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Ross: US must decide in advance how to respond if Iran violates deal

Ex-Obama adviser sets out criteria for acceptable agreement; says Netanyahu shouldn’t have spoken to Congress but raised ‘legitimate questions’

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Veteran US diplomat Dennis Ross (Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Veteran US diplomat Dennis Ross (Uri Lenz/Flash90)

The US and the other world powers negotiating with Iran on its nuclear program need to decide in advance on precisely how they would respond to the range of potential violations of any deal, and the Obama administration should also have Congress agree on the consequences of such violations, a veteran US diplomat said Thursday.

Dennis Ross, a former Middle East adviser to President Barack Obama, also said that while Benjamin Netanyahu should have presented his concerns about the emerging deal in a less damaging manner for US-Israel ties than via a public address to Congress, the prime minister had raised “legitimate questions” that need to be addressed.

Speaking to The Times of Israel during a visit to Jerusalem, Ross said that the Obama administration was seeking a deal that would keep Iran at least one year from potential breakout to the bomb, and that this was a legitimate approach provided it was accompanied by a range of precautions and other provisions.

“First, if you’re really going to put a premium on one-year breakout time, by definition what you require for verification and transparency becomes even more demanding,” Ross said. “Because if it doesn’t meet a certain threshold of credibility, you won’t have your one year.”

Keeping Iran a year from the bomb is “not just a function of the number of centrifuges, the output of the centrifuges and the ship out of the [enriched] material,’ he noted. It also requires “anywhere, anytime inspections, for declared and undeclared sites.” And it would likely need “a new set of protocols for the scope of your access and the numbers of inspectors.”

What’s more, the international community would have to agree ahead of time on what to do in the event of violations. “If you’re going to wait until you detect a violation, what are you [going to do] then? Are you then entering into a negotiation over it? What is the Russian and the Chinese position going to be on it?” he asked.

US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman (2nd left) at the opening of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 group in Montreux, Switzerland, on March 5, 2015 (photo credit: AFP/Fabrice Coffrini)
US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman (2nd left) at the opening of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 group in Montreux, Switzerland, on March 5, 2015 (photo credit: AFP/Fabrice Coffrini)

“What is required is — in advance, at least simultaneously with the deal — to be very clear on what are the consequences for a wide array of different classes of violations,” Ross said.

He gave some examples: Obviously, if Iran was caught “dashing” to the bomb, “that would be a justification for the use of force.”

Were the Iranians to be caught “repiping” centrifuges to increase their output in breach of an agreement, “that strikes me as being in the more egregious category. If they don’t correct that immediately, that is not just a justification for sanctions. It could actually be a justification for the use of force by a set time if they don’t make the corrections.”

The negotiators need to anticipate where there could be different interpretations of the deal, and decide “what are we going to do if we find [the Iranians] playing that game: What happens, for example, if they decide that they’re not going to allow you access when you want access? What happens if they decide that you’re exceeding the number of times that you can look at something? I suggest that we should identify the range of the violations, the character of those violations, and the consequences for each of those, in advance. And my preference would be to actually have the Congress agree on these consequences.”

Such a process, said Ross, “makes it more credible that you’ll actually implement. It sends a signal that we’re actually unified, that there isn’t a division between the White House and the Congress. It’s more effective in deterring the Iranians in the first place. And it also conveys a level of seriousness that it’s important to reinforce.”

Were the deal to feature all such elements, it would be acceptable. “If it doesn’t have those elements, then it would not be acceptable to me,” he said.

Asked whether he believed the negotiators were working to include such provisions, Ross said: “I don’t know yet. The administration hasn’t said what I’ve just said… I am getting indications for the first time that there are people in the administration who think that these are good ideas. [But] there’s a difference between saying these are good ideas and how does that translate…”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015 (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015 (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress on the issue of the emerging deal “was a diversion” and the process could and should have been handled differently, said Ross, a veteran diplomat who has played key roles in a series of Republican and Democratic administrations going back decades. “For example, there are plenty of Democratic senators who have a relationship with the president, who the president sees as being supportive, who could clearly have been used to raise some of these issues in a way that might have produced more response.”

“But leave aside all the debate and the controversy, [Netanyahu] raised legitimate questions, and the questions need to be addressed.”

US President Barack Obama makes a statement to the press after a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, March 3, 2015, in Washington, DC. soon after Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress (photo credit: AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI)
US President Barack Obama makes a statement to the press after a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, March 3, 2015, in Washington, DC. soon after Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress (photo credit: AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI)

Ross acknowledged the “tension” between Obama and Netanyahu, and said US-Israel ties had been damaged, but not irreparably so. “There is a more partisan feel right now to [bilateral relations], and whoever is prime minister has a strong interest in immediately trying to find ways to mend fences and to focus on establishing a discreet dialogue to address these issues,” he said.

“You can’t do it except in a discreet, private, strategic fashion. And it has to be done with the president.”

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