Jonathan Finer on Iran

FinerIn 2020, before he was appointed Deputy National Security Advisor, Jonathan Finer charged that the Trump administration’s policy on Iran had failed.  “Iran’s behavior in the region, if anything, has gotten worse since maximum pressure began, and its nuclear program has moved closer to the danger zone of producing enough material for a nuclear weapon,” he said in March 2020. Finer also warned that the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), could have a long-term impact on Iranian domestic politics. President Hassan Rouhani and his political bloc of reformists and centrists “had been discredited” because the U.S. did not keep its commitments to the deal. There could “be a much harder-line government elected in Iran in 2021,” he said. As chief of staff to Secretary of State John Kerry in 2015, Finer played a leading role in the negotiations that produced the JCPOA. The following are remarks by Finer on Iran.  


On Iran’s nuclear program and future diplomacy

Q&A with Global Brief on March 3, 2020:

Question: “What is next for US-Iran relations? Is there serious risk of escalation or even war? Is there a capacity to restitch the JCPOA, or something in between?”

Finer: “The real question is what is going to happen over the next year. In November, there is an inflection point on the American side, in which we will have either have a continuation of the Trump administration or a different administration that will possibly take a different approach to Iran. Of course, there is also an inflection point coming on the Iranian side. That country has an election in 2021. Many people who follow Iranian politics closely believe that because the people who made the nuclear deal on the Iranian side have been discredited to some extent – because the US did not keep its commitment, reinforcing the idea that President Rouhani was naïve to trust the US to stick by that deal – there will be a much harder-line government elected in Iran in 2021. Not knowing who will be on the US side of the table after November, and not knowing who will be on the Iranian side of the table after early to mid-2021, makes it somewhat harder to make predictions.

“That said, both sides have the intention and incentives to continue to turn up the tension. The Trump administration is committed to a maximum pressure campaign against Iran and believes that it is working because Iran’s economy has suffered so much over the last year, with oil exports down by 80 to 90 percent. But the goal of maximum pressure was to get Iran to come back to the table, make a better nuclear deal and change Iranian behavior in the region. From the American perspective, Iran’s behavior in the region, if anything, has gotten worse since maximum pressure began, and its nuclear program has moved closer to the danger zone of producing enough material for a nuclear weapon.”


On the Trump administration’s Iran policy

Essay in Foreign Affairs in May 2019: “Just over two years ago, a war with Iran in the near term seemed almost unthinkable. The Obama administration saw Iran’s nuclear program as the greatest threat and sought to take it off the table, which would also make addressing other threats from Iran less risky. The 2015 nuclear agreement locked up Iran’s program for more than a decade. And Iran adhered to the deal.

“One of the clearest and most immediate consequences of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, however, was a reversal of U.S. policy toward Iran, including the decision to withdraw the United States from the nuclear deal and resume sanctions against Iran and its business partners.

“Although Trump has also said that he is open to talks, the prospects of a conflict between the United States and Iran are now as high as they have been since early 2013, before the nuclear negotiations began to progress, when there were frequent reports that both countries (and Israel) were preparing for a military clash. It is easy to imagine any number of incendiary scenarios. U.S. forces are currently deployed in relatively close proximity to Iranian troops or their proxies in at least three countries: Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. A missile strike from Iranian-backed forces in Yemen that killed a large number of Saudis or a fatal rocket attack against Israel launched by Iranian proxies in Lebanon or Syria would lead to heavy pressure on Washington to retaliate, perhaps against Iranian targets.”


In Global Brief on Oct. 31, 2018: “There are few winners from the American withdrawal from the JCPOA, and a great many losers. Renewed confrontation between the US and Iran makes yet another conflict more likely in a region that already has far more than its share, and whose turbulence can quickly spread beyond its borders.

“The Iranian political leaders who made the nuclear deal have suffered a major blow, benefitting the hardliners who opposed it, while the country’s citizens, who have already endured decades of international sanctions, face deepening economic hardship. By violating the deal when Iran was complying, the US produced a major rupture with close allies, unanswerable questions about whether Washington can be counted on to keep its word beyond the next election cycle, and a self-generated nuclear crisis – even as Washington struggles to address one with North Korea that threatens the US far more directly.

