President Donald Trump’s announcement last week that the United States would be withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal was praised by some segments of the American Jewish community, but drew criticism from others. Statements in support of the U.S. pullout were issued by the Anti-Defamation League, the Republican Jewish Coalition and AIPAC, while J Street labeled the move as “reckless” and the Jewish Democratic Council of America bemoaned the decision as isolating the United States.
Local reaction was likewise mixed, with many Pittsburgh Jews expressing concern that the reputation of America would be tarnished by Trump’s move, and that a more effective way of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear state would have been to stay in the deal.
“I think [pulling out of the deal] is a horrendous thing from the perspective of U.S. foreign policy,” said Ross Harrison, a renowned expert on the Middle East and a professor at both Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the University of Pittsburgh. Harrison spoke by phone from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, where he had been meeting with Iranians in the aftermath of the U.S. pullout from the deal.
What Trump claims is problematic in the deal, Harrison said — the “sunset clause” providing for the ending of restrictions, as well as the fact that the deal does not cover missile technology development and Iran’s aggressive regional agenda — could have been handled better had Trump “stayed in the deal,” he said.
Because the deal is “narrow,” Harrison explained, Washington “had few constraints on trying to push back against Iran’s regional behavior.
“I’m not suggesting what we should or should not do with Iran regionally,” he added. “I’m saying that the U.S. under the nuclear deal was unfettered in dealing with Iran. We didn’t have to pull out of the nuclear deal to change Iran’s behavior.”
The only calculus in which “the desired outcome could only be achieved by renouncing the nuclear deal is regime change,” he said, stressing that regime change would be “a failed strategy for the U.S. and the Iranians.”
I’m saying that the U.S. under the nuclear deal was unfettered in dealing with Iran. We didn’t have to pull out of the nuclear deal to change Iran’s behavior.
Harrison identified the perception of American integrity, warm relations with European allies and Israel’s best interest as all suffering because of Trump’s decision.
Nancy Bernstein, co-chair of J Street Pittsburgh, agreed.
“In the estimation of 26 former top-ranking Israeli military and security officials, the Iran nuclear deal was working to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and the U.S. decision to pull out will ‘undermine Israel’s security,’” she wrote in an email.
“The Iran nuclear deal addressed Iran’s behavior vis a vis steps toward developing nuclear weapons,” Bernstein continued. “The deal makers were well aware of Iran’s other destructive regional policies and actions, its support for acts of terrorism, its presence in Syria and its ballistic missiles program. There was always the possibility of dealing with those issues outside the framework of the agreement, and U.S. allies who were partners in the deal (China, Russia, United Kingdom, Germany, France) were willing to do that.”
Now it’s a new ballgame, she surmised.
“Now that the U.S. has pulled out of the nuclear agreement, the U.S. has undermined the deal, and caused a division on a central question of Middle East security between the United States and Israel’s European allies,” she said, “it has further empowered the deal’s hardline Iranian opponents — and most importantly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Now, Iran can resume the full scope of its former nuclear activities — or advance well beyond them ahead of time — unrestricted and unmonitored.”
Laurie Eisenberg, professor of Middle East history at Carnegie Mellon University, also believes pulling out of the deal may have been a mistake.
“I would have supported staying in the agreement, while pressing every possible way to ensure the Iranians were complying, and that the inspectors had access to the sites necessary to confirm compliance,” she said.
While Eisenberg has “assumed all along that the Iranians were continuing with their weapons of mass destruction plan,” she also assumed that “the Americans and Israelis were secretly trying to sabotage that plan.”
“To my mind, the agreement was useful as an obstacle to the Iranians,” Eisenberg explained, adding that if the deal slowed the Iranian’s pursuant of nuclear weapons, the Americans and the Israelis would have more time to develop effective methods to disrupt its nuclear intentions.
Under the deal, Iran was getting the best of both worlds. It was being treated like a nation of the world while doing what it shouldn’t be doing both in Iran and around the world.
Among those supporting the president’s move is Stuart Pavilack, executive director of ZOA: Pittsburgh. He believes that pulling out of the deal will make “the world a safer place.”
“Under the deal, Iran was getting the best of both worlds,” Pavilack said. “It was being treated like a nation of the world while doing what it shouldn’t be doing both in Iran and around the world.”
The deal “never lived up to what it was supposed to be,” he continued. “The inspections weren’t ‘anywhere, anytime.’ Under the deal, inspections of the specified military sites were not allowed, and for other suspicious sites, the IEA (International Energy Agency) had to give 24 days’ notice before inspecting them. If you were going to schedule a drug bust, would you give 24 days’ notice? We know Iran has a history of cheating, and they certainly aren’t a peaceful player in the global arena.”
Ken Eisner, a local AIPAC supporter said he was “pleased we pulled out of the agreement,” but had two concerns: the integrity of the word of the United States in advance of a meeting with North Korea, and how Iran will “react to Israel.” He pointed to last week’s Iranian attacks on Israel from Syria as a case in point.
“I am encouraged by the fact that Germany is standing by Israel regarding the attacks from Syria,” Eisner said. “That makes me feel a little better.”
The Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh is neither condemning nor supporting the U.S. pullout, but is instead emphasizing the need to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
“Whether or not we agree with the United States’ decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, moving forward we must make it a top priority to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear capabilities,” CRC director Josh Sayles said in an email, using the deal’s preferred acronym. “Iranian proxies surrounding Israel’s borders are also a threat that must be deterred. We were reminded of this only a few days ago when Iran launched 20 missiles at Israel from neighboring Syria.”
Sayles urged “our leaders to take a deliberate, nuanced, and bipartisan approach toward this complex issue.”
“We emphasize the importance of a multilateral approach with our allies who, like the United States, recognize that a nuclearized Iran is a serious threat to all who value democracy and Western ideals,” added the CRC director. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.