Paul Pillar

The Sources of Opposition to the Iran Agreement

Emphasizing an overriding threat from Iran, as Netanyahu does in any statement or speech about foreign affairs, also serves as a major rationale for continuation of the extraordinary U.S.-Israeli relationship and for framing Middle Eastern affairs in the moderates-vs.-bad-guys-led-by-Iran framework that Netanyahu's government prefers. Undermining any incipient rapprochement between the United States and Iran helps to sustain the notion that Israel is the only reliable partner for the United States in accomplishing anything important in the Middle East. Last but not least, repeatedly invoking Iran as the “real threat” in the Middle East serves to divert attention and change the subject whenever people start to talk about things, such as the occupation of Palestinian territory, that Netanyahu's government would rather not talk about.

Netanyahu surely does not want to see an Iranian nuclear weapon, but his own behavior and positions indicate that neither does he want to see the issue of Iran's nuclear program resolved. It serves his purposes to let the issue fester indefinitely, and to have tension with Iran continue indefinitely. To the extent that the new agreement does resolve the nuclear issue—and even worse from Netanyahu's point of view, to the extent it leads to the United States and Iran doing worthwhile business on other topics—all of the aforementioned advantages to him of endless enmity with, and endless rogue status for, Iran are undermined. And so he is doing everything he can to kill the agreement even though the agreement is in Israel's broader and longer-term interests.

Thus there are the rhetorical excesses such as endless fulminations about repeating Munich. There are Netanyahu's repeated warnings, which he has been making for many years even though they keep getting disproved, that Iran is just a few months away from having a nuclear weapon. There is plenty of other inconsistency and goalpost-shifting, as in presenting his cartoon bomb to the United Nations and then not saying anything more about it after an agreement was negotiated that drained his bomb, or in first denouncing the Joint Plan of Action of November 2013 and then backing off when he was denouncing a later and more comprehensive agreement. Consistency doesn't matter to him; what matters is throwing sand into the gears of U.S. diplomacy.

As always in American politics, when the Israeli government takes this unequivocal a position on something, its lobby springs into action. And so AIPAC is making a huge, cancel-staff-vacations effort to destroy the agreement. Although even AIPAC sometimes has had its own frustrations with the Netanyahu government when the latter has put a highly partisan slant on its interference in U.S. politics, the lobbying organization has its own institutional reasons to continue to beat the drum of Iran as an everlasting threat. An anonymous former AIPAC official comments, “Iran has been the group’s raison d’être for two decades and it doesn’t know what else to do; its troops are trained to attack Iran and the lobby can’t afford to admit failure lest it lose supporters.” The former official continues, “Iran has been an enormously lucrative fundraiser for AIPAC; just look at what they’re spending on this campaign alone. It needs to keep the issue alive for institutional imperatives.”

Partisanship. As conspicuous as the Israeli government's role in the campaign to kill the Iran agreement is the partisan divide in the United States. That divide is immediately apparent in the most recent hearings on the subject, as it has been all along with other Congressional action or attempted action to sabotage the negotiations, such as proposals for new sanctions that would have violated the Joint Plan of Action and torpedoed the whole process. There is nothing in declared Republican Party principles, such as support for free markets, low taxes, and a strong national defense, that explains opposition to the agreement. Nor does any determination to oppose resolutely any possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon explain the opposition when killing the agreement would mean lifting restrictions under which the Iranian nuclear program currently operates. A more plausible explanation for Republican opposition against the agreement is that it is a major initiative of Barack Obama.

The role of anti-Obamaism in Republican positions has been illustrated by the party's obsessive opposition to the Affordable Care Act, with the dozens of time-wasting repeal votes in Congress and refusal to countenance any acceptance of the act or constructive bipartisan tinkering with it, even though it uses a commercially-based formula that was Romneycare in Massachusetts before it became Obamacare. The ACA is widely regarded as President Obama's biggest single accomplishment in domestic affairs, and the nuclear agreement with Iran is widely regarded as what will be—if it is not killed—his single biggest achievement in foreign affairs. Thus the agreement excites the same partisan impulses and the same urge to kill, no matter what the consequences that killing would have on the subject it addresses. The reflexive, unthinking nature of what flows from those impulses was illustrated by how quickly a large majority of Republican senators (probably to the later regret of many of them) signed on to the atrocious open letter to the Iranians initiated by Tom Cotton, a freshman with less than two months on the job.

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