What If Barack and Bibi Are Both Right?

A set of theories for what’s really behind opposition to the Iran deal in Israel and the United States—including that the two nations’ interests may be diverging when it comes to Iran.

President Carter toasting the shah of Iran at a state dinner in Tehran on December 31, 1977, a little more than a year before the shah's overthrow. I was on this trip and was standing near the photographer when he took this picture. (Wikimedia )

Robert Hunter, a former ambassador and longtime foreign-policy eminence, has written that the Iran debate has reached the familiar “cairn-building” stage. That’s the stage in which each side adds a new rock—of argument, endorsement, rebuttal—to the piled-up cairn it has created. “The merits of the arguments are politically meaningless,” Hunter says. “The side with the highest pile of stones wins!” But as he goes on to say, these piles themselves also become meaningless. All that matters is what actually weighs on the senators and representatives who will cast up or down votes.

Recognizing that the cairn-building is reaching its useful end, and while taking a break from my article-writing duties of the moment, let me introduce three more reader messages on Iran. All bear on an aspect of the debate I’ve mentioned before but keep coming back to.

That aspect is: What lies behind the “existential” complaints?

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Of course, the front-and-center reason for Israel’s existential fear of a nuclear- armed Iran is obvious. As The Atlantic’s own Jeffrey Goldberg wrote recently, “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.” This has been the consistent theme of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu’s speeches as well, and its emotional and psychological logic is undeniable.

But the strategic logic of the concern is more puzzling. No one doubts (although no officials can publicly say) that Israel has a large nuclear-retaliatory force, including on submarines. Thus any leader in Iran knows that an attack on Israel would with 100-percent certainty mean devastation for Iran as well (as Thomas Friedman went into on Wednesday). So to think that Iran might actually try to “wipe Israel off the map” requires assuming either that its leadership is literally suicidal, or that, like the Nazis in Germany, Iranian leaders are so bent on destruction that nothing other than brute force can hold them back.

The problem with the suicidal martyr-state assumption is that never in its 36-plus years in office has the Iranian leadership taken a move that rashly jeopardized its own well-being or hold on power. Iran’s leadership has been theocratic but not psychopathic. A serious problem for the United States, Israel, and others: yes. A Reich-like monster-state: no. Under its Islamic leaders, Iran has been at war once—a war that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq started when it invaded Iran in 1980. So the “existential” argument would be stronger were there any evidence of Iran’s leaders ever taking suicidal risks.

As for the comparison with Nazi Germany, last week Peter Beinart carefully laid out the reasons that modern Iran and Hitler’s Reich have exactly one point in common: their anti-Semitic rhetoric. In every other strategic, political, and military dimension they are completely different.

I am sure that officials in Israel’s security and military services realize this. Perhaps even Netanyahu does as well. So what lies behind the over-the-top claims?

That is what these posts address. The first is from Samuel J. Cohen, who was born in the United States and graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies but has lived in Israel since 1977. For 20 years he was a trade negotiator for the Israeli government. He argues that the U.S. government under Obama and the Israeli government under Netanyahu may both be sanely pursuing their national interests, but that these interests may be diverging.

Could Obama and Netanyahu Both Be Right?

For Barak Obama, accepting the international agreement with Iran to limit their nuclear activities is a “no brainer”: “as President of the United States it would be an abrogation of my constitutional obligations” to defer to Israel on the Iran Deal.

For Benjamin Netanyahu: “this is a very dangerous deal and it threatens all of us. My solemn responsibility as Prime Minister is to make sure Israel’s concerns are heard.”

From my vantage post in Herzliya, I am struck by a question that most seem to be avoiding: Could Obama and Netanyahu both be right? Could it be that this deal is very good for the US (and the world)—and not so good for Israel?

For the United States and its international partners (China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany) the deal, at best removes, and at worst delays, Iran’s development and acquisition of a nuclear weapon. A nuclear weapon capability for Iran not only insures Iran’s regional hegemony and its ability to withstand western military threats, but, in extremis, poses a direct threat to Russian and European homelands.

Moreover, the deal expresses the intention that Iran will actually set aside its plans to develop a nuclear weapon. Iran remains a non-nuclear weapon signatory of the NPT. It will be subject to the most rigorous inspection system of any NPT signatory. If Iran abides by the agreement, all is well. If it cheats, the US and its international partners have dramatically increased their ability to detect those violations, and can then either reinstate extreme sanctions or take very aggressive military action.

