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President Barack Obamain the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C., May 21, 2015. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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Dear Mr. President

Our readers—both supporters and detractors of the Iran nuclear deal—want answers from Barack Obama. Here are the points they hope he addresses in his speech to the American Jewish community today.

The Editors
August 28, 2015
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
President Barack Obamain the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C., May 21, 2015. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Last week, Tablet asked readers and friends what they want to hear from President Obama in his live webcast to the Jewish community on Friday afternoon. We received many responses. Below are the ones we’ve chosen to republish. They’re written by:

Yishai Schwartz, associate editor at Lawfare

It is not President Obama’s commitment to the Iran deal that is so disturbing; it is his boundless confidence. That this confidence birthed a campaign of vilification against dissenters is bad enough. But that it has prevented the president from offering concrete steps to address the deal’s very real weaknesses is far worse. President Obama should use Friday’s speech to acknowledge the deal’s flaws, and make proposals to remedy them.

In recent days, the rhetoric of some of the Iran deal’s opponents has been downright obscene. But the president has more than played his part to poison the debate. By declaring that the deal was “not even close” to a tough call, he dismissed his opposition as irrational. And by accusing the deal’s critics of a “mindset” that favors war, and ascribing their disagreement to either “knee-jerk partisanship” or “affinity for Israel,” he replaced substantive argument with psychoanalysis.

On Friday, the president should dispense with the denigration, and openly address the deeply serious objections to the deal. He should acknowledge that the expiration of key provisions will turn Iran into a nuclear threshold state in 15 years, and that the sanctions regime currently being dismantled will be near-impossible to rebuild. In key respects, our position will thus be significantly weaker, and our options more limited, than they are today. Recognizing these facts opens room for the president to then offer specific, concrete proposals to ameliorate the deal’s defects.

President Obama should re-establish a credible military threat by moving beyond the stale “all options are on the table” formulation to an explicit promise that an Iranian break toward weaponization will be met with force. He should deter Iranian cheating by outlining precisely what sort of violations will result in the return of which sanctions–and by ensuring and publicizing the agreement of partner nations. He should deter a serious threat to Israel (and the bloody conflict that is likely to follow) by committing publicly to giving Israel unequivocal backing for extensive operations in Lebanon if Hezbollah unleashes war against Israel’s north. And he should outline a set of incentives and threats that will restrain Iran in 15 years when in many ways, it will have surpassed its current capabilities.

If the president does this, he will have demonstrated a level of nuance and realism that even the deal’s critics ought to respect.

Anne Roiphe, novelist and journalist

No, all Israelis are not opposed to the nuclear deal. Many of them would sleep a lot better at night if it goes through. No, AIPAC is not the voice of all American Jews, but the well-funded political voice of the Israeli right in America. No, all American Jews are not convinced that Armageddon waits upon Iran’s trigger finger. No, our negotiators do not harbor a desire to harm Israel.

Those who hate the deal also hated the idea of Oslo—some hated it enough to assassinate Rabin and abort the peace process. Many of those who want to keep Iran outside the family of nations do not wish for peace because peace would wake Israel from the right-wing triumphalist dream of taking the whole land: all for Israel and none for its adversaries, causing endless war and suffering for both sides.

Yes, Israel has its own nuclear capacity and the possibility of mutual destruction has long kept horrendous bombs locked in their silos. This deal provides for verification and does not rely on trust. Do not believe those who tell you otherwise.

Yes, America and its Jewish community will one day be proud of their role in turning swords into ploughshares—nuclear-powered ploughshares, of course.

Peter Jacobson, Professor of Health Law and Policy and Director at University of Michigan’s Center for Law, Ethics, and Health

As a supporter of the admittedly flawed Iran nuclear deal, I would like to hear two things from President Obama. First, and most importantly, I would like him to tone down the rhetoric about how opponents are “warmongers.” I prefer that he would acknowledge the deal’s uncertainty, its limitations, and that people can have legitimate reasons for opposing the arrangement. Second, I would like President Obama to explain clearly why the benefits outweigh the risks, and why he thinks that war is the only alternative to supporting the agreement. I happen to agree with that position, but I think that the administration has done a poor job of responding to critics in a substantive way. Let’s end the ad hominem attacks on both sides.

