–By Tyrus W. Cobb
Tensions have grown between the United States and Israel over the ongoing negotiations with Iran. On the one hand, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has issued stern warnings advising against reaching any deal with Tehran, arguing that Iran has no intention of halting its march toward obtaining a nuclear weapons capability and is engaging in negotiations only to get the West to lessen the crippling economic sanctions that have been imposed. In short, the Israeli argument revolves around the theme that “While the Iranians keep spinning these hopeful scenarios, the 300 plus centrifuges also keep spinning”. Countering this perception, the vast majority of the American professional national security elite strongly support the Obama administration’s decision to seek an agreement with Iran, particularly since, as former National Security Advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft argue, “the commitment of the new government of Iran to reverse course on its nuclear program needs to be tested”. They believe that an agreement is feasible that would prevent Tehran from having the ability “to rapidly” build a nuclear weapon”.
Yesterday Iran and six of the world’s powers – the United States, France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia — agreed on a “first step deal” that is meant to limit advancements in Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing some of the economic sanctions that have deeply hurt Iran’s economy.
According to the White House, the deal stipulates that Iran will commit to halt uranium enrichment above 5 percent and also to neutralize its stockpile of near-20 percent uranium. The Islamic Republic has also committed to halt progress on its enrichment capacity. Iran will also stop work at its plutonium reactor and provide access to nuclear inspectors. In exchange, the United States and its allies have agreed to offer Iran “modest relief” from economic sanctions and access to a portion of the revenue that the country has been denied through these sanctions. No new sanctions will be imposed.
This is an interim agreement, one certainly to be scrutinized closely. But even this modest stopgap agreement will draw severe criticism, alongside strong support.
So let’s take a look at the arguments in favor of and against negotiating with Iran.
The logic behind the “negotiations are a ruse” argument
Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren says that Netanyahu is not playing the doomsayer, not the spoiler of efforts to avoid conflict, not someone trying to prevent a peaceful resolution of the nuclear threat. Oren says Israel is the realist here, not falling prey to hopeful scenarios that have characterized previous diplomatic assumptions regarding Iran. He says Israel believes that Iran “wants to and needs the bomb….for hegemonic purposes and for internal security”. Netanyahu argues that lessening economic pressure on Iran sends a message to other countries that the sanctions are ending, so get in fast and win contracts. He warns that Iran could drag out confidence building measures for years while producing fissile material for multiple bombs. Any agreement that does not force Iran to (1) Destroy its centrifuges; (2) Cease enrichment; (3) Close its heavy water plant, and (4) Transfer its nuclear stockpiles abroad, is worthless.
The PM and the Ambassador are joined by a chorus of familiar voices who have strongly supported hard line Israeli positions in the past. The Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer demands that no interim agreement be signed that relaxes sanctions while nothing is done except trotting out some “confidence-building half measures”. He says any relaxation of the sanctions would release assets abroad that are frozen, permit Iran to again export its petroleum products, and increase its foreign exchange reserves that are now depleted. He charges that the proposed “deal” would require little in return and “leave Iran’s nuclear infrastructure intact”. “Not a single centrifuge is dismantled”. And while some uranium enriched to 20% may be downgraded to less than 5%, that “process is quickly reversible”. In short, the Mullahs are eager for this agreement, knowing that once sanctions are relaxed, it will be hard to reinstitute them.
The WSJ’s Brett Stephens, not a fan of France, finds Paris to be more stalwart against an Obama administration thirsting for an agreement, possibly to distract attention from its failures connected with the ACA. He finds that a most unusual alliance has risen–between Saudi Arabia, France and Israel–what he calls the “Axis of Reality”, all suspicious of any agreement with Iran and characterizing the U.S. as operating in a fairly-tale world of make believe. The trio, and Stephens, fear that the U.S. is retrenching from its global responsibilities—failing to use force in Syria after Assad crossed the infamous “red line”, restraining Tel Aviv in the face of continued provocations from Hamas and Hezbollah, and lending little or no support to the new military regime in Egypt. Still, Stephens must address the fact that even France signed on to the interim agreement.
The argument for testing Iranian intentions and continuing to negotiate
Former diplomat and President of the Council on Foreign Relations Les Gelb says the arguments against a “full and serious drive to stay the dogs of war are sheer, dangerous nonsense”. He believes that even an interim agreement would be the “Mideast equivalent of ending the Cold War” with the USSR. The deal holds the promise of reducing sharply the “biggest threat to regional peace”, an Iranian nuclear bomb. Such an agreement would also, in Gelb’s view, “open paths to taming dangerous conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan”. No sanctions would be lifted that could not be readily reimposed, he feels.
