Home >Opinion >The Iran deal and the politics of fear

If you are a progressive activist, US President Barack Obama can tell you everything you need to know about the Iran deal in one word: NEOCONS!

I overstate, but only slightly. Since the US and five other world powers agreed to terms last month intended to lift sanctions and check Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, a key pillar of the White House argument for the deal is to point out who is against it. Consider Obama’s message to progressive activists last week. In a conference call where only the president spoke, Obama warned, “You will hear a lot of arguments out there about why this is a ‘bad deal’ from people who, frankly, would be opposed to any deal with Iran." He went on to say that the arguments were bolstered by a $20 million ad campaign, a veiled reference to lobbying by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He then said some of the campaign comprises “the same columnists and former elected, former administration officials that were responsible for us getting into the Iraq war and were making these exact same claims back in 2002, 2003, with respect to Iraq".

This kind of dog-whistling from Obama does a disservice to his supporters. He’s exploiting his base’s deep fear of all things neoconservative. It’s true that neocons in 2002 and 2003 supported and argued for the Iraq war. Some of them helped plan the war. But many Democrats also supported the Iraq war, including Hillary Clinton.

For Obama’s base, the neocons were not just policy intellectuals on the wrong side of an unpopular war, but were instead agents that pulled off a kind of coup d’etat and foisted a war on an unsuspecting public. Most serious people don’t believe this anymore. But it’s nonetheless a popular fable among the netroots to this day. What a terrifying world! Every election brings with it the prospect that our republic will fall under the power of a bunch of disloyal bureaucrats eager to shed American blood for Israel.

Suggesting that another disastrous war in the Middle East is just a few op-ed columns away, the president can activate progressive bloggers, volunteers and activists who themselves should be disappointed by Obama’s foreign policy. After all, Obama has yet to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Under Obama’s leadership, the use of drone strikes has increased and become commonplace in countries like Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan—countries where the US is not formally at war. But if he reminds the base that he is the one fighting the neocons, it’s 2008 all over again.

This Iran deal will be Obama’s foreign policy legacy. It’s clever of him to frame the agreement as a triumph over the mentality that got us into the Iraq war. It discredits the deal’s opponents before they can tarnish the deal themselves. But this tactic also counts as what Obama once called “the politics of fear". No, Obama isn’t warning activists that the other side isn’t vigilant against terrorism. He’s just saying his opponents seek war and only his policies can bring peace.

But the Iran deal is no peace treaty. It’s an executive agreement that broadly ends an economic war against Iran in exchange for Iran’s promise over the next 10 to 20 years to allow more transparency and place some limits on its nuclear programme. Iran is not committed to ending its support for terrorists or proxies that have killed Americans. In fact, as the region prepares for Iran to rise, Obama has promised to sell more arms to US allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, who consider Iran to be at war with them.

The best he can hope for in the aftermath of his deal is that, over time, Iran is deterred from continuing its aggression in the Middle East. But Iran isn’t likely to pull back unless it sees a credible chance that war will be waged against it. BLOOMBERG

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about politics and foreign affairs. He was previously the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast.

Edited excerpts. Comments are welcome at

Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Never miss a story! Stay connected and informed with Mint. Download our App Now!!

Edit Profile
My ReadsRedeem a Gift CardLogout