Cliff May: President Obama, I think it’s fair to say, had one overriding priority in foreign and national security policy: to conclude a deal with Iran, one that he promised would prevent the Islamic Republic from becoming nuclear-armed. Now, Mark Dubowitz, you followed closely the development of this policy over a period of years. Initially, you were both supportive and optimistic, weren’t you?
Mark Dubowitz: Cliff, I was. I mean, I very much supported a negotiated agreement with Iran over its nuclear weapons program and supported a program of very tough sanctions to support that diplomacy. So when President Obama came into office in 2009, he promised this dual-track policy. We’re going to engage with the Iranians, we’re going to talk to our enemies, but at the same time, we’re going to use American financial economic power, and we’re going to have all options on the table, including military force, to make it very clear to the Iranians that we would prevent them from developing a nuclear weapon. It didn’t quite work out the way I had hoped, but we can discuss why.
Cliff May: We’ll explore that. Now, initially the Iranians were not terribly eager to negotiate with the US. People should recall we didn’t have relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran after the revolution of 1979, the seizure of our embassy, the taking of our diplomats as hostages, no relations. There were secret talks going on from time to time, but not in a public place. What brought the Iranians to the table?
Mark Dubowitz: What finally brought them to the table were years of very, very tough sanctions. Initially they were put in by the Bush administration, by the US Treasury Department under the leadership of Stuart Levy, and then into the Obama administration, the US Congress really got in on the action and starting passing multiple bills with very tough secondary sanctions, which targeted those international companies and banks that do business with Iran. These were powerful sanctions that really hit the economy. They went after Iran’s oil sector, its central bank, its entire financial system, its auto sector, its ability to really transact internationally, and those sanctions really brought the Iranians to the verge of economic collapse. They were four to six months away from a Venezuela-type economic crisis in 2013.
Cliff May: So at that point they said, “Okay, we’ll talk,” but at what point were the sanctions lifted? At what point was the pressure released?
Mark Dubowitz: Well, Cliff, interestingly enough, it was exactly the time when the Iranians said, “We’re willing to talk” that the Obama administration started to relax the sanctions. They blocked additional Congressional sanctions that were designed by a bipartisan Congress to put more pressure on Iran as the administration went into negotiations. They signed an interim agreement with Iran …
Cliff May: That was what year?
Mark Dubowitz: … in 2013, which suspended some of the key oil sanctions and auto sector sanctions and precious metals sanctions. It gave Iran initially about $7 billion, but more importantly, it began to relax the pressure. It changed the psychology, both in the marketplace with respect to international companies and banks, and it changed the Iranian psychology, that all options were not on the table. Not only was the military option not on the table, and President Obama made it very clear that he wasn’t interested in using military force, and he certainly undercut the Israeli ability to use military force, but he had taken the financial leverage off the table. So they signed an interim agreement in 2013. They negotiate for two years, eventually reach the final agreement in 2015, and the terms of the agreement just got worse and worse and worse.
Cliff May: In that period, 2013 to 2015, one, the Iranians pretty much knew that they were not threatened with a big stick. There was not going to be any military action, even if the negotiations collapsed, even if there was no agreement. That wasn’t a real threat. I think we can assume the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, got that. Did they also think that if the negotiations faltered or if they refused to make concessions in that period between the interim agreement and the final agreement, the JCPOA, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, that there’d be new sanctions pretty quick and that the pressure would be back on?
Mark Dubowitz: They probably assumed there would new sanctions, but I think what they understood is they had President Obama and Secretary Kerry’s number. They understood that Obama and Kerry desperately wanted an Iran deal. They understood that the administration wasn’t prepared to use all instruments of American power against Iran, and so they knew that as long as they kept the administration, as long as they kept Secretary Kerry and his deputies at the negotiating table, they could continue to squeeze and squeeze and squeeze for new concessions. I don’t believe there’s any Iranian fear that this administration at that time was willing to walk away from the table.
Cliff May: So in point of fact, between 2013, the interim agreement, and 2015, the final agreement, did the Iranians make any significant concessions, and did the US make significant concessions?
