It is déjà vu all over again for John Kerry. Republicans are trying to kill the Iran nuclear deal with the same tactics they used to defeat him in his 2004 presidential bid. It’s a Swift boating. And the White House had better realize it’s just the beginning.
Back then, a hastily assembled and mysteriously funded “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” smeared Kerry, calling him a coward and a liar about his Vietnam War record aboard a Swift boat. Some claimed he was never even at the firefight that earned him his Bronze Star and third Purple Heart. Incredulous, Kerry’s ignored the charges, but the torrent of ads and stories took a toll. Though Kerry was vindicated, the Big Lie tactics worked. Something stuck. Confused voters began to doubt Kerry’s truthfulness and the Bush campaign played that chord throughout the election, eking out a narrow November win.
Here we go again. Today’s intense attack campaign against the Iran deal includes a pop-up veterans group flush with funds to run television ads and get their quotes into major newspapers’ articles. And, like 2004, the dominant tactic is to attack every aspect of this arduously negotiated agreement, whether or not it’s good for U.S. security. Republicans, and a few Democrats, have abandoned science, diplomacy and reason – just like in 2004. To the Swift boaters among them, nuclear truth matters less than a partisan political win. There is little debate among the world’s arms-control, nonproliferation, and denuclearization experts and advocates. They overwhelmingly support the deal. Not a single notable nuclear specialist opposes it. Politicians do.
The deal paves the way for an Iranian bomb, says, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. The deal would “threaten the survival of Israel,” says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “The administration just lit the fuse for a nuclear arms race in the Middle East,” claims Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. And nuclear bombs will explode across the region, says Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., “This agreement condemns the next generation to cleaning up a nuclear war in the Persian Gulf.”
In fact, the Iranians have agreed to dismantle a huge portion of their nuclear program, ripping out two-thirds of their centrifuges, eliminating 98 percent of their uranium stockpile and destroying the core of their plutonium-production reactor. Few analysts thought this possible even a few months ago. But never mind that, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., says it Obama showed “weakness, giving concession after concession to a regime that has American blood on its hands.”
And even though Iran’s Sunni Arab rivals like Saudi Arabia have endorsed the deal, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., sees it differently for the Sunni world, telling them they’re not worried enough. “It’s akin to declaring war on the Sunni Arabs and Israel by the P5+1.”
The agreement is a diplomatic triumph, a remarkable unity of world powers, including conservative governments of America’s closest European allies. But our greedy allies can’t be trusted, claims Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, “Once the Europeans become entangled in lucrative economic contracts with Iran,” he says,“they may well be inclined not to rock the boat by voting to allow inspections.”
But – and here is the lie that has stuck the most – the deal “enables Iran to cheat by preventing anytime, anywhere inspections,” says the American Israeli Political Action Committee, or AIPAC.
This charge was briefly buoyed by an Associated Press story claiming that Iranians would do their own inspections of nuclear cites. Within a few hours, however, the news service backtracked, the story was debunked by fellow journalists, and it was corrected by the IAEA, who asserted that it was in full charge of all inspections and environmental sampling. Again, a phony charge, widely circulated even though unsupported by nuclear experts.
It is difficult to name a single, prominent American non-proliferation expert who opposes this deal. There are a few who have remained neutral, but the anti-Iran campaign is notable for the absence of nuclear expert opposition to the deal.
That is, the core charges against this agreement, like the scurrilous charges 11 years ago against John Kerry, have little basis in fact. They are almost entirely fabricated. Clever sound bites, like Netanyahu’s charge – repeated ad nauseam — that a 24-day delay in some inspections would allow Iran to “flush the evidence down the toilet.”
Pure nonsense. If you flush uranium down the toilet, you have a radioactive toilet. If you rip out the toilet, you have a radioactive hole in the ground. How do we know this? Because Energy Department nuclear experts intentionally contaminated a site to see if they could clean it up in 24 days. Couldn’t be done. America’s top scientists and intelligence officials vetted and gamed out every phrase in the deal, to ensure its constructs worked.
