In France, all right-thinking people know instinctively what the pensée unique is—the socially acceptable view on any subject that ensures a Parisian won’t get axed from the better dinner parties and weekends in Normandy. The Democratic party, which remains a more coherent concatenation than the Republican party, has long been the camp in America more prone to virtue tests, which can, if you fail, get you sent to the woodshed or worse. The age of Barack Obama and the rise of Donald Trump have certainly constricted acceptable conduct among liberals (and blown away the guardrails for conservatives). In foreign affairs, there is one overriding inquiry that must be passed by any Democrat hoping to gain entry to or remain among the elite: Are you loyal to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Obama’s nuclear deal with clerical Iran?
This strategic fastidiousness has become nastier as President Trump has appeared more determined to down his predecessor’s only significant diplomatic achievement. Obama’s minions, and leftists in general, have come out in force, replaying well-worn arguments and pushing a new, especially sinister one: Trump is leading America to war against the Islamic Republic in the same hyperventilated, dishonest way that George W. Bush led the country into Iraq. Iterations of this theme, with little variation, recently appeared in the New York Times, Politico, and the National Interest. On December 12, the 60-day congressional review period Trump triggered in October by declaring he would not certify the agreement ended, with Congress making no move to reinstate any of the sanctions the JCPOA set aside. As we draw closer to another deadline—January 13—for a decision on certification, which the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act requires the president make every 90 days, the deal’s supporters are likely to become even more fearful that Trump this time might actually reimpose substantial sanctions on Iran. Such anxiety is bound to produce more acrimony and tendentiousness.
We can’t speak for the president, but we can emphasize how sensible people can be gobsmacked by all the deficiencies and deceit in Obama’s atomic accord and the defenses made of it. It’s not surprising that the same people who engaged in intellectual dishonesty during the 2015 debate over the deal—including against members of their own party—would now throw Iraq war shibboleths and canards into current Iran deliberations. We do wonder whether it’s a fool’s errand to set the record straight on the past and present when even experienced foreign-policy hands think Armageddon is around the corner; apocalyptic feverishness can throw one’s analytical faculties off the rails. In Washington, memories are like silly putty, to be molded, recolored, and pinched off to further a grand cause. Da Vinci was right: “Whoever in discussion adduces authority uses not intellect but memory.”
Keep that in mind as we consider one of those recent critiques, published in Politico and written by Philip Gordon, the former coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region in Obama’s national security council, who was intimately involved in the JCPOA deliberations. “Trump’s Iran Strategy Looks Ominously Familiar” offers an excellent opportunity to revisit the Iraq war and the Iran nuclear accord and juxtapose the two in a less surreal manner. We would have exempted Gordon from Obama’s deceptive entourage since when he was in the NSC, he matter-of-factly told us, referring to the nuclear agreement, that “a bad deal is better than no deal at all.” We ardently disagree with that position, as did, at least publicly, President Obama, secretary of state John Kerry, and Foggy Bottom’s primary nuclear diplomat, Wendy Sherman, who regularly repeated the refrain that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” Gordon’s assessment is, of course, a rare honest accounting of his boss’s nuclear diplomacy: It allowed Washington to kick the can down the road. That is, in itself, a logically defensible position if openly expressed. If you’re prepared to concede a nuke eventually to the clerical regime—if you’re not prepared to go to the mat, economically and, if need be, militarily—then any temporary limitation on the mullahs’ nuclear ambitions is success.
