The Iran Deal’s Opponents Helped Get Us Here

After the Soleimani strike, Jews must hold our institutions accountable for their role in undermining diplomatic solutions.

David Klion
January 14, 2020
Demonstrations in Iran over the assassination of Qassem Soleimani on January 3rd, 2020. Photo: Fars News Agency, via Wikimedia Commons

WAR WITH IRAN WOULD BE A DISASTER—one we’ve only narrowly averted for now, and one that remains a live threat.

There’s more to say, but it’s crucial to start there. If there’s one clear lesson of the past two decades, it’s that America’s open-ended wars in the Muslim world have been catastrophic—killing, maiming, and traumatizing countless people; destabilizing whole societies; squandering trillions of dollars; undermining civil liberties; and doing irreparable damage both to cultural heritage and to the environment. We should be winding down our military commitments in the region and attempting to remedy the harm we’ve done, insofar as that is possible; under no circumstances should we launch yet another illegal war based on lies. This should be foremost on the minds of all people of conscience.

The recent crisis, which began on January 3rd when the United States assassinated Qassem Soleimani—the Iranian general who for years had advanced Tehran’s interests and thwarted Washington’s throughout the Middle East—has many authors. Blame must be cast first and foremost on President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Christian right, and swaths of the US military leadership who hold Soleimani responsible for killing hundreds of US soldiers in Iraq. Trump’s reflexive dishonesty, indifference to human life, and intemperate governing style are central factors in explaining the present moment. 

Within our own community, another group of actors must also be held to account. Many Jewish establishment institutions—ranging from large communal nonprofits to pro-Israel advocacy groups—have aligned themselves with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s longstanding view of Iran as Israel’s primary adversary, and, by repeatedly stymying efforts at peace, have helped lead us to the brink of war. These institutions opposed Barack Obama’s efforts at diplomacy with Iran, and in some cases championed Trump’s unraveling of those efforts. While these institutions are by no means primarily responsible for the conflict with Iran, they have played a central role in encouraging it over the objections of much of the Jewish community they claim to speak for. As the dangerous consequences of their actions unfold, Jews who oppose war with Iran must demand accountability, and a shift in priorities, from those in our communal leadership who have helped to undermine the prospect of peace in the region. 

To understand the sources of both US and Israeli enmity with Iran, we need to look back to the middle of the 20th century. US imperial designs on Iran were evident from the early days of the Cold War. In 1953, the CIA overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government in a coup and installed the authoritarian Shah, whose regime would become infamous for jailing, torturing, and murdering dissidents. While Iran never formally recognized Israel, the two governments maintained warm relations, and Iran was one of Israel’s main suppliers of oil. The Shah was toppled by revolutionaries in 1979, and in his place arose a theocratic government that considers the US and Israel its sworn enemies (the feeling is mutual). The Islamic Republic of Iran has provided money and weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah, and has threatened Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly, in addition to funding terrorist attacks like the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. For a brief moment in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the US recognized Iran as a potential ally: Soleimani, as head of the Revolutionary Guard Quds Force, provided crucial assistance in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and was considering a major thaw in relations with the US. But this narrow possibility of rapprochement fell apart within months, after George W. Bush denounced Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil” in his 2002 State of the Union.

Throughout these years, pro-Israel groups in the US, including leading Jewish institutions, supported the US government’s hard line against Tehran. But the role of such institutions took on heightened significance in 2015. That year, the Obama administration made extraordinary efforts to negotiate a multilateral nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—under the terms of which Iran agreed to cap uranium enrichment in exchange for a relaxation of economic sanctions by the world’s leading powers.

