A few blocks south of where I sit, the 70th General Assembly just opened in the U.N.’s glass slab on Manhattan’s East Side, where something of consequence occurs once in a very great while. All week I have thought of the 68th G.A. two years ago at just this time, when Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s recently elected president, extended a reformist’s hand with an offer to negotiate an agreement governing his nation’s nuclear activities.
That was of consequence, plainly. Remember the telephone call President Obama put through just as Rouhani, having taken the podium to near-universal approval, was in a limousine on the way to Kennedy for his flight back to Tehran? Remember Netanyahu’s pathetically retro appeal to paranoia and how embarrassingly out of step the Israeli prime minister was with, more or less, the entire assembly? High diplomatic drama.
Eighteen months of talks followed, and in July we got a good agreement between Iran and the six-power negotiating group—the U.N. Security Council members plus Germany. Last week the forces aligned against the accord on Capitol Hill were turned back. No, they have not quit. They will remain on the attack, just as they keep up a pointless, petulant opposition to Obama’s healthcare law. There are reasons for this, and we can go into them in a minute. But the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the pact with Iran is called, is now in place. A breach of 35 years between Washington and Tehran begins to mend.
There are plenty of reasons to celebrate. An embarrassment of riches, as the French say.
I saw several probabilities after Rouhani and Netanyahu took turns addressing the G.A. in 2013. Success in reaching an agreement was fated to alter relations between the U.S. and Israel at the deepest level, it seemed to me. So it has done. We are at the beginning of a long process, but a renovated relationship will prove altogether to the good—for the U.S., for Israel, indirectly for the Europeans and, best outcome in the future, for Palestinians.
Another probability: The most serious threats to an agreement would come from two sources. There was the irrationality of insecure fundamentalists, for whom any agreement would have less to do with its terms than with its wider implications. And there was money, which was sure to flow profusely, as it always does when, in our marketized democracy, important decisions go up for sale.
In the first case, the threat the fundamentalists posed, I did not mean Iran’s shrill crew, as I figured Rouhani would never have come to New York were those making noise back in Tehran not under control. I meant America’s. They were the danger, and they have worked to type over the past year and a half, especially in the two months Congress has had to debate the deal.
In the second case, of course, we are talking primarily about the Israeli lobby, which has long intruded—shamefully, corruptly, offensively to anyone who thinks about it—into the American political process. The infamous American-Israel Public Affairs Committee spent nearly $30 million trying to kill the deal Secretary of State Kerry brought home from all those Swiss and Austrian hotels. If you own a television set you saw the propaganda: grave-voiced video versions of the same simplistic scare-mongering Netanyahu was peddling at the U.N. two years ago.
If you celebrate victory you celebrate defeat, and I have just described the two worth toasting since Obama’s Senate allies blocked a vote of disapproval last Thursday.
One, American reaction and its fundamentalist ideology just lost very, very big, as I forecasted it would when the accord was concluded in July. Nothing too clever about the call: Those opposing a sound agreement all other Western powers support walked straight into the volley and thunder. Tariq Ali, the British writer of Pakistani background, wrote a book 12 years ago called “The Clash of Fundamentalisms.” Rouhani defanged his wolves early in the process, by all appearances. The more pernicious force, here among us, takes its fall at the far end of it.
Two, the money lost. AIPAC, seething with Islamophobia, could not buy the contempt it needed. This is interesting. Given the history of American-Israeli ties, neither the lobby’s expectations nor Netanyahu’s were entirely misplaced. So it is a measure of how the relationship is changing that they proved so off base. The Iran deal was cause and consequence all at once, in my read.
A lot of right-wing junk has been published since the so-called P5 + 1 negotiating group concluded its agreement with Iran in July. Typical of the output—worse than most, not as bad as some—is a piece Michael Gerson had in Tuesday’s Washington Post. It is a specimen worth consideration, as is Gerson, a Post columnist for the past eight years.
Gerson does not fire bullets: He sprays buckshot all over the place. The agreement was an abject “capitulation,” Iran having conceded nothing. “A clear majority of Americans” oppose it. Obama got it through Congress “through a crude and partisan appeal.” Already Iranians and Russians—who can say which is the more satanic to these people?—are conspiring in Syria, an Iranian minister having traveled to Moscow “in defiance of a U.N. travel ban.” Gerson concludes of the pact, “In practice, this means Iran can do whatever it damn well pleases….”
For the record: I have it from good Washington sources that Ben Rhodes, Kerry’s No. 2 during the negotiations, was repeatedly surprised by how much the Iranian side conceded. A clear majority of Americans supports the accord, as indicated by opinion polls when properly conducted. Obama argued for the deal clearly, on the merits and across the aisle. Moscow and Tehran have long asserted that removing Assad is bad strategy in the face of the extremist threat in Syria, and the White House is gradually accepting this bitter truth. There is no travel ban on Cabinet ministers conferring with Russian counterparts in Moscow: Never heard of it.
As to Iran doing what it damn well pleases, this cannot be remotely true on the very face of it. Iran has just accepted the most onerous restrictions ever imposed on a nuclear-threshold nation. No nation, indeed, is in any such position—a point I will return to in a moment.
What can we learn from a piece this stupid? Very important things, actually. There is the messenger and there is the message.
Gerson is a common figure these days. He is a fundamentalist Christian of archangelic beliefs who purports to bear the evangelical message into a variety of secular contexts. He was a speechwriter for Bob Dole, a ghostwriter for Chuck Colson, a Heritage Foundation fellow. Rove brought him into the Bush II White House, where he headed the speechwriters’ office and wove sentences out of Bush’s biblical notions of “end times” and the apocalyptic battle that must be fought against Gog and Magog Islamists.
