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.