an interview with Omri Ceren and Shoshana Bryen
by Jerry Gordon and Mike Bates (August 2015)
Source: WSJ.com/Getty Images
Tuesday morning, July 14, 2015, the P5+1 announced in Vienna, Austria the culmination of two years of negotiations among world powers and the Islamic Republic of Iran: a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The framework for this 159 page document, including five annexes, was approved by the parties on April 2, 2015. An original JPOA of action was agreed to on November 24, 2013 at Geneva. The US negotiating team was lead by Secretary of State John Kerry, assisted by Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
The President issued a brief statement calling it “an historic deal” that would cut off Iran from four pathways to achieve a nuclear breakthrough. Which in the absence of the proposed deal might result in producing upwards of 12 bombs in less than three months using the existing stock of fissile grade highly enriched uranium. The proposed deal would extend that breakthrough time to one year at the end of a ten year moratorium. Beginning in the 15th year of the deal, Iran would be free to enrich uranium to fissile levels.
Watch this YouTube video of President Obama statement on the JCPOA:
The agreement would achieve this desired goal by:
reducing the stockpile of enriched uranium by 98% from 11,000 kgs,. to less than 300 kgs.;
reducing the number of centrifuges by two-thirds from 19,500 to 6,105;
preventing production of plutonium at the Arak heavy water reactor;
- tracking Iran’s nuclear program at every stage of production with robust verification inspections and monitoring by the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In exchange for this, the international sanctions would be lifted providing Iran with upwards of $150 billion in sequestered funds, from largely offshore oil revenues. Moreover, the EU and other world powers would have teams of scientists working with Iranian counterparts at the Natanz and Fordo underground facilities. Those joint teams would design and develop more efficient centrifuges for enriching uranium capped at 3.67% for alleged peaceful research purposes. If Iran cheated, then the Administration contends it could snap back sanctions. The feasibility of doing that is questionable.
The devil is in both the details of the JCPOA and what was excluded. The original “anytime, anywhere inspections” regime was replaced by a prior notice system required prior notice of 24 days. Given delays for clearances and possible arbitrations of disputes before a Commission that includes Iran, this could stretch to 78 days or more. Matters of possible cheating leading to the snap back of sanctions were also to be arbitrated by the Commission. Especially concerning was the matter of satisfying the IAEA’s complaint about Iran’s alleged non-compliance with requests for information on prior military nuclear developments (PMD), such as the development of explosive triggers at the Parchin research facility. Ayatollah Khamenei basically nixed any IAEA inspections of facilities and programs under the country’s IRGC control. At first denied by the Obama Administration, so-called ‘secret’ side deals between the IAEA and the Islamic Republic were justified because that was the protocol under the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty. A Wall Street Journal report on July 27th provided assessments by Congressional lawmakers who were briefed on these arrangements concluded that the IAEA would never conclusively discover the extent of Iran’s PMD. The Administration contested that would not stand in the way of verifying future commitments.
There were other concessions which acceding to the demands posed by the Iranian negotiating team led by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif that went beyond the scope of the JPOA Framework. There was the lifting of the June 2010 UN conventional weapons acquisition sanction under UNSC Res. 1929 at the end of five years and at the end of eight years for missile technology. Then there was a JCPOA annex listing 800 persons and institutions lifting travel bans and restricted assets. Among those listed was the head of the Quds force. The controversial Ouds force commander, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, had been involved with the development of improvised explosive eevices and support for Shiite militias in Iraq during the Second Gulf War that resulted in several hundred American service personnel deaths. Moreover, there was an Annex provision that obligated the EU and other world powers to assure protection against possible sabotage by third parties, presumably Israel. Because these additional concessions were granted beyond the scope of the April 2nd framework, President Obama was questioned at a White House press conference on July 15th about the possible release of four Americans, a pastor, an ex-Marine, a Washington Post bureau chief and an ex-FBI agent. They were not released as they were deemed extraneous to the nuclear agreement.
Despite those issues, the President suggested that in contrast to his original precept that no deal was better than a bad one, this deal was better than the alternatives for the reasons cited above. Meaning that the only alternative, military action, was unacceptable. He said:
And I’ve said this to Prime Minister Netanyahu; I’ve said it directly to the Israeli people. But what I’ve also said is that all those threats are compounded if Iran gets a nuclear weapon. And for all the objections of Prime Minister Netanyahu, or, for that matter, some of the Republican leadership that’s already spoken, none of them have presented to me, or the American people, a better alternative.
