The Cable

No, Obama’s Former Advisors Aren’t Trashing the Iran Deal

A bipartisan U.S. group of Iran watchers, including former Obama administration officials, has drawn a line in the sand on five concessions they say must be part of a lasting deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear program. Their letter was viewed Thursday as an indictment of the nuclear talks by the president’s very own former advisors. But two authors of the letter disputed that interpretation in interviews with Foreign Policy.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd L) watches on a tablet as the US president addresses the US, at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne) on April 2, 2015, after Iran nuclear program talks finished with extended sessions. European powers and Iran on April 2 hailed a breakthrough in talks on reaching a deal to curtail Tehran's nuclear programme. AFP PHOTO / POOL / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd L) watches on a tablet as the US president addresses the US, at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne) on April 2, 2015, after Iran nuclear program talks finished with extended sessions. European powers and Iran on April 2 hailed a breakthrough in talks on reaching a deal to curtail Tehran's nuclear programme. AFP PHOTO / POOL / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

A bipartisan U.S. group of Iran watchers, including former officials from President Barack Obama’s administration, has drawn a line in the sand on five concessions they say must be part of a lasting deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear program. Their letter was widely viewed on Thursday as an indictment of the nuclear talks by the president’s very own former advisors. But two authors of the letter disputed that interpretation in interviews with Foreign Policy.

The letter comes as a U.S. delegation of 20 senior Obama administration officials head to Vienna in hopes of finally securing a diplomatic agreement to keep Iran from building a nuclear bomb — a deal that has been elusive for years.

The rare grouping of luminaries who signed the letter includes well-known neoconservative hawks such as former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and liberals such as former Obama administration officials Robert Einhorn and Gary Samore.

The White House insists that the five demands outlined by the group match the priorities that U.S. negotiators are seeking in Vienna. Yet media coverage of the letter has led many to believe that Obama’s former advisors have lost trust in the president’s negotiating team. Two signers of the letter say that’s patently false.

“That’s not at all what the statement was about,” said Einhorn, a nonproliferation expert and a co-signer of the letter.

“The key thing is not that there were some former Obama officials raising questions,” he added. “The key thing is you have this diverse group coming together on a set of reasonable and achievable recommendations.”

Unlike a recently circulated set of demands by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Einhorn noted that the letter he signed doesn’t include so-called “poison pills” that Iran would never conceivably agree to.

The bipartisan group demands that international monitors have “timely and effective access” to any military or nonmilitary sites needed to verify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal being negotiated by Tehran and six world powers. It also calls for strict limits on the research and development of advanced centrifuges, the ability to quickly reimpose sanctions if Iran violates the terms of a deal, and gradual, not immediate, economic sanctions relief for Tehran.

Included in those demands is a preamble noting that “[m]ost of us would have preferred a stronger agreement,” suggesting growing discontent with the handling of the talks by Obama administration alumni.

But another signer of the letter, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that’s not the case. He said the letter meant to bring Democrats and Republicans together around a simple set of “achievable goals” to demonstrate a bipartisan path to a deal.

“If the deal is a good one, the administration will benefit from the support of this bipartisan group,” he said. “If the deal is not a good one, the administration will have to contend with the group. But the president has made clear that he will only do a good deal, and I take him at his word.”

When asked about the letter, a State Department spokeswoman did not view it as an indictment of the ongoing negotiations, which face a June 30 deadline.

“The positions called for in this document are very much aligned with what we’re insisting upon behind closed doors,” spokeswoman Marie Harf told FP. “‎In any final deal, we’ll be holding ourselves, and Iran, to the understandings we reached in Lausanne, which is at least as high a standard as what is proposed in this letter.”

According to American officials, a tentative agreement inked in April in Lausanne, Switzerland, committed Iran to restrictions on R&D and enrichment capacity. It also insisted on delayed sanctions relief and access for intrusive inspections “anywhere in the country.”

However, there still appears to be wide disagreement about what exactly Iran committed to during those framework talks. This week, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, demanded that sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic be lifted the moment a deal is signed. He also ruled out freezing Iran’s controversial nuclear work for an extended period of time.

“Freezing Iran’s research and development for a long time, like 10 or 12 years, is not acceptable,” Khamenei said. “All financial and economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. Congress, or the U.S. government should be lifted immediately when we sign a nuclear agreement.”

Khamenei’s demands have unnerved observers, including Einhorn and other supporters of the current negotiations.

“I’m disturbed that the supreme leader has been taking public positions that are at variance with what Iran’s negotiators have already agreed to,” Einhorn said. “Is this just a bargaining tactic? Does he plan to go back to the initial agreements, or is he really redrawing Iran’s red lines?

“We don’t know, but it’s worrisome.”

Photo credit: Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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