One remarkable aspect of the Iran debate now taking place in Washington is its lack of balance. From Israel and the various Iran hawks, no argument, no matter how over the top, can be in bad taste. For them it is permissible, nearly mandatory, to liken the graying revolutionary regime of Iran (a state which, for all its undeniable faults, has suffered invasion at the hands of Saddam Hussein, was an extremely valuable ally of the U.S. in Afghanistan after 9-11, was the only Muslim country in the Mideast in which there was open mourning for the World Trade Center attack, and has never invaded anybody in anyone’s memory) to that of Adolph Hitler. Mark Kirk, the main Senate spokesmen for the hawks, denied there could be any such thing as a sincere Iranian moderate. When administration aides went to Capitol Hill to explain the kind of interim deal which was in sight—basically a freezing Iran’s nuclear program in return for giving Iran access to a small percentage of its own money, now tied up in foreign banks—they were met with countless senators and Congressmen who would claim that Israel had given them more accurate information. John Kerry was reduced to saying that Israel, not party to the negotiations, just maybe knew less of the details than the American diplomats who were there. Kerry had a plaintive tone and felt compelled to add that he talked to “Bibi” a great deal too.
In the realm of published opinion, in the press and the specialized foreign-affairs journals, you can find many defenders of the current negotiation, which almost certainly has the support of the vast majority of foreign-affairs specialists. But one strained to hear an open public defense of an Iran deal from a single congressman or senator. When White House spokesman Jay Carney mentioned that the alternative to diplomacy with Iran was probably war, it seemed almost shocking—for once someone had used strong language in favor of negotiating. But on Capitol Hill the battle of words was lopsided. Against Kirk and company, supporters of the adminstration’s diplomacy praised Israel and maneuvered behind the scenes to ensure that the Senate’s calendar and arcane rules delayed an escalation of sanctions vote before Kerry’s team could try another round of negotiating. But they did nothing to rally public opinion.
In the short run, it seems likely that State Department diplomats will reconvene this week in Geneva with the p5+1 colleagues and Iran without fresh and escalated anti-Iran sanctions legislation—legislation that Iran’s own hardliners would point to in order to argue the futility of negotiating with America. But even if an interim deal is signed, there is no guarantee that a more comprehensive one will be. And the way the discussion is framed in the United States, with Netanyahu left unchallenged as the arbiter of American diplomacy, will surely leave that diplomacy more vulnerable to popular challenge.
One lesson I took from my long association with neoconservatives is the importance of rhetoric. The older neocons were traumatized by the sixties New Left—not only the return to the mainstream of hard-left arguments but the fact that the “vital center,” the defenders of “bourgeois democracy,” seemed to have been rendered almost mute in the face of attack. I grew up in this period and can attest to how kooky-left views seemed to suck up all the rhetorical oxygen. One of neoconservativism’s great achievements was to actually hit back—by so doing it drew many, my 1970’s self among them, into its orbit.
The lesson I would draw is that wonkish, quietly reasonable, arguments searching for common ground won’t necessarily carry the day, even if they are correct. Faced with a contest between an arms-control intellectual—soberly pointing that a deal reducing Iran’s enrichment capacity and placing its remaining centrifuges under international inspection will do far more to ensure that Iran doesn’t build a nuclear weapon than continued sanctions and no deal at all—and a Nentayahuite screaming about Hitler and Munich and making racist comments about Iranians, the most attentive and educated slice of the population will favor diplomacy. But I suspect that more flamboyant arguments register more deeply with more of the American population. Obama risks having diplomats left high and dry without the backing of mass public opinion.
In fact, more emotive arguments to defend an Iran deal are available and shouldn’t be left in the closet. Take the obvious one. It is political malpractice that the administration’s allies, including those in Congress, fail to question the role Israel’s nuclear arsenal has played in the development of the current crisis. What role do Israel’s nukes play in pushing other Middle East states to take massive risks to develop their own nuclear technology? M.J. Rosenberg recently reminded readers of John F. Kennedy’s long and ultimately futile effort to monitor Israel’s nuclear program, constructed with blatant deception and dishonesty by French engineers at Dimona. Kennedy and the diplomats of the era pointed out again and again that by introducing nukes into the region, Israel risked setting off a cascade of nuclear proliferation. JFK was, of course, correct. If you speak to average Americans, there is an implicit assumption that the golden rule is a fair guide to thought and action, and there is something rather odd about Israel, stuffed to to gills with nuclear rockets and submarines, insisting that no one else can ever have them. But no one on Capitol Hill raises this point. What do they fear would happen to them?
(It’s a rhetorical question; I know they would face AIPAC-generated opposition. But I’m not sure AIPAC would know what to do if 40 members of Congress suggested exploring a nuclear free Mideast).
Then there is the matter of Israel as “the only democracy” in the Mideast. It has become a mantra, repeated constantly, never challenged. Flowing from it is the implication that we should obviously take diplomatic guidance from Israel, because Israel not only “shares our values'”but is so savvy about navigating a “tough neighborhood.” Is this even remotely true anymore? Nearly half the population living under Israel’s control has no political rights to speak of—nor any civil rights: they live under Israeli military law in the West Bank or are blockaded inside Gaza. The region’s other democracies have major flaws too—Turkey is no Switzerland, and in Iran the regime vets all the candidates for office, while holding scores of political prisoners. But Iran is certainly more democratic than, say, China, with whom we manage to deal extensively—and unlike Israel, so far as I know all Iranians can participate in the regime’s flawed semi-democracy. Can we then retire the “only democracy in the Mideast” canard? Or at least debate it? Nentanyahu’s minions might be a little more subdued on Capitol Hill if every time they appeared they were confronted with facts about Israel’s human-rights record.
Perhaps the Obama-Kerry smooth sell will work. But it certainly would have better prospects if there were some more pointed, more polemical voices backing it up.