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Sandbagging Negotiations between U.S. and Iran

by M.J. Rosenberg

Nov 19, 2013 | Foreign Policy


(Source: CNN)

Think about it. The Obama administration is close to an agreement with the Iranian government to achieve a decade’s long goal. Iran would give up any plans it might have to develop nuclear weapons (verified by international inspections) in exchange for the lifting of some international sanctions that are doing significant damage to the Iranian economy.

This development—the possibility of ending any Iranian nuclear threat and ultimately normalizing relations with Iran after a four-decade freeze—was made possible by an event few anticipated. That was the election of a moderate Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who has been authorized by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, to explore if the United States is serious about peace in exchange for a no-weapons pledge. Fortunately, in Obama, the Iranians have a negotiating partner eager to improve relations if Iran gives up the nuclear bomb option.

When it comes to real matters of national security—like avoiding an unnecessary war—a president and Congress needs to do the right thing without regard what any lobby is saying.

Negotiations commenced and moved more swiftly than anyone expected. A week ago US Secretary of State John Kerry was about to announce the first step toward a breakthrough when, apparently, the French government objected, putting the process on hold and giving the Israel lobby the opening it wanted to kill the negotiations. By itself, of course, the French position counts for very little in Washington. But the lobby, that is a whole other thing.

Nonetheless, the French have provided the delay the lobby needed. And it has gone to work. Here is the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman saying that Kerry’s Iran opening is “chutzpah” that he hopes “will unite American Jews” in opposition. Here is Alan Dershowitz, the lawyer and pro-Israel spokesman, likening Kerry to Neville Chamberlain and, like Foxman, saying that the “entire pro-Israel community must unite” against the Iran deal.

Far more significant than either is the memo that the official lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) sent to Congress:

To avoid any misunderstanding in Tehran, America must clearly signal that it will consider no easing of sanctions until Iran has verifiably suspended its nuclear program. If Iran’s nuclear activities continue, the United States and the international community should escalate sanctions and reinforce President Obama’s message that a credible military option is on the table to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

AIPAC’s position is identical to that of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the very opposite of Kerry’s. As is normal in any successful negotiations, Kerry is utilizing a step-by-step approach: offering some lifting of sanctions in exchange for some verifiable evidence that Iran is moving toward eliminating its nuclear weapons potential. AIPAC (and Netanyahu) are demanding that first Iran suspend its entire nuclear program (they make no distinction between civilian and military) and then the United States will consider the “easing of sanctions.” Chutzpah?

Given that the statement itself quickly segues to a military threat (“credible military option”), it is obvious that Netanyahu and the lobby understand that no country would accept a deal in which it gives up everything in exchange for maybe something later. No, the goal of the lobby’s position is achieving the “military option.” And that is what is so amazing.

It is one thing for the lobby to constantly thwart America’s efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Although it is short-sighted and not in the interests of the United States or Israel, the lobby’s position does not directly fly in the face of U.S. security interests. Yes, one can argue that continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will ultimately threaten American lives and regional interests in general. But that is a supposition, one that is not provable.

The Iran case is different because the Obama administration is seeking to avoid a war that would jeopardize American lives. Once the bombs fly, the United States would be in another deadly Middle Eastern war, which is the last thing the United States wants. As was demonstrated by the Syria debate, the American people virtually stand as one in opposition to another war.

But the lobby apparently feels differently. Although it says (following Netanyahu) that its goal is to prevent an Iranian bomb, it is rejecting the administration’s surprisingly successful effort to achieve that result by laying down conditions it knows cannot be fulfilled. It wants the “military option” because its goal is eliminating the Islamic Republic as a regional power.

In theory, neither the lobby nor Netanyahu should be able to get away with this. After all, the administration is acting in the interests of the United States while they are acting in support of Netanyahu’s. But they might get away with it. Congress may allow them to.

Republicans oppose everything President Obama does. By definition, if he does it, it is wrong. Choosing Netanyahu over a president they despise is as natural to them as shutting down the government or refusing to confirm judicial appointments. As for the Democrats, they receive a significant amount of their campaign funding from the lobby. Unlike supporting the Syrian intervention which was a minor lobby initiative, thwarting an agreement with Iran in favor of the military option is the lobby’s (and Netanyahu’s) No. 1 initiative. Those who support negotiations could literally pay a price for it.

But it would not be as much of a price as Netanyahu and the lobby would like them to believe. According to the polls (see the American Jewish Committee poll here and the recent Pew poll here), the overwhelming majority of American Jews are progressives who support Democrats because they find the Republicans to be antithetical to every value they hold dear.

Jews are overwhelmingly pro-choice, pro-labor, pro-immigration, pro-regulation and, to put it in Republican terms, pro-big government. They are, unlike today’s Republicans, compassionate liberals and no matter how much money a renegade like Sheldon Adelson spends to make them forget Jewish values, they refuse. (Almost three quarters of the Jewish vote went for Obama in 2008 and 2012). As for Israel, the same polls show that although most Jews care about Israel, hardly any choose between the two parties based on Israel. They certainly are not going to switch from the party of Barack Obama to the party of Ted Cruz because Obama negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of Jews will applaud.

But forget all that. When it comes to real matters of national security—like avoiding an unnecessary war—a president and Congress needs to do the right thing without regard what any lobby is saying. The supreme national interest—American lives—must come first. And the lobby and Netanyahu need to be told that they are, to put it gently, out of line.


M.J. Rosenberg is a Special Correspondent for The Washington Spectator. He was most recently a Foreign Policy fellow at Media Matters For America. Previously, he spent 15 years as a Senate and House aide. Early in his career he was editor of AIPAC’s newsletter Near East Report. From 1998-2009, he was director of policy at Israel Policy Forum. Follow him @MJayRosenberg.

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