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  April 2, 2015

Better a War than an Agreement?

Phyllis Bennis says forces aligned in opposition to the Iran Framework Agreement in the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia would rather see war than a deal that brings Iran out of sanctions and back into play as a regional power
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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. She is the author of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer, Before and After: US Foreign Policy and the September 11 Crisis, Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer and Understanding the US-Iran Crisis: A Primer. Her most recent book is Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay.

Well the political guns are already out. Of course, they were out even before President Obama announced the framework of a deal with Iran. But now that that framework has been announced, the guns are firing. Their arguments are, look at what happened with North Korea. They negotiate and negotiate and make deals, but they make deals and then they have a nuclear weapon. The other argument seems to be, well if Iran doesn't live up to this, how are you going to ever, quote-unquote, snap back sanctions, because Russia would just veto it at the United Nations.

Now joining us to discuss the first of all American politics around this agreement is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis joins us from DC, she's a fellow and director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. She's the author of many books, including Understanding the US-Iran Crisis: a Primer.

Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So what do you make of the arguments against this deal? That it all sounds nice, but it's kind of unenforceable in the end?

BENNIS: You know, these are arguments that we've been hearing in various iterations for about ten years now. And they've gotten to the level of desperation. This isn't an agreement based on trust. This is an agreement based on the most invasive kind of investigations and inspection by the United Nations watchdog over nuclear weapons, the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency. These are more intrusive inspections than have ever existed, that Iran has now signed on to.

This is all about inspections. Nothing is going to happen that the world doesn't know about. These are not serious technical concerns that the Republicans have who are leading this fight against negotiations. This is a political fight. For some of them, this is a fight because they hate President Obama. Some it's around racism, some it's a partisan issue. They want Obama to fail. They want his legacy to be that of failure. And if his failure affects the whole country or the whole world, that's fine with them.

So they are trying to undermine these agreements so that they don't work. That's what's going on here. This isn't about a serious concern that this or that is not going to work.

JAY: Right.

BENNIS: Now, the … so that has to just be put aside. I think the key question is going to be, on the partisan front, is there going to be a serious effort that includes the ability to override a presidential veto that says that Congress has the right to make the final decision? To approve or disapprove of the agreement. Even though this is not a treaty. Treaties have to be approved by the Senate, as we know from the Constitution.

But the President makes foreign policy agreements all the time, and the vast majority of them are not treaties, are not ratified by the Senate. This is one of those. This isn't a treaty. This is an agreement that will be signed between the U.S., its five allies, and the Iranians. And Congress isn't going to be the one to make that decision.

So I think that one of the key questions is going to be whether the public opinion, which right now is running about 59 percent, almost six out of ten people across the country, across parties, across everything, want a negotiated solution. Only 30 percent are saying no, no, we don't want a negotiated solution, a small minority, because people generally understand that the bottom line is it's either negotiations or war.

Those who are against a negotiated settlement are saying we would rather have the risk of war than have a real agreement.

JAY: Now there's an interesting convergence of interest here between Saudi Arabia and Israel, that are both virulently against this agreement. And then each of them have their allies within the American domestic politics.

BENNIS: Absolutely. And this is making things much more complicated. The escalation of the now region-wide war that's raging across the Middle East -- the escalation right now in Yemen, where you have Saudi Arabia leading an alliance of the Gulf Arab leadership, the Gulf Arab monarchies, who are invading, attacking, bombing Yemen, are threatening to send ground troops into Yemen. Egypt, which of course has been part of that, has been saying they would send ground troops to Yemen. Egypt had already attacked Libya going after Islamists.

There's a huge sort of militarization of this Arab opposition to Iran, which is growing very quickly and it's a very dangerous moment for that. Part of that has focused on the fear of some of the Arab leaders, particularly the Saudis, who are the wealthiest, the most powerful of those Gulf absolute monarchies, who are afraid that the agreement that the U.S. is negotiating with Iran will be the beginning of a real, a reworking, if you will. A new paradigm in the Middle East, in which all of the old alliances might be thrown up and changed. The U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia as its key Arab ally, its key non-Israeli ally, could be in jeopardy.

That's absolutely a possibility, and it would actually be a pretty healthy development. It's not likely to happen anytime soon. But the Saudis are very worried about that. In that way it's very similar to the Israeli position. The Israelis are very much afraid of these negotiations. Not all Israelis, obviously, and certainly not even their military, who agree that Iran is not on the way to having a, to posing an existential threat to Israel.

But Netanyahu and his supporters in Israel and their supporters in the United States, who are a majority of the congressional Republicans, are all saying that this agreement not only represents a threat to Israel, but the real fear is that it represents the beginning of a shift away from the absolute support that the United States have guaranteed to Israel for more than half a century.

