AIPAC Refuses to Learn From Its Mistakes on Iran

Because AIPAC and its allies cannot concede that Iran is a regional power in the Middle East, they promote policies that bring the US closer to war.

Peter Beinart
January 31, 2022
Iranian missiles in a display by the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard on January 7th, 2022.
Vahid Salemi/AP

On August 5th, 2015, at the height of the battle in Washington over the Iran nuclear deal, Barack Obama made an uncharacteristically blunt assertion during a speech at American University. “Let’s not mince words,” he declared. “The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war.” Obama’s words sparked protests from establishment American Jewish leaders and their foreign policy advisers. In remarks to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Robert Satloff of the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy called it “shameful” to suggest that rejecting the Iran agreement would bring military conflict. AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann insisted, “The alternative to this bad deal is definitely not war, but rather going back to the negotiating table and getting a better deal.” American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris also registered his displeasure. “We are told by the deal’s supporters that the only alternative to this deal is war,” Harris wrote. “We respectfully disagree. We do not support war against Iran, nor have we ever advocated for the use of force.”

Last month, Harris called for war. “In 1981,” he tweeted, “Israel destroyed an Iraqi nuclear plant being built with French help—because no one else would act. In 2007, Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear plant being built with N. Korean help—because no one else would act. Who’ll stop Iran’s unmistakable nuclear ambitions?” A photo of missiles accompanied the text. Satloff and AIPAC haven’t yet demanded military action. But last month, Satloff and his Washington Institute colleague Dennis Ross co-authored a letter arguing that “it is vital to restore Iran’s fear that its current nuclear path will trigger the use of force” and proposing “high-profile military exercises by the U.S. Central Command” to simulate a US strike. AIPAC tweeted in praise of the letter no fewer than ten times. Satloff and AIPAC claim that only by readying for an attack can the US scare Tehran into accepting what they consider an adequate deal. The history of US–Iranian nuclear negotiations, however—in which Tehran has repeatedly responded to threats and displays of force by escalating its nuclear efforts—offers every reason to believe this strategy will fail, thus pushing the US into launching an attack AIPAC and its allies say they don’t want.

Why does the American Jewish establishment promote policies that bring the US closer to war? Because it cannot stomach genuine diplomacy, which would require conceding that Iran is a regional power in the Middle East, where AIPAC views the US, Israel, and their allies as the only legitimate centers of influence. So despite overwhelming evidence that the US cannot force Iran into submission, and that pursuing that goal will bring grave risks, America’s most influential Jewish organizations press on. Wise foreign policy requires a recognition of the limits of national power and the capacity to self-correct in the face of new evidence. Because AIPAC can’t do that, it constitutes a threat to peace.

Never before, or since, has the American Jewish establishment fought a presidential initiative as fervently as it fought Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran. Although polls showed that most American Jews backed the deal, J Street—the largest Jewish organization supporting it—mustered only $5 million in its defense. By contrast, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, an offshoot of AIPAC, reportedly spent between $20 and $40 million lobbying against the agreement. An AIPAC official called the campaign against the deal “one of the most significant mobilization efforts in our organization’s history.” Nathan J. Diament, the executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, echoed this characterization, describing the lobbying effort as “the biggest mobilization in the community that we have ever seen.”

The arguments made by the deal’s opponents have not aged well. Over and over, establishment Jewish organizations and their think tank allies insisted that the Iranian government would violate its terms. Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran tweeted, “Iran has been cheating on nuclear deals for decades. Before they vote, tell Congress not to trust them.” AIPAC’s Marshall Wittman expressed “severe doubts” about “Iran’s willingness to meet its commitments.” The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) declared, “In the view of many highly respected experts, Iran will continue to clandestinely pursue illicit activities.” The ADL repeatedly cited the work of Dennis Ross, who in July 2015 penned a column entitled, “Iran Will Cheat. Then What?”

But Iran didn’t cheat; the United States did. Between January 2016, when the nuclear deal went into effect, and May 2018, when the Trump administration began openly violating it by reimposing sanctions, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verified Iran’s compliance with its terms nine separate times. Even after the US pulled out of the deal, Iran still adhered to it for another year, according to the IAEA. In January 2019, eight months after the US withdrew, Trump’s own CIA Director acknowledged that Iran was still meeting its terms.

The evidence of the past few years has also undermined another argument made by the deal’s opponents: that if Congress rejected the agreement, Iran would grant additional concessions. “Faced with strong American leadership,” predicted the AJC, “Iran would find it in its own best interests to return to the negotiating table sooner or later.” Josh Block, head of the Israel Project, asserted that Obama could “come back with a better version of the deal.” The Trump administration’s withdrawal—which AIPAC celebrated—has tested that proposition, and the results have been grim. When Trump left the deal and instituted a policy of “maximum pressure,” which involved ever more brutal sanctions and threats of military force, Iran did not respond by offering additional concessions. Instead, after a year of continued compliance, it began breaching the deal’s restrictions on its nuclear program. After abiding by an agreement that allowed it to enrich uranium to a purity level of only 3.67%, Iran has now enriched uranium to 60%. (Bomb-grade uranium must be enriched to above 90%. That means Tehran could produce enough enriched uranium for one nuclear bomb in roughly a month, down from about a year under Obama’s deal.) Iran has also begun impeding nuclear inspectors. To make matters worse, the Trump administration’s exit from the deal discredited the Iranian moderates who negotiated it, which paved the way for last summer’s election of Ebrahim Raisi, an arch-conservative who appears determined to drive a harder bargain than his predecessors, if he wants to reach any agreement at all.

