Bad Analogies Abounding on Iran Deal

by Jim Lobe

In their desperation to sabotage the nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran, neoconservative foes of the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA) are resorting to all kinds of historical analogies. Their most popular, of course, date back to the 1930s: appeasement, Chamberlain, Munich, Hitler, and all of that other stuff that led to the Holocaust. They’ve hardly given up on those perennials, but now they are trying to develop new analogies, notably tied to the Cold War. Although somewhat less dramatic and emotional, these new analogies still defy common sense. And the Washington Post editorial board keeps giving them the space to do it.

On July 24, the newspaper featured an op-ed (“A Deal to Walk Away From“) by Frederick Kagan (whose expertise, I’ve always thought was more military than diplomatic history) of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Very briefly, it argues that Congress should reject the JCPOA, just as the Senate refused to ratify the SALT II accord between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Noting that the Senate’s effective rejection did not result in a war and resulted eventually in the START agreement, Kagan argues that “[o]pposing the current deal is thus not in any way equivalent to favoring war.” And although he concedes that “[h]istorical analogies are always perilous,” he nonetheless assumes that if Congress rejects the deal, we can just always go back to the table, and everything should be hunky-dory just as it was after SALT II collapsed.

There’s no point in detailing the absurdity of this line of argument. One need only point out that the world has changed rather dramatically since the 1970s when there were just two superpowers sitting across the table from each other, and no one else really counted for much, at least insofar as strategic nuclear forces were concerned. The current deal, however, is not between two superpowers. Several other parties have signed on to the agreement and are most unlikely to reject it no matter what the U.S. Congress does. Those other parties include not only Russia and China, but also three of our closest NATO allies, all of which have indicated they have no intention of “walking away from” this agreement.

So, if the U.S. walks away, as Kagan urges, the multilateral sanctions regime—which was vastly more effective than Washington’s unilateral efforts—will most assuredly collapse. And Washington’s leverage to compel Iran to accept a “better agreement” will be significantly reduced (unless it is prepared to attack Iran, which Kagan says he does not “favor”). Kagan’s analysis does not even begin to address this problem, which reflects his and his fellow neocons’ persistent difficulty in coming to terms with a world that has become truly multi-, as opposed to bi- or unipolar.

Sharansky Misses the Point

One day later, the Post, whose hyper-interventionism reflects a similar problem with multipolarity, ran another Cold War-related op-ed, this one by Natan Sharansky. In addition to his chairmanship of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Sharansky is described (dubiously, given his record on Palestinians) as a “human rights activist.” Although the newspaper’s print edition titled his column “A Refusenik’s Answer to Iran,” the web edition, where the op-ed first appeared, gave it the somewhat more provocative and sectarian headline, “Jews stood up to the U.S. government 40 years ago, and should again on Iran.” The title refers to congressional passage, over the strong objections of the Nixon administration, of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which made “most-favored-nation” treatment for trade with the Soviet Union conditional on Moscow’s granting Jews and other Soviet citizens the right to emigrate.

The op-ed is quite clearly aimed at New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer because the op-ed highlights the role played by New York Republican Sen. Jacob Javits, whose support of the Jackson-Vanik bill against Nixon’s wishes helped make the legislation veto-proof. Schumer’s decision is considered critical to Israeli and Republican hopes of overriding an Obama veto if Congress votes to reject the Iran deal. Here’s Sharansky:

It was a Republican senator from new York, Jacob Javits, who, spurred by a sense of responsibility for the Jewish future, helped put together the bipartisan group that ensured passage.

Later, when Javits traveled to Moscow as part of a delegation of U.S. senators, he met with a group of Jewish refuseniks and asked us whether the policy of linkage truly helped our cause. Although we knew that we were speaking directly into KGB listening devices, all 14 of us confirmed that Jackson’s amendment was our only hope.

In Sharansky’s recounting, the linkage policy supposedly established by Jackson-Vanik led eventually to the end of the Soviet Union (a fate he apparently hopes the Islamic Republic will soon share). And then he writes:

Today, an American president has once again sought to achieve stability by removing sanctions against a brutal dictatorship without demanding that the latter change its behavior. And once again, a group of outspoken Jews—no longer a small group of dissidents in Moscow but leaders of the state of Israel from the governing coalition and the opposition alike—are sounding the alarm. Of course, we are reluctant to criticize our ally and to so vigorously oppose an agreement that purports to promote peace. But we know that we are again at a historic crossroads, and that the United States can either appease a criminal regime—one that supports global terror, relentlessly threatens to eliminate Israel and executes more political prisoners than any other per capita—or stand firm in demanding change in its behavior.

Sharansky misses just a few points here, and, as with Kagan, they are too numerous to mention. However, it’s important to note that Iran generally does not make it difficult for its citizens to emigrate just about anywhere they wish, including Israel. That includes its Jewish citizens (and, despite all the bluster about anti-Semitism, Iran still has the Middle East’s third largest Jewish population after Israel and Turkey, a point which the critics always seem to ignore).

Sharansky also spectacularly misses that Iran has agreed to change its behavior. Specifically, it has agreed to roll back its nuclear program and submit to inspection and verification procedures that are unprecedented for NPT member states that have never been defeated in war (like Iraq). That’s a change of behavior and a not insignificant one in light of the many, many times Israeli leaders have warned of the “existential threat” posed by a nuclear-capable Iran. After all, if we compare Netanyahu’s “cartoon bomb” on display at the 2013 UN General Assembly with what that “bomb” will look like over the next 10-15 years if the deal is implemented, it’s pretty clear that the trajectory of Iran’s nuclear program will have changed quite dramatically.

What Iran’s Refuseniks Really Say

Obviously, this is not what Sharansky means by “behavior.” So let’s pretend that, like Sen. Javits of yore, Sen. Schumer himself travels to Iran to meet with dissidents—the Islamic Republic’s equivalent of “refuseniks”—of the kind that Sharansky identifies with. Would these activists urge the New York senator to reject the deal and deny sanctions relief?

If Sharansky, the human rights activist, is paying even the slightest attention to what the activists in Iran—many of whom, like him, have spent time in prison and have a consistent record of opposing the regime—are saying, the clear answer is no. As Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, wrote on this blog just 10 days ago,

Iranian society has strongly backed the negotiations and the pursuit of a peaceful settlement to the long-running conflict. In a recent study by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, prominent political and cultural figures in Iran were interviewed on their views of the nuclear talks, and their support for a negotiated settlement was unanimous, even among political prisoners and dissidents whose rights had been severely violated by the Iranian government.

In his essay, Ghaemi, who believes there should indeed be linkage between Iran’s full re-integration with the international community and its human rights performance, notes that it’s the hard-liners and most repressive forces in Iran who oppose both internal liberalization and the nuclear agreement for fear that detente with the West, beginning with the nuclear issue, will necessarily threaten their hold over the country. And in that context the various reports on the popular street demonstrations on the night the Vienna accord was announced highlighted the fact that many participants called for the release from house arrest of Green Movement icons and former presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi as part of the celebrations.

Ironically, the famous “human rights activist” Natan Sharansky—who, like other right-wing Israelis and U.S. neocons and Republicans, extolled the Green Movement and the activists who supported it and have repeatedly chastised Obama for not doing enough to promote and defend them—is now siding with their oppressors.

Photo: Natan Sharansky

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. Is there any hope Jeff Bezos will address the pathetic editorial positions typically taken by the Washington Post on matters pertaining to Israel?

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