Let’s have Lincoln-Douglas debates about the Iran deal

Let’s have Lincoln-Douglas debates about the Iran deal

Instead of engaging in a series of debates on the merits and demerits of a controversial Iran deal, the Obama administration has resorted to ad hominem attacks on its detractors, including liberal democrats who have long supported the Obama administration but now oppose the deal.

The administration seems to be losing support for the deal among the general public, Democratic members of Congress, foreign policy experts and even the liberal media. Polls show overwhelming opposition to the deal among ordinary Americans and a majority of both chambers are opposed to it as well. President Barack Obama doesn’t like the trending opposition to his legacy deal, so he is trying to stifle the debate by attacking the motives of those who oppose the deal and the means they are employing to educate the public about its faults.

Obama in a phone call with groups affiliated with the Center for American Progress described those who would oppose the deal as “the same columnists and former administration officials that were responsible for us getting into the Iraq war.” Those comments follow on the heels of remarks delivered last month where the president criticized opponents as “talking heads and pundits, and folks who are not going to be making sacrifices, if, in fact, you end up in a conflict, who are reprising the same positions we saw during the Iraq war.”

Obama has also decried the millions of dollars spent by groups opposed to the deal who have been “putting the squeeze” on members of Congress with TV ads and lobbying campaigns. These groups, he claims, are backed primarily by “billionaires who happily finance SuperPacs” and are “opposed to any deal with Iran.” Obama seemed particularly hostile to the influence of AIPAC in a speech on July 18 where he urged Congress to evaluate the agreement “based on facts … not based on lobbying” the day after the pro-Israel lobbying group came out against the deal.

However, this is not the time or place to debate whether lobbying groups enjoy too much influence in our political system. What is clear is that they have an absolute right under the First Amendment to petition their government for a redress of grievances, and that many Americans have reasonable grievances against the Iran deal. What is also clear is that in his determination to secure a foreign policy legacy and to silence the very real concerns about the agreement his administration has negotiated with Iran, the president is willfully seeking to undercut the First Amendment rights of those who oppose his deal.

Yes, groups such as AIPAC and Nuclear Free Iran have spent large sums advocating against the agreement, but so too have organizations affiliated with the administration, such as J Street which, in its own words serves as a “blocking back” for the president.

J Street, which claims to be a pro-Israel lobby, has spent $5 million to convince members of Congress to vote against the consensus view of Israeli leaders, right, left and center. A number of other far-left groups have also launched a massive lobbying initiative to similar effect in the “StopWarWithIran” initiative. Obama has also called on foreign leaders to lobby Congress in favor of the deal. At the administration’s behest, British Prime Minister David Cameron admitted to calling several members of Congress in January to express his view that further sanctions against Iran would be counterproductive to negotiations.

Obama’s characterization of opponents of the deal as a collection of billionaires and war hungry neocons is misleading, incomplete and unfair. The reason why many Democratic and Republican members of Congress alike — most recently the prospective Democratic leader Chuck Schumer — have come out against the agreement is that it is a bad deal and public polling has repeatedly shown that Americans oppose it and believe that it will “make the world less safe.” I, along with other liberals who opposed the Iraq war, have expressed serious doubts about the agreement negotiated by the Obama administration.

Much of the opposition to the deal is based on the fact that it crosses Obama’s own red lines. Rather than “preventing” Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, it may merely postpone and legitimize this catastrophic outcome. It does not assure the immediate inspections that President Obama originally demanded, nor does it provide the transparency he promised. We know that in a worst case scenario, international inspectors would need 24 days to access a site. The administration should also release the content of side agreements between IAEA inspectors and the Iranian government regarding the conduct of inspections.

Finally, a credible military deterrent has been lacking over the course of these negotiations. Iran needs to believe that we will use military force if it fails to uphold its end of the bargain and seeks to develop nuclear weapons.

The Obama administration should now stand by its own promise to encourage a substantive discussion about this important issue. Instead of attacking the critics of the deal, the administration ought to welcome a spirited national debate. With that in mind let me propose a series of TV and radio debates between supporters and opponents of the agreement. I hereby challenge any administration defender to debate me, or other opponents of the deal, on its merits and demerits. The American public has the right to hear all sides of this issue without the president’s bully pulpit being used to bully loyal Americans who oppose the deal into silence. So let the name calling stop and let the debates begin.

A version of this article was published by The Boston Globe.

Alan Dershowitz is an emeritus professor of law at Harvard Law School. His new book, “The Case Against the Iran Deal: How Can We Now Stop Iran from Getting Nukes?” is available as an eBook and as a paperback.