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Congress is scheduled to vote on a resolution to disapprove of the Iran nuclear deal in September. The deal, struck between the United States, Iran and five other world powers, would lift American sanctions on Iran in exchange for the de-escalation of their nuclear program and increased transparency.
Critics argue that the deal is ineffective because Iran will still be able to conduct research and further develop their program, despite the cutbacks, while benefiting from lifted trade restrictions. Proponents argue that any agreement, however flawed, is better than remaining blind to Iran’s nuclear activities and is the first step to peace.
Opinion Editor Ryan Nelson interviewed Israeli Consul General David Siegel on Friday about the Iran deal and how he believes it will affect the United States, Israel and the rest of the world.
Watch a condensed version of the interview here:
Ryan Nelson: We’ll start with quick introduction. Give me your name, who you are and what your responsibilities are here
David Siegel: My name is David Siegel. I’m the consul general of Israel to the Southwest United States. We’re based here in L.A., but we cover seven states – from Utah, Colorado, all the way out to Hawaii and Wyoming, so we got a big region.
RN: So are you always jetting around, talking about Israel’s interests, talking about how we can cooperate? What are the big things you have to do for your job?
DS: So most of our work is local – with local governments, with governors, with members of Congress, with communities. We’ve discussed working on the drought, on technology, on cybersecurity, environmental issues, community issues, education. That’s most of what we do, but we obviously also deal with national security issues, foreign policy and so on. Seven states is a lot – it’s 40 million Americans, 72 members of Congress and Senate, multiple constituencies from Jewish to Christian to ethnic, so it’s fascinating.
RN: Have you done a lot of work with UCLA? Are you involved with Hillel or Bruins for Israel?
DS: Very much so. We have a big outreach effort on campuses in the seven states, large and small, and UCLA is right here.
RN: We wanna talk about the Iran deal, so let’s get into that. Let’s start broad, and I just want you to give me your general thoughts on the deal. I’ve looked on your Facebook page, but I’d like to hear your personal take on it.
DS: I think a lot of the debate is about basic assumptions, about where Iran is. Is it a country that is on the verge of some sort of transformation, change? Remember during the Cold War when you had all these arms control agreements with the Soviet Union – it was different before glasnost and perestroika, it was different when it began opening up and it became easier once the Soviet Union opened up to the world and so on. And that’s when the STAR (Strategic Arms Reduction) Treaty was signed in the late ’80s and so on.
So with Iran, the question is the same. Is it a society on the verge of some sort of transformation or not? We think that many of the people that support the agreement believe that Iran is on the verge of transformation and that this agreement will be a tool, a transformative tool, in bringing Iran closer to the community of nations, into some sort of more responsible behavior. We see that as a hope, but the reality, unfortunately, is very different.
The reality we see in the Middle East is Iran on the march. Iran is expanding its influence – its proxies, the terror groups it supports. It’s engaged in a civil war in Yemen. It’s engaged very deeply in the civil war in Syria. They’re in Lebanon, they’re in Iraq, they say publicly that they’ve taken over four Arab capitals already. We see them on Israel’s borders becoming more and more aggressive, more and more extreme, not a country that’s moderating in any way.
On our borders, they’ve established a third front from Syria vis-à-vis Israel in the last year, that’s become a very dangerous front. As I’ve said, they’re in Lebanon through Hezbollah, they’re in Gaza through the terror groups they support there directly. So we see them very active and becoming more and more extreme, not less and less extreme, so it’s about assumptions. Is Iran a country on the verge of change or not? We don’t think so.
We see Iran as still being very, very dangerous and an agreement that is partial, that doesn’t really remove their nuclear program, but places some limitations on it, we believe is not enough to stop them. And in fact, if you sign this kind of agreement with Iran it basically legitimizes their program. It removes the sanctions. It gives them roughly $150 billion immediately, and we’re very concerned some of that money, if not a large part of that money, will be given to terror groups to make the situation even more tense in the Middle East and certainly on Israel’s borders.
This is the main concern and even if they go through the terms of the agreement, it’s not enough to stop them. So after 10 years, there’s all these sunset clauses, they can emerge as an industrially-sized nuclear power with no ability to stop them and with the world legitimizing it. And this is where we see the core of the problem
RN: So you’re operating under the assumption that in 10 years Iran will essentially be no different, if not more dangerous than it is now?
DS: That’s correct because Iran is ruled by a dictatorship, it’s not a popular regime. They rule over 70 million people in Iran and Iran is by no means homogenic, they have many different ethnic minorities. But it’s a regime that is not operating with the people, it’s operating against the people in Iran. If this is a regime that will receive legitimacy, the ability to have a nuclear program – which will make them almost untouchable in their own minds – and this infusion of billions of dollars in cash, this is not a way to weaken them. It’s a way to unfortunately empower them, so we don’t see this changing in any way.