In order to obtain Iran’s nominal acceptance of the deal, the 5+1 are pledged to dismantle trade sanctions maintained against Iran. Actually, it’s the international partners who will dismantle almost all trade sanctions; the U.S. will maintain significant sanctions against Iran, and will withhold diplomatic recognition, because of Iran’s support of terrorism around the world.

For the Europeans, for Russia and China, and for other nations that have maintained sanctions against Iran (e.g. Japan, Korea,) the end of sanctions is a very easy concession to make. Just look at the smiles of the European trade delegations that have already gone to Teheran. Truth to tell, some US exporters and banks may also find an economic benefit in the reduction of sanctions against Iran.

Undoubtedly, this agreement will strengthen Iran’s economy and allow their extreme Islamist regime to continue supporting terrorist activities around the world, bolster their support of Bashir al Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and rebels in Yemen. It may or may not increase the repression of human rights and women’s rights in Iran. We can assume that Iran will continue to be a really bad actor all over. But this agreement will drastically reduce, and may eliminate, the possibility that this bad actor will hold a nuclear weapon in its pocket.

In the starkest context: if there were no Jewish State of Israel, and no Sunni Arabs in Jordan or Saudi Arabia, could anyone muster anything close to a majority in the U.S. Congress to oppose this deal?  

From Jerusalem, the view is different. We are looking at a deal that will strengthen the Iranian economy and reduce internal pressure on the current despotic regime. We have trouble hearing the distinctions between those Iranian leaders who actively want to destroy Israel, and the students who reportedly are bussed into demonstrations and paid to shout “Death to America.” We have felt at close hand the Hezbollah missiles bought by Iran screaming into Israel in 2006. This year we can see the smoke from Assad’s army that Iran supports in Syria. We had friends and relatives in the Jewish community building in Buenos Aries that Iran blew up in 1994. Iran is the bad guy in our neighborhood.

For Israel, the possibility of a nuclear weapon in Teheran is, of course, a threat of a different magnitude. In extremis, a Persian bomb could destroy, totally, the Zionist State and the Jewish people. (It would also render the Palestinian issue moot.) But we have a very long way to go before we come to that. And as everyone keeps telling us, a nuclear armed Iran is a danger not to the Middle East, but to the whole world. So, that’s somebody else’s problem. In the meantime, we have the “conventional” conflict. This deal will strengthen Iran’s ability, and perhaps its motivation, to make trouble continually and painfully in our neighborhood. And Israel will pay the price.

And so the different conclusions in Washington and Jerusalem.

Unpleasant as it can be, the international powers can live with an Iranian hegemony bullying the Middle East. Certain US and European strategic interests may be negatively affected, human rights and civil order may be endangered, support for terrorism can increase, and oil supplies may be pressured. But the US, the Europeans, and their allies can push back. (For Russia and China, a stronger Iran is probably a net gain.) The US has and will continue to counter all these conventional threats, and deals with a regional despot can always be made. And there is a grand payoff: if this nuclear agreement works, (and the technical experts are saying there is a good chance that it will), the worst-case scenario for the international community—real radioactive fallout—is prevented. If the deal fails, the US and its +5 international partners have unlimited options and improved starting positions in the future. That is Obama’s compelling case.

In Israel, many of us are experts at cultivating the feeling that we are alone in the world, that our view is the right one, and everyone who disagrees is wrong. Sometime we put the blame on anti-Semitism and sometimes on a lack of hasbara. It is not easy for us to accept that Israel’s interests may objectively differ from the interests of the United States and other international powers. It’s probably an even more difficult call for the American Jewish community.

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Next, a reader in the U.S. argues that if Congress blocks the deal, that could (as deal-supporters warn) speed up rather than slow Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. But the reader says that this is conceivably a less-bad outcome for Israel and others in the region, which is why there may be a deeper rationality in their effort to defeat the deal:

One angle that I've not seen commented on much is this: The obvious best-case alternative to a deal would be a diplomatically isolated and sanction-weakened Iran which moves ahead and creates a small number of nuclear devices with further enrichment of existing stockpile. Could it be that opponents of the deal actually believe this, a Persian North Korea, is a better outcome than a vibrant, successful regional power without nukes.