Experts have disproven the false claims here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and…well, you get the idea. The Washington Post’s “fact checker,” Glenn Kessler, just gave Sen. Schumer’s repeat of the phony inspection charge – “You have to wait 24 days before you can inspect” – three Pinocchios for “significant factual errors and/or obvious contradictions.”
The exasperation at these false fears is epitomized by the resignation of nuclear expert Gary Samore as president of United Against Nuclear Iran, which he helped found and which has perhaps the most generously funded campaign to kill the deal, outside of AIPAC. Samore was the White House weapons-of-mass-destruction czar. A politician, former Sen. Joe Lieberman, replaced him. Samore quit because he could not in good conscience oppose the agreement, telling the PBS NewsHour, “In my judgment, this agreement is the best available option to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
Samore is in good company. Thirty-two of America’s leading scientists, including seven Nobel Laureates, wrote to President Obama on Aug. 8. “This is an innovative agreement,” they said, “with much more stringent constraints than any previously negotiated non-proliferation framework.” They praised its “innovative approaches to verification” that cover all aspects of Iran’s uranium mining, manufacturing and production capabilities. “Concerns about clandestine activities in Iran are greatly mitigated by the dispute resolution mechanism,” they concluded, “The 24-day cap on any delay to access is unprecedented, and will allow effective challenge inspections for suspected activities of greatest concern.”
This week, 75 leading non-proliferation experts, including this author, added to the scientists’ judgment. In our statement, we found that by effectively eliminating Iran’s plutonium path to the bomb, establishing verifiable long-term limits on any uranium path and putting in place a “multi-layered monitoring regime across Iran’s entire nuclear supply chain,” the agreement’s “rigorous limits and transparency measures will make it very likely that any future effort by Iran to pursue nuclear weapons, even a clandestine program, would be detected promptly, providing the opportunity to intervene decisively to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
But expert opinion is not enough. It wasn’t in 2004. So the White House has devoted a website to rebutting the false charges and Obama has come out swinging. At American University, Obama blasted the critics, saying, “I know it’s easy to play on people’s fears, to magnify threats, to compare any attempt at diplomacy to Munich. But none of these arguments hold up. They didn’t back in 2002 and 2003; they shouldn’t now. The same mindset, in many cases offered by the same people who seem to have no compunction with being repeatedly wrong, led to a war that did more to strengthen Iran, more to isolate the United States than anything we have done in the decades before or since. It’s a mindset out of step with the traditions of American foreign policy, where we exhaust diplomacy before war, and debate matters of war and peace in the cold light of truth.”
Obama took some heat for his attacking tone. But he and Kerry have learned what happens when you sit back and try to absorb the blows. “If you repeat these arguments long enough, they can get some traction,” Obama warned.
The president’s offense is working. Even Netanyahu seems ready to concede defeat, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports. As Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev describes it, even if he loses, “Netanyahu also sees fringe benefits in his strategy, according to people who have heard him.…This could be Netanyahu’s contribution to a Republican victory in November 2016… He would weaken Democrats and in effect punish them for supporting Obama and his terrible deal, and could see a pro-Israel Republican administration taking power to boot.”
So, something of the Big Lie could stick. This is why, even as experts, advocates, the administration and members of Congress work to secure every possible vote to approve the deal, part of that energy needs to go into defining the meaning of the expected victory.
If the deal opponents have their way, the deal will be branded a failure, a disaster, the appeasement of a vicious Islamic regime by a pathetic, illegitimate American president, and fed into the 2016 campaign machine. “Republicans have long employed the Democrats-are-weak trope,” The New York Times warned in an Aug. 18 editorial. The editors urged, “Voters deserve a serious debate on foreign policy.”
We deserve a debate that clarifies the opposing mindsets and helps determine which national security policy the voters truly want. But to do that, Obama and Kerry should remember that the Swift boating never really ends. As important as the Iran deal is, this assault is just a prelude to the battle to come.