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Op-Ed: Will the next president tear up the Iran agreement? (Includes first-hand account)

“This deal is going to survive,” declares Nicholas Burns, now a professor at the Kennedy School and a former U.S. undersecretary of State. The deal is “solid,” he insists. Burns himself participated in negotiations with Iran to dismantle its nuclear capacity when George W. Bush was president. Those talks collapsed in 2005. “Kerry and Obama did a good job of picking up the baton.” He contends that the deal has sufficient safeguards to ensure that Iran won’t be able to revive a nuclear weapons program in secret while it’s in force. “The downside risk is that after 15 years in the 2030s, Iran could reconstitute a nuclear arms program under the cover of a civilian program if it chooses to do so. The President in power at the time will have to be tough and use sanctions or a potential military threat.”

Senator Bob Corker, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is quick to emphasize that the Iran deal isn’t a treaty but an agreement. A treaty would have required ratification of Congress, which it would never have gotten. Nonetheless, the Tennessee Republican maintains that Congress has already played an important role in bringing Iran to the table by imposing crippling sanctions. So he believes that it also should have been given the opportunity to lift them. Instead, the Obama administration went straight to the UN Security Council for approval even though the agreement only had the support of only 21 percent of the American people. But the President still has to certify that Iran is in compliance every 90 days so it still provides Congress with some responsibility in making certain that the deal is carried out.

Because it’s an agreement and not a treaty, Obama’s successor can in theory repudiate it. And that’s exactly what Mitt Romney wants to do. Addressing an audience at the Atlantic Ideas Forum in Washington, the former presidential candidate calls it “a lousy agreement.” “Iran has been given a green light to develop a nuclear program in ten years. It allows Iran to keep its technology in place. Presuming that we’ll be frustrated in carrying out inspections we should walk away.”

Burns – who recently spoke at a Foreign Policy Association event in New York New York believes that whoever is in the White House in 2017 would pay an “enormous price” by tearing up the deal. “What’s the alternative? Walk away and keep sanctions? All restrictions on Iran will be lifted and it will be free to resume the program. But France, England and Germany won’t follow. So we’d get the worst of all possible worlds.” He does, however, see a bumpy road ahead; he predicts that for the GOP, it will be the “Obamacare of foreign policy,” suggesting that the Republicans will make frequent attempts to derail the agreement’s implementation.

Longtime diplomat and former CIA official, Frank Wisner has a similar view. He believes that the deal has “the potential to free diplomacy in the Middle East” by opening a path with the potential of bringing Iran into the world. There are areas of commonality with Iran including support of the government in Afghanistan and opposition to ISIS. His view is echoed by Former Secretary of State Colin Powell. The deal, the former Secretary of State points out, brings Iran’s nuclear program to a screeching halt, cuts its centrifuges by two thirds, and eliminates its plutonium program altogether. It also has the potential of strengthening the moderates in Tehran. Powell is confident that monitors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be capable of preventing Iran from cheating.

Not surprisingly, Republicans aren’t convinced. “The agreement rewards bad behavior,” Senator Tom Cotton insists. Iran has already shown that it can’t be trusted. He believes that it will begin to cheat within a year or so, but incrementally in order to avoid a ‘snapback’ of sanctions until it reaches a point where it can abrogate the agreement altogether. Cotton was instrumental in getting 46 Republican senators to sign an open letter to Ayatollah al-Khamenei while negotiations were still going on warning that Congress retained the right to revoke the agreement.

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“The discussion in the U.S. hasn’t been helpful to selling the deal in Iran,” says Ariane Tabatabai, Assistant Professor at Georgetown University and an authority on Iran. “There’s an influential minority opposed to any normalization,” she adds, referring to hardliners in Tehran. “They’re scared by the idea that the next president could renege on the deal. It reinforces idea that the U.S. is untrustworthy, making it more difficult for the moderates.”

Although he backs the deal, Burns agrees that Iran must be carefully watched. Tehran has tried to cover up its nuclear program in the past and lied to the UN about it. Moreover, its sponsorship of Assad and militant groups like Hezbollah pits it against U.S. interests. “Until the Iranians stop supporting Assad I won’t trust them.” Even as it implements the deal, he says, the U.S. will need to contain Iran because of its propensity to foment instability. And Washington will have to reassure Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States which fear Iranian encroachment in the Middle East. (Arms deals often go a long way to soothe injured feelings.) Israel is even more opposed to the deal, regarding Tehran as an existential threat. After all, Khamenei has repeatedly called for the annihilation of the Jewish state.

It would be a mistake to take Khamenei at his word, Tabatabai says. “There’s a good deal of posturing in Iran. The Supreme Leader often releases contradictory statements.” He once claimed, for instance, that Iran would soon have 190,000 centrifuges at a time when Iran only had 20,000 and was in no position to add 170,000 more. “His job description is to come out and say things.” And while it’s true that Khamenei is deplorable where human rights are concerned, she believes that he’s a moderate on the nuclear issue; otherwise the hardliners would have derailed the talks before an agreement could be hammered out. In fact, she points out that the deal undermines the economic power of the Revolutionary Guards which own about half the infrastructure in the country because private companies have been shut out of the marketplace by international sanctions. So contrary to what opponents of the agreement argue, she says that lifting sanctions will deprive the Revolutionary Guards of their monopolies, starving them of the funds they would otherwise use to spend on regional adventures.

If the Revolutionary Guards do lose some of their economic clout because of the deal, though, they won’t be the only ones. “The big losers will be U.S. businesses,” says Gary Sick , adjunct professor at Columbia and a former member of National Security Council under Ford, Carter and Reagan. He says that while sanctions will be lifted on companies in other countries, they will still be maintained on U.S. firms because of Congressional restrictions. As a result, American companies will be forced to sit on the sidelines while Iran does business with their foreign competitors.

Supporters of the deal are quick to say that they’re not naive about Iran’s intentions. “We should expect Iran to cheat and use some of the proceeds to destabilize the region,” Senator Chris Coons (Democrat from Delaware) told attendees at the Atlantic Ideas Forum. Sanctions relief is expected to fill Iran’s coffers with about $150 billion over time, though much of that money is owed to China. “Congress needs to be watchful. But twelve tons of uranium will go away (by the terms of the deal) and there will be full-time surveillance. If we’re going to use military force eventually, I would rather have tried diplomacy first.” President Reagan, he pointed out, denounced the Soviet Union as evil and yet negotiated an historic treaty to reduce nuclear weapons anyway.

Cotton doesn’t agree that the situations are remotely comparable. “The Soviets already had nuclear weapons,” having attained parity with the U.S. unlike Iran which doesn’t have nuclear weapons – yet. “American limitations on power are self-imposed,” Cotton insists. “We’re drawing down on our military while the world is becoming more dangerous. Soft power without hard power is just soft.” The Arkansas Republican asserts that far from preventing war, the deal might make military confrontation more likely down the road.

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Even as opponents of the agreement argue that the U.S. has given up too much, hardliners in Tehran are equally convinced that their country has negotiated away the store, accepting conditions previously unacceptable to Iran like opening up certain military installations to IAEA monitors. “You keep saying that we’re the carpet merchants,” an Iranian close to negotiations told Gary Sick, “But the truth is that it’s you – the Americans – who are the carpet merchants.”

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