“Oh, I come from a land . . . From a faraway place . . . Where the caravan camels roam. Where they cut off your ear . . . If they don’t like your face . . . It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”
– Original iteration of song lyrics from Walt Disney’s Aladdin, 1993
Most Americans cannot imagine Iran before 1979, and certainly for most Americans their view of the Muslim world has been shaped not just by Rudolph Valentino, Lawrence of Arabia and Aladdin, but also by the rampaging violence and jihadist terrorism of Daesh (ISIS), Boko Haram and the Boston Marathon bombers in our own backyard.
Within this context it’s understandable that debate over the Iran agreement – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA – is heated. What is not understandable to me is the bigotry and ignorance being used to vilify President Obama, Iran and a nascent peace process.
To many Americans, and to all the Republican candidates for president, there’s only one Iran narrative to be embraced: that Iran is, as columnist David Brooks writes, a “fanatical, hegemonic, hate-filled,” “ragtag regime” with whom no agreement or co-existence is possible.
To many Americans, and to all the Republican candidates for president, the deal negotiated by the P5+1 was a big win for Iran, a stab in the back of Israel and a loss of American face and stature and must be rejected.
“But if they incline to peace, incline thou to it as well, and place thy trust in God: verily, He alone is all-hearing, all-knowing! And should they seek but to deceive thee (by their show of peace) – behold, God is enough for thee!” (Quran 8:61,62)
To other Americans and to the rest of the world other than Israel, the JCPOA, even with some misgivings, is a historic opportunity to engage Iran and to move them away from becoming an immediate nuclear weapons threshold state. As I wrote last month and earlier this month, the most comprehensive, intrusive, verifiable and long-lasting inspections and controls have been imposed upon Iran with the hope that engaging them on many international platforms will stabilize and moderate its political ambitions – and, if not, the West still has all its options.
As a NPT signatory, Iran will always be subject to IAEA inspections – always – with no time limit. There will be 24/7/365 inspection of all Iran’s nuclear facilities from mining to waste products: the 24-day issue applies to non-nuclear sites.
The battle has gotten nasty, with opponents of the deal insinuating that Obama’s position is at best weak and anti-American and at worst anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. What should be a serious, grown-up debate about foreign policy and American and global security interests has devolved into a multi-front attack on Obama by the Republican Party, by the government of Israel, by the pro-Israel lobby and its supporters both Democrat and Republican.
We should be afraid of arguments that are presented as absolutes and un-nuanced. We should be “afraid of a history that has only one narrative,” as Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury writes in Gate of the Sun.
We should be afraid of anti-JCPOA advocates like Sen. Chuck Schumer, who said, yielding to politics and political expediency, “after deep study, careful thought and considerable soul-searching, I have decided I must oppose the agreement,” without offering any viable alternative.
We should be afraid of all those who know that the only viable alternative is war.
This is the same Chuck Schumer who in 2002 supported the invasion of Iraq. “I have searched my mind and my soul and cannot escape this conclusion: Saddam Hussein left unfettered will at some point create such a danger to our lives that we cannot afford to leave him be.”
The opposition that Schumer has joined refuses to accept that Iran is entitled to be a nuclear power and has been since America gave it to them during the Eisenhower administration. Unlike neighboring nuclear powers Israel, Pakistan and India, Iran’s a signatory of the NPT and there is no evidence that it has ever had a nuclear weapons program.
The opposition that Schumer has joined refuses to accept that Iran is already a regional hegemonic power and that cannot be rolled back – a status Schumer and his allies gave Iran in the wake of the tragedy of America’s hubristic invasion of Iraq.
The opposition refuses to accept that there is no evidence that Iran wishes to annihilate the Jews as opposed to its conflict with Israel. Indeed, in a remarkable two-part story in the Jewish Forward – which I would nominate for a Pulitzer Prize – the prevailing narrative of Iran as monolithic, anti-Semitic and inherently violent is challenged by Jewish journalist Larry Cohler-Esses.
Many former senior intelligence and national security officials in Israel disagree with Israeli PM Netanyahu’s – and Schumer’s – position on the agreement.
Ami Ayalon, a former Shin Bet head, says that many former defense ministers and Shin Bet and Mossad heads agree that “when it comes to Iran’s nuclear capability, this (JCPOA) is the best option.”
“Israelis,” Ayalon says, “are failing to distinguish between reducing Iran’s nuclear capability and Iran being the biggest devil in the Middle East.”
Edward Said, the late Columbia University professor, wrote in 1980, “So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems (sic) and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem (sic) life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.”
By acting on stereotypes and narratives manufactured in the West, our politicians, such as Democratic Sens. Schumer and Bob Menendez, or the Republican presidential aspirants and the 47 senators who wrote a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are unjustly reinforcing an intellectual hegemony promoted by mainstream media and power elites over the Middle East.
The opposition to the Iran agreement reveals that Orientalism is alive and well in America and that it has morphed into an aggressive posture of exclusion and delegitimization of all Middle Easterners who do not serve Western interests or who do not submit to oppression and intimidation.
Rather, I think we should view this agreement as secure, verifiable and aspirational, not just to back away from a nuclear arms threshold bold to hold promise for an inclusive future.
“O God make the door of this house wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship, and a heavenly Father’s care, and narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride and hate,” reads an inscription on St. Stephen’s Church, Wallbrook, in London. “Make its threshold smooth enough to be no stumbling-block to children, nor to straying feet, but rugged enough to turn back the tempter’s power.”
This column appeared originally in the Concord Monitor.