On behalf of the Jewish Labor Committee, I’ve attended two meetings of the Iran task force of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, chaired by former US Senator Joe Lieberman. Since these briefings were “off the record,” I am constrained against going into details, but nobody following this issue would be surprised to learn that most of the views expressed were highly skeptical of the Obama administration’s approach.
Not least of the critical voices consulted was that of Michael Singh (pictured above), managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and formerly the senior director for Middle East affairs on George W. Bush’s National Security Council and a special assistant to Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice. He was recently interviewed in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle (“Up close with Michael Singh and his take on Iran’s nuclear negotiations“).
Singh’s main criticism (as expressed in that interview) is that the Obama administration has retreated from the goal of dismantling Iran’s nuclear program, to the lesser objective of preventing it from building a bomb. He’s not arguing against negotiations, but rather that the administration has needlessly weakened its hand — and this may be a valid point. But to my mind, this doesn’t mean that negotiations to achieve this latter goal are worthless.
Personally, I agree with the purported perspective of the Obama team that even a less than perfect agreement will provide an extended breathing space during which Iran’s nuclear program will be safeguarded against weaponization, and more normal economic and diplomatic relations may move the Iranian regime toward moderation. But there’s no guarantee; I’m only certain that this option is better than ongoing hostility, including the possibility of a new war. Still, I think it’s important to know that not every critic of the Iran negotiations is off the wall; so I want to share with you Singh’s thinking, as conveyed in this interview, excerpted below:
. . . instead of trying to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability, now the focus is on preventing Iran from getting an actual nuclear weapon. In the April framework, Iran was not asked to give up almost any aspect of its nuclear program: it’s being asked to limit what it does with that capability and to submit itself to inspections.
I don’t think it was a prudent change to make. If you leave Iran in possession of all the ingredients it needs to make a nuclear weapon, you are gambling that once the agreement has lapsed a future Iranian government won’t choose to expand those capabilities in a way that would be hard for us to detect or stop. Also you are putting a lot of faith in the inspections process: that you will know if Iran diverts something from its permitted programs to a clandestine nuclear weapons effort. If Iran tries to make a nuclear weapon it will most likely be secretly, not openly and not in a way that we would easily detect.
After the accords end, what would stop Iran from building a bomb?
President Obama has said that once the restrictions expire, after 10 or 15 years, Iran’s breakout time would essentially be zero. But, assuming it doesn’t withdraw from the nonproliferation agreement, even when an agreement lapses, Iran is not legally free to pursue nuclear weapons. If it did so, it would have to do it in violation of its international obligations.
Deterrents, containment — these all depend on the idea that you’re dealing with a rational actor. What people worry about is, can we count on the Iranian regime to make a rational calculation. There is a question in people’s minds about the decision making in Iran and the stability of an Iranian regime, especially in the future: who will have control of Iran’s nuclear arsenal?
Iran has leveled threats against Israel to wipe it off the map. It is something you can’t simply dismiss, especially if you are dealing with a nuclear state.
The Ayatollah recently stated that Iran will not allow inspections of military sites and will not allow inspectors to talk to nuclear scientists. With those restrictions, can there still be a deal?
If Iran is going to try to make a nuclear weapon secretly, they would do it in a way that can’t be detected. If they have a group of sites that are off limit to inspectors, those become the ideal places to conduct a clandestine nuclear effort. These blanket restrictions compound people’s suspicions as to what Iran’s real intentions are here.
(Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.) John Bolton has said that by dragging out the negotiations, Iran has used the time to build up their nuclear weapons program.
We used to insist that Iran suspend uranium enrichment: that was a requirement that was codified by six U.N. Security Council resolutions, but it was one that we dropped in the face of Iranian refusal to comply.
We haven’t negotiated as skillfully as we could. And while the negotiations have been going on, they dramatically expanded their nuclear program such that they will end up keeping nuclear facilities that they didn’t have when the last agreement was signed in 2003-2005. They have used the time over the last 10 years to significantly expand their nuclear capabilities and they used the negotiations to ensure that they will be able to keep a lot of those capabilities. . . .