The Iran talks that concluded on Sunday in Geneva should have focused on one central question: Is Iran's ultimate ambition to be a nuclear force that can dominate the Gulf and the Arab region as well as threaten the survival of Israel? Clearly, the answer to that question should have been evaluated not on the basis of expressions of intent voiced at the diplomatic table, but by acts on the ground. Although the "freeze" accord just reached with Iran may be implemented by an executive order alone, given its importance, a full airing of congressional concerns would surely better serve the national interest.
Yet instead of asking that question forthrightly and debating it seriously, it is being evaded, thus providing time for Iran to perfect its nuclear break-out capability. This evasion takes many forms, sometimes cloaked in diplomatic niceties. What is not nice at all are the repeated swipes aimed at demonizing U.S. congressmen, France and Saudi Arabia, but predominantly Israel, for daring to challenge the administration's assumptions about Iran's ultimate intentions.
Reflective of this thrust to disparage and indeed demonize the opposition are the latest columns of Tom Friedman, foreign-affairs columnist for The New York Times. Reading them, one would think that the devil incarnate had taken control of Congress, poisoning its members' commitment to U.S. national interests in favor of being prepared "to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations."
If the members of Congress were not public figures in the legal sense of the word, where almost anything can be said against them without fear of a libel suit (absent a showing of malice), it would not be surprising if Mr. Freidman found himself the subject of multiple libel actions by members distressed over the potshots at their integrity. For surely he knows that many of these congressmen come from states where Jewish votes are of little consequence, and in others, hardly sufficient to sway votes on relaxing tens of billions of dollars in economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for a temporary freeze of its nuclear development programs. For Mr. Friedman to contend that the debate in Congress is about being "willing to take Israel's side against their own president's" is to mischaracterize the real nature of the debate: whether America is to honor commitments made by this and prior administrations to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapon capability.
Yet, in raising these smokescreens, Mr. Friedman and other advocates of unquestioning acceptance of almost any deal proffered by the Obama White House would have us sidestep the central question of whether Iran is committed to the development of a nuclear weapon, leaving rational considerations aside. Why else would it press so hard for its claimed inalienable right to enrich uranium? If it is ultimately intended for peaceful purposes — electric power and the like — there are easier, unprovocative ways to get there. As Sen. John McCain said the other day, "If [Iran] wants to have a nuclear power plant, we'll build one for them."
The dilemma for those asked to approve the freeze-relaxation of sanctions deal is reminiscent of the problem faced by the Allies' strategic planners in World War II. As Richard Evans, an esteemed historian of the Third Reich, points out in a Dec. 5 article in the New York Review of Books, they came to realize that rational cost-factor analysis had little effect on the tactics of the Nazis because, ultimately, the aim of the war was inherently irrational as "in the deranged vision of the Nazis, Germany's war was being waged above all to destroy a worldwide conspiracy against the 'Aryan' race orchestrated by international Jewry, of whom Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin were the willing tools." Of course, that deranged vision extended to global hegemonic ambitions, except for a zone carved out for Japan.
Today, the essential question is whether the ayatollahs who control policy in Iran are fixated on regional hegemony and the destruction of Israel, much the same way that Hitler was fixated on the destruction of worldwide Jewry. If that is the case, reducing sanctions against Iran in the hope of spurring a new phase of moderation has little to recommend it. If a nuclear arsenal is Iran's lodestar, its leaders cannot be appeased. The wrong decision by Chamberlain led to World War II; the wrong decision today can lead to an entirely new Middle East, embroiled in a nuclear arms race with devastating consequences far beyond the region.
Surely, we sweep the issue of ultimate intentions aside, letting hope triumph over experience and demonization over reasoned debate, at our national peril. Yet in truth, successive American administrations have done precisely that, fearing to confront Iran seriously because it may be too big a problem to handle.
Now it is up to the Obama administration to decide whether a problem that should have been, but was not, nipped in the bud will reach its culmination in Iran's achievement of its long-pursued goal: nuclear-weapon breakout capability. Are we going to finally address directly by serious debate how to stay true to our word to blunt Iran's ostensible nuclear ambitions, or are we, as Mr. Friedman and others suggest, to give a blank check to the president? The world's future hangs on the answer.
Allan Gerson is the chairman of AG International Law. He served as senior counsel to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations during the Reagan administration.