RN: So the historical example you brought up is interesting, about the Soviet Union opening up to the world, and then eventually, as history tells it, eventually the people open up and then the system starts to fall apart. Why is it different what happened with the Soviet Union than what you say won’t happen with Iran? Why are the two situations different?
DS: We hope one day it will change, but the tools aren’t there to change it.
RN: What tools were in place with the Soviet Union that aren’t in place here?
DS: So there was a popular movement of freedom in Iran, which was called the Green Revolution a few years ago. It didn’t receive international support. It was basically suppressed brutally by the regime, so there’s no real opposition in Iran today that is functioning outside of the regime. There’s no attempt to bring change to Iran, either through broadcasting or through significant resources on the part of the world.
So you have this regime that is on the march, that is in expansionist mode. If you look at a map of the Middle East today, they’re sitting on some very strategic places. They’re encircling Israel, they’re encircling Saudi Arabia. They’re sitting on the international oil routes, so they’re under the Suez Canal, they’re also threatening Egypt there. You have a situation where the Iranians are involved in most of the conflicts in the Middle East. So you’ve got ISIS (the Islamic State group) on one side, all sorts of opposition groups and terror groups and then you have Iranian axis, which is strategic. It has tremendous resources, and we just don’t see this stopping as a result of this agreement.
RN: Going back to your concern about legitimizing the nuclear program, I know most proponents of the deal have come out and said ‘Sure they’ll have enough to create nuclear energy, but they’re very far off away from a bomb should this deal fall apart.’ Most international inspectors have said it would take at least a year if they were to meet all the guidelines to build up a bomb. Is it better to have a legitimized and tarnished program than it is to have an illegal program that the rest of the world doesn’t want that’s bigger?
DS: Let’s go through the facts as we understand them: Iran right now has around 9,000 operating centrifuges – under this deal they have to cut back about a third to 6,000 – they’ll have 6,000 centrifuges in place. So their system is pretty much the same, it’s two-thirds as large. They mothball one-third, but they still retain two-thirds of their operating program.
Under the terms of the agreement they’re allowed to continue to conduct research and development on those 6,000 centrifuges to upgrade them to the point where they’ll be 20 times more efficient than they are right now. So 10 years from now, even if they comply with the terms of the agreement, we see them being that much more significantly on the threshold than they are today. President Obama himself said that after ten years the breakout time will be close to zero, and these are the reasons why.
By the way, Pakistan has a nuclear bomb. Pakistan did achieve that nuclear bomb with 3,000 centrifuges. So here’s Iran with twice that capacity, with the ability to upgrade it and to continue to do that research and development, which in our minds, is one of the most dangerous parts of this agreement. If you allow them to continue to improve their program, what sense does that make? So in 10 years, they’ll be in a much more dangerous place than they are now, just in terms of the machinery of this nuclear program. And that indeed is the case.
So it’s not that you’re taking away significant portions of their program. Significant portions of the program are still in place and even if they comply with the agreement – which we doubt that they will, because they can violate the agreement, they can cheat on the agreement, the agreement is not powerfully enforced in the mechanism that is in place and we can talk about that – but even if they comply, it’s not enough to stop them. That’s our main concern.
RN: So in your mind, there is no such thing as a legitimate nuclear weapon because they’re just not going to comply in the first place. It’s going to continue to be illegitimate.
DS: Well you can have a program that is for civilian purposes, and that’s perfectly legitimate and many countries in the world have that. The problem with Iran is that many aspects of their program are on military bases, controlled by the Iranian military and they’re restricting access for the world to see what is actually going on in there.
So this is the whole issue with the side agreements of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency). See, Iran has two aspects to this program. It has declared sites that we know about – by the way, the only reason why they’re declared is because they were exposed. They used to be undeclared, but then they became declared. Being declared, that’s where you’ll have the cameras, and you’ll have the inspectors.
We’re concerned about their secret work, and the undeclared sites and that’s on military bases where you get to the whole talk about the 24 days. So there are things that are legitimate, but when you have a country that’s cheated for 25 years, that has sanitized these sites before they let inspectors in – I mean literally dug up liters of feet of earth so that the samples for enrichment or for contamination couldn’t be taken, or re-tiling buildings or destroying buildings before the inspectors come in. And this is their repeated pattern over the years. There’d be concerns about what they’re doing in those locations that we don’t fully have the full information about.
