Former Obama Special Assistant Amb. Dennis Ross: Iran Deal Critics Were Right

A retired Ambassador who served as the “point man” on Middle East peace talks for Presidents including George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and as a special assistant to President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the Middle East, Dennis Ross is a man whose word has borne a lot of weight.

In a recent interview with the Times of Israel, he discussed the Iran deal in terms readers of this site will find distressingly familiar.  There were only two questions in a wide-ranging interview that treated mostly questions of Israeli-American relations and of the current wave of violence plaguing Israel, as is to be expected given the source.  Nevertheless, the two questions are telling.

What are your thoughts on the Iran deal now that it’s done?

The deal itself buys you 15 years. One of my main concerns is what happens after year 15, when they basically can have as large a program as they want, and the gap between threshold status and weapon status becomes very small.

To deal with that vulnerability you have to bolster your deterrence in a way that convinces them there is a firewall between threshold status and weapons status. They have to be convinced of that. The more you make it clear that for any misbehavior they pay a price, and it’s the kind of price that matters to them, the more likely they are to realize the firewall is real, and the less likely they are to ever test it.

I would like to see us do things that to create that firewall and the legitimacy of it in the eyes of the rest of the world. So if [Iran] is going to dash toward a weapon the answer is not sanctions, it’s force. And everybody knows that and accepts that, and it becomes legitimate.

Are you worried about the deal’s implementation?

Well, I would like to see a joint consultative committee between the United States and Israel on the implementation. That’s not to replace what’s done with the other members [of the P5+1], but because the Israelis will be looking at everything with a microscope, I think it would be reassuring to the Israelis and it would send a message that we are really going to hold the Iranians to what they are obligated to do.

But I would also like that committee to be a forum for contingency planning to deal with options for when the Iranians ratchet up what they will do in the region. We’re already seeing them ratchet it up in Syria. Everyone is focusing on what the Russians are doing, but Iran is adding significant numbers of Revolutionary Guard forces to the ground, it’s not just Hezbollah forces. I think this is a harbinger of things to come.

Ross’ suggestion that the deal does not build a firewall of force against an Iranian dash toward a bomb is, if anything, diplomatically understated.  In fact the deal has allowed Iran to undermine and complicate Western or Israeli military options for dealing with its program.  The end of a strict limit on payload-bearing ballistic missile technology has allowed Iran to test a new, nuclear-capable ballistic missile since President Obama ‘signed’ the deal.  Even before nuclear payloads become available, Iran has long shown a capacity to use its missile artillery as a countermeasure to potential airstrikes.

The end of arms transfers between Russia and Iran that the deal winks at has allowed Iran to obtain advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles that will make any airstrike options on Iran much more complicated than they are today.

Finally, Ross is right to be concerned about the deployment of thousands of Iranian regulars in Syria.  These follow on and compliment an integrated unconventional warfare program that Iran has coordinated with Russia.  While some commentators on the war think that the Russians may be serving as a counterbalance to Iran for Assad, the Russian component is chiefly a strike component — air power and naval gunnery — that is not very useful for holding ground, and largely useless without actionable intelligence that the Russians lack on their own.  It is from the vast network of Shi’a militias with local ties that the Iranians are able to provide targets for Russian power.  Quds Force has both the network and the experience in leveraging such networks to generate actionable intelligence necessary to serve this crucial role.  That means that Iran is in the driver’s seat in Syria as long as Russia does not field its own intelligence apparatus, or a strong ground component.  Both of these take time and investment.

The deal and its aftermath have solidified Iran’s position as leader in the northern Middle East.  Far from building up a firewall against an Iranian dash toward a bomb, they have allowed Iran to build a firewall against any practical countermeasures.