No Moral to This Story

Mixed Iran and Israel flag, three dimensional render, illustration
Mixed Iran and Israel flag, three dimensional render, illustration

Inscribed above the eternal flame in Washington's Holocaust Memorial Museum is this verse from the Torah: "Guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children, and to your children's children."

In its biblical context, Deuteronomy 4:9 admonishes the Israelites never to forget the covenant at Sinai. In the context of the Holocaust Memorial the injunction is different: never forget the human capacity for cruelty and indifference. And for Jews it carries one more imperative, what Emil Fackenheim believed the six hundred fourteenth commandment: never grant Hitler posthumous victories. We must guard ourselves against any threats to Jewish survival.

That six hundred fourteenth commandment has been echoing in the minds of many Jews the last few weeks. And it is why the Jewish community continues to scrutinize the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran deal. I have studied it. I have been briefed by its State Department architects and by Israeli officials who oppose it. And still I remain uncertain about it.

I am concerned desperately for Israel's security. The Iranian regime which has declared repeatedly its aspirations to wipe Israel from the map is the world's worst actor: a sponsor of Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad in Syria, civil war in Yemen, and vice-like repression of its own citizens. And none of that will change under this agreement. In fact, with the lifting of sanctions Iran's terrorist exploits will be better funded... which means it is nearly impossible to articulate a strong moral argument for this deal. Aaron David Miller calls it "the cruelest of ironies that Iran is reaping huge rewards for giving up something it wasn't supposed to be doing in the first place."

But treaties are not inherently moral instruments; they may have moral outcomes, but their aims are strategic and pragmatic. They are shaped by realpolitik.

Yet in this regard, too, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is far from perfect. Its critics insist that negotiators could have held out for a better deal guaranteeing "anytime, anywhere" inspections; ensuring sanctions, arms embargoes, and missile bans remained in place until Iran proved its good intentions; and dismantling completely Iran's nuclear infrastructure. Certainly all this would have been preferable. But that appraisal rests on the unsubstantiated premise that a better deal was attainable.

Other skeptics assert the deal paves Iran's path to the bomb in ten to fifteen years' time. But Iran already was on the path to the bomb much sooner than that. With this deal, its proponents counter, weapons inspectors will have unprecedented access to Iran's nuclear sites. It is, they insist, the most thorough arms control agreement with the most intrusive verification provisions ever negotiated. And in the event of its violation, the United States will be able to take punitive action including military action assured of international support.

A recent Los Angeles Jewish Journal poll reports that a plurality of American Jews back the agreement and a majority want Congress to as well, despite the fact that a number of influential American Jewish organizations including AIPAC and various Federations publicly oppose it. For the next month and a half Congress will be lobbied hard by both left and right, and in the end must weigh what even its advocates acknowledge to be an imperfect arrangement. Should Congress reject the deal, the alternatives appear bleak. As Jeffrey Goldberg notes, "Neither Iran nor our negotiating partners in the P5+1 [are] going to agree to start over again....International sanctions will crumble and Iran will be free to pursue a nuclear weapon, and it would start this pursuit only two or three months away from the nuclear threshold." And while an ensuing military confrontation might delay Iran's progress, the delay would be temporary.

None of this constitutes a morally satisfying argument to support the accord. But to some stories there are no morals. This is not Isaiah's vision of wolf and lamb feeding together; it was never intended to be. This deal is quite different from any agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that would realize an idealistic vision of two peoples living side by side in peace. Supporting this deal -- and in the end I do support it -- is about choosing the most sensible option available, which sometimes is the best one can hope to do.

To return to the six hundred fourteenth commandment -- Jewish survival -- Fackenheim believed a Jewish state in our historic homeland to be the ultimate defiance of Hitler's efforts. For him Israel was, as it is for us, utterly sacred, its defense our religious obligation. However the debate over the Iran deal concludes, Israel's security must remain our greatest priority. And the American Jewish community must insist on Washington's continued financial, military and diplomatic support for Israel, and its vigilance in ensuring that Iran doesn't get what the deal's architects promise us it won't.