I’m hearing a lot of talking points being repeated about “this is a bad deal” — “this is a historically bad deal,” “this will threaten Israel and threaten the world and threaten the United States.”
What I haven’t heard is what is your preferred alternative?
The President was referring to Israeli PM Netanyahu’s criticism expressed in his address before a Joint Meeting of Congress on March 3, 2015 and when the Framework for the JCPOA was announced on April 2nd. In an NBC Meet the Press interview with host Chuck Todd, PM Netanyahu reiterated what he contended was the better deal:
“I’m not trying to kill any deal. I’m trying to kill a bad deal…The current plan “leaves the preeminent terrorist state of our time with a vast nuclear infrastructure.” It would spark an arms race among the Sunni states, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East,” the Israeli leader warned. “And the Middle East crisscrossed with nuclear tripwires is a nightmare for the world. I think this deal is a dream deal for Iran and it’s a nightmare deal for the world.”
Netanyahu stressed that when it comes to Iran’s nuclear capabilities, he prefers a “good” diplomatic solution to a military one.
He outlined such a solution as “one that rolls back Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and one that ties the final lifting of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program with a change of Iran’s behavior” and insists that Iran stops “calling for and working for the annihilation of Israel.” He also called for further sanctions on Iran as a way to get the country to take a deal that contains no concessions.
President Obama was taking no chances, as the JCPOA was scheduled for a UN Security Resolution vote endorsing it on July 22nd, the first stage in the process of lifting UN international sanctions. The JCPOA has several key dates including a vote by Congress in mid-September 2015 under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Act of 2015 (INARA) co-authored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) and Ranking Member, Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD). The JCPOA was structured as the equivalent of an Executive Agreement, to avoid a two thirds Senate approval as a treaty. Instead the INARA requires a majority vote by both Houses of Congress raising the prospect of a Presidential veto if Congress rejects the nuclear pact. According to some Constitutional legal experts, a negative vote by Congress would make the US, a signatory to the JCPOA, in non-compliance with international law. Potentially it might tie the hands of any successor who wished to cancel the executive order.
On July 22nd, the JCPOA was approved unanimously by all 15 members of the UN Security Council over the objections of the GOP majority in both Houses of Congress and the authors of INARA, Senators Corker and Cardin. A contentious INARA hearing by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was convened on July 23, which questioned the Obama negotiating team on the JCPOA. The Committee Chairman and Ranking Member were bridling at what has been deemed an end run by the Administration over Congressional Constitutional authority. There were warnings by Kerry about Israel sabotaging Iranian nuclear facilities under an approved JCPOA. Committee member James Risch (R-ID) raised the matter of the secret IAEA Iran side deals on the PMD issues. The following day Kerry flew up to New York to brief skeptical American Jewish leaders and to hold a discussion at the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) on the Iran nuclear pact. At the CFR event he suggested that if Congress did not approve the pact, the world would blame and isolate Israel. The Jewish divide in America versus Israel polls over the Iran nuclear deal was significant. A poll taken in Israel reported by the Times of Israel showed that 70% of respondents opposed it. In contrast a Los Angeles Jewish Journal poll released on July 23rd, revealed half of American Jews approved of the Iran nuclear deal. A CNN/ORC poll issued July 28th found that the majority of Americans polled, 53%, urged the Congress to reject the Iran nuclear pact.
Against this background, on Tuesday, July 14, 2015, another in the periodic Middle East Roundtable discussions was convened by Northwest Florida’s Talk Radio 1330amWEBY’s co-hosts of “Your Turn,” Mike Bates and this writer. Our panelists were Omri Ceren, Managing Director for Press and Strategy of The Israel Project (TIP) and Shoshana Bryen, Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center. Bryen was calling in from Washington, DC. Ceren was calling in from Vienna, Austria where he had spent 19 days working with journalists covering the final deliberations of the nuclear pact with Iran. Ceren had also been in Lausanne, Switzerland covering the April 2nd announcement of a framework for a final JCPOA.
Mike Bates: Welcome to Your Turn. This is Mike Bates. Today is July 14, 2015. The reason that date may matter is because, in history, I am reminded of an agreement that was reached on September 29, 1938. Commonly referred to as the Munich Agreement, when Neville Chamberlain thought we had peace in our time, with Adolf Hitler. Less than a year later, the Germans invaded Poland, and World War II was underway. Today, July 14, 2015, President Barack Obama has announced that he has reached an agreement with the Iranians. Does this mean peace? Or does this mean war? Joining us to discuss this, I have in the Studio Jerry Gordon, senior editor of the New English Review and its blog The Iconoclast. Welcome, Jerry.
