Samore on the Unsupportable U.S. Line in the Sand

I really think this quote from Gary Samore, a former key NSC official, sums up one of the central problems in the dispute between the West and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program.

The establishment of a bilateral channel is a necessary but not sufficient condition for coming to an agreement,” Mr. Samore said. “They want a nuclear weapons capability, and we want to deny them a nuclear weapons capability. Finding a compromise between those two objectives is going to be very difficult.

You see he’s actually being candid here about the line in the sand that the US has drawn in the negotiations. They want to deny Iran the capability to build a nuclear weapon. And therein lies the problem. That standard has no basis in international law whatsoever. That means this line in the sand drawn by the US is completely arbitrary and subjective. It has no authority or precedent as an international norm. And as I’ve said many times it is profoundly discriminatory. There are many states around the world that have the capability to build a nuclear weapon. They just choose not to. Iran is in no different technological situation than they are. In fact, they are at the moment quite technologically behind many of them in terms of this capability.  So why single out Iran for this arbitrary standard?  That is the problem that makes the Western approach to negotiations with Iran so bereft of legitimacy and so unsupportable. They’re just making up an arbitrary, subjective, standard that has no basis in international law or norms, and that is blatantly discriminatory. And they are enforcing it on Iran through crippling economic sanctions that are increasingly harming ordinary Iranian civilians. In a nutshell, that explains why I feel so strongly that this is an issue that needs attention and why I spend so much time writing about it.

Now, in the same article in which the Samore quote appears, and in this WSJ article (subscription, unfortunately) as well,  it is reported that the US has recently loosened some of its sanctions on Iran with regard to trade in medical and agricultural products.  This appears to me to be a very welcome act of goodwill on the part of the US, so I want to give credit where its due. Again, it appears to be an action aimed at signalling to President-elect Rouhani, US willingness to negotiate in good faith about sanctions relief, and to invite good faith efforts on his part as well. If that’s true and if that willingness on the part of the US is genuine, then I think this is a very welcome development, and one of the first signs I’ve seen of real good faith effort on the part of the US administration.


11 Comments on “Samore on the Unsupportable U.S. Line in the Sand”

  1. yousaf says:

    Samore was among those in the administration who may be more interested in maintaining sanctions rather than finding a equitable solution based upon the law. In a recent Brookings discussion he outlined why the administration torpedoed a nuclear deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil:

    “…And at the very last moment, as most of you will remember, Brazil and Turkey and Iran announced an agreement which was viewed in the White House really as a pretty transparent effort to try to delay the sanctions. So we went ahead with those sanctions.”

    re. the “US has recently loosened some of its sanctions on Iran with regard to trade in medical and agricultural products.” — this is more propaganda than substance. Because of the financial sanctions still in place the lifting will make little practical difference:


    “While Cohen said the purpose of the new guidance was “to accelerate trade” in these areas, the initial reaction to the measures by those dealing with such transactions was lukewarm. Several lawyers and bank representatives said the new advisories would not persuade European and Asian banks to resume or increase business with Iran even in authorized areas.

    “Until there is a very safe, effective way to do this stuff, foreign financial institutions will not take the risk,” Erich Ferrari, a sanctions lawyer in Washington, told Al-Monitor. He pointed to multimillion-dollar fines imposed on foreign banks such as Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi for sanctions infractions.

    Another lawyer, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic, added: “The reality is that banks are beholden to their regulators, who see Iranian transactions as risky.” The lawyer added that even major agricultural and pharmaceutical companies are having trouble finding channels to get paid.

    The problems are compounded for small companies and for individuals seeking to move minor amounts of money to and from Iran. To facilitate humanitarian transactions such as remittances, the lawyer said, the US “Treasury would have to create a blessed channel and specify an American financial institution — like a Western Union or American Express.”

    During the 1990s when the government of the former Yugoslavia was under sanctions, the US government set up such a channel, giving a bank based in New York a license to open an account in a Yugoslav bank for authorized transactions.

    Asked about this by Al-Monitor, Cohen said that the situations were different because Yugoslavia was not suspected of seeking nuclear weapons….”

  2. Nick says:

    Recent comments by the three insiders: Einhorn, Ross and Samore, reveal that the US and Iran will not be able to reach an end-state, unless Iran gives up on full rights under NPT.

    By that I mean USG probably has come up with a magical number for the annual SWU that Iran can be allowed ( Dan, I also hate that word “be allowed”) to have in Iran as the end game. This number is better be larger than what it is now, which is 6300 (9000 units * .7), or IRI has to do the big “D” (dismantle) which they hate to even discuss. Current production with that annual SWU results in 3 tons of LEU. Mind you in this analysis only the units that are enriching were included, and not installed.

    Assuming Samore’s last memo was to limit to something like 6300, then it means no new additional centrifuges and no new technologies. Trash IR2ms that are installed but not enriching and what ever else is in the drawing boards or prototyping. Fire all the engineers and close R&D places.

