By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
On July 14, the United States and Iran announced the conclusion of an historic agreement, dramatically rolling back Iran’s nuclear activities.
The two countries also agreed to an intensive inspection regime effectively confining Iran’s nuclear program to peaceful energy-production in exchange for lifting of sanctions over time.
The content of the deal was all about Iran’s nuclear program, but the context was a long, troubled relationship. For the American side, it stemmed from the 444-day Iran hostage crisis, which began on Nov. 4, 1979 and involved 52 embassy personnel. For the Iranian side, it stemmed from the 1953 CIA-backed coup, launched from that embassy. The coup overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh because it intended to nationalize the oil industry, threatening the holdings of the company which later became BP. Because of that history, Iranians know the hostage crisis as “the Conquest of the American Spy Den.”
Because Americans are largely ignorant of that history, the hostage crisis is widely, but mistakenly, seen as an inexplicable act of evil. Also missing from most Americans’ knowledge is the existence of damning evidence that the crisis ended when it did — the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president — because of a secret deal the Reagan campaign struck with Iran. The deal constituted the beginning of what became the Iran-Contra Affair. A congressional committee obtained that information in January 1993, but left it out of a report which cleared the Reagan campaign of the charges, in the hope of fostering a spirit of bipartisan cooperation. So the two countries’ history is not merely troubled, but shrouded in secrecy, misinformation and misunderstanding.
Three European countries, plus Russia and China, also negotiated the deal, meaning there were a great many historical, as well as prospective, agendas in play. If the deal was not reached, there was little prospect that the joint sanction regime could have been maintained, much less tightened. This helps explain why it was quickly approved by the United Nations Security Council in less than a week..
The deal was strongly supported by America’s bipartisan foreign policy establishment, as well as the American people. It could fundamentally alter the course of history in the region, where America has been fruitlessly bogged down in counter-productive conflicts since the 1980s by proxy, and since 2002 with its own troops. But it is bitterly opposed by the anti-Barack Obama GOP and a shadowy network of big funders, including right-wing, multi-billionaire, casino-owner Sheldon Adelson, who spent more than $100 million helping the GOP take over the Senate this past year. An intense storm of fear-mongering disinformation is expected as the GOP tries to stampede enough Democrats into joining them to pass a veto-proof rejection of the deal in the next 60 days.
“Today, after two years of negotiations, the United States, together with our international partners, has achieved something that decades of animosity has not — a comprehensive, long-term deal with Iran that will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” President Barack Obama said. “This deal demonstrates that American diplomacy can bring about real and meaningful change — change that makes our country, and the world, safer and more secure.”
Coming just two weeks after Obama announced the resumption of diplomatic ties with Cuba, it sent a clear—if belated—signal of Obama’s commitment to diplomatic approaches to advancing America’s foreign policy influence, in sharp contrast to the disastrous, military-based failures of his predecessor.
“Today, because America negotiated from a position of strength and principle, we have stopped the spread of nuclear weapons in this region,” Obama said. “Because of this deal, the international community will be able to verify that the Islamic Republic of Iran will not develop a nuclear weapon.”
Obama also noted the deal provided that “Iran will remove two-thirds of its installed centrifuges — the machines necessary to produce highly enriched uranium for a bomb” and that “Iran will also get rid of 98 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium.”
The deal also provides for an intrusive inspection regime, and automatic re-imposition of sanctions if Iran violates the deal—key elements in ensuring Iran’s compliance.
Republican leaders were quick to condemn the deal, invoking broad-based fears, without any attention to the actual content of the deal.
GOP House Speaker John Boehner acted typically cynical, claiming the deal would only “embolden” Tehran. “Instead of stopping the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, this deal is likely to fuel a nuclear arms race around the world,” he added—though without any explanation how that would come about.
In sharp contrast, the vast majority of nuclear weapons experts supported the deal, as did a large segment of the foreign policy establishment. A letter of support from more than 100 former U.S. ambassadors called the deal “a landmark agreement in deterring the proliferation of nuclear weapons.”
In an exhaustive press conference the next day, Obama contrasted the deal with its alternative:
With this deal, we cut off every single one of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear program — a nuclear weapons program, and Iran’s nuclear program will be under severe limits for many years Without a deal, those pathways remain open; there would be no limits on Iran’s nuclear program, and Iran could move closer to a nuclear bomb.
Later, Obama put it even more bluntly:
[T]here really are only two alternatives here: Either the issue of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through a negotiation, or it’s resolved through force, through war. Those are the options.
While five other nations were involved, it was the first diplomatic agreement involving Iran and the United States since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which, again, was rooted in a 1953 coup. So it’s been more than half a century since most Iranians had reason to trust America’s government — even though American culture there remains popular.
Here in America, the deal comes after a decade-and-a-half of frustrating U.S. military involvement in the region. So, the deal represents welcome news of a turn toward peace in the region. Since a tentative framework was announced earlier this year, the American people have generally supported the deal despite considerable levels of confusion and misinformation, much of it rooted in partisan polarization. The idea that Obama’s diplomacy might succeed, where George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s warmongering has failed, is a bitter pill the GOP simply can’t accept, regardless of the facts.
While a great deal of propaganda has focused on the supposed threat to Israel, American Jews have supported the deal since the framework was announced. A late May/early June poll found 59 percent of American Jews supported the agreement, broadly described, but that figure jumped significantly — to 78 percent — when a more detailed description was presented. Against this broad popularity, a kind of denialism — similar to that around global warming — seems to be creeping in, coalescing around talking points disconnected from the actual facts of the deal.