Jerry Gordon: Good to be back, Mike.
Bates: Joining us by telephone, Shoshana Bryen, senior director of The Jewish Policy Center in Washington. Shoshana, welcome.
Shoshana Bryen: Thank you, Mike.
Bates: And via telephone from Vienna is Omri Ceren, the managing director for press and strategy at The Israel Project. Welcome, Omri.
Omri Ceren: Good to be here, Mike. Thanks.
Bates: So, Omri, you have been in Vienna for awhile. What have you been doing there?
Ceren: We flew in here 19 days ago, for what should have been about a week of negotiations. The goal of The Israel Project is working with journalists, while they’re writing their stories, so they know what’s going on. The world is a wide and wonderful place, and journalists have a lot on their plates. The Iran talks are hopelessly tangled and complicated. Then there was one extension, two extensions, and three extensions, and a blown deadline. Now it’s July 14th, and we are just wrapping up.
Bates: Before we get into the policy of what this actual agreement may include, I have to ask you a question about the journalists. Do they listen? The reason I ask that question is because there is so much anti-Israel bias in the press. What are you encountering when you’re advising the press as to what is happening?
Ceren: It’s an excellent question, and we get that question a lot. In our world we have media watchdog groups that seek to keep the press honest. That is not what we do. The niche in which we work is foreign policy and national security. Very often it is dominated by serious adults who seek to break the news and understand it. Do they get it right all the time? No. Are some of them too caught up with unfortunately, issues of access and prestige? Are some of them too close to the Administration? Yes, undeniably. But they try to get things right and a lot of them are pretty smart. If you look at the wider coverage that came out of the Vienna talks, much of it was very serious, very issue-based. However, there’s a very strange thing that happened in Washington D.C. If you ask the majority of journalists, the adults, the 15-20 serious people, who have followed this deal from the beginning, two years ago, they will tell you the administration collapsed. For one reason or another, whether it be because of shredding the sanctions regime, or giving Iran too much on the weapons side, or simply incompetence. They will tell you they are against the deal. Or, at least, that it is a bad deal. Whereas the pundit class says the opposite. The pundit class, which is beholden to the administration and loves access. You know, the stereotype is that they love cocktail parties and they’re in support of the deal. So we have a really weird thing going on, where the people who follow this deal know that it is a terrible deal. The people who don’t are the most vocal in support of it.
Gordon: Omri, why is this P5+1 agreement with Iran’s nuclear program a danger to both the US and Israel?
Ceren: That is s an excellent question, because that is what people want to know. People don’t want to know about the five-year versus eight-year versus ten-year sunsets on conventional weapons, ICBMs and nuclear breakout. They don’t want to know about the differences between light water reactor and the reactor at Iran’s plutonium bomb factory in Arak. What they want to know is the structure of the deal which is very straightforward. Basically, it has gone from being an agreement that was designed to roll back the Iranian nuclear program, to an agreement that now binds the international community to protect and build the Iranian bomb. That is a dramatic way to say it. Let me give you a couple of examples about which the Washington Free Beacon published an article. The Fordo facility, Iran’s underground enrichment bunker was hollowed out of the side of a mountain for a military base used for their covert nuclear work. Instead of closing that – which was originally supposed to happen, it will stay open. It will become an international center for nuclear technology. What does that mean?
It means that one or more of the world powers will now be working with the Iranians helping them develop their nuclear technology. Another provision of the agreement discovered in the third of five annexes of the 159 page document was the EU-3 is committed to helping the Iranians develop and protect their nuclear program against sabotage.
Bates: Shoshana, what are you hearing in Washington, at the Jewish Policy Center, about this deal? As Omri said, nobody seems to have read the entire document. We are learning little by little what this includes. What is the opinion, so far, of the Jewish Policy Center?
