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The Iran Deal as an American Turning Point

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 [1], 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, [2] 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 report [3]ed 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 [4] 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.

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#1 Comment By Michael N Moore On January 23, 2014 @ 4:55 pm

Good work, Scott. People are beginning to catch on that the Likud party is a reflexively xenophobic threat to peace and not an ally of any other country.

#2 Comment By Brooklyn Blue Dog On January 23, 2014 @ 5:46 pm

Are AIPAC and its sycophants (I’d even say fifth-columnists) in the Congress even cognizant of Israel’s own best interests? It’s hard to understand why an Iran that is once again part of the community of nations and engaged with the West would be more, rather than less, dangerous to Israel. Israel stands to benefit from an Iran that actually has something to lose from anti-Israel rhetoric and conduct. An Iran with an alternative source of legitimacy than religious conservatives has more flexibility to move in ways that are productive for the rest of the world, including Israel.

#3 Comment By Chad On January 23, 2014 @ 7:00 pm

I’d probably throw a little credit towards the Obama Administration while I were at it. They’ve taken a legitimate political risk and have been aggressive in heading off any campaign to sabotage these negotiations.

#4 Comment By Daniel Serwer On January 23, 2014 @ 9:14 pm

I share this perspective, but I’d have appreciated a discussion of why a new sanctions bill with a six-month trigger in the event the permanent negotiation fails (with a six-month extension if need be) is a bad idea. You and Mathews fail to discuss that option, which has some appeal as it would clarify for Iran what to expect if the negotiations fail. And it cannot be described as “new” sanctions–more like “future” sanctions.

#5 Comment By a spencer On January 24, 2014 @ 5:45 am

Its basketball season, what the heck…

you can run a full-court press all the time but if it wears out, its useless.

#6 Comment By Puller58 On January 24, 2014 @ 7:39 am

It’s too early to declare success. The midterms have Democrats spooked and the GOP desperate. 2016 will likely be kitchen sink time for the neocons and AIPAC.

#7 Comment By cameyer On January 24, 2014 @ 9:03 am

The ‘interim agreement’ freed $5 billion of Iranian money held overseas because of the sanctions. It also allows Iran to buy spare parts for its airliners and relaxes some of the issues around medicine and humanitarian aid.

Iran has frozen its nuclear program in place in a bold show of good faith and commitment to the negotiations. The sanctions were established to ‘bring Iran back to negotiations.’ Iran has not just returned but agreed to restrictions no one could have envisioned a year ago. In return, as a show of good faith and comittment to the negotiations, the P5+1 agreed to limited sanctions relief.

For the US to come back now and say, OK, but we’re going to pre-emtively vote for more sanctions now – even with a 6 month trigger – would be a slap in the face to Iran and a violations of the agreement itself.

Besides, Iran said it would bolt if Congress voted in more sanctions after Rouhani’s government took the risk of signing the interim accord.

#8 Comment By collin On January 24, 2014 @ 9:16 am

I still think what turned the left harder on the deal was the Joe Lieberman clip saying if the negotiations failed then he predicted a 2014 bombing of Iran. Nothing scares the left than pro-war Lieberman!

Every liberal blog noted the interview.

#9 Comment By Dakarian On January 24, 2014 @ 9:29 am


Personally, when I’m speaking with my mortgage dealer about a late bill, I’d rather not have them host it in an ally “just to make sure I know where I’ll be living in if I don’t listen.” There’s a point when more threats puts up people’s backs rather than makes them willing to work with you.

Or to put it another way: you want any positive action to be responded with positive responses. Fear isn’t positive. Negative alone doesn’t change behavior. Now that they have started talking, it’s time to dangle the carrots. “Oh look, a bill to remove those sanctions you want gone. Ohh, and it allows for a power plant too. Wouldn’t that be so nice for it to pass? Oh, how many inspections would you allow?” It’s when they start to stray that you pull out a stick threat.

It’s also a bit of a moot point to think about it since this bill is far more than just a threat of sanctions.

Besides, the more that we keep talking about ‘war with Iran’, the more the public gets sick of the idea. The more sick they get, the less willing they will be to go to war for any reason, and the more clear it’ll be that war is off the table.

So even if you DO like the idea of keeping the threat up, flinging up more and more bills will hurt the situation. Want to see what happens if Iran says “Forget it, we’re making a bomb.” While a Congress authorization for war bill gets met with a 2008-styled anti-Iraq public response?

Serious question: Have we ever started a conflict when the public was 50%+ against it? Not remained in a fight. Not got into a fight without most people knowing. I mean commonly known attempt with the public firmly against it?

#10 Comment By WorkingClass On January 24, 2014 @ 9:59 am

Business as usual ended at Syria. Israel (and the Saudis) now find themselves in opposition to Russia, China, Europe and the Obama Administration. The American Congress is staying bought but it’s just not enough. The impetus for this shift is coming from above Obama’s pay grade in my humble opinion. I am therefore uncharacteristically optimistic about the success of these negotiations.

#11 Comment By WorkingClass On January 24, 2014 @ 10:04 am

By the way. It appears that Menendez may be reaping what he has sown.