Obama administration played Catch-22 on Iran deal, fumes Israeli arms control expert
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Interview 'Iran knew Obama wanted a deal. All it had to do was not budge'

Obama administration played Catch-22 on Iran deal, fumes Israeli arms control expert

US team ignored all advice, says Emily Landau, created situation where you couldn't criticize deal before it was done, and can't criticize it now either

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Barack Obama speaks during an event at the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building August 6, 2015 in Washington, DC.  (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)
Barack Obama speaks during an event at the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building August 6, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

The maintenance and intensification of the American sanctions regime imposed on Iran, even in the absence of a tight international sanctions regime, could lead to a better deal than the one reached last month in Vienna, an Israeli expert on arms said.

Emily Landau, head of the arms control and regional security program at the Institute for National Security Studies based at Tel Aviv University, is one of Israel’s most respected expert observers on the Iranian nuclear program. In an interview, she said that the nuclear accord struck between the P5+1 powers and Iran on July 14 was the result of “failed negotiations.”

An adequate deal, she said, would include the dismantling of most of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure; the imposition of “anytime, anywhere” inspections in response to suspicious activities; requiring the regime to answer 12 critical questions posed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regarding past military nuclear work to the satisfaction of the agency; and explicitly tying sanctions relief to Iran doing so.

But, she stressed, her concerns about the deal also relate to “ambiguous language” in the agreement that could “enable Iran to manipulate the deal in ways they have with past agreements.”

‘I don’t know if Congress thwarting the deal is what I want. I’m very frustrated because the things that I wanted, needed to happen before the deal was made’

For an hour in her Tel Aviv office, Landau elaborated on the flaws of the deal; on the ongoing debate among American legislators; and on what options will remain if the agreement is rejected.

The Times of Israel: Let’s say opponents in Congress are able to corral the two-thirds majority necessary to override a presidential veto and thwart the deal. What happens next?

The real truth is we don’t know what will happen next. We know that the administration is saying that would be a big disaster, that it would go against US allies. They emphasize how it’s already been approved by the UN Security Council, and that rejecting what’s been accepted by the rest of the international community will cause all kinds of terrible things, including war. But that is the situation that the administration tried to create.

A couple of weeks ago President Obama warned that if the deal doesn’t go down, there will be rockets on Tel Aviv.

Dr. Emily Landau (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
Dr. Emily Landau (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

Right, and people have short memories, as well. Since the beginning of the negotiations, the Obama administration was saying to Congress, “Hold your fire.” They actually used that term — “Hold your fire” — to Congress. The argument being, “Wait until you see what we’re doing, wait until you see what kind of deal is on the table. You can’t criticize it until you see what’s in the deal.” That was the message coming from the administration throughout the negotiations.

Then, once the deal is finalized, you can’t criticize it, because then we will lose everything and the consequences will be catastrophic. It’s a Catch-22.

So then what do you make of the debate going on in Congress?

Well, the first thing to note is that only in the United States do we have a serious legislative branch that is really reviewing this deal, and I think they are doing a very serious review of the deal. In the rest of the P5+1, it has just gone through. In European capitals, nobody is discussing the deal, nobody is conducting any kind of review. That’s amazing, in a very negative sense. So it’s incredibly important to note that the US Congress is the only responsible body in the world that is conducting this kind of in-depth review.

I know that everyone wants to answer the question of what will happen if Congress can stop it. Or is this really a done deal and is this all some worthless exercise? I think that’s a very cynical approach, and I really believe that members of Congress are taking their job seriously to review the deal and understand what it all really means, including all the paragraphs and all the loopholes and all the implications in all directions.

But there’s no telling what will come of it. We didn’t know during negotiations what would happen if they reached a deal. I couldn’t have told you that President Obama was going to rush within the same week to push it through the Security Council. Nobody predicted that.

