Q&A on the Iran Nuclear Deal

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August 14, 2015

Q: Why does ADL oppose the Iran deal?

Our benchmark for a good deal has always been whether it stops Iran from having a nuclear weapons capacity. This deal doesn’t stop it. It delays it for 10 to 15 years at best. At that time, experts have testified that Iran will be able to drastically enlarge its enrichment facilities, reducing its breakout time to zero and giving it the capacity to enrich fuel for multiple bombs.

Q: ADL’s initial position was “no … unless” four questions were satisfactorily answered.  With all the information out there, did you not get satisfactory answers?

In our July 20 letter to Congress, ADL asked Senators and Representatives to examine four key questions about the JCPOA and “whether it can, in fact, effectively safeguard America and its allies from the threat posed by a nuclear Iran.”  Based on the public debate, we have revisited these questions.  We are particularly guided by the assessment of our colleagues at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and particularly their statement of August 4, 2015.

Does the agreement sufficiently limit Iran’s nuclear weapons capability? 

A nuclear weapons capability requires three components: weapons-grade uranium or plutonium bomb fuel, weaponization, and a delivery vehicle. We have heard convincing arguments that Iran will have extreme difficulty to produce bomb fuel within the first 15 years without timely detection. At the same time, experts have testified that Iran’s breakout time after year 15 could be reduced to weeks and safeguards may not be sufficient to detect diversion in a timely manner.

On weaponization, we remain deeply concerned that Iran is not required to resolve all concerns about “possible military dimensions” and that weaponization work without fissile material may be successfully hidden. Restrictions on Iran’s missile program will expire before the restrictions on Iran’s enrichment capability. Only due to the constraints on producing bomb fuel, do we believe Iran will not have a nuclear weapon capacity for 15 years. Afterwards, Iran will emerge as a nuclear threshold state.

Can the verification and enforcement mechanisms ensure Iranian compliance? 

We noted the open letter from 29 scientists that endorsed the verification procedures, and we continue to urge elected representatives to seek satisfactory answers on verification questions with the benefit of classified information provided in closed hearings.

On enforcement, we found the critics of the snapback mechanism to be more credible than the proponents. However, we are encouraged by reports that the Administration is developing an escalating system of response to Iranian cheating for situations in which snapback of all sanctions would not be the best policy response. This escalating system should be presented and included in the public debate, both unilateral measures and those supported by the other members of the P5+1.

How can America’s deterrence [against an Iranian breakout] be strengthened in the face of relatively front-loaded sanctions relief? 

The question of deterring Iran from developing a nuclear weapon during the period encompassed by the agreement and in the years after must focus on the clear and credible policy by successive Administrations that the U.S. will use military force to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. 

We welcome President Obama’s statement at American University: “Our military remains the ultimate backstop to any security agreement that we make. I have stated that Iran will never be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon, and have done what is necessary to make sure our military options are real. And I have no doubt that any president who follows me will take the same position.”

However, we concur with the experts, such as Dennis Ross, who have suggested explicit Congressional support for this policy and for the deterrent threat to be broadened by providing Israel with an independent capability to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. We have not yet seen commitments to these necessary steps in order to satisfy us on this question. 

How can the U.S. refine a broad regional strategy to counter the threat of Iran’s [non-nuclear] aggression? 

At American University, President Obama said, “we need to check the [Iranian] behavior that we are concerned about directly, by helping our allies in the region strengthen their own capabilities.” And Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said, “Hezbollah is sponsored of course by Iran, which is why the United States will continue to help Israel counter Iranian malign influence in the region.” 

These statements are important, but must be backed up with concrete agreements to counter and roll back Iranian and Iranian-sponsored aggression in the region. We have not yet seen specific commitments to these necessary steps in order to satisfy us on this question. 

Q: President Obama has challenged opponents of the deal to put forward better alternatives. What is ADL proposing?

