WHEN King Salman of Saudi Arabia was in Washington last week at President Obama’s invitation, the nuclear deal with Iran was not on the agenda. Nevertheless, it was the elephant in the room. Now that Obama has secured the support of 34 senators from the minority Democrats, he is absolutely sure that he will be able to deliver on the deal the United States, together with the EU, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China signed with Iran in Vienna last July.
This triumph no doubt comes as a huge relief to the embattled American president who had staked much political capital on securing this historic agreement. Indeed, his legacy will rest on this remarkable diplomatic victory. In one stroke, the danger of war with Iran — with all its disastrous fallout — has been averted despite the efforts of hawks in Washington and Tel Aviv. But notwithstanding the deal’s many advantages, it continues to upset many in Israel, the United States and the Middle East.
The thought of Iran benefiting to the tune of $50billion-$120 billion in released funds once sanctions are lifted raises deep concerns, never mind that this is Iranian money that was frozen under the sanctions regime imposed by the US, the EU and the UN. And of course, Iran will be able to export its oil and gas freely. To the detractors of the deal, Iran will now be able to make more mischief through its various proxies.
To optimists, Iran will now be a more active and effective counter to the self-styled Islamic State, and will, as a full member of the international community, play a more responsible role. Above all, many in the West hope that once Iran opens up to international trade, and there is greater interaction with the outside world, its hard, extremist edges will be softened, and it will evolve into a more tolerant society. Already, the younger generation is fed up of decades of the zealous attitudes and laws pushed by the ruling ayatollahs.
But in American right-wing circles, the deal is widely unpopular. The Republicans, ever willing to serve as mouthpieces for Israel’s bellicose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, have charged Obama with everything from appeasement to pushing Israel towards another Holocaust. Much of this hysterical rhetoric is grounded in ex-President Ahmadinejad’s anti-Semitic rants in which he threatened to erase Israel from the map. Such vicious comments have haunted Iran for a decade, and have provided Israel with much useful propaganda in America. This kind of talk reminds me of a useful maxim coined by President Theodore Roosevelt over a century ago: “Talk softly, but carry a big stick.”
The deal has also divided American Jews as few other foreign policy issues have. Unlike the perception of this community being a monolithic, pro-Israel entity, it is actually fragmented along liberal and conservative lines. Most American Jews are Democrats, and a majority voted for Obama in 2008 as well as in 2012. Nevertheless, AIPAC — the powerful and very effective American Israeli Public Action Committee — remains capable of swaying the opinions and votes of members of Congress, as well as local politicians. With close links to Israel, AIPAC is deeply embedded in American politics on all matters concerning the Middle East.
On the Iran deal, AIPAC pulled out all the stops, including orchestrating a $20 million publicity campaign to persuade congressmen to vote against the bill. The lobbying was intense, with Netanyahu resorting to unheard of tactics to derail the deal. No other state I can think of would have been permitted such latitude in interfering in American policies. And yet, the failure of all these efforts is also a telling comment on the limits of influence of American Zionists.
The entire campaign has exposed rifts within American Jewry that may last for a long time. To many liberal American Jews, opposition to the deal is against American interests, and paves the way for yet another war in the Middle East. They therefore dubbed the hawks in their community warmongers who placed ill-founded Israeli fears above those of American interests. Younger Jews are less concerned about Israeli perceptions of its security needs than their parents. But older Jews subscribing to Netanyahu’s aggressive views have branded their more pacific co-religionists sell-outs and worse.
Already there is talk in Republican circles of moving legislation to impose fresh sanctions as the existing ones are lifted. But this would be a deal-breaker as a clause in the agreement stipulates that such a move would relieve Iran of its obligations to dismantle its nuclear capability.
What rallied wavering senators to Obama’s side was a briefing by the ambassadors of the states involved in the long, tortuous negotiations with Iran. Here, they clearly spelled out the position of their respective governments: the US should not expect them to keep sanctions in place in case Congress refused to lift them. The UN Security Council has already voted to remove all sanctions, so the United States would be completely isolated, and Washington’s ability to negotiate collectively in future would be severely compromised.
Already, plane-loads of businessmen from Europe and the United States are flying to Iran to negotiate deals. Some have been announced and others are sure to follow. Iran is in desperate need of massive investments in its creaking infrastructure and its oil industry. While many hurdles remain, there is little doubt that the country is a magnet to manufacturers from around the world. Of course the current depressed oil prices will not help matters, but with the world’s biggest natural gas reserves, it should not find it hard to raise funds.
Its inefficient and corrupt state enterprises are likely to be a major stumbling block, but then multinationals do business in all kinds of environments.
Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2015