The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had joined an AIPAC-backed effort to pressure President Joe Biden on diplomacy with Iran, sparking a backlash from pro-diplomacy advocates.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez (D–N.J.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) circulated a letter Monday urging President Biden to use “the full force of our diplomatic and economic tools…to come to an agreement that meaningfully constrains [Iran’s] destabilizing activity throughout the Middle East and its ballistic missile program.”
Menendez and Graham have both opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that Biden has pledged to rejoin. Biden may already be taking a somewhat harder line on Iran in fear of Menendez’s wrath, Politico reported earlier this month.
The two senators are asking for more offices to sign onto their letter. It comes as 70 Democrats in the House of Representatives joined a Republican-led letter warning that the JCPOA has failed to stop “the full range of Iran’s threats" and calling for Biden to seek an “agreement or set of agreements” that secures more Iranian concessions.
“We have knowledge that AIPAC was behind this letter,” said Dylan Willliams, advocacy director at the left-leaning pro-Israel group J Street, referring to the House letter. “All of these vehicles on Iran and the Senate letter on the ICC are AIPAC asks that would normally be made around their annual policy conference, which is not being held this year. However, they are still making a number of legislative asks as they usually would at this time.”
“This is a move that AIPAC attempts all the time,” Williams told Responsible Statecraft. “They sell the letter to lawmakers as meaning one thing, and then promote it as backing a materially-different policy.”
AIPAC has not responded to a request for comment from Responsible Statecraft as of press time, but has issued a statement publicly praising the letter.
Supporters of diplomacy with Iran are now pushing back.
In an email to congressional offices, J Street warned that Menendez and Graham’s letter “will be used by the [JCPOA]'s opponents to claim that letter signers oppose lifting sanctions that must be lifted in order to bring the US back into compliance…unless and until the agreement is massively broadened.”
J Street’s email, which was obtained by Responsible Statecraft, urged supporters of diplomacy not to sign the letter unless it includes a line acknowledging that some signatories support the JCPOA. It also calls on them to cosponsor the Iran Diplomacy Act, a bill in support of the 2015 deal.
NIAC Action, the National Iranian American Council’s lobbying arm, warned in its own statement that Menendez and Graham’s letter “would make the attainable impossible and risks setting President Biden on course for war with Iran” because it “suggests that the only acceptable agreement is one that addresses all concerns with Iran at once.”
“There is one clear option for the administration to roll back Iran’s nuclear program and create a pathway to begin negotiations on other areas of concern: returning to full compliance with the JCPOA,” the statement by NIAC Action argues. “Any efforts to muddle or frustrate this pathway are not helpful and risk frustrating serious diplomatic efforts that are underway.”
The Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby group, also pushed back on the letter.
“This letter from Senators Menendez and Graham supports a continuation of the same failed maximum pressure strategy from the Trump administration, that has created instability in the Middle East, put us on a war footing with Iran, and caused untold human suffering for Iranian people, who now lack access to many critical life-saving medicines,” says Hassan El Tayyab, the committee’s legislative manager for Middle East policy.
Under the JCPOA, the Iranian government had agreed to enforce strict limits on its nuclear program and subject it to rigorous international inspections in exchange for six world powers lifting long-standing economic sanctions against Iran.
Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 and imposed “super maximum economic pressure” while demanding a “better deal.” Iran has since escalated its nuclear activities, although it has promised to roll them back to the limits prescribed by the JCPOA if the sanctions are lifted.
Biden has publicly stated that he wants to get both sides back into compliance with the JCPOA as a springboard for further diplomacy. But hawks are urging the Biden administration to ditch the JCPOA and use sanctions as leverage to gain more concessions, including on Iran’s regional policy and ballistic missile program.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans support “direct negotiations” to deal with the Iranian nuclear program, a poll published by YouGov and the Economist earlier this week shows.
“While we may have differing views on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of 2015 and the overall approach of the Trump Administration’s maximum pressure campaign, we must confront the reality that Iran has accelerated its nuclear activity in alarming ways,” the letter by Menendez and Graham states. “We further agree that outside of its nuclear program, Iran continues to pose a threat to U.S. and international security.”
Menendez and Graham have both previously opposed the JCPOA and called for a harder line on Iran. In 2013, both proposed a joint resolution backing Israeli military action against the Iranian nuclear program. Later that year, Menendez attempted to pass new sanctions on Iran while negotiations for the JCPOA were still underway, a move that several senior Democrats opposed.
