White House officials discuss Iran deal on campus

Wednesday, September 2, 2015 - 7:00pm

To kick off the semester’s policy talks at the Ford School of Public Policy on Wednesday, White House officials spoke at the University about the Obama administration’s proposed nuclear deal with Iran. 

Paul Irwin, one of the deal’s negotiators and the National Security Council's director for nonproliferation, and Matt Nosanchuk, White House liaison to the American Jewish community, discussed several elements of the negotiations that are considered most controversial, including monitoring, economic benefits to Iran and what that country is and isn’t prohibited from doing.

The two also held a Q&A session with the audience of roughly 100 people, moderated by John Ciorciari, assistant professor of public policy. 

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, announced in July, would require Iran to give up most of its nuclear program in exchange for the end of many economic sanctions levied on the country by the United States and other world powers. Under the deal, Iran will be able to maintain a small amount of enriched uranium and other equipment — which experts say is not enough to create a nuclear bomb — and will also submit to inspections to ensure that the terms of the deal are kept.

The JCPOA is currently in a 60-day congressional review period, which expires mid-September.

Opening the event, Nosanchuk began by stressing President Barack Obama’s engagement around the topic of nuclear weapons and Iran. 

“(The deal) represents the fulfillment of the president’s commitment on (nonproliferation),” he said. “And more broadly, on foreign policy it represents the fulfillment of the president’s commitment to conducting important foreign policy issues through diplomacy by bringing nations of the world together, to put the United States and our standing in the world in a different place.”

Irwin discussed multiple facets of the deal, starting with several numbers, detailing four potential Iranian pathways to a nuclear bomb and noting that it's been 13 years since the public learned of Iran's nuclear program.

The focus of the negotiations going into the deal, Irwin said, was largely the pathways to an Iranian bomb. The four pathways would be via the Fordow and Natanz uranium enrichment plants, plutonium from the Arak reactor in the region, and a “covert pathway,” representing the unknown ways the country could produce the materials for a bomb.

Initially, Irwin said, American objectives and Iranian objectives were far apart, resulting in negotiations lasting beyond the initially anticipated six months.

He cited one core American objective — reducing the number of centrifuges in the country, which are used to enrich uranium — as an example.

“The reason we couldn’t get it done in six months is we walked in the room and said, 'We want you to have zero centrifuges,' ” he said. “And they said, 'Well, we never said we’d have zero centrifuges. In fact, our objective is to go from about the number of centrifuges we have now ... to the equivalent of about 190,000 in seven years.' So we were a bit far apart.”

As the negotiations continued, he said, it became clear that looking for more innovative, flexible approaches to American objectives would be the most productive way forward.

“We didn’t try to take on the program, all of Iran’s political concerns, head on by saying you absolutely have to do x,” he said. “What we did was we came up with creative solutions whereby they didn’t want to shut down a facility. Well, we didn’t actually need them to shut down the facility. We could turn it into something else and verifiably make sure that it wasn’t going to be used for the next 15 years to make material for a bomb.”

Irwin and Nonsanchuk both stressed that the sanctions relief included in the deal was tied to successful completion of the other requirements, and that sanctions stemming from other issues remained in place.

“One of the underpinnings of this agreement was that a decision was made to address the nuclear threat, because that is the existential threat, one that had credible implications for the security of the region and the entire world,” Nosanchuk said in response to a question from the audience.

“Other issues regarding Iran’s support for terrorism were not brought into these negotiations, purposefully. At the same time, the sanctions that have been imposed on Iran for its role in those activities remain in place.”

Other questions from the audience touched on several other aspects of the deal, including concerns about the potential for Iran to cover up violations under a provision governing inspections of suspected nuclear sites. The provision allows for a 24-day period between a request from the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect a site and a final decision to allow the IAEA into the site if Iran disputes it.

Irwin said while the period could allow for cover-ups of small violations, it ensured that it wasn’t enough time to cover-up radioactive material, which was the focus of the provision.

“We were not trying to accomplish everything,” he said. “What we were trying to get is a dramatically reduced amount of time that the Iranians could stonewall the (International Atomic Energy Agency), and an amount of time that would not allow them to sanitize the sites. And if you don’t have nuclear material, you don’t have a nuclear weapon.”

Attendees also asked about the viability of the consequences for Iran built into the deal, namely the snapback provision.

The provision states that previous economic sanctions will snap back into place if terms of the deal are violated, barring a vote by the six countries involved in the agreement.

Irwin said he believed even if other countries build up business ties with Iran, they would still be willing to enact sanctions.

Rackham student Marian Smith, who attended the event, said she thought it was a good summation of the main points of the deal.

“Overall I think it was a great opportunity to hear from people who are actively involved from the Obama administration, and who are kind of cutting through a lot of the B.S. that’s being churned out about the deal,” she said.

LSA senior Daniel Pearlman said he found it informative, but added that he would have enjoyed hearing a broader number of perspectives.

“I wish there was more of a range of opinions that was represented,” Pearlman said. “There are a substantial amount of Americans who are against this deal, or who are also on the fence, and I think having more of a panel would have been a more effective way to inform Michigan students and the community as a whole.”