Iran Hawks Gear Up

Not everyone shares the optimism surrounding the recent communication between Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani. From Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Monarchies and, of course, Washington, DC, voices of war are in a panic that tensions between the U.S. and Iran might be reduced by some means other than further devastation of the Islamic Republic.

The concern that Iran might emerge with a better relationship with the United States is quite vexing for the Gulf rulers and for Israel. For some years now, the drive to isolate Iran has focused almost entirely on the nuclear issue. In fact, regionally, much of the concern has been the ascendancy of Iran as a regional player more broadly, with revolutionary rhetoric that challenges the dominance of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Since the destruction, by George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, of the dual containment policy, the issue for these parties has been how to contain Iran and its regional influence.

Iran has been cast as an “aggressor nation,” and this has been sold by illustrating Iran’s support for Hezbollah and other militant groups, its often bombastic rhetoric, and for the past decade, Iran’s ducking from some of its responsibilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). What gets left out is that Iran has never initiated an attack on another nation, its threats to “wipe Israel off the map” are factually known as (just not in mainstream discourse) to be a de-contextualized mistranslation of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s words, and even Iran’s failures with the IAEA have been part of a back and forth exchange, where they refuse or neglect to comply with some things in response to what they see as US-led unfair sanctions or restrictions. That doesn’t mean Iran has not caused some of these problems itself, it has. Lack of transparency on nuclear issues tends to raise the hackles of one’s enemies. But all this has hardly been the one-way street that’s been portrayed.

Too much scrutiny toward all of this sits poorly with Riyadh, Jerusalem, and in many circles in Washington. But because so much of the anti-Iran feeling has focused for so long on the nuclear issue, such scrutiny could come to bear at least a little more if Obama and Rouhani work things out. Labelling Iran an “aggressor nation” without the nuclear issue simply wouldn’t have the same impact anymore.

To combat this, Israel has been publicly playing down Rouhani’s overtures, sometimes calling him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and more generally, taking the “prove it” line. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s standard for proof is unrealistically high, and this is no accident. He has said that the conditions Iran must agree to are: halting all uranium enrichment, removing all enriched material, closing the reactor at Fordo and stopping plutonium production. This position is an obvious non-starter, but it reflects what has been the United States’ own position until now. Obama’s statements, while far from explicit, have given Iran reason to believe that this may have changed.

The reactions of Israel and the Gulf states would be puzzling if preventing a nuclear Iran was their main focus. But this has always been a means to an end: to isolate Iran and slow its rise as a regional power. The over-emphasis on the nuclear issue risks blunting other tools.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is already setting its sights on this issue. An AIPAC memo published on Sept. 20 urges the negotiations to be “backed by strength,” a vague enough statement, but one that shines light on its specific proposals.

One option AIPAC wishes to impede is the possibility of sanctions relief. “If Iran suspends its nuclear activity, the United States should be prepared to suspend any new sanctions” (emphasis added). This seems to make it clear that AIPAC wants to see the continued isolation of Iran no matter how the nuclear issue is resolved. UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions have repeatedly demanded that Iran suspend its enrichment programs and heavy water reactor programs, but the most recent resolutions, particularly UNSC 1835, also emphasize the UNSC’s commitment “to an early negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue” (emphasis mine). That is not something AIPAC wishes to see. An Iran that gets an agreement can be strengthened regionally. An Iran that either continues to labor under the status quo of sanctions and the looming threat of war or surrenders on the nuclear issue is seriously weakened. That is the game that’s being played here.

But this time, the playing field is much less certain. In the wake of the outcry against an attack on Syria, will AIPAC be able to push its measures through Congress without watering them down sufficiently to give Obama room to pursue substantive negotiations with Iran? Other than paranoia, there is scant evidence to support the position that Iran is merely putting on a show to stall for time while pursuing a nuclear weapon. But America’s own war footing keeps the risk of another Western misadventure in the Gulf region a real possibility. Obama seems bent on steering us away from that, and at least at first blush, seems to be acting on the will of his constituency in doing so.

