Nine out of 10 of the Democratic presidential contenders in the first debate raised their hands when asked if they would return to the JCPOA, the nuclear deal with Iran that Donald Trump removed the US from in May.
At more or less the same time, there was an announcement of the creation of a new “think tank” called the Quincy Institute (after John Quincy Adams, who said that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy”). The organization received pledges of half a million dollars each from George Soros on the left, and Charles Koch on the right. Apparently these politically diverse billionaires agree with Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian-American Council and one of the founders of the institute, that the Iranian revolutionary Islamic regime is not a monster that the US should destroy.
Another voice calling for a return to “engagement” with Iran as opposed to the policy of economic sanctions followed by the Trump administration is National Security Action (NSA), the foreign policy lobby of the former Obama Administration. NSA is co-chaired by Ben Rhodes, one of the architects of “engagement” (which in practice meant payoffs, appeasement, and a guaranteed path to nuclear weapons).
One of the pillars of the Rhodes policy, which was detailed in the 2006 Iraq Study Group proposal of which he was one of the authors (my 2006 analysis is here), is the trading of Israel’s security for concessions from Syria and Iran. At that time, Syria was facilitating the transit of insurgents and Iranian weapons, including advanced roadside bombs that were killing US soldiers, across its border with Iraq. The idea was that the US would force Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria (as well as create a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria), and in return, Syria would close its border with Iraq.
Although Israel’s worst (or second-worst) Prime Minister ever, Ehud Olmert, made an overture to Syria in 2007, almost certainly at US prompting. But Bashar al-Assad wasn’t interested, preferring his alliance with Iran.
The idea of trading Israel’s security for the friendship of Iran continued through the Obama Administration. The Iranians reacted cynically, taking what they could get while still chanting “death to America.” Obama’s Defense Department applied pressure to the Israeli defense establishment in 2012 to scuttle a plan to bomb the centers of Iranian nuclear development, at a time when the window of opportunity to seriously set back the program was significantly wider than it is today.
It’s unfortunate to see that the policy of appeasement, reversed by President Trump when he re-imposed sanctions on Iran, is still championed by the Democratic opposition. But I suppose that “opposition” means opposition to everything Trump does and says, regardless of its merit. And it fits with the anti-Israel wind blowing from the left in America, where the Iranian threat is seen as an Israeli problem, not an American one. Indeed, one sees a congruence of the isolationist right and anti-American left – as illustrated by the supporters of the Quincy Institute – who find it useful to blame Israel for dragging the US into conflicts that it could otherwise avoid.
I’m convinced that most of those who want the US to rejoin the JCPOA – at least those who have given it serious thought and have the background to understand the situation, which excludes most of the democratic candidates – understand that it will lead to Iran building nuclear weapons. This is because the agreement has a sunset date for its restrictions, and compliance with some of the most important of them, like the prohibition of research into military applications, is impossible to verify (the Iranians refuse to permit inspection of military sites). All the JCPOA really does is protect Iran while it finishes developing its weapons. But people think, “So what? Even Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and the US has a massive nuclear deterrent.”
This is a mistake. Unlike Pakistan, Iran is aggressively proceeding with a plan whose first stage is to eliminate American influence in the Middle East, seize control of approximately one-third of the world’s petrochemical resources, establish a Shiite caliphate across the region, and eliminate Israel. Iran already effectively controls Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and is on the verge of establishing a land bridge to the Mediterranean. If it is allowed to succeed, it will become a threat to the West unmatched since the Soviet Union.
Today, according to Michael Doran in the Wall St. Journal (paywalled article here), Iran’s in-your-face violation of JCPOA requirements as well as sabotage of tankers and pipelines, and its downing of a US military drone, are intended to pressure the Europeans (who are seriously affected by disruptions in the oil supply). Iran wants them to lobby the US to re-establish waivers, removed by Trump, that allow Iranian-European cooperation on supposedly “peaceful” nuclear projects. Great.
The Iranian regime thinks it can survive economic sanctions, at least until the end of the Trump Administration. It controls the allocation of resources in Iran, and will brutally suppress popular attempts at regime change. It also believes that it can hold Israel hostage, as shown by its recent threat that Israel would live only half an hour after an American attack like the one that Trump ordered – and then recalled – after the drone incident. It believes that that ultimately the view that a nuclear-armed Iran is preferable to the alternatives will prevail in the US and Europe.
It might, in the US. It is not possible in Israel, where it is understood that a nuclear Iran will have the ability to destroy the country, either with nuclear weapons or with conventional ones under a nuclear umbrella. And there is absolutely no doubt that destroying Israel is one of Iran’s major objectives. The fact that Israel has a protected retaliatory capability gives us some comfort, but not enough to justify inaction.
It could happen that the sanctions will cause Iran to end its program (but this is unlikely). It could happen that the US will bomb the Iranian nuclear installations (even more unlikely). Or, I suppose a meteor could land on Tehran and wipe out the regime (the most unlikely). But, as long as something is possible short of war, Israel will wait – until the last moment, the moment before Iran builds its bombs. Once this point is reached, there will be no alternative. Netanyahu and Gantz are agreed on this, if on little else.
The Saudi king once said that the only way to end the conflicts in the Middle East was to cut off the head of the snake, meaning Iran. He was right. When time runs out, the snake will lose its head.