Iran expert warns of consequences of nuke debate ‘tone’

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

David Makovsky, a leading expert on the Middle East, is “worried about the tone” of the debate over the Iran nuclear deal and is concerned that if it does not change, U.S.-Israeli relations and the unity of the American Jewish community “may fall off a cliff.”

Makovsky, a native of St. Louis, is the Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, a leading think tank. He addressed more than 300 people Aug. 13 at Congregation B’nai Amoona during a collaborative event of the Jewish Federation’s Sh’ma Listen! Series and Can We Talk?, an ongoing discussion series presented by the Jewish Light, Jewish Community Relations Council and Jewish Community Center.

The recently concluded Iran nuclear deal is to be debated in Congress with a vote expected next month. Makovsky, after expressing concern over the harshness in tone on both sides of issue, said that “to the extent that I can, I want to put forth not what to think, but what to think about” in evaluating the agreement. 

Under the terms of the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 partners of the United States — Great Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — Iran has agreed to accept restrictions on its nuclear activities for 10-15 years (depending on the provision), and to allow a set of inspections to verify its compliance. 

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In return, Iran will receive phased sanctions relief, technical assistance and other benefits afforded countries that are a part of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

One of the major issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear program is how long the “breakout” period would be for Iran to build a nuclear weapon if it decided to throw out the inspectors and press forward with weapons development.

Makovsky said that at present, the breakout period would be two to three months, while under the terms of the agreement, according to President Barack Obama, there would be a “cushion” of a longer breakout period of one or two years.

Stressing that there are strong arguments both for and against the agreement, Makovsky put forth an imaginary conversation on the deal between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

In the dialogue, after both leaders stressed that the U.S.-Israel relationship is and will remain solid, Obama is described as telling Netanyahu, “I’m a little upset, Bibi. The deal buys us an additional 15 years at a time when the entire Middle East is a volcano…Second, I got a one-year breakout period, not the two or three months in the absence of the deal…We have reduced the number of centrifuges (the devices needed to enrich uranium to weapons grade) from about 19,000 to about 5,100.

“In 15 years, it is possible that the young people of Iran, who are pro-Western, will change the nature of Iran in a positive direction. And yet, I know that you don’t think this is enough. We may not be able to convince each other on this.”

In response, Makovsky’s Netanyahu says: “We have learned from history that when our enemies say that they want to kill us, they mean it, and that these statements are not just for local consumption any more than they were during the 1930s. You think that a 15-year delay is a long time, but when you think back to the Iran hostage crisis, it does not seem that long. …

“In addition, Iran will gain sanctions relief under the terms of the deal and will have a massive cash infusion of $56 billion to $100 billion to help its Shia allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. And while young Iranians may be pro-Western, the fanatic Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Republican Guards call the shots and fire the shots in Iran.”

Makovsky reiterated his concern that the debate “could get out of bounds” because of rhetoric branding opponents of the deal as “warmongers” and on the other side branding supporters of the deal as “appeasers.” He said two schools of thought exist on what to do about the treaty: “Block it or fix it.” 

He said the deal is unlikely at this stage to be blocked even if, as expected, it fails to pass in Congress because it does not appear that two-thirds of each house would vote to override an expected presidential veto. He said there is some merit in attempting to fix the deal by setting up a parallel set of understandings to address those concerns before debate ends.

“In the meantime,” Makovsky stressed, “I am worried about the tone of the debate. My fear is that the U.S.-Israel relationship and the unity of the American Jewish community could be ripped apart if we do not change the tone.”

Makovsky provided the audience with a copy of a summary of the agreement and factors relating to it. A pdf of the summary can be found at http://bit.ly/iran-statement. The entire text of the agreement can be found at http://bit.ly/iran-deal-text.