"The Danger of a Failed Iran Deal": Could GOP Rejection of Nuke Pact Lead to War?

August 20, 2015



Gary Sick

a scholar at Columbia University, served on the National Security Council under Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. He was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis. He recently wrote an article for Politico called "The Danger of a Failed Iran Deal."

The Iran nuclear deal is coming under fresh scrutiny from Republican lawmakers following a new report by the Associated Press about a secret arrangement between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency to allow Iran to use its own inspectors to investigate the Parchin military site. Supporters of the Iran deal have downplayed the report, pointing out that Iranian inspectors will work under close supervision of the IAEA. The new AP report comes about halfway through the 60-day period that Congress has to scrutinize the Iran nuclear deal. Both houses of Congress plan to vote next month on a measure to disapprove, or block, the deal. So far, just two Senate Democrats have broken with their party to oppose the agreement: Senators Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez. We speak to Gary Sick of Columbia University. He served on the National Security Council under Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis. He recently wrote an article for Politico called "The Danger of a Failed Iran Deal."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The Iran nuclear deal is coming under fresh scrutiny from Republican lawmakers following a new report by the Associated Press about a secret arrangement between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency. According to the report, Iran will be allowed to use its own inspectors to investigate the Parchin military site. Republicans have latched onto the report to further denounce the deal, saying Iran cannot be trusted to police itself. Republican presidential candidate Senator Lindsey Graham discussed the AP story during an interview with The Des Moines Register.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: AP is reporting that under the side deal between the International Atomic Energy association and Iran, that the Iranians will inspect their own military facilities. That is making this bad deal a joke. I’ve been told that, by others, the administration has not denied that arrangement. It would be absolutely irresponsible to allow the Iranians to go onto their military sites and tell us what they’ve done in the past without independent verification. I think this is a game changer.

AMY GOODMAN: Supporters of the agreement have dismissed reports of any secretive agreement, pointing out that Iranian inspectors will work under close supervision of the IAEA. On Wednesday, State Department spokesperson John Kirby defended the deal and expressed confidence in the IAEA’s monitoring capabilities.

JOHN KIRBY: We’re confident in the agency’s technical plans for investigating the possible military dimensions of Iran’s former program, issues that in some cases date back more than a decade. Just as importantly, the IAEA is comfortable with arrangements, which are unique to the agency’s investigation of Iran’s historical activities. When it comes to monitoring Iran’s behavior going forward, the IAEA has separately developed the most robust inspection regime ever peacefully negotiated to ensure Iran’s current program remains exclusively peaceful.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The new AP report comes about halfway through the 60-day period that Congress has to scrutinize the Iran nuclear deal. Both houses of Congress plan to vote next month on a measure to disapprove, or block, the deal. So far, just two Senate Democrats have broken with their party to oppose the agreement. On Tuesday, New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez announced he would vote against the deal.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ: I have looked into my own soul, and my devotion to principle may once again lead me to an unpopular course. But if Iran is to acquire a nuclear bomb, it will not have my name on it. It is for these reasons that I will vote to disapprove the agreement and, if called upon, would vote to override a veto.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Robert Menendez is a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His announcement comes two weeks after New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said he will also oppose the deal. Republicans need at least four more Democrats to pass a resolution of disapproval next month and a total of 13 to override a veto. So far, 23 of the Senate’s 44 Democrats have announced their support for the agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, on Tuesday, 70 nuclear nonproliferation experts with the nonpartisan Arms Control Association issued a statement in support of the deal, calling it, quote, "a strong, long-term, and verifiable agreement that will be a net-plus for international nuclear nonproliferation efforts."

For more, we’re joined by Gary Sick of Columbia University. He served on the National Security Council under Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis. He recently wrote an article for Politico headlined "The Danger of a Failed Iran Deal."

Professor Gary Sick, welcome to Democracy Now!

GARY SICK: Pleasure to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. What is the danger of a failed Iran deal?

GARY SICK: Basically, we’ve had two years of negotiation, which have been remarkably successful and produced something that is complicated but nevertheless solves the problem. If that is turned down by the U.S. Congress, basically the United States is on its own. The rest of the world doesn’t have to go along with this. We are basically saying we throw that out. The chance of renegotiating it is very close to zero. And as the situation evolves, there’s a very real chance of conflict.

