six months, more has to happen than the [existing] sanctions.” Council on Foreign Relations expert Ray Takeyh, who has advised both Democrats and Republicans, agrees. He says, “Obviously we did not have the leverage. How do I know this? There was no deal.” And former ambassador Eric Edelman, who served in the Bush administration, concurred, arguing that the focus must be on “what changes the dynamic” in order to do what the administration says it seeks to accomplish, a substantial rollback in Iran’s nuclear capacity.
There is widespread concern about several aspects of the interim agreement.
First, Takeyh and others warned about the sunset clause that envisions a time when Iran will be “like any other nation” and free to enrich with no sanctions or observers. This, to many of us, seems mind boggling that in 5 or 10 or even 15 years Iran could be going full tilt, putting its nuclear weapons on ICBM’s and be in violation of no agreement or sanctions regime. Former Bush State Department official for arms control and nonproliferation Stephen Rademaker says there is a misnomer that the terms of a final deal are underway. In fact, under the sunset clause, “The final step is treating Iran like any other country.” If the attitude is let “bygones be bygones,” he says Iran need only wait out the current negotiations to have a nuclear arsenal accepted by the international community. Moreover, if not explicitly saying that Iran has a right to enrich, the interim deal envisions a time when Iran can operate with no sanctions. Rademaker says bluntly, “That is a huge victory for Iran.”
Second, Edelman posits, “The two sides are talking past each other.” The deal was supposed to be permanent rollbacks in Iran’s program in exchange for sanctions relief; instead it is becoming “transparency” for sanctions relief. In other words, Iran keeps what it has and we give up sanctions. Edelman says, “Iran sees a steadfast movement in their direction. In light of that dynamic, why would you change?” The move from no enrichment to “a little enrichment” has already taken place. Coupled with a sunset provision Iran now sees a track to full nuclear weapons development with no outside pressure. Edelman says that as troublesome as the sunset clause is he is “more worried about the number of centrifuges” the administration has given away in negotiations. In essence, Iran has stuck to its game plan of no rollbacks, Rademaker explains.”They’ve not done anything irreversible.” The balanced formula of rollbacks for sanctions relief is no longer holding.
Third, the panelists to one degree or another all chided the administration on sanctions, although Ross pointed out the administration had previously worked diligently for international sanctions. Ross was blunt: “What got the Iranians to the table was real pressure.” Unless something changes such as turning up the heat on sanctions he says, ” The Iranians are not going to feel pressure to rollback [the number of their centrifuges].” If, as Ross argues, “the essence of diplomacy is convincing the other side if they don’t make a deal things they don’t want will happen,” the administration seems to be sending the wrong messages. Edelman worries that the administration’s “draconian” opposition to sanctions conveys a lack of will on the its part and removes a potential source of pressure. He recommends (as do the others) that measures to heighten the threat of U.S. or Israeli military action (e.g. conveying bunker buster bombs to Israel) would help.
What isn’t helpful is conduct exhibited in the Gaza war. Ross, visibly annoyed with events to date, lectured (the administration in absentia, the audience directly), “Everyone would like to see this conflict end, but it is important to see how it ends.” When we see Israel, Egypt and the Gulf states united in demanding Hamas’s military and political defeat — and then undermine their efforts — we undercut our position with Iran. In the immediate situation, Ross says, “All rockets and all tunnels have to end. Otherwise any aid to Gaza is held hostage to the next round [of hostilities.]” But Ross counseled, “We should take account of the strategic relationship” between Gaza and Iran, understanding the need to confront Iran in the region and to provide reassurance to traditional allies. “The level of criticism of Hamas [by Sunni states] should tell us something about what is going on in the region.” It was a harsh critique of his former boss, in essence accusing the administration of lacking any strategic common sense.
In sum, there is widespread agreement that Obama needs to add more not less pressure and that we are in danger of giving away the store. The prospect that in a few years Iran could have everything it wants — a nuclear program and an end to sanctions — looms large. By continually crossing Israel and the Sunni monarchies we communicate to Iran that we can be played and to our allies that we are untrustworthy. Meanwhile, the centrifuges keep spinning.