“Of course, the most unfortunate impact of the US decision may be the damage to diplomacy itself, and to the belief that it can still address our planet’s most pressing problems. Like all negotiated accords, the nuclear deal was imperfect (all sides agreed on that), but it was the most consequential recent example of nations that agreed on little else uniting to defuse a global challenge without firing a shot. Spoiling the fruits of that effort may make future leaders more likely to forego such cumbersome and time-consuming negotiations, and turn to less elegant foreign policy tools, like force.”


On negotiating with Iran

Q&A with Global Brief on March 3, 2020:

Question: “What were your strategic objectives, as a key member of the negotiating team, in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal?”

Finer: “Our objectives were quite simple. The overall goal was to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program was exclusively peaceful in a way that was verifiable and durable. And we wanted to do so without having to go to war. Our administration was quite clear that it was willing to take military action to stop Iran from producing a nuclear weapon should Iran make the determination do to that. But we were also quite clear that diplomacy was our first choice, in terms of the tools available to us, to solve this international problem that had been bedeviling the international community for decades.

“We believed that the solution at which we arrived and which we implemented in 2016, but that was later undone by the Trump administration, addressed the problem in question. It took the breakout time – the time that Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon – from a few months in the days before the agreement was reached, to more than a year in the aftermath of the implementation of the agreement. It sent hundreds of international monitors to Iran with access to all of its nuclear facilities for the first time. As such, without getting too much deeper into the weeds of the agreement, we believe those two achievements of the nuclear accord really did make the US and the world much safer. For the first time in recent memory, the international community could say, verifiably, that Iran was not on the cusp of producing enough material for a nuclear weapon. That was a big deal.”

Question: “What were your takeaways from negotiation with Iran? What was it like to negotiate with that country? What was their mentality? What were their strengths and weaknesses?”

Finer: “We were operating in a situation where there was not a lot of trust. We had very little trust in the team with which we were negotiating on the other side of the table, and the Iranians would tell you that they had little trust in us. The reality was that we had to make an agreement that could operate and function – and that each side would implement its part – even in a situation where we could not simply take the other side’s word for it. That said, we were able, after many hours spent negotiating with our Iranian counterparts, to arrive at a place where even in the absence of trust, we could produce a constructive result that met the basic requirements and interests of both sides. That is essential to any sort of agreement between adversaries.


On the U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani

Q&A with Global Brief on March 3, 2020:

Question: “Why did the US kill General Soleimani?”

Finer: “What is difficult in answering that question is that the Trump administration offered multiple explanations. There was a period of time when the claim was that Soleimani was involved in planning an imminent attack in the US or against US interests or embassies. There was an attempt to meet the international legal standard for an attack like this – that is, that it was done to prevent an imminent attack. However, over time, the administration moved way from that explanation, seemed not to offer much evidence for any sort of imminent threat to the US, and seemed to claim a different rationale – to wit, that this was a bad guy who had blood on his hands and whose killing made the US safer. 

Bref, it is hard to answer definitely the question of why the US did what it did. There has been some critique of the attack because of the risk of escalation or Iranian retaliation, but also because of the precedent that it sets – namely, of killing someone who is, by US definition, universally acknowledged to be a person who was involved in terrorism but is also an official in the Iranian government. The precedent of killing the official of a country with which the US is not officially at war definitely worries some people. No one in the US who is critical of the administration has defended the body of work of Qassem Soleimani. He is, from the US perspective, someone who has fundamentally destabilized the Middle East, who has been responsible for the deaths of a large number of Americans, and whose absence from the battlefield almost certainly does make the US safer. But questions do remain about all of the other implications, repercussions and third- and second-order effects.”


On Iran’s influence in Iraq

Q&A with Global Brief on March 3, 2020: “Iraq has a hundreds-of-miles-long border with Iran, deep historical, cultural and religious ties to Iran, and it fundamentally needs a positive relationship with Iran. Many Iraqi leaders spent their years of exile when Saddam Hussein was in power in Iran. So the relationships are deep there. If we asked Iraq to sever its relationship with Iran at the risk of losing its relationship with the US, American officials might not like the response to such a request. Bref, the US needs to tread more lightly, and look for more common ground with the government in Baghdad to demonstrate the value of the relationship.”