The Iran Nuclear Deal

IranDealSSHeader_150HYesterday, I attended an event at the Mayerson Jewish Community Center entitled “Implications of the Iran Deal with Julie Fishman Rayman & Yaron Sideman”.  Aaron Sideman is Consul General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region; Julie Fishman Rayman is the American Jewish Committee’s leading legislative advocate on foreign policy.  I anticipated that they would speak in opposition to what in my opinion is clearly a well conceived agreement, but I wanted to hear what the other side had to say.

Yaron Sideman spoke first.  His point of view is expressed eloquently in his Op ED “With Iran deal, the U.S. just kicked the nukes can down the road:”

consul general yaron sideman

consul general yaron sideman

Instead of ensuring that Iran will never be able to develop a nuclear weapon, what this agreement does is merely kick the can down the road for a few short years, legitimizing Iran as a military nuclear power at the end of that period.

He asserts that Iran is “the world’s most brutal and aggressive regime,” that Iran’s only reason for a nuclear program in to build a weapon, and that Iran, armed with a nuclear weapon, would pose an existential threat to Israel.  He lists several objection to the deal:

  1. It legitimizes Iran’s right to a nuclear program.
  2. It has an expiration date.  Ten years is nothing in the scope of history.
  3. Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is not being dismantled; it is just being switched off.

To be acceptable to Yaron, the deal would have to involve totally dismantling or destroying all nuclear facilities in Iran and removing them from the country.   Furthermore, the constraints of the deal would need to be permanent.

Julie Fishman Rayman

Julie Fishman Rayman

Julie Fishman Rayman began her talk by describing the process that the American Jewish Committee used to evaluate the deal.  They were as fair minded as they could be.  I do not think that this was mere pretense.  They spent 21 days speaking with representatives of the Obama administration and others before they came to a conclusion.  However, the point of view of the Israeli government was clear before the deal was even complete, and the end result of the AJC’s evaluation was a foregone conclusion, no matter how fair minded they tried to be.

Julie also spoke about the political process.  There is a good likelihood that the Congress will reject the deal and that the President will veto this action.  Then the question will be whether the veto can be overridden by a two-thirds majority in each chamber.  150 representatives, more than a third, have publicly come out in favor of the deal, so overriding it in the House seems out of the picture.  In the Senate, it would be possible to muster a two thirds majority by adding 17 Democrats to all Republicans.  A couple of prominent Democratic senators, Schumer and Menendez, have stated their opposition to the deal, so the AJC is hopeful that an override can occur in the Senate.

For Julie, politics is at the heart of the matter.  She worries that discussion can become dangerous and ugly, with one side accusing the other of “sending Jews to the ovens”, or, on the other side, willfully repeating the Iraq debacle.  One danger is that, if the deal is defeated, people will blame the Jews.  Although she definitely wants the U.S. to reject the deal, her hope is that this be seen as a decision by the whole people, not by one ethnic group.  She made a plea to show respect to others while advocating your position.

Both speakers reject the idea that the only alternative to the deal is war.  They offered a third possibility: intensified sanctions from the U.S., and new negotiations. This was the least convincing portion of their presentation.

First of all, they assert that U.S. sanctions alone can be sufficient: by refusing to do business with any corporation that does business with Iran, the U.S. can eventually bully the rest of the world, except Russia and China, into cooperating with the sanctions. The reality is that the economies of Russia and China are quite large in comparison to Iran’s and would be more than sufficient to get them going. In addition, Europe is not likely to allow itself to be bullied. As Kerry said, if he were to go to the European nations after the deal was rejected and ask for more intense sanctions against Iran, they would “look at me and laugh.”

Even more far fetched is the notion of new negotiations. Obama, after such a major defeat, would not be in a position to negotiate anything. Those within the Iranian government who advocate moderation and cooperation with the West would be discredited. Who would do the negotiating? Iran is already a nuclear threshold state. Estimates of the breakout time, the amount of time needed for Iran to build a bomb, vary from little as a few weeks to as much as year. They could have a nuclear weapon before the international community gets reorganized.

The most likely consequences of rejecting the deal seem pretty disastrous:

  1. We would have no deal.
  2. International support for sanctions would fall apart.
  3. There would be nothing to stop Iran from completing their development of a weapon except military force.

During the presentation, Julie did mention that there is support for the deal.  She talked briefly about the “God Squad”, which is how she referred to collection of religious peace organizations including Protestants, Catholics, and Quakers (she could not quite remember the name of the Friends Committee on National Legislation).  They also mentioned the letter to congress from rabbis that came out in support of the deal.

Neither Julie nor Yaron mentioned the open letters in support of the deal from non-partisan experts.  It is not the rhetoric from politicians, religious leaders, and diplomats, but the judgements from these people with first hand understanding of the nitty gritty that I find most persuasive.

Three dozen retired U.S. generals have declared that this agreement is “the most effective means currently available to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.”  They further state, “If at some point it becomes necessary to consider military action against Iran, gathering sufficient international support for such an effort would only be possible if we have first given the diplomatic path a chance.”  Similarly, former Israeli military men have written an open letter to Netanyahu advocating that he accept it as a “done deal.”

Richard Garwin

Richard Garwin

To my mind, the most significant of the open letters is the one from a group of scientists led by Dr. Richard Garwin, a designer of the first hydrogen bomb.  The letter is signed by 29 scientists in all, including several Nobel laureates and a former head of the U.S. nuclear program at Los Alamos. The letter states that the agreement can “serve as a guidepost for future nonproliferation agreements” and provides “more stringent constraints than any previously negotiated non-proliferation framework.”  It ends with the following:

In conclusion, we congratulate you and your team on negotiating a technically sound, stringent, and innovative deal that will provide the necessary assurance in the coming decade and more that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons, and provides a basis for further initiatives to raise the barriers to nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and around the globe.

I cannot imagine receiving higher praise from such a collection of experts in the field.  Based on the evaluations of these scientists and of the retired military leaders, this agreement is an extraordinary achievement.  When put beside these experts, the reasoning of Julie Fishman Rayman and Yaron Sideman seems guided more by hopes and fears than by cogent analysis, though I acknowledge that if I were faced with an existential threat from such a belligerent neighbor, my judgement might be similarly fearful.

Iran is on the threshold of developing a nuclear weapon.  This agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is our best opportunity to gain control over this extremely critical situation. It doesn’t resolve all of our problems with Iran, which will remain a dangerous adversary.  However, we have made agreements with adversaries before.  In my opinion, rejecting such a deal would be a disaster, a disaster for Israel, for the U.S, for Iran, and for world.