Iran nuclear deal: ill-informed friends of Israel are refusing to face facts
Benjamin Netanyahu’s acolytes are hell-bent on undermining Barack Obama's nuclear pact with Iran
It was one of those coincidences that a novelist might hesitate to invent. One of William Hague’s first tasks after signing a historic nuclear agreement with Iran was to address the grandest and most important gathering of Britain’s pro-Israel lobby.
Having flown back into London from Geneva on the Sunday, the Foreign Secretary then turned up the next day at the Park Plaza hotel at Westminster for the annual lunch of Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI). More than 100 Tory MPs, as well as hundreds more CFI supporters, were present to hear Daniel Taub, the Israeli ambassador, chide Mr Hague over Iran. One reporter present wrote that Mr Hague was “humiliated”, adding that when he rose to speak he was greeted with “light applause” and “heard in obvious silence”.
Some close to Mr Hague insist, by contrast, that it was a cheerful event. Nevertheless, the atmosphere was by no means as warm and easy as it was last year, when David Cameron was the guest of honour. At some tables, I am told, there was palpable resentment. Each guest had been given a briefing pack that included a caustic summary of the deal that Mr Hague had signed the previous day. A longer version of this document was then dispatched to Conservative MPs, ahead of the Foreign Secretary’s afternoon statement to the House of Commons on Iran.
I have obtained this briefing, which parroted the overblown rhetoric with which Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, responded to the deal in Geneva. The CFI warned Tory MPs that “the world’s most dangerous regime has taken a significant step towards obtaining the world’s most dangerous weapon” – echoing Mr Netanyahu almost verbatim.
This was not merely propaganda. It was ignorant and poorly informed. Under the accord reached in Geneva, Iran must convert all uranium enriched to the 20 per cent level (the closest to weapons grade) into harmless oxide. That cannot fairly be described as a “step towards” a nuclear bomb. It’s obviously a welcome step in the opposite direction.
The CFI document then asserted that last weekend’s deal “does not dismantle the plutonium reactor in Arak”. But there is a good reason for this: that plutonium reactor has not been built. It’s very eccentric to complain about Iran failing to deconstruct something that hasn’t been constructed. Crucially, however, the agreement has frozen essential work on Arak, with the aim of ensuring that it never does get built.
The briefing goes on to claim that “Iran has actively enriched uranium to 20 per cent fissile purity, far exceeding civilian purposes”. In fact, there certainly is a civilian purpose for such uranium: it can be used to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor, a facility that produces medical isotopes and nothing else.
Most misleading of all, the CFI told Tory MPs that “Iran is operating as many as 18,000 centrifuges, including more than 1,000 new models (IR-2m) that are far more efficient”. In fact, Iran is running 10,000 centrifuges. It does have another 9,500, including those advanced ones, but they are standing idle. Under the Geneva agreement, they will remain that way, since Iran has agreed not to use them.
To sum up, the CFI briefing note was biased, partial and deeply misleading. It omitted key facts, while including many others that were not true. The explanation is simple. As so often happens, British politics is following the United States, where the pro-Israel lobby would love to destroy the provisional deal that John Kerry has thrashed out with the Iranian foreign minister.
Inspired by the formidable American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), legislators in Washington are already planning to undermine the authority of the White House by inflicting fresh sanctions on Iran. The situation is so desperate that AIPAC has teamed up with its enemies in the Arab lobby – an unprecedented development – to wreck the deal. So far they have met no success: an unusual case of one plus one equals nought.
This is a remarkable turn of events. For the past 15 years, the fundamental assumption behind American (and therefore British) foreign policy has been that international problems should be solved by force, in a world divided up, very simplistically, into good guys and bad guys. In the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama and his Secretary of State have returned to a version of the great power politics of the 19th century.
Mr Kerry has, of course, experienced combat, in Vietnam. This is rare among contemporary statesmen, and may be one reason why he prefers diplomacy to war. He also seems not to be constrained, like his busy but pointless predecessor Hillary Clinton, by ambition. That means that he will not make her mistake and allow domestic politics to thwart substantive achievement. I believe that he can be a great secretary of state, comparable to Baker, Kissinger or even Marshall.
His new understanding with Iran, for example, can open many doors. No settlement is possible in Syria without Tehran’s assent. Nor can America and Britain withdraw peacefully from Afghanistan. It is not absurd to speculate that Kerry and Obama will soon press for the prize that has eluded every president so far – a lasting solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Already, one can imagine the outrage from AIPAC and CFI at the prospect of the concessions such a deal would imply. But we have been reminded over the past few weeks that these two powerful bodies share an important flaw. Polls show that the hardline position that they advocate, which tends to be that of Netanyahu’s Right-wing Likud party, tends not to be shared by the majority of British or American Jews.
As the journalist Anshel Pfeffer has accurately noted in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “British Jewry’s politics could be best termed as Left-of-centre on the Israeli spectrum”. Polls show 78 per cent are in favour of a two-state solution, 74 per cent oppose expanding the West Bank settlements, and 67 per cent would trade land for peace. More than half would even negotiate with Hamas, officially designated a terrorist organisation.
Yet the CFI – by far Britain’s most powerful pro-Israel lobbying group – acts as if every Jew in the country is a Likud supporter. The same is true of AIPAC in the US. Personally, I suspect the deal struck on Sunday is far more popular among British and American Jews than the pro-Israel lobby is prepared to countenance – especially since its apparently blind support of Netanyahu is not even reflected within Israel itself, where his conduct has been widely condemned.
Mark Twain defined patriotism as “supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it”. CFI needs to remember that its initials stand for Conservative Friends of Israel: there is a reason why it is not called Conservative Friends of Likud. It is possible to admire Israel as a wonderful country with a rich, democratic history – and still be appalled by its dreadful treatment of the Palestinians or dismayed by its poorly judged intransigence on Iran. Israel’s interests would be much better served if its advocates in Britain and the United States stood up and condemned the witless ranting and raving of prime minister Netanyahu.