If AIPAC Lost the Iranian Nuclear Fight, It Won Too

The deal will go forward, but so will the disastrous cold war between Washington and Tehran.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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People arrive to attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual policy conference in Washington on March 3, 2013.
People arrive to attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual policy conference in Washington on March 3, 2013.Credit: AFP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

In the fight over the Iran nuclear deal, AIPAC has supposedly lost big. The organization will see “its power and reputation in Washington diminished,” declared The New York Times. In a column titled “The Iran Deal and the End of the Israel Lobby,” Jonathan Chait pronounced AIPAC’s lobbying efforts “almost completely ineffectual.” An article in The Nation suggests that in fighting the Iran agreement, AIPAC “may have destroyed itself.”

I disagree. For those of us who want America to spend less time fueling conflict in the Middle East, and more time resolving it, the harsh truth is this: If AIPAC lost, so did we.

The reason is that although AIPAC didn’t kill the nuclear deal, it has helped kill, at least for now, the prospect of a fundamentally different relationship between the United States and Iran. When the agreement was signed in July, top Obama administration officials suggested that it might not only curb Tehran’s nuclear program, but might also end America’s decades-long cold war with the Islamic Republic. “I know that a Middle East that is on fire is going to be more manageable with this [nuclear] deal, and opens more potential for us to be able to try to deal with those fires,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. U.S. President Barack Obama himself talked about a “foundation for continued progress.”

You don’t hear that anymore. In opposing the deal, AIPAC and its allies insisted that lifting sanctions would empower Iran to foment evil in the Middle East. The administration could have pushed back. After all, while Iran certainly supports bad actors in the region (Hezbollah and Hamas chief among them), so do U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia. In Syria, Iran’s ally President Bashar Assad is no worse than the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, or Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra Front), the Salafi groups that get support from the Sunni Gulf (and in al-Nusra’s case, from Israel). In Yemen, Iran is aiding the Houthis and their ally, former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh (a former client of the United States). But it’s Riyadh, not Tehran, that’s been accused of war crimes by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for its “indiscriminate” bombing of civilian areas. In Iraq, Iran is America’s most militarily potent ally against ISIS.

Contrary to the narrative being peddled by AIPAC, the wars in Iraq, Yemen and Syria aren’t morality tales about Iranian aggression and “destabilization.” Iraq, Yemen and Syria are weak states, which have become battlegrounds in a battle for regional power that pits Iran against Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies. The Sunni powers can’t win these wars on the battlefield, and we shouldn’t want them to. The best hope for ending the destruction is through a diplomatic process that includes Iran, the Gulf States and outside powers like the United States and Russia. And that’s more likely if Washington has a less hostile relationship with Tehran.

But neither the Saudis nor the Israelis want that. They’d rather see the civil wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen rage on than legitimize Iran's influence there. And they fear a better relationship between America and Iran because it reduces their leverage. After all, the more working relationships America has in the Middle East, the less reliant it is on its traditional allies.

That’s where AIPAC comes in. It may have lost the fight against the nuclear deal. But along with Saudi Arabia, it has won the fight to preserve the cold war between America and Iran. To win over Democrats being pressured by AIPAC to oppose the deal, the White House promised that even as it was lifting nuclear sanctions on Tehran, it would consider imposing new ones for Iran’s ties to terrorism and abuses of human rights (This despite the fact that Iran’s most prominent dissidents overwhelmingly oppose sanctions). The United States has reportedly provided Riyadh with some of the cluster bombs it is using in its brutal campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. According to the Rand Corporation’s Alireza Nader, America remains officially opposed to any Iranian role in the negotiations to end Syria’s civil war. And Hillary Clinton is promising that she’ll be even more hostile to Tehran than Obama. “This is not the start of some larger diplomatic opening,” she promised last week. Instead, America will “confront” Iran and its allies “across the board.”

To be fair, there are also powerful forces in Tehran that want to keep the U.S.-Iranian relationship icy. Iran’s conservatives, who have long used the supposed American threat to legitimize their brutal rule, know a warming relationship with Washington could erode their power. But that’s precisely why Iran’s democratic dissidents want the nuclear deal to lead to something more. And it’s part of the reason Americans should too.

Although hawks sometimes romanticize America’s half-century long conflict with the USSR, cold wars are ugly things. They turn entire countries into battlegrounds (Vietnam, Angola and Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s. Syria, Iraq and Yemen today). And they make it easier for dictatorships (and even democracies) to stifle dissent at home.

Yes, AIPAC failed to stop the Iran nuclear deal. But in its broader mission of preserving the U.S.-Iranian cold war, AIPAC, with its strange bedfellows in the Persian Gulf, are still winning. And as long as they do, the United States is unlikely to help end the terrible wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen or to help the long-suffering Iranian people achieve freedom. In the words of Jeremiah, “Summer is gone. But we have not been saved.”

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