Thinking About Iran, Thinking About Israel, Thinking About America

What the Iran “debate” has taught us about our ability to discuss world affairs

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shaking hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Vienna in July. Chief U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman is visible just behind Kerry.  (Reuters)

Over the past month I’ve run a series of messages from readers in North America, the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere about the JCPOA Iran-nuclear deal that the Congress will soon formally consider. You can see the latest item here, and the whole collection here. That most recent installment, from Samuel J. Cohen in Israel, emphasized the contrast between the fury over the deal in the United States and Israel, and its taken-for-granted treatment everywhere else.

Here is another reaction worth considering. It is about the way the debate has evolved inside the United States. This comes from a young American who works for a well-known international organization and who himself has experience overseas. He writes:

I've found the opposition to the deal rather peculiar, especially with regard to anger that the deal doesn't end support for Hezbollah immediately. If anything, deal opponents seem to be making the conversation on Middle Eastern issues in the US increasingly toxic.

1) The focus on Iran's terrorism: I find it perpetually odd that this deal is criticized for not ending Iran's support for Hezbollah right away. These ongoing talks have been the first real major, high-level dialogue the US and Iran have held since the Iranian hostage crisis. We are only creating a working relationship now after being estranged for decades. Without a working relationship, you have nothing to build off of. Would critics of this deal have once been criticizing Nixon for failing to convince Mao to agree to end Communism when they first met in 1971? I don't know, but deal critics follow that same basic logic.

This deal shows the US and Iran can actually reach agreements. In the future, that means the US will be able to engage Iran to stop supporting groups like Hezbollah that threaten Israel. We weren't going to get everything we want right away. P5+1 partners like Russia and China simply don't care enough about issues like that to sign onto what we would want. It's like how annoyed the US team got at Japan for derailing [negotiations with North Korea] by bringing up the kidnapping issue constantly instead of focusing on nuclear issues.

Killing this deal would tell Iran that the US doesn't care about making deals with it, which would destroy any working relationship that would provide greater opportunities for the US to advocate on Israel's behalf.

It also bears repeating that it's a bit nonsensical that Israel is angry at the US for not delivering the deal Israel itself wanted. Israel could have found a way to have been a productive member of the negotiations, either directly or indirectly. The Israeli government has agency in the world. For instance, reducing (but not eliminating) Israeli nuclear stockpiles could have been a bargaining chip for ending Iranian support for Hezbollah. However, that would require discussing its own nuclear program and its history of cooperating with nations like apartheid-era South Africa on their own nuclear programs, which is a form of nuclear weapons proliferation.

Israel would likely face costs for admitting it has nuclear weapons, but if the Israeli government truly believed that Iran is an existential threat determined to commit suicide and genocide by nuking Israel, then the Israeli government would be willing to face the costs of admitting to having nukes to prevent its own annihilation. This suggests Netanyahu knows his rhetoric is just rhetoric.


2) Making the conversation increasingly toxic: When I was in graduate school a couple of years ago, a professor taught a course on East Asian policy towards the Muslim world. The week that his class covered the Israel-Palestine dispute, his students were gathered in our [not their] common area because they didn't want to have to deal with the weird dynamics of discussing the issue. These students hadn't learned languages like Chinese and Korean so they could spend their time discussing what has become increasingly seen as an unimportant and provincial issue.

The prominence of this issue in American foreign policy just sucks the air out of the room on all other topics. International relations scholars, students and practitioners know that the history of the 21st century is going to be written according to the American relationships with countries like China and India, but then the GOP debate only focuses on the Israel-Palestine dispute, Iran and ISIS. The discussion of Middle Eastern issues in the US has become so toxic that it pushes away people with diverse interests.

At least part of this has to do with Netanyahu's rather toxic attitude towards Americans who disagree with him. The Israeli-American relationship won't be healthy if among younger generations, the best foreign policy thinkers actively don't want to deal with Israeli issues.