That basically would take us back not only where we were two years ago, which was when Mr. Netanyahu was standing up waving the picture of a bomb at the United Nations and talking about immediate, you know, some kind of intervention, but actually worse than that, because in the meantime we would have lost the support of most of the international community. And it was their support for the sanctions that made the sanctions work. So, we would have lost pretty much everything along the way, and we would have, in effect, the Cuba solution—that the United States would be the only country in the world imposing sanctions on Iran. Our businesses would not be permitted to do business there, but the rest of the world would. And it’s very unlikely that anybody else would stick with us on that process.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, just to clarify something: Although in the United States it’s seen as the U.S.-Iran deal, of course it isn’t. Explain who else is involved and what it would mean if the U.S. pulled out of that. They would still have the deal with Iran?

GARY SICK: Well, yes. They could. But basically, everybody that signed it, which was all the permanent members of the Security Council, under the auspices of the European Union—and that included Russia and China—they have all signed on to this. And there’s no real doubt that they’re going to go ahead and put it into effect. If the United States withdraws, technically, the deal is broken; technically, the deal is off. But they’re not required to do anything in particular, other than sort of business as usual. So, the deal would come to an end. We would be seen as responsible for it. The sanctions would unravel, almost certainly—and rather quickly, I suspect. And we got nothing out of it at all, and a very serious threat that we would get back to a position where all we could do then is threaten military action to kind of enforce our views. So, you know, it really is a lose-lose situation by any standards at all.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, how significant do you think it is that these two senators, Schumer and Menendez, have broken with Obama on the deal?

GARY SICK: Well, it’s not a terrible surprise. I mean, both of them had pretty well signaled where they stood on this issue, and Menendez had actually objected to it long before the negotiations even started, and, after the negotiations were going on, tried to make it stop. So, you know, that isn’t a huge surprise. Still, it’s hard for me to see how any senator looking seriously at the alternatives that are available would make that choice. And I think it’s really unfortunate. I would much rather focus on Senator Gillibrand, who had the courage to stand up and do what I think needed to be done, and, with the same constituency, with the same issues—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what did she do?

GARY SICK: She basically said she was going to support the president on this. And I think that’s exactly where Schumer should be. And Menendez is another case. I mean, he’s been—you know, I’m not from New Jersey, but he’s—you know, this is a guy who’s under indictment currently and is facing a whole raft of problems and who has been ideologically opposed to this thing from the very start.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about some of the major criticisms of the deal.


AMY GOODMAN: Number one, it gives Iran 24 days before outside inspections begin. Two, there’s a lifting of the ban on conventional and ballistic weapons. Three, Iran’s economy may improve once the sanctions are lifted, so there’s this risk Iran will funnel money towards terrorist groups. Different senators are raising this issue, saying terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Talk about this.

GARY SICK: Well, OK. The first thing, that the 24 days is really a—this is an exaggeration. In fact, the inspections may begin instantly. But if there is resistance—in other words, let’s say the United States suspects that there’s something going on in a particular site, and we provide evidence that something is going on, and others agree with us. The Iranians then are left in the position of resisting that and pushing it to the limit in terms of letting anybody actually go ahead and do the inspections, which of course is suspect in itself. But they’ve only got 24 days maximum. And so, the chance that you can be building a nuclear weapon or doing something in that—and then get rid of it completely in that 24 days is very limited. And the reality is that in most cases, if there was real evidence presented, the inspections would probably go ahead within a day or so.

So, this is sort of worst-case scenario. And even worst-case scenario, you’ve got to remember, today we have no such rule. It’s not 24 days; it’s indefinite. So, we can go to Iran right now and say we suspect something, and it could be years before they actually let anybody go on and look. So, is this worse than where we were before? You know, that is a—you know, again, looked at in terms of a perfect, where we get everything we would like, no, this is not a perfect agreement. But if you look at it in terms of where the world really is, this is a tremendous improvement over where we’ve been up until now. And I think we have to look at it that way.

The second—your point was—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talking about the lifting the ban on conventional and ballistic weapons.

GARY SICK: Yeah, well, the ban on conventional and ballistic missiles was imposed by the Security Council as part of a package when Iran was not performing its duties, as far as the international inspectors were concerned. So this was—this was, in effect—it’s like the sanctions. It was put in to bring Iran to the table and to make them negotiate. From Iran’s point of view, those should have been lifted instantly; when the Security Council voted in favor of this agreement, all of those limits should be off. Instead, Kerry and company went back and negotiated a five-to-eight-year extension of that, which was accepted by the international community. So we’re five to eight years better off than we would have been under even the terms of the agreement as it was originally foreseen. So, again, is this perfect? No. But, you know—

AMY GOODMAN: Sparking a nuclear arms race with Saudi Arabia?