RN: It really does seem like the fundamental thing here is that Iran can’t be trusted, correct?
DS: That’s correct.
RN: You would say probably that the way Israel and Iran have set up their relationship now, that isn’t a tenable relationship, right? There’s a lot of tension, it’s a lot of brinksmanship between Israel and Iran. So my question is, how do Israel and the United States move forward with a country that they just continually say they distrust? People would say that this deal is a way to bring Iran closer to the world community, but then you guys take a step back and say that ‘we don’t trust that they’ll do it anyways.’ So how do you take steps forward to ease a relationship you guys admittedly say is tenuous?
DS: So the question is how do you deal with a violent dictatorship that is oppressing the rights of its own people, that is expanding in the Middle East, that calls for Israel’s destruction – and by the way they did it this week, ‘Israel should be annihilated’ was a statement that they made after the agreement has been finalized, as Congress is –
RN: Well, they also say ‘death to America.’ There’s things you say to hardline parties and there’s what you say to the rest of the international community.
DS: They also got a hundred thousand rockets facing Israel from Southern Lebanon through their proxies Hezbollah that they created and that’s an arm of Iran in our part of the world, so it’s not just the words that we’re concerned about. It’s the words and the actual deeds. There’s a very real prospect of a very significant conflagration in the Middle East as a result of all this taking place. There’s a big concern about that.
But to answer your question, there are two options with a dictatorship, you either accommodate them or you pressure them. And over the years what we have found, what the world has found is when you pressure Iran in a significant way – and this was achieved in 2012 under the Obama administration when Iran was basically taken off the international financial grid and they couldn’t trade, that’s when they came to the negotiating table.
So with pressure, you can deal with these dictatorships. Because if you accommodate them unfortunately, if that would bring change, and they would stop doing what they’re doing, that would be great but we just don’t see that happening.
RN: I think what I’m trying to get at, though, is that a lot of people, the Obama administration included, would say that this deal is a pre-step to change, but if we’re just going to go back and say ‘They’ll never do it anyways’ and then cancel the deal or decide not to work on the deal and go back to squeezing them, how does change ever actually come if you just continue to squeeze and squeeze?
There’s also been ideas that a lot of the P5 + 1 nations, of those, the United States probably had the least to lose here. We do the least amount of trade with Iran. China, Russia, Europe does a lot of trade with Iran, they actually wanted to be reconnected, so there was this idea that sanctions might not actually stay in place. If this deal isn’t the framework by which we continue, what framework would you like to see for us to continue if you want to mend relationships with that country?
DS: Well the way to mend relationships with countries is to incentivize them to change. The way we understand Iran, Iran will not change positively because of this agreement. We fear very much that they will use this agreement to continue empower themselves. They’ll receive the billions of dollars, part of that will go to terrorism, part of that will go to their own domestic purposes because they have pressure –
RN: I think the CIA will report that.
DS: Right. Unfortunately Iran is not the kind of country you can deal with through diplomacy without pressure. It’s been tried before. Up until 1979, until the Islamic revolution, Israel and Iran had a very powerful relationship. Israel was involved in building a lot of the infrastructure in Iran, some of the water plants in Iran were built by Israeli engineers. So there’s no reason for a historical conflict between us. Israel would like more than anything else to have a peaceful relationship with Iran.
Problem is they deny the Holocaust, they’re anti-Semitic, they call for Israel’s destruction day and night. They’re proud of it, they say they’re going to continue doing that. They not saying they’re going to change in any way.
They just introduced a cruise missile last week, a ballistic missile, called the Fateh 313, that can reach any point in Israel, that we are very fearful they will pass on to the terror groups they control in the Middle East. This is sort of the escalator that Iran is on. The question is how do you stop that? We believe we have to stop that with pressure – diplomacy, but economic pressure.
RN: So under a revised Israeli status quo, you would prefer to see the sanctions snapped back into action and for the rest of the international community to continue to throttle them?
DS: The whole idea behind these nuclear negotiations was to stop and end the nuclear program in Iran. Now the goals have shifted. Three years ago, the whole idea was an even exchange. You dismantle the nuclear program in return for dismantling the sanctions regime.
What we’ve seen over these three years, and this is when we began opposing the process, was very significant elements of the nuclear program will stay in place, yet the sanctions will be dismantled. So Iran will basically be left with a military nuclear program and with a world that isn’t applying pressure on Iran anymore and legitimizing the program and this is where the problems began.
RN: So why is it that you see this as a military nuclear program? If I remember correctly, they said you’d be able to enrich uranium to less than 4 percent and you need to enrich uranium to 90 percent to make a bomb active. Where are you seeing that it’s for the military opposed to civilians?
