White House official admits fudging of facts to sell Iran deal

The need for reconciliation with adversaries can trump pleasing existing allies, Ben Rhodes acknowledges; Panetta no longer sure Obama would strike at Iran to stop it going nuclear

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes. (YouTube/The Atlantic)
Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes. (YouTube/The Atlantic)

A senior official in the Obama administration acknowledged that the background to nuclear talks with Iran was misrepresented in order to sell the impression of a more moderate Iranian regime and thus gain greater American public support for an agreement.

The revelation came in a profile of Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes written by New York Times reporter David Samuels and published on Thursday.

In the same piece, former CIA head Leon Panetta speculated that whereas US President Barack Obama may once have been prepared to use military force to stop the development of an Iranian bomb, he doubts the same resolve exists today.

In conversations with Rhodes, Samuels learned how the administration claimed that key talks with Iran began in 2013, after the election of a seemingly more moderate Iranian government led by Hassan Rouhani, when in fact negotiations had begun and formed the basis of what was to become Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action months earlier in 2012 under the previous hard-line Iranian presidency.

In July 2015, Iran and world powers inked the JCPOA, in which Tehran agreed to dismantle weapons producing elements of its nuclear program in return for the lifting of severe economic sanctions.

Israeli officials, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as many in the Senate, fiercely opposed the deal, which they said did not go far enough in removing Iran’s ability to attain a nuclear weapons capability.

Rhodes explained how policies were considered in which reconciliation with adversaries trumped pleasing existing allies.

“We can do things that challenge the conventional thinking that, you know, ‘AIPAC doesn’t like this,’ or ‘the Israeli government doesn’t like this,’ or ‘the gulf countries don’t like it,'” Rhodes said. “It’s the possibility of improved relations with adversaries. It’s nonproliferation.”

Foreign ministers sit around the table at the Palais Coburg Hotel, where the Iran nuclear negotiations were being held in Vienna, Austria on July 6, 2015. (AFP/POOL/CARLOS BARRIA)
Foreign ministers sit around the table at the Palais Coburg Hotel, where the Iran nuclear negotiations were being held in Vienna, Austria on July 6, 2015. (AFP/Pool/Carlos Barria)

“The way in which most Americans have heard the story of the Iran deal presented — that the Obama administration began seriously engaging with Iranian officials in 2013 in order to take advantage of a new political reality in Iran, which came about because of elections that brought moderates to power in that country — was largely manufactured for the purpose for selling the deal,” Samuels wrote.

“Even where the particulars of that story are true, the implications that readers and viewers are encouraged to take away from those particulars are often misleading or false,” he continued.

According to the NY Times interview, the final proposal for an interim agreement that became the basis for JCPOA was completed in March 2013, three months before the “moderate” Rouhani took office as president.

Obama told the altered version to the world, including when saying, in a July 14, 2015 speech, “Today, after two years of negotiations, the United States, together with our international partners, has achieved something that decades of animosity has not.”

“The idea that there was a new reality in Iran was politically useful to the Obama administration,” Samuels writes. “By obtaining broad public currency for the thought that there was a significant split in the regime, and that the administration was reaching out to moderate-minded Iranians who wanted peaceful relations with their neighbors and with America, Obama was able to evade what might have otherwise been a divisive but clarifying debate over the actual policy choices that his administration was making.”

Samuels also interviewed Panetta, former head of the CIA and former secretary of defense for the Obama administration for his take on the Iran deal. Panetta admitted that at no point during the contacts with Iran did the CIA assess the Tehran regime as being divided into hard-line and moderate factions.

“There was not much question that the Quds Force [a special forces unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards ] and the supreme leader ran that country with a strong arm, and there was not much question that this kind of opposing view could somehow gain any traction.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets with the-then US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in Washington DC, USA, March 06, 2012. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets with then US secretary of defense Leon Panetta in Washington DC on March 6, 2012. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

In his role as secretary of defense, Panetta was tasked with ensuring that Netanyahu and his then defense minister Ehud Barak didn’t launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. A major point was whether or not Israel could rely on the US resorting to force if necessary to stop Iran from producing nuclear weapons. Whereas once it could, now Panetta said he was not so sure.

Netanyahu and Barak “were both interested in the answer to the question, ‘Is the president serious?’ ” Panetta said. “And you know my view, talking with the president, was: If brought to the point where we had evidence that they’re developing an atomic weapon, I think the president is serious that he is not going to allow that to happen.”

“Would I make that same assessment now?” Panetta continued. “Probably not.”

In Panetta’s opinion, Obama doubted the usefulness of large-scale military force, seeing such action as more likely to produce negative effects.

“I think the whole legacy that he was working on was, ‘I’m the guy who’s going to bring these wars to an end, and the last goddamn thing I need is to start another war,'” he said. “If you ratchet up sanctions, it could cause a war. If you start opposing their interest in Syria, well, that could start a war, too.”

Rhodes admitted the administration still has doubts over the reformative nature of Rouhani and others, such as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was a key negotiator in the hammering out the final nuclear deal.

“Look, with Iran, in a weird way, these are state-to-state issues,” Rhodes said. “They’re agreements between governments. Yes, I would prefer that it turns out that Rouhani and Zarif are real reformers who are going to be steering this country into the direction that I believe it can go in, because their public is educated and, in some respects, pro-American. But we are not betting on that.”

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