What Do We Learn from the Iran Deal?

What lessons have we learned from the process behind getting the Iran deal through American congress? Perhaps not much new, but some clarity on old understandings of the relationship between the United States and Israel.

Now that President Barack Obama has secured more than enough votes in the U.S. Senate to assure the implementation of the agreement with Iran on nuclear issues and sanctions, we can focus on the lessons learned from the process’ intense political dynamics. Three in particular stand out: U.S.-Israeli, U.S.-Saudi Arabian/Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and GCC-Iranian relations. U.S.-Israeli bilateral ties get the most attention these days, but all three are equally important, and turbulent in their own ways.

The Iran agreement heightened sensitivities all around, and significantly increased the fears of Israel and the Arab GCC states about Iranian capabilities and intentions. History will clarify if these fears are justified or wildly exaggerated (I see them as exaggerated); today we can only assess the implications of the dynamics of the past two years.

The American and Israeli media are full of accounts of the fallout of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s all-out effort in the United States Congress and media to thwart the agreement’s approval in Congress. That effort failed, and left behind considerable irritation, and some anger, among Americans who felt Israel went too far in its direct attempt to manipulate American foreign policy. Most damaging was Israel’s very public campaign to turn American members of Congress against their own president’s determination of the best interests of the United States.

I suspect the core, strong strategic and emotional bonds between the United States and Israel will remain unchanged. Political men and women—as is their vocation—will quickly put ill feelings behind them as they seek allies and assets for the approaching next election. Obama also will increase American military and technical assistance for Israel’s security needs, as his way of showing that he disagrees with Netanyahu but loves and is committed to the security of Israel. None of this is new, so none of it is important, either.

What is new and important is that the Israeli prime minister, with his considerable American allies and assorted instruments of influencing American public opinion (like pro-Israel lobby groups and policy institutes in Washington) lost a battle that he said related to the existence of Israel, and lost it in a very public manner. This confirms two basic truths that we have long known—that Israel has extraordinary influence in the U.S. Congress, but also that the American president can defeat the pro-Israel lobby groups when he takes his case to the American people. So none of this is new, either.

I do see some noteworthy aspects here, though. Some American members of Congress and other public figures felt uncomfortable, even offended, that they were being asked to choose to support their own president or the Israeli prime minister. The appropriate response to this is essentially, “tough luck.” According to the rules and the law of politics in America, all interested parties are free to lobby for their views, using votes, money, congressional visits, fear-mongering, advertising, and public speeches. Lobby groups for Israel or others will digest this lesson and perhaps be more subtle in their activities in future.

More troubling, many American Jews will be uncomfortable if they feel that because of the political actions of some fellow Jews in Israel, they will be seen as Americans with split loyalties, which always creates openings for vile anti-Semitic attacks, which should be thwarted by all available means because they are a catastrophe for all concerned.

Another unclear aspect of this experience is how pro-Israel lobby groups, including American Christians, might adjust their behavior in the United States following this defeat. Some of this may be clarified in the behavior of such groups towards American members of Congress who supported the Iran deal. Will these groups—as some of them have done in the past—try to defeat vulnerable incumbent congressmen or women, by supporting pro-Israel candidates? This, too, would be totally normal and legal in the world of American politics and public life; so anyone who dislikes this process is best advised to learn how to play the game and get in the ring—with the confirmation that American special interests groups that support Israel are not all-powerful, and can be defeated in a public battle.

The two other important dimensions of the Iran agreement—Arab GCC relations with the U.S. and Iran—are more complex, and conducted almost totally behind closed doors. So perhaps one lesson here is that Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states, who find their wellbeing more closely tied to the interests and policies of both the United States and Iran, should come out of the shadows and start to master the mechanics of public politics and diplomacy around the world.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global