It is too early to celebrate, but historians will note that the gears of history shifted during the past month. The United States and five major nations finalized a significant door-opening agreement with Iran. Despite mounting a substantial campaign, Israel and its American lobbyists (AIPAC, along with a large neoconservative and Israel-hawk media section) have thus far not managed to abort the diplomatic opening. The events signal not only an important opportunity towards forging a new relationship with Iran, an heretofore enemy and one of the largest and most advanced nations in the Muslim world, but signal a critical defeat for AIPAC, Washington’s most powerful foreign affairs lobby. The pro-Israel lobbying group has lost before, failing to block a major U.S. weapons sale to Saudi Arabia during the early years of the Reagan administration. But that defeat in the end mattered relatively little.
This month, the Menendez-Kirk-Schumer bill, the “bipartisan” legislation designed to scuttle the Washington-Tehran negotiation by requiring the administration to seek impossible concessions, stalled at less than sixty votes, well below a veto-proof threshold, in the Senate. As it was examined and discussed, the bill became increasingly mocked in the mass media—both for the fact many senators who signed up to support it hadn’t actually read it, and as nakedly a project of “the great state of Israel”—as Jon Stewart ironically put it. Never in American history has AIPAC-favored legislation been openly debated, scrutinized and criticized like this.
There is probably no more eloquent argument against Kirk-Menendez-Schumer than here, by Jessica Tuchman Mathews in the New York Review of Books. She covers all the terrain, from an opening paragaph which sets the scene:
In recent weeks, Iran and the United States, for the first time, have broken through more than a decade of impasse over Iran’s nuclear program. Significant differences remain, but at long last, both governments appear ready to work their way toward a resolution. Yet the US Congress, acting reflexively against Iran, and under intense pressure from Israel, seems ready to shatter the agreement with a bill that takes no account of Iranian political developments, misunderstands proliferation realities, and ignores the dire national security consequences for the United States.
Mathews moves to a nuanced discussion of what the more than forty-year-old Non Proliferation Treaty does and does not say, noting it provides no legal basis for restricting Iran’s nuclear program to zero enrichment, provided the program is peaceful. The “zero Iranian enrichment” option demanded by Netanyahu and his allies in the Senate is thus not only a non-starter in negotiating terms, but is not grounded in international law. One must assume that the AIPAC folks who wrote Kirk-Schumer-Menendez understood this, which is why they wrote their bill the way they did — not to “aid” Obama in negotiations as some senators often disingenuously claim, but to kill the negotiations. Importantly, Mathews also notes that the six-month interim deal which went into operation early this week (giving Iran access to some of its own money which had been held in foreign banks) is weighted heavily in the West’s favor, and makes sense for Tehran only if it paves the way to a larger agreement granting major relief from sanctions.
Mathews then comments about the “Go to war for Israel” part of the bill:
The bill’s most egregious language explains why so many senators leapt onto this bandwagon: it has become a vehicle for expressing unquestioning support for Israel, rather than a deadly serious national security decision for the United States. The US, according to this provision, “should stand with Israel and provide…diplomatic, military, and economic support” should Israel launch a preventative war against Iran in what it deems to be self-defense. Though this language is in the nonbinding “Findings” section of the bill, its sense is to partially delegate to the government of Israel a decision that would take the United States to war with Iran. Senators report that AIPAC’s advocacy of the bill has been intensive, even by its usual standard.
Sometime during the week that this essay went to press, it became obvious that the bill’s momentum had stalled. Major newspaper after newspaper editorialized against it. California senator Dianne Feinstein made a widely noted speech on the Senate floor against it. The Economist, the capitalist Western world’s most emblematically establishment organ, ran a pointed cartoon, drawing Abe Foxman’s ire, mocking Israel’s role in trying to hamper the negotiations. And in the midst of this, AIPAC, nothing if not a shrewd judge of public relations and political power, began to signal discomfort with its campaign. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Ron Kampeas reported that AIPAC was growing nervous about its public exposure over Kirk-Menendez, and especially uncomfortable with what it perceived as growing hostility to its work among Democratic Hill staffers. (Of Republicans, only Rand Paul and Jeff Flake have not signed up to support it. Sad.) The Israel lobby, according to the well-known description, is a nightflower, which dies when exposed to sunlight. AIPAC’s leaders have begun to worry worried that the group’s long term influence is being put at risk by a public confrontation over the Kirk-Menendez bill.
It really remains to be seen what can be achieved long term by negotiation with Iran. Steve Walt observes that both opponents and foes of the negotiation have argued by fear, pointing to the potentially disastrous consequences likely if their opponents win: the pro-diplomacy side worrying about the failure of negotiations will lead to war, the foes pointing to the prospect of an emboldened, less isolated, and potentially nuclear-armed Iran. But what the deal has already achieved reflects something truly positive: the growing weight of Iranian democracy. Let there be no doubt, Iran is at the negotiation table because the Iranian people demanded it, by voting for the one candidate who promised to try to end their isolation. They want to be on more friendly terms with the West. A more cooperative Iran could yield any number of real benefits, including help in stabilizing Afghanistan (which we will need, on the way out), the possibility of tamping down the civil war in Syria, and perhaps above all as positive role model of a modernizing and democratizing Islamic state—something of clearly global historical significance. Not to mention economic benefits for U.S. companies.
The pivot away from AIPAC only began in late December but the forces which have allied to stall Kirk-Menendez-Schumer have been percolating for several years. They include, importantly, J Street and similar liberal pro-Israel groups, at odds with Netanyahu over the entire spectrum of his policies. They include such new players as the National Iranian American Council, mobilizing members of a relatively new immigrant group for the first time. And they include a growing number of activists rooted in mainline Christian churches, newly active on issues ranging from Iran to Israel-Palestine. Such organizations and social forces hardly existed a decade ago, so it is fair to see them as a response to the multi-trillion dollar debacle of the Iraq war and the neoconservative ideas behind it. It was as if Americans had awoken to the need to fight for ownership of their country’s Middle East policy, or at least to see it not subcontracted to AIPAC. At least some of their senators have responded sympathetically and, it seems, lived to tell the tale.