A New Debate Over an Old Deal

By | Aug 22, 2022
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1. An Iran deal déjà vu?

Some in the Jewish political world still haven’t gotten over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal showdown. The bitter fighting within the Democratic Party and the split in the Jewish community, not to mention Israel’s heavy-handed intervention, all left their scars on the activists who were involved. The fight over approving the nuclear deal is viewed as a watershed moment in relations between the United States and Israel, and its ramifications are still being felt in Washington and in Jerusalem.

Now, with talks on rejoining the deal reaching their conclusion, are we doomed to relive this again?

Yes and no.

We are clearly on the verge of an agreement that would basically reinstate the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran deal is formally called.

Talks in Vienna have produced understandings on most issues, and a months-long hiatus forced by Iran’s turn toward hardball tactics now seems to be broken thanks to a new and final European proposal and a surprisingly pragmatic response from the Iranians.

So, while nothing is final, it is very likely that the battle will reignite in the upcoming weeks and months.

But it will not be a repeat of the 2015 debate. All parties—the U.S. presidential administration, Congress, pro-Israel lobbyists of all colors, and the Israeli government—come to this round with the benefit of experience gained in the first three years during which the deal was in place as well as the following four that saw it violated, first by the U.S. and then by Iran.

2. The deal hasn’t changed, the arguments have

If and when a new agreement is reached, it will be almost identical to the 2015 JCPOA, with some necessary adjustments needed in order to roll back Iranian nuclear transgressions and American economic sanctions.

But while the deal will look pretty much the same, the arguments won’t, and neither will their tone. Some even expect the debate over rejoining the deal to be, well, civilized.

What changed since 2015? Reality kicked in.

Back then, a nuclear deal with Iran was a fantasy (or a nightmare, depending on your viewpoint). Now, the world has already experienced life with a deal and without it, and the discussion is no longer hypothetical.

Supporters of the nuclear deal will point to Iran’s behavior while the deal was in place and state the obvious: It worked. Iran adhered to all restrictions. The region, and the entire world, pulled back from the nuclear brink.

They will also argue that President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal proved the futility of the idea that increasing pressure on Iran will drive leaders in Tehran to further concessions. Iran has faced massive pressure since 2018 and its economy took a serious hit when sanctions were re-imposed. Yet, nothing changed: Iran has not budged from the same positions it held in 2015.

Opponents of rejoining the JCPOA also have new arguments to draw on: The past years helped disprove any notion that a nuclear deal will bring Iran back to the family of nations and start a process of normalizing its approach to the region. On the contrary, Iran remained a bad player on all non-nuclear issues: Its meddling in Yemen hasn’t stopped, nor has the negative role it plays in Syria or in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Iran’s behavior demonstrated it is a real threat to Gulf countries and trade in the region, not to mention the recently revealed Iranian plot to assassinate John Bolton on American soil.

3. Biden’s path forward

These new sets of arguments provide the Biden administration with a narrow, yet clear, path in trying to sell the deal to the American people: stress the danger of the current situation; explain how abandoning the deal brought Iran closer than ever to a nuclear bomb; and argue that there is no more pressure to apply, that a diplomatic deal is necessary and that’s there’s no time to waste. At the same time, Biden will distance himself from the utopian vision of a new era in relations with Iran that some in the Obama administration had believed in. The JCPOA Biden will now try to market is modest, driven by necessity and aimed at the specific goal of pushing back the nuclear clock and keeping Iran’s atomic ambitions at bay. All the other headaches that Iran causes the world will have to be dealt separately, or not dealt with at all.

Will Congress buy it?

As president back in 2015, Obama got sufficient backing from Democrats to prevent a move by the Senate to block the deal. But not all Democrats were on board. Some, including Senators Chuck Schumer, Ben Cardin and Robert Menendez, voted against the deal.

While there is no indication how they’d vote this time around, it is safe to assume that all Democrats who supported the original deal will back the move to rejoin and that those who opposed will at least reconsider their view, given the lessons learned since America’s withdrawal from the deal.

4. Jared Kushner’s side of the story

Trump’s son-in-law is the latest former administration official to share his memories with the American public. Kushner’s new book, Breaking History: A White House Memoir, aims to shed light on the Trump years from the vantage point of Trump’s closest adviser.

Naturally, Kushner’s book provides some Jewish perspective that may have been missed in other insider tell-alls: the tensions between Trump and then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Abraham Accords and the behind-the-scenes debate over Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, the surprising dispute over recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and Kushner’s views on Judaism as well as his wife Ivanka Trump’s path to conversion.

Or you could just pick up some highlights from news reports and skip reading the full book, which The New York Times described as a “soulless and very selective memoir.”

5. Primaries to watch this week

The season is almost over, but here are a few more midterm primary races you may want to watch (or you may find hard to ignore.)

In New York’s 12th Congressional District, a cruel redistricted map is pitting two sitting Democrats against each other: Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney. Nadler has been playing up his Jewish identity, highlighting the fact that he’s the “last remaining Jewish representative” in New York. Polls indicate he has a comfortable lead.

New York’s 10th district, which covers parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, is extremely crowded, with former federal prosecutor Dan Goldman running strong, and with some inevitable BDS back and forth. For some ultra-Orthodox Jews, NY-17 is the race to watch in a district that includes the town of Monsey.

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