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How the Iran Deal Serves America

If Iran’s nuclear program were the primary concern of those lamenting the deal that John Kerry and representatives of five major countries concluded with Iran last Tuesday, they would be relatively pleased. Under the agreement, Iran will be stripped of 98 percent of its enriched uranium, all of its plutonium producing capacity, and 2/3 of its centrifuges, and will be placed under the most rigorous inspection regime in the history of nuclear proliferation negotiations. The cartoon image of Iran racing toward the bomb—presented last year by Prime Minister Netanyahu at the United Nations—may not have been reality-based, but if that’s what Israel is worried about, it can relax. Iran will not be racing toward the bomb.

But of course Israel is not pleased at all, and many of its volunteer spokesmen and politicians [1] in the United States are railing against the deal as virtually the worst thing to happen in history. Netanyahu has let no one outdo him in hysteria. Iran is seeking to “take over the world,” he told an Israeli audience [2] last week. (As the leaders of Russia, China, France, Germany, and Britain signed onto the agreement, one wonders how they all managed to miss the world takeover threat Netanyahu sees so clearly.)

Netanyahu’s followers in the United States, AIPAC, the Republicans in Congress, and the Iraq War neocons will dutifully suit up and mount a serious effort to scuttle the deal. (AIPAC has ordered staffers to cancel their summer vacations.) But something far different from Iranian centrifuges is at stake. It has never been clear to the U.S. intelligence community (or for that matter to the Israeli one) that Iran wanted a nuclear weapon to begin with, and it is far from obvious what advantages, if any, Iran would accrue if it managed to cobble together one or two nuclear weapons. There really isn’t any evidence that Iran’s leaders want the destruction of their 5,000 year-old Persian civilization, which would be the inevitable consequence of using the supposed bombs that Iran’s leaders have always denied any interest in seeking.

But the deal means something far more than outside supervision of Iran’s reactors. President Obama and his foreign-policy establishment want, I believe, at least to explore the possibility that Iran can fit into the roster of American diplomatic options in the region, where reliance on our traditional allies has run into a dead end. The obvious comparison is to Nixon’s trip to China, which turned out to be an effective way of mitigating the disaster of the Vietnam War and actually ensured that the aftermath of that war was far from unfortunate for the United States. The chaos which has been ignited in the Sunni world in great part by George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the aftereffects of a losing war in Afghanistan might be partially offset in Iran.

The turn to Iran was foreshadowed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11—when Tehran was the only city in the Muslim world in which there were public and spontaneous displays of sympathy for the United States, and shortly thereafter there was some considerable on-the-ground cooperation in Afghanistan with Iranian intelligence on the overthrow of the Taliban. Of course this cooperation was short-circuited by the neoconservatives in the Bush administration, who persuaded the President to include Iran in the “axis of evil.”

One doesn’t want to overestimate the possibilities for such cooperation, which may turn up empty. But it is obvious that Iran is much more than the “world’s number one sponsor of terrorism,” the agitprop phrase which Israel has sought to wrap it in. Iran is—in distinct contrast to every other Muslim country in the region—a large state with a partially democratic political system (no one at this point would deny that Iranian popular elections really matter), a very young and well-educated population, a middle class, a film industry [3]a fashion industry [4], a real cuisine, and a large number of young people who want to at least partially identify with the West. To compare and contrast the cultural compatibility of Iran and Saudi Arabia with the United States is a kind of joke.

Saudi Arabia has never been more an ally than an oil spigot: most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, and the U.S. government is still coy about the extent of Saudi government financing of the 9/11 attacks. [5] Most recently, Saudi Arabia has been cooperating with al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula [6], which would seem to make it a “state sponsor of terror” if one is counting. It is sufficient, one would think, to take with a grain of salt the argument that the Iran negotiation is a betrayal of our “traditional allies” in the region.

Of course, the other main opponent of the Iran deal is Israel, and Israel’s American spokespeople make frequent references to Saudi Arabia’s hurt feelings only as a way to portray their opposition as being grounded in something broader than Israel’s wishes alone. And it may turn out that a United States with more normal relations with Iran would be slightly less deferential to our “only democratic ally” in the Mideast. Sophisticated observers figured this out early on, long before before there were any details about centrifuges and inspections to speak about. Daniel Levy [7], the Israeli analyst and former peace negotiator, wrote this back in September 2013, when John Kerry and Javad Zarif had done little more than pass notes in the UN corridor:

If Iran is willing to cut a deal that effectively provides a guarantee against a weaponization of its nuclear program, and that deal is acceptable to the president of the United States of America, why would Netanyahu not take yes for an answer?

