This year, I attended my first AIPAC National Policy Conference. It was convenient considering that I was reading about Iran’s nuclear program for one of my independent studies that week. AIPAC often came up in my readings, and after pulling together what I experienced with what I read, as a supporter of AIPAC, I can conclude this: it has made honest mistakes.
Again, I support the general principle of AIPAC. I believe strong Israeli-American relations are vital for Israel’s security and peace in the Middle East. That being said, I want AIPAC to make good choices, and that means recognizing its past mistakes, as honest as they were.
AIPAC was very explicit when they said they were formally opposed to the recent nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1. At the conference, they acknowledged that the deal is done, but that they will try to lobby for additional sanctions, which could be a drastic mistake.
In reflection of my readings, mainly by Trita Parsi, AIPAC seems to have consistently disregarded the divisions within Iran, which made attempts at Iran-US normalization and reconciliation over the nuclear issue harder.
First, you must acknowledge that Israel, the Arab states and the West have reason to be concerned about a nuclear armed Iran. The Iranian government could have territorial ambitions. Looking back at the Iran-Iraq War, after Saddam’s forces were pushed out in 1983, Iran could have ended the war there and then, but Khomeini, with the advice of some of the commanders from the Revolutionary Guards, decided to invade Iraq in order to oust Saddam and extend Khomeini’s idea of Vilayat al-Faqih. A country with territorial ambitions possessing a nuclear weapon could give them the leverage they need to pursue their ambitions.
However, since the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq War, an internal debate within Iran has developed on whether or not to continue their territorial ambitions or to reconcile with the international community in order to survive as a nation.
We saw this first during Hashemi Rafsanjnai’s presidency (1989-1997) when he tried to recover Iran’s economy from the war be integrating themselves into the international community, through some gestures to America. He assisted them in the Gulf War and helped release US hostages in Lebanon. However, for perhaps understandable reasons, the Clinton Administration fell short of easing sanctions on Iran. As a result, Rafsanjani did not have the leverage he needed back home to convince the Islamic Republic that they should reconcile with the US. How could he when they didn’t accommodate him after his gestures?
As Parsi argues in his book, AIPAC was discouraging the Clinton Administration from easing sanctions on Iran, which made it harder for Rafsanjani to “win the internal debate.” Of course, it was out of genuine skepticism. Iran had recently supported international terrorist attacks, such as the bombing of the Jewish center in Argentina. However, the attack was most probably orders by the hardline sector in the Islamic Republic that was trying to spoil negotiations with the West. Thus, AIPAC should have acknowledged that it was the conservatives in Iran who ordered the attack and allowed Clinton to accommodate the pragmatists, such as Rafsanjani, to help them win the debate at home. Instead, they played right into the hardliners’ hands.
We saw this again during Mohammed Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005). Khatami proved to be a genuine moderate who was willing to change Iran’s ways. For instance, at his speech at the Organization of Islamic Conference in 1997, he pledged to abandon “exporting the revolution” by respecting the territorial sovereignty of their neighboring Arab countries and that the two-state solution may be acceptable for Iran over the Palestinian issue.
Additionally, after 9/11, recognizing that Iran and the US had common interests in the region, Khatami actually helped America in Afghanistan and Iraq with the transition in governments and funding state-development. These proved to be confidence-building measures that led to Khatami’s final proposal in 2003 through the Swiss Ambassador in Iran.
It was a very thorough document proposing how to resolve all the issues between America and Iran, including their nuclear program, and finally make peace. Though it was the Bush Administration who chose to ignore it, AIPAC still discouraged the negotiations and it was the same fundamental mistake. The Bush Administration chose to ignore it because they doubted it had the support of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei (which Trita Parsi confirms in his book, Treacherous Alliance, that the Supreme Leader did approve of it) and that Iran had been behind the recent terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia.
It was actually al-Qaeda who conducted the attack, but the point is that America missed an opportunity to reconcile when the time was ripe. With the common interests in Afghanistan and Iraq and the moderate’s leverage increasing at home, the time was ripe for Khatami to offer a peace proposal with the support of the Supreme Leader, and ignoring it played into the hardliners’ hands once again.
AIPAC made another fundamental mistake during the negotiations in the second half of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. The Obama Administration initially wanted to swap Iran’s uranium in exchange for medical materials they needed as a confidence-building measure for diplomacy. However, because of the infighting in Iran after the dispute over the 2009 elections, Iran was not in a position to accept the offer.
Later on, when the situation stabilized, Iran accepted the exact same proposal from Turkey and Brazil. Yet, because Obama had already committed to sanctions after his diplomacy failed, he ignored it and, with pressure from AIPAC, imposed sanctions over Iran’s gas industries. These sanctioned proved to be counter productive because they affected the Iranian people rather than the government and hurt the liberal minded class who are trying to bring change in Iran.
Now, are these past events to suggest that AIPAC doesn’t want peace between America and Iran? Of course not. The vast majority of American Jews are liberal and genuinely want a peaceful solution. I was there and I know they genuinely want peace with Iran, but they have, unintentionally, played the role of a spoiler.
Shifting back to today, the P5+1 was able to strike a deal with Iran in 2015 and was implemented in January, 2016. It will have Iran curb its enrichment of uranium with the gradual easing of sanctions over the next 10-15 years. The oppositionists of the deal are, understandably, skeptical. They don’t believe the deal will push Iran’s breakout time capability far enough while trying to re-impose sanctions once the deal expires. As we saw in the previous decade, implementing sanctions is a tedious process.
Therefore, in order to help Iran moderate within the next 10-15 years before the deal expires, AIPAC must understand that there is an internal debate within Iran: those who still want to fight us and those who are pragmatic enough to reconcile. Just like during the Khatami years, the time may be ripe during Rouhani’s presidency. He has made moderate statements that are not easy to make in his position. In addition, the recent elections have given the reformists the majority of seats in the Assembly of Experts, and will most probably appoint the successor to Supreme Leader Khamenei who is aging and very ill.
If AIPAC lobbies additional sanctions within the next decade, it will make it harder for Rouhani and the reformists to win the debate at home. The hardliners in Iran will use it as a pretext to suggest that America is not to be trusted. If there are going to be additional sanctions, they should be, as Parsi says in his second book, A Single Roll of the Dice, “targeted sanctions.” AIPAC should only lobby for sanctions against sectors within the Iranian government that are against reconciliation and abounding Vilayat al-Faqih.
At their lobby sessions during the conference, AIPAC pushed for the sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program, after Iran tested their missiles. This targets Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who could potentially be a spoilers. However, my impression at the conference was that AIPAC wanted to impose the sanctions not because the Guards fired the missiles, but because Iran did. They saw the missile tests as an action by the Iranian government as a whole and, once again, disregarding the divisions within Iran.
So in the years to come, we, as in AIPAC, must be mindful of the actions and decisions of the Iranian government and also be mindful of whom we sanction. Targeting the hardliners could help strengthen the negotiations, but if we collectively punish the reformists and the Iranian people who want change in Iran, we will only be playing into the hardliners’ hands once more.