DS: When you look at their entire program, you realize they’re doing this stuff under mountains in reinforced bunkers, underground with anti-aircraft missiles. It’s run by the military, by secret divisions of the Iranian military. You start asking yourself, is that for civilian electricity or something else?
RN: So once again it comes back to trust.
DS: It also comes back to the information we have. So here’s another very important point. In 2011, the IEA (International Energy Agency) put out a report of all the outstanding issues that they are still investigating, and Iran is incorporating them. One of those seven issues they listed in the official IEA report in 2011 was secret work that Iran was doing in one of their military bases named the Shahab 3 missile that could reach Israel, over 1,300 kilometers. They were doing work on converting the conventional warhead into a nuclear warhead. Now, there’s information about that, there was an investigation, it was never closed. They never had access to the scientists, they never had access to the site.
All we know is that information is out there. There was never an ability to close a file on that. Yet this agreement was signed and when you ask the negotiators, ‘Have you gained access to that information?’ I mean that is a nuclear warhead aimed at Israel. ‘Did you receive the information that you needed to clarify this case?’ And the answer is no, yet you signed this agreement. So there are glaring issues that relate to the military aspects of their program that have been unanswered to this day.
RN: Then how do you respond to a lot of proponents who are saying ‘Yes we’re leaving some of their stuff in place, that’s the cost of negotiations, but we’re removing the fuel for a nuclear bomb.’ They have to get rid of 97 percent of their enriched uranium, they’re not allowed to make plutonium weapons-grade and they’re not allowed to make uranium weapons-grade, so I think that is where they kind of see the compromise. They keep some of the infrastructure, but they get rid of the fuel. Would you just prefer to see all the fuel, all the infrastructure gone, that’s the only way we move forward?
DS: Again, the original proposition was dismantle for dismantle. We very much supported that. We have precedence for this. Libya gave up its nuclear program. Syria, under pressure, gave up its chemical program, or at least most of its chemical program in recent years – and thank God because who knows what would have been happening in Syria now, it’s bad enough without that. So at least the majority of the chemical weapons are out.
Same thing in Iran, the original idea behind this negotiation process was to remove the nuclear program, and we were totally in favor of that. Now the proposition is leave major portions of their program in place and allow it to grow. Because if you can continue to do (research and development) then you are 20 times more efficient in your enrichment capabilities. That’s basically allowing the program to grow under the framework of the agreement over the next 10 years.
So if you leave half of it in place, or three quarters of it in place, that’s a completely different proposition. Why release all the leverage then? So this is where we have a major problem with the philosophy behind this deal. You retain major dangerous parts of this in place and it’s the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism globally. You’ve got to place conditions on removing all the leverage because the nightmare situation is the following: They go through the agreement within a year or so the UN sanctions are removed, the EU sanctions are removed, the U.S. sanctions are removed – then what leverage do you have? How do you stop them from cheating two or three years down the road?
So you’re told we retain the options for snapback sanctions, but that that doesn’t include all the contracts you’re going to sign. It doesn’t include the fact that you got to bring the whole world together to agree to do this, very, very difficult.
RN: I think they would also say the inspections are there, but I actually want to talk about what this means for the future of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. I don’t think it’s a secret that there have been some strained tensions between the two countries. Netanyahu came to speak to Congress, Obama wasn’t very happy about that, Netanyahu wasn’t very happy about this deal. Where do you see this deal taking our countries’ future relationship and how do you see this affecting the next sitting president, whether Republican or Democrat, and how they choose to move forward with Israel and how Israel chooses to move forward with them?
DS: The United States and Israel share a very unique and a very strong relationship, and it’s from military to intelligence to strategic relations to homeland security to law enforcement and technology and economics. Israel was the first free trade partner with the United States, the first free trade agreement that we ever signed was with Israel. We just celebrated 30 years of that. There are close to 300 global corporations that have centers in israel, the majority of them are American. We invest back and forth tens of billions of dollars in both societies. It’s a very, very deep and robust and broad relationship.
We also see it in academia. A number of Israeli academics in America and vice versa is very significant. Next month, I’m accompanying two governors to Israel – the governor of Colorado and the governor of Arizona, there’s a state delegation from California going, there’s a water delegation going from Nevada – all of this is happening in the next few weeks. This is to give you a sense of the breadth of this relationship.
I think public support in this country, from poll after poll from the 1940’s until where we are now hasn’t really changed that much. There’s a deep, strong, abiding relationship between our two countries. Now that being said, there is a significant policy disagreement right now on the issue of Iran and we’re putting on the table very clearly why we think this is dangerous for Israel, and not just for Israel, but for the Middle East and the security of the world because Iran isn’t stopping.
