(March 11, 2021 / JNS) On its face, it seems like very good news. A pair of gestures—a letter from members of the House of Representatives and a resolution introduced in the chamber—aimed at restoring a vestige of bipartisanship on the question of Iran and its quest for nuclear weapons. The letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought to transcend the bitter argument from 2015 when President Barack Obama’s pact with Tehran was supported by most Democrats and opposed by most Republicans. Instead of rehearsing the stale arguments from that debate, it instead focused on the need for a “comprehensive” agreement that would deal once and for all with the regime’s ongoing nuclear program, as well as its missile-building and support for terrorism, both of which were ignored by the Obama administration’s push for a deal at any price.
The letter signed by 70 Democrats and 70 Republicans urged that “restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program must be extended until the regime conclusively demonstrates that it has no interest in a nuclear-weapons program,” and said that “diplomacy with Iran must limit not only the production of nuclear material but also ensure that Iran cannot develop a nuclear-capable ballistic missile.” It also stated that “Iran’s malign behavior throughout the Middle East must be addressed”—a reference to its military adventures in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, as well as support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah and the Houthis.
The resolution, also backed by moderate Democrats and some Republicans, condemned Iran’s current efforts to enrich uranium to levels suitable for making a bomb and also mentioned terrorism.
If these measures represent a genuine consensus across both parties, it would mean a revival of the spirit that animated Congress a decade ago when bipartisan majorities passed tough sanctions against Iran. At that time, some of the fiercest critics of the Obama administration’s interest in a rapprochement with Iran were pro-Israel Democrats whose concern about the implications of the Islamist regime acquiring a nuclear weapon was no less great than that of GOP members.
But over the course of the next few years, Iran became a partisan football. Democrats blame that on Republicans because of their fierce opposition to Obama’s policies, which culminated in then-Speaker of the House John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of Congress to urge them to reject the nuclear agreement. That was treated by Democrats as an intolerable insult to Obama. It enabled him to treat support for the pact as a partisan litmus test that few Democrats dared to fail, even if it left the Jewish state—and Arab states that were equally afraid of the administration’s decision to enrich and empower Iran would endanger their security, too—on their own against a genocidal regime.
But putting the blame on Republicans for the collapse of the bipartisan consensus on Iran gets it backwards. They were not the ones who changed their positions. It was pro-Israel Democrats who flipped on the issue in order to bend to Obama’s will.
Since then, defending Obama’s signature foreign-policy achievement has become a cardinal tenet of Democratic thinking on the Middle East. Indeed, despite abundant evidence that the nuclear deal emboldened Iran to continue its efforts to attain regional hegemony and the end of sanctions helped it finance terrorism abroad, Democrats continue to believe the line promoted by Obama’s “media echo chamber” that the only choices available to the United States were appeasement or war.
President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the deal in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran in order to force it to renegotiate a new agreement that would fix the mistakes Obama made, especially the sunset clauses that would allow Tehran to achieve a legal path to a weapon by the end of this decade. While Obama had kicked the can down the road, Trump understood that some American president was going to have to revisit the issue, and the sooner the better in order to forestall the danger the deal’s shortcomings created. Democrats’ predictions of Iran being able to build a bomb quickly or to unleash havoc on the world were proved to be mistaken. Trump’s sanctions—he added news ones year after year as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign—weakened Tehran and backed it into a corner where it was going to have to negotiate on his terms. But Democrats steadfastly refused to acknowledge their past mistakes or Trump’s accomplishments. Like Obama, who inspired lockstep GOP opposition, Democrats felt bound to oppose anything Trump did, even if the alternatives had been proven wrong.
Now that both Obama and Trump are gone, is it possible to reconstruct the consensus on Iran that existed before the issue became so polarized?
Many of the key players who were responsible for Obama’s appeasement are back in power. But it’s possible to seize upon some statements made by President Joe Biden or Blinken, and imagine that their approach will be less governed by illusions about Iranian “moderates” or the advisability of treating the Tehran theocrats as potential partners in a Middle East where American interests will not be focused on alliances with Israel and moderate Arab states.
But it is premature to jump to the conclusion that Biden and the Democrats are “on the same page” with Republicans when it comes to deterring Iran.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the fact that people like Robert Malley and Wendy Sherman are guiding American policy on Iran that fuels skepticism about Biden’s intentions, though their presence in crucial decision-making positions speaks volumes about what may happen. Rather, it’s the first moves made by the administration as, with the urging of Western European allies—who appear desperate to reverse Trump’s tough-minded approach and get back to enabling rather than confronting Iran—that should give us pause. Above all, the shocking acquiescence of the United States and its allies to Iran’s curtailing of inspections of its nuclear sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency is a sign that we’re right back to the Obama-era practice of letting the Iranians get away with murder in order to not alienate or to give them an excuse not to negotiate.
At its heart, the problem may go deeper than just the tendency of the foreign-policy establishment veterans back in power to take a soft approach that values diplomacy for its own sake. As analyst Lee Smith wrote in Tablet, the shift on Iran among Democrats was not just a reaction to Netanyahu.
It was, instead, a function of a shift among Democrats with respect to their feelings about Israel. While anti-Israel sentiment is increasingly heard on that party’s left-wing, the hope is that mainstream Democrats like Biden won’t accommodate the activist base that regards the Jewish state and its supporters as embodying the “white privilege” they despise.
But if Biden opts for the same kind of weak bargain that his former boss treated as a triumph, assumptions about his victory illustrating a move back to the center by Democrats will be exposed as a myth.
For now, it may be possible to pretend that these bipartisan gestures represent something more than an attempt by moderate Democrats to raise money from pro-Israel donors. But no one really believes those Democrats will oppose Biden if he follows in Obama’s footsteps with another round of appeasement. Barring a remarkable shift on Biden’s part, in which he will stop acting as if Iran is doing the West a favor by talking about new negotiations to reinstate a pact that has already failed, hopes for bipartisanship on the issue may be more fantasy than political analysis.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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