    I don’t think Rohani will be able to pull this off. IRGC and other stakeholders will object vehemently. All Rohani can hope for is to find a way to halt the 20% and get some sanction relief. The so called “break out period” is tantamount to forcing IRI to live with a subpar enrichment capability at the end, say 6000+ annual SWU, far smaller than a viable facility in Russia would have at 1 million or more.

    • yousaf says:

      Interesting thing is that this sub-par capacity is often cited as a possible indication that Iran must be interested in eventual weaponization — because, the argument goes, the sub-par capacity is not enough to produce fuel for the reactors.

      Damned if you have a big enrichment capacity and damned if you don’t.

    • Rene says:

      Nick, do you think the endgame would be limiting the SWU capacity *indefinitely* or limiting it until the IAEA verifies the peaceful nature of Iran’s program (which can obviously take long, but perhaps no more than a decade)?

      I think Rohani won’t be able to sell to the establishment and the parliament the idea of firing their engineers *indefinitely* and sticking to 60s technology, but I think he could do it if it was a temporary, confidence-building measure.

      • Nick says:

        Yes, I am certain it is planned indefinitely. And that is why IRI keeps asking what is our rights after this initial 20% halt, if we agree on the sanction relief for it.

        Samore’s comments make it very clear that the end-state breakout period is probably the showstopper for USG for any long term negotiations. Of course there are people that say even of IRI agrees to a sub-par enrichment capability, the White House has no control over the Congress and only those sanctions under the control of Obama may end up being removed.

      • fafnir says:

        They tried the “temporary confidence-building measure” once before and it didnt work because the west wasnt interested in the “temporary” part,the iranians wont be playing that game again any “temporary” measure would be just that,indeed I dont see iran agreeing to any “temporary confidence-building measure” unless the length of it is clearly spelled out ahead of time,personally I think that the idea of limiting centrifuge types or numbers is just not going to fly,the most the west can hope for is for iran to limit its enrichment level to 5%

  3. Don Bacon says:

    . So why single out Iran for this arbitrary standard? Because Iran has Middle East hegemony and the US wants it. So the US prattles about the “nuclear capability” standard which is known to be meaningless and ignorant. The US also charges Iran with meaningless human rights and terrorism abuses, but who takes them seriously?

    On terror, Matthew Olsen, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center: “Iran remains the foremost state sponsor of terrorism” and then told an audience of more than a hundred security professionals gathered at Aspen on July 26, 2012: “There are times when we are briefing the White House [on terror threats that] at the top of the list are Hezbollah or Iran.” Sure.

    But none of the various terror reports that the US issues even mentions Iran. They mention al-Qaeda a whole lot, but not Iran. So people (non-Americans, that is) take these ignorant remarks as just another sign of a failing empire. It’s called: “Strategic Communications.” It used to be called propaganda, before they went to charm school.

  4. Johnboy says:

    It’ll be interesting to see if Samore attempts to walk back his comment, or if he sticks to his guns.

    Because *this* comment
    “They want a nuclear weapons capability, and we want to deny them a nuclear weapons capability”
    seems to me to be a excellent statement regarding the policy objectives of Benjamin Netanyahu.

    Maybe Samore is just confused regarding which master he serves, or maybe he’s just being coy about who the “we” is in that statement?

    • Denis says:

      Thank you, JB

      Any discussion of the motives for US policy toward Iran that doesn’t include Israel is an exercise in deceptive futility.

      There are only two things necessary for understanding USG policy toward IRI (or any Muslim nation in the Middle East).

      1. An evaluation of Israel’s assessment of its own interests.
      2. An evaluation of the degree of influence Israel has over a current US administration.

      It would be interesting for someone to quantify #2 with an Israeli Influence Factor on a scale of, say, 0 to 1, where 0 is no influence and 1 is complete influence. I would judge the current IIF to be in the range of 0.3 to 0.5.

      Remove Israel from this situation (IIF = 0) and a resolution to the current conundrum is simplified by orders of magnitude because:

      1. W/out US backing of GoI’s nuclear hegemony IRI would have no need to bury its facilities against preemptive attack or to achieve nuclear break-out status, and

      2. USG would be indifferent to IRI achieving such status; i.e., Saudi is on its own.

      In that situation the NPT and international law might have some relevance, even value and a nuke free Middle East might be achievable. But as long as a rogue nuclear state like GoI is calling the US policy shots, US policy will driven primarily by that state’s assessment of its own interests.

  5. Rene says:

    It appears that Samore’s “unsupportable line” is quite popular within the administration. His views are echoed by Thomas Countryman, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation, in a recent interview with GSN: “The focus of our policy is in preventing Iranian capability to construct nuclear weapons. Full stop.”

    See here:

    Overall Mr. Countryman comes across as an extremely arrogant person. It’s also interesting that the reporter talks about “Iran seemingly flouting its NPT membership by the actions it’s taking.” Gotta love DC!

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