Encased by the wood-paneled walls of Pittsburgh’s Duquesne Club, three experts’ cacophonous opinions reverberated throughout the location last week during a debate on last year’s nuclear deal with Iran.
The panel, which consisted of former ambassador Frank G. Wisner, an international affairs adviser with Squire Patton Boggs; Jim Walsh, a research associate at MIT’s Security Studies Program; and Shimon Mercer-Wood, spokesman for the Consulate General of Israel in New York, was invited by the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh in partnership with the Iran Project, an NGO dedicated to fostering a rapprochement between the United States and Iran.
Paul Guggenheimer of 90.5 WESA moderated the lunchtime discussion, which began as responses to directed questions but morphed into a series of rebuttals, analogies and disagreements.
Guggenheimer began by asking Walsh whether Iran could be trusted to comply with the terms of the agreement, which mandates a temporary drawdown in technology deployment and uranium stockpiles in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions and increased surveillance. Walsh said that sources from both the U.S. intelligence community and the International Atomic Energy Agency demonstrate Iran’s compliance.
“As far as the best information in the world is concerned, Iran is complying,” said Walsh. “It’s not about trust, it’s about verification. And on that, I feel very good.”
That’s not good enough, said Mercer-Wood.
“The point is to get to better results,” he said, adding that reflecting on Iran merely one year after the accord was myopic. “One year is not a long time; it’s a blip. What we look at are the fundamental factors in play: Iran’s regional aspirations and goal is to dominate the Middle East; they are trying to achieve nuclear military capabilities; and, Iran is trying to remain an authoritarian regime. They want to be like North Korea.
“What worries us is that the [deal] didn’t shut [Iran] down,” continued Mercer-Wood. “It only temporarily froze it with the hope that one of the three factors would change.”
“I don’t buy the conclusion that Iran is determined to create a nuclear weapon,” countered Wisner. “This agreement allows the U.S. to hold Iran to standards, and this didn’t exist two years ago.”
But, asked Guggenheimer, what is there to make of Iran’s recent testing of ballistic missiles?
“The only thing worse than having ballistic missiles is having ballistic missiles with nuclear capabilities,” responded Walsh. “We have an agreement that allows Iran to have limited [research and development]. They’ve removed 98 percent of their low enriched uranium and shut down two-thirds of their centrifuges.” At the end of the agreement, if Iran wishes to make a nuclear bomb, “they’re going to have to start from scratch.”
Mercer-Wood contended that Iran’s missile program must be intended for something.
“Why would you invest so much [in a nuclear program] if you don’t want to use it for nuclear capabilities?” questioned Mercer-Wood, who then rhetorically addressed the audience. What if someone “put a gun to your head? And then that person said, ‘I haven’t made my decision yet, but I want to have that option.’
“Iran has made very clear that Israel is a shameful blot that needs to be erased from the world,” he answered.
For his part, Wisner advocated continued engagement with Iran “to see how far we can move that relationship.” He said that “name calling” between countries will not foster better relations.
Attendees, including students from Pittsburgh Allderdice High School who attended the luncheon as part of a classroom requirement, found the discussion illuminating.
“It was very interesting. I liked hearing different perspectives and different positions that the U.S. and Israel has on the Iran deal and the effect it could have on different countries,” said Adam Moritz, an 11th-grader at Allderdice.
“There was a vast amount of knowledge on display from the three speakers,” echoed Emma Kiesling, a 12th-grader.
Afterward, Guggenheimer addressed what could have been perceived as Wisner and Walsh taking sides against Mercer-Wood.
“I think discussion is always important. If nothing else, we have an understanding of where we are coming from,” said Guggenheimer. “People may not agree with what Shimon is saying, but we understand where he is coming from. It’s hard to achieve diplomacy with inflammatory language.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.