Mark Dubowitz: Well, people will say that the Iranians did make concessions. You know, they gave up about 14,000 of their first-generation centrifuges, which were taken out of the enrichment facilities, and they were put in storage with a lock on them. They agreed to cap the level of low-enriched uranium stockpiles. They agreed to cap heavy water. They agreed to put cement in the colander of the heavy water reactor in Iraq. They agreed to certain concessions, but Cliff, what’s really important to understand is the concessions that they agreed to were on technologies that they had already perfected, in order to buy time for technologies that they hadn’t perfected.
Now, that’s not just me saying that, that’s Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran, a former nuclear negotiator, someone who had negotiated with the Europeans between 2003 and 2005, and at that time had written in his book and had talked about publicly that his whole negotiating strategy was exactly that. “I’m willing to make concessions to suspend technologies that we know how to do in order to buy the time to work on technologies that we don’t know how to do.” And so that was very much the game plan of the negotiation in 2013 to 2015, and when you look at the interim agreement and when you look at the final agreement, that’s exactly what the Iranians did.
They gave up on technologies that they had perfected, and what they did is they found time to work, over the next decade to 12 years, on those technologies that they needed, advanced centrifuges, long-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, and eventually to buy the time to work on the military nuclear aspects of their program, warhead designs and triggers, which they hoped to do in the clandestine facilities, the military facilities, which they repeatedly say the IAEA, the UN weapons inspectors, are not getting into.
Cliff May: What you just told us is astonishing, so I want to focus on it for a minute, because one could imagine if the intelligence community had come back to John Kerry, Secretary of State, and President Obama and said, “Look, we’ve got a memo. We stole it, and it gives their negotiating strategy. We know exactly what they’re planning to do to you.” But the intelligence community, you’re saying, didn’t need to, because it all published in a book. It shouldn’t have fooled them, and yet, despite them knowing what the strategy was, they kind of went along and did exactly what Rouhani wanted them to do, which is to say, “We’re only going to restrict you on what you already know, and we’re not going to restrict you on what you need to develop in order to have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to targets anywhere in the world.”
Mark Dubowitz: They didn’t even have to read the book. All they had to do, actually, was follow Hassan Rouhani’s election campaign in 2013. See, Rouhani was getting beaten up by the Revolutionary Guards and some of the other candidates in that election for having been too soft with the Europeans when he was a nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005. So Rouhani said, “I wasn’t too soft. I had a strategy, and my strategy at that period of time was to do exactly what I’ve described. I negotiated with the Europeans, we suspended certain parts of our program that we knew how to do it, in order to buy time to work on other aspects of the program that we hadn’t perfected.”
So Rouhani’s bragging about this during the election campaign. You didn’t have to read his book, you didn’t need any classified information from the US intelligence community, you just had to sit there and read what Rouhani was actually saying in this election campaign. So you just had to translate from Farsi into English his strategy. The other thing he said at the time was, “My strategy is also to divide the Europeans from the Americans and the West from the Chinese and Russians.” And I think that’s also important to keep in mind as we consider the administration’s options going forward with this nuclear deal, with a looming deadline on May the 12th.
Cliff May: This is sort of an unfair question, but if it was clear what the negotiating strategy was, if it was clear what the Iranians wanted to get out of these talks, why wasn’t there on the American side either the will or the knowledge to say we’re not going to let them get that?
Mark Dubowitz: It’s a question that I ask myself every day. I mean, the US had incredible negotiating leverage. The US had basically brought the Europeans on board. There were powerful sanctions. Iran was down to its last $20 billion in foreign exchange reserves for a $400 billion economy. Inflation was officially at 40%, unofficially at 80%. GDP was negative 6-1/2%. Oil revenues had dropped off a cliff, really. The rial had collapsed. Iran was four to six months away from a balance of payments crisis, where the economy could have ended up like Venezuela’s. So you think with all that negotiating leverage, you would go in, first thing you would do is you’d make sure you had bad cops. Always need bad cops. So if Obama and Kerry want to be the good cops, you need Congress and the Israelis as the bad cop, because Ali Khamenei was the bad cop.