The next question is: How should Prime Minister Netanyahu respond (or what actions he should take) given the all-but-certain defeat of the congressional resolution to oppose the deal. Is it time for Netanyahu to tone down his rhetoric and start the reconciliation process with the Obama administration?

The third question is directed to the American Jewish community. Is it time for them to admit that the deal will be signed and end the damaging split among American Jews?

Robin Freed, retired college professor

Is President Obama aware of the tunneling being done from Gaza to Israel by Iran-led Hamas? If so, does he understand that releasing a huge sum of money to Iran will imminently expand these actions and place Israel in even greater peril? Other than wishful thinking about Iran hopefully moderating its aggressive actions towards Israel in the future, can he provide specific examples of actions that will mitigate these Iran-supported aggressions towards Israel going forward?

Sohrab Ahmari, London-based editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal

Barack Obama sees his bad nuclear deal with Iran as the cornerstone of a presidential legacy otherwise bereft of significant achievements abroad. Mounting popular opposition won’t deter him, but I wish the president would address the American people with greater candor.

As an arms-control measure, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is hard to take seriously. Self-inspections at suspect military sites, a minimum-24-day waiting period for verification, and a 15-year limit on most of the restrictions are among the more obvious flaws. And the Obama administration has yet to offer a good explanation as to why the nuclear deal also entails the lifting of a conventional arms and ballistic-missile embargo on Tehran—or why the JCPOA de-sanctions leading Iranian terrorists like Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani.

So for starters, Obama should acknowledge that the JCPOA is less a nuclear accord than it is an attempt to align the U.S. with the Islamic Republic, away from traditional Mideast allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. Giving Iran’s rulers access to the global stream of commerce will moderate their behavior, and Iran will emerge as a new linchpin of regional security.

That’s the theory anyway, though it doesn’t take account of the ideological nature of the Iranian regime. Obama has said, for example, that the mullahs only espouse anti-Semitism “at the margins.” This is ahistorical nonsense. The regime’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, embedded Jew-hatred in its DNA. It was Khomeini who first called for Israel to be “erased from the pages of time.” Iran’s leadership has since funded Hamas and Hezbollah, and supported terrorism against Jews and Americans around the world.

Even if the president insists on pushing forward with this deal, then, he ought to acknowledge the nature of the regime he is making it with.

Rabbi Elliott Kleinman, Congregation Beth Israel, Honesdale, PA

Let me begin with a disclaimer: my daughter lives in Jerusalem. This is not an abstract conversation as it affects me and my family very directly and personally.

That said, I am no longer interested in the pros and cons of the deal. It may or may not pass. Regardless, the world is on board. The challenge then is the day after. I want to hear the president, my president, talk about the following: What is his plan to hold Iran to the agreement? What will his response be if/when Iran breaks the agreement? And how will be he protect my daughter, his citizen, living in Jerusalem? I want President Obama to talk about how he plans to repair the American-Israeli relationship. The damage that’s been done is extraordinary. And, if he has time, it might be nice to hear an apology for the belittling and maligning of the Jewish community in his speeches.

Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action provides the best way to prevent Iran from completing the nuclear-weapons program that it paused under international pressure in 2003. I’d like to hear President Obama state that clearly and strongly.

But I’d also like him to place this diplomatic effort in the context of a broader regional security strategy. An Iranian nuclear bomb would embolden Iranian proxies, like Hezbollah, to take much greater risks. But dealing with the nuclear weapons problem still leaves work to be done dealing with the proxies and terrorists that threaten peace in the region.

Some people worry that the president, having won a significant diplomatic victory, will dust off his hands and walk away. Obama’s August 19 letter to Rep. Jerrold Nadler makes a start in dispelling that worry. The letter affirms his commitment to “counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region” and lists a number of steps the administration is taking. What I want to hear now, though, is how those steps and this deal fit into a strategy for stopping the carnage in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya before it further threatens America’s allies and partners in the region.