As examples of support in March, a CNN/ORC poll found that Americans favored the negotiations 68 to 29 percent; an ABC News/Washington Post poll found support for a deal like the one finally reached at 59 to 31 percent; and a poll by the University of Maryland Program for Public Consultation found the deal was supported by 61 to 36 percent over the alternative of increasing sanctions to try to get Iran to abandon nuclear power as well. The next month another CNN/ORC poll found that Americans favored such a deal by 53 to 43 percent, while a Quinnipiac University poll found 58 to 33 percent support.
But these last two polls showed the growing impact of partisan polarization. In the March CNN/ORC poll, GOP respondents had favored negotiations, 65 to 28 percent — almost as much as Democrats, 77 to 21 percent. But in the April polls, they opposed the framework deal, 60 to 38 (CNN) and 56 to 37 (Quinnipiac).
Connected to the opposition, many Americans had a vastly exaggerated sense of fear, distrust and threat from Iran, which can’t be justified based on facts. For example, in the April Quinnipiac poll, 63 percent (including 84 percent of Republicans) said the Iranian nuclear program was a “major threat” to the well-being of the United States, while 26 percent said it was a “minor threat.” But even if Iran had developed nuclear weapons, it has no long-range bombers nor intercontinental missiles which it would need to bomb the United States — and no prospect of developing either for decades, if ever. So these fears have no foundation in reality — just like the run-up to the Iraq War. Only 7 percent answered realistically that Iran’s nuclear program was not a threat. There were similar figures from an April NBC News poll: 53 percent major threat, 37 percent minor threat, 8 percent not a threat at all.
Similarly, a Monmouth University poll just before the deal was announced asked how much people would “trust Iran to abide by the terms of such an agreement” Only 5 percent said “a lot,” 35 percent “a little,” and 55 percent “not at all.” But the deal is not based on trust. It’s based on highly intrusive inspections—and the fact that Iran getting caught breaking the rules will mean automatic reimposition of sanctions, known as “snap-back.” So the very question itself is misleading.
Both these questions show strong evidence of irrational fears, based on cultural stereotypes and a slanted view of history. These fears, rather than any facts, will be key to GOP efforts to block the deal in Congress.
A more defensible question is how confident people are that the agreement will keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Here the results are similar. In the March ABC News/Washington Post poll mentioned earlier, 4 percent were “very confident,” 33 percent “somewhat confident,” 26 percent “not so confident,” and 34 percent “not confident at all.” Still, 59 percent supported the agreement, suggested perhaps a lack of confidence in their own lack of confidence. In short, there’s a good deal of confusion.
As with global warming, there’s a good deal of hidden money feeding that confusion, which expresses itself through the creation of a massive fear-mongering propaganda machine.
“Though light on nuclear policy experts, the groups working to kill a deal with Iran are exceptionally well funded, heavily staffed, and relentless in their bombardment of the media and the Congress with ‘fact sheets,’ reports, letters, visits, and tweets,” wrote Joe Cirincione, an arms control expert who heads the Ploughshares Fund, in a recent piece, “Overwhelming Expert Consensus Favors Agreement with Iran.”
Not only did Cirincione review the various expressions of expert support for the deal (such as an April letter supporting the negotiations from a bipartisan group of more than 50 former national security and military leaders), he also dug into how that consensus has been obscured, both in the media and within the halls of Congress. The media’s tendency to sensationalize makes it particularly vulnerable to misleading hype. But regarding Congress, he wrote:
The distorted impression that nuclear policy experts are evenly divided or that most are critical of the deal also stems from the imbalance of witnesses on congressional panels. It is difficult to find an expert in favor of the Iran agreement on any witness list in the Republican-controlled Congress.
In the past 18 months, Congress has staged 21 public hearings on the Iran agreement, calling 41 witnesses. Of these, four have been witnesses from the administration while 36 came from non-governmental organizations. Of the outside witnesses, an overwhelming 28 were clear critics of the Iran agreement and only 7 could be called supportive. That is a ratio of four to one, critics to supporters.
Moreover, several of the most critical witnesses testified multiple times, appearing in three, four, or even six different hearings.
Behind all this is the influence of Sheldon Adelson and other wealthy donors. Adelson once proposed launching a first-strike nuclear attack against Iran
“Among the many groups engaged in advocacy over a potential deal between Iran and world powers, United Against Nuclear Iran stands apart as by far the most mysterious,” investigative reporter Eli Clifton wrote, shortly before the deal was signed.
While United Against Nuclear Iran had announced a “multi-million dollar” ad campaign against the deal, its finances had long been shrouded in secrecy before Clifton discovered that Adelson was one of two top funders of the group, with even more money coming from billionaire Thomas Kaplan.
Both Adelson and Kaplan have strong ties to Israel, but as already noted, American Jews as a whole are notably more supportive of the Iran deal than the public at large is, so they cannot credibly claim to represent Jewish American opinion. While Adelson and his wife give almost exclusively to the GOP and right-wing dark money groups, “Kaplan gives to both parties,” Clifton noted, but since before 2012, he’s favored the GOP “at a ratio of roughly 10 to 1,” adding that:
The Adelsons, for their part, were reported to have spent $150 million to support Republican candidates in the 2012 election and contributed up to $100 million to support Republicans in the 2014 Senate midterms—not to mention a host of right-wing pressure groups that enjoy the Adelsons’ largesse.
Hostilities between Iran and the United States had their origins in the pockets of British oil oligarchs in the 1950s. Today, it’s a different set of oligarchs who keep fanning the flames, but the same question remains: Will the popular desire for peace and democracy prevail? Or will the same old lies of wealth and power prevail once again, bringing decades more of needless suffering?