Nuking the Iran deal

The Iran deal comes up for recertification by President Trump on May 12. Last time around, this past January, Trump vowed to “terminate” the agreement unless the participating European allies agreed to strengthen it. “This is a last chance,” Trump said. “[E]ither fix the deal’s disastrous flaws, or the United States will withdraw.” It’s a hot subject in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the confirmation of Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State this morning.

Those fixes — they’re basic, if inadequate, but they’re not going to happen. The “disastrous flaws” for which Trump demands a remedy are suggestive of the absurdity of the deal. Trump seeks a “follow-on agreement that addresses Iran’s development or testing long-range missiles, ensures strong IAEA inspections, and fixes the flaws of the ‘sunset clause.'” At National Review, Fred Fleitz recently identified several more of the deal’s basic flaws in this column (highly recommended).

Even if Trump’s proposed fixes fall short of what would be necessary to make the deal meaningful, Trump has the big picture right. If it’s not “the worst deal ever,” as he says, it’s up there.

On the merits, Victor Davis Hanson recently included it among “Five catastrophic decisions.” His assessment: “It was a disaster precisely because a) it was unneeded, given the ongoing strangulation of the Iranian economy due to tardy but finally tough sanctions, and b) it was embedded within so many side deals and payoffs, mostly stealthy, that it became a caricature, from nocturnal hostage ransom payments that helped fuel terrorists to whole areas of the Iran nuclear project exempt from spot inspections.”

The Obama administration prevented Israel from undertaking a military strike to destroy the infrastructure for Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Michael Oren’s memoir Ally reveals Obama’s duplicity to Israel on this score. Given the nature of the threat Iran poses to Israel, Israeli intelligence has continued to monitor Iran’s efforts. The Times of Israel provides Yossi Cohen’s assessment in “Mossad chief ‘100 percent certain’ Iran still seeks nuclear bomb.”

Cohen is on the same wavelength as Hanson. He called the nuclear deal a “terrible mistake,” saying it allows Iran to keep key elements of its nuclear program intact and will remove other restraints in a few years. “Then Iran will be able to enrich enough uranium for an arsenal of nuclear bombs,” Cohen reportedly said.

He added: “As head of the Mossad, I am 100 percent certain that Iran has never abandoned its military nuclear vision for a single instant. This deal enables Iran to achieve that vision.”

Consistent with Cohen’s assessment, A. Savyon and U. Kafash draw on public Iranian sources to analyze the state of the deal in the MEMRI update “In Advance Of Iran’s April 9 ‘Nuclear Technology Day’: Developments in Iran’s nuclear program deviate from deal.” They focus on steps taken by the Iranian regime to maintain and further develop its nuclear capabilities—steps that deviate from the framework of the deal and that in some cases even blatantly violate it.

Do these observers have it wrong? Jeremy Bernstein is a theoretical physicist and the author, most recently, of A Bouquet of Numbers and Other Scientific Offerings, a collection of essays. Over at the New York Review of Books he warns 
“If Trump blows up the deal, Iran gets the bomb.”

It’s an interesting column. Before giving a brief lesson in nuclear weapons physics, Bernstein notes in his first sentence that the Iran deal “was signed in Vienna on July 14, 2015[.]” I’m not impressed by an expert who gets a basic fact wrong in the first sentence of his analysis. The Iran deal was never signed. Permit me a digression on this point.

In a letter dated November 19, 2015, to then Rep. Mike Pompeo, Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Julia Frifield wrote that President Obama didn’t require Iranian leaders to sign the deal and further stated the deal is not “legally binding[.]” Whether or not the deal is legally binding, it was never signed.

Joel Gehrke broke the story on Frifield’s letter in this column for National Review. Gehrke quoted Frifield’s letter: “The [Iran deal] is not a treaty or an executive agreement, and is not a signed document.” Although the letter is no longer accessible online, it was widely reported at the time.

Back to Bernstein. His object, he says, is “to try to review what will be lost if the [Iran deal] is not renewed…” Bernstein leads off with this critical point. “The first thing I would like to point out does not involve any physics,” he writes. “The first paragraph of the agreement says that ‘Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire nuclear weapons.’ Note the ‘ever.’ There is no sunset clause here.” Toward the end of his piece, Bernstein argues that Iran is capable of developing a nuclear bomb in “a matter of months[.]” Yet Bernstein’s critical point suggests that we can skip the physics in between and write him off as a fool.

Like Neville Chamberlain, Bernstein holds faith in the supernatural power of words written on a piece of paper. The remainder of his column reveals no ground for his faith. In the tweet below, Michael Oren draws on current events to blast the faith of Bernstein (and Obama and Kerry and all the rest). In this case brevity is indeed the soul of wit.

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