Gordon’s assessment of the JCPOA was not a solitary insight: Others in the White House, not to mention the State Department, the Pentagon, and the Central Intelligence Agency, were underwhelmed with President Obama’s diplomacy. It takes a peculiar lack of imagination to believe that a more forceful, dread-inducing diplomat (a Dean Acheson, George Shultz, or James Baker), backed by a president willing to abandon negotiations, could not have done a better job than Kerry and Obama. It is hardly a Washington secret that Kerry’s inclination to believe Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a disposition that national security adviser Susan Rice apparently shared, caused concern among more experienced Iran hands in the U.S. government, among Democrats in Congress, and among the French and British diplomats involved in the nuclear negotiations. Yet Obama, Kerry, Sherman, energy secretary Ernest Moniz, and so many others sold the deal with effusive Panglossian language. Wrapped up in deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes’s spin machine, they depicted an agreement that would “permanently” close down “all pathways to a bomb,” with an “intrusive” and “rigorous” inspections regime, “the best ever,” to ensure the Iranians couldn’t cheat. This is particularly audacious given that after the JCPOA was concluded, we are reliably told, senior Obama officials began writing up internal memoranda on how to “fix” the deal’s most glaring problems. When the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency was obliged to agree to an inspectors-may-not-enter, remote-controlled soil sampling of the Parchin Islamic Revolutionary Guard base, where the agency and Western intelligence services believe the clerical regime worked on nuclear triggers, we thought that Monty Python had been reborn. The Obama administration defended the arrangement and when this sampling revealed man-made uranium particles, which would have made anyone serious about proliferation demand a physical IAEA inspection of the site, chose to ignore the issue. We are where we are with the Islamic Republic because the clerical regime, matured on a diet of machtpolitik, had our number.
Gordon sees President Trump, like President Bush before him, “politicizing intelligence, making false claims about weapons of mass destruction, overselling the benefits of confrontation, and pulling members of Congress—afraid of looking soft on terrorism and WMD—along in his wake.” He also is concerned about another supposed similarity with 2003: Certain think tanks are again deceptively leading America into disaster. With Iraq, it was the Project for the New American Century and the American Enterprise Institute; today, it is the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. We find this think-tank conspiracy-plotting bizarre, although we are deeply honored that Gordon thinks that FDD has this much influence. (One of us feels especially proud since he worked at PNAC and AEI, too; the other was in 2003 a venture capitalist in Toronto who, if pushed, could have located Iraq on a map.) We would think that Gordon, who has worked at a few think tanks, would understand how these organizations operate: They engage in largely public debates, often most effectively through criticism of the administration in power, and fight an inevitably uphill battle to get congressmen and senior government officials to see the big picture beyond the immediacy of Washington politics and the vast sea of paper pushed up by the bureaucracies.
Gordon ought to recall his own work from 15 years ago, when he advocated essentially the same position as his Brookings colleague Kenneth Pollack, whose book The Threatening Storm was influential in laying out the case for, and reservations about, war against Saddam Hussein. Gordon’s November 2002 essay “Iraq: The Transatlantic Debate” was a sober CliffsNotes version of Pollack’s tome; parts of it are even applicable to the current debate on Iran (more on that later). We are convinced that Gordon, at least, wasn’t led astray back then by any hyperbolic comments made by Vice President Dick Cheney, secretary of state Colin Powell, or national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, even though he seems to believe that so many other Democrats were. Like most sensible folks on the left-wing side of the foreign-policy establishment, Gordon advocated the likely need to use force against Saddam because of the monstrous, bellicose, WMD-loving history of the Iraqi dictator. The United States did not go to war against the Butcher of Baghdad because a cabal of bad or deceptive analysts and senior officials successfully sold the idea that Saddam and al Qaeda were in cahoots in the attacks against New York and Washington, as some of Obama’s people sensationally suggest. We’d be shocked if the Democratic senators who backed the war, including Hillary Clinton, gave the al-Qaeda-Iraq-9/11 conspiracy more than five seconds of thought. Mutatis mutandis, if the United States ever goes to war against the Islamic Republic, Iran’s longstanding outreach to Sunni terrorist groups, undoubtedly strained by its embrace of sectarian war in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, won’t be among the top reasons, contrary to what Gordon and other pro-deal enthusiasts are suggesting. The Iran-al-Qaeda connection, however, unlike the Saddam-al-Qaeda speculation, does deserve serious historical attention. We are inclined to believe the story told by a confidant of Mohammad Khatami that the former president (1997-2005) was concerned that the ministry of intelligence and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps might have had some role in assisting al Qaeda with the 9/11 operation. As the 9/11 Commission Report reveals, Khatami had cause to worry, given the pre-9/11 contact between al Qaeda and the Iranian-created Lebanese Hezbollah and the laissez-passers given to members of al Qaeda by the Iranian security services. Khatami would have been the last to know. It’s downright bizarre that so many Democrats seemed so fearful of Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad files finally being released to the public. We are proud that the government gave FDD a first-look into these documents: No one has worked harder to get all the information released than our colleagues Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn. Would that the Obama administration had been more open and less selective about its (tiny and misleading) release of bin Laden’s files—the more sunlight the better.