So when Hassan Rouhani and Zarif went to negotiate this agreement, they could keep saying, “We’re reasonable guys. We would take those concessions, but I got the Supreme Leader thundering back in Tehran, and if I give you those concessions and I go back to Iran and tell him that, I could be hanging from a crane.” Barack Obama and John Kerry had bad cops. They had the Israelis, who were making a lot of noise, public noise about their willingness to use military force. They had Congress, which had moved bipartisan legislation with deadline-triggered sanctions, that if the Iranians did not agree to certain terms by a certain date, there would be even more powerful sanctions that would snap on them.
So what did John Kerry do? What did Barack Obama do? They basically took their bad cops and they shot them. They completely undermined both Congress and the Israelis. Congress, they said we will veto any new legislation that imposes any types of sanctions, whether they be today or in the future, whether they be deadline-triggered or they be imposed for no reason. And the Israelis, they constantly leaked publicly that Israel was preparing for the use of military force, and they made it very clear to the Israelis that if the Israelis used military force, America would not be with them.
So boom, boom. Congress was gone, the Israelis are gone, and they’re walking into negotiation without any bad cops, without any clear red lines that they’re willing to defend, and they’re negotiating against Hassan Rouhani and Zarif, who have forgotten more about nuclear physics than Kerry ever learned. And the Supreme Leader, again, back in Tehran thundering away, defining his red lines and proving inflexible on all of them.
Cliff May: It’s an odd way to run negotiations. Do you recall at what point you became disenchanted? At what point did you recognize that this is not going to end well, that essentially John Kerry sat down with a guy named Doc in a bar to play cards?
Mark Dubowitz: I became very disenchanted when I learned that there were actually back channel negotiations taking place between Iran and the United States in Oman, and that coming out of those secret back channel negotiations that none of us knew anything about, they had agreed on certain parameters that were then going to inform the agreement in 2013 that became the interim agreement, the Joint Plan of Action. I became incredibly disenchanted when I learned that John Kerry had given up the most valuable concession to Iran, not at the end of negotiations, when you actually want to save the most valuable concessions for the end of negotiations, but he had given the most valuable concessions up front, before the negotiations even had begun.
What were those concessions? Well, the first one was on enrichment. There had been international policy, US policy, multiple Security Council resolutions that Iran, this Iranian regime, could not have domestic enrichment. Domestic enrichment’s important. Why do you need domestic enrichment? Because that’s the fissile material that you need to produce a nuclear device. There were multiple UN Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to suspend all of its enrichment. He gave it up. No reason to give that up. There are 20 countries that have civilian nuclear programs that don’t have domestic enrichment or plutonium reprocessing. There are a list of countries that do have domestic enrichment or plutonium reprocessing. They actually have nuclear weapons. And Iran, given its nuclear mendacity over decades, was certainly not a country that should be in a club of domestic enrichment and reprocessing, given the nature of this regime. He gave that up.
The second thing he gave up is what has now haunted us, is this issue of the sunset provisions, that any restrictions on Iran’s program would not be permanent, that they would go away over time, that regardless of Iranian behavior, these restrictions would disappear, and that is now what we’re left with in this agreement. Iran has domestic enrichment, it has plutonium reprocessing that it will get over time. It will be in a position to emerge with an industrial-size nuclear program. That program will be powered by advanced centrifuges, which are smaller, more efficient and easier to hide, so therefore giving Iran an easier clandestine sneak-out. It will have a massive enrichment program, be able to produce hundreds of thousands of kilograms of enriched uranium in a near-zero nuclear breakout. And it will have a long-range ballistic missile program and cruise missile program, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. That’s what Iran gets by following the deal.
Cliff May: John Kerry was not, I think it’s fair to say, an experienced negotiator. Rouhani, Javad Zarif, the Iranian side, they had skilled and very experienced negotiators. But John Kerry had some experienced negotiators on his team. The problem is, in the negotiations they had conducted in the past hadn’t been very successful either.
Mark Dubowitz: Listen, certainly there were people on the team, like Wendy Sherman, who had been involved in the North Korea negotiations. She wasn’t a negotiator for the 1994 Agreed Framework, but she became very involved in the implementation of the Agreed Framework and in subsequent negotiations with the North Koreans. But I don’t want to … Cliff, I want to be very clear here. There were great people on that team. There were really smart people who understood the technical issues, who understood the risks and the dangers, and not just on the US team. If you looked at the French negotiating team, in many respects they were even better. This was a group of people who had worked together very closely on the Iranian issue, had been negotiating with the Iranians since 2003, had been lied to by the Iranians repeatedly with respect to the nuclear program, who understood their file. They were nonproliferation experts. They were sanctions experts.
