A rare bipartisan consensus on the Iran nuclear negotiations

A statement on the Iran nuclear negotiations issued earlier this week by a study group organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has received considerable media and broader public attention. Dwelling on the fact that several former Obama administration officials signed the statement, a number of media accounts interpreted the statement as an indication that those former officials had broken ranks with the administration and lost confidence in its ability and determination to achieve a sound agreement. A reporter at the June 25 State Department press briefing even asked whether it was unprecedented for former senior officials “to have staged such an open revolt.” As a signer of the group’s statement and a former member of the Obama administration’s Iran negotiating team, I believe such an interpretation of the statement is unfounded and distorts the statement’s significance.

A noteworthy feature of the group issuing the statement is its diversity — Republicans and Democrats, former officials and non-governmental experts, regional and nonproliferation specialists, retired military officers and civilians, former Members of Congress and officials with long executive branch experience. It included some, such as myself, who remain supportive of the administration’s approach to the Iran nuclear negotiations and believe the President and his negotiators are well on their way to a comprehensive agreement that can serve as an effective, long-term barrier to a nuclear-armed Iran. And it included others who have serious reservations about some of the decisions taken by the administration in the negotiations and who fear that U.S. negotiators may make unwarranted concessions in their eagerness to finalize a deal.

The significance of the statement is that this diverse, bipartisan group was able to come together on a number of reasonable and achievable recommendations for concluding an agreement that would serve U.S. interests and the interests of U.S. friends in the Middle East. Unlike some recommendations made by other groups and individuals, these contained no “poison pills” designed to complicate or even sabotage the negotiations. Participants in the Washington Institute’s study group want the negotiations to succeed.

Indeed, the statement’s key recommendations for concluding a deal are consistent with what the administration has been trying to achieve.

  • The group states that Iran must not be able to deny or delay timely access to any site anywhere in the country that the IAEA needs to visit to carry out its responsibilities, including military installations and other sensitive facilities. The administration has repeatedly stressed that such access is indispensable.
  • On the question of the possible military dimensions of Iran’s past activities, the administration believes it is crucial, as the group recommends, for the IAEA to be able to interview scientists, visit locations, and review documents related to those past activities, and U.S. negotiators have made clear that they concur with the group’s recommendation that “this work needs to be accomplished before any significant sanctions relief.”
  • Regarding the group’s support for strict limits on advanced centrifuge research and development during the deal’s initial ten years, the administration states that there is already agreement on such limits, although details have not yet been revealed. It also supports the group’s goal of ensuring that, after the initial ten-year period, any increase in Iranian enrichment capacity and deployment of advanced centrifuges will proceed “at a measured, incremental pace,” and it is apparently actively pursuing that goal in the negotiations.
  • U.S. negotiators have repeatedly stressed — as the group does in its statement — that significant sanctions relief must not occur until the IAEA confirms that Iran has taken the key steps required to come into compliance with its nuclear commitments, and that non-nuclear sanctions must remain in effect and be vigorously enforced.
  • In its support of “snap back” procedures for both U.S. and United Nations Security Council sanctions, the administration’s approach is in line with the group’s recommendation for “a timely and effective mechanism to re-impose sanctions automatically if Iran is found to be in violation of the agreement.”

A number of these key requirements for a sound deal have already been accepted by the Iranians. They are committed, for example, to adhere to the IAEA Additional Protocol, which permits access to any installations, civilian or military, if questions arise about compliance. In a European Union-Iranian joint statement issued in Lausanne on April 2, they agreed that relief from U.S. and EU sanctions would only come “simultaneously with the IAEA-verified implementation by Iran of its key nuclear commitments.”

But since the Lausanne political framework was reached, senior Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Khamenei, have staked out public positions that contradict and appear to backtrack on solutions already accepted by Iranian negotiators. As recently as this week, Khamenei expressed strong opposition to IAEA interviews with Iranian scientists or access to Iranian military facilities, asserted that sanctions would have to be terminated the day a comprehensive agreement is reached, and even suggested that restrictions on Iran’s enrichment capacity for as long as ten years may be unacceptable.

At this stage, we don’t know whether these public statements are a bargaining tactic or a significant hardening of Iran’s position. Whatever they are, they constitute the greatest current threat to the success of the negotiations. Even if the leader’s aggressive posturing is “only” a bargaining tactic to extract 11th-hour concessions, it is a tactic that must not be rewarded. If Iran wants an agreement, it needs to stop backtracking, return to earlier agreements, and show the flexibility needed to close out the remaining issues.

I don’t see the study group’s statement as challenging the administration’s negotiating positions or asking it to adopt new and more demanding positions. I see it as urging the administration to stick to its guns — to pursue a negotiating endgame that is consistent with both the group’s recommendations and its own stated requirements.

The group’s statement contains significant recommendations that go beyond the contents of a comprehensive nuclear agreement. It states that the United States should affirm that it is U.S. policy to prevent Iran from producing sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon — or otherwise acquiring or building one — both during the agreement and after it expires. To that end, the President should declare, with formal Congressional endorsement, that the United States will use all means necessary, including military force, to prevent Iran from doing so. The administration has not yet taken a position on such a policy and, during the current negotiations, it would be inappropriate to do so. But in the wake of an agreement, it would be advisable to adopt such a policy as a deterrent to any future Iranian decision to opt for nuclear weapons.

Group members were also concerned that a nuclear agreement, by removing sanctions and ending Tehran’s international isolation, could empower Iran to step up its destabilizing activities in the region. Their statement therefore urges the United States to bolster any agreement by adopting a resolute regional strategy, doing more to check Iran and to support its traditional friends and allies. The statement outlines specific initiatives for addressing current challenges in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. It also proposes the creation of a discreet, high-level mechanism with Israel to deal with Israeli concerns about the nuclear agreement and Iran’s regional behavior. The Obama administration shares the group’s concerns about Iran’s regional role and has stepped up its efforts to counter Iran’s regional designs and reinforce U.S. commitments to its regional partners. The group’s statement encourages it to do more.

The public debate on the emerging nuclear deal with Iran has so far been highly polarized. Many critics of the Iran nuclear negotiations have spoken as if there is no such thing as a good or even adequate nuclear agreement. What is especially noteworthy about the statement issued this week by the Washington Institute’s study group is that it demonstrates that, if an eventual deal meets certain reasonable and achievable requirements, it can command substantial bipartisan support. And for anyone who favors an effective and sustainable solution to the Iran nuclear issue, that is a positive development. 

Read the full statement on U.S. policy toward the Iran nuclear negotiations here.