Yesterday’s front-page headlines in New York’s two leading newspapers provided an interesting contrast. The NY Times, in one of its rare full-banner headlines, proclaimed
WORLD LEADERS STRIKE AGREEMENT WITH IRAN TO CURB NUCLEAR ABILITY AND LIFT SANCTIONS.
The World Street Journal struck a different note, also in a banner headline spanning four of the paper’s five columns:
IRAN DEAL IGNITES FIERCE FIGHT
For the Times, the obvious big story is the Iran agreement itself; for the Journal, the story is not so much the agreement, but the emerging conflict over the agreement. A difference in wording that reflects a difference in viewpoints. The Times supports the deal, while the Journal is anti. I’m prejudiced, of course, but I think the Times’ headline better represents the real news: the Iran deal is, indeed, a very big deal, and that fact deserves all the emphasis the Times gives it. The Journal’s headline is tendentious: it converts an important but logically secondary story–the opposition to the agreement—into the main story.
Anyway, let’s take the real main story first: this agreement is truly a major accomplishment for the Obama administration. I’ve always thought that the concern over Iran’s nuclear program was rather overblown—as the Middle Eastern expert Juan Cole has observed, it is by no means clear that the Iranian regime actually aspires to nuclear weapons, and there is good reason to believe that it does not. But Iran’s nuclear capacity is of concern to two major US allies—Israel and Saudi Arabia. Given the history of US-Iranian hostility, this country’s commitment to nuclear-non-proliferation (except by our friends), and Iran’s geo-strategic importance, President Obama felt obliged long ago to pledge that Iran would not get a nuclear weapon on his watch. He has made good on that pledge.
Most independent arms control experts agree that the agreement is an effective if not perfect means to restraining presumptive Iranian nuclear ambitions. It balances Western concerns against Iran’s reasonable assertion—as a matter of practical interest as well as national pride—of a right to some nuclear capabilities.
So what’s not to like? Opponents of the agreement say they want a better deal. “Better” is not always specified in detail, but it means tougher on Iran: even more restrictive of Iran’s nuclear and conventional weapons capabilities, even more intrusive in its inspections regime, and little disposed to relaxing the economic sanctions that have been strangling Iran’s economy. But the critics conveniently forget that this is not just an agreement between Iran and the US, but an agreement between Iran and all the world’s leading powers save Japan. American allies Britain, France and Germany, along with China and Russia, are all in the game, and all think the agreement reached is reasonable. Are all these countries’ governments wrong?
Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum has succinctly described the consequences if the US should pull out of the agreement:
First, the rest of the signatories (UK, France, Germany, EU, China, Russia) will still lift their sanctions if Iran meets its end of the bargain. So that means the sanctions regime will effectively disintegrate. Second, our allies will blame us for tanking the deal. Third, Iran will have an excuse for pushing the boundaries of the agreement and remaining closer to nuclear breakout than they would be if the deal were intact.
The main opposition to the agreement comes from three sources: the Republicans in Congress (who will actually vote on whether to uphold or reject the agreement) Israel, and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis would be delighted to see the US go to war with Iran: as early as 2008, they were already calling for the United States to strike Iran and “cut off the head of the snake.” The Saudi feud with Iran is rooted in sectarian conflicts that the US has no reason to get involved with.
But the Saudi obsession with Iran pales next to Netanyahu’s. Bibi has long been aching for a US military assault on Iran. I have remarked on Bibi’s mastery of the art of threat inflation, and he has stayed true to form in recent days. Bibi has said that ratification of the accord would make Iran a “nuclear terrorist superpower.” If that seems overwrought, ponder this:
Iran’s growing aggression is several times more dangerous than that of IS, which is dangerous enough…..And this aggression, which aims to reach every corner of the world, has the ultimate true aim of taking over the world.
Iran taking over the world? These could easily be mistaken for the rantings of a nut on an extreme right-wing website, but they are in fact the words of the prime minister of Israel.
And yet, and yet, Netanyahu’s rantings are taken seriously on Capitol Hill, thanks in part to his recently solidified alliance with the Republican Party, in part to the enduring influence of the Israel lobby, perennially regarded as one of the two or three most powerful pressure groups in Washington. (The others are the NRA and the AARP.) Of course, the Republicans have their own reasons for opposing the deal: much of the party remains in thrall to the neo-conservative romance with American power: why negotiate with an enemy when we could just get tougher? And if a Democrat is in the White House, tough is never tough enough. Who cares what Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China think? We are the US of A, the world’s only superpower; there’s no need to compromise with a second-rate country like Iran.
President Obama has said that the only alternative to this agreement is to go down the road to war. He’s right. Some of the Republicans in Congress, like the Saudi and Israeli leaderships, would be perfectly happy with that course. Probably most Republicans would not, but a combination of belligerent instincts and political opportunism will prevent them from voting the right way. Luckily, Obama needs only the support of one-third of the Congress to put the agreement through. He will most likely get that. Most Democrats will choose the national interest over the Israel lobby. They may even get some company from a few sensible Republicans.