Iran Deal: Should We Give Obama the Benefit of the Doubt?

What’s done is done -- or better, what hasn’t been done stays undone. So far Netanyahu seems likely to be remembered as a tragic case, his nation’s democratically elected, reelected and reelected again leader, an eloquent man of insufficient action. That’s what an unnamed Jeffrey Goldberg source in the White House was thinking when he called “Bibi” a “chickens**t.” And why not? Years earlier Netanyahu had, in the White House, on camera and under a flock of microphones, lectured the president of the U.S.A. on the ABCs of the Middle East as if he was an Occidental sophomore. Revenge is a dish best eaten cold.

Yet historians will agree that Obama’s motives in the JPCOA business weren’t personal. Chamberlain had a vision, an impersonal vision, a hope, a blueprint for a peaceful Europe where a peaceful Germany would help keep the peace and help contain the Soviet Union. Likewise, it seems Obama has a vision of a reset Middle East where the ancient civilization of Persia would help fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Instead of Munich 1938, his working precedent is Beijing 1972. He made this explicit during an Oval Office interview with Tom Friedman. Yes, he admitted that on paper the JCPOA leaves Iran free to manufacture nuclear weapons in ten or fifteen years. But that’s a long time, long enough for a young, clean-shaven, iPhone-packing generation to have filed the ayatollahs and their worldview in the dumpster of history.

Maybe, and maybe not. Those of us old enough can remember Richard Nixon and Kissinger’s opening to Mao. Soon afterwards Isaac Stern hit Beijing, Wuhan and Shanghai with his violin and Jewish charm, enthralling SRO audiences of the young, middle-aged and old starved for Mozart and Beethoven. And today? Is the Communist party gone, and do you have a liberal, tolerant, non-truculent, status-quo People's Republic of China?

Last month, as if in Stern’s footsteps, Daniel Barenboim was about to take the musicians of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden to Tehran to perform the overture of Der Fliegende Hollander. Until, that is, the Islamic Republic’s culture ministry spokesperson nixed the plan. Hossein Noushabadi explained that nobody holding Zionist-regime citizenship, regardless of how sympathetic to the Palestinians, can be welcomed. Then what about James Levine? Or if no Jews, maybe Zubin Mehta?

But among the downsides of old age is pessimism. The post-prophetic future will always be unknowable and there’s no guarantee Obama’s intentions, expectations and sincere hopes won’t bear fruit. Although the Islamic Republic isn’t exactly Nazi Germany, the worldview of Islamism, regardless of whether Sunni or Shiite, has at its core, as Nazism had, the hatred and fear of Jews and liberated women. Can there be de-Nazification without a shot fired and without an occupation? Will the soft power of Hollywood and Apple do what it hasn’t been able to do in China?

Maybe, maybe not. The history of the Munich analogy echoes the fable of the boy crying wolf. Over and over, the young shepherd raises the alarm until -- and here’s the point, typically forgotten -- the wolf comes, nobody believes him and he and the sheep are done for.

And the Aesopian moral? “This shows how liars are rewarded: even if they tell the truth, no one believes them.” Not to imply that all those who’ve mobilized the analogy from Suez in 1956 to Vietnam in the ‘60s to Syria did so knowing it was baseless. To fear God means giving everybody the benefit of the doubt, even them, even presidents.

Let’s stipulate that Barack Obama’s intentions and hopes vis-à-vis Iran and the Bomb have been and are well-meaning and completely sincere. True, it’s rumored that hell is paved with good intentions. Nevertheless, let’s take an oath that in half a generation when an unreformed Islamic Republic tests its Bomb, and this president is a healthy elder statesman, those of us still alive will be as kind as Churchill was to the dead man who’d negotiated peace for our time.