Bryen: I would take a little bit of issue with Omri, in regard to the pundit class; I think the pundits are split. You have as many “opinionizers” disapproving the deal as approving the deal. And I think they are very reflective of various constituencies in the United States who are also very split. For example, in the Jewish community there is an element that believes any deal is better than no deal. The President said, this morning, “Please think of the alternative to this deal. Think of it,” he said. Clearly, he wants the public to believe that without the deal, there will be war. There is a group of people the Jewish community that thinks you must do anything you can, to prevent war. Anything, everything. From their point of view, if you give up sanctions and accept Iranian demands, it’s okay, because you’re not having war. There’s another group of people in the Jewish community, and in the pundit class, that says, if you give up everything, you’re going to end up with war anyway, but from a less advantageous position. We went from Iran that was reeling economically, that didn’t have ballistic missile technology, that didn’t have, etc. Now they have money, now they have technology, now they have Western input, now they have Western companies in Iran. It’s going to be very hard to do anything. If you wanted to do sabotage or anything against Iran militarily, you can’t, because you may have so many Westerners doing business there. Omri was getting on that point, that if the international community has a scientific delegation in Fordo, Fordo is safe. No one’s going to take it out if you have international scientists in it.
Bates: That’s a good point. I think that this deal actually makes Iran more dangerous, as you have stated, Shoshana. Because with a deal in place, Iran will be free to covertly develop nuclear weapons without consequence. The only absolute proof that Iran has cheated and developed a nuclear weapon would be a mushroom cloud. There is no way the West will have the political courage to preemptively stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program, militarily. And absent that mushroom cloud, no amount of evidence will convince the world that the Iranians have violated the agreement. However, if the day comes when Israel has valid reasons to believe that a nuclear weapon is in the hands of the Iranians, or is imminently so, Israel is going to have no choice but to act unilaterally. When they do, they will be excoriated and vilified. The world is going to cry, “Oh, we had a deal. Iran agreed not to build the bombs, but Israel attacked anyway.” I think this makes it more dangerous, because the military option, as I see it, Shoshana, is off the table.
Bryen: I’m not sure it wasn’t always off the table. Starting in the Bush administration, the United States and Israel had a divergence of opinion about how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. The Bush administration was in favor of sanctions and believed in squeezing them to death. They were not in favor of military activity. The Israelis always had believed that military action was best done in conjunction with the United States. Once they began to understand that there was no way, that even their good friend George W. Bush was not going to help them do this, the military option became less viable. You have to think about it from the point of view of a small country, Israel, and a large country, Iran, which has air defenses. Iran will now have better air defenses, because the Russians have sold them better air defenses. The Iranians had more time to bury and harden their facilities. They’ve had more time to dig them under populated places. If you have to drop a bomb on something, the collateral damage will be very heavy. I’m not sure that there was a great military option, to begin with. However, you are right to the extent that if there was a facility you felt was absolutely crucial, I believe Israel could destroy it.
Bates: The Bush policy was “squeeze them” with sanctions. The Obama policy is “give them $150 billion worth of economic aid to develop their military, both conventional and nuclear.” It is absolute insanity, from my viewpoint.
Bates: Omri, What have you witnessed in Vienna over the last 19 days?
Ceren: The relevant dynamic doesn’t involve Vienna. It goes back to Lausanne, to the late March negotiations that ended with the April 2nd framework announcement. A center-left journalist said, “Listen, ever since Lausanne – really, the first night of Lausanne – the Iranian concessions have stayed the same. It’s just been the Americans seeing what they needed to give in terms of bribes to get the Iranians to accept the deal.” That has really been the dynamic, here, in Vienna whether it be the lifting of the conventional arms sanctions in five years or ICBM embargo, which will allow Iran to get precision ballistic missiles in eight years. Which will allow them to push aside the US in the Gulf with their anti-ship missiles. Whether it is talking about the collapse of “anytime, anywhere” inspections. Now it’ll take the UN’s nuclear watchdog 24 days to get into a facility that they know about. We risk losing the forest for the trees. The forest is the Americans giving the Iranians one bribe after another. Then, to have Secretary Kerry say today, “Some critics have said that I have been rushing to make concessions while I’m here. Nothing could be further from the truth.” Well, of course that’s the truth.
Bates: Omri, did you just say that we have a requirement of 24 days notice before we inspect a facility? I had heard it was 14 days. Is it 24 days notice?
