A few days ago, I spoke with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry about the politics of the Iran deal (you can find the full interview here), and at one point in our conversation I put to Kerry what I thought was—to be honest—something of a gimme question: “Do you believe that Iranian leaders sincerely seek the elimination of the Jewish state?”
Kerry responded provocatively—provocatively, that is, if you understand Iranian leaders, and in particular the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the way I understand them: as people theologically committed to the destruction of Israel. Quotes such as this one from Khamenei help lead me to this conclusion: “This barbaric, wolflike, and infanticidal regime of Israel which spares no crime has no cure but to be annihilated.” The supreme leader does not specialize in nuance. (Here is a long list of statements made by Iranian leaders concerning their desire to bring about an end to Jewish sovereignty in any part of the ancestral Jewish homeland.)
Kerry’s stated understanding of the regime’s anti-Semitism is somewhat different from mine. He told me, “I think they have a fundamental ideological confrontation with Israel at this particular moment. Whether or not that translates into active steps, to quote, ‘Wipe it,’ you know … ”
He paused, and so I filled in the blank: “Wipe it off the map.”
Kerry continued, “I don’t know the answer to that. I haven’t seen anything that says to me—they’ve got 80,000 rockets in Hezbollah pointed at Israel, and any number of choices could have been made. They didn’t make the bomb when they had enough material for 10 to 12. They’ve signed on to an agreement where they say they’ll never try and make one and we have a mechanism in place where we can prove that. So I don’t want to get locked into that debate. I think it’s a waste of time here.”
Kerry’s understanding, in shorthand: Iran is dangerous to Israel at this moment (he repeated the term “at this moment” in his next statement, in fact); Iran has had plenty of opportunity to hurt Israel but has chosen not to; and, finally, the answer to the question concerning the true intentions of Iran’s leaders when it comes to Israel is unknowable, and also irrelevant to the current discussion.
I found many of Kerry’s answers to my other questions convincing, but I was troubled by what I took to be his unwillingness, or inability, to grapple squarely with Iran’s eliminationist desires. The way he and President Barack Obama understand the question of the Iranian state’s anti-Semitism is crucially important as we move closer to a congressional vote on the nuclear deal negotiated by Kerry and his team.
Proper implementation of the deal—and I’m in the camp of people who believe that the president will probably overcome congressional opposition and see the deal through—is everything. Stringent implementation of the deal could be to Israel’s benefit because the limitations placed on Iran should keep it south of the nuclear threshold for many years. (The Arab states may eventually have a more difficult time than Israel in battling the economically strengthened and hegemonically inclined Iran that will most likely emerge from this deal.)
Proper implementation does not simply mean the maintenance of a strong inspections regime, as well as zero tolerance for Iranian cheating. Proper implementation requires an eyes-wide-open American commitment to countering Iran’s nefarious terrorist activities across the Middle East, and it means that American leaders must have a properly jaundiced view of their Iranian adversaries, including a properly jaundiced view of their intentions toward Israel. This is why questions concerning the Obama administration’s understanding of the regime’s ideology are so important, and it is why I keep raising the matter with the administration.
Late last week—a few days after the Kerry interview—I attended a by-invitation press conference with Obama in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. (My friend and colleague James Fallows was one of nine other journalists who attended; his report on the meeting can be found here.)
Kerry’s understanding of Iran’s intentions was still on my mind, and so I asked Obama the same question: Does the Iranian leadership seek the elimination of Israel? I had already discussed the nature of Iranian-regime anti-Semitism with Obama in a May interview—a discussion that was by turns reassuring and troubling—and Obama made reference to that conversation in his answer last week.
“Well, we’ve discussed this before, Jeffrey,” the president said. “I take what the supreme leader says seriously. I think his ideology is steeped with anti-Semitism, and if he could, without catastrophic costs, inflict great harm on Israel, I’m confident that he would. But as I said, I think, the last time we spoke, it is possible for leaders or regimes to be cruel, bigoted, twisted in their world views and still make rational calculations with respect to their limits and their self-preservation.”
In the May interview, I asked him to help me understand a seemingly contradictory set of ideas he has advanced relating to Iran. I noted that he himself has stated publicly that the regime is infected with an anti-Semitic worldview, and that those who are infected with such a worldview generally do not grapple well with cause-and-effect in international politics and economics, and cannot be counted on to interpret reality correctly. I then asked how he squares these two observations with a third observation he has made: that the regime in Tehran is in many ways capable of behaving according to its rational self-interest, as American politicians understand the notion of rational self-interest.
His answer: “Well, the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival. It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations. You know, if you look at the history of anti-Semitism, Jeff, there were a whole lot of European leaders—and there were deep strains of anti-Semitism in this country—”
Here I interrupted him: “And they make irrational decisions.”
He continued: “They may make irrational decisions with respect to discrimination, with respect to trying to use anti-Semitic rhetoric as an organizing tool. At the margins, where the costs are low, they may pursue policies based on hatred as opposed to self-interest. But the costs here are not low, and what we’ve been very clear [about] to the Iranian regime over the past six years is that we will continue to ratchet up the costs, not simply for their anti-Semitism, but also for whatever expansionist ambitions they may have. That’s what the sanctions represent. That’s what the military option I’ve made clear I preserve represents. And so I think it is not at all contradictory to say that there are deep strains of anti-Semitism in the core regime, but that they also are interested in maintaining power, having some semblance of legitimacy inside their own country, which requires that they get themselves out of what is a deep economic rut that we’ve put them in, and on that basis they are then willing and prepared potentially to strike an agreement on their nuclear program.”