Saudi Arabia will certainly add its voice to Israel’s on Capitol Hill. And Iran is not Syria. As appalled as many in the U.S. were over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, they were not convinced, for a variety of reasons, that this was cause for their country to take military action again in the Middle East. Syria may not be well-liked in the United States, but it is not a direct enemy. Iran is perceived as such, and has been ever since the fall of the Shah and the ensuing hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979-80. It may be that concern over Iran and the nuclear issue will provide fertile ground for AIPAC’s efforts to sabotage peace talks. It will also be a good deal easier to push their agenda in Congress because they won’t be advocating the immediate use of U.S. armed forces against Iran, as was the case with Syria.

While the congressional playing field is not entirely clear yet, one thing is obvious. Obama is going to need support in his peacemaking efforts. That support will need to come from the U.S. public and he will need to know that he has it in order to counter what is sure to be a furious onslaught from the most powerful forces that oppose any normalization with the Islamic Republic. That onslaught is coming and it is going to be furious. Obama will also need support from Iran, of all places. Rouhani will need to maintain the positive face he is portraying. And Rouhani should not be alone in this endeavour. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, apparently recognizing that Rouhani had not gone far enough in distancing himself from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial, has made sure to unequivocally acknowledge the Holocaust and its horrors. However prominent one thinks that issue should be, the clear statements were obviously intended to forestall the use of that issue against progress in upcoming nuclear talks.

More of that will be needed. Obama has restarted his Iran diplomacy on the right foot, being bold with his phone call to Rouhani and cautious in his public statements. He is proceeding deliberately but not giving his opponents big openings to attack his efforts at diplomacy. But the storm that is heading for Capitol Hill on this issue is going to be fierce. Obama will need all his skills and all the help he can get in weathering it.

A Dangerous Proposal For Israel-Palestine “Peace”

This article originally appeared at LobeLog

Neither Bibi nor Abu Mazen can be happy with what the US is apparently proposing. But Israelis will accept it. Palestinians can't and won't.

Neither Bibi nor Abu Mazen can be happy with what the US is apparently proposing. But Israelis will accept it. Palestinians can’t and won’t.

 

The tentative outreach from Washington toward Tehran has spurred speculation about a wide variety of connected issues. The desperation with which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has responded to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s so-called “charm offensive” adds fuel to Israel’s part in those rumors. Certainly, it is clear that Netanyahu is worried about something.

Continue reading

Lost in the Desert

The various UN General Assembly speeches this week, along with some other recent developments in Israel, Iran and the Occupied Palestinian Territories indicate some shifts in the US approach to the Middle East. Among other things, these events have certainly shown that the “pivot to Asia” has moved far to the back burner. I explore where things are going with regard to Iran, Israel-Palestine and the United States in this week’s column at Souciant.

The Tangled Web of a U.S.-Iran Thaw

The real Iranian nuclear threat has apparently already taken hold. New Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s so-called “charm offensive” has sent the war hawks scurrying as if the bomb had really gone off.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been relentless in his increasingly desperate efforts to cast Rouhani in the same mould as his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As Marsha Cohen points out, however, his tones are ringing hollow. Ahmadinejad provided Netanyahu with the almost cartoonish foil he needed, but Rouhani strikes a much more reasonable pose.

In the US, the counter to the charm offensive is kicking into high gear. Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was thoroughly dismissive of Rouhani’s speech at the UN General Assembly, which most observers considered conciliatory and matching a similar tone by US President Barack Obama. Engel, by contrast, said: “Far from engaging in a ‘charm offensive,’ he repeated too many of the same old talking points blaming the United States and our allies for all of the world’s ills.”

Even before Rouhani’s speech, the neoconservative Emergency Committee for Israel launched a web site attacking Rouhani. The site, dubbed “The Real Rouhani,” pieces together some legitimate and some questionable news reports on the Iranian president, most of which are quotes and citations taken out of context to sound more sinister than they are. They sum it all up by calling Rouhani a Holocaust denier, something Netanyahu has also done.

