Senator Robert Menendez addresses AIPAC, March 2013 / Getty Images
When I wrote last week that Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu had instructed AIPAC to go stick its head in a noose — specifically, to pick another fight with the White House over Iran sanctions legislation, a scant 11 days after its bruised retreat from the last one — I wasn’t expecting the lobby to turn around on a dime and publicly assume the position just five days later on the Op-Ed Page of The New York Times, with the entire world looking on.
I mean, it’s no great surprise, at least not to the hard-core cynics among us, that when Israel’s prime minister tells the pro-Israel lobbying juggernaut to jump, the response from its H Street headquarters is “how high?” For all the power routinely imputed to the lobby in Washington, nobody seriously suggests that it wields much influence in Jerusalem. Not that they’ve ever tried. It’s more of what you might call a one-way street.
Usually, though, the process is conducted with a bit of class. AIPAC doesn’t advertise how its decisions are reached nor how closely, if at all, they’re coordinated with Jerusalem. Its public demeanor is that of a dignified American civic association with a deep interest in international affairs. Its decision-making is famously secretive; that’s part of its mystique. Senior officers almost never address the media, except from the dais of their annual Washington policy conference, where they have 10,000 cheering followers parked between themselves and the cameras.
Well, the next conference is in less than a week. They’re expecting 14,000 conferees. The prime minister himself will be the guest of honor. What was so urgent that it couldn’t wait a week and had to be said now, in the Times?
The signs suggest that the leadership wanted to head off a potential uprising at the conference next week from hardliners angered over what looked like a surrender to the White House on the Senate’s Menendez-Kirk Iran sanctions bill. That’s how the February 6 decision not to seek a vote on the bill has been interpreted in the mainstream media. The ideological press has been even harsher. Bill Kristol, writing the Weekly Standard, accused the lobby of making a “fetish of bipartisanship,” and suggested that its behavior might lead to “a nuclear Iran.” Ouch.
And, of course, that was the message in Bibi’s public spanking: Gentlemen, an about-face is in order.
Hence, the hasty Op-Ed piece. You can tell the authors were acting in haste and under duress from the piece itself; it’s full of holes.
Some of them are simply the holes in the logic of the Senate sanctions bill itself. The bill’s backers claim they support the negotiations in principle — they just want to strengthen the president’s hand by adding the additional threat of sanctions. But the November 24 Geneva interim agreement on which the talks are based, the so-called Joint Plan of Action, explicitly commits the United States to “refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions” during the six-month negotiating period. Granted, there’s ambiguity in the word “imposing,” since the Senate bill’s sanctions would only take effect if and when the talks break down. Adopting new sanctions now to take effect later might or might not qualify as “imposing,” depending on which lawyer you spoke to. But the Iranians won’t be talking to our lawyers. It’s entirely plausible — indeed, likely — that the Iranians would regard it as a violation of the agreement and pull out, ending the negotiations and making war more likely.
The Op-Ed’s authors, AIPAC president Michael Kassen and board chair Lee Rosenberg, are savvy, accomplished negotiators and political strategists with years of citizen lobbying under their belts. They’re smart enough to figure this stuff out. Even if they didn’t write the Op-Ed but only put their names to it, they knew where this was going. It looks like they’re feeling trapped, caught between an angry Israeli prime minister and a riled up, pitchfork-wielding base.
The authors claim the new sanctions are necessary so the Iranians know there will be consequences — a return to the tough sanctions that preceded the agreement — if the talks don’t succeed. But that threat already exists in the agreement itself. It calls for the existing sanctions to be “paused” and “suspended” for the six-month negotiating period. After that, if there’s no agreement, both sides’ concessions end — the West’s partial suspension of sanctions, the Iranians’ suspension of most nuclear work — and the sanctions resume automatically. The Senate bill’s “consequences” are redundant; all they accomplish is to violate America’s obligations under the agreement and encourage the Iranians to violate theirs.
More insidious, the authors say they want Congress “to outline for Iran the acceptable terms of a final accord.” That is, they want to specify in advance where the talks have to end up. If that’s the plan — to dictate the outcome in advance — then what’s the point of negotiating? Worse still, the “minimum” terms they lay down — echoing Netanyahu — “must include” the “dismantling” of Iran’s nuclear program. But that’s already off the table; the Geneva agreement spells out the end goal of “a mutually defined enrichment programme” with a set of enforceable limitations. That is, limited, not dismantled. To demand now that the talks must end in “dismantling” Iran’s program is to demand that the Geneva agreement, on which the talks are based, be nullified. That means, again, the end of the negotiations.
It would have been nice if the Iranians had agreed to put their entire nuclear program on the table, but that was never going to happen. It’s the nature of a negotiation that it ends up somewhere in the middle between what each side wants. To think you can enter negotiations and end up with everything you wanted is to misunderstand the nature of the process. To adopt an unattainable goal is to adopt no goal at all. As the Talmud teaches (Tractate Yoma 80a), תפסת מרובה לא תפסת (tafasta merubeh lo tafasta) — If you seize too much, you seize nothing.
Critics of the Geneva interim agreement are unhappy that it gave Iran a partial relaxation of the sanctions but didn’t put an end to Iran’s nuclear program. Well, that’s silly. The point of the agreement was to clear the way for the two sides sit down and begin discussing the end result.
Yes, Iran got a partial relaxation of the sanctions. Now the authors are unhappy that Iran’s economy is improving? Of course it’s improving. That’s what happens when you relax sanctions. If a final deal is reached and the rest of the sanctions are lifted, it will improve even more. Iran still has plenty of incentive to change its behavior.
The critics overlook one more critical point. The Geneva agreement brought Iran to suspend its race toward a bomb for the first time since the crisis began. Before the interim deal was signed last November, Iran had been advancing steadily toward bomb capability for years, acquiring new centrifuges, building new facilities and accumulating an ever-growing stock of highly enriched uranium. Under the agreement, most of that activity stops. Some low-grade enrichment continues. Half the stock of highly enriched 20% uranium is downgraded to 5%. The International Atomic Energy Agency has access for unannounced inspections at most facilities. We get to negotiate without the threat hanging over us that they’re moving steadily closer to the zero hour.
The authors say they want Congress to “exercise oversight” over Iran’s compliance. Really? They’d prefer that enforcement of the highly technical nuclear process be overseen by Darrell Issa rather than the IAEA? Or perhaps by the members of the House science, space and technology committee, with their “Big Bang and evolution are lies straight from the pit of hell” brand of expertise?
The IAEA’s first report since the agreement went into effect showed that Iran is indeed keeping to its agreement. Its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium gas, the threshold level before 90% weapons-grade material, has dropped from 196 kilograms in November to 161 kilograms last week. The minimum needed to assemble a bomb is 250 kilograms. You might say the Geneva agreement came just in time.
If the agreement had not been reached last November — if the allies had insisted on holding out for a more perfect deal — Iran would have reached the 250 kilograms and full nuclear weapons readiness while the bargaining continued. That’s where we were heading before the Obama administration launched the Geneva track. Is that what the critics wanted?
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).