GARY SICK: You know, you look at—in the Middle East, there’s really only one country that has nuclear weapons, and that’s Israel. They’ve had those for a long, long time, and all of the countries in the Middle East know it and have felt threatened by Israel. Did they build a nuclear weapon? No, they sometimes talked about it, but when push came to shove, whether it was worth it to them to actually go through the process of starting a nuclear program, which was going to get them in trouble with the United States and their other allies, they decided not to. In this case, you take away Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon, and that sparks them then to build a nuclear weapon of their own? You know, it’s hard to see the logic of that or why they would. And, actually, you know, the Saudis, although they mutter in private, in reality, twice, they have come out formally in favor of this agreement, say that this could in fact improve their security. So, you know, I find it very unlikely that they’re going to go out and immediately start building a nuclear weapon.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, if Congress were to approve the deal, could a new Republican president go back on that decision? And could you talk specifically about the parallels between this situation and your own involvement in the negotiations with the Iran hostages in the last days of the Carter presidency?

GARY SICK: Yeah, I went through this process, and we did in fact negotiate with the Iranians, through the Algerians, to get the hostages released, and that resulted in the Algiers Accord. President Reagan, who had been elected but who had not yet taken office, was actually candidate Reagan up until the moment when this agreement was done, because it was not complete until the last day of the Carter presidency. And Reagan said this was done under coercion, this was—we were forced to do this, therefore we don’t have to obey it, we don’t have to actually go through. And then he became President Reagan instead of candidate Reagan, and he looked at the deal, and he saw what the effect would be if he undid it—one, in terms of his own credibility and the U.S. credibility, but also in terms of all the good things that were in that agreement, which were numerous and included a lot of things for the banks, and others benefited from it. And he quietly changed his mind and began, you know, to enforce it, and enforced it rather completely, in fact, while he was president. And it has been enforced ever since.

Does that mean that a Republican president—well, I think it would depend on which Republican president it was. It’s not to say that somebody couldn’t do that, but any president who says, "I’m going to go back on the word of the U.S. government in the future, because I don’t happen to like it ideologically," is, in effect, saying, "You can’t trust us." And any president looks at that and thinks about what the long-term consequences of that are. And if you’re the president—if you’re the candidate, it feels one way, but if you’re actually the president, it looks a different way. So, you know, we’ll see.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, President Obama pointed out many of the same people who supported the war in Iraq are opposing diplomacy with Iran. He also suggested Republican opponents of the deal share much in common with Iranian hard-liners.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Just because Iranian hard-liners chant "Death to America" does not mean that that’s what all Iranians believe. In fact, it’s those—in fact, it’s those hard-liners who are most comfortable with the status quo. It’s those hard-liners chanting "Death to America" who have been most opposed to the deal. They’re making common cause with the Republican caucus.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s President Obama comparing hard-liners in Iran with the Republican caucus. I’m wondering, Professor Sick, your thoughts about this. And also, you know, you know Iran quite well, though many, many years ago, principal White House aide during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis. And you wrote the book, October Surprise: America’s Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan, in an election year, of course, he is raised constantly by the Republican presidential candidates, who would like to be seen by him. So, if you can talk about his relationship right through Iran-Contra, selling weapons to Iran to illegally fund the Contras, which Congress had a ban on?

GARY SICK: Well, this is, of course, a lot of ancient history. And the reality is, if you look at when Reagan came into office, when he was looking at Iran, the first thing was he said he didn’t like this agreement that we had negotiated and then changed his mind on that. Then, over the period of the next few years, both Israel and the United States were selling arms to Iran at the same time that we were telling the rest of the world not to. And in the end, that turned into an enormous scandal. And if it hadn’t been in Reagan’s sort of the end of his term, there was a real chance that he could have been impeached over the activities of his National Security Council people.

AMY GOODMAN: Perhaps it was because they are the ones who revealed this, as opposed to an exposé by the press. They controlled the message, the Reagan administration.

