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Former Advisers Caution Obama on Iran Nuclear Talks

Five former members of President Obama’s inner circle of Iran advisers have written an open letter expressing concern that a pending accord to stem Iran’s nuclear program “may fall short of meeting the administration’s own standard of a ‘good’ agreement” and laying out a series of minimum requirements that Iran must agree to in coming days for them to support a final deal.

Several of the senior officials said the letter was prompted by concern that Mr. Obama’s negotiators were headed toward concessions that would weaken international inspection of Iran’s facilities, back away from forcing Tehran to reveal its suspected past work on weapons, and allow Iranian research and development that would put it on a course to resuming intensive production of nuclear fuel as soon as the accord expires.

The very public nature of the announcement by some of Mr. Obama’s best-known former advisers, all of whom played central roles in the diplomatic, intelligence and military efforts to counter Iran’s program, adds to the enormousness of the challenge facing Secretary of State John Kerry as the negotiations head toward a deadline of next Tuesday.

Just a day ago Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, heightened the pressure by appearing to back away from several preliminary understandings reached between Iran and the West in early April, including in areas where Mr. Obama’s former advisers urged a hardening of the American position.

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For the White House, the letter may raise the level of political risk in seeking approval for any final agreement. A judgment from Mr. Obama’s own former advisers that the final accord falls short would provide ammunition for Republican critics who have already said they will try to kill it when it is submitted to Congress for review.

But it creates an opportunity for Mr. Obama as well. The letter was also signed by a number of prominent Republicans from George W. Bush’s administration. A determination by them that the standards set out in the letter have been achieved would undercut the Republican critique.

“Most of us would have preferred a stronger agreement,” the letter begins, going on to assess the proposed accord as useful for delaying Iran’s program, but not a long-term solution to the problem of a nuclear Iran.

“The agreement will not prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability,” it continues. “It will not require the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear enrichment infrastructure. It will however reduce that infrastructure for the next 10 to 15 years. And it will impose a transparency, inspection, and consequences regime with the goal of deterring and dissuading Iran from actually building a nuclear weapon.”

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The substance of the letter is less notable for what it says — the positions were frequent talking points for the Obama administration before it faced the inevitable compromises involved in negotiations — than for the influence of its signatories.

Among them is Dennis B. Ross, the longtime Middle East negotiator who oversaw Iran policy at the White House during the first term; David H. Petraeus, the former C.I.A. director who oversaw covert operations against Iran until he resigned two years ago; and Robert Einhorn, a longtime State Department proliferation expert who helped devise and enforce the sanctions against Iran.

Also signing the letter were Gary Samore, Mr. Obama’s chief adviser on nuclear policy in the first term and now president of United Against a Nuclear Iran, and Gen. James A. Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an architect of Mr. Obama’s effort to build up military forces in the region in case the United States needed to resort to force.

Among Republicans, the most notable signatory is Stephen J. Hadley, Mr. Bush’s national security adviser in his second term, who presided over both overt and covert efforts to slow Iran’s progress.

At the core of the letter are what Mr. Einhorn, now at the Brookings Institution, called “required elements that have not yet been achieved.” He said that all the signatories supported a negotiated settlement, and “there is no poison pill here” intended to undercut the chance of an agreement.

All the signatories joined in hours of Situation Room meetings during Mr. Obama’s first term, and some into the second, to devise both the strategy to bring Iran to the negotiating table — a mix of sanctions, sabotage of the nuclear program and the prospect of a broader relationship with the West — and the negotiating objectives.

But as often happens in negotiations, the mechanics of the trade-offs to get a deal often conflict with the negotiating objectives. Inside the Obama White House of late, there has been what one senior official said was “vigorous debate” over the risks of walking away — which would free Iran to return to full-scale production — versus a deal whose specifics still leave some officials uncomfortable.

The letter gets to the heart of some of those areas, all of which are still under negotiation, and in some cases bitter dispute. For example, the negotiations that ended in April resulted in vague statements about how inspections would work, beyond an understanding that Iran would sign an International Atomic Energy Agency convention that gives inspectors broad rights to investigate suspicious sites. But Ayatollah Khamenei, along with his commanders, immediately ruled out allowing foreigners to visit military sites.

The letter, referring to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, said inspections “must include military (including IRGC) and other sensitive facilities. Iran must not be able to deny or delay timely access to any site anywhere in the country.”

Similarly, while Mr. Kerry said last week that it was not necessary to make Iran account for evidence of past effort to work on weapons designs, because the United States and its allies already had “absolute knowledge” of those activities, the former advisers view the long-sought answers to those questions as vital.

The inspectors, they write, must be able “to take samples, to interview scientists and government officials, to inspect sites, and to review and copy documents as required for their investigation of Iran’s past and any ongoing nuclear weaponization activities.” The letter adds, “This work needs to be accomplished before any significant sanctions relief.”

On another delicate issue in the talks, the letter calls for “strict limits on advanced centrifuge R&D, testing, and deployment in the first 10 years,” and for measures to prevent “rapid technical upgrade” when those limits expire. Some limits were negotiated in April, but the details remain to be resolved.

Perhaps the hardest part from an Iranian perspective is the insistence in the letter that the United States publicly declare — with congressional assent — that even after the expiration of the agreement Iran will not be permitted to possess enough nuclear fuel to make a single weapon.

The letter continued, “Precisely because Iran will be left as a nuclear threshold state (and has clearly preserved the option of becoming a nuclear weapon state), the United States must go on record now that it is committed to using all means necessary, including military force, to prevent this.”

Iran has always insisted that its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes, and has argued that after the agreement expires it should be treated like any other nuclear state, free to produce as much fuel as it desires.

The letter emerged from a “study group” on nuclear issues organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a conservative think tank. Because only members of the group worked on the statement, it omits some former major players in the Obama administration’s Iran policy, notably Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will have to decide whether to embrace any final deal.

For a presidential candidate who has recently separated herself from some of Mr. Obama’s policies, it will not be an easy decision: As secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton sent two of her most trusted aides, Jake Sullivan and William Burns, to begin the secret negotiations with Iran that set the negotiations in motion.

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(via NY Times)