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MISDEAL? THE GLOBAL JEWISH COMMUNITY’S RESPONSE TO THE NUCLEAR AGREEMENT WITH IRAN

By: Daniel Landman



The recently-signed agreement between Iran, the P5+1 and the European Union, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has occupied a dominant place in the news of late, breeding intense confusion and discord on an international level. In all the flurry of debate, people trying to make sense of it all may find their heads spinning like a nuclear centrifuge.

In particular, questions about the future abound, questions that are especially salient for those concerned about the welfare and wellbeing of the State of Israel. Will this agreement prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon in the short term or the long term, as it is meant to do? Will lifting many of the economic sanctions imposed against Iran thus far, including releasing their copious frozen assets abroad, allow the Islamic Republic to increase funding to their terrorist proxy groups around the world? Will the deal increase the likelihood that Israel (or the United States, for that matter) will resort to the “military option” against Iran? 

Now, in the near-immediate aftermath of the deal’s signing, none of these questions can be answered conclusively. But that hasn’t stopped political and communal leaders in the United States and abroad – and indeed, in today’s age, any person with internet access and an opinion –
to voice forcefully their support for or condemnation of the JCPOA, often along with their prognostication regarding what is in store for the world down the road.

Before we dive into a review of these responses, though, let us outline some of the JCPOA’s basic principles and provisions.

The Agreement

First and foremost, Iran’s uranium enrichment operation will be greatly curtailed. This means that the amount of enriched uranium that they already possess – which could eventually be used to fuel a bomb, ifenriched highly enough – will be reduced by a huge percentage, and that their ability to enrich uranium in the future will be severely diminished. The only uranium enrichment that will still be permitted will be limited to one nuclear facility, using a greatly reduced number of centrifuges, and will not exceed the level of enrichment necessary for peaceful usage (e.g., civilian power and research). Iran will also essentially abandon its pursuit of weapons-grade
plutonium by redesigning a reactor that was seemingly designed for this purpose. The most direct aim of these restrictions is to increase the amount of time Iran would need – should they suddenly decide to disregard these commitments – to produce a functional nuclear weapon. Notably, most of the restrictions outlined above have a built-in “sunset clause,” meaning that they only apply for a limited time, i.e., 8–15 years.

In order to enforce these provisions, inspectors will be given greater access to Iran’s nuclear facilities. These inspectors will ostensibly make sure that all the nuclear materials present at the facilities, as well as the activities taking place there, are consistent with the terms of the agreement. If the inspectors find that Iran has violated the agreement, they can then trigger a process through which the economic sanctions that were lifted as part of the deal “snap back” into their original place. 

In return for accepting these limitations to its nuclear program, most of the economic sanctions against Iran will be lifted. This will include the release of over $100 billion of frozen Iranian funds, allowing foreign companies to invest in Iran and engage in trade with the Islamic Republic. 

The Jewish Response: Stateside

The reaction to the JCPOA among Americans has largely been divided along political lines, seemingly having much to do with support for U.S. President Barack Obama and trust in his administration’s policies. The response from prominent American Jewish organizations seemsto follow this breakdown: Left-leaning Jewish institutions have released statements preaching optimism and faith in the deal and its architects, while those further to the right – Orthodox institutions in particular – have voiced fear, outrage and harsh criticism of an administration that would sign such an agreement at the expense of its closest ally, Israel.

In a joint statement, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU) and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) decried the JCPOA as “seriously wanting,” saying that the two large organizations “will mobilize our member rabbis and synagogues throughout the nation to urge Congress to fulfill their mandate and disapprove the agreement.” In particular, the organizations pointed to the inspections guidelines, which they claimed are not rigorous enough to ensure Iran’s compliance, and the release of Iran’s frozen funds, which they claimed will inevitably be used “to fuel even more terrorism and destabilizing activities around the globe.” 

AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, also took a skeptical stance, highlighting the fact that inspectors would not have immediate access to nuclear sites, as they would be required to notify Iranian officials well in advance of their visits. 

Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) head Morton Klein went further in his criticism, warning that “the deal gives Iran $150 billion immediately to the Adolf Hitler of the Middle East, [Supreme Leader Ali] Khameini, and to the Nazi Germany of the Middle East, Iran, which will be used to fund Islamic terrorism all over the world.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, the liberal lobby J Street announced in a statement that the agreement “advances both US and Israeli security interests.” The statement went on to insist that “a clear majority of Jewish Americans agrees with us and backs the deal,” a claim that some have contested in light of the lobby’s questionable interpretation of their polling results.

The Jewish Response: Israel

It may come as little surprise that the response to the JCPOA in Israel has been quite different. In contrast to the United States, where the general population’s opinion regarding the deal is split fairly evenly, a sizeable majority of Israelis oppose the agreement – 70 percent, according to an Israeli poll, as opposed to only 10 percent who support the deal. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, following his extended, very public struggle to prevent the agreement from coming into existence in the first place, predictably called it “a historic mistake for the world.” Netanyahu stressed that Israel’s commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons still stands, intimating that Israel is prepared to act in whatever way is best for its own survival, even if thatmeans doing so without the support of the West. 

Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Bayit Yehudi (“Jewish Home”) party and current Education Minister in Netanyahu’s coalition government, couched his opposition to the JCPOA in direr terms, reminding Western citizens that “about half a trillion dollars has been transferred to the hands of a terrorist superpower, the most dangerous country in the world, who has promised the destruction of nations and peoples.”

While it is certainly no shock that Netanyahu – or Bennett, generally considered further to the right than Netanyahu on the political spectrum – would maintain such a dismal view of the JCPOA and what it means for Israel, it was more surprising to hear similar reactions from Netanyahu’s political archrival, Labor party leader Isaac Herzog. Herzog, who was Netanyahu’s chief opponent in Israel’s legislative election this past March, and who frequently advocates “rebuilding our relationship with the US, which Bibi [Netanyahu] destroyed,” declared inan interview that he agreed with Netanyahu’s characterization of the JCPOA as a bad deal. “The agreement is problematic and it will set some dangerous forces free,” he said. “In this case, there’s no opposition and coalition.”

One has to journey to the far left of the Israeli political scene, to Meretz party leader Zehava Gal-On, to hear even a glimmer of public Israeli support for the deal with Iran. In what may likely have been more an example of internal political posturing than a foreign policy statement, Gal-On asserted that “it is better to give this agreement a chance, the alternative being the threats and intimidation that Netanyahu offers.”

What’s Next?

It is not overly challenging to understand and appreciate the
near-monolithic negative reaction to the signing of the JCPOA among Israelis and among those in the United States who care – truly and genuinely, and not merely as a foreign policy position or talking point –
about Israel’s survival. The radical clerics who wield power in Iran have made it very clear that Israel’s destruction is one of their practical goals, issuing statements that are increasingly difficult to dismiss as idle talk. In light of this, allowing Iran to enrich any uranium at all – no matter how little – not to mention allowing it access to funds that may end up in the hands of the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah, strike Israelis and their supporters as beyond absurd. At the same time, no one can say with certainty that the terms of the deal will not be effective, and that Iranwill not become a peaceful member of the world community. All that is certain now is that the deal is done, and that – barring Congress’s unlikely intervention – its opponents will simply have to deal with it.