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Former Bush Diplomats Push Back on Criticism of Iran Deal

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Two senior retired diplomats warned Friday that the U.S. would isolate itself from a global consensus if Congress rejected the nuclear agreement concluded between the P5+1 and Iran earlier this month.

In a conference call held by the Truman National Security Project, Ryan Crocker and Daniel Kurtzer also made it clear that they see the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as the best opportunity for curbing Iran’s nuclear activities and avoiding a military confrontation. Crocker served as George W. Bush’s ambassador to Pakistan and then Iraq, and briefly as Barack Obama’s ambassador to Afghanistan. Kurtzer served as US ambassador to Israel during George W. Bush’s first term.

Calling the deal “a major agreement” that positions the United States to “reestablish its leadership” in the Middle East and the world, Crocker argued that “you do have to look at alternatives, and I don’t see any good ones out there.” He suggested that, if Congress rejected the deal over a presidential veto, such an outcome “would be just fine with the Iranians.” Tehran would be free to resume unfettered and unsupervised nuclear activities while enjoying the benefits of a breakdown in the multilateral sanctions regime that helped bring them to the negotiating table in the first place. Crocker’s remarks echoed earlier comments by Truman’s executive director, Michael Breen, who contended that a failure to pass the deal would leave the US with a choice to either “acquiesce” to the idea of a nuclear Iran or go to war to prevent that outcome.

Crocker said that the current moment recalled the 1991 Gulf War “when the United States truly led an international coalition to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.” He added: “What we’ve got now is an international consensus to deal with the Iranian nuclear problem effectively by not going to war.”

On the subject of the likelihood that the sanctions regime would fall apart in the wake of a congressional rejection of the deal, Crocker addressed the deal’s opponents bluntly. In that scenario, Crocker said

We [the US] would see a complete turning of the tables, with the U.S. being isolated and Iran being part of the broader consensus. For many Iranians, this agreement was Plan B, not Plan A. Plan A was for the negotiations to break down in a manner that the global community would blame us for the failure in which case they [Iran] would’ve kept their nuclear program and seen sanctions collapse — ..having their cake and eating it, too.

He cited Monday’s unanimous UN Security Council vote in favor of the agreement as evidence that “there is a virtually complete international consensus” about the deal. “If we [the US] decide that we are not going to support the agreement, then we’re alone,” a turn of events that Crocker argued would be a “huge triumph for Iran and our other adversaries. The chances that the Security Council or the international community would say ‘We got it, let’s vote for stronger sanctions,’ [as argued by the deal’s critics]– that is fantasy.”

Kurtzer maintained that the debate around the deal in America has been colored by the perception that Israelis are completely aligned against it, when “the fact is, there is no single view in Israel about this agreement.” As Kurtzer noted, several former high-ranking officials in the Israeli security establishment have come out firmly in favor of the Iran deal. Former Mossad head Ephraim Halevy, for example, wrote in an op-ed for Ynet that “Iran made concessions in a series of critical matters.” And Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israeli military intelligence, told Al-Monitor in April that, compared to the status quo or the “no deal” alternative, “the agreement provides quite a good package” of constraints on Iran’s nuclear program.

Kurtzer also questioned the logic of critics who insist that Iran wouldn’t necessarily react in a provocative way if Washington were unable to implement the deal due to congressional rejection. The agreement requires Tehran to drastically reduce the number of its working centrifuges and ship out almost all of its enriched uranium stockpile so that it would be at least one year from nuclear “break-out” status. But in the event of congressional rejection, Kurtzer predicted that Iran would almost certainly retain its current capability of achieving “break-out” in two months or less. “That’s the part [of the criticism of the deal] that makes no sense to anybody looking at the agreement,” he said.

Although opposition to the Iran deal is at a fever pitch on Capitol Hill, support is growing for the deal outside of the halls of Congress. Crocker and Kurtzer were among the over 100 former US diplomats who signed on to a letter supporting the JCPOA written by the Iran Project on July 16. One of that letter’s signers was Nicholas Burns, who, as George W. Bush’s undersecretary of state for political affairs, helped to draft some of the first nuclear-related sanctions against Iran. In The Financial Times on July 14, he wrote that the JCPOA “is a sensible agreement and far preferable to an Iran unfettered and ever closer to a nuclear weapon.” On July 20, a bipartisan group of 60 former national security officials and legislators signed a similarly supportive letter also written by the Iran Project. Today, Kurtzer and Burns joined a group of former US diplomats, including five former US ambassadors to Israel, in sending another letter in support of the deal to both houses of Congress. Arms control experts have largely supported the deal as well, including Gary Samore, the president of the otherwise anti-deal organization United Against a Nuclear Iran. Last but hopefully not least, a majority of the American public also supports this deal, despite deep skepticism that it will prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and strong disapproval of the way the Obama administration handled the negotiations.

Republicans in Congress may have their “minds made up” about the Iran deal already, as The New York Times writes, and they undoubtedly have many reasons, possibly billions of them, for coming to that conclusion. But they, and undecided congressional Democrats, may want to stop and listen to what experts outside of Congress, not to mention the American people, are saying about it.

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