But Menendez also joined Republicans in calling on Trump to maintain economic pressure on Iran during the coronavirus crisis, a position that put Menendez at odds with senior members of his own party, who supported humanitarian exemptions to the sanctions to help Tehran contain the pandemic.
And he continued to oppose the JCPOA at a confirmation hearing last week, calling the accord insufficient to deal with the full range of Iranian threats.
Other Democrats disagreed with Menendez’s position.
“Many of us supported the [JCPOA] on its terms,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D–Conn.) at the same hearing. “By expanding out the number of things we want to talk about at this negotiating table, I worry that we may be setting ourselves up for failure.”
Matthew Petti is an independent journalist and a non-resident fellow at the Kurdish Peace Institute. He worked for various Jordanian news outlets as a 2022-2023 Fulbright fellow. Previously, he worked as a reporter at Responsible Statecraft and a national security reporter at The National Interest. His work has appeared in The Intercept, The Daily Beast, and Reason Magazine.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). Jan. 2019 (Photo: lev radin via shutterstock.com)
Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?
Discussions of Pentagon spending in Washington routinely ignore the fact that at $886 billion for next year, the military budget is already at one of the highest levels since World War II. With better management and a more realistic strategy, that sum would be far more than is needed to provide an effective defense of the United States and its allies.
Unfortunately, the Pentagon, the arms industry, and their allies in Congress have failed to make a careful assessment of America’s defense needs. Instead, they’re pushing an ill-considered plan to supersize the weapons production base at the expense of other urgent national needs.
The main argument used by Pentagon budget boosters is that the United States is in danger of falling behind China in developing and deploying next-generation systems, like unpiloted vehicles controlled by artificial intelligence. This approach would also include taxpayer subsidies for the building of new weapons factories, which could lead to a permanent expansion of the arms sector. Doing all of this could push the Pentagon budget well over $1 trillion in the next few years, a huge and unnecessary spending binge that would further militarize our economy at the expense of investments in addressing major challenges like climate change and outbreaks of disease.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks unveiled the Pentagon’s new approach in a speech to the National Defense Industrial Association in August of this year:
“To stay ahead [of China], we’re going to create a new state of the art… leveraging attritable, autonomous systems in all domains which are less expensive, put fewer people at risk, and can be changed, upgraded, or improved with substantially shorter lead times," she said. "We’ll counter the PLA’s [People’s Liberation Army’s] with mass of our own, but ours will be harder to plan for, harder to hit, and harder to beat.”
Building new systems, based on complex new technologies, able to be produced in large numbers in short order would be a daunting task. It would run counter to the record of the Pentagon and the arms industry over the past five decades, which is rife with examples of cost overruns and schedule delays. The Pentagon’s dream of new high-tech systems that are affordable and quick to produce is unlikely to be fulfilled.
A forthcoming reportfrom the Pentagon on the nation’s “defense industrial strategy” suggests that the solution is to fund smaller, more nimble arms firms, because “the traditional defense contractors in the [defense industrial base] would be challenged to respond to modern conflict at the velocity, scale, and flexibility necessary to meet the dynamic requirements of a major modern conflict.”
Regardless of who takes up the challenge of building next generation systems, the notion that new technology can solve the array of security challenges facing America is a dubious proposition. Every generation brings hopes of a new, miracle technological fix that will allegedly dramatically increase U.S. military capabilities. From the “electronic battlefield” in Vietnam to the “revolution in military affairs” that was touted in the 1990s, this approach has produced some systems that are more accurate and better networked.
But the existence of this technology has not enabled the United States to actually win wars — in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. That’s because technology cannot overcome a determined adversary engaged in irregular warfare on its home turf, and that the goal of reshaping entire societies by force was wildly unrealistic in the first place. The idea that emerging technologies will do any better and increase the ability to “win” a war with China is misguided at best. War with China would be an unprecedented disaster for all concerned, and the goal of U.S. policy should be to prevent such a conflict, not spin out scenarios for “winning” a war against a nuclear-armed power.
In addition, contrary to the claims of the Pentagon and the arms industry, China’s military is not 10 feet tall, nor is its arms industry. As I note in a new paper for the Brown University Costs of War project, however one chooses to measure it, the U.S. spends two to three times what China spends on its military. The U.S. also has large advantages in numbers of basic systems, including nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, advanced combat aircraft, nuclear-powered submarines, and transport aircraft.