The President himself said no deal was preferable to a bad deal, so the Administration should have had a contingency plan for a “no deal” scenario. The Administration is trying to sell the Iran deal now, so they aren’t talking about what that contingency plan is. Senator McCaskill asked Secretaries Kerry, Lew and Moniz at a hearing to describe what the Administration would do if the deal is voted down. They didn’t respond. Even if Congress votes against the deal and overrides a veto, it is still the President’s responsibility for the remainder of his term to conduct foreign policy, including on Iran.

Our proposal, in general terms, is for a re-doubling of efforts against Iran’s malign actions. With or without this deal, tomorrow and in 15 years, Iran is still going to be a rogue regime that threatens America, Israel, and our allies. America should constrain every malign expression of this illiberal regime, abroad and at home, and should dramatically intensify its application. We would leave it to government officials to find the best mix of sanctions on Iran and its trading partners, increased defense and intelligence cooperation with Israel and other allies, and other measures.

Q: But President Obama committed to all those things in his American University speech, and he said we will be in a stronger position to constrain Iran with the deal. So, shouldn’t ADL support the deal?

The U.S. doesn’t need a nuclear deal with Iran to develop and deploy specific policies to counter Iranian aggression. We think those measures should be independent of the deal, and we disagree with his analysis. While the deal is being implemented, especially in the first stages, the Administration might assess that it can’t maximize opposition to Iran on all other fronts, because then the Iranians might decide to give up on the nuclear deal, and the Administration doesn’t want to lose what the President considers his top foreign policy accomplishment.

We are not proposing a policy of containment on the regime’s malign activities. We want roll-back. We want so much pressure on them that those activities are first rolled back to its borders and then lifted from the Iranian people themselves.

Q: So is ADL promoting regime change?

We would certainly welcome regime change both for the people of Iran and its neighbors, but we are not calling for military action to topple the regime. However, we also disagree with those who argue that integrating Iran into the international community is the best way to cause the regime to become less aggressive, at home and abroad. Those making that argument fundamentally misunderstand this regime. Khomeinism cannot be reformed into a liberal version. Its essence is exporting the Islamic revolution and entrenching it at home. We can oppose it or appease it, but we can’t reform it.

Q: Which experts support the policies ADL is promoting? 

Policy recommendation #1: Provide Israel with a security package / military hardware which can be used to deter an Iranian nuclear bomb, and reaffirm Israel’s qualitative military edge.

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin (Institute for National Security Studies, Israel), a former head of Israeli Military Intelligence: the U.S. and Israel should negotiate “a security aid package to improve Israel’s ability both to contend with the threats that will stem from the strengthening of Iran and its terrorist proxies, and to thwart an Iranian breakout toward a bomb.”

Washington Institute (WINEP): “To strengthen deterrence of Iran, it is also important for Israel to have its own independent deterrent capacity. To that end, we urge the Obama administration to commit to providing technology to Israel that would secure this objective over time, starting with proposing to transfer to Israel the Massive Ordinance Penetrator and the requisite aircraft, which will ensure that Israel has the ability at a later date to deter Iran from reaching a nuclear weapon.”

Amb. Dennis Ross (WINEP): “[W]e should transfer to Israel, at some point before year fifteen, the massive ordinance penetrator—the MOP—and the airplanes to carry it. Israel can’t set back the entirety of Iran’s nuclear program without the MOP, a mountain-buster designed to destroy Iran’s underground nuclear facility in Fordow. While some may question whether we will act militarily, no one doubts that the Israelis will do so if the Iranians move toward a weapon. By transferring the MOP and the means to carry it during the life of the deal we would also signal we would support Israeli action if need be.”

Amb. Nicholas Burns (Kennedy School of Government): “The U.S. should also try to close ranks with Israel and to strengthen even further our long-standing military partnership. The U.S.-Israel ten-year military assistance agreement that I led in negotiating in 2007 expires in two years. The Obama Administration could reaffirm our ongoing commitment to Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) over any potential aggressor in the Middle East region. The Administration should accelerate military technology transfers to Israel to head off any potential challenge to Israel from Iran or, as is more likely, from its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas.”

