Word on the Street: They were wrong on Iraq, now they're wrong on Iran

December 20th, 2013

By Alan Elsner

Philosopher and essayist George Santayana famously said that those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

How true this is right now for the United States, which after years of tragic and costly combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, now finds itself at a crossroads in its efforts to reach a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the crisis created by Iran’s nuclear program.

Last month, the Obama Administration, backed by five other major world powers, reached a preliminary agreement with Iran to freeze its nuclear program and roll back some of its most dangerous components for six months. During this time, the parties will try to reach a permanent solution that would place the Iranian program under strict and enforceable limitations and constant international supervision. Such an outcome would make Israel, the Middle East and the entire world infinitely safer.

This is not good enough for some in the US Senate, who have been backed by AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee and several other organizations. Far from trusting President Obama and allowing the Administration to pursue negotiations, they are actively trying to sabotage the process. The result may well put the United States, Israel and the international community back on a course with only two outcomes, both catastrophic. Either Iran will move forward to develop a nuclear weapon – or military action will be taken, not to destroy but only to delay, the Iranian program.

Of course, nobody and least of all J Street, wants to see Iran develop a nuclear weapon. But it's been clear for years that the goal of sanctions is to bring the Iranians to the negotiating table. Now that we've succeeded in this, why would we be trying to drive them away?

If we have learned anything from our disastrous military entanglement in Iraq, it should be that it is easy to begin wars – but very difficult to end them or to predict where they might lead. The American people were sold a bill of goods on Iraq. We were promised a simple, clean operation aimed at destroying weapons of mass destruction, which it turned out did not exist. We were told it would be easy to topple the Iraqi dictator and replace him with a democracy. Instead, we virtually destroyed a nation, setting off a sectarian conflict which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and cost trillions of dollars and which still continues. We lost thousands of our finest men and women and condemned tens of thousands others to debilitating physical and mental trauma. And we created a political vacuum that allowed Iranian influence to expand – and Iran’s nuclear program to proceed.

Some of those who advocated most strongly for that war are behind this week’s Senate bill to “expand sanctions imposed with respect to Iran and to impose additional sanctions with respect to Iran, and for other purposes.” The bill was introduced despite clear warnings from the Administration that it risks derailing the negotiations with Iran and isolating the United States from its allies. The bill’s sponsors also ignored a letter from 10 Senate committee chairmen which stated that enacting new sanctions now simply plays into the hands of Iranian hardliners who want the negotiations to fail. Lastly, the bill’s sponsors choose to disregard the assessment of the US Intelligence Community that new sanctions undermine the chance of a negotiated end to the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Not only the bill’s timing is extremely suspect but its content is also designed to ensure the failure of the talks. The bill demands the total dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program – a demand Israel has made but one that is entirely unrealistic -- as President Obama himself has stated. The goal of the talks has to be to convert the program into a peaceful, non-military endeavor under strict international supervision. The bill seeks to tie the President’s hands in many different ways. No wonder he has stated clearly that he will veto it if it ever reaches his desk.

Once again, J Street stands almost entirely alone among major American-Jewish organizations in opposing this bill. Our aim will be to persuade enough Senators to join the 10 senior committee chairs to stop the bill moving forward. We’re going to need your help in doing so. We’ll need you to call or email your congressional representatives and to mobilize your friends, neighbors, family, work colleagues and associates to do the same.

We simply must give these negotiations a chance to succeed. They are the only way to stop Iran developing a nuclear weapon while avoiding the threat of war. Those advocating for new sanctions, it seems, have learned nothing from history and are determined to repeat it. It’s up to us to stop them.