In fact, as Dan Grazier of the Project on Government Oversight has noted, China’s military strategy is “inherently defensive.” When it comes to emerging military technology, the relative strengths of the U.S. and China are harder to assess given a lack of transparency on research into these areas. But the best course is not to run an arms race with China in the development of AI-driven robotic weapons. As Michael Klare has noted in a report for the Arms Control Association, there are real concerns that “AI-enabled systems may fail in unpredictable ways, causing unintended human slaughter or uncontrolled escalation.”
The best hope of fending off a war between the U.S. and China over Taiwan rests with smart diplomacy, not “smart” weaponry. A good start would be to revive the “One China” policy, which calls, among other things, for China to commit itself to a peaceful resolution of the question of Taiwan’s status, and for the U.S. to forswear support for Taiwan’s formal independence and maintain only informal relations with the Taiwanese government.That approach has kept the peace in the Taiwan Strait for five decades.
There is no good reason to expand the U.S. arms production base to accelerate the development of dangerous, next generation weapons systems. But unless Congress and the public act soon to rein in these efforts, we may soon enter a brave new world that will make the current security landscape look benign by comparison.
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President Ronald Reagan at a Plenary Meeting with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev at The Soviet Mission During The Geneva Summit, 11/20/1985. Matlock is seated at the end of the table, smiling. (National Archives/Public Domain)
Rummaging through my accumulated papers, I just came across the English translation of a speech I delivered in Czechoslovakia on July 4, 1982, when I was American ambassador in Prague. At that time Czechoslovakia was ruled by a Communist regime imposed by the Soviet Union.
As I perused it, I realized to my dismay that today I could not honestly make many of the statements in this message.
Here are some of the key paragraphs and my reflections on them today:
“I am pleased to send greetings to the people of Czechoslovakia on this 206th anniversary of my country’s independence. It is a day when we Americans celebrate the foundation of our nation as an independent, democratic republic, and a day on which we dedicate ourselves anew to implementing the ideals of our founding fathers. For us, the bedrock of these ideals is the proposition that states and governments are created by the people to serve the people and that citizens must control the government rather than being controlled by it. Furthermore, we believe that there are areas of human life such as expression of opinion, the practice and teaching of religious beliefs, and the right of citizens to leave our country and return as they wish, which no government has the right to restrict.”
Can we really say that our citizens “control the government” today? Twice in this century we have installed presidents who received millions of fewer votes than their opponents. The Supreme Court has nullified rights supported by a decisive majority of our citizens. Votes for the U.S. Senate count far less in a populous state than in a state with fewer citizens. Corporations and individuals are virtually unlimited in the amount they can spend to promote or vilify candidates and to lobby Congress for favorable tax and regulatory treatment. The Supreme Court has, in effect, ruled that corporations are citizens too! That sounds to me more like an oligarchy than a democracy.
“We are a nation formed of people from all corners of the world, and we have been nurtured by all the world’s cultures. What unites us is the ideal of creating a free and prosperous society. Through our history we have faced many challenges but we have been able to surmount them through a process of open discussion, accommodation of competing interests, and ultimately by preserving the absolute right of our citizens to select their leaders and determine the policies which affect their lives.”
Since when have we seen an open discussion and accommodation of competing interests in the work of the U.S. Congress? How is it that, for the first time in U.S. history, we had no Speaker of the House of Representatives for days this year?
“Our society is not a perfect one and we know very well that we have sometimes failed to live up to our ideals. For we understand the truth which Goethe expressed so eloquently when he wrote, “Es irrt der Mensch, so long er strebt”(Man errs as long as he strives.) Therefore, while we hold fast to our ideals as goals and guides of action, we are convinced that no individual and no group possesses a monopoly of wisdom and that our society can be successful only if all have the right freely to express opinions, make suggestions and organize groups to promote their views.”
Unless you are a Member of Congress who speaks out in defense of the fundamental rights of Palestinians to live in freedom in their ancestral lands, or students at Columbia University who wish to do the same.
“As we Americans celebrate our nation’s birthday and rededicate ourselves to its ideals, we do so without the presumption that our political and economic system– however well it has served us–is something to be imposed upon others. Indeed, just as we preserve diversity at home, we wish to preserve it in the world at large. Just as every human being is unique, so is every culture and every society, and all should have the right to control their destinies, in their own ways and without compulsion from the outside. This is one of the principal goals of our foreign policy: to work for a world in which human diversity is not only tolerated but protected, a world in which negotiation and accommodation replace force as the means of settling disputes.”