It’s fair to be dissatisfied with Rouhani’s evasion of questions on the Holocaust, which becomes an issue for outsiders largely because Ahmadinejad made such a spectacle of it during his time, a very real and despicable spectacle which was naturally magnified by the Western press. Rouhani initially ducked the question by saying he was not a historian. While in New York, and probably realizing that this response was not having the desired effect, Rouhani told CNN “…in general I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis created towards the Jews, is reprehensible and condemnable…Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews we condemn.”

That’s better, but it probably leaves the Holocaust denial bullet in Netanyahu and the neocons’ gun. Doubtless, Rouhani is trying not to raise more hackles among the Iranian conservatives that Ahmadinejad represents than he has to, but this is probably one he can and should go farther with. Still, even before Rouhani’s clarification, the Holocaust denier trope didn’t seem to be getting much play, certainly nothing like it did with Ahmadinejad. But right now, people are looking with hope to Rouhani; if that should change, his weak response to this question will certainly come back to haunt him.

Some have expressed disappointment with Rouhani’s UN speech, having hoped for a bolder step forward toward the U.S. This is reinforced by the White House claim that they proposed a brief meeting on the margins of the UN but were rebuffed by the Iranians, who said it was too complicated at this time.

The naysayers are wrong. A meeting with Obama, however brief, would certainly have pleased Western peace supporters, but in Iran, where crippling sanctions are hammering people every day and where, despite Obama’s conciliatory words, people are understandably skeptical of U.S. intentions, such a meeting would have been premature. It could easily be used by conservatives to demonstrate weakness on Rouhani’s part, portraying it as a warm gesture to a government that is strangling Iranians with no promise, or even indication that an easing of the sanctions regime is on the horizon.

Even in the West, it is probably better that no chance encounter took place. Although the U.S. tactic of refusing to talk is a dead end that produces no tangible benefits for anyone (as Stephen Walt aptly points out), since we have pursued it, raising hopes for a quick breakthrough is probably unwise. Expectations need to be managed.

The U.S.-Iranian impasse is much deeper than the nuclear issue and the mutual antipathy between Israel and the Islamic Republic. Many more issues are involved, and they mount on top of a long history of problems between the U.S. and Iran, of which the 1953 CIA-backed coup and the 1979-80 hostage crisis are only the best known.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies offers a good rundown of the various issues and complications facing the two countries in any attempt to thaw relations. The major flaw, though, in Cordesman’s piece is that he frames the current issue within the notion of a relentless Iranian march toward a nuclear weapon. This doesn’t mesh with the facts, as intelligence estimates for the past six years, including those of the U.S. and Israel, agree that Iran has halted its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, while retaining the ability to start the process again. An Iranian weapons program only seems to have existed in the early years of the century, when U.S. ambitions for regime change were at their height.

Beyond that point, Cordesman gives a good description of the complexities inherent in trying to turn back years of U.S.-Iranian enmity. But he does an even better job of laying out the case for why the status quo serves neither country well and why a warming of relations can bring great benefits to both countries and the entire Middle East.

One major issue that divides the two countries is, indeed, Israel. If Iran and the U.S. wanted to try to patch things up, even if the nuclear issue was resolved to mutual satisfaction (something that is complicated but far from impossible in and of itself), the Israel-Palestine question moves to center stage. What becomes of Iranian support for the Palestinian cause, for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the more meager support it offers to Hamas?

More than likely, this is why Obama, in his speech, put the two issues so closely together. While he didn’t specifically link the two, their proximity in the text was suggestive, and explained a bit of why he and Secretary of State John Kerry have put so much effort into rekindling talks between the two peoples. Obama understands, and he’s subtly communicating to Israel, that he needs to see a Palestinian state created, one which Iran can support, if there is to be sufficient warming of U.S.-Iran relations to enable a reasonable chance of resolving the nuclear issue.

