Middle East Security Advisor Ilan Goldenberg: 'The Iran Deal Is The Foreign Policy Equivalent Of Obamacare'

“You can rail against it, but it’s really hard to untangle.”

That was the expert opinion of Ilan Goldenberg at a blunt and unsparing, exclusive interview during last month’s annual J Street Annual Conference in Washington.

Ilan Goldenberg
Ilan Goldenberg

Given this outlook, President Trump may ultimately find, despite his cavalier campaign promises, that dismantling, or even revamping the deal would be as difficult -- perhaps more difficult, considering that six world powers were involved -- as undoing the ACA.

Goldenberg, a foreign policy and defense expert who is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo have each testified that rather than ditch the deal, they will police it. "They recognize that they’re sort of stuck with it," he said.

While Trump's rhetoric has of late changed from ripping up the deal to renegotiating its terms, it appears unlikely that he will have the international support to even proceed with that.

Trump has implemented punitive actions since January 20 in response to Iran's Jan. 29 ballistic missile test, but Goldenberg said that those sanctions were part of the Iran deal. "There are sanctions on the missile program and on Iran’s support of terrorists," he explained. "As part of that, they identify individuals associated with these programs, and we designate them specifically." 

But it's not a speedy process. "It takes months to build a case on each individual responsible for the nuclear program," said Goldenberg. "And all that work was going on under the Obama situation, and a number of these people were already designated." Therefore, he said, Trump's maneuvers were not a major shift in policy.

And despite the tests, Iran has adhered to the deal. "Flynn (former Trump NSA Michael T.) put Iran on notice, and an administration official did a background check," he said.

Goldenberg acknowledged that the deal, also known by its formative name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was not perfect. "The agreement could have always been better, and people can criticize its specific details, but it accomplished what it was intended to accomplish," he said. "It significantly set back Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief."

There is no question in Goldenberg's mind that it was a necessary — and urgent — diplomatic accord. "Iran was on the verge of developing nuclear weapons," he said. "That would have forced either Israel or the U.S. to choose either a nuclear-capable Iran, or military action, and both were very undesirable options."

If there was no deal, Israel and/or the U.S. could have ended up in a major conflict. "That was a real possibility in 2011 and 2012," he said.

In addition to his earlier work as Policy Director and founding staff member of the nonprofit National Security Network, Goldenberg's expertise stems from his 2009-2012 positions as a Special Advisor on the Middle East, and as the Iran Team Chief in the Office of Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy. (Flournoy, also at the J Street conference, turned down a recent opportunity to serve as Defense Secretary James Mattis' deputy.) There, Goldenberg advised the Under Secretary and senior defense officials on Iran's nuclear, military, and political states of affairs.

During the Obama administration, Goldenberg also worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, for both Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, on many of the military steps that were ultimately put in place in 2012 — to make it credible that if the U.S. were forced to act, it could.

"The whole policy, with regard to the Iran deal, was engagement and pressure," he said. "Keep open the diplomatic dialogue, but also press the Iranians. The military component was a quiet piece of that."

Negotiators also supported engaging with the Israelis in this manner — to keep them in line. "We had a policy and approach of reassurance by demonstrating that, 'look, guys, we don’t want to strike Iran, but if we need to do it, we have the capability — better us than you — so don’t surprise us,'" he recalled.

In that period, he said, cooperation between the parties was much closer — before there was a break between Netanyahu and Obama. "That happened when the engagement was working, during the negotiations," Goldenberg said.

In a perhaps not so ironic twist, however, Goldenberg conveyed that Israel was perhaps, for whatever reasons, a bit fatalistic about the plan's success. "Engaging and pressuring the Israelis was fine when engagement with Iran was not working — and then when pressure began, and when engagement started to work, they weren’t as cooperative," he said.


"I think that the terms that they had for any agreement were unrealistic," he speculated, adding: "the difference between them and the U.S. is how much risk you are willing to accept."

Goldenberg said one can understand where Israel was coming from. "They’re a small country surrounded by hostile neighbors, where we are a superpower surrounded by two oceans and two allies (Canada, and Mexico [until possibly recently]).

"In some sense, they wanted the Iranian nuclear program to go away altogether," he said, noting that on Iran, Israelis are much more united than on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

"There, the opposition parties' main disagreement with Netanyahu is his handling of the U.S. relationship," he observed.

Goldenberg gave a frank appraisal when asked about the chances for the deal's ultimate success or failure.

"I'd say there's a 50/50 chance that it will be an ultimate success, or that it may fall apart," he said, pointing to a lack of trust between Trump and the Iranians.

"The Iranians may also get fed up over restrictions, and they don’t feel like they are getting the economic benefits they expected, either," he said, noting that Iranian leaders overpromised their people on that end. "The decrease in oil prices has further contributed to their dissatisfaction, as has bad domestic management."

As a Senior Professional Staff Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2012 to 2013, Goldenberg covered Middle East issues for Chairmen John Kerry and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and helped draft the Syria Transition Support Act that aided the Syrian opposition, which passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May, 2013.

As State Department Chief of Staff to Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations Martin Indyck (who also spoke at plenary sessions during the J Street conference), Goldenberg was on the small team that facilitated Secretary Kerry’s efforts between Israelis and Palestinians.

"Lack of trust and political will on both sides brought that down," he said. "On the Israeli side, despite commitments at least to us to show restraint on the settlements, they then undercut the negotiations with a heavy dose of settlement activity."

But the negotiators faced opposition from the other side as well.

"At the end of the day, President Obama put a real offer on the table, and President Abbas never really responded," he said. 

"Both he and Netanyahu are very risk-averse," he continued. "Abbas didn’t trust Netanyahu, and he was very disillusioned.”

And the Palestinians? "As is often said, they don’t miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

Goldenberg believes that because of the settlements, Kerry lost face. "He also lost face in the American ability to deliver Netanyahu, to get him to do things."

But he also feels that the onus is on both of them. "It wasn’t Olmert — Abbas also didn’t respond to him — as happened with Barak and Arafat," he said.

So is this the end of the road? Surprisingly, Goldenberg thinks not. "Yes, I am optimistic, because other options are worse," he said.

"But it might be a while. Perhaps with different leadership on both sides...."

The golden question, indeed.

Susie Davidson tweets at @SusieDavidsonMA.

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