President Barack Obama speaking about the Iran nuclear agreement at American University in Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2015. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/JTA)
President Barack Obama speaking about the Iran nuclear agreement at American University in Washington, DC. August 5, 2015. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/JTA)

Do you think the congressional review could have any impact on how other countries view the deal? Or are they all already sold on it?

If Congress rejects the deal, it’s possible that other states will look to the United States and say, “Wait a minute, this was a serious review and they rejected it. There must be a reason.” But it’s also possible that they could say, “Well, this is a Republican Congress and they’re against the president on everything anyways, so they just voted it down automatically.” There might be a lot of voices that are so political and cynical that that would be the message.

But there are substantial concerns about the consequences of rejecting the deal? What about international sanctions eroding?

Well, look, it’s certainly highly possible that a lot of America’s international partners will relieve Iran of some of their sanctions, but it’s not as significant as some are making it out to be.

Now it’s convenient for proponents of the deal to say that if only US sanctions are in place, that won’t mean anything without the coalition. You need partners, etc. But at the end of the day, US financial sanctions are the most important sanctions.

I’m not saying the rest of the sanctions structure doesn’t matter. Of course it does, and it would be better if the rest of the sanctions stayed in place if there was a continuation of negotiations. Financial sanctions, the biting sanctions of 2012, the ones that actually brought Iran back to the table — together with the European Union and their embargo on oil, which was another biting sanction… But the US sanctions were what really made the changes. That’s what started causing hardships. So it’s not true that if the United States sanctions continue, strengthen and put the pressure on, it will be meaningless and ineffective.

Another option is that, because of this review in Congress, because of all the flaws, the serious and dangerous flaws that do exist in this deal, because they were exposed, there might be internal pressure to close those holes and improve the deal.

Maybe, as David Albright just said in his testimony to Congress, they will be motivated to legislate new laws or mechanisms to deal with the problems that there are with verifications, mainly, and the sanctions, which it’s pretty clear will not snap back. You have to snap them back and that will take decisions and political will and all of the rest of it. It won’t just be some automatic process.

We know enough about international politics not to be deluded that, somehow, suddenly there will be all this determination and sanctions will snap back. So that’s also something that can be [corrected] if people accept those ideas.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), left, shakes hands with ranking member Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) during a committee markup meeting on the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran on April 14, 2015. (JTA/Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), left, shakes hands with ranking member Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) during a committee markup meeting on the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran on April 14, 2015. (JTA/Win McNamee/Getty Images)

What are the real flaws and “loopholes” you mention?

The main loophole that bothers me has to do with the focus on the 24-day waiting period for inspections. Paragraph 78 of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the deal’s official title] is what states 24 days. However, preceding paragraph 78 there are two paragraphs — 75 and 76 — that require the IAEA to request access to the location in question and it has to first provide a basis for its concerns and request clarification from Iran. There is no time limit for this preliminary state before you even reach a 24-day waiting period, which basically enables Iran to play for time, as it has historically done. The minute there is no time limit on that waiting period — and what we know about Iran and its delaying tactics for the past 12 years — you put two and two together, and this is a recipe for bad things down the line.

And then there are other problems with ambiguous language like that dealing with PMDs [Possible Military Dimensions] and verification. Those are the two most important issues.

You tell me if lifting sanctions is conditional on the IAEA getting answers to these 12 outstanding questions from November 2013 [on Iran’s explosives and neutron transport calculations work]. If you can come up with a firm answer that’s not ambiguous, then I’ll say, “OK.” But you won’t be able to, because the language is ambiguous and that’s what I call a loophole. It’s nonspecific provisions in the agreement that don’t give you assurances that this will be taken care of.

Even in regard to the uranium-enrichment stock, we don’t know exactly what will happen to the stocks Iran has — some will be sold, some will be hidden.

