On Iran (Sermon delivered on July 17, 2015)
It is my favorite anecdote about Jewish historians, of which there are surprisingly few: in 1898, a German historian named Heinrich Graetz published a comprehensive history of the Jewish people. Titled, cleverly, “History of the Jews”, Graetz presented historical figures and historical events in grand detail, surprising in large part because his familiarity with these events would have been borne out of studying original source documents, many of which were un-catalogued at that point in history. At the conclusion of his six-volume set, he concluded that the Jewish experience was lachrymose, a downward trajectory from the highs of the Second Temple Period ending in the first century of the Common Era. Sure, he identified peaks of the Jewish experience – the writing of the Babylonian Talmud in 500, The Golden Age of Spain, and plenty of other events and figures. But, he concluded, they are “blips” on the overall downward spiral of the Jewish experience.
That same year, Salo Baron, an American, published, oddly enough, a six-volume set titled The History of Jews, detailing the historical events and presenting historical figures in similarly grand detail. Baron didn’t just present SOME of the same historical data as Graetz, he overlapped precisely: both men listed the same figures, the same events, with the same details. In his conclusion, Baron characterized the Jewish experience as one of magnificent highs, punctuated by lows from time to time throughout our history.
Two historians, the same information available to both, writing on the same topic, and coming up with completely different opinions.
Earlier this week, the P5+1 and Iran concluded negotiations meant to both disable Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and ease near-global sanctions on the regime. I have been wildly impressed by some of the commentary I have read, from some of the most thoughtful and articulate individuals of our time, weighing in on whether the agreement is good or bad; and I have seen some commentary, like many of us here, written from an ill-informed position, the author having made up his or her mind long before the agreement was made available to Congress. I suppose in the era in which we live that we can cherry-pick facts, or ignore them entirely, to better sustain the opinions we have generated. As a friend of mine put it, “God bless the internet, for thanks to the internet we no longer need facts.”
To offer clarity, I aim to present some of the conversations between those thoughtful organizations and commentators who have truly studied the document and whose opinion I believe carries greater weight. I am mentioning this at present, right off the bat, because I plan to ignore the fringe commentary: those commentators who decided that, because this agreement bears the fingerprint of the Obama Administration it is to be defeated, and those who believe equally strongly that, because it bears the fingerprint of the Obama Administration is must be celebrated.
So I guess we should begin with the agreement itself, which, yes, I have read, all on Politico.com. And I must admit that it was not an easy read; it read like a foreign policy agreement, similar to the papers I read through college as I was earning my Bachelor’s in International Relations. The most jarring piece of the text is the level of ambiguity – it actually is fully permissible to draw a few very different conclusions based upon the text. For example, and I promise I will only use one example, the agreement states “…if the International Atomic Energy Agency has concerns regarding undeclared nuclear materials or activities…the IAEA will provide Iran the basis for such concerns and request clarification. If Iran’s explanations do not resolve the IAEA’s concerns, the Agency may request access to such locations…The IAEA will provide Iran the reasons for access in writing and will make available relevant information. Iran may propose to the IAEA alternative means of resolving the IAEA’s concerns; those alternatives will be given due and prompt consideration. If the two sides are unable to reach satisfactory arrangements within 14 days of the IAEA’s original request for access, a Joint Commission, by consensus or by a vote of 5 or more of its 8 members, would advise on the necessary means to resolve the IAEA’s concerns. This process would not exceed 7 days and Iran would implement the necessary means within 3 days. “
Now, some could conclude that this agreement would leave Iran time to clean a facility – the concern is raised on day 1, Iran takes a few days – really, an unspecified number, so Iran could argue for 10 days, or 20 days, or 6 months – to consider the concerns before responding. After which point the IAEA can request access, giving Iran 14 days to grant access. If they do not, a committee assembles and has 7 days, from the 14, to respond, and Iran then has 3 days to either grant access or provide the means to resolve the issue. The problem is that the time is not specified for the initial stage. And this ambiguity raises some red flags.
From the outset, there were challenges from the Right. I am including in these challenges some of the more often repeated challenges from commentary originating with journalists, opinion makers, politicians, and right-leaning Pro-Israel organizations, many of which I imagine we have all read and pursued via our inboxes or Facebook pages. Among those challenges were these major issues:
- We can’t trust the Iranian regime – they will cheat their way to a nuclear weapon;
- Lifting sanctions rewards Iran before they have done anything;
- The deal only lasts for 15 years, after which Iran can move forward with uranium enrichment for military purposes;
- The deal allows Iran to keep its nuclear infrastructure;
- The US should insist on a better deal and put forward tougher sanctions.
The President, on behalf of his negotiating team, ably led by Secretary of State Kerry, addressed the nation earlier this week and defended the agreement. I have selected parts of his comments that I believe address some of the larger criticisms, and I will articulate that some of these same points have come from Left-leaning commentators and left-of-center pro-Israel organizations:
- In response to the lack of trust and the belief that Iran will lie…they point out that the agreement is not about trusting Iran; it is about verifying compliance. They argue that we now have constant monitoring by inspectors at all nuclear sights, tracking on all uranium containers, and constant surveillance on centrifuges.
- Regarding sanctions that would be lifted, they argue that the lifting of sanctions only occurs when inspectors verify compliance, and should Iran be in violation, sanctions will snap-back into place.
- While the agreement may only last 15 years, embedded in the agreement is a constant state of monitoring.
- Regarding the nuclear infrastructure, Iran would need to remove 2/3 of its infrastructure, leaving only outdated machines whose purpose can only be peaceful enrichment.
- The final response has to do with the sanctions. Should Iran fail to comply, sanctions would snap-back into place.
