– US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew
Netanyahu and the president both made mistakes, but only one purposely damaged US-Israel relations
– Former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren
On June 13, 2015, Treasury Secretary Jacob (Jack) Lew spoke before an overflow crowd of 1,500 people at the New York City Jerusalem Post Annual Conference. What was Lew thinking as he delivered his carefully crafted speech? As I listened, it seemed designed more to provoke rather than reassure an audience already highly skeptical of the US administration’s outreach to an anti-Semitic Iran that threatens Israel’s existence.
As Elie Wiesel said: “History has taught us to trust the threats of our enemies more than the promises of our friends. Our enemies are making serious threats. It is time to take them seriously. It is time for our friends to keep their promises.”
Jack Lew is a good man who worked with Natan Sharansky during the struggle for Soviet Jewry, and has helped the State of Israel. Former finance minister Yuval Steinitz praised Lew for helping Israel join the Organization of Economic Development (OECD) in 2010. However, Lew is not part of Obama’s inner security cabinet. Why was he chosen as the administration’s point person for the conference, acting more like a presidential propagandist than head of the Treasury? The wrong speech was delivered to the wrong audience.
How do we reconcile his comment that “we are... effectively guarantee[ing] that Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon” with the president’s concession of a sunset provision that allows Iran legally to have a nuclear weapon in 10 to 15 years? Does Lew honestly believe that billions of dollars in sanctions relief will be distributed to the Iranian people, as if it were a Western democracy and not a state sponsor of terrorism with the blood of American soldiers on its hands? Iran has increased its military budget over 30 percent despite the economic suffering of its populace. Logic dictates that sanctions relief will increase funding of anti-American proxies.
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Lew began his address by reminding the audience of the administration’s strong military cooperation with Israel, and support for the Iron Dome missile defense system. This should be acknowledged and the administration should be thanked for its cooperation. But then he should have followed that defense of the president by acknowledging fact over fiction and recognizing the elephant in the room – the troubled relationship between the two leaders with different visions of the Middle East.
When he said, “The simple fact is this: No administration has done more for Israel’s security than this one,” his audience knew this was beyond the pale. As former ambassador Michael Oren wrote about Obama in The Wall Street Journal:
• He reneged on president G. W. Bush’s pledge to “include the major settlement blocs and Jewish Jerusalem within Israel’s borders in any peace agreement.”
• He made “no substantive demands of the Palestinians.”
• He created “daylight in public undermining Israel.”
• He abandoned a “core principle” of “no surprises” to Israel.
• He endorsed the Palestinian position on “the 1967 lines with land swaps.”
Lew should have offered comments that conform with a realistic view of Iran and the Middle East. His speech should have been an explanation of the advantages of the president’s diplomatic engagement, as opposed to a containment strategy advocated by many members of Congress. Lew should have answered these questions:
• How can President Obama call Iran a state sponsor of terrorism, yet seek to realign our relationship from Israel and the Sunni states to the theocratic Shi’ite regime?
• Why will sanctions relief not empower Iranian hegemonic ambitions?
• How will “snap back” sanctions actually work, without the support of the P5+1?
• Why did the administration abandon its red line with full knowledge of past weaponization?
• Why would the administration trust a government with a 25-year history of developing illicit weapons?
• How will the administration separate the nuclear deal from Iranian support of terrorists like Syria and Hezbollah?
• What gives the administration confidence that its outreach and compromises will be reciprocated without any documentation to that effect?
• What will the administration do when billions of dollars in sanctions relief is funneled directly or indirectly to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard?
Engagement vs. Containment vs. War
Diplomatic engagement works only if your adversary is willing to compromise and to uphold the ultimate agreement or, at the very least, willing to submit to transparent verification. Not one of these conditions is present with Iran. Lew should have addressed Iran’s recent belligerent statements, its worsening human rights record under a “moderate” president, and the lack of a legitimate mechanism to verify breaches or impose consequences. He chose to ignore them.
Our options are not only President Obama’s version of engagement vs. pre-emptive action, but also include containment. Containing Iran, as we contained the Soviet Union during the Cold War, is a legitimate option. In a Wall Street Journal essay, Kevin Rudd, a former Australian prime minister, explained containment.
“[Y]ou isolate a country, and you contain it, diminish it, internally divide it, and sabotage its political leadership.”
Since many experts suggest this alternative as the best chance for success with an unrepentant, aggressive, totalitarian and anti-American Iran, Lew could have said the administration seriously considered that option. He also could have said that containment of Iran through tough diplomacy and further sanctions will be needed if Iran reneges on the deal based on definable metrics.
Some claim that if we do not concede a sunset provision, if we do not allow continued R&D of advanced centrifuges, or insist on unfettered inspections of military bases, the Iranians will walk away and develop a nuclear bomb in short order. But Lew should have explained how allowing advanced centrifuge research, which dramatically shortens the period of nuclear enrichment, is an acceptable concession.
Actually, I wish someone would acknowledge that, like North Korea, India and Pakistan, we know Iran will develop a bomb at any time of its choosing – deal or no deal. As Michael Oren wrote in his new book, “The summer of 2012 indeed seemed the last opportunity to attack [Iran].”
The key difference today is that if the United States signs an unenforceable deal without the will to impose consequences for non-compliance, we will legitimize 25 years of illicit behavior. We also take responsibility for massive nuclear proliferation in the region that will endanger Israel and our Arab allies, and our own long-term strategic interests.
I wish Lew had reassured the audience that we could count on him as the person in charge of enforcing sanctions and that he would lobby the president to re-impose sanctions if Iran reneged on the deal.
One can only hope.
The author is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political and Information Network), a Middle East research analysis read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset, journalists and organizational leaders. He regularly briefs members of Congress on issues related to the Middle East.