They’re developing an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) program, which is global, it’s not about the Middle East, it’s beyond the Middle East, so it’s a robust disagreement and debate. Congress will vote however way it votes, and we’ll all wake up in the morning and it’ll be another day and we’ll have to deal with the consequences of that.
If Iran becomes more and more empowered and so do the other terror groups that Iran controls or sponsors in the Middle East on Israel’s borders, this will be part of the ongoing conversations with the United States, so reality continues.
The relationship will continue to be very robust and very strong. Both because of our shared values and our shared interests, despite the fact that we may have our significant disagreements.
RN: So you see this more as a hiccup in a very deep relationship as opposed to something that’s going to fray the relationship?
DS: That is correct.
RN: How do you see it affecting how the Israeli government interacts with the future president?
DS: Well, we always will strive for a very close relationship with whoever occupies the White House. Israel, we believe, has to be a bipartisan issue in this country, supported by both parties and we we need to continue to do that. America is changing demographically, politically and this is the significance of the work of the consulates because we sit in the regions and we work with local communities and governments as America changes and we all sort of learn about where the relationship is going, where the country is going, and so on.
Future Israeli governments will work with the American government as our greatest ally. And Israel, being the only democracy in the Middle East, being probably the most reliable friend to America in a very dangerously changing Middle East and that’s going to be with us for years to come. So again, I think it is a hiccup, it’s significant. It’s going to have a real impact on Israel’s national security whatever the decisions are as a result of this agreement.
RN: Do you think the United States will come to regret signing this deal?
DS: Well, I think it’s too soon to tell. Congress will decide whatever it decides. We hope that opposition to the deal will be significant so that those who seek to trade with Iran will have to think twice about the American market in the future, about where Congress is in the future, about where the American public is.
If you look at polls, as more information comes out, you see more and more significant opposition in the United States to the deal in the American public. So I think it’s very important that opposition to the deal be registered by whatever extent it reaches because that counts, that counts a lot. It gives you maneuverability to improve things.
And by the way, Congress has placed conditions on treaties before and this isn’t even a treaty. This is not even an agreement, it wasn’t signed, it’s a work plan. But Congress, under the American system, has had many things to say over the years say about international treaties and will probably do so in the future as well. This agreement shouldn’t be any different. There are obvious flaws in this agreement, there will have to be a response to that in the future. So I think this is open ended, it’s going to be a process.
RN: You talk about how this is a bad deal for Israel, but the United States gets a decent amount of what it wants in here. Do you think this is a bad deal for the United States as well?
DS: We think this is a bad deal for Israel, for the future of the Middle East and the security of the world, including the United States.
RN: So by transitive property, it’s a bad deal for the United States.
DS: It’s a bad deal for the United States.
RN: So, you do think there will be eventually some kind of turnaround saying ‘We told you so’?
DS: If Iran violates this agreement, which we think they’re already violating it now. They’re sending –
RN: Are they?
DS: Well, I mean it’s before the day of implementation, but the deal has been reached. The Security Council resolution puts them in place. They prohibit travel on the part of the head of the revolutionary guards, that just got paid a visit to Moscow. They prohibit the introduction of these new missiles, which they are saying publicly ‘We’re not gonna listen to Security Council resolutions’ and so on.
That’s already happening now, and it will probably happen after the sanctions are removed if that indeed is the case and then there will be an ‘I told you so’ moment because this is what we expect will happen, we already see it happening now, there are reports that they’re sanitizing these sites before the inspectors go in again.
So that’s sort of the modus vivendi of the way Iran conducts itself. It gets away with what it thinks it can get away with, so these conversations will continue into the future.
RN: The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles did a poll recently that said the majority of the Jewish people they polled said they were in favor of the deal, that they also said it would endanger Israel. And there’s been polls in Israel that find that people are against the deal, but they’re also against the government being so against the deal. And you’ve had some people out of the Israeli navy saying that limiting the nuclear program is good even if the deal isn’t perfect.
There’s a lot of mixed emotions regarding the deal, which is interesting to see given the Israeli government’s hardline on it. Why do you think there is that disconnect between the mixed emotions of the populace and the hardline brought by the government?
DS: So there are two parts to that questions, the American public opinion and the Jewish public opinion. Obviously we all know polls, and the way you ask questions and so on, but I think overall if you look, it’s a consensus. If you look at the polls as the debate progresses over the weeks, you see growing opposition to the deal, because more information is coming out, questions there are no clear answers to –how do you stop a $150 billion, or at least several billions of that going to terrorists? What does it mean when you lift restrictions on Iran, by the way after five years on conventional, seven years over missiles, 10 over other aspects of the program, 15 over other aspects of the program, what does all that mean, and how do you respond to that? How do you stop Iran later on?