Unless you live in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Syria, or Palestine…or, for that matter, in Iran, Cuba, or Venezuela.
“We are still a long way from that world we seek, but we must not despair, for we believe that people throughout the world yearn basically for the same things Americans do: peace, freedom, security, and the opportunity to influence their own lives. And while we do not seek to impose our political system on others, we cannot conceal our profound admiration for those brave people in other countries who are seeking only what Americans take as their birthright.”
Unless they live in Gaza or the Palestinian West Bank.
“While this is a day of national rejoicing, there is no issue on our minds more important than the question of preserving world peace. We are thankful that we are living at peace with the world and that not a single American soldier is engaged in fighting anywhere in the world. Still, we are concerned with the high levels of armaments and the tendency of some countries to use them instead of settling disputes peacefully. We share the concern of all thinking people with the destructive potential of nuclear weapons in particular.”
At that time the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan and the U.S. was demanding their withdrawal. Subsequently they did withdraw in accord with an agreement the U.S. negotiated. But then, after 9/11, the U.S. invaded and stayed for 20 years without being able to create a democratic society. A subsequent invasion of Iraq, on spurious grounds, removed the Iraqi government and gave impetus to ISIS. Then, the U.S., without a declaration of war, invaded Syria and tried unsuccessfully to overthrow its government (which we recognized) and also to combat ISIS, which had been created as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
American soldiers are now stationed in more than 80 countries. We spend more on arms than all other budgets for discretionary spending, and now the Biden administration is making all but formal war against Russia, a peer nuclear power.
“It is for this reason that President Reagan has proposed large reductions of nuclear weapons. … We have also made numerous other proposals which we believe would increase mutual confidence and reduce the danger of conflict. All aim for verifiable equality and balance on both sides. That way, the alliance systems facing each other would need not fear an attack from the other. …”
Yes, and by 1991 we negotiated massive reductions in nuclear weapons, banned biological and chemical weapons and limited conventional weapons in Europe. The Cold War ended by agreement, not the victory of one side over the other. But, beginning with the second Bush administration, the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from every important arms control treaty and embarked on a trillion dollar “modernization” of the American nuclear arsenal. Meanwhile, although there was no Warsaw Pact after 1990, the U.S. expanded NATO and refused to negotiate an agreement that insured Russia’s security.
“The task ahead for all the peoples of the world to establish and preserve peace is not an easy one, The issues are complex and they cannot be solved by simplistic slogans, but only by sustained effort.”
Nevertheless, from the late 1990s the U.S. seemed motivated by a false and simplistic doctrine that the world was destined to become like the U.S. and the U.S. was justified in using its economic and military power to transform the rest of the world to conform with its image of itself (the Neocon thesis). It was, in effect, an adaptation of the failed “Brezhnev doctrine” pursued by the USSR until abandoned by Gorbachev. As with the Brezhnev doctrine, the attempt has been an utter fiasco, but the Biden administration seems, oblivious to the dangers to the American people, determined to pursue it.
“Nevertheless, I speak to you today with optimism, since I know that my country enters the 207th year of its independence with the determination not only to preserve the liberties we have one at home but to devote our energies and resources to maintaining peace in the world.”
But, today, during the 248th year of American independence :
The U.S. is sending 100 “super-bombs” for dropping on Gaza. The BLU-109 “bunker busters”, each weighing 2,000 pounds, penetrate basement concrete shelters where people are hiding, the Wall Street Journal reported Dec. 1.
America has sent 15,000 bombs and 57,000 artillery shells to Israel since October 7, the paper said.
Details of the size and number of weapons sent have not been previously reported.
Also on the list are more than 5,000 Mk82 unguided or “dumb” bombs, more than 5,400 Mk84 2,000-pound warhead bombs, around 1,000 GBU-39 small diameter bombs, and approximately 3,000 JDAMs, the Journal said.
The news dramatically contradicts statements of Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken that avoiding civilian casualties is a prime concern for the United States.
The U.S. also provided the bomb that was dropped on the Jabalia refugee camp, killing 100 people, possibly including a Hamas leader, the Journal said.
Repeated calls by the countries of the world, through the United Nations, for a ceasefire have not been supported by the U.S. and its follower nations.
Military spending makes up a dominant share of discretionary spending in the U.S., and military personnel make up the majority of government manpower.
The weapons are being airlifted on C-17 military cargo planes directly from the U.S. to Tel Aviv.
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