A Dose of Reason On Iran

When issues heat up, especially those that may involve potential armed conflict, the one thing you can count on is that reason generally goes out the window. The forces promoting conflict tend toward demonization and distortion to frighten people sufficiently so they will back military action while anti-war tend to ignore the very real concerns that might exist with the country in question, sometimes even praising those who should not be praised for “standing up to imperialism” or some other ism.

The United States’ military action in Iraq as well as the simmering conflict between Israel and Syria, the worsening situation with the Palestinians and on top of last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah have greatly increased the instability in the never-stable Middle East. The prospect of an attack on Iran would greatly magnify the already considerable instability even by Mideast standards. Though I have never believed Iran would be attacked and still don’t, those pressing for such an attack have increased their efforts greatly, so the possibility is greater than ever. Some rational analysis of this situation is sorely needed.

Iran as a real threat

Let’s start with this: Iran is a threat. Iran has long harbored ambitions of expanding its influence in the Middle East, and the destruction of Iraq removed the biggest barrier to their goals. Iran is the leader of the Shi’ite world, a part of Islam much smaller than the majority Sunni, but also a group whose people happen to be situated in several countries (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq) on top of large oil deposits.

Iran’s relationships with both the US and Israel have been severely strained since the overthrow of the US-sponsored Shah in 1979. The Iranian populace is not likely to soon forget that the brutal Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was reinstated in 1953 in a CIA-sponsored coup, despite the official apology for this dastardly deed that the US issued in 2000. Iran’s anti-Zionist rhetoric as well as their support for anti-Israel militias such as Hezbollah is a fundamental part of their populist appeal in the Muslim world.

But the greatest threat Iran poses is not to the US or Israel directly but rather to the other key US client in the region, Saudi Arabia. With a majority Shi’ite population in both neighboring Iraq and in the oil-rich eastern province of Saudi Arabia, the Saudis have long feared increasing Iranian influence. Iran’s growing popularity in the region, especially as compared to the cynicism which the Saudi ruling elite inspire, makes the Saudi royal family distinctly nervous, and with good reason. While Iran cannot pose a real military threat to the US or Israel, it can do so against Saudi Arabia, especially if it can rally popular forces against the rulers. This is not an immediate danger, but it is a long term one, and one which the Saudis fear more than any other. Continue reading

De-Mystifying American Middle East Policy: A Response to Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer

The follow-up book to the controversial article “The Israel Lobby” by John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt has now been published. Like the article itself, the book is sure to stir controversy and, one expects that, like the original article, that controversy will consist largely of wild accusations of anti-Semitism and not nearly enough substantive debate. That is a loss for everyone involved, whether they agree with the thesis of the book or they do not.

In the wake of the original article, together with Chris Toensing, I published an article critiquing Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s thesis that the Israel lobby was a primary factor in the decision to go to war with Iraq.[1] The book does little to update their original thesis, though it does expand on it significantly, so our article, in the summer edition of Middle East Report, can be read as a partial response. But the book, like the article, makes much more wide-ranging statements than blaming the second Gulf War on the Israel lobby’s influence, and thus demands a similarly considered response.John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt

Is It Anti-Semitism?

As a Jew, who was worked for years to try to improve the situation in Israel and the Occupied Territories, and as someone who has extensive experience with both anti-Semitic ideas and anti-Semitic violence, I am compelled to open this analysis by addressing the question of whether Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s work reflects anti-Semitism. The question is unavoidable; the very idea of a lobby that draws much of its strength from a community holding an undue influence over American policy carries with it loud echoes of Jewish conspiracy theories up to and including the infamous Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion that stirred up intense anti-Semitism in Russia and Eastern Europe in the early 20th century.

Yet we Jews point with justifiable pride at the organization of our community into considerable political clout. No one argues when the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is ranked among the top five most influential lobbying groups in Washington.[2] Many other organizations work for the interests of the Jewish community in many different ways, frequently pursuing progressive domestic and international policies. Major Jewish organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish World Service and others are active on a host of political issues having nothing to do with Israel and they do impactful and excellent work. Some of these organizations as well as other, non-Jewish ones, also work very hard to push policies they support regarding Israel and the United States’ relationship with it. As Walt and Mearsheimer repeatedly point out, this is simply good, American-style politics.

Walt and Mearsheimer do not, however, assert that these groups intentionally seek to divert US policy away from American interests in service to Israeli ones. That would, indeed, be anti-Semitic. They say that the end result is harm to US, and sometimes Israeli, interests, but they consistently state that they are not accusing “The Lobby” of doing this intentionally. They assert repeatedly that those backing such policies believe them to be in America’s best interests.

As I will demonstrate below, Walt and Mearsheimer seriously underestimate the impact of other forces outside of the Jewish community (although they do repeatedly mention them in their book, they are clearly depicted as having considerably less impact than Jewish groups) in their work. The Christian Zionists and the arms industry in particular are mentioned but downplayed in Walt and Mearsheimer’s book. There are ways in which institutionalized anti-Semitism can be seen in this dynamic but that is an analysis for a different time and it does not reflect a personal bias by Walt and Mearsheimer.

The ideas Walt and Mearsheimer present are not comfortable and, in my view, sometimes not accurate. But they are not personally anti-Semitic, nor are they motivated by animosity toward Israel. Continue reading