GARY SICK: Well, yes. But, I mean, it really turned into—once it broke in the press, I mean, that’s when—that’s when it got very serious. But up until that time—but Reagan had talked about—and if you listen to what he actually said to explain what was going on with the Iran-Contra affair, he said it was a strategic opening to Iran, that this is what we were looking for, was to in fact find a way to deal with Iran in a more reasonable way, thinking that this would in fact be to our benefit as a nation. So, I can’t argue with that. I mean, frankly, I thought the concept was not bad at all. The way it was done, sort of the covert arms shipments when we said we were not going to be shipping arms, with—and dealing with a group of people that we didn’t know who they were and trusting intermediaries who really were shoddy types who were fabricators, that was not the way that—and the fact that it was run out of the White House instead of being run out of the State Department or the CIA or someplace else—all of these things were bad, as far as I was concerned. But the idea of a strategic opening to Iran, I think that was sensible. In fact, that’s sort of what we’re beginning to see here. But I say only "beginning," because anything like a strategic opening to Iran remains to be seen. This agreement, the nuclear agreement, is about the nuclear issue. It isn’t about opening up to Iran. But we do—we’ve had two years now of steady negotiations with Iran at the highest level, and that has broken the ice in an interesting way.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of history—you know, you wrote the October Surprise—do you still believe that Reagan had something to do with holding on—working a deal with Iran to hold onto the hostages so that Jimmy Carter would fall?

GARY SICK: Well, you know, this was looked at by two congressional committees, and they concluded—and I agree with them—there’s no smoking gun. We have a lot of circumstantial evidence. I continue to believe that the circumstantial evidence is very, very powerful. But the committees decided they are not going to, in effect, come down on the side of treason, if you like, without some hard evidence. So, we don’t have—

AMY GOODMAN: Treason against, well, President Reagan.

GARY SICK: We don’t have a picture of Bill Casey sitting around with the Iranians doing a deal. We don’t have any paper that says this is what they agreed. So, it is circumstantial evidence that has been put together. I wrote my book basically pulling together as much of that circumstantial evidence as possible. I think it’s still quite convincing. But it isn’t the sort of—it isn’t absolute proof. And until we have a deathbed confession or something else happens, it remains a matter to be argued about.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to turn back to Wednesday’s State Department press conference. In this clip, a reporter questions John Kirby about the new AP report suggesting Iran will be allowed to use its own experts to inspect its nuclear sites.

REPORTER: We can’t find previous examples that are similar to this, especially for a country alleged to have tried to develop nuclear weapons. How did that go from routine to now unique to—

JOHN KIRBY: Well, I wouldn’t—I wouldn’t amend the secretary’s comments about this all—about this at all. I mean, unless you’ve seen every single arrangement that the IAEA has with every other country in which it has a program for monitoring nuclear activity, I don’t know—

REPORTER: We quote Olli Heinonen, who is the number two at the agency, and he recalls no such arrangement. So, he—I mean, by that nature, it’s even unprecedented. So, it seems a bit weird to call it routine under such circumstances.

JOHN KIRBY: No, it’s not. It’s routine that the IAEA has these arrangements with individual countries. Those arrangements are, as we’ve said, confidential between the nation itself and the IAEA. That’s what’s routine here. And this is and remains, as I think the secretary has described it as, a technical arrangement between those two parties. And it’s—regardless of the details, it’s not unlike, in terms of framework, the kinds of arrangements they have with other nations that have nuclear capacity.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was John Kirby speaking Wednesday. So, Professor Sick, could you comment on this AP report and the concerns that have been raised about this Parchin site?

GARY SICK: I think it’s very important to look at this head on, because, first of all, we’re talking here about inspections dealing with issues that took place more than a decade ago, back in 2003 or earlier. That’s what we’re talking about here, is how those condition—how those are conducted. We’re also talking about inspections that are actually being conducted on sensitive military sites in Iran. The Iranians have reason to—because we’ve seen this in the past—to be a little nervous when other people, who might even be hostile to them, go in and begin taking samples and putting it in their pocket, taking it home, and suddenly they find they’re accused of something that they don’t agree with. So having IAEA inspectors watching, overseeing Iranian people doing the swipes, to them, is a form of protection against that sort of thing happening. And, you know, I don’t think that’s outrageous at all. I mean, it’s not as if they’re going in—we’re not, in effect, saying to Iran, "OK, you go inspect yourself and come back and tell us what you found." I mean, that isn’t it at all. But the fact that the Iranians themselves could actually be collecting the evidence that would be used by the IAEA, with the IAEA standing there watching them do it, is not so outrageous. I mean, I don’t think that’s anything unusual at all.

And, in fact, this is—but as he said—and what is used against it, in this case, is that it was a confidential agreement. But the agreement is between the IAEA and Iran. It’s not between the United States and Iran. And a lot of countries that are being inspected don’t like to publicize all of everything that they’re doing, because, in many cases, it’s embarrassing to them. So, this is a way of dealing with that, that the IAEA has worked out over the years.

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