There are other things that are very problematic that are not loopholes. There are clear statements. Iran will be able to work on centrifuges, research and development to advance centrifuges, the whole array of advanced centrifuges, which the international community very clearly said is a very dangerous thing. Now look at the deal: They can work on them all. That’s not a loophole; that is just a terrible, terrible provision in the deal.

Another loophole is that Iran can quit [the deal] if it wants. There is an exit clause for it to leave the JCPOA. Also, in the United States, there are federal sanctions and state sanctions. If Iran violates the deal, the federal government can project its new position on sanctions, but what if the states don’t accept that?

Obama made a deal that lets Iran out so easily?That sounds quite remarkable.

Look, there’s no question that the administration has been unequivocal that there will be harsh consequences if Iran fails to live up to the deal. And if Iran were to quit, I’m sure the US would be in a very difficult dilemma, and would take those options very seriously. These loopholes are a result of miscalculations and the way these negotiations unfolded. We saw how this thing played out.

The administration made it very clear that it wanted a deal. It effectively let Iran know that the military option was off the table and that the only way forward was a deal. So Iran knows that is the only way this can be dealt with. All they had to do was not budge and the other side would continue to make concessions.

Remember where we were on November 24, 2014. There was an offer on the table. The Iranians were very rational when they said no to that offer. Because the P5+1 already taught them the military option was off the table. They already started making concessions. That’s how we got to all these loopholes.

What are the larger implications for the region if Iran develops a nuclear weapon?

Well, it depends what your overall policy is. If you’re defensively oriented in the nuclear realm, then it can be very useful for defensive purposes. It can be a deterrent. It can help you.

Iranian technicians work at a facility producing uranium fuel for a planned heavy-water nuclear reactor, outside Isfahan, 255 miles (410 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, in 2009. (photo credit: AP/Vahid Salemi)
Iranian technicians working at a facility producing uranium fuel for a planned heavy-water nuclear reactor, outside Isfahan, in 2009. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

If you’re offensively oriented, like Iran is, it can be very useful for you in that respect, as well. Let’s say Iran achieves nuclear capability. The knowledge that other states will have — that Iran is a nuclear state — will change their behavior toward Iran. Any steps that Iran takes, other states will have to think that much more about how they will react to them, because there will be this danger that Iran might retaliate, and this is the whole nuclear deterrent structure.

It’s all mind games. You project to the other side that you will do these really terrible things. You don’t even have to say it. Just the fact that they know you have nuclear capabilities is enough so that it’s in the background. And that will impact behavior.

It can create a shield for a state to carry out nasty designs that they have for the region. Now when Iran does something, who will be able to stand up to them? Who will confront them?

So do you want Congress to thwart this deal?

I don’t know if Congress thwarting the deal is what I want. I’m very frustrated because the things that I wanted, needed to happen before the deal was made.

Like what?

Like getting a better deal, like negotiating better and using your leverage. Not allowing Iran to call the shots. Like calling Iran’s bluff, like conducting this deal like the tough bargain that it is, not making concession after concession to Iran, which leads to a bad deal.

So I’m frustrated because all of my ideas and advice were for when they were still negotiating. The frustration is that the administration would not listen to any criticism. All the critics were marginalized. They were called “hawks” and “warmongers.” Sometimes they were called people that were just ignorant, who didn’t understand. They created this situation where you can’t say anything before, and you can’t say anything after.

Let’s end where we started. If Congress rejects the deal, do you have a sense of the best way to get the players back to the negotiating table?

I don’t know, because there is not a lot of political will within the P5+1 to go back to the negotiating table. There is the feeling of completion. The best would be to get back to the negotiations with the leverage of strengthened sanctions and to play a tough bargain. You know, it’s not going to happen with this administration and the P5+1. They had 20 months to do it and they didn’t.

If there was the political will, I do think it could happen and it would not be this binary [equation] that he administration has tried to construct of “accept this deal or brace for war.” But the desire has to be there to reach the deal that is needed — not just to make a deal for the sake of reaching a deal.

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