Ceren: No, it’s 24 days. As background realize that the text of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action came out only 12 hours ago. It’s 159 pages, and it reads like VCR instructions. Every section reads like “please refer to section 15A, followed by section 17C, contextualized by 16D.” It virtually requires a flowchart to figure out what is going on. Here’s what we know. The IAEA – the UN’s nuclear watchdog – will ask for access to a facility. The Iranians will say no. The Iranians have time to review the request. If they drag it out to the end and say no on the last day, it then goes up to an arbitration committee. An arbitration committee which the Iranians sit on. Then that arbitration committee has to take its time and then the Iranians have a chance to respond. And if they don’t respond then it may go to a violations committee. The IAEA may be referred back to the UN Security Council. There were several hearings today on Capitol Hill in the House of Representatives about this specific issue, the 24 day clearance requirement for the IAEA to conduct inspections of known Iranian nuclear facilities
Bates: Whether it’s 14 days or 24 days, it’s outrageous. It should be 14 minutes, or maybe 24 minutes. It’s absurd to give them a day’s notice.
Gordon: Omri, there’s a topsy-turvy mystery connected with the lifting of travel bans and asset sequesters involving none other than the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, General Qasem Soleimani. What is all that about?
Ceren: This is surreal, Jerry. The Iranians appear to have handed the Americans concession involving lifting sanctions on 800 of their entities and their individuals, including Qasem Soleimani, a man who has the blood of hundreds of Americans on his hands. Hundreds. Journalists were looking through the list of people who will have sanctions lifted and Qasem Soleimani’s name is on there. They took that to the administration and asked, “What is going on?” And you know what the administration told them? Multiple US sources said, “That’s not Qasem Soleimani, the Quds Force commander that, that has the blood of Americans on his hands. That’s a different Qasem Soleimani.” So journalists asked, “Which Qasem Soleimani is it?” They were told, “We don’t know.” It turns out, according to both Iranian and American sources, that it is the same Qasem Soleimani that has American blood on his hands. The FARS News Agency, Iran’s state-run news agency, tweeted boasting that Qasem Soleimani was taken off the sanctions list. They sent link to the actual document that identifies him by name and number. Today media outlets like ABC News have confirmed that, indeed, he’ll have his travel ban lifted and his foreign assets unfrozen. So there are two things going on here. This is really a microcosm on how the administration has approached these entire talks, and how they’ve approached critics of these talks, even constructive ones. First, they made a mistake born of incompetence. Second, they lied about it.
Gordon: That’s incredible.
Bryen: I’d like to be a little bit of a cynic, here. Yes, Qasem Soleimani is who he is and it’s outrageous that the travel ban on him was lifted. But this is the administration who hosted the Communist Vietnamese government, which killed 58,000 American soldiers in the Vietnam War; never apologized, never came clean, never said they wanted to get past that. They simply went on being Communists. The Secretary General of the Vietnamese Communist Party was vetted by the White House. So, these are people who don’t care. Dead Americans are dead Americans. They’re gone. They’re finished. If you can wipe out 58,000 Vietnam casualties – not to mention hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese casualties of the war – you can certainly wipe out the 500 or so Americans in Bush’s war in Iraq, can’t you?
Bates: I’m not so much concerned about Soleimani. I’m more concerned about the 7 million people living in Israel; the 300 million people in the United States. I’m concerned that Iran has been given a pathway to a bomb that is unobstructed. As I said a moment ago this takes the military option off the table. Even if Israel believes their existential threat is imminent, they can hardly attack militarily to stop it. The world will condemn them by saying, “Hey, we have a deal. What is Israel doing attacking? That piece of paper said that they wouldn’t develop a bomb.” I think the concessions are so much bigger than that. Am I wrong, Omri?
Ceren: Well, let me make the case in two ways. First, let me say that Shoshana’s answer was very compelling, when you were talking about this earlier. Which is the military option was never Israel’s main option. Sabotage and subterfuge were Israel’s real options, which is why it is so concerning that this deal puts the Iranian nuclear program under international sponsorship. There is an annex to the deal that says the EU-3 and their partners will teach them how to harden their nuclear assets against sabotage. Specifically, against nuclear sabotage. In effect we’re protecting them, as they build up their program. Forget protecting them in the last five minutes from Israeli action. This deal protects them from Israeli action throughout the entire lifetime of the deal. Part two is about the significance of the lifting of sanctions against Qasem Soleimani, whose personal importance is overstated by the West, because there is this myth about him. There is an article published by Lee Smith in The Weekly Standard, that is more relevant about the significance of the lifting of sanctions against Soleimani. In a very real way, not a metaphorical one is the deal struck between Obama and Qasem Soleimani. It underlines what is actually at stake in the deal. Why are we effectively funding their conventional build-up by releasing to them $150 billion, and dropping all of our arms embargo against them? Why are we effective building up their nuclear program by putting it under the protection of the international community and protecting it from sabotage? Smith’s argument in The Weekly Standard article is that Obama likes Soleimani and admires his work. Smith goes on to cite the President telling Arab officials that they really need to get their business together and “learn from Iran’s example.” Qasem Soleimani stands in for the idea that Iran is taking over the region. The fact that we’re lifting his travel ban and unfreezing his assets is being read by a lot of people as evidence that this deal is explicitly designed to reintegrate Iran into the regional structure of the Middle East and into the community of nations. The President sees the Islamic Republic as a stabilizing force. Lifting the travel ban and asset restrictions on Qasem Soleimani more than anyone else, stands in for Iran’s regional expansionism and its efforts to take over the Levant, to take over the Gulf and bring the entire Middle East under Iran’s thumb.
