Beating the AIPAC Push For War With Iran: 3 Lessons From Round One

By Sarah Lazare
Feb 19, 2014

A bipartisan team of senators, backed and funded by the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), was narrowly defeated in its recent bid to pass the Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions bill (S. 1881) that would have torpedoed ongoing P5 +1 talks with Iran and nudged the U.S. closer to war. While the bill’s backers were able to line up 59 senators behind it, they fell short of a 67 Senator majority needed to override President Barack Obama’s promised veto, prompting AIPAC to abandon the Senate bid… for now.

This victory was thanks in large part to rapid response from grassroots groups and lobbying organizations. Iraq Veterans Against the War—Chicago and Peace Action—New Jersey mobilized to the streets to say no to war. Organizations including Just Foreign Policy, The National Iranian American Council, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Win Without War, CREDO, and even pro-Israel groups such as Americans for Peace Now and J Street, mobilized their members and supporters to pressure lawmakers to reject the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill. More than 62 organizations signed an open letter to U.S. Senators declaring, “We strongly urge you to withhold co-sponsorship of S.1881 and delay consideration of new Iran sanctions while negotiations are ongoing.”

While this round has been won, we are not in the clear yet. The diplomatic process with Iran promises difficult developments ahead, as do power struggles and political violence throughout the region. Hardliners who have political interests in escalating aggression towards Iran will not balk at the next opportunity to derail talks. As we release a collective “Phew” after dodging what could have been a dangerous step down the path to war with Iran, our next task is to reflect, learn, and build for the long fight ahead.

Here are some lessons the anti-war left can extract from this latest averted disaster.

1. The United States is Weary of War

Politicians may be trying to divert public attention from overt U.S.-led war, and hide the deadly realities of covert drone wars, but people in the U.S. are still developing opinions about U.S. military aggression. And we are weary and disillusioned with endless war.

A recent poll revealed that a majority of the U.S. public brands the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—two of the longest official wars in U.S. history, with the Afghanistan war now stretching into its 13th year—as failures. People in the United States and across the world, further, have recently showed a will to stop war before it starts, mobilizing rapidly to block the immediate threat of a direct U.S. military attack against Syria (a threat that has been halted for now but still looms). And a poll from December shows that a majority of people in the United States support diplomacy with Iran.

This is not to idealize the public sentiment against war, however. People in the United States oppose war for a whole host of reasons: from racist xenophobia (not a drop of U.S. blood is worth a hundred Syrian/Iranian/Afghan lives) to cynical political realism (let’s focus on soft power and drone wars in the Middle East and North Africa so we can pivot militarily to Asia and protect U.S. dominance). But the U.S. anti-war left—which we have seen swell to unprecedented numbers in the past decade and resurge to help stop wars in Iran and Syria—has roots that are still intact.  Amid the anger and trauma of years at war combined with devastating poverty and racism at home, we face an opportunity—and challenge—to bring a vision of peace rooted in global justice and solidarity.

2. Cracks are Forming in the U.S. Elite

The political push towards escalation with Iran exposed deep political divisions within the ruling class. This was nowhere more clear than within the Democratic Party, where backers of the Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions bill, at the behest of the AIPAC lobby, attempted to engineer a mutiny against the Obama administration. The power struggle that ensued thrust the political influence of AIPAC into sharp relief, forcing staunch Israel supporters like California Senator Dianne Feinstein to choose between their loyalty to Obama and AIPAC. Feinstein’s declaration that, “We can't let Israel determine when and where the U.S. goes to war," was not only a rare public admission that AIPAC has a stranglehold on U.S. politics, but a challenge to this power from a known Israel loyalist. AIPAC’s defeat in this round has left some wondering if Israel’s unchecked power has, in fact, been exposed at the moment of its decline.

The flip side of the divisions within the Democratic Party is the grim reality that the push for war was and is a truly bipartisan effort, orchestrated by an AIPAC that may be temporarily bowed but is still powerful. Despite its defeat in this round, AIPAC still managed to garner a frightening level of support—which will matter throughout the months and years ahead. Furthermore, the anti-war left is in the position of backing the diplomatic efforts of an Obama administration that is no ally to the forces of justice, but rather, is engaged in a cynical bid to hedge the power of an empire in decline by avoiding calamitous wars. The diplomatic process with Iran is itself built on inequality and imperialism, reinforcing the devastating sanctions regime, and based on the assumption that the U.S. and Israel are the arbiters of who gets nuclear power. In other words: divisions within the elite, and between the U.S. and Israel, are no guarantee of a good outcome.

3. Time to Build for the Long Haul

As we expose and exploit the cracks in the elite, we are challenged to look beyond the Obama administration’s narrow push for diplomacy in the case of Iran towards a broader vision of peace with justice.

This latest victory means we have for now avoided a very bad outcome—a complete sabotage of diplomacy that would have a spectrum of tragic (if difficult to predict) potential consequences. These include: an escalation of sectarian and political violence in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon; reinforcement of the unchecked power of Israel, including its occupation and colonization of the Palestinian people; an emboldening of Saudi Arabia’s militarized bid for regional power; and at worst—a calamitous regional war.

But it is going to take strong global movements to steer our societies away from worst-case scenarios towards justice. It is up to an anti-war left to build this compelling vision. To show how the current less-than-inspiring diplomatic process connects to our struggles against war and empire and for peace and justice.  To bring this message to our communities, workers centers, schools, and organizations.

And perhaps most importantly, now is an important moment to build solidarity with Iranian people, who are living under the thumb of U.S. and Israel-led sanctions and militarism, as well as Iranian state repression, who are engaged in their own struggle for self-determination. As Havaar, an organization of Iranians, Iranian-Americans, and allies organizing against U.S.-led militarism and sanctions, declares in its statement of principles. “We call on others to join our efforts to prevent a disastrous war, lift the heavy burden of sanctions from the backs of ordinary Iranians, and stand in solidarity with the Iranian people as they struggle against domestic repression and foreign intervention. Now is the time to join in the chorus of voices in Iran, the United States, and throughout the world calling for a new day of justice and hope.”

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Sarah Lazare lives in Portland, Maine where she is an assistant news producer for Common Dreams. Sarah is an independent journalist and organizer in U.S. anti-war and anti-militarist movements, as a member of War Times and The Civilian-Soldier Alliance, an organization that supports veteran and G.I. movements against U.S.-led wars. Sarah has organized around issues of Palestine solidarity, economic justice, and migrant rights, and she is co-editor of the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.

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