Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer this week defended his government’s positions that encouraged America to leave the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and supported Israel’s current position that the U.S. must leave a military option on the table and signal that Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons.
Speaking on Tuesday in a Zoom seminar held by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), in conversation with JINSA President and CEO Michael Makovsky, the former envoy said he stands by his previously expressed stance that U.S. withdrawal from the deal (also known as the JCPOA) under the Trump administration was the single-most important decision that any president had made for Israel’s national security.
While that decision didn’t end the Iranian threat, it was a “critical means to an end” because the JCPOA provided a legal framework for Iran to achieve nuclear status once the deal’s provisions ended, rather than block it entirely, he said.
“Because what the deal did is it put restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program for a limited number of years, and those restrictions would be automatically removed,” said Dermer, who served as ambassador from 2013-2021 before joining JINSA as a non-resident distinguished fellow at the JINSA Gemunder Center. “And contrary to what many people believe, the nuclear deal did not freeze Iran’s program.”
Under the accord, Dermer explained, Iran “was allowed to do research and development on more and more advanced centrifuges. So, the nuclear deal with Iran enabled Iran to advance their nuclear program, under the imprimatur of the international community — essentially gave a kosher stamp to Iran moving on a path not just on one bomb but to an entire nuclear arsenal.”
Makovsky said that Iran is getting very close to a nuclear bomb, having enriched Uranium to 90 percent — one of the red lines that those discussing Iran were hoping would not be reached.
Dermer noted that even according to the former President Barack Obama, whose administration helped negotiate the agreement, when the deal’s provisions were scheduled to sunset, Iran would have had a breakout time of zero.
Breakout is defined by having the fissile material necessary to create a single nuclear weapon. This does not include the time it would take for Iran to build the nuclear weapon, which Dermer said some estimate as being an additional year to two years. The former ambassador also said it would be a mistake to assume the U.S. or Israel know how advanced Iran’s state of weaponization is.
“This deal did not block Iran’s path to the bomb. This deal ultimately paves and basically guarantees that Iran is going to become a military nuclear power,” Dermer said. “So, they actually haven’t solved the one problem everybody wants to solve, which is the nuclear issue. And they’ve also made the regional issue much worse because with the sanctions relief, Iran goes from facing essentially a headwind of sanctions, to now a tailwind of sanctions relief that allows them to fuel their war of aggression throughout the region.”
The nuclear deal created a false sense of security, or as Dermer described, “put us on cruise control heading over a cliff.”
Even when the U.S. withdrew from the Iran deal in May of 2018, Iran was still allowed to sell around 1 million barrels of oil a day. It was not until May 2019 that true crippling sanctions were implemented against the Iranians, reducing their oil sales to about 300,000 barrels per day after they had previously reached a rate of 2.8 million barrels daily.
But Iranian leaders had hope, Dermer said, because by that time, virtually all U.S. presidential candidates on the Democratic side supported reentering the nuclear deal, which signaled to Iran that it could just wait out the Trump presidency.
Dermer said that now, only a credible military threat from the U.S. could compel Iran to give up its nuclear program peacefully. He explained that in 2003, after the U.S. toppled the regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Iranian weapons of mass destruction program was stopped for a year because the Bush administration’s actions demonstrated a credible military threat.
“Without a U.S. credible military threat, no diplomacy will achieve a positive outcome and nothing you do will achieve a positive outcome,” Dermer said. “And unfortunately, I don’t see that happening right now.”
Makovsky wondered why Israel is delaying a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. When Iran’s nuclear program was discovered in the 1990s, Iran did not have terror proxies across the Middle East as it does today, ready to attack if the regime is provoked.
Dermer said Iran is busy tightening the noose around Israel, so that if it gets attacked, its proxies can respond by firing thousands of rockets into Tel Aviv.
“The critical thing for Israeli decision-makers is, can we afford to wait? Can we afford another month, another two months, another three months?” Dermer said. “When will later be too late? And that’s the question that Israel has to ask itself.”
“I would hope the senior decision-makers and the military officials in Israel are thinking very carefully about when they will reach a point where they can no longer take that action and if they’re going to reach that point, they have to act before it,” he said.
Asked by Makovsky where Israel and America’s red line should be with Iran, Dermer said that there are two red lines.
For Israel, the red line would be when the Israeli military is no longer able to take out Iran’s nuclear capabilities on its own. For the U.S., that red line is different because it has different capabilities. But this is immaterial for Israel, as it cannot allow Iran to cross its red line.
“Ultimately, there will reach a point where an Israeli prime minister could not act anymore, but an American president could,” Dermer said. “And if an Israeli prime minister would make the decision, ‘OK, I can’t act anymore if I wait another week or another month…I’m going to cede that decision to the president of the United States because the president can act’ — at that point, I think that the prime minister of Israel should resign because he or she would not be worthy of sitting in that chair.”