While the anti-deal rhetoric is that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a mortal threat to Israel, it seems the above scenario is an inevitable outcome outside a negotiated solution or military strike. I can’t see anyone on the anti-deal front actually making the open argument, but if you look at the impact on regional players (Israel, Saudi, Turkey), there is a rational argument that a weak nuclear armed Iran is preferable to an economically strong and diplomatically active Iran without nuclear weapons, pursuing regional domination.

This reframes the debate significantly: what the anti-deal side may be most afraid of isn’t that the deal will fail because of Iran cheating. It may be that they are afraid of what will happen if it succeeds as intended and changes the status quo in the region with Iran gaining stronger international ties and diplomatic leverage.

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Finally, another reader links the bitterness of the U.S. debate to factors that have little to do with either Iran or Israel but rather with the larger polarization in American discourse.

There’s a similarity in the current rancor to the past (and ongoing) opposition to the Affordable Care Act and the closure of Guantanamo.

The initial reaction to reaching an agreement with Iran seems to be of a piece with past opposition, the speculation of what’s in the agreement, the nightmare portrayals of the outcome of the agreement, the abstraction of the agreement as something it’s not and when pressed, the idea of scrapping the agreement entirely and starting from scratch to produce something vaguely ‘more aggressive’ that is largely actually politically not feasible and serves no practical purpose.

When the President put forward closing Guantanamo at the beginning of his administration, the opposition was almost entirely politically calculated, but also, when the opposition was pressed to offer an alternative, when they did offer it, they offered the alternative of ‘double Guantanamo.’ … If elected, would Mitt Romney actually have tried to double-Guantanamo? Isn’t it more likely he simply would not have closed Guantanamo?

Likewise, the past decades were proof that imposing ‘harsh’ sanctions isn’t really a short term fix and often it is the loosening of those sanctions that opens up communication and progress. Isn’t the reality that assuming this deal is scrapped, that there won’t actually be an alternative deal, that there won’t be much domestic or international support?

What people who oppose the deal say they want is ‘a better deal’ but they said that with Healthcare after doing nothing on healthcare, after being okay with how things were.

Ultimately, I think people opposed to the deal need to be honest about what they want and it’s not a better deal and it isn’t stronger sanctions. It’s what we had before. An Iran that was more isolated and had a hostile interaction with the United States. A United Nations stalemate with Russia and China.

The United States doesn’t have the capacity to seek a better deal, but we do have the capacity to sabotage the deal we’ve reached. That’s really what the debate is about. “Repeal and replace” was never about the “replace” part. It was always about repeal and it was always about a promise to constituents that was in every way impractical. ...

I say this to distinguish different types of deals. TARP, for example, was necessary to prevent immediate and long-term harm, but alternative proposals were put forward and internally debated and given the urgency of the moment, may have been feasible with a different set of people in the room. ...

The Iran Deal represents an end to an active harm, not just in Iran pursuing a nuclear weapons program, but in our diplomatic relationship. ... Opposition to it, in a very real way, in absence of any offer that would be accepted by Russia, China and Europe, no less Iran itself, is not just bluster, it is a promise that things will continue to degrade. And ‘tougher sanctions’ like the hostility of Guantanamo Bay being doubled, is a promise that we will pursue a political aim that is untenable, cruel and serve no practical purpose, but more than that, which just won’t happen.

To the reader who said, “hope=the lifeblood of diplomacy.” I think it’s more accurate to say diplomacy is the lifeblood of hope. This is the diplomatic effort, the pact, that opens up the possibility of a better world, but more than that, stops our mutual bleeding. The alternative is not ‘hope,’ it is cynicism in using the promise of something that will never happen to justify derailing something that could or it is the madness of proffering the failures of the past as the solutions of our future.

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The picture at the top of this page shows a famous meeting between Jimmy Carter and the shah of Iran in Tehran on December 31, 1977. Everything about Carter’s fate in office was tied up with Iran, starting with the anti-shah riots that began a few months after this picture was taken.

I use this photo because it is a prelude to the subsequent standoff between the U.S. and Iran (and because I was there, standing not far from the photographer as he took that shot). But also I choose it in light of the unfortunate news that Jimmy Carter, at age 90, has been diagnosed with cancer. He is a man who has done enormous good for the world. His character and achievements, in office and long afterward, far outweigh his political travails. They deserve attention sooner rather than later.