Questions and concerns about the Iran nuclear deal were confronted head-on by Middle East expert Patrick Clawson last Thursday night at a program sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council.
About 100 community members, including leaders of a host of local Jewish institutions, convened at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill to hear the about the ideological underpinnings of the deal and to better understand its terms and its likely consequences.
Clawson, a senior fellow and director of research at the Washington Institute and the director of its Iran Security Initiative, has spent more than 35 years studying Middle East politics. He is a widely consulted analyst and media commentator and the author of more than 150 articles about the Middle East and international economics. He has also written or edited 18 of books or studies specifically on Iran.
The Federation invited Clawson to address the community in its effort to help its constituents “understand this very complicated issue [which has] the potential to divide this community,” said CRC director Gregg Roman just prior to Clawson taking the podium.
Clawson was chosen, Roman added in an interview, because “we thought he would give the most balanced presentation, and I felt he did give a balanced presentation.”
Clawson began his talk by opining on why the Obama administration sees the agreement as so important.
“In [President Barack] Obama’s viewpoint, the best way to enhance the security of the United States is to address historic grievances,” of governments with which we have had tense diplomatic relationships in the past, such as Cuba and Iran, Clawson said. “He is trying to create conditions he thinks will allow us to cooperate on common problems” and set these countries on the path to becoming “more normal states.”
Clawson characterized Obama’s approach as “very optimistic,” and posited that it makes many officials in Washington “nervous” because it often works “at the expense of our close allies.”
Clawson said he would have been “more impressed” with the Iran deal had the Obama administration first built a consensus with allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel as to acceptable deal terms, then expanded that circle to include countries such as China and Russia, and only then reach out to Iran.
He challenged the idea that the United States could find common ground with Iran on such issues as battling ISIS and other terror groups in the Middle East.
“The Iranians are simultaneously firemen and arsonists,” Clawson said, noting that government’s penchant for funding terrorist groups while claiming to fight them.
“What Iran has done is fan the flames of sectarian tensions in the region,” including funding al-Qaeda in Syria.
Clawson said he is also concerned that the terms of the agreement actually undermine Obama’s stated goal of reducing nuclear weapons worldwide.
“The agreement lets Iran keep a lot of things which have no clear peaceful purpose,” Clawson said. For example, the enriched uranium it is allowed to keep pursuant to the deal cannot even be used in its power reactor, he noted.
Instead of permanently deterring Iran from getting a bomb, Clawson said, the United States instead has agreed to keep Iran “at least a year away from breakout activity.”
“I find that shift uncomfortable,” said Clawson.
He addressed the process of congressional review as it applies to the Iran deal. Proper congressional review, he said, could make the deal more likely to succeed.
“In an ideal world, Congress would examine the agreement closely, hold hearings and push the administration on a lot of points,” as it did during the negotiation of the historic SALT and START treaties with the Soviet Union.
At that time, Congress labored through the agreements in detail, perfecting and clarifying provisions that might be ambiguous to those not involved in the negotiations, or potential meanings and issues that had not been contemplated, Clawson said.
Congress should take on that same role in regard to the Iranian accord, he said.
“There are a lot of ambiguous provisions in this agreement,” Clawson said. “Even if those ambiguities were worked out in the talks, we don’t have a record of it.”
The danger of not clarifying those ambiguities is that the Iranians may later claim a meaning not intended and not recorded.
“I would like to get the parties on the record about what these clauses mean,” he said.
One common misconception concerns the supposed lifting of non-nuclear sanctions levied on Iran. The deal does not provide that all sanctions levied on Iran will be lifted, he explained. Those sanctions against Iran for its support of terrorism and its human rights violations will remain in place.
Another aspect of the agreement that is unclear, Clawson said, is “what happens if Iran cheats?”
He characterized the “snapback” provision as akin to “setting off a nuclear bomb” and noted that if Iran only “cheats small,” he would expect a smaller, more proportionate reaction from the United States.
Clawson said it would be useful for Congress to require the Obama administration to reveal its big picture strategy vis-a-vis the Middle East before it evaluates the Iran accord.
“What about Syria?” he asked, as an example. “Obama has repeatedly said we will defeat ISIS in Syria. What’s our strategy? I’d like to see Congress press the administration on these matters.”
Regardless of how Congress votes on the deal, Clawson said, the deal is likely to proceed — even in the face of a congressional override of a presidential veto on a vote against the agreement. The administration will simply refuse to enforce the sanctions the agreement would lift, he said.
A rejection of the deal by Congress, said Clawson, would not bode well for the relationship between Israel and the United States.
“Winning a fight with your spouse is one sure way of losing a fight with your spouse,” he said. “If you think the relationship between the U.S. and Israel is bad now, what do you think it will be like if Congress rejects this deal?”
The Federation disseminated an email to its constituents explaining its perspective on the deal, including links to a variety of articles on the subject. It will also sponsor additional programs on Middle East security and Iran in the coming months, according to Roman, who himself was featured in a debate on the Iran deal on July 24 on “Night Talk” on PCNC. Also on the panel was Joshua Forrest, chair of history and political science at La Roche College, and Dan Simpson, a former ambassador who is on the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“It was great to be engaged in vigorous debate on all sides of the issue,” Roman said. “But I wish some of the participants on the panel would have been more educated on the deal, as I invested time looking into all perspectives. You need an open mind to analyze this issue, and myopic perspectives certainly do not help us move the conversation forward.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.