A paranoid, in short. The Post hired him straight out of the White House, with a brief stop at Newsweek in between. People such as Gerson come and go in hackdom, but this is not the point. Gerson is merely a symptom of a grave problem right-thinking people can no longer claim either distance or immunity from. The only differences between Gerson and many of those on Capitol Hill who oppose the Iran agreement are the chosen profession and the degree of power. You just watched the latter as it was deployed to sabotage the most significant piece of diplomacy Washington has conducted in several decades.
Ask yourself: Why are the other members of P5 + 1 not tearing themselves apart over this accord? Why are there no Michael Gersons writing in the German, French or British dailies? (Clue: Same reason there are no Kim Davises in any of these countries.)
A thread of evangelical belief has been laced through American political culture since the 17th century. The American identity has never been resolved on this point. In the nation that professes its trust in God on its money, this thread now reappears in the weave with a prominence that jeopardizes our ability to find our way in the 21st century. As a manifestation of sheer reaction, we are amid a radical reassertion religion, specifically Protestant, in the affairs of a nominally secular republic.
Many people have remarked that none of the new agreement’s opponents ever advanced an alternative to it. This is remarkable, I would say, given the vigor of those who object. As in the Gerson piece just noted, irrationality and emotionally driven exaggeration have been unmistakable features of the critique. Scott Walker came out and said he had no interest even in reading the Joint Plan.
It is important to understand this. If the pact with Tehran is a purely political, diplomatic and commercial question in, say, Berlin or Paris, there is a subconscious dimension to it in America. Our politics rests on a psychological substructure that distorts, or even precludes, rational political discourse and judgment. Obama got creamed when he questioned the concept of American exceptionalism directly several years ago. In the agreement that now stands as his legacy on the foreign side, he forwent theory and took it on in practice.
This deal says in deed what Obama could not say in words back in 2012: All people are exceptional, we no more than everyone else. We must forget about our values as universal values and engage others while accepting difference. We work with allies now—depend on them, even—for the era of our primacy is behind us.
These realities offend many. They cause fear and the gnashing of teeth. An alternative to the Joint Plan is not offered because it cannot be spoken other than indirectly. It is, more or less, a bigoted crusade against Islam of the kind Michael Gerson’s boss declared after the September 11 attacks. In my read, Gerson was affronted by the thought that Iran can “do what it damn well pleases” primarily because this must be America’s privilege alone. But he cannot say this, of course.
Many good questions about the terms of the agreement were raised and answered. This is not my concern here. My concern is with those who see in it—correctly, in my view—a serious corrosion of the orthodox view of America’s place n the world order. These people are weak, afraid and in need of reaffirmation, rather the way Iran’s fundamentalists are. And anyone who has ever studied neuroses knows how nearly intractable pathologies born of neediness can be.
Understand this and you recognize that there is no arguing with these kinds of people—and certainly no meeting in the middle, as Obama took too many years to grasp. There is only cold political warfare of the kind we have just seen. Forget about tough love—that is for those who can still be retrieved. There is only tough contempt for those deploying religious belief and ideology to avoid new realities and the thinking we must do about them.
Before and since negotiations produced an accord earlier this summer, Secretary Kerry, Ben Rhodes and many others insisted that an agreement did not imply any broader thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran. This struck me as nonsense from the first. As I read these many statements, they were intended primarily to keep the Iran hawks in their cages, where they belong for the sake of the rest of us. Worry not, fundamentalists: Iran remains our great Satan, just as America is to your counterparts in Iran. Regrettably, this was the message needed to keep Capitol Hill calm. But it seemed a political ploy.
It did not take long for this take to prove out. Wednesday’s New York Times reports that Obama may well meet Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G.A. in New York this month to discuss collaborating to defeat the Islamic State. If Washington takes this further, it will inevitably enter into an alliance of who can say what character with Iran as well as Russia, which both support Assad on the argument that the Syrian army is one key to success on the ground.
Good, for two reasons.
Most immediately, the Russian and Iranian strategies in Syria are sound. The question of a political transition in Damascus can be treated separately through diplomatic channels, and Assad has already indicated he will sit down with “the healthy part of the opposition,” as Putin put it in a speech earlier this week. Also sound.
Obama’s advisers, as only Americans in the late-exceptionalist phase will do, sit in Washington fretting as to Putin’s “true motivations” and whether an encounter with Putin would give him “credibility” he must not have. Not sound. Put Putin’s clear-eyed determination next to these guys and they look like bumbling graduate students fearful about their grades.
It will be a tough turnaround for Obama by way of “the optics,” as wonky Washingtonians insist on putting it, but the president should swallow the pride in recognition of the magnitude of the problem.
Less immediately but more important, working with Iran on questions other than its nuclear program is essential to the survival of the agreement itself, in my view. Washington must do what Kerry promised it would not, in other words. It is hard to say whether Kerry or Rhodes, who comes across as a very intelligent diplomat, saw this coming, but the reality is now plain.
Letting the relationship advance in one or another context will be difficult, surely. But apart from the rightists on Capitol Hill, who are plainly not done yet, to refrain from doing so is the most serious danger to the accord.
The reasoning here has two parts. First, the other members of P5 +1 have no intention of inhibiting the growth of normal relations with Tehran. They have made this very plain. Attempting to implement the accord while keeping Iranians otherwise isolated is a cake-and eat-it impossibility that will serve only to isolate Americans.
Second, isolation has exhausted the Iranians—and not only economically, although the sanctions have hit them very hard, my sources in financial and commodity markets tell me. Apart from the fringe, they are eager to rejoin the community of nations. (And apart from the fringe deserve to.) Deprive Iranians of this, keep them isolated and burdened with pariah status, and Washington will eventually court the very danger the last 18 months of effort were intended to avert.