10 Responses to Iran-Deal Skeptics

The top lobbyist for the agreement, along with John Kerry’s former chief of staff, answer a prominent critic’s questions for President Obama.

Susan Walsh / AP

Last week, I posted a series of sharp, critical questions addressed to President Obama from Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, about the Iran nuclear deal.  A number of administration surrogates have subsequently offered me their own answers to Satloff’s questions. (I’ve asked administration officials to answer the questions as well, but I’m not sure the White House is gripped by the same sense of urgency to answer such questions as it once was, considering that Obama is on a clear path to victory now against his congressional opponents.)

But two people particularly relevant to this debate—Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of J Street, the pro-Obama, anti-Netanyahu Jewish organization, who is also the de facto chief pro-deal lobbyist inside (and outside) the Jewish community; and David Wade, John Kerry’s former chief of staff, who is now helping J Street in its pro-deal campaign—have offered me lengthy answers, and I’m publishing them below. I might do one more round of this by asking an opponent of the deal to respond to Ben-Ami and Wade. (Satloff hasn’t actually come out against the deal.)

In bold are Satloff’s questions, followed by answers provided to me by Ben-Ami and Wade:

1. You have argued that the Iran deal enhances Israel’s security and those of our Arab Gulf allies. At the same time, your administration has offered the Gulf states a huge security package by way of compensation and you have expressed frustration that the government of Israel has not yet entered into discussions with you to discuss ways to bolster its security. But isn’t this a paradox? If the Iran deal bolsters their security, shouldn’t their security needs be going down, not up?

Answer: Wrong. The aim of our country’s policy in the Middle East—to strengthen our own security and that of our allies—is well served by both decisions: to enter into a strong international deal to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and to take further steps that make our allies even more secure in a volatile region, whether that means helping them counter Iranian geopolitical ambitions, or helping them crush ISIL.

Do you really think the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and countries like Egypt, with the largest population in the Arab world, would hesitate to speak their minds if they opposed this agreement, or that they’d accept being—to use your word—“compensated” for their complicity in a bad deal? Let’s let them speak for themselves. GCC countries voted to support the agreement, period. Egypt reacted to the deal by expressing their optimism that it would help avoid a regional nuclear-arms race. Do they continue to have big concerns about Iranian behavior in places like Syria and Yemen? Of course they do. So do we! Just because we have struck a good agreement to tackle the existential threat of an Iran with a nuclear weapon does not mean we are not going to stand resolutely with our friends and continue to guarantee their security.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s take your argument at face value—let’s assume hypothetically that the United States was doubling down on the security of our Gulf friends to assuage their fears about a nuclear Iran. We’d ask you—when people buy a new appliance, car, or home—what’s the first thing many of them purchase? Insurance—or some form of extended warranty or service plan. You make that purchase not because you’re betting against the quality and value of the purchase you’ve just made, but to make it an even sounder transaction. Is that inconsistent? No. It’s a smart decision. Same here—it’s smart policy to assure our allies of the depths of our commitment to their security by taking additional steps to address their legitimate security concerns in a dangerous region at a tumultuous time. And guess what? If anything, that sends a pretty helpful and not very subtle additional message to Iran about how costly it would be if they violate the agreement.

2. It is surely legitimate for you to argue that the Iran deal enhances U.S. security but it certainly seems odd for you to claim to understand Israel’s security needs more than its democratically elected leaders. Are there other democracies whose leaders you believe don’t recognize their own best security interests or is Israel unique in this regard?

A: First of all, the international issue where President Obama has most often profoundly and loudly disagreed with many of the world’s democracies is in his fervent defense of Israel, so we’re glad that he isn’t afraid to disagree with a country—even a close friend—on an issue just because that country is a democracy.

Second, do you really believe that democratically elected leaders never misjudge their country’s security interests? That somehow success at the ballot box makes a president or prime minister immune to mistakes? Here at home, we only have to go back to the beginning of the last decade and the decision to go to war in Iraq to find a catastrophic mistake made by the world’s oldest democracy—and the fact that George W. Bush was democratically elected didn’t make him right on that one either.

