Imagine if at the height of Apartheid madness in South Africa, the president of the United States had decided to partner with the racist white regime in Pretoria, lift sanctions, and put that country’s illegal nuclear program on a glide path toward obtaining a nuclear bomb. Would South Africa have free and open democratic elections? Would the African continent be a better, safer place today? And what would America look like at home? Would we be a more equal country with an African-American president, or would we be something meaner and uglier? Who knows. But it seems safe to say that instead of honoring Nelson Mandela, Americans would probably be hearing a lot more of David Duke, or worse.
For 36 years now, Iranian officials have threatened to annihilate Israel. As Basij commander Mohammad Reza Naqdi said recently, “Destroying Israel is non-negotiable.” There may be different centers of power throughout the regime, as Iran experts posit, but everyone agrees with the Supreme Leader that Israel—the “Zionist cancer”—has got to go. Middle East experts and experienced Iran watchers in the West typically dismiss such threats as instrumental rhetoric intended to thrill local bigots and separate the Arab and Persian masses from their rulers. So why take such rhetoric seriously? The Iranians wouldn’t ever really use the bomb. In fact, they’re very clever, rational people.
Of course, if you’re a leader in the American Jewish community, you can’t help but hear Iran’s exterminationist rhetoric in a different frame. So maybe the legacy of Rabbi Stephen Wise was on the mind of American Jewish leaders Monday when President Barack Obama called them to a meeting at the White House. It being Holocaust Remembrance Week, who wants to be remembered as the contemporary version of Wise, who chose to protect his relationship with Roosevelt rather than criticize a president who did nothing to save European Jews from extermination?
“It was one of the tensest meetings I can ever remember,” said one participant who has been invited to many White House sit-downs over the years and requested anonymity. “The president spoke for 25 minutes, without notes,” he told me. “It was very impressive. Some people said very nice things, others expressed concerns, and talked about the role of Congress, and he talked about presidential prerogative, and cited other precedents for it. Lots of people challenged him very strongly, like about taking the threats of dictators seriously when Khamenei says death to America, death to Israel, death to the Jews. The president said he knows what the regime is, which is why he is trying to take away their weapons. He didn’t dismiss what the Iranians say, he just didn’t really address it.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal center, who also attended the meeting, was willing to speak on the record to Tablet. “Speaking for myself,” said Hier, “I was not satisfied.” Hier declined to describe the president’s comments but told me the point he made in the meeting. “Mr. President,” he said, “in a few weeks, you and others will be going to Germany to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps. What meaning does that have when while negotiating over the nuclear treaty with Iran, none of the six powers said a word when the ayatollah Tweeted about annihilating the state of Israel, or a leading general in the IRGC said this is the regime’s raison d’etre? What meaning does the 70th anniversary have? Hitler said he was going to murder all the Jews in a letter from 1919, and he wound up doing it. If you hear the ayatollah saying that, every world leader should repudiate it immediately.”
What else can the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center say? But who knows for sure if the Iranians actually mean to make good on their threats against Israel? After all, say the experts, Iran is not irrational.
Of course Iran is irrational. It is irrational in its very essence, for anti-Semitism is the form that unreason takes in modern political life. Disregarding the regime’s anti-Semitism is not a way of politely papering-over stray rhetoric or a barely relevant superstition that is not of any conceivable relevance to grand matters of state. It is to willfully ignore the nature of the regime. Seen from this perspective, the White House’s key foreign policy initiative—to strike a deal with such a regime—is willfully perverse, and doomed to failure.
The Washington scorecard on the Iranian nuclear deal is clear—there are winners and there are losers. On one side, there are those who oppose any deal that does not prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but only postpones a nuclear breakout. That side includes AIPAC and CUFI and the vast majority of the pro-Israel community, both Jews and Evangelicals, the mainstream of the Republican party, and a number of key Democratic voices, from Senator Robert Menendez to Alan Dershowitz. This side lost. It was routed because the President of the United States wanted a deal with Iran—even a bad deal.
The winning team includes not just the White House, but also advocates of the deal, from journalists and Middle East experts to lobbyists and former policymakers. No doubt many of them sincerely want nothing other than comity with the Islamic Republic, historical reconciliation after nearly four decades of enmity.
The problem, however, is that the administration is not striking a deal with Iranian moderates or the good people of Iran who we are frequently told love America and have no issue with Israel, in spite of the massive “Death to America, Death to Israel” rallies. Rather, the White House is coming to an accommodation with a sick regime.
And insofar as the White House is providing billions in sanctions relief, and partnering with the regime in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon while providing it with a pathway toward attaining a nuclear bomb, it is effectively rewarding Iran for its behavior and its rhetoric. Instead of walking away from the negotiating table or telling Khamenei to go to hell when he threatened to obliterate Israel, Obama doubled down in his efforts to get a deal. After all, say the experts, the exterminationist anti-Semitism isn’t nice, but it shouldn’t really be taken seriously.
The winners then include not just the White House and the American voices of reason who want peace with Iran, but also the fringe characters, who are now welcome to air their views about the tentacle octopus of Jewish power at conferences and panels here at home, because, after all, anti-Semitism is no big deal. The winning side is a big tent of bedlam—the obsessives who rant about Jewish money and mind-control, and Jews sending Americans out to die for Jewish causes. The White House has opened the door to this freak show by striking a deal with a regime that embodies anti-Semitism of the most virulent sort, at a moment when Jews are being abused and gunned down on the streets of Europe. Who does that kind of message embolden?
Roosevelt never lifted a finger to save European Jews, but he did defeat the Nazis. Obama writes letters to the man who threatens to exterminate Jews and promises him peace. American Jewish leaders have plenty to worry about. The cost to American political life of legitimizing exterminationist anti-Semitism may turn out to be one of the worst parts of a bad deal.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).