Paul Pillar

The Sources of Opposition to the Iran Agreement

The anti-Iran sentiment affects the debate in several specific ways. The consistent worst-casing of Iranian objectives and intentions leads to many misperceptions because often the worst-case assumption is simply incorrect. (E.g., Iranian leaders are not really out to destroy Israel, and they are smart enough to realize there would be no way for them to do so even if they wanted to.) Clichés and sloppy formulations substitute for any careful examination of what Iran actually has and has not been doing (a problem especially apparent concerning Iran's activities in the Middle East). The regarding of anything Iran does as being by definition “nefarious” overlooks how Iranian actions relate to U.S. interests, sometimes complementing and sometimes conflicting with them. The assumption that Iranian intentions are uniformly malevolent and always will be malevolent leads to gross misunderstanding of actual Iranian intentions, how those intentions underlie what has already happened in the nuclear negotiations, and how intentions and not just capabilities are a major part of the agreement succeeding in the future. And simple distaste for doing any business with a disliked regime is a further impediment to getting public support no matter how much sense the particular business in question makes.

The Israeli government factor, party politics, and inchoate anti-Iran sentiments are the major reasons an agreement that is clearly in U.S. interests is nonetheless a close call in Congress. Other factors might be mentioned but are subsidiary and less in the nature of root causes than are the aforementioned reasons. Money is one such factor. Copious amounts of it are being spent in opposition to the agreement—far more than anything that can be found on the support side. When the public is largely ignorant about an agreement on a technical subject, money is all the more capable of molding opinions. That effect is in addition to what money that is spent for—and against—re-election campaigns can buy more directly in the way of Congressional votes.

The stakes of the agreement's fate in Congress are high. The most immediate and obvious stake is what Secretary Kerry laid out in his testimony this week: killing this agreement would mean an Iranian nuclear program that would be free of any restrictions and any monitoring other than the minimum to which it is subject under the NPT. Killing the agreement also would mean destroying one of the most significant steps in recent years on behalf of nuclear nonproliferation generally. More broadly and perhaps less obviously, it would mean losing an opportunity to remove a shackle from U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East and to be able to address more effectively and directly many other problems of concern to both the United States and Iran. It would mean damage to U.S. credibility and damage to relations with the European allies who were partners in negotiating the agreement.

Considering the chief reasons for opposition to the agreement brings into focus additional stakes. Killing the agreement would entail a subjugation of U.S. foreign policy to the baleful influences behind the opposition. It would mean a failure to break free of the influence of a foreign government that opposes the agreement for reasons that are not shared interests with the United States and in some respects are directly contrary to those interests (including telling the United States whom it can and cannot do business with). It would mean bowing to the money and the influence of bankrollers such as Sheldon Adelson, who favors dropping a nuclear weapon on Iran and who, although a U.S. citizen, wishes he had performed his military service with a foreign government. It would mean subjugating dispassionate consideration of U.S. national interests to raw party politics. It would mean subjugating it as well to xenophobic bias. None of this is America's better side.

Members of Congress need to think carefully about whether this is the way they want U.S. foreign policy to be made. 

 

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