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Obama vs. Netanyahu: The Decisive Months

Will Iran deal opponents sway the American public and lawmakers?

It is not only Mike Huckabee who uses Holocaust imagery to rail against the Iran deal, though with his vulgar reference to “ovens” he managed inadvertently to sound more like an anti-Semite than a robust defender of Israel. (The last major American figure I recall speaking about ovens in this context was Louis Farrakhan). Huckabee’s remarks were  duly flagged as “unacceptable” by the director of the Anti-Defamation League (who is no longer Abe Foxman), who noted that regardless of disagreement over Iran, the Obama administration was Israel’s greatest ally.

But no one who attended last week’s anti-Iran deal rally in Times Square would conclude that Huckabee was some kind of rhetorical outlier. There a sizable crowd (largely Jewish, to the extent I could tell) whose mood alternated between hate-mongering and anxious, displayed replicas of mushroom clouds and placards denouncing a new Holocaust, and listened to speakers denounce the deal using the same tropes as Huckabee. Steve Emerson, the well-funded professional Islamophobe, warned that the deal would “reenact the Holocaust.” James Woolsey, who has found a second career as the neocons’ go-to Democrat with national security credentials, described Iran as “totalitarian” and “genocidal” in terms which evoke Nazi Germany and hardly fit contemporary Iran.

Because perhaps the most singular fact about the Holocaust was that the Nazis killed an unarmed and defenseless population, one was tempted to ask what then was the point of Israel’s deceiving the United States about its own nuclear program, refusing to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and then building up an arsenal of an estimated 200 nuclear warheads. Clearly neither Huckabee nor anyone at last week’s rally had much faith in Israel’s defense forces or nuclear deterrents.

The rhetorical focus on an Iranian-generated nuclear holocaust may prove a tactical error for the anti-Iran forces, because the one thing the Iran deal will almost certainly do is prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon in the near or medium future. This error recalls the political choice neocons made in the run-up to the Iraq war, when they stressed to the American public and the world that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction were the reason Washington had to attack, when in fact their motives for going to war were more diverse. As Saddam’s much-ballyhooed “weapons of mass destruction” turned out not to exist, Paul Wolfowitz told Vanity Fair that “The truth is that for reasons which have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction was the core reason.” In the wake of 9/11, a war to prevent mushroom clouds could be sold to the American people, but one simply to destroy an advanced Arab state hostile to Israel was less politically attractive.

Israel’s concerns about Iran are multilayered, and most Israelis would probably admit that fear of an Iranian nuclear strike ranks very low on the list. Even if Iranian nukes existed, there is little Iran could do with them; most of the Iran hawks know this, even if they don’t let on to the people attending their demonstrations. What they desire, as Robert Farley pointed out in a smart article at the Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog, is a kind of “indefinite militarized confrontation” between the United States and Iran, and Iran’s so-called nuclear weapons program (which U.S. intelligence agencies believe currently does not exist) was an emotional talking point. “Mushroom clouds” and “holocaust” is an emotional way to grab an American public’s attention which might otherwise be diverted by declining wages or Donald Trump’s insurgency. But an Iran freed from the penalty box definitely would be a regional rival to Saudi Arabia and Israel, so from their perspective working to ensure American hostility to Iran makes perfect sense.

We can already see the Iran hawks try to shift focus: Leon Wieseltier’s recent sally against the deal railed against Iran’s “homophobia” and “misogyny” as much as its nuclear program, and argued for continued hostility against the Tehran regime for its brutal supression of the Green Movement in 2009. He neglected to point out that by every possible indication, the political heirs and survivors of Iran’s Green Movement overwhelmingly support the deal.

The United States is on the verge of a huge political science research experiment. By recent estimates, opponents of the deal have unleashed a $40 million ad campaign to oppose it, and the major groups opposing the deal can boast of annual budgets of about $150 million. Will that be enough to sway a Congress skeptical about the deal, but disinclined to fight the war which is it only real alternative?

John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt were widely chastised for noting in their book The Israel Lobby that the lobby played an important role in taking us to war in  Iraq. Their conclusions were nuanced: Israel lobby support for the invasion was necessary but not sufficient—it was impossible to imagine that the United States would have attacked Iraq if Israel had not favored it; and well documented—the book contains pages of statements in the American media from Israeli officials, touting the importance of “taking out” Saddam.

In the Iran case, such qualifiers are unnecessary.  There really are no countries in the world that want a U.S.-Iranian conflict besides Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel is isolated internationally as never before; it has, as others have noted, isolated itself by its repeated refusal to negotiate a Palestinian state, its building of settlements, and its continuous wars on the Palestinian refugees in Gaza.

At this moment, while the majority of polls show plurality or majority support for the p5+1 Iran deal, there are several outliers, with large differences emerging depending on the wording of the question and how informed the subjects were about the deal’s provisions. They reveal interesting sub-themes as well: polls show that American Jews favor the Iran deal by greater margins than gentiles, this in spite of Benjamin Netanyahu, Sheldon Adelson, and the Israel’s frantic lobbying against it. I would interpret this finding as a reflection of the broader fact that groups with higher education and greater knowledge of the deal are more likely to favor it, but other interpretations are surely possible. Will the massive media buy by the deal’s opponents shift public opinion sufficiently enough to persuade a number of Democratic lawmakers to abandon their own president?

The prediction here is no: the combined weight of the support for Iran diplomacy from  America’s other allies, its professional foreign affairs establishment, and the not inconsiderable persuasive power of the White House itself will prevail over Netanyahu and the neocons, despite the latter’s vast financial advantages. Add to this the fact that there really is no good alternative to the deal with Iran. (John Bolton, a key hawk, acknowledged recently that there is no better deal to be had and the sanctions regime is over. His preferred solution is war.) But no one at this stage knows for sure, except that the next few months will be  historic.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.