Soon after U.S. President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, his administration announced plans to sell five AWACS, sophisticated surveillance planes valued at $8.5 billion, to Saudi Arabia. It was to be part of the largest foreign arms sale ever. Those following the debate over the recent Iran deal would not be surprised at the reaction: hawkish Senators Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) said that the deal should be stopped. And even the dovish Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) called it “one of the worst and most dangerous arms sales ever.” Meanwhile, Israeli leaders fretted about the potential dimunition of their country’s security. And pro-Israel lobbying groups in the United States tried to derail the agreement.
Congress ultimately did allow the AWACS sale to proceed. In the end, Saudi Arabia’s planes didn’t diminish Israel’s military superiority. Public and political tears were mended. And the pro-Israel lobby’s loss ushered in decades of reform and growth. Similarly, this time around, Congress will not likely block the United States’ participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. And only time will tell whether Israelis’ worst fears about Iran’s nuclear program will be borne out. What is clear, however, is that the political atmospherics surrounding this latest battle may inflict severe wounds to the U.S. political system and to pro-Israel forces that may not soon heal.
There are some obvious similarities between the Saudi Arabia and Iran cases. First, then as now, U.S. policymakers were deeply divided over the deal. Second, the Israeli government opposed the sale of weapons to a nation widely considered unstable and overtly hostile to the Jewish state. (After all, Saudi Arabia had just recently and adamantly opposed the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel.) Third, in both cases, opposition in the United States was spearheaded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. As AIPAC’s executive director from 1980 to 1993, I led the
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