Richard A. Rohan, attorney

The preamble of the deal says Iran will never seek nuclear weaponry. Why doesn’t the deal back this up with a simple provision—not only during years 1-10, but at any time thereafter if Iran’s conduct is determined to have no likely purpose other than weaponization (e.g. enrichment beyond a certain level, etc.), then the P5+1 (including Iran) AGREE to reimpose the same sanctions that were in place before the agreement? (Even this is an inferior “fix,” as Iran will by such time be far better off economically to withstand any adverse effects of re-imposition of such sanctions. But just as a matter of simple logic of negotiating a deal, why is the sanctions relief permanent, yet the non-weaponization undertaking finite? Seems like P5 got snookered.)

Next question: Why can you not give credit that people as smart and concerned as you can read the deal and oppose it, without being tagged as tools of the Republican right wing, Iranian extremists, or Israeli puppets? Isn’t that a terribly harsh and demeaning assessment?

Thane Rosenbaum, novelist, essayist, and director of the Forum on Law, Culture and Society at New York University Law School

Hollywood loves a good showdown, and Congress is now hosting one. In this drama, however, the lawmen get duped. The hoedowns are shakedowns. Riding off into sunsets is ruined by mushroom clouds.

President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are in a modern day gunfight—a duel where the Iranians actually had the quicker draw. It won’t matter. After a nuclear apocalypse, good luck finding even tumbleweed.

Still staunch but brittle allies can’t agree on whether the Iran deal was negotiated by dunces or whether it averts nuclear catastrophe. But if America has Israel’s back, where is its own spine?

This is not a time for magical thinking. Iran is the land of magic carpet rides, and Secretary Kerry has been on one since falling from his bicycle. The deal can’t be verified. Sanctions “snapping-back” are a desert mirage. It will be a decade of deception, bartering at shuks, inhaling hocus-pocus through hookahs.

This is not a movie with a happy ending. It’s a webcast starring a lame duck president defending a legacy that owes much to Chamberlain—Neville, and Wilt.

Obama won’t back down. All is not okay at this corral.

Barbara Zasloff, psychologist

How does President Obama interpret the effort of Mahmoud Abbas to increase relations with Iran’s leadership at this time? Will the infusion of massive funds to Iran—and thereby to Hamas and Hezbollah—increase the likelihood of peace in the region?

Annice Grinberg, retired computer programmer/analyst

I would like to know how we can possibly trust Iran to adhere to the terms of the agreement, especially after their history of deceit.

Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

Here’s what I’d like the president to say: “I’d like to depart from my usual talking points. I won’t talk about the particulars of the deal, my administration’s military assistance to Israel, or about the Iron Dome. I won’t explain how this deal removes 98% of the fissile material from the cartoon bomb that Prime Minister Netanyahu held up at the United Nations a few years ago.”

“Instead, I want to talk to you about my commitment to the State of Israel in a different way. No American president has been more respectful of Israel’s national security concerns while receiving more grief from the government of Israel. I have opened the pipeline for even more military equipment, despite Prime Minister Netanyahu’s disrespectful speech before a Joint Session of Congress. I have protected Israel at the United Nations when all but three countries wanted to place a spotlight on its nuclear weapon capabilities—and even as Israel’s ambassador met with dozens of members of Congress trying to torpedo this deal.”

“My support for Israel hasn’t wavered, even in the face of this unprecedented campaign against an agreement that prevents Iran from obtaining a single nuclear weapon. There is no better agreement than this, and there is no better friend of Israel than me.”

Arthur Elstein, Professor Emeritus, department of Medical Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago

Here’s a question: Israel takes very seriously Iran’s repeated threats to destroy the Zionist entity. Kerry and Obama believe these threats are just rhetoric, not to be taken seriously. If they are wrong, who bears the brunt of the mistake? (Hint: it’s not the U.S.A.) Obama is right to argue that rejecting the deal does not change Iran’s position about Israel short-term, and he hopes the deal’s long-term effects will lead to real change in their attitudes. He was explicit about this in his interview with Tom Friedman. He might be right about the long-term too; then the deal will be a great triumph for his diplomacy. If he is wrong, then who is assuming the risk? That is why this deal is so controversial and divisive among American and Israeli Jews.

Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the Anti-Defamation League

I, for one, am excited for the president’s remarks on Friday. As someone who was privileged to serve in the Obama White House, I am familiar with his intellect and his intensity. I know that the president sincerely believes this deal can catalyze change inside Iran. We oppose the deal, but I respect his efforts to use diplomacy to bring about the peace that we all want.

So, I hope to hear two things. First, I hope to hear what specific measures we will undertake to prepare for the day after, and the prospect of an emboldened and enriched Islamic Republic that espouses unrelenting anti-Semitism, represses its own religious and ethnic minorities, continuously threatens America and our allies, including Israel, and funds terrorism.

As we at the ADL have noted, these are “consensus points” in our country. All parties understand that these Iranian activities sow the seeds for perpetual conflict. Unless these activities explicitly are addressed and creative steps are outlined, I’m deeply concerned that the deal would extend a patina of legitimacy to a regime whose warmongering rhetoric and hateful actions continue unabated, despite the Iranian leadership’s efforts to portray themselves as moderates.

Second, whether we call it advocating, lobbying, politicking, or any other phrase, I hope that President Obama might touch upon that fact that all Americans should speak up when they agree or disagree with a policy.

People certainly should stick to the facts and avoid hyperbole. We have asked all sides to behave in a civil manner and avoid innuendo and stereotyping, but, to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, the ability of people to get into the arena and strive valiantly makes our political process perhaps the greatest in the world.

I would like to see the president remind all Americans, regardless of their background or beliefs, that speaking your mind and voting your conscience are not an abrogation of duty, but in fact the highest obligations of citizenship.

Allan Leicht, playwright, writer, producer, and director

The Iran deal provides for the signatories to protect Iran’s nuclear program from harm—military, physical, cyber, espionage, and otherwise. If Israel were to take action against Iran’s nuclear program, on whose side would the president and the U.S. be? What action would the president take?

Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy

President Barack Obama has continuously oversold the Iran deal in a way that has alienated fence-sitters and pushed away skeptics. It might be a solid deal, but it sounds like a stretch when Obama uses superlative language (“strongest non-proliferation agreement ever negotiated”) while failing to take on board the concerns of not just opponents but also reluctant supporters (I’m one of the latter).

I hope Obama avoids the dismissive tone of his American University speech. The administration’s “deal-or-war” line smacks of bad faith. By saying the alternative is war, Obama is implying that he would have attacked Iran if talks collapsed (which is hard to believe). And, as my colleague Ken Pollack laid out in his book Unthinkable, there was always a third option, which, however bad, was an option nonetheless: containing a nuclear Iran. Meanwhile, suggesting that the deal is great for Israel isn’t likely to be a winning argument. How, Israelis might wonder, do Obama and Kerry presume to know what’s in Israel’s interests more than Israeli politicians?

Let’s be honest. For most people, the technical details of the deal matter little. Your position on the Iran deal likely depends on how you view Iran and America’s role in the Middle East more broadly. So I hope the President focuses on what the deal means for U.S. strategy in the region going forward. If the Iran deal is blocked by congress, we will spend the next one-and-a half years re-running the debate over Iran’s nuclear program, which has already monopolized national attention for far too long. It’s time to move on, build on the momentum of the deal, and focus on neglected but just as pressing issues, like the Syrian civil war. (This would be as good a time as any to announce more aggressive measures against the Syrian regime, Iran’s leading Arab ally.)

Lastly, instead of making this about centrifuges and breakout times, Obama should connect the deal to our democratic values. Everything’s usually about us, but presumably a deal with Iran is also about Iranians. In one survey of 22 Iranian human rights activists, support for negotiations was “unanimous,” while over half believed that a deal would lead to a significant improvement in human rights in Iran. If Iranian democracy advocates think a deal might buoy their cause, we owe it to ourselves to take them seriously.

From the editors of Tablet Magazine.

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