US President Barack Obama is currently vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, as he does every August. For the last six years, he has always invited law professor Alan Dershowitz, who also spends his summers on the picturesque Massachusetts island, to drop by. But then the Iran deal happened.
“I’m not going to be invited to meet him this time. That’s fine. He knows my views,” Dershowitz said in an interview, referring to his fierce opposition to the nuclear accord the US and five world powers struck with Iran last month.
“He knows he made certain promises to me when we sat in the Oval Office,” Dershowitz continued. “He said to me, ‘Alan, you know I don’t bluff. I have Israel’s back. Iran will never be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. All options are on the table.’ He changed his policy. And he won’t look me in the eye.” (Obama’s would-be successor Hillary Clinton also came to Martha’s Vineyard this summer; she and Dershowitz did meet.)
A well-known political commentator and prolific writer, Dershowitz considers himself a “liberal Democrat.” He voted twice for Obama, generally gives him excellent grades on domestic issues, and even has some good things to say about his various foreign policy initiatives. He supports the administration’s condemnations of Israeli settlements and would not oppose more pressure on Jerusalem regarding Palestinian statehood.
But when it comes to the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action (JCPOA), Dershowitz delivers a crushing verdict. “It’s a D-minus, with grade inflation. It’s essentially a failing grade,” he said. “I would not allow this president and this secretary of state [John Kerry] — both of whom I know well, I’ve known them for a long time — I wouldn’t allow these two people to negotiate a 30-day lease for me. They’ve proved to be inept negotiators.”
Dershowitz’s grievances regarding the accord are manifold. Indeed, he just published an entire book on the subject. He has been researching the Iranian nuclear issue for 10 years and after the deal was signed it took him 11 days to write more than 200 pages on it, he said.
“The Case Against the Iran Deal: How Can We Now Stop Iran from Getting Nukes?” lambastes not only the agreement’s actual provisions — for every scientist who says it’s a good deal there is at least one who says it’s a bad deal, he said — but also the US administration’s “terrible” negotiation strategy.
In contrast to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arguably the world’s most vocal critic of the deal, however, Dershowitz is not calling on American lawmakers to scuttle the agreement. While Netanyahu says a better deal is possible if Congress kills the current one, Dershowitz believes that blocking the agreement could make the situation even worse than it is now. Instead, he suggests passing a simple law that he claims could go a long way toward ensuring Iran never acquires a nuclear bomb.
Dershowitz’s main problem with the way the US approached the Iranian threat is that it did not declare that Tehran would never be allowed to build a bomb. The JCPOA does not explicitly state that Iran is for all eternity prohibited from developing a nuclear weapon. And this, according to Dershowitz, might embolden Iran to go for the bomb once the deal elapses.
The president wants deal ambiguity. He wants to say from one side of his mouth to the American public that this deal is forever, while telling the Iranians, no, this deal is not forever
“If there had been no negotiations at all, I don’t think Iran would have developed nuclear weapons. They would’ve maybe come close but they would have never crossed the red line,” Dershowitz, 76, told The Times of Israel. “President Obama had a strict, firm policy that he announced over and over again, and which he told me face to face: ‘We will never allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. We will use military force if necessary to stop them.’ That was a very strong deterrent. I don’t believe Iran would have developed nuclear weapons (were it not) for the deal. This deal turned the light from red to green.”
According to the accord’s sunset provisions, Iran is free to pursue the bomb after about a decade, Dershowitz said. “There’s nothing in the deal that says they’re not allowed to develop nuclear weapons.”
The administration relies on Iran being a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which bans nuclear weapons, but Iran can drop out of this treaty at any time, he noted.
The JCPOA does mention, in its preamble, that “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” But neither the US nor Iran considers this provision to be legally binding, Dershowitz is convinced. In defending the deal, administration officials say it guarantees Tehran doesn’t get a weapon in the next decade or so. When they are asked about the post-sunset period, they refer to the NPT, he said.
(Obama has said repeatedly that the “prohibition on Iran having a nuclear weapon is permanent.” But Dershowitz argues that the preamble of a deal is not binding under international law — to which US officials reply that the JCPOA is not a treaty but rather a “political agreement” that, strictly speaking, is not legally binding at all.)
“I challenge [Obama] to point to anything in this deal [that would ban Iran from pursuing the bomb] other than that preliminary statement which says that Iran will not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon after the deal expires,” said Dershowitz. “He cannot do it. So he’s not telling the American people the truth about the deal.”
Dershowitz doesn’t stop at criticizing the JCPOA, and in the final chapter of “The Case Against the Iran Deal” offers a “constructive proposal” to improve the agreement and make sure Tehran will never get a nuclear bomb.