On Iran, President Obama does disagree with Prime Minister Netanyahu—a disagreement that both leaders acknowledge is a disagreement among friends, or as the president has said, a disagreement “among family.”

But let’s take all the politicians out of the equation for a minute, and let’s recognize that according to America’s best experts on nonproliferation and Middle East security, the deal with Iran makes all of us more secure—the U.S., Israel, our other allies, the world. I’m referring to arms-control experts, retired military, even respected Republican voices like Brent Scowcroft, Dick Lugar, and John Warner. Are they all disrespecting Israel’s democracy by differing from Bibi Netanyahu? Of course not. They’re exercising their expert judgment.

Perhaps most telling, ask yourself why Israelis who have spent their entire lives in uniform—experts with decades of experience in non-political, professional security roles defending Israel’s security—are speaking out to argue that this agreement is in Israel’s best interests? Every one of them has dedicated their life to defending Israel. Every one of them believes an Iran with a nuclear bomb is an existential threat to their country—and not a single one of them “trusts” Tehran. But it is no coincidence that dozens of Israeli security experts from Uzi Eilam, former head of Israel’s Atomic Energy Agency; Major General Israel Ziv, the former head of the Operations Directorate of the IDF; to former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon and former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, are praising elements of the agreement and questioning the prime minister’s decision to lobby Congress against it. Thank goodness Israel is a democracy so we can see clearly that it’s not just the president who thinks Prime Minister Netanyahu has this one wrong, but some of Israel’s preeminent security experts as well.

3. Constructive, respected, well-informed observers, like your former [National Security Council] Iran policy advisor Dennis Ross, have urged you to propose transferring to Israel the “mountain-busting”Massive Ordnance Penetrator as a way to boost Israel’s independent deterrence against Iran. But you have not done so. Instead, in your letter to Congressman [Jerrold] Nadler, you highlighted your administration’s plan to send Israel a much less capable weapon. Why are you reluctant to send Israel the best item we have in our inventory to address this profound threat?

First, we don’t think anyone should forget this president’s proven commitment to Israel’s security. Iron Dome didn’t just happen by magic—the president made it happen. He has a track record of ensuring Israel’s quantifiable military advantage and ability to defend itself, and you don’t have to take our word for it—Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has said this is the best security cooperation Israel has ever enjoyed with a U.S. administration.

Second, it’s worth remembering that this particular mountain-busting weapon also didn’t appear in the U.S. arsenal because someone waved a magic wand. President Obama decided to get it engineered. He committed those resources to that effort—and he did so for a reason: to again make it crystal clear to Iran that they can’t dig deep enough to hide a nuclear-weapons program. Secretary of State Kerry went as far as to tell Israeli television this year that we “designed and deployed a weapon that has the ability to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.”

Third, when you study the history of U.S. foreign policy, and you look at some pivotal lessons learned, you find people like President Kennedy telling their advisors—as JFK did after the Cuban Missile Crisis—that their most important resource is “freedom of action.” It’s leverage. It’s capital. Presidents preserve their options. If the moment ever came—if there was actionable intelligence of Iran building an underground weapons facility, if it was clear that the Massive Ordinance Penetrator was the best corrective—one option a president might well choose to hold in reserve is the ability to decide for himself whether it was best for the United States to use that weapon against Iran, or better for Israel to wield that weapon. That’s freedom of action that any president of the United States values enormously and doesn’t give away without serious consideration.

4. You have said that the Iran nuclear agreement provides a peaceful, diplomatic resolution to the threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Would you agree, therefore, that the pursuit of an independent nuclear option by another Middle East country—say, Saudi Arabia—would be clear evidence that the Iran deal had failed?

First, let’s step back for a second here and look at the big picture. Most nonproliferation experts—not to mention Egypt and Jordan—support this agreement because they believe it can prevent a nuclear-arms race in the Middle East. The real incentive to a nuclear-arms race in the region would be Iran racing toward a nuclear weapon in the absence of an agreement—and in the absence of intrusive inspections to keep Iran honest. Until the interim agreement in the fall of 2013, that is exactly what was happening. It’s worth remembering that it has only been successful diplomacy—and Iran’s compliance with that deal—that froze and actually rolled back for the very first time parts of Iran’s nuclear program.

