Mark A.R. Kleiman, a drug policy expert at the University of California at Los Angeles, whom I respect for the cold clarity of his analysis, became quite emotional earlier this week about a subject far afield from the one he usually studies: The new Iran sanctions bill percolating in the U.S. Senate.
The bill's main sponsors, New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez and Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, believe that the threat of additional sanctions will help concentrate the attention of the Iranian regime as it heads into a new round of nuclear negotiations in Geneva. At this moment, passage of the bill, might actually derail negotiations and weaken the sanctions program already in place. (I wrote about my objections here.) Still, I understand the impetus behind such a bill: Additional sanctions might soon prove to be necessary during these negotiations, if the Iranians resist the demands of Western interlocutors to dismantle important components of their nuclear program.
Kleiman does not show any sympathy for those behind the bill, and asks his readers to lobby Democratic senators who support it: “Please consider making a phone call or sending a fax or email," telling those Senators, "to back off the lunatic piece of warmongering legislation known as the Kirk-Menendez bill, designed to torpedo the nuclear deal with Iran.”
Kleiman has particularly strong feelings about Ben Cardin, a Democratic Senator from Maryland: “As a young political junkie in Baltimore, I admired Cardin intensely. He was a great state legislator and has been a fine Congressman and Senator. And maybe -- I hope -- his support for the bill is just for show, or for tactical advantage, or because he’s afraid of Sheldon Adelson and the AIPAC goon squad. Surely he must be smart enough to figure out that war with Iran is as much of a losing proposition for Israel -- not for Bibi, but for the Zionist project -- as it is for the U.S.”
Kleiman also makes a specific request of his readers: “Please consider making your voice heard especially strongly if you’re Jewish, or have a Jewish-sounding name.”
Kleiman’s post is evidence of great anxiety on the part of Jews about the manner in which this bill has become a Jewish issue. Liberals are worried that the Jews will be blamed for creating conditions for war if the Iran talks fail. This wouldn’t be the first time Jews are blamed for starting wars. In this case, it is true that Israel and its friends on Capitol Hill are helping lead the charge for these preemptive sanctions. (Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies are also pushing hard, but they seem to push less noisily than Jews.) Of course, there's also a plausible argument to be made that strong sanctions could prevent war -- so far, at least, they have -- but we’ll leave that for another time.
Left-leaning Jews feel anxious when the warmonger label is attached to their community; they seek -- as Kleiman is doing -- to dissociate themselves from Jews, and Jewish groups, they find embarrassing. Meanwhile, right-leaning Jews, like many Israelis, feel anxiety about Iran itself. Its threats to eliminate the Jewish state create special worry for Israel’s supporters in the U.S., particularly when they’ve convinced themselves that Obama is an appeaser. Indeed, this Jewish anxiety -- on both sides of the debate -- grows from the fact that we live in an era during which the U.S. president (whom the majority of American Jews support) is in almost constant low-grade conflict with Israeli prime minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu. Such periods are never comfortable for American Jews of all political leanings, who tend to be happier when they see their president and the leader of the Jewish state in harmony.
Kleiman’s words also reflect the deep animus left-wing Jews feel toward the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which actually has grassroots support (and is also, by the way, not a “goon squad”), and the to the right-wing casino magnate Adelson, who holds various retrograde opinions about the Middle East conflict. (The post also raises questions about what exactly constitutes a Jewish name. In his formula, Scarlett Johannson, who is Jewish but carries an ostentatiously not-Jewish name, would be less useful to the anti-sanctions cause than, say, Julius Erving, or Bruce Springsteen -- or, for that matter, the Berenstain Bears).
The text of Kleiman's proposed letter to legislators is also noteworthy: “I don’t think the message needs to be very complex,” he states, and suggests the following language:
“Dear Senator X:
"President Obama and Secretary Kerry seem to have pulled off a diplomatic miracle by negotiating Iran out of its nuclear-weapons progam. Please refrain from making their job harder.”
The Jewish right (meaning Adelson and like-minded activists), along with much of the Republican Party establishment, would have you believe that the interim agreement between Iran and the Great Powers that will come into effect on Jan. 20, is either the moral equivalent of Munich, or something worse than Munich.
The Jewish left, and much of the U.S. liberal establishment, believes that the interim agreement represents an historic achievement on the part of the Obama administration, and a sure sign of Iranian-American rapprochement.
But Kleiman’s belief that Obama and Kerry have negotiated “Iran out of its nuclear-weapons program” is disconnected from reality, as much of a projected fantasy as is the Adelson fantasy that Barack Obama is Neville Chamberlain. The interim agreement reached in November allows Iran access to some of its frozen assets in exchange for a temporary freeze on most of its nuclear development. It merely sets the stage for the main negotiations, set to begin soon in Geneva. It is unlikely that the Obama and Kerry will negotiate away the Iranian nuclear weapons program -- a program whose existence Iran continues to deny.
One of the main problem with the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill is that it is premature. There may be a time -- soon -- when it becomes necessary. But there’s no reason for the U.S. to appear intransigent before the negotiations even start.