Congress should pass legislation enshrining the deal’s preamble and the reaffirmation of an eternal ban on nuclear weapons as an integral part of the agreement, he urges. Such a law would preemptively authorize the current and all future US presidents to use military force, without negotiation or warning, to prevent Iran from acquiring a military weapon if it ever sought one.
“It is too late to change the words of the deal, but it is not too late for Congress to insist that Iran comply fully with its provisions,” Dershowitz writes. “The benefits of enacting such legislation are clear: the law would underline the centrality to the deal of Iran’s reaffirmation never to acquire nuclear weapons, and would provide both a deterrent against Iran violating its reaffirmation and an enforcement authorization in the event it does.”
Obama would certainly oppose such a bill, fearing it would lead the Iranians to walk away from the deal, Dershowitz presumed in the interview. “The president wants deal ambiguity. He wants to say from one side of his mouth to the American public that this deal is forever, while telling the Iranians, no, this deal is not forever.”
But it would be interesting to see how Washington and Tehran would react to such a bill, Dershowitz mused. “It would call everybody’s bluff.”
It’s not like the president wants Iran to be able to get a nuclear bomb, he stressed. Obama tried, but simply failed, to get a better agreement. “He’s betting,” Dershowitz thundered. “He’s prepared to roll the dice. Because his legacy is one thing, Israel’s security is quite another. He’s prepared to bet on Israel’s security, but he’s not prepared to allow Israel to have input into that bet, and that’s what’s wrong with this negotiation.”
‘Obama has been a bully. He tried to squelch opposition’
Israel was excluded from the negotiations with Iran, which were conducted by countries of which most don’t have anything to fear from an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, Dershowitz said. But Israel has reasonable concerns, so it’s not only Netanyahu’s right but his duty to try to change US policy on this matter.
Dershowitz rejects claims of Netanyahu’s alleged untenable interference in American politics. It’s not as if he’s commenting on gay marriage or healthcare reform; rather, he’s making the case against a deal he fears threatens his country’s survival, the professor argued. “Obama has been a bully. He has tried to squelch opposition to the deal.”
The president’s attacks on Israel’s ostensibly unprecedented lobbying efforts are historically inaccurate, he added: Lafayette tried to get the Americans to back the French Revolution, Churchill demanded US troops fight in World War II, David Cameron tried to get US legislators to approve the Iran deal.
‘A meeting with the president right now would probably ruin both of our vacations’
Obama is not upset that Netanyahu got involved in American politics; he simply doesn’t like his position on the deal, Dershowitz posited. “If Netanyahu were in favor of the deal, he’d be welcoming him to speak to Congress.”
Contradicting common wisdom, Dershowitz insists that US-Israel relations are not at their lowest point in history. “Israel is flexing its muscles. I think that’s a good thing,” he said. “This is a tense conflict between Israeli interests and what President Obama believes are American interests. That’s the kind of conflict one might always anticipate. I don’t believe that this will have an enduring impact on US-Israel relations.”
The Iran deal will become a dominant theme of the presidential campaign in America, and candidates from both sides of the aisle will go out of their way to show they’re supporting Israel — perhaps even more so as a consequence of the public confrontation between Jerusalem and Washington, Dershowitz said. “So in the end it may be good for Israel.”
‘The sanctions are dead. They will not ever snap back’
What would happen if Congress actually killed the deal?
Israeli officials maintain that a better deal is possible, since the Iranians are under intense financial strain. If the US upheld its sanctions and imposed even stricter ones, Iran would surely return to the negotiating table and make further concessions, some in Jerusalem argue. Even if parts of the international community were unwilling to forgo trade relations with Iran, the US economy is so strong that American sanctions alone would have enough leverage to eventually force the Iranians to return to the negotiating table, according to this logic.
Dershowitz disagrees. “The sanctions are dead. They will not ever snap back. They will never be as powerful as they once were,” he said. For all his criticism of the deal, he is uncertain whether killing it now is a good idea. “It’s possible that opposing the deal will make it even worse. It’s also possible that it will be better. That’s why it’s such a bad deal: It gives us the option between bad and worse.”
The Americans played checkers with the people who invented chess, he continued. “The ayatollahs checkmated our president, and put him in a position where we have the choice between a bad deal and perhaps even a worse outcome.”
Even if he received a belated invite to the president’s vacation getaway on Martha’s Vineyard, at this point Dershowitz would probably take a rain check, he said toward the end of the interview. “I’d rather not have to tell the president right now what I think of his deal. I’d rather let tempers cool a little bit, and I’d be happy to meet with him in months to come. A meeting with the president right now would probably ruin both of our vacations.”
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