I made a decision on the spot—later partially regretted—not to deploy the H-bomb just then because I am a) very mindful of Godwin’s Law; b) I don’t believe the Iranian regime is the modern-day equivalent of the Nazi regime, in part because the Nazi regime is without peer; and c) the invocation of Hitler’s name in these matters tends to set teeth too much on edge. In retrospect, though, I should have raised it, because Hitler is the perfect, but not singular, example of a world leader who made decisions that seemed, to his adversaries, deeply irrational except if you understood his desire to wipe out the Jews of Europe as an actual overriding policy goal, a raison d’etre of his rule. Anti-Semitism was not simply an “organizing tool” for him. And if you’re paying attention, you will see that bringing about the end of the sovereign Jewish state in the Middle East is a paramount political and theological mission of the Iranian regime.
And so I was glad that Obama acknowledged the supreme leader’s heartfelt anti-Semitism, and I’m glad that he understands that the supreme leader seeks to do great harm to Israel. I suppose I part with the president’s analysis on the question of exactly how much pain the supreme leader believes Iran should absorb on behalf of this goal. Obama believes the Iranian leadership will check its behavior in order to avoid potentially catastrophic fallout. He may be right, but I would like to see his administration place slightly less faith in the idea of regime rationality.
Obama and Kerry both say they understand Jewish anxiety on this issue. (My position on this is simple: If, in the post-Holocaust world, a group of people express a desire to hurt Jews, it is, for safety’s sake, best to believe them.) When I asked Obama, at the end of last week’s Roosevelt Room discussion, to describe what he is learning about Jewish fears from his recent encounters with Jewish leaders, he answered: “Well, first of all, Jeff, as you know, there is a wide range of views within the Jewish community, so it’s not monolithic.”
At which point I noted that that I myself share most of those opinions.
The president continued, “The polls—if they’re to be trusted—would indicate that a majority of American Jews support the deal, but a sizable minority oppose it. Among the organizations, I think that there are those who are fiercely opposed and there are those who are strongly supportive. And then there are a bunch of folks who are skeptical and anxious and still trying to figure it out.”
He went on, “As I said in the speech, the anxieties of the American Jewish community are entirely understandable. Those are amplified when there appears to be across-the-board opposition inside of Israel, not just within Likud, but among other parties. And some of that is emotional—in a legitimate way. You don’t like dealing with somebody who denies horrible things happening to your people or threatens future horrible things to your people. Some of it is based on legitimate concerns about what an economically stronger Iran could do to further enhance their support of Hezbollah.
But I will say this: When I sit down with a group of Jewish leaders—just as when I sit down with members of Congress, just as when I sit down with policy analysts—I do not hear back credible arguments on the other side. I hear talking points that have been prepared. But if you dig deep into it, the anxieties are real, they’re legitimate, but arguments that would carry the day as to why we wouldn’t do this deal I haven’t heard presented in a way that I think persuades the room, much less persuades me.”
The meeting was ending, and I did not have a chance to follow up with another question that has been nagging at me, which is this: Why does it seem to a growing number of people (I count Chuck Schumer in this group) that an administration professing—honestly, from what I can tell—to understand Jewish anxieties about the consequences of anti-Semitism in the Middle East does not appear to understand that the way some of its advocates outside government are framing the Iran-deal fight—as one between Jewish special interests, on the one hand, and the entire rest of the world, on the other—may empower actual anti-Semites not only in the Middle East, but at home as well?
Again, it seems to me that a plausible case could be made that this deal, as John Kerry has enthusiastically argued, is actually in Israel’s best interests—not only when compared to the alternative, but especially when compared to the alternative—and that the administration can make great hay out of the pro-Israel argument, and counter arguments that blame Israel’s well-meaning supporters in the United States for political difficulties surrounding the deal. I suspect that opponents of the deal in the American Jewish community are wrong in their views, but this does not make them warmongers, in the way Charles Lindbergh once understood Jews to be warmongers.
I know a number of things from my email traffic relating to this issue. The first is that, believe it or not, there are non-Jews who are worried about the Iran deal (more worried than I am, certainly). The second is that Jewish supporters of the Obama administration are beginning to feel scapegoated; the third is that supporters of the deal appear to be as sure of their position as those who supported the Iraq War (yours truly among them) were of theirs.
This last point is particularly interesting to me: The deal negotiated by John Kerry and his team may very well prevent Iran from gaining possession of a nuclear weapon for a very long time—and rejection of the deal now by Congress is unlikely to lead to a good outcome—but the risks here are huge: The administration, and supporters of the deal, are mortgaging the future to a regime labeled by Kerry’s State Department as the foremost state sponsor of terrorism in the world, and a regime that seeks the physical elimination of a fellow member-state of the United Nations and a close ally of the United States as well. Given that there is so much risk and uncertainty in what the United States is doing, it would be useful for the administration to make absolutely clear that it understands the nature of the regime with which it is dealing.