All these things are open questions and that’s affecting the public debate and public opinion, including the Jewish public opinion. The Jewish public opinion depends on the poll you look at, but I think over time there is a well established trend that there’s growing opposition to the deal in the American public.
RN: So over time, you think the public will shift toward your side of the debate?
DS: Well, I think the public’s already shifted. It’s already there and from the beginning it was, but it’s growing more and more. In Israel, it’s interesting. Israel is a democracy, it’s a Jewish democracy, we have a very robust tradition, both in our tradition as a people and certainly as the state of Israel in our 67 years of very robust debate about lots of issues. So I’m not surprised that you have different points of view, including on Iran. But the reality is that there’s an overwhelming consensus in Israel, both in the political leadership and in the security leadership in the country, that this deal is dangerous for Israel. And I think it’s pretty clear.
You have a few voices out there, usually the same voices, that will say something else, but that is really the exception to a rare moment of convergence in Israel. And by the way not just in Israel, the Arab states in the Middle East, the moderate regimes that are threatened by Iran very, very significantly are saying the same thing. They may not be saying it as publicly as Israel is – and by the way we have a history of not talking about the threats to our people and we know the consequences of that through our history. So we also morally see it as our important role to raise a flag on the issues that we think can be dangerous to us and to the world.
So Israel is very vocal about this agreement. Now, there are Arab countries that are maybe less vocal publicly, but they a certainly making their opinion known in the halls of power, both in Washington and around the world. So it’s not just about Israel, there is a convergence in the Middle East around this issue.
RN: What countries are letting it known in the halls?
DS: There are many, many countries. I’m not going to go into the names, but there are columnists and officials and former Saudi officials that are talking very clearly about it, there are other Arab officials that are coming out, and that’s also a well known consensus point. This is not just Israel.
RN: Moving on, AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) – very prominent, a lot of money, a lot lobbying, very pro-Israeli, formed a nonprofit to stop a nuclear Iran. So they were gonna spend $20 million on it, had a bunch of democratic lawmakers on their committee to help them out, yet it still looks like the deal is going be done. So I’m interested, especially since as you pointed out there has been more opposition to the deal, what this means for Jewish lobbying interest, of pro-Israel lobbying interest in the United States if a deal they’re so passionate about can’t get their side to win on this Iran deal?
DS: There’s policy, there’s politics, there’s a lot of things going on. I think it’s too soon to tell how this is going to turn out and we don’t, again we’re very careful not to get involved in domestic issues in this country.
AIPAC can speak for itself and its part of the pro-Israel community, but it’s not an Israel lobby in any way. But I think it is too soon to tell. There’s a valid argument here, there are two sides obviously to this issue. We have our sides, our perceptions, and we’re making it clear and it’s the same in parts of the American public, parts of the Jewish community and all of that is legitimate, it’s part of the American political way of life.
RN: So you’re not worried this is going to signify some loss of influence?
DS: No, I think even if this debate goes against us, it won’t be the first one. We still have a very strong crowd, a Jewish community and pro-Israel community in the United States, and it will continue to be very effective.
RN: I want to bring this local, talk about UCLA. So student activism is very big for pro-Israeli services. You have Hillel on over 500 campuses, they’re very active, we have Bruins for Israel as well. Do you expect that student advocacy for Israel is going to incorporate anti-Iranian deal sentiment in the future? Or is that something you would like to see, for students to be proactive about being against this deal?
DS: First of all, we wanna see a strong Jewish community on campus and a safe climate and environment for Jews and for every other ethnic and religious group. So I think that’s point number one. People will come out and be active on all sorts of issues. There’s a political side to life and on the Iranian issue and on the politics of it, my position is clear. I think our expectations are clear.
But campus is campus and we believe very much that campus life should be about academics and about a safe environment to express points of view, and we’ll do everything we can to support that. And I think the Bruin community should be very proud that there’s a very strong pro-Israel, strong Jewish community that’s very proud and is prospering and will overcome the difficulties that we’ve seen.
RN: So let’s go in a world where the deal passes. How would you like to see politically active students interact with this new status quo and how should they view their role now in engaging in U.S. foreign policy?
DS: I think people that want to be involved politically should be engaged politically, and they have all the avenues to do that. And I think, again, whatever happens with this deal, unfortunately Iran is still going to be a factor in our lives. They’re still gonna be threat to Israel, they’re still gonna be a threat to the Middle East, they’re gonna be involved in terrorism in Latin America – they’ve done it before, they’ll do it again – in Europe, in Asia and they’ve even been involved in terrorism in this country.