The JCPOA was Barack Obama’s greatest foreign policy triumph, enacted despite the relentless efforts of Netanyahu and his many allies on Capitol Hill, including pro-Israel lobbying groups like AIPAC (which, it should be noted, represents a sizable number of Christian Zionists in addition to Jews) and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which played a leading role in this campaign. So did Jewish establishment groups, including the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), all of which lobbied against the JCPOA. AIPAC alone spent tens of millions of dollars on television ads trying to sway a handful of lawmakers, and arranged for Netanyahu to address Congress, prompting ovations from Republicans. The Conference of Presidents and JFNA co-sponsored a webcast allowing Netanyahu to urge ordinary Jewish voters across the US to oppose the deal. Jewish Democratic lawmakers came under enormous pressure from all of these groups to break with Obama and vote against the JCPOA.

The fight over the Iran deal bitterly divided American Jews. Obama was popular with the large majority who vote Democratic, and polling at the time suggested a plurality of Jews supported the deal. Hundreds of rabbis signed a letter opposing the JCPOA, while hundreds of others signed one in support. But it’s clear that pressure from Jewish constituents who opposed the deal played a significant role in determining how members of Congress voted on the JCPOA. While Jewish organizations lobbied both Jewish and non-Jewish lawmakers, Jewish lawmakers and lawmakers who represented districts with large Jewish constituencies were under particular pressure.

Jewish Democrats who supported the deal faced a targeted, vitriolic campaign of harassment, sometimes to the point where the institutions organizing against the JCPOA felt compelled to rein in their supporters. When New York Rep. Jerry Nadler came out in support of the deal, for instance, he was targeted by Dov Hikind, then a right-wing Jewish New York City assemblyman, who parked a bus plastered with the smiling face of Iran’s supreme leader outside Nadler’s office and brought six Auschwitz survivors with him to condemn the congressman. Nadler also faced a barrage of abuse from Jews opposed to the JCPOA on social media; he was denounced as a “kapo” and accused of having “blood on his hands” and of having “facilitated Obama’s holocaust.” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz eventually supported the deal after withstanding similarly ferocious attacks from her Jewish constituents in South Florida.  

A number of Jewish Democrats who typically voted with their party dissented on the JCPOA, including Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland; Reps. Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel of Florida; Steve Israel, Nita Lowey, and Eliot Engel of New York; and Brad Sherman of California. But the most significant Democratic opponent of the JCPOA was Sen. Chuck Schumer, then heir apparent for leadership of the Senate Democratic Caucus. Schumer, described at the time as “the most influential Jewish voice in Congress” by the New York Times, “approached the agreement under pressure from his constituents, the administration, and his own personal history and faith.” In a more accountable Democratic Party, Schumer’s defiance of Obama on behalf of pro-Israel voters and institutions in his state might have torpedoed his political future; instead, he advanced to the leadership position he now holds.

In the end, every Republican in both houses rejected the deal, while most Democrats supported it—enough to ensure that Obama could veto any resolution against the JCPOA. Most of the deal’s opponents retreated from their tactical defeat. But they were newly emboldened following Trump’s surprise victory in 2016. Trump had repeatedly denounced the JCPOA as a bad deal during his campaign. In 2017, as part of a bill forcing tough sanctions on Russia over Trump’s personal objections, virtually the entire US Senate also voted to impose new sanctions on Iran—meaning that under Schumer’s leadership, with little fanfare, every Democrat except Sen. Bernie Sanders voted to undermine Obama’s signature diplomatic achievement. In 2018, Trump unilaterally pulled out of the JCPOA, a decision variously celebrated or cautiously welcomed by the ADL, the World Jewish Congress, and the Republican Jewish Coalition. AIPAC described Trump’s decision to withdraw as “an important opportunity to apply further diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran.” Last week, following the assassination of Soleimani, Iran announced that it will no longer observe the deal’s limits on the number of centrifuges it is permitted to operate. (While this doesn’t mean Iran is anywhere close to building nuclear weapons, it does mean that as a direct result of Trump’s policies, Iran is no longer in full compliance with an agreement that was working as intended when Trump took office.)

