My first personal encounter with Iran left me surrounded by death and destruction.
As a Navy chaplain in Beirut in October 1983, I stood with the bodies and pieces of bodies of 241 Americans killed in a terrorist attack, with another 60 wounded and bleeding, some trapped under debris, some buried under the corpses of their friends.
I was there to hold a memorial service for Alan Soifert, a Jewish Marine killed by sniper fire. I held the service on Friday, October 21, but because I don’t travel on Shabbat, stayed until Sunday October 23, the day a suicide truck bomb, one we now know was part of an operation sponsored by Iran, shattered the quiet of a lazy Sunday morning with an attack that took more American lives in one day than any attack on the US military up to that point since Iwo Jima.
With this memory forever in my mind, I empathize with those in the Israeli government and in Congress who worry that a sanctions-free Iran will be emboldened to increase its regional efforts to support terrorism and disrupt peace. I worry that more lives, including those of my friends still in the military, will be lost if we don’t contain Iran’s dangerous ambitions.
And yet, in large part because of my memories, I stand with the growing number of Israelis and Americans, including many Jewish Americans, who support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran. Ultimately, I believe those against the agreement are short-sighted. We must fight against a nuclear Iran with this deal, and fight against Iran’s non-nuclear terrorism at the same time, but in other ways.
During the run-up to the P5+1 deal and now, as we approach the congressional vote on its approval, many Jewish groups have been trying to create the impression of consensus against the deal across the American Jewish community.
But polling shatters that illusion, revealing that 63 percent of respondents who have an opinion on the deal are in favor of it. Top pro-Israel members of Congress from the past four decades have spoken out in favor of the deal. I was among more than 400 rabbis from across America’s denominational spectrum who signed a letter recommending support for the deal, at the same time urging increased efforts to fight Iran’s actions against Israel and other nations.
Now, some Jewish groups have edged away from initial absolute opposition. The Reform movement, the largest Jewish denomination in America, has refused to take a stand, recognizing legitimate reasons for disagreement and debate, including solid and thoughtful reasons to support the agreement despite well-placed mistrust of Iran.
In Israel too, the myth of the antideal consensus has been shattered.
A pivotal point was the release of a letter in favor of the deal signed by dozens of the deans of Israel’s defense and intelligence elite, from former heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet and the Israeli nuclear program, to generals and admirals from all branches of the military.
Ami Ayalon, former head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and a past commander-in-chief of the Israeli navy, calls the agreement “the best possible alternative from Israel’s point of view, given the other available alternatives.” Former Mossad director Efraim Halevy stated that “without an agreement, Iran will be free to act as it wished, whereas the sanctions regime against it will crumble in any case...
what is the point of canceling an agreement that distances Iran from the bomb?” Israel’s defense establishment elders, who know full well the capabilities and limitations of the Israel Defense Forces, are prepared to see sanctions diminished once Iran mothballs its most important atomic research programs and facilities.
These military experts have seen first-hand the threats Israel faces from murderous terrorists, including the Iran-backed Hamas and Hezbollah. But they also are aware that for all of the leverage Iran has now, its regional power will be that much greater if it and its allies are able to shelter under a nuclear umbrella.
I agree with the plan’s critics that it is not perfect, but I also agree with those who eschew all-or-nothing solutions in this complicated and dangerous world, believing that the perfect often really is the enemy of the good – and that politics (like life itself) must sometimes be understood as the art of the possible.
This is one lesson from Succot, that Jews worldwide will soon celebrate. On Succot we are commanded to leave the security of our homes – and our comfort zones – in favor of temporary dwellings, structures linked by our faith to “succat shalom,” the tabernacle of peace for which we pray.
Ideally the succa should have four walls. However, Jewish law teaches that a succa with only three is also acceptable – also kosher – as is one with only two-and-a-half walls.
This agreement may be our 2.5- wall succa. It’s a little shaky, and it might not last, but if it is the best that we can build right now – and I agree with the Israeli and American experts who say that it is – then build it we must.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims Iran has nearly reached a point in its nuclear program where a breakout time of only months to having the bomb is inevitable.
Many of the Israeli defense leaders who support the deal agree, but also believe that an agreement that includes 10 to 15 years of fissile enrichment limits that will prevent weaponization, and 25 years of inspections of Iran’s nuclear supply chain, make the agreement worth the risk. Uzi Even, former lead scientist at Dimona, believes the deal “in practice ends [Iran’s] nuclear aspirations.”
These security and military experts also know that if the US rejects the deal, China, Russia and possibly other P5 + 1 nations will likely move to lift some or all of their sanctions on their own, in order to reap economic and political benefits. The strength of a united front against Iran will be lost.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s worries that Iran will cheat on the accord’s protocols are legitimate.
The deal, however, includes intricate inspection provisions. As Halevy points out, we must “mistrust and verify. There is going to be a verification system in place which is second to none and has no precedent.” On the US side, this position that we should “mistrust and verify” – and that this agreement allows us to do precisely that – has been taken by many past and present high-ranking officials including former secretary of state, national security adviser and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell.
This is a crucial time for critics of the accord and their legacy.
They can stand firm in obstructing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran, despite the fact that President Barack Obama now has a sufficient number of votes in favor of the agreement to ensure that his veto of a rejection of the deal will be sustained – or they can join with the growing number of members of Israel’s current and former military and intelligent experts to urge Congress to endorse the agreement up front.
Jewish tradition teaches that we must obey many commandments, but when it comes to peace, we must do more than simply obey.
We must seek and pursue it. Any pursuit includes risks. Like the way we build our succa – the symbol of the ultimate peace in which we must keep faith – we must sometimes pursue and build toward peace in temporary and imperfect ways. A 2.5-wall succa is not ideal, but it is good enough, and it is better than no structure and no shelter at all. And it’s kosher.
Likewise, this deal – especially when it is linked to plans to increase efforts to thwart Iran’s non-nuclear goals, and to bolster Israel’s defenses – is good enough.
More than that, it’s as good as it gets, because the alternative is not a better deal. The alternative instead is an Iran unfettered by any deal as it moves forward toward achieving its nuclear goals.
The author, a retired US Navy captain, is a former special assistant on values and vision to the secretary and chief-of-staff of the US Air Force. He is a former national director of inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee and was the first rabbi to study at the US Naval War College.