And they really tried to hold the line in these negotiations, because remember, these were not negotiations just between the United States and Iran. These were negotiations between Iran and what’s called the P5+1, so the United States, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany. In particular, the French were very tough at the table, trying to convince Kerry and the US negotiators to hold the line on key issues, and in some respects they got some positive changes into the interim and then the final agreement, but they weren’t able to hold the line against an American President and his Secretary of State who were desperate for a deal and weren’t going to let anybody get in their way.
Cliff May: There were concessions made that we didn’t know about at the time, outside the deal, weren’t there?
Mark Dubowitz: There were concessions made. There were side agreements reached with the Iranians that we learned about later. There may be additional side agreements we don’t even know about today, that haven’t even been publicized, that have been classified. There were additional agreements that gave Iran even more concessions. In fact, there were understandings reached after the JCPOA, changes that were made by the Obama Treasury Department, by the Obama State Department, that actually gave the Iranians even more concessions.
And what’s worth talking about, Cliff, is not just what the concessions were, but how were the concessions given and why were they given? I want to get back to the Iranian perspective on this, because it’s really interesting to think about this from an Iranian perspective. How does a country, internationally isolated, with 80 million people, with a tiny economy, under massive sanctions, both US and international sanctions, come to the negotiating table and manage to turn the tables? Turn the table on the United States, the great superpower, and the international community, get itself out from under these powerful nuclear sanctions, and walk away with a nuclear deal that essentially gives them a patient pathway into nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles? How does a country do that?
I think a country does that because the Iranians walked in with a negotiating strategy, part of which we’ve talked about today, but what they did was they sat down with their technical experts and the head of the Iranian nuclear program, a guy named Salehi, and they said, “All right, Salehi, what we want you to do is tell us how long it’s going to take to perfect the advanced centrifuges. How long will it be before we can be in a position to have a delivery vehicle, a long-range ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead? How long will it take you to be in a position where we can actually start to do the kind of military nuclear work that is essential in order to take fissile material, put it in a warhead, and affix it to a missile?”
So Salehi sat down and he gave them the timelines, the technical timelines, and so they started with the technical timelines that were based on the Iranian R&D schedule and capabilities, and they negotiated a deal around that. So they walked in with a real clear sense of what they wanted to get, and then they did what they do all the time, which was they used nuclear blackmail, and the blackmail was very simple. You either give us those concessions or we will walk away from the table. If we walk away from the table, we will expand our nuclear program. You will have no choice but to concede us a nuclear weapon or use military force to forestall that. So in other words, this deal or war. That was the Iranians saying that and using a nuclear blackmail.
And then a guy named Ben Rhodes, who was Barack Obama’s chief communications strategist and had a fancy title, Deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes went out there and in selling the deal, just echoed the Iranian blackmail threat, which essentially became, “You, Congress, if you block this deal, then you have a choice: this deal or war.” And it became actually quite an effective way to browbeat many Democrats to supporting that deal. So an Iranian negotiating strategy, an Iranian communications strategy, a political strategy, the Iranians were very good in understanding American weakness and understanding American desperation for a deal, and that’s how they played us, and that’s why we are left with a fatally flawed nuclear agreement.
Cliff May: I only want to mention this briefly. There’s another kind of concession that took place, and those were a recognition and respect for various Iranian equities around the world, such things as stopping American intelligence and law enforcement from preventing Hezbollah from continuing to involve itself in drug trafficking in Latin America. They were kind of called off. In Syria, you had a recognition that Bashar Assad, the dictator, is an Iranian guy. We can’t really interfere with what he wants to do, which led to the civil war, which has cost a half million lives so far. There were a lot of other equities that were going to be respected that were outside the deal but still, if I’m correct … and you tell me if I’m not … President Obama didn’t want to upset the Iranians outside the deal in any way.
