How did all this disgraceful snapping and stabbing get started about Iran? How about: When Congressman John Boehner, right before the Israeli elections, invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu here to address Congress and score points back home by harassing the President of the United States? Yes and no. Some put it earlier—1953 when, under President Eisenhower, the C.I.A. and the British helped engineer a coup in Iran, in which a popular secular democrat, prime minister Mohammed Mohammed Mossadegh, was driven from office and Shah Mohammed Rega Pahlavi was installed with powers amounting to a dictatorship, power that he abused with full support from the United States and Israel.
To Iranians, these events matter as if they were yesterday; in the lives of the contemporary American voter or politician, if they have heard of them, they are irrelevant. The Obama administration and the pact’s co-signers—Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia—agree that Iran will curtail its development of a nuclear weapon for 15 years while the economic sanctions curtailing them are lifted. The opponents stand determined to undermine the agreement in every way possible. The first way is to convince the U.S. Senate to reject the treaty. If that happens, Obama will veto the rejection, and it now looks like he has enough votes to sustain a veto.
As a news story, this political battle has not faced the lessons of history, it is all in the context of this morning’s headlines, as individual senators or congressmen, or scientists, retired generals and admirals, presidential candidates religious leaders, columnists and editorial writers declare their support or opposition.
Most of the smoke in the verbal battle is generated by one issue: What does it mean to the Jews? Israeli spokesmen raise the specter of the Holocaust, as if Iran is the new Hitler determined to exterminate the world’s remaining Jews—or at least those in reach of its atom bombs. They thus describe Iran as “the world’s leading supporter of terrorism” and the “greatest threat to the world’s peace.”
In a long article, “The Iranian Threat,” Noam Chomsky reports that, according to a leading western polling agency (WIN/Gallup International) the prize of “greatest threat” belongs to the United States, by a wide margin. Pakistan is second, followed by Iran, China, Israel, North Korea and Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, as it happens in debates involving Israel, some proponents are quick to paint any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism. But an analysis of this issue blows that canard out of the water. The 35 news stories and two major articles on my desk make it clear that American Jews are divided, some studies showing that the majority support the agreement.
Here’s a sample. In a letter to Congress, 349 rabbis from major strains of Judaism support the Iran nuclear deal. Gary Samoke, president of the United Against Nuclear Iran movement, resigned the presidency to support the deal, hoping that a “New Iran” will emerge to back it. Among nuclear scientists and arms experts, 29 wrote an open letter of support. In a New York Times full-page ad, 26 leading Jewish political and intellectual leaders call this the “best option.” On Youtube and Facebook Iran’s activists make emotional arguments for both sides. The pro-Israel peace J Street reports that 64 members of the House of Representatives are on board.
In New York, Representative Carolyn B. Mahoney and Senator Chuck Schumer and New Jersey’s Robert Menendez, heeding their large Jewish constituencies, oppose it. Remarkably, Representative Gerald Nadler is the lone Jewish Democrat from New York who will break with the group because this is the “best deal” to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. He knows his voters would be and are angry, disappointed and “feeling abandoned.” One assemblyman has immediately promised to raise millions of dollars to drive Nadler from office. Meanwhile readers of John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage will know he belongs in the book.
A Washington Post (Aug. 16) analysis by Todd Gitlin and Steven M. Cohen distinguishes between the so-called “Jewish leadership,” including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (which denied membership to J Street), mostly wealthy conservative Jews, and the actual Jewish majority. They determine that the wealthy minority do not represent the American Jewish community. A poll by Mr. Cohen, which included those Jews who do not practice their religion, found that 63 percent back the Iran pact. A sampling of all Americans found 54 percent supporting the deal and 46 percent opposed.
On the other hand the editorial in the Jewish Press cited polls wherein both all Americans and Jews opposed the deal 2 to 1. Another Press article praised Israel’s 1981 pre-emptive bombing of a nuclear reactor in Iraq and a 2007 bombing of a nuclear plant under construction in Syria.
The New Iran
Deserving a journalism award is Larry Cohler-Esses’ “A Jewish Journalist’s Exclusive Look at Iran” in The Forward. The author lived in Iran for almost two years in the late 1970s. This was just before the revolution that replaced the Shah, whom people saw as corrupt and too subservient to the United States, with the Ayatollah Rohllah Khomeini. Cohler-Esses, who had waited two years for his visa, traveled widely, interviewing men and women with and without public influence, but all frank and forthcoming, and many with an open and friendly attitude toward the United States, though their memories were still sharp regarding American offenses. They saw the ouster of Mossadegh as akin to the Original Sin and will not forget America’s support of Iraq’s invasion of Iran and the long Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988). There is a government line against Israel, but the people interviewed did not object to Israel’s existence—only to its policies.
Following the recent election of reformist candidate president Rouhani in 2013 there has been a sense of a new pervasive spirit opening up throughout the country. Freedom of the press remains a dream. But freedom of tongue has been let loose. The Iranian people want to demonstrate that what’s been going on in recent years in the political world does not necessarily reflect public sentiment. There is a growing feeling that Obama is convinced that Iran is capable of changing during the 15 years of the nuclear agreement.
I turned to one of the local diocesan newspapers for another view. The editor of the Brooklyn Tablet (Aug. 22) is rightly disturbed about the threat to the very existence of Christianity in the Middle East; but he shares the horrible image of Iran promoted by its enemies. Rather than rally the nations in defense of Christians, we have “negotiated a treaty that seriously undermines the future of the Jewish state, our strongest alley in the area.”
For another view I turned to the church’s Committee on International Justice and Peace of the USCCB and the letter of Most Reverend Oscar Cantu to the U.S. senators and representatives. He welcomes the agreement, as “no small achievement” and “will continue to urge Congress to endorse the result of these intense negotiations, because the alternative leads toward armed conflict, an outcome of profound concern to the church.” Pope Francis has called upon the agreement to “be a definitive step toward a more secure and fraternal world.”