This is precisely why Netanyahu is so alarmed by the prospect of a negotiated deal, as opposed to an Iranian surrender, on the nuclear issue. The prospect of a viable deal on Iran’s nuclear program will allow and encourage domestic and international pressure on Israel to make a deal, and, even if it is a deal remarkably favorable to Israel, Netanyahu does not want to engage in that political fight with his own party and the rest of his right-wing coalition. Much better to see Iran be forced, whether by sanctions or firepower, to give in to international demands. Moreover, those demands will be very different in the context of negotiations.

Obama, in his speech, recognized Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear power. That affirmation, though self-evident, indicates a willingness to allow enrichment on Iranian soil, something Netanyahu adamantly opposes, but which, with sufficient transparency, will satisfy every other country in the world if the United States gives the program its blessing. In the context of an Iranian surrender, it is much more likely that enrichment programs could be transferred to a third country, like Russia.

So, Netanyahu has gone on an anti-Rouhani crusade. With the most extreme of neocon groups joining him, it is likely — if Netanyahu persists and if Rouhani does not sufficiently influence Western hearts and minds fast enough (which he likely can’t do without agitating his own right flank) — that other right-wing groups, followed by more centrist hawks, will soon add their voices to the anti-Rouhani chorus.

Pro-dialogue forces will have a tough task. The process simply can’t move too fast or it will careen off the tracks. But a slow process gives more opportunity for the hawks. Persistence in support of a rational approach will not be easy, but standing fast to support dialogue and the gradual easing of sanctions in exchange for gradually increasing transparency in Iran is the best and wisest option.

Oslo At 20: A Failed Process

After twenty years of futility, more and more people are coming around to the idea that the Oslo process has failed and that the basis of Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution needs to be re-thought. Funny, there are those of us who have been saying that for years now.

Ian Lustick, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, stated bluntly in an op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday that the Oslo process was “…an idea whose time is now past.” Lustick’s controversial article urged new thinking about the Israel-Palestine conflict, rather than trying to continue along a well-worn path that has not led to success or even hope in two decades.

“The question is not whether the future has conflict in store for Israel-Palestine,” said Lustick. “It does. Nor is the question whether conflict can be prevented. It cannot. But avoiding truly catastrophic change means ending the stifling reign of an outdated idea and allowing both sides to see and then adapt to the world as it is.”

Lustick made it clear that two states was still an option, just not in the form that the Oslo process had heretofore envisioned. His point was that the current process has failed and that all viable options must now be on the table, in whatever formulation of states. “It remains possible that someday two real states may arise,” Lustick wrote. “But the pretense that negotiations under the slogan of ‘two states for two peoples’ could lead to such a solution must be abandoned. Time can do things that politicians cannot.”

But David Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, accused Lustick of “…dispens(ing) with the foundational Jewish link among a people, a land, and a faith.” He bases this on his highly selective quoting and interpretation of Lustick saying, as Harris puts it, that “Zionism… has become ‘an outdated idea,’ and Israelis should accept that ‘Israel may no longer exist as the Jewish and democratic vision of its Zionist founders.’” Harris does not explain how this in any way means Lustick is denying a Jewish link between Jewish people, their faith and the land in question. But Harris has never been one to allow facts or critical thinking to factor into his arguments.

At the neoconservative magazine, Commentary, Jonathan Tobin lays the entire blame for the failure of the Oslo process at the feet of the Palestinians. “So long as the Palestinians are unable to re-imagine their national identity outside of an effort to extinguish the Zionist project,” wrotes Tobin, “and to therefore recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, negotiations are doomed to fail.” Tobin goes on to assail Lustick as “conceited” and “dishonest.” In his view, the ultimate flaw in Lustick’s thesis is that “…his determination to ignore the nature of Palestinian intolerance for Jews causes him not only to misunderstand why peace efforts have failed but also to be blind to the certainty that the end of Israel would lead to bloodshed and horror… Israelis understand that they have no choice but to survive and to wait as long as it takes for the Palestinians to give up on dreams of their destruction.”

