Up close with Michael Singh and his take on Iran’s nuclear negotiations

Up close with Michael Singh and his take on Iran’s nuclear negotiations

Michael Singh (Photo provided by Michael Singh)
Michael Singh (Photo provided by Michael Singh)

Michael Singh, the managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was in Pittsburgh last week to speak at an AIPAC event on Iran’s regional ambitions and the U.S.-led negotiations to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Though Singh’s remarks at the event were off the record, the former George W. Bush administration official — he served as a senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council and was a special assistant to Secretaries of State Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell before her — granted an interview in advance of his Pittsburgh appearance in which he addressed the progress and future of the nuclear negotiations.

Has the goal for negotiations with Iran changed and if so, why?

The U.S. goal had long been to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability. We were always OK with Iran having access to peaceful nuclear energy for power generation and safeguarded in a way that would prevent it from using it for a military purpose. That objective has now slipped so instead of trying to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability, now the focus is on preventing Iran from getting an actual nuclear weapon. In the April framework, Iran was not asked to give up almost any aspect of its nuclear program: it’s being asked to limit what it does with that capability and to submit itself to inspections.

I don’t think it was a prudent change to make. If you leave Iran in possession of all the ingredients it needs to make a nuclear weapon, you are gambling that once the agreement has lapsed a future Iranian government won’t choose to expand those capabilities in a way that would be hard for us to detect or stop. Also you are putting a lot of faith in the inspections process: that you will know if Iran diverts something from its permitted programs to a clandestine nuclear weapons effort. If Iran tries to make a nuclear weapon it will most likely be secretly, not openly and not in a way that we would easily detect.

After the accords end, what would stop Iran from building a bomb?

President Obama has said that once the restrictions expire, after 10 or 15 years, Iran’s breakout time would essentially be zero. But, assuming it doesn’t withdraw from the nonproliferation agreement, even when an agreement lapses, Iran is not legally free to pursue nuclear weapons. If it did so, it would have to do it in violation of its international obligations.

Deterrents, containment — these all depend on the idea that you’re dealing with a rational actor. What people worry about is, can we count on the Iranian regime to make a rational calculation. There is a question in people’s minds about the decision making in Iran and the stability of an Iranian regime, especially in the future: who will have control of Iran’s nuclear arsenal?

Iran has leveled threats against Israel to wipe it off the map. It is something you can’t simply dismiss, especially if you are dealing with a nuclear state.

The Ayatollah recently stated that Iran will not allow inspections of military sites and will not allow inspectors to talk to nuclear scientists. With those restrictions, can there still be a deal?

If Iran is going to try to make a nuclear weapon secretly, they would do it in a way that can’t be detected. If they have a group of sites that are off limit to inspectors, those become the ideal places to conduct a clandestine nuclear effort. These blanket restrictions compound people’s suspicions as to what Iran’s real intentions are here.

(Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.) John Bolton has said that by dragging out the negotiations, Iran has used the time to build up their nuclear weapons program.

We used to insist that Iran suspend uranium enrichment: that was a requirement that was codified by six U.N. Security Council resolutions, but it was one that we dropped in the face of Iranian refusal to comply.

We haven’t negotiated as skillfully as we could. And while the negotiations have been going on, they dramatically expanded their nuclear program such that they will end up keeping nuclear facilities that they didn’t have when the last agreement was signed in 2003-2005. They have used the time over the last 10 years to significantly expand their nuclear capabilities and they used the negotiations to ensure that they will be able to keep a lot of those capabilities.

According to the Wall Street Journal, in exchange for this deal, the U.S. will have given Iran $30 billion to $50 billion. How do we know that that money is not to go to financially supporting terrorist groups in the Middle East?

We don’t. Iran has both domestic needs and regional activities: it supports groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, it is active in Syria and Iraq – I expect that it will use any money that it receives for both domestic and regional activities. It is almost inevitable that Iran will want to use some of this money for its “regional priorities.”

We already have sanctions in place that will presumably continue to be enforced, targeting Iran’s support for terrorist activities. (The April deal only suspends nuclear-related sanctions; non-nuclear related sanctions like those targeting support for terrorism would remain in place.) It will be important that we enforce those sanctions zealously. There may be some inclination among the P5+1 not to do that because they will want to pursue business opportunities in Iran and may not want to “rock the boat.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, Saudi Arabia is “considering nuclear weapons to offset Iran.” Will this deal lead to nuclear proliferation in the Middle East?

The countries in the region clearly consider Iran to be a threat. To the extent that this deal leaves Iran as a nuclear threshold state, then those states which consider Iran to be a threat will have an incentive to match Iran’s capabilities. The Obama administration is attempting to dissuade our Gulf allies from pursuing independent nuclear weapons capabilities and instead persuade them to accept our reassurances, our commitment to their security. The big question there is, do those allies really find our reassurances credible. What they are most worried about is, is the United States really still committed to the region, still committed to acting to advance shared interests, or are we seeing this Iran nuclear deal as a chance to disengage from the region? Disengagement is what is seen as most threatening by our allies in the region, both Israel and the Gulf States.

Is a nuclear-armed Iran a threat to U.S. security?

The U.S. considers the spread of nuclear weapons anywhere to be a threat. Nonproliferation is one of our main security interests in the world, not just the Middle East. With Iran’s pursuit of long range ballistic missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles, there is the possibility that this will become a threat not just to the Middle East but to states beyond the Middle East, whether it’s Europe or the United States. Right now that is a long term threat, but as we are seeing with North Korea, that long term threat may eventually become a reality.

But the immediate threat is to security in the region. That has big implications for our allies there, not just Israel, but all of our allies in the region. They are worried that the deal will further embolden Iran, not just in Iraq and Syria, but also in the Straits of Hormuz, also in Yemen, and elsewhere.

What does this agreement mean for Israel’s safety and security and America’s commitment to supporting Israel? What can the pro-Israel community do to ensure the best possible outcome for both Israel and the U.S.?

Not just for Israel’s security, but for anyone who is interested in American security, and the security of America’s allies in the region, and anyone who is concerned about nonproliferation — we have to ensure that any diplomatic solution we reach (and I think Americans are right to want a negotiated agreement and not a military conflict) is that actually advances our interests rather than sets them back, something that is sustainable over the long term, that is good for us over the long term and not just a quick fix.

Whatever agreement we reach should be a strong agreement that we can all support, that doesn’t allow Iran to keep the nuclear weapons option, but that requires Iran to give it up in exchange for sanctions relief.

We should send a very strong message, not just to Iran, but to ISIS and to Hamas and Hezbollah, that our commitment to the security of Israel and to the security of our allies in the region is unshakeable and that we will defend our allies and that we will defend Israel and that we act to ensure that Israel’s qualitative military edge is maintained.

What is President Obama’s goal in the Middle East?

He has lots of difference goals in the Middle East. What we lack, as a country, is a strategy for the region. America’s alliances are deteriorating; we are not having great success in Iraq or Syria. The real challenge for the next administration will be, not just how do we patch up this one issue or that issue, but how do we rebuild the security architecture in the Middle East that will not just solve conflicts but hopefully prevent conflicts, helping these countries stabilize and become more prosperous and more secure. That’s not really evident right now. That will be a challenge for the next president.

Simone Shapiro can be reached at simoneshapiro@hotmail.com.