Jeffrey Herf

The Iran deal and anti-Semitism

Obama's claims regarding Teheran's “practical streak” disregard the regime's fanatical anti-Semitism

In the coming weeks, debate about the P5+1 deal with Iran will focus, as it must, on the details of the deal itself and whether, as President Obama claims, it will prevent Iran from getting the bomb or rather, as Prime Minister Netanyahu has warned, it paves Iran’s way to the bomb and poses a threat to Israel’s security and survival. But behind that debate, I suggest that there should be another one, a conversation about anti-Semitism and the way the United States has responded to the anti-Semitic regime in Tehran.

The case against the agreement has been made well by David Horovitz. He and others have pointed out that the agreement leaves the infrastructure of Iran’s nuclear weapons program intact. Mark Dubowitz and Reuel Marc Gerecht, two well-informed experts on Iran’s nuclear program and the sanctions regime affiliated with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, described the deal in an April 3, 2015, the Wall Street Journal essay as “Iran’s Negotiating Triumph Over Obama and America.” They point out that the Obama administration “has never adequately explained” why Ayatollah Khamenei “would sell out a three-decade effort to develop nuclear weapons.”

The inspection regime envisaged by the agreement with Iran “will not even come close to the intrusiveness of the failed inspections in Iraq.” Once sanctions are lifted and billions of Iranian trade flows to European and American companies, it is highly unlikely that they could be “snapped back” into place. The agreement gives the United Nations Security Council a prominent role but the American position there is likely to be outvoted “The ultimate issue remains: Are you willing to threaten war to get a better deal, and prepared to preventively strike if Tehran moves toward a bomb? Whatever chance American negotiators had of stopping the Iranian nuclear advance depended on this threat….”

Obama, they conclude, “never understood” the connection between the credible threat of force and a better deal and “has not been prepared to act accordingly.” The prospects that Democratic Senators will be willing to reject the agreement or urge the President “to threaten war if Mr. Khamenei does something untoward” are also remote. I would add that the more Obama suggests that the only alternative to this deal is war, the more the Iranian leaders understand that he is not willing to make a credible threat of force to bring their nuclear weapons program to an end.

In an interview this weekend with The New York Times, Obama tried to reassure Israelis. After six years of speaking rarely about Iranian anti-Semitism he acknowledged that ”the activities that they [the Iranian leaders] engage in, the rhetoric, both anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, is deeply disturbing.” He then said “what we’ve also seen is that there is a practical streak to the Iranian regime. I think they are concerned about self-preservation. I think they are responsive, to some degree, to their publics.”

It is confident assertions such as that regarding the “practical streak” of a deeply anti-Semitic regime that worries Obama’s critics in the United States and Israel. The public discussion of the Iran deal offers the opportunity to have a far more extensive discussion of the ideological core of the Iranian regime. The President insists that Iran can be deterred by the prospect of American retaliation but he has never publicly discussed the religious fanaticism of the regime that, in a crisis, could lead it to behave irrationality without regard for its self-preservation.  For six years, neither the White House nor the State Department offered a full discussion of the hatred of Jews and of Israel that has been a defining feature of the Iranian regime or of the irrationality which that hatred produces. Instead, as I have argued in this blog before, they have offered the language of euphemism.

For six years Obama engaged with Iran as that regime spewed forth vile expressions of anti-Jewish hatreds. Engagement took precedence over frank public speech about the nature of Iran’s government. Now, in addition to the issues raised by critics of the agreement with Iran, it is important that the debate also include an American conversation about the anti-Semitism of Iran and the hatred and irrationality embedded in the core of Tehran’s view of the world.

About the Author
Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. He has published extensively on modern German and European history including Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, He is completing a study entitled “At War with Israel: East Germany and the West German Radical Left, 1967-1989" (Cambridge University Press, 2016). His "Israel's Moment: The United States and Europe between the Holocaust and the Cold War" is forthcoming.