Last week the Obama administration announced the long anticipated signing of a multinational deal to thwart Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. The White House has begun a barrage of efforts to promote the agreement. Secretary of State John Kerry joined Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on a round of Sunday talk shows to make the administration’s case. Subsequently Vice President Joseph Biden, in an hour-long phone address to Jewish community leaders, summarized the thicket of details in the 150-page agreement.
Enactment of the deal is subject to approval by the Senate and the House of Representatives within sixty days of receiving it from the administration. The 60-day clock began ticking earlier this week. If both bodies reject the deal and President Barack Obama exercises a veto, overriding his veto will require a two-thirds majority by each house. Several congressional Republicans have already announced opposition to the deal and some Democratic members have indicated support for it. But most are still uncommitted and the outcome remains uncertain.
For many in the American Jewish community the choices are especially vexing. Even if supportive of the president on other issues, they wonder if his eagerness for a deal with Iran has resulted in his making too many concessions. Iran’s leaders continue unabashedly to support terrorism, urge that Israel be wiped out, and have a history of deception about the country’s nuclear program. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s condemnation of the agreement as providing a pathway for Iran to acquire the bomb compounds the community’s angst.
Still, President Obama insists that the deal would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Kerry says the agreement will mean that Israel and the region “will ultimately be much safer.” Biden’s assurances to his phone listeners were based on his review of the provisions for inspection of Iran’s nuclear facilities, reduction of the country’s uranium stockpiles, limitations on centrifuges and more. Skeptics believe the administration’s assurances are based more on wishful thinking than reality. They cite Iran’s record of past cheating on its nuclear activities and the current deal’s unworkable complexity. Further, they criticize the deal’s allowance for the release to Iran of $150 billion in sanctions relief. Observers believe that some of that money will likely be used to support terrorism.
These issues will continue to be debated in the coming weeks in various forums. In announcing that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold hearings on the deal the committee’s leaders exhibited admirable restraint. Both the Republican chairman Bob Corker and the Democratic ranking member Ben Cardin said they would await forthcoming testimony and clarifications before deciding to vote for or against the agreement.
As debate continues about aspects of the deal, three observations of particular interest to the Jewish community deserve emphasis. Each is based on a false assumption regarding Israel’s approach to the Iranian nuclear issue. The first is the notion encapsulated by a Reuter’s headline earlier this year: “Kerry questions Netanyahu’s judgment as U.S.-Israel row deepens.” Emphasis on Netanyahu’s pointed criticism of the deal fails to give due weight to the massive support for this position across the Israeli political spectrum. Nowhere is this better illustrated than by the emotional assessment of the prime minister’s political opponent, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog. The deal, he said, “will unleash a lion from the cage; it will have a direct influence over the balance of power in our region; it’s going to affect our borders, and it will affect the safety of my children.”
The second ill-considered contention is that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” This assertion by Obama in 2013 came in the context of Israel’s building plans in disputed West Bank territories. But the sentiment is consistent with the administration’s view of Israel’s dissatisfaction with the Iranian nuclear deal. An assumption of superior knowledge about another country’s interests should at least be based on a record of earlier successful assessments and actions. Yet recent US policy miscalculations regarding turmoil elsewhere—in Ukraine and Iraq, in Libya, Syria, Egypt and Yemen—raise doubts about the administration’s foreign policy judgments, including to many in Israel.
The third and most provocative contention is that a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities should be avoided because it “would be destabilizing.” This remark in 2012 by the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, General Martin Dempsey, was part of a US effort to dissuade an Israeli attack. If anything, US concern has grown since then that such action would provoke Iranian reprisals and possibly war. Yet a recent poll of Israelis shows that nearly half the respondents favor such action if needed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. No doubt many of them recall that Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear facility in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007. Criticism by outsiders of those acts later gave way to appreciation that the nuclear threat in the region had been reduced.
Meanwhile, at the outset of the 60-day congressional countdown the UN Security Council voted to endorse the agreement. In support of the decision America’s UN representative Samantha Power said sanctions relief for Iran would begin only after “verifiable” Iranian compliance.
Hours later, however, the European Union announced that its own sanctions would now be lifted on the purchase of Iranian oil. As congress considers its options the administration’s claim that Iranian violations would evoke an immediate “snap back” of sanctions now seemed less assuring.