For the most part, leading Jewish institutions have celebrated the Soleimani assassination, even as some have tried to have it both ways. Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the ADL and a former Obama administration official, tweeted that it is “reasonable & responsible to ask hard questions about policy process behind decision & whether US is prepared for what comes next,” but added, “no one should delude themselves. Soleimani didn’t just have blood on his hands -- he was drenched in it.” David Harris, the head of the AJC, took a tougher line, tweeting, “How many more would he have killed had US not acted? Will Corbyn lay a wreath & offer a eulogy for him?” in response to British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn rightly pointing out that the assassination was a dangerous move. AIPAC’s statement simply read: “The president’s decisive action brought to justice one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists, who was responsible for the deaths of over 600 U.S. servicemen.” Soleimani was certainly ruthless and responsible for many deaths—the Quds Force, which he led, provides critical support to Bashar Assad in Syria, to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to Hamas in Gaza, and to Shiite militias in Iraq. But by focusing on Soleimani’s record, rather than the brazen illegality and recklessness of Trump’s actions, all of these organizations are helping to legitimize the push for war.

The “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization J Street was the major exception to the Jewish institutional campaign against the Iran deal, and its support for Obama’s policy helped provide cover for those Democrats, Jewish and not, who voted in favor. J Street has consistently defended the deal, opposed pulling out, and—after the Soleimani strike—voiced support for a House resolution requiring Trump to seek congressional support for further military actions against Iran. So far, the only other major Jewish institution to offer this support has been the explicitly partisan Jewish Democratic Council of America.

It’s worth acknowledging that while Netanyahu has played a leading role in stoking these tensions in the recent past, Israel does not necessarily want a US–Iran war at this moment. While Netanyahu has publicly praised Trump’s “decisive” strike, in private he has reportedly stressed the need to distance Israel from the attack, and Israelis have welcomed Soleimani’s death with caution. Israel, after all, is one of the many countries in the Middle East now vulnerable to retaliatory violence from Iran’s proxies. This is not Netanyahu’s war, but it is a war he and his allies in Washington have made significantly likelier through their actions over multiple administrations. 

More than a week into this crisis, there are now signs of de-escalation. Iran’s missile strikes on a US military base in Iraq last week, which resulted in no casualties, appear to have been a face-saving maneuver; US officials subsequently said they knew the strikes were coming well in advance. Trump’s supporters are claiming this as a win for the president’s unprecedented strategy; according to this logic, by killing Soleimani, Trump showed Tehran that he is not to be trifled with. The war powers resolution, which now has a degree of bipartisan support in the Senate, represents a milestone toward reining in the executive branch’s unilateral ability to strike Iran.

But even if the worst-case scenarios have been averted for now, there is little cause for comfort. The Trump administration has at the very least brought us to the brink of another major war. It has set back equally dogged efforts to bring an end to our pointless and bloody decades-long enmity with Iran, which could flare up again at any time. Iranian officials are pledging “harsher revenge” for Soleimani’s death, which could play out in any number of proxy wars, and their initial military response has already resulted in the accidental downing of a civilian airliner carrying 176 people. Preventing this conflict from escalating once again will mean honestly considering the responsibility of the institutions and politicians that claim to speak for us.

The donor class in the Jewish community skews conservative, often putting philanthropy-reliant Jewish institutions at odds with their liberal constituencies. So far, in spite of the fissures over the JCPOA and related issues, many liberal constituents who value their traditional attachment to these institutions have proved hesitant to directly confront them. But the bottom line is that the deal that so many Jewish organizations fought so hard to defeat was working, and should the situation worsen further, these organizations will again need to choose which side they are on. As Jews, we must directly challenge these unaccountable forces in our own communities, before we find ourselves party to a crisis we can’t de-escalate.

A previous version of this article listed the AJC as one of the Jewish organizations that “cautiously welcomed” the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA. In fact, while acknowledging its initial opposition to the deal, in 2018 the AJC expressed a desire to fix it, rather than pull out.

David Klion is a writer and a contributing editor at Jewish Currents.