What is threatened by an agreement like this is not the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon. All 16 of the U.S. intelligence agencies agree that Iran has not even made the decision to try to build a nuclear weapon, let alone have the ability to do so right away. But it's the fear that, number one, it challenges Israel's nuclear hegemony in the region. Israel right now is the only nuclear weapons country in the region. The only nuclear weapons in the Middle East belong to Israel. And they're a hugely destabilizing force.

JAY: So when you go, when you go back to the American situation. Historically the Democratic Party and Republican Party have usually been pretty much on the same page when it comes to foreign policy. You know, occasional differences, but not so significant. This is actually a fairly profound difference, is it not?

BENNIS: It's becoming more and more a partisan issue, and that is new. In the past, it tended to be Democrats who supported Israel. And it was an irony, in a sense. There was this illusion that Israel was a kind of plucky, almost socialist kind of new country. This was in the immediate post-World War II period. The question of Jewish support for Israel, which had not been a majority position in the Jewish community until after the Holocaust, at which point it did become a majority position, that dovetailed with the fact that overwhelmingly, Jews were Democrats. So it tended to be Democrats who supported to be Israel much more firmly than the Republicans did.

Republican support has grown in recent years with the rise of the Christian right. The Christian Zionist movement. Who are overwhelmingly Republican and centered in the Republican party. So you have, really, two strands of this set of lobbies that are pushing for absolute support for Israel.

But it's emerging in this very partisan way. And the difference is that right now, among the Democrats, that sector of the Jewish community is really pulling back from its traditional support for Israel. That's where you see the rise of centrist organizations like J Street, left organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace. Those are the organizations that are on the rise. Organizations like AIPAC are absolutely on the decline. They still have a lot of money. They're still very powerful with an influence in Congress. But they no longer speak of a majority of the Jewish community, let alone a majority of anyone else.

JAY: And there's some very powerful economic forces at play, here. If Iran, if the sanctions are really lifted on Iran and Iranian oil hits the market, we could see, first of all, significantly lower oil prices. I don't think the Saudis want to see this go any lower than they are. And they start losing control over the global oil markets.

The second thing is the arms manufacturers are very closely allied to the Saudis. Saudi Arabia's even the number one or number two importer of arms in the world, and the arms manufacturers, who have a lot of clout in DC, don't want to displease the Saudis.

BENNIS: All of these are very important considerations, and and particularly the question -- it's less about the oil crisis, per se, with the Saudis. That's important, but it's not critical. What's critical is the question of control, of access to oil for other customers outside of the region. The Saudis are determined to maintain that level of power within OPEC, that level of power and control, and they don't want to be challenged by the Iranians. That is certainly a component of it.

It's also true that right now with the oil prices being so low, it will be a while before Iran can really take advantage of an opened up market for its oil. At the end of the day, oil is fungible. You know, oil is a fungible commodity, that once it gets on to the global market -- even if it's through a rather circuitous route -- if Iran sells its oil only to India, say, it still is having its role in the global market. But the question of maintaining Saudi control through OPEC remains very crucial, and part of the reason that the Saudis are so determined not to allow any new flexibility of the Iranian economy.

And this question of the arms. Now, you know, we're looking from the US. It was just three years ago that the Saudis arranged a $6 billion arms purchase, a five-year-long purchase. And the fact that you now have changing developments, particularly in Europe. Sweden, for instance, just canceled a big military relationship with the Saudis that included some military sales because of human rights concerns.

This is spreading throughout Europe. It's not yet really coming up in the U.S. There still is too much power in both the arms industry and the pro-Israel lobbies to threaten that willingness to sell arms to anybody. We just saw the U.S. reopening its arms sales to Egypt, despite the massive violations of Egyptian law, of international law, of human rights, by this government that came into power with a military coup that killed over 2,000 people in the midst of the coup, has arrested over 40,000. And yet the U.S. just announced it's reopening all of its arms sales to Egypt.

So that's still a huge challenge for us here at home, to manage that reality. That on the one hand, the U.S. is using its continuation, its consistency in these arms sales, to if you will buy off, lower the pressure of some of these forces. We'll keep selling arms to Saudi Arabia, we'll keep selling arms to Egypt, to the UAE, to Jordan, to all these countries, if you just sort of let up the pressure, let us negotiate this nuclear deal with Iran.

I don't know if it's going to work. I don't know if it's going to be enough. There still is going to have to be massive public pressure, which right now as I mentioned earlier is massively in favor of this deal. But that's going to have to be a mobilized level of public opinion.

It's not enough to just tell the pollsters, yeah, I support negotiations rather than war. It's going to have to be the kind of massive mobilization that we saw in support of a diplomatic rather than military solution in 2013, when the Obama administration was talking about bombing Syria. We were able to head that off because of the massive outpouring of outrage of people saying we don't want to go into another war in the Middle East.

JAY: Okay, thanks very much for joining us, Phyllis.

BENNIS: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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