Anthony Cordesman (CSIS): “The United States does not need to provide such [extended deterrence] assurances to a nuclear-armed Israel, but it can assure Israel that it will continue to help it maintain a decisive edge in weapons and missile defenses. It also can establish a long-term missile defense cooperation agreement with Israel to continue the programs already underway.”

William Tobey (Belfer Center): “Congress should authorize the Pentagon to sell Israel the means to protect itself in the event Iran breaks its promises. The weapon in question is the massive ordnance penetrator— the ‘bunker buster.’ Allowing Israel access to it would reinforce the White House’s promise that significant Iranian cheating will not only be detected, but also punished.”

Policy Recommendation #2: The President should articulate a regional strategy to counter Iranian activities across the Middle East, including working with regional allies against Iran, its allies and proxies in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Congress should require a semi-annual report on Iran’s regional activities.

WINEP: “Separate from the agreement, the study group called on the president to articulate a ‘resolute regional strategy’ to counter Iranian negative behavior throughout the Middle East. We believe the articulation and implementation of this enhanced effort to counter Iranian negative behavior—and to support allies and partners—in the region is both important and urgent, given the substantial financial benefits Iran will receive early in the implementation of this agreement and the likelihood that considerable sums will be directed toward Iran’s destabilizing regional activities. Working with our allies, we urge the administration to build on the president’s GCC Summit and discussions of Secretaries Carter and Kerry and adopt a number of tangible steps as soon as possible.”

Dennis Ross: “We should begin contingency planning now with key Arab states and Israel to develop options to respond to a surge in Iranian material support for Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis and others.”

Ken Pollack (Brookings Institution): “If the United States is going to push back on Iran in the aftermath of the nuclear deal to demonstrate to both Tehran and our regional allies that we are not abandoning the field and allowing (or enabling) the Iranians to make greater gains, Syria is unquestionably the place to do it. Iran’s allies in Syria have been considerably weakened in recent months. Our Arab allies are eager to have us take the lead there, and President Obama has committed the United States to just such a course, even if his actions have fallen woefully short of his rhetoric.” 

Anthony Cordesman: “The Congress can legislate a semi-annual reporting requirement for the life of the agreement that requires reporting on every key aspect of compliance as well as Iran’s other key activities: Conventional arms imports and build-up, missile programs and developments, and Iran’s activities to expand it influence and role in the region.” 

Policy Recommendation #3: The Administration should reaffirm its policy that using military force still remains a real option to preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Congress should legislate authorizing the use of force to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state. 

WINEP: “A call for the United States to affirm that it is U.S. policy to use all means necessary to prevent Iran from producing sufficient fissile material (highly enriched uranium) for a nuclear weapon – or otherwise acquiring or building one – both during the agreement and after it expires. This is a vital initiative because Iran will remain a nuclear threshold state (and will clearly have retained the option of becoming a nuclear weapon state) as restrictions on stockpiles of uranium and centrifuge production lapse gradually after 10 years and, along with the ban on reprocessing, end after 15 years, and the question is raised about what would deter Iran from then developing a nuclear weapon. One powerful element of deterrence would be for the United States to go on record now that it is committed to using all means necessary, including military force, to prevent this.”

Dennis Ross: “It is not enough to say all options are on the table. It is essential to say we will not permit Iran to become a nuclear weapon state and that if the agreement designed to prevent it fails to do so, we will act militarily to destroy the Iranian nuclear infrastructure.”

William Tobey: “Congress should approve a resolution authorizing the use force to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state in the event of significant cheating or breakout. Senior administration officials say Obama already has ‘all the authorization he needs should force be an option.’ But Congress should remind Iran that future U.S. presidents will be explicitly empowered to destroy—without protracted congressional debate or prior negotiation—Tehran’s effort to build a bomb.”

Policy Recommendation #4: Reach a common understanding with the European members of the P5+1 on how the JCPOA members will respond to Iranian violations, including “minor” violations.