It was the powerful, post-9/11 strategic and moral arguments against Saddam—an Orwellian savage who’d invaded his neighbors, slaughtered his own people in vast numbers, and possessed longstanding ties to terrorist groups and an impressive appetite for unconventional weaponry—that carried the day in 2003, not the CIA’s assessment of how Saddam was reconstituting his WMD after the first Gulf war. As Gordon, a Europeanist, is well aware, those assessments were largely shared by French intelligence, which we assume wasn’t subject to the manipulations that Gordon now imputes to the Bush administration. Amusingly, the Iranian regime, which doesn’t share intelligence with the CIA, appears to have largely agreed with Langley’s analysis of Saddam’s weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. If deception played any role in the events that led to the Anglo-American invasion of Mesopotamia, it was Saddam’s determination to make others believe that he’d retained his unconventional laboratories and ambitions. Tyrants always are acutely sensitive to any perception of weakness.
Shellshocked by the Iraq and Afghan wars, eagerly seeking American retrenchment and a “reset” of U.S.-Iranian relations, Obama was opposed to taking a hard line in the nuclear talks with Tehran. He crafted a deal that Ali Akbar Salehi, the MIT-educated head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, was delighted with, especially since the JCPOA’s limited restrictions on advanced centrifuge production dovetailed with the time Iran requires to perfect the IR8, the development of which is allowed by Obama’s nuclear accord. Once the highly efficient centrifuge is deployed, with its small cascades that can easily be put in a warehouse, the surveillance of known and the detection of unknown sites become practically impossible. Thousands of IR8s could be spinning, producing so much enriched uranium that diverting sufficient fuel for a bomb would not be demanding even in a plant monitored by IAEA inspectors.
The deal’s sunset clauses—we can’t think of another arms-control agreement that superannuates itself so quickly—that begin taking effect in six years are plainly absurd unless one really believes the Islamic Republic is going to transform itself, really soon. As Gordon has himself pointed out, that’s unlikely. Why in the world would any serious administration—which means a White House willing to use military force to back diplomacy—have agreed to separate the issue of long-range ballistic missiles from the JCPOA and then, to add insult to injury, agreed to weaken an existing United Nations Security Council resolution that had prohibited ballistic-missile development and testing to one that now only “calls upon” Tehran to refrain from such actions for another six years? Even U.N. secretary general Antonio Guterres is now complaining about the Islamic Republic’s behavior in this sphere, telling the Security Council that Iran might have given ballistic missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen, who used them to attack Saudi Arabia and one of its airports. U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley held a press conference near Washington on December 14 standing in front of one of the recovered missiles.
There isn’t a soul in the CIA or the Pentagon who believes the Iranian missile program has been designed exclusively for conventional warheads. Sherman’s remark that the administration decided to put its emphasis on preventing the development of nuclear warheads, not missiles, is just head-spinning. The CIA, which has failed to detect with any reassuring accuracy the development of nuclear arms by hostile countries, is going to detect the clandestine development of a warhead in Iran? Langley would need to be luckier—have just the right Iranian scientist, cleric, or Revolutionary Guardsman volunteer his services to an American operative—than it has ever been. Former CIA director John Brennan’s suggestion that Washington had the intelligence capacity to verify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA is only truthful (read non-politicized) if you assume that Langley’s intelligence doesn’t have to compensate for the gaping holes in Obama’s agreement, that the only thing the agency has to do is confirm the IAEA’s monitoring of declared sites. President Obama allowed the clerical regime to wall off from IAEA examination Revolutionary Guard bases, Iranian nuclear scientists, and the massive stacks of paper that have charted Iran’s progress since the mullahs got serious about developing nuclear weapons in the 1990s.