Gordon: Omri, US Senator Lindsey Graham suggested that the announcement of this deal was the moral equivalent of a declaration of war against Israel. Given this discussion with both you and Shoshana, what options does Israel have, at this time, to combat this deal?
Ceren: Very few. You know, critics of the President who come at it from the pro-Israel perspective say that this deal is very bad for Israel. A second criticism they make is the deal hems in Israel. The point that Shoshana made earlier is that it really constrains the Israel’s options. The Israelis have options. They have deterrent options. Some of them they like to talk about, some of them they don’t. There are discussions about them, right now. However, many Israelis have become fatalistic about this. They are going to buy some more assets and they’re going to dig in.
Gordon: Shoshana, what are your views on that?
Bryen: Let me start where Omri ended, which is to say that the Obama administration is allowing Iran and encouraging Iran to be a regional player. The goal of the administration is to get out of the region, which is one of the reasons he’s OK with building up Iran’s conventional capabilities. I would suggest that for Iran it means mini-submarines are going to be very important, and mine laying ships are going to be very important. If the United States is planning to leave the Persian Gulf – at least in the broadest sense relying on Iran to guarantee the flow of oil out of the Gulf – its conventional capabilities are almost as important as its nuclear threat. That is one of the things the Saudis and Gulf Sheikdoms are so worried about – will Iran provide protection for Shiite oil (Iraqi and Iranian) and prevent Saudi or Kuwaiti oil from transiting? You won’t have the United States in the Persian Gulf in the way that it is there today. That is a terrible thing for Israel, because Israel relies on the United States to keep the peace in the region. You see what happens when strong military powers disappear. Bashar Assad disappeared, Saddam Hussein disappeared, Muammar Gaddafi disappeared, and all you got was chaos. The Israelis are concerned that if the United States actually leaves the Persian Gulf region, there will be more chaos. The administration doesn’t see it that way. As Omri said, the Israelis have to figure out what next, from their point of view. One of the things that has been bandied about – a little bit in Israel, but a lot in the United States – is how Israel should deal with the notion of its own capabilities. There are things that people presume about Israel’s defensive and offensive capabilities that the Israelis don’t talk about. Dare I say, there are those who suspect that Israel has a nuclear program. It may be time, according to some people, for Israel to decide whether or not it wishes to address that subject publicly, as a deterrent. So that the Iranians are clear that should they make a move, the Israelis are able to make a countermove. The Iranians will have first-strike capability, at some point, if they don’t have it, already. One of the things that we don’t know is what we don’t know, in terms of Iran’s capabilities now. Israel may have first-strike capability, it may have second-strike capability. If Israel were to decide to lay those things on the table, it may provide a deterrent to the Iranians.
Bates: The Supreme Leader of Iran has gone on record saying that the Islamic world can take an attack from Israel. Israel is a one strike and they’re out nation. The Iranians publicly have said they’re willing to take the casualties. As long as it means Israel being wiped off the planet, the Muslims win. They are happy with it.
Bryen: Well, he says that now. I don’t think he’d say that if something was aimed at Tehran. The Islamic Republic leaders are all ready to sacrifice the last other person, not willing to sacrifice themselves. I think that is hyperbole. There is a lot of hyperbole that comes dealing with Iran.
Bates: That always has been very true. Shoshana, what is the role of Congress? Did Congress completely abdicate any role with the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act?
Bryen: It is sort of like Obamacare. Obamacare passed without a single Republican vote, which according to Republicans was a great thing. I agree that it was. It was party discipline that was excellent, and they’ll likely get that on this deal. At the end of the day, did it matter? Is Obamacare the law of the land? Yes, it is. Did it help Republicans get elected to office in 2014? Yes, it did, but Obamacare is still the law of the land. So, they’ll probably get 100 percent of the Republicans. They may get ten percent of the Democrats, maybe. But it’s not enough to override a veto. Unless they have a veto-proof majority in both houses, it’s one thing to be pure, and it’s another to win. So I don’t see them winning.