The reason lies in Netanyahu’s broader view of Israel’s place in the region: the Israeli premier simply does not want an Islamic Republic of Iran that is a relatively independent and powerful actor. Israel has gotten used to a degree of regional hegemony and freedom of action—notably military action—that is almost unparalleled globally, especially for what is, after all, a rather small power. Israelis are understandably reluctant to give up any of that.

Israel’s leadership seeks to maintain the convenient reality of a neighboring region populated by only two types of regimes. The first type is regimes with a degree of dependence on the United States, which necessitates severe limitations on challenging Israel (including diplomatically). The second type is regimes that are considered beyond the pale by the United States and as many other global actors as possible, and therefore unable to do serious damage to Israeli interests.

Israel’s leadership would consider the emergence of a third type of regional actor—one that is not overly deferential to Washington but also is not boycotted, and that even boasts a degree of economic, political, and military weight—a deeply undesirable development.

The fact is that Israel has used this regional military hegemony, and the political inability of any American president to oppose it, in ways that cannot help but generate hostility to the United States on the part of virtually all Muslims in the region, no matter where they fall on the Sunni-Shi’ite divide. When Israel assaults a more-or-less defenseless Gazan population and kills 500 Palestinian children, using a high-tech military provided entirely by the United States, Americans pay a price, though those ignorant of the region do not recognize this.

The United States of course will always be allied with Israel, and this alliance would go more easily if Israel made peace with the Palestinians. But it’s hard to imagine that any American president would not welcome more diplomatic options in the region than those provided by Israel and Saudi Arabia. Perhaps this explains why Jeb Bush seemed over the weekend to cast a glance [8] towards the exit door of the Republican crazy train, proclaiming that he would not necessarily abrogate an Iran agreement on “Day One” of his presidency.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "How the Iran Deal Serves America"

#1 Comment By mohammad On July 20, 2015 @ 4:38 am

One way to look at the deal is to see how different group of Iranian people and different elements in the Iranian regime react to it. Notably, the young and educated are very happy about it. The reform-minded elements in the regime are happy about it. The “conservatives,” that is, the traditionally oriented bazaar and clergy, are for it. The people who are against the deal are the hardliners in the regime, and the group of usually uneducated people who listen to propaganda by hardliners. The other opposition to deal comes form the radical opposition groups outside Iran, the groups like MEK.

Why is it so that the hardliners in Iran and hawks in the USA and Israel have so much in common?

#2 Comment By Samuel Barry On July 20, 2015 @ 5:55 am

It may well be that a 200 million-soul expanse of failed Arab states serves the narrow short-term interests of Saudi Arabia and Israel, and that conversely the safety and security of Chattanoogans means nothing to Saudi Arabia or to Israel. But how in God’s name can these things be true of America as well?

#3 Comment By Samuel Barry On July 20, 2015 @ 6:06 am

Yet there are still people in the US seriously proposing to add another 80 million Iranians to the list as well?

#4 Comment By Kurt Gayle On July 20, 2015 @ 8:35 am

Scott McConnell wrote: “The United States of course will always be allied with Israel, and this alliance would go more easily if Israel made peace with the Palestinians.”

Scott, I know what you meant to say, but – for the record – Israel is NOT an “ally” of the U.S.

Philip Giraldi put it succinctly: “To be an ally you need an actual alliance on paper. No such legally binding document exists between Washington and Tel Aviv.”

“Israel Is No Ally — But is it even a friend?” – Philip Giraldi – March 13, 2014
[9]

#5 Comment By D On July 20, 2015 @ 11:29 am

“Netanyahu’s followers in the United States, AIPAC, the Republicans in Congress, and the Iraq War neocons will dutifully suit up and mount a serious effort to scuttle the deal. (AIPAC has ordered staffers to cancel their summer vacations.)”

Which is one more reason why the entire Israeli lobby needs to be barred and disbanded. As if we needed another reason.

#6 Comment By JohnG On July 20, 2015 @ 1:08 pm

I have to admit that I have always found Israel’s obsession with Iran a little puzzling, so thank you for that Daniel Levy’s quote. While the explanation goes to some length in solving this puzzle for me, I am still not 100% convinced. Why so much noise about a country that is over 500 miles away while the next-door Saudi Arabia is an even bigger sponsor of terrorism and, let’s admit it, a relatively darker and more evil regime? Something is just not right in this whole story. Ideas, other explanations?

#7 Comment By Limited Engagement On July 21, 2015 @ 1:17 pm

“The United States of course will always be allied with Israel”

I don’t see it, not over the long haul. Israel has and will continue to seek advantage where it finds it and has already cozied up to China, including selling it US military technology. As its population grows more Russian and eastern European, there will be fewer of the cultural and ethnic ties that bind, like those we have with the UK, Ireland, and western Europe. And geopolitically, Israel is worse than worthless to us, a net burden, as recent history has amply shown.

