Former US State Department Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller. Photo: Wilson Center
The recent “cash-for-prisoners” controversy has played into the hands of Iranian hardliners and helped bolster the image of growing US weakness in the Middle East, a former US State Department Middle East negotiator told The Algemeiner on Friday.
“Let’s be clear, this was not ransom in the traditional sense,” Aaron David Miller, currently a vice president at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, said about the transfer by the US of $400 million to Iran on the same day this past January that four Americans were released from Iranian captivity. “But I think it makes us look bad and it feeds the narrative that the Iranians have outfoxed, outmaneuvered an outnegotiated us.”
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published earlier this week, Miller, who worked for two decades as a State Department analyst adviser — and negotiator on Middle East issues in Republican and Democratic administrations — called the Iranian regime a “force to be reckoned with” in a “region of weak Arab states, alongside a Russia willing to assert its power, and a Washington constrained by a nuclear accord that has expanded Iran’s ambitions.”
More than a year after Iran and six world powers agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Miller summed up for The Algemeiner on Friday his view of what he called a “highly imperfect” deal by borrowing a line from a legendary rock star.
“Like Mick Jagger says, ‘You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes well you might find you get what you need,’” Miller said. “With the Iran deal, the Obama administration got what it needed — which was a slower, smaller and more transparent Iranian nuclear program for a discrete period of time — and the Iranians got what they wanted. Because at the end of 8-10 years, when some of the most restrictive conditions of this accord go into sunset, the Iranians will be left with very sophisticated nuclear infrastructure, that could provide a foundation, if they choose, to weaponize in the future.”
Miller went on to say, “Critics of the deal argue that we could’ve have gotten a better deal, there were too many concessions made and the deal doesn’t cover Iran’s behavior in the region. All those things are true. But if the president’s objective was to preclude a preemptive Israeli strike, make an American military strike unnecessary and prevent Iran from actually crossing the nuclear threshold on his watch, then those objectives were achieved.”
In the wake of the deal, Iran remains a “repressive” regime pursuing policies in places like Syria and Yemen that are “fundamentally at odds” with American policies, Miller said. Instead of having a moderating influence, the nuclear deal has led Iran to “toughen” its regional policies, Miller noted.
Furthermore, Miller said, he believes the Obama administration “made a decision to support Iran’s regional policies to get the nuclear accord implemented. And that’s where a lot of people find fault with the administration’s approach.”
Speaking about the nature of Tehran’s power structure, Miller said, “Authoritarian regimes change very slowly. You look at China, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, even Cuba, and what you see is that highly authoritarian ideological regimes, and Iran is both, can end up opening their systems for economic advantage while maintaining strict and tight political control at home. And so far, that’s what we see in Iran.”
Miller said that incidents like the one on Tuesday in which four small Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy craft aggressively approached a US Navy destroyer near the Strait of Hormuz suggest that the Iranians “want to challenge the US within certain parameters and ensure that whatever moderates exist within the system are boxed in.”
If Hillary Clinton is elected president in November, Miller said, “You’re going to get a defense of the deal as a pragmatic response to a problem that is now at least on the back burner, not a front-burning issue threatening war. She’d probably have tougher enforcement standards [than Obama]; she has talked much tougher on Iran than the president. And frankly, I think, had there been a Clinton presidency in 2008, there probably would have been no deal, because I think she is more hawkish on the Iran issue than the president is and less prone to consider engagement with our adversaries.”
A Donald Trump presidency, Miller predicted, would see the JCPOA “enter a death spiral.”
“Whether Trump would abrogate the accord or start to do things that would force the Iranians to react, it seems likely that during a Trump presidency the accord would over time somehow be rendered inoperative,” Miller said.
Turning to recent reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed a willingness to hold direct peace negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Miller said he was doubtful such an initiative would get off the ground.
“I think this is more to stir the pot and demonstrate that he has cards to play,” Miller said of the Russian leader. “I don’t think Putin has any illusions. He has watched the US struggle with the issue. But look, it would be something of a public-relations coup if Putin could host a meeting in Moscow between Netanyahu and Abbas, whether or not it led to serious negotiations. Putin is all about acting on the big stage in a way that makes others believe Russia is a significant power and has influence. We’ve watched him in Crimea, Ukraine, Crimea and Syria. He has played bad cards very well.”
Regarding the final months of the fraught Obama-Netanyahu relationship before a new president takes office in January, Miller said, “I’m sure Netanyahu does not trust what the Obama administration might be considering on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. There have been rumors flying around, that after the November elections, the administration will considering trying to work out a set of parameters on final status issues, either with a UN Security Council resolution or some other arrangement — basically to create a new framework for what would constitute the international community’s preferred outcome for a two-state solution, including what to do about borders, Jerusalem, refugees. And that, I think, is Netanyahu’s fear.”
However, Miller concluded, he is “dubious” that the Obama administration would pursue such a course of action.
“If Hillary is elected, Obama would definitely have to have her consent to go through with such a thing,” Miller said. “The last thing she would want is a crisis with Netanyahu as the first act of her administration. And you’d also have to get the Russians, the Chinese, the Europeans on board — and you’d have to satisfy the Palestinians, because it would make no sense to create an international framework that was fundamentally opposed by both parties. You’d have to have something significant in there that benefited both the Israelis and the Palestinians. For the Israelis, it would be recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. But if they put that in there, there would be language on borders and Jerusalem that would presumably drive the Israelis crazy.”