It really seems like the Israeli political establishment has no idea how to engage an increasingly diverse American populace. Netanyahu has helped make support for the Israeli Prime Minister a partisan issue in the US Congress, which would have been unheard of under Rabin or Sharon. Netanyahu has tied the future of the US-Israel relationship to the future of an American political party whose frontrunner sounds more like a member of UKIP or Golden Dawn than a sane person. Smart people usually tie their future to the parties and groups that are ascendant, but not Netanyahu. The failure of his foresight is just outstanding.

I am a generation older than this reader (whose real identity I know, as I do for virtually everyone whose messages I quote). But I understand just what he means about the long-term effect of the “toxic” tone of American debate on Middle Easter issues.

I have dug into the debate over the Iran deal because it involves issues I’ve cared about or worked on for decades. These include the why, when, and how of U.S. military engagement, and the challenges of nuclear deterrence and proliferation. I actually wrote a cover story about the Iranian nuclear issue 11 years ago, and was working for President Carter while the Iranian revolution was underway.

But on Middle Eastern policy and politics more generally, I understand the reader’s point. The parts of the world where I’ve spent most time—mainly Asia, but also Europe and parts of Africa—can engender very heated disagreements. If you’ve written about China in the past decade, you know about the passions that can arise among readers there (completely apart from the challenges of dealing with an increasingly press-hostile government). That becomes truer every year, as worldwide discussion about China (or other topics), mostly in English, is immediately available to a non-native-speaker audience whose command of English varies tremendously. Some of those readers understand the English-language nuances perfectly — and may even write back to correct your grammar mistakes. Others understand English just well enough to miss your point and take offense.

So: there’s controversy everywhere. But I agree with this reader that in America the Middle Eastern debate has become uniquely embattled and polarized. One result is for people like this reader to think: On the whole, I’d rather become a specialist in India — or Indonesia or Mozambique or Brazil or Mexico. Or for people like me to think that too.


On a related theme, an American reader who describes himself as a “culturally Jewish atheist” writes:

Perhaps it's time for some commentary on how virtually all the discussion in the media regarding the treaty is focused on Israel's viewpoint and interests.

What passes for “nuanced” reporting are stories that make clear that not all Israelis oppose the treaty. What's missing from the coverage is whether the treaty is good for the United States. There is some coverage in that vein, but it's dwarfed by the stories focused on Israel, pro-Israel voting blocks, and the like. It seems like it's easier to find poll results for Israeli support than support among American voters.

Certainly we have to take into account impacts of our decisions on our allies, but our own interests should come first.  Virtually every Republican candidate is basing his/her opposition to the treaty on Israel's interests, without even mentioning US interests. When liberals take an international view they are lambasted as traitors. How can Americans make an informed decision about the treaty when most of the coverage is of the horse-race variety?

My version of this reader’s point: The Iran agreement is of first-order national and international importance, and it deserves coverage on those terms. Its effects on Israel are an important part, but not the entirety, of its larger significance, and we in the media should do a better job of presenting that broader picture.

[PS: Why do I put quotes around “debate” when I refer to deliberations about the deal? It’s because so many of the deal’s opponents were denouncing it even before its terms were known. For instance, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in a Tweet last May: “We oppose this deal and we aren’t the only ones. A better deal is necessary and possible.” This was long before any deal had been struck or announced. In June, still before the announcement of terms, he Tweeted that it would mean “a certain path to nukes.” Senator Tom Cotton said it was a “grievous, historic mistake” within minutes of the first news of an agreement in July.

As discussed here and here, this opposition may be fully rational on Netanyahu’s part. Wholly apart from the nuclear-threat issue, a modernized Iran that is re-integrated into the world of commerce and diplomacy is inevitably a regional rival for Israel. But that’s 20 levels deeper in nuance and realism than most public “debate” about the deal has gone.]


This past week the Atlantic has kicked off its new Notes section, which is meant to recapture some of the informality, incremental argument, and “thinking in public” nature of Golden Age of the Blog. You can read more about the rationale and ambition here, with dispatches from Notes editor Chris Bodenner, the head editor of the J.J. Gould, and others.  I’ve done two Notes entries so far: one about the weird English-speaker temptation to pronounce every foreign language as if it were French, and the other about the famed Air Force fighter pilot John Boyd and his concept of the OODA Loop. Please check out Notes.