The big argument from the Administration is that the agreement accomplishes the goals of the talks, which is to monitor and curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Beth Schafer and I were able to participate in a conference call yesterday sponsored by our friends at AIPAC that also raised some questions, offering a different lens through which to view the agreement. The policy analysts at AIPAC placed the agreement with Iran in the context of 20 years of diplomacy, including the historic use of sanctions in this case. What they identified was quite compelling, and I would like to share some of those findings with you.
Regarding the nuclear agreement, AIPAC argues that the current plan legitimizes Iran’s nuclear project. Currently, the International Community has objections to Iran’s nuclear activity over the past 20 years. With this agreement, those objections would need to be withdrawn. Further, given 15 years under the present agreement, when it expires, Iran would have the ability to produce enough fuel for a nuclear bomb in days.
Further, the program challenges the global move toward nuclear proliferation. With Iran closing in on nuclear threshold status, they argue, more than a dozen Arab states have expressed interest in similarly designated “peaceful” nuclear programs. We would be reckless to assume that other Arab nations would allow Iran to be the only nuclear capable state, with the fear being a race in the Middle East to explore uses, including for arms, of nuclear technology.
But AIPAC also looks beyond the nuclear components of the agreement. Part of the agreement is to grant Iran access, within a very short timeframe, to an estimated $150 billion held in seized Iranian accounts abroad. Once the sanctions are lifted, Iran will receive this money. Coupled with the increased revenue from sales of oil and foreign investment, Iran looks to receive a tremendous amount of money almost immediately. This component of the agreement is quite appealing to Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as other terror groups, who already receive much of their funding and training from Iran.
AIPAC also fears interrupting the regional balance struck with allies of the United States, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, who have relied on the sanctions and the international community to prevent Iran from becoming the leading regional power. Further, while the plan calls for a lifting of economic sanctions almost immediately, the arms embargo would be lifted after 5 years and the embargo against missile development would be lifted after 8 years. Iran would find the immediate funding and, in a very short time, the military might to threaten regional stability, or what little stability, predictability and “norms” are sustained with the current balance of power.
AIPAC also fears that this agreement is based upon time, not performance, benchmarks. Finally, they caution that the lifting of sanctions and the snap-back clause as written is designed to fail. They cite two arguments to justify this conclusion: the first, that snap-back sanctions would exempt all contracts established from the lifting of sanctions to the imposition of snap-back sanctions. Essentially, should sanctions lift tomorrow, and dozens of countries strike deals with Iran on Sunday, and on Monday the sanctions snap-back into place, the deals struck during the interim would not be impacted by the sanctions; those deals would continue unabated. And, secondly, they identify how very difficult it will be to get Russia and China, two key players in the international sanctions game, to hop back on to the sanctions bandwagon. Thus, sanctions, once lifted, will not snap-back into place.
AIPAC has called for all concerned constituents to go to the AIPAC website, procure the script, and contact our congressional representatives, urging them to express congressional disapproval against the bill. While AIPAC acknowledges that it is not the purview of congress to approve the treaty, they are hopeful that a strong show of discontent from Congress will compel the administration to seek another option.
To this point, I have restricted commentary to concerns of a global community. Obviously, as a Jewish community, we have a vested interest as well in the safety and security of Israel. It should be noted that Israel’s government and opposition are largely united in their sense that this agreement is not acceptable. The skeptics among us, myself included, question whether ANY agreement with Iran would have been acceptable, as the voices from Israel concerning Iran have been pounding the drum for war for now several years. The question that only time will answer is…were they right?
I can’t tell you how to feel. I can’t speak for you, I can’t speak for my colleagues, I can only speak for myself when I conclude my remarks not by coalescing the commentary but by sharing my own thoughts. We have all heard the adage “Two Jews, three opinions?” Well, I am one Jew and I have two opinions. And both are rooted in my Yiddishkeit. I am the heir to thousands of years of history, not all of it joyous, much of it, as Graetz would say, lachrymose. I fear that, as a result of this agreement, my children will grow up in a world that looks back upon these days as the start of a much darker period of human history, or at least, of Jewish history. I fear for the world that they will inherit if the critics are correct and I fear that the critics may be right.
But I also recognize that I am the heir to thousands of years of Jewish optimism, of a belief that things can be great, that the world can be once more made whole, that our best days lie ahead. I choose to govern my behavior with this philosophy and this approach colors the way I see international relations. In my optimism I believe that the agreement will indeed pave the way for a safer and more joyous tomorrow.
A friend recently recommended a book which I’ve not yet read but whose title has become particularly relevant to me this week. The book is by Sidney Zion and is titled, “Trust Your Mother but Cut the Cards.” I love that title. Trust your mother but cut the cards. Trust the Obama Administration…but scrutinize the document, for they may be too close to see some of the red flags and unresolved issues. Trust the Israelis…but understand that they come from a place of fear and not hope. Trust the intentions of the Iranians that they want to step in from the cold…but watch their every move.
Just last week, in our Torah portion of Pinchas, Moses was told to ordain Joshua as his successor. A legend explains that Joshua, when he learned of his new role, was filled with fear and skepticism about the days and challenges that lie ahead. It was then that Moses offered his first charge to Joshua, which he repeated at the very end of his life for all of Israel to hear: Be strong and resolute, be not in fear or in dread of them, for the Lord your God marches with you; God will not fail you.” Chazak ve’ematz. Be strong and resolute.
We have offered this charge collectively to us as a people: In days where we are hopeful…Chazak ve’Ematz, In days where we are hesitant…Chazak, ve’ematz. In days where we are scared…chazak, ve’ematz.
And so on this day, I offer these words to you…and to me. Chazak Ve’ematz. May we be strong and resolute in working tirelessly for a safer world. And I conclude with these words: Chazak, Chazak, venitchazek- may we be strong and may our steps forward strengthen each other.