The success or failure of the deal with Iran should be judged by whether it prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The pursuit of a nuclear weapon by any country would be a failure not of the agreement with Iran, but of the global nonproliferation regime. The Iran deal is actually evidence that the world—acting together, putting aside other enormous differences—can bring a bad actor to the negotiating table and enforce the nonproliferation regime, which is a whole lot more desirable than a war. And so far, the judgment of the region has been that this agreement makes a regional arms race less likely.

5. In your letter to Congressman Nadler, you refused to spell out the penalties Iran would suffer for violations of the agreement, saying that “telegraphing in advance to Iran the expected response for any potential infractions would be counterproductive, potentially lessening the deterrent effect.” On the surface, this is difficult to understand—after all, as a constitutional law professor, you can appreciate that having clarity in terms of penalties for lawbreaking is a basic element of our legal system. If you aren’t willing to publicly spell out this approach to penalties, can you guarantee that the United States and its European partners have already agreed, in writing, on precisely what actions they will collectively take in response to different types of infractions? Will you share these details with at least the leaders of the relevant committees in Congress? Or is the real reason you aren’t willing to “telegraph” these penalties in advance because we and the Europeans can’t agree on them?

First, since you bring up the president’s letter to Congressman Nadler, let’s remember that Nadler—who represents the district in the United States with the largest Jewish population, a man who is known for being steadfast in his defense of the state of Israel—felt that the president’s commitment expressed in that letter was sufficient that he could back this agreement.

Second, it’s a little surprising that someone experienced in the subtleties and finesse required in international relations would suggest that the correct approach is to spell out in advance each and every step that might be taken to respond to any potential violation. Running a foreign policy isn’t the same as writing a penal code. Again, make no mistake about two factors here: the Iranian regime has no illusions about what the full range of options are for the U.S. and its allies should it choose to test our will by violating this agreement, and given the effort that has gone into achieving this deal and the broad-based support for it in the world, Iran would feel the considerable wrath of the world for violating it. Moreover, it’s because the United States succeeded in unifying the Europeans, the Chinese, and the Russians to walk in lockstep throughout this process that Iran felt real pressure. Rushing out front rhetorically—on our own—right now would be a step away from the approach that has worked.

6. In your letter to Congressman Nadler, you also said you “reserved the right to deploy new sanctions to address continuing concerns.” Can you spell out what sort of new sanctions you have in mind? Specifically, wouldn’t it make sense for you to ask Congress to articulate new sanctions now that would come into effect if our intelligence agencies reported that Iran was using its sanctions-relief windfall to transfer large sums (or expensive weapons systems) to its allies and terrorist proxies?

A: First, let’s separate these other sanctions possibilities from the Iran nuclear agreement itself. The fact is, the international sanctions regime drew support because it was focused on one issue only: preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The agreement needs to be debated, finalized, and implemented on its own terms.

After all, that’s completely consistent with our history: President Reagan negotiated nuclear-arms agreements with the Soviet Union even as he maintained his view that they were the “Evil Empire,” even as he called on Gorbachev to “tear down that wall,” even as we countered the Soviets in Afghanistan. Why? Because President Reagan believed the “Evil Empire” was still evil but less dangerous if there were fewer nuclear weapons pointed at American cities. In other words, today we are working to counter Iran as a state sponsor of terror, but we know that’s a heck of a lot easier to do if Iran is not a state sponsor of terror that also possesses nuclear weapons.

There will be an appropriate time and forum for discussion and consideration of how best to address our continuing concerns about Iranian actions and behavior in the region, but that isn’t a reason to walk away from resolving the nuclear issue. By the way—proving that big countries can walk and chew gum at the same time—the United States didn’t soft pedal a tough approach on other bedrock differences with Iran even at the height of the nuclear negotiations, continuing to target actors associated with Iran’s terrorism activities for sanctions, interdicting funds moving through illicit networks, and last month the Treasury Department imposed more sanctions on Hezbollah officials. But let’s not mix up these issues.

