When he proclaimed at the 2016 AIPAC policy conference that “my number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran,” then-presidential candidate Donald Trump was greeted with sustained cheering and applause. Now that Trump is president and able to fulfill his promise, does the organized American-Jewish community want him to do so? I believe the answer — with some exceptions — is no.
In July 2015, Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in which Iran agreed to eliminate or substantially reduce its stockpiles of medium and low-enriched uranium; to reduce the number of its gas centrifuges; to refrain from building heavy-water facilities; and to permit the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regular and virtually unfettered access to all known Iranian nuclear facilities. The IAEA, under the terms of the deal, could also gain access to suspected sites, including military installations, if there were grounds for doing so. Essentially, the deal put Iran’s path to nuclear weapons on hold for at least a decade.
It did not grant Iran, a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Pact (NPT), the right to produce nuclear weapons after that period. Nor did it require Iran to cease other aspects of its misbehavior, such as supporting global terrorism, violating human rights, and developing missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction. In return for its compliance, all nuclear-related sanctions against Iran imposed by the U.S. and the international community were to be suspended.
At the risk of reopening old wounds, let’s recall the situation prior to the signing of the Iran nuclear deal. Against the wishes of President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an unprecedented appearance before a joint session of Congress urging the assembled senators and representatives to reject the deal that Obama had worked so hard to achieve. AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the ADL, and major Orthodox organizations such as the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel advocated for the same.
Recognizing the deep divisions within our Jewish community, the central umbrella bodies — Conference of Presidents, The Jewish Federations of North America, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) — took no position. Some individual federations, including Greater MetroWest, voiced their disapproval, although most, like the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, remained neutral, instead choosing to offer educational programs to enhance their communities’ understanding of the issues. The Reform and Conservative movements did not take sides, and at the time polls showed that most American Jews supported the deal.
There was some ugliness to the debate. In some quarters, supporters of the deal were labelled as appeasers and opponents were accused of being warmongers.
Full disclosure — at times I wavered, having seen merit to both sides. In the end, and purely on a personal basis (I had already retired from the JCPA), I expressed support for the deal. That said, I’m no pacifist; I had also hoped to see a congressional resolution authorizing the president to use “all means necessary” to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon if there was compelling evidence that it was on the verge of doing so.
Opponents of the deal did not muster enough votes in Congress to block it, and the U.S. signed on. However, Congress did adopt the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (also known as the Corker-Cardin law), which requires the president to certify Iranian compliance every 90 days. Should he fail to do so, Congress must decide, within 60 days, whether to reimpose the sanctions. Trump, based on the advice of his foreign policy and security advisors, has already certified Iranian compliance twice, in May and again in July, although very reluctantly. Meanwhile, at the end of August, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano of Japan announced, for the eighth time since the deal was struck, that Iran remains in basic compliance, findings that have been accepted by the other P5+1 partners.
However, indications are that next month, the next time the deal comes up for presidential review, Trump will ignore the IAEA and decertify Iranian compliance. On Sept. 5, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute, “I’m not making the case for decertifying; I’m just saying if he [the president] should decertify, he has the grounds.” She also argued that even if Iran is living up to the requirements of the nuclear deal, the president can and should take other considerations into account when determining whether to decertify, including missile development, support for terrorism, and overall U.S. national security interests. Haley noted that there are other matters to consider besides compliance with the JCPOA. “This is a jigsaw puzzle,” she said.
As we approach the October decision point — with the prospect that a congressional debate on reimposing sanctions may follow the president’s possible decertification — where does the organized Jewish community stand? Are we as divided as we were in 2015 before the deal was signed; or, as I believe, has a consensus now crystallized that if Iran is indeed complying with the terms of the agreement, the U.S. should preserve the deal?
AIPAC, AJC, and ADL, early opponents of the deal, have not urged the president to decertify, at least not yet. To my knowledge, no Jewish federation anywhere in the country has yet to weigh in. Significantly, Netanyahu, perhaps the strongest critic of the deal anywhere in the world, has not voiced an opinion. He and other Israeli leaders seem much more concerned these days about growing Iranian influence in Syria and Lebanon, especially the strengthening of Hezbollah’s rocket capabilities. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who voted in favor of the deal in 2015, can be expected to continue backing it. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) was one of only four Democratic senators to vote against the deal, and it will be interesting to see if his position has changed.
None of this is to suggest that the U.S. nor the international community should refrain from imposing stiff sanctions in response to Iran’s destructive conduct outside the nuclear sphere. Just this past July, the U.S. did just that because Iran had launched a rocket toward space, thought by American officials to be a step that might lead to a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile.
Rabbi David Levy, AJC’s New Jersey regional director, told me, “Through our advocacy efforts we have been urging governments to make it clear, especially to their countries’ business sectors, that they must stand firmly in opposition to this leading state sponsor of terrorism. Unless Iran fundamentally changes its behavior, it cannot be viewed as having any legitimate standing.”
Finally, the Iran nuclear issue cannot be separated from the current crisis with North Korea. The ayatollahs in Tehran are watching very closely. Will the international community summon the political will to confront Kim Jong-un’s reckless behavior with robust diplomatic and economic measures backed by the threat of military force as a last resort? Or will he sense weakness and continue his dangerous path? Compelling Jung-un to back down would serve as a powerful influence on the ayatollahs.
Bottom line: Decertifying the 2015 nuclear deal in the absence of clear and convincing evidence that it has been violated won’t help us alleviate the dangers Iran poses, and it would distance us from our international allies. The silence from those who vigorously opposed the deal when it was signed may signal that now they believe accepting the agreement, despite its flaws, may be the best course of action. Thus, the internal tensions that roiled the community in 2015 are not likely to resurface today.