Why the president of a group opposing the Iran agreement decided to call it quits

Gary Samore helped establish the advocacy group United Against a Nuclear Iran in 2008, before serious negotiations began over the nation's nuclear program. When the nuclear deal was signed last month, the group offered a near-unanimous opposition to the pact. But Samore disagreed; satisfied with the agreement, he stepped down as the group's president. He joins Hari Sreenivasan for a conversation.

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    But, first, tonight, we launch a series of conversations on the pros and cons of the contentious debate over the nuclear agreement with Iran, which Congress has 36 more days to review, Deal or No Deal.

    Tonight, Hari Sreenivasan talks to a well-respected nuclear expert who just resigned as president of a group which publicly opposes it.


    Gary Samore helped establish the advocacy group United Against a Nuclear Iran in 2008, before serious negotiations had begun over Iran's nuclear program. The goal? Strengthen sanctions against Tehran in the face of what Samore and others believed was a clandestine nuclear program.

    From 2009 to 2013, Samore served as President Obama's White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, while serious talks between the so-called P5-plus-one and Iran were under way.

    After leaving the White House, Samore went to the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. When the nuclear deal was signed with Iran last month, there was near-unanimous opposition to the pact from Samore's fellow members of the anti-Iran-nuclear advocacy group. It is resuming a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign denouncing the deal.

    But Samore's judgment was different. He was satisfied with the Iran agreement, and he has now stepped down as the group's president.

    On Monday, former Connecticut Democratic and independent Senator Joseph Lieberman, a decided opponent of the Iran deal, was named as the chairman of United Against a Nuclear Iran organization.

    And Gary Samore joins me now.

    So, you worked with an organization. At least for the past two years, you helped lead an organization that's core mission was to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. What made you want to step down?

  • GARY SAMORE, Harvard University:

    Well, as you said, I disagreed with the organization on whether or not to support the agreement.

    In my judgment, this agreement is the best available option to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Others in the group came to a different conclusion. I respect that, but under the circumstances, I didn't feel I could continue to be president of the organization at the same time that they were mounting a campaign to encourage Congress to reject the agreement.


    Now, are they wrong in doing that? They seem to be doubling down on this campaign to try to convince and the U.S. public that this is a bad deal.


    Well, I can understand their views.

    I think there are elements of this agreement that I'm not comfortable with. I think it leaves Iran with a larger enrichment program than I would prefer and I think the duration of the agreement isn't as long as I would like. But, on the other hand, I think the agreement has some positive elements.

    It constrains Iran's ability to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons at its declared facilities for at least 15 years. And it establishes a verification and enforcement mechanism that I think will improve our ability to catch Iran cheating and our ability to reimpose sanctions.

    So, on balance, I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. And I'm skeptical we can negotiate a significantly better deal within a short period of time.


    Let's talk about some of those concerns. You have actually expressed this in writings and speeches and elsewhere.

    One of the concerns you had was that Iran, even in a recent paper that you published at the Belfer Center, is that this might increase Iran's ability to create nuclear weapons in a covert manner. While there might be opportunities for us to catch that, it doesn't prevent it.


    Well, I think you have to recognize that any inspection mechanism will have strengths and weaknesses.

    The system that the agreement puts in place will improve our ability to catch Iran if they try to build secret facilities to process nuclear material, like a covert enrichment plant. We already have good capability through national intelligence and by working with our allies and their national intelligence agencies, but the agreement, I think, will amplify our national intelligence.

    In other areas, like weaponization research, it's very difficult for either national intelligence or an inspection system to really have confidence in catching and detecting that kind of activity. So, on balance, I think you have to say that the agreement strengthens our ability to deal with any effort by Iran to build a covert nuclear processing facility, but probably is not going to be able to catch them if they do small-scale weapons research.


    What about the time limits? You have said you were a little uncomfortable. You said you wished it was longer. But in these 10 to 15 years, do we clamp down enough on their ability to enrich uranium?


    I think, for 15 years, the limits on enrichment and the limits on their efforts to construct any capability to produce plutonium are very solid at the declared facilities.

    So Iran really won't have an option to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons for at least 15 years. Even at year 15, when the physical limits are lifted, it would still take Iran a couple of more years to expand its program and have a credible capacity. The gamble, of course, is that we just don't have any way of predicting, in 15 years, what kind of government in Iran we're going to be facing.

    And the concern is that we may still have a government in Tehran in 15 years that has ambitions to develop nuclear weapons, and the question will be whether — whoever is president at that time, whether they're going to be able to reassemble international pressure if Iran has actually complied with this agreement for 15 years.


    One of the through-lines from critics is, was there a better deal to be had? Was the extension of sanctions, perhaps, over a longer period of time, would that have forced Iran to the table in less of a strong position?


    You know, it's very difficult to replay history, and unless you're actually sitting in the negotiating room, I think it's very hard to make a judgment about whether a better deal, significantly better deal could have been negotiated. So I'm not really able to make that judgment.

    The question, I think, is this deal compared to a better deal if we reject it and try to renegotiate? And I think, in the near term, it's unlikely that we could negotiate a deal that would be significantly better. My judgment at the end of the day is that it's better to have a bird in hand than two in the bush, and I think this deal is good enough so that we should support it.


    Gary Samore, thanks so much for joining us.


    Thank you, Hari.

    On our next Deal or No Deal segment, we will hear from an opponent of the Iran nuclear agreement.

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