The Iran Debate, as Seen from Central Asia, Europe, and Elsewhere

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

It’s a new month, the Atlantic has its new-ish Notes feature, and I’m shifting the ongoing Iran-deal discussion to this new venue. This will allow me to take advantage of an (also-new) threading feature that will make it easier to collate ongoing discussion of a single theme. More on that soon, as we add more notes that can be threaded together on this topic.

For the moment, three reader messages on the longer-term implications of the JCPOA Iranian-nuclear agreement, aka “the deal,” whose survival in Congress is now virtually assured. You can find a collection of previous deal-related posts here.

What does it mean for Kazakhstan? Our first reader says, it means a lot.

I am an American who has been living and working in both Kazakhstan and India for the past 20 years. The reader you quote in "The Normalization of Iran: Another View From Israel” puts into print exactly when has been going through my mind.  

Kazakhstan, the post Soviet world, India, and the rest of South Asia are already taking concrete business and government actions that are post Iran sanctions.  Here, on the ground, the deed is done. The US congress does not get a vote on what is already a fait accompli in much of the world….

Much of the time [views like the one expressed by the Israeli reader], which might seem like nuances in North America, are simply facts-on-the-ground in the places I live and work.  Consider for a moment the strategic importance to Kazakhstan of being able to transport oil through Iran, thus ending the Russian near monopoly on transporting Kazakhstan oil exports

Here’s a map, from the US Energy Information Administration, showing what the reader is talking about: Kazakhstan’s pipelines mainly now go through Russia, whereas it would be geographically more convenient to send some through Iran.

Pipeline chart from U.S. Energy Information Administration

What about for the United States — and Israel? Robert Henry Eller, who asks to be identified as a Jewish American who has lived and worked in Italy for the past ten years, writes:

The overarching issue is that the U.S. needs to learn, or re-learn, to engage the world through diplomacy. The U.S. may be, if not actually is, more vulnerable precisely because of its position as the undisputed military power.  Being in that position is a perpetual temptation to default to military “solutions.”

For Israel, which is proportionately the U.S. of the Middle East, this goes double. Israel has put itself in a position in which it has no natural allies. Even the U.S. is not a natural ally of Israel.

The Iran deal is best alternative for both the U.S. and Israel because it gives each country a ten year window to climb down from militarism.

This is especially true for Israel, which precisely because of the homogenous and narrow view of its Jewish population - the real downside of a Jewish State, becoming a self-imposed, self-reinforcing psychic ghetto - has truly veered into collective psychosis and paranoia. There is simply no long-term survival possible for a society that long stays in that mental state, and Israel has already been in that state for far too long….

The Iran deal gives Israel a chance to climb down, if Israelis can realize ways to negotiate in the region beyond narrow and short term essentially military deals, such as those it has with Egypt and Saudi Arabia….

Iran cannot afford to throw any money it realizes from the deal into funding more terrorism. Iran’s first priority will be internal: the coming water crisis. Iran has seen what happened to Syria because of water. Iran cannot survive politically if half its population, tens of millions, are faced with literally dying of thirst. And this is an imminent, not a theoretical problem. Not only for Iran, but for the region. The consequences of a water crisis in Iran will precipitate a societal breakdown that will be the equivalent of a U.S. and/or Israel concerted attack on Iran - or even worse.

There is no reasonable way forward for Israel without making peace with Palestine, and peace with Iran, however tense those relationships might be. For all the difficulties Israel may face with an economically and socially viable Iran, a largely dysfunctional Middle East is sure suicide for Israel.

And, once again, for the United States? From a reader in the U.S.:

A couple of observations, from a “culturally Jewish agnostic”:

1.        One reason so much focus of the debate here has been on its impact on Israel is that, arguably we don’t have much at stake in the Middle East at this point, other than goals shared with Israel, in particular—a non-nuclear Iran, the reduction of terrorism and groups that engage in terrorism and the preservation of Israel, the one country in the region with which we share common religious, political and ethnic bonds.

The problem is that, on this particular issue, Israel and the U.S. have divergent goals.  We see the sanctions regime as a tool to get Iran to back away from a nuclear weapons program—a relatively narrow and, apparently, achievable goal.  Israel’s principal goal is to keep sanctions in place until there is regime change in Iran, so that the current regime remains financially hobbled, in the hopes that this limits Iran’s ability to spread terrorism against Israel—an impractical and, perhaps, inappropriate goal.

2.       I think that one reason that foreign policy discussion in this country is so focused on the Middle East and the Israeli-Arab or Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fear.  As a nation, we historically did not fear for attacks from abroad.  Until the second half of the 20th Century, we were protected by two large oceans and, with rare and very short-term exceptions, we were not afraid of invasion.  9/11 destroyed the illusion of safety that had carried over for another 60 or so years, and I think it fair to say that the Bush Administration showed a real lack of leadership by acting out of fear: the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq; the willingness to ignore civil liberties and constitutional protections, led by Cheney and Addington; and the demonization of those who dared object.

As a country, we haven’t yet learned to live with the fear of terrorism, we over-react to every act and rumor.  It therefore makes the prevention of terrorism the guiding principle of foreign policy debates.

3.       Debate in the U.S. has become toxic for two reasons:  First, the Israeli government and AIPAC, along with a segment of the American Jewish community, has put enormous pressure on Congress and the President, waging a furious propaganda campaign that I believe to be materially misleading; it attacks the merits of the deal (although without much basis) when its real goal is, as stated above, to have no deal at all and keep sanctions in place.

Second and perhaps more significantly, most all political debate in this country has become toxic, as a result of the Republican Party’s turn to rightwing extremism, hatred of Obama and know-nothingness.  Is this debate any more toxic than the Republican war on Obamacare or on climate change?

Look, the Iran deal is, obviously, controversial and I guess that arguments can be made on both sides of the debate.  But the fact that every single Republican member of Congress is going to vote against the deal—not just most of them, but every one of them—and, as you point out, most of them announced their opposition even before they knew what the terms of the deal were, strongly suggests that the politics of this issue here have little or nothing to do with the merits of the deal but rather with the take no prisoners war that the GOP is waging against the Obama Administration and the Democratic Party.

Thanks to these and other readers who have written in. The next installment will include messages from people who are very unhappy with the deal, with President Obama, with other readers, and with me.