September 17, 2015

“Life is not a James Bond movie,” said Danielle Pletka at recent panel discussion on the nuclear deal with Iran.

Pletka, who is the senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, was explaining the difficulties of enforcing the nuclear agreement. She chided those on both sides of the political spectrum for framing the debate over the deal in stark ideological terms such as deal versus no deal, war versus peace, and good versus evil. Such dichotomies, she said, make sense in the context of a fictional crime thriller but have little do with real world policymaking.

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Pletka was joined in the discussion by Stuart Gottlieb, Richard Nephew, and Gary Sick, each a SIPA professor or scholar. Professor Robert Jervis served as moderator, and Professor Richard Betts made introductory remarks. The event, held at SIPA on September 10, was co-sponsored by the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies.

The division among panel members was clear from each participant’s opening statement, with two coming out strongly for the deal and two against. This made for a rousing debate: at one point, Pletka appealed to Jervis when he stepped in to take issue with one of her arguments: “You’re the moderator,” she said, jokingly.

One of the themes of the discussion was the American political response to the deal. Despite their opposition, both Pletka and Gottlieb conceded it would be “nearly impossible” to roll back the agreement entirely under a new administration. The White House could have reached out to Congress more diplomatically, Pletka asserted, but ultimately “we knew what we were getting” when President Obama was elected.

“The nuclear agreement with Iran is really only controversial in this country,” said Sick, pointing out that most of the developed world agreed on its necessity. Gottlieb likened the predicament to Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations debate, in which then-President Wilson was unable to convince his domestic constituents to join the league he had worked so hard to create.

Nephew, a program director at SIPA’s Center on Global Energy Policy, discussed the historical context of Iranian inspections regimes. Rather than view the 24-day inspections window as a liability, as do so many of the deal’s critics, he asserted that it could be an asset, citing the example of Kalaye Electric, previously alleged to be a site of nuclear activity. In that case, Nephew said, the Iranians stalled the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors for six months, at the end of which they still found traces of uranium at the site.

“If six months of sanitization activities is not good enough to remove all the traces of uranium that could be found in a covert site,” Nephew said, “how on earth is 24 days?”

On another controversial topic—Iran’s state support of terrorism—Nephew said, “it’s a hard truth, it may be an upsetting truth,” but there would be no way to lift economic sanctions and simultaneously prevent the nation from funding terrorism. He said to instead focus on the idea that the Iranian government has interests beyond terrorism, such as increasing its own economic domestic viability. “It’s a hard truth, but it’s a real truth,” Nephew continued, that despite all this, Iran would continue to support terrorism as a matter of foreign policy.

— Lindsay Fuller MPA ’16

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Pictured (from left): Stuart Gottlieb, Danielle Pletka, Robert Jervis, Gary Sick, Richard Nephew