Bates: Why isn’t this being treated as a treaty? Did the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) take the two thirds requirement for Senate approval of a treaty off the table? By requiring a simple majority vote in both Houses that meant a Presidential veto could override a Congressional Vote rejecting the deal? It seems to me the Act was somewhat upside-down.
Bryen: Yes, it is upside-down, and it is not a treaty. It doesn’t require two-thirds of the Senate. To some peoples’ way of thinking, that is actually good, as the White House treats it like an executive agreement. Presidents can make executive agreements of all sorts, with all kinds of people. Other Presidents are not bound by them. So, if it were to be a Republican president next time, or simply a President who finds this deal problematic, it’s only an executive agreement. It can die with the Obama Administration. So it’s conceivable that is okay.
Bates: However, Shoshana, Congress, in Article 1, Section 8, has the right to regulate commerce with foreign nations. Iran is a foreign nation, trade is commerce. So, has Congress abdicated that responsibility?
Bryen: Congress has laid restrictions on trade with Iran. That is what the the Congressional sanctions are. Those sanctions, in theory, will not come off unless the President end-runs them. There is some thought that he’ll call the non-nuclear sanctions nuclear sanctions, and then he’ll lift them. The sanctions that are being lifted immediately are executive sanctions. UN Security Council Resolution sanctions are not subject to Congressional review. Unfortunately, however, Congressional sanctions do, in some cases, have a “national security” waiver that allows the President to waive them for “national security” reasons.
Gordon: Omri, what is the risk in this region that non-proliferation ends and the opposite occurs? Is this the opening of a Pandora’s Box?
Ceren: Not just the obvious, but the well nigh undeniable. We talked earlier of what a lot is dangerous about this Administration’s communications with American lawmakers and the American public is that they just don’t tell the truth. They make excuses for Iranian cheating. But another aspect that has been widely remarked upon is they say insulting things in order to defend their policies. One great example is their answers to the potential that Saudi Arabia will respond to a bad deal by going nuclear. Let’s be clear, Saudi Arabia will respond to a bad deal by going nuclear. They have not been bashful and have told us in as many words that they will not wait to gain their own nuclear capabilities till the Iranians get a nuclear bomb. They’ve said that they will respond with their own infrastructure when they believe that it is now inevitable that they will get a nuclear bomb. And they have said that this deal makes it inevitable that Iran gets its nuclear bomb, which is correct. You then have these very clear declarations from a traditional American ally that sits in the center of the world’s energy markets that they intend to go nuclear in response to this deal. If they go nuclear then the entire deal is trashed because there is no chance that the Iranian military will permit the Sunnis to get a bomb without their having a nuclear bomb. They will respond by backing out of the deal. Now obviously this is a worst case scenario for the White House. Yesterday, you were in a world where you had no deal and no Iranian bomb. Now you have a deal and you may have an Iranian bomb. What have been their responses? I don’t want to overemphasize this but it is difficult not notice that we have a scenario that will trash everything that the Administration has hoped to create, all costs and no benefits. What is their answer?
They say two things about the Saudis. One is that the Saudis lack the resources to go nuclear which is insane given the example of North Korea and given what we know about Saudi Arabia’s GDP and how they allocate their resources. The second is what one of the top hands at the NSC wrote in a pamphlet was that the Saudis will never go nuclear because they are afraid of an international oil embargo. I’m sorry but that is not a sophisticated argument. The entire success of the deal and the potential that the deal will fail could leave an entire nuclear Middle East in its wake.
Bates: When you look at the reasons behind having a nuclear weapon I completely understand why the Iranians want one. When the North Koreans got one, we pretty much left them alone. This despite President Clinton saying that we’ve reached a deal to prevent North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons. He said that on October 21, 1994. How did that work out? Look at our experience with Ukraine. We convinced them to give up their nuclear weapons, and we told them, “We’ll protect you against invasion.” Well, recently Ukraine was invaded by Putin’s Russia and we didn’t protect them. So, if the Saudis don’t feel they are under our umbrella, I completely understand that. Am I wrong?