Secretary Kerry cavalierly ignored all the “possible military dimensions” (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program by asserting that we knew the past; what’s important is the future. Really? Given Iran’s longstanding mendacity and nuclear aspirations, given its proven propensity to use clandestine sites to further its atomic ambitions, deploying George Santayana’s warning about remembering the past seems obligatory and actionable for an American administration.
We think Obama and Kerry ignored the PMD concerns because they were scared. They knew what the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and the Guards didn’t want to share and that the disclosure of such information would profoundly complicate American diplomacy. But the model that Gordon insisted on in 2002 is still good today. The Gordon Standard for Iran would be, replacing the word “Iraqi” where needed, the “insistence on a full declaration of [Iranian] WMD programs within a short and defined period of time; unfettered and immediate access to all suspected weapons sites that UN inspectors want to visit . . . ; the ability to interview [Iranian] weapons scientists without the presence of an [Iranian] ‘minder’ and if necessary the ability to take them out of the country; full UN control over the make-up of the inspections teams; and reinforcement of the sanctions regime.”
Last and least, concerning Gordon’s assertion that one of the authors has been misrepresenting Europeans’ willingness to join Washington in amending the JCPOA: We don’t know whether the Europeans will support any American effort to correct Obama’s mistakes. It is a pivotal question for the Trump administration as it develops a sanctions policy toward Tehran—and most specifically, as it decides whether to approve the license for the export of American parts in new Airbus planes destined for Iran. French president Emmanuel Macron has recognized the need to address the agreement’s sunset clauses and its omission of the clerical regime’s ballistic-missile program. That’s a first among European leaders. Macron may be just highlighting these issues in an effort to dissuade President Trump from walking away from the accord and downing the Airbus sale. Nonetheless, it behooves the administration to explore whether the French are serious about correcting these deficiencies before the sunset clauses give the Islamic Republic an industrial-size uranium-enrichment capacity. As Gordon knows, the French and the British were, almost miraculously, willing to hold firm against Iran’s enrichment demands before Obama started his secret bilateral diplomacy with Tehran. Atypically, the Americans, not the Europeans, were on the cutting edge of making concessions. The nuclear deal has, however, successfully re-whetted European commercial appetites. Nonetheless, we should always try working with our allies. If we have to coerce them into greater economic restraint towards the Islamic Republic, then we should. And we can, given the power of secondary sanctions that are already keeping most European banks on the sidelines. Transatlantic ties, wide and deep, can take the stress. As Gordon himself has shown in his fine book on the Iraq conflict, Allies at War, Americans and Europeans have had worse disagreements.
As a rule, we don’t believe that it’s ever a good idea to punt down the road risks that will intensify. If President Trump has the fortitude to stop the JCPOA from becoming the mullahs’ pathway to a bomb, we support his effort. If he has the fortitude to stop Iranian imperialism and the slaughter in Syria that was unleashed after President Obama decided to downsize American influence, we support that, too. It isn’t clear, though, that the president and Congress have the requisite will to push back Iranian advances. We wonder whether Gordon, who seems to think that congressmen are credulous and bellicose, spends much time on the Hill. In any case, the Democratic foreign-policy elite should calm down. It’s entirely possible that Obama’s accomplishments in the Middle East, such as they are, will stand. The odds are certainly high enough for the intelligentsia to stay well-mannered. No matter what happens, however, its rehashed, fretful memories of what happened 15 years ago will remain sheer illusion.
Mark Dubowitz is CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Mark on Twitter @mdubowitz.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Follow the the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.