The search for an Iran scapegoat

Blaming Israel or conservative Jews for Trump’s Iran-deal decision is a classic misdirection play, as well as incorrect on the merits.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exposes files that prove Iran’s nuclear program in a press conference at the Kirya government headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018. Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exposes files that prove Iran’s nuclear program in a press conference at the Kirya government headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018. Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The reaction from the media “echo chamber” to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal was predictable. The broad cross-section of the liberal mainstream media that assisted President Barack Obama in his effort to sell the country on his appeasement of Iran—dubbed an “echo chamber” by Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, who orchestrated the administration’s manipulation campaign—was dismayed at Trump’s chutzpah in abandoning a pact that they claimed was working well to prevent Tehran from getting a nuclear weapon.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exposes files that prove Iran’s nuclear program in a press conference at the Kirya government headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018. Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90

Were this a straightforward debate about the merits of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that constituted Obama’s signature foreign-policy accomplishments, the arguments we’re now hearing against the president’s move would be solely focused on the supposed merits of the agreement. But inevitably, as is the case with any public policy decision since January 2017, the debate has centered more on Trump’s personality and motivation than his actions.

Since most of his critics can’t wrap their brains around the idea that Trump is capable of coming to a reasoned decision on a policy question, the discussion about how he came to his conclusion about JCPOA is more about who persuaded him to do it. In this case, the accusations are largely centered on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and conservative Jews who support the Jewish state. Which means that Trump’s detractors aren’t so much attempting to dissect his reasoning as they are looking for a scapegoat.

This is a familiar pattern for those who remember the debate about the Iran deal before it was implemented. The Obama administration was not shy about trying to paint opposition to the deal as an attempt to prioritize Israel’s security needs over the United States. Underlying that assumption was the false notion that Iran’s nuclear ambitions were primarily a threat to Israel, rather than the United States and the West. The attempt to thwart Obama’s diplomacy was often depicted as a way to maneuver America into a war against Iran for Israel’s sake.

Some saw it as an attempt by Zionist sympathizers to get the Israel tail to wag the American dog. Even Obama stooped to make this argument by claiming that pro-Israel donors bought congressional opponents of his policy.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry never missed a chance to claim that the only two choices available to the nation were the deal he negotiated or war, with a not-so-sly wink at the notion that it was Israel that wanted a war. Kerry has continued in this vein even in retirement; as The Boston Globe reported last week, he has been “strategizing” with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to stop Trump. That was a potential violation of the rarely enforced Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from conducting diplomacy—something that former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was accused of doing.

But now that Trump is in power, the same kinds of arguments about Israel being the mastermind of opposition to the Iran deal have resurfaced. As New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote on Wednesday: “In truth, Trump was led to this decision not by any serious calculus about the deal, but by his susceptibility to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi fury at Iran, the pressure of conservative American Jews who support him and his iron principle that whatever Obama did must be bad.”

In fairness, Netanyahu has been the most outspoken opponent of the Iran deal throughout the last few years. Indeed, his tactical error in accepting a Republican invitation to address Congress back in 2015 on the issue was a crucial break for Obama since it allowed him to portray the debate about the measure as a partisan affair—breaking what had, up until then, been a bipartisan consensus in favor of more pressure on Iran and opposition to the sort of concessions Kerry made at the talks.

Netanyahu’s dramatic announcement last week of the Mossad’s capture of a treasure trove of information proving that Iran had been lying prior to 2015 about not planning to build a bomb also fed the narrative that Israel was the puppet master pulling Trump’s strings, or at least being the loudest voice in the president’s ear.

Less subtle enemies of Israel, like former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, haven’t been shy in resurrecting charges about Israel manipulating Trump into a war. That Buchanan, who has been spewing anti-Semitic invective along these lines since the first Gulf War nearly three decades ago, is still finding an audience for his screeds is discouraging. But what’s really sad is that mainstream pundits at The New York Times still buy into the notion that opposition to appeasement of Iran is good for America but bad for Israel’s government, if not the Jewish state itself.

Although Israelis have been largely united against the Iran deal, the truth is that Obama’s agreement has always been as much a betrayal of fundamental American security interests as it was a blow to those of Israel and Sunni Arab nations that feared Iran just as much as the Jewish state.

For all of his well-publicized lack of interest in policy details, Trump’s negotiating instincts told him that Kerry’s weakness at the table—where he abandoned virtually of the West’s demands and got little in return—was a disaster. The president’s instinctive distrust of the foreign-policy establishment also served him well since their approval for any sort of diplomacy, no matter how ineffectual, was one more example of how wrong Middle East experts have been. His clear belief that Iran is a weak, tottering state bluffing about both war and building a weapon probably has more to do with his own conclusions about Obama’s bad judgment than anything Netanyahu or Jewish donors are whispering in his ear.

Trump’s decision must be just the start of a re-assertion of U.S. responsibility in the Middle East. The damage done by Obama—in terms of the humanitarian disaster he enabled in Syria and the enhanced dangers of a conventional war involving Iran and the spread of terrorism—won’t be erased by a stroke of a presidential pen. He will have to get serious about extending economic sanctions and pressuring U.S. allies, and rethink his soft attitude towards Iran’s Russian ally.

But blaming his stand on Israel or Jewish donors is a misdirection play intended to shift our focus from a disastrous deal to distrust of Trump or Netanyahu. There’s a long, dishonorable tradition of blaming things on Jews. Trump’s critics need to start taking his position seriously and stop looking for a scapegoat.

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


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