June 16, 2016
The next US president would precipitate a crisis in the Middle East and alienate America’s allies if he or she decides to tear up the nuclear deal with Iran, a senior White House official said at the Atlantic Council on June 16.

“The way in which the Iran deal was structured creates enormous disincentives for an incoming president to tear it up,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications.

Rhodes’ comments came in response to a question on Donald Trump’s position on the deal. The Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee has said that if elected president his “number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.”

While he did not name Trump, Rhodes said that it would be “counter not just to US interests, but counter to the whole concept of how one initiates a presidency to decide that one of the very first things that I am going to do is precipitate a crisis in the Middle East that leads to potential nuclear proliferation.”

“It just doesn’t seem like a very wise thing to do,” he added.

Rhodes delivered the keynote address at the end of a conference that was cosponsored by the Atlantic Council and the Iran Project. He later participated in a discussion moderated by Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Iran and the P5+1—the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, and Germany—reached a deal on July 14, 2015, that limits Iran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb in exchange for sanctions relief.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, supports the deal, but said her approach would be “distrust and verify.”

In comments directed at Trump, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, this week pledged to burn the deal if the next US president were to rip it up. “The Islamic Republic won't be the first to violate the nuclear deal. Staying faithful to a promise is a Koranic order,” Khamenei said, according to Iranian state media. “But if the threat from the American presidential candidates to tear up the deal becomes operational then the Islamic Republic will set fire to the deal.”

Rhodes noted that the commitments in the nuclear deal had been frontloaded. “You would, essentially, come into office with all of the major nuclear commitments having been completed, with the stockpile out of the country, with the Arak reactor reconfigured, with no enrichment at Fordo, with all of these centrifuges under [International Atomic Energy Agency] monitoring, and you would, essentially, decide that you want to get rid of all those limitations on the Iranian program,” he said.

“You would precipitate a crisis, in all likelihood, and Iran would then be advancing once more towards potentially having a nuclear weapons capacity; you would be alienating the United States from all of our key allies who helped us negotiate this deal…and you would be doing that for what purpose,” he added. “Having worked for a president who had to come into office with enough problems, I think the basic principle is you don’t come into office and create a massive new problem for yourself.”

In a report released on May 27, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, concluded that Iran is fully complying with the terms of the nuclear agreement.

Fending off criticism

Rhodes became a lightning rod for criticism recently when in a New York Times Magazine profile he was quoted as saying that the White House had created an “echo chamber” to push the Iran deal and had enlisted like-minded policy groups and journalists to say “things that validated what we had given them to say.”

Rhodes has previously responded to that criticism saying: “It wasn’t ‘spin,’ it’s what we believed and continue to believe, and the hallmark of the entire campaign was to push out facts.”

Speaking at the Atlantic Council, he said he disagreed with the impression created by the profile that the White House invented the notion of a more moderate Iranian leadership under President Hassan Rouhani. “It is not hard to fact check the notion that we were not getting anywhere on nuclear talks and then all of a sudden we were,” he said. “The shift in direction under President Rouhani and Foreign Minister [Mohammad Javad] Zarif is an evident fact.”

He also objected to the impression left by the profile that there was something manipulative about the way in which the administration disseminated information to journalists or worked with policy groups like the Iran Project.

“The groups we worked with were groups that had advocated on this issue for years,” said Rhodes. “They did not need to be moved to the position of supporting the deal.”

But he expressed pride in the fact that there was effective messaging and coordination in favor of the nuclear deal with Iran, noting that critics had invested far greater resources in an attempt to block the deal. “We were out of our weight class in some ways,” he said.

Building trust

In 2007, as a US senator, Barack Obama had stated his willingness to engage Iran. As president, Obama’s attempts to reach out to Iran were repeatedly rebuffed by a president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was openly disdainful of the West. The opportunity for real engagement presented itself with Rouhani’s election in the summer of 2013. The two leaders set the ball rolling on nuclear talks. In the years ahead, protracted negotiations between Iranian and US officials on the terms of the nuclear agreement helped build trust between the two sides.

As a result of this trust, the United States was able to secure the release of five Americans held in Iran, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian; an agreement was concluded on a longstanding claims issue that saves US taxpayers a significant amount of risk and money; and an incident involving ten American sailors who sailed into Iranian waters in January was quickly resolved, said Rhodes. 

Nevertheless, challenges remain in the US-Iran relationship. Iran continues to test ballistic missiles, threaten Israel, and support terrorist organizations like Hezbollah as well as Bashar Assad’s embattled regime in Syria. “From Iraq to Yemen, Iran has continued to engage in destabilizing support for proxy organizations,” said Rhodes. “In short, Iran’s approach to its nuclear program has changed, but thus far its broader foreign policy and the nature of its regime has not.”

Rhodes said while some would argue that the nuclear deal was not worth it, he would disagree. “Isn’t it better when a government with a ballistic missile program that supports terrorism doesn’t have a nuclear weapon?”

US-Iran relations

While the United States and its partners have provided sanctions relief to Iran, this remains a challenge because banks are hesitant to deal with countries that still face stringent sanctions, said Rhodes, “but we remain committed to meeting our obligations under the deal.”

“If anything, the limited nature of the relief so far makes some of the hyperbolic criticism of the Iran deal look that much more ridiculous in hindsight,” he added.

Rhodes compared the US engagement with Iran to diplomacy with Myanmar and Cuba, two nations led by oppressive governments with which the Obama administration has reestablished diplomatic relations.

“In all three cases, engagement opened up opportunities for the United States to not simply develop relationships but to make progress on issues that are very important to us,” said Rhodes noting that this did not mean an easing of pressure on these governments. In some cases it increased pressure by, most importantly, taking away the opportunity to use the United States as a scapegoat for all the problems facing these nations.

Unlike Myanmar and Cuba, Iran has not shown an interest in normalizing relations with the United States. Syria is key for US engagement with Iran, said Rhodes, urging a more constructive Iranian policy on Syria. A solution to ending the war in Syria, which is now in its sixth year, has been elusive as the parties have failed to agree on Assad’s fate.

Contending that Iranian leadership is not monolithic, Rhodes said critics of the regime must recognize that not everyone in Iran is a hardliner. He also said it was important for the United States to engage the Iranian people.

“We have a responsibility, always, to leave a doorway open to that different future,” said Rhodes.

Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director, editorial, at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.

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