Editor’s Note: CNN National Security Analyst John Kirby is a retired rear admiral in the US Navy who served as a spokesman for both the State and Defense departments in the Obama administration. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
If you need any more proof – and by now you shouldn’t – of how effective the Iran deal has been, look no further than Saturday’s edition of The Guardian/Observer.
Reporters Mark Townsend and Julian Borger reported that aides to President Trump hired an Israeli private intelligence agency, Black Cube, to “dig up dirt” on former Obama administration officials involved in negotiating and/or defending the deal as part of an effort to discredit them and, by association, the deal itself.
According to the story, which said it was based on documents seen by Guardian/Observer reporters, investigators contracted by Black Cube were told to examine the personal lives and political careers of Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, and Colin Kahl, a national security adviser to former vice-president Joe Biden.
Sources cited by the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow gave a different account, asserting that the effort, rather than ordered up by aides to Trump, was part of Black Cube’s work for a private-sector client pursuing commercial interests related to sanctions on Iran. “Black Cube has no relation whatsoever to the Trump administration, to Trump aides, to anyone close to the administration, or to the Iran nuclear deal. Anyone who claims otherwise is misleading their readers and viewers,” the firm said in a statement.
In any event, investigators were apparently also told to look at potential involvement by Rhodes or Kahl with Iran-friendly lobbyists, personal or political gains they may have received from the deal, and any inappropriate disclosure of sensitive information that may have resulted from their defense of it.
Just how desperate would you have to be to use an attack like this to torpedo the Iran deal?
Quite a bit, apparently.
You sure can’t point to Iranian non-compliance. The International Atomic Energy Agency stole that thunder, having consistently verified Iran’s compliance with the deal since it went into effect three years ago.
(And so has Donald Trump up to this point, by the way.)
You can’t say our generals hate it. Defense Secretary Mattis and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Joseph Dunford, have both said publicly they believe Iran is in compliance. In fact, Mattis recently lauded the deal’s inspection regime.
You can’t even say Israeli generals hate it. Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. General Gadi Eisenkot told a reporter from the newspaper Haaretz that, “Right now the agreement, with all its faults, is working and is putting off realization of the Iranian nuclear vision by 10 to 15 years.”
And you can’t blame it on the allies. Every one of the other so-called P5 partners to the deal – Russia, China, the EU, and the UN – all have made a similar case, apparently to no avail.
In just the last couple weeks, leaders from France, Germany and the United Kingdom have all visited Washington, DC to deliver that message. The British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was in town Monday meeting with the new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Johnson admitted the two talked about the Iran deal but offered no details.
So, in the face of all that support for the deal, it looks like someone thought the best way to make it easier for Trump to scuttle the deal was to go after two guys no longer in government.
Nothing desperate about that, right?
My first reaction to the story was outrage.
First of all, like pretty much the rest of the world, I believe the deal is working and, more critically, I believe that keeping it in place is very much in our national security interests.
It is not a perfect deal. Even former Secretary of State John Kerry admitted as much at the time. But it is indisputably preventing Iran from having the bomb, and I can’t think of any other problem in the Middle East that gets easier to solve should the mullahs ever get their hands on one.
Secondly, I know both Ben and Colin. I had the privilege of working closely with them over the course of many years, both in my capacity as Pentagon Press Secretary and as the State Department spokesman.
You won’t find two more dedicated, intelligent, honest and hard-working public servants anywhere.
Opponents of President Obama’s worldview and politics can take issue all they want with the policy decisions that Ben and Colin advocated and informed. That’s fair. They signed up for that. But they sure as hell didn’t sign up for intrusions into their personal lives and relationships long after their public service … and for no other reason than that they believed they were acting in the best interests of the American people.
To see them and their families allegedly targeted in this fashion ought to boil the blood and send chills down the neck of every freedom-loving American.
I want to believe the story is wrong, that Trump’s aides or the private sector client mentioned by the New Yorker – indeed, anyone – had no part in such a despicable ploy.
But there’s no denying how much Trump hates the deal, which he has labeled the “worst deal ever.”
As one European diplomat put it today, “When it comes to the Iran nuclear deal, there is plainly a difference of opinion and that cannot be denied. And I would like to pretend to you today that I feel that there is a chance of the existing JCPOA remaining intact – I think that that chance may exist, but it is very small. It’s pretty obvious to me that unless something changes in the next few days, I believe the President will not waive the sanctions.”
Regrettably, we won’t have to wait a few days. President Trump announced Monday that he will reveal his decision Tuesday afternoon.
Since it doesn’t appear the Europeans changed his thinking much, we should brace ourselves for the likelihood that US nuclear-related sanctions on Iran will snap back into place and for the equally troubling likelihood that Tehran will declare the deal null and void.
It is a measure of how effective the Iran deal has been that anyone would even think to stoop so low as to discredit its authors. But it is also measure of how foolish we would be rip it up regardless, without any assurances of anything to take its place.
I fear we must brace ourselves for the grim reality that we’ll be looking back at May 8, 2018 as the day all our other problems in the Middle East got a whole lot tougher to deal with.