#8 Comment By Clint On July 21, 2015 @ 6:59 pm

Rand Paul,
“Better to keep the interim agreement in place instead of accepting a bad deal.”

Actually,Obama intentionally,as with other issues,is passing along problems to following Presidents.

#9 Comment By Richard Cross On July 21, 2015 @ 8:18 pm

Your history on Nixon and China is mistaken. Nixon went to China in Feb of 1972 when the South Vietnamese were gaining control of the war in the south. Although US troop withdrawal had begun, funding of the South Vietnamese army continued until August 1973 and the incursions of the North had not been effective in overrunning the South. Only when the funding was stopped completely by the Left in the US Congress was the writing on the wall, but amazingly the South held out until April 1975. The Vietnam model is not a model of military defeat, but is best seen within the context of propaganda and the collapse of public opinion in the face of generally successful military campaigns.

The comparison of Iran with China is strained. The Chinese at the time had not been at a war with the US for 20 years, and were not funding international terrorists groups that were killing US citizens or our allies. Nixon knew that it was an unexplored trade market that could also be used as leverage against the Soviets who at the time were China’s adversary following severe border clashes of 1969. There is no comparable situation in the US MiddleEast today.

As for the sins of the Israelis and the innocence of the Palestinians: Hamas is a terrorist organization that initiates these conflicts by launching missiles from residential neighborhoods. Israel has a right to self-defense. It also seems reasonable that Israel fear the actions of the Iranians—who fund these missiles– who have stated repeatedly, that given the opportunity they will destroy the state of Israel. It seems foolish to simply believe that the Iranians don’t mean what they say.

#10 Comment By cityeyes On July 23, 2015 @ 2:53 pm

This may be the hardest sell of all time. The Free French underground were called terrorists by the Germans in W.W.2. One group’s terrorists are another group’s freedom fighters. Nixon went to China to stimulate trade and to encourage peaceful exchanges. Pretty much what Jimmy Carter did with Israel and Egypt. Not all Israel’s enemies are automatically enemies of the U.S. Quite the opposite in many cases. Good luck with the Amen Choir in Congress. Peace beats war. Let U.S. give it a chance.

#11 Comment By Wade McInnis On July 23, 2015 @ 4:41 pm

If peace beats war it sounds rather savage to me

#12 Comment By spider On July 23, 2015 @ 5:40 pm

never in the history of man has diplomacy achieved the desired result when one party is a rogue regime. to think otherwise, one must be delusional or not a student of history.

#13 Comment By A M Kinnebrew On July 24, 2015 @ 11:40 am

Richard Cross, your history is mistaken. China was supporting both the North Vietnamese and the North Koreans at the time Nixon moved to normalize relations. China had also fought a major war with the US less than 20 years earlier, a war that killed 10 times more Americans than died in Iraq.

Your weak grasp on history become even more apparent as you go on to insinuate that Iran and the US have been at war for twenty years. I’d like to know when this major event happened?

And as to Israel, only a person completely blind to reality would believe that Hamas and Iran pose existential threats to a country with scores of nuclear weapons and an alliance with the world’s strongest military power.

#14 Comment By Tom On July 26, 2015 @ 3:20 am

The Vietnam model is not a model of military defeat, but is best seen within the context of propaganda and the collapse of public opinion in the face of generally successful military campaigns.

This is basically the American version of the “stab in the back.” It ignores the fact that we couldn’t possibly win the war, whether or not there was opposition to the war at home.

Moshe Dayan pointed this out way back in 1967. Every strategic hamlet merely conceded more of the countryside to the enemy. Every dead Viet Cong guerilla spawned two more guerillas. North Vietnam couldn’t beat us, but they could stalemate us.

Our inability to think strategically led us into the mess in Iraq. Tactical victories are pointless if they produce strategic defeat.

As for the sins of the Israelis and the innocence of the Palestinians: Hamas is a terrorist organization that initiates these conflicts by launching missiles from residential neighborhoods. Israel has a right to self-defense. It also seems reasonable that Israel fear the actions of the Iranians—who fund these missiles– who have stated repeatedly, that given the opportunity they will destroy the state of Israel. It seems foolish to simply believe that the Iranians don’t mean what they say.

None of this is that different from what China was doing in 1971. China was funding guerilla groups throughout the world. China also loudly proclaimed its opposition to various governments that the rebels were trying to overthrow.

It didn’t mean anything. Two years later, the Chinese threw the Chilean socialists under the bus and made nice with the Pinochet government in Chile.

Propaganda should not be taken at face value! Our failure to realize that led us to believe in nonexistent WMDs in Iraq.