Mark Dubowitz: The U.S. should amend Iran deal

Mark Dubowitz

Mark Dubowitz is the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan policy institute the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he’s led projects on Iran, sanctions and nonproliferation. 

On Aug. 24, Dubowitz spoke at Toronto’s Beth Tikvah Synagogue about the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5 + 1. Prior to this talk, he spoke to The CJN about the specific problems he has with the deal.

Compared to some of the harsher critics of the Iran deal, like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, where would you say you stand on it?

I think it’s a deeply flawed deal that gives Iran pathways to a nuclear weapon, but I don’t think it’s necessary to rip up the deal. I think there’s a lot of precedent for the U.S. Congress to demand of a president to amend the deal or negotiate ways of improving it. I think there are specific and reasonable ways it can be improved.

What amendments would you recommend?

The deal’s fatal flaw is that restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program and access to heavy weaponry disappear over a five to 15-year period. That provides a patient pathway for Iran to get nuclear weapons and regional dominance. So one recommendation I have would be to eliminate the sunset provision and amend the deal so the UN Security Council determines when to lift the arms embargo based on evidence, not an arbitrary time period. For example, in eight years’ time, the Security Council could look at whether Iran is developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program and determine whether to lift the embargo on Iran’s access to ICBM technology. The United States would maintain the veto if China and Russia, for example, were pushing to keep the sunset provision.

The second is that, under the current deal, if there’s any attempt to re-impose sanctions on Iran, it can treat the agreement as null and void. I would negotiate an amendment that removes this right and gets the Iranians to acknowledge that the United States and Europe have the right to re-impose sanctions for non-nuclear reasons, like terrorism or human rights.

The third is that, under this deal, the inspections process essentially relies on Iranian good faith and self-inspection. I would negotiate for weapons inspectors to be entitled physical access to suspicious sites, including military ones. 

I recommend these changes for this president or a future president. I think trying to dismantle the whole nuclear program isn’t something we’d get support for from European allies, but I think if demands are specific and suggested amendments reasonable, we can get European support. The French, in particular, hate the current deal. If we got the French on board, we could get the British and Germans.

How do you respond to U.S. President Barack Obama’s contention that this deal is preferable to the alternatives of a sanctions regime crumbling, or war?

I think most experts, including those who support the deal, have rejected Obama’s claim that it’s this deal or war. I think this deal makes war more likely, because over time, Iran’s program will become so big and Iran will legally be able to move to near-zero breakout time to develop a nuclear weapon. At that point, we won’t have sanctions options to enforce the deal and will have to concede a nuclear weapon or use military force to forestall it.

I testified before Congress five times in the last few weeks and feel that it’s not conceivable that the European banks will be willing to take the risk of re-engaging with Iranian banks if Congress rejects the deal. I feel those financial institutions would at least wait until the next president is elected to see if he or she enforces a deal, and if so, how vigorously. The key is keeping Europe out, because Europe is Iran’s biggest economic prize, not China, Russia or India. I think sanctions and working with the French to amend the deal will keep the Europeans on board for at least a few years.

But haven’t a number of banks already settled with the U.S. government for violating sanctions, including some American banks?

Some major U.S. and European banks have been fined billions of dollars for sanctions busting, but I think it’s made them extremely risk-averse in terms of re-investing in Iran. BMP Power, which is a huge French bank, was fined $9-billion for sanctions busting with Iran and other rogue actors. These big banks won’t rely on assurances from Obama, who will be gone in 18 months. They’ll be very cautious about going back in, and I think that will provide space for the next president to negotiate amendments. 

Are you concerned that Israel and the United States’ relationship has become seriously weakened over this?

I think the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu is very bad and certainly has been for quite awhile. But I think it’s worth keeping in perspective that the president will be gone in 18 months. All the candidates, with the exception of Rand Paul, have very strong ties to Israel. I think if you do a thorough assessment of the deal, you see it’s deeply flawed and represents a threat to the United States and Israel, so Jewish and pro-Israel groups in America had little choice but to oppose it. I think they’ve done so respectfully and in a way that’s not been ad hominem. I don’t see this causing lasting damage to the community or U.S.-Israel relations.

According to Roger Cohen’s column in the New York Times, some polls have shown that the majority of American Jews support the deal and that the community is divided. What do you think about the fact major American and Canadian Jewish organizations aren’t, in opposing the deal, necessarily reflecting the community’s diversity of opinion?

First of all, poll after poll shows the majority of Americans oppose the deal. Obviously, the American Jewish community is divided along ideological and religious grounds, and I think it’s healthy for the community to be engaged in debate and for the organizations representing the community to be engaged in debate. If you’re an American Jew and you accept the deal, you can go to J Street. If not, you can go to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or the Anti-Defamation League. There are organizations available to those who are supporters and those who are opponents. I think the mainstream Jewish organizations have done a careful and deliberate assessment of the deal, and their leadership has determined it’s fundamentally flawed.