The Iran deal debate is huge and historic: a committed and eloquent president in his prime, able to mobilize scientists and diplomats and most of Washington’s foreign-affairs establishment on one hand; opposing him, groups funded by a few billionaires, able to saturate selected congressional districts with television advertising and frighten many office holders. It’s a subject that will draw historians for decades to come. If the government of Israel and its friends are able to block the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Israeli security professionals are not enthusiastic about the deal but, unlike Netanyahu, generally favor it as the best thing possible), it will be perceived to be just as pivotal as Woodrow Wilson’s failure to secure the United States’s adherence to the League of Nations, effectively dooming that organization.
On the face of it, the international coalition in favor of the deal should seem overwhelming. That diplomats from France, Germany, and Britain spent last week in Congress warning that all hell would break loose if the deal were scuttled was barely reported in the American press, but it did happen. The UN Security Council voted 15-o in favor of the deal. If, against such odds, Netanyahu, AIPAC, and the perennially well-funded let’s-start-a-war-against-Iraq crowd—The Weekly Standard, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Commentary, New York Sun, etc.—can overcome the combined foreign-policy establishments of the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany, it will be truly an event for the ages. If the result of scuttling the deal is war, which Obama believes, and which the more honest of the deal’s opponents publicly hope, they will fully own the war. If the result is an Iranian rush to the bomb and no war, they will own that result as well.
If one is to look clearly at American politics, and indeed much of the world’s, it is apparent that the old concept of dual loyalty (often used as a smear) is no longer relevant in a day that celebrates competing identities. Dual loyalty was a charge leveled at European Jews in the heyday of European nationalism, which insinuated that Jews remained more loyal to their own group than to their country of citizenship, and of course this charge was often inextricably tied up with the most extreme anti-Semitism. During the same historical period, leading American politicians railed at hyphenated Americans—Germans and Swedes and other opponents of intervention in the First World War, for example—and afterwards, often repressive pro-assimilation legislation was turned against immigrants of almost every stripe.
It is now obvious that many in the West have complicated and potentially competing loyalties. European nationalism of the nation-state variety is a subdued and increasingly less pronounced sentiment, and a high proportion of college-educated European baby boomers consider the European Union a noble and idealistic endeavor that competes with or even overrides their sense of Frenchness or Italianness. In America, too, not only are we “all multiculturalists now” but our patriotism comes in different layers. Many young Americans feel themselves part of a new transnational, tech-savvy, entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, which imagines itself as borderless; many more are married to persons of another nationality or faith. Personal experiences, even a stint in the Peace Corps, can produce some ties of allegiance. Who at some moment has not contemplated where they might try to emigrate—France? Ireland? Canada? Australia?—if politics here took a truly bad turn? Or even if they didn’t.
So let’s stipulate that the loyalty questions now spilling out over the Iran debate are muddy. Is it over the top when the Huffington Post headlines an (excellent) article by David Bromwich “Netanyahu and his Marionettes“? Some think so. But truth also has its claims—and much of Capitol Hill’s embrace of the Netanyahu position would simply not exist were it not for campaign funds from Israel-linked organizations. If something of this importance is true, should it not be written?
Last week the Times ran an AIPAC-inspired story in which various unnamed AIPAC officials accused the White House of using “dog whistles” in its efforts to combat the campaign against the deal. This was a subtle sign, shortly followed by much tougher accusations of anti-Semitism in the Tablet, The Weekly Standard (by Eliott Abrams no less), the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post. Obama is notoriously cautious and lawyerly in his language, and not a phrase in his American University speech could be fairly construed as a “dog whistle”—unless you are AIPAC and so thoroughly accustomed to politicians’ obsequiousness that any opposition can cause a temper tantrum. But to be sure, in left-wing websites and other venues dual-loyalty accusations have been made. Chuck Schumer likes to tell Jewish audiences that his name means “guardian” in Hebrew, while promising them that he will conduct himself as Israel’s guardian. Is it an anti-Semitic dog whistle to point out that fact? Does it mean his assessment of the deal is based on what he deems best for Israel, rather than his own constituents? Is it politically effective to point that fact out? I would probably answer no, yes, no—but clearly we’re in uncertain waters here.
New factors are coming into play as well. The National Iranian American Council filled an important role in briefing journalists and lobbying legislators throughout the negotiation process; in the Times there recently appeared an ad signed by hundreds of prominent Iranian-Americans in support of the deal. The Iranian-American community has been apolitical for years—probably most of its most prominent professional members are refugees or the children of refugees from Iran’s Islamic revolution. Still, given the choice between a deal that may open up Iran to the world and the bombing of their country that America’s neoconservatives yearn for, they overwhelmingly prefer the former. Are they too under the spell of a kind of dual loyalty? Yes, of course: what kind of person would want to see their parents’ country bombed and destroyed?
The Iranian-American community now ranks, I believe, as the single best-educated ethnic group in the United States, and is, generally speaking, professionally quite successful. It is relatively small, but knowing quite a few of its members, I hope its political influence will only grow. Even 10 years ago, few prominent Iranian-Americans would have signed such a letter. But the American polity concerned with foreign policy is evolving every day. Obama is in many ways a result of that. And deference to Israel is slowly but steadily becoming less mandatory.
Some predictions: the effort to stomp out criticism of the JCPOA’s opponents by charging anti-Semitism, unwarranted in virtually every case, will not succeed. Basically, this is not a matter of defending a groundbreaking book by two prominent scholars, or the record of a intelligently reactionary presidential candidate. The Iran deal is a broad establishment project, a world establishment project—and charging anti-Semitism isn’t going to cut it. But that said, individual members of Congress do live in dread getting on AIPAC’s bad side. And a massive fear-mongering media campaign has moved and will continue to move the polls against the deal. Crude TV ads are really effective, as any student of American politics knows.
How will it end? I would predict the Democrats will sustain Obama’s veto of the Netanyahu-inspired legislation. The political landscape will be transformed. But it will be transformed whatever happens. Whoever said that the Israel lobby is a night flower, which flourishes in the dark and withers in the sunlight, is likely to be vindicated.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.