Rather than reconsider the wisdom of Trump’s withdrawal, AIPAC now ignores it—and pretends that Tehran’s nuclear advances are purely the result of the regime’s malevolence. Last month, the organization issued a memo declaring that, “Over the course of 2021, Iran has refused to negotiate in good faith over its nuclear program while it has dramatically advanced its quest for nuclear weapons” and “dramatically impeded international inspection of its nuclear program.” Reading these statements, you wouldn’t even know that it was the United States, not Iran, which first violated the deal—or that AIPAC encouraged it, too.

By distorting recent history, AIPAC implies that the reason for Iran’s nuclear progress is not that the US has broken its word but that the US has sheathed its sword. AIPAC ends its Iran memo by quoting from the letter co-authored by Satloff and Ross, which declares that “it is vital to restore Iran’s fear that its current nuclear path will trigger the use of force against it by the United States.” The letter proposes that the US immediately begin to “act forcefully”—a euphemism for military action—“against other Iranian outrages.” Doing so, Satloff and Ross suggest, “might have the salutary impact of underscoring the seriousness of U.S. commitments to act on the nuclear issue.”

But here, too, AIPAC is pushing Biden’s administration down a path that Trump’s already took. During its campaign of “maximum pressure,” the Trump administration launched small attacks against Iran and threatened larger ones. And Iran responded again and again by speeding up its nuclear progress. In June 2019, after Tehran shot down a US drone, Trump thundered that, “Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration.” The following month Tehran announced that it had, for the first time since signing the nuclear deal, breached its restrictions on the enrichment of uranium. In January 2020, Trump’s administration, claiming that Iran was planning attacks on US troops and diplomats, assassinated Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, head of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, considered by many to be Iran’s second most powerful man. Tehran responded roughly three weeks later by announcing that it now possessed close to six times as much low-enriched uranium as the nuclear agreement allowed. In April, Trump threatened yet another US strike and acquiesced as Israel reportedly launched a barrage of attacks, which culminated in November in the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a key figure in Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s response? It enriched uranium to 20% percent and blocked IAEA inspectors from its nuclear facilities. This pattern constitutes a vicious cycle: Over and over, US and Israeli attacks and threats of war have accelerated the very nuclear progress that AIPAC and its allies now cite as evidence for why the US needs to escalate.

Why do AIPAC and its advisers keep proposing the same disastrously counterproductive policies? Because they oppose any agreement that legitimizes the influence of an Israeli adversary. The American Jewish establishment believes that the US, Israel, and their allies are the only legitimate powers in the Middle East. AIPAC considers US power in the region so self-evidently moral that it urges the Biden administration to threaten an attack on Iran—a country that poses no imminent threat to the US—without even discussing whether such an attack would violate international law or how many Iranians it might kill. AIPAC considers Israeli power to be self-evidently moral as well, even though Israel—unike Iran—reportedly possesses hundreds of undeclared nuclear weapons that are subject to no international inspection whatsoever. AIPAC and its partners are also comfortable with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates building up their military arsenals and intervening in the affairs of their neighbors because they are de facto US and Israeli allies. Despite blockading and bombing Yemen and backing coups against democratically elected leaders from Egypt to Tunisia, the UAE’s leader, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, was given an award last November by Satloff and Ross’s Washington Institute.

But even putting aside the moral hypocrisy of this stance, it’s simply impractical. A diplomatic agreement is impossible unless the US acknowledges, at least tacitly, Iran’s role as a regional and military power. As the Iranian American journalist Negar Mortazavi pointed out to me, Iran would never have agreed to the 2015 nuclear deal had Obama not permitted it to undertake some limited enrichment of uranium. Nor would it have accepted an agreement that curtailed its ballistic missile program without limiting the arsenals of its foes. In 2018, when the Trump administration withdrew from the deal and demanded that Iran end all enrichment, stop developing missiles, and cease its support for anti-American and anti-Israeli rebel groups and governments across the Middle East, Iran flatly refused. When the Biden administration, upon taking office last year, made its own demands for restrictions on Tehran’s ballistic missile program and regional activity rather than immediately lifting sanctions as required by the 2015 agreement, its additional stipulations helped make a rapid return to the deal impossible. The United States lacks the power to force Iran to capitulate. And every time an American president ignores that inconvenient reality, diplomacy collapses, Iran moves closer to a bomb, and hawks demand that the US threaten to attack.

Obama warned about this. He understood that if AIPAC’s maximalist agenda triumphed, diplomacy would fail. Now his fears could be realized. Reviving the nuclear deal may prove impossible; Iran is closer to a bomb; Iran and the US are closer to war. It may well be that groups like AIPAC do not want war. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are so devoted to American and Israeli domination of the Middle East that they define any accomodation with Iran as appeasement. And that makes them implacable opponents of peace.

Peter Beinart is the editor-at-large of Jewish Currents.