7. You have argued that the global sanctions regime falls apart if Congress rejects the Iran deal. But the key variable here is not Europe, China or some other foreign country—it’s the United States. Specifically, the sanctions regime only collapses if the U.S. stops enforcing the sanctions with the same vigor it has enforced them [with] in recent years, and instead goes back to the policy of the Clinton and Bush administrations, which refused to enforce ILSA [Iran and Libya Sanctions Act] despite overwhelming votes for that law in Congress. In the event of a “no” vote, can you promise that your administration will expend the same effort and resources to enforce U.S. sanctions laws against Iran as has been the case the last few years? And if that’s the case, what’s your explanation for how or why sanctions will collapse?

A: First, let’s be really clear about what makes sanctions effective. Sanctions work most effectively when they are not unilateral but multilateral—and not just multilateral, but when other countries really buy into the sanctions regime, in actions, not just rhetoric. The reason these sanctions have worked is because our closest allies, the Europeans, and big powers like Russia and China agreed that the objective was not just legitimate but imperative—and that objective was achieving a strong, verifiable nuclear agreement to curb the Iranian program. The Clinton and Bush administrations could not have enforced sanctions the way this administration has because there was not unity among the key powers.

During recent years, the sanctions regime successfully isolated and pressured Iran not just because all these powers signed on to them, but because none of these countries tested the sanctions regime. Why? Because they believed the objective was legitimate, and because they believed the Obama administration and others at the table were serious about arriving at a good agreement.

Now, they believe—strongly—that we have achieved the objective: a good agreement. They believe that the mechanisms—including snapback [sanctions]—are in place to deal with the problem if Iran cheats. If the United States tried to maintain the sanctions regime unilaterally, it would isolate the United States instead of isolating Iran—all the pressure would shift from being applied to Iran to being applied to the United States, because our negotiating partners consider this issue resolved. We would be all alone and we would risk severely damaging key relationships—especially with our “alliances of first resort” in Europe.

8. The supreme leader clearly wants the benefits of the deal—both in terms of sanctions relief and the international validation it brings for Iran’s nuclear program. Yet you seem to bend over backwards to be wary of saying things that might upset him. (Given the supreme leader’s continued hostility toward America, this is a characteristic that he doesn’t seem to share.) Specifically, in your letter to Congressman Nadler, why did you resort once again to the “all options are on the table” formulation in the event Iran dashes toward a bomb? Since a “dash” implies Iran would be hell-bent toward achieving its goal, why not state bluntly that we would use force to stop them? If they are dashing, haven’t they already violated the core commitment in the Iran agreement not to pursue a weapon? If they are dashing, the threat of renewed sanctions surely isn’t an effective deterrent. Wouldn’t candor produce more deterrence than subtlety?

A: First, President Obama and his administration have made it crystal clear, publicly and privately, that Iran is not going to be permitted to acquire a nuclear weapon, and the president has been specific about his willingness to use force, the ultimate deterrent, if it were required to get that job done. Anyone who thinks hardliners in Iran, including the supreme leader, have any doubts about the array of potential responses—economic, military, you name it—they would face for a violation, is dreaming. They read our newspapers. They follow our debates. They know the administration built the MOP weapons system for example. Trust us, a little hyper-caffeinated rhetoric from the White House isn’t going to suddenly cause a new realization in Tehran.

But let us make two other arguments quickly. First, we doubt whether the president loses sleep worrying whether he’s hurting the supreme leader’s feelings. But he is most certainly well aware that it doesn’t help more moderate and reform elements in Iran—particularly President Rouhani—if we are handing hardliners daily talking points that suggest we’re determined to go to war with Iran or determined to sink their economy even after the nuclear agreement. The fact that human-rights activists in Iran and dissidents—people who oppose the current regime, including leaders of the Green Movement—herald the potential of this new moment to change Iran in the long term isn’t something that should be dismissed out of hand.

