Today I had the privilege of speaking with a senior administration official who was touting the Joint Plan of Action the United States entered into with Iran over the weekend. The conversation took place on a not-for-attribution basis, though I believe this administration official has been out elsewhere saying the same things in public today and he expressed puzzlement at the ground rules set by the White House for the presentation cum question-and-answer session in which I participated. “I would have assumed this was all tweeted out already,” he responded when I asked why his remarks were presented off the record. Herewith, as William F. Buckley used to say, a few observations.
1. I took the opportunity to ask the question that has been on my mind since I first heard Secretary Kerry describe the agreement as “impeding” Iran’s nuclear program on Saturday night. (He repeated the claim to George Stephanopoulos on ABC This Week yesterday.) I asked the senior administration official for the administration’s best assessment of the time by which the agreement extends Iran’s ability to break out to nuclear capacity. He hemmed and hawed a bit to preface his answer and added explanatory comments about how far Iran is from actually developing nuclear weapons at the end of his answer, but this was his answer: depending on the breakout scenario, “one month” on the low side (unlikely) to “multiple months” (translation: two or more) on the high side (more likely). That explained the hemming and hawing (as I thought it was).
2. In response to a question why the administration had backtracked on the six binding UN resolutions that call for the suspension of enrichment, the senior administration official asserted that the UN requirement was incorporated in the agreement. Here the senior administration official — what’s the phrase? — took liberties with his interlocutors. The preamble of the agreement vaguely states: “There would be additional steps in between the initial and the final step, including, among other things, addressing UN Security Council resolutions, with a view toward bringing to a satisfactory conclusion the UN Security Council’s consideration of this matter.”
3. The senior official summarized in a tone that I heard as mocking Iran’s three paths to a nuclear weapon sketched out by Prime Minister Netanyahu: the 20 percent enrichment path, the 3.5 percent enrichment path with the assistance of advanced centrifuges, and the plutonium path via the Arak reactor. The senior official asserted that the agreement addresses all three paths.
4. The senior official placed great stock in the “unprecedented” verification measures that the agreement spells out.
5. In the questions and answers the senior official unmockingly expressed understanding of Israel’s concerns regarding the agreement. For Israelis, he said, it’s an existential issue. “They are right to be skeptical,” he said. But Prime Minister Netanyahu isn’t skeptical. He asserts that the agreement is a “historic mistake.” He may climb down from that assessment, but that goes well beyond skepticism.
6. The senior administration official cited the performance of the Israeli stock market today as support for the administration’s positive assessment of the agreement. I’ve heard a lot of arguments about Iran’s nuclear program and the pending agreement over the past few weeks, but that is a new one on me.
7. Like Secretary Kerry, the senior official asserted that the administration shares the same goal as Israel. The difference between us and them is purely tactical, he said. In the same sense the difference between Chamberlain and Churchill in 1938 was purely tactical as well — they both wanted peace for our time — but Chamberlain’s misreading of the situation had rather large consequences for all involved. The repeated assertion of a shared goal is pure twaddle or, as Buckley might have said, blatherskite.