With the Iran nuclear negotiations coming down to the final days before a self-imposed deadline expires, the Obama administration is desperately seeking support for its effort to forge a deal at almost any price. But the prospect of even more concessions to Tehran in order to avoid the failure of the talks has led even some of the president’s former closest advisers to join the chorus of critics urging him to stand his ground for once. A bipartisan group of former diplomats, policy experts, and legislators has issued a signed statement organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy declaring that the agreement in its current form falls short of “meeting the administration’s own standard of a ‘good’ agreement.” It comes as no surprise that some former Bush administration staffers signed the document. The shock comes from the fact that it was also endorsed by five former members of President Obama’s own inner circle of advisers on Iran. The signatures of former Obama advisers indicate not only the depth of the unease among knowledgeable observers about the administration’s willingness to appease Iran. It also is a stark warning that ratification of this weak pact by Congress is very much in doubt unless it is significantly strengthened by tough diplomacy in the coming days and weeks.
The former Obama advisers that signed the statement are: Dennis Ross, the longtime diplomat and Middle East peace processor who oversaw Iran policy during the president’s first term; David Petraeus, the former general appointed by Obama to lead the CIA; Robert Einhorn, the veteran State Department official responsible for the enactment and enforcement of sanctions on Iran on Obama’s watch; Gary Samore, who served as the president’s chief adviser on nuclear policy; and General James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff responsible for implementing the president’s decisions on building up forces in the region.
As the New York Times notes in its article on the statement, all of these men:
Joined in hours of Situation Room meetings during the president’s first term, and some into the second, to devise both the strategy to bring Iran to the negotiating table — a mix of sanctions, sabotage of the nuclear program and the prospect of a broader relationship with the West — and the negotiating objectives.
The statement also makes clear that, contrary to the efforts of the administration to smear all critics of their deal as advocates for war, the signatories support a negotiated settlement of the issue. Nor do they completely dismiss, as many critics rightly do, the current framework as a negligible achievement. But they say that unless the president insists on the deal meeting the same criteria that he has repeatedly enunciated are necessary for it to meet the goals he set forth when the negotiations began, then it will fail to accomplish his stated mission of preventing Iran from realizing its nuclear ambitions.
The statement outlines five key areas where Western negotiators must stand their ground:
1. Monitoring and Verification: The inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (the “IAEA”) charged with monitoring compliance with the agreement must have timely and effective access to any sites in Iran they need to visit in order to verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement. This must include military (including IRGC) and other sensitive facilities. Iran must not be able to deny or delay timely access to any site anywhere in the country that the inspectors need to visit in order to carry out their responsibilities.
2. Possible Military Dimensions: The IAEA inspectors must be able, in a timely and effective manner, 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 (“Possible Military Dimensions” or “PMD”). This work needs to be accomplished before any significant sanctions relief.
3. Advanced Centrifuges: The agreement must establish strict limits on advanced centrifuge R&D, testing, and deployment in the first ten years, and preclude the rapid technical upgrade and expansion of Iran’s enrichment capacity after the initial ten-year period. The goal is to push back Iran’s deployment of advanced centrifuges as long as possible, and ensure that any such deployment occurs at a measured, incremental pace consonant with a peaceful nuclear program.
4. Sanctions Relief: Relief must be based on Iran’s performance of its obligations. Suspension or lifting of the most significant sanctions must not occur until the IAEA confirms that Iran has taken the key steps required to come into compliance with the agreement. Non-nuclear sanctions (such as for terrorism) must remain in effect and be vigorously enforced.
5. Consequences of Violations: The agreement must include a timely and effective mechanism to re-impose sanctions automatically if Iran is found to be in violation of the agreement, including by denying or delaying IAEA access. In addition, the United States must itself articulate the serious consequences Iran will face in that event
But the statement goes on to raise yet another important point concerning the nature of the framework that is set to expire after ten years, potentially leaving Iran free after that to build a bomb:
Most importantly, it is vital for the United States to affirm that it is U.S. policy to prevent Iran from producing sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon – or otherwise acquiring or building one – both during the agreement and after it expires. 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.
This statement comes in the wake of a series of astonishing concessions on the part of the administration in which it has abandoned positions — such as the need for Iran to come clean about its past military research — that it declared were inviolable back in April when the framework was announced. Yet with so many important issues yet to be resolved in the negotiations such as the lifting of sanctions and the nature of inspections, the signatories urge the president to refuse to give in again to Iran as he has done on virtually every issue over the past two years. Iran’s Supreme Leader said on Tuesday that he would never allow inspections and would insist on lifting all sanctions immediately and permanently. Clearly, Iran expects the U.S. to fold again. If the negotiations are to continue, then the U.S. should stop acting as if they needed a deal more than the Iranians. If Obama’s spine finally stiffens, the West still has enough leverage to force Iran to give up its demands.
But the source of their anxiety is not that the administration lacks a strategy to achieve its goal. The problem is that the president has repeatedly demonstrated that he thinks a bad deal is better than no deal at all so every time Iran says no, he buckles. Given this history, it’s difficult to fault the Iranians for believing it won’t happen.
That’s why this statement is so important. It is a warning to Congress that the Iran deal should not be treated as a partisan issue in which Democrats will rally to the president’s side no matter their misgivings. The consequences of a nuclear Iran are too serious for this to be a political football. Democrats and Republicans must warn the White House that they will not acquiesce to surrender to a nuclear Iran that an unsatisfactory deal ensures. It is difficult to imagine the president deciding to change course at this late date. But the fact that some of his former confidantes are joining the ranks of the Iran deal’s critics shows that this deal can and ought to be stopped.