Other observers, however, offer a more sobering assessment that supports Lustick’s main point: the peace process as we have known it has failed and new approaches must be considered. In the twenty years of the Oslo Accords, the United States was unable to create the sort of breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinians that the famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993 promised. Instead, the peace process itself has become a sort of trap.

“The peace process itself has become an institution,” said Leila Hilal of the New America Foundation and a former advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team, speaking in Washington. “All incidents are fitted into this prism of the peace process, waiting for a bilateral agreement to end the conflict.”

Hilal’s point touches on the same key issue Lustick addresses. The entire underlying structure of Oslo was flawed from the outset. The disparity between a regional superpower and a stateless and powerless people makes the notion that the conflict must be resolved via bilateral negotiations between these two wildly asymmetrical parties an absurd myth that blocks any hope of progress. That’s precisely why the Palestinians keep complaining that the United States is not playing a role in the current talks while Israel is perfectly content with their patron playing the role of host and observer but not mediator.

Shibley Telhami, the noted pollster University of Maryland professor contended on the same panel as Hilal that

It is impossible for the US to effectively negotiate Palestinian-Israeli peace without a president backing it and who believes it is strategically important for the United States… After 1973 and the Arab oil embargo, it was easier to make the case that the U.S. had interest in peace because it had interest in good relations with both Israel and Arabs. But by the time of (Bill) Clinton’s election, the Cold War had ended, foreign policy was not the central issue and his administration was not looking at this as a national security issue.

All of this sets up conditions that have led to twenty years of stalemate and left little hope that the situation between Israel and the Palestinians can improve. Geoffrey Aronson of the Foundation for Middle East Peace stated bluntly that “Left to themselves, the parties are incapable of coming to an agreement. They need a guiding hand. Today, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in particular there is a system of occupation and settlement that has endured for almost half a century. There has been no agreement of any consequence since 1995, but the system remains intact.”

Aronson also pointed out that even the oft-cited decision by George H.W. Bush to cut loan guarantees if Israel didn’t curb settlement activity was an incidental tactic, and only policy change can actually create incentives for Israel to get serious about compromising with the Palestinians. Governments are not supposed to make concessions unless they have to. Until U.S. distaste for the settlement project and other odious Israeli practices is incorporated concretely into policy, things won’t change. This is true for other actors, like the EU, who have already shown what a tiny policy move — in this case, a policy of refusing to fund projects done in partnership with Israeli settlements, which means very little on the ground but has provoked a virtual tantrum from Israelis in and out of government — can do.

Neither in Israel nor in the Occupied Territories was there any hint of marking the twentieth anniversary of the Oslo Accords, a telling point that reflects how this one hopeful event is viewed today by both parties. For Israel, the issue of the occupation has taken a back seat to broader concerns in the region, particularly with regard to Iran, Syria, Egypt, and economic concerns. But even for the Palestinians, the entire concept of the two-state solution has been thrown into question by the failure of the Oslo process.

The current round of talks are not just a microcosm of the twenty years of Oslo; they’re a magnification of it. After months of Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts focused on just getting the two sides to talk, they cannot agree on even the basic outlines of what they should be talking about. The U.S. envoy, Martin Indyk, has been to only one meeting with the two sides in that time.

All of this is why Lustick is saying a new approach is needed, from the ground up. It must not be built on the ashes of Oslo and rather must be an entirely new structure. Harris, Tobin and their ilk do not bash Lustick because he “hates Israel,” but  because they are quite content with the status quo and wish to defend it. Those who wish to see millions of Palestinians living under harsh Israeli military rule freed; the rights of millions of dispossessed Palestinians addressed; and, perhaps most of all, those who wish to defuse this powder keg, especially in light of so many other explosions that have nothing to do with Israel enflaming the region, need to pay heed to Lustick’s words. Oslo is dead, killed by its own birth defects. It’s long past time for something new.