Second, we would say the president has earned the benefit of the doubt so far on the question of using his rhetoric judiciously. After all, for the eight years of the Bush administration, we had an abundance of bellicose rhetoric, all while Iran set thousands of centrifuges spinning, mastered the fuel cycle, and amassed enough fissile material to make a bomb. Meanwhile, with more judicious rhetoric, President Obama has created hard-fought international unity on sanctions and translated that unity into diplomatic negotiations which—already, going back to the 2013 interim agreement—have frozen and in some areas rolled back the Iranian program for the first time in a decade.

Conservatives used to be the ones quoting Teddy Roosevelt: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” The commitment of American forces to military action is the single most lonely and awesome responsibility of any president. It’s much more than a talking point. This president has seen the consequences up close of these decisions. No one should doubt what he means when he says that “all options are on the table.” But we should all be grateful that this president doesn’t throw these threats around lightly.

9. In your American University speech, you said the Iran agreement produced a “permanent” solution to the threat of the Iranian nuclear bomb. But just a few months ago, you told an NPR interviewer that Iran’s breakout time toward a bomb “would have shrunk almost down to zero” when restrictions on centrifuges and enrichment expire in after 10-15 years. Can both statements really be true?

A: Let’s be clear about something. The only “permanent solution” to the Iranian nuclear question is a diplomatic one. Using our military—awe-inspiring and powerful as it is—is a temporary and costly solution: it buys you a handful of years, the hardliners in Iran redouble their program, this time with greater zeal, Iran digs down deeper, and the next American president and the president after that face the same difficult decision about committing the United States to military action. It would be “Groundhog Day.” But a successful diplomatic solution—one that forces Iran to play by the rules, one that is verifiable and satisfies the worlds’ concerns—is permanent. That’s what the president is talking about.

This agreement does that. Iran will be much further away from a weapon than they are now, and the United States will still have every military option available if Iran chose to pursue a nuclear weapon, and because of the IAEA inspections, which are permanent, the world would know to a certainty if Iran were foolish enough to choose that path. In fact, because of what we will have learned over this time period, we will have greater visibility into Iran’s nuclear program and greater ability to use precision in deploying the military option if we need it, a point experts from the Pentagon are making on Capitol Hill. But what about the alternative? What if there’s no agreement? Then we lose that insight—and Iran goes right back to where they were before 2013 with an ever-shortening breakout time.

10. In your final debate with Mitt Romney in October 2012, just before you came before American voters for the final time, moderator Bob Schieffer asked you specifically what sort of Iran deal you would accept. Your response was: “The deal we’ll accept is that they end their nuclear program.” Notwithstanding the significant achievements of the Iran agreement, it clearly falls short of “ending their nuclear program.” Moreover, you and your spokespeople regularly disparage as warmongers those who advocate what you once called for. Why did your own position in 2012 become warmongering by 2015?

A: It’s good that you brought up that debate, because there was some unusual unanimity on America’s objective when it came to Iran. Governor Romney himself didn’t draw the line you accuse the president of drawing; no, Romney said his own strategy as president would be “to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means.” President Obama—if you look at what he actually said instead of cherry-picking phrases—argued that “there is a deal to be had, and that is that they [Iran] abide by the rules that have already been established. They convince the international community they are not pursuing a nuclear program. There are inspections that are very intrusive.”

Flash forward almost three years and the president has brought us precisely to that place he wanted to go: a deal that forces Iran to play by the rules that have been established for nuclear development in the international community, with an inspections regime that nonproliferation experts have said is remarkable, with a “snapback” provision that tightens the noose around Tehran if they cheat, restoring crippling sanctions in a way that can’t even be blocked by Russia or China. Actually, we could go one step further—the United States and our European allies and the other big powers got Iran to agree to abide not only by the rules that apply to all other countries, but to live by a series of additional obligations that restrict that program in some cases for 10-25 years and in some cases permanently.

President Obama’s clear commitment from day one—and restated in that debate—was very simple: that Iran would not be allowed to get a nuclear weapon, period. Now we have an agreement in front of us—at last—that can achieve exactly what President Obama and Governor Romney agreed had to happen. We should embrace it instead of throwing it away and isolating the United States.