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Did Donald Trump Help Save the Iran Deal?

Probably not. But let the analysis begin.

Michael Schulson
September 03, 2015
Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Donald Trump speaks at a press conference in Michigan. Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

With Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski’s decision to back the Iran deal, President Obama now has the 34 Senate votes he needs to keep the accord alive. Congress can send whatever it wants to the White House, but, barring a surprise move from Iran or a sudden change of heart among Senate Democrats, they won’t be able to overturn a presidential veto.

When one chapter of a policy debate closes, another one opens. In this case, that means that it’s time for spin, speculation, and analysis of how, exactly, the White House withstood the combined pressure of the Republican Congressional delegation, key Senate Democrats (including Chuck Schumer), AIPAC, and other opponents of the deal.

Maybe the strangest of these explanations is that Donald Trump just distracted everyone enough for the deal to pass. One anonymous aide to the Republican leadership, according to the Los Angeles Times,

said billionaire Donald Trump’s attention-grabbing presidential campaign, along with scrutiny of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s email server, overshadowed all other issues this summer, making it harder for the Republicans’ message to attract attention.

Media time does matter, and Trump has certainly been winning headlines. But some other, more convincing narratives are beginning to emerge.

One of these is that the issue simply became too partisan, too fast. That polarization made it harder for opponents to build the kind of bipartisan coalition they’d need to challenge the foreign policy decisions of a sitting American president. “The more partisan the opposition to [the deal] becomes, the more Democrats rally behind Obama in response,” writes Peter Beinart for Haaretz, analyzing the President’s growing Senate support. And one AIPAC official has suggested that Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech to Congress, earlier this year, helped deepen that partisanship and weaken the deal’s opposition.

Another line of analysis looks at the five other countries that were on the Americans’ side of the table during negotiations with Iran. In a cover story this morning, the New York Times reports that high-ranking diplomats from Russia, Germany, China, France, and Britain met with Democratic Senators in August, and were instrumental in swinging support for the deal.

The Iran deal has yet to go into effect, and Netanyahu is expected to continue opposing the deal–although it’s unclear how much of that opposition will just be about putting spin on a political defeat.

Looking forward, the American Jewish community may have two larger, less policy-specific questions to address. The first concerns the schisms that the debate has exposed within American Jewry over Israel. A second question concerns how to come to terms with the kind of language –“the use of Jew-baiting and other blatant and retrograde forms of racial and ethnic prejudice,” as Tablet‘s editors put it earlier this summer–that might have shaped otherwise thoughtful conversations about the deal.

Michael Schulson is a freelance writer in Durham, North Carolina. He writes about religion, science, and culture.