Mark Dubowitz: Well, exactly right, and President Obama didn’t want to upset the Iranians because, remember, the Iranians were using blackmail. They kept saying, “If you pressure us, both inside the deal and outside the deal, any more sanctions, you push back against us in Syria, you start pushing back against our equities in Iraq, in Yemen, if you start going after Hezbollah in Lebanon, if you start going after our networks, terror networks, illicit financial networks and drug trafficking networks globally, if you do anything that we don’t like, we will walk away from the table. And if we walk away from the table, Barack Obama, you’re not getting your nuclear deal. And if you’re not getting your nuclear deal, we are going to escalate, and we know, Barack Obama, you’re not prepared to escalate. In fact, we know one thing about you is you want to get out of the Middle East. You want to pull out of the Middle East, pivot to Asia, and leave behind this troubled region. We’re not pulling out of the Middle East. We’re not pivoting to Asia. We want to own the Middle East.”
And so as they pushed forward regionally, as they began to push forward in Iraq and in Syria, in Yemen, in Lebanon, both directly and through proxies, they pushed forward and forward, and instead of encountering American steel, they encountered American mush. And they just kept pushing and pushing and pushing, all the while negotiating this deal, getting these nuclear concessions, and trying to negotiate their way out of this economic and financial vice grip that the United States had put on it.
Cliff May: If I wanted to be generous to Barack Obama, might I say the following, that he was running an experiment, that he thought that we had been bellicose towards the Iranians for way too long, that if he simply showed respect to the Islamic Republic, to the Supreme Leader, if he showed that he respected their equities around the world, their ambition to be at least a leader in the Middle East, if not the hegemon, he sort of thought … and oh, also if he got them involved in international commerce, supported their economy, well, moderation would be the inevitable result of this process, that that was the experiment he was running. And I think now that the experiment has been run, assuming that it was his experiment, we know the answer. It’s a failure. It didn’t happen. There’s no moderation that’s taken place, and there’s no moderation we can see over the next five, 10, 15, 20 years that’s the life of this agreement, which we need to talk about. Is that a reasonable theory?
Mark Dubowitz: Yeah, look, I think there’s two theories in defense of Barack Obama’s decision here. The first theory is yes, let’s seduce the hard men of Iran to become pragmatic capitalists. Let’s integrate them into the global financial system. That will in turn moderate them, and again, if we’ll respect their equities in the Middle East, we’ll pull back from the Middle East. As he said, we’ll let the Iranians and the Saudis share the Middle East. They can divide the Middle East. We’ll be an offshore balancer against the Saudis and then against the Iranians, as one or the other becomes more powerful. So that was one theory of the case, and I think, Cliff, that’s exactly right. I think that theory has proven to be wrong. If anything, the Iranian regime has gotten more repressive and more aggressive, not more moderate.
The second theory of the case, which I think was actually a viable theory, is that Barack Obama was prepared to do a limited arms control deal with the Iranians. The Iranian regime had gotten to a breakout time of about two to three months. He wanted to extend that breakout time to a year, which is what the nuclear agreement accomplished. It was a limited agreement. It was an agreement that didn’t cut off every pathway to Iran’s nuclear weapons. It was an agreement that at the end of the day had some serious flaws into it and required a follow-on agreement, and the agreement itself would solve a very narrow problem, and the Obama administration would continue to push back aggressively against all other forms of Iranian malign behavior.
So a limited nuclear agreement with a comprehensive policy to push back against Iran’s malign behavior. That would be an objective that I think I could have supported. The problem that I had with the Obama administration’s agreement and the way they sold it is they sold this as a comprehensive nuclear agreement that quote unquote cut off all pathways to nuclear weapons. Well, that’s just nonsense. If you read the agreement, it doesn’t cut off all pathways, because all the restrictions go away over time, and those pathways actually are paved to an Iranian nuclear weapon. It is also in the context of an Obama administration Iran policy where the deal itself paralyzes that policy. The administration, as you clearly articulated, on other multiple fronts of Iranian and Hezbollah malign activity, doesn’t push forward, they retreat back.
So in other words, they create a space for Iran to become even more aggressive, even more threatening to US interests and the interests of our allies. Again, a limited agreement, sold in a limited way with an understanding that there would be multiple follow-up agreements to address these flaws while we continued to build leverage, would have made some sense, but they went the opposite way.