Tuesday, August 4, 2015


I've been very reluctant to write or speak about the Iran Deal. I spoke about it one Friday night, but I deliberately avoided saying anything about whether I think it's a good or a bad deal.

There are a few reasons for that. First of all, I'm a rabbi. I'm not an expert on international relations, nuclear inspections or anything of the sort. If you are turning to me to learn about the quality of this deal--about how effective it's going to be in keeping the bomb out of Iran's hands--or about how it fares in this respect compared to other options, then, quite frankly, you're being a fool. I know a lot of Rabbis who have come out in favor or in opposition to this deal, on its technical merits, and I find it terribly uncomfortable. Why would anyone expect a rabbi to have good insight into that?

In general, I tend to be cautious when speaking about non-overtly religious topics (even though I acknowlege that it's impossible, and wrong, to completely avoid them, as there isn't a clear distinction between religious and non-religious topics, especially when it comes to politics, which is often where morality gets implemented in our society). But, I am even more cautious when the topics are so terribly complicated. And, they don't get much more complicated than this one.

I've read intelligent, compelling articles which argue that this deal is a disaster--for Israel, for America and for the world. That it puts us in very real, possibly existential danger. I've read intelligent, compelling articles which argue that, given the circumstances (the crumbling sanction regime, the obvious unwillingness of the US to engage in a protracted military campaign, etc), this is a surprisingly good deal. It's not perfect (what negotiated deal ever is?), but given the reality in which it was negotiated, it's very good. I've read intelligent, compelling articles which argue that it is, in fact, an incredibly strong deal. That it got everything that could have realistically been asked for, and that it does a good job of keeping us safe for longer than any other available option.

And, the reality is, I really don't know who is right. And, neither do you.

If serious, committed, deeply knowledgable people disagree so greatly, then it's hubristic, possibly ridiculously so, to claim absolute assuredness about the topic. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to understand, and that we don't have the right, and maybe the obligation, to form opinions. But, when various organizations are coming out with strong, often strident statements of support or (more commonly, from what it seems) condemnation and opposition to this deal, my primary reaction is one of disbelief. Disbelief that this religious and/or community organization thinks that I care, or that I should care, about their positions. Many Federations are coming out against the deal. What do they know about the relevant details of the various options for inspection and verification? Some Rabbinic organizations are coming out in support of it--what makes them experts in complicated, multi-lateral negotiated nuclear treaties? And so on.

But, what I find even more frustrating is the way in which the pundits, professoinal and amateur, deride those who disagree with them. Because in this case, we're all very much on the same side. We don't all agree, of course, Many of us strenuously disagree with each other. But, fundamentally, we're all on the same side on this one. We all want the same thing. No one--literally no one that I've read or heard--wants Iran to have the bomb. No one thinks that it's just a small problem if they do get it. Everyone wants to live in a world without a nuclear Iran.

Where we disagree is about strategy and tactics. Some people think that it's realistic, and therefore necessary, to guarantee a permanent, or at least long-term, non-Nuclear Iran. And, if that's the case, then this deal fails. But, some believe that to be a pipe-dream. They believe that, realistically, the best we can hope for is a long delay in Iran's acquisition of nuclear power, and the possibility, remote though it may be, of other changes taking place during that interim period. And, holding out for an impossibly extreme deal is equivalent to not seeking a deal at all, and actually gives Iran a faster path to the bomb.

For the record, that's closer to my point of view. I'm terrified of a nuclear Iran. No one has to list off all of their bad traits for me; I'm aware of them. But, I also believe that if recent history has proven anything, it's proven that the US does not have unlimited capacity to affect or control the world. Holding out for a deal which permanently removes all nuclear enrichment capability from Iran while also getting them to agree to stop supporting terrorists while ceasing with all of the death-to-American and death-to-Israel rhetoric? That's the functional equivalent of not negotiating at all.

But, am I sure? Do I know if there might have been a better deal, even if there wasn't a perfect deal available? No, of course I don't. Do I know if a different administration, or a different negotiating team, might have gotten more meaningful concessions out of Iran? Of course not. I'm willing to listen to those arguments, but when they come in the form of context-unaware, invective-laden diatribes, I'm a lot less interested in what they have to say. Because, I basically never trust the judgment of anyone who claims to be absolutely sure about a complicated topic.

And that is precisely what I've learned in my rabbinical studies.