Professor Gary Sick: What We Talk About When We Talk About the Iran Nuclear Treaty

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In this United States election cycle, the issue of Iran has loomed large. The Iran nuclear treaty in particular has figured prominently into the two candidates’ sparring over foreign policy, with Hillary Clinton generally defending the treaty and Donald Trump pledging to tear it up upon arriving in the Oval Office.

However, to what extent does this focus actually reflect the country’s knowledge on the subject? What influence does this treaty, which represents a relatively distant and obscure set of international weapon and energy interests, have on American foreign policy, both during the election and after?

In order to begin to answer some of these questions, the SAIS Observer consulted SAIS Europe visiting professor Gary Sick, who is teaching a mini-course entitled “United States in the Persian Gulf: From Outlier to Empire.” When not in Bologna, Professor Sick is a senior research scholar at Columbia’s Middle East Institute and an adjunct professor at the School of International and Public Affairs. He has served on the National Security Council as a White House aide for Iran and as a U.S. Navy captain.

We sat down with Professor Sick last week to take a look at the role of the Iran Nuclear Treaty in the context of the U.S. election and its potential impact on foreign policy going forward.

The SAIS Observer: Generally, what is your opinion on the Iran Nuclear Treaty?

Gary Sick: The key thing that made it all possible was that the United States said, in those secret negotiations, that we were prepared to accept the fact that Iran would have a full nuclear fuel cycle, that they would have the right to actually produce their own nuclear fuel. And from Iran’s point of view, that was critical. That’s what broke down the talks previously – the U.S. said even one centrifuge turning was one too many. That perspective was a mistake in my view but that’s where we were.

The Obama administration decided that Iran’s potential nuclear fuel cycle would be acceptable and so that broke the ice. I think they thought the talks would be easy, but it turned out to be a lot harder than they thought. It became extremely technical and, from a diplomatic and technical point of view, the U.S. really deserves a lot of credit.

They were playing four-dimensional chess: they had to worry about the objectives of Iran, the UN Security Council, the U.S. Congress and even the American people. And so the bottom line is that they cut a deal that is extremely complex, but I think is the best deal anyone could have possibly hoped for. The reasons it’s now under attack are basically political.

TSO:  So, how has this complex treaty become such a politicized part of the election today? Does anyone even know what they’re arguing about?

GS:  The Republicans made the treaty a politicized issue in the run-up to the agreement. They basically criticized it as intensively as they possibly could. Trump has run with those arguments, but they would still be a part of the conversation if Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or even Jeb Bush were the nominee. It became a Republican issue basically because it came from Obama, and that’s all it takes to say they’re against it. Also, the treaty was strongly opposed by Netanyahu and Israel. And when you put the Republicans together with the Israeli lobby, which is very significant in the U.S., it means that they’re just absolutely committed to opposing this.

I’ve actually seen something like this before with regard to the Executive Agreement that the U.S. had with Iran after the hostage crisis [from 1979-1981]. That was highly unpopular with Ronald Reagan, who was running for president at that time. The agreement was actually negotiated in the interim period between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

So if Hillary Clinton is elected, I think [the terms of the treaty will definitely be upheld]. With Trump, it’s impossible to predict. However, if he’s doing his job, he would have to come to the conclusion that the only thing to gain by doing away with this is to show bad faith not just to the Iranians, but also to all of the other states who negotiated this with us and whose signatures are on it. So he would be starting his presidency by saying to the world, “you cannot trust the U.S.” How we would gain anything from that, I have no idea.

TSO: While we witness a breakthrough in U.S.-Iran relations under Obama, the Iran deal strained U.S.-Israeli relations. Under the Obama administration, no progress was made in terms of Israel-Palestine peace settlement. Is it possible to advance on these two goals or are they mutually exclusive?

GS: I don’t think these two goals are mutually exclusive. John Kerry was actually very active on both files and tried very hard to negotiate a peace settlement on the Israel-Palestine issue while the Iran deal was in the making.

The two issues are linked. Israel has been using the Iran threat for years in order to deflect attention from the Palestinian issue. While the deal – by halting the advance of nuclear Iran – is ultimately beneficial to Israel’s security, it takes the argument away from Netanyahu that Iran should be seen as an existential threat. Since Netanyahu’s political platform is to be tough on security, it’s natural he opposed the deal.

Israeli politics does influence U.S. politics though, notably through political and financial pressure in Washington. Israel’s strongly-voiced opposition, which culminated in Netanyahu’s visit to the U.S. Congress in March 2015, emboldened Republican opposition to the deal.

TSO: The Iran deal could be seen as a landmark that would usher a new period in the U.S.-Iran relationship. Yet, this policy of ‘opening’ is coming under pressure in both Iran and the U.S. Will this policy survive after the Obama administration?

GS: The deal was a technical agreement on a security issue: it was about nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. That’s all it was about and that’s all it was intended to be about.

However, it did open up a channel – which meant there was the possibility to settle old disputes. American journalists held in Iran were freed and the U.S. repaid one outstanding debt to Iran (which had been contracted after the fall of the Shah when the U.S. stopped shipping military equipment that Iran had paid for). The opening up of communication meant both issues became ripe and were settled at the same time.

The deal does not mean that the U.S.and Iran are going to be best friends, but it symbolizes a breakthrough in U.S.-Iran relations. For the first time in forty years, the two countries are now able to talk to each other. Kerry and Zarif have developed a very business-like relationship and have set up a direct channel of communication which can be useful.

It is not clear whether this channel – based on a personal relationship – will translate in the next administration. In the event that Hillary Clinton gets elected, Kerry will not be Secretary of State. However, there are other people who could step in to maintain the U.S.’s channel of communication with Iran, like perhaps [former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State] Bill Burns. It will depend on whether Hillary Clinton wants to protect this relationship.

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