So unless Iran changes, I don’t see the issue changing. So again, whether the agreement passes or not, unfortunately, Iran is still gonna be with us. Again people who wanna be involved politically should be encouraged to do that.
RN: Around the time we enter this brave new world of the sanctions coming off and the program being able to go back to full capacity, a lot of students who are in college now, will probably be getting into positions of influence.
So how would you like to see, especially with people who are Jewish, who might become Jewish community leaders, Jewish political leaders, engage with Iran in the future? Because what they do now, you could really say, sows the seeds for how they interact with the country in the future. How would you like to see them respond to the country as it progresses with the sanctions? Would you like to see this new generation who will be in power work differently?
DS: There’s a whole movement to connect between the people of Iran and the people of the world. This is not about the people of Iran. The people of Iran actually, if you study them, and you survey them, have the potential to be one of the most democratic people, certainly in the Middle East.
It’s about the regime of Iran. There are many Iranian-Jews in this country, there are many Iranian-Jews in Israel. We have major cultural icons in Israel that are Iranian-born that sing in Farsi and that reach out to Iran. So that on a grass-roots level, we certainly encourage people-to-people connections, cultural connections and so on. The debate is vis-à-vis the dictatorship theocratic regime of Iran, not the people of Iran.
But regarding the up-and-coming generation, who will become active in their 20s and 30s, certainly as this deal progresses and this problem progresses, I would hope that people will be educated – there are two sides to this debate and to be educated about it, and to make up their own minds about what Iran is and how Iran needs to be stopped. Both for the welfare of the people of Iran, first and foremeost, because Islamic extremism is first and foremost killing Muslims, and then other minorities, and then they’re threatening Jews in the Middle East and around the world. Everyone is suffering from this. It’s a universal issue, it’s a human rights issue, it’s not just an issue that relates to Israel and the Jewish community.
It really is a global issue, and if we wanna see a future in the Middle East, and the Middle East is 350 million people in all sorts of forms of governments and societies and very few of them are doing well. And they need answers on water, and the environment, and food security, and job security, and innovation and the kind of things that every society on earth needs. But we won’t be able to get the Middle East fixed without dealing with these big problems and nuclear Iran and so on.
RN: To clarify my question a little bit, do you see any missteps in the way the United States and the Israeli government have approached Iran that you would like to see future political leaders approach?
DS: I would like to see strong coordination and cooperation between Israel and the United States, even when we disagree. We’re gonna have to find a way to work closely as allies as we always do, even when we disagree. And hopefully we will get beyond this point of disagreement, and we’ll have to deal with some very significant issues the day after.
RN: But no specific missteps that you would like to see changed significantly?
DS: Well, unfortunately again, the way to stop Iran is to exercise leverage with Iran. If you could use persuasion that would be great. I think that’s been tried before. What has been shown to be effective is when you have real leverage.
Sanctions for sanctions sake doesn’t work. Binding sanctions, that surprised the regime in Iran, brought them to the negotiating table. The problem was, after that, the sanctions were sort of let go as the negotiations proceeded and we ended up where we ended up. We unfortunately need to have that leverage in place vis-à-vis a violent dictatorship.
RN: How do you get that leverage back now that there’s an agreement in place to take sanctions off?
DS: Now’s the time to really think about that – what are the prospects of bringing change, with leverage or without leverage? If you release leverage by removing all the restriction on Iran, by taking away all the sanctions that took many years to put in place, the question is what leverage do you have, short of a military option?
And if all want to avoid that military option, we have to retain the other forms of leverage in place to use it when we need it. And our big concern about this agreement is that the leverage is all removed early in the game. The sanctions are all off, the agreement is in place, Iran proceeds whether it violates or keeps to it, and there’s no leverage short of a military option 10 years from now, five years from now, which no one wants to see.
RN: Are you concerned if we make this deal with Iran, and then go back on it, and decide we wanna keep the sanctions in place, as you guys would like to see, that Iran will feel the need for a military option? Because their nuclear program grew under sanctions, at least under this we have access to the country. If we go back to sanctions we have no access to the nuclear programs and it could also be the added insult of making a deal and then taking it away. Is there any calculation on that end for you guys? Is that an issue?
DS: There’s a big issue here, the cost of canceling an agreement, but we still believe that the danger of the agreement outweighs those costs. It’s not the first time that the United States did things that were unpopular with Asian countries or European countries. The whole story of the sanctions was the story of pushing them forward despite the opposition of the world. The facts are that when the United States leads, the significance of the U.S. economy and the U.S. role in the world leads other countries to join you.
