On Iran, Let’s Get Serious

The Iran deal is perhaps the most consequential foreign policy issue in a generation. Yet the debate over it has too often fallen short of what’s needed.

Rather than focus on possible strengths and shortcomings, some have resorted to sweeping generalizations, partisan attacks, personal insults, and hysterical hyperbole. None of this advances the discussion.

After three weeks of intensive, 360-degree deliberations, AJC opted to oppose the accord. We believe it essentially legitimizes a regime that is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, concedes its eventual status as a nuclear threshold nation, grants it a huge cash windfall in unfrozen assets and new trade and investment opportunities, and places no curb on its highly destabilizing regional role.

But we cannot stomach those who, in the name of stopping the deal, call for violence against American officials; accuse President Obama of sending Jews “to the ovens”; claim that supporters of the agreement, as one person wrote, will have the blood of “hundreds of millions” on their hands; or question the patriotism of the accord’s negotiators.

At the same time, we also reject the rhetoric of some of the deal’s supporters, who accuse opponents of “warmongering,” “dual loyalty,” using the power of the purse, and willfully repeating the mistake of Iraq.

This toxic, misplaced language certainly doesn’t bode well, either.

We took President Obama at his word when he said, earlier this year: “Given the importance of this issue [Iran], I have instructed my negotiators to fully brief Congress and the American people on the substance of the deal, and I welcome a robust debate in the weeks and months to come.”

And AJC—which for two decades has traveled the globe and conducted literally hundreds of meetings on the Iranian nuclear question—was among those who had the privilege of being briefed on the deal.

Over the years, we came to understand the enormous complexity of the issue, which is precisely why a “robust debate” is fully in order today. Yet the gross simplification of the issues, the strident partisanship, and the name calling all detract from what ought to be happening right now.

We have the greatest respect both for the President himself and the Office of the President. We don’t take our critique of an administration’s signature foreign policy issue lightly.

And yet as strict non-partisans, we also cannot completely outsource trust on matters that directly affect our core interests regarding American and global security.

Historically, notwithstanding the government’s vast access to information and analysis, it hasn’t achieved a perfect batting average when it comes to such mega-issues.

As far back as 1949, America was caught by surprise when the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, although our intelligence community had repeatedly assured the White House that this was still years away.

Or, fast forward to these words by President Clinton in 1994: “This agreement is good for the United States, good for our allies, and good for the safety of the entire world. It reduces the danger of the threat of nuclear weapons spreading in the region… We have completed an agreement that will make the United States, the Korean Peninsula, and the world safer. Under the agreement, North Korea has agreed to freeze its existing nuclear program and to accept international inspection of all existing facilities.”

Well, despite our country’s best intentions, things didn’t work out as planned. North Korea brazenly violated the agreement, tested nuclear weapons, created a new level of danger in Northeast Asia, and exported menacing technology and weaponry to other nations, including Iran and Syria.

Then, four years later, Washington was again caught off guard, this time when India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons. At the time, a senior administration official said: “We were all just lulled into thinking they wouldn’t do anything regarding nuclear weapons. They led us to believe they were not going to do anything precipitous. We made the mistake of assuming they would act rationally.”

Subsequently, during the Bush presidency, there was the belated discovery of secret Iranian nuclear installations at Natanz and Fordow; the huge and costly error in the assessment of Iraq’s alleged nuclear program; and the failure of the U.S., over several years, to conclude that a construction project in eastern Syria was indeed a covert nuclear reactor built, it should be noted, with North Korean assistance.

Apropos, Israel, not the U.S., destroyed that facility. Imagine Syrian President Assad, an Iranian ally and butcher of his own people, with nuclear weapons at his disposal today – or, perhaps, such Syrian weapons falling into the hands of ISIS.

Later, in Switzerland, as reported in Vanity Fair (and elsewhere), it was France alone that demanded tougher language on Iran: “It was in the penultimate Geneva session leading to the interim agreement of 2013 that France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, broke ranks with his colleagues who insisted on complete secrecy and denounced the impending agreement being hammered out by [U.S. Secretary of State] Kerry and [Iranian Foreign Minister] Zarif as a ‘sucker’s deal,’ thus forcing another round and a momentary replacement of America with France in the ‘death to’ mantra in Tehran.” Then there was the Obama Administration’s dramatic assurance, in 2014, that all chemical weapons had been removed from Syria, only to learn one year later that it wasn’t quite the case, as our intelligence agencies reported hidden caches, use of chlorine-laced bombs, and secret laboratories.

And again regarding Iran, we heard all along from the White House that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” but when some question the current agreement, they are told there is no alternative other than war.

We don’t accept that formulation. We want neither an inadequate deal nor war. And we know this is not the first accord in history that has been found wanting and sent back to the drawing boards for improvement. That won’t be easy, we realize, but determined American leadership has the best chance of getting it done.

No U.S. government is infallible, which is why a robust – and, at all times, respectful – debate is needed, one that befits the high-stakes decision facing our nation.

About the Author
David Harris is the CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
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