October 22, 2019

5 Questions for Robert Satloff on the Iran Deal

In all the debate over the Iran nuclear deal, only one expert is taking seriously the challenge of figuring out what will happen if Congress rejects it. 

Robert  Satloff. 

Satloff is the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank founded in 1985 by former staff member of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). 

His latest post in the Atlantic, “A Better Deal With Iran Is Possible,” is whizzing about the Web, precisely because it offers—if only in its headline—the hope to the deal’s opponents that there is a better option. 

In two previous posts on the topic, Satloff criticized  President Obama for saying that the only option to the deal is war with Iran.   He outlined a way America and its allies could revise aspects of the deal while Iran goes about honoring its commitments, a process that in both posts Satloff described as “murky.” 

In the current piece he doesn’t use the “M” word, which probably explains why deal opponents are Facebook-posting and email-forwarding it like fainting goat videos.

What Satloff says is there is a path to strengthening the deal’s weaknesses without losing its benefits, even if Congress rejects the deal and overrides the President’s veto. 

First, it’s important to understand what Satloff sees as the six key ways to strengthen the deal. They are: 

1. “Repair a glaring gap in the agreement, which offers no clear, agreed-upon penalties for Iranian violations of the deal’s terms short of the last-resort punishment of a “snapback” of UN sanctions against Iran.”

2. “Reach understandings now with European and other international partners about penalties to be imposed on Iran should it transfer any windfall funds from sanctions relief to its regional allies and terrorist proxies rather than spend it on domestic economic needs.”

3. “Ramp up U.S. and allied efforts to counter Iran’s negative actions in the Middle East …”

4. “Affirm as a matter of U.S. policy that the United States will use all means necessary to prevent Iran’s accumulation of the fissile material (highly enriched uranium) whose sole useful purpose is for a nuclear weapon.”

5. “Ensure that Israel retains its own independent deterrent capability against Iran’s potential nuclear weapon by committing to providing technology to the Israelis that would secure this objective over time.” 

These are sound—deal proponents and opponents agree that many if not all of these steps would help everyone sleep better at night.

The fact that the President hasn’t done these things yet clearly concerns Satloff, and his piece floats the idea that a “no” vote would induce or even force the President to carry them out.

This is his scenario: 

1. Congress votes no.

2. Iran spends 6-9 months carrying out its terms of the deal anyway, in order to get sanctions relief.

3. In that time, a chastened Obama does all the things he needs to strengthen the deal.

4. Obama goes back and asks Congress “to endorse his new-and-improved proposal.” 

Satloff doesn’t say so, but I assume then he believes Congress will give Obama overwhelming bipartisan approval for the Iran deal, and…scene. 

Now, two things.  Whatever you think of this scenario, it is the first and only “Plan B” laid out by anyone.  Satloff has not, I believe, come out against the deal, but at least he is thinking through the ramifications of that in a serious way. 

The other point is this: Bob Satloff knows more about Iran and nukes and the Middle East than 99 percent of the people who have been weighing in on the deal.   People in Washington take his opinions quite seriously, as they should.

That’s why I hope he can, at some point, address serious questions about his “Plan B.”   I have six:


1. What about Russia and China? Satloff doesn't mention them. Will they cool their heels and do nothing over the next 6-9 months? Or they go about cutting their own side deals with Iran? So in 9 months, with frayed sanctions and two huge partners in the wings, will Iran just decide to scrap the deal and race to the bomb?  Let’s be clear that the success of this plan relies to some extent on the good will of Vladimir Putin and our largest creditor. 

2. Is this plan really less risky?  This president or the next one can enter into all those side deals unilaterally, outside this deal. As Satloff writes, “The United States could even implement many of these proposals without reopening negotiations with the Iranians and the P5+1 group of world powers.”  If that’s the case, why vote no and risk unforeseen consequences (remember, “murky”) when you can vote yes and just go about making those deals anyway? 

3. Would any deal would be acceptable to Obama's Republican foes? What evidence is there that in 6-9 months Congress hand Obama a huge bipartisan victory? Have they ever done that? Especially with a presidential race going on? Won't a ‘No’ vote throw the deal into the even more corrupting cycle of presidential politics?  

4. Can’t Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu get a lot of these goodies now? If Bibi drops his opposition, flies to DC, sits with Obama, he would fly back with a bunker buster bomb wrapped in a bow, wouldn’t he?  Isn’t that why Obama dispatched his Secretary of Defense to Israel as soon as the deal was signed? The fact that Bibi won't do that now makes me wonder if what Bibi is really after is regime change, and nothing Obama can offer will make that happen. Or, as Chemi Shalev wrote in Haaretz, perhaps Bibi has deeper political calculations that make no deal preferable to any deal.  By the way, if Shalev is right… oy.

5. Doesn’t Satloff’s plan assume Iran will behave exactly  the opposite of how the deal’s opponents tell us Iran will behave? Opponents say it's a bad deal precisely because Iran is made up of a bunch of lying, cheating, crazy mullahs who will self-destruct rather than allow Israel to exist. But Satloff's entire argument hinges on the assumption of Iranian self-interest and rationality. Here's the money-quote: “I’d argue chances are high that they would follow through on their commitments anyway, because the deal is simply that good for Iran. ” So if Iran is a rational actor, why not vote for the deal and in a thoughtful, orderly way buttress its weaknesses while Iran is rationally reducing its centrifuges?

At the end of the day, all these questions add up to one big one: Which plan offers more benefit for less risk?  If all these side deals fail, if Congress votes no anyway in 9 months, then what? Do we want to make the deal now and move on to repair its weaknesses, or do we want 9 months of insecurity, followed by a future that is…murky?

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism