It probably stands to reason that I woke up this morning to a cramp in my left calf muscle and a couple of hours later started feeling stiffness in my lower back. After all, it’s been a wretched rainy morning here in my nation’s capital. A couple of days ago my country was rocked by yet another murderous episode of religious extremism. And two days before that, our world’s leaders decided to hand their Iranian counterparts $140 billion of additional disposable income, which in only a few years they can spend on whatever Chinese- and Russian-built conventional weapons their hearts desire.
It pains me to offer that assessment of the Iran deal because I don’t want to be compared with all the right-wing talking heads and politicians who are essentially comparing Obama to Neville Chamberlain. I don’t see our President that way at all. Obama isn’t sugar coating the situation. He’s not saying that the Iranian Government can be trusted. He’s not assuring us that the Middle East will be at peace. He’s merely asking us, when we evaluate the agreement that he struck this week, to consider the constraints America has been under as the talks have progressed.
Our fundamental goal, Obama argued, is to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons. America’s leverage – economic sanctions – has rapidly diminished as our allies have lost their resolve to maintain those sanctions. This deal presented an opportunity to push Iran’s nuclear program back for another 15-20 years, so we seized it. Is it an ideal agreement? Does it give us everything we hoped for? Not even close. But who can point to a better alternative? By not inking the deal, we would leave ourselves only one option: the military scenario. Not only does the American public oppose striking Iran’s nuclear facilities, and not only would such strikes likely increase all sorts of violent reprisals within the Middle East, but it is difficult to believe that those strikes would have any positive impact at all. The military option would be like playing a game of Whack a Mole. No sooner would we whack one facility than others would pop up. We’d be talking about striking a country of 80 million people that controls a land mass nearly as large as Alaska. This isn’t a country you’d attack unless you’re willing to make huge sacrifices. And personally, if we really are willing to make sacrifices of that magnitude, I’d rather they involve reducing carbon emissions than fighting yet another war.
I realize that the next step for our lawmakers is to decide whether to support or oppose the deal. But to me, that’s not the issue at all. I consider this agreement to have been inked already. Once it was announced on Tuesday, the other parties to the deal will consider it as if it has been put to bed. Even if we Americans refuse to agree to Iran’s terms, that will only give us the opportunity to sever our own economic ties with Iran – not to require other countries to do the same. Lindsay Graham has said that if he were elected President, he would stop American companies from trading with certain Western European countries unless they refrain from trading with Iran. Does he really see himself as that strong a leader – strong enough to take on our corporations’ interests in Europe for the sake of America’s allies in the Middle East? I think that Graham has about as big a chance to pull off his threat as Tiger Woods has of winning the PGA Tournament next month. Actually, they both have two chances – slim and none.
Personally, I’m assuming that the Iran deal will go through, and at this point, I won’t be one to argue with those in Congress who vote to approve it. But that doesn’t mean I’ll be jumping for joy. And it certainly doesn’t mean I will be joining Secretary Kerry and the Iranian delegation in smiling about it – like in their photo-op on Tuesday. You see, truth be told, I believe that this deal didn’t prevent Iran from joining the nuclear club but only delayed the inevitable for another 15-20 years. And I wasn’t really worried about Iran using nuclear weapons during that time period anyway. (My main fear about Iran getting nukes is that someday those nukes could get in the hands of a group of maniacs like Al Qaeda or Isis, but I don’t think that time has yet come and it isn’t likely to come any time soon.) To me, where Iran poses a real, present threat is to the extent that they provide conventional weapons to Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist groups in the Middle East. This deal is likely to increase Iran’s prospects immeasurably in assisting their terrorist comrades. If you’re Israel or a Sunni Arab State, you’re going to be in a lot more danger in the near future than you’ve been in the past.
Just as the hard right wants to draw your attention to Neville Chamberlain when you contemplate what Obama has done, the hard left wants to draw your attention to Bibi Netanyahu. They talk about how apoplectic Bibi is over the deal, with the hope that you will ask yourself this: who do you trust more to know how to deal with Iran, Bibi Netanyahu or Barack Obama? Well, personally, if asked to choose between those two, I’ll almost always take Obama. He seems infinitely more dispassionate, more compassionate, more scrupulous, and more rational.
But when it comes to Iran, Barack is certainly less knowledgeable. His attention is devoted primarily to North America. Bibi, his countrymen, and his counterparts in Riyadh and Cairo are focused primarily on the Middle East. They know what an important player Iran is in that sandbox, and how dangerous Iran has become. They know that this deal frees up tons of ballistic missiles and all sorts of less powerful but more portable weapons of destruction to be used by a country that seems hell-bent on destabilizing the Arabian Peninsula and Israel/Palestine.
Do you want to know what is significant about the reactions in Israel? It’s not that Bibi Netanyahu loathes this deal to the nth degree. It’s that Bibi’s political opponents in Israel – the so-called “center-left” coalition of pro-Israel/pro-Palestinian, pro “two-state solution” Israelis – are also so deeply depressed by this deal that some plan on coming to Washington to lobby against it. That’s what CNN and MSNBC need to be reporting. That’s what the Democratic Party leaders need to be addressing. If our trusted allies in Israel – not merely the titular head of the regime but also the progressives who share our values but possess greater knowledge – don’t like what we’re doing, shouldn’t we at least be listening to them? Shouldn’t we at least ask ourselves whether the proponents of this deal are viewing this situation too simplistically?
In a sense, the debates about this deal remind me of the debates about the issue of abortion. All the attention is devoted to one question. In the case of Iran, the question has been, “Is this a good deal?” In the case of abortion, the question has been, “Should we legalize it?” But the fundamental issue in both cases is altogether different. In the case of abortion, the issue should be “Leaving aside the debate over legality, how do we minimize the number of abortions in this country?” (Perhaps we do so by promoting education, not legal coercion, and by supporting organizations like Planned Parenthood, which many “Pro Life” folks can’t stand.) In the case of Iran, the issue should be, “Leaving aside the debates over whether Obama’s negotiating team was tough enough in striking this deal, how best do we minimize, going forward, Iranian aggressiveness with respect to CONVENTIONAL weapons?”
No matter how our Congress wants to respond to Tuesday’s agreement, those weapons are soon enough going to flood into Iranian ports from Beijing and Moscow. It will be the job of Obama’s successor to react … both as the head of a sovereign nation and as the most powerful leader in the world. Believe me, s/he will need your prayers more than your second-guessing.