If the United States is not leading then it’s a different question. And all these countries, by the way, have an interest, like the United States and Israel, in preventing a nuclear Iran. It’s not like they came to the table because the United States was behaving in a certain way, everyone came to the table to fulfill their own interests. So we believe all of that is still achievable.
You can change course, it’s not the first time, there have been at least 200 treaties changed by the Senate in America’s history. And that’s sort of expected, that’s the American system. The world is looking at what the administration does and then what Congress does. That’s sort of the way of the American system, it’s different from other systems. I think that’s built in, it’s achievable. If the United States leads, the world will follow.
RN: As the head of the consulate, how have you engaged American-Iranians and other Persian Jews or Iranian Jews on this matter? Because I know at UCLA, it’s pretty much split down the middle between people who like the deal and people who don’t. So I just want to know what your experience has been in the Persian community.
DS: There’s a Jewish and a non-Jewish Persian community in Southern California and they’re both huge. The Persian community, the Jewish community is very active, and they have very strong organizations, and we engage them and update them on what we know.
I think people who come from Iran know Iran really well. They’re skeptical about this regime and its intentions, so I think they, even more than the general American public, know very much what we’re talking about.
The non-Jewish Iranian community is enormous and it’s very diverse with all sorts of political leanings and we engage them, the community engages them and it’s a fascinating story, but it’s very hard to generalize.
RN: You know about what’s happening at UCLA, you know what’s been happening across the UC system – what do you think the climate is like now to be a Jewish undergraduate student in the Western United States?
DS: It’s a critical issue. It’s important that students feel safe on campus no matter what their background is, certainly Jewish kids. It’s a very high priority for us and the community that that climate is as positive as possible, but it’s also about the academic climate in general.
One of the problems with the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement is it sort of doesn’t allow for dialogues, for open exchanges and for connections between groups and ethnic groups and people. So we see that as very damaging, but without overplaying impact of BDS. It’s significant, but it’s not on every campus – and even when it is, it has a very narrow base.
It’s had its ups and downs and recently, it’s had very significant reverses across the country and certainly at UCLA. We’ve seen the excesses of it as it sort of turns into anti-Semitism. We saw the blowback that was very, very significant, all the way up to the White House. But certainly the UC system and Chancellor Block, they should all be commended because it’s not just about Jewish kids. It’s about any ethnic background, people should feel secure on campus. And debates should take place, but they should take place civilly.
We believe that Israel should be an issue that we should engage culturally, academically, like any other country. UCLA has an enormous community as I mentioned before. And the approach is really to look at Israel through various lenses, not just a political lens, and we think that’s very, very important.
So the climate is mixed. At Irvine, the climate used to be very negative, now the climate is much more positive. Irvine today has 12 agreements with Israel, it has strong relationships with Israel. UCLA is looking at future relationships with Israel as well that we’re very much encouraging. By the way, we believe that when you’re connecting to Israel, you’re also connecting to the people in Israel, no matter what their background is. We have networks of connections with Palestinian society, with Palestinian universities, with Arab-Israelis. It’s a whole diverse world out there, and that is a world that should be engaged.
RN: FInal question, how do you encourage students, especially students in Hillel, BFI (Bruins for Israel), etc. who are engaging in these very contentious debates on campus with Students for Justice in Palestine, etc, who do feel there is a very deep wound there? How do you encourage students at UCLA or areas with other Palestinian or Muslim rights authorities on campus – how do you encourage them to bridge the divide? Do you have any ideas for how they can come together as opposed to what we saw before, which was just a lot of vitriol? How do you encourage healthy debate?
DS: First of all, this is a very strong community, and it should be strengthened and Jews should feel proud as individuals and as activists in whatever belief they have, when they’re on campus and beyond their life on campus. The problem with the BDS movement, the boycott movement, is that they don’t want to engage the Jewish community.
I would encourage our community – the Jewish community, the Israeli community, the pro-Israel community – to be engaged with as many communities as they can, including Muslim communities that want to have these kinds of engagements. There’s a lot of room with that, we’ve success with that and it all depend on the kind of programming you do. Cultural programming, programming about Middle East issues that don’t just relate to Israel, but cross borders. There’s enough of that, we saw the power of that at Irvine. We can have an international conference on the future of water in the Middle East, and everyone comes. Israelis are there, Muslim students are there, Arab students are there and that’s great.
I think that’s the way we need to do it, but first and foremost, the Jewish community should be a strong community that is a proud community and they should not only look inwards, but they should also look outside and build relationships.
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