If we follow the Israeli PM’s advice, Gelb believes, “Iran, Israel and United States would continue their march toward a terrible war in the Mideast. What a great alternative!”. And, he adds, don’t think that toughening sanctions, as some have advocated, would in the end do anything to cause the collapse of the Ayatollah’s regime, anymore than it has in North Korea. He warns that any precipitous military action against Iran would likely be a lonely US-Israeli venture, with no other “allies”—including the Saudis—likely to join in. And certainly not the French!
Former Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, joins Gelb, Brzezinski and Scowcroft in advancing this line of agreement. Crocker argues that a 6-month freeze on Iranian nuclear weapons could lead to a more permanent and more comprehensive agreement. In doing so, the U.S. and the West would be giving up very little in return. Acknowledging that new President Rouhani must always seek the approval of the Mullahs and the Military, he warns that it should be clear to all, “except the ideologically and politically impaired” (to use Gelb’s term), that President Rouhani is the best hope we have for any change in Iran. Failing to permit Rouhani to be successful in these negotiations practically guarantees that those who follow him will be much worse and more difficult to engage.
Crocker warns that the “window for achieving a diplomatic solution is not open-ended”. Both Presidents Obama and Rouhani face formidable domestic opposition, from skeptical members of Congress and anti-American hard liners in Tehran. Crocker notes that Iran has made overtures to the U.S. in the past, particularly after 9/11, when the U.S. and Iran worked closely together to defeat the new Taliban government in Afghanistan and send the Al Qaeda-connected regime back into Pakistan. According to Crocker, who was a key figure in these talks, agreements on various security issues were on track—at least until President Bush’s 2002 speech placing Iran in the “Axis of Evil”. He believes the promising steps toward a rapprochement ended at that point and led to a deteriorating security situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, according to Crocker, the cooperation that existed for a time between Washington and Tehran can be reinstituted. He believes, as do many others in the professional diplomatic and military spheres, that in the long term, Iran and the U.S. have sufficient interests in common that a more positive relationship is not only possible, but probable.
A group of nearly 100 former senior diplomats and military officers have endorsed the ongoing negotiations and support an interim agreement likely to emanate (and that has) from the ongoing discussions. They believe that the current government in Iran is prepared to “reverse course on its nuclear activities”. At least that proposition needs to be fairly tested. Echoing the Brzezinski-Scowcroft letter, they argue that an agreement would “advance the national security of the United States”.
Given this, is a comprehensive agreement possible?
I should underline here that no one on either side of the debate advocates lessening the economic sanctions in the absence of verifiable actions by Tehran. No one is in favor of unilateral measures without tangible concessions from Tehran.
Former Secretary of State George Shultz advocates that in conducting the dialogue with Iran, that the participants keep in mind what he calls “The Gipper’s Guide to Negotiating”. That means do not be anxious for a deal—the side that does so will “get their head handed to them”. He warns negotiators to “be strong” and don’t’ be afraid to “up the ante” if necessary. This means, in his eyes, that any deal must include not only verifiable steps to eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but in the end, concrete steps to “end the regime’s unacceptable behavior” in general. That would mean denying that Iran has any intention to “destroy Israel”, as the preceding President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeatedly demanded. And, for Iran, the world’s “most active sponsor of terror”, directly and through proxies such as Hezbollah, to become a responsible partner in resolving the interminable Mideast disputes.
I think Secretary Shultz’s middle of the road position is the right one. Don’t be afraid to negotiate, but negotiate from a “position of strength”. Don’t permanently loosen the sanctions without concrete, verifiable actions by Iran. Insist that Iran renounce and take visible actions to end its nuclear program, including any enrichment activity beyond what is needed for a civilian nuclear energy program. How the Iranian regime fulfills its commitment to the interim agreement should tell us whether a more permanent treaty can be reached.
Finally, first reach an agreement with respect to the nuclear program, but have a longer term agenda to table soon that demands Iran show it is prepared to exist alongside an independent Israel….and rein in its support for regional terrorist elements.
Along the way, do as the Gipper advised, “Trust….But Verify”! Especially Verify!
Dr./Colonel Tyrus W. Cobb is a former Special Assistant to President Reagan for National Security Affairs and President of the National Security Forum.