By Uma Purushothaman*
US President Barack Obama might have concluded a historical deal with Iran, but rumblings of discontent against the deal can already be heard within the American political establishment. It appears that the deal with Iran will be the subject of much debate during the 2016 US elections. This election might see more focus on foreign policy on issues such as the US role in the world, the US-China relationship, the Iran deal and the continuing turmoil in the Middle East even though Americans have tended more often than not to vote on domestic issues than on foreign policy issues.
In fact, soon after the deal was officially announced, there was a race of sorts among the Republican Presidential contenders to be the first to condemn the deal and to sound tougher on Iran. Donald Trump, who has surprisingly emerged as the frontrunner in the GOP field, has called the deal an outrage and a win for Iran, saying the President negotiated from desperation. Jeb Bush denounced the deal as a “dangerous, deeply flawed, and short-sighted” package and “appeasement”. He argued that a comprehensive agreement should require Iran to “verifiably abandon – not simply delay – its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability”. Marco Rubio felt that the Obama administration had given too many concessions in its pursuit of the deal. Given that President Obama has said that he will veto any resolution by Congress disapproving of the deal, Rubio asserted that “it will then be left to the next President to return us to a position of American strength and re-impose sanctions on this despicable regime until it is truly willing to abandon its nuclear ambitions and is no longer a threat to international security.”
Scott Walker has described the deal as one of America’s worst diplomatic failures and said that he will terminate the deal if he is elected president. Senator Lindsey Graham described the deal as a nightmare for Israel, the Middle East and the world and that it amounted to “declaring war on Israel and the Sunni Arabs”. Mike Huckabee had even stronger words saying President Obama is marching Israelis to the “door of the oven”, in a reference to the Holocaust. Huckabee’s comments have sparked outrage from the Democratic Party with the head of the Democratic National Committee calling for an apology from Mr. Huckabee. Rick Santorum slammed the deal “a catastrophic capitulation” by the President, adding that it gives the Iranians “legitimacy” in the international community. Rand Paul, who has advocated a more isolationalist America, found the deal “unacceptable” and announced that he would vote against it in Congress. Ben Carson called it a historic mistake with potentially catastrophic consequences while Ted Cruz felt that the deal would legitimise and perpetuate Iran’s nuclear programme.
On the other hand, the Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton came out in support of the agreement saying it is an “important step in putting a lid” on Iran’s nuclear programme while suggesting that it will have to be “enforced vigorously, relentlessly”. Bernie Sanders welcomed the agreement calling it a victory for diplomacy as did Jim Webb who called it an important moment in American foreign policy. The lone voice of dissent from the Democratic Party was from Robert Menendez, a long time critic of the negotiations, who said that the deal will preserve Iran’s nuclear capabilities and legitimises it as a threshold nuclear state. Domestic politics over the deal have already begun. Senator Ted Cruz tried unsuccessfully to add an amendment to a long term highway bill which would have prevented President Obama from lifting some sanctions until Iran supports Israel and releases the three Americans being held in Iran.
The deal’s supposed adverse implications for Israeli security and the influence of the Jewish lobby are the reasons behind candidates opposing the deal. Their positions are also meant to capture Jewish voters, who have traditionally voted for the Democratic Party.
However, what can queer the pitch are surveys showing that American public opinion is supportive of the deal. A poll by the Los Angeles Jewish Journal shows that 28 percent Americans support the deal against 24 percent who oppose it. Interestingly, American Jews support the deal 49 percent as opposed to 31 percent even though they believe that the deal will endanger Israel. 53 percent of American Jews want Congress to pass the deal against 35 percent who don’t. At the same time, only 41 percent Americans want Congress to support the deal against the 38 percent who don’t. American Jews’ stance is reflective of them thinking as Americans first and also their growing disenchantment with Israeli polices which they feel perpetuate civilian conflict, according to a study by the Jewish People Policy Institute. Moreover, Jews are much more liberal than the overall public, and liberals largely support the Iran deal. However, several Jewish organisations have already started lobbying against the deal. For instance, the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC launched an advocacy group called ‘Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran’, which will reportedly spend around $20 million to persuade members of Congress to vote against the accord. Jewish federations in the Miami and Boston are doing the same. But there are organisations like J Street which has launched a campaign to lobby Congress to vote for the deal. Thus, there is a clear divide between the Jewish people and their organisations on the issue just as there was during the Iraq War when the organisations supported the War and American Jews did not. So, based on these polls, it appears that American Jews’ votes will not be affected by the Iran accord. In fact, some analysts even argue that if the debate over the accord breaks along partisan lines American Jews will support the Democrats because of their Democratic and liberal leanings.
In the days ahead, as Congress scrutinises the Iran accord, partisanship on Capitol Hill might reach new heights and it will capture headlines. Whether Congress passes the Iran deal or not, it will loom large in the election debates because of its connection to American and Israeli national security though it is unlikely to be a real game changer in the elections.
*Dr. Uma Purushothaman is a Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi
Courtesy: ORF US Monitor