Ceren: No, that’s an excellent point, and really can’t be overemphasized. The overarching American argument is the Saudis won’t go nuclear because they trust us to protect them against Iran. No, they don’t. They don’t trust us because, in general, when it comes to our security assurances – our nuclear-related security assurances – they watched how we hollowed out the Budapest Memorandum. That was where we promised Ukraine that if they gave up their nukes, we would protect their territorial integrity. The Saudis look at that and say, “The Americans can’t be relied upon to keep their promises, when it comes to nukes.” Then they look at the specific kinds of promises that we made to Israel. The Obama Administration told the Israelis in 2012 and 2013, “Don’t attack Iran. And if you don’t, we promise you we will not forget our security guarantees with you. Let us pursue diplomacy. If it goes bad, we promise you we won’t let this go sideways for you.” The Israelis listened to us. They took us at our word. Fast forward two years, the President’s team was on the verge of striking a bad deal with Iran. Then you have one of the President’s top advisors anonymously telling Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic That – I don’t know if I can say this on radio –
Bates: “Chicken poop.”
Ceren: An anonymous “senior official” calling Prime Minister Netanyahu “chicken poop” for believing the Americans who promised him that they’d have his back. The Saudis look at this and they say, “The Americans can’t be relied upon when it comes to Iran and when it comes to nuclear weapons.” They are going to chart their own course. That is going to be destructive to regional, global energy and security in general. Probably a bad idea to have nuclear weapons floating around a region of the world that has four hot wars and states that are disintegrating.
Bryen: Let me throw in a caveat. Just because Israel and Saudi Arabia find themselves on the same side of the Iran problem at the moment, they are neither friends nor allies. The nuclearization of Saudi Arabia is a huge problem for Israel. We should not make too much of this temporary marriage of convenience, in which the Saudis really hope the Israelis will take care of the Iranians for them. This will not be a good thing for Israel.
Bates: Omri, you mentioned the article in The Atlantic. The “chicken poop” comment is what got all the press. Actually, to me, it was not the worst phrase in there. The worst phrase that I saw was when they also said that the Obama administration said “it’s too late.” Meaning, they basically were conceding that the Iranians will one day get the bomb. And it looks like with this announced agreement they paved the way to that.
Gordon: This is a jump ball question for you both. In the bizarre world of the Middle East has Iran actually boosted the Islamic State?
Bryen: The answer is yes.
Ceren: Absolutely. It’s not even a close debate.
Gordon: And Shoshana?
Bryen: Look, Iran is trying to create that thing we used to talk about in the ’80s called the Shiite Crescent. Iran’s goal is to start in Iran, go across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, to the Mediterranean. In order to do that, they have to be well entrenched, well dug-in Iraq. Part of what they need to do is create chaos in the Sunni areas of Iraq. So it’s in their interest to allow the Islamic State a certain amount of leeway, to create chaos. Then the Iranians and Iraqi Shiites come in and say, “Look, now, it’s better to be with us than to be with them. We’ll take care of you.” You notice that Islamic State is not in the Shiite areas; it’s in the Sunni areas. So, it works to Iran’s interest to create this chaos and then appear to solve the chaos. They did the same thing in Yemen with the Houthis. They create the chaos, and resolve the chaos by being in charge of Yemen. It is standard operating procedure for Iran.
Bates: Omri, any comments on that?
Ceren: Yes, that’s absolutely true. Shoshana’s point can’t be emphasized enough that they mostly stay in Sunni areas. There was a study by the London-based human rights organization, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that found that somewhere between 12 and 18 percent of ISIS attacks were on the regime. The rest were against moderates and Sunni rivals. They’ve done this successfully with the Americans saying, “We’re going take care of this problem.” There are Americans who say we should arm Iran so that it can better take on the Islamic State. There is a tacit understanding. Everybody knows what’s going on; Shiite extremists and Sunni extremists trying to carve out their own enclaves killing the moderates. That’s not conspiracy theory, it is what the Syrian Observatory numbers show.
Bates: This agreement announced today, in my view, is a travesty. Neville Chamberlain believed that Adolf Hitler would keep his end of the agreement. Barack Obama knows the Iranians will not. So, Chamberlain can be forgiven for his ignorance and foolishness. But Barack Obama is doing this deliberately with full knowledge of what the end result will be. Since Barack Obama knows that the Iranians won’t honor this agreement, what does that say about Barack Obama’s real goal? That’s a question that can’t be answered today, but I guarantee we will be having these conversations again, in the future. Jerry Gordon, Shoshana Bryen, Omri Ceren, thank you all for joining us.
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