trip in review

Graham predicts no Iran deal until after midterms, floats U.S.-Israel defense treaty

'I don't want a conflict [with Iran]. I'm insistent they don't produce a weapon... Whatever it takes to stop them, I'm willing to do,’ Graham told JI on Thursday

Tsafrir Abayov/AP

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) arrives for a press conference on U.S.-Israel relations in Jerusalem, Monday, Sept. 5, 2022.

Fresh off a trip to Israel, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) predicted that a new Iran deal will not be finalized until after the upcoming U.S. midterms and Israeli elections, and previewed plans for multiple legislative initiatives aimed at countering Tehran.

“I don’t think there’s any chance the agreement will be announced before our election, or the Israeli election [set for Nov. 1], because the politics of this agreement are probably not good in either place,” Graham told Jewish Insider on Thursday. But, despite fresh setbacks in the latest round of talks, “I’m assuming that [the administration] will get a deal because they want a deal so badly.”

Graham said he does not see a pathway for Congress to stop a deal from going forward — “We’d have to have a veto-proof [majority], which we won’t get.” He was unsure if there would be 60 votes in the Senate to initially block the deal, in advance of a potential presidential veto, and said that would likely depend on the final shape of the deal.

The South Carolina senator previewed plans to introduce legislation imposing additional sanctions on Iran in response to its attempts to target former U.S. officials on U.S. soil. He also said he anticipates that his bill with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-NJ) requiring regular, comprehensive reports to Congress on the status of Iran’s nuclear and weaponization efforts will pass before the end of the year. He and Menendez are pushing to incorporate it in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. 

That bill is seen as an effort to carve out a more significant role for Congress in Iran policymaking. 

Menendez was the co-leader of Graham’s delegation, which returned earlier this week. The two — frequent allies on Iran policy — were joined by Sens. Marcia Blackburn (R-TN), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) and Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-TX). The group met with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, among others.

Graham said he and Menendez are also examining the possibility of a “limited” binational defense treaty between the U.S. and Israel, regarding “existential threats to the Jewish state.”

Such a proposal would “let the world know that America has Israel’s back when it comes to their existence — and trying to do it in a fashion that we’re not going to take the independent action of the [Israeli Defense Forces] away,” he explained. “This won’t be an American veto of defending Israel, but it will be a commitment in certain circumstances, to provide clarity, that if your goal is to destroy Israel you have to come through us. That is a statement I think needs to be put in writing.”

A formal defense agreement would particularly serve as a deterrent to Iran and other enemies of Israel, he added. In the shorter term, Graham said the administration needs to reestablish a “credible military threat” to Iran, by setting firm red lines and making it clear that the U.S. will destroy Iran’s nuclear program if it crosses those lines. 

Blackburn told JI in a separate interview on Thursday that Israeli officials expressed to the group that they’re “incredibly concerned — as they should be — about what is going to transpire with Iran and their ability to enrich uranium,” as well as about the potential windfalls for terrorism that might result from a nuclear deal.

She said that Israeli officials communicated that they’re “grateful” for U.S. aid and support and want to ensure its continuation. She added that the U.S. needs to counter Iran “through our strength” and by ensuring that the regime does not obtain any further funding through sanctions relief.

Graham said he also heard “a lot of concern” from Israeli and U.S. officials about the “deteriorating” security environment in the West Bank and the “floundering” state of the Palestinian Authority.

“I talked to our general who is in charge of that relationship, and he’s worried,” Graham said, an apparent reference to U.S. Security Coordinator Lt. Gen. Michael Fenzel. “We’ve got to come up with some way to give the Palestinian youth hope. Make sure Israel can defend herself, but enhance the Palestinian security forces so that they’re not so reliant on Israel.”

Graham said that there would likely not be any action on that subject until after the Israeli election.

“I hope they can get a government that has a little staying power because this is such a volatile time,” Graham said. The political volatility on both sides of the U.S.-Israel relationship, he continued, could “allow the bad guys to get traction if you don’t watch it.”

He emphasized that the trip was geared toward reassuring Israel of American support, regardless of the outcome of the U.S. midterm elections.

Graham cast Iran as a generational threat, drawing parallels between the Islamic Republic and Adolf Hitler.

“It’s about time the world starts believing people when they say things. In the last century, we let a guy get away with murder, literally. We didn’t take his threats seriously, Adolf Hitler,” he said. “Everybody sort of miscalculated the last Hitler. And there’s no real peace in our time if the guy doesn’t want peace. See, I don’t think the Iranians are a normal regime, I think they’re religious zealots, and there’s no way to accomodate what they want.”

He compared the current moment to the run-up to World War II.

“Bob [Menendez] said… ‘no more Munich moments.’ I think that’s a good way to summarize where we are,” he said, referring to the 1938 Munich Agreement. “I don’t want a conflict. I’m insistent they [Iran] don’t produce a weapon… Whatever it takes to stop them, I’m willing to do. When it comes to Israel, we have no better friend.”

Blackburn alluded to similar parallels, framing Iran as part of a new “axis of evil,” along with Russia, China and North Korea.

While Graham and Menendez have pushed a diplomatic solution involving a Middle East regional nuclear fuel supply for nuclear power purposes, the South Carolina senator said there’s no prospect that the current Iranian regime will agree to such a deal. He also warned that, if Iran’s nuclear program is allowed to come to fruition, it will spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

U.S. military officials have said in recent years that military strikes will not permanently destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities, but rather set them back temporarily.

“We will hit them again and again and again,” Graham said, in the event that military force becomes necessary to stop Iran’s nuclear program. “The way that I would end that whole phrase is ‘never again.”

“There’s no way to avoid evil,” he continued. “You confront it. You can’t accommodate it… I believe the regime is religious Nazis. One day, they will fall — the Soviet Union collapsed. The system in Iran is, over time, unsustainable. One thing I will not do is try to contain them. Once they get a weapon, there is no way to do that. You have to prevent them from getting a weapon… So how long it takes, I don’t know. Whatever it takes, we’ll do.”

Axios reported earlier this week that the congressional group’s meeting with Netanyahu was the site of an “awkward moment,” when the group arrived to find a microphone-wearing Netanyahu and a video camera. Graham reportedly demanded that all of the recording equipment be removed from the room.

“There’s nobody I respect in the world more than Bibi, but you want to make sure these delegations are — that we’re able to receive the information in a way that’s conducive to getting the information — so it’s all good,” Graham said of that exchange. “As far as Bibi goes, I think he’s an historic figure, not [just] in Israel but throughout the world.”

At one point during the meeting, Netanyahu — flanked by a silent Blackburn — also filmed a direct-to-camera video, which he later posted to social media. In the video, Netanyahu, speaking in Hebrew, criticized the current Israeli government for not taking a firm enough stand against the Iran deal and not speaking out more publicly in the U.S, promoting his own tougher approach against any diplomatic process with Iran. Blackburn declined to comment on the situation, repeating, “We don’t talk about anything that was to be a closed-door meeting.”