Iran used to be a consensus issue, but partisanship has changed that

Loyalty to Obama and animus for Trump have distorted the discussion about a dangerous rogue regime that threatens the West, as well as Israel. That’s wrong.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi addresses U.S. President Donald Trump in the cabinet room at the White House in October 2019. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi addresses U.S. President Donald Trump in the cabinet room at the White House in October 2019. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

After the world held its collective breath for several days waiting to see how terrible Iran’s revenge for the American strike that killed its chief terrorist, the missile strike on two U.S. bases in Iraq seemed like something of a letdown. The fact that Iran seemed content to launch its often-inaccurate weapons at a target in a manner that wound up causing not a single casualty seemed to indicate that all the hysterical talk from President Donald Trump’s critics that the death of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani would set off World War III was, at best, mistaken.

Rather than demonstrate his foolishness, the stunning blow dealt to the Iranian regime, and what appeared to be the ineffectual gesture at face-saving from the Islamist tyranny it generated, was a clear defeat for Tehran. While it is possible that subsequent events—either in terms of more attacks by Iran or American misjudgments—will change this evaluation, the killing of the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that terrorized both Iran and neighboring countries, had altered perceptions of Iran. For once, the inherent weakness of a regime that cannot afford to provoke a wider conflict with the United States and whose economy is collapsing under the weight of American sanctions seemed to be on display.

Or at least that might be the consensus of opinion about recent events if Iran hadn’t become a political football that divided Americans in the same way they are divided on Trump himself.

There are legitimate questions to consider when assessing recent events, in addition to the efficacy of the administration’s strategy and tactics. But the partisan split on the Soleimani strike remains shocking.

Instead of cheering the death of a murderer like Soleimani and taking satisfaction in Iran’s willingness to stand down, public opinion seemed split along familiar lines. Those who believe that Trump shouldn’t be president—and that his every statement and decision, even those that they might have supported had it been ordered by a different president—opposed his actions. By contrast, those who support Trump (with the exception of neo-isolationist right-wingers like Fox News host Tucker Carlson) approved of them.

We are living through a period when Americans seem to view every issue through a partisan, or an anti- or pro-Trump perspective. Such an atmosphere isn’t conducive to informed discourse on any topic. But it’s particularly disappointing with respect to Iran because it wasn’t all that long ago when it was a consensus issue on which there was no great difference between the positions of either party.

As recently as 2012, there wasn’t much daylight between the positions of most Democrats and Republicans on Iran. While running for re-election that year, President Barack Obama pledged that any future negotiations with Iran would require the regime to give up its nuclear program. Overwhelming bipartisan majorities of both Houses of Congress supported that goal. Efforts to sanction Iran over the nuclear issue, as well as its terrorism and illegal missile-building, were also backed by both parties with Democrats like Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) leading the effort and pushing the Obama administration to be even tougher on Tehran.

Over the course of the next three years, that bipartisan majority evaporated. Obama devoted much of his second term to negotiating and then defending a nuclear deal with Iran that failed to fulfill his promise. It not only gave an international seal of approval to a previously illegal program and its enrichment of uranium—whose only purpose seemed to be to build a nuclear weapon—but included sunset clauses that would within a matter of years give Tehran the path to a bomb. The pact also lifted sanctions on the regime and required the U.S. to hand over vast amounts of cash to it. And nothing in the deal forced Iran to cease its terrorist activity or stop building missiles whose only purpose would be to carry nukes to hit Western targets or Israel, which it continued to threaten with destruction.

This was an outcome that both parties had previously decried as unacceptable. But once Obama decided that he was prepared to treat it as a partisan litmus test, his fellow Democrats realized that support for it was mandatory. Even most of those Democrats who had previously been Iran hawks voted in favor of it or downplayed their dissent. That meant that Republican opposition to the deal was also dismissed as merely one more instance of the GOP opposing everything Obama did.

After Trump took office in 2017—and then fulfilled his campaign promise to pull out of the deal and resume sanctions against Iran—the two parties again treated the issue as just one more partisan bone of contention. Democrats argued that Trump didn’t have a strategy, and that withdrawing from the nuclear agreement didn’t make anyone safer. But their defense of Obama’s deal, in spite of its obvious inability to fulfill its goal of making Iran behave like a normal nation or end the nuclear threat, didn’t pass the smell test. They interpreted everything Trump did with respect to a rogue regime that had been enriched and empowered by the deal as wrong, rather than judging his actions on their merits. By contrast, Republicans backed their party’s leader, even if some were puzzled by the fact that Trump’s tough stance on Iran didn’t seem to jive with other aspects of his “America First” foreign policy.

If both parties could remove their partisan blinders, it wouldn’t require them to support everything that Trump does. It would, however, involve an acknowledgement that efforts to force Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions rather than kick the can down the road, as Obama did, should be supported. The same ought to involve actions aimed at stopping Iran’s international terrorism and efforts to dominate the region through terrorist proxies like Hezbollah. Instead, the two major parties are treating Iran as if it were just another partisan zero-sum game in which they lob accusations at their opponents about being either appeasers or warmongers, as opposed to working together on an issue they once agreed on.

The stakes involved in stopping Iran from bullying its Arab neighbors and threatening Israel’s existence, as well as the unthinkable possibility of the ayatollahs getting a nuclear weapon, is not something partisans should be squabbling about. We can’t go back to 2012 to revive a bipartisan coalition that no longer exists, though Democrats and Republicans should still try to consider this issue from a frame of reference that isn’t solely determined by opinions about Trump. Failure to do so cheapens discourse about a debate that transcends political differences.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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