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Will Washington Think Tank Swing Iran Debate — and Which Way?

Hours after negotiators in Vienna announced that a nuclear deal with Iran had been reached, the White House sent out a set of talking points to supporters and key activists. One of the documents promised that the deal “exceeds WINEP benchmarks.”

WINEP, for those less versed in inside-the-Beltway lingo, is the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, an independent think tank considered to be supportive of Israel. The benchmarks are criteria the institute set forth in a bipartisan statement it issued before the deal was concluded.

The Obama administration’s attempt to embrace the benchmarks early on is a clear indication that WINEP’s criteria have become the gold standard for approving or disapproving the nuclear deal.

In reality, the administration may have spoken too soon. Signers of the statement, all top experts and former national security and foreign policy advisers to Democratic and Republican presidents, are still trying to figure out whether they can fully endorse the 158-page agreement between Iran and six world powers.

If the group does give its nod of approval, the Obama administration can kick back and relax, knowing that a slate of leading experts, all with strong pro-Israel credentials, has given the plan a green light. A rejection, on the other hand, would be a valuable gift to Israel, its supporters and Capitol Hill Republicans who would gladly use it as further proof that even former Obama advisers think the deal is a bad one.

“We’re not into rendering judgment right now,” said one of the signatories, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the group. “We’re in a mode of clarifications, not in a thumbs-up or -down mode.”

Robert Satloff, who as WINEP’s executive director organized the group, said he’s not sure that its members can reach enough of a consensus to actually make a call on the final deal. “The Iran challenge hasn’t gone away; the deal remains an issue of considerable concern and debate, and the group will continue to meet and focus on it,” Satloff said. “There’s a healthy debate.”

The June 24 statement, signed by 19 experts and former administration officials, expresses “fear” that the negotiations with Iran “may fall short of meeting the administration’s own standard of a ‘good’ agreement,” unless a set of proposed guidelines is adopted. These include timely and effective access for inspectors monitoring Iran’s adherence to the deal; the completion of full inspections of possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program before lifting sanctions; the imposition of strict limits on the use of advanced centrifuges for research and development; tying sanction-relief to Iran’s performance. and the establishment of an effective way of punishing Iran if it violates the agreement.

Authors of the statement also demand that the United States goes “on record now that it is committed to using all means necessary, including military force,” to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. They suggest increasing America’s military assistance in Iraq, Syria and Yemen to counter Iran’s regional influence and the terror threat posed by the Islamic State.

But while the criteria presented in the WINEP statement was similar to benchmarks laid out by other experts, its unique draw was the list of signatories: a truly bipartisan gallery of former officials with hands-on experience in the field, who believe in a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear problem despite reservations about some of the specifics of the deal.

Among the members of the group are Dennis Ross, a former Middle East adviser to President Obama and to previous presidents who is also a co-chairman of the Jewish People Policy Institute; Howard Berman, a former Democratic congressman who chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee; former senator and vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman; David Petraeus, former head of the CIA; Gary Samore, who served as Obama’s top arms control adviser, as well as former members of George W. Bush’s national security team, Stephen Hadley and Robert Blackwill.

“In a hyper-partisan atmosphere, we think it’s important that there is a vital national security issue refracted through a bipartisan lens,” said David Makovsky, a Washington Institute expert who served on Obama’s Middle East peace negotiating team.

Satloff said that for some members of the group, having the administration adopt the WINEP criteria would turn an acceptable deal into a “wonderful one,” and for the more skeptical members it could “make it possible to support” the agreement.

Most signers of the statement who were approached by the Forward declined to speak on record, some noting that the group was still in the process of figuring out its final position on the deal.

The WINEP statement, Satloff said, had an impact on the final language of the deal at a critical time in the negotiations. “One could legitimately say that some of the aspects of the deal reflected the work of our group,” he said.

The bipartisan group was among the first to receive a top-level briefing from the administration shortly after the agreement was announced. But the signers had more questions than answers, much to the chagrin of the White House.

A few members of the group went public with their response to the deal. Some expressed support, including former nonproliferation adviser Robert Einhorn, who signed on to a statement warning members of Congress that rejecting the deal “could leave the U.S. with the only alternative of having to use military force unilaterally in the future.”

Others, though not calling for a vote against the deal, expressed their reservations. Writing in The Washington Post, Ross listed the deal’s “vulnerabilities,” pointing out the eventual legitimization of Iran as a nuclear threshold state, the flow of cash to Tehran’s regime that will be funneled to terror organizations, and the limits imposed by the deal on inspectors’ access to suspicious sites in Iran. Satloff, in Politico, argued against Obama’s claim that rejection of the deal would lead to war.

But even members of the group who have spoken out about the flaws of the deal did not close the door on the possibility of approving it, based on clarifications received from the administration.

This approach has left the White House hopeful that the WINEP group will come together as a whole behind the agreement. “There are people briefing them and taking their questions,” a Jewish activist with close ties to the White House said. The activist noted that WINEP’s strong pro-Israel credentials — including the fact that its founders had ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — and the signers’ proven track record could go a long distance in convincing skeptics in the Jewish community.

“I don’t feel pressure from either side,” Satloff said. “We tried to provide a useful service, and we’ll continue doing so.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected] or on Twitter, @nathanguttman

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