WINEP: “The administration needs to reach common understanding now at least with our European allies on how the JCPOA parties will respond to various types of Iranian violations. To have the most-powerful deterrent effect, the key elements of these understandings should be made public. This is important: if the United States and its allies are unable to calibrate their response to a range of possible Iranian violations now, their lack of common action later might embolden Iran to miscalculate with a major violation that could threaten the entire agreement.”

Dennis Ross: “Iran must know they will pay a price for any violations of the agreement, no matter how small…I am told by those in the administration that President Obama recognized this potential problem and directed the Treasury Department to prepare lesser penalties for violations along the margins we might apply unilaterally. That makes great sense, but presently these have not been shared with the Europeans or the Iranians or the Congress. They should be to illustrate our determination to ensure that no matter how small the transgression, there will be a price. That will also help deterrence to take hold over time.”

Policy Recommendation #5: The US should make full use of sanctions targeting Iranian support for terrorism, its human rights violations, money laundering activities and proliferation (where compatible with the JCPOA)

Juan Zarate (Foundation for the Defense of Democracies): “The U.S. should adopt a financial constriction campaign focusing on the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps], the Qods Force, and the core elements of the regime that engage in terrorist financing, proliferation of weapons and nuclear technology, and support to militias and activities that destabilize countries like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen.” 

Richard Nephew (Brookings Institution): “The United States retains a number of sanctions authorities that will continue to damage Iran’s ability to engage in terrorism financing, as well as to exact consequences for violations of Iranian human rights and other destabilizing activities. This includes the all-too-important tool of secondary sanctions through the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act or CISADA. With this tool, the United States will still be able to pressure banks and companies against doing business with the IRGC, Qods Force, Qassem Solemani, and Iran’s military and missile forces. The EU and UN decisions to remove some of these entities from their own sanctions list is therefore important to Iran mainly as a symbolic step; practically, these entities and individuals will find their international business activities stymied due to the centrality of the United States in global finance until they correct their own behavior in the eyes of the United States.” 

Mark Dubowitz (Foundation for the Defense of Democracies): “Iran’s continued support for global terrorism requires that U.S. terrorism sanctions be maintained and expanded. Iran’s human rights record has, by numerous expert accounts, deteriorated under President Hassan Rouhani. Congress should work with the Obama Administration to enhance terrorism sanctions, particularly focused on the IRGC and Quds Force and its various officials, entities, and instrumentalities. Congress should work with the Obama Administration to significantly expand U.S. human rights sanctions against any and all Iranian officials, entities, and instrumentalities engaged in human rights abuses. The penalties for both of these sanctions should go beyond travel bans and asset freezes and target the sectors, entities, and instrumentalities that provide revenues to fund Iranian terrorism activities and/or human rights abuses.” 

Anthony Cordesman: “The Congress can legislate new sanctions on firms or state entities that do sell critical conventional arms and missile technology. And/or, it can set reporting requirements that publically identify the seller and cover not only whole weapons but critical components and technologies.”

Q: What happens if Congress overrides the President’s veto and rejects the deal? 

No one knows for sure.  Many actors are involved and they will all be making difficult decisions in the same short time span.  Iranian actions have proven especially difficult to predict.  The Administration will not discuss at present what actions it will take if President Obama’s veto is overridden.  The decisions of China, India, Japan, and South Korea – Iran’s major oil buyers – will significantly affect Iranian revenues.  Decisions of European corporations will shape the investment profile of Iran. 

The Administration argues that rejection by Congress will lead to an erosion of international sanctions, the diplomatic isolation of US, and increased likelihood of war.  Some opponents of the deal believe increased sanctions can lead to new negotiations and a better deal.  

Other experts propose alternative scenarios.  Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute argues a vote to disapprove the deal can actually open up space for the Administration and Congress to address many, if not all, the serious concerns expressed about the shortcomings of the JCPOA and the challenges Iranian behavior pose to the region and the world.  In Dr. Satloff’s words, “‘No’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘no, never.’  It also can also mean ‘not now, not this way.’”