Why Republicans Oppose the Iran Agreement: Follow the Money

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Why Republicans Oppose the Iran Agreement: Follow the Money

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio), right, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Of course, both lawmakers have expressed disdain for the deal with Iran. (Photo: Harnik/Washington Post)

By any sensible measure, our country's highest foreign policy priority is halting the spread of nuclear weapons.

Given our size and military might, we Americans are safe from outside invasion for as far into the future as anyone can possible see. But we are clearly vulnerable to terrorist attacks. And the more nuclear weapons there are in the world, the greater the chance that a future suicide bomber strolling through one of our cities will be carrying a nuclear device in his or her backpack.

Unfortunately, non-proliferation has long taken a back seat to less important drivers of our geopolitics. Thus, for example, in order to keep good relations with Israel and Pakistan, successive US governments provided both countries with billions in military aid while they built nuclear weapons and refused to sign the international non-proliferation agreement. Today, Pakistan's government - corrupt and potentially unstable - is the major source of nuclear weapon technology dribbling out into the world.

Yet, now, when we finally have an opportunity to stop a hostile nation from acquiring true weapons of mass destruction, Republican Party leaders have vowed to kill it. A few hours after Barack Obama's nuclear agreement with Iran was announced and before they had time to read the text, House speaker John Boehner and a chorus of GOP luminaries declared their opposition.

Aside from their hysterical references to Obama as Neville Chamberlain and the Iranian president as Adolf Hitler, Republicans say they oppose the agreement for two reasons. First, it will not succeed. Second, it will succeed.

It won't succeed, they say, because the Iranians will try to cheat. Possibly. But this is the tightest, most enforceable nuclear agreement ever. Iran has agreed to intrusive inspections and, if they are in violation, to "snapback" provisions that will automatically restore the economic sanctions that drove it to make the deal in the first place. Obama's agreement is based on the same principle Ronald Reagan followed when he signed the 1987 treaty with the Soviet Union for mutual reduction of nuclear missile arsenals: "Trust, but verify."

On the question of trust, the Iranians have had to take their own leap of faith. We are, after all, the nation that in 1953 engineered the overthrow of their democratically elected leader and imposed a despotic king - and in the 1970s provided that king with nuclear technology. In 1980, we supported Saddam Hussein's attack on Iran, igniting an eight-year war that killed over a million Iranians. In 1988, we shot down an Iranian passenger plane over Iranian territory murdering 290 civilians, including 66 children, for which we have never even apologized. We then turned on Hussein, plunging the Middle East into its current nightmare of killing, destruction and terror. Not exactly a record to inspire confidence.

Well, if you are not convinced by their first argument, the Republicans have another: the agreement is bad because it will succeed, i.e., lifting economic sanctions, says Boehner, "will embolden Iran - the world's largest sponsor of terror - by helping stabilize and legitimatize its regime as it spreads even more violence and instability to the region."

Iran certainly supports some bad actors in the Middle East drama. But by far the greatest support for terrorism against the United States has come not from our "enemy" Shiite Iran, but from our Sunni allies -- Saudi Arabia and the Gulf oil sheikdoms, whose royal families have bankrolled the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and provided at least start-up funds for ISIS, in their holy war against the Shiites.

No doubt, ending the embargo will make it easier for Iran to pursue its interests in the region. That's why the Saudis and Israelis say they oppose it. But from the point of view of Americans' security, that risk pales beside the risk of nuclear proliferation. So whose priorities are the Republicans serving?

Moreover, they have no alternative. The notion that a new Republican president - Trump? Bush? Walker? Rubio? Huckabee? (The current leaders in the polls) - could by virtue of their superior knowledge of the Persian mind strike a better deal does not pass the laugh test.

But this is no laughing matter. Time is not on our side. Failure to conclude this agreement now will destroy the political influence of Iran's moderates, guaranteeing an all-out acceleration of Tehran's nuclear bomb program. And the only way to stop that, would be war, which, among other disastrous consequences, would vastly expand the pool of volunteers for suicide missions within the US.

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Clearly, the Republican opposition is not driven by thought-through national security considerations. What then is motivating them?

The common answer is "partisanship". The Republicans, so the story goes, hate Barack Obama and are determined to deny him any success. But if that was the case, how do we explain the overwhelming Republican support for the President's trade bill, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, upon which he bet so much of his personal political capital? Not only did they back Obama's proposal, the Republicans even denied themselves, as the majority party, the right to amend any deal he brings back from his secret negotiations with eleven foreign countries?

To understand why the Republicans support Obama on the trade treaty but not the nuclear treaty, follow the money. On trade, the GOP was serving the interests of its big business contributors who want to produce for US markets in places where labor is cheap and regulation is weak.

On the Iranian treaty, the Republicans are carrying the water for another group of financiers. One is the so-called Israeli lobby, which in the last few years has dramatically shifted away from the Democrats to the Republicans. Major contributors, such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, are in strategic alliance with the rightwing Koch Brothers and Christian fundamentalist constituencies that until recently were openly anti-Semitic. Adelson alone contributed almost $100 million dollars to conservatives in the last presidential election, and will be putting up even more this time

Actually, the Iran accord is likely to be in the interest of the Israeli people. Its net effect will be to intensify the Shiite-Sunni conflict, diverting the energies of Middle Eastern Muslim countries away from their quarrel with Israel. But with some exceptions, the major American Jewish political funders take their cue from Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made a career of demonizing the Iranians, and is now, in effect, the de facto leader for foreign affairs of the Republican Party.

Other, less well-known sources of money to defeat the Iranian accord are the Gulf oil sheikdoms. In addition to funding terrorists, their monies flow generously to Washington's lobbying firms, think-tanks, journalists and, of course politicians running for office. An ex-Republican senator who heads one of the largest super PACs in America is a registered lobbyist for Saudi Arabia.

The Gulf states get further leverage on American politics through their close ties to the US oil and defense industries, who, even after seven years of Democratic Party control of the Energy and Defense Departments, still contribute more to Republican candidates.

The influence of money on domestic policymaking is generally acknowledged, although inadequately scrutinized, by the media. Foreign policy disputes, however, are treated as more honest, high-toned differences over strategic ideas, e.g., hawks versus doves, realists versus idealists, interventionists versus isolationists.

But in our globalized political economy, influence peddling - for export or import -- no longer stops at the water's edge. There is no reason to think that our foreign policy is immune from the same corrupting financial considerations that shape our domestic policy. In 2013 the top ten foreign countries, led by the United Arab Emirates, spent $70 million (not including diplomatic contacts) to influence Washington policymakers.

So, once you consider the money, the shallow dim-wittedness of the Republican opposition to the Iranian nuclear agreement becomes less of a mystery.

As Upton Sinclair once observed, "It's hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding."

Jeff Faux

Jeff Faux is the founder and now Distinguished Fellow at the Economic Policy Institute. His latest book is The Servant Economy.

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